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


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)

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.”


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.


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.

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“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


“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.