Over seven years ago, the New Horizons mission made history when it became the first spacecraft to conduct a flyby of Pluto. In the leadup to this encounter, the spacecraft provided updated data and images of many objects in the inner and outer Solar System. Once beyond the orbit of Pluto and its moons, it embarked on a new mission: to make the first encounter with a Kuiper Belt Object (KBO). This historic flyby occurred about four years ago (Dec. 31st, 2015) when New Horizons zipped past Arrokoth (aka. 2014 MU69).
Now that it is passing through the Kuiper Belt, away from the light pollution of the inner Solar System, it has another lucrative mission: measuring the brightness of the Universe. These measurements will allow astronomers to make more accurate estimates of how many galaxies there are, which is still the subject of debate. According to new measurements by New Horizons, the light coming from stars beyond the Milky Way is two to three times brighter than the light from known populations of galaxies – meaning that there are even more out there than we thought!
A different perspective can do wonders. Perceiving things from a different angle can both metaphorically and literally allow people to see things differently. And in space, there are an almost infinite number of angles that objects can be observed from. Like all perspectives, some are more informative than others. Sometimes those informative perspectives are also the hardest to reach.
Voyager’s two probes did an excellent job in allowing humanity to access some difficult new perspectives simply given their distance from the Earth. But now a team of over 500 scientists and volunteers is urging NASA to go even further to find a better perspective by sending a satellite to a distance 1000 times the distance from the Sun to the Earth – almost 10 times how far the Voyagers have traveled in over 35 years.
As the New Horizons spacecraft hurtles out towards interstellar space, it has now reached an historical milestone. On April 17, 2021, New Horizons passed 50 astronomical units, or 50 times Earth’s distance from the Sun. It is just the 5th spacecraft to reach that distance, joining the Voyagers 1 and 2 and the Pioneers 10 and 11.
In the Fall of 2017, the first known interstellar object passed through the Solar System, triggering a revolution in astronomy. Because of the amonolous nature of the object, astronomers from all over the world were at a loss to explain what it was. Neither comet, nor asteroid, nor any other conventional object appeared to fit the bill, leading to all kinds of “exotic” explanations.
A particularly exotic explanation was offered by Harvard Professor Avi Loeb and his former postdoc (Dr. Shmuel Bialy), who hypothesized that ‘Oumuamua could have been an extraterrestrial lightsail. Whereas most rebuttal papers questioned the evidence presented, a new study by astrophysicist and UCLA emeritus professor Ben Zuckerman questioned something else: why would an extraterrestrial civilization want to send a probe our way?
Author’s note: This article was written in collaboration with Vincent Kofman, a co-author of the paper it discusses and Post Doctoral Researcher at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center
Amino acids are one of the most important building blocks of life as we know it. At its core, they contain an amino and an acid group, through which they can link together with other amino acids. That linking process can form long chains, which is how they form proteins. In humans, 20 different amino acids make up all proteins, and the difference between them is in the molecular side chain between the amino and the acid group. The different groups make interconnections in the chain, folding it into highly specific forms, allowing the proteins to perform highly specific tasks, ranging from metabolism, to muscle movement, and cell duplication.
Given that their presence is a necessary, though not necessarily a sufficient, condition for the development of life, scientists have spent many decades exploring where they first formed. With a paper in Nature Astronomy published last month, they moved one step closer to that understanding, by discovering that it is possible to form glycine, the simplest amino acid, in the star nurseries of interstellar clouds.
Iron is one of the most abundant elements in the Universe, along with lighter elements like hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon. Out in interstellar space, there should be abundant quantities of iron in its gaseous form. So why, when astrophysicist look out into space, do they see so little of it?
There’s no two ways about it, the Universe is an extremely big place! And thanks to the limitations placed upon us by Special Relativity, traveling to even the closest star systems could take millennia. As we addressed in a previous article, the estimated travel time to the nearest star system (Alpha Centauri) could take anywhere from 19,000 to 81,000 years using conventional methods.
