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DECADE IN REVIEW: The top 10 Space stories of the past 10 years – Yahoo News Canada

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DECADE IN REVIEW: The top 10 Space stories of the past 10 years
DECADE IN REVIEW: The top 10 Space stories of the past 10 yearsDECADE IN REVIEW: The top 10 Space stories of the past 10 years

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DECADE IN REVIEW: The top 10 Space stories of the past 10 years

The turn of the decade is upon us, and looking back of the past 10 years, there have been so many amazing achievements in space exploration and so many incredible astronomical events.

Actually ranking these on any sort of scale, to find out which is the best of all, would be difficult, to say the least. Instead, here are the top 10 space stories of the past decade, in chronological order.

<h3 class="canvas-atom canvas-text Mb(1.0em) Mb(0)–sm Mt(0.8em)–sm" type="text" content="NASA LANDS A NUCLEAR-POWERED ROBOT ON MARS” data-reactid=”53″>NASA LANDS A NUCLEAR-POWERED ROBOT ON MARS

On the night of August 5-6, 2012, we all watched as a few dozen NASA scientists and engineers jumped up and down, high-fived, cheered and hugged, as their latest Mars rover, Curiosity (aka the Mars Science Laboratory), confirmed that it had successfully set down on the surface of the Red Planet.

Curiosity-first-selfie-Sept-2012-NASA-JPL-CaltechCuriosity-first-selfie-Sept-2012-NASA-JPL-Caltech

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<p class="canvas-atom canvas-text Mb(1.0em) Mb(0)–sm Mt(0.8em)–sm" type="text" content="This very first ‘selfie’ image by Curiosity was taken on September 7, 2012, a month after the rover touched down on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech” data-reactid=”75″>This very first ‘selfie’ image by Curiosity was taken on September 7, 2012, a month after the rover touched down on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA had tried some gutsy landings on Mars before, from the powered descents of the Viking and Phoenix landers, to the air-bag-assisted bounce-and-roll touchdowns of Pathfinder and the Opportunity and Spirit rovers.

By comparison, Curiosity’s landing was over the top, though! Due to the mass of this car-sized rover, it required a brand new, never-before-tried method of touchdown. The absolute perfect timing and coordination of this landing – which the computer had to perform all on its own, with no guidance at all from Earth during the whole process – had the entire NASA team, as well as everyone watching, on the edge of their seats.

This nail-biting maneuver was nicknamed Curiosity’s “Seven Minutes of Terror”.

Not only did this landing succeed, but it only took Curiosity roughly seven months to complete its primary mission on Mars! In March of 2013, NASA scientists reported that the rover had discovered evidence in clay samples that the planet once had conditions that could have supported microbial life!

Curiosity-rover-Glen-Etive-pia23378-16-NASACuriosity-rover-Glen-Etive-pia23378-16-NASA

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<p class="canvas-atom canvas-text Mb(1.0em) Mb(0)–sm Mt(0.8em)–sm" type="text" content="Curiosity snapped this full-rover selfie panorama on October 11, 2019, at the location on the slopes of Mt Sharp nicknamed "Glen Etive." Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS” data-reactid=”104″>Curiosity snapped this full-rover selfie panorama on October 11, 2019, at the location on the slopes of Mt Sharp nicknamed “Glen Etive.” Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

<p class="canvas-atom canvas-text Mb(1.0em) Mb(0)–sm Mt(0.8em)–sm" type="text" content="Curiosity continues to explore Gale Crater, to this day, making the slow climb towards the summit of Mount Sharp in its quest for more scientific discoveries!” data-reactid=”105″>Curiosity continues to explore Gale Crater, to this day, making the slow climb towards the summit of Mount Sharp in its quest for more scientific discoveries!

<h3 class="canvas-atom canvas-text Mb(1.0em) Mb(0)–sm Mt(0.8em)–sm" type="text" content="HUMANITY’S FIRST INTERSTELLAR SPACECRAFT” data-reactid=”106″>HUMANITY’S FIRST INTERSTELLAR SPACECRAFT

Humans have launched plenty of spacecraft, sending them to explore planets, moons, comets and asteroids… even the Sun! Until August 25, 2012, though, every one of those spacecraft had only been in interplanetary space, inside the sphere of influence of our Sun.

On that date, the Voyager 1 probe, after flying away from the Sun for nearly 35 years, became the very first spacecraft to leave the heliosphere, and enter interstellar space!

