Venus has some spooky looking clouds swirling around its atmosphere, anscientists think it might be the evil doing of extraterrestrial life. Certain dark streaks embedded in those clouds have been stumping scientists since the 1960s, prompting a new proposal to probe the second planet from the sun for potential alien life by 2025.
A team of American and Russian scientists will be submitting plans for a new mission, known as Venera-D, which will send an unmanned aerial vehicle into the heart of this mysterious occurrence. If accepted, Venera-D would be a joint endeavor between Roscosmos (Russia’s space agency) and NASA.
Their main goal is to determine if those dark streaks could be evidence of microbial life. For decades now, scientists have been dreaming up all kinds of hypotheses about the streaks: Some think it could be particulates, like iron or sulfur, that have mixed with the clouds. Others think it could actually be ice, though with a planet that’s nearly 900 degrees Fahrenheit on the surface, that’s probably not the case.
“I cannot say that there is microbial life in Venus’ clouds,” Sanjay Limaye toldAstrobiology Magazine, an atmospheric scientist from the University of Wisconsin, Madison and member of the Venera-D science definition team. “But that doesn’t mean it’s not there either. The only way to learn is to go there and sample the atmosphere.”
As Limaye pointed out, scientists have very few clues as to what causes the streaks. But they do know that the streaks absorb ultraviolet light unlike the rest of the atmosphere. They also know that if the streaks did consist of microbial life, they might have a protective layer of ring-shaped polymers, which would stave off large quantities of sulfuric acid. Another factor to consider is the planet’s super rotation, a phenomenon that occurs when the atmosphere rotates at a faster pace than the surface.
There have been previous complications with exploring Venus in the past. Its high surface pressure and even higher temps make it a very challenging landscape for our technology. Mariner 5 was the first successful landing, but it only survived for 93 minutes. For Venera-D to be successful, it will have to be like nothing scientists have ever created before.
The proposed design calls for a solar-powered vehicle that would be able to propel through the clouds to collect data at night. During the day, it would have helium reserves that would allow it to stay buoyant without using power. It would also have large wings that would help it navigate the stormy conditions. These mechanisms would allow the craft to shift between different altitudes of the atmosphere.
Surprisingly, with this design, the team thinks the vehicle will be able to survive for a year or more, offering up enough information for scientists to potentially confirm whether we have other life in our solar system or not. Unfortunately, we won’t have a response from NASA or Roscomos until late this year.
Rogue planets just had their unfortunate introduction to the public consciousness via an especially silly conspiracy theory involving a collision and the subsequent end of the world. Let us not allow that to bury the actual new research coming forth about them, because that’s what’s really worth your time.
Researchers testing whether a much-mythologized object called Planet Ninemight indeed be a captured rogue planet found it certainly looks like one. They also performed simulations of various different kinds of rogue encounters with our solar system; they found that if the rogue had a mass equal to or greater than that of Jupiter, it could subsequently leave a physical impact on the configuration of the entire system. James Vesper of New Mexico State University presented the research Friday at the 229th American Astronomical Science meeting in Grapevine, Texas.
We can easily picture the stars that don’t have planets, but it’s a bit odd to imagine in inverse (sorry) — free-floating planets rolling around in space, not tethered by any kind of regular orbit, either because they’ve escaped their original host star or because they never formed around one to begin with. Those planets are rogue planets, and they’re often prone to being “captured” by a new star when they wander into its system.
Vesper said their data showed 60 percent of all rogue encounters being “slingshotted” into the galaxy — they come in close to the sun and then shoot right back out. About ten percent of these encounters take one or more planets out with them. If two or more planets are knocked out — but the rogue is captured — Vesper refers to the exchange as a “kick and stay.”
Planet Nine, the newly minted ninth planet in our solar system, is roughly ten times the size of the Earth and has been notoriously difficult to observe directly.
There are scores of rogue planets in our galaxy — possibly numbering in the billions — and a handful relatively close to our own solar system. There are enough to possibly provide an explanation for some of the dark matter in the Milky Way’s disc, and they actually outnumber stars.
Amodel for predicting exactly when a binary star will merge and explode has a literal one-in-a-million chance of being accurate — it’s never been done before. But Calvin College professor Larry Molnar and his colleagues created one regardless, and it sure looks accurate so far. And if he’s right, the sky will literally get brighter.
A binary star is actually the term for two stars which orbit one another — so close they basically share an atmosphere. We generally think they must eventually fall into each other, merge, and explode, though no one can say they must do so with certainty. Molnar has been studying the binary star KIC 9832227 since 2013, and believes it will explode in 2022, give or take perhaps a year. He presented the research Friday at the 229th American Astronomical Science meeting in Grapevine, Texas.
“This is not a model that has many degrees of freedom,” Molnar said. “It either fits or it doesn’t, and it did.”
Molnar has been drawing on data from the explosion of red nova star V1309 in 2008 — a “Rosetta Stone” of sorts for predicting future similar explosions before they happen. He’s been able to observe that the times of the binary star’s eclipses are increasing in rate.
“The project is significant not only because of the scientific results, but also because it is likely to capture the imagination of people on the street,” said Matt Walhout, dean for research and scholarship at Calvin College, in an AAS press release. “If the prediction is correct, then for the first time in history, parents will be able to point to a dark spot in the sky and say, ‘Watch, kids, there’s a star hiding in there, but soon it’s going to light up.’”
Big telescopes like Chile’s Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) get most of the attention — not unjustly — but it’s small telescopes that provide the advantage in scenarios like this one. From the Calvin College observatory in New Mexico, Molnar et al will spend the next year observing KIC 9832227 and parsing the data to see if they can identify binary stars dying in real time.
If this event is anything like the 2008 explosion, it’ll take about six months to rise to its full brightness — 10,000 times greater than the brightness of the original. When it comes to space phenomena, it can sometimes be hard to tell what big numbers are actually as impressive as they sound and which are not actually big at all relative to, you know, the scale of the universe. This is the former. It will mean a noticeable change in the brightness of the night sky.
“You won’t need a telescope in 2023 to tell me whether I was wrong or I was right,” Molnar said. “When this thing occurs, if it occurs, we will not miss it.”
Don’t let the soft, serene hues of blue and gold fool you — the phallic blue smudge in this new image, taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, is actually the tempestuous marriage of two spiral galaxies that collided into one another millions of years ago.
These two galaxies met when gravity pulled them too close to each other and they were forced into a turbulent, chaotic relationship. Now that they have become one, known as IRAS 14348-1447, they are in constant battle, creating prominent tails and wisps extending away from the main formation.
A galactic merger is the most violent type of galaxy interaction. When they are tugged and pulled every which way like this, they tend to produce an insane amount of molecular gas and as a result are very hot, in fact, almost all of the energy emitted from it is in the far-infrared! This would normally be impossible for scientists to see, but with the help of the Infrared Astronomical Satellite, they can discover more than ever before.
Oddly enough, when two galaxies like these merge, the stars within each galaxy rarely collide. You’d think that with two behemoths such as these, the stars and planets and other space junk involved would be smashing into each other like a merry-go-round gone wrong. But, because the stars are so far apart, we’re talking light-years, they hardly get a chance to coincide.
