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No, you can’t actually take a picture of a black hole. But astronomers have promised to do the next best thing: To image the seething chaos just outside the black hole, known as its event horizon. To capture this region, just on the cusp of the black hole itself, astronomers have had to link telescopes from across the globe and focus them on the closest, most massive black holes known: Sagittarius A* (pronounced “A-star”), which resides at the center of our own Milky Way galaxy, as well as the even larger supermassive black hole that sits at the center of nearby galaxy M87.The result, known as the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) had its big observing run in April of 2017. Researchers warned that it would take time to piece together the data. And the team has repeatedly dropped hints that the results could be ready soon, only for the project to continue on. But based on their upcoming press event, set for April 10, it seems that time may have com...

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Humanity may soon get its first-ever picture of a black hole. Scientists with the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) announced this week that they’ll be holding a press conference Wednesday, April 10, and they’re expected to reveal the results of their years-long quest to catch a black hole on camera.What that picture will look like is still unknown. But scientists think they have a pretty good idea of what a black hole should look like. For years, astronomers have been running simulations of black holes based on the laws of physics and a few basic assumptions about what goes on near a singularity. The resulting images offer a preview of what we might expect to see next week when the real thing gets unveiled.An Interstellar-quality black hole, these are not. But, they’re also some of the most realistic depictions of black holes we have right now.   Two simulations of M87; the image on the right is closer to what we might act...

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Could Dark Matter Be Black Holes?

Wednesday, April 3rd 2019 12:16 PM

Dark matter is a thorn in astronomers’ collective side. This stuff, detectable only by its gravitational effect, appears to make up more than 80% of the universe’s matter. But what is it? One contender making a comeback is primordial black holes. These objects might have been born in the earliest age of the universe, back when the cosmos was nothing but a hot plasmatic soup — mostly radiation, in fact. This radiation-rich plasma wasn’t uniform; its density fluctuated from patch to patch. If a patch were excessively dense compared to its surroundings, then it would naturally collapse and create a black hole, a primordial relic from long before the first star shone. If enough of these black holes were forged, the thinking goes, they could provide the invisible mass that forms the substrate of galaxies, galaxy clusters, and the cosmic web. “I personally find it really cool that dark matter could be (even in part) made out of light that collapsed into blac...

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Astronomers finally confirm methane on Mars

Tuesday, April 2nd 2019 11:50 AM

Researchers have independently confirmed, for the first time, the detection of methane on Mars. For fifteen years, various research groups have claimed to see traces of methane in Mars’ atmosphere. Intriguingly, these often appear as puffs of gas that appear and disappear over short timescales. Groups have hotly debated whether the methane might be evidence of life, or merely geologic processes. Other researchers have argued whether the methane truly exists at all, or if the detections are merely errors. Now, a group using data from the European Space Agency’s Mars Express spacecraft says they identified methane above Gale Crater on June 16, 2013, just one day after NASA’s Curiosity rover noticed a methane spike from the ground in Gale Crater. This marks the first confirmed finding of an important substance in the hunt for life on the Red Planet. Hard to spot Researchers, led by Marco Giuranna from the Istituto Nazionale di Astrofisica in Rome, used...

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The Moon points to two bright planets this week

Wednesday, March 27th 2019 11:56 AM

Since last week’s Full Moon, Earth’s satellite has been rising later every night. You now have to wait until after midnight local daylight time to see Luna cresting above the southeastern horizon. But for those who like to get up early, or stay up really late, the Moon offers a couple of treats these next few mornings. On March 27, the Moon rises in the vicinity of brilliant Jupiter. The two come up shortly before 2 a.m. and then climb higher as morning progresses. The planet appears about 4° to the waning gibbous Moon’s right, and the two fit nicely in a single field of view through binoculars. You won’t mistake magnitude –2.2 Jupiter for any other celestial object — it’s the brightest point of light in the night sky with the exception of Venus, which won’t rise until morning twilight has started. The Moon moves eastward relative to the background stars at an average of 13° every day. In just two days, on the morning of March 2...

