The sun that coughed

V838 MonocerosFollowing up on observations from Earth-based telescopes, NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope is pointed toward the star V838 Monocerotis – an object of very little previous interest – to discover why it’s suddenly the brightest thing in the entire Milky Way Galaxy. What Hubble sees surprises scientists on the ground: a “shell” of matter surrounding the star, illuminated from within and expanding outward into space (actual photo sequence seen here). What astronomers had seen previously was the illumination of the dust cloud, which is much larger than the star itself. Scientists theorize that the expanding dust cloud is not an indication of a supernova, but a sign that V838 Monocerotis is expanding, expelling gas and then shrinking again. The star is over 20,000 light years from Earth.

Uranus moons Hubble

UranusAstronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope discover two new moons of Uranus that eluded detection during Voyager 2’s 1986 flyby: Cupid and Mab. Both small, dark bodies that orbit closer to Uranus than any of the planet’s large satellites, Cupid and Mab raise the number of known Uranian satellites above 20. Mab’s orbit keeps it within the planet’s outermost ring, while Cupid’s orbit is only 500 miles further out than that of Belinda, one of the small moons discovered in 1986 by Voyager 2. Cupid is the tiniest of the inner moons of Uranus, roughly 11 miles in diameter.

2003 Robot Hall Of Fame inductees

R2-D2SojournerThe first four inductees – two real and two fictional – are inducted into the Robot Hall Of Fame created by Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Computer Science.

  1. Unimate (1961, General Motors) – the first robotic arm used in car assembly
  2. HAL-9000 (1968, from 2001: a space odyssey)
  3. R2-D2 (1977, from Star Wars)
  4. Sojourner (1996, NASA) – the first successful Mars rover

The panel of judges in future years will pare down the number of nominations awarded to fictional creations. R2-D2 actor Kenny Baker and Douglas Rains, the voice actor behind HAL, are in attendance.

Sedna

SednaAstronomers using NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope announce the discovery a tiny planet, with a diameter of only 2,000 kilometers, orbiting the sun three billion kilometers past Pluto. That places it at an average ten billion kilometers away from Earth – with a solar year that lasts around 10,000 years. Sedna is also spotted from ground-based telescopes as well, using the initial observations made by the Spitzer Telescope; its diameter, only 300 kilometers less than that of Pluto, intensifies the “Pluto as a planet” debate that has been raging since the discovery of Quaoar.

2004 Robot Hall Of Fame inductees

C-3PORobbyCarnie Mellon University inducts five new members to its Robot Hall Of Fame at a press event promoting the movie adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot. The 2004 inductees, again split almost evenly between fictional and real robots, are:

  1. Astro Boy (1951, manga/anime character)
  2. Robby The Robot (1956, from Forbidden Planet)
  3. Shakey (1966, Stanford Research Institute – first robot capable of autonomous tasks)
  4. C-3PO (1977, from Star Wars)
  5. ASIMO (2000, Honda – humanoid robot capable of navigating uneven terrain)

Judges for the 2004 Hall include SimCity creator Wil Wright, roboticist Ruzena Bajcsy and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak.

Eris

ErisAstronomers at Palomar Observatory discover a body beyond Neptune’s orbit that initial observations show is larger than Pluto. Eris is quickly dubbed the tenth planet by the media and the scientific community, and it is later found to have a small moon of its own in a close orbit, which is later named Dysnomia. But events overtake Eris and Dysnomia before the science textbooks have a chance to be rewritten to include a tenth planet: Eris becomes a case study in an ongoing debate within the International Astronomical Union about the definition of a planet. In 2006, the IAU will establish a set of parameters which determine that Eris isn’t a planet – and then rewrites the history books by deciding that Pluto isn’t either.

