Space

Stunning NASA image reveals ‘jack-o-lantern’ Sun

An incredible image released by NASA shows the Sun bearing a striking resemblance to a jack-o-lantern. The image was captured on Oct. 8, 2014 by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), which watches the Sun at all times. The orbiting space observatory was launched on Feb. 11, 2010. “Happy Halloween!” the space agency tweeted Tuesday with the stunning picture of the ‘jack-o-lantern’ sun. “Active regions on the sun combined to look something like a jack-o-lantern’s face,” explained NASA, in a statement on its website. “The active regions in this image appear brighter because those are areas that emit more light and energy. They are markers of an intense and complex set of magnetic fields hovering in the sun’s atmosphere, the corona,” it added. The image blends together two extreme sets of ultraviolet wavelengths, which are typically colorized in gold and yellow, to create an appearance resembling a jack-o-lantern, according to NASA.

Very cool!!  Click on the text above to see this awesome photo.    🙂

Mysterious object from deep space has entered the solar system

It was first seen just a month ago. A tiny blip of light was seen to be moving through the sky by the PanSTARRS1 telescope in Hawaii. The number-crunching which followed was automatic. The results were unusual. This object is in an odd position. It’s moving very fast. And it’s in what appears to be a somewhat extreme orbit. Extreme enough not to actually be an orbit, in fact. Observations published by the by the International Astronomical Union’s Minor Planet Center (MPC) suggest it could have come from deep space. Specifically, it could be a comet that has escaped another star. “If further observations confirm the unusual nature of this orbit, this object may be the first clear case of an interstellar comet,” the MPC declares. The PanSTARRS telescope spotted the object only after it was flung back out towards the stars by our Sun. It’s not likely to ever return. It flashed past Earth at 24 million kilometres on October 14. Many eyes watched it closely, keen to determine exactly what it was. Their curiosity was piqued by where it had come from. Most objects orbiting our Sun do so along a common plane: the planets, dwarf planets and asteroids mostly swing around in roughly the same way. This one appears to have come down on the plane from 122 degrees, from the direction of the star Vega, in the constellation Lyra. And its path did not indicate the curved ellipse typical of clockwork-like returning comets. Best guesstimates make it a comet of about 160m diameter, with a surface reflectivity (albedo) of about 10 per cent. The object has just been through a close call (in Solar System terms): it came within 38 million km of our star before its momentum and the Sun’s gravity hurled it back outward. Normally such a close pass would be fatal. But C/2017U1 was travelling too fast for the Sun’s heat to consume it. It was moving at 26km per second when first observed. Astronomers are now attempting to refine their observations and data to pinpoint exactly where it came from. If it truly is of interstellar origin, the next task is to find which star it is likely to have come from. At the moment, it appears to have been somewhere in the direction of the star Vega. It’s also likely to have been wandering, alone, in deep space for a very, very long time. Vega is a relatively close neighbour of our Sun at 25 light years distance. At the speed it’s travelling, it would take about 1.7 million years to cross the interstellar divide.

Fascinating!!    🙂

Mars once had a lake 10 times larger than the Great Lakes

Scientists have known for some time that Mars once had lots and lots of water — in fact, some of it is still there — but exactly where it existed on the planet has been pretty difficult to figure out thanks to billions of years of surface erosion. Now, NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has discovered one place on the red planet that held a whole bunch of the life-giving liquid: an incredibly massive lake that, during its peak, held ten times the amount of water of all the Great Lakes, combined. It’s an incredible discovery, and one that could help inform future exploration of Mars in the hopes of finding evidence that life once existed there. The idea that Mars was one a life-giving planet much like our own is one that has tantalized scientists for a long, long time, and if they ever hope to prove it, they now have a promising lead on where to start looking. But even if Mars never hosted living organisms, its colossal lake could still help inform researchers painting the picture of life’s origins here on Earth. “Even if we never find evidence that there’s been life on Mars, this site can tell us about the type of environment where life may have begun on Earth,” Paul Niles of NASA’s Johnson Space Center explains. “Volcanic activity combined with standing water provided conditions that were likely similar to conditions that existed on Earth at about the same time — when early life was evolving here.” The lake was discovered thanks to the detection of huge mineral deposits hiding underneath the surface. It is believed that those minerals were the byproduct of volcanic underwater vents, much like those that exist deep in Earth’s oceans. On our planet, those hydrothermal vents actually host life, but it’s unclear whether the same was true for ancient Mars. At the moment, the idea of a massive Martian lake with hydrothermal features is incredibly exciting, but we’re still a long way from actually finding anything suggesting the existence of life there. There are no current plans to actually investigate the site, dig, or study the area beyond what is already being done, but that could change.

Let’s hope so!

