Days before Christmas, Jupiter and Saturn will look like one bright star — some believe the alignment is the same described in the Bible

It will be the first time the planets are this close since the Middle Ages

A rare event in the heavens just ahead of Christmas will feature an alignment of planets that a famous astronomer believed was the phenomenon that is mentioned in the Bible when Jesus Christ was born.POLL: Who is the most corrupt?

The alignment of Jupiter and Saturn will appear in the skies on December 21, the winter solstice. The last time the rare alignment of the planets was this close was in 1623, nearly 400 years ago. That was only 14 years after Galileo discovered the moons of Jupiter with the invention of the telescope.

Another famous astronomer, Johannes Kepler, posited in 1614 that the alignment of the two planets might have been what was reported in the Nativity Story of Christ in the Bible. The planets aligned in 7 B.C., around the time that Christ was born.

The account in the Gospel of Matthew says that the wisemen came to Jerusalem to seek the birth of the “King of the Jews” after seeing a bright star in the sky.

…behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy.

And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him.

There is much debate among theologians and Christians as to whether the bright star in the sky was a natural phenomenon or a supernatural event.

Whether the star was the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn or not, the rare sight will be visible to those in the Northern Hemisphere shortly after sunset in the southwestern sky. The conjunction will dip under the horizon after a few hours.

Here’s more about the rare planetary conjunction:

Remarkable fireball captured breaking up on film

The footage was taken roughly 60 miles off the southern Tasmanian coast

An enormous fireball was caught on camera streaking across the night sky in Australia, before breaking up over the Tasman Sea.

The footage, captured by the vessel RV Investigator, was taken on Nov. 18, roughly 60 miles off the southern Tasmanian coast, according to a blog post from Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO). 

“What we saw on reviewing the livestream footage astounded us, the size and brightness of the meteor was incredible,” CSIRO Voyage Manager on board, John Hooper, said in the post. “The meteor crosses the sky directly in front of the ship and then breaks up – it was amazing to watch the footage and we were very fortunate that we captured it all on the ship livestream.”

A still shot from the video with the meteor top left. Credit: CSIRO

A still shot from the video with the meteor top left. Credit: CSIRO

The livestream, which operates 24/7 from a camera on the RV Investigator, shows the fireball turning a bright green color before it broke apart.

“Over 100 tons of natural space debris enters Earth’s atmosphere every day,” Glen Nagle from CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science, explained in the post. “Most of it goes unseen as it occurs over an unpopulated area like the southern ocean.”

“Cameras are everywhere, in our pockets and around our cities, but they have to be pointed in the right place at the right time – RV Investigator was in that place and time,” Nagle added.

RV Investigator. Credit: CSIRO.

RV Investigator. Credit: CSIRO.

A small chunk of an asteroid or comet is known as a meteoroid. When it enters Earth’s atmosphere, it becomes a meteor, fireball or shooting star. The pieces of rock that hit the ground, valuable to collectors, are called meteorites.

Last month, researchers discovered that a fireball that entered Earth’s atmosphere in January 2018 over Michigan contained “extraterrestrial organic compounds.” 

In 2019, a separate group of researchers suggested meteorites actually made life possible on Earth. They identified isotopes of selenium in rocks in Earth’s mantle and found identical isotope signatures inside certain meteorites, notably those from the outer solar system.

9th planet discovered? Researchers find evidence of ‘lost planet’ in the solar system

Experts believe an ‘ice giant’ was ‘was kicked out … of the solar system by unknown forces’

Though researchers continue to hunt for the mysterious Planet 9, experts have discovered evidence that another planet, residing between Uranus and Saturn, “escaped” billions of years ago.

The research, published in the scientific journal Icarus, suggests that an “ice giant” was “kicked out” in the early days of the solar system by unknown forces.

“We now know that there are thousands of planetary systems in our Milky Way galaxy alone,” the study’s lead author, Carnegie Mellon University researcher Matt Clement said in a statement. “But it turns out that the arrangement of planets in our own solar system is highly unusual, so we are using models to reverse engineer and replicate its formative processes. This is a bit like trying to figure out what happened in a car crash after the fact – how fast were the cars going, in what directions, and so on.”

(Credit: NASA)

(Credit: NASA)

The researchers created 6,000 simulations to look at the early days of the solar system and found that Jupiter orbited around the sun three times for every two times that Saturn did, suggesting their relationship has evolved significantly.

The model also demonstrated that the positions of Uranus and Neptune, both ice giants themselves, were altered by the Kuiper belt, as well as the aforementioned planet that was kicked out.

“This indicates that while our solar system is a bit of an oddball, it wasn’t always the case,” explained Clement. “What’s more, now that we’ve established the effectiveness of this model, we can use it to help us look at the formation of the terrestrial planets, including our own, and to perhaps inform our ability to look for similar systems elsewhere that could have the potential to host life.”

In October, scientists discovered an Earth-sized rogue planet found floating in the Milky Way.

Two months prior, a separate group of researchers suggested there could be more “rogue” planets than there are stars in the Milky Way galaxy.

An experiment hinted at Martian life in the ’70s. So why did we stop looking?

mars rover on mars
The Curiosity rover looked for molecules essential for life as we know it, but not for life itself.NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

When the Viking landers touched down on the Martian surface at the height of the Watergate scandal, they kicked up two clouds of rusty soil and a debate that would continue for more than four decades.

That mission, NASA’s first direct search for Martian microbes, resulted in an inconclusive shrug, finding both signs of lifelike activity as well as an absence of the ingredients that such life would presumably need. Most researchers concluded that an errant chemical reaction could explain the conflicting results, but some remain convinced that the Viking landers detected life on Mars in 1976. Gilbert Levin in particular, one of Viking’s principle investigators, has long advocated for a follow-up mission to carry out a more advanced version of the original experiment, as he recently argued in Scientific American. Yet, six landings later, no such instrument has made the cut, leaving Levin and his collaborators asking the obvious question—why have we stopped looking for life on Mars?

Levin’s convictions spring from decades of mulling over the aftermath of Viking’s so-called labeled release experiment. The lander took soil samples onboard and added a nutrient-rich soup with radioactive carbon atoms. The nutrients acted as a meal for any potential microbes, and the atoms as red flags for the researchers to spot. Equipment on the lander took regular whiffs to see if any Martian microbes were partaking in and excreting the labeled carbon atoms into the air. After finding that something did seem to be interacting with the radioactive carbon atoms, the next step for NASA was to see if they could alter that process as a control or confirmation. If there really were living microbes burping up those carbon atoms, researchers expected to see changes in how many carbon atoms were present if they cranked up the heat.

To do so, the Viking team remotely baked the chamber at 320 degrees Fahrenheit, and the reaction stopped. Keeping the soil in the dark for 10 days also halted the mystery process, while lightly roasting the soil at an intermediate 120 degrees merely slowed it.

On their own, the labeled release results hinted that the heat and darkness could be killing carbon-gobbling germs in the red soil, but Viking’s other instruments told a different story. One in particular found no traces of the chemical ingredients Earth life is made of, such as amino acids, suggesting that the dead soil was somehow releasing the gases through chemistry of its own. (Although this conclusion too, is debated.)

