Category: Space


Buckle up, there may be some turbulence... or fractals <i>(Image: DR Fred Espenak/SPL)</i>

Feeding black holes develop a fractal skin as they grow. That’s the conclusion of simulations that take advantage of a correlation between fluid dynamics and gravity.

“We showed that when you throw stuff into a black hole, the surface of the black hole responds like a fluid – and in particular, it can become turbulent,” says Allan Adams at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “More precisely, the horizon itself becomes a fractal.”

Fractals are mathematical sets that show self-similar patterns: zoom in on one part of a fractal drawing, like the famous Mandelbrot set, and the smaller portion will look nearly the same as the original image. Objects with fractal geometries show up all over nature, from clouds to the coast of England.

Adams and his colleagues have now found evidence that fractal behaviour occurs in an unexpected place: on the surface of a feeding black hole. Black holes grow by devouring matter that falls into them; the black hole at the centre of our galaxy is due to feast on a gas cloud later this year. But the details of how feeding black holes grow, and how this might affect their host galaxies, are still unknown.

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Astronomers have found the first Earth-sized exoplanet within a star’s habitable zone. The planet is the closest thing yet to the coveted ‘Goldilocks’ orb that scientists have long sought — a world roughly the size of Earth orbiting a star at a distance that is just right for liquid water to exist.

“We definitely think it’s one step closer to finding a true Sun–Earth analogue,” says study co-author Elisa Quintana, an astronomer at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, and at the nearby NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field. But because the star that the exoplanet orbits is a cool, dim one unlike the Sun, Quintana and her colleagues consider the planet more of a cousin to Earth than a twin. The researchers describe the discovery today in Science.

The planet is the latest of the bonanza coming from the Kepler space telescope, which spent four years staring at a patch of sky in the constellations Cygnus and Lyra before suffering a mechanical failure last May. Kepler looked for exoplanet transits, in which the light of a star dims slightly as an orbiting planet passes across its face as seen from Earth.

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'Cherry tree from space' mystery baffles Japan

A cosmic mystery is uniting monks and scientists in Japan after a cherry tree grown from a seed that orbited the earth for eight months bloomed years earlier than expected — and with very surprising flowers. 

The four-year-old sapling — grown from a cherry stone that spent time aboard the International Space Station (ISS) — burst into blossom on April 1, possibly a full six years ahead of Mother Nature’s normal schedule. 

Its early blooming baffled Buddhist brothers at the ancient temple in central Japan where the tree is growing. 

“We are amazed to see how fast it has grown,” Masahiro Kajita, chief priest at the Ganjoji temple in Gifu, told AFP by telephone. 

“A stone from the original tree had never sprouted before. We are very happy because it will succeed the old tree, which is said to be 1,250 years old.” 

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The first direct evidence of cosmic inflation — a period of rapid expansion that occurred a fraction of a second after the Big Bang — also supports the idea that our universe is just one of many out there, some researchers say.

On Monday (March 17), scientists announced new findings that mark the first-ever direct evidence of primordial gravitational waves — ripples in space-time created just after the universe began. If the results are confirmed, they would provide smoking-gun evidence that space-time expanded at many times the speed of light just after the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago.

The new research also lends credence to the idea of a multiverse. This theory posits that, when the universe grew exponentially in the first tiny fraction of a second after the Big Bang, some parts of space-time expanded more quickly than others. This could have created “bubbles” of space-time that then developed into other universes. The known universe has its own laws of physics, while other universes could have different laws, according to the multiverse concept.

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2030 Space Odyssey: NASA will search for alien life in Jupiter's moon

This is amazing news: NASA is sending a mission to Europa! If everything goes well, a robotic submarine may be landing on Jupiter’s moon—the world that scientists believe is the most likely to contain life in the Solar System—by 2030, a real space odyssey. This has the potential to change the world.

“Attempt no landings there,” the aliens said at the end of 2010, a warning that Adam Steltzner—the guy who spent nine years of his life putting the rover Curiosity on Mars in the most spectacular NASA mission since the Apollo program—doesn’t care about. This is his dream mission and the dream mission of every space scientists now at NASA, as he said back in August 2012, after Curiosity’s successful landing on Mars.

Adam: The site in the solar system that we believe that is the most likely to contain life today is Europa. I want to lead a team to go under the ice, into the ocean of the moon Europa.

Reporter: Get a submarine up there.

Adam: Yep.

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13An 82-foot telescope boasting ten times the resolution of the Hubble Space Telescope has successfully passed design reviews and is ready to be constructed.