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<p class="canvas-atom canvas-text Mb(1.0em) Mb(0)–sm Mt(0.8em)–sm" type="text" content="This artist rendition of the Voyager 1 spacecraft shows it entering the interstellar medium. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech” data-reactid=”129″>This artist rendition of the Voyager 1 spacecraft shows it entering the interstellar medium. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Even after 40 years now in space, Voyager 1 is still sending back data, telling us what it’s like beyond the heliosphere, and it was joined there by its twin, Voyager 2, as of November 5, 2018.

<h3 class="canvas-atom canvas-text Mb(1.0em) Mb(0)–sm Mt(0.8em)–sm" type="text" content="FIRST LANDING ON A COMET” data-reactid=”131″>FIRST LANDING ON A COMET

NASA is not the only space agency trying for gutsy landings over the past decade. Back in November of 2014, the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft released its tiny lander, named Philae, for the very first landing attempt on the surface of a comet!

Comet 7Jul2015 NavCam 800x600Comet 7Jul2015 NavCam 800x600

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Comet 7Jul2015 NavCam 800×600

<p class="canvas-atom canvas-text Mb(1.0em) Mb(0)–sm Mt(0.8em)–sm" type="text" content="Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko as imaged by the ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft on July 7, 2015. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM” data-reactid=”153″>Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko as imaged by the ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft on July 7, 2015. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM

Now, everything did not go entirely according to plan on this attempt. As Philae touched down, it was supposed to fire a pair of harpoons from its underside, which were to embed into the icy surface to secure the lander in place. Unfortunately, the harpoons did not deploy properly, and Philae ended up bouncing across the surface for several kilometres, coming to rest in a dark crevase.

<p class="canvas-atom canvas-text Mb(1.0em) Mb(0)–sm Mt(0.8em)–sm" type="text" content="While the mission team got three days of data out of Philae, which allowed them to perform some of the tests the lander was responsible for, the lack of sunlight at its location resulted in it shutting down. It took nearly two years for them to track down Philae’s final resting place in Rosetta’s surface imagery.” data-reactid=”155″>While the mission team got three days of data out of Philae, which allowed them to perform some of the tests the lander was responsible for, the lack of sunlight at its location resulted in it shutting down. It took nearly two years for them to track down Philae’s final resting place in Rosetta’s surface imagery.

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Philae found pillars

<p class="canvas-atom canvas-text Mb(1.0em) Mb(0)–sm Mt(0.8em)–sm" type="text" content="Philae’s location is shown in these three images. The left image shows the craggly terrain the lander became stuck in, with the small inset to the lower right showing a close-up of Philae. To the upper right, the red dot indicates where on Comet 67P this is. Credits: Main image and lander inset: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA; context: ESA/Rosetta/NavCam” data-reactid=”176″>Philae’s location is shown in these three images. The left image shows the craggly terrain the lander became stuck in, with the small inset to the lower right showing a close-up of Philae. To the upper right, the red dot indicates where on Comet 67P this is. Credits: Main image and lander inset: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA; context: ESA/Rosetta/NavCam

<h3 class="canvas-atom canvas-text Mb(1.0em) Mb(0)–sm Mt(0.8em)–sm" type="text" content="FINALLY SEEING PLUTO” data-reactid=”177″>FINALLY SEEING PLUTO

Pluto was first discovered in 1930, when astronomer Clyde Tombaugh spotted it as a tiny moving dot using the telescope at the Lowell Observatory. It took until 1996, with the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope, for us to get a better look at this distant world, but even that only showed us a small blurry circle.

On July 14, 2015, however, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, after a ten-year journey into the outer solar system, finally gave us a close-up look at this distant world!

NewHorizons-Pluto-Charon-NASA-JHUAPL-SwRINewHorizons-Pluto-Charon-NASA-JHUAPL-SwRI

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<p class="canvas-atom canvas-text Mb(1.0em) Mb(0)–sm Mt(0.8em)–sm" type="text" content="Images of Pluto (lower right) and its largest moon Charon (upper left) taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft on July 14, 2015. In these enhanced colour photographs, Pluto and Charon are shown with approximately correct relative sizes, but their true separation is not to scale. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI” data-reactid=”200″>Images of Pluto (lower right) and its largest moon Charon (upper left) taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft on July 14, 2015. In these enhanced colour photographs, Pluto and Charon are shown with approximately correct relative sizes, but their true separation is not to scale. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

The encounter was a brief one, due New Horizon’s incredible speed making it impossible to slow down and fall into an orbit around the Pluto-Charon system. The number of images snapped of both objects, and the other four tiny moons in the system, scientists will still be studying them all for years to come. There has even been talk, recently, of sending a new mission that would actually stop and explore there, further!

