How to grow crops on Mars if we are to live on the red planet



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We can create the right kind of food plants to survive on Mars.
Shutterstock/SergeyDV

Briardo Llorente, Macquarie University

Preparations are already underway for missions that will land humans on Mars in a decade or so. But what would people eat if these missions eventually lead to the permanent colonisation of the red planet?

Once (if) humans do make it to Mars, a major challenge for any colony will be to generate a stable supply of food. The enormous costs of launching and resupplying resources from Earth will make that impractical.

Humans on Mars will need to move away from complete reliance on shipped cargo, and achieve a high level of self-sufficient and sustainable agriculture.




Read more:
Discovered: a huge liquid water lake beneath the southern pole of Mars


The recent discovery of liquid water on Mars – which adds new information to the question of whether we will find life on the planet – does raise the possibility of using such supplies to help grow food.

But water is only one of many things we will need if we’re to grow enough food on Mars.

What sort of food?

Previous work has suggested the use of microbes as a source of food on Mars. The use of hydroponic greenhouses and controlled environmental systems, similar to one being tested onboard the International Space Station to grow crops, is another option.

This month, in the journal Genes, we provide a new perspective based on the use of advanced synthetic biology to improve the potential performance of plant life on Mars.

Synthetic biology is a fast-growing field. It combines principles from engineering, DNA science, and computer science (among many other disciplines) to impart new and improved functions to living organisms.

Not only can we read DNA, but we can also design biological systems, test them, and even engineer whole organisms. Yeast is just one example of an industrial workhorse microbe whose whole genome is currently being re-engineered by an international consortium.

The technology has progressed so far that precision genetic engineering and automation can now be merged into automated robotic facilities, known as biofoundries.

These biofoundries can test millions of DNA designs in parallel to find the organisms with the qualities that we are looking for.

Mars: Earth-like but not Earth

Although Mars is the most Earth-like of our neighbouring planets, Mars and Earth differ in many ways.




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Dear diary: the Sun never set on the Arctic Mars simulation


The gravity on Mars is around a third of that on Earth. Mars receives about half of the sunlight we get on Earth, but much higher levels of harmful ultraviolet (UV) and cosmic rays. The surface temperature of Mars is about -60℃ and it has a thin atmosphere primarily made of carbon dioxide.

Unlike Earth’s soil, which is humid and rich in nutrients and microorganisms that support plant growth, Mars is covered with regolith. This is an arid material that contains perchlorate chemicals that are toxic to humans.

Also – despite the latest sub-surface lake find – water on Mars mostly exists in the form of ice, and the low atmospheric pressure of the planet makes liquid water boil at around 5℃.

Plants on Earth have evolved for hundreds of millions of years and are adapted to terrestrial conditions, but they will not grow well on Mars.

This means that substantial resources that would be scarce and priceless for humans on Mars, like liquid water and energy, would need to be allocated to achieve efficient farming by artificially creating optimal plant growth conditions.

Adapting plants to Mars

A more rational alternative is to use synthetic biology to develop crops specifically for Mars. This formidable challenge can be tackled and fast-tracked by building a plant-focused Mars biofoundry.

Such an automated facility would be capable of expediting the engineering of biological designs and testing of their performance under simulated Martian conditions.

With adequate funding and active international collaboration, such an advanced facility could improve many of the traits required for making crops thrive on Mars within a decade.

This includes improving photosynthesis and photoprotection (to help protect plants from sunlight and UV rays), as well as drought and cold tolerance in plants, and engineering high-yield functional crops. We also need to modify microbes to detoxify and improve the Martian soil quality.

These are all challenges that are within the capability of modern synthetic biology.

Benefits for Earth

Developing the next generation of crops required for sustaining humans on Mars would also have great benefits for people on Earth.




Read more:
Before we colonise Mars, let’s look to our problems on Earth


The growing global population is increasing the demand for food. To meet this demand we must increase agricultural productivity, but we have to do so without negatively impacting our environment.