The Giant Magellan Telescope will use a light-collecting mirror surface more than six times the area of current instruments to hunt for distant, potentially habitable planets and let astronomers time travel back to a billion years after the Big Bang.

Huge improvements in resolution are expected from the telescope’s adaptive optics system, which will flex secondary mirrors to compensate for atmospheric turbulence that normally distorts starlight.

An international consortium managing the project has chosen a remote Andean mountaintop in Chile to build the telescope. Technicians have already begun fabricating three of the device’s seven primary mirrors at a lab in Arizona.

“I am delighted with the very positive results of the design and the cost reviews,” said Wendy Freedman, director of the Carnegie Institution for Science observatories and chair of the board overseeing the project, in a statement. “Along with the successful casting of the first three 8.4-meter primary mirrors and the leveling of the mountaintop in Chile, each step brings us closer to construction.”

Backers of the telescope, which is expected to begin operating in a decade, say it will usher in a revolution in human knowledge about the universe.

Rosetta, Europe’s comet-chasing spacecraft, has woken from its slumber.

A signal confirming its alert status was received by controllers in Darmstadt, Germany, at 18:17 GMT.

Rosetta has spent the past 31 months in hibernation to conserve power as it arced beyond the orbit of Jupiter on a path that should take it to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in August.

Engineers will now finesse the probe’s trajectory and prepare its instruments for the daring encounter.

One of the highlights of the mission will be the attempt to put a small robotic lander, Philae, on the surface of the 4.5km-wide comet. This will occur in November.

There were nail-biting moments in the Darmstadt control room as its flight engineers waited for the signal to come through. Three quarters of the way through the hour-long window of opportunity, they got what they were waiting for.

Gerhard Schwehm, mission manager for Rosetta, said: “After 31 months in hibernation, what is 45 minutes to wait?”

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The charged solar winds may have given stardust one of the ingredients of life <i>(Image: Fesus Robert/Shutterstock)</i>

A sprinkling of stardust is as magical as it sounds. The dust grains that float through our solar system contain tiny pockets of water, which form when they are zapped by a blast of charged wind from the sun.

The chemical reaction causing this to happen had previously been mimicked in laboratories, but this is the first time water has been found trapped inside real stardust.

Combined with previous findings of organic compounds in interplanetary dust, the results suggest that these grains contain the basic ingredients needed for life. As similar dust grains are thought to be found in solar systems all over the universe, this bodes well for the existence of life across the cosmos.

“The implications are potentially huge,” says Hope Ishii of the University of Hawaii in Honolulu, one of the researchers behind the study. “It is a particularly thrilling possibility that this influx of dust on the surfaces of solar system bodies has acted as a continuous rainfall of little reaction vessels containing both the water and organics needed for the eventual origin of life.”

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Cosmic ‘web’ seen for first time

Cosmic web of filaments

The hidden tendrils of dark matter that underlie the visible Universe may have been traced out for the first time.

Cosmology theory predicts that galaxies are embedded in a cosmic web of “stuff”, most of which is dark matter.

Astronomers obtained the first direct images of a part of this network, by exploiting the fact that a luminous object called a quasar can act as a natural “cosmic flashlight”.

Details of the work appear in the journal Nature.

The quasar illuminates a nearby gas cloud measuring two million light-years across.

And the glowing gas appears to trace out filaments of underlying dark matter.

The quasar, which lies 10 billion light-years away, shines light in just the right direction to reveal the cold gas cloud.

For some years, cosmologists have been running computer simulations of the structure of the universe to build the “standard model of cosmology”.

They use the cosmic microwave background, corresponding to observations of the very earliest Universe that can be seen, and recorded by instruments such as the Planck space observatory, as a starting point.

Their calculations suggest that as the Universe grows and forms, matter becomes clustered in filaments and nodes under the force of gravity, like a giant cosmic web.

The new results from the 10-metre Keck telescope in Hawaii, are reported by scientists from the University of California, Santa Cruz and the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg.

They are the first direct observations of cold gas decorating such cosmic web filaments.

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A team of astronomers and engineers want to reproduce the atmosphere of a red giant like the one you are seeing in this Hubble image—right here on Earth. To make this happen, projectNanocosmos will build three five-meter-long machines working with hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, silicon, titanium, iron and other metals at 1500 C (2732 F).

For the first time, Nanocosmos will design and build a machine capable of producing insterstellar dust grains emulating the physical and chemical conditions of the outer layers of dying stars.

