Category Archives: Space

Proposed NASA funding bill finally gives it the cash it needs for a new lunar lander and Mars mission

Congress’s new proposed spending bill would finally provide NASA with the cash it needs for projects that have been struggling these past few years. Among them are efforts to develop new commercial space stations in low Earth orbit and the development of a new crewed lunar lander.

Image via Wikimedia.

If signed, the bill would assign NASA $24.041 billion for the fiscal year 2022. While this would be $800 million less than what President Joe Biden’s budget request called for in May, it would still mean a slight increase in the agency’s cash compared to fiscal year 2021, when it received $23.27 billion.

Cash landing

Although Congress does not seem to see eye to eye with the presidential administration on NASA’s budget requirements, there are several projects that lawmakers in the House and Senate are finally agreeing to fund. NASA’s human landing system will receive the full $1.195 billion requested for it. This lander is being developed for the Artemis program, which aims to send the first woman and first person of color to the Moon. For 2021, appropriators only provided $850 million of the requested $3.4 billion for the lander.

Due to constraints in the budget, several changes were made to the original plans for Artemis. These involved choosing at least two commercial companies to design and build landers for the mission — intended to spark competition and provide redundancy for the program. Lacking in cash, however, NASA only selected SpaceX to develop its Starship vehicle into a lander.

If NASA was to receive the increased budget for this mission, Congress calls on it to “deliver a publicly available plan explaining how it will ensure safety, redundancy, sustainability, and competition” within 30 days of the bill’s signing. Congress is also asking for a detailed list of resources NASA would need through to 2026 to ensure the success of the program.

The windfall, should the bill be signed into force, will also inject much-needed cash into NASA’s efforts to develop a successor to the International Space Station. The ISS has funds to operate through to 2024, although the Biden administration has announced that it is looking to extend its life through to 2030. By that time, NASA hopes, the private space industry will have developed its own commercial space station or stations to take over in low Earth orbit. NASA has requested $150 million for this project for fiscal years 2020 and 2021 each but was only granted $15 million and $17 million respectively. However, Congress agreed to appropriate the requested sum of $101.1 million for this year.

Funding for other NASA programs has remained relatively constant under the new proposed bill. Its Orion crew capsule and Space Launch Systems (SLS) are receiving the full requested amount in funding, with the SLS even getting a little extra. Science is being granted $7.614 billion, which is less than what NASA requested, but more than last year. The agency’s request for $653 million for its Mars sample return mission has been granted in full.

So, although the budget doesn’t look the way NASA would have wanted, it’s still a pretty good deal. There is, however, a catch. Projects can only receive 40% of their allotted amounts until NASA’s administrator submits a multi-year plan for Artemis and upcoming NASA Moon missions. This will need to include dates for major milestones, any proposed partnerships, and a whole host of other data alongside estimates of what funds are needed to touch upon these milestones.

The moon has a new crater — this time, created by a rogue rocket

A piece of space junk just impacted right into the far side of the moon, creating a shiny new crater as wide as 20 meters (65 feet). The debris, a discarded part of a rocket the size of a school bus, had been floating in space for over seven years – finally ending its long-term trajectory by heading right into the lunar surface at 5,800 miles per hour.

But the controversy around the object is far from over.

Image credit: Pixabay.

We still don’t know a lot of details about the impact. The crash took place on the far side of the moon, meaning it was out of the reach of ground-based telescopes. NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter wasn’t likely in a position to observe the crash, but the agency has already said it will seek out the resulting crater — but the process will take weeks or even months.

“NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter will use its cameras to attempt to identify the impact site and determine any potential changes to the lunar environment resulting from this object’s impact,” an agency spokesman told The Wall Street Journal. “The search for the impact crater will be challenging and might take weeks to months.”

It’s the first known unintentional lunar collision involving a piece of space hardware, not considering the probes that crashed while attempting to land on the moon. The crater is estimated to be located near the naturally-formed Hertzsprung Crater, which is 570 kilometers (354 miles) wide. This will be confirmed by NASA with further work.

The origin of the rocket

Astronomers have long debated the exact identity of the rocket. It’s an upper state booster discarded from a high-altitude satellite launch – either a SpaceX rocket launched in 2015 or a Chinese rocket launched in 2014. However, both have denied ownership. It’s roughly 12 meters long (40 feet) and weighs about 4,500 kilograms.

The first one to predict the impact on the moon was astronomer Bill Gray, who is in charge of the Project Pluto program that monitors faraway space objects. Gray initially calculated that the impactor was the upper stage of a SpaceX rocket launched in 2015, but then corrected his prediction and suggested it was likely the Chinese rocket.

So it’s a complicated story, one that will probably continue to be debated, at least until we get a more detailed view of the crash site. The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has captured the lunar surface in much detail, including things left behind by astronauts. Experts will have to go through before-and-after photos of the specific spot where the rocket impacted to better identify the crater.

The shape of the crater and the dust that came out of it should show how the rocket was oriented at the time of impact, Paul Hayne, an astrophysics professor at the University of Colorado Boulder wrote in The Conversation. A vertical orientation would produce a circular feature, while an asymmetric debris pattern might indicate a belly flop.

If observations are done fast, the lunar orbiter’s infrared instrument could detect glowing-hot material inside the crater, Hayne explained. This could be used to estimate the amount of heat generated from the impact. If using the orbiter fast enough isn’t an option, NASA could also use high-resolution images to estimate the amount of melted material in the crater.

In addition to helping settle the debate on where the object came from, studying the impact site could be useful for another reason. Crater formation is a persistent phenomenon in the Solar System but the physics of the process is not well understood yet. That’s why observing the rocket impact and the resulting crater might be very valuable for scientists to produce better impact simulations – also improving our knowledge of the lunar surface properties.

Heat shields, Starburst, and Microswimmers: NASA announces funding for sci-fi projects

Space travel is all about research and innovation. With that in mind, NASA has a specialized branch whose sole purpose is to find and fund innovative ideas that can help further our efforts to explore the cosmos. And this year’s grants have been approved and announced.

Crescent Jupiter seen by the Juno probe. Image credits NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS. Image processing by Kevin M. Gill.

Every year, NASA offers a series of grants in support of exciting and promising research to underpin the world of the future. It’s called NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (or NIAC) Program. The 2022 crop of projects includes 12 Phase 1 projects (with an initial funding grant of $175,000) that will be explored over the next nine months, and five projects in Phase 2 (which receive a $600,000 grant for a two-year research period).

A special interest has been given this year to initiatives that involve helping NASA return to Venus, as the agency has already announced new missions to study the planet — the first time in 30 years — which are in preparation for some time during the 2020 decade. Replacement ideas of the International Space Station are also being explored through the NIAC program, as the vessel is planned for decommissioning and a controlled crash in the future as commercial space stations take on its duties.

The Phase 1 projects are:

Cryospheric Rydberg Radar. In essence, this project is looking into the potential development of a new, quantum radar that could theoretically be used in all settings. Although this technology would serve well on spaceships, NASA explains that it has huge potential to be used in public and industrial settings “covering virtually every application of radio/radar”.

Silent, Solid-State Propulsion for Advanced Air Mobility Vehicles. This project would further our ability to use small, electric, vertical takeoff and landing aircraft in urban landscapes by addressing the single largest complaint the public has with such operations: noise. The solution is to develop electroaerodynamic (EAD) propulsion systems, which produce thrust through collisional ion acceleration without any moving surfaces, and are thus nearly completely silent.

Combined Heat Shield and Solar Thermal Propulsion System for an Oberth Manuever. A powered flyby, or Oberth maneuver, is a maneuver during which a spacecraft falls into a gravitational well and then uses its engines to further accelerate as it is falling, making it go really fast. This project is looking to develop a heat exchanger/shield that is powerful enough to withstand an Oberth maneuver around the Sun, which could make it easier for us to launch missions towards Kuiper Belt Objects or interstellar space.

CREW HaT: Cosmic Radiation Extended Warding using the Halbach Torus. Space is a very hazardous place, not least of which because it is saturated with dangerous radiation. This project will look into creating a device that will act as a personal shield against this radiation, protecting crew on missions outside spacecraft.

The Spacesuit Digital Thread: 4.0. This system will allow for custom spacesuits to be created for each astronaut based on scans of their body shape. The system is meant to become a “digital human scan to digital design/analyses to robotic manufacture” system.

Breathing Mars Air: Stationary and Portable O2 Generation. This device is also earmarked for our efforts to put people on Mars. It involves a new device that can separate oxygen from the Martian atmosphere ten times more efficiently than current options.

Pi – Terminal Defense for Humanity – essentially an asteroid destroyer. Essentially, this is a giant gun meant to break apart asteroids that threaten to hit Earth. The fragments resulting from this impact should be small enough to burn harmlessly in the planet’s atmosphere.

Hybrid Observatory for Earth-like Exoplanets (HOEE). The HOEE design proposes using an enormous starshade — an object the size of a football field that blocks the glare from stars — to improve our telescopes’ ability to peer at far-away objects.

In-situ Neutral-Optics Velocity Analyzer for Thermospheric Exploration (INOVATE). Spaceweather is a very sci-fi-sounding concept, and it’s something we know precious little about. Direct measurement data is an area where we’re especially lacking. The INOVATE project proposes the use of a spacecraft swarm used to study space weather.

