TIME astronomy

An Asteroid Will Fly Close to Earth on Monday

This graphic depicts the passage of asteroid 2004 BL86, which will come no closer than about three times the distance from Earth to the moon on Jan. 26, 2015. Due to its orbit around the sun, the asteroid is currently only visible by astronomers with large telescopes who are located in the southern hemisphere. But by Jan. 26, the space rock's changing position will make it visible to those in the northern hemisphere.
This graphic depicts the passage of asteroid 2004 BL86, which will come no closer than about three times the distance from Earth to the moon on Jan. 26, 2015. Due to its orbit around the sun, the asteroid is currently only visible by astronomers with large telescopes who are located in the southern hemisphere. But by Jan. 26, the space rock's changing position will make it visible to those in the northern hemisphere. NASA/JPL-Caltech

The rock will hurtle through space at just three times the distance between the Earth and the moon.

It doesn’t sound like a close shave, but in astronomical terms, it is.

An asteroid will fly within 745,000 miles of Earth on Monday, NASA said, the closest a space rock will fly to Earth until 2027. It won’t be a danger to the planet, but it’s not every day that an asteroid passes by us at just three times the distance from the Earth to the moon.

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

The asteroid, labeled 2004 BL86, is about a third-of-a-mile in size, based on its brightness. Scientists will use microwaves to study the asteroid.

There’s a reason to be enthusiastic, said Yeomans, who is retiring from his position.

“Asteroids are something special,” Yeomans said. “Not only did asteroids provide Earth with the building blocks of life and much of its water, but in the future, they will become valuable resources for mineral ores and other vital natural resources. They will also become the fueling stops for humanity as we continue to explore our solar system. There is something about asteroids that makes me want to look up.”

TIME astronomy

The Microsoft HoloLens Is Going to Let Scientists Walk Around Mars

Joe Belfiore, Alex Kipman, Terry Myerson
Microsoft's Joe Belfiore, from left, Alex Kipman, and Terry Myerson playfully pose for a photo while wearing "Hololens" devices following an event demonstrating new features of Windows 10 at the company's headquarters on Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2015 Elaine Thompson—AP

Strap on your headset for a tour of the red planet

Microsoft and NASA have jointly developed software that will allow scientists to remotely walk around Mars using the wearable Microsoft HoloLens, a hologram tool designed to view and interact with 3D images.

Created in NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California, the technology, called OnSight, helps researchers prepare for future Mars-based operations by entering its richly-detailed environment, NASA announced in a news release.

Before this, scientists examined 2D digital representations of Mars, which geospatial depth.

“OnSight gives our rover scientists the ability to walk around and explore Mars right from their offices,” said Dave Lavery, program executive of of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory.

“Previously, our Mars explorers have been stuck on one side of a computer screen. This tool gives them the ability to explore the rover’s surroundings much as an Earth geologist would do field work here on our planet,” said Jeff Norris, the OnSight project manager.

NASA intends to use OnSight in future rover operations and on a Curiosity mission this year.


TIME astronomy

There May Be ‘Super Earths’ at the Edge of Our Solar System

This discovery, if accurate, could completely redraw the map of the Solar System

The reason Pluto was demoted from the ranks of the planets back in 2006 was that astronomers had lately discovered it wasn’t alone out there. A whole assortment of Pluto-like objects is circling out beyond Neptune—too many, said the International Astronomical Union, for schoolchildren to memorize. (Seriously.) So despite a general public outcry that continues today, Pluto was demoted to “dwarf planet,” and the Solar System was left with a tidy eight.

But scientists think planets much bigger than Pluto could be orbiting beyond the reach of our most powerful telescopes. They probably aren’t as big as Saturn and Jupiter—but the unusual orbit of a tiny world called 2012 VP113, discovered last spring, hinted at the presence of something bigger than Earth. And now a pair of papers published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society suggests the evidence is even stronger.

“We have unpublished calculations,” says lead author Carlos de la Fuente Marcos, of the Complutense University of Madrid, “that suggest that there could be two planets with between two and 15 times the mass of the Earth.”

As with last year’s discovery, the evidence for the two planets is indirect. “We would like to emphasize that we have not discovered any new objects,” de la Fuente Marcos says. What they’ve done instead is to look at the orbits of 13 small bodies, including 2012 VP113, that follow elongated orbits in the distant reaches of the solar system.

