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    The fastest-spinning white dwarf ever seen rotates once every 25 seconds

    The sun turns once a month and the Earth once a day, but a white dwarf star 2,000 light-years away spins every 25 seconds, beating the old champ by five seconds. That makes it the fastest-spinning star of any sort ever seen — unless you consider such exotic objects as neutron stars and black holes, some of which spin even faster, to be stars (SN: 3/13/07).  

    About as small as Earth but roughly as massive as the sun, a white dwarf is extremely dense. The star’s surface gravity is so great that if you dropped a pebble from a height of a few feet, it would smash into the surface at thousands of miles per hour. The typical white dwarf takes hours or days to spin.

    The fast-spinning white dwarf, named LAMOST J0240+1952 and located in the constellation Aries, got in a whirl because of its ongoing affair with a red dwarf star that revolves around it. Just as falling water makes a waterwheel turn, so gas falling from the red companion star made the white dwarf twirl.

    The discovery occurred the night of August 7, when astronomer Ingrid Pelisoli of the University of Warwick in Coventry, England, and her colleagues detected a periodic blip of light from the dim duo. The blip repeated every 24.93 seconds, revealing the white dwarf star’s record-breaking rotation period, the researchers report August 26 at

    The star’s only known rival is an even faster-spinning object in orbit with the blue star HD 49798. But that rapid rotator’s nature is unclear, with some recent studies saying it is likely a neutron star, not a white dwarf. More

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    China’s lunar rock samples show lava flowed on the moon 2 billion years ago

    Lava oozed across the moon’s surface just 2 billion years ago, bits of lunar rocks retrieved by China’s Chang’e-5 mission reveal.

    A chemical analysis of the volcanic rocks confirms that the moon remained volcanically active far longer that its size would suggest possible, researchers report online October 7 in Science.

    Chang’e-5 is the first mission to retrieve lunar rocks and return them to Earth in over 40 years (SN: 12/1/20). An international group of researchers found that the rocks formed 2 billion years ago, around when multicellular life first evolved on Earth. That makes them the youngest moon rocks ever collected, says study coauthor Carolyn Crow, a planetary scientist at the University of Colorado Boulder.  

    The moon formed roughly 4.5 billion years ago. Lunar rocks from the Apollo and Soviet missions of the late 1960s and 70s revealed that volcanism on the moon was commonplace for the first billion or so years of its existence, with flows lasting for millions, if not hundreds of millions, of years.

    Samples of bits of lunar rocks, such as this, are helping scientists study the volcanic evolution of the moon.Beijing SHRIMP Center/Institute of Geology/CAGS

    Given its size, scientist thought that the moon started cooling off around 3 billion years ago, eventually becoming the quiet, inactive neighbor it is today. Yet a dearth of craters in some regions left scientists scratching their heads. Parts of celestial bodies devoid of volcanism accumulate more and more craters over time, in part because there aren’t lava flows depositing new material that hardens into smooth stretches. The moon’s smoother spots seemed to suggest that volcanism had persisted past the moon’s early history.  

    “Young volcanism on a small body like the moon is challenging to explain, because usually small bodies cool fast,” says Juliane Gross, a planetary scientist at Rutgers University in Piscataway, N.J., not involved in the study.

    Scientist had suggested that radioactive elements might offer an explanation for later volcanism. Radioactive decay generates a lot of heat, which is why nuclear reactors are kept in water. Enough radioactive materials in the moon’s mantle, the layer just below the visible crust, would have provided a heat source that could explain younger lava flows.

    To test this theory, the Chang’e-5 lander gathered chunks of basalt — a type of rock that forms from volcanic activity — from a previously unexplored part of the moon thought to be younger than 3 billion years old. The team determined that the rocks formed from lava flows 2 billion years ago, but chemical analysis did not yield the concentration of radioactive elements one would expect if radioactive decay were to explain the volcanism.

    The Chang’e-5 lunar lander extracts samples of the moon that were returned to Earth. The lunar material is the first brought back to Earth in more than 40 years.Chinese National Space Agency’s Lunar Exploration and Space Engineering Center

    This finding is compelling scientists to consider what other forces could have maintained volcanic activity on the moon.

    One theory, says study coauthor Alexander Nemchin, a planetary scientist at the Beijing SHRIMP Center and Curtin University in Bentley, Australia, is that gravitational forces from the Earth could have liquefied the lunar interior, keeping lunar magma flowing for another billion or so years past when it should have stopped.

    “The moon was a lot closer 2 billion years ago,” Nemchin explains. As the moon slowly inched away from the Earth — a slow escape still at work today — these forces would have become less and less powerful until volcanism eventually petered out.

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    Impacts from asteroids and comets also could have kept the moon’s volcanic juices flowing, but “at this point, any guess is a good guess,” says Jessica Barnes, a planetary scientist at the University of Arizona in Tucson not involved in the study.

    “This is a good example of why we need to get to know our closest neighbor,” Barnes says. “A lot people think we already know what’s going on with the moon, but it’s actually quite mysterious.” More

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    When James Webb launches, it will have a bigger to-do list than 1980s researchers suspected

    The James Webb Space Telescope has been a long time coming. When it launches later this year, the observatory will be the largest and most complex telescope ever sent into orbit. Scientists have been drafting and redrafting their dreams and plans for this unique tool since 1989.

    The mission was originally scheduled to launch between 2007 and 2011, but a series of budget and technical issues pushed its start date back more than a decade. Remarkably, the core design of the telescope hasn’t changed much. But the science that it can dig into has. In the years of waiting for Webb to be ready, big scientific questions have emerged. When Webb was an early glimmer in astronomers’ eyes, cosmological revolutions like the discoveries of dark energy and planets orbiting stars outside our solar system hadn’t yet happened.

