The year 2020 in space discoveries

2020 has led to a multitude of discoveries and amazing science in all of astronomy (planetary, stellar, and extragalactic alike!) Here are some of the highlights from our ‘lookback’ in astronomy from the previous year!

(CNN)This year has been a tough one no matter where you live in the world, but discoveries beyond our planet and dazzling images of the cosmos provided a bright spot in 2020. Astronauts continued to safely travel to space, despite the pandemic, and even embarked on historic launches. And they taught us how to handle isolation.We learned more about our little corner of the universe as well as the vast reaches beyond it studded with strange stars — and even stranger exoplanets.

Hubble’s 30th anniversary

The Hubble Space Telescope launched 30 years ago in April, forever changing the way we see the universe. The telescope’s ethereal, dreamy and almost fantasy-like views of space vistas have inspired people for decades and led to some of the most important astronomical discoveries.

Hubble Space Telescope celebrates 30 years of discoveries and awe-inspiring images

Hubble Space Telescope celebrates 30 years of discoveries and awe-inspiring images Hubble has enabled astronomers around the world to study black holes, mysterious dark energy, distant galaxies and galactic mergers. This vital research instrument has observed planets outside of our solar system and where they form around stars, and star formation and death;and it has looked across 97% of the universe, effectively peering back in time.Hubble captured this image of a giant red nebula and smaller blue neighbor nebula to celebrate its 30th anniversary in April.Hubble captured this image of a giant red nebula and smaller blue neighbor nebula to celebrate its 30th anniversary in April.Hubble teams in 2020 have continued to release new images and contributed to a wealth of discoveries. Hubble’s scientists believe that the telescope will keep operating through at least 2025, if not longer.

Humans in space

This year marked 20 years of a continuous human presence on the International Space Station.

Some of the experiments launched on the space station this year included genetically enhanced “mighty mice” and Nickelodeon’s slime. What’s more, astronauts even tested baking cookies and growing their own salad ingredients in space.

Astronauts harvest radishes grown aboard the International Space Station

Astronauts harvest radishes grown aboard the International Space Station Astronauts also learned more about how their bodies adapt to space. A suite of studies revealed some of the genetic changes astronauts experience during long-term spaceflight, a crew had to handle a blood clot in space, and NASA astronaut Christina Koch set a new spaceflight record for women.Commercial cargo vehicles and crew transport provided by SpaceX are allowing more experiments and astronauts to travel to and from the space station — which means that even more scientific discovery is possible on the space station in the future. And the current crew recently received a VR camera and a new toilet based on astronaut feedback.

A long-lost comet

Comet NEOWISE brought delight as it streaked across our skies. It’s named after NASA’s Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, otherwise known as the NEOWISE mission, which discovered it in late March.A stork stands on a power lines pillar as the comet NEOWISE is seen in the sky above the village of Kreva, some 100 km northwest of Minsk, early on July 13, 2020. A stork stands on a power lines pillar as the comet NEOWISE is seen in the sky above the village of Kreva, some 100 km northwest of Minsk, early on July 13, 2020. By observing the comet, the researchers have learned that it’s about 3 miles in diameter, the average size for a comet with a long orbit. And it’s incredibly bright, even if it’s not as spectacular as Comet Hale-Bopp as witnessed in 1997. After disappearing from view, the comet continued on its very long orbit to the edge of the solar system. This is why we won’t see the comet again in our lifetimes — it takes thousands of years to travel the outer solar system before returning to the inner solar system. But, scientists point out, this means the comet isn’t exactly new, only new to us, because it previously passed through Earth’s skies when humans were present about 6,800 years ago.

Our peculiar neighbors

The moon, Venus, Mars and Jupiter all made news with new discoveries on each planet that are intriguing researchers. New research revealed there may be more water on the moon than previously believed, including on its sunlit surface. This water could be used as a resource during upcoming missions — like NASA’s return of humans to the lunar surface through the Artemis program.The first results returned by NASA’s InSight lander revealed that Mars is seismically active and experiences Marsquakes on a regular basis.

Our crazy finding suggesting life on Venus

Our crazy finding suggesting life on VenusVenus may have the ability to harbor life in its clouds. A gas on Earth was also detected in the atmosphere of Venus. The discovery of phosphine could hint at unknown processes occurring on Earth’s “twin.” Phosphine suggests the presence of life on Earth. And the idea of aerial life in the clouds of Venus is intriguing. While it’s not likely, researchers want to probe this idea more in the future.The lightning phenomenon known as a sprite depicted at Jupiter in this illustration. The lightning phenomenon known as a sprite depicted at Jupiter in this illustration. The Juno mission at Jupiter investigated water on the largest planet in our solar system, as well as observing blue sprites and elves twirling in the upper atmosphere of Jupiter. While it may sound like something out of a fantasy novel, sprites and elves are actually two types of quick, bright flashes of light, or transient luminous events. Juno and Hubble also spied monstrous storms and the planet’s jack-o’-lantern glow.

Asteroid samples postmarked for Earth

In October, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission briefly landed on the near-Earth asteroid Bennu and successfully collected a hefty sample from the asteroid’s surface that will be returned to Earth by 2023. It was the agency’s first mission to land on an asteroid and collect a sample, and the spacecraft sent back some great images of the historic moment.

Spacecraft cameras captured the moment OSIRIS-REx touched down on Bennu.Spacecraft cameras captured the moment OSIRIS-REx touched down on Bennu.Meanwhile, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Hayabusa2 mission dropped off its sample collection capsule, containing samples from the near-Earth asteroid Ryugu, in December before moving on to visit more asteroids. The sample is some of the first subsurface material ever collected from an asteroid. The samples from both asteroids could tell us more about how the solar system formed and how elements like water were delivered to Earth early in its history.

Betelgeuse, Betelgeuse, Betelgeuse

This year was all about Betelgeuse, a red giant star in the Orion constellation thought to be on the brink of a supernova explosion.The star began dimming in 2019 and continued in 2020, leading astronomers to think it may explode. This image shows the red supergiant star Betelgeuse as it was dimming in December 2019.This image shows the red supergiant star Betelgeuse as it was dimming in December 2019.But Hubble helped astronomers determine that the star ejected some of its material, which blocked light from the star. The star is typically one of the brightest in our sky. However, not all researchers agree on this scenario and continue to observe Betelgeuse.

