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Why astronomy is considered the oldest science

This roughly 2,800-year old Babylonian tablet shows priests at the shrine of the Sun-Temple at Sippar, home to a Sun-worshiping cult. In the field above the Sun God, you can see the Sun and Moon, as well as an eight-pointed star, each a symbol of an ancient deity. Below their feet is the "heavenly ocean."

Millions of years ago, ancient humans living on the African savanna likely gazed up in wonderment at the bright Moon and star-filled sky. This cosmic backdrop wasn't too different from the one we see today; but how they interacted with it almost assuredly was. It wasn't until humans came to view the stars as tools that we became masters at understanding their movements.

By some 7,000 years ago, a group of nomadic people living on the African savanna became the first-known humans to record the motions of the stars at a site called Nabta Playa. This cattle-worshiping cult of hunters and gatherers built the world's oldest stone circle to track the arrival of the summer solstice, as well as the seasonal monsoons they depended on for water and food.

"This was the dawn of observational astronomy," J. McKim Malville, a professor emeritus at the University of Colorado and archaeoastronomy expert, told Astronomy earlier this year.

It would be millennia before such rigorous observations were applied to other fields like biology, chemistry, geology, medicine and more.

The origins of astronomy

Thousands of years after the construction of Nabta Playa, similar moments would play out all around the world. Our species was evolving from stargazers to scientists.

Astronomy ultimately emerged in China, India, Egypt, Europe, Meso-America, and the Middle East. Developing an intimate knowledge of the stars proved essential to running a complex agricultural society.

Sure, ancient humans still projected their myths and gods into the heavens. But they also meticulously recorded observations and noted changes, then tied those changes to the behavior of the natural world. This allowed them to predict vital aspects of the future, like when the rains would come or when it was time to harvest a crop.

As time went on, civilizations around the world came to increasingly rely on those who could interpret the motions of the night sky. The world needed astronomers.

This ancient Babylonian cuneiform tablet describes a surprisingly modern method to track the path of Jupiter. Babylonian astronomers plotted a 60-day portion of Jupiter's wandering path across the sky on a graph, with time plotted on one axis and how many degrees Jupiter's path shifted each day on the other. The figure on the resulting graph described looks like a trapezoid, and the area of that trapezoid is the total amount Jupiter moved over 60 days.Trustees of the British Museum/Mathieu Ossendrijver

How the stars got their names

The history of Western astronomy was born in Mesopotamia. Here, astronomy appeared alongside the dawn of agriculture in the so-called Fertile Crescent, a thin sliver of the Middle East historically thought to be the birthplace of both farming and writing. As ancient civilizations exploded in Sumer, Assyria, and Babylon, so did the study of the stars.

And while modern Europeans may have adopted the constellations used by the Greeks, those constellations were already ancient in the days of Aristotle. So, in fact, we can track the origins of today's constellations back all the way to Babylon.

The Babylonian people had an interesting tradition of star maps. They kept two separate sets of constellations for wholly different purposes. One set was used to track farming dates and mark ancient celebrations. But another was devoted to recognizing the gods. It was this god-marking set that ultimately made its way to the Greeks, forming the foundations of our modern 12 constellations of the zodiac.

Ancient constellations

The Babylonians didn't only draw pictures of the sky, either. They etched them into rock. By 3,200 years ago, they had carved the first known catalog of stars into stone tablets.

Yet, the titles given to some of those stars seem to have even older origins, apparently coming from the Sumerian people. This implies that formal knowledge of the stars stretches back to before recorded history.

These developments weren't unique to the West, either. Similar histories played out on different timelines in varied cultures across the world. And that's why many historians consider astronomy to be the oldest science.

At the edge of time, a litter of galactic puppies

Astronomers announced on Thursday that they had discovered a giant black hole surrounded by a litter of young protogalaxies that date to the early universe - the beginning of time.

The black hole, which powers a quasar known as SDSS J1030+0524, weighed in at a billion solar masses when the universe was only 900 million years old. It and its brood, the astronomers said, represented the infant core of what became a vast cluster of galaxies millions of light years across and encompassing a trillion suns worth of matter.

