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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will 2020 Be the Year We Find Intelligent Alien Life?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gaining speed

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

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

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

Improved searches

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

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

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

Previous predictions

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

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

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

Prevailing opinion

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

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

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

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

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

Long-term project

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

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

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

Preparing for discovery

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

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

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

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

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

Three-way horse race

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

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

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

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

New technologies

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

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

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

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

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

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

Living with uncertainty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bizarre worlds orbiting a black hole?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Indian government has formally acknowledged a crash.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We May Finally Understand the Moments Before the Big Bang

an artist's illustration of the big bang

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A crucible for high-energy physics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meteor flashes across the sky over St. Louis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A runaway star ejected from the galactic heart of darkness

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the Princeton, Voorhis described a similar situation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We may finally understand the moments before the Big Bang

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A crucible for high-energy physics

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

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

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

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

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

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

Planet 9 may have already been found, study suggests

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Evidence of Planet Nine?

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

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

The five lines of evidence are:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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