Scientists recently identified the oldest material on Earth: stardust that’s 7 billion years old, tucked away in a massive, rocky meteorite that struck our planet half a century ago.
This ancient interstellar dust, made of presolar grains (dust grains that predate our sun), was belched into the universe by dying stars during the final stages of their lives. Some of that dust eventually hitched a ride to Earth on an asteroid that produced the Murchison meteorite, a massive, 220-lb. (100 kilograms) rock that fell on Sept. 28, 1969, near Murchison, Victoria, in Australia. ADVERTISING
New analysis of dozens of presolar grains from the Murchison meteorite revealed a range of ages, from about 4 million years older than our sun — which formed 4.6 billion years ago — up to 3 billion years older than our sun, researchers reported in a new study.
Though the universe abounds with floating stardust, no presolar grains have ever been found in Earth’s rocks. That’s because plate tectonics, volcanism and other planetary processes heated and transformed all the presolar dust that may have collected during Earth’s formation, said lead study author Philipp Heck, the Robert A. Pritzker Associate Curator of Meteoritics and Polar Studies at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.
When large, orphan space rocks form — such as the asteroid that produced Murchison — they, too, can pick up ancient, interstellar dust. But unlike dynamic planets, Murchison’s parent asteroid is “an almost-inert piece of rock that formed from the solar nebula and hasn’t changed since then,” so the presolar grains haven’t been cooked down into another type of mineral, Heck told Live Science.
Most presolar grains measure about 1 micron in length, or are even smaller. But the grains the scientists analyzed for the study were much bigger, ranging from 2 to 30 microns in length.
“We call them ‘boulders,'” Heck said. “We can see them with an optical microscope.”
Stellar “baby boom”
For the study, Heck and his colleagues examined 40 of these so-called boulders from Murchison, grinding up bits of the meteorite and adding acid, which dissolved minerals and silicates and revealed the acid-resistant presolar grains.
“I always compare it to burning down the haystack to find the needle,” Heck said.
The researchers used a dating technique that measured the grains’ exposure to cosmic rays during their interstellar journey over billions of years. In space, high-energy particles emanate from different sources, bombarding and penetrating solid objects that pass by. Those cosmic rays react with rock to form new elements that accumulate over time. By measuring the quantity of different elements in presolar grains, scientists can estimate how long the dust has been bathing in cosmic rays.
Think of it this way: Imagine putting a bucket outside during a rainstorm. As long as the rain falls at a steady rate, you could calculate how long the bucket had been outside based on the amount of rain that it collects, Heck explained.
Most of the grains — about 60% — dated to around 4.6 billion to 4.9 billion years ago. One possible explanation for why there were so many grains of this age is that they were all the product of a “little baby boom” of star birth in our galaxy that took place around 7 billion years ago.
“And then it took about two to two-and-a-half billion years for those stars to become dust producing,” Heck explained. “When a star forms, it doesn’t produce dust. During most of its life, the star doesn’t produce dust. The stars only produce dust at the end of their lives.”
This discovery supports findings by other astronomers that indicate a dramatic spike in star formation around 7 billion years ago, the researchers reported.
What’s more, many of the grains weren’t traveling through space alone; they journeyed as clumps, “almost like granola clusters,” according to Heck. Though it’s uncertain what bound these grains, other studies have shown that some presolar grains are coated with a sticky film of organic matter, which could have cemented these clusters together, Heck said.
Smells like science
Grinding and analyzing bits of space rock also presented the researchers with an unusual by-product — a strong and very pungent smell. The paste of ground-up meteorite released a stench “like rotten peanut butter,” study co-author Jennika Greer, a graduate student at the Field Museum and the University of Chicago, said in a statement.
“I’ve never smelled rotten peanut butter,” Heck told Live Science. “But it did smell really strong.”
Another meteorite that was recently added to the Field Museum’s collection, the Aguas Zarcas from Costa Rica, or “cosmic mudball meteorite,” was said to smell like cooked Brussels sprouts. Volatile organic compounds in rocky meteorites that are abiotic — not formed by living organisms — produce these distinctive smells when they are heated or dissolved, Heck said.
And Murchison was an especially smelly meteorite, Heck said. When he visited the town of Murchison in 2019 for the 50th anniversary of the meteorite’s landing, he spoke with people who had witnessed the event or collected fragments of the space rock. Many of them had tales to tell about the meteorite’s distinctive aroma.
“They said the whole town smelled like methylated spirits, a very strong organic smell,” Heck said. “Even those who hadn’t seen the meteorite themselves — they smelled it.”
A thrilling epoch in the exploration of our solar system came to a close today, as NASA’s Cassini spacecraft made a fateful plunge into the atmosphere of Saturn, ending its 13-year tour of the ringed planet.
“This is the final chapter of an amazing mission, but it’s also a new beginning,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “Cassini’s discovery of ocean worlds at Titan and Enceladus changed everything, shaking our views to the core about surprising places to search for potential life beyond Earth.”
Telemetry received during the plunge indicates that, as expected, Cassini entered Saturn’s atmosphere with its thrusters firing to maintain stability, as it sent back a unique final set of science observations. Loss of contact with the Cassini spacecraft occurred at 7:55 a.m. EDT (4:55 a.m. PDT), with the signal received by NASA’s Deep Space Network antenna complex in Canberra, Australia.
Earl Maize, program manager for NASA’s Cassini spacecraft at the agency’s Jet Propulsion Lab, and Julie Webster, spacecraft operations team manager for the Cassini mission at Saturn, embrace in an emotional moment for the entire Cassini team after the spacecraft plunged into Saturn, Friday, Sept. 15, 2017.Credits: NASA/Joel Kowsky
“It’s a bittersweet, but fond, farewell to a mission that leaves behind an incredible wealth of discoveries that have changed our view of Saturn and our solar system, and will continue to shape future missions and research,” said Michael Watkins, director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, which manages the Cassini mission for the agency. JPL also designed, developed and assembled the spacecraft.
Cassini’s plunge brings to a close a series of 22 weekly “Grand Finale” dives between Saturn and its rings, a feat never before attempted by any spacecraft.
“The Cassini operations team did an absolutely stellar job guiding the spacecraft to its noble end,” said Earl Maize, Cassini project manager at JPL. “From designing the trajectory seven years ago, to navigating through the 22 nail-biting plunges between Saturn and its rings, this is a crack shot group of scientists and engineers that scripted a fitting end to a great mission. What a way to go. Truly a blaze of glory.”
As planned, data from eight of Cassini’s science instruments was beamed back to Earth. Mission scientists will examine the spacecraft’s final observations in the coming weeks for new insights about Saturn, including hints about the planet’s formation and evolution, and processes occurring in its atmosphere.
This montage of images, made from data obtained by Cassini’s visual and infrared mapping spectrometer, shows the location on Saturn where the NASA spacecraft entered Saturn’s atmosphere on Sept. 15, 2017. The spacecraft entered the atmosphere at 9.4 degrees north latitude, 53 degrees west longitude.Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona
“Things never will be quite the same for those of us on the Cassini team now that the spacecraft is no longer flying,” said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at JPL. “But, we take comfort knowing that every time we look up at Saturn in the night sky, part of Cassini will be there, too.”
Cassini launched in 1997 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida and arrived at Saturn in 2004. NASA extended its mission twice – first for two years, and then for seven more. The second mission extension provided dozens of flybys of the planet’s icy moons, using the spacecraft’s remaining rocket propellant along the way. Cassini finished its tour of the Saturn system with its Grand Finale, capped by Friday’s intentional plunge into the planet to ensure Saturn’s moons – particularly Enceladus, with its subsurface ocean and signs of hydrothermal activity – remain pristine for future exploration.
While the Cassini spacecraft is gone, its enormous collection of data about Saturn – the giant planet, its magnetosphere, rings and moons – will continue to yield new discoveries for decades to come.
“Cassini may be gone, but its scientific bounty will keep us occupied for many years,” Spilker said. “We’ve only scratched the surface of what we can learn from the mountain of data it has sent back over its lifetime.”
An online toolkit with information and resources for Cassini’s Grand Finale is available at:
The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, ESA (European Space Agency) and the Italian Space Agency. JPL, a division of Caltech in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.
In August 2016, astronomers announced that a roughly Earth-size exoplanet circles the closest star to the sun, the red dwarf Proxima Centauri, which lies a mere 4.2 light-years from us. (For perspective, the Milky Way galaxy’s spiral disk is about 100,000 light-years wide.)
That world, called Proxima b, orbits in Proxima Centauri’s “habitable zone,” the just-right range of distances from a star where liquid water could be stable on a world’s surface. So, there’s a chance that life as we know it may have taken root in the next solar system over from us. (How good that chance is remains a matter of considerable debate, however. For example, Proxima b is tidally locked to its host star, meaning it has a hot dayside and a cold nightside. And red dwarfs are very active stars, so powerful flares may have stripped the planet’s atmosphere long ago.)
Proxima b’s discoverers analyzed “radial velocity” data gathered over multiple years by instruments called HARPS (High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher) and UVES (Ultraviolet and Visual Echelle Spectrograph), which are installed on telescopes operated by the European Southern Observatory (ESO) in Chile. The scientists noticed that Proxima Centauri was being tugged slightly by the gravity of an orbiting planet: Proxima b.
The team, led by Guillem Anglada-Escudé of Queen Mary University London, didn’t see any signs of other worlds orbiting the red dwarf at the time, but they couldn’t rule that prospect out. And now, a new study reports that the closest exoplanet to Earth may indeed have a companion.Click here for more Space.com videos…CLOSEVolume 0%This video will resume in 12 seconds PLAY SOUND
A frigid super-Earth candidate
In the new study, which was published online today (Jan. 15) in the journal Science Advances, a team led by Mario Damasso and Fabio Del Sordo (and including Anglada-Escudé, who’s a co-author) re-examined the old HARPS and UVES observations, along with a series of new HARPS measurements.
The researchers subjected the data to new analyses that tracked Proxima Centauri’s light spectrum over time, looking for regular oscillations that could betray the presence of an undiscovered planet. (Damasso and Del Sordo also presented their results at the Breakthrough Discuss conference in Berkeley, California, last April, before the paper had been accepted for publication.)
There was a lot of information to go through; the combined HARPS and UVES measurements spanned about 17.5 years.
This painstaking work unearthed a possible planet called Proxima c, which is at least 6 times more massive than Earth and may therefore be a type of world known as a super-Earth. Proxima c completes one lap around Proxima Centauri every 5.2 Earth years, making it a poor prospect for life as we know it.
“Given the low luminosity of the host star and the orbital radius of the planet, it receives a very low insolation,” said Damasso, who’s based at the Astrophysical Observatory of Turin, which is run by Italy’s National Institute for Astrophysics.
“A simple estimate of the equilibrium temperature gives T~40 K,” Damasso told Space.com via email. (Forty degrees K, or Kelvin, is equivalent to minus 388 degrees Fahrenheit, or minus 233 Celsius.)
But Damasso and Del Sordo both stressed that habitability is a difficult topic to address, given the many factors that go into it and the paucity of information available about most exoplanetary systems. For example, to gauge a world’s true life-supporting ability, you’d need to know how thick its atmosphere is and what the air is made of, as well as how active its star is (as the Proxima b example shows).
In addition, worlds that don’t lie in the traditional “habitable zone” may still be able to harbor life as we know it. After all, the Jupiter moon Europa and Saturn satellite Enceladus are covered by icy shells, but both possess huge subsurface oceans of liquid water.
In addition, the habitability talk generally assesses a world’s suitability for Earth-like life, and there’s certainly no guarantee that aliens in other systems share our biochemistry.
“I am convinced there are so many unknown scenarios to be discovered about planetary features that go beyond our imagination,” Del Sordo, who’s based at the University of Crete, told Space.com via email. “But at the moment this conviction has nothing to do with science; it is only my personal point of view.”
More work needed
Proxima c remains a candidate for now, Damasso and Del Sordo emphasized; confirming its existence will require additional information. That information will ideally come from the European Space Agency’s star-mapping Gaia spacecraft, the researchers said.
“According to our study, if Gaia will deliver the data with the expected quality, and in the absence of any unknown impediment, the detection can be reliably confirmed or dismissed,” Damasso said.
