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Space in 2020: Many reasons to celebrate in an otherwise terrible year – CNET



SpaceX sent NASA astronauts to space from US soil in 2020 for the first time in nearly a decade.


Life on the surface of planet Earth in 2020 was troubling, to say the least, but above and beyond this rock lies a whole lot of outer space where quite a few interesting and exciting things took place.

While humanity hunkered down to wait out the COVID-19 pandemic and endured a steady stream of economic, political, environmental and social strife, SpaceX, NASA and a host of others were sending all kinds of stuff to space, including astronauts.

In late May, NASA’s Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken became the first humans to lift off to orbit from US soil in almost a decade when they rode a SpaceX Crew Dragon to the International Space Station as part of the Demo-2 mission. The fully modern spacecraft, complete with touchscreens, was also the first new vehicle certified by NASA for transporting astronauts since the space shuttle was introduced almost four decades ago.

The mission was technically a demonstration, but its success was followed in November by the first operational Crew Dragon flight
, carrying four astronauts to the ISS.

Robotic space explorers also had a busy year. July represented the best time to set a course for Mars for the next few years, so NASA took advantage of the opportunity, sending the Perseverance rover on its way to the red planet, where it will look for signs of potential life and also deploy a tiny helicopter to explore a little further afield. The UAE launched its Hope probe toward Mars, and China’s Tianwen-1 is carrying an orbiter, lander and rover in the same direction.

In addition to new missions heading to space as emissaries from a world in lockdown, a few older ones brought samples to us from beyond Earth. Japan’s Hayabusa2 air-dropped bits it had collected after shooting a special copper bullet at the asteroid Ryugu. A capsule carrying the resulting dust and pebbles landed in Australia in December, after which the sample was transported to Japan. 

NASA accosted an asteroid as well this year when the Osiris-Rex spacecraft performed a sort of cosmic pickpocketing of the potentially hazardous asteroid Bennu. That sample is expected to make it to Earth in 2023. 

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NASA successfully lands Osiris-Rex spacecraft on an asteroid…


China’s Chang’e 5 mission snagged its own space swag by launching, landing on the moon, collecting a sample and returning some lunar rocks and soil, all over the course of less than a month in November and December. 

These missions were all set in motion years ago and saw success in 2020. Others were stymied by the pandemic.

The launch of NASA’s next-generation James Webb Space Telescope was pushed back yet again, to 2021. Commercial space companies like Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin continued to make progress, but didn’t manage to start sending tourists on microgravity joyrides just yet. 

OneWeb, which aims to provide broadband access from low Earth orbit, felt the bite of the economic recession and filed for bankruptcy as the pandemic was going global. The company emerged in the second half of the year with the British government as new part owner and resumed launching satellites to catch up to SpaceX, which has already started beta testing its broadband constellation, Starlink

SpaceX and Elon Musk set more milestones in 2020 beyond achieving human spaceflight and deploying hundreds of orbiting routers. The company launched 26 Falcon 9 rockets, a few of which have now made seven flights each. On the side, its latest Starship prototype finally made a high-altitude flight, which ended with a spectacular and explosive hard landing. 

A Starship prototype comes in for a hard landing.

SpaceX video capture

Not to be forgotten, Starman, the dummy piloting Musk’s red Telsa since being blasted off atop Falcon Heavy in early 2018, this year finally made a close pass by Mars.

Eyes on the skies

When humans and our robots weren’t actually traveling to space, we were plenty busy keeping an eye on it with far more fervor than we could muster for yet another Zoom meeting or webinar.

It’s hard to believe that at the start of 2020, the unusual behavior of the giant star Betelgeuse and the possibility it might go supernova made our list of things to be concerned about. It later turned out that Betelgeuse is doing just fine — and was easily forgotten as we turned our attention to sanitizing groceries and searching the planet for toilet paper. 

But while our dreaded and much derided new normal dragged on, the heavens became a popular distraction as multiple new comets were discovered and promised to put on a show. A few fizzled, but Comet Neowise delivered the goods
in July, making itself visible even to naked-eye skywatchers in a display that was the best in decades. Annual meteor showers such as the Perseids, Taurids and Leonids also impressed in 2020. Lucky folks in parts of Africa and Asia had the opportunity to take in a “ring of fire” solar eclipse in June, and others, in a relatively small slice of South America, got a glimpse of a total solar eclipse in December.

