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.

In Pictures: The Most Memorable Spacewalks in HistoryClick here for more Space.com videos…First Human Spacewalker Nearly Died In SpaceVolume 0% 

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.

Zoom In

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.

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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.

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“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.

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.

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.

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.” 

‘Oumuamua and Borisov Are Just the Beginning of an Interstellar Object Bonanza

An image of a protoplanetary disk and black gaps marking where planets are formed, as captured by the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array telescope in Chile.

An image of a protoplanetary disk and black gaps marking where planets are formed, as captured by the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array telescope in Chile(Image: © ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), S. Andrews et al.; N. Lira)

Astronomers are only now getting the hang of spotting interstellar objects, space debris that fled another solar system to swing through ours. But signs suggest there should be plenty more such identifications to come.

That’s the conclusion of new research that was already in the publication process when scientists met the second known interstellar object, a comet called Borisov, which was first spotted on Aug. 30. The research looks ahead to a new instrument, the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), which is scheduled to be fully up and running in 2023. The scientists estimate that each year it’s working, LSST should be able to spot more than 100 interstellar objects larger than 6 feet (2 meters).

“There should be a lot of this material floating around,” Malena Rice, lead author of the new research and a graduate student at Yale University, said in a statement. “So much more data will be coming out soon, thanks to new telescopes coming online. We won’t have to speculate.”

Ever since they first spotted ‘Oumuamua in October 2017, astronomers have suspected that the detection was a clue that there are more interstellar objects passing through our solar system than previously expected. The coincidence of the new research is that the two authors had just finished writing up the study when the interstellar comet Borisov entered the scene, according to the same statement.

That coincidence means that the research is based exclusively on observations of ‘Oumuamua, which scientists were able to watch for only a week or so. (Borisov will remain observable for a year, offering astronomers an abundance of data.)

The new research tackles the question of how these interstellar objects begin their long journey. One possible origin story was that ‘Oumuamua and its presumed compatriots were planetesimals, the building blocks of planets, kicked out of their native solar systems. But Rice and her co-author think that explanation doesn’t quite do the trick.Click here for more Space.com videos…‘Space’s Deepest Secrets – Oumuamua’ – Science Channel TrailerVolume 0% 

That’s based on what scientists know about other solar systems through the more than 4,000 exoplanets identified to date. That’s not necessarily a representative sampling, since astronomers have only a handful of techniques for spotting exoplanets.

But Rice and her co-author found it suspicious that most of the planets astronomers have spotted to date aren’t the sort of planets that should be able to kick out planetesimals. They argue that such dynamics would have to be triggered by planets as massive as Neptune or larger and that orbit at least five times farther from their star than Earth does the sun.

That’s exactly the sort of world that astronomers are still struggling to identify from Earth. So the researchers turned to a project called the Disk Substructures at High Angular Resolution Project, which surveyed 20 young solar systems close enough to Earth that the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array telescope in Chile could get a decent picture of them.

Some of these disks sport gaps that mark where a forming planet has cleared a swath of debris. That tells scientists what size planets are forming and how close they are to the star. So the researchers took three of those systems and modeled how likely it would be that their planets can kick out planetesimals on a dramatic tour of the universe.Click here for more Space.com videos…Disks Around Several Young Stars Seen in Greatest Detail YetVolume 0% 

“This idea nicely explains the high density of these objects drifting in interstellar space,” Gregory Laughlin, an astronomer at Yale University and Rice’s co-author, said in the same statement. “It shows that we should be finding up to hundreds of these objects with upcoming surveys.”

And of all the upcoming observation programs, LSST is the most intriguing when it comes to spotting interstellar objects. After the lag between recognizing ‘Oumuamua and any additional visitors to our solar system, astronomers had begun to suspect that they may not spot another interstellar object until LSST is turned on, Karen Meech, an astronomer at the University of Hawaii who has observed both ‘Oumuamua and the new interstellar comet, told Space.com earlier this month.

It was just when her team had given up hope that Borisov arrived on the scene, with a stunning icy blanket marking it as a clear comet, and early enough in its journey that astronomers will be able to study it for a year. That’s an incredible benefit to scientists.

“You’re not looking at a distant star through a telescope,” Rice said in the statement. “This is actual material that makes up planets in other solar systems, being flung at us. It’s a completely unprecedented way to study extrasolar systems up close — and this field is going to start exploding with data, very soon.”

The research is described in a paper posted to the preprint server arXiv.org on Sept. 13 and accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Mysterious, second interstellar object ever spotted is confirmed

It’s official. We have our second confirmed – and named – interstellar visitor.

The International Astronomical Union confirmed that the object formally known as C/2019 Q4 (Borisov) is indeed from another solar system, giving it the proper name of 21/Borisov on Tuesday. It is the second-ever observed object from beyond our solar system, following Ouamuamua’s discovery in October 2017.

“The orbit is now sufficiently well known, and the object is unambiguously interstellar in origin; it has received its final designation as the second interstellar object, 2I,” the IAU wrote in a statement. “In this case, the IAU has decided to follow the tradition of naming cometary objects after their discoverers, so the object has been named  2I/Borisov.”

The first-ever comet from beyond our Solar System, as imaged by the Gemini Observatory. The image of the newly discovered object, named 2I/Borisov, was obtained on the night of Sept. 9 using the Gemini Multi-Object Spectrograph on the Gemini North Telescope on Hawaii’s Mauna Kea. (Credit: IAU)

The first-ever comet from beyond our Solar System, as imaged by the Gemini Observatory. The image of the newly discovered object, named 2I/Borisov, was obtained on the night of Sept. 9 using the Gemini Multi-Object Spectrograph on the Gemini North Telescope on Hawaii’s Mauna Kea. (Credit: IAU)

21/Borisov was discovered on Aug. 30 by astronomer Gennady Borisov and, unlike its predecessor, Ouamuamua, will be observable for an extended period of time. It is likely a comet, given its short tail and “fuzzy” appearance, a description backed up by NASA JPL researcher Davide Farnocchia.

