Scientific American is the essential guide to the most awe-inspiring advances in science and technology, explaining how they change our understanding of the world and shape our lives.


The New Horizons probe has sent back its best picture yet of the small, icy object Ultima Thule, which it flew past on New Year's Day.

The image was acquired when the Nasa spacecraft was just 6,700km from its target, which scientists think is two bodies lightly fused together - giving the look of a snowman.

Surface details are now much clearer. New Horizons' data is coming back very slowly, over the next 20 months.

This is partly to do with the great distance involved (the separation is 6.5 billion km) but is also limited by the small power output of the probe's transmitter and the size (and availability) of the receive antennas here on Earth. It all makes for glacial bit rates.

The new image was obtained with New Horizons' wide-angle Multicolor Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC) and gives a resolution of 135m per pixel. There is another version of this scene taken at even higher reso

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lution by the probe's Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), but this has not yet been downlinked from the probe.

When the best pictures from the moment of closest approach (a miss distance of 3,500km) are available, they should have resolutions of roughly 35m per pixel.

But even in the latest MVIC observation, the new detail is fascinating. Ultima Thule's topography has now sharpened sufficiently for us to see the defined outline of a number of pits, especially along the day/night boundary, or terminator.

For scale, the overall length of the snowman is about 33km.

Researchers will have to determine whether the holes are impact craters or voids created by some other type of process - such as the escape of volatile materials.

Ultima Thule, a conglomeration of ice and dust, orbits the Sun in a sparsely populated and low-energy environment known as the Kuiper belt.

The chance of a collision with other objects ought therefore to be exceedingly low, but then this snowman was very probably created right at the start of Solar System formation and has had time to pick up at least a few scars.


Things are officially getting exciting. New science has just come in from the collaboration to photograph Sagittarius A*, the supermassive black hole at the centre of the Milky Way, and it's ponying up the secrets at our galaxy's dusty heart. The image below is the best picture yet of Sgr A* (don't worry, there's more to come from the Event Horizon Telescope), and while it may look like just a weird blob of light to you, astrophysicists studying the radio data can learn a lot from what they're looking at - and they think they've identified a relativistic jet angled towards Earth. Because the image taken of the region is the highest resolution yet - twice as high as the previous best - the researchers were able to precisely map the properties of the light around the black hole as scattered by the cloud. "The galactic centre is full of matter around the black hole, which acts like frosted glass that we have to look through," astrophysicist Eduard

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o Ros of the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Germany told New Scientist. Using very long baseline interferometry to take observations at a wavelength of 3.5 millimetres (86 GHz frequency), a team of astronomers has used computer modelling to simulate what's inside the thick cloud of plasma, dust and gas surrounding the black hole.

The upcoming total lunar eclipse connects in an important way with another, which the author experienced as a child in 1964.
The starting date for flights has been pushed back several times. Branson originally predicted that Virgin Galactic would be flying customers into space by 2007. Development issues, a 2007 fatal explosion during a ground test and a tragic test-flight crash in October 2014 are some of the things that have delayed work.

On Dec. 13, 2018, the company achieved a major accomplishment when their VSS Unity test vehicle reached space — at least, according to one definition. The vehicle reached an altitude of 51.4 miles (82.7 kilometers), which is slightly higher than what the U.S. Air Force considers the border between Earth's atmosphere and space when giving astronaut wings to its pilots. However, the more famous Kármán line defining where space begins is at 62 miles (100 km) up.

Virgin plans to operate its future private space flights out of the Spaceport America complex in New Mexico, but it has also signed an agreement to develop a spaceport in Abu Dhabi.

The company has hundreds
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of customers who have made deposits for spaceflights. The biggest known name on the list (announced in 2012) is actor Ashton Kutcher, although rumor has it that actors Angelina Jolie, Tom Hanks, Brad Pitt and singer Katy Perry have signed on as well. A few people reportedly backed out after the October 2014 crash.
The first direct evidence of white dwarf stars solidifying into crystals has been discovered by astronomers at the University of Warwick, and our skies are filled with them.

Observations have revealed that dead remnants of stars like our Sun, called white dwarfs, have a core of solid oxygen and carbon due to a phase transition during their lifecycle similar to water turning into ice but at much higher temperatures. This could make them potentially billions of years older than previously thought.

