The Kepler Mission’s Final Three Planets?

With the help of citizen scientists, astronomers discovered what may be the last three planets that the Kepler Space Telescope saw before it was retired. This illustration depicts NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope, which retired in October 2018, and three planets discovered in its final days of data. Image Credit: NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory

NASA’s Kepler spacecraft ended its observations in October 2018 after nine and a half years, a solid six years beyond its planned duration. It discovered 2,711 confirmed exoplanets and another 2,056 exoplanet candidates as of August 2022.

Now, astronomers at MIT and the University of Wisconsin uncovered three more exoplanets in the data from Kepler’s final days of observations. They needed the help of dedicated amateurs to do it.

Continue reading “The Kepler Mission’s Final Three Planets?”

This is How NASA Wanted to Rescue Space Shuttle Astronauts

A NASA astronaut holds the Personal Rescue Enclosure in this photo. By NASA - Kenneth S. Thomas, Harold J. McMann: U. S. Spacesuits. 2nd edition. Springer, 2012, ISBN 978-1-4419-9566-7, p. 38, doi:10.1007/978-1-4419-9566-7_4., Public Domain,

For most of us, this would be a nightmare.

Imagine being curled up inside a 90 cm (36 inch) fabric sphere with a small window and a small air tank while dangling from the Canadarm. As your tiny sphere shifts, you’d see Earth out your tiny window, then the Space Shuttle, damaged by some accident or other that caused you to need rescuing, then Earth again. Panic would set in pretty quickly.

But that’s where Space Shuttle astronauts in an emergency could’ve found themselves if NASA’s Personal Rescue Enclosure (PRE) had been put into practice.

Continue reading “This is How NASA Wanted to Rescue Space Shuttle Astronauts”

A New Place to Search for Habitable Planets: “The Soot Line.”

Artist impression of a young planet-forming disk illustrating the respective locations of the soot and water-ice lines. Planets born interior to the soot line will be silicate-rich. Planets born interior to the water-ice line, but exterior to the soot line will be silicate and soot-rich (“Sooty Worlds”). Planets born exterior to the water-ice line will be water worlds. Image credit: Ari Gea/SayoStudio.

The habitable zone is the region around a star where planets can maintain liquid water on their surface. It’s axiomatic that planets with liquid water are the best places to look for life, and astronomers focus their search on that zone. As far as we can tell, no water equals no life.

But new research suggests another delineation in solar systems that could influence habitability: The Soot Line.

Continue reading “A New Place to Search for Habitable Planets: “The Soot Line.””

ESA Has a Playground for Mars Rovers to Learn how to Explore the Red Planet

A downward view of ESA’s rock-strewn recreation of the Red Planet, designed to put prototype planetary rovers through their paces. Image Credit: ESA-Remedia

NASA makes successful rover missions seem mundane. Spirit and Opportunity were wildly successful, and Curiosity and Perseverance would both be considered successes even if they stopped working today. But complex missions don’t succeed without rigorous testing.

The ESA takes that lesson to heart, and when it comes to their Mars rover, they’ve built a ‘rover playground’ to test it in.

Continue reading “ESA Has a Playground for Mars Rovers to Learn how to Explore the Red Planet”

Researchers Are Building a Simulated Moon/Mars Research Station Deep Underground

These images show the first laboratory in the Bio-SPHERE project. The medical lab is located 1 km under the surface, near one of the UK's deepest mine sites. Image Credit: Dr. Alexandra Iordachescu/University of Birmingham.

In the early days of spaceflight, just getting a satellite into Earth’s orbit was an accomplishment. In our era, landing rovers on other planets and bringing samples home from asteroids is the cutting edge. But the next frontier is rapidly approaching, when astronauts will stay for long periods of time on the Moon and hopefully Mars.

But before we can send people to those dangerous environments, the Artemis partner space agencies have to know how to keep them safe. An important part of that is simulating the conditions on the Moon and Mars.

