Strange Things Do Happen at Full Moon

Unlike the Earth, the Moon doesn’t have enough surface activity to cover up its blemishes.(Image: © NOAO/AURA/NSF)

Recently BBC News reported that some British police departments have decided to add extra officers on nights with a full moon.

The concern isn’t over werewolves or vampires—no need to issue silver bullets or wooden stakes—but more human threats such as petty thieves and violent criminals.

For years, some who work in police and emergency services (such as doctors and nurses) have anecdotally claimed that full moon nights are busier, crazier, and more dangerous than nights when the moon is dim. This perception may be rooted more in psychology than reality.

Belief in the moon’s influence is an ancient one, and common in many cultures including our own. If police and doctors are expecting that full moon nights will be more hectic, they may interpret an ordinary night’s traumas and crises as more extreme than usual. Our expectations influence our perceptions, and we look for evidence that confirms our beliefs. (The same thing happens on “bad days” when everything seems to go wrong, but only a few key things actually do.)

Yet carefully controlled studies have not found good evidence supporting this idea.

For example, researchers Ivan Kelly, James Rotton, and Roger Culver, in their study “The Moon was Full and Nothing Happened” (published in the book “The Hundredth Monkey and Other Paradigms of the Paranormal,” 1991) examined more than 100 studies of alleged lunar effects and found no significant correlation between phases of the moon and disasters, homicide rates, etc. Furthermore, there is no known mechanism by which the moon would somehow influence a person’s mind to make him more dangerous—except of course for his own expectations.

Still, though the evidence for any direct influence of a full moon is negligible and contradictory, there is some evidence for a less direct (yet more obvious) connection.

There is a good reason why there may be more crime on the nights of a full moon; it has to do with statistics, not lunacy. People are more active during full moons than moonless nights. An especially beautiful full moon may draw families out into the night to appreciate it, and lovers to local necking spots. Muggers and other criminals who ply their trade at night also use the moon’s illumination to carry out their dirty deeds.

If there is even slightly more activity—any activity—on a full moon night, then that may translate into a slight but real increase in crime, accidents, and injuries. No werewolves needed.

NASA’s Plan to Stop an Asteroid Headed for Earth

Estimates say that a vehicle-sized asteroid explodes in our atmosphere about once per year, often too high to make a noticeable impact.

But in 2013, a small meteor exploded just 20 miles above Chelyabinsk, Russia that sent over 1,200 people to the hospital. Today, a team of experts from NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office works diligently to find asteroids that travel near Earth’s orbit.

They’ve released a plan in order to prevent a large-scale asteroid impact, and part of this plan is the DART mission. DART aims to travel to the asteroid Didymos in 2021 to demonstrate the tech that could be used to redirect an asteroid headed for Earth.

It’s a collaboration with the European Space Agency (ESA), whose Hera spacecraft will follow up and observe the results of the impact on the asteroid and map Didymos’s surface and interior structure.

See the full article on NASA’s plans to stop an asteroid headed for earth, here: https://www.freethink.com/shows/guard… For more information on the ESA’s Hera spacecraft: http://www.esa.int/Safety_Security/He…

Coronavirus lockdowns have changed the way Earth moves

A reduction in seismic noise because of changes in human activity is a boon for geoscientists.

View down a road, featuring tram lines, with a tall building at the end.
Residents of Brussels have been told to stay at home, leaving the city’s streets empty.Credit: Jonathan Raa/NurPhoto via Getty

The coronavirus pandemic has brought chaos to lives and economies around the world. But efforts to curb the spread of the virus might mean that the planet itself is moving a little less. Researchers who study Earth’s movement are reporting a drop in seismic noise — the hum of vibrations in the planet’s crust — that could be the result of transport networks and other human activities being shut down. They say this could allow detectors to spot smaller earthquakes and boost efforts to monitor volcanic activity and other seismic events.

A noise reduction of this magnitude is usually only experienced briefly around Christmas, says Thomas Lecocq, a seismologist the Royal Observatory of Belgium in Brussels, where the drop has been observed.

Just as natural events such as earthquakes cause Earth’s crust to move, so do vibrations caused by moving vehicles and industrial machinery. And although the effects from individual sources might be small, together they produce background noise, which reduces seismologists’ ability to detect other signals occurring at the same frequency.

Source: Royal Observatory of Belgium

Data from a seismometer at the observatory show that measures to curb the spread of COVID-19 in Brussels caused human-induced seismic noise to fall by about one-third, says Lecocq. The measures included closing schools, restaurants and other public venues from 14 March, and banning all non-essential travel from 18 March (see ‘Seismic noise’).Coronavirus and COVID-19: Keep up to date

The current drop has boosted the sensitivity of the observatory’s equipment, improving its ability to detect waves in the same high frequency range as the noise. The facility’s surface seismometer is now almost as sensitive to small quakes and quarry blasts as a counterpart detector buried in a 100-metre borehole, he adds. “This is really getting quiet now in Belgium.”

Information boost

If lockdowns continue in the coming months, city-based detectors around the world might be better than usual at detecting the locations of earthquake aftershocks, says Andy Frassetto, a seismologist at the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology in Washington DC. “You’ll get a signal with less noise on top, allowing you to squeeze a little more information out of those events,” he says.

The fall in noise could also benefit seismologists who use naturally occurring background vibrations, such as those from crashing ocean waves, to probe Earth’s crust. Because volcanic activity and changing water tables affect how fast these natural waves travel, scientists can study these events by monitoring how long it takes a wave to reach a given detector. A fall in human-induced noise could boost the sensitivity of detectors to natural waves at similar frequencies, says Lecocq, whose team plans to begin testing this. “There’s a big chance indeed it could lead to better measurements,” he says.

Belgian seismologists are not the only ones to notice the effects of lockdown. Celeste Labedz, a graduate student in geophysics at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, tweeted that a similar fall in noise had been picked up by a station in Los Angeles. “The drop is seriously wild,” she said.

However, not all seismic monitoring stations will see an effect as pronounced as the one observed in Brussels, says Emily Wolin, a geologist at the US Geological Survey in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Many stations are purposefully located in remote areas or deep boreholes to avoid human noise. These should see a smaller decrease, or no change at all, in the level of high-frequency noise they record, she says.

Ancient Mars had 2 reservoirs of water deep underground, study claims

Scientists have discovered that two unique reservoirs of ancient water once flowed deep beneath the surface of Mars.

It’s hard to believe, but at one time the dry and dusty Red Planet was wet and lush.

“A lot of people have been trying to figure out Mars’ water history,” University of Arizona planetary scientist Jessica Barnes said in a statement. “Like, where did water come from? How long was it in the crust [surface] of Mars? Where did Mars’ interior water come from? What can water tell us about how Mars formed and evolved?”

Barnes and her colleagues examined the isotopes of hydrogen locked inside Mars rocks. Isotopes are variants of an element with different numbers of neutrons. They studied samples they knew were originated from the planet’s crust: the Black Beauty and Allan Hills meteorites.

A recent impact crater on Mars. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona)

A recent impact crater on Mars. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona) (NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona)

Two geochemically different types of Martian volcanic rocks — enriched shergottites and depleted shergottites — contain water with different hydrogen isotope ratios, the researchers found.

Their analysis, which was published today in Nature Geoscience, showed that Mars likely received water from at least two vastly different sources early in its history.

The variability the researchers found seems to imply that Mars, unlike Earth and the moon, never had an ocean of magma completely encompassing the planet.

On Saturn’s Moon Titan, Living Cells May Be Very Different From Ours

Yet another good reason to visit this exotic world.

saturn lake.jpg
Artist’s conception of a hydrocarbon lake on Titan. (NASA)

In a new paper published in Science Advances, Hilda Sandström and Martin Rahm from Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, Sweden, consider the possibility of life on Titan—and, more specifically, whether living creatures would need cell membranes to survive.

Membranes are essential for life as we know it because they protect the integrity of a cell’s interior by keeping unwanted substances out. At the same time, they allow critically needed nutrients to come in, and waste products to be discharged. On Earth, cell membranes are built in such a way that they are polar to the outside (to interact well with water, which is a polar solvent), and non-polar to the inside. It’s generally thought that the first membranes were able to self-assemble under Earth’s early environmental conditions.

On Titan the conditions are quite different. Temperatures are extremely cold—between 90 and 94 degrees Kelvin (about -180C). There is no liquid water anywhere near the surface, and no free oxygen. There are, however, lakes on Titan’s surface consisting of methane and ethane. These hydrocarbons are non-polar. That has led scientists, including me, to suggest that membranes on Titan would be inverted compared to Earth—non-polar on the outside to interact with methane as a solvent and polar to the inside. In an eyebrow-raising paper, James Stevenson and co-authors from Cornell University suggested azotosomes as possible membranes for life on Titan. Azotomes are hypothetical structures that lack the phosphorus and oxygen found in membranes on Earth but contain nitrogen.

Here’s where the new work by Sandström and Rahm comes in. They used computer modeling to determine whether these “polarity-inverted” membranes could self-assemble under the environmental conditions that exist on Titan. The answer was no. Also, the azotosomes were not stable, which at first glance is bad news for life.

However, according to the authors, biological macromolecules would be immobile given the extremely low temperatures on Saturn’s moon. Titan life forms, if they exist, would need to rely on the slow diffusion of smaller molecules. Any membrane, however, would hinder that diffusion, as well as the removal of waste products in the opposite direction. So, the scientists reason, any potential life on Titan may not need a membrane at all.

Personally, I doubt their conclusion. The presence of membranes still appears to me to be essential for maintaining the disequilibrium between the interior of a cell and the outside. Without it, there would be nothing to prevent the loss of valuable organic molecules to the environment. I strongly believe that life—here, on Titan, or anywhere else—requires that the integrity of the smallest unit of life, the cell, has to be maintained.

But I might be incorrect. In any exotic environment like Titan’s, we have to question assumptions that appear to us on Earth as common sense. And I like that the authors have used a computational astrobiological approach to try and push the boundaries of our knowledge. Of course, the best way to answer these questions, as always, is to send missions like Dragonfly to explore Titan up close.Like this article? SIGN UP for our newsletter  

What Happens When You Shoot An Asteroid With An ‘Anti-Tank Weapon’

What Happens When You Shoot An Asteroid With An ‘Anti-Tank Weapon?