Mittens required on Pluto

PlutoScientists are already aware that Pluto is really cold, but recent observations suggest that it’s even colder than they had imagined. New radio telescope measurements of Pluto’s surface indicate that it’s a brisk -382 degrees Fahrenheit (scientists had earlier estimated a positively summery -364). Part of the reason for the slight chill in the air – if indeed there was any there – is that Pluto is on the outbound train. The tiny planet’s highly inclined orbit isn’t centered around the sun, while the solar system’s other worlds are more or less centered; part of Pluto’s orbit carries it further away from the sun and “under” the plane shared by the other planets. Curiously enough, however, the surface of Charon – Pluto’s nearly-identical-twin moon – is determined to be warmer than Pluto itself. The readings are taken by the Submillimeter Array in Hawaii by astronomers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

GOES-13 goes up

GOES-13NOAA’s GOES-13 Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite is launched from Cape Canaveral into geosynchronous orbit to monitor weather patterns over the United States. It will be held in reserve until 2010, when it will be moved to the GOES-EAST position to replace GOES-12, which is suffering chronic attitude control thruster glitches. GOES-13 is yet another evolutionary step up in the GOES satellite hardware, but it will suffer its own share of hardware issues, including a series of inexplicable faults which will cause brief losses of weather coverage, and a later fault which disables infrared imaging capability. Some of these hardware failures will be attributed to micrometeoroid collisions.

2006 Robot Hall Of Fame inductees

MariaFive new robots, both fictional and real, are inducted into Carnegie Mellon University’s Robot Hall Of Fame. With C-3PO actor Anthony Daniels presenting the awards, the quintet of new inductees consists of:

  1. Maria (1927, from Metropolis)
  2. Gort (1951, from The Day The Earth Stood Still)
  3. SCARA (1978, Yamanashi University – industrial small-component assembly robot)
  4. AIBO (1999, Sony – consumer grade robot dog with artificial intelligence)
  5. David (2001, from A.I.: Artificial Intelligence)

Mars in asteroid’s crosshairs

MarsAstronomers put the red planet on red alert after predicting 1-in-75 odds for an asteroid to collide with Mars on or near January 30th. The asteroid, discovered in November 2007, is on a trajectory that poses no threat to Earth but has better-than-usual odds of packing quite a wallop for Mars. The impact, if it does happen, could take place on the equator, near the Opportunity rover’s stomping (or, perhaps, roving) grounds, though NASA says it would pose no risk to Opportunity. A crater as large as Arizona’s Meteor Crater could be carved out of the Martian surface by any direct hit that does happen. Scientists prepare to watch the event with keen interest, as this event would be potentially cataclysmic if Earth was in danger, but provides a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for observation on Mars.

A near miss: 2008 TC3

2008 TC3Detected only 20 hours before, the meteoroid designated 2008 TC3 burns up and explodes in Earth’s atmosphere, exploding 23 miles above the Sudanese desert. Estimated to be over ten feet in diameter prior to losing most of its mass to heating in the Earth’s atmosphere, 2008 TC3 is thought to have weighed in at approximately 80 tons; hundred of fragments with a total weight of a little over 20 pounds are recovered from the desert. This is the first Near-Earth Object detected prior to impact or destruction by the NASA-funded Spaceguard survey, though the time between detection, confirmation and arrival is less than a day.

GOES-14

GOES-14NOAA’s GOES-14 Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite is launched from Cape Canaveral into geosynchronous orbit to monitor weather patterns over the United States. It will be held in reserve until August 2012, when it will be activated to begin monitoring Tropical Storm Isaac as it closes in on the Gulf Coast, and it will redirected to monitor Hurricane Sandy’s approach and landfall on the east coast of the United States. In 2013 it will be moved to a position near the GOES-EAST geostationary position to cover the Atlantic Ocean and the east coast during one of GOES-13’s many technical outages. It remains in orbit on standby.

GOES-15

GOES-15NOAA’s GOES-15 Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite is launched from Cape Canaveral into geosynchronous orbit to monitor weather patterns over the United States. In accordance with NOAA’s policy of having standby weather satellites already in orbit before their predecessors are decommissioned, GOES-15 is held in reserve until late 2011, when it will become the primary GOES-WEST satellite. It remains in orbit on active weather-watching duty.

