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Astronomers Find Rare “Super-Earth” Towards the Centre of Our Galaxy

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Astronomers from New Zealand’s University of Canterbury (UC) have discovered a super-Earth exoplanet towards the centre of our Milky Way galaxy, near the galactic bulge. The rare discovery has been described by scientists as to be one of the few exoplanets that are comparable to Earth, in terms of size and orbit.

Dr Antonio Herrera Martin and Associate Professor Michael Albrow from the University of Canterbury’s School of Physical and Chemical Sciences in the College of Science collaborated with an international team for this investigation.

The results of the find have been published in The Astronomical Journal. Speaking about the discovery, Dr Herrera Martin, the paper’s lead author, explained, “To have an idea of the rarity of the detection, the time it took to observe the magnification due to the host star was approximately five days, while the planet was detected only during a small five-hour distortion. After confirming this was indeed caused by another ‘body’ different from the star, and not an instrumental error, we proceeded to obtain the characteristics of the star-planet system.”

According to the researchers, the planet’s host star is about 10% the mass of our Sun. The Super-Earth planet’s mass would be somewhere between that of Earth and Neptune and would orbit at a location between Venus and Earth from the parent star. The planet’s ‘year’ would be of approximately 617 days.

According to Dr Martin, the planet was discovered using a technique called microlensing where the combined gravity of the planet and its host star causes light from a more distant background star to be magnified in a particular manner.

This microlensing event was first observed independently in 2018 by the Optical Gravitational Lensing Experiment (OGLE) using a telescope in Chile. It was reconfirmed by the Korea Microlensing Telescope Network (KMTNet) to which the UC astronomers belong, using three identical telescopes in Chile, Australia, and South Africa.

As per a report in Tech Explorist, the planet has a mass somewhere between that of Earth and Neptune. It orbits at a location between Venus and Earth from the parent star, the report added.

All of the planets in our solar system orbit around the Sun. Those planets that orbit around other stars are called extrasolar planets or exoplanets, according to Nasa. They are very hard to see directly with telescopes as they are hidden by the bright glare of the stars they orbit.

So, astronomers use other ways to detect and study these distant planets. They search for exoplanets by looking at the effects these planets have on the stars they orbit.

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Computer Scientist, Pixel Inventor Russel Kirsch Dies Aged 91

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By Associated Press | Updated: 14 August 2020

Russell Kirsch, a computer scientist credited with inventing the pixel and scanning the world’s first digital photograph, died August 11 at his home in Portland, Oregon, The Oregonian reported. He was 91.

Pixels, the digital dots used to display photos, video and more on phone and computer screens, weren’t an obvious innovation in 1957, when Kirsch created a small, 2-by-2-inch black-and-white digital image of his son, Walden, as an infant. That was among the first images ever scanned into a computer, using a device created by his research team at the US National Bureau of Standards (now the National Institutes of Science and Technology).

This work “laid the foundations for satellite imagery, CT scans, virtual reality, and Facebook,” said a 2010 Science News article about Kirsch, subsequently republished by Wired. That first square image, that article said, measured a mere 176 pixels on a side — just shy of 31,000 pixels in total. Today, the digital camera on the iPhone 11 can capture roughly 12 million pixels per image.

Though computers have become exponentially more powerful and can now fit in our pockets, science has ever since been coming to terms with the fact that Kirsch made his pixels square. The square shape of the pixels meant that image elements can look blocky, clunky or jagged — just generally not as smooth as real life. There’s even a word for this effect: “pixelated.”

“Squares was the logical thing to do,” Kirsch told the magazine in 2010. “Of course, the logical thing was not the only possibility … but we used squares. It was something very foolish that everyone in the world has been suffering from ever since.”

Kirsch later developed a method to smooth out images by using pixels with variable shapes instead of the squares.

Born in Manhattan in 1929, Kirsch was the son of Jewish immigrants from Russia and Hungary. He was educated at the Bronx High School of Science, New York University, Harvard and MIT and worked for five decades as a research scientist at the US National Bureau of Standards.

