Tag Archives: science

Tadpole on Mars

Tadpole on Mars
Click for full image.

Cool image time! The image on the right, cropped and reduced to post here, was taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on October 7, 2019, and shows a crater on the northern fringe of Arabia Terra, one of the largest transitional regions between the Martian northern lowlands and the southern highlands. It shows a crater with an inlet canyon that makes the entire crater resemble a wiggling tadpole.

This is certainly not first tadpole-resembling crater found on Mars. See for example this press release from February 2018, showing a tadpole crater with the tail being an outlet channel. In today’s image however the channel feeds the crater.

In fact, take a look at the full image. This crater apparently occurred right at the edge of a large mesa cliff, with this impact cutting into the cliff near its bottom. The canyon might have actually existed before the impact, with the crater merely obliterating the canyon’s outlet.

If you look along that escarpment to the east you can see similar southwest-to-northeast flows. One is a canyon flowing downhill through the escarpment, probably resembling what the first canyon might have once looked like before the impact. To the east of this is another tadpole crater. This second tadpole impact however took place on top of the mesa, so the channel flows out from the crater and then down off the mesa, the reverse of the tadpole crater above.

These flow features are consistent with the nature of this transitional zone, a region with many features suggesting it was once the shoreline of an intermittent ocean. That ocean, if it had existed, is long gone, though scattered across the Martian surface are geological ghost features like these that speak of its past existence.

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Wolf puppies play fetch with humans

An experiment raising wolf puppies in close contact with humans has surprisingly found that some of those puppies learn how to play fetch with humans, even strangers.

Playing fetch with your dog isn’t as simple as it seems. Your pooch must be perceptive enough to realize you want the ball back—and social enough to want to play with you in the first place. It’s such an advanced skill, in fact, that many scientists think it could have arisen only over thousands of years of domestication.

But a new study reveals that some gray wolves—the ancestors of dogs—can also play fetch. The work supports the idea that the roots of many of the traits and behaviors we see in domesticated animals, from cats to chickens, may be present in their wild relatives.

…As the pups grew, the scientists noticed that some would retrieve a tennis ball thrown across the room. Intrigued, they tested all the wolves for the ability. When the pups were 8 weeks old, Hansen Wheat brought each one into a large, barren room with someone the animals had never met before. Then she left, and after a few minutes, the stranger threw a tennis ball.

Most of the wolves ignored the ball. But two pups—Lemmy and Elvis—returned the ball twice, the team reports today in iScience. One pup named Sting returned it all three times it was thrown, as seen in the video above. (All the wolves were named after musicians.)

What this study has discovered is likely the very process that produced the first dogs, from wolves. Early humans culled out of the wolf pack the puppies that responded to human behavior, and interbred those puppies to produce a new species that was closely linked to its human masters. And apparently this process can be quicker than some scientists previously believed.

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Strange things at center of Milky Way

Astronomers have discovered an additional four more weird objects orbiting the supermassive black hole, dubbed Sagittarius A* (pronounced A-star) for a total of six, all of which display behavior that is inexplicable.

Part of a new class called G objects, they look compact most of the time and stretch out when their orbits bring them closest to the black hole. Those orbits range from about 100 to 1000 years. “These objects look like gas and behave like stars,” says Andrea Ghez, director of the Galactic Centre Group at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and co-author of a paper in the journal Nature.

The new discoveries are known simply as G3 to G6. G1 was discovered by Ghez’s research group back in 2005, and G2 by astronomers in Germany in 2012. “The fact that there are now several of these objects observed near the black hole means that they are, most likely, part of a common population,” says co-author Randy Campbell, from the Keck Observatory in Hawaii.

It is not surprising that the intense gravitational field of Sagittarius A* rips these objects into elongated stretched objects as their orbits bring them close to the black hole. What is very very puzzling is their apparent ability to spring back to compact form as their orbits take them away from the black hole.

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A second exoplanet orbiting Proxima Centauri?

Worlds without end: Astronomers think they have found evidence of a second exoplanet orbiting the nearest star, Proxima Centauri.

The planet, a super-Earth called Proxima Centauri c (Proxima c for short), has at least six times more mass than Earth and orbits its star every 5.2 years.

