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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We may finally understand the moments before the Big Bang

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A crucible for high-energy physics

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

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

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

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

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

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

Planet 9 may have already been found, study suggests

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Evidence of Planet Nine?

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

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

The five lines of evidence are:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Record-Holding Moon Mission Marks a Decade in Orbit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is a New Particle Changing the Fate of the Universe?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related: How the Universe Stopped Making Sense

Hubble, Hubble, toil and trouble

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

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

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

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

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

Look to the dark side

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related: The 11 Biggest Unanswered Questions About Dark Matter

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

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

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

A new enemy appears

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

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

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

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

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

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

How possible is the Von Braun Rotating Space Station?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Building a space station?

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

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

The company also concedes that its plans are ambitious. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photos: Wernher von Braun, Space Pioneer Rememembered

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Potentially hazardous” NEOs are defined as space objects that come within 0.05 astronomical units and measure more than 460 feet in diameter, according to NASA.

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

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

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

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

2016 saw NASA formalize its prior program for detecting and tracking NEOs and put it inside its Science Mission Directorate. Last June, the space agency unveiled a 20-page plan that detailed the steps the U.S. should take to be better prepared for NEOs – such as asteroids and comets – that come within 30 million miles of the planet.

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

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

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

Monstrous galaxy from dawn of the universe accidentally discovered

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now, of course, they do.

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

There’s Something Strange Going On Inside Neptune

Artist's impression of Neptune

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

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

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

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

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

The trouble with temperature

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frozen planets that love to burp

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why are Neptune’s winds so strong?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Image: © NASA/Bill Ingalls)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Space cookies for everyone

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

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

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

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

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

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

NASA eyes Pluto mission

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Asteroid Hygiea could become the tiniest dwarf planet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Insight mission overall is functioning very well.

Thomas Zurbuchen@Dr_ThomasZ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NASA Europa Mission Could Potentially Spot Signs of Alien Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s How We Could Detect a Wormhole

Diagram of a wormhole.

Diagram of a wormhole.(Image: © Shutterstock)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monstrous galaxy from dawn of the universe accidentally discovered

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arecibo Radar Images of 2003 YT1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The firsts keep rolling in for a 2021 moon mission. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yaoki and the “walking rover” from Spacebit will have a lot of company on the 2021 flight. Peregrine is toting to the lunar surface about 30 payloads, 14 of which will be provided by NASA. 

The U.S. space agency is funding the mission, via CLPS, to the tune of $79.5 million. Intuitive Machines is getting $77 million for its first mission. (The company Orbit Beyond got $97 million in this round of CLPS awards, which were announced in May. But Orbit Beyond has since dropped out, saying it could not meet its September 2020 launch target.)Click here for more Space.com videos…Private Moon Landers – Target Landing Sites UnveiledVolume 0% 

NASA views the CLPS-funded missions as key enablers of its Artemis program of crewed lunar exploration. That project aims to put astronauts down near the lunar south pole by 2024 and establish a permanent, sustainable human presence on and around the moon by 2028. For example, some of the science gear flying on the robotic landers will assess stores of lunar water ice, an important resource for potential explorers and settlers.

To date, just three entities have successfully soft-landed a spacecraft on the moon: the Soviet Union, the United States and China. The private Israeli outfit SpaceIL and the government of India tried to follow suit this year with the Beresheet and Chandrayaan-2 missions, respectively, but both came up short.

Dymon isn’t the only Japanese company that wants to explore the moon. Tokyo-based ispace plans to put down a lander toting customer payloads in 2021, following that up with a rover-deploying surface mission in 2023.

This Poofy, Inflated Exoplanet Is One of the Puffiest Ever Seen

An artist's depiction of a hot Jupiter.

An artist’s depiction of a hot Jupiter. (Image: © NASA, ESA and G. Bacon (STScI))

Giant alien worlds known as hot Jupiters, with searing, close orbits to their host stars, can inflate like balloons. Now, astronomers have discovered a hot Jupiter so puffy that it is one of the least dense planets ever found, the researchers reported in a new study.

In the past three decades, astronomers have confirmed the existence of more than 4,000 worlds outside of Earth’s solar system. Scientists found that some of these exoplanets are very different from those seen in Earth’s solar system; for example, researchers have found hot Jupiters, gas giants that orbit their stars closer than Mercury does the sun.

Previous research showed that a number of hot Jupiters were unusually large but not especially massive, suggesting that they had inflated, perhaps due to heat from their stars. However, “it has not yet been understood why some hot Jupiters are so inflated,” lead author of the new study Luigi Mancini, at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, Germany, told Space.com.

“There’s probably a list of 20 or so theories for the physics behind the inflation of these planets, such as tidal effects or strong electric currents,” study co-author Gaspar Bakos, an astrophysicist at Princeton University, told Space.com. “It hasn’t been figured out yet — inflating a planet that big is not easy.”

Now, scientists have discovered a highly inflated hot Jupiter, “a very low-density planet,” Bakos said. “The hope is that the more of these inflated planets we find, the more we understand why and how they are inflated.”

The researchers focused on a planet orbiting WASP-174, a yellow-white dwarf star about 1.25 times the mass of our sun and 1.35 times the sun’s diameter. This 2.2-billion-year-old star is located about 1,325 light-years from Earth.

Previous research spotted a giant planet that orbited at a distance of just 5.5% of an astronomical unit (AU) around this star. (One AU is the average distance between Earth and the sun, which is about 93 million miles, or 150 million kilometers.) This hot Jupiter, dubbed WASP-174b, seemed to be at most 1.3 times the mass of Jupiter, but estimates of its diameter ranged anywhere from 70% to 170% that of Jupiter.

To shed light on WASP-174b, the scientists in the new study analyzed data gathered by ground-based telescopes stretching across the Southern Hemisphere, plus the orbiting Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS).

The scientists pinned down WASP-174b’s diameter at more than 1.4 times that of Jupiter, meaning the planet is highly inflated. With a density of just 8.4 lbs. per cubic foot (0.135 grams per cubic centimeter), about the same density as light balsa wood, WASP-174b is among the least dense planets ever discovered.

WASP-174b’s highly inflated nature might make it an ideal subject for scientists to analyze an exoplanetary atmosphere, compared to less puffy targets that are smaller and harder to see, Bakos said.

“There will be future studies trying to detect what molecules make up its atmosphere,” Bakos said. “The better we characterize these inflated planets, the more data points we will have to create a consistent theory for why they exist.”

The research is described in a paper that was accepted for publication in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics and that was posted to the preprint server arXiv.org on Sept. 18.

NASA scientist creates engine concept that can reach ‘close to the speed of light’

NASA scientist has created a new concept for an engine that he says can move “close to the speed of light” – all without any moving parts or need for fuel.

The paper, written by David Burns from NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, discusses a “helical engine” that can be used to travel across interstellar distances, send astronauts to the moon in approximately one second and Mars in less than 13 minutes, according to The Sun, which first reported the news.

“A new concept for in-space propulsion is proposed in which propellant is not ejected from the engine, but instead is captured to create a nearly infinite specific impulse,” Burns wrote in the paper’s abstract. “The engine accelerates ions confined in a loop to moderate relativistic speeds, and then varies their velocity to make slight changes to their mass. The engine then moves ions back and forth along the direction of travel to produce thrust. This in-space engine could be used for long-term satellite station-keeping without refueling.”

“It could also propel spacecraft across interstellar distances, reaching close to the speed of light,” Burns added in the abstract. “The engine has no moving parts other than ions traveling in a vacuum line, trapped inside electric and magnetic fields.”

Burns’ idea is novel, as it completely removes one of the heaviest components of space flight–fuel.

NASA is looking into the possibility of using ice and water on the surface of the moon as rocket fuel, but any potential solution would likely be years, if not decades, away.

The concept, which Burns admitted he is not sure is viable, takes inspiration from high-tech particle accelerators, similar to what is seen at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN.

“If someone says it doesn’t work, I’ll be the first to say, it was worth a shot,” Burns said in an interview with New Scientist. “You have to be prepared to be embarrassed. It is very difficult to invent something that is new under the sun and actually works.”

A Faux Saturn Moon Titan on Earth Could Solve Solar System Mystery

Dunes on Saturn's moon Titan as seen by the Cassini probe in 2006.

Dunes on Saturn’s moon Titan as seen by the Cassini probe in 2006.(Image: © NASA/JPL)

Big, schmancy compounds keep popping up all over the solar system, and new research may help clear up confusion about how they form in so many places.

That research is based on laboratory experiments inspired by a weird quirk scientists have noticed about sprawling dune fields on Saturn’s moon Titan. These dunes are full of compounds called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons that have ring-like structures. On Titan, the dunes stockpile a significant proportion of the moon’s carbon. And because that moon is one of astrobiologists’ most tempting quarries for potentially finding life beyond Earth, carbon matters.

“These dunes are pretty large,” study senior author Ralf Kaiser, a chemist at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, told Space.com, nearly as tall as the Great Pyramid in Egypt, he added. “If you want to understand the carbon and hydrocarbon cycle and the processes of hydrocarbons on Titan, it’s really important to understand, of course, where the dominant source of carbon comes from.”

On Titan, there’s a straightforward mechanism that scientists know likely builds polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons: These large molecules can form in the moon’s thick atmosphere and settle down to the surface. But the same family of compounds has been found on plenty of worlds that boast no such atmosphere, like the dwarf planets Pluto and Ceres and the Kuiper Belt object Makemake.