Hayabusa may have left Ryugu, but the science continues to be revealed as the data is analysed, of interest today is the results of the impactor experiment which finally published the images of the explosion and crater formation from the deployable camera. The impact of the 2kg projectile blew a wide hole in the space rock, throwing tons of regolith into space The results of the experiment were published in Science in March 2020 https://science.sciencemag.org/conten…

A Stellar Mystery: How Could 100 Stars Just Vanish?

A comparison of old and new star catalogs shows that some objects seem to have gone missing.

villaroel et al..jpg
Where’d it go? An image taken in the 1950s (left) shows a large object at center that doesn’t appear in an image of the same field taken more recently. (Villarroel et al.)

An international research group led by Beatriz Villarroel from the Nordic Institute for Theoretical Physics in Sweden and the Institute for Astrophysics on the Canary Islands reports something strange in the current issue of The Astronomical Journal. They compared star maps from the 1950s with recent surveys, and discovered that 100 previously catalogued stars cannot be found anymore.

The group’s project, called Vanishing and Appearing Sources during a Century of Observations (VASCO) has been comparing mapped stars listed in the U.S. Naval Observatory Catalogue (USNO) B 1.0, dating from the 1950s, with those in another, more recent sky catalog, the Pan-STARRS Data Release (DR1). A total of 150,000 objects were found in the older catalogue (which lists 600 million stars) that did not have a readily identifiable counterpart in the new star survey, even though the Pan-STARRS Data Release includes stars that are five times less bright than the faintest light sources included in USNO. Of these 150,000 anomalies, the authors visually inspected 24,000 candidates and discovered that 100 of these point sources of light appear only in the older star survey. And since then, apparently, they’ve vanished.

Certainly, the most parsimonious explanation for the missing stars is that they are natural phenomena such as extremely flaring dwarf planets, failed supernova, or stars that might directly collapse into a black hole. But there seem to me too many anomalies to explain all the vanished stars as known natural phenomena. In their current paper, the authors themselves discuss the possibility that they’re seeing unknown phenomena, or that the vanished “stars” could be relics of technologically advanced civilizations, particularly the theoretical mega-engineering projects known as Dyson spheres.

Perhaps the missing objects are signs of an advanced civilization. But they’re probably not Dyson spheres. First, it would be hard to explain why and how such a giant construction project, completely shading out the light of the host star, could be done within the short period of less than a century. But more importantly, Brooks Harrop and I showed nearly 10 years ago that “traditional” Dyson spheres are not gravitationally stable. Even if one could be built near a star like our Sun, it would require more total mass than is available in all our Solar System’s planets, moons, and asteroids.

So what are the missing stars? A few might be explained as flaring stars whose brightness dropped below the detection limit, or stars that collapsed directly into a black hole. A large portion, however, might represent new stages in the life cycle of certain stars or new stellar phenomena that have not yet been seen. That by itself would be an exciting topic to investigate.

Another intriguing question: Where are the missing stars? Are they at the same location, just not emitting light anymore? Or perhaps they’ve moved to some other location. If the latter, could some of these represent huge starships, the size of moons or planets, that moved outside the field of view? This, of course, is a highly speculative suggestion. But it would address the hotly discussed Fermi Paradox, and would, in principle, be testable. If these “missing” light sources represent giant starships, some should appear in new star surveys in some other part of the sky. In an ideal case, we might even be able to track their trajectories through time. It would be challenging, no doubt, to pick out such motions against other background movements in space, like those of stars spinning around the center of their galaxy. Nevertheless, my suggestion to the authors is to focus their future work on light sources that suddenly appear in new star surveys, and see whether they can be correlated to the stars that vanished.

In her paper, Villarroel suggests another very promising direction for future research—to search for clusters of missing stars, which, if they exist, could be related to new natural phenomena in a particular region of space, or perhaps to activities of an extraterrestrial civilization. Either way, the authors have turned up something that may become very important for both astrophysical and SETI investigations.

There Are More Viruses on Earth Than There Are Stars in the Universe

And yes, they’re alive.

coronavirus.jpg
Electron microscope image of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, isolated from a patient in the United States. (NIAID-RML)

With the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 on everyone’s mind these days, scientists are working to understand its characteristics. Tung Phan from the University of Pittburgh, for example, found many mutations in the genome of the virus, underlining its genetic diversity and the rapid evolution this pathogen is capable of.

This begs bigger questions, though—like what makes viruses so adaptable, and are they really “alive?”

First, their total number is staggering. It is estimated that there are 10 viruses for every bacterium on Earth. Curtis Suttle from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver compared the number of viruses in the oceans alone to the number of stars in the Universe, which is estimated to be 1023. Viruses outnumber stars by a factor of 10 million. If you lined them all up, that line would be 10 million light years long! To put it on a more conceivable scale, it’s been estimated that each day, more than 700 million viruses, mainly of marine origin, are deposited from Earth’s atmosphere onto every square meter of our planet’s surface.

The diversity of viruses is just as impressive. Some use DNA to pass on genetic information, some use RNA, and some use both during their life cycle. The information carrier can be single-stranded, double-stranded, or double-stranded with some regions being single-stranded. Viruses are like a natural lab seemingly playing around with genetic permutations and combinations. While most viruses are so small that they can only be observed directly with an electron microscope, others, like the giant Mimiviruses, reach the size of bacteria. When I worked in my lab with viruses that kill bacteria—called bacteriophages—we did not count the actual viruses, but the number of bacteria they killed.

Viruses also have benefits. Most of the genetic information on Earth probably resides within them, and viruses are important for transferring genes between different species, increasing genetic diversity and ultimately enhancing evolution and the adaptation of various organisms to new environmental challenges. When life was first arising on Earth, they may have been critical to the evolution of the first cells. I imagine some kind of early Darwinian pond in which viruses and the first cells swapped genes with each other, nearly unimpeded, to come up with critical new adaptations, enhancing the survival of both under challenging early-Earth conditions.

So, are viruses alive?

It depends where we draw the border between non-life and life, which is likely a continuum toward increasing complexity. Does life require cells? Personally, I think that’s a bit—how should I say it?–cell-centric rather than Earth-centric. In my view, viruses have to be counted as alive. We should recognize them as a fourth domain of life and not dismiss them, if only because they do in fact reproduce outside their own “bodies.” The parasitic bacteria that cause chlamydia are considered to be living. One hypothesis for the origin of viruses says that they, or at least some of them, could have evolved from bacteria that lost any genes not needed for parasitism. If so, could we say they “evolved” from living back to non-living?

Another thing I find intriguing: The more common RNA viruses—like the coronavirus behind the current pandemic—have typically smaller genome sizes than DNA viruses, apparently because of a higher error-rate when replicating. Too many errors have the effect that natural selection disfavors them. It also limits the maximum size of these viruses.

This seems to support the hypothesis that life originated with an RNA world, and that for very primitive life RNA worked perfectly fine to pass on genetic information. As organisms grew in size, they required larger genomes and needed to transfer more information. At that point DNA outcompeted RNA as a type of informational code. But RNA survives as an essential part of terrestrial biology, as we’re seeing with the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2.

Do microbes live elsewhere in our solar system?

Do microbes live elsewhere in our solar system?
Signs point to yes….

The Atacama Desert in Chile is one of the most arid and uninhabitable places on earth. Decades can pass without any rainfall. Yet researchers have managed to find life there: microbes. This discovery has inspired hope that there may perhaps be life on Mars.

Uninhabitable
The international research team found a number of bacteria in the bone-dry soil. Contrary to other species of bacteria, though, these single-celled organisms seemed to be inactive. For quite some time, they were assumed to be dead or perhaps dying bacteria that had been carried there by the wind from other places. However, subsequent research showed that they are specialised bacteria that survive in a form of deep sleep when there is a lack of water. When it rains, they awaken and begin to divide actively.

Chance of rain: 1 in a 1,000
When the researchers first arrived at the desert in 2015, something unusual happened. It began to rain. This exceptional occurrence led to an explosion of biological activity. Using sterile spoons and surgical precision, soil samples were taken at various depths. Near the surface, Geodermatophilaceae and Rubrobacter bacteria were found with a resistance to dehydration and UV radiation. At deeper levels, where saline levels were higher, so-called halophile (‘salt-loving’) microbes such as Betaproteobacteria were encountered.

Mars
Researchers think that these micro-organisms may well be able to sleep for hundreds or even thousands of years. The conditions closely resemble the planet Mars. Although conditions there are currently arid and cold, this situation was not always the case. Billions of years ago, Mars had small oceans and lakes that may have hosted early life forms. These life forms perhaps adapted themselves to current conditions on Mars.

Water
Frozen lakes are known to exist on Mars, while recent research suggests that there may even be snowfall. This fact means that circumstances exist in which humidity on Mars could increase. As the research in the Atacama Desert has shown, moisture could revive the microbes. To this end, the team would like to conduct research in Don Juan Pond on Antarctica. Since the shallow lake has a salinity of 40%, it does not even freeze over at −50°C.

Saturn’s icy moon
Mars is not the only place in our solar system where life could exist. There are any number of places where moisture can be found. Austrian and German researchers have used laboratory experiments to show that there could be microbes living on Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus. Cassini, the American spacecraft which explored the planets, showed that there were geysers spewing methane into the atmosphere from a subterranean ocean. According to the researchers, this methane gas possibly is being produced by micro-organisms. They mimicked the circumstances in this ocean within the laboratory. The methane-producing archaea Methanothermococcus okinawensis, found on earth in extremely hot water near deep-sea hydrothermal vents, would easily be able to live in these circumstances.

Source: PNAS and Nature

Social distancing Apollo 11 style

Social distancing Apollo 11 style, how calm and collected they were! In 1969, no one knew if they’d bring home from the moon a bacterium or virus that could infect the world. If they can do three weeks, we can do two at home.

The headlines in the wake of Apollo 11 could have been very, very different.

Michael Collins, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong seen inside the Mobile Quarantine Facility during the 2.5-day trip back to port on the USS Hornet, which picked them up when they splashed down.

