TIME astronomy

Astronomers Discover an Ancient Solar System That’s Very Similar to Our Own

Old Solar System
This artist's rendering made available by Tiago Campante and Peter Devine shows the Kepler-444 star system, surrounded by at least five earth-sized planets. Tiago Campante, Peter Devine—AP

Kepler-444 could help pinpoint when planets started to form

Astronomers have discovered an ancient solar system very similar to our own that dates back to the “dawn of the galaxy.”

Using NASA’s Kepler telescope, a team of international scientists found a star named Kepler-444 and five orbiting planets that are similar in size to Earth, the BBC reports.

Kepler-444 was formed 11.2 billion years ago, making it the oldest known system of its kind.

“By the time the Earth formed, the planets in this system were already older than our planet is today,” said Dr. Tiago Campate, the lead author of the study.

The discovery comes after four years’ of observations taken from NASA’s Kepler spacecraft.

Researchers say the discovery of older Earth-sized planets could provide scope for the existence of life on other ancient planets.

[BBC]

TIME space

Best-Ever Photo of Dwarf Planet Ceres

Ready for its close-up: Ceres as you never saw it
Ready for its close-up: Ceres as you never saw it JPL/NASA

An unusual spacecraft closes in on a mysterious world

NASA’s Dawn space probe, which dazzled scientists with its astonishing views of the asteroid Vesta back in 2012, is about to do it again. A little over five weeks from now, the 2.7 ton probe will go into orbit around Ceres—another asteroid-belt object that is so huge, at 590 miles (940 km) across, it was promoted from asteroid to “dwarf planet” at the same time Pluto was being demoted into the same category.

Ceres is also among the strangest objects in the Solar System: unlike most asteroids, which are largely made of rock, this one contains at least 20 percent water, and may even feature geysers, like Saturn’s moon Enceladus. It is, says, Michael Küppers, of the European Space Agency “a very peculiar beast of an asteroid.”

What that beast looks like in detail will have to wait, but with Dawn just 147,000 miles (274,000 km) away from its target—closer than the Moon is to the Earth—NASA has just released the best image of Ceres ever seen. It’s 30 percent sharper than what Hubble can do, even though the Dawn cameras aren’t designed to do their best imaging from this far away.

“We’re seeing things that look like they could be craters,” says Mark Sykes, a Dawn co-investigator from the nonprofit Planetary Science Institute, “We’re also seeing these extended, kind of ribbonlike structures, which could be evidence of the kinds of internal processes you see on larger planets.”

The new images also confirm the existence of a mysterious white spot in the north that was seen in earlier images. (It’s actually very dark—nearly as black as coal, says Sykes, although not as dark as the rest of Ceres; the images are deliberately optically stretched to enhance contrast so surface features will show up). It’s almost certainly not ice, Sykes says: even dirty ice would have vaporized over the ten years since the spot first showed up in Hubble images.

But it could in theory be mineral deposits from under the surface. “If water is gushing out at times, it should leave a signature behind,” Sykes says. Light-colored deposits would darken over time, though, so if that’s what it is, it has to be relatively recent. The answer to this and other questions about Ceres’ structure, surface features and composition won’t come until after Dawn goes into orbit to begin its mission in earnest on March 6.

Astute space cadets might wonder how it could possibly take Dawn five more weeks to travel less than 150,000 miles to its rendezvous with Ceres; after all, the Apollo astronauts rocketed all the way to the Moon, 239,000 miles (384,000 km) from Earth in just three days. The answer is that Dawn was designed from the start to be a super slow spacecraft. Rather than relying on traditional chemical rockets once in space, it uses ion propulsion. The technology is well known to sci-fi fans. In fact, says Marc Rayman, Dawn’s mission director and chief engineer, “I first heard of it on Star Trek, when Captain Kirk says ‘advanced ion propulsion is even beyond our capabilities.'”