…“Stars like Proxima Centauri are rather restless and continuously present eruptions and spots on their surface, which make the detection of a planetary-induced oscillation very complicated,” says coauthor Fabio Del Sordo (University of Crete and Foundation for Research and Technology-Hellas in Heraklion, Greece). Because the observations span almost two decades, the scientists have confidently ruled out those sources of noise, but they caution that follow-up observations are needed to confirm that the signal comes from a planet.

There is a lot of uncertainty here, requiring an independent confirmation of this result. It would not be surprising if this exoplanet vanished when others took a look, finding it a creation not of a periodic gravitation wobble but of the random fluctuations of the star itself.

If it does exist, it will not likely be a place where life exists. Too far from this very dim red dwarf star to get enough energy. However, as a super-Earth it might someday in the far future be a great mining world.

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Spitzer SpaceTelescope shutdown in a week

After sixteen years in orbit, NASA will shut down the Spitzer Space Telescope on January 22, 2020,

The telescope is still functional in a somewhat limited manner but NASA wishes to save the annual budget of $14 million to operate it. Moreover, it will become redundant and significantly superseded once the infrared James Webb Space Telescope launches and becomes operational next year.

NASA had hoped a private organization would take over Spitzer’s operation, but apparently got no takers.

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Martian dry ice frost on glacial remains?

Frost on ridgelines and inside crater
Click for full image.

Close-up of frost

Cool image time! The photo on the right, rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here, was taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on November 30, 2019. Located just east of Hellas Basin in southern mid-latitudes, the color strip shows dry ice frost both in the crater as well as on the ridgelines to the north. As noted in the caption, written by Candy Hansen of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona,

When we acquired this image, it was [winter in the southern hemisphere] on Mars, but signs of spring are already starting to appear at latitudes not far from the equator. This image of Penticton Crater, taken at latitude 38 degrees south, shows streamers of seasonal carbon dioxide ice (dry ice) only remaining in places in the terrain that are still partially in the shade.

The turquoise-colored frost (enhanced color) is protected from the sun in shadowed dips in the ground while the sunlit surface nearby is already frost-free.

Note for example how the frost disappears in the southern half of the crater floor, the part exposed to sunlight.

What immediately struck me however were the underlying features. The entire northeast quadrant of the crater’s rim appears to have been breached by some sort of catastrophic flow, as if there had been a glacial lake inside the crater that at some point smashed through suddenly, wiping that part of the rim out as it ripped its way through.

To the right is a full resolution inset, indicated by the white box above, of the dry ice frost on the outside of the crater. I find myself however drawn more to the underlying features, which once again have a chaotic aspect suggesting a sudden violent event, coming from the south and moving north.

I have no idea if my visceral conclusions here have any validity. At this latitude, 38 degrees, scientists have found a lot of buried inactive glaciers of ice, so I could be right. Or not. Your guess is as good as mine.

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First asteroid discovered that circles Sun closer than Venus

Astronomers have detected the first asteroid circling the Sun in an orbit that lies entirely inside Venus’s orbit.

In addition to being the first known asteroid with this orbit, the space rock, called 2020 AV2, has the smallest aphelion, or distance from the sun, of any known natural object in the solar system, excluding Mercury. Moreover, by traveling around the sun in a mere 151 days, 2020 AV2 has the shortest orbital period of any known asteroid, according to The Virtual Telescope Project, an online observatory based in Italy.

The reason this is a first is because it is very hard to find such small objects orbiting closer to the Sun than Earth. The glare of the Sun limits what can be spotted. This fact is also why the scientists are unsure of the size of 2020 AV2.

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Gully on Mars

Gully in crater on Mars
Click for full image.

Cool image time! If we were told that the photo on the right was taken by an airplane over some southwest desert gully, no one should be surprised if we were to accept that description entirely. The gully sure looks like a lot of drainages one can routinely see when flying over the American southwest, dry, treeless, but showing the typical dendritic pattern seen for most desert water drainages.

Of course my readers all know that this is not in the American southwest, but on Mars, in a crater located in the transition zone between the southern highlands and the northern lowland plains. The image, cropped to post here, was taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on October 12, 2019.

It appears that this particular gully has been subject to repeated monitoring, since November 2015. A rough and very quick comparison of the earlier image with today’s image does not show any obvious change. This does not mean there hasn’t been any evolution, as my look was cursory, and I could easily be missing changes. Seasonal variations might also be occurring that I could be missing.

