NASA reveals surprising odds of asteroid ending life on Earth

NASA has revealed the chances of an asteroid hitting Earth and also offered some insight into where a major space rock might fall.

NASA: Expert says ‘little can be done’ about large asteroids

NASA has revealed the chances of an asteroid hitting Earth, and the space agency reiterates the fact that it is always a risk.

The space agency stated the chances of an asteroid big enough to destroy a city is 0.1 percent in any given year.

However, if one of these rocks were to be on a collision course with Earth, the likelihood is that it will hit water, with NASA stating it is 70 percent more likely to hit water than land.

Even if it does hit land, according to the space agency, there is a 20 percent chance it will hit an unpopulated area.

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Asteroid warning: NASA reveals shocking odds of asteroid ending life on Earth (Image: GETTY)

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The space agency stated the chances of an asteroid big enough to destroy a city is 0.1 percent in any given year (Image: GETTY)

The asteroid which wiped out the dinosaurs around 66 million years ago was believed to be up to 16 kilometres wide.

Previous research from the University of Berkley, California, believes there is evidence to suggest that non-avian dinosaurs survived around 30,000 years afterwards, and they eventually went extinct due to the 100,000 years of drastic climate change caused by the impact.

Others, however, believe the beasts died out in a matter of months.

Palaeontologist Ken Lacovara previously said: “They died suddenly and were buried quickly.

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The threat of asteroids will always remain (Image: GETTY)

“It tells us this is a moment in geological time. That’s days, weeks, maybe months.”

However, NASA has revealed that a much smaller asteroid has the ability to cause chaos on the planet.

The space agency said a space rock of just a kilometre wide has the potential to case chaos across the planet.

NASA said: “An individual’s chance of being killed by a meteorite is small, but the risk increases with the size of the impacting comet or asteroid, with the greatest risk associated with global catastrophes resulting from impacts of objects larger than 1 kilometre.”

ESA

The hunt for asteroids (Image: ESA)

However, the space agency moved to reassure frightened minds, stating it is not predicting a major asteroid strike of that size for several centuries.

The space boffins said: “NASA knows of no asteroid or comet currently on a collision course with Earth, so the probability of a major collision is quite small.

“In fact, as best as we can tell, no large object is likely to strike the Earth any time in the next several hundred years.”

NASA has made great strides in discovering near-Earth objects that are over one kilometre in size, with 90 percent now accounted for.

However, this means there are still 10 percent of dangerous asteroids which have not been spotted.

Small asteroid zips safely by Earth just ahead of a larger space rock’s flyby

A small newfound asteroid gave Earth a close shave today (April 28) on the event of another flyby by a much larger space rock, according to NASA. 

The asteroid, called 2020 HS7, is between 13 and 24 feet (4 to 8 meters) in size and passed Earth at a distance of 23,000 miles (36,400 kilometers) when it made its closest approach at 2:51 p.m. EDT (1851 GMT). That range is close to the orbits of some geosynchronous satellites about 22,000 miles (36,000 km) above Earth.ADVERTISING

While that sounds close, there was never any risk to our planet, NASA officials said.

“Small asteroids like 2020 HS7 safely pass by Earth a few times per month,” NASA’s Planetary Defense Officer Lindley Johnson,  the program executive for the Planetary Defense Coordination Office at agency’s Washington, D.C. headquarters, said in a statement. “It poses no threat to our planet, and even if it were on a collision path with Earth it is small enough that it would be disintegrated by our Earth’s atmosphere.”

Webcast: See the huge asteroid 1998 OR2 live tonight from Slooh!

This NASA graphic shows the orbit of the newfound asteroid 2020 HS7, which passed safely by Earth on April 28, 2020.
This NASA graphic shows the path of the newfound asteroid 2020 HS7, which passed safely by Earth on April 28, 2020 at a distance of 23,000 miles (36,400 km). (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Asteroid 2020 HS7’s flyby comes just one day before the close approach of a much bigger space rock: the asteroid 1998 OR2. That space rock will pass Earth early Wednesday, April 29, at 5:55 a.m. EDT (0955 GMT).

With a diameter of about 1.5 miles (2 km), asteroid 1998 OR2 is much larger than 2020 HS7, but it’s also passing Earth at a much greater distance — about 3.9 million miles (6.9 million km). That’s about 16 times the distance between the Earth and the moon (about 239,000 miles, or 385,000 km). Click here for more Space.com videos…Asteroid 1998 OR2 will safely fly by Earth – NASA explains

Despite its size, asteroid 1998 OR2 is too small and dim to be seen with the unaided eye. But you can see it through telescopes tonight thanks to a webcast from Slooh.com

The webcast, which you can also see here courtesy of Slooh, begins at 7 p.m. EDT (2300 GMT) and will last an hour.

Scientists at NASA and around the world regularly track asteroids that come close to the Earth in order to identify ones that might one day endanger our planet. These so-called “near-Earth objects” are ones that approach within 4.6 million miles (7.5 million km). 

To date, astronomers have discovered 22,776 near-Earth objects, and new ones are being found at a rate of 30 each day, NASA officials said. More than 95% of those objects were found through NASA-funded surveys, they added.

UFO video? Pentagon releases footage of ‘unidentified aerial phenomena,’ but says it’s not out of the ordinary

Pentagon releases footage of ‘unidentified aerial phenomena’

Raw video: The UFOs were spotted in 2004 and 2015 prior to the footage being unclassified by the Pentagon.

The Pentagon on Monday released unclassified footage showing “unidentified aerial phenomena” captured by Navy aircraft that had circulated in the public for years.

The videos showing the UFOs were initially released by the Stars Academy of Arts & Science in 2017 and 2018 and were acknowledged by the Navy. One was taken in November 2004 and the other two were captured in January 2015.

“After a thorough review, the department has determined that the authorized release of these unclassified videos does not reveal any sensitive capabilities or systems, and does not impinge on any subsequent investigations of military air space incursions by unidentified aerial phenomena,” said Pentagon spokesperson Sue Gough.

“DOD is releasing the videos in order to clear up any misconceptions by the public on whether or not the footage that has been circulating was real, or whether or not there is more to the videos,” Gough added. “The aerial phenomena observed in the videos remain characterized as ‘unidentified.’”

The 2004 incident occurred 100 miles out into the Pacific Ocean when two Navy pilots on a training mission were dispatched to investigate objects being tracked by a Navy cruiser for two weeks prior. The pilots found one oval-shaped aircraft hovering 50 feet above the water that quickly descended and fled when they moved closer.

“It accelerated like nothing I’ve ever seen,” one pilot told the New York Times.

When they were on their way to their rendezvous point 60 miles away, they were radioed by the ship that the object had been was there and had traveled the distance in less than a minute.

