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Dear Readers,

It's easy to get morbid thinking about the universe. Yes, it's gorgeous out there, but is the glorious view and the basic physics all there is? What if Earth really is special? What if—apart from our planet—the universe is a cold, dead, insensible place, without biology or awareness or any purpose?

"Why is there something instead of nothing?" is how one of the great, existential questions is often phrased. It's credited to multiple philosophers and logicians, and those murky origins may be less a sign of poor historical record-keeping than the fact that almost anyone who has ever stared at a starry sky on a quiet night, descended into that deep, still, wonderful-awful contemplation of what the purpose of all of it is, has asked the question (even if not in these exact words).

It's hard to come up with a happy answer if there really is no life anywhere else. Paul Davies, University of Arizona physicist and author of The Eerie Silence, is among the scientists who have argued that Earthly biology might well be some kind of fleeting chemical accident, the result of a random mixing of organic elements that takes place on trillions of planets but just happened to yield something here—and only here. I once spoke with Stanford University physicist Andre Linde about the anthropic principle, the idea that the chemical and physical laws of the universe are somehow designed to make it possible for life forms like us to exist. His response: "Thinking that God spent his time inventing the universe for the benefit of a particular type of monkey is self-centered."

If it's true that we are a biological one-off, it's also true that once life on our planet comes to an end, that will be it for all consciousness. The only porch light in the universe will go off—and that's the existential terror that can keep us up at night.

Everything would change, of course, if we weren't so alone—if, never mind just one porch light, there were a whole cityscape of lit windows out there. So no surprise that when we find Earth-like worlds, which could possibly host carbon-based, water-based Earth-like life—the only kind of life we know and understand—well, we get a little giddy.

Certainly, that was the response this week when researchers from University College London published a paper in Nature Astronomy, announcing that they had found a planet, prosaically named K2-18b, located 110 light years away, that likely has a rocky surface, water in its atmosphere and orbits its sun in the so-called habitable zone, where temperatures are just right for that water to exist in a liquid state. That doesn't mean life arose there, but it does mean that it could.

"From today onwards, we know K2-18b has atmosphere and water, making it the best-known candidate for habitability," Andelos Tsiaris, astronomer and lead author of the paper, told TIME's Maddy Roache at a press conference in London when the paper was announced. "It brings us closer to knowing whether Earth is unique."

In 2015, Slovak graphic designer Matin Vargic created a poster depicting 500 of what were then the 2,000 known exoplanets—a brilliantly colored marble bag of worlds. Just four years later, the total of known worlds has doubled to 4,000, with another 4,000 candidate planets awaiting confirmation. Astronomers have come to conclude that virtually every star in the sky is circled by at least one—and often much more than one—planet.

We are, for now, still alone. But the search is widening and the possibilities are expanding. The wonderful-awful contemplation could, eventually, become just wonderful.

—Jeffrey Kluger


IMAGE(S) OF THE WEEK
Satellite image of 9/11
NASA

Satellite image of Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2019
NASA

This week marked 18 years since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. In remembrance of the tragedy, NASA republished an image of New York City taken from the International Space Station that day (top), showing the smoke rising from the destruction of the World Trade Center's Twin Towers, and shared a new one, taken on Sept. 11, 2019 (bottom), from a similar vantage point up in Earth's orbit.


WHAT WE’RE READING

Everyone finds friends in an extraterrestrial foxhole

There's a fellowship among lunar explorers. The U.S. and U.S.S.R. might have competed to be first to the moon in the 1960s, but in the 21st century, the world's space-faring nations are more inclined to root for one another. There was a lot of global excitement when China's Chang'e-4 became the first spacecraft to land on the moon's far side in January, and a lot of sympathy when Israel's Beresheet lander reached the moon but crash-landed in April. There is similar sorrow over the crash-landing of the rover portion of India's Chandrayaan 2. The spacecraft entered lunar orbit on Aug. 20, but its lander came to ruin on the surface on Sept. 6, apparently as a result of its engine shutting off too early in the descent phase. The orbiter spotted what appears to be the lander on the surface, and NASA's deep-space network is now assisting in the attempt to send it wake-up signals in case it somehow survived the impact.

