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NASA reports liquid water on the Moon could be widespread, raising hopes for exploration and habitation

There really is water on the Moon - and it might be much more widespread than previously suspected. The findings of two separate studies, published today in the journal Nature Astronomy, are a major boost for plans to send humans back to the Moon.

In the first study, a team of scientists led by Casey Honniball of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, discovered he signature of liquid water that's either trapped in glass or between grains of sand on the Moon's surface.

Scientists have long suspected that large amounts of frozen water lurk in deep, polar craters that never see the Sun. But Dr Honniball and colleagues detected liquid water molecules in a pockmarked, sunlit region near the Moon's south pole.

"Prior to this it was believed water could not survive on the sunlit Moon," she said. "Our detection shows that water may be more widespread on the surface of the Moon than previously thought and not constrained to only the poles." The water was found in the Clavius Crater in rugged highlands near the South Pole.(NASA/ABC)

The hunt for water

The two new papers are the high point in a decade of increasingly tantalising hints about water on the Moon. Spacecraft like NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter detected hydrogen - one of water's molecular components - in permanently shady areas at the north and south pole.

The case strengthened when data from India's Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft revealed tiny patches of exposed ice in some of those same shadowy craters. But Dr Honniball's study reports the signature of liquid water, not ice. "Water ice at the poles is a different detection than the water we detect in glass on the sunlit moon," she explained.

It is something that has been hinted at in the past. In high-latitude, sunlit areas of the Moon, scientists have detected the presence of hydrogen bound to oxygen - but it was impossible to tell if it was molecular water (H2O) or hydroxyl groups (OH), which are common in minerals.

To find out, Dr Honniball and her colleagues booked a flight on NASA's Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) in 2018. SOFIA is a souped-up 747 aeroplane with a telescope inside it that can collect infrared light from above the clouds; in this case, it used a camera that focuses on wavelengths in the 5 to 8 micron range.

Water molecules reflect light at a wavelength of 6 microns. "This is unique to molecular water because it requires two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen," Dr Honniball explained. "Hydroxyl, with only one hydrogen atom, cannot make a 6 micron spectral fingerprint.

Water in glass beads - in the sunshine

Craig O'Neill, a planetary scientist at Macquarie University, said the detection of the water signature was a big result. "We know it's not just a little bit of water bound up in another mineral, its actually there as a water molecule in and of itself," he said.

Dr Honniball said the detection of water in a sunlit area indicated there were processes occurring on the Moon that were creating and storing water. She and her colleagues proposed the water could have been trapped in melted rocks, transformed into crystals by the impact of micrometeorites slamming into the surface of the Moon.

The micrometeorites either brought water with them, or the shock of the collision converted existing hydrogen and oxygen in minerals to water as the rocks melted. Dr O'Neill said it was very common for water bubbles to be trapped in rocks transformed into glass by extreme heat and pressure. "We see that all the time in geology," he said.

Gathering samples of the glass beads could help answer long-standing questions about how the Moon - and Earth - got their water. "We've got this entire record of micrometeoite bombardment through time locked up in there, just waiting for us to access it," he said. But, he added, water stored in glass beads is not as easily accessible for people to use as water stored as ice.

Ice could be widespread in 'cold traps' at the poles

Luckily, the second new study indicates that areas where water could be trapped as ice around the poles are a lot more abundant and accessible than previously thought. "What they've shown in that paper is once you get above 80 degrees north or south, towards the poles, there's an enormous potential reservoir of ice," Dr O'Neill said.

A team led by Paul Hayne from the University of Colorado modelled the Moon's surface and identified billions of tiny "cold traps": freezing shadows where ice could be stable for billions of years.

Their research, based on data from NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, suggests approximately 40,000 square kilometres of the lunar surface at the poles has the capacity to trap water. "We find that there are tens of billions of cold traps about a centimetre in size on the Moon," Dr Hayne said.

Because they are so ubiquitous, these small cold traps could be much easier to access than large craters that don't see the light of day and can't be accessed with solar-powered landers or rovers.

"An astronaut or robotic rover or lander could access these smaller shadows and any ice deposits inside them, simply by reaching in - as opposed to venturing into the deep, dark shadows of the larger craters," Dr Hayne said.

Mining water on the Moon

A number of nations are eyeing the south pole of the Moon. The US recently announced plans to put humans on the Moon in 2024 and have a permanent presence at the south pole by 2028. This "Artemis" mission, to which Australia is a signatory, will also hunt for water.

If present, it could be used to supply drinking water, as well as produce rocket fuel to sustain space exploration. Andrew Dempster, head of space engineering at the University of New South Wales, has long argued that Australia should play a role in space mining.

He said the findings of the two papers confirmed assumptions about the Moon and reduced uncertainty for the mining industry. "We are now much more certain that what we can go and look for is real," Professor Dempster said.

