NASA delivers first grant in 30 years to support the search for extraterrestrial intelligence

NASA has funded a new research collaborative research effort between Harvard, the Smithsonian Institutions, and the University of Rochester to search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). This is the first NASA grant for SETI in three decades and the first ever to search for signs of ET that aren't radio transmissions. Instead, the scientists will look for technosignatures in the atmosphere that reveal the use of advanced technology on other planets. From Harvard:

"Technosignatures relate to signatures of advanced alien technologies similar to, or perhaps more sophisticated than, what we possess," said Avi Loeb, Frank B. Baird Jr. Professor of Science at Harvard. "Such signatures might include industrial pollution of atmospheres, city lights, photovoltaic cells (solar panels), megastructures, or swarms of satellites." [...]

"We pollute Earth’s atmosphere with our industrial activity," said Loeb. “If another civilization had been doing it for much longer than we have, then their planet's atmosphere might show detectable signs of artificially produced molecules that nature is very unlikely to produce spontaneously, such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs)." The presence of CFCs—or refrigerant—therefore, could indicate the presence of industrial activity. [...]

"My hope is that, using this grant, we will quantify new ways to probe signs of alien technological civilizations that are similar to or much more advanced than our own," said Loeb. "The fundamental question we are trying to address is: are we alone? But I would add to that: even if we are alone right now, were we alone in the past?"

image: "3D rendering of a Dyson sphere utilizing large, orbiting panels," Kevin Gill (CC BY 2.0) Read the rest

"My dad launched the quest to find alien intelligence. It changed astronomy."

In 1960, Frank Drake, an astronomer at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, launched Project Ozma, the first scientific effort to listen for radio communications from extraterrestrials. Frank, now 90, is still serious about SETI, writing research papers and advising scientists who are listening to the stars for signs of intelligent life. (I came to know Frank and his lovely and inspiring family while I was working on the vinyl reissue of the Voyager Golden Record; Frank was the technical director of the original Voyager Record in 1977!) In celebration of Father's Day, talented science journalist Nadia Drake (aka Frank's daughter), wrote in National Geographic about the history of her dad's Project Ozma and the current state of SETI. From National Geographic:

[Drake] designed an experiment to search for signals coming from worlds that could be orbiting the nearby stars Epsilon Eridani and Tau Ceti. He named the experiment Project Ozma, after the princess in L. Frank Baum’s Oz series—an homage to an adventure tale populated by exotic and unearthly beings.

Before sunrise on April 8, 1960, Drake climbed an 85-foot radio telescope in Green Bank, West Virginia, jammed himself inside a trash-can-size piece of equipment, and launched humanity’s first scientific search for extraterrestrial intelligence—now known as SETI. For three months the telescope scanned its targets and found nothing more than cosmic static. The stars were stubbornly quiet.

“That was a disappointment,” Dad told me a few years ago. “We’d hoped that, in fact, there were radio-transmitting civilizations around almost every star.”

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NASA released this astonishing image in celebration of Hubble's 30th anniversary

Thirty year ago today, the space shuttle Discovery carried the Hubble Space Telescope into orbit, opening up a new vista on our place in the universe.

In celebration of the anniversary, NASA released this astounding Hubble image of a region where stars are born in the Large Magellanic Cloud, one of the closest galaxies to our own at 163,000 light-years away. The image depicts a giant red nebula (NGC 2014) and a smaller blue nebula (NGC 2020).

According to NASA, "the image is nicknamed the 'Cosmic Reef,' because it resembles an undersea world."

"Hubble has given us stunning insights about the universe, from nearby planets to the farthest galaxies we have seen so far," said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science.

More about the image in the below video: Read the rest

Here comes the sun -- our closest star is spitting out mysterious gamma rays

In their upcoming study, so far published on the preprint server arXiv and submitted to Physical Review Letters, Linden and his colleagues examined a decade’s worth of data from NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope to better analyze the sun’s emission of gamma rays—the universe’s most energetic form of electromagnetic radiation.

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Mars, Saturn, Jupiter, and the Moon will line up on April 14, 15, 16

Good news, everyone! Read the rest

Tonight is a supermoon, the largest full Moon this year

Tonight's full Moon is a "Pink Moon" aka "Passover Moon" aka "Paschal Moon" aka "Hanuman Jayanti" aka supermoon, the largest full moon of 2020. From NASA:

The term "supermoon" was coined by the astrologer Richard Nolle in 1979 and refers to either a new or full Moon that occurs within 90% of perigee, its closest approach to Earth in a given orbit. Under this definition, in a typical year there can be 3 or 4 full Supermoons in a row and (about half a year apart) 3 or 4 new Supermoons in a row. In practice, what catches the public's attention are the full Moons that appear biggest and brightest each year. For 2020, the four full Moons from February to May meet this 90% threshold, with the full Moons in March and April nearly tied in size and brightness. This full Moon will be slightly closer to the Earth (about 0.1%) than the March full Moon was, so this will be the "most super" of the full supermoons this year.

