Findings, music, and occasional reflections by Paul Woodward

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Astronomy

2014 comet may be first known interstellar visitor to have come close to Earth

Science News reports: Earth may already have been visited by an object from outside our solar system — a meteor that burned up in the planet’s atmosphere in 2014, astronomers claim. If confirmed, it would be the first known interstellar object to have entered the atmosphere. The first interstellar visitor known to have come close to Earth was the roughly 400-meter-wide asteroid named ‘Oumuamua.’ It swooped within about 24 million

Regaining a sense of proportion in our universe

 

How scientists took the first picture of a black hole

Science News reports: Black holes are extremely camera shy. Supermassive black holes, ensconced in the centers of galaxies, make themselves visible by spewing bright jets of charged particles or by flinging away or ripping up nearby stars. Up close, these behemoths are surrounded by glowing accretion disks of infalling material. But because a black hole’s extreme gravity prevents light from escaping, the dark hearts of these cosmic heavy hitters remain

Is methane in Mars’ atmosphere evidence of life?

The New York Times reports: Methane gas periodically wafts into the atmosphere of Mars; that notion, once considered implausible and perplexing, is now widely accepted by planetary scientists. Why the methane is there is still a bewildering mystery. It may even point to present-day Martian microbes living in the rocks below the surface. In Nature Geoscience on Monday, scientists working with the European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter reported that

Evidence of the most significant event in the history of life on Earth

Douglas Preston writes: If, on a certain evening about sixty-­six million years ago, you had stood somewhere in North America and looked up at the sky, you would have soon made out what appeared to be a star. If you watched for an hour or two, the star would have seemed to grow in brightness, although it barely moved. That’s because it was not a star but an asteroid, and

Astronomers say it’s time to start taking the search for E.T. seriously

Science News reports: Long an underfunded, fringe field of science, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence may be ready to go mainstream. Astronomer Jason Wright is determined to see that happen. At a meeting in Seattle of the American Astronomical Society in January, Wright convened “a little ragtag group in a tiny room” to plot a course for putting the scientific field, known as SETI, on NASA’s agenda. The group is

China’s historic moon landing boosts rivalry with U.S.

 

Large Magellanic Cloud on collision course with Milky Way — in 2.5 billion years

The Guardian reports: As if battered post-Christmas finances, a looming disorderly Brexit and the prospect of a fresh nuclear arms race were not enough to dampen spirits, astronomers have declared that a nearby galaxy will slam into the Milky Way and could knock our solar system far into the cosmic void. The unfortunate discovery was made after scientists ran computer simulations on the movement of the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC),

The sugar that makes up DNA could be made in space

Science News reports: Parts of DNA can form in space. For the first time, scientists have made 2-deoxyribose, the sugar that makes up the backbone of DNA, under cosmic conditions in the lab by blasting ice with radiation. The result, reported December 18 in Nature Communications, suggests that there are several ways for prebiotic chemistry to take place in space, and supports the idea that the stuff of life could

After 41 years, Voyager 2 spacecraft enters interstellar space

Science News reports: Voyager 2 has entered interstellar space. The spacecraft slipped out of the huge bubble of particles that encircles the solar system on November 5, becoming the second ever human-made craft to cross the heliosphere, or the boundary between the sun and the stars. Coming in second place is no mean achievement. Voyager 1 became the first spacecraft to exit the solar system in 2012. But that craft’s

Ice confirmed at the Moon’s poles

NBC News reports: For the first time, scientists have found what they say is definitive evidence of water ice on the surface of the moon. The discovery suggests that future lunar expeditions might have a readily available source of water that would make it easier “to explore and even stay on the moon,” officials at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory said in a statement Tuesday about the discovery. The ice was

A watery lake is detected on Mars, raising the potential for alien life

The New York Times reports: For the first time, scientists have found a large, watery lake beneath an ice cap on Mars. Because water is essential to life, the discovery offers an exciting new place to search for life forms beyond Earth. Italian scientists working on the European Space Agency’s Mars Express mission announced on Wednesday that a 12-mile wide underground liquid pool — not just the momentary damp spots

The ecosystem that controls a galaxy’s future — its circumgalactic medium — is coming into focus

Science News reports: There’s more to a galaxy than meets the eye. Galaxies’ bright stars seem to spiral serenely against the dark backdrop of space. But a more careful look reveals a whole lot of mayhem. “Galaxies are just like you and me,” Jessica Werk, an astronomer at the University of Washington in Seattle, said in January at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society. “They live their lives in

First sighting of a newborn planet

The Guardian reports: It is a moment of birth that has previously proved elusive, but astronomers say they now have the first confirmed image of the formation of a planet. The startling snapshot shows a bright blob – the nascent planet – travelling through the dust and gas surrounding a young star, known as PDS70, thought to be about 370 light years from Earth. The black circle in the centre

Space is full of dirty, toxic grease, scientists reveal

The Guardian reports: It looks cold, dark and empty, but astronomers have revealed that interstellar space is permeated with a fine mist of grease-like molecules. The study provides the most precise estimate yet of the amount of “space grease” in the Milky Way, by recreating the carbon-based compounds in the laboratory. The Australian-Turkish team discovered more than expected: 10 billion trillion trillion tonnes of gloop, or enough for 40 trillion

The next big discovery in astronomy? Scientists probably found it years ago – but they don’t know it yet

An artist’s illustration of a black hole “eating” a star. NASA/JPL-Caltech By Eileen Meyer, University of Maryland, Baltimore County Earlier this year, astronomers stumbled upon a fascinating finding: Thousands of black holes likely exist near the center of our galaxy. The X-ray images that enabled this discovery weren’t from some state-of-the-art new telescope. Nor were they even recently taken – some of the data was collected nearly 20 years ago.