Radiation Belt Storm Probes find new belt

Radiation Belt Storm ProbesThe Radiation Belt Storm Probes mission launched by NASA begins activating sensors just a few days after liftoff, weeks ahead of schedule, just in time to reveal a finding that forces a rethink of over half a century of widely-accepted science. The probes find that, in response to the recent eruption of a solar prominence, the two Van Allen radiation belts discovered in 1958 by Explorer 1 have expanded to include a third belt, which traps and repels additional solar radiation back into space. The third radiation belt dissipates after four weeks, and scientists begin rethinking their theories on Earth’s magnetosphere.

SOFIA spots a black hole

The black holeNASA reveals that its Boeing-747-mounted SOFIA (Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy) telescope, during a 2011 flight in which its sensitive infrared sensors were aimed at the center of the Milky Way galaxy, captured an image of the super-massive black hole at the heart of the galaxy. A disc of dust and gas circling the center of the galaxy – seven light years across – lights up the image. The black hole is believed to have a mass of over four million times that of Earth’s sun.

A Deep look into Comet ISON

Comet ISONNASA’s Deep Impact probe, already a veteran explorer of comets, turns its camera eye toward Comet ISON, a recently-discovered comet expected to put on a spectacular show even to the naked eye in late 2013. Originally launched in 1995 to study Comet Tempel 1 at close range, Deep Impact has since used its cameras to study other comets passing through the solar system. The distance between Deep Impact and Comet ISON at the time the 36-hour photo sequence is taken is roughly 493 million miles.

NASA will launch huge solar sail in 2014

SunjammerNASA announces plans to launch an experimental uncrewed test vehicle called Sunjammer into orbit in 2014, as a test of solar sail technology. Though not the first solar sail ever launched, Sunjammer be will the largest by far, its mainsail being incredibly thin Kapton with a surface area of 13,000 feet. The objective of the flight is to unfurl the sail and then use the solar wind to propel it to the L1 Earth-Sun LaGrange point nearly 2,000,000 miles from Earth. Sunjammer will be lifted into orbit by a SpaceX rocket in 2014, with both NASA and NOAA keeping a close eye on the results.

Another near-miss for Russia

2013 Russian MeteorIn broad daylight over Chelyabinsk, Russia, a meteor likely less than ten feet in diameter unexpectedly appears in the sky and explodes in mid-air. The resulting sonic boom and shockwave break hundreds of windows, causing several hundred minor injuries and collapsing part of a building. Unsettlingly, the meteor is confirmed to be completely unrelated to the much-anticipated asteroid 2012 DA14, which is over 16 hours away from its closest approach to Earth.

2012 DA14’s close shave

Asteroid 2012 DA14One of the closest asteroid encounters since the beginning of intensive asteroid tracking, asteroid 2012 DA14 swings past Earth at a distance of only 17,200 miles – putting it closer to Earth than most weather and communcations satellites in geosynchronous orbit. Despite this, the asteroid is well outside the orbit of such low-Earth-orbit structures as the International Space Station. Discovered in February 2012, 2012 DA14 has a diameter of approximately 150 feet and is moving at a speed of over 17,000 miles per hour. 2012 DA14’s next closest approach will take place in 2046, but it will not make another passage this close until 2110. The asteroid is unrelated to a meteor airburst event earlier the same day over Russia.

Hubble spots a Space Invader

Space InvaderTo allay public fears that the next level might not be reached, NASA offers an explanation for an enigmatic 2010 image from the Hubble Space Telescope, showing a galaxy cluster, Abell 68, approximately 2,000,000,000 light years away. In the middle of that cluster, however, is what appears to be an alien from the video game Space Invaders. NASA explains that it’s a visual artifact of gravitational lensing caused by the gravity influence of the foreground galaxies upon the light of galaxies further away in the image. Earth breathes easy once more.

