A Billion-Mile Journey: OSIRIS-REx's Meteoric Return With a Space Rock Treasure

On Sunday, September 24, NASA did something it has never done before. At about 10 a.m. Eastern, the space agency received its first collected samples from an asteroid, delivered to Earth over the Utah desert. Like its Japanese predecessor, the OSIRIS-REx came in for a close approach to Earth, released a parcel filled with asteroid rubble, and then flew off toward its secondary mission in the Solar System.

THE STORY: OSIRIS-REx principal investigator Dante Lauretta tells Inverse. After a scary brush with the Solar System's surprises, the spacecraft was able to collect pristine material from the asteroid. 

Why did you go to Bennu? Why that particular asteroid?

We needed an asteroid that didn't get too close to the Sun because it gets really hot, and we didn't want to have a complicated thermal control system. We didn't want it to get too far away from the Sun because we were using solar arrays for our power. So we had from maybe 0.8 to 1.4 astronomical units, with 1.0 being the average distance of the Earth from the Sun. So a little bit closer than the Earth and a little bit farther away, but not too much. That got rid of most asteroids in the Solar System with that tight of a constraint.

Then, we had to consider the sample return. The steeper the angle the capsule comes in, the higher the temperature and the higher the speed, so we wanted something that was in almost the same orbital plane as the Earth. It also needed to be bigger than 200 meters. Anything smaller than that could spin too rapidly — some of them are spinning once a minute— [and] the idea of touching a surface that's moving that fast was really daunting.

By the time we went through all of those, there was like a couple dozen asteroids left in the Solar System. Then we wanted to go to one rich in carbon because our science is all about the origin of life and organics. There were five asteroids in the whole Solar System that met all of those constraints. Bennu had the best orbit; it was easily accessible with a pretty standard propulsion system, and we had a lot of data on it.

For all the planning that you did, the retrieval process didn't go as planned. In fact, you described Bennu as a ball pit in a children's playground. What happened?

We were expecting a hard surface. We were expecting that this was an asteroid, a rock. We thought we were going to contact the surface of a rock. We actually had a spring in its arm, so the idea was that we would pogo-stick, so it was going to pogo and bounce back off the surface. But that didn't happen.

When we made contact with Bennu, there was no resistance. There was no solid surface. It was like hitting quicksand, and we just sunk and sunk past the gas bottles of TAGSAM's arm. If we hadn't fired our rocket engines, I think we would have just disappeared into the Bennu subsurface, never to be heard from again. Fortunately, we had the engines ready to go. It safely got away from the surface of the asteroid.

You call Bennu a source of grandfather rocks. What makes rocks from Bennu so special?

In some cases, asteroid rocks were the very first solid material that formed in the Solar System. A lot of that got swept up into the planets, especially the inner region where Jupiter's gravity wasn't perturbing them. Then, once you get a planetary-sized object like the Earth, there's radioactive isotopes like uranium and potassium. And they melt. Everything melts. In fact, the surface of the early Earth was probably a magma ocean. The entire surface of the planet was molten. So, any information about the formation of the planet was erased in that event.

You can't really understand the earliest geologic evolution of the Solar System by looking at Earth's rocks. You can get a little older if you go to the Moon. We learned an enormous amount from the lunar samples that we brought back. But even the Moon has melted, and had volcanoes, and eruptions, and had changes to the surface. So it doesn't get you back to the very beginning. To do that, you have to go to the asteroids. That's why I call them the grandfather rocks. They hold the memory of the very early days of our Solar System.

At a press conference earlier this month, you said you plan to be on-site when the sample arrives on Sunday. What will that be like?

When we're out in the field, we are in a harsh desert climate. So we need to be cognizant of heat stroke and heat exhaustion, so we're constantly monitoring each other for that. The area is also a military test range. There could be unexploded bombs and other weapons out there. So, a representative from the Air Force surveys the area to make sure it's safe.

Once the capsule containing the sample is dropped, it needs to be cleared for safety by a safety assurance engineer from Lockheed Martin. Even once that's cleared, the capsule and samples can still be really hot. So we need to wear thermal protection gloves to protect our hands.

