Mysterious interstellar ‘Oumuamua could be made of something almost unheard of in science

The mystery surrounding the interstellar object ‘Oumumua seemingly gets weirder by the day.

A new study, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, suggests the interstellar object could be made of hydrogen ice. Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, but it’s rarely observed in a solid form.

“We developed a theory that explains all of ‘Oumuamua’s weird properties,” said study co-author Gregory Laughlin, a professor of astronomy in Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, in a statement. “We show that it was likely composed of hydrogen ice. This is a new type of object, but it looks like there may be many more of them showing up, going forward.”

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

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

The cigar-shaped ‘Oumuamua, which was first discovered in October 2017, is unlike anything researchers had ever seen before, due to its shape, as well as its dry surface.

The research notes that hydrogen ice, which needs extremely cold temperatures, is something that is present in the cores of molecular clouds. Molecular clouds form the basis of stars and the researchers believe ‘Oumuamua could contain hydrogen ice after it passed by one of these molecular clouds in deep space, which could explain its speed.

“As ‘Oumuamua passed close to the Sun and received its warmth, melting hydrogen would have rapidly boiled off the icy surface,” the study’s lead author, Darryl Seligman explained, “providing the observed acceleration and also winnowing ‘Oumuamua down to its weird, elongated shape — much as a bar of soap becomes a thin sliver after many uses in the shower.”

It’s possible that these “hydrogen icebergs” or “hydrogen comets” could be more prevalent in the solar system, which could give researchers new information about how stars and planets form.

“Their presence would be an accurate probe of the conditions in the dark recesses of star-forming clouds and provide a critical new clue for understanding the earliest phases of the still-mysterious processes that generate the birth of stars and their accompanying planets,” Laughlin noted.

The 900-foot long cigar-shaped ‘Oumuamua has led to some researchers to believe it could be an alien probe.

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

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

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

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

HOW SPACEX AND BOEING WILL GET ASTRONAUTS TO THE ISS. A COMPARISON OF THE CREW DRAGON, STARLINER, SOYUZ AND SPACE SHUTTLE.

We’re at a really exciting time where the number of crewed vehicles going to the international space station will go from just one to three!. The Soyuz’s 8 year monopoly for getting humans to the ISS is coming to an end. So today we’re going to take a deep dive on the two new spaceships that will be responsible for taking humans to and from the International Space Station from the United States. We’ll compare the Boeing Starliner riding an Atlas V rocket to SpaceX’s Crew Dragon on their Falcon 9 Rocket.SpaceX Crew Dragon Vs Boeing Starliner vs Soyuz vs Space Shuttle comparison commercial crew

Renders by – Reese Carges – @AstroReeseW (Dragon 2/ Falcon 9) and Lionel Oullette – @ArcturusVFX (Starliner / Atlas)

And to see how we’ve progressed in the world of human spaceflight, we’ll also compare all these systems along side Russia’s Soyuz capsule and the United State’s retired Space Shuttle in a side by side comparison. We’ll look at the designs, the rockets they’ll ride, dimensions, cost, safety considerations, and any other unique features that each vehicle offers.

Considering I’ve been up close and personal with SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Capsule, and Boeing’s Starliner, I’ve got some good insight on some of these vehicles, so let’s get started!

The International Space Station is still one the greatest feats of human engineering. After all, it’s a football field sized floating laboratory traveling 10 times faster than a bullet, circling the Earth every 90 minutes. It’s taken 33 launches to put all of its pieces into orbit and has been home to over 230 people from almost 20 countries.

ISS crew rotations

The ISS typically has 6 astronauts onboard. Crews are sent in groups of 3 and usually reside at the station for 6 months. There is typically a 3 month overlap for the existing crew and the newly arriving crew. Since the Space Shuttle program ended in 2011, there’s only been a single ride to the ISS. Russia’s Soyuz vehicle.

But we’re coming up on a really exciting time as the United States prepares to send astronauts to the International Space Station from US soil on two brand new spaceships! And what’s super exciting, is NASA has hired private companies to do the development and operations in a new program called the commercial crew program.

The two companies that won contracts are SpaceX and Boeing. I’m not really going to get into how the commercial crew program got started or has progressed in today’s video, I mostly want to talk about the hardware. Each company has a unique approach to how they’ll get crew to the station, so let’s dive into each one and then we’ll compare them to the Soyuz capsule as well as the Space Shuttle to see how much has changed since the ISS was born.

NASA Commercial Crew program SpaceX Crew Dragon and Boeing Starliner

Starting off with Boeing and their Starliner. Boeing started designing the Starliner, originally known as the CST-100, in 2010 after winning a contract from NASA for the CCDev program. The starliner is a traditional truncated cone capsule design, much like previous spacecraft from the United States. It can carry up to 7 astronauts at a time, although NASA won’t use more than 4 seats at a time.

SpaceX makes history, launches NASA astronauts into space from US soil for the first time since 2011

Historic liftoff: SpaceX launches NASA astronauts into orbit

NASA astronauts blast off into space on a SpaceX rocket bound for the International Space Station.

SpaceX has launched NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken on their historic Demo-2 mission to the International Space Station (ISS). The mission is the first time that astronauts have launched from American soil since the final Space Shuttle flight in 2011.

Hurley and Behnken blasted off from Kennedy Space Center’s historic launch pad 39A, which was also used for the Apollo and space shuttle programs, at 3:22 p.m. ET Saturday. An attempt on Wednesday was scrubbed due to weather conditions.

The launch is the first time a private company, rather than a national government, has sent astronauts into orbit.

There were concerns that bad weather would force Saturday’s launch to be scrubbed, but the mission was able to proceed as planned. President Trump and Vice President Pence, who is chairman of the National Space Council, watched the launch from Kennedy Space Center.

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches into space from Kennedy Space Center with NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley aboard the Crew Dragon spacecraft on May 30, 2020.

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches into space from Kennedy Space Center with NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley aboard the Crew Dragon spacecraft on May 30, 2020. (Photo by Saul Martinez/Getty Images)

Speaking at Kennedy Space Center following the launch, Trump praised America’s “bold and triumphant return to the stars.”

“With this launch, the decades of lost years and little action are officially over,” he said. The names of Hurley and Behnken, he added, will stand in the history books alongside the likes of Mercury and Gemini astronaut Gus Grissom.

“We have liftoff! Congratulations @Astro_Doug, @AstroBehnken, @NASA and @SpaceX!” tweeted Pence.Mike Pence@Mike_Pence

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Launched atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, Hurley and Behnken are traveling to the International Space Station in a Crew Dragon spacecraft built by the space company.SpaceX@SpaceX

Liftoff!

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After a short journey into orbit, Crew Dragon began its 19-hour journey to the orbiting space lab.  Autonomous docking with the International Space Station is expected at 10:29 a.m. EDT on Sunday. The duration of the astronauts’ stay on the orbiting space lab is yet to be determined.

After separation, the Falcon 9 booster successfully returned to Earth, landing on a drone ship in the Atlantic.

NASA astronauts Bob Behnken (R) and Doug Hurley sit in a Tesla vehicle after walking out of the Operations and Checkout Building on their way to the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the Crew Dragon spacecraft on launch pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center on May 30, 2020 in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

NASA astronauts Bob Behnken (R) and Doug Hurley sit in a Tesla vehicle after walking out of the Operations and Checkout Building on their way to the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the Crew Dragon spacecraft on launch pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center on May 30, 2020 in Cape Canaveral, Florida. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

“Today was just an amazing day,” NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said shortly after the launch. “I can breathe a sigh of relief but I can also tell you that I’m not going to celebrate until Bob and Doug are home safely.”

Bridenstine said he was praying for the astronauts during the liftoff. “I have heard that rumble [of a rocket launch] before, but it’s a whole different feeling when you’ve got your own team on that rocket.”

Under normal circumstances, large crowds would have been expected to witness the historic launch but, citing concerns about the coronavirus pandemic, NASA urged people to stay away.

A SpaceX Falcon 9, with NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken in the Crew Dragon capsule, sits on Launch Pad 39-A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., Saturday, May 30, 2020.

