Astronomers Detect Clouds on an Exoplanet, and Even Measure Their Altitude

The search for planets beyond our Solar System has grown immensely during the past few decades. To date, 4,521 extrasolar planets have been confirmed in 3,353 systems, with an additional 7,761 candidates awaiting confirmation. With so many distant worlds available for study (and improved instruments and methods), the process of exoplanet studies has been slowly transitioning away from discovery towards characterization.

For example, a team of international scientists recently showed how combining data from multiple observatories allowed them to reveal the structure and composition of an exoplanet’s upper atmosphere. The exoplanet in question is WASP-127b, a “hot Saturn” that orbits a Sun-like star located about 525 light-years away. These findings preview how astronomers will characterize exoplanet atmospheres and determine if they are conducive to life as we know it.

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The Future Could Bring Pinpoint Deliveries From Orbit

Since the dawn of the Space Age, considerable progress has been made with launch vehicles. From single stage to multistage rockets and spaceplanes to reusable launch vehicles, we have become very good at sending payloads to space. But when it comes to returning payloads to Earth, our methods really haven’t evolved much at all. Some seventy years later, we are still relying on air friction, heatshields, and parachutes and landing at sea more often than not.

Luckily, there are many solutions that NASA and commercial space companies are currently investigating. For example, SpaceWorks Enterprises, Inc (SEI) is currently working on an orbital delivery system known as Reentry Device (RED) capsules. With support provided by NASA, they are gearing up for a test run this October where one of their capsules gets dropped from an altitude of 30 km (19 mi).

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Although it’s Quiet Today, Mars Once had Thousands of Volcanic Eruptions on its Surface

Earth is a geologically active planet, which means it has plate tectonics and volcanic eruptions that have not ceased. This activity extends all the way to the core, where action between a liquid outer core and a solid inner core generates a planetary magnetic field. In comparison, Mars is an almost perfect example of a “stagnant lid” planet, where geological activity billions of years ago and the surface has remained stagnant ever since.

But as indicated by the many mountains on Mars, which includes the tallest in the Solar System (Olympus Mons), the planet was once a hotbed of volcanic activity. And according to a recent NASA-supported study, there is evidence that thousands of “super-eruptions” happened in the Arabia Terra region in northern Mars 4 billion years ago. These eruptions occurred over the course of 500-million years and had a drastic effect on the Martian climate.

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A Particle Physics Experiment Might Have Directly Observed Dark Energy

About 25 years ago, astrophysicists noticed something very interesting about the Universe. The fact that it was in a state of expansion had been known since the 1920s, thanks to the observation of Edwin Hubble. But thanks to the observations astronomers were making with the space observatory that bore his name (the Hubble Space Telescope), they began to notice how the rate of cosmic expansion was getting faster!

This has led to the theory that the Universe is filled with an invisible and mysterious force, known as Dark Energy (DE). Decades after it was proposed, scientists are still trying to pin down this elusive force that makes up about 70% of the energy budget of the Universe. According to a recent study by an international team of researchers, the XENON1T experiment may have already detected this elusive force, opening new possibilities for future DE research.

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Using Quasars as a New Standard Candle to Define Distance

Quasar

A new study shows a way to use quasars to gauge distance in the early Universe.

The simple question of ‘how far?’ gets at the heart of the history of modern astronomy. Looking out across our galactic backyard into the primordial Universe, different yardsticks—often referred to as ‘standard candles’ —are used to gauge various distances, from near to far.

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ExoMars Will be Drilling 1.7 Meters to Pull its Samples From Below the Surface of Mars

In about a year (Sept. 20th, 2022), the Rosalind Franklin rover will depart for Mars. As the latest mission in the ESA’s and Roscosmos’ ExoMars program, Rosalind Franklin will join the small army of orbiters, landers, and rovers that are working to characterize the Martian atmosphere and environment. A key aspect of the rover’s mission will involve drilling into the Martian soil and rock and obtaining samples from deep beneath the surface.

To prepare for drilling operations on Mars, the ESA, Italian space agency (ASI), and their commercial partners have been conducting tests with a replica – aka. the Ground Test Model (GTM). Recently, the test model completed its first round of sample collection, known as the Mars Terrain Simulation (MTS). The rover drilled into hard stone and extracted samples from 1.7 meters (5.5 feet) beneath the surface in a record-breaking feat.

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If Aliens Are Out There, We’ll Meet Them in a Few Hundred Million Years

Seventy years ago, Italian-American nuclear physicist Enrico Fermi asked his colleagues a question during a lunchtime conversation. If life is common in our Universe, why can’t we see any evidence of its activity out there (aka. “where is everybody?”) Seventy years later, this question has launched just as many proposed resolutions as to how extraterrestrial intelligence (ETIs) could be common, yet go unnoticed by our instruments.

Some possibilities that have been considered are that humanity might be alone in the Universe, early to the party, or is not in a position to notice any yet. But in a recent study, Robin Hanson (creator of the Great Filter) and an interdisciplinary team offer a new model for determining when the aliens will get here. According to their study, humanity is early to the Universe and will meet others in 200 million to 2 billion years from now.

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Something big Just hit Jupiter!

In 1994, the Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 (SL9) impacted Jupiter, which had captured the comet shortly before (and broken apart by its gravity). The event became a media circus as it was the first direct observation of an extraterrestrial collision of Solar System objects. The impact was so powerful that it left scars that endured for months and were more discernible than Jupiter’s Great Red Spot.

Since then, astronomers have observed multiple objects impacting Jupiter, and it is expected that such impacts happen all the time (though unobserved). On September 13th, 2021, at 22:39:30 UTC (06:39:30 PM EDT; 03:39 PM:30 PDT), another impact was observed by multiple astronomers across the world. Images and a video of the impact (shown below) were captured by members of Société Lorraine d’Astronomie (SLA) in France.

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SpaceX Launches Four Civilians to Space with Inspiration4!

Update: SpaceX has posted footage of what its like to see Earth from space when peering through the Resilience‘s cupola!

Today, history was made when the first all-civilian spaceflight launched from Launch Complex 39A at the NASA Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The purpose of this flight was to raise awareness and funds for the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and offer inspiration to people all over the world. Operated by SpaceX and sponsored by Jared Isaacman and Shift4Payments, this flight illustrates how accessibility to space is growing by leaps and bounds.

The mission began at 08:02 PM local time (05:02 PM PST) as the Crew Dragon spacecraft blasted off the launch pad atop a SpaceX Falcon 9. The rocket lifted off without any issues and soared into the night sky, rapidly gaining altitude towards orbit. During the next few minutes, the mission controllers at SpaceX watched in anticipation and waited for updates. They were joined by people all over the world watching the many live streams of the event.

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Here’s How to Watch Inspiration4 Blast off on Wednesday.

On the evening of Wednesday, September 15th, history will be made as a crew of four commercial astronauts launch to orbit aboard the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft Resilience. This flight will be operated by SpaceX, sponsored by Jared Isaacman (CEO of Shift4Payments) and represents the first all-civilian spaceflight in history. The launch will take place tonight at 08:00 PM EDT (05:00 PM PDT) from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A.

The purpose of this mission is to raise awareness and funds for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, which specializes in the treatment of childhood cancers and pediatric diseases. At the same time, it demonstrates the accessibility of the modern space age, where civilians (and not just astronauts) can go to space. Universe Today’s own Alex Brock was on the scene to capture the pre-flight excitement, which was palatable!

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