Galaxy collisions are an increasing area of study for scientists who want to know more about how galaxies came to be and evolve over time, so there will be a lot more focus on the history and future IRAS 14348-1447. And thankfully, the merger lives about a billion light years away from us, so there’s no fear of the milky way being dragged into this toxic relationship.
n Friday, two astronauts did a little house work to keep the lights on at the International Space Station, some 155 miles above the Earth. Shane Kimbrough and Peggy Whitson ventured out of the warm and fuzzy station indoors and into the cold vacuum of space to conduct a 6.5-hour spacewalk to replace a set of batteries which store power amassed by the station’s solar power arrays. This is the third spacewalk (NASA’s preferred term is ‘extravehicular activity,’ or EVA) for Kimbrough, and the seventh for Whitson. The latter, at 56, is the oldest female astronaut to fly into space. Friday’s EVA makes her the oldest woman ever to go on a spacewalk.
“All our power here on board the space station is collected by solar arrays,” Whitson said in a NASA interview. “But of course, as we’re going around the Earth 16 times in a day, half of that time the Earth is between us and the sun and so we have to have a way to store our power. Our batteries have been there in place many, many years and it’s time for us to replace (them) with new batteries outside.”
The station is fitted with four huge sets of solar arrays that work to power the entire $1 billion dollar hunk of metal orbiting the Earth. Each array has 12 nickel-hydrogen batteries. This operation calls for replacing 12 of those batteries with six smaller but more powerful lithium-ion power packs, delivered to the ISS last month.
Houston flight controllers remotely worked over New Year’s to install three of the lithium-ion batteries and remove four of the older batteries. Friday’s spacewalk will make more progress, and a second EVA scheduled for January 13 (to feature Kimbrough and ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet) will finish off the job.
NASA is currently airing live footage of the EVA on their website and on NASA TV, and the International Space Station’s Facebook page is streaming it live as well.
Elon Musk just can’t catch a break sometimes. On Thursday, the SpaceX CEO confirmed that one of its Falcon 9 rockets had completed hold-down firing at Vandenberg Air Force. The launch is a big deal: the rocket will carry 10 Iridium Next satellites to kickstart a new satellite phone system, and it’s the first launch after an explosion in September that left scientists scratching their heads over what went wrong. After identifying an extremely complex fuel tank failure that caused the explosion, SpaceX is back in action. It’s great news, and Musk confirmed that the team’s next rocket launch will take place “next week.”
This has led to a flurry of drama around when exactly the launch will take place, spurred by conflicting definitions of what “next week” means. SpaceX had initially confirmed the launch would take place on January 8, this Sunday. However, NoozHawk reports that local notices for boaters and pilots say the launch will take place Monday. Inverse has asked SpaceX for clarification.
One redditor said Musk’s tweet confirms the launch is on Monday. “Seeing as Monday is literally next week, I’d assume so,” said johnkphotos. But KitsapDadwasn’t buying it: “I don’t even know what the normal one is called but in America, Sunday is considered the first day of the week.”
“I was taught they are like bookends, one is at either end of a shelf of books,” said John_The_Duke_Wayne. “Sunday and Saturday are at either end of the calendar week, so they are “weekends”.”
This led to “slack jawed disbelief” from frowawayduh. “So, as you leave the office on Friday, do you say ‘Have a great weekend, then have another. I will see you again Monday’?”
Could religion provide some answers? It doesn’t appear so. “Not sure what part of U.S. you are in but for most of my life, the week begins on Monday and ends on Sunday – the Sabbath,” said AloisHammer. “”Sabbath” is Saturday, isn’t it?,” said idubrov.
So, when’s the real launch date? Judging by the local notices, most likely Monday. It makes sense: weather reports suggest wind speeds of nearly 17 miles per hour on Sunday, compared to just under nine miles per hour on Monday. Unfortunately, as Monday is definitely next week, this means we still don’t know for sure when Elon Musk starts his week.
On August 21, a lucky strip of the United States will fall under the shadow of a solar eclipse that will go from the West Coast all the way to the East Coast. An eclipse like this hasn’t happened in almost 100 years, and NASA released an amazingly detailed visual that shows exactly where the shadow will pass — and we mean exactly.
The animation was created by NASA visualization artist Ernie Wright, who explains in the video that he used a lot of NASA tools and datasets to put the whole thing together, including detailed moon topography obtained by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, exact Earth measurements from the SRTM topography project, and JPL ephemeris, a positioning model for the Earth and Moon.
What makes Wright’s visualization so impressive, is that if you look closely, you’ll see that the shadow isn’t just a sphere passing over the States.
“Around the edge of the moon, we have these sort of peaks and valleys, and the peak can block the sun a little bit earlier than you thought, and a valley can let the sun in a few seconds longer than you thought,” Wright says.
“The combined effects of these combined peaks and valleys is to create a shape that’s not really an oval,” he continues, “It’s more like a polygon.”
Wright then mapped out this shape, taking into account how Earth’s own peaks and valleys would react to the shadow.
There’s plenty of time to make plans to be under the eclipse’s path (NASA has a countdown clock), but it will begin in Oregon and travel through the middle of the country before hitting the Atlantic over Charleston, South Carolina. Some of the major cities in it’s path (or just on the outskirts) include Kansas City, Nashville, and St. Louis.
Watch below — and remember to get some special glasses before you go staring up at that thing in August.
Photos via NASA
arl Sagan was really onto something when he said we are made of star stuff. Scientists know that most of the essential elements to life as we know it are forged in the heart of stars and ultimately spread throughout the universe. Taking that one step further, astronomers from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey revealed during the winter meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) that they have now mapped how abundant these elements are across the Milky Way.
“For the first time, we can now study the distribution of elements across our galaxy, Sten Hasselquist of New Mexico State University, explained during the briefing. “The elements we measure include the atoms that make up 97% of the mass of the human body.”
Jon Holtzman of New Mexico State University explains that APOGEE operates in the infrared, which means it can see stars across much more of the Milky Way than if it were trying to observe in visible light. Infrared light passes through the interstellar dust, and APOGEE helps us observe a broad range of wavelengths in detail, so researchers can measure dozens of spectra even in the dustiest parts of the galaxy.
There are six elements crucial to life on Earth — carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorous, and sulfur. These building blocks, known as “CHNOPS” for short, have been found in more than 150,000 stars throughout the galaxy. This is the first time astronomers have been able to map out the elemental abundances in such a large population of stars.
The new map is already helping astronomers better understand the history and structure of our galaxy, as APOGEE has detected higher concentrations of heavier elements closer to the center of the galaxy. The stellar population in the inner galaxy is also older, which indicates that more of the life-essential elements synthesized earlier in the inner portion of the galaxy than in the outer regions.
Researchers are not sure yet what affect the inner galaxy’s elemental composition has on habitability, as each element is produced at different rates in different stars. But with the new SDSS/APOGEE catalog, researchers can speculate on which areas in the Milky Way may be the best places to look for life.