Black holes in the spotlight

It’s kind of fitting that 2020 may go down in space discovery history as the year of the black hole — considering all of our plans for this year seemed to disappear down a black hole of their own. The 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded for black hole discoveries that revealed the “darkest secrets of the universe.”A record-breaking explosion created by a black hole 390 million light-years away was discovered by astronomers. Researchers compared the biggest explosion detected in the universe to the 1980 Mt. St. Helens eruption — except “you could fit fifteen Milky Way galaxies in a row into the crater this eruption punched” through a gaseous cluster in space, they said. This illustration depicts a star experiencing spaghettification as it's sucked in by a supermassive black hole.This illustration depicts a star experiencing spaghettification as it’s sucked in by a supermassive black hole.Astronomers discovered the long-sought intermediate-mass black hole, the size of which is between that of supermassive black holes and smaller black holes. This finding will help scientists understand how black holes evolve. The research team was able to confirm the observation of an intermediate-mass black hole, known as an IMBH, inside a dense cluster of stars.Gravitational waves were also detected from the merging of two black holes that included an intermediate-mass black hole.Researchers also found the closest black hole to Earth 1,000 light-years away, observed the beating heart of a supermassive black hole and detected light from two colliding black holes for the first time. And astronomers witnessed the “spaghettificaton” of a star as it was shredded and devoured by a supermassive black hole.

Weird exoplanets and rogue planets

Astronomers found baby exoplanets forming around stars, doomed exoplanets, whimsically named cotton candy exoplanets, Star Wars-esque planets, planets made of diamonds and the hottest exoplanet.Researchers also found an exoplanet orbiting a white dwarf, or dead star, for the first time, as well as an exposed planetary core orbiting a distant star. For the first time, they captured an image of two giant exoplanets orbiting a young sun-like star.

NASA names Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope in honor of agency's first chief astronomer

NASA names Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope in honor of agency’s first chief astronomerBut much of the excitement on the horizon is around rogue planets, or planets traveling through space that don’t orbit stars. Astronomers detected the smallest rogue planet in our Milky Way galaxy, and it’s between the sizes of Mars and Earth, earlier this year. Given the fact that rogue planets don’t emit light like stars, or even enough heat to be visible in infrared light, these otherwise invisible worlds are hard to spot. But NASA’s Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope, expected to launch in the mid-2020s, could reveal a multitude of rogue planets in our Milky Way galaxy.

Fast radio bursts from space

Mysterious radio signals from space have been known to repeat, but for the first time this year, researchers noticed a pattern in two separate series of bursts coming from distant sources in the universe. Fast radio bursts, or FRBs, are millisecond-long bursts of radio waves in space. The fast radio bursts known to have a repeating pattern that occurs every 16 days, while the other occurs every 157 days.

Fast radio burst may have come from the Milky Way

Fast radio burst may have come from the Milky Way Astronomers have yet to determine what causes these fast radio bursts, which are unpredictable but can be spotted and traced back to their origin using sensitive telescopes. The bursts are being used to find “missing matter” in the universe.And last month in a first, astrophysicists detected a fast radio burst that likely traveled to Earth from a particular type of neutron star in our Milky Way galaxy, accompanied by X-ray emissions.

A new look at our sun

After making its first close pass of the sun this year, the Solar Orbiter mission captured the closest images ever taken of the sun. In the images, there are small solar flares called “campfires” that can be seen near the sun’s surface. The scientists don’t yet know what exactly the campfires are, but they believe they could be “nanoflares,” or tiny sparks that help heat the sun’s outer atmosphere.

Solar Orbiter mission shares closest images of the sun, reveals 'campfires' near its surface

Solar Orbiter mission shares closest images of the sun, reveals ‘campfires’ near its surfaceThe first images returned by the National Science Foundation’s Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope revealed that the surface of our sun is a wild, violent place. Details in the images show plasma, which covers the sun, that appears to boil.The Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope has produced the highest resolution image of the sun's surface ever taken. The Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope has produced the highest resolution image of the sun’s surface ever taken. Every 11 years, the sun completes a solar cycle of calm and stormy activity and begins a new one. The sun just wrapped its first year of a new cycle.The new solar cycle, Solar Cycle 25, officially began in December 2019. Solar Cycle 25 will be very similar to the one we just experienced for the last 11 years. The next solar maximum, when the sun is experiencing peak activity, is predicted to occur in July 2025. During that time, it’s possible for solar flares or other eruptions for the sun to disrupt communications on Earth.

A glance at space in 2021

If 2020 was the year of multiple missions launching to Mars — China’s Tianwen-1, the United Arab Emirates’ Hope Probe and NASA’s Perseverance rover — then 2021 will likely be the year of new discoveries on Mars.

The Perseverance rover is on its way to Mars. What's next?

The Perseverance rover is on its way to Mars. What’s next? The year 2021 could also see the first observations from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope after its October launch and “first light” from the Vera C. Rubin Observatory in Chile. First light is the first astronomical image captured by a telescope after it is completed.And NASA’s Artemis program is expected to ramp up. The science goals for the mission and the first team of 18 Artemis astronauts were announced in 2020. The Artemis program seeks to land the first woman and the next man on the moon in 2024, so updates about the goals, training and preparation for Artemis are expected throughout 2021.

Story reprinted from here: (Author Credit): Ashley Strickland, CNN

Don’t Miss The Rare Close Approach of Jupiter and Saturn!

This evening, on 21 December 2020, you may be able to catch a phenomena not seen since 4 March 1226, which occurred roughly ~800 years ago. As viewed from the Earth, it will appear as these two planets, Jupiter and Saturn will ‘merge’ into one, which could be a fantastic sight for astrophotographers! The featured image was today’s Google Search Picture of the Day, and here at iPLEX, this is a reminder to go outside, observe, and be aware of the world around you, also to keep a focus for ongoing news and studies done in the science of the Solar System, and Exoplanets! Below, is a guide to help you find and observe Jupiter and Saturn in the night sky!

‘Great Conjunction’ 2020: NASA tips to see Jupiter and Saturn shine as a ‘Christmas Star’

Jupiter and Saturn will align in the night sky on Dec. 21 in an event astronomers call the “great conjunction” — also referred to as the “Christmas Star” — marking the planets’ closest encounter in nearly 400 years.

When Saturn and Jupiter converge on Dec. 21, the two planets may appear as a bright point of light that will be easily visible in the night sky. The two planets have slowly been moving closer to each other over the past few weeks.

A conjunction occurs when planets appear incredibly close to one another in the sky because they line up with Earth in their respective orbits. 

“You can imagine the solar system to be a racetrack, with each of the planets as a runner in their own lane and the Earth toward the center of the stadium,” Henry Throop, an astronomer in NASA’s Planetary Science Division, said in a NASA statement. “From our vantage point, we’ll be able to see Jupiter on the inside lane, approaching Saturn all month and finally overtaking it on December 21.”

Related: Get ready for the ‘Great Conjunction’ of Jupiter and Saturn

A rare alignment

While Saturn and Jupiter’s orbits bring the planets into alignment once every 20 years or so, this year marks the first time since 1623 that the two gas giants have passed this close to one another. 

