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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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HPC helps identify new, cleaner source for white light – EurekAlert



image: Upon irradiation by infrared light, adamantane-based molecular clusters with the general composition [(RT)4E5] (with R = organic group; T = C, Si, Ge, Sn; E = O, S, Se, Te, NH, CH2, ON•) emit highly directional white light.
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Credit: Elisa Monte, Justus-Liebig-Universität Gießen

When early humans discovered how to harness fire, they were able to push back against the nightly darkness that enveloped them. With the invention and widespread adoption of electricity, it became easier to separate heat from light, work through the night, and illuminate train cars to highways. In recent years, old forms of electric light generation such as halogen lightbulbs have given way to more energy efficient alternatives, further cheapening the costs to brighten our homes, workplaces, and lives generally.

Unfortunately, however, white light generation by newer technologies such as light-emitting diodes (LEDs) is not straightforward and often relies on a category of materials called “rare-earth metals,” which are increasingly scarce. This has recently led scientists to look for ways to produce white light more sustainably. Researchers at Giessen University, the University of Marburg, and Karlsruhe Institute of Technology have recently uncovered a new class of material called a “cluster glass” that shows great potential for replacing LEDs in many applications.

“We are witnessing the birth of white-light generation technology that can replace current light sources. It brings all the requirements that our society asks for: availability of resources, sustainability, biocompatibility,” said Prof. Dr. Simone Sanna, Giessen University Professor and lead computational researcher on the project.  “My colleagues from the experimental sciences, who observed this unexpected white light generation, asked for theoretical support. Cluster glass has an incredible optical response, but we don’t understand why. Computational methods can help to understand those mechanisms. This is exactly the challenge that theoreticians want to face.”

Sanna and his collaborators have turned to the power of high-performance computing (HPC), using the Hawk supercomputer at the High-Performance Computing Center Stuttgart (HLRS) to better understand cluster glass and how it might serve as a next-generation light source. They published their findings in Advanced Materials.

Clear-eyed view on cluster glass formation

If you are not a materials scientist or chemist, the word glass might just mean the clear, solid material in your windows or on your dinner table. Glass is actually a class of materials that are considered “amorphous solids;” that is, they lack an ordered crystalline lattice, often due to a rapid cooling process. At the atomic level, their constituent particles are in a suspended, disordered state. Unlike crystal materials, where particles are orderly and symmetrical across a long molecular distance, glasses’ disorder at the molecular level make them great for bending, fragmenting, or reflecting light.

Experimentalists from the University of Marburg recently synthesized a particular of glass called a “cluster glass.” Unlike a traditional glass that almost behaves as a liquid frozen in place, cluster glass, as the name implies, is a collection of separate clusters of molecules that behave as a powder at room temperature. They generate bright, clear, white light upon irradiation by infrared radiation.  While powders cannot easily be used to manufacture small, sensitive electronic components, the researchers found a way to re-cast them in glass form: “When we melt the powder, we obtain a material that has all the characteristics of a glass and can be put in any form needed for a specific application,” Sanna said.

While experimentalists were able to synthesize the material and observe its luminous properties, the group turned to Sanna and HPC to better understand how cluster glass behaves the way it does. Sanna pointed out that white light generation isn’t a property of a single molecule in a system, but the collective behaviors of a group of molecules. Charting these molecules’ interactions with one another and with their environment in a simulation therefore means that researchers must both capture the large-scale behaviors of light generation and also observe how small-scale atomic interactions influence the system. Any of these factors would be computationally challenging. Modeling these processes at multiple scales, however, is only possible using leading HPC resources like Hawk.

Collaboration between experimentalists and theoreticians has become increasingly important in materials science, as synthesizing many iterations of a similar material can be slow and expensive. High-performance computing, Sanna indicated, makes it much faster to identify and test materials with novel optical properties. “The relationship between theory and experiment is a continuous loop. We can predict the optical properties of a material that was synthesized by our chemist colleagues, and use these calculations to verify and better understand the material’s properties,” Sanna said. “We can also design new materials on a computer, providing information that chemists can use to focus on synthesizing compounds that have the highest likelihood of being useful. In this way, our models inspire the synthetization of new compounds with tailored optical properties”

In the case of cluster glass, this approach resulted in an experiment that was verified by simulation, with modelling helping to show the researchers the link between the observed optical properties and the molecular structure of their cluster glass material and can now move forward as a candidate to replace light sources heavily reliant on rare-earth metals.

HPC expedites R&D timelines

HPC plays a major role in helping researchers accelerate the timeline between new discovery and new product or technology. Sanna explained that HPC drastically cut down on the time to get a better understanding of cluster glass. “We spend a lot of time doing simulation, but it is much less than characterizing these materials in reality,” he said. “The clusters we model have a diamond-shaped core with 4 ligands (molecular chains) attached to it. Those ligands can be made of any number of things, so doing this in an experiment is time consuming.”

