The Summer Solstice and the Search for Life in the Cosmos

As you mark the longest day of the year, consider the debate among astronomers over whether Earth’s tilt toward the sun helps make life on our world and others possible. ImageAn artist’s rendering of an Earthlike exoplanet orbiting another. Scientists haven’t been able to measure an exoplanet’s tilt yet, but some suspect that a planet’s tilt is key to supporting life.CreditEuropean Southern Observatory On the summer solstice Thursday, the Northern Hemisphere will dip toward the sun and bathe in direct sunlight for longer than any other day of the year.…

Black Hole Drags Star to Dusty Death

Gulp. Burp. And so it goes in the cruel and carnivorous universe according to Einstein. Astronomers said on Thursday that they had seen a giant black hole in a nearby galaxy rip apart an unfortunate wayward star and spread half of it into a messy blaze of light and heat swirling toward doom. The other half was spit outward in a fiery high-energy jet at a quarter of the speed of light. All this happened out of human sight, deep in the dusty heart of a pair of colliding galaxies…

Asteroids and Adversaries: Challenging What NASA Knows About Space Rocks

Thousands of asteroids are passing through Earth’s neighborhood all the time. Although the odds of a direct hit on the planet any time soon are slim, even a small asteroid the size of a house could explode with as much energy as an atomic bomb. So scientists at NASA are charged with scanning the skies for such dangerous space rocks. If one were on a collision course with our planet, information about how big it is and what it’s made of would be essential for deflecting it, or calculating the…

Huge Dust Storm on Mars Threatens NASA’s Opportunity Rover

A vast dust storm blanketing about a quarter of the surface of Mars has threatened NASA’s Opportunity rover, plunging the solar-powered vehicle into what the space agency has described as a “dark, perpetual night.” With its primary energy source obscured, the rover, which sits in the Perseverance Valley of Mars near the center of the storm, appears to have automatically entered a power-saving mode in which it will remain until the sun re-emerges, agency officials said. “We’re concerned, but we’re hopeful that the storm will clear and the rover will…

Extremely Large, Extremely Expensive: The Race for the Next Giant Telescopes

It is high noon, again, for astronomers who want to erect a gigantic telescope on Mauna Kea, the grand volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii. On June 21, the Supreme Court of Hawaii will hear oral arguments in Honolulu on whether to approve a building permit for the telescope, which would be the biggest and most expensive in the Northern Hemisphere. This same court rescinded the telescope’s permit two-and-a-half-years ago on procedural grounds, after protests had prevented construction on the mountaintop. The Thirty Meter Telescope (named for the diameter…

A Very Hungry Black Hole Is Found, Gorging on Stars

It is a truism of modern astronomy that every galaxy has a hungry heart, to paraphrase Bruce Springsteen, in the form of a massive black hole gulping gas, dust and even stars. Astronomers in Australia now say they have found the hungriest heart in all the cosmos. It is a black hole 20 billion times the mass of the sun eating the equivalent of a star every two days. The black hole is growing so rapidly, said Christian Wolf, of the Australian National University, who led the team that found…

Review: ‘The Most Unknown’ Tackles Science’s Big Questions

You walk out of “The Most Unknown” knowing a little more than you did, and with the sense there’s so much more you don’t. It’s a mystifying feeling, and a good reason to see this documentary that extols the wonders of science and of all that’s yet to discover. The film begins deep underground as Jennifer Macalady, an American geomicrobiologist, explores simple life-forms found in the Frasassi Caves in Italy. As part of the documentary’s plan, she travels to visit a scientist she has never met, who studies a discipline…

How Asteroids May Have Brought Water to Earth

Water covers 70 percent of the surface of Earth. It’s the source of life and home to countless living things. But where did it come from? Scientists have come up with many ways to account for Earth’s water. It could have been here from the start. It could have arrived with dirty ice balls called comets, or as part of interplanetary dust. And then there are asteroids, rock objects of varying sizes that have come crashing to Earth at different times in its history, sometimes in great numbers. More than…

Europa, Jupiter’s Ocean Moon, May Shoot Plumes of Water Into Space

Europa is an ice-encrusted moon of Jupiter with a global ocean flowing underneath its surface. NASA is planning a mission soon that will look for signs of possible life there. Now, a new finding from old data makes that mission even more tantalizing. In recent years, the Hubble Space Telescope has spotted what looks like plumes, likely of water vapor, reaching more than 100 miles above the surface. The plumes, if they exist, could contain molecules that hint at whether Europa possesses the building blocks of life. In a study…