Category Archives: By Daniel Sternklar

This Weird Super-Earth Has An Atmosphere Similar To Ours

The super-Earth 55 Cancri e, at first glance, doesn’t look anything like our planet. It’s twice as big and orbits extremely close to its star, with intense lava flows on the surface.

But in a surprising finding, scientists say that this strange world actually has an atmosphere that’s very similar to ours. The research was published in The Astronomical Journal.

“If there is lava on this planet, it would need to cover the entire surface,” said Renyu Hu from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, a co-author on the study, in a statement. “But the lava would be hidden from our view by the thick atmosphere.”

The planet, located 40 light-years from us, orbits its star at a distance of just 0.016 AU (astronomical units, 1 AU is the distance from Earth to the Sun).

At this distance, its year lasts just 18 hours, and the planet is extremely hot and not habitable for life as we know it. It is tidally locked to its star, which means one side always faces the star. The hot side averages 2,300°C (4,200°F), but the cold side isn’t much better at up to 1,400°C (2,600°F).

Using NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope in 2016, researchers found that lava in lakes on the day side would flow to the night side, where they harden.

However, taking a look at the planet again, they found that despite these unusual characteristics, the planet is likely to have an atmosphere with similar ingredients to ours, but much thicker. It’s thought to contain nitrogen, water, and even oxygen.

They came to this conclusion by looking at the light reflected by the planet. The changes in brightness seen, according to the researchers, is best explained by Earth-like atmospheric ingredients.

The planet even has a similar density to Earth too, so it might be rocky as well – some even suggested the planet was made of diamond, although that theory has been quashed somewhat.

This new research, though, opens up a lot of questions. Why is the atmosphere similar to ours, and why hasn’t the planet’s proximity to its star caused its atmosphere to be blown away?

Understanding this may tell us more about rocky planets in the universe. One thing’s for sure though, no matter how weird a planet looks, you can find some surprisingly Earth-like features.

Read more:

Astronauts Will Have Thanksgiving Feast in Space


Turkey and all the trimmings are a staple for Americans on Thanksgiving, and that doesn’t have to change for Americans in space.

Astronaut food has come a long way from the early days of human spaceflight, and crewmembers on the International Space Station these days can enjoy many Turkey Day traditions, such as cornbread stuffing, yams, mashed potatoes, cherry blueberry cobbler, and, of course, turkey itself.

This year, NASA astronaut Kevin Ford, commander of the space station’s Expedition 34 mission, will celebrate with his Russian crewmates Evgeny Tarelkin and Oleg Novitskiy.

“Thanksgiving is not a holiday that the Russians celebrate, but we have found that on orbit the crewmembers celebrate each others’ holidays,” said Vickie Kloeris, manager of the Space Food Systems Laboratory at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. “They will take part in Kevin Ford’s celebration of Thanksgiving, just as American crewmembers will take part in some of the Russian holidays.”

The space station’s Thanksgiving delicacies will come in somewhat different forms than what may be on most holiday tables, though. Space food falls into two categories: freeze-dried (just add water) or thermostabilized (comes in a pouch). And all food sent to the space station has to meet certain microbiological requirements and have a sufficient shelf life.

For example, the cornbread dressing on offer is a replacement for the traditional bread-based stuffing that many people are used to. However, break makes too many crumbs that float around in all directions in weightlessness and are difficult to clean up.

Still, the current Thanksgiving menu is a huge improvement over what earlier space travelers had available.

“If you want to go all the way back to Mercury and Gemini, there were no holiday meals back then,” Kloeris told “All you had was cube foods and tube foods. We’ve definitely expanded greatly the amount of traditional items that we have made available for holiday times, and that only makes sense because when we started having crewmembers stay on space station long term, we knew every year we’d be hitting Thanksgiving and Christmas with somebody.”

In addition to the standard holiday menu items, each astronaut gets a certain number of “bonus containers” to pack whatever particular foods they’d like, provided they meet the basic requirements. Most pack off-the-shelf products like cookies and other treats.

“We have crewmembers who take icing in tubs and cookies, and they’ll ice them at Christmas time,” Kloeris said. “We’ve even had crewmembers take food coloring so they could color the icing.”