Continue reading “Researchers Are Building a Simulated Moon/Mars Research Station Deep Underground”

Where Are the Missing Black Holes? The Hubble May Have Helped Find One

This Hubble Space Telescope image shows the globular cluster Messier 4. It contains several hundre thousand stars, and its center might host an elusive intermediate-mass black hole. The black hole could have 800 solar masses. Image Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA

Most black holes are stellar mass black holes. They’re created when a star several times more massive than our Sun reaches the end and collapses in on itself. There are also supermassive black holes (SMBH,) the behemoths at the center of galaxies that can boast billions of times more mass than the Sun.

But where are the intermediate-mass black holes?

Continue reading “Where Are the Missing Black Holes? The Hubble May Have Helped Find One”

Juno Reveals Volcanoes on Io

The Juno spacecraft used its JIRAM (Jovian Infrared Auroral Mapper) instrument to capture these images of Jupiter's volcanic moon Io. It captured the four images in sequence to gain different viewing angles of the moon's volcanic activity. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/ASI/INAF/JIRAM

Jupiter’s moon Io is the most volcanic world in the Solar System, with over 400 volcanoes. Some of them eject plumes as high as 500 km (300 mi) above the surface. Its surface is almost entirely shaped by all this volcanic activity, with large regions covered by silicates, sulphur, and sulphur dioxide brought up from the moon’s interior. The intense volcanic activity has created over 100 mountains, and some of them are taller than Mt. Everest.

Io is unique in the Solar System, and the Juno orbiter’s JunoCam captured some new images of Io’s abundant volcanic activity.

Continue reading “Juno Reveals Volcanoes on Io”

Could We Resurrect the Spitzer Space Telescope?

NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope ceased operations in 2020. A new mission might bring it back to life. Image Credit: Rhea Space Activity

NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope served the astronomy community well for 16 years. From its launch in 2003 to the end of its operations in January 2020, its infrared observations fuelled scientific discoveries too numerous to list.

Infrared telescopes need to be kept cool to operate, and eventually, it ran out of coolant. But that wasn’t the end of the mission; it kept operating in ‘warm’ mode, where observations were limited. Its mission only ended when it drifted too far away from Earth to communicate effectively.

Now the US Space Force thinks they can reboot the telescope.

Continue reading “Could We Resurrect the Spitzer Space Telescope?”

A Few Interstellar Objects Have Probably Been Captured

Artist’s impression of the first interstellar asteroid/comet, "Oumuamua". This unique object was discovered on 19 October 2017 by the Pan-STARRS 1 telescope in Hawaii. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

When Oumuamua travelled through our Solar System back in 2017, people around the world paid attention. It was the first Interstellar Object (ISO) astronomers had ever identified. Then in August 2019, Comet 2I Borisov travelled through our Solar System, becoming the second ISO to cruise through for a visit. Together, the visiting ISOs generated a wave of inquiry and speculation.

There’s bound to be more ISOs than just those two, and a new study says our Solar System has probably captured some of these interstellar visitors, though they don’t stay for long.

Continue reading “A Few Interstellar Objects Have Probably Been Captured”

JWST Finds a Comet Still Holding Onto Water in the Main Asteroid Belt

This artist's illustration shows the rocky body of a comet with a detailed, cratered surface. Glowing rays emanate from the rocky surface like sunlight through clouds, representing water ice being vapourised by the heat of the Sun. Image Credit: NASA, ESA

Comets are instantly recognizable by their tails of gas and dust. Most comets originate in the far, frozen reaches of our Solar System, and only visit the inner Solar System occasionally. But some are in the Main Asteroid Belt, mixed in with the debris left over after the Solar System formed.

Astronomers just found water vapour coming from one of them.

“With Webb’s observations of Comet Read, we can now demonstrate that water ice from the early Solar System can be preserved in the asteroid belt.”

Michael Kelley, University of Maryland
Continue reading “JWST Finds a Comet Still Holding Onto Water in the Main Asteroid Belt”