Astronomers spotted a distant planet in the middle of making its own moon

orange disk around a star with planet small orange dot
The PDS 70 system, located nearly 400 light-years away and still in the process of being formed, with planet PDS 70c circled in blue.

For the first time, astronomers have captured an alien moon in the making.

Two enormous Jupiter-like planets are orbiting a star about 400 light-years away – and one of them seems to be forming a moon. Researchers aimed the radio dishes of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) at the distant planetary system and captured a ring of material surrounding the planet.

That “disc” is exactly how astronomers think moons form. A planet’s gravity captures surrounding dust and gas, then its rotation whips that material into a spinning disc. Over time, the dust and gas falls together into moons. Astronomers still don’t fully understand how this process works, so they could learn a lot from studying this planet.

Similarly, the star itself has a disc – material that could one day coalesce into new planets.

“These new observations are also extremely important to prove theories of planet formation that could not be tested until now,” Jaehan Bae, a researcher at the Earth and Planets Laboratory of the Carnegie Institution for Science, who co-authored the study, said in a press release.

The first image, above, shows the star at the center of the disc. The system is called PDS 70, and the planet with the moon disc is called PDS 70c.

The planet’s moon-making halo, captured below, is about the width of the distance between Earth and the sun. That’s about 500 times larger than Saturn’s rings.

exoplanet small orange dot surrounded by disk
The planet PDS 70c and its disc.

The disc contains enough material to make three moons the size of our own moon, according to the astronomers, who published their research in The Astrophysical Journal Letters on Thursday.

“In short, it is still unclear when, where, and how planets and moons form,” Stefano Facchini, a co-author of the study and research fellow at the European Southern Observatory, said in the release. “This system therefore offers us a unique opportunity to observe and study the processes of planet and satellite formation.”

The other planet circling this star does not show signs of a disc. The researchers said this could indicate that the moon-disc planet gobbled up all the available material, starving its twin. In addition to forming moons, the disc is likely helping the planet grow larger as material slowly falls into it.

The researchers plan to look at this star and its disc-adorned planet more closely with the Extremely Large Telescope, still under construction in Chile’s Atacama Desert. Once built, it will be the largest visible- and infrared-light telescope on Earth.

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Scientists spotted jets of hot gas whizzing out of a supermassive black hole at the heart of a nearby galaxy

centaurus A galaxy
A composite image of Centaurus A, revealing plasma jets emanating from the galaxy’s central black hole.

At the heart of every galaxy lies a supermassive black hole, which consumes everything that comes within reach of its gravitational pull – almost everything, that is.

Scientists have spotted plasma jets – streams of energy and hot matter – fleeing the core of certain black holes at one-third the speed of light. Researchers still aren’t certain how these jets form or escape celestial voids. But a new study gives astronomers more insight into the relationship between jets and their black hole parents.

Researchers at the Event Horizon Telescope collaboration – a group that reconstructed the first-ever image of a black hole two years ago – imaged plasma jets spewing from a black hole at the center of the Centaurus A galaxy, about 13 million light-years from Earth.

Their observations reveal that all jets closely resemble one another, regardless of their black hole’s mass. The jets are merely scaled in size, meaning smaller jets come from smaller black holes.

black hole centaurus A
A reconstructed image of a plasma jet shooting from the black hole at the center of Centaurus A.

Even the smallest of these jets can spread out far across the universe, though.

“They disperse out to form gigantic bubbles of hot gas that are 100,000 light-years in size,” Michael Janssen, an astronomer with the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy and Radboud University and lead author of the new study, told Insider.

Up close and personal with a supermassive black hole

To image the Centaurus A jet, Janssen’s team relied on data collected in April 2017 by eight radio telescopes synced up across the globe, forming one Earth-sized instrument. So the image is a reconstructed view, not a photograph.

“Think of looking into a mirror you’ve smashed to pieces,” Janssen said. “Each shard can show you a little bit of your face. By using the limited information you get from each shard, you can piece together what you look like.”

black hole jet
A view of a plasma jet coming out of the black hole at the center of the Messier 87 galaxy.

This isn’t the first time scientists have looked at plasma jets from a black hole. In 2011, an international team also imaged Centaurus A’s jets, but the new images are ten times more accurate and 16 times sharper than previous ones.

“We hit a magnification factor of 1 billion,” Janssen said. “We’re looking at the jet in unprecedented resolution immediately at the region where it’s just being born and launched by the black hole.”

The sharpness helped researchers compare jets from Centaurus A’s black hole – which is 55 million times more massive than our sun – to those escaping from the Messier 87 galaxy, about 54 million light-years from Earth. The Messier 87 black hole is 6.5 billion times more massive than the sun.

The researchers also compared Centaurus A’s jets to those from other black holes of different masses.

Their findings ultimately support the idea that smaller black holes are scaled-down versions of their more massive counterparts – and act the same way regardless of their mass or how quickly they accumulate matter and energy.

Magnetic fields could drive these high-speed jets

This image released Wednesday, April 10, 2019, by Event Horizon Telescope shows a black hole. Scientists revealed the first image ever made of a black hole after assembling data gathered by a network of radio telescopes around the world. (Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration/Maunakea Observatories via AP)
The first image ever made of a black hole, released by Event Horizon Telescope on April 10, 2019.

Supermassive black holes form when stars collapse in on themselves at the end of their life cycles.

Black holes spin so quickly that they distort space-time, and their gravity pulls in everything nearby. Because even light can’t escape, these forces create a unique shadow in the form of a perfect circle at the black hole’s center. The edge of this circle is known as the event horizon.

That gravitational pull twists light coming from the cloud of gas, dust, and space detritus orbiting the black hole’s center – what’s known as the accretion disk.

