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outer space
April 30, 2019

Years after NASA's Cassini spacecraft finished its mission to observe Saturn, we're still learning more from the data it sent back. This time, new analysis reveals something we've never noticed before from Titan, the largest moon that orbits our sixth planet.

The research, published on Monday in Nature Astronomy, suggests that Titan doesn't just have ice in scattered patches along its surface, as we've observed before. Beyond that, scientists discovered a massive block that stretches across a large part of the satellite: nearly 4,000 miles long.

This huge amount of ice runs halfway across the middle of Titan, like a belt, Space explained. And because the data Cassini collected was limited, scientists have no idea what sort of "geologic feature" could be lurking beneath all that frozen water.

Titan is, in many ways, an "eerie twist" on Earth — it has a nitrogen-rich atmosphere, and liquid rain that fills its lakes and seas, just like we do. But Titan is so cold that all its water is frozen — which means the rain isn't water, but other compounds that would be gases here on Earth. That can sometimes make Titan a difficult place to study from so far away. For this research, scientists used a new technique that allowed them to look past the most dominant features of their data and pay closer attention to what was hidden behind them.

Learn more about all Cassini is still teaching us at Space. Shivani Ishwar

April 29, 2019

A few weeks after NASA released the first-ever image of a black hole, astronomers have announced another black hole first.

This black hole, named V404 Cygni after the Cygnus constellation where it appears, might literally be "warping space" around it, Space reports. We've never seen anything like it — instead of sucking all matter into itself, like black holes tend to do, V404 Cygni has been observed spewing particles out of its gravitational pull.

Scientists have observed black holes ejecting particles before, in streams called "relativistic jets." What truly sets this black hole apart is that it's doing so at speeds we never thought possible — so fast that when astronomers initially tried to get a picture of the process, all that came back was a blur. They had to change the exposure time of their pictures from four hours to just 70 seconds in order to see what was going on.

The new find, published on Monday in Nature, was "completely unexpected," said Greg Sivakoff, one of the study's co-authors. V404 Cygni has "deepened our understanding" of how black holes work.

Currently, scientists think that the fast-paced wobbling of this black hole has something to do with Einstein's theory of general relativity, Space explained. According to that theory, when an object as big as a black hole spins, it pulls the fabric of space and time with it.

Learn more about how this unusual discovery could inform our theories about the universe at Space. Shivani Ishwar

April 15, 2019

A new analysis of data provided by NASA's Cassini spacecraft has yielded some surprising results about Saturn's largest moon, Titan. As it turns out, the large lakes that dot parts of Titan's surface are home to not water but huge amounts of methane and ethane.

These hydrocarbons are more familiar to us in their gaseous form, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory explained. But on Titan, the temperatures are so cold that these gases have condensed into liquids — enough, in some cases, to fill lakes that are 300 feet deep.

Scientists have already known that Titan has a cycle similar to Earth's water cycle — except instead of water, these liquid hydrocarbons are what get pooled in its oceans, evaporated into the atmosphere, and rained back down again. But while we already knew that Titan's larger seas are filled with methane and ethane, we weren't sure about the smaller bodies of water.

Cassini collected the data that led to this conclusion almost exactly two years ago, on April 22, 2017. Now, approaching the anniversary of the spacecraft's last Saturn flyby, this latest research was published in the journal Nature Astronomy. "Every time we make discoveries on Titan, Titan becomes more and more mysterious," said the study's lead author, Marco Mastrogiuseppe.

Read more about this exciting new discovery at JPL. Shivani Ishwar

April 11, 2019

What happens to your body when you live in space? That's the question that NASA set out to answer — with twins.

In 2015, astronaut Scott Kelly spent a year aboard the International Space Station, while his identical twin brother Mark did not. After Scott returned, scientists conducted a "meticulous" investigation of both twins, analyzing the changes that occurred in their bodies to understand the effects of long periods spent away from our planet. Four years later, the results of NASA's study are ready to be shared.

Published in the journal Science on Thursday, the findings might seem a little underwhelming at first glance. While Scott Kelly underwent some physical changes during his time in space, "the vast majority" of those changes went back to normal within six months. Furthermore, Scott was about as healthy as his brother during his time at the International Space Station in terms of physical, mental, and genetic health.

But while nothing so radical as a DNA transformation or a new mutation occurred, this data still provides NASA with valuable information about the changes an astronaut's body can go through in space — and we can use that information to better protect our astronauts who venture out into orbit, to the moon, to Mars, and eventually, beyond.

