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Asteroids, Comets, Black Holes — Oh My! The Year 2019 in Astronomy –



From asteroids and (interstellar) comets to black holes and the sun, 2019 has been full of amazing space science.

This past year has been a fantastic one for astronomy and planetary science. On New Year’s Day, two spacecraft reached their targets, and things took off from there. Join us as we review some of the hottest science news from the last 12 months.

Related: The Greatest Spaceflight Moments of 2019
Kaboom! The Biggest Space Bloopers of 2019

 Farthest flyby kicks off year

On New Year’s Day, 2019, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft zoomed by its target, 2012 MU69. This Kuiper Belt Object, which has since been officially named ‘Arrokoth,’ is the most distant object ever to ever be observed by a flyby from a spacecraft from Earth. 

New Horizons revealed that Arrokoth looked like a flat snowman, with two pancake-like lobes joined together. The incredible object immediately revealed new information about how planets and other objects formed in the early solar system, thanks to its near-pristine characteristics. While New Horizons moves onward on a journey that will eventually take it out of the solar system, it continues to send information back to Earth about Arrokoth and will do so until mid-2020. 

 Visiting an asteroid  

Also on New Year’s Eve this year, NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer (or the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft) entered into orbit around the asteroid Bennu. The craft arrived at Bennu in early December, and rang in the new year by firing its thrusters, which pushed it into the asteroid’s orbit, making Bennu the smallest object ever orbited by a spacecraft. With this maneuver, OSIRIS-REx also set a world record for closest orbit of an object, a record the craft later broke again this past year.

But the spacecraft didn’t spend the last 12 months just sitting in orbit around the asteroid. It began an in-depth study of the diamond-shaped object, searching for an ideal target area to grab a piece of Bennu in 2020. That spacecraft will then return the rocky sample to Earth for more in-depth study. 

From what the craft has found so far, it seems like Bennu displays some surprising activity, like jetting material from its surface. OSIRIS-REx has also found an interesting ridge and some intriguing boulders on the asteroid. As the year came to a close, mission scientists selected a landing place, ‘Nightingale’, as the sample return site. OSIRIS-REx will continue to orbit Bennu until 2021, when it will collect a sample and return to Earth. 

 Double diamonds 

Bennu wasn’t the only asteroid that was visited by spacecraft in 2019. The Japanese mission Hayabusa2 was already orbiting the asteroid Ryugu when 2019 dawned. In February, the spacecraft used a sampler horn attached to its belly to gather material blown up from the surface by a bullet fired into the asteroid. 

In April, a free-flying, single-shot ‘gun,’ known as the Small Carry-on Impactor, fired a second bullet into the asteroid’s surface after Hayabusa2 dropped a deployable camera and moved to the far side of the object. A third bullet shot into the asteroid in July, which excavated subsurface material that the spacecraft later collected in its horn.

On Nov. 12, packed with precious space rocks, Hayabusa2 bid Ryugu farewell and began its return trip to Earth. The spacecraft is expected to bring samples of the asteroid to Earth in late 2020. That may not be the end for Hayabusa2, however, as it has the potential to continue to study other asteroids. 

 A comet from another star 

In late August, astronomers caught a glimpse of a new comet, named Borisov. for its discoverer. The fast-moving object was quickly characterized as an interstellar comet, originally born around another star and making a quick tour around our sun. Unlike fellow interstellar visitor ‘Oumuamua, which was only visible for a few short weeks, Borisov was discovered before it made its pass behind the sun and should be visible until late spring 2020, giving astronomers plenty of time to study it. Also unlike ‘Oumuamua, a mysterious object scientists had trouble characterizing, Borisov is clearly a comet with observable surface activity and a glowing tail.

Not only is Borisov another interstellar treat for planetary scientists – it also suggests that interstellar objects may be more common than previously suspected. After ‘Oumuamua’s 2017 visit, astronomers didn’t anticipate catching a sight of another interstellar object until the early-2020s, when the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) goes online. The LSST should be capable of catching more faint objects, allowing it to better spot interstellar interlopers than current instruments. 

 Photographing a black hole

The year wasn’t all about small bodies and planetary science. In 2019, astronomers made history by photographing a black hole

Using the Event Horizon Telescope, an instrument made up of multiple telescopes spread around the globe, astronomers snapped a photo of the supermassive black hole at the center of the nearby galaxy M87, which lies 53.5 million light-years away. The monster black hole weighs in at about 6.5 billion times the mass of our sun, and is even larger than the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy, the Milky Way.

