Astronews Recent Space Discoveries (Life on Venus, Branson Vs Bezos, China’s Mars Base 2033 & more)

Welcome to the eleventh review of “Space and Astronomy” news, selected for you by Insane Curiosity Channel. The news, which will be weekly, will try to provide a quick overview of everything interesting that has happened in recent days in the field of astronomical research and space exploration. Keep following us! Bad news coming from Venus Life can’t exist in the clouds of Venus. It’s simply too dry, says an international research team led from Queen’s University Belfast, UK. Do you remember that? The search for life on our nearest planetary neighbor took an exciting turn last year when scientists found tantalizing signs of phosphine – a gas that on Earth can only be produced in the clouds of Venus by particular biological processes. Since then studies have either overturned the claim or added further intrigue to the finding. But now, a new study measuring water concentration in Venus’s atmosphere has concluded that life as we know it could not tolerate conditions among the planet’s sulfuric-laden clouds. For life as we know it to exist, it needs water. Every cell on Earth is surrounded by a membrane and membranes are made from water. Without proper membrane structure, cells would be unable to keep important molecules inside the cell and harmful molecules outside the cell. In order to help maintain shape and structure and to perform a vital biological or chemical reaction, cells need energy and the available energy in a system is measured by a mechanism known as water activity. Water activity is measured on a scale of 0 to 1, and laboratory studies have shown that life as we know it requires a water activity of at least 0.585 for metabolism and reproduction to take place, wherever a microbe might be hiding; be it a blisteringly hot habitat, or a freezing cold landscape. But it seems that despite the ability of extremophiles to live in extreme environments, the thick, poisonous clouds of Venus are just too much as scientists now have a measure of water activity in the planet’s atmosphere, and its not looking good. That all important figure comes in fact to below 0.004 – more than 100 times less than the limit for active life! It is so low because high concentrations of sulfuric acid – the bulk constituent of Venus’ clouds – reduce the water activity in the planet’s atmosphere. Until now, a large part of astrobiologists believed that some extreme organisms like the ones we know here on Earth would be able to thrive in certain regions of the Venusian atmosphere, but these latest figures seem to put an end to all hope in this regard. However, there could be a silver lining of sorts. According to the team’s research, both Mars and Jupiter could have suitable levels for microbes to exist. Water activity in Mars’s clouds is 0.537, which is slightly below the habitable range for life and similar to that of the stratosphere in Earth’s atmosphere. Jupiter’s atmosphere on the other hand has a biologically permissive water activity of greater than 0.585 for temperatures between +10 °C and -40 °C. While this is within range, life could be hampered by factors such as “nutrient availability or high levels of radiation,” the team add. Whats more, the team say that the approach used in this study can also be used to determine water activity in the atmospheres of planets beyond our Solar System. The James Webb Telescope, whose launch is expected this autumn, will be able to determine atmospheric profiles of temperature, pressure, and water abundance in exoplanet atmospheres. As such it could be used to narrow down the search for extraterrestrial life. Two billionaires in Space: Richard Branson to fly July 11, nine days before rival Bezos Richard Branson, the billionaire founder of Virgin Galactic, will fly into space aboard his company’s VSS Unity rocketplane on July 11 for an up-and-down test flight, beating Amazon-founder and rival Jeff Bezos into sub-orbital space by nine days. The announcement came just a few hours after Bezos revealed that aviation pioneer Wally Funk will be joining him, his brother Mark and the yet-to-be-named winner of an online auction for blastoff July 20 aboard his company’s New Shepard spacecraft. Both Virgin Galactic and Bezos’ Blue Origin are competing head to head in the emerging space tourism marketplace, both offering short rides just above the discernible atmosphere for a few minutes of weightlessness and spectacular views before returning to Earth. Along with wealthy space tourists, both companies expect to fly researchers and experiments from government agencies and companies developing or testing space technology. Neither company has said how much it plans to charge for a ride to space, but tickets are expected to cost between $250,000 and $500,000. Even so, some 600 enthusiasts have put down deposits for flights aboard Virgin’s spaceplane once commercial operations begin and Branson’s flight marks a major step in that direction. The company’s stock was up 25 percent in after-hours trading. Blue Origin has carried out 15 unpiloted test flights of its New Shepard rocket and capsule and announced on May 5 that its first flight with passengers on board would take off on July 20, the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. One month later, on June 7, Bezos announced that he and his brother would be aboard along with the as-yet-unidentified winner of the online auction, whose $28 million bid won a seat on the New Shepard capsule. Funk will round out the four-person crew. Joining Branson will be pilots Dave MacKay and Michael Masucci, along with Virgin’s chief astronaut instructor Beth Moses, operations engineer Colin Bennett, and Sirisha Bandla, Virgin’s vise president for government affairs and research operations. Mackay flew two earlier sub-orbital test flights while Masucci and Moses each have one previous flight to their credits. While Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin both plan to offer rides to suborbital space, the companies chose very different approaches to the challenge of safely launching passengers to altitudes above 50 miles, the somewhat arbitrary “boundary” of