NASA is taking these results as a good sign: In a statement released on Thursday about the study, the agency concluded "human health can be mostly sustained" over the course of a year in space. And one of the study's investigators, Michael Snyder, said "it's reassuring to know that when you come back things will largely be back to the same."

NASA plans to conduct further studies on the effects of living in space on the human body with more missions of varying lengths. Read more about the results we have so far at Gizmodo. Shivani Ishwar

April 10, 2019

After a week of building anticipation, scientists have finally revealed the first-ever photo of a black hole.

The European Space Agency initially announced last Monday that six international space agencies would hold press conferences to present the result from the Event Horizon Telescope project, which has been working on capturing a photo of nearby black holes for more than a decade.

Black holes are made up of a large amount of matter squeezed into a very small space, NASA explains, and their gravitational pull is so strong that even light can't escape. That's why it's been so hard to photograph one before. But the Event Horizon Telescope project uses several different radio telescopes around the world, employing a method called "very-long-baseline inferometry" (VLBI for short) to combine the information from those telescopes and get a high-resolution image that a single telescope can't produce.

The result is this a groundbreaking image of a black hole in a nearby galaxy called M87. Though the black hole itself can't be seen, the "event horizon" is what's visible: the point after which no matter can possibly escape the black hole. At the event horizon, there is a bright halo of light getting sucked inward by the black hole's immense gravitational pull.

The black hole strikes an imposing image against the darkness, looking a little like the eye of Sauron out in space. To learn more, watch the National Science Foundation's press conference at their website. Shivani Ishwar

May 5, 2018

NASA launched its InSight spacecraft from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California at 4:05 a.m. local time Saturday, sending the unmanned vessel on a six-month journey to Mars.

Unlike the Curiosity rover, InSight will not travel around the red planet once it arrives. Instead, the craft's mission is to use seismic waves to learn about the interior of Mars — the thickness of the planet's crust and the size of its liquid core. InSight is equipped with a probe that can burrow 16 feet into the surface of Mars to take temperature readings.

"Mars is a unique opportunity," said Bruce Banerdt, the InSight mission's chief investigator. "We call it the Goldilocks planet." Bonnie Kristian

March 27, 2018

NASA has been working on its new deep-space observatory, the James Webb Space Telescope, since 1996. Envisioned as a successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, the project is intended to peer even deeper into the farthest reaches of space, and "make the next giant leap" for us to understand how the universe works, Scientific American reported.

Such a large project has, of course, run into its fair share of hurdles over the decades. Its proposed launch date has been pushed back twice in just the past year — previously slated for October 2018, it was first delayed to spring 2019 last September, and then to May 2020 on Tuesday, Space reported. And it's running into an even scarier problem: It's quickly outgrowing its budget estimations.

At the turn of the century, NASA expected the observatory to cost about $1 billion, The Verge reported. By 2010, it had already spent $4.5 billion, stemming from similar delays in its launch time. In 2011, the project was reorganized, with a new launch date in 2018, and Congress allotted a budget of $8.8 billion to get there. But with these new delays, the program is likely to exceed its budget again, which would require Congress to reauthorize the project.

Even with all these setbacks, astronomers are optimistic about the eventual success of the James Webb Space Telescope. Because of the massive amounts of money already invested in the project, it's "too big to fail," Scientific American reported. NASA has pledged to take as much time as necessary to get JWST up and running — hopefully with no more delays or setbacks.

Read more about the program at The Verge. Shivani Ishwar

April 27, 2017

Traveling at a speed of 77,000 mph, NASA's Cassini spacecraft made its first dive inside Saturn's rings, transmitting back to Earth on Thursday the closest-ever images of the planet.

Cassini has been exploring Saturn for 13 years, and on Wednesday, it became the first spacecraft to enter the gap between Saturn and its innermost ring. "Cassini spacecraft has once again blazed a trail, showing us new wonders and demonstrating where our curiosity can take us if we dare," NASA planetary sciences chief Jim Green said in a statement. The pictures it sent back showed a hurricane, clouds, and a six-sided vortex weather system, Reuters reports.

Having been in space since 2004, Cassini is running low on fuel, and is expected to make 22 trips in the territory between Saturn's cloud tops and rings before it destroys itself on Sept. 15 by flying directly into Saturn's atmosphere (NASA is doing this so Cassini doesn't accidentally hit a moon that could support microbial life). Scientists are hoping Cassini will survive all of these dives, and that the information it collects on Saturn's inner moons, winds, clouds, and auroras can explain the source of Saturn's magnetic field and how fast the planet rotates. Catherine Garcia

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