The discovery, led by Dr. Pier-Emmanuel Tremblay from the University of Warwick's Department of Physics, has been published in Nature and is largely based on observations taken with the European Space Agency's Gaia satellite.
NASA’s Kepler Mission K2 team announced the discovery of another new world today, two months after the Kepler spacecraft ran out of fuel on Oct. 30th, and ended its mission after nine years, during which it discovered 2,600 confirmed planets around other stars – the bulk of those now known – along with thousands of additional candidates astronomers are working to confirm.

While NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite is the newest space-based planet hunter, this new finding shows that more discoveries await scientists in Kepler data. Citizen scientists using data from NASA’s Kepler space telescope, discovered a planet roughly twice the size of Earth located within its star’s habitable zone, the range of orbital distances where liquid water may exist on the planet’s surface.

The new world, known as K2-288Bb, could be rocky or could be a gas-rich planet similar to Neptune. Its size is rare among exoplanets – planets beyond our solar system.
Is there life beyond Earth? Join NASA's director of planetary science James Green for a survey of the places in our solar system that are most likely to harbor alien life.
China’s rover Yutu 2 has begun exploring the far side of the moon after making a soft landing with the lander.

The rover will used ground-penetrating radar to map the moon’s inner structures, analyze soil and rock samples for minerals and chemicals with potential economic value, and activate a radio telescope to search for possible signals from distant universes.
Humans have landed a spacecraft on the far side of the moon for the first time in history.

China's Chang'e 4 spacecraft achieved the milestone at 10:26 a.m. on Jan. 3 in Beijing (6:26 p.m. PT on Jan. 2), with the country's space agency landing its lunar probe in Von Kármán crater on the moon's mysterious far side. Official word was provided at 12 p.m. local time (8 p.m. PT) by Chinese State Media service CCTV.

It sent back the first photo of the lunar surface a few hours later, via the relay satellite Queqiao (Magpie Bridge), according to the state-run China Global Television Network.
After the historic announcement in February 2016 hailing the discovery of gravitational waves, it didn’t take long for skeptics to emerge.

The detection of these feeble undulations in the fabric of space and time by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) was said to have opened a new ear on the cosmos. But the following year, a group of physicists at the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen published a paper casting doubt on LIGO’s analysis. They focused their criticism on the experiment’s famous first signal, a squiggly line — representing the collision of giant black holes more than a billion light-years away — that was printed in newspapers worldwide and tattooed on bodies.
InSight, welcome to the 'gram, my clever robot friend.*

NASA's Mars lander has been stretching and snapping photos of the martian landscape and bits of itself since its successful landing on Nov. 26. It's even captured the dim rumbling of the Martian winds. However, it's been missing a crucial piece of the photography tool kit: The full-on selfie.
NASA’s new Mars lander has captured the first sounds of the “really unworldly” Martian wind.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory released audio clips of the alien wind Friday. The low-frequency rumblings were collected by the InSight lander during its first week of operations at Mars.

The wind is estimated to be blowing 10 mph to 15 mph (16 kph to 24 kph). These are the first sounds from Mars that are detectable by human ears, according to the researchers.

“Reminds me of sitting outside on a windy summer afternoon ... In some sense, this is what it would sound like if you were sitting on the InSight lander on Mars,” Cornell University’s Don Banfield told reporters.

Setting new commercial launch and satellite industry records, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket propelled by a first stage booster launched and recovered two times before soared into a clear morning sky over California’s Central Coast on Monday with 64 small satellites, then returned to a pinpoint landing on a vessel parked offshore in the Pacific Ocean, potentially to be flown again.

A Falcon 9 rocket with a pre-flown first stage successfully launched the Es'hail-2 communications satellite today (Nov. 15). And the first stage aced its landing, touching down on a SpaceX "droneship" off the Florida coast.
NASA's Juno spacecraft continues to send never-before-seen views of Jupiter home, which includes the one at the top of this page that shows a "dragon's eye" on its surface from about 4,400 miles away.

Scientists have broken their silence on the cigar-shaped asteroid which entered Earth’s solar system with Harvard professors claiming the interstellar object could have been sent by aliens.


The mannequin and its electric vehicle are in an elliptical orbit around the sun, with an estimated top speed of 7 miles per second.