After recreating the experiments in arid places around the world such as Antarctica and Chile’s Atacama Desert, Levin published a peer-reviewed paper in 2016 in the journal Astrobiology arguing that that no alternative hypothesis can match the exact pattern of activity Viking found. He now supports an updated labeled release experiment that can distinguish between chemical and biological activity more precisely—but NASA has no plans to fly such an experiment in the foreseeable future.

“The idea that one can directly detect life with a single instrument is not reasonable at present,” a representative of NASA’s astrobiology program said in an email statement. “Results for the Viking landers and from the analysis of the Martian meteorite collected from Antarctica have demonstrated how hard it is to find undisputable evidence for life even with multiple measurements from different instruments.

Interpreting even a straightforward experiment, it turns out, requires a lot of complex context—context that was completely lacking for the alien planet at the time of the Viking mission and remains incomplete today. “The whole point of [NASA’s off-Earth biology strategy since then] was to find the right environments first and then look for life. And we’re still in that process,” says John Rummel, a scientist at the SETI institute and previous planetary protection officer at NASA. “I would love to go back and do life detection studies, but only in the right place,” he says, such as a Martian locale that’s comparatively wet, warm, and well understood.

Although NASA has abandoned straight life-detecting experiments in favor of asking general questions about the Martian environment that are more likely to have conclusive answers, researchers have still been able to gather plenty of circumstantial biological evidence from landers, much of it painting Mars as a brutal place for life.

Without an Earth-like magnetic field and ozone layer, anything on the Red Planet’s soil must bear the full brunt of cosmic rays and the sun’s ultraviolet radiation—a force so lethal not even the formidable tardigrades can take it. To make matters worse, ten years ago the Phoenix lander discovered that Martian soil is about 1 percent perchlorates, a substance that breaks down into bleach-like chemicals toxic to life and its building blocks. (Incidentally, post-Viking experiments found that perchlorates could also participate in reactions that release carbon in a life-like way, although Levin argues they can’t explain the controls).

Falling meteorites should have littered Mars’s surface with amino acids and other organic molecules, but the Curiosity rover found almost none of those—evidence that even precursors to life have been thoroughly bleached and radiation-blasted away on the surface. The environment’s apparent lethality now makes revisiting the Viking result an even less compelling option to many.

“It’s like saying, ‘can you have life in a 400-degree oven,’” says Samuel Kounaves, a planetary chemist at Tufts University. “It doesn’t matter what you found in there.”

No one can guarantee that life hasn’t found a way to survive, Kounaves says, but between the complexity of interpreting results from a single experiment and the low chance of surface habitability, it’s no surprise that a Viking-style life detection experiment hasn’t passed the highly competitive selection process to fly on a mission. “NASA doesn’t want to send something there and spend lots of money and have it come back with a false positive because of some chemistry,” he says.ADVERTISEMENT

Kounaves’s research has instead pivoted toward designing direct detection missions for the watery gas-giant moons Enceladus and Europa, which conveniently shoot geysers of frozen seawater out into space for easier collection and on-the-spot analysis.

He still thinks life likely existed on Mars and may even continue to eke out a living today, just not where the surface-exploring rovers roam. “There could be life there,” Kounaves says, “but to find it we’ll have to dig deep.”

China seeks to retrieve first Moon rocks since 1970s

The moon
image captionOnly the United States and the Soviet Union have so far retrieved lunar samples from the Moon

China is to make the first attempt to retrieve rocks from the Moon since the 1970s.

It is hoped the unmanned Chang’e-5 probe, to be launched on Tuesday, will bring back samples to help understand the Moon’s origin and formation.

The last mission of its kind, Luna 24, was by the Soviet Union in 1976.

If the latest probe is successful, China will become the third country to have retrieved lunar rock, after the US and the USSR.

The Chang’e-5 spacecraft- named after the ancient Chinese goddess of the Moon – will be launched by a Long March 5 rocket.

The probe will attempt to collect 2kg of samples from an as yet unvisited area of the Moon named the Ocean of Storms.

In comparison, the 1976 mission collected 170 grams, and the Apollo mission that put man on the Moon brought back 382kg of rocks and soil.

The Long March 5 rocket, which will launch China's Chang'e-5 lunar probe
image captionA Long March rocket will launch the lunar probe from the Wenchang space centre in Hainan province

Experts are hoping Chang’e-5 will give a better understand how long the Moon remained volcanically active and when its magnetic field – essential in protecting any life from the Sun’s radiation – dissipated.

China made its first lunar landing in 2013 and plans to retrieve samples from Mars within a decade.

Pristine ‘fireball’ meteorite contains extraterrestrial organic compounds

It crashed down onto a frozen lake in Michigan, untainted by Earth’s environment.

A meteor streaking through a sky full of stars
The meteorite was recovered from a frozen lake in Hamburg, Michigan in January 2018.Brannon Naito

Meteorites are little bundles of scientific evidence, holding secrets to deep space and how life was seeded on Earth. The problem is, it’s rare that they’re actually recovered before they are contaminated by liquid water and terrestrial microbes, rendering them far less useful. So when a meteorite fell on a frozen lake in Hamburg, Michigan in early 2018 and was recovered within two days by a meteorite hunter who then brought it to the Field Museum in Chicago, scientists were intrigued. They flocked to the museum to study the unusually pristine specimen.

A study published Tuesday in the journal Meteoritics and Planetary Science takes a look at that space rock, identifying 2600 organic compounds and dating the material to 4.5 billion years old. The work was a collaboration between 29 scientists from 24 institutions who each applied their own technique to identify organic compounds in the sample.

Most meteorites that fall to Earth land in the ocean, which makes up over 70% of the Earth’s surface, or in uninhabited land areas, so they go unnoticed. This meteorite, though, fell in Michigan, and it was visible from Chicago as it was falling—sightings were reported by 674 people in 10 different states. A NASA weather probe was then able to track down its location, and it was a meteorite hunter—not a scientist—who went to retrieve the rock from the frozen lake on which it had landed and turned it over to the Field Museum. It was these serendipitous events that made the research possible.

Researchers identified 2600 organic compounds on the meteorite, which were mostly heavy, complex hydrocarbons. The realization that meteorites hold organic compounds is not new, according to Philipp Heck, a curator at the Field Museum and lead author of the study. It just lends even more evidence to an existing theory—that similar space rocks dropped off organic material to Earth billions of years ago, and that material helped seed life on our planet.

“It actually makes it much more likely now … that meteorites played an important role in delivering organics to Earth,” says Heck. Eventually, these organics developed into early forms of life.

The authors of the study were also able to determine that the original asteroid the rock came from formed 4.5 billion years ago by looking at isotopes in the rock. The piece that landed on Earth broke off from its parent body about 12 million years ago. They determined this by analyzing the changes that occurred in the meteorite due to cosmic radiation, which is ubiquitous in the Solar System. Earth’s atmosphere and magnetic field protects us from the rays, but out in space they bombard nearly everything in sight, changing and breaking down molecules.

