An exploding star that blazed to life 240 million light-years away in the Perseus constellation may have consumed its dead neighbor, new research shows.
Although the blast, officially known as SN 2006gy, grew brighter and measured hundreds of times more powerful than a typical supernova, scientists were unsure what characteristics made the incident so unique.
A bright supernova flares across the sky in this illustration. (Science Photo Library – MEHAU KULYK via Getty Images)
In new research published Thursday in the Science journal, astronomers analyzed for a second time the emission lines emanating from the explosion.
The astronomers found large deposits of iron in the emissions, Live Science reported, which they believe could be the result of the supernova interacting with a different layer of stellar material that was ejected hundreds of years earlier.
Researchers have one theory that SN 2006gy actually began with two stars, not one.
“A candidate scenario to explain this is [the] evolution of a binary progenitor system, in which a white dwarf spirals into a giant or supergiant companion star,” the researchers wrote in the study.
This NASA illustration shows what the super-luminous supernova SN 2006gy may have looked like.
A collision among stars that orbit around one another would reportedly be quite rare, happening once every 10,000 years or so in the Milky Way.
One of the most luminous stellar explosions ever detected may now be explained. It came from the detonation of a dead star within the dense shell of matter ejected from that sun’s companion star, a new study suggests.
Supernovas are explosions that can happen when stars die, either after the stars burn all their fuel or gain a sudden influx of new fuel. These outbursts can briefly outshine all of the other suns in these stars’ galaxies, making them visible from halfway across the universe.ADVERTISING
Recently, scientists discovered a rare class of exploding star known as superluminous supernovas. These explosions are up to 100 times brighter than regular supernovas but account for less than 0.1% of all supernovas.
Much remains unknown about what powers superluminous supernovas; they release far more energy than any standard mechanism for powering supernovas can explain. To learn more about what drives these extraordinary explosions, scientists focused on SN 2006gy, one of the first known superluminous supernovas. SN 2006gy occurred in a galaxy 240 million light-years away and was the brightest and most energetic supernova ever recorded when it was discovered, in 2006.
A little more than a year after SN 2006gy was spotted, researchers detected an unusual spectrum of light from the supernova. Now, scientists have deduced that this light came from an envelope of iron around the supernova, revealing clues as to what might have caused the explosion.
The researchers developed computer models of what kind of light would be generated by envelopes of iron with various masses, temperatures, clumping patterns and other properties. They found that the wavelengths and energies of light seen from SN 2006gy likely came from a huge amount of iron — “over a third of the sun’s mass” — expanding at about 3,355 mph (5,400 km/h), study lead author Anders Jerkstrand, an astrophysicist at the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics in Garching, Germany, told Space.com.
Initial analysis of SN 2006gy suggested that the supernova happened after a giant star ran out of fuel, with the star’s core then collapsing under its own weight into an extraordinarily dense nugget in a fraction of a second and rebounding with a giant blast outward. However, such a “core-collapse” supernova likely would not have generated an iron envelope with the kind of mass and expansion rate that the new study calculated.
Instead, a scenario consistent with the new findings suggests that SN 2006gy was a so-called Type Ia supernova, which occurs when one star pours enough fuel onto a dead star known as a white dwarf to trigger an extraordinary nuclear explosion. (White dwarfs are the superdense, Earth-size cores of stars that exhausted all their fuel and shed their outer layers without catastrophic explosions.)
Specifically, the scenario called for a white dwarf in a close binary orbit with a hydrogen-rich companion star. “Such systems are in fact well known and common — the so-called cataclysmic variables, of which we know of several hundred,” Jerkstrand said.Click here for more Space.com videos…‘We Don’t Planet’ Episode 12: Type-1a SupernovaeVolume 0% PLAY SOUND
When such a companion star gets old, it swells, trapping the white dwarf in its expanding shell. The resulting friction “causes the white dwarf to spiral towards the center, and at the same time, the envelope material is ejected,” Jerkstrand said.
Normally in such binary systems, the white dwarf may spend millions or billions of years spiraling toward the center of its companion before exploding as a Type Ia supernova, Jerkstrand said. However, with SN 2006gy, the researchers suspected that the white dwarf may have exploded “within only about a century since the initiation of the inspiral phase,” he said.
This supernova then slammed into the dense shell of material ejected from the white dwarf’s companion star, which was still relatively nearby. Striking this envelope would have been “like hitting a brick wall, and most of the motion energy of the supernova was transformed into light in this collision,” explaining why SN 2006gy was so bright, Jerkstrand said.
A few other superluminous supernovas share similar properties with SN 2006gy. That similarity suggests that these supernovas also share the same underlying mechanics, the researchers said.
Future research can investigate how binary systems that might give rise to such superluminous supernovas may form. Researchers could also look into what exactly might trigger a Type Ia supernova from white dwarfs in such systems only a century or so after they spiral toward the centers of their companions.
“Did the supernova occur as the inspiraling white dwarf encountered another compact object
at the center of the companion, or did it accrete matter until it became too massive and exploded?” Jerkstrand said.
The scientists detailed their findings in the Jan. 24 issue of the journal Science.
China’s long-lived lunar robots Chang’e-4 and Yutu-2 are once again at work on the far side of the moon, where they woke up for their 14th day on Jan. 18 and 19 respectively.
And those of us here on Earth can take a new look through the lander’s and rover’s lunar eyes, as China released a huge batch of data on Monday (Jan. 20). The data release includes high-resolution images of the moon from the Chang’e-4 lander’s terrain camera and the panoramic camera on the Yutu-2 rover.
Chang’e-4 just reached the first anniversary of its historic landing in Von Kármán Crater, within the gigantic South Pole-Aitken basin. The newly published photos cover nearly a year of pioneering exploration on the far side of the moon, where no previous mission has landed.
The China Lunar Exploration Program made the data available online at a dedicated website for the country’s moon missions.
Ellison also stitched together single shots to produce larger images, along with cylindrical and azimuth panoramas. His gallery of Chang’e-4 images is viewable here.
Images include close-up views of craters and regolith, or lunar soil, in Von Kármán Crater, as well as various shots of the lander and rover, the distant skyline and Yutu-2’s roving tracks. Andrew Jones@AJ_FI
Techniques Spatiales, a French space-related Twitter account, converted data from the lander’s camera into image files that can be accessed here.
Philip Stooke, a cartographer at the Centre for Planetary Science and Exploration at Western University in Ontario, has used the new data to refine maps charting the roving route of Yutu-2. Over its first 13 lunar days, Yutu-2 drove 1,171 feet (357 meters).Click here for more Space.com videos…CLOSEVolume 0% PLAY SOUND
The Chang’e-4 lander and Yutu-2 rover have completed 13 lunar days on the moon. The solar-powered duo awaken between 24 and 48 hours after sunrise over the mission landing site and power down about 24 hours before sunset. Searing-hot lunar days and the brutally cold nights each last around 14 Earth days.
Yutu-2 began its 14th lunar day on Jan. 18, and the lander did so on Jan. 19, according to the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program. Both the rover and lander have now exceeded their design lifetimes of three months and one year and continue to operate with all science payloads in a healthy condition, according to the China National Space Administration.
Next up in its lunar campaign, China is preparing to launch its Chang’e-5 sample-return mission late this year. Chang’e-5 will launch on the huge Long March 5 rocket and will be the first mission to retrieve samples from the moon since the Soviet Union’s Luna 24 mission in 1976.
Two locations are legendary among UFO seekers. One is Roswell, New Mexico, where sightings of a so-called flying saucer electrified the town in 1947. The other is Area 51 near Groom Lake, Nevada, where the U.S. government has long maintained a secret base that some say hides UFO-related technology and experiments.
Both of these mysterious and much-discussed sites are front-and-center in the second season of “Project Blue Book,” the History Channel drama based on an actual U.S. Air Force program by the same name, in which teams of experts investigated reports of UFOs from 1952 to 1969.
In the new season, premiering tonight (Jan. 21), Aidan Gillen returns as Dr. J. Allen Hynek, the astrophysicist and professor who served as the real Project Blue Book program’s science advisor decades ago; Hynek is known to many as the “father of UFOlogy.” As Hynek and his colleagues continue their search for the truth about UFOs, they uncover new layers of government deception and cover-ups, set against the backdrop of an intensifying Cold War. At the same time, the show incorporates historic UFO stories that still stir the imagination today, according to the History Channel.