Kaiser and his colleagues wanted to figure out how polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons could come to exist on a world lacking an atmosphere to create them. And when the researchers looked at Titan, they saw a clue: Where the dunes are, there aren’t many hydrocarbon ices that are otherwise fairly common on that moon.

The researchers wondered whether a second process, one taking place on the surface, could turn ices like acetylene into polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. In particular, the scientists thought the culprit might be galactic cosmic rays, energetic particles that ricochet across space.

So the researchers designed an experiment: Take some acetylene ice, expose it to a process that imitates galactic cosmic rays, and see what happens. They mimicked the effect of 100 years’ worth of pummeling from these particles, then measured the amounts of different compounds that had formed.

The scientists found several different flavors of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. This suggested to the team that the interaction between hydrocarbon ices and galactic cosmic rays could indeed explain the prevalence of the compounds even where no atmosphere can form them.

“This is a pretty versatile process which can happen anywhere,” Kaiser said. That includes not just Titan, but also other moons and asteroids, but even grains of interstellar dust and neighboring solar systems, he said.

Next, he and his colleagues want to pin down what specific process is causing the transformation, Kaiser said. That will be tricky, he said, since the ionizing radiation the team used to simulate cosmic galactic rays includes multiple simultaneous processes.

The line of research is intriguing aesthetically as well as scientifically, Michael Malaska, who studies planetary ices at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California and who wasn’t involved in the current research, told Space.com in an email. “Their work further supports that some of Titan’s sand may glow pretty colors under UV light,” he wrote.

The research was described in a paper published yesterday (Oct. 16) in the journal Science Advances.

Hubble Space Telescope Spots Interstellar Comet Borisov

NASA’s venerable Hubble Space Telescope recently turned its eyes to interstellar visitor Comet 2I/Borisov and caught a surprise: The interloper looks a lot like comets from our own solar system.

Hubble’s observations from earlier this month show that the dust, structure and chemical composition of the interstellar comet look a lot like those of the comets from our own cosmic neighborhood. Among the observed features was the classic halo of dust that comets usually have around their nuclei, or hearts.

“Though another star system could be quite different from our own, the fact that the comet’s properties appear to be very similar to those of the solar system’s building blocks is very remarkable,” Amaya Moro-Martin, an assistant astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, which manages Hubble operations, said in a statement from NASA.

Related: Interstellar Comet Borisov Looks Pretty Normal

NASA's Hubble Space Telescope captured this view of the interstellar object Comet 2I/Borisov on Oct. 12, 2019.
NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope captured this view of the interstellar object Comet 2I/Borisov  on Oct. 12, 2019.

Until Comet 2I/Borisov appeared, all cataloged comets came from two locations: the Kuiper Belt — an area near the edge of our solar system where larger objects, such as Pluto and MU69, reside — and the Oort Cloud of icy objects located about 1 light-year from our sun. (A light-year is the distance light travels in a year, which is roughly 6 trillion miles, or 10 trillion kilometers.) 

Comets that originate in the outskirts of the solar system can become visible to people on Earth when they get kicked into the inner solar system through gravitational nudges, perhaps via stars passing by. As a comet gets closer to the sun, its icy surface begins to vaporize, leaving behind a “tail” of dust and gas. Cometary orbits are usually elliptical, meaning a comet’s path in space appears as a stretched-out oval that makes a close pass around the sun before heading toward the outskirts of the solar system. But Comet 2I/Borisov is different; its orbit is hyperbolic, resembling an open-ended arc, because it is cruising into the solar system briefly before leaving forever.Click here for more Space.com videos…See Insterstellar Comet Borisov’s Orbit – AnimationVolume 0% 

Comet 2I/Borisov is only the second known interstellar visitor to our solar system. The first was an object known as 1I/’Oumuamua, an elongated, rock-like object that made a brief pass within Mercury’s orbit in 2017 before zooming away, presumably forever. Borisov, fortunately, is expected to stay within the solar system until mid-2020, providing more time for observations. The comet’s closest approach to the sun, which will occur in December, will be at roughly 186 million miles (300 million km), or twice Earth’s average distance from the sun.

Although interstellar visitors have only recently been proven with observations, a new study suggests that interstellar objects are quite common, Hubble astronomers said. There could be thousands of such objects within the solar system at any one time, although most are beyond the reach of modern-day telescopes’ observational capabilities. This makes observations of Borisov valuable, especially because it is so different from ‘Oumuamua.Click here for more Space.com videos…Interstellar Comet 2I/Borisov – What We Know So FarVolume 0% 

“Whereas ‘Oumuamua appeared to be a rock, Borisov is really active, more like a normal comet,” observation leader David Jewitt, of the University of California, Los Angeles, said in the same statement. “It’s a puzzle why these two are so different.”

Hubble’s observations of Borisov happened on Oct. 12, when the comet was about 260 million miles (418 million km) from Earth. Future Hubble observations are planned at least through January, with more proposals being considered for later in 2020.

China’s Chang’e 4 Completes 10 Lunar Days on Far Side of the Moon

An image of the surface of Von Kármán crater taken by the Yutu 2 rover.

An image of the surface of Von Kármán crater taken by the Yutu 2 rover. (Image: © CNSA/CLEP)

China’s Chang’e 4 mission has completed 10 lunar days of activity on the far side of the moon, returning new images and carrying out science tasks. 

Both the Chang’e 4 lander and the Yutu 2 rover entered a dormant state on Oct. 5 in preparation to survive a 10th lunar night. During the roughly two-week-long lunar night, temperatures can drop to as low as minus 310 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 190 degrees Celsius), threatening the spacecraft’s health every time.

The rover and the lander began lunar day 10 on Sept. 22 and 23, respectively, according to the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program. Yutu 2 drove just 16.7 feet (5.1 meters) on day 10 — the shortest distance it has covered during a single day. 

Related: Chang’e 4 in Pictures: China’s Mission to the Moon’s Far SideClick here for more Space.com videos…CLOSEVolume 0%This video will resume in 2 seconds 

The short distance may indicate that the rover is busy carrying out further analyses of an unusual material it discovered at the center of an impact crater during its eighth day of work. The Chang’e 4 team has released few details, but lunar scientists have suggested that the substance could be impact melt glass from meteor strikes.

Yutu 2’s predecessor, the Chang’e 3 mission Yutu rover, lost mobility during its second lunar day. While the apparent short-circuit issue that prematurely halted the first Yutu has been addressed, Yutu 2 is in uncharted territory regarding the wear and tear experienced from traversing the harsh lunar surface.

The rover has covered a total of 950 feet (289 m) and is heading west from Statio Tianhe, the formal name of the Chang’e 4 landing site. The Yutu 2 rover was designed to last three months but has greatly exceeded this expectation.

Yutu 2 passes close to a small impact crater.
Yutu 2 passes close to a small impact crater. 

China has not issued regular maps of Yutu 2’s roving. But Philip Stooke, a cartographer at the Centre for Planetary Science and Exploration at Western University in Ontario, Canada, has pieced together information from papers in science journals and occasional hints on social media to illustrate the route taken by the rover. 

NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has imaged the Chang’e 4 spacecraft a number of times while passing overhead. Some of the images even show the tracks made by Yutu 2.

Chang’e 4 made its historic touchdown in Von Kármán crater on Jan. 3, becoming the first robotic mission to land softly on the far side of the moon. Yutu 2 was deployed about 12 hours after landing. 

NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter imaged the Chang'e 4 lander and rover from lunar orbit, with roving tracks visible as the sequence develops.
NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter imaged the Chang’e 4 lander and rover from lunar orbit, with roving tracks visible as the sequence develops. 

An Oct. 6 update from the China Lunar Exploration Program via its Weibo social media account states that both spacecraft and their science payloads are working well. 

The two spacecraft have been carrying out a range of measurements using neutron detectors, radiation instruments, infrared spectrometers and radio devices. Data gathered by the Chang’e 4 lander and Yutu 2 rover are providing insight into the nature and history of the far side of the moon. 

Yutu 2 roving route for lunar days one to nine of the Chang'e 4 mission.
Yutu 2 roving route for lunar days one to nine of the Chang’e 4 mission.

The far side of the moon is never visible from Earth because of tidal locking, so contact with the two Chang’e 4 spacecraft is facilitated by the Queqiao communications satellite. That spacecraft orbits a special, gravitationally stable point beyond the moon. 

Sunrise over the landing site in Von Kármán crater will occur Oct. 21; Yutu 2 will wake for lunar day 11 on Oct. 22 and the lander will do so about 24 hours later.

Supernova morphs and its shock waves reverse in stunning new NASA video

NASA released a new video that shows how a supernova morphs and moves over a period of 13 years.

Cassiopeia A, or Cas A, as the debris field is known, was probably generated after a star’s explosion in 1680, according to the space agency.

The shock waves in blue can be seen as they pulse through space in data collected between 2000 and 2013 by NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory.

“As the blast wave travels outwards at speeds of about 11 million miles [18 million km] per hour, it encounters surrounding material and slows down, generating a second shock wave,” Chandra mission personnel said in a statement.

A view of Cassiopeia A that includes Chandra X-ray Observatory data. (X-ray: NASA/CXC/RIKEN/T. Sato et al.; Optical: NASA/STScI)

A view of Cassiopeia A that includes Chandra X-ray Observatory data. (X-ray: NASA/CXC/RIKEN/T. Sato et al.; Optical: NASA/STScI) (X-ray: NASA/CXC/RIKEN/T. Sato et al.; Optical: NASA/STScI)

This “reverse shock,” the agency said, “travels backwards, similar to how a traffic jam travels backwards from the scene of an accident on a highway.”