"If [water ice] is more widespread then maybe we don't have to concentrate on these big craters, maybe we can look at these smaller things that are easier to deal with."

Get Set For A Blue Moon This Week

Your Editor Dave Reneke getting ready for the Blue Moon

When you hear someone say "Once in a Blue Moon" you know what they mean. They're usually talking about something rare, silly, and even absurd. After all, when was the last time you saw the moon turn blue? Well, rare or not, we're having one this Saturday night (Australia) and you're invited to the party!

Are Blue Moons real? You bet, and it's happened several times before! The moon doesn't actually turn blue, it just looks that way, but it does have a very real cause.

Pollution from bush fires or volcanoes in the Earth's atmosphere can make the moon look particularly bluish. The extra dust scatters blue light. For example, the Moon appeared bluish green across the entire Earth for about 2 years after the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883.

In 1927, the Indian monsoons were late arriving and the extra long dry season blew up enough dust for a blue coloured Moon. In 1951 the Moon in North America turned blue when huge forest fires in Canada threw smoke particles up into the sky. There were also reports of a blue-green coloured moon caused by Mt. St. Helens in 1980 and Mount Pinatubo in 1991.

A Blue Moon is simply the second full moon in a calendar month. Ancient cultures around the world considered the second full moon to be spiritually significant. Even in music there's a connection. Songs that use 'Blue Moon' do so as a symbol of sadness and loneliness.

It was once thought that to sleep under full direct moonlight would cause a person to go mad or blind. It was from this lore that the word "lunatic", originating from "luna", or moon, and "tic", meaning stricken arose.

Blue Moons happen every two and a half years on average and an interesting fact is that February is the only calendar month that can never have a Blue Moon, with just 28 days in total. Interestingly, the Indonesian volcano erupting at the moment may add a slight colouring this time but, we'll have to wait and see.

So, this Saturday night, October 31, it might be a good idea to gather the family and just take in the sight. Telescopes won't help, in fact the worst time to view the Moon is when it's full, there's simply too much light for you to see any crater details, mountain ranges or valleys. Good luck and don't forget to make a wish!

OK, so can there be a 'Blue Earth' from the Moon? Yep, and we have proof of it. Photographs taken of planet Earth from distant space probes show our globe as a 'big blue marble' floating in space. When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the Moon in 1969 they remarked how blue our planet was.

When I visited Buzz at his home in California in 2010 he told me Earth's oceans gleamed a light bluish colour and they could make out the landforms as shades of tan. So, the Earth can be called blue too! By the way, and contrary to popular belief, you can't see the Great Wall of China from the Moon, nor any other man made features. They're just visible from the orbiting space station.

A NASA spacecraft just landed on an asteroid to suck up rocky dust to bring back to Earth.

https://www.nasa.gov/image-feature/osiris-rex-approaches-bennu

NASA just landed a spacecraft on an asteroid. If everything went as planned, the probe also sucked up a sample of dust and rock from the surface.

From 200 million miles away, NASA and its engineering partner, Lockheed Martin, instructed the Osiris-Rex spacecraft to descend to the surface of a space rock called Bennu, touching it for just five to 10 seconds on Tuesday evening. In that time, the probe should have collected samples from the asteroid's surface, though NASA won't confirm success in that manoeuvre for several more days. It's set to bring these pieces of Bennu back to Earth in 2023.

The spacecraft's name is short for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer. It beamed back confirmation that it had landed on Bennu's surface, and the signal reached Earth at 6:11 p.m. ET â€" about 18 minutes after the actual touchdown.Mission Control erupted in cheers and applause.

"Transcendental. I can't believe we actually pulled this off," Dante Lauretta, the mission's principal investigator, said during NASA's live broadcast of the operation. "The spacecraft did everything it was supposed to do."

The goal was for Osiris-Rex to pick up at least one 2.1-ounce (60-gram) sample, which is about a small bag of potato chips' worth of mass.It will take a few days to determine whether the probe did indeed snatch up enough rock.

The spacecraft has been orbiting Bennu since December 2018. It's set to leave in March 2021, samples in tow, then reach Earth on September 24, 2023. The mission's research could be crucial over the next 100-plus years, since Bennu's path puts it at risk of crashing into Earth.

"Bennu is one of the most potentially hazardous asteroids, with a non-negligible chance of impacting the Earth at some point in the 22nd century," Lauretta said in September. "Part of our science investigation is about understanding its orbital trajectory, refining the impact probability, and documenting its physical and chemical properties so that future generations can develop an impact-mitigation mission, if that's necessary."

There are other important reasons to study Bennu as well: As new missions go deeper into space, they will need to make pit stops to mine asteroids for resources like water, which can be split into oxygen and hydrogen for rocket fuel. The data NASA is gathering from Bennu could help inform future asteroid-mining attempts.