A SpaceX Falcon 9, with NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken in the Crew Dragon capsule, sits on Launch Pad 39-A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., Saturday, May 30, 2020. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

STS-135, the last space shuttle mission, launched from Kennedy Space Center on July 8, 2011. The space shuttle Atlantis carried four NASA astronauts on the mission to resupply the ISS, as well as an experiment for robotically refueling satellites in space.SpaceX@SpaceX

Falcon 9 booster has landed on the Of Course I Still Love You droneship!

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Since then, the U.S. has relied on Russian Soyuz rockets launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan to get astronauts into space. Russia charges the U.S. about $75 million to send an astronaut into space.

NASA recently agreed to pay Russian space agency Roscosmos $90 million for one final seat on one of its Soyuz rockets.

Proxima b, the closest alien planet we know, may be even more Earth-like than we thought

“ESPRESSO has made it possible to measure the mass of the planet with a precision of over one-tenth of the mass of Earth.”

This artist's impression shows what the surface of the alien planet Proxima b might look like.
This artist’s impression shows what the surface of the alien planet Proxima b might look like.  (Image credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser)

The closest alien planet to our solar system is even more Earth-like than scientists had thought, new observations suggest.

In a new study, an international team of researchers found that Proxima b, which lies just 4.2 light-years from Earth, is just 17% more massive than our planet. 

Previously, scientists thought that this exoplanet, which lies in the habitable zone of its star, harbored about 1.3 Earth masses. The new measurement indicates that Proxima b is even more like our home planet, at least in size, than previous observations led scientists to think. 

The research team studied Proxima b using the Echelle Spectrograph for Rocky Exoplanet and Stable Spectroscopic Observations, or ESPRESSO for short.  ESPRESSO is a Swiss spectrograph that is currently mounted on the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) Very Large Telescope in Chile. Spectrographs observe objects and split the light coming from those objects into the wavelengths that make it up so that researchers can study the object in closer detail. 

Proxima b was first detected four years ago by an older spectrograph, HARPS (“High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher”), which is installed on a scope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile  But with these newer observations, scientists have an updated, ultra-precise view of the planet. 

“We were already very happy with the performance of HARPS, which has been responsible for discovering hundreds of exoplanets over the last 17 years,” study co-author Francesco Pepe, an astronomy professor at the University of Geneva in Switzerland and the person in charge of ESPRESSO, said in a statement. “We’re really pleased that ESPRESSO can produce even better measurements, and it’s gratifying and [a] just reward for the teamwork lasting nearly 10 years.”

“ESPRESSO has made it possible to measure the mass of the planet with a precision of over one-tenth of the mass of Earth,” Michel Mayor, a Swiss astrophysicist who won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2019 and helped to develop a new type of spectrograph called Elodie, who was not an author on this study, said in the same statement. “It’s completely unheard of.”

An alien planet 

So what’s the deal with this Earth-sized planet? Proxima b is “one of the most interesting planets known in the solar neighborhood,” Alejandro Suarez Mascareño, the lead author on this study, said in the same statement. 

This strange alien planet orbits Proxima Centauri, the closest star to our sun. Because the planet orbits right in the middle of its star’s habitable zone, it’s possible that liquid water — and potentially even life — could exist there. Because of its Earth-like mass, scientists believe that, not only could liquid water exist on Proxima b, it could also be a rocky, terrestrial planet similar to Earth. 

But Proxima b orbits around a star that, while close to our solar system, is also much dimmer, and much less massive than our sun. Researchers think that the exoplanet is tidally locked and in synchronous rotation with its star, meaning that one side is always facing the star and one is always facing away: a light side and a dark side. 

In addition, it’s unclear if, Proxima b has an atmosphere. The planet lies very close to its star, completing one orbit every 11 Earth days. So, some researchers think that radiation coming from Proxima Centauri might have stripped away Proxima b’s air, making it impossible for the alien planet’s surface to hold onto liquid water. As scientists continue to study this system with new and better technology, we will be able to better understand what it’s really like on Proxima b. 

This new study was published May 26 to the preprint server arXiv and accepted to the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics. 

Astronomers Discover Hundreds of New Strong Gravitational Lenses

Using data from the Dark Energy Camera Legacy Survey (DECaLS), astronomers have discovered 335 new candidate strong lensing systems.

These two columns show side-by-side comparisons of gravitational lens candidates imaged by the Dark Energy Camera Legacy Survey (color) and the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope (black and white). Image credit: Dark Energy Camera Legacy Survey / NASA / ESA / Hubble / Huang et al.

Gravitational lensing was first theorized by Albert Einstein more than 100 years ago to describe how light bends when it travels past massive objects like galaxies and galaxy clusters.

These lensing effects are typically described as weak or strong, and the strength of a lens relates to an object’s position and mass and distance from the light source that is lensed.

Strong lenses can have a mass of 100 billion solar masses, causing light from more distant objects in the same path to magnify and split, for example, into multiple images, or to appear as dramatic arcs or rings.

“Finding these objects is like finding telescopes that are the size of a galaxy. They’re powerful probes of dark matter and dark energy,” said co-author Dr. David Schlegel, a senior scientist in the Physics Division at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

In the study, Dr. Schlegel and colleagues used Cori, a supercomputer at Berkeley Lab’s National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center, to analyze imaging data from the DECaLS project, one of three surveys conducted in preparation for the Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument (DESI) survey.

The lens candidates were identified with the assistance of a neural network, which is a form of artificial intelligence in which the computer program is trained to gradually improve its image-matching over time to provide an increasing success rate in identifying lenses.

“It takes hours to train the neural network. There is a very sophisticated fitting model of ‘What is a lens?’ and ‘What is not a lens?’,” said lead author Dr. Xiaosheng Huang, an astronomer in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of San Francisco.

The newly-discovered strong lensing system candidates could provide specific markers for precisely measuring distances to galaxies in the early Universe if supernovae are observed and precisely tracked and measured via these lenses, for example.

Strong lenses also provide a powerful window into the unseen Universe of dark matter, which makes up about 85% of the matter in the Universe, as most of the mass responsible for lensing effects is thought to be dark matter.

Dark matter and the accelerating expansion of the Universe, driven by dark energy, are among the biggest mysteries that physicists are working to solve.

“We already succeeded in winning time on the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope to confirm some of the most promising lensing candidates revealed in the study, with observing time on the Hubble that began in 2019,” Dr. Huang said.

“Hubble can see the fine details without the blurring effects of Earth’s atmosphere.”

paper on the findings was published in the Astrophysical Journal.

Astronomers Directly Image Giant Planet-Like Object around Sun-Like Star

Using three instruments on ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT), an international team of astronomers has discovered and imaged a giant sub-stellar object — a giant planet or a brown dwarf — around the very young, Sun-like star TYC 8998-760-1.

This SPHERE image shows TYC 8998-760-1b. Image credit: Bohn et al, doi: 10.1093/mnras/stz3462.

TYC 8998-760-1 is a K3-type star located 309 light-years away in the small southern constellation of Musca.

Also known as 2MASS J13251211-6456207, the star is about the same mass as our Sun, but is only 16.7 million years old.

ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT)

This means that its newly-imaged companion, dubbed TYC 8998-760-1b, formed only recently.

The object is 3 times the size of our Jupiter and about 14 times more massive.

It has an estimated surface temperature of about 1,400 degrees Celsius (2,600 degrees Fahrenheit) and likely has a highly inflated atmosphere.

“TYC 8998-760-1b is among the youngest and least massive companions that are directly detected around solar-type stars,” said Leiden Observatory astronomer Alexander Bohn and his colleagues from the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, and the United States.

These images from VLT’s SPHERE and NaCo instruments show the TYC 8998-760-1 system; proper motion analysis proves that all objects north of the star are background (bg) stars, while the object south-west of TYC 8998-760-1 (highlighted by the white arrow) is co-moving with its host. Image credit: Bohn et al, doi: 10.1093/mnras/stz3462.

The discovery is part of the Young Suns Exoplanet Survey (YSES) of 70 young, solar-mass stars located in the Lower Centaurus-Crux subgroup of the Scorpius-Centaurus association.

The researchers were able to directly image TYC 8998-760-1b using VLT’s SPHERE (Spectro-Polarimetric High-contrast Exoplanet Research) and NaCo (Nasmyth Adaptive Optics System/Near-Infrared Imager and Spectrograph) instruments.

They also analyzed medium-resolution data on TYC 8998-760-1 collected by VLT’s X-SHOOTER spectrograph.