Starburst: A Revolutionary Under-Constrained Adaptable Deployable Structure Architecture. Unlike most other projects on this list, this one peers towards Earth, not away. The Starburst proposal puts forth the idea of using a specialized satellite to analyze storms on Earth and improve our predictive ability for such events.

Venus Atmosphere and Cloud Particle Sample Return for Astrobiology. This is a study aiming to detect the presence of any life forms on Venus. It would involve the direct harvest of gas and cloud samples from Venus and returning them to Earth for study.

SCOPE: ScienceCraft for Outer Planet Exploration. Like sailing ships of old, SCOPE will use a series of solar sails for propulsion. This design would allow it to reach far deeper into space than any craft we have today, as it wouldn’t need to carry any fuel for the journey, and could accelerate almost indefinitely.

The five Phase 2 projects that have received funding are:

BREEZE (Bioinspired Ray for Extreme Environments and Zonal Exploration). BREEZE aims to help us less-than-lethally explore the atmosphere of Venus by deploying bird-like drones. These robots should have much better energy efficiency than our current drones and be resistant to the planet’s corrosive clouds.

Kilometer-Scale Space Structures from a Single Launch. Extended time spent in zero-gravity in space seems to come with a whole host of health issues. This project aims to design a rotating space habitat that would mimic the gravity of Earth, thus removing the health risks of long-term spaceflight.

ReachBot: Small Robot for Large Mobile Manipulation Tasks in Martian Cave Environments. Do you want to risk your life exploring potentially unstable subsurface caves on Mars? Didn’t think so. This robot will do it for us.

SWIM-Sensing with Independent Micro-swimmers. On the subject of exploration bots, SWIM aims to deliver a swarm of 3D-printed micro-robots that can swim through and explore the oceans of worlds like Enceladus, Europa, and Titan.

As futuristic as these proposals sound, they are actual projects being undertaken — with NASA funding, no less — right as we speak. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that we see them bear fruit, because each and every one of them is fascinating in its own right, and showcases just how far we’ve come as a species that we’re researching into topics that two decades ago were the stuff of movies.

These hard-bodied robots can reproduce, learn and evolve autonomously

Where biology and technology meet, evolutionary robotics is spawning automatons evolving in real-time and space. The basis of this field, evolutionary computing, sees robots possessing a virtual genome ‘mate’ to ‘reproduce’ improved offspring in response to complex, harsh environments.

Image credits: ARE.

Hard-bodied robots are now able to ‘give birth’

Robots have changed a lot over the past 30 years, already capable of replacing their human counterparts in some cases — in many ways, robots are already the backbone of commerce and industry. Performing a flurry of jobs and roles, they have been miniaturized, mounted, and molded into mammoth proportions to achieve feats way beyond human abilities. But what happens when unstable situations or environments call for robots never seen on earth before?

For instance, we may need robots to clean up a nuclear meltdown deemed unsafe for humans, explore an asteroid in orbit or terraform a distant planet. So how would we go about that?

Scientists could guess what the robot may need to do, running untold computer simulations based on realistic scenarios that the robot could be faced with. Then, armed with the results from the simulations, they can send the bots hurtling into uncharted darkness aboard a hundred-billion dollar machine, keeping their fingers crossed that their rigid designs will hold up for as long as needed.

But what if there was a is a better alternative? What if there was a type of artificial intelligence that could take lessons from evolution to generate robots that can adapt to their environment? It sounds like something from a sci-fi novel — but it’s exactly what a multi-institutional team in the UK is currently doing in a project called Autonomous Robot Evolution (ARE).

Remarkably, they’ve already created robots that can ‘mate’ and ‘reproduce’ progeny with no human input. What’s more, using the evolutionary theory of variation and selection, these robots can optimize their descendants depending on a set of activities over generations. If viable, this would be a way to produce robots that can autonomously adapt to unpredictable environments – their extended mechanical family changing along with their volatile surroundings.

“Robot evolution provides endless possibilities to tweak the system,” says evolutionary ecologist and ARE team member Jacintha Ellers. “We can come up with novel types of creatures and see how they perform under different selection pressures.” Offering a way to explore evolutionary principles to set up an almost infinite number of “what if” questions.

What is evolutionary computation?

In computer science, evolutionary computation is a set of laborious algorithms inspired by biological evolution where candidate solutions are generated and constantly “evolved”. Each new generation removes less desired solutions, introducing small adaptive changes or mutations to produce a cyber version of survival of the fittest. It’s a way to mimic biological evolution, resulting in the best version of the robot for its current role and environment.

Virtual robot. Image credits: ARE.

Evolutionary robotics begins at ARE in a facility dubbed the EvoSphere, where newly assembled baby robots download an artificial genetic code that defines their bodies and brains. This is where two-parent robots come together to mingle virtual genomes to create improved young, incorporating both their genetic codes.

The newly evolved offspring is built autonomously via a 3D printer, after which a mechanical assembly arm translating the inherited virtual genomic code selects and attaches the specified sensors and means of locomotion from a bank of pre-built components. Finally, the artificial system wires up a Raspberry Pi computer acting as a brain to the sensors and motors – software is then downloaded from both parents to represent the evolved brain.

1. Artificial intelligence teaches newborn robots how to control their bodies

Newborns undergo brain development and learning to fine-tune their motor control in most animal species. This process is even more intense for these robotic infants due to breeding between different species. For example, a parent with wheels might procreate with another possessing a jointed leg, resulting in offspring with both types of locomotion.

But, the inherited brain may struggle to control the new body, so an algorithm is run as part of the learning stage to refine the brain over a few trials in a simplified environment. If the synthetic babies can master their new bodies, they can proceed to the next phase: testing.

2. Selection of the fittest- who can reproduce?

A specially built inert nuclear reactor housing is used by ARE for testing where young robots must identify and clear radioactive waste while avoiding various obstacles. After completing the task, the system scores each robot according to its performance which it then uses to determine who will be permitted to reproduce.

Real robot. Image credits: ARE.

Software simulating reproduction then takes the virtual DNA of two parents and performs genetic recombination and mutation to generate a new robot, completing the ‘circuit of life.’ Parent robots can either remain in the population, have more children, or be recycled.

Evolutionary roboticist and ARE researcher Guszti Eiben says this sped up evolution works as: “Robotic experiments can be conducted under controllable conditions and validated over many repetitions, something that is hard to achieve when working with biological organisms.”

3. Real-world robots can also mate in alternative cyberworlds

In her article for the New Scientist, Emma Hart, ARE member and professor of computational intelligence at Edinburgh Napier University, writes that by “working with real robots rather than simulations, we eliminate any reality gap. However, printing and assembling each new machine takes about 4 hours, depending on the complexity of its skeleton, so limits the speed at which a population can evolve. To address this drawback, we also study evolution in a parallel, virtual world.”

This parallel universe entails the creation of a digital version of every mechanical infant in a simulator once mating has occurred, which enables the ARE researchers to build and test new designs within seconds, identifying those that look workable.

Their cyber genomes can then be prioritized for fabrication into real-world robots, allowing virtual and physical robots to breed with each other, adding to the real-life gene pool created by the mating of two material automatons.

The dangers of self-evolving robots – how can we stay safe?

A robot fabricator. Image credits: ARE.

Even though this program is brimming with potential, Professor Hart cautions that progress is slow, and furthermore, there are long-term risks to the approach.

“In principle, the potential opportunities are great, but we also run the risk that things might get out of control, creating robots with unintended behaviors that could cause damage or even harm humans,” Hart says.

“We need to think about this now, while the technology is still being developed. Limiting the availability of materials from which to fabricate new robots provides one safeguard.” Therefore: “We could also anticipate unwanted behaviors by continually monitoring the evolved robots, then using that information to build analytical models to predict future problems. The most obvious and effective solution is to use a centralized reproduction system with a human overseer equipped with a kill switch.”

A world made better by robots evolving alongside us

Despite these concerns, she counters that even though some applications, such as interstellar travel, may seem years off, the ARE system may have a more immediate need. And as climate change reaches dangerous proportions, it is clear that robot manufacturers need to become greener. She proposes that they could reduce their ecological footprint by using the system to build novel robots from sustainable materials that operate at low energy levels and are easily repaired and recycled. 

Hart concludes that these divergent progeny probably won’t look anything like the robots we see around us today, but that is where artificial evolution can help. Unrestrained by human cognition, computerized evolution can generate creative solutions we cannot even conceive of yet.

And it would appear these machines will now evolve us even further as we step back and hand them the reins of their own virtual lives. How this will affect the human race remains to be seen.

Sun’s coronal loops could be optical illusions

An active region of the sun just rotating into the view of NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory gives a profile view of coronal loops over about a two-day period, from Feb. 8-10, 2014. (Image credit: NASA/Solar Dynamics Observatory)

Everyone knows the picture of the sun. A bright orange ball with jets of fire spewing out thousands of miles into space with temps soaring above a million degrees. However, a new study from the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) brings into question coronal loops existence at all.