Black-hole gluttony

Any superdense concentration of matter with a mass equivalent to 400,000 suns and a gravitational pull so powerful not even light can escape is going to gobble up an awful lot of matter. Still, it's hard to beat the supermassive black hole at the center of the GSN 069 galaxy. NASA's Chandra Space Telescope, which sees principally in X-ray frequencies, turned its attention to GSN 069 recently and detected repetitive X-ray bursts emanating from the body every nine hours. That, NASA astronomers concluded, is a sign that the black hole is, effectively, consuming about nine moon's worth of material each day—one septillion pounds of matter. Giovanni Miniutti, the first author on a paper published in Nature, described the discovery in colorful terms: "This black hole is on a meal plan like we’ve never seen before.”

Watch NASA build a rocket

You could be forgiven for thinking NASA's Space Launch System—the 21st century version of the Saturn V rocket—is already flying, what with all of the computer-generated images and videos the space agency has released. But after 15 years in start-stop development, the rocket has yet to go anywhere at all. With NASA's Artemis program shooting to return astronauts to the moon by 2024, the pace is accelerating. Helping to illustrate that point is a new video released by the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, where much of the SLS is being developed, showing the various components of the rocket-and-spacecraft stack being assembled. It's not yet airborne—much less moon-bound—but it's getting close.

Dark days in space ahead?

The United States Space Command does not, technically speaking, exist, not as a sixth branch of the military as President Trump envisions it, at least. But it does have the backing of the White House and it does have a commander, and it does have a nifty new flag, unfurled at a Rose Garden ceremony on August 29. That's not exactly a fighting force, and it won't ever be if Congress doesn't approve funding. But it does have a vision—and it's a genuinely thoughtful as well as troubling one. The Hill reports on a study produced by the Air Force Space Command (which currently does much of the work a U.S. Space Command would do) looking at what the frontier of space will look like 40 years from now. The group came up with three broad scenarios: a peaceful, productive future in which humans are living and prospering in space; a productive future in space but one dominated by autocratic nations like China; and a grim future in which we haven't yet found ways to inhabit or monetize space but still manage to use it as a staging ground for Earthly conflicts. We've proven ourselves eminently capable of living the third scenario—but still have 40 years to figure out how to live the first.

Bringing manufacturing jobs to space

One of the hardest things about homesteading space is the shipping charges. Before you can assemble a moon or Mars base, you've got to launch and land all of the components. At a going rate of $10,000 per pound of payload just to reach low-Earth orbit, costs add up fast. Wired has an intriguing piece on a company that goes by the name Made in Space, which hopes to market technology for producing solar panels, power supplies, fiber optics and more, in situ in orbit. And in a demonstration of a decidedly less glamorous product, astronauts aboard the International Space Station are experimenting with mixing cement in microgravity, hoping to learn more about how it will set and behave in reduced-gravity environments like the moon and Mars. If you want to homestead, you've got to build the homes.


CHART OF THE WEEK

 

NASA's current budget accounts for less than 0.5% of the total amount of money spent by the U.S. federal government. In 1965, nearly 4.5% of the U.S. federal budget went to NASA.


WE WANT TO HEAR FROM YOU

What do you think NASA's share of federal spending should be?

A) 1% or less

B) 2%

C) 3%

D) 4% or more

Let us know at space@time.com, and tell us why.


THANKS FOR READING

TIME Space is written by Jeffrey Kluger, Editor at Large at TIME magazine, and the author of 10 books, including Apollo 13, Apollo 8 and two novels for young adults. Follow him at @jeffreykluger.

We welcome any feedback at space@time.com.

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