“The discovery of TYC 8998-760-1b opens many pathways for future ground and space-based characterization of the solar-like environment at a very early stage of its evolution,” the scientists said.

Their paper was published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Astronomer Uses Bayesian Statistics to Weigh Likelihood of Complex Life and Intelligence beyond Earth

In a new study published this week in the Proceeding of the National Academy of SciencesDr. David Kipping of Columbia University and Flatiron Institute used a statistical technique called Bayesian inference to estimate the odds of complex life and intelligence emerging beyond Earth.

Kipping uses Bayesian statistics to shed light on how extraterrestrial life might evolve in the Universe. Image credit: Dina Dee.

A fundamental question to modern science concerns the prevalence of life, and intelligence, within the Universe.

Searches within the Solar System have not yielded any direct evidence for extraterrestrial life, and the remote detection of chemical biomarkers on exoplanets remains years ahead of present observational capabilities.

The search for intelligence, through the signatures of their technology, may be detectable under certain assumptions and limited observational campaigns have been attempted. However, the underlying assumptions make it challenging to use these null results to directly constrain the prevalence of life or intelligence at this time.

“The rapid emergence of life and the late evolution of humanity, in the context of the timeline of evolution, are certainly suggestive. But in this study it’s possible to actually quantify what the facts tell us,” Dr. Kipping said.

To conduct his analysis, Dr. Kipping used the chronology of the earliest evidence for life and the evolution of humanity.

The astronomer asked how often we would expect life and intelligence to re-emerge if Earth’s history were to repeat, re-running the clock over and over again.

He framed the problem in terms of four possible answers: (i) life is common and often develops intelligence; (ii) life is rare but often develops intelligence; (iii) life is common and rarely develops intelligence; and (iv) life is rare and rarely develops intelligence.

This method of Bayesian statistical inference — used to update the probability for a hypothesis as evidence or information becomes available — states prior beliefs about the system being modeled, which are then combined with data to cast probabilities of outcomes.

“The technique is akin to betting odds. It encourages the repeated testing of new evidence against your position, in essence a positive feedback loop of refining your estimates of likelihood of an event,” Dr. Kipping said.

From these four hypotheses, the scientist used Bayesian mathematical formulas to weigh the models against one another.

“In Bayesian inference, prior probability distributions always need to be selected,” he said.

“But a key result here is that when one compares the rare-life versus common-life scenarios, the common-life scenario is always at least nine times more likely than the rare one.”

His analysis is based on evidence that life emerged within 300 million years of the formation of the Earth’s oceans as found in carbon-13-depleted zircon deposits, a very fast start in the context of Earth’s lifetime.

“The ratio is at least 9:1 or higher, depending on the true value of how often intelligence develops,” he said.

“If planets with similar conditions and evolutionary time lines to Earth are common, then the analysis suggests that life should have little problem spontaneously emerging on other planets.”

“And what are the odds that these extraterrestrial lives could be complex, differentiated and intelligent? Here, my inquiry is less assured, finding just 3:2 odds in favor of intelligent life.”

This result stems from humanity’s relatively late appearance in Earth’s habitable window, suggesting that its development was neither an easy nor ensured process.

“If we played Earth’s history again, the emergence of intelligence is actually somewhat unlikely,” Dr. Kipping said.

“The odds in the study aren’t overwhelming, being quite close to 50:50, and the findings should be treated as no more than a gentle nudge toward a hypothesis.”

“The analysis can’t provide certainties or guarantees, only statistical probabilities based on what happened here on Earth.”

“Overall, our work supports an optimistic outlook for future searches for biosignatures,” he said.

“The slight preference for a rare intelligence scenario is consistent with a straightforward resolution to the Fermi paradox. However, our work says nothing about the lifetime of civilizations, and indeed the weight of evidence in favor of this scenario is sufficiently weak that searches for technosignatures should certainly be a component in observational campaigns seeking to resolve this grand mystery.”

Astronomers Spot First Trojan Asteroid with Comet-Like Tail: 2019 LD2

Watch Jupiter Trojan asteroid 2019 LD2’s orbit the sun for 25 years in this orbit animation. New imagery from the University of Hawaiʻi’s Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System (ATLAS) reveals that it has an unusual comet-like tail.

Credit: Space.com / Orbit animation: NASA/JPL-Caltech / image: ATLAS/A. Heinze/IfA / produced & edited by [Steve Spaleta](http://www.twitter.com/stevespaleta)

2019 LD2 is the first known Jupiter trojan asteroid to display cometary activity with a visible coma and tail, according to a team of astronomers from the University of Hawaii and Queen’s University Belfast.

This image shows the Jupiter trojan asteroid 2019 LD2. Image credit: ATLAS.

Trojan asteroids follow the same orbit as a planet, but stay either around 60 degrees ahead or 60 degrees behind along the orbit.

Earth has one trojan asteroid, 2010 TK7. Mars hosts at least nine, Uranus has two, and Neptune has 22 trojans.

Jupiter has more than one million trojan asteroids larger than 1 km. These Jupiter trojans orbit the Sun in two huge groups, one group orbiting ahead of the planet (2019 LD2 belongs to this group) and one group orbiting behind it.

“What makes 2019 LD2 so interesting is that we think most Jupiter trojans were captured billions of years ago,” said Queen’s University Belfast’s Professor Alan Fitzsimmons and colleagues.

“Any surface ice that could vaporize to spew out gas and dust should have done so long ago, leaving the objects quietly orbiting as asteroids — not behaving like comets.”

2019 LD2 was discovered on June 2019 by the Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System (ATLAS), an asteroid impact early warning system being developed by the University of Hawaii and funded by NASA.

A detailed analysis of the discovery images of 2019 LD2 by Professor Fitzsimmons and his colleague, Dr. David Young of Queen’s University Belfast, revealed its probable cometary nature.

Follow-up observations by University of Hawaii astronomers Dr. James ‘J.D.’ Armstrong and Sidney Moss on June 11 and 13, 2019, using the Las Cumbres Observatory global telescope network confirmed the cometary nature of the asteroid.

In July 2019, new ATLAS images caught the object again — now truly looking like a comet, with a faint tail made of dust or gas.

2019 LD2 passed behind the Sun and was not observable from the Earth in late 2019 and early 2020, but upon its reappearance in the night sky in April 2020, ATLAS observations confirmed that it still looks like a comet.

These observations showed that 2019 LD2 has probably been continuously active for almost a year.

“We have believed for decades that trojan asteroids should have large amounts of ice beneath their surfaces, but never had any evidence until now,” Professor Fitzsimmons said.

“ATLAS has shown that the predictions of their icy nature may well be correct.”

“What could have made 2019 LD2 suddenly show cometary behavior? Maybe Jupiter captured it only recently from a more distant orbit where surface ice could still survive. Maybe it recently suffered a landslide or an impact from another asteroid, exposing ice that used to be buried under layers of protective rock,” the astronomers said.

“New observations to find out are being acquired and evaluated. What’s certain is that the Universe is full of surprises — and surveys to guard the Earth from dangerous asteroids often make unexpected discoveries of harmless but fascinating objects that can reveal more about our Solar System’s history.”

Russian military satellite launch spawns space-junk fireball over Australia (video)

EPIC!! Check out this incredible vision captured by Mel Aldridge not long ago at Cashmore near Portland! We’re getting plenty of reports. @abcmelbourne

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Russia launched a military satellite to orbit on Friday (May 22), and the mission generated plenty of action in the downward direction as well.

A four-stage Soyuz-2 rocket lifted off from Plesetsk Cosmodrome in northwestern Russia early Friday morning, carrying a classified payload that’s believed to be the fourth satellite for the country’s EKS OiBU missile-warning network, according to RussianSpaceWeb.com.

The Soyuz successfully delivered the satellite to its intended orbit, the Russian space agency Roscosmos announced Friday afternoon

The rocket’s third stage was expected to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere over southeastern Australia, with any surviving debris from that part of the booster targeted to splash down in the Pacific Ocean south of Tasmania, RussianSpaceWeb.com reported. 

Many people in the region, from central Victoria to northern Tasmania, saw a brilliant fireball overhead at the appropriate time, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) reported. This was no coincidence; they were witnessing the fiery death of the Soyuz’s third stage.

“The slow speed, about 6 kilometres per second, is a very telltale sign that it is space junk,” Jonti Horner, an astrophysics professor at the University of Southern Queensland, told the ABC. (Asteroids and other space rocks that slam into our atmosphere are going much faster than that.)