“The comet’s current velocity is high, about 93,000 mph [150,000 kph], which is well above the typical velocities of objects orbiting the Sun at that distance,” said Farnocchia in a statement posted to NASA’s website on Sept. 12. “The high velocity indicates not only that the object likely originated from outside our solar system, but also that it will leave and head back to interstellar space.”

Earlier this month, NASA JPL said 21/Borisov is approximately 260 million miles from the Sun and will reach its closest point, known as perihelion, on Dec. 8, 2019, when it gets within 190 million miles of the Sun.

It’s still unclear what Oumuamua actually is, although several theories have emerged, including one from Harvard University researcher Avi Loeb that it could be an extraterrestrial lightsail.

The discovery of 21/Borisov raises new questions, IAU noted, including why interstellar objects were not previously discovered, their expected rate of appearance in the inner solar system and how they compare with similar bodies in the solar system.

“Large telescopic surveys capable of scanning large fractions of the sky on a regular basis may help to answer these questions and more in the near future,” IAU wrote on its website.

Researchers recently theorized that 21/Borisov could be intercepted using existing technology and studied to determine several aspects about it, such as whether it’s a comet or an asteroid. Experts also noted that it could be studied to see, what material, if any, it has picked up from other solar systems.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk explains how Starships will return from orbit

SPACEX’S STARSHIP SPACECRAFT WILL EVENTUALLY HAVE TO SURVIVE ORBITAL-VELOCITY REENTRIES, A SPECTACULARLY DIFFICULT FEAT FOR LARGE SPACECRAFT. (NASASPACEFLIGHT – BOCACHICAGAL)


In the near future, SpaceX wants to begin putting its first two full-scale Starship prototypes through a series of increasingly challenging test flights, eventually culminating in their first Super Heavy-supported orbital launch attempts.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk took to Twitter over the last 48 or so hours to answer a number of questions about how exactly Starship is meant to make it through orbital reentries – by far the most strenuous period for the ship and without a doubt the single most challenging engineering problem SpaceX must tackle.

Starship glows from heating as it reenters Earth’s atmosphere in this official render. (SpaceX)

Discussed yesterday on Teslarati, SpaceX technicians began the process of attaching numerous Tesla Model S/X battery packs to a subcomponent that will eventually be installed inside Starship Mk1’s nose, offering a storage capacity of up to 400 kWh. The need for all that power (Crew Dragon relies on a few-kWh battery) is directly related to Starship Mk1’s methods of reentry and recovery, recently described in detail by Elon Musk.

As noted above, ~400 kWh of batteries are needed to power the electric motors that will actuate Starship’s massive control surfaces – two large aft wings and two forward canards/fins. According to Musk, Starship’s “stability is controlled by (very) rapid movement of rear & fwd fins during entry & landing”, meaning that the spacecraft will need to constantly tweak its control surfaces to remain in stable flight.

This official graphic covers Starship’s exotic method of flight and landing. (SpaceX)

By far the biggest challenge SpaceX faces is ensuring that Starship can survive numerous orbital-velocity reentries with little to no wear and tear, a necessity for Starship to be cost-effective. In Low Earth Orbit (LEO), Starship will be traveling no less than 7.8 km/s (Mach 23, 17,500 mph) at the start of atmospheric reentry. In simple terms, the process of slowing from orbital velocity to landing on Earth involves turning the vast majority of that kinetic energy into heat. As Musk noted yesterday, this reality is just shy of unavoidable but there is some flexibility in terms of how quickly one wants to convert that energy into heat.

The fastest route to Earth would involve diving straight into the atmosphere, dramatically increasing peak heating on a spacecraft’s surface to the point that extremely exotic heat shields and thermal protections systems become an absolute necessity. SpaceX wants to find a middle ground with Starship in which the spacecraft uses its aerodynamic control surfaces and body to generate lift, slowly and carefully lowering itself into Earth’s atmosphere over a period of 15+ minutes. Musk notes that this dramatically lessens peak heating at the cost of increasing the overall amount of energy Starship has to dissipate, a bit like cooking something in the oven at 300 degrees for 30 minutes instead of 600 degrees for 10 minutes.

To an extent, Starship’s reentry profile is actually quite similar to NASA’s now-retired Space Shuttle, which took approximately 30 minutes to go from its reentry burn to touchdown. Per the above infographic, it looks like Starship will take approximately 20 minutes from orbit to touchdown, owing to a dramatically different approach once it reaches slower speeds. Originally described by Musk in September 2018 and again in recent weeks, Starship will essentially stall itself until its forward velocity is nearly zero, after which the giant spacecraft will fall belly-down towards the Earth, using its wings and fins to maneuver like a skydiver. The Space Shuttle landed on a runway like a (cement-encased) glider.

This unusual approach allows SpaceX to sidestep the need for huge wings, preventing Starship from wasting far more mass on aerodynamic surfaces it will rarely need. The Space Shuttle is famous for its massive, tile-covered delta wing and the leading-edge shielding that partially contributed to the Columbia disaster. However, it’s a little-known fact that the wing’s size and shape were almost entirely attributable to US Air Force demands for cross-range performance, meaning that the military wanted Shuttles to be able to travel 1000+ miles during reentry and flight. This dramatically constrained the Shuttle’s design and was never once used for its intended purpose.

Space Shuttle Endeavor shows off its main heat shield during an on-orbit inspection in August 2007. (NASA)

SpaceX thankfully doesn’t have its own “US Air Force” stand-in making highly consequential demands (aside from Elon Musk 😉). Instead, Starship will continue the SpaceX tradition of vertical landing, falling straight down – a bit like a skydiver (or a brick) – on its belly and flipping itself over with fins and thrusters for a propulsive vertical landing. In this way, Starship doesn’t have to be a brick forced to fly, like the Shuttle was – it just needs to be able to stably fall and quickly flip itself from a horizontal to vertical orientation.