This year’s great conjunction also marks the first time in nearly 800 years since the planets aligned at night and skywatchers were able to witness the event. (The 1623 conjunction wasn’t visible to skywatchers on much of the Earth because of its location in the night sky, so the last time the event was visible was in 1226.) 

The planets will be closest to each other in the sky on Dec. 21, appearing only a tenth of a degree apart. They will remain in close alignment for a few days and will be easily visible to the naked eye when looking toward the southwest just after sunset. While the two planets may be viewed as one point of light, they will remain hundreds of millions of miles apart in space, according to the statement from NASA.

Coincidently, this year’s great conjunction also falls on the first day of winter in the Northern Hemisphere. As a result, some have referred to the planetary alignment as forming a “Christmas star,” in reference to the Star of Bethlehem, given the event falls only a few days before Christmas. 

“Conjunctions like this could happen on any day of the year, depending on where the planets are in their orbits,” Throop said in the statement. “The date of the conjunction is determined by the positions of Jupiter, Saturn and the Earth in their paths around the sun, while the date of the solstice is determined by the tilt of Earth’s axis. 

The solstice is the longest night of the year, so this rare coincidence will give people a great chance to go outside and see the solar system.”

How to see it

Image Credit: On Dec. 21, 2020, Jupiter and Saturn will appear just one-tenth of a degree apart, in an event known as a “great conjunction.” The planets will be visible to the naked eye when looking toward the southwest about an hour after sunset. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

To view the astronomical event, skywatchers should point their gaze toward an unobstructed part of the southwestern sky, about an hour after sunset since the planets will set below the horizon quickly. 

Leading up to the Dec. 21 conjunction, Saturn will appear slightly above and to the left of Jupiter. Then, the planets will reverse positions in the sky, NASA officials said in the statement. 

Jupiter and Saturn are bright, so they can be seen in areas with clear skies and no cloud cover — and even from most cities. This also means that the event can be seen with the naked eye. However, binoculars or a small telescope may allow viewers to see Jupiter’s four large moons, according to the statement. 

Follow Samantha Mathewson @Sam_Ashley13. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook. 

Story credit: Samantha Mathewson

Reprinted from: https://www.space.com/great-conjunction-jupiter-saturn-christmas-star-2020-nasa-tips

Hayabusa-2: Pieces Of An Asteroid Found Inside Space Capsule

The very first samples, in human history have been recovered from the surface of an asteroid named ‘Ryugu’ (Japanese for: “Dragon Palace”, a magical underwater palace in Japanese folklore). Mysterious ‘black particles’ are in the capsule chambers, which will each tell a story of what the pristine samples of asteroids look like. JAXA, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency will have the first look at these samples for about a year, before other scientists all around the world will be able to analyse them and perform new science!

Asteroid sample
Image Caption: Chunks of rock and dust from asteroid Ryugu, contained in chamber A of the capsule

Scientists have been greeted by the sight of jet black chunks of rock and soil from an asteroid after opening a capsule that returned from deep space a week ago.

It’s the first significant sample of material to be delivered to Earth from a space rock and was grabbed last year by Japan’s Hayabusa-2 spacecraft.

Researchers began opening the capsule on Monday (GMT) in Sagamihara, Japan.

The material was retrieved from an asteroid called Ryugu.

Hayabusa-2 reached the object in June 2018; it is believed to be one of the building blocks left over from the formation of the Solar System.

Scientists at the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (Jaxa) curation facility at Sagamihara have now opened one of three sample chambers inside the capsule.

This was hoped to contain particles of rock and soil from Hayabusa-2’s first touchdown on the asteroid in 2019. The spacecraft grabbed the material by firing a tantalum metal bullet into the surface and letting debris float up a collection tube under the low gravity.

Scientists had already been excited when they saw black grains from the asteroid caught at the entrance to the sample catcher (where the material is stored) on Monday. And they were not disappointed when they opened it: Inside was material ranging in size from pebbles to tiny particles of dust.

Ryugu
Image Caption: Hayabusa-2 reached Ryugu in June 2018

‘Pristine material’

However, this is just one of three chambers inside the capsule. Sample chamber B should be empty, but chamber C is thought to hold material collected from beneath Ryugu’s surface.

Scientists wanted to collect pristine material from Ryugu that had not been altered by exposure to the environment of space – including its radiation – for aeons. In order to do this, they had to use an explosive charge to propel a copper projectile into the surface of the asteroid.

This blasted a 20m-wide crater in Ryugu, allowing Hayabusa-2 to descend into the crater and grab the pristine particles, depositing them in chamber C.

Scientists should open this chamber in due course.

Jaxa has also announced that gas collected from the capsule is from the asteroid.

Sample caught at the entrance to the chamber
Image Caption: Some of the sample was caught at the entrance to the chamber

It was likely to have been liberated by the soil collected from Ryugu and is the world’s first sample of gas returned from deep space.

Asteroids are leftover building materials from the formation of the Solar System. They’re made of the same stuff that went into making rocky worlds like the Earth, but they continued to roam free, rather than being incorporated into planets.

Ryugu belongs to a particularly primitive class of space rock known as a C-type (or carbonaceous) asteroid.

In the early Solar System, such objects could have delivered much of the Earth’s water along with the ingredients necessary for life to get started.

When the spacecraft arrived at its target in 2018, scientists were surprised by just how dark Ryugu was. Its unexpected hue even forced controllers to adjust the laser altitude sensor used when the spacecraft approached the asteroid’s surface.

The Hayabusa-2 sample capsule returned to Earth on Saturday 5 December, parachuting down safely in the Australian desert near Woomera.

Follow Paul on Twitter.

Story reprinted from the BBC, credit to: Paul Rincon
Science editor, BBC News website

As NASA Has Selected The New Class of Astronauts, UCLA EPSS Alumni Jessica Watkins Gets Chosen Among The Newest People to Set Foot on The Moon

Former UCLA EPSS Graduate Student (under the direction of advisor Dr. An Yin also a fellow iPLEX member) has recently been selected by NASA’s new ARTEMIS Program to successfully land a man, and put the first woman on The Moon. Jessica’s strengths include working with Professor An Yin’s group working on planetary geology, more specifically, landslides on Valles Marineris (quite possibly, the DEEPEST chasm in the Solar System, and even bigger than the Grand Canyon!) Jessica Watkins also worked with the NASA Near-Earth Object Infrared Survey Explorer Mission (NEOWISE) currently observing asteroids and comets around the Solar System!

Read more about Dr. Jessica Watkins’ contributions to science, and the UCLA Institute for Planets and Exoplanets (iPLEX) here!

