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5,000 exoplanets now confirmed to exist beyond our own solar system – CBC News

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In 1992, when the first exoplanet discovery was announced by astronomers Aleksander Wolszczan and Dale Frail, no one could have imagined that only 30 years later thousands of exoplanets would be known to humanity.

Yet, on Monday, NASA announced that, to date, 5,000 exoplanets have been detected.

“This is definitely a milestone to celebrate,” said Sara Seager, an astrophysicist and planetary scientist at MIT. ” When exoplanets first started [30] years back, people laughed and thought the field would go nowhere. Today we not only have 5,000 planets, but the discovery potential is unprecedented.”

Exoplanets, worlds orbiting distant stars, were once only theorized. And even then, astronomers thought only some stars contained planets. Today, astronomers believe that, on average, a star is host to at least one planet.

And there is no shortage of different types of these far-off worlds. There are “super-Earths” — rocky planets larger than our own planet — “gas giants” larger than Jupiter, “hot-Jupiters” that are massive worlds in close orbits to their host stars, and even mini-Neptunes. 

The more than 5,000 exoplanets confirmed in our galaxy so far include a variety of types — some that are similar to planets in our solar system, others vastly different. Among these are a mysterious variety known as “super-Earths” because they are larger than our world and possibly rocky. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

There’s also a weird and wonderful assortment of these different planets. There’s been a planet with the density of cotton candy; a planet with iron rain; and a planet with “sunscreen snow.”

One of the most intriguing planetary systems is TRAPPIST 1. 

This system of seven planets — with three that could be potentially habitable — was discovered in 2017. They lie relatively close to earth at just 40 light-years away. 

Searching for signs of life

The first exoplanet was discovered orbiting a pulsar, a dense star called a neutron star, that rotates rapidly and produces millisecond-bursts of radiation. It was unlikely that any life would be able to survive these intense bursts, but it was a promising discovery.

“If you can find planets around a neutron star, planets have to be basically everywhere,” Wolszczan said in a NASA statement. “The planet production process has to be very robust.”

In 1995, the first exoplanet orbiting a sun-like star was discovered, though it ended up being a gas giant in close orbit to its host star. 

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But the desire to search for more Earth-like planets eventually led to the 2009 launch of the Kepler space telescope. The workhorse would go on to discover the bulk of the 5,000 planets we know today, even after suffering a breakdown in 2013. It was declared dead in 2018, though analysis of its data continues.

Since then, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), has been launched and is searching the stars for new worlds. And the James Webb Space Telescope, once it comes online, will seek to pull back the veil of the atmospheres of these planets, searching for signs of potential habitability.

“To my thinking, it is inevitable that we’ll find some kind of life somewhere — most likely of some primitive kind,” Wolszczan said. 

And there are even more of these planet-hunting telescopes to come.

The Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope is scheduled to launch  in 2027, and the European Space Agency’s Atmospheric Remote-sensing Infrared Exoplanet Large-survey (ARIEL) is expected to launch in 2029. 

“It’s not just a number,” Jessie Christiansen, science lead for the archive and a research scientist with the NASA Exoplanet Science Institute at Caltech, said of the 5,000 exoplanets in a NASA statement.

“Each one of them is a new world, a brand-new planet. I get excited about every one because we don’t know anything about them.”

WATCH | Why the James Webb Space Telescope is such a big deal:

Why the James Webb Space Telescope is such a big deal

3 months ago

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NASA is gearing up to launch the James Webb Space Telescope — a device 100 times more powerful than the Hubble Space Telescope, capable of seeing ancient light from billions of years ago. 1:59

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New picture answers many questions about our galaxy's black hole — and reveals some mysteries – Inverse

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After more than five years of data modeling, analysis, and even hauling hard drives around the world, astronomers have finally released the first-ever snapshot of the black hole at the center of our galaxy.

Astronomers have long suspected that an invisible diner some 27,000 light-years from Earth was gobbling up starlight, but the new image is the first tangible confirmation of this hunch. Named Sagittarius A*, or Sgr A* for short, this supermassive black hole appears donut-shaped in its portrait with several light spots along its back.

Lindy Blackburn is a radio astronomer at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian and one of the scientists responsible for analyzing the data collected by the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) collaboration, which captured and assembled the latest image. Beyond the wonder of the image itself, Blackburn says that this finding will also play a significant role in advancing the scientific understanding of black holes.

“Now that we know it is possible to image the black hole at the center of our galaxy, we are working toward a next-generation EHT,” Blackburn says.

