Astronomers Spotted a Car-Size Asteroid Just Hours Before Impact

Astronomers discovered a car-size asteroid hours before it slammed into Earth and burned up in the atmosphere this past weekend, news sources report.

Scientists in Hawaii initially spotted the asteroid, named 2019 MO, on Saturday (June 22). Soon after, the heavenly traveler broke apart in large fireball as it hit the atmosphere about 240 miles (380 kilometers) south of San Juan, Puerto Rico, according to the University of Hawaii.

This is only the fourth time in history that scientists have spotted an asteroid so close to impact. The other three detections all occurred within the past 11 years, including 2008 TC3, 2014 AA and 2018 LA, which landed as a meteorite in southern Africa just 7 hours after it was noticed by scientists. [Doomsday: 9 Real Ways Earth Could End]

Unlike 2018 LA, Earth’s latest visitor was harmless and didn’t make it to the ground. But the asteroid, 13 feet (4 meters) long, still made a spectacular fireball that was equivalent to about 6,000 tons of exploding TNT, according to the Center for Near Earth Object Studies (CNEOS), which is run by the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, California.

The asteroid’s impact was so powerful, even satellites in orbit spotted it. Satellites operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recorded its impact and destruction at 5:25 p.m. EDT (21:25 UTC), as you can see on this tweet below.

Small Asteroid (NEOCP A10eoM1) impacted Earth on 2019 June 22http://bit.ly/2X7Os48 @Yeqzids @pgbrown @frankie57pr @fallingstarIfA @PS1NEOwatch @michael_w_busch #astronomy #asteroids569:32 AM – Jun 25, 201957 people are talking about thisTwitter Ads info and privacy

At the time of impact, 2019 MO was traveling about 33,300 mph (14.9 km/s), CNEOS reported. NOAA’s Geostationary Lightning Mapper onboard the satellite GOES-East also mapped the asteroid, according to The Weather Channel.

The fact that scientists detected the asteroid before its annihilation is cause for celebration. This is the first time that two survey telescopes — the University of Hawaii’s ATLAS (Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System) and Pan-STARRS (Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System) — showed that they can “provide sufficient warning to move people away from the impact site of an incoming asteroid,” according to a statement.

Using these telescopes, astronomers observed 2019 MO four times in just 30 minutes, when the asteroid was just 310,600 miles (500,000 km) from Earth, or 1.3 times the distance from Earth to the moon.

At first, scientists gave it a two out of four rating, meaning it appeared unlikely to hit Earth. But as more data came in, they upgraded 2019 MO to a four. The Nexrad (Next-Generation Radar) weather network in Puerto Rico, which is operated by NOAA’s National Weather Service, also spotted the asteroid, pinpointing its entry location, according to Cnet.

2019 MO was much smaller than the 66-foot-long (20 m) meteor that exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia, in 2013. The energy released by that meteor was equivalent to about 440,000 tons of TNT.

Now that ATLAS is up and running (it began operating in 2015), it will detect all kinds of asteroids, big and small. The system’s two telescopes, situated 100 miles (160 km) apart, scan the night sky for asteroids every two nights. Since then, hey have discovered about 100 asteroids larger than about 100 feet (30 m) in diameter every year.

In theory, ATLAS should be able to find smaller asteroids, such as 2019 MO, about half a day before they arrive and larger objects, like the Chelyabinsk meteor, a few days before they hit, the university said.

That’s good news, as we could all use a warning before asteroids cause enormous fireballs in the sky or send chunks of space rock hurtling toward Earth.

Mysterious ‘fast radio burst’ traced back to its home galaxy for first time ever

An animation shows the random appearance of fast radio bursts (FRBs) across the sky. Astronomers have discovered about 85 since 2007, and pinpointed two of them. Credit: NRAO Outreach/T. Jarrett (IPAC/Caltech); B. Saxton, NRAO/AUI/NSF

An animation shows the random appearance of fast radio bursts (FRBs) across the sky. Astronomers have discovered about 85 since 2007, and pinpointed two of them. Credit: NRAO Outreach/T. Jarrett (IPAC/Caltech); B. Saxton, NRAO/AUI/NSF

Three and a half billion years ago, a mysterious object on the edge of a distant galaxy spewed forth an intensely bright, vanishingly brief burst of radio energy that shot across the universe.

That pulse of energy — known to its fans in the astronomy community as a fast radio burst (FRB) — passed through a wilderness of gas, dust and empty space on its multi-billion-year journey, slowly stretching and changing color as it moved. Then, for less than a millisecond in 2018, that burst zapped past a special telescope in Earth’s Australian outback, giving scientists a rare opportunity to shake hands with one of the most mysterious forms of energy in the universe.

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It’s the first time that astronomers have successfully tracked a one-off FRB back to its origins across space and time, according to the authors of a study published today (June 27) in the journal Science. Understanding where FRBs come from allows scientists to probe the vast tracts of matter between their host galaxies and Earth, and maybe even locate undiscovered pockets of protons and neutrons thought to be lurking between galaxies.[The 12 Strangest Objects in the Universe]

“These bursts are altered by the matter they encounter in space,” study co-author Jean-Pierre Macquart, a researcher at the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) said in a statement. “Now we can pinpoint where they come from, we can use them to measure the amount of matter in intergalactic space.”

Bursting onto the scene

Since the phenomenon was discovered in 2007, astronomers have observed about 85 FRBs and pinpointed the origins of only one other — a repeating flash that pulsed 9 times from a tiny, star-forming galaxy over about six months in 2016. Pinpointing the source of a one-off FRB, which can last for a fraction of a millisecond, has proved exceedingly difficult, until now.

In their new study, the researchers detected the lone FRB using an array of 36 satellites called the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) telescope. When an FRB passes the array, each satellite picks up the burst’s signal a fraction of a millisecond apart. Using these subtle time differences, the researchers were able to figure out which direction the burst came from, and approximately how far it traveled.

The ASKAP observations pointed to a Milky-Way-size galaxy about 3.6 billion light-years away from Earth. With some help from several other large telescopes around the world, the researchers zoomed in on this galaxy to learn that it was relatively old and not forming many new stars.

According Adam Deller, an astrophysicist at Swinburne University of Technology in Australia and co-author of the new study, the properties of this distant galaxy sit in stark contrast to the galaxy that created a repeating fast-radio burst that was detected in 2016.

“The burst we localized and its host galaxy look nothing like the ‘repeater’ and its host,” Deller said in the statement. “It comes from a massive galaxy that is forming relatively few stars. This suggests that fast radio bursts can be produced in a variety of environments.”

While the repeating FRB detected a few years ago was likely created by a neutron star or supernova explosion (common engines of star formation in active galaxies), this individual burst could have been caused by something else entirely, the researchers wrote.

What else, exactly? Nobody knows yet — but radioactive belches from supermassive black holes or the engines of alien spacecraft have not been ruled out. Only by pinpointing more FRBs will researchers be able to unravel this cosmic mystery. Fortunately, the authors of the new study wrote, now that they’ve got one under their belt, finding the next one should be a little easier.