    “It’s been over 25 years,” says cosmologist Wendy Freedman of the University of Chicago. “But I think it was really worth the wait.”

    An audacious plan

    Webb has a distinctive design. Most space telescopes house a single lens or mirror within a tube that blocks sunlight from swamping the dim lights of the cosmos. But Webb’s massive 6.5-meter-wide mirror and its scientific instruments are exposed to the vacuum of space. A multilayered shield the size of a tennis court will block light from the sun, Earth and moon.

    For the awkward shape to fit on a rocket, Webb will launch folded up, then unfurl itself in space (see below, What could go wrong?).

    “They call this the origami satellite,” says astronomer Scott Friedman of the Space Telescope Science Institute, or STScI, in Baltimore. Friedman is in charge of Webb’s postlaunch choreography. “Webb is different from any other telescope that’s flown.”

    Its basic design hasn’t changed in more than 25 years. The telescope was first proposed in September 1989 at a workshop held at STScI, which also runs the Hubble Space Telescope.

    At the time, Hubble was less than a year from launching, and was expected to function for only 15 years. Thirty-one years after its launch, the telescope is still going strong, despite a series of computer glitches and gyroscope failures (SN Online: 10/10/18).

    The institute director at the time, Riccardo Giacconi, was concerned that the next major mission would take longer than 15 years to get off the ground. So he and others proposed that NASA investigate a possible successor to Hubble: a space telescope with a 10-meter-wide primary mirror that was sensitive to light in infrared wavelengths to complement Hubble’s range of ultraviolet, visible and near-infrared.

    Infrared light has a longer wavelength than light that is visible to human eyes. But it’s perfect for a telescope to look back in time. Because light travels at a fixed speed, looking at distant objects in the universe means seeing them as they looked in the past. The universe is expanding, so that light is stretched before it reaches our telescopes. For the most distant objects in the universe — the first galaxies to clump together, or the first stars to burn in those galaxies — light that was originally emitted in shorter wavelengths is stretched all the way to the infrared.

    Giacconi and his collaborators dreamed of a telescope that would detect that stretched light from the earliest galaxies. When Hubble started sharing its views of the early universe, the dream solidified into a science plan. The galaxies Hubble saw at great distances “looked different from what people were expecting,” says astronomer Massimo Stiavelli, a leader of the James Webb Space Telescope project who has been at STScI since 1995. “People started thinking that there is interesting science here.”

    In 1995, STScI and NASA commissioned a report to design Hubble’s successor. The report, led by astronomer Alan Dressler of the Carnegie Observatories in Pasadena, Calif., suggested an infrared space observatory with a 4-meter-wide mirror.

    The bigger a telescope’s mirror, the more light it can collect, and the farther it can see. Four meters wasn’t that much larger than Hubble’s 2.4-meter-wide mirror, but anything bigger would be difficult to launch.

    Dressler briefed then-NASA Administrator Dan Goldin in late 1995. In January 1996 at the American Astronomical Society’s annual meeting, Goldin challenged the scientists to be more ambitious. He called out Dressler by name, saying, “Why do you ask for such a modest thing? Why not go after six or seven meters?” (Still nowhere near Giacconi’s pie-in-the-sky 10-meter wish.) The speech received a standing ovation.

    Six meters was a larger mirror than had ever flown in space, and larger than would fit in available launch vehicles. Scientists would have to design a telescope mirror that could fold, then deploy once it reached space.

    The telescope would also need to cool itself passively by radiating heat into space. It needed a sun shield — a big one. The origami telescope was born. It was dubbed James Webb in 2002 for NASA’s administrator from 1961 to 1968, who fought to support research to boost understanding of the universe in the increasingly human-focused space program. (In response to a May petition to change the name, NASA investigated allegations that James Webb persecuted gay and lesbian people during his government career. The agency announced on September 27 that it found no evidence warranting a name change.)

    Goldin’s motto at NASA was “Faster, better, cheaper.” Bigger was better for Webb, but it sure wasn’t faster — or cheaper. By late 2010, the project was more than $1.4 billion over its $5.1 billion budget (SN: 4/9/11, p. 22). And it was going to take another five years to be ready. Today, the cost is estimated at almost $10 billion.

    The telescope survived a near-cancellation by Congress, and its timeline was reset for an October 2018 launch. But in 2017, the launch was pushed to June 2019. Two more delays in 2018 pushed the takeoff to May 2020, then to March 2021. Some of those delays were because assembling and testing the spacecraft took longer than NASA expected.

    Other slowdowns were because of human errors, like using the wrong cleaning solvent, which damaged valves in the propulsion system. Recent shutdowns due to the coronavirus pandemic pushed the launch back a few more months.

    “I don’t think we ever imagined it would be this long,” says University of Chicago’s Freedman, who worked on the Dressler report. But there’s one silver lining: Science marched on.

    The age conflict

    The first science goal listed in the Dressler report was “the detailed study of the birth and evolution of normal galaxies such as the Milky Way.” That is still the dream, partly because it’s such an ambitious goal, Stiavelli says.

    “We wanted a science rationale that would resist the test of time,” he says. “We didn’t want to build a mission that would do something that gets done in some other way before you’re done.”

    Webb will peek at galaxies and stars as they were just 400 million years after the Big Bang, which astronomers think is the epoch when the first tiny galaxies began making the universe transparent to light by stripping electrons from cosmic hydrogen.

    But in the 1990s, astronomers had a problem: There didn’t seem to be enough time in the universe to make galaxies much earlier than the ones astronomers had already seen. The standard cosmology at the time suggested the universe was 8 billion or 9 billion years old, but there were stars in the Milky Way that seemed to be about 14 billion years old.

