TIME space

Astronomers Just Witnessed the Formation of an Ancient Galaxy

An artist's impression of star birth deep inside the core of young, growing elliptical galaxy. Z. Levay, G. Bacon— STScI/NASA,

They call it "Sparky"

Think Milky Way, but smaller.

Astronomers have for the first time witnessed the formation of a massive galaxy, which they have dubbed “Sparky.” This galaxy contains twice as many stars as our own galaxy, but is is just a fraction of the size.

This galactic behemoth is so far from Earth that its observable light reaching our planet was actually created 11 billion years ago — that’s just 3 billion years after the Big Bang.

“We suspect that this core-formation process is a phenomenon unique to the early universe” explains Erica Nelson of Yale University, who’s a member of the team that put together the findings and research.

Astronomers suspect that there are other galaxies similar to Sparky. In the future, infrared telescopes such as NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, which is set to launch in 2018, should help to shed some light on these issues.

TIME technology

SpaceX Delays Launch Days After Test Mishap

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket sits on a lauch pad on Oct. 7, 2012 in Cape Canaveral, Florida. SpaceX is delaying this week's Falcon 9 rocket launch by a day following an explosion of a test flight of its experimental Falcon 9R rocket. Joe Raedle—Getty Images

The company says it will review flight record details before the next test flight

SpaceX delayed the launch of a commercial communications satellite on Tuesday, days after an experimental rocket failed mid-flight.

The private space firm founded by Elon Musk was set to launch the AsiaSat 6 satellite on its Falcon 9 rocket early Tuesday from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, but the launch was delayed 24 hours, the Los Angeles Times reports.

On Friday, a test flight of the Falcon 9R, an experimental reusable rocket, experienced an anomaly, SpaceX said in a statement. As a result, the flight was terminated–the rocket blew itself up.

No one was injured in the incident, and the company said that the experimental flight was “particularly complex.”

But SpaceX said at the time that it would review flight record details before the next test flight, and the LA Times reports that the space exploration company is taking extra time to review the case ahead of the AsiaSat 6 satellite launch.

[LA Times]

TIME Addiction

States With Medical Marijuana Laws Have Fewer Opioid Overdose Deaths

Though it's not totally clear why

States with medical marijuana laws have fewer deaths from opioid overdoses compared to states that do not allow medical marijuana, according to new research.

Opioids for chronic pain, like OxyContin, Percocet and Vicodin, are meant to suppress pain. Recent data shows that not only are prescriptions for these drugs up, but rates of overdose and death are increasing as well. New research published Monday in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine shows that states with medical marijuana laws have rates of anticipated opioid-related deaths 25% lower than states that don’t allow it.

The researchers looked at death rates from opioids between 1999 and 2010 and found that the 13 states that allowed medical marijuana at the time had lower opioid mortality rates–the hypothesis being that patients with chronic pain perhaps switched from the heavy drugs to marijuana, since cannabinoids in marijuana react similarly in the brain. About 60% of all opioid deaths happen among people who have legitimate prescriptions, but abuse is also problematic. “Among people who use opioids illicitly, a relatively high proportion of them also use marijuana,” says study author Dr. Marcus Bachhuber of the Philadelphia VA Medical Center.

Though the findings are intriguing, the researchers could not prove causation, and there are many possible explanations for the findings. States with medical marijuana laws may also have implemented more rules regarding opioid prescriptions or offered more education to doctors and patients about their addictive qualities. And several states like Minnesota and New York have passed at least limited legalized medical marijuana since 2010, so the findings already need to be updated. Still, if there is in fact an association, Bachhuber believes it’s encouraging. “I think that any change that leads to fewer people dying of opioid overdoses would be a positive.”

The researchers say more research is needed to understand why people choose medical marijuana and whether people at risk for opioid abuse would consider it as an alternative. There’s also the issue of presenting a split medical community with the risks and benefits of prescribing someone marijuana.

“I know many doctors struggle with the issue of who would be best to treat medical marijuana. There are some doctors who say that there is no valid medical use,” says Bachhuber. “I think that leaves a tremendous opportunity for future studies to help guide use to look at the risk and benefits and in clinical practice.”

TIME space

NASA Spacecraft Reaches Neptune on Its Way to Pluto

Neptune's Great Dark Spot, accompanied by white high-altitude clouds as photographed by the Voyager 2 spacecraft.
A color image of Neptune's Great Dark Spot, accompanied by white high-altitude clouds taken from the Voyager 2 spacecraft. NASA

The New Horizons spacecraft is on its way to Pluto

NASA’s Pluto-bound spacecraft has reached Neptune, officials said Monday.

