Space News & Blog Articles

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With Martian air, Dirt, and Sunshine, It Should be Possible to Make Iron on Mars

When the first humans reach Mars, they’ll probably live in habitats that were there ahead of time or in habs made from their landers. Eventually, though, if people are going to settle on Mars in large numbers, they’ll need to become self-sufficient. A group of researchers at Swinburne University in Melbourne, Australia is looking at ways to make it happen. Their goal is in-situ resource utilization on the planet for solutions to building out the materials needed for Mars cities. They’ve come up with a proposal to produce metals for use on Mars, using only what’s available on the planet. It’s the first detailed study of its kind focused on metal production at another world. It has further implications for colonies on the Moon, as well.

Why make metals, particularly iron, on Mars when there’s plenty on Earth? It’s a matter of economics and accessibility. Space launches off Earth are expensive. It can cost anywhere from a few thousand dollars per kilogram of payload to nearly $60,000 per kilogram to get stuff out of Earth’s gravity well. If the payload contains people and materials bound for Mars, that can get spendy very quickly. Sure, the early missions will contain everything people need to live on the Red Planet. They’ll transport food, oxygen supplies, and so on. But, for long-term colonies and science bases, it’s pretty clear that in-situ resource utilization is the wave of the future. It’s cheaper, and in the long run, more sustainable. And, Mars does have resources for future inhabitants to use.

Think about it. A colony on Mars needs homes, labs, and equipment for creating oxygen and harvesting water, growing food, and making fuels. While some plastics could be useful as part of the mix, much of what settlers will need requires metals. And, bringing them from Earth will not always be possible. It’s also not likely that asteroid mining will provide a permanent answer. At least not in the short term. So, going “local” is the best solution.

In-situ Resource Utilization on Mars

In Australia, Swinburne professor Akbar Rhamdhani and his team began looking at ways to produce metal on Mars and recently published a paper about their ideas. Basically, without assuming the existence of metal deposits on the Red Planet, they developed a process that would take processed air from the Martian atmosphere, dirt from the surface, and concentrated sunlight, and come up with a method to create metallic iron. Solar energy provides the heat source for this “smelting” operation, while cooled CO gas provides carbon. CO itself is a by-product of oxygen production in the Martian atmosphere. We already know that oxygen can be produced on Mars through artificial means. The Mars Perseverance rover’s Mars Oxygen In-situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE) has already done it. It’s a prototype for oxygen-producing equipment people will need on the planet.

The MOXIE unit is being placed into the Perseverance rover. Courtesy NASA/JPL.

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A Remote Surgical Robot is Going to the International Space Station

In the near future, NASA and other space agencies will send astronauts beyond Low Earth Orbit (LEO) for the first time in over fifty years. But unlike the Apollo Era, these missions will consist of astronauts spending extended periods on the Moon and traveling to and from Mars (with a few months of surface operations in between). Beyond that, there’s also the planned commercialization of LEO and cis-Lunar space, meaning millions of people could live aboard space habitats and surface settlements well beyond Earth.

This presents many challenges, which include the possibility that the sick and injured won’t have licensed medical practitioners to perform potentially life-saving surgery. To address this, Professor Shane Farritor and his colleagues at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s (UNL) Nebraska Innovation Campus (NIC) have developed the Miniaturized In-vivo Robotic Assistant (MIRA). In 2024, this portable miniaturized robotic-assisted surgery (RAS) platform will be flown to the International Space Station (ISS) for a test mission to evaluate its ability to perform medical procedures in space.

Farritor is the David and Lederer Professor of Engineering at the University of Nebraska who studied robotics at MIT. As part of his studies, he worked with the NASA Kennedy Space Center, Goddard Space Flight Center, and Jet Propulsion Laboratory in support of NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover (MER) program. This consisted of assisting in designing and assembling the Curiosity and Perseverance rovers, defining their motion planning, and inventing a process where the rover’s Sun detectors are used to determine its direction of travel.

In 2006, he and Dmitry Oleynikov – a former University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) professor of surgery – founded Virtual Incision, a startup company based at the NIC. In April 2022, Farritor was named the inaugural winner of the Faculty IP Innovation and Commercialization Award – issued by the University of Nebraska for intellectual property. For nearly 20 years, Farritor, Oleynikov, and their colleagues have been developing the MIRA robotic surgical suite, which has attracted over $100 million in venture capital.

