21st September 2020

Alien life could be living in the clouds above Venus

There’s a chance alien life could live in the clouds above Venus, our second closest neighbour in the solar system.

Scientists have been left surprised by the discovery because when it comes to finding life on nearby worlds, the planet of Venus is one of the most unlikely of places.

Venus has an atmosphere almost entirely made from the gas carbon dioxide (CO2) which is poisonous to humans and animals, and because it’s the second planet closest to the Sun, its surface is really, really hot – about 465 degrees Celsius (900 degrees Fahrenheit) – basically the temperature of a pizza oven.

But now researchers say they have discovered another gas, 50km up from the planet’s surface and one that they can’t explain.

That gas is called phosphine.

On Earth, phosphine is important for life, it’s found in places with not much oxygen, such as swamps or in the bellies of animals such as penguins. Small amounts can be created by the breakdown of living material.

There are definitely no penguins on Venus, so what has caused phosphine to be there? Well that’s the reason scientists are still scratching their heads.

Prof Jane Greaves and her team from Cardiff University first discovered phosphine using a large telescope in Hawaii.

“Through my whole career I have been interested in the search for life elsewhere in the Universe, so I’m just blown away that this is even possible,” she said.

So is there life?

Unfortunately there isn’t a definitive answer to that question, but any life would be microscopic, meaning very small.

The surface of Venus is pretty grim – space probes that have landed on the planet have survived just minutes before breaking down. However, up in the clouds is a much cooler environment so, if there really is life on Venus, that is exactly where you would expect to find it.

However, this is Venus we’re talking about. The planet’s clouds are thick and contain sulphuric acid, which would be deadly for any living organism here on Earth.

Dr William Bains, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US, is a biochemist on the team. He studied whether volcanoes, lightning and even meteorites on Venus could cause phosphine – and out of all the chemical reactions he’s investigated, he says they’re far too weak to produce the amount of phosphine that has been discovered.

To survive the sulphuric acid, Dr Bains believes life on Venus would be airborne microbes that have used some unknown, radically different biochemistry, or evolved a kind of armour.

“In principle, a more water-loving life could hide itself away inside a protective shell of some sorts inside the sulphuric acid droplets,” he said. “We’re talking bacteria surrounding themselves by something tougher than Teflon and completely sealing themselves in. But then how do they eat? How do they exchange gases? It’s a real paradox.”

Dr Lewis Dartnell from the University of Westminster is an astrobiologist – someone who studies the possibilities of life beyond Earth. He thinks Mars or the moons of Jupiter and Saturn are more likely places to find life.

“If life can survive in the upper cloud-decks of Venus – that’s very illuminating, because it means maybe life is very common in our galaxy as a whole. Maybe life doesn’t need very Earth-like planets and could survive on other, hellishly-hot, Venus-like planets across the Milky Way.”

When will we find out if there is alien life on Venus?

Nasa is planning a mission in the 2030s, where a balloon called an aerobot will be launched from a space craft to travel through the clouds of Venus collecting data.

Source: https://www.bbc.co.uk/newsround/54147936

July 27th

For the first time ever, astronomers have directly imaged multiple planets orbiting a sunlike star.

The European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile photographed two giant planets circling TYC 8998-760-1, a very young analogue of our own sun that lies about 300 light-years from Earth, a new study reports.

“This discovery is a snapshot of an environment that is very similar to our solar system, but at a much earlier stage of its evolution,” study lead author Alexander Bohn, a doctoral student at Leiden University in the Netherlands, said in a statement. 

Before this historic cosmic portrait, only two multiplanet systems had ever been directly imaged, and neither of them features a sunlike star, study team members said. And snapping a photo of even a single exoplanet remains a rare achievement.

“Even though astronomers have indirectly detected thousands of planets in our galaxy, only a tiny fraction of these exoplanets have been directly imaged,” study co-author Matthew Kenworthy, an associate professor at Leiden University, said in the same statement.

Bohn, Kenworthy and their colleagues studied the 17-million-year-old star TYC 8998-760-1 with the VLT’s Spectro-Polarimetric High-contrast Exoplanet Research instrument, or SPHERE for short. SPHERE uses a device called a coronagraph to block a star’s blinding light, allowing astronomers to see and study orbiting planets that would otherwise be lost in the glare.