‘Undisturbed’ Roman-era shipwreck discovered off Cyprus

Archaeologists have discovered the wreck of a Roman-era ship off the east coast of Cyprus.

In a statement, Cyprus’ Department of Antiquities explained that the wreck is the first undisturbed Roman shipwreck found in the Mediterranean island nation’s waters. The ship is loaded with amphorae, or large ancient jars, which are likely from Syria and ancient Cilicia on modern-day Turkey’s southeastern coast.

Analysis of the shipwreck will shed new light on seaborne trade between Cyprus and the rest of the Roman provinces of the eastern Mediterranean, officials explained in the statement.

The wreck was found near the resort town of Protaras by a pair of volunteer divers with the University of Cyprus’ archaeological research unit.

The shipwreck was discovered off the coast of Eastern Cyprus.

The shipwreck was discovered off the coast of Eastern Cyprus. (Republic of Cyprus, Department of Antiquities)

It’s also the first time an underwater archaeological project is fully funded by the Cyprus government.

A team from the Maritime Archaeological Research Laboratory at the University of Cyprus is working with the Department of Antiquities and Cyprus University of Technology to document and protect the site.

Other Roman shipwrecks have been grabbing attention in recent years. In 2017, for example, archaeologists in Egypt discovered three Roman-era shipwrecks and other stunning ancient artifacts on the Mediterranean seafloor off the coast of Alexandria.

Climate change researchers working in the Black Sea also discovered 60 shipwrecks dating back 2,500 years, which include vessels from the Roman and Byzantine eras.

Mysterious ‘Bathtub Rings’ of Titan Replicated on Earth

A false-color view of Titan taken by the Cassini spacecraft. The orange spots may be solids left behind when a liquid hydrocarbon seas evaporated, similar to what happens in a bathtub when it is drained.

A false-color view of Titan taken by the Cassini spacecraft. The orange spots may be solids left behind when a liquid hydrocarbon seas evaporated, similar to what happens in a bathtub when it is drained.(Image: © NASA / JPL-Caltech / Space Science Institute)

Something dark is spreading across the surface of Titan, and we may finally have some idea what it is.

Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, is the only other object in our solar system (besides Earth) known to have liquid on its surface. Frigid seas of methane and ethane fill depressions on the moon like water fills in lakes and oceans on Earth. In regions near Titan’s equator where those liquids have evaporated, researchers have spotted dark smears. Without a close-up view of those smears, however, it’s difficult to know what they’re made of. But researchers suspect the features function a great deal like rings in a bathtub, where solids that were once dissolved in a liquid are left behind as that liquid evaporates. Now, there’s a new piece of evidence bolstering this theory.

A team of researchers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) dumped methane, ethane and other carbon-containing molecules into a chamber that was chilled to temperatures similar to those on Titan and that was filled with a similar atmosphere. [In Photos: A Look at Titan’s Bizarre Seas]CLOSEVolume 0% 

When bathtub ring-style formations happen on Earth, they result from solids “dropping out” of a liquid as it evaporates. In this chamber, the first solids to drop out, according to a statement, were benzyne crystals. Benzyne is a common enough molecule on Earth, present in gasoline, but in this supercooled chamber, the substance’s hexagonal molecules wrapped themselves around ethane molecules and formed crystals.

Next to drop out were crystals that included acetylene and butane, two more hydrocarbons. Based on what’s known about Titan’s composition, this acetylene-butane crystal is probably much more common on Titan, the researchers said in their statement.

This experiment demonstrates that under Titan-like conditions, bathtub rings of hydrocarbon crystals can form. That doesn’t mean those crystals are forming similar rings on Titan, however. [Amazing Photos: Titan, Saturn’s Largest Moon]

“We don’t know yet if we have these bathtub rings [on Titan],” Morgan Cable, a researcher at JPL who led this research team, said in the statement. “It’s hard to see through Titan’s hazy atmosphere.”

Cable, who will present the results today (June 24) at the 2019 Astrobiology Science Conference in Bellevue, Washington, said in the statement that to know for certain, scientists will have to get a probe much closer to the lakes.

Triple-threat ‘comet interceptor’ could explore an undiscovered space object

A graphic of the spacecraft's course to intercept the comet as it enters the inner solar system.

A graphic of the spacecraft’s course to intercept the comet as it enters the inner solar system.

A new mission will intercept an undiscovered comet en route to Earth’s orbit, the first of its kind to observe a pristine interstellar object as it enters the inner solar system.

Three spacecraft will capture snapshots of the comet from different angles, creating a 3D profile of the object and characterizing its surface, composition, shape and structure.

The “Comet Interceptor” was selected by the European Space Agency (ESA) on June 19 as the latest “fast” or F-class mission — in reference to its quick implementation. The mission’s proposal was submitted to ESA in March, and it is scheduled to launch in 2028.

“Pristine or dynamically new comets are entirely uncharted,” Günther Hasinger, ESA’s director of science, said in a statement. “[They] make compelling targets for close-range spacecraft exploration to better understand the diversity and evolution of comets.”

Previous ESA missions to study comets, such as Giotto and Rosetta, have observed short-period comets that have approached the sun several times in recent history and therefore have undergone significant observable changes, according to the statement. Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, which the Rosetta spacecraft orbited from 2014 to 2016, swings by the sun every 6.5 years. And in 1986, the Giotto spacecraft flew by Halley’s Comet, which has an orbital period of 76 years.

This mission is unique in that it will observe a comet that has not yet interacted with the solar wind environment — and it will launch before its target has been discovered. By observing a pristine comet as it enters the solar system, it can provide information on the evolution of comets as the undiscovered comet will likely contain material that has not yet been altered since the birth of the solar system, the statement added.

In the past, it was difficult to implement this sort of mission. The time frame between discovering a pristine comet and being able to launch a spacecraft to intercept its journey was typically less than a year — too short to prepare and launch a mission. However, recent advances in observational surveys have allowed the discovery of comets while they are much farther away, according to the mission’s website.

Comet Interceptor will hitch a ride to space on ESA’s Ariel exoplanet-hunting mission, which is expected to launch in 2028. Both missions will go to the sun-Earth L2 Lagrange point, which is located about 1 million miles (1.5 million kilometers) away from Earth on the opposite side as the sun. From there, the parked Comet Interceptor will use its own propulsion system to chase down its target after the comet has been selected.

NASA to launch a deep-space atomic clock tonight

NASA is set to launch an incredible new atomic clock into orbit on a Falcon Heavy today (June 24) in a technology demonstration mission that could transform the way humans explore space.

The Deep Space Atomic Clock, developed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is a space-ready upgrade to the atomic clocks we use here on Earth and to the clocks that already fly on satellites like those that provide GPS.

Ideally, this new atomic clock will make spacecraft navigation to distant objects in space — on the journey to Mars, for example — more autonomous, NASA said in a statement. The precision in measurement of the spacecraft’s position that scientists hope to get with the Deep Space Atomic Clock will allow spacecraft traveling in deep space to act on their own, without much communication with Earth. It’d be a huge improvement to how spacecraft are currently navigated, NASA said.