According to Space.com, Cas A was the first object that Chandra observed not long after it launched out to space on July 23, 1999.

NASA noted that other observations from Chandra over the years have shown some of the elements necessary for life in the explosion and have produced 3D models of the supernova remnant.

The full video can be seen here.

A second interstellar visitor has arrived. Astronomers think they know where it came from

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

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

For the second time ever, astronomers have detected an interstellar object plunging through our solar system. But this time, researchers think they know where it came from.

Gennady Borisov, an amateur astronomer working with his own telescope in Crimea, first spotted the interstellar comet on Aug. 30. His find made the object the first interstellar visitor discovered since oblong ‘Oumuamua flashed through our solar neighborhood back in 2017. Now, in a new paper, a team of Polish researchers has calculated the path this new comet — known as Comet 2I/Borisov or (in early descriptions) as C/2019 Q4 — took to arrive in our sun’s gravity well. And that path leads back to a binary red dwarf star system 13.15 light-years away, known as Kruger 60.

When you rewind Comet Borisov’s path through space, you’ll find that 1 million years ago, the object passed just 5.7 light-years from the center of Kruger 60, moving just 2.13 miles per second (3.43 kilometers per second), the researchers wrote.

That’s fast in human terms —— about the top speed of an X-43A Scramjet, one of the fastest aircraft ever built. But an X-43A Scramjet can’t overcome the sun’s gravity to escape our solar system. And the researchers found that if the comet were really moving that slowly at a distance of no more than 6 light-years from Kruger 60, it probably wasn’t just passing by. That’s probably the star system it came from, they said. At some point in the distant past, Comet Borisov lively orbited those stars the way comets in our system orbit ours.

Ye Quanzhi, an astronomer and comet expert at the University of Maryland who wasn’t involved in this paper, told Live Science that the evidence pinning Comet 2I/Borisov to Kruger 60 is pretty convincing based on the data available so far.

“If you have an interstellar comet and you want to know where it came from, then you want to check two things,” he said. “First, has this comet had a small pass distance from a planetary system? Because if it’s coming from there, then its trajectory must intersect with the location of that system.”

Though the 5.7 light-years between the new comet and Kruger may seem bigger than a “small gap” — nearly 357,000 times Earth’s distance from the sun — it’s close enough to count as “small” for these sorts of calculations, he said.

“Second,” Ye added, “usually comets are ejected from a planetary system due to gravitational interactions with major planets in that system.”

In our solar system, that might look like Jupiter snagging a comet that’s falling toward the sun, slingshotting it around in a brief, partial orbit and then flinging it away toward interstellar space.

“This ejection speed has a limit,” Ye said. “It can’t be infinite because planets have a certain mass,” and the mass of a planet determines how hard it can throw a comet into the void. “Jupiter is pretty massive,” he added, “but you can’t have a planet that’s 100 times more massive than Jupiter because then it would be a star.”

That mass threshold sets an upper limit on the speeds of comets escaping star systems, Ye said. And the authors of this paper showed that Comet 2I/Borisov fell within the minimum speed and distance from Kruger 60 to suggest it originated there —assuming their calculations of its trajectory are correct.

Studying interstellar comets is exciting, Ye said, because it offers a rare opportunity to study distant solar systems using the precise tools scientists employ when examining our own. Astronomers can look at Comet 2I/Borisov using telescopes that might reveal details of the comet’s surface. They can figure out whether it behaves like comets in our own system (so far, it has) or does anything unusual, like ‘Oumuamua famously did. That’s a whole category of research that usually isn’t possible with distant solar systems, where small objects only ever appear —— if they’re visible at all —— as faint, discolored shadows on their suns.

This research, Ye said, means that anything we learn about Comet Borisov could be a lesson about Kruger 60, a nearby star system where no exoplanets have been discovered. ‘Oumuamua, by contrast, seems to have come from the general direction of the bright star Vega, but according to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, researchers don’t believe that’s where the object originally came from, instead suggesting it likely came from a newly-forming star system (though researchers aren’t sure which one).. That would make Comet Borisov the first interstellar object ever traced to its home system, if these results are confirmed.

However, the paper’s authors were careful to point out that these results shouldn’t yet be considered conclusive. Astronomers are still collecting more data about Comet 2I/Borisov’s path through space, and additional data may reveal that the original trajectory was wrong and that the comet came from somewhere else.

The paper tracing the comet’s origin has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal, but it’s available on the preprint server arXiv.

Asteroid may collide with Earth ESA Warns

Asteroid may collide with Earth, ESA warns: ‘Non-zero… probability’

Asteroids known as near-Earth objects are among the most dangerous space items, with space agencies around the world keeping a close eye on them. The European Space Agency is paying particular attention to asteroid 2019 SU3, which may collide with Earth as soon as 70 years from now.

The space rock was recently added to the ESA’s Risk List due to the potential for it to collide with Earth on Sept. 16, 2084.

“The Risk List is a catalog of all objects for which a non-zero impact probability has been detected,” the ESA wrote on its website. “Each entry contains details on the Earth approach posing the highest risk of impact (as expressed by the Palermo Scale). It includes its date, size, velocity and probability.”

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

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

2019 SU3 is also on the ESA’s Priority List, which the European agency says is used to “observe especially newly discovered objects into four categories: urgent, necessary, useful and low priority.”

The ESA said 2019 SU3 is expected to come within 0.00079 astronomical units, approximately 73,000 miles, when it passes Earth in 2084. Asteroids that come within 0.05 astronomical units and measure more than 460 feet in diameter are known as “potentially hazardous” NEOs, according to NASA.

NEOs are tracked by NASA’s Center for Near Earth Object Studies (CNEOS). NASA is also tracking 2019 SU3, but its data only goes out to 2077, seven years before the data from the ESA.

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

Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov, Who Was First to Walk in Space, Dies at 85

Leonov was on the short list to fly to the moon.

Soviet-era cosmonaut Alexei Leonov, who in 1965 became the first person to walk in space before co-leading the first joint mission between Russia and the United States, has died at the age of 85.

Leonov died on Friday (Oct. 11) at the Burdenko military hospital in Moscow after a long illness.

“One of the first cosmonauts of the world space era, forever devoted to his country and his work, he inscribed himself in golden letters in the world history of space,” said Roscosmos, Russia’s federal space corporation, in a statement. “With Alexei Arkhipovich a whole era has gone.”

Selected alongside Yuri Gagarin among the first 20 Soviet Air Force pilots to train as cosmonauts in 1960, Leonov flew twice into space, logging a total of 7 days and 32 minutes off the planet.

Launched on Voskhod 2, the world’s 17th human spaceflight, on March 18, 1965, Leonov made history as the first person to exit his spacecraft for an extravehicular activity (EVA).

“The Earth is round!” he exclaimed, as he caught his first view of the world. “Stars were to my left, right, above and below me. The light of the sun was very intense and I felt its warmth on the part of my face that was not protected by a filter,” said Leonov in a 2015 interview with the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) on the 50th anniversary of his spacewalk.

“What remain etched in my memory was the extraordinary silence,” he said.

Archived image from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) report certifying that the first spacewalk was conducted by cosmonaut Alexei Leonov on March 18, 1965.
Archived image from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) report certifying that the first spacewalk was conducted by cosmonaut Alexei Leonov on March 18, 1965.

Leonov’s historic EVA, however, almost spelled his end. 

After several minutes outside, his spacesuit ballooned, making it very difficult for him to maneuver. His crewmate, Pavel Belayev, unable to do anything to assist, Leonov made the decision to release air from his suit in order to be able to re-enter his capsule.

“I decided to drop the pressure inside the suit … knowing all the while that I would reach the threshold of nitrogen boiling in my blood, but I had no choice,” Leonov told the FAI, the world governing body that certifies aviation and space records.

Ultimately, Leonov made it safely back inside after 12 minutes and 9 seconds floating outside his spacecraft. He and Belyayev returned to Earth the next day on March 19, 1965, having shown it was possible for a human to survive working in the vacuum in space.

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Leonov’s second spaceflight came a decade later with the lift off of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP), the first mission conducted jointly between the United States and Russia.

Launched on July 15, 1975, Leonov and his crewmate, Valery Kubasov, docked their Soyuz spacecraft two days later to an Apollo spacecraft carrying astronauts Thomas Stafford, Deke Slayton and Vance Brand.

“The best part of our joint flight was the occasion when we opened the hatch and I saw the face of Tom Stafford,” said Leonov, recalling the ASTP mission on its 35th anniversary in 2010. “I said, ‘Hello Tom! Hello Deke!’ and at this moment we shook hands.”

The two crews spent almost two days together, conducting scientific experiments and taking part in cultural exchanges. The mission served a precursor to the later Shuttle-Mir flights and the establishment of the International Space Station.

Related: Apollo-Soyuz Test Project: 1st U.S.-Russian Spaceflight PicturesThese three stills are from the external movie camera on the Soviet Voskhod 2, which recorded Aleksey Leonov making history’s first spacewalk on March 18, 1965. (Image credit: NASA/Asif Siddiqi)

After parting ways with the Americans, Leonov and Kubasov landed safely on July 21, 1975. The touch down marked the end of Leonov’s spaceflight career, having completed 113 orbits of Earth on his two missions.

“We were saddened to learn of the passing of Russian cosmonaut Alexei Leonov,” said NASA astronaut Jessica Meir as a spacewalk by two of her crewmates came to its close outside the International Space Station on Friday.