“Sir, you won’t believe it,” the radio operator said, “but that thing is at your cap point.”

The two other videos captured objects moving swiftly through the air.

“Dude, this is a f–king drone, bro,” a pilot says on the video.

Former Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the footage “scratches the surface of research and materials” made available by the Pentagon.

“I’m glad the Pentagon is finally releasing this footage, but it only scratches the surface of research and materials available,” Reid tweeted Monday. “The U.S. needs to take a serious, scientific look at this and any potential national security implications. The American people deserve to be informed.”Senator Harry Reid@SenatorReid

I’m glad the Pentagon is finally releasing this footage, but it only scratches the surface of research and materials available. The U.S. needs to take a serious, scientific look at this and any potential national security implications. The American people deserve to be informed. https://twitter.com/CBSNews/status/1254802527595515906 …CBS News✔@CBSNewsPentagon formally releases 3 Navy videos showing “unidentified aerial phenomena”

The former lawmaker has been a vocal supporter of investigating UFOs. At his urging, the Defense Department secretly created a program more than a decade ago to investigate UFO sightings.

Last year, the Navy overhauled its process to allow pilots to report sightings in an effort to destigmatize the reporting of them.

“There have been a number of reports of unauthorized and/or unidentified aircraft entering various military-controlled ranges and designated air space in recent years,” the Navy said at the time. “As part of this effort, the Navy is updating and formalizing the process by which reports of any such suspected incursions can be made to the cognizant authorities.”

President Trump said he was briefed on Navy pilots reported sightings of UFOs but remained skeptical.

“I was struck in the last few couple of weeks, we’re reading more and more reports of Navy pilots seeing lots and lots of UFOs,” ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos said to Trump during an interview in the Oval Office last year. “Have you been briefed on that? What do you make of it?”

“I want them to think whatever they think,” Trump replied, 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.”

What To Watch For In The Night Sky This Week: April 27 – May 3, 2020

Venus will be just 27% illuminated this week, but despite that its brightness will be an incredible sight.
Venus will be just 27% illuminated this week, but despite that its brightness will be an incredible … [+] TOM KERSS

Monday, April 27, 2020: Venus at peak brightness

It’s been a dazzling sight for all of 2020 so far, and tonight Venus will reach its peak brightness of magnitude -4.7. “Since it is coming between us and the Sun, it’s showing us more of its night side, becoming a mesmerizing crescent shape in telescopes,” says Tom Kerss, a British astronomy and science communicator who hosts the weekly Star Signs: Go Stargazing! podcast. “Even a small telescope will reveal Venus to be shaped like a tiny crescent moon.” The phenomenon is nothing less than the original observational proof that the planets orbit the Sun and not the Earth.

Tonight it will be 27% illuminated, but despite that, its brightness will be an incredible sight. “It’ll continue to be dazzling in the west after sunset for the next month, so it’s a great time to look out for our nearest planetary neighbour,” says Kerss. Look west after sunset to see Venus at its very best, and if you have a small telescope of a big pair of binoculars, use them! Venus is quickly dipping as it moves rapidly towards the Sun from our point of view; it will be completely invisible by the end of May. 

How To See A ‘Starlink Train’ From Your Home This Week As SpaceX Satellites Swarm The Night Sky

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An image of the NGC 5353/4 galaxy group made with a telescope at Lowell Observatory in Arizona, USA … [+] VICTORIA GIRGIS/LOWELL OBSERVATO

You’ve heard about the Starlink satellites? They’re so controversial. Designed by SpaceX to create internet access to everywhere on the planet, the ultimate plan is for a massive constellation of 42,000 satellites.

This week they’re bringing a light show like no other to the night skies over Western Europe as dozens of satellites cross one after another over the course of around four hours.

No one foresaw that the first few batches—and there are only 362 up there so far—would be so darned visible. In fact, some are proving to be briefly brighter than the planet Venus.

The “trains” are about 30 satellites. Ironically, Starlink is getting people to look up at the night sky while many are concerned that the very same phenomenon is a threat to it.

Here’s a summary of where we are with Starlink:

  • Environmentalists don’t want more space junk—an argument bolstered by the impending bankruptcy of SpaceX’s rival OneWeb, who has similar plans (and just launched its first 74 satellites).
  • And stargazers? They just want to see a “Starlink Train”.

Whatever your opinion on whether they are a positive or a negative, here’s exactly when to get outside this week, look up, and see one of the most incredible sights of your life—a seemingly never-ending train of super-bright satellites.

How to see the Starlink satellites train

With stargazing from homes, gardens, backyards and windows becoming a popular pastime in these times of lockdown, everyone’s going to want to see a Starlink train. This week, if you’re in Western Europe, it’s easy; you just go outside and look-up to see them travel from west to east.

You don’t any equipment, just your naked eyes and some patience—Starlink trains can be up to 10 minutes “late.”

When to see the Starlink satellites train

To find out exactly when a Starlink train will be visible from your precise location, visit the Find Starlink website (or the “Find Starlink Satellites” app) and just enter your location. It prioritises bright passes of newly-launched satellites—that’s important (some are very dim)— and even gives a live map of where they are now.

You can also get detailed information from the reliable Heavens Above website, which gives comprehensive information on every single Starlink satellite, and even includes a skychart for each individual pass.

SpaceX Readies For Sixth Starlink Launch
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying the sixth batch of Starlink satellites for a planned constellation … [+] NURPHOTO VIA GETTY IMAGES

Why are Starlink satellites so bright?

Their solar panels are glinting, but there’s actually a huge variation in their brightness. It’s all about angles—your exact position, the satellite’s trajectory, and precisely how far below the horizon the Sun is when the satellite passes.

However, despite the controversy, Starlink satellites are only densely packed and bright—and therefore easy to see—in the first few months after their launch. As their orbits raise, so their brightness greatly reduces.

Is Starlink a terrible blow to modern astronomy? It’s possible. But there’s no doubting that the rise of the “Starlink Trains” is also an unmissable stargazing event.

So get outside and #LookUpLockDown!

Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes.

NASA reveals stunning ‘Cosmic Reef’ blasting to life in nearby galaxy

Two bright nebulas in a galaxy 163,000 light-years away are very pregnant with stars.

Two nebulas burst to life in the next-door galaxy.

Two young nebulas burst to life in the galaxy next-door.(Image: © NASA, ESA and STScI)

Young stars blaze to life in a nearby galaxy, repainting their cosmic neighborhood with fiery blooms of gas and radiation.

