Avi Loeb: What's causing mysterious radio bursts in space? Don’t rule out any options yet, including aliens

Preparing to set foot in an environment lacking gravity and essential tools for survival is not an easy feat and can bring many serious side effects as a result. Learn about some of the major changes astronauts experience when putting their bodies on the line to traverse the universe beyond our planet.

It is very rare that astronomers discover a new population of sources in the sky. A notable example involves the most compact stars known, neutron stars. Even though these stars weigh up to twice the mass of the sun, they occupy a region with the length of Manhattan. Some of these stars generate a beam of radio waves that sweep across our sky periodically like a lighthouse.

In 1967, a 24-year old scientist, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, noticed radio pulses that repeated periodically in her data. Temporarily dubbed “Little Green Man 1,” the source she discovered is now known as a spinning neutron star. It is a member of a vast population of neutron stars, hundreds of millions in our own Milky Way galaxy alone. These are relics from the collapse of massive stellar progenitors which, after consuming the nuclear fuel in their bellies, give birth to neutron stars in a supernova explosion. The regularity of their radio bips made pulsars the best clocks available, up until the last few years when human-made atomic clocks overperformed them.

In the neutron star example, mother nature was far more imaginative than we were. Could history be repeating itself?

In 2007, the astronomer Duncan Lorimer asked his undergraduate student to look through archival data taken in 2001 by the Parkes radio dish in Australia and discovered a bright radio burst. Although the burst lasted a few thousandths of a second similar to the pulse of a pulsar, it did not repeat and it also appeared to have traversed a much larger column of material than the Milky Way can provide. This implied that its source must be located very far away, possibly at the edge of the observable universe. At that distance, the source would need to be billions of times brighter than pulsars, which are mostly detectable within the confines of our own galaxy. In fact, if such a bursting source was placed in the Milky Way, we could have detected it with a cell phone!

Subsequently, many similar bursts were discovered across the sky. They were all labeled as Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs) for lack of a clue regarding their mysterious origin. The universe produced one such burst per second. A small fraction of the known FRBs are repeating, allowing us to pinpoint their distant host galaxy. One source repeats periodically every 16 days.

What is the nature of FRB sources? Should we dub them “Little Green Man 2?”?We have no clue. They could be a mixed bag.

Astronomers are conservative. Given the lack of evidence, the most popular interpretation is that FRBs are newly born neutron stars, only decades old, with an extraordinary magnetic field that generates their powerful radio emission.

But until we uncover a “smoking gun” that produced an FRB, other options should be left on the table. That includes the far-out possibility of an artificial production by an advanced technological civilization. In such a case, the radio beam is most likely not intended for communication because of a simple reason. It takes billions of years for a message to cross the vast scale of the universe.  Nobody would have the patience to wait that long for a response. If the message was meant to be received across a much shorter distance, then why waste so much energy on it? The amount required is comparable to the total power of sunlight intercepted by the Earth, converted into a tightly collimated beam of radio waves. This would necessitate a huge engineering project that can only be rationalized for propulsion purposes. Indeed, a powerful beam of light could be used to push a sail that carries a giant spacecraft to the speed of light. In that case, we are detecting the leakage of radiation beyond the boundary of the light-sail as the beam sweeps across our sky. But altogether, given the exceptional amount of power involved, FRBs are not likely to be signals from extraterrestrial civilizations, unless some of them originate nearby.

The enigmatic nature of FRBs illustrates why science is so exciting. As scientists, we should be humble and not be guided by prejudice but by evidence. After all, if we expect the future interpretation of FRBs to resemble the past interpretation of pulsars we will never discover something new.

There are two avenues for a future breakthrough in our understanding of FRBs. One would stem from the detection of nearby sources that are extremely bright and whose environments can be studied in great detail. The second involves the detection of FRBs in other bands of light, such as visible, infrared or x-rays. Any qualitatively new information might offer us a revealing glimpse at the central engine of these beasts.

NASA stares into dark, freaky pit on Mars

If you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will gaze into you. Nietzsche could have been talking about Mars.

mromarspit
NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter stared into the darkness of this pit on Mars.NASA/JPL/UArizona

I used to have reoccurring nightmares about falling into a pit. A new image from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft (aka the MRO) pushes all my childhood scary-dream buttons. 

The image, acquired Jan. 24 by the MRO’s HiRise camera, shows a startling black pit against a lighter expanse of surface. These leads to a big question: What’s hiding down there in the dark depths?

The HiRise team at the University of Arizona performed a brightness enhancement to see into the abyss. 

“The floor of the pit appears to be smooth sand and slopes down to the southeast,” HiRise co-investigator Ross Beyer wrote in a Friday statement. “The hope was to determine if this was an isolated pit, or if it was a skylight into a tunnel, much like skylights in the lava tubes of Hawai’i.”

mromarspitresolved
This side-by-side view shows the pit on the left and the brightness-enhanced version on the right.NASA/JPL/UArizona

Scientists suspect Mars is home to volcanic caves, which could be fascinating destinations for future rovers or human explorers. Pits like the one the MRO is investigating could be gateways to these underground worlds. 

This particular chasm isn’t giving up any secrets just yet. “We can’t obviously see any tunnels in the visible walls, but they could be in the other walls that aren’t visible,” Beyer wrote.

What lies beneath? For now that’ll have to remain a Mars mystery.   

What's up with that rock? China's moon rover finds something strange on the far side.

Rock fragments, including one specimen (circled) targeted for analysis, discovered by the Yutu-2 rover. Rock fragments, including one specimen (circled) targeted for analysis, discovered by the Yutu-2 rover.(Image: © CNSA/CLEP/Our Space)

China’s Yutu-2 lunar rover has discovered what appear to be relatively young rocks during its recent exploration activities on the lunar far side.

The Chang’e-4 mission’s rover imaged the scattered, apparently lighter-colored rocks during lunar day 13 of the mission, in December 2019, according to the Chinese-language ‘Our Space‘ science outreach blog. 

The specimens, which are quite different from those already studied by the rover, could round out the team’s insights into the geologic history and evolution of the area, called Von Kármán crater.

Closer inspection of the rocks by the rover team revealed little erosion, which on the moon is caused by micrometeorites and the huge changes in temperature across long lunar days and nights. That anomaly suggests that the fragments are relatively young. Over time, rocks tend to erode into soils.

The relative brightness of the rocks also indicated they may have originated in an area very different to the one Yutu-2 is exploring

Chang’e-4 made a historic, first-ever soft landing on the far side of the moon in January 2019. Von Kármán, a roughly 110-mile-wide (180 kilometers) crater, is around 3.6 billion years old. Lava has flooded it multiple times since its formation, leaving it relatively smooth and dark. The crater itself lies within the South Pole-Aitken Basin, an even more massive and more ancient impact crater.

