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'Astro' Dave: David Reneke is one of Australia's most well known and respected astronomers and lecturers with links to some of the world's leading astronomical institutions

Stargazer's Delight , 'Look out for Jupiter and Saturn'

This month you will start to notice some changes in observing the planets. Venus, which graced our evening skies throughout the beginning of the year, can now be observed early in the morning.

Just before sunrise you will see Venus shining brightly in the eastern sky. As an added bonus, if you have a pair of binoculars, you will be able to see the fainter star Aldebaran, just near Venus. Aldebaran is the brightest star in the constellation Taurus and is often referred to as the 'Eye of Taurus'.

And just as you have become used to observing Saturn and Jupiter in the early morning, you can now observe both these planets in the night sky. In fact both Saturn and Jupiter reach opposition this month providing ideal observing opportunities for these large outer solar system gas giants. The term opposition refers to the time when Earth lies between the Sun and a planet.

At this point the planet is furthest from the glare of the Sun but also closest to Earth which provides optimum viewing conditions. Between the 13th and 20th July, looking east just after sunset you will easily spot Jupiter as the brightest object in the night sky. Close by below it you will see the much fainter planet Saturn.

Both planets can be seen with the naked eye but a pair of binoculars will resolve Jupiter's four largest moons. Get the Moon in the picture and its a knockout night!

NASA Discovers an Asteroid Filled With Enough Gold to Make Every Human a Trillionaire

No, you're not dreaming! An asteroid full of gold may have been discovered. We'll fill you in about this unprecedented discovery. As astonishing as it may seem, NASA may have discovered an asteroid filled with gold. According to International Business Times, NASA discovered this asteroid, called Psyche 16, between Mars and Jupiter.

Reports are that this celestial body is mainly composed of solid metals, such as gold, platinum, nickel, and iron. An asteroid that could be a boon for the entire Earth? The quantities of these metals could be so great that 'if they were brought to planet Earth, every inhabitant would be rich and all economic problems would be solved.'

This asteroid is estimated at more than '£700 quintillion, or in other words, £93 trillion per inhabitant on Earth.' How was this asteroid discovered? According to Curioctopus, this asteroid was discovered in 1852 by Italian astronomer Annibale De Gasparis. However, it is NASA who evaluated the economic potential of this asteroid.

The space agency has apparently decided to undertake a mission, called the Discovery Mission, to the celestial body, with the intention of reaching it in 2026. Rest assured, no mining is planned: the mission will be carried out for purely scientific purposes.

Asteroids near Earth? Asteroids seem to be a part of our daily lives now. Just earlier this month, NASA announced that an asteroid was approaching Earth. Fortunately, this asteroid was being monitored and posed no danger to the planet Earth.

PriestmanGoode's Neptune balloon will fly passengers to the edge of space

Transport design studio PriestmanGoode has developed a concept for a high-performance balloon and pressurised capsule for Space Perspective to take space tourists on a "cruise" around the stratosphere. Designed for American space tourism startup Space Perspective, the two-part spaceship is comprised of a four-metre-tall and five-metre-wide pressurised pod shaped like a spinning top, which is attached to a giant high-altitude balloon.

The Neptune craft will take up to eight "explorers" and a suite of research payloads on a six-hour journey to the upper edge of earth's atmosphere. Described by Space Perspective co-founder Taber MacCallum as "off-world yet classic", PriestmanGoode's capsule design features floor-to-ceiling windows to grant space tourists a panoramic viewing experience.

"The design of the capsule is a critical component of providing our explorers the inspirational experience that astronauts describe of seeing our Earth in space," added co-founder Jane Poynter. The journey would see a pilot launch from the Shuttle Landing Facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, to fly passengers on a two-hour ascent above 99 per cent of the earth's atmosphere to around 30,000 metres.

Here it will "cruise" above the earth for up to two hours, to enable voyagers to take in the view and record the experience. The craft will then embark on a two-hour descent under the balloon before landing in the Atlantic ocean, where a ship will collect the passengers, the capsule and the balloon and transport them back to land.

In 2013, Space Perspective - formerly known as World View - launched a similar initiative to take passengers to the edge of space in a balloon-like vessel, also designed by PriestmanGoode. Although these journeys didn't happen, the company has scheduled Neptune's first test flight to take place in early 2021, without any passengers, but with a group of research payloads onboard.

The Neptune spaceship has been designed "from the inside out", with passenger experience at the forefront of the design, said PriestmanGoode co-founder Nigel Goode. "[Neptune] is the culmination of a long-term collaboration that has resulted in the only spaceship that is designed with the human experience at its core and will pave the way for the future of commercial space travel," he said.

"Our starting point was the passenger experience," he continued. "We looked at all the different elements that would make the experience not just memorable, but truly comfortable as well and included essentials for a journey of six hours, like a lavatory." According to Goode, the design team wanted to ensure that travellers had access to unobstructed, 360-degree views, as well as having an efficient space that they could move around during the journey.

"We needed to minimise weight and create a highly functional environment for the pilot," Goode added. "All these elements guided the shape of the final capsule." Space Perspective is just one of many initiatives hoping to send members of the public into space. The Gateway Foundation is designing the world's first commercial space hotel in a bid to make space accessible to everyone.

