Is This the Future of the Milky Way?

The central region of the giant elliptical galaxy NGC 474. It's set against a backdrop of more distant galaxies. Will the Milky Way resemble this galaxy in the distant future? This image was taken using the Hubble Advanced Camera for Surveys, and includes data from the Wide Field and Planetary Camera 3. (Courtesy NASA/STScI.)
The central region of the giant elliptical galaxy NGC 474. It’s set against a backdrop of more distant galaxies. Will the Milky Way resemble this galaxy in the distant future? This image was taken using the Hubble Advanced Camera for Surveys, and includes data from the Wide Field and Planetary Camera 3. (Courtesy NASA/STScI.)

Take a good look at the latest image provided by the Hubble Space Telescope. It shows a huge elliptical galaxy called NGC 474 that lies about 100 million light-years away from us. At about two and a half times larger than our Milky Way Galaxy, it’s really a behemoth. Notice its strange structure—mostly featureless and nearly round, but with layered shells wrapped around the central core. Astronomers want to know what caused these shells. The answer might be in what this galaxy represents: a vision of the future Milky Way and the Andromeda Galaxy.

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No, This Isn’t a Doorway on Mars

A Mastcam image from the Mars Curiosity rover captures what looks like a doorway into a rock ledge. It was formed when layered rock cracked and eroded away.  Courtesy NASA Mars Curiosity Rover team.
A Mastcam image from the Mars Curiosity rover captures what looks like a doorway into a rock ledge. It was formed when layered rock cracked and eroded away. Courtesy NASA Mars Curiosity Rover team.

The planet Mars has a lot of intriguing geological features, but a doorway in the side of some sedimentary rock on the flank of Mount Sharp (Aeolis Mons) isn’t one of them. In fact, no such doorway on Mars (supposedly created by aliens) exists. But, there is a break in the rock that really, really does look like one. The fact that it isn’t a real doorway hasn’t stopped a lot of speculation over its appearance in an image snapped by the MastCam on the Curiosity rover on Sol 3466 (May 7, 2022). The plain truth is that the odd-looking feature is really a fracture in ancient layers of sand that have hardened into rock over millions of years. A combination of light, shadow and viewing angle makes it look like a door. But, it’s not.

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Carbon-12 is an Essential Building Block for Life and Scientists Have Finally Figured Out How it Forms in Stars

Artist's impression of a red giant star.  Their cores are cauldrons where carbon-12 is produced.
Artist’s impression of a red giant star. Their cores are cauldrons where carbon-12 is produced. Credit:NASA/ Walt Feimer

Each of us is, as it says in Max Ehrmann’s famous poem “Desiderata”, a child of the universe. It speaks metaphorically about our place in the cosmos, but it turns out to be a very literal truth. Our bodies contain the stuff of stars and galaxies, and that makes us children of the cosmos. To be more precise, we are carbon-based life forms. All life on Earth is based on the element carbon-12. It turns out this stuff is a critical gateway to life. So, how did the universe come up with enough of it to make you and me and all the life on our planet? Astrophysicists and nuclear physicists think they have an answer by using a supercomputer simulation of what happens to create carbon. As it turns out, it’s not very easy.

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InSight Just Detected a Record-breaking Marsquake: Magnitude 5!

This spectrogram shows the largest quake ever detected on another planet. The marsquake struck the Red Planet on May 4 , 2022 and measured magnitude 5 . Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/ETH/Zurich.
This spectrogram shows the largest quake ever detected on another planet. The marsquake struck the Red Planet on May 4 , 2022 and measured magnitude 5 . Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/ETH/Zurich.

May 4th is unofficially known in sci-fi circles as Star Wars Day (“May the Fourth Be With You”) here on Earth. But, on another planet, far, far away, the date is now infamous to one of its robotic inhabitants. That’s the day the Mars InSight lander felt one of the strongest marsquakes ever to hit that world. It registered magnitude 5 and was the latest 1,313 quakes the lander detected since it arrived on Mars in 2018. InSight scientists are still analyzing the data to figure out exactly where on Mars the quake struck, and what may have caused it.

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The Tonga Eruption Reached Space!

The GOES-17 satellite captured images of an umbrella cloud generated by the underwater eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano on Jan. 15, 2022. The Tonga eruption sent crescent-shaped bow shock waves through the atmosphere, as well as numerous lightning strikes.
Credits: NASA Earth Observatory image by Joshua Stevens using GOES imagery courtesy of NOAA and NESDIS
What a massive volcanic eruption looks like from space. The GOES-17 satellite captured images of an umbrella cloud generated by the underwater eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano on Jan. 15, 2022. The Tonga eruption sent crescent-shaped bow shock waves through the atmosphere, as well as numerous lightning strikes. Credits: NASA Earth Observatory image by Joshua Stevens using GOES imagery courtesy of NOAA and NESDIS

Volcanic eruptions do more than send lava and clouds of noxious gas across the landscape, and trigger tsunamis and sonic booms. Sometimes they reach for space! In the case of the January 2022 underwater eruption of Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai, it sent a pressure wave through all altitudes of Earth’s atmosphere. Seismic stations and weather stations around the world (including the one on my front deck) recorded that wave as it boomeranged around the planet! And, there was another surprising result. The Tonga eruption breached Earth’s atmosphere and caused space-weather-like disruptions at the edge of space.