The discovery should help astronomers understand the origins of galactic clusters- the largest structures in the universe. The study used some of the biggest and most powerful telescopes in the world, including the Hubble Space Telescope, the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope in Chile, the Keck II Telescope on Mauna Kea in Hawaii and the Large Binocular Telescope on Mount Graham in Arizona.

Astronomers have long thought that black holes and massive galaxies should appear earliest and grow fastest at the dense nodes where these filaments cross, where there is abundant gas to feed them. The new results suggest this is true.

Astronomers measure cosmic time and distance in the expanding universe by the degree to which light from receding objects has been lengthened, or redshifted, in wavelength, by the same phenomenon that makes a retreating siren drop in pitch.

The quasar SDSS J1030+0524 clocked in with a redshift of 6.31, meaning that light waves from it - indeed, the size of the whole universe - have been stretched by a factor of 7.31 since the time of the quasar. That corresponds to when the universe was 900 million years old, according to conventional cosmological calculations. That means it took 12.9 billion years for the light from that quasar to reach Earth, making it one of the most distant quasars ever discovered.

"These objects are actually star-forming galaxies," said Roberto Gilli, another team member. The objects were selected for further study based partly on their very red colors and other spectral characteristics, he said. Six had similar redshifts - between 6.129 and 6.355 - over a volume in space of about 27 billion cubic light-years.

Astronomers Directly Image Planet 63 Light-Years Away

The newly imaged Beta Pictoris c alongside Beta Pictoris b.

The last few decades of astronomical surveys have revealed several thousand exoplanets in the cosmos, but very few have ever been seen directly. We can only infer the presence of most exoplanets from their gravity or ability to block starlight. However, researchers using the Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile recently turned it toward a star 63 light-years away called Beta Pictoris to hunt for a gas giant (Beta Pictoris c), and they snapped an image of it.

Our current level of technology makes it almost impossible to image exoplanets directly. Compared with stars, planets are so dim that we usually can't resolve them in the halo of light. Beta Pictoris c joins a list of less than two-dozen extrasolar worlds (including Pictoris b) that scientists have spied directly, and some of those are still highly contentious.

Scientists were able to get this new image thanks to all the interest in the Beta Pictoris system over the years. Beta Pictoris c and its sibling world Beta Pictoris b are less than two million years old. Pictoris b was discovered via direct imaging, which again, is quite rare. However, anomalies in its radial velocity prompted astronomers to look closer. Radial velocity analysis is a less common way of detecting exoplanets that relies on using telescopes to detect small wobbles in stars caused by the gravity of their planets. Just last year, a team discovered Beta Pictoris c while attempting to explain those anomalous radial velocity readings.

The newly imaged Beta Pictoris c alongside Beta Pictoris b.

As a result of this planet-hunting endeavor in Beta Pictoris, scientists had an excellent data set describing the motion of these exoplanets. That's exactly what the ExoGRAVITY team, led by astronomer Mathias Nowak of the University of Cambridge, needed to get started. Nowak's effort uses the GRAVITY interferometer on the VLT to study exoplanets, and the wealth of data on Beta Pictoris helped the team know just where to look for Beta Pictoris c. All four VLT telescopes scanned the alien solar system, feeding data into a "virtual telescope" that combines them for a sharper image. And that's how we ended up with an image of Beta Pictoris c, one of the first exoplanets studied via both direct imaging and radial velocity.

There are still some mysteries to unravel in Beta Pictoris, though. The light from Beta Pictoris c is six times fainter than Pictoris b. However, Pictoris c is eight times the mass of Jupiter, so how big is Pictoris b? We thought it was just a little larger than Pictoris c, but it's going to take more research to figure out exactly what's going on here. That won't be a problem - with two visible exoplanets, Beta Pictoris will be a target for plenty of astronomers.

A maxi-Mars, a mini-moon and meteors light up the October night sky

Mars will be at its biggest and brightest for more than two years this month.