But perhaps the biggest display was the winter solstice Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn that made itself easily visible for the first time in eight centuries to close out the year. The two largest planets in the solar system appeared as nearly conjoined twins for a night, and even amateurs with basic backyard telescopes could make out Saturn’s rings and several moons of the gas giants. 

Peeping at planets

Professional astronomers peered into deep space as they always do, and made more exciting discoveries. They spotted evidence of water in new locations on Mars, and our other next-door neighbor, Venus, made a surprising move up in the rankings of worlds worth searching for signs of life. 

In what has since become a controversial claim, a team of scientists reported sighting phosphine, a by-product of living organisms, in the surprisingly pleasant cloud decks above the uninhabitable hellscape that is the surface of Venus.

Astronomers continued to show that our galaxy and the realms beyond are full of planets, including some potentially habitable Earth-like worlds. There also looks to be a second planet orbiting our nearest stellar neighbor, Proxima Centauri. New for 2020 was the normalization of citizen scientists and even artificial intelligence making such discoveries. 

In true 2020 style, however, it wasn’t all charismatic comets and newfound Earth cousins. In an awesome but sort of disturbing reminder of the violence present in the universe, scientists captured the process of a distant black hole absolutely eviscerating a star
that got too close through a slightly comic but mostly terrifying process called spaghettification

Yes, Virginia, this universe has no problem turning you into pasta and eating you for lunch.

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The Arecibo radio telescope’s collapse was caught close-up…


And on a truly sad note, December began with some wild footage of Puerto Rico’s iconic Arecibo radio observatory collapsing. For decades, the huge dish in the jungle helped us better understand and explore the universe. 

Sorry to end on a downer. It just seems appropriate for the year we’ve had. But space as seen through the eyes of astronauts, scientists and just plain fans like me remains one of the brightest silver linings of a year that most would otherwise hope to forget. 

I wouldn’t dare tempt fate by saying 2021 will be even better, but I will note that the next meteor shower is already here, with the Quadrantids set to peak on Jan. 2, while February will see Perseverance make its landing on Mars

Keep looking forward and skyward, and Happy New Year.

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Only 31 Magnetars Have Ever Been Discovered. This one is Extra Strange. It’s Also a Pulsar – Universe Today



Some of the most stunningly powerful objects in the sky aren’t necessarily the prettiest to look at.  But their secrets can allow humanity to glimpse some of the more intricate details of the universe that are exposed in their extreme environs.  Any time we find one of these unique objects it’s a cause for celebration, and recently astronomers have found an extremely unique object that is both a magnetar and a pulsar, making it one of only 5 ever found.

The object, called J1818.0-1607, was first detected in March by NASA’s Neil Gehreis Swift Telescope.  It was first classified simply as a magnetar – one of only 31 ever found.  Magnetars are a type of neutron star that has the strongest magnetic field ever detected – millions of billions of times stronger than that of Earth.  But J1818.0-1607 wasn’t the same as other magnetars found so far.

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It appeared to be the youngest, with an estimated age of 500 years.  Correspondingly, it also spins faster than any other observed magnetar.  Younger magnetars will spin more quickly than older ones, which have had a chance to slow down some.  J1818.0-1607 takes the cake with a blistering rotational speed of 1.4 seconds.  

Finding a unique magnetar such as this will always attract other astronomers, and some brought other kinds of telescopes to bear.  One of those telescopes was the Chandra X-ray Observatory, which a team led by researchers from the University of West Virginia and the University of Manitoba commanded to look at the newly found magnetar less than a month after its original discovery.

Multispectral image from Swift of J1818.0-1607, the youngest pulsar and magnetar ever observed.
Credit: ESA / XMM-Newton / P Esposito et al.

Chandra is able to see in the X-ray spectrum, so it was able to calculate the efficiency with which the object was translating its decreasing spin energy into X-rays.  That efficiency was in line with another type of object, known as a rotation-powered pulsar.

Pulsars are a type of neutron star that repeatedly pulses out radiation as it spins.  Observations from other telescopes, including the Very Large Array, provided supporting data for the magnetar to also be a pulsar.  That puts it on a very short list of only 5 objects ever discovered that combined the characteristics of both types of object.

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All of the mysteries of the newly discovered object are not yet solved, however.  One is where all the debris has gone.  All neutron stars are formed as a result of a supernova, and J1818.0-1607 is no exception. However, at such a young age, astronomers would expect to see the debris field from the explosion.  There was some that Chandra picked up, however, it is much farther away than expected, implying that J1818.0-1607 is either much older than previously thought, or that it exploded with such force that it blew the debris field out much faster than other known neutron stars.