The study team is also assessing how additional HARPS and UVES data might aid the confirmation effort, he added. In addition, the researchers are considering searching for Proxima c via direct imaging — in particular, in photos captured by SPHERE (Spectro-Polarimetric High-contrast Exoplanet REsearch), a tool installed on ESO’s Very Large Telescope in Chile.Advertisement
“This is really a challenging task, almost impossible for a blind search with the present capabilities, but having details about the candidate’s orbit can help looking for the planet’s reflected light in the right places,” Damasso said.
The difficulty of directly imaging Proxima c means that the lack of a detection by SPHERE would not be a significant strike against the candidate planet’s existence, Del Sordo added. And the team’s data do suggest that it’s probably there, waiting to be found.
“According to our calculation, at the moment the two-planet model is five times more probable than the one-planet model to explain the data,” Del Sordo said. “It means it is 83% probable planet c exist[s]. Of course, follow-up will be crucial, as Mario said.”
In November 2004, several U.S. Navy pilots stationed aboard the USS Nimitz encountered a Tic-Tac-shaped UFO darting and dashing over the Pacific Ocean in apparent defiance of the laws of physics. Navy officials dubbed the strange craft an “unidentified aerial phenomenon,” but they have remained mum on what, exactly, that phenomenon could’ve been. Now, unsurprisingly to anyone who’s ever considered making a hat out of tinfoil, the military has confirmed they know more than they’re letting on.
In response to a recent Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, a spokesperson from the Navy’s Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) confirmed that the agency possesses several top-secret documents and at least one classified video pertaining to the 2004 UFO encounter, Vice reported. ADVERTISING
According to the ONI spokesperson, these documents were either labeled “SECRET” or “TOP SECRET” by the agencies that provided them, and that sharing the information with the public “would cause exceptionally grave damage to the National Security of the United States.”
These top-secret files included several “briefing slides” about the incident, provided to the ONI by an unnamed agency. (Because ONI officials did not classify the slides personally, they are unable to declassify them, the spokesperson added).
The ONI also admitted to possessing at least one video of unknown length, classified as “secret” by the Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR). ONI didn’t reveal whether this footage is the same 1-minute video that was leaked online in 2007 and widely released by The New York Times in 2017. However, in November 2019, several naval officers who witnessed the incident aboard the Nimitz told Popular Mechanics that they had seen a much longer video of the encounter that was between 8 and 10 minutes long. These original recordings were promptly collected and erased by “unknown individuals” who arrived on the ship by helicopter shortly after the incident, one officer said.
Luis Elizondo, a former Pentagon staffer who helped make the Navy video public, told Vice that “people should not be surprised by the revelation that other videos exist and at greater length.”
The FOIA request, submitted in October 2019 by an independent researcher, asked for access to any nonclassified records or portions of records regarding the 2004 UFO encounter. No additional documents were mentioned in the ONI’s response besides the classified briefing and video.
The first pristine pieces of Mars won’t be coming down to Earth for at least another decade, but the time to start preparing society for the epic arrival is now, scientists say.
NASA’s 2020 Mars rover is scheduled to launch in July of this year and land inside the Red Planet’s 28-mile-wide (45 kilometers) Jezero Crater next February. The six-wheeled robot will do a variety of work once it gets there, but its headline task is hunting for signs of ancient Mars life. ADVERTISING
Mars 2020 will do this on the ground in Jezero, which hosted a lake and a river delta billions of years ago. The rover will also collect and cache promising samples for eventual return to Earth, where scientists in well-equipped labs around the world can scrutinize them in exacting detail for any evidence of Martian organisms.
NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) will work together to get those samples here. The current plan, which is not yet official, envisions two key launches in 2026. These will send ESA’s Earth Return Orbiter (ERO) and NASA’s Sample Retrieval Lander (SRL) mission toward the Red Planet.
ERO will make its way to Mars orbit, whereas SRL will drop a stationary lander, the ESA-provided Sample Fetch Rover (SFR), and a small rocket called the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV) near the Mars 2020 landing site.
The SFR will pick up the cached Mars 2020 samples, which will be encased in sealed tubes, and haul them back to the MAV. Mars 2020 may store some of its samples on its body; if that’s the case, the NASA rover could roll over to the MAV and make a deposit as well.
The MAV will then launch into Mars orbit, where it will deploy the container harboring the samples. The ERO will pluck this precious cargo out of the void and haul it back toward Earth, jettisoning the container once our planet is in the crosshairs. The samples will land here in 2031, if all goes according to this preliminary plan.
This touchdown will be a momentous occasion. Engineers will glory in the tremendous technological achievement — we’ve returned samples from the moon, but that’s quite a bit closer to Earth — and scientists will revel in the chance to learn a great deal about ancient Mars and, perhaps, find out whether Earth life is alone in the universe.
(Researchers have examined Mars material before: meteorites blasted off the Red Planet by asteroid or comet strikes that ended up landing here on Earth. But those Mars rocks aren’t pristine — they endured trips through two planetary atmospheres and lots of time in deep space — and they weren’t specially chosen for their potential to host evidence of life.)
The public will doubtless be excited, too. But if the arrival catches folks off guard, there will probably be considerable fear, anxiety and confusion as well, said Sheri Klug Boonstra of Arizona State University’s Mars Space Flight Facility. So, the members of the international Mars sample-return team need to start educating and engaging laypeople about the effort now, said Klug Boonstra, a science-education specialist who’s the principal investigator of NASA’s Lucy Student Pipeline and Competency Enabler Program.
“The public has to be a major part of the equation,” she told Space.com last month at the annual fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco, where she gave a presentation on this very topic.
For example, some people will likely worry that the samples could harbor some sort of infectious microbe that could get loose and unleash a deadly plague on humanity. The sample-return team has thought about this remote possibility, of course, and is doing its best to ensure it could never come to pass.
After arriving on Earth, the Mars material will first be vetted at a specially constructed Sample Receiving Facility, which will be designed to prevent contamination in both directions: Nothing unwanted can get in to taint the samples, and nothing from the samples can get out into the wider world. The SRF hasn’t been built; indeed, a site for it hasn’t even been chosen yet. But the sample-return project can use existing Biosafety Level 4 labs — the most secure ones, which keep nasty viruses such as Ebola from spilling out — as a baseline, team member Tim Haltigin of the Canadian Space Agency told Space.com at the AGU meeting.
The public needs to know that such safety measures will be taken, Klug Boonstra said. And it’s also important to get across the potential scientific bounty represented by those little tubes of Mars material, she added.
The sample-return team is still working out what engagement strategies to employ. Klug Boonstra said the project would like to organize some opt-in focus groups to learn which tacks to take — for example, if activities in schools would be particularly useful in getting the word out.
And that needs to start happening soon, she stressed. It could well take a decade to get Mars sample return fully socialized, especially since our society seems to be getting less science-literate and more sound-bite-driven.
“We don’t want to be in the position where we’re just getting the information out when the public hears that the rocks are coming back,” Klug Boonstra said.
NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope is tasked with finding small, rocky worlds orbiting distant stars. However, exoplanets aren’t the only thing Kepler can detect — stellar flares, star spots and dusty planetary rings can also pop up in the mission’s observations.
But there’s also been speculation that Kepler may have the ability to detect more than natural phenomena; if they’re out there, Kepler may also detect the signature of artificial structures orbiting other stars. Imagine an advanced civilization that’s well up on the Kardashev scale and has the ability to harness energy directly from its star. This hypothetical alien civilization may want to construct vast megastructures, like supersized solar arrays in orbit around their host star, that could be so big that they blot out a sizable fraction of starlight as they pass in front.ADVERTISING
When Kepler detects an exoplanet, it does so by sensing the very slight dip in starlight from a given star. The premise is simple: an exoplanet orbits in front of star (known as a “transit”), Kepler detects a slight dimming of starlight and creates a “lightcurve” — basically a graph charting the dip in starlight over time. Much information can be gleaned from the lightcurve, such as the physical size of the transiting exoplanet. But it can also deduce the exoplanet’s shape.
Normally the shape of an exoplanet isn’t particularly surprising because it’s, well, planet-shaped. It’s round. The physics of planetary formation dictate that a planetary body above a certain mass will be governed by hydrostatic equilibrium. But say if Kepler detects something that isn’t round. Well, that’s when things can get a bit weird.
For the most part, any dip in star brightness can be attributed to some kind of natural phenomenon. But what if all possibilities are accounted for and only one scenario is left? What if that scenario is this object appears to be artificial? In other words, what if it’s alien?
The research paper is thorough, describing the phenomenon, pointing out that this star is unique – we’ve seen nothing like it. Kepler has collected data on this star steadily for four years. It’s not instrumental error. Kepler isn’t seeing things; the signal is real.
“We’d never seen anything like this star,” Tabetha Boyajian, a postdoctorate researcher at Yale University and lead author, told The Atlantic. “It was really weird. We thought it might be bad data or movement on the spacecraft, but everything checked out.”
The Planet Hunters volunteers are depended on to seek out transits in Kepler’s stars in the direction of the constellation Cygnus. This is a huge quantity of data, from over 150,000 stars in Kepler’s original field of view, and you can’t beat the human eye when identifying a true dip in starlight brightness. The Planet Hunters described KIC 8462852 as “bizarre,” “interesting” and a “giant transit.” They’re not wrong.
Follow-up studies focus on two interesting transit events at KIC 8462852, one that was detected between days 788 and 795 of the Kepler mission and between days 1510 to 1570. The researchers have tagged these events as D800 and D1500 respectively.
The D800 event appears to have been a single transit causing a star brightness drop-off of 15 percent, whereas D1500 was a burst of several transits, possibly indicating a clump of different objects, forcing a brightness dip of up to 22 percent. To cause such dips in brightness, these transiting objects must be huge.
The researchers worked through every known possibility, but each solution presented a new problem. For example, they investigated the possibility of some kind of circumstellar disk of dust. However, after looking for the infrared signal associated with these disks, no such signal could be seen.
Also, the star is a mature F-type star, approximately 1.5 times the size of our sun. Circumstellar disks are usually found around young stars.
The researchers also investigated the possibility of a huge planetary collision: could the debris from this smashup be creating this strange signal? The likelihood of us seeing a planetary collision is extremely low. There is no evidence in data taken by NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) that a collision happened, creating a very tiny window of opportunity between WISE’s mission end and the beginning of Kepler’s mission (of a few years) for an astronomically unlikely cosmic event like this to occur.Advertisement
The only natural explanation favored by the researchers seems to focus on an intervening clump of exocomets.
“One way we imagine such a barrage of comets could be triggered is by the passage of a field star through the system,” write the researchers.
Indeed, they argue, there’s a nearby star that might have tidally disturbed otherwise dormant comets in the outermost regions of the KIC 8462852 star system. This small star is located around 1,000 AU from KIC 8462852 and whether it’s a binary partner or an interstellar visitor, its presence may have caused some cometary turmoil. Like the other scenarios, however, the exocomet explanation still falls short of being fully satisfactory.
This research paper focuses only on natural and known possible causes of the mystery transit events around KIC 8462852. A second paper is currently being drafted to investigate a completely different transit scenario that focuses around the possibility of a mega-engineering project created by an advanced alien civilization.
This may sound like science fiction, but our galaxy has existed for over 13 billion years, it’s not such a stretch of the imagination to think that an alien civilization may be out there and evolved to the point where they can build megastructures around stars.
“Aliens should always be the very last hypothesis you consider, but this looked like something you would expect an alien civilization to build,” Jason Wright, an astronomer from Penn State University, told The Atlantic.
Indeed, hunting down huge structures that obscure the light from stars is no new thing. The Search for Extraterrestrial Technology (SETT) is one such project that does just this. Only recently, a survey of the local universe focused on the hope of detecting the waste heat generated by a technologically advanced civilization, specifically a Type II Kardashev civilization.
On the Kardashev scale, a Type II civilization has the ability to utilize all the available energy radiating from a star. Using a vast shell or series of rings surrounding a star, a Dyson sphere-like structure may be constructed. This has the effect of blotting out the star from view in visible wavelengths, but once the solar energy has been used by the alien civilization, the energy is shifted to longer wavelengths and likely lost as infrared radiation.
This recent search for aliens’ waste heat drew a blank, reaching the conclusion that as there appears to be no alien intelligence cocooning stars to harvest their heat, there’s likely no Type II civilization nearby.
But as KIC 8462852 is showing us, there may be something else out there — possibly an alien intelligence that is well on its way to becoming a Type II civilization, which is setting up some kind of artificial structure around its star.
Of course, these mystery transit events are nowhere near “proof” of an alien civilization. In fact, it’s barely evidence and a lot more work needs to be done.
