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.
Earthlings this week got new access to something that humans launched into space nearly 40 years ago and also learned about why humans launched kombucha microorganisms into space more recently. Plus, alien auroras, a gorgeous new shot of Earth from the International Space Station that spotlights Africa, and more.
ESA told us why they decided to send some kombucha to space.
Within the high-tech capsules of the International Space Station's Expose-R2 experiment hub are 46 species of critters that have proven to be incredibly resilient to harsh conditions in tests on Earth – so resilient that ESA scientists thought they had a shot a surviving the brutal conditions of space. And if you've ever sipped the fermented tea beverage known as kombucha, you have ingested some of these super-strong species.
A combination of bacteria and yeast eat the sugars in tea and produce the acids, trace amounts of alcohol, and other compounds that give kombucha its distinct vinegary flavor. Ground-based tests conducted on these organisms, which included mixing them with moon dust, showed that they are remarkably difficult to kill. So ESA shot them into space along with dozens of other survival all-star species for an 18-month stay in a container attached to the ISS that will expose them to cosmic radiation, unfiltered sunlight, vacuum, and all of the other conditions that make space uninhabitable for most species without protection. The results of this extreme survival test are due back some time next year, and will help scientists understand what forms extraterrestrial life may take.
The sounds of the golden records aboard the Voyager spacecraft are available for streaming on SoundCloud.
In 1977, a committee headed by none other than Carl Sagan, the beloved creator and host of the original Cosmos television series, got together to choose the sounds that would represent life on Earth aboard the two Voyager spacecrafts deployed to study the outer solar system. Now you can stream the sounds captured in those two golden records – which include a mother lovingly interacting with her baby, hyenas, and Morse code – on SoundCloud.
Of all the manmade object floating about in space right now, Voyager 1 is the farthest from Earth. The idea behind having these records aboard the spacecraft is that if either spacecraft miraculously encounters intelligent alien life, they could play the record and be connected with life on Earth. Of course, the chances of that actually happening are extremely slim, but at least we can now easily connect to this sentimental part of the history of space travel from our own planet.
The International Space Station now has ultrahigh-resolution 4K video equipment.
Astronauts at the ISS tested out their fancy new 4K video equipment this week while playing around with an effervescent tablet in an orb of water. The video above is pretty fun to watch regardless of whether you have a display that is actually capable of such high resolution, but it takes a high-quality display to get the full experience afforded by the new RED Epic Dragon camera.
"This is a huge leap in camera technology for spaceflight," Rodney Grubbs, program manager for NASA's Imagery Experts Program at the Marshall Space Flight Center, said in a statement. "These cameras have large sensors capable of very high-resolution imaging at high frame rates. It is like having a high-speed 35MM motion picture film camera, but it is compact, can use lenses we already have up there, and it is digital. No film to return to Earth."
NASA's Deep Space Climate Observatory satellite brought us this beautiful shot of the Earth with Africa front-and-center.
NASA released this stunning shot taken by its DSCOVR satellite's EPIC camera earlier this week. If you saw the recent update on the famous "blue marble" shot and are wondering why this doesn't count as a blue marble photo, too, it's because this image is actually a composite of three separate photos. The blue marble photos, on the other hand, are single shots that show the Earth fully illuminated all at once – and those shots aren't so easy to get.
Astronomers found auroras beyond our solar system for the first time.
Auroras on Earth are a breathtaking natural spectacle caused by interactions between the plant's magnetic field and atmosphere. Astronomers have found them on other planets such as Mars in the past, but never outside our solar system. This week, astronomers caught sight of auroras on a brown dwarf – bizarre objects also known as failed stars – more than 18 light years from Earth. Due to the differences in the brown dwarf's atmosphere, instead of the blues and greens that dominate auroras on Earth, these alien auroras would be primarily red.