Aug 15, 2011

This Week In Outer Space! Black Planet Edition

Apologies, as most of these stories are technically this is really LAST week in outer space.

Intro to telescopes: when we see celestial bodies through a telescope, what we're actually seeing is light reflected off the object's surface.  Different chemical substances absorb and reflect light at different rates, which is also what allows us to determine the chemical makeup of different planets and stars.  Say hello to TrES-2b, a planet which absorbs 99% of all light, making it the darkest planet in the known universe.  TrES-2b is a super-hot, Jupiter-esque planet that orbits the GSC 03549-02811 star (time to dust off your Roman mythology texts!) about 750 light years away. Astronomers are unsure exactly what sort of chemical makeup would allow so much light to be absorbed by the planet, which is so hot it actually gives off a reddish glow, but then again TrES-2b is just one of 1,200 possible exoplanets discovered by the Kepler spacecraft, so perhaps we'll soon find more like it.

Someone call Jerry O'Connell!  Astrophysicists at University College London believe they may have a theory to test for the existence of alternate universes.  The theory of eternal inflation posits that shortly after the big bang, the fabric of space-time expanded at different rates in different areas, thus allowing for alternate "bubble" universes where the very laws of physics may be radically different.  Daniel Mortlock and his team believe that if these bubble universes exist, they likely would have collided with our own universe in places, and that evidence of these collisions would therefore be present in the cosmic background radiation, which is a sort of steady static left over from the big bang itself.  Mortlock has yet to find any of these collisions, but he's hoping that the more detailed data that will come from the European Space Agency's Planck satellite in 2013 will provide a greater opportunity for discovery.

Speaking of Opportunity, a Mars rover of the same name is currently approaching a 14 mile wide crater, which happens to be called Endeavor, the same name as the final Space Shuttle.  There are two things worth noting here.  First of all, this will be the first chance for NASA scientists to get an up close look at actual Martian clay, which is only present in areas of water.  Second of all, the Opportunity rover has been traversing the red planet for almost eight years, which is impressive considering how many explorers we've lost contact with almost immediately upon landing, and double impressive considering that Opportunity was only intended to function for 90 days.  But it's been chugging along at a speed of .00037 mph since 2004, and it may be about to give us some of the richest Martian information to date.

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