For this reason, many theorists have recommended that humanity should rely on generation ships to spread the seed of humanity among the stars. Naturally, such a project presents many challenges, not the least of which is how large a spacecraft would need to be to sustain a multi-generational crew. In a new study, a team of international scientists addressed this very question and determined that a lot of interior space would be needed!
On August 25th, 2012, the Voyager 1 spacecraft accomplished something no human-made object ever had before. After exploring the Uranus, Neptune, and the outer reaches of the Solar System, the spacecraft entered interstellar space. In so doing, it effectively became the most distant object from Earth and traveled further than anyone, or anything, in history.
Well, buckle up, because according to NASA mission scientists, the Voyager 2 spacecraft recently crossed the outer edge of the heliopause – the boundary between our Solar System and the interstellar medium – and has joined Voyager 1 in interstellar space. But unlike its sibling, the Voyager 2 spacecraft carries a working instrument that will provide the first-ever observations of the boundary that exists between the Solar System and interstellar space.
Over the course of many centuries, scientists learned a great deal about the types of conditions and elements that make life possible here on Earth. Thanks to the advent of modern astronomy, scientists have since learned that these elements are not only abundant in other star systems and parts of the galaxy, but also in the medium known as interstellar space.
Consider carbon, the element that is essential to all organic matter and life as we know it. This life-bearing element is also present in interstellar dust, though astronomers are not sure how abundant it is. According to new research by a team of astronomers from Australia and Turkey, much of the carbon in our galaxy exists in the form of grease-like molecules.
Their study, “Aliphatic Hydrocarbon Content of Interstellar Dust“, recently appeared in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. The study was led by Gunay Banihan, a professor from the Department of Astronomy and Space Sciences of Erge University in Turkey, and included members from multiple departments from the University of New South Wales in Sydney (UNSW).
For the sake of their study, the team sought to determine exactly how much of our galaxy’s carbon is bound up in grease-like molecules. At present, it is believed that half of the interstellar carbon exists in pure form, whereas the rest in bound up in either grease-like aliphatic molecules (carbon atoms that form open chains) and mothball-like aromatic molecules (carbon atoms that form planar unsaturated rings).
To determine how plentiful grease-like molecules are compared to aromatic ones, the team created material with the same properties as interstellar dust in a laboratory. This consisted of recreating the process where aliphatic compounds are synthesized in the outflows of carbon stars. They then followed up on this by expanding the carbon-containing plasma into a vacuum at low temperatures to simulate interstellar space.
“Combining our lab results with observations from astronomical observatories allows us to measure the amount of aliphatic carbon between us and the stars.”
Using magnetic resonance and spectroscopy, they were then able to determine how strongly the material absorbed light with a certain infrared wavelength. From this, the team found that there are about 100 greasy carbon atoms for every million hydrogen atoms, which works out to about half of the available carbon between stars. Expanding that to include all of the Milky Way, they determined that about 10 billion trillion trillion tonnes of greasy matter exists.
To put that in perspective, that’s enough grease to fill about 40 trillion trillion trillion packs of butter. But as Schmidt indicated, this grease is far from being edible.
“This space grease is not the kind of thing you’d want to spread on a slice of toast! It’s dirty, likely toxic and only forms in the environment of interstellar space (and our laboratory). It’s also intriguing that organic material of this kind – material that gets incorporated into planetary systems – is so abundant.”
Looking ahead, the team now wants to determine the abundance of the other type of non-pure carbon, which is the mothball-like aromatic molecules. Here too, the team will be recreating the molecules in a laboratory environment using simulations. By establishing the amount of each type of carbon in interstellar dust, they will be able to place constraints on how much of this elements is available in our galaxy.
This in turn will allow astronomers to determine exactly how much of this life-giving element is available, and could also help shed light on how and where life can take hold!