A rock fragment viewed by a Yutu-2 obstacle-avoidance camera.
A rock fragment viewed by a Yutu-2 obstacle-avoidance camera. (Image credit: CNSA/CLEP/Our Space)

Dan Moriarty, NASA Postdoctoral Program Fellow at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, said the size, shape and color of the rocks provide clues to their origin.

“Because [the rocks] all look fairly similar in size and shape, it is reasonable to guess that they might all be related,” he told Space.com. “Chang’e-4 landed on a volcanic mare, [a] basalt patch, and those volcanic materials are much darker than normal lunar highlands crust. If these rocks are indeed brighter than the soil, it could mean that they are made up of a higher component of bright, highlands crust materials than the surrounding volcanic-rich soils.”

Image of the surface of Von Kármán crater from Yutu-2, released in February 2020.
Image of the surface of Von Kármán crater from Yutu-2, released in February 2020. (Image credit: CNSA/CLEP)

Moriarty noted that higher-resolution images of the rock would provide more information. “If the rock has the appearance of many heterogeneous fragments ‘welded’ together, this would indicate a regolith breccia,” which are formed by the immense heat of a meteorite impact, he said. “If the rock appears more coherent, then it might be a primary crustal rock excavated by the impact.”

China recently published a huge batch of data and amazing images from the Chang’e-4 lander and Yutu-2 rover. However, the release did not include data from day 13, meaning high-resolution images of these intriguing specimens are not yet public.

Regarding the age of the rocks, Moriarty said that “fresh” is a relative term: In this case, it means that the rocks formed after the major resurfacing events in Von Kármán crater. “So that could be 10-100 million years [ago] or 1-2 billion years. It’s really hard to say definitively.” Click here for more Space.com videos…China’s Historic Moon Landing Captured by Probe’s CameraVolume 0% PLAY SOUND

To learn more, the Yutu-2 team navigated the rover in order to analyze one of the specimens with its Visible and Near-infrared Imaging Spectrometer (VNIS) instrument, which detects light that is scattered or reflected off materials to reveal their makeup.

Because the fragments are small and the lunar terrain is very challenging, the team made careful calculations and fine adjustments in order to get the rocks into the VNIS field of view, according to Our Space. This may account for the relatively short distance Yutu-2 traveled during lunar day 13: 41.3 feet (12.6 meters). Overall, Yutu-2 has driven 1,170 feet (357 m) since arriving in Von Kármán crater.

Yutu-2 looks back over tracks it made in the lunar soil.
Yutu-2 looks back over tracks it made in the lunar soil. (Image credit: CNSA/CLEP)

Earlier in 2019, Yutu-2 made numerous approaches to an unidentified rock sample, which Our Space described as “gel-like.”

The Chang’e-4 lander and Yutu-2 completed their 14th lunar day of science and exploration on Jan. 31, ahead of sunset over the landing area in Von Kármán crater. Day 15 began on Feb. 17, with Yutu-2 due to head to the northwest and then southwest to reach a designated target point.

China plans to launch Chang’e-5, a sample-return mission, in the second half of this year. It will collect around 4 lbs. (2 kilograms) of samples from Oceanus Procellarum on the moon’s near side before returning to Earth. If this is successful, the backup Chang’e-6 mission could attempt to retrieve samples from the South Pole-Aitken Basin or the lunar south pole around 2023.

Asteroid Pallas' violent history revealed in new images

A huge, heavily cratered asteroid known as Pallas has a violent history, scientists revealed in a new study.

Pallas, which is third largest object in the asteroid belt and named after the Greek goddess of wisdom, can be seen in detailed images published Monday in a study in Nature Astronomy.

Researchers believe that the asteroid’s pockmarked surface is a result of its unique orbit. Pallas has a tilted orbit, so it is basically smashing through the asteroid belt at an angle, unlike most other similar objects.

“Pallas’ orbit implies very high-velocity impacts,” Michaël Marsset, the paper’s lead author and a postdoctoral student in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, told MIT News. “From these images, we can now say that Pallas is the most cratered object that we know of in the asteroid belt. It’s like discovering a new world.”

A pair of images show two views of Pallas with its pock-marked surface. (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)

A pair of images show two views of Pallas with its pock-marked surface. (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)

The astronomers obtained 11 series of images, observing Pallas from different angles as it rotated. After pulling the images together, the researchers generated a three-dimensional reconstruction of the shape of the asteroid, in addition to a crater map of its poles.

Thirty-six craters larger than 30 kilometers in diameter were identified, the study notes.

The asteroid’s craters seem to cover at least 10 percent of its surface, which the researchers state in their paper is “suggestive of a violent collisional history.”

There Could be Meteors Traveling at Close to the Speed of Light When They Hit the Atmosphere

It’s no secret that planet Earth is occasionally greeted by rocks from space that either explode in out atmosphere or impact on the surface. In addition, our planet regularly experiences meteor showers whenever its orbit causes it to pass through clouds of debris in the Solar System. However, it has also been determined that Earth is regularly bombarded by objects that are small enough to go unnoticed – about 1 mm or so in size.

According to a new study by Harvard astronomers Amir Siraj and Prof. Abraham Loeb, it is possible that Earth’s atmosphere is bombarded by larger meteors – 1 mm to 10 cm (0.04 to 4 inches) – that are extremely fast. These meteors, they argue, could be the result of nearby supernovae that cause particles to be accelerated to sub-relativistic or even relativistic speeds – several thousand times the speed of sound to a fraction of the speed of light.

Their study, titled “Observational Signatures of Sub-Relativistic Meteors“, recently appeared online and is being considered for publication in the Astrophysical Journal. Their work addresses an ongoing mystery in astrophysics, which is whether or not the ejecta created by a supernova can be accelerated to relativistic speeds and travel through the interstellar medium to reach Earth’s atmosphere.

Artist’s concept of the meteorite entering Earth’s atmosphere. Credit: University of Oxford

The existence of these kinds of meteors, which would measure about 1 mm in diameter (0.04 inches), has been proposed by several astronomers in the past (like Lyman Spitzer and Satio Hayakawa). The question of whether or not they could survive the trip through interstellar space has also been studied at length. As Siraj explained to Universe Today via email:

“Empirical evidence indicates that at least one supernova has rained heavy elements on Earth in the past. Supernovae are known to release significant quantities of dust at sub-relativistic speeds. We also see evidence of clumpiness or ‘bullets’ in supernova ejecta. The fraction of mass contained in small clumps is unknown, but if just 0.01% of the dust ejecta is contained in objects of millimeter size or larger, we would expect one to appear in the Earth’s atmosphere as a sub-relativistic meteor every month (based on the rate of supernovae in the Milky Way galaxy).”

Despite having a sound theoretical basis, the question remains as to whether or not meteors larger than a grain of dust enter Earth’s atmosphere at sub-relativistic or relativistic speeds. These would be meteors that measure 1 mm (0.04 in), 1 cm (0.4 in), or 10 cm (4 in) in diameter. Much of the problem has to do with our current search methodology, which is simply not set up to look for these kinds of objects.

