If Aliens Are Flashing Laser Beams at Us, We Now Have a Way to Detect Them

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Scientists are on the hunt for signals from intelligent aliens. 

Are aliens using super powerful flashlights to get our attention? Astronomers think there’s a chance they are.

Since the invention of the radio, humans have been silently listening to the stars, wondering if we are alone in the universe. But if intelligent alien life does exist, the extraterrestrials could be using other forms of technology to communicate. Astronomers are beginning to not only listen to the cosmos but also gaze toward it for other signs of alien tech: laser beams.

Breakthrough Listen, the most extensive Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) program in history, announced that its team will begin looking for new signs of alien technology using the Very Energetic Radiation Imaging Telescope Array System (VERITAS) at the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory in Amado, Arizona. 

“When it comes to intelligent life beyond Earth, we don’t know where it exists or how it communicates,” Yuri Milner, billionaire particle physicist and founder of Breakthrough Listen, said in a statement. “So our philosophy is to look in as many places, and in as many ways, as we can. VERITAS expands our range of observation even further.”

Using VERITAS, astronomers will begin scanning the night sky for nanosecond flashes of light from nearby stars. Like a lighthouse beacon for the cosmos, these brief pulses of optical light would outshine any nearby stars and could indicate a method of alien communication.

“With the addition of VERITAS, we’re sensitive to an important new class of signals: fast optical pulses,” Andrew Siemion, the director of Berkeley’s SETI Research Center, said in the statement. “Optical communication has already been used by NASA to transmit high-definition images to Earth from the moon, so there’s a reason to believe that an advanced civilization might use a scaled-up version of this technology for interstellar communication.”

VERITAS has looked for such laser pulses from the mysteriously dimming Tabby’s Star after some had speculated there could be an alien megastructure surrounding it that caused the odd dimming. If the most powerful lasers on Earth were used at Tabby’s Star and pointed in our direction, VERITAS could detect them. Of the 1 million stars on the Breakthrough Listen target list, most of them are 10 to 100 times closer to Earth than Tabby’s Star, meaning even weaker laser flashes from intelligent aliens could be detected.

The array of four 12-meter optical telescopes is traditionally used to detect gamma rays — high-energy radiation emitted by extreme cosmic objects like exploding stars and even black holes — in the night sky. When gamma rays hit Earth’s atmosphere, they produce very faint blue flashes of light called Cherenkov radiation, because the particles travel faster than the speed of light through air. So the blue flashes are the light equivalent of a sonic boom. The telescope array’s ability to detect and pinpoint the source of these short-lived blue flashes made it the perfect candidate to search for laser beams from distant stars and galaxies.

“It is impressive how well-suited the VERITAS telescopes are for this project, since they were built only with the purpose of studying very-high-energy gamma rays in mind,” David Williams, a member of the VERITAS collaboration and professor of physics at the University of California, Santa Cruz, said in the statement.

The Breakthrough Listen initiative is a $100 million, 10-year project funded by Yuri Milner, a Russian billionaire and science philanthropist. The project, which began in 2015, has already surveyed more than 1,000 stars within 160 light-years away from Earth for signs of alien radio signals, with no positive results.

“We believe that life arose spontaneously on Earth, so in an infinite universe, there must be other occurrences of life,” famed physicist Stephen Hawking said during the initiative’s launch. “Somewhere in the cosmos, perhaps intelligent life might be watching these lights of ours, aware of what they mean. Or do our lights wander a lifeless cosmos, unseen beacons announcing that, here on one rock, the universe discovered its existence? Either way, there is no better question.”

Asteroid size of Empire State Building set to fly by Earth next week

Empire State Building-sized asteroid headed for Earth

NASA has learned a near-Earth object (NEO), asteroid 2006 QQ23, will zoom past the planet. Scientists have been tracking the rock and believe there is no cause for alarm.

A “potentially hazardous” asteroid that is as large as the Empire State Building will zoom past Earth next week on Aug. 10. But it’s not anything to worry about, according to experts.

Known as a near-Earth object (NEO), asteroid 2006 QQ23 will come within approximately 4.65 million miles, according to data compiled by NASA. However, the space rock has been orbiting Earth since at least 1901 (when records date back to) and NASA has mapped out its orbit all the way to February 2200, so it’s not a cause for alarm.

In November 2017, its orbit took it flying past Venus. The last time it zoomed past Earth was Jan. 17, 2017, the space agency noted.

According to a 2018 report put together by Planetary.org, there are more than 18,000 NEOs.

One-thousand eight-hundred seventy feet in diameter, 2006 QQ23 will blow past Earth at 10,400 mph, but if it hit the planet, it could cause some serious damage.

Asteroid 2019 OK zipped past Earth late last month, coming within 43,500 miles as it traveled at a robust speed of 15 miles a second. Only spotted a few days prior to its passing, the asteroid was labeled a “city-killer” if it had struck the planet in a densely populated area.

“This is one of the closest approaches to Earth by an asteroid that we know of. And it’s a pretty large one,” Michael Brown, an associate professor at Monash University’s school of physics and astronomy told the New York Post of Asteroid 2019 OK.

Although a recent survey showed that Americans prefer a space program that focuses on potential asteroid impacts over sending humans back to the Moon or to Mars, NASA has been preparing for planetary defense from asteroid strikes for years.

In 2016, NASA formalized the agency’s prior program for detecting and tracking NEOs and put it inside its Science Mission Directorate.

Last June, NASA unveiled a 20-page plan that detailed the steps the U.S. should take to be better prepared for NEOs such as asteroids and comets that come within 30 million miles of the planet.

Lindley Johnson, the space agency’s planetary defense officer, said at the time that the country “already has significant scientific, technical and operational capabilities” to help with NEOs, but implementing the new plan would “greatly increase our nation’s readiness and work with international partners to effectively respond should a new potential asteroid impact be detected.”

In addition to enhancing NEO detection, tracking and characterizing capabilities and improving modeling prediction, the plan also aims to develop technologies for deflecting NEOs, increasing international cooperation and establishing new NEO impact emergency procedures and action protocols.

NASA awarded a $69 million contract to SpaceX, the space exploration company led by Elon Musk, in April to help it with asteroid deflection via its Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission.

Separately in April, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said that an asteroid strike is not something to be taken lightly and is perhaps Earth’s biggest threat.

“We have to make sure that people understand that this is not about Hollywood, it’s not about movies,” Bridenstine said at the International Academy of Astronautics’ 2019 Planetary Defense Conference in College Park, Md, according to Space.com. “This is about ultimately protecting the only planet we know right now to host life, and that is the planet Earth.”

France Is Launching a ‘Space Force’ with Weaponized Satellites

New French satellites will be equipped with machine guns and laser weapons.

French Minister of Defense Florence Parly (left) discusses the new French space force in a speech at Airbase 942 in Lyon-Mont Verdun, on July 25, 2019. Next to her on stage, French Air Force general Philippe Lavigne stands beside a model of a satellite.

French Minister of Defense Florence Parly (left) discusses the new French space force in a speech at Airbase 942 in Lyon-Mont Verdun, on July 25, 2019. Next to her on stage, French Air Force general Philippe Lavigne stands beside a model of a satellite.(Image: © Philippe Desmazes/AFP/Getty)

Months after President Donald Trump announced the creation of the U.S. Space Force, France is beginning to lay the groundwork for its own version. 

French President Emmanuel Macron announced last month that the nation’s air force will establish a space command for the purpose of national defense, particularly to protect of French satellites. 

Last week, French Minister of Defense Florence Parly detailed the nation’s plan for its new space force, which involves equipping satellites with machine guns and lasers, according to the French news weekly Le Point

First, the country will launch next-generation Syracuse satellites equipped with cameras that will be able to identify threats in space, such as anti-satellite weapons

The French military currently operates a constellation of three Syracuse satellites that are primarily used for communication between the mainland and French troops deployed abroad. But after the new cameras are tried and tested, France will launch another generation of Syracuse satellites that will also be able to destroy enemy satellites. 

The upgraded Syracuse satellites will be armed with either submachine guns or lasers that could disable or even destroy another satellite, according to Le Point; France aims to have those space weapons fully operational in orbit by 2030.French Spy Satellite Launched by Arianespace Soyuz RocketVolume 0% 

While the international Outer Space Treaty prohibits the testing of weapons of mass destruction or nuclear weapons in orbit, and another United Nations treaty prohibits the weaponization of outer space, France has no intention of violating those treaties or initiating any space battles with its satellites, Parly said during a speech at Air Base 942 Lyon Mont-Verdun on July 26.

“We do not want to embark on a space arms race,” Parly said. “We will conduct a reasoned arsenalization.”

Parly announced that the French air force would receive an additional 700 million euros (around $780 million) in addition to its existing €3.6 billion (about $40 billion) budget for space activities between 2019 and 2025. The new space command will consist of 220 personnel from the French Air Forces’ Joint Space Command, the Operational Center for Military Surveillance of Space Objects (COSMOS) and the Satellite Observation Military Center (CMOS). The space force will operate from the new Air Force Space Operations Center in Toulouse. 

It’s Good! Hubble Telescope Scores Big with Football-Shaped Alien Planet

WASP-121b is burning up at 4,600 degrees.

An illustration of Planet WASP-121b orbiting its host star, which is even hotter than our sun.

An illustration of Planet WASP-121b orbiting its host star, which is even hotter than our sun. 

(Image: © NASA, ESA and J. Olmsted)

Scientists scored a touchdown when they observed heavy metals escaping from the surface of a football-shaped exoplanet that’s way too hot to handle.

The large and gassy “hot Jupiter,” called WASP-121b, orbits so close to its sun that its temperature is 10 times greater than that of any other known planet. Its odd, football-like shape is also due to the planet’s close proximity to the host star as it is on the verge of being ripped apart by the star’s gravity.

Using the Hubble Space Telescope, the group of scientists observed heavy metals, such as iron and magnesium, escaping through the surface of the exoplanet — marking the first time heavy metals were observed floating away from an exoplanet’s upper atmosphere. 

“Heavy metals have been seen in other hot Jupiters before, but only in the lower atmosphere so you don’t know if they are escaping or not,” David Sing a professor at the Earth and Planetary Science department at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland and lead author of the study, said in a statement by NASA. “With WASP-121b, we see magnesium and iron gas so far away from the planet that they’re not gravitationally bound.”

The temperature of the exoplanet’s upper atmosphere reaches 4,600 degrees Fahrenheit (2,538 Celsius), according to the statement. Therefore, unlike other hot Jupiters that are still cool enough to condense iron and magnesium into clouds, this sizzling hot world emits the gases from its surface. Additionally, the exoplanet is also described as “so big and puffy” that its gravity is relatively weak compared to other planets, making it easier for the gases to escape.

