Tag: NASA

Google’s AI Found An Overlooked Exoplanet

NASA has discovered an eighth planet around a distant star, which means we’re no longer the largest solar system we know of.

The discovery was made thanks to some artificial intelligence help from Google, which found the planet by scouring previously overlooked “weak” signals in data captured by the Kepler Space Telescope.

The newly found planet is located in the solar system around Kepler-90, a star about 2,500 light-years away from Earth that was previously discovered in 2014.

The Kepler Space Telescope has been searching the galactic sky for exoplanets, or planets outside our own Solar System, since it launched in 2009.

In order to sift through all the data that it’s captured since that launch, scientists usually look at the strongest signals first.




And that process has worked well enough so far. NASA has confirmed 2,525 exoplanets in that time, a number that has changed our understanding of how common it is to find planets around the stars that make up our galaxy.

Recently, though, artificial intelligence has become a more prominent tool in astronomy.

Scientists, including ones who work on the Kepler data, have increasingly turned to machine learning to help sort through typically lower-priority data to see what they might have missed.

In the process, they found an overlooked planet that’s now named Kepler-90i.

But while we now know that Kepler-90 has the same number of orbiting planets as our Sun, the solar system is a poor candidate in the search for extraterrestrial life or at least, life as we know it.

Kepler-90 is about 20 percent bigger and 5 percent warmer than our Sun. And its eight planets dance around the star in much closer orbits than the ones in our own Solar System.

In fact, their orbits are so comparatively small that seven of Kepler-90’s eight planets would fit in between the Earth and the Sun.

The discovery of Kepler-90i, came after NASA let Google train its machine learning algorithms on 15,000 signals from potential planets in the Kepler database.

The scientists then took the trained system and set it to work on data from 670 stars that were already known to have multiple planets, as they considered those to be the most likely hiding places.

The newly discovered planet in Kepler-90, along with one other found in the Kepler-80 solar system announced today, are the first NASA was able to confirm from these new results from Google’s AI.

The inclusion of machine learning in this process shouldn’t scare humans whose livelihood revolves around discovering and studying exoplanets, according to Chris Shallue, a senior Google AI software engineer who worked on the project.

What we’ve developed here is a tool to help astronomers have more impact,” Shallue said on a conference call about the news.

It’s a way to increase the productivity of astronomers. It certainly won’t replace them at all.

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These Weird Red Arcs On Saturn’s Moon Tethys Can’t Be Explained

An icy moon of Saturn has mysterious red arcs of material crisscrossing its surface — and no one knows exactly how they got there.

The Cassini spacecraft caught these graffiti-like features on camera as it imaged the northern side of the Tethys, which is one of Saturn’s larger moons.

While the arcs faintly show up in 2004 pictures, the latest images, from April, are the first to really show their colors by incorporating the right viewing conditions and wavelengths invisible to the human eye.

This is partly because Saturn and its moons’ northern hemispheres are currently in summer, providing better illumination of this region.

The features were a surprise to scientists because red tints are rare in the solar system.




Until now, astronomers have spotted a few small, reddish craters on Saturn’s icy moon Dione, and identified many rouge zones on the icy surface of Jupiter’s Europa.

Scientists don’t exactly know how these features occurred. Perhaps they are ice with chemical impurities, leftovers from gas released from the moon or artifacts from features that were smaller than the resolution of the image.

The red arcs must be geologically young, because they cut across older features like impact craters, but we don’t know their age in years.” Paul Helfenstein, a Cassini imaging scientist at Cornell University who helped plan the observations, said in a statement.

If the stain is only a thin, colored veneer on the icy soil, exposure to the space environment at Tethys’ surface might erase them on relatively short time scales.

Icy moons lke Tethys are considered a key area of interest in our solar system because they could host microbial life if enough chemical energy and warmth is available in the oceans below the ice.

In recent years, plumes of gas have been repeatedly observed at Enceladus, another of Saturn’s moons, and in 2013 the Hubble Space Telescope spotted a single, large-plume event at Europa.

Cassini will do follow-up observations of Tethys at a higher resolution later this year. The mission is in the final two years of work before the spacecraft runs low on fuel in September 2017.