We feel ready. We're battle-tested. This team knows what to do. The spacecraft is healthy. Everyone is in a good mood. It kind of feels like the calm before the storm. So I'm sanguine. I think that is the word I'm looking for.

Curtin University researchers are standing by to be among the first in the world to analyse precious asteroid samples due to land on Earth via NASA's historic OSIRIS-REx mission, which could unlock some of the biggest mysteries of the Universe.

After a seven-year mission to asteroid Bennu and back, the spacecraft will hurtle through Earth's atmosphere at speeds of up to 45,000 km/h protected by a heat shield, before deploying parachutes to safely slow down to around 16 km/h as it lands on September 24. But for Curtin researchers, the most thrilling part is yet to come.

Once the asteroid sample-return capsule has safely touched down, a Curtin team of six scientists, as members of the OSIRIS-REx science team, 

NASA hopes humanoid robots can help us explore the moon and Mars

Robotics firm Apptronik, Inc. visits with NASA's Valkyrie robot and the Johnson Space Center Dexterous Robotics Team in Houston, Texas in 2021. (Image credit: NASA)
Robotics firm Apptronik, Inc. visits with NASA's Valkyrie robot and the Johnson Space Center Dexterous Robotics Team in Houston, Texas in 2021. (Image credit: NASA)

NASA has teamed up with a small robotics firm in Texas to continue the space agency's decades of work developing humanoid robots. Soon, such robots may be sent to orbit, or even other planets, to help astronauts with their work.

Texas-based Apptronik, Inc. has long collaborated with NASA under the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contracts program to hone the capabilities of Apollo, a humanoid robot that the company is developing to handle terrestrial tasks like logistics, manufacturing, and home healthcare assistance. NASA, meanwhile, has taken a keen interest in adapting Apollo (and robots like it) to become assistants for astronauts living and working in orbit, as well as on the moon and even Mars.

They might even one day function as remote-controlled "avatars" on other worlds for Earth-based human operators to pilot.

Apptronik has put special emphasis on the modularity of Apollo's design, specifically its adaptability for logistics tasks. Standing at 5'8" tall and weighing 160 pounds (73 kilograms), Apptronik says on its website that Apollo will have a run time of about four hours per battery pack and a payload capacity of 55 pounds (25 kg). As such, even though its main market right now is more Earth-bound customers, namely retail operations, warehousing and manufacturing, NASA's interest shouldn't be a surprise.

Apollo's promised flexibility would mean that it should have some degree of reprogrammability and physical customization. It already features varying dexterity levels, autonomous functions and different tools it can be equipped with, but more functionality will likely evolve as development progresses.

To that end, NASA has been lending its own decades of expertise in robotics to help the development of Apollo in areas like robotic mobility and software design principles for safe human-robot interactions.

"By applying NASA's expertise in human-safe mobile robots to commercial projects, together we are able to spur innovation in this important field," Shaun Azimi, head of the dexterous robotics team at NASA's Johnson Space Center, said in a NASA statement. "We are proud to see our efforts result in robotics technology that will benefit the American economy and assist humans in working safely and productively here on Earth and potentially in space exploration as well."

NASA's R5 humanoid robot, also known as Valkyrie, was an entry into DARPA's Robotics Challenge Trials in 2013 but has grown in scope since. (Image credit: NASA)

It's not hard to see how unloading a lunar lander with a robot rather than a human would be a much safer and efficient operation for any crewed landings on the moon or Mars. And, given the unforgiving environment on both worlds, robots will almost certainly have to be an integral part of either mission if it is going to succeed long term.

Robots in the form of special-purpose landers, rovers and even an aerial drone are already operating on other worlds, but general-purpose robots are a whole other matter entirely. Such robots would be able to tackle tedious or perilous tasks on the lunar or Martian surface far more easily and safely than a human could, and in principle should be able to be reprogrammed as needed to carry out a new task whenever it was required — even those its designers hadn't conceived of when they built it.

Having such robots at human explorers' disposal would allow astronauts and Earth-based operations to emphasize scientific pursuits and other more important assignments than things like constructing a shelter or digging up rock samples.

