Hungry Black Hole was Already Feasting 800 Million Years After the Big Bang

Artist view of an active supermassive black hole. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada

Black holes swallow everything—including light—which explains why we can’t see them. But we can observe their immediate surroundings and learn about them. And when they’re on a feeding binge, their surroundings become even more luminous and observable.

This increased luminosity allowed astronomers to find a black hole that was feasting on material only 800 million years after the Universe began.

Continue reading “Hungry Black Hole was Already Feasting 800 Million Years After the Big Bang”

Mars Ingenuity Kicks up a Surprising Amount of Dust Every Time it Lands

NASA's Mars Helicopters: Present, Future, and Proposed: A family portrait of Mars helicopters - Ingenuity, Sample Recovery Helicopter, and a future Mars Science Helicopter concept. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

There’s no way to sugarcoat it: Mars has a “dust problem.” The surface of the Red Planet is covered in particulate matter consisting of tiny bits of silica and oxidized minerals. During a Martian summer in the southern hemisphere, the planet experiences dust storms that can grow to encompass the entire planet. At other times of the year, dust devils and dusty skies are a persistent problem. This hazard has claimed robotic explorers that rely on solar panels to charge their batteries, like NASA’s Opportunity rover and the InSight lander, which ended their missions in 2018 and 2022, respectively.

Martian dust has also been a persistent challenge for the Ingenuity helicopter, the rotorcraft that has been exploring Mars alongside NASA’s Perseverance rover since February 2021. Luckily, the way it has kicked up dust has provided vital data that could prove invaluable for rotorcraft sent to explore other extraterrestrial environments in the future. Using this data, a team of researchers (with support from NASA) has completed the first real-world study of Martian dust dynamics, which will support missions to Mars and Titan (Saturn’s largest moon) in this and the next decade.

Continue reading “Mars Ingenuity Kicks up a Surprising Amount of Dust Every Time it Lands”

This Binary System is Destined to Become a Kilonova

This is an artist’s impression of the first confirmed detection of a star system that will one day form a kilonova — the ultra-powerful, gold-producing explosion created by merging neutron stars. Image Credit: CTIO/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA/J. da Silva/Spaceengine/M. Zamani

Kilonovae are extraordinarily rare. Astronomers think there are only about 10 of them in the Milky Way. But they’re extraordinarily powerful and produce heavy elements like uranium, thorium, and gold.

Usually, astronomers spot them after they’ve merged and emitted powerful gamma-ray bursts (GRBs.) But astronomers using the SMARTS telescope say they’ve spotted a kilonova progenitor for the first time.

Continue reading “This Binary System is Destined to Become a Kilonova”

How Can We Know if We’re Looking at Habitable exo-Earths or Hellish exo-Venuses?

How can astronomers tell exo-Earths and exo-Venuses apart? Polarimetry might be the key. Image Credits: NASA

The differences between Earth and Venus are obvious to us. One is radiant with life and adorned with glittering seas, and the other is a scorching, glowering hellhole, its volcanic surface shrouded by thick clouds and visible only with radar. But the difference wasn’t always clear. In fact, we used to call Venus Earth’s sister planet.

Can astronomers tell exo-Earths and exo-Venuses apart from a great distance?

Continue reading “How Can We Know if We’re Looking at Habitable exo-Earths or Hellish exo-Venuses?”

The Historic Discussion of Ptolemy’s Star Catalog

A page from the star catalog in a 1515 printing of Ptolemy's Almagest.
A page from the star catalog in a 1515 printing of Ptolemy's Almagest.

From the time of its writing in the 2nd century CE, Claudius Ptolemy’s Almagest stood at the forefront of mathematical astronomy for nearly 1,500 years. This work included a catalog of 1,025 stars, listing their coordinates (in ecliptic longitude and latitude) and brightnesses. While astronomers within a few centuries realized that the models for the sun, moon, and planets all had issues (which we today recognize as being a result of them being incorrect, geocentric models relying on circles and epicycles instead of a heliocentric model with elliptical orbits), the catalog of stars was generally believed to be correct.

That was, until the end of the 16th century, when the renowned observation astronomer Tycho Brahe realized that there was a fundamental flaw with the catalog: the ecliptic longitudes were low by an average of 1 degree.

What’s more, Brahe proposed an explanation for why. He suggested that Ptolemy had stolen the data from the astronomer Hipparchus some 250 years earlier, and then incorrectly updated the coordinates.

The question of whether this was a cosmic coincidence or the oldest case of scientific plagiarism is a question that historians of astronomy have argued for over 400 years.

Continue reading “The Historic Discussion of Ptolemy’s Star Catalog”

The First Stars May Have Weighed More Than 100,000 Suns

The first stars
A visualization of what the universe looked like when it was going through its last major transformative era: the epoch of reionization. Credit: Paul Geil & Simon Mutch/The University of Melbourne

The universe was simply different when it was younger. Recently astronomers have discovered that complex physics in the young cosmos may have led to the development of supermassive stars, each one weighing up to 100,000 times the mass of the Sun.

Continue reading “The First Stars May Have Weighed More Than 100,000 Suns”

Drag Sail Success! This Satellite Won't Turn Into Space Junk

The deployment of the Drag Augmentation Deorbiting System (ADEO) was captured by a camera onboard the ION satellite carrier. Credit: ESA.

The European Space Agency successfully tested a solar-sail-type device to speed up the deorbit time for a used cubesat carrier in Earth orbit.  The so-called breaking sail, the Drag Augmentation Deorbiting System (ADEO) was deployed from an ION satellite carrier in late December 2022. Engineers estimate the sail will reduce the time it takes for the carrier to reenter Earth’s atmosphere from 4-5 years to approximately 15 months.

The sail is one of many ideas and efforts to reduce space junk in Earth orbit.   

“We want to establish a zero debris policy, which means if you bring a spacecraft into orbit you have to remove it,” said Josef Aschbacher, ESA Director General.

Continue reading “Drag Sail Success! This Satellite Won't Turn Into Space Junk”

Good News! Webb is Fully Operational Again

Artist image of JWST in space. Credit: NASA

The James Webb Space Telescope is back to full science operations. One of the telescope’s instruments, the Near Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph (NIRISS) had been offline since January 15 due to a communications error. But engineers worked through the problem and were able to return the instrument to full operations. 

Continue reading “Good News! Webb is Fully Operational Again”

Soon Every Spacecraft can Navigate the Solar System Autonomously Using Pulsars

If you want to know where you are in space, you’d better bring along a map. But it’s a little more complicated than riding shotgun on a family road trip.

Spacecraft navigation beyond Earth orbit is usually carried out by mission control. A series of radio communication arrays across the planet, known as the Deep Space Network, allows operators to check in with space probes and update their navigational status. The system works, but it could be better. What if a spacecraft could autonomously determine its position, without needing to phone home? That’s been a dream of aerospace engineers for a long time, and it’s getting close to fruition.

Pulsars are the key.

Continue reading “Soon Every Spacecraft can Navigate the Solar System Autonomously Using Pulsars”

Astronomers Come Closer to Understanding How Mercury Formed

Artist's concept of the MESSENGER spacecraft on approach to Mercury. Credit: NASA/JPL

Simulations of the formation of the solar system have been largely successful. They are able to replicate the positions of all the major planets along with their orbital parameters. But current simulations have an extreme amount of difficulty getting the masses of the four terrestrial planets right, especially Mercury. A new study suggests that we need to pay more attention to the giant planets in order to understand the evolution of the smaller ones.

Continue reading “Astronomers Come Closer to Understanding How Mercury Formed”