“I like to use the rain bucket analog,” says Heck. “When you have a rainfall outside that is pretty constant over an afternoon, and you put a bucket outside and wait for an unspecified time, take it in, and then look at the water level in the bucket, you can determine how long it was outside if you know how much rain fell.” So by seeing how much isotopes in the meteorite have changed, they can see how long it’s been careening through space.

According to Heck, meteorite researchers are unlike other scientists in that they rely on ordinary people to recover samples rather than finding them on their own. This is because of the random, unpredictable way that meteorites fall to Earth. Without meteorite hunter Robert Ward and private collector Terry Boudreaux, he says, the Hamburg meteorite might not have been recovered before it was exposed to liquid water and its original organic compounds mixed up with terrestrial compounds.

“This collaboration between citizen scientists and scientific institutions made such a study possible,” says Heck.

Fast Radio Burst from Galactic Magnetar SGR 1935+2154 is Repeating

Astronomers have detected two more millisecond-duration radio bursts from SGR 1935+2154, a magnetar located over 14,000 light-years away in the constellation of Vulpecula. The detection supports the hypothesis that — at least some — fast radio bursts are emitted by magnetars at cosmological distances.

On May 24, 2020, four European radio telescopes detected two bright radio bursts from the SGR 1935+2154 magnetar. Image credit: Danielle Futselaar / Artsource.nl.

Fast radio bursts (FRBs) are mysterious and rarely detected bursts of radio waves from space.

These events have durations of milliseconds and exhibit the characteristic dispersion sweep of radio pulsars.

They emit as much energy in one millisecond as the Sun emits in 10,000 years, but the physical phenomenon that causes them is unknown.

One theory hypothesized FRBs to be neutron stars with exceptionally strong magnetic fields, commonly known as magnetars.

On April 28, 2020, a breakthrough was made when two teams of astronomers independently detected an extremely bright radio burst from the Galactic magnetar SGR 1935+2154, using the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment Fast Radio Burst Project (CHIME/FRB) and the Survey for Transient Astronomical Radio Emission 2 (STARE2), respectively.

The specific energy of the burst, dubbed FRB 200428, was similar to, although approximately 30 times less than, the specific energy of the faintest known FRB.

In May 2020, a research team led by Chalmers University of Technology astronomer Franz Kirsten pointed four radio telescopes towards SGR 1935+2154.

“We didn’t know what to expect,” said team member Dr. Mark Snelders, an astronomer in the Anton Pannekoek Institute for Astronomy at the University of Amsterdam.

“Our radio telescopes had only rarely been able to see fast radio bursts, and this source seemed to be doing something completely new. We were hoping to be surprised!”

The astronomers monitored SGR 1935+2154 every night for more than four weeks after the discovery of FRB 200428, a total of 522 hours of observation.

On May 24, they detected two bright radio bursts with fluences of 112 ms and 24 ms, respectively, but separated in time by 1.4 s.

“We clearly saw two bursts, extremely close in time,” said team member Dr. Kenzie Nimmo, astronomer in the Anton Pannekoek Institute for Astronomy and ASTRON.

“Like the flash seen from the same source on April 28, this looked just like the fast radio bursts we’d been seeing from the distant Universe, only dimmer. The two bursts we detected on May 24 were even fainter than that.”

Together with the FRB 200428 burst, as well as a much fainter burst seen by the FAST radio telescope, the new observations demonstrate that SGR 1935+2154 can produce bursts with apparent energies spanning roughly seven orders of magnitude, and that the burst rate is comparable across this range.

“The brightest flashes from this magnetar are at least 10 million times as bright as the faintest ones,” said team member Dr. Jason Hessels, an astronomer in the Anton Pannekoek Institute for Astronomy and ASTRON.

“We asked ourselves, could that also be true for fast radio burst sources outside our Galaxy?”

“If so, then the Universe’s magnetars are creating beams of radio waves that could be criss-crossing the cosmos all the time — and many of these could be within the reach of modest-sized telescopes like ours.”

The findings were published in the journal Nature Astronomy.

One of the best places to look for life in the solar system is erupting with water: scientists don’t know why

The research notes plumes could be coming from Europa’s crust instead of its ocean

One of the best spots to look for life, NASA is slated to explore Jupiter’s moon Europa in the next 10 years. A new study, however, notes the water plumes that are erupting from the celestial satellite could shed new light on cryovolcanic eruptions across icy bodies throughout the solar system.

The research, published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, notes the plumes could actually be coming from Europa’s crust instead of its ocean.

“Understanding where these water plumes are coming from is very important for knowing whether future Europa explorers could have a chance to actually detect life from space without probing Europa’s ocean,” said the study’s lead author Gregor Steinbrügge in a statement.

This artist’s conception of Jupiter’s icy moon Europa shows a hypothesized cryovolcanic eruption, in which briny water from within the icy shell blasts into space. A new model of this process on Europa may also explain plumes on other icy bodies. (Credit: Justice Blaine Wainwright)

This artist’s conception of Jupiter’s icy moon Europa shows a hypothesized cryovolcanic eruption, in which briny water from within the icy shell blasts into space. A new model of this process on Europa may also explain plumes on other icy bodies. (Credit: Justice Blaine Wainwright)

The researchers used images collected by NASA’s Galileo spacecraft to come up with their theory.

Europa’s ocean is under a dense layer of frozen crust that is largely believed to be at least six and as many as 19 miles thick. The surface temperature on the moon is exceptionally cold as well, approximately minus 260 degrees Fahrenheit at the equator and minus 370 degrees Fahrenheit at the poles, according to Space.com.

While the ocean is widely believed to be warm, researchers are only just learning that it likely formed due to the minerals being broken down by either tidal forces or radioactive decay, according to Universe Today.

The model created by the researchers showed that the water on Europa transforms into ice at the later stage of impact, with increased salinity, effectively moving sideways through Europa’s ice shell before it becomes even saltier.

“We developed a way that a water pocket can move laterally – and that’s very important,” Steinbrügge added. “It can move along thermal gradients, from cold to warm, and not only in the down direction as pulled by gravity.”

“Even though plumes generated by brine pocket migration would not provide direct insight into Europa’s ocean, our findings suggest that Europa’s ice shell itself is very dynamic,” explained study co-author Joana Voigt. 

In August 2019, NASA confirmed it would launch a mission to Europa, a trek that could answer whether the icy celestial body could be habitable for humans and support life.

The Europa Clipper, which could launch as soon as 2023 but has a baseline commitment of a “launch readiness date by 2025,” will have a mass spectrometer on the craft, used to determine the mass of ions in an atom.

The mission for the solar-powered Clipper is expected to cost around $4 billion, according to NASA. The space agency has previously said the mission’s purpose was to investigate whether Europa, the sixth-largest of Jupiter’s 79 known moons, “could harbor conditions suitable for life, honing our insights into astrobiology.”

In December 2019, a study suggested that if there is life on Europa, it would be indigenous to the moon and not related to humans.