New-Horizons-Blue-Skies-on-PlutoNew-Horizons-Blue-Skies-on-Pluto

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<p class="canvas-atom canvas-text Mb(1.0em) Mb(0)–sm Mt(0.8em)–sm" type="text" content="Post flyby, New Horizons turned around and pointed its cameras at the dark side of Pluto, capturing its back-lit atmosphere. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI” data-reactid=”222″>Post flyby, New Horizons turned around and pointed its cameras at the dark side of Pluto, capturing its back-lit atmosphere. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

<h3 class="canvas-atom canvas-text Mb(1.0em) Mb(0)–sm Mt(0.8em)–sm" type="text" content="AN OCEAN UNDER ENCELADUS’ ICY CRUST” data-reactid=”223″>AN OCEAN UNDER ENCELADUS’ ICY CRUST

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft spent 13 years at Saturn, snapping images of the planet, its rings and its numerous moons. On September 15, 2015, roughly two years before the end of its mission, NASA made a remarkable announcement.

Based on the data and pictures Cassini had sent back to Earth, scientists had determined that there was a global ocean on Saturn’s moon Enceladus, trapped under a kilometres-thick crust of ice.

Cassini-Enceladus-global-subsurface-ocean-NASA-JPL-Caltech-PIA19656-16Cassini-Enceladus-global-subsurface-ocean-NASA-JPL-Caltech-PIA19656-16

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<p class="canvas-atom canvas-text Mb(1.0em) Mb(0)–sm Mt(0.8em)–sm" type="text" content="Illustration of the interior of Saturn’s moon Enceladus showing a global liquid water ocean between its rocky core and icy crust. Thickness of layers shown here is not to scale. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech” data-reactid=”246″>Illustration of the interior of Saturn’s moon Enceladus showing a global liquid water ocean between its rocky core and icy crust. Thickness of layers shown here is not to scale. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Why is this so important?

If there’s a global ocean of liquid water under the surface of Enceladus, it is likely kept warm due to ‘tidal heating’ of the moon, as Saturn’s gravity causes the rocky core to squeeze and stretch on each orbit. Plus, Cassini flew straight through the plumes of water vapour that are ejected from Enceladus’ south pole, and it detected organic molecules.

That doesn’t necessarily mean there’s life there – ‘organic’ molecules are simply ones that contain carbon atoms – but subsequent studies found that there could be enough nutrients and energy in Enceladus’ ocean to support life.

That potentially makes this icy Saturnian moon one of the most likely places for us to find alien life!

<h3 class="canvas-atom canvas-text Mb(1.0em) Mb(0)–sm Mt(0.8em)–sm" type="text" content="THE AGE OF REUSABLE ROCKETS BEGINS!” data-reactid=”251″>THE AGE OF REUSABLE ROCKETS BEGINS!

Classic 1950s sci-fi movies had some laughable plots and special effects compared to what we see now, but they certainly got one thing right! In the future, we would have rockets that could blast off, make a vertical landing back on Earth, and then be able to take off again for the next mission.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX made this a reality on December 21, 2015, when their Falcon 9 booster rocket made a successful vertical landing at Cape Canaveral, after lifting nearly a dozen satellites into orbit.

That particular rocket booster has not made another trip into space, as it currently adorns the front lot of SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif., but several Falcon 9 rocket boosters have now made multiple trips to space and back. Currently, SpaceX has four Falcon 9s that have launched and landed three times, so far (one of which is waiting for its fourth mission, scheduled in January of 2020). Another booster has already made its fourth successful trip to orbit and back, on November 11, 2019, and presumably will be capable of more.

All of this reusability is bringing down the cost of launching missions into space. It will still be some time before the costs come down enough for anyone to make the trip, but we are definitely on the way.

<h3 class="canvas-atom canvas-text Mb(1.0em) Mb(0)–sm Mt(0.8em)–sm" type="text" content="RIPPLES IN THE FABRIC OF SPACETIME” data-reactid=”257″>RIPPLES IN THE FABRIC OF SPACETIME

For years, scientists and engineers have been trying to open up a new branch of astronomy, one that would detect some of the most extreme events in our universe.

