Mega-Comet: Everything You Need To Know About The Mysterious Ice Monster From Half A Light-Year Away

The scientists that found Comet Bernardinelli-Bernstein are an unlikely pair.

An image taken by the Dark Energy Survey shows Comet Bernardinelli-Bernstein in October 2017.

An image taken by the Dark Energy Survey shows Comet Bernardinelli-Bernstein in October 2017. (Image credit: Dark Energy Survey/DOE/FNAL/DECam/CTIO/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA/P. Bernardinelli & G. Bernstein (UPenn)/DESI Legacy Imaging Surveys. Acknowledgments: T.A. Rector (University of Alaska Anchorage/NSF’s NOIRLab)/M. Zamani (NSF’s NOIRLab)/J. Miller (NSF’s NOIRLab))

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Even Pedro Bernardinelli and Gary Bernstein admit they’re an unlikely pair of scientists to end up with a record-breaking comet named in their honor.

Scientists briefly estimated that Comet Bernardinelli-Bernstein, as it’s now known, was the largest such icy body identified to date, perhaps more than 100 miles (160 kilometers) across. Additional observations have cast that into doubt, but given the “megacomet” a new distinction: it sprouted a tail remarkably far from the sun, suggesting more revelations to come. All told, the object offers astronomers an unprecedented opportunity to watch the antics of a comet.

But Bernardinelli spotted the object only a week or so before defending his dissertation, which focused on finding an entirely different type of outer solar system object, trans-Neptunian objects. And Bernstein’s primary scientific interest lies in another topic: looking for distortions caused by dark matter. Yet here Bernardinelli and Bernstein are, with one of the largest known comets to date named for them. They seem a little dazed by the turn of events — although they both said their parents are quite pleased with unexpected development.

“This is an unusual honor for a cosmologist,” Bernstein, an astronomer at the University of Pennsylvania, told Space.com, “but my mother’s very happy.”

A different quest

Bernardinelli’s doctoral thesis focused on identifying a class of objects called trans-Neptunian objects (TNOs), of which Comet Bernardinelli-Bernstein is distinctly not one, although his research discovered more than 800 of those as well.

TNOs are hunks of rock that, as the name implies, circle the sun but remain out beyond Neptune’s orbit. That’s about 30 times the Earth’s average distance from the sun, which is about 93 million miles (150 million km) and which scientists call an astronomical unit, or an AU. But most TNOs never stray farther from the sun than a few hundred astronomical units.

So when Bernardinelli’s analysis pulled up an object and declared that its most distant point from the sun was tens of thousands of astronomical units from the sun, he noticed.

“It immediately popped out in my eye,” Bernardinelli, who completed his doctoral work at the University of Pennsylvania this summer and is now starting a postdoc at the University of Washington, told Space.com. He remembers thinking, “‘This is weird — what is this thing?'”

The detection was so weird, in fact, that he thought it was a mistake and went looking for errors. But that quest came up empty, so he brought the find to Bernstein, his advisor. “I didn’t see anything, everything looked real,” Bernardinelli said. “It looked more real than most of the things we find.”

A lucky find

The researchers spotted Comet Bernardinelli-Bernstein in data called the Dark Energy Survey (DES), which ran on a telescope at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile from 2013 to 2019.

(“It’s not like this is the Pedro and Gary show at all,” Bernstein said. “In fact, we wanted the comet to be called Comet DES, but apparently that’s against the rules.”)

The Dark Energy Survey was, as its name implies, a survey designed to help scientists understand dark energy, a mysterious substance that scientists have not yet seen directly but is believed to make up 68% of the universe and warps our view of other galaxies. The project captured more than 80,000 images of the sky, revisiting specific patches about every two weeks. In each image are tens of thousands of cosmic objects of all shapes and sizes.

“When you take an image of the sky, you’re not taking just an image of the galaxies, you’re taking an image of everything that is between you and them, essentially,” Bernardinelli said. “So you get things like stars, you get airplanes, you get asteroids, and everything else in between.”

So Bernardinelli and Bernstein reserved time on a supercomputer and set about designing a way to spot TNOs within the Dark Energy Survey images. Using the time and location of each image to stack up solar system views, the researchers set the algorithm to identify when at least seven different images lined up to show a speck moving according to the laws that govern the movement of solar system objects.

“It’s a massive connect-the-dots.” Bernardinelli said.

An artist's depiction of Comet Bernardinelli-Bernstein plowing through the solar system.
An artist’s depiction of Comet Bernardinelli-Bernstein plowing through the solar system. (Image credit: NOIRLab/NSF/AURA/J. da Silva (Spaceengine))

“We knew it was real right away.”— Gary Bernstein, astronomer

Although seven different images was the minimum setting, the massive comet turned up in 20 or 30 separate images, Bernstein said. “There’s absolutely no way you could get that by accident,” he said. “We knew it was real right away.”

But in fact, the algorithm still shouldn’t have flagged the object, he noted. Bernardinelli and Bernstein had set the program to look for objects located at least 30 AU from the sun, around where Neptune orbits. That setting was a matter of convenience — it matches the location of the TNOs that were the researchers’ main goal and closer images are tricky to identify with two weeks often stretching between images.

When the survey was operating, however, the comet was already closer — only 25 AU from the sun by 2017. (According to the orbital calculations, the closest Bernardinelli-Bernstein will come to the sun is about 11 AU — still more distant than Saturn‘s orbit — in 2031.)

“It was a little bit of luck that we caught it,” Bernstein said, adding that the luck likely was a result of the object being so easy to see.

Cause for excitement

Although what initially stood out to Bernardinelli was the comet’s weird orbital characteristics, the discovery made such a splash because of a different trait, the comet’s estimated size. Based on the object’s brightness and distance, the scientists initially estimated that the comet’s nucleus — the icy rock at its core — was 60 to 120 miles (100 to 200 kilometers) wide.

Ironically, if the detection had turned out to be one of the TNOs the study was really targeting, it would have been unremarkable, since scientists know of plenty of TNOs of that size. But as far as comets go, that size estimate is truly massive. Among the comets scientists have studied in detail, only two are in the same class: Comet Hale-Bopp, which made a close approach to Earth in 1997, and Comet C/2002 VQ94 (LINEAR), which came no deeper into the solar system than Jupiter’s orbit.

Large comets are rare because the same vaporizing ice that makes them so spectacular to see robs them of their being, so every pass by the sun leaves the comet a little bit smaller than before. 

“It’s very rare to see big comets basically because unless you’re catching it in its first or second passage, most of its material would already be gone,” Bernardinelli said.

However, scientists have always expected objects like Comet Bernardinelli-Bernstein to exist, wandering the frigid edges of the solar system for eons. And outside experts say that not only is the discovery not surprising, but it’s also a sign that scientists are on the right track in piecing together the history of the solar system.

“It’s neat but not that unexpected,” Meg Schwamb, a planetary astronomer at Queen’s University Belfast in Northern Ireland who specializes in the outer solar system and wasn’t involved in the discovery, told Space.com. “It fits in with the story we know.”

That story goes like so: The young solar system sported a ring of small, icy rubble surrounding the massive planets. But when the planets migrated through the solar system, their huge gravity kicked the frozen rubble around.

Some flew out into interstellar space; some ended up in what scientists call the Kuiper Belt, where Pluto orbits; some ended up in the much more distant Oort Cloud where comets like Bernardinelli-Bernstein lurk. From there, as tides flow through the Milky Way and neighboring stars pass our solar system, gravity occasionally kicks a snowball inward on a planetary adventure. 

And there are plenty of Kuiper Belt objects that look like the new comet, Schwamb said, so finding a similar object coming in from the Oort Cloud suggests scientists have been on the right path, and that more discoveries are still to come. 

“Finding one large object like this probably means there’s a few more out there to be found,” Schwamb said.

Unexpectedly active

As more eyes spotted the new comet, its story changed a little.

Scientists turned their telescopes to the object’s modern location and combed through archival data to rescue sightings that were missed in original analysis. And in those objects, it was clear that Comet Bernardinelli-Bernstein wasn’t fully frozen and had already woken up a little by the time it first appeared in scientists’ images.

Comets grow their distinctive fuzzy comas when their ices warm up enough to vaporize away into a gaseous cloud surrounding the nucleus. The phenomena obscures the nucleus and brightens the comet — which means that if Comet Bernardinelli-Bernstein was active in even the earliest sightings, scientists had overestimated its size.

“Comets like to surprise us.”— Rosita Kokotanekova, comet scientist

It’s a common challenge for scientists who focus on studying a comet’s nucleus proper, Rosita Kokotanekova, a cometary scientist at the European Southern Observatory who was not involved in the discovery of the new comet, told Space.com. “Comets like to surprise us,” she said. “You make the assumption that you’re studying the nucleus, but you might be tricked by the surrounding coma.”

Observations of Comet Bernardinelli-Bernstein gathered by an outpost of the Las Cumbres Observatory in South Africa in June 2021 show activity on the comet despite its huge distance from the sun.
Observations of Comet Bernardinelli-Bernstein gathered by an outpost of the Las Cumbres Observatory in South Africa in June 2021 show activity on the comet despite its huge distance from the sun.  (Image credit: LOOK/LCO)

Calculating the size of an active comet is much more complicated than measuring a bare nucleus, it turns out, so Kokotanekova said she couldn’t offer a new size estimate for the comet, beyond that it would be somewhat smaller than the original calculations.

But despite the slightly less superlative size, Comet Bernardinelli-Bernstein remains a stunner, she said — for the very same activity that invalidated the original size estimate. Scientists have only spotted a handful of comets active so far from the sun, where temperatures are still too cold for, say, water ice to turn to vapor, a typical type of cometary activity. Good observations of an active comet so far away could teach scientists about unknown types of cometary antics, she said.

“Usually there we have very few objects that are active, and we catch even fewer,” Kokotanekova said. “What’s really unique about this object is not its size but how active it is at these large distances and what a great opportunity it gives us to characterize distant activity.”

A gift for years to come

Regardless of size and activity, all the scientists agreed that the most exciting aspect of Comet Bernardinelli-Bernstein is how well scientists will be able to study it.

A few different factors make the comet particularly promising. First, given a 2021 discovery and a 2031 close approach to the sun — plus old observations from as early as 2010 — gives scientists a decades-long look at the object that’s rare for this class of comet that makes such long journeys.

“Studying long-period comets is more complicated,” Kokotanekova said, compared to short-period comets that never stray so far from the sun. “They just pass through the solar system, we catch them quite late on, and then we study them for a brief period. And then they’re gone forever.”

And much of Comet Bernardinelli-Bernstein’s journey, scientists will have practically continuous views, thanks to the Vera C. Rubin Observatory in Chile scheduled to begin observing in 2023. That facility will survey the southern sky once every three days, offering astronomers an impeccably detailed view of how the comet changes as it approaches the sun.

“We’re going to get an entire movie of this object as it evolves and comes inward,” Schwamb said. Kokotanekova hopes that, in particular, the movie will teach astronomers what types of activity turn on and at what distances from the sun.

Although they didn’t set out to find such an important comet, both Bernardinelli and Bernstein said that their unexpected discovery this summer has given them a new appreciation for the dirty iceballs rattling around the outer solar system.

“I will still have my day job, I think, of cosmology,” Bernstein said. But still, “it’s been enjoyable, I’ve really learned a lot about comets.”

For Bernardinelli, however, the chance encounter with the comet that now carries his name may change his own scientific trajectory, he said. “I had never thought too hard about comets before, and as I move on to the postdoc stage I get to expand the types of things that I do, so I’m definitely considering branching into comets more.”

Chefs on the Moon Will be Cooking up Rocks to Make air and Water

NASA has delayed their Artemis mission to the Moon, but that doesn’t mean a return to the Moon isn’t imminent. Space agencies around the world have their sights set on our rocky satellite. No matter who gets there, if they’re planning for a sustained presence on the Moon, they’ll require in-situ resources.

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Oxygen and water are at the top of a list of resources that astronauts will need on the Moon. A team of engineers and scientists are figuring out how to cook Moon rocks and get vital oxygen and water from them. They presented their results at the Europlanet Science Congress 2021.