The report, published in The Astrophysical Journal, found that these may actually be optical illusions. While the researchers were able to pinpoint some of the coronal loops they were looking for, they also discovered that in many cases what appear to be loops in images taken of the Sun may in fact be wrinkles of bright plasma in the solar atmosphere. As sheets of bright plasma fold over themselves, the wrinkles look like bright thin lines, mimicking the look of distinct and self-contained strands of plasma.  

“I have spent my entire career studying coronal loops,” said NCAR scientist Anna Malanushenko, who led the study. “I was excited that this simulation would give me the opportunity to study them in more detail. I never expected this. When I saw the results, my mind exploded. This is an entirely new paradigm of understanding the Sun’s atmosphere.”

Coronal loops are found around sunspots and across active regions of the Sun. These structures are associated with the closed magnetic field lines that connect attractive regions on the solar surface. Many coronal loops last for days or weeks, but most shift quite rapidly. The assumption that they exist is a normal one for scientists because it suits the most basic understanding of magnetism.

The findings, which have been coined the “coronal veil” hypothesis, could have substantial implications for solar research. These coronal loops have been used for decades as a way to garner info about density, temperature, and other physical characteristics of the solar atmosphere.

“This study reminds us as scientists that we must always question our assumptions and that sometimes our intuition can work against us,” Malanushenko said.

The research relied on a realistic 3D simulation of the solar corona produced by MURaM, a radiative magnetohydrodynamic model that was extended to replicate the solar corona in an effort led by NCAR several years ago. The model allowed the researchers to slice the corona in distinct sections in an effort to isolate individual coronal loops.

Since there is a significant magnetic field in the Sun, the existence of magnetic field lines that could trap a rope of plasma between them and create loops seems like an obvious explanation. And in fact, the new study confirms that such loops still likely exist.

However, the loops seen on the Sun have never really behaved exactly as they should, based on the knowledge of magnets. As an example, scientists would assume the solar magnetic field lines to expand as they move higher in the corona. Therefore, the plasma trapped between the field lines should also spread out between the boundaries, creating thicker, dimmer loops. But images of the Sun do not show this. Instead, they show the opposite. The loops further out still appear thin and bright.

The possibility that these loops are instead wrinkles in a coronal veil help explain this and other inconsistencies with scientists’ expectations of coronal loops. It also brings into question new mysteries such as what determines the shape and thickness of the folds and how many of the apparent loops in images of the Sun are actually real strands, and how many are optical illusions.

For the first time, the research group was also able to capture the entire life span of a solar flare, from the build-up of energy below the solar surface to the emergence of the flare at the surface, and finally to the fiery release of energy.

Malanushenko said that understanding the number of coronal loops which are actually optical illusions will require continued observations that probe the corona and new data analysis techniques.

“We know that designing such techniques would be extremely challenging, but this study demonstrates that the way we currently interpret the observations of the Sun may not be adequate for us to truly understand the physics of our star.”

Europe’s much anticipated Mars rover won’t launch in 2022 because of war in Ukraine

The rover will be the first mission to combine the capability to move across the surface and to study Mars at depth. Credit: ESA.

This year was supposed to be another landmark one for Mars exploration with the launch of the European Space Agency (ESA)’s robot rover to the red planet. But now, the mission has to be postponed as a result of the war in Ukraine and heavy sanctions on Russia, which owns the spaceport in Kazakhstan from which the rover was supposed to be launched.

The rover, known as Rosalind Franklin, named after the British chemist and DNA pioneer, is part of the ExoMars program, which also includes the Trace Gas Orbiter launched in 2016. Like NASA’s Curiosity and Perseverance rovers, the goal of the mission is to search for signs of past life on Mars, which is believed to have been a rich water world billions of years ago.

In order to achieve its goal, the ExoMars mission will do things differently than its American counterparts. The deepest anyone has dug on Mars is only six centimeters, and that is a problem if your goal is to look for signs of life, present or past. Scientists believe it is very unlikely to find such evidence in the top meter of Martian soil as millions of years of exposure to cosmic radiation, ultraviolet light, and powerfully oxidizing perchlorates likely destroyed any organic biosignature a long time ago.

“The recipe we have with ExoMars is we’re going to drill below all that crap,” to a depth of two meters, ExoMars project scientist Jorge Vago tells Inverse. “Our hypothesis is that if you go to the right place and drill deep enough, you may be able to get access to well preserved organic material from 4 billion years ago, when conditions on the surface of Mars were more like what we had on infant Earth.”

The astrobiology lab on six wheels is a joint venture between the ESA and Roscosmos, the Russian space agency. While Rosalind Franklin is operated by the ESA, Russia’s contribution includes the Kazachok lander vehicle, meant to land and safely release the rover on Mars’s Oxia Planum, a region thought to have once been the coastline of a very large northern hemisphere ocean. Additionally, Russia developed several important science instruments for the mission, as well as offered the launch platform. Only the International Space Station is more significant in terms of cooperation between the ESA and Russia.

Originally planned for 2020, the launch of the mission was postponed to 20 September 2022 from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. But considering the dire situation in Ukraine and the heavy sanctions imposed by the United States and its European allies, the mission has now been postponed indefinitely.

“We are fully implementing sanctions imposed on Russia by our Member States,” the ESA announced in a press statement. “Regarding the ExoMars program continuation, the sanctions and the wider context make a launch in 2022 very unlikely.”

“We are giving absolute priority to taking proper decisions, not only for the sake of our workforce involved in the programmes, but in full respect of our European values, which have always fundamentally shaped our approach to international cooperation.”

The announcement comes on the heels of Roscosmos’s decision over the week to suspend flights of its Soyuz rockets from the Kourou spaceport in French Guiana, as a retaliation for the western sanctions. Roscosmos has even gone as far as putting into question the viability of the International Space Station, where it has been a founding partner since the station’s first modules were launched in 1998. That’s despite Washington having been clear that its stiff sanctions targeting the Russian economy and tech sector will continue to allow U.S.-Russian civil space cooperation.

It’s too early to say what might happen next but it’s likely that Roscosmos cannot be counted on for ExoMars moving forward. This means that the rover must be launched using a different partner and a new landing platform needs to be developed, which could amount to at least another two years of delay. That’s when the next favorable launch window is available — every two years Mars and Earth’s orbits align allowing for a much shorter journey between the two planets.

As the crisis in Ukraine drags on, it’s saddening to see how the war not only disrupts people’s lives across the world and causes unspeakable suffering, but also how its effects extend well beyond our borders — even to another planet.

The James Webb telescope could detect aliens by looking for signs of pollution

The James Webb Space Telescope isn’t even fully operational yet, but researchers are getting more and more excited about what it can do. In a recent study, researchers claim we may be on the cusp of being able to discover other civilizations based on specific types of pollution in their planets’ atmosphere.

A total ozone map of the Earth. Image credits: NASA.

The alien ozone hole

Human society has changed a lot over the centuries, but the shifts in the past 200 years have been truly mind-bending. The Industrial Revolution changed how many things work, fueling, well, a revolution in our society. If you were a patient alien scouting the Earth from close by (or from farther away, but with a good enough telescope) you may have seen the signs of this industrial revolution happening through the emissions we produced by burning fossil fuels.

But they could see other forms of pollution even better.

Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) are a type of chemical notorious for causing the ozone hole in the 1980s (until regulations entered into force to address the problem). They’re produced industrially as refrigerants and cleaning agents — and if an alien civilization would resemble ours, it would likely also start producing them at some point. CFCs are also very unlikely to appear naturally so if you see them in a planet’s atmosphere, someone is producing them artificially. Furthermore, even if a civilization stops producing them or reduces their production (like we did), they still have a long life in the atmosphere, meaning they could be detected long after they’ve been produced.

This brings us to an interesting point: our most clear sign of civilization may also be one of our worst impacts on the planet — pollution. We don’t really know whether this would also be the case for an alien civilization but there’s a decent chance it is. Now, we could also have a way to detect this, thanks to the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).

Looking for pollution on alien planets isn’t the main objective of the JWST, and its capability in this regard is limited. For instance, if a planet is too bright, it could drown out the CFC signal. So the new study focused on M-class stars — a type of dim, long-lived red dwarf. Researchers believe M-class stars make out the majority of stars in the universe.

A team of researchers led by Jacob Haqq-Misra, an astrobiologist at the Blue Marble Space Institute of Science, analyzed the JWST’s ability to detect CFC around a TRAPPIST-1, a typical red dwarf relatively close to Earth (40 light-years away). TRAPPIST-1 also has several Earth-sized planets within the habitable zone, so it would be a good place to start looking for alien civilizations (although M-stars, in general, aren’t considered to be conducive to life).

According to the study, there’s a good chance that the JWST could be able to detect CFC in this type of scenario.

“With the launch of JWST, humanity may be very close to an important milestone in SETI [the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence]: one where we are capable of detecting from nearby stars not just powerful, deliberate, transient, and highly directional transmissions like our own (such as the Arecibo Message), but consistent, passive technosignatures of the same strength as our own,” the researchers write in the study.