The importance of having traditional holiday foods varies from crewmember to crewmember, she said. “That’s always evident when they go to plan their bonus containers. You immediately know who has the strongest ties to holiday food because they’ll be the first ones to bring up the fact that, ‘Hey, I’m going to be up there at Christmas.'”

Each of the holiday foods that are provided by NASA have made it through a thorough vetting process.

It starts with a basic recipe for, say, cherry blueberry cobbler. Then the NASA food scientists modify the recipe so that it can be packed in pouches, which is similar to canning. After that, they test its texture, color, and taste.

“When it goes through the thermostabilizing process, the chemistry of the food changes quite a bit,” Kloeris said. “Often what happens is we’ll take a formulation and we’ll try it afterwards, and it’s like, ‘No, that’s not acceptable.'”

The scientists often have to go through many iterations of a recipe, including scaling it up so it still tastes good if made in large batches, before a food is ready for orbit. And some recipes just never quite make it.

“We tried for a while to come up with thermostabilized cheesecake, and we just flat gave up on it,” Kloeris said. “The color changes we got were just too severe. Not everything works.”

But other foods that are stereotypically associated with space are actually rarely eaten there.

“The freeze-dried ice cream actually only flew once” on an Apollo mission, when a crewmember requested it, Kloeris said. “It’s more like hard cotton candy. Certainly if [astronauts] wanted to request that they could, but that’s not something that adults want. Kids like it; they sell it at the gift shop.”

This article originally published at

Read more:

New Planetary Model Suggests More Gas Giant Planets Are Yet To Be Found

The gas giant exoplanets we have discovered so far seem very different from Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. Now, however, a new model suggests a way for gas giant planets to form, and in the process indicates theres a large population of exoplanetsthatwe haveyet to find.

The new approach, published in the Astrophysical Journal, is proposed by Alan Boss of the Carnegie Institute for Science and hopes to clarify where gas giants can form around a star.

These exogiants tend toeither orbit very close to their stars and have incredibly high temperatures or they are found very far away from the star, at least dozens of times the distance between the Earth and the Sunthe so-called astronomical unit (AU).

The discovery of exoplanets are biased by the limited meanswe have to look for them, but the lack of similar gas giants in the Solar System has madeastronomers question whetherall Jupiter-like planets in all the galaxies form in the same way.

Two ideas have been put forward to explain gas giants. The first suggests they form like rocky planets by slowly acquiring material as they move around their star. The second one, called disk instability, suggests they form rapidly due to instabilities in the protoplanetary disk thatsurrounds newborn stars.

The first idea cant explain gas giantsthatare too far from their star, and the second one cant explain gas giants thatare closer than 20 AU. Jupiter is located 5.4 AU from the Sun and Neptune is 30. Either proposed scenario is not ideal to explain our local gas giants.

Given the existence of gas giant planets on such wide orbits, disk instability or something similar must be involved in the creation of at least some exoplanets, Boss said in a statement.However, whether or not this method could create closer-orbiting gas giant planets remains unanswered.

By includingdifferent cooling mechanisms, Bosssuggests that disk instabilities are actually possible between 6 AU and 16 AU under certain conditions. Clearly, the existence of Jupiter and the other gas planets tells us that there must be a way, even ifwe dont know what it is yet.

Astronomers have also suggested that planets might migrate inwards over time. This could explain the current Solar System, although it requires a more complex scenario than just gas giants can form at almost every distance.

An upcoming NASA mission, the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope, will hopefully provide the necessary observations to test Boss’ model and maybe in the process find these missing gas giants.

Read more:

Could We Colonize Mars?

Sending humans to Mars is something that many are hopeful will happen in the next few decades, possibly by the 2040s,according to NASA. But what chance do we have of actually living on Mars permanently one day?

In the second episode of the “Further” series(the first one was on aliens), former astronaut Jeffrey Hoffman discusses the possibility of us one day colonizing Mars. If humanity can, some day, establish a presence on more than one planet, weve really increased our chances of longterm survival, he says.

