MrSeb writes: "Researchers at Cardiff University in the UK have found algae-like fossils in meteorite fragments that landed in Sri Lanka last year. This is the strongest evidence yet of cometary panspermia — that life on Earth began when a meteorite containing simple organisms landed here, billions of years ago — and, perhaps more importantly, that there’s life elsewhere in the universe. These findings aren’t a slam dunk, though. There’s a possibility that the fossils aren’t actually biological in nature — they simply look biological. There’s also the fact that the research was published in the Journal of Cosmology, a peer-reviewed journal that has come under critical scrutiny numerous times since it was established in 2009. The journal faced a lot of controversy when it published a paper by NASA engineer Richard Hoover claiming to have found fossils “similar to cyanobacteria” in meteorites. One thing’s for certain, though: For this to actually become science — for Chandra Wickramasinghe’s dream of panspermia to become a reality — this work will need to be replicated by many other groups around the world. It would be very, very exciting indeed if biological fossils have been found on an extraterrestrial meteorite. It would be proof that there’s life on other planets — and essentially a guarantee that the universe is full of life. But, as always, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."
MrSeb writes: "Yesterday morning marked the one-year anniversary of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission. One year ago, an Atlas V 541 rocket lifted off from Cape Canaveral with the largest, most expensive interplanetary payload ever constructed by humankind: Mars rover Curiosity. Tasked with the mission of finding out whether Mars has ever supported extraterrestrial life, the MSL mission has so far been an unparalleled success — and hopefully, in the skilled hands of NASA engineers, Curiosity will continue to return valuable scientific data for years to come. In recent news, Curiosity took its first sniff of Martian atmosphere using its SAM instrument and found no sign of methane, probably ruling out the existence of alien life on Mars. In the last few days, Curiosity has finally moved away from the Rocknest site and is now situated at Point Lake, where NASA hopes to try out Curiosity’s last remaining untested tool: a drill that can bore into rocks. Then, if all goes to plan, Curiosity will spend a few weeks/months at Glenelg, and then roll on towards Mount Sharp — the primary target of NASA's MSL mission."
MrSeb writes: "The dream of faster-than-light travel has been on the mind of humanity for generations. Until recently, though, it was restricted to the realm of pure science fiction. Theoretical mechanisms for warp drives have been posited by science, some of which actually jive quite nicely with what we know of physics. Of course, that doesn't mean they’re actually going to work, though. NASA researchers recently revisited the Alcubierre warp drive and concluded that its power requirements were not as impossible as once thought. However, a new analysis from the University of Sydney claims that using a warp drive of this design comes with a drawback. Specifically, it could cause cataclysmic explosions at your destination."
MrSeb writes: "Felix Baumgartner has successfully completed his stratospheric skydive from 128,000 feet (39km), breaking a record that was set 52 years ago by Air Force Captain Joe Kittinger — that much we know. From the balloon, to the capsule, to the gear that Baumgartner wore during his 730 mph (1174 kph) free fall, the technology behind the scenes is impressive, and in some cases bleeding edge. ExtremeTech takes a deep dive into the tech that kept Baumgartner alive during the three-hour ascent and (much shorter) descent — and the tech that allowed us to watch every moment of the Red Bull Stratos mission live, as captured by no less than 15 digital cameras and numerous other scientific instruments."
MrSeb writes: "Scientists at Yale University have discovered a nearby super-Earth that is a “diamond planet” — a planet that has a mantle made of graphite and diamond. The planet, called 55 Cancri e, is just 40 light years from Earth and orbits the binary star 55 Cancri, which is located in the constellation of Cancer. When the planet was first observed last year, it was originally thought to be a water planet, similar to Earth, but new information has allowed the scientists to infer that the planet is much more likely to be a diamond planet. The Yale scientists estimate that as much as one third of 55 Cancri e’s mass is made up of diamond — the same as three Earth masses, or roughly 18×1024kg. This is a few trillion times more diamond than has ever been mined on Earth. The identification of just a single diamond-rich planet is massive news. In recent years we have identified hundreds of rocky, Earth-like planets — and until now, we had assumed they had similar make-ups. It is now fairly safe to assume that there are millions of diamond planets in the universe."
MrSeb writes: "NASA’s Curiosity rover has now been on the surface of Mars for just over a week. It hasn’t moved an inch after landing, instead focusing on orienting itself (and NASA’s scientists) by taking instrument readings and snapping images of its surroundings. The first beautiful full-color images of Gale Crater are starting to trickle in, and NASA has already picked out some interesting rock formations that it will investigate further in the next few days (pictures below). Over the weekend and continuing throughout today, however, Curiosity is attempting something very risky indeed: A firmware upgrade. This got me thinking: If NASA can transmit new software to a Mars rover that's hundreds of millions of miles away... why can't a hacker do the same thing? In short, there's no reason a hacker couldn't take control of Curiosity, or lock NASA out. All you would need is your own massive 230-foot dish antenna and a 400-kilowatt transmitter — or, perhaps more realistically, you could hack into NASA's computer systems, which is exactly what Chinese hackers did 13 times in 2011."