“Though we mourn his passing,” added the station’s commander, Luca Parmitano with the European Space Agency, “it is somewhat fitting that Leonov left us on the day of a spacewalk. His 12-minute excursion outside the Voskhod 2 spacecraft more than a half century ago began a chapter in human spaceflight that brought us to the moon and which will bring the world to distant ports of exploration in the cosmos in the years ahead.”

Alexei Arkhipovich Leonov was born on May 30, 1934, in the town of Listvyanka, near Mariinsk in Siberia. A budding artist from a young age, Leonov enrolled at the Academy of Arts in Riga in 1953 before attending the Chuguyev Air Force School in Kharkov, Ukraine, where he graduated in 1957.

He was serving as a Soviet Air Force parachute instructor when he was selected for the first cosmonaut class three years later. His first assignment was as backup to Valeri Bykovsky on the Vostok 5 mission in 1963.

After returning from his 1965 Voskhod 2 mission, Leonov began training for a mission to the moon. First preparing for a circumlunar flight, a feat accomplished by NASA’s Apollo 8 crew in December 1968, Leonov was one of only three candidates for a Soviet moon landing. Rocket failures though, ultimately led to the program’s cancellation.

Leonov was then assigned to command the second mission to launch to Russia’s first space station, Salyut 1. One of his two Soyuz 11 crewmates however, fell ill days before the June 1971 launch, resulting in their backups flying in their place. (The Soyuz 11 mission later ended in tragedy, when a depressurization during re-entry led to all three cosmonauts being killed.)

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Following his lead of the Soviet side of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, Leonov headed the cosmonaut team until January 1982, when he resigned to become the deputy director of the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City. Ten years later, he left the space program for a management position at Alfa Bank, one of the largest private commercial banks in Russia.

Throughout his career, Leonov continued to pursue his passion for art, flying colored pencils on his spaceflights and becoming the first to sketch in Earth orbit. His subsequent drawings and paintings have been exhibited worldwide, appeared on postage stamps and were published in several collected volumes of his work.

For his service to his nation, Leonov was twice named a Hero of the Soviet Union and awarded the Order of Lenin, among many other honors. A founding member of the Association of Space Explorers, Leonov was inducted into the International Space Hall of Fame at the New Mexico Museum of Space History in 1976 and International Air & Space Hall of Fame at the San Diego Air & Space Museum in 2001.

Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov aboard the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project with a sketch he made of one of his American crewmates.
Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov aboard the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project with a sketch he made of one of his American crewmates.

Leonov was further honored as the namesake for a crater on the moon and a spaceship in Arthur C. Clarke’s “2010: Odyssey Two.” In 2017, he was portrayed in the Russian feature film “The Age of Pioneers” (also known as “Spacewalk”) about his Voskhod 2 mission.

In 2004, Leonov co-authored the joint autobiography “Two Sides of the Moon: Our Story of the Cold War Space Race” with Apollo 15 moonwalker David Scott.

Leonov was married to Svetlana Pavlovna Dozenko in 1959, and together they had two children, Viktoria and Oksana (the earlier preceded him in death in 1996).

NASA JUST SAW SOMETHING COME OUT OF A BLACK HOLE FOR THE FIRST TIME EVER

BH_wip_v14.jpg

You don’t have to know a whole lot about science to know that black holes typically suck things in, not spew things out. But NASA just spotted something mighty strange at the supermassive black hole Markarian 335.

Two of NASA’s space telescopes, including the Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR), miraculously observed a black hole’s corona “launched” away from the supermassive black hole. Then a massive pulse of X-ray energy spewed out. So, what exactly happened? That’s what scientists are trying to figure out now.

“This is the first time we have been able to link the launching of the corona to a flare,” Dan Wilkins, of Saint Mary’s University, said. “This will help us understand how supermassive black holes power some of the brightest objects in the universe.”

NuSTAR’s principal investigator, Fiona Harrison, noted that the nature of the energetic source is “mysterious,” but added that the ability to actually record the event should provide some clues about the black hole’s size and structure, along with (hopefully) some fresh intel on how black holes function. Luckily for us, this black hole is still 324 million light-years away.

SEE ALSOScientists believe they’ve figured out how to travel through a black hole.

So, no matter what strange things it’s doing, it shouldn’t have any effect on our corner of the universe.

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BTW, while we’re on the subject of space and scientists uncovering the mysteries of it, here’s America’s favorite astronmer, Neil Degrasse Tyson, telling us why scientists, let alone anyone else, will never uncover the mysteries of Mars – because we’ll never get there!

Mysterious ‘cosmic web’ that sticks the universe together pictured for first time

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

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

The cosmic web responsible for ‘gluing’ the far-flung galaxies of the universe together has been directly observed for the first time ever.

Scientists using the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope were able to spot an ancient cluster of galaxies 12 billion light-years away that are linked together by a network of gas filaments.

Watch to learn more

The cosmic web theory is central to current explanations of how the universe formed after the Big Bang.

However, until this observation, there had only been indirect evidence to suggest it existed.

Prof Michele Fumagalli, an astrophysicist at Durham University and co-author of the work, said: “It is very exciting to clearly see for the first time multiple and extended filaments in the early universe.

“We finally have a way to map these structures directly and to understand in detail their role in regulating the formation of supermassive black holes and galaxies.”

The research team were able to directly detect the web by using intensive equipment designed to pick up the faintest of structures.

Galaxy clusters are known for being the most tightly gravitationally-bound structures in the universe.

They can contain hundreds of thousands of galaxies.

It has been predicted that 60% of the hydrogen created during the Big Bang can be seen as long filaments strung out across space in the cosmic web.

By mapping out some of the light emitted by hydrogen within a galaxy cluster called SSA22, the team were able to identify individual filaments of gas that make up a web-like structure between galaxies.

Erika Hamden, an astrophysicist at the University of Arizona said: “These observations of the faintest, largest structures in the universe are a key to understanding how our universe evolved through time, how galaxies grow and mature, and how the changing environments around galaxies created what we see around us.”

It is thought that the cosmic web is the scaffolding of the cosmos and provides the framework for galaxies to form and evolve.

The latest observations support this theory by revealing supermassive black holes, starbursting galaxies and lots of active stars all at the intersections between the filaments.

First author of the research Hideki Umehata said: “This suggests very strongly that gas falling along the filaments under the force of gravity triggers the formation of starbursting galaxies and supermassive black holes, giving the universe the structure that we see today.”

The cosmic web has been observed before but only as short blobs of gas beyond galaxies.

Umehata noted: “Now we have been able to clearly show that these filaments are extremely long, going even beyond the edge of the field that we viewed.

“This adds credence to the idea that these filaments are actually powering the intense activity that we see within the galaxies inside the filaments.”

The findings have been published in the journal Science.

‘UFO’ spotted off NC’s Outer Banks, video goes viral

Watch: Viral video shows unidentified lights off NC’s Outer Banks

Video of a mysterious group of lights in the sky captured off North Carolina’s Outer Banks by a man visiting the area.

A video showing a series of unidentified flying objects over North Carolina’s Outer Banks has gone viral on YouTube, racking up more than 370,000 views.

The video, first reported on by Fox 10 Phoenix, was posted to the YouTube account of William Guy. After a brief period of calm over the ocean, 14 glowing lights hovering over the water suddenly appeared.

Someone on the video can be heard saying, “Look, nothing in the sky at all, then all of a sudden…” “Anybody tell me what that is?” the person, reported to be Guy, continued.

TEAM OF ALIEN HUNTERS LED BY BLINK-182 CO-FOUNDER CLAIMS TO HAVE FOUND UFO MATERIALS THAT’S ‘UNKNOWN TO SCIENTISTS’

People in the background can be heard commenting on the lights.

“We’re in the middle of the ocean, on a ferry, nothing around. Look. Nothing around. No land, no nothing,” the person added.

One person who commented on the video said that he believed they were from a nearby military base.

“I am pretty sure I know what those lights are,” Derrick Chennault, who identified himself as a former Marine based at the 2nd Marine Air Wing in Cherry Point, N.C. wrote.

“We used to regularly drop flares out of the back of our plane in the evenings for military exercises in that area,” Chennault continued. “They are one million candle power each so they were pretty bright and can be seen from far away and floated down slow as they hung from a parachute.“

The military base is approximately 125 miles west of the Outer Banks.

However, a spokesman from the military base confirmed to Fox 10 Phoenix that no aircraft from that base was in the area the day the video was posted.

Asteroid twice the size of a London bus will skim past Earth today, NASA warns

The asteroid, dubbed 2019 TW1, measures up to 16 metres in diameter, making it almost twice as big as a London bus

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The idea of an enormous asteroid skimming past Earth may sound like the plot from a science-fiction blockbuster, but today, it will become a reality.

The asteroid, dubbed 2019 TW1, measures up to 16 metres in diameter, making it almost twice as big as a London bus.

Worryingly, NASA ’s Centre for Near Earth Object Studies only discovered the enormous space rock on October 5 – three days before its passing.

Thankfully, the chances of the asteroid colliding with Earth are very low, with the space rock passing our planet a safe distance of 351,000 miles.

While this might sound far, NASA classifies it as a ‘close’ passing.

2019 TW1 is one of seven near-Earth asteroids expected to pass our planet today – although the other six won’t come as close as this particular space rock.

Other asteroids include 2019 TC1, which will pass at a distance of 834,000 miles, and 2019 TU, which will be just over one million miles from our planet during the passing.

