TIME space

See the Supermoon from the International Space Station

The Supermoon captured from the International Space Station.
The Supermoon captured from the International Space Station. Alexander Gerst—NASA

Astronaut Alexander Gerst tweeted this amazing picture of the above-earth view of a supermoon early Monday, when the moon was still behind the horizon.

Gerst is a German astronaut aboard the International Space Station and among many astronauts using the social media site to share incredible pictures of the view from space. Gerst often uses the hashtag #bluedot, a nod to the iconic image of Earth taken from Saturn. And earlier in July, NASA astronaut Reid Wiseman tweeted above-earth images of Super Typhoon Neoguri. Three astronauts recently spoke to TIME about life above the earth, read their comments in this week’s issue.

TIME space travel

Photos: Life Aboard the International Space Station

Ahead of TIME's July 9 talk with the astronauts on board the International Space Station, take a look back at ISS Expedition 41.

TIME Science

A Star With a Not-So-Nice Nickname for Putin Won’t Have to Change

Russian President Vladimir Putin Addresses To Ambassadors Of Russia
Russian President Vladimir Putin Sasha Mordovets—Getty Images

Ukrainian astronomers basically called it "Putin is a d—khead"

It’s one small step for man, one giant leap for galactic name-calling.

Earlier this month, it was reported that a band of Ukrainian astronomers gave star KIC 9696936 the name “Putin-Huilo!” — a phrase which reportedly roughly translates into “Putin is a d—khead” — through the star-adoption service the Pale Blue Dot project, which lets anyone name one of those giant glowing balls of space plasma for a minimum $10 donation toward space research and education.

In an interview with the Moscow Times, the project’s founder says the stellar name, which has become something of a popular saying in Ukraine after Russia annexed Crimea, is staying put.

“Free speech is now written in the stars,” said Travis Metcalfe, who notes that the astronomers adopted the star well before the meaning of the name came to light. “We have no plans to censor any of these star adoptions.”

Putin himself hasn’t commented, but if he did, his response would probably go something like this.

[Moscow Times]

TIME astronomy

Millions of Stars May Be Made of Nothing But Metal

Handout of the evolving universe is shown in this composite of separate exposures taken in 2003 to 2012 with Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys and Wide Field Camera 3
A composite of separate exposures taken in 2003 to 2012 with Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys and Wide Field Camera 3 of the evolving universe is shown in this handout photo provided by NASA, June 3, 2014. NASA—Reuters

Astronomers have yet to find one, but until now they haven't been looking

An astronomer at the California Institute of Technology has discovered that some stars — maybe as many as 1 in 10,000 — are made entirely of metal.

It’s the latest finding in a series of eureka moments fueled by recent studies of turbulence, a term that scientifically refers to “certain complex and unpredictable motions.” To keep an immensely complicated subtopic of fluid mechanics simple: in turbulent environments, we can witness something called “preferential concentration,” or the tendency of denser particles to gather together in concentrated regions.

Scientists recently discovered that preferential concentration can explain how raindrops are formed — by denser water vapor particles coalescing. It’s similar with stars, except in their case it’s elements coalescing in turbulent gas clouds rather than water.

If the densest particles in gas clouds are metallic elements, and preferential concentration impels dense particles to gather together, then it logically follows, researchers say, that some stars — which, at the end of the day, are nothing more than matter held together by their own gravity — must be made entirely of metal.

Of course, astronomers have yet to find one of these stars, but before the Caltech team released its research late last month, they presumably didn’t have much of a reason to look for one.

TIME astronomy

Photos: It’s Always the Fourth of July in Space

Some of the universe's most stunning galaxies, nebulas and stars are colored like the American flag—and have been for billions of years

See the best red, white and blue photos from space to celebrate the Fourth of July.

TIME astronomy

The Ocean on Saturn’s Moon Is as Salty as the Dead Sea

Titan's ice shell is believed to cover a very salty ocean. NASA/JPL/SSI/Univ. of Arizona/G. Mitri/University of Nantes

The level of salt in Titan's ocean may mean we have to rethink the chance of present-day life on Saturn's largest moon.

Scientists say the ocean within Saturn’s largest moon may be as salty as the Dead Sea.

A new analysis of data from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, which has been studying Saturn’s moon Titan for the last ten years, allowed researchers to create a model structure for Titan, including its icy shell and the ocean of water and other minerals that lies beneath.

Based on Titan’s gravity, they determined that the moon’s ocean must be relatively dense. That suggests it contains a large a portion of salts–likely composed of sulfur, sodium and potassium–on par with Earth’s saltiest bodies of waters. Sadly, no taste test was involved. The latest findings about Titan were published in this week’s edition of the journal Icarus.