“This is a planet being actively stripped of its atmosphere,” Sing added. “In the case of WASP-121b, the hydrogen and helium gas is outflowing, almost like a river, and is dragging these metals with them. It’s a very efficient mechanism for mass loss.”

The escaping heavy metals could also contribute to the exoplanet’s rising temperatures. “These metals will make the atmosphere more opaque in the ultraviolet, which could be contributing to the heating of the upper atmosphere,” Sing said. 

Scientists are hoping to further study the exoplanet using NASA’s upcoming James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled to launch in March 2021, in order to search for water and carbon dioxide under ultraviolet light. 

A star turned into a black hole before Hubble’s very eyes

Bye bye supernove

When a massive star expends its fuel, its core collapses into a dense object and sends the rest of its gas outward in an event called a supernova. What’s left is mostly neutron stars or black holes. And now, Hubble seems to have seen a supernova blink out — suggesting it captured the moment when a black hole took over.

While some supernova events are explosive and leave clouds of debris for thousands of years (aka nebula) like SN 1054, the star in question seems to have begun to explode and then had all its gas sucked right back into the black hole at the center. This can happen when the core collapse of the star is especially massive. Rather than exploding, the gas collapses directly into the core of the star.

Only a few of these so called “massive fails” (yes, that’s what they’re calling them) have been spotted, so astronomers are cautious about the results. But this particular star, located in the galaxy NGC 6946, was bright enough to see from 22 million light years away and faded in an instant, suggesting a massive stellar-mass black hole was the driving culprit.

Want to learn more about the most exotic objects in the universe? Download our FREE eBook, Exotic Objects: Black holes, Pulsars, and more

This artist’s impression of a massive star that implodes instead of exploding as a supernova.

Astronomers may have finally seen a star become a black hole

“This is the target we’ve been waiting for for years,” says one astrophysicist.

AS DINOSAURS STOMPED across ancient Earth more than 200 million years ago, a massive star was entering its death throes. The resulting cosmic explosion was so unusual, it left astronomers scratching their heads when its glow at last reached our planet last June.

Now, the mysterious flash may have an origin story. Based on the latest observations of the strange supernova, nicknamed the Cow, a team of 45 astronomers argues that it may represent the first time humans have captured the exact moment a dying star gave birth to a black hole.

“This is the target we’ve been waiting for for years,” says team leader Raffaella Margutti, an astrophysicist at Northwestern University. Margutti and her colleagues presented their work this week at the American Astronomical Society’s annual meeting in Seattle, Washington, and will soon be publishing their findings in the Astrophysical Journal.

The team’s data, captured in multiple wavelengths of light, could also mean that a massive star collapsed into a neutron star, a kind of dense stellar corpse. And other teams studying the Cow have proposed alternative explanations for its unusual behavior. So what do we know about the Cow, and why has it been so hard for astronomers to describe? We’ve got you covered.

Where is the Cow, and why is it called that?

The Cow exploded in the outskirts of CGCG 137-068, a dwarf spiral galaxy about 200 million light-years from Earth. It’s called “the Cow” because of its formal, auto-generated name AT2018cow. A team of astronomers using Hawaii’s ATLAS telescopes saw it on June 16, 2018, and flagged the object to other astronomers on June 17—triggering a rush of telescopes turning to point at the explosion.

What makes the Cow so unusual?

The Cow isn’t the first flash of its kind spotted in the night sky, but it is the closest one ever detected, giving researchers an unprecedented chance to see one in detail. It also got really bright, really fast. At the Cow’s peak, it was tens of times more luminous in x-rays than normal stellar explosions, which are called supernovae. The Cow hit its peak brightness in just a few days, while it takes regular supernovae weeks to fully ramp up.

What’s more, the Cow’s power source wasn’t immediately obvious. Normally, supernovae get their explosive oomph from nickel-56, a radioactive isotope stuffed in their innards. But when astronomers calculated how much debris the Cow had thrown off, they came up with a surprisingly low amount of total ejected debris—maybe a tenth of our sun’s mass, if that. That’s weird, because supernovae normally eject tens of suns’ worth of debris.

Even if the Cow’s debris were entirely nickel-56, that wouldn’t be enough fuel to power the observed explosion. What’s more, the debris contained hydrogen and helium, which astronomers weren’t expecting to find: The stars that explode into supernovae should have long since burned through those elements as nuclear fuel.

The Cow also gave off radiation in unusual ways. For instance, Margutti’s team asked to point NASA’s NuSTAR x-ray telescope at the object. The data showed that a little over a week after it first appeared, the Cow unexpectedly grew a lot brighter in high-energy x-rays. “The first reaction when we got the data was, perhaps we did something wrong,” Margutti says.

Do we know what caused the Cow?

The current consensus is that a compact “central engine” sits at the Cow’s center and spews those high-energy x-rays. This object, whatever it is, is shrouded in a distinctly asymmetrical blob of material thrown off in some kind of explosion.

“One of the jokes is that we [physicists] always model things as spherical cows, and it was clear that this was an aspherical cow,” says study coauthor Brian Metzger, a physicist at Columbia University. “It’s really hard to explain this as a spherical event, because if the x-ray source is powering the optical radiation, then how are the x-rays getting out to us?”

One of the jokes is that we [physicists] always model things as spherical cows, and it was clear that this was an aspherical cow.

BRIAN METZGER, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY

In the model made by Margutti’s team, the debris flying from the object’s poles moves faster—and gets transparent sooner—than the clouds around the object’s equator. These equatorial clouds absorbed the engine’s high-energy x-rays, which made the clouds heat up and generate the Cow’s visible light. But some of the high-energy x-rays could still leak out from the Cow’s clearer poles.

Meanwhile, the Cow’s radio signals show that it behaved like a bull in a foggy china shop. When the Cow exploded, some of the debris from the object zoomed outward at more than 18,000 miles a second, or up to a tenth of the speed of light. The fastest of this material seems to have slammed into a dense haze of particles surrounding the Cow, heating up the haze and creating the object’s radio emissions.

So what is the Cow’s “central engine”?

Margutti’s team thinks there are two leading options. The Cow could be a highly magnetized neutron star rotating about a thousand times a second. The other possibility is that the object appeared when a huge and very hot type of star called a blue supergiant had a misfired explosion and became a black hole.

In this scenario, most of the star’s interior collapsed to form the black hole, but the star’s outermost layers didn’t feel it at first. As the inner black hole revved up, it lost some mass in the form of a swarm of ghostly particles called neutrinos. The neutrinos’ flight out of the star’s center ejected some of the outer material before the black hole could gobble it up, and the leftovers soon accreted into a disk around the newborn black hole.

Are there other ideas for what the Cow might be?

Margutti and her colleagues aren’t the only ones proposing that the Cow has a central engine. In another study accepted to the Astrophysical Journal, a separate team led by Caltech astronomer Anna Y. Q. Ho reaches similar conclusions.

But Daniel Perley, an astrophysicist at Liverpool John Moores University, suggests in his own study that the Cow may have appeared when an already existing and relatively massive black hole ate a star similar to our sun, in an event known as a tidal disruption. As the black hole’s immense gravity ripped the star apart, its gases could have accreted around the black hole in a disk, creating the Cow’s unusual glow in the process.

The question is whether it makes sense for a black hole of that size to be hanging out in the outskirts of a galaxy, in an area that should be dense with gas according to the Cow’s radio signals. Current theory holds that black holes of that caliber should form in star clusters, where there’s not a lot of extra gas.

Margutti argues that the Cow’s environment makes a lot more sense if the fog surrounding it was material thrown off by a huge star, one that could later collapse into a neutron star or black hole. But Perley points out that we haven’t yet found and studied any black holes in the mass range his team invokes, so we can’t be sure that theory matches reality.

“[Margutti’s] team is composed of some really top-tier supernova experts, but I’d like to see the tidal-disruption experts weigh in, to see if they can find a way to make it work,” Perley says.

What’s next?

Longer-term observations of the Cow could help tease out the identity of its central engine. If a magnetized neutron star lies at the Cow’s heart, Metzger says, it could send out x-ray flares years from now. A black hole, however, wouldn’t flicker in this way.

But the most fruitful way to learn more about the Cow is to find more objects like it. Astronomers only recently gained the ability to spot such flashes of light and follow up on them in real time, as more robotic telescopes and large-scale surveys have come online.

“These surveys of the night sky are almost taking movies … It’s an exciting time,” Metzger says. “We’re not just seeing the universe as a static thing, but something that can be every active, even on timescales of a few days.”

Living Underground on the Moon: How Lava Tubes Could Aid Lunar Colonization

But there’s a lot we still don’t know.

What lurks within the moon's underground lava tubes? Entrances or "skylights" to lava tubes might allow future explorers access to subsurface ice.

What lurks within the moon’s underground lava tubes? Entrances or “skylights” to lava tubes might allow future explorers access to subsurface ice.(Image: © Pascal Lee/Mars Institute/SETI Institute)

Getting humans back to the moon — “this time to stay” —  will require the exploitation of lunar resources, NASA officials and exploration advocates say. 

The most important resource, at least in the short term, is water ice, which is abundant on the floors of permanently shadowed polar craters. The ice found in these “cold traps” is thought to be stable and accessible. 

But there may be other spots on the moon that could yield a mother lode of scientific data — as well as the resources needed to sustain human occupation of Earth’s celestial next door neighbor. 

Related: Home on the Moon: How to Build a Lunar Colony (Infographic)

That’s the pits

Researchers have identified “pits” on the moon, which are likely lava-tube “skylights” — geological doorways to underground tunnels that were once filled with lava.

If they do indeed provide access to lava tubes, skylights could be a game-changer for human lunar exploration, said NASA Chief Scientist Jim Green. Lava tubes are protected from the harsh environment of the lunar surface, which is bombarded by radiation and experiences temperature extremes. One lunar day lasts about 29 Earth days, meaning surface locations endure about two straight weeks of daylight followed by two weeks of darkness. 

Connective roads?

“There are a number of things on the moon that are going to be surprises,” Green said. 

“We need to get in there,” he added, referring to lunar skylights. “We need to verify. Maybe there’s a lot of water in these skylights? We don’t know. We’re finding them all over the moon.” Moon Base Concept Has Buried Multi-Level Inflatable ModulesVolume 0% 

A lava-tube network would suggest protected corridors, free of temperature swings, bombarding radiation and menacing meteoroids. They also might offer a much larger habitat capability for future moon explorers. 

“We could actually build connective roads in them,” Green told Space.com. “It could be a whole new world for us. That’s another absolute game-changer.” 