Recently, NASA awarded Virtual Incision a $100,000 grant through the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DoE) Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) to help engineers and roboticists at the NIC prepare it for its test aboard the ISS. Compared to conventional robotic surgical suites, MIRA offers two advantages. First, its instruments can be inserted through small incisions, allowing doctors to perform minimally-invasive operations (such as abdominal surgery and colon resections). Second, the technology could allow for telemedicine, where surgeons can perform operations remotely and provide services to locations far from a medical facility.

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Hubble can Still Impress and Inspire. Here's Globular Star Cluster NGC 6638

Wow, what a beauty! While we’ve all turned our attentions to the new James Webb Space Telescope, this image proves Hubble has still has got it where it counts.  

This new image from the Hubble Space Telescope shows the heart of the globular cluster NGC 6638 in the constellation Sagittarius. This star-studded cluster contains tens of thousands to millions of stars, all tightly bound together by gravity. Globular clusters have a higher concentration of stars towards their centers, and this observation highlights that density.

This image was taken with Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 and the Advanced Camera for Surveys.

Like so many things that Hubble has observed since it launched to space in 1989, this venerable telescope has revolutionized the study of globular clusters. With its instruments and clear vision above Earth’s atmosphere, Hubble has been able to study what kind of stars make up globular clusters, how they evolve, and the role of gravity in these dense systems.

Globular clusters are found in nearly all galaxies. They are the largest and most massive type of star clusters, and they tend to be older and denser than open clusters. From Hubble, we’ve learned that the  typical distance between stars in a globular cluster is about one light year. But at the central core of a cluster where the concentration of stars is the highest, the distance there between stars averages about a third of a light year, or thirteen times closer than Proxima Centauri is to our Sun.

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Will Europa finally answer, ‘Are we alone?’

While NASA’s much-lauded Space Launch System stands ready for its maiden flight later this month with the goal of sending astronauts back to the Moon in the next few years, our gazes once again turn to the stars as we continue to ask the question that has plagued humankind since time immemorial: Are we alone? While there are several solar system locales that we can choose from to conduct our search for life beyond Earth, to include Mars and Saturn’s moons, Titan and Enceladus, one planetary body orbiting the largest planet in the solar system has peaked the interest of scientists since the 1970s.

Jupiter’s second Galilean Moon, Europa, with its interior ocean, predominantly crater-less surface, and crisscrosses of cracks and ridges spanning entire hemispheres, makes it one of the most fascinating planetary bodies ever observed. These unique geologic features are possibly indicative of liquid water traveling to the surface from its deep ocean, making Europa a hot spot for the exploration and study of life beyond Earth, also known as astrobiology.

False color mosaic of Europa taken by NASA’s Galileo spacecraft. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute)

“Europa may be one of the few accessible places whether life could originate and persist,” says Dr. Michael Manga, a geophysicist and Professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Science at UC Berkeley. “Its evolution and dynamics are fascinating, some similarities but also fundamental differences from Earth.”

Scientists hypothesize that Europa’s icy outer shell is 15 to 25 kilometers (10 to 15 miles) thick that floats on an ocean 60 to 150 kilometers (40 to 100 miles) deep. While there is strong evidence that Saturn’s moon, Enceladus, also has a interior ocean, Europa’s ocean is believed to potentially house double the amount of water as all of Earth’s oceans combined, despite Europa being only a quarter of Earth’s diameter.

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Watch OSIRIS-REx's Complex Orbital Path Around Bennu in This Cool Animation

The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft conducted a two-year reconnaissance and sample collection at the asteroid Bennu, providing crucial data about the 500-meter-wide potentially hazardous rubble pile/space rock. When OSIRIS-REx arrived on Dec. 3, 2018, it needed some tricky navigation and precise maneuvers to make the mission work.

Experts at NASA Goddard’s Scientific Visualization Studio created an amazing visualization of the path the spacecraft took during its investigations. A short film called “A Web Around Asteroid Bennu” highlights the complexity of the mission, and the film is being shown at the SIGGRAPH computer graphics conference in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, a festival honoring standout works of computer animated storytelling.

Other films in the festival include Disney’s “Encanto” and Warner Brothers’ “The Batman.”

Data visualizer Kel Elkins compiled the data for the film, which shows the web-like flight path for OSIRIS-REx, as well as the touch-and-go, or TAG, maneuver to collect the sample from the asteroid’s surface.

“I started working with the trajectory data in 2015,” Elkins said. “And when you first see an image of all the different maneuvers it looks like a rat’s nest. But it was really exciting to see these complicated maneuvers in 3D space.”