“Black holes feed off this accretion disk,” Janssen said. “But not all particles get swallowed up. Some get ejected by the black hole and escape in the form of these jets.”

black hole
A representation of a black hole.

Scientists haven’t figured out yet what drives these streams of escapee particles, but Janssen suggests that magnetic fields located at the edges of a black hole help accelerate jets.

(Two March studies by other members of the Event Horizon Telescope team found evidence of a magnetic field near the Messier 87 black hole’s event horizon.)

“As the black hole spins, these magnetic fields start being dragged around and get spun into a corkscrew structure,” Janssen said.

All the while, the coiling magnetic field collects incoming particles. Then, the field springs outward and shoots out hot gas and energy away from the black hole. The strength of the magnetic field is enough to help some particles resist a black hole’s gravity.

According to Janssen, the resulting jets are mindbogglingly large.

“If you could see these jets, and the Centaurus A black hole from Earth, the black hole would appear as large as an apple on the surface of the moon,” he said, “while the jets would be 16 times as wide as the moon itself.”

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NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope photographed colliding galaxies after recovering from a month-long mystery glitch

hubble telescope in space above earth clouds
The Hubble Space Telescope hovers at the boundary of Earth and space in this picture, taken after Hubble’s second servicing mission in 1997.

The Hubble Space Telescope is back, and NASA has the pictures to prove it.

The Earth-orbiting observatory went offline on June 13 and stayed that way for more than a month while engineers struggled to identify a mysterious glitch. NASA still hasn’t announced what exactly caused the problem, but the agency’s engineers managed to bring Hubble back online by activating some of its backup hardware on Thursday.

“I was quite worried,” NASA Associate Administrator Thomas Zurbuchen said in a Friday video interview with Nzinga Tull, who led the Hubble team through troubleshooting. “We all knew this was riskier than we normally do.”

Hubble slowly powered up its science instruments again over the weekend and conducted system check-outs to make sure everything still worked. Then it snapped its first images since the whole debacle started.

The telescope focused its lens on a set of unusual galaxies on Saturday. One of its new images shows a pair of galaxies slowly colliding. The other image shows a spiral galaxy with long, extended arms. Most spiral galaxies have an even number of arms, but this one only has three.

galaxies black and white photos from hubble space telescope
Hubble’s first images after recovering from a month-long glitch show some unusual galaxies.

Hubble is also observing Jupiter’s northern and southern lights, or auroras, as well as tight clusters of stars. NASA hasn’t shared images from those observations yet.

“I’m thrilled to see that Hubble has its eye back on the universe, once again capturing the kind of images that have intrigued and inspired us for decades,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a press release. “This is a moment to celebrate the success of a team truly dedicated to the mission. Through their efforts, Hubble will continue its 32nd year of discovery, and we will continue to learn from the observatory’s transformational vision.”

A mysterious glitch that took a month to fix

hubble space telescope orbiting earth
The Hubble Space Telescope in orbit above Earth.

Hubble, the world’s most powerful space telescope, launched into orbit in 1990. It has photographed the births and deaths of stars, spotted new moons circling Pluto, and tracked two interstellar objects zipping through our solar system. Its observations have allowed astronomers to calculate the age and expansion of the universe and to peer at galaxies formed shortly after the Big Bang.

But the telescope’s payload computer suddenly stopped working on June 13. That computer, built in the 1980s, is like Hubble’s brain – it controls and monitors all the science instruments on the spacecraft. Engineers tried and failed to bring it back online several times. Eventually, after running more diagnostic tests, they realized that the computer wasn’t the problem at all – some other hardware on the spacecraft was causing the shutdown.

nzinga tull sits at computer in nasa control room working on hubble space telescope
Nzinga Tull, Hubble systems anomaly response manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, works in the control room July 15 to restore Hubble to full science operations.

It’s still not totally clear which piece of hardware was the culprit. Engineers suspect that a failsafe on the telescope’s Power Control Unit (PCU) instructed the payload computer to shut down. The PCU could have been sending the wrong voltage of electricity to the computer, or the failsafe itself could have been malfunctioning.

NASA was prepared for issues like this. Each piece of Hubble’s hardware has a twin pre-installed on the telescope in case it fails. So engineers switched all the faulty parts to that backup hardware. Now the telescope is back in full observation mode.

“I feel super excited and relieved,” Tull said after making the hardware switch. “Glad to have good news to share.”

Though NASA has fixed the glitch, it’s a sign that Hubble’s age may be starting to interfere with its science. The telescope hasn’t been upgraded since 2009, and some of its hardware is more than 30 years old.

“This is an older machine, and it’s kind of telling us: Look, I’m getting a little bit old here, right? It’s talking to us,” Zurbuchen said on Friday. “Despite that, more science is ahead, and we’re excited about it.”

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NASA is about to switch its Hubble Space Telescope to backup hardware – a ‘risky’ maneuver to save its life

two astronauts in spacesuits work on the hubble space telescope in space above earth
The first servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope saw astronauts install a set of specialized lenses to correct the flawed main mirror in the telescope.

After a month of head-scratching, NASA engineers finally think they’ve identified the glitch that took out the world’s most powerful space telescope more than a month ago.

The Hubble Space Telescope, which launched into orbit in 1990, has captured images of the births and deaths of stars, discovered new moons around Pluto, and tracked two interstellar objects as they zipped through our solar system. Its observations have allowed astronomers to calculate the age and expansion of the universe and to peer at galaxies formed shortly after the Big Bang.

But the telescope has been offline since June 13, when one of its main computers stopped working. NASA engineers have spent the last month running diagnostic tests and analyzing data, and on Wednesday the agency announced that they may have finally traced the problem to a faulty power regulator.