Because the gravity of black holes swallows even light, the scientists didn’t capture a picture of the black hole itself. Instead, they photographed the it’s boundary, the event horizon, mapping out the black hole’s silhouette against the background radiation of the material swirling around it. These researchers hope to photograph the Milky Way’s own black hole in the near future. 


In April, NASA’s InSight (Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) lander felt the ground move under its robotic feet as the spacecraft sensed its first confirmed marsquake. The Martian equivalent of earthquakes, marsquakes come from seismic waves traveling through the planet’s interior. Because Mars lacks tectonic plates, marsquakes occur less frequently than their terrestrial counterparts. Hopefully, the April marsquakes and other events will help the spacecraft on its eventual goal of tracing the interior of the Red Planet.

InSight also carried a mechanical mole with it to Mars. The instrument, a burrowing heat probe, was supposed to dig 10 to 16 feet (3 to 5 meters) beneath the planet’s surface. Shortly after its February deployment, however, the “mole” became stuck about 1 foot (0.3) meters down. It was designed to dig through sandy soils like those seen around Spirit and Opportunity, but the ground under Insight is different from other landing sites. So, even though the experiment isn’t going smoothly, it continues to teach scientists about the surface of Mars. 

 Probing the sun 

Launched in 2018, NASA’s Parker Solar Probe is on a mission to “touch the sun” as it draws closer to the planet over its seven-year mission. 

Ultimately, the spacecraft will come within 3.9 million miles (6.2 million kilometers) of the sun’s surface, though it hasn’t gotten that close yet. The spacecraft made its second solar flyby between March 30 and April 19, 2019. Data from the first two flybys were released to the public earlier this year. The spacecraft made its third flyby in September, 2019. The next flyby will come just after the New Year, in January of 2020. 

 Opening Apollo 

In November, scientists opened up one of the last untouched Apollo samples, a tube containing 15 ounces of moon rocks collected during NASA’s Apollo 17 mission. 

The sample, collected near the rim of Lara Crater, was the first untouched Apollo sample opened since the 1970s. A corresponding tube will be opened in January 2020. Scientists hope that, with new instruments and techniques, they will be able to gain more insights about the lunar surface and the moon overall. 

After January, only two tubes, one from Apollo 15 and one from Apollo 16, will make up the remaining untouched samples.

 Lost Opportunity 

While 2019 had many firsts, it also boasted a few lasts. In February, NASA declared its Opportunity Mars rover “dead,” eight months after a massive Martian dust storm silenced the solar-powered rover. Scientists suspect that dust covering the rover’s solar panels kept it from recharging, bringing an end to the longest running Martian mission ever.

Along with its sister rover Spirit, Opportunity landed on Mars in 2004. Each rover embarked on what were to be 90-day missions. However, over a decade and a half, Opportunity covered more than a marathon’s worth of ground, finding conclusive evidence that Mars hosted large bodies of liquid water in the past. 

Opportunity analyzed clay materials, determining that large, kilometer-scale bodies of water once existed on the now-dry planet. The hard-working rover also determined that the Martian water was neither acidic nor basic, establishing the physical habitability of Mars during the same period that life on Earth was evolving. Traveling 28.06 miles (45.16 km) over its lifetime, Opportunity holds the record for distance traveled by any vehicle, robotic or crewed, on the surface of another world.

 Mercury transit of 2019

Astronomers also experienced a last of sorts in 2019. On Nov. 11, the tiny planet Mercury made its last transit of the sun until 2032. 

Planetary transits occur when a planet moves between Earth and the sun, and provide Earth-bound astronomers the opportunity to study the atmosphere of a world like Mercury, however thin it may be. To get in-depth observations like this, astronomers require the orbits of both worlds to line up precisely, a relatively rare occurrence. 

Astronomers used ground-based telescopes, as well as other space-based instruments to document and study the historic event. 

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Hubble Space Telescope Sees Interacting Galaxy Triplet | Astronomy –



Astronomers using the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope have captured a striking photo of the triple merging system Arp 195.

This Hubble image shows the triple galaxy system Arp 195. Image credit: NASA / ESA / Hubble / J. Dalcanton.

Arp 195 lies approximately 763 million light-years away in the constellation of Lynx.

“This system is featured in the Atlas of Peculiar Galaxies, a list which showcases some of the weirder and more wonderful galaxies in the Universe,” Hubble astronomers said.

Otherwise known as UGC 04653, LEDA 24981 and 2MASX J08535462+3508439, Arp 195 contains at least three galaxy components.

