Wild Idea: Let’s Use the Sun as a Lens to Check for Life on Alien Planets

An artist's depiction of a rocky, Earth-size exoplanet.

An artist’s depiction of a rocky, Earth-size exoplanet.(Image: © NASA Ames/SETI Institute/JPL-Caltech)

WASHINGTON — Our sun may someday be able to shed light on whether life is hiding on a distant planet, assuming humans can execute a delicate maneuver in space.

The motivation for such a stellar feat would be exceptionally compelling: potentially confirming clues of extraterrestrial life. Astrobiologists searching for whiffs of life beyond Earth target biosignatures, characteristics that are at least most likely caused by life. But scientists are excellent at hypothesizing alternative, nonlife processes for creating biosignatures, which means that identifying these characteristics on distant worlds isn’t a guarantee that you’ve found life.

So scientists may want to target biosignature-laden planets with other techniques in order to be sure. “We want to find a way to get closer [to the planet in question],” Sara Seager, an astronomer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said here last week at the International Astronautical Congress during a panel called Life’s Journey Through the Universe. “We want to get another look. We don’t really have any ways to do that now.”

Seager referenced one possible solution to that quandary: designing tiny satellites that can be pushed on laser beams to make interstellar journeys. “Another kind-of-out-there, but realistic idea is to use the sun as a gravitational lens,” Seager said.

Astronomers have plenty of experience using galaxies as gravitational lenses. The technique relies on three celestial objects lining up precisely. First, there’s the instrument itself on or around Earth. The second ingredient is a massive galaxy or galaxy cluster, containing so much mass that its gravity warps the path of light. The third point in the line is a distant object that astronomers want to see in more detail. When these players snap into alignment, scientists can capture much sharper images of the target.

The same basic principle may work using our own star as the magnifier, although this would be an entirely different type of feat, one that would need to start with an incredible journey. “We don’t know if we can do this for sure,” Seager said. “We’d have to slingshot around the sun, pick up speed and go to 500 astronomical units,” or 500 times the distance from Earth to the sun. For comparison, the Voyager 1 spacecraft, which launched in 1977 and is humanity’s most-distant working probe right now, is just shy of 150 astronomical units from the sun.

Distance isn’t the only challenge, either; the alignment necessary for a gravitational lens is unforgiving. “We’re not sure if we can do that yet, because you have to line up really precisely,” Seager said.

But in a quest as open-ended as the search for alien life, every potential technique represents slightly better odds of answering an enduring question about the universe.

Record-Holding Moon Mission Marks a Decade in Orbit

A Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter image of the surface of the moon.

A Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter image of the surface of the moon.(Image: © NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University)

Among the dozens of spacecraft that have visited the moon, none can come close to the tenure of NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which recently marked a decade studying our sibling world.

The spacecraft, nicknamed LRO, began its work in lunar orbit in September 2009. Since then, the spacecraft has circled the moon again and again. Its work is repetitive but far from dull. On each circuit, the scientists watching its data from home can identify differences on the lunar surface as meteorites, and occasionally spacecraft, slam into the moon. The ability to see changes over time is what makes LRO’s longevity so valuable to scientists.

“No one has had a mission orbiting the moon for 10 years,” Noah Petro, NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter project scientist, told Space.com. “We’re literally forging new ground.”

Related: Amazing Moon Photos from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance OrbiterClick here for more Space.com videos…CLOSEVolume 0% PLAY SOUND

LRO has outpaced every other lunar mission by far. Its nearest competition comes from the twin ARTEMIS probes, which NASA built to study Earth’s magnetosphere then redirected midmission to lunar orbit. The two spacecraft have been at the moon since 2011 and are still operating.

The only other competition comes from NASA’s Explorer 35 mission, which spent six years at the moon in the late 1960s and early 1970s and concluded that the moon does not have its own magnetosphere. Otherwise, lunar missions have tended to last about a year at most.

Despite its long stay, so far, LRO is holding up well. “We built the spacecraft to last one to two years. Here we are, 10 years later,” Petro said. “Oh my goodness, the warranty is over! But it’s like people who have really high-end cars — we take extremely good care. We are very cautious with the spacecraft, do nothing to it that would risk the life of the spacecraft.”

One of the riskiest times in the mission is during a lunar eclipse, when the spacecraft gets temporarily stuck in darkness, with Earth blocking the sun. Fortunately, LRO won’t experience that situation again until May 2021, Petro said, which will be a relatively short eclipse, and then again in May 2022.

Slipping occasionally into darkness is still easier for a spacecraft than what machines face on the lunar surface. On the moon, day and night each last the equivalent of two weeks on Earth, and during that long darkness, temperatures plummet. The bitter cold freezes whatever hardware does make it to the surface safely, shortening the life span of that equipment.Click here for more Space.com videos…See Lunar Orbiter Maps Mashed Together To Make 3D Moon VisualizationsVolume 0% PLAY SOUND

But from orbit, LRO has been able to remain at work for a decade, gathering huge amounts of photographs and measurements of the lunar surface. To date, the mission has produced a stunning 1.1 petabytes of data, according to Jay Jenkins, program executive for exploration at NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, who spoke during a public presentation in September.

In the context of NASA, that’s “twice as much data as all other missions combined,” he said. “We know the surface of the moon better than any other body in the solar system, including Earth, because the Earth has so many oceans.”

Ironically, the massive lunar database that LRO is still building can help scientists better understand Earth’s surface, despite those pesky oceans. That’s because Earth and the moon are close enough that they should have experienced essentially the same frequency of impacts over the course of geologic history. Most of Earth’s craters have disappeared, melted by plate tectonics, eroded by the wind or covered in water. The moon’s are still right there, though, in stunning view of LRO.

“Basically, we are understanding this object that happens to be our neighbor in space in a way that allows us to really disentangle its history,” Petro said. “When we do that, we apply that knowledge everywhere across the solar system.”

Is a New Particle Changing the Fate of the Universe?

A dark nebula is a type of interstellar cloud that is so dense that it obscures the light from background stars.

A dark nebula is a type of interstellar cloud that is so dense that it obscures the light from background stars.(Image: © Shutterstock)

Astronomers around the world are in a bit of a tizzy because they can’t seem to agree about how fast the universe is expanding

Ever since our universe emerged from an explosion of a tiny speck of infinite density and gravity, it has been ballooning, and not at a steady rate, either — the expansion of the universe keeps getting faster. 

But how quickly it’s expanding has been up for a dizzying debate. Measurements of this expansion rate from nearby sources seem to be in conflict with the same measurement taken from distant sources. One possible explanation is that, basically, something funky is going on in the universe, changing the expansion rate. 

And one theorist has proposed that a brand-new particle has emerged and is altering the future destiny of our entire cosmos.

Related: How the Universe Stopped Making Sense

Hubble, Hubble, toil and trouble

Astronomers have devised multiple clever ways of measuring what they call the Hubble parameter, or Hubble constant (denoted for the folks with busy lives as H0). This number represents the expansion rate of the universe today.

One way to measure the expansion rate today is to look at nearby supernovas, the explosion of gas and dust launched from the universe’s largest stars upon their death. There’s a particular kind of supernova that has a very specific brightness, so we can compare how bright they look to how bright we know they’re supposed to be and calculate the distance. Then, by looking at the light from the supernova’s host galaxy, astrophysicists can also calculate how fast they are moving away from us. By putting all the pieces together, we then can calculate the universe’s expansion rate.

But there’s more to the universe than exploding stars. There’s also something called the cosmic microwave background, which is the leftover light from just after the Big Bang, when our universe was a mere baby, only 380,000 years old. With missions like the Planck satellite tasked with mapping this remnant radiation, scientists have incredibly precise maps of this background, which can be used to get a very accurate picture of the contents of the universe. And from there, we can take those ingredients and run the clock forward with computer models and be able to say what the expansion rate should be today — assuming that the fundamental ingredients of the universe haven’t changed since then.

Related: From Big Bang to Present: Snapshots of Our Universe Through Time

These two estimates disagree by enough to make people a little bit worried that we’re missing something.Click here for more Space.com videos…CLOSEVolume 0% PLAY SOUND

Look to the dark side

Perhaps, one or both measurements are incorrect or incomplete; plenty of scientists on either side of the debate are slinging the appropriate amount of mud at their opponents. But if we assume that both measurements are accurate, then we need something else to explain the different measurements. Since one measurement comes from the very early universe, and another comes from more relatively recent time, the thinking is that maybe some new ingredient in the cosmos is altering the expansion rate of the universe in a way that we didn’t already capture in our models.

And what’s dominating the expansion of the universe today is a mysterious phenomenon that we call dark energy. It’s an awesome name for something we basically don’t understand. All we know is that the expansion rate of the universe today is accelerating, and we call the force driving this acceleration “dark energy.”

In our comparisons from the young universe to the present-day universe, physicists assume that dark energy (whatever it is) is constant. But with this assumption, we have the present disagreement, so maybe dark energy is changing.

I guess it’s worth a shot. Let’s assume that dark energy is changing.

Scientists have a sneaking suspicion that dark energy has something to do with the energy that’s locked into the vacuum of space-time itself. This energy comes from all of the “quantum fields” that permeate the universe. 

In modern quantum physics, every single kind of particle is tied to its own particular field. These fields wash through all of space-time, and sometimes bits of the fields get really excited in places, becoming the particles that we know and love — like electrons and quarks and neutrinos. So all the electrons belong to the electron field, all the neutrinos belong to the neutrino field, and so on. The interaction of these fields form the fundamental basis for our understanding of the quantum world.