With some confidence that they’ve pinpointed the glitchy component, the Hubble troubleshooters are preparing to switch to the telescope’s backup hardware on Thursday. That could return it to its science observations within a few days.

hubble telescope in space above earth clouds
The Hubble Space Telescope hovers at the boundary of Earth and space in this picture, taken after Hubble’s second servicing mission in 1997.

“I do believe they’re going to succeed, but it’s not guaranteed,” Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s astrophysics division, told Insider last week.

Hubble hasn’t been upgraded since 2009, and some of its hardware is more than 30 years old.

“Could the cause of the problem have something to do with Hubble’s age? The answer is almost certainly yes,” Hertz said. “Someday, a component will randomly fail that we won’t have a backup for. That’s the most likely way the Hubble mission will end.”

NASA has to switch a large chunk of Hubble’s hardware to its backup

hubble space telescope orbiting earth
The Hubble Space Telescope in orbit above Earth.

Hubble’s payload computer – a 1980s machine that controls and monitors all of the spacecraft’s science instruments – suddenly stopped working on June 13. Engineers tried and failed to bring it back online several times. Eventually, after running more diagnostic tests, they realized that the computer wasn’t the problem at all – some other hardware on the spacecraft was causing the shutdown.

It took another three weeks to identify the possible culprit. Now, Hubble engineers believe that a failsafe on the telescope’s Power Control Unit (PCU) instructed the payload computer to shut down. The PCU could be sending the wrong voltage of electricity to the computer, or the failsafe itself could be malfunctioning.

The good news is that each piece of Hubble’s hardware has a twin pre-installed on the telescope in case it fails. So NASA engineers just have to switch to the backup PCU.

But it’s not as simple as turning off one PCU and powering up another. The unit is linked to lots of other components of the telescope’s Science Instrument Command and Data Handling unit (SI C&DH, for short). So NASA has to switch over an entire side of the SI C&DH.

After NASA makes the switch on Thursday, that new side of the SI C&DH will no longer have a backup. If it fails in a few years, that could spell the end of Hubble.

But for now, getting the observatory back online is critical to NASA.

“Hubble is one of NASA’s most important astrophysics missions. It’s been operating for over 31 years, and NASA is hopeful it will last for many more years,” an agency spokesperson told Insider in June.

NASA has used Hubble’s backup hardware before, but it’s risky

astronaut fixes hubble space telescope in spacesuit above earth
Seven astronauts on the Space Shuttle Endeavour replaced a malfunctioning mirror on the Hubble Space Telescope in December 1993.

NASA has said that although the telescope and its scientific instruments remain in working condition, the switch will be “riskier” than engineers expected after they first assessed the problem.

“You can’t see the spacecraft, you can’t watch it happen. You have to make sure that your command uploads are going to do exactly what you intend them to do,” Hertz said.

“You don’t want to accidentally turn off the radio receiver. You don’t want to accidentally swap a battery that isn’t ready to be swapped,” he added. “You just don’t want to accidentally break anything.”

So NASA engineers checked and double-checked their plans before the agency approved the switch. The team has run simulations of the switch on Hubble-imitating computers on Earth, and NASA has done two reviews of the hardware-switching procedures.

hubble spiral galaxy feathered
Galaxy NGC 2275, captured by the Hubble Space Telescope, July 2, 2020.

“I’ve told the team: I am not in a hurry,” Hertz said. “The most important thing is to safely recover Hubble – not to recover Hubble as quickly as possible.”

NASA has rebooted Hubble using this type of operation in the past. In 2008, after a computer crash took the telescope offline for two weeks, engineers switched over to redundant hardware. A year later, astronauts repaired two broken instruments while in orbit – that was Hubble’s fifth and final reservicing operation. NASA does not currently have a way to launch astronauts to the space telescope.

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30 years of stunning photos show why NASA is fighting to save its Hubble Space Telescope from a mysterious glitch

a hubble view of starburst galaxy messier 94_22411319925_o_orig
Galaxy Messier 94, imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope, is rapidly forming new stars in the bright ring surrounding it.

The Hubble Space Telescope has been hibernating for nearly three weeks, as NASA troubleshoots a mysterious error that forced it offline.

hubble telescope in space above earth clouds
The Hubble Space Telescope hovers at the boundary of Earth and space in this picture, taken after Hubble’s second servicing mission in 1997.

The telescope’s payload computer suddenly stopped working on June 13. That computer, built in the 1980s, is like Hubble’s brain — it controls and monitors all the science instruments on the spacecraft. NASA has tried and failed to bring it back online four times.

The Hubble team has since determined that the computer may not be the problem. The team is still running diagnostics and assessing other parts of the telescope. If NASA can’t fix the issue, Hubble should be able to switch to backup hardware. But the telescope hasn’t been upgraded since the last astronauts serviced it in 2009.

Hubble is the world’s most powerful space telescope. In three decades of observing the cosmos in exquisite detail, it has fundamentally changed our understanding of the universe.

crab nebula green orange yellow web
The Crab Nebula – a 6-light-year-wide expanding remnant of a star’s supernova explosion – as imaged by Hubble.

“Hubble is one of NASA’s most important astrophysics missions. It’s been operating for over 31 years, and NASA is hopeful it will last for many more years,” a NASA spokesperson told Insider. “From a perspective of the value of Hubble to the scientific community, it is still the most powerful telescope available, so age is not a decision-making factor.”

The Space Shuttle Discovery carried Hubble into orbit in April 1990, the start of its 30 years of revolutionary astronomy.

hubble space telesope deploys from space shuttle arm in earth orbit
The Hubble Space Telescope is deployed on April 25, 1990 from the Space Shuttle Discovery.

The observatory has studied planets beyond our solar system, distant galaxies, and the mysterious dark matter that seems to permeate the universe.

Until it went offline, Hubble was continuing to make stunning observations of the cosmos on a monthly basis.

hubble spiral galaxy feathered
Galaxy NGC 2275, captured by the Hubble Space Telescope, July 2, 2020.