“This is an extremely salty ocean by Earth standards,” the paper’s lead author, Giuseppe Mitri of the University of Nantes in France, said in a statement. “Knowing this may change the way we view this ocean as a possible abode for present-day life, but conditions might have been very different there in the past.”


TIME astronomy

Astronomers Are Closer to Understanding Dark Matter

In the Perseus spiral arm of the Milky Way galaxy, opposite the galactic center, lies the nebula SH 2-235, a huge star formation complex. WISE.
In the Perseus spiral arm of the Milky Way galaxy, opposite the galactic center, lies the nebula SH 2-235, a huge star formation complex. Universal History Archive/ Getty Images

Observations of galaxy clusters are providing clues about the most elusive substance in the universe

Astronomers have come closer to understanding dark matter — one of the most elusive substances in the universe — by using high-energy telescopes to study the gravitational force of vast groups of galaxies that are bound together by gravity, known as galaxy clusters.

Dark matter — which astronomers also believe is the most prevalent type of matter in the universe — is invisible and doesn’t give off light, yet it’s existence is evident in the gravitational influence it exerts on stars and galaxies.

Astronomers used NASA and European Space Agency (ESA) space-borne telescopes to determine that only 20% of galaxy clusters are composed of galaxies and the hot gas that occupies the spaces between them, while dark matter fills the rest.

The hot gas is mostly hydrogen, which creates x-rays that are visible through telescopes. Other substances floating in the galaxy cluster can create additional x-rays that have distinct wavelengths. While looking through multiple observations of the clusters, the team of astronomers noticed an x-ray with a unique wavelength that had not been spotted before. “So we had to look for an explanation beyond the realm of known, ordinary matter,” the lead author, Dr Esra Bulbul from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, told ESA.

Bulbul and her team believe that the x-ray was created by the deterioration of a unique subatomic particle called a sterile neutrino. This is a particle that (like dark matter) has not yet been detected by astronomers, but is believed to interact with matter through gravity. Although the astronomers admit that more observations are needed before a connection can be made, the characteristics of the sterile neutrinos make them a likely candidate as the creator of the abnormal x-rays. “If the interpretation of our new observations is correct, at least part of the dark matter in galaxy clusters could consist of sterile neutrinos,” Bulbul told ESA.

Bulbul and her team hope that the discovery can serve as an important puzzle piece to decode the complexities of the Universe.

TIME astronomy

Workers Blow Up a Mountain to Make Room for a Huge Telescope

Artist's impression of the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) in its enclosure on Cerro Armazones, a 3060-metre mountaintop in Chile's Atacama Desert. The 39-metre E-ELT will be the largest optical/infrared telescope in the world — the world's biggest eye on the sky. Operations are planned to start early in the next decade, and the E-ELT will tackle some of the biggest scientific challenges of our time. The design for the E-ELT shown here is preliminary.
Artist's impression of the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) in its enclosure on Cerro Armazones, a 3060-metre mountaintop in Chile's Atacama Desert. L. Calçada—ESO

Move over, Chilean mountaintop

Half-a-ton of stone was blasted off the Cerro Armazones Mountain in Chile on Thursday to make room for what will be the world’s largest telescope: the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT).

Shortening the 9,800-ft. mountain is only the latest step in the process of building the 42 m., 5500-ton giant. The E-ELT had been conceived in 2005 at the European Southern Observatory (ESO) to be “the world’s biggest eye on the sky,” with the goal of identifying more Earth-like planets and advancing cosmological research. The telescope will operate by 2018, according to the ESO, which is based in Chile.

The name, oddly ordinary for a groundbreaking technology, follows a trend of astronomers’ obsession with telescope diameter: the larger, the higher quality imaging and detection. The ESO’s four Very Large Telescopes are only 8.2 m. in diameter, and the Hubble Space Telescope is only 4.2 m. The E-ELT’s whopping 42 m. will allow it to gather 15 times more light than any other telescope operating today.

The E-ELT became the ESO’s primary focus after the organization decided its plan for a 100 m. Overwhelmingly Large Telescope was unfeasible.

TIME space

Watch the Friday the 13th ‘Honey Moon’ Rise on This Live Stream

The moon rises near an apartment block in Bucharest on May 5, 2012.
The moon rises near an apartment block in Bucharest on May 5, 2012. Radu Sigheti—Reuters

The celestial phenomenon hasn't appeared in over a century

This Friday the 13th, a champagne-colored full moon will appear in the sky, a celestial event that has not occurred in almost a century.