And no matter where you go in the universe, you can’t escape the quantum fields. Even when they’re not vibrating enough in a particular location to make a particle, they’re still there, wiggling and vibrating and doing their normal quantum thing. So these quantum fields have a fundamental amount of energy associated with them, even in the bare empty vacuum itself.

Related: The 11 Biggest Unanswered Questions About Dark Matter

If we want to use the exotic quantum energy of the vacuum of space-time to explain dark energy, we immediately run into problems. When we perform some very simple, very naive calculations of how much energy there is in the vacuum due to all the quantum fields, we end up with a number that is about 120 orders of magnitude stronger than what we observe dark energy to be. Whoops.

On the other hand, when we try some more sophisticated calculations, we end up with a number that is zero. Which also disagrees with the measured amount of dark energy. Whoops again.

So no matter what, we have a really hard time trying to understand dark energy through the language of the vacuum energy of space-time (the energy created by those quantum fields). But if these measurements of the expansion rate are accurate and dark energy really is changing, then this might give us a clue into the nature of those quantum fields. Specifically, if dark energy is changing, that means that the quantum fields themselves have changed. 

A new enemy appears

In a recent paper published online in the preprint journal arXiv, theoretical physicist Massimo Cerdonio at the University of Padova has calculated the amount of change in the quantum fields needed to account for the change in dark energy.

If there is a new quantum field that’s responsible for the change in dark energy, that means there is a new particle out there in the universe.

And the amount of change in dark energy that Cerdonio calculated requires a certain kind of particle mass, which turns out to be roughly the same mass of a new kind of particle that’s already been predicted: the so-called axion. Physicists invented this theoretical particle to solve some problems with our quantum understanding of the strong nuclear force.

This particle presumably appeared in the very early universe, but has been “lurking” in the background while other forces and particles controlled the direction of the universe. And now it’s the axion’s turn …

Even so, we’ve never detected an axion, but if these calculations are correct, then that means that the axion is out there, filling up the universe and its quantum field. Also, this hypothetical axion is already making itself noticeable by changing the amount of dark energy in the cosmos. So it could be that even though we’ve never seen this particle in the laboratory, it’s already altering our universe at the very largest of scales.

Yes, the ‘Von Braun’ Space Hotel Idea Is Wild. But Could We Build It by 2025?

How possible is the Von Braun Rotating Space Station?

A visualization of the orbiting Von Braun Rotating Space Station which will support scientific experiments but also function as a "space hotel" for tourists.

A visualization of the orbiting Von Braun Rotating Space Station which will support scientific experiments but also function as a “space hotel” for tourists.(Image: © The Gateway Foundation)

Will you be planning a trip to an orbiting “space hotel” as early as 2025? 

The Gateway Foundation, a private company developing this “space hotel,” thinks so. The organization plans to build what it describes on its website as “the first spaceport.” This spaceport, the Von Braun Rotating Space Station, will orbit Earth and will accommodate not only scientific research but also visiting tourists looking to experience life away from our home planet

But, while any timeline for the creation of such a structure would be daunting, the Gateway Foundation plans to build the spaceport as early as 2025 (with the support of the space construction company Orbital Assembly).

According to Timothy Alatorre, the lead architect of this space station, who also works as the treasurer and an executive team member at the Gateway Foundation, the Von Braun station is designed to be the largest human-made structure in space and will house up to 450 people. Alatorre is also designing the interiors of the station, including the habitable spaces and gymnasium.

As its name implies, the concept for the station is inspired in part by the ideas of Wernher von Braun, who pioneered in the field of human spaceflight first for Nazi Germany and then for the U.S. This design is inspired by his ideas for a rotating space station, which were derived from other, older ideas. “He had inherited a lot of ideas from previous scientists and authors and theorists, so it wasn’t entirely his idea for the torus-shaped, doughnut-shaped space station, but he kind of adopted it. He expanded upon it and eventually, he popularized it,” Gary Kitmacher, who works for NASA in the International Space Station program, told Space.com. Kitmacher also has worked on the design of the space station, NASA’s shuttle program, Spacehab and Mir, and has contributed as an author in textbooks and to the book “Space Stations: The Art, Science, and Reality of Working in Space (Smithsonian Books, 2018).”

Additionally, “the inspiration behind it [this space station] really comes from watching science fiction over the last 50 years and seeing how mankind has had this dream of starship culture,” Alatorre told Space.com.

“I think it started really with ‘Star Trek’ and then ‘Star Wars,’ and [with] this concept of large groups of people living in space and having their own commerce, their own industry and their own culture, as it were,” he added. 

The team drew inspiration partially from Von Braun’s concept of a rotating space station that utilizes artificial gravity for the comfort of its passengers. But, while this new design will use artificial gravity in areas of the station, it will also have spaces on board that will allow passengers to feel the weightlessness of space. 

The ultimate goal for this station is to have it include amenities ranging from restaurants and bars to sports that would allow passengers to take full advantage of weightlessness on board the station. The station will also have programs that include the arts, with concerts on board. “We do hope, though, that people take the time to be inspired, to write music, to paint, to take part in the arts,” Alatorre said.

Gateway Foundation officials acknowledge that the station might not be entirely finished by 2025, but the group aims to develop the station’s main structure and basic functions by then. “We expect the operation to begin in 2025, the full station will be built out and completed by 2027. … Once the station’s fully operational, our hope, our goal and our objective is to have the station available for the average person,” Alatorre said. “So, a family or an individual could save up reasonably … and be able to have enough money to visit space and have that experience. … It would be something that would be within reach.”

He added that “once or twice a week, we would have new people coming up, and they would be able to spend a couple days or a couple weeks.”

So … how would this all work? Is it at all possible? 

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Building a space station?

Alatorre said that the Gateway Foundation feels that such a project is now possible because the growing success of commercial aerospace companies like SpaceX has made launch options more affordable. 

He added that the company admits that it’s possible its timeline is pushing it somewhat. “We completely understand that delays are almost inevitable with aerospace, but based on our internal projections and the fact that we’re already dealing with existing technology, we’re not inventing anything new. … We really feel that the time frame is possible,” he said. 

The company also concedes that its plans are ambitious. 

“I think you could do it,” Kitmacher said. “You’d have to have the way to transport it into orbit.” 

“It might not be done the way in which we would go about doing it at NASA, but I think you can design and build hardware on a fairly rapid schedule,” Kitmacher added.Advertisement

Related: Space History Photo: Walt Disney and Wernher von Braun

But while it may be possible, there are a number of variables specific to space that the team will need to consider. For instance, the temperatures in space for those orbiting our planet range from extreme heat to extreme cold, depending on whether the astronauts are in direct sunlight or in the dark. “The real concern is to design the habitat — the pressurized module that you’re going to be living in — [in] such a way that it can handle those kinds of temperature changes,” Kitmacher said. 

Kitmacher added that the company’s current timeline might not be the most realistic. “If you look at something like a commercial airplane, typically a large, commercial airplane is in development for something like a 10-year period, so that’s probably a more reasonable schedule,” he said. 

With a tight timeline and a number of difficult variables, Kitmacher said that the main obstacle the Gateway Foundation will have to overcome is actually cost. The “cost not only of designing and certifying and getting the whole thing into orbit but also the cost associated with taking the paying passengers, the tourists, up and back,” he said. 

In addition to the technical challenges involved in building this space station, there are a heap of social concerns that could make its success more difficult. 

For starters, if there is a “space hotel,” that means the facility would have to have employees. That would mean extended periods of time in space, and research has shown that spaceflight and being in microgravity can have a number of effects on human health

This would also mean that, if the space station actually becomes an accessible spaceport in orbit around Earth, more people (and not all of them highly trained astronauts) would be flying to space much more regularly than humans do today. There would likely be physical risks involved with such an increased amount of space travel for a wider variety of people, as well as significant legal red tape that the company would have to deal with to get this space station not only off the ground but also to allow for travel to this “space hotel.”

Photos: Wernher von Braun, Space Pioneer Rememembered

Another issue that could affect the public’s perception of this developing concept is its association with Wernher von Braun, who was a member of the Nazi party and an SS officer during World War II. 

“We were drawing off of his [von Braun’s] inspiration, which is why we started describing it as the von Braun station,” Alatorre said. But, “there have been people who’ve questioned the name, definitely.”

While many might disagree, Alatorre added, “our opinion on it is Wernher von Braun was a reluctant Nazi.”

Massive 2,000-foot asteroid to whiz past Earth later this month

An asteroid slightly smaller than the largest structure in the U.S. is slated to harmlessly zoom past Earth later this month.

Known as 2006 SF6, the space rock will zip past Earth on Nov. 20 at approximately 2.7 million miles (0.02886 astronomical units) at roughly 12:01 a.m. EDT, according to NASA’s Center for Near Earth Object Studies, which tracks near-Earth objects.

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

An artist's illustration of asteroids, or near-Earth objects, that highlight the need for a complete Space Situational Awareness system.

An artist’s illustration of asteroids, or near-Earth objects, that highlight the need for a complete Space Situational Awareness system. (ESA – P.Carril)

“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.

Asteroid 2006 SF6, which was discovered on Sept. 17, 2006, is believed to be between 919 feet and 2,034 feet in diameter, slightly smaller than the KVLY-TV mast in Blanchard, S.D., the tallest structure in the U.S. and fourth tallest in the world.