Pickup truck-sized asteroid came less than 300 miles from hitting Earth

The space rock, known as 2020 VT4, passed within 240 miles of Earth’s surface on Nov. 13

An asteroid roughly the size of a Ford F-150 flew less than 300 miles away from Earth last week, setting a record for the closest-known asteroid to fly past the planet without hitting it, NASA announced.

According to the Center for Near-Earth Studies (CNEOS), the space rock, known as 2020 VT4, passed within 240 miles of Earth’s surface on Nov. 13 at 5:20 UTC. 

It was initially discovered by the Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System, which is run by both NASA and the University of Hawaii.

2020 VT4 is considered a Near-Earth Object (NEO) given its close proximity to Earth. However, given its size (between 16 feet and 32 feet wide), it is not considered a “potentially hazardous” NEO and likely would have broken up in the atmosphere.

“Potentially hazardous” NEOs are defined as space objects that come within 0.05 astronomical units and measure more than 460 feet in diameter, according to NASA. According to a 2018 report put together by Planetary.org, there are more than 18,000 NEOs.

In August, a similar-sized asteroid known as 2020 QG flew within 2,000 miles of Earth, which was a record at the time. Although NASA did not spot 2020 QG until it passed the planet, it too would not have caused any damage had it hit Earth, a NASA spokesman previously told Fox News. 

In 2018, NASA unveiled a 20-page plan that outlined 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.

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.

In April 2019, NASA awarded a $69 million contract to SpaceX, the space exploration company led by Elon Musk, to help it with asteroid deflection via its DART mission.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in April 2019 that an asteroid strike is not something to be taken lightly and is perhaps Earth’s biggest threat.

Faster than light travel with Alcubierre drives

We see them all the time in the best science fiction stories — ships with warp drives that make it possible for the characters to explore new planets and new galaxies. These crafts would go even faster than the speed of light except, if general relativity taught us anything, it’s that nothing can exceed the speed of light. Right? After all, light has no mass and thus it can move at 299,792,458 meters per second.

Well, that’s true. Nothing can exceed that universal speed limit. Except it’s still possible to construct a warp drive without breaking any laws of physics.

In 1994, Mexican theoretical physicist Miguel Alcubierre wrote a paper laying the mathematical and scientific foundation for a real life warp drive that wouldn’t interfere with general relativity. He became interested in this method of interstellar travel after seeing it used in science fiction stories to travel across vast distances.

Image result for warp drive
Image from the film “Star Trek Beyond”.

How a warp drive works is by expanding and contracting the fabric of spacetime around a ship and its bubble. The ship never accelerates or moves, it is the fabric around it that moves and pushes it forward. Imagine, as an analogy, standing on a conveyer belt where you never actually have to walk. Instead, the fabric of the belt itself is what’s propelling you forward. The contraction of the spacetime in front of the ship will pull it towards that point while the expansion behind it will continue this forward motion. Einstein showed that spacetime can be bent by mass or energy, and if spacetime can be bent then it can be manipulated in other ways. The reason this ship would be able to move faster than the speed of light is because general relativity tells us that nothing within space can break the speed limit, however, there is no speed limit on how fast space itself can contract or expand. We’re not moving a thing within space — we’re moving space itself.

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Alcubierre’s work was hopeful and impressive but it had a lot of holes as well. In his original paper he theorized that to power such a spacecraft we would need more negative energy than there is energy in the entire universe. This negative energy is what causes space to expand. The problem is that negative energy is elusive and many scientists even doubt its existence, much less having hope we can make enormous amounts of it.

What we have observed of what could be negative energy has been very small. The idea is that what appears to be black, empty space is really not. There’s an energy density of empty space — what we refer to as the zero point energy. Quantum mechanics tells us that empty space is filled with particles of energy popping in and out of existence. If we can stop these particles from appearing, we’ll have negative energy.

Scientists have tried to create this in a lab by pushing two metal plates together (the plates are so flat that they’re perfectly smooth almost down to an atomic level) even closer than the width of a human hair. That space is so small that it wouldn’t allow the particles to exist, causing the force around the plates to increase and thus bearing the signature of negative energy. What has been observed of this phenomenon is not much, only a measurement too small to be conclusive.

If we do figure out how to create more negative energy in the future, we may not need as much of it as Alcubierre first theorized. Later refinements to his paper by NASA scientists drastically reduced the amount of energy the warp drive would need by oscillating parts of the craft at high frequencies, making it easier to move through spacetime and lessening the amount of energy required. Modern theories on how much negative energy we’d need range from 65 exajoules to the energy of a few negative and positive solar masses. 65 exajoules is around the amount of energy the US uses in one year. Still a lot, but definitely an improvement and definitely doable. If we could utilize dark energy, we’d only need about the mass of Jupiter. The only problem is we don’t understand much if anything about what dark energy is or how it works. It might end up being the exotic material we need.

By comparison, attempting interstellar space travel with conventional rockets would not only take hundreds of thousands of years but would require a tank larger than the entire universe. Not to mention finding a material that could withstand that length of travel.

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There’s been several proposed methods of communication even while in a warp drive craft — some methods are so fast you’d receive a reply before the message sent.

Some models of the spacecraft have it moving at 10 times the speed of light, making a trip to our nearest exoplanet, Alpha Centauri Bb, a matter of six months even though it’s over 4 light years away. Our fastest crafts now can go at 20,000 miles per hour, meaning that it would take us 142,000 years to reach Alpha Centauri Bb, and a return trip from there is even more unlikely. 20,000 miles per hour is 0.003% the speed of light.

Traveling so fast would take us through higher dimensions, meaning that it’s also possible that warp drives could give us a way not only to explore our own universe, but the multiverse as well. There is a limit to how fast a warp drive could theoretically go, but even those speed limits would let us arrive at a new galaxy in a fraction of a fraction of a second. As an added advantage, the ship could speed up and slow down and passengers wouldn’t experience time dilation. In other words, you wouldn’t arrive at your destination to find out that you’re so far ahead in time that everyone you know is dead back on Earth.

Other problems besides energy sources also include particles accumulated during travel that may inadvertently get launched during deceleration and destroy entire worlds. In fact, there may be no way to decelerate once the craft starts moving and the crew may end up dead for any number of reasons. But so far all the math and experimental data has shown warp drives as a possibility.

If we do find a way to create the tech, it’ll be centuries before we see it put to use. Like wormholes, the possibilities warp drives would provide are enormous but they won’t come easy.

We won’t have to wait hundreds of years to begin exploring the far reaches of space, however; NASA has a goal of making an interstellar craft before the year 2100.

Soyuz MS-17 completes Ultrafast 3 hour journey to ISS

The three space travelers of the Soyuz MS-17 mission launched on a six-month mission the International Space Station.

Soyuz MS-17 lifted off on a Soyuz 2.1a booster from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Site No. 31/6, in Kazakhstan at 05:45:04 UTC on 14 October (01:45:04 EDT), lofting its international crew to space for a very fast, two orbit, three hour rendezvous with Station.

Ultrafast rendezvous method:

The launch marked a milestone for a crewed Soyuz spacecraft, being the first to use a new “ultrafast” rendezvous” scheme with the ISS. Following a flawless ascent to the correct orbit, Soyuz MS-17 caught up with the orbiting laboratory in only two orbits (three hours), halving the time it takes for crew to get to the Station.