Called the Von Braun Space Station, the hotel will consist of a 190-metre-diameter wheel that will rotate to create a gravitational force similar to that felt on the moon.

Space expert says 110 people is 'minimum number' to start life on Mars

If you've ever wondered how many people it will take to start a new civilization on Mars, you've got your answer. At least 110. Space expert Jean-Marc Salotti estimates it will take at least that many people to start a new civilization on the Red Planet, according to a study he published earlier this month.


"For survival on Mars, some assumptions are made for the organization of the settlers and engineering issue," Salotti wrote in the study's abstract. "The minimum number of settlers has been calculated and the result is 110 individuals." The study has been published in Scientific Reports.

By having at least 110 people, a figure Salotti concedes is a "relatively low number," it would allow for enough objects and commodities to be shared by people without having supplies run out. The study notes that Earth may be of no help to the Martian civilization, citing a number of different factors. 

"In case of war on Earth, important space sector infrastructures may be destroyed, causing a long term interruption in space travel," added Salotti, who hails from France's Bordeaux Institut National Polytechnique.


"It could also happen that a conflict occurs between the terrestrial governments and the settlers and, later on, a group declares independence and tries to survive on its own. Another reason could be the will of a new government to stop the settlement process because of the never-ending increasing cost."

Similar to the 2015 movie, "The Martian," Salotti assumes the inhabitants will live in an oxygen-filled dome (there is no atmosphere on Mars) and grow plants in greenhouses that are made of glass with reflectors to provide "sufficient light."

This image of InSight's seismometer was taken on the 110th Martian day, or sol, of the mission. The seismometer is called Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure, or SEIS. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

In order to create "an appropriate soil" for plants, Salotti wrote a mixture of rocks, salts, water and "organic wastes and decomposers (insects and microorganisms)" are needed."Water will be extracted from icy terrain and recycled using natural filters," he added.

Earlier this month, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk wrote a letter to his employees that the company's top priority is its Starship rocket, a reusable rocket that could be capable of flying 100 people to Mars.

In the past, Musk has proposed the idea of "nuking" the Red Planet to make it livable, an idea he reiterated last year. The tech exec has also said there is a "70 percent chance" he would move to Mars.

NASA's long-term goal is to send a manned mission to Mars in the 2030s. Prior to that, the space agency will send the Perseverance rover to the Red Planet next month in hopes of detecting any fossilized evidence of extraterrestrial beings, in addition to other tasks.

How many extraterrestrial civilizations could be trying to communicate with us right now?

A new way to count the number of intelligent ET cultures suggests we are far from alone; but also that we may never be able to find them, astronomers say.
A new way to count the number of intelligent ET cultures suggests we are far from alone; but also that we may never be able to find them, astronomers say.

The Copernican principle is the idea that Earth does not sit at the center of universe or is otherwise special in any way. When Nicolaus Copernicus first stated it in the 16th century, it led to an entirely new way to think about our planet. Since then, scientists have applied the principle more broadly to suggest that humans have no special privileged view of the universe. We are just ordinary observers sitting on an ordinary planet in an ordinary part of an ordinary galaxy.

This form of thinking has had profound consequences. It led Copernicus to the idea that Earth orbits the sun and Einstein to his general theory of relativity. And it regularly guides the thinking of physicists, astronomers and cosmologists about the nature of the universe.

Now, Tom Westby and Christopher Conselice at the University of Nottingham in the U.K. have used the Copernican principle to come up with a new take on the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations. They point out that the principle implies there is nothing special about the conditions on Earth that allowed intelligent life to evolve. So, wherever these conditions exist, intelligent life is likely to evolve over about the same timescale as it evolved here.

This "astrobiological Copernican principle" has important implications for the way astronomers estimate the number of extraterrestrial civilizations that might be capable of communicating with us. Indeed, Westby and Conselice have crunched the numbers and say that, given the strongest limits they can place on the numbers, there are probably about 36 civilizations in the galaxy right now with this capability. 

But the numbers come with a significant caveat that also throws light on the Fermi Paradox, which famously suggests that if intelligent aliens exist, surely we ought to have seen them by now.
First, some background. Back in 1961, the American astrophysicist Frank Drake wrote down an equation of endless fascination that estimates the number of communicating extraterrestrial civilizations in our galaxy.

Drake Equation

The Drake Equation starts with an estimate of the number of stars in the galaxy, then calculates the fraction that have planets in the habitable zone. It then estimates the fraction on which life develops and then those on which life becomes intelligent and capable of communicating.
The final term is the length of time over which this civilization broadcasts signals that we might be able to detect. The result is the number of civilizations that we might be capable of communicating with today.
Over the years, astrophysicists have reinterpreted these numbers in numerous ways, revising their estimates as new ideas and observational data change the estimates. And, in the last few years, a great deal of new observational data have emerged that have the potential to firm up some of the numbers.

Would you like to learn more about exoplanets and other solar systems? Check out our free downloadable eBook: Our search for extrasolar planets.In particular, astronomers have confirmed the existence of exoplanets and begun to understand just how common they are in habitable zones throughout the galaxy. That provides some hard numbers to enter into the Drake Equation. Westby and Conselice have duly updated the equation with the latest figures.