NASA's Charlie Sobeck, former manager of the Kepler Space Telescope mission, discusses the monumental findings of the spacecraft and NASA's decision to retire it in orbit.

Another red dwarf has been caught firing off a superpowerful flare, further bolstering the notion that life might have a hard time taking root around these small, dim stars.

Researchers have identified a young star with four Jupiter and Saturn-sized planets in orbit around it, the first time that so many massive planets have been detected in such a young system. The system has also set a new record for the most extreme range of orbits yet observed: the outermost planet is more than a thousand times further from the star than the innermost one, which raises interesting questions about how such a system might have formed. The star is just two million years old – a 'toddler' in astronomical terms – and is surrounded by a huge disc of dust and ice. This disc, known as a protoplanetary disc, is where the planets, moons, asteroids and other astronomical objects in stellar systems form. The star was already known to be remarkable because it contains the first so-called hot Jupiter—a massive planet orbiting very close to its parent star – to have been discovered around such a young star. Although hot Jupiters were the first type

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of exoplanet to be discovered, their existence has long puzzled astronomers because they are often thought to be too close to their parent stars to have formed in situ. Read more at: https://phys.org/news/2018-10-giant-planets-young-star.html


Another NASA space telescope has shut down and halted science observations. Less than a week after the Hubble Space Telescope went offline, the Chandra X-ray Observatory has shut itself down. The US space agency said on Friday that Chandra has automatically went into so-called safe mode on Wednesday, possibly because of a gyroscope problem. A gyroscope is a device used to point and stabilize the observatory. Hubble went into hibernation last Friday due to a gyroscope failure.


The crew aboard the International Space Station (ISS) has enough fuel, oxygen, water, and food to last at least six months, Vladimir Solovyov, flight director of the Russian segment of the ISS, was cited as saying by Russian news agencies on Sunday. Russia has temporarily suspended all manned space


Less than a week after the Hubble Space Telescope went offline, the Chandra X-ray Observatory did the same thing. NASA said Friday that Chandra's automatically went into so-called safe mode Wednesday, possibly because of a gyroscope problem. Hubble went into hibernation last Friday due to a gyroscope failure. Both orbiting observatories are old and in well-extended missions: Hubble is 28, while Chandra is 19. Flight controllers are working to resume operations with both. Read more at: https://phys.org/news/2018-10-nasa-space-telescope-orbit.html

NASA astronaut Nick Hague and Russian cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin have been forced to return to Earth in "ballistic descent mode" after their Soyuz rocket's booster malfunctioned shortly after launch, NASA announced Thursday.

The two crewmembers were launching on a trip to the International Space Station when the failure occured. Both are safe and back on the ground.

"The Soyuz capsule is returning to Earth via a ballistic descent, which is a sharper angle of landing compared to normal," the agency tweeted.
A Falcon 9 rocket launching an Argentine Earth-observing satellite streaked across the skies of Southern California on Sunday night, then its booster stage returned to Vandenberg Air Force Base for an on-target landing, the first by SpaceX on the West Coast.

The commercial launcher lifted off from Vandenberg, a military base about 140 miles (225 kilometers) northwest of Los Angeles, at 7:21:28 p.m. PDT Sunday (10:21:28 p.m. EDT; 0221:28 GMT Monday).

Climbing into a clear evening sky, the Falcon 9 pitched downrange south from Vandenberg, exceeded the speed of sound in about one minute, then shut down its nine Merlin main engines at around T+plus 2 minutes, 20 seconds.

Four seconds later, the first stage dropped away from the Falcon 9’s second stage at an altitude of more than 250,000 feet — about 77 kilometers — then pulsed cold gas thrusters to flip around reignite three of its Merlin engines to reverse course and head back to Vandenberg Air Force Base.

The rocket’s comet-l
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ike appearance in the skies over Southern California prompted countless social media posts, with spectators sharing imagery of a bulbous exhaust cloud created by Falcon 9’s first and second stage engines. The engines on each stage were firing simultaneously as one part of the launcher headed into orbit over the Pacific Ocean, and the first stage steered back toward the coast.
Exploring the tropics of Jupiter's ocean moon Europa would be no walk on the beach.