The space rock will fly past Earth at approximately 17,800 miles per hour and will come within close proximity to our planet again on Nov. 5, 2020, two days after the U.S. presidential election.

In August, an asteroid slightly shorter than the world’s tallest building, Burj Khalifa, flew past Earth.

NASA has been preparing for planetary defense from asteroid strikes for years. 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.

2016 saw NASA formalize its prior program for detecting and tracking NEOs and put it inside its Science Mission Directorate. Last June, the space agency 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.

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.

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.”

Monstrous galaxy from dawn of the universe accidentally discovered

Astronomers accidentally discovered the footprints of a monster galaxy in the early universe that has never been seen before. Like a cosmic Yeti, the scientific community generally regarded these galaxies as folklore, given the lack of evidence of their existence, but astronomers in the United States and Australia managed to snap a picture of the beast for the first time.

Published in the Astrophysical Journal, the discovery provides new insights into the first growing steps of some of the biggest galaxies in the universe.

University of Arizona astronomer Christina Williams, lead author of the study, noticed a faint light blob in new sensitive observations using the Atacama Large Millimeter Array, or ALMA, a collection of 66 radio telescopes high in the Chilean mountains. Strangely enough, the shimmering seemed to be coming out of nowhere, like a ghostly footstep in a vast dark wilderness.

“It was very mysterious because the light seemed not to be linked to any known galaxy at all,” said Williams, a National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellow at the Steward Observatory. “When I saw this galaxy was invisible at any other wavelength, I got really excited because it meant that it was probably really far away and hidden by clouds of dust.”

The researchers estimate that the signal came from so far away that it took 12.5 billion years to reach Earth, therefore giving us a view of the universe in its infancy. They think the observed emission is caused by the warm glow of dust particles heated by stars forming deep inside a young galaxy. The giant clouds of dust conceal the light of the stars themselves, rendering the galaxy completely invisible.

Study co-author Ivo Labbé, of the Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne, Australia, said: “We figured out that the galaxy is actually a massive monster galaxy with as many stars as our Milky Way, but brimming with activity, forming new stars at 100 times the rate of our own galaxy.”

The discovery may solve a long-standing question in astronomy, the authors said. Recent studies found that some of the biggest galaxies in the young universe grew up and came of age extremely quickly, a result that is not understood theoretically. Massive mature galaxies are seen when the universe was only a cosmic toddler at 10% of its current age. Even more puzzling is that these mature galaxies appear to come out of nowhere: astronomers never seem to catch them while they are forming.

Smaller galaxies have been seen in the early universe with the Hubble Space Telescope, but such creatures are not growing fast enough to solve the puzzle. Other monster galaxies have also been previously reported, but those sightings have been far too rare for a satisfying explanation.

“Our hidden monster galaxy has precisely the right ingredients to be that missing link,” Williams explains, “because they are probably a lot more common.”

An open question is exactly how many of them there are. The observations for the current study were made in a tiny part of the sky, less than 1/100th the disc of the full moon. Like the Yeti, finding footprints of the mythical creature in a tiny strip of wilderness would either be a sign of incredible luck or a sign that monsters are literally lurking everywhere.

Williams said researchers are eagerly awaiting the March 2021 scheduled launch of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope to investigate these objects in more detail.

“JWST will be able to look through the dust veil so we can learn how big these galaxies really are and how fast they are growing, to better understand why models fail in explaining them.”

But for now the monsters are out there, shrouded in dust and a lot of mystery.

NASA’s Voyager Spacecraft May Have 5 Years Left to Explore Interstellar Space

An artist's visualization of NASA's Voyager 1 spacecraft.

An artist’s visualization of NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft.(Image: © NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The twin Voyager probes are the ultimate spaceflight overachievers, but everyone knows their run can’t last forever.

Right now, it’s looking like the grizzled spacefarers have about five years before they fall silent, when they’ll be no longer able to send word of their adventures back to the humans who have eagerly awaited their telegrams for 42 years and counting. The Voyagers’ journey will continue indefinitely, but we will no longer travel with them.

“It’s cooling off, the spacecraft is getting colder all the time and the power is dropping,” Ed Stone, the mission’s project scientist and a physicist at Caltech, said during a news conference held Oct. 31 in conjunction with the publication of a handful of new scientific papers. “We know that somehow, in another five years or so, we may not have enough power to have any scientific instruments on any longer.”

Their success is unprecedented, even by NASA standards; the mission has lasted for two-thirds of the agency’s existence. “We’re certainly surprised but also wonderfully excited by the fact that they do [still work],” Stone said. “When the two Voyagers were launched, the Space Age was only 20 years old, so it was hard to know at that time that anything could last over 40 years.”

Just as stunning as the spacecraft’s longevity has been the longevity of a handful of instruments on board the probes. Four instruments on Voyager 1 continue to work; their twins and a fifth instrument are still gathering data on Voyager 2.

Stamatios Krimigis, a space scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory and the principal investigator of the mission’s low-energy charged particles experiment, explained that the devices were designed to last just four years, during which they would need to conduct 250,000 turns of a motor (dubbed “steps”) to take measurements. Both versions of the experiment are still running.

“That device has been stepping every 192 seconds for the last 42 years,” Krimigis said during the news conference. “It’s close to 8 million steps, and we’re absolutely amazed that it’s still working.”

The Voyager spacecraft launched two weeks apart in 1977, taking slightly different trajectories past Jupiter and Saturn. Then, the probes parted ways. Voyager 1 scouted out Saturn’s moon Titan and then made a beeline out of our solar system; Voyager 2 took a more leisurely route, giving humans our only look at Uranus and Neptune.

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Their longevity has translated to speed and distance that are difficult to fathom. Both spacecraft are traveling at more than 30,000 mph (48,000 km/h). On NASA’s tracking page for the mission, each spacecraft’s odometer ticks up by 10 miles (16 kilometers) or more twice a second, a constant churn that makes the passage of time suddenly excruciating.

But the Voyagers are traveling at nowhere near the speed of light (186,000 mps, or 300 million km/s), as their messages do. And yet, it takes nearly 17 hours for messages from Voyager 2 to travel back to Earth and more than 20 hours for those sent by Voyager 1. A whole meme cycle can roil the internet here on Earth between a message’s dispatch and its arrival.

The probes’ distance only makes them more compelling emissaries. A year ago, the mission checked off yet another achievement when Voyager 2 followed its twin through the bubble that surrounds our solar system. In just a couple of hours, Voyager 2 went from being surrounded by material born in the sun to being bathed by the local neighborhood — a transition Voyager 1 had made in 2012.

Stone and Krimigis spoke to mark the publication of the first batch of scientific papers comparing the two crossings. The twin spacecraft’s transitions to interstellar space have been similar but not identical, variations on a theme that humans have no concrete plans to experience again anytime soon. Unless something very dramatic happens in the universe around us, Pluto veteran New Horizons, like the Pioneer spacecraft before it, will fall silent long before it escapes our little bubble.

What the Voyager mission has made clear, the scientists speaking at the news conference said, is that two crossings are hardly enough to begin understanding this bubble — and that, nevertheless, the spacecraft have completely changed what we know about it.

“We had no good quantitative idea of how big this bubble is that the sun creates around itself,” Stone said. “We didn’t know how large the bubble was, and we certainly didn’t know that the spacecraft could live long enough to reach the edge of the bubble and leave the bubble and enter interstellar space, at least nearby interstellar space.”

And now, of course, they do.

“This has really been a wonderful journey,” Stone said.

There’s Something Strange Going On Inside Neptune

Artist's impression of Neptune

Something mysterious is going on inside the ice giant Neptune.(Image: © All About Space/Tobias Roetsch)

When Voyager 2 reached Neptune in 1989, just 12 years after setting off on its historic journey through the solar system, it discovered six new moons, took the first images of the planet’s rings and noted a particularly violent storm.

The storm was something of a surprise. In the southern hemisphere there was a swirling, counter-clockwise wind of up to 1,500 mph (2,414 km/h) — the strongest ever recorded. Astronomers called it the Great Dark Spot, and while it had gone by the time the Hubble Space Telescope looked at the planet five years later, they were keen to learn why the winds were so extreme.

They were also perplexed by another issue: Voyager 2 revealed that Neptune is warmer than Uranus, despite being farther from the sun. As physicist Brian Cox discussed in his BBC documentary, The Planets: “The source of this extra heat remains a mystery.” But does that mean we have a double-puzzle on our hands, and can one mystery help to explain the other in some way?

Before we begin to address the two issues at hand, we must first look at what is actually meant by “warmer”. Since Neptune is a gas giant, we cannot test the globally average temperature at ground level in the way that we could on Earth’s solid surface. Instead, with Neptune’s core likely to be small, temperature measurements must be taken at an altitude. Trouble is, which one?These thermal images, taken by the Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile, reveals a hot south pole at Neptune.(Image credit: VLT/ESO/NASA/JPL/Paris Observatory)

The trouble with temperature

“We can only measure temperatures in the outermost layers,” said Michael Wong, a planetary scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, via email. In doing so we find that Neptune isn’t actually hotter than Uranus in real terms — they’re essentially at the same temperature. But since Neptune receives less solar illumination because it’s farther from the sun, this shouldn’t be the case.