Additionally, these robots could assist in operating and maintaining mining and manufacturing facilities on other worlds that could process native resources in situ, an arrangement that would dramatically reduce the cost of maintaining these missions for NASA. After all, it'd be far cheaper and practical to build a human habitat out of concrete made from lunar regolith than it would be to ship one all the way from Earth.

So, incorporating robots into future missions of NASA's Artemis program might prove critical to creating a sustainable human presence on the moon and, one day, Mars. Naturally, then, it's no surprise that NASA has so many robotic irons in the fire.

Spring astronomy in Australia offers a bonus not many other countries enjoy– crisp clear skies! Our mid -north coast skies are sparkling at the moment so why not get outside tonight with me under the stars from your own backyard. You won't be disappointed with so much on offer for September.

Remember, the starlight you see coming from all those constellations tonight left there hundreds, and in most cases thousands of years ago, and it's just arriving now! Remember, when you stargaze, you're looking back in time. Your telescope is your time machine, coupled with imagination it can take you anywhere!

If you're new to astronomy the hardest part is learning all those stars. Relax! It's a lot easier than you think, but you won't do it sitting inside at your keyboard and monitor. Some people say that we spend too much time indoors and not enough time observing the things around us, like the moon, stars and planets.

But what if your screen, in this case your Smartphone or tablet, can actually help you appreciate the skies more? Well they can and they're amazingly simple to use! Here's some of my favorite free apps. 'Sky View' will identify almost everything above your head at night and it's fantastic! Try 'The Moon' for your lunar viewing, then download an accurate new Aussie app 'ISS Flyover' to catch the space station passing over for a week ahead. It's a small charge but worth it.

This one is a knockout. On your tablet or laptop download an app called 'Star Chart.' It puts a virtual planetarium right in your pocket. It uses state of the art GPS technology that will show you the current location of every star and planet visible from Earth. Cool huh? For even more realistic night sky experiences install 'Stellarium' on your laptop or iPad. I'm not going to spoil the surprise, just do it. It's free and has so much to offer you will be surprised. An alternative is the popular program 'Celestia.' A world of creative wonder awaits you.

Planets, stars, and star patterns have shaped our lives. Remember standing out in your backyard as a kid trying to count 'em all? I did. This fascination with the stars and the night sky extends to almost all indigenous cultures throughout the world. Hey, ever wondered if you can use your phone as an Astro-camera, well you can!

With most smartphones today you can photograph your night sky without needing a connected computer or much post-processing. Plus, the images you capture can be immediately shared with family and friends and posted on social media. For the best results, you should attach your phone to a camera tripod to hold it steady. Don't laugh, I've even taped mine or used Blu-Tac!

Smartphone astrophotography lets you easily record a snapshot of what you see through your telescope as well. To take any kind of image of the night sky means a long exposure, which means stability. If you're seriously keen, I recommend buying the Celestron NexYZ adapter. You can then easily start taking photos of lunar eclipses, lunar craters, planets, the phases of the Moon.

The app 'NightCap Camera' ranks highly on the list of the best night vision camera apps. With it, you can take amazing low light and night photos. All you need to do is just hold steady and tap the shutter.

India's lunar lander finds 1st evidence of a moonquake in decades

India's moon rover may have just detected the first evidence of a "moonquake" since the 1970s. The Instrument for Lunar Seismic Activity (ILSA) attached to the Vikram lander detected the seismic activity on the surface of the moon Aug. 26. Vikram landed on the moon's south pole Aug. 23 as part of the Chandrayaan-3 mission — India's first mission to the lunar surface.

If it's confirmed, the moonquake — which the mission detected alongside other activity including the movements of India's Pragyan rover — could give scientists a rare insight into the mysterious churning innards of Earth's lunar companion. The lander "has recorded an event, appearing to be a natural one, on August 26, 2023," The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) wrote on X, formerly Twitter. "The source of this event is under investigation."

The Apollo lunar missions between 1969 and 1977 first detected seismic activity on the moon, which proved that the moon had a complex geological structure hidden deep within, rather than being uniformly rocky like the Martian moons Phobos and Deimos.