But they have also gone significantly further using the astrobiological Copernican principle. This is the idea that if a planet sits in the habitable zone of a system that is rich in the heavier elements necessary for life, then intelligent life will emerge on the timescale of between 4.5 billion and 5.5 billion years.The rationale is that intelligent life emerged over 5 billion years on Earth, and there is nothing special about our corner of the universe. Therefore, the same thing will happen over the same timescale in other similar corners.

Nevertheless, this is a much stricter assumption than imagining life can emerge at any time after a planet is 5 billion years old (many stars are 10 billion years old). That's why the researchers call this the Strong Condition.

When the astronomers enter these numbers into the Drake Equation, the number of civilizations is huge. But there is another limiting factor - the length of time over which these civilizations communicate - whether centuries, millennia or even longer. Obviously, the longer they are able to communicate, the more likely we are to overlap with them. 

However, Westby and Conselice decide on a figure of just 100 years. "We know that our own civilization has had radio communications for this time," they say. So this is the lower limit on which they base their calculations. And the results make for interesting reading. "In the Strong Condition, we find there should be at least 36 civilizations within our galaxy," say Westby and Conselice, although the number could be as many as 211 and as few as four.

That may seem like a significant number, but the galaxy is large place. If spread uniformly throughout the galaxy, these civilizations would be a huge distance apart, say the researchers. "The nearest would be at a maximum distance given by 17,000 light-years, making communication or even detection of these systems nearly impossible with present technology," they say.

Fermi Paradox

That provides an immediate rejoinder to the Fermi Paradox, which is sometimes used to suggest that we must be alone in the universe. It's not that there aren't any intelligent civilizations out there, it's that they are distributed so thinly throughout the galaxy that we cannot spot them.

As Douglas Adams has famously pointed out: Space is big. And the amount we have searched for signs of intelligent life is a tiny fraction. Westby and Conselice point to calculations suggesting the volume searched is equivalent to just 7,700 liters of Earth's oceans.

Of course, the researchers are well aware of the limitations of their argument. They acknowledge the well-known warning against drawing any inferences from a sample of just one. But that doesn't stop them from speculating.

The researchers also come to some other interesting conclusions. They point out that if they assume that primitive life arises wherever conditions are suitable for long enough, then the universe should be teeming with it. "Such generous assumptions lead to estimated numbers of habitats for primitive life in the Milky Way which reach into the tens of billions," they say.The only question now is how long till we spot evidence of it.

Foam 'spider webs' from tiny satellites could help clean up space junk

Artist's illustration of StartRocket's planned Foam Debris Catcher extruding junk-snagging foam. (Image credit: StartRocket)
Artist's illustration of StartRocket's planned Foam Debris Catcher extruding junk-snagging foam. (Image credit: StartRocket)

Earth orbit is cluttered with about 129 million pieces of debris, 34,000 of which are at least 4 inches (10 centimeters) wide, according to European Space Agency estimates. These objects are hurtling through space at tremendous speeds - 17,500 mph (28,200 km/h) in low-Earth orbit, for example - so even the tiny shards could seriously damage a satellite or spacecraft.

And the space-junk threat is rising, experts say, because we're putting a lot more stuff into orbit than we used to - and the numbers are poised to go through the roof. Humanity has launched fewer than 10,000 satellites since the dawn of the space age in 1957. But SpaceX has secured permission to loft 12,000 craft just for its Starlink internet-satellite constellation and has applied for approval to launch up to 30,000 more.

A crowded orbital environment increases the risk of collisions. And just a few smashups involving satellites - be they operational or defunct - could spawn enormous new swarms of debris, potentially instigating a nightmare collision cascade known as the Kessler Syndrome.

If we don't take action soon, Sitnikov said, "we will be in jail. We will be in a prison made by debris."

StartRocket wants the barrel-shaped Foam Debris Catcher to help keep us out of jail. The 110-lb. (50 kilograms) satellite would extrude lattices of foam when it gets close to debris clouds, trapping lots of junk. Atmospheric drag would then work on the encased debris, sending it down to its death in Earth's atmosphere.

StartRocket isn't alone in developing debris-mitigation tech. For example, some groups are working on systems that would harpoon space junk or snare it using net-launching guns. And others have devised friction-increasing "drag sails" that satellites could deploy near the ends of their lives, ensuring speedy destruction.

StartRocket has made progress on the foam but still needs to finalize the formula, said project leader Aleksei Fedorov, a chemical engineer.

Nailing down the formula and testing it here on Earth is the first big milestone for the company to meet, Sitnikov and Fedorov said. The second milestone, targeted for 2022, is the launch of a cubesat that will extrude a test sample in Earth orbit, to make sure that the foam behaves as planned in the space environment. If that goes well, StartRocket will work toward lofting its first functional Foam Debris Catcher, potentially as early as 2023.

Development work in these early stages has been supported by Kaspersky, a Russian cybersecurity company owned by billionaire Eugene Kaspersky.

"The solution being developed by StartRocket is an interesting example of how technology is changing and can be used to reduce space debris," Andrew Winton, vice president of marketing at Kaspersky, said in a statement. "We will watch the company's development and product progression with great interest and look forward to supporting the cause in the coming years."

