TIME Innovation

Google VP Breaks Record for Highest Skydive

Google Aims To Boost Video, Banner Ad Business In China
Robert Alan Eustace, Google Inc.'s senior vice president for engineering, speaks at the Google Innovation Forum in Beijing, China, on Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2010. Nelson Ching—Bloomberg / Getty Images

“It was a wild, wild ride”

A senior vice president for Google cut himself loose from a balloon and parachuted 135,908 feet to earth on Friday, setting a new world record in skydiving.

Alan Eustace, 57, broke the previous record holder’s jump by more than 7,000 feet, the New York Times reports. It took roughly 2 hours for Eustace to make the ascent into the stratosphere and only 15 minutes to plummet back to earth. He made the jump wearing a spacesuit specially designed to withstand extreme altitudes and speeds topping 800 miles-per-hour. Witnesses on the ground reported hearing a sonic boom.

“It was beautiful,” Eustace said after the jump. “You could see the darkness of space and you could see the layers of atmosphere, which I had never seen before.”

[NYT]

TIME space

The Largest Sunspot in Decades Is Spitting Solar Flares at Earth

NASA

The event could lead to more auroras and disrupt spacecraft and power systems on Earth

The sun’s largest sunspot region in more than 20 years is facing Earth, sending solar flares our way and threatening a coronal mass ejection (CME), which can cause auroras and significant disruptions to our power grids.

Sunspots are relatively cooler regions of the sun visible on the surface, with complex magnetic field activity. The sunspot region AR12192 is the “largest sunspot group since November of 1990,” according to Doug Biesecker, a researcher at the National Weather Service Space Weather Prediction Center. AR12192 is roughly the size of the planet Jupiter, but the largest sunspot on record, seen in 1947, was three times that size.

AR2192 has been sending out high-energy solar flares but thus far no CME, which, Biesecker says, tend to be more closely associated with the magnetic complexity of a sunspot region than with a region’s size. A smaller solar storm around Halloween back in 2003, for example, created auroras visible as far south as Florida. With the high level of flare activity at present, scientists expect that if AR12192 releases CMEs directly toward Earth it will do so in the next three to four days, The Washington Post reports.

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

See a Comet’s Close Encounter With Mars

This composite image captures the positions of comet 'Siding Spring' and Mars in a never-before-seen close passage of a comet by the Red Planet, on Oct. 19, 2014.
This composite image captures the positions of comet 'Siding Spring' and Mars in a never-before-seen close passage of a comet by the Red Planet, on Oct. 19, 2014. PSI/JHU/APL/STScI/AU/ESA/NASA

A comet flew past Mars this week and NASA captured the encounter

The comet known as “Siding Spring” had a too-close-for-comfort encounter with the Red Planet this week.

Traveling at around 125,000mph, the comet missed colliding with Mars by a mere 87,000 miles. That’s about one-third of the distance between the Earth and the Moon — in astronomical terms, a very close encounter.

NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope captured the encounter in this composite image. Sadly, it will be another million years before we see comet Siding Spring again, after it completes its orbit around the sun.

See an artist’s rendition of the encounter in the video below:

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 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.”

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