The reasons for the monitoring are of course obvious. This gully strongly suggests the flow of liquid downhill. Is that occurring today, or are we seeing the evidence of a past flow from long ago? Only some long term monitoring can tell.

There is also the possibility that we are looking at a buried glacier. The crater is located at 42 degrees north latitude, well within that mid-latitude band where scientists have located many buried Martian glaciers. If so, then the monitoring is to see if that glacier is active in any way.

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More superEarth exoplanets found circling nearby stars

Worlds without end: Among a new bunch of thirteen exoplanets, astronomers have discovered two more superEarth-sized exoplanets circling nearby red dwarf stars.

The two potentially habitable planets are orbiting GJ180 and GJ229A, which are among the nearest stars to our own Sun, making them prime targets for observations by next-generation space- and land-based telescopes. They are both super-Earths with at least 7.5 and 7.9 times our planet’s mass and orbital periods of 106 and 122 days respectively.

The Neptune-mass planet—found orbiting GJ433 at a distance at which surface water is likely to be frozen—is probably the first of its kind that is a realistic candidate for future direct imaging. “GJ 433 d is the nearest, widest, and coldest Neptune-like planet ever detected,” Feng added.

For a lot of reasons it is likely that life as we know it probably does not exist on these planets. Nonetheless, their close proximity makes it possible to study them, and since we have no such planets in our own solar system they can teach us a lot about planetary formation and evolution.

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Stardust found in meteorite older than Earth

Scientists studying what they think is grains of stardust in a meteorite the hit the Earth in 1969 have discovered the oldest material ever found on Earth, material that is actually older than the Earth itself.

The meteorite, dubbed the Murchison meteorite after the nearest city in Australia where it landed, has been a treasure trove of information for planetary scientists because so much of it was recovered right after impact.

About 30 years ago it was found that the rocks housed “presolar grains” – tiny grains of silicon carbide older than the Sun. But their exact age hadn’t been determined until now.

To figure that out, the researchers on the new study measured how long these presolar grains had been exposed to cosmic rays. These high-energy particles flit around space and can pass through solid matter, creating new elements inside the existing minerals as they interact with them. That means the scientists can measure the amount of these new elements in the grains to determine how long they were floating around in space – and, ultimately, how old they are.

In doing so, the team found that most of the grains were between 4.6 and 4.9 billion years old. The Sun itself is at the younger end of that range, at 4.6 billion years old, while the Earth didn’t form until 4.5 billion years ago.

But the oldest of the grains were dated to more than 5.5 billion years, making them the oldest known material on Earth. The team says that the history of these grains could be traced back even further, to the stars that birthed them some 7 billion years ago. According to the researchers, this finding suggests that our galaxy went through a period of intense star formation around that time.

Obviously there are uncertainties with this result, though their age estimates are quite reasonable and largely robust.

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Curiosity climbs a hill

Overview map of Curiosity's journey through sol 2643

[For the overall context of Curiosity’s travels, see my March 2016 post, Pinpointing Curiosity’s location in Gale Crater.

For the updates in 2018 go here. For a full list of updates before February 8, 2018, go here.]

Since my last Curiosity update on November 6, 2019, the science team has sent the rover climbing up what they call Western Butte, the butte directly to the west of Central Butte and part of the slope/escarpment that separates the clay unit from the Greenheugh Piedmont and the sulfate unit above that.

The overview map to the right gives a sense of the journey. The thick yellow line indicates its route since it climbed up from the Murray Formation onto Vera Rubin Ridge in 2017. The thick red line indicates their planned route, which they have only vaguely been following since their arrival in the clay unit.

Below the fold are two panoramas that I created from a sequence of images taken by Curiosity’s left navigation camera from the high point on Western Butte, the first looking north across the crater floor to the Gale Crater rim approximately 30 miles away and indicated by the thin yellow lines on the overview map. The second looks south, up hill towards Mount Sharp, and is indicate by the thin red lines.
» Read more

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No trend in hurricanes since 1970

The uncertainty of science: A new study has found no trend, up or down, in hurricanes that made landfall since the 1970s, despite many global warming predictions that said the numbers of catastrophic hurricanes would increase.