Professor Michèle Lavagna of Politecnico Milano led the experiments. A consortium of companies and agencies, including the ESA and the Italian Space Agency, is behind the work. Lavagna and others presented a laboratory demonstration of their work at EPSC2921.

When we talk about lunar soil, we mean lunar regolith, the layer of dust that coats the Moon. The same layer that confounded Apollo astronauts by finding its way into the lunar module, clogging mechanisms and interfering with instruments. The dust constitutes an ongoing hazard that space agencies are still trying to mitigate. But the same dust is also a critical resource.

An Apollo 17 astronaut digs in the lunar regolith to study the mechanical behaviour of moon dust. Credit: NASA
An Apollo 17 astronaut digs in the lunar regolith to study the mechanical behaviour of moon dust. Credit: NASA

There’s lots of oxygen in the lunar regolith because oxygen readily reacts with other elements, especially group one elements. Lunar soil is rich in oxides, especially silicon dioxide, iron oxide, magnesium oxide, etc. According to the ESA, about 50% of lunar soil is iron and silicon dioxide, and about 26% of those compounds are oxygen. The trick is getting the oxygen out.

Lavagna demonstrated a two-step process that’s regularly used in industrial applications here on Earth. First, the simulated lunar regolith is vaporized in the presence of hydrogen and methane then washed with hydrogen gas. A furnace heats the minerals to 1,000 Celsius (1800 F), which turns them directly from a solid to a gas. By doing so, the minerals skip the liquid phase, making the entire process simpler.

Then the gases and the residual methane go to a catalytic converter and then a condenser which separates the water. After that, hydrolysis separates the oxygen, and the system recycles the hydrogen and methane by-products.

Engineers and scientists have been working on the challenge of extracting in-situ resources on the Moon for many years now. One method involves using molten salt electrolysis to extract oxygen. That method is adapted from mining, and it also produces useful metal alloys from lunar regolith.

But one of the critical features of this newer process, according to Lavagna, is it’s almost hands-off.

“Our experiments show that the rig is scalable and can operate in an almost completely self-sustained closed loop, without the need for human intervention and without getting clogged up,” said Professor Lavagna. https://player.vimeo.com/video/612528519 This video shows water extracted by the process. Credit: Politecnico Milano, CC BY-NC-CD

The team is still working on optimizing the process in anticipation of an eventual fight test. They’re working with the furnace temperature, length and frequency of the washing, the ratio of the gas mixtures, and the size of soil batches. So far, they’ve learned that small batches of soil produce maximized yields when combined with the highest possible temperatures and long washing phases.

The system produces silica as a by-product. It also produces metals that require further processing before being used as in-situ resources.

‘The capability of having efficient water and oxygen production facilities on-site is fundamental for human exploration and to run high-quality science directly on the Moon,’ said Lavagna. ‘These laboratory experiments have deepened our understanding of each step in the process. It is not the end of the story, but it’s a very good starting point.

Scientists Are Tracking a Meteor Shower That Occurs Just Once Every 4000 Years!

The universe holds the most breathtaking spectacles. Whether it’s light displays, solar and lunar eclipses, or glimmering meteor showers, the natural phenomena that regularly occur in space leave us in awe time and again. While some events can be observed quite frequently in the night sky, other galactic events occur at intervals of several thousand years. Experts are therefore all the more delighted when they manage to observe such a rare phenomenon firsthand.

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Scientists track meteor shower to unusual comet seen every 4,000 years

The meteoroid stream of Comet Thatcher.

The meteoroid stream of Comet Thatcher. (Image credit: P. Jenniskens/SETI Institute)

Meteor showers are the dazzling result of cometary debris building up along well-worn paths through the solar system, then burning up in Earth’s atmosphere as our planet crosses that dust trail.

It’s hard to call a path well-worn when something passes by only once every 3,967 years. But it turns out that type of long-period comet can still be tied to a specific meteor shower, as scientists have done with Comet C/2002 Y1 Juels-Holvorcem and the UY Lyncids shower. The research that connected the long haul ice ball and the shower triples the number of celestial displays that scientists have tied to specific comets that take more than 250 years to orbit the sun.

“Until recently, we only knew five long-period comets to be parent bodies to one of our meteor showers,” Peter Jenniskens, a meteor astronomer at the SETI Institute and the lead author of the new research, said in a statement. “But now we identified nine more, and perhaps as many as 15.”

For some perspective, Comet C/2002 Y1 Juels-Holvorcem most recently made a close approach of the sun in 2003 — which means its last such visit was around 2,000 B.C., when Egypt’s Great Pyramids were just a few hundred years old, and its next pass of the sun won’t occur until nearly the year 6,000.

Typically, a shorter orbit means a comet retraces its path more regularly, scattering more rubble that can become more “shooting stars” when Earth plows through the debris. That means it’s difficult for skywatchers to notice meteor showers caused by comets with orbits beyond about 250 years or so.

The best known long-period comet that triggers a meteor shower is comet C/1861 G1 Thatcher, which causes the April Lyrid meteor shower. Other long-period comets’ showers are less dramatic, even those scientists had previously identified, like the Aurigids (debris from C/1911 N1 Kiess) and the Leonis Minorids (from C/1739 K1 Zanotti).

The scientists behind the new study wanted to find more such connections, so they turned to a program called Cameras for Allsky Meteor Surveillance (CAMS), which includes observation stations across the United States and around the globe, including in New Zealand, Namibia, Chile and the United Arab Emirates — networks totalling more than 500 individual cameras all told, all watching for meteors.

“These are the shooting stars you see with the naked eye,” Jenniskens said. “By tracing their approach direction, these maps show the sky and the universe around us in a very different light.”

Looking at such huge amounts of meteor sightings, scientists can pick out subtle meteor showers based on tracking only a few shooting stars to similar origin points in the sky, called radiants. So astronomers combined that analysis of a decade of observations with NASA’s database of comets and their orbits.

The scientists found at least nine new matches between meteor showers and long-period comets, and identified another six potential matches. The research tracks down the comets responsible for esoteric meteor showers, like December’s sigma Virginids and July’s Pegasids, caused by debris from C/1846 J1 Brorsen and C/1979 Y1 Bradfield respectively.

Most of the comets in the research swing past the sun every 400 to 800 years or so, a quite respectable calendar. Three comets joined Juels-Holvorcem is a bit of an outlier with orbits longer than 1,000 years. Scientists have tied a few other long-period comets to specific meteor showers, but can’t quite pin down their orbital periods.

Among the meteor showers studied, the researchers noticed an intriguing trend: Displays from long-period comets tend to last several days, and the radiant appears to move like a smudge on the sky. The scientists on the new research think the effect may be caused by a comet’s orbit shifting between loops, so that the rubble fields don’t align as cleanly as they do for short-period comets.

“This was a surprise to me,” Jenniskens said. “It probably means that these comets returned to the solar system many times in the past, while their orbits gradually changed over time.”

The research is described in a paper that will be published this autumn by the journal Icarus.

Chang’e-5 Returned an Exotic Collection of Moon Rocks

Scientists have begun studying the samples returned from the Moon by China’s Chang’e-5 mission in December 2020, and a group of researchers presented their first findings at the Europlanet Science Congress (EPSC) last week.

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“The Chang’e-5 samples are very diverse, and includes both local and exotic materials, including some glutenates [sharp, jagged lunar particles], silicas, salts, volcanic glasses, and impact glasses, along with different minerals and different rock types,” said Yuqi Qian, a PhD student at the China University of Geosciences, during his presentation at the EPSC virtual meeting.

A panoramic view from China’s Chang’e-5 probe shows the lunar terrain in front of the lander, including one of the landing legs in the foreground. (CNSA / CLEP Photo)

Chang’e-5 landed on the near side of the Moon in the Oceanus Procellarum, or Ocean of Storms, which is located on the western, central part of the Moon from our vantage point on Earth. It landed in an area not visited by the NASA Apollo or the Soviet Luna missions nearly 50 years ago. This area is also one of the youngest lunar surfaces, with an age of about 2 billion years old, and therefore these samples are different to those returned in the 1960s and 70s.

“The samples are very diverse, as we have known for a very long time that the formation of the lunar surface is a very complex process, including solar wind implantation, micrometeorite impacts, and condensation,” Qian said.

The “local” materials, which make up about 90 per cent of the returned samples, include young mare basalts, and local impact ejecta. The “exotic” materials, i.e., materials not native to the region, make up about 10 per cent of the Chang’e-5 samples and include distant impact ejecta, meteoritical materials, and volcanic glass beads. 

The Chang’e-5 lunar lander retrieved about 1.7 kilograms (3.81 pounds) of samples from the Moon. It used a drill to gather samples from the subsurface and robotic arm for surface samples. The Chang’e-5 sample return capsule landed in China’s Inner Mongolia region on December 16, 2020, successfully capping a 23-day odyssey that brought back the first lunar rocks since 1976.

Qian and colleagues from Brown University and the University of Münster have looked at the potential sources of the glass beads, and have traced these rapidly cooled glassy droplets to now-extinct volcanic vents known as ‘Rima Mairan’ and ‘Rima Sharp’ located roughly 230 and 160 kilometers southeast and northeast of the Chang’e-5 landing site. These fragments could give insights into past episodes of energetic, fountain-like volcanic activity on the Moon.

The team also looked at the potential sources of impact-related fragments. The young geological age of the rocks at the landing site narrows the search, as only craters with ages less than 2 billion years can be responsible, and these are relatively rare on the lunar near-side.

Image showing the location of the Chang’e-5 landing site (43.06°N, 51.92°W) and adjacent regions of the Moon, as well as impact craters that were examined as possible sources of exotic fragments among the recently returned lunar materials. Credit: Qian et al. 2021

The team modeled what craters could be responsible for the exotic materials and found that some materials could have been ejected from as far as 1,300 km away from the Chang’e-5 landing site. They found that Harpalus, located farther north of Chang’e-5’s site, is a significant contributor of many exotic fragments among the samples, along with craters to the south and southeast (Aristarchus, Kepler, and Copernicus), and northwest (Harding).

Modelling and review of work by other teams has linked other exotic pieces of rock to domes rich in silica or to highland terrains that surround the landing site.

“All of the local and exotic materials among the returned samples of Chang’e-5 can be used to answer a number of further scientific questions,” said Qian, in a press release. “In addressing these we shall deepen our understanding of the Moon’s history and help prepare for further lunar exploration.”

Lead image caption: Image of the Chang’e-5 sample “CE5C0400” from the Moon’s surface. This fraction of lunar materials returned to Earth by Chang’e-5 weighs nearly 35 grams and was collected by a robotic arm. Credit: CNSA (China National Space Administration) / CLEP (China Lunar Exploration Program) / GRAS (Ground Research Application System).

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NASA, MIT and DARPA Researchers Meet to Discuss ‘Antigravity’ Technologies

NASA, MIT and DARPA Researchers Meet to Discuss ‘Antigravity’ Technologies

NASA, MIT and DARPA Researchers Meet to Discuss ‘Antigravity’ Technologies.

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Antigravity is the idea of ​​a technology, applied to an object or to a space, making it possible to “cancel” gravity – and not to compensate for it as is the case with an airplane for example. Since November 2020, a number of scientists from NASA, DARPA, MIT and the Air Force have been meeting regularly on Zoom to discuss propulsion technologies of the future, including the hypothetical “antigravity”. An astonishing event given that for the moment this technology remains only in the world of science fiction or in the minds of a few dreamy theorists.

The event, dubbed the Alternative Propulsion Engineering Conference ( APEC ), was created to give scientists the opportunity to discuss taboo (even wacky) ideas that go beyond the confines of current modern science.

According to information gathered by The Debrief, 22 meetings have taken place since then, during which scientists addressed topics ranging from non-Newtonian propulsion ( Em Drive ) to the observation of unidentified aerial phenomena (UAPs). In other words, in the words of Ron Kita, founder of Chiralex – a company that develops “gravity shielding” materials, this is the “Woodstock of gravity manipulation research”.

