Telescope gives glimpse of Milky Way’s center

The MeerKAT telescope provides astronomers with a brand new glimpse of the center of the Milky Way.

A brand new mega-telescope has taken the best picture of the Milky Way’s center on record.

The new technology — known as MeerKAT radio telescope — is made up of 64 small dishes that work to detect radio waves. All of the devices sit in the Karoo region of South Africa and are much more sensitive than any other similar object.

That extra sensitivity is key because it allowed MeerKAT to image the region around the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy — which sits 25,000 light-years away — in great detail.

The colors in the image reveal the brightness of the radio waves detected, and they range from red to orange to white.

While the picture seems like nothing more than a giant fireball at first glance, it reveals may new features.

For example, it shows compact sources of the long, magnetized filaments that come off the Milky Way’s central region, and it also provides a new look into previously unknown supernova remnants and star-forming regions.

The filaments are particularly important because, while researchers have spent decades analyzing them, nobody understands why they are only near the black hole.

“This image is remarkable,”said Farhad Yusef-Zadeh, a researcher at Northwestern University, according to Newsweek“It shows so many features never before seen, including compact sources associated with some of the filaments, that it could provide the key to cracking the code and solve this three-decade riddle.”

Another reason the image is so special is because the center of the Milky Way is notoriously hard to photograph. Not only is it incredibly far away, but it also sits behind the constellation Sagittarius, which hides it from optical telescopes.

MeerKAT gets around that because it is able to detect certain radio wavelengths that other machines cannot.

“We wanted to show the science capabilities of this new instrument,” said Fernando Camilo, chief scientist of the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO), which built and operates MeerKAT, according to Science Alert. “The center of the galaxy was an obvious target: unique, visually striking and full of unexplained phenomena – but also notoriously hard to image using radio telescopes … Although it’s early days with MeerKAT, and a lot remains to be optimised, we decided to go for it – and were stunned by the results.”

Astronomers observe unique binary asteroid

A binary asteroid known as 2017 YE5 is unlike any other such object on record.

Scientists at Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico and the Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia have discovered a pair of similarly-sized asteroids locked in their binary orbit around a mutual center of gravity.

The team first detected the odd object, known as 2017 YE5, in December of last year. At the time, it sat an such an angle that scientists could not determine if it was two distinct objects or two lobes of the same object joined at one point, Science Alert reports.

However, last month the pair came closer to Earth than they had ever been, which then allowed astronomers to get a much better look. They did that by shooting a radar signal out towards the asteroid. The beam then bounced off the object and shot back down towards our planet. Individual observations were made as well.

That revealed the asteroids make one full orbit around each other once every 20 to 24 hours.

Though observations estimate that about 15 percent of all near-Earth asteroids that measure more than larger than 650 feet across are binaries, most of them are made up of one large asteroid and one small one.

YE5 is unique because both objects measure 3,000 feet across, showing that they are roughly the same size. In addition, the rocks each reflected the radar signal differently. That shows they likely have different surface roughness or density.

More research needs to be done on the pair before such questions can be answered, and the team plans to do that the next time the asteroids fly past Earth in roughly four-and-a-half years.

In the meantime, researchers will analyze data taken from recent observations and attempt to discover more about the densities of the object. That could then provide new insight into its structure and composition.

Small space crystals reveal sun’s youth

Astronomers found that the sun had an explosive and energetic start to its existence.

Microscopic space crystals known as hibonite show that the young sun was an explosive, fiery mess, new research in the journal Nature Astronomy reports.

Long before the Earth first formed, the sun jetted out constant eruptions and massive quantities of high-energy particles. Though such events took place long, long ago, hibonite trapped the energy in a way where it can still be observed today.

The tiny crystals are much too small to see with the naked eye. Even so, they contain chemical traces of the early sun that give insight into what our solar system was like long before any of the planets formed.

Stars come about in dense, cold clouds of dust and gas. During that stage, they generate intense heat and pull materials towards their center. Though the sun experiences solar flares and coronal mass ejections today, it used to be much more wild during its stellar birth.

“A young star is more active in that it has more frequent and violent eruptions that launch particles and radiation into its surroundings,” said study co-author Philipp Heck, an associate curator of meteoritics and polar studies at The Field Museum in Chicago, according to Live Science.

Stars as big as the sun typically take 50 million years to settle into their mature state. Once there, they can last for tens of billions of years before exploding.

To see if the sun had a energetic youth, researchers from the Field Museum in Chicago analyzed samples collected from the Murchison meteorite that exploded over Australia in 1969. The remains contained dust grains shaped by supernova that existed before the sun.

The team then shot hibonite crystals within the rock with lasers, a process that released the neon and helium inside them. That revealed a unique mix of isotopes that confirmed the sun was extremely energetic billions of years ago.

