The American astronauts onboard the International Space Station are preparing to celebrate Thanksgiving, and they’ve recorded a video message giving us a look at what their observations will entail. Check it out here, or watch below:
According to NASA, Thanksgiving was first celebrated in space aboard Skylab, the first American space station, in 1973. Since then, Thanksgiving has also been celebrated on space shuttles and the defunct Russian space station Mir.
Worried about getting into political arguments over Thanksgiving dinner? Consider talking about space instead! The Planetary Society last year compiled a helpful list of space-related conversation starters, covering topics such as:
Methane is often produced by living things, and it doesn’t persist long in atmospheres because it is quickly broken down by solar radiation. Yet satellites and rovers have periodically detected surges in atmospheric methane concentration on Mars, raising the question: where is that gas coming from?
Methane gas periodically wafts into the atmosphere of Mars; that notion, once considered implausible and perplexing, is now widely accepted by planetary scientists. […]
The presence of methane is significant because the gas decays quickly. Calculations indicate that sunlight and chemical reactions in the thin Martian atmosphere would break up the molecules within a few hundred years, so any methane detected must have been created recently.
It might have been created by a geological process known as serpentinization, which requires both heat and liquid water. Or it could be a product of life — specifically methanogens, microbes that release methane as a waste product. Methanogens thrive in places lacking oxygen, such as rocks deep underground and the digestive tracts of animals.
Even if the source of the methane turns out to be geological, the hydrothermal systems that produce the emissions would still be prime locations to search for signs of life.
Conspiracy theorists rejoice: according to a recent New York Times report, the Department of Defense spent $22 million to secretly investigate UFOs from 2007-2012. Billed as the “Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program” and instigated at the behest of former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), the DoD’s efforts “produced documents that describe sightings of aircraft that seemed to move at very high velocities with no visible signs of propulsion” and “videos of encounters between unknown objects and American military aircraft.” Although funding for the program expired in 2012, officials have apparently continued to investigate these episodes even while carrying out their other duties.
The video below, filmed in 2004 by a jet fighter near San Diego and investigated as part of the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program, was released by the Defense Department along with these disclosures.
Of course, this is not the first time that the U.S. government has conducted official, systematic investigations into unidentified flying objects. From 1952 to 1970, Project Blue Book (which might sound familiar to fans of Twin Peaks) was an Air Force program that collected, categorized, and analyzed thousands of reports of UFOs. The results of these efforts were summarized in the Condon Report.
“We’ve never seen anything like this before.” That’s how University of Hawaii astronomer Rob Weryk described the unknown object hurtling through our solar system.1 An object a quarter of a mile long and moving startlingly fast – faster than any comet or asteroid seen before, about 55 miles per second. An object with an open-ended trajectory – meaning that it came from somewhere outside our solar system. The first such object ever observed.
Scientists named the mysterious visitor ‘Oumuamua, meaning “a messenger from afar arriving first” in Hawaiian.2 Intriguing not only due to its origin but also its properties – besides its unusual size, shape, and trajectory, the object has no comet tail and shows no trace of water ice, suggesting that it may be composed entirely of solid rock or even metal – astronomers are turning additional eyes on ‘Oumuamua to test some unsettling hypotheses. After all, given the characteristics of this unusual visitor, who can’t but wonder: is it more than just an asteroid? While likely formed by natural processes, astronomers are thus far at a loss as to what could produce the object’s unusual shape. Is it possible, however distantly, that ‘Oumuamua might be some sort of artifact? According to Harvard University astronomer Avi Loeb, ‘Oumuamua has the optimal design… of a vessel meant to travel through space.3
That’s a proposition that a research initiative called Breakthrough Listen hopes to test. Breakthrough Listen, per their website, is a “$100 million program of astronomical observations in search of evidence of intelligent life beyond Earth” and “by far the most comprehensive, intensive and sensitive search ever undertaken for artificial radio and optical signals.” From NPR:
“The possibility that this object is, in fact, an artificial object — that it is a spaceship, essentially — is a remote possibility,” Andrew Siemion, a member of the initiative and director of Berkeley’s Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Research Center, told The Washington Post on Monday.
[…T]hey’ll be checking on that hypothesis by scanning the object for possible artificial transmitters through a radio telescope at West Virginia’s Green Bank Observatory.
As unlikely as this possibility may be, it certainly seems worth looking into. Before our extrasolar visitor leaves our system just as quickly as it entered, bound for distant reaches that for now we can only dream of.
An enormous black blotch known as a “coronal hole” has been spotted spreading across the sun. Coronal holes, according to Wikipedia, are “areas where the Sun’s corona is darker, and colder, and has lower-density plasma than average because there is lower energy and gas levels.” These holes can allow high-density plasma to escape to space, which can disrupt satellite communications here on Earth.
The size and number of coronal holes peak and wane with the solar cycle, which spans 11 years.
The most recent coronal hole of a similar size opened in 2012, and was the “precursor to an extremely powerful solar storm, the most powerful one in 150 years.” That storm was considered a near-miss for Earth: according to Daniel Baker, from the University of Colorado’s Laboratory of Atmospheric and Space Physics, “If it had hit, we would still be picking up the pieces.”
We’ve all seen gorgeous, colorful images, often courtesy of the Hubble telescope, of faraway galaxies and fantastic nebulae. What most of us probably don’t realize, however, is that these aren’t true-color images — instead, they’ve typically been altered and enhanced for scientific purposes. So what does space really look like? Check out this interesting and informative video to learn!