<p class="canvas-atom canvas-text Mb(1.0em) Mb(0)–sm Mt(0.8em)–sm" type="text" content="On February 11, 2016, astronomers working with two special observatories here on Earth reported that they had finally made their very first detection of gravitational waves.” data-reactid=”259″>On February 11, 2016, astronomers working with two special observatories here on Earth reported that they had finally made their very first detection of gravitational waves.

Very similar to how ripples move along the surface of a pond after a pebble is dropped into the water, gravitational waves are ripples in the very fabric of spacetime. Since you can’t simply ‘drop’ something into space, though, these spacetime ripples form during extreme events, such as when black holes and neutron stars merge with each other.

It was nearly five months earlier, on September 14, 2015, that the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) in the United States and the Virgo gravitational wave interferometer in Italy, actually detected the spacetime ripples as they swept past Earth. It took those five months to actually confirm that what the astronomers saw was an actual real signal of gravitational waves, and to trace the ripples back to their source.

They determined that the event that caused the ripples was two massive black holes spiraling in towards each other and then finally merging.

It is estimated that these two black holes, which measured as 35 and 30 times the mass of the Sun, respectively, merged around 1.4 billion light years away from us (in another galaxy).

<p class="canvas-atom canvas-text Mb(1.0em) Mb(0)–sm Mt(0.8em)–sm" type="text" content="Since that first detection, LIGO and Virgo have picked up 10 more gravitational wave events (including the amazing Kilonova event in 2017), and there is a longer list of candidates that astronomers are working to confirm!” data-reactid=”265″>Since that first detection, LIGO and Virgo have picked up 10 more gravitational wave events (including the amazing Kilonova event in 2017), and there is a longer list of candidates that astronomers are working to confirm!

<h3 class="canvas-atom canvas-text Mb(1.0em) Mb(0)–sm Mt(0.8em)–sm" type="text" content="THE BEST SOLAR ECLIPSE” data-reactid=”266″>THE BEST SOLAR ECLIPSE

On August 21, 2017, we witnessed the best solar eclipse of the decade, as the Moon’s shadow passed directly over North America.

GreatAmericanSolarEclipse2017-NASAGreatAmericanSolarEclipse2017-NASA

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<p class="canvas-atom canvas-text Mb(1.0em) Mb(0)–sm Mt(0.8em)–sm" type="text" content="A map of the August 21, 2017 total solar eclipse path of totality, across the United States. The various crescents represent how much of the eclipse was seen from different locations away from the path of totality. Credit: NASA GSVS” data-reactid=”288″>A map of the August 21, 2017 total solar eclipse path of totality, across the United States. The various crescents represent how much of the eclipse was seen from different locations away from the path of totality. Credit: NASA GSVS

The views from the eclipse’s ‘path of totality’ were absolutely breathtaking.

Another solar eclipse this good, at least for those of us in Canada and the United States, won’t happen until April 8, 2024, with an annular eclipse passing over the US Southwest in October of 2023.

<h3 class="canvas-atom canvas-text Mb(1.0em) Mb(0)–sm Mt(0.8em)–sm" type="text" content="FIRST VISITOR FROM INTERSTELLAR SPACE” data-reactid=”291″>FIRST VISITOR FROM INTERSTELLAR SPACE

Scientists have speculated for years that objects from beyond our solar system could be flying right past us, all the time, and we just didn’t have the technology to see them.

<p class="canvas-atom canvas-text Mb(1.0em) Mb(0)–sm Mt(0.8em)–sm" type="text" content="That changed on October 26, 2017, when telescopes spotted object 2017 U1, which appeared to be an asteroid travelling so fast through our solar system that there's no way that it could be from around here. It was the very first detected interstellar object – an asteroid or comet that originated in an alien solar system and was somehow ejected out into the galaxy, millions of years ago.” data-reactid=”293″>That changed on October 26, 2017, when telescopes spotted object 2017 U1, which appeared to be an asteroid travelling so fast through our solar system that there’s no way that it could be from around here. It was the very first detected interstellar object – an asteroid or comet that originated in an alien solar system and was somehow ejected out into the galaxy, millions of years ago.

Renamed 1I/2017 U1, to designate it as the first interstellar object, it was also given a nickname – ʻOumuamua, which roughly translates to “first distant messenger” from the Hawaiian language.