Photos via Sloan Digital Sky Survey, Flickr / European Southern Observatory
In an unprecedented finding, NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory uncovered a “treasure trove” of ancient black holes — over 5,000 of them. This psychedelic new image shows X-rays radiating mainly from primordial supermassive black holes in the hearts of galaxies that are billions of years old, and may even date back to the beginning of the universe.
It may look like nothing more than a pretty space picture, perhaps containing many stars, but there’s more much to it. Chandra stared at the same patch of sky for several weeks to collect a mass of weak X-Ray photons, that traveled billions of light-years to reach Chandra’s eyes. This photo is essentially Chandra’s version of the Hubble Deep Field image — the historic image that revealed hundreds of galaxy in a seemingly empty patch of space. And just like Hubble, Chandra did not disappoint — the observatory discovered thousands of never-before-seen supermassive black holes.
“It can be very difficult to detect black holes in the early universe because they are so far away and they only produce radiation if they’re actively pulling in matter,” explained Bin Luo, of Nanjing University in China, who helped in the discovery. “But by staring long enough with Chandra, we can find and study large numbers of growing black holes, some of which appear not long after the Big Bang.”
So far, astronomers have been able to determine the age of the black holes by measuring the distance to each of the dots. They’ve also observed that black holes grew roughly two billion years after the Big Bang, and those in the early universe didn’t grow due to a steady diet, they seemed to go through random and dramatic growth spurts.
Black holes are still a mystery as astronomers know these cosmic behemoths lurk in the center of most galaxies, they don’t really know how they grow so massive. The team is hopeful this discovery will help astronomers better understand how the most monstrous black holes in our universe formed and grew to be so large.
We don’t often get to peek below the surface of another planet, but thanks to a fleet of robotic spacecraft sprinkled throughout the solar system, we occasionally get lucky. Impact craters can expose subsurface materials, especially on steep Martian slopes, as seen in this new enhanced-color image from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO).
We generally assume that Mars is red through and through thanks the ruddy dirt caked into the surface, but that’s not entirely the case. Some of the best places to look at varied terrain on Mars is in impact craters. Rockfalls and debris avalanches occur frequently in Martian craters, and help to keep the surface dust-free. Here’s where we can feast our eyes on many different types of rocks, in an array of colors, as seen in the image below.
The image is a typical view of Martian highlands, which once hosted lava flows, and water-lain materials. The stark contrast of the dusty crater rim and subsurface is evident in the top of the image by the striking color differences. Underneath the dusty surface are rocky deposits — a mixture of jumbled and layered bedrock that has been altered by countless impacts over billions of years. The long streamers of material are downward sloping debris streaks, and not to be confused with recurring slope lineae (RSL) — a sign of water on Mars.
A planet’s history is hidden in its impact craters, or lack thereof. The surface of Mars is littered with more than 635,000 known impact craters — over one kilometer wide — highlighting a violent past. Scientists use these craters to help them date planetary surfaces. The more craters a planetary surface has, the older and less active it must be. For instance, Pluto shocked the world in 2015 as scientists expected to see a cratered, lifeless hunk of ice. Instead, the world got a glimpse of a relatively smooth surface on Pluto, and evidence of geologic activity.
Black holes aren’t exactly the easiest thing to study, but NASA is launching a new mission at the end of this decade to conduct research on supermassive black holes by observing cosmic X-rays and unlocking their mysteries.
The Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer, or IXPE, will launch in 2020, and will use three specialized space telescopes to conduct its business. “Objects such as black holes can heat surrounding gases to more than a million degrees,” a NASA releaseexplains. “The high-energy X-ray radiation from this gas can be polarized – vibrating in a particular direction.”
The telescopes, equipped with polarization sensitive X-ray detectors courtesy of the Italian Space Agency, can measure these cosmic X-rays, giving researchers new insights into black holes, neutron stars, and pulsars.
“We cannot directly image what’s going on near objects like black holes and neutron stars, but studying the polarization of X-rays emitted from their surrounding environments reveals the physics of these enigmatic objects,” explained Paul Hertz, the astrophysics division director for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. “Today, we can only guess what we will find.”
The entire mission is expected to cost $188 million. IXPE is part of NASA’s Astrophysics Explorers Program, meaning it was one of 14 submissions for new projects the agency called for back in 2014. IXPE was deemed the winner due to feasibility and research potential.
t is of course still rather early to say which of 2016’s more regrettable trends will carry over into the 2017 and which will simply be allowed to die, but a physicist from the Imperial College London is doing his part to make sure we all stay hyped about the idea that aliens are waiting for us just around the corner. Simon Foster believes that the moons Europa and Enceladus, which respectively orbit Jupiter and Saturn, will soon yield signs of alien life. “[T]here is a breakthrough just around the corner,” he sagely told the Daily Mail. Let us now discuss why, while Mr. Foster is not exactly wrong to direct his energies and hype up the prospect of life on Europa and Enceladus, he is still basically wrong.
The reason Foster is optimistic enough to claim that we’re really truly about to find aliens is because of the work currently being undertaken by the Cassini probe, which is studying Saturn and its moons — including Enceladus. Yes, Cassini could indeed find signs of microbial life, but the odds are not great. It has to do with the logistics of Cassini itself relative to Europa and Enceladus.
The two moons have a better potential for hosting life than other worlds because they both possess subsurface liquid oceans. But that means they need a probe to be able to actually dig below the surface. Cassini, tasked with flying through and investigating the Saturnian system, already completed its last flyby of Enceladus a year ago. Still, Cassini will be active until September 2017, which Foster and the Daily Mail believe will lead to a startling discovery.
Foster also says that the attention to Mars should arguably be redirected to other ocean worlds. That’s fine; NASA is hyped about them too! There’s nothing wrong with concentrating the search for alien life around distant icy moons — they’re arguably our most promising lead. Their ice means they might have subsurface liquid oceans, which in turn means they might be able to sustain life, though you don’t need me or the Daily Mail or anyone else to tell you what a long shot this all still is. Europa and Enceladus have both proved to be intriguing in their own ways, and certainly more promising than other moons in that there’s not not the possibility of life, but to state that we’re guaranteed some discovery of microbial life in the next calendar year, or whatever “just around the corner” means, is a bit much.
At any rate, after making these points Foster proceeds to tell the Daily Mail that Trump might actually be good for science and alien-hunting because it will simply be the practical investment to make, so you’d be forgiven for not getting quite as hyped about this latest round of aliens-or-maybe-not-but-definitely-stay-tuned.
“I think when he gets in he will be different,” said Foster. “Because from a business point of view, he is going to look at things like hurricanes and how they’ll affect America, so you are going to get more intense and frequent and people are losing their homes and businesses are being ruined by this, he is a businessman and that will cost you tax I think he will take a more pragmatic view on this.”
SpaceX finally nailed down the cause of a September 1 explosion that rocked the Cape Canaveral launch site. During a routine pre-flight test, a Falcon 9 rocket and its attached payload were lost after a fueling accident sparked the tremendous fireball. The company announced Monday that it has submitted its findings to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and plans to return to flight on January 8.
