Blog Archives

Scientists Prove It’s Still Einstein’s Universe and We’re All Just Living In It

Ripples in space-time from merging black holes have been detected for the first time in history (LIGO/Caltech/NSF)

The ripples in space-time from two merging black holes have been detected for the first time in history (Illustration LIGO/Caltech/NSF)

In what has truly turned out to be a momentous occasion in astrophysics, today scientists announced the first-ever direct observation of gravitational waves by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) experiment, which consists of two enormous detector facilities located in Louisiana and Washington state and an international consortium of thousands of researchers.

First predicted by Albert Einstein in 1915, gravitational waves are the “ripples” in the fabric of space-time created by exceptionally turbulent and powerful cosmic events. Physicists have accepted their existence for decades and in recent years have even observed their effects, but only with the incredible sensitivity of the NSF-funded advanced LIGO instrument has their direct detection been made possible.

“This was truly a scientific moon shot, and we did it. We landed on the moon.”
– David Reitze, Executive Director of LIGO

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Another Moonwalker Gone: Apollo 14 Astronaut Ed Mitchell Has Died at 85

Edgar Mitchell poses next to the U.S. flag on the Moon during Apollo 14, Feb. 1971 (NASA)

Edgar Mitchell poses next to the U.S. flag on the Moon during Apollo 14, Feb. 1971 (NASA)

The world has lost one of its special treasures: retired Navy captain and former NASA astronaut Edgar D. Mitchell, LM pilot for Apollo 14 and one of the 12 men who walked on the Moon, died on the evening of Thursday, Feb. 4, 2016 at the age of 85.

His passing brings the number of humans alive who have stood on the surface of another world down to 7 and, as of Feb. 4, none of them from Apollo 14.
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It’s Been 50 Years Since We First Got Pictures From the Moon

One of the first images from the surface of the Moon returned by Luna 9 on Feb. 4, 1966.

One of the first images from the surface of the Moon returned by Luna 9 on Feb. 4, 1966. Credit: Roscomos

What a difference half a century makes! This week marks 50 years since the Soviet Luna 9 spacecraft made humanity’s first-ever soft landing on the surface of the Moon. Launched from Baikonur on Jan. 31, 1966, the Luna 9 lander touched down within Oceanus Procellarum at 18:44:52 UTC on Feb. 3. Over the following three days Luna 9 sent us our first views of the Moon’s surface from the surface and, perhaps even more importantly, confirmed to scientists that a landing by spacecraft was indeed possible (which, by the way, was achieved on this day in 1971 by Al Shepard and Ed Mitchell with Apollo 14.)

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There’s More Water Ice on Pluto Than First Thought

Initial scans of Pluto's water ice (left) and new interpretations taking into account other elements and compounds (right). Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Initial scans of Pluto’s pure water ice (color data, left) and new interpretations taking into account other elements and compounds (right). Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

When New Horizons made its close pass pf Pluto on July 14, 2015, it did much more than just take pretty pictures; it was also scanning the planet with a suite of science instruments designed to determine the nature of its surface, atmosphere, composition, and other key characteristics. One of these instruments was the Linear Etalon Imaging Spectral Array (LEISA), an infrared scanner that can detect the unique molecular “fingerprints” of particular elements and compounds like methane, nitrogen, carbon monoxide… and water (one of our favorites!)

At first the data returned from LEISA showed only a surprisingly small amount of water ice across Pluto’s surface. But that was water ice in its pure form; when researchers took into consideration ice containing a mixture of water and other materials they found a much more widespread distribution across the surface area visible to New Horizons.

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Planetkiller Presents New Evidence for “Planet X”

Is there a "dark Neptune" lurking at the extreme edge of the Solar System?

Is there a dark, massive “Planet Nine” lurking at the extreme edge of the Solar System?

A planet-killing astronomer is now attempting to introduce a new world into the Solar System.

Self-professed “Pluto killer” Mike Brown — the Caltech professor and astronomer whose discovery of Eris in 2005 prompted the reclassification of what constitutes a full-fledged planet, thus knocking Pluto from the list a year later — is now offering up evidence for the existence of a “real” ninth planet, far beyond the orbit of Pluto and possibly even traveling farther than the Kuiper Belt extends. This “Planet Nine,” say Brown and co-researcher Konstantin Batygin — also of Caltech — could be nearly the mass of Neptune, although it has not been directly observed by any Solar System surveys performed to date.

(And for those long-time Planet X fans who will assuredly cry “told you so,” this hypothesis is based on actual observations and not just wishful thinking or sci-fi dreams. There’s a difference.)

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Plutonium is Back on the Menu, Future NASA Missions!

Plutonium dioxide glows with the heat of its natural decay inside a protective cylindrical shell of graphite. (DOE/Idaho National Laboratory)

Plutonium dioxide glows with the heat of its natural decay inside a protective cylindrical shell of graphite. (DOE/Idaho National Laboratory)

While I highly advise against humans making a meal out of it (despite my headline) the radioactive element plutonium has long been a staple energy source for many of NASA’s space missions, from Apollo’s ALSEPs to the twin Voyagers to the Curiosity rover.* But the particular non-weapons-grade flavor that NASA needs — plutonium dioxide, aka Pu-238 — has not been in production in the U.S. since the late ’80s; all the Pu-238 since then has been produced by Russia.

That is, until now; researchers at the Department of Energy‘s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in Tennessee have successfully produced the first Pu-238 in the U.S. in 30 years. 50 grams (about one-tenth of a pound) of plutonium dioxide have been manufactured at ORNL, and once the sample has undergone testing to confirm its purity large scale production** will begin.

“This significant achievement by our teammates at DOE signals a new renaissance in the exploration of our solar system,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “Radioisotope power systems are a key tool to power the next generation of planetary orbiters, landers and rovers in our quest to unravel the mysteries of the universe.”

Watch a video below from the DOE celebrating this new milestone.

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