Evidently not, though. The idea, first tested on the Deep Space 1 mission back in the 1990’s, is to use electromagnetic fields to shoot charged particles out the back of a spacecraft (in this case, ionized xenon atoms), thrusting the craft itself forward. The acceleration, is much more modest than with a rocket engine. “It’s very gentle,” says Rayman. “It pushes on the spacecraft as hard as a sheet of paper you’re holding pushes down on your hand.” But because ion engines are so efficient, it can maintain that acceleration for far longer.

Once Dawn arrives at Ceres, it will orbit the dwarf planet at an altitude of about 8,000 miles (12,900 km) to start with, then descend to under 3,000 (4,800 km). Ultimately, the probe will image Ceres from less than 250 miles (402 km) up, taking not only photos but also scientific measurements that should finally lay bare the secrets of this most un-asteroidlike body.

Unlike other orbiting probes, however, including Deep Impact, LCROSS and MESSENGER, which visited a comet, the Moon and Mercury, respectively, Dawn won’t be sent in for a crash landing when the mission is over in 2016. “We know Ceres has water,” says Christopher Russell of UCLA, Dawn’s chief scientist. “We don’t know if it has life, but if it does, and if we contaminate the surface, we might mess it up.”

Even as Dawn inches toward Ceres, meanwhile, NASA’s New Horizons probe is speeding at thousands of miles per hour toward its own close encounter with Pluto next July. By mid-May, New Horizons, too, will have taken images of its target that surpass the Hubble. And by early next summer, scientists will be happily drowning in images and data from not one but two dwarf planets—both of which will be revealing their secrets at last.

TIME Outer Space

Asteroid Flies By Earth With Its Own Moon in Tow

The asteroid and its companion were too far away to pose a threat

The asteroid that flew past Earth on Monday has its own moon.

The 230-foot wide moon trailed behind asteroid 2004 BL86, and NASA scientists captured images as it passed. The asteroid and its companion were too far away to pose a threat, flying about 745,000 miles (1.2 million kilometers) from Earth. But it will still be the largest asteroid known to pass this close to the earth until 2027, when an asteroid called 1999 AN10 is expected to arrive.

Asteroid 2004 BL86 will not return to pass by Earth for at least another 200 years, NASA scientists say.

“While it poses no threat to Earth for the foreseeable future, it’s a relatively close approach by a relatively large asteroid, so it provides us a unique opportunity to observe and learn more,” Don Yeomans said a statement.

TIME space

SpaceX, Boeing on Track to Get Astronauts into Space by 2017

SpaceX Falcon 9 Elon Musk
The unmanned Falcon 9 rocket launched by SpaceX on a cargo resupply service mission to the International Space Station lifts off from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Fla. on Jan. 10, 2015. Mike Brown—Reuters

Boeing's first unmanned test flight is scheduled for 2016

Boeing and SpaceX expect to be in a position to launch astronauts into space by 2017, NASA announced Monday.

At a press conference at Johnson Space Center in Houston, NASA said the two companies were on track to fly U.S. astronauts to the ISS within two years. Boeing and SpaceX have already completed some of the preliminary testing necessary to get vessels in orbit.

“It’s an incredible testament to American ingenuity and know-how, and an extraordinary validation of the vision we laid out just a few years ago as we prepared for the long-planned retirement of the space shuttle,” said Charlie Bolden, NASA administrator, according to a press release.

The two companies were selected to build vessels under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, which will help the U.S. launch astronauts into low-earth orbit and get them to the International Space Station.

NASA retired its space shuttle program in 2011 and has been relying on Roscosmos, Russia’s space agency, to get astronauts into space ever since—at a cost of $71 million per seat.

“I don’t ever want to write another check to Roscosmos after 2017,” Bolden said Monday, according to NBC News. “If we can make that date, I’ll be a happy camper.”

Boeing expects to conduct a crewless test flight in April 2017 and one with a test pilot by that July. SpaceX said Monday they will conduct a crewless flight in late 2016, and get a pilot in the air by early 2017. Eventually, the program is also expected to open a pathway to getting private citizens into space.