Not every hunk of space junk comes down as quickly as this piece of the Soyuz did. Indeed, Earth orbit is littered with dead satellites, spent rocket bodies and other debris. NASA estimates that there are 500,000 pieces of junk up there at least as big as a marble. And even such small objects can cause serious damage if they hit a spacecraft, considering that bodies in low-Earth orbit zip around our planet at about 17,500 mph (28,160 km/h).

4-billion-year-old nitrogen-containing organic molecules discovered in Martian meteorites

Scientists exploring Mars and analyzing Martian meteorite samples have found organic compounds essential for life: nitrogen-bearing organics in a 4-billion-year-old Martian meteorite. With a new high-spatial resolution in-situ N-chemical speciation technique, they found organic materials — either synthesized locally or delivered during the Noachian — preserved intact in carbonate minerals over a long geological period. Their presence requires abiotic or biotic N-fixation and ammonia storage, suggesting early Mars had a less oxidizing environment than today.


Mars illustration (stock | Credit: © grejak / stock.adobe.com

Mars illustration (stock image; elements furnished by NASA).Credit: © grejak / stock.adobe.com

A research team including research scientist Atsuko Kobayashi from the Earth-Life Science Institute (ELSI) at Tokyo Institute of Technology, Japan and research scientist Mizuho Koike from the Institute of Space and Astronautical Science at Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, have found nitrogen-bearing organic material in carbonate minerals in a Martian meteorite. This organic material has most likely been preserved for 4 billion years since Mars’ Noachian age. Because carbonate minerals typically precipitate from the groundwater, this finding suggests a wet and organic-rich early Mars, which could have been habitable and favourable for life to start.

For decades, scientists have tried to understand whether there are organic compounds on Mars and if so, what their source is. Although recent studies from rover-based Mars exploration have detected strong evidence for Martian organics, little is known about where they came from, how old they are, how widely distributed and preserved they may be, or what their possible relationship with biochemical activity could be.

Martian meteorites are pieces of Mars’ surface that were themselves blasted into space by meteor impacts, and which ultimately landed on Earth. They provide important insights into Martian history. One meteorite in particular, named Allan Hills (ALH) 84001, named for the region in Antarctica it was found in 1984, is especially important. It contains orange-coloured carbonate minerals, which precipitated from salty liquid water on Mars’ near-surface 4 billion years ago. As these minerals record Mars’ early aqueous environment, many studies have tried to understand their unique chemistry and whether they might provide evidence for ancient life on Mars. However, previous analyses suffered from contamination with terrestrial material from Antarctic snow and ice, making it difficult to say how much of the organic material in the meteorite were truly Martian. In addition to carbon, nitrogen (N) is an essential element for terrestrial life and a useful tracer for planetary system evolution. However, due to previous technical limitations, nitrogen had not yet been measured in ALH84001.

This new research conducted by the joint ELSI-JAXA team used state-of-the-art analytical techniques to study the nitrogen content of the ALH84001 carbonates, and the team is now confident they have found the first solid evidence for 4-billion-year-old Martian organics containing nitrogen.

Terrestrial contamination is a serious problem for studies of extraterrestrial materials. To avoid such contamination, the team developed new techniques to prepare the samples with. For example, they used silver tape in an ELSI clean lab to pluck off the tiny carbonate grains, which are about the width of a human hair, from the host meteorite. The team then prepared these grains further to remove possible surface contaminants with a scanning electron microscope-focused ion beam instrument at JAXA. They also used a technique called Nitrogen K-edge micro X-ray Absorption Near Edge Structure (μ-XANES) spectroscopy, which allowed them to detect nitrogen present in very small amounts and to determine what chemical form that nitrogen was in. Control samples from nearby igneous minerals gave no detectable nitrogen, showing the organic molecules were only in the carbonate.

After the careful contamination checks, the team determined the detected organics were most likely truly Martian. They also determined the contribution of nitrogen in the form of nitrate, one of the strong oxidants on current Mars, was insignificant, suggesting the early Mars probably did not contain strong oxidants, and as scientists have suspected, it was less-oxidizing than it is today.

Mars’ present surface is too harsh for most organics to survive. However, scientists predict that organic compounds could be preserved in near-surface settings for billions of years. This seems to be the case for the nitrogen-bearing organic compounds the team found in the ALH84001 carbonates, which appear to have been trapped in the minerals 4 billion years ago and preserved for long periods before finally being delivered to Earth.

The team agrees that there are many important open questions, such as where did these nitrogen-containing organics come from? Kobayashi explains: “There are two main possibilities: either they came from outside Mars, or they formed on Mars. Early in the Solar System’s history, Mars was likely showered with significant amounts of organic matter, for example from carbon-rich meteorites, comets and dust particles. Some of them may have dissolved in the brine and been trapped inside the carbonates.” The research team lead, Koike adds that alternatively, chemical reactions on early Mars may have produced the N-bearing organics on-site. Either way, they say, these findings show there was organic nitrogen on Mars before it became the red planet we know today; early Mars may have been more ‘Earth-like’, less oxidising, wetter, and organic-rich. Perhaps it was ‘blue.’

NASA sets date to research asteroid Bennu after coronavirus pandemic caused delays

After getting delayed by the coronavirus pandemic, NASA has finally picked out a date to research samples of the asteroid Bennu.

The space agency said that it now expects the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft to begin its first attempt at sampling the asteroid on Oct. 20. The initial date was Aug. 25, but that was pushed back because of the pandemic. The second rehearsal, which was initially scheduled for June, will now take place on Aug. 11.

“The OSIRIS-REx mission has been demonstrating the very essence of exploration by persevering through unexpected challenges,” Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science, said in a statement earlier this week. “That spirit has led them to the cusp of the prize we all are waiting for — securing a sample of an asteroid to bring home to Earth, and I’m very excited to follow them through the home stretch.”

This is a mosaic image of asteroid Bennu, from NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft.

This is a mosaic image of asteroid Bennu, from NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft. (Credits: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona)

Since arriving at the asteroid in December 2018, OSIRIS-REx (which stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification and Security Regolith Explorer) has been observing the space rock and looking for spots to land.

It has snapped some incredible images of the asteroid and made observations about it that have surprised researchers, including the fact it was shooting out rocks.

“This mission’s incredible performance so far is a testament to the extraordinary skill and dedication of the OSIRIS-REx team,” said Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator at the University of Arizona, Tucson. “I am confident that even in the face of the current challenge, this team will be successful in collecting our sample from Bennu.”https://f59a745ca68c1d320bcdd7339ccd4b4c.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

This illustration shows NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft descending towards asteroid Bennu to collect a sample of the asteroid’s surface. Credits: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona

This illustration shows NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft descending towards asteroid Bennu to collect a sample of the asteroid’s surface. Credits: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona

In December 2019, prior to the pandemic, NASA picked the spot where it would land on the asteroid.

OSIRIS-REx is expected to begin a two-year journey back to Earth in the middle of 2021 and return with samples in September 2023.

Earth’s magnetic field weakens, impacting satellites and spacecraft: report

Earth’s magnetic field is gradually weakening in an area that stretches from Africa to South America, and scientists who are trying to understand why.

This weakening is also causing technical disturbances in some satellites orbiting Earth.

Scientists are using data from the European Space Agency’s Swarm constellation to improve our understanding of this area, which is known as the ‘South Atlantic Anomaly.’

Among other things, Earth’s magnetic field protects humanity from space radiation and super-charged particles emanating from the sun. According to the ESA, the magnetic field is generated by an extremely hot swirling liquid iron that comprises the planet’s outer core — which is about 3,000 kilometers under our feet.

The magnetic field is thought to be generated by an ocean of superheated, swirling liquid iron that makes up Earth’s the outer core.

The magnetic field is thought to be generated by an ocean of superheated, swirling liquid iron that makes up Earth’s the outer core. (ESA/ATG Medialab)

“The new, eastern minimum of the South Atlantic Anomaly has appeared over the last decade and in recent years is developing vigorously,” said Jürgen Matzka, from the German Research Centre for Geosciences, in a statement. “We are very lucky to have the Swarm satellites in orbit to investigate the development of the South Atlantic Anomaly. The challenge now is to understand the processes in Earth’s core driving these changes.”