Altogether, the telescope has made more than 1 million scientific observations.

The result is a portfolio of awe-inspiring images of the most dramatic landscapes in our universe – clouds of incubating stars, massive explosions, and galaxies of all shapes and sizes.

nebulas red blue stars forming large magellanic cloud
The giant red nebula (NGC 2014) and its smaller blue neighbor (NGC 2020) are part of a vast star-forming region in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy of the Milky Way.

Hubble’s camera captures images in grayscale, but NASA adds color after downloading the imagery — often in order to highlight particular features or chemical elements as the human eye might see them.

Hubble has also zoomed in on the planets of our solar system to capture new features and details on their surfaces.

noir lab jupiter hubble
Labels added to this Hubble Space Telescope image of Jupiter point out atmospheric features on the planet, including the Great Red Spot and Red Spot Jr.

The space observatory has created portraits of Jupiter, imaged an enormous vortex raging on Neptune, and illustrated the seasons of Saturn.

One of Hubble’s most iconic images, from its Deep Field project, offers one of our widest, deepest portraits of the visible universe.

hubble ultra deep field faint galaxies
A segment of Hubble’s Ultra Deep Field image, which contains about 265,000 galaxies that stretch back in time to just 500 million years after the Big Bang.

The further away a galaxy is, the further its light has to travel to reach us, so the older that light is when we look at it. That’s why cosmic distances are measured in light-years. 

Hubble can peer so far across the universe that it captures light from galaxies that formed just 500 million years after the Big Bang. That’s how old some of the hundreds of thousands of galaxies in the telescope’s Deep Field images are.

Hubble has come a long way over the last 31 years, though. This was the first photo it took after launch.

hubble first light
Hubble’s “first light” image (right) compared to the same stars imaged by a telescope on Earth (left).

This first Hubble image was much clearer than a telescope on the ground, but it pales in comparison to the observatory’s later masterpieces.

Shortly after launch, NASA discovered that a flaw in Hubble’s primary mirror was marring its images. So in 1993, astronauts launched into space to repair the telescope.

astronaut fixes hubble space telescope in spacesuit above earth
Seven astronauts on the Space Shuttle Endeavour replaced a malfunctioning mirror on the Hubble Space Telescope in December 1993.

Hubble is the first space telescope designed for in-orbit servicing. All in all, astronauts have launched to the telescope five times for maintenance, upgrades, and repairs.

But since NASA retired the Space Shuttles in 2011, it hasn’t had any spaceships that can travel to Hubble.

One star-birthing formation became particularly famous after Hubble photographed it in 1995. These tendrils of gas and dust are called the Pillars of Creation.

pillars of creation eagle nebula pillars of dust and gas against green cosmic light
Columns of cool interstellar hydrogen gas and dust incubate new stars in the Eagle Nebula, photographed by Hubble on April 1, 1995.

The pillars are part of the Eagle Nebula, which is about 6,500 light-years away. They shroud a stellar nursery — where new stars are constantly forming from clouds of gas and dust.

The upper right corner of this photo is step-shaped due to the shape of Hubble’s camera at the time.

Hubble has turned its lens back to the pillars several times since 1995, capturing them in more color and detail each time.

eagle nebula pillars of creation veils of dust and gas form stars against a blue purple green cosmic background
The pillars stretch about 5 light-years. In this image, the blue colors represent oxygen, red is sulfur, and green is nitrogen and hydrogen.

Flows of electrically charged particles from a cluster of young stars located just outside the frame of this image are slowly eroding the pillars.

Hubble has even imaged the pillars in near-infrared light – revealing the newborn stars hidden in the dust.

pillars of creation ghostly against a starry background
The Pillars of Creation captured in near-infrared light, released January 5, 2015.

Near-infrared light, which has wavelengths longer than visible light, makes dust transparent. 

In 1998, astronomers using Hubble discovered that the universe has continued to expand faster and faster since the Big Bang.

star eta carinae two lobes of pink purple gas in space
The supermassive star Eta Carinae, flanked by two enormous dust bubbles, as imaged by Hubble in 2018.

Previously, scientists assumed that the universe expanded rapidly after the Big Bang but slowed down as time wore on. However, by using Hubble to peer at dying stars far away — near the beginning of the universe — astronomers discovered that there isn’t enough matter in the universe for gravity to stop it from expanding. Therefore, the universe’s expansion will keep speeding up.

The researchers behind the discovery won a Nobel Prize in 2011.

Astronomers then used Hubble’s observations to calculate how fast the universe is expanding – a measurement known as the Hubble Constant.

spiral galaxy
Spiral galaxy NGC 4603, imaged by Hubble, helped astronomers calculate the rate of the universe’s expansion in 1999.

That measure (like the telescope) is named after Edwin Hubble, the astronomer who first discovered that galaxies speed away from us at faster rates when they’re further away.

Calculating the Hubble Constant helped astronomers determine how old the universe is. Thanks to the telescope, they have a much better idea of the universe’s age today —  scientists think it’s about 13.8 billion years old. The actual rate of its expansion is still up for debate, though.

“Before Hubble, astronomers could not decide if the universe was 10 billion or 20 billion years old,” astronomer Wendy Freedman said in 1999.

pillar of gas and dust carina nebula
A small portion of one of the largest known star-birth regions in the galaxy, the Carina Nebula, released April 22, 2010. The image shows the top of a three-light-year-tall pillar of gas and dust.

“The size scale of the universe had a range so vast that it didn’t allow astronomers to confront with any certainty many of the most basic questions about the origin and eventual fate of the cosmos,” Freedman, an astrophysicist who led the team that measured the Hubble Constant, said in a 1999 press release. “After all these years, we are finally entering an era of precision cosmology. Now we can more reliably address the broader picture of the universe’s origin, evolution and destiny.”