“Observing time with Hubble is extremely valuable, so astronomers don’t want to waste a second,” the researchers said.

“The schedule for Hubble observations is calculated using a computer algorithm which allows the spacecraft to occasionally gather bonus snapshots of data between longer observations.”

“This image of the clashing triplet of galaxies in Arp 195 is one such snapshot,” they added.

“Extra observations such as these do more than provide spectacular images.”

“They also help to identify promising targets to follow up with telescopes such as the upcoming NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope.”

The new image of Arp 195 includes observations from Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS) and the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS).

It is based on data obtained through four optical filters.

The color results from assigning different hues to each monochromatic image associated with an individual filter.

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SpaceX awarded a $178M contract for NASA's mission to Jupiter's moon – Daily Mail



Musk and Bezos battle it out for space dollars: SpaceX is awarded $178 MILLION for NASA’s first mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa in 2024 – as Bezos offers BILLIONS if the space agency works with his Blue Origin

  • Elon Musk’s firm is set to provide ‘launch services’ for the Europa Clipper mission
  • Europa Clipper will launch on a Falcon Heavy rocket owned by SpaceX in 2024
  • The spacecraft will investigate if Jupiter’s moon hosts conditions suitable for life

Elon Musk‘s aerospace firm SpaceX has been awarded a $178 million (£129 million) contract for NASA‘s first mission to Europa, Jupiter’s fourth largest moon. 

SpaceX will provide ‘launch services’ for the Europa Clipper mission, which is due to blast off in October 2024 to study Europa through a series of fly-bys, NASA said. 

The spacecraft will launch on a Falcon Heavy rocket owned by Musk’s company from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the space agency added. 

The mission aims to find out if the natural satellite hosts conditions suitable for life using ‘a sophisticated suite of science instruments’.  

Europa, an icy moon with a hidden subsurface ocean, has a diameter of 1,940 miles (3,100 kilometres) – about 90 per cent the diameter of Earth’s moon. 

The announcement comes amid an ongoing battle between SpaceX and rival company Blue Origin, owned by fellow billionaire and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. 

Bezos published an open letter to NASA Administrator Bill Nelson on Monday, offering the NASA billions of dollars for a contract to build a lunar lander for the upcoming Artemis missions.  

There is evidence of recent geological formations within the 15 mile thick frozen crust, including small, dark and dome-like features about a mile below the surface



Europa is 90 per cent the size of Earth’s moon.

It orbits Jupiter at a distance of about 484 million miles (778 million kilometers).

It completes one orbit of Jupiter every 3.5 Earth days.

Europa’s surface is mostly solid water ice, crisscrossed by fractures.

But its subsurface ocean might contain more than twice as much water as Earth.

The moon has a very thin oxygen atmosphere – too thin for humans to breathe.


But SpaceX – which made the announcement on its Twitter page – has the contract for the Europa Clipper mission safe.

‘NASA has selected Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) of Hawthorne, California, to provide launch services for Earth’s first mission to conduct detailed investigations of Jupiter’s moon Europa,’ the agency said in a statement.

‘The total contract award amount for launch services is approximately $178 million.’

Key mission objectives are producing high-resolution images of Europa’s surface, determine its composition and look for signs of recent or ongoing geological activity.

The mission will also measure the thickness of the moon’s icy shell, search for subsurface lakes and determine the depth and salinity of Europa’s ocean.

Europa is one of few locations in the Solar System with liquid water, along with Earth and Saturn’s moon Enceladus, making it a target of interest for NASA. 

Thanks to ground-based telescopes, scientists already know Europa’s surface is mostly water ice.

Scientists have also found evidence that beneath the ice crust is an ocean of liquid water or slushy ice. 

According to NASA, Europa’s subsurface ocean might contain more than twice as much water as Earth. 

Last year, Monica Grady, Chancellor at Liverpool Hope University, said it’s ‘almost a racing certain’ that Europa is home to alien life, which she thinks is ‘similar to the intelligence of an octopus’.

A 3D model of Europa Clipper 

NASA will aim to find out if she’s correct with the launch of Europa Clipper, which will ‘send a highly capable, radiation-tolerant spacecraft into a long, looping orbit around Jupiter to perform repeated close flybys of the icy moon’. 

NASA did not reveal whether other companies had bid on the Europa Clipper launch contract, which marks NASA’s latest vote of confidence in Musk’s firm.

SpaceX has already carried several cargo payloads and astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) for the space agency in recent years.

In April, SpaceX was awarded a $2.9 billion contract to build the lunar lander spacecraft for the planned Artemis program that would carry NASA astronauts back to the moon for the first time since 1972.