Researchers have speculated that the current weakening of the magnetic field is a sign that Earth is heading for an eminent pole reversal—in which the north and south magnetic poles switch places.

Although that may sound dramatic, that type of event has happened throughout the planet’s long history, at a rate of about once every 250,000 years, according to the ESA.

10 Things To Know about the NASA / SpaceX Crew Demo 2 Mission

Crew Dragon Demo-2 (or DM-2) will be the first crewed test flight of the Crew Dragon spacecraft, scheduled for launch to the International Space Station on 27 May 2020 at 20:33:33 UTC (4:33:33 PM EDT). Demo-2 will be the first crewed orbital spaceflight launched from the United States since the final Space Shuttle mission, STS-135, in 2011, on which Douglas G. Hurley was the pilot. Hurley will be spacecraft commander on Crew Dragon Demo-2, joined by Robert L. Behnken as joint operations commander. Crew Dragon Demo-2 will also be the first two-person orbital spaceflight launched from the United States since STS-4 in 1982.

Crew

Douglas Hurley and Robert Behnken were announced as the primary crew on 3 August 2018. Both astronauts are veterans of the Space Shuttle program, and the Demo-2 flight will be the third trip to space for each of them.

PositionAstronaut
Spacecraft commander Douglas G. HurleyNASA
Third spaceflight
Joint operations commander Robert L. BehnkenNASA
Third spaceflight
PositionAstronaut
Spacecraft commander Michael S. HopkinsNASA
Second spaceflight
Joint operations commander Victor J. GloverNASA
First spaceflight

Timeline

The Crew Dragon Demo-2 mission was originally planned for launch in July 2019 as part of the Commercial Crew Development contract with a crew of two on a 14-day test mission to the International Space Station (ISS).

On 20 April 2019, the Crew Dragon capsule from the Crew Dragon Demo-1 mission was destroyed during static fire testing of its SuperDraco thrusters, ahead of its planned use for the in-flight abort test. SpaceX traced the cause of the anomaly to a component that leaked oxidizer into the high pressure helium lines, which then solidified and damaged a valve.

On 19 January 2020, a Crew Dragon capsule successfully completed an in-flight abort test.

On 9 April 2020, the NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said he is “fairly confident” that astronauts can fly to the International Space Station aboard SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spaceship at the end of May or in early June 2020, pending final parachute tests, data reviews and a training schedule that can escape major impacts from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

On 17 April 2020, NASA and SpaceX announced the launch date as 27 May 2020. The arrival of the Crew Dragon will raise the station’s crew size from three to five. Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley will perform duties and conduct experiments as crew onboard the International Space Station for several months, until the next Crew Dragon launch. Hurley and Behnken are expected to live and work aboard the space station for two or three months, and then return to Earth for a splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean east of Cape Canaveral.

On 23 April 2020, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine urged space enthusiasts not to travel to the Kennedy Space Center to view the launch, and asked people to instead watch the launch on television or online. Bridenstine explained that maintenance crew are working in cohesive shifts, to mitigate workers’ exposure to coronavirus.

Crew Dragon Demo-2 will mark the first crewed US spaceflight mission not to include the presence of the public at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. However, selected members of the press will be allowed to witness the launch.

On 1 May 2020, SpaceX successfully demonstrated the Mark 3 parachute system, a critical milestone for the mission approval.

In an effort to engage the public, notably the Class of 2020 who weren’t able to attend their graduations due to the COVID-19 pandemic, both NASA and SpaceX invited students and graduates to submit their photos to be flown to the ISS.

Mission

The Crew Dragon Demo-2 mission is intended to finish the validation process for human-rated spaceflight operations on SpaceX hardware. If successful, the demonstration flight will allow for human rated certification of the Crew Dragon spacecraft, and the Falcon 9 rocket, the crew transportation system, launch pad, and SpaceX’s capabilities. The mission includes astronaut testing of Crew Dragon capabilities on orbit.

The Falcon 9 rocket will launch from Kennedy Space Center launch pad LC-39A on May 27, and dock to pressurized mating adapter PMA-2 on the Harmony module of the ISS on May 28. Hurley and Behnken will join the Expedition 63 mission for several months.

Docking and undocking operation will be autonomously controlled by the Crew Dragon spacecraft, but monitored by the flight crew in case manual intervention becomes necessary.

The first stage booster will attempt to land autonomously on the floating barge Of Course I Still Love You, which will be prepositioned in the Atlantic Ocean.

Upon returning to Earth, the Crew Dragon capsule will parachute into the Atlantic Ocean, where it will be recovered by the Go Navigator recovery vessel.

Insignia and livery

NASA “worm” logotype used from 1975 until 1992.

The mission insignia was designed by Andrew Nyberg, an artist from Brainerd, Minnesota who is a nephew of spacecraft commander Hurley. The insignia features the logos of the Commercial Crew Program, Falcon 9, Crew Dragon, and the red chevron of NASA’s “meatball” insignia. Also depicted are the American flag and a symbol of the ISS. The words NASASpaceXHurley and Behnken are printed around the border, along with the words “First crewed flight” and DM-2. The insignia outline is in the shape of the Crew Dragon capsule.

The Falcon 9 booster will display NASA’s iconic worm logo. This is the first time the logo has been officially used since it was retired in 1992.

ASTRONOMERS MIGHT HAVE FOUND APOLLO 10’S “SNOOPY” LUNAR MODULE

An old friend might be found again…


A small near-Earth object might be a historic piece of space hardware: the Apollo 10 lunar module, dubbed “Snoopy.”

Snoopy
The Snoopy lunar module, closing in on the Charlie Brown command module.
NASA / Project Apollo Archive

On May 23, 1969, astronauts aboard Apollo 10 jettisoned the Snoopy lunar module and headed for Earth. That’s the last time humans set eyes on Snoopy — now, astronomers may have rediscovered this fascinating artifact of space history.

Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society astronomer Nick Howes shared the possible discovery recently at Cheltenham Science Festival. Howes, who began the search for Snoopy in 2011, said in a recent Sky News report that he is 98% certain that the object in question is, in fact, Snoopy. However, it will require follow-up observations to conclusively prove (or disprove) this conclusion.

Faulkes
The 2-meter Faulkes Telescope South at Siding Spring Observatory.
Nick Howes / LCOGT

Astronomers started the hunt in 2011 using the Faulkes North Telescope in Hawai’i, the Faulkes South Telescope in Australia, and data from the Catalina Sky Survey, located outside of Tucson, Arizona. The break came last year during observations taken at the Mt Lemmon and other survey observatories, with the discovery of the small Earth-crossing asteroid 2018 AV2. Orbiting the Sun once every 382 days, 2018 AV2 spends most of its time trailing Earth in its orbit around the Sun. Two factors grabbed astronomers’ attention: its low orbital inclination (less than 1°) relative to the ecliptic, and its low speed,  less than a kilometer per second relative to Earth’s orbital velocity.

Other factors also led to the conclusion that 2018 AV2 is likely to be Snoopy. It’s already listed as an artificial object on the International Astronomical Union Minor Planet Center’s Distant Artificial Objects page. According to Howes, the object’s brightness also corresponded to “a size in the right ballpark.” In addition, Howes says he had received mail “from a trusted astronomer at the Arizona Sky Survey indicating that JPL teams had also worked on it, and it looked like it was in the right place in 1969.”  

Apollo 10: Prelude to History

Often forgotten between the dramatic Apollo 8 mission around the Moon and the first crewed Moon landing of Apollo 11, Apollo 10 was still a vital mission. After Apollo 9 tested the lunar module in space for the first time in Earth orbit, Apollo 10 acted as a dress rehearsal for the Moon landing. The astronauts flew the lunar module down to within 14.5 kilometers (9 miles) of the lunar surface. The module was named “Snoopy” after the Peanuts comics strip character, while the corresponding command module was named Charlie Brown.

Snoopy
The view from Snoopy, looking out over the lunar landscape.
NASA / Project Apollo Archive

Snoopy’s trajectory was unique among the Apollo missions. Unlike in the five missions that landed on the Moon, the Snoopy lunar module was ultimately jettisoned into an orbit around the Sun.