The newly reported SPHERE imagery revealed two planets in the system, TYC 8998-760-1b and TYC 8998-760-1c. Astronomers already knew about TYC 8998-760-1b — a team led by Bohn announced its discovery late last year — but TYC 8998-760-1c is a newfound world.

The two planets are huge and farflung. TYC 8998-760-1b is about 14 times more massive than Jupiter and orbits at an average distance of 160 astronomical units (AU), and TYC 8998-760-1c is six times heftier than Jupiter and lies about 320 AU from the host star. (One AU is the average Earth-sun distance — about 93 million miles, or 150 million kilometers. For comparison: Jupiter and Saturn orbit our sun at just 5 AU and 10 AU, respectively.)

It’s unclear whether the two worlds in TYC 8998-760-1 formed at their present locations or were pushed out there somehow. Further observations, including those made by huge future observatories such as the European Extremely Large Telescope (ELT), could help to solve that mystery, study team members said.

Other questions remain about the TYC 8998-760-1 system as well. For example, do the two gas giants have company? Might several rocky planets circle relatively close to the star, as they do in our solar system? 

“The possibility that future instruments, such as those available on the ELT, will be able to detect even lower-mass planets around this star marks an important milestone in understanding multiplanet systems, with potential implications for the history of our own solar system,” Bohn said. 

The new study was published online today (July 22) in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Source: https://www.space.com/multiplanet-system-sun-like-star-first-photo.html

8th June

On June 8, 1959, NASA’s rocket-powered X-15 experimental plane made its first glide flight.

The X-15 rocket plane was part of a series of experimental hypersonic aircraft.

This flight marked the beginning of almost a decade of research that explored the altitudes and hypersonic speed at the edge of space. At maximum speed, the X-15 would fly at Mach 6.7 ― 4,520 miles per hour!

The X-15 program had a total of 12 test pilots, including Neil Armstrong, between 1959 and 1968, making 199 flights in the process. The aircraft flew over a period of almost 10 years. And with a max altitude of 67 miles, it was even able to reach the edge of outer space in the 1960s. 

Source: https://www.space.com/39251-on-this-day-in-space.html

24th May 2020

The astronauts began their conference just after a critical review that determines whether the mission will go forward concluded successfully. 

“We are go for launch! The Flight Readiness Review has concluded and @NASA’s SpaceX Crew Dragon mission is cleared to proceed toward liftoff,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine wrote on Twitter.

“Just heard that everything went well with the FRR, we’re excited to be still on the countdown,” Hurley said. “Hopefully, we’ll see the static fire here in a couple hours.” 

Veteran NASA astronauts preparing to blast off in a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule shared their expectations for the approaching historic launch. 

On Friday, (May 22), less than a week before their scheduled May 27 launch, veteran NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley addressed the public in a virtual conference from crew quarters at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The astronauts offered their final thoughts before heading to the International Space Station. 

Their mission, known as Demo-2, will see the astronauts launch from Kennedy aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule, which will make them the first astronauts to ride an American rocket in nearly a decade. Once they arrive at the International Space Station, Behnken and Hurley will spend anywhere from one to four months in orbit. 

Astronaut family life

Leading up to launch, all astronauts undergo a standard preflight quarantine to prevent bringing any viruses or unwanted bacteria up to space. Unusually, both Behnken’s and Hurley’s families have been living in quarantine conditions ahead of the launch anyway because of the COVID-19 pandemic. So, up until the astronauts arrived at Kennedy on May 20, they could quarantine with their families. 

Behnken noted that it’s been a “silver lining” that he and Hurley have had “the time with our sons leading up to this launch,” he said during today’s remarks. “They would have not normally been inside of our quarantine.”

In addition to standard quarantine conditions, both SpaceX and NASA have taken extra precautions to limit any possible exposure to the novel coronavirus. The astronauts have been tested multiple times for the virus and might be tested again leading up to the launch, they said. “We’ve been tested at least twice so far, and rumor has it we might be tested again before we go,” Hurley said.

In less than a week, the pair will say goodbye to their families as they leave astronaut crew quarters and walk out to a modified Tesla Model X car bearing NASA’s iconic Worm logo, which will take them to the launch pad. Before they get in the Tesla “will be the point where we get a chance to really see our families for the final time prior to launch,” Behnken said.