In recent years, advanced analysis tools and computer models have enabled scientists to sift through the data gathered by Apollo and other missions and build a clearer picture of the moon's mysterious interior. A 2011 NASA study revealed that the moon's core, much like Earth's, was likely made up of fluid iron surrounding a dense, solid iron ball.

In May 2023, researchers used gravitational field data to confirm this iron core hypothesis, while also suggesting that blobs of the moon's molten mantle could be separated from the rest, floating to the surface as clumps of iron and generating quakes as they went. But these findings are just the beginning of the moon's secrets. Magnetic fields are produced inside planetary bodies by the churning movement of material in planets' electrically conductive molten cores.

Today the interior of the non-magnetic moon is quite different from Earth's magnetized innards — it's dense and mostly frozen, containing only a small outer core region that is fluid and molten. Scientists believe that the moon's insides cooled fairly quickly and evenly after it formed around 4.5 billion years ago, meaning it doesn't have a strong magnetic field — and many scientists believe it never did.

How then, could some of the 3 billion-year-old rocks retrieved during NASA's Apollo missions look like they were made inside a geomagnetic field powerful enough to rival Earth's? It is questions like these that the Chandrayaan-3 could help to answer. As the mission's lander and rover are both solar-powered, they are currently in sleep mode until the moon exits its roughly 14-day night. When the sun hits the face of the lunar south pole again on Sept. 22, both tools stand poised to search for the answers.

James Webb Space Telescope could detect life on Earth from across the galaxy, new study suggests

 new study suggests that the James Webb Space Telescope could detect Earth's human civilization from across the galaxy (Image credit: James Vaughan)
new study suggests that the James Webb Space Telescope could detect Earth's human civilization from across the galaxy (Image credit: James Vaughan)

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) would be able to spot the signs of our civilization on Earth if it was spying on us from another star system in the Milky Way, a new study shows. The finding raises hopes that the state-of-the-art spacecraft could detect alien civilizations as it stares out toward distant worlds in our galaxy.

Since launching in late 2021, JWST has been predominantly peering out into the deepest reaches of the cosmos in search of clues about how the early universe formed. But one of the telescope's secondary objectives is to analyze the atmospheres of nearby exoplanets, or planets beyond the solar system, to look for gases produced by biological life, known as biosignatures, and chemicals produced by advanced alien civilizations, known as technosignatures.

But despite being the most advanced telescope currently in operation, it is still unclear how well JWST will be able to spot the tell-tale signs of intelligent life. To answer this question, researchers decided to test whether the space telescope could successfully detect intelligent life from the only planet in the universe that is known to be both habitable and currently inhabited — Earth.

In the new study, uploaded to the pre-print server arXiv on Aug. 28, researchers took a spectrum of Earth's atmosphere and deliberately decreased the quality of the data to mimic how it would look to an observer dozens of light-years away. The team then used a computer model, which replicated JWST's sensor capabilities, to see if the spacecraft could detect the key biosignatures and technosignatures from the dataset, such as methane and oxygen, produced by biological life, and nitrogen dioxide and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which are produced by humans.

The results, which have not yet been peer-reviewed, show that JWST could likely detect all the key markers of non-intelligent and intelligent life in our planet's atmosphere. The researchers noted that the quality of the altered dataset is roughly equivalent to JWST observations of planets from TRAPPIST-1 — a star system containing seven exoplanets that orbit a red dwarf star around 40 light-years from Earth. This suggests the telescope should be able to detect life or alien civilizations on exoplanets within 40 light-years of Earth. But the team believes JWST could possibly detect signs of extraterrestrial life up to 50 light-years from Earth.

Only around 20 exoplanets have been officially discovered within a 50-light-year radius of Earth, but based on the number of suspected stars in this region of space, experts predict that there may actually be as many as 4,000 exoplanets within JWST's reach, according to Project EDEN, an international astronomical collaboration dedicated to finding potentially habitable planets close to Earth.However, this doesn't guarantee that JWST would be able to detect life on other planets.