Interstellar-asteroid-Oumuamua-eso1737aInterstellar-asteroid-Oumuamua-eso1737a

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<p class="canvas-atom canvas-text Mb(1.0em) Mb(0)–sm Mt(0.8em)–sm" type="text" content="Interstellar asteroid(?) ‘Oumuamua is pictured here in this artist’s impression. It was found to be long, thin and probably flat, with a similar shape to a skipping stone. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser” data-reactid=”315″>Interstellar asteroid(?) ‘Oumuamua is pictured here in this artist’s impression. It was found to be long, thin and probably flat, with a similar shape to a skipping stone. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

Searching for its point of origin, astronomers showed that, most likely, ‘Oumuamua had traversed a good portion of the galaxy to reach us, and possibly even circled the galaxy a few times in the process.

<p class="canvas-atom canvas-text Mb(1.0em) Mb(0)–sm Mt(0.8em)–sm" type="text" content="'Oumuamua was weird, too! Based on the reflected sunlight astronomers picked up from it, the best fit for ‘Oumuamua’s shape seemed to be that of a flat disk, kind of like a rough-edged skipping stone. Who knows what interactions it went through, during its formation or on its long journey to meet us, to produce that shape? It also was observed to change speed and direction, ever so slightly, as it was heading away from the Sun! Comets are known to do this, due to gases ejected from the nucleus, but no such activity was observed from ‘Oumuamua. This fact had one astronomer speculating that it may not have been a natural object, but instead it could have been an alien solar sail!” data-reactid=”317″>’Oumuamua was weird, too! Based on the reflected sunlight astronomers picked up from it, the best fit for ‘Oumuamua’s shape seemed to be that of a flat disk, kind of like a rough-edged skipping stone. Who knows what interactions it went through, during its formation or on its long journey to meet us, to produce that shape? It also was observed to change speed and direction, ever so slightly, as it was heading away from the Sun! Comets are known to do this, due to gases ejected from the nucleus, but no such activity was observed from ‘Oumuamua. This fact had one astronomer speculating that it may not have been a natural object, but instead it could have been an alien solar sail!

<p class="canvas-atom canvas-text Mb(1.0em) Mb(0)–sm Mt(0.8em)–sm" type="text" content="Unfortunately, we'll never know exactly what 'Oumuamua was, or exactly where it originated. Since its discovery, though, astronomers have also spotted a second interstellar object, and this one is obviously a comet!” data-reactid=”318″>Unfortunately, we’ll never know exactly what ‘Oumuamua was, or exactly where it originated. Since its discovery, though, astronomers have also spotted a second interstellar object, and this one is obviously a comet!

<h3 class="canvas-atom canvas-text Mb(1.0em) Mb(0)–sm Mt(0.8em)–sm" type="text" content="FIRST IMAGE OF A BLACK HOLE” data-reactid=”319″>FIRST IMAGE OF A BLACK HOLE

When the most massive stars in the universe reach the end of their ‘lifespan’, they die rather spectacularly. Their outer layers are blown off in an explosion known as a ‘supernova’, leaving behind a dense core of matter that crushes down from the width of our Sun to a single point in space, all within the blink of an eye. The gravity near this stellar remnant is so strong that once you get close enough – the object’s ‘event horizon’ – there is no escape. Not even light can travel fast enough to break away (and that’s the fastest speed in the universe).

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<p class="canvas-atom canvas-text Mb(1.0em) Mb(0)–sm Mt(0.8em)–sm" type="text" content="This artist’s impression depicts a rapidly spinning supermassive black hole surrounded by an accretion disc. Credit: ESO, ESA/Hubble, M. Kornmesser/N. Bartmann” data-reactid=”341″>This artist’s impression depicts a rapidly spinning supermassive black hole surrounded by an accretion disc. Credit: ESO, ESA/Hubble, M. Kornmesser/N. Bartmann

So, with light unable to escape, it’s understandably difficult to actually see a black hole. Up until 2019, astronomers could only ‘see’ them indirectly. They could detect radiation emitted by matter spiralling around the black hole, or they could see how the black hole’s gravity affected objects around it (such as other stars).

<p class="canvas-atom canvas-text Mb(1.0em) Mb(0)–sm Mt(0.8em)–sm" type="text" content="On April 10, 2019, though, astronomers working with the Event Horizon Telescope project gave us what amounts to the closest we'll ever get to actually seeing a black hole.” data-reactid=”343″>On April 10, 2019, though, astronomers working with the Event Horizon Telescope project gave us what amounts to the closest we’ll ever get to actually seeing a black hole.