Related: This Is What 2 Dozen Satellites Look Like Packed for Launch on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy

But how does it work?

Astronomers already use clocks to navigate in space. They send a signal to the spacecraft, which sends it back to Earth. The time of that round trip tells scientists the spacecraft’s distance from Earth. That’s because the signal is traveling at the speed of light, so armed with the time it took to go to the spacecraft and back, finding distance is but a simple calculation away. By sending multiple signals over time, scientists can calculate a spacecraft’s trajectory — both where it was and where it’s going.

But in order to know a spacecraft’s location within a small margin of error, astronomers need very precise clocks that can measure billionths of a second, according to NASA. They also need clocks that are extremely stable. “Stability” here refers to how consistently a clock measures a unit of time. While you’d think that clocks always measure the same length of time as a “second,” clocks have a tendency to drift and slowly mark longer and longer times as a “second.” For measuring the locations of spacecrafts in distant space, astronomers need their atomic clocks to be consistent to better than a billionth of a second over days and weeks.

Modern clocks, from those we wear on our wrists to those used on satellites , most often keep time using a quartz crystal oscillator. These take advantage of the fact that quartz crystals vibrate at a precise frequency when voltage is applied to them, NASA said in the statement. The vibrations act like the pendulum in a grandfather clock.

But, by the standards of space navigation, quartz crystal clocks aren’t very stable at all. After six weeks, they may be off by a full millisecond, which translates at the speed of light to 185 miles (300 kilometers). That much error would have a huge impact on measuring the position of a fast-moving spacecraft, NASA said.

Atomic clocks combine quartz crystal oscillators with certain types of atoms to create better stability. NASA’s Deep Space Atomic Clock will use mercury atoms and be off by less than a nanosecond after four days and less than a microsecond after 10 years. It would take 10 million years for the clock to be wrong by a whole second, according to NASA.

Related: A NASA Atomic Clock on SpaceX’s Next Falcon Heavy Will Pioneer Deep-Space Travel Tech

It may not be surprising to learn that atomic clocks take advantage of the structure of atoms, which are composed of a nucleus of protons and neutrons surrounded by electrons. The atoms of each element have a distinct structure, with a different number of protons in the nucleus. While the number of electrons each type of atom has can vary, the electrons occupy distinct energy levels, and a jolt of exactly the right amount of energy can cause an electron to jump to a higher energy level around the nucleus.

The energy required to make an electron do this jump is unique to each element and consistent to all atoms of that element. “The fact that the energy difference between these orbits is such a precise and stable value is really the key ingredient for atomic clocks,” Eric Burt, an atomic clock physicist at JPL, said in the statement. “It’s the reason atomic clocks can reach a performance level beyond mechanical clocks.”

In essence, atomic clocks can correct themselves. In an atomic clock, the frequency of the quartz oscillator is transformed into the frequency that is applied to a collection of atoms from a specific element. If the frequency is correct, it will cause many electrons in the atoms to jump energy levels. But if it’s not, fewer electrons will jump. That tells the clock that the quartz oscillator is off-frequency and how much to correct it. On the Deep Space Atomic Clock, this correction is calculated and applied to the quartz oscillator every few seconds.

But that’s not all that makes the Deep Space Atomic Clock special. This clock doesn’t just use mercury atoms, it also uses charged mercury ions.

Because ions are atoms that have electric charge, they can be contained in an electromagnetic “trap.” This keeps the atoms from interacting with the walls of a vacuum chamber, a common problem with the neutral atoms used in regular atomic clocks. When they interact with the vacuum walls, environmental changes such as temperature can cause changes in the atoms themselves, and lead to frequency errors.

The Deep Space Atomic Clock won’t be subject to such environmental changes, according to NASA, and so will be 50 times more stable than the clocks used on GPS satellites. After the clock launches today, scientists will be able to begin testing the clock’s precision as it spends days, then months in orbit.

The Deep Space Atomic Clock will launch from Kennedy Space Center in Florida on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket as one of two dozen payloads. The 4-hour launch window opens at 11:30 p.m. EDT (0330 June 25 GMT); visit Space.com tomorrow for complete coverage of the launch.

Voracious black holes could feed alien life on rogue worlds

Supermassive black holes lurk in the hearts of most galaxies. (Credit: NASA/SOFIA/Lynette Cook)

Supermassive black holes lurk in the hearts of most galaxies. (Credit: NASA/SOFIA/Lynette Cook)

Black holes are engines of destruction on a cosmic scale, but they may also be the bringers of life. New research on supermassive black holes suggests that the radiation they emit during feeding frenzies can create biomolecular building blocks and even power photosynthesis.

The upshot? Far more worlds roaming the Milky Way and beyond could be suitable to life, the researchers speculated.

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For their new study, published May 24 in the Astrophysical Journal, scientists created computer models to look at the radiating disks of gas and dust called active galactic nuclei, or AGN, that swirl around supermassive black holes. Some of the brightest objects in the universe, AGN form as a black hole’s gravity binds matter. As that matter swirls around a black hole, it releases incredible amounts of light and radiation. [9 Ideas About Black Holes That Will Blow Your Mind]

Since the early 1980s, scientists have suspected that this radiation would create a dead zone around an AGN. Some researchers even proposed that such an AGN could explain why we haven’t seen any complex extraterrestrial life towards the center of the Milky Way. Our galaxy has a monstrous black hole at its center, called Sagittarius A*. Previous studies have found that within 3,200 light-years of a Sagittarius A*-sized AGN, X-rays and ultraviolet light could strip the atmospheres from Earth-like planets. (The Milky Way is nearly 53,000 light-years across.)

“People have mostly been talking about the detrimental effects [of black holes],” Manasvi Lingam, lead author on the study and an astronomer at Harvard University, told Live Science. “We wanted to reexamine how detrimental [the radiation] is … and ask ourselves if there were any positives.”

The researchers’ models suggest that worlds with atmospheres that are thicker than Earth’s or those far enough away from an AGN to retain their atmospheres might still stand a chance of hosting life. At certain distances, there exists a galactic Goldilocks zone that gets just the right amount of ultraviolet radiation.

At this level of radiation, the atmosphere wouldn’t be stripped away, but the radiation could break apart molecules, creating compounds that are necessary for building proteins, lipids and DNA — the cornerstones to life, at least as we know it. For a black hole the size of Sagittarius A*, the Goldilocks region would extend approximately 140 light-years from the black hole’s center, where 1 light-year is 93 million miles (150 million kilometers).

The scientists also looked at the effects of the radiation on photosynthesis, the process by which most plants utilize the sun’s energy to create sugars. And AGN emit enormous amounts of that key ingredient — light. This would be particularly important for plants on free-floating planets, which have no nearby host star to provide a light source. Astronomers have estimated there could be around 1 billion such rogue planets drifting in the Goldilocks zone of a Milky Way-like galaxy, according to Manasvi.