    “There was this age conflict that reared its head,” Freedman says. “You can’t have a universe that’s younger than the oldest stars. The way people put it was, ‘You can’t be older than your grandmother!’”

    In 1998, two teams of cosmologists showed that the universe is expanding at an ever-increasing rate. A mysterious substance dubbed dark energy may be pushing the universe to expand faster and faster. That accelerated expansion means the universe is older than astronomers previously thought — the current estimate is about 13.8 billion years old.

    “That resolved the age conflict,” Freedman says. “The discovery of dark energy changed everything.” And it expanded Webb’s to-do list.

    Dark energy

    Top of the list is getting to the bottom of a mismatch in cosmic measurements. Since at least 2014, different methods for measuring the universe’s rate of expansion — called the Hubble constant — have been giving different answers. Freedman calls the issue “the most important problem in cosmology today.”

    The question, Freedman says, is whether the mismatch is real. A real mismatch could indicate something profound about the nature of dark energy and the history of the universe. But the discrepancy could just be due to measurement errors.

    Webb can help settle the debate. One common way to determine the Hubble constant is by measuring the distances and speeds of far-off galaxies. Measuring cosmic distances is difficult, but astronomers can estimate them using objects of known brightness, called standard candles. If you know the object’s actual brightness, you can calculate its distance based on how bright it seems from Earth.

    Studies using supernovas and variable stars called Cepheids as candles have found an expansion rate of 74.0 kilometers per second for approximately every 3 million light-years, or megaparsec, of distance between objects. But using red giant stars, Freedman and colleagues have gotten a smaller answer: 69.8 km/s/Mpc.

    Other studies have measured the Hubble constant by looking at the dim glow of light emitted just 380,000 years after the Big Bang, called the cosmic microwave background. Calculations based on that glow give a smaller rate still: 67.4 km/s/Mpc. Although these numbers may seem close, the fact that they disagree at all could alter our understanding of the contents of the universe and how it evolves over time. The discrepancy has been called a crisis in cosmology (SN: 9/14/19, p. 22).

    In its first year, Webb will observe some of the same galaxies used in the supernova studies, using three different objects as candles: Cepheids, red giants and peculiar stars called carbon stars.

    The telescope will also try to measure the Hubble constant using a distant gravitationally lensed galaxy. Comparing those measurements with each other and with similar ones from Hubble will show if earlier measurements were just wrong, or if the tension between measurements is real, Freedman says.

    Without these new observations, “we were just going to argue about the same things forever,” she says. “We just need better data. And [Webb] is poised to deliver it.”


    Perhaps the biggest change for Webb science has been the rise of the field of exoplanet explorations.

    “When this was proposed, exoplanets were scarcely a thing,” says STScI’s Friedman. “And now, of course, it’s one of the hottest topics in all of science, especially all of astronomy.”

    The Dressler report’s second major goal for Hubble’s successor was “the detection of Earthlike planets around other stars and the search for evidence of life on them.” But back in 1995, only a handful of planets orbiting other sunlike stars were even known, and all of them were scorching-hot gas giants — nothing like Earth at all.

    Since then, astronomers have discovered thousands of exoplanets orbiting distant stars. Scientists now estimate that, on average, there is at least one planet for every star we see in the sky. And some of the planets are small and rocky, with the right temperatures to support liquid water, and maybe life.

    Most of the known planets were discovered as they crossed, or transited, in front of their parent stars, blocking a little bit of the parent star’s light. Astronomers soon realized that, if those planets have atmospheres, a sensitive telescope could effectively sniff the air by examining the starlight that filters through the atmosphere.

    The infrared Spitzer Space Telescope, which launched in 2003, and Hubble have started this work. But Spitzer ran out of coolant in 2009, keeping it too warm to measure important molecules in exoplanet atmospheres. And Hubble is not sensitive to some of the most interesting wavelengths of light — the ones that could reveal alien life-forms.

    That’s where Webb is going to shine. If Hubble is peeking through a crack in a door, Webb will throw the door wide open, says exoplanet scientist Nikole Lewis of Cornell University. Crucially, Webb, unlike Hubble, will be particularly sensitive to several carbon-bearing molecules in exoplanet atmospheres that might be signs of life.

    “Hubble can’t tell us anything really about carbon, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, methane,” she says.

    If Webb had launched in 2007, it could have missed this whole field. Even though the first transiting exoplanet was discovered in 1999, their numbers were low for the next decade.

    Lewis remembers thinking, when she started grad school in 2007, that she could make a computer model of all the transiting exoplanets. “Because there were literally only 25,” she says.

    Between 2009 and 2018, NASA’s Kepler space telescope raked in transiting planets by the thousands. But those planets were too dim and distant for Webb to probe their atmospheres.

    So the down-to-the-wire delays of the last few years have actually been good for exoplanet research, Lewis says. “The launch delays were one of the best things that’s happened for exoplanet science with Webb,” she says. “Full stop.”

    That’s mainly thanks to NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, which launched in April 2018. TESS’ job is to find planets orbiting the brightest, nearest stars, which will give Webb the best shot at detecting interesting molecules in planetary atmospheres.

    If it had launched in 2018, Webb would have had to wait a few years for TESS to pick out the best targets. Now, it can get started on those worlds right away. Webb’s first year of observations will include probing several known exoplanets that have been hailed as possible places to find life. Scientists will survey planets orbiting small, cool stars called M dwarfs to make sure such planets even have atmospheres, a question that has been hotly debated.

    If a sign of life does show up on any of these planets, that result will be fiercely debated, too, Lewis says. “There will be a huge kerfuffle in the literature when that comes up.” It will be hard to compare planets orbiting M dwarfs with Earth, because these planets and their stars are so different from ours. Still, “let’s look and see what we find,” she says.