Key quote:

There are a lot of ups and downs in the data, but no obvious trends.

The scientists note that though they see no obvious trends, it is difficult to pin anything down because the variability from year to year is so great.

That large variability in occurrence means – as a simple matter of mathematics – that our ability to detect changes in tropical cyclones one or two magnitudes smaller (or more) on similar time scales is obviously made difficult, if not impossible.

So, when next you hear a global warming expert, either a teenager not attending school or a Democratic politician who doesn’t remember anything from school, claiming we are all going to die from giant hurricanes caused by human-caused global warming, remember this study. It demonstrates that those “experts” have no idea what they are talking about.

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First image of Ganymede’s north pole

Ganymede's north polar region

During Juno’s 24th close approach to Jupiter the spacecraft was able to take the first images ever of the north pole of Ganymede, the largest moon in the solar system. The image to the right was processed by citizen scientist Roman Tkacenko, and shows a variety of light and dark features.

The Juno science team decided for some reason to highlight a different set of images processed by citizen scientist Gerald Eichstädt, using the same data. I prefer Tkacenko’s version, because he focused in on the planet itself, making it easier to see what’s there.

In either case, however, the fuzziness of the image reminds me of planetary astronomy in my early childhood. Images like this, taken by telescopes on Earth, were the best we had of any planet beyond the Moon. Made it very hard to understand what was there, or what it meant.

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Arecibo shut temporarily due to earthquakes

The Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico has suspended all operations temporarily because of the swarm of earthquakes that have hit the island in the past two weeks.

The strongest of those quakes was a 6.4 temblor early in the morning of Tuesday (Jan. 7). An initial survey conducted by drone after that event found no damage to the massive radio dish or the equipment above it, an Arecibo Observatory representative said here at the 235th meeting of the American Astronomical Society on Tuesday (Jan. 7).

However, safety protocols mean that observatory personnel can’t examine the dish or its accessories until the ground stops shaking, and it’s difficult to predict when that will happen.

The observatory was about to embark on a yearlong refitting to repair damage caused by Hurricane Maria in 2017. They have set January 10th as a tentative reopen date.

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Probe to visit 8 asteroids, not 7

Scientists developing the Lucy mission to visit seven Trojan asteroids that share an orbit with Jupiter have found an eighth satellite they will also be able to visit.

This first-ever mission to the Trojans was already going to break records by visiting seven asteroids during a single mission. Now, using data from the Hubble Space Telescope (HST), the Lucy team discovered that the first Trojan target, Eurybates, has a satellite. This discovery provides an additional object for Lucy to study.

“If I had to bet that one of our destinations had a satellite, it would have been this one,” said SwRI’s Hal Levison, principal investigator of the mission. “Eurybates is considered the largest remnant of a giant collision that occurred billions of years ago. Simulations show that asteroid collisions like the one that made Eurybates and its family often produce small satellites.”

The mission is targeting a 2021 launch date.

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Pedestal craters in the Martian northern lowlands?

Pedestal craters on Mars?
Click for full image.

Cool image time! The photo on the right, cropped and reduced to post here, shows a cluster of really strange mesas, craters, and pits, located in Utopia Planitia, the largest and deepest plain of Mars’ northern lowlands where an intermittent ocean might have once existed.

The image was taken on October 26, 2019 by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) as part of its regular image-taking program. In this case it was dubbed a “terrain sample” image, meaning that it was not specifically requested by any researcher, but was taken because they need to use the camera regularly to maintain its temperature, and thus sometime produce images over previously untouched areas, not knowing what they will find, as part of that maintenance schedule.

In this case the terrain sampled is especially intriguing. Are the upraised depressions what are called pedestal craters, created when the impact landed on what was once an icy plain, which subsequently sublimated away to leave the crater sitting high above the surrounding flats? Maybe, but this location is at 23 degrees north latitude, and research has generally found these pedestal craters at latitudes higher than 30 degrees.

Moreover, that many of these upraised depressions are not circular suggests that their formation was not impact related.

Other mysteries: Why are all the ridgelines bright? What caused the parallel white streaks to the east and west of some mesas? And if these are impact craters, why are some distorted?