The best way to achieve these goals would be to improve the crops that are already widely used. Setting up facilities such as the proposed Mars Biofoundry would bring immense benefit to the turnaround time of plant research with implications for food security and environmental protection.

The ConversationSo ultimately, the main beneficiary of efforts to develop crops for Mars would be Earth.

Briardo Llorente, CSIRO Synthetic Biology Future Science Fellow, Macquarie University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Jupiter’s new moons: an irregular bunch with an extra oddball that’s the smallest discovered so far



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A moon shadow on Jupiter, the red planet now has a dozen more moons added to the list or such orbiting bodies.
NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS

Jonti Horner, University of Southern Queensland and Christopher C.E. Tylor, University of Southern Queensland

Jupiter is the largest planet in the Solar system and has been studied intensively for hundreds of years, so you might think there would be little left to find.

But earlier this month, researchers announced that another 12 moons have been added to the number of such bodies orbiting the giant planet.




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The latest from Juno as Jupiter appears bright in the night sky


That brings the tally for Jupiter to a whopping 79, the most moons for any known planet. But where did these newly discovered moons come from, and what do they tell us about Jupiter and its place in the Solar system?

Moons: regular and irregular

The Solar system’s giant planets have two types of moon: regular and irregular.

Regular moons orbit close to their host, follow nearly circular paths, and move in the same plane as the planet’s equator. In some ways, these moons resemble miniature planetary systems, and we think that they formed in much the same manner as the planets around the Sun.

As the giant planets gathered material from the disk of gas and dust that surrounded the young Sun – a process known as accretion – they were surrounded by their own miniature disks. Within those disks, the regular moons grew, all in the planet’s equatorial plane.

Artist’s impression of a protoplanetary disk – a place where planets are born. Around young giant planets, similar disks give birth to regular moons.
ESO/L. Calçada

But the irregular moons are another story.

Their orbits are highly eccentric (elliptical) and inclined relative to the plane of their host planet’s equator. Many even move on retrograde orbits, travelling in the opposite direction to the spin and orbital motion of their hosts. And they are located much farther from their planet than their regular cousins.

Where do the irregulars come from?

Because of their wild orbits, the irregular moons cannot have formed in the same way as their regular cousins. Instead, they are thought to have been captured by their host planets as the process of planet formation came to an end.

We think that each giant planet captured just a handful of irregular moons – a number far smaller than we see today. Over the billions of years since, those moons were pummelled and destroyed by passing asteroids and comets, and collisions with other members of their swarm.

The shattered fragments of those ancient satellites form families of smaller moons – the irregulars we see today. For example, among Jupiter’s satellites we see at least four distinct families of irregular moons, each named after their largest member.

The motion of Jupiter’s irregular moons around the giant planet. The main plot (bottom, left) shows the orbits looking top-down, while the other (right and top) plots show the movement out of the plane of the system. Moons of the same colour are members of the same family.
Christopher Tylor

What does the new discovery add to our understanding?

If we consider Jupiter’s moons in terms of their orbital distance, and the direction in which they move, we can break them into three distinct groups.

The first consists of the inner eight moons, including the famous Galilean moons Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto, whose orbits lie in the plane of Jupiter’s equator, at distances less than 2 million kilometres.

The second group lies significantly farther from the planet, and move on orbits tilted by between 25° and 56° relative to Jupiter’s equator. These are the prograde irregulars – ten moons orbiting at distances between 7 million and 19 million km. Two of the new discoveries are members of this group.

The final and most populous group is the retrograde irregulars – 60 moons located between 19 million and 29 million kilometres from Jupiter, all moving on orbits inclined by between about 140° and 170° to Jupiter’s equator.

In other words, they orbit backwards, in the opposite direction to everything else. Nine of the new discoveries fall into this category.

Plot showing the three groups of moons orbiting Jupiter.
Carnegie Institution for Science/Roberto Molar-Candamosa

So that covers 11 of our new moons. What of the 12th? Well, it turns out that the most exciting of the new moons is an oddball – an object that does not fit into any of the groups mentioned above.

The oddball: Valetudo

The 12th new moon has tentatively been named Valetudo, after Jupiter’s mythological great granddaughter.