Funny enough, this detection isn’t necessarily reciprocal: just because we can detect potential CFCs around a planet doesn’t necessarily mean aliens could do the same for us. Remember when we said in order for the method to work, the planet needs to not be too bright? Well, the Sun is pretty bright, and it sends out enough light that it would obstruct much of the useful signal. So if an alien civilization were to exist closeby, there’s a chance we could be able to spot them without them being able to do the same thing to us. Of course, this is all speculation at this point, but it’s something that astronomers are looking into as JWST will soon become operational.

The telescope is currently in its calibration stage. James Webb is expected to offer researchers an unprecedented view of the universe, focusing on four main objectives:

  • light coming from the very first stars and galaxies that formed after the Big Bang;
  • galaxy formation and evolution;
  • star formation and planet formation;
  • planetary systems and the origins of life.

The study was published in arXiv and has not been peer-reviewed yet.

Annie Jump Cannon: the legend behind stellar classification

It is striking that today, we can not only discover but even classify stars that are light-years from Earth — sometimes, even billions of light-years away. Stellar classification often uses the famous Hertzsprung–Russell diagram, which summarises the basics of stellar evolution. The luminosity and the temperature of stars can teach us a lot about their life journey, as they burn their fuel and change chemical composition.

We know that some stars are made up mostly of ionised helium or neutral helium, some are hotter than others, and we fit the Sun as a not so impressive star compared to the giants. Part of that development came from Annie Jump Cannon’s contribution during her long career as an astronomer. 

The Hertzsprung diagram where the evolution of sun-like stars is traced. Credits: ESO.

On the shoulders of giantesses

Cannon was born in 1863 in Dover, Delaware, US. When she was 17 years old, thanks to her father’s support, she managed to travel 369 miles all the way from her hometown to attend classes at Wellesley College. It’s no big deal for teens today, but back then, this was an imaginable adventure for a young lady. The institution offered education exclusively for women, an ideal environment to spark in Cannon an ambition to become a scientist. In 1884, she graduated and later in 1896 started her career at the Harvard Observatory.

In Wellesley, she had Sarah Whiting as her astronomy professor, who sparked Cannon’s interest in spectroscopy:

“… of all branches of physics and astronomy, she was most keen on the spectroscopic development. Even at her Observatory receptions, she always had the spectra of various elements on exhibition. So great was her interest in the subject that she infused into the mind of her pupil who is writing these lines, a desire to continue the investigation of spectra.”

Whiting’s obituary in 1927, Annie Cannon.

Cannon had an explorer spirit and travelled across Europe, publishing a photography book in 1893 called “In the footsteps of Columbus”. It is believed that during her years at Wellesley, after the trip, she got infected with scarlet fever. The disease infected her ears and she suffered severe hearing loss, but that didn’t put an end to her social or scientific activities. Annie Jump Cannon was known for not missing meetings and participating in all American Astronomical Society meetings during her career.

OBAFGKM

At Radcliffe College, she began working more with spectroscopy. Her first work with southern stars spectra was later published in 1901 in the Annals of the Harvard College Observatory. The director of the observatory, Edward C. Pickering chose Cannon as the responsible for observing stars which would later become the Henry Draper Catalogue, named after the first person to measure the spectra of a star. 

Annie Jump Cannon at her desk at the Harvard College Observatory. Image via Wiki Commons.

The job didn’t pay much. In fact, Harvard employed a number of women as “women computers” that processed astronomic data. The women computer at Harvard earned less than secretaries, and this enabled researchers to hire more women computers, as men would have need to be paid more.

Her salary was only 25 cents an hour, a small income for a difficult job to look at the tiny details from the spectrographs, often only possible with magnifying glasses. She was known for being focused (possibly also influenced by her deafness), but she was also known for doing the job fast. Simply put,

During her career, she managed to classify the spectra of 225,000 stars. At the time, Williamina Fleming, a Scottish astronomer, was the Harvard lady in charge of the women computers. She had previously observed 10,000 stars from Draper Catalogue and classified them from letters A to N. But Annie Jump Cannon saw the link between the stars’ temperature and rearranged Fleming’s classification to the OBAFGKM system. The OBAFGKM system divides the stars from the hottest to the coldest, and astronomers created a popular mnemonic for it: “Oh Be A Fine Guy/Girl Kiss Me”.

Legacy

“A bibliography of Miss Cannon’s scientific work would be exceedingly long, but it would be far easier to compile one than to presume to say how great has been the influence of her researches in astronomy. For there is scarcely a living astronomer who can remember the time when Miss Cannon was not an authoritative figure. It is nearly impossible for us to imagine the astronomical world without her. Of late years she has been not only a vital, living person; she has been an institution. Already in our school days she was a legend. The scientific world has lost something besides a great scientist.”

Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin in Annie Jump Cannon’s obituary.
Annie Jump Cannon at Harvard University. Smithsonian Institution @ Flickr Commons.

Annie Jump Cannon was awarded many prizes, she became honorary doctorate of Oxford University, the first woman to receive the Henry Draper Medal in 1931, and the first woman to become an officer of the American Astronomical Society. 

Her work in stellar classification was followed by Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, another dame of stellar spectroscopy. Payne improved the system with quantum mechanics and described what stars are made of

Very few scientists have such a competent and exemplary career as Cannon. Payne continued the work left from Cannon, her advisor, Henry Norris Russell, then improved it with minimum citation. From that, we got today’s basic understanding of stellar classification. Her beautiful legacy has been rescued recently by other female astronomers who know the importance of her life’s work.

Researchers have just found the biggest galaxy ever discovered — and it’s big alright

The distance from the Sun to Pluto, the farthest planet(oid), is 0.000628 light-years. The closest solar system to us, Alpha Centauri, is 4.2 light-years away. The Milky Way Galaxy is 52,850 light-years across. But Alcyoneus, the newly-discovered galaxy, is a whopping 16.3 million light-years wide.

Giant radio galaxies (GRGs, or just ‘giants’) are the Universe’s largest structures generated by individual galaxies. They were first discovered accidentally by wartime radar engineers in the 1940s, but it took over a decade to truly understand what they were — with the aid of radio astronomy. Radio astronomy is a subfield of astronomy that studies celestial objects using radio frequencies.

These giants dominate the night sky with their radio frequency signals (astronomers use different types of frequencies to study the universe). They generally consist of a host galaxy — a cluster of stars orbiting a bright galactic nucleus containing a black hole — and some colossal jets or lobes that erupt from this galactic center.

Most commonly, radio galaxies have two elongated, fairly symmetrical lobes. These radio lobes are pretty common across many galaxies — even the Milky Way has them — but for some reason, in some galaxies, the lobes grow to be immensely long. Discovering new radio galaxies could help us understand these processes — this is where the new study comes in.

Researchers led by astronomer Martijn Oei of Leiden Observatory in the Netherlands have discovered the largest single structure of galactic origin. They used the LOw Frequency ARray (LOFAR) in Europe, a network of over 20,000 radio antennas distributed across Europe.

“If there exist host galaxy characteristics that are an important cause for giant radio galaxy growth, then the hosts of the largest giant radio galaxies are likely to possess them,” the researchers explain in their preprint paper, which has been accepted for publication in Astronomy & Astrophysics.

The lobes of the newly-discovered galaxy. Image credits: Oei et al (2022).

According to the authors, this is the most detailed search ever of radio galaxy lobes, and lo and behold, the results also came in.

Alcyoneus lies some 3 billion light-years away from us, a distance that’s hard to even contemplate (though it’s not nearly the farthest object we’ve found, which lies over 13 billion light-years away). Its host galaxy appears to be a fairly normal elliptical galaxy. In fact, it almost seems too inconspicuous.

But even this could tell us something: you don’t need a particularly large galaxy or a particularly massive black hole at its center to create a radio galaxy.

“Beyond geometry, Alcyoneus and its host are suspiciously ordinary: the total low-frequency luminosity density, stellar mass and supermassive black hole mass are all lower than, though similar to, those of the medial giant radio galaxies,” the researchers write.

“Thus, very massive galaxies or central black holes are not necessary to grow large giants, and, if the observed state is representative of the source over its lifetime, neither is high radio power.”

The study has been published in arXiv.

New planet found “next door” to our solar system

At one quarter the mass of the Earth, the newly-discovered planet is not only one of the closest planets we know of, but also one of the lightest. The planet is named Proxima d.

Artist’s impression of the newly-discovered planet. Image credits: Credit: ESO/L. Calçada.

Hey planet, here’s an ESPRESSO

In 1915, the Scottish astronomer Robert Innes discovered a new star. He called it Proxima Centauri (or rather, Proxima Centaurus).

Proxima Centauri is the closest star to Earth, lying just over four light-years away — and will continue to be so for about 25,000 years, after which Alpha Centauri A and Alpha Centauri B will move closer to our solar system and will take alternating turns as the “closest star to Earth” (for about 80 years each).

But it took another hundred years after the star was named for the first planet in the Proxima Centauri solar system to be discovered. Astronomers are nothing if not methodical, so in 2016, when they discovered a planet, they called it Proxima b. They found another planet candidate in 2019 which they called Proxima c. Now, they’ve discovered a new planet and named it (you’ve guessed it) Proxima d.

“The discovery shows that our closest stellar neighbor seems to be packed with interesting new worlds, within reach of further study and future exploration,” explains João Faria, a researcher at the Instituto de Astrofísica e Ciências do Espaço, Portugal and lead author of the study published today in Astronomy & Astrophysics.