What this similarity in temperature suggests is that Neptune is warmer in terms of how much heat it emits in comparison to the amount of heat it absorbs from the sun. “Voyager’s measurements show Neptune emits more than twice as much heat as it absorbs from the sun, while Uranus does not,” Anthony Del Genio of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) told All About Space. And this is where things become rather intriguing.

That’s because Neptune is not unusual in this case. “Jupiter and Saturn also emit almost twice as much heat as they absorb, but Uranus does not,” Del Genio said. “Uranus is the oddball.” 

“The progression of temperature as you go farther away from the sun shows Jupiter to be the warmest of the gas giants, Saturn next, then Neptune. Uranus is the one that is out of place,” Del Genio said. “Yet that unusual result is associated with the fact that Uranus does not have a significant internal heat source.” Neptune is finding a way to warm itself up to the level of Uranus, while the latter is unable to generate any extra heat other than that gleaned from the sun.

But just what is an internal heat source? In simple terms it is heat left over from the birth of the solar system when these planets were formed. The heat contracts out of the primitive solar nebula — an effect known as the Kelvin-Helmholtz contraction.

“The extra heat source on Neptune [and Jupiter and Saturn] is largely due to gravitational contraction,” said Joshua Tollefson, also of the University of California, Berkeley. “As the planet slowly gravitationally contracts, the material falling inward changes its potential energy into thermal energy, which is then released upwards out of the planet.”

Yet there is no clear reason why Uranus does not have much of an internal heat source — or any at all. “Something must have stunted this process on Uranus — perhaps due to a collision in its early history that knocked the planet on its side,” said Tollefson. “The question becomes, why does Neptune have an internal heat source but Uranus does not?”Click here for more Space.com videos…CLOSEVolume 0% PLAY SOUND

Frozen planets that love to burp

There is a possibility that heat is not released from the interior at a steady rate but instead comes in “burps”. “We may just be seeing Uranus in a quiescent period, whereas Neptune has burped more recently,” said Tollefson. “The burps are convection, which may happen in discrete episodes separated by long time periods, but we may not know if it works this way for sure unless we see one of these convective episodes take place.”

It could also be an issue of Uranus being an old-timer and Neptune a younger pup. “How much heat a planet radiates depends mostly on how old it is and how quickly or slowly it releases that heat,” said Amy Simon, a NASA senior scientist for Planetary Atmosphere Research at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. “An older planet would be colder. How quickly they release depends on the interior structure and composition, cloud layers, convection and so on and that can be rather complicated.”

“On the gas giants there may be significant amounts of helium rain, changing the amount of heat released. For Uranus and Neptune it is possible that they are different ages or, more likely, the event that turned Uranus onto its side may have jumbled its interior structure and/or released heat faster,” said Simon.

So what of those winds? They are undeniably fierce, and this may have something to do with temperature.

“We’ve speculated for a long time that the coldness of Neptune and Uranus might lead to near-frictionless conditions and so allow for faster winds,” said Heidi Hammel, a planetary astronomer who has studied both planets extensively and who was part of the team imaging Neptune from Voyager 2.

By this she means there are no mountains, hills or other shapes across the Neptunian landscape slowing the winds. But is there any relation between the storms and the internal heat source? “Probably,” said Hammel, “but there is also some delicate balance between the internal heat and the incoming sunlight.”

It is difficult to quantify these effects because of the long timescales involved. “One year on Neptune is 165 Earth years so we have not had a chance to study the planet with modern tools for very much of its seasonal cycle,” said Hammel. “You need a lot of patience — and trust in past and future generations of planetary scientists — to study the atmospheres of outer planets.”

“I guess the theory was supposed to be the greater amount of solar energy, the more wind energy, but on Earth we’ve known for a long time that the amount of energy received by the sun and converted into kinetic energy in the atmosphere — that is, wind — is a tiny fraction,” said Del Genio.

Earth is a very inefficient heat engine, and it doesn’t give you much bang for the buck. One reason is that it has a solid surface that dissipates wind energy by friction, whereas the gas giants do not, so that is one reason why all the giant planets have much stronger winds than Earth does.

Why are Neptune’s winds so strong?

“Winds are probably generated deeper than sunlight can penetrate, so a combination of internal heat and rotation likely produces them,” said Simon, raising the issue of why Uranus and Neptune’s winds don’t match, given they have similar rotation rates. “It tells us something is different between them: partially internal heat or something else,” said Simon.

Uranus’ winds can blow up to 560 mph and Neptune’s 1,500 mph. “They’re both extremely fast and peak at speeds faster than Jupiter,” said Tollefson. NASA says Jupiter’s Great Red Spot can blow at 384 mph. But he too says internal heat alone cannot explain the speeds, given Uranus does not generate extra heat.

The interior structure of the planets — their masses, core sizes and radial density profiles — is extremely important for understanding the winds as we see them. How the winds form and how deep they go are questions currently being answered for Jupiter and Saturn thanks to NASA’s Juno and Cassini spacecraft. This is due to the extremely good gravitational data they’ve obtained, which means good models for the interior structure can be made.Advertisement

Computer simulations suggest that the winds of the ice giants are confined to shallow depths in the upper layers of their atmospheres. This may suggest that the fast winds we see on Uranus and Neptune are at least partly due to the latent heat release of condensation for materials like water.

Del Genio also questions the available data. He explains that when we measure winds on Neptune, we look at one specific altitude. “The winds at other altitudes may be slower or faster,” said Del Genio. “We don’t know because we have never dropped probes into the atmospheres of most of the outer planets.”

What Neptune and Uranus show is that planets which form in similar conditions can provide two extremes. Simon says this helps us constrain models of how these planets form and give clues about the solar system‘s overall formation. “They should also help us better understand deeper circulation, given they are so far from the sun.”

“It adds to our knowledge of the physics and chemistry in planetary atmospheres and helps us understand our own Earth a little better, since the physics and chemistry operate in the same way whether here on Earth or on distant Neptune,” said Hammel.

Hilton DoubleTree Cookie Dough Launches With Zero G Oven for Space Station

A Northrop Grumman Antares rocket launches the NG-12 Cygnus cargo spacecraft, the S.S. Alan Bean, from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia on Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019. The Cygnus' payload included DoubleTree by Hilton's cookie dough to be baked in space.

(Image: © NASA/Bill Ingalls)

The ingredients to make sweets, space and hotel history are on their way to the International Space Station with the launch of a commercial cargo spacecraft.

The first kitchen-like oven designed for use in microgravity and the dough to bake DoubleTree by Hilton’s trademark chocolate chip cookies — which are set to become the first-ever food baked in space — lifted off on Saturday (Nov. 2) aboard Northrop Grumman’s 12th Cygnus capsule to resupply the orbiting laboratory.

The Cygnus launched atop a Northrop Grumman Antares rocket at 9:59 a.m. EDT (1359 GMT) from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. The spacecraft, which was named the “S.S. Alan Bean” after the late Apollo 12 astronaut, is set to arrive and be attached to the space station’s Unity node on Monday (Nov. 4).

In Photos: Antares Rocket Launches Cygnus NG-12 to Space StationClick here for more Space.com videos…CLOSEVolume 0%This video will resume in 13 seconds PLAY SOUND

The NG-12 launch coincided with the 19th anniversary of the start of Expedition 1 on board the space station. For almost two decades, the outpost has supported a continuous human presence in space.

Now, the Expedition 61 crew will become the first astronaut-bakers in orbit.

“Not only are our cookies the first-ever food item to be baked in space, but we are going to be the first hospitality, or hotel company to be doing anything on the International Space Station. To say that we are the first is huge for us,” said Shawn McAteer, senior vice president and global head for DoubleTree by Hilton, in an interview with collectSPACE.com.

The Zero G Oven was created by the teams at Zero G Kitchen, a startup developing culinary appliances for use in microgravity, and Nanoracks, a space services company that for the past 10 years has been deploying payloads to the space station.

Zero G Kitchen and Nanoracks' oven will allow the astronauts on the International Space Station bake cookies and more.
Zero G Kitchen and Nanoracks’ oven will allow the astronauts on the International Space Station bake cookies and more.

“When we first talked about it, we were not even sure it is possible,” said Mary Murphy, senior internal payloads manager at Nanoracks, in a pre-launch press briefing on Friday. “Everyone knows how baking on the ground works, but how do you translate that to a zero-g experience?”

Since hot air does not rise in the microgravity environment of space, Nanoracks had to find another way to transfer heat to the item being baked. The Zero G Oven works by using electric heating elements placed around a cylindrical chamber, so that a pocket of heated air surrounds the food at its center.

But if you were just to place the cookie dough into the oven, it might float out of the center or tumble such that it is not evenly baked. Instead, the cookie dough, formed into a puck shape, is held within a silicone pouch with an aluminum frame that serves as a tray and a filter to allow hot air to escape but contain any crumbs.Click here for more Space.com videos…Baking Cookies In Space – Prototype Oven Going to ISSVolume 0% PLAY SOUND

DoubleTree by Hilton, which gives out warm chocolate chip cookies to its guests at check-in, has provided dough for five cookies to be baked in space.

“They’ll have a couple up there that they can do with what they want, and then three of the cookies will come back down to Earth. Those three cookies will then be sent to NASA for further testing,” said McAteer, adding that depending on their condition post-tests, DoubleTree hopes to receive back the space-baked cookies.

