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 space

Ice Spotted on Mercury—Yes, We Know It Sounds Nuts

"This is making a lot of people happy"

At high noon on Mercury, the temperature can soar to 800°F—and no wonder. The Solar System’s smallest planet (as of 2006, anyway) averages only 36 million miles from the Sun, which is right next door compared with Earth’s 93 million. You’d be justified in thinking that ice couldn’t possibly exist on such a scorching world.

But you’d be wrong. Scientists using the MESSENGER space probe are reporting in the journal Geology that they’ve taken images of that reveal what they call “the morphology of frozen volatiles” in permanently shadowed crater floors near the planet’s north pole. That’s ice, in plain English. “This is making a lot of people happy,” said Nancy Chabot of the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins, lead author of the report.

It’s good news because the discovery confirms circumstantial evidence for ice on Mercury that’s been mounting for decades—first from radar observations with powerful radio telescopes on Earth that showed high reflectivity from the polar region, then from MESSENGER’s neutron spectrometer, which picked up the atomic signal of hydrogen in the same area. That pointed to H2O, almost certainly in the form if ice, especially since the high precision topographic maps made by MESSENGER have shown planetary scientists just how deeply shadowed, and thus how perpetually frigid, some of the craters really are.

All of that made a strong case for ice, and the fact that the same thing occurs on the Moon is further confirmation that it’s possible

These are the first optical images, and nobody is entirely sure how the ice got there. One idea is that it was released from water-bearing rock in Mercury’s crust. But the leading theory suggests it arrived instead in the form of impacts from icy comets, which may well be the same way Earth got its oceans. “It’s a fair amount of ice,” Chabot said, “about equivalent to the water in Lake Ontario, so if it was one comet, it was a pretty sizable one.” More likely, she said, it would have been a series of smaller comets, falling over billions of years.

Either way, the comets would have disintegrated on impact, and while some of the resulting water vapor would have escaped into space, some would have found itself at the poles, where chilly temperatures in the craters’ shadows would have allowed it to freeze out and drop to the crater floors.

Another hint that comets may have been the source of Mercury’s ice: Some of the frozen stuff is partially covered with unusually dark material, which could be organic compounds, also found on comets in abundance. The dark, ice-concealing patches have sharp edges, suggesting that whatever created them happened relatively recently, just hundreds of millions of years ago at most. That supports the idea that comet impacts could be happening all the time (in the geologic sense, anyway).

Excited as the scientists are to see the presence of ice on Mercury confirmed, they’re even more excited by the prospect of what’s to come. Messenger’s orbit is bringing the probe to within about 120 miles above the planet’s surface on its closest approach, which is why it’s able to take such high-resolution images.

By next spring, however, the probe will be zipping just 12 miles above the surface, before the mission ends with a planned crash. At that distance, no one knows what surprises MESSENGER’s cameras are going to reveal. “It’s going to be interesting, to say the least,” Chabot said.

 

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

Spacecraft Provides NASA With Data That Teaches Us About The Sun

NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory provided the outer image of a coronal mass ejection on the surface of the sun on May 9, 2014. Lockheed Martin Solar and Astrophysics Laboratory/NASA

Hot off the presses

A detailed new image of the sun is providing NASA with information about the sun’s atmosphere.

The photos, taken by NASA’s Interface Region Imaging Spectograph (IRIS), help explain how the sun’s atmosphere is hotter than its surface, what causes solar wind, and what mechanisms accelerate particles that power solar flares, NASA said in a release.

Some of the more noteworthy findings identified heat pockets of 200,000 degrees Fahrenheit that exist in the solar atmosphere, which scientists refer to as “heat bombs.”

TIME space

When You’ve Been To Pluto, What Do You Do for an Encore?

Next on the itinerary: A Kuiper Belt object and the distant candle of the sun
Next on the itinerary: A Kuiper Belt object and the distant candle of the sun NASA

Just because you've reached the edge of the solar system doesn't mean you've run out of worlds to visit. NASA's New Horizons spacecraft is set to make that point

When it blasted off for Pluto back in 2006, NASA’s New Horizons probe was poised to achieve several major milestones at once. It would be visiting the last planet still unexplored at close quarters (and yes, Pluto was still a planet when the mission began). It would also be the first mission to explore a class of planet vastly different from the Solar System’s rocky inner worlds, and also from the gas giants further out. Even after it was demoted to “dwarf planet,” Pluto represented the nearest of the ice worlds that lurk at the edges of the Sun’s influence. Understanding their true nature called for a close encounter—and New Horizons was designed to provide it.