TIME space

Rings Like Saturn’s, but Supersized

Living large: Artist's conception of the giant ring system
Living large: Artist's conception of the giant ring system Ron Miller

Think you've seen big rings in our own solar system? Not even close.

When the University of Rochester’s Eric Mamajek tells other astronomers about the object he and his colleagues discovered about 430 light-years from Earth, they tend to be skeptical—very skeptical. And no wonder: What he’s found is a giant ring system, sort of like Saturn’s, but some 200 times bigger, circling what may be an exoplanet between ten and 40 times the size of Jupiter. If you put these rings in our own Solar System, they’d stretch all the way from the Earth to the Sun, a distance of 93 million miles (150 km). And what’s more, there’s evidence that the rings are sculpted by at least one exomoon—something that also happens at Saturn, but not remotely on this scale.

MORE These ‘Vintage’ NASA Posters Imagine Travel Beyond the Stars

“It took us a year even to convince ourselves of what we were seeing,” says Mamajek, whose paper is based on a new analysis of observations taken back in 2007 by the SuperWASP planet search project. At the time, the observations seemed to make no sense: when a planet passes in front of a star, you usually see a dip in starlight that lasts for up to a few hours. In this case, the starlight dimmed for two months.

It wasn’t a steady dip, either. The star would fade, then brighten, then fade again, in a way that made no sense at all. When Mamajek and his group stumbled on the data in 2010, he says, “I took a printout of the light curve, put it on the wall, and stared at it for a week.” Crazy as it seemed, the most plausible explanation was a giant ring system with gaps like Saturn’s that let more or less light through at different times during the passage. “It’s the same indirect way the rings of Uranus were discovered in 1977,” he says.

The planet itself doesn’t show up in the observations, but that could be explained if the ring system is slightly off-center as it moves in front of the star. You can see how this works in an animation put together by Mamajek’s collaborator Matthew Kenworthy, of the University of Leiden, in the Netherlands.

The star which the new planet orbits is thought to be very young—about 16 million years, compared with our own Solar System’s 4.6 billion. If the scientists are right about what they’re seeing, the mammoth ring system will get smaller over time as the outer bands condense into moons. “That’s what you see in [our] Solar System,” says Kenworthy. “You have rings tucked in close to the planets and moons further out. So presumably we’re seeing the intermediate step.”

It all seems familiar, except for the ring system’s size, which is unprecedented—and which is the reason other astronomers are waiting to be convinced. “I agree with the authors that it’s appropriate to consider an interpretation based on rings,” says Eric Ford, an expert on exoplanets at Penn State. The idea that the outer parts would condense into moons relatively quickly, however, means that we’re seeing the rings at their full extent during a very narrow window of existence—the sort of coincidence that scientists don’t love to see. “Whenever your explanation involves catching something during a phase that won’t last very long,” Ford says, “it’s a little concerning.”

MORE Cousins of Earth Found Deep in Space

Much of the doubt could be erased if astronomers could see the rings pass by again on another orbit around the star. Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened: they’ve got only the single passage back in 2007, meaning the exoplanet is on a relatively long orbit. “We think it’s at least ten or 15 years,” says Kenworthy.

They don’t know for sure, though, and since it’s tough to keep big telescopes aimed at this one star hoping for another passage, the astronomers have recruited members of the high-end amateur group, the American Association of Variable Star Observers, to monitor the situation. They’re also going back through digitized versions of old images from observatories around the world, looking for evidence of other stars that faded mysteriously for a while without explanation. “Now that we know what we’re looking for,” Mamajek says, “we might find that there are lots of them out there.”

They might, that is, if they’re really seeing rings. “I keep telling people, ‘if you can think of a better explanation, please let me know,'” Mamajek says, and he means it. So far, he has no takers. “The signal is very strong,” says Harvard’s David Kipping, who is doing his own search for exomoons, “and its difficult to believe the instrument could misbehave on such a huge scale. I think many of us find the signal interesting,” he says. That, by itself, is enough to keep the astronomy community looking.