More about Space Invaders in Phosphor Dot Fossils

Pluto’s fourth and fifth moons named

P4 and P5Two tiny, recently-discovered satellites of dwarf planet Pluto have new named ratified by the International Astronomical Union; P4 is renamed Kerberos and P5 is renamed Styx. The names – related to the “underworld” theme that has governed the naming of Pluto and its moons to date – overlooks a popular online vote that suggested one of the moons should be named Vulcan, after Mr. Spock’s home planet in Star Trek. Kerberos, discoverd in 2011, is believed to be approximately 20 miles in diameter and orbits Pluto at a distance of roughly 37,000 miles. Styx, first sighted in 2012, is even smaller, with an estimated diameter of 15 miles, orbiting only 1,200 miles from Pluto, making it the innermost satellite (a distinction previously held by Pluto’s near-twin, Charon). NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft will have the opportunity to see the new moons up close when it does a flyby of Pluto in 2015.

The raining shards of the blue planet

HD 189733bScientists, analyzing Hubble Space Telescope spectographic data taken during a transit of the exoplanet HD 189733b against its parent star, reveal that they have determined the planet’s color in visible light. The doomed gas giant, only 63 light years away, is said to be a “deep azure blue” not unlike how Earth’s oceans appear from space, though in this case the color is theorized to be the result not of water, but of silicate rain – airborne glass – blowing in 7,000mph winds as the atmosphere is blasted away due to the planet’s proximity to its sun.

Mega-eruption on Io

IoAstronomers using the Keck Observatory’s Hawaii-based telescopes and near-infrared cameras capture an image of a devastating volcanic eruption on Io, one of Jupiter’s largest moons (and known since 1979 to be very volcanically active). The eruption, unleashing enough molten material to reshape hundreds of square miles of Io’s surface, also reveals that the material erupted is hotter than any eruption in Earth’s recorded history. This is the most violent eruption seen to date in the solar system, and caps off two weeks of intense activity observed by the astronomers.

A 90% chance of iron rain

Luhman 16bA team of scientists publishes a report in the journal Nature revealing that, using Doppler observations, they have achieved a very basic map of the “weather” patterns on the dim brown dwarf star Luhman 16B, discovered in 2013 at a distance of only 6.5 light years from Earth’s solar system. The observations reveal that the high temperature is likely to be 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, with a very good chance of violent storms raining molten iron onto Luhman 16B’s surface in the forecast.

ASTRO-H / Hitomi

HitomiJAXA, the Japanese Space Agency, launches the ASTRO-H X-ray observatory satellite, nicknamed Hitomi, from Tanegashima Space Center. Carrying equipment provided by NASA and the Canadian Space Agency, Hitomi is intended to remain operational for three years, conducting X-ray astronomy from low Earth orbit. Though the launch proceeds without apparent problems, major technical issues will prevent Hitomi from fulfilling its mission objectives.

Hitomi breaks contact

HitomiJapan’s Hitomi satellite, launched in February on a three-year X-ray astronomy mission, suddenly breaks contact with JAXA ground controllers when they begin power-up and checkout procedures. Only brief telemetry signals are received from Hitomi before it falls silent. JAXA initiates emergency procedures to contact Hitomi and diagnose the problem, though some telescopic observations from Earth indicate that pieces of the spacecraft have fallen away from the spacecraft itself.

The moon of Makemake

Makemake and moonAstronomers reveal that Makemake, an icy dwarf planet orbiting in the distant Kuiper Belt region of the solar system, has a moon, first spotted in 2015 by a team using the Hubble Space Telescope. (The news comes just days after the 26th anniversary of Hubble’s launch.) With an estimated diameter of 100 miles (compared to the 870 mile diameter of its parent body), the satellite orbits Makemake at a distance of 13,000 miles, taking twelve days to complete one orbit. Previous observations failed to pick up on the dark, dim body due to the relatively bright glare of Makemake itself.