Get set to be dazzled by the big beautiful glow of mysterious Mars this weekend as it puts on a show with the Moon. The Red Planet is getting bigger and brighter every day as it makes its closest approach to Earth since July 2018.

On Friday evening (October 2) Mars will appear close to the full moon above the north-eastern horizon at 8:00pm.

But this is no ordinary full Moon. It's a mini-Moon - a full Moon that occurs at the most distant point in its orbit from Earth each month - so it will appear slightly smaller than usual. And it's actually the first of two consecutive minimoons, which means the Mars-and-Moon show will look even more spectacular on Saturday night.

"It will be best on 3 October when Mars and the Moon are only about a handspan apart," says amateur astronomer Ian Musgrave.

Mars distance to Earth at closest point in 2018 and 2020. (Supplied: NASA)

The Red Planet will be at its biggest next week

Mars will be at it's closest point to Earth on October 6 at 14.10 UTC. Depending upon which Australian time zone you live in, that will either be late Tuesday night (WA and NT) or early Wednesday morning on October 7. But don't let anyone tell you it will be bigger than the Moon - even a mini-Moon.

This internet hoax does the rounds every time Mars reaches its closest point (known by the astronomical term 'perigee'), but from where we stand Mars is more than 60 times smaller than the Moon.

Mars and Earth come close to each other around every two years - that's because Mars takes 26 months to orbit the Sun, compared to Earth's 12 - but the distance between them varies each time. This time it will be 62.07 million kilometres away from Earth.

The Wow! Signal: An alien missed connection?

Did humanity's first contact with aliens already happen back in 1977? Probably not, but we may never know for sure. On August 15, 1977, the Big Ear Radio Telescope in Delaware, Ohio, received the most powerful signal it would ever detect during its decades of observations. The signal lasted just 72 seconds, but when an astronomer spotted it on a computer printout days later, he was so impressed that he quickly scrawled "Wow!" in red pen across the page.

The data looked much like what SETI astronomers expected to see from an alien intelligence. However, despite many attempts to follow up on the find, the so-called "Wow! Signal" has never reappeared. Few moments in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) have captivated the public's imagination quite like the Wow! Signal. To some, it's the most promising potential detection of alien life ever.

But others see it as a triumph of publicity over science. "Was that E.T. or was it not E.T.? Nobody knows," Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the SETI Institute, tells Astronomy. "Nobody has ever found another explanation for what that might have been. It's like you hear chains rattling in your attic and you think 'My god ghosts are real.' But then you never hear them again, so what do you think?" Most importantly, Shostak says that if the signal wouldn't have had Wow! written across it, no one would've ever heard of it.

This is the actual computer printout of the time with the famous words circled!

One-off signals like this were common back in the early days of SETI, when observatory computers were too primitive to notify astronomers of discoveries in real time, or perform rapid-fire follow-ups. But that hasn't stopped astronomers from repeatedly returning to this patch of sky searching for the return of the Wow! Signal.A strange signal from SagittariusLate in the summer of 1977, Jerry Ehman sat down to review the latest batch of computer printouts detailing data collected by the Big Ear Radio Observatory, where he was volunteering as an astronomer.

The observatory was controlled remotely, and it could collect several days worth of data before the computer ran out of storage space. At that point, a technician would show up, reset things, and start the next observing run focusing on a new patch of sky The Big Ear Radio Observatory was well known among astronomers in its day.

Few moments in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) have captivated the public's imagination quite like the Wow! Signal. To some, it's the most promising potential detection of alien life ever. But others see it as a triumph of publicity over science.

The telescope was designed by pioneering Ohio State University radio astronomer John Kraus. And it was largely built by university staff, volunteers, and part-time laborers in the 1960s. Originally, it was constructed with funds from the National Science Foundation funds to carry out the dedicated task of creating the most accurate radio map sky ever.

The Big Ear Radio Telescope's unique design allowed staff to build it relatively inexpensively, but it was still capable of making fundamental breakthroughs in radio astronomy.

But Big Ear didn't look like other radio telescopes. It looked like someone covered a football field in white paint and installed bleachers at either end behind the goalposts. These "bleachers" were actually feed horns to funnel radio signals from the telescope's large reflector to its receiver.