When that happens, it will plunge into Saturn’s atmosphere to protect the icy moons from possible contamination.

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President Trump Directs NASA To Return To The Moon, Then Aim For Mars

President Donald Trump signed his administration’s first space policy directive today (Dec. 11), which formally directs NASA to focus on returning humans to the moon.

President Trump signed the order during a ceremony in the Oval Office, surrounded by members of the recently re-established National Space Council (NSC).

As well as active NASA astronauts Christina Hammock Koch and Peggy Whitson, Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin, and retired astronaut Jack Schmitt, who flew to the moon on the Apollo 17 mission.

The directive I’m signing today will refocus America’s space program on human exploration and discovery,” Trump said during the ceremony.

It marks an important step in returning American astronauts to the moon for the first time since 1972, for long-term exploration and use.”




This time we will not only plant our flag and leave our footprint — we will establish a foundation for an eventual mission to Mars and perhaps someday to many worlds beyond.

Space Policy Directive 1 makes official a recommendation approved by the NSC in October. Vice President Mike Pence, who serves as chairman of the NSC, also spoke at the signing.

NASA recently announced that for human astronauts, the path to Mars will include a stop at the moon, where the agency may build a facility currently being called the Deep Space Gateway.

That structure could serve as a kind of way station between the Earth and the Red Planet.

Robert Lightfoot, NASA’s acting administrator, said he thinks the new directive could provide “a sense of urgency” to NASA’s spaceflight pursuits.

He noted that there are “a lot of people that want to help [NASA]” reach those goals, including international space partners and commercial space partners in the U.S.A.

In a separate statement, NASA officials said that the directive also officially ends NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), which would have sent robotic probes and then humans to an asteroid.

The Space Policy Directive 1 will “more effectively organize government, private industry, and international efforts toward returning humans [to] the Moon, and will lay the foundation that will eventually enable human exploration of Mars,” agency officials said.

Both the president and the vice president said today that NASA’s focus on its human spaceflight program will help create jobs for the country, and both men briefly mentioned the defense and military applications of the space program.

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NASA Reveals That Our Solar System’s First Interstellar Visitor Is Shaped Like A Cigar

A newly discovered object from another star system that’s passing through ours is shaped like a giant cigar with a reddish hue, astronomers have revealed.

The asteroid, named ‘Oumuamua by its discoverers, is up to one-quarter mile (400 meters) long and highly-elongated – perhaps 10 times as long as it is wide.

That aspect ratio is greater than that of any asteroid or comet observed in our solar system to date.

While its elongated shape is quite surprising, and unlike asteroids seen in our solar system, it may provide new clues into how other solar systems formed.

The observations and analyses were funded in part by NASA and appear in the Nov. 20 issue of the journal Nature.




They suggest this unusual object had been wandering through the Milky Way, unattached to any star system, for hundreds of millions of years before its chance encounter with our star system.

For decades we’ve theorized that such interstellar objects are out there, and now, for the first time, we have direct evidence they exist,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

“This history-making discovery is opening a new window to study formation of solar systems beyond our own.”

Combining the images from the FORS instrument on the ESO telescope using four different filters with those of other large telescopes.

A team of astronomers led by Karen Meech of the Institute for Astronomy in Hawaii found that ‘Oumuamua varies in brightness by a factor of ten as it spins on its axis every 7.3 hours.

No known asteroid or comet from our solar system varies so widely in brightness, with such a large ratio between length and width.

The most elongated objects we have seen to date are no more than three times longer than they are wide.

This unusually big variation in brightness means that the object is highly elongated: about ten times as long as it is wide, with a complex, convoluted shape,” said Meech.

These properties suggest that ‘Oumuamua is dense, comprised of rock and possibly metals, has no water or ice, and that its surface was reddened due to the effects of irradiation from cosmic rays over hundreds of millions of years.

Scientists are certain this asteroid or comet originated outside our solar system.

First spotted last month by the Pan-STARRS telescope in Hawaii, it will stick around for another few years before departing our sun’s neighborhood.

Jewitt and his international team observed the object for five nights in late October using the Nordic Optical Telescope in the Canary Islands and the Kitt Peak National Observatory near Tucson, Arizona.