Osiris-Rex is also, in a sense, a soul-searching mission. Asteroids are bits of ancient rock from the beginnings of the solar system 4.5 billion years ago. The leftover material that made the rocky planets â€" Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars â€" coalesced over time into asteroids, where it's largely preserved in its original form.

Some theories posit that asteroids delivered key ingredients for life to ancient Earth. On Bennu, scientists may find signs of those ingredients, cluing them in to how life arose on Earth (and possibly on Mars or Venus too).

If successful, this mission will be one of the first to return samples of primordial rock. Japan's Hayabusa-2 spacecraft is also set to bring back asteroid samples in December.

"This is all about understanding our origins, addressing some of the most fundamental questions that we ask ourselves as human beings: Where did we come from? And are we alone in the universe?" Lauretta said.

NASA's spacecraft dropped 3,000 feet to blast asteroid dust

Osiris-Rex's early data revealed a problem for the mission: Bennu is much rockier than NASA thought. Landing in a field of boulders puts a spacecraft at risk of tipping over and getting stranded.

To target the smoothest possible terrain on the asteroid, the Osiris-Rex mission team chose a landing spot that was much smaller than originally planned. Its leeway was just 26 feet (8 meters), whereas the initial plan expected it to have 164 feet (50 meters). That forced the spacecraft, which is about the size of a 15-passenger van, to target an area roughly equal to six parking spaces on the fast-spinning asteroid.

The landing spot was a relatively smooth area named Nightingale, which is covered in a fine rocky dust called regolith. This is the material that Osiris-Rex attempted to scoop up.

The spacecraft slowly descended about 3,280 feet (1 kilometre), manoeuvring past a two-story boulder that mission controllers call "Mount Doom." Osiris-Rex had twice rehearsed this descent, practicing "basically everything except for the final two minutes," said Mike Moreau, a project manager.

The sequence went like this: The spacecraft's thrusters fired, pushing it out of its kilometre-high orbit above Bennu. Then the probe deployed its sample-collection arm and pointed its navigation camera to the asteroid's surface. About 3 1/2 hours later â€" and about 410 feet above the surface â€" the spacecraft fired its thrusters again to push itself toward the landing site. After another 10 minutes and another 260 feet of descent, the spacecraft burned its thrusters to manoeuvre into a precise landing spot.

If the spacecraft had detected hazardous rocks at its landing point, the probe would have initiated a back-away burn just 16 feet above the surface. But the whole operation seems to have gone according to plan.

The spacecraft appears to have reached Bennu's surface with its sample-collection arm stretched down. Assuming no snafus arose, this arm should have shot nitrogen gas out of a bottle to stir up the regolith beneath it. In the disturbance, some material was likely caught in the collection tool at the end of the arm. Shortly after touchdown, Osiris-Rex fired its thrusters to push itself away from Bennu.

NASA will decide whether to stow the sample or try again

Once the spacecraft is back in Bennu's orbit, it will take a few days for NASA mission controllers to analyse the regolith sample it collected. If there's enough rock and dust, mission leaders will command the spacecraft to store the sample in a pod for its return to Earth.

But if the spacecraft has less than 2.1 ounces of regolith, it will try this whole sequence again in January, targeting a backup site on a different part of the asteroid.

"By far the most likely outcome that we will have on October 20 is we will contact the surface and come away with a large sample that exceeds our minimum requirements," Moreau said in September. "But Bennu has thrown us a number of curveballs." Osiris-Rex was carrying three bottles of nitrogen for stirring up dust, allowing it three attempts to descend to Bennu's surface and collect a proper sample.

The Bennu sample should reach Earth in 2023

When Osiris-Rex returns to Earth in 2023, it's slated to shoot the capsule containing the samples into Earth's atmosphere. The samples should then parachute into the Utah desert for NASA to pick up.

"It's going to probably be Christmas in September," Lauretta said. "The best Christmas present I've ever had, these pristine samples from asteroid Bennu that I've been dreaming â€" literally dreaming â€" about for, at that point, almost 20 years of my life."

Scientists will set about analysing the sample, but NASA will preserve some of the regolith for future study. "These samples returned from Bennu will also allow future planetary scientists to ask questions we can't even think of today," said Lori Glaze, the director of NASA's Planetary Science Division, "and to be able to use analysis techniques that aren't even invented yet."

SpaceX may launch first Starship trip to Mars in next 4 years, says Elon Musk

Elon Musk has believed that human beings "need to establish a permanent and self-sustaining presence on Mars

SpaceX is on track to launch its first uncrewed mission to Mars in less than four years from now, the private spaceflight company's founder and CEO Elon Musk said on Friday. "I think we have a fighting chance of making that second Mars transfer window," Space.com quoted Elon Musk as saying during a discussion at the International Mars Society Convention.