Additionally, Starship is built almost entirely out of steel, whereas the Shuttle relied on an aluminum alloy and needed thermal protection over every square inch of its hull. Steel melts at nearly twice the temperature of the Shuttle’s alloy, meaning that Starship will (hopefully) be able to get away with nothing more than ceramic tiles on its windward half, saving mass, money, and time. Once Starship completes its first 20 km (12.5 mi) flight test(s), currently scheduled no earlier than mid-October, SpaceX will likely turn its focus on verifying Starship’s performance at hypersonic speeds, ultimately culminating in its first orbital-velocity reentries.

SpaceX’s Next Starship Prototype Nearly Finished, Elon Musk Says (Photos)

The Mk1 should be fully stacked by Saturday, in time for Elon Musk’s Starship update.

The bottom half of SpaceX's Starship Mk 1 prototype is seen at the company's South Texas facilities in this photo posted on Twitter by Elon Musk on Sept. 22, 2019.

The bottom half of SpaceX’s Starship Mk 1 prototype is seen at the company’s South Texas facilities in this photo posted on Twitter by Elon Musk on Sept. 22, 2019.(Image: © Elon Musk via Twitter)

It looks like Elon Musk will have a pretty nice visual aid when he gives his highly anticipated Starship update this weekend.

On Saturday (Sept. 28), the SpaceX founder and CEO plans to reveal the latest design details of Starship and Super Heavy — the 100-passenger spaceship and the huge rocket, respectively, that the company is developing to send people to the moon, Mars and other distant destinations.

The talk will take place at SpaceX’s South Texas facilities near the village of Boca Chica, where the company is building a Starship prototype known as the Mk1. And this test vehicle is really starting to take shape, as two photos Musk tweeted on Sunday (Sept. 22) reveal.

Adding the rear moving fins to Starship Mk1 in Boca Chica, Texas

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One of the pictures shows technicians installing stability-controlling rear fins on Starship Mk1, Musk said. The other image shows the Mk1 bottom half, now finned up, apparently getting ready for a big construction milestone.

“Bottom half of Starship at night. Top half with forward fins & header tanks probably stacks on Wednesday. Three Raptors already installed,” Musk wrote about this second photo.

In another Sunday tweet, Musk added that the Mk1 fairing — the protective “nose cone” that surrounds payloads during launch — will be mounted by Saturday. So, the billionaire entrepreneur will likely have a  fully stacked Mk1 as his backdrop when he makes his presentation.

The Raptor is the next-generation engine that will power Starship and Super Heavy. Both the Mk1 and the Mk2 — another prototype that SpaceX is developing at its Florida facilities — will feature at least three Raptors, Musk has said. (The goal is to improve the final Starship design via some intracompany competition.) 

As currently envisioned, the final Starship will have six Raptors and the Super Heavy 35 of these engines. But those numbers could change; we’ll have to wait until Saturday to learn more.Click here for more Space.com videos…CLOSEVolume 0% 

The Mk1 and Mk2 are second-generation Starship prototypes. The first, a stubby vehicle known as Starhopper, sported just a single Raptor. Starhopper was retired last month after acing its second untethered test flight, a Boca Chica jaunt that took the craft about 500 feet (150 meters) into the air and featured a sideways translation to a landing pad.

We should see the Mk1 in action soon. SpaceX aims to fly the vehicle to an altitude of about 12 miles (20 kilometers) in October, then attempt an orbital test flight shortly thereafter, Musk has said.

Things should continue to move quickly if these flights go well. SpaceX representatives have said that the first operational Starship-Super Heavy flight could occur as early as 2021. The initial commercial launches will likely loft communications satellites, but passenger flights may not be far behind: Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa has booked a round-the-moon Starship mission, which is currently targeted for 2023.

NASA emails reveal space agency unaware of ‘city-killer’ asteroid until last moment: ‘This one did sneak up on us’

Internal emails from NASA show that the space agency was unaware of asteroid 2019 OK, described as a “city killer,” until the last moment on July 24.

The giant, football field-sized space rock was not detected by researchers until 24 hours before it was set to whiz past Earth at a distance of just 48,000 miles, traveling at 55,000 miles per hour.

“Because there may be media coverage tomorrow, I’m alerting you that in about 30 mins a 57-130 meter sized asteroid will pass Earth at only 0.19 lunar distances (~48,000 miles),” Lindley Johnson, NASA’s planetary defense officer, wrote in a July 24 email, adding the asteroid “was spotted about 24 hrs ago.”

The Earth surrounded by a host of asteroids.

The Earth surrounded by a host of asteroids. (P. Carril/NASA)

NASA CHIEF WARNS ASTEROID THREAT IS REAL: ‘IT’S ABOUT PROTECTING THE ONLY PLANET WE KNOW TO HOST LIFE’
 
The internal messages were obtained by BuzzFeed News through a Freedom of Information Act request and have also been verified by Fox News.

Swinburne University astronomy professor Alan Duffy described asteroid 2019 OK as a “city killer” and an asteroid that “would have hit with over 30 times the energy of the atomic blast at Hiroshima” to the Sydney Morning Herald.

NASA officials, including Johnson, were taken aback at the terminology used by Duffy and another Australian astronomer quoted by the news outlet, saying “it might be helpful to ask them to think before they speak.” Johnson also said that Australia is “essentially doing nothing to support Planetary Defense,” according to the internal emails.

The emails first obtained by Buzzfeed also indicate that NASA needs better asteroid detection, specifically mentioning that the ATLAS telescope and the PAN- STARRS observatory “need to detect slower objects.”

Following media reports of the close encounter with 2019 OK, CNEOS issued a statement on Aug. 6 that the damage from the space rock could have been troublesome.

