Life on Titan

The Dragonfly is going to land...eventually, and on Titan. NASA’s newest mission is searching for life on Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. Why a moon? Well, although Titan is a moon and orbits actually behaves and seems to have more similarities to Earth than one might initially guess. Titan is larger than Mercury, has evidence of hydrocarbons, has lakes and oceans...and even rain! Unlike Earth, though, the liquid on this planet is primarily liquid methane. 

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The Dragonfly will be unmanned and will garner its power from a radioisotope thermoelectric generator, which will run on radioactive decay from a reserve of plutonium-238. Sounds a little science-fiction-y? Of course it does, we’re searching for life! The Dragonfly will be able to remain warm and powered for months thanks to the way the RTG is set up, as well as gather surface composition information. The mission will be led by Elizabeth Turtle, a planetary scientist. 

Beginning in 2026, for roughly two years, it is planned that the Dragonfly will travel over 175 kilometers (over twice the distance all of the Mars rovers have ever covered) and discover if their may be water, and even life, in the ice volcanoes and subsurfaces of Titan.

Unlike the Mars Rover, the Dragonfly, as its name suggests, is more of a flier. It will be able to fly around the surface of Titan and take samples of the sand on the planet in various places. Because of Titan’s incredibly dense atmosphere, flying is actually easier!

Thomas Zurbuchen, a NASA associate administrator, said “Titan is unlike any other place in the solar system, and Dragonfly is like no other mission. It’s remarkable to think of this rotorcraft flying miles and miles across the organic sand dunes of Saturn’s largest moon, exploring the processes that shape this extraordinary environment. Dragonfly will visit a world filled with a wide variety of organic compounds, which are the building blocks of life and could teach us about the origin of life itself.”

How will it collect the samples? It won’t have a robotic arms but it will have an instrument located on its undercarriage that will cover the ground with neutron radiation. Once this is done, it will use gamma rays released to learn about and differentiate between terrain types. Dragonfly’s landing skids will also carry a drill that is capable of taking samples. These samples will be fed through a pneumatic tube to a mass spectrometer that will analyze their composition.

Science Magazine notes, “The moon’s stew of organic molecules and water, many scientists believe, could have resulted in reactions to create amino acids and the bases used to build DNA’s double helix. It’s as if Titan has been conducting experiments on life formation for millions of years, Turtle says. “Dragonfly is designed to go pick up the results of those experiments and study them.”

The journey to Titan will be about 8 years so it won’t be landing until 2034...and although that seems quite far, in terms of space travel it is the blink of an eye to make such a monumental journey.

This illustration shows NASA’s Dragonfly rotorcraft-lander approaching a site on Saturn’s exotic moon, Titan. Taking advantage of Titan’s dense atmosphere and low gravity, Dragonfly will explore dozens of locations across the icy world, sampling and measuring the compositions of Titan's organic surface materials to characterize the habitability of Titan’s environment and investigate the progression of prebiotic chemistry.


Forget Mars, What About Venus?

While the search for life and a place where humans could go next, many minds drift towards Mars. But, what about the other planets? In a paper published on March 30th, 2018 in Astrobiology an international team of researcher laid out a case for “the atmosphere of venus as a possible niche for extraterrestrial life.” So, perhaps it could support us as well.

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How could a planet known so well as being a hothouse...according to “one-dry and hot enough to melt lead, with an atmospheric pressure 90 times greater than that of Earth at sea level.” ever support life? Well, as you may know there is a belief that Venus was once quite like Earth...roughly 2 billion years ago.

In the paper mentioned in introduction, the team presents a solid starting ground for why we should look at Venus, "Venus has had plenty of time to evolve life on its own," explains Limaye [the head of research for the paper], noting that some models suggest Venus once had a habitable climate with liquid water on its surface for as long as 2 billion years. "That's much longer than is believed to have occurred on Mars."

Even though Venus is subject to some extreme weather, it is not entirely impossible that there could not still be life lingering even on the surface. Take for example, an AL favorite: the water bear (tardigrades). Tardigrades’ ability to enter a state called cryptobiosis allows them to withstand extreme famine, heat, cold, and other inhospitable conditions. Shockingly, Tardigrades 30 years old were revived in a Japanese lab and not only did they live, they thrived an reproduced! Perhaps the tardigrades have a cousin up on Venus who can do the very same.

Even if life on the surface is non-existence, that doesn’t snuff out the light of the hope for life around Venus. Recently, there has been some research into the fact that there may not have been a climate-based extinction because its atmosphere and skies above are quite cozy, in fact, they are similar to Earth’s. posits, “ so it's possible that Venusian life — if it ever existed — didn't die out with the dramatic climate shift long ago but rather retreated into the clouds.”