Recreation course for engineers or a serious scientific conference?

“The alternative propulsion community is highly cross-sectoral, and we are sandwiched between the cultures of aerospace, defense, electrical engineering, physics, UFOs and advanced science,” said Tim Ventura, moderator and conference organizer, at The Debrief.

“People from all these cultures come to the conference and make presentations, despite the fact that these different communities do not always agree on certain topics. We have managed to avoid conflicts,” he added. Reading these words, one can understand that the conference serves above all as a place for the exchange of ideas or personal work on one or another of the technologies discussed.

But it should still be noted that 16 of the 71 participants in the November event were current or former NASA scientists and engineers, according to The Debrief , and 14 others were affiliated with reputable institutions, including MIT and the ‘Harvard University. Among these marginal theorists, it is therefore very likely that one can find brilliant and realistic ideas.

The dream of defying gravity

As might be expected, this environment has created a sort of “virtual club” where highly skilled physicists and engineers can discuss their theories and experiences of antigravity without risking exposure to scientific skepticism. public. “Originally it was to be called the ‘Antigravity Conference’,” says Mark Sokol, founder of APEC, of ​​the name of the conference, “but we thought antigravity had a too negative connotation”.

The possibility of creating antigravity technology depends on the full understanding and description of gravity, as well as its interactions with other physical theories, such as general relativity and quantum mechanics. In 2021, physicists have yet to develop a quantum theory of gravity. Theoretical quantum physicists have postulated the existence of a particle of quantum gravity, the graviton. Various theoretical explanations of quantum gravity have been created, including superstring theory, loop quantum gravity, E8 theory, and asymptotic security theory, among others.

Mark Sokol is also the founder of Falcon Space, based in New Jersey (United States). He had in particular launched, with his company, in the development of a “gravitational distortion detector” (the “Warp Drive Detector”) and of the first “antigravity plane in the world”. “The Warp Drive Detector was designed by Jeremiah Popp [also active in Falcon Space] and myself,” Sokol said. “The idea is to determine if a distortion field is created, to see if something changes the speed of light near an experiment.” The theoretical device would therefore serve to help the Falcon Space team in its experiments on gravity.

Sokol and his colleague Jeremiah Popp’s painstaking analysis of the scientific literature guided them to a series of previously published antigravity experiments by Frederick Alzofon, the man who theorized the idea in 1981, when he worked for Boeing, then which allegedly performed tests in the 1990s.

Hoping to improve on this questionable but nonetheless encouraging first trial, Sokol said he plans to improve the equipment, including a recently purchased magnetic resonance generator which he says “looks like an MRI machine.” and whose retail price can reach $ 60,000. Thanks to this newer and more powerful generator, he hopes to be able to repeat his experiments with results “two to three times” better than the background noise.

In an experiment conducted by Alzofon, a sample would have lost 80% of its weight in one second, according to Sokol. However, these experiments did not convince other scientists, and one engineer in particular, David Prutchi pointed out that the experiments were flawed and that Alzofon’s results were “invalid.” “Any physicist or engineer would immediately understand that the experimental data shows absolutely no effect on the gravitational force experienced by the sample,” Prutchi said in the paper. “I congratulate David Alzofon (the son of Frederick Alzofon)for its honesty by including the AF2004 graph, because not only does it invalidate the purported experimental demonstration of the effect, but it actually provides negative evidence against it,” he added.

More recently, the Gravity Research Institute of the Göde Scientific Foundation attempted to replicate experiments believed to generate an antigravity effect. However, all attempts to observe anti-gravity effects have been unsuccessful. The foundation offered a reward of one million euros for a reproducible anti-gravity experiment. In 1989, the team of Professor Hayakawa of Tohoku University of Technology in Japan, identified an abnormal reduction in the weight of a gyroscopically rotating mass to the right of the vertical axis of the Earth. This discovery was the subject of a publication in the journal Physical Review Letters. However, “left rotations do not cause any change in weight”, Concluded the researchers.

To sum up, despite obvious efforts within the scientific community, gravity remains undefeated for the time being. But who knows, maybe that might change someday, when we get a better understanding of exactly what gravity is and what it involves. Answers will undoubtedly be provided by new theories and experiments in quantum physics. And for that, the fact that qualified researchers from different backgrounds discuss it openly and regularly, is a good thing.

UFOs: a recurring subject
The subject of UFOs (or PANs) apparently caused a stir at the November conference. The topic made a significant resurgence in pop culture this year, with military pilots speaking openly about unexplained encounters and the Pentagon teasing a long-awaited report on the matter, which was finally released in June.

“In the past, everyone was aware of UFOs, but they weren’t very relevant because they weren’t well understood,” Ventura told The Debrief, adding that the scientific community is exploring the subject more seriously than ever.

#antigravity #aerialyoga #antigravityyoga #antigravityfitness #yoga #flyyoga #aeroyoga #aerialyogalove #antigravityhammock #fitness #aerialyogaflow #aerialsilk #aerialyogateacher #aerialsling #aerialdance #suspensionfitness #aw #aerialhammock #k #valparaiso #aerialyogagirl #aeroyogachile #antigravitychile #santiagochile #aeroyogasantiago #antigravityaerialyoga #harrisonhammock #christopherharrison #aeria

Something Enormous Just Slammed Into Jupiter

And the scar could be bigger than Earth.Something Enormous Just Slammed Into Jupiter

Jupiter, with the shadow of its moon, Io.NASA / JPL-Caltech / SwRI / MSSS / Kevin M. Gill

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Some planets take a lot of hits for us.

Jupiter, the largest gas giant in the solar system, was just slammed by an asteroid, according to an initial tweet from ESA Operations.

As the strongest gravitational force next to the sun, this isn’t that uncommon. But it serves to remind us that, while the Earth isn’t moving in a shooting gallery of apocalyptic asteroids, asteroid detection technology must continue to expand, lest one day we awake to learn it’s the last any of us will ever live before an extinction-level impact.

Jupiter gets punched in the face a lot

On September 13, 2021, at roughly 6:39 PM EDT, amateur astronomers monitored and recorded a colossally bright flash of what seemed to be an impact on Jupiter. Harald Paleske of Germany was recording the shadow of Jupiter’s moon, Io, as it passed in front of the planet. But other astronomers involved included José Luis of Brazil, Michel Jacquesson and Jean-Paul Arnould in France, Simone Gelelli of Italy, and Didier Walliang and Alexis Desmougin of the Société Lorraine d’Astronomie, also on France. Many also filmed the event, and suspect an impact on Jupiter.

While still unconfirmed, the putative event would mark only the eighth impact witnessed on Jupiter since the initial impact of Shoemaker-Levy 9 in 1994, which disintegrated into separate parts as Jupiter’s immense tidal forces ripped it open, transforming the singular asteroid into a rapid-fire event of glorious mayhem. Sadly, no one on Earth was able to see the explosions, since the impacts happened on Jupiter’s far side. But a 7.2-ft (2.2-m) Hawaii-based telescope photographed the heat signatures of each impact site as they swiveled into view. The Hubble Space Telescope also snapped grim pictures of the dark, bruise-colored smears strewn beneath the clouds, aptly named “scars.”

NASA is upgrading Earth’s planetary defense against NEOs

As of writing, scientists are unsure how often Jupiter is impacted by something so massive or high-velocity that it generates an impact flash we can see from Earth, but the consensus is it’s fairly often; between 20 and 60 times every year. If the Earth experienced significant impacts with the same frequency, its surface might look very different, and so would whatever survived. But luckily, Jupiter’s unconscionably strong gravitational field is gigantic, and accelerates incoming meteorites to unkind speeds, multiplying the kinetic energy of the incoming bodies by several orders of magnitude, which is proportional to the level of energy released upon impact (think of how baseballs hurt more if they slam into you with greater speed).

But Jupiter doesn’t take every cosmic hit headed Earth’s way. Some scientists suspect we’re overdue for another asteroid impact of a similar scale to the one that spelled doom for the dinosaurs. These happen once every 50 to 60 million years. Lucky for us, NASA gave the green light for a new space telescope, called the Near-Earth Object Surveyor (NEO Surveyor), in June. And it’s designed to upgrade Earth’s planetary defense network by detecting cosmic bodies with potentially dangerous orbital trajectories. “[W]e think there are about 25,000 NEOs large enough to wipe out an area like Southern California,” said NEO Survey Project Leader Amy Mainzer in a statement from the University of Arizona. “Once they get bigger than about 450 feet in diameter, they can cause severe regional damage. We want to find these, and as many smaller ones as possible.” This could take a few years to launch, and we have other means of detecting NEOs. But whenever a monumental impact flashes from the cloud tops of Jupiter, remember: That might have been us.

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Supermassive Solar Storm Could Knock Out The Internet For Months

Scientists are worried our sun is preparing to pump out a massive solar event that could knock out the internet for months.

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Earth’s ionosphere does a wonderful job defending us from solar winds ejected from the sun and deflects them to our poles (which cause the incredible northern and southern lights), however this system wouldn’t be able to fully stop rays from a humungous coronal mass ejection (CME).

CMEs consist of electrically conducting plasma emitted from the sun and, if they’re big enough, they can race towards the earth at 2,000km/s. It would only take a few days for it to reach us.

Because they’re electrically conducting, they have the potential to affect anything that is powered by electricity, which is essentially everything we hold dear to us these days.

Credit: Alamy
Credit: Alamy

Information presented at the SIGCOMM 2021 data communication conference has warned the world is not ready for such an event and could be catastrophic to modern life.

Sangeetha Abdu Jyothi, an assistant professor at the University of California, explained in her paper that an ‘internet apocalypse’ could last for a long time.

She told WIRED: “What really got me thinking about this is that with the pandemic we saw how unprepared the world was.

“There was no protocol to deal with it effectively, and it’s the same with internet resilience. Our infrastructure is not prepared for a large-scale solar event.”

She has warned that a particularly massive CME could ’cause large-scale Internet outages covering the entire globe and lasting several months’.

Our central celestial body pushes out a supermassive coronal mass ejection roughly once a century.

Back in May 1921, there were reports of fires breaking out in power control rooms in the UK and US, while places all over the world suffered problems with their electricity.

Credit: Alamy
Credit: Alamy

It caused the most vivid Aurora Borealis in three decades and brought some places to a standstill.

Jeffrey Love, a Geophysicist in the Geomagnetism Program of the US Geological Survey (USGS), told The Independent our world has developed massively in the last 100 years and a solar event similar to 1921 would cause carnage.

“The effects were in terms of interference to radio communications, telegraph, and telephone systems, all of which were used in 1921,” he said.

“When we look back at this time, anything that’s related to electricity wasn’t as important in 1921 as it is today.”

Dr. Scott McIntosh, deputy director of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, added that we should expect a CME aimed at earth soon.

“We have every reason to believe that the current solar cycle which began in December 2019 could be the most active since the 1970s. This is a particular concern for the GPS,” he told NextGov.com.

“Strong solar storms can charge the atmosphere and prevent signals from getting through for days. The strongest can damage or even destroy satellites.”

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5 People Who Claim to be Time Travelers

Is time travel possible?

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If you can time travel, please tell Stephen Hawking we said hi.

Is time travel possible? Short answer: Yes, and you’re doing it right now — hurtling into the future at the impressive rate of one second per second. You’re pretty much always moving through time at the same speed, whether you’re watching paint dry or wishing you had more hours to visit with a friend from out of town. 

But this isn’t the kind of time travel that’s captivated countless science fiction writers, or spurred a genre so extensive that Wikipedia lists nearly 400 titles in the category “Movies about Time Travel.” In franchises like “Doctor Who,” “Star Trek,” and “Back to the Future” characters climb into some wild vehicle to blast into the past or spin into the future. Once the characters have traveled through time, they grapple with what happens if you change the past or present based on information from the future (which is where time travel stories intersect with the idea of parallel universes or alternate timelines). 