“If 2019 OK had entered and disrupted in Earth’s atmosphere over land, the blast wave could have created localized devastation to an area roughly 50 miles across,” CNEOS wrote. “If the asteroid had entered over the ocean, it would have been a bad day for any sailing vessels in the vicinity, but the sea would have absorbed the great majority of the impact’s energy and it is doubtful that a tsunami would have been created.”

Artist's interpretation of the asteroid impact

Artist’s interpretation of the asteroid impact (NASA/Don Davis)

In a statement provided to Fox News, NASA Public Affairs Officer Allard Beutel said that NASA and other U.S. agencies are leading the international efforts to respond to a possible impact from a near-Earth object (NEOs).

“In 2018, the White House released the National Near-Earth Object Preparedness Strategy and Action Plan, which identifies key steps that U.S. agencies need to take to better prepare the United States – and the world – for detecting and responding to a possible impact,” Beutel wrote in an email to Fox News.

He added that NASA has been directed to keep track of all NEOs 140 meters and bigger, noting they are 35 percent complete with NEOs that size and “approximately 96 percent complete” for those 1 kilometer and bigger. “Strategic investments in our space-based programs, will lead to the benefit of all of humanity as we continue to catalogue any NEOs that pose a potential threat. One such investment is the planetary defense-driven test, the Double Asteroid Redirect Test (DART), scheduled to launch in 2021, to demonstrate the possibility of using a kinetic impact to change the motion of an asteroid in space.”

NASA GAMEPLANS MASSIVE ASTEROID STRIKE 

The space agency will launch its first DART mission in 2022. In April, NASA awarded a $69 million contract to SpaceX, the space exploration company led by Elon Musk, to help with DART.

The next time an asteroid of this magnitude will come that close to Earth is a decade from now. Asteroid 99942 Apophis (named for an Egyptian god of chaos) will come within 19,000 miles of Earth on April 13, 2029, Fox News has previously reported.

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. They are tracked by the NASA’s Center for Near Earth Object Studies (CNEOS). According to a 2018 report put together by Planetary.org, there are more than 18,000 NEOs.

Last month, Musk said on a podcast that Apophis is not something to worry about, but eventually, a “big rock” will hit Earth and as of right now, there’s nothing we can do about it.

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.

A KILLER ASTEROID IS COMING — WE DON’T KNOW WHEN (SO LET’S BE READY), BILL NYE SAYS

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

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.”

Rogue ice moon could be spilling its guts all over ‘alien megastructure’ star

An older NASA illustration shows a disintigrating planet orbiting Tabby's star.

An older NASA illustration shows a disintigrating planet orbiting Tabby’s star. (NASA/JPL)

Back in 2016, headlines all over the world blared with news of a possible “alien megastructure” detected orbiting a distant Milky Way star. Now, a team of Columbia University astrophysicists has offered up an explanation for the star’s strange behavior that doesn’t involve any little green men.

The “alien” point of light in the sky is known as Tabby’s star, which was named after Tabetha Boyajian, the Louisiana State University astrophysicist who in 2015 first noticed the unusual patterns in its starlight that others initially attributed to alien construction projects. Boyajian noticed that the star tended to dip in brightness at odd intervals, sometimes slightly and sometimes by significant fractions of its total light. It was also slowly losing brightness over time. She later called it in a TED Talk the “most mysterious star in the universe” because no straightforward astrophysical theory could explain the dimming pattern —  though she also expressed skepticism about suggestions that the dimming was the result of a “megastructure” constructed around the star by an advanced civilization.

Astronomers have since offered a number of alternative explanations for the weird light from the star, which is about 1,500 light-years away in space and known formally as KIC 8462852. They range from swarms of comets to “avalanche-like magnetic activity” within the star. Boyajian conducted follow-up research that showed that the dimming is specific to certain light frequencies, which could be explained if a cloud of dust were responsible, scientists have suggested. This new research explains how that dust might have gotten there.

The new theory from the Columbia team resembles the plot of a disaster film more than a science-fiction space opera. They built on earlier work showing that whatever’s causing the dimming is likely locked in an irregular, eccentric orbit around the star. They showed that a disintegrating, orphaned ice moon following such a path could explain the strange dimming.

“It’s likely outgassing water or some other volatile material,” said Brian Metzger, one of the authors of the new paper.

Over the course of millions of years, that material would form an irregular cloud around the star along the orphaned moon’s eccentric orbit, he told Live Science, adding that such a cloud would periodically block some of the star’s light from reaching Earth — just like the effect originally attributed to a Dyson sphere megastructure.

They suspect an orphaned moon, as opposed to a planet, is off-gassing the cloud, because it’s difficult to explain how an icy planet could end up in that irregular orbit in the first place. Based on our own solar system, he said, scientists know that solid, rocky bodies tend to make up the inner parts of a system, while bigger, gaseous planets dominate the outer system. And those planets are often orbited by icy moons.

Metzger and his colleagues described orbital calculations in which a planet like Jupiter, orbited by large moons and following an eccentric orbit, gets knocked (perhaps by another nearby star) into a collision course with its host star. As it falls to its doom, the star would rip those moons from their orbits. Most of the moons would fall into the star or fly out of the system, they showed, but in about 10% of all cases, a moon would end up in an eccentric orbit. And, critically, that orbit would likely place the moon within its star’s “ice line” — the point within which the star’s radiation would blast ice off the moon’s surface.

If the moon were made up of the right materials, they wrote, it would start to break apart due to the increased radiation of its new, closer orbit, spilling that material into interplanetary space like a gargantuan comet. And even though we’d never see the moon with our existing telescopes, that spilled material would form a cloud of dust and gas big enough to block Tabby’s star’s light in strange and unpredictable ways. Over time, the star would appear to get dimmer and dimmer, just like Tabby’s star, as the total amount of dust in its orbit increased.