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Dwarf Galaxies Found Without Influence From Dark Matter

Ask astronomers about dark matter and one of the things they talk about is that this invisible, mysterious “stuff” permeates the universe. In particular, it exists in halos surrounding most galaxies. The mass of the halo exerts a strong gravitational influence on the galaxy itself, as well as on others in the neighborhood. That’s pretty much the standard view of dark matter and its influence on galaxies. However, there are problems with the idea of those halos. Apparently, some oddly shaped dwarf galaxies exist that look like they have no halos. How could this be? Do they represent an observationally induced challenge to the prevailing ideas about dark matter halos?

Finding Perturbed Dwarf Galaxies

In the so-called “Standard Model” of cosmology, shells or halos of dark matter protect galaxies from the gravitational influence of nearby galactic neighbors. However, when astronomers at the University of Bonn and Saint Andrews in Scotland looked in the nearby Fornax Cluster, which lies some 62 million light-years away from us, they saw something strange. It contains a number of dwarf galaxies with distorted, perturbed shapes. This is odd, especially if they should be surrounded by dark matter halos.

The Fornax Galaxy Cluster, which contains distorted dwarf galaxies in its collection. Image Credit: ESO

Let’s take a quick look at dwarf galaxies. They’re small and faint and usually found riding along in galaxy clusters or near much larger companions. The Milky Way Galaxy has a coterie of dwarf galaxies around it,. It is, in fact, cannibalizing ones such as the Sagittarius Dwarf Spheroidal. Interestingly, recent studies show that at least one of the dwarf galaxies near ours, an ancient one called Tucana II, has an astoundingly massive dark matter halo.

So, what’s happening in Fornax that’s different? There, dwarf galaxies could be “disturbed” by gravitational tides from nearby larger ones in the cluster. Tides happen when gravity from one body pulls differently on different parts of another body. These are similar to tides on Earth when the Moon pulls more strongly on the side of Earth that faces it.

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Interstellar Meteorite, Shortest Day Ever, Magnetosphere Collapse

An interstellar meteorite could be hiding in the ocean. Why doesn’t Jupiter have rings like Saturn. The time when Earth’s magnetic field almost collapsed. The shortest day on Earth, and Planet 9 is running out of places to hide. All this and more in this week’s episode of Space Bites.

If you prefer to watch the most exciting space and astronomy news of this week, here’s a video version. They come in a bite-size format, so you can relax and watch them being videoed at you.

Why Jupiter Doesn’t Have Massive Rings

Saturn has vast rings made of water ice, while the rest of the giant planets have faint rings made of dust grains. Jupiter has icy moons and enough gravity to catch comets, so why doesn’t it have even more fabulous rings than Saturn? Jupiter has four large moons with enough gravity to disrupt a sizeable icy ring, while Saturn’s moon Titan accounts for almost all the moon mass in the system. Can you imagine what Jupiter would look like with Saturn-like rings? With more gravity and closer to us in the Solar System, they’d be spectacular.

More about Jupiter’s rings.

Searching for Interstellar Meteor Underwater

In 2014, an object crashed into the ocean off the coast of Papua New Guinea. Newly released data from the US Department of Defense confirmed that the object was following an interstellar trajectory, meaning it could have formed in another star system and traveled to the Solar System. A team of scientists has proposed that fragments of the meteorite could still be sitting on the bottom of the ocean and could be found by a coordinated search.

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Jupiter Missions Could Also Help Search for Dark Matter

In a recent study published in the Journal of High Energy Physics, two researchers from Brown University demonstrated how data from past missions to Jupiter can help scientists examine dark matter, one of the most mysterious phenomena in the universe. The reason past Jupiter missions were chosen is due to the extensive amount of data gathered about the largest planet in the solar system, most notably from the Galileo and Juno orbiters. As stated, dark matter is one of the most mysterious phenomena in the universe. One reason is because it’s invisible and does not emit any light. So why study it?

“Because it is there and we don’t know what it is!” Dr. Lingfeng Li, a Postdoctoral Research Associate at Brown University and lead author on the paper, exclaims. “There are strong pieces of evidence coming from very different datasets pointing to dark matter: Cosmic Microwave Background, stellar motions inside galaxies, gravitational lensing effects, and so forth. In brief, it behaves like some cold, non-interactive (therefore dark) dust at large length scales, while its nature and possible interactions within a smaller length scale are still unknown. It must be something brand new: something distinct from our baryonic matter.”