Passing through Neptune’s orbit is the last major crossing before the spacecraft, New Horizons, reaches its intended destination of Pluto. New Horizons is scheduled to be near Pluto on July 14, 2015. In a coincidence of timing, the spacecraft’s crossing through Neptune’s orbit has occurred on the exact same day NASA’s Voyager 2 encountered Neptune 25 years ago.

“It’s a cosmic coincidence that connects one of NASA’s iconic past outer solar system explorers, with our next outer solar system explorer,” Jim Green, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, said in a statement. “Exactly 25 years ago at Neptune, Voyager 2 delivered our ‘first’ look at an unexplored planet. Now it will be New Horizons’ turn to reveal the unexplored Pluto and its moons in stunning detail next summer on its way into the vast outer reaches of the solar system.”

New Horizons is the size of a piano and launched in January 2006. It reached Neptune’s orbit in a record of eight years and eight months. If the spacecraft’s journey continues successfully, it will be the first probe to reach Pluto.

TIME space

See the 10 Best Photos Taken by Voyager 2

Twenty-five years ago today the Voyager 2 spacecraft flew past Neptune, the furthest planet from the sun. The craft, which has been in operation for over thirty-seven years, continues to transmit data back to earth

TIME Science

European Navigation Satellites Get Lost In Orbit

It's unclear if the system, a rival to GPS, will be good to go on schedule

The European Space Agency and the European Union want to provide an alternate to GPS—Global Positioning System, the space-based satellite navigation system operated by the United States—called Galileo, named after the astronomer who gave us the precursor of Newtonian physics. Galileo is a €5 billion project intended for civilian use scheduled to be completed and operational by 2019, with 27 satellites and 3 spares orbiting 14,600 miles above Earth.

The system suffered a setback on Saturday, though, when two satellites launched from French Guiana failed to attain their intended orbit, Phys.Org reports. It’s not immediately clear why there was a malfunction, and the agencies involved are investigating. In the meantime, however, Galileo’s French coordinator spoke to Agence France-Presse (AFP) and said it will be be complicated to correct the satellites’ orbits.

The latest pair of satellites had suffered more than a year of delays due to “technical difficulties in the setting up of the production line and test tools.” Meanwhile, two more satellites are supposed to be launched by the end of the year—which is also when Galileo was intended to reach its initial operational capacity.

As of now, it’s unclear whether Saturday’s malfunction will affect the system’s launch schedule.


TIME Science

Mesmerizing Six-Second Timelapse Video Shows How the Earth Changed Over Six Months

Created by NASA using images from January to July


According to NASA, no planets have “matched the dynamic complexity of our own.” This video by the NASA Earth Observatory, which will take you just six seconds to watch — unless you keep hitting refresh like we did — showcases that dynamic complexity over the course of six months.

You see the eastern hemisphere, from January 18 to July 25, and its subtle changes in weather systems and vegetation. The best part is the clouds — swirling, lovely, mesmerizing clouds. Good job, Earth. You’re pretty awesome.

WATCH: Breath-taking NASA Timelapse Video Shows a Star Exploding

TIME space

Evidence of Absolutely Enormous Dead Stars Discovered

Astronomers have a pretty good idea about what the first stars in the universe must have looked like. Theorists say they should have been gigantic, weighing in at anywhere from 20 times the mass of the Sun all the way up to 100 Suns’ worth of material or more. These giants would have burned far hotter than our own star, and far faster as well. The Sun, for example will live for about 10 billion years (it’s about half that old now), but the first stars should have torn through their fuel supply in just a few million years before blowing themselves apart in gigantic explosions.

Unfortunately, it all happened more than 13 billion years ago, and while powerful new instruments like NASA’s partially built James Webb Space Telescope might one day be able to to pick out the light of these mammoth stars, still streaming faintly across the universe after all that time, there’s no way at present to image them directly.

