Your free weekly fix of news of space and science --a random journey from Planet Earth through the Cosmos-- that has the capacity to provide clues to our existence and add a much needed cosmic perspective in our Anthropocene epoch.
This Week’s News Stories
"Sent By an Alien World?" --Extraterrestrial Object Visited Our Solar System in 2017--"The idea of the existence of advanced extraterrestrial life is no more speculative than extra dimensions or dark matter. It fact, he says, it is less so," says Harvard astrophysicist, Avi Loeb. In November of 2018, The Daily Galaxy reported: "You would have thought it was 1938 again following Orson Welles’ radio broadcast of the War of the Worlds the way the way Twitter lit up last week when the chairman of Harvard’s astronomy department, Israel-born theoretical physicist Avi Loeb, suggested that an alien spaceship was possibly on its way to Earth to study humankind, and probably had Stephen Hawking spinning in his grave." Fast forward to the new year, 2021, Avi Loeb’s highly anticipated new book, Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth, is being published Jan. 26, detailing his controversial theory that an artificial object may had been sent to Earth in 2017 from an extraterrestrial civilization. New York Times best selling author Alan Lightman, called “Extraterrestrial” provocative “and thrilling” and praising Loeb for asking readers to “think big and to expect the unexpected,” reports The Boston Globe.
SETI: new signal excites alien hunters – here’s how we could find out if it’s real, reports The Conversation "T'he signal was “narrow-band”, meaning it only occupied a slim range of radio frequencies. And it drifted in frequency in a way that you would expect if it came from a moving planet. These characteristics are exactly the kind of attributes the SETI scientists have been looking for since the astronomer Frank Drake first began the pioneering initiative some 60 years ago."
“Particle of Sand in the Infinite Sandwich" --Ripples in Spacetime Carry Clues to the Enigma of Our Rapidly Expanding Universe --Following the inflationary epoch after the singularity of the Big Bang, the universe continued to expand, but at a slower rate. The acceleration of the expansion due to dark energy began after the universe was already over nine billion years old (four billion years ago). The weakest of the Standard Model forces, gravity, may provide the solution to this unsolved enigma –the cosmic elephant in the room–in astronomy. “There’s something a little off about our theory of the universe. Almost everything fits,” reports University of Chicago physicists, “but there’s a fly in the cosmic ointment, a particle of sand in the infinite sandwich” –something is making the universe not only expand, but expand faster and faster over time—and no one knows what the unknown force –cryptically labeled “dark energy”–is that’s causing the universe to expand at an accelerating rate.
The farthest galaxy in the universe --Chemical signatures give away the distance to the most distant galaxy, reports The University of Tokyo. A team of astronomers used the Keck I telescope to measure the distance to an ancient galaxy. They deduced the target galaxy GN-z11 is not only the oldest galaxy but also the most distant. It’s so distant it defines the very boundary of the observable universe itself. The team hopes this study can shed light on a period of cosmological history when the universe was only a few hundred million years old.
"Phantoms of the Milky Way" --Detected in Absolute Stillness of Our Solar System's Center of Gravity. "Using the pulsars we observe across the Milky Way galaxy, we are trying to be like a spider sitting in stillness in the middle of her web," says Vanderbilt's Stephen Taylor, assistant professor of physics and astronomy and former astronomer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) about the location of absolute stillness in our solar system, the center of gravity with which to measure the gravitational waves that signal the existence of the invisible paradoxes we call black holes, which have no memory, and contain the earliest memories of the universe. "How well we understand the solar system's center of gravity, its barycenter --the location where the masses of all planets, moons, and asteroids balance out-- is critical as we attempt to sense even the smallest tingle to the web," adds Taylor.
Missions to Mars, the Moon and Beyond Await Earth in 2021 --Here’s a preview of what to expect in space and astronomy in the year to come, reports Michael Roston for the The New York Times. "About a month after the new year has started on Earth, three spacecraft will pull into the vicinity of Mars. These explorers, which launched in July last year, will be heralds of a busy year of space exploration, launches and astronomical occurrences."
Galaxy-Size Bubbles Discovered Towering Over the Milky Way --For decades, astronomers debated whether a particular smudge was close-by and small, or distant and huge. A new X-ray map supports the massive option, reports Charlie Wood for Quanta. “When Peter Predehl, an astrophysicist at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Germany, first laid eyes on the new map of the universe’s hottest objects, he immediately recognized the aftermath of a galactic catastrophe. A bright yellow cloud billowed tens of thousands of light-years upward from the Milky Way’s flat disk, with a fainter twin reflected below."
Inside the C.I.A., She Became a Spy for Planet Earth --Linda Zall is disclosing how she toiled anonymously within the intelligence agency to help scientists intensify their studies of a changing planet, reports The New York Times. Dr. Zall’s program, established in 1992, included up to six decades of prime data on planetary shifts in snowfall and blizzards, sea ice and glaciers.