Valetudo is the dimmest of the newly discovered moons. At just a kilometre in diameter (or less), it is the smallest Jovian moon found to date.

The yellow lines point to the tiny moving speck of light, the newly discovered moon Valetudo.
Carnegie Institute for Science

In terms of its orbital distance, Valetudo lies bang in the middle of the retrograde irregulars – some 24 million kilometres from the giant planet. But its orbit is prograde – meaning that it moves in the direction of Jupiter’s rotation, and in the opposite direction to all other satellites in its vicinity.

Valetudo’s size and unusual orbit pose interesting questions.

How did something so small survive in the celestial firing range around Jupiter?

Could Valetudo be the final surviving remnant of a previously uncharted family, whittled to nothing by aeons of headlong flight into the retrograde irregulars?

Are there are other members of the Valetudo family out there, awaiting discovery?




Read more:
Water, water, everywhere in our Solar system but what does that mean for life?


Beyond these questions, Valetudo’s small size offers an important clue to the origin of the Jovian satellite system. Had Valetudo been on its current orbit while Jupiter was still accreting, it would have been too small to resist the drag of the inflowing gas. Like a ping pong ball in a gale, it would have been dragged inwards, to be devoured by the giant planet.

In other words, tiny Valetudo tells us that the process that created the irregular satellite families continued long after the formation of Jupiter was complete. In fact, that process likely continues even now, with occasional collisions tearing moons asunder, to birth new families of irregular worlds.

The ConversationWho knows? The next such collision might come when Valetudo runs into one of the retrograde irregulars. Given that their orbits cross, it may only be a matter of time.

Jonti Horner, Professor (Astrophysics), University of Southern Queensland and Christopher C.E. Tylor, PhD Candidate, Adjunct Lecturer, Assistant Examiner, University of Southern Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Launching in May, the InSight mission will measure marsquakes to explore the interior of Mars



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InSight aims to figure out just how tectonically active Mars is, and how often meteorites impact it.
NASA

Katarina Miljkovic, Curtin University

When we look up at Mars in the night sky we see a red planet – largely due to its rusty surface. But what’s on the inside?

Launching in May, the next NASA space mission will study the interior of Mars.

The InSight (Interior exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) spacecraft will be a stationary lander mission that measures seismic activity on Mars (often referred to as marsquakes) as well as interior heat flow.




Read more:
A brief history of Martian exploration – as the InSight Lander prepares to launch


By listening to and probing the Martian crust and interior, the project aims to understand the formation and evolution of Mars.

The InSight mission is scheduled to launch from California in early May, with landing on Mars planned for November. The expected lifetime of the mission is at least two years.

Origins of marsquakes

The payload on board InSight includes the seismic instrument SEIS (Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure). Its task is to record seismic activity, or vibrations, of the planet.

Apart from shaking the ground while passing, seismic waves can be extremely useful in telling us about the structure of planetary interiors. Seismic waves travel at different speeds when passing through different materials. Processing their arrival time and strength via recorded seismographs is a clever way to learn about the interior structure of a planetary body – such as the crust, the next layer down (the mantle), and the core.

Seismic activity on Mars could be caused by a number of processes. For example, shallow marsquakes could originate from meteoroid strikes, and deep marsquakes could come from martian tectonic activity (the movement of tectonic plates at the surface of the planet).

It is generally believed that tectonic processes could have shaped Mars in its early evolution, similar to the Earth. However, unlike the Earth in younger ages, Mars has become largely tectonically dormant.

We think lots of meteoroids hit Mars

Considering that tectonics on Mars may not be reminiscent of what we see on our planet, we suspect that meteoroid strikes will play a major role in causing marsquakes.

On Earth, frequent and small meteoroids most often burn up in the atmosphere and appear to us as a form of “shooting star”. When a rock from space moving at supersonic speed encounters the terrestrial atmosphere, the air in front of it gets compressed extremely quickly. Temperature rises and heat builds up, so the rock starts to shine bright under the process of its destruction.