Detecting biosignatures and technosignatures on other worlds "may prove challenging to interpret without contextual knowledge about the habitable environment," the researchers wrote. In this study, the team already knew which markers to look for, but on an exoplanet with different conditions and alternate potential life forms or technologies those life-signatures may not be as obvious, they added.

JWST has already made some interesting discoveries about exoplanets near Earth. The telescope spotted water on the Neptune-size exoplanet GJ 1214b, which is around 40 light-years from Earth, and found that TRAPPIST-1b, the second-closest exoplanet to the star in the TRAPPIST-1 system, likely has no atmosphere at all due to its extreme heat. The spacecraft also glimpsed a gigantic dust storm in the atmosphere of VHS 1256 b, a "super-Jupiter" exoplanet 40 light-years from Earth.

Closer to home, JWST has also detected giant geysers gushing out of Saturn's moon Enceladus, which could contain the chemical ingredients needed for life. And further out into the cosmos, the spacecraft has also glimpsed potentially life-giving carbon compounds in an infant star system more than 1,000 light-years from Earth.

James Webb Space Telescope deepens major debate over universe's expansion rate

One of the biggest and most heated cosmic debates of our time surrounds a peculiar dilemma with a rather snappy name: Hubble tension. This phrase describes the fact that, even though scientists are aware the cosmos is constantly ballooning outward in every direction — as we can clearly see stars and galaxies drifting farther and farther away from us over time — they can't perfectly pin down the rate at which that ballooning is happening. 

And the rate is accelerating, by the way, a startling discovery astronomers made in the late 1990s that could be due in part to the existence of dark energy. That leaves us with a pretty major chasm in our understanding of the universe.  In an attempt to get to the bottom of this, on Tuesday (Sept. 12) researchers announced that the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has weighed in on the situation for the first time – but it did not solve the mystery. In fact, JWST actually thickened it. But first, let's think about how we got here. 

Basically, settling Hubble tension once and for all is dependent on resolving the true value of the Hubble constant, which is a crucial number in calculating the universe's expansion rate. Yet, for whatever reason, our theoretical predictions of the constant do not appear to match up with reality.

According to most models, the Hubble constant should equal something around 68 kilometers per second per megaparsec (km/s/Mpc). One megaparsec is 1,000 parsecs, or about 3,260 light-years, for context. But after scanning stars and galaxies across our universe, some experts calculate the constant to be 69.8 km/s/Mpc, while others find it to be as high as 74 km/s/Mpc, depending on the method of measurement. Still others have suggested solutions that fall between the two.

Potentially, this discrepancy either suggests our instruments are not intelligent enough — or maybe we're awfully wrong about that theoretical prediction. In other words, perhaps the models that presently thread our understanding of the universe are missing something?

In 2019, a number of high-profile physicists even famously gathered at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics in California to officially try and resolve things. That ended with a headache. As particle physicist David Gross, a former director of the KITP, put it: "We wouldn't call it a tension or a problem but rather a crisis." And ever since, scientists have continued to diligently work out where they might've gone wrong, crossing off possible explanations for Hubble tension on a list.

Competition To Name Australia's Lunar Rover

 Australia, we're going to the Moon. The Australian Space Agency wants to bring the nation on its boldest adventure yet. You have the chance to be part of history, with the opportunity to name Australia's lunar rover. Trailblazer program

The Australian Space Agency, in partnership with NASA, is working with Australia's space industry to design and build an Australian-made rover. It's part of the Trailblazer program under the Moon to Mars initiative.

Drawing on Australia's world-leading remote operations expertise, the rover will collect lunar soil, known as regolith. NASA will attempt to extract oxygen from the sample. This is a key step towards a sustainable human presence on the Moon. The rover will go to the Moon as part of a future Artemis mission by as early as 2026.

The competition

Australians can enter a name that will be in the running to be selected for the rover. Individuals and schools across Australia can enter a rover name, along with a brief explanation for choosing it. To get Australian students excited and engaged in the opportunity, schools can download a presentation and supporting materials.

How to enter

The competition is now open. We will select a shortlist of 4 names from your entries and put them to a public vote. We'll announce the winner in December. Enter your details, rover name and brief explanation via our website survey. Entries close at 11:59pm (ADST) on Friday 20 October 2023.Start now

Competition stages

Tuesday 5 September – Friday 20 October 2023

Competition open. Entries close at 11:59pm (ADST) on 20 October.