While the first season of “Project Blue Book” was an introduction to the strange phenomenon of UFOs, “the second season is about going back to the beginning, to understand where the conspiracy was,” said show co-writer and executive producer Sean Jablonski. To do that, “Project Blue Book” went to Roswell, drawing from eyewitness accounts of people who lived there at the time of the alleged UFO crash and subsequent military cover-up, Jablonski told Live Science.
Though the events at Roswell took place six years before the real Project Blue Book investigation began, the story is so intertwined with America’s UFO lore that the writers felt compelled to include it, said show creator, writer and co-executive producer David O’Leary.
The so-called Roswell Incident took place in July 1947. Following a thunderstorm, strange debris found northwest of Roswell was swiftly collected by military personnel at Roswell Army Air Field, according to the city’s official website. A press release issued by public information officer Lt. Walter Haut on July 8, 1947, described “a flying saucer” that was now in the army’s possession.
However, another press release appeared the next day, this one issued by Lt. Gen. Roger Ramey. According to the new report, the recovered object was a weather balloon.
“That was the start of the best known and well-documented UFO cover-up,” according to Roswell’s website.
Other episodes of “Project Blue Book” were inspired by actual locations that boast equally compelling associations with UFOs, such as the mysterious Area 51 and Skinwalker Ranch in Ballard, Utah. Another memorable case highlights multiple UFO encounters that took place not on land, but over the Atlantic Ocean, during a series of NATO maneuvers in September 1952 called Operation Mainbrace, O’Leary said.
At the center of Project Blue Book — in the series and in the Air Force program — was Hynek. He knew very early on that government officials were concealing information about UFOs from the public, “but he stayed with the program, because he was a scientist.” O’Leary explained.
“This was a way for him to gain access to cases, even as he was being complicit in the cover-up itself. So it’s a bit like, ‘How do you expose the greatest cover-up of all time when you’re a part of it?'” said O’Leary.
“See them aliens”
The real Project Blue Book ended decades ago, but public fascination with UFOs still runs high; in September 2019, more than 1.5 million people RSVP’d to a sketchy-sounding festival in Rachel, Nevada, called “Storm Area 51” (also called “Alien Stock”) with the intent of breaching the perimeter of Area 51 to “see them aliens,” Live Science previously reported. (Only a few thousand people actually showed up, and there was no gate-storming and no aliens in sight, according to Vox.)
Footage from U.S. Navy pilots’ 2004 encounters with UFOs, recently shared online, further fueled speculation about the government’s own experiences with these enigmatic sightings and how many were still being kept under wraps. Indeed, evidence surfaced in 2017 suggesting that the U.S. government had been secretly investigating UFOs since 2007.
Then, on Jan. 13 of this year, a spokesperson from the U.S. Navy’s Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) confirmed the existence of at least one video and several top-secret documents regarding the 2004 UFO encounter. The spokesperson further noted that submitting these materials to public scrutiny “would cause exceptionally grave damage to the National Security of the United States.”Advertisement
It would seem that along with a resurgence in public interest in UFOs is a renewed recognition that the government knows more about UFOs than it’s letting on, and is withholding important information, O’Leary said. For that reason, the world of “Project Blue Book” and its UFO cover-ups now seems especially relevant, Jablonski added.
“Project Blue Book, in a way, was the origin of fake news,” Jablonski said. “It was the government’s program to put out stories that say, ‘Whatever you think you saw, you didn’t see.’ This notion of who controls the truth — and the fight over that — is something that probably, above all else, is what resonates today.”
Season two of “Project Blue Book” airs on the History Channel beginning on Jan. 21 at 10 p.m. ET/9 p.m. CT.
Unidentified flying objects (UFOs) have captured the public’s attention over the decades. As exoplanet detection is on the rise, why not consider that star-hopping visitors from afar might be buzzing through our friendly skies by taking an interstellar off-ramp to Earth?
On the other hand, could those piloting UFOs be us — our future progeny that have mastered the landscape of time and space? Perhaps those reports of people coming into contact with strange beings represent our distant human descendants, returning from the future to study us in their own evolutionary past.
The book was written by Michael Masters, a professor of biological anthropology at Montana Technological University in Butte. Masters thinks that – given the accelerating pace of change in science, technology, and engineering – it is likely that humans of the distant future could develop the knowledge and machinery necessary to return to the past.
The objective of the book, Masters said, is to spur a new and more informed discussion among believers and skeptics alike.
“I took a multidisciplinary approach in order to try and understand the oddities of this phenomenon,” Masters told Space.com. “Our job as scientists is to be asking big questions and try to find answers to unknown questions. There’s something going on here, and we should be having a conversation about this. We should be at the forefront of trying to find out what it is.”
Dubbing these purported visitors “extratempestrials,” Masters notes that close-encounter accounts typically describe UFO tenants as bipedal, hairless, human-like beings with large brains, large eyes, small noses and small mouths. Further, the creatures are often said to have the ability to communicate with us in our own languages and possess technology advanced beyond, but clearly built upon, today’s technological prowess.
Masters believes that through a comprehensive analysis of consistent patterns of long-term biocultural change throughout human evolution — as well as recent advances in our understanding of time and time travel — we may begin to consider this future possibility in the context of a currently unexplained phenomenon.
“The book ties together those known aspects of our evolutionary history with what is still an unproven, unverified aspect of UFOs and aliens,” he said.
But why not argue that ET is actually a traveler from across the vastness of space, from a distant planet? Wouldn’t that be a simpler answer?
“I would argue it’s the opposite,” Masters responded. “We know we’re here. We know humans exist. We know that we’ve had a long evolutionary history on this planet. And we know our technology is going to be more advanced in the future. I think the simplest explanation, innately, is that it is us. I’m just trying to offer what is likely the most parsimonious explanation.”
As an anthropologist who has worked on and directed numerous archaeological digs in Africa, France and throughout the United States, Masters observes that it is easy to conceptualize just how much more could be learned about our own evolutionary history if we currently possessed the technology to visit past periods of time.
“The alleged abduction accounts are mostly scientific in nature. It’s probably future anthropologists, historians, linguists that are coming back to get information in a way that we currently can’t without access to that technology,” Masters said.
“That said, I do think that some component of it is also tourism,” he added. “Undoubtedly in the future, there are those that will pay a lot of money to have the opportunity to go back and observe their favorite period in history. Some of the most popular tourist sites are the pyramids of Giza and Machu Picchu in Peru … old and prehistoric sites.”
Masters calls his UFO research “an evolving project.”
“There’s certainly still missing pieces of the puzzle,” he said. “There are aspects of time that we don’t yet understand. Wanted is a theory of quantum gravity, and we can meld general relativity and quantum mechanics. I’m just trying to put forth the best model I can based on current scientific knowledge. Hopefully, over time, we can continue to build on this.”
Solve this mystery
“Masters postulates that using a multidisciplinary scientific approach to the UFO phenomenon will be what it takes to solve this mystery once and for all, and I couldn’t agree more,” said Jan Harzan, executive director of the nonprofit Mutual UFO Network (MUFON).
“The premise that UFOs are us from the future is one of many possibilities that MUFON is exploring to explain the UFO phenomenon. All we know for sure is that we are not alone,” Harzan added. “Now the question becomes, ‘Who are they?’ And Masters makes a great case for the time-traveler hypothesis.” Advertisement
‘Highly dubious claim’
But not everybody is on board with the idea, as you might imagine.
“There is nothing in this book to take seriously, as it depends on the belief that ‘time travel’ is not only possible, but real,” said Robert Sheaffer, a noted UFO skeptic.
Supposedly our distant descendants have mastered time travel, Sheaffer said, and have traveled back in time to visit us. “So, according to Masters, you just spin something fast enough and it will begin to warp space, and even send stuff backwards in time. This is a highly dubious claim,” he said.
Moreover, Sheaffer said that Masters tries to deduce aliens’ evolutionary history from witness descriptions, “suggesting that he takes such accounts far too literally.”
The problem of ‘if’
David Darling is a British astronomer and science writer who has authored books on a sweeping array of topics – from gravity, Zen physics and astrobiology to teleportation and extraterrestrial life.
“I’ve often thought that if some UFOs are ‘alien’ craft, it’s just as reasonable to suppose that they might be time machines from our own future than that they’re spacecraft from other stars,” Darling told Space.com. “The problem is the ‘if.’
Darling said that, while some aerial phenomena have eluded easy identification, one of the least likely explanations, it seems to him, is that they’re artificial and not of this world.
“Outside of the popular mythos of flying saucers and archetypal, big-brained aliens, there’s precious little credible evidence that they exist,” Darling said. “So, my issue with the book is not the ingenuity of its thesis, but the fact that there’s really no need for such a thesis in the first place.”