MrSeb writes: "The Met Office, the UK’s weather forecasting service, will begin to provide space weather forecasts for Earth, and weather forecasts for exoplanets. Presumably this is to ensure that when we set out on an interstellar journey to a planet orbiting Proxima Centauri, we want to make sure that it isn’t raining when we land. Just kidding (well, kind of). The “space weather” forecasts are basically an upwards extension to the thermosphere, a region of atmosphere about 90-600 kilometers (55-370 miles) above Earth. The International Space Station, with a low earth orbit of around 350km, resides in the thermosphere. As you might’ve read recently, the Sun is currently producing a huge solar flare that threatens to disrupt computers and communications satellites — by extending its weather model to the thermosphere, the Met Office hopes to predict and mitigate the damage from similar occurrences in the future. The forecasting of exoplanet weather is another thing entirely. 'Most of the hundreds of extra-solar planets discovered to date are gas giants orbiting very close to their host star. These planets are strongly irradiated by the parent star, with one side experiencing permanent day and the other in permanent night,' says David Acreman, one of the astrophysicists working on the project. 'The day side of the planet is much hotter than the night side and this temperature difference causes high speed winds to flow. These winds can be as fast as a few kilometers per second.' As for why we’re attempting to forecast exoplanet weather, it’s all about science. These planets might have kilometer-per-second winds, but they’re still governed by the same physical laws on Earth. By analyzing the winds and temperature shifts, we can derive a better model of what the planets are actually like beneath the atmosphere. When it comes to studying Earth-like exoplanets that we might eventually visit, studying their weather might tell us if the planet is habitable, or indeed if there’s already signs of alien life."
MrSeb writes: "Just in time for Christmas (or Hanukkah, or Festivus, or...), NASA’s Cassini probe has sent back some amazing photos of Titan, Dione, Tethys, and of Saturn herself. Cassini has now been orbiting Saturn for seven years, and is scheduled to continue operating until 2017, by which point — because it takes almost 30 Earth years for Saturn to orbit the Sun — it will still only have experienced Saturnian spring and summer."
MrSeb writes: "New research conducted by Abraham Loeb from Harvard University and Edwin Turner from Princeton University shows that electric, artificial lights on remote planets could be detected using next-generation ground and space telescopes. The basic approach is simple: planets that are exclusively illuminated by a local sun will have one "light signature," while a planet with artificial lights will have another. Loeb and Turner say that this technique, with our current telescopes, would be able to pick out a major terrestrial city on the edge of the Solar System, in the Kuiper belt (50 AU) — but future telescopes, or the telescopes belonging to advanced, alien races, could see farther. More interesting than the how is the why. Why are Loeb and Turner interested in weak, visible-light spectra rather than the megawatts of easily-detectable radio waves that are pumped into space every second? Because the amount of radio waves being produced by humanity — mostly thanks to fiber optic networks — is on the decline. In turn, this infers that other, advanced civilizations might have moved beyond radio communications too. In this case, radio astronomy won't help us (or alien civilizations) the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) — but looking for artificial light would."
MrSeb writes: "Just in time for Halloween, DARPA has published details of a new satellite that will allow scientists to create Frankensteinian satellites out of dead communications equipment currently orbiting the Earth. Right now there are about 19,000 different pieces of space debris in both low and high orbit around the planet, creating a dangerous scenario for both space flight and expensive items like the Hubble space telescope. Aptly named Phoenix, the idea is simple with a complex implementation. Using re-purposed robot arms from assembly lines and surgery units to create the scavenger bot, Phoenix will be shot into space and placed in the “graveyard” orbit that all the dead satellites are on as well. From there, it will attach to these units, and cut away different components to be used to create new, working units to be placed back into useful service. Phoenix is slated to launch in 2015 for testing, but there are some hurdles to its success, namely the Outer Space Treaty that states that an object launched into orbit remains the property of the country that put it there."
MrSeb writes: "The largest astronomical installation in the world is now operational. ALMA, or the Atacama Large Millimeter Array, is a vast radio telescope made out of 66 12- and 7-meter dish antennae situated 5,000m above sea level, in Chile. Its purpose is to seek out new life and new civilizations and to boldly go where no telescope has gone before. But no, seriously: its job is to peer into the past and investigate ancient stars and nebulae, peer at exoplanets that might support human (or alien) life, and hopefully learn more about interstellar creation and destruction. For now only 20 out of 66 antennae are in place, but when it is complete — late next year — it will have a resolving power far greater than Hubble, according to the European Space Observatory (ESO) that operates ALMA."
MrSeb writes: "NASA has announced the imminent birth of the Space Launch System (SLS), a rocket that will be powered by five Space Shuttle Main Engines and two Space Shuttle Solid Rocket Boosters — a configuration that will make it the most powerful launch vehicle ever made. The tentative first-launch date is December 2017, where the equally-drily-named Multiple-Purpose Crew Vehicle will be sent on an unmanned trip around the Moon — and if all goes to plan, starting 2021, and for the first time in 60 years, astronauts will fly around the Moon."
MrSeb writes: "Remarkable new images of the Apollo landing sites on the Moon have just been released by Nasa. The pictures clearly show the hardware left on the lunar surface by American astronauts in the 1960s and 70s, including Apollo 17's "moon buggy". The images were acquired by the robotic Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), which has been circling Earth's satellite since 2009. LRO has recently lowered its orbit from 50km above the Moon's surface to just 25km."