“Meteors typically travel near 0.01% of the speed of light,” said Siraj. “Therefore current searches are tuned to find signals from objects moving at that speed. Meteors from supernovae would travel a hundred times faster (around 1% of the speed light), and so their signals would be significantly different from typical meteors, making them easily missed by current surveys.”

Meteors are pieces of comet and asteroid debris that strike the atmosphere and burn up in a flash. Credit: Jimmy Westlake A brilliant Perseid meteor streaks along the Summer Milky Way as seen from Cinder Hills Overlook at Sunset Crater National Monument—12 August 2016 2:40 AM (0940 UT). It left a glowing ion trail that lasted about 30 seconds. The camera caught a twisting smoke trail that drifted southward over the course of several minutes.

For the sake of their study, Siraj and Loeb developed a hydrodynamic and radiative model to track the evolution of hot plasma cylinders that result from sub-relativistic meteors passing through our atmosphere. From this, they were able to calculate what kind of signals would be produced, thereby providing an indication of what astronomers should be on the lookout for. As Siraj explained:

“We find that a sub-relativistic meteor would give rise to a shock wave that could be picked up by a microphone, and also a bright flash of radiation visible in optical wavelengths – both lasting for about a tenth of a millisecond. For meteors as small as 1mm, a small optical detector (1 square centimeter) could easily detect the flash of light out to the horizon.”

With this in mind, Siraj and Loeb went on to outline the kind of infrastructure that would allow astronomers to confirm the existence of these objects and study them. For instance, new surveys could incorporate infrasound microphones and optical-infrared instruments that would be able to detect the acoustic signature and optical flashes created by these objects entering our atmosphere and the resulting explosions.

Based on their calculations, they recommend that a global network of about 600 detectors with all-sky coverage could detect a few of these types of meteors per year. There is also the option of searching through existing data for signs of sub-relativistic and relativistic meteors. Last, but not least, there is the possibility of using existing infrastructure to look for signs of these objects.

Map displaying location and energy of meteor explosions detected by CNEOS. Credit: NASA/CNEOS

A good example of this, Siraj explained, is to be found in NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) network and database:

In addition, we note that the U.S. government’s global classified network of sensors (including microphones and optical detectors) that provides the CNEOS Fireball and Bolide Database likely comprises a capable existing infrastructure. We urge the U.S. government to declassify broader swaths of the CNEOS data so scientists can search for sub-relativistic meteors without spending more taxpayer money to develop a new global network – with one already in operation!

The payoff for this would be nothing less than the ability to study an entirely new set of objects that regularly interact with Earth’s atmosphere. It would also provide a new perspective to the study of supernovae by allowing astronomers to place important constraints on the ejecta they produce. With this in mind, a low-cost, global network of all-sky cameras seems well worth the investment!

Scientists are trying to open a portal to a parallel universe

Scientists at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in eastern Tennessee are trying to open a portal to a parallel universe.

The project — which has been compared to the Upside Down in the Netflix blockbuster “Stranger Things” — hopes to show a world identical to ours where life is mirrored.

Leah Broussard, the physicist leading the experiment, told NBC the plan is “pretty wacky” but will “totally change the game,” ahead of a series of experiments she plans to run this summer.

Broussard’s experiment will fire a beam of subatomic particles down a 50-foot tunnel. The beam will pass a powerful magnet and hit an impenetrable wall, with a neutron detector behind it.

If the experiment is successful, particles will transform into mirror images of themselves, allowing them to burrow right through the impenetrable wall.

This would prove that the visible universe is only half of what is out there, Broussard said, but she also admitted that she expects the test to “measure zero.”

In “Stranger Things,” portals began opening, connecting a US town to a dark alternate dimension called the Upside Down.

In reality, if a mirror world exists, it would have its own laws of mirror physics and its own mirror history, according to NBC.

However, there wouldn’t be an alternate version of you. Current theory, the outlet explains, only hypothesizes that mirror atoms and mirror rocks are possible — and perhaps even mirror planets and stars.

NASA BRINGS VOYAGER 2 FULLY BACK ONLINE, 11.5 BILLION MILES FROM EARTH

“Now voyager sail thou forth to seek and find.”

IN AN INCREDIBLE FEAT of remote engineering, NASA has fixed one of the most intrepid explorers in human history. Voyager 2, currently some 11.5 billion miles from Earth, is back online and resuming its mission to collect scientific data on the solar system and the interstellar space beyond.

On Wednesday, February 5 at 10:00 p.m. Eastern, NASA’s Voyager Twitter account gave out the good news: Voyager 2 is not only stable, but is back at its critical science mission.

“My twin is back to taking science data, and the team at @NASAJPL is evaluating the health of the instruments after their brief shutoff,” the account tweeted.

Voyager 2 is sister craft to Voyager 1. Both have been traveling through the solar system — and now beyond it — for the last four decades. Together, they have transformed our understanding of our stellar neighborhood and are already revealing unprecedented information about the interstellar space beyond the Sun’s sphere of influence.NASA Voyager@NASAVoyager

Good vibes! Voyager 2 continues to be stable, and communications between Earth and the spacecraft are fine.

My twin is back to taking science data, and the team at @NASAJPL is evaluating the health of the instruments following their brief shutoff. http://go.nasa.gov/3bjo76S 

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In a statement, NASA confirmed that Voyager 2 is back in business.

“Mission operators report that Voyager 2 continues to be stable and that communications between the Earth and the spacecraft are good.”

“The spacecraft has resumed taking science data, and the science teams are now evaluating the health of the instruments,” the agency said.

The fix is no mean feat: It takes 17 hours one-way to communicate with Voyager 2 from Earth, which is the second furthest away manmade object in space (Voyager 1 is the most far manmade object). That means a single information relay takes 34 hours.

WHAT HAPPENED TO VOYAGER 2?

The spacecraft had run into trouble on January 28, when NASA revealed that it had unexpectedly — and for unknown reasons — shut down. The world held its breath.NASA Voyager@NASAVoyager

Here’s the skinny: My twin went to do a roll to calibrate the onboard magnetometer, overdrew power and tripped software designed to automatically protect the spacecraft.

Voyager 2’s power state is good and instruments are back on. Resuming science soon. http://go.nasa.gov/38O37mC 

View image on Twitter

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As Inverse reported at the time, Voyager 2 went black right before it was scheduled for a maneuver in which the spacecraft rotates 360 degrees in order to calibrate one of its instruments onboard.

But the spacecraft didn’t make the move. As a result, two of its systems — both of which consume a lot of power — were running at the same time, according to a statement by NASA.

The likeliest problem was that the spacecraft was using up too much of its available power supply, which triggered protection software. The software automatically turns off Voyager 2’s science instruments when there is a power overload to save on power. It only has a finite supply, after all.