This method takes over from the previous one that saw the Soyuz spacecraft spend four orbits in free-flight to catch up with the ISS in approximately six hours. That method, which was first used with crew on Soyuz TMA-08M in March 2013, took over from an even older method where the Soyuz would complete 34 orbits before arriving at the ISS, leaving the crew inside the small spacecraft for over two days.

Although Soyuz MS-17 marked the first crewed mission to use the ultrafast method, it has been tested before using un-crewed Progress resupply spacecraft. Multiple Progress have successfully utilized the two-orbit, three hour rendezvous profile, starting with Progress MS-09 in July 2018.

Soyuz MS-17 during rollout to Site No. 31/6 at Baikonur. (Credit: Roscosmos)

Unfortunately, something as simple as a slightly off-nominal orbital insertion or missed correction burn could dash ultrafast rendezvous.

In March 2014, Soyuz TMA-12M launched with the intention of bringing its three crew members to the ISS using the then-new six-hour rendezvous method. However, an issue with the Soyuz’s attitude control system caused the spacecraft to miss its third scheduled course correction burn, necessitating a reversion to the two-day rendezvous plan.

The need to have Soyuz crews arrive at the Station so quickly has to do with the extremely cramped, close-quarters nature of the vehicle. For the crew inside, it is a far better psychological and physical benefit to reach the Station as quickly as possible.  However, it is perfectly safe for crews to be in Soyuz for a two day trip to the Station should that be needed.

Conversely, the U.S. Commercial Crew vehicles, Dragon and Starliner, while theoretically capable of reaching the Station that quickly, do not have that same requirement as they are far roomier for their four passengers given they are not solely ISS rotation vehicles but available for solo missions to Earth orbit as well.

Therefore, the U.S. vehicles target/will target a more leisurely one-day rendezvous flight profile with the Station — as was seen on SpaceX’s Demo-1 and Demo-2 missions and is the plan for Crew-1 in November and Starliner’s Orbital Flight Test 2 mission in 2021.

The Mission:

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic which has been sweeping the planet since November 2019, extra precautions were needed as the crew prepared for their journey to the Station. Similar precautions were used prior to the launch of Soyuz MS-16 and SpaceX’s historic Demo-2 mission, both of which left the planet amid the pandemic.

Rubins, Ryzhikov and Kud-Sverchkov (L-R) wearing protective face masks in front of their spacecraft, October 2020. (Credit: NASA/Roscosmos)

Roscosmos trained a two member reserve crew (in addition to each back-up) to add extra precaution and insure launch occurred on time even if any member of the prime or backup crew falls sick. Russian cosmonauts Anton Shkaplerov and Andrei Babkin took the positions of Reserve Commander and Flight Engineer 1 respectively, while NASA opted not to assign a reserve to Rubins and Vande Hei.

The launch placed Soyuz MS-17 into its initial orbit, where the craft then separated, deployed its solar arrays and communication antennas, and when immediately sent its position and velocity data back to Mission Control, Moscow, to verify a good orbit insertion and ability to perform the ultrafast rendezvous.

With that data confirmed, the crew arrived at the ISS in approximately 3 hours and 12 minutes, where they docked to the Rassvet docking port at 08:48 UTC (04:48 EDT).  Once docked, they will join Expedition 63 crew members Chris Cassidy, Anatoli Ivanishin, and Ivan Vagner, who have occupied the station since April this year and are scheduled to depart later this month.

As members of Expedition 64, they are scheduled to be joined by SpaceX Crew-1, the first operational crew rotation flight of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon and NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. The flight will ferry NASA astronauts Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover, and Shannon Walker as well as Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi to the ISS for a six month stay.

Crew-1 was originally scheduled to join Expedition 64 at the end of October; however, an issue with a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket’s gas generators during a September non-NASA launch has caused a delay to no earlier than “early- to mid-November”.

Walker, Glover, Hopkins and Noguchi (L-R) during Dragon training for Crew-1. (Credit: NASA)

During the course of Expedition 64, Ryzhikov and Kud-Sverchkov are scheduled to perform two spacewalks, the first to carry out routine maintenance on the Russian segment and a second to prepare the Pirs docking compartment for separation, as the module is scheduled to vacate the Station in early 2021 to make way for the arrival of the long-delayed Nauka laboratory module.

Soyuz MS-17 and its three crew members are scheduled to leave the ISS in April 2021 ahead of a return to the Kazakh Steppe, with a total planned flight time of 177 days.

Europa’s icy surface may glow in the dark

Understanding the chemical composition of ice on Jupiter’s intriguing moon could reveal hints about its habitability.

Europa glowing
This illustration of Jupiter’s moon Europa shows how the icy surface may glow on its nightside, the side facing away from the Sun.NASA/JPL-Caltech

The night side of Jupiter’s moon Europa may glow in the dark, scientists reported this week in the journal Nature Astronomy.

When researchers fired beams of electrons at ice samples to simulate the radiation that regularly lashes Europa’s frigid surface, they noticed that the ice emitted a faint glow that varied depending on which minerals were present in the ice. NASA’s Europa Clipper probe may be able to observe this same phenomenon when it reaches the distant moon in a few years—and perhaps use it to investigate whether Europa has conditions amenable for life.

Until now, the only object in our celestial neighborhood known to emit light from its nighttime side is Earth; the electricity humans use to light our dwellings can be seen from the International Space Station, says Murthy Gudipati, a laboratory astrophysicist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “Because of its position and the geological aspects of Europa, it could be very similar to Earth in the sense that we have a second object in our system that also glows in the night,” says Gudipati, who published the findings on November 9.

Europa is covered by an icy crust several miles thick, which scientists believe covers a vast ocean that is 40 to 100 miles deep. The moon also receives deluges of charged particles from Jupiter’s strong magnetic field; this radiation would be lethal for a human standing on Europa’s surface. And that would only be relevant if humans were somehow able to withstand the moon’s surface temperatures of, on average, 100 Kelvin (-279.67 Farenheit). “This is a very unique place in our solar system,” Gudipati says. “It is one of the highest contenders for potential habitability [because of] these oceans and it is also very uniquely placed in one of the harshest outside environments.”ADVERTISEMENT

He and his colleagues wanted to understand what happens when charged particles strike Europa’s surface. They fired beams of electrons at ice cores representing different possibilities for Europa’s surface and filmed the results with a video camera. When the electrons struck pure water ice, the researchers saw, the frozen liquid gave off a whitish glow with a faint blue-green tinge. This glow was brighter when the irradiated ice contained magnesium sulfate (Epsom salt). Ice containing sodium chloride (sea salt) had a much dimmer glow without any colorful tinge. Upon further investigation, the scientists found that the light coming off the ice was predominantly white, but green wavelengths were slightly more prevalent in the light coming from the water ice, red in the Epsom salted ice, and blue-green in the sea salt ice.

This glow occurs because when electrons plow into the ice, they energize the material. The frozen water then releases some of this energy in the form of light, with different atoms and molecules giving off light at different wavelengths.