During their remarks, Behnken and Hurley each offered some kind words for his crewmate. The two have been training together through NASA’s commercial crew program since 2015. 

“Doug is ready for anything all the time,” Behnken said about Hurley. “He’s always prepared and when you’re going to fly into space on a test mission, you couldn’t ask for a better person or a better type of individual to be there with you.”

Hurley had a few equally positive remarks about Behnken’s thorough nature. “There’s no stone unturned, there’s no way that he doesn’t have every potential eventuality already thought about,” Hurley said. “There’s no question I can ask him that he doesn’t already have probably the best answer for.” 

The astronauts began their conference just after a critical review that determines whether the mission will go forward concluded successfully. 

“We are go for launch! The Flight Readiness Review has concluded and @NASA’s SpaceX Crew Dragon mission is cleared to proceed toward liftoff,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine wrote on Twitter.

“Just heard that everything went well with the FRR, we’re excited to be still on the countdown,” Hurley said. “Hopefully, we’ll see the static fire here in a couple hours.” 

Source: https://www.space.com/astronauts-ready-launch-spacex-demo-2.html

May 17th 1974

On May 17, 1974, NASA launched the first Synchronous Meteorological Satellite, SMS-1. This was the first satellite designed to monitor meteorological conditions from a geostationary orbit. This kind of orbit allowed it to stay above a fixed location as Earth rotates. 

One of the instruments on this spacecraft was a visible infrared spin-scan radiometer (VISSR), which provided high-quality cloud cover data 24 hours a day. It also carried a data collection and transmission system that allowed it to relay data from central weather facilities to smaller regional stations. 

Another device known as a space environmental monitor measured the charged particles in Earth’s radiation belts and the solar wind. 

The satellite was shaped like a cylinder and measured about 7.5 feet long, not including a 33-inch magnetometer that stuck out of one end. It launched from Cape Canaveral on a Delta rocket and remained operational for about 7 years. It was replaced by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s new GOES satellite, which was almost identical.

Source: https://www.space.com/39251-on-this-day-in-space.html

May 5th 1961

From Cape Canaveral, Florida, Navy Commander Alan Bartlett Shepard Jr. is launched into space aboard the Freedom 7 space capsule, becoming the first American astronaut to travel into space. The suborbital flight, which lasted 15 minutes and reached a height of 116 miles into the atmosphere, was a major triumph for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

NASA was established in 1958 to keep U.S. space efforts abreast of recent Soviet achievements, such as the launching of the world’s first artificial satellite–Sputnik 1–in 1957. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the two superpowers raced to become the first country to put a man in space and return him to Earth. On April 12, 1961, the Soviet space program won the race when cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was launched into space, put in orbit around the planet, and safely returned to Earth. One month later, Shepard’s suborbital flight restored faith in the U.S. space program.

NASA continued to trail the Soviets closely until the late 1960s and the successes of the Apollo lunar program. In July 1969, the Americans took a giant leap forward with Apollo 11, a three-stage spacecraft that took U.S. astronauts to the surface of the moon and returned them to Earth. On February 5, 1971, Alan Shepard, the first American in space, became the fifth astronaut to walk on the moon as part of the Apollo 14 lunar landing mission.

Source: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/the-first-american-in-space

April 6th

Astronomers have detected two stellar corpses whirling around each other, and they might be producing gravitational waves. 

White dwarf stars are what become of stars like our sun after they run out of fuel and turn into leftover hot cores. For many years, researchers have predicted that there should be binary, or two-object, systems made up of white dwarf stars. According to general relativity, two such masses orbiting each other should emit energy in the form of gravitational waves, which are ripples or disturbances in the fabric of spacetime. 

Now, this is not the discovery of gravitational waves, rather it is the discovery of this binary which may be a source for gravitational waves. But, not only will this study advance our understanding of these systems and gravitational wave sources, it will also be important in validating the efficiency of an instrument that will launch in 2034. 

The instrument, LISA (the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna) gravitational wave observatory, will use the J2322+0509 system to essentially train with. Because they already know they exist, it’s a good test to make sure the instrument can correctly spot it.