In 2005, Hubble spotted two previously undetected moons circling Pluto.

pluto moons discovery
Hubble images reveal two new moons, later named Hydra and Nix, circling Pluto.

Ground-based telescopes had spotted just one Pluto moon: Charon. Astronomers named the new moons Hydra and Nix.

Then just a year later, Hubble spotted a new object in the Kuiper Belt that was larger than Pluto, which threw its status as a planet into question. (Pluto is now considered a dwarf planet.)

Planets circling other stars are too far away and too small for Hubble to photograph. But the telescope has nonetheless made important discoveries about these exoplanets.

exoplanet small red dot moves around its star
The first-ever direct image of a world beyond our solar system shows the planet Fomalhaut b, as imaged by Hubble in 2004 and 2006.

Hubble has detected organic molecules and carbon dioxide on planets orbiting other stars — the first observations like that ever made. It also captured an exoplanet in visible light for the first time in the mid-2000s.

In 2019, Hubble found evidence of water vapor on an exoplanet — another major first in the search for alien life. Some scientists think that planet could be habitable.

Hubble has also given scientists some of their best data on dark matter.

dark matter ring in cluster of galaxies
This composite image shows the ring-like distribution of dark matter in the galaxy cluster Cl 0024+17, based on Hubble’s observations of how the dark matter’s gravity distorts light.

Hubble allowed astronomers to map the distribution of dark matter throughout the universe.

In recent years, one team of scientists has used Hubble to study a galaxy that doesn’t appear to contain any dark matter at all. Since dark matter was previously thought to be like glue holding the universe together, this galaxy could throw everything into question.

Hubble also imaged the first known interstellar comet to zoom through our solar system.

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A Hubble image of the comet 2I/Borisov taken October 12, 2019.

The comet, known as 2I/Borisov, came from another star system and hurtled past the sun at speeds of 110,000 miles per hour. It didn’t get closer to Earth than 190 million miles (300 million kilometers), but Hubble spotted it anyway.

Hubble could still have years of science ahead of it. NASA hopes to keep the telescope alive well into the 2020s.

hubble space telescope orbiting earth
The Hubble Space Telescope in orbit above Earth.

But to do that, the Hubble team needs to figure out what’s causing the recent glitch. It hopes to identify the culprit this week.

Paul Hertz, NASA’s director of astrophysics, told NPR that the slow diagnostic process can mostly be chalked up to “the inefficiency of trying to fix something which is orbiting 400 miles over your head instead of in your laboratory.”

“If this computer were in the lab, we’d be hooking up monitors and testing the inputs and outputs all over the place, and would be really quick to diagnose it,” he said. “The problem is we can’t touch it or see it.”

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Even the Hubble Space Telescope’s backup computer is glitching now – raising new questions about what’s gone wrong

hubble space telescope orbiting earth
The Hubble Space Telescope in orbit above Earth.

NASA has been trying to figure out what’s wrong with the Hubble Space Telescope for nearly two weeks, but the mystery just deepened.

Hubble, which launched into orbit in 1990, is the world’s most powerful space telescope. It has captured images of the births and deaths of stars, discovered new moons around Pluto, and tracked two interstellar objects as they zipped through our solar system. Hubble’s observations have allowed astronomers to calculate the age and expansion of the universe and to peer at galaxies formed shortly after the Big Bang.

But the Earth-orbiting observatory hasn’t done any scientific work for 12 days. The telescope’s payload computer – a 1980s machine that controls and monitors all the spacecraft’s science instruments – suddenly stopped working on June 13.

crab nebula green orange yellow web
The Crab Nebula – a six-light-year-wide, expanding remnant of a star’s supernova explosion – as imaged by Hubble.

NASA’s Hubble team has been troubleshooting ever since. But the team figured that even if they couldn’t fix the computer, they could always switch to Hubble’s backup payload computer.

This week, though, NASA discovered that the backup computer was glitching, too. So now it’s hunting for a new explanation for Hubble’s mysterious problems.

Hubble has taken NASA down a rabbit hole of glitches

two astronauts in spacesuits work on the hubble space telescope in space above earth
On the first servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope, astronauts installed a set of specialized lenses to correct the flawed main mirror.

NASA first tried – unsuccessfully – to restart the payload computer. Then the team turned its attention to memory module that has been degrading, since it was registering errors. The Hubble team thought that could be the root of the problem, but no luck there, either. Both the memory module and one of its three backups wouldn’t work. That indicated the source of the issue was further upstream.

The team began running diagnostic tests on other parts of the payload computer this week. They also decided to power up the backup payload computer – which hasn’t been turned on since astronauts installed it on the telescope in 2009. But the new computer showed the same errors, in the same hardware, as the original.

That indicates that the payload computer may not be the problem after all. It’s probably another system, still further upstream.

“Since it is highly unlikely that all individual hardware elements have a problem, the team is now looking at other hardware as the possible culprit,” NASA said in a blog update on Friday.

hubble telescope in space above earth clouds
The Hubble Space Telescope hovers at the boundary of Earth and space in this picture, taken after Hubble’s second servicing mission in 1997.

The Hubble team now thinks the culprit could be a module that helps send commands to the telescope’s science instruments and prepare data from those instruments to beam back to Earth. That module is called the Command Unit/Science Data Formatter (CU/SDF).

The problem could also stem from a glitchy power regulator, NASA said. If the regulator is sending the wrong voltages to Hubble’s hardware, that could explain the widespread issues.

NASA plans to continue assessing other parts of the telescope over the next week, the agency’s update said. If it looks like the CU/SDF or the power regulator are the cause of the problem, the team plans to switch to their respective backup parts. (Hubble has a lot of backups, since NASA no longer has spaceships that can carry astronauts to it to replace defective parts.)

