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Shifting, slipping and colliding tectonic plates played an essential role in the emergence and evolution of life on Earth. Such tectonic activity generated volcanoes that spewed carbon dioxide and other gases into the air. Rain brought the gases down to Earth, where they were pushed underground again by moving plates. For billions of years the cycle has regulated the climate and stabilized the temperature, which helped enable life to arise.   Plate tectonics like what's seen on Earth seems rare — no other world in our solar system has tectonic activity currently — but scientists now argue there could be a different way to generate an active crust on alien worlds.   The researchers argue that a planet orbiting close to its host star can experience stresses from that host's gravitational pull. Those stresses then weaken the outer crust, aiding or generating plate tectonics similar to those seen on Earth. That process could increase the likelihood of life develop...

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Globular clusters are densely packed, spherical collections of hundreds of thousands or even millions of stars. They are among the oldest known objects in the Universe and are relics of the first epochs of galaxy formation. About 150-180 such clusters are known to exist around our Milky Way Galaxy. NGC 2419 was discovered on December 31, 1788 by the British astronomer William Herschel and is located in the constellation Lynx. Also known as GCl 12 and C 0734+390, the cluster is at a distance of about 300,000 light-years from the Solar System and at the same distance from the Milky Way’s center. It is sometimes called the ‘Intergalactic Wanderer,’ an appropriate title considering that the distance to the Milky Way’s satellite galaxy, the Large Magellanic Cloud, is only about 160,000 light-years. The stars populating globular clusters are very similar to one another, with similar properties such as metallicity. The similarity of...

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A new object has been discovered in the distant reaches of our solar system and given the name FarFarOut, according to a prominent astronomer. At 140 times further away from the sun than our own planet is, the newly identified body – if its discovery is confirmed – will become the furthest known object in our solar system. The current record holder – a dwarf planet at 120 times the Earth-sun distance – was named merely FarOut when it was spotted by the same team in December last year. The latest discovery was made by Dr Scott Sheppard, of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington DC, who with his team is working on analysing astronomical data to track down a much mooted but as yet unspotted body known as Planet Nine, thought to have 10 times the mass of Earth. The hypothetical Planet Nine, thought to be lurking in the distant Oort cloud, has been suggested as exerting a gravitational pull on objects in the depths of the solar system,...

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The Sky This Week from February 22 to March 3

Saturday, February 23rd 2019 01:11 PM

Friday, February 22One of the sky’s most familiar constellations rules February’s sky from dusk until after midnight local time. Orion the Hunter appears at its highest in the south just as evening twilight fades to darkness, when it stands about halfway to the zenith from mid-northern latitudes. The night sky’s brightest star, Sirius in the constellation Canis Major the Big Dog, trails about an hour behind the Hunter.Saturday, February 23A pair of fine binocular objects shows up nicely on evenings this week. The open star clusters M46 and M47 reside about a degree apart in the northwestern corner of the constellation Puppis the Stern. The two lie about 12° east-northeast of magnitude –1.5 Sirius, the night sky’s brightest star. The western cluster, M47, glows at 4th magnitude and appears as a fuzzy patch sprinkled with several pinpoint stars. Sixth-magnitude M46 shows up as a hazy collection of faint stars that is hard to resolve under most conditio...

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Japan's Hayabusa2 shot an asteroid last night

Friday, February 22nd 2019 01:47 PM

Far from Earth, a tiny spacecraft punched an asteroid last night.It didn’t stay long. The touchdown was more of a quick tag, and Hayabusa2 stayed just long enough to fire a tiny bullet into the asteroid’s surface, in order to stir up material. Because Ryugu is so tiny (less than half a mile across), with hardly any gravity, even this small blow should have kicked up enough space dust for Hayabusa2 to collect – hopefully – about 0.4 ounce (10 grams) of material into the horn that hangs from its underside. An hour after the planned maneuver, engineers reported that the command to shoot the projectile had gone off successfully, and that the spacecraft was departing the asteroid as planned and reporting in normally. Hayabusa2 should be back on its normal orbit around Ryugu by tomorrow.    You can check out JAXA’s live feed of the event below.    