However, after Big Ear completed mapping the radio sky in 1972, the telescope needed a new task.

Beginning in 1973, NASA agreed to fund a largely volunteer-staffed effort to search the sky for radio signals from technologically-advanced aliens. Besides the professional astronomers behind the project, a group of doctors, lawyers, school teachers, and college professors from totally unrelated professions also pitched in over the decades.

"We were operating on a shoestring budget," Ehman told Astronomy in 2016. "We didn't have the money to pay folks, which is why those who were involved were volunteers."To Ehman, reviewing large printouts of data every few days was a routine part of being a volunteer. And on August 17, 1977, as he looked through the latest stack of papers, he spotted a set of numbers and letters: 6EQUJ5.

To the untrained eye, it looks like nonsense. But to Ehman, the data meant that Big Ear had picked up a very strong signal that started out low, increased in strength, and then dropped off again. That meant the signal was likely picked up as one particular region of sky passed over the detector. It wasn't earthly. The signal also only appeared in one of 50 possible channels.
"It was a narrowband signal, just what we were looking for [with SETI]," Ehman said. "It didn't take long for me to recognize that this was extremely interesting. And the word 'Wow!' came to my mind very quickly, so I wrote it down."

But as he poured through data from the following days, he was surprised to find the signal didn't reappear. His intrigue only deepened after meeting with the observatory director and staff. Together, they searched the sky for any possible objects in that region of the sky that could explain the signal. The astronomers checked everything from comets and planets to satellites and more. Nothing matched up.

The team kept Big Ear observing that same celestial spot for a month, yet they found nothing. And a year later when they tried again, they still came up empty. The SETI project at Big Ear ultimately lasted for 24 years, making it the longest-running continuous SETI search in history. But during that time, the investigators never picked up anything else quite like the Wow! Signal. For Ehman's part, he also maintains that we may never know exactly what he discovered that day.

"No conclusion was ever possible other than it certainly had the potential of being a signal from extraterrestrial intelligence," Ehman said. In the end, Big Ear's death came just a few years after Congress deemed the search for extraterrestrial intelligence unworthy of taxpayer funds in 1993.

The observatory lost its $100,000 in annual funding from NASA, plus another $50,000 slated for an instrument that could've given Big Ear a new lease on life. By 1998, Ohio State University had demolished the telescope.

Texas company aims to 3D-print buildings on the moon with 'Project Olympus'

A Texas company aims to take its innovative homebuilding approach into the final frontier.

Austin-based startup ICON, known for 3D-printing houses here on Earth, just launched Project Olympus, an ambitious effort to develop a space-based construction system. The program will eventually help humanity get a foothold on the moon and Mars, if all goes according to plan.

"From the very founding of ICON, we've been thinking about off-world construction. It's a surprisingly natural progression if you are asking about the ways additive construction and 3D printing can create a better future for humanity," ICON co-founder and CEO Jason Ballard said in a company statement.

"I am confident that learning to build on other worlds will also provide the necessary breakthroughs to solve housing challenges we face on this world," Ballard said. "These are mutually reinforcing endeavors."

Project Olympus will get a boost from a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contract that ICON recently signed with the U.S. Air Force to expand the capabilities of its 3D-printing tech. The four-year deal is worth $14.55 million, according to the Austin Business Journal. (You can find the outlet's story here, but it's behind a paywall.) NASA is contributing 15% of the SBIR sum, ICON representatives told Space.com.NASA's interest in ICON's tech makes sense. The space agency is working, via its Artemis program of crewed lunar exploration, to establish a long-term human presence on and around the moon by the end of the 2020s. Making this happen will require extensive use of lunar resources, including water ice (for life support and rocket fuel) and moon dirt (for building materials), NASA officials have stressed.

A similar devotion to "living off the land" will likely be necessary for sustained human exploration of Mars, an ambitious goal that Artemis will inform and advance, NASA officials have said.

As part of the newly announced SBIR deal, ICON will partner with NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama to test a variety of processing and printing technologies using simulated lunar soil. The research will build upon tech that ICON demonstrated in 2018 during NASA's 3D Printed Habitat Challenge, company representatives said.

