Like a tiger’s stripes, Jupiter’s colorful bands are more than just pretty colors

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Jupiter: The Large Adult Son of the Solar System

“We are really learning about a brand new Jupiter in many ways.”

For The Daily Beast:

Everything about Jupiter is large. The planet’s diameter is 11 times Earth’s size, and it is more massive than all other planets, dwarf planets, asteroids, comets, and moons put together. Jupiter’s Great Red Spot is a storm bigger than Earth that has lasted for as long as we humans have built telescopes to see it.

Jupiter’s mysteries are also large. NASA’s Juno mission currently in orbit around the planet is teaching us that we really don’t understand the solar system’s large adult son. Four new papers published in Nature on Wednesday outline the strangeness of Jupiter’s atmosphere, and how none of our current theories about how planets work are adequate to explain that weirdness.

[Read the rest at The Daily Beast]

Looking for the fifth dimension with wrinkles in spacetime

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Are We Closer to Finding a Fifth Dimension?

For The Daily Beast:

In Madeleine L’Engle’s classic novel A Wrinkle in Time, the characters travel from one place to another in space using a hidden fifth dimension, which they use to “wrinkle” the fabric of space and time. In the book and upcoming movie, this travel is more mystical than it is science. However, some scientists think there might be extra dimensions beyond the four (three space plus one time) that we’re familiar with—and those dimensions might affect the way gravity works.

But how can we know for sure? One way to check uses the collision of two neutron stars, as detected by the gravitational wave observatories LIGO and Virgo in 2017.

While they found no sign of a fifth (or sixth or seventh or…) dimension, researchers—who recently posted their work on the website arXiv—were excited.

That’s because looking for extra dimensions is difficult. We only see three dimensions in space (length, width, and depth) and one in time on the scale of the everyday; if a fifth dimension exists, it has to be hiding from us. That pushes any detectable consequence into the realm of the very small—the regime of particle physics and string theory—or the very large, where LIGO and other astronomical measurements come in.

[Read the rest at The Daily Beast]

Finding mountains on distant alien worlds

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How Astronomers Could Discover Mountains on Distant Planets

Planets too far away to photograph could yield some clues to whether water—and maybe even life—could exist.

For The Daily Beast:

Earth, Venus, Mars, the moon, and Pluto are very different worlds, but they have something in common: mountains. In fact, mountains occur on so many different bodies in the solar system that astronomers are pretty sure many exoplanets—planets orbiting other stars—also have them. And like planets and moons close to home, those mountains can tell us a lot about what’s going on with exoplanets. They might even help us discover how habitable these far-off worlds are.

But first, we have to see exoplanetary mountains. In a new paper to be published in the prestigious journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, Columbia University astronomers Moiya A.S. McTier and David M. Kipping figured out what it might take to detect mountains on a world too far away to photograph even with our most powerful telescopes.

[Read the rest at The Daily Beast]

Learning about weird star corpses from the way they shake

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‘Dwarfquakes’ Reveal the Future of Our Universe

Dying stars were an enigma—until an astronomer measured seismic shifts on them, giving us clues about the sun’s future and the expansion rate of the universe.

For The Daily Beast:

White dwarfs—the hot, burned-out remains of ordinary stars—are very common in the universe, and weird. (Our very own sun will become a white dwarf in a few billion years, too.) Imagine something the size of Earth, but 300,000 times more massive, glowing white-hot and bright enough to be seen far away despite its tiny size.

“It’s just a pixel of light,” Noemi Giammichele, an astronomer at the University of Toulouse, told The Daily Beast. “I find it really amazing all the information we can gather just from that one tiny dot.”

Made of pure carbon and oxygen, with only a thin haze of other atoms acting as its atmosphere, white dwarfs certainly aren’t like anything we can make in a lab on Earth. But Giammichele used seismology to measure “dwarfquakes” to not only understand the internal structure of these white dwarfs but also the future expansion rate of our universe.

[Read the rest at The Daily Beast]

It ain’t aliens — but this weird-looking star is still interesting

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We Haven’t Found Alien Megastructures… Yet

The mystery formations and data discrepancies of Tabby’s Star turned out to have explanations. But that’s not what’s important about the mystery star.

For The Daily Beast:

For a second, we thought they were aliens.

In the case of Tabby’s Star—the star more formally known as KIC 8462852—the data (an an accompanying photo of towering figures) was weird enough that a few people surmised it maybe pointed to a sign of an alien civilization. The odds were never good, and a paper published earlier this week shows that aliens almost certainly aren’t involved.

Instead, astronomers think the abnormalities are probably either dust orbiting the star, fragments of comets, or even variations in “weather” on the star’s surface.

These possibilities are a lot more boring than aliens, but that doesn’t mean Tabby’s Star isn’t interesting. The very fact that we still don’t know exactly what’s going on (other than “it ain’t aliens”) is itself interesting.

[Read the rest at The Daily Beast]

Discovering new planets with artificial intelligence

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Thanks to Google AI, Astronomers Have Found New Planets

They’re not habitable, but the dual discoveries change how we’re going to hunt for the next Earth.

For The Daily Beast:

For the first time, NASA has used machine learning to identify two new planets in distant star systems. One of those worlds is the eighth in its system, making that planetary system the largest-known yet discovered.