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Millisecond pulsar, left foreground, is orbited by a hot white dwarf star, centre, both of which are orbited by another, more-distant and cooler white dwarf, top right.

Astronomers have discovered a unique triple star system which could reveal the true nature of gravity.

They found a pulsar with two white dwarfs all packed in a space smaller than Earth’s orbit of the Sun.

The trio’s unusually close orbits allow precise measurements of gravity and could resolve difficulties with Einstein’s theories.

“This triple system gives us a natural cosmic laboratory far better than anything found before for learning exactly how such three-body systems work and potentially for detecting problems with general relativity that physicists expect to see under extreme conditions,” said Scott Ransom of the US National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in Charlottesville, VA.

“This is a fascinating system in many ways, including what must have been a completely crazy formation history, and we have much work to do to fully understand it.”

Pulsars emit lighthouse-like beams of radio waves that rapidly sweep through space as the stars spin on their axes.

They are formed after a supernova collapses a burnt-out star to a dense, highly magnetised ball of neutrons.

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Astronomers at the European Southern Observatory’s Paranal Observatory in Chile have released a breathtaking new photograph showing the central area of our Milky Way galaxy. The photograph shows a whopping 84 million stars in an image measuring 108500×81500, which contains nearly 9 billion pixels.

It’s actually a composite of thousands of individual photographs shot with the observatory’s VISTA survey telescope, the same camera that captured the amazing 55-hour exposure that we shared back in March. Three different infrared filters were used to capture the different details present in the final image.

The VISTA’s camera is sensitive to infrared light, which allows its vision to pierce through much of the space dust that blocks the view of ordinary optical telescope/camera systems.

To give you an idea of how crazy this photo is (and what 84 million stars looks like), here are a couple of 100% crops we made while fully zoomed in. The first one shows the bright area seen in the center of the frame:

The Atlantic notes that if you were to print out this image as a standard book photograph, it would be nearly 30-feet wide and 23-feet tall.

Check out the zoomable version of the photograph yourself to get a sense of how massive this photo (and space) is.

Meteor Shower Time Lapse

A ten-dimensional theory of gravity makes the same predictions as standard quantum physics in fewer dimensions.

A team of physicists has provided some of the clearest evidence yet that our Universe could be just one big projection.

In 1997, theoretical physicist Juan Maldacena proposed that an audacious model of the Universe in which gravity arises from infinitesimally thin, vibrating strings could be reinterpreted in terms of well-established physics. The mathematically intricate world of strings, which exist in nine dimensions of space plus one of time, would be merely a hologram: the real action would play out in a simpler, flatter cosmos where there is no gravity.

Maldacena’s idea thrilled physicists because it offered a way to put the popular but still unproven theory of strings on solid footing — and because it solved apparent inconsistencies between quantum physics and Einstein’s theory of gravity. It provided physicists with a mathematical Rosetta stone, a ‘duality’, that allowed them to translate back and forth between the two languages, and solve problems in one model that seemed intractable in the other and vice versa. But although the validity of Maldacena’s ideas has pretty much been taken for granted ever since, a rigorous proof has been elusive.

In two papers posted on the arXiv repository, Yoshifumi Hyakutake of Ibaraki University in Japan and his colleagues now provide, if not an actual proof, at least compelling evidence that Maldacena’s conjecture is true.

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NASA’s steady reconnaissance of Mars with the Curiosity rover has produced another major discovery: evidence of an ancient lake — with water that could plausibly be described as drinkable — that was part of a long-standing, wet environment that could have supported simple forms of life.

Scientists have known that the young Mars was more Earthlike than the desert planet we see today, but this is the best evidence yet that Mars had swimming holes that stuck around for thousands or perhaps millions of years. (It would have been very chilly — bring a wet suit.)

Scientists had announced this year that they’d found signs of an ancient, fresh-water lake within Gale Crater, but the new reports provide a much more detailed analysis, including the first scientific measurements of the age of rocks on another planet. The research suggests that Martian winds are sand-blasting rock outcroppings and creating inviting places to dig into rocks that may retain the kind of organic molecules associated with ancient microbes.

Gale Crater is in an area with rocks about 4.2 billion years old. The lake, which scientists think existed a little more than 3.5 billion years ago, was roughly the size and shape of one of New York’s Finger Lakes. The freshwater lake may have come and gone, and sometimes been iced over, but the new research shows that the lake was not some momentary feature, but rather was part of a long-lasting habitable environment that included rivers and groundwater.

