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.
The $199 kit gets a little help from jellyfish genes
A former NASA biologist just launched a kit to help everyday home brewers step up their beer game by making beverages that glow, because who needs those regular amber hues anymore?
Josiah Zayner left his job in synthetic biology to start his own company, The Odin, which has a goal of increasing the accessibility of science and technology research, as Gizmodo reports. Zayner and The Odin produce kits for interested parties to conduct their own experiments, of sorts, and this bioluminescent beer kit is no different.
The fluorescent yeast kit uses a gene from a jellyfish and retails for $199. It requires about 10 hours of work over the span of two days before a user can get down to brewing.
“There is no impact on the flavor of the beer with the GFP engineering kit,” Zayner tells Eater. “You can literally add the engineered yeast to honey and water (or mash or wort) and the yeast will ferment and fluoresce.”
“This kit demonstrates the power and simplicity of genetic engineering by adding plasmid DNA to the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae so that it turns a fluorescent green color,” the kit’s guide reads. When used in a batch of home brew, the fluorescent yeast will produce a beer that glows under a blacklight, much as tonic water does, albeit for different reasons (tonic water contains quinine, which produces a similar glow as engineered yeast).
The kit has come under some scrutiny from the FDA, but Zayner says The Odin is not trying to sell food-grade materials, and has done research to demonstrate that the kits are not toxic or allergenic. “Honestly, when I started working on this stuff I was just trying to create something cool and push genetic design into the mainstream consumer market,” he says. “We are trying to sell a kit that allows people to create a new type of yeast that they can then possibly use to ferment with. We are trying to create a whole new industry, a whole new way of life where people can use genetic design freely in their homes.”
Zayner’s kit puts beer in a category of other weird glowing foods, including some Floam-colored udon noodles made by a Japanese food scientist and glow-in-the-dark ice cream made at a pop-up ice cream shop in Australia using UV-reactive liquid coloring.
The historic race that reawakened the promise of manned spaceflight
Alone in a Spartan black cockpit, test pilot Mike Melvill rocketed toward space. He had eighty seconds to exceed the speed of sound and begin the climb to a target no civilian pilot had ever reached. He might not make it back alive. If he did, he would make history as the world’s first commercial astronaut.
The spectacle defied reason, the result of a competition dreamed up by entrepreneur Peter Diamandis, whose vision for a new race to space required small teams to do what only the world’s largest governments had done before.
Peter Diamandis was the son of hardworking immigrants who wanted their science prodigy to make the family proud and become a doctor. But from the age of eight, when he watched Apollo 11 land on the Moon, his singular goal was to get to space. When he realized NASA was winding down manned space flight, Diamandis set out on one of the great entrepreneurial adventure stories of our time. If the government wouldn’t send him to space, he would create a private space flight industry himself.
In the 1990s, this idea was the stuff of science fiction. Undaunted, Diamandis found inspiration in an unlikely place: the golden age of aviation. He discovered that Charles Lindbergh made his transatlantic flight to win a $25,000 prize. The flight made Lindbergh the most famous man on earth and galvanized the airline industry. Why, Diamandis thought, couldn’t the same be done for space flight?
The story of the bullet-shaped SpaceShipOne, and the other teams in the hunt, is an extraordinary tale of making the impossible possible. It is driven by outsized characters—Burt Rutan, Richard Branson, John Carmack, Paul Allen—and obsessive pursuits. In the end, as Diamandis dreamed, the result wasn’t just a victory for one team; it was the foundation for a new industry and a new age.
Business and Vacation Property Rentals
ASTRONAUTS SPEND YEARS training before they go into space. The same is true for their robot counterparts, two of which recently arrived in Massachusetts to be put through their paces in preparation for a long-off mission to Mars.
Valkyrie is built like a linebacker — 6’2” tall and 275 pounds. Its job is to go to Mars and maintain equipment in anticipation of the arrival of astronauts, potentially years after Valkyrie first touches down on the Red Planet.
“If you don’t start your car for two years, do you expect it will start when you return?” says Taskin Padir, a professor of engineering at Northeastern University who will be leading the university’s work with Valkyrie. “Humanoid robots will be part of the pre-deployment mission to Mars and will maintain equipment prior to the astronauts’ arrival.”
A manned mission to Mars is a high priority for NASA, which hopes to achieve the feat by the 2030s. As conceived, the expedition would require NASA to send equipment like rovers and a human habitat to Mars years before the astronauts launch. This is due to the relative orbits of Earth and Mars, which make it only practical to launch from here to there every two years.
“You need to pre-position assets like a habitat, a power supply. Whatever you need on the surface, all that’s done years before an astronaut gets there,” says William Verdeyen, NASA project manager for Valkyrie.
Valkyrie’s destination may be exotic, but the robot’s tasks will be mundane. The Johnson Space Center in Houston will beam instructions to Mars (the transmission takes about 20 minutes), and the robot will carry them out autonomously. Likely jobs include repairing electronic boards, cutting cords, and changing batteries — all maneuvers that require dexterity, which is complicated to engineer.
