Every year, the Pacific Northwest and California experience “wildfire season,” a period where heat and low humidity combine, leading to an increased risk of fires. This year has been particularly bad and in California alone, wildfires have destroyed over two million acres of land, forced hundreds of thousands of people from their homes, and threatened many historic institutions and landmarks.
One of them is the Mount Wilson Observatory that sits atop Mount Wilson in the San Gabriel Mountains overlooking Pasadena (northeast of LA). This famous observatory is home to several telescopes that were, for a time, the largest of their kind in the world. And thanks to the heroic efforts of firefighters, it looks as though the Mt. Wilson Observatory is now safe amid a particularly bad wildfire season.
Last week, an incredible announcement was made about the search for extraterrestrial life: Phosphine gas detected in the clouds of Venus – a potential indicator of life or “biosignature.” Now some gases might be a false positive for biosignatures because they can be created by other chemical processes on a planet like photochemical processes in the atmosphere or geological processes beneath the surface that create a given gas. For example, methane can also be a biosignature, and we’ve been hunting it down on Mars, but we know that methane can also be created geologically. Finding phosphine in Venusian clouds is truly remarkable because we don’t presently know of any way to create phosphine abiotically or without life being a part of the equation. Question is – how much life??
During the Apollo Era, astronauts conducted vital science operations on the Moon, which included bringing samples of lunar rocks back to Earth for study. Thanks to the examination of these rocks, scientists were able to learn a great deal about the formation and evolution of the Moon and even found evidence of lunar water. In the coming years, when NASA sends astronauts back as part of Project Artemis, more samples will be returned.
Recently, NASA put out the call for science white papers to help them design a framework for the kind of science operations the Artemis astronauts will conduct. According to one proposal, the Artemis astronauts should not only bring back samples of lunar regolith or rocks but lunar ice as well. By examining them here on Earth, scientists may finally be able to resolve the mystery of where the Moon’s water came from.
There are two main approaches that humanity can take to living in space. The one more commonly portrayed is of us colonizing other celestial bodies such as the Moon and Mars. That approach comes with some major disadvantages, including dealing with toxic soils, clingy dust, and gravity wells.
The alternative is to build our own habitats. These could be located anywhere in the solar system, could be of any size that material science allows, and have different characteristics, such as temperature, climate, gravity, and even lengths of day. Unfortunately, we are still a very long way from building anything like a fully sized habitat. However, we are now one step closer to doing so with the release of a paper from a team at Texas A&M that describes a way to build an expandable space habitat of concentric cylinders that can house up to 8000 people.
The Search for Life can be a lot messier than it sounds. The three words make a nice, tidy title, but what it entails is extraordinarily difficult. How, in this vast galaxy, can we find life and the planets or moons that might host it? We’re barely at the point of either discovering or ruling out other life in our own Solar System.
Finding it somewhere else in the galaxy, even in our own interstellar neighbourhood, is a task so daunting it can be hard to comprehend.
So any time scientists think they’ve found something that can give them an edge in their near-impossible task, it deserves to be talked about.
With the closing of the Apollo Era, the priorities of the world’s space agencies began to shift. Having spent the past two decades racing to send astronauts to orbit and to the Moon, the focus now changed towards developing the technologies needed to stay there. A new era of international cooperation, space stations, and partnerships between space agencies and commercial industry is what followed.
In the near future, things are expected to become even more interesting, with plans for the commercialization of Low Earth Orbit (LEO), the mining of Near-Earth Asteroids (NEAs), and the establishment of a permanent human presence on the Moon. Beyond the logistical and technical challenges this poses, there’s been no shortage of concern about the legal issues and implications this will raise as well.
To this end, a group of legal scholars and space experts recently came together to form the Space Court Foundation (SCF), a non-profit educational organization created to foster a conversation about these and other related space issues. By beginning the conversation now, they hope, the public will be able to play an active role in the burgeoning and evolving domain known as “space law.”
Can the galaxy’s dead stars help us in our search for life? A group of researchers from Cornell University thinks so. They say that watching exoplanets transit in front of white dwarfs can tell us a lot about those planets.
This week we are pleased to welcome Dr. Merav Opher, Professor from the Astronomy Department of Boston University and the Director of the SHIELD (Solar wind with Hydrogen Ion charge Exchange and Large-Scale Dynamics) DRIVE Science Center. Using data from NASA’s planetary science missions, SHIELD scientists use data/computer modeling to predict the characteristics of our Sun’s heliosphere. Historically, the heliosphere has been thought to be comet-shaped. However, in a paper published in March, 2020, in Nature Astronomy, Dr. Opher (as lead author) and the team from SHIELD predict an alternative shape for the heliosphere: one that does not include this tail, but rather resembles a “deflated croissant.”
We recently observed the strongest magnetic field ever recorded in the Universe. The record-breaking field was discovered at the surface of a neutron star called GRO J1008-57 with a magnetic field strength of approximately 1 BILLION Tesla. For comparison, the Earth’s magnetic field clocks in at about 1/20,000 of a Tesla – tens of trillions of times weaker than you’d experience on this neutron star…and that is a good thing for your general health and wellbeing.
Neutron stars are the “dead cores” of once massive stars which have ended their lives as supernova. These stars exhausted their supply of hydrogen fuel in their core and a power balance between the internal energy of the star surging outward, and the star’s own massive gravity crushing inward, is cataclysmically unbalanced – gravity wins. The star collapses in on itself. The outer layers fall onto the core crushing it into the densest object we know of in the Universe – a neutron star. Even atoms are crushed. Negatively charged electrons are forced into the atomic nuclei meeting their positive proton counterparts creating more neutrons. When the core can be crushed no further, the outer remaining material of the star rebounds back into space in a massive explosion – a supernova. The resulting neutron star, made of the crushed stellar core, is so dense that a single sugar-cube-sized sampling would weigh billions of tons – as much as a mountain (though if you’re “worthy” you MIGHT able to lift it since Thor’s Hammer is made of the stuff). Neutron stars are typically about 20km in diameter and can still be a million degrees Kelvin at the surface.
But if they’re “dead,” how can neutron stars be some of the most magnetic and powerful objects in the Universe?
In the beginning, the universe created three elements: hydrogen, helium, and lithium. There isn’t much you can do with these simple elements, other than to let gravity collapse them into stars, galaxies, and black holes. But stars have the power of alchemy. Within their hearts, they can fuse these elements into new ones. Carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and others, all up to the heavy element of iron. When these first stars exploded, they scattered the new elements across the cosmos, creating planets, new stars, and even us.