The next step is to point a radio antenna at KIC 8462852, just to see whether the system is generating any artificial radio signals that could indicate the presence of something we’d define as “intelligent.” Boyajian and Wright have now teamed up with Andrew Siemion, the Director of the SETI Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley, to get a radio telescope to listen into the star and if they detect an artificial signal, they will request time on the Very Large Array (VLA) to deduce whether any radio signals from that star are the chatter of an alien civilization.
It might be a long shot, and the phenomenon is more likely a clump of comets or some other natural phenomenon that we haven’t accounted for blocking star light from view, but it’s worth investigating, especially if there really is some kind of alien intelligence building structures, or perhaps, ancient structures of a civilization long-gone, around a star only 1,500 light-years away from Earth.
Researchers working with data from NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) have discovered the mission’s first circumbinary planet, a world orbiting two stars. The planet, called TOI 1338b, is around 6.9 times larger than Earth, or between the sizes of Neptune and Saturn. It lies in a system 1,300 light-years away in the constellation Pictor.
The stars in the system make an eclipsing binary, which occurs when the stellar companions circle each other in our plane of view. One is about 10% more massive than our Sun, while the other is cooler, dimmer and only one-third the Sun’s mass. TOI 1338b’s transits are irregular, between every 93 and 95 days, and vary in depth and duration thanks to the orbital motion of its stars.
TESS only sees the transits crossing the larger star — the transits of the smaller star are too faint to detect. Although the planet transits irregularly, its orbit is stable for at least the next 10 million years. The orbit’s angle to us, however, changes enough that the planet transit will cease after November 2023 and resume eight years later.
The Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway is part of the Artemis program to return to the moon and stay. It will serve as a waypoint between Earth and the moon and a gateway to deep space and Mars missions.
The Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway is a proposed NASA program that would bring astronauts to the moon to operate a lunar space station. The concept has generated a wealth of research and numerous political discussions since 2017, especially because NASA’s stated goal under the Trump administration is to return to the moon before going to Mars.
The hardware and mission design are still in the early stages of development, but as of mid-2018, NASA envisions a lunar outpost (supplied by Space Launch System rockets) that would hold four people. Unlike the International Space Station, the outpost would not always have a crew on board and would have the capability to perform scientific experiments autonomously. The prime contractor for the first module should be announced in 2019.
In August 2018, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence announced that astronauts could fly to the lunar space station as early as 2024; however, it’s likely that date will change as design and construction plans proceed.
In the same month as Pence’s announcement, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine told reporters that the cost of the gateway won’t be nearly as much as the cost of the crewed Apollo missions in the 1960s. NASA’s current budget is now about 0.5 percent of annual federal funds, compared to its former height of 4.5 percent in the mid-1960s. The agency plans to begin the Gateway project without drawing on increased federal funding.
First steps to a gateway
In 2012, NASA publicly discussed the idea of a lunar station on the moon’s far side — called the Deep Space Habitat. A few years later, in 2014 and 2015, NASA began to consider the idea of “cislunar habitats” as a way to fly humans on longer missions in the 2020s. The agency envisioned a small shelter where astronauts could assemble telescopes, operate rovers and perform scientific research.
In March 2015, NASA awarded several contracts under its Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP) program to companies developing concepts for lunar modules. The goal was to build modules would attach to the Orion spacecraft (a deep-space vehicle under development by NASA) and allow for missions of about 60 days in duration. The agency also discussed cislunar habitats in a “Journey to Mars” report published in October 2015.
One of the earliest mentions of a lunar space station, then known as the Deep Space Gateway, was in an article published on NASA’s website in March 2017. As NASA described it at the time: “The agency is … looking to build a crew tended spaceport in lunar orbit within the first few missions that would serve as a gateway to deep space and the lunar surface. This deep space gateway would have a power bus, a small habitat to extend crew time, docking capability, an airlock, and [would be] serviced by logistics modules to enable research.”
The agency said the gateway would be useful not only for lunar orbiting missions, but also for increasing the breadth and depth of space exploration in general. “The area of space near the moon offers a true deep space environment to gain experience for human missions that push farther into the solar system, access the lunar surface for robotic missions but with the ability to return to Earth if needed in days rather than weeks or months.”
In July 2017, NASA issued a competitive request for information about the Power and Propulsion Element, the module that is expected to supply electrical power and chemical and electrical propulsion to the gateway. As a result, five study contracts were issued in November 2017.
That September, NASA and Roscosmos (the Russian space agency) signed a joint cooperation agreement to explore the moon and deep space, which included use of the gateway.
Back to the moon
NASA’s mission to return to the moon was bumped up in the agency’s priority list after President Donald Trump’s first space policy directive was announced in December 2017. Trump directed the agency to focus on returning to the moon before attempting to reach Mars (reaching Mars had been the primary goal during President Barack Obama’s administration).
Trump’s announcement was in line with a previous recommendation from the newly reconstituted National Space Council. The council, which hadn’t been active since the early 1990s, was re-formed in June 2017. Later that year, its members concluded that lunar exploration should be NASA’s primary goal.
The Deep Space Gateway was renamed the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway in February 2018, when NASA made its 2019 budget request. That document also suggested that the International Space Station should conclude operations in 2024 to make budgetary room for the gateway.
NASA held a Deep Space Gateway Science Workshop from Feb. 27 to March 1, 2018, in Denver, which helped the agency formulate a science plan for the lunar complex. Also in 2018, NASA launched the Revolutionary Aerospace Systems Concepts-Academic Linkages (RASC-AL) design competition for university students, which focused on developing concepts for the gateway.
The agency is also encouraging the development of international gateway partnerships, especially from the current International Space Station partners (Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada), as it formulates the concept of the gateway.
Elon Musk details SpaceX progress on latest Starship spacecraft build and flight timelines Starship, the SpaceX stainless steel behemoth set to send humans to Mars, could end up taking humans to the Moon in just five years time.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk made the declaration back in March 2019, amid growing interest in what the company was developing at its Boca Chica facility in Texas. SpaceX Starship was pitched in its original “BFR” form back in September 2017, but the new rocket taking shape at Boca Chica had a uniquely shiny design.
It was a response to American vice president Mike Pence, who had declared at the time that NASA would return humans to the Moon within the next five years. In response to a question about whether SpaceX Starship could send humans in that same time period, Musk stated “I think so.” As development of the SpaceX Starship continues, these plans have gradually come into focus.
The holidays might be a time of slowed activity for most companies in the tech sector, but for SpaceX, it was a time to ramp production efforts on the latest SpaceX Starship prototype — “Starship serial number 1” as it’s called, according to Elon Musk . This flight design prototype of SpaceX Starship is under construction at SpaceX’s Boca Chica development facility, and Musk was in attendance over the weekend overseeing its build and assembly. In this video Engineering Today will discuss SpaceX’s latest Starship where CEO Elon Musk details SpaceX progress on this spacecraft build and flight timelines.
An animation shows the random appearance of fast radio bursts (FRBs) across the sky. Astronomers have discovered about 85 since 2007, and pinpointed two of them. (Credit: NRAO Outreach/T. Jarrett (IPAC/Caltech); B. Saxton, NRAO/AUI/NSF)
HONOLULU — Mysterious ultra-fast pinpricks of radio energy keep lighting up the night sky and nobody knows why. A newly discovered example of this transient phenomenon has been traced to its place of origin — a nearby spiral galaxy — but it’s only made things murkier for astronomers.
The problem concerns a class of blink-and-you’ll-miss-them heavenly events known as fast radio bursts (FRBs). In a few thousandths of a second, these explosions produce as much energy as the sun does in nearly a century. Researchers have only known about FRBs since 2007, and they still don’t have a compelling explanation regarding their sources.
“The big question is what can produce an FRB,” Kenzie Nimmo, a doctoral student at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, said during a news briefing on Monday (Jan. 6) here at the 235th meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Honolulu, Hawaii.
The repeating FBR was eventually traced back to a dwarf galaxy with a high rate of star formation 3 billion light-years away, Nimmo said. The galaxy contains a persistent radio source, possibly a nebula, that could explain the FRB’s origin, she added.
Astronomers have also managed to determine that three non-repeating FRBs came from distant massive galaxies with little star formation going on. This seemed to provide evidence that repeating and non-repeating FRBs arose from different types of environments, Nimmo said. But the new discovery challenges this simple story.
FRB 180916.J0158+65, as the object is known, is a repeating FRB discovered by the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment (CHIME) observatory, a radio telescope near Okanagan Falls in British Columbia that Nimmo called “the world’s best FRB-finding machine.”
Follow-up observations by a network of telescopes in Europe allowed the research team to produce a high-resolution image of the FRB’s location. This location turned out to be a medium-sized spiral galaxy like our Milky Way that is surprisingly nearby, only 500 million light-years away, making it the closest-known FRB to date. The results were published yesterday (Jan. 6) in the journal Nature.
Despite precisely locating the FRB, the team was unable to detect any radio sources in the spiral galaxy that could explain the mysterious outbursts. Even worse, this new entity seems not to fit the patterns established by previous repeating and non-repeating FRBs.
“This is completely different than the host and local environments of other localized FRBs,” Benito Marcote, a radio astronomer at the Joint Institute for VLBI European Research Infrastructure Consortium and lead author of the Nature paper, said during the news briefing.
The researchers hope that subsequent data might help them get a handle on what this FRB is telling them. But until then, they might have to continue scratching their heads over these puzzling phenomena.
NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) has discovered its first Earth-size planet in its star’s habitable zone, the range of distances where conditions may be just right to allow the presence of liquid water on the surface.
This illustration of TOI 700 d is based on several simulated environments for an ocean-covered version of the planet.Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center
NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) has discovered its first Earth-size planet in its star’s habitable zone, the range of distances where conditions may be just right to allow the presence of liquid water on the surface. Scientists confirmed the find, called TOI 700 d, using NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope and have modeled the planet’s potential environments to help inform future observations.
TOI 700 d is one of only a few Earth-size planets discovered in a star’s habitable zone so far. Others include several planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system and other worlds discovered by NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope.
“TESS was designed and launched specifically to find Earth-sized planets orbiting nearby stars,” said Paul Hertz, astrophysics division director at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “Planets around nearby stars are easiest to follow-up with larger telescopes in space and on Earth. Discovering TOI 700 d is a key science finding for TESS. Confirming the planet’s size and habitable zone status with Spitzer is another win for Spitzer as it approaches the end of science operations this January.”
TESS monitors large swaths of the sky, called sectors, for 27 days at a time. This long stare allows the satellite to track changes in stellar brightness caused by an orbiting planet crossing in front of its star from our perspective, an event called a transit.
TOI 700 is a small, cool M dwarf star located just over 100 light-years away in the southern constellation Dorado. It’s roughly 40% of the Sun’s mass and size and about half its surface temperature. The star appears in 11 of the 13 sectors TESS observed during the mission’s first year, and scientists caught multiple transits by its three planets.
The star was originally misclassified in the TESS database as being more similar to our Sun, which meant the planets appeared larger and hotter than they really are. Several researchers, including Alton Spencer, a high school student working with members of the TESS team, identified the error.
“When we corrected the star’s parameters, the sizes of its planets dropped, and we realized the outermost one was about the size of Earth and in the habitable zone,” said Emily Gilbert, a graduate student at the University of Chicago. “Additionally, in 11 months of data we saw no flares from the star, which improves the chances TOI 700 d is habitable and makes it easier to model its atmospheric and surface conditions.”
Gilbert and other researchers presented the findings at the 235th meeting of the American Astronomical Societyin Honolulu, and three papers — one of which Gilbert led — have been submitted to scientific journals.
The innermost planet, called TOI 700 b, is almost exactly Earth-size, is probably rocky and completes an orbit every 10 days. The middle planet, TOI 700 c, is 2.6 times larger than Earth — between the sizes of Earth and Neptune — orbits every 16 days and is likely a gas-dominated world. TOI 700 d, the outermost known planet in the system and the only one in the habitable zone, measures 20% larger than Earth, orbits every 37 days and receives from its star 86% of the energy that the Sun provides to Earth. All of the planets are thought to be tidally locked to their star, which means they rotate once per orbit so that one side is constantly bathed in daylight.
A team of scientists led by Joseph Rodriguez, an astronomer at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian in Cambridge, Massachusetts, requested follow-up observations with Spitzer to confirm TOI 700 d.