Larry Lemke, a retired NASA aerospace engineer with an interest in the UFO phenomenon, finds the prospect of time-travelling visitors from the future intriguing.
“The one thing that has become clear over the decades of sightings, if you believe the reports, is that these objects don’t seem to be obeying the usual laws of aerodynamics and Newtonian mechanics,” Lemke said, referring to the relationship, in the natural world, between force, mass and motion.
Toss in for good measure Einstein’s theory of general relativity and its consequences, like wormholes and black holes, along with other exotic physics ideas such as the Alcubierre warp-drive bubble.
“There’s a group of thinkers in the field of UFOs that point out that phenomena reported around some UFOs do, in fact, look exactly like general relativity effects,” Lemke said. Missing time is a very common one.”
Lemke said that the idea that somebody has figured out how to manipulate space-time, on a local scale with a low-energy approach, would explain a lot of things across the UFO phenomenon, including those baffling Tic-Tac-shaped objects recently reported by jet-fighter pilots and radar operators.
“No matter how much knowledge we have, how much we think we know, there’s always some frontier beyond,” he said. “And to understand that frontier is getting more and more esoteric.”
Scientists once thought that traveling into a black hole would kill you.
But now, physicists have run computer simulations to show that certain types of black holes — large, rotating ones — could serve as portals for hyperspace travel.
Some physicists believe that you’d arrive at a remote part of the Milky Way or perhaps in another galaxy altogether.
One of the safest passageways might be the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy, called Sagittarius A*.
Narrator: Black holes skirt the line between science fiction and science fact. On the one hand, scientists have seen real black holes in action, consuming unsuspecting stars that pass too close. But where reality ends and fiction takes over is at the edge of a black hole — a place called the event horizon, where no spacecraft has ever gone.
So, whatever happens beyond that boundary, inside of a black hole, is anyone’s guess. Scientists agree that if you travel far enough into a black hole, gravity will eventually become so strong that it kills anything in its path. But sci-fi films are more optimistic, depicting black holes as portals through space and time or gateways to other dimensions. And it turns out, some scientists now think the sci-fi buffs may be onto something. Black holes might be suitable for hyperspace travel, after all; it just takes the right kind of black hole.
At the center of every black hole is a point of infinite density, called a singularity. It’s what gives black holes their strong gravitational pull. And for decades, scientists thought singularities were all the same, so anything that passed the event horizon would be destroyed the same way: by being stretched and pulled like an infinitely long piece of spaghetti.
But that all changed in the early 1990s when different research teams in Canada and the US discovered a second singularity called a “mass inflation singularity.” It still has a strong gravitational pull, but it would only stretch you by a finite amount, and potentially NOT kill you in the process, meaning, you might survive the trip through a black hole. More specifically, through a large, rotating black hole, which is where these types of singularities exist.
Now, astronomers obviously can’t travel through a black hole yet to test this theory. In fact, the best place to test this is at the supermassive black hole in the center of our home galaxy, the Milky Way, which is 27,000 light years away. Not conveniently close to the least.
Therefore, scientists instead run computer simulations to see what would happen if we did manage to reach an isolated, rotating black hole, and now, for the first time, a team of scientists at UMass Dartmouth and Georgia Gwinnett College has done exactly that.
Lior Burko: “You would feel a slight increase in temperature, but it would not be a dramatic increase. It’s just that you don’t have enough time to respond to the very strong forces. It would just go through you too quickly.”
Narrator: He added that passing through a weak singularity is like quickly running your finger through a candle flame that’s 1,000 degrees Celsius. If you hold your finger in the flame long enough, you’ll get burned, but pass your finger through quickly, and you’ll barely feel a thing. Similarly, if you pass through a weak singularity with the right speed and momentum, and at the right time, you may not feel much at all.
As for what happens once you get through to the other side, no one really knows, but Burko has his own ideas. He says one possibility is that we’d arrive at some other remote part of our galaxy, potentially light years away from any planets or stars, but a second, and perhaps more intriguing, possibility is that we’d arrive in a different galaxy altogether. That’s if you even make it that far.
Scientists say more research is needed before we’re anywhere close to successfully traveling through a black hole. But when we are ready, one of the safest passageways might be the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy called Sagittarius A*, and it might just be our ticket out of the Milky Way.
SpaceX’s In Flight Abort Test was a long awaited demonstration of the launch escape system which would carry crew to safety in the event of a failure.
The test resulted in a simulated rocket failure around 85 seconds into flight, then saw the Crew Dragon capsule escape the booster under its own power and land safely in the ocean. The Booster wasn’t so luck and tore itself apart in a fireball, with the second stage falling 40km and crashing into the Ocean at the speed of sound, making a huge explosion.
Thousands of rocket fans turned out to witness this, and document the event with special camera gear, however many missed the explosion as it was obscured by clouds from many ground locations.
SpaceX is targeting Sunday, January 19 for an in-flight test of Crew Dragon’s launch escape capabilities from Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
This test, which does not have NASA astronauts onboard the spacecraft, is intended to demonstrate Crew Dragon’s ability to reliably carry crew to safety in the unlikely event of an emergency on ascent.
The six-hour test window opens at 8:00 a.m. EST, or 13:00 UTC. A backup opportunity with the same six-hour launch window opening at 8:00 a.m. EST, or 13:00 UTC, is available on Monday, January 20. Current weather data suggests our best opportunity for the launch escape test will be towards the end of the four-hour window, but we will continue to provide updates as new data becomes available.
NASA recently reported that a cloud of dust was surrounding Mars high above its atmosphere. The authors of the study ruled out Mars itself and its moons Phobos and Deimos as the sources of the dust and concluded that it must come from a larger dust cloud floating around between the planets in our solar system.
This “interplanetary dust” is hugely important. It is thought to have played a crucial role in the formation and evolution of our solar system. What’s more, it may even have provided our planet with water – and kick-started life.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust
We all know how quickly empty spaces fill with dust and, figuratively speaking, the cosmos is no different. Cosmic dust is made up of tiny mineral grains in the nano and micrometer size range (one billionth and one millionth of a metre, respectively). Cosmic dust particles find themselves between the end of one star’s lifetime and at the beginning of the formation of a new solar system.
A star forms from the collapse of a gas cloud made up of hydrogen and helium, elements that were created in the aftermath of the Big Bang. Stars use this hydrogen as fuel, creating heavier elements such as carbon and oxygen and up to the element iron through nuclear fusion processes. These new elements are released at the end of a star’s lifetime, when it collapses under its own gravity and explodes as a supernova. The high energies of such an explosion create additional elements heavier than iron. Some of the heavier elements, metals such as silicon and iron, combine with oxygen to form minerals – which is exactly what dust is.
Our solar system formed from the collapse of a hydrogen and helium gas cloud mixed with dust, otherwise there would not be any rocky planets like Earth and Mars. The fact that Earth contains such heavy elements as gold, lead, or uranium (all heavier than iron) shows that our sun is a third or higher-generation star, preceded by at least one supernova explosion of another nearby star.
Interstellar dust particles, which predate our own solar system, can provide insight into the processes at the end of the lifetime of ancient stars. The interplanetary dust in the inner solar system contains some interstellar dust particles. But the vast majority of interplanetary dust particles in our solar system are released from comets as they approach the sun or from the collision of asteroids in the asteroid belt. They therefore contain clues about the makeup and formation of such “proto-planets”, which are seen as the first steps of planet formation from the huge dust and gas cloud surrounding a new star.
The dust cloud in our solar system gradually moves towards the sun whose gravitational pull acts like a giant vacuum cleaner. On their way, some of the dust particles collide with Mars and Earth. The dust is responsible for the Zodiac light that can be seen after sunset in spring or before sunrise in autumn.
Dust as an origin of life?
Any cosmic dust mineral grain offers a surface for gases, ice or organic matter to stick to. Complex molecules of organic matter as the basic building blocks for life have been documented in intergalactic dust clouds, comets and meteorites.
Understanding the distribution and amount of dust is important because dust could have delivered significant amounts of water and organic matter to the planets in the inner solar system, in particular Earth and Mars. While many researchers think that asteroid and comet impacts may be behind the water and life on Earth, several studies have indicated that dust itself can deliver water and organic matter simultaneously and might have jump-started life. This process would work universally, also on exoplanets in distant solar systems.