The planet was first discovered in 2020, and was now confirmed with the Echelle SPectrograph for Rocky Exoplanets and Stable Spectroscopic Observations (ESPRESSO).

“After obtaining new observations, we were able to confirm this signal as a new planet candidate,” Faria says. “I was excited by the challenge of detecting such a small signal and, by doing so, discovering an exoplanet so close to Earth.”  

The planet was discovered using a less common method. Because planets don’t emit their own light, researchers rely on indirect information to find them. Most commonly, they use a method called the transit method — basically, they measure the luminosity coming from a star and look for dips in luminosity caused by planets passing in front of that star. But Proxima d was discovered using the radial velocity technique.

The technique works by detecting tiny wobbles in the motion of the star — wobbles created by a planet’s gravitational pull. With this, they can not only detect the presence of a star but also calculate its mass.

A depiction of the radial velocity method showing how a smaller object (such as an extrasolar planet) orbiting a larger object (such as a star) could produce changes in position and velocity of the latter as they orbit their common center of mass (red cross). Image via Wiki Commons.

“This achievement is extremely important,” says Pedro Figueira, ESPRESSO instrument scientist at ESO in Chile. “It shows that the radial velocity technique has the potential to unveil a population of light planets, like our own, that are expected to be the most abundant in our galaxy and that can potentially host life as we know it.”

“This result clearly shows what ESPRESSO is capable of and makes me wonder about what it will be able to find in the future,” Faria adds.

The gravitational effect of Proxima d is pretty small — it only causes Proxima Centauri to wobble by around 40 centimeters per second (1.44 km/hour) — and it’s striking that astronomers can detect these small differences from 4 light-years away. Based on this, researchers calculated that the planet is around one-quarter the mass of the Earth and one of the lightest exoplanets ever found.

This image of the sky around the bright star Alpha Centauri AB also shows the much fainter red dwarf star, Proxima Centauri, the closest star to the Solar System. The picture was created from pictures forming part of the Digitized Sky Survey 2. The blue halo around Alpha Centauri AB is an artifact of the photographic process, the star is really pale yellow in color like the Sun. Image credits: Digitized Sky Survey 2. Acknowledgment: Davide De Martin/Mahdi Zamani.

The planet does not lie in the habitable zone. Although the star is a red dwarf star with a mass around 8 times lower than that of the Sun, the planet simply orbits the star too closely. Assuming an Earth-like reflectivity of the planet, the surface temperature would be 87 °C (188 °F) — too hot to support life as we know it. Another Proxima Centauri planet (Proxima b) could lie in the habitable zone, but this is still disputed by astronomers.

Researchers expect more intriguing data to come from ESPRESSO’s search for other worlds, especially as it will soon be complemented by ESO’s Extremely Large Telescope (ELT), currently under construction in the Atacama Desert. Together, these two will enable researchers to discover and study many more planets around nearby stars.

The study was published in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics.

The building blocks of life can form on space dust, offering clues to the origins of life

New research proposes that the source of life on Earth may not be on our planet at all, but, in fact, on spaceborne dust.

Nebula NGC 4038. Image via PxHere.

Researchers at Friedrich-Schiller-Universitaet Jena in Germany report that peptides — small-scale proteins — can form on particles of dust under conditions present in outer space. Since all life on our planet relies on proteins, this raises the possibility that the building blocks of life didn’t emerge on Earth at all, but were seeded here from outer space.

The authors propose cosmic molecular clouds as a possible source for these first peptides, although it is currently impossible to confirm that this was the process that seeded life on Earth, or pinpoint a particular structure from whence they came.

Spaceborne, quantumborne — maybe

“Water plays an important role in the conventional way in which peptides are created [by the binding together of individual amino acids],” says Dr Serge Krasnokutski of the Laboratory Astrophysics and Cluster Physics Group of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy at the University of Jena.

“Our quantum chemical calculations have now shown that the amino acid glycine can be formed through a chemical precursor — called an amino ketene — combining with a water molecule. Put simply: in this case, water must be added for the first reaction step, and water must be removed for the second.”

Peptides are an essential building block of living cells as we know them. They perform a variety of functions within the body such as transporting substances, catalyzing chemical reactions, and forming structural elements inside cells. Peptides are chains of amino acids fused together, and the order and type of amino acids that form the chain give the peptide its final properties.

They are quite complex and ordered structures and likely were the first larger biochemical molecules on Earth. As such, researchers are keen to understand how these peptides came to be.

Some other building blocks of life, including amino acids, nucleobases, and sugars, have been found in meteorites before, which gave us some understanding that the very basic bricks from which organic matter is composed could originate in space. However, as we’ve said before, peptides are complex and highly structured, so they require very specific conditions in which to form. Furthermore, these conditions need to change during the process: first, water must be present; it must then be removed.

Krasnokutski’s team was able to show one reaction pathway through which the production of peptides can occur under cosmic conditions, in a process that requires no liquid water.

“Instead of taking the chemical detour in which amino acids are formed, we wanted to find out whether amino ketene molecules could not be formed instead and combine directly to form peptides,” says Krasnokutski. “And we did this under the conditions that prevail in cosmic molecular clouds, that is to say on dust particles in a vacuum, where the corresponding chemicals are present in abundance: carbon, ammonia, and carbon monoxide.”

The team validated their theory through experiments using an ultra-high vacuum chamber. This experiment involved the use of substrates that mimic cosmic dust, which was mixed together with carbon, ammonia, and carbon monoxide. Everything was then kept at one quadrillionth of normal air pressure and minus 263 degrees Celsius to mimic conditions in outer space.

The peptide polyglycine formed from the substrate under these environmental conditions, the team explains — polyglycine is composed of chains of multiple molecules of glycine, an amino acid, and is, therefore, a peptide. The longest single peptide molecule the team observed consisted of eleven amino acid units linked together. The team further reports that they identified the amino acid ketene in the substrate sample. Ketene is an unstable molecule but highly useful for biological life, as it serves as a key catalyst in the production of other essential compounds.

“The fact that the reaction can take place at such low temperatures at all is due to the amino ketene molecules being extremely reactive. They combine with each other in an effective polymerisation. The product of this is polyglycine,” Krasnokutski explains. “It was nevertheless surprising to us that the polymerisation of amino ketene could happen so easily under such conditions.”

“This is because an energy barrier actually has to be overcome for this to happen. However, it may be that we are helped in this by a special effect of quantum mechanics. In this special reaction step, a hydrogen atom changes its place. However, it is so small that, as a quantum particle, it could not overcome the barrier but was simply able to cross it, so to speak, through the tunnelling effect.”

It may be a bit hard to wrap our heads around such results, as exciting as they may be for researchers looking into the origins of life. Suffice it to say, what the team found is that some of the basic building blocks of life form quite readily in outer space if certain materials are present. Although such results don’t prove that life on Earth originates ultimately in space, it does give researchers ample grounds to consider the cosmos as a likely source.

In the end, it may be that we come to the conclusion that life on Earth is spaceborne — and findings such as these may be remembered as the first step towards that conclusion.

It also raises an exciting possibility; if such molecules can form in space, there’s no reason to believe that Earth was the only planet seeded with them. In other words, the findings should increase our confidence that there is life on other planets. The only thing left to see now is if we find it or not.

The paper “A pathway to peptides in space through the condensation of atomic carbon” has been published in the journal Nature Astronomy.

Scientists find a potentially habitable planet orbiting a dying star

A group of astronomers have identified a ring of planetary debris orbiting close to a dying star, some 117 light-years away from Earth, hinting at what could be a planet in a habitable zone where life could exist. If confirmed, it would be the first time a life-supporting world is discovered orbiting such a start, known as a “white dwarf.”

An artist’s impression of the white dwarf star WD1054–226 orbited by clouds of planetary debris and a major planet in the habitable zone. Image credit: The researchers.

While most large stars go supernova at the end of their evolution, medium and small ones with a mass of less than eight times than the one of the Sun usually become white dwarfs. They have a similar carbon and oxygen mass despite their small size. About 97% of the stars in the Milky Way will become white dwarfs, according to a previous study.

A team of researchers measured light from a white dwarf in the Milky Way called WD1054–226 using data from ground and space-based telescopes. They noticed something appeared to be passing regularly in front of the star, causing dips in the light. The pattern repeated every 25 hours, with the biggest dip every 23 minutes.

This indicates that the star is surrounded by a ring of 65 comet-sized or moon-sized orbiting objects, evenly spaced in their orbits by the gravitational pull of a nearby planet the size of Mars or Mercury. The objects are 2.6 million kilometers from the star, putting their temperature at 50ºC – in the middle of the range for liquid water.

“An exciting possibility is that these bodies are kept in such an evenly-spaced orbital pattern because of the gravitational influence of a nearby planet. Without this influence, friction and collisions would cause the structures to disperse, losing the precise regularity that is observed,” lead author Jay Farihi said in a statement.

Tracking white dwarfs

Finding planets orbiting white dwarfs is a massive challenge for astronomers because these stars are much fainter than the main-sequence stars, such as the Sun. So far, astronomers have only last year found tentative evidence of a gas giant, like Jupiter, orbiting a white dwarf. It’s estimated to be one or two times as massive as Jupiter.