No life needed: Organic compound forms at comet and baby star system

Organic molecules once thought to be produced only by life-forms have been found in two separate regions of space: a nearby comet and the debris around a pair of forming stars. Previous studies on exoplanets have considered a substance, called chloromethane, to be a biomarker molecule, which means it indicates the potential existence of life. Before now, it was known to becreated by some tropical plants on Earth as well as industrial processes, where it is known as Freon-40. However, the new findings, detailed Oct. 2 in the journal Nature Astronomy, indicate that the chemical can also form without the help of life. Edith Fayolle, the study’s lead author, cautions against drawing too quick a conclusion, though. “It’s not a negative, ‘no it’s not a biomarker,'” Fayolle told Space.com, but “it’s not a direct biomarker, I would say.” It could still suggest the presence of life, but it is no longer considered a definitive sign. At the time, Fayolle was a researcher at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (she is now at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory). Fayolle’s team identified the chloromethane on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko as well as around a pair of protostars in the early stages of forming a binary star system. The discovery was “a bit of an accident,” Fayolle said. “I wasn’t particularly looking for it.” Fayolle was curious about the origin of chloromethane on Mars. NASA’s Curiosity rover discovered the compound on the Red Planet, but there’s been debate over its origins. Some scientists suggested that the compound could have formed when chlorine compounds, called perchlorates, on the surface reacted with carbon carried by the rover itself as it was analyzing samples. Scientists later confirmed that the carbon and hydrogen in Mars’ chloromethane matches that found in meteorites. Therefore, impacts could be one source of the planet’s chloromethane, but it could also have formed from smaller molecules on the planet’s surface. Fayolle said the origin is far from settled. Fayolle’s group first found chloromethane around the binary star system using data from the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), in northern Chile. The telescope was surveying the binary stars to determine the system’s chemical complexity. The ALMA team was also collaborating with scientists on the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission, which led Fayolle to examine that data, too. Rosetta orbited comet 67P/Churyumov-—Gerasimenko for two years until it was steered into the comet in September 2016 at the end of its mission. Measurements sent back by the spacecraft allowed the team to identify chloromethane in the comet as well. Combined, the two discoveries shed light on the progression of chemistry in solar system formation. The results from the protostar system suggest that compounds like chloromethane can form efficiently as stars coalesce, according to a statement by Nature Astronomy. Meanwhile, the data from the comet indicate that these compounds can survive the formation of planets. This supports a continuous model of solar system formation, Fayolle said, rather than one where the heat of star formation causes chemicals to recombine, leaving few compounds unchanged and resetting the system’s chemistry.”Based on our discovery, organohalogens are likely to be a constituent of the so-called ‘primordial soup,’ both on the young Earth and on nascent rocky exoplanets,” co-author Karin Öberg said in a statement. This suggests that, in addition to forming in the presence of life, compounds like chloromethane may have contributed to its development.

Fascinating!!

Water ice mystery found at Martian equator

A new examination of old data suggests that there might be ice hiding in the Martian equator, even though scientists previously thought that the substance couldn’t exist there. Scientists uncovered an unexpected amount of hydrogen when looking at older data from NASA’s Mars Odyssey spacecraft dating back to between 2002 and 2009. At higher latitudes, hydrogen generally indicates buried water ice, but this was not believed possible at the equator, according to a statement from NASA. If there is indeed water there, this would help with a future human mission to Mars, because it could mean the astronauts wouldn’t need to bring the substance with them for drinking, cooling equipment or watering plants, researchers said in the statement. Instead, the astronauts could live off the land to an extent, reducing the number of resources that need to be trucked (at higher cost) from Earth. Mars Odyssey’s first major discovery, in 2002, was also linked to water; the spacecraft found buried hydrogen at high latitudes, and the 2008 landing of the Phoenix Mars lander confirmed that there was water ice. However, at lower latitudes, measurements of hydrogen were explained as hydrated minerals (which other spacecraft have also observed). Researchers didn’t think water ice was thermodynamically stable in those areas. For this new study, the researchers analyzed data collected using Mars Odyssey’s neutron spectrometer. The instrument is not designed to directly detect water, but by measuring neutrons, it can detect signatures of hydrogen, which can mark the presence of water or other hydrogen-bearing substances. The science team reduced the blurring or “noise” in Odyssey’s data using image-reconstruction techniques based on those used for other spacecraft and for medicine, according to the statement. This improved the spatial resolution of the data to 180 miles (290 kilometers), twice the previous resolution of 320 miles (520 km). “It was as if we’d cut the spacecraft’s orbital altitude in half, and it gave us a much better view of what’s happening on the surface,” Jack Wilson, the study’s principal investigator and a postdoctoral researcher at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland, said in the statement. Using those closer views, the researchers saw even higher levels of hydrogen, suggestive of water. Their work focused on equatorial areas, particularly in zones around the Medusae Fossae formation, an area that includes material that is easy to erode. Previous observations from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and the European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter suggested there might be volcanic deposits or water ice just below the surface. Scientists, however, were skeptical that it was water ice, because “if the detected hydrogen were buried ice within the top meter [3.3 feet] of the surface, there would be more than would fit into pore space in soil,” Wilson said. The study’s scientists emphasized that more evidence is needed to conclude that the signature indeed comes from water ice. They’re not too sure how the water was preserved, they said; perhaps ice and dust flowing from the poles moved through the atmosphere when Mars had a steeper axis tilt than today. However, it’s been at least hundreds of thousands of years since those conditions existed, and the water ice deposited back then shouldn’t be around anymore, the researchers said. (This would be true even if, somehow, dust or a crust at the surface trapped the humidity underground, the scientists added.) “Perhaps the signature could be explained in terms of extensive deposits of hydrated salts, but how these hydrated salts came to be in the formation is also difficult to explain,” Wilson said. “So, for now, the signature remains a mystery worthy of further study, and Mars continues to surprise us.” The new work was detailed Sept. 28 in the journal Icarus.