This new Hubble Space Telescope image captures just another day in the life of two young nebulas (one red, one blue) in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy of the Milky Way located about 163,000 light-years away. But for scientists and space enthusiasts on Earth, the image also marks a special anniversary. Thirty years ago today (April 24), the Hubble launched from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida to begin its long mission of peering into the deepest reaches of space.ADVERTISING

While the Hubble has since homed in on galaxies from the earliest days of the universe, the telescope didn’t have to look too far to capture this stunning starscape. As a satellite of the Milky Way, the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC) is close enough to be caught in the thrall of our galaxy’s gravity, and it inches a little bit closer to our galaxy every year. (Scientists actually think the neighboring galaxy will crash into ours in the next few billion years or so.)

With about 5% the mass of the Milky Way, the LMC contains many regions where baby stars are still actively forming. The nebulas shown in this Hubble image represent two such “stellar nurseries,” according to a statement from NASA.

These baby stars are big — at least 10 times more massive than Earth’s sun — and they’re bright. The star at the center of the blue nebula in the bottom left corner of the image is about 200,000 times brighter than our sun, Jennifer Wiseman, a senior scientist on the Hubble Project, said in a video accompanying the image.

“Powerful radiation from these stars is causing the surrounding gas to glow in stunning colors,” Wiseman said. “Those massive stars are also driving powerful winds of charged particles, which are sculpting out the bubble and ridge structures we can see across the nebula.”

NASA researchers have nicknamed this image the “Cosmic Reef” for its resemblance to a coral reef in Earth’s oceans — bursting with color and life, but hidden just beyond the reach of human sight.

Big asteroid shows itself ahead of Earth flyby on April 29 (photo)

We have nothing to fear from 1998 OR2.

The Arecibo Observatory captured this radar image of the big asteroid 1998 OR2 on April 18, 2020. 1998 OR2 will fly by Earth at a distance of 3.9 million miles (6.3 million kilometers) on April 29.

The Arecibo Observatory captured this radar image of the big asteroid 1998 OR2 on April 18, 2020. 1998 OR2 will fly by Earth at a distance of 3.9 million miles (6.3 million kilometers) on April 29.(Image: © Arecibo Observatory/NASA/NSF)

We’ve now got a good visual on the big space rock that’s going to fly by Earth next week.

On Saturday (April 18), the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico captured a radar image of the asteroid 1998 OR2, which will zoom within 3.9 million miles (6.3 million kilometers) of our planet on April 29. 

For perspective: The moon orbits Earth at an average distance of about 239,000 miles (385,000 km). So we have nothing to fear from asteroid 1998 OR2’s Earth flyby on April 29, scientists stress.

Arecibo team members have been wearing masks in the workplace to help minimize the spread of the novel coronavirus, and they apparently see a bit of themselves in the approaching space rock.

“#TeamRadar and the @NAICobservatory staff are taking the proper safety measures as we continue observations. This week we have been observing near-Earth asteroid 1998 OR2, which looks like it’s wearing a mask! It’s at least 1.5 km across and is passing 16 lunar distances away!” team members tweeted on Saturday via the @AreciboRadar account. (@AreciboRadar is not an official Arecibo account. But @NAICobservatory is, and it retweeted the April 18 post.)Arecibo Radar@AreciboRadar

#TeamRadar and the @NAICobservatory staff are taking the proper safety measures as we continue observations. This week we have been observing near-Earth asteroid 1998 OR2, which looks like it’s wearing a mask! It’s at least 1.5 km across and is passing 16 lunar distances away!

View image on Twitter

The Arecibo researchers aren’t the only ones keeping an eye on 1998 OR2. For example, Italian astrophysicist Gianluca Masi, who runs the online Virtual Telescope Project, has been tracking the asteroid as well.

And Masi will continue to do so. On April 28, in fact, he will host a live webcast about 1998 OR2 that will feature telescope views of the object. 

Astronomers estimate that 1998 OR2 is between 1.1 and 2.5 miles (1.8 to 4.1 kilometers) wide — big enough that an impact could threaten human civilization. But, to repeat, there is nothing to fear here; the asteroid will miss us by a large margin on April 29. 

Indeed, you should quell any general death-from-above fears that may be running rampant in your head. NASA has found and tracked the vast majority of giant near-Earth asteroids, and none of them pose a threat to Earth for the foreseeable future.

A Million People on Mars May Not Be Wishful Thinking

But colonists would have to change their diets, and learn to eat crickets.

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A mini-fleet of Starships wait near a Martian base in this SpaceX artist’s conception. (SpaceX)

Asustainable, self-sufficient population of one million people can be achieved on Mars within 100 years, according to a new modeling study published by Kevin Cannon and Daniel Britt, both at the University of Central Florida. Their study drew on a plan sketched out by Elon Musk of SpaceX, which begins with about 12 people landing on Mars, followed by multiple ships carrying 100 to 200 passengers at every launch opportunity, roughly every 26 months. The population growth is envisioned to be sustained both by immigration and by births on Mars.

Based on Cannon’s and Britt’s analysis, four of the five major “consumables” necessary for a Martian settlement—energy, water, oxygen, and construction material—can be extracted from the Martian surface in economically practical concentrations. Only food is not obtainable from raw materials on Mars. So, how to solve the food problem? The authors suggest growing plants, insect farming, and cellular agriculture.

Plants have often been suggested in the past, but it would be critical to plant high-calorie crops in order to feed so many people. Insect farming would also be well suited, because it can provide large amounts of calories per unit of land. House crickets are especially suitable for this purpose, and are already used in some granola bars today.

Protein-rich foods also could be obtained from cells grown in bioreactors. Interestingly, clean fish may be favored over cell-grown meats on Mars, because the cultures could be maintained at colder temperatures (closer to 20 degrees Celsius) as compared to the 37 degrees needed for warm-blooded animal cells.

I find these ideas and extrapolations very intriguing. But living on Mars might not be as easy as it seems, even with further progress in technology. Growing plants in Martian soil may be quite a challenge, with perchlorates and other chemicals abundant in sediments found on the Red Planet. In fact, in another study involving the same authors, plants quickly died and earthworms suffocated in a simulated soil similar to the one found on Mars.

Then we have to consider biology. It is far from clear that humans can easily bear children on Mars, considering that Martian gravity is only 38 percent of what we experience on Earth. The human body is adapted to terrestrial conditions, and unexpected complications may result when a basic physical constant is only a third of what we humans are used to. Martian farmers might face other problems, including unfamiliar crop diseases that wipe out their harvests and result in major starvation on Mars.

On the upside, technologies for efficient, sustainable food production on Mars could have benefits for the many more people adapting to climate change back on Earth, and so could prove invaluable for our entire civilization.

Musk’s vision of a million people on Mars is likely not in our immediate future. But it may have gotten more plausible following recent recommendations by a NASA Planetary Protection Independent Review Board, which may lead to lower sterilization requirements for landing in certain regions on Mars where no indigenous life is expected. If people do arrive in passenger ships on Mars and start setting up house, these are the locations we would expect them to settle.