Chang’e-5 Successfully Lands On Moon To Collect Youngest Lunar Samples

In China’s latest endeavour to explore to the Moon, our closest neighbour in space, the next successor (and fifth in a series of many successful Chang’e missions), Chang’e-5 has just recently touched down on the Moon to collect what is believed to be the youngest Lunar samples. Landing on the surface of another planetary body in the Solar System is no easy feat! The lander completed a maneuver to be placed at Oceanus Procellarum with the samples expected to arrive back at the Earth in ~2 weeks time.

Great video about Chang’e-5 and its trajectory and mission!

Story Reprinted below from SpaceNews by Andrew Jones — December 1, 2020

HELSINKI — China’s Chang’e-5 has successfully landed on the moon in a major step towards obtaining the youngest lunar samples so far collected and delivering them to Earth.

The Chang’e-5 lander initiated a powered descent at 9:58 a.m. Eastern and successfully completed its soft landing near Mons Rümker in Oceanus Procellarum (“Ocean of Storms”) 10:11 a.m. Eastern.

The lander will within a few hours begin collecting samples by drilling up to two meters into the lunar regolith, with a scoop to later take material from the surface. Liftoff of a small spacecraft atop the lander will take place in around 48 hours.

A waiting lunar orbiter will collect the samples from the ascent vehicle and deliver them to Earth around December 16.

The mission is the first lunar sample return attempt since the end of the U.S. Apollo and Soviet Luna missions in the 1970s. It is hoped the radiometric dating of samples brought to Earth will confirm the age of rock units theorized geologically youthful. 

A relative lack of crater impacts observed in parts of this western edge of the moon suggest that it contains basaltic rocks created by late-stage volcanism which could be billions of years younger than those collected from Apollo and Soviet Luna landing sites.

Via: Andrew Jones @AJ_FI

“With the new age data, we can calibrate the crater counting method, being more precise for young events,” Dr. Lin Yangting, at the Institute of Geology and Geophysics in Beijing under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, told SpaceNews. Additionally, scientists will conduct compositional, mineralogical and radioisotope analysis to ascertain “the nature of the young basalt and its mantle reservoir, in order to understand why the basalt erupted so [much] later.”

Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science, tweeted his congratulations shortly after landing and expressed hopes that the samples could advance the international science community.

The four-module Chang’e-5 spacecraft launched on a Long March 5 rocket Nov. 23. It then embarked on a 112-hour to the moon and entered lunar orbit Nov. 28 before the spacecraft separated in preparation for the landing attempt. 

The lander is carrying science, imaging and sampling equipment along with the small ascent vehicle designed to lift samples back into lunar orbit. An orbiting service module remains in a lunar orbit ready to receive the samples, a process requiring an exacting and time-critical automated rendezvous and docking with the ascent vehicle.

Tuesday’s lunar landing is China’s third, following the Chang’e-3 and Chang’e-4 missions which touched down in 2013 and 2019 respectively. Chang’e-4 also made the first ever landing on the lunar far side with the aid of a relay satellite positioned beyond the moon.

Chang’e-5: Next steps

Now on the surface, the Chang’e-5 lander has 48 hours to carry out its science and sampling activities and prepare the ascent vehicle for liftoff. 20 hours are set aside for collecting around two kilograms of lunar materials. These will consist of 0.5 kilogram samples from drilling and 1.5 kilograms scooped from the surface and placed in a container aboard the ascent vehicle.

Then follows perhaps the most challenging stages of the complex Chang’e-5 mission. The  roughly 500-kilogram ascent vehicle will launch from atop the lander into a 15 by 185-kilometer orbit to meet up with the waiting service module, which is meanwhile performing phasing burns in lunar orbit. Around two days after ascent vehicle liftoff the two spacecraft will have a 3.5-hour window during which they must perform rendezvous and docking. 

China has conducted rendezvous and docking operations, both automated and manually, in low Earth orbit using Shenzhou crewed spacecraft, Tiangong space labs and Tianzhou cargo vessels. This operation will however be taking place nearly 400,000 kilometers from Earth, bringing not insignificant light-time delay. It would also be the first ever robotic docking operation in lunar orbit. 

After a successful docking the sample canister will be transferred from ascent vehicle to the reentry module attached to the service module. The ascent vehicle will then be jettisoned. The service module will spend 6-7 days in lunar orbit awaiting the optimal Earth return trajectory window for a reentry and landing at Siziwang Banner, Inner Mongolia 112 hours later.

The reentry vehicle will separate from the service module around 5,000 kilometers from Earth. A skip reentry, involving bouncing off the atmosphere—a maneuver tested by the Chang’e-5 T1 mission in 2014—to deal with the high-velocity return from the moon will follow. ESA tracking stations will support this critical phase as the spacecraft attempts reentry. 

Samples will then be transferred to specially constructed facilities in Beijing and Hunan for handling, analyzing and storing the lunar material. 

Fundamental questions

Bradley Jolliff, professor of Earth and planetary sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, says that remote sensing evidence for unusual concentrations of thorium, uranium, and potassium in the landing area pose interesting questions pertinent to Chang’e-5. “These are radiogenic heat-producing elements and may help us to understand why volcanism was so prolonged and extensive in the western Oceanus Procellarum region.”  

Additionally there is the possibility of the presence of “silicic volcanics” from the Mairan Domes in the collected material, which would provide added insight into potentially the complex lunar geology of the region.

Katherine Joy, a Reader in Earth Sciences at the University of Manchester, says the additional Chang’e-5 lander radar and imaging spectrometer instrument payloads will provide vital geological context for the returned samples. These will help “reveal the sub-surface nature of the landing site, for example, revealing the thickness of underlying soil and lava flows, and also the compositional diversity of the area.” 

These will “help [us] understand if the samples returned to Earth are representative of the area in which they were collected.” 

Joy and Jolliff state that development of robotic sample return technologies will assist in exploration of the moon, both as a step to crewed missions and providing ability to visit scientifically interesting areas which will not be targeted by human missions.

Backup mission, future goals

Chang’e-6 is a sample return spacecraft engineered at the same time as Chang’e-5 to provide a backup in the event of failure. Success of Chang’e-5 would however see Chang’e-6 repurposed for a landing at the lunar south pole around 2023.

China has stated it will then proceed into an extended phase of lunar exploration involving Chang’e-7 and further lunar landing missions. The aim will be to establish an ‘international lunar research station’ in the mid-to-late 2020s as a precursor to crewed landings.

Sample return technology and experience developed through Chang’e-5 is also to be utilized for planned near Earth asteroid and Mars sample return missions later in the decade. The complexity of the Chang’e-5 mission profile is considered by observers to be related to future crewed lunar landing ambitions.

“The Chinese space agency has demonstrated its capabilities several times now, and they have stayed on schedule with their ambitious plans for the past decade. They will probably do likewise with their manned exploration. I think we should cooperate in terms of the science. It’s a great way to do diplomacy,” says Jolliff.