“Given the impact of this discovery — that it is TESS’s first habitable-zone Earth-size planet — we really wanted our understanding of this system to be as concrete as possible,” Rodriguez said. “Spitzer saw TOI 700 d transit exactly when we expected it to. It’s a great addition to the legacy of a mission that helped confirm two of the TRAPPIST-1 planets and identify five more.”
The Spitzer data increased scientists’ confidence that TOI 700 d is a real planet and sharpened their measurements of its orbital period by 56% and its size by 38%. It also ruled out other possible astrophysical causes of the transit signal, such as the presence of a smaller, dimmer companion star in the system.
Rodriguez and his colleagues also used follow-up observations from a 1-meter ground-based telescope in the global Las Cumbres Observatory network to improve scientists’ confidence in the orbital period and size of TOI 700 c by 30% and 36%, respectively.
Because TOI 700 is bright, nearby, and shows no sign of stellar flares, the system is a prime candidate for precise mass measurements by current ground-based observatories. These measurements could confirm scientists’ estimates that the inner and outer planets are rocky and the middle planet is made of gas.
Future missions may be able to identify whether the planets have atmospheres and, if so, even determine their compositions.
While the exact conditions on TOI 700 d are unknown, scientists can use current information, like the planet’s size and the type of star it orbits, to generate computer models and make predictions. Researchers at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, modeled 20 potential environments of TOI 700 d to gauge if any version would result in surface temperatures and pressures suitable for habitability.
Their 3D climate models examined a variety of surface types and atmospheric compositions typically associated with what scientists regard to be potentially habitable worlds. Because TOI 700 d is tidally locked to its star, the planet’s cloud formations and wind patterns may be strikingly different from Earth’s.
One simulation included an ocean-covered TOI 700 d with a dense, carbon-dioxide-dominated atmosphere similar to what scientists suspect surrounded Mars when it was young. The model atmosphere contains a deep layer of clouds on the star-facing side. Another model depicts TOI 700 d as a cloudless, all-land version of modern Earth, where winds flow away from the night side of the planet and converge on the point directly facing the star.
When starlight passes through a planet’s atmosphere, it interacts with molecules like carbon dioxide and nitrogen to produce distinct signals, called spectral lines. The modeling team, led by Gabrielle Englemann-Suissa, a Universities Space Research Association visiting research assistant at Goddard, produced simulated spectra for the 20 modeled versions of TOI 700 d.
“Someday, when we have real spectra from TOI 700 d, we can backtrack, match them to the closest simulated spectrum, and then match that to a model,” Englemann-Suissa said. “It’s exciting because no matter what we find out about the planet, it’s going to look completely different from what we have here on Earth.”
TESS is a NASA Astrophysics Explorer mission led and operated by MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Additional partners include Northrop Grumman, based in Falls Church, Virginia; NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley; the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts; MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory; and the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. More than a dozen universities, research institutes and observatories worldwide are participants in the mission.
The Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, manages the Spitzer Space Telescope mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Science operations are conducted at the Spitzer Science Center at Caltech in Pasadena. Space operations are based at Lockheed Martin Space in Littleton, Colorado. Data are archived at the Infrared Science Archive housed at IPAC at Caltech. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.
The modeling work was funded through the Sellers Exoplanet Environments Collaboration at Goddard, a multidisciplinary collaboration that brings together experts to build comprehensive and sophisticated computer models to better analyze current and future exoplanet observations.
A plasma propulsion engine is a type of electric propulsion that generates thrust from a quasi-neutral plasma. This is in contrast to ion thruster engines, which generate thrust through extracting an ion current from the plasma source, which is then accelerated to high velocities using grids/anodes. These exist in many forms (see electric propulsion). Plasma thrusters do not typically use high voltage grids or anodes/ cathodes to accelerate the charged particles in the plasma, but rather uses currents and potentials which are generated internally in the plasma to accelerate the plasma ions. While this results in a lower exhaust velocity by virtue of the lack of high accelerating voltages, this type of thruster has a number of advantages. The lack of high voltage grids of anodes removes a possible limiting element as a result of grid ion erosion. The plasma exhaust is ‘quasi-neutral’, which means that ion and electrons exist in equal number, which allows simply ion-electron recombination in the exhaust to neutralise the exhaust plume, removing the need for an electron gun (hollow cathode). This type of thruster often generates the source plasma using radio frequency or microwave energy, using an external antenna. This fact, combined with the absence of hollow cathodes (which are very sensitive to all but the few noble gases) allows the intriguing possibility of being able to use this type of thruster on a huge range of propellants, from argon, to carbon dioxide, air mixtures, to astronaut urine.
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.
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.”
This image of the inner galaxy color codes different types of emission sources by merging microwave data (green) mapped by the Goddard-IRAM Superconducting 2-Millimeter Observer (GISMO) instrument with infrared (850 micrometers, blue) and radio observations (19.5 centimeters, red). Where star formation is in its infancy, cold dust shows blue and cyan, such as in the Sagittarius B2 molecular cloud complex. Yellow reveals more well-developed star factories, as in the Sagittarius B1 cloud. Red and orange show where high-energy electrons interact with magnetic fields, such as in the Radio Arc and Sagittarius A features. An area called the Sickle may supply the particles responsible for setting the Radio Arc aglow. Within the bright source Sagittarius A lies the Milky Way’s monster black hole. The image spans a distance of 750 light-years.Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center
A feature resembling a candy cane appears at the center of this colorful composite image of our Milky Way galaxy’s central zone. But this is no cosmic confection. It spans 190 light-years and is one of a set of long, thin strands of ionized gas called filaments that emit radio waves.
This image includes newly published observations using an instrument designed and built at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Called the Goddard-IRAM Superconducting 2-Millimeter Observer (GISMO), the instrument was used in concert with a 30-meter radio telescope located on Pico Veleta, Spain, operated by the Institute for Radio Astronomy in the Millimeter Range headquartered in Grenoble, France.
“GISMO observes microwaves with a wavelength of 2 millimeters, allowing us to explore the galaxy in the transition zone between infrared light and longer radio wavelengths,” said Johannes Staguhn, an astronomer at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore who leads the GISMO team at Goddard. “Each of these portions of the spectrum is dominated by different types of emission, and GISMO shows us how they link together.”
GISMO detected the most prominent radio filament in the galactic center, known as the Radio Arc, which forms the straight part of the cosmic candy cane. This is the shortest wavelength at which these curious structures have been observed. Scientists say the filaments delineate the edges of a large bubble produced by some energetic event at the galactic center, located within the bright region known as Sagittarius A about 27,000 light-years away from us. Additional red arcs in the image reveal other filaments.
“It was a real surprise to see the Radio Arc in the GISMO data,” said Richard Arendt, a team member at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and Goddard. “Its emission comes from high-speed electrons spiraling in a magnetic field, a process called synchrotron emission. Another feature GISMO sees, called the Sickle, is associated with star formation and may be the source of these high-speed electrons.”
Two papers describing the composite image, one led by Arendt and one led by Staguhn, were published on Nov. 1 in the Astrophysical Journal.
The image shows the inner part of our galaxy, which hosts the largest and densest collection of giant molecular clouds in the Milky Way. These vast, cool clouds contain enough dense gas and dust to form tens of millions of stars like the Sun. The view spans a part of the sky about 1.6 degrees across — equivalent to roughly three times the apparent size of the Moon — or about 750 light-years wide.
To make the image, the team acquired GISMO data, shown in green, in April and November 2012. They then used archival observations from the European Space Agency’s Herschel satellite to model the far-infrared glow of cold dust, which they then subtracted from the GISMO data. Next, they added, in blue, existing 850-micrometer infrared data from the SCUBA-2 instrument on the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope near the summit of Maunakea, Hawaii. Finally, they added, in red, archival longer-wavelength 19.5-centimeter radio observations from the National Science Foundation’s Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array, located near Socorro, New Mexico. The higher-resolution infrared and radio data were then processed to match the lower-resolution GISMO observations.
The resulting image essentially color codes different emission mechanisms.
Blue and cyan features reveal cold dust in molecular clouds where star formation is still in its infancy. Yellow features, such as the Arches filaments making up the candy cane’s handle and the Sagittarius B1 molecular cloud, reveal the presence of ionized gas and show well-developed star factories; this light comes from electrons that are slowed but not captured by gas ions, a process also known as free-free emission. Red and orange regions show areas where synchrotron emission occurs, such as in the prominent Radio Arc and Sagittarius A, the bright source at the galaxy’s center that hosts its supermassive black hole.
The wildfires raging in the Australian states of New South Wales and Victoria began in November 2019, and they continue to pose severe safety and environmental problems. NBC News reported that thousands of Australians fled their homes on New Year’s Eve (Dec. 31), seeking refuge near the oceanside. On Thursday (Jan. 2) NBC News also reported that New South Wales declared a weeklong state of emergency, making this the third time an emergency period has been announced since the fires began.
“My last day of the decade felt like the apocalypse,” Sydney-based photojournalist Matt Abbott tweeted on Dec. 31. Abbott, who is covering the wildfires for The New York Times, added: “Been covering the Australian bushfires for the last 6 weeks, but haven’t seen anything like yesterday’s fire that decimated the town of Conjola, NSW.”
Information from NASA satellites can teach scientists about the lingering consequences of these events, like the production of dangerous gases such as carbon monoxide.
NASA operates a group of 26 satellites collectively known as the Earth Observing System (EOS), and its flagship satellite, a bus-sized spacecraft named Terra, hit its 20-year mark in space in December 2019. Other NASA satellites, like Aqua and Suomi NPP, also contribute data to EOS, a mission tasked with taking global measurements of the air, land and water to help scientists learn how those systems fit together and morph over time.
The Worldview tool from NASA’s EOS Data and Information System transforms satellite data into an interactive page with over 900 imagery layers. You can view current natural disasters, like the Australian wildfires, on Worldview by date and information layer (such as thermal anomalies, borders and place labels). You can also watch an animation of activity by selecting a time range.
A look at Australia’s surface starting in October 2019 shows the astounding evolution of wildfires as they multiplied and spewed smoke across Australia’s eastern shore.
A severe drought in October 2019 primed the country for the destruction that’s still occurring. More than 100 fires raged over the next several months. By Dec. 12, the wildfires in Australia’s New South Wales had scourged an area of about 10,000 square miles (27,000 square kilometers), according to NASA representatives in a description of satellite imagery.
The wildfires are raging on Australia’s eastern coast, exposing many communities, including Sydney, to hazardous pollution levels. The Measurements of Pollution in the Troposphere instrument on the Terra satellite found that the region is blanketed by abnormally high levels of carbon monoxide, an odorless and dangerous gas that’s released by the burning of plants and fossil fuels.
The fires have been particularly damaging to eucalyptus forests. The forests exist in both dry and rainy regions, and both climates are vulnerable to the wildfires for unique reasons. Eucalyptus plants that thrive in dry areas have oil-rich leaves that can easily ignite during a fire, according to a NASA description of the EOS imagery. Fires do help these plants release their seeds, but the dry season in October was so intense that it limited seed germination. Rainforest eucalyptus species, on the other hand, are not accustomed to fires. The ecosystem can’t bounce back the way a dry eucalyptus forest could under milder conditions. Unable to tolerate the flames, most of these rainforest plants die under these extreme conditions.
An instrument on NASA’s Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission satellite observed the unusually hot and dry conditions of November 2019 that fueled the wildfires. The sensor, called the Clouds and the Earth’s Radiant Energy System, measures the heat emitted back into space. The instrument measured how the sun’s radiation was absorbed, emitted and reflected by Earth’s surface during the first month of the wildfires.
The flames destroy forests and make the air unbreathable for humans, but they also harm the animals that live there. “Browsing animals like kangaroos are driven out by fire for a short time, and the heat treatment of soil reduces the number of plant-eating insects and soil organisms during the early growth period,” Ayesha Tulloch, a conservation biologist at the University of Sydney, said in a NASA image description.Advertisement
Many koalas have also been affected, or even killed, by these fires. “But the range of the koala covers most [of] the east coast of Australia,” Tulloch said. “Relative to its range, the fires are relevant to only a very small proportion of the existing koala population in Australia.”
An animation made using the GEOS forward processing (GEOS -FP) model depicts the high levels of black carbon emitted by the wildfires in early November 2019, which then blew through the atmosphere and across the Pacific Ocean. Smoke plumes have risen as high as 7 to 8 miles (12 to 13 km) into the sky, which is unusually high for wildfires, according to a NASA description of the animation.
