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Search for alien life got exciting new leads this year

In yet another first for the year, scientists spotted an "interstellar object" entering our solar system.

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Telescope can view stars at ultraviolet wavelengths unhindered. Wikimedia Commons
Telescope can view stars at ultraviolet wavelengths unhindered. Wikimedia Commons
  • First observations of a merger between two faraway neutron stars
  • Discovery of the first known system of seven Earth-size planets around a single star outside our solar system
  • A Chinese satellite detected mysterious signals in its measurement of high-energy cosmic rays, bringing scientists closer to proving the existence of dark matter.

NEW DELHI: One year passes in the blink of an eye in terms of the age of our universe, but 2017 has made significant contributions towards unravelling the deep mysteries hidden in its vast expanse, giving the search for alien life a big boost.

From the first observations of a merger between two faraway neutron stars to stunning discoveries of a number of exoplanets in the habitable zone of a nearby star and the continued march of China as a serious space player, this year has had plenty of memorable developments to excite scientists and the public at large.

Marked as the “breakthrough of the year” by the journal Science, the merger of the two neutron stars 130 million light years away generated tiny ripples in the fabric of space-time called gravitational waves.

The first detection of gravitational waves two years ago has already brought scientists the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics, but sensing the space-time ripples after the merger of the neutron stars marked the first-ever detection of gravitational waves as well as light produced and emitted during the same cosmic event, a phenomenon that scientists like to describe as hearing and seeing the violent universe.

While the observation of this collision provides scientists clues on how heavy elements like gold and platinum are produced in our cosmos, and advances understanding of the universe in myriad other ways, the discovery of several Earth-sized planets orbiting stars outside our solar system has whetted the thirst for finding signs of life in worlds other than our home planet.

This year NASA discovered few earth like planets. Wikimedia Commons
This year NASA discovered few earth like planets. Wikimedia Commons

In February, NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope revealed the first known system of seven Earth-sized planets around a single star — the TRAPPIST-1 star — an ultra-cool dwarf located at about 40 light-years from Earth.

The researchers determined that three of these planets are firmly located in the habitable zone, the area around the parent star where a rocky planet is most likely to have liquid water.

The discovery set a new record for maximum number of habitable-zone planets found around a single star outside our solar system.

In yet another first for the year, scientists spotted an “interstellar object” entering our solar system.

The discovery was made on October 19 by the University of Hawaii’s Pan-STARRS 1 telescope during the course of its nightly search for near-Earth objects for NASA.

The discovery, termed “historic” by the US space agency, revealed the interstellar interloper to be a rocky, cigar-shaped object with a ratio of length to width unlike any asteroid or comet observed in our solar system.

The team from the Pan-STARRS observatory has chosen the name “Oumuamua” for their discovery. Of Hawaiian origin, the name means a messenger from afar arriving first.

By exploring deep into space, scientists are looking for any signs of alien life. Wikimedia Commons
By exploring deep into space, scientists are looking for any signs of alien life. Wikimedia Commons

In 2017, NASA made progress in the preparations to send astronauts to Mars and it became clear that the agency would have to make plans for returning astronauts to the Moon in preparation for human missions to the Red Planet and other destinations of our solar system.

The year also marks the end of Cassini’s 13-year tour of Saturn as the spacecraft made a fateful plunge into the atmosphere of the ringed planet on September 15. The mission is often credited for transforming our understanding of ocean worlds, where life may potentially exist beyond Earth.

In April, NASA said that its Cassini spacecraft discovered hydrogen in the plume of gas and icy particles spraying from Saturn’s moon Enceladus. The discovery means the small, icy moon — which has a global ocean under its surface — has a source of chemical energy that life can feed on.

And even as the spacecraft is gone, scientists hope that its enormous collection of data about Saturn — the giant planet, its magnetosphere, rings and moons — will continue to yield new discoveries for decades to come.

The year also marks some giant strides taken by China to emerge as a formidable space power. One of its satellites, which was sent to the skies to look for evidence of the annihilation or decay of dark matter particles in space, detected for the first time unexpected and mysterious signals in its measurement of high-energy cosmic rays, bringing scientists closer to proving the existence of the invisible matter.

Next Story

The Launch Countdown For DRDO’s Satellite To Start Soon

The Kalamsat is a 10cm cube nano-satellite weighing about 1.2kg. The satellite's life span is about two months and its cost is about Rs 12 lakh

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Nirbhay
The Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) sources said the Nirbhay missile test was "successful".(Representative image) VOA

The countdown for the flight Thursday night of an Indian rocket carrying the Microsat R imaging satellite of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and the Kalamsat student satellite will begin later on Wednesday, an Indian space agency official said.

“The countdown for the PSLV (Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle) rocket launch will start today (Wednesday).

“The countdown duration and its starting time, the time of rocket launch would be announced later,” an official of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) told IANS.

The rocket launch was expected to happen at about 11.40 p.m. on Thursday.

“We will be launching the 700-kg Microsat R and Kalamsat with a new PSLV variant.

OSIRIS-REx, NASA, Asteroid bennu
Satellite To Conduct Biological Experiments In Space, Plans Space Kidz India, VOA

“To reduce weight and increase the mass, an aluminium tank is being used for the first time in the fourth stage,” ISRO Chairman K. Sivan had told IANS earlier.

He said Kalamsat is a payload developed by students and Chennai-based Space Kidz India.

The PSLV is a four-stage engine expendable rocket with alternating solid and liquid fuel.

In its normal configuration, the rocket would have six strap-on motors hugging the its first stage. However, the PSLV that would be flying on January 24 with Microsat R and Kalamsat will be a two strap-on motors configuration and is designated as PSLV-DL.

The rocket PSLV-C44 is the first mission of PSLV-DL and is a new variant.

PSLV
Indian rocket Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) lifts off with two British satellites NovaSAR and S1-4, as seen from Chennai. IANS

About 14 minutes into the flight the rocket would eject Microsat R at an altitude of about 277km. This would start functioning at an altitude of 450km in about the 103th minute after lift-off.

The Kalamsat would be the first to use the rocket’s fourth stage as an orbital platform. The fourth stage would be moved to higher circular orbit so as to establish an orbital platform for carrying out experiments, ISRO had said.

Also Read: DRDO Develops Ayurvedic Medicine For Vitiligo

“The Kalamsat is a 10cm cube nano-satellite weighing about 1.2kg. The satellite’s life span is about two months and its cost is about Rs 12 lakh,” Srimathy Kesan, Founder-CEO of Space Kidz India, told IANS.

Space Kidz India is working towards promoting art, science and culture for students in India.

According to Kesan, Kalamsat will be the first satellite of Space Kidz India to be in a proper orbit as its earlier satellites were suborbital ones. (IANS)