Just in time for summer movie season comes news that something huge is lurking out there at the edge of the solar system. It’s really big. It’s never before been detected. It’s warping gravity fields.
No, it’s not the latest Michael Bay disaster-fest or the mothership from “Independence Day.” It’s not the hypothesized Planet 9 that everyone was talking about a little over a year ago. Probably it’s another planet. Or maybe that mothership.
Back in 2016, the Internet was all atwitter with the news that astronomers believed they had located another planet at the edge of the solar system. Planet 9, as they called it, was discovered through a study of disturbances in the orbits of Sedna and other less-than-planet-size objects out there in the vicinity of Pluto (which was a planet when most of us were kids and now isn’t).
This area is known as the Kuiper Belt. Astronomers, who don’t like to waste mental energy deciding what to call things they study, have a name for objects in the Kuiper Belt: Kuiper Belt Objects. It is through modeling the movement of these KBOs (see what I mean?) that the search for Planet 9 has proceeded. Nobody has seen Planet 9 yet, even with the most powerful telescopes, although with the help of millions of citizen astronomers, researchers have narrowed the field of possible suspects.
Anyway, it turns out that Planet 9 is not the only massive object out there warping the orbits of the KBOs. According to soon-to-be-published research by Kat Volk and Renu Malhotra of the University of Arizona, there’s another one. It’s called . . . well, it doesn’t have a name yet, but we can make a good guess.
Malhotra has such a nice way with an explanation that she could play the scientist in the movie version:
“Imagine you have lots and lots of fast-spinning tops, and you give each one a slight nudge . . . If you then take a snapshot of them, you will find that their spin axes will be at different orientations, but on average, they will be pointing to the local gravitational field of Earth.”
“We expect each of the KBOs’ orbital tilt angle to be at a different orientation, but on average, they will be pointing perpendicular to the plane determined by the sun and the big planets.”
Only the angles are wrong. They’re warped in a slightly different direction, as they would be if the gravity of another planet were affecting them. But Planet 9, wherever it is, would be too far away to have the effects they have found. So there is almost certainly another mass out there. (The researchers estimate only a 1 percent to 2 percent possibility that the measurements represent a statistical fluke.)
You don’t have to be a science nerd to be fascinated. You can be a garden-variety sci-fi fan. Or you could just happen to like disaster movies.
The researchers tell us that these unseen planets are rogues. At some point they wandered into the solar system, and were captured by the gravity of Sol, our puny little sun. Now they’re stuck in orbit, messing with our calculations.
Maybe. But maybe not. Let’s sit back and don our 3-D glasses and grab a handful of popcorn (or perhaps don our foil hats) as we take a moment to consider a more sobering possibility. Here’s the thing to remember about rogue planets: They’re not just wanderers; they can be destroyers, too. Simulations tell us that some 60 percent of rogue planets that enter the solar system would bounce out again. But in 10 percent of cases, the rogue will take another planet along as it departs.
Just like that, Neptune is gone. Or Mars. Or, you know, us.
Tell me that’s not a weapon of interstellar war. (OK, fine, the capture of another planet would take hundreds of centuries. So it’s a weapon of war for a very patient species. Or one that perceives time differently. But how do we know it’s not already happening? Anyway, never mess with the narrative!)
And there’s something else for the sci-fi paranoiac to chew on along with the popcorn. The sequence. In early 2016, astronomers find a disturbance in the Kuiper Belt Objects and think “planet.” Fine, natural phenomenon. Then this year, they find another disturbance and think “another planet.” Fine, natural phenomenon. Then how is it that we never noticed before? Maybe the disturbances are . . . recent. So if by chance we’re soon told of a third disturbance, then by the James Bond theory of conspiracy it’s enemy action.
Cue heavy overdone music. Cue our most powerful weapons having no effect. Cue a broken family trying to reunite. Cue Roland Emmerich. I mean, somebody’s got to make this movie, right? I’ll be there on opening day.
A prototype of what could be the next generation of space stations is currently in orbit around the Earth.
The prototype is unusual. Instead of arriving in space fully assembled, it was folded up and then expanded to its full size once in orbit.
Expandable modules allow NASA to pack a large volume into a smaller space for launch. They’re not made of metal, but instead use tough materials like the Kevlar found in bulletproof vests.
The station crew used air pressure to unfold and expand the BEAM, but it’s wrong to think about BEAM as expanding like a balloon that could go “pop” if something punctured it.
NASA’s Jason Crusan says there is a better analogy: “It’s much like the tire of your car.”
Even with no air in it, a tire retains its tirelike shape.
When BEAM unfolded in orbit, it adopted its more natural shape, something resembling a stumpy watermelon. Even if it was to lose all its internal air, “it still has structure to it,” says Crusan.
Of course NASA would prefer BEAM not lose all its air, so there are many layers of shielding to prevent things like meteorites or other space debris from poking a hole in BEAM.
“We do believe we’ve taken at least one hit,” says Crusan. “Very small in nature, and actually we can’t even visually see where it’s at.”
Crusan says there was no loss of pressure from the hit.
NASA isn’t actually using BEAM for anything. It’s there just to see how it behaves in space. But Crusan says the space station crew does go inside every once in a while to check sensors inside the module. He says crew members seem to like visiting BEAM.
“We’ve actually had up to six crew members at a time inside of it. It’s about 15 to 16 cubic meters inside,” says Crusan. That translates to something like the interior space of a modest-sized school bus.
The original plan was to detach BEAM after two years and let it burn up as it re-enters Earth’s atmosphere. But there has been a change.
“Because of its performance and it’s doing extremely well, there’s really no reason to throw it away,” says Crusan.