Space cookies for everyone

In addition to the oven and dough, the S.S. Alan Bean is also bringing to the space station an experimental vest to protect astronauts from radiation exposure, a Lamborghini-sourced set of carbon-fiber composites to be tested in the vacuum of space and a new plastics recycler to produce filament for the station’s commercial 3D printer (both of the latter provided by Made in Space).

Also on board is a commemorative tin filled with pre-baked DoubleTree by Hilton chocolate chip cookies.

“We did not want to deprive any of the astronauts from having the opportunity to eat some freshly-baked cookies, so in addition to the dough that they’re going to bake in the oven, we are sending a tin of our cookies up as part of the launch as well,” Kristen Savoy, senior manager for global brand communications at Hilton, told collectSPACE.

DoubleTree by Hilton's "Cookes in Space" commemorative tin, "Mission: Cookie" cookbook and mission patch.
DoubleTree by Hilton’s “Cookes in Space” commemorative tin, “Mission: Cookie” cookbook and mission patch.

The hospitality company, which is celebrating its 100th year since its founding, has also made the specially-designed Cookies in Space tins available for to the public and has devoted its annual cookie cookbook to space-themed recipes.

“To be able to say we’re the first brand ever affiliated with anything hospitality-wise on the International Space Station and being the first ever food item to be baked in space speaks to what we’re about, which is being pioneering and innovative. So it’s a very big deal for us,” said McAteer.

NASA eyes Pluto mission

For a celestial object that may or may not be a planet, Pluto sure is getting a lot of attention these days.

Just days after NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said that Pluto should be given back its planet status, the U.S. space agency announced that it has funded a study to see if another orbiter mission to the dwarf planet is feasible.

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NASA has provided funding to the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) to investigate the costs of the project, its feasibility, as well as “develop the spacecraft and payload design requirements and make preliminary cost and risk assessments for new technologies,” according to a statement.

FILE - This image made available by NASA in March 2017 shows Pluto illuminated from behind by the sun as the New Horizons spacecraft travels away from it at a distance of about 120,000 miles (200,000 kilometers). (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute via AP)

FILE – This image made available by NASA in March 2017 shows Pluto illuminated from behind by the sun as the New Horizons spacecraft travels away from it at a distance of about 120,000 miles (200,000 kilometers). (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute via AP)

“We’re excited to have this opportunity to inform the decadal survey deliberations with this study,” said SwRI’s Carly Howett, who is leading the project, in a statement. “Our mission concept is to send a single spacecraft to orbit Pluto for two Earth years before breaking away to visit at least one KBO [Kuiper Belt Object] and one other KBO dwarf planet.”

NASA first flew past Pluto in July 2015 with its New Horizons mission, which is managed by SwRI. Throughout that year, the space agency released a series of images of Pluto, including the first close-up image of an area near the dwarf planet’s equator, which contains a range of mountains rising as high as 11,000 feet above Pluto’s icy surface.

An image of the Tenzing Montes peaks on Pluto created with New Horizons data and released on July 10, 2018. The mountains range from about 1.8 miles to 3.7 miles (3 to 6 kilometers) above the dwarf planet's surface.

An image of the Tenzing Montes peaks on Pluto created with New Horizons data and released on July 10, 2018. The mountains range from about 1.8 miles to 3.7 miles (3 to 6 kilometers) above the dwarf planet’s surface. (Paul Schenk/Lunar and Planetary Institute)

In January 2019, New Horizons, which was launched in January 2006, flew past fellow Kuiper Belt object, Ultima Thule. In May, NASA revealed a startling discovery that there are both water and “organic molecules” on its surface.

Alan Stern, SwRI’s principal investigator, revealed the organization has been working on its concept for some time.

“In an SwRI-funded study that preceded this new NASA-funded study, we developed a Pluto system orbital tour, showing the mission was possible with planned-capability launch vehicles and existing electric propulsion systems,” Stern added in the statement.

To follow up on NASA’s New Horizons mission that revealed Pluto’s “heart,” SwRI is studying a new Pluto orbiter mission for NASA. SwRI has shown it is possible to orbit Pluto and then escape orbit to tour additional dwarf planets and Kuiper Belt Objects. (Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

To follow up on NASA’s New Horizons mission that revealed Pluto’s “heart,” SwRI is studying a new Pluto orbiter mission for NASA. SwRI has shown it is possible to orbit Pluto and then escape orbit to tour additional dwarf planets and Kuiper Belt Objects. (Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

“We also showed it is possible to use gravity assists from Pluto’s largest moon, Charon, to escape Pluto orbit and to go back into the Kuiper Belt for the exploration of more KBOs like MU69 and at least once more dwarf planet for comparison to Pluto.”

Pluto lost its planet status in 2006 when it was controversially demoted to “dwarf planet” by the International Astronomical Union.

Last month, Bridenstine, during a wide-ranging speech at the International Astronautical Congress, said: “I am here to tell you, as the NASA Administrator, I believe Pluto should be a planet.”

Bridenstine later responded to a question on his Pluto stance by citing its buried ocean, its five moons and its multilayered atmosphere. “I like there being nine planets, how about that?” he added.

Second interstellar visitor may be carrying water from beyond our solar system, shocking study suggests

A shocking new study suggests that the second interstellar object ever discovered, Comet 2I/Borisov, could be carrying water on it from beyond the Solar System.

The study suggests that 2I/Borisov, discovered on Aug. 30 by astronomer Gennady Borisov, is releasing water vapor on its journey.

“Using a simple sublimation model we estimate an H2O active area of 1.7 km2 [0.65 miles squared], which for current estimates for the size of Borisov suggests active fractions between 1-150 [percent], consistent with values measured in Solar System comets,” the study’s abstract states. It is common for asteroids in the Solar System to carry water.

The study was submitted to The Astrophysical Journal Letters and can be read on the arXiv repository,

“The discovery of interstellar comet 2I/Borisov provides an opportunity to sample the volatile composition of a comet that is unambiguously from outside our own Solar System, providing constraints on the physics and chemistry of other protostellar discs,” the researchers wrote in the paper.

Although 2I/Borisov, which has a familiar look to it, does not emit its own light, researchers from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center used light spectrums to make their observation.

Adam McKay, the study’s lead author, said that the potential discovery of water could give insight into other systems. “Are we special as a planetary system or are a lot of planetary systems like ours?” he said in an interview with New Scientist. “That has implications for the origin of life, and how common life is throughout the universe.”

If the findings are accurate, it would be the first time water from outside the Solar System has been detected. Fox News has reached out to NASA with a request for comment on this story.

A separate study published last year suggested that comet-like objects could be “ferrying” microbial life across thousands of light-years.

Unlike the first interestelar object found, the cigar-shaped Oumuamua, 2I/Borisov has a “cometary appearance,” according to images taken on Sept. 10 and Sept. 13 by the William Herschel Telescope and Gemini North Telescope.

Two-color composite image of comet 2I/Borisov captured by the Gemini North telescope on 10 September 2019. The image was obtained with eight 60-second exposures, four in green and four in red bands. (Credit: Gemini Observatory/NSF/AURA)

Two-color composite image of comet 2I/Borisov captured by the Gemini North telescope on 10 September 2019. The image was obtained with eight 60-second exposures, four in green and four in red bands. (Credit: Gemini Observatory/NSF/AURA)

The interstellar object is comprised of dust, its morphology described as “unremarkable” and it likely has a diameter of about 2.4 miles (2 kilometers), similar to other comets in the Solar System, according to a separate study, published in Nature Astronomy

Last month, NASA JPL said 2I/Borisov was approximately 260 million miles from the Sun and will reach its closest point, known as perihelion, on Dec. 8, 2019, when it gets within 190 million miles of the Sun. Unlike Ouamuamua, it will be observable for an extended period of time, an idea that has excited astronomers.

Earlier this month, NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope captured images of 2I/Borisov when it was about 260 million miles away.

The interstellar comet 2I/Borisov, as seen on Oct. 12 with NASA's Hubble Space Telescope.

The interstellar comet 2I/Borisov, as seen on Oct. 12 with NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope. (NASA, ESA and David Jewitt/UCLA)

Oumuamua was first discovered in October 2017 but was no longer observable by telescopes as of January 2018. Many have speculated what the object is, with some theorizing it may have been a light sail sent from an intelligent extraterrestrial civilization, a comet or an asteroid.

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

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

The mystery about its exact nature deepened late last year when NASA said it was looking at the object for two months and did not originally see it.

How Long Will It Take to Find Proof of Alien Life?

Scientists say we may find evidence for life beyond Earth within the next decades.

Scientists say we may find evidence for life beyond Earth within the next decades.(Image: © SETI)

WASHINGTON — How long until we find evidence of life beyond Earth? If a panel of experts is on track with their estimates, it may be sooner than you think.

That’s according to presenters at the International Astronautical Congress taking place here this week. During a discussion Tuesday Oct. 22), half a dozen people who spend their time focused on questions related to the search for life beyond Earth each offered their educated guesses — and their whimsical wishes — for when humanity might first gather conclusive evidence for extraterrestrial life.

That conversation got serious fast, with panel coordinator Claire Webb, a doctoral student in the history of science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She co-opted the answer of one of the most venerable figures in the search for intelligent life, Frank Drake, who conceptualized the factors at play in finding intelligent life into what is known as the Drake Equation. “He said 2024,” Webb said. “I think he’s a pretty good authority, so I’m going to go with that.”