Monday 23 October – Friday 17 November 2023

Shortlisting process starts. Individuals or schools with shortlisted names notified.

Monday 20 November – Friday 1 December 2023

Public voting takes place.

Wednesday 6 December 2023

** Winning rover name announced at the 16th Australian Space Forum in Sydney.

The Best Way To Find Alien Civilizations May Be To Search For Their Pollution

The technology of an advanced alien civilization is likely to produce many signs that could be detected across the vastness of space.
The technology of an advanced alien civilization is likely to produce many signs that could be detected across the vastness of space.

If there's life on any of the habitable-zone TRAPPIST-1 worlds, JWST should be able to see signs of it in the planet's atmosphere, a recent study says. The reverse is also true; if an alien civilization out there somewhere has their own super-sensitive infrared space telescope, they'll be able to see our effects on our planet's atmosphere.

 Johns Hopkins University astrobiologist Jacob Lustig-Yeager and his colleagues turned measurements of Earth's atmosphere into simulated data from TRAPPIST-1e and found that even in the messy, low-resolution view of a planet 40 light years away, JWST could pick out molecules that reveal the presence of life and advanced technology (by which we mean pollution). They published their work in a pre-print paper, which has not yet been peer-reviewed.

Telltale Signs of Life

To test whether JWST's instruments could spot traces of industrial pollutants like chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in the atmosphere of a planet orbiting another star, Lustig-Yeager and his colleagues had to make real data from Earth's atmosphere look like it came from a planet 40 light years away.

Canada's SCISAT orbits the only planet we know of with CFCs and other pollutants in its atmosphere: Earth. Every time Earth passes between the satellite and the Sun, SCISAT's two instruments measure the spectra of sunlight filtering through Earth's atmosphere and identify the chemicals in the air. According to SCISAT, our planet's atmosphere is full of signs of life, like oxygen and methane, but it's also laden with pollutants like carbon dioxide and CFCs. Air pollution is bad news, of course, but it's also a sign that an intelligent (if not especially sensible) species has developed some advanced technology.

CFCs, in particular, would be a dead giveaway, because they aren't produced by natural processes. Here on Earth, CFCs were used as coolants, propellants, and solvents from the 1920s to the late 1980s. Their presence would almost certainly be thanks to aliens advanced enough to create artificial chemicals and pollute their atmosphere.

But we already know there's a technological species here on Earth. If alien civilizations managed to send a probe to our Solar System, they'd have no problem seeing the evidence in our atmosphere. Lustig-Yeager and his colleagues wanted to know whether the same evidence would show up from a few dozen light years away. The answer turns out to be yes.

Simulating the View from TRAPPIST-1

Lustig-Yeager and his colleagues took the SCISAT data and made a mess of it until it looked more like the noisy, low-resolution view astronomers get when they point JWST at the tiny sliver of atmosphere around an alien planet passing in front of its distant star.

First, the team simulated what SCISAT's view of Earth's atmosphere would look like if the satellite were perched at the far edge of our Solar System instead of in low-Earth orbit. Next, they added a bunch of "noise," or random bits of infrared light that don't come from the star or the planet. Finally, they took samples of this noise-cluttered data at a much lower resolution, similar to how JWST would see a planet 40 light years away.

In this messy, low-resolution data from a planet's atmosphere, the team could still pick out chemicals that revealed the presence of life and technology. That suggests that if there are aliens building cities and factories on TRAPPIST-1e, JWST will probably be able to see the telltale signs in the planet's atmosphere. And if there are aliens on TRAPPIST-1e with powerful space telescopes, they can probably tell the same thing about us.

Of course, that's assuming TRAPPIST-1e, or any planet like it, actually has an atmosphere at all. Results from the two innermost TRAPPIST-1 worlds are discouraging, although a recent study suggests there's still hope. In the coming year, Cornell University astronomer Nikole Lewis and her colleagues plan to take a look at TRAPPIST-1e, where they hope to find the signatures of chemicals like carbon dioxide, oxygen, water vapor, and maybe even methane.

