In this column, staff writer J.E. Reich 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.
A mysterious amalgamation of objects seem to be gathered around a star located between the Cygnus and Lyra constellations—and it might be the first sign of advanced extraterrestrial life. Closer to home, NASA's proposed three-phase Mars expedition might fall to pieces all because of Congress. But don't despair: to rely on an apt, oft-quoted axiom, the truth is out there.
Kepler Space Telescope Finds Evidence Of Possible Extraterrestrial Life
Since 2009, the Kepler Space Telescope has had its eye on a far-flung star with some rather unusual accessories: a cluster of unidentified mass orbiting the celestial body. The star itself first earned the attention of astronomers monitoring the spacecraft's findings when they noticed it emitting highly unaverage light patterns, signifying that the said patterns were caused by shadows—of orbiting planets.
Tabetha Boyajian, a postdoc at Yale University, published a paper in the scientific journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society which explored less speculative, more "natural" celestial milieus; in an interview with the Atlantic, however, the scientist made comments which alluded to "other scenarios." Likewise, her Kepler colleague, Penn State-based astronomer and co-author Jason Wright, was candid with the plausible, possible idea of the cause of the patterns: a "swarm of megastructures."
"When [Boyajian] showed me the data, I was fascinated by how crazy it looked," admitted Wright. "Aliens should always be the very last hypothesis you consider, but this looked like something you would expect an alien civilization to build."
As of now, the next step for the Kepler scientists is to aim a large radio dish at the star to scan for possible radio waves, which would point to technological activity. And after that? Maybe one day, in the not too distant future, and as Captain Kirk would say, "to boldly go where no man has gone before."
No One Wants To Give NASA Money (And By No One, We Mean Congress)
While this particular newsworthy tidbit isn't necessarily about a galaxy far, far away, it affects U.S.-backed space exploration as we know it. Despite the recent adulation that NASA has received from everyone from space enthusiasts to the average Joe or Joan for its recent Martian discoveries and the agency's three-phase plan to send astronauts to the Red Planet, Congress is unwilling to fund anything. The reason? NASA's inability to give direct, hardline budgetary figures concerning its proposed Mars expedition, due to the unreliable nature of an exploration itself. In other words: there is no guaranteed rate of return concerning the success of such a mission, or even a concrete definition of what success means when it comes to taxpayer money.
NASA, however, has its supporters, notably astrophysicist and cosmologist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who testified before the Senate of the benefits of funding the space program back in 2012, and NASA administrator Major General Charles Bolden, whose open letter to the U.S. government scolded the current administration for forcing NASA to piggyback Russian space missions.
What about the funding that NASA currently receives? According to an article published by Vice, not so much: around .063 percent of the annual federal budget. (In comparison, the U.S. military received $495.6 billion in 2014, while NASA received $17.6 billion).
Jupiter's Red Spot Is Ch-ch-ch-ch-Changing
As everyone's favorite space oddity David Bowie would say to NASA about Jupiter's growing pains, "turn and face the strain." Like a very proud parent, the Hubble Space Telescope has been taking annual portraits of the planet Jupiter to give scientists a better understanding of the happenings in the giant planet's atmosphere. When NASA recently pieced these portraits together in a chronological order, the astronomers discovered what they termed "a unique filamentary feature" moving inside Jupiter's iconic Great Red Spot (GRS)—and that the anticyclonic storm is actually shrinking.
The filament itself spans the entire width of the GRS vortex (to put it in context, the storm itself is twice the size of Earth), and is somewhat twisted and malformed due to the 330 mph winds of the planet's storm. Cha-ch-ch-ch-changes, indeed.
Photographer Captures Golden Meteor On Camera
Tomas Milan, an astrophotographer based in New Zealand, took a three-hour trek this past August to capture an elusive photo of a gold-cast meteor stripe across the night sky.
The picture was taken during a Perseid meteor shower, an annual event caused by the Swift-Tuttle comet—namely, particles of debris that the comet leaves in its wake, which clock in at around 1,000 years of age. The meteors enter Earth's atmosphere at 133,200 mph, and quickly dissipate due to the heat caused by the friction of said entrance.
While the picture was taken two months ago, Milan only recently sent the photo to Space.com for some astral eye candy.
Scott Kelly Pic Of The Week(!)
For those of you who haven't picked up on the hints, I have a platonic man crush on astronaut Scott Kelly, who has been taking pictures of Earth and posting it on his Twitter account every day since his year-long stay at the International Space Station began. Naturally, I've decided to add a "Scott Kelly Pic of the Week" sub-section to feed my growing obsession.
— Scott Kelly (@StationCDRKelly) October 12, 2015