However, there are some things we don’t quite know that still put Venus in question. For example, we’re not sure what the water situation is. In fact, there is a chance that the water on venus has been destroyed by “extensive lava flows in the last billion years…[which] likely have either destroyed or covered up the planet's earlier terrestrial history.

Cynthia Phillips, a planetary geologist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California recently said, "I think we should really take another look at Venus,"

The above image is entitled "Artist's conception of a balloon probe" and is in the public domain.

Too Much of a Good Thing? The Planets of TRAPPIST-1

In our consistent search for life outside of our planet, we have found some surprisingly good candidates. One thing scientists look for is water. As far as we know, water is essential to life. On NASA’s website they write, “Water is essential at the molecular level to moving life beyond its basic building blocks; thus, searches for extraterrestrial life usually involve a search for liquid water.” But too much water might also be a problem.

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Cue TRAPPIST-1, a planetary system 39 light years away from the solar system. The planets were discovered thanks to the transit method (in which a telescope watches a star for small dips in brightness. These dips can let scientists know if an exoplanet is passing in front of it). The star is roughly the same size as Jupiter and there are believed to be at least 7 planets in orbit. All the planets “transit their star, meaning that they pass in front of it.” Most of the planets appear to be about as big as Earth and Venus, and, thanks some clever scientists, we can also deduce that these planets receive an amount of light similar to many of our solar system. Most importantly, these planets are in the “habitable zone”, meaning that liquid water could exist on the surface.

The planets are rocky and, as a new study suggests, have a lot of water...maybe even too much water, according to researchers from School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University.

The planets are called B, C, D ,E, F, G, H and some of them contain surprising amount of water. For example, B and c are believed to have around 10% water by mass. However, the further out planets F and G are roughly 50% water. Now, I know what you’re going to say…”But Earth is 70% water!” and, well, you’re right in a way. Earth’s surface area is 70% water...but it only accounts for .2% of its mass.

Basically, these planets could be insanely wet. Extreme Tech puts it in plain terms, “The outer planets would have more than 1,000 times the volume of water we have on Earth.” And while water seems to be a necessity of life...too much water “could impede the development of life because there are certain chemical processes that occur on dry land. In addition, the pressure of all that water pressing down on the mantle could prevent most volcanic activity. Without the carbon dioxide from volcanic activity, even planets in the habitable zone could have fallen victim to a runaway snowball effect.”

Although originally seen as a great place to further explore the possibility of life, the TRAPPIST-1 seems to be a less successful investigation. In a study published by the researchers in the journal Nature Astronomy they note, “With no exposed land, key geochemical cycles including the drawdown of carbon and phosphorus into oceanic reservoirs from continental weathering will be muted, thus limiting the size of the biosphere," the researchers wrote in the new study, which was published online today (March 19) in the journal Nature Astronomy. "As such, although these planets may be habitable in the classical definition of the presence of surface water, any biosignature observed from this system may not be fully distinguishable from abiotic, purely geochemical sources.”

Ultimately, the excess of water has the power to potentially shut down some of the needed geological processes that allow life to get its bearing on the world.







The above image is liscensed under Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) by Flickr User Driver Photographer.

Over 90 New Exoplanets Found!

Kepler - you’ve heard of it, right? If you haven’t, no worries! The Kepler is a space observatory equipped with a camera. The Kepler Mission’s aim is to explore “the structure and diversity of planetary systems.” In particular, earth-sized planets.

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How does the kepler find planets? Gizmodo sums it up nicely “Kepler performs its search for planets by sniffing for minute dips in a star’s brightness, which are suggestive of a planet orbiting in front of it.” Recently, Kepler found a whopping 90+ new exoplanets.

Exoplanets, in short, is a planet that orbits a star outside the solar system. They play a major role in not only better understanding our universe but in the search for life.

The 95 new exoplanets came from an original 275 candidates from data provided by the Kepler Mission. 149 were defined as “real exoplanets” and of these 149 a whopping 95 were confirmed to be brand new discoveries.

These newly discovered planets include rocky, Earth-like worlds that range in sizes from similar to our even larger than Jupiter!

Exoplanets are very important because each one helps scientists understand where exactly our Solar System fits in the larger context of space. For example, through studying we have realized that our space neighborhood is...a bit strange. Many star systems that Kepler has allowed us to view “ blazingly hot and massive gas giants that sit uncomfortably close to their host stars, or binary star systems in which complex gravitational effects make it difficult for planets to form.”

Several upcoming space missions, like the Transiting Exoplanets Survey Satellite, will allow astronomers to take innovative steps toward characterizing, studying, and analyzing exoplanets that might be capable of supporting life.