New Study Could Explain How ‘Oumuamua Got Its Bizarre Shape

Interstellar object ‘Oumuamua’s past may have been more violent than we know. New simulations reveal the peculiar chunk of space rock could have been torn apart by a star – reforming into the cigar-shape we know and love today – before being flung willy-nilly out across the galaxy.https://tpc.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

If this is indeed how ‘Oumuamua formed, the new results could answer some of our most burning questions about the more peculiar properties of this pointy space traveller.

‘Oumuamua is primarily famous for being the first rock identified as entering the Solar System from elsewhere – our first known interstellar visitor. We first became aware of it in October 2017, but it wasn’t long before its other peculiarities became apparent.

First, there’s the shape. Most asteroids and comets are sort of potato-like, but ‘Oumuamua is long and thin – its 400-metre (1,300-foot) length is around eight times its breadth. It’s also red in hue, like an asteroid baked by cosmic radiation, dry, and primarily rocky and metallic.

But it was also observed accelerating away from the Sun, faster than could be explained by a gravity assist. That behaviour is more consistent with cometary outgassing, which provides an acceleration boost as volatile ices sublimate when a comet is close to the Sun.

So, it’s still not entirely clear whether ‘Oumuamua is an asteroid or a comet.

Its properties are so unusual that some hypothesised the rock was an alien probe. (There’s absolutely no evidence for that.) Based on its showing up in our Solar System at all, there should be many more objects like ‘Oumuamua out there, in fact. 

Now, researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the University of California, Santa Cruz have determined how the strange object could have formed. Not only is this process completely natural (again, no aliens here), it can explain some of ‘Oumuamua’s odder properties.

“We showed that ‘Oumuamua-like interstellar objects can be produced through extensive tidal fragmentation during close encounters of their parent bodies with their host stars, and then ejected into interstellar space,” said astronomer and astrophysicist Douglas Lin of UC Santa Cruz.

Tidal interactions are the gravitational interactions between two bodies. When a small body approaches a larger body – like a star, or a black hole, or even a large planet – the intense gravity can pull it apart in a process called tidal disruption. An apropos example would be the tidal disruption Jupiter wreaked on comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 in 1992.

Shoemaker-Levy 9 flew apart into chunks that collided with Jupiter, but the high-resolution simulations performed by Lin and his colleague Yun Zhang of the Chinese Academy of Sciences showed that, when a star is involved, a very different outcome is possible.

tidal oumuamua(NAOC/Y. Zhang)

First, an object flying at just the right distance from the star – a chunk of rock, such as a planetesimal – is fragmented as the tidal stresses pull it apart. Then, as it swings around, these fragments melt and stretch into an elongated configuration. Finally, as it moves away from the star, it recombines, cools and hardens into a crust that gives the newly reformed object structural stability.

This heating and cooling could explain some of the other ‘Oumuamua’s properties, too.

“Heat diffusion during the stellar tidal disruption process also consumes large amounts of volatiles, which not only explains ‘Oumuamua’s surface colours and the absence of visible coma, but also elucidates the inferred dryness of the interstellar population,” Zhang said.

“Nevertheless, some high-sublimation-temperature volatiles buried under the surface, like water ice, can remain in a condensed form.”

As ‘Oumuamua tumbled across the cold depths of interstellar space, these volatiles would remain locked inside; but, when it neared our Sun, the heat could have induced an outgassing event to produce the observed acceleration.

The team’s scenario could also produce many more objects like ‘Oumuamua, accounting for the population of many interstellar asteroids astronomers predicted.

“On average, each planetary system should eject in total about a hundred trillion objects like ‘Oumuamua,” Zhang said. “The tidal fragmentation scenario not only provides a way to form one single ‘Oumuamua, but also accounts for the vast population of asteroid-like interstellar objects.”

At the moment, we still don’t have hard answers. We know ‘Oumuamua must have formed somehow, since it exists. This new research represents one way that could have happened, while answering some puzzles along the way. But more information is just around the corner.

Since the discovery of ‘Oumuamua, a second interstellar object – the comet 2I/Borisov – was identified last year. It’s expected that, as our technological capabilities advance, we will find many more interstellar objects visiting our Solar System.

Perhaps they will be able to reveal ‘Oumuamua’s secrets, too.

The research has been published in Nature Astronomy.

Astronaut Mike Massimino describes the isolation of space, offers corona-virus quarantine, lock-down advice

Former NASA astronaut Mike Massimino experienced both quarantine and isolation during his two trips to space on the space shuttle.

“We went into quarantine before our missions so that we wouldn’t get sick,” he told Fox News, explaining that he and his fellow astronauts spent about a week in quarantine before his spaceflights in 2002 and 2009.

He also experienced the isolation of space during four spacewalks that spanned just over 30 hours. “It was between seven and eight hours apiece,” he said, noting that, busy at work, his mind was fully occupied on each of the spacewalks. “I was always thinking. I never got bored.”

Massimino did, however, get a chance to admire the view during his spacewalks to repair the Hubble Space Telescope. “It was really beautiful, Hubble is 100 miles higher than the International Space Station – you don’t really see as much detail from that altitude, but you really see the curve of the planet.”

Astronaut Mike Massimino peers into space shuttle Columbia's crew cabin during a brief break in work on the Hubble Space Telescope on March 5, 2002.

Astronaut Mike Massimino peers into space shuttle Columbia’s crew cabin during a brief break in work on the Hubble Space Telescope on March 5, 2002. (NASA)

Long hours underwater in a training pool that simulated the conditions of space also prepared him for the spacewalks, he said.

As the world wrestles with the coronavirus pandemic, astronauts have been describing their experiences of isolation in space. For his part, Massimino said that he never felt alone during his space missions. “You have your crewmates with you, you never feel isolated,” he said.

Now a professor at Columbia University’s School of Engineering, Massimino is teaching his classes via Zoom.

For people struggling with isolation, he has the following advice: “It’s important to keep morale up, keep a good schedule,” he said, noting that hygiene and exercise are important. “Do meaningful things, whether that’s work or hobbies – stay connected with friends.”

Astronaut Mike Massimino is photographed through a window of the Space Shuttle Atlantis - file photo.

Astronaut Mike Massimino is photographed through a window of the Space Shuttle Atlantis – file photo. (NASA)

“Remember, you’re not alone,” he added.

The former astronaut will feature in the Science Channel documentary “Hubble: 30 Years of Discovery,” which premieres on Sunday, April 19, at 8 PM ET/PT.