The largest of the seven, called 2019 RK, is around the same size as the Arc de Triomphe, and only slightly smaller than the famous Chelyabinsk meteor that exploded in the sky over Russia in 2013.

Thankfully, 2019 RK will be around four million miles from our planet during its passing today.

The fact that NASA only discovered many of these asteroids in the last few weeks raises concerns about the asteroid detection system.

In July this year, a huge asteroid came within 45,000 miles of Earth, yet went undetected by NASA.

“This one did sneak up on us,” Lindley Johnson, NASA’s planetary defence officer, told colleagues the day after the 55,000mph fly-by on July 25.

20 New Moons Found Around Saturn, Snagging Satellite Record from Jupiter

Saturn now has 82 known satellites.

Saturn has overtaken Jupiter as the solar system’s satellite king.

Astronomers just discovered 20 previously unknown Saturn moons, boosting the ringed planet’s tally of known satellites to 82 — three more than Jupiter. And there’s more exciting news: You can help name these newfound objects.

All 20 moons are tiny, measuring about 3 miles (5 kilometers) across. Seventeen of them have retrograde orbits, meaning they move around Saturn in the opposite direction to the planet’s rotation. These 17 all take more than three Earth years to complete one Saturn lap, and the most far-flung one is the most distant Saturn satellite known, discovery team members said.

The discovery images for the newly found very distant prograde moon of Saturn. They were taken on the Subaru telescope with about one hour between each image. The background stars and galaxies do not move, while the newly discovered Saturnian moon, highlighted with an orange bar, shows motion between the two images.
The discovery images for the newly found very distant prograde moon of Saturn. They were taken on the Subaru telescope with about one hour between each image. The background stars and galaxies do not move, while the newly discovered Saturnian moon, highlighted with an orange bar, shows motion between the two images.

One of the three newly discovered “prograde” moons has an orbital period of more than three Earth years, while the other two complete one lap every two years or so.

The 17 retrograde moons appear to belong to the “Norse group” of Saturn satellites, which share the same basic orbital parameters. The two innermost prograde objects align with the “Inuit group,” and the outermost prograde moon among the new finds may belong to the “Gallic group,” but that’s unclear at the moment, researchers said.

Each of these satellite groups is likely evidence of a long-ago impact that destroyed a larger moon that had been orbiting in that general area.

“This kind of grouping of outer moons is also seen around Jupiter, indicating violent collisions occurred between moons in the Saturnian system or with outside objects such as passing asteroids or comets,” Scott Sheppard, of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C., said in a statement today (Oct. 7) announcing the discovery.

Sheppard led the discovery team. He and his colleagues — David Jewitt of the University of California, Los Angeles, and Jan Kleyna of the University of Hawaii — found the Saturn moons using the Subaru Telescope in Hawaii.

“Using some of the largest telescopes in the world, we are now completing the inventory of small moons around the giant planets,” Sheppard added. “They play a crucial role in helping us determine how our solar system’s planets formed and evolved.”

For example, the newfound moons’ existence suggests that the impacts that created them occurred after Saturn was fully formed, Sheppard said. The gas giant was surrounded by a disk of dust and gas as it was taking shape. If these tiny moons had to plow through all that material on their way around Saturn, friction would have sapped their speed and sent them spiraling into the planet.Click here for more Space.com videos…See Saturn Moons’ Orbital Dance in Hubble Time-LapseVolume 0%

Sheppard discovered a dozen Jupiter moons last year, and the Carnegie Institution organized a public contest to name five of those worlds. If you missed that competition, don’t worry: You now have another chance.

“I was so thrilled with the amount of public engagement over the Jupiter moon-naming contest that we’ve decided to do another one to name these newly discovered Saturnian moons,” Sheppard said. “This time, the moons must be named after giants from Norse, Gallic or Inuit mythology.”

All 20 newfound Saturn moons are fair game for naming. If you’re interested, submit your proposal by tweeting @SaturnLunacy from now until Dec. 6. Include your reasoning and the hashtag #NameSaturnsMoons. 

“Photos, artwork and videos are strongly encouraged,” organizers wrote on naming-contest page here, which has lots more information.

Visit Carnegie Science’s Saturn Moon Name Contest page for more contest details.

Gigantic black spot spotted on Jupiter by NASA spacecraft

50 years after the Apollo 11 mission, Neil Armstrong’s sons Mark and Rick describe the day when their father walked on the Moon.

NASA’s Juno spacecraft has spotted a giant black spot on Jupiter that stretched 2,200 miles across the surface of the gas planet.

On its website, NASA explains that there is a straightforward explanation for the somewhat sinister-looking spot. The mark is simply the shadow of Jupiter’s moon, Io.

You can also get this audiobook for 50% off, 30 day free trial. 2061: Odyssey Three – Audiobook Download (Unabridged) – Author: Arthur C. Clarke; Narrator: Scott Brick…

“Such events occur frequently on Jupiter because it is a large planet with many moons,” explained NASA. “In addition, unlike most other planets in our solar system, Jupiter’s axis is not highly tilted relative to its orbit, so the Sun never strays far from Jupiter’s equatorial plane (+/- 3 degrees). This means Jupiter’s moons regularly cast their shadows on the planet throughout its year.”

Jupiter has 53 named moons and 26 that are yet to receive official names, according to the space agency.

The giant black spot on the surface of Jupiter.

The giant black spot on the surface of Jupiter. (Image data: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS. Image processing by Kevin M. Gill, © CC BY 3.0)

“Juno’s close proximity to Jupiter provides an exceptional fish-eye view, showing a small fraction near the planet’s equator,” added NASA in its statement. “The shadow is about 2,200 miles (3,600 kilometers) wide, approximately the same width as Io, but appears much larger relative to Jupiter.”

The fifth rock from the Sun and the heftiest planet in the solar system, Jupiter is what’s known as a gas giant. It’s made up of a ball of hydrogen and helium, unlike the rocky composition of Earth and Mars.

The massive planet has a diameter that is more than 11 times larger than Earth’s, according to Caltech, which says that over 1,300 Earths could fit inside Jupiter.

NASA noted that the enhanced-color image of the giant black spot was created by citizen scientist Kevin M. Gill using data from Juno’s JunoCam imager. The image was captured on Sept. 11, 2019, when Juno was about 4,885 miles above Jupiter’s cloud tops.

Jupiter’s moon Io is described by NASA as the most volcanically active body in the solar system.

In a recent research project, scientists reported that Loki Patera, a massive volcano on Io, could erupt imminently.

Earlier this year, NASA released an incredible image of Jupiter’s famous Great Red Spot and swirling storms in the planet’s southern hemisphere. That image was also created using data from the JunoCam imager by Kevin M. Gill.

Organic Compounds Found in Plumes of Saturn’s Icy Moon Enceladus

They’re similar to compounds on Earth that help to form amino acids.

Enceladus's icy water vapor jets are visible in this photo, taken by Cassini on Sept. 30, 2007.

Enceladus’s icy water vapor jets are visible in this photo, taken by Cassini on Sept. 30, 2007.(Image: © NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute)

Scientists have detected new types of organic compounds in the plumes that have been erupting from Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus.

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft collected invaluable data and images of Saturn and its moons over the approximately 20 years that the mission took place. While the mission ended on Sept. 15, 2017, with the craft diving toward the planet in a “Grand Finale,” scientists continue to study the wealth of data that they gathered during the mission. 

In one new study, scientists looked at the material that Enceladus ejects from its core using hydrothermal vents. The material mixes with water in the moon’s subsurface ocean and is then emitted as water vapor and icy grains. 

In studying these ejections, the team found organic molecules that are condensed onto these grains and which contain oxygen and nitrogen. This comes after the first discovery of organics on the moon in 2018.

Similar compounds on Earth take part in the chemical reactions that form amino acids, which are the organic compounds that combine to form proteins and are essential to life as we know it. 

On Earth, energy, or heat, from hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor helps to fuel these amino acid-producing reactions. With these findings, scientists have suggested that perhaps something similar is happening on Enceladus and the hydrothermal vents under its subsurface ocean are aiding in the creation of amino acids on the moon. 

In this illustration, you can see the organic compounds combining with the icy grains in the plumes emitted by Enceladus.
In this illustration, you can see the organic compounds combining with the icy grains in the plumes emitted by Enceladus. 

“If the conditions are right, these molecules coming from the deep ocean of Enceladus could be on the same reaction pathway as we see here on Earth. We don’t yet know if amino acids are needed for life beyond Earth, but finding the molecules that form amino acids is an important piece of the puzzle,” Nozair Khawaja, who led the research team from the Free University of Berlin, said in a statement

Now, the discovery of these organic compounds in no way equates to the discovery of life or even necessarily the building blocks of life. But it is another step in the direction of discovering whether or not amino acids might form on Enceladus and what that might mean with regard to the search for life in the universe. 

“Here we are finding smaller and soluble organic building blocks — potential precursors for amino acids and other ingredients required for life on Earth,” co-author Jon Hillier said in the statement.

“This work shows that Enceladus’ ocean has reactive building blocks in abundance, and it’s another green light in the investigation of the habitability of Enceladus,” co-author Frank Postberg added in the same statement. 

To detect these compounds and come to this exciting conclusion, Khawaja’s team used data from Cassini’s Cosmic Dust Analyzer (CDA), which detected ice grains emitted in the moon’s plumes; and data from the CDA’s spectrometer, which analyzed the composition of the grains. 