By "window", Elon Musk was referring to the Mars launch opportunity in 2024.

The opportunity to launch a mission to Mars comes every 26 months, the report in Space.com said. After Nasa, China and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) launched missions to Mars in July this year, the next "window" is set to open in 2022.

Musk was further quoted as saying as that SpaceX "would maybe have a shot of sending or trying to send something to Mars in three years," if the mission timings didn't depend on the "orbital mechanics that call for Mars launches every 26 months".

"Earth and Mars won't be in the best position...But the window is four years away, because of them being in different parts of the solar system," he said.

LAUNCH TO MARS ON STARSHIP

SpaceX will launch its first uncrewed mission to Mars on its massive Starship rocket.

Starship is a "reusable rocket-and-spacecraft combo" which is being developed at the company's South Texas facility, the report said. The report further said, "SpaceX is also planning to use Starship for missions to the Moon starting in 2022, as well as point-to-point trips around the Earth."

PLANS TO BUILD A MARS BASE?

Elon Musk has believed that human beings "need to establish a permanent and self-sustaining presence on Mars to ensure "the continuance of consciousness as we know it"" - just in case, some nuclear war or asteroid strike leave Earth uninhabitable, the report said.

However, Musk's SpaceX doesn't have any plans to build a Mars base. "As a transportation company, its only goal is to ferry cargo [and humans] to and from the red planet, facilitating the development of someone else's Mars base," the report said.

Mars Society founder Robert Zubrin was quoted as saying: "SpaceX is taking on the biggest single challenge, which is the transportation system. There's all sorts of other systems that are going to be needed."

NASA to announce 'exciting new discovery' about the moon on Monday (US Time)

NASA wants you to get excited about the moon - or more specifically, about a mysterious new science result the agency plans to unveil on Monday (Oct. 26). US time

For more details, we'll need to wait until a news conference at 12 p.m. EDT (1600 GMT) that day, which you'll be able to watch here at Space.com or directly through the agency's website.

A NASA statement announcing the news conference promises "an exciting new discovery about the moon" and references the agency's ambitious Artemis program to land astronauts at the moon's south pole in 2024. But the science itself comes from a long-running observatory, the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), a German-American partnership that made its first flight in 2007.

China unveils ambitious moon mission plans for 2024 and beyond

China unveils ambitious moon mission plans for 2024 and beyond

China has a mission operating on the far side of the moon and is preparing to launch another this year to collect lunar samples. And the country plans to add to its impressive lunar resume, with a new set of missions to explore the moon's south pole.

Chang'e 6, a backup mission for this year's sample-return launch, is scheduled to head to the moon in 2023 or 2024; Chang'e 7 is planned to launch around 2024 with the dual aims of landing on the south pole of the moon and closely studying the region from orbit. An eighth mission is also in the works for later this decade.

Attached documents show that the complex mission will consist of an orbiter, a relay satellite, a lander, a rover and a "mini flying craft." China intends for the orbiter to carry a high-resolution stereo mapping camera, and a mineral imager. Together, these payloads will provide new data on the moon's topography, mineralogical composition, radiation environment and magnetosphere.

Finally, the "mini flying craft" will carry a water-molecule analyzer to take measurements in permanently shadowed areas at the lunar south pole, where the sun's very low elevation angle means the surface inside craters never receives direct sunlight. Scientists propose that water ice in such areas could remain there for a long time, and if such ice is present, it could provide resources for future crewed missions.

Together, the missions will form part of a planned International Lunar Research Station, a major project concept that China has proposed to other nations. The U.S., the European Space Agency, Russia, India and Japan are also planning missions to the moon this decade.

Why astronomy is the oldest science?

Initially a cosmic curiosity, the night sky was eventually decoded by ancient peoples, making astronomy one of (if not the) oldest science

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.

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.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 Sumner, 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 recognising 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.

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.

Astronomers watch black hole destroy a star in deep space

This illustration depicts a star (in the foreground) experiencing spaghettification as it's sucked in by a supermassive black hole (in the background) during a 'tidal disruption event.'

A tidal disruption event occurs when a star gets too close to a black hole. The gravity of the black hole is so intense it will stretch and contort any object that gets near it, akin to a piece of spaghetti.

The blast of light was caught by several telescopes around the world, prompting scientists to look into the anomaly for months to make sure their initial observations were correct.

"A tidal disruption event results from the destruction of a star that strays too close to a supermassive black hole," study co-author and astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics Edo Berger added. "In this case the star was torn apart with about half of its mass feeding-or accreting-into a black hole of one million times the mass of the Sun, and the other half was ejected outward."