Immediately following the incident, SpaceX launched an investigation to get to the root of the issue. The investigation team had only 93 milliseconds of data to analyze. The team scoured more than 3,000 channels of video and telemetry data including umbilical data, ground-based video, and physical debris.
Working closely with the FAA, NASA, the U.S. Air Force, and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the aerospace company ultimately determined that the explosion was caused by one of three composite overwrapped pressure vessels (aka COPVs) inside the rocket’s second stage liquid oxygen (LOX) fuel tank.
“Specifically, the investigation team concluded the failure was likely due to the accumulation of oxygen between the COPV liner and overwrap in a void or a buckle in the liner, leading to ignition and the subsequent failure of the COPV,” the company stated in an update posted to its website.
In order to maintain tank pressure during flight, each of the Falcon 9’s two stages relies on a trio of COPVs, which contain chilled helium. Each COPV is composed of an aluminum inner liner with a carbon overwrap. The COPVs recovered from the incident had buckled liners.
The buckles did not burst open the pressure vessles, but they did create tiny pockets for that allowed the super-chilled LOX to pool under the overwrap. When pressurized, the oxygen in the buckles can become trapped, and any minute amount of friction will ignite the incredibly flammable fuel, causing the COPV to fail.
Additionally, as Musk alluded to in a previous announcement, investigators determined that during the fueling process, the loading temperature of the helium was cold enough to create solid oxygen (SOX). This increased the likelihood of trapped oxygen and ultimately ignition due to friction.
In an interview with CNBC in November 2016, Musk described the problem that caused incident as a first in the history of spaceflight. However, this is not the first issue that’s cropped up concerning the COPVs. SpaceX had a previous launch failure in June 2015 when a Falcon 9 rocket disintegrated in flight, just 2 minutes and 19 seconds after liftoff. Helium tanks were also the culprit in the 2015 incident, however, SpaceX says that the two incidents are not related.
In order to prevent this type of anomaly from occurring in the future, SpaceX will be making some changes. For instance, the company announced it will be “changing the COPV configuration to allow warmer temperature helium to be loaded, as well as returning helium loading operations to a prior flight proven configuration based on operations used in over 700 successful COPV loads.”
Additionally, SpaceX will implement design changes to the COPVs to eliminate buckles altogether, and allow for faster loading operations. These changes are expected to be in place before the company begins launching humans for NASA’s Commercial Crew program, which is expected to begin in 2018.
To validate its findings, SpaceX conducted a wide range of tests at its facilities in Hawthorne, California and McGregor, Texas. The company has submitted its findings to the FAA and await approvals for its proposed launch date of January 8.
SpaceX is currently contracted to launch a new fleet of upgraded communications satellites for Iridium, with the first set of ten to launch in a week’s time. The Iridium Next fleet will consist of at least 70 satellites, which will launch 10 at a time, to provide customers with access to global voice and data coverage.
SpaceX and Iridium are ready to launch, and final preparations are underway at Vandenberg Air Force Base’s Space Launch Complex 4E. But both companies will have to wait for the FAA to make the final call — a verdict that should come soon, as SpaceX has delivered its full report.
f glittering city lights or a loud, dazzling fireworks show is not the way you want to ring in 2017, you might have a new option. A cosmic light show will streak across the sky Saturday night. Comet 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdušáková — which only comes around once every five years — is expected to pass near the moon on December 31.
But it won’t be easy to spot the blue-green comet. Hopeful viewers will need dark skies and some sort of optical aid like a telescope or binoculars.
If you’re hoping to catch a glimpse of the comet, be sure to point your instruments to the West just after sunset. You may get a glimpse of some cosmic fireworks — and maybe Venus as it’s in the same patch of sky right now — just to the left of the crescent moon.
Like other comets, Comet 45P — not to be confused with Comet 67P, Rosetta’s comet — is a hunk of rock and ice that scientists believe are leftover from the formation of the solar system. This isn’t our first brush with comet 45P, as it passes by the Earth once every 5.25 years — with the last sighting in 2011.
Periodic comets, like 45P, follow predictable paths, which make it easier for scientists to track and study them. It also makes them prime targets for sky watchers.
If you aren’t able to spot the comet on New Year’s Eve, don’t fret, as viewers will get another opportunity in February when the comet is closer to Earth — whizzing by at a distance of 7.5 million miles.
Historically, comets have been viewed as bad omens or harbingers of doom, but this could be a sign of what we can expect in 2017: more comets. NASA says that we can expect several comet sightings in the new year, so have your trusty telescopes ready.
Cameras at the Observatorio Vulcanológico y Sismológico de Costa Rica (OVSICORI) were trained on the region’s Turrialba volcano — one of the country’s largest volcanoes — which is actively erupting. Whizzing through the skies, the former space rock-turned-fireball soared nearly three miles above the ground and through the volcano’s ashy ejecta.
Eric Sanchez, of the University of Costa Rica’s San José Planetarium, said the event was captured by a specialized observatory camera. Despite being in operation since 2011, this is the first incident involving a meteor that the camera has captured.
A local astronomer, Victor Fung, estimated that despite the seemingly decent sized fireball, the meteorite might actually be small in size. “It has all the appearance of being a meteor of a size of a grain of dust,” he told the Q Costa Rica, a local news outlet. “The shooting stars are pebbles the size of a grain of sand. As they move at high-speed and enter the atmosphere, they burn and we see the result.”
Photos via San Jose Planetarium/Univ of Costa Rica
Scientists at Messaging Extra Terrestrial Intelligence (METI) will attempt to initiate first contact with any potential alien life on Proxima b by the end of 2018. The researchers hope to raise around $1 million per year to repeatedly beam radio signals to the nearby exoplanet for the foreseeable future. It would be the first focused, sustained effort of its kind.
“If we want to start an exchange over the course of many generations, we want to learn and share information,” METI president Douglas Vakoch told the Mercury News.
The San Francisco-based METI was founded just last year under the better-known organization SETI — Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence — where Vakoch was also the former director of Interstellar Message Composition.
The transmission could comprise either radio or laser signals. The exact message content is still to be determined, but it won’t be the kind of spoken-language message we more commonly associate with communication. Instead, it’ll be a much more universal language (no pun intended, really, I promise) — math.
“To be intelligible, any message to extraterrestrials needs to be written in a universal language, and that won’t be English or Swahili,” Vakoch told astronomy.com. “We begin with mathematics, because it seems likely that scientists on any world will need to know at least the essentials of math.”
While many are praising METI’s initiative in taking decisive steps to reach out first rather than simply waiting by the proverbial phone, not everyone is sold on the prospect. Some astronomers and physicists, including Stephen Hawking, have expressed concern that efforts like this are too bold a step considering we have no idea how hostile or powerful aliens might turn out to be, should we end up actually finding them. After all, they could easily be much, much more biologically and technologically advanced than we are.
Proxima b orbits red dwarf star Proxima Centauri and is the exoplanet closest to Earth — just 4.25 light years away — and thus quite likely our best bet for finding and contacting alien life. You might recall it as the planet that sent the internet into hysterics when it was discovered in August. This is because while we do find exoplanets with some regularity, they’re almost always too far away for us to do anything with. Proxima b is our most notable exception. That said, even if aliens do get METI’s messages, it could be generations before we receive a response, if ever. As with all things in the field of alien-hunting, there are no guarantees.