image: NASA/Bill Dunford Read the rest

Undersea telescope seeks out dark matter

More than 125 of these curious soccer ball-sized glass spheres hang near the floor of the Mediterranean Sea. Even though they're deep underwater, they're keeping a constant vigil for neutrinos, particles that may be evidence of dark matter, supernovae, and neutron stars far off in intergalactic space. Eventually, the Cubic Kilometer Neutrino Telescope (KM3NeT) will consist of 6,000 spheres suspended across one cubic kilometer of seawater. Often, neutrino detectors are located deep underground because the Earth itself helps isolate the instrument from background radiation and cosmic rays so the neutrinos are more easily spotted. From Scientific American:

“Perhaps one or two neutrinos in a million will interact with quarks inside the nucleus of either hydrogen or oxygen” in the water, says the project's physics and software manager, Paschal Coyle of the Marseille Particle Physics Center. “Because the cosmic neutrinos possess very high energy, the result of such interactions is the release of a charged particle that travels very fast.”

In fact, it travels through the water faster than light can, producing an effect Coyle likens to an optical equivalent of the Concorde jet's sonic boom. Researchers can determine the original neutrinos' energy and direction using the faint light released—so-called Cherenkov radiation—picked up by the undersea sensors.

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One year from today, our knowledge of the cosmos could dramatically change (if all goes according to plan)

The nearly US$10 billion James Webb Space Telescope is set to take off aboard an Ariane 5 rocket one year from today.

Scientists and space enthusiasts of all stripes are excited about what this successor to the Hubble Telescope will further our understanding of the cosmos. Forbes science writer Jamie Carter:

“Webb” will study the solar system, directly image exoplanets, photograph the first galaxies, and explore the mysteries of the origins of the Universe. By detecting infrared light, Webb will be able to look further back in time than any other telescope thus far.

Webb is the most ambitious and complex space science telescope ever constructed, and tantalizingly soon it will be the plaything of scientists ... or, at least, that’s the plan.

Then the sad reality of how our world and the timelines for everything might be impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Originally conceived in the 1990s and at first expected to launch in 2007, Webb has been beset by delays—the latest being COVID-19—but at the time of writing the massive telescope was safely in its cleanroom at Northrop Grumman in Redondo Beach, California, and March 30, 2021, was still the target date for Webb’s launch. However, there could be an announcement on April 15, 2020 about a new schedule.

Read the rest of the Forbes piece. Read the rest

NASA's stunning image of our galactic center

Last July, NASA released this wonderful composite image of the galactic center of the Milky Way.

The central region of our galaxy, the Milky Way, contains an exotic collection of objects, including a supermassive black hole weighing about 4 million times the mass of the Sun (called Sagittarius A*), clouds of gas at temperatures of millions of degrees, neutron stars and white dwarf stars tearing material from companion stars and beautiful tendrils of radio emission.

The region around Sagittarius A* is shown in this new composite image with Chandra data (green and blue) combined with radio data (red) from the MeerKAT telescope in South Africa, which will eventually become part of the Square Kilometer Array (SKA).

Read more about the Chandra X-ray Observatory and it's 20th anniversary, also celebrated last July.

Image credit: X-Ray:NASA/CXC/UMass/D. Wang et al.; Radio:NRF/SARAO/MeerKAT Read the rest

139 new TNOs (trans-Neptunian objects) discovered while doing a dark energy survey

While conducting a Dark Energy Survey (DES) beyond Neptune, a team of scientists, led by a grad student at the University of Pennsylvania, have identified 139 new TNOs (trans-Neptunian objects). TNOs are any "minor planets" (asteroids, dwarf planets, and other similar objects) that orbit the Sun beyond Jupiter.

Astronomers have spotted hundreds of tiny worlds lurking in the deep, dark outer reaches of the solar system, beyond the orbit of Neptune.

These minor planets, known as trans-Neptunian objects (TNOs), “are relics of major dynamical events among and beyond the giant planets,” according to a study published this week in The Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series.

Some 139 new TNOs, out of 316 detections total, are reported in the study, which was led by Pedro Bernardinelli, a graduate student in physics and astronomy at the University of Pennsylvania. That’s a big haul considering that the current catalog of TNOs contains only about 3,000 objects, and was possible thanks to the Dark Energy Survey (DES) at the Victor M. Blanco Telescope in Chile.

The team has only analyzed 4 of the 6 years of collected data. When finished, they suspect they will add around another 200 TNOs to their tally.

Read the rest of the piece on Vice.

Image: Public Domain Read the rest

Biggest explosion ever seen in the Universe

A massively powerful eruption has been detected in the Ophiuchus galaxy cluster, located about 390 million light years from Earth. It is the biggest such event ever observed.

In some ways, this blast is similar to how the eruption of Mt. St. Helens in 1980 ripped off the top of the mountain,” said Simona Giacintucci of the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, DC, and lead author of the study. “A key difference is that you could fit fifteen Milky Way galaxies in a row into the crater this eruption punched into the cluster’s hot gas.

Astronomers made this discovery using X-ray data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and ESA’s XMM-Newton, and radio data from the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) in Australia and the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope (GMRT) in India.

Read the rest on SciTechDaily.