Finding these events (this one is known as AT2019qiz) is incredibly rare, but it was easier to analyze because it was discovered so early, Kate Alexander, NASA Einstein Fellow at Northwestern University, pointed out.

"This is a unique 'peek behind the curtain' that provided the first opportunity to pinpoint the origin of the obscuring material and follow in real time how it engulfs the black hole," Alexander explained.

"AT2019qiz is the nearest tidal disruption event discovered to date, and hence, incredibly well-observed across the electromagnetic spectrum," Berger added. "This is the first case in which we see direct evidence for outflowing gas during the disruption and accretion process that explains both the optical and radio emissions we've seen in the past. Until now, the nature of these emissions has been heavily debated, but here we see that the two regimes are connected through a single process. This event is teaching us about the detailed physical processes of accretion and mass ejection from supermassive black holes."

Queensland proving popular blast-off site

An Australian company has revealed sky-high plans to launch rockets from far north Queensland as the state's space race heats up.

A launch site at Cape York is part of a space proposal by Sydney-based CosmoVision Global Corporation, which hopes to secure approval to start building a "technology park" by early 2021.

The "space port" will be used to launch rockets weighing more than 400 tonnes and powered by non-toxic fuel, corporation boss Ilya Osadchuk said in statement.

"We can hopefully meet the mandatory requirements for obtaining our licence to set up and operate our space port and launch facility in Cape York," he said.

The proposal is yet to get a green light from state or federal governments or nearby Indigenous groups, or pass essential environmental requirements.

Despite the many necessary approvals, the corporation said it has already secured "international launch vehicles" and has global investors lined up. The operation plans to launch satellites for commercial telecommunications among other uses.

It's not the only space proposal on the cards for Queensland with the state's alternative government - the LNP - a couple of weeks ago revealing plans for a $15 million rocket launch pad near the central city of Bowen if victorious at the October 31 election.

Gilmour Space Technologies would be the anchor tenant of the government-owned facility, and the firm already has contracts with customers who need to launch in an easterly direction.

In mid-September, a 3.4-metre rocket became Australia's first commercial launch to the edge of space, from South Australia. The federal government is investing $7 billion in growing Australia's space capabilities over the next decade. Australian Associated Press

An Australian company has revealed sky-high plans to launch rockets from far north Queensland as the state's space race heats up.

A launch site at Cape York is part of a space proposal by Sydney-based CosmoVision Global Corporation, which hopes to secure approval to start building a "technology park" by early 2021.

The "space port" will be used to launch rockets weighing more than 400 tonnes and powered by non-toxic fuel, corporation boss Ilya Osadchuk said in statement.

"We can hopefully meet the mandatory requirements for obtaining our licence to set up and operate our space port and launch facility in Cape York," he said.

The proposal is yet to get a green light from state or federal governments or nearby Indigenous groups, or pass essential environmental requirements.

Despite the many necessary approvals, the corporation said it has already secured "international launch vehicles" and has global investors lined up.

The operation plans to launch satellites for commercial telecommunications among other uses.

It's not the only space proposal on the cards for Queensland with the state's alternative government - the LNP - a couple of weeks ago revealing plans for a $15 million rocket launch pad near the central city of Bowen if victorious at the October 31 election.

Gilmour Space Technologies would be the anchor tenant of the government-owned facility, and the firm already has contracts with customers who need to launch in an easterly direction.

In mid-September, a 3.4-metre rocket became Australia's first commercial launch to the edge of space, from South Australia.

The federal government is investing $7 billion in growing Australia's space capabilities over the next decade.

Australian Associated Press

Stellar Explosion Blamed for Mass Extinction Event on Earth 360 Million Years Ago

Between a decline in biodiversity and a series of extinction events, the Late Devonian period was not the most hospitable time on Earth.

And then came one or more supernovae explosions whose resulting ionizing radiation was the final push that spelled the end for armored fish, most trilobites and other life.

In a paper published recently in PNAS, three University of Kansas researchers and their colleagues lay out such a scenario for end-Devonian extinctions.

"For more than a decade, my colleagues and I have been interested in the possibility of ionizing radiation events causing extinction events on Earth," said Adrian Melott, professor emeritus of physics & astronomy at the University of Kansas.

Previous findings had pointed to this final extinction event of the Devonian happening in tandem with a drop in ozone in Earth's stratosphere.

"When I heard about the evidence for ozone depletion at the end-Devonian, it triggered thoughts about the possibility of a chain of nearby supernovae," Melott said.

Previous research had pointed to other possible causes for the ozone depletion, such as global warming, but not astrophysical sources like exploding stars.

However, a fellow KU researcher had findings that suggested otherwise. Brian Thomas, an adjunct researcher in physics & astronomy and professor of physics at Washburn University, had shown that atmospheric warming and the resulting injection of water into the lower stratosphere - suggested as a mechanism to cause the ozone depletion - were just not tenable.