"We want to increase the technology readiness level and test systems to prove it would be feasible to develop a large-scale 3D printer that could build infrastructure on the moon or Mars," Corky Clinton, associate director of Marshall's Science and Technology Office, said in a NASA statement. "The team will use what we learn from the tests with the lunar simulant to design, develop and demonstrate prototype elements for a full-scale additive construction system."Project Olympus will be aided by other partnerships as well. For example, ICON is teaming with two architecture firms on the program - SEArch+ (Space Exploration Architecture) and Denmark-based BIG-Bjarke Ingels Group.

"To explain the power of architecture, 'formgiving' is the Danish word for design, which literally means to give form to that which has not yet been given form. This becomes fundamentally clear when we venture beyond Earth and begin to imagine how we are going to build and live on entirely new worlds," BIG-Bjarke Ingels Group founder and creative director Bjarke Ingels said in the ICON statement.

"With ICON, we are pioneering new frontiers - both materially, technologically and environmentally," Ingels said. "The answers to our challenges on Earth very well might be found on the moon."

Search for new worlds at home with NASA's Planet Patrol project

Help NASA find exoplanets, worlds beyond our solar system, through a newly launched website called Planet Patrol. This citizen science platform allows members of the public to collaborate with professional astronomers as they sort through a stockpile of star-studded images collected by NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS).

"Automated methods of processing TESS data sometimes fail to catch imposters that look like exoplanets," said project leader Veselin Kostov, a research scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California. "The human eye is extremely good at spotting such imposters, and we need citizen scientists to help us distinguish between the look-alikes and genuine planets."

Volunteers will help determine which TESS snapshots include signals from potential planets and which ones show planet impersonators.

TESS uses its four cameras to take full images of one patch of sky, called a sector, every 10 minutes for a month at a time. This long stare allows TESS to see when planets pass in front of their stars, or transit, and dim their light. Over the course of a year, TESS collects hundreds of thousands of snapshots, each containing thousands of possible planets-too many for scientists to examine without help.

Computers are very good at analyzing such data sets, but they're not perfect, Kostov said. Even the most carefully crafted algorithms can fail when the signal from a planet is weak. Some of the most interesting exoplanets, like small worlds with long orbits, can be especially challenging. Planet Patrol volunteers will help discover such worlds and will contribute to scientists' understanding of how planetary systems form and evolve throughout the universe.

Planets aren't the only source of changes in starlight, though. Some stars naturally change brightness over time, for example. In other cases, a star could actually be an eclipsing binary, where two orbiting stars alternately transit or eclipse each other. Or there may be an eclipsing binary in the background that creates the illusion of a planet transiting a target star. Instrumental quirks can also cause brightness variations. All these false alarms can trick automated planet-hunting processes.

On the new website, participants will help Kostov and his team sift through TESS images of potential planets by answering a set of questions for each-like whether it contains multiple bright sources or if it resembles stray light rather than light from a star. These questions help the researchers narrow down the list of possible planets for further follow-up study.

Citizen scientists can dive even deeper by learning more about the star in each image and by engaging with the Planet Patrol community.

A Goddard summer intern recently helped discover the TESS mission's first planet orbiting two stars through another citizen science program called Planet Hunters TESS, run by the University of Oxford.

"We're all swimming through the same sea of data, just using different strokes," said Marc Kuchner, the citizen science officer for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. "Planet Hunters TESS asks volunteers to look at light curves, which are graphs of stars' brightness over time. Planet Patrol asks them to look at the TESS image directly, although we plan to also include light curves for those images in the future."

Why Is It So? Readers Questions

Astronomy is all about asking questions, and sometimes getting answers. As we close in on 2018 it marks 6 years that this Astronomy column has been appearing. In all that time I've answered perhaps a hundred reader questions. All cover a wide area and all are interesting. How many questions have you asked the sky? Here are some of the questions people I've been asked the most.