A brilliant image of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot along with its violent southern hemisphere taken by NASA’s Juno spacecraft as it passed close to the gas giant planet. (Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Southwest Research Institute/Malin Space Science Systems/Kevin M. Gill)

In the study, the researchers discussed how trapped electrons within Jupiter’s massive magnetic field and radiation belt can be used to examine dark matter and dark mediator that exist between what is known as the dark sector and our visible world. They deduced three scenarios for trapped electrons within Jupiter’s radiation belts: fully trapped, quasi-trapped, and untrapped electrons. Their results showed that recorded measurements from the Galileo and Juno missions indicate produced electrons can be either fully- or quasi-trapped within the innermost radiation belts of Jupiter, ultimately contributing to energetic electron fluxes.

One goal of this study was to provide an initial effort into using data from previous, active, and future mission to Jupiter to examine new physics that goes beyond the traditional model of particle physics. While data for this study was gathered from the years-long missions of the Galileo and Juno orbiters at Jupiter, Li doesn’t think this type of study can be carried out using data from other long-term missions to other planets, such as Saturn and its historic Cassini mission.

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I Asked an AI to Dream the Solar System as Food

As soon as I saw these new artificial intelligence image creation tools, like DALL-E, I wanted to see how well they’d work for generating space and astronomy images. I’m still on the waiting list for DALL-E 2, so I don’t have any feedback to give there, but I signed up for Midjourney AI, played around with the free account, and then signed up for a full paid account, so I could test out its capabilities.

How well does it work? It’s okay, I guess. I’m still learning to craft prompts to get the best results, but the biggest issue is that they’re unscientific. If I need a picture of the Space Launch System, it needs to be the actual Space Launch System and not some kind of art deco version of a rocket that looks like it was designed in the 1950s. It’s beautiful, but I can’t use it.

Definitely not the Space Launch System. Credit: Midjourney AI

I was able to generate an image of a meteorite resting on the bottom of the ocean for a recent story, and I’ve tried a few more illustrations. It could work for stories with abstract concepts where there isn’t an existing image we could use.

Okay, fine, but what about images that are unscientific? Images that are fun. Now we’re talking. I’ve been using the AI to generate images for an Ars Magica game I’m playing with my son and his friends.

I asked the Midjourney AI to imagine the Solar System but in the form of food. In each case, I gave the AI the prompt of the planet made out of food. So, “the planet Jupiter made out of a sandwich” or “the planet Neptune made out of a bowl of berries.” You can see the results below.

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Masten Space is Building a Lunar Lander for NASA. Also, They Just Filed for Bankruptcy

If you’re a fan of the commercial space industry (aka. NewSpace), then the name Masten Space Systems is sure to ring a bell. For years, this California-based aerospace company has been developing delivery systems to accommodate payloads to the Moon, Mars, and beyond. This included Xoie, the lander concept that won the $1 million Northrop Grumman Lunar X-Prize in 2009, their Xombie and Xodiac reusable terrestrial landers, and the in-Flight Alumina Spray Technique (FAST) that would allow lunar landers to create their own landing pads.

But perhaps their biggest feat was the Xelene Lunar Lander (XL-1) that they developed in partnership with the NASA Lunar CATALYST program. This lander was one of several robotic systems enlisted by NASA to deliver cargo to the Moon in support of the Artemis Program. This included the Masten-1 mission, which was scheduled to land a payload Moon’s southern polar region in 2023. The company was scheduled to make a second delivery (Masten-2) by 2024, one year before the first Artemis astronauts arrived. But according to a statement issued on July 28th, the company has filed for Chapter 11 and is bankrupt!

This news comes as little surprise, given recent events. In November 2018, Masten was one of nine companies selected by NASA to deliver payloads to the lunar surface as part of their Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS). This program awarded contracts of indefinite delivery and indefinite quantity with a total value of $2.6 billion through 2028. In April 2020, NASA awarded Masten a $75.9 million contract to deliver nine scientific payloads using its XL-1 lander. This included the MoonRanger rover and eight scientific instruments to the Hawthorn Crater at the lunar south pole in 2022.

“The $75.9 million award includes end-to-end services for delivery of the instruments, including payload integration, launch from Earth, landing on the Moon’s surface, and operation for at least 12 days,” said NASA in the press statement it issued at the time. “Masten Space Systems will land these payloads on the Moon with its XL-1 lander.” In June 2021, Masten announced that this mission would be delayed until November 2023, citing the pandemic and COVID-19 restrictions as the cause. Said company founder Dave Masten in a company statement:

“We’ve been adapting the mission plan to account for COVID-19 supply chain delays and manage conditions as they evolve, but the overall impact on our timeline reached a point where we need to shift to the next window to go (as you know, there’s a limited accessibility window to the south pole due to the orbit of the Moon).”

