Sunday, June 30, 2019

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Democracy Dies in Darkness
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Friday, June 28, 2019

🚀 Third Falcon Heavy Launches 24 Payloads, Curiosity Sniffs Methane, Efficiently Explore the Entire Milky Way, and More...



Join Me in Iceland, January 17-23, 2020

Hi, Vasiliy.

At the time you're reading this, I'm down in Joshua Tree for the Astrotours All Stars Party with Pamela Gay, Paul Sutter, John Michael Godier and Skylias. We'll be out every night with a collection of amazing telescopes, watching the night sky.

My next adventure is going to be Iceland, in January 2020. The plan, of course, is to experience some of the best auroras the world has to offer. But also mountains, glaciers, volcanoes, adorable horses, geysers, and everything else Iceland.

If you've ever wanted to go to Iceland, you should join me. In addition to just hanging out for a week, I'll be doing a bunch of live presentations about space and astronomy, teaching you how to find auroras, and enjoying this amazing country with you.

Click here to find out more. Reservations close on July 18, 2019.


Fraser Cain
Universe Today

As always, if you have comments or questions, or suggestions on how I can improve this newsletter, please don't hesitate to reply this email or email me at info@universetoday.com.

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More Hubbles

Q&A 89: Why Didn't NASA Build More Hubbles? And More...

In this week's questions show, I explain why NASA decided to build James Webb and not more Hubble Space Telescopes, what would happen if you opened up a jar in space, and do we know of any stars without planets?

Subscribe to our podcasts:

Universe Today Guide to Space Audio: iTunes - RSS
Audio versions of all the media I upload to my YouTube channel, as well as bonus content, behind the scenes, interviews with Fraser and more

Astronomy Cast: iTunes - RSS
Your weekly facts-based journey through the cosmos, which I co-host with astronomer Dr. Pamela Gay. We have episodes on every concept in space and astronomy, from black holes to the history of astronomy.

Weekly Space Hangout: iTunes - RSS

A weekly round-up of all the breaking space news. Rocket launches, new discoveries from Hubble, and planetary science by three PhD astronomers... and me.

Saturn's Rings

Stunning Image Shows How Saturn's Tiny Moon Sculpts the Planet's Rings

Even though NASA's Cassini spacecraft ended its mission last year, astronomers are still making amazing findings as they look through its data. This stunning picture shows the tiny moon Daphnis as it tugs at the icy ring particles, shaping these waves with its gravity. It's these moons that give the rings their texture, but astronomers aren't exactly sure... how.

Falcon Launch

Third Falcon Heavy Launch Blasts 24 Payloads Into Orbit Including a Solar Sail. Doesn't Quite Stick the Landing

This week, SpaceX blasted off a Falcon Heavy for the third time, carrying a total of 24 payloads into orbit. This was a very challenging launch, requiring the upper stage to relight itself three times to demonstrate that it can handle Air Force orbital requirements. It also deployed the Planetary Society's LightSail 2 prototype. Unfortunately the center core didn't make the drone ship landing, crashing into the ocean.


Curiosity Sniffs a Spike in Methane. Could it be a Sign of Life?

NASA's Curiosity Rover was crawling along the surface of Mars, exploring the slopes of Mount Sharp when it detected an unusual spike in methane nearby. Something caused methane in the atmosphere to spike up, and then settle back down to normal background levels. It could be a sign of life, or maybe just volcanic gases escaping from the planet. Either possibility would be very exciting.

Crew Dragon

Astronauts will fly on the Crew Dragon on November 15, 2019

We knew that the recent explosion during a test of the Crew Dragon capsule would push back the time that humans would fly to space on board the spacecraft. This week NASA announced the new launch date: November 15, 2019. This will be an important moment, the first time the US is able to launch humans to space since the end of the Space Shuttle program.

Atomic Clock

Deep Space Atomic Clocks Will Help Spacecraft Answer, with Incredible Precision, if They're There Yet

Are we there yet? Are we there yet? On the most recent Falcon Heavy launch, NASA sent a high-accuracy atomic clock into space, which will give its spacecraft a way to know the answer to that age-old question with incredible precision. The Deep Space Atomic Clock will allow spacecraft to calculate their current time and position without needing to rely on Earth.



Uranus' Rings are Surprisingly Bright in Thermal Emissions

Saturn isn't the only planet with rings. In fact, all the giant planets have rings systems. But they're very different. Uranus, for example, has dark dusty rings made of rocks. And recent infrared observations of the rings showed that they're surprisingly warm. 