Read next: SpaceX, Boeing on Track to Get Astronauts into Space by 2017

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME weather

10 Questions About the Blizzard

Jack Nicholson In 'The Shining'
Don't go there; it will all be over soon Warner Brothers/Getty Images

Jeffrey Kluger is Editor at Large for TIME.

Hint: All of them can be answered 'No'

1. Does this storm prove global warming is really just a hoax cooked up by degenerate scientists like my Twitter feed keeps saying? No. Again: no. Absolutely, positively no. This is weather, not climate. Just like a collie isn’t a species, a crouton isn’t a salad and the aglet on your shoelace ain’t the whole shoe, so too is a single meteorological event in your town (or state or region) not the same as climate. All the same, you’ll hear a lot of self-satisfied huffing from climate change deniers this week. Please feel free to laugh at them.

2. Then is the blizzard a result of climate change—the much discussed “global weirding”? If we’re going to smack down the anti-science kooks on question one, let’s resist the urge for a touchdown dance on question two. It’s true that climate change means a growing number of extreme weather events, and the spike in storms like 2012’s Sandy that do a billion dollars of damage or more do fit with climate change models. But again, any one storm is proof only of that storm. And hey, when you’re getting three feet of snow, that should be trouble enough.

3. Speaking of Sandy, do I have to call the blizzard Juno? No. Indeed, please don’t. Unlike hurricanes, which are named by the World Meteorological Organization as part of a longstanding global tradition, Juno was named by the Weather Channel, as part of a somewhat newer tradition of thinking up scary names that sound good on TV. You are free to give this blizzard any name you want. I’m calling it Larry.

4. What about “nor’easter?” Can I call the blizzard that? Are you a lobster fisherman? From Maine? If not, no.

5. Is “blizzard” just a synonym, for “lots o’ snow”? Nope, there’s actually a technical definition: There must be falling snow (or blowing snow already on the ground), with winds of at least 35 mph (56 k/h) reducing visibility to no more than 0.25 mile (0.4 km) for at least three hours.

6. Do I really need 12 tins of powdered milk, a case of canned tuna and five dozen double-A batteries to get through this? Yes, if it’s 1952 and you’re packing a fallout shelter. Otherwise, we’re talking a couple of snow days at the most—followed by the risk of way too many tuna casseroles for the rest of the year if you don’t get ahold of yourself.

7. Does it have to be so flipping cold for a blizzard to happen? This may not be much comfort to you, Concord, NH, where it’s 14°F (-10°C) in the run-up to the big blast, but no, as long as the atmospheric temperature is 32°F (0°C) or below, snow can form. It can even be a few degrees warmer on the ground, but the snow that falls will quickly become slush or, as it’s known on the sidewalks of New York City, goo.

8. I’ve heard this storm is a result of meteorological “bombogenesis.” Surely the people at weather service are smoking something? Alas no. Bombogenesis is a real word and it occurs when the barometric pressure in the most intense part of a storm drops more than 24 millibars in 24 hours. Lower pressure then causes cold air to rush toward the ground and warmer air to rise. This isn’t to say the weather service doesn’t have fun saying “bombogenesis” over and over and over again. They’re meteorologists, but hey, they’re people too.

9. Once the blizzard’s over, we’re cool, right? Nope. Arctic air is going to continue to barrel through the northeast into February, keeping temperatures well below normal. As for the upper Midwest, where it’s usually only slightly more comfortable than the planet Neptune (-378°F, with a likelihood of graphite hailstones) around this time of year: Nice and mild.

10. If I have kids, is there any chance at all that I won’t hear them singing the score from Frozen while we’re all trapped in the house together for the next 48 hours? No. None at all. Deal with it—and don’t watch The Shining. It will only give you ideas.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME animals

Millions of Genetically Modified Mosquitoes Could Be Released in Florida

Jason Garcia
Jason Garcia, a field inspector with the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District, tests a sprayer that could be used in the future to spray pesticides to control mosquitos in Key West, Fla., on Oct. 4, 2012 Wilfredo Lee—AP

"This is essentially using a mosquito as a drug to cure disease"

Scientists could release millions of genetically modified mosquitoes in the Florida Keys in an attempt to kill off insects that spread the diseases dengue and chikungunya — if their proposal wins regulatory approval.