But once the probe whips past Pluto and its moon Charon next July, it will still have functioning instruments and fuel to burn. And now, says NASA, it may have someplace to go and another scientific milestone to achieve. An intensive search with the Hubble Space Telescope has revealed three icy bodies more or less along New Horizons’ post-Pluto path and a billion miles (1.6 billion km) further out. Sometime in 2018 or 2019 the probe could be getting a close look at one of these so-called Kuiper Belt Objects (KBO)—a primordial remnant left from the very earliest days of the Solar System.

“The objects Hubble has identified are much smaller than Pluto,” says Alan Stern, a planetary scientist with the Southwest Research Institute, in Boulder, CO, and New Horizons’ Principal Investigator. “They’re the building blocks Pluto was made of.”

Hubble got this discovery in just under the wire. The rocket burn that will readjust New Horizons trajectory to intercept one of the KBO’s won’t happen until after the Pluto encounter. But in order to calculate that complicated maneuver, ground controllers need to know precisely how the KBO’s themselves are moving. “We need to make a series of observations,” says Stern, “to connect the dots.” And if they didn’t have a first set of observations by now, they wouldn’t have enough dots to connect.

In one sense, researchers have already gotten a close look at a KBO: Europe’s Rosetta probe went into orbit around a comet in August, with plans to set down a lander on its surface on November 9—and a comet is essentially a KBO that has wandered into the inner Solar System.

But that means it’s been exposed to the Sun’s heat, so unlike its cousins further out, it’s not truly primordial. Beyond that, these three new objects are between 15 and 35 miles (24 and 56 km) across. That’s about ten times bigger and a thousand times more massive than Rosetta’s comet, while still a thousand times less massive than Pluto. Whichever KBO New Horizons visits will therefore fill in a huge gap, helping scientists understand how Pluto itself formed.

It will, that is, if NASA approves the extended mission, funding the probe for longer than was originally planned. That kind of second act is not unusual—Hubble itself has had its mission extended several times, and so did the Spirit and Opportunity rovers on Mars. It’s not guaranteed, though. “We have to make a proposal,” says Stern, “but at least we now have something concrete to propose.”

Even if the mission is green-lit and that second encounter comes off, New Horizons still might not be done. “We’re going to keep looking for other KBO’s even farther out,” says Stern. If they’re close enough to New Horizons’ path, and if there’s enough fuel left for another trajectory adjustment, next July’s Pluto flyby could be just the start of an extraordinary series of close encounters with the most remote colonies in the Sun’s cosmic empire.

TIME space

The Rosetta Spacecraft Took an Epic Selfie With a Comet

Using the CIVA camera on Rosetta’s Philae lander, the spacecraft have snapped a ‘selfie’ at comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko from a distance of about 16 km from the surface of the comet. The image was taken on Oct. 7, 2014 and captures the side of the Rosetta spacecraft and one of Rosetta’s 14 m-long solar wings, with the comet in the background.
Using the CIVA camera on Rosetta’s Philae lander, the spacecraft have snapped a ‘selfie’ at comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko from a distance of about 16 km from the surface of the comet. The image was taken on Oct. 7, 2014 and captures the side of the Rosetta spacecraft and one of Rosetta’s 14 m-long solar wings, with the comet in the background. ESA/Rosetta/Philae/CIVA

Mission Selfie: Accomplished

Europe’s Rosetta spacecraft took a selfie published Tuesday that is, quite literally, out of this world.

Rosetta’s mission is to land on comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. The spacecraft is very close to its target, enough that the comet appears in the background of this image only 16km away.

Rosetta, dubbed Europe’s “comet chaser,” went into space in 2004. It had many things on its to-do list, including eventually landing on 67P. But for now, Mission Selfie accomplished.

TIME space

Think You Could Live on Mars? Think Again

Mars
Getty Images

A new analysis of Mars One's plans to colonize the Red Planet finds that the explorers would begin dying within 68 days of touching down

Hear that? That’s the sound of 200,000 reservations being reconsidered. Two hundred thousand is the announced number of intrepid folks who signed up last year for the chance to be among the first Earthlings to colonize Mars, with flights beginning as early as 2024. The catch: the trips will be one way, as in no return ticket, as in farewell friends, family, charbroiled steaks and vodka martinis, to say nothing of such everyday luxuries as modern hospitals and, you know, breathable air.

But the settlers in Jamestown weren’t exactly volunteering for a weekend in Aspen either, and in both cases, the compensations—being the first people on a distant shore—seemed attractive enough. Now, however, the Mars plan seems to have run into a teensy snag. According to a new analysis by a team of grad students at MIT, the new arrivals would begin dying within just 68 days of touching down.