A nearly perfect ring of young hot blue stars circles the older yellow nucleus of this ring galaxy c. 600 million light-years away in the constellation Serpens. The diameter of the 6 arcsecond inner core of the galaxy is about 17±0.7 kly (5.3±0.2 kpc) while the surrounding ring has an inner 28″ diameter of 75±3 kly (24.8±1.1 kpc) and an outer 45″ diameter of 121±4 kly (39.9±1.7 kpc). The galaxy is estimated to have a mass of 700 billion suns. By way of comparison, the Milky Way galaxy has an estimated diameter of 150-200 kly and consists of between 100 and 500 billion stars and a mass of around 1.54 trillion suns.
The gap separating the two stellar populations may contain some star clusters that are almost too faint to see. Though ring galaxies are rare, another more distant ring galaxy (SDSS J151713.93+213516.8) can be seen through Hoag’s Object, between the nucleus and the outer ring of the galaxy, at roughly the one o’clock position in the image shown here.
Noah Brosch and colleagues showed that the luminous ring lies at the inner edge of a much larger neutral hydrogen ring.
In the initial announcement of his discovery, Hoag proposed the hypothesis that the visible ring was a product of gravitational lensing. This idea was later discarded because the nucleus and the ring have the same redshift, and because more advanced telescopes revealed the knotty structure of the ring, something that would not be visible if the ring were the product of gravitational lensing.
Many of the details of the galaxy remain a mystery, foremost of which is how it formed. So-called “classic” ring galaxies are generally formed by the collision of a small galaxy with a larger disk-shaped galaxy. This collision produces a density wave in the disk that leads to a characteristic ring-like appearance. Such an event would have happened at least 2–3 billion years in the past, and may have resembled the processes that form polar-ring galaxies. However, there is no sign of any second galaxy that would have acted as the “bullet”, and the likely older core of Hoag’s Object has a very low velocity relative to the ring, making the typical formation hypothesis quite unlikely. Observations with one of the most sensitive telescopes have also failed to uncover any faint galaxy fragments that should be discoverable in a collision scenario. However, a team of scientists that analyze the galaxy admits that “if the carnage happened more than 3 billion years ago, there might not be any detritus left to see.”
Noah Brosch suggested that Hoag’s Object might be a product of an extreme “bar instability” that occurred a few billion years ago in a barred spiral galaxy. Schweizer et al claim that this is an unlikely hypothesis because the nucleus of the object is spheroidal, whereas the nucleus of a barred spiral galaxy is disc-shaped, among other reasons. However, they admit evidence is somewhat thin for this particular dispute to be settled satisfactorily.
A few other galaxies share the primary characteristics of Hoag’s Object, including a bright detached ring of stars, but their centers are elongated or barred, and they may exhibit some spiral structure. While none match Hoag’s Object in symmetry, this handful of galaxies are known to some as Hoag-type galaxies.
More than 21 centuries ago, a mechanism of fabulous ingenuity was created in Greece, a device capable of indicating exactly how the sky would look for decades to come — the position of the moon and sun, lunar phases and even eclipses. But this incredible invention would be drowned in the sea and its secret forgotten for two thousand years.
This video is a tribute from Swiss clock-maker Hublot and film-maker Philippe Nicolet to this device, known as the Antikythera Mechanism, or the world’s “first computer”. The fragments of the Mechanism were discovered in 1901 by sponge divers near the island of Antikythera. It is kept since then at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, Greece. For more than a century, researchers were trying to understand its functions. Since 2005, a pluridisciplinary research team, the “Antikythera Mechanism Research Project”, is studying the Mechanism with the latest high tech available.
The results of this ongoing research has enabled the construction of many models. Amongst them, the unique mechanism of a watch, designed by Hublot as a tribute to the Mechanism, is incorporating the known functions of this mysterious and fascinating ancient Mechanism. A model of the Antikythera Mechanism, built by the Aristotle University in Greece, together with the mechanism of the watch and this film in 3D are featuring in an exhibition about the Mechanism that is taking place in Paris, at the Musée des Arts et Métiers.
The original fragments of the Mechanism, its main models and the watch designed by Hublot are on display at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, Greece.
Unnamed rover will also explore how we might be able to live on the red planet
Nasa has nearly finished building a robot that will explore the surface of Mars – and examine the possibility that alien fossils are there waiting to be found.
The space agency hopes that the 2020 rover can find evidence of past life on the planet, as well as helping to discover how possible it could be that humans will live there in the future.
The Mars 2020 rover will receive its official name next year, but Nasa has shown it off to the world during an event for the media that showed the robot was nearing completion.
In February, it will ship the rover to Florida’s Kennedy Space Center where its three sections will be fully assembled. A July launch will send the rover to a dry lake bed on Mars that is bigger than the island of Manhattan.
The four-wheeled, car-sized rover will scour the base of Mars’ Jezero Crater, an 820-foot-deep (250-meter-deep) crater thought to have been a lake the size of Lake Tahoe, once the craft lands in February 2021. The crater is believed to have an abundance of pristine sediments some 3.5 billion years old that scientists hope will hold fossils of Martian life. 00:14 / 00:14TOP ARTICLES4/6READ MORERon Saunders: Football mana
“The trick, though, is that we’re looking for trace levels of chemicals from billions of years ago on Mars,” Mars 2020 deputy project manager Matt Wallace told Reuters. The rover will collect up to 30 soil samples to be picked up and returned to Earth by a future spacecraft planned by NASA.
“Once we have a sufficient set, we’ll put them down on the ground, and another mission, which we hope to launch in 2026, will come, land on the surface, collect those samples and put them into a rocket, basically,” Wallace said. Humans have never before returned sediment samples from Mars.
The findings of the Mars 2020 research will be crucial to future human missions to the red planet, including the ability to make oxygen on the surface of Mars, Wallace said. The Mars 2020 Rover is carrying equipment that can turn carbon dioxide, which is pervasive on Mars, into oxygen for breathing and as a propellant.
If successful, Mars 2020 will mark NASA’s fifth Martian rover to carry out a soft landing, having learned crucial lessons from the most recent Curiosity rover that landed on the planet’s surface in 2012 and continues to traverse a Martian plain southeast of the Jezero Crater.
The Soviet Union is the only other country to successfully land a rover on Mars. China and Japan have attempted unsuccessfully to send orbiters around Mars, while India and Europe’s space agency have successfully lofted an orbiter to the planet.
Back in 2016, headlines all over the world blared with news of a possible “alien megastructure” detected orbiting a distant Milky Way star. Now, a team of Columbia University astrophysicists has offered up an explanation for the star’s strange behavior that doesn’t involve any little green men.
The “alien” point of light in the sky is known as Tabby’s star, which was named after Tabetha Boyajian, the Louisiana State University astrophysicist who in 2015 first noticed the unusual patterns in its starlight that others initially attributed to alien construction projects. Boyajian noticed that the star tended to dip in brightness at odd intervals, sometimes slightly and sometimes by significant fractions of its total light. It was also slowly losing brightness over time. She later called it in a TED Talk the “most mysterious star in the universe” because no straightforward astrophysical theory could explain the dimming pattern — though she also expressed skepticism about suggestions that the dimming was the result of a “megastructure” constructed around the star by an advanced civilization.
Astronomers have since offered a number of alternative explanations for the weird light from the star, which is about 1,500 light-years away in space and known formally as KIC 8462852. They range from swarms of comets to “avalanche-like magnetic activity” within the star. Boyajian conducted follow-up research that showed that the dimming is specific to certain light frequencies, which could be explained if a cloud of dust were responsible, scientists have suggested. This new research explains how that dust might have gotten there.
The new theory from the Columbia team resembles the plot of a disaster film more than a science-fiction space opera. They built on earlier work showing that whatever’s causing the dimming is likely locked in an irregular, eccentric orbit around the star. They showed that a disintegrating, orphaned ice moon following such a path could explain the strange dimming.
“It’s likely outgassing water or some other volatile material,” said Brian Metzger, one of the authors of the new paper.
Over the course of millions of years, that material would form an irregular cloud around the star along the orphaned moon’s eccentric orbit, he told Live Science, adding that such a cloud would periodically block some of the star’s light from reaching Earth — just like the effect originally attributed to a Dyson sphere megastructure.
They suspect an orphaned moon, as opposed to a planet, is off-gassing the cloud, because it’s difficult to explain how an icy planet could end up in that irregular orbit in the first place. Based on our own solar system, he said, scientists know that solid, rocky bodies tend to make up the inner parts of a system, while bigger, gaseous planets dominate the outer system. And those planets are often orbited by icy moons.
Metzger and his colleagues described orbital calculations in which a planet like Jupiter, orbited by large moons and following an eccentric orbit, gets knocked (perhaps by another nearby star) into a collision course with its host star. As it falls to its doom, the star would rip those moons from their orbits. Most of the moons would fall into the star or fly out of the system, they showed, but in about 10% of all cases, a moon would end up in an eccentric orbit. And, critically, that orbit would likely place the moon within its star’s “ice line” — the point within which the star’s radiation would blast ice off the moon’s surface.
If the moon were made up of the right materials, they wrote, it would start to break apart due to the increased radiation of its new, closer orbit, spilling that material into interplanetary space like a gargantuan comet. And even though we’d never see the moon with our existing telescopes, that spilled material would form a cloud of dust and gas big enough to block Tabby’s star’s light in strange and unpredictable ways. Over time, the star would appear to get dimmer and dimmer, just like Tabby’s star, as the total amount of dust in its orbit increased.
Nothing’s certain, of course. Metzger said it’s still possible some other phenomenon is creating the effect. But this moon theory offers a compelling explanation for a distant flickering once chalked up (at least in the popular press) to aliens.
The paper, available as a draft online in the preprint journal arXiv, will be published in a forthcoming issue of the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.
China’s biggest rocket, the Long March 5, returned to flight for the first time since a 2017 failure Friday (Dec. 27) in a dazzling nighttime launch for the Chinese space program.
The Long March 5 Y3 rocket lifted off at 8:45 p.m. Beijing Time carrying the experimental Shijian 20 communications satellite into a geosynchronous orbit. The satellite, which weighs a reported 8 metric tons, is China’s heaviest and most advanced satellite to date, according to state media reports.
China is also expected to use a version of the Long March 5, called the Long March 5B, to launch a new crewed spacecraft — the successor to its current Shenzhou crew capsule.
The rocket stands 184 feet (56 meters) tall and weighs nearly 2 million lbs. (867,000 kilograms) at liftoff. It is capable of carrying payloads of up to 55,000 lbs. (25,000 kilograms) into low Earth orbit. It can haul up 31,000 lbs. (14,000 kg) to a higher geostationary transfer orbit.
The Shijian 20 satellite (its name means “Practice”) is designed to be a high-throughput communications satellite “capable of delivering 1 Tbps [1 terabute per second] bandwidth for ultrafast speeds,” Chinese space officials said according to the state-run Xinhua news agency.
Shijian 20 is also expected to test a laser communications payload for future missions, as well as new ion thrusters for propulsion.
Canadian telescope finds eight more repeating blasts—energetic events from deep in the cosmos
Astronomers are edging closer to discovering what causes brief, powerful flashes in the sky known as fast radio bursts (FRBs), after a Canadian telescope discovered eight more of the most intriguing type of these blasts—those that repeat their signals.
FRBs are intensely energetic events that flare for just milliseconds, seemingly all over the sky and from outside the galaxy. But their cause has remained a mystery since the first FRB was identified in 2007. Astronomers hope that studying bursts that repeat their flashes, rather than just flare once, can help to elucidate the origins of FRBs. That’s because it’s easier for high-resolution telescopes to make follow-up observations of ‘repeaters’ and trace their origins than of one-off blasts.
Of the roughly 75 FRBs seen before this month’s discoveries, just 2 bursts were known to be repeaters. The first of these has been extensively studied, and the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment (CHIME) telescope discovered the second repeater earlier this year. CHIME’s latest results, published on the arXiv preprint server on 9 August, now show that repeaters are far from rare. In the past few weeks, another telescope, the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder, also found a repeater, bringing the total so far to 11—although researchers are yet to publish this result.ADVERTISEMENT
CHIME, which began hunting for FRBs in 2018, has also discovered hundreds of one-off FRBs, CHIME researcher Bryan Gaensler said on Twitter on 12 August. Members of the telescope collaboration are still analysing these events, said Gaensler, an astronomer at the University of Toronto, Canada. “In 25 years of astronomy research, this is unquestionably the most exciting project I’ve ever worked on,” he said.