Nothing’s certain, of course. Metzger said it’s still possible some other phenomenon is creating the effect. But this moon theory offers a compelling explanation for a distant flickering once chalked up (at least in the popular press) to aliens.

The paper, available as a draft online in the preprint journal arXiv, will be published in a forthcoming issue of the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

This New Device Can Make Renewable Energy from the Cold Night Sky

This thermoelectric generator harnesses temperature differences to generate renewable electricity. Here the device is powering a small LED light.
This thermoelectric generator harnesses temperature differences to generate renewable electricity. Here the device is powering a small LED light.

No sun? No problem.

A new thermoelectric device can generate electricity for an LED light bulb even during the blackest night, according to a report by researchers.

The secret is using a phenomenon known as radiative cooling, which happens when surfaces on the ground radiate heat into the atmosphere. This process can make a surface cooler than the air surrounding it, which explains why frost forms on grass even if the air temperature is above freezing.

Researchers say their device is a useful form of renewable energy, especially because lighting demand peaks at night. “Beyond lighting, we believe this could be a broadly enabling approach to power generation suitable for remote locations, and anywhere where power generation at night is needed,” lead author Aaswath Raman, an assistant professor of materials science and engineering at the University of California, Los Angeles, said in a statement.

The prototype device was tested on a table 3 feet (1 meter) above the ground on a rooftop in Stanford, California, in late December. It was placed in a polystyrene enclosure covered in aluminized mylar (which minimizes thermal radiation) and protected by a wind cover. Inside the protective layers, researchers made the device draw heat from the air and send it back into the atmosphere, using a black emitter.

The researchers managed to power an LED using a voltage boost converter, and measured that over 6 hours the device can generate as much as 25 milliwatts of energy per square meter. That’s much lower than typical solar cells, but the advantage is that the device works at night, while solar cells have no sunlight to convert into energy.

The researchers say that with some modifications, the device could be used over a wider scale since the radiative cooler is simple (an aluminum disk covered in paint) and the other components are commercially available. For example, the researchers suggest increasing heat-exchange efficiency by reducing heat gain in the radiative cooling part of the device. The device may also work best in hotter and drier climates, the team noted.

A schematic of the thermoelectric generator.
A schematic of the thermoelectric generator.

“Our work highlights the many remaining opportunities for energy by taking advantage of the cold of outer space as a renewable energy resource,” Raman said. “We think this forms the basis of a complementary technology to solar. While the power output will always be substantially lower, it can operate at hours when solar cells cannot.”

Ad Astra’ Review: Brad Pitt Goes Interplanetary in a Stunning Space Epic

Come for Brad Pitt in space, stay for the stunning cinematography.

Warning: There are some mild spoilers for “Ad Astra” in the review below. 

It’s safe to say that “Ad Astra” is probably not the science fiction film you think it is. Anyone expecting “Independence Day” or some such holiday blockbuster might be disappointed, but any fan of art expressed through cinema, won’t be.

The movie stars Brad Pitt as Major Roy McBride: super cool under pressure, pride of Space Command and son of legendary astronaut H. Clifford McBride, played by Tommy Lee Jones.

Clifford McBride was the first human to reach both Jupiter and Saturn and a veteran of several deep space missions, which made him the perfect candidate to lead the Lima Project — a deep, deep space mission that would put a team in orbit around Neptune, beyond the influence of the Sun’s radiation, to scan the universe for extraterrestrial intelligence. 

Unfortunately, all contact with the mission was lost some time ago and the team is considered at the very least to be missing in action. That is until some strange energy pulses, like weaker and semi-repetitive gamma-ray bursts, strike Earth, causing catastrophic destruction. Referred to as the “Surge,” these bursts have been deemed to come from the neighborhood of Neptune. Thus Pitt is called upon to travel to Mars and send a series of messages by focused laser transmission in an attempt to make contact with his father. 

The movie is set in the near future, but it doesn’t quite seem to successfully cement portraying futuristic technology whilst incorporating an extension of issues we currently have with space exploration. For example, when Pitt is sent freefalling from — what appears to be a space elevator as it’s struck by the surge and explodes — we later find out wasn’t a space elevator, but actually a giant radio antenna that extends from the planet’s surface to low-Earth orbit. If the materials exist to build this, why hasn’t a space elevator been built to remove the need for expensive and dangerous rocket launches? 

There’s a pretty impressive looking moon base too plus a permanent settlement on Mars, not to mention some kind of ion-Epstein-warp-quantum-hyper-drive propulsion system that’s capable of getting a vessel to Neptune in just 84 days. Voyager 2 took about 12 years.

Sadly then, some of the smaller details prevent a full cinematic immersive experience. Leaving the one-sixth gravity conditions on the moon aside — yup, that old chestnut — some interesting issues are touched upon, like the fact that there are conflicts over lunar territories and a Virgin Atlantic blanket and pillow cost $120 on the flight from Earth to the moon. During the “long” flight to Neptune, Pitt uses electro-stimulation to keep his muscles working, which was a nice touch, although quite what the direct stomach ingestion valve was all about wasn’t adequately explored. (My editor thinks it’s a feeding tube to let him sleep through the trip.)

And therein lies the problem; in some instances a great deal of attention has clearly been paid to get the details right and at other times, it hasn’t.

Director James Gray said in an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival that “Ad Astra” will feature “the most realistic depiction of space travel that’s been put in a movie.”Gray also described the film as “sort of like if you got ‘Apocalypse Now’ and ‘2001’ in a giant mashup and you put a little [Joseph] Conrad in there.”

The “Apocalypse Now” vibe is undeniable, down to an almost parody of some iconic scenes as Pitt watches the last recordings his father ever made and asks, “What did he find out there … in the abyss?” And Jones even sounds like Marlon Brando as he says, “The world awaits our discovery, my son.”