In particular, they’ve looked at an orbital parameter known, in a quaint throwback to the early days of astronomy, as the “argument of perihelion”—that is, the point at which their tilted orbits cross the plane in which the other planets circle the Sun. What de la Fuente Marcos and his team find is that these points are suspiciously similar for all 13, which implies that the gravity of some massive object or objects, still unseen, is herding them. (It involves the Kozai mechanism, since you’re undoubtedly wondering).

These Super Earths would be located about four times as far away as the outer limit of Pluto’s orbit—and that’s a bit of a problem, since current models of the Solar System’s formation have a tough time putting a big planet out at that distance, especially today. “They may have existed in the past, but at very low probability,” says Ramon Brasser, of the Cote d’Azur Observatory, in France. Brasser also argues that more than half of the objects de la Fuente Marcos and his co-authors cites as evidence come close to Neptune, whose own gravity skews the results.

De la Fuente Marcos disagrees on the second point. “In general,” he says, “these objects are weakly perturbed by Neptune if they are perturbed at all. He agrees on the former, but with a caveat. “If we assume that our models of Solar System formation are correct, the objection is valid. But what if our models are incorrect?”

Even if the models are correct, however and a super Earth can’t be orbiting where de la Fuente Marcos suggests, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing big out there. “It’s possible,” says Brasser, “but the planet would have to be much farther away and much more massive in order to have the same effect. This scenario,” he says, “is currently being investigated.”

But the investigations are still purely indirect. “If large planets do exist,” says de la Fuente Marcos, “these objects must be very dark … and they are very far away from the Sun.” There won’t be a prayer of spotting them until the James Webb Space Telescope, or one of the new giant ground-based telescopes now under construction, is up and running toward the end of this decade.

But for a discovery that could completely redraw the map of the solar system yet again, that’s not too awfully long to wait.



TIME space

See the Iconic ‘Pillars of Creation’ in a New Light

Using NASA's Hubble Space Telescope astronomers have assembled a bigger and sharper photograph of the iconic Eagle Nebula's "Pillars of Creation" Hubble Heritage Team/ESA/NASA

As NASA celebrates the Hubble's upcoming 25th anniversary

The Pillars of Creation quickly become one of the most iconic images of outer space after the photograph was taken in 1995. Now, to celebrate the upcoming 25th anniversary of the Hubble Space Telescope in April, Hubble is taking a trip down memory lane — and back into the far corners of the Eagle Nebula.

A new, high-definition photo recently unveiled at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Seattle provides an even sharper, wider and colorful view of three massive gas columns and their surrounding celestial neighbors in near-infrared light. NASA said the frame “hints that they are also pillars of destruction.”

“I’m impressed by how transitory these structures are,” Paul Scowen of Arizona State University, who worked on the initial Hubble observations of the Eagle Nebula, told NASA. “They are actively being ablated away before our very eyes. The ghostly bluish haze around the dense edges of the pillars is material getting heated up and evaporating away into space. We have caught these pillars at a very unique and short-lived moment in their evolution.”

The original image of the “Pillars of Creation” taken by the Hubble Telescope in 1995. Hubble Heritage Team/ESA/NASA
TIME astronomy

NASA’s Kepler Telescope Discovers Another Planet on Comeback

The discovery marks a remarkable turnaround for Kepler

NASA’s Kepler spacecraft has found another new planet.

Dubbed HIP 116454b, the new body is bigger than Earth, smaller than Neptune and probably too hot to sustain life as we know it.

“The Kepler mission showed us that planets larger in size than Earth and smaller than Neptune are common in the galaxy, yet they are absent in our solar system,” Steve Howell, a project scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California, said in statement.

The discovery marks a remarkable turnaround for Kepler. In May 2013, one of Kepler’s stabilizing reaction wheels failed and a team of engineers and scientists were forced to fashion an ingenious alternative for controlling the spacecraft, using pressure generated from sunlight.

During a subsequent test run in February, Kepler collected data on a previously undiscovered planet 180 light-years from Earth.

Follow-up observations confirmed the existence of the planet, which astronomers have called a watery “mini-Neptune,” with a tiny core and gaseous atmosphere, reports the New York Times.

TIME astronomy

Snapshots of the Heavens: Amazing Astronomy Photos

The Royal Observatory culled through over 800 entries from astronomers and astro-photographers around the world to release its compilation of the best astronomy photos of 2012. Astronomy Photographer of the Year is run by the Royal Observatory Greenwich and Sky at Night Magazine. The competition drew a wide array of subjects captured by amateur and professional photographers from around the globe.