So if the dust did jump start life on Earth it is plausible that it could have done so on Mars as well. However, Earth’s magnetic field has protected our atmosphere and water against being destroyed by the solar wind – we get just the right amount of it. Mars has not had a magnetic field for most of its lifetime, and its atmosphere and water have subsequently been lost to space. Without water, organic matter molecules cannot be assembled into the very complex molecules, like DNA and proteins, that make up life. Lack of a thick atmospheric layer also means lack of protection against destruction of organic molecules by UV light and other harmful forms of cosmic radiation. While the jury is still out on whether there was ever life on Mars, it is extremely unlikely that dust could jump start life on Mars today, despite hovering above its atmosphere.
It is obviously important that we learn more about dust. Interplanetary dust particles are actively collected for research by sending planes into the stratosphere or scouring spacecraft returning to land for impacts of these tiny dust particles. If dust particles make it to the ground by themselves, they can be collected as micrometeorites from places where they are recognisable such as ocean or polar sediments.
However, once an interplanetary dust particle enters the Earth’s atmosphere or smashes into a spacecraft, any complex molecules stuck to it are inevitably lost. While we can learn a lot from them about the primordial matter from which our solar system formed as well as the makeup of comets and asteroids, we have to investigate these bodies first-hand to be able to obtain more sensitive information.
A good way to do this is to fly through comet tails. This is what Rosetta did to make the surprise discovery of free oxygen in the coma of comet 67P/Chryumov-Gerasimenko. Meanwhile, NASA’s Stardust mission flew through the tail of comet Wild 2 and returned cosmic dust particles to Earth for analysis in 2006. In 2009, NASA announced that fundamental chemical building blocks of life had been found: glycine, an amino acid.
Additional data like this can hopefully help uncover many more secrets of the dust in the universe – including whether it kick-started life on Earth and whether it could do it again.
Scientists recently identified the oldest material on Earth: stardust that’s 7 billion years old, tucked away in a massive, rocky meteorite that struck our planet half a century ago.
This ancient interstellar dust, made of presolar grains (dust grains that predate our sun), was belched into the universe by dying stars during the final stages of their lives. Some of that dust eventually hitched a ride to Earth on an asteroid that produced the Murchison meteorite, a massive, 220-lb. (100 kilograms) rock that fell on Sept. 28, 1969, near Murchison, Victoria, in Australia. ADVERTISING
New analysis of dozens of presolar grains from the Murchison meteorite revealed a range of ages, from about 4 million years older than our sun — which formed 4.6 billion years ago — up to 3 billion years older than our sun, researchers reported in a new study.
Though the universe abounds with floating stardust, no presolar grains have ever been found in Earth’s rocks. That’s because plate tectonics, volcanism and other planetary processes heated and transformed all the presolar dust that may have collected during Earth’s formation, said lead study author Philipp Heck, the Robert A. Pritzker Associate Curator of Meteoritics and Polar Studies at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.
When large, orphan space rocks form — such as the asteroid that produced Murchison — they, too, can pick up ancient, interstellar dust. But unlike dynamic planets, Murchison’s parent asteroid is “an almost-inert piece of rock that formed from the solar nebula and hasn’t changed since then,” so the presolar grains haven’t been cooked down into another type of mineral, Heck told Live Science.
Most presolar grains measure about 1 micron in length, or are even smaller. But the grains the scientists analyzed for the study were much bigger, ranging from 2 to 30 microns in length.
“We call them ‘boulders,'” Heck said. “We can see them with an optical microscope.”
Stellar “baby boom”
For the study, Heck and his colleagues examined 40 of these so-called boulders from Murchison, grinding up bits of the meteorite and adding acid, which dissolved minerals and silicates and revealed the acid-resistant presolar grains.
“I always compare it to burning down the haystack to find the needle,” Heck said.
The researchers used a dating technique that measured the grains’ exposure to cosmic rays during their interstellar journey over billions of years. In space, high-energy particles emanate from different sources, bombarding and penetrating solid objects that pass by. Those cosmic rays react with rock to form new elements that accumulate over time. By measuring the quantity of different elements in presolar grains, scientists can estimate how long the dust has been bathing in cosmic rays.
Think of it this way: Imagine putting a bucket outside during a rainstorm. As long as the rain falls at a steady rate, you could calculate how long the bucket had been outside based on the amount of rain that it collects, Heck explained.
Most of the grains — about 60% — dated to around 4.6 billion to 4.9 billion years ago. One possible explanation for why there were so many grains of this age is that they were all the product of a “little baby boom” of star birth in our galaxy that took place around 7 billion years ago.
“And then it took about two to two-and-a-half billion years for those stars to become dust producing,” Heck explained. “When a star forms, it doesn’t produce dust. During most of its life, the star doesn’t produce dust. The stars only produce dust at the end of their lives.”
This discovery supports findings by other astronomers that indicate a dramatic spike in star formation around 7 billion years ago, the researchers reported.
What’s more, many of the grains weren’t traveling through space alone; they journeyed as clumps, “almost like granola clusters,” according to Heck. Though it’s uncertain what bound these grains, other studies have shown that some presolar grains are coated with a sticky film of organic matter, which could have cemented these clusters together, Heck said.
Smells like science
Grinding and analyzing bits of space rock also presented the researchers with an unusual by-product — a strong and very pungent smell. The paste of ground-up meteorite released a stench “like rotten peanut butter,” study co-author Jennika Greer, a graduate student at the Field Museum and the University of Chicago, said in a statement.
“I’ve never smelled rotten peanut butter,” Heck told Live Science. “But it did smell really strong.”
Another meteorite that was recently added to the Field Museum’s collection, the Aguas Zarcas from Costa Rica, or “cosmic mudball meteorite,” was said to smell like cooked Brussels sprouts. Volatile organic compounds in rocky meteorites that are abiotic — not formed by living organisms — produce these distinctive smells when they are heated or dissolved, Heck said.
And Murchison was an especially smelly meteorite, Heck said. When he visited the town of Murchison in 2019 for the 50th anniversary of the meteorite’s landing, he spoke with people who had witnessed the event or collected fragments of the space rock. Many of them had tales to tell about the meteorite’s distinctive aroma.
“They said the whole town smelled like methylated spirits, a very strong organic smell,” Heck said. “Even those who hadn’t seen the meteorite themselves — they smelled it.”
A thrilling epoch in the exploration of our solar system came to a close today, as NASA’s Cassini spacecraft made a fateful plunge into the atmosphere of Saturn, ending its 13-year tour of the ringed planet.
“This is the final chapter of an amazing mission, but it’s also a new beginning,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “Cassini’s discovery of ocean worlds at Titan and Enceladus changed everything, shaking our views to the core about surprising places to search for potential life beyond Earth.”
Telemetry received during the plunge indicates that, as expected, Cassini entered Saturn’s atmosphere with its thrusters firing to maintain stability, as it sent back a unique final set of science observations. Loss of contact with the Cassini spacecraft occurred at 7:55 a.m. EDT (4:55 a.m. PDT), with the signal received by NASA’s Deep Space Network antenna complex in Canberra, Australia.
Earl Maize, program manager for NASA’s Cassini spacecraft at the agency’s Jet Propulsion Lab, and Julie Webster, spacecraft operations team manager for the Cassini mission at Saturn, embrace in an emotional moment for the entire Cassini team after the spacecraft plunged into Saturn, Friday, Sept. 15, 2017.Credits: NASA/Joel Kowsky
“It’s a bittersweet, but fond, farewell to a mission that leaves behind an incredible wealth of discoveries that have changed our view of Saturn and our solar system, and will continue to shape future missions and research,” said Michael Watkins, director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, which manages the Cassini mission for the agency. JPL also designed, developed and assembled the spacecraft.
Cassini’s plunge brings to a close a series of 22 weekly “Grand Finale” dives between Saturn and its rings, a feat never before attempted by any spacecraft.
“The Cassini operations team did an absolutely stellar job guiding the spacecraft to its noble end,” said Earl Maize, Cassini project manager at JPL. “From designing the trajectory seven years ago, to navigating through the 22 nail-biting plunges between Saturn and its rings, this is a crack shot group of scientists and engineers that scripted a fitting end to a great mission. What a way to go. Truly a blaze of glory.”
As planned, data from eight of Cassini’s science instruments was beamed back to Earth. Mission scientists will examine the spacecraft’s final observations in the coming weeks for new insights about Saturn, including hints about the planet’s formation and evolution, and processes occurring in its atmosphere.