As of writing, NASA hasn’t confirmed or denied whether that is what actually happened. Only time will tell whether the agency ever gets an answer to what went wrong. But for now, we can all rest assured that Voyager 2‘s mission is far from over yet. If all goes well, it should have another five years of life left, meaning five more years of data collection from an area of space we humans have no other way of studying.

NASA’s New Horizons mission sheds new light on how planets form

NASA’s New Horizons mission is providing scientists with fresh insight into how planets form.

The mission is also boosting scientific knowledge about the formation of planetesimals, described by NASA as “the building blocks of the planets.”

In a statement, the space agency explained that on Jan. 1, 2019 the New Horizons spacecraft flew past an object in the Kuiper Belt, dubbed Arrokoth or 2014 MU69. The flyby, which took place more than 4 billion miles from Earth, provided a wealth of detailed data on Arrokoth’s shape, geology, color and composition, according to NASA.

“Arrokoth is the most distant, most primitive and most pristine object ever explored by spacecraft, so we knew it would have a unique story to tell,” said New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo., in the statement. “It’s teaching us how planetesimals formed, and we believe the result marks a significant advance in understanding overall planetesimal and planet formation.”

Composite image of Arrokoth from New Horizons Spacecraft Data

Composite image of Arrokoth from New Horizons Spacecraft Data (NASA)

Images from the spacecraft’s flyby show that Arrokoth has two connected lobes, a smooth surface and a uniform composition. By studying data provided by New Horizons, scientists have worked out that the lobes “were once separate bodies that formed close together and at low velocity, orbited each other, and then gently merged to create the 22-mile long object New Horizons observed,” NASA says.

“This indicates Arrokoth formed during the gravity-driven collapse of a cloud of solid particles in the primordial solar nebula, rather than by the competing theory of planetesimal formation called hierarchical accretion,” the space agency explained. “Unlike the high-speed collisions between planetesimals in hierarchical accretion, in particle-cloud collapse, particles merge gently, slowly growing larger.”

Scientists have presented their findings in three papers in the journal Science.

“Just as fossils tell us how species evolved on Earth, planetesimals tell us how planets formed in space,” said William McKinnon, a New Horizons co-investigator from Washington University in St. Louis and lead author of an Arrokoth paper in Science. “Arrokoth looks the way it does not because it formed through violent collisions, but in more of an intricate dance, in which its component objects slowly orbited each other before coming together.”

Initially (and somewhat controversially) nicknamed “Ultima Thule,” the object was officially named Arrokoth, which means “sky” in the Powhatan/Algonquian language, in a ceremony on Nov. 19, 2019.

The New Horizons mission launched in January 2006. The spacecraft is now 4.4 billion miles from Earth.

The Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., designed and built New Horizons and is managing the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. The Southwest Research Institute is leading the New Horizons science team and payload operations.

Hearts in Space!

The Heart NebulaIC 1805Sharpless 2-190, lies some 7500 light years away from Earth and is located in the Perseus Arm of the Galaxy in the constellation Cassiopeia. It was discovered by William Herschel on 3 November 1787.[1] It is an emission nebula showing glowing ionized hydrogen gas and darker dust lanes.[2]

The brightest part of the nebula (a knot at its western edge) is separately classified as NGC 896, because it was the first part of the nebula to be discovered. The nebula’s intense red output and its morphology are driven by the radiation emanating from a small group of stars near the nebula’s center. This open cluster of stars, known as Melotte 15, contains a few bright stars nearly 50 times the mass of our Sun, and many more dim stars that are only a fraction of our Sun’s mass.[1]

Scientists just watched a newfound asteroid zoom by Earth. Then they saw its moon.

One of Earth’s premier instruments for studying nearby asteroids is back to work after being rattled by earthquakes, and its first new observations show that a newly discovered space rock is actually two separate asteroids.

The instrument is the planetary radar system at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. The observatory was closed for most of January, after a series of earthquakes hit the island beginning on Dec. 28, 2019. The observatory reopened on Jan. 29. Meanwhile, on Jan. 27, scientists using a telescope on Mauna Loa in Hawaii spotted an asteroid that astronomers hadn’t seen before. The team dubbed the newfound space rock 2020 BX12 based on a formula recognizing its discovery date. 

Because of the size of 2020 BX12 and the way its orbit approaches that of Earth, it is designated a potentially hazardous asteroid. However, the space rock has already come as close to Earth as it will during this pass (2.7 million miles or 4.3 million kilometers); astronomers have calculated the asteroid’s close approaches with Earth for the next century, and all will be at a greater distance than this one was.

Radar images show the binary asteroid 2020 BX12, which scientists discovered this year.
Radar images show the binary asteroid 2020 BX12, which scientists discovered this year. (Image credit: Arecibo Observatory/NASA/NSF)

The asteroid’s flyby wasn’t a threat to life on Earth, but it was an opportunity for scientists who were hoping to learn more about space rocks. On Feb. 4 and 5, the radar station at Arecibo set its sights on 2020 BX12. Based on the observations, the scientists discovered that 2020 BX12 is a binary asteroid, with a smaller rock orbiting the larger rock. About 15% of larger asteroids turn out, on closer inspection, to be binary, according to NASA.

The larger rock is likely at least 540 feet (165 meters) across, and the smaller one is about 230 feet (70 m) wide, according to the observations gathered by Arecibo. When the instrument observed the two space rocks on Feb. 5, they appeared to be separated by about 1,200 feet (360 m).

Scientists couldn’t gather enough data to be sure, but they suspect that the two rocks might complete an orbit of each other in 45 to 50 hours and that the smaller rock may be brighter than, and tidally locked with, its companion, meaning the same side always faces the larger object.

Existential dread is a key motivator for asteroid discoveries, and planetary defense experts hope that, by surveying nearby space rocks, they will identify a threat with enough time for us to protect ourselves. But asteroids are also scientifically interesting, since they represent rubble from the formation of the solar system.

NASA has a plan for yearly Artemis moon flights through 2030. The first one could fly in 2021.

The above image was taken by a NASA astronaut on board the International Space Station.

The above image was taken by a NASA astronaut on board the International Space Station. (NASA)

The first flight of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) megarocket and Orion crew capsule — and the first big step in putting astronauts back on the moon — was originally scheduled to launch this year, but the mission is now expected to slip to 2021.

A new document from NASA explaining President Donald Trump’s fiscal year 2021 budget request for the agency lists the uncrewed test flight, known as Artemis 1, as scheduled to launch in 2021. Although NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine and other agency officials have said they expect the mission to be delayed, an updated launch target has not yet been officially announced.

An updated timeline for that mission is currently under review, and NASA expects to present its new plan to Congress about six weeks from now, Doug Loverro, the director of NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, told reporters at a State of NASA event at the Johnson Space Center in Houston on Monday (Feb. 10).