More data needed

NASA Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter images spot the newly discovered lava tube skylight candidates at Philolaus Crater near the moon's north pole.
NASA Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter images spot the newly discovered lava tube skylight candidates at Philolaus Crater near the moon’s north pole.

We don’t have enough information yet to ascertain if skylights on the moon represent an interconnected underground roadway, said Pascal Lee, a planetary scientist at the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute. He is also chairman of the Mars Institute and director of the NASA Haughton Mars Project at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California. 

“For starters, not all pits on the moon are necessarily lava tube skylights,” Lee told Space.com. He said that some might be associated with isolated underground cavities.

“Secondly, not all lava tubes in a given region should be expected to be interconnected,” he added. “Indeed, some might have formed at different times, and might run at different levels or depths underground.”

Maze of corridors?

Lee also said that while some lava tubes on Earth have smooth walls and floors, most have very rough surfaces and debris piles on their floors. 

“We don’t know how rough lava tubes on the moon might be, but the term underground roadway seems optimistic,” Lee said. “In any case, in my view, it’s not that pits on the moon would lead to a maze of underground corridors that makes them most interesting — although that is fascinating — but the fact that they give access to an environment that’s radically different from the surface, whatever shape that underground environment might have.”

Any underground cavity on the moon, after all, would provide shielding — from temperature swings, space radiation, micrometeoritic bombardment and sandblasting from the rocket engines of landing or departing spacecraft.

Water harvesting

Moon’s Water Distribution Has To Do With Time of Day, Other FactorsVolume 0% 

Most intriguing to Lee are candidate pits recently identified inside Philolaus Crater near the north pole of the moon. Advertisement

“They might be skylights associated with a network of lava tubes formed not in volcanic lava flows, but in an impact melt sheet, the temporary pool of molten rock that ponded inside Philolaus Crater following the large impact that created the crater,” he said.

Interestingly enough, Lee said, the candidate pits inside Philolaus are located at such a high latitude that sunlight would never enter the underlying caves. 

“These would be in perpetual darkness and so cold that ice could be cold-trapped in them, much like it is in the permanently shadowed regions at the actual poles of the moon,” Lee said.

Exploring high-latitude pits on the moon might therefore offer an additional opportunity to harvest water on our lunar neighbor, Lee said.

Meanwhile, researchers have begun assessing the viability of underground lunar habitats.

Anahita Modiriasari, a postdoctoral researcher in Purdue University’s Lyles School of Civil Engineering, and her colleagues have been appraising lunar imagery, reconstructed into a 3D model to evaluate lava tubes as a potential habitat for humans on the moon. This is a task that a rover or drone could potentially accomplish on the lunar surface. 

The work is part of Purdue’s Resilient ExtraTerrestrial Habitats (RETH), a project that investigates the value of future human habitats on the moon or Mars.

“All of this collected data is vital,” Modiriasari said. “We are using it to build an advanced model of the size, strength and structural stability of the lava tube,” she said. For example, what happens during seismic activity? What would happen if a meteorite strikes? 

Micro-roving

In another development, the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Program recently awarded a Phase 3 contract to researchers developing robotic technologies to enable the exploration of lunar pits. 

The “Skylight” concept mission is led by William Whittaker of Carnegie Mellon University. The NIAC award will help Whittaker and his team flesh out ways to explore and model a lunar pit. Doing so will require fast, autonomous micro-roving, which achieves significant exploration in a single lunar daylight period.

According to Whittaker, descent into and exploration of the lunar subsurface will come, but “pit-specific” questions must first be answered from the surface: How navigable are the rims? Are there caves? Are there rappel routes? What is the morphology? 

Specifically, a mission of this type would create and downlink the first high-resolution, science-quality, 3D model of a vast planetary pit, Whittaker said.

“This [Skylight] initiative matures and transitions that technology. The technology innovations are exploration autonomy, in-situ 3D modeling, fast, far micro-roving and the aggregate means to achieve mission-in-a-week,” Whittaker said.Advertisement

The unanswered questions of lava-tube exploration aren’t just technological. Also looming large, as with all aspects of lunar resource use and settlement, are space-law issues.

“Potentially exciting research areas cannot be claimed by sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means,” said Joanne Gabrynowicz, professor emerita of space law at the University of Mississippi and editor-in-chief emerita at the Journal of Space Law.

“Doing things like digging corridors and building roads could easily be interpreted as making a claim by use or other means. This is prohibited by the Outer Space Treaty,” Gabrynowicz said. “The U.S. and all spacefaring nations are party to it. A location with high scientific value will require an international agreement regarding its use and who can access it.”

Newfound alien planet with three red suns discovered

Imagine living in a world of triple sunsets.

Scientists have used NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite to find an exoplanet with three red suns.

The exoplanet LTT 1445Ab orbits one of the three suns, all of which are described as mid-to-late-life red dwarfs. “The planet transits the primary star in the system,” researchers explain, in a paper which is available on the scientific repository arXiv.

The planet is described as having a radius that is 1.38 R_Earth, which means that it is a little over a third larger than our planet.

File image - artist's animation shows the view from a hypothetical moon in orbit around HD 188753 Ab, the first known planet to reside in a tight-knit triple-star system.

File image – artist’s animation shows the view from a hypothetical moon in orbit around HD 188753 Ab, the first known planet to reside in a tight-knit triple-star system. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Space.com reports that the LTT 1445 Ab system is 22.5 light-years away. A light-year, which measures distance in space, equals 6 trillion miles.

A red dwarf, or “M dwarf” in astronomical terms, is “the smallest, most abundant and longest-lived type of star in our galaxy,” according to NASA.

Scientists are intrigued by the discovery of the LTT 1445 Ab system. “It is the second nearest transiting exoplanet system found to date, and the closest one known for which the primary is an M dwarf,” they explain, in their study.

The paper has been submitted to the Astronomical Journal.

An artist's depiction of the view from a moon's surface of a gas giant and three suns.

An artist’s depiction of the view from a moon’s surface of a gas giant and three suns.(Image: © NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Astronomers think they’ve spotted an alien planet with three suns on its horizon — but that still isn’t the most interesting thing about the strange new world’s sky.

Scientists found the world, which they’ve dubbed LTT 1445Ab, in data gathered by NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS). LTT 1445Ab orbits just one of the three stars, all of which are red dwarfs in the latter half of their lives, and the system is about 22.5 light-years away from Earth.

“If you’re standing on the surface of that planet, there are three suns in the sky, but two of them are pretty far away and small-looking,” co-author Jennifer Winters, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, told New Scientist. “They’re like two red, ominous eyes in the sky.”

Related: The Strangest Alien Planets (Gallery)CLOSEVolume 0%This video will resume in 6 seconds 

From the TESS data, the scientists believe the planet is rocky, about a third larger than Earth and is at most about 8 times as massive as our home. It’s awfully toasty on the surface — 320 degrees Fahrenheit (160 degrees Celsius) — and the planet circles one star of the triplet every 5 days.

But what’s particularly special about it is something that scientists can’t yet, but may soon be able to, characterize: its atmosphere. Because the stars in question are red dwarfs that are located reasonably close to Earth, and because the system is arranged so that the planet passes between stars and Earth, scientists may actually be able to get a glimpse of any gases surrounding the planet using telescopes based on Earth.

Astronomers can’t quite take advantage of the opportunity yet, but it’s exactly the sort of tantalizing prospect that TESS was designed to find. The instrument, which is halfway through its initial two-year survey of most of the sky, looks for planets with short years located around nearby, bright stars — the perfect targets for later instruments to peer at atmospheres.

Astronomers say a Neptune-sized planet lurks beyond Pluto

The solar system appears to have a new ninth planet. Today, two scientists announced evidence that a body nearly the size of Neptune—but as yet unseen—orbits the sun every 15,000 years. During the solar system’s infancy 4.5 billion years ago, they say, the giant planet was knocked out of the planet-forming region near the sun. Slowed down by gas, the planet settled into a distant elliptical orbit, where it still lurks today.

The claim is the strongest yet in the centuries-long search for a “Planet X” beyond Neptune. The quest has been plagued by far-fetched claims and even outright quackery. But the new evidence comes from a pair of respected planetary scientists, Konstantin Batygin and Mike Brown of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, who prepared for the inevitable skepticism with detailed analyses of the orbits of other distant objects and months of computer simulations. “If you say, ‘We have evidence for Planet X,’ almost any astronomer will say, ‘This again? These guys are clearly crazy.’ I would, too,” Brown says. “Why is this different? This is different because this time we’re right.”

Mike Brown (left) and Konstantin Batygin.
Mike Brown (left) and Konstantin Batygin.LANCE HAYASHIDA/CALTECH

Outside scientists say their calculations stack up and express a mixture of caution and excitement about the result. “I could not imagine a bigger deal if—and of course that’s a boldface ‘if’—if it turns out to be right,” says Gregory Laughlin, a planetary scientist at the University of California (UC), Santa Cruz. “What’s thrilling about it is [the planet] is detectable.”

Batygin and Brown inferred its presence from the peculiar clustering of six previously known objects that orbit beyond Neptune. They say there’s only a 0.007% chance, or about one in 15,000, that the clustering could be a coincidence. Instead, they say, a planet with the mass of 10 Earths has shepherded the six objects into their strange elliptical orbits, tilted out of the plane of the solar system.

The orbit of the inferred planet is similarly tilted, as well as stretched to distances that will explode previous conceptions of the solar system. Its closest approach to the sun is seven times farther than Neptune, or 200 astronomical units (AUs). (An AU is the distance between Earth and the sun, about 150 million kilometers.) And Planet X could roam as far as 600 to 1200 AU, well beyond the Kuiper belt, the region of small icy worlds that begins at Neptune’s edge about 30 AU.

If Planet X is out there, Brown and Batygin say, astronomers ought to find more objects in telltale orbits, shaped by the pull of the hidden giant. But Brown knows that no one will really believe in the discovery until Planet X itself appears within a telescope viewfinder. “Until there’s a direct detection, it’s a hypothesis—even a potentially very good hypothesis,” he says. The team has time on the one large telescope in Hawaii that is suited for the search, and they hope other astronomers will join in the hunt.

Killing Pluto was fun, but this is head and shoulders above everything else.Mike Brown, Caltech

Batygin and Brown published the result today in The Astronomical Journal. Alessandro Morbidelli, a planetary dynamicist at the Nice Observatory in France, performed the peer review for the paper. In a statement, he says Batygin and Brown made a “very solid argument” and that he is “quite convinced by the existence of a distant planet.”

Championing a new ninth planet is an ironic role for Brown; he is better known as a planet slayer. His 2005 discovery of Eris, a remote icy world nearly the same size as Pluto, revealed that what was seen as the outermost planet was just one of many worlds in the Kuiper belt. Astronomers promptly reclassified Pluto as a dwarf planet—a saga Brown recounted in his book How I Killed Pluto.