Sanna pointed out that the team is still limited by how long they can perform individual runs for their simulations. Many research projects on supercomputers can divide a complex system into many small parts and run calculations for each part in parallel. Sanna’s team needs to pay special attention to long-distance particle interactions across large systems, so they are limited by how much they can divide their simulation across computer nodes. He indicated that having regular access to longer run times—more than a day straight on a supercomputer—would allow the team to work more quickly.  

In ongoing studies of cluster glass Sanna’s team hopes to thoroughly understand the origin of its light generating properties. This could help to identify additional new materials and to determine how best to apply cluster glass in light generation.

Sanna explained that HPC resources at HLRS were essential for his team’s basic science research, which he hopes will lead to new products that can benefit society. “The main computational achievement in this journal article was only possible through our access to the machine in Stuttgart,” he said.

Disclaimer: AAAS and EurekAlert! are not responsible for the accuracy of news releases posted to EurekAlert! by contributing institutions or for the use of any information through the EurekAlert system.

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The sun is dying: Here’s how long it has before exhausting its fuel – Firstpost



A new study has estimated the sun’s evolutionary process will continue for billions of more years before it runs out of its fuel and turns into a red giant. It has revealed the past and future of the sun, how the sun will behave at what stage and when it will enter the dusk of its life

This handout photograph released by The European Space Agency (ESA) on July 16, 2020, shows an image of the Sun, roughly halfway between the Earth and the Sun. AFP

The sun is very likely going through its middle age, a recent study published in June this year by the European Space Agency (ESA), based on the observations from its Gaia spacecraft, has revealed.

The ESA’s Gaia telescope has revealed information that could help determine when the sun will die, which was formed around 4.57 billion years ago.

The study has estimated the sun’s evolutionary process to continue for billions of more years before it runs out of its fuel and turns into a red giant. The study has revealed the past and future of the sun, how the sun will behave at what stage and when it will enter the dusk of its life.

What has the ESA study revealed?

According to the report made public on 13 June, 2022, at the age of around 4.57 billion years, our sun is currently in its ”comfortable middle age, fusing hydrogen into helium and generally being rather stable; staid even”.

However, it will not be the case forever. The sun will eventually die. The information by ESA’s Gaia observatory has also revealed the process of its decay.

The sun is dying Heres how long it has before exhausting its fuel

Stellar evolution. ESA

“As the hydrogen fuel runs out in its core, and changes begin in the fusion process, we expect it to swell into a red giant star, lowering its surface temperature in the process.”

Exactly how this happens depends on how much mass a star contains and its chemical composition.

To deduce this, astronomer Orlagh Creevey, Observatoire de la Côte d’Azur, France, and collaborators from Gaia’s Coordination Unit 8, and colleagues combed the data looking for the most accurate stellar observations that the spacecraft could offer.

“We wanted to have a really pure sample of stars with high precision measurements,” says Orlagh.

When will the sun die?

The study found that the sun will reach a maximum temperature of approximately 8 billion years of age, before starting to cool down and increase in size.

“It will become a red giant star around 10–11 billion years of age. The Sun will reach the end of its life after this phase, when it eventually becomes a dim white dwarf.”

A white dwarf is a former star that has exhausted all its hydrogen that it once used as it central nuclear fuel and lost its outer layers as a planetary nebula.

“If we don’t understand our own Sun – and there are many things we don’t know about it – how can we expect to understand all of the other stars that make up our wonderful galaxy,” Orlagh said.

By identifying similar stars to the sun, but this time with similar ages, the observational gap can be bridged in how much we know about the sun compared to other stars in the universe.

To identify these ‘solar analogues’ in the Gaia data, Orlagh and colleagues looked for stars with temperatures, surface gravities, compositions, masses and radii that are all similar to the present-day Sun. They found 5863 stars that matched their criteria.

With inputs from agencies

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SLS ready to roll to LC-39B for launch, teams prepare for multiple launch trajectories – –



NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket has completed all pre-launch preparations inside the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and is ready for its 4.2-mile (6.7-km) journey to Launch Complex 39B.

The multi-hour rollout process is currently set to begin at 9 PM EDT on Tuesday, August 16 (01:00 UTC on Wednesday, August 17), weather permitting – which should result in a sunrise arrival at the pad.

The rollout is the last major milestone ahead of launch, which will differ from most recent missions in that the rocket’s needed azimuth — or flight path — will continuously change through each day’s launch window.

Launching to the Moon

Launching into a rendezvous orbit with a satellite or station in low Earth orbit can be relatively simplified as needing to launch directly into the plane – and therefore the same orbital inclination – of the target’s orbit.

For example, when launching to the International Space Station from Florida, the azimuth the rocket follows is 44.98°. This does not change based on when within the daily window liftoff occurs.

However, the same is not true when trying to launch into an intercept trajectory with the Moon.

[embedded content]

As related by Artemis 1 Ascent/Entry Flight Director Judd Frieling to NASASpaceflight during Artemis Day events in Mission Control at the Johnson Space Center, the Moon’s motion in its orbit coupled with its constantly-changing relative inclination to the launch site complicates the needed launch azimuth for SLS.