Calculating the area over which AGN could power photosynthesis, the scientists found that large portions of galaxies, particularly those with supermassive black holes, could have AGN-powered photosynthesis. For a galaxy similar to our own, this region would extend around 1,100 light-years out from the center of the galaxy. In small, dense galaxies called ultracompact dwarfs, more than half of the galaxy could reside in that photosynthetic zone.

Taking a fresh look at the negative effects of the ultraviolet and X-ray radiation in these zones, the scientists in the new study further found that the adverse consequences of an AGN neighbor have been exaggerated in the past. Bacteria on Earth have created biofilms to protect themselves from ultraviolet rays, and life in ultraviolet-heavy areas could have developed similar techniques.

X-rays and gamma-rays, which AGNs also spew in enormous quantities, are also readily absorbed by Earth-like atmospheres and would likely not have a large influence on life, the researchers said.

The scientists estimated that the damaging effects of AGN radiation likely would end at around 100 light-years out from a Sagittarius A*-size black hole.

“Looking at what we know about Earth, it does suggest that maybe the positive effects seem to be extended over a larger region than the negative effects,” Lingam told Live Science. “That was definitely surprising.”

Senators get classified briefing on UFO sightings

Three more U.S. senators received a classified Pentagon briefing on Wednesday about a series of reported encounters by the Navy with unidentified aircraft, according to congressional and military officials — part of a growing number of requests from members of key oversight committees.

One of them was Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, whose office confirmed the briefing to POLITICO.

“If naval pilots are running into unexplained interference in the air, that’s a safety concern Senator Warner believes we need to get to the bottom of,” his spokesperson, Rachel Cohen, said in a statement.

The interest in “unidentified aerial phenomenon” has grown since revelations in late 2017 that the Pentagon had set up a program to study the issue at the request of then-Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.). Officials interviewed multiple current and former sailors and aviators who claim to have encountered highly advanced aircraft that appeared to defy the laws of aerodynamics when they intruded on protected military airspace — some of which were captured on video and made public.

The Navy has played a prominent role in light of the testimony of F/A-18 pilots and other personnel operating with the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier battle group off California in 2004 and the USS Theodore Roosevelt in the Atlantic in 2015 and 2016.

The growing congressional interest is credited for playing a major role in the service’s recent decision to update the procedures for reporting such unexplained sightings, which POLITICO first reported in April.

“Navy officials did indeed meet with interested congressional members and staffers on Wednesday to provide a classified brief on efforts to understand and identify these threats to the safety and security of our aviators,” spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Daniel Day said in a statement.

He said “follow-up discussions with other interested staffers” were also scheduled for Thursday. “Navy officials will continue to keep interested congressional members and staff informed. Given the classified nature of these discussions, we will not comment on the specific information provided in these Hill briefings.”

The briefings come several days after President Donald Trump told ABC News that he, too, had been briefed on the reports. “I did have one very brief meeting on it,” he said. “But people are saying they’re seeing UFOs. Do I believe it? Not particularly.”

But several current and former officials with direct knowledge describe the Capitol Hill briefing as the latest for members of Congress and their staff representing the Intelligence, Armed Services and Defense Appropriations panels.

“There are people coming out of the woodwork,” said one former government official who has participated in some of the meetings.

A current intelligence official added: “More requests for briefings are coming in.”

The sessions have been organized by the Navy but have also included staff from the under secretary of Defense for Intelligence, the sources said. Both were not authorized to talk publicly about the briefings.

Advocates for giving the mystery greater attention say they hope Congress will take more formal steps, such as requiring the Department of Defense to collect and complete a detailed analysis of data collected by satellites and other means of unidentified craft intruding into military airspace or operating under the sea.

NASA’s Cassini reveals New Sculpting in Saturn Rings

As NASA’s Cassini dove close to Saturn in its final year, the spacecraft provided intricate detail on the workings of Saturn’s complex rings, new analysis shows.


A false-color image mosaic shows Daphnis, one of Saturn’s ring-embedded moons, and the waves it kicks up in the Keeler gap. Images collected by Cassini’s close orbits in 2017 are offering new insight into the complex workings of the rings.Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

As NASA’s Cassini dove close to Saturn in its final year, the spacecraft provided intricate detail on the workings of Saturn’s complex rings, new analysis shows.

Although the mission ended in 2017, science continues to flow from the data collected. A new paper published June 13 in Science describes results from four Cassini instruments taking their closest-ever observations of the main rings.

Findings include fine details of features sculpted by masses embedded within the rings. Textures and patterns, from clumpy to strawlike, pop out of the images, raising questions about the interactions that shaped them. New maps reveal how colors, chemistry and temperature change across the rings.

Like a planet under construction inside a disk of protoplanetary material, tiny moons embedded in Saturn’s rings (named A through G, in order of their discovery) interact with the particles around them. In that way, the paper provides further evidence that the rings are a window into the astrophysical disk processes that shape our solar system.

The observations also deepen scientists’ understanding of the complex Saturn system. Scientists conclude that at the outer edge of the main rings, a series of similar impact-generated streaks in the F ring have the same length and orientation, showing that they were likely caused by a flock of impactors that all struck the ring at the same time. This shows that the ring is shaped by streams of material that orbit Saturn itself rather than, for instance, by cometary debris (moving around the Sun) that happens to crash into the rings.

“These new details of how the moons are sculpting the rings in various ways provide a window into solar system formation, where you also have disks evolving under the influence of masses embedded within them,” said lead author and Cassini scientist Matt Tiscareno of the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California.

Enduring Mysteries

At the same time, new puzzles have arisen and old mysteries have deepened with the latest research. The close-up ring images brought into focus three distinct textures — clumpy, smooth and streaky — and made it clear that these textures occur in belts with sharp boundaries. But why? In many places the belts aren’t connected to any ring characteristics that scientists have yet identified.

“This tells us the way the rings look is not just a function of how much material there is,” Tiscareno said. “There has to be something different about the characteristics of the particles, perhaps affecting what happens when two ring particles collide and bounce off each other. And we don’t yet know what it is.”

The data analyzed were gathered during the Ring Grazing Orbits (December 2016 to April 2017) and the Grand Finale (April to September 2017), when Cassini flew just above Saturn’s cloud tops. As the spacecraft was running out of fuel, the mission team deliberately plunged it into the planet’s atmosphere in September 2017.

Cassini’s Visible and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer (VIMS) uncovered another mystery. The spectrometer, which imaged the rings in visible and near-infrared light, identified unusually weak water-ice bands in the outermost part of the A ring. That was a surprise, because the area is known to be highly reflective, which usually is a sign of less-contaminated ice and thus stronger water ice bands.

The new spectral map also sheds light on the composition of the rings. And while scientists already knew that water ice is the main component, the spectral map ruled out detectable ammonia ice and methane ice as ingredients. But it also doesn’t see organic compounds — a surprise, given the organic material Cassini has discovered flowing from the D ring into Saturn’s atmosphere.

“If organics were there in large amounts — at least in the main A, B and C rings — we’d see them,” said Phil Nicholson, Cassini VIMS scientist of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. “I’m not convinced yet that they are a major component of the main rings.”