Very cool!!

NASA and Russia reveal plan to build SPACE STATION orbiting the MOON

Moscow and Washington have agreed to build the station called Deep Space Gateway – finally bringing a long standing concept into reality. Russia’s space agency Roscosmos announced the ambitious project today in a speech at International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide, Australia. Following in the footsteps of the International Space Station, the moon ship would be open to astronauts and cosmonauts from around the world. Space bosses hope the Deep Space Gateway will allow mankind to stage space flights to Mars and elsewhere in the Solar System. It comes after US President Donald Trump announced in his debut speech on Capitol Hill he wanted astronauts to arrive on “distant worlds” within the next ten years. NASA and Roscosmos hope the space station’s first modules would be completed by 2026 – the 250th anniversary of the United States. “We have agreed to join the project to build a new international Deep Space Gateway station in the moon’s orbit,” Russian space chief Igor Komarov said. The space station could provide a staging point for the proposed Deep Space Transport vessel – which would ferry astronauts around the solar system. It is hoped technology developed for the Deep Space Gateway could be implemented into surface bases on the Moon and Mars. In a mission statement for the project, NASA said: “NASA is leading the next steps into deep space near the moon, where astronauts will build and begin testing the systems needed for challenging missions to deep space destinations including Mars. “The area of space near the moon offers a true deep space environment to gain experience for human missions that push farther into the solar system, access the lunar surface for robotic missions but with the ability to return to Earth if needed in days rather than weeks or months.” The space agency added: “The gateway and transport could potentially support mission after mission as a hub of activity in deep space near the moon, representing multiple countries and agencies with partners from both government and private industry. “NASA is open to new ideas of both a technical and programmatic nature suggestions as we develop, mature and implement this plan.” Speaking in March, Trump said, “American footprints on distant worlds are not too big a dream” and added all was possible if, “we set free the dreams of our people.”

Agreed!!

Next year, scientists will send messages to search for aliens

For the last half-century or so, astronomers around the world have been scanning the cosmos with massive radio telescopes in hopes of finding some sign of intelligent life. This network of alien-hunters comprises the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), but despite all their efforts, the interstellar radio waves have remained quiet. One might even say too quiet. Depending on who you ask, first contact with an extraterrestrial civilization might happen any day now. Seth Shostak, director of the SETI Institute, has famously predicted that we’ll hear from ET within the next two decades. Others, such as the Cornell University astronomer Yervant Terzian are less optimistic — his probabilistic calculations place first contact in about 1,500 years, assuming there’s anyone left on Earth to receive the call. But many SETI astronomers aren’t content with only scanning the airwaves for signs of ET. Instead, they think we should also be actively reaching out to the cosmos on behalf of planet Earth. These astronomers occupy a controversial niche within the SETI community known as Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligences, or METI. At the forefront of this group is Douglas Vakoch, president of METI International, a research group dedicated to designing and sending messages intended for extraterrestrial recipients. Vakoch and his colleagues at METI International are fighting an uphill battle. Aside from all the technical problems that come with trying to contact aliens, many SETI astronomers think it’s a bad idea. The METI opposition group, which includes scientists like Stephen Hawking, argues that since we have no idea what ET might be like, sending a message into the cosmos comes with a huge existential risk. If the aliens happen to be friendly, no problem. But if they’re hostile, that means we’re essentially sending out a beacon that says “ATTACK HERE.” A lot of ink has been spilled over whether or not actively attempting to make contact with extraterrestrials is advisable. But despite the arguments to the contrary, Vakoch said he’s not worried. “One of the reasons people are so afraid of METI is that it seems riskier to do something than to do nothing,” Vakoch told me over email. “When we try to evaluate the risks and benefits of an unknown situation where we have little or no actual data, we fall back on the most vivid images that come to mind. But just because the first images of alien contact that come to mind are horrific, that doesn’t mean they’re realistic.” By 2018, METI International hopes to begin sending messages into space. This immediately presents a host of problems, such as: how do you design a message for a species that is totally unfamiliar with any language on Earth? Over the last 50 years, a number of solutions to this problem have been proposed, ranging from full-fledged mathematical languages to rudimentary chatbots, music, or pictograms. For the most part, SETI scientists are in agreement that the message will have to be strongly rooted in mathematics and physics, since these are likely to be the only two types of knowledge we have in common with the ET.

Perhaps…perhaps not.  Regardless, it’s definitely risky….