Such information is important because it sheds new light onto, not just the sun, but the early solar system. That in turn could help scientists get a much better understanding of the mechanisms that govern our universe.

“What I think is exciting is that this tells us about conditions in the earliest Solar System, and finally confirms a long-standing suspicion,” added Heck, according to “If we understand the past better, we’ll gain a better understanding of the physics and chemistry of our natural world.”

The moon may have once supported life, study reports

New evidence suggests that the moon once had the right climate and atmosphere to support small microorganisms.

Scientists from the University of London and Washington State University have found evidence that the moon could have once had the conditions needed to support life, a new study published in Astrobiology reports.

Previously, astronomers believed that Earth’s natural satellite never had the volcanoes necessary to create an atmosphere.

However, the recent findings reveal that the lunar surface may have once had the conditions to support simple life forms around roughly 4 billion years ago.  

During that time, the moon spewed out superheated gas, including water vapor, from its core. That then created an atmosphere where the escaping steam may have turned into liquid pools on the surface.

If that happened, such areas could have been the perfect place for microorganisms to flourish. 

That is significant because if scientists can drill down into the moon and find signs of such life it will give them a glimpse of what used to exist on early Earth.

“It looks very much like the Moon was habitable at this time,” explained lead author Dirk Schulze-Makuch, an astrobiologist at Washington State University, according to Telegraph UK. “There could have actually been microbes thriving in water pools on the Moon until the surface became dry and dead. If liquid water and a significant atmosphere were present on the early Moon for long periods of time, we think the lunar surface would have been at least transiently habitable.”

The findings come from combination of recent space mission data and an analysis on lunar soil samples that show the moon is not as dry as previously believed.

In fact, in 2009 and 2010 a team of astronomers discovered that the celestial body holds hundreds of millions of metric tons of water ice. There could be water in the lunar mantle as well.

Such findings support the idea that the rocky satellite once held life. While today’s moon is sterile, four billions of years ago it would have been much more active.

“It seems bizarre to think about, but there may even have been liquid water on the Moon,” added study co-author Ian Crawford, a researcher at the University of London.

New map tracks radiation levels on Europa

Map will direct future Europa missions to locations that are potentially most habitable.

A new map that tracks radiation bombarding Jupiter’s moon Europa by its parent planet will prove an important tool in future missions searching for evidence of microbial life on the large moon.

After NASA’s Galileo mission revealed the likelihood of a global ocean beneath Europa’s surface, scientists have considered the Galilean moon a top contender for hosting microbial life.

Possible missions to Europa in various stage of planning seek to find biosignatures or signs of life in the underground ocean.

However, while Europa appears to be one of the solar system’s best hopes for finding life, the moon is regularly bombarded by powerful radiation from Jupiter, which could reduce habitability by breaking down or destroying material transported from the ocean to the surface.

Now, a new study led by Tom Nordheim of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, has produced the most comprehensive map ever of radiation levels on Europa using data returned by the Galileo mission’s flybys of Europa 20 years ago and electron measurements returned by Voyager 1, which flew by the Jupiter system in early 1979.

From the data returned by these missions, Nordheim’s team found radiation levels on Europa to vary significantly depending on location, with the highest radiation levels found near the equator and the lowest levels found near the poles.

The researchers produced a map that depicts high radiation zones as ovals.

“This is our first prediction of radiation levels at each point on Europa’s surface and is important information for future Europa missions,” noted Chris Paranicas of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (JHUAPL) in Laurel, Maryland, who took part in the study.

“If we want to understand what’s going on at the surface of Europa and how that links to the ocean underneath, we need to understand the radiation,” Nordheim emphasized. “When we examine materials that have come up from the subsurface, what are we looking at? Does this tell us what is in the ocean, or is this what happened to the materials after they have been radiated?”

Nordheim’s research team also measured how deeply radiation from Jupiter penetrates beneath Europa’s surface, providing important information for the Europa Clipper mission, which will conduct about 45 Europa flybys while orbiting Jupiter following an early 2020s launch.

They found that in the regions with the highest radiation levels, a probe would have to drill four to eight inches (10 to 20 cm) to find preserved biosignatures. In those with the lowest radiation levels, the probe would have to drill less than 0.4 inches (one cm).

A paper on the study has been published in the journal Nature Astronomy.

New ‘ghost dunes’ uncovered on Mars

Astronomers have found hundreds of never before seen ghost dunes on the Martian surface.

Researchers from the University of Washington have discovered hundreds imprints of ancient sand piles — known as ghost dunes — on Mars’ surface, according to a recent study in the Journal of Geophysical Research.

The team found the remains in two different locations on the Red Planet, a discovery that could give insight into the world’s past climate.