Despite the delays, NASA is still aiming to put “the first woman and the next man on the moon by 2024” with its Artemis program, Bridenstine said during his State of NASA speech at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi on Monday, repeating a motto that he shares just about every time he has a microphone and an audience.

According to a graphic published in NASA’s FY 2021 budget documents, the first crewed flight of SLS and Orion, called Artemis 2, is poised to launch on a lunar flyby mission in 2022, followed by a crewed lunar landing, Artemis 3, in 2024.

While NASA prepares to put astronauts on the lunar surface, the agency will also be working to launch the various components of its Lunar Gateway, a small space station that will serve as an orbiting outpost near the moon. To reach the lunar surface, astronauts will first dock with the Gateway in their Orion spacecraft before boarding a lander that will ferry them the rest of the way down to the moon.

So, the Gateway — or at least a few vital components of it — will need to be assembled in lunar orbit before astronauts can land on the moon. The first piece of the Gateway, its power and propulsion element (PPE), is scheduled to launch in 2022. Then, in 2023, NASA plans to launch the habitation and logistics outpost (HALO) module, which will serve as the crew quarters for astronauts at the Gateway.

During the last few months before NASA launches Artemis 3, three additional components will join the Gateway via three separate commercial rocket launches. Those launches will transport a transfer vehicle that will ferry landers from the Gateway to a lower lunar orbit, a descent module that will bring the astronauts to the lunar surface and an ascent module that will bring them back up to the transfer vehicle, which will then return them to the Gateway.

Once all of those pieces are put together in orbit, NASA will have all the infrastructure it needs to send astronauts to the lunar surface, which Loverro said he is confident the agency will do by the end of 2024.

However, some continue to criticize NASA’s ambitious timeline for the moon landing. Years of SLS delays aside, the agency has barely started constructing critical elements of the Gateway, and NASA has yet to begin building a human-rated lunar lander.

The agency solicited proposals for crew landers last fall, and so far Boeing and a team led by Blue Origin have revealed their ideas. Once NASA chooses which lander (or landers) it will use for the Artemis program, construction will begin at the agency’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

Meanwhile, Boeing is still working on building the first SLS rocket for Artemis 1, and NASA has requested that the company build at least 10 more SLS rockets for the entire Artemis program. With Artemis, NASA aims to build a sustainable human presence on the lunar surface after the landing in 2024.

Pluto's mysterious 'beating heart' is controlling winds on the dwarf planet, study says

There is a debate in the scientific community over whether Pluto should be a planet again. But a new study affirms that the dwarf planet’s “beating heart” is impacting its atmospheric circulation patterns.

The research notes that the heart-shaped structure, known as Tombaugh Regio, is in charge of the wind patterns on the dwarf planet. Much of it comes from the left part of the structure (known as Sputnik Planitia), which causes nitrogen winds to blow. Nitrogen is the majority of Pluto’s atmosphere, combined with carbon monoxide and methane. During the day, the nitrogen ice warms and turns into vapor, but by night, it condenses and reforms as ice.

“This highlights the fact that Pluto’s atmosphere and winds – even if the density of the atmosphere is very low – can impact the surface,” said the study’s lead author, Tanguy Bertrand, in a statement. The winds also carry heat, particles of haze and grains of ice, the study added.

Four images from NASA’s New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) were combined with color data from the Ralph instrument to create this global view of Pluto. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute.

Four images from NASA’s New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) were combined with color data from the Ralph instrument to create this global view of Pluto. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute.

Bertrand and the other researchers looked at the data from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, which discovered the feature in July 2015, to come up with the determination.

Pluto has an eastward spin on its axis, but the westward direction of the wind blowing likely suggests that the dwarf planet has a more interesting and diverse terrain than previously thought.

“Before New Horizons, everyone thought Pluto was going to be a netball – completely flat, almost no diversity,” Bertrand added. “But it’s completely different. It has a lot of different landscapes and we are trying to understand what’s going on there.”

Understanding the atmospheric conditions on Sputnik Planitia’s western edge could be as important as understanding the Earth’s oceans, Bertrand continued.

“Sputnik Planitia may be as important for Pluto’s climate as the ocean is for Earth’s climate,” Bertrand continued. “If you remove Sputnik Planitia – if you remove the heart of Pluto – you won’t have the same circulation.”

The study has been published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets.

Pluto, which has a multilayered atmosphere, moons and other features commonly associated with planets, is influenced by Neptune’s gravity, which caused it to lose its status as a planet in 2006.

However, several in the scientific community, including NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, have argued that it should be a planet and not a dwarf planet.

Pilot Claims to Have Filmed UFO Over Medellín, Colombia

People tend to give more credibility to UFO sightings by airplane pilots than any other sort of person. There are a few likely reasons for this. One, both pilots and UFOs are in the sky. Pilots are, objectively, more similar to UFOs than farmers. And if there’s anyone that’s supposed to know what does and doesn’t belong in the sky, it’s a pilot. This brings us to reason two: we really, really want to believe that the people at the controls of our airplanes are reasonable, rational human beings. Now, I would submit that one would have to be clinically insane to want to pilot an airplane, but that’s neither here nor there. Let’s talk about UFOs.

A Colombian commercial airline pilot recently shared footage of a UFO he claims to have filmed over Medellín, Colombia. César Murillo Pérez, a pilot for the Colombian airline Viva Air, says he filmed this bizarre black sphere floating some 30,000 feet in the air over Colombia. According to Pérez, the sighting occurred on January 1, 2020, but he only recently posted the footage to the social media site TikTok.

It’s a weird one for sure. Being that the UFO in the footage looks like a simple black sphere, it would be fairly easy to write it off as a balloon. Yet Pérez says that it’s doubtful that a balloon could reach 30,000 feet. There are balloons that do reach those heights, such as weather balloons or whatever weird stuff Google is launching into the atmosphere, but all of those balloons are fitted with detection systems that allow airplanes to identify and track them. At the start of the video, Pérez pans the camera to the plane’s monitors to show that the object is not showing up. Pérez says:

“I would think it was a balloon, but the conditions do not lend itself to it. I doubt it, above all, because of the altitude and the physical characteristics.”

It’s also hard to tell exactly what shape the UFO is when it passes by so quickly.

The UFO looks very similar to other claimed sightings, including some of the sightings reported by US Navy pilots.

But some have questioned the authenticity of the video. The Colombian Civil Aeronautics agency requires all pilots to report mysterious, unidentified objects in the sky where they shouldn’t be. Usually, these reports are rogue balloons or drones. But the agency says that no such report was filed for this incident.

Pérez maintains that the video is genuine and says that he still has the raw footage on his phone. He also says that he wouldn’t be capable of faking a video like that, because he simply doesn’t know how. He says:

“I have seen that they have said that it is a very well done [fabrication], but I am a pilot, I do not know about [fabrications] or anything like that.”