This montage of images, made from data obtained by Cassini’s visual and infrared mapping spectrometer, shows the location on Saturn where the NASA spacecraft entered Saturn’s atmosphere on Sept. 15, 2017. The spacecraft entered the atmosphere at 9.4 degrees north latitude, 53 degrees west longitude.Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona
“Things never will be quite the same for those of us on the Cassini team now that the spacecraft is no longer flying,” said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at JPL. “But, we take comfort knowing that every time we look up at Saturn in the night sky, part of Cassini will be there, too.”
Cassini launched in 1997 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida and arrived at Saturn in 2004. NASA extended its mission twice – first for two years, and then for seven more. The second mission extension provided dozens of flybys of the planet’s icy moons, using the spacecraft’s remaining rocket propellant along the way. Cassini finished its tour of the Saturn system with its Grand Finale, capped by Friday’s intentional plunge into the planet to ensure Saturn’s moons – particularly Enceladus, with its subsurface ocean and signs of hydrothermal activity – remain pristine for future exploration.
While the Cassini spacecraft is gone, its enormous collection of data about Saturn – the giant planet, its magnetosphere, rings and moons – will continue to yield new discoveries for decades to come.
“Cassini may be gone, but its scientific bounty will keep us occupied for many years,” Spilker said. “We’ve only scratched the surface of what we can learn from the mountain of data it has sent back over its lifetime.”
An online toolkit with information and resources for Cassini’s Grand Finale is available at:
The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, ESA (European Space Agency) and the Italian Space Agency. JPL, a division of Caltech in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.
In August 2016, astronomers announced that a roughly Earth-size exoplanet circles the closest star to the sun, the red dwarf Proxima Centauri, which lies a mere 4.2 light-years from us. (For perspective, the Milky Way galaxy’s spiral disk is about 100,000 light-years wide.)
That world, called Proxima b, orbits in Proxima Centauri’s “habitable zone,” the just-right range of distances from a star where liquid water could be stable on a world’s surface. So, there’s a chance that life as we know it may have taken root in the next solar system over from us. (How good that chance is remains a matter of considerable debate, however. For example, Proxima b is tidally locked to its host star, meaning it has a hot dayside and a cold nightside. And red dwarfs are very active stars, so powerful flares may have stripped the planet’s atmosphere long ago.)
Proxima b’s discoverers analyzed “radial velocity” data gathered over multiple years by instruments called HARPS (High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher) and UVES (Ultraviolet and Visual Echelle Spectrograph), which are installed on telescopes operated by the European Southern Observatory (ESO) in Chile. The scientists noticed that Proxima Centauri was being tugged slightly by the gravity of an orbiting planet: Proxima b.
The team, led by Guillem Anglada-Escudé of Queen Mary University London, didn’t see any signs of other worlds orbiting the red dwarf at the time, but they couldn’t rule that prospect out. And now, a new study reports that the closest exoplanet to Earth may indeed have a companion.Click here for more Space.com videos…CLOSEVolume 0%This video will resume in 12 seconds PLAY SOUND
A frigid super-Earth candidate
In the new study, which was published online today (Jan. 15) in the journal Science Advances, a team led by Mario Damasso and Fabio Del Sordo (and including Anglada-Escudé, who’s a co-author) re-examined the old HARPS and UVES observations, along with a series of new HARPS measurements.
The researchers subjected the data to new analyses that tracked Proxima Centauri’s light spectrum over time, looking for regular oscillations that could betray the presence of an undiscovered planet. (Damasso and Del Sordo also presented their results at the Breakthrough Discuss conference in Berkeley, California, last April, before the paper had been accepted for publication.)
There was a lot of information to go through; the combined HARPS and UVES measurements spanned about 17.5 years.
This painstaking work unearthed a possible planet called Proxima c, which is at least 6 times more massive than Earth and may therefore be a type of world known as a super-Earth. Proxima c completes one lap around Proxima Centauri every 5.2 Earth years, making it a poor prospect for life as we know it.
“Given the low luminosity of the host star and the orbital radius of the planet, it receives a very low insolation,” said Damasso, who’s based at the Astrophysical Observatory of Turin, which is run by Italy’s National Institute for Astrophysics.
“A simple estimate of the equilibrium temperature gives T~40 K,” Damasso told Space.com via email. (Forty degrees K, or Kelvin, is equivalent to minus 388 degrees Fahrenheit, or minus 233 Celsius.)
But Damasso and Del Sordo both stressed that habitability is a difficult topic to address, given the many factors that go into it and the paucity of information available about most exoplanetary systems. For example, to gauge a world’s true life-supporting ability, you’d need to know how thick its atmosphere is and what the air is made of, as well as how active its star is (as the Proxima b example shows).
In addition, worlds that don’t lie in the traditional “habitable zone” may still be able to harbor life as we know it. After all, the Jupiter moon Europa and Saturn satellite Enceladus are covered by icy shells, but both possess huge subsurface oceans of liquid water.
In addition, the habitability talk generally assesses a world’s suitability for Earth-like life, and there’s certainly no guarantee that aliens in other systems share our biochemistry.
“I am convinced there are so many unknown scenarios to be discovered about planetary features that go beyond our imagination,” Del Sordo, who’s based at the University of Crete, told Space.com via email. “But at the moment this conviction has nothing to do with science; it is only my personal point of view.”
More work needed
Proxima c remains a candidate for now, Damasso and Del Sordo emphasized; confirming its existence will require additional information. That information will ideally come from the European Space Agency’s star-mapping Gaia spacecraft, the researchers said.
“According to our study, if Gaia will deliver the data with the expected quality, and in the absence of any unknown impediment, the detection can be reliably confirmed or dismissed,” Damasso said.
The study team is also assessing how additional HARPS and UVES data might aid the confirmation effort, he added. In addition, the researchers are considering searching for Proxima c via direct imaging — in particular, in photos captured by SPHERE (Spectro-Polarimetric High-contrast Exoplanet REsearch), a tool installed on ESO’s Very Large Telescope in Chile.Advertisement
“This is really a challenging task, almost impossible for a blind search with the present capabilities, but having details about the candidate’s orbit can help looking for the planet’s reflected light in the right places,” Damasso said.
The difficulty of directly imaging Proxima c means that the lack of a detection by SPHERE would not be a significant strike against the candidate planet’s existence, Del Sordo added. And the team’s data do suggest that it’s probably there, waiting to be found.
“According to our calculation, at the moment the two-planet model is five times more probable than the one-planet model to explain the data,” Del Sordo said. “It means it is 83% probable planet c exist[s]. Of course, follow-up will be crucial, as Mario said.”
In November 2004, several U.S. Navy pilots stationed aboard the USS Nimitz encountered a Tic-Tac-shaped UFO darting and dashing over the Pacific Ocean in apparent defiance of the laws of physics. Navy officials dubbed the strange craft an “unidentified aerial phenomenon,” but they have remained mum on what, exactly, that phenomenon could’ve been. Now, unsurprisingly to anyone who’s ever considered making a hat out of tinfoil, the military has confirmed they know more than they’re letting on.
In response to a recent Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, a spokesperson from the Navy’s Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) confirmed that the agency possesses several top-secret documents and at least one classified video pertaining to the 2004 UFO encounter, Vice reported. ADVERTISING
According to the ONI spokesperson, these documents were either labeled “SECRET” or “TOP SECRET” by the agencies that provided them, and that sharing the information with the public “would cause exceptionally grave damage to the National Security of the United States.”
These top-secret files included several “briefing slides” about the incident, provided to the ONI by an unnamed agency. (Because ONI officials did not classify the slides personally, they are unable to declassify them, the spokesperson added).
The ONI also admitted to possessing at least one video of unknown length, classified as “secret” by the Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR). ONI didn’t reveal whether this footage is the same 1-minute video that was leaked online in 2007 and widely released by The New York Times in 2017. However, in November 2019, several naval officers who witnessed the incident aboard the Nimitz told Popular Mechanics that they had seen a much longer video of the encounter that was between 8 and 10 minutes long. These original recordings were promptly collected and erased by “unknown individuals” who arrived on the ship by helicopter shortly after the incident, one officer said.
Luis Elizondo, a former Pentagon staffer who helped make the Navy video public, told Vice that “people should not be surprised by the revelation that other videos exist and at greater length.”
The FOIA request, submitted in October 2019 by an independent researcher, asked for access to any nonclassified records or portions of records regarding the 2004 UFO encounter. No additional documents were mentioned in the ONI’s response besides the classified briefing and video.
The first pristine pieces of Mars won’t be coming down to Earth for at least another decade, but the time to start preparing society for the epic arrival is now, scientists say.
