A research collaboration involving scientists from the UK, Canada, Sweden, and Australia has analyzed an ancient rock sample brought from the Moon to Earth by the Apollo 17 astronauts more than 50 years ago. By using modern techniques, which were simply not available at the time the samples were originally collected, the team was able to determine the rock sample’s age, from which crater it came, and its geological trajectory. It turns out that this rock is very, very old -- around 4.2 billion years old. That’s only about 350 million years younger than the entire Solar System.
Welcome to the night sky report for June 2021 -- Your guide to the constellations, deep sky objects, planets, and celestial events that are observable during the month. Though the nights are shorter in June, they are filled with fine sights. Look for the Hercules constellation, which will lead you to a globular star cluster with hundreds of thousands of densely packed stars. You can also spot Draco the dragon, which will point you to the Cat’s Eye Nebula. Catch Saturn and Jupiter in the morning and the constellation Scorpius after dark. Plus skywatchers in the Northeast US, Eastern Canada, and Northern Europe can see a partial solar eclipse on June 10th.
In 2018, Cornell researchers built a high-powered detector that set a world record by tripling the resolution of a state-of-the-art electron microscope. As successful as it was, that approach had a weakness -- It only worked with ultrathin samples that were a few atoms thick. Anything thicker would cause the electrons to scatter in ways that could not be disentangled. Now a Cornell team has bested its own record by a factor of two with an electron microscope pixel array detector that incorporates even more sophisticated 3D reconstruction algorithms, resulting in an ultra-precise image with picometer (one-trillionth of a meter) precision. The resolution is so fine-tuned that the only blurring that remains is the thermal jiggling of the atoms themselves.
Using South Africa’s MeerKAT Radio Telescope, astronomers from the Italian National Institute of Astrophysics (INAF) in Rome and the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy (MPIfR) in Bonn, Germany, have discovered new millisecond pulsars hidden deep inside globular clusters. Millisecond pulsars are extremely compact stars mainly made up of neutrons and are amongst the most extreme objects in the Universe. They pack hundreds of thousands of times the mass of the Earth in a sphere with a diameter of about 24 km. They spin at very high rates and emit a beam of radio waves that hit an observer at every rotation, like a lighthouse. Millisecond pulsars spin at truly breathtaking speeds -- rates of up to 700 times per second, which means that these stars are spinning at a staggering 42,000 revolutions per minute. To put this in context, a Ferrari Formula 1 race car engine has a maximum internal engine rotational speed of 15,000 rpm.
Sixty years ago today, astronaut Alan B. Shepard, Jr. became the first American in space. At exactly 9:34 AM EST on May 5, 1961, about 45 million Americans sat tensely in front of their black and white television sets and watched a slim Redstone booster rocket with a small and cramped Mercury spacecraft manned by Alan Shepard, lift off its pad at Cape Canaveral and go roaring upward through the clear blue sky. Shepard's capsule, named Freedom 7, made an historic 15 minute suborbital flight, officially kicking off manned Project Mercury flights. With six manned flights from 1961 to 1963, Project Mercury's objectives were very specific: 1) to orbit a manned spacecraft around Earth, 2) to investigate man's ability to function in space, and 3) to recover both man and spacecraft safely -- a set of objectives it achieved with flying colors, thus opening the door for Projects Gemini and Apollo later in the decade.
Welcome to the night sky report for May 2021 -- Your guide to the constellations, deep sky objects, planets, and celestial events that are observable during the month. In May, we are looking away from the crowded, dusty plane of our own galaxy, toward a region where the sky is brimming with distant galaxies. Locate Virgo to find a concentration of roughly 2000 galaxies and search for Coma Berenices to identify many more. Key deep sky objects this month are galaxies like M104 (the Sombrero Galaxy), M87, and M64 (the Black Eye Galaxy). At the beginning of the month, the bright planet Saturn will appear to the left of the half-lit Moon and the Moon will form a large triangle with the bright planets Saturn and Jupiter. Around the middle of May you will have an opportunity to see all three of the rocky inner planets (Mercury, Venus, and Mars) at the same time. At the end of the month, look for a total lunar eclipse.