Now, he has joined the centuries-old search for new planets. His method—inferring the existence of Planet X from its ghostly gravitational effects—has a respectable track record. In 1846, for example, the French mathematician Urbain Le Verrier predicted the existence of a giant planet from irregularities in the orbit of Uranus. Astronomers at the Berlin Observatory found the new planet, Neptune, where it was supposed to be, sparking a media sensation.

Remaining hiccups in Uranus’s orbit led scientists to think that there might yet be one more planet, and in 1906 Percival Lowell, a wealthy tycoon, began the search for what he called “Planet X” at his new observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. In 1930, Pluto turned up—but it was far too small to tug meaningfully on Uranus. More than half a century later, new calculations based on measurements by the Voyager spacecraft revealed that the orbits of Uranus and Neptune were just fine on their own: No Planet X was needed.

Yet the allure of Planet X persisted. In the 1980s, for example, researchers proposed that an unseen brown dwarf star could cause periodic extinctions on Earth by triggering fusillades of comets. In the 1990s, scientists invoked a Jupiter-sized planet at the solar system’s edge to explain the origin of certain oddball comets. Just last month, researchers claimed to have detected the faint microwave glow of an outsized rocky planet some 300 AU away, using an array of telescope dishes in Chile called the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA). (Brown was one of many skeptics, noting that ALMA’s narrow field of view made the chances of finding such an object vanishingly slim.)

Brown got his first inkling of his current quarry in 2003, when he led a team that found Sedna, an object a bit smaller than both Eris and Pluto. Sedna’s odd, far-flung orbit made it the most distant known object in the solar system at the time. Its perihelion, or closest point to the sun, lay at 76 AU, beyond the Kuiper belt and far outside the influence of Neptune’s gravity. The implication was clear: Something massive, well beyond Neptune, must have pulled Sedna into its distant orbit.

(DATA) JPL; BATYGIN AND BROWN/CALTECH; (DIAGRAM) A. CUADRA/SCIENCE

That something didn’t have to be a planet. Sedna’s gravitational nudge could have come from a passing star, or from one of the many other stellar nurseries that surrounded the nascent sun at the time of the solar system’s formation.

Since then, a handful of other icy objects have turned up in similar orbits. By combining Sedna with five other weirdos, Brown says he has ruled out stars as the unseen influence: Only a planet could explain such strange orbits. Of his three major discoveries—Eris, Sedna, and now, potentially, Planet X—Brown says the last is the most sensational. “Killing Pluto was fun. Finding Sedna was scientifically interesting,” he says. “But this one, this is head and shoulders above everything else.”

Brown and Batygin were nearly beaten to the punch. For years, Sedna was a lone clue to a perturbation from beyond Neptune. Then, in 2014, Scott Sheppard and Chad Trujillo (a former graduate student of Brown’s) published a paper describing the discovery of VP113, another object that never comes close to the sun. Sheppard, of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C., and Trujillo, of the Gemini Observatory in Hawaii, were well aware of the implications. They began to examine the orbits of the two objects along with 10 other oddballs. They noticed that, at perihelion, all came very near the plane of solar system in which Earth orbits, called the ecliptic. In a paper, Sheppard and Trujillo pointed out the peculiar clumping and raised the possibility that a distant large planet had herded the objects near the ecliptic. But they didn’t press the result any further.

Later that year, at Caltech, Batygin and Brown began discussing the results. Plotting the orbits of the distant objects, Batygin says, they realized that the pattern that Sheppard and Trujillo had noticed “was only half of the story.” Not only were the objects near the ecliptic at perihelia, but their perihelia were physically clustered in space (see diagram, above).

For the next year, the duo secretly discussed the pattern and what it meant. It was an easy relationship, and their skills complemented each other. Batygin, a 29-year-old whiz kid computer modeler, went to college at UC Santa Cruz for the beach and the chance to play in a rock band. But he made his mark there by modeling the fate of the solar system over billions of years, showing that, in rare cases, it was unstable: Mercury may plunge into the sun or collide with Venus. “It was an amazing accomplishment for an undergraduate,” says Laughlin, who worked with him at the time.

Brown, 50, is the observational astronomer, with a flair for dramatic discoveries and the confidence to match. He wears shorts and sandals to work, puts his feet up on his desk, and has a breeziness that masks intensity and ambition. He has a program all set to sift for Planet X in data from a major telescope the moment they become publicly available later this year.

Their offices are a few doors down from each other. “My couch is nicer, so we tend to talk more in my office,” Batygin says. “We tend to look more at data in Mike’s.” They even became exercise buddies, and discussed their ideas while waiting to get in the water at a Los Angeles, California, triathlon in the spring of 2015.

First, they winnowed the dozen objects studied by Sheppard and Trujillo to the six most distant—discovered by six different surveys on six different telescopes. That made it less likely that the clumping might be due to an observation bias such as pointing a telescope at a particular part of the sky.

Batygin began seeding his solar system models with Planet X’s of various sizes and orbits, to see which version best explained the objects’ paths. Some of the computer runs took months. A favored size for Planet X emerged—between five and 15 Earth masses—as well as a preferred orbit: antialigned in space from the six small objects, so that its perihelion is in the same direction as the six objects’ aphelion, or farthest point from the sun. The orbits of the six cross that of Planet X, but not when the big bully is nearby and could disrupt them. The final epiphany came 2 months ago, when Batygin’s simulations showed that Planet X should also sculpt the orbits of objects that swoop into the solar system from above and below, nearly orthogonal to the ecliptic. “It sparked this memory,” Brown says. “I had seen these objects before.” It turns out that, since 2002, five of these highly inclined Kuiper belt objects have been discovered, and their origins are largely unexplained. “Not only are they there, but they are in exactly the places we predicted,” Brown says. “That is when I realized that this is not just an interesting and good idea—this is actually real.”

Sheppard, who with Trujillo had also suspected an unseen planet, says Batygin and Brown “took our result to the next level. …They got deep into the dynamics, something that Chad and I aren’t really good with. That’s why I think this is exciting.”

Others, like planetary scientist Dave Jewitt, who discovered the Kuiper belt, are more cautious. The 0.007% chance that the clustering of the six objects is coincidental gives the planet claim a statistical significance of 3.8 sigma—beyond the 3-sigma threshold typically required to be taken seriously, but short of the 5 sigma that is sometimes used in fields like particle physics. That worries Jewitt, who has seen plenty of 3-sigma results disappear before. By reducing the dozen objects examined by Sheppard and Trujillo to six for their analysis, Batygin and Brown weakened their claim, he says. “I worry that the finding of a single new object that is not in the group would destroy the whole edifice,” says Jewitt, who is at UC Los Angeles. “It’s a game of sticks with only six sticks.”

IMAGES: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS; NASA/JPL-CALTECH; A. CUADRA/SCIENCE; NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI; (DIAGRAM) A. CUADRA/SCIENCE

At first blush, another potential problem comes from NASA’s Widefield Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE), a satellite that completed an all-sky survey looking for the heat of brown dwarfs—or giant planets. It ruled out the existence of a Saturn-or-larger planet as far out as 10,000 AU, according to a 2013 study by Kevin Luhman, an astronomer at Pennsylvania State University, University Park. But Luhman notes that if Planet X is Neptune-sized or smaller, as Batygin and Brown say, WISE would have missed it. He says there is a slim chance of detection in another WISE data set at longer wavelengths—sensitive to cooler radiation—which was collected for 20% of the sky. Luhman is now analyzing those data.

Even if Batygin and Brown can convince other astronomers that Planet X exists, they face another challenge: explaining how it ended up so far from the sun. At such distances, the protoplanetary disk of dust and gas was likely to have been too thin to fuel planet growth. And even if Planet X did get a foothold as a planetesimal, it would have moved too slowly in its vast, lazy orbit to hoover up enough material to become a giant.

Instead, Batygin and Brown propose that Planet X formed much closer to the sun, alongside Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. Computer models have shown that the early solar system was a tumultuous billiards table, with dozens or even hundreds of planetary building blocks the size of Earth bouncing around. Another embryonic giant planet could easily have formed there, only to be booted outward by a gravitational kick from another gas giant.

It’s harder to explain why Planet X didn’t either loop back around to where it started or leave the solar system entirely. But Batygin says that residual gas in the protoplanetary disk might have exerted enough drag to slow the planet just enough for it to settle into a distant orbit and remain in the solar system. That could have happened if the ejection took place when the solar system was between 3 million and 10 million years old, he says, before all the gas in the disk was lost into space.

Hal Levison, a planetary dynamicist at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, agrees that something has to be creating the orbital alignment Batygin and Brown have detected. But he says the origin story they have developed for Planet X and their special pleading for a gas-slowed ejection add up to “a low-probability event.” Other researchers are more positive. The proposed scenario is plausible, Laughlin says. “Usually things like this are wrong, but I’m really excited about this one,” he says. “It’s better than a coin flip.”

All this means that Planet X will remain in limbo until it is actually found.

Astronomers have some good ideas about where to look, but spotting the new planet won’t be easy. Because objects in highly elliptical orbits move fastest when they are close to the sun, Planet X spends very little time at 200 AU. And if it were there right now, Brown says, it would be so bright that astronomers probably would have already spotted it.

Instead, Planet X is likely to spend most of its time near aphelion, slowly trotting along at distances between 600 and 1200 AU. Most telescopes capable of seeing a dim object at such distances, such as the Hubble Space Telescope or the 10-meter Keck telescopes in Hawaii, have extremely tiny fields of view. It would be like looking for a needle in a haystack by peering through a drinking straw.

One telescope can help: Subaru, an 8-meter telescope in Hawaii that is owned by Japan. It has enough light-gathering area to detect such a faint object, coupled with a huge field of view—75 times larger than that of a Keck telescope. That allows astronomers to scan large swaths of the sky each night. Batygin and Brown are using Subaru to look for Planet X—and they are coordinating their efforts with their erstwhile competitors, Sheppard and Trujillo, who have also joined the hunt with Subaru. Brown says it will take about 5 years for the two teams to search most of the area where Planet X could be lurking.

The 8-meter Subaru Telescope atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii has a large field of view—enabling it to search efficiently for Planet X.
The 8-meter Subaru Telescope atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii has a large field of view—enabling it to search efficiently for Planet X. SUBARU TELESCOPE, NAOJ

If the search pans out, what should the new member of the sun’s family be called? Brown says it’s too early to worry about that and scrupulously avoids offering up suggestions. For now, he and Batygin are calling it Planet Nine (and, for the past year, informally, Planet Phattie—1990s slang for “cool”). Brown notes that neither Uranus nor Neptune—the two planets discovered in modern times—ended up being named by their discoverers, and he thinks that that’s probably a good thing. It’s bigger than any one person, he says: “It’s kind of like finding a new continent on Earth.”