At approximately 100 feet by 100 feet by 600 feet, the object has proportions roughly similar to a fire extinguisher — though not nearly as red, Jewitt said.

The slightly red hue specifically pale pink and varying brightness are remarkably similar to asteroids in our own solar system, he noted.

In a paper to the Astrophysical Journal Letters, the scientists report that our solar system could be packed with 10,000 such interstellar travelers at any given time.

It takes 10 years to cross our solar system, providing plenty of future viewing opportunities, the scientists said.

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Drone Race: Human Versus Artificial Intelligence

JPL engineers recently finished developing three drones and the artificial intelligence needed for them to navigate an obstacle course by themselves.

In October, NASA’s California-based Jet Propulsion Laboratory pitted a drone controlled by artificial intelligence against a professional human drone pilot named Ken Loo.

According to NASA’s press release, it had been researching autonomous drone technology for the past two years at that point, funded by Google and its interest in JPL’s vision-based navigation work.

The race consisted of a time-trial where the lap times and behaviors of both the A.I.-operated drone and the manually-piloted drone were analyzed and compared. Let’s take a look at the results.

NASA said in its release that the company developed three drones; Batman, Joker, and Nightwing.

Researchers focused mostly on the intricate algorithms required to navigate efficiently through a race like this, namely obstacle avoidance and maximum speed through narrow environments.




These algorithms were then combined with Google’s Tango technology, which JPL had a significant hand in as well.

Task Manager of the JPL project, Rob Reid said, “We pitted our algorithms against a human, who flies a lot more by feel.”

“You can actually see that the A.I. flies the drone smoothly around the course, whereas human pilots tend to accelerate aggressively, so their path is jerkier.”

As it turned out, Loo’s speeds were much higher, and he was able to perform impressive aerial maneuvers to his benefit, but the A.I.-infused drones were more consistent, and never gave in to fatigue.

“This is definitely the densest track I’ve ever flown,” said Loo. “One of my faults as a pilot is I get tired easily. When I get mentally fatigued, I start to get lost, even if I’ve flown the course 10 times.”

Loo averaged 11.1 seconds per lap, while the autonomous unmanned aerial vehicles average 13.9 seconds.

In other words, while Loo managed to reach higher speeds overall, the drones operating autonomously were more consistent, essentially flying a very similar lap and route each time.

Our autonomous drones can fly much faster,” said Reid. “One day you might see them racing professionally!

Of that latter statement, there’s certainly no doubt.

A future where companies like Google and NASA square off in public arenas where their autonomous drones compete against one another is definitely plausible.

It wouldn’t be shocking to see such an event televised, either, as we’re already seeing similar results with the Drone Racing League.

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Bacteria On Space Station Likely From Germy Humans, Not Aliens

Living bacteria have been found on the outside of the International Space Station, a Russian cosmonaut told the state news agency TASS this week.

Anton Shkaplerov, who will lead Russia’s ISS crew in December, said that previous cosmonauts swabbed the station’s Russian segment during spacewalks and sent the samples back to Earth.

The samples came from places on the station that had accumulated fuel waste, as well as other obscure nooks and crannies.

Their tests showed that the swabs held types of bacteria that were not on the module when it originally launched into orbit, Shkaplerov says.

In his interview with TASS, Shkaplerov says the bacteria “have come from outer space and settled along the external surface“, a claim that sparked some media outlets to issue frenzied reports about aliens colonizing the space station.

For now, though, details about the swabbing experiment are thin on the ground.




Shkaplerov did not note whether the study has been vetted by a peer-reviewed journal, which means it’s unclear exactly when and how the full experiment was conducted, or how the team avoided any contamination from much more mundane bacteria on the cosmonauts or in the Earth-bound lab.

Interview requests with the Russian space agency were unanswered when this article went to press. Up in the vacuum of space, microbes have to deal with turbulent temperatures, cosmic radiation, and ultraviolet light.

But Earth is home to plenty of hardy organisms that can survive in extreme environments, like virtually indestructible tardigrades.