Combined results from Fermilab and Brookhaven show strong evidence that our best theoretical model of the subatomic world, the Standard Model of Particle Physics, is incomplete. The Standard Model took a long time to build. Physicist J.J. Thomson discovered the electron in 1897 and scientists at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) found the final piece of the puzzle, the Higgs boson, in 2012. According to the Standard Model, all ordinary matter, including every atom in the periodic table of elements, consists of only three types of matter particles: up and down quarks (which make up the protons and neutrons in the nucleus) and leptons (which include the electrons that surround the nucleus). The model also explains how force carrying particles, which belong to a broader group of bosons, influence the quarks and leptons. That’s basically it. Despite its success at explaining the Universe, the Standard Model does have limits. For example, the Higgs boson gives mass to quarks, charged leptons (like electrons), and the W and Z bosons, however, we do not yet know whether the Higgs boson also gives mass to neutrinos, those ghostly particles that interact very rarely with other matter in the Universe. Now, results from the “Muon g-2 Experiment” at Fermilab seem to indicate that a new particle (or force) is showing itself by interacting with muons in an unexpected way.
Sixty Years ago, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Alexseyevich Gagarin became the first human in space. On April 12, 1961, his remotely controlled Vostok 1 spacecraft lofted him to an altitude of about 200 miles and carried him once around the planet. The world learned about the first manned flight into space through a brief communiqué from the Soviet TASS News Agency. Mercury astronaut Alan Shepard became the first American in space less than a month later.
Apophis was discovered on June 19, 2004, by astronomers at the Kitt Peak National Observatory in Tucson, Arizona. Estimated to be about 1,100 feet (340 meters) across, Apophis quickly gained notoriety as an asteroid that could pose a serious threat to Earth, when astronomers predicted that it would come uncomfortably close in 2029. Thanks to additional observations of the Near-Earth Object (NEO), the risk of an impact in 2029 was later ruled out, as was the potential impact risk posed by another close approach in 2036. Until this month, however, a small chance of impact in 2068 still remained. But when Apophis made a distant flyby of Earth around March 5, 2021, astronomers took the opportunity to use powerful radar observations to refine the estimate of its orbit around the Sun with extreme precision, enabling them to confidently rule out any impact risk in 2068. Now, there is no risk of Apophis impacting our planet for at least a century.
Welcome to the night sky report for April 2021 -- Your guide to the constellations, deep sky objects, planets, and celestial events that are observable during the month. Clear April nights are filled with starry creatures. Near the Big Dipper, you will find several interesting binary stars. You can also spot galaxies like the Pinwheel Galaxy, M82, and M96—the last of which is an asymmetric galaxy that may have been gravitationally disrupted by encounters with its neighbors.
In 2017, the first interstellar object from beyond our solar system was discovered via the Pan-STARRS astronomical observatory in Hawaii. It was named ‘Oumuamua, meaning "scout" or "messenger" in Hawaiian. The object was like a comet, but with features that were just odd enough to defy classification. Two Arizona State University astrophysicists, Steven Desch and Alan Jackson of the School of Earth and Space Exploration, set out to explain the odd features of ‘Oumuamua and have determined that it is likely a piece of a Pluto-like planet from another solar system.
Scientists have long theorized that supermassive black holes can wander through space, but catching them in the act has proven difficult. Now, researchers at the Center for Astrophysics - Harvard & Smithsonian have identified the clearest case to date of a supermassive black hole in motion. Further observations will ultimately be needed to pin down the true cause of this supermassive black hole's unusual motion.
Welcome to the night sky report for March 2021 -- Your guide to the constellations, deep sky objects, planets, and celestial events that are observable during the month. In March, the stars of Spring lie eastward. Look for the constellations Gemini and Cancer to spot interesting celestial features like star clusters M35 and the Beehive Cluster (M44), as well as NGC 3923, an oblong elliptical galaxy with an interesting ripple pattern. Look for Mars close to the Pleiades in the first couple of weeks of March. Then wake up early to observe the giant planets Jupiter and Saturn, which return as morning planets this month.
Scientists understand that Earth's magnetic field has flipped its polarity many times over the millennia. Many doomsday theorists have tried to take this natural geological occurrence and suggest it could lead to Earth's destruction. But really, would there be any dramatic effects? Well, yes -- The temporary breakdown of Earth’s magnetic field 42,000 years ago sparked major climate shifts that led to global environmental change and mass extinctions, according to a new international study co-led by the University of New South Wales (UNSW) Sydney and the South Australian Museum. This dramatic turning point in Earth’s history – laced with electrical storms, widespread auroras, and cosmic radiation – was triggered by the reversal of Earth’s magnetic poles and changing solar winds. While the magnetic poles often wander, some scientists are particularly concerned about the current rapid movement of the north magnetic pole across the Northern Hemisphere. The speed – along with the weakening of Earth’s magnetic field by around nine percent in the past 170 years – could indicate an upcoming reversal. If a similar event happened today, the consequences would be huge for modern society. Beyond the obvious dangers like sharp increases in UV levels affecting all land-based life forms, a flood of incoming cosmic radiation would destroy our electric power grids and satellite networks.
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