Astronomers Detect Clouds on an Exoplanet, and Even Measure Their Altitude

The search for planets beyond our Solar System has grown immensely during the past few decades. To date, 4,521 extrasolar planets have been confirmed in 3,353 systems, with an additional 7,761 candidates awaiting confirmation. With so many distant worlds available for study (and improved instruments and methods), the process of exoplanet studies has been slowly transitioning away from discovery towards characterization.

For example, a team of international scientists recently showed how combining data from multiple observatories allowed them to reveal the structure and composition of an exoplanet’s upper atmosphere. The exoplanet in question is WASP-127b, a “hot Saturn” that orbits a Sun-like star located about 525 light-years away. These findings preview how astronomers will characterize exoplanet atmospheres and determine if they are conducive to life as we know it.

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Chang’e-5 Returned an Exotic Collection of Moon Rocks

Scientists have begun studying the samples returned from the Moon by China’s Chang’e-5 mission in December 2020, and a group of researchers presented their first findings at the Europlanet Science Congress (EPSC) last week.

“The Chang’e-5 samples are very diverse, and includes both local and exotic materials, including some glutenates [sharp, jagged lunar particles], silicas, salts, volcanic glasses, and impact glasses, along with different minerals and different rock types,” said Yuqi Qian, a PhD student at the China University of Geosciences, during his presentation at the EPSC virtual meeting.

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A Tiny, Inexpensive Satellite Will be Studying the Atmospheres of hot Jupiters

The Colorado Ultraviolet Transit Experiment (aptly nicknamed CUTE) is a new, NASA-funded mission that aims to study the atmospheres of massive, superheated exoplanets – known as hot Jupiters – around distant stars. The miniaturized satellite, built by the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) at the University of Colorado Boulder, is set to launch this Monday, September 27th on an Atlas V rocket.

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Astronomers Find a Giant Cavity in Space, Hollowed out by an Ancient Supernova

Star formation is a topic astronomers are still trying to fully understand. We know, for example, that stars don’t form individually, but rather are born within vast interstellar molecular clouds. These stellar nurseries contain gas dense enough for gravity to trigger the formation of stars. In spiral galaxies, these molecular clouds are most commonly found within spiral arms, which is why stars are most often born in spiral arms.

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Galactic Panspermia. How far Could Life Spread Naturally in a Galaxy Like the Milky Way?

Can life spread throughout a galaxy like the Milky Way without technological intervention? That question is largely unanswered. A new study is taking a swing at that question by using a simulated galaxy that’s similar to the Milky Way. Then they investigated that model to see how organic compounds might move between its star systems.

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NASA’s InSight Experiences its Most Powerful Marsquake so far: Magnitude 4.2, Lasting 90 Minutes

NASA’s InSight lander has detected one of the most powerful and longest-lasting quakes on the Red Planet since the start of its mission. The big marsquake happened on Sept. 18 on Earth, which happened to coincide with InSight’s 1,000th Martian day, or sol since it landed on Mars.

The temblor is estimated to be about a magnitude 4.2 and shook for an unthinkable hour-and-a-half! For comparison, on Earth, most quakes last for just a few seconds, although two (one in 1960 and another in 2004) lasted for about 10 minutes. Scientists are still studying the data collected on this marsquake to determine why (and how) it endured for such a long time.

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The Future Could Bring Pinpoint Deliveries From Orbit

Since the dawn of the Space Age, considerable progress has been made with launch vehicles. From single stage to multistage rockets and spaceplanes to reusable launch vehicles, we have become very good at sending payloads to space. But when it comes to returning payloads to Earth, our methods really haven’t evolved much at all. Some seventy years later, we are still relying on air friction, heatshields, and parachutes and landing at sea more often than not.

Luckily, there are many solutions that NASA and commercial space companies are currently investigating. For example, SpaceWorks Enterprises, Inc (SEI) is currently working on an orbital delivery system known as Reentry Device (RED) capsules. With support provided by NASA, they are gearing up for a test run this October where one of their capsules gets dropped from an altitude of 30 km (19 mi).

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Mars Was Too Small to Ever be Habitable

Mars and water. Those words can trigger an avalanche of speculation, evidence, hypotheses, and theories. Mars has some water now, but it’s frozen, and most of it’s buried. There’s only a tiny bit of water vapour in the atmosphere. Evidence shows that it was much wetter in the past. In its ancient past, the planet may have had a global ocean. But was it habitable at one time?

A new study says it wasn’t. Mars lost most of its water, and it’s all to do with the planet’s size.

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Although it’s Quiet Today, Mars Once had Thousands of Volcanic Eruptions on its Surface

Earth is a geologically active planet, which means it has plate tectonics and volcanic eruptions that have not ceased. This activity extends all the way to the core, where action between a liquid outer core and a solid inner core generates a planetary magnetic field. In comparison, Mars is an almost perfect example of a “stagnant lid” planet, where geological activity billions of years ago and the surface has remained stagnant ever since.

But as indicated by the many mountains on Mars, which includes the tallest in the Solar System (Olympus Mons), the planet was once a hotbed of volcanic activity. And according to a recent NASA-supported study, there is evidence that thousands of “super-eruptions” happened in the Arabia Terra region in northern Mars 4 billion years ago. These eruptions occurred over the course of 500-million years and had a drastic effect on the Martian climate.

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Hubble Reveals the Final Stages of a Dying Star

In April 2021 Hubble released its 31st-anniversary image. It’s a portrait of AG Carinae, one of the most luminous stars in the entire Milky Way. AG Carinae is in a reckless struggle with itself, periodically ejecting matter until it reaches stability sometime in the future.

Thanks to the Hubble, we get to watch the brilliant struggle.

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