A similar process occurs in the northern lights, Gudipati says. To our eyes, the aurora has an intense green hue because the oxygen in the atmosphere has plenty of room to emit light without interacting with other materials. The composition of the luminescent ice is denser and more varied; there may be several compounds constantly emitting light that muddles together to form a mostly whitish glow.ADVERTISEMENT

“In the ice there is no space between one atom and the other atoms; it is like sea lions sunbathing, they cannot move around,” Gudipati says. “It is totally crowded and each of these excited atoms or molecules interacts with its surroundings.”

He and his colleagues estimate that, if Europa’s surface glows in the night like the ice in their experiment, the Europa Clipper’s planned instruments would likely be able to detect it as the spacecraft zooms past. The mission, which will launch in the mid-2020s, could give scientists an opportunity to figure out how suitable Europa might be for life by analyzing the glow coming off the night side of the moon.

As it sloshes against the seafloor, Europa’s ocean likely interacts with the rocky substrate to produce minerals that may be vital for life. Some of these minerals will eventually make their way into the ice covering Europa’s ocean. This frigid shell is scarred by relatively few craters, indicating that its surface is young. “Those impact craters are somehow cleaned up, and that cleaning up would only happen if there is an exchange between the interior and surface,” Gudipati says.ADVERTISEMENT

Depending on how brightly the ice glows and what wavelengths of light it emits, scientists could determine its chemical composition. “The material on the surface could bear some fingerprints from what the material was in the oceans [over] time,” Gudipati says.

Researchers discover Mars had water before there was life on Earth

Life is widely believed to have first appeared on Earth approximately 3.5B years ago

NASA is on its way to figuring out whether Mars contains fossilized evidence of extraterrestrial life, but a new study suggests the Red Planet had water billions of years earlier than previously believed.

The research, published in Science Advances, notes there was water on Mars’ surface 4.4 billion years ago. The experts looked at meteorite NWA 7533, believed to have originated on Mars, and found levels of oxidation inside the space rock that suggests there was water on Mars long before there was life on Earth.

“This oxidation could have occurred if there was water present on or in the Martian crust 4.4 billion years ago during an impact that melted part of the crust,” study co-author and University of Tokyo planetary scientist Takashi Mikouchi said in a statement. “Our analysis also suggests such an impact would have released a lot of hydrogen, which would have contributed to planetary warming at a time when Mars already had a thick insulating atmosphere of carbon dioxide.”

Martian meteorite NWA 7533 is worth more than its weight in gold. (Credit: University of Copenhagen/Deng et al.)

Martian meteorite NWA 7533 is worth more than its weight in gold. (Credit: University of Copenhagen/Deng et al.)

Previous estimates put the presence of water on Mars at approximately 3.7 billion years ago, roughly 700 million years later than the new study suggests.

Mikouchi, who said this is the first time he has studied NWA 7533 (discovered in the Sahara Desert in 2012), noted that the team’s analysis of it “led … to some exciting conclusions.”

Along with NWA 7533, meteorite NWA 7504 was also discovered in the Sahara around the same time.

A small chunk of an asteroid or comet is known as a meteoroid. When it enters Earth’s atmosphere, it becomes a meteor, fireball or shooting star. The pieces of rock that hit the ground, valuable to collectors, are called meteorites.https://6e42cfc220aecd370c94c7280d0b055b.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

If indeed there was water on Mars earlier than previously believed, the researchers suggested it could be from a “natural byproduct” of another process that went into forming Mars.

In October, a separate group of researchers found that Mars has an abundance of liquid water in the underground lakes in its south pole.

In 2018, scientists made the incredible discovery of a “stable body of liquid water” on Mars. The three lakes are roughly 6 miles across, nearly a mile deep and approximately 12 miles away from the lake discovered in 2018.

A separate group of researchers suggested in January 2020 that the water on Mars once contained the right ingredients to support life.

NASA recently launched the Perseverance rover into space to explore Mars. While on the Red Planet, the rover will perform a variety of different functions, including looking for evidence of ancient life.

Space Is Littered With Dead Rocket Stages. What If We Turned Them Into Habitats?

One company wants to fashion space stations out of space junk. Will it work?nanoracks outpostNANORACKS

  • Nanoracks, a space company that specializes in getting commercial payloads to the ISS, plans to create the first space recycling program.
  • The “Outpost” program will renovate spent upper stages already in orbit into space stations.
  • The company plans to perform its first demonstration next May.

Just outside the upper reaches of our atmosphere, past the line separating Earth from space, lies an orbital junkyard of debris. And that junk just keeps piling up with the increasing commercialization of space, leaving many experts worried how the debris could impact astronauts, satellites, and future deep space missions. But where some people see trouble, others see opportunity.

Nanoracks, a space company that has previously helped get commercial payloads to the International Space Station (ISS), aims to recycle the derelict upper stages of rockets orbiting Earth into commercial space stations. The company’s program, “Outpost,” plans to turn Earth’s orbiting junkyard into a recycling center, where an army of robotic space drones will flip unwanted spent upper stages of rockets into orbiting laboratories, greenhouses, fuel depots, or possibly habitats.

Rockets usually have multiple stages that are decoupled to shave weight as they ascend to orbit. The lower stages fall back to Earth after burning all their fuel, pushing the upper stages into the upper atmosphere. The smaller, lighter upper stages give the final kick to place their payloads, and the upper stage itself, into orbit.

This puts rocket scientists at a crossroads: Do they leave enough fuel in the upper stage after orbital insertion so it can turn around, refire its engines, and deorbit to fall back to Earth? Or do they use every last drop of fuel to get the most bang for their buck, leaving the upper stage in orbit and adding to the already large roster of space debris?

In its annual space environment report, the European Space Agency (ESA) included rocket bodies as one of the largest threats to spacecraft:

“Ever since the start of the space age on the 4th of October 1957, there has been more space debris in orbit than operational satellites. Space debris poses a problem for the near Earth environment on a global scale, to which all spacefaring nations have contributed and for which only a globally supported solution can be the answer.”

Earlier this month, an abandoned upper stage of a Chinese rocket narrowly missed colliding with a defunct Soviet satellite. The two objects came within 80 feet of each other, traveling at speeds close to 32,900 miles per hour. The impact would have created an untold number of space debris, with a combined mass of 6,170 pounds. Events like these have put even greater pressure to do something about the growing cloud of space junk surrounding Earth.

Nanoracks CEO Jeffrey Manber, then, sees these derelict upper stages as a gold mine waiting to be prospected. Rocket stages already possess many of the qualities engineers look for in a space station. Upper stages are designed to withstand the incredible stresses of a launch and hold pressure in a vacuum, making them both very durable and safe (once the highly flammable and sometimes toxic fuel is purged).