Sometimes, researchers intentionally send terrestrial contaminants, such as E. coli and rocks covered in bacteria, into space to see how it will react.

And TASS reports that on a previous ISS mission, bacteria accidentally hitched a ride to the station on tablet PCs and other materials.

Scientists sent these objects up to see how they would fare in space, and the freeriding organisms managed to infiltrate the outside of the station.

They remained there for three years, braving temperatures fluctuating between -150 and 150 degrees Celsius.

 

These types of discoveries present concerns for scientists trying to limit the spread of human germs on other worlds.

NASA in particular has set strict limits on its interplanetary contamination.

Apollo astronauts were quarantined when they returned from their missions, for example, to prevent extraterrestrial germs from making their way out into the world.

And almost all equipment from Earth is sterilized before it heads skyward, either with extreme heat or an alcohol bath, depending on its intended destination.

These treatments are especially important for missions sent to Mars, which may have once hosted its own life-forms, leaving fossil traces in the rusty rocks.

But all bets may be off when and if we manage to send humans to explore Mars, writes The Planetary Society’s Emily Lakdawalla: “Once we’ve put humans on the surface, alive or dead, it becomes much, much harder to identify native Martian life.”

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Voyager 1 Just Fired Up its Backup Thrusters For The 1st Time In 37 Years

NASA’s far-flung Voyager 1 spacecraft has taken its backup thrusters out of mothballs.

Voyager 1 hadn’t used its four “trajectory correction maneuver” (TCM) thrusters since November 1980, during the spacecraft’s last planetary flyby — an epic encounter with Saturn.

But mission team members fired them up again Tuesday (Nov. 28), to see whether the TCM thrusters were still ready for primetime.

The little engines passed the test with flying colors, NASA officials said.

The Voyager team got more excited each time with each milestone in the thruster test,” Todd Barber, a propulsion engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, said in a statement.

The mood was one of relief, joy and incredulity after witnessing these well-rested thrusters pick up the baton as if no time had passed at all.




As Barber’s words suggest, the mission team didn’t do this out of idle curiosity.

Voyager 1 which in August 2012 became the first human-made object ever to enter interstellar space has long been using its standard attitude-control thrusters to orient itself into the proper position to communicate with Earth.

But the performance of these thrusters has been flagging for at least three years, so mission team members wanted to find an alternative option.

A successful test was far from guaranteed. Not only was the long layoff a potential issue, but the TCM thrusters were designed to burn continuously for relatively long stretches.

They had never been fired in the very short bursts employed for attitude control, NASA officials said.

The Voyager flight team dug up decades-old data and examined the software that was coded in an outdated assembler language, to make sure we could safely test the thrusters,” Chris Jones, chief engineer at JPL, said in the same statement.

The plan is now to press the TCM engines into service in the attitude-control role, beginning in January. This should make a big difference for the mission, team members said.

But the four TCM thrusters will likely be retired again at some point in the future.

Each one requires a heater to operate, which in turn uses power.

When Voyager 1’s power supply gets too low, the probe’s handlers will switch back to the attitude-control thrusters, NASA officials said.

Voyager 1 and its twin, Voyager 2, launched a few weeks apart in 1977 to conduct an unprecedented “grand tour” of the solar system’s giant planets Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.

The spacecraft accomplished this goal, and then kept on flying. Voyager 2 is expected to join its sibling in interstellar space in the next few years, NASA officials said.

The mission team will probably do a similar TCM test on Voyager 2 at some point, but that spacecraft’s attitude-control thrusters are in better shape than those of Voyager 1, NASA officials said.

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NASA Confirms New Horizons Is Hurtling Towards Some Barren Space Rock Named 2014 MU69

Remember how excited you were last summer?

No, not because you found a booth at the state fair selling deep fried beer. I’m talking about New Horizons, sillies.

Well get ready for another bout of excitement, because NASA has greenlit New Horizons’ next target: a lump of rock out in the Kuiper Belt called 2014 MU69.

And don’t worry if you’re still exhausted from last year’s Pluto-brations (or the Juno mission’s orbital insertion happening this July 4th).

New Horizons isn’t scheduled to rendezvous with 2014 MH69 until January 1st, 2019, so you have plenty of time to get ready.