For this new study, the researchers focused on WD1054–226, a white dwarf 117 light-years away from Earth. They recorded changes in its light over 18 nights, using a high-speed camera at the observatory La Silla in Chile. They also looked at data from NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) to better interpret changes in the light.

The habitable zone where the potential planet could be located is usually referred as the Goldilocks zone, taken from the children’s fairy tale. Since the concept was introduced in the 1950s, many stars have been shown to have a Goldilocks area. The temperature from the starts have to be just right so liquid water can exist on the surface.

Compared to big stars like the Sun, the habitable zone of white dwarfs is smaller and closer to the star, as white dwarfs emit less heat. The researchers estimated that the structures observed in the orbit were enveloped by the star when it was a red giant, so they are more likely to have formed or arrived recently than having survived the birth of the start.

“The possibility of a planet in the habitable zone is exciting and also unexpected; we were not looking for this.  However, it is important to keep in mind that more evidence is necessary to confirm the presence of a planet. We cannot observe the planet directly so confirmation may come by comparing computer models with further observations of the star and orbiting debris,” Farihi said.

The study was published in the journal of the Royal Astronomical Society.

The journey of galaxy clusters in billions of years

A new study modeled the dynamics and evolution of some of the largest known structures in the universe.

Extragalactic neighborhood. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Let’s take a moment to look at our position in the universe.

We are now living on a solar system orbiting the center of the Milky Way galaxy — which itself lies in the Local Group of galaxies neighboring a Local Void, a vast cluster of space with fewer galaxies than expected. Wait, we’re not done yet. These structures are part of a larger region that encompasses thousands of galaxies in a supercluster called the Laniakea Supercluster, which is around 520 million light-years across. 

A group of researchers has now simulated the movement of galaxies in the Laniakea and other clusters of galaxies starting when the universe was in its infancy (just 1.6 million years old) until today. They used observations from the Two Micron All-Sky Survey (2MASS) and the Cosmicflows-3 as the starting point for their study. With these two tools, they looked at galaxies orbiting massive regions with velocities of up to 8,000 km/s — and made videos describing those orbits.

Because the universe is expanding and that influences the evolution of these superclusters, we first need to know how fast the universe is expanding, which has proven to be very difficult to calculate. So the team considered different plausible universal expansion scenarios to get the clusters’ motion. 

Besides Laniakea, the scientists report two other zones where galaxies appear to be flowing towards a gravitational field, the Perseus-Pisces (a 250 million light-years supercluster) and the Great Wall (a cluster of about 1.37 billion light-years). In the Laniakea region, galaxies flow towards the Great Attractor, a very dense part of the supercluster. The other superclusters have similar patterns, the Perseus-Pisces galaxies flow towards the spine of the cluster’s large filament.

The researchers even predicted the future of these galaxies. They estimated the path of the galaxies to something like 10 billion years into the future. It is clear in their videos, the expansion of the universe affecting the big picture. In smaller, denser regions, the attraction prevails, like the future of Milkomeda in the Local Group.

The study has been accepted for publication in Astrophysical Journal.

Four years ago, Elon Musk sent a Tesla to space. What happened to it?

Credit: SpaceX.

In early 2018, SpaceX tested its new Falcon Heavy rocket by launching a very unconventional cargo in space. Elon Musk, eccentric billionaire and SpaceX founder, wanted the payload to consist of a Tesla Roadster, with a mannequin called “Starman” dressed in an astronaut suit sitting in the driver’s seat.

After the initial hype of the publicity stunt wore off, Starman faded into obscurity. But this begs the question: What’s going on with that wacky space Tesla?

Well, it’s still in one piece, that’s for sure. Although the last time the Tesla Roadster was directly observed was in March 2018 (telescope directors aren’t too keen to award valuable observation time to a billionaire’s space junk), the object is still being tracked by NASA just as it does with thousands of car-sized asteroids.

According to the whereisroadster.com website, the Tesla is currently 234,483,948 miles (377,381,556 km) from Earth, moving away from us at a speed of 3,460 mi/h (5,568 km/h). However, overall, the car has traveled over 2 billion miles (3.2 billion km) during all of these years on an oblong orbit around the sun, whose edges intersect with Earth’s and Mars’s orbits.

So far, it has completed 2.6 loops around the Sun, making it the car with the largest mileage in history, by far. The vehicle has exceeded its 36,000-mile warranty almost 55,000 times while driving around the Sun.

Credit: whereisroadster.com

During its closest approach to Mars, Starman and his Roadster passed within 5 million miles (8 million km) of the red planet, or about 20 times the distance between Earth and the Moon. It won’t brush against Mars again until 2035 and it won’t pass within a few million miles of Earth until 2047. By the time the car will return to our planet’s vicinity, Tesla might not even exist anymore, nor Musk for that matter. Just as well, Tesla might become the most valuable company in the world and Musk could be sipping a martini in his new Martian colony.

In any event, the roaming space Tesla could travel for millions of years from now on. In a 2018 study, scientists at the University of Toronto Scarborough found that the probability of the vehicle colliding with Earth or Venus in the next million years was just 6% and 2.5%, respectively. The risk of colliding with Earth within the next 15 million years is about 22%. That’s a pretty low risk, which means the Tesla could be still orbiting the Sun even after humans, in all likelihood, could cease to exist.

Why aliens may look more like pasta rather than ‘little green men’

Fettucine-like strands at Yellowstone National Park. Credit: Tom Murphy.

It’d be fantastic to visit another planet and be greeted by friendly little green aliens. It really would, but that’s just projecting popular culture. Alas, when we’ll finally find the first extraterrestrial life forms — if such a milestone ever occurs — in all likelihood, these will be microbes. Not just any boring-looking, amoeba-shaped microbes though. According to scientists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, alien microbes or their fossils for that matter could look like fettuccini or capellini.

That’s how some hot-spring-loving microbes are shaped here on Earth, and if you ever visited Yellowstone National Park, you may have seen signs of them. The nation’s largest national park is dotted by hot geothermal water flowing from the ground, which is rich in minerals. These minerals precipitate, forming fibrous structures of calcium carbonate called travertine.

When Bruce Fouke, a geobiologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, visited Mammoth Hot Springs in the park, he found that the travertine looked like, well, pasta. Focusing on the head of the mineral spring, where the water is particularly hot (65 to 72 degrees Celsius) and more acidic, Fouke’s team sampled filamentous microbe mats. These pasta strands owe their shape to the rushing nature of the hot water spring, which forces organisms to cling to one another in order to survive, whereas in calmer water microbes settle in unconsolidated, slimy mats. Each thread consists of trillions of microbes, which thrive where 99.99% of all other life forms would have perished.

Fettuccine rocks at Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park. Credit: Bruce Fouke.

After taking a sample to the lab, the researchers found that the pasta mats are formed by Sulfurihydrogenibium yellowstonense, or “sulfuri” for short. True to their name, these bacteria break down sulfur compounds, producing hydrogen sulfide gas in the process and energy for themselves in order to survive. Proteins on the surface of these microbes react with the mineral-rich waters, encouraging the growth of calcium carbonate crystals and speeding up the formation of travertine a billion times faster than in other environments. Where there’s pasta-shaped travertine, you’ll find sulfuri, and vice-versa.

“They form tightly wound cables that wave like a flag that is fixed on one end. These Sulfuri cables look amazingly like fettuccine pasta, while further downstream they look more like capellini pasta,” Fouke said.

Sulfuri represents one of the oldest types of life on Earth, having evolved more than 2.5 billion years ago when Earth was a hellish planet with barely any oxygen in its atmosphere. And although any alien microbes living in hot springs will undoubtedly be of a different species, they would probably look and behave a lot like Earth’s sulfuri given the limited number of ways carbon-based life can work in such extreme environments.

Should a rover encounter pasta-shaped travertine on another planet like Mars, these rock formations could be treated as fossils. The unique morphology of the travertine would make it quite easy to spot too.

“This should be an easy form of fossilized life for a rover to detect on other planets,” Fouke added.

“If we see the deposition of this kind of extensive filamentous rock on other planets, we would know it’s a fingerprint of life. It’s big and it’s unique. No other rocks look like this. It would be definitive evidence of the presence of alien microbes,” the scientist added.

So far, we’ve yet to find filamentous travertine in Mars, but the now-defunct Spirit rover did find some odd cauliflower-shaped silica formations in the Gustav Crater, a region thought to have once harbored ancient Martian hot springs. These rocks resemble those shaped by microbes on Earth, actually at Yellowstone National Park where the silica contains the fossilized remains of microorganisms. Unfortunately, Spirit became unoperational before it had the chance to investigate further. Elsewhere at Gale Crater, the Curiosity rover found sedimentary rocks that seem to have signs of possible microbial mats. However, Curiosity doesn’t have the necessary hardware to make a proper analysis.

Perhaps the new Perseverance rover, which arrived on Mars in 2021 at Jezero Crater, will be luckier. Hopefully, it will be treated to a nice dish of fettuccine pasta by some Martian chef.

The findings were reported in the journal Astrobiology.

