For the first time, researchers have found a planet outside of our solar system that has water on it.
Located just a short 110 light-year trip from Earth — for context, Mars is just eight light minutes away from us — K2-18b represents a breakthrough discovery as scientists sift through thousands of exoplanets in search of signs of life. According to astronomers and researchers involved in the project, K2-18b is the only known planet outside of our solar system that has the proper temperature and atmosphere to support life. The determination that water vapor is present on the rocky exoplanet suggests that it is the “best candidate for habitability.” What isn’t known, though, is whether K2-18b has surface water like oceans or lakes. It also isn’t clear whether or not it currently hosts any life forms.
While K2-18b represents a potential to be Earth-like, it also is quite different from the planet that we call home. Scientists say that it is about twice the size of Earth and about eight times as massive. Its atmosphere contains a much higher concentration of hydrogen gas than ours, which is largely dominated by nitrogen. K2-18b is said to have about the same density as Mars, suggesting that it is a rocky planet. That’s a good sign for the possibility of the exoplanet being habitable.
Prior to the discovery of K2-18b, the search for an inhabitable planet outside our solar system was feeling a bit futile. Scientists have spent a considerable amount of time trying to track down planets with traces of water in the atmosphere and have come up largely empty. There have been instances of water found on gassy exoplanets, but those are not believed to be habitable by human-like life forms because they show limited capacity for carbon, nitrogen and oxygen — the building blocks for life as we know it. The goal for discovery has always been to find a rocky exoplanet with water, and after studying thousands of possible destinations, K2-18b finally represents a possibility for supporting life.
The most distant world ever explored 4 billion miles away finally has an official name: Arrokoth.
That means “sky” in the language of the Native American Powhatan people, NASA said yesterday.
NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft flew past the snowman-shaped Arrokoth on New Year’s Day, three and a half years after exploring Pluto.
At the time, this small icy world 1.6 billion kilometres beyond Pluto was nicknamed Ultima Thule given its vast distance from us.
“The name ‘Arrokoth’ reflects the inspiration of looking to the skies,” lead scientist Alan Stern of Southwest Research Institute said in a statement, “and wondering about the stars and worlds beyond our own”.
The name was picked because of the Powhatan’s ties to the Chesapeake Bay region.
New Horizons is operated from Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, Maryland. The Hubble Space Telescope — which discovered Arrokoth in 2014 — has its science operations in Baltimore.
The New Horizons team got consent for the name from Powhatan Tribal elders and representatives, according to NASA. The International Astronomical Union and its Minor Planet Centre approved the choice.
Arrokoth is among countless objects in the so-called Kuiper Belt, or vast Twilight Zone beyond the orbit of Neptune. New Horizons will observe some of these objects from afar as it makes its way deeper into space.
When thin, young ice melts over future summers, it will leave only a 2,000-kilometre arc of ice between the western Canadian Arctic Archipelago and Greenland’s northern coast.
Western Greenland. This is a consequence of the phenomenon of global warming and catastrophic thawing of ice (Vadim Petrakov/Shutterstock)
This region of the Arctic is known to experts as the Last Ice Area.
The Last Ice Area is one of the only remaining portions of the Arctic to possess ice that is older than five years. However, this new study shows that the ice is becoming thinner in the two subregions of Greenland and Canada.
According to Kent Moore, an atmospheric physicist at the University of Toronto and lead author of the new study, “We can’t treat the Last Ice Area as a monolithic area of ice which is going to last a long time. There’s actually a lot of regional variability.”
For animals and other wildlife that depend on sea ice for their survival, the Last Ice Area provides refuge and is the last place they can escape to in a world that continues to grow warmer.
Greenland. Research of a phenomenon of global warming and catastrophic thawing of ices. (Denis Burdin/Shutterstock)
The authors of the study claim that gaining further comprehension surrounding how the Last Ice Area alters throughout the year could assist in figuring out which locations are best suited to supply a safe haven for wildlife that relies on sea ice.
For example, sites with less ice movement could potentially lend more suitable conditions for a wildlife refuge because the ice will stay there longer.
Moore states that this new study will provide context for policymakers to take into account when establishing protection policies for areas in the Arctic:
“Eventually the Last Ice Area will be the region that will repopulate the Arctic with wildlife. If we lose all the ice, we lose those species. This area will be a refuge where species can survive and hopefully expand their regions once the ice starts returning.”
Climate Change and Global Warming. Icebergs from melting glacier in icefjord in Ilulissat, Greenland. Arctic (Michal Balada/Shutterstock)
The Last Ice Area possesses the Arctic’s thickest and oldest ice because of ocean currents and atmospheric winds that carry blocks of floating ice in a circular pattern.
These masses of ice collide with one another and stack up on the northern edges of Greenland and Canada.
However, Science Daily reports that researchers do not know much about how ice in this region melts and moves during the year.
This insufficient knowledge motivated Moore and his colleagues to follow the changes in the Last Ice Area.
In both regions, the sea ice was thinner and spanned less area in the summer and early fall than in the Arctic Winter.
According to Moore, the loss of ice in the Last Ice Area is likely a result of ice moving out of the region, specifically in the west.
The AGU posted a video earlier this week that demonstrates the age of the Arctic sea ice between 1984 and 2019. The video portrays the older ice cover, shown in white, dissipating substantially over the years.
Polar bear, Greenland (BMJ/Shutterstock)
It is sad but true that ice melting is not new information. The planet is continuing to increase in temperature melting glaciers that reveal landscapes not seen for thousands of years.
Hopefully, with new research like this, policymakers will take notice and implement intensive strategies to ensure that these remaining areas are preserved and protected.
WASHINGTON — Boeing’s multibillion dollar contract to build U.S. astronaut capsules received an “unnecessary” extension from NASA, a watchdog report said on Thursday, the latest management blunders in the agency’s program to restart domestic human spaceflight.
NASA agreed to pay Boeing Co a US$287-million premium for “additional flexibilities” to accelerate production of the company’s Starliner crew vehicle and avoid an 18-month gap in flights to the International Space Station. NASA’s inspector general called it an “unreasonable” boost to Boeing’s fixed-priced $4.2 billion dollar contract.
Instead, the inspector general said the space agency could have saved $144 million by making “simple changes” to Starliner’s planned launch schedule, including buying additional seats from Russia’s space agency, which the United States has been reliant on since the 2011 retirement of its space shuttle program.
Boeing and Elon Musk’s SpaceX have received nearly $7 billion combined since 2014 from NASA to develop separate capsule systems designed to end U.S. reliance on Russia’s Soyuz rocket for astronaut flights to the International Space Station. The program has been set back years by testing mishaps at both providers.
NASA justified the additional funds to avoid a gap in space station operations. But SpaceX, the other provider, “was not provided an opportunity to propose a solution, even though the company previously offered shorter production lead times than Boeing,” the report said.
NASA also justified the additional expense to ensure Boeing “continued as a second commercial crew provider,” the report said.
Boeing was not immediately available for comment.
In a response to the inspector general’s report, NASA “strongly” disagreed with the report’s findings that it overpaid Boeing, though it did agree the “complex and extensive” negotiations with the aerospace company could have resulted in a lower price.
“However, this is an opinion, three years after the fact and there is no evidence to support the conclusion that Boeing would have agreed to lower prices,” the agency said in a letter to the inspector general.
The report comes as Boeing faces scrutiny over its management of NASA’s Space Launch System — a massive rocket whose development has been beset with delays and billions of dollars in cost overruns. It has also faced harsh criticism from U.S. lawmakers over its best-selling 737 MAX aircraft, which was grounded after two deadly crashes in five months killed 346 people.