Even though Hubble is 31 years old, it’s been doing more scientific work than ever in the last few years. NASA hopes to keep the telescope going well into the 2020s.

“Hubble is one of NASA’s most important astrophysics missions. It’s been operating for over 31 years, and NASA is hopeful it will last for many more years,” a NASA spokesperson told Insider earlier this week. “From a perspective of the value of Hubble to the scientific community, it is still the most powerful telescope available, so age is not a decision-making factor.”

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The most detailed map yet of all dark matter in the universe reveals cosmic voids where the laws of physics seem not to apply

dark matter map
Earth-based telescopes like the Victor M. Blanco Telescope dome in Chile have helped scientists map our universe.

  • Astronomers have created the most comprehensive map yet of all dark matter in the universe.
  • Though invisible, scientists can measure dark matter’s gravity because it pulls galaxies into clumps.
  • The new map indicates dark matter’s gravity may work differently than Einstein’s theory of relativity suggests.
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Astronomers have created the most comprehensive map yet of all the dark matter in the universe.

That’s no easy feat, considering dark matter is invisible. Scientists know this shadowy cousin of regular matter exists, though, because its strong gravitational forces can pull entire galaxies together. Based on observations of its influence, astronomers estimate that dark matter makes up one-quarter of the universe.

The new map is the product of years of work by a group of 400 scientists from seven countries, known as the Dark Energy Survey (DES). They pointed the Victor M. Blanco Telescope in Chile skyward to peek at millions of galaxies bound together by dark matter. The distribution of those galaxies, and the ways in which light from them reaches Earth, can inform astronomers about how much dark matter sits between those galaxies and our planet.

In a series of studies published this week, the team showed that the universe is peppered with giant clusters of galaxies bunched together – regions where dark matter, too, is densely packed. But their map, which covers about one-eighth of the sky as seen from Earth, also documents patches of the universe that are nearly devoid of both dark matter and galaxies. These cluttered and empty areas appear to be connected by interstellar gas in a cosmic web.

“It shows us new parts of the universe that we’ve never seen before. We can really see this cosmic web structure, including these enormous structures called cosmic voids, which are very low-density regions of the universe where there are very few galaxies and less matter,” Niall Jeffrey, a cosmologist at University College London, told the Guardian.

The photo below shows a section of the new map; the voids are in black, while the galaxy clusters are bright orange.

dark matter map
A zoomed-in view of the Dark Energy Survey’s dark matter map.

According to Jeffrey, the new findings suggest that gravity may not work the same way in these voids as it does on Earth, which would mean the standard laws of physics do not apply.

Light from 226 million galaxies

While dark matter is unobservable, the force it exerts on other things in the universe helps scientists detect it.

Dark matter bends light coming toward Earth from other galaxies, a bit like a kaleidoscope. So by measuring the intensity of that distortion, astronomers can calculate how much dark matter sits between us and another galaxy, and how smushed together that dark matter is. If a galaxy’s light is very distorted, it suggests the invisible dark matter obscuring it from view is densely clumped.

dark matter map
The DES dark matter map (in purple) superimposed on an image of the Milky Way galaxy.

So Jeffrey and his team looked at how light from more than 226 million galaxies, both nearby and billions of miles away, was getting distorted.

They used the telescope to capture images of those galaxies for 345 nights between 2013 and 2016, then relied on an artificial-intelligence program to translate those observations into their detailed map of dark matter.

The team collected data on another 413 nights before the survey ended 2019, so DES scientists plan to create an even larger, more detailed dark-matter map using the rest of their observations.

The map suggests Einstein might have been wrong

According to Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, gravity should have caused chunks of matter in the universe to clump up in a predictable way after the Big Bang some 13 billion years ago.

But according to Jeffrey, the DES map suggests Einstein’s theory may have missed the mark to some degree.

“If you look out into the universe, the matter isn’t as clumpy as expected – there are hints that it is smoother,” Jeffrey told the Guardian.

“It may seem a relatively small thing,” he added, “but if these hints are true, then it may mean there’s something wrong with Einstein’s theory of general relativity, one of the great pillars of physics.”

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A SpaceX fanatic created a website to find out when Starlink satellites were visible in his location. After 5 days, it went viral. You can use it to see where to look and how long for.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk next to a picture of Starlink satellites in the night sky
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk pictured next to Starlink satellites in the night sky.

  • More Starlink satellites can be spotted in the night skies as SpaceX expands the service further.
  • SpaceX fanatics use a website called “Find Starlink” to check when they can see the satellites.
  • The creator of Find Starlink said it got 500,000 requests within its first five days of launching.
If you spot a chain of bright lights in the night sky, chances are they’re Starlink satellites

Starlink Satellite Internet
60 of the Starlink Internet communication satellites of Elon Musk’s SpaceX private spaceflight company seen in the night sky.

More people across the world are reporting sightings of SpaceX’s Starlink satellites, which tend to resemble a chain of fairy lights zooming across the night sky.

This is no surprise considering the rate at which SpaceX are launching satellites into orbit via its Falcon 9 rocket. The company have blasted off 16 Falcon 9 rockets this year with a maximum of 60 satellites per launch.

Elon Musk’s space firm has currently more than 1,500 satellites in orbit and aims to get up to 42,000 up there by mid-2027.

Most recently, Starlink satellites have been spotted over the UK, Ireland, and cities in the US, including ArizonaCalifornia, and Los Angeles.

Find Starlink allows space fanatics to check when they can next see Starlink satellites pass over their location

Screenshot of the Find Starlink page where you can see when Starlink satellites are visible
Screenshot of the Find Starlink page

For those who are interested in spotting Starlink satellites, Find Starlink can give you a good idea of when SpaceX’s spacecraft will be visible in your location.