The research signals the start of the next era of Cassini science, said NASA’s Ames Research Center’s Jeff Cuzzi, who’s been studying Saturn’s rings since the 1970s and is the interdisciplinary scientist for rings on the Cassini mission.

“We see so much more, and closer up, and we’re getting new and more interesting puzzles,” Cuzzi said. “We are just settling into the next phase, which is building new, detailed models of ring evolution — including the new revelation from Cassini data that the rings are much younger than Saturn.”

The new observations give scientists an even more intimate view of the rings than they had before, and each examination reveals new complexities, said Cassini Project Scientist Linda Spilker, based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

“It’s like turning the power up one more notch on what we could see in the rings. Everyone just got a clearer view of what’s going on,” Spilker said. “Getting that extra resolution answered many questions, but so many tantalizing ones remain.”

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, ESA (European Space Agency) and the Italian Space Agency. JPL, a division of Caltech in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. JPL designed, developed and assembled the Cassini orbiter. The radio antenna was built by JPL and the Italian Space Agency, working with team members from the U.S. and several European countries.

More information about Cassini can be found here: https://solarsystem.nasa.gov/cassini


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Materials provided by NASA/Jet Propulsion LaboratoryNote: Content may be edited for style and length.

Astronomers spot moon ‘flashing at us’ and no one can explain why

A new study suggests that a ‘large body,’ perhaps an ancient planet or asteroid, crashed into the Moon and gave it its distinctive features.

Humans have been noticing flashes of light coming from the Moon for thousands of years but we still don’t understand why this happens or what causes it.

The strange occurrence is known as a transient lunar phenomenon (TLP) and an astronomer from Germany thinks he’s on the cusp of solving this moon mystery.

Hakan Kayal from the University of Würzburg in Bavaria is working on a project that might reveal what causes the quick shifts of light and darkness on the Moon.

He is using a brand new type of telescope system that is based in Spain and it’s already making progress, despite only being used since April.

Kayal describes the TLP flashes as bursts of light that last for seconds but Popular Science notes that some ‘flashes’ have been observed lighting up the Moon surface for hours at a time.

Some other experts describe the light spikes as sparkly and red or pink.

TLP is often observed a few times a week and can sometimes leave dark spots on the Moon.

Popular explanations for them include meteorite impacts and gas released from moonquakes reflecting light abnormally.Video

The first confirmed sighting of TLP was made by a Russian astronomer in 1958 and the European Space Agency has since made a special telescope, called NELIOTA, which discovered that the flashes happen far more often that people first thought.

This is why explaining the flashing Moon is so hard because it happens so often and there could be multiple reasons for it.

Kayal’s new telescope system, which is still being developed, is fairly low budget and involves two telescopes that constantly observe the Moon with cameras and relay what they see to computers powered by artificially intelligent software.

This AI software is tasked with distinguishing lunar flashes from other bright phenomenon, like meteorites, so the possible causes of TLP can be whittled down.

Astronomers think it is important to understand what causes the phenomenon before humans reach the Moon again as some of the explanations for TLP could be dangerous.

Sun could unleash violent ‘superflare’ in the next century, researchers warn

Earth’s aging sun could produce a massive superflare in the coming century.

Superflares are explosive bursts of energy on stars that are visible across hundreds of light years. If a particularly strong one erupted from our sun, it would wipe out all technology on Earth, lead to widespread blackouts and cause trillions of dollars in economic damage.

Lloyd’s of London, the insurance company, estimates the damage from such an event would last between one and two years and cost in the range of $600 billion and $2.6 trillion, The Sun reported.

“Our study shows that superflares are rare events,” Yuta Notsu, a researcher in Colorado University-Boulder’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, said in a statement. “But there is some possibility that we could experience such an event in the next 100 years or so.”

Artist's impression shows a superflare near a distant star.

Artist’s impression shows a superflare near a distant star. (NASA, ESA and D. Player)

The data used in the study come from NASA’s Kepler space telescope, which has searched the sky for distant planets. The space agency saw the activity of stars and noticed starlight that would briefly brighten before getting dim. Those occurrences are known as superflares.

They also utilized the European Space Agency’s Gaia spacecraft and the Apache Point Observatory in Mexico, observing 43 superflares that came from stars similar in age and size to our own sun.

“If a superflare occurred 1,000 years ago, it was probably no big problem. People may have seen a large aurora,” Notsu said in a published statement, referencing phenomena like the Northern Lights. “Now, it’s a much bigger problem because of our electronics.”

Despite not knowing exactly when a superflare could happen, scientists advised people to do more to prepare for the possibility by protecting electronics from space radiation.

The results of the study were published in The Astrophysical Journal.

NASA set to visit mysterious metal dead planet

NASA is preparing for a mission that could see it visit a mysterious, dead planet in deep space.

Set for a target date of Jan. 31, 2026, the government space agency is preparing to send a spacecraft to the asteroid Pysche. Unlike most asteroids, which are largely comprised of rock and ice, researchers believe Pysche is made up of mostly iron and nickel, much like the Earth’s core.

“They [scientists] wonder whether Psyche could be the nickel-iron heart, or exposed core, of an early planet maybe as large as Mars that lost its rocky outer layers through violent collisions billions of years ago,” NASA wrote in a statement on its website. “If so, it would provide a unique look into the solar system’s distant past, when the kind of high-speed protoplanet encounters that created Earth and the other terrestrial planets were common.”

This artist's-concept illustration depicts the spacecraft of NASA's Psyche mission near the mission's target, the metal asteroid Psyche. The artwork was created in May 2017 to show the five-panel solar arrays planned for the spacecraft. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Arizona State Univ./Space Systems Loral/Peter Rubin)

This artist’s-concept illustration depicts the spacecraft of NASA’s Psyche mission near the mission’s target, the metal asteroid Psyche. The artwork was created in May 2017 to show the five-panel solar arrays planned for the spacecraft. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Arizona State Univ./Space Systems Loral/Peter Rubin)

Part of the asteroid belt, the 125-mile-wide Pysche orbits the Sun between Mars and Jupiter. It’s believed Pysche weighs 49 billion billion pounds, making it 0.03 percent the size of our Moon, according to Live Science. That would make it the 11th largest known asteroid in the solar system.

The largest asteroid in the solar system is Ceres, which is one-quarter the size of the Moon; it’s also considered the only dwarf planet in the inner solar system.

The mission is about to begin its Phase C, where the final design and fabrication are locked in, after an extensive review by NASA Headquarters.

“The Psyche team is not only elated that we have the go-ahead for Phase C, more importantly, we are ready,” said Principal Investigator Lindy Elkins-Tanton in the statement. “With the transition into this new mission phase, we are one big step closer to uncovering the secrets of Psyche, a giant mysterious metallic asteroid, and that means the world to us.”

Despite the excitement surrounding the mission, it still has to go through three more phases, including Phase D, which will start sometime in early 2021.