Edited at 1:58 p.m. Eastern with landing time and tweet from NASA official

Puerto Rico: Iconic Arecibo Observatory Telescope Collapses

Very sad news comes to us today from Puerto Rico, with the Arecibo Observatory (a radio telescope used for decades pioneering advances in planetary and stellar astronomy) meeting its end after the 900 ton instrument platform collapsed this morning. While the telescope itself survived many natural disasters such as Earthquakes and hurricanes, the loss of support cables led to its decommissioning in November as it was unsafe for workers to fix. As of 07:55 local time, the demise of the telescope became well known and widespread with reports of loud noises and fear for locals in the vicinity. The loss of this telescope greatly impacts planetary astronomy and our knowledge of asteroids and comets in the Solar System, and beyond.

NEWLY RELEASED VIDEO FOOTAGE OF THE MOMENT THE COLLAPSE HAPPENS, INCLUDING DRONE FOOTAGE SHOWING THE COLLAPSE FROM ANOTHER ANGLE:

Video Credit: National Science Foundation (NSF)

This story has been re-printed from BBC News below:

A huge radio telescope in Puerto Rico has collapsed after decades of astronomical discoveries.

The US National Science Foundation (NSF) said the telescope’s 900-ton instrument platform fell onto a reflector dish some 450ft (137m) below.

It came just weeks after officials announced that the telescope would be dismantled amid safety fears, following damage to its support system.

The Arecibo Observatory telescope was one of the largest in the world.

It was a key scientific resource for radio astronomers for 57 years, and was also made famous as the backdrop for a scene in the James Bond film GoldenEye and other Hollywood movies.

The NSF said there had been no reports of injuries following the collapse.

Via Twitter: National Science Foundation
@NSF

The instrument platform of the 305m telescope at Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico fell overnight. No injuries were reported. NSF is working with stakeholders to assess the situation. Our top priority is maintaining safety. NSF will release more details when they are confirmed.

What happened to the telescope?

The NSF said the telescope collapsed at about 07:55 local time (11:55 GMT) on Tuesday, “resulting in damage to the dish and surrounding facilities”.

The telescope consisted of a 1,000ft-wide radio dish with an instrument platform hanging 450ft above. The platform was suspended by cables connected to three towers.

The NSF said an investigation into the platform’s fall was ongoing.

“Initial findings indicate that the top section of all three of the… telescope’s support towers broke off. As the 900-ton instrument platform fell, the telescope’s support cables also dropped,” it said in a statement.

“Preliminary assessments indicate the observatory’s learning centre sustained significant damage from falling cables,” it added.

Two cables had broken since August, damaging the structure and forcing officials to close the observatory.

A review last month found that the telescope was at risk of catastrophic collapse and said the huge structure could not be repaired without posing a potentially deadly risk to construction workers.

Officials said the structure would be dismantled.

Following the announcement, three members of Congress, including Puerto Rico’s representative Jenniffer González, requested funds “to enable the NSF to continue exploring options to safely stabilise the structure”.

Jonathan Friedman, who worked for 26 years as a senior research associate at the observatory and still lives near it, told the Associated Press news agency of the moment the telescope collapsed on Tuesday.

“It sounded like a rumble. I knew exactly what it was,” he said. “I was screaming. Personally, I was out of control… I don’t have words to express it. It’s a very deep, terrible feeling.”

The NSF said it was “saddened” by the collapse and would be “looking for ways to assist the scientific community and maintain our strong relationship with the people of Puerto Rico”.

“Top priorities are maintaining safety at the site, conducting a complete damage assessment as quickly as possible, and taking action to contain and mitigate any environmental damage caused by the structure or its materials.

“While the telescope was a key part of the facility, the observatory has other scientific and educational infrastructure that NSF will work with stakeholders to bring back online,” the agency said.

What is the history of the telescope?

By Paul Rincon, Science editor, BBC News website

The telescope was built in the early 1960s, with the intention of studying the ionised upper part of Earth’s atmosphere, the ionosphere. But it was soon being used as an all-purpose radio observatory.

Radio astronomy is a field within the larger discipline that observes objects in the Universe by studying them at radio frequencies. A number of cosmic phenomena such as pulsars – magnetised, rotating stars – show emission at radio wavelengths.

The observatory provided the first solid evidence for a type of object known as a neutron star. It was also used to identify the first example of a binary pulsar (two magnetised neutron stars orbiting around a common centre of mass), which earned its discoverers the Nobel Prize in Physics.

The telescope helped to make the first definitive detection of exoplanets, planetary bodies orbiting other stars, in 1992.

It has also been used to listen for signals from intelligent life elsewhere in the cosmos and to track near-Earth asteroids.

Over the years, the main dish appeared as a location in movies, including GoldenEye, Pierce Brosnan’s first outing as James Bond in 1995, and the 1997 science fiction drama Contact, starring Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey.

Full Original Article: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-55147973

Exploring Your Universe 2020!

UCLA’s largest science event is going virtual!

1 NOVEMBER 2020

12 – 5 pm PST

Interactive laboratories, demos, and Q&As from UCLA scientists into your home!

What is EYU?

Exploring Your Universe (EYU) is a free science fair that draws in thousands of children, parents, and friends from the Los Angeles community to our campus every first Sunday in November. Organized by UCLA graduate students and run by volunteers, this event has been a tradition to provide a day of free science education to all. For 12 years, EYU has provided fun, hands-on experiments and presentations to curious minds and young future scientists alike.

EYU 2020 will be held virtually due to COVID-19, but will still bring a day of fun, interactive science to your family wherever you are. Stay tuned for a complete list of this year’s events and please email us with any questions, comments, or suggestions.

Click below to reserve your free ticket!

By registering at the link above, you will secure a spot at EYU 2020 on our virtual platform designed specially for this event. As always, EYU is a free event for all attendees. But tickets are limited, so claim your spot today!

Everything Scientists Know So Far about the First Interstellar Objects Ever Detected

Check out this article that has been published in Scientific American, telling the story of the detection, and science involved with the first ever, interstellar visitor to our own Solar System; i.e. the object now known as 1I/‘Oumuamua, or, in Hawaiian: “a messenger from afar arriving first”

Article

Authors:

David Jewitt is an astronomer at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he studies the primitive bodies of the solar system and beyond. Credit: Nick Higgins
Amaya Moro-Martín is an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. She investigates planetary systems and extrasolar comets. Credit: Nick Higgins

Everything Scientists Know So Far about the First Interstellar Objects Ever Detected

Strange bodies from beyond the solar system have defied predictions

Late in the evening of October 24, 2017, an e-mail arrived containing tantalizing news of the heavens. Astronomer Davide Farnocchia of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory was writing to one of us (Jewitt) about a new object in the sky with a very strange trajectory. Discovered six days earlier by University of Hawaii astronomer Robert Weryk, the object, initially dubbed P10Ee5V, was traveling so fast that the sun could not keep it in orbit. Instead of its predicted path being a closed ellipse, its orbit was open, indicating that it would never return. “We still need more data,” Farnocchia wrote, “but the orbit appears to be hyperbolic.” Within a few hours, Jewitt wrote to Jane Luu, a long-time collaborator with Norwegian connections, about observing the new object with the Nordic Optical Telescope in Spain. Many other observatories around the world were simultaneously scrambling to spot it.