NASA plans to retire the ISS by crashing it into the ocean

NASA plans to keep operating the station until 2030, after which the ISS would be crashed into a remote part of the Pacific Ocean. Still, its next and (probably) last decade will be very important.  

Image credit: Flickr / NASA.

The space laboratory was launched in 2002 and has orbited 227 nautical miles above Earth, welcoming 200 astronauts from all around the world. From 2031 onwards, the ISS will be replaced by commercially operated space platforms – what NASA described as a venue for collaboration and scientific research with the private sector.

“The private sector is technically and financially capable of developing and operating commercial low-Earth orbit destinations, with NASA’s assistance. We look forward to sharing our lessons learned and operations experience with the private sector to help them,” Phil McAlister, director of commercial space at NASA, said in a press statement.

The news comes as part of NASA’s ISS Transition Report, which was delivered to Congress. The space agency said it plans for the ISS to fall in an area known as the South Pacific Oceanic Uninhabited Area, also known as Point Nemo – the farthest point in the ocean from land and a usual watery grave for many other spacecraft.

Point Nemo

The area is located 2,000 miles north of Antarctica and 3,000 miles of New Zealand. About 300 chunks of space debris have been sunk there since 1971, mostly of US or Russian origin, according to a study from 2019. NASA said the space station would carry out thrusting maneuvers that would ensure “safe atmospheric entry” to Earth.

The upcoming decade

While decommissioning it in less than ten years, NASA still has ambitious plans for the ISS. The most important goal is carrying out research to benefit humanity, while also leading international cooperation and helping the US private spaceflight expand and enabling deep-space exploration. The ISS would be used as an “analog for a Mars transit mission,” NASA said.

“The ISS is entering its third and most productive decade as a groundbreaking scientific platform in microgravity,” Robyn Gatens, director of the ISS, said in a statement. “This third decade is one of results, building on our successful global partnerships to verify exploration and human research technologies to support deep space exploration.”

NASA has been working on the transition for the ISS for a while now. The first phase involved agreements with Blue Origin, Nanoracks, and Northrop Grumman, three companies that want to build private space stations in Earth orbit. NASA also holds a deal with Axiom Space, which will launch modules to the ISS that will form a free flyer.

The first phase is expected to last through 2025. The second phase will be similar to the approach taken by NASA with private crew transportation services to and from the ISS, the report reads. Back in 2014, the agency awarded contracts to Boeing and SpaceX, which launched multiple missions with its Falcon 9 rocket since May 2020.

The ISS has been home to many scientific studies over the years. In 2016, astronaut Kate Rubins sequenced DNA in space for the first time. The first space-grown salad with lettuces and greens was eaten by astronauts in 2015. An item was 3D-printed on the space station for the first time in 2014. And there’s more to come soon. 

First private mission to the ISS gets green light from NASA

The crew of Ax-1 kicked off training for their paradigm-shifting mission in May, getting a series of brief experiences of microgravity conditions aboard a Zero G parabolic flight. Credit: Axiom Space.

In the 24 years since it’s been in operation, the International Space Station (ISS) has welcomed over 244 astronauts, which have made 403 individual flights. With the exception of a few tourists, these were all astronauts on publicly-funded missions from NASA and its partners, such as Russia, Japan, Canada, or the European Space Agency. But in only two months, the first-ever private mission to the ISS is scheduled to commence.

The mission, called Axiom-1, is operated by the private space company Axiom Space, a Houston-based company founded in 2016 that aims to build and operate its own space station in low Earth orbit (LEO) in the coming years. In the meantime, Axiom Space wants to launch three missions to the ISS, for which it has signed a deal with SpaceX to send its own astronauts to space aboard the Dragon 2 capsule. SpaceX’s spacecraft has already flown three crewed missions to the ISS, all carrying NASA government astronauts and cargo. This time, however, will mark the first time a private space crew sets foot on the station.

Axiom-1 is set to launch on March 31, after a series of delays pushed back the initial launch originally planned for late 2021. Originally, movie star Tom Cruise and acclaimed director and producer Doug Liman were interested in joining the mission to film in space. However, the final lineup of Axiom-1 now includes Michael López-Alegría as the Spacecraft commander and Larry Connor as the Pilot, as well as Mark Pathy and Eytan Stibbe as Mission Specialists.

López-Alegría is an experienced astronaut who completed four previous spaceflights and a former NASA pilot. He is also the vice president of Axiom Space. Connor, Pathy, and Stibbe are all investors in the company and philanthropists.

Although Axiom-1 is expected to last no more than 10 days, the team has set out to complete an ambitious number of scientific experiments meant to improve our understanding of space and its impact on the human body. These include experiments on senescent cells, cells that stop multiplying but don’t die off when they should, which have been linked to age-related disorders; research into holoportation, a mixed reality technology that allows high-quality 3D models of people to be reconstructed, compressed, and transmitted anywhere; research on Spaceflight-Associated Neuro-Ocular Syndrome, which negatively affects visual sharpness in many astronauts; observations of Earth; and online education activities with students back on Earth.

“The goal for the Ax-1 crew is to set a standard for all future private astronaut missions in terms of our preparation and professionalism,” López-Alegría said. “As the commander, I am proud of the work these crew members have put in to be ready to conduct meaningful work on the International Space Station and glad to see them meet the standards required of all astronauts flying to station since Expedition 1. Ax-1 is focused on a huge amount of science and outreach activities, and we look forward now to finalizing that flight program.”

López-Alegría and the rest of the crew have been training at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, as well as other NASA facilities, since August 2021. During this time, they were trained on how to use station systems, scientific facilities, and emergency procedures.

NASA is welcoming this partnership with open arms. It’s in the space agency’s best interest to support a growing low-orbit economy. As more trusted partners come aboard, commercial spaceflight will become less and less expensive, benefiting all stakeholders. NASA can then focus on more ambitious missions like Artemis — a manned mission to the Moon in preparation for crewed trips to Mars.

Although there’s no official date yet, Axiom Space already announced the crew for Axiom-2, commanded by Peggy Whitson, a veteran astronaut with three trips to the ISS under her belt and the record-holder for the longest-serving American in space. Whitson will be joined by pilot John Shoffner, an American racing driver and investor. Axiom-2 will research single-cell genomics, the study of the individuality of cells using omics approaches.

“To experience astronaut training teamed with Peggy is an honour. I am also excited about our upcoming work with 10x Genomics in this first step towards making their single-cell technologies available to researchers in a microgravity environment.” said Shoffner.

“I look forward to the process of testing and validating this technology for future groundbreaking work in low-Earth orbit.”

Tom Cruise’s plans for space haven’t been scrapped either. In fact, they’ve only become grander. Axiom has signed a deal with Space Entertainment Enterprise, co-founded by producers Elena and Dmitry Lesnevsky, to build and attach a module to the ISS, which would be “the world’s first content and entertainment studios and multipurpose arena in space.” Called SEE-1, the module is scheduled to launch in December 2024, where Tom Cruise is expected to film a future space movie in actual microgravity.

An animation of the inflatable, round SEE-1 module attached to Axiom’s space station on the ISS. Image: Axiom/S.E.E.

Axiom previously won a $140 million NASA contract to attach a habitable module to the ISS. This module will, at some point, detach before the ISS retires in 2030, to lay the foundation for the free-flying Axiom Station, pictured below.

Credit: Axiom Space.

Half plane, half rocket, this Chinese supersonic jet could fly Beijing to New York in only an hour

Credit: Space Transportation.

Chinese company Space Transportation wants to take a jab at the growing space tourism market with a winged rocket capable of suborbital travel. The reusable space plane could take wealthy tourists to the edge of space then land them on the other side of the world in no time. A trip from Beijing to New York would only take an hour.

Space Transportation was founded in 2018 and last August it managed to raise $46 million to develop its flagship supersonic spaceplane. Although details are still sparse, a video presentation on the company’s website shows passengers boarding a vertical plane attached to a glider wing with two boosters. Once it reaches a high altitude in the stratosphere, the airplane detaches from the auxiliary power, with the wing and boosters landing back on the launch pad on their own. The airplane, now in suborbital space, proceeds to its destination, back at the launch site after passengers experience a brief stint of weightlessness or in a different destination altogether, virtually anywhere in the world. Touch down is done vertically on three legs deployed from the rear, according to Space.com.

Credit: Space Transportation.

The developers behind the project seem pretty serious about it. So far, they’ve made 10 flight tests for the self-landing booster rockets, the last of which was done in collaboration with a combustion research lab from Tsinghua University.

In many ways, Space Transporation sounds like the Chinese version of Virgin Galactic and, to a lesser degree, SpaceX. In the summer of 2021, Virgin CEO Sir Richard Branson made headlines after he went on an 11-minute suborbital flight, reaching 55 miles (88km) above the Earth’s surface. Just a week later, fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos made it past the Kármán Line, the internationally-recognized boundary of space, at nearly 62 miles (100 km) above Earth’s surface, aboard a capsule launched by Blue Origin’s New Shepard reusable rocket.

Credit: Space Transportation.

Global space tourism is projected to reach just $1.7 billion by 2027, according to a report published in 2021. Virgin Galactic has hundreds of reservations for tickets on future flights, sold between $200,000 and $250,000 each. No reservation data has been made public by Blue Origin, but we can presume they’ll soon start making more commercial space tourism flights.