    A limited lifetime

    With its components assembled, tested and folded at Northrop Grumman’s facilities in California, Webb is on its way by boat through the Panama Canal, ready to launch in an Ariane 5 rocket from French Guiana. The most recent launch date is set for December 18.

    For the scientists who have been working on Webb for decades, this is a nostalgic moment.

    “You start to relate to the folks who built the pyramids,” Stiavelli says.

    Other scientists, who grew up in a world where Webb was always on the horizon, are already thinking about the next big thing.

    “I’m pretty sure, barring epic disaster, that [Webb] will carry my career through the next decade,” Lewis says. “But I have to think about what I’ll do in the next decade” after that.Unlike Hubble, which has lasted decades thanks to fixes by astronauts and upgrade missions, Webb has a strictly limited lifetime. Orbiting the sun at a gravitationally fixed point called L2, Webb will be too far from Earth to repair, and will need to burn small amounts of fuel to stay in position. The fuel will last for at least five years, and hopefully as much as 10. But when the fuel runs out, Webb is finished. The telescope operators will move it into retirement in an out-of-the-way orbit around the sun, and bid it farewell. More

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    Space rocks may have bounced off baby Earth, but slammed into Venus

    Squabbling sibling planets may have hurled space rocks when they were young.

    Simulations suggest that space rocks the size of baby planets struck both the newborn Earth and Venus, but many of the rocks that only grazed Earth went on to hit — and stick — to Venus. That difference in early impacts could help explain why Earth and Venus are such different worlds today, researchers report September 23 in the Planetary Science Journal.

    “The pronounced differences between Earth and Venus, in spite of their similar orbits and masses, has been one of the biggest puzzles in our solar system,” says planetary scientist Shigeru Ida of the Tokyo Institute of Technology, who was not involved in the new work. This study introduces “a new point that has not been raised before.”

    Scientists have typically thought that there are two ways that collisions between baby planets can go. The objects could graze each other and each continue on its way, in a hit-and-run collision. Or two protoplanets could stick together, or accrete, making one larger planet. Planetary scientists often assume that every hit-and-run collision eventually leads to accretion. Objects that collide must have orbits that cross each other’s, so they’re bound to collide again and again, and eventually should stick.

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    But previous work from planetary scientist Erik Asphaug of the University of Arizona in Tucson and others suggests that isn’t so. It takes special conditions for two planets to merge, Asphaug says, like relatively slow impact speeds, so hit-and-runs were probably much more common in the young solar system.

    Asphaug and colleagues wondered what that might have meant for Earth and Venus, two apparently similar planets with vastly different climates. Both worlds are about the same size and mass, but Earth is wet and clement while Venus is a searing, acidic hellscape (SN: 2/13/18).

    “If they started out on similar pathways, somehow Venus took a wrong turn,” Asphaug says.

    The team ran about 4,000 computer simulations in which Mars-sized protoplanets crashed into a young Earth or Venus, assuming the two planets were at their current distances from the sun. The researchers found that about half of the time, incoming protoplanets grazed Earth without directly colliding. Of those, about half went on to collide with Venus.

    Unlike Earth, Venus ended up accreting most of the objects that hit it in the simulations. Hitting Earth first slowed incoming objects down enough to let them stick to Venus later, the study suggests. “You have this imbalance where things that hit the Earth, but don’t stick, tend to end up on Venus,” Asphaug says. “We have a fundamental explanation for why Venus ended up accreting differently from the Earth.”

    If that’s really what happened, it would have had a significant effect on the composition of the two worlds. Earth would have ended up with more of the outer mantle and crust material from the incoming protoplanets, while Venus would have gotten more of their iron-rich cores.

    The imbalance in impacts could even explain some major Venusian mysteries, like why the planet doesn’t have a moon, why it spins so slowly and why it lacks a magnetic field — though “these are hand-waving kind of conjectures,” Asphaug says.

    Ida says he hopes that future work will look into those questions more deeply. “I’m looking forward to follow-up studies to examine if the new result actually explains the Earth-Venus difference,” he says.

    The idea fits into a growing debate among planetary scientists about how the solar system grew up, says planetary scientist Seth Jacobson of Michigan State University in East Lansing. Was it built violently, with lots of giant collisions, or calmly, with planets growing smoothly via pebbles sticking together?

    “This paper falls on the end of lots of giant impacts,” Jacobson says.

    Each rocky planet in the solar system should have very different chemistry and structure depending on which scenario is true. But scientists know the chemistry and structure of only one planet with any confidence: Earth. And Earth’s early history has been overwritten by plate tectonics and other geologic activity. “Venus is the missing link,” Jacobson says. “Learning more about Venus’ chemistry and interior structure is going to tell us more about whether it had a giant impact or not.”

    Three missions to Venus are expected to launch in the late 2020s and 2030s (SN: 6/2/21). Those should help, but none are expected to take the kind of detailed composition measurements that could definitively solve the mystery. That would take a long-lived lander, or a sample return mission, both of which would be extremely difficult on hot, hostile Venus.

    “I wish there was an easier way to test it,” Jacobson says. “I think that’s where we should concentrate our energy as terrestrial planet formation scientists going forward.” More

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    Satellite swarms may outshine the night sky’s natural constellations

    Fleets of private satellites orbiting Earth will be visible to the naked eye in the next few years, sometimes all night long.