"How big is the Universe?" The answer is of course limitless because we can't actually see the edge of it. We don't even know if it has an edge so we say it's infinite. We can only see out to a distance of about 14 billion light years from Earth.

This means that the size of the Universe that we can see is about 28 billion light years across. No light has reached us from beyond this distance. These portions of the universe lie outside the observable universe. Just imagine, everything we can see in the night sky isn't really there. Feel small? I do too, but it really rams home how vast this Universe is.

OK, then, "Where is the centre of the Universe?Now this is going to sound silly but the centre of the Universe is, in fact, where you're standing right now! Walk out into any backyard in Geraldton tonight and look up. Everything is moving away from you in all directions. Move across the galaxy and take the same measurement, you'll get the same result. The Big Bang happened everywhere at once, therefore there is no measurable centre. So, it's true when they say you are the centre of your Universe!

Another question I get is,"Are there aliens?" Well, apart from being suspicious about a few of my neighbours, I believe we are definitely not alone. The numbers are just too great. There are 100 billion stars in our galaxy alone and the majority have planets around them. Surely with those numbers a few would be earth like and contain life.

What is a Blue Moon? Because the time between two full Moons doesn't quite equal a whole month, approximately every three years there are two full Moons in one calendar month. Over the past few decades, the second full Moon has been come to be known as a "Blue Moon."

Why is there a ring around the moon? Simply put, a ring or a foggy halo around the moon indicates the presence of tiny ice crystals in the atmosphere. Folklore has it that a ring around the moon signifies rain is coming, and in many cases this may be true. It's also believed that the number of stars within a moon halo indicate the number days before bad weather will arrive. Give it a try the next time you observe a moon halo.

Why do we always see the same side of the Moon from Earth? The Moon always shows us the same face because Earth's gravity has slowed down the Moon's rotational speed. The Moon takes as much time to rotate once on its axis as it takes to complete one orbit of Earth. Simple, isn't it?

Can You See the Great Wall of China From Space? This is a popular question. The reality is that you in fact can see the wall from the space station, but not from the Moon. The Apollo moonwalkers confirmed that you can't see it. The best you can see is the white and blue marble colours of our home planet.

The last big question asked is, "What would happen if I fell into a black hole?" Who knows, I sure don't, but it's cool to speculate isn't it. The only thing we know for sure is black holes swallow stars and planets and nothing, not even light, can escape its clutches. There may be a tunnel at the end that leads to another time, or another part of the Universe - a wormhole if you like. See you on the other side!

Tom Cruise And Doug Liman Set Liftoff Date With Space X, Space Shuttle Almanac Reveals

Tom Cruise and director Doug Liman's may head into space for their film in October 2021, images from the Space Shuttle Almanac reveal.

On Monday the Twitter for the Space Shuttle Almanac shared a photo of spacecrafts and countries set to launch in the next three years. While the chart may seem like an assuming collage of names, flags and spacecrafts at first, upon a closer look the chart reveals some names near and dear to Hollywood.

Under the October 2021 part of the chart reads "SpaceX Crew Dragon," with an image of a small space vehicle beside it. Next to the illustration are a list of three names: SpaceX Pilot Lopez Alegria, Tourist 1 Tom Cruise and Tourist 2 Doug Liman. The tourist flight also shows a vacant spot for a third visitor.

While it's unsure whether the October 2021 trip is just a preliminary one for Cruise and Liman to scope out the extra-terrestrial territory or whether marks the production for the first-of-its-kind film, it's clear Cruise may get his space legs soon enough.

In May, Deadline learned that Cruise is teaming up with the Elon Musk company for NASA's first narrative film. Deadline learned in July that Universal will back the $200 million space film.

NASA moves International Space Station path to avoid unknown space debris

The International Space Station boosted its orbit out of the way of an "unknown piece of space debris" that was expected to pass within several miles of the station, NASA said.

The station crew, which includes NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy and Russian cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner, had to temporarily relocate to the Russian segment of the ISS to be closer to their Soyuz spacecraft. The move was part of "the safe haven procedure out of an abundance of caution," NASA said in a statement.

"At no time was the crew in any danger," the agency clarified.