“This is a pretty exciting result,” says astronomer Laura Spitler at the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany. Astronomers’ priority will be to search for the host galaxy of these repeat signals, she says. Pinpointing the host galaxies is essential to cracking the mystery of what causes FRBs. And sketching a picture of the environments in which the blasts are born will allow researchers to whittle down some of the dozens of possible explanations for FRBs. Astronomers suggest that they could be emissions from young magnetars—dense star cores spinning in a magnetic field— or vibrating cosmic strings.
The findings mean that there are now enough repeaters to start comparing these with one-off blasts, to find out whether the two kinds of FRB are produced in similar environments, says Spitler. All FRBs could come from fundamentally similar environments, but perhaps repeat blasts had avoided detection until now or their sources only flare under certain conditions. Or each type could be caused by different events—one that repeats and one that doesn’t.
The CHIME team has already seen clues that could help to answer this question. The eight repeaters seem to be located within a similar range of distances to the one-off bursts. But repeater signals lasted longer on average, the collaboration reports. Spitler says that, if this trend holds, it could be a sign that two seperate phenomena cause the different types of blast, because a— the duration of a blast reflects the underlying mechanism that produces it.
The latest data reveal differences in the environments from which repeaters emanate. A previously discovered burst, FRB 121102—the only repeating signal whose precise host galaxy has been identified—came from a highly magnetized environment. Like FRB 121102, the signal of one of the latest bursts is polarized with a spiral pattern that suggests it comes through a magnetic field. But the strength of the field for the new repeater is around 100 times weaker than that of FRB 121102.ADVERTISEMENT
Many, although not all, of the latest haul also share a feature of the first two repeaters. Rather than being a simple blast with a narrow frequency, the signals descend in frequency in a way that the team compares to a ‘sad trombone’ sound. “Such ‘sad trombone’ signals are actually rather unusual and complicated,” says Spitler. Explaining them poses a challenge to theorists, she adds.
The findings are only a small preview of the “full awesomeness coming out of CHIME”, said Gaensler. The telescope, which is near Penticton in British Columbia, was initially built to study radio waves from the early Universe. But in 2013, astronomers realized that the half-pipe-shaped telescope, which every day sweeps almost the entire northern sky, could also spot FRBs. For the relatively low cost of US$16 million, they turned CHIME into an FRB-hunter. Astronomers had only recently begun to take the telescope seriously, after initial observations seemed to be caused by interference or instrumental glitches.
“CHIME is definitely living up to its promise”, says Spitler.
An exploration of the Wow! Signal, picked up at the Big Ear radio telescope in 1977. This signal remains unexplained to this day, and represents the best candidate we’ve ever detected of a signal of intelligent alien origin.
Astronomer Jerry R. Ehman discovered the anomaly a few days later while reviewing the recorded data. He was so impressed by the result that he circled the reading on the computer printout, 6EQUJ5, and wrote the comment Wow! on its side, leading to the event’s widely used name.
The entire signal sequence lasted for the full 72-second window during which Big Ear was able to observe it, but has not been detected since, despite several subsequent attempts by Ehman and others. Many hypotheses have been advanced on the origin of the emission, including natural and human-made sources, but none of them adequately explains the signal. Although the Wow! signal had no detectable modulation—a technique used to transmit information over radio waves—it remains the strongest candidate for an alien radio transmission ever detected.
The sun is right there in the name of NASA’s Parker Solar Probe, but a second mission of opportunity may make the spacecraft just as vital to Venus scientists as to those studying our local star.
Parker Solar Probe launched in August 2018, destined to spend seven years looping ever closer to the sun in hopes of sorting out some of the hottest mysteries about our star. But to do so, the spacecraft needed a carefully choreographed trajectory, one that included seven flybys of Earth’s evil twin, Venus. And Venus scientists, who haven’t had a dedicated NASA spacecraft since the mid-1990s, were not about to let that opportunity fly past them.ADVERTISING
“The Venus flybys are like, if you have like a 48-hour layover in Paris, not leaving the airport,” Shannon Curry, a planetary physicist at the University of California, Berkeley, told Space.com. “It would be crazy not to turn on [the instruments].” Curry and her colleagues made her case, and the Parker Solar Probe will gather its second batch of Venus data today (Dec. 26), as the probe makes its closest approach to the planet at 1:14 p.m. EST (1814 GMT).
Of course, Parker Solar Probe’s instruments are designed to study a star, not a planet. They focus mostly on plasma, the hot mess of charged particles that makes up the sun. Traditionally, planetary scientists want very different instruments on their spacecraft: radar devices to map the surface, spectrometers to identify chemicals and the like. But that doesn’t make plasma data superfluous.
Two dedicated Venus missions have carried plasma detectors to the world: NASA’s Pioneer Venus Orbiter and the European Space Agency’s Venus Express. But those spacecraft were built decades ago. “The stuff that they were able to put on [Parker] Solar Probe takes measurements faster, better, stronger, like the whole deal,” Curry said.
And she and her colleagues have plenty of questions about Venus that plasma data could help answer. For today’s flyby, the team is particularly interested in a feature called the bow shock, where the planet’s neighborhood meets the solar wind of charged particles that constantly stream off the sun.
The precise location of the bow shock varies based on how active the sun is, which changes over the course of the 11-year solar cycle. “We’re not positive it’ll cross the shock or not, but that’s actually important because it’ll tell us physically where the shock is at this point in the solar cycle,” Curry said. “It tells us a lot about what the sun’s doing, and the shock is a nice gauge of that.”
And the environment on either side of the bow shock differs dramatically. Outside the shock is the pristine solar wind and the effects of solar storms. But if Parker Solar Probe crosses inside the shock, scientists should be able to better understand how quickly Venus is losing its atmosphere.
“The magnetic fields pile up and actually sort of drag the atmosphere off. It’s almost like a slingshot,” Curry said. “That’s one of the biggest ways the atmosphere of Venus gets removed, the sun’s magnetic field lines.”
Venus scientists are interested in a more detailed measurement of atmosphere loss, because atmospheric pressure affects what state water takes; it’s Earth’s even 1 bar of pressure that helps keep our oceans liquid. “At some point, maybe liquids could exist again [on Venus], or maybe they did before and we just don’t know,” Curry said.
But the Venus atmospheric-loss measurements will really crank up during Parker Solar Probe’s next two flybys, in July 2020 and February 2021. These two visits will carry the spacecraft right through what scientists call the tail of Venus, which is where the atmosphere slips away from the planet.
“Those are going to be the super-important ones. I think these first two are almost — not like dress rehearsals, but it’s really important to make sure we get everything right,” Curry said. “Flybys 3 and 4 will tell us mountains about atmospheric escape at Venus and then a lot of other dynamics we just don’t understand.”
Curry said that Parker Solar Probe may be able to solve a long-standing mystery about the surface of Venus: whether the planet sports small, patchy crustal magnetic fields. So far, Mars is the only planet where scientists have seen this phenomenon. “It’s like a little magnetic rash on its belly, like little bubbles with magnetic fields,” Curry said. But no one’s gotten a close enough look at Venus to check for them. “We might not [see them], and they might not even be there. We just don’t know.”
The results of the first Venus flyby, which took place in October 2018, prove the importance of practice. During the pass, the spacecraft ended up shutting its instruments down, convinced that they were pointing straight at the sun, which they aren’t meant to do.
“We’re just looking at Venus, not the sun. Venus is just a superbright planet the way it reflects,” Curry said. “That’s why the instruments got confused.” Now, Curry said, the project team believes it’s figured out how to keep that error from happening again.
And the Venus work is benefiting from a science bonus discovered by the main Parker Solar Probe team, which realized that the spacecraft could gather and send back more data than originally anticipated. Curry had been willing to fight for even just an hour of data on a flyby; during the first maneuver, the team got about 10 hours of observations.
Curry is hoping to build similar Venus collaborations with the European and Japanese team running the BepiColombo mission en route to Mercury and with Europe’s Solar Orbiter mission. Like Parker Solar Probe, both of these spacecraft also need to make Venus flybys to reach their targets.
“These are the only measurements of Venus we’re going to have for, frankly, it might be the next decade,” Curry said. “We have nothing planned to go to Venus.” And the missions NASA is considering don’t carry plasma instruments like Parker Solar Probe does, so questions like atmospheric loss might go unanswered even then.
Combine those two factors, and the mission’s accidental planetary science looks even more precious. “With Venus science,” Curry said, “anybody who gets data is a hero.”
Hubble Finds Birth Certificate of Oldest Known Star
This is a Digitized Sky Survey image of the oldest star with a well-determined age in our galaxy. The aging star, cataloged as HD 140283, lies 190.1 light-years away. The Anglo-Australian Observatory (AAO) UK Schmidt telescope photographed the star in blue light. Credit: Digitized Sky Survey (DSS), STScI/AURA, Palomar/Caltech, and UKSTU/AAO A team of astronomers using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has taken an important step closer to finding the birth certificate of a star that’s been around for a very long time.
“We have found that this is the oldest known star with a well-determined age,” said Howard Bond of Pennsylvania State University in University Park, Pa., and the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Md.
The star could be as old as 14.5 billion years (plus or minus 0.8 billion years), which at first glance would make it older than the universe’s calculated age of about 13.8 billion years, an obvious dilemma.
But earlier estimates from observations dating back to 2000 placed the star as old as 16 billion years. And this age range presented a potential dilemma for cosmologists. “Maybe the cosmology is wrong, stellar physics is wrong, or the star’s distance is wrong,” Bond said. “So we set out to refine the distance.”
The new Hubble age estimates reduce the range of measurement uncertainty, so that the star’s age overlaps with the universe’s age — as independently determined by the rate of expansion of space, an analysis of the microwave background from the big bang, and measurements of radioactive decay.
This “Methuselah star,” cataloged as HD 140283, has been known about for more than a century because of its fast motion across the sky. The high rate of motion is evidence that the star is simply a visitor to our stellar neighborhood. Its orbit carries it down through the plane of our galaxy from the ancient halo of stars that encircle the Milky Way, and will eventually slingshot back to the galactic halo.
This conclusion was bolstered by the 1950s astronomers who were able to measure a deficiency of heavier elements in the star as compared to other stars in our galactic neighborhood. The halo stars are among the first inhabitants of our galaxy and collectively represent an older population from the stars, like our sun, that formed later in the disk. This means that the star formed at a very early time before the universe was largely “polluted” with heavier elements forged inside stars through nucleosynthesis. (The Methuselah star has an anemic 1/250th as much of the heavy element content of our sun and other stars in our solar neighborhood.)
The star, which is at the very first stages of expanding into a red giant, can be seen with binoculars as a 7th-magnitude object in the constellation Libra.
Hubble’s observational prowess was used to refine the distance to the star, which comes out to be 190.1 light-years. Bond and his team performed this measurement by using trigonometric parallax, where an apparent shift in the position of a star is caused by a change in the observer’s position. The results are published in the February 13 issue of the Astrophysical Journal Letters.
The parallax of nearby stars can be measured by observing them from opposite points in Earth’s orbit around the sun. The star’s true distance from Earth can then be precisely calculated through straightforward triangulation.
Once the true distance is known, an exact value for the star’s intrinsic brightness can be calculated. Knowing a star’s intrinsic brightness is a fundamental prerequisite to estimating its age.
Before the Hubble observation, the European Space Agency’s Hipparcos satellite made a precise measurement of the star’s parallax, but with an age measurement uncertainty of 2 billion years. One of Hubble’s three Fine Guidance Sensors measured the position of the Methuselah star. It turns out that the star’s parallax came out to be virtually identical to the Hipparcos measurements. But Hubble’s precision is five times better that than of Hipparcos. Bond’s team managed to shrink the uncertainty so that the age estimate was five times more precise.
With a better handle on the star’s brightness Bond’s team refined the star’s age by applying contemporary theories about the star’s burn rate, chemical abundances, and internal structure. New ideas are that leftover helium diffuses deeper into the core and so the star has less hydrogen to burn via nuclear fusion. This means it uses fuel faster and that correspondingly lowers the age.
Also, the star has a higher than predicted oxygen-to-iron ratio, and this too lowers the age. Bond thinks that further oxygen measurement could reduce the star’s age even more, because the star would have formed at a slightly later time when the universe was richer in oxygen abundance. Lowering the upper age limit would make the star unequivocally younger than the universe.