“A [good] analogy is replacing batteries in a flashlight,” says Padir. “If we can do that with Valkyrie at the end of two years, that would be a great accomplishment from our perspective.”
Over the next two years, the Northeastern team will work on improving Valkyrie’s performance, especially at these kinds of fine-motor maintenance tasks. A separate team at MIT will be doing similar work with another copy of the robot.
Most of Valkyrie’s movements will take place inside the human habitat — a known environment for the engineers, which makes it relatively easy to navigate. Sometimes, though, the robot will have to venture outside, like to brush dust off of solar panels. There, things get more treacherous. And if Valkyrie falls on the rough, uneven Martian surface, there’s always the risk it will never be able to get back up. Fortunately, though, in all these tasks, time is going to be on Valkyrie’s side.
“This robot will have a lot of free time on Mars,” says Padir. “If your task is to clean a few solar panels in the next week, you don’t have to run.”
Oceanographers may need to study alien worlds sooner than you think.
Observations by NASA‘s Cassini spacecraft indicate Saturn’s moon Titan is more Earth-like with its dense atmosphere, lake-filled surface and possible wetlands.
Other than our home planet Titan is the only known world in the solar system with stable liquid on its surface, according to NASA.
Since 2004, Cassini has found more than 620,000 square miles of Titan’s surface covered in liquid, about two percent of its globe. Planetary scientists have theorized about what elements fill Titan’s liquid bodies, but thanks to Cassini they now have answers
A new study using Cassini’s radar instrument to study Titan’s second largest sea, known as Ligeia Mare, between 2007 and 2015 reveals it’s a filled with methane.
The study published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets confirms what planetary scientists have thought about Titan’s seas for some time.
Using Cassini’s radar instrument to detect echoes from the seafloor of Ligeia Mare scientists used the depth-sounding information to observe temperatures, which helped give clues to their composition, according to the news release.
“Before Cassini, we expected to find that Ligeia Mare would be mostly made up of ethane, which is produced in abundance in the atmosphere when sunlight breaks methane molecules apart. Instead, this sea is predominantly made of pure methane,” said Alice Le Gall, a Cassini radar team member and lead author of the new study.
Ligeia Mare is the about the size of Lake Huron and Lake Michigan together, according to NASA and from Cassini’s flybys scientists were able to determine the sea is 525 feet deep in some areas.
All of Titan’s seas are named for mythical sea creatures. The largest sea, Kraken Mare is about 680 miles long.
Another similarity between our home planet and Titan is they both have nitrogen atmospheres, but Titan is lacking much oxygen. Titan’s atmosphere is mostly methane with trace amounts of ethane and because of the distance from the sun, meaning cold temperatures, the methane and ethane remain in liquid form instead of escaping, according to NASA.
Le Gall offered a few possibilities of how Ligeria Mare became mostly methane filled, instead of ethane as Cassini’s team originally thought.
“Either Ligeia Mare is replenished by fresh methane rainfall, or something is removing ethane from it,” said Le Gall. “It is possible that the ethane ends up in the undersea crust, or that it somehow flows into the adjacent sea, Kraken Mare, but that will require further investigation.”
The study also found Ligeia Mare’s shoreline may warm quicker than in the sea, similar to a beach on Earth.
“It’s a marvelous feat of exploration that we’re doing extraterrestrial oceanography on an alien moon,” said Steve Wall, deputy lead of the Cassini radar team. “Titan just won’t stop surprising us.”
Inflatable room attached to space station
A giant addition that one day may be used to support life on Mars has been deployed and is set to undergo a two-year test.It will be expanded to 5 times its size »
by Evan Gough
In the Autumn of 2014, NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft arrived at Mars and entered into orbit. MAVEN wasn’t the only visitor to arrive at Mars at that time though, as comet Siding Spring (C/2013 A1) also showed up at Mars. Most of MAVEN’s instruments were shut down to protect sensitive electronics from Siding Spring’s magnetic field. But the magnetometer aboard the spacecraft was left on, which gave MAVEN a great view of the interaction between the planet and the comet.
Unlike Earth, which has a powerful magnetosphere created by its rotating metal core, Mars’ magnetosphere is created by plasma in its upper atmosphere, and is not very powerful. (Mars may have had a rotating metal core in the past, and a stronger magnetosphere because of it, but that’s beside the point.) Comet Siding Spring is small, with its nucleus being only about one half a kilometer. But its magnetosphere is situated in its coma, the long ‘tail’ of the comet that stretches out for a million kilometers.
When Siding Spring approached Mars, it came to within 140,000 km (87,000 miles) of the planet. But the comet’s coma nearly touched the surface of the planet, and during that hours-long encounter, the magnetic field from the comet created havoc with Mars’ magnetic field. And MAVEN’s magnetometer captured the event.
Jared Espley is a member of the MAVEN team at Goddard Space Flight Center. He said of the Mars/Siding Spring event, “We think the encounter blew away part of Mars’ upper atmosphere, much like a strong solar storm would.”
“The main action took place during the comet’s closest approach,” said Espley, “but the planet’s magnetosphere began to feel some effects as soon as it entered the outer edge of the comet’s coma.”