Because what better way is there to spend your New Years’ hangover than sitting in the dark and waiting for a space probe five and a half billion miles away to send a few squawks home confirming that it passed its target successfully?

But wait, you ask. Doesn’t this 2014 MU69 character sound familiar? It should.

Nineties kids will remember that in season three of Big Bad Beetleborgs, a cyborg monster called 2014 MU69 kidnaps Flabber, leading Drew, Jo, and Roland on a wild chase through the Hillhurst suburbs.

Just kidding, everyone knows that show only had two seasons.

2014 MU69 should really only sound familiar to Pluto-heads who were paying attention last August when NASA first announced the Kuiper Belt object as New Horizons’ next target. So what is new?

Well, this is NASA just doubling down, saying it has allotted funding to the mission. Yay, money!

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NASA’s Space Telescope Faces Cuts To Reduce Costs

Nasa plans to “downscope” one of its flagship missions to keep it within cost estimates. This almost certainly means reducing its scientific capabilities.

The Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFirst) is designed to study essential astrophysical and cosmological questions.

This ambitious mission began in 2016 when Nasa asked its scientists and engineers to come up with a mission that was as sensitive as the Hubble space telescope, but would have 100 times its field of view.

Initially, WFirst was projected to cost $1.6bn (£1.2bn), but that doubled as Nasa’s ambition grew. Earlier this year, an independent review panel found that the final cost was likely to be closer to $4bn.




This week Nasa decided to look at ways to return the costs to $3.2bn. These include using commercial rather than bespoke components and making cuts to the science instruments.

Although the cost-capping will affect the final science, it may be essential to ensure the mission goes ahead at all. In the past, NASA has cancelled missions that significantly overran their budgets.

WFirst’s primary mission is to determine the behaviour of the mysterious dark energy that is accelerating the expansion of the universe, and to map the distribution of the equally mysterious dark matter across space.

In addition, it will test a technology that will allow us to study the atmosphere of planets around other stars.

This technology is called a coronagraph, and blocks the light from a star, allowing the fainter planets to be seen around it.

Nasa will review the new design in February 2018, and decide whether to proceed to the next stage of the mission.

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Superflare From Crab Nebula Has Astronomers Mystified

The Crab Nebula, the dusty remains of an exploded star, has unleashed a surprisingly massive flare that is five times more powerful than any eruption previously seen from the celestial object, leaving scientists struggling to explain the event, NASA says.

The so-called “superflare” was detected on April 12 by NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, which is continuously mapping the sky in gamma ray wavelengths in search of gamma-ray bursts, the brightest explosions in the universe.

The Crab Nebula’s strong outburst lasted six days, and its exact cause has scientists scratching their heads, especially since the superflare followed an earlier gamma-ray flare from the nebula in January.

The outburst observed by Fermi was likely triggered by electrons with energies 100 times greater than can be achieved in any particle accelerator on Earth, scientists said.

This makes them the highest-energy electrons known to be associated with any galactic source.

Based on the rise and fall of gamma rays during the April outbursts, scientists estimate that the size of the emitting region must be comparable to our entire solar system.

The Crab Nebula’s legacy

The spectacular and colorful Crab Nebula is the wreckage of a dying star that emitted an explosion of light that reached Earth in the year 1054.

The former star was located 6,500 light-years away from Earth in the constellation Taurus when it erupted in a brilliant supernova explosion.

At the heart of an expanding gas cloud lies what is left of the original star’s core, a super-dense neutron star that spins 30 times a second.

With each rotation, the star swings intense beams of radiation toward Earth, creating the pulsed emission characteristic of spinning neutron stars, which are also known as pulsars.

Apart from these pulses, astrophysicists thought the Crab Nebula was a virtually constant source of high-energy radiation.

But, in January, scientists representing a variety of space-based observatories, including NASA’s Fermi, Swift and Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer, reported long-term changes in brightness at X-ray energies.

The Crab Nebula hosts high-energy variability that we’re only now fully appreciating,” said Rolf Buehler, a member of the Fermi Large Area Telescope (LAT) team at the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology, a facility jointly located at the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and Stanford University in California.

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