NASA’s 2020 Mars rover is scheduled to launch in July of this year and land inside the Red Planet’s 28-mile-wide (45 kilometers) Jezero Crater next February. The six-wheeled robot will do a variety of work once it gets there, but its headline task is hunting for signs of ancient Mars life. ADVERTISING
Mars 2020 will do this on the ground in Jezero, which hosted a lake and a river delta billions of years ago. The rover will also collect and cache promising samples for eventual return to Earth, where scientists in well-equipped labs around the world can scrutinize them in exacting detail for any evidence of Martian organisms.
NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) will work together to get those samples here. The current plan, which is not yet official, envisions two key launches in 2026. These will send ESA’s Earth Return Orbiter (ERO) and NASA’s Sample Retrieval Lander (SRL) mission toward the Red Planet.
ERO will make its way to Mars orbit, whereas SRL will drop a stationary lander, the ESA-provided Sample Fetch Rover (SFR), and a small rocket called the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV) near the Mars 2020 landing site.
The SFR will pick up the cached Mars 2020 samples, which will be encased in sealed tubes, and haul them back to the MAV. Mars 2020 may store some of its samples on its body; if that’s the case, the NASA rover could roll over to the MAV and make a deposit as well.
The MAV will then launch into Mars orbit, where it will deploy the container harboring the samples. The ERO will pluck this precious cargo out of the void and haul it back toward Earth, jettisoning the container once our planet is in the crosshairs. The samples will land here in 2031, if all goes according to this preliminary plan.
This touchdown will be a momentous occasion. Engineers will glory in the tremendous technological achievement — we’ve returned samples from the moon, but that’s quite a bit closer to Earth — and scientists will revel in the chance to learn a great deal about ancient Mars and, perhaps, find out whether Earth life is alone in the universe.
(Researchers have examined Mars material before: meteorites blasted off the Red Planet by asteroid or comet strikes that ended up landing here on Earth. But those Mars rocks aren’t pristine — they endured trips through two planetary atmospheres and lots of time in deep space — and they weren’t specially chosen for their potential to host evidence of life.)
The public will doubtless be excited, too. But if the arrival catches folks off guard, there will probably be considerable fear, anxiety and confusion as well, said Sheri Klug Boonstra of Arizona State University’s Mars Space Flight Facility. So, the members of the international Mars sample-return team need to start educating and engaging laypeople about the effort now, said Klug Boonstra, a science-education specialist who’s the principal investigator of NASA’s Lucy Student Pipeline and Competency Enabler Program.
“The public has to be a major part of the equation,” she told Space.com last month at the annual fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco, where she gave a presentation on this very topic.
For example, some people will likely worry that the samples could harbor some sort of infectious microbe that could get loose and unleash a deadly plague on humanity. The sample-return team has thought about this remote possibility, of course, and is doing its best to ensure it could never come to pass.
After arriving on Earth, the Mars material will first be vetted at a specially constructed Sample Receiving Facility, which will be designed to prevent contamination in both directions: Nothing unwanted can get in to taint the samples, and nothing from the samples can get out into the wider world. The SRF hasn’t been built; indeed, a site for it hasn’t even been chosen yet. But the sample-return project can use existing Biosafety Level 4 labs — the most secure ones, which keep nasty viruses such as Ebola from spilling out — as a baseline, team member Tim Haltigin of the Canadian Space Agency told Space.com at the AGU meeting.
The public needs to know that such safety measures will be taken, Klug Boonstra said. And it’s also important to get across the potential scientific bounty represented by those little tubes of Mars material, she added.
The sample-return team is still working out what engagement strategies to employ. Klug Boonstra said the project would like to organize some opt-in focus groups to learn which tacks to take — for example, if activities in schools would be particularly useful in getting the word out.
And that needs to start happening soon, she stressed. It could well take a decade to get Mars sample return fully socialized, especially since our society seems to be getting less science-literate and more sound-bite-driven.
“We don’t want to be in the position where we’re just getting the information out when the public hears that the rocks are coming back,” Klug Boonstra said.
NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope is tasked with finding small, rocky worlds orbiting distant stars. However, exoplanets aren’t the only thing Kepler can detect — stellar flares, star spots and dusty planetary rings can also pop up in the mission’s observations.
But there’s also been speculation that Kepler may have the ability to detect more than natural phenomena; if they’re out there, Kepler may also detect the signature of artificial structures orbiting other stars. Imagine an advanced civilization that’s well up on the Kardashev scale and has the ability to harness energy directly from its star. This hypothetical alien civilization may want to construct vast megastructures, like supersized solar arrays in orbit around their host star, that could be so big that they blot out a sizable fraction of starlight as they pass in front.ADVERTISING
When Kepler detects an exoplanet, it does so by sensing the very slight dip in starlight from a given star. The premise is simple: an exoplanet orbits in front of star (known as a “transit”), Kepler detects a slight dimming of starlight and creates a “lightcurve” — basically a graph charting the dip in starlight over time. Much information can be gleaned from the lightcurve, such as the physical size of the transiting exoplanet. But it can also deduce the exoplanet’s shape.
Normally the shape of an exoplanet isn’t particularly surprising because it’s, well, planet-shaped. It’s round. The physics of planetary formation dictate that a planetary body above a certain mass will be governed by hydrostatic equilibrium. But say if Kepler detects something that isn’t round. Well, that’s when things can get a bit weird.
For the most part, any dip in star brightness can be attributed to some kind of natural phenomenon. But what if all possibilities are accounted for and only one scenario is left? What if that scenario is this object appears to be artificial? In other words, what if it’s alien?
The research paper is thorough, describing the phenomenon, pointing out that this star is unique – we’ve seen nothing like it. Kepler has collected data on this star steadily for four years. It’s not instrumental error. Kepler isn’t seeing things; the signal is real.
“We’d never seen anything like this star,” Tabetha Boyajian, a postdoctorate researcher at Yale University and lead author, told The Atlantic. “It was really weird. We thought it might be bad data or movement on the spacecraft, but everything checked out.”
The Planet Hunters volunteers are depended on to seek out transits in Kepler’s stars in the direction of the constellation Cygnus. This is a huge quantity of data, from over 150,000 stars in Kepler’s original field of view, and you can’t beat the human eye when identifying a true dip in starlight brightness. The Planet Hunters described KIC 8462852 as “bizarre,” “interesting” and a “giant transit.” They’re not wrong.
Follow-up studies focus on two interesting transit events at KIC 8462852, one that was detected between days 788 and 795 of the Kepler mission and between days 1510 to 1570. The researchers have tagged these events as D800 and D1500 respectively.
The D800 event appears to have been a single transit causing a star brightness drop-off of 15 percent, whereas D1500 was a burst of several transits, possibly indicating a clump of different objects, forcing a brightness dip of up to 22 percent. To cause such dips in brightness, these transiting objects must be huge.
The researchers worked through every known possibility, but each solution presented a new problem. For example, they investigated the possibility of some kind of circumstellar disk of dust. However, after looking for the infrared signal associated with these disks, no such signal could be seen.
Also, the star is a mature F-type star, approximately 1.5 times the size of our sun. Circumstellar disks are usually found around young stars.
The researchers also investigated the possibility of a huge planetary collision: could the debris from this smashup be creating this strange signal? The likelihood of us seeing a planetary collision is extremely low. There is no evidence in data taken by NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) that a collision happened, creating a very tiny window of opportunity between WISE’s mission end and the beginning of Kepler’s mission (of a few years) for an astronomically unlikely cosmic event like this to occur.Advertisement
The only natural explanation favored by the researchers seems to focus on an intervening clump of exocomets.
“One way we imagine such a barrage of comets could be triggered is by the passage of a field star through the system,” write the researchers.
Indeed, they argue, there’s a nearby star that might have tidally disturbed otherwise dormant comets in the outermost regions of the KIC 8462852 star system. This small star is located around 1,000 AU from KIC 8462852 and whether it’s a binary partner or an interstellar visitor, its presence may have caused some cometary turmoil. Like the other scenarios, however, the exocomet explanation still falls short of being fully satisfactory.
This research paper focuses only on natural and known possible causes of the mystery transit events around KIC 8462852. A second paper is currently being drafted to investigate a completely different transit scenario that focuses around the possibility of a mega-engineering project created by an advanced alien civilization.
This may sound like science fiction, but our galaxy has existed for over 13 billion years, it’s not such a stretch of the imagination to think that an alien civilization may be out there and evolved to the point where they can build megastructures around stars.
“Aliens should always be the very last hypothesis you consider, but this looked like something you would expect an alien civilization to build,” Jason Wright, an astronomer from Penn State University, told The Atlantic.