Users can choose from a multitude of cities across the world to check out when and where to look for Starlink satellites.

The creator of Find Starlink, who prefers to remain anonymous online, told Insider he launched the website two years ago for himself, his brother, and a friend living in different parts of the world.

“Find Starlink was created three days after the first Starlink launch (24 May, 2019) because I wanted to see the Starlink train and none of the existing websites tracked Starlink at that point,” said the creator.

“I saw some unbelievable images of the Starlink train from the first Starlink launch, and wanted to see it with my own eyes,” he added.

The website, which he made in one evening, got half a million requests within its first five days of launching, the creator said.

He has received emails from people who helped build on Apollo rockets and those who have requested ruling out UFO sightings, he said.

 

After selecting a location, a list of dates and times appear advising you where to look to spot Starlink satellites

Screenshot of Find Starlink's website
Screenshot of Find Starlink’s website

Once you have typed in your location, the site will show timings with good, average, and poor visibility around that area. It tells you which direction to look in, how long the satellites will be noticeable for, and the elevation.

Find Starlink warns users that the timings are not 100% accurate as the orbit of the satellites can change.

“I prefer to keep user expectations and hype low, so I’d say ‘try it at your own risk,’ and ‘don’t blame me if you waited outside in the cold and saw nothing,'” the creator said.

The website is accurate four to five days after SpaceX launch a new batch of Starlink satellites, he said, adding that he receives a lot of emails about successful sightings on a daily basis.

One week after the launch, it’s tricky to predict where the satellites will be because they are assigned to their level orbit where they are less reflective and more difficult to see from the ground, the creator said.

This is called “rolling behaviour,” when SpaceX reduce the brightness of the satellites between 300 km to 550 km altitude to not disturb astronomers, he said.

You can also choose specific coordinates to check for Starlink satellites

Screenshot of Find Starlink
Screenshot of coordinates on Find Starlink

If your area isn’t listed, you can type in the longitude and latitude of the location to check when Starlink satellites will zoom overhead.

The live map shows where the Starlink satellites are in real time

Screenshot of Find Starlink's Live Map
Screenshot of Find Starlink’s Live Map

So, how does it work?

After collecting some calculations off the Reddit SpaceX community, the creator said he put a simple program together to predict timings of the Starlink satellites. From this, he made Find Starlink.

The website tracks the “leader” of each Starlink satellite train and predicts its path as all the other satellites will follow behind.

Every minute of the first five days after the launch, the site calculates a triangle between the Sun, the satellite and the location to calculate how good the visibility is going to be in that area, the creator said.

The website then ranks the predicted visibility into “good”, “average” and “poor” based on the calculations. 

 

 

Starlink satellites are becoming less visible as SpaceX has darkened them to avoid disrupting the night sky

Screenshot of a pop-up on Find Starlink's website
Screenshot of a pop-up on Find Starlink’s website.

Astronomers have become increasingly frustrated with Starlink satellites as their bright lights jeopardize astronomical research by obscuring the stars and leaving bright streaks across their images.

In response, SpaceX added darkening sun visors to its Starlink internet satellites, making them almost invisible to the naked eye.

This means it’s harder for Find Starlink to track the satellites.

A few weeks after a SpaceX launch when the satellites are assigned in orbit, a pop-up may show on the website saying that Starlink satellites aren’t visible at the moment as SpaceX has “reduced [the satellites’] brightness to avoid disturbing astronomers.” 

But once SpaceX blasts another batch of satellites into orbit, Find Starlink says they’ll be much easier to spot in the first three to four days.

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NASA is developing plans to build an enormous, Arecibo-like telescope inside a crater on the moon

lunar crater radio telescope
An illustration of the Lunar Crater Radio Telescope concept.

NASA is paying a team of researchers to develop a plan for a telescope on the far side of the moon.

The Lunar Crater Radio Telescope (LCRT), as the concept is called, would be a lot like the Arecibo telescope, which collapsed in December. A huge dish would collect radio waves from the cosmos and amplify them so that scientists could analyze the signals. The difference is that on the moon, such a telescope would be shielded from the cacophony of radio signals that such a device on Earth would hear from all kinds of equipment and satellites.

lunar crater radio telescope wide view on far side of moon
An illustration of the Lunar Crater Radio Telescope concept, as seen from high above the moon.

To build the LCRT, rock-climbing robots would suspend a kilometer-wide dish inside a lunar crater. The telescope would be nearly three times wider than Arecibo, and its lunar perch would give it a much better view of the universe.

“With a sufficiently large radio telescope off Earth, we could track the processes that would lead to the formation of the first stars, maybe even find clues to the nature of dark matter,” Joseph Lazio, a NASA radio astronomer working on the LCRT project, said in a press release.

The LCRT plans are too preliminary to be a NASA mission, but the agency announced in early April that it’s giving the team $500,000 to refine its concept of the telescope’s design and craft a plan for building it.

“It’s very challenging, but it’s something that I think is achievable with present-day technology,” Saptarshi Bandyopadhyay, a NASA engineer who leads the team, told Insider.

‘We really do not know what the universe looks like’

Arecibo discovered the first known planet beyond our solar system, mapped Venus’ surface, and detected a pair of stars that confirmed Einstein’s theory of general relativity.

arecibo radio antenna observatory puerto rico overhead view 20050805 naic national science foundation nsf
The Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, one of the world’s largest radio telescopes, pictured before its collapse.

However, the telescope was at a disadvantage: Earth’s atmosphere garbles radio waves with a wavelength higher than 10 meters, so it blocked Arecibo’s view of the earliest stages of the universe. Building a telescope on the moon, far from atmospheric interference, would allow astronomers to finally see what they’ve been missing.