The above image is an  artist’s impression shows several of the planets orbiting the ultra-cool red dwarf star TRAPPIST-1. New observations, when combined with very sophisticated analysis, have now yielded good estimates of the densities of all seven of the Earth-sized planets and suggest that they are rich in volatile materials, probably water. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.


The hunt for alien life, as we have covered here before on the blog, hasn't lost any steam. In late 2017, NASA confirmed the two finalist projects that would be part of its "New Frontiers" program. The first will be named CAESAR and will focus on taking and returning with a sample from the nucleus of a comet. However, the second project, Dragonfly, might be of even more interest to AL listeners. Dragonfly aims to use a drone-like rotorcraft to study the prebiotic chemistry and potential of habilitation on Titan, Saturn's largest moon.

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Both will be funded with $4 million to further work on their idea and in 2019 NASA will choose one to build and launch (likely in the mid 20s). However, if Dragonfly is chosen it wouldn't even be able to arrive at Titan until 2034(ish). 

Now, back to Dragonfly. The project is led by Elizabeth (Zibi) Turtle who is a planetary scientist with John Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. Why Titan? According to what scientists have learned about Titan, it has an "Earth-like landscape of rivers and lakes filled with liquid methane." It also featured hydrocarbon seas that "may contain amino acids and other interesting molecules." 

The Dragonfly researchers succinctly sum up the importance of focusing on Titan on their website, writing: "Titan is an ocean world, and the only moon in our Solar System with a dense atmosphere, which supports an Earth-like hydrological cycle of methane clouds, rain, and liquid flowing across the surface to fill lakes and seas.”

The rotorcraft that would be built for Dragonfly would take samples from air and ground armed with a full suite of spectrometers, drills, and cameras for testing and analysis. It would be able to travel up to 100 kilometers between different sites and would also be able to recharge batteries. This would give the machine a relatively long life span. Turtle says the additional time would allow the team to, "evaluate how far prebiotic chemistry has progressed in an environment where we know we have the ingredients for life."

The above image is a natural color of the crescent Titan was taken on April 19, 2015. It is a public domain image. 


The Search for Life on Mars Goes Underground

The search for life on Mars seems to have been in the forefront of many civilians, scientists, and government's minds for decades upon decades. We have visualized, recently, it in movies like the Martian...but what ways are we currently searching for life on the red planet?

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For some time, we have been searching for signs of life by investigating portions of Mars where "sediment accumulated long ago, like the ancient lake-bed environment that NASA's curiosity rover discovered inside Mars' 96-mile-wide Gale Crater." The idea behind this is that because, on Earth, habitats like these provided archeologists with rich findings that informed them about the life that was there long ago.

But, this method hasn't turned out to be as fruitful as expected. Why? Well, because Mars is not Earth.

The researchers behind a "Perspectives" piece that was published online Dec. 18 in the journal Nature Geoscience write: "We must recognize that our entire perspective on how life has evolved and how evidence of life is preserved is coloured by the fact that we live on a planet where photosynthesis evolved."

One important thing to keep in mind is how long Mars has been cold. Because of its size relative to Earth, its core cooled much faster than Earth's. In fact, if Mars did ever support life it would have had to have done so a billion years earlier than Earth...which is a little unlikely (but not hopeless).  "Mars may have been cold, arid, oxidizing and generally inhospitable at the surface for much of its history; however, hydrothermal conditions in the near surface or subsurface might have been considerably more clement," said the researchers.

This information will be used to re-tool our approach to the hunt for life on Mars. In 2020, NASA plans to launch a life-hunting Mars rover that will collect rock samples to bring back to Earth. Jack Mustard, a geology professor at Brown University in Rhode Island, said he'd like the 2020 rover to investigate exposed "mineralized fracture zones." He goes on to explain to that "These would be places where there was fluid flow in the crust, and where you get mixing between different fluids from different sources that have potentially different concentrations of important elements, as well as dissolved hydrogen, for example."

By prioritizing spots like these, where subsurface life may have once been successful, we may be able to find evidence of life on Mars. also mentions you wouldn't have to dig deep, "NASA's Spirit rover stumbled onto one inside Mars' Gusev Crater back in 2008 when its wonky wheel scraped away some surface dirt."

Although, as previously mentioned, the chance for life on Mars is not guaranteed it is interesting and exciting to see new methods being applied to the search.



The above image is a picture was taken by the Viking Lander 1 on February 11, 1978 on Sol 556. The large rock just left of the center is about two meters wide. This rock was named "Big Joe" by the Viking scientists. The top of the rock is covered with red soil. Those portions of the rock not covered are similar in color to basaltic rocks on Earth. Therefore, this may be a fragment of a lava flow that was ejected by an impact crater. The part of the Lander that is visible in the lower left is the cover of the nuclear power supply. This image is in the public domain.