He is sure, however, that Planet X—unlike Pluto—deserves to be called a planet. Something the size of Neptune in the solar system? Don’t even ask. “No one would argue this one, not even me.”

Used SpaceX Dragon Cargo Ship Arrives at Space Station for Record 3rd Time

The craft is delivering more than 5,000 lbs. of science gear and supplies.

SpaceX’s robotic Dragon cargo capsule arrived at the International Space Station today (July 27), ending a two-day orbital chase and setting a new record for SpaceX’s reusable spacecraft.

The Dragon, which launched Thursday (July 25) from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station atop a two-stage Falcon 9 rocket, was captured by the space station’s huge robotic arm at 9:11 a.m. EDT (1311 GMT) as both spacecraft sailed 267 miles (430 kilometers) above the coast of southern Chile in South America.

“We want to congratulate the team spread across the globe that makes delivering a vehicle like this. It’s pretty looking at it out the window,” astronaut Nick Hague radioed to NASA’s Mission Control in Houston after capturing Dragon with the station’s robotic arm. “It’s full of science and cargo and things to keep us busy. So, the mission continues.”

SpaceX’s most-flown Dragon

This is the record third cargo delivery mission to the International Space Station (ISS) for this particular Dragon, which also ferried cargo to the station in April 2015 and December 2017. The Falcon 9 was preflown as well; the rocket’s first stage had one mission under its belt before Thursday’s launch.

Such reuse is key to SpaceX’s quest to slash the cost of spaceflight, thereby making ambitious exploration feats such as Mars colonization achievable.Blastoff! SpaceX Launches CRS-18 Mission to Space StationVolume 0% 

Dragon is carrying more than 5,000 lbs. (2,268 kilograms) of supplies and equipment up to the ISS on this trip, including 2,500 lbs. (1,135 kg) of science gear that will enable dozens of experiments aboard the orbiting lab. 

Later today, flight controllers on Earth will attach Dragon to an open berthing port on the space station by remotely controlling the outpost’s robotic arm. Astronauts will then be able to open the spacecraft and begin unloading its bounty.

Big science aboard

SpaceX CRS-18 to Space Station – Mission OverviewVolume 0% 

One of those experiments will study how microbes interact with rocks in a low-gravity environment, possibly paving the way for space “biomining” down the road. Another will attempt to fabricate human tissue using a 3D printer, and another will gauge how microgravity affects the processes of healing and tissue regeneration.

Yet another experiment will use Nickelodeon’s famous green slime to study the behavior of fluids in microgravity. ISS crewmembers will also play “slime pong” and do other fun things with the stuff, and film the activities for our viewing pleasure down here on Earth.SpaceX CRS-18 Mission – Science Experiments HighlightedVolume 0% 

Dragon also toted up another International Docking Adapter (IDA), which is designed to allow a variety of spacecraft to link up with the ISS. Such visitors will include the crew version of Dragon and Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner capsule, both of which are scheduled to start carrying astronauts in the next year or so.

The ISS already has one IDA, which a different Dragon brought up in 2016.

Dragon is scheduled to remain attached to the ISS for about a month, NASA officials said. It will then return to Earth for a Pacific Ocean splashdown, bearing a variety of science samples for researchers to study.

The current cargo mission is the 18th that SpaceX has flown under a contract with NASA.

Mike Wall’s book about the search for alien life, “Out There” (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), is out now. Follow him on Twitter@michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook

GOP lawmaker says he’s ‘concerned’ over reported UFO sightings by Navy pilots

What does the US military actually know about UFOs?

Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C., told Fox News Friday that he is “concerned” about recent reports by U.S. Navy pilots of encounters with unidentified aircraft that some have speculated could be otherworldly.

“We are concerned about it,” Walker, a member of the House Homeland Security Committee, said on “Tucker Carlson Tonight.”  “As the ranking member of terrorism and counterintelligence, we have questions. It comes down to some of the new infrared radar systems that we’re putting on some of our new jets are detecting some things out there.”

In a letter to Navy Secretary Richard Spencer earlier this month, Walker relayed his concerns and asked for more information on what he referred to as unidentified aerial phenomenon (UAP).

Specifically, Walker asked whether the Navy was still logging the reported sightings, fully investigating the origins of the accounts, and dedicating resources to track and investigate the claims.Video

Walker also asked Spencer in the letter if investigators had “found physical evidence or otherwise that substantiates these claims.”

The Pentagon confirmed the existence of a program to investigate UFOs in 2017, but it is unclear if that is still operating.

The New York Times recently reported that Navy pilots said they saw “strange objects” with “no visible engine or infrared exhaust plumes” flying at hypersonic speeds at an elevation of 30,000 feet along the East Coast.

Politico reported last month that three senators received a briefing from the Pentagon on the encounters.

“There must be theories about what these objects are what these aircraft are,” Carlson told Walker. “What’s the most plausible theory, do you think?”

“We don’t know for sure,” Walker said. “The question that we’re wanting to get to is, is this something that’s a defense mechanism from another country?”

Indian farmers shocked as ‘fireball-like’ object crashes into rice field

By Christopher Carbone | Fox News

Raw video: Meteor lights up the night sky above Alice Springs, Australia

Police security camera footage captures the moment a green fireball streaks across the sky.

A suspected meteorite crashed into a rice field in India on Monday.

According to The Guardian, the football-sized object landed with a thud and sent up smoke in the Madhubani district in Bihar state, to the surprise of local farmers.

Kapil Ashok told the Times of India that people reported seeing a “fireball-like object coming down from the sky.”

Residents later dug up the mysterious object from a 5-foot deep hole.

A villager holds the suspected meteorite.

A villager holds the suspected meteorite. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

The probable meteorite was brownish in color and weighed about 33 pounds, the Times reports.

Ashok told the Press Trust of India it looked like a rock “but its glitter is much more than that of an unpolished stone.”

The object will be kept at the Bihar Museum at first, before it gets transferred to the Shrikrishna science center in Patna, where scientists will study it.

The mysterious object was seen by local residents and then excavated from this hole. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

The mysterious object was seen by local residents and then excavated from this hole. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

Meteorites, which are meteors that survive a fall to Earth, can offer a wide range of clues about the history of the solar system.

Scientists discover ‘plasma tsunamis’ are responsible for sunspots

Rolling waves of plasma known as “solar tsunamis” could be causing the sudden end of solar cycles, according to scientists.

Researchers identified so-called “terminator events” that mark the end of sunspot cycles, which could explain the process of how the sun transitions from periods of lower activity to higher activity.

The study, which was published in the journal Solar Physics, examined almost 140 years of data collected from the ground and by NASA’s Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory and Solar Dynamics Observatory, two spacecraft that have been staring at the sun for years.

According to CNET, as researchers observed UV light coming from the sun’s surface, they saw how bright points of light would appear at high latitudes and move toward the sun’s equator over a period of decades.

The sun's heat is extreme.

The sun’s heat is extreme. (NASA/GSFC/SDO)

Once the bright points disappear, another huge burst of activity would take place, which marks the start of the next sunspot cycle, researchers said.

“The evidence for terminators has been hidden in the observational record for more than a century, but until now, we didn’t know what we were looking for,” Scott McIntosh, an NCAR scientist who worked on both studies, said in a press statement.

Scientists have long wanted to better understand the sun’s cycles. When solar activity spikes, flares, sunspots and solar storms can impact satellites stationed near Earth and space weather.

NASA’s Solar Parker Probe is currently taking pictures and gathering information from inside the sun’s atmosphere.

LightSail 2 Deploys Solar Sail to Surf the Sun’s Rays

SAIL DEPLOYMENT COMPLETE! We’re sailing on SUNLIGHT!!!!!4,2142:17 PM – Jul 23, 2019Twitter Ads info and privacy1,269 people are talking about this

A spacecraft the size of a loaf of bread has finally turned itself into a solar sail.

On Tuesday (July 23) at about 2:47 p.m. EDT (1847 GMT), a motor onboard the small LightSail 2 cubesat began deploying the mission’s 344-square-foot (32-square-meter) solar sail, which is about the size of a boxing ring. LightSail 2 is the passion project of The Planetary Society, and the space advocacy organization wants to demonstrate that solar surfing is a viable propulsion technique for spacecraft. 

“We’re very excited to be past this huge milestone,” Jennifer Vaughn, Chief Operating Officer at The Planetary Society said during a livestream of the deployment from the spacecraft’s control center in California. “We now have a sail. It’s time to go sailing! … We now start the very difficult process of sailing in space.”

Related: Sailing on Sunbeams: LightSail 2 to Soar Higher Than Space Station CLOSEVolume 0%This video will resume in 18 seconds 

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) launched the first successful solar sail demonstration flight — Ikaros — in May 2010 and dubbed it a “solar yacht.” This project, which deployed its sail in June 2010, proved that a thin membrane attached to a spacecraft body could propel the vehicle forward by gathering momentum from the push of the light particles, called photons, emitted by the sun. NASA also launched a small cubesat sail called Nanosail-Din November 2010.

But since then, solar sailing has been stuck in the mud. The Planetary Society’s goal for the Lightsail 2 mission was to change that, spending a year orbiting Earth powered by photons.

Planetary Society@exploreplanets · 18hReplying to @exploreplanets

DEPLOYMENT COMPLETE! Telemetry shows motor has reached target count!

View image on Twitter

Planetary Society@exploreplanets

All indications are that #LightSail2 has deployed its solar sail as planned. We will now confirm deployment was successful by downloading imagery.6381:55 PM – Jul 23, 2019Twitter Ads info and privacy181 people are talking about this

“All indications are that #LightSail2 has deployed its solar sail as planned. We will now confirm deployment was successful by downloading imagery,” The Planetary Society shared via Twitter. In another tweet that followed shortly after, the organization said they would “begin downlinking imagery on today’s remaining tracking passes to confirm.”

LightSail 2 beamed back its first views of Earth earlier this month (July 7) and The Planetary Society confirmed that the spacecraft took photos during the deployment maneuver. 

To recap: All indications are that #LightSail2 has successfully deployed its solar sail! We will begin downlinking imagery on today’s remaining tracking passes to confirm.

View image on Twitter

7342:03 PM – Jul 23, 2019Twitter Ads info and privacy211 people are talking about this

So far, the LightSail 2 mission has been running more smoothly than that of its predecessor, which experienced a software glitch just two days after launching into orbit around Earth. 

The solar-sail concept goes back almost a century, according to JAXA’s website, and solar sailing has been a passion of The Planetary Society founders going back several decades.  