The ISS conducted a 150-second reboost after a docked resupply ship fired its engines at 5:19 p.m. ET, according to the statement.

The International Space Station is pictured orbiting Earth in October of 2018. (Photo credit: NASA)

The maneuver raised the station's orbit out of the predicted path of the space debris, the agency said. The object was estimated to come within 0.86 miles of the station with a time of closest approach of 6:21 p.m. ET.

"Once the avoidance maneuver was completed, the crew reopened hatches hbetween the U.S. and Russian segments and resumed their regular activities," NASA said.

NASA's new $23 million space toilet is ready for launch

NASA is launching a new space toilet to the International Space Station next week for astronauts to test out before it's used on future missions to the moon or Mars.

The $23 million toilet system, known as the Universal Waste Management System (UWMS), is 65% smaller and 40% lighter than the toilet currently in use on the space station, and can support larger crews. The toilet will launch to the space station aboard a Northrop Grumman Cygnus cargo capsule on Sept. 29, as part of a routine resupply mission.

Once on the space station, astronauts will test how the new toilet performs in the microgravity environment on the station. The system will be installed adjacent to the current toilet in Node 3 of the space station, NASA Advanced Exploration Systems Logistics Reduction project manager Melissa McKinley said during a news conference Thursday (Sept. 24).

Expedition 63 astronauts Chris Cassidy and Ivan Vagner have started preparing for the space toilet's delivery. The crew will use the orbiting lab's Canadarm2 robotic arm to capture the Cygnus spacecraft, according to a statement from the space agency.

"The toilet was designed for exploration and it builds on previous spaceflight toilet design," McKinley said during the press conference. "The big key to the exploration piece of the design is looking to optimize mass volume and power usage, which are all very important components of a spacecraft design."

The space toilet's advanced design includes a urine funnel and seat that is created to be more accommodating for female crew members. It also features a 3D-printed titanium dual fan separator, which was developed by Collins Aerospace and creates a strong airflow that, in lieu of gravity, helps to pull the astronauts' urine and waste into the toilet.

The titanium design also improves upon the existing pretreat system used to collect and treat astronauts' urine before it is processed and recycled for reclaimed water.

The UWMS measures roughly 28 inches (71 centimeters) tall, which is comparable to the compact toilets used on campers, McKinley said during the conference. The toilet also has an automatic starting system, rather than an on and off switch like current toilet models on the space station.

The new system will be used routinely by the crew on the space station and tested over the next three years to make sure everything works as planned. Prior to launch, the system was tested in environments designed to simulate that of the space station, NASA officials have said.

'Giant impact' theory of moon's formation gets another boost

Earth's moon is thought to have formed when a Mars-sized object, called Theia, slammed into the early Earth 4.4 billion years ago, blasting out material that later coalesced in to a large satellite as depicted in this artist's illustration.

Earth's moon is thought to have formed when a Mars-sized object, called Theia, slammed into the early Earth 4.4 billion years ago, blasting out material that later coalesced in to a large satellite as depicted in this artist's illustration.(Image: © NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Scientists have found fresh evidence in lunar rocks showing that the moon was likely formed after a Mars-sized planet crashed into the proto-Earth more than 4 billion years ago.

A NASA-led team examined moon rocks brought back to Earth by Apollo astronauts more than 50 years ago. Investigating the samples with advanced tools not available to researchers in the 1960s and 1970s, the team found further evidence of the "giant impact theory" by focusing on the amount and type of chlorine in the rocks, a new study reports.

The researchers discovered the moon has a higher concentration of "heavy" chlorine compared to Earth, which sports more "light" chlorine. The terms "heavy" and "light" refer to versions of the chlorine atom, known as isotopes, that contain different numbers of neutrons in their nuclei.

Shortly after the mammoth collision occurred, Earth was just able to stay together while pieces of both planets that were blasted into space coalesced to form the moon. Both of these blobby bodies had a mix of light and heavy chlorine isotopes at first, but that mix began to change as Earth's gravity pulled on the newly forming moon.