Mysterious "Planet Nine" May Actually Be a Missing Earth-sized World

According to a recent study using computer simulations, Planet 9 is out there — and it's smaller and more like Earth than you probably expect. Far beyond the orbit of Neptune, in the outermost reaches of our Solar System, hundreds of thousands of tiny, frozen worlds drift through the darkness. The Kuiper Belt objects are like time capsules from the ancient Solar System, and their orbits can reveal how the giant planets — Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune — moved through the early Solar System and settled into their current orbits. And some of those orbits are weird enough to demand explanation.

In 2016, astronomers Mike Brown and Konstantin Batygin announced a hypothesis for how a dwarf planet called Sedna and several objects like it came to have similar strange, elongated orbits that all cluster near the same point in space: a planet about half the mass of Neptune on the outskirts of our Solar System pulling their orbits in weird directions. Called Planet Nine, the hunt has since ensued for the elusive world.

But Lykawka and Ito say Brown and Batygin's version of Planet 9 doesn't account for all the weirdness going on with Kuiper Belt objects' orbits, just the group whose orbits have been tilted at the same strange angle. Other scenarios — like an Earth-sized planet, carelessly shoved aside by one of the wandering giant planets, which in turn nudged a few Kuiper Belt objects on its way out of the Solar System — also don't explain all of the orbital resonances, weirdly distant objects, and tilted orbits we see in the Kuiper Belt today.

In Lykawka and Ito's simulations, only one scenario that explained all of the complex goings-on in the Kuiper Belt: a planet closer to Earth's mass, around 250 to 500 times Earth's distance from the Sun. According to Lykawka and Ito's simulations, the best explanation is an unseen, undiscovered planet about 1.5 to 3 times as massive as Earth, orbiting somewhere between 250 and 500 times as far from the Sun: it's Planet 9, but not the version other scientists have been looking for.

It will take more than computer simulations to prove that Planet 9 exists, let alone reveal its size or its path around the Sun. The best option would be to actually spot the world lurking on the edges of our system, but it's likely to be so small and so distant from the Sun that the chances of it being visible are, well, astronomical. (However, some observatories like the Vera Rubin Observatory might be able to find such a world, but not without a lot of effort.) Instead, Lykawka and Ito, as well as Brown and Batygin, are on the right track; we'll most likely find Planet 9 by tracking its unseen influence on the small icy worlds around it.

"More detailed knowledge of the orbital structure in distant Kuiper Belt can reveal or rule out the existence of any hypothetical planet in the outer Solar System," write Lykawka and Ito in their recent paper.

How Big And How Old Is The Universe?

If our universe is expanding and will continue to expand throughout its lifetime.
If our universe is expanding and will continue to expand throughout its lifetime.

Wow, that's a big question. Most astronomers agree that the observable universe is somewhere between 12 billion and 15 billion years old, based on tracing the universe's current rate of expansion back to its beginnings in the Big Bang. For any observer then, the apparent size of the universe is dictated by the speed of light travelling for those 12 to 15 billion years and so, the farthest point we could see obviously lies 12 billion to 15 billion light years away.

If our universe is expanding and will continue to expand throughout its lifetime. Its current physical size is infinite so measurements are impossible. How do you measure something that is always getting bigger? In real terms the universe could be as much as 100 billion light years in circumference. Whew! Well you did ask!

Another point worth noting in astronomy is many of the stars that we see in the night sky are no longer even there. We're continually looking into the past. Because of the vast distances across space that separate the stars from earth, many of them have likely burnt out since birth.

Another question I always get is why do stars twinkle? Well, they just do, and the closer to the horizon the more they twinkle! But why? Well, because stars are so incredibly distant, they appear strictly as points in the night sky. Earth's unsteady atmosphere causes starlight to dance around and the wobbly path it takes to our eye results in apparent changes in colour – the familiar "twinkling" effect.