Skull Shaped Asteroid: Coming 2018

An astroid that resembles the Astonishing Legends logo quite a bit is going to be in view in 2018! Although it is relatively small by solar system standards, it's astonishing resemblance to a humanoid skull makes it a big deal. I'm taking it as a sign that this will be our spookiest year ever...but who knows.

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Not only does it look like a skull (from some angles at, least) it is also an incredibly dark shade of black. It was last strolling past earth on Halloween 2015 (seriously). It is so dark that its "albedo" (the amount of light it reflects) is equivalent to "a lump of coal." You'd think the symbolism would end there....skull-shaped and dark as night seems like enough. BUT it is also likely a "dead" comet. Comets usually have a tail, however this one does not which means it has likely lost all its ice/gases (which produce the tail) and leave just the rocky core. After so many trips around the sun, it has lost "all its volatile compounds."

Why wasn't it discovered before 2015, though? Well - like I said's pretty small. This matched with the fact that it spends a lot of its days beyond mars makes it pretty difficult to discover.

Last time it visited it was thisclose to earth - just outside the moon's orbit (roughly 302,000 miles). However, it is estimated it won't be that close for another 500 years. It also doesn't swing by every year...or even on the same day. "Its orbital period is 1,112 days, or just over three years." The 2018 flyby will take place in early November and it will be quite far - roughly 105x the distance between Earth and the moon.

Sciencealert quotes astrophysicist Pablo Santos-Sanz from the Institute of Astrophysics of Andalusia: "The object measures between 625 metres and 700 metres, its shape is a slightly flattened ellipsoid, and its rotation axis was roughly perpendicular to the Earth at the time of its closest proximity."


Rotation of Asteroid 2015 TB145 on October 30, 3015
This animated GIF of 2015 TB145 was generated using radar data collected by the National Science Foundation's 1,000-foot (305-meter) Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. The six radar images used in the animation were taken on Oct. 30, 2015, and the image resolution is 25 feet (7.5 meters) per pixel.



Radio Signals 3 Billion Light-Years Away

In a galaxy far, far away...3 billion light-years away, to be exact, radio signals are being heard. Okay, maybe "heard" is a bit an exaggeration, but they have been detected by astronomers in West Virginia. 

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The scientists who discovered these radio bursts are part of a huge project dedicated to finding signs of intelligent life in space. Recently, they were able to record 15 repeating fast radio bursts (FRBs) on August 26th, 2017. To record these, they had the help of the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia. 

The discovery itself was first  announced as an Astronomer's Telegram and will be described in further detail in a forthcoming scientific article, according to a statement from Breakthrough Listen.

FRBs were first discovered about 15 years ago, and since then there have been roughly 2 dozen unique recordings of them. Usually, they are singular events. But, that changed in 2016. Scientists in the journal Nature announced that they had discovered a repeating radio signal, dubbed FRB 121102. Through consistent monitoring and tracking, they traced this repeating signal back to a dwarf galaxy roughly 3 billion light-years away. Although, the source itself hasn't been found...nothing known in that area of the universe could be producing these signals. At least, not that we know of. Unfortunately, FRBs typically only last a few milliseconds. They appear to come from deep space but because of their minuscule duration, its almost impossible to pinpoint their origin. 

And now, there are more bursts coming from FRB 121102. The Breakthrough Listen team has detected over a dozen more bursts as of late August 2017. Vishal Gajjar, a postdoctoral researcher on the team found these new bursts while monitoring. Over 5 hours, the team was able to collect 400 terabytes of data over the 4 to 8 GHz frequency band, or C-band (which is mostly used for satellite communications transmissions).

Gajjar has said, “As well as confirming that the source is in a newly active state, the high resolution of the data obtained by the Listen instrument will allow measurement of the properties of these mysterious bursts at a higher precision than ever possible before,”

But, just because we don't know where they're coming from doesn't mean scientists aren't theorizing. In fact, a few explanations of FRBs have been brought up. For example, maybe they were caused by a cataclysmic event like a neutron star collapsing into a black hole. One problem with this theory is that an event like that would seemingly one create one burst, so the repeating of FRB 121102 wouldn't make sense and couldn't be accounted for.

Another idea is that they might be coming from a young and VERY magnetized neutron star...but none of those have been detected in that particular region of space.

But, for now, we are still searching. 

The above image is not directly related to the story and is simply a view of the universe as provided by Hubble. It is liscensed under Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0). 