“Verification binaries are important because we know that LISA will see them within a few weeks of turning on the telescopes,” Mukuemin Kilic, a co-author on this study from the University of Oklahoma, said in the statement. “There’s only a handful of LISA sources that we know of today. The discovery of the first prototype of a new class of verification binary puts us well ahead of where anyone could have anticipated.”

In a new study identifying and exploring this binary, researchers at the Center for Astrophysics (CfA) at Harvard have detected, for the first time, a binary white dwarf system made up of two white dwarf stars (with helium cores) that are clearly separate stars. This system, known as J2322+0509, has a short orbital period of 1,201 seconds (just over 20 minutes) and is the first gravitational wave source of its kind ever identified.

“Theories predict that there are many double helium-core white dwarf binaries out there,” Warren Brown, CfA astronomer and lead author on the study, said in a statement. “This detection provides an anchor for those models, and for doing future experiments so that we can find more of these stars and determine their true numbers.”

This system, whose orbital period is the third shortest period of all detached binaries ever found, was fairly tough to spot. “This binary had no light curve,” Brown said in the statement. “We couldn’t detect a photometric signal because there isn’t one.” So instead of using a photometric study, which looks at light itself, the team used spectroscopic studies, which observe how matter interacts with electromagnetic radiation like visible light, to identify the star’s orbital motion.

But, while the system was tricky to spot, it turns out that this type of binary is an extremely strong source of gravitational waves, the team found using theoretical calculations, according to the statement and the study. The researchers determined that because of the system’s alignment with respect to Earth, instruments should pick up a signal 2.5 times stronger than from the same system twisted a different direction. 

This binary won’t be a binary forever, though, as a consequence of the very gravitational waves the scientists hope to someday detect. “The orbit of this pair of objects is decaying,” Brown said. “The gravitational waves that are being emitted are causing the pair to lose energy; in six or seven million years they will merge into a single, more massive white dwarf.”

Source: https://www.space.com/white-dwarf-binary-gravitational-wave-source-discovery.html

March 29th

On March 29, 1807, the German astronomer Heinrich Olbers discovered the asteroid Vesta. Vesta is the second-largest body in the asteroid belt and is surpassed in size only by the dwarf planet Ceres. 

To look for asteroids, astronomers would draw sky charts every night and look for spots that moved. Sunlight reflecting off the asteroids can make them look like faint stars, but unlike stars, the asteroids didn’t have a fixed location in the sky. 

Vesta was the fourth object to be discovered in the region between Mars and Jupiter, which we now know as the asteroid belt. Olbers and other astronomers thought the asteroid belt might be the remains of a hypothetical planet that was either smashed to pieces by a collision or ripped apart by Jupiter’s gravity. 

Source: https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/technology/on-this-day-in-space-march-29-1807-heinrich-olbers-discovers-asteroid-vesta/ar-BB11S1U9

23rd March 2020

As the U.S. scrambles to respond to the spreading COVID-19 pandemic, NASA supercomputers are joining the effort to look for potential treatment and vaccine candidates.

A new initiative brings together NASA and the National Science Foundation as well as a host of Department of Energy laboratories, companies and academic institutions. The White House announced the effort, meant to divert spare computing resources to research aimed at slowing the pandemic, today (March 23).

“I’m proud that @NASA is lending our supercomputing expertise to assist in the global fight against COVID-19,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a statement on Twitter. “For more than six decades the agency has used its expertise to take on challenges that have benefited people worldwide in unexpected ways.”

One of the areas of NASA redirecting its supercomputer time is the Earth science division, according to Science Mission Directorate head Thomas Zurbuchen. “Researchers input satellite data to run climate models to predict Earth’s future climate,” Zurbuchen said in a statement on Twitter. “NASA is pleased to lend our supercomputing expertise to assist in the global fight against #COVID19.”

Researchers working on projects related to COVID-19 will be able to apply for time on the supercomputers, according to a White House statement, which should speed up calculations necessary for slowing the pandemic.

“America is coming together to fight COVID-19, and that means unleashing the full capacity of our world-class supercomputers to rapidly advance scientific research for treatments and a vaccine,” Michael Kratsios, U.S. Chief Technology Officer, said in the statement.

