Saturn’s moon Titan is, in many ways, similar to our very early Earth, and can provide clues to how life may have arisen on our planet. NASA’s Dragonfly, set to blast-off in 2027, will dispatch a robotic drone to explore Titan’s diverse environments from organic dunes to the floor of an impact crater where liquid water and complex organic materials key to life once existed together for possibly tens of thousands of years. Its instruments will study how far pre-biotic chemistry may have progressed. It will also investigate the moon’s atmospheric and surface properties and its subsurface ocean and liquid reservoirs. Additionally, instruments will search for chemical evidence of past or extant life.
Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs) are mysterious bright millisecond-duration bursts of radio emissions that up to now have only been observed billions of light years away in other galaxies. The radio bursts arrive first at high frequencies and then progressively sweep down to lower frequencies before disappearing completely and not recurring. FRBs have always been assumed to be caused by extreme catastrophic events in the distant Universe, but their true origin has to date been unknown. On April 28, 2020, a super-magnetized stellar remnant known as a magnetar blasted out a simultaneous mix of X-ray and radio signals never observed before. The flare-up included the first Fast Radio Burst ever seen from within our Milky Way galaxy and shows that magnetars can produce these mysterious and powerful radio blasts previously only seen in other galaxies.
Welcome to the night sky report for November 2020 -- Your guide to the constellations, deep sky objects, planets, and celestial events that are observable during the month. In November, hunt for the fainter constellations of fall, including Pisces, Aries, and Triangulum. They will guide you to find several galaxies and a pair of white stars. The night sky is truly a celestial showcase. Get outside and explore its wonders from your own backyard.
About two decades ago, astronomers identified an unusually high density of stars in our Milky Way Galaxy called the “Virgo Overdensity.” Star surveys revealed that some of these stars were moving toward us while others were moving away, which is unusual in that a cluster of stars would typically travel in concert. Based on emerging data, astrophysicists proposed that the overdensity was the result of a radial merger -- The stellar version of a T-bone crash of a dwarf galaxy into the Milky Way. It is believed that nearly 3 billion years ago, a dwarf galaxy plunged into the center of the Milky Way and was ripped apart by the gravitational forces of the collision. Astrophysicists at Rensselaer report that the merger produced a series of telltale shell-like formations of stars in the vicinity of the Virgo constellation -- The first such “shell structures” to be found in the Milky Way. The finding offers further evidence of the ancient event, and new possible explanations for other phenomena in the galaxy.
Today, OSIRIS-REx will attempt a historic feat for NASA -- To collect the first samples from an asteroid’s surface. The spacecraft will maneuver down to the selected Nightingale site on Bennu’s rocky and dusty surface to collect a sample for return to Earth. The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will attempt to gather at least 2 ounces of regolith from the asteroid Bennu. Since Bennu is so far away, the operators on the ground will issue instructions to the spacecraft and then it will autonomously approach Bennu and extend its robotic arm, called the Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM). If all goes well, TAGSAM will stow the gathered material and begin the trip home for arrival in 2023.
Spaghettification is the vertical stretching and horizontal compression of objects into long thin shapes (rather like spaghetti) in a very strong gravitational field near black holes. The stretching is so powerful that no object can withstand its pull. It is theorized that the horizontal compression balances the vertical stretching so that object being “spaghettified” experiences no net change in volume. Astronomers have captured the last moments of a star just before it was ripped apart and spaghettified by a black hole. The violent occurrence, called a tidal disruption event, created a blast of light seen just 215 million light years from Earth -- the closest such flare recorded to date. To get a detailed look at just what happens when a star is devoured by a monstrous black hole, researchers pointed the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO’s) Very Large Telescope (VLT) and New Technology Telescope (NTT) at the new flash of light that occurred close to a supermassive black hole last year. Follow-up observations occurred over a six month period at multiple telescopes around the world, including the Center for Astrophysics (CfA) Harvard and Smithsonian's Multiple Mirror Telescope (MMT), located at the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory in Amado, Arizona.