The Royal Observatory has culled through over 800 entries from astronomers and astro-photographers around the world to release its compilation of the best astronomy photos of 2012. The contest is run by Royal Observatory Greenwich and Sky at Night Magazine.

Should you have plans to be in London, an exhibition featuring the work is on display at the Royal Observatory Greenwich Planetarium throughout October 2012 in “The Universe Exposed: photographing the cosmos.”

TIME Opinion

The Reason Every One of Us Should Be Thankful

Thanksgiving Preparations
Illustration of preparing the Thanksgiving meal circa 1882. Kean Collection / Getty Images

As Thanksgiving approaches, a little bit of historical context goes a long way

Astronomy is a historical science because the distance scales involved are so immense that to look out into space is to look back into time. Even at the almost unfathomable speed of light — 300,000 kilometers per second — the sun is eight light minutes away, the nearest star is 4.3 light years away, the nearest galaxy, Andromeda, is about 2.5 million light years away and the farthest object ever observed is about 13.8 billion light years away. Astronomers call this way of describing such distances “lookback time.”

The concept is not limited to astronomy: current events also have their own lookback times, accounting for what gave rise to them. Just as looking at a star now actually involves seeing light from the past, looking at the world today actually involves looking at the reverberations of history. We have to think about the past in order to put current events into proper context, because that’s only way to track human progress.

Consider the longing many people have for the peaceful past, filled with bucolic scenes of pastoral bliss, that existed before overpopulation and pollution, mass hunger and starvation, world wars and civil wars, riots and revolutions, genocides and ethnic cleansing, rape and murder, disease and plagues, and the existential angst that comes from mass consumerism and empty materialism. Given so much bad news, surely things were better then than they are now, yes?


Overall, there has never been a better time to be alive than today. As I document in my 2008 book The Mind of the Market and in my forthcoming book The Moral Arc, if you lived 10,000 years ago you would have been a hunter-gatherer who earned the equivalent of about $100 a year — extreme poverty is defined by the United Nations as less than $1.25 a day, or $456 a year — and the material belongings of your tiny band would have consisted of about 300 different items, such as stone tools, woven baskets and articles of clothing made from animal hides. Today, the average annual income in the Western world — the U.S. and Canada, the countries of the European Union, and other developed industrial nations — is about $40,000 per person per year, and the number of available products is over 10 billion, with the universal product code (barcode) system having surpassed that number in 2008.

Poverty itself may be going extinct, and not just in the West. According to UN data, in 1820 85-95% of the world’s people lived in poverty; by the 1980s that figure was below 50%, and today it is under 20%. Yes, 1 in 5 people living in poverty is too many, but if the trends continue by 2100, and possibly even by 2050, no one in the world will be poor, including in Africa.

Jesus said that one cannot live on bread alone, but our medieval ancestors did nearly that. Over 80% of their daily calories came from the nine loaves a typical family of five consumed each day. Also devoured was the 60 to 80% of a family’s income that went to food alone, leaving next to nothing for discretionary spending or retirement after housing and clothing expenses. Most prosperity has happened over the two centuries since the Industrial Revolution, and even more dramatic gains have been enjoyed over the last half-century. From 1950 to 2000, for example, the per capita real Gross Domestic Product of the United States went from $11,087 (adjusted for inflation and computed in 1996 dollars) to $34,365, a 300% increase in comparable dollars! This has allowed more people to own their own homes, and for those homes to double in size even as family size declined.

For centuries human life expectancy bounced around between 30 and 40 years, until the average went from 41 in 1900 to the high 70s and low 80s in the Western world in 2000. Today, no country has a lower life expectancy than the country with the highest life expectancy did 200 years ago. Looking back a little further, around the time of the Black Death in the 14th century, even if you escaped one of the countless diseases and plagues that were wont to strike people down, young men were 500 times more likely to die violently than they are today.

Despite the news stories about murder in cities like Ferguson and rape on college campuses, crime is down. Way down. After the crime wave of the 1970s and 1980s, homicides plummeted between 50 and 75% in such major cities as New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Baltimore and San Diego. Teen criminal acts fell by over 66%. Domestic violence against women dropped 21%. According to the U.S. Department of Justice the overall rate of rape has declined 58% between 1995 and 2010, from 5.0 per 1,000 women age 12 or older to 2.1. And on Nov. 10, 2014, the FBI reported that in 2013, across more than 18,400 city, county, state, and federal law enforcement agencies that report crime data to the FBI, every crime category saw declines.