Michael Collins, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong seen inside the Mobile Quarantine Facility during the 2.5-day trip back to port on the USS Hornet, which picked them up when they splashed down.(Image: © NASA)

It would have been the ultimate contingency of Apollo 11: What if the astronauts returning home unleashed upon Earth something dangerous and foreign to science — moon germs?

Before Apollo 11 set out, NASA couldn’t be positive that, if bits of dust or potential microorganisms got loose back home, life on Earth would be safe. Needless to say, accidentally setting a lunar plague loose on the inhabitants of Earth would have erased all the good publicity garnered by accomplishing the moon landing in the first place. Just in case, in addition to the protections they were establishing to make sure the moon rocks remained free of terrestrial contamination, NASA decided to establish a three-week quarantine for the crew of Apollo 11.ADVERTISING

“Initially, NASA thought that all they really needed was a clean room to handle the packaging of the lunar samples in a vacuum,” Judith Hayes, chief of NASA’s biomedical research and environmental sciences division, told Space.com. “They started really wrapping their head around this, is my understanding. They said, ‘We’ve really never done this before, so we’re not really sure,’ even though I think most of the scientists didn’t firmly believe that there might be a risk.”

The quarantine was treated all along as a better-safe-than-sorry operation. The day before Apollo 11 splashed down, support staff had already entered quarantine in Houston to prepare for the crew’s arrival, and The New York Times reported: “Twelve men are in absolute quarantine here because of something that probably does not exist.”

The problem was, though, if that threat turned out to be a reality, things would get very ugly. “The quarantine program was created out of an abundance of caution,” Jason Schwartz, a historian of medicine at the Yale School of Public Health, told Space.com. “You had a very, very small risk of something that could be very, very, very significant.”

When the Apollo missions were launching, public health professionals had generally moved on from crude tools like quarantines, he said. “By the 1960s, we were really in the golden age of vaccines and immunizations,” Schwartz said, particularly for diseases like polio, measles and mumps. “There was great optimism that the war against infectious diseases was being won,” and he said that could have contributed to a fear of backsliding if Apollo went very wrong.

And the prospect of moon germs also mirrored a real public health concern at the time, of novel pathogens that the population had never had a chance to build an immunity to. It’s a fear that remains with us today, which was sparked at the time by, for example, new influenza strains popping up on occasion. If something nasty hitched a ride back from the moon, it would have been the epitome of a novel pathogen. And, it would have driven doctors and public health practitioners way beyond their comfort zone.

“This was a different story than most public health efforts at the time, because typically, when we think about treatments, antibiotics, vaccines, quarantines, we’re thinking about known viruses or bacteria with distinct symptoms, distinct modes of transmission that we know about and we can apply that knowledge to figure out how to tailor the public health response,” Schwartz said. “In this case, it was responding to an unknowable, responding to a very slim but still nonzero uncertainty. How do you tailor a public health response when you’re not sure what exactly you’re concerned about or what it looks like or how it might affect humans at all?”

In the absence of any precisely honed tools to combat the potential threat, NASA used the blunt approach of a quarantine. The details of the plan were based on tackling a disease like the plague, according to a 1999 oral history given by Charles Berry, who was in charge of medical operations during Apollo.

The quarantine procedures began three weeks before launch, when the astronauts went into isolation to reduce the odds they would catch anything that NASA would later need to identify as terrestrial or lunar. For Apollo 11, Berry said, the prelaunch quarantine was nearly derailed by President Richard Nixon, who wanted to eat dinner with the crew the evening before launch. It was Berry’s job to explain why that simply wasn’t an option — the closest he said he believed he ever came to being fired.

“If [the astronauts] came down with anything, whatever it was, a cough, a sniffle, or anything else, we were going to have to prove that it didn’t come from the moon,” Berry told the interviewer. “So I think it would be pretty stupid to let somebody just walk into that situation. It would have been a total breakdown of the program.”

(Astronauts today are also quarantined before their launch, but only because carrying terrestrial germs into orbit would be deeply unpleasant.)

Nixon shooed off and quarantine preserved, the trio of astronauts climbed aboard their rocket and blasted off on the historic journey. As they wrapped up their time on the moon, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin abandoned some of their equipment, including their boot covers, in part to reduce the odds they would bring back any lunar threats. The 21-day quarantine clock began ticking as soon as the pair stepped off the moon and closed the hatch on the lunar module.

They rejoined their colleague, Michael Collins, and headed back to Earth, splashing down in the Pacific Ocean on July 24. But the astronauts still had more than two weeks of quarantine left, and NASA had decided it wasn’t safe to simply hoist the newly returned command module onto the aircraft carrier sent to fetch the astronauts.

The rescue crew had to send a swimmer to the spacecraft to open the hatch and throw in biological isolation garments for the astronauts to put on — spacesuits for Earth use only, essentially, with tightly woven fabric that would contain particles; rubber gloves; and a built-in breathing system.

That made splashdown the biggest weakness in the quarantine system, as Collins has said in interviews looking back at the mission. “When you open that hatch, we had stuff come into the air, without any question about it,” Berry said in his oral history. “You know, if it had been lunar plague, I don’t know what would have happened. I didn’t believe we were going to have lunar plague, but I couldn’t go on the basis that we weren’t.”

Once the astronauts had donned their isolation suits, they climbed on board the ship sent to rescue them, then into the Mobile Quarantine Facility, a trailer NASA had converted to house them. The crew spent 2.5 days in the trailer as they sailed to port in Hawaii, then boarded a plane to Houston. Back in NASA’s astronaut headquarters, the trailer was connected to the Lunar Receiving Laboratory, a special facility the agency had built at what is now the Johnson Space Center.

The building included quarantine quarters as well as lab space for preparing and studying moon rocks. The crew section was large enough to hold more than 100 people if something went very wrong, Hayes said, and included a kitchen, a lounge, a library and a collection of surgical and medical examination rooms.Advertisement

“It was, I think, quite comfortable,” Hayes said. “Talking to the crews from back then and the flight surgeon, they did say that — you know, it wasn’t bad. After spending time in a capsule, being in the quarantine facility was quite comfortable.” Armstrong even celebrated his birthday in the quarantine building.

The crew and about 20 companions waited out the rest of the quarantine period in the facility, without particular concerns about the possibility they were infected. “I got the impression that … the [astronauts] were not worried,” Hayes said. “They had daily exams from their flight surgeons … they were being carefully watched by the flight surgeons and the scientists in the quarantine.” Scientists were also monitoring mice that had been exposed to lunar samples in case they showed signs of distress, but all did well.

But by the end of the 21 days, newspapers reported that the astronauts were ready to get back to exploring Earth. “I’m ready any time they want to open that door,” Aldrin said according to The New York Times. “Take my blood. Marvelous idea. Why didn’t I think of that sooner?” the paper reported Collins said when it transpired that a blood test would shorten quarantine by a few hours.

NASA had planned to institute the quarantine for Apollo 11, 12, 13 and 14, then reevaluate the situation. The Apollo 13 quarantine was canceled after the crewmembers were forced to skip the moon landing maneuver. During the first couple years of studying moon rocks in terrestrial labs, occasional lapses in safety protocols also sent scientists into observation or quarantine.Advertisement

But after Apollo 14, NASA decided that Earth was safe from lunar bugs. The lunar receiving lab’s sample-processing side remained active until a new building was constructed and the moon rocks were moved out. Then, the building was turned over to NASA’s life sciences division, which is how Hayes ended up spending decades working in its labs and uncovering its history.

Now, her department has moved out as well. “I was the last one to shut the lights out and lock the door when we moved out of the Lunar Receiving Lab, and now it sits empty,” Hayes said.

According to NASA spokesperson Noah Michelsohn, the building is slated for demolition, with a new sample-processing facility due to be built before the asteroid missions OSIRIS-REx and Hayabusa2 bring back new, precious space rocks starting late next year. Hayes said she wishes she had appreciated the facility more when she first joined NASA, since it tells such a compelling story about the Apollo program and of spaceflight in general.

“It’s kind of amazing, all the things they thought of and pulled together to do this,” Hayes said. “I imagine when we go back to the moon, we’ll have to do some similar things, not necessarily for the crew but handling samples and the experiments that’ll be done.”

Experts believe Comet Atlas will be as bright as the Moon when it approaches the Sun

Buddy_Nath / PixabayTuesday, March 17, 2020 6:10 AM UTC

Being able to see comets is not as anticipated compared to seeing meteor showers, which occur at least once every month by a different group of meteorites. Now, experts believe one particular comet, the Atlas comet, will shine as bright as the moon when it approaches the sun.

Express reports that the comet, which is also referred to as C/2019 Y4, is expected to shine brightly when it gets closer to the Sun. The comet is currently within the vicinity of Mars’ orbit and is expected to go nearer by the latter part of May. By this time, ATLAS will be 0.25 astronomical units away from the Sun, but the distance will shorten the closer it gets.

When ATLAS approaches the Sun, scientists believe that the comet will shine as bright as a waxing crescent moon. According to the Space Weather website, “The comet is about as bright as an 8th or 9th magnitude star. That’s too dim to see with the naked eye but consider this: The comet is hundreds of times bigger than astronomers predicted when it was discovered 4 months ago…” and that by May when the comet is closer to the Sun, the comet will be as bright as a 1st magnitude star or a waxing crescent moon.

For those who already want to see a glimpse of ATLAS before May, astronomers or space enthusiasts will already be able to see the comet with a mid-sized backyard telescope. It is also encouraged to observe the comet as it gets brighter the closer it gets to the Sun and look out for possible outbursts that may happen in the coming weeks due to the volatile material within the comet getting exposed by the increasing sunlight.

Although comets are usually observed, there is a possibility that a comet may decide to strike Earth instead of passing by it. Asteroid and comet expert Dr. Steve Chesley previously revealed what makes a comet dangerous, especially if ever it decides to strike. Dr. Chesley noted how comets usually were seen as a bad omen all throughout history and explained that because comets move faster than asteroids, they will cause more damage.

Aside from the speed, the size of the comet is also a concern, as Dr. Chesley revealed that comets coming from deep space would most likely be much larger.

Reaching the Singularity May be Humanity’s Greatest and Last Accomplishment

Should we be searching for post-biological aliens?