space. Bezos’ Blue Origin chose a more traditional approach, designing a fully automated single-stage, reusable rocket, and capsule while Virgin Galactic built on the success of legendary aircraft design Burt Rutan’s concept for a winged spaceplane. Unlike the New Shepard capsule, which launches from Earth and is then released from it booster for a short sojourn in space, Virgin Galactic’s spaceplane is carried aloft by a twin-fuselage carrier jet and then released above 40,000 feet for a quick rocket-powered ascent. The craft then glides back to Earth for a runway landing. Both spacecraft offer the same brief period of weightlessness and while Virgin’s passengers will enjoy a longer flight overall that the New Shepard’s 10-minute missions, Blue Origin’s capsule offers the biggest windows ever built into a spacecraft, along with a “full envelope” abort system to safely propel the craft away from a malfunctioning booster. “Hey, guys, just a moment before we continue… BE sure to join the Insanecuriosity Channel… Click on the bell, you will help us to make products of ever-higher quality!” Crazy universe: A Gravitationally Lensed Supernova with an Observable Two-Decade Time Delay! It is hard for humans to wrap their heads around the fact that there are galaxies so far away that the light coming from them can be warped in a way that they actually experience a type of time delay. But that is exactly what is happening with extreme forms of gravitational lensing, such as those that give us the beautiful images of Einstein rings. In fact, the time dilation around some of these galaxies can be so extreme that the light from a single event, such as a supernova, can actually show up on Earth at dramatically different times. That is exactly what a team led by Dr. Steven Rodney at the University of South Carolina has found. Except three copies of this supernova have already appeared – and the team thinks it will show up again one more time, 20 years from now. The new supernova, known as AT2016jka, was mined from Hubble data collected back in 2016. Located in the galaxy known as MRG-M0138. MRG-M0138 is “quadruply lensed” meaning that four copies of the galaxy can be seen dispersed around a galaxy cluster closer to our own galaxy, known as MAC J0138.02155. So when the team was surveying data in the region in July 2019, they noted the three point sources of light that were present in data from July 2016 were no longer there. Most likely the data in July 2016 captured a supernova lensed 3 different ways. However – and here’s the real news – the expected fourth lensing did not show up in the Hubble data! Using their lensing model for the system, the team determined that the fourth image should show up sometime around 2037, plus or minus a few years. With such a long baseline time between appearances of the same event, this supernova would provide valuable data to the debate over time dilation in gravitational lensing events. Unfortunately, that also means that scientists have to wait almost 20 years to get their hands on that data. It also means that they have to keep a watchful eye on that part of the sky in the two year window the calculations predict the fourth image of the supernova would appear in. It probably wouldn’t be a bad idea to keep half an eye there the rest of the time as well just in case it appears sooner than expected. China announces plans to build a base on Mars starting in 2033 In just over a decade, China plans to send its first crewed mission to Mars to start construction on a martian base, said Wang Xiaojun, head of the state-owned China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology, at a recent space conference in Russia. Wang’s speech, themed “The Space Transportation System of Human Mars Exploration” also included details of a first crewed mission to Mars that will liftoff in 2033. This will be preceded by a technology preparation phase, whereby androids will be sent ahead to explore the Martian surface for a potential Mars base site. Regular follow-up flights in 2035, 2037, 2041, and 2043, among others, to help facilitate China’s long-term goal of building a permanently inhabited base on the Red Planet and extract its resources, are also scheduled, and to achieve a roundtrip to Mars with a flight time of “hundreds of days,” nuclear propellant in addition to traditional chemical propellants, is being considered as a prime option, Wang said. With a string of recent successes including the Chang’e-5 lunar sample return mission, the deployment of Zhurong to the martian surface, and the deployment of astronauts to its new space station, many see China’s latest ambitions as the beginning of a formidable space race with the US. Without forgetting that as along with Mars, China is also crafting an exploration mission to study the Jovian system set for launch sometime around 2030 and has revealed plans to build a lunar settlement with Russia… Venus and Mars, two planets close together A rather close conjunction between the planets Venus and Mars is expected in the July evening sky. A July in the sign of Venus and Mars. The two planets, visible from the beginning of the month after sunset, towards the west, will get progressively closer, day after day, until the evening of July 13, when they will reach the minimum distance between them and will be in conjunction. The two planets will be very close in the sky, as much as the apparent diameter of the Moon. The approach will be due simply to an effect of perspective: on that day Venus will be 213 million kilometers from Earth, while Mars will be 372, so the two planets will be almost 160 million kilometers from each other! Astronomical distances aside, observing the conjunction of Venus and Mars will be truly spectacular, even if only with the naked eye or binoculars, provided you have a horizon clear of obstacles. The two planets, when they appear in the twilight, will be quite low on the western horizon, with Venus much brighter than Mars. And if you really can’t observe the conjunction on the 13th, don’t lose heart: the two planets will still be quite close practically all month long! OK guys, we’re done for the week too. What do you think? What news struck you the most?