    Companies like SpaceX and Amazon have launched hundreds of satellites into low orbits since 2019, with plans to launch thousands more in the works — a trend that’s alarming astronomers. The goal of these satellite “mega-constellations” is to bring high-speed internet around the globe, but these bright objects threaten to disrupt astronomers’ ability to observe the cosmos (SN: 3/12/20). “For astronomers, this is kind of a pants-on-fire situation,” says radio astronomer Harvey Liszt of the National Radio Astronomical Observatory in Charlottesville, Va.

    Now, a new simulation of the potential positions and brightness of these satellites shows that, contrary to earlier predictions, casual sky watchers will have their view disrupted, too. And parts of the world will be affected more than others, astronomer Samantha Lawler of the University of Regina in Canada and her colleagues report in a paper posted September 9 at

    “How will this affect the way the sky looks to your eyeballs?” Lawler asks. “We humans have been looking up at the night sky and analyzing patterns there for as long as we’ve been human. It’s part of what makes us human.” These mega-constellations could mean “we’ll see a human-made pattern more than we can see the stars, for the first time in human history.”

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    Flat, smooth surfaces on satellites can reflect sunlight depending on their position in the sky. Earlier research had suggested that most of the new satellites would not be visible with the naked eye.

    Lawler, along with Aaron Boley of the University of British Columbia and Hanno Rein of the University of Toronto at Scarborough in Canada, started building their simulation with public data about the launch plans of four companies — SpaceX’s Starlink, Amazon’s Kuiper, OneWeb and StarNet/GW — that had been filed with the U.S. Federal Communications Commission and the International Telecommunications Union. The filings detailed the expected orbital heights and angles of 65,000 satellites that could be launched over the next few years.

    “It’s impossible to predict the future, but this is realistic,” says astronomer Meredith Rawls of the University of Washington in Seattle, who was not involved in the new study. “A lot of times when people make these simulations, they pick a number out of a hat. This really justifies the numbers that they pick.”

    There are currently about 7,890 objects in Earth orbit, about half of which are operational satellites, according to the U.N. Office for Outer Space Affairs. But that number is increasing fast as companies launch more and more satellites (SN: 12/28/20). In August 2020, there were only about 2,890 operational satellites.

    Next, the researchers computed how many satellites will be in the sky at different times of year, at different hours of the night and from different positions on Earth’s surface. They also estimated how bright the satellites were likely to be at different hours of the day and times of the year.

    That calculation required a lot of assumptions because companies aren’t required to publish details about their satellites like the materials they’re made of or their precise shapes, both of which can affect reflectivity. But there are enough satellites in orbit that Lawler and colleagues could compare their simulated satellites to the light reflected down to Earth by the real ones.

    The simulations showed that “the way the night sky is going to change will not affect all places equally,” Lawler says. The places where naked-eye stargazing will be most affected are at latitudes 50° N and 50° S, regions that cross lower Canada, much of Europe, Kazakhstan and Mongolia, and the southern tips of Chile and Argentina, the researchers found.

    A simulation shows the number and brightness of satellites visible from Canada at midnight on the June solstice if 65,000 satellites launch in the next few years. The center of the circle is straight overhead, and the edges mark the horizon. Yellow dots represent the brightest satellites and purple dots the dimmest. Curious about how the satellites might skew your view of the stars? Visit the researchers’ website to check simulations of the visibility near you.Samantha Lawler, Hanno Rein and Aaron Boley

    “The geometry of sunlight in the summer means there will be hundreds of visible satellites all night long,” Lawler says. “It’s bad everywhere, but it’s worse there.” For her, this is personal: She lives at 50° N.

    Closer to the equator, where many research observatories are located, there is a period of about three hours in the winter and near the time of the spring and fall equinoxes with few or no sunlit satellites visible. But there are still hundreds of sunlit satellites all night at these locations in the summer.

    A few visible satellites can be a fun spectacle, Lawler concedes. “I think we really are at a transition point here where right now, seeing a satellite, or even a Starlink train, is cool and different and wow, that’s amazing,” she says. “I used to look up when the [International Space Station] was overhead.” But she compares the coming change to watching one car go down the road 100 years ago, versus living next to a busy freeway now.

    “Every sixteenth star will actually be moving,” she says. “I hope I’m wrong. I’ve never wanted to be wrong about a simulation more than this. But without mitigation, this is what the sky will look like in a few years.”

    Astronomers have been meeting with representatives from private companies, as well as space lawyers and government officials, to work out compromises and mitigation strategies. Companies have been testing ways to reduce reflectivity, like shading the satellites with a “visor.” Other proposed strategies include limiting the satellites to lower orbits, where they would appear brighter in telescope images but move faster across the sky. Counterintuitively, brighter, faster satellites would be better for astronomy research, Rawls says. “They move out of the way quick.”

    But that lower altitude strategy will mean more visible satellites for other parts of the world, and more that are visible to the naked eye. “There’s not some magical orbital altitude that solves all our problems,” Rawls says. “There are some latitudes on Earth where no matter what altitude you put your satellites at, they’re going to be all over the darn place. The only way out of this is fewer satellites.”

    There are currently no regulations concerning how bright a satellite can be or how many satellites a private company can launch. Scientists are grateful that companies are willing to work with them, but nervous that their cooperation is voluntary.

    “A lot of the people who work on satellites care about space. They’re in this industry because they think space is awesome,” Rawls says. “We share that, which helps. But it doesn’t fix it. I think we need to get some kind of regulation as soon as possible.” (Representatives from Starlink, Kuiper and OneWeb did not respond to requests for comment.)

    Efforts are under way to bring the issue to the attention of the United Nations and to try to use existing environmental regulations to place limits on satellite launches, says study coauthor Boley (who also lives near 50° N).