“Our first project around solar sailing really started about 20 years ago with our Cosmos 1 solar sail. That mission would have been the very first space test of a solar sail,” Vaughn said during a June 20 teleconference held days before LightSail 2 launched aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket on the early morning of June 25.

Science communicator Bill Nye, who leads The Planetary Society, first heard about solar sails in the famous astronomer Carl Sagan’s classroom at Cornell University 42 years ago. During the teleconference, he recalled his teacher talk enthusiastically about the idea of solar sailing.

If all continues to go well, LightSail 2 could prove the viability of using photons to propel other versions of this technology deep into the solar system.

Follow Doris Elin Salazar on Twitter @salazar_elin. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook 

Have a news tip, correction or comment? Let us know at community@space.com.

After 1.5 years of delay, India’s ambitious lunar mission launches

A model of Chandrayaan-2’s rover undergoing tests to prepare for operating in the moon’s anemic gravity. INDIAN SPACE RESEARCH ORGANISATION

*Update, 22 July, 2:45 p.m.: India’s much-delayed Chandrayaan-2 lunar mission finally launched today on a 7-week journey to a landing site near the moon’s south pole. The launch, planned for 2018 and described in our story below, was first pushed back to later in the year to allow more tests. Then, a comprehensive review in June 2018 recommended more changes to the mission, pushing the launch to early this year, before damage to the lander legs during a test delayed it further to 14 July. All set to go, a technical snag caused the launch to be aborted 56 minutes before liftoff. But at 2:43 a.m. local time today, all went smoothly and Chandrayaan-2 set off for the moon’s previously unexplored polar regions.

Below is our original story from 31 January 2018:

BENGALURU, INDIA—Sometime this summer, a spacecraft orbiting over the moon’s far side, out of contact with controllers on Earth, will release a lander. The craft will ease to a soft landing just after lunar sunrise on an ancient, table-flat plain about 600 kilometers from the south pole. There, it will unleash a rover into territory never before explored at the surface; all previous lunar craft have set down near the equator.

That’s the ambitious vision for India’s second voyage to the moon in a decade, due to launch in the coming weeks. If Chandrayaan-2 is successful, it will pave the way for even more ambitious Indian missions, such as landings on Mars and an asteroid, as well a Venus probe, says Kailasavadivoo Sivan, chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) here. Chandrayaan-2, he says, is meant to show that India has the technological prowess “to soft land on other heavenly bodies.”

But lunar scientists have much at stake, too. “There has been a rebirth of lunar exploration across the globe, and India can’t be left behind,” says Mylswamy Annadurai, director of the ISRO Satellite Centre. Instruments aboard the lander and rover will collect data on the moon’s thin envelope of plasma, as well as isotopes such as helium-3, a potential fuel for future fusion energy reactors. The orbiter itself will follow up on a stunning discovery by India’s first lunar foray, the Chandrayaan-1 orbiter, which found water molecules on the moon in 2009. Before that, “It was kind of a kooky science to think that you’d find water” there, says James Greenwood, a cosmochemist at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. “Now, we’re arguing about how much water, and not whether it has water or not.” Cameras and a spectrometer aboard the Chandrayaan-2 orbiter could help settle that question.

The $150 million mission was originally meant to fly 3 years ago, but Russia failed to deliver a promised lander, prompting India to go it alone. Final preparations are underway on the Chandrayaan-2 spacecraft, which will launch from the Sriharikota spaceport on the Bay of Bengal aboard India’s Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle.

A landing so far from the lunar equator is especially tricky. “It is a difficult and complicated mission,” says Wu Ji, director of the National Space Science Center in Beijing. Less sunlight reaches the poles, which means the lander and rover must be parsimonious with power. The plan is to set down in a high plain between two craters, Manzinus C and Simpelius N, at a latitude of about 70° south.Pole positionIf all goes to plan, India’s Chandrayaan-2 mission this summer will attempt a soft landing on an ancient high plain of the moon, some 600 kilometers from the south pole. It would be the first land-ing so far from the equator.Seeking ground truthWith spectrometers for assaying elements in theregolith, the briefcase-size rover hopes to make the most of the 14-Earth-day lunar day.Exploring lunar novaThe lander is equipped with a seismometer to listen for moonquakes and a Langmuir probe that will measure fluctuations in the wispy plasma enveloping the lunar surface.CopernicuscraterSea ofSerenityEquatorTychocraterBulk of previouslunar landingsSNSolarpanelWarmelectronicsboxNavigation cameraRoverLanding skidRampMoonChandrayaan-2 landing site nearsouthern poleRoverLanderC. BICKEL/SCIENCE

The lander will pack as much science as it can into its first lunar day—14 Earth days—as controllers may not be able to revive it after the long lunar night. The craft has a Langmuir probe to measure the moon’s plasma—a wispy layer of charged ions that may explain why the lunar regolith, or dust, has a tendency to float in the thin atmosphere. It also has a seismometer for recording moonquakes. Its seismic measurements would supplement those from the Apollo landings, because readings from high latitudes would be sensitive to signals passing through different parts of the moon. And if the seismometer is lucky enough to record a sizable quake during its operational lifetime, it might offer new evidence in a long-running debate over what the moon’s core is composed of, and whether it’s solid. “We just need more data to understand the lunar interior,” says David Kring, a planetary geologist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, Texas, who is not involved in the mission.

The briefcase-size rover, weighing just 25 kilograms, will also carry two spectrometers for probing the lunar surface’s elemental composition. The area is enticing, as it is thought to be made up of rocks more than 4 billion years old that solidified from the magma ocean that covered the newly formed moon. The data would be compared with those from Apollo-era missions that landed in other ancient highlands closer to the equator.

For some scientists, the most anticipated data will come from the orbiter’s water mapper. Protons in the solar wind generate hydroxyl ions when they strike oxides in the regolith. The ions drift to the poles, where they are trapped in craters as water ice, which the orbiter will inventory. Shedding light on the moon’s water circulation “is a worthwhile endeavor,” says Carle Pieters, a lunar scientist at Brown University. Locating substantial water, adds Muthayya Vanitha, Chandrayaan-2’s project director at ISRO, “could pave the way for the future habitation of the moon,” as water is a limiting factor for operating a base.

Regardless of whether Chandrayaan-2 breaks new scientific ground, a successful soft landing near the south pole will be a technical accomplishment for India, as well as a proud moment for the country. It may even benefit other countries’ moon programs. “One of NASA’s main priorities is to go [to the south pole] on a sample return mission,” Greenwood says, “so this could help us also later down the road as they give us more information as to what’s there.”

Debate intensifies over speed of expanding universe

The peak brightness of red giants in distant galaxies represents a new way to calculate the Hubble constant. ESA/HUBBLE & NASA

This week, leading experts at clocking one of the most contested numbers in the cosmos—the Hubble constant, the rate at which the universe expands—gathered in hopes that new measurements could point the way out of a brewing storm in cosmology.

No luck so far. A hotly anticipated new cosmic yardstick, reliant on red giants, has served only to muddle the debate about the actual value of the constant, and other measurements brought no resolution. “It was the craziest conference I’ve been to,” said Daniel Scolnic, an astrophysicist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. “Everyone felt like they were on this rollercoaster.”

The meeting, at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics in Santa Barbara, California, was the latest episode in a saga stretching back to the 1920s, when Edwin Hubble established that the farther one looks into space, the faster galaxies are speeding away from Earth. Since then, scientists have devoted entire careers to refining the rate of that flow, Hubble’s eponymous constant, or H0. But recently, the problem has hardened into a transdisciplinary dispute.

On one side are cosmologists who gather data from the greatest distances, such as a map of the big bang’s afterglow recorded by the European satellite Planck. They compare the apparent size of features in that afterglow with their actual size, as predicted by theory, to calculate an H0 of about 67. That means distant galaxies should be flying away from the Milky Way 67 kilometers per second faster for every additional megaparsec astronomers gaze out into space.

But when astronomers look at actual galaxies, using delicate chains of inferences to make up for the universe’s frustrating lack of tick marks, they get a different number. Over the past few years, a team led by Nobel laureate Adam Riess from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, has cataloged standard candles: astrophysical objects with a known brightness, whose distance can be calculated based on how bright they appear from Earth. The team uses the supernovae explosions of white dwarf stars as standard beacons to measure distances far out into the swelling universe; they calibrate the brightness of nearby supernovae by monitoring variable stars, called cepheids, in the same galaxies. The stars’ light waxes and wanes at a rate that signals their intrinsic brightness. Earlier this year, this team, dubbed SH0ES, reported an H0 of about 74, a standard-bearing measurement for the astronomers’ side.

If the discrepancy between the cosmologists and the astronomers can’t be chalked up to a subtle, hidden methodological flaw, modern physics itself could be due for a revision. Theorists, salivating at the possibility, have begun to dream up hidden ingredients in the early universe—new particles or interactions—that could patch over the gulf. But they haven’t found a fix that doesn’t cause new problems. With stakes that high, astronomers put their heads together in Santa Barbara to double and triple check the SH0ES result against other ways to measure the constant.

A team called H0LiCOW relied on gravitational lenses, freak cosmic alignments where the light from a very distant, flickering beacon called a quasar is bent into multiple images on the sky by the gravity of another, intervening galaxy. Each image is formed by light traveling along a different path across expanding space. Because of that, though, the flickers don’t all arrive at Earth at the same time. Based on the time delays and not-so-simple geometry, the team calculated the H0 from six different such systems and came up with a value of roughly 73—“very close” to the SH0ES results, says Geoff Chih-Fan Chen, a team member at the University of California, Davis. The team didn’t check its final number—published just before the meeting on the preprint server arXiv—until the very end of its analysis to avoid bias, Chen says. “Some people will unconsciously want to get the right answer.”

One point for possible new physics. But the meeting brought a twist. On the first evening, the Carnegie-Chicago Hubble Program team, led by Wendy Freedman, a veteran H0 measurer at the University of Chicago in Illinois, uploaded its own long-anticipated paper—already accepted to The Astrophysical Journal—to arXiv. Freedman’s team sought to develop a new type of standard candle. “If we put all our eggs in the cepheid basket,” Freedman says, “we will never uncover our unknown unknowns.”

Instead, her team looked toward old, swollen stars called red giants. These stars have already exhausted the hydrogen fuel at their hearts, converting it to a core of helium that sits, inert, as a hydrogen shell around the core continues to burn. The star, seen from afar, grows brighter and brighter. But at a certain, predictable limit the temperature and pressure in the core grow high enough to burn helium, too, generating an explosive flash of energy that rearranges the interior of the star, ultimately causing it to begin to dim. By finding the very brightest red giants in a distant galaxy—the ones that toe this theoretical limit—the team could use them as standard candles to calculate distances and its own H0.

