Turns out there is something new under the Sun, at least to us; on Tuesday, April 26 scientists announced the discovery of a new moon in the Solar System—but it’s not around Earth, or Jupiter, or Saturn, or any of the planets that you’ve long been familiar with. This new moon is orbiting a distant world even farther away and smaller than Pluto: the dwarf planet Makemake (pronounced mah-kay mah-kay), located deep in the Kuiper Belt and currently over 52 times farther away from the Sun than we are.
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
At the beginning of September the world was treated to a fantastic view of the night side of Pluto, captured by the New Horizons spacecraft as it departed the distant icy world on July 14, 2015. Backlit by the sun, Pluto’s surprisingly complex atmospheric haze created a ghostly glow above its crescent-lit limb while frozen mountains cast reflected light upon neighboring Plutonian peaks.
On Thursday, NASA released an update to that image showing a more complete view of Pluto in its backlit glory, created from more high-resolution images that continue to stream in from the Kuiper Belt-bound spacecraft, over three billion miles away.
We all know that Saturn is encircled by a system of rings, and perhaps you also know about the fainter rings around Uranus, Jupiter, and Neptune. But today, ESO astronomers have revealed a surprising discovery: there are also rings surrounding the asteroid 10199 Chariklo, a small, distant world orbiting the Sun far beyond Saturn.
This makes 250-km-wide Chariklo the fifth world ever found to have rings, after the four planets mentioned previously, and, based on the observations, it could also even have its own moon.
“As well as the rings, it’s likely that Chariklo has at least one small moon still waiting to be discovered,” said Felipe Braga-Ribas of the Observatório Nacional/MCTI in Rio de Janeiro who planned the observation campaign and is lead author on the new paper.
It’s a journey spanning 85 years and billions of miles: humanity’s first-ever encounter with the dwarf planet system of Pluto and Charon, located in the frozen far reaches of our Solar System where our entire planet is a barely-visible pale blue dot — just a “mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.” Launched in 2006, the New Horizons spacecraft will pass by Pluto in July 2015 and send back images and data in unprecedented detail, 85 years after its discovery. With the flyby just about a year and a half away, the excitement in the space community is rapidly building even now.
The video above is a “teaser” for the event from the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University — check it out. (Warning: may contain scenes of intense scientific discovery!) Also, watch a longer documentary below on the history of Pluto and the New Horizons mission:
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Kidding aside, the internet science world is abuzz with the anticipation of some big news from the Mars Science Laboratory team, spurring many on Twitter to make up their own amusing suggestions. (Martian Twinkies??) What that news could be — organic compounds? water ice? methane outgassings? — is still anyone’s guess. But since this IS Mars we’re talking about, any “big news” is of course awaited with bated breath.
Stay tuned for more!
(And if you don’t know the story that inspired the picture above, click here.)
UPDATE: Apparently the NPR article that spurred rumors of big discoveries from Curiosity was a misunderstanding… while data from the rover is “one for the history books,” that pertains to the mission as a whole — not any individual discovery. It was not made entirely clear, but the internet ran with the more exciting option. Another example of why you can’t always believe what you hear. Still, news from the MSL mission will be delivered very soon.
“Rumors and speculation that there are major new findings from the mission at this early stage are incorrect… at this point in the mission, the instruments on the rover have not detected any definitive evidence of Martian organics.” – JPL news release, 29 Nov. 2012
Read more here.