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NASA’s Space Launch System Gets Tentative Launch Date of August 29th

NASA has announced tentative placeholder launch dates for its beast of a rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), on its maiden flight to deep space. While work still needs to be accomplished to ensure its launch, the tentative dates are currently August 29th, September 2nd, and September 5th. While NASA stressed these are not set dates, the announcement nonetheless puts SLS closer than ever to flight.

The maiden launch of the most powerful rocket ever built comes after years of budget increases and delays. Funding for SLS was approximately $1.5 billion in 2011 but has increased almost every year until it hit $2.5 billion in 2021. This came after Congress mandated SLS “operational capability…not later than December 31, 2016”, but has faced countless delays since then due to audits and poor management.

NASA’s Space Launch System sitting atop its launchpad at Kennedy Space Center. (Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett)

Nonetheless, SLS has proven its resilience time and time again, and as of this moment it proudly stands atop its launchpad at Kennedy Space Center as the final checkouts are conducted for its maiden flight into space. As SLS awaits its destiny, the first thought that comes to the mind of SLS Associate Program Manager, Dr. Sharon Cobb, as she sees SLS on the launchpad is teamwork.

“The rocket on the pad represents a journey taken not by one person but by a team of brilliant people working together,” says Dr. Cobb. “When SLS rolls to the launchpad it represents the work of people and companies from across this country, and this work comes together as the most powerful rocket ever built. It represents human ingenuity and dedication and is something we can all be proud of.”

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Did you Want More Scientific Information About the First set of Images From JWST? Fill Your Boots

On July 12th, 2022, NASA and its partner agencies released the first James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) observations to the public. These included images and spectra obtained after Webb’s commissioning phase, which included the most-detailed views of galaxy clusters, gravitational lenses, nebulae, merging galaxies, and spectra from an exoplanet’s atmosphere. Less than a month after their release, a paper titled “The JWST Early Release Observations” has been made available that describes the observations and the scientific process that went into making them.

The EROs is a set of public outreach products created to mark the end of JWST’s commissioning and the beginning of science operations. These products were chosen by the ERO Selection Committee, an international body formed in 2016 composed of members from NASA, the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), and the European Space Agency (ESA), with support provided by the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI). The paper that describes the ERO was authored by researchers from the STScI, the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA), and the Department of Physics & Astronomy at John Hopkins University.

As noted in a previous article (concurrent with the release), the first observations from the Webb mission included a deep field image of the SMACS J0723.3-7327 galaxy cluster and distant lensed galaxies, the merging galaxy group known as Stephan’s Quintet, the Carina Nebula (NGC 3324), the Southern Ring planetary nebula (NGC 3132), and spectra obtained from the transiting hot Jupiter WASP 96b. The ERO describes how these targets were selected, which of Webb’s instruments were used to study them, and what they revealed.

Target Selection

In the first section of the paper, the authors state how these targets were selected in 2017 by the ERO Committee based on solicitations from the American Astronomical Society (AAS) and the JWST Science Working Group (SWG). From this, the ERO Committee selected a superset of targets based on existing data, particularly color images taken by the Hubble and Spitzer Space Telescopes. These, in turn, were evaluated based on their relevance to the JWST’s four scientific themes: observations of the first galaxies that formed during the “Cosmic Dawn” period, how these galaxies have since evolved, the lifecycle of stars, and extrasolar planets.

The final targets were selected from these, with additional consideration for the major observation modes of JWST’s four science instruments. These instruments make up the Integrated Science Instrument Module (ISIM) and include:

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The Tharsis Region of Mars is Peppered With These Strange Pit Craters. Now They’ve Been Found Elsewhere

Pit craters are found on solid bodies throughout our Solar System, including Earth, Venus, the Moon, and Mars. These craters – which are not formed by impacts — can be indications of underground lava tubes, which are created when the top of a stream of molten rock solidifies and the lava inside drains away, leaving a hollow tube of rock. If a portion of the roof of the tube is unsupported, parts of it may fall in, making a hole or a pit along the lava tube’s path.

This image shows pit craters on Mars, running north-south and east-west, and they probably track an unground lava tube. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UArizona

On Mars, pit craters are usually bowl-shaped and tend to occur in otherwise flat and featureless terrain, and planetary scientists can tell a pit crater from an impact crater because pit craters typically have no upraised rim or ejecta, as impact craters do. most of them can be easily identified by their lack of elevated rims or ejecta, which would be present if an impact would have created the crater.

But the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and other previous missions orbiting the Red Planet have identified more than 100 pit craters around the Tharsis region of Mars that exhibit unusual features compared to other pit craters.