Although many people are fascinated by the idea of changing the past or seeing the future before it’s due, no person has ever demonstrated the kind of back-and-forth time travel seen in science fiction, or proposed a method of sending a person through significant periods of time that wouldn’t destroy them on the way. And, as physicist Stephen Hawking pointed out in his book “Black Holes and Baby Universes” (Bantam, 1994), “The best evidence we have that time travel is not possible, and never will be, is that we have not been invaded by hordes of tourists from the future.”Click here for more Space.com videos…

Science does support some amount of time-bending, though. For example, physicist Albert Einstein’s theory of special relativity proposes that time is an illusion that moves relative to an observer. An observer traveling near the speed of light will experience time, with all its aftereffects (boredom, aging, etc.) much more slowly than an observer at rest. That’s why astronaut Scott Kelly aged ever so slightly less over the course of a year in orbit than his twin brother who stayed here on Earth. 

There are other scientific theories about time travel, including some weird physics that arise around wormholesblack holes and string theory. For the most part, though, time travel remains the domain of an ever-growing array of science fiction books, movies, television shows, comics, video games and more. 

SPECIAL RELATIVITY AND TIME TRAVEL TO THE NEAR FUTURE

Einstein developed his theory of special relativity in 1905. Along with his later expansion, the theory of general relativity, it has become one of the foundational tenets of modern physics. Special relativity describes the relationship between space and time for objects moving at constant speeds in a straight line. 

The short version of the theory is deceptively simple. First, all things are measured in relation to something else — that is to say, there is no “absolute” frame of reference. Second, the speed of light is constant. It stays the same no matter what, and no matter where it’s measured from. And third, nothing can go faster than the speed of light.

From those simple tenets unfolds actual, real-life time travel. An observer traveling at high velocity will experience time at a slower rate than an observer who isn’t speeding through space. 

While we don’t accelerate humans to near-light-speed, we do send them swinging around the planet at 17,500 mph (28,160 km/h) aboard the International Space Station. Astronaut Scott Kelly was born after his twin brother, and fellow astronaut, Mark Kelly. Scott Kelly spent 520 days in orbit, while Mark logged 54 days in space. The difference in the speed at which they experienced time over the course of their lifetimes has actually widened the age gap between the two men.

“So, where[as] I used to be just 6 minutes older, now I am 6 minutes and 5 milliseconds older,” Mark Kelly said in a panel discussion on July 12, 2020, Space.com previously reported. “Now I’ve got that over his head.” 

GENERAL RELATIVITY AND GPS TIME TRAVEL

The difference that low earth orbit makes in an astronaut’s life span may be negligible — better suited for jokes among siblings than actual life extension or visiting the distant future — but the dilation in time between people on Earth and GPS satellites flying through space does make a difference. 

The Global Positioning System, or GPS, helps us know exactly where we are by communicating with a network of a few dozen satellites positioned in a high Earth orbit. The satellites circle the planet from 12,500 miles (20,100 kilometers) away, moving at 8,700 mph (14,000 km/h). 

According to special relativity, the faster an object moves relative to another object, the slower that first object experiences time. For GPS satellites with atomic clocks, this effect cuts 7 microseconds, or 7 millionths of a second, off each day, according to American Physical Society publication Physics Central

Then, according to general relativity, clocks closer to the center of a large gravitational mass like Earth tick more slowly than those farther away. So, because the GPS satellites are much farther from the center of Earth compared to clocks on the surface, Physics Central added, that adds another 45 microseconds onto the GPS satellite clocks each day. Combined with the negative 7 microseconds from the special relativity calculation, the net result is an added 38 microseconds. 

This means that in order to maintain the accuracy needed to pinpoint your car or phone — or, since the system is run by the U.S. Department of Defense, a military drone — engineers must account for an extra 38 microseconds in each satellite’s day. The atomic clocks onboard don’t tick over to the next day until they have run 38 microseconds longer than comparable clocks on Earth.

Given those numbers, it would take more than seven years for the atomic clock in a GPS satellite to unsync itself from an Earth clock by more than a blink of an eye. (We did the math: If you estimate a blink to last at least 100,000 microseconds, as the Harvard Database of Useful Biological Numbers does, it would take thousands of days for those 38 microsecond shifts to add up.) 

This kind of time travel may seem as negligible as the Kelly brothers’ age gap, but given the hyper-accuracy of modern GPS technology, it actually does matter. If it can communicate with the satellites whizzing overhead, your phone can nail down your location in space and time with incredible accuracy. Click here for more Space.com videos…

CAN WORMHOLES TAKE US BACK IN TIME?

General relativity might also provide scenarios that could allow travelers to go back in time, according to NASA. But the physical reality of those time-travel methods are no piece of cake. 

Wormholes are theoretical “tunnels” through the fabric of space-time that could connect different moments or locations in reality to others. Also known as Einstein-Rosen bridges or white holes, as opposed to black holes, speculation about wormholes abounds. But despite taking up a lot of space (or space-time) in science fiction, no wormholes of any kind have been identified in real life. 

“The whole thing is very hypothetical at this point,” Stephen Hsu, a professor of theoretical physics at the University of Oregon, told Space.com sister site Live Science. “No one thinks we’re going to find a wormhole anytime soon.”

Besides the absence of identifiable wormholes, another obstacle in the way of wormhole time travel is their hypothetical size. Primordial wormholes are predicted to be infinitesimally small, about 10^-34 inches (10^-33 centimeters) at the “mouth” of the tunnel. As the universe expands, it’s possible that wormholes could stretch along with it, but other problems take hold. 

Even hypothetical wormholes are expected to be extremely unstable, Hsu said, blinking in and out of existence before anything could travel through them. 

“You would need some very exotic type of matter in order to stabilize a wormhole,” Hsu added, “and it’s not clear whether such matter exists in the universe.”

ALTERNATE TIME TRAVEL THEORIES

While Einstein’s theories appear to make time travel difficult, some researchers have proposed other solutions that could allow jumps back and forth in time. These alternate theories share one major flaw: As far as scientists can tell, there’s no way a person could survive the kind of gravitational pulling and pushing that each solution requires. 

Infinite cylinder theory

Astronomer Frank Tipler proposed a mechanism (sometimes known as a Tipler Cylinder) where one could take matter that is 10 times the sun’s mass, then roll it into a very long, but very dense cylinder. The Anderson Institute, a time travel research organization, described the cylinder as “a black hole that has passed through a spaghetti factory.”

After spinning this black hole spaghetti a few billion revolutions per minute, a spaceship nearby — following a very precise spiral around the cylinder — could travel backwards in time on a “closed, time-like curve,” according to the Anderson Institute. 

The major problem is that in order for the Tipler Cylinder to become reality, the cylinder would need to be infinitely long or be made of some unknown kind of matter. At least for the foreseeable future, endless interstellar pasta is beyond our reach.

Time donuts

Theoretical physicist Amos Ori at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, Israel, proposed a model for a time machine made out of curved space-time — a donut-shaped vacuum surrounded by a sphere of normal matter.

“The machine is space-time itself,” Ori told Live Science. “If we were to create an area with a warp like this in space that would enable time lines to close on themselves, it might enable future generations to return to visit our time.”

There are a few caveats to Ori’s time machine. First, visitors to the past wouldn’t be able to travel to times earlier than the invention and construction of the time donut. Second, and more importantly, the invention and construction of this machine would depend on our ability to manipulate gravitational fields at will — a feat that may be theoretically possible, but is certainly beyond our immediate reach.

TIME TRAVEL IN SCIENCE FICTION

Time travel has long occupied a significant place in fiction. Since as early as the “Mahabharata,” an ancient Sanskrit epic poem compiled around 400 B.C., humans have dreamed of warping time, Lisa Yaszek, a professor of science fiction studies at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, told Live Science

Every work of time-travel fiction creates its own version of space-time, glossing over one or more scientific hurdles and paradoxes to achieve its plot requirements. 

Some make a nod to research and physics, like “Interstellar,” a 2014 film directed by Christopher Nolan. In the movie, a character played by Matthew McConaughey spends a few hours on a planet orbiting a supermassive black hole, but because of time dilation, observers on Earth experience those hours as a matter of decades. 

Others take a more whimsical approach, like the “Doctor Who” television series. The series features the Doctor, an extraterrestrial “Time Lord” who travels in a spaceship resembling a blue British police box. “People assume,” the Doctor explained in the show, “that time is a strict progression from cause to effect, but actually from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint, it’s more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff.” 

Long-standing franchises like the “Star Trek” movies and television series, as well as comic universes like DC and Marvel Comics revisit the idea of time travel over and over. 

Here is an incomplete (and deeply subjective) list of some influential or notable works of time travel fiction:

Books about time travel:

  • Rip Van Winkle (Cornelius S. Van Winkle, 1819) by Washington Irving
  • A Christmas Carol (Chapman & Hall, 1843) by Charles Dickens
  • The Time Machine (William Heinemann, 1895) by H. G. Wells
  • A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (Charles L. Webster and Co., 1889) by Mark Twain
  • The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (Pan Books, 1980) by Douglas Adams
  • A Tale of Time City (Methuen, 1987) by Diana Wynn Jones
  • The Outlander series (Delacorte Press, 1991-present) by Diana Gabaldon
  • Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Bloomsbury/Scholastic, 1999) by J. K. Rowling
  • Thief of Time (Doubleday, 2001) by Terry Pratchett
  • The Time Traveler’s Wife (MacAdam/Cage, 2003) by Audrey Niffenegger
  • All You Need is Kill (Shueisha, 2004) by Hiroshi Sakurazaka

Movies about time travel:

  • Planet of the Apes (1968)
  • Superman (1978)
  • Time Bandits (1981)
  • The Terminator (1984)
  • Back to the Future series (1985, 1989, 1990)
  • Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)
  • Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989)
  • Groundhog Day (1993)
  • Galaxy Quest (1999)
  • The Butterfly Effect (2004)
  • 13 Going on 30 (2004)
  • The Lake House (2006)
  • Meet the Robinsons (2007)
  • Hot Tub Time Machine (2010)
  • Midnight in Paris (2011)
  • Looper (2012)
  • X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)
  • Edge of Tomorrow (2014)
  • Interstellar (2014)
  • Doctor Strange (2016)
  • A Wrinkle in Time (2018)
  • The Last Sharknado: It’s About Time (2018)
  • Avengers: Endgame (2019)
  • Tenet (2020)
  • Palm Springs (2020)
  • Zach Snyder’s Justice League (2021)
  • The Tomorrow War (2021)

Television about time travel:

  • Doctor Who (1963-present)
  • The Twilight Zone (1959-1964) (multiple episodes)
  • Star Trek (multiple series, multiple episodes)
  • Samurai Jack (2001-2004)
  • Lost (2004-2010)
  • Phil of the Future (2004-2006)
  • Steins;Gate (2011)
  • Outlander (2014-present)
  • Loki (2021-present)

Games about time travel:

  • Chrono Trigger (1995)
  • TimeSplitters (2000-2005)
  • Kingdom Hearts (2002-2019)
  • Prince of Persia: Sands of Time (2003)
  • God of War II (2007)
  • Ratchet and Clank Future: A Crack In Time (2009)
  • Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time (2013)
  • Dishonored 2 (2016)
  • Titanfall 2 (2016)
  • Outer Wilds (2019)

How did Mars get its two “impossible” moons?

Phobos and Deimos only have two explanations, and neither one adds up.

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TAKEAWAYS

  • Phobos and Deimos are the two small moons of Mars, the only rocky planet besides Earth with a moon. 
  • Captured asteroids would not orbit in the same plane, and impact simulations cannot reproduce Phobos and Deimos. 
  • But if an impact also created a large, innermost, third moon, maybe Mars can be explained after all.

As far as we know, there are exactly three ways that a planet can wind up possessing one or more moons.

The first way is from a circumplanetary disk, where the material that accrues around a proto-star not only fragments into planetesimals that grow and evolve but the largest protoplanets acquire their own disks of material around them, which leads to moons. This primarily applies to gas giants and is likely responsible for most of the moons in the Jovian, Saturnian, and Uranian systems.

The second way is through gravitational capture, which explains moons with bizarre orbital orientations and densities that do not match up with the parent planet’s material. This applies to moons like Saturn’s Phoebe or Neptune’s Triton, which likely both originated from the Kuiper belt.