The “Honey Moon,” as the June full moon is known, fell on the unlucky day for the last time in 1919. You’ll be able to watch its newest appearance on this live stream provided by Slooh, starting Thursday at 9:00 pm EDT. The live stream, which is streamed from the Institute of Astrophysics of the Canary Islands and the Pontificia Universidad Católica De Chile, will be accompanied by comments from astronomer Bob Berman. It will be two hours long.

Viewers are encouraged to photograph the phenomenon and share their impressions on Twitter with the hashtag #Sloohhoneymoon.







TIME astronomy

Meet the Cosmic Tootsie Pop

There's a prize hidden inside this red giant
There's a prize hidden inside this red giant Getty Images

The cosmos never stop serving up surprises. The latest is a red giant star with a chewy chocolate center — well, sort of

Astronomers have found some pretty strange objects lurking deep in the universe — voracious black holes more massive than a billion suns, lonely planets wandering among the stars, galaxies made almost entirely of dark matter, and more.

But what Emily Levesque found just beyond the edge of the Milky Way is arguably the strangest thing yet. “It’s bizarre,” says the University of Colorado, Boulder scientist. “It’s completely nuts.”

The nutty thing Levesque and three colleagues discovered looks like an ordinary red giant star, similar in appearance to Betelgeuse, which marks one of Orion’s shoulders. But nestled deep inside, like the yolk of an egg or the chocolate center of a hard-candy Tootsie Pop, is a neutron star — the super-dense remnant left behind when a star explodes. It is, she says, “unlike any star that we’ve ever seen.”

Perhaps the craziest part of all is that theorists have been thinking about these weird objects for decades. It’s not all that unusual for two giant stars to be locked in a relatively tight orbit around each other. If one of the stars explodes as a supernova — also not that unusual — you can end up with an ordinary star paired with a neutron star.

And if the orbit is tight enough, the neutron star can spiral in and be swallowed, intact, by the giant star, sinking to the core and setting up residence. The resulting chimera would look like an ordinary giant star with no obvious sign of its hybrid nature. So back in the ’70s, Anna Żytkow, now at the University of Cambridge, working with Caltech astrophysicist Kip Thorne, began to think about how you’d identify these things, which have been known ever since as Thorne-Żytkow objects, or TŻOs.

They realized that the neutron star’s surface, which would ordinarily be exposed to empty space, would now be in constant contact with the dense, gaseous substance of the enclosing star. “There would be an intensely hot thermonuclear burning region,” says Żytkow, who co-authored a paper being submitted to Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society announcing the new discovery.

Under those extreme conditions, the hybrid star would forge excess amounts of the elements rubidium, lithium and molybdenum. And if you studied the star with a sufficiently sensitive telescope, you could detect that excess. “Observers have looked in the past, but they were perhaps not looking at the best candidates,” says Żytkow. “The stars must be very red and very cool but very luminous.”

That’s just the sort of stars Levesque had been studying and writing about, though without the equipment to look for the signatures of the telltale elements — and Żytkow had been following her work. “We got an email one day from Anna saying, ‘I think some of the stars you’re finding might be TZOs,’” Levesque says. “I’d heard them mentioned in passing once or twice, but knew very little about them. We all read up on them a lot more.”

They then began training the powerful Magellan Clay telescope, in Chile, on the candidate stars, looking for the right chemical spectra. When they focused specifically on one called HV2112, located in the Small Magellanic Cloud, which orbits the Milky Way, they hit paydirt. “You can tell at a glance that it’s unusual,” says Levesque. When team member Nidia Morell, of the Carnegie Observatories, saw the star’s spectrum, Levesque recalls, “she said, ‘I don’t know what this is, but I know I like it!’”

As for what lies in HV2112′s future, nobody can really say at this point. The neutron star’s surface gravity is enormous, and while energy from the thermonuclear reactions keep the surrounding star from collapsing, some of its gas must be falling in. At some point, says Żytkow, the neutron star itself will swell to a critical mass, and then…well, that’s uncertain. “The whole thing could explode,” she says. “Or the neutron star could collapse to form a black hole. At this point, it’s difficult to say.”

Either way, the bizarre life story of this weird celestial object is far from over — and the ending is likely to be violent. Maybe a Tootsie Pop isn’t the best analogy for this new kind of star after all. It’s really more like the malevolent creature that bursts out of an astronaut’s body in what was easily the grossest scene from the original Alien movie — though not, mercifully, with quite so much gore.

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