Hubble is the Ultimate Multitasker: Discovering Asteroids While it's Doing Other Observations

The Hubble Space Telescope is one of the most productive science instruments ever created by humanity. So productive that it can do two things at the same time. In a recent observing run observing distant galaxies, it also picked up the trails of asteroids moving through the field of view. Some were already known, but there were also some brand new, never before discovered rocks in the images too.


The Crew of Expedition 59 is Safe and Sound Back on Earth

On Tuesday, a Russian Soyuz capsule returned to Earth safely carrying three passengers back home. On board were the crew of Expedition 59, NASA astronaut Anne McClain, Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques and Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko. They spent 204 days in space.


Hubble Finds Buckyballs in Space

Astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope have discovered evidence of buckyballs out there in the interstellar medium, the region of space between stars. This is where 60 atoms of carbon are arranged in a sphere, sort of like a soccer ball. Finding this complex module in interstellar space is surprising, considering how much radiation is out there blasting away.

Beresheet Lander

SpaceIL Scraps its Plans to go Back to the Moon. Instead, it's Got a New Secret "Significant Objective" for Beresheet 2

After SpaceIL's Beresheet lander crashed into the Moon, the private group said they'd be returning to the Moon with Beresheet 2. This week, they announced that, in fact, they won't be going back, and have a more exciting and significant target in mind. I'll let you know when I find out what it is.

Milky Way

The Most Efficient Way to Explore the Entire Milky Way, Star by Star

When humanity finally sets off on exploring the Milky Way Galaxy, they'll jump from star to star, pushing farther and farther away from Earth. What's the best way to go? A recent group associated with the European Space Agency made a simulation of what it might look like, using the most energy efficient trajectories to travel between stars.


Our Complete Guide to the July 2019 Total Solar Eclipse

On July 2nd, skywatchers in South American will be treated to a total solar eclipse. The pathway cuts across Chile and Argentina, including going right over the La Silla Observatory complex in Chile. David Dickinson brings you our complete guide on when, where and how to watch this incredible event.

Other Interesting Space Stuff

Amazing Astrophotography on @universetoday


One of the most recognizable objects in the night sky, the Pleiades Star Cluster, as captured by @drewjevans.

We have featured over 1,000 astrophotographers on our Instagram page, which has more than 174,000 followers. Want to do a takeover? Use the hashtag #universetoday and I'll check out your photos.


Our book!

Find your way across the night sky. Choose a variety of astronomy gear. Follow the Moon and the planets. Find deep sky objects across the seasons in both hemispheres. Observe comets, asteroids, satellites and space stations. Learn to do astrophotography.

Get it on Amazon for only $18.89. Here are some other options.


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Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Speaking of Science: Much ado about Martian methane

Speaking of Science
Talk nerdy to us

An image of Gale Crater taken by the Curiosity rover, which recently detected a spike in methane on Mars. (JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

In the thin and chilly air above the surface of Mars, NASA's Curiosity rover just caught a whiff of something remarkable: methane.

During a routine experiment with its Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instruments, Curiosity detected concentrations of this organic compound at 21 parts per billion — far above the usual low background levels. The scientists on the experiment described the detection as "incredible," and themselves as "dumbfounded."

This presence of this gas — usually produced on Earth by living creatures, like microbes and belching cattle — raises the tantalizing possibility that it could be a sign of life. Scientists scrambled to cancel Curiosity's weekend plans in favor of another SAM experiment. But by the time they'd tested again, methane levels had dropped down to below 1 part per billion — barely even there.

"That's the story," Paul Mahaffy, the principal investigator for the SAM instrument suite, said at an astrobiology meeting Monday. "A plume came. And a plume went."

Now, scientists are wondering what it all means.

Methane has been detected on Mars before. Since the mid 2000s, observations by the European Space Agency's Mars Express orbiter and Earthbound telescopes have found traces of the gas in the atmosphere, and Curiosity has several times measured spikes higher than 5 parts per billion at ground level.

But the gas is elusive. The plumes usually vanish as soon as they are detected, and the ESA's Trace Gas Orbiter, which arrived at Mars in 2016 specifically to search for methane, has yet to detect even a whiff.

With the current set of measurements, "we have no way of telling if the methane source is biology or geology, or even ancient or modern," Mahaffy said. As exciting as it would be if the gas came from tiny microbes living in Martian, it could also be a product of interactions between water and rock happening underground. It could reflect processes happening beneath Curiosity's wheels, or a relic of something that occurred billions of years ago.

In a statement from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where Curiosity was built and is operated from, project scientist Ashwin Vasavada said that the rover doesn't have instruments capable of discerning the exact origin of the plumes. But by combining observations with other spacecraft, scientists could pinpoint where the gas is appearing.

"The methane mystery continues," Vasavada said.

— Sarah Kaplan

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