But StartRocket - which made news in 2018 for a controversial plan, now on hold, to create advertisements in space using formation-flying satellites - is also looking to the masses to help fund the space-junk project going forward.

"We believe in the people - we're going to ask people to give us money," Sitnikov told Forbes. "It's like Greenpeace - maybe we'll be the second Greenpeace!"

The sticky-foam tech could also find uses far beyond Earth orbit, if everything goes according to plan. For example, Fedorov and Sitnikov envision the stuff, or something like it, eventually being employed as a cheap and efficient building material on Mars.

A barrel could be sent to the Martian surface instead of huge metallic habitats. The barrel would expel a big half-sphere of foam, and "astronauts can use just a knife to make the building, the habitat," Sitnikov said. 

Physicist Proposes a Pretty Depressing Explanation For Why We Never See Aliens

The Universe is so unimaginably big, and it's positively teeming with an almost infinite supply of potentially life-giving worlds. So where the heck is everybody? At its heart, this is what's called the Fermi Paradox: the perplexing scientific anomaly that despite there being billions of stars in our Milky Way galaxy - let alone outside it - we've never encountered any signs of an advanced alien civilisation, and why not? 

It's a decent question, and one that generations of scientists and thinkers have grappled with since the paradox was formulated decades ago. Some suggest aliens might be hibernating, or that something mysterious is preventing their evolution from taking place. Or maybe they just don't want anything to do with us?

In 2018, theoretical physicist Alexander Berezin from the National Research University of Electronic Technology (MIET) in Russia put forward his own explanation for why we're seemingly alone in the Universe, proposing what he calls his "First in, last out" solution to the Fermi Paradox.

According to Berezin's pre-print paper, which hasn't as yet been reviewed by other scientists, the paradox has a "trivial solution, requiring no controversial assumptions" but may prove "hard to accept, as it predicts a future for our own civilisation that is even worse than extinction". As Berezin sees it, the problem with some proposed solutions to the Fermi Paradox is they define alien life too narrowly. "The specific nature of civilisations arising to interstellar level should not matter," he writes.

"They might [be] biological organisms like ourselves, rogue AIs that rebelled against their creators, or distributed planet-scale minds like those described by Stanislaw Lem in Solaris." Of course, even with such a wide scope, we're still not seeing evidence of these things out there in the cosmos.

But for the purposes of solving the paradox, Berezin says the only parameter we should concern ourselves with - in terms of defining extraterrestrial life - is the physical threshold at which we can observe its existence. "The only variable we can objectively measure is the probability of life becoming detectable from outer space within a certain range from Earth," Berezin explains.

"For simplicity let us call it 'parameter A'." If an alien civilisation doesn't somehow reach parameter A - whether by developing interstellar travel, broadcasting communications across space, or by other means - it might still exist, but not help us solve the paradox. The actual "First in, last out" solution Berezin proposes is a grimmer scenario.

"What if the first life that reaches interstellar travel capability necessarily eradicates all competition to fuel its own expansion?" he hypothesises. As Berezin explains, this doesn't necessarily mean a highly developed extra-terrestrial civilisation would consciously wipe out other lifeforms - but perhaps "they simply won't notice, the same way a construction crew demolishes an anthill to build real estate because they lack incentive to protect it".

So is Berezin suggesting that we are the ants, and the reason we haven't encountered aliens is because we simply haven't had our own civilisation unthinkingly demolished by such unimaginably superior life forms yet? No. Because we are probably not the ants, but the future destroyers of the very worlds we've been looking for this whole time.

"Assuming the hypothesis above is correct, what does it mean for our future?" Berezin writes. "The only explanation is the invocation of the anthropic principle. We are the first to arrive at the [interstellar] stage. And, most likely, will be the last to leave." Again, such potential destruction wouldn't need to be wilfully designed or orchestrated - it could just play out like a completely unrestricted system, bigger than any individual's attempts to control it.

One example Berezin gives is free market capitalism, and another could be the dangers of an artificial intelligence (AI) untethered by constraints on its accumulation of power. "One rogue AI can potentially populate the entire supercluster with copies of itself, turning every solar system into a supercomputer, and there is no use asking why it would do that," Berezin writes. "All that matters is that it can."

It's a pretty terrifying outlook on Fermi - basically, we may be the winners of a deadly race we didn't even know we were competing in, or as Andrew Masterson at Cosmos put it, "we are the paradox resolution made manifest".Even Berezin admits he hopes he is wrong about this, and it's worth noting that many other scientists have much more optimistic views about when we can expect to hear from advanced alien life.

But the physicist's views are just the latest scientific statement of why we may be destined to gaze at the stars alone in time and space, much as we might wish it were otherwise.

New exoplanet system is 'mirror image' of Earth and sun

Artist’s concept of Kepler-160b, another world in the Kepler-160 system. It has a radius about 1.54 times that of Earth, but orbits very close to the star, making it unlikely to be habitable. Image via NASA.
Artist’s concept of Kepler-160b, another world in the Kepler-160 system. It has a radius about 1.54 times that of Earth, but orbits very close to the star, making it unlikely to be habitable. Image via NASA.

