Our longest-standing and most deeply held myths have so often revolved around the sun in large part because we humans have revolved around the sun. That distant sphere of glowing gas has been, to us fragile creatures, warmth and light and life itself. It has, we now know, been the center of everything we’ve known. No wonder we’ve assumed it was divine.
Which makes news just coming out of the University of Texas at Austin—soon to be reported in The Astrophysical Journal—particularly monumental. Our familiar star, it turns out, is not unique. Our sun has a sibling—a sister-star that almost certainly originated from the same cloud of gas and dust as our own shining orb.
That sibling? A star with the deceptively dull name of HD 162826.
Read more. [Image: NASA]
It is, if you except the powers of human memory, the closest thing we have to a time machine.
Scientists have created the first realistic model of the universe, capable of recreating 13 billion years of cosmic evolution. The simulation is called “Illustris,” and it renders the universe as a cube (350 million light-years on each side) with, its creators say, unprecedented resolution: The virtual universe uses 12 billion 3-D “pixels,” or resolution elements, to create its rendering. And that rendering includes both normal matter and dark matter.
The rendering, importantly, also includes elliptical and spiral galaxies—bodies that, because of numerical inaccuracies and incomplete physical models, we’d been unable to see with such detail in previous simulations of the universe. It also does a better job than previous renderings of modeling the feedback from star formation, supernova explosions, and supermassive black holes.
Read more. [Image: Illustris Collaboration]
Scientists at MIT have developed a new simulation that traces 13 billion years of cosmic evolution. They start the simulation shortly after the big bang with a region of space much smaller than the universe (a mere 350 million light years across). Still, it’s big enough to follow the forces that helped create the galaxies we see today, and correctly predict the gas and metal content of those galaxies.
At first, we see dark matter clustering due to the force of gravity (first two GIFs). Then we see visible matter — blue for cool clouds of gas where galaxies form, red for more violent explosive galaxies (second two GIFs).
Super massive blackholes form, superheating the material around them, causing bright white explosions that enrich the space between galaxies with warm but sparse gas (fifth GIF).
Different elements (represented by different colors in the sixth GIF) are spread through the universe.
We arrive at a distribution of dark matter that looks similar to the one we see in our universe today (seventh GIF).
The simulation is so complex it would take two thousand years to render on a single desktop. And it’s kinda beautiful.
Image Credit: MIT and Nature Video
That level of caution may sound absurd today, but a new study shows trips to outer space can still mess with astronauts on a physiological level.
New research from Johns Hopkins finds that long-term deep space missions can alter brain proteins and cause cognitive deficits like lapses in attention and slower reaction times. Researchers came to this conclusion by exposing rats to high-energy particles that simulate the conditions that astronauts would experience in deep space, then running them through a series of test that mimic the fitness assessments that astronauts, pilots, and soldiers are required to take.
But the strange thing scientists found is that deep-space conditions don’t affect everyone the same way.
Read more. [Image: Reuters]
A majority of Americans don’t believe in even the most fundamental discovery of 20th century physics, which 99.9 percent of members of the National Academies of Sciences do: that our universe began with an enormous explosion, the Big Bang.
51 percent of people in a new AP/GFK poll said they were “not too confident” or “not at all confident” that the statement “the universe began 13.8 billion years ago with a big bang” was correct.
In fact, fewer Americans were confident in that statement that any other on the list, which covered topics like vaccines, evolution, and the Earth’s age.
Read more. [Image: NASA]
From here on Earth, the planet Kepler-186f is a faint spot in the chaotic and twinkling universe. Its star is dim and far, far away.
But Kepler-186f is making headlines on Earth because, despite its distance, it looks a lot like our own planet.
The Kepler-186 system is in the constellation Cygnus, which stargazers will know as the easy-to-spot swan in the northern hemisphere’s summertime sky.
From a human perspective, that makes it unusual. Kepler-186f is the first Earth-like planet in the habitable zone around its star that scientists have ever found. (!)
Right now, five human spacecrafts study Mars by hanging out near it. Two do it from the Martian surface—the Curiosity rover, which began its mission in 2012, and the more-than-a-decade-old Opportunity rover—and three do it while orbiting around the red planet.
Earlier this month, one of those kinds of spacecraft happened to see the other.
On April 11, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter passed near Aeolis Mons, a mountain near the equator in the planet’s eastern hemisphere. It photographed a hilly region nearby known as the Kimberley, and there it caught a robot that’s been hanging out among the hills for the past few months: the Mars Curiosity Rover.
Read more. [Image: NASA]
Right now, 500 light years away from Earth, there’s a planet that looks a lot like our own. It is bathed in dim orangeish light, which at high noon is only as bright as the golden hour before sunset back home.
NASA scientists are calling the planet Kepler-186f, and it’s unlike anything they’ve found. The big news: Kepler-186f is the closest relative to the Earth that researchers have discovered.
It’s the first Earth-sized planet in the habitable zone of another star—the sweet spot between too-hot Mercury-like planets and too-cold Neptunes— and it is likely to give scientists their first real opportunity to seek life elsewhere in the universe. “It’s no longer in the realm of science fiction,” said Elisa Quintana, a researcher at the SETI Institute.
But if there is indeed life on Kepler-186f, it may not look like what we have here. Given the redder wavelengths of light on the planet, vegetation there would sprout in hues of yellow and orange instead of green.
Read more. [Image: NASA Ames/SETI Institute/JPL-Caltech]
Researchers on April 7 said that they have produced the most accurate measurement to date of how fast the universe was flying apart when it was 3 billion years old. At the rate of 68 km/s, the universe was growing at a rate of 1% every 44 million years at the time, which is actually slower than expected.
When human space travel made its transition from pipe dream to reality, one of the unknowns humans contended with concerned not just the physics of space, but the psychology of it. How would the human mind react to the final frontier? Would microgravity, combined with the isolation of a spaceship, cause a kind of claustrophobia? Would propulsion outside of Earth’s bounds, in the end, cause astronauts to experience a psychic break? Was there such thing, as science fiction writers had long feared, as “space madness”?
Space, fortunately, does not drive us crazy. But that doesn’t mean we’ve stopped caring about the effects its new environments will have on our psychology. The new version of the old “space madness” question is how time away from our home planet will affect us—in the long term. What could life on Mars do to that that other cosmic mystery: the human emotional state?
NASA is hoping to find out. This week, in partnership with the University of Hawaii at Manoa, the agency launched the latest version of its Mars simulation experiment, the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation mission. On Hawaii’s Big Island, 8,200 feet above sea level, conditions are as Martian as they can be on Earth: Mauna Loa’s volcanic soil is quite similar to the volcanic regolith that can be found on Mars. HI-SEAS in general aims to replicate, as closely as is possible on Earth, what life would be like on Mars—and its latest iteration will put human emotions to the test.
Read more. [Image: NASA/HI-SEAS]