“Image from the Dawn of the Universe” –Jet Pointed Toward Earth from a 12.8 Billion Year-Old ‘Blazar’ Galaxy, The history of astronomy is a history of receding horizons, said Edwin Hubble. Enter the radio “vision” of the Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA), which has revealed previously unseen details of a jet seen as it was when the universe was less than a billion years old, or just over 7 percent of its current age. The material was ejected at three-quarters the speed of light from the core of a galaxy some 12.8 billion light-years from Earth. The galaxy, dubbed PSO J0309+27, is a blazar, with its jet pointed toward Earth, and is the brightest radio-emitting blazar yet seen at such a distance. It also is the second-brightest X-ray emitting blazar at such a distance.
“Like the Floodlights of a Hollywood Movie Premier” –Hubble Captures Lightshow of a Supermassive Black Hole. "These days, I'm mostly wandering into galaxies and looking for the light switch," says Harvard astrophysicist Peter Maksym, who appears to have found the switch in the black hole in nearby galaxy IC 5063, where he Hubble Space Telescope has observed a collection of narrow bright rays and dark shadows beaming out of the blazingly bright center of the active galaxy. The supermassive object where the supermassive object –cosmic paradoxes where creation is destruction--swallows light and matter under the crushing pull of gravity, producing a powerful gusher of light from superheated infalling gas similar to the interplay of light and shadow in Earth's sky at sunset. The bright rays and dark shadows appearing in IC 5063 are being cast on a vastly larger scale, shooting across at least 36,000 light-years.
We Know Almost Nothing About Giant Viruses --An enigmatic group of microbes seems to have an unusual new ability, reports Sarah Zhang for The Atlantic. "Giant viruses, a group discovered only in 2003, are mysteriously large and complex, seemingly between bacteria and the tiny, simple viruses of classical biology. Scientists still don’t know much about what giant viruses do, other than kill amoebas and algae. Leave it to viruses, however, to keep surprising us: Giant viruses don’t just kill their hosts. In some cases, according to a recent study, they can keep their hosts alive and become part of them."
In the year 774 AD, the Sun Blasted Earth With the Biggest Storm in 10,000 Years --when an enormously powerful blast of matter and energy from space slammed into Earth. Nothing like it had been felt on this planet for 10,000 years. A mix of high-energy light and hugely accelerated subatomic particles, when this wave impacted Earth it changed our atmospheric chemistry enough to be measured centuries later, writes Phil Plait for SyFy Wire.
It Spied on Soviet Atomic Bombs. Now It’s Solving Ecological Mysteries--Imagery from the Cold War’s Corona satellites is helping scientists fill in how we have changed our planet in the past half century, reports The New York Times. "Modern ecologists chronicling precious or lost habitats have given second life to the Corona images. Paired with modern computing, the space-based snapshots have helped archaeologists identify ancient sites, demonstrated how craters left by American bombs during the Vietnam War became fish ponds and recounted World War II’s reshaping of Eastern Europe’s tree cover."
New Quantum Algorithms Finally Crack Nonlinear Equations, reports Max G. Levy for Quanta --"in nonlinear systems, interactions can affect themselves: When air streams past a jet’s wings, the air flow alters molecular interactions, which alter the air flow, and so on This feedback loop breeds chaos, where small changes in initial conditions lead to wildly different behavior later, making predictions nearly impossible — no matter how powerful the computer. 'This is part of why it’s difficult to predict the weather or understand complicated fluid flow,' said Andrew Childs, a quantum information researcher at the University of Maryland. 'There are hard computational problems that you could solve, if you could [figure out] these nonlinear dynamics.”
"Top Gun: Maverick, Dune and Babylon, as well as TV documentaries about Greta Thunberg and Stephen Hawking" --are the best sci-fi films and science documentaries to watch in 2021, reports New Scientist "Come December, Don’t Look Up is set to be one of the biggest ever Netflix films, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence as astronomers trying to warn the world about a giant meteorite heading towards Earth as a fumbling president downplays the dangers. It is being filmed in socially distanced conditions in Boston, and the cast includes Timothée Chalamet, Cate Blanchett, Meryl Streep and Jonah Hill. Hawking, a new documentary from Sky (release date not yet available) aims to shed new light on the life of the late physicist through previously unseen private family archives."
This Week's Feature Story
A gargantuan black hole, known as J2157, 34 billion times the mass of our sun mass, and about 8,000 times bigger than the black hole in the center of the Milky Way, gorges on nearly the equivalent of one sun every day, says Dr. Christopher Onken at The Australian National University (ANU) about this monster of the early universe that brings an end to time and space and the laws of physics. If the Milky Way’s black hole wanted to grow to that size, “it would have to swallow two thirds of all the stars in our Galaxy,” Onken added.