Cassini spacecraft detects conditions favorable to life in one of Saturn’s moons

enceladus

The Cassini spacecraft has revealed some interesting data about Enceladus, one of Saturn’s moons.

Enceladus, which takes its name from a Giant in Greek mythology, features an icy surface beneath which a vast ocean of liquid water is thought to exist.

More interestingly, gigantic plumes of gas rise out of the moon. These plumes contain hydrogen, which indicates the presence of chemical reactions similar to those that happen at the bottom of the oceans here on Earth.

On our planet, these vents teem with microbial life, which raises the possibility that similar lifeforms may exist elsewhere in the Universe.

Earthside, microbes feed on hydrogen venting out from the planet’s crust, so the same process may be taking place in Saturn.

Cassini has been performing flybys around Saturn for 13 years. The probe will soon enter its final cycle of 22 more orbits before crashing into the planet’s atmosphere around September next.

Cosmic phenomenon, or alien craft? Astronomers ponder the origin of powerful radio signals

telescope

Our Universe is full of weird and wonderful things.

A number of incredibly strong radio signals detected by Earth’s telescopes have baffled astronomers and researchers for some time.

Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs) are powerful radio blasts lasting for a few milliseconds only, first noticed when reviewing long-range telemetry data from 2001. Since then, twelve more such signals have been picked up.

The peculiarity of FRBs is that they appear to be one-off events, originating in a single location. The vast energy of these events equals to roughly that of five hundred million suns.

One thing that astronomers do know is that the signals come from outer space, as far as 5.5 billion light years out. Local interference has been categorically ruled out. This is significant, as previously thought ‘alien messages’ turned out to be interference caused by a site’s microwave oven, for instance.

But so far, researchers have been unable to agree on the source of such signals. An existing theory is that they are emitted when super-dense objects like black holes or neutron stars collide.

Another, far more interesting theory, is that the signals are artificial and the energy released is being used to power gigantic alien space craft. This theory gains traction given the fact that FRBs are arranged in a very peculiar pattern that does not conform to current understandings of astrophysics.

Telescope equipment is now been fine-tuned to look further into the FRB phenomenon, as astronomers are keen to pinpoint its origin.

Cosmic fury: Titanic struggles in deep space, as black holes consume stars more often than previously thought

tidal

New deep-space research has concluded that black holes are consuming stars at an alarming rate, way faster than astronomers previously thought.

A brand new study has found that supermassive black holes lurk in dark regions of space, always ready to trap nearby stars and slowly consume their matter, a la galactic Venus Flytrap.

This phenomenon was well known, but it is the frequency at which it happens that has stunned the research community at the University of Sheffield, the conductors of the study.

A black hole is an anomaly created when a celestial body, usually a star, runs out of fuel and collapses unto itself under the force of gravity. Eventually, gargantuan amounts of matter are compressed into a relatively small area of space, creating a super-dense region with such colossal gravitational pull that not even light can escape. It is because of this trait that black holes are only revealed through special equipment and by observing the surrounding space.

When a star wanders in the vicinity of one of these cosmic monsters, it becomes trapped in an inescapable gravitational pull, slowly dwindling away as the black hole swallows it whole.

In scientific terms, such predation is called a Tidal Disruption Event (TDE). Prior knowledge stated that one such event would happen once every 10,000 to 100,000 years per galaxy.

However, it has now transpired that TDEs occur about 100 times more often, particularly as galaxies collide with one another.

TDEs are exceptionally violent episodes of utter chaos at cosmic level, with devastating consequences. When galaxies collide, their structure warps, ripping stars out of their orbits, and often throwing them into the ravenous maws of lurking black holes. The outcome of such cataclysmic events is a single, enormous new galaxy risen from the remnants of the two colliding titans.

And the bad news is that our very own galactic home, the Milky Way, is on an inexorable collision course with Andromeda, the closest spiral galaxy. This end-of-days event will happen in about 5 billion years though, so don’t go making plans for your TDE blaze of glory just yet.

Galactic maws: Two gigantic black holes discovered in neighboring galaxies

blackhole

Two black holes, some of the most enigmatic space-time anomalies in existence in the Universe, have been discovered lurking behind enormous clouds of gas in nearby galaxies.

The objects were detected by NASA’s orbiting observatory NuSTAR, which picked up X-ray radiation emitted by light as it becomes trapped in the inescapable pull of the black hole.

These aberrations of time and space were concealed behind enormous clouds of gas, like monsters lurking behind a curtain.

A black hole is an anomaly created when a celestial body, usually a star, runs out of fuel and collapses unto itself under the force of gravity. Eventually, gargantuan amounts of matter are compressed into a relatively small area of space, which creates a super-dense region of space with such colossal gravitational pull that not even light can escape. It is because of this trait that black holes are only revealed through special equipment and by observing the surrounding space.