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<p class="canvas-atom canvas-text Mb(1.0em) Mb(0)–sm Mt(0.8em)–sm" type="text" content="This first-ever image of a black hole, captured using the Event Horizon Telescope, shows the supermassive black hole that lies at the centre of the galaxy M87. Credit: Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration” data-reactid=”364″>This first-ever image of a black hole, captured using the Event Horizon Telescope, shows the supermassive black hole that lies at the centre of the galaxy M87. Credit: Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration

What we’re seeing in the above image is the glowing disk of plasma that is spiralling around the supermassive black hole that lies at the heart of galaxy M87, located around 53 million light years away in the constellation Virgo. The dark region in the middle is the shadow cast on that plasma by the black hole’s event horizon. The event horizon, itself, is roughly 2.5 times smaller, located in the core of that shadow.

One of the most amazing things about this discovery? Astronomers had to essentially use a radio telescope as big as the Earth, to accomplish it!

<h3 class="canvas-atom canvas-text Mb(1.0em) Mb(0)–sm Mt(0.8em)–sm" type="text" content="RELATED: JUST HOW BIG IS A BLACK HOLE?” data-reactid=”367″>RELATED: JUST HOW BIG IS A BLACK HOLE?

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This is an Actual Image of a Planet-Forming Disc in a Distant Star System – Universe Today

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In 2017, astronomers used ALMA (Atacama Large Millimeter/sub-millimeter Array) to look at the star AB Aurigae. It’s a type of young star called a Herbig Ae star, and it’s less then 10 million years old. At that time, they found a dusty protoplanetary disk there, with tell-tale gaps indicating spiral arms.

Now they’ve taken another look, and found a very young planet forming there.

Young Herbig Ae stars like AB Aurigae are of great interest to astronomers. They’re so young they’re not main sequence stars yet, and they’re still surrounded by their circumstellar disk of gas and dust. And out of that gas and dust, young planets are forming.

The disk around AB Aurigae, which is over 500 light years away, has spiral arms that meet in a knot. Scientists believe that the knot is the precise point where a young planet is forming. A new study used the SPHERE (Spectro-Polarimetric High-contrast Exoplanet REsearch) instrument on the Very Large Telescope (VLT) to take a closer look at AB Aurigae and the planets developing inside its disk.

The new study is titled “Possible evidence of ongoing planet formation in AB Aurigae.” Lead author of the study is Anthony Boccaletti from the Observatoire de Paris, PSL University, France. The paper is published in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics.

“Thousands of exoplanets have been identified so far, but little is known about how they form,” said lead author Boccaletti in a press release. Observing young, still-forming planets is a big deal in astronomy right now, but it’s difficult. The circumstellar disk around the star is difficult to see into, and even our best technology is barely up to the task.

Artist’s impression of circumstellar disk of debris around a distant star. These disk are common around younger stars, and they’re difficult to see into. Credit: NASA/JPL

The SPHERE instrument was critical to this work. It’s an advanced adaptive optics system, combined with a coronoagraph. It was developed to advance the study of exoplanets, with low-resolution spectrographic and polarimetric images. It images in both optical and infrared light. SPHERE allowed the team behind this study to focus on the earliest stages of planetary formation.

“We need to observe very young systems to really capture the moment when planets form,” said Boccaletti. That twisted knot where the spiral arms of AB Aurigae’s circumstellar disk meet is as close as we’ve come to capturing that moment.

These spirals indicate the birth of a baby planet. That’s because the planet’s mass has an effect on the less dense gas and dust in the disk. Essentially, the planet kicks the material in the disk, creating a visible wave: the spirals.

“The twist of the spiral is perfectly reproduced with a planet-driven density wave model when projection effects are accounted for.”

From the Study “Possible evidence of ongoing planet formation in AB Aurigae.”

According to Emmanuel Di Folco of the Astrophysics Laboratory of Bordeaux (LAB), France, who took part in this study, the young planets create “disturbances in the disc in the form of a wave, somewhat like the wake of a boat on a lake.” And as the young planet rotates around the central star, those disturbances become spiral arms.