These findings were published Oct. 2 in the journal the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Virgin Galactic Will Launch a Crewed Research Flight for Italy in 1st for Government-Private Spaceflight

Virgin Galactic has booked a crewed research flight to suborbital space for the Italian Air Force that could fly in the next year. Virgin Galactic has one SpaceShipTwo (VSS Unity) in trials and is building a new ship (shown here).

Virgin Galactic has booked a crewed research flight to suborbital space for the Italian Air Force that could fly in the next year. Virgin Galactic has one SpaceShipTwo (VSS Unity) in trials and is building a new ship (shown here). (Image: © Virgin Galactic 2019)

For the first time ever, a government agency has booked a crewed research flight aboard a commercial spacecraft.

That agency is the Italian Air Force, which will send three people and a variety of scientific payloads to suborbital space aboard Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo vehicle, perhaps as early as next year.

The experiments include gear that will monitor how the shift from Earth gravity to microgravity affects the human body, Virgin Galactic representatives said today (Oct. 2) when announcing the deal. The flight will also haul equipment designed to investigate the chemistry of environmentally friendly fuels.

“We’re delighted to work with the Italian air force to further space-based research-and-technology development through this historic mission,” Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides said in a statement

“The experiments they plan to test on SpaceShipTwo will expand our understanding of space science, and the researchers’ active participation will demonstrate an important new avenue for space research,” he added. “We are proud that Virgin Galactic is able to provide frequent access to space for this important work.”

Virgin Galactic’s spaceflight system involves two vehicles, the six-passenger SpaceShipTwo and a carrier plane called WhiteKnightTwo. The carrier vessel transports the space plane to an altitude of about 50,000 feet (15,000 meters) and then drops it, at which point SpaceShipTwo powers up its rocket motor and cruises up to suborbital space.

Passengers on SpaceShipTwo will be able to see the curvature of Earth against the blackness of space and experience a few minutes of weightlessness. Those few minutes are precious for researchers, who can conduct experiments in conditions impossible to recreate here on Earth’s surface.

The Italian researchers will be active participants in this work on the upcoming flight, Virgin Galactic representatives said: The spaceflyers will unclip from their seats and conduct the experiments during the brief microgravity stretch. 

A seat aboard SpaceShipTwo currently sells for $250,000, and more than 600 people have put down deposits to reserve a ticket.Click here for more Space.com videos…Virgin Galactic Moves to Spaceport AmericaVolume 0% 

Virgin Galactic is still in the test-flight phase but looks poised to begin commercial operations soon. The company’s latest SpaceShipTwo vehicle, VSS Unity, has already reached space twice, in December 2018 and February 2019. Technicians are touching up Unity’s interior at Virgin’s manufacturing facility in Mojave, California; the vehicle will be ferried to Spaceport America in New Mexico, the company’s commercial hub, when this work is done, Virgin Galactic representatives have said.

Unity is Virgin’s second SpaceShipTwo. The first, VSS Enterprise, was destroyed during a test-flight accident in October 2014 that killed co-pilot Michael Alsbury and injured pilot Peter Siebold.

Two more SpaceShipTwos are in production in Mojave. One of these vehicles should be ready to begin test flights in 2020, Virgin Galactic President Mike Moses told Space.com recently.

The Italian air force deal isn’t the first contract Virgin Galactic has signed with a government department. The company has flown NASA payloads to suborbital space, but no NASA folks went along for the ride.

Government-funded crewed flights on commercial spacecraft will soon become relatively commonplace, if all goes according to plan — and not just to suborbital space. 

In 2014, NASA awarded both Boeing and SpaceX multibillion-dollar contracts to develop vehicles that will ferry agency astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS). But those are primarily transport flights to the station, not research flights aboard the vehicles themselves. 

Development of both private capsules, Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, has proceeded more slowly than NASA had hoped; agency officials said in 2014 that they wanted at least one of the vehicles up and running by the end of 2017. But big milestones may be in sight; both spacecraft could launch their first crewed test flights to the ISS in the coming months.

Elon Musk Takes Us Inside SpaceX’s Starship Mk1 Prototype (Video)

We get a look at the cavernous cargo bay.

Just a few days after showing off the shiny silver exterior of SpaceX’s new spaceship, Elon Musk has provided a peek at the inside.

On Saturday night (Sept. 28), the SpaceX founder and CEO gave us a design update about Starship and Super Heavy, the reusable spacecraft and rocket, respectively, that the company is developing to help humanity colonize Mars.

Musk delivered the presentation in front of the newly assembled stainless-steel Starship Mk1, the first full-size prototype of the 100-passenger spacecraft. And early Tuesday morning (Oct. 1), he gave us a look at the interior of the 165-foot-tall (50 meters) Mk1. 

SpaceX's Starship Mk1 prototype (left) stands next to one of the Falcon 1 rocket first stages at the company's South Texas site.
SpaceX’s Starship Mk1 prototype (left)  stands 165 feet (50 meters) tall at the company’s Boca Chica site in South Texas. A Falcon 1 rocket first stage for SpaceX’s first rocket is visible at right. 

Musk posted a 10-second video on Twitter showing the cavernous cargo bay of the spacecraft, which is a whopping 30 feet (9 m) wide.

“Inside Starship cargo bay. Header tanks mounted in tip of nosecone to offset engine weight at rear,” Musk wrote in the Twitter post.

“Production version will be a lot more polished than this prototype, but still fun to see,” he added in another tweet about half an hour later.Click here for more Space.com videos…SpaceX Starship Update – Moon, Mars, Saturn..and Aliens? – Elon Musk ExplainsVolume 0% 

The Mk1 sports three of SpaceX’s next-generation Raptor engines. The final Starship will have six Raptors, and the Super Heavy will have space for 37 of the engines. At least 31 of those slots will probably be filled on each launch of the huge booster, Musk said on Saturday.

The Mk1 will make its first flight soon, if all goes according to plan. In the next month or two, SpaceX aims to launch the prototype on an uncrewed, 12-mile-high (20 kilometers) jaunt into the skies above SpaceX’s South Texas facility, Musk has said.Click here for more Space.com videos…SpaceX Super Heavy Rocket Could Have 37 Engines – Elon Musk ExplainsVolume 0% 

A Starship prototype could reach orbit within six months if development work continues to go well, he said on Saturday night. That milestone flight will probably be made by a future iteration of the spacecraft, he added, perhaps the Mk4 or Mk5.

And we might not have to wait too long after that for commercial operations to begin. Starship and Super Heavy may start launching communications satellites as early as 2021, SpaceX representatives have said. And the company has a crewed mission on the docket with a targeted launch date of 2023 — a round-the-moon trip booked by Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, who said he plans to take a handful of artists with him.

Scientists Discover Biophotons In The Brain That Could Hint Our Consciousness is Directly Linked to Light!

Scientists found that neurons in mammalian brains were capable of producing photons of light, or “Biophotons”!

The photons, strangely enough, appear within the visible spectrum. They range from near-infrared through violet, or between 200 and 1,300 nanometers.

Scientists have an exciting suspicion that our brain’s neurons might be able to communicate through light. They suspect that our brain might have optical communication channels, but they have no idea what could be communicated.

our brain might have optical communication channels

Even more exciting, they claim that if there is an optical communication happening, the Biophotons our brains produce might be affected by quantum entanglement, meaning there can be a strong link between these photons, our consciousness and possibly what many cultures and religions refer to as Spirit.

In a couple of experiments scientist discovered that rat brains can pass just one biophoton per neuron a minute, but human brains could convey more than a billion biophotons per second.

This raises the question, could it be possible that the more light one can produce and communicate between neurons, the more conscious they are?

the more light one can produce

If there is any correlation between biophotons, light, and consciousness it can have strong implications that there is more to light than we are aware of.

Just think for a moment. Many texts and religions dating way back, since the dawn of human civilization have reported of saints, ascended beings and enlightened individuals having shining circles around their heads.

From Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome, to teachings of Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity, among many other religions, sacred individuals were depicted with a shining circle in the form of a circular glow around their heads.

shining circle in the form of a circular glow around their heads

If they were as enlightened as they are described maybe this shining circle was just a result of the higher consciousness they operated with, hence a higher frequency and production of biophotons.

Maybe these individuals produced higher level of biophotons with stronger instensity because of their enlightenment, if there is any correlation between biophotons and consciousness.

Even the word enLIGHTenment suggests that this higher consciousness has something to do with light.

enLIGHTenment suggests that this higher consciousness has something to do with light

But one of the most exciting implications the discovery that our brains can produce light gives, is that maybe our consciousness and spirit are not contained within our bodies. This implication is completely overlooked by scientists.

Quantum entanglement says that 2 entangled photons react if one of the photons is affected no matter where the other photon is in The Universe without any delay.

Maybe there is a world that exists within light, and no matter where you are in The Universe photons can act as portals that enable communication between these 2 worlds. Maybe our spirit and consciousness communicate with our bodies through these biophotons. And the more light we produce the more we awaken and embody the wholeness of our consciousness.

Quantum Entanglement

This can explain the phenomenon of why the state of a photon is affected simply by consciously observing it, as it is proven in many quantum experiments.

Maybe our observation communicates something through our biophotons with the photon that is being observed, in a similar fashion as quantum entanglement, like light is just one unified substance that is scattered throughout our Universe and affected through each light particle.

Of course, nothing of this is even close to being a theory. But asking questions and shooting such metaphysical hypothesis might lead us closer to the truth and understanding of what consciousness is, where it comes from, and what are the mysteries that hide within light.

NASA is hearing ‘peculiar sounds’ on Mars

NASA’s InSight lander recorded the first-ever “Mars quake” in April. Nearly six months later, the lander has picked up more “peculiar sounds” on the Red Planet.