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Astronomers have discovered a star in the Andromeda galaxy that has been regularly erupting for the past million years, leaving behind one of the biggest shells of ejected material scientists have ever seen. The new research, which was published last month in the journal Nature, not only marks the first discovery of such a super-remnant in another galaxy, it also paves the way for detecting a potentially massive population of repeatedly exploding stars, called recurrent novae, which may help shed light on how the universe has changed over time.  Swing your partner The star responsible for this expansive remnant, which stretches over 400 light-years across, is actually from one of the most diminutive types of star: a white dwarf. These stellar corpses are left behind after a smallish star dies and blows off its outer layers, leaving behind only its dense core. But in the case of this remnant, catchily named M31N 2008-12a, the culprit is not your ordinar...

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For decades, scientists have been on the hunt for brilliant galaxies in the distant universe. These quasars were first noticed for being spectacularly bright – some of the most energetic objects ever discovered. But astronomers think many of them – in fact, the vast majority from the early universe – may be in hiding, camouflaged behind much closer galaxies.Because of their brightness, astronomers want to use quasars to probe the era of reionization. This is a time less than a billion years after the Big Bang, when the first generation of stars and then galaxies formed. Quasars are supermassive black holes in the centers of galaxies, actively gobbling material. They’re some of the few objects that can be seen from such a distance, which makes them some of the only glimpses we have of the early universe.Often even quasars are often too dim to see from so long ago (and therefore so far away). But astronomers have a trick to see far away in the universe:&...

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Iconic NASA missions that improved with age

Monday, February 11th 2019 03:40 PM

NASA is often viewed as the epitome of big ideas and extreme planning. But sometimes even they go above and beyond, either with incredible improvised fixes, or missions that survived the test of time and then some. Hubble got glasses The greatest space telescope astronomers have was almost a giant flop. When the telescope launched in 1991, the pictures it sent back were muddled and far below the predicted quality. It turned out a mirror had been ground to the wrong specifications, leaving Hubble’s vision blurry. NASA had a few short years to figure out a fix before the first servicing mission was due in 1993. Since the mirror was too integral a part to replace in space, scientists did the next best thing – they gave Hubble glasses, in the form of COSTAR, the Corrective Optics Space Telescope Axial Replacement system. Astronauts installed the corrective equipment during a space shuttle servicing mission, and suddenly Hubble could return the eye-catching image...

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One of the fundamental questions in looking for life in the universe is figuring out where the materials necessary for making life are likely to exist. These complex organic molecules are, somewhat surprisingly, found all over: in giant dust clouds in space, and on lonely comets in our own solar system. The question for astronomers is figuring out how they make their way onto planets like Earth. Astronomers looking to learn about the solar system’s early history often turn to comets, as they formed very early in our history and haven’t changed much since. Alternatively, they can look to other star systems and the gaseous disks around young stars that are still in the process of forming planets. Astronomers using the ALMA radio telescope have done just that to a young star called V883 Ori 1,300 light years away and found complex organic molecules swirling around it. Mapping organic molecules ALMA’s ability to se...

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Using European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope (VLT), astronomers have investigated the galaxy NGC 1365. The study, presented in a paper published January 18 on the arXiv.org pre-print server, reveals essential insights about star formation processes and gas flows in this galaxy. Located some 56 million light years away in the Fornax cluster, NGC 1365, dubbed the Great Barred Spiral Galaxy, is a barred spiral and ringed galaxy of Seyfert type. Although many observations of NGC 1365 have been conducted to date, it has not been yet thoroughly studied at mid-infrared wavelengths. In general, mid-infrared observations have the potential to uncover crucial details about molecular gas clouds and ionized gas, which is key to study the distribution and kinematics of the mass-dominating old stellar population in galaxies. Such observations could also provide important information on star formation history and properties of central engines of galaxies. A team of Eu...

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