Early Martian explorers might face a unique psychological test in being so far from Earth, according to Hoffman. But perhaps they will have a unique goal to turn Mars back into the habitable environment it was once thought to be, with a thick atmosphere and liquid water on the surface, via a process known as terraforming.

The video imagines a future Martian explorer using a large facility to heat the Martian core, giving it back the atmosphere we know was lost. Hoffman notes, though, that this is farbeyond the realms of what is possible with current technologies.

Thats beyond anything that we can imagine today, he said. But I never like to say never because what our technologies will be like a thousand years in the future, I cant even imagine.

Check out the video below.

Read more:

Solar Storms Cause Enormous X-Ray Aurorae On Jupiter

Everything is bigger on Jupiter, and that includes aurorae, also known as northern or southern lights. Now, a study of Jovinian aurorae coinciding with the arrival of a solar storm has, for the first time, witnessed X-ray aurorae that outshine those on Earth hundreds of times.

Aurorae result from interactions between the solar wind and a planet’s magnetic field. Charged particles pushed out by the Sun disturb magnetospheric plasma. The shape of the magnetic field funnels these particles towards the north and south magnetic poles. When these charged particles encounter the upper atmosphere, they excite the atoms and molecules they encounter, leading to spectacular light shows.

Jupiter is five times Earth’s distance from the Sun, so it experiences a weakened solar wind. On the other hand, its enormous magnetic field dwarfs that of the Earth. Even when the Sun is not particularly active, this can lead to impressive aurorae, which made astronomerswonder what would happen when a major solar storm sent its charged particles straight towards Jupiter.

“There’s a constant power struggle between the solar wind and Jupiter’s magnetosphere, said William Dunn, a Ph.D. student at University College London, in a statement. We want to understand this interaction and what effect it has on the planet. By studying how the aurora changes, we can discover more about the region of space controlled by Jupiter’s magnetic field, and if or how this is influenced by the Sun. Understanding this relationship is important for the countless magnetic objects across the galaxy, including exoplanets, brown dwarfs and neutron stars.”

X-ray emissions viewed by the Chandra space telescope overlaid on Hubble telescope photographs of Jupiter during and after the arrival of a powerful coronal mass ejection. Joseph DePasquale, Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory Chandra X-ray Center

In the Journal of Geophysical Research Space Physics, Dunn described observations of a coronal mass ejection (CME) that hit Jupiter in October 2011. Despite the delay in analyzing what occurred, the paper is well timed. The Juno spacecraft will arrive at Jupiter in July, having been launched not long before the storms investigated in this paper occurred.

Among Juno’s many goals is the study of Jupiter’s magnetosphere, andDunn’s work will give its operators ideas on what to look for.

Dunn’s study follows the discovery of X-ray emissions on Jupiter in the 1980s, followed by the identification in 2002 of a polar X-ray hotspot. The impact of the solar wind particleshugely accelerated by Jupiter’s magnetic fieldon the atmosphere is so powerful, it causes the release of X-rays that are visible from the Chandra X-ray telescope in Earth orbit.

With the arrival of the CME, the X-rays became eight times as powerful as previous observations, and the hotspot’s pulsing sped upfrom a period of 45 minutes to 26 minutes.

There has been debate as to whether the ions that cause the X-ray discharge comeinitiallyfrom the solar wind, or if they were previously part of the magnetosphere disturbed by an increase in wind strength. By measuring the dominant frequencies of the X-rays, Dunn found strong evidence of sulfur, which is common in Jupiter’s atmosphere. However, he detected enough carbon to suggest some of the ions came from the solar wind, of which carbon is a major component.

Photo Gallery

Read more:

Why The Earths Magnetic Poles Could Be About To Swap Places And How It Would affect Us

The ConversationThe Earths magnetic field surrounds our planet like an invisible force field protecting life from harmful solar radiation by deflecting charged particles away. Far from being constant, this field is continuously changing. Indeed, our planets history includes at least several hundred global magnetic reversals, where north and south magnetic poles swap places. So whens the next one happening and how will it affect life on Earth?

