Earth-like exoplanet discovered: only 4.24 light-years away
Exoplanets are hard to find: astronomers have to patiently search for that brief shift in a star’s luminosity that indicates the planet has passed in front of it. But we search for such things, “not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” And we succeed!
I remember being excited while writing an article in May about a group of Belgian astronomers who discovered three Earth-like planets orbiting the dwarf star TRAPPIST-1. The most stunning thing was not that the planets were the first ever discovered around that particular kind of star, but rather their incredibly short distance from us: a mere 40 light-years.
However, an Earth-like planet may exist even closer: ten-times closer, in fact.
You’ve probably heard of Proxima Centauri before — it’s the closest star to us besides the Sun, and is part of the Alpha Centauri star system. On August 12 the German magazine Der Spiegel reported that scientists are preparing to unveil a new Earth-like planet orbiting it.
That means the Earth-like planet is only 4.24 light-years away.
Quoting un-named sources, Der Spiegel noted that the planet “orbits at a distance to Proxima Centauri that could allow it to have liquid water on its surface — an important requirement for the emergence of life.”
Der Spiegel stated that the European Southern Observatory (ESO) would announce the finding in late August. However, the ESO still has not released any information.
If confirmed, it would mean a lot. There are a number of reasons why we look for exoplanets: understanding how our own solar system formed, finding extra-terrestrial life, and developing technology. In my opinion, however, one of the biggest incentives is to insure options for the continued survival of the human race. It would be a huge step towards insuring our survival if we knew that a habitable planet orbits the second nearest star to us.
Canadian discovers new dwarf planet beyond Pluto’s orbit
In case you needed yet another reason to feel patriotically Canadian, following the recent Rio Olympics, I have something that could further cheer the patriot in you.
Using the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope on Maunakea, Hawaii, an international team of astronomers looked far into the depths of our solar system, as part of the ongoing Outer Solar System Origins Survey (OSSOS), to map the stars.
Although it wasn’t what they were looking for, the astronomers chanced to discover a new member of the group we call “dwarf planets."
“OSSOS was designed to map the orbital structure of the outer Solar System to decipher its history," said Prof. Brett Gladman of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. "While not designed to efficiently detect dwarf planets, we're delighted to have found one on such an interesting orbit.”
In fact, the first one to spot this newest group member was J.J. Kavelaars, a Canadian astronomer from Canada’s National Research Council. Were there such a thing as science Olympics, we’d have won the gold for this discovery.
Looking at some images taken in September 2015, Kavelaars was able to detect this 700 km-wide celestial object, now dubbed 2015 RR245. “There it was on the screen: this dot of light moving so slowly that it had to be at least twice as far as Neptune from the Sun,” said Michelle Bannister, an astronomer at the University of Victoria in British Columbia.
RR245 is not just any old dwarf planet, however. As the 18th largest object in the Kuiper Belt (a disc of objects past the orbit of Neptune), it likely formed some 100 million years ago. A lot of the objects formed at that place and time were literally thrown out of the solar system. RR245, however, managed to stay there: it’s a survivor, just like its bigger brother Pluto.
The most fascinating fact about RR245 isn’t its “survivor” status, however, nor its year-length (RR245 takes about 700 years to go around the Sun).
Rather, the most exceptional fact about RR245 is that when it’s at its furthest point from the Sun the distance is so huge (17 billion km) that light from the Sun takes 16.63 hours to reach it. For comparison, (depicted here), light from the Sun takes just eight minutes to reach us and about seven hours to reach Pluto.
The International Astronomical Union officially recognized RR245 as a dwarf planet, so after its orbit is correctly known and studied, the object will get a new and hopefully cooler name.
Moon photobombs Earth in epic NASA footage
The far side of the moon is a mysterious place, giving birth to countless sci-fi and horror movies as well as inspiring Pink Flloyd’s album of the same name. However, despite what the conspiracy theorists may believe, it’s actually just an unmanned, normal, very bright and beautiful place. And we have the pictures to prove it!
The Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) is an Earth-observing and space weather satellite manufactured by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Launched by SpaceX in February 2015, DSCOVR was placed on the L1 Lagrange point, which is a metastable orbit that keeps the satellite always between the Sun and the Earth, meaning it always sees our planet’s bright side.
On board the spacecraft is the Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera (EPIC), which is able to take pictures of Earth in 10 different frequencies, from ultraviolet to near infrared.
While their purposes are obviously scientific, the images captured by DSCOVR and EPIC’s are also profoundly inspirational. They also give you an impress of just how fragile earth really is. And they can make your jaw drop.
In fact, that is exactly what happened to me when I viewed the below footage, taken by EPIC, which made up of real images:
Kate Rubins arrives on the ISS & my trip to Space Camp
On July 6 at 9:36 pm ET, a trio of astronauts, including NASA biologist Dr. Kate Rubins, launched to the International Space Station (ISS), beginning a relatively short 4-month stay on the orbiting lab.
Normally, they would’ve arrived 6 hours after lifting off, which is the usual amount of time the Soyuz capsule needs to reach and dock with the station. But for Kate Rubins, Soyuz Commander Anatoly Ivanishin of the Russian space agency (Roscosmos) and Takuya Onishi of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), it was different. They had to cope with the old two-day trajectory to meet with the ISS, in order to test some new systems in their upgraded Soyuz spacecraft before enjoying the comfort of the station.