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Hubble catches Neptune forming new, massive storms

Tuesday, March 26th 2019 01:57 PM

Neptune has a new storm, in the form of a large dark spot that appeared in late 2018. By analyzing Hubble images dating back to 2015, astronomers have discovered high-altitude clouds that formed years ahead of the visible storm, indicating it was already forming there, swirling beneath the clouds and haze. The telltale clouds are teaching astronomers more about how such storms form and evolve on all the giant outer planets. Birth of a storm Neptune, like all the outer solar system planets, forms large and durable storms. While Jupiter’s Great Red Spot is infamous, Neptune’s dark blue spots were unknown until Voyager 2 flew past in 1989, sending back pictures of two large storms on its surface. Jupiter’s Great Red Spot has been visible for at least 190 years, and possibly since the 1600s. But when Hubble peered at Neptune in 1994, its storms had already vanished. Since then, Hubble has spotted dark storms appearing and disappearing on Neptune, lasting only...

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NASA is sending a helicopter to Mars

Monday, March 25th 2019 12:27 PM

When the Mars 2020 rover lands on the Red Planet in early 2021, it will carry with it a small helicopter, the first human craft to fly on another planet. Until now, Mars has hosted orbiters, landers, and rovers, but no flying machines. The Mars helicopter is meant only as a technology demonstration. If it doesn’t work, the Mars 2020 mission will still succeed. If it does, it will have opened up entirely new avenues for exploring other worlds.Into the Wild Red Yonder While helicopters are old technology on Earth, flying one on Mars will be challenging. Thanks to Mars’ thin atmosphere, a helicopter flying just above the surface is already at the equivalent of 100,000 feet Earth altitude, far beyond where helicopters or even typical planes fly. The altitude record for a helicopter on Earth is only 40,000 feet. And even consumer drones on Earth can struggle at high altitudes.So NASA engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory had to make a craft that was both inc...

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The Sky This Week from March 22 to 31

Friday, March 22nd 2019 10:47 AM

Friday, March 22March evenings offer an excellent chance to see the zodiacal light. From the Northern Hemisphere, late winter and early spring are great times to observe this elusive glow after sunset. It appears slightly fainter than the Milky Way, so you’ll need a clear moonless sky and an observing site located far from the city. With the waning gibbous Moon now exiting the early evening sky, prime viewing conditions extend from tonight through April 6. Look for the cone-shaped glow, which has a broad base and points nearly straight up from the western horizon, after the last vestiges of twilight have faded away.Saturday, March 23Mars continues to put on a nice show these March evenings. It appears more than 30° high in the west once twilight fades to darkness and doesn’t set until after 11 p.m. local daylight time. The magnitude 1.4 Red Planet crosses the border from Aries the Ram into Taurus the Bull today, setting up a dramatic conjunction with the beautiful Ple...

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Twenty-two million years ago, something crashed into the asteroid Vesta, carving out a large crater and throwing the debris high into space. In 2015, a three-foot meteor streaked through the sky above Turkey before fragmenting into pieces and falling near a village called Sariçiçek. Scientists who studied a whopping 343 pieces of the recovered meteorite now think it originated in that long-ago collision on Vesta. Connecting the Pieces Vesta is the second-largest object in the asteroid belt, second only to the dwarf planet Ceres. Back in 2011 and 2012, asteroid researchers became very familiar with Vesta, when NASA’s Dawn spacecraft visited and collected extensive images and data about the object, including its many craters from where smaller asteroids crashed into it other the eons. Researchers use the layering of craters and the spray of material around them to judge the ages of craters. This is how they were able to date the Antonia impact crater to...

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On New Year’s Day, NASA’s New Horizons probe streaked by a tiny world dubbed MU69, or Ultima Thule, the farthest object humankind has studied up close. With most of the data still on the spacecraft waiting to be transmitted, scientists are still getting to know this distant body. We know that it’s composed of two chunks of rock loosely stuck together. We know that it doesn’t have moons or rings that New Horizons might have careened into on its close pass. And we know Ultima Thule is red.Carly Howett, a member of the New Horizons team, said that if you were standing on New Horizons as it sped past, Ultima Thule would appear red to the human eye and very dark. But with the aid of enhanced imagery, it’s also clear that some patches are redder than others, like the rim of the large crater known as Maryland.That redness is likely caused by a mysterious class of compounds called tholins, the New Horizons team said Monday during a mission update...

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