Massimino also discusses his experiences in space in his book “Spaceman: The True Story of a Young Boy’s Journey to Becoming an Astronaut.” A version of the book geared toward middle-school-age children has just been published. “I talk about things I learned in school as a kid and the importance of having a dream and never giving up,” he told Fox News.

NASA spacecraft dives towards asteroid for sampling dress rehearsal

NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft captured this series of images of asteroid Bennu on April 14, 2020, during the first rehearsal of the mission's sample collection event. This animation shows the SamCam instrument's field of view as the spacecraft approached and moved away from the asteroid's surface over a 10-minute time period between the "checkpoint" burn and the "back-away" burn. The spacecraft's sampling arm — called the Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM) — is visible in the central part of the frame.
NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft captured this series of images of asteroid Bennu on April 14, 2020, during the first rehearsal of the mission’s sample collection event. This animation shows the SamCam instrument’s field of view as the spacecraft approached and moved away from the asteroid’s surface over a 10-minute time period between the “checkpoint” burn and the “back-away” burn. The spacecraft’s sampling arm — called the Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM) — is visible in the central part of the frame. (Image credit: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona)

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx ((Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer) spacecraft is one small step closer to nabbing a precious sample from asteroid Bennu. In a planned practice run, the spacecraft got as low as 246 feet (75 meters) above the asteroid before backing off to return to its normal 0.6 mile (1 kilometer) orbit. It also deployed its sampling arm and collected data to further prepare for the epic opportunity, which will take place Aug. 25.

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, which is getting ready to scoop a sample of asteroid Bennu, has successfully completed a partial dress rehearsal for its historic trip to the asteroid’s surface.

OSIRIS-REx, which has been orbiting Bennu since 2018, is scheduled to attempt to swoop down to the surface to retrieve a sample of the asteroid four months from now and bring that sample back to Earth in 2023. On Tuesday (April 14), during what NASA calls a “checkpoint rehearsal,” OSIRIS-REx got closer to Bennu’s surface than ever before while practicing the sample collection process.

“This rehearsal let us verify flight system performance during the descent, particularly the autonomous update and execution of the Checkpoint burn,” Rich Burns, OSIRIS-REx project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, said in a statement

Video: OSIRIS-REx gets really close to asteroid Bennu in rehearsal
Related: How NASA’s asteroid sample return mission will work (infographic)

This artist's concept shows the trajectory and configuration of NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft during the checkpoint rehearsal on April 14, 2020.
This artist’s concept shows the trajectory and configuration of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft during the checkpoint rehearsal on April 14, 2020. (Image credit: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona)

In its first practice run, OSIRIS-REx went through two of the four maneuvers it would perform during a real asteroid-sampling attempt: the orbit departure burn and the “checkpoint” burn. 

First, the spacecraft fired its engines to leave its 0.6-mile (1 kilometer) orbit around Bennu and descend closer to the space rock’s surface. About four hours later, when OSIRIS-REx was at an approximate altitude of 410 feet (125 meters), it performed the checkpoint burn, which sent the spacecraft in a trajectory toward the location of its third maneuver, called the “matchpoint” burn. But instead of proceeding to that third step, the spacecraft backed away after a nine-minute descent. It reached an altitude of just 246 feet (75 m) — its closest approach yet — before heading back to orbit. 

Not only did OSIRIS-REx successfully execute these two test maneuvers, but it also practiced deploying its sampling arm, known as the Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism, or TAGSAM. The spacecraft’s cameras and sensors also took advantage of the close approach to collect data on the sampling site, which NASA recently dubbed Nightingale. NASA plans to conduct its first sampling attempt at the Nightingale site on Aug. 25, and the spacecraft is scheduled to begin its 2.5-year journey back to Earth in March 2021.

It’s worth noting that mission controllers were able to execute Tuesday’s rehearsal without any hiccups despite the fact that most NASA employees — along with much of the rest of the world — have been ordered to work from home due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

“The mission team has maximized remote work over the last month of preparations for the Checkpoint rehearsal, as part of the COVID-19 response,” NASA officials said in the statement. “On the day of rehearsal, a limited number of personnel monitored the spacecraft’s telemetry from Lockheed Martin Space’s facility, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and the University of Arizona, taking appropriate safety precautions, while the rest of the team performed their roles remotely.”

“Executing this monumental milestone during this time of national crisis is a testament to the professionalism and focus of our team,” Burns added. “It speaks volumes about their ‘can-do’ attitude and hopefully will serve as a bit of good news in these challenging times.”

Mysterious interstellar object ‘Oumuamua gets new origin story

More than two years after it was discovered, the mysterious interstellar object ‘Oumuamua is getting a new origin story.

According to a study published in Nature, ‘Oumuamua – which means “pathfinder” or “scout” in Hawaiian – could have been ripped from a larger object due to gravity from a nearby star.

“We showed that ‘Oumuamua-like interstellar objects can be produced through extensive tidal fragmentation during close encounters of their parent bodies with their host stars, and then ejected into interstellar space,” said study co-author Douglas Lin in a statement.

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

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

Lin, along with the other researchers, used computer simulations to show how objects like ‘Oumuamua “can form under the influence of tidal forces like those felt by Earth’s oceans,” according to the statement.

The cigar-shaped ‘Oumuamua, which was first discovered in October 2017, is unlike anything researchers had ever seen before, due to its shape, as well as dry surface. This led to some researchers believing it could be an alien probe, but that is likely not the case, the study’s lead author, Yun Zhang added.

“It is really a mysterious object, but some signs, like its colors and the absence of radio emission, point to ‘Oumuamua being a natural object,” Zhang explained.

study published in November 2018 from the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics suggested it could be “a lightsail of artificial origin” sent from another civilization.

The researcher who discovered ‘Oumuamua, Canadian physicist and astronomer Robert Weryk, said the idea it was from another civilization was just “wild speculation.”

On the back of ‘Oumuamua’s discovery, as well as the second interstellar object, Comet 2I/Borisov, which was discovered in August 2019, it’s likely that there are many more interstellar objects waiting to be discovered.

“The discovery of ‘Oumuamua implies that the population of rocky interstellar objects is much larger than we previously thought,” Zhang explained. “On average, each planetary system should eject in total about a hundred trillion objects like ‘Oumuamua. We need to construct a very common scenario to produce this kind of object.”

U.S. Naval Academy astronomer Matthew Knight, who was not involved in the study but co-leads the ‘Oumuamua International Space Science Institute team, said the study “does a remarkable job of explaining a variety of unusual properties of ‘Oumuamua with a single, coherent model.”

No longer observable by telescopes as of January 2018, many have speculated what ‘Ouamumua is. In addition to the light sail theory, some have theorized that it is a comet or an asteroid.

The mystery about its exact nature deepened in late 2018, when NASA said it had been looking in ‘Ouamumua’s direction for two months but did not originally see it.