And finally, the third way is through a major collision, which kicks up debris that coalesces into one or more natural satellites: This is the likely origin of not only Earth’s moon but all of the moons of Pluto.

And yet, when we look at all three of these methods, not a single one is capable of explaining the Martian system, with its two small, closely orbiting moons, Phobos and Deimos. On the surface, these Martian moons appear to be impossible on their own. Fortunately, when we put the other puzzle pieces together, one scenario stands out above all the rest.

The relative sizes of the asteroid-like moons of Mars, Phobos and Deimos. Phobos is the innermost moon of Mars, while the smaller Deimos is more than twice as far away. Despite their appearance being similar to asteroids, it is thought that Phobos and Deimos were once joined by a larger, third, inner moon, which has since decayed and fallen back to Mars. All are thought to originate from a giant, ancient impact. (Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech)

When it comes to planets beyond our own solar system, we have not yet advanced to the point where current technology can unambiguously detect the presence of a moon. Direct imaging has been able to reveal the extended material around a newly forming protoplanet — surefire evidence of a circumplanetary disk that will almost certainly grow into one or more moons — but cannot yet resolve moons around mature exoplanets.

Similarly, the transit method is also limited. Sure, when an exoplanet passes in front of its parent star from our perspective, it blocks a portion of the star’s light, revealing the physical size and orbital period of the planet, once numerous transits build up. If exomoons are present, they can lead to additional flux dips superimposed atop the one caused by the planet and can also lead to transit timing variations as the orbiting moon causes the planet to move forward-and-backward in its orbit by small amounts.

Unfortunately, a non-uniformly reflective planet can exhibit a signal that is observationally indistinguishable from a planet/moon combination with superimposed flux dips. Similarly, the gravitational pull of other masses, like yet-undetected planets, can cause identical transit timing variations as exomoons.

Based on the Kepler lightcurve of the transiting exoplanet Kepler-1625b, we were able to infer the existence of a potential exomoon. The fact that the transits did not occur with the exact same periodicity, but instead displayed timing variations, was the major clue that led researchers in that direction. The exomoon nature is still debated. (Credit: NASA GSFC / SVS / Katrina Jackson)

As a result, we can only look to our own solar system for information about where moons come from. When it comes to Mars, though, none of the three methods quite fit the bill.

Why the Mars moons are “impossible”

The circumplanetary disk option only seems to apply to worlds that are massive enough to have come to dominate their orbits very early on in the history of the solar system. Only by gathering large amounts of mass in one place, early on, can a planet draw enough material into its gravitational well to lead to its own lunar system. Put simply, Mars is too low in mass to have formed with moons around it.

Gravitational capture looks tempting, especially given the superficial similarities between Phobos and Deimos and the other asteroids. However, captured bodies always wind up in randomly oriented orbits: frequently inclined and just as likely to be retrograde (opposite to the planet’s rotation) as prograde (in the same direction as its rotation). Yet Phobos and Deimos not only orbit in the same plane as one another, they orbit within ~1° of Mars’ rotational plane. If these are captured asteroids, it was an almost magical occurrence.

And yet, while that leaves the collisional origin as the third and final option, that does not work well, either. No matter what parameters are inputted into simulations — a fast or slow impactor, a massive or low mass one, a shallow or deep impact angle, etc. — there is no combination of parameters that yields two small, low-mass moons like we actually find around Mars.

Mars, Phobos, and Deimos, to scale, with their orbits to scale as well. No other moons are this close to their parent world for the known planets, but it is possible that asteroids and Kuiper belt objects that have undergone major collisions will have comparable systems. (Credit: Nbound at English Wikipedia)

When we take all of this together, it might be tempting to conclude that Mars is a mystery, and the origin of its lunar system remains obscure to us. But the more we have studied the red planet, the more circumstantial evidence we have begun to gather that simply looking at the moons that Mars possesses does not tell us the full story. In fact, the same can be said of the most familiar moon in our solar system: our own.

The origin of Earth’s moon

On Earth, for example, we did not know where the moon came from for an extremely long time. As recently as the 1980s, scientists considered that the moon might be a gravitationally captured object, despite the fact that it orbits prograde, out of the plane of Earth’s orbit around the sun by only 5°, and is tidally locked to the Earth.

However, in order to gravitationally capture a large, massive object, it has to be capable of shedding both momentum and angular momentum, requiring that something else get ejected. Unless Earth had either a rich lunar system of its own at birth — as we assume Neptune once did, leading to the capture of Triton at the expense of all its pre-existing exterior moons — or an enormous atmosphere capable of causing a tremendous amount of aerobraking, the capture scenario would be an impossibility.

This analysis of a fragment of a lunar rock recovered from the Apollo 14 mission shows a zircon inclusion, which may have formed on Earth during or even prior to the impact that gave rise to the moon. (Credit: J.J. Bellucci et al., Earth and Planetary Sci. Lett., 2019)

Many hypotheses about the origin of Earth’s moon have been floated throughout history, but modern analyses of the material brought back from the moon during the Apollo missions have largely settled the story. The Earth and moon, as determined by analyzing the elements and isotopes that their surface rocks are made from, have identical oxygen isotope ratios, something that is different between our planet and every other planet.

Not only does this point to a common origin for the rocks found here and on the moon, but two other pieces of evidence show that the moon is almost as old as, but not quite as old as, the oldest objects in the solar system. While the most ancient asteroids have been dated to be 4.56 billion years old, we have two independent methods of estimating the age of the moon.

  1. Lunar samples brought back from the Apollo 14 mission contained zircon fragments, which allow for an incredibly accurate form of radiometric dating to be performed: uranium-lead dating, which yields an age for the moon of 4.51 billion years.
  2. By combining data about the thermal conductivity of the moon’s crust with the cooling properties of a hypothetical lunar magma ocean and folding in the ages and compositions of moon rocks, an age estimate of 4.43 billion years was obtained.

The Moon formed early on in the history of the solar system, but well after the completion of planetary formation. A major collision is the only explanation that fits on all counts.

An illustration of what a synestia might look like: a puffed-up ring that surrounds a planet subsequent to a high-energy, large angular momentum impact. This likely represents the aftermath of the collision that resulted in the formation of our moon. (Credit: Sarah Stewart / UC Davis / NASA)

An explanation for Mars’ “impossible” moons

Given that so many pieces of evidence needed to be combined to reveal the origin of our own moon, it makes sense to gather any and all potentially relevant information about Mars and its moons. Sure, our simulations pretty definitively show that no combination of collisional parameters would have produced two small moons around Mars and nothing else, but that does not rule out an impact scenario for the origin of Phobos and Deimos.

Observational sciences, like astronomy, are fundamentally different from laboratory sciences where you can perform and control your experiments however you like. In an observational science, all you get is a snapshot of what the system you are examining is like over the very brief interval you get to observe it.

For our solar system, which has been around for over 4.5 billion years, we have only a few thousand years of documented astronomical history, at most. The moons of Mars were only discovered in the late 19th century, less than 150 years ago. To claim that Mars has two moons is certainly correct, today, but we have to keep the cardinal rule of all observational sciences in mind whenever we draw conclusions. When we look at what we have, today, all we are seeing are the survivors. It is eminently possible that what exists today is just a subset of what once existed long ago.

Winds at speeds up to 100 km/hr travel across the Martian surface. The craters in this image, caused by impacts in Mars’ past, all show different degrees of erosion. Some still have defined outer rims and clear features within them, while others are much smoother and featureless, almost seeming to run into one another or merge with their surroundings. (Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)

When we look at Mars, it is easy to notice its surface features, which are numerous and varied and tell a dramatic story. Mars has a reddish color to it, evidence of widespread ferric oxide: the result of reactions taking place between iron and oxygen. The atmosphere of Mars is rich in both water vapor and carbon dioxide, both of which can oxidize iron and also combine to point toward a wet, watery history on the red planet. Its presently thin, tenuous atmosphere with what appear to be dried-up riverbeds on its surface and hematite spheres in lowland regions further indicate a watery past, with a much thicker atmosphere that must have persisted for a billion years or more.

But another spectacular feature of Mars is its heavily cratered outer layer, with dramatic highlands and lowlands. Although there are a number of prominent features like mountains, volcanoes, basins, and multiple layers of craters, perhaps the most dramatic difference can be seen between the northern and southern hemispheres of the red planet. While there are topographical variations across both hemispheres, there is an enormous basin covering half of the planet, where for some reason, roughly 50 percent of Mars is around five kilometers (three miles) lower in elevation than the rest of the planet.

The Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter (MOLA) instrument, part of the Mars Global Surveyor, collected over 200 million laser altimeter measurements in constructing this topographic map of Mars. The Tharsis region, at center-left, is the highest elevation region on the planet, while the lowlands appear in blue. Note the much lower elevation of the northern hemisphere compared to the southern, with a mean difference in elevation of around 5 km. (Credit: Mars Global Surveyor MOLA Team)

How could this be possible? Even on a geologically active world like Earth, such a configuration probably never existed. Even back when the continents were all interconnected, forming Pangaea, there were likely large ridges, subduction zones, and other tremendous variations in elevation along the ocean floor, preventing the uniform, deep basin that has persisted on Mars for at least the past 3 billion years or so.

It is generally quite difficult to make a planet lopsided like this, particularly if its structure is driven by gradual, internal processes. However, there is an easy way to make a large, deep, sustaining basin: from a large impact. Not, mind you, the type of impact that created our own moon, which required a Mars-sized body striking a world nearly as large as Earth already is today. Instead, a slower collision between perhaps a Pallas-sized body (Pallas being the 3rd largest asteroid in our asteroid belt, well behind Ceres but nearly as massive as Vesta) and early Mars could have left a dramatic scar of precisely this type.

Rather than the two moons we see today, a collision followed by a circumplanetary disk may have given rise to three moons of Mars, where only two survive today. This hypothetical transient moon of Mars, proposed in a 2016 paper, is now the leading idea in the formation of Mars’ moons. (Credit: LabEx UnivEarthS / Université de Paris Diderot)

I am not attempting to suggest that a slow, massive collision kicked up debris that then created Phobos and Deimos; that is not consistent with any realistic scenario. Instead, however, it is plausible that:

  1. an early major collision gave rise to a large debris cloud,
  2. that cloud coalesced into not two but three moons,
  3. where the innermost moon was largest, followed by Phobos and then Deimos,
  4. and then the innermost moon eventually fell back onto Mars, perhaps after being tidally destroyed, creating the depressed basin we see today.

This provides a possible mechanism for explaining what remains around Mars today, while still being consistent with what is obtainable within realistic physical scenarios. When we run our simulations for the types of lunar systems that could have arisen from a giant impact on a Mars-like body back in the early stages of our solar system, a large, few-hundred-kilometer inner moon could have existed alongside Phobos and Deimos, having fallen back to Mars in an era in which only single-celled life existed on Earth. It is the one scenario that has no major conflicts with the full suite of available evidence.

Artist’s concept of Japan’s Mars Moons eXploration (MMX) spacecraft, carrying a NASA instrument to study the Martian moons Phobos and Deimos. The mission should contain a sample return component and, after collecting material from Phobos in 2024, should return that component to Earth in July of 2029. We could know if Mars possessed ancient life, and if Phobos is made out of Martian material, before the current decade is over. (Credit: NASA)

Of course, there is only one way to be certain that Phobos and Deimos are made from the same materials as Mars, rather than being captured asteroids: to land on one of them and return that material to Earth. That is precisely what Japan’s Mars Moons eXploration (MMX) spacecraft is designed to do. The plan is to land on Phobos in 2024, collect material, and return it to Earth before the end of the decade, similar to what previous sample return missions have done on asteroids Itokawa and Ryugu. If Phobos is made of the same material that Mars is composed of, this will be the surefire way to find out.