Between rockets landing on drone ships and the Curiosity rover finding more exciting news about the prospect of life on Mars, NASA and the space industry had an incredible 2016 — and 2017 might be just as epic.
The space agency will edge closer to a trip to Mars and bring in data from the furthest corners of the solar system. There’s also a lot of cool celestial phenomena, including a total solar eclipse, going down in the next year. While the incoming president Donald Trump’s plans for NASA are unclear, the activities the agency already has on the schedule look pretty exciting.
Building the Future
Mars is the destination of the future, as multiple space agencies and private companies have their sites set on the Red Planet. NASA has been busy building the infrastructure and vehicles that will take us there.
The Space Launch System (SLS) is NASA’s next heavy-lift rocket that will hopefully replace the Saturn V, which was once used to ferry astronauts to the moon.
Engineers are currently renovating the historic Vehicle Assembly Building (where the rockets were once assembled) at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center, in Florida. Additionally, they are upgrading Launch Pad 39B — which once supported both the Saturn V and the space shuttle programs.
Cassini’s Death and Saturn Exploration
NASA’s Cassini spacecraft made history as it returned epic views of our solar system’s ringed giant, Saturn. The probe got up close and personal with Saturn’s family of moons, revealing previously unknown details.
Cassini is set to self-destruct in 2017, as it will crash into the giant planet. The robotic explorer has already begun the final phase of its more than a decade-long mission. As part of its grand finale, Cassini will conduct a series of dives between Saturn and its extensive ring system.
2017 Total Eclipse
Next summer the United States will experience a rare phenomenon — a total solar eclipse. Dubbed “the Great American Eclipse”, the solar spectacle will be visible throughout continental North America.
This will be the first time in nearly a century that a total solar eclipse will trek across the entirety of the continental United States. The best viewpoint will be in the city of Hopkinsville, Kentucky, but don’t fret. A partial eclipse will be visible throughout the country, while those along the dedicated eclipse path will be able to witness the moon block out the sun’s light temporarily as it passes between our planet and its host star. Astronomers estimate it will be another 375 years to witness another event like this.
Earth Science Observations
NASA has teamed up with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to monitor the precious blue marble we call home. Together the two agencies research a myriad of issues from climate change to extreme weather, to the antarctic ice shelf.
Through its fleet of research aircraft, NASA is able to carry out these specialized missions. Next year the agency will rely on a fleet of advanced weather satellitesto dissect destructive storms like hurricanes and tropical cyclones in order to determine what makes them tick. This research will improve forecasts as well as better predict how damaging the storms will be once they strike.
Exoplanets and Astronomy
Next year, NASA is launching two missions that will revolutionize our understanding of the universe. The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) is a project out of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. and will search for transiting exoplanets (aka planets outside the solar system) around bright stars. When a planet passes in front of a star, it temporarily blocks out the star’s light — this is known as a transit. Historically, NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope has been the premier planet-hunter, but it may have to share some of the spotlight in the next few years.
In addition to TESS, NASA is launching a mission called the Neutron star Interior Composition ExploreR (or NICER for short). NICER will be installed on the International Space Station and, thanks to rotation-resolved spectroscopy, the experiment will probe the interior of neutron stars.
Correction, 12/31/2016: The initial image for this post used a GIF of a Japan H-2 rocket launch. We’ve replaced with a GIF of NASA’s 2014 EFT-1 mission launch, which used a Delta IV Heavy rocket.
paceX hasn’t launched a rocket since one of their Falcon 9’s exploded, dramatically, on the launch pad in September, but they’re gearing up to start again. On Thursday, company CEO Elon Musk was feeling confident enough to share some photos of the satellites that his company will send to space on the next launch.
The launch, which was originally planned for December but is currently scheduled for January 7, will carry ten Iridium Communications satellites as cargo. “Milestone Alert: The first ten #IridiumNEXT satellites are stacked and encapsulated in the Falcon 9 fairing,” the company tweeted, and Musk retweeted the images from his personal Twitter account.
It’s the first of seven planned launches that SpaceX is on the hook for. Iridium, whose network of satellites aid in voice and data communication, is aiming to replace its old fleet of satellites from the late 1990s. The new Iridium Next fleet will consist of at least 70 satellites which will launch 10 at a time.
SpaceX says that it has figured out what went wrong with the September explosion, and has given itself ample time to ensure that the Iridium-1 launch goes off without a hitch. It would be a really bad start to Musk’s year if that weren’t the case.
It looks like Baby Goose is going to ride The Eagle. Actor Ryan Gosling is going to play Neil Armstrong in an upcoming biopic about the legendary astronaut, Variety reports.
The film, First Man, will be based on First Man: A Life Of Neil A. Armstrong, a biography of the great explorer written by James Hansen, and will focus on Armstrong’s life in the decade leading up to the moon landing.
Damien Chazelle, who worked with Gosling when he directed the acclaimed 2016 musical La La Land, is attached to the Armstrong biopic. Josh Singer, who co-wrote Spotlight, is handling the script.
Armstrong, who was born in 1930 and died in 2012, was a truly accomplished and private figure. In addition to his role as the first man on the moon (and iconic “one small step for man” quote), the Ohio native was also an accomplished test pilot, professor, and a father of three.
First Man will reportedly start production in early 2017. There’s no hard release date yet, but 2018 seems likely.
Last year, a mysterious star named KIC 8462852 (a.k.a. Tabby’s Star) left astronomers scratching their heads and people around the world wondering if we had finally seen evidence of life beyond Earth. Many theories were put forth to explain the star’s strange dimming — including highly advanced technological monuments built by aliens — but just over a year later, astronomers are just as perplexed. However, a group of researchers from the University of Illinois, think that the star’s enigmatic behavior may be due to avalanche-like magnetic activity within the star itself.
KIC 8462852 is nestled between the constellations Lyra and Cygnus. It was first spotted by the Kepler Space Telescope about six years ago, when a group of astronomers on the ground noticed that there was something strange going on. Kepler witnessed unusual fluctuations in the star’s brightness, including numerous instances of KIC 8462852 dimming by as much as 22 percent. This couldn’t be simply explained by planets.
The discovery raised speculation that the light fluctuations could be caused by mega-structures built by intelligent alien life. It’s been suggested that such a structure — more specifically, a Dyson sphere — could be used to harvest energy from the sun and protect the potential inhabitants from the dangers of space.
As cool as a Dyson sphere would be, a lone group of researchers is taking a more practical approach to explaining the star’s weird behavior. According to a new paper published Dec. 19 in the journal Physical Review Letters, the weird behavior might be a result of the star’s own internal activity.
“This is a very, very different explanation from what’s been kicking around up to now,” Richard Weaver, a condensed-matter physicist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign said in a news release.
The team analyzed the light fluctuations over a four year period and concluded that the anomalies followed an avalanche-like pattern, typically seen in magnetic fields.
Previous research has shown that similar, albeit not as extreme behavior, was observed in magnetically active stars and that the same avalanche-like patterns have been observed in powerful stellar flares.