For this reason, Nanoracks isn’t the first to propose the idea of using the upper stages of rockets to create space stations. NASA originally planned its first space station, Skylab, to be built from the upper stage of the mighty Saturn V rocket. Rocket engineer Wernher von Braun proposed venting and refurbishing the upper stage while in orbit to create a ‘wet workshop’ in which astronauts could live and work.

nasa skylab

Servicing satellites in orbit, let alone stripping and renovating spent upper stages, is still an unproven technology. The closest analog may be the Hubble servicing missions that NASA conducted from 1993 to 2009, where teams of astronauts replaced and installed new parts on the Hubble telescope.

In recent years, NASA has moved its focus to unmanned operations. The On-orbit Servicing, Assembly and Manufacturing 1, or OSAM-1, is a robotic spacecraft designed to rendezvous with existing satellites and give them needed tuneups to expand their lifetimes.

Until the technology is proven, Nanoracks will take baby steps to realize its Outposts. The company plans to start small by focusing on the exterior of the rocket, by attaching experimental payloads, power modules, and propulsion units to the rocket’s fuselage.

“Right now, we’re not really modifying anything,” Nate Bishop, the Outpost project manager at Nanoracks, told WIRED:

“We’re focused on showing we can control the upper stage with attachments. But in the future, just imagine a bunch of little robots going up and down the stage to add more connectors and stuff like that.”

In late October, Nanoracks announced its first Outpost demonstration. In a partnership with NASA, the company plans to perform the first structural metal cutting ever done in space. The mission, which is scheduled to launch onboard a SpaceX rocket in May 2021, will include a robotic arm mounted on a platform containing metal pieces representing various upper stages of modern rockets. The arm is tipped with a drill bit that’s able to cut the metal without leaving any debris.

“At long last, Nanoracks is laying the groundwork for converting upper stages in orbit,” Manber said in a press release. “This technology could prove so important as both industry and NASA look to find the most cost-effective vehicles and programs that will bring humans to the moon, and soon to Mars.”

Apophis asteroid, nicknamed ‘God of Chaos,’ is speeding up

Elon Musk in 2019 said that despite the asteroid’s ‘great name’ he wouldn’t worry about it

An asteroid that has been nicknamed after the Egyptian God of Chaos is speeding up, scientists recently revealed.

Scientifically known as 99942 Apophis, the massive, 1,120-foot-wide space rock will fly within 23,441 miles above Earth’s surface on April 13, 2029, as well as in 2036. However, it’s the space rock’s flyby in 2068 that may be impacted by the slight alteration in its previously predicted orbit, due to the Yarkovsky effect, that has scientists talking.

“We have known for some time that an impact with Earth is not possible during the 2029 close approach,” said one of the study’s authors, University of Hawaiʻi Institute for Astronomy astronomer Dave Tholen, in a statement. “The new observations we obtained with the Subaru telescope earlier this year were good enough to reveal the Yarkovsky acceleration of Apophis, and they show that the asteroid is drifting away from a purely gravitational orbit by about 170 meters per year, which is enough to keep the 2068 impact scenario in play.”

Asteroid Apophis was discovered on June 19, 2004. (UH/IA)

Asteroid Apophis was discovered on June 19, 2004. (UH/IA)

Tholen, who has been tracking Apophis since his team discovered it in 2004, presented the findings at the 2020 virtual meeting of the Division for Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society. His comments can be found in this video at the 22-minute mark.

The Yarkovsky effect, or Yarkovsky acceleration, is caused by the sun heating the space rock unevenly, resulting in a “process that slightly changes the orbit of the asteroid,” the statement added.

The chances of 99942 Apophis impacting Earth are still low — previously calculated at about 1 in 150,000 by the Center for Near-Earth Studies — but it’s enough to give scientists a pause for concern.

In 2019, SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk said that despite the asteroid’s “great name” he wouldn’t worry about this “particular” asteroid.

He cautioned, however, that a “big rock will hit Earth eventually and we have no defense for it.”

The size and proximity to Earth of 99942 Apophis make it a near-Earth object (NEO), and in this case, a “potentially hazardous” one.

(University of Hawaii)

(University of Hawaii)

“Potentially hazardous” NEOs are defined as space objects that come within 0.05 astronomical units and measure more than 460 feet in diameter, according to NASA. According to a 2018 report put together by Planetary.org, there are more than 18,000 NEOs.

NASA unveiled a 20-page plan in 2018 that details 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.

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 Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in April 2019 that an asteroid strike is not something to be taken lightly and is perhaps Earth’s biggest threat.

Our Galaxy Could Have 50 Billion Rogue Planets, Just Doing Whatever the Hell They Want

And we’ll probably never find them.

Free-floating planet, illustration

MARK GARLICK/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARYGETTY IMAGES

Our galaxy has planets aplenty. Our sun possesses at least eight of them, and in recent years, we’ve learned that most other stars have some, too.

But according to a new simulation of star behavior, a staggering number of planets aren’t orbiting any star at all. Instead, there could be 50 billion rogue planets adrift in the Milky Way.

Scientists have long known about rogue planets. For centuries, astronomers have suspected that rogue planets exist, and in recent years, we’ve even found a few of them. But as a class, rogue planets are still somewhat of a mystery.

How do rogue planets form? How do they become untethered from their host stars? What does life as a rogue planet look like? These questions are tough to answer, because rogue planets are extremely tough to find, let alone study—they’re far away from any light source and could be located anywhere. Even with our most powerful telescopes, the biggest rogue planets are nothing more than the faintest of dots.

To get past these hurdles, astronomers at the University of Leiden built a simulation of 1,500 stars in a real place called the Orion Trapezium star cluster. About 500 of these simulated stars contained between four and six planets, giving the sim a grand total of 2,522 planets, EarthSky reports. When the scientists ran the simulation forward, they found that gravitational effects from the closely packed stars kicked about 350 of those planets outside their respective star systems.

If that’s the case, and you extrapolate that result across the Milky Way, then there could be billions of rogue planets careening throughout the galaxy undetected. Our galaxy has about 200 billion stars, and most of them were born in a cluster similar to the Orion Trapezium. Even our own sun was once part of such a cluster, although our stellar siblings have long since drifted apart.


If all stellar clusters produce rogue planets at the same rate as the simulated Orion Trapezium cluster, the University of Leiden astronomers estimate, then our galaxy could have as many as 50 billion rogue planets. One or two of them may have even come from our sun, although at this point, there’s not much way to tell.


With this many rogue planets peppering our galaxy, astronomers should have an easier time finding candidates to study. Perhaps we’ll learn a great deal about rogue planets in the near future, once our next-generation telescopes start coming online.

The Thermal Nuclear Engine That Could Get Us to Mars in Just 3 Months

It’s twice as efficient as a chemical rocket.


Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation (USNC) has designed a new thermal nuclear engine it says could carry astronauts to Mars in just three months—and back to Earth in the same amount of time. By using ceramic microcapsules of high assay low enriched uranium (HALEU) fuel, USNC’s thermal nuclear engine could cut the trip in half even from optimistic estimates.

“The problem is to produce a nuclear reactor that is light enough and safe enough for use outside the Earth’s atmosphere—especially if the spacecraft is carrying a crew,” New Atlas explains.