If all goes well, the craft would launch in August 2022, fly past Mars in 2023 and eventually arrive at the asteroid in 2026.

Astronomers Find a “Massive, Dense Structure” Beneath the Largest Crater on the Moon

“The dense mass—”whatever it is, wherever it came from”—is weighing the basin floor downward by more than half a mile…”

Astronomers have recently found a strange, humongous deep mass structure beneath the largest crater in our solar system; the Moon’s South Pole Aitken basin.Advertisement

There, researchers discover an anomaly with a massive unexpected mass.

And although it’s not aliens, astronomers say that the mysterious mass may very well contain the metallic remnants from the asteroid that slammed into the moon, forming the crater.

“Imagine taking a pile of metal five times larger than the Big Island of Hawaii and burying it underground. That’s roughly how much unexpected mass we detected,” said lead author Peter B. James, Ph.D., assistant professor of planetary geophysics in Baylor’s College of Arts & Sciences.

Photo taken from Apollo 8 during the 1968 mission on their first approach to the Moon. Credits: NASA.
Photo taken from Apollo 8 during the 1968 mission on their first approach to the Moon.
Credits: NASA.

An oval crater

The crater located on the far side of the moon is an oval-shaped region around 2,000 kilometers wide.Advertisement

Measurements throughout th years have revealed it is several miles deep.

The new, anomalous mass beneath the crater is detailed in the study “Deep Structure of the Lunar South Pole-Aitken Basin” — is published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

To spot the anomaly, astronomers analyzed data from NASA’s Grail Mission which allowed them to accurately measure the changes in gravity strength around the moon.

“When we combined that with lunar topography data from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, we discovered the unexpectedly large amount of mass hundreds of miles underneath the South Pole-Aitken basin,” James said.

“One of the explanations of this extra mass is that the metal from the asteroid that formed this crater is still embedded in the Moon’s mantle.”

The location of the underground structure circled in the South Pole-Atiken basin. Image Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center/University of Arizona.
The location of the underground structure circled in the South Pole-Atiken basin. Image Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center/University of Arizona.

Mysterious structure

The researchers revealed that the dense mass of the structure –“whatever it is, wherever it came from” is causing the entire basin floor to weigh in by more than half a mile.

The team of researchers revealed through computer simulations of asteroid collisions into the moon that under the right conditions, iron-nickel cores from asteroids could have been dispersed into the upper mantle of the moon during collisions.

“We did the math and showed that a sufficiently dispersed core of the asteroid that made the impact could remain suspended in the Moon’s mantle until the present day, rather than sinking to the Moon’s core,” James said.Advertisement

But also in addition to coming from asteroid impacts, astronomers say that the origin of the mysterious structure could be related to the concentration of extremely dense oxides, left there by the last phases of lunar magma ocean solidification.

NASA’s Mars helicopter whirls through tests on way to 2020 launch

This image of the flight model of NASA's Mars Helicopter was taken on Feb. 14, 2019, in a cleanroom at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. The aluminum base plate, side posts, and crossbeam around the helicopter protect the helicopter's landing legs and the attachment points that will hold it to the belly of the Mars 2020 rover. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech )

This image of the flight model of NASA’s Mars Helicopter was taken on Feb. 14, 2019, in a cleanroom at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. The aluminum base plate, side posts, and crossbeam around the helicopter protect the helicopter’s landing legs and the attachment points that will hold it to the belly of the Mars 2020 rover. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech )

NASA’s first Mars helicopter is getting close to final approval for launch after passing several key tests.

The Mars Helicopter flight demonstration project will launch next summer with the Mars 2020 rover and touch down on the Red Planet in February  2021.

While the rover searches for signs of past life on the Red Planet and caches samples for future return to Earth, the helicopter will soar above Mars in a series of demonstration flights. Future missions could see such helicopters scouting ahead for where rovers could go next.

“Nobody’s built a Mars helicopter before, so we are continuously entering new territory,” MiMi Aung, project manager for the Mars Helicopter at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, said in a statement.

Back in January, the flight model flew in a simulated Martian environment at JPL’s Space Simulator, a vacuum chamber that has a diameter of 25 feet (roughly 8 meters). Then it was moved to a Lockheed Martin Space facility in Denver.

At its new location, the helicopter was tested for compatibility with the Mars Helicopter Delivery System. This system will carry the helicopter under the Mars 2020 rover’s belly during launch and cruise to Mars. The helicopter will separate from the rover after landing.

In Denver, the connections and mechanisms between the delivery system and helicopter were tested to make sure they fit together. The mated system experienced vibrations similar to what happens during launch and cruise. Also, the helicopter and delivery system were put into a thermal vacuum chamber to see how they performed in cold temperatures (minus 200 degrees Fahrenheit, or minus 129 degrees Celsius), similar to the conditions they’ll experience in deep space and on the Martian surface.

With these tests complete, the helicopter went back to JPL on May 11 for several more procedures, including spinning up the rotor blades and installing a new solar panel. More testing is ahead, but the end is in sight — at least for work here on Earth

“We expect to complete our final tests and refinements and deliver the helicopter to the High Bay 1 clean room for integration with the rover sometime this summer,” Aung said, “but we will never really be done with testing the helicopter until we fly at Mars.”

Since the helicopter is a demonstrator, it has no science instruments on board; rather, its main purpose is to show that powered flight in the Martian atmosphere is achievable. The Red Planet’s air is just 1% as dense as that of Earth.

Even if the minicoptercan take flight, there are other obstacles to overcome, such as the time lag involved in controlling it from Earth. (It takes between 4 minutes and 24 minutes for signals to travel between Earth and Mars, depending on the positions of the two planets in space.) Imaging will also be tested to see the helicopter’s capabilities for transmitting high-resolution color photos.

“Future Mars missions could enlist second-generation helicopters to add an aerial dimension to their explorations,’ NASA officials added in the statement. “They could investigate previously unvisited or difficult-to-reach destinations such as cliffs, caves and deep craters, act as scouts for human crews or carry small payloads from one location to another. But before any of that happens, a test vehicle has to prove it is possible.”

Mysterious light flashes on the Moon have been baffling researchers for decades

Astronomers have been excited by the Moon for eons, a level that has grown considerably as technological advancements gave humanity access to its surface, and helped researchers make observations from afar. And though there have been several notable lunar-related discoveries since man first walked on the Moon in 1969, there is still one phenomenon that has perplexed researchers for decades.

Mysterious, random flashes of light coming from the Moon’s surface.

Known as “transient lunar phenomena,” these mysterious, bizarre flashes of light can occur randomly, sometimes several times a week. Often times, they last for just a few minutes but have also been known to last for hours.

There have been a number of explanations over the years, from meteors to moonquakes to UFOs, but none have ever been proven. A new telescope in Spain, though, may provide the answer.

This image of the moon is taken from the new telescope of JMU. (Credit: Universität Würzburg)

This image of the moon is taken from the new telescope of JMU. (Credit: Universität Würzburg)

The lunar telescope, built by Hakan Kayal’s team at Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg (JMU) in Bavaria, Germany, will be pointed at the lunar surface for 24 hours a day and take videos and pictures if both of its cameras register a luminous phenomenon.