The researchers do not know what triggers the avalanche-like behavior. They do note that KIC 8462852 (nicknamed Boyajian’s Star, after it’s discoverer) rotates once every 21 hours and that stars with high rates of rotation are typically associated with strong magnetic fields.
Astrophotographer John Gleason has captured a dazzling display of cosmic lights just in time to ring in 2017. Taken from his vantage point in the southern hemisphere, he photographed one of our galactic neighbors — the Large Magellanic Cloud — a sight those of us in the northern hemisphere can only marvel at in photos.
The Milky Way is not the only resident in our cosmic neighborhood; it is actually part of a larger collection of galaxies dubbed the Local Group. The Milky Way and the neighboring Andromeda Galaxy — two galactic behemoths in our cosmic community — are surrounded by a swarm of smaller galaxies. The most well-known are the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, and the duo is easily be spotted with the naked eye from the southern hemisphere. The LMC, in particular, is approximately 180,000 light-years from Earth, nestled in the constellation Dorado.
The Magellanic duo have been stealing the spotlight lately, illuminating the sky with brilliant starlight observed in nebulae throughout the region. In the top of the image, the Tarantula nebula glows with the light of new stars forming inside of it.
In order to capture this stunning stellar light show, Gleason used specialized narrowband filters, which are designed to transmit only the light emitted by ionized sulfur, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms.
When atoms are blasted with energetic starlight, they undergo a process known as ionization — meaning the radiation from the starlight rips electrons off of gas in the nebula. When they recombine, energy is released in the form of light. Each chemical element emits light in a specific color — known as its spectral fingerprint.
Gleason captures this beautifully in this false-color image. The result is dazzling, as we see glowing clouds sculpted into cosmic shells by strong stellar winds and ultraviolet radiation emitted by the forming stars.
SpaceX’s massive new rocket, the appropriately named Falcon Heavy, hasn’t taken flight yet, but when it does, it will be the most powerful rocket in the world. The company is banking on this to be the booster that takes people up into outer space, and on Wednesday it shared a photograph of the rocket still in the nest, looking imposing as hell with its snazzy logo plastered on the side.
“Heavy interstage being prepped at the rocket factory,” the caption on SpaceX’s Instagram explains. “When FH flies next year, it will be the most powerful operational rocket in the world by a factor of two.”
In May, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said the Falcon Heavy would have a thrust of 5.1 million pounds-force on liftoff, which, frankly, is just insanely powerful. When it’s ready, it’ll be able to take 54 metric tons into space in one go for one-third the cost of the next-biggest rocket, according to SpaceX.
“Only the Saturn V moon rocket, last flown in 1973, delivered more payload to orbit,” the company’s website explains.
The first launch of the rocket was supposed to take place in 2016, but was pushed back due to the explosion of a Falcon 9 in September. Now the first launch is expected to take place in early 2017. Not everybody has forgotten about the incident.
“Anyone else read ‘most powerful operational rocket in the world by a factor of two’ as ‘Will be the biggest and coolest explosion you have ever seen’?” commented one person on SpaceX’s Facebook post.
The notion of humans visiting other worlds beyond Earth has quite rapidly shifted from distant dream into near-future possibility. At the rate agencies like NASA and companies like SpaceX are moving, we might seriously see human boots touch the surface of Mars sometime in the next decade. Moreover, the plan isn’t simply to stop by the Red Planet for a short visit. When we finally get to Mars, we’re planning to stick around — permanently.
And that begs the question: How much are we looking to make Mars feel like home? The only habitat humans have ever known is Earth, and billions of years of evolution have fine-tuned our physiologies to its size, environment, atmosphere, and chemical and geological composition, among many other things. If humans really plan to make Mars into a second home, it would behoove the species to really think about how to transform the Red Planet into a second Blue Planet. That means terraforming Mars and turning it from a cold wasteland into a green, water-filled world.
Is this really the right way to go? In a new essay on Nautilus, Robert Sparrow, a philosophy professor at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, argues that we should leave Mars alone and drop any and all ideas about terraforming the red landscape. He’s not tackling this issue from a technical or scientific point of view. His reasons are ethical and aesthetic.
Sparrow leans heavily on the teachings of Aristotle, and his views on virtue ethics. “According to virtue ethics,” Sparrow writes, “what makes someone a good person is that they possess various virtues, such as kindness, courage, and wisdom. What makes someone a bad person is that they possess various vices, such as cruelty, cowardliness, and naivety.”
It’s perhaps a bit strange to see what this has to do with terraforming, but Sparrow gets to it soon enough, saying that terraforming Mars would not be a virtuous act, but rather a vicious one. The two major reasons are that terraforming would constitute an destruction of the natural beauty of Mars.
“A failure to respond appropriately to beauty is a vice because it makes living a characteristically human life impossible. One thing that distinguishes us from mere brutes is our appreciation of beauty. A person who can wander through the Grand Canyon without being appropriately moved by its beauty is missing something in their make up as well as in the world. Such a person will also struggle to realize characteristically human goods like the development of skills, such as artistic and musical skills, and relationships, such as love, that are premised on the recognition of aesthetic qualities. Only someone insensitive to beauty would not recognize the destruction of the Martian landscape as a tragedy.”
The other point Sparrow makes is that terraforming is a basically a manifestation of hubris, driven by by pride and arrogance that leads humans to believe we could — and should — transform planets as we see fit.
“If we think of our home as a place which nurtures us and in which we grow to maturity, then a case could be made that until we learn to treat our own planet better, any attempt to reshape another planet and call it our ‘home’ would be hubristic.”
Sparrow’s arguments are worth entertaining. Leaving Earth is bound to change the human species and affect human nature as whole. Yet, Sparrow’s arguments about ethics and aesthetics fail to take into account exactly why it is we are searching for another home for human beings. The fragility of our planet means we need a backup plan. Climate change is one existential threat, but there are a myriad of others as well. People like SpaceX CEO Elon Musk are banking on making Mars the second Earth that could allow the human species to live on.
Terraforming Mars, therefore, is a moral imperative. To ensure the survival of the human race, we’ll need to do everything we can to make sure the backup home for the species is in the best shape for colonists to thrive.
Moreover, it’s something of a moot point to expect that we can visit and live on Mars and leave it in a pristine state.
“By the decision to go to Mars and having human settlements on Mars, people have already made the decision that they’re going to, just by default, change things. There’s no other way around that,” former astronaut Mae Jemison told Inverse earlier this year. “As soon as you say we’re going to have settlements, whether you want to admit it or not, one has already said ‘I’m willing to change things.’ It’s not a happy answer, but I’m a realist.”
What Jemison means is that when we settle Mars, we’re going to be bringing plants, animals, and microbes that are essential for making day-to-day life work. Not to mention there will almost certainly be stowaway organisms that manage to hitch a ride to the Red Planet as well. All of these things will irrevocably alter Mars and make it more like Earth in a “terraform-lite” process. Actively thinking about terraforming Mars would at least allow humans to consider how to control the process and minimize the negative effects to the ecology and landscape, and allow Mars to retain spaces that preserve the natural beauty.