Apollo 10
Apollo 10 astronauts (Commander Tom Stafford is patting Snoopy’s nose) preparing for departure.
NASA

False Alarms

There have been several false finds over the years in the hunt to recover Snoopy. Around 2015 astronomers were convinced that the small near-Earth asteroid WT1190F was in fact the lost lunar module. WT1190F struck Earth in the Indian Ocean near Sri Lanka on November 13, 2015, and is now thought to have been the trans-lunar injection stage from the 1998 Lunar Prospector mission.

In 2006 one of the first temporary mini-moons of the Earth was discovered, 2006 RH120. As the ranks of near-Earth asteroids has grown in the years since, astronomers have realized that small asteroids are occasionally captured by the Earth-Moon system, following complex orbits around the pair before being ejected back out into solar orbit. These objects may be confused with discarded Space Age hardware, which often follows the same path. For example, asteroid J002E3 was spotted back in 2002, but astronomers soon realized that its spectra matched paint used by NASA in the late 1960s. The object turned out to be a third-stage booster from Apollo 12. Another asteroid, 2013 QW1, turned out to be an upper stage booster from China’s Chang’e 2 Moon mission.

2018 AV2
The orbit of 2018 AV2.
NASA / JPL

Unfortunately, 2018 AV2 is currently 0.374 astronomical units (34.7 million miles) from Earth, making it a faint +29.5 magnitude object. Its next close approach won’t come until July 10, 2037, when it will pass 4 million miles from Earth, equivalent to 16 times the Earth-Moon distance.

However, it would theoretically be possible to observe the object now: Howes notes that a Falcon Heavy or Delta IV rocket could traverse the current distance in a year. Another possibility would be to send a small CubeSat along with a future SLS launch, with the purpose of flying by the object to make observations.

Spectral analysis, a radar profile, and other observations would go a long ways towards confirming or rejecting the object’s identity. After all, hollow metallic artificial objects react differently to solar heating and radiative pressure (known as the Yarkovsky effect) than solid space rocks.

Certainly, Snoopy is one of the more curious objects man-made objects in solar orbit. Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster, which SpaceX launched into solar orbit via its inaugural Falcon Heavy flight in 2018, probably wins for “most curious.” Howes notes that Musk is a big fan of the Apollo program, so maybe a salvage isn’t totally out of the question. The module has suffered from a half-century of continuous ultraviolet radiation exposure, but it should be relatively intact.

“There’s clearly a lot from humankind’s first foray in to deep space still out there,” says Howes, “and whilst the scientific argument to retrieve them is marginal, I think with Snoopy you have a unique, one-off remnant of our greatest technical achievement . . . One I’d love to show close-up images of to [Apollo 10 astronauts] Tom Stafford and the family of Gene Cernan one day.”

Charlie Brown
Looking out the lunar module window at Charlie Brown.
NASA / Apollo Image Archives.

For now though, it’s an interesting idea to consider as we approach the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, that a part of the precursor mission that made it all possible is still out there, silently orbiting the Sun.

Evidence suggests sun entering ‘solar minimum’ stage: reports

It’s been 100 days since the last recorded sunspot, which one expert says is evidence that we are entering a phase called solar minimum, reports said.

There have been whispers on social media about an impending Ice Age (Just What We Need!), but NASA scientists have said we should not be overly worried, according to PennLive.com.

“So far this year, the Sun has been blank 76 percent of the time, a rate surpassed only once before in the Space Age,” SpaceWeather.com reported, according to Forbes. “Last year, 2019, the Sun was blank 77 percent of the time. Two consecutive years of record-setting spotlessness adds up to a very deep solar minimum, indeed.”

NASA says that about every 11 years, “sunspots fade away, bringing a period of relative calm.”

“This is called a solar minimum,” Dean Pesnell of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, said on NASA.gov. “And it’s a regular part of the sunspot cycle.”

The NASA report said in 2014, there was a high rate of sunspots and solar flares. The article said the sun doesn’t “become dull” during these times, rather solar activity simply changes form.

Dr. Tony Phillips, an astronomer, told the U.K. Sun newspaper that the “solar minimum” is underway and it is a deep one.Video

“Sunspot counts suggest it is one of the deepest of the past century,” he told the paper. “The sun’s magnetic field has become weak, allowing extra cosmic rays into the solar system.”

He continued, “Excess cosmic rays pose a health hazard to astronauts and polar air travelers, affect the electro-chemistry of Earth’s upper atmosphere and may help trigger lightning.”

Some theorize that a lingering “solar minimum” could result in crop loss, famine and brutal cold. The Pennlive report said scientists indicate that even if we do enter a phase called “grand solar minimum” it would essentially only offset “a few years of warming caused by human activities.”

“Even if a Grand Solar Minimum were to last a century, global temperatures would continue to warm,” NASA Global Climate Change reported, according to Pennlive. “Because more factors than just variations in the Sun’s output change global temperatures on Earth, the most dominant of those today being the warming coming from human-induced greenhouse gas emissions.”

Space Force launches robotic X-37B space plane on new mystery mission

It’s the sixth flight of the clandestine space plane.

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — The U.S. Space Force’s mysterious X-37B space plane successfully launched on its sixth mystery mission from Florida today (May 17). 

Riding atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, the clandestine craft blasted off from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station here at 9:14 a.m. EDT (1314 GMT). 

The on-time liftoff occurred just 24-hours after poor weather conditions at the Florida launch site forced ULA to scrub its original launch attempt, Saturday morning. 

While the X-37B’s exact purpose is a secret, Space Force officials have revealed that the craft is packing numerous experiments on this trip to test out different systems in space. Some of those experiments include a small satellite called FalconSat-8, two NASA payloads designed to study the effects of radiation on different materials as well as seeds to grow food, and a power-beaming experiment using microwave energy.

The U.S.Space Force and Air Force Rapid Response Capabilities Office have two of the miniature shuttle-like X-37B space planes (also known as Orbital Test Vehicles, or OTVs) that it uses for classified military missions in low-Earth orbit. They have flown five missions since 2010, four of them on ULA Atlas V rockets and the fifth on a SpaceX Falcon 9.

X-37B returns to space

US Space Force to launch X-37B space plane on OTV-6 mission

Today’s launch occurred just six months after the most recent mission, OTV-5, landed at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Oct. 2, 2019, completing a record-setting 780 days (just over two years) sojourn in space. 

Boeing built the X-37B space planes for the U.S. Air Force. The two vehicles have spent more than seven years in orbit across their missions. (Command of the mission and other space related activities transferred to the Space Force after its creation in 2019.)

Space Force officials have said that the experiments and technology the X-37B carries “enables the U.S. to more efficiently and effectively develop space capabilities necessary to maintain superiority in the space domain.”

A U.S. Air Force X-37B space plane, encapsulated ahead of a planned May 16, 2020, launch. That liftoff will kick off the sixth mission for the X-37B program.
The X-37B space plane ahead is seen tucked inside the payload fairing of its Atlas V rocket ahead of a May 17, 2020 launch. (Image credit: U.S. Air Force)

To that end, this mission will have even more experiments than previous flights. That’s thanks to the addition of a new service module — a cylindrical extension attached to the bottom of the craft — a first for this mission. The addition of a service module will help to increase the vehicle’s capabilities, enabling it to conduct more experiments and test new technologies throughout the mission, Space Force officials have said.

ULA launched the X-37B on an Atlas V rocket in the 501 configuration, which means the vehicle has a 17-foot (5 meters) wide payload fairing, a single engine Centaur upper stage, and no solid rocket boosters. 

It marked the 84th flight of the Atlas V, which was recently dethroned as the most flown American launcher. That superlative was snagged by SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, which became the world’s most flown booster in April and is also set to launch its next flight (a Starlink satellite fleet launch) early Tuesday, May 19.

Honoring coronavirus responders

The U.S. Space Force and United Launch Alliance dedicated the X-37B space plane's OTV_6 launch to the first-responders and victims of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The U.S. Space Force and United Launch Alliance dedicated the X-37B space plane’s OTV_6 launch to the first-responders and victims of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Image credit: United Launch Alliance)

Saturday’s launch, dubbed USSF-7, is dedicated to the first responders and medical personnel across the country who work daily to combat the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The mission is part of the military’s “America Strong” campaign, which also includes a series of flyovers by the Air Force Thunderbirds and Navy Blue Angels. ULA also stamped a tribute on the side of the Atlas V rocket that says: “In memory of COVID-19 victims and tribute to all first responders and front-line workers.”

COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, has infected approximately 4.5 million people globally, with 1.45 million of them in the United States. At least 87,991 have died from the disease in the U.S. as of May 16, according to Livescience.

“Thank you for your courage in caring for the sick and keeping us safe,” ULA CEO Tory Bruno tweeted, addressing the many first responders working selflessly to support the nation in this difficult time. 

“There are still heroes in this world,” he added. Click here for more Space.com videos…X-37B space plane to launch atop Atlas V rocket – Mission profile.

Officials at the 45th Space Wing said they have been doing their part to make sure the launch went smoothly while simultaneously protecting its workforce. 

“We have an obligation to keep space capabilities up and running for our nation,” Gen. John Raymond, chief of space operations in the U.S. Space Force and commander of the U.S. Space Command said during a prelaunch talk on May 6. 

To that end, the 45th Space Wing has been rotating crews between launches, reduced on-site staff as much as possible and practiced social distancing. Both NASA’s Kennedy Space Center and the nearby Cape Canaveral Air Force Station have kept public viewing areas closed for this launch as well as a SpaceX launch scheduled for Sunday morning.

This mission marks the second national security launch under the Space Force since its establishment in December. (The first was the AEHF-6 military communications satellite launch in March.)

Another view of the encapsulated X-37B, a robotic vehicle that's about 29 feet (8.8 meters) long.
The X-37B space plane is about 29 feet (8.8 meters) long and resembles a miniature space shuttle. For OTV_6, the robotic spacecraft carried a new service module that supports more experiments and longer stays in space. (Image credit: U.S. Air Force)

Space Force officials have chosen to delay some of the planned missions, however, due to concerns about the pandemic. For instance, the next GPS navigation satellite mission GPS 3 SV03 has been delayed several months to no earlier than June 30 to ensure that ground control crews were able to stay safe. 

It’s a busy time on the space coast, and the GPS constellation is healthy which reduces the pressure to get newer, upgraded satellites into orbit, officials said.

Today’s mission was originally part of a launch double header from Florida’s Space Coast. 

Following the Atlas V launch, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket was supposed to take to the skies less than 24 hours later, carrying another batch of SpaceX’s Starlink satellites into orbit. 

That launch was originally on the books for today, but weather delays at the launch site and the emergence of a tropical depression out in the Atlantic prompted SpaceX to move the launch date.

When the Falcon 9 does launch, it will bring the total number of Starlink internet satellites up to nearly 500. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has said that between 400-800 satellites are needed to begin rolling out the first, albeit limited, iteration of its global internet service. 

If all goes as planned, the Falcon 9 will lift off from Space Launch Complex 40 at 3:10 a.m. EDT (0710 GMT) on Tuesday.  

Captain Pike of ‘Star Trek’ gets spin-off series with Spock and Number One

CBS All Access has greenlit a new "Star Trek" spinoff series with Captain Pike (Anson Mount, center), Spock (Ethan Peck) and Number One (Rebecca Romijn).

It’s official! After months of speculation — and wishful thinking —  CBS All Access has confirmed that Captain Pike is coming back, with Spock and Number One along for the ride, in the new spin-off series “Star Trek: Strange New Worlds.”

Pike (portrayed by Anson Mount), Spock (Ethan Peck) and Number One (Rebecca Romijn) most recently appeared in season two of “Star Trek: Discovery.” They will reprise those roles in “Strange New Worlds” — the first of two new, live action “Star Trek” spin-offs from CBS All Access.ADVERTISING

The Hollywood Reporter announced the news Friday (May 15), although evidence had been slowly, but steadily, accumulating that this was a very real possibility. 

The new show will follow the crew of the USS Enterprise before Captain Kirk took command of the famed starship. 

Related: Star Trek’s Anson Mount dishes on possible return of Capt. Pike
More: 
‘Star Trek: Discovery’ Season 3: What we know and what we hope forStar Trek on CBS All Access@startrekcbs

Hit it.
Star Trek: Strange New Worlds starring @AnsonMount, @RebeccaRomijn, and @ethangpeck, coming to @CBSAllAccess.#StarTrekSNW #StrangeNewWorlds

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In “Star Trek” lore, Pike took command of the USS Enterprise in 2250 and famed Capt. James T. Kirk replaced him 15 years later. During his tenure in Starfleet, Pike was considered to be one of the most highly decorated starship captains in Starfleet history. The events of season two  of “Discovery” take place around 2257, so we have an approximate eight-year window during which this new season could be set. 

Moreover, the title of the new show suggests that this might be an episodic-based series, instead of a story arc, set during one of Pike’s five-year “tours” that many starships undertook at this point in Starfleet history, to “explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.”

Anson Mount as Captain Pike was without a doubt the highlight of "Star Trek: Discovery" season two.
Anson Mount as Captain Pike was without a doubt the highlight of “Star Trek: Discovery” season two. (Image credit: CBS All Access)

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Mount has even said in the past that he’d very much like to reprise the role.

“Yes, of course I’d love to continue to occupy that chair. I’m not going to grouse around and be aloof about it,” Mount told Space.com in March. “I’d love to.”

The cast took to Twitter in a message telling fans that they’d listened to the repeated requests to bring this cast back to the small screen.

Alex Kurtzman will oversee the new show, so no surprise there and Heather Kadin, Henry Alonso Myers and Akiva Goldsman will act as co-execuctive producers as well.Click here for more Space.com videos…CLOSEhttps://imasdk.googleapis.com/js/core/bridge3.386.2_en.html#goog_548614406Volume 0% PLAY SOUND

“When we said we heard the fans’ outpouring of love for Pike, Number One and Spock when they boarded ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ last season, we meant it,” Kurtzman said in a statement. “These iconic characters have a deep history in ‘Star Trek’ canon, yet so much of their stories has yet to be told. With Akiva and Henry at the helm, the Enterprise, its crew and its fans are in for an extraordinary journey to new frontiers in the Star Trek universe.”

Season three of “Discovery” will air some time later this year, while “Picard” was renewed for a second season earlier this year. A launch date for “Lower Decks” has not been announced yet. 

An episode count and premiere date for “Strange New Worlds” have yet to be determined.

Chinese space junk narrowly missed hitting New York City, report says

Space junk from a new Chinese rocket narrowly missed dropping down on New York City Monday night, according to a report, largely burning up in the atmosphere before some of the debris survived long enough to slam into West Africa.

China test-launched its new single-stage Long March 5B rocket last Tuesday, propelling its cargo into orbit before the 20-ton core eventually fell back into the atmosphere, according to Ars Technica, a technology publication.

In this photo released by Xinhua News Agency, China's new large carrier rocket Long March-5B blasts off from the Wenchang Space Launch Center in southern China's Hainan Province, May 5, 2020. The Long March-5B made its maiden flight on Tuesday, sending the trial version of China's new-generation manned spaceship and a cargo return capsule for test into space. (Guo Cheng/Xinhua via AP)

In this photo released by Xinhua News Agency, China’s new large carrier rocket Long March-5B blasts off from the Wenchang Space Launch Center in southern China’s Hainan Province, May 5, 2020. The Long March-5B made its maiden flight on Tuesday, sending the trial version of China’s new-generation manned spaceship and a cargo return capsule for test into space. (Guo Cheng/Xinhua via AP)

It’s unlikely that anywhere near that large of an object is what returned to Earth — but fragments weighing up to several hundred pounds could have survived re-entering the atmosphere, astronomer Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics told the outlet.

The U.S. Space Force’s 18th Space Control Squadron, which detects, tracks and identifies all manmade objects in orbit, confirmed the re-entry over the Atlantic Ocean at 8:33 p.m. PT Monday.18 SPCS@18SPCS

#18SPCS has confirmed the reentry of the CZ-5B R/B (#45601, 2020-027C) at 08:33 PDT on 11 May, over the Atlantic Ocean. The #CZ5B launched China’s test crew capsule on 5 May 2020. #spaceflightsafety305Twitter Ads info and privacy171 people are talking about this

The doomed core passed right over New York City, Ars reported — and if re-entry had been just a few minutes earlier, debris could reportedly have showered the Big Apple.

Instead, at least part of it fell on a town in Cote d’Ivoire, Quartz reported.