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However, on Mars we think that meteoroids may not necessarily burn up entirely upon encountering the martian atmosphere. This is simply because Mars has a less dense atmosphere than the Earth – so incoming meteoroids have a higher penetrating power. These impact events would produce seismic disturbance in the atmosphere, and also likely in the ground.

Detecting meteoroid strikes on planetary bodies began with the lunar Apollo program. Apollo missions carried seismometers to the Moon, and as a result we had a network of seismometers that operated on the Moon from 1969-77.

During its lifetime, the Apollo seismic network recorded shallow quakes produced by frequent meteoroid bombardment. Considering that the Moon does not have an atmosphere to protect its surface from the incoming meteoroids, the Apollo seismic network provided heaps of seismic data from the Moon. These impact-induced seismic moonquakes provided the first constraints about the thickness of the lunar crust as well as structure of crust and deep interior.

We’ve tried to measure Mars seismic activity before

During the lunar exploratory boom with the Apollo program, NASA also launched Vikings 1 and 2 to Mars in 1975. These became the first missions to land on Mars, and each Viking mission carried a seismometer.

While instruments on Viking have collected more data than expected, the seismometer on Viking Lander 1 did not work after landing. The seismometer on Viking Lander 2 demonstrated poor detection rates, with no quakes coming off the ground (as it had remained on the Lander).

To date, we have had no other seismic station on any extraterrestrial planetary body. This makes InSight the first-of-its-kind mission to be placed on Mars. While its design relies on proven technologies from past missions, it is ground-breaking in terms of expected science goals.

Instead of making orbital remote sensing surveys or roving on the surface similar to other rovers, InSight has a different goal to previous Martian missions.




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Why are we so interested in the subsurface of Mars?

Mars and Earth differ in size, temperature, and atmospheric composition. But similar geological features such as craters, volcanoes, or canyons can be observed on both planets. This implies that the interior of Mars may be similar to Earth’s.

It is also quite likely that there was liquid water on the surface of ancient Mars, which was the time Mars could have been very similar to Earth. So Mars could answer questions about the ancient habitability of our solar system.

Unlike potentially habitable planets orbiting distant stars, Mars is reachable within our lifetime. Discovering martian crustal properties is of great importance when it comes to planning landing missions and investigating signs of extraterrestrial habitability.

The ConversationMy role in the InSight mission is to work with the science team in analysing the data (impact-induced seismograms and any respective orbital imagery) to work out what kind of impacts had occurred during the mission lifetime.

Katarina Miljkovic, ARC DECRA fellow, Curtin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Sizes matters for black hole formation, but there’s something missing in the middle ground



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An artist’s impression of a supermassive black hole at the centre of a galaxy.
NASA/JPL-Caltech

Holger Baumgardt, The University of Queensland and Michael Drinkwater, The University of Queensland

So far, all black holes discovered by astronomers fall into two broad categories: “stellar mass” black holes and “supermassive” black holes.

But what puzzles astronomers is why the two extremes – what about intermediate-sized black holes?

Black holes were predicted by Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Their gravity is so strong that no material object, not even light, can escape from their vicinity.




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Astronomers have only been able to obtain evidence for their existence in recent decades by studying black holes accreting (attracting) gas from nearby stars and finding fast-moving stars in the vicinity of black holes.

But since 2015 an exciting third way to detect black holes has become available: gravitational waves from merging black holes.

From one extreme…

Stellar mass black holes can have masses between a few to a few tens of solar masses – the mass of our Sun. They are thought to form at the end of the lives of massive stars. When these stars run out of gas from which to produce energy, they leave behind massive remnants that can only collapse into black holes.

So far, astronomers have discovered a dozen stellar mass black hole candidates in the Milky Way, most of which accrete matter from nearby companion stars.

They also detected gravitational waves from several merging stellar mass black hole pairs in distant galaxies.

It’s estimated that our Milky Way alone should contain about 100 million stellar mass black holes, most of which do not have close companions from which they can accrete matter, and which therefore stay invisible.

… to the other

At the other end of the mass scale are what astronomers call supermassive black holes. These are about a million to a few billion times more massive than our Sun.