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Biological? Post-biological? Something in between? What is humanity’s future? (Horváth Partners)

In a new paper published in The International Journal of Astrobiology, Joseph Gale from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and co-authors make the point that recent advances in artificial intelligence (AI)—particularly in pattern recognition and self-learning—will likely result in a paradigm shift in the search for extraterrestrial intelligent life.

While futurist Ray Kurzweil predicted 15 years ago that the singularity—the time when the abilities of a computer overtake the abilities of the human brain—will occur in about 2045, Gale and his co-authors believe this event may be much more imminent, especially with the advent of quantum computing. It’s already been four years since the program AlphaGO, fortified with neural networks and learning modes, defeated Lee Sedol, the Go world champion. The strategy game StarCraft II may be the next to have a machine as reigning champion.

If we look at the calculating capacity of computers and compare it to the number of neurons in the human brain, the singularity could be reached as soon as the early 2020s. However, a human brain is “wired” differently than a computer, and that may be the reason why certain tasks that are simple for us are still quite challenging for today’s AI. Also, the size of the brain or the number of neurons don’t equate to intelligence. For example, whales and elephants have more than double the number of neurons in their brain, but are not more intelligent than humans.

The authors don’t know when the singularity will come, but come it will. When this occurs, the end of the human race might very well be upon us, they say, citing a 2014 prediction by the late Stephen Hawking. According to Kurzweil, humans may then be fully replaced by AI, or by some hybrid of humans and machines.

What will this mean for astrobiology? Not much, if we’re searching only for microbial extraterrestrial life. But it might have a drastic impact on the search for extraterrestrial intelligent life (SETI). If other civilizations are similar to ours but older, we would expect that they already moved beyond the singularity. So they wouldn’t necessarily be located on a planet in the so-called habitable zone. As the authors point out, such civilizations might prefer locations with little electronic noise in a dry and cold environment, perhaps in space, where they could use superconductivity for computing and quantum entanglement as a means of communication.

We are just beginning to understand quantum entanglement, and it is not yet clear whether it can be used to transfer information. If it can, however, that might explain the apparent lack of evidence for extraterrestrial intelligent civilizations. Why would they use “primitive” radio waves to send messages?

I think it also is still unclear whether there is something special enough about the human brain’s ability to process information that casts doubt on whether AI can surpass our abilities in all relevant areas, especially in achieving consciousness. Might there be something unique to biological brains after millions and millions of years of evolution that computers cannot achieve? If not, the authors are correct that reaching the singularity could be humanity’s greatest and last advance.

Old gas blob from Uranus found in vintage Voyager 2 data

An animation shows the strange magnetic field of Uranus. The yellow arrow points toward the sun and the dark blue arrow represents the planet's axis.

An animation shows the strange magnetic field of Uranus. The yellow arrow points toward the sun and the dark blue arrow represents the planet’s axis.(Image: © NASA/Scientific Visualization Studio/Tom Bridgman)

Buried inside data that NASA’s iconic Voyager 2 spacecraft gathered at Uranus more than 30 years ago is the signature of a massive bubble that may have stolen a blob of the planet’s gassy atmosphere.

That’s according to scientists who analyzed archived Voyager 2 observations of the magnetic field around Uranus. These measurements had been studied before, but only using a relatively coarse view. In the new research, scientists instead looked at those measurements every two seconds. That detail showed what had previously been missed: an abrupt zigzag in the magnetic field readings that lasted just one minute of the spacecraft’s 45-hour journey past Uranus.ADVERTISING

The tiny wobble in the Voyager 2 data represents something much larger since the spacecraft was flying so fast. Specifically, the scientists behind the new research believe the zigzag marks a plasmoid, a type of structure that wasn’t understood particularly well at the time of the flyby in January 1986.

But by now, plasmoids have earned scientists’ respect. A plasmoid is a massive bubble of plasma, which is a soup of charged particles. Plasmoids can break off from the tip of the sleeve of magnetism surrounding a planet like a teardrop. 

Scientists have studied these structures at Earth and nearby planets, but never at Uranus or its neighbor Neptune, since Voyager 2 is the only spacecraft to date ever to visit those planets.

Scientists want to know about plasmoids because these structures can pull charged particles out of a planet’s atmosphere and fling them into space. And if you change a planet’s atmosphere, you change the planet itself. And Uranus’ situation is particularly complicated because the planet rotates on its side and its magnetic field is skewed from both that axis and the plane all the planets lie in.

A Voyager 2 photo of Uranus taken on Jan. 14, 1986.
A Voyager 2 photo of Uranus taken on Jan. 14, 1986.  (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Because Voyager 2 flew straight through this plasmoid, scientists could use the archived data to measure the structure, which they believe was about 250,000 miles (400,000 kilometers) across and could have stretched 127,000 miles (204,000 km) long, according to a NASA statement.

Ideally, scientists would piece together more observations of Uranus’ magnetic field, enough to better understand how this phenomenon has shaped the planet over time. But that will require another spacecraft visit the strange sideways world.

The research is described in a paper published in August in the journal Geophysical Review Letters. NASA announced the finding on Wednesday (March 25).

Comet ATLAS is Half as Wide as the Sun

March 24, 2020: No one knows how big the icy core of Comet ATLAS (C/2019 Y4) might be–possibly no wider than a few kilometers. One thing’s for sure, though, the comet’s atmosphere is huge. New images from amateur astronomers around the world show that ATLAS’s gaseous envelope has ballooned in diameter to ~720,000 km–about half as wide as the sun.

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“Comet ATLAS’s coma (atmosphere) is approximately 15 arcminutes in diameter,” reports Michael Jäger of Weißenkirchen, Austria, who took the picture, above, on March 18th. “Its newly-formed tail is about the same size.”

Other astronomers are getting similar results. 15 arcminutes = a quarter of a degree. Given Comet ATLAS’s distance of 1.1 AU on March 18th, that angle corresponds to a physical size of 720,000 km.

On the scale of big things in the solar system, Comet ATLAS falls somewhere between the sun (1,392,000 km  diameter) and Jupiter (139,820 km). It’s not unusual for comets to grow so large. While their icy solid cores are typically mere kilometers in diameter, they can spew prodigious amounts of gas and dust into space, filling enormous volumes. In the fall of 2007, Comet 17P/Holmes partially exploded and, for a while, had an atmosphere even larger than the sun. The Great Comet of 1811 also had a sun-sized coma. Whether Comet ATLAS will eventually rival those behemoths of the past remains to be seen.

Right now, Comet ATLAS is certainly the biggest green thing in the Solar System. Its verdant hue comes from diatomic carbon, C2, a molecule commonly found in comets.  Gaseous C2 emits a beautiful green glow in the near-vacuum of space.

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Currently, Comet ATLAS is shining like an 8th magnitude star–invisible to the unaided eye but an easy target for backyard telescopes. The comet is brightening rapidly as it comes closer to Earth and the sun. By late May it could rival Venus in the evening twilight sky. Stay tuned!

20 Ways the World Could End

Are we in danger of being erased from the universe? Here we look at the factors that could doom humanity: natural disasters, human-triggered cataclysms, willful self-destruction, and greater forces directed against us.

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We’ve had a good run of it. In the 500,000 years Homo sapiens has roamed the land we’ve built cities, created complex languages, and sent robotic scouts to other planets. It’s difficult to imagine it all coming to an end. Yet 99 percent of all species that ever lived have gone extinct, including every one of our hominid ancestors. In 1983, British cosmologist Brandon Carter framed the “Doomsday argument,” a statistical way to judge when we might join them. If humans were to survive a long time and spread through the galaxy, then the total number of people who will ever live might number in the trillions. By pure odds, it’s unlikely that we would be among the very first hundredth of a percent of all those people. Or turn the argument around: How likely is it that this generation will be the one unlucky one? Something like one fifth of all the people who have ever lived are alive today. The odds of being one of the people to witness doomsday are highest when there is the largest number of witnesses around—so now is not such an improbable time.

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Human activity is severely disrupting almost all life on the planet, which surely doesn’t help matters. The current rate of extinctions is, by some estimates, 10,000 times the average in the fossil record. At present, we may worry about snail darters and red squirrels in abstract terms. But the next statistic on the list could be us.

Natural Disasters

1. Asteroid impact  Once a disaster scenario gets the cheesy Hollywood treatment, it’s hard to take it seriously. But there is no question that a cosmic interloper will hit Earth, and we won’t have to wait millions of years for it to happen. In 1908 a 200-foot-wide comet fragment slammed into the atmosphere and exploded over the Tunguska region in Siberia, Russia, with nearly 1,000 times the energy of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Astronomers estimate similar-sized events occur every one to three centuries. Benny Peiser, an anthropologist-cum-pessimist at Liverpool John Moores University in England, claims that impacts have repeatedly disrupted human civilization. As an example, he says one killed 10,000 people in the Chinese city of Chi’ing-yang in 1490. Many scientists question his interpretations: Impacts are most likely to occur over the ocean, and small ones that happen over land are most likely to affect unpopulated areas. But with big asteroids, it doesn’t matter much where they land. Objects more than a half-mile wide—which strike Earth every 250,000 years or so—would touch off firestorms followed by global cooling from dust kicked up by the impact. Humans would likely survive, but civilization might not. An asteroid five miles wide would cause major extinctions, like the one that may have marked the end of the age of dinosaurs. For a real chill, look to the Kuiper belt, a zone just beyond Neptune that contains roughly 100,000 ice-balls more than 50 miles in diameter. The Kuiper belt sends a steady rain of small comets earthward. If one of the big ones headed right for us, that would be it for pretty much all higher forms of life, even cockroaches.

2. Gamma-ray burst  If you could watch the sky with gamma-ray vision, you might think you were being stalked by cosmic paparazzi. Once a day or so, you would see a bright flash appear, briefly outshine everything else, then vanish. These gamma-ray bursts, astrophysicists recently learned, originate in distant galaxies and are unfathomably powerful—as much as 10 quadrillion (a one followed by 16 zeros) times as energetic as the sun. The bursts probably result from the merging of two collapsed stars. Before the cataclysmal event, such a double star might be almost completely undetectable, so we’d likely have no advance notice if one is lurking nearby. Once the burst begins, however, there would be no missing its fury. At a distance of 1,000 light-years—farther than most of the stars you can see on a clear night—it would appear about as bright as the sun. Earth’s atmosphere would initially protect us from most of the burst’s deadly X rays and gamma rays, but at a cost. The potent radiation would cook the atmosphere, creating nitrogen oxides that would destroy the ozone layer. Without the ozone layer, ultraviolet rays from the sun would reach the surface at nearly full force, causing skin cancer and, more seriously, killing off the tiny photosynthetic plankton in the ocean that provide oxygen to the atmosphere and bolster the bottom of the food chain. All the gamma-ray bursts observed so far have been extremely distant, which implies the events are rare. Scientists understand so little about these explosions, however, that it’s difficult to estimate the likelihood of one detonating in our galactic neighborhood.