    Analogies to other global pollution problems, like space junk, can provide inspiration and precedents, he says. “There are a number of ways forward. We shouldn’t just lose hope. We can do things about this.” More

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    A supernova’s delayed reappearance could pin down how fast the universe expands

    A meandering trek taken by light from a remote supernova in the constellation Cetus may help researchers pin down how fast the universe expands — in another couple of decades.

    About 10 billion years ago, a star exploded in a far-off galaxy named MRG-M0138. Some of the light from that explosion later encountered a gravitational lens, a cluster of galaxies whose gravity sent the light on multiple diverging paths. In 2016, the supernova appeared in Earth’s sky as three distinct points of light, each marking three different paths the light took to get here.

    Now, researchers predict that the supernova will appear again in the late 2030s. The time delay — the longest ever seen from a gravitationally lensed supernova — could provide a more precise estimate for the distance to the supernova’s host galaxy, the team reports September 13 in Nature Astronomy. And that, in turn, may let astronomers refine estimates of the Hubble constant, the parameter that describes how fast the universe expands.

    The original three points of light appeared in images from the Hubble Space Telescope. “It was purely an accident,” says astronomer Steve Rodney of the University of South Carolina in Columbia. Three years later, when Hubble reobserved the galaxy, astronomer Gabriel Brammer at the University of Copenhagen discovered that all three points of light had vanished, indicating a supernova.

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    By calculating how the intervening cluster’s gravity alters the path the supernova’s light rays take, Rodney and his colleagues predict that the supernova will appear again in 2037, give or take a couple of years. Around that time, Hubble may burn up in the atmosphere, so Rodney’s team dubs the supernova “SN Requiem.”

    “It’s a requiem for a dying star and a sort of elegy to the Hubble Space Telescope itself,” Rodney says. A fifth point of light, too faint to be seen, may also arrive around 2042, the team calculates.

    In another Hubble image of the galaxy cluster MACS J0138.0-2155, the cluster split the light from a supernova into three points, SN1, SN2 and SN3. The other two points, SN4 and SN5, are predictions of where the light from the supernova will appear in future years.S. Rodney et al/Nature Astronomy 2021

    The predicted 21-year time delay — from 2016 to 2037 — is a record for a supernova. In contrast, the first gravitational lens ever found — twin images of a quasar spotted in 1979  — has a time delay of only 1.1 years (SN: 11/10/1979).

    Not everyone agrees with Rodney’s forecast. “It is very difficult to predict what the time delay will be,” says Rudolph Schild, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass., who was the first to measure the double quasar’s time delay. The distribution of dark matter in the galaxy hosting the supernova and the cluster splitting the supernova’s light is so uncertain, Schild says, that the next image of SN Requiem could come outside the years Rodney’s team has specified.

    In any case, when the supernova image does appear, “that would be a phenomenally precise measurement” of the time delay, says Patrick Kelly, an astronomer at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis who was not involved with the new work. That’s because the uncertainty in the time delay will be tiny compared with the tremendous length of the time delay itself.

    That delay, coupled with an accurate description of how light rays weave through the galaxy cluster, could affect the debate over the Hubble constant. Numerically, the Hubble constant is the speed a distant galaxy recedes from us divided by the distance to that galaxy. For a given galaxy with a known speed, a larger estimated distance therefore leads to a lower number for the Hubble constant.

    This number was once in dispute by a factor of two. Today the range is much tighter, from 67 to 73 kilometers per second per megaparsec. But that spread still leaves the universe’s age uncertain. The frequently quoted age of 13.8 billion years corresponds to a Hubble constant of 67.4. But if the Hubble constant is higher, then the universe could be about a billion years younger.

    The longer it takes for SN Requiem to reappear, the farther from Earth the host galaxy is — which means a lower Hubble constant and an older universe. So if the debate over the Hubble constant persists into the 2030s, the exact date the supernova springs back to life could help resolve the dispute and nail down a fundamental cosmological parameter. More

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    How radio astronomy put new eyes on the cosmos

    One can only imagine what Grote Reber’s neighbors thought when, in 1937, the amateur radio enthusiast erected in his yard a nearly 10-meter-wide shallow bowl of sheet metal, perched atop an adjustable scaffold and topped by an open pyramid of gangly towers. Little could his neighbors have known that they were witnessing the birth of a new way of looking at the cosmos.

    Reber was building the world’s first dedicated radio telescope. Unlike traditional telescopes, which use lenses or mirrors to focus visible light, this contraption used metal and circuitry to collect interstellar radio waves, low frequency ripples of electromagnetic radiation. With his homemade device, Reber made the first map of the sky as seen with radio-sensitive eyes and kicked off the field of radio astronomy.

    “Radio astronomy is as fundamental to our understanding of the universe as … optical astronomy,” says Karen O’Neil, site director at Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia. “If we want to understand the universe, we really need to make sure we have as many different types of eyes on the universe as we possibly can.”

    When astronomers talk about radio waves from space, they aren’t (necessarily) referring to alien broadcasts. More often, they are interested in low-energy light that can emerge when molecules change up their rotation, for example, or when electrons twirl within a magnetic field. Tuning in to interstellar radio waves for the first time was akin to Galileo pointing a modified spyglass at the stars centuries earlier — we could see things in the sky we’d never seen before.

    Today, radio astronomy is a global enterprise. More than 100 radio telescopes — from spidery antennas hunkered low to the ground to supersized versions of Reber’s dish that span hundreds of meters — dot the globe. These eyes on the sky have been so game-changing that they’ve been at the center of no fewer than three Nobel Prizes.

    Not bad for a field that got started by accident.

    In the early 1930s, an engineer at Bell Telephone Laboratories named Karl Jansky was tracking down sources of radio waves that interfered with wireless communication. He stumbled upon a hiss coming from somewhere in the constellation Sagittarius, in the direction of the center of the galaxy.