Introducing Comet SWAN

April 15, 2020: Warning: This story may give you a sense of déjà vu. A new comet has been discovered, and in late May it will pass by the sun near the orbit of Mercury. No, it’s not Comet ATLAS (C/2019 Y4), which is currently falling apart on a similar trajectory. Instead, this is Comet SWAN (C/2020 F8):

cometswan_mm

Michael Mattiazzo of Swan Hill, Victoria, Australia, took the picture on April 13th. “This is a 5 minute exposure through my 11-inch Celestron telescope,” says Mattiazzo. “A visual observation using 15x70mm binoculars gave a magnitude of 8.1.”

Mattiazzo discovered the comet two days earlier when he was looking at data from the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO). It suddenly appeared in images from SOHO’s SWAN instrument. “This is my 8th discovery credit for SWAN comets since 2004 and I do check the data on most days,” says Mattiazzo.

Post-discovery images taken by Italian astronomer Ernest Guido and colleagues confirm that the comet is bright (8th magnitude), green, and has a long tail:

cometswan

“We took this picture on April 11th–the same day Mattiazzo found the comet in SWAN data,” says Guido. “We couldn’t see it from Italy, so we used a remote-controlled 0.1 meter telescope in Australia.”

SOHO’s SWAN instrument was not designed to find comets. Its job is to survey the solar system for hydrogen. When the solar wind blows into a cloud of hydrogen-bearing compounds, the impact produces UV photons that SWAN can photograph.

“For SWAN to see a comet, it means the comet must be producing a fairly significant amount of hydrogen,” explains Karl Battams of the Naval Research Lab in Washington DC. “This is usually in the form of water-ice.”

“It’s extremely likely that Comet SWAN is in ‘outburst’ mode,” he continues. “That is, some major eruption happened to this otherwise small and faint comet, releasing a massive cloud of hydrogen-rich volatiles. SWAN is picking up on this sudden dump of hydrogen into the inner solar system.”

Click to view an interactive preliminary orbit of Comet SWAN. Credit: Gideon van Buitenen

If the outburst continues, Comet SWAN could become visible to the naked eye next month. Preliminary light curves suggest that it could reach 3rd magnitude–dim, but visible without optics. However, Battams, who correctly predicted the demise of Comet ATLAS, is not so sure.

“I doubt that the comet will maintain its current impressive appearance, and will quite possibly fade away soon,” he says. “But we’ve only been viewing it for a couple of days, so no one knows.”

Comet SWAN is currently located in southern skies, best seen by telescopes in Australia, New Zealand, southern Africa and South America. Preliminary orbital elements are available here. Stay tuned for updates.

Repeating Fast Radio Busts – Evidence of Alien Communication

Even More Repeating Fast Radio Bursts Discovered

In September of 2017, the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment (CHIME) in British Columbia commenced operations, looking for signs of Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs) in our Universe. These rare, brief, and energetic flashes from beyond our galaxy have been a mystery ever since the first was observed a little over a decade ago. Of particular interest are the ones that have been found to repeat, which are even rarer.

Before CHIME began collecting light from the cosmos, astronomers knew of only thirty FRBs. But thanks to CHIME’s sophisticated array of antennas and parabolic mirrors (which are especially sensitive to FRBs) that number has grown to close to 700 (which includes 20 repeaters). According to a new study led by CHIME researchers, this robust number of detections allows for new insights into what causes them.

First detected in 2007, FRBs constitute one of the greatest mysteries facing astronomer today. While this phenomenon is incredibly powerful, temporarily outshining even the brightest galactic pulsars by a factor of about one million, they are also incredibly short-lived (lasting about a millisecond). Even though many have been localized to distant galaxies, astronomers are still not sure what accounts for them.

That is not to say there aren’t a whole lot of theories, which range from them being the result of rotating neutron stars or the collapse of strange star crusts to evidence of extra-terrestrial activity. This latter theory is entertained in part because of the few cases where FRBs were found to repeat. No known natural phenomena can account for this, hence the speculation that it could be a form of communication.

This is the question that an international team led by Emmanuel Fonseca – a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Physics at McGill University, and part of the McGill Space Institute – sought to address. For the sake of their study, the team relied on data from 9 new repeating FRB sources that were recently detected by CHIME to see what they could infer.

Two Populations

What they found from examining these repeaters confirmed something that astronomers have been theorizing for some time. Essentially, there are two populations of FRBs – repeating and non-repeating – which are likely to be caused by different phenomena and/or in different environments. This can be observed by measuring the level of dispersion, the pulse widths, and the magnetized environment around the FRB’s source.

In the case of dispersion, which is caused by the matter the FRB signals must pass through in order to reach us, the team found that the distribution was the same for repeaters and non-repeaters alike. What this suggests is that the two populations have similar distributions and originate in similar local environments.

CHIME consists of four metal "half-pipes", each one 100 meters long. Image Credit: CHIME/Andre Renard, Dunlap Institute.
CHIME consists of four metal “half-pipes”, each one 100 meters long. Image Credit: CHIME/Andre Renard, Dunlap Institute.

When measuring the pulse widths, however, the team found that the widths are larger for repeaters than non-repeaters. From this, they inferred that the bursts from repeating sources are slightly longer in duration, which could also mean that the two populations have two different emission mechanisms. Last, they measured how light interacts with the magnetic environment (aka. Faraday rotation) around the burst sources.

In the case of two of the new repeaters, they found that their rotations measures were actually lower than the rather high measure obtained from the first known repeater (FRB 121101). This could suggest that both repeaters and non-repeaters originate from not-so-heavily magnetized environments. This would further imply that FBR 121101 was an anomaly, though that remains to be seen.

At this juncture, astronomers are still a long way from determining the causes of FRBs and whether or not they fall into distinct populations. But thanks to the rapid evolution taking place in this field, more and more are being detected all the time, thus increasing the likelihood of a major breakthrough!https://www.youtube.com/embed/voRC5ImEMH4?version=3&rel=1&fs=1&autohide=2&showsearch=0&showinfo=1&iv_load_policy=1&wmode=transparent

Further Reading: AASNOVAThe Astrophysical Journal Letters

Newfound asteroid the size of a house will fly safely by Earth on Wednesday

A newly discovered asteroid about the size of a house will zip safely by Earth on Wednesday (April 15), passing just inside the orbit of the moon. 

The asteroid 2020 GH2 will pass Earth at a range of about 223,000 miles (359,000 kilometers). The average distance from the Earth to the moon is about 239,000 miles (385,000 km). ADVERTISING

According to NASA’s Asteroid Watch program, asteroid 2020 GH2 is about between 43 and 70 feet (13-70 meters) wide, or about the size of a detached house. It was first discovered on Saturday (April 11) and is being tracked by astronomers at several observatories, including the Catalina Sky Survey at Mount Lemmon in Arizona, according to the Minor Planet Center at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts. 