“Put all of those ingredients together and you get an age of 14.5 billion years, with a residual uncertainty that makes the star’s age compatible with the age of the universe,” said Bond. “This is the best star in the sky to do precision age calculations by virtue of its closeness and brightness.”
This Methuselah star has seen many changes over its long life. It was likely born in a primeval dwarf galaxy. The dwarf galaxy eventually was gravitationally shredded and sucked in by the emerging Milky Way over 12 billion years ago.
The star retains its elongated orbit from that cannibalism event. Therefore, it’s just passing through the solar neighborhood at a rocket-like speed of 800,000 miles per hour. It takes just 1,500 years to traverse a piece of sky with the angular width of the full Moon. The star’s proper motion angular rate is so fast (0.13 milliarcseconds an hour) that Hubble could actually photograph its movement in literally a few hours.
The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and the European Space Agency. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Md., conducts Hubble science operations. STScI is operated by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc., in Washington.
For images, illustrations, and more information about HD 140283, visit:
Have you seen a bright ‘star’ gracing the southwestern sky lately? It is the brightest object after the Sun and Moon. This month, it’s impossible to overlook the brilliant planet Venus in the evening sky. During the Festive Season, it looks like a gleaming lantern hanging in the southwest, setting more than three hours after the Sun. Venus has adorned the southwestern twilight sky since early November. No other star or planet can come close to matching Venus in brilliance.
This month, Venus is the unrivaled evening star that will soar from excellent to magnificent prominence in the southwest at nightfall. It’s probably the first “star” you’ll see coming out after sunset. In fact, if the air is very clear and the sky a good, deep blue, try looking for Venus shortly before sunset. Dazzling Venus will grace the evening sky in late December and for the first part of 2020. As if to remind us of her prominence, Venus will meet with the moon as the year ends.
On the evening of December 28, the waxing crescent moon will appear in very close proximity to the brightest planet in our sky, Venus. Astronomers refer to a close celestial pair-up like this as a conjunction. Step outside and enjoy the wonderful celestial show! Look for soft glow of earthshine, with either the unaided eye or binoculars, on the dark side of the moon over the next several days.
Clear Skies Everyone!
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
May this time bless you with all of your heart’s desires!
Orbiter is a free spaceflight simulator, it’s got much more detail on the actual flying and vehicles than KSP, but lacks the building and real time rigid body physics that provide so much entertainment in KSP. But if you want to experience real spacecraft then it’s probably a better option.
President Trump has signed the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act and with it directed the establishment of the U.S. Space Force (USSF) as the sixth branch of the armed forces.
The Space Force is part of the Department of the Air Force, much as the U.S. Marine Corps is part of the Department of the Navy. The new branch will be stood up over the next 18 months, military officials said.
“It was nearly half a century from Kitty Hawk to the creation of the Air Force. And now it’s 50 years after Apollo 11 that we create the Space Force,” Trump said during signing ceremonies at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland on Friday (Dec. 20), which you can watch here.
“It’s a big moment. That’s a big moment, and we’re all here for it,” he added. “Space … going to be a lot of things happening in space. Because space is the world’s newest warfighting domain. Amid grave threats to our national security, American superiority in space is absolutely vital. And we’re leading, but we’re not leading by enough. But very shortly, we’ll be leading by a lot. The Space Force will help us deter aggression and control the ultimate high ground.”
Trump also said he will appoint Gen. Jay Raymond to be the first Chief of Space Operations, the senior military member of the new branch.
“And he will become the very first member of the Space Force,” the president said. “He will be on the Joint Chiefs, which we’re now expanding by one position. That’s a very powerful position. So, General Raymond, congratulations, and thank you for you everything you’ve done.”
“We are at the dawn of a new era for our nation’s armed forces,” Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said in a statement. “The establishment of the U.S. Space Force is an historic event and a strategic imperative for our nation. Space has become so important to our way of life, our economy and our national security that we must be prepared as a nation to protect it from hostile actions.”
Esper also stressed that the Space Force will help the United States prepare itself against threats in an “evolving space environment.” Other military officials echoed his sentiments.
“In military operations, space is not just a place from which we support combat operations in other domains, but a warfighting domain in and of itself,” Gen. Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in the same statement. “Our adversaries are building and deploying capabilities to threaten us, so we can no longer take space for granted. The U.S. Space Force is the necessary and essential step our nation will take to defend our national interests in space today and into the future.”
“The launch of the U.S. Space Force propels the nation into a new era,” Barbara Barrett, Secretary of the Air Force, said in the same statement. “An agile, lean and technologically advanced force of talented professionals will now singularly focus on protecting our U.S. national interests and security in space.”
The Air Force is making an effort on multiple fronts to get more agile and responsive to emerging space threats. For example, last month, the Air Force held its first-ever Space Pitch Day in San Francisco, awarding millions of dollars in on-the-spot contracts to companies developing various technologies that could aid the nation’s space security.Click here for more Space.com videos…US Space Force and Command – DOD Explains Why It’s NeededVolume 0% PLAY SOUND
The Space Force will “maintain and enhance the competitive edge of the Department of Defense (DOD) in space while adapting to new strategic challenges,” according to a newly released fact sheet issued by Space Force Public Affairs.
The Space Force will be headquartered at the Pentagon, like the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force, the fact sheet states. And the Space Force’s duties will be wide-ranging.
The newly created branch “organizes, trains and equips space forces in order to protect U.S. and allied interests in space and to provide space capabilities to the joint force,” the fact sheet reads. “USSF responsibilities include developing military space professionals, acquiring military space systems, maturing the military doctrine for space power and organizing space forces to present to our Combatant Commands.
You can watch a new video about the Space Force here.
Today Phil helps keep you from ticking off an astronomer in your life by making sure you know the difference between a meteor, meteorite, and meteoroid. When the Earth plows through the stream emitted by a comet we get a meteor shower. Meteors burn up about 100 km above the Earth, but some survive to hit the ground. Most of these meteorites are rocky, some are metallic, and a few are a mix of the two. Very big meteorites can be a very big problem, but there are plans in the works to prevent us from going the way of the dinosaurs.
Today we’re going to focus on education and learn more about space and space facts that you probably didn’t know about! As has been famously said, space is the final frontier. The greatest of unknowns, space is far vaster than we can comprehend, and filled with phenomenon we barely understand. While we’ve been watching the heavens in awe for millennia, space exploration and discovery only began in earnest in the mid 20th century. Yet even what are no doubt our primitive findings still point at a universe more incredible than we ever thought. Hello and welcome to another episode of The Infographics Show – today we’re taking a look at 50 incredible facts about space!
How the ancient Greeks understood the universe; what they got right and what they got wrong. How Aristotle understood the Earth was round by observing lunar eclipses; how Aristarchus of Samos used these results to work out the relative sizes of Earth, the Sun, and Moon, how Eratosthenes of Cyrene measured Earth’s circumference, and how Hipparchus of Nicaea determined created the first catalog of stars and discovered Earth’s 26,000 year axial precession, Finally, we take a look at Claudius Ptolemy’s collection of works in the Almagest, and how he came up with a system of epicycles to explain planets’ retrograde motion.
The skies of northern Canada are home to plenty of mysterious phenomena (just ask our good buddy “Steve”), including no shortage of alleged UFO sightings. Now, truth seekers at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg may have a busy winter ahead of them, thanks to a recent donation of more than 30,000 UFO-related documents to the school’s archives.
The donation comes courtesy of Chris Rutkowski, a science writer and prolific Canadian ufologist. Rutkowski’s collection includes more than 20,000 UFO reports filed over the past 30 years, plus more than 10,000 UFO-related documents from the Canadian government, according to a statement from the University of Manitoba. Many of these documents concern an infamous UFO encounter known as the Falcon Lake incident — an encounter that Rutkowski calls Canada’s “best-documented UFO case.”ADVERTISING
“It even beats Roswell [the alleged flying saucer spotted over New Mexico in 1947] because the United States still doesn’t recognize that anything happened in Roswell,” Rutkowski told the CBC. The Falcon Lake incident, meanwhile, struck both U.S. and Canadian officials as unusual — and unexplainable.
The incident occurred on May 20, 1967, when an amateur geologist named Stefan Michalak was prospecting for quartz near Falcon Lake in Manitoba — the Canadian province that begins above North Dakota and stretches nearly 800 miles (1,200 kilometers) into the frigid north. During his survey, Michalak was startled by a flock of agitated geese swooping past him. According to Michalak’s numerous retellings of the story, the geese were apparently fleeing from two glowing, cigar-shaped objects in the sky. One of the objects flew off, and the other landed on a rocky terrace nearby.
Michalak spent some time sketching the mysterious craft (those sketches, now part of the University of Manitoba’s collection, show a quintessential flying saucer) before finally approaching it. The air was warm and smelled of sulfur, and the craft was noisy with whirrs and hisses. The saucer was hot to the touch — so hot it burned the tips of Michalak’s gloves, he said. It sounded like there were voices coming from within.
When Michalak looked into the craft through an open door, he expected to see a team of U.S. military pilots. Rather, he saw little more than a panel of blinking lights before the door closed, the craft rotated and a grid-like pattern of tiny holes in the ship’s exterior sprayed his abdomen with scorching-hot gas.Click here for more Space.com videos…CLOSEVolume 0% PLAY SOUND
The attack set Michalak’s shirt and hat ablaze, and left him with first-degree burns on his stomach that echoed the ship’s grid-like pattern. A hospital in Winnipeg treated his burns, which later rose into welts, and he suffered headaches, diarrhea and blackouts for several weeks after. Michalak relayed the incident to both U.S. and Canadian authorities, and he eventually completed a physical and psychological evaluation at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. The clinic determined that Michalak was of sound mind and not hallucinating.
Years later, a twisted piece of metal was recovered from the alleged Falcon Lake landing site. Tests showed the metal to be highly radioactive. To this day, neither the Canadian nor U.S. military has been able to explain the event.
All of Rutkowski’s records on the Falcon Lake incident — plus thousands of other reported UFO encounters — will soon be available at the University of Manitoba’s Archives & Special Collections. Got a few bucks to spare for the unknown? The school has launched a crowdfunding campaign to help digitize these documents.
NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope captured the comet 21/Borisov zooming through our solar system at a breakneck speed of 175,000 kilometers per hour.
The spectacular newly released images were taken from a distance of just under 300 million kilometers, officials said.
“Hubble gives us the best measure of the size of comet Borisov’s nucleus, which is the really important part of the comet,” said David Jewitt, a professor of planetary science and astronomy at the University of California Los Angeles, in a statement.
The first image shows the comet in front of a distant spiral galaxy; the galaxy’s bright core is smeared in the image because Hubble was tracking the comet.
Comet 2I/Borisov and Distant Galaxy in November 2019 ((NASA, ESA, and D. Jewitt (UCLA)))
“Surprisingly, our Hubble images show that its nucleus is more than 15 times smaller than earlier investigations suggested it might be. The radius is smaller than half a kilometer. This is important because knowing the size helps us to determine the total number, and mass, of such objects in the solar system, and in the Milky Way. Borisov is the first known interstellar comet, and we would like to know how many others there are.”
According to scientists, 2I/Borisov may represent only the beginning of a series of discoveries of interstellar objects that visit our solar system.
It’s possible that there are thousands of such interstellar objects here at any given time; however, most of them are too faint to be detected with present-day telescopes.
‘X’ marks the spot as NASA prepares for a historic asteroid mission.
NASA has selected the site on asteroid Bennu where its OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will retrieve a sample of space rock.
Scientists identified four potential sites before picking a spot dubbed “Nightingale” that is located in Bennu’s northern hemisphere.
“After thoroughly evaluating all four candidate sites, we made our final decision based on which site has the greatest amount of fine-grained material and how easily the spacecraft can access that material while keeping the spacecraft safe,” said Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator at the University of Arizona in Tucson, in a statement. “Of the four candidates, site Nightingale best meets these criteria and, ultimately, best ensures mission success.”
This image released by NASA shows sample site Nightingale, OSIRIS-REx’s primary sample collection site on asteroid Bennu. The image is overlaid with a graphic of the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft to illustrate the scale of the site. (NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona)
A second site, dubbed Osprey, has been picked as a backup for sample collection.
OSIRIS-REx, which stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer, launched in September 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The spacecraft reached Bennu in December 2018.
This is a mosaic image of asteroid Bennu, from NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft. (Credits: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona)
The spacecraft will use a robotic arm to grab the sample from Bennu.