It is perhaps just a little too similar in places and you can’t help but think that Pitt is going to come out with something like, “At first I thought they’d given me the wrong dossier…” Particularly when he’s reading his father’s list of accomplishments and accolades to himself. Consequently, it’s a little distracting at times.Click here for more Space.com videos…‘Who Was More Believable, Clooney or Pitt?’ – Brad Pitt Talks to ISSVolume 0%

There’s also more than a nod to the other influence Gray mentioned, “2001: A Space Odyssey” with some distinct camera angles and Pitt’s ongoing psych evaluation that requires him to use phrases like, “I remain confident in the completion of this mission.”

Following some shady shenanigans with Space Command, Pitt must stow away on a ship bound for Neptune to destroy the Lima Project spacecraft, now positively identified as the source of the surge. 

He eventually reaches his father and along the way we learn that the Lima Project detected no signs of an alien civilization and thus reinforces the idea that we are in fact alone in the universe. 

And while that notion works well in parallel with the deconstruction and subsequent reconstruction of Pitt’s character, it is of course no basis to make that assumption definitive. Let’s face facts, space is a pretty big place, chances are it’s going to require either a wormhole or faster than light travel to reach the nearest indigenous alien intelligence. Ultimately, instead of looking for life up there, he instead concentrates on the life he is connected to down here, back on Earth; namely his wife, played by Liv Tyler, and family.

In order that some sense of mystery should still be preserved, no revelation will be made concerning exactly how the movie ends. However, we will say this: when Pitt eventually returns to Earth, we desperately wanted his capsule to be opened by a group of apes dressed in black leather and holding rifles.

The screenplay and plot let this movie down considerably, but in the areas where it’s lacking, Pitt’s soulful, nuanced performance manages to pull it up and just about keep it above water. Not only must Pitt overcome moon pirates, rabid Norwegian space monkeys and the bureaucratic red tape of the government, but also some serious personal issues with his father, who was absent through most of Pitt’s life, causing him to reflect on his role in his own family and even wonder whether an unavoidable transmission is taking place as Pitt seemingly becomes more like his father.

Factor in the stunning photography and this is a movie that’s certainly enjoyable, but leaves you feeling that so much more could’ve been accomplished.

China’s Lunar Rover Scopes Out Weird Substance on Far Side of the Moon (Photos)

But what IS it?

China's Yutu-2 moon rover captured this image from the edge of the small crater where it found a mysterious, gel-like material.
China’s Yutu-2 moon rover captured this image from the edge of the small crater where it found a mysterious, gel-like material.

China’s lunar exploration program has released images that give us a glimpse of the mysterious material discovered on the far side of the moon.

Yutu-2, the lunar rover for China’s Chang’e-4 mission, grabbed attention last month after its drive team spotted something unusual while roving close to a small crater. The Chinese-language science outreach publication Our Space, which announced the findings on Aug. 17, used the term “胶状物” (jiao zhuang wu), which can be translated as “gel-like.” This notion sparked wide interest and speculation among lunar scientists.

Scientists have now gotten a look at that curious material, thanks to a post (Chinese) released over the weekend by Our Space via its WeChat social media account. Along with new images of the stuff on the moon, the post details how the Yutu-2 team carefully approached the crater in order to analyze the specimen, despite risks. 

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The clearest image shows two of the rover’s six wheels and the contents of an approximately 7-foot-wide (2 meters) crater. 

The compressed, black-and-white shot comes from an obstacle-avoidance camera on the rover. The green, rectangular area and red circle within are suspected to be related to the field of view of the Visible and Near-Infrared Spectrometer (VNIS) instrument, rather than the subject matter itself, according to some lunar scientists.

A cropped image showing the highlighted area with the crater.
A cropped image showing the highlighted area with the crater. 

VNIS is one of Yutu-2’s four science payloads. It detects light that is scattered or reflected off materials to reveal their chemical makeup. As VNIS has a small field of view, the drive team needed to carefully navigate Yutu-2 to make a detection without falling into the crater.

After obtaining the first set of data that VIRS collected at the crater in July, the Yutu-2 team deemed it to be unsatisfactory due to shadows, so the team members attempted a second approach and measurement during the following lunar day in August. According to Our Space, a satisfactory detection was made — but the results were not released.

An image showing Yutu-2's shadow and tracks from when it approached the crater.
An image showing Yutu-2’s shadow and tracks from when it approached the crater. 

Clive Neal, a lunar scientist at the University of Notre Dame, told Space.com that while the image is not great, it may still give clues to the nature of the material.

Neal said that the material highlighted in the center of the crater resembles a sample of impact glass found during the Apollo 17 mission in 1972. Sample 70019 was collected by astronaut Harrison Schmitt, a trained geologist, from a fresh crater 10 feet (3 meters) in diameter, similar to that approached by Yutu-2.

The crater containing sample 70019, with the Apollo 17 lunar module in the background.
The crater containing sample 70019, with the Apollo 17 lunar module in the background.

Neal describes 70019 as being made of dark, coherent microbreccia — broken fragments of minerals cemented together — and black, shiny glass. “I think we have an example here of what Yutu-2 saw,” Neal said.

High-speed impacts on the lunar surface melt and redistribute rock across the craters they make and can create glassy, igneous rocks and crystalline structures.

As for being unusual and “mysterious,” as described by the initial Chinese account, “having craters looking like those from Yutu-2 and where 70019 was collected is to be expected,” Neal said. 

The initial observation that commanded the attention of the drive team was made from an image from Yutu-2’s Panoramic Camera (PCAM). The Chang’e-3 mission’s Yutu rover, which landed on the near side in 2013, returned impressive, high-resolution color images of the lunar landscape using its PCAM

The Yutu-2 team will have great images to work with, and these may suggest something different. However, images from the Chang’e-4 mission might be released publicly as long as one year after they have been taken.