Moreover, another KU researcher, Bruce Lieberman, had further findings that pointed to an astrophysical cause. Lieberman, a professor of ecology & evolutionary biology, had previously emphasized that the end-Devonian extinctions were part of a long period of diversity decline. This prolonged decline is then followed by evidence of pollen malformations, suggesting ionizing radiation as the cause. That left a series of supernovae as the only tenable possibility, Melott said.

The researchers estimate the supernovae that triggered these events to be around 60 light years away. For context, Betelgeuse, a future supernova getting a lot of attention for its recent behavior, is about 600 light years away.

The supernovae that triggered end-Devonian extinction would have been close enough to cause some radiation damage on Earth, but not close enough for life-shattering damage.

"The cosmic rays from such a supernova will produce muons in the atmosphere, which are a very penetrating kind of radiation," Melott said. "They could cause internal damage in large animals and in organisms up to a half-mile down in the ocean."

The major ionization of the lower atmosphere may have led to a lot of lightning, he said, which could start fires and change the climate.

The Moon is the Perfect Spot for SETI

In less than four years, NASA plans to land the first woman and the next man on the Moon as part of Project Artemis. This long-awaited return to the Moon is to be followed by the construction of the Lunar Gateway, the Artemis Base Camp, and a program of "sustainable lunar exploration." The creation of an enduring human presence on the Moon will also create many opportunities for exciting scientific research.

For example, astronomers want to conduct radio astronomy on the far side of the Moon, where telescopes could probe the earliest period of the Universe free of terrestrial radio interference. Taking this a step further, a team of astronomers recently recommended that a radio telescope on the far side of the Moon (or in lunar orbit) could aid in another important area of research: the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI)!

The proposal was the subject of a white paper that was submitted to the National Academy of Sciences' (NAS) Planetary Science and Astrobiology Decadal Survey 2023-2032. The team behind it was led by Eric J. Michaud, a mathematics undergraduate at UC Berkeley, and included members from the SETI Institute, the Institute of Space Sciences and Astronomy at the University of Malta, and Breakthrough Initiatives.

As they explained, the potential for lunar radio astronomy has been recognized since the days of the Apollo Program. Interest became renewed during the early 2000s, at a time when the first steps towards returning astronauts to the Moon were being made (the Constellation Program). With the evolution of NASA's plans during the past decade - "Moon to Mars" and the Artemis Program - now is the time for the necessary planning to occur.

Dr. Pete Worden, the Chairman Breakthrough Prize Foundation and the former director of NASA's Ames Research Center, was a co-author on the paper. As he told Universe Today via email, the need to establish a site for such a telescope is pressing:As such, radio telescopes on Earth are based in parts of the world that have minimal "radio pollution," like deserts and remote areas. But the far side of the Moon may very well be the most "radio-quiet" place in the Solar System. As Michaud explained to Universe Today via email, these advantages include being able to scan:

As they indicate in their study, radio noise could be particularly mitigated if a crater were selected as the site of a surface observatory. Some choice locations include the Saha, Tsiolkovsky, Malapert, and Daedalus craters, all of which have been selected as possible sites by previous lunar radio-astronomy proposals. In such an environment, the crater walls would block out interference coming from orbiters or spacecraft.

Naturally, a telescope on the lunar surface presents some drawbacks as well. For example, the observatory would require a lander mission to deliver it to the surface, which is more complex than sending missions to orbit. Here, Michaud and his colleagues use the Israeli Space Agency's Beresheet and ISRO's Vikram lunar lander (part of the Chandrayaan-2 mission) as examples, both of which crashed-landed on the surface.

Another drawback is that a lander would not be able to draw solar energy during the 14-day long lunar night, which means it would have to come with a large battery pack. Communications would also be a challenge since the far side of the Moon is never on a direct line-of-sight with Earth. China's Chang'e-4 mission deals with this by relaying its communications to the Queqiao orbiter, which orbits the Moon at the Earth-Moon L2 point.

On the other hand, a lunar telescope deployed in orbit of the Moon would be cheaper to launch and could also support a larger antenna - since the weightlessness of orbit would do away with the need for a supporting structure. But of course, such a mission has its own share of disadvantages, such as the fact that RFI might be more of an issue on the farside.

The nature of the Moon's gravitational field also means that most lunar orbits are inherently unstable, which results in orbital decay. Fortunately, Michaud and colleagues indicate that there are several "frozen orbits" where an orbiter could remain stable for years. As Michaud explains, lots of work needs to happen before a lunar SETI observatory can be realized:

In the meantime, Dr. Worden claims that NASA and the international astronomical community are off to a great start with Project Artemis and the Artemis Accords. Not only are these facilitating a return to the Moon, but they've also established a framework for partnerships between nations and between the private and public sectors. This, Dr. Worden explains, will be essential to establishing the infrastructure and support needed:

Astronomy - Why Is It So?