    Karl Jansky, shown here with his rotating radio antenna, stumbled on a radio hiss coming from the direction of the center of the galaxy, marking the beginnings of radio astronomy.NRAO, AUI, NSF, Jeff Hellerman

    “The basic discovery that there was radio radiation coming from interstellar space confounded theory,” says astronomer Jay Lockman, also of Green Bank. “There was no known way of getting that.”

    Bell Labs moved Jansky on to other, more Earthly pursuits. But Reber, a fan of all things radio, read about Jansky’s discovery and wanted to know more. No one had ever built a radio telescope before, so Reber figured it out himself, basing his design on principles used to focus visible light in optical scopes. He improved upon Jansky’s antenna — a bunch of metal tubes held up by a pivoting wooden trestle — and fashioned a parabolic metal dish for focusing incoming radio waves to a point, where an amplifier boosted the feeble signal. The whole contraption sat atop a tilting wooden base that let him scan the sky by swinging the telescope up and down. The same basic design is used today for radio telescopes around the world.

    For nearly a decade — thanks partly to the Great Depression and World War II — Reber was largely alone. The field didn’t flourish until after the war, with a crop of scientists brimming with new radio expertise from designing radar systems. Surprises have been coming ever since.

    Grote Reber erected the world’s first dedicated radio telescope – shown here – in his yard in Wheaton, Ill.GBO, NSF, AUI

    “The discovery of interstellar molecules, that’s a big one,” says Lisa Young, an astronomer at New Mexico Tech in Socorro. Radio telescopes are well suited to peering into the dense, cold clouds where molecules reside and sensing radiation emitted when they lose rotational energy. Today, the list of identified interstellar molecules includes many complex organics, including some thought to be precursors for life.

    Radio telescopes also turned up objects previously unimagined. Quasars, the blazing cores of remote galaxies powered by behemoth black holes, first showed up in detailed radio maps from the late 1950s. Pulsars, the ultradense spinning cores of dead stars, made themselves known in 1967 when Jocelyn Bell Burnell noticed that the radio antenna array she helped build was picking up a steady beep … beep … beep from deep space every 1.3 seconds. (She was passed over when the 1974 Nobel Prize in physics honored this discovery — her adviser got the recognition. But an accolade came in 2018, when she was awarded a Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics.)

    Pulsars are “not only interesting for being a discovery in themselves,” Lockman says. They “are being used now to make tests of general relativity and detect gravitational waves.” That’s because anything that nudges a pulsar — say, a passing ripple in spacetime — alters when its ultraprecise radio beats arrive at Earth. In the early 1990s, such timing variations from one pulsar led to the first confirmed discovery of planets outside the solar system.

    More recently, brief blasts of radio energy primarily from other galaxies have captured astronomers’ attention. Discovered in 2007, the causes of these “fast radio bursts” are still unknown. But they are already useful probes of the stuff between galaxies. The light from these eruptions encodes signatures of the atoms encountered while en route to Earth, allowing astronomers to track down lots of matter they thought should be out in the cosmos but hadn’t found yet. “That was the thing that allowed us to weigh the universe and understand where the missing matter is,” says Dan Werthimer, an astronomer at the University of California, Berkeley.

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    And it was a radio antenna that, in 1964, gave the biggest boost to the then-fledgling Big Bang theory. Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, engineers at Bell Labs, were stymied by a persistent hiss in the house-sized, horn-like antenna they were repurposing for radio astronomy. The culprit was radiation that permeates all of space, left behind from a time when the universe was much hotter and denser than it is today. This “cosmic microwave background,” named for the relatively high frequencies at which it is strongest, is still the clearest window that astronomers have into the very early universe.

    Radio telescopes have another superpower. Multiple radio dishes linked together across continents can act as one enormous observatory, with the ability to see details much finer than any of those dishes acting alone. Building a radio eye as wide as the planet — the Event Horizon Telescope — led to the first picture of a black hole.

    The Event Horizon Telescope, an international network of radio observatories, took this first-ever image of a black hole, at the center of galaxy M87.Event Horizon Telescope collaboration et al

    “Not that anybody needed proof of the existence [of black holes],” Young says, “but there’s something so marvelous about actually being able to see it.”

    The list of discoveries goes on: Galaxies from the early universe that are completely shrouded in dust and so emit no starlight still glow bright in radio images. Rings of gas and dust encircling young stars are providing details about planet formation. Intel on asteroids and planets in our solar system can be gleaned by bouncing radio waves off their surfaces.

    And, of course, there’s the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI. “Radio is probably the most likely place where we will answer the question: ‘Are we alone?’” Werthimer says.

    The ALMA radio telescope network in the Atacama Desert in Chile captured this image of what appears to be a planet-forming disk around the young star HL Tauri.ESO, NAOJ, NRAO

    That sentiment goes back more than a century. In 1899, inventor Nikola Tesla picked up radio signals that he thought were coming from folks on another planet. And for 36 hours in August 1924, the United States ordered all radio transmitters silent for five minutes every hour to listen for transmissions from Mars as Earth lapped the Red Planet at a relatively close distance. The field got a more official kickoff in 1960 when astronomer Frank Drake pointed Green Bank’s original radio telescope at the stars Tau Ceti and Epsilon Eridani, just in case anyone there was broadcasting.

    While SETI has had its ups and downs, “there’s kind of a renaissance,” Werthimer says. “There’s a lot of new, young people going into SETI … and there’s new money.” In 2015, entrepreneur Yuri Milner pledged $100 million over 10 years to the search for other residents of our universe.