That estimate is on the short end of the spectrum provided by the panelists. “I wish I could say tomorrow, but that’s being just overoptimistic,” Mike Garrett, the director of Jodrell Bank Observatory in the U.K., said during the panel. “But I think there’s a good chance of discovering life on Mars within the next 5 to 10 to 15 years. I think that really has to be a goal, that would set us on a course to do more interesting things in the area.”

Some responses were presented without comment. Andrew Siemion, director of the Berkeley SETI Research Center, suggested Oct. 22, 2036 — 17 years to the day after the panel in question. Lucianne Walkowicz, an astronomer at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, said she would ballpark it within the next 15 years.

Others offered a more detailed explanation. Sara Seager, an astronomer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology focused on finding exoplanets, couched her response within the state of pending science projects that could be responsible for making the discovery. Those projects include a host of space-based telescopes, but none will be working any time soon.

“Assuming they get selected and they get built it’ll still be awhile,” Seager said. “So I’ll say 20 years.”

But these are all guesses, albeit educated ones, and that showed in how some confronted the question. “I certainly would like to think within my lifetime,” Bill Diamond, president and CEO of the SETI Institute, said. “Hopefully that’s more years than I think, but I absolutely think within my lifetime. Probably in the month of March, and hopefully the discovery comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb.”

And Diamond wasn’t the only one to peg a potential discovery to their own personal timeline.

“I like the idea of my birthday,” Pete Worden, moderator of the panel and executive director for Breakthrough Initiatives, said to close out the session, which began with belated birthday wishes. “So my 80th birthday, which is 10 years from now.”

Asteroid Hygiea could become the tiniest dwarf planet

As the debate rages on whether Pluto, currently a dwarf planet, should be given back its planet status, it may soon be joined by an asteroid that could wind up being the smallest dwarf planet in the solar system.

Asteroid Hygiea, the fourth largest space rock in the Asteroid Belt, was observed for the first time by astronomers in high-resolution. It’s spherical in shape and may wind up taking the crown for the smallest dwarf from Ceres, also located in the Asteroid Belt.

“Thanks to the unique capability of the SPHERE instrument on the [Very Large Telescope], which is one of the most powerful imaging systems in the world, we could resolve Hygiea’s shape, which turns out to be nearly spherical,” said the study’s lead author, Pierre Vernazza, in a statement. “Thanks to these images, Hygiea may be reclassified as a dwarf planet, so far the smallest in the Solar System.”

A new SPHERE/VLT image of Hygiea, which could be the Solar System’s smallest dwarf planet yet. As an object in the main asteroid belt, Hygiea satisfies right away three of the four requirements to be classified as a dwarf planet: it orbits around the Sun, it is not a moon and, unlike a planet, it has not cleared the neighborhood around its orbit. The final requirement is that it has enough mass that its own gravity pulls it into a roughly spherical shape. This is what VLT observations have now revealed about Hygiea. (Credit: ESO/P. Vernazza et al./MISTRAL algorithm (ONERA/CNRS)

A new SPHERE/VLT image of Hygiea, which could be the Solar System’s smallest dwarf planet yet. As an object in the main asteroid belt, Hygiea satisfies right away three of the four requirements to be classified as a dwarf planet: it orbits around the Sun, it is not a moon and, unlike a planet, it has not cleared the neighborhood around its orbit. The final requirement is that it has enough mass that its own gravity pulls it into a roughly spherical shape. This is what VLT observations have now revealed about Hygiea. (Credit: ESO/P. Vernazza et al./MISTRAL algorithm (ONERA/CNRS)

“By comparing Hygiea’s sphericity with that of other Solar System objects, it appears that Hygiea is nearly as spherical as Ceres, opening up the possibility for this object to be reclassified as a dwarf planet,” the study’s abstract states.

In addition to the spherical requirement for dwarf planet status, Hygiea already orbits the Sun, is not a moon, and has “not cleared the neighborhood around its orbit,” the ESO added in its statement.

The research has been published in the scientific journal Nature Astronomy.

Though Hygiea may eventually be given dwarf planet status, it’s significantly smaller than Pluto or Ceres, with a diameter of just 267 miles. Pluto’s diameter is approximately 1,490 miles, while Ceres’ diameter is approximately 590 miles.

Following the discovery, the International Astronomical Union will eventually vote to determine whether Hygiea can be given dwarf planet status or if it will remain an asteroid.

Earlier this month, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said at the International Astronautical Congress that Pluto should be given back its planet status. “I am here to tell you, as the NASA Administrator, I believe Pluto should be a planet,” he said to applause during a wide-ranging speech.

The ‘Mole’ on NASA’s InSight Mars Lander Just Popped Out Of Its Hole (and That’s Not Good)

In this image from Oct. 26, 2019, the InSight Mars lander's heat probe, or "mole," is seen after backing about halfway out of the hole it had burrowed.

In this image from Oct. 26, 2019, the InSight Mars lander’s heat probe, or “mole,” is seen after backing about halfway out of the hole it had burrowed.(Image: © NASA/JPL-Caltech)

A metal mole’s up-and-down saga on Mars has taken yet another turn.

The burrowing heat probe aboard NASA’s InSight Mars lander was originally supposed to dig 10 to 16 feet (3 to 5 meters) beneath the planet’s red dirt, using a self-hammering tool called “the mole.” Shortly after deploying onto the Martian surface in February, however, the instrument became stuck about 1 foot (0.3 m) down.

Earlier this month, InSight team members announced that they’d managed to get the mole moving again by pinning it down with the lander’s robotic arm. The breakthrough suggested that the digger had previously lost friction with the dirt, perhaps as a consequence of Mars soil’s weird properties, rather than having run up against a big buried rock.

This sequence of images shows the burrowing heat probe on NASA’s InSight Mars lander popping back out of the hole it had dug on the Red Planet.
This sequence of images shows the burrowing heat probe on NASA’s InSight Mars lander popping back out of the hole it had dug on the Red Planet.

But that downward progress was short-lived. The mole has backed about halfway out of its burrow, mission team members announced yesterday (Oct. 27). 

“Preliminary assessments point to unusual soil conditions on the Red Planet. The international mission team is developing the next steps to get it buried again,” NASA officials wrote in an update yesterday.

“The next step is determining how safe it is to move InSight’s robotic arm away from the mole to better assess the situation,” they added. “The team continues to look at the data and will formulate a plan in the next few days.”

The heat probe, officially called the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3), was provided by the German Aerospace Center (known by its German acronym, DLR). HP3 is one of InSight’s two main science instruments. The other is a suite of supersensitive seismometers that were provided by the French space agency CNES and its partners, which are measuring and characterizing marsquakes.Click here for more Space.com videos…CLOSEVolume 0%This video will resume in 27 seconds 

The data gathered by InSight, which touched down near the Martian equator in November 2018, will help scientists to construct a detailed 3D map of the Red Planet’s interior. This information, in turn, should reveal a great deal about the formation and evolution of rocky planets in general, NASA officials have said.

The seismometers have detected 150 events to date, 23 of which have already been confirmed as marsquakes, InSight project manager Tom Hoffman, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California said earlier this month during a presentation at the 22nd Annual International Mars Society Convention in Los Angeles.

Thomas Zurbuchen@Dr_ThomasZ · Oct 27, 2019Replying to @Dr_ThomasZ

The Insight mission overall is functioning very well.

Thomas Zurbuchen@Dr_ThomasZ

Remember that, even though the international team will continue to do their best to get this mole into the ground, the mole working is not a so-called Level 1 for mission success.491:05 PM – Oct 27, 2019Twitter Ads info and privacySee Thomas Zurbuchen’s other Tweets

So, InSight remains on track despite the mole’s struggles, said Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.

“The Insight mission overall is functioning very well,” Zurbuchen said via Twitter yesterday.

“Remember that, even though the international team will continue to do their best to get this mole into the ground, the mole working is not a so-called Level 1 for mission success,” he added in another tweet.

US Air Force’s X-37B Space Plane Lands After Record 780-Day Mystery Mission

A U.S. Air Force X-37B space plane, an unpiloted miniature space shuttle, is seen after landing at NASA's Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility on Oct. 27, 2019 to end its record 780-day OTV-5 mission.

A U.S. Air Force X-37B space plane, an unpiloted miniature space shuttle, is seen after landing at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility on Oct. 27, 2019 to end its record 780-day OTV-5 mission. (Image: © U.S. Air Force)

The U.S. Air Force’s unpiloted X-37B space plane landed back on Earth Sunday (Oct. 27) after a record 780 days in orbit , racking up the fifth ultra-long mission for the military’s mini-shuttle fleet. 

The X-37B’s Orbital Test Vehicle 5 (OTV-5) mission ended with a smooth autonomous touchdown at the Shuttle Landing Facility of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida at 3:51 a.m. EDT (0751 GMT), Air Force officials said. The mission originally launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on Sept. 7, 2017.

With the successful landing, OTV-5 broke the previous X-37B mission record of 718 days set by the OTV-4 mission in May 2017. OTV-5 is the second X-37B mission to land at NASA’s Shuttle Landing Facility (OTV-4 was the first), with previous missions landing at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. 

“The safe return of this spacecraft, after breaking its own endurance record, is the result of the innovative partnership between Government and Industry,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein said in a statement. “The sky is no longer the limit for the Air Force and, if Congress approves, the U.S. Space Force.”

The U.S. Air Force has at least two reusable X-37B spacecraft in its fleet, and both have flown multiple flights. The solar-powered space planes were built by Boeing and feature a miniature payload bay to host experiments or smaller satellites. They were originally designed to spend up to 240 days in orbit.