On each launch day, the azimuth SLS must fly moves incrementally, second-by-second, throughout the window to match the movement of the Moon relative to the Earth for the translunar injection (TLI) burn.

According to NASA, for SLS and Artemis 1, the azimuth at the opening of the window on all three launch attempts on August 29, September 2, and September 5 is 62°, resulting in a 38° inclination orbit.

At the end of each window, the azimuth flown would be 108° into a 32° inclination orbit.

But before SLS can be readied for its roll onto course on launch day, it must first arrive at the pad.

Rolling out for launch

The Artemis 1 launch rollout will mark the first time since May 31, 2011, that a vehicle will emerge from the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at the Kennedy Space Center for launch operations.

SLS and Orion at LC-39B during preparations for the WDR (Credit: Julia Bergeron for NSF/L2)

As it has twice already for its wet dress rehearsal campaigns, the SLS rocket for Artemis 1 will make the journey to LC-39B atop crawler-transporter 2, one of two crawler-transporters owned by NASA and the only one modified to carry the full stack Artemis/SLS vehicle to the pad.

The upgrades were necessary due to the crawler’s age and the increased mass of the SLS vehicle with its combined Mobile Launcher (ML).

The combined SLS/ML weight is approximately 15 million pounds (6.8 million kg) and is significantly heavier than the previous record holder in the Space Shuttle at 12 million pounds (5.4 million kg).

Upgrades included a rating to handle 18 million pounds (8.1 million kg), a 50% greater load than was originally envisioned, as well as a new 1,500-kilowatt electrical power generator, parking and service brakes, redesigned and upgraded roller bearings, and several other modifications for the Artemis program.

Like the crawlers, their purpose-built road, the crawlerway, also underwent upgrades between Shuttle and SLS.

Beginning in 2013, the crawlerway’s foundations were repaired with new lime rock to return them to their original condition and ready them for the Block 1B SLS, presently scheduled for later this decade, which will be heavier than the Block 1 SLS used for Artemis 1.

The 15 million pound SLS and ML on LC-39B during Wet Dress Rehearsal. (Credit: Nathan Barker for NSF)

Additionally, 30,000 tons of new Alabama river rock were added to return the crawlerway to its optimal depth.

For Launch Complex 39B, which was used for Apollo, Skylab, Apollo-Soyuz, Space Shuttle, and Ares I-X missions, the pad was slowly modified in stages, beginning in the final years of the Shuttle program, into a clean pad configuration with three, 600-foot (183 m) lightning towers connected with catenary wires.

The clean pad is without the Shuttle-era fixed and rotating service structures that serviced the Shuttle stack.

The sound suppression system, flame trench, cabling, and other systems were also upgraded during the transition to SLS. Work on Pad 39B has also included a new 1.25 million gallon liquid hydrogen tank, though this is not yet complete and will not be used for Artemis 1.

Pad 39B’s clean pad configuration was designed to be able to handle different types of rockets as part of a multi-user spaceport emphasis. To date, only Northrop Grumman expressed interest in the pad share for their now-canceled OmegA rocket.

Artemis 1

Artemis 1 is scheduled to spend 13 days at Pad 39B after the August 16 rollout. During this time, the ML will be hooked up to the plumbing servicing the rocket with liquid oxygen, liquid hydrogen, helium, and liquid nitrogen.

Crawler-Transporter-2 (CT-2) during rollout testing. (Credit: NASA)

Other round systems required for the launch will also be activated while teams conduct system checks on the SLS and Orion. Should all go well, the stage will be set for the 60th overall launch — and the second flight to the Moon after Apollo 10 — from Pad 39B.

The Artemis 1 countdown is currently scheduled to begin with Call To Stations at 9:53 AM EDT (13:53 UTC) on August 27. Fueling would begin early in the morning of August 29 for a two-hour launch window opening at 8:33 AM EDT (12:33 UTC).

Overall, Artemis 1 has 25 days to launch after the flight termination system (FTS) testing on the launch vehicle was completed on August 12.

Should Artemis 1 not be able to launch on August 29, launch windows for September 2 and 5 are available.

The two-hour September 2 launch window starts at 12:48 PM EDT (16:48 UTC) while the September 5 window lasts for 90 minutes, starting at 5:12 PM EDT (21:12 UTC).

Should Artemis 1 not be able to make any of the launch windows, crawler-transporter 2 would return to Pad 39B to roll the stack back to the VAB for FTS replacement and any other work the vehicle or ML might need before the next available launch window, most likely October 17 through 31.

Together, the first two SLS/Orion Artemis missions will pave the way for the first human lunar landing since 1972 on Artemis 3, currently scheduled for no earlier than late 2025.

Artemis 3 will use the SLS and Orion to ferry astronauts to lunar orbit, where a waiting SpaceX Starship lander procured under the HLS contract will transport them to and from the surface near the Moon’s south pole.

Just under 50 years after humanity last left the Moon in December 1972, Artemis 1 stands ready to begin our return journey. This time, to stay.

(Lead photo: SLS basking in the morning sun at LC-39B. Credit: Stephen Marr for NSF)

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