The universe is 13.77 billion years old – or is it? The age of the universe is closely related to the so-called Hubble Constant, which measures the current expansion rate of the universe. A higher Hubble Constant means the universe expands faster and is therefore younger, while a more slowly expanding universe is older. The various measurements of the Hubble Constant have become more and more precise in recent years, but have revealed a puzzling observation: different experiments have given different values of the Hubble Constant and consequently different answers about how old our universe is. What is even more puzzling is that rather than converging on a common end value, these measurements seem to now be diverging. Something is not quite right. This discrepancy has been dubbed the “Hubble Tension.” In the latest findings, the tension has now passed the important 5-sigma threshold that physicists use to distinguish between possible statistical flukes and something that is real and must be explained. Reaching this new statistical level highlights the challenges for both theorists and astrophysicists and could lead to new physics beyond the Standard Model of Cosmology.
Astronomers around the world were captivated by an unusually bright and long-lasting pulse of high-energy radiation that swept over the Earth on October 9, 2022. The emission came from a Gamma-Ray Burst (GRB) – the most powerful class of explosions in the universe – and ranks as the most luminous event ever recorded. A Gamma-Ray Burst is a super energetic explosion and this one originated in the constellation Sagitta. The signal of the burst – called GRB 221009A – was picked up by many observatories. Some suddenly noticed an increase in their detection of high-energy emissions. Others were pointed towards the source soon thereafter. The event took place some 1.9 billion years ago and likely indicates the birth of a black hole. The GRB provided an unexpected occasion for different NASA and ESA missions to come together and study the same astronomical event.
75 years ago today, on October 14, 1947, Charles E. “Chuck” Yeager became the first man to fly faster than the speed of sound when he piloted his X-1 rocket plane to a speed of Mach 1.06, or 700 mph. During World War II, Chuck Yeager distinguished himself in aerial combat over France and Germany during the years 1943-1945 by shooting down 13 enemy aircraft, including one of Germany's first jet fighters. In July 1966 he assumed command of the 405th Fighter Wing at Clark Air Base in the Philippines and flew 127 missions Vietnam. All in all, Chuck Yeager flew more than 10,000 hours in more than 361 different makes and models of military aircraft. In addition to the Collier Trophy, which he received in 1948 for breaking the sound barrier, he was awarded the MacKay Trophy in 1948 and the Harmon International Trophy in 1954.
This year, the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine went to Svante Pääbo, Director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. Dr. Pääbo is no stranger to readers of Astromart News, as we have followed his work in early human genomics since 2009 when he and his team generated a first draft sequence for more than 60 percent of the Neanderthal genome. In 2014, his team succeeded in deciphering nearly 100 percent of the Neanderthal genome. This made a comparison with the genomes of today's humans possible. When Pääbo's team first published the Neanderthal mitochondrial genome, nothing seemed to indicate an exchange of genes between modern day humans and Neanderthals when they coexisted in close proximity. However, when Pääbo succeeded in deciphering the nuclear Neanderthal genome, it became clear that Neanderthals passed on large parts of their genome to modern humans. It turns out that one to three percent of the genomes of people living outside of Africa today stem from Neanderthals. An interesting side note -- Svante Pääbo's father, Sune Bergström, received the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine in 1982.
History changed 65 years ago today, on October 4, 1957, when the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik 1. The world's first artificial satellite was about the size of a beach ball -- about 23 inches in diameter -- and weighed less than 190 pounds. It took about 98 minutes to orbit the Earth on its elliptical path. That single launch ushered in a whole array of new political, military, technological, and scientific developments in the years that followed. While the Sputnik launch was a single event, it marked the start of the Space Age… and the US - USSR space race. While President Eisenhower congratulated the Soviets and tried to downplay the importance of the accomplishment, he misjudged the public reaction to the event. The launch of Sputnik 1 had a "Pearl Harbor-like" effect on the American public psyche. It was a shock that exposed a significant technological gap in US capabilities and in the years to come, provided the necessary impetus for increased spending in aerospace endeavors, technical and scientific educational programs, and the chartering of new federal agencies to manage air and space research and development.