Called Atypical Pit Craters (APCs) they generally have sharp and distinct rims, vertical or overhanging walls that extend down to their floors. They are usually cylindrical or bell shaped, and their surface diameters that can be a third larger than the usual pit craters. They can range from 50–350?meters in diameter.

The Tharsis region is the large volcanic plateau near the equator in the western hemisphere of Mars, which is home to the largest volcanoes in the Solar System, and scientists think the abundance of APC in that region stem from the underground tubes that may criss-cross between the giant volcanoes of Mars.

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An Interstellar Meteor Struck the Earth in 2014, and now Scientists Want to Search for it at the Bottom of the Ocean

Back in 2014, an object crashed into the ocean just off the coast of Papua New Guinea. Data collected at the time indicated that the meteorite just might be an interstellar object, and if that’s true, then it’s only the third such object known (after Oumuamua and Borisov), and the first known to exist on Earth. Launching an undersea expedition to find it would be a long shot, but the scientific payoff could be enormous.

Dubbed CNEOS 2014-01-08, the candidate interstellar object is believed to have measured about a half-meter wide, and its potentially interstellar origins were first recognized by then graduate student Amir Siraj and Harvard professor Avi Loeb. Using catalog data regarding the object’s trajectory, Siraj and Loeb concluded that it might be from beyond our solar system due to its unusually high heliocentric velocity – in other words, it was moving at speeds that suggest it may not be bound within the Sun’s gravity well.

There’s a catch, however. The data used to measure the object’s impact with Earth came from a US Department of Defense spy satellite, designed to monitor Earthly military activities. As such, the exact error values of the measurement are a carefully guarded secret – the US military is wary of allowing the precise capabilities of their satellite to become public domain information. But without these details, much of the scientific community understandably remains unwilling to officially classify CNEOS 2014-01-08 as an interstellar object. Siraj and Loeb’s paper therefore remains unpublished, having not yet passed peer review.

Their claim, however, was bolstered in April 2022, when the US Space Force’s Space Operations Command’s Chief Scientist, Joel Mozer, reviewed the classified data in question and “confirmed that the velocity estimate reported to NASA is sufficiently accurate to indicate an interstellar trajectory.”

While the official scientific classification of CNEOS 2014-01-08 seems doomed to remain in limbo for the time being, the statement by the US Space Force was enough to convince Siraj and Loeb of its interstellar origin, and they have now moved on to proposing possible ways to find the object and study it up close.

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Astronomers Measure the Signal of Dark Matter From 12 Billion Years ago

Although the particles of dark matter continue to allude us, astronomers continue to find evidence of it. In a recent study, they have seen its effect from the edge of visible space, when the universe was just 1.5 billion years old.

Dark matter doesn’t emit its own light, nor does it absorb light like a dark cloud. But it does affect light gravitationally. So clumps of dark matter create a gravitational lens that deflects and focuses light. Astronomers have long used this effect to map dark matter within galactic clusters. You can even see this lensing effect in the recent Webb deep field images. The light from more distant galaxies is warped by the mass of closer galaxies, which astronomers can map to calculate the distribution of dark matter in those closer galaxies.

But in this latest study, the galaxies are so distant that there aren’t really any more distant galaxies. Certainly none bright enough that we can see their lensed light. So instead, the team used the light from the cosmic microwave background (CMB). To map dark matter, the team used data from the Subaru Hyper Suprime-Cam Survey (HSC), and identified about 1.5 million faint and distant galaxies. They then used data from the Plank satellite to see how CMB light was deflected. From this, they created a map of dark matter in the early universe.

The cosmic microwave background as seen by different satellites. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ESA

It’s the most distant measure of dark matter ever made, and it opens a possible crack in our current model of the universe. In the standard cosmological model, known as the LCDM model, dark energy drives the expansion of the universe, striving to push galaxies apart, while the gravitational attraction of matter and dark matter cause galaxies to clump together. According to LCDM, the scale at which we observe fluctuations in the cosmic background drives the scale at which galaxies cluster together, which tells us how densely galaxies should be clustered in the early universe. In this latest work, the amount of galactic clustering in the early period is slightly less than predicted by the LCDM model.

The uncertainty of the team’s measurements means their result isn’t conclusive. It’s possible that they simply under measured the clumping scale. But if it’s right, it suggests that the laws of the universe were a bit different 12 billion years ago. Combined with observations that show a tension in the rate of cosmic expansion, they could be on to something.