For more than a century — for practically the entire duration that we have known Mars possesses moons — we have wondered about the origin of these Martian bodies. Yet the fact that we have only been around for an astronomical instant makes reconstructing the history of the solar system that much more difficult. Considering that in another few billion years, Phobos will likely fall back to Mars as well, leaving only Deimos behind, perhaps we should adopt a more positive perspective. After all, at least we have enough remaining clues today to reconstruct the cosmic story that tells us how our solar system grew up. The more time that goes by, the greater the odds that our early history gets overwritten in a way that completely erases the critical evidence we need to know the answer to perhaps the greatest question of all: where did all this come from?

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Potentially Hazardous Asteroid Going 21,000 MPH Is On Close Approach With Earth

Asteroid 2021 NY1 measures up to 1000 feet in diameter, making it a very large asteroid. It will enter the Earth’s orbit, heading towards us at a speed of nearly 21,000 mph.

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Asteroid 2021 NY1 Going 21000 MPH Is On Close Approach With Earth

  • 2021 NY1, a very large asteroid, up to 984 feet wide, will be closely flying by Earth in September.
  • Classified as a Potentially Hazardous Near-Earth Object (NEO) by NASA, Asteroid 2021 NY1 will be traveling at a speed of around 20,893 miles per hour.

Mark your calendars. Asteroid 2021 NY1 is about to come by and say hello to Earth.

The Apollo-class asteroid, which is somewhere between 427 and 984 feet wide, is predicted by NASA to be on close approach and will pass by our planet on Sept. 22, 2021.

It will come within 930,487 miles (1,498,113 kilometers) of Earth at a speed of almost 21,000 miles per hour.

While that may not sound very close, in relative terms of outer space it isn’t completely insignificant.

For instance, the moon is 238,855 miles from Earth, while the planet Mars is 245.22 million miles away. So 930,487 miles is pretty close.

That’s assuming that the Yarkovsky Effect, which can change an asteroid’s orbital path, doesn’t occur with this particular space rock.

Asteroid 2021 NY1 Going 21000 MPH Is On Close Approach With Earth

VIA JPL-NASA

This is why NASA classifies Asteroid 2021 NY1 as a Near-Earth Object, which they define as “an asteroid or comet that approaches our planet less than 1.3 times the distance from Earth to the Sun (the Earth-Sun distance is about 93 million miles).”

Asteroid 2021 NY1 is also considered to be a Potentially Hazardous Object by NASA, “because the gravitational tug of the planets could, over time, cause an object’s orbital path to evolve into an Earth-crossing orbit. This allows for the possibility of a future collision.”

According to SpaceReference.org, “2021 NY1 orbits the sun every 1,400 days (3.83 years), coming as close as 0.99 AU and reaching as far as 3.90 AU from the sun.”

So it’s all good, right? Sure. If you believe NASA, who never tries to conceal the truth and never keeps anything hidden from the American public.

This asteroid is one of the most likely to hit Earth. NASA Explains.

This asteroid is one of the most likely to hit Earth. Here’s what it means for our future.


New ultraprecise measurements show that the asteroid Bennu has a higher chance than thought of impacting our planet sometime in the next 300 years, NASA says.

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For hundreds of millions of years, a top-shaped rubble pile called Bennu has orbited the sun in relative isolation. The asteroid, about a third of a mile wide at its equator, poses no immediate threat to our planet. But hundreds of years from now, there is a small chance that Bennu could slam into Earth.


In a new study published in the scientific journal Icarus, scientists used data from NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft to make a precise calculation of Bennu’s orbit and its future proximity to our home planet. The researchers then analyzed the impact hazard between now and the year 2300. The study finds a 1-in-1,750 chance of a future collision over the next three centuries—a slightly higher probability than previously estimated.


Nearly all of the riskiest encounters with Bennu will occur in the late 2100s and early 2200s, with the single likeliest impact coming on the afternoon of September 24, 2182. On that Tuesday, Bennu has about a 1-in-2,700 chance of hitting Earth.


The team—led by Davide Farnocchia, a navigation engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory—reached its revised estimate by pinpointing Bennu’s distance from Earth to within about seven feet at dozens of times between 2019 and 2020. That level of precision is like measuring the distance between the Empire State Building and the Eiffel Tower to within a few thousandths of an inch.


“Bennu is by far the best characterized asteroid in the solar system,” says University of Arizona planetary scientist Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx’s principal investigator and the study’s senior author. “We know where it’s going to be over 100 years into the future, within meters. No other object in the solar system has that level of fidelity to its orbital solution—even Earth!”


University of Arizona planetary scientist Amy Mainzer, an expert on near-Earth asteroids who wasn’t involved with the study, lauded the team’s “absolutely white-glove” calculations. “If you want to be able to predict where [an asteroid] is going to go in the future, that prediction is entirely determined by how well you can measure where it is today,” she says. “This team has made an extremely precise measurement.”


Despite the slightly higher chance of impact, the risks from Bennu shouldn’t keep anyone awake at night. There’s more than a 99.9 percent chance that Bennu will not hit Earth in the next three centuries, and an impact from Bennu wouldn’t cause a mass extinction like the dino-killing Chicxulub impact 66 million years ago. That asteroid was probably about six miles across; Bennu is less than a third of a mile wide, on average.


Even so, a collision with Bennu would be regionally devastating. An impact would pack the energy of more than 1.1 billion tons of TNT, roughly two million times the energy of last year’s devastating port explosion in Beirut, Lebanon.


Ever since Bennu’s discovery in September 1999, astronomers have carefully tracked the asteroid’s orbit with ground-based telescopes, including Puerto Rico’s iconic but now lost Arecibo Observatory. These data have let astronomers predict Bennu’s future location reasonably well over the next century.


Bennu is classified as a “potentially hazardous asteroid,” meaning the object is more than 460 feet (140 meters) wide and could theoretically come within 4.65 million miles of Earth. A 2014 study found that the asteroid had roughly a 0.037 percent chance of colliding with Earth between 2175 and 2199.


But until now, simulations have run into issues beyond September 2135. Previous predictions had found that Bennu will pass within 75,000 to 330,000 miles of Earth in 2135, possibly taking the asteroid closer to Earth than the moon. Bennu has practically no chance of hitting Earth then, but depending on precisely when and where Bennu makes its close approach, our planet’s gravity could tweak the asteroid’s orbit enough to put it on a future collision course.


Computer simulations have identified the small regions of space that Bennu would have to pass through to set up a future impact. The key question is whether Bennu’s actual trajectory in 2135 will pass through any of these “keyholes,” which range from several hundred feet to a few miles wide. Answering that question requires scientists to chart Bennu’s current trajectory—and everything that could affect its future path—with unprecedented precision.


OSIRIS-REx arrived at Bennu in late 2018 as NASA’s first—and humankind’s third—attempt to sample the surface of an asteroid. The spacecraft, which snatched a dusty, pebbly sample in October 2020, is currently on its way back to Earth to drop off the precious material. But before it grabbed its sample, OSIRIS-REx spent nearly two years orbiting and studying rubble-strewn Bennu.


Because the spacecraft spent so long tagging along with the asteroid, Farnocchia and his colleagues were able to use data from OSIRIS-REx to precisely chart the asteroid’s location. Their approach had the flavor of a high-school trigonometry problem: If you know the distance from OSIRIS-REx to Bennu, and the distance from OSIRIS-REx to Earth, then you can figure out the distance between Earth and Bennu.


The team focused on periods when researchers knew OSIRIS-REx’s position relative to Bennu to within a meter (3.3 feet), based on images the spacecraft was taking of the asteroid’s surface. They then measured the timing of radio signals exchanged between OSIRIS-REx and Earth to within 15 billionths of a second.


Combining these data meant that Farnocchia’s team could calculate the distance between Earth and Bennu to within several feet, at distances ranging from 52 million to more than 201 million miles.


The team also used OSIRIS-REx data to constrain a key non-gravitational force acting on Bennu that’s known as the Yarkovsky effect. As sunlight heats up Bennu’s surface, the asteroid’s surface re-emits energy as it cools. Because Bennu rotates, the net result is a subtle thrust acting on the asteroid.


Farnocchia’s team is now able to provide a precise estimate of how the Yarkovsky effect tweaks Bennu’s orbit over time. In a NASA press briefing on August 11, Farnocchia noted that this force is equal to the weight of three grapes on Earth—and that’s enough to cause Bennu to drift by about 934 feet a year.


A swirling solar system


The new study finds that in 2135, Bennu will come within about 123,000 miles of Earth’s surface, give or take 6,000 miles, a much more precise range than previous estimates. Even though this finding rules out many previously identified keyholes, some keyholes—and future collision courses—still fall within the orbit’s margin of error. From there, the team was able to revise their estimates for Bennu’s collision risk.


The lingering uncertainty over the space rock’s future trajectory doesn’t stem from the asteroid itself, or even from OSIRIS-REx’s data. It comes from the rest of the solar system.


When Farnocchia and his colleagues ran their simulations, they had to account for many factors, including how sunlight heats up Bennu and how hundreds of other objects in the solar system, even as far away as Pluto, gravitationally tug at the asteroid. The trouble is, researchers had to estimate the masses for most of the objects within a key group: the 343 largest bodies in the asteroid belt.


“It’s amazing to me that other asteroids have any influence at all,” says Lauretta. Once other sources of error get small enough, “these effects show up, and you’re like, Wow.”


Future missions should help refine those estimates. NASA’s upcoming Near-Earth Object (NEO) Surveyor mission, scheduled to launch in 2026, is an infrared space telescope designed to look for asteroids’ heat signatures, which can be used to estimate their sizes. The telescope is expected to discover hundreds of thousands more asteroids, as well as provide better data on the asteroids that have already been found.


“You want to know as much as you can about as many of the objects out there [as you can], so that you have a reasonable idea of what’s likely to happen,” says Mainzer, the NEO Surveyor’s principal investigator.


Mainzer and Lauretta add that sending more spacecraft to more asteroids would help—and OSIRIS-REx itself is poised to get in on the action. In September 2023, the spacecraft will fly by Earth, drop a capsule full of Bennu samples into the Utah desert, and continue its journey through the solar system. So far, Lauretta’s team has found only one viable follow-on target for OSIRIS-REx: the near-Earth asteroid Apophis, which will make a close approach to Earth in April 2029.


Earth is safe from Apophis for at least the next century. But setting aside its risks to our planet, visiting worlds like Apophis will give scientists whole new vistas and terrains to explore—and a broader sense of the solar system’s history.
Humankind also has more than a century to continue monitoring Bennu’s risk to Earth—and to modify that risk, if necessary. Already, space agencies are testing the procedures and technologies needed to neutralize an asteroid’s threat. In 2022, NASA’s DART spacecraft will slam into a roughly 560-foot-wide moonlet orbiting a near-Earth asteroid, with the goal of altering the moonlet’s orbit.


If humankind is threatened by an asteroid impact in the future, bigger versions of these “kinetic impactors” could be used to nudge the asteroid into a safe orbit—so long as we have at least several years’ notice before a predicted collision. For objects like Bennu, which was discovered nearly 200 years before any potential impacts, Mainzer says that humankind has “lots and lots and lots of options.”

Space station detectors found the source of weird ‘blue jet’ lightning

A ‘blue bang’ sparks an unusual type of lightning in the upper atmosphere

blue jet illustration
The International Space Station spotted an exotic type of upside-down lightning called a blue jet (illustrated) zipping up from a thundercloud into the stratosphere in 2019.DTU SPACE, DANIEL SCHMELLING/MOUNT VISUAL

Scientists have finally gotten a clear view of the spark that sets off an exotic type of lightning called a blue jet.

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Blue jets zip upward from thunderclouds into the stratosphere, reaching altitudes up to about 50 kilometers in less than a second. Whereas ordinary lightning excites a medley of gases in the lower atmosphere to glow white, blue jets excite mostly stratospheric nitrogen to create their signature blue hue.

Blue jets have been observed from the ground and aircraft for years, but it’s hard to tell how they form without getting high above the clouds. Now, instruments on the International Space Station have spotted a blue jet emerge from an extremely brief, bright burst of electricity near the top of a thundercloud, researchers report online January 20 in Nature.