Did We just Figure Out How To Build On Mars?

Scientists recently found that simulated Martian soil can be packed together into a sturdy, brick-like material...without ANY additional ingredients to hold it together. This is a pretty big deal considering when and if we get to Mars we want to maximize the amount of life-support and other necessities the astronauts can take with them.


This means that real Martian soil could be utilized as a tool for building structures, habitats, and more on the surface of Mars - making human missions a little less complicated.

So, how did we get here? Well, a group of engineers were testing simulated Martian soil, specifically called "Mars soil simulant."This simulant is a collection of rocks which have the same chemical makeup as the dirt found on mars, they even tried to mimic the shape and size of Martian grains! After some testing, the engineers figured out that adding juuuust the right amount of pressure was enough to form the soil into trim, stiff blocks...that are stronger than steel-reinforced concrete!

This is a lot more simple than how we currently make our construction materials on earth. Usually there is an adhesive or binder introduced to the material in order to get the materials to keep a fixed shape. 

Yu Qiao, a structural engineer at UC San Diego, and the lead researcher, says “It gives the soil strength when it’s compacted." Of course, we're still not 100% sure of this, as the test subject was just a simulated soil. But, it is a great inspiration to think that there will be some usable materials on Mars. The less people have to rely on shipped materials, back-up cargo, and other missions...the better.

Not to mention, because of the gravity, things like building, swinging a hammer, and other construction-based tasks are easier on the body.

Before Qiao and his team began working on this, many other scientists have tried finding similar solutions to building on Mars. For example, bringing microbes o Mars that could feed on human waste, thus creating a binder materials. Others have proposed that perhaps bringing some kind of heating device to bake the soil into bricks would help. However, we might just need a few good hammers.

The above image is from Wikimedia Commons and is liscensed under Creative Commons - source is credited as 'ESA/DLR/FU Berlin.


Does Dark Matter Not Exist?

A mysterious force, known as dark matter, has baffled scientists for decades. Many scientists think dark matter is responsible for the accelerating growth of the universe. However, a new study purports that dark matter might just be an illusion.


If it does indeed exist, it is estimated that dark energy would make up roughly 68% of the energy that we can currently observe. Despite this large percentage, it is only 10 to the negative-27th kilograms per square meter...which makes it near impossible to see in the laboratory. Furthermore, the idea of dark energy helps us to explain things, for example the overall shape of the Universe and even the patterns of matter that we can see in space but can't quite explain.

And, although it is currently assumed to be hasn't been wholly proven. However, it is not without it's potential and it is fundamental to our understanding of the universe. In fact, it was Einstein himself who proposed the cosmological constant as a way to explain exactly why all the mass scattered throughout the Universe..."wasn't pulling back together under the attraction of its own gravity." But, like I said, there isn't a whole lot of concrete's just a theory that fits into our understanding of the observable universe. A theory that was later disproved by Hubble, who was able to prove that the universe was expanding.

So why even mention the cosmological constant? Well, in this piece from early 2017 it was proven that, while the universe WAS's expansion rate is starting to speed up. Now, back to the dark matter. Dark matter + the cosmological constant we get the Lambda Cold Dark Matter (ΛCDM) model, which aims to explain how the universe evolved.

The ΛCDM model, in this case, assumes a uniform expansion that progressively gets faster and faster. Why? Well, because of an increasing push of dark energy that works to overcome the pull of other matter that is distributed, more or less, evenly throughout space.

Now, NASA released a new study putting all these big ideas together in this release. Researchers used these theories, along with new data, and have argued that previous approximations of what the universe consists of have largely ignored influences of large scale structures within the Universe.

Dr László Dobos, co-author of the paper "Explaining the accelerating expansion of the universe without dark energy" says,  "Our findings rely on a mathematical conjecture which permits the differential expansion of space, consistent with general relativity, and they show how the formation of complex structures of matter affects the expansion..These issues were previously swept under the rug but taking them into account can explain the acceleration without the need for dark energy."

Though, it should also be pointed out, the proposed model is not without its faults. The model Dobos and her partner created makes its own necessary assumptions. But, if it is in fact able to stand up to further scrutiny it could become incredibly important in proving how the Universe's expansion is accelerating without the need for negative pressure.

The argument for dark matter, at this point in time, is still largely up in the air.




the above image is from flickr user Katie187 and is liscensed under creative commons 2.0.

Earth's Oldest Fossils Could be the Push for Discovery of New Life in the Universe

Early this month, researchers made an exciting announcement - the discovery of what they believe to be the oldest fossilized sign of life. But what does this finding have to do with the discovery of life on other planets?