An image from Mare Imbrium taken by the PCAM on Yutu-1.
An image from Mare Imbrium taken by the PCAM on Yutu-1. 

Dan Moriarty, NASA Postdoctoral Program Fellow at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, agrees that it is hard to make a definitive assessment of the substance’s chemical composition, given the poor image quality and overlying colored section in the Yutu-2 image.

Moriarty told Space.com that the outlined material appears somewhat brighter than surrounding materials, though the actual brightness is hard to confirm from the photographs. If so, the contrast could be due to the differing origins of the respective materials.

“Chang’e-4 landed in a mare basalt-filled crater, which is typically dark,” Moriarty said. “Highlands crustal materials are typically brighter, so that would be a potential candidate.”

“It will be very interesting to see what the spectrometer sees, and if any higher-resolution images become available,” Moriarty notes.

Chang’e-3’s Yutu rover carried an alpha particle X-ray spectrometer for analyzing chemical composition, mounted on a robotic arm, which would be very useful for identifying such specimens. Yutu-2 instead carries the new Advanced Small Analyzer for Neutrals (ASAN), a payload from Sweden for studying how solar winds interact with the lunar surface.

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

The Chang’e-4 lander and Yutu-2 completed the ninth lunar day of their mission on Sept. 5, powering down around 24 hours ahead of local sunset. Lunar day 10 will begin around Sept. 22 for Yutu-2 and Sept. 23 for the lander. (On the moon, a day lasts about two weeks.)

Yutu-2 has been heading west of the Chang’e-4 landing site in the Von Kármán crater since the historic Jan. 2 lunar far side landing, covering 934 feet (285 meters) so far. 

It’s Gonna Blow! Giant Volcano on Jupiter Moon Could Erupt Any Day

Loki Patera’s dormant time is nearly up, if recent history is any guide.

This image, captured by NASA's Voyager 1 spacecraft, shows a plume rising from Loki Patera, the largest volcano on the Jupiter moon Io.

This image, captured by NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft, shows a plume rising from Loki Patera, the largest volcano on the Jupiter moon Io.(Image: © NASA/JPL/USGS)

The biggest volcano on the Jupiter moon Io should erupt any day now, a new study suggests.

Loki Patera, a 125-mile-wide (200 kilometers) lava lake on the most volcanically active body in the solar system, has had fairly regular activity over the past few decades. And it’s due for an outburst very soon.

“If this behavior remains the same, Loki should erupt in September 2019, around the same time as the EPSC-DPS meeting in Geneva,” Julie Rathbun, a senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona, said in a statement yesterday (Sept. 17). “We correctly predicted that the last eruption would occur in May of 2018.”

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EPSC-DPS is a joint conference held by the European Planetary Science Congress and the American Astronomical Society’s Division for Planetary Sciences, and it’s going on now. Rathbun presented the new results at the meeting yesterday.

Scientists aren’t sure what drives Loki Patera’s outbursts, but the leading explanation posits a process very different than what’s behind typical volcanic eruptions here on Earth: The top layer of Loki Patera solidifies, then falls into the still-liquid portion below.

And the intrigue surrounding Loki Patera doesn’t stop there; the periodicity of the lake’s eruptions has changed over the decades as well. The outbursts occurred every 540 Earth days or so in the 1990s. The periodic behavior seemed to stop in the early 2000s but reappeared around 2013, with eruptions now happening roughly every 475 days.

Given all these shifts and uncertainties, Rathbun isn’t exactly betting the farm on a Loki Patera flare-up in the next few days.

“Volcanoes are so difficult to predict because they are so complicated. Many things influence volcanic eruptions, including the rate of magma supply, the composition of the magma — particularly the presence of bubbles in the magma, the type of rock the volcano sits in, the fracture state of the rock and many other issues,” Rathbun said in the same statementClick here for more Space.com videos…Jupiter’s Moon Io Casts Large Shadow on Gas Giant PlanetVolume 0%

“We think that Loki could be predictable because it is so large,” she added. “Because of its size, basic physics are likely to dominate when it erupts, so the small complications that affect smaller volcanoes are likely to not affect Loki as much. However, you have to be careful because Loki is named after a trickster god [in Norse mythology], and the volcano has not been known to behave itself.”

Loki Patera’s activity cycle is far too lengthy to be tied to Io’s orbit around Jupiter, which is supertight; the moon completes one lap every 1.77 Earth days. So, researchers think that gravitational interactions among Io and some of its fellow moons may be responsible for the (semi) regularity. 

Jupiter’s powerful gravity is the root cause of Io’s volcanism overall, however. The planet’s constant tug stretches Io’s innards, melting moon rock into magma via tidal heating. (Reminder: Lava is just magma that has reached the surface of a planet or moon.)

UFO videos are footage of real ‘unidentified’ objects, US Navy acknowledges

UFO videos released by former Blink-182 singer acknowledged as ‘real’ unidentified objects by US Navy

For the first time, the U.S. Navy has acknowledged that the three UFO videos that were released by former Blink-182 singer Tom DeLonge and published by The New York Times are of real “unidentified” objects.

“The Navy considers the phenomena contained/depicted in those three videos as unidentified,” Navy spokesman Joseph Gradisher told The Black Vault, a website dedicated to declassified government documents.

Gradisher added that “the ‘Unidentified Aerial Phenomena’ terminology is used because it provides the basic descriptor for the sightings/observations of unauthorized/unidentified aircraft/objects that have been observed entering/operating in the airspace of various military-controlled training ranges.”

The statement has been corroborated with other media outlets. Fox News has reached out to the Navy for additional comment for this story.

The videos in question, known as “FLIR1,” “Gimbal” and “GoFast,” were originally released to the New York Times and to The Stars Academy of Arts & Science (TTSA). In December 2017, Fox News reported that the Pentagon had secretly set up a program to investigate UFOs at the request of former Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev.