Indeed, hunting down huge structures that obscure the light from stars is no new thing. The Search for Extraterrestrial Technology (SETT) is one such project that does just this. Only recently, a survey of the local universe focused on the hope of detecting the waste heat generated by a technologically advanced civilization, specifically a Type II Kardashev civilization.
On the Kardashev scale, a Type II civilization has the ability to utilize all the available energy radiating from a star. Using a vast shell or series of rings surrounding a star, a Dyson sphere-like structure may be constructed. This has the effect of blotting out the star from view in visible wavelengths, but once the solar energy has been used by the alien civilization, the energy is shifted to longer wavelengths and likely lost as infrared radiation.
This recent search for aliens’ waste heat drew a blank, reaching the conclusion that as there appears to be no alien intelligence cocooning stars to harvest their heat, there’s likely no Type II civilization nearby.
But as KIC 8462852 is showing us, there may be something else out there — possibly an alien intelligence that is well on its way to becoming a Type II civilization, which is setting up some kind of artificial structure around its star.
Of course, these mystery transit events are nowhere near “proof” of an alien civilization. In fact, it’s barely evidence and a lot more work needs to be done.
The next step is to point a radio antenna at KIC 8462852, just to see whether the system is generating any artificial radio signals that could indicate the presence of something we’d define as “intelligent.” Boyajian and Wright have now teamed up with Andrew Siemion, the Director of the SETI Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley, to get a radio telescope to listen into the star and if they detect an artificial signal, they will request time on the Very Large Array (VLA) to deduce whether any radio signals from that star are the chatter of an alien civilization.
It might be a long shot, and the phenomenon is more likely a clump of comets or some other natural phenomenon that we haven’t accounted for blocking star light from view, but it’s worth investigating, especially if there really is some kind of alien intelligence building structures, or perhaps, ancient structures of a civilization long-gone, around a star only 1,500 light-years away from Earth.
Researchers working with data from NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) have discovered the mission’s first circumbinary planet, a world orbiting two stars. The planet, called TOI 1338b, is around 6.9 times larger than Earth, or between the sizes of Neptune and Saturn. It lies in a system 1,300 light-years away in the constellation Pictor.
The stars in the system make an eclipsing binary, which occurs when the stellar companions circle each other in our plane of view. One is about 10% more massive than our Sun, while the other is cooler, dimmer and only one-third the Sun’s mass. TOI 1338b’s transits are irregular, between every 93 and 95 days, and vary in depth and duration thanks to the orbital motion of its stars.
TESS only sees the transits crossing the larger star — the transits of the smaller star are too faint to detect. Although the planet transits irregularly, its orbit is stable for at least the next 10 million years. The orbit’s angle to us, however, changes enough that the planet transit will cease after November 2023 and resume eight years later.
The Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway is part of the Artemis program to return to the moon and stay. It will serve as a waypoint between Earth and the moon and a gateway to deep space and Mars missions.
The Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway is a proposed NASA program that would bring astronauts to the moon to operate a lunar space station. The concept has generated a wealth of research and numerous political discussions since 2017, especially because NASA’s stated goal under the Trump administration is to return to the moon before going to Mars.
The hardware and mission design are still in the early stages of development, but as of mid-2018, NASA envisions a lunar outpost (supplied by Space Launch System rockets) that would hold four people. Unlike the International Space Station, the outpost would not always have a crew on board and would have the capability to perform scientific experiments autonomously. The prime contractor for the first module should be announced in 2019.
In August 2018, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence announced that astronauts could fly to the lunar space station as early as 2024; however, it’s likely that date will change as design and construction plans proceed.
In the same month as Pence’s announcement, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine told reporters that the cost of the gateway won’t be nearly as much as the cost of the crewed Apollo missions in the 1960s. NASA’s current budget is now about 0.5 percent of annual federal funds, compared to its former height of 4.5 percent in the mid-1960s. The agency plans to begin the Gateway project without drawing on increased federal funding.
First steps to a gateway
In 2012, NASA publicly discussed the idea of a lunar station on the moon’s far side — called the Deep Space Habitat. A few years later, in 2014 and 2015, NASA began to consider the idea of “cislunar habitats” as a way to fly humans on longer missions in the 2020s. The agency envisioned a small shelter where astronauts could assemble telescopes, operate rovers and perform scientific research.
In March 2015, NASA awarded several contracts under its Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP) program to companies developing concepts for lunar modules. The goal was to build modules would attach to the Orion spacecraft (a deep-space vehicle under development by NASA) and allow for missions of about 60 days in duration. The agency also discussed cislunar habitats in a “Journey to Mars” report published in October 2015.
One of the earliest mentions of a lunar space station, then known as the Deep Space Gateway, was in an article published on NASA’s website in March 2017. As NASA described it at the time: “The agency is … looking to build a crew tended spaceport in lunar orbit within the first few missions that would serve as a gateway to deep space and the lunar surface. This deep space gateway would have a power bus, a small habitat to extend crew time, docking capability, an airlock, and [would be] serviced by logistics modules to enable research.”
The agency said the gateway would be useful not only for lunar orbiting missions, but also for increasing the breadth and depth of space exploration in general. “The area of space near the moon offers a true deep space environment to gain experience for human missions that push farther into the solar system, access the lunar surface for robotic missions but with the ability to return to Earth if needed in days rather than weeks or months.”
In July 2017, NASA issued a competitive request for information about the Power and Propulsion Element, the module that is expected to supply electrical power and chemical and electrical propulsion to the gateway. As a result, five study contracts were issued in November 2017.
That September, NASA and Roscosmos (the Russian space agency) signed a joint cooperation agreement to explore the moon and deep space, which included use of the gateway.
Back to the moon
NASA’s mission to return to the moon was bumped up in the agency’s priority list after President Donald Trump’s first space policy directive was announced in December 2017. Trump directed the agency to focus on returning to the moon before attempting to reach Mars (reaching Mars had been the primary goal during President Barack Obama’s administration).
Trump’s announcement was in line with a previous recommendation from the newly reconstituted National Space Council. The council, which hadn’t been active since the early 1990s, was re-formed in June 2017. Later that year, its members concluded that lunar exploration should be NASA’s primary goal.
The Deep Space Gateway was renamed the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway in February 2018, when NASA made its 2019 budget request. That document also suggested that the International Space Station should conclude operations in 2024 to make budgetary room for the gateway.
NASA held a Deep Space Gateway Science Workshop from Feb. 27 to March 1, 2018, in Denver, which helped the agency formulate a science plan for the lunar complex. Also in 2018, NASA launched the Revolutionary Aerospace Systems Concepts-Academic Linkages (RASC-AL) design competition for university students, which focused on developing concepts for the gateway.
The agency is also encouraging the development of international gateway partnerships, especially from the current International Space Station partners (Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada), as it formulates the concept of the gateway.
Elon Musk details SpaceX progress on latest Starship spacecraft build and flight timelines Starship, the SpaceX stainless steel behemoth set to send humans to Mars, could end up taking humans to the Moon in just five years time.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk made the declaration back in March 2019, amid growing interest in what the company was developing at its Boca Chica facility in Texas. SpaceX Starship was pitched in its original “BFR” form back in September 2017, but the new rocket taking shape at Boca Chica had a uniquely shiny design.
It was a response to American vice president Mike Pence, who had declared at the time that NASA would return humans to the Moon within the next five years. In response to a question about whether SpaceX Starship could send humans in that same time period, Musk stated “I think so.” As development of the SpaceX Starship continues, these plans have gradually come into focus.
The holidays might be a time of slowed activity for most companies in the tech sector, but for SpaceX, it was a time to ramp production efforts on the latest SpaceX Starship prototype — “Starship serial number 1” as it’s called, according to Elon Musk . This flight design prototype of SpaceX Starship is under construction at SpaceX’s Boca Chica development facility, and Musk was in attendance over the weekend overseeing its build and assembly. In this video Engineering Today will discuss SpaceX’s latest Starship where CEO Elon Musk details SpaceX progress on this spacecraft build and flight timelines.
An animation shows the random appearance of fast radio bursts (FRBs) across the sky. Astronomers have discovered about 85 since 2007, and pinpointed two of them. (Credit: NRAO Outreach/T. Jarrett (IPAC/Caltech); B. Saxton, NRAO/AUI/NSF)
HONOLULU — Mysterious ultra-fast pinpricks of radio energy keep lighting up the night sky and nobody knows why. A newly discovered example of this transient phenomenon has been traced to its place of origin — a nearby spiral galaxy — but it’s only made things murkier for astronomers.