You know, people still don't completely understand what's going on upstairs. This week I thought I'd cover some of the more common things I'm asked by readers. Ready? Let's go!

What is the difference between astronomy and astrology? Believe it or not, this is the most asked question I hear. Many people don't understand the difference. Astrology is a practice of using the locations of the planets to look into a person's personality or predict the future. It's not a science.

By contrast, astronomy is the scientific study of the universe. Astronomers observe the objects in the night sky to try to determine their composition and learn more about the origin and structure of the universe.

Do I need an expensive telescope to enjoy astronomy? Many people hesitate to get involved with astronomy because they believe it requires expensive equipment. The only thing you really need to enjoy the night sky is your eyes, a dark viewing location, and some patience.

To get a better look at things, a pair of 10x50 binoculars can provide a really good view. They collect much more light than the human eye and bring much dimmer objects clearly into view. You can even see Jupiter's moons with binoculars. A simple camera tripod to steady the binoculars is also a good idea, since your arms can get tired very quickly.

Why can't I see very many stars at night? You won't if you live near a big city. The reason for this is light pollution. Dust and water vapour in the atmosphere reflects the bright city lights back down towards the ground. Welcome to light pollution!

To truly appreciate the night sky, you must get as far away from city lights as possible. I can't think of many better sights than the band of the Milky Way stretching across a dark West Australian sky.

Where does space begin? Wow, this is a tricky one, but we now have an answer. Earth's atmosphere just gradually thins out as you move farther away from the Earth. US aviation officials have decreed space starts at 100 kilometres high. You could drive there in one hour at highway speeds.

Why is the sky blue? This is another question that gets asked a lot. The blue colour of the sky during the day is caused by scattered sunlight. The white light from the Sun is composed of all the colours of the rainbow. During the day, the air scatters the blue light from the Sun more that the red light making the sky appear blue to our eyes.

People ask how come we can't see the Moon's far side? The Moon is our most misunderstood celestial object. This is because the Moon rotates around on its own axis in exactly the same time it takes to orbit the Earth, meaning the same side is always facing the Earth.

Why do we have two daily tides? Of course, we know tides on Earth are caused by the Moon. There are two bulges in the Earth, one on the side facing the Moon, and the other on the opposite side facing away. The bulges move around the oceans as the Earth rotates, causing high and low tides around the globe.

The Moon has much weaker gravity than Earth. Did you know you'd weigh just a sixth of your weight on Earth! And moonquakes are real too. Yep, Lunar astronauts used seismographs on their visits to the Moon and found that small moonquakes occurred several kilometres beneath the surface, causing ruptures and cracks.

Lastly, you won't believe it but during the 1950's the USA considered detonating a nuclear bomb on the Moon. True! Itwas to be meant as a show of strength at a time the US thought they were lagging behind in the space race. Strange huh?

Astronomers discover planets more suitable for life than Earth

Astrobiologists from the United States and Germany have announced that there are planets in space that are more suitable for life than Earth.

According to Astrobiology magazine, scientists have collected comprehensive information on temperatures, humidity and other factors on 4.5 thousand exoplanets and chose 24 of them, which are larger, older, warmer and possibly wetter than Earth. They also orbit slowly changing stars that are longer than our Sun's lifespan.

Researchers believe that on such planets, which they codenamed "highly inhabited", life has more chances to evolve into higher forms than on Earth.

All the 24 planets are located more than 100 light years from Earth, and in the future it will be possible to study them using the NASA "Джеймс Уэбб" and LUVIOR telescopes, as well as the European Space Agency's PLATO.

Professor Dirk Schultz-Makuch, head of the research team, says, "With the advent of new space telescopes, we will get more information, so it is important to choose the right targets. Because we have to focus on certain planets with promising conditions for complex life. It is important not to limit the search to Earth. Again, because there may be more habitable planets than ours. "

It should be noted that the research team chose planetary-stellar systems with Earth-like planets, such as G-type stars that resemble the sun, which have a relatively short age of less than 10 billion years, and long-lived dwarf stars of class that are 20-70 billion years old. And since life on Earth appeared about four billion years later, the fuel for many sun-like stars may have run out before complex life forms emerged.

Based on this, life on planets orbiting the stars, which are cooler, less massive and brighter than our sun, have more time to evolve, as according to the researchers from 5 to 8 billion years, after which their geothermal heat depletes and their protective magnetic field disappears.

According to the researchers, life is developing easier in conditions of high humidity and temperature five degrees Celsius higher than on Earth. They base this on the biodiversity of tropical forests, compared to the cold and dry regions of the Earth.