If this region was once the seabed of an intermittent ocean, this fact might explain the features. Then again, it is more likely that this lowland area was once covered in ice in the far past, when the planet’s tilt was greater and the lower latitudes were actually colder than the polar regions, and thus allowed ice to build up in those lower latitudes. We might therefore be seeing the end result of an erosion/sublimation process as that ice disappeared when Mars’ inclination shifted.

Lots of questions, and no answers.

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China releases data and images from Yutu-2 and Chang’e-3

Yutu-2 on the far side of the Moon
Click for full image.

The new colonial movement: To celebrate the completion of a year on the lunar surface, China has released the bulk of the data and images produced by the lander Chang’e-3 and the rover Yutu-2.

The link includes a nice gallery of images. I especially like the image to the right, cropped to post here. It shows Yutu-2 moving away from Chang’e-3 early in the mission. It also shows how truly colorless the Moon is. The rover proves this is a color image, but if it wasn’t in the shot you’d have no way of knowing.

And then there is that pitch black sky. I wonder what’s behind it.

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India releases Vikram failure report

India’s space agency ISRO has released its investigation report on the failure of its lunar lander Vikram on September 7, 2019 to soft land on the Moon.

The Chandrayaan-2’s Vikram lander ended up spinning over 410 degrees, deviating from a calibrated spin of 55 degrees, and making a hard landing on the moon, according to ISRO scientists. The anomaly, which occurred during the second of four phases of the landing process, was reflected in the computer systems in the mission control room, but ISRO scientists could not intervene to correct it as the lander was on autonomous mode, using data already fed into its system before the start of the powered descent.

According to the report, they are using what was learned to incorporate changes in Chandrayaan-3, their next attempt at putting a lander and rover on the Moon, presently scheduled to launch 14 to 16 months from now. That launch date, about six months later than previous reports, also seems more realistic. Initially the agency was saying it planned to launch Chandrayaan-3 in less than a year from project inception, by November 2020, a schedule that seemed rushed and ripe for mistakes.

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Webb telescope remains on schedule for March 2021 launch

Good news: According to NASA and Northrop Grumman officials, the James Webb Space Telescope remains on schedule for its March 2021 launch by an Ariane 5 rocket.

This might be the first update on Webb in years where no new delays were announced. Instead, the Space Telescope Science Institute in Maryland, which will manage the telescope, is preparing to release in two weeks its first call for research proposals.

Proposals will be due May 1, with the institute making selections later in the summer. …[I]nstitute officials said they expect to receive 1,000 to 1,600 proposals, seeking some fraction of the 6,000 hours of observing time that will be available in that initial round of observations. About 300 proposals will be selected for Cycle 1, which will begin once spacecraft commissioning is complete about six months after launch.

Let us all pray that all goes well during launch and spacecraft deployment.

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Investigation forces retraction of 800+ Russian science papers

An investigation by Russia’s Academy of Sciences has forced the retraction of more than 800 Russian science papers, many for plagiarism.

The RAS commission’s preliminary report documenting the problems and journals’ responses to them is “a bombshell,” says Gerson Sher, a former staffer at the U.S. National Science Foundation and the author of a recent book on U.S.-Russia science cooperation. The report, released yesterday, “will reinforce the suspicions and fears of many—that their country is not going down the right path in science and that it’s damaging its own reputation,” says Sher, who applauds RAS for commissioning the investigation.

Russia’s roughly 6000 academic journals, the vast majority published in Russian, are popular among the country’s academics. A 2019 study found that Russian authors publish far more in domestic journals than, for instance, their counterparts in Poland, Germany, or Indonesia. But standards are often low. In March 2018, for instance, Dissernet, a network aimed at cleaning up the Russian literature, identified more than 4000 cases of plagiarism and questionable authorship among 150,000 papers in about 1500 journals.

And Russian authors frequently republish their own work, says Yury Chekhovich, CEO of Antiplagiat, a plagiarism detection company. In September 2019, after sifting through 4.3 million Russian-language studies, Antiplagiat found that more than 70,000 were published at least twice; a few were published as many as 17 times. Chekhovich believes most instances are due to self-plagiarism. Meanwhile, the website 123mi.u claims to have brokered authorships for more than 10,000 researchers by selling slots on manuscripts written by others that were already accepted by journals.

In many ways this report reflects the overall corruption that appears to permeate the upper echelons of Russian culture. Rather than do real science and report it to the world, Russian scientists publish in Russian in ways that get them in-house promotions but do little to advance science.