Planets, are different, they don't twinkle. They reflect light so are free of the distorting effect of turbulence. Hey, a good rule to remember is stars twinkle, planets don't. Too easy. Ever wonder what the stars look like form Mars? Well they don't twinkle – they simply can't because there's hardly any atmosphere. It's a fact, you can't sing the rhyme "Twinkle twinkle little star" on Mars, the stars would just appear as unblinking points of light. How boring!

The Sun is in the news too this week becoming a little more energetic than normal. As you read this, the Sun is going through quite an active period and only last month we saw sunspots, cool areas on the Sun, up to 5 times bigger than the Earth. Solar flares were seen shooting away up to 100,000 kilometres in length. And, there's more on the way!

Last week two massive solar flares headed earthward producing beautiful auroras for those living in Tasmania and Victoria. Some reports claimed they could even be seen from backyards in Perth! There's more to come with giant sunspots now appearing so keep an eye out in the south OK?  The Sun is a star, just like the other stars we see at night and has been burning for almost 5 billion years! It's also huge, releasing as much energy as 1 trillion megaton bombs every second! Wow, that's raw untapped power!

Hey, ever wondered what would happen if the sun disappeared? Well, for eight and a half minutes we'd have no idea that the sun had gone. We'd still see it, lingering, like a ghost in the sky. Just imagine, nobody on earth could predict what was about to happen! And there's no way of protecting yourself from it.

As soon as the last of the sun's light reached us, eight and a half minutes after the sun itself disappeared, the sun would blink out and night would fall over the entire Earth. At that instant we'd all sail off into space in a straight line. Over the course of several hours, the planets would finally wink out one by one, as they reflected the last of the sun's light to us. Sleep well tonight.

BOOKING NOW FOR NOVEMBER 2023....Looking For A Holiday With A Difference? 

Enjoy an amazing 7-day all-inclusive fly/drive holiday to beautiful Norfolk Island on our 'STARGAZING SPECTACULAR' tours for 2023 and 2024. View the Moon, stars and planets through our large telescopes under some of the darkest skies in the world with your astronomy guide Dave Reneke.  Our November tour is filling fast and includes all your airfares, transfers, car hire, island tour and accommodation at the luxurious Governor's Lodge PLUS more! Ring Dave on 0400 636 363 for all enquiries or click this link for more information or a BROCHURE 



Many thanks to Peter and the crew at ASTRO ANARCHY Queensland. A New business with the amateur astronomer firmly in mind.  Astro Anarchy has the experience, the stock and the knowledge to set up the first timer, to assist in the development of our hobby for the experienced observer OR cater to any other size need or desire in the field of amateur astronomy. 

ATRO ANARCHY AS OUR SPONSOR: My business partner Peter Davies and I have set up a new Astro Tourism business focusing on the recently 'Dark Sky Town' accredited to Norfolk Island. We call it 'Norfolk Island STARGAZING'. When approached, Pete from Astro Anarchy had no hesitation in organizing and supplying all our Telescopes, Binoculars and associated gear to get started. Nothing was any trouble allowing us more than enough time to set up and become fully operational. He and he and his business come highly recommended for anyone wanting any astronomical gear in Australia.

Web:    Sales:   Phone: 0412 085 224

'Stargazing' - Astronomy Nights At Your Place

Ask Yourself Have You Ever...looked through a large telescope? Touched a real space rock? Seen the rings of Saturn, Jupiter's Moon? Viewed star clusters thousands of light years away OR seen huge craters and 'seas' on the Moon up close?  Our special program is unique... a never to be forgotten journey of the night sky.  There is nothing quite like seeing the distant stars and planets with your own eyes through our magnificent telescopes - and it's all done from your backyard with your friends around!  

*See more

 New! Kids Space Activity Pack

Introducing a very affordable hands on 'Space Package' for the young budding astronomer designed as an educational aid as they develop their astronomy knowledge.

EACH PACK CONTAINS Dozens of fun, educational Space and Astronomy activity pages incl. Mazes, Colouring, Dot to Dot, Word Search, Space Stickers, and more! PLUS Our "Welcome To Astronomy" booklet. They are priced at $9.95 each.  To View contents or Buy:

'Astro Dave' Is Radio-Active Heard on 66 Stations Weekly

                   CLICK to listen To Just a Couple Of Past Interviews

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