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In an orange swirl, astronomers say humanity has its first look at the birth of a planet

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An image of a mesmerizing cosmic spiral, twisting and swirling around a galactic maw, may be the first direct evidence of the birth of a planet ever captured by humanity.

The European Southern Observatory released a picture Wednesday of what astronomers believe shows the process of cosmic matter at a gravitational tipping point, collapsing into a new world around a nearby star.

Astronomers said the dramatic scene offers a rare glimpse into the formation of a baby planet, which could help scientists better understand how planets come to exist around stars.

“Thousands of exoplanets have been identified so far, but little is known about how they form,” the lead author of a study detailing the discovery, Anthony Boccaletti, an astronomer at the Observatoire de Paris in France, said in a statement.

Planets are thought to form out of the massive discs of gas and dust that surround young stars. As tiny specks of dust circle a star and collide with one another, some material starts to fuse, much like how rolling a snowball through more snow will eventually yield a bigger snowball. After billions of years, the clumps of material become large enough that the force of gravity shapes them into planets.

The new image peers into the disc of material around a young star known as AB Aurigae, which is 520 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Auriga. Amid the hypnotic spiral arms is a “twist,” visible in the photo as a bright yellow region in the center, that is thought to be a sign of a planet being born, said Emmanuel Di Folco, a researcher at the Astrophysics Laboratory of Bordeaux in France, who participated in the study.

When a planet forms, the clumps of material create wavelike perturbations in the gas- and dust-filled disc around a star, “somewhat like the wake of a boat on a lake,” Di Folco said.

The bright region at the center of the new image is thought to be evidence of such a disturbance, which had been predicted in models of planetary birth.

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“The twist is expected from some theoretical models of planet formation,” said Anne Dutrey, an astronomer at the Astrophysics Laboratory of Bordeaux and co-author of the study, published Wednesday in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics. “It corresponds to the connection of two spirals — one winding inwards of the planet’s orbit, the other expanding outwards — which join at the planet location.”

The new observations of the baby planet were made in 2019 and early 2020 by the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in the Atacama Desert in northern Chile. The research team, made up of astronomers from France, Taiwan, the U.S. and Belgium, said the images are the deepest observations of the AB Aurigae system made to date.

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Attention Required! | Cloudflare

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What can I do to prevent this in the future?

If you are on a personal connection, like at home, you can run an anti-virus scan on your device to make sure it is not infected with malware.

If you are at an office or shared network, you can ask the network administrator to run a scan across the network looking for misconfigured or infected devices.

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How to see Mercury, Jupiter and Saturn in rare conjunction this weekend – CNET

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The two largest worlds and the smallest planet in the solar system make an appearance this weekend.


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A trio of planets make an appearance at dusk this weekend when Jupiter and Saturn, still chilling together at the after-party from last month’s rare Great Conjunction, will be joined just above the western to southwestern horizon by the more flighty planet Mercury. The planetary trio is a rare sight that can be witnessed with the naked eye just after sunset over the next several days, though Saturday evening offered perhaps the best opportunity to see the three worlds bunched together. 

Astronomy magazine reports that the planets will all be visible within an area about 2.3 degrees across that evening (that’s about the width of your pinky and ring finger together when they’re held away from your body at arm’s length). Mercury will be the lowest of the three in the sky, Jupiter will be the brightest and Saturn will be the dimmest.

Binoculars might help you get a better view, while even a cheap backyard telescope can offer a chance to glimpse some of the larger moons of Jupiter. This might be a good thing to try when Mercury and Saturn have disappeared below the horizon and it’s a little darker out.

To be sure to catch the entire trio, the key is to get outside right after the sun sets as Mercury and Saturn will be quick to dip below the horizon within an hour. While the planets may be closest Saturday, they will continue to congregate while shifting around over the next several nights, so you have a few shots at catching them all like a kind of cosmic game of Pokemon.

As always, if the amateur astrophotographers among you grab any great images of the celestial gathering, please share them with me on Twitter @EricCMack.

Follow CNET’s 2021 Space Calendar to stay up to date with all the latest space news this year. You can even add it to your own Google Calendar.