Astronomers think that almost every large galaxy contains a supermassive black hole at its centre.

The Milky Way, for example, contains a black hole of about 4 million solar masses, called Sagittarius A* (Sgr A*), in its centre. Astronomers can study this black hole by looking at the motion of stars that are close to Sgr A* and are flung through space by the huge gravitational attraction of the black hole.

Is that a supermassive black hole?

Although astronomers have gained a good understanding of the distribution and masses of supermassive black holes in galaxies in the nearby universe, they still do not know where supermassive black holes come from.

Observations show that some supermassive black holes already existed and were actively accreting gas from their surroundings when the universe was just a few hundred million years old.

A composite x-ray and infrared image of the supermassive black hole Sagittarius A* at the centre of the Milky Way.
NASA/UMass/D.Wang et al., IR: NASA/STScI

In 2011 a team of astronomers said they had found evidence of a supermassive black hole that existed only 770 million years after the Big Bang. Then, last month, another team of astronomers revealed what they think could be evidence of a supermassive black hole from when the universe was only 690 million years old.

This creates a problem for theories that assume that supermassive black holes grew out of the stellar-mass black holes left behind by the first generation of stars in the early universe.

There is not enough time for these black holes to have grown to reach the huge masses that we can see in observations of the first galaxies.

The middle ground for black holes

An alternative theory is that supermassive black holes form from so-called intermediate-mass black holes. These hypothetical black holes could have masses from a few hundred to a few hundred thousand solar masses.

Starting more massive, supermassive black holes would need less time to grow to their present sizes. They could also accrete mass more efficiently since the maximum amount of mass that a black hole can accrete is directly proportional to its size.

Intermediate mass black holes could form out of the collapse of very massive stars that might have existed in the very early universe.

Nowadays stars form with an upper mass limit of at most a few 100 solar masses. Conditions in the very early universe might have been more favourable towards building more massive stars and might have allowed the formation of stars of a few thousand or maybe even up to a million times the mass of our sun.

This chart illustrates the relative masses of stellar black holes and supermassive black holes, and the mystery of the intermediate-mass black holes, with masses up to more than 100,000 times that of our sun, remains unsolved.
NASA/JPL-Caltech (edited)

The hunt is on

Astronomers are currently searching for intermediate mass black holes and there are a few potential candidates. Like their more massive cousins they could reveal their existence by accreting material from nearby stars or by the fast motion of nearby stars.

A prime place to look for intermediate mass black holes could be globular clusters, dense clusters of a few hundred thousand of stars to a few million of stars.




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Black holes are even stranger than you can imagine


Like supermassive black holes, globular clusters are old and are among the first objects which have formed in the universe.

Astronomers – including at the University of Queensland – recently found evidence that such an intermediate mass black hole with about 2,200 times the mass of our Sun could exist at the centre of the globular cluster 47 Tucanae.

They did this by studying the acceleration of pulsars (compact remnants of dead stars that formed with about 20 times the mass of our Sun) in the globular cluster.

The ConversationIf more of these can be found, they might provide the missing link between stellar mass and supermassive black holes and could shed light on how supermassive black holes have formed.

Holger Baumgardt, Associate Professor, The University of Queensland and Michael Drinkwater, Professor of Astrophysics, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

From rocket launches to a crashing space station, we’re in for a huge year in space


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Rocket Lab successfully launched its Electron rocket from the company’s complex on the Māhia Peninsula in New Zealand.
Rocket Lab

Brad E Tucker, Australian National University

A Blood Moon, a trip to the Moon and back for two explorers, a space station crashing to Earth and the launch of a new mission to find planets around other stars: these are just some of the exciting things to watch in space in 2018.

Elon Musk’s Space X also plans to launch one of the new Falcon Heavy rockets, the largest since the manned Moon landings.




Read more:
The next Full Moon brings a lunar eclipse, but is it a Super Blood Blue Moon as well? That depends…


The Blood Moon comes from the lunar eclipse on Wednesday night, which is also being claimed as a Blue Super Full Moon (or is it?)

