In this column, staff writer Andrea Alfano rounds up the most important and fascinating space news of the past week in bite-sized summaries to keep you up to date on what's happening way up above us.
The big news in space this week was centered on the smallest major object in our solar system. Regardless of whether you think of Pluto as a planet or not — that debate is still raging among planetary scientists and celebrities alike — the New Horizons flyby was a historic moment for solar system exploration, and it deserved every bit of attention it got. However, space research beyond Pluto still carried on, with the deployment of an asteroid-mining spacecraft, the discovery of a Jupiter "twin" and more.
New Horizons successfully flew by Pluto and shared some spectacular shots with us.
On July 14, at around 9 p.m. EDT, the New Horizons spacecraft sparked celebrations around the world as it signaled that it safely flew past Pluto. New Horizons was silent for more than 20 hours while it was closest to the dwarf planet because it was busy collecting data and images like the one shown above. To the surprise of scientists at NASA, New Horizons showed that Pluto has young, icy mountains on its surface. This is surely only the beginning of many exciting discoveries that will emerge as New Horizons continues to beam back data on Pluto over the next 16 months.
"With the successful flyby of Pluto we are celebrating the capstone event in a golden age of planetary exploration," said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington, in a statement. "While this historic event is still unfolding — with the most exciting Pluto science still ahead of us — a new era of solar system exploration is just beginning. NASA missions will unravel the mysteries of Mars, Jupiter, Europa and worlds around other suns in the coming years."
Platinum, gold, palladium and titanium are just a few of the valuable resources that are flying around Earth in asteroids right now. Planetary Resources is one of several companies that aims to mine these precious resources from nearby asteroids and send them back to Earth. On July 16, it got one step closer to achieving its asteroid mining goals when the Arkyd 3 Reflight (A3R) spacecraft safely deployed from the Kibo airlock aboard the International Space Station, where SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket deposited it back in April.
Eric Anderson, co-founder and co-chairman of Planetary Resources Inc., said in a statement, "This key technology for determining resources on asteroids can also be applied towards monitoring and managing high-value resources on our home planet. All of our work at Planetary Resources is laying the foundation to better manage and increase humanity's access to natural resources on our planet and in our solar system."
Astronomers found a Jupiter twin in a distant solar system.
Out in the distant universe, there is a star similar in size and age to our sun called HIP 11915. Orbiting that sun-like star is a strikingly Jupiter-like planet, astronomers reported this week. This Jupiter 2.0 is almost exactly the same distance from its sun as our Jupiter is from our own sun. Recent theories suggest that Jupiter is critical to the arrangement of our own solar system and, by extension, the conditions that made life possible on Earth, so this is an exciting discovery for those hoping to find extraterrestrial life.
Megan Bedell of the University of Chicago, who led the research, said in a statement that, "This discovery is, in every respect, an exciting sign that other solar systems may be out there waiting to be discovered."
Mars' Curiosity rover found evidence that the red planet has an Earth-like continental crust.
Curiosity turned up some surprising, crystal-filled rocks that suggest Mars has a primitive continental crust, similar to the one we have here on Earth. Prior to the discovery of these 4 billion-year-old rocks, scientists thought that Mars was a planet comprised almost entirely of dark-colored rocks similar to those that make up the crust beneath Earth's oceans.
"Along the rover's path we have seen some beautiful rocks with large, bright crystals, quite unexpected on Mars," said Roger Wiens of Los Alamos National Laboratory in a statement. "As a general rule, light-colored crystals are lower density, and these are abundant in igneous rocks that make up the Earth's continents."