Image: Credits: X-ray: Chandra: NASA/CXC/NRL/S. Giacintucci, et al., XMM-Newton: ESA/XMM-Newton; Radio: NCRA/TIFR/GMRT; Infrared: 2MASS/UMass/IPAC-Caltech/NASA/NSF Read the rest

Getting to know 2015 TG 387, aka "the Goblin," an unconfirmed dwarf planet lurking in the Ort cloud

Have you heard of the Goblin? It's a likely dwarf-sized planet named that because it was discovered around Halloween, 2015. The Goblin travels in a 32-thousand-year orbit around our sun. It is currently 7.5 billion miles away, somewhere in the mysterious Oort Cloud area of the solar system. The Goblin is one of the farthest known objects within our solar system.

Image: YouTube Read the rest

Breathtaking image of a red giant star swallowing another star

Astronomers captured this incredible image of a double-star system where a red giant star appears to have "engulfed the other (star) which, in turn, spiraled towards its partner provoking it into shedding its outer layers." The scientists spotted this astounding event using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) radio telescope in the Chilean Andes. From the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) announcement:

Thanks to new observations with ALMA, complemented by data from the ESO-operated Atacama Pathfinder EXperiment (APEX), Olofsson and his team now know that what happened in the double-star system HD101584 was akin to a stellar fight. As the main star puffed up into a red giant, it grew large enough to swallow its lower-mass partner. In response, the smaller star spiralled in towards the giant’s core but didn’t collide with it. Rather, this manoeuvre triggered the larger star into an outburst, leaving its gas layers dramatically scattered and its core exposed.

The team says the complex structure of the gas in the HD101584 nebula is due to the smaller star’s spiralling towards the red giant, as well as to the jets of gas that formed in this process. As a deadly blow to the already defeated gas layers, these jets blasted through the previously ejected material, forming the rings of gas and the bright bluish and reddish blobs seen in the nebula.

A silver lining of a stellar fight is that it helps astronomers to better understand the final evolution of stars like the Sun.

Here's the scientific paper: HD 101584: circumstellar characteristics and evolutionary status (Astronomy Astrophysics) Read the rest

Where are the Voyager spacecraft headed and what might they encounter next?

In this video on the UK-based V101 Science YouTube channel they ask the musical question: "What will Voyager 1 and 2 encounter next?"

Next stop for Voyager 1? An obscure red dwarf known as Gliese 445 in the constellation Camelopardalis. It will take the then long-dead spacecraft over 38,000 years to get there. Voyager 2 is hellbound in the direction of Sagittarius and will arrive in the neighborhood in some 40,000 years. Its first encounter will be with Ross 248 in the constellation of Andromeda.

Of course, we all know what's really going to happen to at least one of these probes. It's going to be picked up by a highly-evolved machine race and turned into the heart of a vast killer plasma cloud that will return to our solar system and try to destroy Earth. Read the rest

You are looking at 84 million stars in the heart of the Milky Way -- how small do you feel now?

My God, it's full of stars!

To create this unprecedented view of the Milky Way, ESO combined thousands of individual images from VISTA, taken through three different infrared filters, into a single monumental mosaic. These data form part of the VVV public survey and have been used to study a much larger number of individual stars in the central parts of the Milky Way than ever before. Because VISTA has a camera sensitive to infrared light it can see through much of the dust blocking the view for optical telescopes. The results are truly mesmerizing!

More info here. See a zoomable version of the image here.

Image: ESO/VVV Survey/D. Minniti (CC BY 4.0) Read the rest

First asteroid found inside orbit of Venus: Caltech

Some extra-planetary Caltech news to take your mind off Earth

Reports Caltech: “A rare asteroid orbiting snugly within the inner confines of our solar system has been discovered by Caltech's Zwicky Transient Facility, or ZTF, a survey camera based at Palomar Observatory. The newfound body, named 2020 AV2, is the first asteroid found to orbit entirely within the orbit of Venus.” Read the rest

Andrew McCarthy's astronomical photography

Andrew McCarthy, posting on Instagram as Cosmic Background, takes amazing astronomical photographs. Pictured above a breathtakingly detailed shot of the moon constructed from 100,000 individual photographs. You can buy prints of this and other works of his at his online store.

My first lunar image of 2020 is also one of my most detailed. This is a blend of around 100k photos, which allowed me to sharpen the image and overcome some of the fuzzing caused by our turbulent atmosphere. The colors you see are real, caused by variations in the composition of the regolith. This first quarter moon also is one of the best for showing crater detail, as the long shadows long the terminator really make the details pop.

Below is a rather menacing photo of the sun looming behing Mercury.

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Behold, the transit of Mercury! This is little guy at around 9:45am Pacific this morning. I captured hundreds of thousands of frames of the event so I could build an animation, but didn't want to wait so long before sharing something. Mercury is about the size of our moon, so seeing it like this really puts the scale of the sun in perspective. #mercurytransit2019 #astrophotography #space #astronomy #opteam #optcorp #meadeinstruments #mercury

A post shared by Andrew McCarthy (@cosmic_background) on Nov 11, 2019 at 11:17am PST

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After I posted a picture of some star trails taken from my backyard I had a lot of positive feedback and requests for prints, but frankly I knew I could do better.

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