But a team of observers is now reporting in Science that they’ve picked up the telltale signature of the most massive of those first stars. “They’ve been predicted for years, but never seen before,” says Timothy Beers, of Notre Dame, one of the report’s co-authors. To be precise, they still haven’t seen the stars themselves; instead, the astronomers detected their chemical signatures, imprinted on a second generation of stars born just a bit later. Because they’re trying to understand a long-lost era of cosmic history indirectly, Beers and his colleagues call their field “stellar archaeology,”

Those second-generation stars were for more modest in terms of size and temperature and much slower-burning, which has allowed some of them to survive right up to the present. That includes SDSS J0018-0939, the star described in the new Science paper. It’s somewhat less massive than the Sun, and it’s relatively deficient in elements heavier than hydrogen and helium.

That’s a clue that it was formed early in the life of the universe.

Right after the Big Bang, those heavier elements, including everything from oxygen to carbon to silicon to iron, didn’t even exist; they were created in the nuclear furnaces at the cores of stars (which means that the calcium in your bones and the carbohydrates in your breakfast cereal were manufactured inside a star, long ago). For historical reasons, astronomers call any elements heavier than helium “metals” (carbon and nitrogen count as metals in astronomical jargon.)

Those “metals” were spread far and wide when the original stars exploded and incorporated into new stars, and since stars have been forming and exploding for billions of years now, those that formed relatively recently, such as the Sun, are relatively metal-rich. “Our Sun,” says Beers, “is a is a bucket into which the entire history of chemical evolution was poured.”

Stars that formed early on, by contrast, when there was still mostly just hydrogen and helium to be had, are metal-poor. SDSS J0018-0939 is one of them—but given its metal-poor status, it has a surprisingly large amount of iron. And given what theorists know about star formation and evolution, the only place it could have come from so early in the lifetime of the universe was the core of a gigantic star.

The evidence that such stars really did exist is still circumstantial, but that’s a lot better than being purely theoretical. It also adds to a growing understanding of what the universe must have looked like when the stars first turned on. Earlier efforts at stellar archaeology had yielded circumstantial evidence of much smaller (but still huge) first-generation stars, which were unusually rich in carbon rather than iron.

But to understand how the modern universe began to take shape, and how the galaxies came form out of the diffuse gases that dominated the earliest years of the cosmos, astronomers need to know the range of sizes those first stars came in—because how they lived and how they died set the stage for what would come afterward.

“It’s a complicated story,” says Beers, “but it’s incredibly interesting. You’re talking objects that exploded 13 billion years ago. I find it remarkable,” he admits, “that the question can be addressed at all.”



TIME space

A Satellite Took Pictures of Another Satellite and Now It’s a GIF

The launch of DigitalGlobe's WorldView-3 is seen from Vandenberg Air Force Base on Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2014.
The launch of DigitalGlobe's WorldView-3 is seen from Vandenberg Air Force Base on Aug. 13, 2014. DigitalGlobe

Well, this is pretty meta

A series of pictures provided to TIME by DigitalGlobe shows what kind of fun you can have when you own multiple satellites.

The images captured the launch of the company’s newest satellite launching into orbit this past Wednesday.

The new WorldView-3 satellite, worth roughly a half-billion dollars and about the size of a small RV, became the highest-resolution commercial satellite in space. DigitalGlobe, the company that funded its manufacture, said it will offer 31-centimeter resolution, much clearer than the current 50-cm aboard the WorldView-2.

Technology aboard the new satellite will, among other things, supply Google Maps with higher resolution photos for “satellite view.”

The satellite that shot the photos was flying at an altitude of over 300 miles, according to DigitalGlobe, and orbiting at a speed of 17,000 mph.

Video of the launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California can be seen below.

TIME space

Watch a High-Tech Satellite Get Launched Into Space


Updated 2:48 p.m. ET

A new satellite launched Wednesday is expected to provide imagery of Earth that is nearly 40% sharper than what’s currently available.

The new WorldView-3 satellite, worth a half-billion dollars and about the size of a small RV, will become the highest-resolution commercial satellite in space. DigitalGlobe, the company that funded its manufacture, said it will offer 31-centimeter resolution, much clearer than the current 50-cm aboard the WorldView-2.

That will give the satellite the ability to see through clouds and certain precipitation, the company added, potentially leading to shorter wait times for making and receiving images.

The U.S. government is DigitalGlobe’s No. 1 customer, but the general public is likely to benefit from its orbit. Technology aboard the satellite will, among other things, supply Google Maps with higher resolution photos for “satellite view” and should be able to help people like first-responders, who are trying to identify a wildfire’s origin or researchers who, using DigitalGlobe’s 10-year archive, are looking into crops at risk of disease or drought.

The launch took place at 2:30 p.m. E.T., from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

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