A team of scientists has just published a paper announcing their discovery of a peculiar chemical in the cloudtops of Venus. As far as scientists can tell, this chemical, called phosphine, could only be produced by living processes on a planet like Venus. So the whole internet is jumping on this story.
But did they find signs of life? Or is there another explanation?
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.
On Aug. 10th, a little over a month ago, the iconic Arecibo Observatory suffered serious damage when an auxiliary cable broke and struck the reflector dish. This cable struck the observatory’s Gregorian Dome on its way down and twisted an access platform before landing on the reflecting dish itself. The impact created a gash over 30 meters (100 feet) in length and forced the observatory to shut down until repairs could be made.
Since then, teams have been busy working to stabilize the structure and determine the cause. These teams are made up of technicians from the observatory and the University of Central Florida (UCF), which manages the facility for the National Science Foundation (NSF). For the past few weeks, they have been meeting with experts from various fields and laying the groundwork for an investigation and a rigorous repair schedule.
On Friday, Sept. 4th, China launched a new and mysterious spacecraft from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center. The nature (and even appearance) of the spacecraft remains unknown, but according to statements made by Chinese authorities, it’s a reusable spaceplane. This vehicle is essentially China’s answer to the USAF/USSF X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV), which made its sixth launch to space (OTV-6) back in late-May.
Welcome back to our Fermi Paradox series, where we take a look at possible resolutions to Enrico Fermi’s famous question, “Where Is Everybody?” Today, we examine the possibility that we haven’t heard from aliens because intelligent life only survives for so long.
In 1950, Italian-American physicist Enrico Fermi sat down to lunch with some of his colleagues at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where he had worked five years prior as part of the Manhattan Project. According to various accounts, the conversation turned to aliens and the recent spate of UFOs. Into this, Fermi issued a statement that would go down in the annals of history: “Where is everybody?“
This became the basis of the Fermi Paradox, which refers to the disparity between high probability estimates for the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI) and the apparent lack of evidence. Since Fermi’s time, there have been several proposed resolutions to his question, which include the possibility that civilizations only have a “Brief Window” with which to communicate with the cosmos before going extinct.
The Vera C. Rubin Observatory has taken another step towards first light, projected for some time in 2022. Its enormous 3200 megapixel camera just took its first picture during lab testing at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory. The camera is the largest ever built, and its unprecedented power is the driving force behind the Observatory’s ten year Legacy Survey of Space and Time (LSST).
In the near future, launch facilities located at sea are expected to be a lot more common. SpaceX announced that it is hoping to create offshore facilities in the near future for the sake of launching the Starship away from populated areas. And China, the latest member of the superpowers-in-space club, is currently building the “Eastern Aerospace Port” off the coast of Haiyang city in the eastern province of Shandong.
This mobile launch facility is being developed by the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), the country’s largest aerospace and defense contractor. Once fully operational, it will be used to launch light vehicles, as well as for building and maintaining rockets, satellites, and related space applications. As China’s fifth launch facility, it will give the country’s space program a new degree of flexibility.
I wear glasses for astigmatism. But, as a stargazer with a visual impediment, turns out I’m in good company. The GREGOR telescope, a solar telescope located at the Teide Observatory in the Canary Islands also suffered from an astigmatism that was recently corrected…to very stellar results.
Opened in 2012, GREGOR is part of a new generation of solar (Sun observing) telescopes. Before 2002, solar scopes were quite small in diameter; under one metre. The Sun is close, and VERY bright, so your telescope doesn’t need to be as wide as those used for deep-space imaging. GREGOR itself is 1.5m (compare that to some of the largest telescopes imaging distant faint objects like the Keck Observatory at 10m. But without the special filters/optics used by a solar scope, a regular telescope staring at the Sun would be destroyed by the Sun’s light). A telescope’s power is often related to its ability to magnify. But just like enlarging a low-resolution photo, the more you magnify, the fuzzier the image becomes (that’s why those scenes in crime shows where they yell ‘enhance!’ and a photo grows to reveal a criminal are not realistic). Ultimately, a telescope’s diameter provides the higher resolution photo. GREGOR is designed to take those high-resolution images of our local Star. How high resolution? Imagine being able to distinguish a 50km wide feature on the Sun from 140 million km away – basically the same as being able to read the text on a coin from a kilometre away.
The better our technologies get, the better we get at finding objects in space. That’s certainly true of Jupiter and its moons. Prior to Galileo, nobody knew the other planets had moons. Then in 1609/10, as he made improvements to his telescope, he aimed it at the gas giant and eventually found four moons: Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto. Now those four natural satellites also bear his name: the Galilean moons.
Over the centuries since then, and especially in our digital age, astronomical tools and methods kept improving. In particular, wide-field CCD (Charge Coupled Devices) have led to an explosion of astronomical discoveries. In recent years, the confirmed number of Jovian moons has risen to 79. Now, a new study says that there may be 600 small irregular moons orbiting Jupiter.