Sparrow is right about one thing: we need to make sure we’re not recklessly trudging off into an alien world and tearing things up without considering the consequences. That’s exactly how we’ve ended up with an Earth that feels increasingly like its teetering on the brink of cataclysm. But rejecting the terraformation of other worlds doesn’t save our ethics from crumbling. It just makes it more likely the human species won’t into the next millennium.
In September, NASA reported that Europa is a squirter with the habit of releasing plumes of water vapor off its surface. This was excellent news to scientist who hope to find extraterrestrial life in the waters of the icy moon — studying a burst of water on the moon’s surface would be a lot easier than attempting to get a sample below.
But in late December, NASA released some doldrum news: ultraviolet imaging revealed that Europa released way less water than previously thought. The moon is surrounded by volcano-produced gas, which severely limits the amount of oxygen. Limited oxygen means a limited chance that Europa is spitting out regular vapor.
Today, scientists are back to the drawing board to determine how to get a sample of Europa’s water for examination. And the most promising scenario is something straight out of Armageddon — scientists may have to bring out the drills.
“We have to go down, beneath the surface,” planetary scientist Britney Schmidt told Space.com. “People want us to drill into Europa and find fish. But right now, this is not realistic — the hope is to land there and detect biogenic molecules, the molecules essential for life.”
Schmidt believes that most pristine samples lay beneath the moon’s crust. She said that a drill will have to go at least 10 centimeters in. The farther the drill goes, the better the sample will be.
This is predominantly because scientists are concerned that the thrusters of a Europa lander will contaminate the immediate surface of moon and damage the sample. In August, planetary scientist Ralph Lorenz released a paper arguing that a 440-pound spacecraft could disturb up to 30 feet of surface surrounding it. That means that extraterrestrial life could be destroyed before it could even be captured and sampled.
Scientists have less than a decade to figure out the best way to find life on Europa — NASA plans on sending a lander sometime in the 2020s to the moon that, says NASA directorate John Grunsfeld, could answer “one of humanity’s most profound questions.”
Life may very well lay in the subsurface ocean of Europa. Scientists just have to figure out how to get to it.
era Rubin, the astrophysicist who found evidence for the existence of dark matter, died on Sunday at the age of 88, in her home in Princeton, New Jersey. An awardee of the National Medal of Science and a pioneer for women in the STEM fields, Rubin’s work was one of the most impactful discoveries in the modern era of physics, and would permanently shape the discipline as it moved forward into the 21st century.
“Vera Rubin was a national treasure as an accomplished astronomer and a wonderful role model for young scientists,” said the Carnegie Institution for Science’s president Matthew Scott, in a statement. “We are very saddened by this loss.”
For the fields of astronomy and physics, determining whether dark matter existed, well, mattered a great deal. In observations outer space as a whole, scientists had continuously noticed that many objects were moving and accelerating in ways that could not be accounted for by the gravitational forces of known, observed objects. There had to be a reason why certain stars and galaxies were moving so strangely.
One theory proposed in 1933, by Swiss astrophysicist Fritz Zwicky, was that a big chunk of the universe was composed of a type of matter we couldn’t directly detect. We now now this stuff to be dark matter, which makes up about 27 percent of all observable mass in the universe. And it’s all thanks to Rubin why we know this stuff exists.
Rubin began studying stellar orbits in the 1960s. She and her colleague Kent Ford specifically focused on the Andromeda galaxy. When the speeds of the stars at the galactic center didn’t conform to what was already predicted by Newtonian gravitational theory. Rubin, Ford, and others pushed their observations into the 1970s, and determined that some sort of invisible mass was responsible.
They specifically realized that the Andromeda galaxy, and other spiral galaxies like it, were embedded in a “halo” of dark matter that was about five to 10 times more massive than regular matter.
Besides this breakthrough, Rubin was an incredible influence in helping to open up science to women. The Nobel Prize Committee snubbed her for the award for physics for all of these years, and it’s a damn shame. ““The existence of dark matter has utterly revolutionized our concept of the universe and our entire field,” University of Washington astronomer Emily Levesque told Astronomy magazineearlier this year. “The ongoing effort to understand the role of dark matter has basically spawned entire subfields within astrophysics and particle physics at this point. Alfred Nobel’s will describes the physics prize as recognizing ‘the most important discovery’ within the field of physics. If dark matter doesn’t fit that description, I don’t know what does.”
Yet she constantly pushed for the inclusion of more women in the hard sciences like physics and space. “All of us, men and women alike, need permission to enter and continue in the world of science,” Rubin for a 1986 editorial in Science. “While such permission has generally been granted to bright men, it is always been less readily granted to young women and continues to be denied to many women even today.”
Rubin’s legacy, however, perhaps doesn’t need to the Nobel Prize to be celebrated. The entire field of dark matter research owes its debt to her, and won’t ever forget it.
China provided more details about some of its major space program goals over the next five years on Tuesday, reiterating plans to be the first country to land a probe on the far side of the moon by 2018, and land a probe on Mars by 2020.
“To explore the vast cosmos, develop the space industry and build China into a space power is a dream we pursue unremittingly,” said a white paper released by the information office of China’s Cabinet.
The white paper stops short of mentioning the country’s not-so-secret plans to one day send Chinese astronauts to the moon and establish a lunar colony, as well as a desire to see Chinese astronauts on Mars.
Chinas space program has made serious strides in the last decade. Most recently, the country launched a new space station and completed a month-long crewed mission in orbit.
Nevertheless, the space program continues to be mired in dubious projects that seem to exist solely to generate hype. The lunar probe on the dark side of the moon, for instance, has no real value besides being a first-ever achievement. The white paper claims studying dark side will help shed light on the formation of the moon, but it’s not clear how or why.
And this is hot of the heels of the even more skeptical claim that China has successfully tested the mythical EmDrive propulsion system.
Although a landing a lunar probe on the far side of the moon would be a first for human beings, the real spotlight should be on the Mars probe. The white paper is explicit about wanting to fit the probe with the kind of instruments that would allow for a sample return of Martian rock and soil — presumably as part of research into habitability and extraterrestrial life on Mars.
This would put the Chinese probe in direct scientific competition with NASA’s Mars 2020 rover, and ESA and Russia’s ExoMars rover — both of which are seeking answers to the same investigative questions. Mars 2020 is specifically designed to help facilitate a future sample return mission.
One thing is for sure — China wants to become the preeminent space power of the world, and the next five years are simply the first steps towards that goal.
Mars is one of our closest planetary neighbors, making it a popular celestial object for scientists and amateur astronomers alike. For centuries, humanity has been interested in the red planet and its potential inhabitants. Thanks to a fleet of robotic explorers, scientists are able to search for clues to determine whether or not Mars could have hosted life. Here’s a look back at some of the top Martian discoveries of 2016.
Mars Is Hiding a Secret Stash of Water
Last month, a research team from the University of Texas announced that Mars is hiding a secret supply of water just below its surface. They reported that Utopia Planitia, a region on Mars, is harboring as much water as Lake Superior here on Earth — only difference is that the Martian reserves are frozen solid. The ice reservoir, reportedly the size of New Mexico, is excellent news for future human missions.
