A few days ago – January 28th – was the 30th anniversary of the accident that destroyed the space shuttle Challenger, killing all aboard. It was an accident that never should have happened. The design flaw leading to the accident was supposedly already known but never taken seriously enough until the Challenger was destroyed.
In one of the most surprising recent science stories, some astronomers have announced that they may have found some evidence for an unknown large planet (possibly much larger than Earth) far beyond the orbit of Pluto. They studied the orbits of a number of objects in the solar system and found some unusual features that might be explained by a new planet. Of course, there’s still a chance that this is just a coincidence and nothing too strange is going on, but it’s an interesting hypothesis. In fact, such studies have been used in the past to predict new celestial objects, so this isn’t unprecedented. I’ve been told that the scientists involved are generally very serious people and so this does not seem to be a hoax and the work involved shouldn’t have any serious mistakes. But, we can’t start saying that there is definitely a new planet until we actually find it. Given the huge distances involved, it might take quite a while to find the planet if it really exists.
Earlier today, SpaceX finally landed a booster rocket after sending a payload into space. They’ve had several attempts that came close to succeeding but didn’t quite make it. Landing the booster is potentially important because it means that we may be close to having reusable rockets, which might lower the cost of a launch by some significant amount. I’ve never sent anything into space, so I can’t really say exactly where all the money goes, but I imagine that the rockets must be quite expensive if so much effort has been put into a recoverable and reusable rocket system.
In another big science news story from the past few days, astronomers have found evidence of a supermassive black hole that appears to be much larger than is expected from theoretical models. The black hole in question lies at the center of a distant galaxy and is also quite old (9 billion years). There is a related arXiv paper here. This is well outside my field of expertise, but it looks like the idea is that this might be the first discovered in a new class of this sort of galaxy.
NASA announced a couple days ago that they will be holding a press conference for a big announcement about Mars. The announcement is later today. Various people are speculating about what the announcement might be, with many suggesting that it probably has something to do with evidence for water on Mars. The press release has minimal information, so we’ll just have to wait and see what this is about.
Supposedly, a rumor had been flying around the internet that a large asteroid would strike Earth in September. I haven’t encountered this rumor, but it seems that it was big enough for someone from the NASA group looking for things like asteroids to respond. In case you were worried, they can confirm that a civilization-ending asteroid will not be hitting us any time soon.
Today is supposed to be the best day to see the Perseid meteor shower. It’s already late in some places, but if it’s clear you can hopefully see meteors in the sky tonight and over the next few days.
Images are continuing to come in from the New Horizons mission. Several fairly high resolution images have been published so far and we’re now seeing lots of geological features on the surface of Pluto.
New Horizons has reported back after its Pluto encounter, and it looks like everything was successful. It should start transmitting science data back soon, although it will take a long time for all the data to get back. Hopefully we’ll start seeing some of the initial results soon.
The New Horizons probe is rapidly approaching Pluto, and will pass by the planet early Tuesday morning (in the US). Because of the distance, everything has to be automated since any signals from Earth will take hours to reach the probe. The most important data from the mission will be taken as the probe flies by the planet, but it will need to be slowly transmitted back over a pretty long period of time. The bandwidth for getting data across the solar system isn’t very good.