This NASA graphic depicts the orbits of the Earth, the moon and the asteroid 2020 GH2 during its Earth flyby on April 15, 2020. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Asteroid 2020 GH2 poses no impact risk to Earth during its flyby. While flying inside the moon’s orbit sounds like a close shave by an asteroid, there’s actually a lot of room. 

In a March 31 video shared on Twitter by NASA’s Asteroid Watch group, Kelly Fast of the agency’s Planetary Defense Office demonstrated just how much space is out there. She used a tennis ball as the moon and a basketball as the Earth, placing them 25 feet (7 meters) apart in a hallway — the scale distance between the Earth and moon. At that scale, a huge asteroid like the one that doomed the dinosaurs would be the size of a grain of salt, Fast said.  

“Space is pretty big,” Fast said in the video, which is part of the NASA At Home project. “A close-approach asteroid is really starting to get close, maybe, when it gets within the distance of the weather satellites.” Geostationary weather satellites orbit the Earth at a distance of about 22,000 miles (35,000 km). Click here for more Space.com videos…Asteroid flybys demonstrated with a basketball, tennis ball, salt grain…and a bunnyhttps://imasdk.googleapis.com/js/core/bridge3.381.0_en.html#goog_2014430381Volume 0% PLAY SOUND

That’s not to say that near-Earth asteroids don’t represent a potential threat to Earth. NASA’s Asteroid Watch scientists and other scientists around the world regularly observe the skies for new and known asteroids that might pose a danger to Earth. 

Any asteroid about 500 feet (140 m) or larger with an orbit that brings it within 4.7 million miles (7.5 million km) of Earth is classified as a potentially hazardous asteroid, NASA officials have said. As of 2019, scientists have discovered about 19,000 near-Earth asteroids, with about 30 newfound asteroids added each week. 

And if you thought the house-sized asteroid 2020 GH2 sounds big, NASA is gearing up for an even larger asteroid to fly by on April 29. On that day, the potentially hazardous asteroid 1998 OR2 will fly by Earth at a safe distance of 3.9 million miles (6.2 million km). 

Coronavirus lockdown results in 30 percent air pollution drop in northeastern US, NASA says

NASA satellite data has shown a 30 percent reduction in atmospheric nitrogen dioxide pollution in the northeastern U.S. during the coronavirus lockdown.

The average concentrations of atmospheric nitrogen dioxide were measured by the Ozone Monitoring Instrument on NASA’s Aura satellite during March and compared to the same period in prior years. Nitrogen dioxide, which is mainly emitted from burning fossil fuels and the generation of electricity, is a good indicator of human activity, according to the space agency.

New York State is the worst hit in the U.S. by the coronavirus outbreak, with at least 161,807 cases and 7,067 deaths as of Friday morning. New Jersey is the second worst-hit state, with 51,027 cases and 1,709 deaths as of Friday morning.

“Though variations in weather from year to year cause variations in the monthly means for individual years, March 2020 shows the lowest monthly atmospheric nitrogen dioxide levels of any March during the OMI data record, which spans 2005 to the present,” explains NASA on its website. “In fact, the data indicate that the nitrogen dioxide levels in March 2020 are about 30% lower on average across the region of the I-95 corridor from Washington, DC to Boston than when compared to the March mean of 2015-19. Further analysis will be required to rigorously quantify the amount of the change in nitrogen dioxide levels associated with changes in emissions versus natural variations in weather.”

This image released by NASA shows the average concentration of atmospheric nitrogen dioxide measured in March of this year. (NASA/NASA's Scientific Visualization Studio)

This image released by NASA shows the average concentration of atmospheric nitrogen dioxide measured in March of this year. (NASA/NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio)

NASA adds there are likely differences in nitrogen dioxide levels measured from space and measurements made at ground level. Satellites that measure nitrogen dioxide cannot see through clouds, the space agency explains, adding that its data shows pollution levels for days with low cloudiness.

With mass lockdowns in place across the globe, a number of studies have said that the coronavirus pandemic is having a major impact on pollution across the globe.

“In California, the shutdown of businesses and activities related to #COVID19 has led to a decrease in nitrogen dioxide concentration,” NASA tweeted earlier this week.

This image released by NASA shows the average concentration of atmospheric nitrogen dioxide in March of 2015-19. (NASA/NASA's Scientific Visualization Studio)

This image released by NASA shows the average concentration of atmospheric nitrogen dioxide in March of 2015-19. (NASA/NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio)

Researchers used data from the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-5P satellite to track the concentrations of nitrogen dioxide.

The European Space Agency also released satellite images that showed reductions in nitrogen oxide levels in several major cities across Europe.

In the U.K., a recent report by solar power specialists The Eco Experts estimates that the country’s CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent) emissions are set to drop by 28.22 million tonnes over the 12-week period following the implementation of social distancing measures on March 19.

Possible superstar comet Atlas looks like it’s breaking up already

It could shine brighter than any comet in years, but it has to survive the next few weeks first.

c2019-y4-atlas-pw17
Comet AtlasVirtual Telescope Project

Comet Atlas has the potential to put on one of the best shows by a melting space snowball in years, but there’s some early indications that it might be breaking up early and cruising towards a spectacular fizzling instead. 

In a note shared via The Astronomer’s Telegram Monday, astronomers Quanzhi Ye from the University of Maryland and Qicheng Zhang of Caltech report that Comet C/2019 Y4, or Atlas, may be falling apart. 

“We report the possible disintegration of comet C/2019 Y4 (ATLAS),” they wrote. “Images taken on (April 5) showed an elongated pseudo-nucleus… as would be expected from a major disruption of the nucleus.”

Or as astrophysicist Karl Battams from the Naval Research Laboratory and NASA’s Sungrazing Comets Project summed it up on Twitter: “an elongated nucleus isn’t a great sign.”

Atlas is named for the sky survey that first discovered it back on Dec. 28. The comet went through a period of rapid brightening in March that excited some skywatchers, with hopes it might eventually become as bright as Venus and perhaps even possible to observe in daylight. 

But comets are famously erratic and hard to predict. As they approach the sun, heat and radiation from our star can inflict serious damage, sending promising cosmic ice clods into early oblivion. 

These latest observations indicate that Atlas is a little less likely to show off its fantastically gassy plumage next month as hoped, but Battams says it’s still too early to predict its demise as well. 

“The frustrating thing about comets is we often don’t know exactly what they’re doing or why they’re doing it. There’s still a chance that Comet ATLAS is just ‘taking a breather’ before another outburst,” he told Spaceweather.com. “But I wouldn’t count on it.”