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NASA’s Europa Clipper has been liberated from the Space Launch System | TheHill

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NASA’s Europa Clipper has been liberated from the Space Launch System | TheHill_5ffb8260e66f4.jpeg

Almost unnoticed, tucked into the 2021 fiscal NASA funding section of the recently passed omnibus spending bill, is a provision that would seem to liberate the upcoming Europa Clipper mission from the Space Launch System (SLS). 

According to Space News, the mandate that the Europa Clipper mission be launched on an SLS remains in place only if the behind-schedule and overpriced heavy lift rocket is available and if concerns about hardware compatibility between the probe and the launcher are resolved. Otherwise, NASA is free to search for commercial alternatives to get the Europa Clipper to Jupiter’s ice-shrouded moon.

Europa Clipper is slated to go into orbit around Jupiter and make multiple flyby maneuvers near Europa, an icy world that many scientists believe has a warm ocean under the ice layer. Life may exist in that ocean, the confirmation of which would be one of the greatest scientific discoveries of this or any other century.

The Europa Clipper being mandated to fly on an SLS to begin with was the result of an unseemly side of congressional budget politics. The space probe was championed by former Rep. John CulbersonJohn Abney CulbersonTexas Republicans sound post-2020 alarm bells 2020 Democratic Party platform endorses Trump’s NASA moon program Bottom line MORE (R-Texas), who at the time was the chair of the House appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA. In order to get support for the Europa Clipper, Culberson added the SLS mandate, which garnered support from Sen. Richard ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbyRepublican infighting on election intensifies Bipartisan group of senators: The election is over Bottom line MORE ( R-Ala.), chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee. Shelby’s state contains a number of aerospace contractors involved in developing the SLS.

Ironically, Culberson lost his seat in 2018, in part, because his opponent, Rep. Lizzie Fletcher (D-Texas), accused him of being more concerned with space missions than local issues, such as flooding brought on by Hurricane Harvey. Nevertheless, the Europa Clipper continued without its key champion in Congress.

As Ars Technica points out, launching the Europa Clipper on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy saves the mission $1.5 billion. An advantage of using the SLS has been that it allows for a direct path to Jupiter without the time-consuming planetary flyby maneuvers that previous missions to the outer planets have required. The Falcon Heavy alone would not be able to get the Europa Clipper to Jupiter space directly, though it might be able to if equipped with a powerful Centaur kick stage.

Both the economics and physics of getting to Europa change if SpaceX’s Starship, currently under development in Boca Chica, Texas, becomes available to launch the Europa Clipper in the mid-2020s. The Starship is meant to fulfill SpaceX’s CEO Elon MuskElon Reeve MuskWill Axiom Space provide a commercial space station replacement for NASA’s ISS? World’s richest people added .8T to their combined wealth in 2020 Trump ends Obama’s 12-year run as most admired man: Gallup MORE’s dreams of settling Mars. But the massive reusable rocket would be available for other things, presumably including sending probes to the outer planets.

The massive cost savings by using a commercial launcher for the Europa Clipper creates other possibilities. The Europa Lander could be placed back on. A mission to Saturn’s frozen world Enceladus may also be greenlit.

The SLS is the result of a Faustian bargain struck between NASA and Congress in 2010. Congress was enraged by then-President Obama’s cancellation of the Bush-era Constellation deep space exploration program. According to then-NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver, NASA agreed to the SLS in return for Congress supporting the Commercial Crew program that recently came to fruition with the launch of astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) on a SpaceX Crew Dragon.

The SLS has since been a lead weight on America’s space ambitions. The SLS slated to launch the Artemis 1 uncrewed mission around the moon is currently stuck in a ground-based “green run” series of tests. The SLS is currently using up a great deal of the money allocated to NASA’s Artemis program. The first flight is scheduled for November 2021 at the earliest.

In the meantime, SpaceX has been flying prototypes of the Starship, albeit only in the atmosphere and with occasionally explosive results. NASA is officially disdainful of the idea of replacing the SLS with the Starship. However, a version of the SpaceX massive rocket ship is in the running as a lunar lander for Artemis. It would not be too great a leap to cut out the SLS entirely and go directly with the Starship, if it were not for congressional budget politics.

And that, as Shakespeare would say, is the rub.

Mark Whittington, who writes frequently about space and politics, has published a political study of space exploration entitled Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as The Moon, Mars and Beyond. He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner.  He is published in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The Hill, USA Today, the LA Times, and the Washington Post, among other venues.

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