A Blood Moon – when the Moon turns red during a total lunar eclipse. The red comes from the sunrise and sunset here on Earth, continuing out into space and lighting up the Moon.
NASA

All of Australia, plus most of Asia and the Pacific region, will be treated to this spectacular lunar event on January 31. If you miss it, don’t worry, you’ll get another total lunar eclipse on the night of July 27 and early morning hours of July 28.

Unlike a Solar eclipse, you do not need any special equipment to see a lunar eclipse and it is safe to look at with your eyes.

Speaking of solar eclipses, Tasmania and southern parts of Victoria and South Australia will be treated to a partial Solar Eclipse on July 13.

Goodbye Kepler, thanks for the Exoplanets!

The Kepler Space telescope was launched nearly nine years ago and has changed our view of the cosmos and our place in it, but its mission is coming to an end this year.

Kepler has confirmed around 2,500 exoplanets (planets orbiting other stars), with thousands more potential planets. It discovered the first Earth-like planet in a habitable zone , an area where water could exist as a liquid.

An artistic impression of NASA’s planet-hunting Kepler space telescope.
NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech/T Pyle

Kepler also showed that rocky, potentially Earth-like and/or habitable planets are common with potentially tens of billions (yes, billions with a b) existing in our galaxy alone.

After a failure of two reaction wheels (the things that help it point) in 2013, a new mission, K2, was conceived. It was able to keep stable by using a combination of short thruster firings and using the Sun to steer it like a sail.




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Google’s artificial intelligence finds two new exoplanets missed by human eyes


Kepler continued its exoplanet-finding quest, along with discoveries such as shockwaves from exploding stars and even picking up sound waves deep in the heart of stars (a technique called asteroseismology).

But this extra thruster firing is causing Kepler to use up its fuel, and it is due to run out sometime this year, which will cause NASA to put it into hibernation.

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Where one missions ends, a new one begins. The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), is set to be launched between March and June, aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. If the stars align, we might even have overlap between these two exoplanet-discovering machines.

A conceptual image of TESS in space and its targets – planets orbiting other stars.
NASA

Rockets, rockets and more rockets

The privatisation of space continued this year with the US-based Rocket Labs having its first successful launch, from a site across the Tasman in New Zealand.

SpaceX also had its first static test of the new Falcon 9 Heavy, the largest rocket since the Saturn V that took US astronauts to the Moon.

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The Falcon 9 Heavy is scheduled for a first launch in early February where it will carry one of Musk’s Tesla Roadsters. We may even see an appearance of the company’s Dragon 2 that will carry humans into space this year. SpaceX has already announced that two people have paid to go on a tour around the Moon.

It’s not just private companies exploring space, with China aiming for 40 launches in 2018 alone.

Exploring the small things in our Solar System

The Moon is on the radar for both India and China. India’s Chandrayaan-2 is set to land on the Moon in March, while China’s Chang’e 4 will be its second lunar rover, set to land on the far side of the Moon at the end of 2018. First it will have to launch a special communication satellite, slated for June, to a position called L2, or a special point related to the Earth-Moon system that will allow for communications with Earth and the far side of the Moon.

While it is a bit early for New Year’s Eve 2018, NASA already has big plans. New Horizons, the probe that flew by Pluto in 2015 is set to swing past its second icy world, 2014 MU 69, on December 31. Little is known about 2014 MU 69, which is around 6.5 billion km from the Sun, other than the fact that it might be two objects instead of one and that it needs a better name.

Hubble Space Telescope Wide Field Camera 3 discovery images of 2014 MU69. Positions are shown by the green circles.
NASA, ESA, SwRI, JHU/APL, and the New Horizons KBO Search Team

Asteroids are not forgotten in all of this space exploration. Japan’s Hayabusa-2 is set to arrive at asteroid 162173 Ryugu. It’s a new version of Hayabusa, which surveyed the asteroid 25143 Itokawa and took samples before returning back to Earth, landing near Woomera, South Australia in 2010.