On February 6, the largest meteor impact since the 2013 Chelyabinsk incident occurred over the southern Atlantic Ocean, yielding a fireball with an explosive force greater than 13,000 tons of TNT (13 kt) — a blast at least as energetic as the Hiroshima bomb. (By comparison, the Chelyabinsk meteor exploded over Russia with a force equal to 440,000 tons of TNT.)
Don’t worry too much, though — this headline is somewhat sensationalist. In fact, NASA keeps track of meteor impacts like this one, and it turns out that they occur on a fairly regular basis, with airbursts of this size happening every five to ten years or so, on average. To put this in a little more context, there have been six impact events during the past ten years equal or greater in size to the February 6 incident. Over this period, NASA has recorded a total of 292 meteor airbursts that have had an explosive force greater than 73 tons of TNT. (The median blast had a force equal to 230 tons of TNT.)
Unfortunately, since the February 6 event occurred in the middle of the ocean, no one was around to capture video footage of what was surely a visually-striking fireball. (Data on the February 6 event, iflscience.com reports, “were given to NASA by the U.S. government. Detecting atmospheric explosions is most likely a high priority of several branches of the U.S. military, so a fireball of such magnitude could have been easily picked up. Satellite imagery and infrasound atmospheric microphones could both be used to detect an impact like this.”)
The Chelyabinsk meteor, on the other hand, exploded over a fairly populated region and consequently was caught on film from multiple angles (you can check out some video footage of that event below). Because the Chelyabinsk meteor exploded so high in the atmosphere (at an altitude of 18.4 miles), it did little damage beyond shattering windows and scaring the bejeezus out of everyone in range.
The last meteor to inflict massive damage on the ground was the Tunguska impacter, which completely flattened 770 square miles of Siberian forest back in 1908. That meteor had a destructive force of at least 15 megatons — 1,000 times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb.
Whenever these events happen, of course, the first question on everyone’s mind is something along the lines of, “would we be ready if a bigger one was headed our way?” The answer to this is “probably not.” However, don’t let it concern you too much — the chances of a life-threatening impact occurring during our lifetimes is infinitesimally small, and we’ve got plenty of eyes on the sky that would spot such an object well in advance.
The great thing about astrophysics is that… it’s all weird. And not much is weirder than dark matter (a “hypothetical kind of matter that cannot be seen with telescopes but accounts for most of the matter in the universe”; “one of the greatest mysteries in modern astrophysics”). Should we be surprised that the Earth is growing a dark matter mullet? Well, maybe.
While dark matter is itself unobservable, scientists can track it based on the trail it leaves. And according to a recent study published in the Astrophysical Journal, “some of those trails might come in the form of “hairy” filaments draped around Earth.” The Washington Post goes on:
If Earth is indeed wearing a dark matter toupee, it could be great news for astrophysicists.
“If we could pinpoint the location of the root of these hairs, we could potentially send a probe there and get a bonanza of data about dark matter,” lead study author Gary Prézeau of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory said in a statement.
Fine-grained streams of dark matter mixed up with matter matter are crisscrossing through our solar system as we speak. Earth’s gravity would bend these streams into dense filaments that Prézeau compares to strands of hair. The densest part of the filament — the “root,” if you will — would have a black matter density a billion times higher than the original stream.
According to the research, these roots might be as close as 600,000 miles away, with the fine tips of the filaments would reach out about twice as far.
Because these roots would boast such a dense trove of dark matter, locating and studying them could give us one of our best ever chances of detecting the mysterious stuff directly.
(Water) vortexes may be frightening — easily enough to make your palms sweat, given the
proper set of circumsances — but they pale into insignificance next to the sheer cosmic horror of black holes. Rumor has it that there’s a giant black hole lurking at the center for every galaxy (or so astronomical observations would suggest). Typically, these black holes tend to account for about 0.5% of the total mass of their respective galaxies. However, scientists have located an aberration among these aberrations:
One of the largest black holes ever seen is believed to be nearly 11.7 billion years old, forming just two billion years after the Big Bang. According to the Christian Science Monitor, the black hole is massive too; it has a mass that is equivalent to about 7 billion suns. Lead author Benny Trakhtenbrot, an astrophysicist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich said that given the mass of the host galaxy, the black hole was unbelievably big[:][…] this black hole is nearly one-tenth [10%!] the mass of its host galaxy.
The findings can tell us a lot about the early universe – they suggest that the universe was smaller, denser, and much more hospitable to black holes.
Fascinating, in the same sort of way that sharks and viruses and whirlpools are fascinating. More here.
No need to worry, folks. It’s certainly not the bone of an alien or a hyper-ape, and there’s nothing anachronistic about it. Just a rock. Yup, no biggie.
NASA released Curiosity’s “thigh bone” Mars rock photo with an explanation on Thursday.
In the photo description, NASA officials wrote that while “this Mars rock may look like a femur thigh bone,” it is not the fossilized remains of a mysterious Martian. “Mission science team members think its shape is likely sculpted by erosion, either wind or water.”
The Curiosity rover has found evidence that Ma
rs was once a habitable place in the ancient past, but there is no evidence that creatures large enough to leave a bone behind ever existed on the planet.