Finally, on July 8, 2:50 am ET, the hatch of the capsule opened as ISS commander Jeff Williams and his Expedition 48 crew welcomed their new colleagues.
Tired and sore from the two-day space road trip in a van-sized habitat, Dr. Rubins enjoyed her first moments ever on the ISS with relief and, of course, a live press conference. Russian cosmonaut Anatoli Ivanishin saw his second voyage on the station begin, while Japanese astronaut Takuya Onishi started his first mission as well. The trio’s arrival pumped the ISS crew back to 6 members, which marked the beginning of Expedition 48.
But don’t go thinking Expedition 48 is just like any other expedition: the crew is currently conducting more than 250 science investigations in fields such as biology, Earth sciences, human research and physics.
As Kate Rubins holds a bachelor’s degree in molecular biology and a doctorate in cancer biology, she will be her own test subject to help study the effects of microgravity on the human body and on biology in general. "This is the only laboratory we have as humans to study gravity as a variable," she told ABC News before her launch. "There's a world of insights to be gained into human health and disease by understanding how gravity and space radiation influence biology."
Besides performing numerous science experiments, one of Expedition 48’s main goals was to install a new docking port to the station for future spacecrafts.
Called the International Docking Adapter (IDA), the docking port will allow private companies to dock with the station, such as SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft, which is currently being developed, and Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner. Starting with SpaceX in late 2017, the two companies will rotate ferrying NASA astronauts to the ISS and back, hence a proper docking port being a priority.
On June 28, 2015, SpaceX launched its 7th uncrewed resupply cargo mission to the station. The mission, dubbed CRS-7, was the one intended to carry IDA to space. Unfortunately, the rocket blew up 2 minutes after liftoff.
As a result, more than a year later, on July 20, 2016, SpaceX sent its 9th Dragon cargo spacecraft to resupply the ISS with food, fuel, water and science equiptment to allow Dr. Rubins to sequence DNA in space (which will be a first) and to help study the process of bone loss in space, and of course, a new IDA.
The new docking adapter was, however, not placed in the Dragon’s pressurized compartment; rather, it was placed in the unpressurized “trunk” of the capsule, in order to allow it to be easily retracted.
Subsequently, on August 17, Canadarm2 and Dextre, both Canadian robots on the ISS, successfully retrieved IDA from the Dragon to put it three feet away from where it was to be attached. The whole maneuver took about 6 hours to perform.
However, Canadarm2 and Dextre are not ‘autonomous’ enough to complete the work of attaching IDA to the station: it required a spacewalk.
NASA didn’t have to think a lot as to who would conduct the spacewalk. To install IDA, manufactured by Americans and mostly used by Americans (at least in the near future), you need the two Americans astronauts onboard to get their hands dirty.
Therefore, on August 19, ISS commander Jeff Williams and biologist Kate Rubins suited up to attach to the station what is to be the key element to NASA’s future.
After more than six and a half hours, 36 ounces of water, and an unprecedented sense of accomplishment, Williams and Rubins completed a task that was supposed to be done almost a year ago. This represents a move towards greater American independence from Russia, as private companies such as SpaceX and Boeing slowly taking control of transporting NASA astronauts back and forth from the station.
It was a true team effort, as spacewalk flight director Zeb Scoville explained during a NASA briefing: "There’s a very coordinated interplay between the external crew outside, [those] on the inside, and the ground doing the commanding.”
As a point of interest, this wasn’t Rubins’ first spacewalk. As a kid, she attended Space Camp. For a week, she learned about rocket science and even launched her own rocket. She experienced simulated shuttle missions on realistic simulators where she did a spacewalk and learned about the space program’s history and was inspired to pursue a career in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) field.
Space Camp is a real thing that takes place yearly in the rocket city (Huntsville, Alabama), where I have lived every summer since 2009. To date, five Space Camp alumni are astronauts, including three that have flown to space: Dorothy Metcalf-Lindenburger (STS-131), Samantha Cristoforetti (Expedition 42/43), and now Kate Rubins (Expedition 48/49).
This summer I was invited to attend the Space Camp Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Four people of incredible success in the aerospace industry were inducted in this class of 2016, including George Whitesides, CEO of Virgin Galactic. All remember their trips to Space Camp when they were younger and all remember the positive effect that it had on them.
The thing I enjoyed the most during the induction ceremony was a video that Kate Rubins, who is also a Hall of Famer (class of 2012), recorded to congratulate the new inductees (she couldn’t attend the ceremony because she had launched to space two weeks earlier). To me, it was very inspiring to see this girl who lived the same thing as I do every summer launch to space. One of her statements that stood out the most to me was that “being an astronaut is a realistic career.”
If you want to be inspired, or if you think your kids would love Space Camp as much as I did, I highly recommend you take a look at their website: SpaceCamp.com.
If you’re more of a military/aviation type, you can also do Aviation Challenge, which includes F-18 ultra-realistic cockpit simulators, ground missions such as those conducted by SEAL Ops, as well as Drill & Ceremony introductions.
Space Camp is what inspired me as a kid to be passionate about science and astronomy, which eventually led me to writing these articles at 16 years old!