In June 2019, Reid, now retired, expressed his desire for lawmakers to hold public hearings into what the military knows. “They would be surprised how the American public would accept it,” he said during a wide-ranging interview with a Nevada radio station. “People from their individual states would accept it.”

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

John Greenewald, Jr., who publishes The Black Vault, told Motherboard he was surprised at the language the Navy used in its official statement.

“I very much expected that when the U.S. military addressed the videos, they would coincide with language we see on official documents that have now been released, and they would label them as ‘drones’ or ‘balloons,’” Greenwald told the news outlet. “However, they did not. They went on the record stating the ‘phenomena’ depicted in those videos, is ‘unidentified.’ That really made me surprised, intrigued, excited and motivated to push harder for the truth.”

Luis Elizondo, the former head of the Pentagon’s Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program (AATIP), has previously said that people should pay attention to the comments the government is making about UFOs.

“What the pilots encountered that day was able to perform in ways that defied all logic and our current understanding of aerodynamics,” Elizondo wrote in a Fox News op-ed of the 2004 encounter by U.S. Navy pilots who witnessed the object off the coast of San Diego. “Furthermore, beyond what the pilots saw with their own trained eye, the technological feat they encountered was further verified by the impressive Aegis SPY-1 radar, America’s premier radar system at the time, and even gun camera footage and sonar systems from submarines accompanying the carrier.

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

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

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

President Trump said he has been briefed on Navy pilots’ reported sightings of unidentified flying objects, but remained skeptical of the existence of UFOs. “I want them to think whatever they think,” Trump told ABC News’ George Stephanopolous earlier this year, referring to the Navy pilots. “I did have one very brief meeting on it. But people are saying they’re seeing UFOs. Do I believe it? Not particularly.”

First Glimpses of Interstellar Comet Suggest It’s Not So Different

Observations of what scientists believe to be the first interstellar comet ever identified.

Observations of what scientists believe to be the first interstellar comet ever identified.(Image: © IAC/Miquel Serra-Ricart)

Astronomers are rushing to study what appears to be the first known interstellar comet — and in some of the very earliest observations, it looks oddly familiar.

The object, currently dubbed Comet C/2019 Q4, was first spotted on Aug. 30. Follow-up observations of its path suggest that the comet is skimming through our neighborhood on a one-way journey, not trapped in the looping orbit typical of objects born in our own solar system. That would make it only the second confirmed interstellar object, after ‘Oumuamua, which was spotted in 2017.

But scientists couldn’t get a good read on what ‘Oumuamua was made of. With this object, however, they can get such readings, by measuring the light signature of the gunk surrounding the comet. Some of the first of those spectra for C/2019 Q4 are in, and they look pretty similar to the spectra of a class of objects in our solar system. This suggests that those objects and the interstellar visitor consist of more or less the same stuff.

Related: Interstellar Comet: Here’s Why It’s Got Scientists So Pumped UpClick here for more Space.com videos…CLOSEComet Borisov May Be Insterstellar – Orbit AnimationVolume 0%

“Comets in other planetary systems can be similar to those of the solar system,” Javier Licandro, an astronomer at the Institute for Astrophysics of the Canaries, said in a statement. “They may have formed by processes similar to those which led to the formation of the Oort Cloud comets in the solar system.”

The Oort Cloud is the spherical shell of icy bodies encasing our solar system at huge distances from the sun. We see comets when they get kicked out of the Oort Cloud and travel closer to the heart of our solar system. They grow their trademark fuzzy tails when the sun’s radiation vaporizes the more volatile ingredients of the comet. 

Observations of Comet C/2019 Q4 compared with average data for a class of solar system objects.
Observations of Comet C/2019 Q4 compared with average data for a class of solar system objects. 

Scientists have spotted comets ricocheting across other solar systems before, but the objects are tricky to study across such vast distances. While ‘Oumuamua was definitely interstellar, it didn’t carry the telltale cometary blur. The newly spotted object does, and that’s what Licandro and colleagues at the Institute for Astrophysics of the Canaries were able to study.

The team used a telescope in the Canary Islands to image the comet on Sept. 12 and applied an installed instrument to gather three spectra as well. Initial analyses of those spectra suggest that they align somewhat with those of a specific group of solar system objects. That could mean that the solar system where the object came from follows a recipe fairly similar to that of our own solar system and its comets.

And scientists have plenty of time to gather the many observations they’ll need to better understand what the comet is made of and where it came from. Unlike when ‘Oumuamua was discovered, astronomers believe they still have a full year during which they can observe the comet from Earth.

Universe might be 2 billion years younger, shocking study says

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dangerous Asteroid Headed for Earth

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

Humanity needs to step up its asteroid-hunting game.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Earth Causes Asteroid-Quakes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Corey S. Powell@coreyspowell · Sep 10, 2019

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

Corey S. Powell@coreyspowell

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

View image on Twitter

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

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

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

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

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

1st Color Photo of Interstellar Comet Reveals Its Fuzzy Tail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remembering 9/11: NASA Astronauts Pay Tribute from Space

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

View image on Twitter
View image on Twitter

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

The asteroid could be heading to Earth 

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

It is considered the most dangerous asteroid in the universe

Researcher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Radio signals from space: Neutron star pulsars

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

Radio signals from space: Radio beams from pulsar

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

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

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

Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Radio signals from space: Neutron star pulsar beam

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

Radio signals from space: Spacetime and gravity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Astronomers Decode Weird X-Ray Pattern Coming from Neutron Star

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Communications attempts are underway.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NASA discovers mysterious green light that quickly disappeared

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two giant blobs of hot gas

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

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

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

Or maybe none of the above.

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

Gamma and the neutrino

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

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

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

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

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

A subatomic puzzle

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

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

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

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

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

Monstrous space explosions may be showering nearby galaxy in gold

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This fight has universal implications.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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