Thermal nuclear for propulsion is an old idea. While weapons are thermal, other applications have lingered in the experimental stage and then been discarded, but they’ve still been studied off and on for decades. These designs use the astonishing heat generated by a nuclear reaction to push a rocket at speeds approaching the Star Trek realm compared to what we use today. And they contrast with traditional chemical rockets, where chemical propellants like liquid oxygen are used to make something more like a supersized fossil fuel combustion engine.

USNC’s technology hits just months after Elon Musk suggested that a nuclear engine could be key to getting astronauts to Mars. For Musk, the concern was for astronaut health and safety: the longer the trip to Mars, the longer astronauts are exposed to extraordinary cosmic radiation.

The Department of Energy has found that HALEU fuel is, relative to the higher risk of handling nuclear materials at all, less dangerous than it could be. Cosmic radiation is probably far worse, and negotiating around it has been a huge barrier to any hypothetical Mars travel.

The reactor in USNC’s nuclear thermal propulsion engine is very similar to the design that powers its upcoming microreactor energy facilities. That’s not a coincidence. Although USNC is starkly divided into USNC-Tech and USNC-Power, with different leadership and goals, the corporation’s “ultra safe” goals and designs are shared. Both use HALEU fuel whose ceramic casing is safe in very high temperatures.

“Key to USNC-Tech’s design is a conscious overlap between terrestrial and space reactor technologies,” USNC-Tech CEO Paolo Venneri said in a statement. “This allows us to leverage the advancements in nuclear technology and infrastructure from terrestrial systems and apply them to our space reactors.”

USNC-Tech says its engine delivers twice the thrust of a chemical engine, and because of the encapsulated, low enriched fuel, it’s more stable than previous nuclear thermal designs. This is key, because chemical rockets are simply maxing out.

We’ve plumbed non-nuclear thrust technology to the full depth of our possible understanding, and the next step up from this plateau will require something different. Today, it’s hard to imagine that being anything other than nuclear propulsion.

New details of hellish lava planet light-years from Earth discovered

The planet is roughly the size of the Earth, scientists said

Scientists have discovered new details about a hellish lava planet light-years away from Earth that is unbearably hot, rains rocks and has lava oceans more than 60 miles deep.

I know, cue the jokes, but K2-141b, the planet in question, isn’t anywhere near us.

The exoplanet, meaning it is outside our solar system, hosts one of the most “extreme” environments discovered, according to a study first published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society by scientists from McGill University in Montreal, York University in Toronto and the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research in India.

Artist’s impression of the lava planet K2-141b. At the center of the large illuminated region there is an ocean of molten rock overlain by an atmosphere of rock vapour. Supersonic winds blow towards the frigid and airless nightside, condensing into rock rain and snow, which sluggishly flow back to the hottest region of the magma ocean.

Artist’s impression of the lava planet K2-141b. At the center of the large illuminated region there is an ocean of molten rock overlain by an atmosphere of rock vapour. Supersonic winds blow towards the frigid and airless nightside, condensing into rock rain and snow, which sluggishly flow back to the hottest region of the magma ocean. (Julie Roussy, McGill Graphic Design and Getty Images )

“Among the most extreme planets discovered beyond the edges of our solar system are lava planets,” McGill University explained in a press release, “fiery hot worlds that circle so close to their host star that some regions are likely oceans of molten lava.”

K2-141b also has supersonic winds speeds in excess of 3,000 mph.

Neptune has the highest wind speeds of any planet in our solar system, which can exceed 1,100 mph – 1.5 times the speed of sound, according to NASA.

The planet’s surface, atmosphere and ocean all appear to be made of rocks and the “extreme weather forecasted by their analysis could permanently change the surface and atmosphere of K2-141b over time,” the McGill release said.

“The study is the first to make predictions about weather conditions on K2-141b that can be detected from hundreds of light years away with next-generation telescopes such as the James Webb Space Telescope,” lead author Giang Nguyen, a PhD student at York University who worked under the supervision of McGill University Professor Nicolas Cowan on the study, said.

More than half of the planet also has constant daylight because it’s so close to its host star so it’s “gravitationally locked in place,” and the same side always faces the star.

The dark side of the planet, alternatively, has temperatures that can go lower than -300 degrees Fahrenheit.

The lowest temperature ever recorded by a weather station on Earth was -128 degrees F in the Antarctic near the South Pole in 1983, according to the American Geophysical Union.

In the same way water on earth evaporates into the atmosphere and returns as rain, the planet’s rock vapor atmosphere evaporates and rains down as rocks.

“On K2-141b, the mineral vapor formed by evaporated rock is swept to the frigid night side by supersonic winds and rocks ‘rain’ back down into a magma ocean,” the release said. “The resulting currents flow back to the hot day side of the exoplanet, where rock evaporates once more.”

“All rocky planets­, including Earth, started off as molten worlds but then rapidly cooled and solidified. Lava planets give us a rare glimpse at this stage of planetary evolution,” said Professor Cowan of the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences.

300 million habitable planets exist, NASA says

Research found half the stars could be orbited by rocky planets with liquid water on their surfaces

More than 4,500 exoplanets have been discovered so far, with only a small portion thought to have the properties to contain life. A new study suggests that the galaxy may actually contain 300 million planets capable of supporting life.

The research analyzed data from the Kepler space telescope and found approximately half the stars that have a similar temperature to the sun — plus or minus up to 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit — could also be orbited by rocky planets with liquid water on their surfaces.

“Kepler already told us there were billions of planets, but now we know a good chunk of those planets might be rocky and habitable,” said the study’s lead author, Steve Bryson, in a statement. “Though this result is far from a final value, and water on a planet’s surface is only one of many factors to support life, it’s extremely exciting that we calculated these worlds are this common with such high confidence and precision.”

This illustration depicts one possible appearance of the planet Kepler-452b, the first near-Earth-size world to be found in the habitable zone of a star similar to our Sun. Credits: NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle

This illustration depicts one possible appearance of the planet Kepler-452b, the first near-Earth-size world to be found in the habitable zone of a star similar to our Sun. Credits: NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle

The Kepler space telescope, which was launched in 2009, was retired in 2018 after it ran out of fuel. 

The new study, which is slated to be published in The Astronomical Journal, looked at the relationship between the temperature of the star and the light an orbiting planet absorbed, expanding the scope of researchers.

“We always knew defining habitability simply in terms of a planet’s physical distance from a star, so that it’s not too hot or cold, left us making a lot of assumptions,” said study co-author Ravi Kopparapu. “Gaia’s data on stars allowed us to look at these planets and their stars in an entirely new way.”

“Not every star is alike,” Kopparapu added. “And neither is every planet.”

In their findings, the researchers also said there are “at least four” potentially habitable exoplanets within 20 to 30 light-years from Earth. A light-year, which measures distance in space, is approximately 6 trillion miles.

“To me, this result is an example of how much we’ve been able to discover just with that small glimpse beyond our solar system,” Bryson, a researcher at NASA Ames Research Center, added. “What we see is that our galaxy is a fascinating one, with fascinating worlds, and some that may not be too different from our own.”

In October, a separate group of researchers discovered 24 potential “superhabitable” planets that may have conditions more suited to host life.