The fossil is from a rare piece of earth's oceanic crust. This unique sample revealed micro-meter sized tubes. These tubes are believed to be the remnants of long-dead, iron-eating bacteria. It is surmised that, based on similar currently-living specimens, that they lived on the ocean's floor near hydrothermal vents. But how long-dead were these creatures? Well, it estimated that they were alive somewhere between 3.8 and 4.3 billion years ago.

This is important because it pushes the creation of life to just a few hundred thousand years of the planet's creation, according to the journal Nature.

So what does this have to do with push for finding life on other planets?

Well, scientists have surmised that Mars also had large pools of water at one time. In fact, there is some, albeit weaker, evidence that Mars also had oceans. Based on this theory that there was water on Mars at some point, it follows that, matched with a thicket atmosphere and all the chemicals needed to create life...that there was in fact, (microbial) life.

According to planetary scientist Jeffrey Johnson with the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, Maryland, "Unlike Earth, and even Venus, there are significant areas on Mars' ancient surface that are really well preserved and provide great places to search for past habitable environments and the bio-signatures they might contain,"

Thus, it could provide analog to Mars' timeline of life and increase interest in further investigation of life on Mars!

This photo is of Mars and is not directly related to the story. It is liscensed under Creative Commons 2.0, and is from Flickr User by Kevin Gill.


The U.S. Air Force's X-37B Space Plane Is About To Set A Record

X037B is merely a week away from setting a record on its current top secret mission. If this plane is able to remain in orbit until March 25th, it will officially break the mission-duration mark of 674 days, as established in October of 2014.



Interestingly enough, the reason there is so much of a story regarding this potential record-breaking is because there is no story. The Air Force has been notoriously tight-lipped about the entire mission and the general public has no idea what the touchdown plans, if any, are.

Capt. AnnMarie Annicelli, an Air Force spokeswoman, told, "The landing date will be determined based on the completion of the program's on-orbit demonstrations and objectives for this mission,"

But this just creates more mystery surrounding not only when and if the plane will break the record, but what the objectives of this mission are. And rumors abound. One of them is a bit scary - that the plane might actually be a space-weapon. Other more banal rumors guess that the plane is testing space tech and helping researchers conduct experiments.

We'll be keeping an eye on this developing story, and look forward to seeing if it will remain in orbit and break the record, or come down.


The above image is of a Boeing X-37B inside payload fairing before launch, this image is a work of a U.S. Air Force Airman or employee, taken or made as part of that person's official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image or file is in the public domain in the United States


There is, Surprisingly, a Plan to Find the Next Earth Within a Decade

Astronomers recently confirmed the discovery of an earth-sized world that orbits the Proxima centauri, about 4.25 light years away. Now, a team of ex-NASA scientists are jumping on this hope of a similar earth. These scientists are seeking out private funding to scour the Alpha Centauri for habitable planets. This opens up a wider discussion of privately funded science, and its power.


While the project seems wildly exciting, the biggest question remains: does the Proxima Centauri really have hospitable life? Or is it merely a hopeful gamble?

In theory, they harbor rocky world, similar to earth. Additionally, there is, allegedly, a rocky, habitable-zone planet at Proxima Centauri. However…it is around a red dwarf star. This adds another questions: could human life really survive around a red dwarf star? Scientists believe that by capturing photos of them, we may get important answers to these difficult questions.

Nonprofits in early October launched Project Blue to support this effort. They plan on building small, but powerful, space-based telescopes that are capable of photographing these potential worlds. It is a risky endeavor with no clear path to success – which is why NASA is not behind it.

Jon Morse left his job as head of NASA’s Astrophysics Division several years ago because, as quoted “[he wanted to] go out and try to do something really hard”. In this case, the ‘something really hard’ appears to be finding other potential real estate for humans in the galaxy. If all the funding comes in, his two-year mission should launch by the end of decade.

This photo comes from Flickr user Kevin Gill and is licensed under creative commons.

We Know The Milky Way Is Being Pulled - but Now It Appears It's Being Pushed

The Milky Way moves at roughly 391 miles per second, a speed largely attributed to the influence of a solitary gravitational source. However, new research is beginning to ask if this might not just be the case. What if instead of a single force, there were two?


A group of researchers have discovered that the speed of the Local Group (a cluster of galaxies that the Milky Way is a part of) is being driven by two primary sources. One we know as the Shapley Supercluster. But this newly found force is a bit different. How? Well, it’s a repeller now dubbed the Dipole Repeller.

This force was originally founded about a decade ago and, originally, it was suggested that it was likely to be a major contributing factor to the Local Group’s movements. However, at the time, it was too difficult to confirm this since these spaces are difficult to map due to the fact that they put out barely any light.