At the center of the black hole lies a singularity, a region of space where things become really weird.

The outermost area of a black hole is called the event horizon. A good analogy is those slip road signs that say ‘Wrong way: Turn back now.’ If you drive past that sign, you’re facing oncoming traffic. If you move past the event horizon, you will never leave.

To an outside observer, a person crossing the event horizon would appear to slowly elongate and become dimmer. If this person was transmitting, pauses between transmissions would beome longer and longer as time dilation occurs. Eventually, the person moving towards the center of the black hole -the singularity- would appear dimmer and redder, until it could no longer be seen.

However -and this is where things become really interesting-, the person inside the hole would see no difference. This interstellar pioneer would now be trapped in an area of space where the curvature of time becomes infinite. Here, space and time as we know it does no longer apply. What really happens there, though, nobody really knows.

Luckily however, the two newest black holes discovered are unlikely to ever bother us.

The first was discovered in galaxy NGC 1448, which is 38 million light years away from the Milky Way.

The other is in the farthest reaches of space, in galaxy IC 3639, which is 170 million light years away.

Mars: The ultimate frontier

mars

The Red Planet has been wetting mankind’s thirst for knowledge and exploration for several long decades now. The shiny red star in the night heavens has been the subject of countless movies, books, and other media throughout time.

Technical limitations have hitherto prevented man from travelling to Mars, but lately there has been somewhat of a rennaissance of the pioneering trip to Mars idea.

NASA is said to be researching possible landing sites ahead of a planned launch in the late 2030s. Scientists will meet in Houston next October to give serious discussion and thought to the issue of “exploration zones”. These are areas on the planet’s surface, about 62 miles-wide, which are deemed to offer enough resources (such as subssurface water ice) to support prospecting astronauts. Over the next few years, the space agency will utilise the Mars Odyssey and the Mars
Reconnaissance Orbiter crafts to probe these selected areas to ascertain their suitability for landing and support human life.

Every two years or thereabouts, Mars and Earth’s orbit create optimal conditions for a launch. When the two planets are aligned, about 55 millions km separate mankind from its ultimate frontier. Though that may sound like a lot, in terms of cosmic distances, it’s a mere stone throw away.

Still, using currently available propulsion and space exploration technology, it would take a manned spaceship about nine long months to reach Mars’ surface, assuming all went according to plan. And that’s just a one way trip. The first crew to reach Mars will likely be forced to stay there, there’d be no coming back.

Space travel is inherently dangerous, of that there is little doubt. Disasters like the Space Shuttles Challenger and Columbia are a sad testament to mankind’s space faring endeavors.

And going to Mars would pose a completely new set of challenges. Putting aside the huge financial cost of a mission to Mars, there is the issue of the sheer distance between us and the Red Planet. Nine months, give or take, is a very long time to be locked inside a spaceship hurtling through space with a bunch of fellow men and women. A lot of psychological issues may arise.

Another danger would be the amount of radiation that the crew would be exposed to on their way over. Cosmic rays would constantly bombard the spacecraft, and the effects may cause deadly cancers in the long run. The crew may be dead, or dying, by the time they got to Mars. And that’s just cancer. Solar storms also pose a huge risk to the human heart and central nervous system. Subatomic particles from solar radiation can kill a person in a matter of hours.

So how to avoid dying in the name of science and exploration? Appropriate shielding of the craft would be an idea, but again, currently available technology hampers the prospect. Traditional lead shielding actually creates secondary radiation when hit by cosmic rays. A better proposition is water, but a water shield would need to be several meters thick to be effective. Again, not currently workable.

And then there’s the issue of what to do, once the ship arrived in Mars?

Mars is a hostile environment to humans. The planet has a very thin atmosphere, about one percent of the thickness of Earth’s own atmosphere. It consists of about 96% carbon dioxide and less than 0.2% oxygen, ergo not breathable. If a manned mission did make it to Mars, they would need to somehow manufacture their own oxygen to sustain life in the long term. To remedy this, NASA will carry out the Mars Oxygen in Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE) in its planned 2020 mission.

Also, huge dust storms sweep across Mars’ surface regularly, and these can last for a month at a time.

A lot remains to be solved, no less in the fiend of the potentially devastating psychological effects of a Mars stay.  Space missions in the past have had to be terminated early due to crew squabbles and disagreements. And who knows what the human mind may experience when faced with the sheer distance and isolation from one’s home planet.

So the challenges are huge, and so are the costs associated with all this. For now, the Red Planet remains tantalizingly just out of mankind’s reach, but the next couple of decades might see a successful mission land on the Red Planet’s surface, thus marking a historic milestone on human evolution.