So began a new era in astronomy. Renamed C/2017 U1 (the “C” standing for “comet”), then A/2017 U1 (for “asteroid”) and, finally, 1I/‘Oumuamua, the object turned out to be the first body astronomers have ever seen in the solar system that originated outside it. The “1I” in its designation indicates its official status as the first known interstellar object, and the name ‘Oumuamua—“a messenger from afar arriving first” in Hawaiian—was proposed by Weryk and his colleagues, who had used the Pan-STARRS telescope on the Hawaiian island of Maui to make the discovery.

What first caught the observers’ attention was the object’s extreme speed relative to the sun. After accounting for the pull of the sun’s gravity, ‘Oumuamua had an excess speed of 26 kilometers a second (58,000 miles an hour). No interaction with a solar system body could generate such a kick, and the sun’s gravity cannot capture something moving so quickly; ‘Oumuamua had to have come from outside.

What kind of journey must this object have taken? From what we can tell, it could have been wandering the galaxy for hundreds of millions of years. Observations suggest that it came from the direction of the bright star Vega, in the constellation Lyra, although Vega would not have been in the same spot when ‘Oumuamua was there roughly 300,000 years ago.

Although astronomers have long believed that interstellar bodies pass through the solar system, actually finding one was a big surprise. Only the year before, an exhaustive analysis by Toni Engelhardt, then at the University of Hawaii, and his colleagues concluded that prospects for identifying such an interstellar interloper “appear to be bleak”—they were thought to be just too small and faint for us to have much hope of finding them. But as we discovered more about ‘Oumuamua, our surprise turned into utter bewilderment. Everything from its shape and size to its lack of cometlike properties ran counter to our expectations. If this was a typical visitor from the greater universe, we had a lot to learn.

2I/BORISOV, the second known interstellar visitor, was first spotted in 2019. Credit: Ron Miller

Alien Artifact or Cosmic Dust Bunny?

Observations from the Nordic Optical and other telescopes soon showed that ‘Oumuamua lacked a tail and a surrounding coma of sublimated dust and ice transitioning directly from solid to gas—the hallmarks of a comet. Rather, except for its unique orbit, ‘Oumuamua looked like a rocky asteroid. Still, given that it had come from interstellar space, where the average temperature is only a few degrees above absolute zero, the absence of evidence for sublimating ice was startling. Water, the most abundant molecule in the universe after molecular hydrogen, should have been present.

And then there was the object’s shape. Astronomers use the brightness of an asteroid as a measure of its size because bigger objects reflect more sunlight to Earth. ‘Oumuamua’s average brightness suggested a diameter of about 100 meters—quite small compared with most known asteroids. Indeed, if ‘Oumuamua had been as far away as the asteroid belt, where most of the asteroids in our solar system reside, we never would have seen it. Instead we got lucky: it passed very close to us—about 60 million kilometers, which is only 40 percent of the average distance between the sun and Earth. The brightness of most asteroids, shaped like lumpy potatoes rotating in space, varies cyclically as they present alternately smaller and larger sides of themselves to Earth. Observing this rotation produces a “light curve,” a plot of how the light changes that tells us the rotation period and gives us an estimate of the asteroid’s proportions. In December 2017 scientists reported ‘Oumuamua’s light curve. At about eight hours its period was unremarkable compared with those of solar system asteroids. But whereas most asteroids vary in brightness by 10 to 20 percent as they spin, ‘Oumuamua changed by an unprecedented factor of 10, suggesting an extraordinary needlelike shape that sometimes presented a large and bright surface and sometimes showed only a very narrow edge.

The object’s resemblance in size and proportions to a large rocket—for example, the Saturn V, which measures about 110 meters by 10 meters—was hard to ignore. Indeed, discarded rockets orbiting the sun are occasionally rediscovered by astronomers surveying the sky for asteroids and comets, as was the case for 2000 SG344, a likely Apollo-program relic discovered in 2000. But the orbit of ‘Oumuamua was too extreme for it to be a rocket from the 1960s. Could it be a rocket from another civilization? Incredible as it sounds, scientists could not immediately reject the possibility based on the available data.

While astronomers were pondering this conundrum, they got another surprise. In June 2018 Italian astronomer Marco Micheli of the European Space Agency and his colleagues reported measurements of the shape of ‘Oumuamua’s orbit, which revealed the action of a weak, rocketlike force pushing on the body in addition to the gravitational forces of the sun and planets.

So-called nongravitational forces are well known to exist in comets, arising from the asymmetric push of ices sublimating from the dayside of the comet’s core. But ‘Oumuamua is not a comet. And it showed no evidence that it was losing mass at all, which could have explained the force. Could it be that ‘Oumuamua emitted only gas, which is harder to detect than comet dust? Possibly, but it would make ‘Oumuamua unique: astronomers know of no other cosmic object that lets off gas but no dust or ice. Micheli suggested that ‘Oumuamua might eject very large dust particles that were invisible to our telescopes.

In November 2018 Shmuel Bialy and Avi Loeb of the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian proposed that the nongravitational force could be caused by sunlight, which exerts a weak pressure on any object placed in its path. To experience enough radiation pressure that we could measure it, however, ‘Oumuamua would have to be either extraordinarily thin like a sheet of Mylar (the aluminized plastic used to make birthday balloons) or of very low density. Bialy and Loeb suggested that the object could be a “light sail,” a flat, sail-shaped vehicle sent from another civilization and designed to be pushed through space by starlight.

As intriguing as that idea may be, most astronomers favor a natural origin for ‘Oumuamua. In February 2019 one of us (Moro-Martín) calculated that for ‘Oumuamua to be propelled by sunlight, it would have to be 100 times less dense than air. Such a cosmic dust bunny—an “icy fractal aggregate”—might have grown in the outer parts of the protoplanetary disk of another star, where baby planets congeal out of ice and dust rubble. This past summer Luu, Eirik Flekkøy and Renaud Toussaint, all at the University of Oslo, proposed that ‘Oumuamua grew from a collection of dust particles in the coma of an active comet, then escaped. This type of material is unknown on Earth but could conceivably survive in the ultimate vacuum of interstellar space.