That this investigation was conducted by the Russian Academy of Sciences however is a positive sign. It indicates a desire to clean things up.

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Arsonists the cause of most of Australia’s bushfires

It ain’t climate change: Police in Australia have arrested almost two hundred arsonists, suspected of the causing the bulk of the bushfires that have been sweeping the country.

Thus the cause is not global warming, an absurd claim that has been made repeatedly over the past few months by various climate scientists who in their spare time make their livings as either actors or activists. As noted in the article at the link:

Melbourne University Professor Janet Stanley, quoted in the Australian, said that the arsonists were typically young males aged 12 to 24 or older men in their 60s – generally from an unsettled background. She said, “They are often kids not succeeding in school, or they have left school early and are unemployed. The boundaries between accidentally and purposefully are unclear because many arsonists don’t plan on causing the catastrophe that occurs. Often there is not an intention to cause chaos and the penalties for accidentally lighting a fire are far less than purposefully lighting a fire.”

What is especially sad is that these actors and celebrities expect us to take them seriously, when it is very clear they haven’t faintest idea what they are talking about. Worse, news outlets seem to think their ignorant opinions are worth reporting, as if they carry real weight in the discussion.

Think about it. Why should any adult give any credence to the opinions of a teen-age girl about the science of climate when she is intentionally not attending school and therefore is intentionally not getting educated? No adult should. That so many do, including many politicians (who also known nothing about the subject), speaks volumes about the decay and childishness of our culture today.

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TESS finds its first Earth

Worlds without end: TESS has discovered its first Earth-sized planet, orbiting a M dwarf star within the habitable zone.

TOI 700 is a small, cool M dwarf star located just over 100 light-years away in the southern constellation Dorado. It’s roughly 40% of the Sun’s mass and size and about half its surface temperature. The star appears in 11 of the 13 sectors TESS observed during the mission’s first year, and scientists caught multiple transits by its three planets.

The star was originally misclassified in the TESS database as being more similar to our Sun, which meant the planets appeared larger and hotter than they really are. Several researchers, including Alton Spencer, a high school student working with members of the TESS team, identified the error.

“When we corrected the star’s parameters, the sizes of its planets dropped, and we realized the outermost one was about the size of Earth and in the habitable zone,” said Emily Gilbert, a graduate student at the University of Chicago. “Additionally, in 11 months of data we saw no flares from the star, which improves the chances TOI 700 d is habitable and makes it easier to model its atmospheric and surface conditions.”

We could also give this story the subhead “the uncertainty of science.” Note how a revision of the star’s mass changed the planet’s. Though I am sure they have improved their estimate of the star, this error illustrates how easy it is to get a final astronomical conclusion wrong. There are always a lot of assumptions long the way, any one of which could have a margin of error significant enough to change the final result.

In other TESS news, the space telescope has also found an exoplanet orbiting a stellar binary system of two stars.

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Astronomers predict nova outburst later this century

Based on the rate of material spiraling from one star to another in a nearby stellar binary system, astronomers now predict that the two stars will merge sometime between 2067 and 2099, producing a nova that will among the brightest stars in the sky, visible to the naked eye for about a month.

From the press release:

Currently, the faint star V Sagittae, V Sge, in the constellation Sagitta, is barely visible, even in mid-sized telescopes. However, around the year 2083, this innocent star will explode, becoming as bright as Sirius, the brightest star visible in the night sky. During this time of eruption, V Sge will be the most luminous star in the Milky Way galaxy. … “We now have a strong prediction for the future of V Sge,” said Professor Emeritus Bradley E. Schaefer, LSU Department of Physics & Astronomy. “Over the next few decades, the star will brighten rapidly. Around the year 2083, its accretion rate will rise catastrophically, spilling mass at incredibly high rates onto the white dwarf, with this material blazing away. In the final days of this death-spiral, all of the mass from the companion star will fall onto the white dwarf, creating a supermassive wind from the merging star, appearing as bright as Sirius, possibly even as bright as Venus.”

“V Sge is exponentially gaining luminosity with a doubling time scale of 89 years,” said Frank. “This brightening can only result with the rate of mass falling off the normal companion star increasing exponentially, ultimately because the binary orbit is in-spiraling rapidly.”

“In anticipation of this fast decaying of the orbit, the fate of V Sge is sealed,” stated Schaefer. “The critical and simple physics are derived from V Sge having the companion star being much more massive than the white dwarf star, so forcing the rate of mass transfer to rise exponentially. Anticipating the next few decades, V Sge will in-spiral at a rapid pace with increasing brightness. Inevitably, this in-spiral will climax with the majority of the gas in the normal star falling onto the white dwarf, all within the final weeks and days. This falling mass will release a tremendous amount of gravitational potential energy, driving a stellar wind as never before seen, and raise the system luminosity to just short of that of supernovae at peak.”

This explosive event will have peak brightness over a month, with two stars merging into one star. The end result of the merger will produce a single star with a degenerate white dwarf core, a hydrogen-burning layer, surrounded by a vast gas envelope mostly of hydrogen.

The press release has not yet been posted, but the press materials for the announcement can be found here.

If their hypothesis turns out to be true, it will be the first such event ever predicted.

Note that they are not predicting a supernova, an event caused by a variety of ways (all related to the death of a star). This is a less spectacular nova event, though because of its relative nearness will be very bright in our sky.

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Sunspot update: The record flatline continues

In the month of December 2019 the Sun continued its longest stretch of overall sunspot inactivity ever recorded, reaching seven months in length. At no point since the last grand minimum in the 1600s have scientists ever seen so few sunspots over so long a time period.

Below is NOAA’s December update of its graph showing the long term sunspot activity of the Sun. As I have done now every month since this webpage began in 2011, it is posted below, with annotations:
» Read more

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Newly discovered repeating fast radio burst breaks rules

The uncertainty of science: Astronomers have discovered the second fast radio burst that also repeats its bursts, and the discovery occurred in a place where such bursts were not expected to occur.

On 19th June 2019, eight telescopes from the European VLBI Network (EVN) simultaneously observed a radio source known as FRB 180916.J0158+65. This source was originally discovered in 2018 by the CHIME telescope in Canada, which enabled the team to conduct a very high resolution observation with the EVN in the direction of FRB 180916.J0158+65. During five hours of observations the researchers detected four bursts, each lasting for less than two thousandths of a second.

…With the precise position of the radio source the team was able to conduct observations with one of the world’s largest optical telescopes, the 8-m Gemini North on Mauna Kea in Hawaii. Examining the environment around the source revealed that the bursts originated from a spiral galaxy named SDSS J015800.28+654253.0, located half a billion light years from Earth. The bursts come from a region of that galaxy where star formation is prominent.

“The found location is radically different from the previously located repeating FRB, but also different from all previously studied FRBs”, explains Kenzie Nimmo, PhD student at the University of Amsterdam. “The differences between repeating and non-repeating fast radio bursts are thus less clear and we think that these events may not be linked to a particular type of galaxy or environment. It may be that FRBs are produced in a large zoo of locations across the Universe and just require some specific conditions to be visible.”

The actual locations of only five such bursts have been identified, so any generalization about their origin or nature seems premature anyway.

The American Astronomical Society (AAS) is having its semi-annual convention right now in Hawaii, which is why we are suddenly having a burst of astronomy-related press announcements.

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New evidence: dark energy might not exist

The uncertainty of science: New evidence once again suggests that the assumptions that resulted in the invention of dark energy in the late 1990s might have been in error, and that dark energy simply might not exist.

New observations and analysis made by a team of astronomers at Yonsei University (Seoul, South Korea), together with their collaborators at Lyon University and KASI, show, however, that this key assumption is most likely in error. The team has performed very high-quality (signal-to-noise ratio ~175) spectroscopic observations to cover most of the reported nearby early-type host galaxies of SN Ia, from which they obtained the most direct and reliable measurements of population ages for these host galaxies. They find a significant correlation between SN luminosity and stellar population age at a 99.5% confidence level. As such, this is the most direct and stringent test ever made for the luminosity evolution of SN Ia. Since SN progenitors in host galaxies are getting younger with redshift (look-back time), this result inevitably indicates a serious systematic bias with redshift in SN cosmology. Taken at face values, the luminosity evolution of SN is significant enough to question the very existence of dark energy. When the luminosity evolution of SN is properly taken into account, the team found that the evidence for the existence of dark energy simply goes away.

…Other cosmological probes, such as CMB (Cosmic Microwave Background) and BAO (Baryonic Acoustic Oscillations), are also known to provide some indirect and “circumstantial” evidence for dark energy, but it was recently suggested that CMB from Planck mission no longer supports the concordance cosmological model which may require new physics. Some investigators have also shown that BAO and other low-redshift cosmological probes can be consistent with a non-accelerating universe without dark energy. In this respect, the present result showing the luminosity evolution mimicking dark energy in SN cosmology is crucial and is very timely.

There was also this story from early December, also raising questions about the existence of dark energy.

Bottom line: The data that suggested dark energy’s existence was always shallow with many assumptions and large margins of uncertainty. This research only underlines that fact, a fact that many cosmologists have frequently tried to sweep under the rug.

Dark energy still might exist, but it behooves scientists to look coldly at the data and always recognize its weaknesses. It appears in terms of dark energy the cosomological community is finally beginning to do so.

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Hubble captures giant galaxy

Giant spiral galaxy imaged by Hubble
Click for full image.

Cool image time! The above image, cropped and reduced to post here, was compiled from images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2018 of one of the largest known spiral galaxies.

One of the most photogenic is the huge spiral galaxy UGC 2885, located 232 million light-years away in the northern constellation, Perseus. It’s a whopper even by galactic standards. The galaxy is 2.5 times wider than our Milky Way and contains 10 times as many stars, about 1 trillion. This galaxy has lived a quiescent life by not colliding with other large galaxies. It has gradually bulked up on intergalactic hydrogen to make new stars at a slow and steady pace over many billions of years. The galaxy has been nicknamed “Rubin’s galaxy,” after astronomer Vera Rubin (1928 – 2016). Rubin used the galaxy to look for invisible dark matter. The galaxy is embedded inside a vast halo of dark matter. The amount of dark matter can be estimated by measuring its gravitational influence on the galaxy’s rotation rate.

This majestic spiral galaxy might earn the nickname the “Godzilla Galaxy” because it may be the largest known in the local universe. The galaxy, UGC 2885, is 2.5 times wider than our Milky Way and contains 10 times as many stars.

But it is a “gentle giant,” say researchers, because it looks like it has been sitting quietly over billions of years, possibly sipping hydrogen from the filamentary structure of intergalactic space. This fuels modest ongoing star birth at half the rate of our Milky Way. In fact, its supermassive central black hole is a sleeping giant, too; because the galaxy does not appear to be feeding on much smaller satellite galaxies, it is starved of infalling gas.

There are mysteries here, many of which we are as yet entirely unaware of yet.

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Yutu-2 completes 13th lunar day

China’s Yutu-2 lunar rover and its lander Chang’e-4 have completed their thirteenth lunar day on the far side of the Moon and have been placed in sleep mode.

During the twelve lunar day the rover traveled about 12 meters, or about 40 feet.

The rover has found materials from deep inside the moon that could help unravel the mystery of the lunar mantle’s composition and the formation and evolution of the moon and the earth. Using data obtained by the visible and near-infrared spectrometer installed on Yutu-2, Chinese scientists found that the lunar soil in the landing area of the Chang’e-4 probe contains olivine and pyroxene which came from the lunar mantle deep inside the moon.

Due to the complicated geological environment and the rugged and heavily cratered terrain on the far side of the moon, the rover drives slowly but steadily and is expected to continue traveling on the moon and make more scientific discoveries.

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Betelguese fades a full magnitude

Long term observations of the red giant star Betelguese have found it to have faded a full magnitude in the past few months, dropping it from 6th brightest in the sky to the 21st.

You will see a lot of bad journalism related to this story, hyping the fact that Betelguese is considered one of the top nearby stars to someday in the far future go supernovae. However, the recent change in brightness is unlikely related to this and is nothing unusual, as the star fluctuates regularly.

The current faintness of Betelgeuse appears to arise from the coincidence of the star being near the minimum light of the ~5.9-yr light-cycle as well as near, the deeper than usual, minimum of the ~425-d period.

The star is definitely interesting, because it is so large (if placed in our solar system its surface would be around the orbit of Jupiter) and so defuse, more like a partly filled gasbag. However, the odds of it going supernovae in the near future is quite unlikely.

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