During a reversal the magnetic field wont be zero, but will assume a weaker and more complex form. It may fall to 10% of the present-day strength and have magnetic poles at the equator or even the simultaneous existence of multiple north and south magnetic poles.

Geomagnetic reversals occur a few times every million years on average. However, the interval between reversals is very irregular and can range up to tens of millions of years.

There can also be temporary and incomplete reversals, known as events and excursions, in which the magnetic poles move away from the geographic poles perhaps even crossing the equator before returning back to their original locations. The last full reversal, the Brunhes-Matuyama, occurred around 780,000 years ago. A temporary reversal, the Laschamp event, occurred around 41,000 years ago. It lasted less than 1,000 years with the actual change of polarity lasting around 250 years.

Power cut or mass extinction?

The alteration in the magnetic field during a reversal will weaken its shielding effect, allowing heightened levels of radiation on and above the Earths surface. Were this to happen today, the increase in charged particles reaching the Earth would result in increased risks for satellites, aviation, and ground-based electrical infrastructure. Geomagnetic storms, driven by the interaction of anomalously large eruptions of solar energy with our magnetic field, give us a foretaste of what we can expect with a weakened magnetic shield.

In 2003, the so-called Halloween storm caused local electricity-grid blackouts in Sweden, required the rerouting of flights to avoid communication blackout and radiation risk, and disrupted satellites and communication systems. But this storm was minor in comparison with other storms of the recent past, such as the 1859 Carrington event, which caused aurorae as far south as the Caribbean.

Aurora borealis. Soerfm/wikipedia, CC BY-SA

The impact of a major storm on todays electronic infrastructure is not fully known. Of course any time spent without electricity, heating, air conditioning, GPS or internet would have a major impact; widespread blackouts could result in economic disruption measuring in tens of billions of dollars a day.

In terms of life on Earth and the direct impact of a reversal on our species we cannot definitively predict what will happen as modern humans did not exist at the time of the last full reversal. Several studies have tried to link past reversals with mass extinctions suggesting some reversals and episodes of extended volcanism could be driven by a common cause. However, there is no evidence of any impending cataclysmic volcanism and so we would only likely have to contend with the electromagnetic impact if the field does reverse relatively soon.

We do know that many animal species have some form of magnetoreception that enables them to sense the Earths magnetic field. They may use this to assist in long-distance navigation during migration. But it is unclear what impact a reversal might have on such species. What is clear is that early humans did manage to live through the Laschamp event and life itself has survived the hundreds of full reversals evidenced in the geologic record.

Can we predict geomagnetic reversals?

The simple fact that we are overdue for a full reversal and the fact that the Earths field is currently decreasing at a rate of 5% per century, has led to suggestions that the field may reverse within the next 2,000 years. But pinning down an exact date at least for now will be difficult.

Magnetic reversal. NASA.

The Earths magnetic field is generated within the liquid core of our planet, by the slow churning of molten iron. Like the atmosphere and oceans, the way in which it moves is governed by the laws of physics. We should therefore be able to predict the weather of the core by tracking this movement, just like we can predict real weather by looking at the atmosphere and ocean. A reversal can then be likened to a particular type of storm in the core, where the dynamics and magnetic field go haywire (at least for a short while), before settling down again.

The difficulties of predicting the weather beyond a few days are widely known, despite us living within and directly observing the atmosphere. Yet predicting the Earths core is a far more difficult prospect, principally because it is buried beneath 3,000km of rock such that our observations are scant and indirect. However, we are not completely blind: we know the major composition of the material inside the core and that it is liquid. A global network of ground-based observatories and orbiting satellites also measure how the magnetic field is changing, which gives us insight into how the liquid core is moving.

The recent discovery of a jet-stream within the core highlights our evolving ingenuity and increasing ability to measure and infer the dynamics of the core. Coupled with numerical simulations and laboratory experiments to study the fluid dynamics of the planets interior, our understanding is developing at a rapid rate. The prospect of being able to forecast the Earths core is perhaps not too far out of reach.