The dunes formed back when the planet had both flowing water and active volcanoes. Such natural processes covered the formations with sediment about two billion years ago and slowly hardened them over time. Then, harsh winds blew the sand away from the inside and left the imprints behind.

This is not the first time astronomers have discovered ghost dunes on Mars — there are some in the Medusa Fossae formation for instance — but the new research identified 300 previously undiscovered ones in both the Hellas Basin and the Noctis Labyrinthus.

They made the discovery by looking at images of the Mars’ surface and then scanning the pictures for clusters of crescent-shaped pits. That unique shape indicates the dunes were “barchan dunes,” which form on flat surfaces with unidirectional winds.

Studying the orientation allowed scientists to determine that the winds came from the north and steadily pushed the dunes south. That is strictly different than the wind direction today, suggesting that environmental conditions on the planet shifted over time.

“One of the cool things about the ghost dunes is that they tell us, for sure, that the wind on Mars was different in the ancient past, when they formed,” said lead author Mackenzie Day, a researcher at the University of Washington, in a statement

In addition, the team managed to figure out how big the dunes were. The ones in the Hellas Basin averaged 250 feet tall, while the ones in the Noctis Labyrinthus were roughly half that size.

The finding is interesting, and the researchers hope to follow up on their study could give new insight into the rocky landscape. There is also a chance that the wind did not fully clear the molds and that some ancient sand could still be stuck in them.

“There is probably nothing living there now,” added Day, according to Atlas Obscura. “But if there ever was anything on Mars, this is a better place on average to look.”

Cosmic rays traced back to massive black hole

For the first time ever researchers have found an origin of the mysterious cosmic rays that come to Earth from outer space.

A team of international scientists have confirmed the source of ultra high-energy cosmic rays that beam to Earth from space, according to a new study published in the journal Science

Occasionally, our planet gets hit with protons and atomic nuclei that shoot out of space with energy so high that scientists cannot replicate it. Researchers first discovered those “cosmic rays” over 100 years ago, but they never knew where they came from until now.

In the new study, the team combined data from light and a single high-energy neutrino particle and found that the rays originate from a blazar — a supermassive black hole at the center of a galaxy.

That discovery could open up new insight into the universe and provide a brand new way to study the cosmos.

“We have been looking for the sources of cosmic rays for more than a century, and we finally found one,” study co-author Francis Halzen, lead scientist at the IceCube Neutrino Observatory and a professor of physics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told

This finding came about when the IceCube detector at the South Pole spotted a neutrino particle that had an incredible amount of energy. The detector’s computers quickly calculated where it came from and sent the coordinates to astronomers across the globe.

Six days later, the Fermi Large Area Telescope found a distant blazer known as TXS 0506+056 in the same spot.

Further research showed the blazar is able to produce high-energy protons and nuclei, which then creates neutrinos. In that way, it can create the ultra high-energy cosmic rays that have eluded astronomers for the past century.

That is an exciting discovery, but it is just one source. As a result, more research needs to be done to explain all cosmic rays and how they get made.

“We clearly need more data. One source is not enough,” study co-author Spencer Klein, a physicist at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, told Gizmodo. “Now that we found one accelerator, we’d like to find more and find out how they work.”

Exoplanet could potentially host life, study reports

A new method for determining a planet’s chemical makeup reveals that a distant rocky world has the potential to host life.

A newly discovered exoplanet known as Ross 128 b has the necessary makeup to support life, according to a recent study published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

A team of international astronomers at Brazil’s Observatório Nacional first spotted the rocky world last year. It sits 11 light years from Earth and orbits around a star known as Ross 128.

Though the planet is intriguing, it was the star that was at the center of the study.

Using the APOGEE spectrograph, researchers uncovered the body’s near-infrared light to determine its specific chemical makeup. That then revealed new information about Ross 128 b.

Ross 128 is a red dwarf. Though most stars in the galaxy — around 70 percent — classify as red dwarfs, they still of interest to astronomers because they are cooler than the sun and most of them have planets.

Those lower temperatures are important because their habitable Goldilocks zone — the temperate region around a host star where a planet needs to exist in order to theoretically support life — is a lot closer than the distance between the Earth and the sun.

Unfortunately, most red dwarfs are quite active. They belch out dangerous flares that are so hot they would burn any life on nearby planets.

In contrast, Ross 128 has minimal flare activity, suggesting its a good place to look for life.

Though the team initially wanted to study Ross 128 b, it orbits the star at such an angle that makes it impossible to study directly. As a result, analyzing the star is the next best choice.

“The ability of APOGEE to measure near-infrared light, where Ross 128 is brightest, was key for this study,” said study co-author Johanna Teske, a researcher at the Carnegie Institution for Science, in a statement“It allowed us to address some fundamental questions about Ross 128b’s ‘Earth-like-ness.'”