We know stars can have eight planets already (hello, Solar System!), so that’s no surprise. The excitement comes in how this new world was found: using an artificial intelligence machine learning method known as “neural networks.”

On Thursday afternoon, Christopher Shallue, a senior software engineer at Google Brain, and Andrew Vanderburg, an astrophysicist at the University of Texas at Austin, announced the new worlds in a press conference. It’s the eighth planet orbiting the 90th star in the Kepler observatory’s catalog, so it carries the name Kepler-90i. It’s a smallish, rocky planet orbiting very close to its host star. This method also identified a fifth planet in the Kepler-80 system, described in the same research paper.

[Read the rest at The Daily Beast]

Using NASA science to count the world’s biggest fish

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A NASA Algorithm Can Save Endangered Whale Sharks

Constellations of spots on these school bus-sized animals were hard to track, until now

For The Daily Beast:

Like too many other species, the world’s largest fish is in trouble.

Despite being listed as an endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), whale sharks are threatened by overfishing and human-caused damage to the ocean environment.

What makes the race against extinction even harder is the fact that scientists don’t have a precise idea of how many whale sharks are actually out there.

That may seem odd, because adult whale sharks can reach 10 meters (33 feet) in length, making them roughly the size of a school bus. However, they live much of their lives in open water; very few scientists had even seen one before the 1980s. Even with technological improvements over the last 30 years, it’s a difficult species to study, thanks to their lifestyle.

To get some idea about their numbers, researchers need to tell them apart. Each whale shark, has a unique pattern of lines and spots behind its gills, a sort of shark fingerprint.

[Read the rest at The Daily Beast…]

Don’t pull up stakes for the asteroid-mining gold rush

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Is Space Becoming a Gold Mine?

A new law grants private companies ownership over the materials they extract from asteroids or the Moon. But don’t call it a gold rush just yet

For The Daily Beast:

Asteroids are remnants of the Solar System’s youth. When the planets were forming more than 4.5 billion years ago, gas and dust molecules clung together to form larger objects, which in turn collided and stuck together to make yet bigger things. At the end of the process, we were left with the big planets, moons, and a huge number of smaller bodies which contain the raw chemicals we see on Earth.

Some asteroids could contain significant amounts of rare metals such as platinum, rare-earth elements, and other materials. Even water is a valuable resource in space, since it is useful as fuel (broken into hydrogen and oxygen components) and necessary for astronauts, but very heavy and therefore expensive to carry into space.

Now, President Barack Obama signed a bill into law granting private companies ownership over materials they extract from asteroids or the Moon. The bill also extends the period of time private corporations can develop spacecraft without direct government oversight, to help speed the process of getting more rockets into space.

But don’t pull up stakes for the asteroid-mining gold rush just yet. [Read the rest at The Daily Beast…]

Ice volcanoes (and other mysteries) on Pluto!

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Does Pluto Have Ice Volcanoes?

That’s what some scientists believe. And it might have a heart, too

For The Daily Beast:

At the 47th Division for Planetary Sciences (DPS) meeting in Washington, DC, researchers with the New Horizons mission presented the latest findings from the July flyby of Pluto.

The main theme: We know so much more than we once did, but we are a long way from understanding exactly what makes Pluto tick.

The first surprise? Something that shouldn’t be there at all.

Maybe, researchers posited, Pluto has volcanoes of ice.

It’s one possible explanation for what was possibly the biggest surprise from July: the discovery that Pluto is still an active world. Earth has a thick atmosphere with lots of weather, a hot interior, and oceans. Pluto has none of those things.

But processes under the surface seem to keep things just warm enough inside to pump material up, in the form of volcanoes—not of magma, but of nitrogen, methane, and other volatile materials.

We see ice volcanoes on other worlds, but those are moons orbiting giant planets, where their interiors are churned up by the strong gravity and other processes. What is keeping Pluto warm enough to erupt is something we don’t yet understand. [Read the rest at The Daily Beast…]

A tribute to a great African-American planetary scientist

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Meet Claudia Alexander, NASA Badass Who Never Got Her Due

In a field dominated by white men, Claudia Alexander was a pioneer

For The Daily Beast:

Comet 67P/Churyumov—Gerasimenko is a tiny world of ice and rock, just 5 kilometers long. The comet is shaped vaguely like a rubber duck, with steep cliffs and other prominent features that stand much taller in relation to the size of the world. One of remarkable features is a twin set of sharp “horns” on the head of the rubber duck, known now as C. Alexander Gate.

Claudia Alexander served as project scientist for the Rosetta mission, which is orbiting Comet 67P. Until her death in July, she helped lead the United States side of the project, coordinating the various scientific and engineering aspects of the mission. Last week, her colleagues named the C. Alexander Gate in her honor and memory, with her European Space Agency counterpart Matt Taylor making the announcement.

Alexander is the first, and so far only, African-American woman to achieve such a prestigious position on a space mission, and she did it twice: once for the Galileo spacecraft to Jupiter and again for the Rosetta probe to Comet 67P. In fact, she was also the youngest ever appointed when she was picked at age 40 to be the final project scientist for the Galileo mission in 2000. [Read the rest at The Daily Beast….]