One day after the paper appeared, Freedman presented the result to the meeting: a surprisingly low H0 of about 70. “It definitely felt like an album drop,” says Scolnic, a SH0ES team member. The value was stuck between the competing sides—and slightly favored the cosmologists. “It has caused at least some people to pause for a second, and say, ‘Well, maybe it’s not as clear cut,’” Freedman says. 

The SH0ES team had huddled together as soon as Freedman’s paper came out, and members were ready to question some of her team’s underlying premises after her talk. They also pointed to a trio of other, if less-precise, Hubble results debuted in Santa Barbara that rely on independent astrophysical concepts—clouds of water circling the centers of faraway galaxies, other kinds of variable stars, and the rate at which the luminosities of galaxies fall off from their center to their edge.

A combined measurement that averaged all these astronomical results together still gave a value of 73. Unless hidden biases still lurk in the data, the gulf between that value and the cosmologists’ lower number remains near or above the 5σ statistical standard physicists use to divide possible flukes from the real deal.

In Riess’s mind, at least, astronomers are nearing a consensus that the Hubble gulf highlights a true difference between the ancient and more recent universe. “You’re left with a problem, discrepancy, crisis,” Riess says. “The biggest argument at the meeting, I thought, was about what word to use.”

His own vote? Crisis.

NASA names new moon landing program Artemis after Apollo’s sister

Half a century after NASA sent men to the moon under project “Apollo,” the space agency is now working to land men — and women — on the lunar surface as part of its “Artemis” program.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine revealed the new moniker on Monday (May 13) during a call with reporters that was primarily focused on the budget for the newly-named moon program.

“It turns out that Apollo had a twin sister, Artemis. She happens to be the goddess of the moon,” said Bridenstine, referring to Greek mythology. “Our astronaut office is very diverse and highly qualified. I think it is very beautiful that 50 years after Apollo, the Artemis program will carry the next man — and the first woman — to the moon.”

The Artemis program, which was previously only referred to by its component names — including the Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket, Orion crew vehicle and Gateway lunar outpost — began when President Donald Trump signed Space Policy Directive 1 in 2017, directing NASA to return astronauts to the moon. 

Two years later, in March (2019), Vice President Mike Pence further defined the program by announcing a five-year deadline for the first crewed lunar landing. The 2024 mission, he said, should land at the south pole with the “first woman and the next man on the moon.”

On Monday, Trump amended his Fiscal Year 2020 budget request to account for the accelerated schedule and new mission objectives.

“As you know, the President has given our agency the bold charge to land the next man and the first woman on the lunar south pole by 2024 and now President Trump has extended his vote of confidence in our work with an amended budget request for physical year 2020,” said Bridenstine in a video address to employees. “It includes $1.6 billion in additional funding.”

“Among other things, it will allow us to accelerate our development of the Space Launch System and Orion, it will support the development of a human lunar landing system and it will support precursor capabilities on the lunar surface, including increased robotic exploration of the moon’s polar region,” he said.

To achieve the 2024 goal, NASA intends to scale back its plans for a crew-tended, multi-module Gateway to include only the basic parts needed to support an initial landing. Support for a long-term, sustainable lunar presence, as had been NASA’s priority, have been deferred to 2028.

In Greek mythology, Apollo and Artemis were the twin children of Zeus and Leto. In addition to being the goddess of the moon, Artemis was also the goddess of the hunt, with Orion her hunting companion.

The name “Apollo” was first proposed for the 1960s moon landing program by Abe Silverstein, NASA’s then-director for spaceflight development. He chose the name because of its connection to Greek mythology and its “attractive connotations,” per the space agency.

Before being assigned to the current moon landing program, NASA used Artemis to refer to a pair of lunar probes studying the moon’s interactions with the sun. The ARTEMIS — or “Acceleration, Reconnection, Turbulence and Electrodynamics of the Moon’s Interaction with the Sun” — spacecraft were reassigned from NASA’s THEMIS mission in 2010.

Artemis was also selected by a team competing for NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) contract. The team, led by Draper, named their proposed lunar lander Artemis-7 in honor of the Greek goddess (the number 7 signified Draper’s seventh lunar landing, having a heritage in Apollo).

The name has also been used for a European communications satellite (retired in 2017) and was the fictional title given to the first city on the moon in author Andy Weir’s (“The Martian”) 2017 science fiction novel “Artemis.” There is also a small crater in Mare Imbrium, or the Sea of Showers, on the moon.

Bridenstine said the name Artemis represents the program’s goal of inclusion.

“I have a daughter who is 11 years old and I want her to be able to see herself in the same role as the next women [who] go to the moon see themselves in today,” he said. “This is really a beautiful moment in American history and I am very proud to be a part of it.”

This jellyfish makes glowing proteins previously unknown to science

The jellyfish Aequorea australis DARRIN SCHULTZ/UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, SANTA CRUZ/MONTEREY BAY AQUARIUM RESEARCH INSTITUTE

In 2017, Nathan Shaner and his colleagues found something unusual in the blue-green waters off Heron Island. As the group of scientists snorkeled the reefs surrounding the coral cay on the southern end of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, one spotted a strange-looking jellyfish in the water. The researcher netted it and brought it back to the boat. When the scientists took a closer look, they noticed that the creature’s translucent body was shot through with luminous lines of blue.

The team wasn’t looking for jellies, but Shaner—an optical probe developer at the University of California, San Diego—collected the animal anyway. “Just on a whim, we said, ‘Well, it’s kind of blue, let’s take it home,’” he says.

Now, Shaner and his team have identified five fluorescent proteins in the body of the jellyfish previously unknown to science. The discovery may lead to new techniques for exploring how genes are expressed in cells, and potentially the brightest green fluorescent protein tag ever.

When Shaner and his team got the blue jellyfish—Aequorea australis—back to the lab, they prepared a sample for analysis. After sequencing its transcriptome—the genes expressed in the jelly’s body—Shaner was surprised to find several for light-producing proteins similar to green fluorescent protein (GFP), which scientists have used for decades to track proteins in cells and even create glow-in-the-dark cats. (Three researchers won a Nobel Prize in 2008 for the discovery and for the development of GFP as a fluorescent probe.) The original protein, known as avGEP, is found in the related A. victoria jellyfish; it has led to dozens of bioengineered GFP variants, some of which glow other colors like cobalt blue and turquoise.

Original green fluorescent protein (far left) next to the nine new proteins, viewed under white light (top) and fluorescent light (bottom) NATHAN SHANER

Further analysis revealed the jelly A. australis produces five fluorescent proteins. These include two that glow green, two more that are blue under white light, and one that switches between yellow and clear when exposed to light, Shaner and colleagues report on the preprint server bioRxiv.

The researchers then took a second look at the original GFP jelly, A. victoria, and found genes for four more previously unknown fluorescent proteins. Some proteins from both jellies had narrow excitation and emission peaks, meaning they absorb and emit light at very specific wavelengths. This could make it easier to study the expression of multiple genes at once, using several different colors of fluorescent protein tags. The brightest protein, called AausFP1, was nearly five times brighter than GFP that had been enhanced for more powerful fluorescence.

“Fluorescent proteins are sort of like a Swiss army knife—everyone has a different use for them depending on what they’re trying to study,” Shaner says. “But brighter is always better for pretty much everyone. Hopefully this will actually enable people to see things that they couldn’t see before.”

Besides being bright, AausFP1 doesn’t lose its glow when exposed to light, meaning that it could be used to image cells for an extended amount of time. Shaner reports he was able to photograph the protein continuously for 2.5 days; a normal GFP variant would bleach out within just a few hours.

The study is exciting, says Joachim Goedhart, a fluorescent protein engineer at the University of Amsterdam who was not involved with the work. “They came back with a lot of different and new promising variants.” Still, he says, the fluorescent proteins will need to be modified to make them useful to scientists. Improvements could include mutations to make them smaller, brighter, and easier to manipulate within cells, he says. “There’s still some work to do.”

8 Cool Destinations That Future Mars Tourists Could Explore

By Elizabeth Howell July 24, 2018 Spaceflight 

Touring Mars

Mars is a planet of vast contrasts — huge volcanoes, deep canyons, and craters that may or may not host running water. It will be an amazing location for future tourists to explore, once we put the first Red Planet colonies into motion. The landing sites for these future missions will likely need to be flat plains for safety and practical reasons, but perhaps they could land within a few days’ drive of some more interesting geology. Here are some locations that future Martians could visit.

Olympus Mons

Olympus Mons is the most extreme volcano in the solar system. Located in the Tharsis volcanic region, it’s about the same size as the state of Arizona, according to NASA. Its height of 16 miles (25 kilometers) makes it nearly three times the height of Earth’s Mount Everest, which is about 5.5 miles (8.9 km) high.

Olympus Mons is a gigantic shield volcano, which was formed after lava slowly crawled down its slopes. This means that the mountain is probably easy for future explorers to climb, as its average slope is only 5 percent. At its summit is a spectacular depression some 53 miles (85 km) wide, formed by magma chambers that lost lava (likely during an eruption) and collapsed.

Tharsis volcanoes

While you’re climbing around Olympus Mons, it’s worth sticking around to look at some of the other volcanoes in the Tharsis region. Tharsis hosts 12 gigantic volcanoes in a zone roughly 2500 miles (4000 km) wide, according to NASA. Like Olympus Mons, these volcanoes tend to be much larger than those on Earth, presumably because Mars has a weaker gravitational pull that allows the volcanoes to grow taller. These volcanoes may have erupted for as long as two billion years, or half of the history of Mars.

The picture here shows the eastern Tharsis region, as imaged by Viking 1 in 1980. At left, from top to bottom, you can see three shield volcanoes that are roughly 16 miles (25 km) high: Ascraeus Mons, Pavonis Mons, and Arsia Mons. At upper right is another shield volcano called Tharsis Tholus.

Valles Marineris

Mars not only hosts the largest volcano of the solar system, but also the largest canyon. Valles Marineris is roughly 1850 miles (3000 km) long, according to NASA. That’s about four times longer than the Grand Canyon, which has a length of about 500 miles (800 km). 

Researchers aren’t sure how Valles Marineris came to be, but there are several theories about its formation. Many scientists suggest that when the Tharsis region was formed, it contributed to the growth of Valles Marineris. Lava moving through the volcanic region pushed the crust upward, which broke the crust into fractures in other regions. Over time, these fractures grew into Valles Marineris.RECOMMENDED VIDEOS FOR YOU…CLOSEVolume 0% 

The North and South Poles

Mars has two icy regions at its poles, with slightly different compositions; the north pole (pictured) was studied up close by the Phoenix lander in 2008, while our south pole observations come from orbiters. During the winter, according to NASA, temperatures near both the north and south poles are so frigid that carbon dioxide condenses out of the atmosphere into ice, on the surface. 