In an Oct. 1 blog post, NASA said that the lander’s seismometer, known as the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS), is able to pick up subtle noises, including a breeze, as well as more Mars quakes.

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“It [Mars quake] had a surprisingly high-frequency seismic signal compared to what the science team has heard since then,” NASA wrote in the post. “Out of more than 100 events detected to date, about 21 are strongly considered to be quakes. The remainder could be quakes as well, but the science team hasn’t ruled out other causes.”

Clouds drift over the dome-covered seismometer, known as SEIS, belonging to NASA's InSight lander, on Mars. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Clouds drift over the dome-covered seismometer, known as SEIS, belonging to NASA’s InSight lander, on Mars. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The government agency added that SEIS has had no issues identifying the quakes, but because of how sensitive it is, it has to filter out a lot of background noise, while identifying different sounds.

“It’s been exciting, especially in the beginning, hearing the first vibrations from the lander,” said InSight science team member Constantinos Charalambous in the blog post.  “You’re imagining what’s really happening on Mars as InSight sits on the open landscape.”

NASA also added audio files, as well as a YouTube video, to the post, allowing listeners to hear the sounds being made on Mars.

InSight, which landed safely on the Red Planet in November after “seven minutes of terror” due to the agency’s inability to control the landing of the spacecraft, is continuing the scientific legacy of NASA’s Apollo missions.

Near-Earth objects could be used by extraterrestrials ‘to watch our world,’ stunning study suggests

Although Earth only has one moon, it does have other natural satellites, including asteroid 2016 HO3, known as a “co-orbital object.” These tiny celestial objects could be an “attractive location for extraterrestrial intelligence,” according to a new study.

The research suggests that these space rocks could be hiding grounds for an advanced civilization, given their small size and close proximity to the planet.

“These near-Earth objects provide an ideal way to watch our world from a secure natural object,” the study’s abstract reads. “That provides resources an ETI [extraterrestrial intelligence] might need: materials, a firm anchor, and concealment. These have been little studied by astronomy and not at all by the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) or planetary radar observations.”

An artist's illustration of asteroids, or near-Earth objects.

An artist’s illustration of asteroids, or near-Earth objects. (ESA – P.Carril)

The study’s sole author, James Benford, told Live Science that it’s possible that there could be hundreds, or even thousands, of stars that have been close enough to the Earth throughout its history for a potential intelligent civilization to make contact.

The two closest stars to Earth are Alpha Centauri A and Alpha Centauri B, which are approximately 4.3 light-years from Earth. A light-year, which measures distance in space, equals 6 trillion miles.

They may have seen simple life, single-celled organisms or possibly dinosaurs, depending upon when and if they viewed them. He added that there’s a chance any of the technology they used to keep tabs on Earth could still be there. “This is essentially extraterrestrial archaeology I’m talking about,” Benford told the news outlet.

Discovered in 2016, asteroid 2016 HO3 keeps an orbit around the Sun that allows it to remain a “constant companion of Earth,” NASA’s JPL previously explained. China is planning to explore the near-Earth asteroid as well as a main asteroid belt comet, known as 133P, according to the country’s state-run Xinhua news agency.

Paul Davies, a physicist and astrobiologist at Arizona State University who was not involved in the study, told Live Science that even if there is no evidence of an extraterrestrial civilization found, studying co-orbitals might yield some promising finds.

“How likely is it that alien probe would be on one of these co-orbitals, obviously extremely unlikely,” Davies told the news outlet. “But if it costs very little to go take a look, why not? Even if we don’t find E.T., we might find something of interest.”

The research has been published in the Astronomical Journal.

Earlier this month, a separate study suggested that the Milky Way galaxy could be filled with alien civilizations, but they have not visited the Earth in millions of years.

Team of alien hunters led by Blink-182 co-founder claims to have found UFO material that’s ‘unknown to scientists’

Navy pilots report spotting UFOs over east coast

A band of alien hunters led by an ex-punk rocker claim they’ve found evidence of UFOs.

The U.S. organization, bankrolled by former Blink-182 singer Tom DeLonge, says it’s acquired “exotic material” from what could be an alien spacecraft.

DeLonge, from California, co-founded the group To the Stars Academy of Arts & Sciences in 2017 with the goal of researching extraterrestrials.

The team most famously turfed up classified footage of UFOs recorded by American pilots that were confirmed as real by the US Navy earlier this month.

Speaking to the New York Times, a spokesperson for the group gave a tantalizing tease of its next big scoop.

A reporter asked whether the team had obtained “exotic material samples from UFOs.”

The spokesperson responded: “Certainly.”

No further details were given, so it’s not entirely clear what “material” they were talking about.

Back in July, rocker DeLonge’s organization made a similar claim about its research.

The group’s Twitter account wrote that researchers had acquired “potentially exotic materials featuring properties not from any known existing military or commercial application.”

“The structure & composition of these materials are not from any known existing military or commercial application,” says COO Steve Justice “we are focusing on verifiable facts and working to develop independent scientific proof of the materials’ properties & attributes.”

View image on Twitter

To the Stars Academy has not yet provided proof to back up this claim.

“What we have been doing is trying to find the most qualified individuals at the most respectable institutions to conduct scientific analysis,” Luis Elizondo, director of global security and special programs for DeLonge’s group, told the Times.

“That scientific analysis includes physical analysis, it includes molecular and chemical analysis and ultimately it includes nuclear analysis.”

Elizondo said the team is in no hurry to release its research.

He said: “The last thing we want to do is jump to any conclusions, prematurely. Ultimately, the data is going to decide what something is or what something isn’t.”

It’s not clear precisely who’s working for DeLonge’s group, or whether their research will be peer-reviewed, so we’d take this claim with a pinch of salt for now.

All we know is that it’s an eclectic mix of scholars and pop stars.

According to its website, the academy is a “collaboration between academia, industry and pop culture to advance society’s understanding of scientific phenomena and its technological implications.”

Most famously, the group got the US Navy to admit to several UFO sightings near US military institutions going back several years.

They led to the astonishing reports which in May revealed Navy pilots had near-daily interactions with mysterious flying objects in 2014 and 2015.

Across several interviews, pilots described objects moving at hypersonic speeds and performing acts “beyond the physical limits of a human crew”.

Lieutenant Ryan Graves said he saw “strange objects” with “no visible engine or infrared exhaust plumes” reaching at least 30,000 feet and flying at hypersonic speeds almost daily while training off the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt.

Graves, an F/A-18 Super Hornet pilot who has been with the Navy for 10 years, told The New York Times: “These things would be out there all day.

“Keeping an aircraft in the air requires a significant amount of energy.

“With the speeds we observed, 12 hours in the air is 11 hours longer than we’d expect.”

A Strange New Higgs Particle May Have Stolen the Antimatter from Our Universe

Why our universe is swirling with more matter than its bizarre counterpart antimatter is one of the most perplexing puzzles of modern physics.

When the universe was very young, almost all of the antimatter disappeared. And physicists don't know why.

When the universe was very young, almost all of the antimatter disappeared. And physicists don’t know why.(Image: © Thanapol sinsrang/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Why our universe is swirling with more matter than its bizarre counterpart antimatter — and why we exist at all — is one of the most perplexing puzzles of modern physics.

Somehow, when the universe was incredibly young, almost all the antimatter disappeared, leaving just the normal stuff. Theorists have long stalked the ever-elusive explanation — and more important, a way to test that explanation with experiments. 

Now, a trio of theorists has proposed that a trio of particles called Higgs bosons could be responsible for the mysterious vanishing act of antimatter in the universe. And they think they know how to find the suspected culprits.

The case of the missing antimatter

In almost every single interaction between subatomic particles, antimatter (which is identical to normal matter but with opposite charge) and normal matter are produced in equal measure. It appears to be a fundamental symmetry of the universe. And yet, when we go out and look at that same universe, we see hardly any antimatter at all. As far as physicists can tell, for every particle of antimatter still hanging around, there are about a billion particles of normal matter, all across the cosmos.

This mystery goes by many names, such as the matter asymmetry problem and the baryon asymmetry problem; regardless of name, it has physicists stumped. As of now, nobody has been able to provide a coherent, consistent explanation for the dominance of matter over antimatter, and since it’s the job of physicists to explain how nature works, it’s starting to get irritating.

However, nature did leave some clues lying around for us to puzzle over. For instance, no evidence for lots of antimatter shows up in the so-called cosmic microwave background — heat left over from the Big Bang, the birth of the universe. That suggests the caper occurred in the very early universe. And the early universe was a pretty crazy place, with all sorts of complicated, poorly understood physics going on. So if matter and antimatter are going to split, that’s a good time to do it.

Blame the Higgs

In fact, the best time for antimatter to disappear is during the brief but tumultuous epoch in our universe when the forces of nature were splitting apart as the cosmos cooled. 

At high energies (like those inside a particle collider), the electromagnetic force and the weak nuclear force combine their powers to form a new force: electroweak. Once things cool off and return to normal everyday energies, however, the electroweak splits into the familiar two forces.

At even higher energies, like the ones found in the first moments of the Big Bang, we think that the strong nuclear force merges with the electroweak, and at still higher energies, gravity joins the party into a single unified force. But we haven’t quite figured out how gravity gets in on the game yet.