Equatorial regions of the potentially life-supporting Europa, which harbors a huge ocean of salty liquid water beneath its icy shell, are probably studded with blades of ice up to 50 feet (15 meters) tall, a new study suggests.

This finding should be of interest to NASA, which is developing a lander mission that will hunt for signs of life on the 1,900-mile-wide (3,100 kilometers) satellite.
NASA's Voyager 2 space probe, launched in 1977 on a grand tour of the solar system, may be nearing interstellar space. Carrying a message for extraterrestrials, the iconic Golden Record, the Voyager 2 is now about 11 billion miles (about 17.7 billion kilometers) from Earth and still sends data back daily from its various sensors. Most recently, it has detected an increase in higher-energy cosmic rays that originate outside our solar system. This increase in the rate of cosmic rays indicates that the Voyager 2 may soon break through the heliosphere, the "bubble" of charged particles generated by our sun, and cross into interstellar space. Voyager 1 entered interstellar space in 2012.
Mysterious "ghost" radio emissions have been spotted by researchers, some that have lasted for 25 years, only to fade away and then return. While the "ghost" emissions could be extremely common, the cause is still unknown, according to experts.
Three years after its first Florida rocket landing, SpaceX brings sonic booms and landing light shows to California
Last year, in its Grand Finale, the Cassini spacecraft dove repeatedly between Saturn and its rings. This week, 6 teams of researchers published new research based on Cassini's final days and those daredevil dives.
Astronomers have announced the possible discovery of the first known moon outside our Solar System.

This "exomoon" is not like any in our cosmic neighbourhood: it's the size of Neptune and orbits a planet the size of Jupiter - but with 10 times the mass.

The object was spotted in data from Nasa's Kepler spacecraft, and later observed using the Hubble telescope.

Astronomers David Kipping and Alex Teachey have published their results in Science Advances journal.

But they say that further observations are needed to understand the distant planetary system.
Tired? Sluggish? Wouldn't it be great if you could just switch your brain to a better functioning version? Well, that's a privilege you can enjoy if you're the Mars Curiosity rover. NASA's intrepid explorer has been subject to a few technical problems over the last two weeks, which means it's been struggling to send its data back to Earth, so engineers have decided to activate Curiosity's second brain.
A statistical analysis of 740 supernovas found that black holes can only account for 40 percent of dark matter in the universe, putting another nail in the coffin for the MACHOs theory of dark matter.
A new discovery is strengthening the idea that a large, mysterious planet — known as Planet 9 or Planet X — may be lurking unseen at the Solar System’s edge. Astronomers say they have found a tiny object orbiting far out from the Sun that fits with the Planet X theory.
Three years ago, a spooky, skull-shaped ‘death comet’’ shot past Earth on Halloween night. Now it’s back.

First things first: It won’t actually be passing us on Halloween this year. The asteroid, officially named 2015 TB145, will pass closest to Earth around Nov. 11, CNN reported. But it might still close enough to give you a fright.

NASA scientists first spotted the object when it came close to earth in 2015. They believed the asteroid was actually a “dead” comet that had lost its luminance after too many trips around the solar system, according to a news release from the time.
NASA's got a whole new plan. It wants boots on the Moon in 10 years and on Mars in 20. Give or take.

On Wednesday, the space agency announced its detailed National Space Exploration Plan to achieve the President's lofty goals set out in his December 2017 Space Policy Directive-1.

Those bold plans include: planning a new Moon landing, long-term human deployment on and around the Moon, reassertion of America's leadership in space, strengthening private space companies, and figure out how to get American astronauts to the surface of Mars.
What do incipient organs, traffic jams and the frothy head of foam at the top of a beer glass have in common? Far more than expected, according to results published in Nature earlier this month. For the first time, using a series of clever, state-of-the-art techniques, scientists have uncovered the balance of physical forces that shapes tissues in developing embryos. And the process they’ve identified has turned out to be surprisingly familiar — not for its role in biology, but for its part in revolutionizing how physicists understand a slew of materials ranging from toothpaste to glass.
SpaceX has been signed up to provide rides to the moon for a pair of payloads built by ispace, a Japanese robotics and resource exploration company.

The announcement came today from ispace, the corporate heir to the Google Lunar X Prize’s Team Hakuto. The two lunar missions, tentatively set for 2020 and 2021, are part of a program called Hakuto-R, where Hakuto is the Japanese word for “white rabbit” and the R stands for “reboot.”