Likewise, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx will arrive at the asteroid Bennu where it will extend an arm to drill down into the asteroid, and return with samples, in what is the next step towards an asteroid mining future.

An artist impression of OSIRIS-REx extending its arm down to the asteroid Bennu.
NASA

A falling space station

If you were around in 1979 and happened to be in Western Australia, you might have a unique souvenir – part of the US space station Skylab, which re-entered and crashed outside Esperance, WA.

If you’ve seen the 2013 movie Gravity (and a spoiler alert for those who haven’t!) you might remember the final scene in which Sandra Bullock’s character returns home by hijacking Tiangong-1, the Chinese space station. She returns safely, but the same can’t be said for Tiangong-1.

Well in March, we are set for a clash of sci-fi against reality when Tiangong-1 comes back down to Earth.




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You can track its progress but in short, somewhere between +43 and -43 latitude (or half the Earth), it will re-enter and break apart. Currently, the likely potential (land) areas are around Central and South America, Northern Africa and the Mediterranean, and indeed Western Australia.

Like Skylab, there are likely to be large pieces that survive re-entry. Hopefully you are lucky to be in a position to see it with your eyes, but not so close that it lands on your house, as it’s unlikely to be covered by your insurance policy.

The ConversationSo that’s a summary of some of the things we’re expecting to happen this year. But as with all science, I’m just as excited for those discoveries that we do not know about that will happen in 2018.

Brad E Tucker, Astronomer and outreach officer, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The next Full Moon brings a lunar eclipse, but is it a Super Blood Blue Moon as well? That depends…



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Changing colours of the Moon during a total lunar eclipse, Mt Buffalo National Park, June 16, 2011.
Phil Hart, Author provided

Tanya Hill, Museums Victoria

A total lunar eclipse will occur on Wednesday, January 31, and Australia is in the perfect position to see it. But it’s also being called many other lunar things, from a Blood Moon to a Blue Moon and a Super Moon.

So what is really going to happen on the night?

This is the first time in three years that we have the chance to see a total lunar eclipse from Australia, and the Moon will spend just over three hours passing through Earth’s shadow.




Read more:
Explainer: what is a lunar eclipse?


The great thing about lunar eclipses is that they are lovely to watch and no special equipment is needed to see the events unfold.

From light to dark

At first we’ll see the Full Moon begin to darken. For Wednesday’s lunar eclipse the shadow will approach from the bottom-right, leaving the top part of the Moon in sunlight.

It takes an hour before the Earth’s shadow crosses the Moon entirely and once the Moon is completely engulfed the period known as totality begins.

The steady progression of an eclipse as the Moon drifts into the Earth’s shadow, June 16, 2011.
Phil Hart, Author provided

Totality brings its own surprise. The Earth’s shadow is not completely black, but has a reddish hue. This has led many cultures, including some Indigenous Australian communities, to describe a lunar eclipse as a Blood Moon.

Sunlight still manages to reach the Moon but it must first pass through Earth’s atmosphere. This both reddens the light (by scattering away the shorter wavelengths or blue light) and also bends the path of the light, directing it into the shadow.

This week’s lunar eclipse is a fairly deep one and totality will last just over an hour. Thereafter, the Moon will begin to emerge from the shadows, and it will be another hour before we see the brilliance of the Full Moon once more.

How I can see it?

The eclipse can be seen by the entire night side of the globe and everyone will experience the event at precisely the same moment. What affects the eclipse timings are local time zones.

For Western Australia, the eclipse occurs in the early evening, within an hour after sunset. The Moon will be low to the eastern horizon at the start of the eclipse but will move higher in the sky and towards the northeast as the eclipse progresses.

For the rest of Australia, the eclipse occurs two to three hours after sunset. The eclipse will begin with the Moon in the northeast and climbing towards the north.

Check in with your local planetarium or amateur astronomy group, as many organisations are hosting eclipse events so that you can share the occasion with others.

But if the weather doesn’t cooperate in your local area, you can also follow the eclipse via live streaming by Slooh, the Virtual Telescope, or timeanddate.com.