3. Collapse of the vacuum  In the book Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut popularized the idea of “ice-nine,” a form of water that is far more stable than the ordinary kind, so it is solid at room temperature. Unleash a bit of it, and suddenly all water on Earth transforms to ice-nine and freezes solid. Ice-nine was a satirical invention, but an abrupt, disastrous phase transition is a possibility. Very early in the history of the universe, according to a leading cosmological model, empty space was full of energy. This state of affairs, called a false vacuum, was highly precarious. A new, more stable kind of vacuum appeared and, like ice-nine, it quickly took over. This transition unleashed a tremendous amount of energy and caused a brief runaway expansion of the cosmos. It is possible that another, even more stable kind of vacuum exists, however. As the universe expands and cools, tiny bubbles of this new kind of vacuum might appear and spread at nearly the speed of light. The laws of physics would change in their wake, and a blast of energy would dash everything to bits. “It makes for a beautiful story, but it’s not very likely,” says Piet Hut of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, New Jersey. He says he worries more about threats that scientists are more certain of—such as rogue black holes.

4. Rogue black holes  Our galaxy is full of black holes, collapsed stellar corpses just a dozen miles wide. How full? Tough question. After all, they’re called black holes for a reason. Their gravity is so strong they swallow everything, even the light that might betray their presence. David Bennett of Notre Dame University in Indiana managed to spot two black holes recently by the way they distorted and amplified the light of ordinary, more distant stars. Based on such observations, and even more on theoretical arguments, researchers guesstimate there are about 10 million black holes in the Milky Way. These objects orbit just like other stars, meaning that it is not terribly likely that one is headed our way. But if a normal star were moving toward us, we’d know it. With a black hole there is little warning. A few decades before a close encounter, at most, astronomers would observe a strange perturbation in the orbits of the outer planets. As the effect grew larger, it would be possible to make increasingly precise estimates of the location and mass of the interloper. The black hole wouldn’t have to come all that close to Earth to bring ruin; just passing through the solar system would distort all of the planets’ orbits. Earth might get drawn into an elliptical path that would cause extreme climate swings, or it might be ejected from the solar system and go hurtling to a frigid fate in deep space.

5. Giant solar flares  Solar flares—more properly known as coronal mass ejections—are enormous magnetic outbursts on the sun that bombard Earth with a torrent of high-speed subatomic particles. Earth’s atmosphere and magnetic field negate the potentially lethal effects of ordinary flares. But while looking through old astronomical records, Bradley Schaefer of Yale University found evidence that some perfectly normal-looking, sunlike stars can brighten briefly by up to a factor of 20. Schaefer believes these stellar flickers are caused by superflares, millions of times more powerful than their common cousins. Within a few hours, a superflare on the sun could fry Earth and begin disintegrating the ozone layer (see #2). Although there is persuasive evidence that our sun doesn’t engage in such excess, scientists don’t know why superflares happen at all, or whether our sun could exhibit milder but still disruptive behavior. And while too much solar activity could be deadly, too little of it is problematic as well. Sallie Baliunas at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics says many solar-type stars pass through extended quiescent periods, during which they become nearly 1 percent dimmer. That might not sound like much, but a similar downturn in the sun could send us into another ice age. Baliunas cites evidence that decreased solar activity contributed to 17 of the 19 major cold episodes on Earth in the last 10,000 years.

6. Reversal of Earth’s magnetic field  Every few hundred thousand years Earth’s magnetic field dwindles almost to nothing for perhaps a century, then gradually reappears with the north and south poles flipped. The last such reversal was 780,000 years ago, so we may be overdue. Worse, the strength of our magnetic field has decreased about 5 percent in the past century. Why worry in an age when GPS has made compasses obsolete? Well, the magnetic field deflects particle storms and cosmic rays from the sun, as well as even more energetic subatomic particles from deep space. Without magnetic protection, these particles would strike Earth’s atmosphere, eroding the already beleaguered ozone layer (see #5). Also, many creatures navigate by magnetic reckoning. A magnetic reversal might cause serious ecological mischief. One big caveat: “There are no identifiable fossil effects from previous flips,” says Sten Odenwald of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. “This is most curious.” Still, a disaster that kills a quarter of the population, like the Black Plague in Europe, would hardly register as a blip in fossil records.

7. Flood-basalt volcanism  In 1783, the Laki volcano in Iceland erupted, spitting out three cubic miles of lava. Floods, ash, and fumes wiped out 9,000 people and 80 percent of the livestock. The ensuing starvation killed a quarter of Iceland’s population. Atmospheric dust caused winter temperatures to plunge by 9 degrees in the newly independent United States. And that was just a baby’s burp compared with what the Earth can do. Sixty-five million years ago, a plume of hot rock from the mantle burst through the crust in what is now India. Eruptions raged century after century, ultimately unleashing a quarter-million cubic miles of lava—the Laki eruption 100,000 times over. Some scientists still blame the Indian outburst, not an asteroid, for the death of the dinosaurs. An earlier, even larger event in Siberia occurred just about the time of the Permian-Triassic extinction, the most thorough extermination known to paleontology. At that time 95 percent of all species were wiped out.

Sulfurous volcanic gases produce acid rains. Chlorine-bearing compounds present yet another threat to the fragile ozone layer—a noxious brew all around. While they are causing short-term destruction, volcanoes also release carbon dioxide that yields long-term greenhouse-effect warming.The last big pulse of flood-basalt volcanism built the Columbia River plateau about 17 million years ago. We’re ripe for another.

8. Global epidemics  If Earth doesn’t do us in, our fellow organisms might be up to the task. Germs and people have always coexisted, but occasionally the balance gets out of whack. The Black Plague killed one European in four during the 14th century; influenza took at least 20 million lives between 1918 and 1919; the AIDS epidemic has produced a similar death toll and is still going strong. From 1980 to 1992, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, mortality from infectious disease in the United States rose 58 percent. Old diseases such as cholera and measles have developed new resistance to antibiotics. Intensive agriculture and land development is bringing humans closer to animal pathogens. International travel means diseases can spread faster than ever. Michael Osterholm, an infectious disease expert who recently left the Minnesota Department of Health, described the situation as “like trying to swim against the current of a raging river.” The grimmest possibility would be the emergence of a strain that spreads so fast we are caught off guard or that resists all chemical means of control, perhaps as a result of our stirring of the ecological pot. About 12,000 years ago, a sudden wave of mammal extinctions swept through the Americas. Ross MacPhee of the American Museum of Natural History argues the culprit was extremely virulent disease, which humans helped transport as they migrated into the New World.

Human-Triggered Disasters

9. Global warming  The Earth is getting warmer, and scientists mostly agree that humans bear some blame. It’s easy to see how global warming could flood cities and ruin harvests. More recently, researchers like Paul Epstein of Harvard Medical School have raised the alarm that a balmier planet could also assist the spread of infectious disease by providing a more suitable climate for parasites and spreading the range of tropical pathogens (see #8). That could include crop diseases which, combined with substantial climate shifts, might cause famine. Effects could be even more dramatic. At present, atmospheric gases trap enough heat close to the surface to keep things comfortable. Increase the global temperature a bit, however, and there could be a bad feedback effect, with water evaporating faster, freeing water vapor (a potent greenhouse gas), which traps more heat, which drives carbon dioxide from the rocks, which drives temperatures still higher. Earth could end up much like Venus, where the high on a typical day is 900 degrees Fahrenheit. It would probably take a lot of warming to initiate such a runaway greenhouse effect, but scientists have no clue where exactly the tipping point lies.

10. Ecosystem collapse  Images of slaughtered elephants and burning rain forests capture people’s attention, but the big problem—the overall loss of biodiversity—is a lot less visible and a lot more serious. Billions of years of evolution have produced a world in which every organism’s welfare is intertwined with that of countless other species. A recent study of Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior offers an example. Snowy winters encourage wolves to hunt in larger packs, so they kill more moose. The decline in moose population allows more balsam fir saplings to live. The fir trees pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, which in turn influences the climate. It’s all connected. To meet the demands of the growing population, we are clearing land for housing and agriculture, replacing diverse wild plants with just a few varieties of crops, transporting plants and animals, and introducing new chemicals into the environment. At least 30,000 species vanish every year from human activity, which means we are living in the midst of one of the greatest mass extinctions in Earth’s history. Stephen Kellert, a social ecologist at Yale University, sees a number of ways people might upset the delicate checks and balances in the global ecology. New patterns of disease might emerge (see #8), he says, or pollinating insects might become extinct, leading to widespread crop failure. Or as with the wolves of Isle Royale, the consequences might be something we’d never think of, until it’s too late.

11. Biotech disaster  While we are extinguishing natural species, we’re also creating new ones through genetic engineering. Genetically modified crops can be hardier, tastier, and more nutritious. Engineered microbes might ease our health problems. And gene therapy offers an elusive promise of fixing fundamental defects in our DNA. Then there are the possible downsides. Although there is no evidence indicating genetically modified foods are unsafe, there are signs that the genes from modified plants can leak out and find their way into other species. Engineered crops might also foster insecticide resistance. Longtime skeptics like Jeremy Rifkin worry that the resulting superweeds and superpests could further destabilize the stressed global ecosystem (see #9). Altered microbes might prove to be unexpectedly difficult to control. Scariest of all is the possibility of the deliberate misuse of biotechnology. A terrorist group or rogue nation might decide that anthrax isn’t nasty enough and then try to put together, say, an airborne version of the Ebola virus. Now there’s a showstopper.

12. Particle accelerator mishap  Theodore Kaczynski, better known as the Unabomber, raved that a particle accelerator experiment could set off a chain reaction that would destroy the world. Surprisingly, many sober-minded physicists have had the same thought. Normally their anxieties come up during private meetings, amidst much scribbling on the backs of used envelopes. Recently the question went public when London’s Sunday Times reported that the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) on Long Island, New York, might create a subatomic black hole that would slowly nibble away our planet. Alternately, it might create exotic bits of altered matter, called strangelets, that would obliterate whatever ordinary matter they met. To assuage RHIC’s jittery neighbors, the lab’s director convened a panel that rejected both scenarios as pretty much impossible. Just for good measure, the panel also dismissed the possibility that RHIC would trigger a phase transition in the cosmic vacuum energy (see #3). These kinds of reassurances follow the tradition of the 1942 “LA-602” report, a once-classified document that explained why the detonation of the first atomic bomb almost surely would not set the atmosphere on fire. The RHIC physicists did not, however, reject the fundamental possibility of the disasters. They argued that their machine isn’t nearly powerful enough to make a black hole or destabilize the vacuum. Oh, well. We can always build a bigger accelerator.

13. Nanotechnology disaster  Before you’ve even gotten the keyboard dirty, your home computer is obsolete, largely because of incredibly rapid progress in miniaturizing circuits on silicon chips. Engineers are using the same technology to build crude, atomic-scale machines, inventing a new field as they go called nanotechnology. Within a few decades, maybe sooner, it should be possible to build microscopic robots that can assemble and replicate themselves. They might perform surgery from inside a patient, build any desired product from simple raw materials, or explore other worlds. All well and good if the technology works as intended. Then again, consider what K. Eric Drexler of the Foresight Institute calls the “grey goo problem” in his book Engines of Creation, a cult favorite among the nanotech set. After an industrial accident, he writes, bacteria-sized machines, “could spread like blowing pollen, replicate swiftly, and reduce the biosphere to dust in a matter of days.” And Drexler is actually a strong proponent of the technology. More pessimistic souls, such as Bill Joy, a cofounder of Sun Microsystems, envision nano-machines as the perfect precision military or terrorist tools.

14. Environmental toxins  From Donora, Pennsylvania, to Bhopal, India, modern history abounds with frightening examples of the dangers of industrial pollutants. But the poisoning continues. In major cities around the world, the air is thick with diesel particulates, which the National Institutes of Health now considers a carcinogen. Heavy metals from industrial smokestacks circle the globe, even settling in the pristine snows of Antarctica. Intensive use of pesticides in farming guarantees runoff into rivers and lakes. In high doses, dioxins can disrupt fetal development and impair reproductive function—and dioxins are everywhere. Your house may contain polyvinyl chloride pipes, wallpaper, and siding, which belch dioxins if they catch fire or are incinerated. There are also the unknown risks to think about. Every year NIH adds to its list of cancer-causing substances—the number is up to 218. Theo Colburn of the World Wildlife Fund argues that dioxins and other, similar chlorine-bearing compounds mimic the effects of human hormones well enough that they could seriously reduce fertility. Many other scientists dispute her evidence, but if she’s right, our chemical garbage could ultimately threaten our survival.

Willful Self-Destruction

15. Global war  Together, the United States and Russia still have almost 19,000 active nuclear warheads. Nuclear war seems unlikely today, but a dozen years ago the demise of the Soviet Union also seemed rather unlikely. Political situations evolve; the bombs remain deadly. There is also the possibility of an accidental nuclear exchange. And a ballistic missile defense system, given current technology, will catch only a handful of stray missiles—assuming it works at all. Other types of weaponry could have global effects as well. Japan began experimenting with biological weapons after World War I, and both the United States and the Soviet Union experimented with killer germs during the cold war. Compared with atomic bombs, bioweapons are cheap, simple to produce, and easy to conceal. They are also hard to control, although that unpredictability could appeal to a terrorist organization. John Leslie, a philosopher at the University of Guelph in Ontario, points out that genetic engineering might permit the creation of “ethnic” biological weapons that are tailored to attack primarily one ethnic group (see #11).

16. Robots take over  People create smart robots, which turn against us and take over the world. Yawn. We’ve seen this in movies, TV, and comic books for decades. After all these years, look around and still—no smart robots. Yet Hans Moravec, one of the founders of the robotics department of Carnegie Mellon University, remains a believer. By 2040, he predicts, machines will match human intelligence, and perhaps human consciousness. Then they’ll get even better. He envisions an eventual symbiotic relationship between human and machine, with the two merging into “postbiologicals” capable of vastly expanding their intellectual power. Marvin Minsky, an artificial-intelligence expert at MIT, foresees a similar future: People will download their brains into computer-enhanced mechanical surrogates and log into nearly boundless files of information and experience. Whether this counts as the end of humanity or the next stage in evolution depends on your point of view. Minsky’s vision might sound vaguely familiar. After the first virtual-reality machines hit the marketplace around 1989, feverish journalists hailed them as electronic LSD, trippy illusion machines that might entice the user in and then never let him out. Sociologists fretted that our culture, maybe even our species, would whither away. When the actual experience of virtual reality turned out to be more like trying to play Pac-Man with a bowling ball taped to your head, the talk died down. To his credit, Minsky recognizes that the merger of human and machine lies quite a few years away.

17. Mass insanity  While physical health has improved in most parts of the world over the past century, mental health is getting worse. The World Health Organization estimates that 500 million people around the world suffer from a psychological disorder. By 2020, depression will likely be the second leading cause of death and lost productivity, right behind cardiovascular disease. Increasing human life spans may actually intensify the problem, because people have more years to experience the loneliness and infirmity of old age. Americans over 65 already are disproportionately likely to commit suicide. Gregory Stock, a biophysicist at the University of California at Los Angeles, believes medical science will soon allow people to live to be 200 or older. If such an extended life span becomes common, it will pose unfathomable social and psychological challenges. Perhaps 200 years of accumulated sensations will overload the human brain, leading to a new kind of insanity or fostering the spread of doomsday cults, determined to reclaim life’s endpoint. Perhaps the current trends of depression and suicide among the elderly will continue. One possible solution—promoting a certain kind of mental well-being with psychoactive drugs such as Prozac—heads into uncharted waters. Researchers have no good data on the long-term effects of taking these medicines.

A Greater Force Is Directed Against Us

18. Alien invasion  At the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, a cadre of dedicated scientists sifts through radio static in search of a telltale signal from an alien civilization. So far, nothing. Now suppose the long-sought message arrives. Not only do the aliens exist, they are about to stop by for a visit. And then . . . any science-fiction devotee can tell you what could go wrong. But the history of human exploration and exploitation suggests the most likely danger is not direct conflict. Aliens might want resources from our solar system (Earth’s oceans, perhaps, full of hydrogen for refilling a fusion-powered spacecraft) and swat us aside if we get in the way, as we might dismiss mosquitoes or beetles stirred up by the logging of a rain forest. Aliens might unwittingly import pests with a taste for human flesh, much as Dutch colonists reaching Mauritius brought cats, rats, and pigs that quickly did away with the dodo. Or aliens might accidentally upset our planet or solar system while carrying out some grandiose interstellar construction project. The late physicist Gerard O’Neill speculated that contact with extraterrestrial visitors could also be socially disastrous. “Advanced western civilization has had a destructive effect on all primitive civilizations it has come in contact with, even in those cases where every attempt was made to protect and guard the primitive civilization,” he said in a 1979 interview. “I don’t see any reason why the same thing would not happen to us.”

19. Divine intervention  Judaism has the Book of Daniel; Christianity has the Book of Revelation; Islam has the coming of the Mahdi; Zoroastrianism has the countdown to the arrival of the third son of Zoroaster. The stories and their interpretations vary widely, but the underlying concept is similar: God intervenes in the world, bringing history to an end and ushering in a new moral order. Apocalyptic thinking runs at least back to Egyptian mythology and right up to Heaven’s Gate and Y2K mania. More worrisome, to the nonbelievers at least, are the doomsday cults that prefer to take holy retribution into their own hands. In 1995, members of the Aum Shinri Kyo sect unleashed sarin nerve gas in a Tokyo subway station, killing 12 people and injuring more than 5,000. Had things gone as intended, the death toll would have been hundreds of times greater. A more determined group armed with a more lethal weapon—nuclear, biological, nanotechnological even—could have done far more damage.

20. Someone wakes up and realizes it was all a dream  Are we living a shadow existence that only fools us into thinking it is real? This age-old philosophical question still reverberates through cultural thought, from the writings of William S. Burrows to the cinematic mind games of The Matrix. Hut of the Institute of Advanced Studies sees an analogy to the danger of the collapse of the vacuum. Just as our empty space might not be the true, most stable form of the vacuum, what we call reality might not be the true, most stable form of existence. In the fourth century B.C., Taoist philosopher Chuang Tzu framed the question in more poetic terms. He described a vivid dream. In it, he was a butterfly who had no awareness of his existence as a person. When he awoke, he asked: “Was I before Chuang Tzu who dreamt about being a butterfly, or am I now a butterfly who dreams about being Chuang Tzu?”

Interstellar Pandemic? Killer alien ‘space viruses’ which could wipe out humanity may be terrifyingly common in our universe

space, nightsky

Alien killer viruses tough enough to survive in space could wipe out humanity

You probably think about viruses only when you’re sick, but there’s a group of microbiologists who want to change that. In fact, they want you to consider the possibility that viruses may be found in space.

Now this grim prospect has started to look a little bit more likely following the revelation that killer viruses could survive out there in the endless void. Huge fight broke out between relatives at toddler’s inquest A human would last less than 20 seconds in the cold and empty vacuum of space – the time it would take to use up all the oxygen in the body.

The lack of atmosphere would cause gas bubbles to form in the blood and other fluids, blowing the person up into a balloon before they die from decompression.

But viruses are very hardy and could be living everywhere in the universe including other planets, moons and even the void of space, Nasa scientists suspect. If we find viruses on Mars, it’s a fair bet to assume other lifeforms existed there too.

Now a team of scientists are calling on space agencies to look for them in liquid samples from Saturn and Jupiter’s moons as well as rocks from Mars. If we manage to detect viruses in these samples, it could prove if they really can survive in space and allow us to identify just how much risk they pose to our species.