Russell Kirsch is survived by his wife of 65 years, Joan; by children Walden, Peter, Lindsey and Kara; and by four grandchildren.
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Ceres Dwarf Planet Is an ‘Ocean World’ With Salty Water Underground, NASA Data Suggest

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By Reuters | Updated: 11 August 2020

Ceres, the largest object in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, is an “ocean world” with a big reservoir of salty water under its frigid surface, scientists said in findings that raise interest in this dwarf planet as a possible outpost for life.

Research published on Monday based on data obtained by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, which flew as close as 22 miles (35 km) from the surface in 2018, provides a new understanding of Ceres, including evidence indicating it remains geologically active with cryovolcanism – volcanoes oozing icy material.

The findings confirm the presence of a subsurface reservoir of brine – salt-enriched water – remnants of a vast subsurface ocean that has been gradually freezing.

“This elevates Ceres to ‘ocean world’ status, noting that this category does not require the ocean to be global,” said planetary scientist and Dawn principal investigator Carol Raymond. “In the case of Ceres, we know the liquid reservoir is regional scale but we cannot tell for sure that it is global. However, what matters most is that there is liquid on a large scale.”

Ceres has a diameter of about 590 miles (950 km). The scientists focused on the 57-mile-wide (92-km-wide) Occator Crater, formed by an impact about 22 million years ago in Ceres’ northern hemisphere. It has two bright areas – salt crusts left by liquid that percolated up to the surface and evaporated.

The liquid, they concluded, originated in a brine reservoir hundreds of miles (km) wide lurking about 25 miles (40 km) below the surface, with the impact creating fractures allowing the salty water to escape.

The research was published in the journals Nature Astronomy, Nature Geoscience, and Nature Communications.

Other solar system bodies beyond Earth where subsurface oceans are known or appear to exist include Jupiter’s moon Europa, Saturn’s moon Enceladus, Neptune’s moon Triton, and the dwarf planet Pluto.

Water is considered a key ingredient for life. Scientists want to assess whether Ceres was ever habitable by microbial life.

“There is major interest at this stage,” said planetary scientist Julie Castillo of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, “in quantifying the habitability potential of the deep brine reservoir, especially considering it is cold and getting quite rich in salts.”

© Thomson Reuters 2020

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NASA Astronauts Describe Descent in SpaceX Dragon Capsule, ‘Sounds Like an Animal’

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By Agence France-Presse | Updated: 5 August 2020

SpaceX’s crewed capsule isn’t called Dragon for nothing.

The two NASA astronauts brought back to Earth on Sunday said they felt they were inside the belly of a beast as it careened into the atmosphere at 17,500 mph.

“It came alive,” said mission commander Bob Behnkhen at a virtual press conference held Tuesday in Houston, Texas.

The thrusters were firing to keep the capsule, called “Endeavour,” pointed precisely at its target site off the coast of Pensacola, for the first water landing by a US spaceship since 1975.

“The atmosphere starts to make noise, you can hear that rumble outside the vehicle and as the vehicle tries to control, you feel a little bit of that shimmy in your body,” continued the 50-year-old.

“It doesn’t sound like a machine, it sounds like an animal coming through the atmosphere with all that all the puffs that are happening from the thrusters and the atmospheric noise,” he added.

Not only was ride down deafening, but each time the vessel carried out descent sequences like jettisoning its “trunk” that contained the power system and firing parachutes, it was also bone-jarring.

“Very much like getting hit in the back of the chair with a baseball bat, you know, just a crack,” said Behnken, describing the sensation.

Behnken and crewmate Doug Hurley, 53, are best friends in real life and both are married to fellow astronauts.

They were addressing journalists, as tradition dictates, two days after their return from a six-month stay on the International Space Station.

The success of the demonstration mission for SpaceX Crew Dragon, the first crewed US spaceship to achieve orbit since the Space Shuttle era, means it will likely soon be certified for regular service.

The next mission is already planned for September.

“The mission went just like the simulators, from start to finish, all the way there was really no surprises,” said Hurley.

Both men are veterans of the Space Shuttle program, which ended in 2011, and they had been training for five years with SpaceX.

Splash down at 15 miles per hour in the Gulf of Mexico felt “pretty firm,” said Hurley, but that was expected.