Phil Livermore, Associate Professor of geophysics, University of Leeds and Jon Mound, Associate Professor of Geophysics, University of Leeds

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Read more:

UK Artists and Scientists Launch Space Junk Awareness Project

Humans pollute wherever they go, so its not much of a surprise that even outer space is littered with the remains of used rockets, satellite fragments, a lost camera, and even a spatula. The debris is moving at the staggering velocity of 8 kilometers (5 miles) per second and even a tiny bit is extremely dangerous.

A group of British scientists and artists have got togetherto raise awareness of the increasing problem of space junk and started Adrift, an online interactive project that combines short documentaries, an art installation, and twitter bots to familiarized people with the pollution 225 kilometers (140 miles) above our heads.

Tackling the problem of space debris is one of humankinds greatest environmental challenges, but it is also perhaps the one that is the least known, Dr Hugh Lewis, Head of Astronautics Research at the University of Southampton and member of the advisory board of Adrift, told the press.

Its that the actions of our generation may affect the dreams and ambitions of future generations to work and live in space.

There are over 100 million pieces of debris orbiting in space and they are a risk to satellites and astronauts alike. And yet, neither space junk nor space debris truly captures the variety of whats out there. Now twoaward-winning artists, Cath Le Couteur and Nick Ryan, along with creative technologist Daniel Jones have combined data from NASA (which monitors the 27,000 items of debris larger than 10cm [4 inches]) and created three interactive tweet bots.

Theres Vanguard, the oldest piece of space debris and the second US satellite, which has been orbiting our planet since 1958. Theres alsoFengyun, one of the 150,000 fragments of a Chinese weather satellite, which was intentionally destroyed in 2007 and will burn up in the atmosphere on January 1, 2017. And finally, theres SuitSat, an empty Russian spacesuit equipped with a radio transmitter that communicated with radio amateurs in 2006. Suitsat is actually a ghost as it burnt down only afew months after it was released.

Adrift Machine 9 launch film 720p from on Vimeo.

Ryan is also responsible for Machine 9, an electromechanical sound instrument that transforms the movement of the 27,000 tracked pieces of space debris into sound in real time. The machine is a large aluminum cylinder that has 1,000 sounds engraved like grooves on a record, played by eight styluses activated by the data from NASA.

Le Couteur is responsible for a new short documentary about the varied world of space junk and space junk hunters. It talks about the space spatula lost by astronaut Piers Sellers of the Collowara Observatory (the first observatory in South America to be founded and run by women)as well as featuring haunting footage of space debris falling out of the sky in Thailand.

The full project can be seen on the Adrift website and it is supported by The Space, a BBC Arts Council-funded initiative.

Adrift – the hidden world of space junk. from Cath Le Couteur on Vimeo.

Read more:

New Object Discovered Near Famous Supermassive Black Hole

Astronomers using the Very Large Array (VLA) have spotted a curious object orbiting Cygnus A, a famous supermassive black hole and one of the strongest sources of radio waves in the universe.

The new discovery, accepted in the Astrophysical Journal, is a bright object close to the galaxy core and was spotted whena new emission of radio waves appeared. The culprit is either an extremely rare example of a supernova or, more likely, a second supermassive black hole. If the object is indeed another supermassive black hole, we might have missed the whole picture of Cygnus A.

This new object may have much to tell us about the history of this galaxy, lead author Daniel Perley, of the Astrophysics Research Institute of Liverpool John Moores University, said in a statement.

He added: Further observations will help us resolve some of these questions. In addition, if this is a secondary black hole, we may be able to find others in similar galaxies.

The presence of a second black hole indicates that Cygnus A experienced a collision with another galaxy in the recent cosmic past. The object is only 1,500 light-years away from the central black hole, and if its nature is confirmed,this would be the closest pair of supermassive black holes ever discovered.

GIF showing the 1989and 2015 observations of Cygnus A. The new object is under the right beam from the central black hole.Perley, et al., NRAO/AUI/NSF, NASA

More observations are necessary to actually confirm what the object is. Until then, astronomers are looking for other explanations, for example an incredibly powerful supernova. The supernova hypothesis is unlikely because the source seems to be very bright and long-lasting, factors thatgo against expected supernova behavior.