Biologist Prof Stedman, from Portland State University in the United States, said: ‘More than a century has passed since the discovery of the first viruses. ‘Entering the second century of virology we can finally start focusing beyond our own planet.’ If a space explorer contracted a space virus or one found its way to Earth, the results could be devastating because humanity will have no resistance to it.

In a recent review, published online Jan. 10 in the journal Astrobiology, a trio of scientists from the U.S. and Japan posited that viruses may be spread across interplanetary space. Those researchers want to convince astrobiologists to devote more time looking for these curious molecular machines.

A virion — the form a virus takes outside of a host — consists of genetic material encapsulated in a protein shell. Some viruses also have an outer lipid layer called an envelope. One way to think of a virion is as a seed or a spore, the authors wrote.

Viruses straddle the definition of life. They lack the machinery to reproduce on their own, so they must infect a host cell and hijack its machinery. This has led to decades of debate over whether viruses should technically be considered living.

But for the review authors, viruses’ reproductive methods are enough. Indeed, “when one considers the whole virus replication cycle, it comes close to NASA’s working definition of life: ‘a self-sustaining chemical system capable of Darwinian evolution,'” the review said.

Semantics aside, if scientists were to identify a virus in space — on a meteor, perhaps — very few people would claim the discovery was not evidence of life in space, the authors wrote.

So why aren’t scientists prowling the Martian surface, the lakes of Titan or the geysers of Enceladus for evidence of these tiny “life-forms”?

In part, it’s because the technology to do so is still in development, said senior review author Kenneth Stedman, a professor of biology at Portland State University. Currently, scientists are searching for chemical signatures they can use to identify viruses in the fossil record. But if they can’t find viruses in really old rocks on Earth, they won’t be able to do it in really old rocks on Mars or Titan, he said.

Viruses are not metabolically active on their own, so they produce few by-products. Lipids in the envelopes are the current front-runner for a virus biomarker, since these compounds can survive for hundreds of millions of years, Stedman told Live Science. But scientist have yet to establish that these molecules are unique to viruses, and don’t exist in any cellular organism as well.

Currently, scientists can identify viruses by looking at the structure of their shells using electron microscopes. But it isn’t possible to strap these high-powered machines onto a Mars rover, yet. And given the diversity of virus forms on Earth, Stedman said that he doubts scientists would even recognize the shape of an alien virus.

Here on Earth, viruses form a crucial part of life, Stedman said. For one, viruses are everywhere. The oceans alone contain an estimated 10^31 individual virions. That’s about 1 million times more than estimates of the number of stars in the observable universe. And viruses are integral in most of the nutrient cycles on our planet.

What’s more, viruses and cells have been coevolving basically since life arose on the planet, Stedman said. Cells evolving to resist their viral invaders give rise to new forms and behaviors. And viruses shepherd genes between unrelated cells in what scientists call horizontal gene transfer. While this process has precipitated tremendous diversity of life on Earth, it muddies the water for researchers tracking viral evolution. “If there’s any water in the mud, you’re in luck,” Stedman said.

Scientists do know that viruses use both RNA and DNA, in single- and double-stranded forms, to code their genetic information, Stedman said. All known cellular life uses double-stranded DNA, so some scientists think that viruses may be remnants of ancient life-forms that predate the development of DNA.

This is all to say that “life on Earth would be very different if there were no viruses,” Stedman said.

Scientists are currently skilled in identifying only cellular life. In addition to helping scientists learn more about our own origins, devising ways to identify viruses is good practice for recognizing other, novel forms of life we might encounter, according to Stedman. Keeping an open mind when looking for life is crucial, as many environments are quite different than Earth.

“What is life? Are viruses alive? If we find viruses [in space], is it indicative of life? And would this be life as we know it or life as we don’t know it?” Stedman asked. “We’re hoping to get people thinking about these types of definitions.”

The Supermassive Black Hole at The Center of Our Galaxy Is Becoming More Active

Sagittarius A*, the supermassive black hole at the centre of the Milky Way, isn’t exactly rowdy. It’s not classified as an active galactic nucleus – one of those galactic cores that glow exceedingly brightly as they feast on copious amounts of material from the surrounding space.

Chandra view of Sgr A*. (NASA/CXC/MIT/F. Baganoff, R. Shcherbakov et al.)

However, the brightness of our galaxy’s centre does fluctuate a little across the electromagnetic spectrum on a daily basis. Astronomers have now confirmed that, over the last few years, Sgr A*’s most energetic X-ray flares have been increasing.

The paper has been accepted in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics, and is already available on arXiv while it undergoes the peer review process. The results support the conclusions of earlier studies that have found our galactic centre is indeed getting restless.

Specifically, a team of French and Belgian researchers led by astrophysicist Enmanuelle Mossoux of the University of Liège in Belgium continued their work from a 2017 paper that found the rate of bright flares had increased threefold from 31 August 2014.

The Milky Way’s Super-massive Black Hole (Sagittarius A*) Swallowing Matter

The earlier work – also co-authored by Mossoux – studied X-ray data on Sgr A* from the XMM-Newton, Chandra and Swift observatories collected between 1999 and 2015. They detected 107 flares in total. Not only were the brightest X-ray flares increasing after August 2014, the faintest ones had decreased from August 2013. 

To find out if these trends have continued, Mossoux and colleagues collected and analysed the data from all three telescopes between 2016 and 2018. They detected 14 more flares to add to the previous data for a total of 121.

Then, they analysed all the flares, using the previous methods, and revised methods to determine the flare rate and distribution. These found that one of the earlier conclusions was incorrect – there was no decrease in the rate of faint flares; these remained pretty steady over the period covered by the data.

“However, this did not change our global result: a change in flaring rate is found for the brightest and most energetic flares at the same date as was found in the previous section,” the researchers wrote in their paper.

Although these studies both only refer to X-ray flaring, they’re not the only hint in recent times that something is up with Sgr A*. Last year, the black hole flared 75 times its usual brightness in near-infrared – the brightest we’ve ever observed it in those wavelengths.

The team analysing the near-infrared observations had a dataset of 133 nights from 2003; and last year, they found three nights on which Sgr A* near-infrared activity was elevated. They said in their paper that this was “unprecedented compared to the historical data.”

(Don’t worry, Sgr A* is 26,000 light-years away. The big bad black hole can’t get you.)

Mossoux and her team have also checked to see if the 2019 activity is consistent with their recent findings. They analysed the Swift data from 2019, and found four bright flares, the largest number ever observed in a single campaign, confirming that the black hole is not settling down.

Additionally, XMM Newton and Chandra data from 2019 – due for release this year – could reveal even more about the peculiar X-ray activity, and what might be causing it – whether it’s accretion, or something else, such as the tidal disruption of passing asteroids.

Observations across other wavelengths could reveal more information too. Continued observations in the near-infrared, and radio wave observations, could help us figure out what’s making Sgr A* stir.

“Since 2014, the activity of Sgr A* thus increased in several wavelengths,” the researchers wrote.

“Additional multiwavelength data are required to conclude on the persistence of this increase and to obtain clues on the source of this unprecedented activity of the supermassive black hole.”

The research has been accepted by Astronomy & Astrophysics, and is available on arXiv.

China’s Chang’e 4 lander and rover awake once more on far side of the moon

chang'e-4 yutu-2 dark side of the moon

The green line shows Yutu 2’s route from the landing site. The yellow illustrates the new drive plan.(Image: © BACC/Our Space)

China’s Chang’e 4 mission has started its 16th lunar day of work on the far side of the moon, with the Yutu 2 rover beginning a journey in search of new areas.

Both the Chang’e 4 lander and the Yutu 2 rover and their science payloads are in good operating condition, despite the spacecraft spending over a year in the harsh conditions on the lunar surface.

Yutu 2 awoke on March 17 following sunrise over its position in Von Kármán Crater, with the lander following 16 hours later on Mar. 18, according to the China Lunar Exploration Program (CLEP). 

Related: China releases tons of amazing Chang’e-4 images from moon’s far sideClick here for more Space.com videos…CLOSEVolume 0%This video will resume in 49 seconds PLAY SOUND

The lander will continue its low-frequency radio astronomy observations, but a new plan has been formulated for the Yutu 2 rover, which has already provided insights into the composition of the surface and what lies below.

Li Chunlai, deputy director of the National Astronomical Observatories of China (NAOC), told the state-run news outlet CCTV+ that the Yutu 2 team are targeting distant areas.

chang'e-4 yutu-2 dark side of the moon
The white line represents the landing site and Yutu 2 drive route. The area circled in red is a targeted basaltic area.  (Image credit: BACC/Our Space)

Yutu 2 has been driving across an area covered in ejecta from impact craters, but reaching new ground would be insightful.

“If it can enter a basalt zone, maybe we can better understand [the] distribution and structure of ejecta from meteorite impacts,” Li said. “The distance may be 1.8 kilometers [1.1 miles]. I think it may take another one year for the rover to walk out of the ejecta-covered area.”

chang'e-4 yutu-2 dark side of the moon
An image from the lunar far side showing Yutu 2’s tracks, released March 2020.  (Image credit: CNSA/CLEP)

The plan was formulated after the discovery of a previously unseen crater, forcing the team to abandon previous drive plans to head southwest.

The resilient rover, which has far exceeded its design life time of three months, or three lunar days, would need to greatly boost its average drive distances to reach the area, however. 

chang'e-4 yutu-2 dark side of the moon
Image of a small impact crater on the lunar far side, released March 2020. (Image credit: CNSA/CLEP)

Yutu 2 has averaged 88 feet (26.7 meters) per lunar day for the 15 days so far, it would need to start covering around 492 feet (150 m) per day. 

Even if Yutu 2 does not reach this area, the rover will further contribute to our understanding of the lunar surface and subsurface with its science payloads, Ian Crawford, professor of planetary science and astrobiology at Birkbeck College, University of London, told Space.com in an email. 

He adds however that the “extreme slowness of these small rovers is a strong argument for a human return to the moon.”

chang'e-4 yutu-2 dark side of the moon
A panoramic shot from Yutu 2 during lunar day 12. (Image credit: BACC/Our Space)

“The Apollo 17 astronauts traversed about 35 kilometers (22 miles) in three days, which was actually only about 22 hours of Extra Vehicular Activity time,” Crawford notes.