The organizers of the burn-your-boats expedition is a group called Mars One, headed by Bas Lansdorp, a Dutch entrepreneur and mechanical engineer. As Lansdorp sees things, habitat modules and other hardware would be sent to the Red Planet in advance of any astronauts, who would arrive in four-person crews at two-year intervals—when Mars and Earth make their closest approach, which holds the outbound journey to a brief (relatively speaking) eight months. The crew-selection process would be part of (yes) a sponsored reality show, which would ensure a steady flow of cash—and since the settlers would grow their own food onsite, there would be little to carry along with them. All that would keep the overall cost of the project to a shoestring (relative again) $6 billion.

So what could go wrong? That’s what the four MIT students set out to find out, and the short answer is: a lot.

The biggest problem, the students discovered, concerns that business of breathable air. One of the things that’s always made Earth such a niftily habitable place to live is that what animals exhale, plants inhale, and vice versa. Since the Martian astronauts and their crops would be living and respiring in the same enclosed habitats, a perfect closed loop should result in which we provide them all the carbon dioxide they need and they return the favor with oxygen.

Only it doesn’t, the MIT students found. The problem begins with the lettuce and the wheat, both of which are considered essential crops. As lettuce matures, peaking about 30 days after planting, it pushes the 02 level past what’s known as .3 molar fractions, which, whatever it means, doesn’t sound terribly dangerous — except it’s also the point at which the threat of fire rises to unacceptable levels. That risk begins to tail off as the crop is harvested and eaten, but it explodes upward again, far past the .3 level, at 68 days when the far gassier wheat matures.

A simple answer would be simply to vent a little of the excess O2 out, which actually could work, except the venting apparatus is not able to distinguish one gas from another. That means that nitrogen—which would, as on Earth, make up the majority of the astronauts’ atmosphere—would be lost too. That, in turn, would lower the internal pressure to unsurvivable levels—and that’s what gets your 68-day doomsday clock ticking.

There is some question too about whether the hardware that Mars One is counting on would even be ready for prime time. The mission planners make much of the fact that a lot of what they’re planning to use on Mars has already been proven aboard the International Space Station (ISS), which is true enough. But that hardware is built to operate in microgravity—effectively zero g—while Mars’s gravity is nearly 40% of Earth’s. So a mechanical component that would weigh 10 lbs. on Earth can be designed with little concern about certain kinds of wear since it would weigh 0 lbs. in orbit. But on Mars it would be 4 lbs., and that can make all the difference.

“The introduction of a partial gravity environment,” the grad students write, “will inevitably lead to different [environmental] technologies.”

For that and other reasons, technical breakdowns are a certainty. The need for replacement parts is factored into Mars One’s plans, but probably not in the way that they should be. According to the MIT team, over the course of 130 months, spare parts alone would gobble up 62% of the payload space on resupply missions, making it harder to get such essentials as seeds, clothes and medicine—to say nothing of other crew members—launched on schedule.

Then too, there is the question of habitat crowding. It’s easy to keep people alive if you feed them, say, a single calorie-dense food product every day. But energy bars forever means quickly losing your marbles, which is why Mars One plans for a variety of crops—just not a big enough variety. “Given that the crop selection will significantly influence the wellbeing of the crew for the entirety of their lives after reaching Mars,” the authors write, “we opt for crop variety over minimizing growth area.”

Then there is the question of cost—there’s not a space program in history whose initial price tag wasn’t badly lowballed—to say nothing of maintaining that biennial launch schedule, to say nothing of the cabin fever that could soon enough set the settlers at one another’s throats. Jamestown may not have been a picnic, but when things got to be too much you could always go for a walk by the creek.

No creeks here, nor much of anything else either. Human beings may indeed colonize Mars one day, and it’s a very worthy goal. But as with any other kind of travel, the best part of going is often coming home.

Read next: 20 Breathtaking Images Of The Earth As Seen From Space

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: October 13

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. Women can’t thrive in a society where anything other than “no” means “maybe.” Consent laws are an important step, but we need a change in culture.

By Amanda Taub in Vox

2. Jokes aside, the palace intrigue behind Kim Jong Un’s mysterious absence could contain valuable intelligence.

By Gordon G. Chang in the Daily Beast

3. As we fight the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, global donor organizations should build a recovery plan for the aftermath.

By the editorial board of the Christian Science Monitor

4. That self-parking feature on your new car might help military vehicles avoid enemy fire.

By Jack Stewart at the BBC

5. The next wave of satellite imaging will redefine public space.

By the editors of New Scientist

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

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 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.”

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