Given how odd ‘Oumuamua is, what might be most incredible of all is that objects like it must be common. We know that this relatively tiny body was detected only because it passed close to Earth and that humans have had the capability to see such an object for only a few years (the Pan-STARRS facility began operating in 2010 but reached full efficiency only recently). Based on statistics alone, these two facts allowed scientists to estimate that the number of similar interstellar interlopers per unit volume of space is about one per 10 cubic AU (one AU, or astronomical unit, is the distance between Earth and the sun). Thus, in the planetary region of our solar system, defined as a sphere with the radius of Neptune’s orbit, there must be about 10,000 similar objects, of which ‘Oumuamua is only the first one close enough to be detected in the operational lifetime of Pan-STARRS. If these objects take about a decade to cross the planetary region, the average rate of interloper arrivals must be about three a day!

What, then, does this frequency suggest about the origin of ‘Oumuamua? Aliens might be capable of sending a Saturn V–size rocket or a large piece of Mylar-like material across the galaxy and through our solar system, but why would they send so many? Even more astonishing, if we extrapolate our analysis from the solar system to the whole of the Milky Way, we find that there must be 1 × 1024 to 1 × 1025 ( a trillion trillion to 10 trillion trillion) similar objects in our galaxy. It is hard to believe that an extraterrestrial civilization would have the capacity to flood the galaxy with so much space junk, and it is even more difficult to see why it would do so. Thus, given the maxim that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, most astronomers think ‘Oumuamua is just a weirdly shaped, but natural, piece of debris from elsewhere in the galaxy.

Credit: Matthew Twombly; Source: Small-Body Database Browser, Jet Propulsion Laboratory/NASA (trajectory)

A Second Discovery

The sheer strangeness of ‘Oumuamua left astronomers eagerly awaiting the discovery of the second interstellar interloper. Would the next one be as peculiar, or would it look like a regular solar system comet or an asteroid without nongravitational motion?

Without knowing the answers to these questions, we predicted that the second object would arrive within a year or two, based on the estimate that there must be about one body like ‘Oumuamua per 10 cubic AU. To our delight, two years after ‘Oumuamua, Ukrainian amateur astronomer Gennadiy Borisov discovered C/2019 Q4 using a homemade telescope; it was soon renamed 2I/Borisov—the second interstellar object. It has an orbit even more extreme than that of ‘Oumuamua, but it appears to be a rather ordinary comet. Measurements from the Hubble Space Telescope showed that its nucleus is larger than ‘Oumuamua, with a radius between 0.2 and 0.5 kilometer. In contrast to ‘Oumuamua, 2I/Borisov displays no extreme light curve, and its nongravitational motion is simply a consequence of asymmetric outgassing as ice comes off its surface, just as in solar system comets. This past March it briefly flared in brightness and then took on a doubled appearance as a small piece of the nucleus detached, something commonly observed with solar system comets. In other words, this body is pretty much exactly what we would have expected an interstellar object to be like.

Our expectations are based on theories of planet formation, which suggest a ready mechanism for kicking some objects out of their home planetary systems and into the galaxy, where they may eventually make their way to our little corner of the cosmos. Studies suggest that planet formation begins in an orderly way but ends in a chaotic mess. The sun, for instance, was born 4.6 billion years ago in a flattened, rotating disk that grew as a giant molecular cloud contracted under its own gravity. This disk of gas, ice and dust feeding the nascent star in its center was very dense, which allowed tiny grains to collide and stick to one another. At first pebbles formed, then larger bodies known as planetesimals and, eventually, the planets. Some of the planetesimals escaped further growth and heating when they were scattered to the outer solar system shortly after they formed. There, in deep freeze, they have remained mostly unaltered ever since.

The object’s resemblance in size and proportions to a large rocket was hard to ignore.

Sometimes, though, these bodies get scattered back into the inner system, where the sun’s heat causes their ice to sublimate; they develop tails of ejected material, and we call them comets. Other planetesimals are expelled from the system entirely, destined to spend eternity drifting among the stars. Once lost in the vastness of the Milky Way, such an object has a negligible chance of reentering the planetary system it came from, but it could certainly be deflected by the gravity of an alien star. Given the chaos of this process and the numerous encounters ‘Oumuamua and Borisov must have had before they reached us, we will likely never know precisely how long these objects have been adrift or determine with confidence where they came from.

Nevertheless, we can feel confident that Borisov is an ice-rich planetesimal from the outer regions of the planet-forming disk of an unknown star. In fact, everything we have learned about Borisov—and the proof it offers that some interstellar objects look much like we expected—puts the strangeness of ‘Oumuamua in stark relief. Given the extraordinary differences between the two, there is no reason to assume that they share a common origin.

Astronomers are still trying to puzzle out what ‘Oumuamua is, and new ideas come up often. One recent suggestion, proposed this past May by Darryl Seligman of the University of Chicago and Gregory Laughlin of Yale University, is that ‘Oumuamua is a novel type of body made of molecular hydrogen ice—a cosmic iceberg that originated in the coldest regions of a molecular cloud. In June, however, Loeb and Thiem Hoang of the Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute argued that molecular hydrogen is so volatile that such a body could neither have formed in a molecular cloud nor have survived interstellar travel. Another option, put forward in April by Yun Zhang of the National Astronomical Observatories of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Douglas N. C. Lin of the University of California, Santa Cruz, is that ‘Oumuamua might instead be shrapnel produced by gravitational shredding of a planet or other body passing too near its parent star.

‘Oumuamua’s strange properties aside, the fact that the object was detected at all runs counter to the conventional wisdom about planetary system formation, which suggests that interstellar visitors should be very rare. We can estimate the number of interstellar planetesimals we expect to exist per unit volume of space based on the observed number of stars and on our knowledge of star and planet formation, stellar evolution and dynamics. The calculation involves many uncertainties, but a generous upper limit is at least a tenth to a hundredth the size of the previously mentioned statistical frequency estimate of 10,000 such objects in the planetary region. Put simply, we cannot account for that much litter in the galaxy. Perhaps as we detect more interlopers and understand them better, the inferred and estimated values of their space density will start to converge. But it is also possible that we are missing an important source of interstellar objects—maybe some process in space other than the planetesimal scattering we have described creates bodies that find their way to us.

Credit: Matthew Twombly; Source: Small-Body Database Browser, Jet Propulsion Laboratory/NASA (trajectory)

Lifeboats from Beyond

Besides teaching us about how planetary systems form, the discovery of interstellar visitors may have a bearing on one of the most fundamental mysteries in science: How did life on Earth begin? One idea, called panspermia, is that the seeds of ancient organisms hitched a ride on asteroids hailing from other systems.