Prior to the EHT picture, the central image from NASA’s Chandra X-ray telescope was one of the best glimpses of the mysterious black hole at the center of our galaxy. X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO; IR: NASA/HST/STScI. Inset: Radio (EHT Collaboration))

What scientists got right — Black holes in science fiction are often depicted as swirling voids or black chasms prepared to sweep spacecraft over their event horizon to a point of no return, not unlike explorers of ancient myths falling off the edge of a flat Earth.

However, recent groundbreaking work by the EHT has revealed that this depiction may be a bit of a stretch. Thanks to the first image of the M87 black hole released by the collaboration in 2019, astronomers believed that black holes appeared to be more donut-shaped in reality, with blackness at the center and outside. Because the black holes themselves are still invisible to us and our telescopes, the donut shape actually highlights the heat coming off the matter as it whizzes around the black hole.

Seeing that Sgr A* had the same donut shape as M87 confirmed for astronomers that supermassive black holes of very different sizes — M87 is over 1,000 times more massive — had the same general structure. Blackburn says that the appearance of Sgr A* also confirmed some long-standing scientific theories.

“One of the most striking features of the Sgr A* image is that the size of its lensed ring of emission perfectly matches that predicted by General Relativity,” he says.

Blackburn also says that the light patches on Sgr A* weren’t much of a surprise either and could reflect the dynamic plasma surrounding the black hole.

“We would expect such features to vary throughout the course of a night,” he says. “Future observations should reveal if this is indeed the case.”

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A few surprises — Not all the findings from Sgr A* were exactly as scientists predicted, however. The first surprise was the ring’s “relatively even distribution of brightness” which suggests that it may be oriented face-on with its axis of rotation pointed toward Earth. The black hole is also “curiously” misaligned with the midplane of the galaxy, Blackburn says.

Another unexpected discovery uncovered through imaging Sgr A* was that the level of variability in some of its measurements were less than predicted by computer simulations.

This means “there is something we don’t quite understand about the plasma behavior in the accretion flow,” Blackburn says.

Accretion disks around black holes are the messy crumbs left behind when gobbling up their meals. Better understanding these disks could help scientists study the behavior of black holes as a whole, a subject that is still riddled with mysteries.

What’s next — With two black holes successfully resolved, Blackburn says that the EHT has some big plans for how to study these objects next.

“We are working toward a next-generation EHT that will actually be able to capture movies of a source at multiple frequencies, revealing the inflow and outflow dynamics near the boundary of a black hole as well as the nature of flares,” he says.

One thing is certain: Black hole science is only going to get more exciting in the years to come.

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Boeing's Starliner space capsule launched on key test flight to orbit – National Post

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CAPE CANAVERAL — Boeing’s new Starliner capsule was launched Thursday on a do-over uncrewed test flight bound for the International Space Station, aiming to deliver the company a much-needed success after more than two years of delays and costly engineering setbacks.

The gumdrop-shaped CST-100 Starliner blasted off shortly before 7 p.m. EDT (2300 GMT) from the Cape Canaveral U.S. Space Force Station in Florida, soaring aloft atop an Atlas V rocket furnished by the Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture United Launch Alliance (ULA).

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About 30 minutes after lift-off, the Starliner reached its intended preliminary orbit, after separating from the upper-stage Atlas V rocket and flying on its own power to a planned rendezvous with the space station.

It was at that point in Starliner’s previous test flight in late 2019 that a software glitch effectively foiled the spacecraft’s ability to reach the space station.

The capsule’s flight to orbit on Thursday was not without a hitch. Two onboard thrusters, out of a set of 12, failed during Starliner’s 45-second “orbital insertion” maneuver, NASA and Boeing officials told a post-launch news conference.

However, a backup thruster kicked in, and the maneuver was completed, they said, adding that the malfunction, while yet to be explained, should not prevent the spacecraft from reaching its destination or returning safely to Earth.

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“The system is designed to be redundant, and it performed like it was supposed to,” said Mark Nappi, Boeing’s Starliner program manager. “We have a safe vehicle, and we’re on our way to the International Space Station.”

The capsule was due to arrive at the space station about 24 hours after launch and dock with the research outpost in orbit some 250 miles (400 km) above Earth on Friday evening.

The Boeing craft is to spend four to five days attached to the space station before undocking and flying back to Earth, with a parachute landing cushioned by airbags on the desert floor of White Sands, New Mexico.

A successful mission will move the long-delayed Starliner a major step closer to providing NASA with a second reliable means of ferrying astronauts to and from the space station.