One person who will particularly benefit from Behnken’s knowledge: astronaut Megan McArthur, who is slated to make the same voyage in the spring of 2021 on the same spacecraft, and is Behnken’s wife.

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SpaceX Completes Test Flight of Starship Mars Rocket Prototype

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By Agence France-Presse | Updated: 5 August 2020

SpaceX on Tuesday successfully completed a flight of less than a minute of the largest prototype ever tested of the future rocket Starship, which the company hopes to use one day to colonise Mars.

“Mars is looking real,” SpaceX founder Elon Musk tweeted in response to a fan.

The current Starship prototype is fairly crude: it’s a large metallic cylinder, built in a few weeks by SpaceX teams on the Texas coast, in Boca Chica — but it’s still smaller than the actual rocket will be.

Several previous prototypes exploded during ground tests, during a learning process of trial and error.

In images shared Tuesday by several space specialists, including the space news website NASASpaceFlight.com, the latest prototype — dubbed SN5 — reached an undetermined altitude before descending to land in a cloud of dust, demonstrating good trajectory control.

“And when the smoke cleared, she stood there majestically, after the 150 meter flight!” tweeted NASA’s top scientist, Thomas Zurbuchen.

The so-called “hop test” was planned to reach a 150-meter (492-foot) altitude, but SpaceX has not confirmed any details about the test flight.

In 2019, an earlier prototype — the smaller Starhopper — flew to 150 meters in altitude and returned to land.

The Starship envisioned by Musk will be 120 meters tall and will be able to land vertically on Mars.

“We are going to the Moon, we are going to have a base on the Moon, we are going to send people to Mars and make life multi-planetary,” Musk said Sunday, after welcoming two NASA astronauts back from the International Space Station.

The astronauts had traveled in the Dragon capsule developed by SpaceX.

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SpaceX Crew Dragon Capsule With NASA Astronauts Returns Safely to Earth

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The space capsule with Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley inside being pulled out of water in the Gulf of Mexico
By Reuters | Updated: 3 August 2020

US astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, who flew to the International Space Station in SpaceX’s new Crew Dragon, splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico on Sunday after a two-month voyage that was NASA’s first crewed mission from home soil in nine years.

Behnken and Hurley, tallying 64 days in space, undocked from the station on Saturday and returned home to land their capsule in calm waters off Florida’s Pensacola coast on schedule at 2:48 pm ET (12:18 am Monday, IST) following a 21-hour overnight journey aboard Crew Dragon “Endeavor.”

“This has been quite an odyssey,” Hurley told senior NASA and SpaceX officials at a homecoming ceremony at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. “To be where we are now, the first crewed flight of Dragon, is just unbelievable.”

The successful splash-down, the first of its kind by NASA in 45 years, was a final test of whether SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk’s spacecraft can transport astronauts to and from orbit — a feat no private company has accomplished before.

“This day heralds a new age of space exploration,” Musk said. “I’m not very religious, but I prayed for this one.”

NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said the successful mission marked “a new era of human spaceflight where NASA is no longer the purchaser, owner and operator of all the hardware” but one of many future customers of space travel.

“Today we really made history,” Bridenstine told an earlier press conference.

Despite Coast Guard restrictions and safety risks, spectators in private boats surrounded the splash-down site dozens of miles from shore as SpaceX and NASA recovery teams used a crane to hoist the spacecraft out of the water and onto a boat.

The crew’s retrieval from Crew Dragon was delayed slightly as the teams worked to flush its fuel tanks after sensing traces of nitrogen tetroxide fumes outside the capsule, a toxic gas from one the spacecraft’s flammable fuels.

Hurley, giving a thumbs up as he was wheeled out of the spacecraft on a stretcher, a normal procedure as astronauts adjust to Earth’s gravity, said, “I’m just proud to be a small part of this whole effort to get a company and people to and from the space station.”

“Thanks for doing the most difficult parts and the most important parts of human spaceflight – getting us into orbit and bringing us home,” Behnken told SpaceX mission control in Hawthorne, California, as the hatch door was opened.

For the return sequence, on-board thrusters and two sets of parachutes worked autonomously to slow the acorn-shaped capsule, bringing Behnken and Hurley’s speed of 17,500 miles per hour in orbit down to 350 mph upon atmospheric re-entry, and eventually 15 mph at splash-down.