So is it a UFO? Who knows. If the footage is in fact genuine, then it’s a pretty good one. Of course, it’s still hard to tell exactly what is being shown in the video. And just because it didn’t show up on the plane’s monitoring system doesn’t mean it isn’t a balloon. The ID system may have malfunctioned, or it could just be something not following the rules. Either way, if I saw that thing hanging out at 30,000 feet, I’d be a little freaked out.

Something in Deep Space Is Sending Signals to Earth in Steady 16-Day Cycles

Scientists have discovered the first fast radio burst that beats at a steady rhythm, and the mysterious repeating signal is coming from the outskirts of another galaxy.

A mysterious radio source located in a galaxy 500 million light years from Earth is pulsing on a 16-day cycle, like clockwork, according to a new study. This marks the first time that scientists have ever detected periodicity in these signals, which are known as fast radio bursts (FRBs), and is a major step toward unmasking their sources.

FRBs are one of the most tantalizing puzzles that the universe has thrown at scientists in recent years. First spotted in 2007, these powerful radio bursts are produced by energetic sources, though nobody is sure what those might be. FRBs are also mystifying because they can be either one-offs or “repeaters,” meaning some bursts appear only once in a certain part of the sky, while others emit multiple flashes to Earth.

Pulses from these repeat bursts have, so far, seemed somewhat random and discordant in their timing. But that changed last year, when the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment Fast Radio Burst Project (CHIME/FRB), a group dedicated to observing and studying FRBs, discovered that a repeater called FRB 180916.J0158+65 had a regular cadence.

The CHIME/FRB team kept tabs on the repeating burst between September 2018 and October 2019 using the CHIME radio telescope in British Columbia. During that period, the bursts were clustered into a period of four days, and then seemed to switch off for the next 12 days, for a total cycle of about 16 days. Some cycles did not produce any visible bursts, but those that did were all synced up to the same 16-day intervals.

“We conclude that this is the first detected periodicity of any kind in an FRB source,” the team said in a paper published on the preprint server arXiv in late January. “The discovery of a 16.35-day periodicity in a repeating FRB source is an important clue to the nature of this object.”

Scientists recently tracked down this particular FRB to a galaxy called SDSS J015800.28+654253.0, which is a half a billion light years from Earth. That may seem like a huge distance, but FRB 180916.J0158+65 is actually the closest FRB ever detected.

But while we know where it is, we still don’t know what it is. To that point, the beat of the FRB suggests that it might be modulated by its surroundings. If the source of the FRB is orbiting a compact object, such as a black hole, then it might only flash its signals toward Earth at a certain point in its orbital period. That scenario could potentially match this recognizable 16-day cycle.

It’s also possible that we are witnessing a binary system containing a massive star and a super-dense stellar core known as a neutron star, according to a study published on arXiv on Wednesday by a separate team that looked at the same data. In that model, the neutron star would emit radio bursts, but those signals would be periodically eclipsed by opaque outflowing winds from its giant companion.

Another scenario is that the FRB rhythm isn’t tempered by another object, and is sending out the pulses directly from the source. Scientists have previously suggested that flares from highly magnetized neutron stars, called magnetars, might be the source of some FRBs. But since magnetars tend to rotate every few seconds, a 16-day cycle does not match the expected profile of a magnetar-based FRB.

Ultimately, the CHIME/FRB team hopes to find similar patterns in the handful of known repeating bursts to see if these cycles are common. The researchers also plan to keep a careful eye on FRB 180916.J0158+6 while it is active in order to spot any other details that might point to its identity.

FRBs have baffled scientists for more than a decade, but new facilities such as CHIME are revealing new details about these weird events every year. While we still don’t know what is blasting out these bizarre signals, the discovery of a clear tempo from one of these sources provides a significant lead for scientists to follow.

Radio signal sparks alien life speculation

Mysterious radio signals from deep space detected

Highly magnetised rotating neutron star: This could be a source of the signals
Image captionArtwork: A highly magnetised rotating neutron star. Astronomers say one of these could be a source of the signals

Astronomers have revealed details of mysterious signals emanating from a distant galaxy, picked up by a telescope in Canada.

The precise nature and origin of the blasts of radio waves is unknown.

Among the 13 fast radio bursts, known as FRBs, was a very unusual repeating signal, coming from the same source about 1.5 billion light years away.

Such an event has only been reported once before, by a different telescope.

“Knowing that there is another suggests that there could be more out there,” said Ingrid Stairs, an astrophysicist from the University of British Columbia (UBC).

“And with more repeaters and more sources available for study, we may be able to understand these cosmic puzzles – where they’re from and what causes them.”

The CHIME observatory, located in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, consists of four 100-metre-long, semi-cylindrical antennas, which scan the entire northern sky each day.

The telescope only got up and running last year, detecting 13 of the radio bursts almost immediately, including the repeater.

Canada's new radio telescope, CHIME
Image captionCanada’s new radio telescope, CHIME

“We have discovered a second repeater and its properties are very similar to the first repeater,” said Shriharsh Tendulkar of McGill University, Canada.

“This tells us more about the properties of repeaters as a population.”

FRBs are short, bright flashes of radio waves.

So far, scientists have detected about 60 single fast radio bursts and two that repeat. They believe there could be as many as a thousand FRBs in the sky every day.

There are a number of theories about what could be causing them.

They include a neutron star with a very strong magnetic field that is spinning very rapidly, two neutron stars merging together, and, among a minority of observers, some form of alien spaceship.

What did NASA's New Horizons discover around Pluto?

New Horizons is the first mission in NASA’s New Frontiers mission category, larger and more expensive than the Discovery missions but smaller than the Flagship Program. The cost of the mission (including spacecraft and instrument development, launch vehicle, mission operations, data analysis, and education/public outreach) is approximately $700 million over 15 years (2001–2016).[37] The spacecraft was built primarily by Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) and the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. The mission’s principal investigator is Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute (formerly NASA Associate Administrator).

After separation from the launch vehicle, overall control was taken by Mission Operations Center (MOC) at the Applied Physics Laboratory in Howard County, Maryland. The science instruments are operated at Clyde Tombaugh Science Operations Center (T-SOC) in Boulder, Colorado.[38] Navigation is performed at various contractor facilities, whereas the navigational positional data and related celestial reference frames are provided by the Naval Observatory Flagstaff Station through Headquarters NASA and JPLKinetX is the lead on the New Horizons navigation team and is responsible for planning trajectory adjustments as the spacecraft speeds toward the outer Solar System. Coincidentally the Naval Observatory Flagstaff Station was where the photographic plates were taken for the discovery of Pluto’s moon Charon; and the Naval Observatory is itself not far from the Lowell Observatory where Pluto was discovered.