Espley and his colleagues describe the event as a tide that washed over the Martian magnetosphere. Comet Siding Spring’s tail has a magnetosphere due to its interactions with the solar wind. As the comet is heated by the sun, plasma is generated, which interacts in turn with the solar wind, creating a magnetosphere. And like a tide, the effects were subtle at first, and the event played out over several hours as the comet passed by the planet.
Siding Spring’s magnetic tide had only a subtle effect on Mars at first. Normally, Mars’ magnetosphere is situated evenly around the planet, but as the comet got closer, some parts of the planet’s magnetosphere began to realign themselves. Eventually the effect was so powerful that the field was thrown into chaos, like a flag flapping every which way in a powerful wind. It took Mars a while to recover from this encounter as the field took several hours to recover.
MAVEN’s task is to gain a better understanding of the interactions between the Sun’s solar wind and Mars. So being able to witness the effect that Siding Spring had on Mars is an added bonus. Bruce Jakosky, from the University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics in Boulder, is one of MAVEN’s principal investigators. “By looking at how the magnetospheres of the comet and of Mars interact with each other,” said Jakosky, “we’re getting a better understanding of the detailed processes that control each one.”
For the past couple of weeks, on and off, astronaut Tim Kopra has been playing with fire on the International Space Station—part of an experiment called Burning and Suppression of Solids—Milliken (BASS-M), to test how flame-retardant cotton fabrics burn in microgravity.
Why? Because fire behaves differently in space than it does on Earth. In normal gravity, hot gas rises, drawing in cool, fresh air at the base of the flame. That’s what gives flames their familiar teardrop shape. In microgravity, hot gas doesn’t rise, so flames tend to be wider, shorter, and rounder than on Earth. As a result, flames in space radiate heat differently than they do on Earth, which in turn affects how fires spread. That means materials may be more or less flammable in orbit than they are on Earth, even with the same mix of atmospheric gases.
When it comes to flammability tests, size matters. On Earth, NASA uses 5 cm by 25 cm samples of flammable material. But pieces that big aren’t allowed on the station (with some exceptions when there is no practical alternative, such as the crew’s clothing). So experiments like BASS-M (which follows up on earlier BASS combustion experiments carried out on the station from 2011 to 2013) make do with small samples, about one centimeter by three centimeters.
“The problem with small samples is that a lot of aspects of the fire don’t scale linearly, so you can’t look at a tiny, one-centimeter fire and extrapolate that to one that’s a foot wide or something,” said David Urban, a combustion researcher at NASA’s Glenn Research Center.
Scientists would like to know exactly how large-scale fires would grow and spread in microgravity, but it’s too dangerous to conduct that kind of experiment on a spacecraft with astronauts on board. Instead, safety engineers have to rely mostly on models based on how flames spread in Earth’s gravity, and on a few small combustion experiments in space.
Sometimes you just need a bigger fire. So Urban and co-investigator Gary Ruff designed the Spacecraft Fire Experiment (Saffire), a series of six tests that will ignite and study contained fires aboard returning Cygnus cargo ships (the next of which is scheduled to depart the station on Friday). When they leave the ISS, the Cygnus ships contain only trash, and they burn up during re-entry. They’re expendable, which makes them the perfect place to set a fire.
When the next Cygnus (number OA-6) launches on March 20, it will carry, along with new supplies for the station, the experimental hardware for Saffire-I. A metal box with fans at either end houses a 0.4- by 0.94-meter sheet of SIBAL cloth, a blend of 75 percent cotton and 25 percent fiberglass. Cotton is used in crew clothing, towels, and other cloth items aboard the station, and the fiberglass blend keeps the sample material from ripping and tearing as it burns. The fans will regulate airflow into and out of the fire.
After Cygnus detaches from the station in mid-May, a ground team will turn on power to the Saffire hardware and activate an electronic igniter at one corner of the SIBAL fabric. As the sample burns, instruments will measure temperature, pressure, and concentrations of oxygen and carbon dioxide near the fire. Video cameras will record the shape, growth, and spread of the flames.
The fire should consume the sample fabric and burn itself out in about two hours, but Cygnus will spend another four days in orbit, downlinking to stations on Earth so the researchers can retrieve Saffire’s experimental data before the resupply ship re-enters Earth’s atmosphere and breaks up over the Pacific.
Saffire-II is scheduled to launch on OA-7 in October. With nine smaller samples—including more SIBAL cloth, Nomex, and plexiglass—it will replicate the flammability tests that NASA conducts on Earth. That should help researchers determine how well those tests predict the materials’ flammability in microgravity.
In 2017, Saffire-III will repeat Saffire-I’s large-scale fire, but this time with a stronger airflow. Since airflow is the main factor that influences the size of flames in space, researchers expect to see larger flames in Saffire-III.
The recent BASS-M experiments have helped lay the groundwork for these first three fire experiments, just as they will prepare the way for Saffire-IV through Saffire-VI. These later missions will study how heat and pressure from large fires could affect the rest of the spacecraft cabin, and will give NASA a chance to demonstrate fire suppression technologies that it has spent the last several years developing.