The pair were to undergo medical checks onshore in Pensacola ahead of a flight to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.
Flag captured

NASA officials have said Crew Dragon, a pod with seven astronaut seats, was in a “very healthy” condition while docked at the space station, where astronauts conducted tests and monitored how the spacecraft performs in space.

Behnken and Hurley undocked from the orbital station late on Saturday to begin their trip home, waking at 7:40 am Sunday to a recorded wakeup call from their sons.

“Good morning Dragon Endeavor,” Hurley’s son said in a recorded message sent to the capsule. “I’m happy you went into space but I’m even happier that you’re coming back home.”

NASA, aiming to galvanise a commercial space marketplace, awarded nearly $8 billion (roughly Rs. 59,985 crores) to SpaceX and Boeing collectively in 2014 to develop dueling space capsules, experimenting with a contract model that allows the space agency to buy astronaut seats from the two companies.

Billionaire entrepreneur Musk’s SpaceX became the first private company to send humans to orbit with the launch of Behnken and Hurley.

“Congratulations SpaceX & NASA on completing first crewed Dragon flight!!,” Musk wrote on Twitter after the splash-down, adding a US flag emoji followed by “returned” — referring to a rivalry with Boeing over which company’s astronaut crew would be the first to retrieve an American flag left on the space station in 2011, when the last crewed mission launched from US soil.

Behnken and Hurley brought the flag back to Earth, stowed as cargo in Crew Dragon.

The landmark mission, which took off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on May 31, marked the first time the US space agency launched humans from American soil since its shuttle program retired in 2011. Since then, the United States has relied on Russia’s space program to launch its astronauts to the space station.

“It was a great relief when I saw Bob and Doug come out of the capsule, smiling, thumbs up, looking very cheerful,” SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell told reporters. “That was the good moment.”


© Thomson Reuters 2020

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SpaceX Crew Dragon Departs ISS for Earth With Two US Astronauts

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By Agence France-Presse | Updated: 2 August 2020

The SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft shoved off from the International Space Station on Saturday with two US astronauts on board, beginning their journey back to Earth despite a storm threatening Florida. NASA footage showed the capsule drifting slowly away from the ISS in the darkness of space, ending a two month stay for the first US astronauts to reach the orbiting lab on an American spacecraft in nearly a decade.

“And they are off!” the US space agency tweeted, with Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken set to splash down Sunday.

“(They) will spend one more night in space prior to returning to their homeland, Earth,” NASA tweeted.

Their proposed splash-down sites are off the coast of western Florida’s panhandle, while tropical storm Isaias is headed toward the state’s east coast.

NASA opted to go ahead with bringing the pair home despite the threat of Isaias, which was downgraded to a tropical storm from a hurricane on Saturday.

The agency later added the capsule was confirmed to be “on a safe trajectory.”

“Now is the entry, descent and splashdown phase after we undock, hopefully a little bit later today,” Hurley said in a farewell ceremony aboard the ISS that was broadcast on NASA TV.

“The teams are working really hard, especially with the dynamics of the weather over the next few days around Florida,” he said.

Earlier, during the ISS ceremony, Behnken said that “the hardest part was getting us launched. But the most important part is bringing us home.”

Addressing his son and Hurley’s son, he held up a toy dinosaur that the children chose to send on the mission and said: “Tremor The Apatosaurus is headed home soon and he’ll be with your dads.”

Behnken later tweeted: “All my bags are packed, I’m ready to go.”

‘Exciting day’

Mission chief Chris Cassidy called it an “exciting day” and hailed the importance of having a new means to transport astronauts.

The mission, which blasted off May 30, marked the first time a crewed spaceship had launched into orbit from American soil since 2011 when the space shuttle program ended.

It was also the first time a private company has flown to the ISS carrying astronauts.

The US has paid SpaceX and aerospace giant Boeing a total of about $7 billion for their “space taxi” contracts.

But Boeing’s program has floundered badly after a failed test run late last year, which left SpaceX, a company founded only in 2002, as clear frontrunner.

For the past nine years, US astronauts traveled exclusively on Russian Soyuz rockets, for a price of around $80 million per seat.

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