The problem concerns a class of blink-and-you’ll-miss-them heavenly events known as fast radio bursts (FRBs). In a few thousandths of a second, these explosions produce as much energy as the sun does in nearly a century. Researchers have only known about FRBs since 2007, and they still don’t have a compelling explanation regarding their sources.
“The big question is what can produce an FRB,” Kenzie Nimmo, a doctoral student at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, said during a news briefing on Monday (Jan. 6) here at the 235th meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Honolulu, Hawaii.
The repeating FBR was eventually traced back to a dwarf galaxy with a high rate of star formation 3 billion light-years away, Nimmo said. The galaxy contains a persistent radio source, possibly a nebula, that could explain the FRB’s origin, she added.
Astronomers have also managed to determine that three non-repeating FRBs came from distant massive galaxies with little star formation going on. This seemed to provide evidence that repeating and non-repeating FRBs arose from different types of environments, Nimmo said. But the new discovery challenges this simple story.
FRB 180916.J0158+65, as the object is known, is a repeating FRB discovered by the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment (CHIME) observatory, a radio telescope near Okanagan Falls in British Columbia that Nimmo called “the world’s best FRB-finding machine.”
Follow-up observations by a network of telescopes in Europe allowed the research team to produce a high-resolution image of the FRB’s location. This location turned out to be a medium-sized spiral galaxy like our Milky Way that is surprisingly nearby, only 500 million light-years away, making it the closest-known FRB to date. The results were published yesterday (Jan. 6) in the journal Nature.
Despite precisely locating the FRB, the team was unable to detect any radio sources in the spiral galaxy that could explain the mysterious outbursts. Even worse, this new entity seems not to fit the patterns established by previous repeating and non-repeating FRBs.
“This is completely different than the host and local environments of other localized FRBs,” Benito Marcote, a radio astronomer at the Joint Institute for VLBI European Research Infrastructure Consortium and lead author of the Nature paper, said during the news briefing.
The researchers hope that subsequent data might help them get a handle on what this FRB is telling them. But until then, they might have to continue scratching their heads over these puzzling phenomena.
NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) has discovered its first Earth-size planet in its star’s habitable zone, the range of distances where conditions may be just right to allow the presence of liquid water on the surface.
This illustration of TOI 700 d is based on several simulated environments for an ocean-covered version of the planet.Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center
NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) has discovered its first Earth-size planet in its star’s habitable zone, the range of distances where conditions may be just right to allow the presence of liquid water on the surface. Scientists confirmed the find, called TOI 700 d, using NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope and have modeled the planet’s potential environments to help inform future observations.
TOI 700 d is one of only a few Earth-size planets discovered in a star’s habitable zone so far. Others include several planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system and other worlds discovered by NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope.
“TESS was designed and launched specifically to find Earth-sized planets orbiting nearby stars,” said Paul Hertz, astrophysics division director at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “Planets around nearby stars are easiest to follow-up with larger telescopes in space and on Earth. Discovering TOI 700 d is a key science finding for TESS. Confirming the planet’s size and habitable zone status with Spitzer is another win for Spitzer as it approaches the end of science operations this January.”
TESS monitors large swaths of the sky, called sectors, for 27 days at a time. This long stare allows the satellite to track changes in stellar brightness caused by an orbiting planet crossing in front of its star from our perspective, an event called a transit.
TOI 700 is a small, cool M dwarf star located just over 100 light-years away in the southern constellation Dorado. It’s roughly 40% of the Sun’s mass and size and about half its surface temperature. The star appears in 11 of the 13 sectors TESS observed during the mission’s first year, and scientists caught multiple transits by its three planets.
The star was originally misclassified in the TESS database as being more similar to our Sun, which meant the planets appeared larger and hotter than they really are. Several researchers, including Alton Spencer, a high school student working with members of the TESS team, identified the error.
“When we corrected the star’s parameters, the sizes of its planets dropped, and we realized the outermost one was about the size of Earth and in the habitable zone,” said Emily Gilbert, a graduate student at the University of Chicago. “Additionally, in 11 months of data we saw no flares from the star, which improves the chances TOI 700 d is habitable and makes it easier to model its atmospheric and surface conditions.”
Gilbert and other researchers presented the findings at the 235th meeting of the American Astronomical Societyin Honolulu, and three papers — one of which Gilbert led — have been submitted to scientific journals.
The innermost planet, called TOI 700 b, is almost exactly Earth-size, is probably rocky and completes an orbit every 10 days. The middle planet, TOI 700 c, is 2.6 times larger than Earth — between the sizes of Earth and Neptune — orbits every 16 days and is likely a gas-dominated world. TOI 700 d, the outermost known planet in the system and the only one in the habitable zone, measures 20% larger than Earth, orbits every 37 days and receives from its star 86% of the energy that the Sun provides to Earth. All of the planets are thought to be tidally locked to their star, which means they rotate once per orbit so that one side is constantly bathed in daylight.
A team of scientists led by Joseph Rodriguez, an astronomer at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian in Cambridge, Massachusetts, requested follow-up observations with Spitzer to confirm TOI 700 d.
“Given the impact of this discovery — that it is TESS’s first habitable-zone Earth-size planet — we really wanted our understanding of this system to be as concrete as possible,” Rodriguez said. “Spitzer saw TOI 700 d transit exactly when we expected it to. It’s a great addition to the legacy of a mission that helped confirm two of the TRAPPIST-1 planets and identify five more.”
The Spitzer data increased scientists’ confidence that TOI 700 d is a real planet and sharpened their measurements of its orbital period by 56% and its size by 38%. It also ruled out other possible astrophysical causes of the transit signal, such as the presence of a smaller, dimmer companion star in the system.
Rodriguez and his colleagues also used follow-up observations from a 1-meter ground-based telescope in the global Las Cumbres Observatory network to improve scientists’ confidence in the orbital period and size of TOI 700 c by 30% and 36%, respectively.
Because TOI 700 is bright, nearby, and shows no sign of stellar flares, the system is a prime candidate for precise mass measurements by current ground-based observatories. These measurements could confirm scientists’ estimates that the inner and outer planets are rocky and the middle planet is made of gas.
Future missions may be able to identify whether the planets have atmospheres and, if so, even determine their compositions.
While the exact conditions on TOI 700 d are unknown, scientists can use current information, like the planet’s size and the type of star it orbits, to generate computer models and make predictions. Researchers at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, modeled 20 potential environments of TOI 700 d to gauge if any version would result in surface temperatures and pressures suitable for habitability.
Their 3D climate models examined a variety of surface types and atmospheric compositions typically associated with what scientists regard to be potentially habitable worlds. Because TOI 700 d is tidally locked to its star, the planet’s cloud formations and wind patterns may be strikingly different from Earth’s.
One simulation included an ocean-covered TOI 700 d with a dense, carbon-dioxide-dominated atmosphere similar to what scientists suspect surrounded Mars when it was young. The model atmosphere contains a deep layer of clouds on the star-facing side. Another model depicts TOI 700 d as a cloudless, all-land version of modern Earth, where winds flow away from the night side of the planet and converge on the point directly facing the star.
When starlight passes through a planet’s atmosphere, it interacts with molecules like carbon dioxide and nitrogen to produce distinct signals, called spectral lines. The modeling team, led by Gabrielle Englemann-Suissa, a Universities Space Research Association visiting research assistant at Goddard, produced simulated spectra for the 20 modeled versions of TOI 700 d.
“Someday, when we have real spectra from TOI 700 d, we can backtrack, match them to the closest simulated spectrum, and then match that to a model,” Englemann-Suissa said. “It’s exciting because no matter what we find out about the planet, it’s going to look completely different from what we have here on Earth.”
TESS is a NASA Astrophysics Explorer mission led and operated by MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Additional partners include Northrop Grumman, based in Falls Church, Virginia; NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley; the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts; MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory; and the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. More than a dozen universities, research institutes and observatories worldwide are participants in the mission.
The Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, manages the Spitzer Space Telescope mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Science operations are conducted at the Spitzer Science Center at Caltech in Pasadena. Space operations are based at Lockheed Martin Space in Littleton, Colorado. Data are archived at the Infrared Science Archive housed at IPAC at Caltech. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.
The modeling work was funded through the Sellers Exoplanet Environments Collaboration at Goddard, a multidisciplinary collaboration that brings together experts to build comprehensive and sophisticated computer models to better analyze current and future exoplanet observations.