“The X-37B continues to demonstrate the importance of a reusable spaceplane,” said Secretary of the Air Force Barbara Barrett said in the same statement. “Each successive mission advances our nation’s space capabilities.”

The Air Force’s X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle Mission 5 successfully landed at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility Oct. 27, 2019.
The Air Force’s X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle Mission 5 successfully landed at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility Oct. 27, 2019. 

Air Force officials have said that the exact nature of X-37B missions are classified, though they have dropped hints about the types of experiments OTV-5 performed in orbit. One payload was the Air Force Research Laboratory Advanced Structurally Embedded Thermal Spreader, an experiment designed to “test experimental electronics and oscillating heat pipe technologies in the long-duration space environment,” according to an Air Force statement.

OTV-5 also flew to a higher-inclination orbit than previous X-37B flights, suggesting it had new experiments or technology tests in store. In a statement today, Air Force officials confirmed OTV-5 carried multiple experiments and carried smaller satellites into orbit. 

“With a successful landing today, the X-37B completed its longest flight to date and successfully completed all mission objectives,” Randy Walden, Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office director, said in the statement. “This mission successfully hosted Air Force Research Laboratory experiments, among others, as well as providing a ride for small satellites.”

The X-37B space plane was originally developed by NASA in 1999 to serve as a technology test bed for future spacecraft and looks much like a miniature version of  a space shuttle. In 2004, the military’s Defense Advanced Research Agency (DARPA) took over the project, ultimately turning it over to the U.S. Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office a few years later. 

X-37B vehicles are 29 feet (8.8 meters) long, 9.5 feet (2.9 m) tall and have a wingspan of just under 15 feet (4.6 m). Their payload bays are about the size of a pickup truck bed, about 7 feet long and 4 feet wide (2.1 by 1.2 m).

NASA Europa Mission Could Potentially Spot Signs of Alien Life

Jupiter's ocean-harboring moon Europa, as imaged by NASA's Galileo spacecraft.

Jupiter’s ocean-harboring moon Europa, as imaged by NASA’s Galileo spacecraft.(Image: © NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute)

If there’s life swimming in the dark, frigid ocean of the Jupiter moon Europa, an upcoming NASA mission might be able to sniff it out.

The agency’s Europa Clipper spacecraft is scheduled to launch in the mid-2020s on a mission to characterize the icy moon’s subsurface sea and its life-hosting potential. But Clipper is capable of making even bigger discoveries, if everything falls into place just right.

“We’re a habitability mission. We’re trying to understand, Is Europa a habitable environment?” Europa Clipper project scientist Robert Pappalardo, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, said Wednesday (Oct. 23) at the 70th International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Washington, D.C.

“We’re not a life-search mission,” Pappalardo added. “But, if Europa’s interior happened to be rich in organic microbes pouring out of it, we would be able to tell from the mass spectra — probably, possibly — that we’re sensing life. That’s a longshot, but it’s not impossible.”

Pappalardo was referring to measurements made by Clipper’s mass spectrometer, one of nine science instruments the probe will carry. Mass spectrometers determine the masses of ions (charged atoms and molecules) in a sample, helping scientists identify what those ions are.

Clipper will collect these samples during dozens of flybys of Europa, which the probe will make from Jupiter orbit over the course of its 3.5-year operational life. Circling Europa itself was not a viable option, given the intense radiation environment around the moon, mission team members have said.

The samples will come from Europa’s wispy atmosphere and, the team hopes, from plumes of water vapor and other material wafting from the icy moon’s surface. Scientists have spotted evidence of such plumes on multiple occasions, but their existence has yet to be confirmed.

“Early in the mission, we’ll be searching for plumes and trying to understand, Are they real? Are they there? Where are they? Are they sporadic or continuously active?” Pappalardo said.

“And maybe we’ll fortuitously go through a plume, or maybe we’ll be able to adjust the orbit slightly in order to go through a plume,” he added. “And if we do, then our in situ instruments, especially the mass spectrometer and the dust detector, will be able to sample that material in extreme detail to search for organic materials and to understand the detailed chemistry of Europa’s interior.”

Pappalardo cautioned that Europa’s plumes, if they do indeed exist, might be very different than the confirmed one emanating from the south polar region of Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus. The Enceladus plume is generated by powerful geysers that are continuously blasting material from the Saturn satellite’s subsurface ocean into space. Although the Europa material could be coming from its ocean, the source could also be lakes of liquid water within the moon’s ice shell, Pappalardo said.

And he stressed that plume sampling won’t make or break Clipper’s mission.

“That’s essentially bonus science, not required by the mission,” Pappalardo said. “But I sure hope it happens.”

The other instruments carried by the solar-powered Clipper, whose total mission costs are estimated at around $4 billion, include a magnetometer and a radar instrument, which will allow the team to characterize in detail Europa’s ocean and ice shell, respectively. Scientists think the ocean is about 50 miles (80 kilometers) deep and the ice shell about 13 miles (20 km) thick, but those are estimates, and there will certainly be regional variation.

In case you just skimmed over that last sentence: A 50-mile-deep ocean is pretty amazing, considering that the deepest point on Earth’s seafloor is just 7 miles (11 km) beneath the waves. At 1,900 miles (3,000 km) wide, Europa is smaller than Earth’s moon but is thought to harbor twice as much liquid water as our planet’s surface does.

Europa’s ocean is also thought to be in contact with the moon’s rocky core, potentially enabling a wide range of interesting and complex chemical reactions. As a result, Europa is widely regarded as one of the solar system’s best bets for harboring alien life. Others on the short list include Enceladus and Saturn’s huge moon Titan, which has hydrocarbon seas on its surface and likely a buried ocean of liquid water as well. 

The Clipper will also tote powerful cameras, which will snap photos with a resolution of about 1.6 feet (0.5 meters) per pixel. That’s 10 times sharper than the best existing images of Europa’s surface, which were captured by NASA’s Galileo spacecraft, Pappalardo said. Galileo orbited Jupiter from 1995 to 2003.

While Clipper’s photos will be revelatory enough in their own right, they should also help pave the way for the next step in Europa exploration: a life-hunting lander that Congress has instructed NASA to develop. Clipper’s data will help researchers identify good places for the lander mission to touch down, NASA officials have said. (The lander mission remains a concept for the moment, however; it’s not officially on NASA’s docket.)Click here for more Space.com videos…NASA’s Europa Mission Assessed by Office of Inspector GeneralVolume 0% 

NASA had long been targeting a 2023 liftoff for Europa Clipper. Congress has told the agency to launch the mission using NASA’s powerful Space Launch System (SLS) megarocket, which would allow Clipper to travel directly to Jupiter and get there after just 2.4 years of flight. 

But SLS is still in development and has experienced multiple delays and cost overruns. In addition, NASA plans to use the first three SLS vehicles for its Artemis lunar-exploration program. As a result, the first SLS available for use by Clipper won’t be ready until 2025 at the earliest, NASA’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) recently concluded.

The OIG therefore recommended that NASA should be allowed to consider launching Clipper on a commercial rocket, such as SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy or United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV Heavy. These vehicles aren’t as powerful as SLS is expected to be, so going the commercial route would require a different trajectory for Clipper — a roundabout one that employs planetary “gravity assists” and features a total transit time of nearly six years, according to the OIG report.

Asteroid the Size of a Skyscraper Flew by Earth on Friday (Video)

An enormous asteroid flew by Earth today (Oct. 25), and you can watch it zip by in a video from the Virtual Telescope Project.

Asteroid 1998 HL1 was 3.86 million miles (6.21 million kilometers) away from Earth — about 10 times the average distance to the moon — when it makes its closest approach at 1:17 p.m. EDT (1717 GMT), according to NASA.  

The Virtual Telescope Project, an online observatory founded by astrophysicist Gianluca Masi of the Bellatrix Astronomical Observatory in Ceccano, Italy, hosted a live webcast about the asteroid during the close encounter today. You can watch a replay here at the Virtual Telescope Project’s website.

Video: Giant Asteroid 1998 HL1 Seen by Virtual Telescope Project
Related: 
Potentially Dangerous Asteroids (Images)

Gianluca Masi of the Virtual Telescope Project captured this image of the potentially hazardous asteroid 1998 HL1 on Oct. 23, 2019, at 1:41 p.m. EDT (1741 GMT), when the asteroid was about 4.1 million miles (6.6 million kilometers) away from Earth. The image comes from a single 300-second exposure captured remotely using the Virtual Telescope Project’s Elena telescope. The telescope tracked the asteroid’s movement, so the asteroid appears as a white dot in front of a background of star trails.
Gianluca Masi of the Virtual Telescope Project captured this image of the potentially hazardous asteroid 1998 HL1 on Oct. 23, 2019, at 1:41 p.m. EDT (1741 GMT), when the asteroid was about 4.1 million miles (6.6 million kilometers) away from Earth. The image comes from a single 300-second exposure captured remotely using the Virtual Telescope Project’s Elena telescope. The telescope tracked the asteroid’s movement, so the asteroid appears as a white dot in front of a background of star trails. 

NASA classifies asteroid 1998 HL1 as “potentially hazardous” because the space rock has the “potential to make threatening close approaches to the Earth.” That doesn’t mean the asteroid poses a threat this time around. The agency defines all asteroids whose orbits around the sun come within 4.6 million miles (7.8 million km) of Earth’s orbit, and that have a diameter of at least 500 feet (meters) as “potentially hazardous asteroids.”