Ispace’s lunar orbiter/lander and lunar rovers would fly as secondary payloads on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. The primary goal for the first mission would be to put a spacecraft into lunar orbit. That would set the stage for the second mission, aimed at making a soft landing and deploying rovers to gather data on the lunar surface.
Late in 2017 our Solar System received a very peculiar visitor. Called Oumuamua, it was a comet (or was it an asteroid?) with a bizarre shape moving at incredible speed, and it sped around our Sun and then cruised right back out into space.

Now, with months of searching and pondering under their belts, researchers believe they may have pinpointed the origin of the object. Using data from the European Space Agency’s Gaia space observatory the scientists have narrowed down the potential origin systems of Oumuamua.

Gaia’s data was useful for the research because it contained the approximate positions of distant stars that would have been quite close to Oumuamua when it pass through their regions. The trajectories are estimates that yielded a total of four potential candidates.

Humanity could have an outpost on Mars just a decade from now, Elon Musk said.

Musk's company SpaceX is building a huge, reusable rocket-spaceship duo called the BFR to help our species explore and settle Earth's moon, Mars and other worlds throughout the solar system.

The billionaire entrepreneur's long-term vision involves the establishment of a million-person city on the Red Planet in the next 50 to 100 years. But we could get the founding infrastructure of such a settlement — an outpost Musk calls Mars Base Alpha — up and running much sooner than that, he said.
People have been fascinated with the final frontier since the dawn of the day, when space travel became possible, if not before. With movies like Star Trek and Star Wars being at the peak of popularity and the global reaction to Elon Musk's SpaceX rocket launch, the interest in colonization outside of our planet has never been higher. But while some of us only dream of space travel, one girl is making it her reality.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has announced what may be the company’s most ambitious deadline yet, stating that he believes a full ‘Mars Base Alpha’ – a preliminary city on the Red Planet – could be completed as soon as 2028.

In essence, Musk has implied that SpaceX could go from completing the first prototype spaceship segments to a full-fledged Martian city in a decade, a goal that might be even more ambitious than President John F. Kennedy urging – in 1961 – the U.S. to commit itself to landing humans on the Moon “before this decade is out”. In fact, the comparison becomes increasingly apt after examining the finer details of both major proclamations.

Elon Musk recently announced that SpaceX will launch a Japanese billionaire around the moon in a new launch system called Big Falcon Rocket or BFR. Musk shared new illustrations of the spacecraft as well as photos of actual hardware. Experts say the pictures reveal how it's being made.

In a tweet posted late yesterday, SpaceX said it has signed a passenger to fly around the Moon aboard its next-generation launch system. Details are scarce, but the announcement suggests the Elon Musk-led rocket company is still intent on delivering private individuals, rather than just cargo and professional astronauts, into space.

Scientists have spent 12 years arguing over how to classify Pluto, and a recently published paper offers a new — but surprisingly old — reason for restoring the object's planetary status.

The new research focuses not on any qualities of celestial bodies themselves but on the past 200 years of scientific literature. Four scientists trawled through astronomy papers published since 1802 looking for instances of the word planet used as defined by the controversial 2006 verdict from the International Astronomical Union (IAU) that reclassified Pluto as a dwarf planet. That group is responsible for handling astronomical nomenclature. The definition included the requirement that planets "clear" their orbit, making them the gravitational big shots in their neighborhoods.

Want to see a comet whizzing by Earth? Your best chance to catch one of these celestial visitors is overnight, when Comet 21P/Giacobini-Zinner will be best visible in binoculars or a telescope.


A newfound near-Earth asteroid will buzz the Earth at a range closer than the moon on Sunday (Sept. 9), and you can watch its approach in a live webcast tonight (Sept. 8). The flyby will come on the heels of a car-size asteroid that flies even closer to Earth tonight, according to NASA.


Scientific American is the essential guide to the most awe-inspiring advances in science and technology, explaining how they change our understanding of the world and shape our lives.

According to a new study published in "Nature Communications" data taken from the spacecraft Cassini reveal a spectacular, hexagonal vortex above Saturn's northern pole. It is similar to another vortex previously found at the planet's southern pole. But both storms' asymmetrical shape is baffling scientists.

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