The researchers came to this conclusion by plotting the motion of many galaxies in a 3-D model, utilizing data from the Cosmicflows-2 database. Much of what they discovered was expected – many of the galaxies had a clear path to the Shapley Supercluster. But, even more interesting, they also shared almost the same point of origin – the Dipole Repeller. If you want to visualize this, imagine the Supercluster as the positive side of the magnet and the Dipole Repller as the negative end. The galaxies caught in the middle travel on charges that are driven from the positive end to the negative end, and vice versa.

Okay, up until this point it just sounds like basic science…right? Well, wrong - Because gravity doesn’t play by those rules! Since gravity is the dominant force acting on the galaxy….and gravity can’t repel, how is there a repllent?

It’s surmised that the Dipole Repeller is a big ball of nothing – literally.

It is likely a void with much less mass than the surrounding area. Because of this, it seems to act like a repeller because nearby space has a thicker concentration of matter. This then creates a gravitational gradient between the two points.

The above image is from Flickr user andy, and is Licensed under Creative Commons 2.0. 

The Number Of Galaxies The Universe Holds Just Expanded....10x Over

For many years, astronomers estimated there were about 100-200 billion galaxies in the universe. However, new research gleaned from the Hubble Space Telescope shows that 100-200 billion is about 10 TIMES too low of an estimate. The research group, led by Dr. Christopher Conselice, used a mix of new deep-space images and previously published data to make updated measurements of the number of possible galaxies a different points in the entire history of the universe [almost 14 billion years]. Link

With the additional help of mathematical models, the research group was able to basically prove that the number of galaxies we can account for do not make up the entirety of the universe. In fact, there may be galaxies either too faint and/or too far away to be seen with today's technology.

What does that mean? Well there is likely at least 1 trillion galaxies...and maybe even 2 million, if you're going on the high end of the spectrum.

Dr. Conselice said in a NASA news release, "Who knows wha interesting properties we will find when we discover these galaxies with future generations of telescopes?"

But when will that be?

Well, there's a soon-to-be released one [2018] that might show of these galaxies that we were previously unable t see. It is called the James Webb Space Telescope. This next generation telescope will allow for whole new levels of resolution and sensitivity from long-wavelength visible light through near/mid-infrared light. One particular goal for this new telescope is observing some of the most distant events and objects in the new universe, like the formation of the first galaxies! Not to mention the ability to better understand the formation of stars, planets, and direct imaging of exoplanets.

The image above is from Flickr user Mooglet's account and is licensed under creative commons.

A Mystery Plaguing Scientists For Years Just Got Solved

There has been a mysterious giant green blob that has been on scientists' radar for years. How many years? Well it was first noted in 2000. The blob itself is made of gas (hydrogen, mainly) and dust and grows a sickly, bright green. But why does it glow like that? Link

One of the biggest mysteries surrounding the blob is where exactly the glow came from. Many theories arose, such as the idea that it was polarized light emitted by the blob might be from hidden galaxies. And this idea just might have been right on the money.

What's in the blob's core? Well, two huge galaxies...oh, and they may or may not be surrounded by a swath of smaller galaxies. Further observation revealed this and is supported by both the Hubble Space Telescope and the Keck Observatory in Hawaii.

These blobs actually have a bit more of a scientific name than, well, just blob. In particular, they're called Lyman-alpha blobs...and they are some of the biggest things that exist in space. This particular blob is named SSA22-Lyman-alpha Blob 1 (LAB-1) [that's not a mouthful or anything, right?]. It is also one of the LARGEST Lyman-alpha blobs, it measures 300,000 light years across. For reference, if you're not used to measuring objects in light years, it is over two times the size of the Milky Way Galaxy.

Jim Geach, the study's lead author, has expressed the true wonder of this blob..."The simulations also track gas and dark matter in the blob as it evolves into a galaxy. "Lyman-alpha Blob-1 is the site of formation of a massive elliptical galaxy that will one day be the heart of a giant cluster,"

The above picture is a composite of two different images taken with the FORS instrument on the Very Large Telescope of the Lyman-alpha blob LAB-1 in the constellation of Aquarius. Credit ESO/M. Hayes. It is licensed under CC 3.


Turn Up the STEREO(B)

After two years of complete silence, one of the Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatories (STEREO-B spacecraft) has finally made contact. Link

Launched in 2006, it was created to observe the sun. It was launched with its sister, STEREO-A. The STEREO spacecrafts entered an orbit around the sun just ahead of (B) and just behind (A) Earth. The goal, and reasoning behind the slightly different entrances, was to allow them to observe solar phenomena like coronal mass ejections, from multiple angles.