“The so-called transient lunar phenomena have been known since the 1950s, but they have not been sufficiently systematically and long-term observed,” said Kayal, a professor of space technology at the university, in a statement.

Observations of the transient lunar phenomena go back even further, to 1787, according to CNET. The news outlet also noted that Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins told NASA in 1969 about the strange occurrence.

“There is an area that is considerably more illuminated than the surrounding area,” Collins told NASA mission control on July 15, 1969, one day prior to the landing on the Moon. “It just has — seems to have a slight amount of fluorescence to it. A crater can be seen, and the area around the crater is quite bright.”

The telescope will be in a private observatory in Spain, which Kayal said was chosen over Germany because it offers “simply better weather conditions for observing the Moon.”

Kayal also said observations from the remote-controlled telescope will be compared with those from the European Space Agency. “If the same thing was seen there, the event can be considered confirmed,” he added.

Professor Hakan Kayal next to the moon telescope. (Credit: Tobias Greiner / Universität Würzburg)

Professor Hakan Kayal next to the moon telescope. (Credit: Tobias Greiner / Universität Würzburg)

The astronomer also said that interest in the bizarre lunar flashes is high due to renewed interest in the Moon, thanks to a new “space race” from private companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin, as well as advancements from domestic and foreign governments, including China.

“Anyone who wants to build a lunar base at some point must of course be familiar with the local conditions,” Kayal said in the release.

In January, China landed its Chang’e 4 lunar explorer on the far side of the Moon, becoming the first country to ever land on the side facing away from Earth.

More recently, Blue Origin, led by Jeff Bezos, announced plans to send its Blue Moon lander to the celestial satellite. “It’s time to go back to the Moon,” Bezos said in a press conference last month. “This time to stay.”

Football field-sized asteroid could hit Earth this year

According to a list of the most concerning space objects complied by the European Space Agency, an asteroid, known as 2006 QV89, with a diameter wider than a football field has a roughly one in 7,000 chance of hitting the Earth later this year. The ESA has 2006 QV89 ranked fourth on its top ten list. It is likely that the asteroid will pass Earth at a distance of more than 4.2 million miles, according to current modeling.

An enormous asteroid with a diameter wider than a football field has a roughly one in 7,000 chance of hitting the Earth later this year. However, it’s nothing to lose sleep over.

Known as asteroid 2006 QV89, the space rock, which has a diameter of 164 feet, could potentially hit the planet on Sept. 9, 2019, according to a list of the most concerning space objects compiled by the European Space Agency. The ESA has 2006 QV89 ranked fourth on its top ten list.

According to current modeling, it’s likely that 2006 QV89, which is on the risk list but not the priority list, will pass Earth at a distance of more than 4.2 million miles. The ESA does note that the likelihood of its model being off is less than one-hundredth of one percent.

A KILLER ASTEROID IS COMING — WE DON’T KNOW WHEN (SO LET’S BE READY), BILL NYE SAYS

The space rock was discovered on August 29, 2006, by the Catalina Sky Survey.

Although extremely rare, asteroids have hit the planet previously and caused significant damage.

In 1908, there was an enormous explosion near the Podkamennaya Tunguska River in Yeniseysk Governorate, Russia, that flattened roughly 770 square miles of forest, likely due to a meteorite. It is now known as the Tunguska event.

Over 100 years later, in an occurrence now known as the Chelyabinsk Event, a meteor entered the Earth’s atmosphere on February 15, 2013, over Russia and crashed. The damage from the explosion caused the damage to more than 7,200 buildings and resulted in nearly 1,500 injuries, though none of them were fatal.

NASA has recently expanded its planetary defense protocols, including last year’s unveiling of a bold new plan to protect Earth.

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

ANCIENT ASTEROID STRIKES ON MARS MAY HAVE ‘PRODUCED KEY INGREDIENTS FOR LIFE’

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

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

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

Exomoons may be home to extra-terrestrial life

ew research looks at the possibility of moons outside our solar system causing gaps in the rings of planets.


Artist’s concept of a moon orbiting a ringed planet (stock image).Credit: © marcel / Adobe Stock

Moons orbiting planets outside our solar system could offer another clue about the pool of worlds that may be home to extra-terrestrial life, according to an astrophysicist at the University of Lincoln.

Exoplanets are planets outside our solar system and up to this point nearly 4,000 have been discovered. Only a small proportion of these are likely to be able to sustain life, existing in what is known as the habitable zone. But some planets, especially large gas giants, may harbour moons which contain liquid water.

Dr Sutton said: “These moons can be internally heated by the gravitational pull of the planet they orbit, which can lead to them having liquid water well outside the normal narrow habitable zone for planets that we are currently trying to find Earth-like planets in. I believe that if we can find them, moons offer a more promising avenue to finding extra-terrestrial life.”

This interest has inspired Dr Sutton’s latest research, which looked at the possibility of moons orbiting the exoplanet J1407b, analysing whether they may have caused gaps in the planet’s ring system.

Because of their size and distance from Earth, exomoons are very difficult to detect. Scientists have to locate them by looking for the effect they have on objects around them, such as planetary rings.

Dr Sutton ran computer simulations to model the rings around J1407b, which are 200 times larger than those around Saturn. Gravitational forces between all particles were calculated and used to update the positions, velocities and accelerations in the computer models of the planet and its ring system. He then added a moon that orbited at various ratios outside of the rings to test whether this caused gaps to form where expected over 100 orbital periods.

Findings revealed that while the orbiting moon did have an effect on the scattering of particles along the ring edge, the expected gaps in the ring structure were unlikely to be caused by the gravitational forces of a currently unseen moon orbiting outside the rings.

UFOs are real, But don’t assume they’re alien spaceships

In 2014 and 2015, pilots with the U.S. Navy reported multiple UFO sightings during training maneuvers.

In 2014 and 2015, pilots with the U.S. Navy reported multiple UFO sightings during training maneuvers. (Copyright History 2019)

UFOs are very real, as we have recently seen — but that doesn’t mean E.T. has been violating our airspace.

“UFO” refers to any flying object an observer cannot readily identify. And pilots with the U.S. Navy saw fast-moving UFOs repeatedly off the East Coast throughout 2014 and 2015, in one case apparently nearly colliding with one of the mysterious objects, The New York Times reported earlier this week.

Those incidents were reported to the Pentagon’s Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program (AATIP), whose existence the Times and Politico revealed in December 2017. (Interestingly, those 2017 stories cited Pentagon officials as saying that AATIP had been shut down in 2012.)

Former AATIP head Luis Elizondo, by the way, is involved with a new six-part series called ” Unidentified: Inside America’s UFO Investigation,” which premieres tonight (May 31) on The History Channel.

The Navy pilots said some UFOs reached hypersonic speeds without any detectable exhaust plumes, suggesting the possible involvement of super-advanced propulsion technology. Still, Defense Department officials aren’t invoking intelligent aliens as an explanation, according to this week’s Times story — and they’re right to be measured in this respect, scientists say.