Early European astronomers determined Easter dates

How do they know it’s Easter? Ever wondered how the exact dates of the Easter break are chosen? Easter Sunday can fall anytime between 22 March and 25 April and, thanks to European observations of the Sun that go back many centuries, the exact date can be predicted as far ahead as 4099 AD.

Back in 325 AD, it was declared that Easter should be celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full Moon following the vernal equinox (the Spring day in the northern hemisphere when the hours of daylight and darkness are equal). Over the next few centuries, theologians and scientists struggled with the problem of calculating these vital dates years in advance. Although they often studied the skies in some detail to help them work out future calendars, this was particularly difficult when working on the premise that the Sun moved around the Earth. Then, in 1651, Giovanni Cassini installed a pinhole camera in the roof of the San Petronio cathedral in Bologna in Italy.

Giovanni Domenico Cassini, 1625-1712

Previous studies of the movement of the Sun indicated the urgent need for calendar reform in the sixteenth century and the introduction of the new Gregorian calendar, that is still in use today. But it was Cassini who installed the most accurate observatory at San Petronio, and made ample use of it to monitor the accuracy of the new calendar. Cassini’s observations allowed exact calculations of future equinoxes on the Gregorian calendar to be made in advance, thus helping to solve the ‘When’s Easter?’ problem.

Cassini also used his observations of the Sun’s image projected on to the cathedral floor to try to confirm the theories of Johannes Kepler, the German astronomer who proposed in 1609 that the planets moved in elliptical orbits. By watching the Sun’s projected disc on the cathedral floor shrink and expand as it travelled across the stone, Cassini was able to deduce that the distance between the Sun and Earth did not remain the same, proving that a circular orbit was out of the question. After much trial and error, and thousands of observations, Cassini was able to prove that Kepler’s theories were correct and became the first person to make a reasonably accurate calculation of the distance between the Sun and the Earth. This essentially demolished what was left of classical cosmology, opening the way for modern celestial mechanics.

The exact movement of the bodies in the Solar System has fascinated European scientists for centuries. Cassini and Kepler were building on a European astronomical tradition, and their theories were preceded by those of Nicolaus Copernicus, who upset everybody in 1543 when he placed the Sun near the centre of the Universe, with planets in orbit around it.

Cassini-Huygens swings by Earth and accelerates towards Saturn

Nowadays, working out the exact movements of planets and other objects in the Solar System, a discipline known as orbital mechanics, is done using complex mathematics, detailed measurements and computer modelling. Orbital mechanics takes on vital importance when we are sending spacecraft to study objects in the Solar System at close range.

For example, in about 1000 days time, ESA’s Huygens probe will be released onto Saturn’s Moon, Titan. Huygens is currently travelling to its destination aboard NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. In order to get there quickly, the spacecraft has employed a concept called ‘gravity assists’, in other words it uses the gravity of other planets, namely Venus, Earth and Jupiter, in order to bend its trajectory and boost its speed as it flies by these bodies.

Before the idea of gravity assists was proposed in the early 1960s, it would have taken decades to get to Saturn. Using gravity assists, Cassini-Huygens only needed enough energy to get to Venus. After that, the ‘gravitational slingshots’ are all that is required, and the journey will instead take around seven years. Naturally, such a complex trajectory is only made possible using the most precise orbital mechanics.

The tools used may have changed, and accuracy improved beyond measure, but the urgent desire of European astronomers to predict accurately the movements of celestial bodies has altered little since the days when Cassini sat on a cold stone floor watching sunbeams.

Stunning Satellite Images Reveal Pollution Plummeting Across Europe in Lockdown

The pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus is creating all kinds of chaos for human society. But for the dear old Earth, and the humans and creatures that breathe its air, it’s a bit of a reprieve.

Mirroring what happened in China during lock-down, Europe is now seeing the same drop in air pollution.

This data comes from the ESA, and their Copernicus Sentinel-5P satellite. It shows nitrogen dioxide (NO2) emissions over France in March 2019 in one frame, and between March 14th to the 25th on the next frame. Dense red indicates higher emissions of NO2.

Scientists from the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute (KNMI) are using the satellite to monitor both weather and pollution over Europe. It’s not only Paris that shows a large drop, it’s also cities like Milan and Madrid.

The team of scientists used data spanning 10 days in 2020. Henk Eskes is one of the scientists from KNMI. In a press release, he explained why these dates were chosen.

“The nitrogen dioxide concentrations vary from day to day due to changes in the weather. Conclusions cannot be drawn based on just one day of data alone. By combining data for a specific period of time, 10 days in this case, the meteorological variability partly averages out and we begin to see the impact of changes due to human activity.”

Some NO2 is produced by natural processes like bacterial respiration, lightning, and even volcanoes. But the bulk of it is produced by us: mostly the burning of fossil fuels in internal combustion engines.

But with the restrictions on mobility throughout Europe, those emissions have dropped. The animation makes that clear.

NO2 has a reddish-brown color. It’s also produced in the detonation of atomic weapons, and is responsible for the color of the mushroom clouds. Of particular interest to Universe Today readers, it played a role in space travel history, courtesy of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project.

The toxic gas nearly killed astronauts when it was vented into the cabin.

Nitrogen dioxide concentrations over France. (ESA)Nitrogen dioxide concentrations over France. (ESA)

It’s not just NO2 emissions that are down. So are GHGs. In fact, almost anything to do with human activity is down, other than internet traffic.

This satellite data and images are just the first step as far as scientists are concerned. Not only the KNMI, but scientists from around the world are working on more detailed analysis, to try to understand the overall effects of the coronavirus shutdown.

“For quantitative estimates of the changes in the emissions due to transportation and industry, we need to combine the Tropomi data from the Copernicus Sentinel-5P satellite with models of atmospheric chemistry,” said Henk.

“These studies have started, but will take some time to complete.”

NO2 emissions are down in Italy, too. (ESA)NO2 emissions are down in Italy, too. (ESA)

So are we seeing a glimpse of a potential future here? Will “telecommuting” be taken more seriously in the working world? Will it be one way we suppress our harmful atmospheric emissions?

Or will we return to our old normal, where freeways into the world’s cities are grid-locked with vehicles? Will we return to the massive, cumulative hours of wasted human productivity, as people spend hours commuting to work each day?

Sadly, in China, where lock-downs went into effect first, emissions are already starting to return to normal. According to some scientists, this drop in harmful emissions may be a glimpse of a possible future, but not one that’s likely to endure.

Without big changes to our emissions, beyond the time-frame of this pandemic, we’ll be right back to where we were a month or two ago: overwhelming the Earth’s carbon cycle and polluting the air with NO2.