The object was detected in the latest observations of Cygnus A, which is over800 million light-years away. Being such an incredibly bright object, Cygnus A has been observed many times by many instruments since it was discovered in 1939. It was also an early target for the VLA when it opened in the 1980s and it has been observed again in 1996. Only one radio source, the central supermassive black hole, was ever seen.

The region was also observed both by Hubble and the Keck observatory, which considered it a dense agglomeration of stars. Its only in the latest observation campaign from 2015/2016 that the new source appears. If its a black hole, it means that its feeding.

To our surprise, we found a prominent new feature near the galaxys nucleus that did not appear in any previous published images, Rick Perley from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory added. That means it must have turned on sometime between 1996 and now.

Soon enough, the mystery of the Cygnus As companion wont be much of a mystery.

Read more:

Beauty Of The Cosmos Revealed In Stunning Astronomy Photographer Of The Year 2016 Images

The winners of the Insight Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2016 have been announced at the Royal Observatory, and the judges had quite the challenge in picking between the thousands of spectacular photographsentered in the competition from around the world.

The overall winner is an incredible eclipse of the Sun picture by Chinese astrophotographer Yu Jun, shown above, which shows the so-called Bailys Beads. This is an effect where therugged surface of the Moon lets some beads of sunlight through during the eclipse. Jun composed the winning piece by stacking up several images of the total eclipse that occurred on March 9, 2016 in Luwuck, Indonesia.

This is such a visually striking image, with its succession of fiery arcs all perfectly balanced around the pitch black circle of totality, said competition judge and Royal Observatory Public Astronomer Dr Marek Kukula in a statement.

Its even more impressive when you realize what it shows: the progress of a solar eclipse, all compressed into a single frame with consummate skill and precision. A tremendous achievement that pushes the boundaries of what modern astrophotography can achieve.

Yuns picture is in great company. Among the winners, in the category Skyscape, we find the “Binary Haze” by UK photographer Ainsley Bennet who captured a countryside scene where the mist amplifies the brightness of Venus and the crescent Moon.

Binary Haze by Ainsley Bennet.Royal Observatory Greenwichs Astronomy Photographer of the Year2016/National Maritime Museum

In the category People and Space, the winner was Wing Ka Ho, from Hong Kong, with “City Lights”. This is a great picture of star-trails among skyscrapers, which shows that you can engage in astronomy even ina light-polluted metropolis.

In the same category, there was A Wise Son Makes a Glad Father, where a Maasai warrior teaches astronomy to his son. The picture, shot by Robin Stuart from Kenya, was highly commended by the judging panel.

City Lights by Wing Ka Ho. Royal Observatory Greenwichs Astronomy Photographer of the Year2016/National Maritime Museum

A Wise Son Makes a Glad Father by Robin Stuart. Royal Observatory Greenwichs Astronomy Photographer of the Year2016/National Maritime Museum

The winner of Stars & Nebula is British photographer Steve Brown with The Rainbow Star, a pop-art inspired composition of video frames of Sirius, which has the interesting habit offlashing with hues of different colors due to interference in the atmosphere.

There were so many fantastic images this year, saidBBC Sky at Night Magazines Editor Chris Bramley, who was a judge for the competition, in the statement.

The winning entries, and indeed the whole field, show that the entrants’ technical abilities and creative eye have never been sharper. They capture the quiet, majestic beauty of the night sky above a world thats increasingly frenetic and light-polluted.

The Rainbow Star by Steve Brown. Royal Observatory Greenwichs Astronomy Photographer of the Year2016/National Maritime Museum

Another image worth mentioning is “Lunar Reversal” by Brendan Devine, who won the Young Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2016. The Chicago teenager took a great picture of theMoon and then reversed it, producing a unique view of our satellite thathighlights several features we often miss in traditional photos.

Lunar Reversal by Brendan Devine. Royal Observatory Greenwichs Astronomy Photographer of the Year2016/National Maritime Museum

An exhibition with all the photos will take place within the Royal Observatory in Greenwichfrom September 17, 2016 to June 28, 2017. More information is available on the Astronomy Photographer competition website.

Read more: