Archive for Outer Space

Rare doomed planet with extreme seasons discovered

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Illustration provided by the University of Heidelberg of the orbit of Kepler-432b (inner, red) in comparison to the orbit of Mercury around the Sun (outer, orange). The red dot in the middle indicates the position of the star around which the planet is orbiting. The size of the star is shown to scale, while the size of the planet has been magnified ten times for illustration purposes. (Graphic: Dr. Sabine Reffert)

A rare planet has been discovered, and it doesn’t seem like a stop anyone would want to make on an intergalactic cruise. Found by two research teams independently of each other, Kepler-432b is extreme in its mass, density, and weather. Roughly the same size of Jupiter, the planet is also doomed- in 200 million years it will be consumed by its sun. “Kepler-432b is definitively a rarity among exoplanets around giant stars: it is a close-in gas-giant planet orbiting a star whose radius is ‘quickly’ increasing,” Davide Gandolfi, from the Landessternwarte Koenigstuhl (part of the Centre for Astronomy of the University of Heidelberg), told FoxNews.com. “The orbit of the planet has a radius of about 45 million kilometers [28 million miles] (as a reference point, the Earth-Sun distance is about 150 million kilometers [93.2 Million miles]), while most of the planets known to orbit giant stars have wider orbits. The stellar radius is already 3 million kilometers [almost 2 million miles] (i.e., about 4 times the Sun radius) and in less than 200 million years it will be large enough for the star to swallow up its planet.”

Gandolfi, a member of one of the research groups who discovered the rare planet, explains that much like Jupiter, Kepler-432b is a gas-giant celestial body composed mostly of hydrogen and helium, and is most likely to have a dense core that accounts for 6 percent or less of the planet’s mass. “The planet has a mass six times that of Jupiter, but is about the same size!” he says. “This means that it is not one of the largest planets yet discovered: it is one of the most massive!” The planet’s orbit brings it extremely close to its host star on some occasions, and very far away at others, which creates extreme seasonal changes. In its year – which lasts 52 Earth days – winters can get a little chilly and summers a bit balmy, to say the least. According to Gandolfi, “The highly eccentric orbit brings Kepler-432b at ‘only’ 24 million kilometers [15 million miles] from its host star, before taking it to about three times as far away. This creates large temperature excursions over the course of the planet year, which is of only 52 Earth days. During the winter season, the temperature on Kepler-432b drops down to 500 degrees Celsius [932 degrees Fahrenheit], whereas in summer it can goes up to nearly 1000 degrees Celsius [1832 degrees Fahrenheit].”

Then again, if you are crazy enough to visit Kepler-432b, you’d better do it fast. As stated before, its host star is set to swallow the planet whole in 200 million years, making the celestial body a rare find. “The paucity of close-in planets around giant stars is likely to be due to the fact that these planets have been already swallowed up by their host stars,” Gandolfi says. “Kepler-432b has been discovered ‘just in time before dinner!” The host star, which is red and possesses 1.35 times the mass of our sun, has partly exhausted the nuclear fuel in its core, and is slowly expanding, eventually growing large enough to swallow Kepler-432b. According to Gandolfi, this is a natural progression for all stars. “Stars first generate nuclear energy in their core via the fusion of Hydrogen into Helium,” he explained. “At this stage, their radii basically do not change much. This is because the outward thermal pressure produced by the nuclear fusion in the core is balanced by the inward pressure of gravitational collapse from the overlying layers. In other words, the nuclear power is the star pillar! Our Sun is currently ‘burning’ hydrogen in its core (please note that I used quotes: ‘burning’ does not mean a chemical reaction- we are talking about nuclear fusion reaction). However, this equilibrium between the two pressures does not last forever. Helium is heavier than hydrogen and tends to sink. The stellar core of the Kepler-432b’s host star is currently depleted of hydrogen and it is mainly made of inert helium. The star generates thermal energy in a shell around the core through the nuclear fusion of hydrogen into helium. As a result of this, the star expands and cools down. This is why we call it ‘red giant’- the reddish color comes from the fact that the external layers of the atmosphere of the star are cooling down because they expand.”

Both research teams (the other was from the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg) used Calar Alto Observatory’s 7.2- foot telescope in Andalucia, Spain. The planet was also studied by Landessternwarte Koenigstuhl researchers using the 8.5-foot Nordic Optical Telescope on La Palma, which is located in Spain’s Canary Islands.

Mountain-size asteroid to fly by Earth: How NASA will watch

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Mountain-sized asteroid to zoom past Earth

A mountain-size asteroid will zoom past Earth Monday, marking the closest pass by such a large space rock until 2027.

Asteroid 2004 BL86, which is about 1,800 feet wide, will come within 745,000 miles of our planet Monday — about three times the distance between Earth and the moon. While this flyby poses no threat to Earth, it does present a rare opportunity to get a good look at a near-Earth asteroid, NASA officials say.

Scientists are eager to study 2004 BL86 to pinpoint its orbit, observe its surface and even look for moons. The plan is to track the fast-moving asteroid using the 230-foot dish-shaped Goldstone antenna at NASA’s Deep Space Network in California, as well as the 1,000-foot  Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. These radio dishes will beam microwave signals at the asteroid, which will then bounce off the target and return to Earth. [Photos: Potentially Dangerous Asteroids]

“For objects that get this close, that are this large, the radar observations are really analogous to a spacecraft flyby in terms of the caliber of the data that we can get,” said Lance Benner of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, who is the principal investigator for the Goldstone observations of the asteroid.

The resulting black-and-white images can reveal unprecedented details about asteroids, whereas most ground-based telescopes would see only a point of light. But the first item on the team’s checklist will be to nail the space rock’s location in space and time. This will enable a better understanding of the object’s orbit and its future motion, scientists say.

Even though 2004 BL86 poses no threat to Earth for the foreseeable future, it’s still a good idea to keep a close eye on the asteroid, Benner said.

“Really, it’s an inexpensive form of insurance to monitor these objects on a regular basis,” he told Space.com.

Benner also postulates that such work will benefit commercial companies that plan to visit and mine asteroids in the future.

 

The researchers expect to obtain resolutions as fine as 13 feet per pixel, so the images of 2004 BL86 should reveal details as small as the length of a typical car. This will allow the scientists to assess how rugged or smooth the space rock’s surface is.

“It’s expected to be one of the best radar-imaging targets of this calendar year,” Benner said.

If Benner and his colleagues get enough images as the object spins, they can start to reconstruct its three-dimensional shape in order to understand how it rotates. They also plan to search for any moons in tow. About 17 percent of asteroids in 2004 BL86’s size range tend to have smaller objects trailing along with them.

The Goldstone antenna will track the asteroid for 5 to 6 hours most nights from Jan. 27 to Feb. 1. The Arecibo Observatory, however, will only be able to spot 2004 BL86 on the night of Jan. 27. Its radar is not fully steerable, and the space rock will be zipping through the sky at 2 degrees (roughly four times the width of the moon) per hour.

“The thing that excites us the most is that we don’t know anything about it, but it’s likely that we’ll learn a great deal and see a lot of detail,” Benner said. “Whenever one of these objects comes really close like this, it offers such an outstanding opportunity — we almost always see things we haven’t seen before. And so we’re expecting some kind of surprise.”

You can watch 2004 BL86’s flyby in visible light (as opposed to radar observations) live online Monday via the Virtual Telescope Project in Italy.

Editor’s note: If you capture a telescope view of asteroid 2004 BL86 during its flyby and want to share it with Space.com, you can send images and comments to managing editor Tariq Malik at: spacephotos@space.com.

 

1-year space station mission may pave NASA’s way to Mars

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Backdropped by Earth, the International Space Station is seen in an image taken by a crew member onboard the space shuttle Endeavour in this undated NASA handout photo. (REUTERS/NASA/Handout via Reuters)

The first crew to embark on a yearlong International Space Station mission could help NASA get to Mars.

NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko will launch to the space station in March with cosmonaut Gennady Padalka. Kornienko and Kelly will remain on the orbiting outpost performing research until March 2016. This mission will mark the first time a crew has spent a continuous year on the space station, and researchers are planning to take advantage of it. Scientists and doctors on the ground will monitor the way Kelly and Kornienko’s bodies change throughout the year in order to understand the potential effects of long-term spaceflight (like a mission to Mars) more fully.

“As a test pilot and as an engineer, what fascinates me is the space station as a whole experiment,” Kelly said during a news conference Jan. 15. “Traveling around Earth at 17,500 mph in a vacuum, extremes of temperature and pressure, building this facility that allows us to understand how to operate for long periods of time in space to allow us someday to go to Mars.” [Most Extreme Human Spaceflight Records]

Astronauts will likely need to spend more than a year in weightlessness if flying to Mars. The kind of research that Kornienko and Kelly are expected to perform in orbit could be a first step toward understanding how to mitigate any harmful changes the body might go through during a long trip in space.

NASA officials have a good sense of how the body behaves when exposed to the rigors of spaceflight for up to six months, but after that, the data is a little hazy.

Kelly will be the first American to spend a full year in space, however, Kornienko will not be the first cosmonaut to do so. A number of Russians spent a continuous year on the Mir space station in the 1980s and 1990s.

“We know a lot about six months, but we know almost nothing about what happens between six and 12 months in space,” Julie Robinson, a space station program scientist, said during the news conference yesterday. Kelly and Kornienko’s one-year mission is designed to help fill in the gaps between what the body experiences after six months versus what it experiences after one year.

Kornienko and Kelly’s eyes will be monitored for any changes to their eyesight or ocular health during the mission, NASA officials said. Astronauts have noticed changes in intracranial pressure due to fluid shifts that can result in possibly negative changes to the eyes, scientists have said.

Scientists are also interested in monitoring the microbial environment (microbiome) inside the crewmembers, keeping tabs on their physical performance, fine motor skills, metabolism and other health factors throughout the mission.

Once the two crewmembers are back on the ground, officials will test their ability to perform certain tasks that might be needed once a group arrives on Mars for the first time after a long spaceflight. Explorers might need to perform tasks like light construction of a habitat, or moving items around, with some dizziness and other symptoms induced by arriving back in a higher gravity environment.

Those ground tests are “looking at the practical tasks that astronauts have to do after a transit to Mars, things they would have to do right away after they land on Mars,” Robinson said. “One thing that crewmembers would have to do is get out of their suits, get out of the protection that they’ve been in for a pretty rough landing. They have to be able to jump out of a vehicle perhaps, jumping down some stairs.”

 

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft releases new images of dwarf planet Ceres

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This processed image, taken Jan. 13, 2015, shows the dwarf planet Ceres as seen from the Dawn spacecraft. The image hints at craters on the surface of Ceres. Dawn’s framing camera took this image at 238,000 miles from Ceres. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA)

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft is approaching the dwarf planet Ceres and new images released Monday show a closer view of the planet’s surface.

“We know so much about the solar system and yet so little about dwarf planet Ceres. Now, Dawn is ready to change that,” said Marc Rayman, Dawn’s chief engineer and mission director, according to a news release from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The NASA spacecraft is scheduled to conduct a 16-month study of Ceres and will send increasingly better and better images as it gets closer to the planet. It is the first time a spacecraft has ever visited a dwarf planet.

“Already, the [latest] images hint at first surface structures such as craters,” said Andreas Nathues, lead investigator for the framing camera team at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Gottingen, Germany.

The images, taken by Dawn 238,000 miles from Ceres on January 13, are at about 80 percent the resolution of Hubble Space Telescope images taken in 2003 and 2004. The next set of images to be released by Dawn – at the end of January – will be the clearest yet, NASA says.

Ceres, which lies between Mars and Jupiter, has an average diameter of 590 miles and is the largest body in the main asteroid belt. It is believed to contain a large amount of ice and scientists say the surface of the planet could be concealing an ocean.

“The team is very excited to examine the surface of Ceres in never-before-seen detail,” said Chris Russell, principal investigator for the Dawn mission. “We look forward to the surprises this mysterious world may bring.”

The Dawn spacecraft has already delivered more than 30,000 images of Vesta – the second largest body in the main asteroid belt – during an orbit in 2011 and 2012.

Air Force UFO files hit the Web

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File photo. A sign off route U.S. 285, north of Roswell, New Mexico, points west to the alleged 1947 crash site of a flying saucer on the Corn Ranch. (Reuters)

From eyewitness accounts of “trails of light” streaking across the sky to sightings of flying saucers, now amateur Mulder and Scullys alike can see if the truth really is out there by poring over almost 130,000 pages of declassified UFO documents that are now available online, reports MilitaryTimes.com. After spending decades filing Freedom of Information Act requests, John Greenewald, a UFO enthusiast, posted declassified records from Project Blue Book — the U.S. Air Force’s records on alleged UFO and extraterrestrial sightings — on an online database.

The Air Force project was based out of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio and ran from 1947 to 1969. Through the project, the Air Force amassed a total of 12,618 recorded sightings. Out of that total, 701 incidents remain “unidentified.” A University of Colorado report called the “Scientific Study of Unidentified Flying Objects” found that “there has been no evidence indicating that sightings categorized as ‘unidentified’ are extraterrestrial vehicles,” according to a 1985 Air Force fact sheet. Project Blue Book officially ended on Dec. 17, 1969.

While the documents do not shed any new light on UFO sightings, they do not quiet the fascination both conspiracy theorists and the casual “X-Files” fan have with alleged sightings of extraterrestrial aircraft.

“People have this fascination when it comes to UFOs,” Greenewald told the New York Daily News. “We can have our speculation that it’s top secret, but we simply don’t know.”

While Project Blue Book files have long been available to the public on microfilm at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., this marks the first time that the complete collection of declassified documents has been made available through a searchable online database.

One thing that may disappoint UFO fans is the scant reference to Roswell, New Mexico in the database. Conspiracy theorists claim the U.S. military found and covered up evidence of an alien spaceship crash in the alleged 1947 Roswell incident.

According to the fact sheet, “the National Archives has been unable to locate any documentation among” the project’s records “which discuss the 1947 incident in Roswell, New Mexico.”

The Roswell location itself does make a few brief appearances in the files. The database includes a few blurry images of lights in the sky that were taken at the New Mexico location in 1949. Additionally, a 1950 document mentions airmen at Roswell reporting a “bluish-white” circular object 10 feet in diameter speed by at 8,000 feet.

Some things might always remain a mystery.

After 17 years in orbit, how durable is the International Space Station?

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FILE- In this April 20, 2014, image made from a frame grabbed from NASA-TV, the SpaceX Dragon resupply capsule begins the process of being berthed on to the ISS. (AP Photo/NASA-TV, File)

Even though the ammonia leak that forced a partial evacuation of the International Space Station’s U.S. section on Wednesday proved to be a false alarm, the news did raise questions on the station’s durability.

Since the station’s inception in 1998, the habitable satellite has endured a multitude of maintenance issues, from pump failures to damaged panels. “We’ve had other, what have turned out to be more serious, problems on the space station,” NASA spokeswoman Stephanie Schierholz told FoxNews.com. “For example, there was an actual ammonia pump failure [in 2010], and so it had to be replaced and required space walks. The actions we took [Wednesday] were for a worst-case scenario like that.”

The now 17 year-old International Space Station (ISS) has been occupied for 5,187 days and circled the Earth 92,357 times, so a little wear-and-tear would seem unavoidable.  While the station has been in orbit since 1998, it actually wasn’t completed until recently.

“The first piece of the space station was put in orbit [in 1998], but the assembly actually took quite a bit of time, and wasn’t completed until 2011,” Schierholz said. “We were using the space shuttle to complete the building of the ISS, because we would bring pieces of the station up in the space shuttle, so every time we brought up a new piece it’d change the configuration. So the building of the space station took quite a bit of time.”

The road to the station’s assembly saw more than its fair share of bumps along the way. Following the space shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003, there was a two-and-a-half year suspension of the U.S. shuttle program, leading to a large waste accumulation aboard the ISS that held up operations in 2004. A computer failure in 2007 left the station temporarily without thrusters and oxygen generation, followed by a torn solar panel that same year which required astronaut Scott Parazynski to make a daring impromptu spacewalk on the end of the space shuttle’s OBSS inspection arm. In 2010 there was the aforementioned ammonia pump failure, which, according to Schierholz, “would be the top [maintenance issue that has come up] from an unexpected work/volume of work-required [standpoint]. The interesting thing about all these [problems] is that they’re anticipated failures — we train the astronauts for them. We do plan space walks to replace parts that we expect or are at the end of their life cycle. This failed sooner than we expected it to.”

The following year saw the station almost collide with what is becoming a rapidly rising threat: orbital debris. With more and more “dead” satellites in orbit, the possibility of one of them hitting the ISS is a growing one. These satellites sometimes slam into one another, the ensuing blast creating thousands of pieces of orbital debris.

“They are an issue,” Schierholz said, “because if something were to hit the space station – the ISS is traveling at 17,500 mph, a piece of debris could be travelling at the same speed, and there’s going to be some damage that’s caused as a result of that. The U.S. Air Force tracks any piece of debris that’s bigger than a golf ball, and there’s a certain amount of protection from micrometeroid debris, which is natural stuff in the universe that is too small to cause any real problems. But any debris that was put there as a result of an accident is a concern to us, especially because we have people on board.” To avoid disaster, thrusters are fired to adjust the station’s orbit out of harm’s way.

So after 17 years of dodging space junk and enduring technical problems, the question remains: how much longer can the ISS stay operational? According to NASA, for as long as the U.S. and its international partners pay to maintain it.

“The space station is certified for a particular lifetime,” Schierholz said. “So that’s how we assess the future lifespan of the space station.”

The NASA spokeswoman explained that certification involves ensuring that spare parts and backup supplies are available to keep the space station running.

“Currently it’s certified through 2020, and the President of the United States has said that they will extend it to 2024,” she added. “But then the other piece of it is making sure that it’s funded, that we have more international support for continuing to operate the space station.” As for the ISS lasting beyond 2024, “that’s more of a matter of supplies and being able to repair parts that break,” said Schierholz.

Sweet! Deep-space sugars may reveal clues about origins of life

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By studying analogs of deep space ice, scientists might be able to learn more about how life on Earth could have evolved. (Courtesy of de Marcellus et al. Other Resources url: n/a)

Sugars may form in the types of ice found in deep space — a finding that could help to explain how comets and meteorites could have seeded the primordial Earth with key ingredients for life, researchers say.

In the dense molecular clouds from which stars and planetary systems are born, ices are, by far, the most abundant solids. Prior research had found that cosmic rays and ultraviolet radiation can help convert the chemicals that make up the bulk of these interstellar ices into complex organic matter, such as the precursors of proteins and fats.

“Ices are abundant in the interstellar medium, and it is unavoidable that some of them will receive energy from ultraviolet photons or cosmic rays, leading to molecular complexification,” study co-author Louis Le Sergeant d’Hendecourt, an astrophysicist at the Space Astrophysics Institute in Orsay, France, told Space.com. [5 Bold Claims of Alien Life]

Now, scientists have detected sugars in experiments that mimic the way interstellar ices can evolve over time. Sugars are more than just sweet nutrients; they serve as the backbones of nucleotides, which, in turn, serve as the building blocks of the nucleic acids that make up DNA and its cousin RNA.

“DNA is the genetic source code for all known living organisms,”study co-author Uwe Meierhenrich, a chemist at the University of Nice Sophia Antipolis in France, told Space.com.

In the experiments, scientists created thin films made up of frozen water, methanol and ammonia in a vacuum chamber kept at minus 319 degrees Fahrenheit. They irradiated these ices with ultraviolet rays to mimic how such material would evolve over time in interstellar space. Then, they slowly warmed the samples to room temperature and analyzed them.

In a first-of-its-kind discovery, the researchers detected compounds known as aldehydes. Most sugars derive from these compounds; the simplest and best-known example of an aldehyde is formaldehyde.

Among the 10 aldehydes the scientists detected were two sugar-related compounds, glycolaldehyde and glyceraldehyde — key precursors of nucleic acids, the building blocks of genetic material.

“Glyceraldehyde is a molecule of outstanding importance,” Meierhenrich said.

The researchers cautioned that their experiments did not create life, but rather only the key building blocks for life. Still, they said these findings may help reveal how ancient comets and meteorites might have seeded a lifeless Earth and other planets with the chemistry needed for life to evolve.

Future research into interstellar ices can explore the mystery of why the compounds that make up life on Earth usually come in one form but not the other, the researchers said. Many organic molecules can come in two different forms that are mirror images of each other, like left and right hands. DNA on Earth is usually “right-handed,” not “left-handed,” because the sugar that makes up DNA’s backbone is “right-handed.” In the future, the scientists would like to investigate whether sugars in interstellar ices might also be either left-handed or right-handed.

The scientists detailed their findings online Jan. 12 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

NASA investigates building a cloud city on Venus

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Handout image courtesy of NASA shows the planet Venus shortly before its transit of the Sun, June 5, 2012. (REUTERS/NASA/AIA/Solar Dynamics Observatory/Handout)

Just like out of a “Star Wars” movie, NASA is investigating the possibility of building a blimp-suspended city in the clouds high above Venus’ searing-hot surface. The project, known as the High Altitude Venus Operational Concept (HAVOC), is a spacecraft designed by the Systems Analysis and Concepts Directorate at NASA Langley Research Center for the purpose of exploring Earth’s closest neighbor. “There’ve been plenty of robotic missions along the way that have been proposed to explore Venus,” Project Head Dale Arney told FoxNews.com. “This one [is] looking at what it would take to explore it with humans and what the feasibility looks like in that realm.”

Despite Venus being closer to Earth than Mars by a few hundred million miles (depending on orbit), space agencies have been focusing their exploration efforts primarily on the red planet, and for good reason. While Venus has a similar density and chemical composition to Earth, the surface conditions have led researchers to refer to the planet as the solar system’s version of Hell. The mean temperature is a balmy 863 degrees Fahrenheit, the clouds are made of sulfuric acid, and there are more volcanoes (totaling, in some estimates, over 1,000,000) than on any other planet in the Milky Way. The air pressure is also 92% percent higher than Earth’s at sea level. Probes landing on the planet’s surface have only lasted, at most, two hours.

The HAVOC project, created by Arney and Chris Jones, would get around this problem by staying high above these hellish conditions — 30 miles above the surface, to be exact. First, a robotic probe would be sent to Venus to inspect the atmospheric conditions. Next, a crew would visit the planet’s orbit for a stay of 30 days, followed by a 30-day stay floating in the atmosphere. The primary feature of the concept is a 130 meter-long mobile blimp, its top covered with solar panels to utilize Venus’ close proximity to the sun. The helium-filled, solar-powered craft would hover above the highly acidic cloud-line for 30 days as a crew gathers information about the planet’s atmosphere.

While a permanent human presence in a blimp-suspended “cloud city” is the ultimate goal, Jones is quick to point out that they’re taking things one step at a time. “What we focused on in this study was understanding what an initial robotic and an initial, very short-term human mission would look like, and then just very notionally thought about what you could then build to beyond that — something like a more permanent presence. But our primary focus was on understanding what kind of technology system it would take to do any kind of mission at all, mainly to do the science and test out the technology it would need in order to enable those kinds of missions.”

A mission to Venus could be used as a test-run for crewed missions to Mars, the former taking 440 days using existing or near-term propulsion technology while a trip to the red planet would take 500 days at a minimum. Astronaut teams would also have the choice to abort a Venus mission and return to Earth immediately after arrival, whereas missions to Mars would have no such option: the crew would have to wait on the planet until just the right orbital alignment occurred for a safe return home.

So when can we expect to see an actual mission? NASA currently has no plans to send humans to Venus and according to the Langley branch’s head of public affairs Michael Finneran it may be a while before they do. “This is a visionary concept that is not being proposed for funding as a mission,” Finneran says. “If at some point NASA decided to fund a human mission to Venus, many concepts would be examined over a period of time before one was selected.”

Milky Way’s monster black hole unleashes record-breaking X-ray flare

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The brightest flare ever seen near the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy was spotted by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory. (NASA/CXC/Amherst College/D.Haggard et al)

The giant black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy recently spit out the largest X-ray flare ever seen in that region, astronomers say.

The enormous eruption from the Milky Way’s core was detetected on Sept. 14, 2013, very close to the supermassive black hole known as Sagittarius A*. Pronounced “Sagittarius A star” and abbreviated as Sgr A*, the Milky Way’s monster black hole has a mass that is about 4.5 million times that of the sun. Scientists unveiled the discovery of the record-breaking flare this month at the 225th meeting of the American Astronomical Society.

The so-called “megaflare” flare was spotted by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, which can peer through dust and starlight to the center of the Milky Way. The event was 400 times brighter than the normal level of radiation from this region and nearly three times brighter than the previous record-holding flare, recorded in 2012. A second X-ray flare, with a flash 200 times brighter than normal levels, was then seen on Oct. 22, 2014. [No Escape: Black Holes Explained (Infographic)]

Daryl Haggard, of Amherst College in Massachusetts, presented the findings at a news conference here at the AAS meeting on Jan. 5. Haggard and her colleagues have two possible explanations for what might have caused the flare. First, the black hole may be behaving like our own sun, which also emits bright X-ray flares. In the sun, these flares occur when magnetic-field lines become very tightly packed together or twisted, and the researchers said it’s possible something similar took place near the black hole.

It’s also plausible that the flare was the product of Sgr A* having a snack. An asteroid or other object may have come too close to the black hole, ripping it apart. The debris would have accelerated rapidly and potentially radiated a bright burst of X-rays.

“If an asteroid was torn apart, it would go around the black hole for a couple of hours — like water circling an open drain — before falling in,” Fred Baganoff, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a member of the research team,said in a statement. “That’s just how long we saw the brightest X-ray flare last, so that is an intriguing clue for us to consider.”

Researchers saw the flare by chance while watching Sgr A* in anticipation of a different event: A gas cloud called G2 was set to make a close pass by Sgr A*, and some scientists hypothesized that material from G2 would fall into the black hole, generating a bright display of X-rays, NASA officials said in a statement. But no X-ray signal was detected as G2 made its closest approach to Sgr A*. The new flares do not appear to be part of the missing light show, according to Haggard.

“We do not think flares are connected to the G2 object,” Haggard said. “And the reason for that is that the time scales don’t quite match. The time scale for these flares is fairly rapid — thousands of seconds,” or an hour or two, she said.

This time scale is characteristic of an object roughly one astronomical unit (the distance from the Earth to the sun) from Sgr A*, Haggard added. G2’s closest approach to Sgr A* was 150 astronomical units, “so the time scale doesn’t quite match up,” she added.

Haggard and her colleagues are hoping for flares from Sgr A*. With more detailed observations, she said, it might be possible to discern whether Sgr A* is rotating or stationary — a feature that can change aspects of a black hole’s physiology.

Do Mars rover photos show potential signs of ancient life?

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File photo. (REUTERS/NASA/Handout)

A careful study of images taken by the NASA rover Curiosity has revealed intriguing similarities between ancient sedimentary rocks on Mars and structures shaped by microbes on Earth. The findings suggest, but do not prove, that life may have existed earlier on the Red Planet.

The photos were taken as the Mars rover Curiosity drove through the Gillespie Lake outcrop in Yellowknife Bay, a dry lakebed that underwent seasonal flooding billions of years ago. Mars and Earth shared a similar early history. The Red Planet was a much warmer and wetter world back then.

On Earth, carpet-like colonies of microbes trap and rearrange sediments in shallow bodies of water such as lakes and coastal areas, forming distinctive features that fossilize over time. These structures, known as microbially-induced sedimentary structures (or MISS), are found in shallow water settings all over the world and in ancient rocks spanning Earth’s history. [The Search for Life on Mars: A Photo Timeline]

Nora Noffke, a geobiologist at Old Dominion University in Virginia, has spent the past 20 years studying these microbial structures. Last year, she reported the discovery of MISS that are 3.48 billion years old in the Western Australia’s Dresser Formation, making them potentially the oldest signs of life on Earth.

In a paper published online last month in the journal Astrobiology (the print version comes out this week), Noffke details the striking morphological similarities between Martian sedimentary structures in the Gillespie Lake outcrop (which is at most 3.7 billion years old) and microbial structures on Earth.

The distinctive shapes include erosional remnants, pockets, domes, roll-ups, pits, chips and cracks, which on Earth can extend from a few centimeters to many kilometers.

Although Noffke makes a tantalizing case for possible signs of ancient life on Mars, her report is not a definitive proof that these structures were shaped by biology. Getting such confirmation would involve returning rock samples to Earth and conducting additional microscopic analyses, a mission that isn’t scheduled anytime in the near future.

“All I can say is, here’s my hypothesis and here’s all the evidence that I have,” Noffke says, “although I do think that this evidence is a lot.”

“The fact that she pointed out these structures is a great contribution to the field,” says Penelope Boston, a geomicrobiologist at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology. “Along with the recent reports of methane and organics on Mars, her findings add an intriguing piece to the puzzle of a possible history for life on our neighboring planet.”

A careful analysis

“I’ve seen many papers that say ‘Look, here’s a pile of dirt on Mars, and here’s a pile of dirt on Earth,'” says Chris McKay, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center and an associate editor of the journal Astrobiology. “And because they look the same, the same mechanism must have made each pile on the two planets.'” [Life on Mars? The Exploration and Evidence]

McKay adds: “That’s an easy argument to make, and it’s typically not very convincing. However, Noffke’s paper is the most carefully done analysis of the sort that I’ve seen, which is why it’s the first of its kind published in Astrobiology.”

The images on which Noffke drew are publicly available on the Mars Science Laboratory page on NASA’s website.

“In one image, I saw something that looked very familiar,” Noffke recalls. “So I took a closer look, meaning I spent several weeks investigating certain images centimeter by centimeter, drawing sketches, and comparing them to data from terrestrial structures. And I’ve worked on these for 20 years, so I knew what to look for.”

Noffke compared the rover pictures to images taken at several sites on Earth, including modern sediment surfaces in Mellum Island, Germany; Portsmouth Island, USA; and Carbla Point, Western Australia; as well as older fossils of microbial mats in Bahar Alouane, Tunisia; the Pongola Supergroup in Africa; and the Dresser Formation in Western Australia.

The photos showed striking morphological similarities between the terrestrial and Martian sedimentary structures. [Poll: Do You Think Life Exists on Mars Now?]

The distribution patterns of the microbial structures on Earth vary depending on where they are found. Different types of structures are found together in different types of environments. For instance, microbial mats that grow in rivers will create a different set of associations than those that grow in seasonally flooded environments.

The patterns found in the Gillespie Lake outcrop are consistent with the microbial structures found in similar environments on Earth.

What’s more, the terrestrial structures change in a specific way over time. As the microbial mats form, grow, dry up, crack and re-grow, specific structures become associated with them. Here again, Noffke found that the distribution pattern in Martian rocks correspond with microbial structures on Earth that have changed over time. Taken together, these clues strengthen her argument beyond simply pointing out the similarities in shape.

In her paper, she also describes alternative processes through which these could have formed. For instance, the chips, pits and cracks could be the product of erosion by salt, water, or wind.

“But if the Martian structures aren’t of biological origin,” Noffke says, “then the similarities in morphology, but also in distribution patterns with regards to MISS on Earth would be an extraordinary coincidence.”

“At this point, all I’d like to do is point out these similarities,” she adds. “Further evidence must be provided to verify this hypothesis.”

Confirmation pending

At the end of her report, Noffke outlines a detailed strategy for confirming the potential biological nature of the Martian structures. Unfortunately, one important step — returning samples to Earth for further analyses — is just not feasible yet. [Mars Could Have Supported Life, NASA Finds | Video]

Noffke also lists a series of measurements Curiosity could potentially do to strengthen the case if it came across such structures again, including looking for organic or chemical signatures using its Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument.

But McKay says this likely would not work. “In principle, that instrument could tell us something about the nature of these materials biologically, if there were still large amounts of biological organics in the samples,” he explains. “But these are just ancient sedimentary structures, and biology has long since left.”

“What’s more, in practice this instrument is restricted,” he adds. “There was a contamination spill in the instrument presumably during landing. So it has a very high background contamination level.”

On Earth, scientists typically confirm the biological nature of microbial sediment structures by searching for specific microscopic textures, which involves cutting rocks into thin slices and studying them under a microscope.

On Mars, this would be very difficult do from an engineering perspective, although McKay doesn’t rule out the possibility for future missions. “I don’t know if it can be done, but engineers are pretty smart,” he says. “If you give them a challenge, they usually find a solution.”

He adds: “A sample-return mission would be the gold standard. But that’s just unlikely to happen anytime soon.”

Follow Johnny Bontemps on Twitter. This story was provided by Astrobiology Magazine, a web-based publication sponsored by the NASA astrobiology program. Follow Space.com @Spacedotcom, Facebook and Google+.