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Since resuming crewed flights to orbit from American soil in 2020, nine years after the space shuttle program ended, the U.S. space agency has had to rely solely on the Falcon 9 rockets and Crew Dragon capsules from Elon Musk’s company SpaceX to fly NASA astronauts.

Previously the only other option for reaching the orbital laboratory was by hitching rides aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

“Having a backup is important to the country,” NASA chief Bill Nelson told Reuters hours before liftoff.

Thursday’s launch also comes at a pivotal time for Boeing as the Chicago-based company scrambles to climb out of successive crises in its jetliner business and its space-defense unit. The Starliner program alone has forced Boeing to take $595 million in charges since the failure of its first uncrewed test flight to orbit in 2019.

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PAYLOAD & MODEL PASSENGER

The Starliner was not flying to orbit empty. The capsule was carrying a research mannequin, whimsically named Rosie the Rocketeer and dressed in a blue flight suit, to collect data on crew cabin conditions during the journey, plus 500 pounds (227 kg) of cargo for the space station’s crew – three NASA astronauts, a European Space Agency astronaut from Italy and three Russian cosmonauts

Following the failed 2019 test mission, subsequent problems with Starliner’s propulsion system, supplied by Aerojet Rocketdyne, led Boeing to scrub an attempt to launch the capsule last summer.

The two companies sparred over what caused its fuel valves to stick shut and which firm was responsible for fixing them, as Reuters reported last week.

Boeing said it has since resolved the issue with a temporary workaround and plans a redesign after this week’s flight.

If the second uncrewed trip to orbit succeeds, Starliner could fly its first team of astronauts in the fall, although NASA officials caution that time frame could get pushed back. (Reporting by Joey Roulette in Cape Canaveral, Florida; additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Gerry Doyle, Grant McCool and Richard Pullin)

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After 45 years, NASA's Voyager 1 space probe encounters mystery issue – CP24 Toronto's Breaking News

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(CNN) — The Voyager 1 probe is still exploring interstellar space 45 years after launching, but it has encountered an issue that mystifies the spacecraft’s team on Earth.

Voyager 1 continues to operate well, despite its advanced age and 14.5 billion-mile distance (23.3 billion kilometers) from Earth. And it can receive and execute commands sent from NASA, as well as gather and send back science data.

But the readouts from the attitude articulation and control system, which control the spacecraft’s orientation in space, don’t match up with what Voyager is actually doing. The attitude articulation and control system, or AACS, ensures that the probe’s high-gain antenna remains pointed at Earth so Voyager can send data back to NASA.

Due to Voyager’s interstellar location, it takes light 20 hours and 33 minutes to travel one way, so the call and response of one message between NASA and Voyager takes two days.

So far, the Voyager team believes the AACS is still working, but the instrument’s data readouts seem random or impossible. The system issue hasn’t triggered anything to put the spacecraft into “safe mode” so far. That’s when only essential operations occur so engineers can diagnose an issue that would put the spacecraft at risk.

And Voyager’s signal is as strong as ever, meaning the antenna is still pointed to Earth. The team is trying to determine if this incorrect data is coming directly from this instrument or if another system is causing it.

“Until the nature of the issue is better understood, the team cannot anticipate whether this might affect how long the spacecraft can collect and transmit science data,” according to a NASA release.

“A mystery like this is sort of par for the course at this stage of the Voyager mission,” said Suzanne Dodd, project manager for Voyager 1 and 2 at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, in a statement.

“The spacecraft are both almost 45 years old, which is far beyond what the mission planners anticipated. We’re also in interstellar space — a high-radiation environment that no spacecraft have flown in before. So there are some big challenges for the engineering team. But I think if there’s a way to solve this issue with the AACS, our team will find it.”

If the team doesn’t determine the source of the issue, they may just adapt to it, Dodd said. Or if they can find it, the issue may be solved by making a software change or relying on a redundant hardware system.

Voyager has already relied on backup systems to last as long as it has. In 2017, the probe fired thrusters that were used during its initial planetary encounters during the 1970s — and they still worked after remaining unused for 37 years.

The aging probes produce very little power per year, so subsystems and heaters have been turned off over the years so that critical systems and science instruments can keep operating.

Voyager 2, a twin spacecraft, continues to operate well in interstellar space 12.1 billion miles (19.5 billion kilometers) from Earth. By comparison, Neptune, the farthest planet from Earth, is, at most, only 2.9 billion miles away. Both probes were launched in 1977 and have far exceeded their original purpose to fly by planets.

Now, they have become the only two spacecraft to gather data from interstellar space and provide insights about the heliosphere, or the bubble created by the sun that extends beyond the planets in our solar system.

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