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JWST Turns Its Gaze on the Cartwheel Galaxy

The Cartwheel Galaxy, also known as ESO 350-40, is one disturbed-looking piece of cosmic real estate. To look at it now, especially in the latest JWST view, you’d never know it used to be a gorgeous spiral galaxy. That was before it got involved in a head-on collision with a companion. The encounter happened somewhere around 200-300 million years ago. Essentially, the smaller galaxy “bulls-eyed” the Cartwheel, right through its heart. A shock wave swept through the system, changing everything. The aftermath is what we see in this latest image from JWST.

Exploring the Cartwheel

When galaxies collide, interesting things happen. The gravity of two such massive objects colliding (or even passing near each other) distorts the shape of each galaxy. Shock waves ripple through the participants, setting off bursts of star formation. In extreme circumstances, as we see here, the result is a rare ring-type galaxy.

The Cartwheel Galaxy may look amazingly weird (and it is). But, it’s also a great example of galactic wreckage that will eventually fix itself. In a few million years, this scene could look strikingly different. That’s one reason why astronomers are so interested in it. It’s not often they get to see the evolution of a collision like this. The latest view of it is worth digging into, just to look at the amazing detail JWST provided. There’s not just the main Cartwheel, but also other companion galaxies. (The galaxy that plowed through the main one is not in this view.) More on all those in a minute.

The obvious wreckage from the collision consists of two glowing rings, an inner and an outer one. The inner ring hosts a bright nucleus that’s home to a supermassive black hole. That’s surrounded by a smaller ring of gas and hot dust. Then there’s the outer ring. It has actually expanded so much since the collision that it’s bigger than our Milky Way Galaxy. It’s buzzing with star-forming regions, set off by shock waves from the collision and the expansion of the ring into surrounding regions of gas and dust.

Connecting the two main rings is a set of spooky-looking spokes radiating out from the core. These are likely the ancient spiral arms from the original galaxy going through a reforming process. They, too, are alive with star birth nurseries. The bluish regions are young stars formed as a result of the collision.

Cartwheel Galaxy Makes Waves
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The Record for the Farthest Galaxy just got Broken Again, now just 250 million years after the Big Bang

In a recent study submitted to MNRAS, a collaborative research team has utilized the first set of data from the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) discovering a galaxy candidate, CEERS-93316, that formed approximately 250 million years after the Bing Bang, which also set a new redshift record of z = 16.7. This finding is extremely intriguing as it demonstrates the power of JWST, which only started sending back its first set of data a few weeks ago. CEERS stands for Cosmic Evolution Early Release Science Survey, and was specifically created for imaging with JWST.

Postage stamp images of CEERS-93316 from their respective JWST NIRCam (Near Infrared Camera) filters (F115W, F150W, F200W, F277W, F356W, and F444W). (Credit: Donnan et al. (2022))

“The past few weeks have been surreal, watching all the records that stood for a long time with Hubble be broken by JWST,” says Dr. Rebecca Bowler, who is an Ernest Rutherford Fellow at the University of Manchester, and a co-author on the study. “Finding a z = 16.7 galaxy candidate is an amazing feeling – it wasn’t something we were expecting from the early data.”

This new study references a dozen previous studies that have measured objects up to redshifts z ? 10 using a mixture of ground-based observations and with the Hubble Space Telescope and Spitzer Space Telescope.

“It’s amazing to have found such a distant galaxy candidate already with Webb given that this is just the first set of data,” says Mr. Callum Donnan, a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, and lead author of the study. “It is important to note that to be certain of the redshift, the galaxy will need follow up observations using spectroscopy. This is why we refer to it as a galaxy candidate.”

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K2 PanSTARRS Still a Fine Binocular Comet Through late 2022

Long anticipated comet K2 PanSTARRS puts on its best show through the end of 2022.

An icy visitor from the distant Oort Cloud is still in view, if you know exactly where to look for it. The comet is C/2017 K2 PanSTARRS. It’s in the name: the comet was discovered five years ago in 2017, an unusually long period of lead time, even for a long-period comet. Though it (unfortunately) never entered the inner solar system, mid-2022 is the best time to see the comet, and its distance also means that—unlike swift short period comets—K2 PanSTARRS will linger in the sky for a while, for the remainder of 2022.

This Hubble Space Telescope image shows a fuzzy cloud of dust, called a coma, surrounding the comet C/2017 K2 PANSTARRS while it was still over 2.4 billion kilometres from the Sun, just beyond Saturn’s orbit. NASA/ESA/Hubble/STcI

The comet was discovered by the prolific automated comet hunter the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System (PanSTARRS) on the night of May 21, 2017. The distant (16 Astronomical Units-AU) discovery gave astronomers pause: only Comet(s) C/1995 O1 Hale-Bopp (in 1997) and massive comet C/2014 UN271 Bernardinelli-Bernstein have ever been seen as active at such a great distance. This is usually indicative of a prelude to a good show.