Hold up, what's a coronal mass ejection? Well, basically the sun expels ropes of plasma and magnetic field into space at around 200 miles per second. The interesting part happens when these particles interact with Earth's own magnetic sphere because this interaction can cause major effects on the ground. A small list of their negative effects? They can knock out electrical grids and damage satellites.

But we haven't heard from B since October 2014. Why? and why is it back on now?

Well, it's silence wasn't unexpected. It was originally only supposed to last about two years...and by going from 2006-2014, it far exceeded this expectation. It was given a hard reset after 72 hours of radio silence, but things went a little strange. It let out a weak signal, and then silence...until now.

After several periodic check-ins and a few lucky breaks from the team ever since December, the DSN finally locked on to STEREO-B's signal at 6:27 p.m. EDT on Sunday.

Its health still needs to be determined if it is capable of resuming its scientific duties, but it's sister STEREO-A continues to function normally so there is a lot of hope for this surprisingly resilient machine.

This picture is from Flickr user David Warrington and is licensed under the Creative Commons.

Rosetta's Comet is Getting Seriously Strange

For a quick update for those uninitiated on the awesomeness that is Rosetta's comet, it is a comet believed to contain the building blocks of life, creates its own weather, and hasn't really changed in thousands upon thousands of years. The Rosetta itself is a space probe (built by the European Space Agency) and is currently completing a detailed study of comet 67P (aka Rosetta's Comet). It was launched in 2004. link

In early June, scientists established a theory as to why Rosetta's comet has two distinct 'lobes'. These 'lobes' are actually two distinct comets which, for eternity, are doomed to break up, then orbit one another, and smash back together again...and again.....oh yeah, and again.

A new modeling study of comet evolution, conducted by researchers at Purdue and U of Colorado Boulder first established this theory based on seeing two large cracks (notably, each longer than a football field). They surmise it is possible that this process of break-up and rearrangement has happened through the Rosetta's comet lifetime and that in actually may be a feature of many 'bilobed' comets.

However, over time (a lot of time) these repeated breakups might accelerate the comet's demise. Daniel Scheeres, a key researcher in the study comments, "“If a comet nucleus goes through this process a number of times it may eventually make one of the two lobes small enough so that it can escape once it spins to disruption again.”

The study will continue and will include other imaged comets. They are extending it to see if other bilobed comets (like Halley's) share this perpetual breakup and re-adjoining. It is possible our solar system is full of perpetually shapeshifting space rocks and that space is even more dynamic than we imagined.


The above photo is part of the wikimedia commons and is licensed under Creative Commons.

Tunes on the Moon

Some "lost" (now found) tapes reveal Apollo Astronauts heard some pretty unexplainable 'music' on the far side of the moon. link

Sadly, they were on the far side of the moon and not the Dark Side of the Moon, so it wasn't that sweet of a jam.

In all seriousness, the crew were understandably startled when they encountered strange, music-like radio transmissions though their headsets. At the time of the occurrence, they were unsure whether or not to report this activity to NASA.

Here's a link to what the tapes reveal, in case you're interested.

According to the forthcoming Science Channel series (NASA's Unexplained Files) the recordings contain "strange, otherworldly music coming through the Apollo module's radio".

It reportedly lasted about an hour.

Here are some recorded quotes from the astronauts: "It sounds like, you know, outer space-type music", "You hear that? The whistling sound? Whooooo!", and "Well, that sure is weird music!".

It seems all the listeners unanimously agreed that it was music. However, because this happened decades ago it would be difficult to find out exactly why they thought it sounded like music.

They regained contact with NASA and went back and forth on if they should tell NASA. But this begs the question...why wouldn't they tell NASA? Weren't they used to reporting every minuscule detail of their lives in space? Why would they leave out this strangeness?

This picture is by Flickr User Janet Ramsden and is licensed under Creative Commons.

Life with a Black Hole Sun?

No, we're not talking about that famous 90s grunge hit by Soundgarden. We're talking about actual black hole suns. link

Interestingly enough, there's some proof that planets orbiting black holes could actually sustain life due to the truly bizarre reversal of thermodynamics experienced by our particular sun and earth. So, basically, it's a weird version of the second law of thermodynamics. Life on earth exploits the difference between the sun and the cold, cold vacuum of space...but a black hole sun situation would give you a cold sun and a hot sky.

Life could actually exist! A team calculated that an Earth-sized(ish) planet that it could extract roughly 900 watts of "useful" power from this temperature. This is enough for life to potentially exist, but...barely.

When the stars are holes will be our last, precious energy source. But, that won't be for a few trillion years so we don't have to start exploiting them just yet.


Picture from NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, licensed under Creative Commons.