But the contract was halted after two rival space companies, Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin and defence contractor Dynetics Inc, protested against SpaceX’s selection.

SpaceX chief and renowned billionaire Elon Musk (pictured) also owns car maker Tesla,  neurotechnology firm

SpaceX chief and renowned billionaire Elon Musk (pictured) also owns car maker Tesla and neurotechnology firm Neuralink

Now Bezos is claiming NASA is ‘putting an end to meaningful competition for years to come’ if it doesn’t consider Blue Origin for contracts in the future.

‘It is not too late to remedy,’ Bezos says in the letter to NASA published on Monday (July 26). 

‘We stand ready to help NASA moderate its technical risks and solve its budgetary constraints and put the Artemis Program back on a more competitive, credible, and sustainable path.’ 

Jeff Bezos (pictured), founder of Amazon and space tourism company Blue Origin, flew into space on July 20, 2021

Jeff Bezos (pictured), founder of Amazon and space tourism company Blue Origin, flew into space on July 20, 2021

SpaceX’s partly reusable 23-story Falcon Heavy, currently the most powerful operational space launch vehicle in the world, flew its first commercial payload into orbit in 2019.

In May 2020, SpaceX successfully transported NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley on a 19-hour journey to the ISS – marking the first crewed test flight of the firm’s Crew Dragon spacecraft. 

In the process it became be the first crewed launch from the US into orbit since NASA’s space shuttle program ended in 2011.

NASA will land the first woman and next man on the moon in 2024 as part of the Artemis mission

Artemis was the twin sister of Apollo and goddess of the moon in Greek mythology. 

NASA has chosen her to personify its path back to the moon, which will see astronauts return to the lunar surface by 2024 –  including the first woman and the next man.

Artemis 1, formerly Exploration Mission-1, is the first in a series of increasingly complex missions that will enable human exploration to the moon and Mars. 

Artemis 1 will be the first integrated flight test of NASA’s deep space exploration system: the Orion spacecraft, Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and the ground systems at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.  

Artemis 1 will be an uncrewed flight that will provide a foundation for human deep space exploration, and demonstrate our commitment and capability to extend human existence to the moon and beyond. 

During this flight, the spacecraft will launch on the most powerful rocket in the world and fly farther than any spacecraft built for humans has ever flown.

It will travel 280,000 miles (450,600 km) from Earth, thousands of miles beyond the moon over the course of about a three-week mission. 

Artemis 1, formerly Exploration Mission-1, is the first in a series of increasingly complex missions that will enable human exploration to the moon and Mars. This graphic explains the various stages of the mission

Artemis 1, formerly Exploration Mission-1, is the first in a series of increasingly complex missions that will enable human exploration to the moon and Mars. This graphic explains the various stages of the mission

Orion will stay in space longer than any ship for astronauts has done without docking to a space station and return home faster and hotter than ever before. 

With this first exploration mission, NASA is leading the next steps of human exploration into deep space where astronauts will build and begin testing the systems near the moon needed for lunar surface missions and exploration to other destinations farther from Earth, including Mars. 

The will take crew on a different trajectory and test Orion’s critical systems with humans aboard.

The SLS rocket will from an initial configuration capable of sending more than 26 metric tons to the moon, to a final configuration that can send at least 45 metric tons. 

Together, Orion, SLS and the ground systems at Kennedy will be able to meet the most challenging crew and cargo mission needs in deep space.

Eventually NASA seeks to establish a sustainable human presence on the moon by 2028 as a result of the Artemis mission.

The space agency hopes this colony will uncover new scientific discoveries, demonstrate new technological advancements and lay the foundation for private companies to build a lunar economy. 


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Large meteor lights up skies in Norway – CTV News



Norwegian experts say an unusually large meteor was visible over large parts of southern Scandinavia and illuminated southeast Norway with a powerful flash of light for a few seconds as many observers were reported to also hear a roaring sound afterwards.

“The meteor appeared at 1:08 a.m. on the night of July 25 and was visible for approximately for 5 seconds,” said the network said, which had posted a video on the phenomenon on its Twitter site.

Sightings of meteors, space rocks that burn brightly after entering the Earth’s atmosphere at high speed, aren’t uncommon over Norway and the Norwegian Meteor Network has a number of cameras continuously monitoring the sky.

A meteor that survives passage to the ground is known as a meteorite.

Preliminary data suggested a meteorite may have hit Earth in a large forested area, Finnemarka, not far from Oslo, the Norwegian Meteor Network said.

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