New Horizons was originally planned as a voyage to the only unexplored planet in the Solar System. When the spacecraft was launched, Pluto was still classified as a planet, later to be reclassified as a dwarf planet by the International Astronomical Union (IAU). Some members of the New Horizons team, including Alan Stern, disagree with the IAU definition and still describe Pluto as the ninth planet.[39] Pluto’s satellites Nix and Hydra also have a connection with the spacecraft: the first letters of their names (N and H) are the initials of New Horizons. The moons’ discoverers chose these names for this reason, plus Nix and Hydra’s relationship to the mythological Pluto.[40]

In addition to the science equipment, there are several cultural artifacts traveling with the spacecraft. These include a collection of 434,738 names stored on a compact disc,[41] a piece of Scaled Composites‘s SpaceShipOne,[42] a “Not Yet Explored” USPS stamp,[43][44] and a Flag of the United States, along with other mementos.[45]

About 30 grams (1 oz) of Clyde Tombaugh’s ashes are aboard the spacecraft, to commemorate his discovery of Pluto in 1930.[46][47] A Florida-state quarter coin, whose design commemorates human exploration, is included, officially as a trim weight.[48] One of the science packages (a dust counter) is named after Venetia Burney, who, as a child, suggested the name “Pluto” after its discovery.

To find intelligent alien life, humans may need to start thinking like an extraterrestrial

alien world artist illustration

If extraterrestrials are living on alien worlds, what types of signals would they send us? Our human biases might limit what we can imagine.(Image: © NASA)

HONOLULU — Our hunt for aliens has a potentially fatal flaw — we’re the ones searching for them.

That’s a problem because we’re a unique species, and alien-seeking scientists are an even stranger and more specialized bunch. As a result, their all-too human assumptions may get in the way of their alien-listening endeavors. To get around this, the Breakthrough Listen project, a $100-million initiative scouring the cosmos for signals of otherworldly beings as part of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), is asking anthropologists to help unmask some of these biases. 

“It’s kind of a joke at Breakthrough Listen,” Claire Webb, an anthropology and history of science student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said here on Jan. 8 at the 235th meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) in Honolulu. “They tell me: ‘We’re studying aliens, and you’re studying us.'”

Since 2017, Webb has worked with Breakthrough Listen to examine how SETI researchers think about aliens, produce knowledge, and perhaps inadvertently place anthropocentric assumptions into their work. 

She sometimes describes her efforts as “making the familiar strange.” 

For instance, your life might seem perfectly ordinary — maybe involving being hunched over at a desk and shuttling electrons around between computers — until examined through an anthropological lens, which points out that this is not exactly a universal state of affairs. At the conference, Webb presented a poster looking at how Breakthrough Listen scientists use artificial intelligence (AI) to sift through large data sets and try to uncover potential technosignatures, or indicators of technology or tool use by alien organisms. 

“Researchers who use AI tend to disavow human handicraft in the machines they build,” Webb told Live Science. “They attribute a lot of agency to those machines. I find that somewhat problematic and at the worst untrue.”

Any AI is trained by human beings, who present it with the types of signals they think an intelligent alien might produce. In doing so, they predispose their algorithms to certain biases. It can be incredibly difficult to recognize such thinking and overcome its limitations, Webb said. 

Most SETI research assumes some level of commensurability, or the idea that beings on different worlds will understand the universe in the same way and be able to communicate about it with one another, Webb said. Much of this research, for example, presumes a type of technological commensurability, in which aliens broadcast messages using the same radio telescopes we have built, and that we will be able to speak to them using a universal language of science and math. 

But how universal is our language of science, and how inevitable is our technological evolution?  Do alien scientists gather in large buildings and present their work to one another via slides and lectures and posters? And what bearing do such human rituals have on the types of scientific knowledge researchers produce?

It was almost like trying to take the perspective of a creature on another planet, who might wonder about humanity and our odd modern-day practices. “If E.T. was looking at us, what would they see?” Webb asked. 

The assumptions and anxieties of alien-hunters can creep in in other ways. Because of the vast distances involved in sending a signal through space, many SETI researchers have imagined receiving a message from an older technological society. As astronomer and science popularizer Carl Sagan famously said in his 1980 book and television series “Cosmos,” that might mean E.T. has lived through a “technological adolescence” and survived nuclear proliferation or an apocalyptic climate meltdown.

But those statements are based on the specific anxieties of our era, namely nuclear war and climate change, and we can’t automatically assume that the history of another species will unfold in the same way, Webb said. 

Veteran SETI scientist Jill Tarter has told Webb that, in some ways, we are looking for a better version of ourselves, speculating that a message from the heavens will include blueprints for a device that can provide cheap energy and help alleviate poverty.

The ideal of progress is embedded in such narratives, Webb said, first of scientific and technological progress, but also an implicit assumption of moral advancement. “It’s the idea that, as your technology develops, so does your sense of ethics and morality,” she said. “And I think that’s something that can be contested.”

Even our hunt for organisms like ourselves suggests “a yearning for connectivity, reflective to me of a kind of postmodern loneliness and isolation in the universe,” she said. 

Webb joked that SETI researchers don’t always understand the point of her anthropological and philosophical examinations. But, she said, they are open to being challenged in their ideas and knowing that they are not always seeing the whole picture. 

“One thing Jill [Tarter] has said many times is, ‘We reserve the right to get smarter,'” she said. “We are doing what we think makes sense now, but we might one day be doing something totally different.”

Ultimately, the point of this work is to get SETI researchers to start “noticing human behavior in ways that could push SETI to do novel kinds of searches,” Webb said. “Inhabiting other mindscapes is potentially a very powerful tool in cultivating new ways to do science.”

Perhaps beings on another planet might use gravitational waves, or neutrinos, or even some other unknown aspect of reality we have yet to come across to send messages into the heavens. 

British 'X-Files' of UFO sightings is going public

Artist's impression of a UFO

Artist’s impression of a UFO (PhonlamaiPhoto/iStock)

From the early 1950s until 2009, a department in the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) documented and investigated reports of UFOs. Now, more than a decade after the program ended, many of those formerly classified files about UFO sightings will be made available to the public for the first time.

Previously, some MoD files about UFOs had been published online at the U.K. National Archives website, The Telegraph reported. However, all of the agency’s UFO reports will be released this year on “a dedicated gov.uk web page,” a spokesperson for the British Royal Air Force (RAF) told The Telegraph.

The decision came after PA Media, a British news agency, filed a request for the UFO files under the Freedom of Information Act, according to The Telegraph. MoD officials decided “it would be better to publish these records, rather than continue sending documents to the National Archives,” the RAF spokesperson said.

The U.K.’s fascination with UFOs spiked around 1950, prompting the MoD to form the Flying Saucer Working Party to address the phenomenon, according to the U.K. National Archives. UFOs in the early 1950s even captured the attention of Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who sent a memo to his air minister in 1952 asking, “What does all this stuff about flying saucers amount to? What can it mean? What is the truth?”