Source: https://www.space.com/nasa-supercomputers-join-fight-against-coronavirus.html

March 16th 2020

There’s a new contender for the “most exotic exoplanet” title.

The crown may have rested for a while now on the head of HD 189733 b, a cobalt-blue alien world where molten-glass rain whips sideways through the air at up to 5,400 mph (8,790 km/h). But a new study reports that iron rain likely falls through the thick, turbulent air of WASP-76 b, a bizarre “ultrahot Jupiter” that lies about 640 light-years from the sun, in the constellation Pisces.

WASP-76 b zips around its host star once every 1.8 Earth days, an orbit so tight that the gaseous planet is “tidally locked,” always showing the star the same face. Temperatures on this dayside climb above 4,350 degrees Fahrenheit (2,400 degrees Celsius) — hot enough to vaporize metals — whereas the nightside is a much cooler (but still ridiculous) 2,730 F (1,500 C), researchers said.

“These are likely the most extreme climates we could ever find on a planet,” said study lead author David Ehrenreich, an associate professor of astronomy at the University of Geneva in Switzerland.

“We have to stretch our understanding of what is a climate, what is a planetary atmosphere, to understand this object,” Ehrenreich told Space.com.

WASP-76 b was discovered in 2013. The alien planet is about as massive as Jupiter but nearly twice as wide, likely because the massive radiation loads the exoplanet receives from its host star puff up its atmosphere considerably. (And one quick note about the object’s distance: Some sources say that WASP-76 b is about 390 light-years away, but that number is inaccurate, Ehrenreich said. He and his colleagues calculated WASP-76 b’s distance using data from Europe’s ultraprecise star-mapping spacecraft Gaia.)

For the new study, the researchers studied WASP-76 b using the Echelle Spectrograph for Rocky Exoplanets and Stable Spectroscopic Observations (ESPRESSO), an instrument installed on the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in Chile.

ESPRESSO detected a strong signature of iron vapor at the “evening” border that separates WASP-76 b’s dayside from its nightside. But no such signature was spotted at the “morning” border on the other side of the planet, where the nightside melds into day.

“Something must be happening on the nightside that makes iron disappear,” Ehrenreich said. 

The best explanation, he added, is that winds and WASP-76 b’s rotation carry vaporized iron from the dayside to the nightside. The nightside is cool enough for the iron vapor to condense into clouds, which then dump rain into the air over there. That rain could consist of compounds such as iron sulfide or iron hydride.

But, “given the conditions, the most likely [scenario] is that iron condenses into liquid droplets of pure iron,” Ehrenreich said. (This iron rain probably eventually makes its way back to the dayside again via atmospheric circulation, perpetuating the cycle, he added.)

And that rain probably isn’t sprinkling down in a gentle mist, because the big temperature disparity between WASP-76 b’s two halves generates winds of startling ferocity. The iron in the planet’s dayside air, for example, is hurtling toward the nightside at about 11,000 mph (18,000 km/h), Ehrenreich said.

WASP-76 b’s exoticism doesn’t end there. The dayside atmosphere may be much more puffed up than that of the nightside because of the higher heat loads, the researchers said. So the “evening” and “morning” borders between the two hemispheres might be marked by towering clouds that fall from the light toward darkness.

“And the drizzle of this fall would not be water droplets but iron droplets,” Ehrenreich said.

The craziness of WASP-76 b has more than just gee-whiz appeal. The new information about this odd exoplanet should help scientists refine and test climate and global circulation models, leading to a better understanding of exoplanetary atmospheres in general, Ehrenreich said. And WASP-76 b also serves as a compelling reminder for researchers to keep an open mind, because nature churns out a dizzying diversity of worlds.

“Exoplanets are a real treasure trove full of surprises,” Ehrenreich said. “The more you look, the more you find.”

He and his colleagues aim to dig up more such surprises. The new results, which were published online today (March 11) in the journal Nature, come from the very first science observations ever made with ESPRESSO, back in September 2018. The researchers are now conducting a broad survey of exoplanet atmospheres using ESPRESSO, which could reveal if WASP-76 b is an outlier or a member of a very weird class of worlds.

“What we have now is a whole new way to trace the climate of the most extreme exoplanets,” Ehrenreich said in a statement.

Source: https://www.space.com/alien-planet-iron-rain-WASP-76b.html