The images of the AB Aurigae system showing the disc around it. The image on the right is a zoomed-in version of the area indicated by a red square on the image on the left. It shows the inner region of the disc, including the very-bright-yellow ‘twist’ (circled in white) that scientists believe marks the spot where a planet is forming. This twist lies at about the same distance from the AB Aurigae star as Neptune from the Sun. The blue circle represents the size of the orbit of Neptune. The images were obtained with the SPHERE instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope in polarised light. Image Credit: ESO/Boccaletti et al, 2020
The images of the AB Aurigae system showing the disc around it. The image on the right is a zoomed-in version of the area indicated by a red square on the image on the left. It shows the inner region of the disc, including the very-bright-yellow ‘twist’ (circled in white) that scientists believe marks the spot where a planet is forming. This twist lies at about the same distance from the AB Aurigae star as Neptune from the Sun. The blue circle represents the size of the orbit of Neptune. The images were obtained with the SPHERE instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope in polarised light. Image Credit: ESO/Boccaletti et al, 2020

In their paper the authors caution us that we’re still learning what goes on inside these circumstellar veils that surround young stars. We’re still in the early days of seeing into those structures, and they aren’t certain that this twist is a planet.

“SPHERE has delivered the deepest images ever obtained for AB Aur in scattered light. Among the many structures that are yet to be understood, we identified not only the inner spiral arms, but we also resolved a feature in the form of a twist in the eastern spiral at a separation of about 30 au.”

Are they certain it’s a planet? Not exactly, but the twist feature matches modelling. “The twist of the spiral is perfectly reproduced with a planet-driven density wave model when projection effects are accounted for,” the authors write.

Initial observations of AB Aurigae made with ALMA, but without SPHERE, showed the pair of spiral arms. But ALMA alone didn’t reveal as much information. It revealed tantalizing hints, though, that planets were forming.

ALMA image of the dust ring (red) and gaseous spirals (blue) of the circumstellar disk AB Aurigae reveal gaseous spiral arms inside a wide dust gap, providing a hint of planet formation. By ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)/Tang et al. – https://www.almaobservatory.org/en/press-release/astronomers-found-spirals-inside-a-dust-gap-of-a-young-star-forming-disk/, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=87359440

Though ALMA is a powerful tool, SPHERE is even more powerful. It can see the very faint light from dust grains, and emissions that come from the inner disk. Astronomers were able to see the details in the spirals, and the “twist” at their center.

“The twist is expected from some theoretical models of planet formation,” says co-author Anne Dutrey, also at LAB. “It corresponds to the connection of two spirals  — one winding inwards of the planet’s orbit, the other expanding outwards — which join at the planet location. They allow gas and dust from the disc to accrete onto the forming planet and make it grow.”

The disk is an elaborate structure, and astronomers observed many other structures within it. Two of them were of particular interest, marked f1 and f2 in this image. Both of these are SPHERE images, each one with a different intensity threshold. Image Credit: Boccaletti et al, 2020.
The disk is an elaborate structure, and astronomers observed many other structures within it. Two of them were of particular interest, marked f1 and f2 in this image. Both of these are SPHERE images, each one with a different intensity threshold. Image Credit: Boccaletti et al, 2020.

There’s ample theory to support the birth of planets at the twist point. “In the early stage of planet formation, hydrodynamical simulations indicate that the accretion process generates at the planet location an inner and outer spiral pattern due to Lindblad resonances induced by disk-planet interactions,” the team writes.

But the observational evidence to back it all up has been difficult to come by. This study presents some of the best observations yet that back the theory up.

In their conclusion, the authors write “…the SPHERE observations of AB Aur in scattered light combined to the ALMA data in the thermal regime provide strong evidence that we are actually witnessing ongoing planet formation revealed by its associated spiral arms.”

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But it’s not proven yet. “Further observations would be required to confirm this result and to derive better mass estimates for potential planets in this location.”

Those further observations might not be too far in the future. The ESO’s Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) should see first light in 2025. With a 39 meter mirror, the ELT will be an enormous boost to our astronomical observing power.

“We should be able to see directly and more precisely how the dynamics of the gas contributes to the formation of planets,” lead author Boccaletti concluded.

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Stormy weather puts damper on SpaceX’s 1st astronaut launch – 95.7 News

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Stormy weather is threatening to delay SpaceX’s first astronaut launch.

A SpaceX rocket is scheduled to blast off Wednesday afternoon from Kennedy Space Center, carrying a Dragon capsule with NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken to the International Space Station. It will be the first time astronauts launch from Florida in nine years and a first for a private company.