55 years ago today, on October 3, 1967, William John “Pete” Knight set a world aircraft speed record for a manned aircraft by piloting his X-15A-2 to Mach 6.7 or 4520 miles per hour (7274 km/h) -- a record that still stands today. During his 16 flights in the X-15, Knight also became one of only eight test pilots to earn Astronaut Wings by flying an airplane to space, reaching an altitude of 280,500 feet (85,500 m). After nearly ten years of test flying at Edwards Air Force Base in California, Knight went to Southeast Asia in 1968 where he completed a total of 253 combat missions in an F-100 Super Saber during the Vietnam War. After 32 years of service and more than 6000 hours in the cockpits of more than 100 different aircraft, he retired from the US Air Force as a Colonel in 1982. Pete Knight was a test pilot, aeronautical engineer, Vietnam War combat pilot, astronaut, and even for a short time, a politician. Knight passed away in 2004 at age 74, truly an American hero… As were the rest of the brave test pilots who participated in the X-15 program.
Welcome to the night sky report for October 2022 -- Your guide to the constellations, deep sky objects, planets, and celestial events that are observable during the month. Enjoy the two giant planets Jupiter and Saturn all night throughout the month. Then watch as Mars begins its retrograde motion, moving westward each night instead of eastward, for the next few months. Finally, check out the Orionid meteors overnight on Oct. 20th. The crisp, clear October nights are also full of celestial showpieces for the deep sky gazer too. Find Pegasus, the flying horse of Greek myth, to pinpoint dense globular star clusters and galaxies. Look for M15, NGC 7331, and M31 - the Andromeda Galaxy. The night sky is truly a celestial showcase. Get outside and explore its wonders from your own backyard.
How many intelligent civilizations should there be in our galaxy right now? In 1961, the US astrophysicist Frank Drake, who passed away on September 2, 2022 at the age of 92, came up with an equation to estimate this. Whatever reasonable values you feed into the equation, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that we shouldn’t be alone in the galaxy. Drake remained a proponent and a supporter of the search for extraterrestrial life throughout his days. Today, there are about 100 scientists at the SETI Institute working on nearly 100 research questions and each of these topics can be related to one of the terms in the Drake Equation.
On August 31, 2022, a delegation of National Science Foundation leaders, congressional dignitaries, and members of both the scientific and Native Hawaiian communities gathered near the summit of Haleakalā, Maui, Hawaii, to commemorate the inauguration of the world’s most powerful solar telescope -- The NSF’s Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope. It promises to reveal the Sun in ways never seen before and the images and data that will be produced by the Inouye Solar Telescope will write the next chapters of solar physics research. The inauguration put a stamp on an ambitious, multi-decade project to provide the world with its greatest solar observatory and marked the beginning of the Inouye Solar Telescope’s 50-year journey to revolutionize our understanding of the Sun, its magnetic behavior, and its influence on Earth.
Welcome to the night sky report for September 2022 -- Your guide to the constellations, deep sky objects, planets, and celestial events that are observable during the month. In September, Pegasus becomes increasingly prominent in the southeastern sky, allowing stargazers to locate globular clusters M2 (NGC 7089), M30 (NGC 7099), as well as a nearby double star, Alpha Capricorni, which is an optical double (but not a binary pair). Also, Mars on the move during the month and it is prime viewing time for Jupiter. The night sky is truly a celestial showcase, so get outside and explore its wonders from your own backyard.