Researchers from Germany and the US have discovered an exoplanet less than twice the size of Earth orbiting at about the same distance from its star, making it the closest analog to the Earth-sun system known so far.

The number of potentially habitable exoplanets keeps growing, as more and more worlds orbiting distant stars are discovered. So far, most of those planets have been found orbiting red dwarf stars, since they are dimmer, and planets are easier to detect around them (and also are the most common stars in our galaxy). But now, researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research (MPS) in Göttingen, Germany, and others from the U.S., have announced that they have found a new exoworld, less than twice the size of Earth, which orbits a sunlike star, Kepler-160, just over 3,000 light-years from our solar system.

What makes this discovery of particular interest is that the planet appears to be orbiting its star at a similar distance as Earth's from the sun, and receives almost the same amount of energy from its star as Earth does. This would make it the most similar to the Earth-sun system of any exoplanetary system discovered so far, almost a mirror image.

The peer-reviewed findings were published in Astronomy & Astrophysics, Vol. 638, id. A10 and submitted to arXiv on June 3, 2020. The research also includes scientists from the Sonneberg Observatory, the University of Göttingen, the University of California in Santa Cruz and NASA.

While the new planet - provisionally named KOI-456.04 - hasn't been fully confirmed yet, the paper states that the probability of it being a real planet and not a false alarm is 85%. By far, most planetary candidates found do end up being confirmed later with more observations. From the paper:

So what is this probable new world like?

Diagram depicting how KOI-456.04 orbits in the habitable zone of its star, Kepler-160, at about the same distance Earth is from the sun.
Diagram depicting how KOI-456.04 orbits in the habitable zone of its star, Kepler-160, at about the same distance Earth is from the sun.

From what we know so far, it transits its star as seen from Earth. It is estimated to have a radius of 1.9 Earth radii, making it a super-Earth, and orbits its star in 378 days. Since the star is similar to our sun, the planet receives a similar amount of energy and radiation as Earth does, about 93%. This also means that the planet resides in a similar spot in the habitable zone around the star - where temperatures could allow liquid water to exist - as Earth does in the habitable zone around our sun. 

The lead author of the new study, René Heller, said in a statement: "If KOI-456.01's atmosphere isn't too dense or non-Earth-like, then there's a good chance it could have similar surface conditions to Earth. The researchers calculated that if the planet's atmosphere is moderate, like Earth's, then the average temperature should be about 41 degrees Fahrenheit (5 degrees Celsius)." Not too bad! There are, of course, still a lot of unknowns, such as the composition of the atmosphere and the planet itself and whether there is any surface water.

Kepler-160 was already known to have at least two planets, Kepler-160 b and Kepler-160 c. KOI-456.04, would be the newest, and it turns out there may actually be four planets in total. Heller said: Our analysis suggests that Kepler-160 is orbited not by two but by a total of four planets.

The other two already known planets, Kepler-160 b and Kepler-160 c, are both larger than Earth and orbit much closer to the star. This makes them a lot less likely to be habitable. Kepler-160 c has an oddly distorted orbit, leading some scientists to theorize that another third planet, Kepler-160 d, was waiting to be discovered. Heller and his colleagues found evidence for its existence indirectly, since it doesn't transit in front of the star as seen from Earth.

Heller and his co-author, Michael Hippke, developed a new technique for searching for exoplanets in old data from the Kepler Space Telescope (the mission ended in 2017). They decided to use a detailed physical model of stellar brightness variation instead of just looking for a step-like jump-to-dimming and then jump-back-to-normal brightness pattern in stellar light curves, as had been done previously for almost two decades. Heller explained:

If KOI-456.01 is any indication, then the process seems to be working. Heller and his colleagues had also been able to find 18 other new exoplanets, so far, in the old Kepler data.

Kepler-160 was observed continuously by Kepler from 2009 to 2013. It is very similar to our sun, with a radius of 1.1 solar radii, a surface temperature of 9,392 degrees Fahrenheit (5200 degrees Celsius, only 300 degrees C less than the sun), and a sun-like stellar luminosity.

While KOI-456.01 is still regarded as a planetary candidate, the odds are very good that it is the real deal. But of course, scientists want to know for certain, and it's possible that one of the more powerful ground-based telescopes will be able to fully confirm it, since it transits its star and is therefore easier to detect than with some other planet-hunting methods.

Also, the European Space Agency's (ESA's) upcoming PLATO space telescope will be able to do that as well. One of PLATO's primary goals is to search for Earth-sized exoplanets around sun-like stars, and is scheduled to launch in 2026. PLATO would be able to study KOI-456.01 a bit more closely, and, hopefully, reveal more about what this tantalizing world is really like.

There could be more than 30 alien civilizations in the Milky Way,

An artist's illustration of the alien solar system Kepler-47, a twin star system that is home to two planets.
An artist's illustration of the alien solar system Kepler-47, a twin star system that is home to two planets.

If extraterrestrial civilizations exist, we may not have to go too far to find them. A new study from researchers at the U.K.'s University of Nottingham suggests there are 36 planets in the Milky Way galaxy, a calculation the experts have dubbed "the Astrobiological Copernican Limit."