A lunar eclipse over San Francisco Bay in 2014 (note the moons have been enlarged slightly for clarity).
John ‘K’/flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Super Blood Blue Moon

It seems these days that it’s not enough to be treated to a beautiful natural phenomenon like a total lunar eclipse. Instead, I’ve been hearing a lot of hype surrounding this eclipse and the numerous names applied.




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It’s true that lunar eclipses can only occur around the time of Full Moon. That’s when the Sun is on one side of the Earth, while the Moon is located on Earth’s opposite side.

Most of the time the Full Moon sits above or below Earth’s shadow and the Moon remains flooded with sunlight. But twice a year, the three bodies fall into line so that Earth casts its shadow on the Moon.

As well as being a Full Moon, eclipses can also be described as a Blood Moon because of the Moon’s reddish appearance, as mentioned previously.

But the descriptions of Super Moon and Blue Moon may not be quite what they seem.

Look to the sky … it’s a Super Moon!

I’ve written before about the Super Moon sensation and it’s a term that has only taken off in the past seven years.

Back in March 2011, NASA published an article describing a “super full moon”. The precise time of Full Moon that month occurred 59 minutes before perigee, that is, the Moon’s closest approach to Earth as it travels along its elliptical orbit.

As quoted in the article:

The full Moon of March 19th [2011] occurs less than one hour from perigee – a near-perfect coincidence that happens only every 18 years or so.

It must have seemed a worthwhile curiosity to report on at the time.

Seven years later and the Super Moon craze is now a bit out of hand, with some claiming three Super Moons a year depending on the chosen definition.

As a Super Moon this lunar eclipse is definitely on the outer limits, with the Full Moon occurring 27 hours after perigee and at a distance of more than 360,000km (calculated in the usual way from the centre of Earth to the centre of the Moon).

Considering that it’s also quite difficult to tell the difference in both size and brightness between a regular Full Moon and a Super Moon, this one is really pushing the limits of credibility.

Once in a Blue Moon

According to Philip Hiscock, a folklorist at the Memorial University, USA (now retired), the classic saying “once in a blue moon” is more than 400 years old. It originated as something so absurd it could never actually happen, similar to saying “when pigs fly”.

But it is possible on rare occasions for the Moon to turn blue.

Intense volcanic activity or smoky forest fires can fill Earth’s atmosphere with dust particles that are slightly larger than usual. As a result, red light is scattered away, giving everything a blue tinge, including the Moon (normally the atmosphere scatters blue light, hence why the sky is blue).

When Krakatoa erupted in 1883 the Moon turned blue for a couple of years.
flydime/Wikipedia

But when it comes to this lunar eclipse, it’s not the colour of the Moon but a quirk of our timekeeping that is in play.

What a difference a day makes

A Full Moon occurs every 29.5 days, but our months are longer (excluding February). This mismatch of timing means that every couple of years there comes a month with two Full Moons.

In recent times, a Blue Moon has referred to the second full moon of a calendar month. For most of the world, this lunar eclipse is occurring during a Blue Moon, except for Australia’s eastern states of New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory.

Those states follow daylight saving, which pushes the Full Moon into the following day and out of the month of January (the actual time of Full Moon is 12:26am AEDT, February 1). This leaves January with only one Full Moon for those states and territory.

A lunar eclipse begins in Virginia, USA, December 21, 2010.
Flickr/NASA/Bill Ingalls

But there’s more. This modern definition of Blue Moon arose only 30 years ago.




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The original definition is as follows: if four Full Moons occur between an equinox and a solstice (for example, in the three months between a spring equinox and a summer solstice) then the third Full Moon should be called a Blue Moon.

This ensured that the proper names of the Full Moons (common in North America, such as the Harvest Moon) were correct relative to the equinoxes and solstices.

The ConversationBut regardless of the exact flavour of this lunar eclipse, what’s certainly true is that we are part of a grand universe, and Wednesday night is the perfect reminder of that.

Tanya Hill, Honorary Fellow of the University of Melbourne and Senior Curator (Astronomy), Museums Victoria

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.