One of the most important results of science is the negative result. If something doesn’t work or a hypothesis is disproven, often it’s not widely reported or disseminated. That is a shame. However, science is getting better at incorporating negative results into its reporting system, which has resulted in publications like the Journal of Negative Results, which covers biomedicine.
Unfortunately there isn’t a similar journal for Astronomy. At least not yet. But the field could really use one. There are plenty of disproven hypotheses that don’t see the light of day in academically peer reviewed publications. When it comes to topics like SETI, sometimes those negative results are extremely important, as it lends credence to one of the most important hypotheses out there – that we are alone in the universe. Papers that cover negative SETI results can be accepted into journals that otherwise might not accept a paper centered around not finding anything. That’s what happened recently when a team of astronomers from Australia and elsewhere used the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) to search a patch of sky that included 10 million stars. The negative results was that they did not see a single sign of intelligent life anywhere in those 10 million stars.
As a wise man once said, “I don’t like sand. It’s coarse and rough and irritating – and it gets everywhere”. The same could be said for another material in our solar system – dust.
The kind of dust present on the moon is even more annoying than the grains that bothered Anakin Skywalker on Tatooine. It is constantly bathed in solar radiation, smells like spent gunpowder, and can cause allergic reactions, as it did in some of the Apollo astronauts. It’s also notoriously difficult to clean off of surfaces. Now a team of scientists at the University of Colorado at Boulder think they have a solution that would remove lunar dust without harming the material it’s attached to. And they would do this by using a tool that sounds like it’s straight out of Star Wars – an electron beam.
Explaining the concept of a dust bunny to small children can be quite amusing. No, it’s not actually alive. It’s moving around because of really small currents of wind that we can’t even see. It’s mainly formed out of dead skin and spider webs. No, the spiders don’t actually eat the dead skin. Most of the time.
Now take that same concept of a bunch of particles stuck together, scale it up a few orders of magnitude, and put it in space. Though it’s still not alive, it would be blown by solar radiation rather than the winds. And instead of being made out of skin and spider webs, it could be made up of cometary dust particles. That is what scientists think our first detected visitor from another star might be – an interstellar dust bunny.
Believe it or not there are some people out there who think traditional rocket science is too easy and want more of a challenge. A group at the University of Illinois (UI) decided to up the difficulty a bit by attempting to design a rocket engine that is capable of both electric and chemical propulsion.
Such a dual-mode rocket engine would have the benefits from both kinds of propulsion. The chemical side would give them significant thrust and quick reaction times when needed at the cost of efficiency, while the electric engine would allow for efficient, though slow, travel. Recently the group tested a novel type of rocket fuel that might just be able to be used in both types of engines.
Rogue planets are notoriously hard to detect, unless you’re the Jedi in an Extended Universe novel. So far we have only been able to discover a handful, but estimates range from a few billion to a trillion solitary planets floating through the galaxy. NASA hopes to dramatically increase the number we’ve detected, and thereby better our estimates of how many there actually are, with the launch of the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope (formerly called the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope, or WFIRST).
Venus has been garnering a lot of attention lately, though primarily in the scientific community as the last Hollywood movie about the planet was released in the 1960s. This is in part due to its dramatic difference from Earth, and what that difference might mean for the study of exoplanets. If we can better understand what happened during Venus’ formation to make it the hell scape it is today, we might be able to better understand what truly constitutes the habitable zone around other stars.
Numerous planetary scientists have focused on Venus’ formation and atmospheric development in the recent past. Now a new paper posits that Venus might have had liquid water on its surface as recently as one billion years ago. And a contributor to the disappearance of that water might be an unlikely culprit: Jupiter.
Humanity is still a long way away from a fully artificial intelligence system. For now at least, AI is particularly good at some specialized tasks, such as classifying cats in videos. Now it has a new skill set: identifying spiral patterns in galaxies.
As with all AI skills, this one started out with categorized data. In this case, that data consisted of images of galaxies taken by the Subaru Telescope in Mauna Kea, Hawaii. The telescope is run by the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ), and has identified upwards of 560,000 galaxies in images it has taken.
Anyone who has ever worked on a team knows that their strength lies in coordination and a shared vision. However, it is not always easy to provide that coordination and shared vision, and any team that lacks that cohesiveness becomes more of a hindrance than a help.
Science is not immune to the difficulties of running effective teams. There is plenty to be gained from more coordination between differing silos and physical locations. Recently a meeting in Chile prompted a group of scientists to propose a plan to change that. The result is a white paper that points out the potential benefits of coordinating ground, orbital and in situ based observations of objects. But more importantly, it suggests a different path forward where all of the space science community can benefit from the type of coordinated output that can only come from a cohesive team.
In baseball, players receive a Gold Glove award if they show outstanding fielding play throughout the course of the season. Basically, they can’t let any ball get past them when playing in the field. If a Gold Glove award was handed to planets in our solar system, it would undoubtedly be given to Jupiter. It has long been thought that the massive gas giant hoovered up all of the asteroids in its vicinity. In doing so, it would have created two distinct zones of asteroids – those inside it’s orbit and those outside.
Now scientists are starting to cast doubt on such a bifurcated model of the early solar system. And they’re using hundreds of meteorites to do it.
Twinkling stars might make for spectacular viewing on a hot summer’s night, but they are an absolute nightmare to astronomers. That twinkling is caused by disturbances in the Earth’s atmosphere, and can wreak havoc on brightness readings, a key tool for astronomers everywhere. Those readings are used for everything from understanding galaxy formation to the detection of exoplanets.
Astronomers now have a new potential location to try to avoid the twinkling. Only one problem though: it’s really cold, especially this time of year. A team of astronomers from Canada, China, and Australia have identified a part of Antarctica as the ideal place to put observational telescopes. Now the challenge becomes how to actually build one there.