OSIRIS-Rex will make its first “touch-and-go” sample collection attempt in August 2020. The probe will depart Bennu in 2021 and is scheduled to return to Earth in September 2023, according to NASA.
A twisted little neutron star devoured chunks of its stellar twin, revealing a never-before-seen phenomenon to scientists watching on Earth.
Unlike most objects in space (including other neutron stars and planet Earth), neutron star GRO J2058+42 doesn’t have two simple magnetic poles at its north and south ends. Instead, it has a distorted magnetic field, with warped regions of intense magnetism sprinkled across the object’s surface.
The celestial object was discovered in 1995, when it had a big outburst, but since then, it had been in a “quiet state,” which concealed the star’s twisted magnetic field. But in March, the object lit up again as it consumed a big chunk of matter from its twin, a regular star. That’s according to a paper from an international team of scientists, published Sept. 18 in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.
After black holes, neutron stars are the densest known objects in the universe. Though the objects’ internal physics are poorly understood, researchers know that neutron stars form from the dense cores of ancient stars that go supernova. Scientists also know that these objects are often as heavy and bright as normal stars but only about as wide as a small city. Often, as in the case of this neutron star, the ones we can see from Earth are paired up with normal stars and suck columns of matter off their companions’ surfaces. Neutron stars often spin quite fast and regularly, and researchers study the objects by measuring their brightening and dimming and the particular frequencies of light they emit.
Sometimes, those frequencies include a “cyclotron line,” a feature in the light coming from the star that suggests the presence of a powerful magnetic field, researchers in the new study wrote in a statement. Typically, the neutron stars fall into one of two categories: neutron stars with no cyclotron line and neutron stars with a steady, even cyclotron line caused by a magnetic field with two poles.
This star is different. When it lit up again in March, NASA quickly focused the Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) on the light source, and this instrument discovered the cyclotron line, the authors wrote in the paper. But this line was present only 10% of the time. That suggests that something bizarre is going on with GRO J2058+42’s magnetic fields. The star’s field is pointing at Earth for only a tenth of its 3-minute, 16-second rotation period.
It’s difficult to explain why this neutron star has this property, the authors wrote, in part because the data have a number of complicating factors. The gravitational fields around the neutron star are so intense, for example, that most of the X-rays we can see from Earth are actually coming from the far side of the star. As they leave the star’s surface, the object’s gravity bends their path through space until they’re pointed at Earth. That and other issues make it especially difficult to disentangle the data here and figure out precisely what’s going on, the authors wrote.
There are similar magnetic anomalies on our own star, the authors noted in the statement. Sunspots are, in fact, regions where magnetic fields have gotten tangled up in a way that’s likely similar to what’s happening here. But the effect of such spots is far less dramatic, and they have less of an impact on the whole star.
Asteroid Bennu, which could provide answers to questions about the origins of our solar system, is mysteriously launching particles into space and NASA isn’t sure why.
Since reaching the massive space rock in December 2018, NASA has observed multiple particle-ejection events, including three major ones on Jan. 6, Jan. 19 and Feb. 11. The researchers found that the particles either orbited Bennu and fell back to its surface or escaped its orbit and went into space. The largest event, which took place on Jan. 6, saw “approximately 200 particles” get ejected from the asteroid, NASA wrote in a blog post.
The particles traveled as fast as 10 feet and ranged in size between less than an inch to 4 inches. The mysterious ejection could be caused by three different reasons, according to the NASA blog post: meteoroid impacts, thermal stress fracturing and released water vapor.
This view of asteroid Bennu ejecting particles from its surface on Jan. 6, 2019, was created by combining two images taken by the NavCam 1 imager aboard NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft: a short exposure image, which shows the asteroid clearly, and a long-exposure image (five seconds), which shows the particles clearly. (Credit: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona/Lockheed Martin)
Meteoroid impacts are common in “the deep space neighborhood” of Bennu, NASA added, noting it’s possible these are occurring when the space agency’s craft, OSIRIS-REx, is not observing it.
Thermal fracturing could also play a role because of the significant temperature changes Bennu experiences during its 4.3-hour rotation period. The surface of the asteroid “warms significantly” during the mid-afternoon, which is when NASA said the major particle-ejection events occurred, leading to the theory that the temperature causes the rocks to crack, break down and ultimately get ejected.
In December 2018, NASA discovered there was water inside its clay, which could also cause the particles to eject as the water is heated and pressure builds.
The particle ejections could also be a combination of all three methods, Steve Chesley, the study’s lead author pointed out. “It could be that more than one of these possible mechanisms are at play,” Chesley said in the blog post. “For example, thermal fracturing could be chopping the surface material into small pieces, making it far easier for meteoroid impacts to launch pebbles into space.”
NASA posted a video to its YouTube page, adding further detail on the particle ejection.
“Among Bennu’s many surprises, the particle ejections sparked our curiosity, and we’ve spent the last several months investigating this mystery,” said Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator at the University of Arizona in Tucson. “This is a great opportunity to expand our knowledge of how asteroids behave.”
OSIRIS-REx, which stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer, launched in September 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. It carries five data-taking instruments and is intended to return with samples from the asteroid in September 2023.
The universe might contain a fifth force of nature, potentially upending modern physics, according to new research.
Researchers at the Institute of Nuclear Research in Hungary published a new study providing evidence of the existence of a particle that’s been dubbed X17.
The particle’s existence would force a rewriting of the fundamental forces governing the universe, which up to now have included only the strong force, the weak force, the electromagnetic force and the gravitational force.
The study shows that this proposed X17 particle is a boson, a particle carrying energy and sometimes forces, according to Live Science. This means X17 might convey a previously unknown fifth force, which the physicists said could help explain dark matter.
Dark matter, which makes up about 85 percent of the matter in the universe, is detectable through gravity but doesn’t interact with light.
However, the X17 particle’s existence still needed to be verified, the new paper had yet to be peer-reviewed and some physicists were skeptical.
Richard Milner, a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who was not involved in the research, told Live Science most physicists were skeptical because no outside scientists have been able to verify earlier findings from the same research team.
“I’m skeptical. I think, as an experimentalist, that’s my natural position when I see something like this, but I think it needs to be investigated,” Milner said.
Despite that skepticism, and the fact that it will likely take years to discern whether the X17 particle truly exists, researchers affiliated with the study said they’re hopeful.
“Of course, I’m confident [that it exists],” Attila Krasznahorkay, a co-author of the study from the Institute for Nuclear Research at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, told Scientific American, “but I’ve got strong critics.”
China Central Television (CCTV) reports that, so far, FAST has detected and identified 99 rapidly spinning neutron stars known as pulsars, more than 30 of which are especially fast-rotating millisecond pulsars.
The search for extraterrestrial life and other scientific targets is also underway.
“In the process of observing signals from celestial bodies, we also collect signals that might be emitted by humans or extraterrestrial intelligence,” Zhu Ming, director of the scientific observation and data division at the FAST operations and development center, explained in a recent CCTV video.
“However, this is a huge amount of work, since most signals we see — 99% of them — are various noises, so we need to take our time to identify the signals we want in the noises,” Zhu said.Click here for more Space.com videos…Radio Telescopes – How Do They Work? | VideoVolume 0% PLAY SOUND
The FAST team recently organized a user training session, bringing together more than 100 astronomers from across China to discuss their experiences and discoveries during the trial operation of the big dish.
Li Kejia, a researcher from the Kavli Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics at Peking University, explained that FAST is now mainly used to measure the performance of a pulsar timing system, to directly detect gravitational waves.
“The sensitivity of FAST is very high, so the accuracy of the data measured is very good,” Li told CCTV. “FAST has a promising future in terms of gravitational wave detection.”
Researchers using FAST have increased the facility’s observation modes from three to more than 10. Research and development of new receiving equipment are also underway.
“I hope that in the next three years, we can further improve the reliability of FAST and increase its effective observation time to 50%,” Jiang Peng, chief engineer of the FAST project, said in the CCTV video. “Since it’s already about three times as sensitive as the second-largest telescope in the world, a 50% effective observation time is already very remarkable.”
A 427-foot asteroid shaped like a pyramid is set to whiz past Earth on Sunday.
The space rock will fly harmlessly past our planet. Asteroid VH5 2019 will make its flyby at about 17.9 lunar distances on Dec. 8, according to the Center for Near-Earth Object Studies at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The asteroid has dimensions of 57 meters (187 feet) by 130 meters (426.5 feet), NASA says.
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The average distance between Earth and the Moon is 238,855 miles, so the asteroid will be around 4.27 million miles from our planet when it makes its flyby. VH5 2019 will be traveling at 6.1 miles per second.
The Apollo asteroid is one of five space rocks set to fly by Earth over the weekend, according to the Inquisitr, all at safe distances.
A massive 2,000-foot asteroid harmlessly zoomed past Earth last month. In 2017, a skyscraper-sized asteroid named 2010 NY65 flew past Earth at about eight times the distance between Earth and the moon.
In 2016, NASA opened a new office to track asteroids and comets that come too close to Earth. The Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO) formalized the agency’s prior program for detecting and tracking near-Earth Objects, known as NEOs.
A small chunk of an asteroid or comet is also known as a meteoroid. When it enters Earth’s atmosphere, it becomes a meteor or fireball or shooting star. The pieces of rock that hit the ground, valuable to collectors, are meteorites.
A recent study revealed that, over the last 290 million years, asteroids have been slamming Earth at triple their previous rate. Scientists, however, are unsure why.
These planets can be almost double Earth’s radius and up to 10 times more massive.
All that extra mass is what researchers think could really make super-Earths the perfect home.
Astronomers have found dozens of potentially habitable planets outside of our solar system. That’s dozens of chances to discover the first alien life! Or plenty of places we could park our first interstellar colonies!
But with so many options, how do we know which is best? You might think the most Earth-like planets should be top of our list. After all, we’ve got water, land, an atmosphere, and trillions of life forms lapping it all up.
But according to a small group of researchers, there are bigger and better planets out there. They’re called super-Earths.
Super-Earths may be some of the most common planets in our galaxy. Since 2009, the Kepler Space Telescope has discovered about 4,000 exoplanets. 30% of them are super-earths. And a few percent of those super-earths orbit within their host star’s habitable zone:
That’s a Goldilocks zone where the planet’s surface is just the right temperature for liquid water. Not too cold or too hot. Now, there’s a chance that some of these super-Earth’s aren’t rocky worlds like Earth. The larger ones could be made of mostly hydrogen and helium gas like Jupiter and Saturn which would not be hospitable for life.
But the reality is, astronomers are still gathering details as more data comes in. So, in the meantime, we’ll explore what life on a rocky, habitable super-Earth might be like.
Liquid water is just the start. These planets can be almost double Earth’s radius and up to 10 times more massive. And all that extra mass is what researchers think could really make super-Earths the perfect home. Because more massive planets have a stronger gravitational pull.
Super-Earth Kepler 20b, for example, is nearly double the size of Earth and is 10 times more massive. Making its surface gravity almost 3 times stronger. That stronger gravity means the planet can hold on to more air molecules forming a thicker atmosphere.
Which is great for protection against harmful space radiation. It also means mountains and hills would erode faster leaving a relatively flatter surface compared to Earth. Which might sound boring but scientists think this could actually spawn dozens of shallow islands across the planet.
Which, in turn, could be the perfect place for life to form and evolve. “Just as biodiversity in Earth’s oceans is richest in shallow waters near coastlines, such an ‘archipelago world’ might be enormously advantageous to life.”
There’s just one problem leaving this tropical paradise would be extremely difficult. The escape velocity on Kepler 20b is more than double compared to Earth’s. Which means either rockets would need more fuel to reach their destinations. For example, a mission similar to the Apollo moon landings would require twice the amount of fuel or, rockets could only carry a fraction of the payload.
For instance, SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy can launch 50,000 kilograms of payload into Earth’s orbit whereas it could only launch 40 kilograms into orbit around a super-Earth like Kepler 20b. That’s about the weight of a German Shepherd.
Suffice it to say, leaving a super-Earth would be a far greater challenge. But if it looked like this, would you really want to say goodbye? We’ll never know for sure until we visit one.
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.
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.
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. (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.
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. (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 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)
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.
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 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.”
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.” (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)
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)
The auction, which opened Tuesday, runs until Dec. 3.
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)
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.
A 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. (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.
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.
“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.
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.”
“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.”
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
“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.”
“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.
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.
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.”