"The classic method for estimating the number of intelligent civilizations relies on making guesses of values relating to life, whereby opinions about such matters vary quite substantially," the study's lead author, Tom Westby, said in a statement. "Our new study simplifies these assumptions using new data, giving us a solid estimate of the number of civilizations in our Galaxy."

"There should be at least a few dozen active civilizations in our Galaxy under the assumption that it takes 5 billion years for intelligent life to form on other planets, as on Earth," University of Nottingham professor Christopher Conselice added. The researchers found that there were limits for finding intelligent life, including the average lifespan of a civilization, which can be less than 1,000 years, as well as the age of the planet and what the host star is comprised of.

"Furthermore, the likelihood that the host stars for this life are solar-type stars is extremely small and most would have to be M dwarfs, which may not be stable enough to host life over long timescales," the researchers wrote in the study's abstract.

If such a civilization were to exist, the closest one would be 17,000 light-years away, which the researchers noted would make the ability to find and communicate with them "very difficult," given the state of our technology. "It is also possible that we are the only civilization within our Galaxy unless the survival times of civilizations like our own are long," the researchers added in the statement.

One light-year, which measures distance in space, is the equivalent to about 6 trillion miles. Should humanity find the presence of extraterrestrial civilizations, it could be like looking into our future, both good and bad, Conselice argued.

"If we find that intelligent life is common then this would reveal that our civilization could exist for much longer than a few hundred years, alternatively if we find that there are no active civilizations in our Galaxy it is a bad sign for our own long-term existence," Conselice explained. "By searching for extraterrestrial intelligent life -- even if we find nothing -- we are discovering our own future and fate."

A separate study published in mid-May suggested that not only is the "universe teeming with life," but that it's "the favored bet." In March, a separate study theorized finding life in the universe "could be common," when taking into account how life's building blocks spontaneously form throughout the universe.

In February, the SETI Institute announced they are working on new techniques to spot "technosignatures" that could potentially indicate the presence of an advanced civilization. Technosignatures are defined as "potentially detectable signatures and signals of the presence of distant advanced civilizations," according to NASA.

In September 2018, the $200 million Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) found its first exoplanet, and in April 2019, it found its first Earth-sized planet.

More than 4,000 exoplanets have been discovered by NASA in total, approximately 50 of which were believed to be potentially habitable as of September 2018. They have the right size and the right orbit of their star to support surface water and, at least theoretically, to support life.

Mysterious blue fireball streaks above Western Australia, puzzling astronomers

Image taken from footage by Shaz Hussien at Cape Lambert
Image taken from footage by Shaz Hussien at Cape Lambert

A streak of blue light that flashed across the sky last  Monday surprised western Australia's night owls and befuddled the astronomy community. The blue fireball was seen at 1 a.m. local time on June 15, according to ABC News Pilbara. "It was really a spectacular observation," Glen Nagle, th outreach manager at the CSIRO-NASA tracking station in Canberra said. 

Sightings were reported across the remote Pilbara region as well as in the country's Northern Territory and in South Australia, Nagle said.

Many observers caught the phenomenon on video. The fireball streaks steadily across the sky. At first, it appears orange or yellow, with a short tail streaming behind it. After a few seconds, the bulk of the fireball lights up blue.

Scientists aren't quite sure what object was burning up in the atmosphere to create the brilliant light show, according to ABC News. Some amateur astronomers speculated that the object could be human-made debris, perhaps from a recent rocket launch. But that seems unlikely, Renae Sayers, a research ambassador at Curtin University's Space Science and Technology Centre, told the news agency.

When space junk reenters the atmosphere, "what we tend to see is sort of like crackles and sparks," Sayers said. "This is due to the fact that there is stuff burning up - so you've got solar panels going all over the place, you've got hunks of metal moving around."

The fireball over Pilbara, on the other hand, glided smoothly through the sky. That makes it more likely to be a natural space object. The blue color, according to Nagle, indicates a high iron content. Many meteorites - space rocks that survive their fiery trip through Earth's atmosphere - are high in iron. Some may be the cores of ancient asteroids, according to the Natural History Museum in the U.K.

Sayers said that the fireball looked similar to another spectacular meteor sighted in Australia in 2017. That 2017 fireball whooshed across the sky, but instead of hitting the ground or burning up in the atmosphere, it bounced back into space. The June 15 fireball may have been another grazing encounter, she told ABC News.

Meteors bright enough to be classified as fireballs are rare, but encounters with space rocks are common. According to NASA, about 48.5 tons (44,000 kilograms) of meteor material falls on Earth every day. Most space rocks disintegrate entirely or are the size of a pebble by the time they make it through Earth's atmosphere. 

Occasionally, one makes a truly spectacular entrance: In February 2013, a meteor that would become known as the Chelyabinsk meteor entered the atmosphere over Russia and exploded in the biggest space blast since the 1908 Tunguska explosion. The explosion blew out windows in buildings in six different cities.

Almost 90% of astronauts have been men. But the future of space may be female

Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti aboard the International Space Station. Credit: NASA
Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti aboard the International Space Station. Credit: NASA

Only 566 people have ever travelled to space. Sixty-five of them, or about 11.5%, were women. NASA recently proclaimed it will put the "first woman and next man" on the Moon by 2024. Despite nearly 60 years of human spaceflight, women are still in the territory of "firsts".

Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space

The first woman in space was cosmonaut Valentina Vladimirovna Tereshkova, who orbited Earth 48 times from June 16 to 18, 1963.

Her flight became Cold War propaganda to demonstrate the superiority of communism. At the 1963 World Congress of Women, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev used Tereshkova's voyage to declare the USSR had achieved equality for women.

Women across the world took heart and dreamed they too might travel to space. Ekaterina Ergardt, a Soviet state farm worker, wrote to Tereshkova: "I am eighty years old. I started to live in the years of the beginning of women's struggle for a life of freedom and equality ... now the road to space is open for women."

Earthbound again

Despite this optimism, it was 19 years before another woman was allowed to venture beyond Earth. In the United States, women were excluded from space by the restriction that astronauts had to be military test pilots-a profession barred to them. 

While the first American astronauts-known as the Mercury 7 - were training in the 1960s, aerospace doctor Randy Lovelace recruited 13 women pilots and put them through the same paces as the male astronauts. The "Mercury 13" outperformed the men on many tests, particularly in how they handled isolation.

But NASA wasn't convinced. A congressional hearing was held to investigate whether women should qualify to be astronauts. In her testimony, Mercury 13 astronaut candidate Jerrie Cob said: "I find it a little ridiculous when I read in a newspaper that there is a place called Chimp College in New Mexico where they are training chimpanzees for space flight, one a female named Glenda. 

I think it would be at least as important to let the women undergo this training for space flight." She was prepared to take the place of a chimp, if that was the only way to get into space.

Message in a bottle

In popular culture in the 1960s, women were often associated with magic and emotion rather than science and technology. The sitcom I Dream of Jeannie depicted the relationship between a US astronaut and a magical djinn or genie, imaginatively named Jeannie. NASA was an advisor for the series, which mirrored real space events. Jeannie represented seductive oriental femininity in opposition to the strait-laced, masculine, all-American astronauts.

(In the similar sitcom Bewitched, the witch Samantha travelled to the Moon for picnics before she renounced her craft to be a regular housewife.) The message was clear in popular culture: women needed to stay in the kitchen-or the boudoir. These sitcoms are still aired around the world.

While Major Tony Nelson was carried into space enclosed in his capsule, Jeannie was imprisoned on Earth in hers. Still image from the opening sequence of I Dream of Jeannie. YouTube

From aprons to spacewalks

By the 1970s, the women's movement had made great strides and NASA had to adapt. The first women were admitted to astronaut training in 1978. Not to be outdone, the USSR rushed more women into its own program.

In 1982 Svetlana Savitskaya visited the Salyut 7 space station, becoming the second woman in space and the first to perform a spacewalk. But she wasn't allowed to forget the nature of women's work: when she arrived, her male colleagues presented her with an apron.

The following year, Sally Ride flew as a mission specialist on the Space Shuttle Challenger, becoming the first US woman in space. The first American woman to spacewalk was Kathryn Sullivan in 1995.

In the 21st century, there are still barriers to women's equal participation in space. In March 2019 the first all-woman spacewalk was cancelled because there were not enough medium-sized spacesuits. Astronauts Christina Koch and Jessica Meir subsequently accomplished the feat in October 2019.

Discussing the cancellation, NASA administrator Ken Bowersox made clear the ideal astronaut body is still male. He blamed women's smaller average stature, saying they were less able to "reach in and do things a little bit more easily".

'Weightlessness is a great equalizer'

Is it women's bodies that are the problem, or a space world built for men? What would space technology designed by and for women look like?There is a massive gender data gap in space. There has been much less research on the effects of microgravity on women's bodies than there has been for men.

However, women in many ways are ideal astronauts. Physical strength and height are not advantages in microgravity. Women use less food and oxygen, maintain their weight better on restricted diets, and create less waste. In the words of Sally Ride, "weightlessness is a great equaliser".


Women's access to space, not just as astronauts but as users and creators of space services like Earth observation and satellite telecommunications, is still far from equal. But there are signs of progress.

One is the Space4Women program run by the United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), which aims to ensure "the benefits of space reach women and girls and that women and girls play an active and equal role in space science, technology, innovation, and exploration."

As UNOOSA director Simonetta di Pippo has noted, 40% of the targets of the UN's sustainable development goals rely on the use of space science and technology.

NASA's plan to land a woman on the Moon is another positive sign. On her post-orbit world tour in 1964, Valentina Tereshkova expressed her own desire to go to the Moon, but she never made another spaceflight.

Now aged 83, Dr. Tereshkova has had a distinguished career in science and politics and remains a sitting member of the Russian parliament. To see a woman set foot on the lunar surface within her lifetime would truly be a ground-breaking moment.

'Looking at an alien sky': New Horizons probe sees shifted star positions 

Above: This two-frame animation blinks back and forth between New Horizons and Earth images of the star Proxima Centauri, clearly illustrating the different view of the sky New Horizons has from its deep-space perch. Images of the star Proxima Centauri captured by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft (left) and a ground-based telescope (right). (Image credit: NASA

NASA's pioneering New Horizons spacecraft has traveled so far that its view of the cosmos is noticeably different than ours.