What about the amount of work we have today compared with that of our ancestors? Didn’t they have more free and family time than we do? Don’t we spend endless hours commuting to work and toiling in the office until late into the neon-lit night? Actually, the total hours of life spent working has been steadily declining over the decades. In 1850, for example, the average person invested 50% of his or her waking hours in the year working, compared to only 20% today. Fewer working hours means more time for doing other things, including doing nothing. In 1880, the average American enjoyed just 11 hours per week in leisure time, compared to today’s 40 hours per week.

That leisure time can be spent in cleaner environments. In my own city of Los Angeles, for example, in the 1980s I had to put up with an average of 150 “health advisory” days per year and 50 “stage one” ozone alerts caused by all the fine particulate matter in the air—dirt, dust, pollens, molds, ashes, soot, aerosols, carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides—AKA smog. Today, thanks to the Clean Air Act and improved engine and fuel technologies, in 2013 there was only one health advisory day, and 0 stage-one ozone alerts. Across the country, even with the doubling of the number of automobiles and an increase of 150% in the number of vehicle-miles driven, smog has diminished by a third, acid rain by two-thirds, airborne lead by 97%, and CFCs are a thing of the past.

Today’s world has its problems — many of them serious ones — but, while we work to fix them, it’s important to see them with astronomers’ lookback-time eyes. With their historical context, even our worst problems show that we have made progress.

Rewind the tape to the Middle Ages, the Early Modern Period or the Industrial Revolution and play it back to see what life was really like in a world lit only by fire. Only the tiniest fraction of the population lived in comfort, while the vast majority toiled in squalor, lived in poverty and expected half their children would die before adulthood. Very few people ever traveled beyond the horizon of their landscape, and if they did it was either on horseback or, more likely, on foot. No Egyptian pharaoh, Greek king, Roman ruler, Chinese emperor or Ottoman sultan had anything like the most quotidian technologies and public-health benefits that ordinary people take for granted today. Advances in dentistry alone should encourage us all to stay away from time machines.

As it turns out, these are the good old days, and we should all be thankful for that.

Michael Shermer is the Publisher of Skeptic magazine, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, and a Presidential Fellow at Chapman University. He is the author of a dozen books, including Why People Believe Weird Things and The Believing Brain. His next book, to be published in January, is entitled The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity Toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom.

TIME space

All That Glitters: 15 Breathtaking Photos of Meteor Showers

Geminids and Leonids and Perseids, oh my!

Not all meteor showers are created equal. Some are cosmic nor’easters; some are mere drizzles. This year’s edition of the Leonid meteor shower, beginning Nov. 17, will, alas, be more of the latter—and there’s a simple cosmic explanation for that.

The annual sky show is the work of Comet Tempel-Tuttle, which makes a single loop through the solar system once every 33.5 years, leaving a trail of dust and other debris in its path. Once a year, Earth moves through that wake, and the cometary bits streaking through the atmosphere are what we see as a meteor shower. When the comet passed by recently, the debris trail is denser and the fireworks are greater.

That was the case in 1966, when tens of thousands of meteors rained down per hour. Things were a little spottier, but still still pretty exciting from 1999 to 2002, when there were thousands of flashes every hour. And now? Expect no more than 10 to 15, since Tempel-Tuttle is at its greatest distance from the sun—about 1.8 billion mi (2.9 billion km) away.

Still, if you’ll take whatever meteors you can get, peak viewing times in North America will be from midnight to dawn on the nights of Nov. 17 and Nov. 18. Look in the direction of the constellation Leo—which is how the shower got its name. A NASA livestream, beginning at 7:30 PM EST on the 17th will also be tracking things as they happen—or in this quiet year, kind of don’t happen.

TIME space

The Ten-Year Journey to Land on a Comet

The first spacecraft to attempt such a daring maneuver could reveal secrets of the solar system

Traveling in space takes a lot of patience—but the wait is often worth it. That’s a fact the European Space Agency (ESA) is about to learn in a very big way.

On November 12, the ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft will drop an oven-sized research vessel onto the surface of a comet where it will perform a variety of scientific experiments. The mission—the first of its kind—has been 10 years in the making. If successful, it could reveal secrets about the anatomy of comets, the formation of our solar system and perhaps even the origins of life. “What we believe is that we will study the most primitive material in the solar system,” says Dr. Gerhard Schwehm, who served as Rosetta’s mission manager at the ESA from 2011 until his retirement earlier this year.