Just as we expect interstellar bodies to enter our solar system occasionally, we must also assume that they sometimes hit our planet. Based on the value of one object per 10 cubic AU that we inferred from the detection of ‘Oumuamua and 2I/Borisov, we can estimate that similar objects strike about once every 100 million to 200 million years, thousands of times less frequently than asteroids of comparable size. Most would probably detonate and disperse in the atmosphere, but a few would actually reach the ground. Scientists estimate that over the eons several billion tons of interstellar material must have crashed into Earth.

Could these impacts have delivered life to our planet? The modern scientific notion of panspermia dates back to the 19th century. Surprisingly, asteroids and comets might be good protectors of fragile cellular life. Damaging cosmic rays, capable of breaking DNA, penetrate only a few meters into solid material, so living cells buried inside rocks might survive interstellar journeys lasting millions or even hundreds of millions of years. At near-zero interstellar temperatures, any cells would be in suspended animation. They would need to withstand the shock of planetary impact, but this might not be as problematic as it sounds. Experiments have already shown that earthly bacteria can survive impacts at cosmic speed. Although there is no evidence that life spreads through the galaxy while riding in the bellies of asteroids and comets, given our present state of ignorance, we must acknowledge that this possibility remains.

To improve our understanding of interstellar objects, we need to find more examples. Currently, with only two to go on, our grasp is limited. Fortunately, new developments in astronomy make it very likely that we will soon observe dozens of similar objects, and those discoveries will allow us to better pin down the statistics and to understand their physical properties. Most professional telescopes have very small fields of view, often only a few thousandths of the area of the full moon. But optics and large detectors are now capable of capturing the whole moon and more in a single shot and the entire sky in a night or two of continuous scanning. Powerful computers make it possible to compare successive all-sky scans to find moving objects, including interstellar interlopers.

Having a larger sample of interstellar objects will help us answer many questions about the objects themselves. How many interlopers are strangely iceless and oblong like ‘Oumuamua versus akin to a comet like 2I/Borisov? Are there bigger examples? Are there smaller ones? What are they made of? Are some really porous enough to be pushed around by the pressure of light? New data from the Rubin Observatory, now under construction on a Chilean mountaintop, should provide fresh insights. The Rubin telescope has a collecting mirror 8.4 meters in diameter and a three-billion-pixel detector that would have been unthinkable just a decade ago. Each image from this gigantic camera will cover an area 40 times that of the moon, an enormous advance. It will also systematically survey the sky more deeply than has ever been attempted and on a repeated basis. This new facility is expected to reveal interstellar interlopers in abundance, along with vast numbers of asteroids, comets and Kuiper belt objects from our own solar system.

To truly understand the nature of any given interloper, we would like to send a spacecraft to visit it or even land on it. One practical problem is that there is not much time to make plans because these objects move so fast. ‘Oumuamua faded to invisibility for even the largest telescopes within a few months of its discovery. 2I/Borisov will be too faint to detect within a year or two. For comparison, space missions often take a decade or more, including their design, approval, construction and launch, making it impossible to plan for any particular interstellar target. A solution might be to send the spacecraft into a storage orbit before even knowing where the mission will go. This is the idea behind the European Space Agency’s Comet Interceptor, due to be launched in 2028. The Interceptor will park at Earth’s L2 Lagrangian point 1.5 million kilometers away, where it can easily maintain a stable orbit as it awaits the flyby of an interesting object. The Interceptor lacks the power to rendezvous with an interloper unless one happens by chance to pass very close to L2, however.

More capable rockets are intrinsically heavy and expensive to launch; even if a flyby is possible, accelerating to hyperbolic orbit speed to grab a sample will not be easy. Spacecraft powered by novel propulsion methods, such as light sails accelerated by a laser beam from Earth or by solar radiation pressure, are another option, but they involve difficulties of their own. Still, the prospect of being able to closely examine an object that unequivocally originated beyond our solar system is extraordinary, and scientists have not been shy in proposing ways to do so. One way or another, we will pry the secrets from our interstellar visitors.

This article was originally published with the title “Interstellar Interlopers” in Scientific American 323, 4, 42-49 (October 2020)

doi:10.1038/scientificamerican1020-42

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UCLA Astronomers Confirm the Very First Existence of an Asteroid Beyond Our Solar System

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — A newly discovered object from another star system that’s passing through ours is shaped like a giant pink fire extinguisher.

That’s the word this week from astronomers who have been observing this first-ever confirmed interstellar visitor.

“I’m surprised by the elongated shape – nobody expected that,” said astronomer David Jewitt of the University of California, Los Angeles, who led the observation team that reported on the characteristics.

Scientists are certain this asteroid or comet originated outside our solar system. First spotted last month by the Pan-STARRS telescope in Hawaii, it will stick around for another few years before departing our sun’s neighborhood.

Jewitt and his international team observed the object for five nights in late October using the Nordic Optical Telescope in the Canary Islands and the Kitt Peak National Observatory near Tucson, Arizona.

At approximately 100 feet by 100 feet by 600 feet (30 meters buy 30 meters by 180 meters), the object has proportions roughly similar to a fire extinguisher — though not nearly as red, Jewitt said Thursday. The slightly red hue — specifically pale pink — and varying brightness are remarkably similar to asteroids in our own solar system, he noted.

Astronomer Jayadev Rajagopal said in an email that it was exciting to point the Arizona telescope at such a tiny object “which, for all we know, has been traveling through the vast emptiness of space for millions of years.”

“And then by luck passes close enough for me to be able to see it that night!”

The object is so faint and so fast — it’s zooming through the solar system at 40,000 mph (64,000 kph) — it’s unlikely amateur astronomers will see it.

In a paper to the Astrophysical Journal Letters, the scientists report that our solar system could be packed with 10,000 such interstellar travelers at any given time. It takes 10 years to cross our solar system, providing plenty of future viewing opportunities, the scientists said.

Trillions of objects from other star systems could have passed our way over the eons, according to Jewitt.

It suggests our solar system ejected its own share of asteroids and comets as the large outer planets — Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune — formed.

Why did it take so long to nail the first interstellar wanderer?

“Space is big and our eyes are weak,” Jewitt explained via email.

Anticipating more such discoveries, the International Astronomical Union already has approved a new designation for cosmic interlopers. They get an “I” for interstellar in their string of letters and numbers. The group also has approved a name for this object: Oumuamua (OH’-moo-ah-moo-ah) which in Hawaiian means a messenger from afar arriving first.

The Scientific Paper is available HERE: https://arxiv.org/pdf/1711.05687.pdf

And you can read more HERE: https://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2017/11/16/science/ap-us-sci-interstellar-visitor.html

As well as HERE: https://www.noao.edu/news/2017/pr1706.php