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The sun is set to “flip upside down” within weeks as its magnetic field reverses polarity in an event that will send ripple effects throughout the solar system.

Although it may sound like a catastrophic occurrence, there’s no need to run for cover. The sun switches its polarity, flipping its magnetic north and south, once every eleven years through an internal mechanism about which little is understood.

The swap could however cause intergalactic weather fronts such as geomagnetic storms, which can interfere with satellites and cause radio blackouts.

Nasa said in August that the change would happen in three to four months time, but it is impossible to give a more specific date. Scientist won’t know for around another three weeks whether the flip is complete.

The impact of the transfer will be widespread as the sun’s magnetic field exerts influence well beyond Pluto, past Nasa’s Voyager probes positioned near the edge of interstellar space.

The event will be watched closely by researchers at Stanford University’s Wilcox Solar Observatory, which monitors the sun’s magnetic field on a daily basis.

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an illustration of a wormhole through space-time

Wormholes — shortcuts that in theory can connect distant points in the universe — might be linked with the spooky phenomenon of quantum entanglement, where the behavior of particles can be connected regardless of distance, researchers say.

These findings could help scientists explain the universe from its very smallest to its biggest scales.

Scientists have long sought to develop a theory that can describe how the cosmos works in its entirety. Currently, researchers have two disparate theories, quantum mechanics and general relativity, which can respectively mostly explain the universe on its tiniest scales and its largest scales. There are currently several competing theories seeking to reconcile the pair.

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Racing high over the Sahara at 5 miles per second, protected from the desert’s parched endlessness and soaking in its sere beauty, I saw Khartoum, the city where the White and Blue Nile rivers meet. I turned my head left and followed the river downstream to Cairo and the Mediterranean. Twisting weightlessly back to my right, I could pick out sunlight glinting off the waters of Lake Tana and Lake Victoria, the Nile’s headwaters. Explorers from the early Greeks to Queen Victoria’s David Livingstone had toiled and failed to find what I could see at a glance. Impressive on its own—even more so since I had been over Winnipeg, on the edge of the Canadian prairies, just 20 minutes earlier.

Circling Earth so fast makes you think. When you look out the window of a space­ship, you see entire countries, vast swaths of continents. One turn of the head covers what once took thousands of years to traverse at ground level. Historians and archaeologists estimate that human beings started migrating from Africa to Asia about 70,000 years ago, and to Australia 20,000 years after that. We went to the New World of the Americas about 30,000 years ago. All told, from the first dissatisfied teenager’s steps away from home, it took about 50,000 years to walk to the far corners of the planet.

Technology helped us pick up the pace. By the 1870s, new railways across the US and India and the opening of the Suez Canal made it seem completely plau­sible that the fictional Phileas Fogg and his valet could circle the world in 80 days. In 1911, Roald Amundsen reached the farthest end of Earth and stood atop the South Pole; 50 years later, the Soviet Union sent Yuri Gagarin around that same world in a ­little more than 80 minutes. And since November 2000, astronauts on the International Space Station have circled our planet 16 times a day—that’s about 75,000 times around and counting.

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“While it is difficult to fathom the scale of this “large quasar group” (LQG), we can say quite definitely it is the largest structure ever seen in the entire universe,” said Dr Clowes of University of Central Lancashire’s Jeremiah Horrocks Institute. “This is hugely exciting – not least because it runs counter to our current understanding of the scale of the universe. Even traveling at the speed of light, it would take 4 billion years to cross. This is significant not just because of its size but also because it challenges the Cosmological Principle, which has been widely accepted since Einstein. Our team has been looking at similar cases which add further weight to this challenge and we will be continuing to investigate these fascinating phenomena.”

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A Terra Satellite image of the Earth

Europe next week will launch a trio of hi-tech satellites to explore something that may seem utterly mundane: Earth’s magnetic field.

After all, magnetism has been with us for billions of years.

We harness it in innumerable ways, in navigation and electrical devices. What’s new?

Well, plenty, actually.

If all goes well, the 230-million-euro ($276-million) Swarm mission will explain some of the weird things happening to the planet’s magnetism.

And they are more than just curiosities.

“Earth’s magnetic field is a very important thing. It makes life possible on Earth by providing shelter against radiation from space,” said Albert Zaglauer, project manager at Astrium, which made the three satellites.

The field is fickle, he said.

“The magnetic pole is changing, and the magnetic field is changing too. Why?”

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