There are multiple possible prosaic explanations for the Navy pilots’ observations, said Seth Shostak, a senior astronomer at the SETI ( Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence ) Institute in Mountain View, California.

He pointed out, for example, that the sightings occurred off the coast, as did a similar 2004 observation unveiled in conjunction with the December 2017 stories. (That previous sighting occurred near San Diego).

Coastal regions are where you might expect to find a rival nation’s advanced reconnaissance craft, Shostak said, because incursions over the continental United States would be more obvious and easily detected.

He also noted that, according to the recent Times story, the Navy pilots began spotting the UFOs after their jets’ radar system was upgraded. That detail suggests the sightings might stem from some sort of software bug or instrument issue, he said.

“As anybody who uses Microsoft products knows, whenever you upgrade any technical product, there are always problems,” Shostak said.

Such reasoning is bolstered by the current tendency of UFOs to manifest as blobs or blurs on the displays of advanced instruments rather than as crisply defined objects in cellphone photos.

“The sightings always recede to the edge of what technology allows you to do,” Shostak said. “The aliens are kind of keeping pace with technology.”

Common sense also argues against jumping to the E.T. conclusion. If these UFOs are indeed alien spacecraft, what exactly are they doing? Why were they sent here, across the vast gulfs of space and time?

“If the aliens are here, you gotta say they’re the best houseguests ever, because they never do anything,” Shostak said. “They just buzz around. They don’t address climate change; they don’t steal our molybdenum.”

Related: UFO Watch: 8 Times the Government Looked for Flying Saucers

But such skepticism should not be taken as a dismissal of the E.T. possibility, Shostak stressed.

“It’s not trivial to say what these things are,” he said. And Shostak applauded a newly enacted classified Navy policy, as reported by the Times, instructing pilots on how to report UFOs (which the military, and many other people, now call “unexplained aerial phenomena,” likely in an attempt to dodge the tinfoil-hat stigma associated with the term “UFO.”)

“That’s a good policy,” he said. “Let them do it.”

After all, we’ve learned over the past decade or so that our Milky Way galaxy is home to huge numbers of potentially habitable worlds. Observations by NASA’s Kepler space telescope, for example, suggest that at least 20% percent of the galaxy’s 200 billion or so stars likely harbor a rocky planet in the “habitable zone,” that just-right range of distances where liquid surface water could exist.

So, while the odds may be long that any UFO witnessed to date was an extraterrestrial craft, it’s far from crazy to suspect that intelligent aliens are out there somewhere (or at least were out there somewhere, at some point during the Milky Way’s 13-billion-year history). That’s why people like Shostak keep listening for signals from the sky.

‘Double asteroid’ zooming by Earth at 43,000 mph captured in amazing photo

A unique “double asteroid” was photographed by a powerful telescope as it whizzed by Earth last month at over 43,000 mph.

The asteroid, classified as 1999 KW4, is made up of two components — a larger body orbited by a smaller one separated by about 1.6 miles. It got as close as 3.2 million miles to Earth on May 25 — about 14 times the distance from Earth to the Moon, the European Southern Observatory (ESO) said in a news release Monday.

The double asteroid, which has an orbit well known to scientists, is not an impact threat to Earth, ESO officials said. Scientists with the ESO and the International Asteroid Warning Network worked together to predict the flyby and make appropriate preparations for observing the object.

The left-hand image shows SPHERE observations of Asteroid 1999 KW4. The angular resolution in this image is equivalent to picking out a single building in New York — from Paris. An artist's impression of the asteroid pair is shown on the right. (ESO)

The left-hand image shows SPHERE observations of Asteroid 1999 KW4. The angular resolution in this image is equivalent to picking out a single building in New York — from Paris. An artist’s impression of the asteroid pair is shown on the right. (ESO)

The organization said it used its Very Large Telescope (VLT) to spot the passing asteroid. The VLT was able to capture images sharp enough to distinguish the two parts of the asteroid thanks to its Spectro-Polarimetric High-contrast Exoplanet Research (SPHERE) instrument. SPHERE’s main purpose is to observe exoplanets — planets located outside our Solar System.

ESO astronomer Olivier Hainaut said data obtained will help in evaluating effective strategies to deflect potential asteroids on a collision course with Earth.

“In the worst possible case, this knowledge is also essential to predict how an asteroid could interact with the atmosphere and Earth’s surface, allowing us to mitigate damage in the event of a collision,” he said.

The ESO noted that 1999 KW4 is similar to a binary asteroid called Didymos and its smaller orbiting companion, Didymoon, which could become a threat to Earth in the distant future.

Former US defense official: We know UFOs are real – here’s why that’s concerning

‘Unidentified’ gives military personnel on the frontlines a voice about what they are encountering in the skies.

After a bombshell report detailing near-daily interactions with unidentified flying objectsby Navy pilots in 2014 and 2015, Christopher Mellon has argued that this information is nothing new, and the government needs to do something about it.

Mellon, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Intelligence, is involved with a new History Channel series, ‘Unidentified,’ which will expand on topics discussed in a recent New York Times article. In numerous interviews, Navy pilots revealed that they saw UFOs moving at hypersonic speeds, performing acts “beyond the physical limits of a human crew,” and emitting “no visible engine or infrared exhaust plumes.”

In a Wednesday morning interview with “Fox & Friends,” Mellon, who has written extensively on the topic before, outlined the reasons the Navy is concerned about these sightings.Video

“We know that UFOs exist. This is no longer an issue,” he said. “The issue is why are they here? Where are they coming from and what is the technology behind these devices that we are observing?”

There are indications, Mellon said, that the objects reported by Navy pilots in 2014 and 2015 were doing things that aren’t possible in this physical realm.

The speeds being reported (about 5,000 miles per hour, according to Mellon) were only sustainable for about an hour by an aircraft in the air, and these objects would be flying around all day long, the pilots said.

“Pilots observing these craft are absolutely mystified and that comes through clearly in their public statements,” Mellon continued.

Fascination turned to fear one day, however, when a Super Hornet pilot said he almost collided with one of the objects — which he described as a sphere encasing a cube. An official report was filed, and the incident shattered the previous theory by Navy pilots that the objects were a part of some sort of extremely classified drone operation.

“These are reactions between intelligently controlled vehicles operating in and around U.S. military facilities, hence the concern,” Mellon explained.

“One: there have been near mid-air collisions so there is a safety issue. Two, there is a vital national security issue which is that our sovereignty is being violated by vehicles of unknown origin,” he continued.

Although all of this information is old news to Mellon, it’s taken America by storm, and he says we’re hardly the only country to have interactions with these objects. Having written extensively about UFO sightings before, Mellon said he’s frustrated with the lack of action being taken by the government, as are the Navy pilots who experienced the sightings.

He decided that the only way to make progress was to release this information to the public in the form of his new show, and television interviews.

“We are giving military personnel on the front line a voice,” he said. “We are helping them get out the message of what it is they are encountering and why they are so concerned about it.”