New Horizons, which flew by Pluto in 2015 and the even more distant object Arrokoth last year, recently photographed the nearby stars Proxima Centauri and Wolf 359. In a spacecraft first, the imagery shows the two stars occupying slightly different patches of sky than they do from our perspective here on Earth.

"It's fair to say that New Horizons is looking at an alien sky, unlike what we see from Earth," New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado, said in a statement. "And that has allowed us to do something that had never been accomplished before - to see the nearest stars visibly displaced on the sky from the positions we see them on Earth."

New Horizons captured the imagery on April 22 and April 23, when the probe was more than 4.3 billion miles (6.9 billion kilometers) from its home planet. That's so far away that it took 6.5 hours for the data containing the photos, moving at the speed of light, to travel from New Horizons to mission scientists' inboxes. (New Horizons isn't the farthest-flung spacecraft, however. For instance, NASA's Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 probes are both exploring interstellar space, more than 11 billion miles from home.)

Proxima Centauri and Wolf 359 are much more distant still, of course. Though Proxima Centauri is the sun's nearest neighbor, the red dwarf star is still 4.2 light-years - about 25 trillion miles (40 trillion km) - from Earth. Wolf 359 lies about 7.9 light-years from us.

New Horizons team members compared the probe's photos to imagery of Proxima Centauri and Wolf 359 captured by two ground-based telescopes - one at Siding Spring Observatory in Australia and another at Mt. Lemmon Observatory in Arizona.

Both Proxima Centauri and Wolf 359 appear to jump when the two photo sets are overlaid, showcasing the "parallax effect." (You can witness this effect firsthand, by the way: Hold your index finger up at arm's length, then blink each eye successively as you stare at it.)

"The professional and amateur astronomy communities had been waiting to try this, and were very excited to make a little space exploration history," New Horizons science team member Tod Lauer, of the National Science Foundation's National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory, said in the same statement. "The images collected on Earth when New Horizons was observing Proxima Centauri and Wolf 359 really exceeded my expectations."

Lauer coordinated the parallax demonstration and created the new double-barreled imagery, which includes 3D views of the stars from the different perspectives. In this latter effort he had help from New Horizons deputy project scientist John Spencer of SwRI and science team collaborator Brian May, an astrophysicist who also happens to play guitar for the band Queen.

"It could be argued that in astro-stereoscopy - 3D images of astronomical objects - NASA's New Horizons team already leads the field, having delivered astounding stereoscopic images of both Pluto and the remote Kuiper Belt object Arrokoth," May said in the same statement.

"But the latest New Horizons stereoscopic experiment breaks all records," May added. "These photographs of Proxima Centauri and Wolf 359 - stars that are well-known to amateur astronomers and science fiction aficionados alike - employ the largest distance between viewpoints ever achieved in 180 years of stereoscopy!"

The parallax demonstration was not done for scientific purposes, Stern told (though he did note that the New Horizons imagery might find its way into textbooks that discuss the parallax effect). Rather, the main goal was public outreach and engagement, and a desire to provide us all with some cosmic poetry and perspective.

We could get more such demonstrations, and much more data, from New Horizons in the coming years. The probe remains in good health and has enough fuel to fly by yet another object in the 2020s, if a suitable target can be found and NASA approves another mission extension, Stern and other team members have said.

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Preparations complete in Western Australia for construction of world's largest telescope

Following seven years of design and prototyping work, the Curtin University node of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) has completed its preparations for the construction of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) in Western Australia, which will begin next year.

130,000 individual radio antennas, along with associated electronics, will be built and spread over thousands of square kilometres at CSIRO's Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory (MRO), approximately 800 km north of Perth. This will work in tandem with an array of 197 dishes located in the Karoo in South Africa, north of Cape Town.

To be built by a global collaboration of 14 countries, the SKA will be one of the world's largest science facilities, exploring the entire history and evolution of the Universe, and uncovering advances in fundamental physics.

The ICRAR-Curtin University leader, John Curtin Distinguished Professor Steven Tingay said, "We have now passed the last major technical milestone. "Over the last seven years, the Commonwealth Government has supported my team with $10.1M to reach this milestone, and a significant fraction of these funds has helped Western Australian industry to get ready for SKA construction contracts, especially around Geraldton and the State's Mid-West."

The search for the first stars 13 billion years ago, the discovery of missing matter in the Universe, and galaxy surveys of unprecedented scale feature among fundamental advances from the precursor telescopes, ready to be taken to the next level with the SKA.

Both the Commonwealth Government and the Government of Western Australia have strongly supported the development of the SKA project over a significant period of time. The SKA project will play a part in economic recovery, injecting hundreds of millions of much-needed dollars into the regional, Western Australian and Australian economies, as well as those of other SKA countries, over many years.

"All West Australians can be proud that our State is going to be the home to the SKA, one of the biggest science projects in human history," said Western Australian Minister for Science, the Hon Dave Kelly MLA. Since 2009 the WA Government has provided funding of $71 million for ICRAR to attract the SKA to Western Australia ," he said. "Through this investment, Western Australia has become a global hub for radio astronomy."

Professor Steven Tingay said Western Australia had placed itself at the forefront of international scientific research.  


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