The process reverses in the summer, when the carbon dioxide sublimates back into the atmosphere. The carbon dioxide completely disappears in the northern hemisphere, leaving behind a water ice cap. But some of the carbon dioxide ice remains in the southern atmosphere. All of this ice movement has vast effects on the Martian climate, producing winds and other effects.

Gale Crater and Mount Sharp (Aeolis Mons)

Made famous by the landing of the Curiosity rover in 2012, Gale Crater is host to extensive evidence of past water. Curiosity stumbled upon a streambed within weeks of landing, and found more extensive evidence of water throughout its journey along the crater floor. Curiosity is now summiting a nearby volcano called Mount Sharp (Aeolis Mons) and looking at the geological features in each of its strata.

One of Curiosity’s more exciting finds was discovering complex organic molecules in the region, on multiple occasions. Results from 2018 announced these organics were discovered inside of 3.5-billion-year-old rocks. Simultaneous to the organics results, researchers announced the rover also found methane concentrations in the atmosphere change over the seasons. Methane is an element that can be produced by microbes, as well as geological phenomena, so it’s unclear if that’s a sign of life.

Medusae Fossae

Medusae Fossae is one of the weirdest locations on Mars, with some people even speculating that it holds evidence of some sort of a UFO crash. The more likely explanation is it is a huge volcanic deposit, some one-fifth of the size of the United States. Over time, winds sculpted the rocks into some beautiful formations.But researchers will need more study to learn how these volcanoes formed Medusae Fossae. A 2018 study suggested that the formation may have formed from immensely huge volcanic eruptions taking place hundreds of times over 500 million years. These eruptions would have warmed the Red Planet’s climate as greenhouse gases from the volcanoes drifted into the atmosphere.

Recurring Slope Lineae in Hale Crater

Mars is host to strange features called recurring slope lineae, which tend to form on the sides of steep craters during warm weather. It’s hard to figure out what these RSL are, though. Pictures shown here from Hale Crater (as well as other locations) show spots where spectroscopy picked up signs of hydration. In 2015, NASA initially announced that the hydrated salts must be signs of running water on the surface, but later research said the RSL could be formed from atmospheric water or dry flows of sand.In reality, we may have to get up close to these RSL to see what their true nature is. But there’s a difficulty — if the RSL indeed host alien microbes, we wouldn’t want to get too close in case of contamination. While NASA figures out how to investigate under its planetary protection protocols, future human explorers may have to admire these mysterious features from afar, using binoculars.

‘Ghost Dunes’ in Noctis Labyrinthus and Hellas basin

Mars is a planet mostly shaped by wind these days, since the water evaporated as its atmosphere thinned. But we can see extensive evidence of past water, such as regions of “ghost dunes” found in Noctis Labyrinthus and Hellas basin. Researchers say these regions used to hold dunes that were tens of meters tall. Later, the dunes were flooded by lava or water, which preserved their bases while the tops eroded away.

Old dunes such as these show how winds used to flow on ancient Mars, which in turn gives climatologists some hints as to the ancient environment of the Red Planet. In an even more exciting twist, there could be microbes hiding in the sheltered areas of these dunes, safe from the radiation and wind that would otherwise sweep them away.

How NASA Tracked Apollo 11 to the Moon and Back with 1960s Tech

One nation’s arrival to the moon was in reality a global, far-reaching endeavor.

The 26-meter (85 feet) antenna in Honeysuckle Creek, Australia, was built in 1967 as part of the Manned Space Flight Network (MSFN) to support the lunar phase of the Apollo mission to the Moon.

The 26-meter (85 feet) antenna in Honeysuckle Creek, Australia, was built in 1967 as part of the Manned Space Flight Network (MSFN) to support the lunar phase of the Apollo mission to the Moon.(Image: © NASA)

NASA relied on the U.S. State Department to implement an extensive global network of antennas to collect radio signals from the Apollo missions, including the first moon landing, which occurred 50 years ago.

The monitoring system, collectively referred to as the Spaceflight Tracking and Data Network, has gone through various incarnations: It cut its teeth tracking the first artificial satellites around Earth.

By the time the first American flew in space, NASA had already established at least 30 ground stations on five continents; several islands; and aboard ships sailing the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific oceans, according to author Sunny Tsiao in the NASA History Series digital book “Read You Loud and Clear!” (2008).

This electronic link to spacecraft and astronauts involved “two million circuit miles of land and ocean floor cables,” reaching from remote volcanic atolls to cities like Madrid and Canberra, Australia, Tsiao wrote. When antennas collected data, computers and electronics on the ground converted all of it into information that users on Earth could analyze for checks on the health and status of the spacecraft.

Once crewed spaceflight became a reality, engineers at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland and the Manned Spacecraft (now the Johnson Space) Center in Houston created the network that tracked the Apollo astronauts to the moon and back, abbreviated as MSFN (initially known as the Mercury Space Flight Network, the “M” changed to “‘Manned” later on.) Goddard ran the entire network.

“And all that data — voice data, telemetry data — all came down and eventually went through Goddard before going to Houston,” NASA lunar scientist Noah Petro told Space.com. “Goddard was and still is basically NASA’s hub for communications.” 

The State Department played a crucial role in helping NASA work with foreign governments to place antennas for the network, particularly where the U.S. was less popular and tensions ran high, Tsiao wrote.

In other cases, like Australia, countries were eager to take part and the U.S. encouraged them to take the helm of the communications stations. NASA selected the Parkes Observatory in New South Wales, Australia, to receive the remote Apollo 11 moonwalk readings, or telemetry. The 85-foot antenna at Honeysuckle Creek to the south, near the city of Canberra, received video of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin as they took the first steps on the moon. The latter instrument is still in use, but has since moved to nearby Tidbinbilla. 

Officials at NASA wanted to maintain contact with Apollo’s Eagle lunar module as it descended to the moon’s surface after emerging from behind the moon. If the Apollo 11 crew needed to abort the landing, there was a very short period of time in which they could make the decision. And the moon would be visible in Australia when this crucial moment was scheduled to occur. 

Honeysuckle Creek carried most of NASA’s communications with Armstrong and Aldrin during their extravehicular activity. The most crucial of those communications were biomedical data from the astronauts’ Portable Life Support System backpacks. Most of the data from the Columbia command module, which carried astronaut Michael Collins, traveled to the 26-meter antenna at Tidbinbilla. 

These telescopes are now part of the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex. The CDSCC supports NASA’s Deep Space Network, which now receives information from spacecraft much farther away in the solar system, including the Voyager probes that have crossed into interstellar space. 

Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins recalls drinking coffee during ‘lonely’ Moon landing orbit

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Apollo 11’s Michael Collins reflects on historic Moon landing: ‘We were just regular astronauts’

Michael Collins may not be a household name like his fellow Apollo 11 crewmembers Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, but he played a pivotal role in the success of the epic mission.

When Armstrong and Aldrin were taking their famous first steps on the Moon on July 20, 1969, Collins was orbiting 60 miles above them in the mission’s command module.

Each time the Columbia Command Module orbited the Moon, he would lose contact with Mission Control in Houston for more than 40 minutes at a time. As a result, he has often been described as “the loneliest person in the universe.”

APOLLO 11 ASTRONAUT MICHAEL COLLINS RECALLS EPIC LAUNCH: ‘WE FELT THE WEIGHT OF THE WORLD ON OUR SHOULDERS’

This, however, could not be further from the truth, he explained during an interview with Bob Cabana, the director of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on Tuesday. “I was always asked ‘wasn’t I the loneliest person?’” he said. “The answer was ‘no, I felt fine’.”

1. Neil Armstrong, Apollo 11, 1969: The crew of the Apollo 11 mission -- from left Neil Armstrong, Mission Commander, Michael Collins, Lt. Col. USAF, and Edwin Eugene Aldrin, also known as Buzz Aldrin, USAF Lunar Module pilot. In all, 12 Americans walked on the moon from 1969 to 1972.

1. Neil Armstrong, Apollo 11, 1969: The crew of the Apollo 11 mission — from left Neil Armstrong, Mission Commander, Michael Collins, Lt. Col. USAF, and Edwin Eugene Aldrin, also known as Buzz Aldrin, USAF Lunar Module pilot. In all, 12 Americans walked on the moon from 1969 to 1972. (NASA)

Collins, a former U.S. Air Force fighter pilot and experimental test pilot had spent a lot of time flying airplanes by himself. Additionally, the extensive training undertaken by the Apollo 11 astronauts meant that he was extremely familiar with the Command Module. “I trusted my surroundings,” he said.

“It was perfectly enjoyable, I had hot coffee, I had music if I wanted it,” Collins added. “I was not one iota lonely … it was 40-something minutes of peace and quiet.”

APOLLO 11’S MICHAEL COLLINS REFLECTS ON HISTORIC MOON LANDING: ‘WE WERE JUST REGULAR ASTRONAUTS’

After spending a total of 21 hours and 36 minutes on the Moon, Armstrong and Aldrin’s lunar module lifted off and docked with Collins’ Command Module almost four hours later.

File photo - Photograph of the pilot Michael Collins at Apollo 11 Command Module, practicing docking hatch removal from CM simulator at NASA Johnson Space Center, Houston, Texas, June 28, 1969. Image courtesy National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

File photo – Photograph of the pilot Michael Collins at Apollo 11 Command Module, practicing docking hatch removal from CM simulator at NASA Johnson Space Center, Houston, Texas, June 28, 1969. Image courtesy National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). (Photo by Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images)

Fifty years after the incredible events of Apollo 11, Collins paid tribute to Armstrong, who died in 2012. “The Neil that I usually think about is not Neil flying to the Moon and back, although he did a superb job as the mission commander.”

Rather, Collins recalls Armstrong’s incredible ability to share the experiences of Apollo 11 following the crew’s return to Earth. Although something of an introvert, Armstrong wowed audiences during the “Giant Leap” global goodwill tour undertaken by the Apollo 11 astronauts and their wives from Sept. 29 to Nov. 5, 1969.

APOLLO 11 FLIGHT DIRECTOR REMEMBERS HISTORIC MISSION TO THE MOON

“He was a masterful speaker,” he said. “He would have the audience feeling they had almost climbed aboard Columbia with us by the time he had finished his speech.”

Collins, who had been the pilot of the Gemini 10 mission in 1966, explained that he turned down an opportunity to be the commander of Apollo 17.

“That would be another three years of living in dingy hotels,” he said, noting that he did not want to be separated from his “wonderful” wife and young children.

The interview at Kennedy Space Center’s launch pad 39A commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 launch on July 16, 1969.