Either hypothesis is viable, and of course more data will need to be collected in order to truly solve that mystery.  But the discovery of J1818.0-1607 and its subsequent observation are an excellent example of the kind of science that is possible when multiple instruments operating in multiple spectra are brought to bear on a single object of interest.  With luck that coordination will lead to more discoveries of these ultra rare combinations of magnetically powerful lighthouses.

Learn More:
NASA: Chandra Studies Extraordinary Magnetar
NASA: A Cosmic Baby is Discovered and Its Brilliant
Sci-News: Astronomers Discover Youngest Magnetar Ever
UT: A brand new magnetar found, it’s only 240 years old

Lead Image: Composite image of J1818.0-1607 in Xray and infrared.
Credit: NASA / CXC / U West Virginia / H. Blumer / JPL-CalTech / Spitzer

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Giant worms terrorized the ancient seafloor from hidden death traps –



Gigantic predatory marine worms that lived about 20 million years ago ambushed their prey by leaping at them from underground tunnels in the sea bottom, new fossils from Taiwan reveal. 

These monster worms may have been ancestors of trap-jawed modern Bobbit worms (Eunice aphroditois), which also hide in burrows under the ocean floor and can grow to be 10 feet (3 meters) long. Based on fossil evidence from Taiwan, the ancient worms’ burrows were L-shaped and measured about 7 feet (2 m) long and 0.8 to 1.2 inches (2 to 3 centimeters) in diameter, researchers recently reported in a new study.

The soft bodies of such ancient worms are rarely preserved in the fossil record. But scientists found fossilized imprints, also known as trace fossils, left behind by the worms; some of these marks were likely made as they dragged prey to their doom. The researchers collected hundreds of these impressions to reconstruct the worm’s tunnel, the earliest known trace fossil of an ambush predator, according to the study.

Related: These bizarre sea monsters once ruled the ocean 

Bobbit worms are polychaetes, or bristle worms, which have been around since the early Cambrian period (about 543 million to 490 million years ago), and their hunting habits were swift and “spectacular,” the scientists wrote. Modern Bobbit worms build long tunnels to accommodate their bodies; they hide inside and then lunge out to snap prey between their jaws, hauling the struggling creature into the subterranean lair for eating. This “terror from below” grasps and pierces its prey with sharp pincers — sometimes slicing them in half — then injects toxins to make prey easier to digest, according to Smithsonian Ocean

Researchers examined 319 fossilized tunnel traces in northeastern Taiwan; from these traces, they reconstructed long, narrow burrows that resembled those made by long-bodied modern Bobbit worms. And preserved details in the rock further hinted at how ancient predatory worms might have used these lairs, according to the study.

“We hypothesize that about 20 million years ago, at the southeastern border of the Eurasian continent, ancient Bobbit worms colonized the seafloor waiting in ambush for a passing meal,” the study authors reported. Worms “exploded” from their burrows when prey came close, “grabbing and dragging the prey down into the sediment. Beneath the seafloor, the desperate prey floundered to escape, leading to further disturbance of the sediment around the burrow opening,” the scientists wrote.

Schematic three-dimensional model of the feeding behavior of Bobbit worms and the proposed formation of Pennichnus formosae.  (Image credit: Pan, YY., Nara, M., Löwemark, L. et al./Sci Rep 11, 1174 (2021).

As the ancient worms retreated deeper into their tunnel with the thrashing prey, the struggle agitated the sediment, forming “distinct feather-like collapse structures” that were preserved in the trace fossils. The researchers also detected iron-rich pockets in disturbed areas near the tops of the tunnels; these likely appeared after worms reinforced the damaged walls with layers of sticky mucus.

Though no fossilized remains of the worms were found, the scientists identified a new genus and species, Pennichnus formosae, to describe the ancient animals, based on their burrows’ distinctive forms.

The likely behavior that created the tunnels “records a life and death struggle between predator and prey, and indirectly preserves evidence of [a] more diverse and robust paleo-ecosystem than can be interpreted from the fossil and trace fossil record alone,” the study authors reported.

The findings were published online Jan. 21 in the journal Scientific Reports.

Originally published on Live Science.

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COVID-19 outbreak declared over at Coastal Gas Link work sites –



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