The researchers point out that the term "highly inhabited" planets does not mean the existence of life on them, but rather that their conditions are suitable for the complex development of life.

European Space Agency finalises plans to 'explore the moon properly'

The Gateway missions will search for frozen water at the lunar south pole. Photograph: European Sports Photo Agency/Alamy

European space officials will this week unveil detailed plans for a series of ambitious missions aimed at returning humans to the moon in the next few years.

Projects will include construction of crew quarters for an orbiting lunar space station, making the power and propulsion units for America's Orion spacecraft, and designing and building a sophisticated communication and refuelling unit, known as Esprit, to serve astronauts on the lunar surface. These missions will be carried out jointly with Nasa and the Japanese and Canadian space agencies.

Planning for the programme - known as Gateway - has been going on for years, but now final contracts with European aerospace companies are about to be signed and will be announced at this week's International Astronautical Congress. "The decisions have been made and now the lunar spaceport is go," said David Parker, head of robotics for the European Space Agency (Esa) and a key figure in the Gateway programme.

The aim of the programme was to get the first astronauts to the moon by 2024, he added. "That is a challenging deadline, but we are up for it."

Parker said the first sets of astronauts who will fly to the moon were very likely to include a European. Britain's Tim Peake, an Esa astronaut who spent six months on the International Space Station that orbits Earth, has already indicated he would like to take part.

The aim of the Gateway programme is to open up the moon to scientific scrutiny in the same way that Antarctica was opened up in the second half of the last century. "The moon is like an eighth continent," Parker said. "It's an astronomical museum that has been soaking up the history of our solar system for more than 4 billion years. When we went there with Apollo, we basically went to the museum gift shop, grabbed a few souvenirs and came home. Now we are going to explore it properly."

One key aim of Gateway will be to explore the moon's south pole for the presence of frozen water. Evidence from robot probes suggest that ice exists there and finding it would have a crucial bearing on the construction of future lunar colonies. Separating water into its constituent elements of oxygen and hydrogen by electrolysis could then provide fuel and air for astronauts.

The main vehicle used to ferry astronauts to the moon will be the Orion spacecraft, which is scheduled to make its uncrewed maiden flight on Nasa's giant Space Launch System (SLS) rocket next year. Esa has already provided the power and propulsion units for the first Orion flight and is set to build a further five units.

Esa officials have also agreed contracts to build the main crew module for Gateway, which will operate as a smaller version of the International Space Station but sweeping around the moon, not the Earth. Over the next decade it will be used as a research centre and a staging post for missions to the lunar surface.

The hope is that exploration will be fully under way by the end of the decade, said Parker. "By then, we will have had 30 years working on the International Space Station. We'll get back to the moon during this decade and spend 15 to 20 years doing everything that needs to be done to explore the moon. Then we can think about the next step: going to Mars."

'Rogue Planet' With Same Mass As Earth Discovered Drifting In Milky Way Without A Star

Astronomers have recently found a 'rogue planet', which is about the same mass as Mars or Earth, drifting in the Milky Way. 'Rogue planets' are those planets that leave the gravitational embrace of the solar system and drift through the interstellar space forever. A team of scientists from the OGLE (Optical Gravitational Lensing Experiment) and KMTN (Korean Microlensing Telescope Network) have now discovered a low-mass rogue planet, which has no stars near it and its distance from Earth still remains unknown.

According to the study that presented the discovery, the 30 authors who are listed as contributors for the work, said that they believe that in the early days of a solar system, some low-mass planets will be ejected from the star's gravitational grip. The astronomers said that things can be chaotic in the early days and gravitational interactions between the star and all the planets can sometimes send small planets out into space to fend themselves.

Finding the 'rogue planets' in the vast darkness of space requires an innovative approach, i.e., gravitational lensing. The scientists said that in this case, the low-mass planet acts as the lens and depending on how much the light from the distant star is affected by the foreground object, astronomers can learn quite a bit. The authors explained that a relatively tiny object like a low-mass planet does not bend much light, and not for too long, either.

'Strong evidence' for 'rogue planet' population

Past studies have shown that there could be billions or even trillions of free-floating planets in the Milky Way. In the recent study, the astronomers have listed the ways these rogue planets can end up orphaned. The ways include planet-planet scattering; dynamical interactions between giant planets that lead to orbital disruption of smaller, inner planets; interactions between the stars in binary or trinary systems and star clusters; stellar fly-bys; and the evolution of the host star past the main sequence.

The newly-discovered rogue planet has been named 'OGLE-2016-BLG-1928'. It was discovered in a micro-lensing event which lasted only 41.5 minutes. The astronomers, in the study, informed that only four other small rogue planets similar to this have been found before, each one in a short timescale micro-lensing event. Together, these events provide "strong evidence for a population of rogue planets in the Milky Way," the scientists said.

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.