The Universe is Brighter Than we Thought

Artist's impression of NASA's New Horizons spacecraft. Credit: NASA/APL/SwRI and NASA/JPL-Caltech

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!

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A Newly-Discovered (Almost) Dwarf Planet Will Come Surprisingly Close in 2031

It’s good to remember how little we know about the outer solar system.  Humans only really began observing it within the past 100 years, and given the constraints on that observations there are still plenty of things we don’t know about.  For example, researchers recently found an object almost the size of a dwarf planet that is inbound to the inner solar system, with an estimated orbital period of over 2 million years, more than six the lifetime of the modern human species.  

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New Horizons is Now 50 Astronomical Units Away From the Sun

Currently exploring the Kuiper Belt, New Horizons is just one of five spacecraft to reach beyond 50 astronomical units, on its way out of the solar system and, eventually, into interstellar space. (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Southwest Research Institute)

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.

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New Horizons Saw the Universe With Even Less Light Pollution than Hubble’s View

Artist's impression of New Horizons' close encounter with the Pluto–Charon system. Credit: NASA/JHU APL/SwRI/Steve Gribben

In July of 2015, NASA’s New Horizons probe made history when it became the first mission ever to conduct a close flyby of Pluto. This was followed by the spacecraft making the first-ever encounter with a Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) – known as Arrokoth (aka. 2014 MU69) – on Dec.31st, 2018. In addition, its unique position in the outer Solar System has allowed astronomers to conduct rare and lucrative science operations.

This has included parallax measurements of Proxima Centauri and Wolf 359, the two closest stars to the Solar System. In addition, a team of astronomers led by the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) and Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) used archival data from the probe’s Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) to conduct measurements of the Cosmic Optical Background (COB).

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If Planet 9 is a Primordial Black Hole, We Might Be Able to See Flares When it Consumes Comets

Artist's conception of accretion flares resulting from the encounter of an Oort-cloud comet and a hypothesized black hole in the outer solar system. Credit: M. Weiss

A comet-eating black hole the size of a planet? It’s possible. And if there’s one out there in the distant Solar System, a pair of researchers think they know how to find it.

If they do, we might finally put the Planet 9 issue to rest.

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Maybe the Elusive Planet 9 Doesn’t Exist After All

The imagined view from Planet Nine looking back toward the sun. Astronomers think the huge, distant planet is gaseous, similar to the other giant planets in our solar system.

Oh Planet Nine, when will you stop toying with us?

Whether you call it Planet Nine, Planet X, the Perturber, Jehoshaphat, “Phattie,” or any of the other proposed names—either serious or flippant—this scientific back and forth over its existence is getting exhausting.

Is this what it was like when they were arguing whether Earth is flat or round?

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Over a Hundred New Large Objects Found in the Kuiper Belt

This is an artist's concept of a craggy piece of Solar System debris that belongs to a class of bodies called trans-Neptunian objects (TNOs).Credit: NASA, ESA, and G. Bacon (STScI)

Hey Pluto, Sedna, Haumea, Makemake Et al.: You’ve got company!

While searching for distant galaxies and supernovae, the Dark Energy Survey’s powerful 570-megapixel digital camera spotted a few other moving “dots” in its field of view. Turns out, the DES has found more than 100 previously unknown trans-Neptunian objects (TNOs), minor planets located in Kuiper Belt of our Solar System.

A new paper describes how the researchers connected the moving dots to find the new TNOs, and also says this new approach could help look for the hypothetical Planet Nine and other undiscovered worlds.

Guess you never know what you’ll find once you start looking!

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New Horizon’s Flyby Target 2014 MU69 Gets its Official Name: Arrokoth

Rev. Nick Miles, of the Pamunkey Tribe, opens the 2014 MU69/Arrokoth naming ceremony at NASA Headquarters with a traditional Algonquian song. Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

On July 14th, 2015, the New Horizons made the first-ever flyby of Pluto. As if that wasn’t enough, the mission made history again with the flyby of the Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) 2014 MU69 on December 31st, 2018. This constituted the farthest encounter from Earth with a celestial object, which the team had nicknamed Ultima Thule – a mythical northern island beyond the borders of the known world in Medieval literature.

Unfortunately, this name has generated some controversy due to the fact that it is also the name white supremacists use to refer to a mythical homeland. So with the consent of the tribal elders and representatives of the Powhatan nations, the New Horizons’ team recommended a new name for the KBO. Henceforth, it will be known as “Arrokoth“, the word for “sky” in the Powhatan/Algonquian language.

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More Evidence that Planet 9 is Really Out There

Artist's impression of Planet Nine as an ice giant eclipsing the central Milky Way, with a star-like Sun in the distance. Neptune's orbit is shown as a small ellipse around the Sun. The sky view and appearance are based on the conjectures of its co-proposer, Mike Brown. Image Credit: By nagualdesign; Tom Ruen, background taken from File:ESO - Milky Way.jpg - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47069857
Artist's impression of Planet Nine as an ice giant eclipsing the central Milky Way, with a star-like Sun in the distance. Neptune's orbit is shown as a small ellipse around the Sun. The sky view and appearance are based on the conjectures of its co-proposer, Mike Brown. Image Credit: By nagualdesign; Tom Ruen, background taken from File:ESO - Milky Way.jpg - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47069857

What’s going on in the distant reaches of our Solar System? Is there a Planet 9 out there?

Out in the frigid expanse of our System, there are bodies on orbital paths that don’t make sense in terms of our eight-planet Solar System. There seems to be an undiscovered body out there, several times more massive than Earth, shaping the orbits of some Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs), and driving astronomers to look deeper and more thoroughly into the extreme reaches of our System.

What they’re looking for is the mysterious, and so far unproven, ninth planet.

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