Understanding blue jets and other upper-atmosphere phenomena related to thunderstorms, such as sprites (SN: 6/14/02) and elves (SN: 12/23/95), is important because these events can affect how radio waves travel through the air — potentially impacting communication technologies, says Penn State space physicist Victor Pasko, who was not involved in the work.

Cameras and light-sensing instruments called photometers on the space station observed the blue jet in a storm over the Pacific Ocean, near the island of Nauru, in February 2019. “The whole thing starts with what I think of as a blue bang,” says Torsten Neubert, an atmospheric physicist at the Technical University of Denmark in Kongens Lyngby. That “blue bang” was a 10-microsecond flash of bright blue light near the top of the cloud, about 16 kilometers high. From that flashpoint, a blue jet shot up into the stratosphere, climbing as high as about 52 kilometers over several hundred milliseconds.

The spark that generated the blue jet may have been a special kind of short-range electric discharge inside the thundercloud, Neubert says. Normal lightning bolts are formed by discharges between oppositely charged regions of a cloud — or a cloud and the ground — many kilometers apart. But turbulent mixing high in a cloud may bring oppositely charged regions within about a kilometer of each other, creating very short but powerful bursts of electric current, Neubert says. Researchers have seen evidence of such high-energy, short-range discharges in pulses of radio waves from thunderstorms detected by ground-based antennas.

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O UFOs, Where Art Thou?

Five reasons why sorting all of this out is so scientifically challenging

O UFOs, Where Art Thou?
Credit: Artem Peteriatko Getty Images
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Just before the release in June of the much-anticipated Pentagon report on unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP), I sat down to try to create a list of the greatest hurdles to UAPs’ scientific analysis. What I came up with were five major challenges that are described here, together with a cross-comparison with some of the statements made in the published government report. Although only nine pages long, that report turns out to be thorough, careful and scientifically accurate in that it fully expresses how little certainty can be drawn from the data to hand. As the saying goes: the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Challenge No. 1: All UAP/UFO incidents are nonrepeatable: we can’t go back and perform the “experiment” of that exact observation again.

For science in general, this kind of thing is a big headache. A lack of repeatability or replication poses a very significant challenge for the interpretation of data (especially if those data are noisy and incomplete); for filling in obvious gaps; and for eliminating or supporting any hypotheses. As the Pentagon report states: “Limited data leaves most UAP unexplained….” Limited, anecdotal and nonrepeatable are hardly the words you want to use, but they apply here.

Challenge No. 2: There is nothing systematic in how incidents are recorded or reported. Different camera systems, radar systems, data processing, observers and environmental circumstances mean that each incident is, in effect, an uncontrolled experiment, with few ways to ascertain the real quality and sensitivity of data.

Again, the Pentagon report states effectively the same point: “The limited amount of high-quality reporting on unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP) hampers our ability to draw firm conclusions about the nature or intent of UAP.” The report then goes on to suggest a potentially useful task of: “Consistent consolidation of reports from across the federal government, standardized reporting, increased collection and analysis, and a streamlined process for screening.”

This is really important; the report is very, very specific about the lack of appropriateness of typical military sensor equipment for this sort of analysis. “The sensors mounted on U.S. military platforms are typically designed to fulfill specific missions. As a result, those sensors are not generally suited for identifying UAP.”

Challenge No. 3: There is no easy way to account for “cherry-picking” of data. We don’t know how often pilots or other observers see something unexpected but then, a minute later, figure out what they’re witnessing (or at least convince themselves they’ve done so) and consequently don’t report anything. There could be thousands of such incidents, or very few. We don’t know, and those “mundane” cases could actually represent all cases.

The report does discuss the “stigma” surrounding personnel or observers reporting UAPs, but it also states that out of the 144 reports that were studied, only 18 incidents (covered in 21 of the reports) appeared to demonstrate “advanced technology,” inasmuch as there was an appearance of unusual aeronautical behavior in movement.ADVERTISEMENT

In a small (unspecified) number of cases there was even evidence of military aircraft systems “processing radio frequency (RF) energy”—whatever that really means; presumably there was some increased radio noise. But, as for all the times that nothing was reported, either because something was quickly identified, or a pilot just chose not to, that remains a total unknown.

Challenge No. 4: If any incidents or observations are genuinely associated with something tangible and physical, we don’t know whether we’re looking at a single underlying phenomenon or many. It’s a bit like going into a zoo blindfolded and trying to understand what you’re hearing and smelling. If there’s only one species you might figure it out, but if there are 100 species, then decoding your experience is going to be very difficult.

Again, the report hits this nail right on the head, with an entire section titled “UAP probably lack a single explanation.” Some of the possibilities offered are: “Airborne clutter … birds, balloons, recreational unmanned aerial vehicles … debris like plastic bags … that muddle a scene,” as well as natural atmospheric phenomena (ice crystals, thermal fluctuations that can register on infrared and radar systems), classified aircraft and the like, and foreign “adversary systems.”

The Pentagon report also provides an outline of ongoing efforts, and possible future directions, for trying to improve all analyses. This includes a more systematic collection of military aircraft sensor data, along with FAA data, and applying machine learning to sift through current and historical information to look for “clusters,” patterns and associations with known phenomena like weather balloons, wildlife movements and other Earth-monitoring databases.

Challenge No. 5: The popular association of UAP with hypotheses involving alien technology creates a severe analysis bias. Usually, science tries to move stepwise towards finding support for a given hypothesis or for eliminating hypotheses, and weighs those options as evenly as possible. But in this case a hypothesis that would require extraordinarily robust evidence in order to be supported (as with Carl Sagan’s famous dictum “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”), regardless of what some people say, hangs heavily over any analysis or discussion, and there is a vocal community who feel that the answer is already known. That’s a problem.

In fact, and rather ironically, the “sociocultural stigmas” around recording surprising observations mentioned in the report are undoubtedly exacerbated by elements of the UFO community that express ideas or beliefs that are, well, fantastical in nature.

Consequently, observers such as highly trained, professional pilots are likely going to be reticent to mention things they are very surprised by. This relates to point No. 3 and creates bias because the unreported incidents, if further analyzed, could provide significant insight—especially as to how often human observers are simply confused, as opposed to witnessing genuinely unusual phenomena.

Where does all of this leave us? Well, the Pentagon report does suggest ways to improve data collection and analysis, as I’ve described. It also points out that if some UAP do represent physical hazards, or security challenges, it would be important to figure that out. In that sense, there is some possible risk mitigation to be had by investigating UAP further, irrespective of an eventually mundane or extraordinary explanation.

As a scientist who studies the possibilities of life elsewhere in the cosmos, I find myself saying “Well, it seems worth having some more work done on this.” But that’s not because I think it’s likely that extraterrestrials or their probes could be dropping into Earth’s atmosphere. Although as a rational thinker I can’t, and shouldn’t, permanently exclude such possibilities, my point No. 5 bothers me enough that I’d rather follow the stepwise approach. There are other benefits to that strategy too.

In particular, I think that the idea of a vastly more systematic collection of data (from things like state-of-the-art camera systems placed on aircraft or in monitoring locations) would be an interesting activity regardless of what is actually taking place in our skies.

New kinds of high-resolution time-lapse data and high-fidelity monitoring of our planetary environment could have many additional benefits as we try to navigate our way through a perilously changing world. From atmospherics to animal migration to human-generated garbage floating in the air and on the sea, seeing what’s actually going on is always going to help.

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If aliens call, what should we do? Scientists want your opinion.

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The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) has been growing in confidence and repute lately thanks to astronomer’s detections of habitable worlds and the private funding been poured into the enterprise. With renewed efforts afoot, it’s worth pausing for a moment and asking – well what do we do if we succeed? How should the scientists communicate their results? How will the public react? Social media in particular disrupts the conventional pattern of scientific announcements and poses some interesting challenges for SETI. In this video we perhaps end up asking more questions than answers, but let’s get into a discussion in the comments about how best to proceed!

In the age of fake news, researchers worry conspiracy theories would abound before we could figure out how — or if — to reply to an alien message.

The Very Large Array radio telescope facility in New Mexico
Astronomers use radio telescopes, like the Very Large Array in New Mexico, to listen to the cosmos. They can also use radio telescopes to broadcast messages into space.

The answer to this question could affect all of our lives more than nearly any other policy decision out there: How, if it all, should humanity respond if we get a message from an alien civilization?

And yet politicians and scientists have never bothered to get our input on it.

At long last, that’s changing. A group of researchers in the UK this week released the first major survey on the question. The responses could help inform an international protocol for responding to first contact.

This is a big deal because, as Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk have warned, communicating with extraterrestrials could pose a catastrophic risk to humanity. In fact, if we send out a message and it’s received by less-than-friendly aliens, that could pose an existential threat not only to the human species but to every species on Earth.

Despite the high stakes, scientists have already sent out signals intended to be picked up by aliens. The first one went out in 1974, when the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico transmitted a broadcast containing information on everything from the position of Earth in our solar system to the double helix structure of DNA.

The Arecibo Observatory is currently running a contest that invites kids to design our next message to E.T. And later this year, an organization called Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI) plans to transmit a new message containing information on the periodic table. There’s no law saying they can’t, or even that they need to get some international buy-in.

But the scientists at the UK SETI Research Network (UKSRN) think we’re woefully unprepared to handle an alien message if we receive one. And they say no one class of people should unilaterally decide humanity’s response. As astronomer Martin Dominik put it, “We want to hear people’s views. The consequences affect more people than just scientists.”

So UKSRN has launched a survey online and at the Royal Society’s summer science exhibition in London, which runs July 1-7. Here are three of the questions they’re asking the public:

1) Some people think we should send messages into space even if we don’t receive a message first. What is your opinion?

2) If we receive a message, do you think we should reply/make contact or not? Why?

3) What would you consider a credible source?

That third question reflects a worry I’ve been hearing from astronomers over the past couple of years: If a newly discovered message from aliens is announced, members of the public may use social media to spread all sorts of fake news and conspiracy theories about the aliens, their message, and what it will mean for humanity to communicate with them. In the weeks or months or years it could take scientists to decode the interstellar missive, fear-mongering could tank our chances of responding wisely — or at all.

An alien message “will take time to understand and if that work starts to drag out and there is nothing new we can say, the information vacuum will be filled with speculation,” John Elliott, a UKSRN co-founder, told the Guardian. “Conjecture and rumor will take over.”

In hopes of figuring out how to minimize the problem, the survey asks which information sources you’d trust: Main news channels? Direct quotes from scientists? Official government statements? Other sources?

It also asks if you’d post on social media about the discovery of an alien message. If so, would you restrict yourself to defending the scientific evidence? Or would you maybe engage in speculation? Would the absence of any news on the signal’s decoding encourage you to speculate?

You can see how it’d be useful to scientists to be able to predict the public’s response in these scenarios. But there’s a difference between how I say I’d react when I’m filling out a questionnaire, and how I’d actually react in real life. In addition to that limitation, the UKSRN survey is weakened by the fact that the same person can take it more than once from different devices.

Still, it’s an improvement over the lack of public consultation we’ve seen on these questions in the past.

Who gets to make rules about what happens in space?

For decades, the international community has been exploring the possibility of establishing a mechanism for global oversight when it comes to our engagement with outer space. But even if everyone were to agree that’s a good idea, the question of how to set it up and make it enforceable is incredibly complicated.

The 1967 Outer Space Treaty was an early effort in this vein. Ratified by dozens of countries and adopted by the United Nations against the backdrop of the Cold War, it laid out a framework for international space law. Among other things, it stipulated that the moon and other celestial bodies can only be used for peaceful purposes, and that states can’t store their nuclear weapons in space. The treaty suited its historical context, but it didn’t tackle the concerns people have nowadays about messaging an alien intelligence.

Carl Sagan helped design this early pictorial message to aliens. It was engraved on an aluminum plaque that was attached to the Pioneer 10 spacecraft before its launch in 1972.
Carl Sagan helped design this early pictorial message to aliens. It was engraved on an aluminum plaque that was attached to the Pioneer 10 spacecraft before its launch in 1972.