The orbit of the comet is likely dynamically new, which explains its tempestuous behavior while it’s still far from the Sun. K2 PanSTARRS will reach perihelion 1.8 AU (just beyond the orbit of Mars) later this year on December 19th. This passage will also shorten its orbit down to ‘only’ 18,000 years, with an outbound aphelion 1400 AU distant.

The orbital path of Comet K2 PanSTARRS through the inner solar system. Credit: NASA/JPL

Had comet K2 PanSTARRS entered deep into the inner solar system like Hale-Bopp in the late 1990s, then we would be in for a truly spectacular show. Ironically, Hale-Bopp passed us about six months on the opposite side of Earth’s orbit—and still managed to put on an amazing show. Also like K2 PanSTARRS, Hale-Bopp had its orbit shortened (thanks to Jupiter) from 4,200 years (inbound) to 2,533 years (outbound).

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Even Citizen Scientists are Getting Time on JWST

Over the years, members of the public have regularly made exciting discoveries and meaningful contributions to the scientific process through citizen science projects. These citizen scientists sometimes mine large datasets for cosmic treasures, uncovering unknown objects such as Hanny’s Voorwerp, or other times bring an unusual phenomenon to scientists’ attention, such as the discovery of the new aurora-like spectacle called STEVE.  Whatever the project, the advent of citizen science projects has changed the nature of scientific engagement between the public and the scientific community.  

Now, unusual brown dwarf stars discovered by citizen scientists will be observed by the James Webb Space Telescope, with the hopes of learning more about these rare objects. Excitingly, one of the citizen scientists has been named as a co-investigator on a winning Webb proposal.

The brown dwarfs that will be observed by JWST were discovered by citizen scientists participating in Backyard Worlds: Planet 9, a project from the Zooniverse collaboration that uses the power of citizen science to help distinguish real celestial objects from image artifacts in data from NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) mission.

A comparison of the sizes of a low mass star, a brown dwarf, Jupiter and Earth. Credit: NASA.

Brown dwarfs are objects which have a size between that of a giant planet like Jupiter and that of a small star. The Backyard Worlds: Planet 9 project asked citizen scientists to help find the Sun’s nearest neighbors — brown dwarfs and low-mass stars — as well as search for the hypothesized ninth planet in our Solar System.

In over 5 years, the project has generated over 20 scientific papers – such as this discovery of 34 new ultracool dwarf binary systems in the Sun’s neighborhood — with over 30 citizen science as co-authors. Some of the discoveries have already been granted observing time on the Spitzer Space Telescope, NASA’s Infrared Telescope Facility, and the Keck Telescope.

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Stellar Flybys Leave a Permanent Mark on Newly Forming Planetary Systems

What do UX Tauri, RW Aurigae, AS 205, Z CMajoris, and FU Orionis have in common? They’re young stellar systems with disks where planets could form. It appears those disks were disturbed by stellar flybys or other close encounters in the recent past. Astronomers want to know: did those events disrupt planet formation in the disks? What do they do? Does this happen in other systems? And, did our own solar system experience a strange encounter in its youth?

Some answers lie in a study made by astronomer Nicolás Cuello of the University of Grenoble Alpes who heads a team that studies the role of stellar flybys. In a recent paper, they discuss the processes these systems undergo. They examined the chances of any given disk experiencing a flyby/encounter and classified the types of encounters. The team also studied a set of disks to understand what happens during each type of encounter and looked at the implications of flybys for planet formation in other systems. Finally, they looked at possible clues to a flyby that our own Solar System might have experienced.

Intruder Alert! Disk Under Attack!

It all begins when star birth happens in clouds of gas and dust. The process creates batches of hot, young stars clustered together. Over time, some of those clusters dissipate. As stars leave the nest, they may pass close to other systems, causing disruptions to planet-forming disks. Cuello and his team came to the conclusion that near encounters will stir up or even disrupt these disks at some point in their evolution.

FU Orionis and its associated nebula. It’s likely the nebula was disrupted by a flyby, and the brightening is one effect of the event. Image cedit: ESO

“Stellar flybys and encounters happen more frequently than previously appreciated,” Cuello said in an email discussion. “These likely happen when stars are very young (less than a million years) and have planet-forming discs around. These discs are heavily affected by the gravitational perturbation of nearby stars, which modifies the initial conditions at the onset of planet formation. This is why it must be taken into account in our models.”

Solar System in the Making
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