TIME space

Watch Highlights From This Week’s Solar Eclipse

Watch highlights from the solar eclipse over North America

Much of North America saw a partial solar eclipse Thursday afternoon, barring obstructive rainclouds.

If you weren’t outside, watch the moon cover part of the sun here at TIME.com.

The sun’s dance with the moon was live-streamed from the Slooh Community Observatory beginning at 5 p.m. ET / 2 p.m. PT, hosted by meteorologist Geoff Fox with expert astronomer Bob Berman.

While the next partial solar eclipse is expected on Aug. 21, 2017, there won’t be another one visible across the entire country until 2023.

Read next: Watch the Blood Moon Lunar Eclipse in One GIF

TIME space

What’s Cooler Than One Comet? A Storm of Them

Nifty alright. Now imagine 500 of these babies.
Nifty alright. Now imagine 500 of these babies. Art Montes De Oca; Getty Images

A stunning sighting around a nearby star offers a glimpse of our own solar system billions of years ago

With some 2,000 planets now known to orbit stars beyond the Sun and thousands more in the can waiting for confirmation, the once-exotic term “exoplanet” is so commonplace it requires no definition for many people. The term “exocomet,” by contrast, is a bit more obscure. Astronomers have known for years that comets orbit other stars—in particular, the relatively nearby star β Pictoris, which lies about 63 light-years from Earth, in the constellation Pictor.

But a new paper in Nature is more than a little mindblowing nevertheless. A team of astronomers is reporting the detection of nearly 500 individual comets that passed in front of β Pictoris between 2003 and 2011. And that’s not even remotely a complete sample. “We had only a couple of nights of observing time per year,” says lead author Flavien Kiefer, now at the University of Tel Aviv. “If we’d been looking constantly, we would have seen many thousands.”

There are a lot of reasons all of this seems slightly crazy. To start with, there’s the notion that you can see something as relatively tiny as a comet from nearly 300 trillion miles away. And in fact, you can’t. But when comets approach the heat of a star, some of their substance boils off to form an enormous cloud of gas and dust, and sometimes a tail as well. And when that cloud moves in front of the star, it distorts the starlight in ways you can see with sufficiently powerful instruments.

In this case, the scientists used the High-Accuracy Radial-Velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS), located at the European Southern Observatory, in Chile. As the name implies, it was designed to find planets—and it has. HARPS does so by looking for subtle changes in starlight created as the star wobbles in response to an orbiting planet’s gravitational tug. The distortions caused by an intervening comet are different, but HARPS can find those too.

The technique isn’t easy, says Aki Roberge, an astronomer with NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center, in Maryland who has studied β Pictoris as well, and who wrote a commentary in Nature on the new results, but it clearly works. “We always knew this would be a powerful technique,” she says, “They’ve done a really amazing job.”

The sheer number of comets also seems unlikely at first, until you realize that β Pictoris is extremely young—about 22 million years old compared with the Sun’s 4.6 billion. If we could see our own Solar System at that age, it wouldn’t look all that much different: a thick disk of gas and dust surrounding the central star, with planets just assembling themselves out of chunks of rock and ice. In fact, β Pictoris has at least one young planet already, but there’s still an awful lot of debris flying around.

And that’s what makes this discovery so important, not just as a technical tour de force, but also scientifically. “We can now begin to study a newly forming solar system in detail,” says Kiefer, “and perhaps get an understanding of how our own Solar System was born.”

It probably won’t be the last chance to do so, either. Roberge has her eye on a star called 49 Ceti, which she says is very similar to β Pic in many ways. Kiefer, meanwhile, is conducting preliminary surveys of no fewer than 30 promising stars. With powerful instruments like HARPS on the case, the word “exocomet” could become a lot more familiar before long.

TIME space

Missed Tuesday Night’s Orionid Meteor Shower? Watch Here

A shower of 20 meteors-per-hour began Tuesday at 8 p.m. ET

The Orionid Meteor Shower, a spectacle that occurs each year as the earth moves through debris left behind by a comet, gave skywatchers quite a show Tuesday night.

“Earth is passing through a stream of debris from Halley’s Comet, the source of the Orionids,” said Bill Cooke of NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office in a press release before the event. “Bits of comet dust hitting the atmosphere should give us a couple dozen of meteors per hour.”

While this shower may not be the strongest of the year, the position of nearby stars makes it one of the best to watch, Cooke added.

The show was livestreamed from the Slooh Community Observatory beginning at 8 p.m. ET / 5 p.m. PT, hosted by expert astronomer Bob Berman. Miss the event? Watch it here.

TIME astronomy

New Picture: The Universe as a Sulky Adolescent

Portrait of the universe as a young man
Portrait of the universe as a young man

An ingenious technique reveals data that's been lost for 11 billion years

Correction appended: Oct. 21, 2014.

Presidential tracking polls are famous for their speed—a gaffe at noon is reflected in the numbers by four. That’s because a poll is not a lengthy conversation with voters, but just a quick-hit piece of data-gathering repeated over and over. The same approach now appears able to give us answers about the universe, too.

Using just four hours of telescope observation time, astronomers have generated a new image of what part of the universe looked like in its adolescence, when it was less than a quarter of its current age. The three-dimensional map, published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters, measures millions of light years across and reveals regions of high-density matter representing galaxies as they were barely 3 billion years post-Big Bang.

“We’ve pulled this off a decade before anyone else thought it was possible,” said Max Planck postdoctoral researcher Khee-Gan Lee, the paper’s lead author.