It’s been 50 years since humans last visited the Moon, and even robotic missions have been few and far between. But the Earth’s only natural satellite is about to get crowded. At least six countries and a flurry of private companies have publicly announced multiple missions to the Moon to occur within the next decade. Many of these missions include plans for permanent lunar bases and are motivated in large part by ambitions to assess and begin utilizing the Moon’s natural resources. In the short term, resources would be used to support lunar missions, but in the long term, the Moon and its resources will be a critical gateway for missions to the broader riches of the Solar System. But these lofty ambitions collide with a looming legal question. The Outer Space Treaty – the 60-year-old agreement that guides human activity in space – forbids nations from claiming territory in space. This limitation includes the Moon, planets, and asteroids. So how will space resources be managed?
It was 45 years ago today, August 20, 1977, that NASA launched the Voyager 2 spacecraft on its historic mission to Jupiter and Saturn (and beyond). To double the chances of success, its twin spacecraft Voyager 1 was launched about a half month later on September 5, 1977. As originally designed, the Voyager twins were to conduct close-up studies of Jupiter and Saturn, Saturn's rings, and the larger moons of the two planets. But in the end, they accomplished much, much, more. In fact, the Voyagers are still exploring where nothing from Earth has flown before. To this day, the twin Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft continue on their 45 year journey. In August 2012, Voyager 1 made the historic entry into interstellar space, the region between stars that is filled with material ejected by the death of nearby stars millions of years ago. Voyager 2 entered interstellar space on November 5, 2018. Both spacecraft are still sending scientific information about their surroundings through the Deep Space Network (DSN). After making a string of discoveries on Jupiter and Saturn, their missions were extended. Voyager 2 went on to explore Uranus and Neptune, and is still the only spacecraft to have visited those outer planets. The two Voyagers, still active after all these years, will continue to explore the outermost edges of the Sun's domain and beyond until their power sources run out and NASA loses contact.
The size of Comet Bernardinelli-Bernstein, the largest icy comet nucleus ever seen by astronomers, has been determined by measurements made with the Hubble Space Telescope. The estimated diameter is approximately 85 miles across, making it larger than the state of Rhode Island. The nucleus is about 50 times larger than that found in most known comets. Its mass is estimated to be a staggering 500 trillion tons -- a hundred thousand times greater than the mass of a typical comet. Comet Bernardinelli-Bernstein follows a 3 million year long elliptical orbit, taking it as far from the Sun as roughly half a light-year. The comet is now less than 2 billion miles from the Sun and falling nearly perpendicular to the plane of our Solar System. It will never get closer than 1 billion miles away from the Sun, which is slightly farther than the distance of the planet Saturn… And that won't occur until the year 2031.
Astronomers estimate that there should be 100 million black holes roaming among the 100 billion stars in our galaxy. They are the remnants of supernova explosions that happened throughout the 10 billion years of the history of our galaxy. But since black holes emit no light of their own, they are extremely difficult to detect. Now, astronomers have at last come up with clear evidence for finding one in a needle-in-a-haystack search among a blizzard of stars seen toward the galactic center. Researchers from the Niels Bohr Institute (NBI), University of Copenhagen, contributed to the discovery, using the Danish 1.54 meter telescope at European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) La Silla observatory in Chile.
Welcome to the night sky report for August 2022 -- Your guide to the constellations, deep sky objects, planets, and celestial events that are observable during the month. The daily parade of four naked-eye planets in the mornings comes to an end this month. But there are still lots of great highlights, especially if you have access to binoculars. Plus, Saturn and Jupiter are returning to nighttime skies. In August, a flock of star-studded figures soars overhead. Look for the constellation Lyra, shaped as a small parallelogram, which points to Epsilon Lyrae and the Ring Nebula. You can also spot three bright summer stars: Vega, Deneb, and Altair, which form the Summer Triangle. And August is a great month to learn an easy-to-spot constellation – Cygnus the swan. The outlook for the Perseid meteors isn't great due to a full moon on the peak night of August 12, but still it's worth keeping an eye out for early Perseids after midnight the week before. The night sky is truly a celestial showcase. Get outside and explore its wonders from your own backyard.
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