However, neither Virgin Galactic nor Blue Origin seems to be interested in point-to-point travel. In addition to potential space tourism flights, Space Transportation’s vehicle also doubles as a supersonic plane capable of traveling at more than 2,600 mph. SpaceX had plans for a similar concept when it announced its “Earth to Earth” project in 2017, which repurposes its “BFR” rocket originally meant to carry passengers to Mars. But Elon Musk’s company hasn’t released any details about this city-to-city passenger transport since then, which may mean it could have been scrapped entirely.

Perhaps SpaceX found city-to-city supersonic travel financially unfeasible, but Space Transportation doesn’t seem deterred. It is planning ground tests by 2023, the first flight by 2024, and a crewed mission by 2025. Looking farther into the future, the Chinese startup dreams of testing an orbital crew space vehicle, the kind that SpaceX uses to ferry crew and cargo to the International Space Station, by 2030.

Astronomers spot second Trojan asteroid trailing Earth’s orbit

Artist impression of 2020 XL5, shown in the foreground in the lower left. The two bright points above it on the far left are Earth (right) and the Moon (left). The Sun appears on the right. Credit: OIRLab/NSF/AURA/J. da Silva/Spaceengine.

Astronomers have just confirmed the existence of only the second-known Earth Trojan. This isn’t some mythical wooden horse or pesky computer virus, but actually a massive, 1-km-wide asteroid that shares an orbit with the planet, clustered around special gravitationally balanced areas known as Lagrange points.

Trojan asteroids trail ahead or behind the orbit of a planet at approximately 60°, in the Lagrange points L4 and L5. These are gravitational “sweet spots” where the influence of two large bodies, such as the Sun and a planet, cancel each other out, so a relatively tiny body isn’t drawn towards any particular object. Instead, objects stay put in the same orbital point relative to the two large bodies, which is why NASA recently sent Hubble’s successor, the powerful James Webb Telescope, to L2, where it remains in a stable orbit with its back constantly facing the sun in order to perform infrared observations of some of the most distant objects in the universe with minimal disturbances.

This diagram shows the five Lagrange points for the Earth-Sun system (distances not at scale). There are only two known Earth Trojan asteroids, the newly found 2020 XL5 and 2010 TK7. Credit: NOIRLab/NSF/AURA/J. da Silva.

The first official Trojan was discovered in a Lagrange point around Jupiter on February 22, 1906, by German astronomer Max Wolf. Two other Trojans were found quickly after, and the three were named Achilles, Patroclus, and Hektor. By 2017, more than 6,400 Trojans had been spotted:  4,184 at Jupiter’s L4 point and 2,326 at L5. In order to track them, Austrian astronomer Johann Palisa, a prolific discoverer of asteroids, came up with the naming convention where asteroids near the L4 point were named for Greek heroes from Homer’s Iliad (The Achean camp) and those near L5 for Trojan heroes (the Trojan camp). However, 617 Patroclus (at L5) and 624 Hektor (at L4) were named before this convention took root, so each camp has a “spy” in its midst!

Although Jupiter and its swarm of Trojans comprise by far the lion’s share of Lagrangian asteroids in the solar system, astronomers have identified Trojans near other worlds, such as Mars (4 to date, 1 at L4 and 3 at L5) and Neptune (8 Trojans, 6 at L4 and 2 at L5) and even Earth.

The first Earth Trojan, called 2010 TK7, was found a decade ago. It’s estimated to be less than 400 meters across. The second, newly found Trojan, known as 2020 XL5, is nearly three times larger, with an estimated diameter of 1.2 kilometers (0.7 miles). It was discovered on 12 December 2020 by the Pan-STARRS1 telescope in Hawai‘i during a routine survey of the sky. A preliminary analysis suggests the asteroid’s orbit may be compatible with L4 and after some convincing work by researcher Toni Santana-Ros, the director of the 4.1-meter SOAR (Southern Astrophysical Research) Telescope on Cerro Pachón in Chile was persuaded to allocate more observation time to confirm this hypothesis.

Armed with new precise measurements of 2020 XL5 of movements in the sky, the astronomers could then access archival images taken since 2012 by the Víctor M. Blanco 4-meter Telescope located at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO), in Chile.

“The day we discovered the precovery data was an explosion of emotions. Suddenly, out of the blue, we had 10 years of observations of our object! Santana-Ros,” an astronomer with the Institut de Ciències del Cosmos (ICCUB) at the Universitat de Barcelona and lead author of the new study, told ZME Science.

This second Earth Trojan is likely a C-complex type asteroid, a designation for asteroids predominantly composed of carbon. Based on its orbital analysis, 2020 XLwill remain in its orbit for at least 4,000 years. The asteroid could have been ejected from the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, following an interaction with Jupiter.

Further research would be needed to confirm the origins of 2020 XL5. What’s certain is that both Earth Trojans were captured after the planet formed, unlike primordial Jupiter Trojans that orbit L4 and L5 points since the time of the gas giant’s formation. That’s why Jupiter Trojans are much more important and interesting to study, as they may lock secrets pertaining to the formation of Jupiter and the solar system as a whole. In late 2021, NASA launched the Lucy spacecraft, which is now on route to rendezvous with 3548 Eurybates, 15094 Polymele, 11351 Leucus, and 21900 Orus in the L4 Greek Camp, plus 617 Patroclus and its binary companion, Menoetius, in the L5 Trojan Camp. During its 12-year mission, Lucy is tasked with gathering data on the surface composition, surface geology, and the interior and bulk properties of the Trojan targets.

“Primordial Trojan asteroids (i.e. those orbiting the L4/L5 points of a planet from the time of its formation) can provide us information about the formation of its host planet and, in turn, keys to better understand the evolution of the Solar System by adding constraints to its evolution models. We have studied the primordial Jupiter Trojans for several years and we will soon have the opportunity to investigate them with in situ observations taken by NASA’s space mission Lucy,” Santana-Ros said.

“Unfortunately, both Earth Trojans known have been confirmed to be transient objects, meaning that they have been captured in the L4 stability point many years after the Earth formation (actually quite recently! Only 600 years ago for 2020 XL5). Nevertheless, the discovery of 2020 XL5 as an Earth Trojan, confirms that 2010 TK7 is not a rare exception and that there are probably more bodies populating L4 and probably L5 of the Earth-Sun system. This encourages us to keep enhancing our survey strategies to find, if it exists, the first primordial Earth Trojan,” he added.

Due to its huge mass, Jupiter has cleared its neighboring region of objects, gathering 79 moons and a swarm of Trojans. Earth and other rocky planets in the solar system have more delicate environments, hence they have far fewer Trojans. Even so, the researchers estimate that Earth probably has tens or hundreds — but certainly not thousands — of Trojans waiting to be discovered. But it won’t be easy.

“It is a pain for astronomers to point to the L4 and L5 points of the Sun-Earth system while being on our planet! Any asteroid orbiting around these points will only be visible during a short time window close to twilight, at very low elevations above the horizon,” Santana-Ros said.

The findings appeared in a study published today in the journal Nature Communications.

Spooky “transient” object detected in our galactic neighborhood

Astronomers from the Curtin University node of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) in Australia have found something unlike anything previously seen. Researchers suspect it could be a completely new type of star.

Artists depiction of what the unknown object might look like. (Credit: ICRAR)

A team mapping radio waves in the cosmos has discovered something unusual that releases a giant burst of energy every 18 minutes. They believe it could be a neutron star or white dwarf with an insanely strong magnetic field — something that hasn’t been observed until now (and researchers weren’t even sure can exist).

“This object was appearing and disappearing over a few hours during our observations,” said Natasha Hurley-Walker, who led the team that made the discovery. “That was completely unexpected. It was kind of spooky for an astronomer because there’s nothing known in the sky that does that.”

The object in question lies only 4,000 light-years away — technically far away, but still in our galactic neighborhood. It was discovered using the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) telescope in outback Western Australia. The MWA’s wild field of view made it perfect for detecting the unorthodox object. But even equipped with this tool, it was challenging to find it.

These strange patterns of behavior which can’t be physically observed are called ‘transients’. But no transient like this one has been discovered so far.

‘Slow transients’, such as supernovae, can appear over the course of a few days and disappear after a few months. The other side of the spectrum are ‘fast transients’, such as a pulsar. These flash on and off within milliseconds or seconds.

However, discovering something that illuminated for only a minute didn’t seem to fit with either of those. The new mysterious object was incredibly bright and smaller than the Sun, emitting highly-polarized radio waves, suggesting the entity had an extremely strong magnetic field.

Hurley-Walker said the observations match a predicted astrophysical object called an ‘ultra-long period magnetar’ — a magnetar being an exotic type of neutron star with an extremely powerful magnetic field. So far, it’s only been something thought to exist, but never actually observed.

“It’s a type of slowly spinning neutron star that has been predicted to exist theoretically,” she said. “But nobody expected to directly detect one like this because we didn’t expect them to be so bright. Somehow it’s converting magnetic energy to radio waves much more effectively than anything we’ve seen before. More detections will tell astronomers whether this was a rare one-off event or a vast new population we’d never noticed before.”

The study was published in Nature.