Astronomers had previously believed they would need far more observation time and more-powerful telescopes than are currently available to collect sufficient starlight from distant galaxies with which to do a job like this. That’s partly because those light sources appear up to 15 million times dimmer than the very faintest stars that can be seen with the naked eye.

But four hours on the Keck I telescope at the Keck Observatory on Mauna Kea, Hawaii turned out to be enough. The scientists used a technique similar to a CT scan to create their map. But rather than taking cross-sectional x-rays through a body to generate a 3D image, they used light from background galaxies passing through hydrogen gas in the “cosmic web”—the tangle of macro-filaments in which the universe’s matter arranges itself—to do the same thing.

The reason they didn’t need the most sensitive equipment available to do this work was because they had a powerful algorithm instead, created by graduate student Casey Stark and physics and astronomy professor Martin White, both of the University of California, Berkeley. The data they gathered might have been noisy but the algorithm cleaned it right up. The resulting map, says Ohio State University professor of astronomy David Weinberg, is “fine enough that it’s revealing a lot of the interesting details.”

Adds Harvard astronomy professor Daniel Eisenstein, “For a lot of questions, this is a very useful scale of a map.”

The map’s elongated, plank-like shape reflects one admitted constraint of the study: because of bad weather and the short data collection time, the astronomers could map only a limited volume of space. The next order of business is for Keck I to cover a larger patch of sky, revealing huge swathes of the adolescent universe. From this map astronomers will not just be able to see the appearance of the cosmos a short while after the Big Bang, but also tease out a little bit of information about the clumping of matter that allowed galaxies to form in some regions while leaving others empty.

Next-generation super-telescopes will no doubt be useful for both these questions, able to quadruple the density of the data as well as help scientists figure out how the universe looked even closer to the Big Bang than 11 billion years ago. For now, though, telescopes like Keck I will tell us plenty. “Noisy data doesn’t scare me,” Lee said.

Correction: The original version of this story misstated the strength of light sources in the distant galaxies. They are 15 million times dimmer than the faintest stars that can be seen with the naked eye.

TIME space

Watch a Giant, 4.6 Billion-Year-Old Comet Fly By Mars

Watch highlights of Comet Siding Spring zoom past Mars and get roughly within 87,000 miles of the red planet — the closest any comet has gotten to it in a long, long time.

The livestream from the Slooh Community Observatory was hosted by expert astrobiologist David Grinspoon and featured special guests.

“We’re going to observe an event that happens maybe once every million years,” Jim Green, planetary science division director at NASA, said this month at a press conference. “This is an absolutely spectacular event.”

Siding Spring is estimated to be 4.6 billion years old with a core somewhere between half a mile and 5 miles wide. Looking the comet’s close brush with Mars could teach scientists a lot about the planet’s atmosphere, writes Mike Wall at Space.com. Studying the comet could also provide insight into how planets are formed: Siding Spring is believed to have been created in an area of our solar system between Jupiter and Neptune, but unlike most objects in that part of space at the time, it never was incorporated into a planet.

TIME space

Researchers Just Discovered The Brightest Dead Star Ever Found

A rare and mighty pulsar (pink) can be seen at the center of the galaxy Messier 82 in this new multi-wavelength portrait, released on Oct. 8, 2014.
A rare and mighty pulsar (pink) can be seen at the center of the galaxy Messier 82 in this new multi-wavelength portrait, released on Oct. 8, 2014. NASA/JPL-Caltech

Astronomers using NASA’s NuSTAR telescope array have found something beautiful about 12 million light-years from our planet Earth: The brightest dead star, or pulsar, ever found. It’s only called a dead star because it’s the leftovers from a supernova — this thing is still very much alive, pumping out around 10 million suns’ worth of energy, according to NASA. Scientists originally thought the pulsar, located in the Messier 82 galaxy, was a black hole, but it turns out that isn’t the case at all.

“You might think of this pulsar as the ‘Mighty Mouse’ of stellar remnants,” said Fiona Harrison, the NuSTAR principal investigator at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California, in a NASA release about the pulsar. “It has all the power of a black hole, but with much less mass.”

TIME space

Watch the Blood Moon Lunar Eclipse in One GIF

Blood moon lunar eclipse 2014
Ritchie B. Tongo—EPA (7); Gif by Mia Tramz for TIME

For those who were able to see it in person, Wednesday morning’s Blood Moon lunar eclipse didn’t disappoint as skywatchers spotted Earth’s always-orbiting pal turn a deep shade of red.

Why that color? During a Blood Moon lunar eclipse, Earth gets between the Sun and the moon, casting a shadow on the lunar surface. The red color comes as Earth’s atmosphere scatters the sunlight, stripping away blue light and leaving behind the red to reach the moon’s surface.

If you missed Wednesday’s Blood Moon — the second of the year and fourth lunar eclipse — check it out here in a single GIF. Then check out past Blood Moons, too.

TIME space

See the Best Photos of Wednesday Morning’s Blood Moon

The second blood moon - and fourth lunar eclipse - of 2014 did not disappoint

TIME space

See the Most Stunning Moments From ‘Blood Moon’ Lunar Eclipse

Stargazers gazed in awe at a “Blood Moon” total lunar eclipse early Wednesday morning, with viewing opportunities across the Americas.

But if you missed the celestial display, never fear — SLOOH Community Observatory livestreamed the whole thing for everyone’s enjoyment, and TIME has highlights from the 3.5-hour broadcast right here.

Want a primer on the “Blood Moon” before taking a look? Read TIME Science Editor Jeffrey Kluger’s explanation of the phenomenon here.

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