China is planning a lunar sample return mission, Chang’e 5, for later this year. Subsequent missions are expected to target the lunar south pole before potential crewed missions in the 2030s. 

NASA meantime is developing its Artemis program to return astronauts to the moon by 2024 to 2028.

Newfound Comet ATLAS is getting really bright, really fast

A comet that passed by Earth in December 2018.

A comet that passed by Earth in December 2018.(Image: © NASA)

For years, amateur astronomers have been waiting for a bright, naked-eye comet to pass by Earth — and finally, such an object may have arrived. 

The possible celestial showpiece is known as Comet ATLAS, or C/2019 Y4. When it was discovered on Dec. 28, 2019, it was quite faint, but since then, it has been brightening so rapidly that astronomers have high hopes for the spectacle it could put on. But given the tricky nature of comets, skywatchers are also being cautious not to get their hopes up, knowing that the comet may fizzle out.ADVERTISING

It’s been awhile since a comet gave skywatchers a good show, particularly in the Northern Hemisphere. In March 2013, Comet PanSTARRS was visible right after sunset, albeit low in the western sky. But although it briefly attained first magnitude with a short, bright tail, its low altitude and a bright, twilight sky detracted from what otherwise would have been a much more prominent object. Comet Lovejoy in 2011 and Comet McNaught in 2007 both evolved into stunning objects, but unfortunately, when at their best, were visible only from the Southern Hemisphere. 

It has now been nearly a quarter of a century since we have been treated to a spectacularly bright comet: Comet Hale-Bopp passed by during the spring of 1997 and Comet Hyakutake did so exactly one year earlier. Both were truly “great” comets, very bright and fantastically structured; in very dark conditions, Hyakutake’s tail appeared to stretch more than halfway across the sky.

So now, after a “comet drought,” Comet ATLAS may finally enliven the evening skies of early spring. Or then again, maybe not.

Guarded optimism

The comet’s moniker is an acronym for Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System (ATLAS), a robotic astronomical survey system based in Hawaii and optimized for detecting smaller near-Earth objects a few weeks to a few days before their closest approach. But on occasion, the survey will also find a comet.

When astronomers first spotted Comet ATLAS in December, it was in Ursa Major and was an exceedingly faint object, close to 20th magnitude. That’s about 398,000 times dimmer than stars that are on the threshold of naked-eye visibility. At the time, it was 273 million miles (439 million kilometers) from the sun. 

But comets typically brighten as they approach the sun, and at its closest, on May 31, Comet ATLAS will be just 23.5 million miles (37.8 million km) from the sun. Such a prodigious change in solar distance would typically cause a comet to increase in luminosity by almost 11 magnitudes, enough to make ATLAS easily visible in a small telescope or a pair of good binoculars, although quite frankly nothing really to write home about.

Except, since its discovery, the comet has been brightening at an almost unprecedented speed. As of March 17, ATLAS was already magnitude +8.5, over 600 times brighter than forecast. As a result, great expectations are buzzing for this icy lump of cosmic detritus, with hopes it could become a stupendously bright object by the end of May. 

A famous lineage

Another factor buoying hopes for ATLAS as a potential dazzler is that its orbit is nearly identical to that of the so-called Great Comet of 1844.

Like the 1844 comet, ATLAS follows a trajectory that would require 6,000 years per orbit and take it to beyond the outer reaches of the solar system, roughly 57 billion miles (92 billion km) from the sun. Probably in the far-distant past, a much larger comet occupied this same orbit, but fragmented into several pieces — including the 1844 comet and ATLAS — upon rounding the sun. 

But any comparison is dangerous. The 1844 comet was not discovered until shortly after perihelion, so we have no knowledge of its brightness behavior beforehand. But that information is currently all we know about ATLAS, and we won’t be able to see the object after it reaches the sun. 

And let’s not forget some of the comets of the past that seemingly had “glory” written all over them, only to utterly fail to live up to expectations: Comet ISON in 2013, Comet Austin in 1990 and Comet Kohoutek in 1974.

So what’s ahead?

John Bortle, who has observed hundreds of comets and is a well-known expert in the field, got his first look at Comet ATLAS through 15 x 70 binoculars on Sunday night (March 15). And he’s stumped, he wrote. “For the first time in many years I am left at a bit of a loss as to what honestly worthy advice I can offer would-be observers. I really don’t know quite what to make of this object.” 

The head (or coma) of Comet ATLAS is big, albeit “very faint and ghostly,” Bortle said, which doesn’t make sense. “If it’s a truly significant visitor, it should be considerably sharper in appearance. Instead we see, at best, a quite modestly condensed object with only a pinpoint stellar feature near its heart.” 

The unpredictability of comets is an old story. Astronomers use special formulas to try to anticipate how bright a comet will get. Unfortunately, comets’ individual behavior and characteristics can be as varied as people: No two are alike. 

Now, here is the conundrum regarding Comet ATLAS: Until a couple of weeks ago, it was brightening at an astounding rate. That brightening has slowed somewhat, but it is still an impossible rate of brightening to maintain. Were ATLAS to continue to brighten at this rate all the way to its closest approach to the sun at the end of May, it would end up rivaling the planet Venus in brightness! 

“We should expect the rate of increase to slow again,” Carl Hergenrother, an assiduous comet observer based in Arizona, said. “This is where it gets tricky for predicting just how bright it will get.” Right now, no one can predict how long it will continue to quickly brighten and how dramatically that brightening will slow.

Where to look and what to expect

The only thing left to do is to track Comet ATLAS in the days and weeks ahead. Fortunately, its path in March and April will be very favorable for Northern Hemisphere observers, as it will be circumpolar and always remain above the horizon. As darkness falls, it will be positioned more than halfway up in the north-northwest sky. Right now, the comet is in western Ursa Major, and it will shift into the boundaries of Camelopardalis the Giraffe — a rather dim, shapeless star pattern — by March 29. There it will stay, right on through the month of April.Advertisement

As to how bright Comet ATLAS will get, that’s anybody’s guess. It might become faintly visible to the naked eye under dark sky conditions by mid- or late April. By mid-May, when it disappears into the bright evening twilight, perhaps it will have brightened to second magnitude — about as bright as Polaris, the North Star. 

Whether ATLAS continues to overperform and shines even brighter, develops a significant tail or suddenly stops brightening altogether and remains very faint and ghostly are all unknown right now. We’ll just have to wait and see.

“It’s going to be fun the next few weeks watching Comet ATLAS develop (and provide a nice distraction from the current state of the world), Hergenrother wrote. “Here’s to good health and clear skies!”

Japan’s asteroid-smashing probe reveals a surprisingly young space rock

Ejecta curtain growth and deposition on the asteroid Ryugu after Japan's Hayabusa2 probe slammed an impactor into the space rock in April 2019.

Ejecta curtain growth and deposition on the asteroid Ryugu after Japan’s Hayabusa2 probe slammed an impactor into the space rock in April 2019.(Image: © JAXA, Kobe University, Chiba Institute of Technology, Kochi University, University of Occupational and Environmental Health)

A cannonball that a Japanese spacecraft fired at an asteroid is shedding light on the most common type of asteroid in the solar system, a new study reports.

Carbonaceous, or C-type, space rocks make up about three-quarters of known asteroids. Previous research suggests that they are relics of the early solar system that contain troves of primordial material from the nebula that gave birth to the sun and its planets about 4.6 billion years ago. This makes research into these carbon-rich asteroids essential to understanding planetary formation. 

To learn more about C-type asteroids, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) deployed the spacecraft Hayabusa2 to Ryugu, a 2,790-foot-wide (850 meters) near-Earth asteroid that is one of the darkest celestial bodies in the solar system. The C-type asteroid’s name, which means “dragon palace,” refers to a magical underwater castle from a Japanese folk tale. 

In 2018, Hayabusa2 arrived at Ryugu to scan it from orbit and deploy multiple rovers on the boulder-covered asteroid. Scientists found that Ryugu is likely a loosely packed, very porous pile of rubble, about 50% empty space.

To shed light on Ryugu’s composition and structure, Hayabusu2 shot a 4.4-lb. (2 kilograms) copper cannonball a bit larger than a tennis ball at about 4,475 mph (7,200 km/h) at the asteroid. The impact carved out an artificial crater that exposed pristine material under Ryugu’s surface for remote analysis and blasted out a plume of ejected material. Hayabusa2’s cameras recorded the evolution of this plume in detail.

The number and size of craters that pockmark asteroids such as Ryugu can help scientists estimate the age and properties of asteroid surfaces. These analyses are based on models of how such craters form, and data from artificial impacts like that on Ryugu can help test those models.

The cannonball, dubbed the Small Carry-on Impactor (SCI), blasted out a crater about 47.5 feet (14.5 m) wide with an elevated rim and a central conical pit about 10 feet (3 m) wide and 2 feet (0.6 m) deep. 

“I was so surprised that the SCI crater was so large,” study lead author Masahiko Arakawa, a planetary scientist at Kobe University in Japan, told Space.com. The crater was about seven times larger than what might be expected from a comparable scenario on Earth, he added.

The artificial crater was semicircular in shape, and the curtain of ejected material was asymmetrical. Both of these details suggest that there was a large boulder buried near the impact site, the researchers said. This conclusion matches the rubble-pile picture that scientists already had of Ryugu.Click here for more Space.com videos…Watch Asteroid Debris Fly During Japan’s Hayabusa2’s 2nd TouchdownVolume 0% PLAY SOUND

Features of the artificial crater and the plume suggested that the growth of a crater was limited mostly by the asteroid’s gravity and not by the strength of the space rock’s surface. This, in turn, suggested that Ryugu has a relatively weak surface, one only about as strong as loose sand, which is consistent with recent findings that Ryugu is made of porous, fragile material.

These new findings suggest that Ryugu’s surface is about 8.9 million years old, while other models suggested that the asteroid’s surface might be up to about 158 million years old. All in all, while Ryugu is made of materials up to 4.6 billion years old, the asteroid might have coalesced from the remains of other broken-apart asteroids only about 10 million years ago, Arakawa said.

The scientists detailed their findings online Thursday (March 19) in the journal Science.