The flying saucer group concluded that UFOs were hoaxes, delusions or ordinary objects that were misidentified, recommending “that no further investigation of reported mysterious aerial phenomena be undertaken.” Nevertheless, other MoD divisions continued the work of official UFO investigation in the U.K., ushering such efforts into the 21st century, The National Archives reported.

The last UFO report to be published online by the MoD dates to 2009, covering sightings that took place from January through the end of November of that year. These included “a silver disc-shaped light” (reported in January 2009), “up to 20 orange and red glowing lights” (reported in June), “a large bright silver/white ball/sphere” (reported in July) and “three blazing gold orbs in a diagonal line in the sky” (reported in September).

After MoD enacted a policy change on Dec. 1, 2009, the agency no longer recorded or investigated UFO sightings, according to the report. But what they did find — including many recent UFO reports that were previously available only as hard copies — will be published online within the next few months, said Nick Pope, a former UFO investigator for the MoD.

“There should be some interesting nuggets in these new files,” Pope told The Express.

And Now a Study Suggests Universe Is Not Flat – It's Curved!

Cosmology in crisis as evidence suggests our universe isn’t flat, it’s actually curved

Cosmology in crisis as evidence suggests our universe isn’t flat, it’s actually curved

No matter how elegant your theory is, experimental data will have the last word. Observations of the retrograde motion of the planets were fundamental to the Copernican revolution, in which the sun replaced Earth at the centre of the solar system. And the unusual orbit of Mercury provided a spectacular confirmation of the theory of general relativity. In fact, our entire understanding of the universe is built on observed, unexpected anomalies.

Now our new paper, published in Nature Astronomy, has come to a conclusion that may unleash a crisis in cosmology – if confirmed. We show that the shape of the universe may actually be curved rather than flat, as previously thought – with a probability larger than 99 percent. In a curved universe, no matter which direction you travel in, you will end up at the starting point – just like on a sphere. Though the universe has four dimensions, including time.

The result was based on recent measurements of the Cosmic Microwave Background, the light left over from the Big Bang, collected by the Planck Satellite. According to Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity, mass warps space and time around it. As a result, light rays take an apparent turn around a massive object rather than traveling in a straight line – an effect known as gravitational lensing.

The Cosmic Microwave Background temperature fluctuations from the seven-year WMAP data over the sky. NASA/WMAP

There is much more such lensing in the Planck data than there should be, which means the universe could contain more dark matter – an invisible and unknown substance – than we think. In our study, we showed that a closed universe can provide a physical explanation to this effect, because it is able to host a lot more dark matter than a flat universe. Such a universe is perfectly compatible with general relativity.

Major headache

Not all cosmologists are convinced by a closed universe though – previous studies have suggested the cosmos is indeed flat. And if a spherical universe is a solution to the lensing anomaly, then we have to deal with several significant consequences. First of all, we have to revise a fundamental cornerstone of cosmology – the theory of cosmological inflation. Inflation describes the first instants after the Big Bang, predicting a period of exponential expansion for the primordial universe.

The theory was developed over the past 40 years to explain why distant parts of the universe look the same and have the same temperature, when they are too far apart to ever have been in contact. Inflation solves the problem because it means that far-flung regions of the universe would once have been connected. But the period of rapid expansion that hurled these regions apart is also thought to have also brought the universe to flatness with exquisite precision.

If the universe is closed, standard inflation is in trouble. And that means we lose our standard explanation for why the universe has the structure it has.

Possible shapes of the universe: top one is curved and closed, as suggested in the new study. wikipedia

Once we assume that the universe is curved, the Planck data is essentially in disagreement with all other datasets. This all boils down to a real crisis for cosmology, as we say in our paper. For these reasons, cosmologists are cautious – and many of them prefer to attribute the results to a statistical fluke that will resolve when new data from future experiments are available.

Could we be wrong?

It is certainly possible that we turn out to be wrong. But there is one main reason, in our opinion, why this anomaly should not be merely discarded. In particle physics, a discovery should reach an accuracy of at least five “sigmas” to be accepted by the community. Here we are slightly above three sigmas, so we are clearly below this acceptance level. But while the standard model of particle physics is based on known and proven physics, the standard cosmological model is based on unknown physics.

Perhaps not? coldcreation, CC BY-SA

At the moment, the physical evidence for the three pillars of cosmology – dark matter, dark energy (which causes the universe to expand at an accelerated rate) and inflation – comes solely from cosmology. Their existence can explain many astrophysical observations.

But they are not expected either in the standard model of particle physics that governs the universe on the smallest scales or in the theory of general relativity that operates on the large scales. Instead, these substances belong to the area of unknown physics. Nobody has ever seen either dark matter, dark energy or inflation – in the laboratory or elsewhere.

So while an anomaly in particle physics can be regarded as a hint that we may need to invent completely new physics, an anomaly in cosmology should be regarded as the only way we have to shed light on completely unknown physics.

Therefore, the most interesting result of our paper is not that the universe appears to be curved rather than flat, but the fact that it may force us to rearrange the pieces of the cosmic puzzle in a completely different way.

Mars’ water may have been packed with minerals and salt, possibly supporting life, study says

NASA has already found evidence of an oasis on Mars, but a new study notes that ancient waters on the Red Planet had the right conditions to support life.

The research, published in Nature Communications, suggests the water that once resided in the Gale Crater on Mars contained salt, had a mild pH level capable of supporting life and had a redox state (the measure of gases such as hydrogen or oxygen) reminiscent of a semiarid climate.

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“Assuming that post-depositional sulfate-rich fluids interacted with the sediments, the redox disequilibria in secondary minerals suggest infiltration of oxidizing fluids into reducing sediments,” researchers wrote in the study’s abstract.

The annotated area in this illustration shows where water ice is located near the surface of Mars.

The annotated area in this illustration shows where water ice is located near the surface of Mars. (Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The Curiosity rover is exploring the Gale Crater, having celebrated its seventh anniversary on the Red Planet in August. Last month, it got stuck on Mars during a set of activities, but it has since begun operating normally.

The Gale Crater is believed to be between 3.5 and 3.8 billion years old and previous studies have looked at it to show the difference between the wet climate on ancient Mars and the desolate, arid climate it has today.

The Curiosity rover has made several remarkable discoveries, including finding “unusually high” levels of methane and a “shiny” object believed to be a meteorite.

NASA hopes the Curiosity rover, which “has a few more years before its nuclear power system degrades enough to significantly limit operations,” can provide additional clues about the planet prior to the launch of the Mars 2020 rover mission.

In November, NASA announced that it has selected the location where its Mars 2020 rover will land on the Red Planet. The rover is expected to reach the Martian surface on Feb. 18, 2021. NASA’s long-term goal is to send a manned mission to Mars in the 2030s.