Comets are considered the bones of the ancient solar system. Their long, elliptical orbits mean they spend most of their time in the deep freeze of space, far from the sun, which preserves their original composition. And their small mass means very weak gravity, which in turn means low gravitational pressure and heating—something else that messes with internal chemistry on larger bodies.

Rosetta’s target comet, Churyumov-Gerasimenko, known as 67P, resembles nothing so much as a 2.5-mile long (4 km) unshelled peanut, albeit one tearing through space at 11 miles per second (39,600 mph, or 63,730 k/h). It hails from a region called the Kuiper Belt, a band of icy bodies beyond Neptune’s orbit. Unlike asteroids, comets contain a great deal of ice. As they approach the sun, some of that ice vaporizes into a cloudy atmosphere called a coma. When charged particles called solar wind hit the comet, the gas streams away, forming a blue ion tail.

A photo illustration of the Rosetta probe and Philae lander above the 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko comet. ESA/Getty Images

In the past three months, Rosetta has has been flying along beside 67P, taking numerous measurements of its chemistry, including the composition of its singularly unpleasant gasses. Gorgeous from a distance, the comet emits copious amounts of both ammonia and hydrogen sulfide, which means that if you could smell it (and be thankful you can’t) you’d get a nose full of rotten eggs, horse stable and formaldehyde.

But the real fun and the real risk will start on when Rosetta releases its probe—dubbed Philae—to attempt its historic landing. The vehicles will separate at a distance of about 14 miles (22.5 km) above the comet. A 14-mi. plunge to the surface of the Earth would be over very quickly, but with 67P’s gentle gravity, Philae’s fall will take 7 hours. Once it makes contact with the comet’s surface, a thruster on its top will ignite for one minute to keep it from bouncing away, while two harpoons will anchor it to the ground.

Philae carries 10 scientific research tools to study the surface and interior of the comet, including a camera, a thermometer, and seismographs in its feet to listen to the cracks and pops within the core as the comet out-gasses. It also carries a drill to collect and analyze sub-surface samples. Even the harpoons have a research purpose, using sensors to detect the resistance of the ground they penetrate. All of this data may offer clues for the conditions—temperatures, pressures and other variables—in which the comet’s dust was originally formed.

“It shows the evolution of the universe,” says Schwehm.

And perhaps the evolution of biology too. It’s possible that water and the life-forming molecules within it arrived via comets that smashed into Earth billions of years ago. If there are commonalities between our oceans and the icy stuff on the comet—namely, organic compounds such as nucleic acids and amino acids—we can, as Schwehm says, “put pieces of the puzzle together.”

Throughout its stay on 67P, Philae will remain in constant contact with Rosetta, which will relay its transmissions the 317 million mi. (510 million km) back home, a journey that even at light speed takes 30 minutes. When they are on opposite sides of 67P, the two probes will transmit radio waves to each other through the body of the comet itself to study its internal structure.

Philae’s stay on 67P will be a short one. Once it is in place, a 64-hour countdown begins before the probe’s on-board battery runs down. Solar panels covering nearly every surface of Philae’s body can provide some juice, but the weak sunlight that bathes the probe at such great solar distances cannot keep it running in even a low-power mode for more than a few weeks.

That seems an awfully small payoff for the 10 years it took the spacecraft to arrive—a spiraling trip that included three fly-bys of Earth and one of Mars to pick up speed thanks to the planets’ gravity. But Rosetta has a longer life ahead of it after Philae dies, escorting 67P around the sun and observing its rate of water loss, surface temperatures, and the way its shape changes as it loses mass. It will keep that job up as long as it can, before accompanying the tiny world back to the distant solar system, and breaking contact with Earth forever.

TIME astronomy

A Fireball Was Seen Streaking Across the Texas Sky on Saturday Night

The flash was bright enough to be picked up by a NASA camera over 500 miles away

A fireball described as being brighter than the moon was seen streaking across the sky in Texas Saturday night.

The American Meteor Society says more than 200 residents reported seeing a very bright and fleeting flash at around 8.45pm, CNN reports.

Dr. Bill Cooke heads NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office and said the fireball was a meteor.

“This was definitely what we call a fireball, which by definition is a meteor brighter than the planet Venus,” he said.

The meteor, Cooke estimates, was over four feet wide, weighed about 4,000 pounds and was a dazzling five times brighter than the moon.

“This event was so bright that it was picked up on a NASA meteor camera in the mountains of New Mexico over 500 miles away, which makes it extremely unusual,” he said.

Read more at CNN

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