The male mosquitoes, created by British biotech firm Oxitec, are engineered to keep their partners from producing offspring when they mate in the wild, the Sun Sentinel reports. The number of mosquitoes capable of spreading the diseases would be reduced if enough wild mosquitoes mate with the genetically modified population.

“This is essentially using a mosquito as a drug to cure disease,” Michael Doyle, executive director of the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District, told the Sun Sentinel.

Despite the benefits of reducing incidences of dengue and chikungunya, two viral diseases that cause a number of uncomfortable conditions, many are wary about releasing genetically modified organisms into the wild. More than 130,000 people have signed a Change.org petition opposing the release of the mosquitoes in the Florida Keys.

[Sun Sentinel]

TIME White House

Obama Moves to Protect 12 Million Acres of Alaskan Wildlife

183745239
Polar bears in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. Getty Images

It would be the largest such designation in more than 50 years

The Obama Administration will ask Congress to protect millions of acres of land in Alaska from a range of human activity including drilling and road construction, officials said Sunday.

If approved by Congress, the move would designate more than 12 million acres as wilderness, the highest level of federal protection, and protect native wildlife including caribou, polar bears and wolves. It would be the largest such designation in more than 50 years.

“Designating vast areas in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as Wilderness reflects the significance this landscape holds for America and its wildlife,” Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell said in a statement. “Just like Yosemite or the Grand Canyon, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is one of our nation’s crown jewels and we have an obligation to preserve this spectacular place for generations to come.”

The proposal will undoubtedly meet opposition in Congress. Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski condemned the move immediately as an act of federal overreach.

“It’s clear this administration does not care about us, and sees us as nothing but a territory,” she said in a statement. “The promises made to us at statehood, and since then, mean absolutely nothing to them.”

TIME NFL

Watch Bill Nye the Science Guy Debunk Belichick’s ‘Deflategate’ Theory

"What he said didn't make any sense"

 

Wondering who would be the first prominent scientist to come out against New England Patriots Coach Bill Belichick’s explanation for the under-inflated balls his team was accused using during the NFL playoffs last Sunday?

No? Well, we were. And since Neil deGrasse Tyson didn’t step up to the plate, it had to be Bill Nye.

Belichick’s “internal review” offered a variety of reasons why the team’s footballs wound up under-inflated – everything from “atmospheric conditions” to “air pressure.” He added that the team’s process of breaking in footballs by rubbing them altered the pressure in the ball.

Nye was not impressed. “What he said didn’t make any sense,” Nye told ABC News on Sunday. “Rubbing the football – I don’t think you can change the pressure [that way].”

Nye does close his segment by saying, “Go Seahawks,” so he’s an admittedly impartial judge.

Tyson, do you want to weigh in?

This article originally appeared on People.com.

Read next: How to Get to the Bottom of ‘Deflategate’

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME discoveries

Bizarre Creatures Found Living Under Half a Mile of Ice

85401982
The Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica Getty Images

A National Science Foundation-funded expedition to the Antarctic has unearthed a surprising result: There are fish who live without sunlight under almost half a mile of ice in 28-degree water.

Scientists had never before sampled the Whillans Ice Stream, a river of ice between the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and the Ross Ice Shelf. The drilling mission, which began on Jan. 8, aimed to better understand climate change by recovering sediment and seawater samples for examination. A small, remotely operated vehicle would peruse the ocean floor and photograph rocks and whatever microbial life might be there. They expected little, because of the water’s extreme distance from sunlight (a major nutrient for underwater environments) and its clarity, which suggests an absence of food sources.

But the vehicle wound up attracting 20 to 30 fish, with other crustaceans as well. Researchers don’t yet know how the ecosystem functions, but they’re hopeful that the fish’s survival under such harsh conditions holds broader clues.

[Scientific American]

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