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.
This week, scientists revealed a new explanation for the origins of gas planets, and a patent for a 12-mile-high inflatable space elevator made a splash in the news. Astronaut Scott Kelly, who is currently living aboard the International Space Station, continued to deliver incredible views from space via Twitter, and the moon surprised NASA scientists.
The prevailing explanation of how gas planets were born has had a big problem: the timescales just didn't add up. According to this "core accretion" model, interstellar dust and gas form around a planet-sized chunk of ice and rock. Before this week, it was thought that such large objects couldn't form in just a few million years – the cosmologically narrow window during which the gas planets Jupiter and Saturn must have formed. Earth, for example, is thought to have taken between 30 and 100 million years to form.
However, a paper published this week in the journal Nature offers a new explanation that reconciles this issue. The new model shows that "planetary pebbles" about a foot across could have accumulated to form a large enough object to serve as the course of the gas planet in just a few million years.
"The timescale problem has been sticking in our throats for some time," said Dr. Hal Levison, an Institute scientist in the SwRI Planetary Science Directorate and lead author of the paper said in a statement. "It wasn't clear how objects like Jupiter and Saturn could exist at all."
The moon's atmosphere is very thin, so thin that it's technically not an exosphere and not a full-blown atmosphere. To put it in perspective, it's around 100 trillion times less dense than the atmosphere of Earth. Scientists thought that such a thin atmosphere would not be able to contain elements like neon, but NASA researchers announced this week that they discovered neon is relatively abundant in the moon's exosphere – though not quite abundant enough to cause it to glow.
Earth is the weirdo in this situation. Exospheres are way more common in the universe than atmospheres, which is why scientists are so interested in learning about the one sitting in the Earth's backyard – and the window of opportunity for doing so could soon close. The more rocket exhaust humans spew all around this delicate exosphere, the less informative it becomes.
"It's critical to learn about the lunar exosphere before sustained human exploration substantially alters it," Mehdi Benna of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center said in a statement.
Canadian private space company Thoth Technology’s plans to build a space elevator got noticed.
Back in July, a Canada-based private space company called Thoth Technology Inc. was granted the U.S. patent for a space elevator, but it wasn't until this week that their plans really caught the media's attention. Their plans entail building a 12-mile-high inflatable elevator on Earth that is topped with a base for easier rocket launches and landings.
Thoth isn't the only company working to build a space elevator – a U.S.-based company called LiftPort is working on a space elevator on the Moon and a Japan-based company called Obayashi is working on a different design for an Earth elevator.
Astronaut Scott Kelly shared this breathtaking video of an aurora viewed from the International Space Station.
— Scott Kelly (@StationCDRKelly) August 17, 2015
Spending months on end away from your home planet is surely draining, but NASA astronaut Scott Kelly seems to have the right attitude for spending a full year in space. Along with this absolutely stunning video of an aurora viewed from the International Space Station, he tweeted, "#MondayMotivation May your electrons and protons be fully charged so you are as bright as Aurora today #YearInSpace."
If that doesn't make your day a bit brighter, I don't know what would.