As the cosmic bodies continued taking new shape after the crash, Earth tugged away the lighter chlorine toward itself, leaving the harder-to-move heavy chlorine on the moon. This left the moon depleted of lighter chlorine compared to the heavier isotope.

"There's a huge difference between the modern elemental makeup of the Earth and moon, and we wanted to know why," study co-author Justin Simon, a NASA planetary scientist, said in a statement. "Now, we know that the moon was very different from the start, and it's probably because of the 'giant impact' theory."

The scientists also checked their understanding by looking at other elements that are halogens, in the same chemical family as chlorine. Other "light" halogens are also less abundant on the moon, and the team could not see any pattern that would suggest a later event caused the loss.

The new study was published this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It was led by Anthony Gargano, a graduate fellow at NASA's astromaterials research and exploration science division at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

The research adds to a growing mountain of chemical evidence to support the giant impact hypothesis, which was first suggested decades ago. For example, a study released in March of this year used high-precision measurements of oxygen isotopes to show that Earth and moon rocks are probably even more different from each other than previously thought.

Astronomers May Have Detected a Planet in Another Galaxy

Humanity spent years wondering if there were planets outside our solar system, and now we know the answer: very much yes. There are thousands of exoplanets in just our little corner of the galaxy, and there's every reason to expect the same is true of other galaxies. In fact, a researcher from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics has found strong evidence of a planet orbiting a pair of stars in the distant M51 galaxy. It's not the first potential extragalactic planet detection, but it's shaping up to be the most likely candidate.

We lack the technology to image exoplanets directly (usually), even when they're right next door in Proxima Centauri. Planets are so dim compared with the stars they orbit that we can only infer their presence by the way they affect the star's gravity (radial velocity) or luminance (transits). Most exoplanets have been detected by the transit method, which involves watching for dips in brightness caused by planets passing in front of their host stars. That's very similar to what astronomers did to spot the M51 planet candidate, which they've dubbed M51-ULS-1b.

Past detections of extragalactic planets have relied on gravitational lensing, but M51-ULS-1b was detected via what appears to be an X-ray transit. However, that's only possible because it's orbiting a very strange pair of stars. It's a perfect storm; M51-ULS-1 is a binary system, and one element of it is a neutron star or black hole that's devouring a nearby star. That makes M51-ULS-1 a very bright, compact source of X-rays. In 2012, the Chandra X-ray Observatory was scanning M51, also known as the Whirlpool Galaxy, when the X-ray signal from the M51-ULS-1 system dipped.

No one was watching for this, so it went unnoticed until just recently when Rosanne Di Stefano at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center took a closer look.Humanity spent years wondering if there were planets outside our solar system, and now we know the answer: very much yes. There are thousands of exoplanets in just our little corner of the galaxy, and there's every reason to expect the same is true of other galaxies. In fact, a researcher from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics has found strong evidence of a planet orbiting a pair of stars in the distant M51 galaxy. It's not the first potential extragalactic planet detection, but it's shaping up to be the most likely candidate.

We lack the technology to image exoplanets directly (usually), even when they're right next door in Proxima Centauri. Planets are so dim compared with the stars they orbit that we can only infer their presence by the way they affect the star's gravity (radial velocity) or luminance (transits). Most exoplanets have been detected by the transit method, which involves watching for dips in brightness caused by planets passing in front of their host stars. That's very similar to what astronomers did to spot the M51 planet candidate, which they've dubbed M51-ULS-1b.

Past detections of extragalactic planets have relied on gravitational lensing, but M51-ULS-1b was detected via what appears to be an X-ray transit. However, that's only possible because it's orbiting a very strange pair of stars. It's a perfect storm; M51-ULS-1 is a binary system, and one element of it is a neutron star or black hole that's devouring a nearby star. That makes M51-ULS-1 a very bright, compact source of X-rays. In 2012, the Chandra X-ray Observatory was scanning M51, also known as the Whirlpool Galaxy, when the X-ray signal from the M51-ULS-1 system dipped. No one was watching for this, so it went unnoticed until just recently when Rosanne Di Stefano at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center took a closer look.