Meteorites on Mars
In November, Curiosity surprised scientists when it stumbled upon an interesting find: a small metallic meteorite subsequently dubbed “Egg Rock”. While meteorites on Mars are common, this one’s smooth surface is not. The data collected will provide details about how meteorites are affected when exposed to the Martian environment for long periods of time, which fits with Curiosity’s newest science goal: to investigate how ancient environmental conditionschanged over time.
Mars Once Had an Oxygen-Rich Atmosphere
Mars used to have a lot more oxygen than scientists thought. Curiosity’s ChemCam instrument detected high levels of manganese oxide in rocks that lined the Kimberley region of Gale Crater. This evidence supports the idea that free oxygen once flowed across the Martian surface, during a period when the planet was warmer, and its surface was teeming with vast lakes and oceans.
Boron and Interesting Chemistry
The Curiosity rover is currently studying an intriguing mountain on Mars that is geologically-speaking, very interesting. The data shows that this particular mountain is full of groundwater, which means the rocks could be chemically active, making it a prime location for microbial life. Curiosity also detected its first traces of boron on Mars.
Marsquakes Could Have Helped Spawn Life
Earthquakes — which are usually terrifying natural disasters — could have helped foster life on the red planet. A recent study published in the journal Astrobiologyrevealed that earthquakes produce rocks with an abundance of trapped hydrogen. When applied to extraterrestrial worlds, the research indicates that “marsquakes”could encourage the type of hydrogen-rich geology (known as serpentinization) necessary to support life.
Sniffing Out Signs of Life
The red planet is going to be a busy place in the coming years as multiple space agencies have their sites set on Mars. This year, the European Space Agency teamed up with Roscosmos to launch the first of two planned Mars missions, dubbed ExoMars. The mission was mostly successful as its Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) successfully achieved Mars orbit, while its lander, Schiaparelli, crashed on the Martian surface.
The next iteration will hopefully have better luck, as it roams the red planet in search of any signs of life — be it extinct or extant. The TGO will analyze the Martian atmosphere, searching for evidence of trace gases, such as methane, which could be indicators of life.
The mission will be roaming around the red planet at the same time as NASA’s next Mars rovers — Mars 2020. The future robot will be a souped up version of the Curiosity rover, designed to search for signs of life. It will also have the ability to box up interesting samples to be retrieved at a later time.
SpaceX and Human Missions
We know that NASA is planning its journey to Mars, but the space agency may not be the first to the red planet. In September, SpaceX ignited fans all around the world, when the company revealed its plans for sending humans to Mars via its massive Interplanetary Transportation System.
SpaceX also has plans of sending its robotic Dragon capsule to the Martian surface to test out technologies needed on future missions. The cargo capsule will also deliver supplies and could ferry cached samples back to Earth.
Rocket launches are awesome. But they are more than just a spectacular show of pyrotechnics. They represent the best of all of us. Tucked inside each vehicle’s fairing is a payload, designed to carry out a specialized task that will ultimately improve life on Earth. As this year winds to a close, here’s a look at some of the most memorable launches of 2016.
This year, we witnessed robotic explorers arrive at two different planets — Mars and Jupiter (although Juno launched in 2011) — marveling as SpaceX and Blue Origin continued to shake up the industry by launching and landing their rockets, and learned how NASA will high-five an asteroid to uncover the secrets of the universe as part of the sent OSIRIS-REx mission.
Across the globe, more than eighty rockets launched this year, enabling a variety of critical missions to get off the ground. While nearly all were successful, there were a few setbacks, including the loss of an x-ray satellite, a Progress supply ship, and a communications satellite — not to mention the destruction of a Cape Canaveral launch pad in the process. But overall, it’s been an incredible year for spaceflight.
SpaceX kicked off the year for the United States by launching the company’s final Falcon 9 v1.1, and carrying an Earth-observing satellite for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) into orbit. From its orbital perch, the Jason-3 satellite will monitor global sea levels. SpaceX attempted to recover the rocket’s first stage on a floating barge, but one of the landing legs failed to lock into place and the Falcon tipped over, resulting in a massive explosion.
The first phase in a joint mission between the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Russian Space Agency (Roscosmos) saw the picture-perfect launch of the ExoMars spacecraft. Six months later, when the spacecraft arrived at Mars, its Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) successfully achieved orbital insertion around the Red Planet, but its Schiaparelli lander encountered a computer glitch and crash landed on the Martian surface. But that’s ok, because the agencies will try again in 2020, with the launch of a life-seeking robot.
The CRS-8 mission is definitely memorable, as SpaceX not only resumed cargo deliveries to the International Space Station (ISS), but also proved it had finally mastered landing on a floating platform.
On September 8, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft rocketed into space while tucked inside the payload fairing of an Atlas V rocket. It’s tasked with vacuuming up a sample of a carbon-rich asteroid, named Bennu, which is believed to hold clues about the origins of our solar system. Researchers hope to use the samples to learn more about how life began.
Two Chinese astronauts blasted off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert, on an unprecedented mission. The duo of Chen Dong and Jing Haipeng embarked on a month-long stay aboard China’s newest space laboratory — the Tiangong-2 — to test systems that will be used on the country’s future space station, which is set to launch in 2022.
Blue Origin’s Daring In-flight Abort Test
Blue Origin is one of several companies that dreams of ferrying passengers to and from space. In October, they took a major leap towards that goal by proving their New Shepard vehicle can keep passengers safe during an emergency. As an added bonus, the rocket — which had previously launched and landed multiple times — surprised everyone by surviving the ordeal unscathed. Both the rocket and capsule will be retired as museum pieces.
Antares Returns to Flight
Orbital ATK’s Antares rocket returned to flight on October 17, following a two-year hiatus. The vehicle was grounded in 2014 after a spectacular explosion rocked the coastal Virginia region, destroying the vehicle and payload, and severely damaging the launch site. Bound for the International Space Station, the rocket carried a Cygnus cargo spacecraft to orbit, with over 5,000 pounds of research and supplies inside.
Long March 5
On November 6, China just launched its most powerful rocket yet: the Long March 5. This new heavy-lift vehicle carries with it the future of the Chinese space program, as it will be used to hoist a new space station into orbit, as well as propel astronauts to destinations beyond low-Earth orbit.
Expedition 50 Crew Launch
NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson adds a few more notches to her already impressive resume as she and her crewmates — Russia’s Oleg Novitskiy, and French astronaut Thomas Pesquet — blasted off towards the International Space Station on November 17. She is now the oldest woman to fly in space, at the age of 56, and will surpass Jeff Williams’s record for most days in space (Williams has logged 534 days on orbit). She will also be the first woman to command the orbital outpost twice. Their Expedition 50 mission is also a major milestone for the space station as it marks the 50th mission during the station’s lifetime.
NASA and NOAA teamed up to launch a souped up weather satellite, called GOES-R. NOAA boasts that the satellite will be a real game-changer, and will scan the globe five time faster than current satellites can. By providing four times the spatial resolution, the spacecraft will be able to beam back real-time images of storms as they develop.