Since storage is at a premium aboard the space station, NASA now plans to use BEAM as a kind of storage shed and to keep it in space as long as the station continues to operate.
The company that made BEAM, Bigelow Aerospace, has big plans for expandable modules, including a stand-alone space station called the B330. The B330 will be 20 times larger than BEAM. But company president Robert Bigelow remains cautious despite the good performance of BEAM.
“No, I worry too much,” says Bigelow. The B330 is much, much more complex than BEAM.
“It has two propulsion systems,” he says. “It has very large solar arrays, a full suite of environmental life-support systems.”
These are all things that have to work flawlessly in order to keep a crew alive and happy in space.
“That’s why I walk around perpetually with a frown. It’s just because there’s so much to think about and be concerned about,” says Bigelow.
Despite his concerns, Bigelow says his new space stations may be in orbit before too long. His company plans to have two B330s ready for launch in 2020.
Here’s what it would take to survive this particular doomsday prophecy
By Pallab Ghosh
Prof Hawking says: “If humanity is to continue for another million years, our future lies in boldly going where no one else has gone before.”
Prof Stephen Hawking has called for leading nations to send astronauts to the Moon by 2020.
They should also aim to build a lunar base in 30 years’ time and send people to Mars by 2025.
Prof Hawking said that the goal would re-ignite the space programme, forge new alliances and give humanity a sense of purpose.
He was speaking at the Starmus Festival celebrating science and the arts, which is being held in Trondheim, Norway.
Spreading out into space will completely change the future of humanity
Prof Stephen Hawking
“Spreading out into space will completely change the future of humanity,” he said.
“I hope it would unite competitive nations in a single goal, to face the common challenge for us all.
“A new and ambitious space programme would excite (young people), and stimulate interest in other areas, such as astrophysics and cosmology”.
Moon LandingsImage copyrightNEIL A. ARMSTRONG
Return of the Moon landings would give humanity “a sense of purpose”.
He addressed the concerns of those arguing that it would be better to spend our money on solving the problems of this planet along with a pointed criticism of US President Donald Trump.
“I am not denying the importance of fighting climate change and global warming, unlike Donald Trump, who may just have taken the most serious, and wrong, decision on climate change this world has seen,” he said.
Prof Hawking explained that human space travel is essential for the future of humanity precisely because the Earth was under threat from climate change as well as diminishing natural resources.
“We are running out of space and the only places to go to are other worlds. It is time to explore other solar systems. Spreading out may be the only thing that saves us from ourselves. I am convinced that humans need to leave Earth,” the Cambridge University theoretical physicist explained.
The head of the European Space Agency (Esa) Jan Woerner has said he envisages the construction of a Moon base to replace the International Space Station in 2024 and is collaborating with Russia to send a probe to assess a potential site. China has set itself the goal of sending an astronaut to the Moon.
Nasa has no plans to return to the Moon, instead focusing its efforts on sending astronauts to Mars by the 2030s. Though if other space agencies begin to collaborate on constructing a lunar base it would be hard to see Nasa not participating.
Prof Hawking said that there was no long-term future for our species staying on Earth: it would either be hit by an asteroid again or eventually engulfed by our own Sun. He added that travelling to distant worlds would “elevate humanity”.
Media captionIn this European Space Agency video Dr James Carpenter describes the landing site
“Whenever we make a great new leap, such as the Moon landings, we bring people and nations together, usher in new discoveries, and new technologies,” he continued.
“To leave Earth demands a concerted global approach, everyone should join in. We need to rekindle the excitement of the early days of space travel in the sixties.”
He said that the colonisation of other planets was no longer science fiction, though he did pay tribute to the genre in his closing remarks.
“If humanity is to continue for another million years, our future lies in boldly going where no one else has gone before.
“I hope for the best. I have to. We have no other option”.
The clandestine celestial war between superpowers isn’t over. It’s just getting more high-tech.
BY JAMES BAMFORD
A peculiar spherical cloud was spotted in the Japanese city of Fujisawa, just south of Tokyo, earlier this month, giving rise to comparisons with a Star Wars weaponized space station. Experts, however, have shot down any such possibility of extra terrestrial interaction.
Pictures of the phenomenon were posted on Twitter last week and went viral with thousands of retweets and comments. Social media user Poppy was one of the first to capture the large cloud.
“When I looked out of the car window I saw a round ball-shaped cloud. I gazed at the cloud for a while then I rushed to take the photo,” Poppy, whose Twitter handle is @pmxpvrtmx, told local Japanese news outlet, Rocket News 24. “When I saw the cloud it was an even more spherical shape, so I regret not taking the photo more quickly.”
Many likened the formation to a Death Star-style UFO or a “dragon’s nest” and this is not the first time such a cloud has been spotted. A similar mysterious cloud was recently spotted in Tremeirchion, north Wales, according to the BBC, and last year a Twitter user posted another picture of such a spherical structure in Japan.
Experts, however, are steering clear of any such theories.
While some say that the sighting could have been be a small portion of a larger cloud that was separated by strong winds, referred to as cumulus fractus clouds, others say that the angle from which it was photographed could have been the reason behind the distinctly spherical shape as another picture of the same cloud showed a change in shape.
“While I can’t verify the origin of this image, or whether it was even of the same cloud, it appears that the cloud only appeared spherical from one direction,” atmospheric scientist Todd Lane from the University in Melbourne, Australia told ScienceAlert.
“That is, the photographer was lucky to be in the right place to capture an interesting image of what is likely an uninteresting cloud. It looks to me to be some form of cumulus fractus cloud.”