Hitomi lost

HitomiJAXA, the Japanese Space Agency, declares the Hitomi X-ray astronomy satellite a total loss, having lost all contact with it. Though the diagnosis of the evidence to date is ongoing, engineers conclude from the available data that Hitomi entered an uncontrolled spin and broke up in orbit. JAXA offers apologies not only to other countries’ space agencies who supplied equipment for Hitomi, as well as to astronomers who had hoped to use the satellite.

The new and improved Great Dark Spot

NeptuneNASA’s Hubble Space Telescope confirms the observations of Earthbound astronomers with high-powered telescopes: a new dark atmospheric feature has emerged on the planet Neptune, signifying a major new storm system in the planet’s atmosphere. The new vortex feature emerges near the south polar area of Neptune, and was first observed by telescope in 2015.

Vera Rubin, astronomer, dies

Vera RubinPioneering astronomer Vera Rubin, whose research led to the discovery of dark matter, dies at the age of 88. In the 1960s and ’70s, Rubin found that the rate of galaxies’ rotation could not be accounted for unless galaxies contained, on average, ten times more mass than could be distributed among the visible stars in that galaxy. This research led her to propose the theory of dark matter in the 1970s, though she tried for many years to find – or at least rule out – any other possible explanations to the galaxy rotation problem.

The seven worlds of TRAPPIST-1

Trappist-1NASA announces the discovery, via the Spitzer Space Telescope, of a system of seven Earth-sized worlds orbiting the star TRAPPIST-1, only 40 light years from Earth’s solar system. Though water may exist in some state on all seven of the planets, three of them are thought to be orbiting within the “Goldilocks zone” in which liquid water would be abundant, making life possible on the surfaces of those planets.

Professor Stephen Hawking, physicist, dies

Professor Stephen HawkingWidely regarded as one of the 20th and 21st centuries’ finest minds in the fields of theoretical physics and cosmology, Professor Stephen Hawking dies at the age of 76, having suffered from ALS (better known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease) for over 50 years. He far outlived the few years he was expected to live when he was diagnosed in 1963. In that time, he co-authored a 1970 paper which referred back to Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity to lend great credibility to the then-new (and not widely accepted) theory of the universe’s origins in a “big bang”. Later that same year he began working on research that would eventually lead to the theory that black holes would emit a signature radiation, dubbed Hawking radiation, though those emissions had yet to be observed directly at the time of Hawking’s death. His best-selling 1988 book, “A Brief History Of Time”, propelled Hawking (and his remarkable survival story) into the public eye, though by this time he was wheelchair-bound and reliant on a speech synthesizer to communicate with others.

Arecibo Observatory slated for demolition

Arecibo ObservatoryAfter being in operation for most of the past 57 years, the fate of the Arecibo Radio Telescope facility is sealed by the failure of two major tension cables suspending the 900-ton equipment platform over the dish carved into the Puerto Rican countryside. Engineering safety assessments reveal that other cables are on the verge of failure, which could lead to an “uncontrolled collapse” putting the lives of nearby researchers and engineers at risk. As a result, the Arecibo facility – originally a project of Cornell University but now managed by the University of Central Florida – is slated for demolition as soon as is safely possible, provided its aging superstructure doesn’t collapse under its own weight first. The observatory’s physical superstructure had been under close observation since suffering major damage from Hurricane Maria, which caused widespread destruction in Puerto Rico in 2017. The closure of the Arecibo facility marks the end of a significant era of radio astronomy.

Arecibo Radio Telescope collapses

Arecibo Radio TelescopeThe 57-year-old Arecibo Radio Telescope is destroyed when its 900-ton equipment platform, suspended over the massive dish built into a geographic feature near Arecibo, Puerto Rico, falls into the dish, causing catastrophic damage to both. The platform had been suspended by miles of steel cables from three towers over the dish, through a recent assessment of the ability of both cables and towers to bear the platform’s load had raised doubts that the facility could remain operational. As the decision had already been made to decommission and dismantle the Arecibo telescope, the facility had already been evacuated prior to the collapse. The towers holding the platform over the dish also suffer severe damage, rendering them structurally unsafe as well. Locals compared the sound of the event to that of an avalanche or an earthquake.