“This is at the stage when the first stars were being formed in the universe, or even before that, when the first matter was formed but the stars hadn’t been formed yet,” Bandyopadhyay said.

Studying the early universe could help scientists understand the origins of dark matter, which outweighs visible matter six to one.

“Above-10-meter wavelengths, we really do not know what the universe looks like,” Bandyopadhyay said. “We don’t know what we’re going to discover in those wavelengths.”

The lunar telescope isn’t a NASA mission, but the agency wants to know more

sls space launch system nasa
An artist’s rendering of the Space Launch System, NASA’s next moon rocket, lifting off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Bandyopadhyay’s project is one of six that recently won similar sums from the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts Program, which awards funding to help researchers flesh out futuristic ideas like this. These “phase II” grants allow researchers to continue studying their early-stage concepts over the next two years.

In addition to the LCRT, NASA’s list of concepts includes fungus-based space habitats and a swarm of kite-like spacecraft that would explore Venus’ clouds.

“All projects are still in the early stages of development, with most requiring a decade or more of technology maturation. They are not considered official NASA missions,” NASA said in a statement.

Like the other projects, Bandyopadhyay’s team previously got a $125,000 NASA grant to investigate the telescope project’s feasibility.

He’s hopeful that the agency will one day take the LCRT on as an official mission.

No humans required: Robots could build the telescope

duaxel rover climbing robot
A DuAxel rover participates in field tests in the Mojave Desert.

The LCRT team has already picked out a few craters on the moon’s far side that would be big enough for the telescope dish, each about 3 to 5 kilometers (2 to 3 miles) wide. Now they have to figure out how to get the wire-mesh structure into one of those craters.

One potential plan is to land two enormous landers on the edge of the chosen crater – one carrying the mesh and the other carrying 20 crater-climbing DuAxel rovers. The rovers from that second lander would lay out a series of guiding wires on which the first lander would roll out the telescope’s mesh net.

Bandyopadhyay’s team estimates that DuAxel bots could get the job done autonomously in just 10 days, well before the sun would set on that side of the moon for its 15-day night.

the moon surface
The moon as viewed by NASA’s Mariner 10 probe in 1973.

A second option is to use harpoons to deploy the mesh, though that would take about five months, and the robotic equipment would have to survive long lunar nights. The plus side, however, is that Bandyopadhyay estimates this method would be several billion dollars cheaper.

In their first phase of research, Bandyopadhyay’s team picked out a few moon craters that could host their telescope and plotted out the ideas for climbing robots and harpoons. They also laid out the LCRT’s scientific objective: gathering signals from the “Dark Ages” of the early universe and filtering out the cosmic radio noise of our Milky Way.

Now, with their new NASA funding, the group must pick the right materials for the science they want to do.

“In the current phase, our most challenging thing is actually designing a mesh that satisfies multiple different constraints,” Bandyopadhyay said. Those constraints include making a mesh base that would be lightweight enough to launch aboard a rocket. The mesh would also have to be flexible enough to be deployed on the moon yet durable enough to survive dramatic temperature changes there.

lunar crater radio telescope view from inside moon crater
An illustration of the Lunar Crater Radio Telescope, as seen from inside the crater.

The team will also do more research into ways to build this telescope, conduct risk analyses, and lay out a work plan.

Bandyopadhyay hopes his team will come out of this next phase of research with a cost estimate and a solid pitch for a future NASA mission.

“If this mission does get funded through the next stages, I would be very surprised if LCRT was successfully deployed on the moon before I retire. And I’m a very young scientist,” Bandyopadhyay said. “Usually things in space of this magnitude really take time. So, yeah, I’m looking forward to the journey, and this will be a journey of a lifetime.”

This post has been updated. It was originally published on April 16, 2021.

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An astronomer’s animation shows how Earth and the moon both orbit a spot 3,000 miles from the true center of the planet

globe_epc_2015198_lrg
The Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) captured a view of the moon as it passed between the spacecraft and Earth.

The moon orbits Earth – right? The answer is actually a little more complicated than that.

The moon is circling a point about 3,000 miles from our planet’s center, just below its surface. Earth is wobbling around that point, too, making its own circles.

That spot is the Earth-moon system’s center of mass, known as the barycenter. It’s the point of an object (or system of them) at which it can be balanced perfectly, with the mass distributed evenly on all sides.

The Earth-moon barycenter doesn’t line up exactly with our planet’s center. Instead, it’s “always just below Earth’s surface,” as James O’Donoghue, a planetary scientist at the Japanese space agency (JAXA), explained on Twitter.

It’s hard to imagine what that looks like without seeing it for yourself. So O’Donoghue made an animation to demonstrate what’s going on. It shows how Earth and the moon will move over the next three years.

The distance between Earth and the moon is not to scale in the animation, but O’Donoghue used NASA data, so the positions over time are accurate.

“You can pause the animation on the present date to figure out where the Earth and moon physically are right now,” O’Donoghue said.

Every planetary system – including the star or planet that appears to be at the center – orbits an invisible point like this one. Our solar system’s barycenter is sometimes inside the sun, sometimes outside of it. Barycenters can help astronomers find hidden planets circling other stars: A star’s wobbling motion allows scientists to calculate mass they can’t see in a given system.

O’Donoghue made a similar animation of Pluto and its moon, Charon. In this system, the barycenter is always outside of Pluto.

That’s because Charon’s mass is not that much smaller than Pluto’s, so the system’s mass is more evenly distributed than Earth and our moon.

Because the barycenter is outside of Pluto, O’Donoghue said, you could actually consider this to be a “double (dwarf-)planet system” rather than a dwarf planet and its moon.

In his free time, O’Donoghue has also made animations to explain why leap years are necessary, why you’ve probably never seen a model of the solar system to scale, and how incredibly slow the speed of light is.

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