The Higgs boson, proposed to exist in the 1960s but not discovered until 2012 inside the Large Hadron Collider, does the work of splitting the electromagnetic force from the weak nuclear force. Physicists are pretty certain that the matter-antimatter split happened before all four forces of nature fell into place as their own entities; that’s because we have a pretty clear understanding of the physics of the universe post-split, and adding too much antimatter in later epochs violates observations of the cosmic microwave background).

As such, perhaps the Higgs boson plays a role.

But the Higgs by itself can’t cut it; there’s no known mechanism using just the Higgs to cause an imbalance between matter and antimatter.

Thankfully, the story of the Higgs may not be over. Physicists have found a single Higgs boson in collider experiments, with a mass of around 125 billion electron volts, or GeV — for reference, a proton weighs around 1 GeV. 

Turns out, the Higgs may not be alone.

It’s entirely possible for there to be more Higgs bosons floating around that are more massive than what we can currently detect in our experiments. Nowadays, those heftier Higgs, if they exist, wouldn’t do much, not really participating in any physics that we can access with our colliders — We just don’t have enough energy to “activate” them. But in the early days of the universe, when energies were much, much higher, the other Higgs could have been activated, and those Higgs may have caused an imbalance in certain fundamental particle interactions, leading to the modern asymmetry between matter and antimatter.Click here for more Space.com videos…CLOSEHow They Found The God Particle – Higgs Boson Experiment AnimatedVolume 0%

Solving the mystery

In a recent paper published online in the preprint journal arXiv, three physicists proposed an interesting potential solution: Perhaps, three Higgs bosons (dubbed the “Higgs Troika”) played a game of hot potato in the early universe, generating a flood of normal matter. When matter touches antimatter — Poof — the two annihilate and vanish.

And so most of that stream of matter would annihilate the antimatter, swamping it almost entirely out of existence in a flood of radiation. In this scenario, there would be enough normal matter left to lead to the present-day universe that we know and love.

To make this work, the theorists propose the trio includes the one known Higgs particle and two newbies, with each of this duo having a mass of around 1,000 GeV. This number is purely arbitrary, but was specifically chosen to make this hypothetical Higgs potentially discoverable with the next generation of particle colliders. There’s no use predicting the existence of a particle that can never be detected.

The physicists then have a challenge. Whatever mechanism causes the asymmetry has to give matter an edge over antimatter by a factor of a billion to one. And, it has a very short window of time in the early universe to do its thing; once the forces split, the game is over and physics as we know it is locked in place. And this mechanism, including the two new Higgs, must be testable.

The short answer: They were able to do it. It’s understandably a very complicated process, but the overarching (and theoretical) story goes like this: The two new Higgs decay into showers of particles at slightly different rates and with slightly different preferences for matter over antimatter. These differences build up over time, and when the electroweak force splits up, there’s enough of a difference in matter-antimatter particle populations “built in” to the universe that normal matter ends up dominating over antimatter.

Sure, this solves the baryon asymmetry problem but just immediately leads to the question of what nature is doing with so many Higgs bosons. But we’ll take things one step at a time. 

Elon Musk Unveils SpaceX’s New Starship Plans for Private Trips to the Moon, Mars and Beyond

People could start flying aboard the vehicle in the next year or so, Musk said.

An aerial view of SpaceX's Starship Mk1 prototype, seen during Elon Musk's Starship update in South Texas on Sept. 28, 2019.

An aerial view of SpaceX’s Starship Mk1 prototype, seen during Elon Musk’s Starship update in South Texas on Sept. 28, 2019. (Image: © SpaceX)

BOCA CHICA VILLAGE, Texas — Elon Musk has a Starship, and one day he expects it will help SpaceX reach other worlds.  

Standing beneath a towering Starship Mk1, a prototype for SpaceX’s massive reusable launch system, Musk laid out his plan for interplanetary travel at the company’s South Texas test site here on Saturday (Sept. 28) — the 11th anniversary of the first successful orbital launch of SpaceX’s first rocket, the Falcon 1.

The new version of Starship (and its Super Heavy booster) will be able to carry up to 100people to the moon, Mars or other destinations in space or around Earth, he said. It will stand 387feet (118meters) tall and be completely reusable, with quick turnarounds. 

This is the rocket that will launch the billionaire Japanese entrepreneur Yusaku Maezawa and a handful of artists on a trip around the moon in the 2020s. SpaceX unveiled that planned space tourist trip last year (but did not disclose how much Maezawa paid).

“Starship will allow us to inhabit other worlds,” Musk wrote on Twitter Friday (Sept. 27). “To make life as we know it interplanetary.”

Related: SpaceX’s Starship and Super Heavy Mars Rocket in Pictures

Musk has long said that the main goal of SpaceX, since its founding in 2002, has been to help make humanity a multiplanet species. The company has developed reusable Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets, as well as reusable Dragon cargo capsules and a new Crew Dragon ship for astronauts. It has launchpads in Florida, California and now Boca Chica, where the company broke ground on its test site in 2014.

But Mars, Musk has said, has remained the true objective. 

“This is the fastest path to a self-sustaining city on Mars,” he said Saturday night, referring to the Starship-Super Heavy architecture.

A Starship evolution

SpaceX’s Starship concept has undergone a kind of rocket evolution in the three years since Musk first unveiled it to the world in September 2016 at the International Astronautical Union meeting in Mexico. 

At that meeting, Musk unveiled what he called the the Interplanetary Transport System, or ITS, for Mars colonization. The ITS called for a fully reusable spacecraft (with two fins) and booster that would stand 400 feet (122 m) high when assembled. Its first stage would have 42 next-generation Raptor engines, and the booster would be 40 feet (12 m) wide. The spacecraft would have nine Raptors. (SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets have nine Merlin engines on their first stage. Falcon Heavy first stages have 27 Merlins.)

Musk updated the design in 2017, calling it the Big Falcon Rocket, or BFR for short. That plan called for a launch system that would stand 348 feet (106 meters) tall and 30 feet (9 m) wide. Its booster would have 31 Raptor engines, while the spacecraft atop it would have six.

Then, in 2018, Musk unveiled yet another design (and the Starship name): a sleek, stainless-steel spacecraft with three tail fins that would stand taller than its 2017 precursor, with a height of 387 feet (118 m). The spacecraft would still be powered by six Raptor engines, with up to 37 Raptors powering the booster (now called Super Heavy).

This latest design has held to the present day; SpaceX is still shooting for a 387-foot-tall Starship-Super Heavy stack, with six Raptors on the spacecraft. The number of engines on Super Heavy could vary from flight to flight; Musk said the rocket has space for up to 37 Raptors, and each mission will probably require at least 24. 

With the design nailed down, SpaceX plans to move fast. The company wants to reach Earth orbit with a Starship prototype in about six months. And people could start flying aboard the vehicle in the next year or so if the test program continues to go well, Musk said.

A city’s hope, but with critics

While Musk and SpaceX have been lauded by their ambitious push for a Starship capable of deep-space travel, the road has not always been smooth. 

As the company ramped up its testing with a smaller rocket, called Starhopper, frequent road closures, launch hazard advisories and other side effects of the program sparked ire among some residents of Boca Chica Village, a nearby beachside community. SpaceX’s Starship Mk1, for example, is just dozens of feet from a main travel route, Boca Chica Boulevard, that leads to the village. 

Earlier on Saturday, the boulevard was the scene of a rotating gallery of onlookers and SpaceX fans posing for selfies and photos with the Starship Mk1, even as SpaceX put the finishing touches on the 165-foot (50 m) vehicle

“I can sum up my first impression like this: ‘Ooo, Shiny!'” said Roy Paul, 78, of Mebane, North Carolina, who flew to Houston and drove over 7 hours with a niece, nephew and their five children from Beaumont to see the Starship Mk1. He’s a dedicated space fan who goes as IonMars on NASASpaceflight.com forums. 

This month, SpaceX offered to buy out some Boca Chica Village residents after a short 500-foot (150 m) test sparked a brush fire at the test site,  according to Business Insider

Then there are SpaceX’s other customers. 

NASA is still waiting for SpaceX to complete the Crew Dragon spacecraft that will fly astronauts to and from the International Space Station. The space agency has picked SpaceX (and another company, Boeing) to provide commercial crew flights to the station. 

While SpaceX did launch an unpiloted Crew Dragon test flight to the space station this year, a subsequent abort system test failed, leading to the destruction of the vehicle. SpaceX aims to resume abort system tests later this year ahead of the first crewed test flight.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, it seems, is not happy with the years-long delays of Crew Dragon, as well as Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft, especially after seeing SpaceX build Starship Mk1 this year ahead of its own test flight. 

“I am looking forward to the SpaceX announcement tomorrow,” Bridenstine wrote on Twitter Friday. “In the meantime, Commercial Crew is years behind schedule. NASA expects to see the same level of enthusiasm focused on the investments of the taxpayer. It’s time to deliver.”

Meanwhile, the city of Brownsville, remains hopeful that SpaceX’s presence — and future launches from Boca Chica — could be a boon for the community.

The city’s mayor, Trey Mendez, a lawyer and native of Brownsville, said that in the five years SpaceX has been at the Boca Chica site, the area has seen some tourists come to gawk at the rockets, but such visits have not had a significant impact on the city’s economy. 

That could change, Mendez said, if SpaceX sets up regular space launches from Boca Chica. But if the area just stays a test site, then it may not be as big an impact as the city would like. 

“Definitely I can say that the community is overall excited with the opportunities that the space industry brings. And we’re excited to learn more about SpaceX’s plans out here,” Mendez told Space.com just hours before Musk’s presentation. “I certainly hope that it is something that will have a measurable impact for our city, because I would definitely love to have that.”