The manager of NASA’s commercial crew program, Kathy Lueders, said everything was progressing well — at least on the ground.

“Now the only thing we need to do is figure out how to control the weather,” she said Monday evening as rain continued to drench the area. “We’re continuing to be vigilant and careful and make sure we do this right.”

Forecasters put the odds of acceptable launch weather at 40%. But that doesn’t include the conditions all the way up the U.S. and Canadian coasts and across the sea to Ireland — a complicated mix of measurements unique to the Dragon crew capsule.

The Dragon’s emergency escape system can kick in, if necessary, all the way to orbit. If that happens, the capsule will need relatively calm wind and seas in which to splash down.

SpaceX will have at least two recovery ships deployed off Florida, and NASA will have two military cargo planes ready to take off. Additional planes will be stationed in New York and England to assist with a potential water rescue, according to Lueders.

Hans Koenigsmann, a vice-president for SpaceX, said the launch control team will incorporate global weather patterns and models to determine whether it’s safe to launch.

“If the weather gods are working with us,” he said, liftoff will occur at 4:33 p.m. SpaceX has a split-second launch window.

The good news is that the tropical weather headed toward Cape Canaveral should be gone in a couple days, with conditions also improving up the Eastern Seaboard later in the week.

If SpaceX doesn’t launch Wednesday, its next attempt would be Saturday.

___

The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

Marcia Dunn, The Associated Press

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Extremely rare 'cosmic ring of fire' discovered in the early universe – CNET

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The ring galaxy R5519 may have been created during a massive, catastrophic collision between two galaxies in the early universe.


James Josephides/Swinburne Astronomy Productions

A violent, catastrophic collision between two galaxies has given rise to an extremely rare ring galaxy, lurking some 11 billion light years from the Earth. The monstrous, donut-shaped galaxy is making stars in its huge ring at a rate 50 times faster than our home galaxy, earning it an ominous moniker Johnny and June Cash would surely dig: The cosmic “ring of fire.”

In a paper, published in the journal Nature Astronomy on Tuesday, an international team of scientists detail the ring galaxy R5519, discovered after scouring data from the Hubble Space telescope and the W.M. Keck observatory in Hawaii. Among almost 4,000 galaxies detected in the data sets, R5519 was one of the brightest and displayed a clear ring structure. So the team investigated further — and quickly realized they’d found something unusual. 

“It is very a curious object, one that we have never seen before,” says Tiantian Yuan, an astronomer at Swinburne University in Australia and first author on the study. “The gigantic hole in this galaxy was caused by a head-on collision with another galaxy.”  

Probing the features of R5519, Yuan and her team began picking up clues as to how it formed. They ruled out gravitational lensing or a galaxy merger for its unusual structure and nearby, they detected a companion galaxy — G5593. They suspect this cosmic neighbor is the “intruder” galaxy that may have collided with R5519 around 40 million years ago. 

The two galaxies must have smashed into each other pretty much head-on — a galactic bulls-eye — and it’s likely there was already a disk of stars present in R5519. As G5593 came swooping through the galaxy, it split the disk through the guts and a wave of stars expanded from the center, as seen in the GIF above.

“The collisional formation of ring galaxies requires a thin disk to be present in the ‘victim’ galaxy before the collision occurs,” said Kenneth Freeman, an astronomer at Australian National University and co-author on the paper, in a statement. 

If R5519 is caused by a huge collision, that would make it an extremely rare cosmic phenomena. Only one in every 10, 000 galaxies in the local universe are formed in such a way. Notably, the early universe was much more crowded so the belief was these kind of collisions may have been more common. Yuan suggests the data is telling a different story.

“Previously, people think we would find more of these collisional ring galaxies in the young universe, simply because there are more collisions back then,” she says. “We find that is not the case.”

There are still some “unsolved puzzles” about the ring of fire, Yuan says. “We do not know if this ring was a first ring after the collision or it was the second ring.” She’s obtained further data from W.M. Keck to resolve this issue.

Astronomers will have to gather more data to be certain the ring is caused by a collision, rather than through natural evolution. The authors of the paper write the imaging performed by NASA’s soon-to-be-launched (and recently-assembled) James Webb Space Telescope will be able to resolve any lingering questions. Yuan says she has already discovered another ring galaxy likely formed by a head-on collision — and this is a billion years older than the “ring of fire.”

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