Researchers used the APOGEE spectrograph to analyze the star’s near infrared spectrum and determine how much carbon, oxygen, magnesium, aluminum, potassium, calcium, titanium, and iron it contains. That then allowed them to understand its composition.

For instance, the analysis revealed that Ross 128 b is likely a rocky planet that is larger than Earth and sits in the Goldilocks zone.

There are still many unanswered questions about the world, including what its magnetic field is like, if it has an atmosphere, and what weather conditions are hospitable for life.

Even so, this study shows the validity of using a star to study planets that cannot directly be observed and suggests the method could one day uncover information about other far-off exoplanets.

“It’s exciting what we can learn about another planet by determining what the light from its host star tells us about the system’s chemistry,”said lead author Diego Sauto, a researcher at the Observatorio Nacional in Brazil, according to Science Alert.

Scientists examine Voyager-1 data in search of dark matter particles

Voyager’s pristine cosmic ray data is allowing researchers to form the bounds of the cosmos’ dark matter.

NASA’s Voyager-1 spacecraft is sending back cosmic ray data that has allowed researchers to better understand the cosmos’ exotic dark matter, reports Bruce Dorminey for Forbes Magazine. What they found was that analysis of the spacecraft’s cosmic ray detections beyond the heliopause (where the solar wind’s influence ends and the flux of low energy galactic cosmic rays begins), provided no evidence of dark matter. The researchers theorized that if dark matter was present, they would have found a higher density of lower energy cosmic rays in the data.

Caltech physicist Alan Cummings, who is part of the Voyager science team, explains that Voyager’s cosmic ray detector was designed specifically to look for galactic cosmic rays—low-energy cosmic rays that can only be detected outside our solar system. While most scientists believe cosmic rays originate within supernova remnants, some are thought to be related to dark matter. These rays—charged elemental particles that sometimes move at velocities approaching that of light—are helping researchers understand dark matter’s lower mass limits. The idea is that at least some dark matter particles present in the galaxy will annihilate into particle-antiparticle pairs, Dorminey writes—however, this is rare.

Scientists have proposed that dark matter could be made of microscopic black holes. A microscopic black hole would be no bigger than a nucleus of the element Xenon, explains Pierre Salati, a physicist at France’s Laboratoire d’Annecy-le-Vieux de Physique théorique. Researchers hoped that analyzing the new Voyager data to look for the evaporation of black holes emitting cosmic rays would be observable. But it wasn’t, leading Salati to conclude that these cosmic rays may not exist. “The idea is that the black holes evaporate and that evaporation emits cosmic rays,” he said. Despite the lack of evidence, researchers still plan to analyze data sent back from Voyager as long as possible.

Pieces of ‘fireball’ meteorite found in Botswana

Researchers have successfully tracked down pieces of the small meteorite that recently exploded above Africa.

Meteorite hunters have recovered a fragment of a small asteroid that crashed down to Earth on June 2nd after burning up in the atmosphere above Botswana.

The space rock exploded a few hours after researchers first detected it, breaking into several pieces upon contact with Earth’s atmosphere.

After that initial impact, the asteroid then exploded and turned into what is known as a “fireball” meteor. That means it created a bright flash of light as it sped across the sky.

As soon as skywatchers spotted the falling rock, teams of meteor experts set out to find any pieces that may have survived the harsh trip down to the ground.

Five days after the hunt began, a team made up of geoscientists from local universities and research institutes uncovered the first piece. Soon after, a group of international scientists joined the search and recovered a second piece in Botswana’s Central Kalahari Game Reserve.

Astronomers then further narrowed down potential locations by collecting and analyzing footage from surveillance cameras.

“After disruption, the asteroid fragments were blown by the wind while falling down, scattering over a wide area,” said officials with the University of Helsinki, according to Studying the footage allowed them to “get better constraints on the position and altitude of the fireball’s explosion.”

Astronomers at the Catalina Sky Survey first detected the asteroid 8 hours before it hit Earth. At the time they determined the rock measured roughly 6 feet across.

While that size was much too small to send an alert, the team did use impact prediction models to see where it may have landed and help in the search.

Some of the pieces have been recovered, and astronomers will continue to look for more as the days go on. Finding the fragments is important because they could lead to new research and help scientists get a better idea of what the rock was like.

“We see it as our mandate and duty to respond quickly to events like this one and to recover the material, both for research purposes and as part of the heritage of Botswana,” said Alexander Proyer, leader of the expedition, according to Popular Mechanics. “This meteorite is a priceless piece of rock that the people of Botswana will want to enjoy seeing on display for generations to come.”