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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

Koch to Set Record for Longest Spaceflight by Woman, Will Spend 328 Days in Space

"One month down. Ten to go," Koch wrote Wednesday on Twitter. "Privileged to contribute my best every single day of it"

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astronaut, longest spaceflight, record
FILE - In this April 8, 2019, photo made available by NASA, astronaut and Expedition 59 Flight Engineer Christina Koch works on U.S. spacesuits inside the Quest airlock of the International Space Station. VOA

A female astronaut is due to set a record for the longest spaceflight by a woman, the U.S. space agency said Wednesday, the same astronaut who was to have been in the first all-female spacewalk scrapped over lack of a right-sized spacesuit.

Astronaut Christina Koch, who completed the space walk with a man instead of a female colleague last month, will remain in orbit on board the International Space Station until February, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) said.

Part of NASA’s study of the effects of long spaceflights on the human body, Koch will spend 328 days in space.

The 40-year-old astronaut has been in orbit since last month.

“One month down. Ten to go,” Koch wrote Wednesday on Twitter. “Privileged to contribute my best every single day of it.”

astronaut, longest flight
FILE – U.S. astronaut Christina Koch, member of the main crew of the expedition to the International Space Station (ISS), looks on prior the launch of Soyuz MS-12 space ship at the Russian leased Baikonur cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, March 14, 2019. VOA

In late March, NASA canceled what would have been the first all-female spacewalk with Koch and astronaut Anne McClain due to a lack of a spacesuit in the right size for McClain.

The walk was would have occurred during the final week of Women’s History Month.

On board the orbiting space station, astronauts work on a range of experiments in biology, biotechnology, health, earth, space and other sciences.

The typical stay for astronauts is six months, NASA said.

“NASA is looking to build on what we have learned with additional astronauts in space for more than 250 days,” Jennifer Fogarty, a chief scientist for NASA’s Human Research Program, said in a statement.

longest spacecraft, women
Part of NASA’s study of the effects of long spaceflights on the human body, Koch will spend 328 days in space. Pixabay

Record holders

Astronaut Peggy Whitson holds the record for the longest single spaceflight by a woman, staying in orbit 288 days in 2016 and 2017, NASA said.

“It’s my honor to follow in Peggy’s footsteps,” Koch said in a video from the International Space Station, orbiting over 200 miles (322 km) above Earth.

ALSO READ: SpaceX Launches Second Supersized ‘Falcon’ Heavy Rocket, For the First Time Lands all Three Boosters

Of the more than 500 people who have traveled to space, fewer than 11 percent have been women. But Koch graduated from NASA’s 2013 class of astronauts that was 50 percent women.

The overall NASA record of 340 days, set in 2016, is held by astronaut Scott Kelly in an experiment to compare his physical and mental health to his identical twin Mark Kelly, who remained on Earth. (VOA)