Another inflection point came in the late 1980s, when scientists with the organization Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) drafted a post-detection protocol, a list of best practices for what to do if and when we ever find aliens. One of its principles reads: “No response to a signal or other evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence should be sent until appropriate international consultations have taken place.”

This protocol was put on file as a brief with the Outer Space Treaty at the UN, and it was endorsed by the International Academy of Astronautics and the International Institute for Space Law. But it has no regulatory force when it comes to those who actively send out messages à la METI.

In 2015, SETI researchers, Musk, and others released a statement criticizing METI efforts. “We feel the decision whether or not to transmit must be based upon a worldwide consensus, and not a decision based upon the wishes of a few individuals with access to powerful communications equipment,” it said. “We strongly encourage vigorous international debate by a broadly representative body prior to engaging further in this activity.”

So far, though, there is still no “broadly representative body” regulating what messages can be sent into space or by whom.

Alessandra Abe Pacini, a researcher at Arecibo who helped generate the idea for the kids’ contest, told me the question of whether any message should be transmitted at all is “very controversial,” adding: “Even here among the scientists at Arecibo, there is no consensus.”

If some of the smartest astronomers in the world can’t come to an in-house agreement, is there any hope that the international community will ever agree? Maybe not, but the UKSRN survey may at least help us find out how much consensus there is or isn’t among the public. That’s a good first step.

Inspiration4, the first all-civilian spaceflight, is now in orbit

The SpaceX mission seeks to raise some $200 million dollars for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. 

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Inspiration4 / John Kraus

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Last night at 8:02 PM EDT, the crew of Inspiration 4 — the first all-civilian spaceflight — blasted off from historic Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Tucked inside a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule, which was lofted to orbit atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, are four fortunate astronauts: Sian Proctor, Hayley Arceneaux, Christopher Sembroski, and Jared Isaacman. The latter footed the bill for the trip.

Unlike the recent suborbital spaceflights of billionaires carried out this summer by Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, Inspiration4 is setting its sights higher, taking the untrained civilian crew all the way to orbit. There, they will circle the Earth for three days, conducting experiments and enjoying their views before returning for a soft water landing off the coast of Florida.

Although Inspiration4 is currently orbiting more than 100 miles above the International Space Station (ISS), one of the mission’s main goals is much more Earth-bound: to raise awareness and funding for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. At St. Jude, children receive treatment for cancer and other life-threatening diseases. And perhaps most importantly, families treated at the hospital never receive a bill. The mission hopes to raise $200 million for St. Jude.

The crew

Commanding the Inspiration4 mission is Isaacman, founder and Chief Executive Officer of Shift4 Payments. The American billionaire is also a pilot. Proctor earned her seat by winning a contest hosted by Shift4.

Similarly, Sembroski got his seat from a contest, but not one that he won. Instead, his friend won the seat in a charity raffle for St. Jude and, for personal reasons, declined the seat, instead offering it to Sembroski.

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Inspiration4 crew before liftoff. Inspiration4 / John Kraus

Arceneaux was a childhood cancer survivor and former patient at St. Jude who now works at the hospital as a physician’s assistant. She will become the youngest American (and the first person with a prosthetic body part) to venture to space. Arceneaux was personally selected by Isaacman to be on the flight.

Also on board are numerous items that will later be auctioned off for St. Jude, including the first minted non-fungible token (NFT) to be played in orbit. Other items include mission jackets decorated with artwork from St. Jude patients, 66 pounds of hops from Samuel Adams that can be used to create out-of-this-world beer, a to-be-autographed copy of Time with the crew on the cover, and much more.about:blankabout:blank

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Inspiration4 / John Kraus

Breaking records left and right

The launch last night went off without a hitch, and it was celebrated with fist bumps by the crew, even as they were still climbing to their final orbital altitude. 

Their excitement, however, is warranted. Besides becoming the first all-civilian mission, Inspiration4 will also be the first orbital human space mission to not dock at the ISS since the final Hubble mission in 2009.

At an orbit of 363 miles (585 kilometers), Inspiration4 is now above both the ISS and the Hubble Space Telescope. In fact, the Inspiration4 crew is currently farther from Earth than any humans have been since the Apollo missions.

One more record Inspiration4 launch helped break: the greatest number of people in space at one time. NASA’s Expedition 65 mission currently has a crew of seven people aboard the ISS, while China’s Shenzhou-12 mission includes three astronauts who are concluding a 90-day trip with their return to Earth tomorrow. So for a few brief days, the four civilians of the Inspiration4 crew brings the total space population up to 14, just edging out the previous record of 13 set in 2009.

Jupiter’s volcanic moon Io is emitting strange radio waves and NASA’s Juno probe is listening

The Juno spacecraft has gotten a private radio show from Jupiter’s closest moon, the highly volcanic Io.

NASA’s Juno spacecraft is “listening” in on radio emissions from Jupiter’s volcanic moon Io, allowing researchers to discover what triggers the strange radio waves. 

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Of all the planets in our solar system, Jupiter has the largest and most powerful magnetic field, which extends so far that some of the planet’s moons orbit within it. Because Io is closest to the planet, the moon is “caught in a gravitational tug-of-war” between Jupiter and two other large moons, according to NASA. These opposing pulls cause massive internal heat, which has led to hundreds of volcanic eruptions across the moon’s surface. 

The volcanos release 1 ton of gasses and particles per second into space, NASA said in a statement. Some of this material splits into electrically charged ions and electrons that then rain down onto Jupiter through the planet’s magnetic field. Electrons caught in the magnetic field are accelerated toward Jupiter’s poles and, along the way, generate a phenomenon scientists call decameter radio waves (also known as decametric radio emissions, or DAM). 

Related: Amazing photos: Jupiter’s volcanic moon Io

This conceptual image represents Jupiter's large, powerful magnetic field and how it links Io's orbit with Jupiter's atmosphere.
This conceptual image represents Jupiter’s large, powerful magnetic field and how it links Io’s orbit with Jupiter’s atmosphere. (Image credit: NASA/GSFC/Jay Friedlander)

When the spacecraft is in the right spot to listen, Juno’s Waves instrument can pick up these radio waves, Yasmina Martos of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center said in the statement. Researchers have used data from Juno to pinpoint where in Jupiter’s massive magnetic field the radio emissions come from. The data sheds light on the behavior of the enormous magnetic fields gas giants create. 

According to the research team, the radio waves come from space that can be described as a hollow cone, where the conditions are just right: the right magnetic field strength and the right density of electrons. The signal rotates like a lighthouse and Juno picks it up only when the “light” is shining on the spacecraft, according to the NASA statement. 

The radio data also showed that the electrons that create these radio waves emit a massive amount of energy, 23 times greater than researchers expected. Such electrons can come from other sources, too, such as from the planet’s magnetic field or from a solar wind, according to the research team. 

Time for Japan to get real on UFO intelligence sharing

With humans likely the threat, Tokyo needs to lend its eyes on the sky

People look at the night sky using night vision goggles during an UFO tour in the desert outside Sedona in the U.S. state of Arizona.  

TOKYO — Gone are the days when UFO stories were dismissed as crackpot pseudoscience. Today, they are an emerging field of public policy debate.

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A recent U.S. report on unidentified flying objects, or what the intelligence community calls unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP), has brought these mysterious sightings into the realm of serious discussion on national security.

The world’s powers need to take note. Japan and European allies of the U.S. should work on sharing information on UAP to learn more about them and assess potential security risks.

The report released on June 25 by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence examines 144 incidents of UAP gathered since 2004, mainly by the U.S. military. Most of them are from the past two years.

For many readers, the nine-page document raised more questions than it answered. Of the 144 reported UAP sightings, the Pentagon task force that examined the episodes could offer a reasonable explanation for only one case, identified as “a large, deflating balloon.” The rest remain unexplained.

In 18 incidents, unusual UAP movement patterns or flight characteristics were observed. “Some UAP appeared to remain stationary in winds aloft, move against the wind, maneuver abruptly, or move at considerable speed, without discernible means of propulsion,” according to the report. There are also 11 reports of near misses between the observing aircraft and a UAP.

The report is based on the work of the Department of Defense’s Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force, set up in August 2020 in response to a flurry of UAP sightings in recent years. At a glance, the document seems to be a feast for UFO believers and conspiracy theorists. But far from being that, it reflects the growing interest in these phenomena among U.S. policymakers.ADVERTISING

After the release of the report, some U.S. lawmakers and security experts called for redoubled efforts to determine the truth behind UAP. “The United States must be able to understand and mitigate threats” posed by UAP, said Sen. Mark Warner, a Democrat from Virginia who serves as chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida concurred, saying, “The Defense Department and intelligence community have a lot of work to do before we can actually understand whether these aerial threats present a serious national security concern.”

The Pentagon is willing to respond to such calls. In late June, Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks directed the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence and Security to develop a plan to formalize the UAP task force’s activities.

A U.S. security expert with knowledge of discussions on this topic in the Biden administration said civilian and military officials are primarily worried that some aerial sightings may be linked to foreign countries or groups hostile to the U.S.

This is a more palpable threat than invading aliens. Even if intelligent life exists elsewhere in the vast universe, the sheer distances involved make it unlikely that such beings are visiting Earth at anywhere near the pace of reported UAP sightings.

Professor Hitoshi Murayama, a well-known theoretical particle physicist teaching at the University of California, Berkley, explained.

“Any planet with an environment similar to that of Earth is thought to be at least about four light years away from us,” Murayama said.

“Shuttling between such a planet and Earth would take an incredibly long time even with extremely sophisticated technology,” he said. “If extraterrestrial visitors are involved [in any of the UAP], it is hard to understand how they travel to the Earth so frequently.”

Existing earthly spaceships would take about 30,000 years to travel to a planet four light years away. Even for civilizations with far more advanced technology, the distance would be a daunting hurdle. These scientific assumptions support the view that UAP are human in origin. If so, at least some of the sightings may involve unknown highly advanced technology from countries like Russia or China, possibly representing a serious security threat to the U.S.

Multiple military experts warn that objects capable of the otherworldly flight characteristics reported in some UAP were used for military purposes, intercepting or tracking them with existing weapons systems would be next to impossible. Some UAP reports by the U.S. forces exhibit high-level stealth capabilities that defy radar detection.

The report mentions the possibility of “technologies deployed by China, Russia, another nation, or a nongovernmental entity.” But it admits there is no solid evidence to support such claims.

The report also suggests some UAP observations could be attributable to classified programs undertaken by the U.S. government or industry. If this is the case, however, such programs have been going on without the knowledge of top U.S. intelligence and defense officials.

The report does not necessarily rule out the involvement of alien visitors. Christopher Mellon, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for intelligence during the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, argued for taking the alien theory seriously in a blog post on the UAP report.

“In my view, the UAP report’s findings strengthen the case for the alien hypothesis by undermining the main alternatives and providing examples of capabilities we cannot emulate or even understand,” Mellon said.

The topic should also raise security red flags for Japan and other U.S. allies that depend on the American military for their defense. Any technology unknown to the U.S. that defies responses by its military, whether human or extraterrestrial in origin, could pose a serious potential threat.

Closer cooperation between the U.S. and its allies on sharing and studying UAP sightings is essential. Most of the 144 UAP episodes covered by the report occurred in or around U.S. airspace.

If a foreign state or group is developing advanced weapons, chances are it will conduct more tests in other parts of the world rather than risk exposing its work to the Americans. If Russia or China were involved, Japan might be in a better geographical position than the U.S. to gather information about the technology.

Japan is beginning to take a minimum response to the challenge. Last September, one month after the U.S. set up the UAP task force, then Defense Secretary Taro Kono issued an unusual order to the Self-Defense Forces to take visual records and analyze such sightings.

During his meeting last summer with then-U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper, Kono raised the topic and agreed with the Pentagon chief to share information.

Traveling to space has become a thing among the world’s multibillionaires. This month, Virgin Group founder Richard Branson rode into space aboard a rocket he helped fund, followed less than two weeks later by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos.

But humans know only a sliver of the vast universe. While lawmakers and news media should still never feed wild alien conspiracy theories, the U.S. report has spelled the end of the taboo on discussing UFOs in the public policy sphere.