McDowell on Twitter said he could “conclude” that the objects that fell on Cote d’Ivoire “are very likely parts of the Chinese rocket stage.”Jonathan McDowell@planet4589Replying to @planet4589 @zolgafolDaniel

I conclude that the objects seen in Mahounou, and at least some of the other objects from the Cote d’Ivore region whose photos are being circulated in African media, are very likely parts of the Chinese rocket stage.35Twitter Ads info and privacySee Jonathan McDowell’s other Tweets

His Twitter feed shows a number of additional possible crash sites in the path of the returning rocket core, including at least one piece that damaged a house. No injuries were reported.

“Impressive how far downrange debris can get at 28000 km/hr!” he wrote.

A typical, two-stage launch will drop its first rocket into the ocean before reaching orbit, according to NASA. That’s safer than sending an enormous object into orbit that will eventually come back for an uncontrolled re-entry.

It’s also not the first time China has reportedly let its space junk fall haphazardly back to Earth — including the time it apparently let a rocket booster drop onto one of its own villages, spewing toxic fuel and destroying at least one building, Ars reported in November 2019.

China’s space launch safety practices were so concerning to Greg Autry, a former member of the Trump administration’s NASA Landing Team, that he wrote an op-ed in Space News magazine last May urging the president and Congress to address the issue.

“On April 20, China launched the 100th mission of its highly successful Long March-3 rocket series,” he wrote at the time. “[While it] successfully lofted a navigation satellite, designated as Beidou-3I1Q, toward its geosynchronous orbit, it also littered the Chinese landscape with a collection of dangerous rocket boosters leaking toxic fuel.”https://75ba9ffefd33ed8a2b106a98f9e4edff.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

He also described a series of other launch events that resulted in “plummeting space junk” and other safety hazards.

“The safety standards used in Chinese space launch would leave American regulators apoplectic,” Autry added.

In the U.S., the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office is scheduled to launch the sixth test flight of its new X-37B from Cape Canaveral in Florida on Saturday, the Space Force announced last week.

NASA asteroid defense test mission may trigger artificial meteor shower, study finds

A planned NASA mission to test its capability to defend Earth from an incoming asteroid could cause the planet’s first-ever artificial meteor shower, a study found earlier this year.

The Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spacecraft’s mission will be to slam into the smaller of the two Didymos asteroids as they pass within about 6.8 million miles of the Earth in the fall of 2022.

NASA said the $69 million self-destruct mission is the first aimed at testing its ability to deflect an asteroid by ramming a spacecraft into it at high speeds.

The resulting impact would blast material from the surface of the asteroid and — at least a small amount of it — close enough to Earth that will eventually be drawn toward the ground, according to a March 23 study in The Planetary Science Journal.

The Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spacecraft’s mission will be to slam into the smaller of the two Didymos asteroids as they pass within about 6.8 million miles of the Earth in the fall of 2022. (NASA)

The Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spacecraft’s mission will be to slam into the smaller of the two Didymos asteroids as they pass within about 6.8 million miles of the Earth in the fall of 2022. (NASA)

Only a tiny bit of the total ejected material, known as ejecta, would actually make it through the atmosphere over a period of thousands of years, the study found. Much of it will remain within the gravitational pull of Didymos.

Some of that material could present a hazard to future space vehicles, according to the study’s author, Dr. Paul Wiegert, an astronomy and physics professor at the University of Western Ontario.

But a little bit of ejecta, the bits moving fastest after DART’s impact, could reach Earth’s sky relatively quickly and give scientists an opportunity to see the asteroid’s makeup. As the particles burn up entering the atmosphere, scientists could use the color of the light they generate to determine what materials were present.

The study focused on particles of about 1 centimeter in diameter or smaller, although there is a possibility that the particles could be larger. There are also expected to be many more extremely small particles that would be “almost undetectable.”

The ejecta would have to be substantially dense and larger to threaten the Earth’s surface, but particles from the DART mission or future attempts at knocking an asteroid away from a collision course with Earth could spend centuries traveling the solar system — potentially becoming hazards to space operations at some point in the future, according to Wiegert.

He likened it to how space junk buildup in low Earth orbit is becoming a growing problem because early missions didn’t account for how they would dispose of defunct satellites.

The Mystery of a Strange X-Galaxy Powered by a Monster Black Hole Is Finally Solved

A team of US and South African researchers has published highly detailed images of the largest X-shaped “radio galaxy” ever discovered – PKS 2014-55.

Notably, they’ve helped resolve ongoing confusion about the galaxy’s unusual shape.

The spectacular new images were taken using the 64-antenna MeerKAT telescope in South Africa, by an international research team led by Bill Cotton of the US National Radio Astronomy Observatory.

file 20200512 175224 f1dbkn(Courtesy of SARAO and Bill Cotton et al/Author provided (no reuse))

Above: The MeerKAT image of the giant X-shaped radio galaxy PKS 2014-55. 

Zooming in on a cosmic giant

Our research team also took detailed images of galaxy PKS 2014-55 last year, as part of the Evolutionary Map of the Universe project led by astrophysicist Ray Norris. We used CSIRO’s Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) telescope in Western Australia, which just completed its first set of pilot astronomical surveys.

Thanks to its innovative “radio cameras”, ASKAP can rapidly map very large areas of the sky to catalogue millions of objects emitting radio waves, from nearby supernova remnants to distant galaxies.

file 20200512 175219 s8xxo0(CSIRO and the EMU team/Author provided (no reuse))

Above: Our ASKAP image of the giant X-shaped radio galaxy PKS 2014-55. 

The prominent X-shape of PKS 2014-55 is made up of two pairs of giant lobes consisting of hot jets of electrons. These jets spurt outwards from a supermassive black hole at the galaxy’s heart.

The lobes emit electromagnetic radiation in the form of radio waves, which can only be detected by radio telescopes like ASKAP. Humans can’t see radio waves. But if we could, from Earth PKS 2014-55 would look about the same size as the Moon.

What makes a radio galaxy?

Typically, radio galaxies have only one pair of lobes. One is a “jet” and the other a “counter-jet”.

These jets expand into the surrounding space at nearly the speed of light. They initially move in a straight line, but twist and bend into many marvellous shapes as they encounter their surroundings.

Centaurus A, seen below, is an example of a giant elliptical galaxy with two prominent radio lobes.

file 20200512 66657 3w0228(NASA Goddard Space Flight Centre/Flickr, CC BY 4.0)

Above: This image of the Centaurus A galaxy incorporates both optical and radio data. Every galaxy has a black hole at its centre, including the Milky Way.

Galaxy PKS 2014-55’s giant X-shape, with two pairs of lobes emerging at very different angles, is highly unusual.

What makes the lobes?

To understand why having two pairs of lobes is unusual, we first need to understand what creates the lobes.

Nearly all big galaxies have a supermassive black hole at their centre.

In an active galaxy, powerful jets of charged particles can emerge from the area around the supermassive black hole. Astronomers believe these are emitted from near the poles of the black hole, which is why there are two of them, and they usually point in opposite directions.

When the black hole’s activity stops, the jets stop growing and the material in them flows back towards the centre. Thus, what we see as one lobe of a radio galaxy is made up of both a jet spurting out, and the backflow material.

A mystery solved

In the past, there were two major theories for why PKS 2014-55 has two pairs of lobes.

The first suggested there were actually two massive active black holes at the galaxy’s centre, each emitting two powerful jets.

The second theory suggested the supermassive black hole had undergone a spin flip. This is when a rotating black hole’s spin axis has a sudden change in orientation, resulting in a second pair of jets at a different angle from the first pair.

But the recent observations from the South African MeerKAT telescope strongly suggest a third possibility: that the two larger lobes are the fast-moving particles zooming out from the black hole, while the two smaller lobes are the backflow looping around to fall back in.

The MeerKAT team achieved high-resolution images ten times more sensitive than our ASKAP pilot observations conducted here in Australia last year.

A cosmic wonder

Using CSIRO’s ASKAP telescope, our team observed the “purple butterfly” of PKS 2014-55 to be an enormous cosmic structure. It spans at least five million light years – about 20 times the size of our own Milky Way galaxy.

PKS 2014-55 is located on the outskirts of a massive cluster of galaxies known as Abell 3667. It was discovered more than 60 years ago using the Mills Cross Telescope at CSIRO’s old Fleurs field station in New South Wales.

The galaxy’s first detailed radio picture was taken by Ron Ekers in 1969.