    Though the collapse of the giant Arecibo Observatory in 2020 — at 305 meters across, it was the largest single dish radio telescope for most of its lifetime — was tragic and unexpected, radio astronomers have new facilities in the works. The Square Kilometer Array, which will link up small radio dishes and antennas across Australia and South Africa when complete in the late 2020s, will probe the acceleration of the universe’s expansion, seek out signs of life and explore conditions from cosmic dawn. “We’ll see the signatures of the first structures in the universe forming the first galaxies and stars,” Werthimer says.

    The Square Kilometer Array will connect radio dishes and antennas across South Africa and Australia, offering an unprecedented look at the universe.SKA Observatory

    But if the history of radio astronomy is any guide, the most remarkable discoveries yet to come will be the things no one has thought to look for. So much about the field is marked by serendipity, Werthimer notes. Even radio astronomy as a field started serendipitously. “If you just build something to look at some place that nobody’s looked before,” he says, “you’ll make interesting discoveries.” More

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    New ideas on what makes a planet habitable could reshape the search for life

    When considering where to look for extraterrestrial life, astronomers have mostly stuck with what’s familiar. The best candidates for habitable planets are considered the ones most like Earth: small, rocky, with breathable atmospheres and a clement amount of warmth from their stars.

    But as more planets outside the solar system have been discovered, astronomers have debated the usefulness of this definition (SN: 10/4/19). Some planets in the so-called habitable zone, where temperatures are right for liquid water, are probably not good for life at all. Others outside that designated area might be perfectly comfortable.

    Now, two studies propose revising the concept of “habitable zone” to account for more of the planets that astronomers may encounter in the cosmos. One new definition brings more planets into the habitable fold; the other nudges some out.

    “Both papers focus on questioning the classical idea of the habitable zone,” says astronomer Noah Tuchow of Penn State University. “We should extend the range of places that we look, so we don’t miss habitable planets.”

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    Some overlooked planets could be much bigger than Earth, and potentially receive no starlight at all. Astrophysicist Nikku Madhusudhan of the University of Cambridge and colleagues propose a new category of possibly habitable planet that could be found at almost any distance from any kind of star.

    These hypothetical planets have a global liquid-water ocean nestled under a thick hydrogen-rich atmosphere (SN: 5/4/20). Madhusudhan calls them “Hycean” planets, for “hydrogen” and “ocean.” They could be up to 2.6 times the size of Earth and up to 10 times as massive, Madhusudhan and colleagues report August 25 in the Astrophysical Journal. That thick atmosphere could keep temperatures right for liquid water even with minimal input from a star, while the ocean could protect anything living from crushing atmospheric pressure.

    “We want to expand beyond our fixated paradigm so far on Earthlike planets,” Madhusudhan says. “Everything we’ve learned about exoplanets so far is extremely diverse. Why restrict ourselves when it comes to life?”

    In the search for alien life, Hycean planets would have several advantages over rocky planets in the habitable zone, the team says. Though it’s difficult to tell which worlds definitely have oceans and hydrogen atmospheres, there are many more known exoplanets in the mass and temperature ranges of Hycean planets than there are Earthlike planets. So the odds are good, Madhusudhan says.

    And because they are generally larger and have more extended atmospheres than rocky planets, Hycean planets are easier to probe for biosignatures, molecular signs of life. Detectable biosignatures on Hycean planets could include rare molecules associated with life on Earth like dimethyl sulfide and carbonyl sulfide. These tend to be too low in concentration to detect in thin Earthlike atmospheres, but thicker Hycean atmospheres would show them more readily.

    Best of all, existing or planned telescopes could detect those molecules within a few years, if they’re there. Madhusudhan already has plans to use NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, due to launch later this year, to observe the water-rich planet K2 18b (SN: 9/11/19).

    That planet’s habitability was debated when it was reported in 2019. Madhusudhan says 20 hours of observations with JWST should solve the debate.

    “Best-case scenario, we’ll detect life on K2 18b,” he says, though “I’m not holding my breath over it.”

    Astronomer Laura Kreidberg of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, Germany, thinks it probably won’t be that easy. Planets in the Hycean size range tend to have cloudy or hazy atmospheres, making biosignatures more difficult to pick up.

    It’s also not clear if Hycean planets actually exist in nature. “It is a really fun idea,” she says. “But is it just a fun idea, or does it match up with reality? I think we absolutely don’t know yet.”

    Rather than inventing a new way to bring exoplanets into the habitable family, Tuchow and fellow Penn State astronomer Jason Wright are kicking some apparently habitable planets out. The pair realized that the region of clement temperatures around a star changes as the star evolves and changes brightness.

    Some planets are born in the habitable zone and stay there their entire lives. But some, possibly most, are born outside their star’s habitable zone and enter it later, as the star ages. In the August Research Notes of the American Astronomical Society, Tuchow and Wright suggest calling those worlds “belatedly habitable planets.”

    When astronomers point their telescopes at a given star, the scientists are seeing only a snapshot of the star’s habitable zone, the pair say. “If you just look at a planet in the habitable zone in the present day, you have no idea how long it’s been there,” Tuchow says. It’s an open question whether planets that enter the habitable zone later in life can ever become habitable, he explains. If the planet started out too close to the star, it could have lost all its water to a greenhouse effect, like Venus did. Moving Venus to the position of Earth won’t give it its water back.

    On the other end, a planet that was born farther from its star could be entirely covered in glaciers, which reflect sunlight. They may never melt, even when their stars brighten. Worse, their water could go straight from frozen to evaporated, a process known as sublimation. That scenario would leave the planet no time with even a cozy wet puddle for life to get started in.

    These planets are “still in the habitable zone,” Tuchow says. “But it adds questions about whether or not being in the habitable zone actually means habitable.” More