Welcome to the night sky report for October 2020 -- Your guide to the constellations, deep sky objects, planets, and celestial events that are observable during the month. In October, Pegasus, the flying horse of Greek myth, becomes increasingly prominent in the southeastern sky. Look for M15 (NGC7078) and NGC7331. This October also brings a Harvest Moon and a Blue Moon. Plus look for Mars at any time of the night. The night sky is truly a celestial showcase. Get outside and explore its wonders from your own backyard.
Mars has long been known for its rust. Iron on its surface combined with water and oxygen from the ancient past, give the Red Planet its hue. But scientists were recently surprised to find evidence that our airless Moon has rust on it as well. While our Moon is airless, research indicates the presence of hematite, a form of rust that normally requires oxygen and water. That has scientists puzzled.
Dark matter does not emit, absorb, or reflect light. Its presence, if it truly exists, is known only through its gravitational pull on visible matter in space. This mysterious substance is believed to be the invisible scaffolding of our Universe, forming long filamentary structures -- the cosmic web -- along which galaxies form. Astronomers have discovered that there may be a missing ingredient in our cosmic recipe of how dark matter behaves. They have uncovered a discrepancy between the theoretical models of how dark matter should be distributed in galaxy clusters, and observations of dark matter's grip on those clusters. One way astronomers can detect dark matter is by measuring how its gravity distorts space through an effect called “gravitational lensing.” Researchers have found that small-scale concentrations of dark matter in clusters produce gravitational lensing effects that are ten times stronger than expected. This evidence is based on unprecedented detailed observations of several massive galaxy clusters by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope and the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile.
It's among the most fundamental of questions: What are the origins of life on Earth? What if impact craters, long seen as harbingers of death, turned out to be the cradle of life? A new study makes the case that impact craters should be considered by space agencies like NASA and ESA as top exploration targets, not just for their invaluable post-impact geological records, but also – and perhaps more importantly – as prime locations for seeking potential habitats for extraterrestrial life.
Welcome to the night sky report for September 2020 -- 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) and M30 (NGC 7099), as well as a nearby double star, Alpha Capricorni, which is an optical double (but not a binary pair). The night sky is truly a celestial showcase. Get outside and explore its wonders from your own backyard.
Auroras are created when charged particles from the Sun are trapped in Earth’s magnetic environment – the magnetosphere – and are funneled into Earth’s upper atmosphere, where collisions cause hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen atoms and molecules to glow. A special type of aurora, draped east-west across the night sky like a glowing pearl necklace, is helping scientists better understand the science of auroras and their powerful drivers out in space. Known as auroral beads, these lights often show up just before large auroral displays, which are caused by electrical storms in space called substorms. Previously, scientists weren’t sure if auroral beads were somehow connected to other auroral displays as a phenomenon in space that precedes substorms, or if they were caused by disturbances closer to Earth’s atmosphere. But now powerful new computer models combined with observations from NASA’s “Time History of Events and Macroscale Interactions during Substorms” (THEMIS) mission have provided the first strong evidence of the events in space that lead to the appearance of these beads.
Quasars are extremely remote celestial objects that emit exceptionally large amounts of energy. Quasars contain supermassive black holes fueled by in-falling matter that can shine 1000 times brighter than their host galaxies of hundreds of billions of stars. Using the unique capabilities of NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, a team of astronomers has discovered the most energetic outflows ever witnessed in the Universe. These quasar outflows emanate from the center of the galaxies and tear across interstellar space like tsunamis, wreaking havoc on the galaxies in which the quasars live. These winds, driven by blistering radiation pressure from the vicinity of the black hole, snowplow across the galaxy's disk, pushing material away from the galaxy's center, accelerating to breathtaking velocities that are a few percent of the speed of light. Material that otherwise would have formed new stars is violently swept from the galaxy, causing star birth to cease. Radiation pushes the gas and dust to far greater distances than scientists previously thought, disturbing the natural evolution of the entire galaxy.
Welcome to the night sky report for August 2020 -- Your guide to the constellations, deep sky objects, planets, and celestial events that are observable during the month. 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. The night sky is truly a celestial showcase. Get outside and explore its wonders from your own backyard.
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