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China Announces Its New Flagship Space Telescope Mission

Artist's concept of Chinese Space Station Telescope (CSST).  Credit: Jaimito130805, CC BY-SA 4.0
Artist’s concept of the Chinese Space Station Telescope (CSST). Credit: Jaimito130805, CC BY-SA 4.0

Distant galaxies, dark matter, dark energy, and the origin and evolution of the universe itself are some of the many scientific goals of China’s newly announced space telescope. If all goes according to plan, the China Space Station Telescope (CSST) will blast off atop a Long March 5B rocket sometime in late 2023. Once in a safe orbit, CSST should begin observations in 2024. Judging by these research topics, it looks like the Chinese Academy of Sciences is throwing down an impressive scientific gauntlet for itself and its astronomers.

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Extended Trips to Space Alter the Brains of Astronauts

Astronaut Peggy Whitson in the International Space Station's Cupola during a 2017 tour of duty. Doctors are interested in how long periods in low gravity change an astronaut's brain. (NASA Photo)
Astronaut Peggy Whitson in the International Space Station’s Cupola during a 2017 tour of duty. Doctors are interested in how long periods in low gravity change an astronaut’s brain. (NASA Photo)

Going to space changes a person. We’ve known that ever since NASA and the former Soviet Union started sending people to space back in the mid-20th Century. Not only does that trip affect an astronaut’s outlook (just look what it did to William Shatner) but it changes their body. Space physicians continually study astronauts to understand just what happens to them in space. Their latest target? Astronaut brains.

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A Giant Galaxy has been Unwinding its Neighbor for 400 Million Years

The interacting galaxy pair NGC 1512 and NGC 1510 take center stage in this image from the Dark Energy Camera, a state-of-the art wide-field imager on the Víctor M. Blanco 4-meter Telescope at Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory
The interacting galaxy pair NGC 1512 and NGC 1510 take center stage in this image from the Dark Energy Camera, a state-of-the art wide-field imager on the Víctor M. Blanco 4-meter Telescope at Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory. Courtesy NOIRLab.

Sometimes you have to just sit back and marvel at a particularly gorgeous view of a galaxy interaction. When these giant space cities merge with each other, wild and crazy things happen—a sort of “Galaxies Gone Wild” scenario. Take this pair, for example. We see them locked together in a cosmic dance that has lasted for not quite a half-billion years. With each turn on the intergalactic dance floor, they change each other permanently. Eventually, they’ll combine to make one giant galaxy.

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Lunar Samples Have Been in the Deep Freeze for 50 Years. NASA Finally has the Right Technology to Study Them Properly

Curators handling lunar rocks take extreme care to keep these materials from contamination as they work with them in cold boxes using gloves and protective gear. This frozen Apollo 17 sample is being studied in a nitrogen-purged glove box at NASA Johnson Space Flight Center. Courtesy NASA/Robert Markowitz.
Curators handling lunar rocks take extreme care to keep these materials from contamination as they work with them in cold boxes using gloves and protective gear. This frozen Apollo 17 sample is being studied in a nitrogen-purged glove box at NASA Johnson Space Flight Center. Courtesy NASA/Robert Markowitz.

Ever wonder what happened to all those collections of rocks and dust the Apollo astronauts brought back from the Moon? Some of those lunar samples were studied right away. Others made their way into a few museums and science centers and the desks of world leaders. Still others landed in storage at NASA Johnson’s Space Center in Houston. Some got stored at room temperature while others were put into a deep freeze. The idea was to preserve any traces of gases or water or possibly organic materials on them. Now, some of these lunar samples are at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, where they’re under examination for the first time in 50 years using new techniques not available during the Apollo years.

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A Pulsar and Star are Orbiting Each Other Every 62 Minutes. The Fastest “Black Widow” Binary Ever Seen

Caption:An illustrated view of a black widow pulsar and its stellar companion. The pulsar’s gamma-ray emissions (magenta) strongly heat the facing side of the star (orange). The pulsar is gradually evaporating its partner.
Credits:Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/Cruz deWilde
Caption: An illustrated view of a black widow pulsar and its stellar companion. The pulsar’s gamma-ray emissions (magenta) strongly heat the facing side of the star (orange). The pulsar is gradually evaporating its partner. Courtesy NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Cruz deWilde

The Milky Way Galaxy has its share of oddities, from black holes and magnetars to luminous blue variable stars and strange new worlds. But, have you ever heard of a “black widow binary?” Not exactly an easy name to wrap your head around, especially if you’re afraid of spiders. But, these things actually exist in our galaxy and they’re fascinating.

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