Asteroid 1998 HL1 measures about 1,800 feet (550 m) in diameter, or about the height of the Sears Tower in Chicago, according to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “This will make it quite bright around the time of the flyby,” Masi wrote in a description of today’s webcast

This sky chart from the Virtual Telescope Project shows the path of asteroid 1998 HL1 through the night sky from Oct. 25 to Oct. 28.
This sky chart from the Virtual Telescope Project shows the path of asteroid 1998 HL1 through the night sky from Oct. 25 to Oct. 28. (Click the top right corner of the image to expand it.)

Today’s flyby will be the closest one until Oct. 26, 2140, when it will be just slightly closer to Earth at a distance of 3.84 million miles (6.18 million km). So, 1998 HL1 won’t pose a real threat to Earth for the foreseeable future. 

Here’s How We Could Detect a Wormhole

Diagram of a wormhole.

Diagram of a wormhole.(Image: © Shutterstock)

Weird star wiggles could betray the presence of wormholes, if these fabled space-time tunnels do indeed exist, a new study suggests.

Wormholes are sci-fi staples; over the years, many stories, books and movies have sent their protagonists zipping between widely separated locales via these cosmic shortcuts. Wormholes are possible, according to Einstein’s general theory of relativity, but nobody has ever spotted one.

The new study provides a possible way to make the first tentative detection: look for slight but strange movements of stars.

“If you have two stars, one on each side of the wormhole, the star on our side should feel the gravitational influence of the star that’s on the other side,” study co-author Dejan Stojkovic, a cosmologist and professor of physics at the University at Buffalo in New York, said in a statement. “The gravitational flux will go through the wormhole.”

Wormholes require extreme warping of space-time, which in turn depends on very powerful gravitational forces. So, a good place to hunt for these theoretical tunnel is near the supermassive black holes that lurk at the cores of galaxies — such as Sagittarius A* (pronounced A-star), the four-million-solar-mass behemoth in our own Milky Way, Stojkovic said.

“So if you map the expected orbit of a star around Sagittarius A*, you should see deviations from that orbit if there is a wormhole there with a star on the other side,” he said.

Current observing techniques likely aren’t sensitive enough to make such a detection at the moment, he added. But it may be possible to do so in the next decade or two with advances in instrumentation as well as long-term monitoring of appropriate target stars, such as S2, which circles near Sagittarius A*.

Don’t get too excited, however; such a detection, if astronomers ever manage to make one, is unlikely to be a slam dunk.

“When we reach the precision needed in our observations, we may be able to say that a wormhole is the most likely explanation if we detect perturbations in the orbit of S2,” Stojkovic said. “But we cannot say that, ‘Yes, this is definitely a wormhole.’ There could be some other explanation, something else on our side perturbing the motion of this star.”

And there’s some more bad news on the space-exploration side: Wormhole travel will probably remain a mere sci-fi dream for a very long time, if not forever, Stojkovic said.

“Even if a wormhole is traversable, people and spaceships most likely aren’t going to be passing through,” he said. “Realistically, you would need a source of negative energy to keep the wormhole open, and we don’t know how to do that. To create a huge wormhole that’s stable, you need some magic.”

The new study, which was led by De-Chang Dai of Yangzhou University in China and Case Western Reserve University in Ohio, was published earlier this month in the journal Physical Review D.

Pioneering NASA Asteroid Mission Clears Key Hurdle on Path to 2021 Launch

An artist's depiction (not to scale) of the Lucy spacecraft visiting the Trojan asteroids near Jupiter.

An artist’s depiction (not to scale) of the Lucy spacecraft visiting the Trojan asteroids near Jupiter.(Image: © NASA/SwRI)

The first mission to visit a mysterious swarm of asteroids that circle the sun along Jupiter’s path has cleared an important hurdle on the way to its 2021 launch.

NASA’s robotic Lucy mission, which will visit six Trojan asteroids during its operational life, passed its critical design review (CDR) on Friday (Oct. 18), agency officials just announced.

During the four-day CDR, independent experts assessed all aspects of Lucy’s design, ultimately deeming the mission fit to proceed to the manufacturing phase.

“This is a very exciting time for us, because we are moving beyond the design phase and are really starting to build the spacecraft,” Lucy principal investigator Hal Levison, from the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, said in a statement Monday (Oct. 21). “It is finally becoming real!”

The Trojan asteroids orbit the sun in two clumps, one ahead of Jupiter (the “leading swarm”) and one behind the gas giant (the “trailing swarm”). Scientists think these space rocks are leftover relics from the long-ago formation of the outer planets, so they’re eager to get some close-up looks.

“These primitive bodies hold vital clues to deciphering the history of the solar system, and perhaps even the origins of life and organic material on Earth,” NASA officials wrote in a Lucy mission description.

If all goes according to plan, Lucy will launch in October 2021, zoom past Earth twice for “gravity assists” and fly by its first asteroid in April 2025. That rock, known as (52246) Donaldjohanson, lies in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

Lucy will then fly by four Trojans in the leading swarm, with the rendezvous occurring in August 2027, September 2027, April 2028 and November 2028. The spacecraft’s orbit will bring Lucy back toward the sun, and when it heads outward again, it will be on a trajectory toward the trailing swarm. The probe will cruise past a trailing-swarm binary Trojan in March 2033, marking the mission’s grand finale.

No other space mission has ever visited so many different destinations in independent orbits, Lucy mission team members have said.Click here for more Space.com videos…Lucy and Psyche – New NASA Missions To Metal and Trojan AsteroidsVolume 0% 

The mission’s name, by the way, is a nod to the famous, 3.2-million-year-old hominid fossil discovered in Ethiopia in 1974 by paleontologists Donald Johanson and Tom Gray. (The Lucy team named after Johanson the main-belt asteroid that the probe will visit.)

Just as discovery of the fossil Lucy shed considerable light on humanity’s origins, the Lucy spacecraft will reveal key insights about the solar system’s early years and evolution, mission team members have said.

Lucy is part of NASA’s Discovery Program of low-cost, focused planetary exploration missions. Lucy’s development costs are capped at about $450 million, NASA officials said.

Other Discovery missions include the InSight Mars lander, Kepler planet-hunting space telescope, Messenger Mercury spacecraft and Dawn probe, which orbited the dwarf planets Vesta and Ceres. Another Discovery mission called Psyche is scheduled to launch in 2022, to explore the mysterious metallic asteroid of the same name.

Monstrous galaxy from dawn of the universe accidentally discovered

Astronomers accidentally discovered the footprints of a monster galaxy in the early universe that has never been seen before. Like a cosmic Yeti, the scientific community generally regarded these galaxies as folklore, given the lack of evidence of their existence, but astronomers in the United States and Australia managed to snap a picture of the beast for the first time.

Published in the Astrophysical Journal, the discovery provides new insights into the first growing steps of some of the biggest galaxies in the universe.

University of Arizona astronomer Christina Williams, lead author of the study, noticed a faint light blob in new sensitive observations using the Atacama Large Millimeter Array, or ALMA, a collection of 66 radio telescopes high in the Chilean mountains. Strangely enough, the shimmering seemed to be coming out of nowhere, like a ghostly footstep in a vast dark wilderness.

“It was very mysterious because the light seemed not to be linked to any known galaxy at all,” said Williams, a National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellow at the Steward Observatory. “When I saw this galaxy was invisible at any other wavelength, I got really excited because it meant that it was probably really far away and hidden by clouds of dust.”

The researchers estimate that the signal came from so far away that it took 12.5 billion years to reach Earth, therefore giving us a view of the universe in its infancy. They think the observed emission is caused by the warm glow of dust particles heated by stars forming deep inside a young galaxy. The giant clouds of dust conceal the light of the stars themselves, rendering the galaxy completely invisible.

Study co-author Ivo Labbé, of the Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne, Australia, said: “We figured out that the galaxy is actually a massive monster galaxy with as many stars as our Milky Way, but brimming with activity, forming new stars at 100 times the rate of our own galaxy.”

The discovery may solve a long-standing question in astronomy, the authors said. Recent studies found that some of the biggest galaxies in the young universe grew up and came of age extremely quickly, a result that is not understood theoretically. Massive mature galaxies are seen when the universe was only a cosmic toddler at 10% of its current age. Even more puzzling is that these mature galaxies appear to come out of nowhere: astronomers never seem to catch them while they are forming.

Smaller galaxies have been seen in the early universe with the Hubble Space Telescope, but such creatures are not growing fast enough to solve the puzzle. Other monster galaxies have also been previously reported, but those sightings have been far too rare for a satisfying explanation.

“Our hidden monster galaxy has precisely the right ingredients to be that missing link,” Williams explains, “because they are probably a lot more common.”

An open question is exactly how many of them there are. The observations for the current study were made in a tiny part of the sky, less than 1/100th the disc of the full moon. Like the Yeti, finding footprints of the mythical creature in a tiny strip of wilderness would either be a sign of incredible luck or a sign that monsters are literally lurking everywhere.

Williams said researchers are eagerly awaiting the March 2021 scheduled launch of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope to investigate these objects in more detail.

“JWST will be able to look through the dust veil so we can learn how big these galaxies really are and how fast they are growing, to better understand why models fail in explaining them.”

But for now the monsters are out there, shrouded in dust and a lot of mystery.