The final frontier
September 18, 2018

As Spock once said, "In critical moments, men sometimes see exactly what they wish to see." But a new scientific discovery may be more than just wishful interpretation.

Researchers have discovered a planet that matches the description of Planet Vulcan, Spock's home planet, that Star Trek's original creator Gene Roddenberry gave almost 20 years ago. Of course, it's not the exact same planet from the fictional franchise, but it is a real-life rock with very Vulcan-like properties.

In collaboration with astronomers from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Roddenberry declared back in 1991 that if Vulcan really existed, it would likely orbit the real-life star 40 Eridani A, Science reported. Because 40 Eridani A is a few billion years old, Roddenberry theorized that a planet orbiting that star would have had enough time to develop a civilization as advanced as the Vulcans. 40 Eridani A is an orange dwarf about 16 light years away from Earth, and it is sometimes visible in the night sky.

Now, the Dharma Planet Survey, which is a widespread effort to catalogue planets in star systems near to our own, has found a planet orbiting 40 Eridani A — right where Vulcan would be. The planet, officially dubbed HD 26965b, is about twice the size of Earth and has a year that lasts only 42 days, Space explained.

The Dharma Planet Survey's findings are due to be published in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society in October. Read more about our new "Planet Vulcan" at Space. Shivani Ishwar

April 25, 2018

The Milky Way galaxy contains about 300 billion stars — way more than any one human could possibly hope to see. But the European Space Agency wants to help intrepid stargazers try.

The ESA's Gaia mission has been collecting data on the stars in the Milky Way since 2013, NPR reported. On Wednesday, the group used that information to release the most detailed star map of the galaxy we've ever had.

Over the past five years, the Gaia spacecraft has captured images of the sky roughly every six months, allowing scientists to understand information about some 1.7 billion stars by comparing images when they're at different positions in the sky, Popular Mechanics reported. Now that the database is publicly available, scientists from all across the world can use that information in their research.

Gaia's data barely scratches the surface of what's out there, but "the exact brightness, distances, motions, and colors" of all those stars is valuable information for astronomers, NPR explained. "We're really talking about an immense change to our knowledge about the Milky Way," said David Hogg, an astrophysicist at New York University and the Flatiron Institute.

You can visually explore our galaxy below, or look through the data Gaia has collected on the ESA's website. Shivani Ishwar

October 5, 2017

"America first" isn't just President Trump's infamous foreign policy anymore — it's his intergalactic policy too.

In the reinstated National Space Council's first meeting Thursday, Vice President Mike Pence declared that the U.S. had fallen behind in the space race, singling out how the U.S. has been hitching rides to the International Space Station with Russia while not sending its own astronauts below low-Earth orbit in 45 years. With Russia and China building anti-satellite technology that threatens U.S. military effectiveness, Pence vowed the Trump administration wouldn't let America fall behind again:

Trump resurrected the council in June and instated Pence as its leader. Several top White House officials and space council members were at Thursday's meeting, where they questioned national security experts and commercial space CEOs from the likes of Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and SpaceX, who touted the commercial benefits of high-speed flights across the country and space tourism.

Pence's introductory speech focused on professional, scientific space exploration, but the CEOs pushed a more populist view of space, emphasizing how they can bring space exploration to everyone — and boost the economy while they're at it. You can watch the council's whole meeting below. Kathryn Krawczyk

September 15, 2017

On Friday, after 20 years in space and 13 years orbiting Saturn, NASA's Cassini spacecraft will burn up in Saturn's atmosphere. "We've had an incredible 13-year journey around Saturn, returning data like a giant firehose, just flooding us with data," said Cassini project scientist Linda Spilker at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. "Almost like we've taken a magnifying glass to the planet and the rings."

Cassini lifted off from Cape Canaveral in 1997, reaching Saturn in 2004 and, six months later, discharging its passenger, the European Space Agency's Huygens lander, which successfully parachuted down onto the giant moon Titan. In April, with Cassini's fuel depleting, NASA sent it on 22 trips between Saturn and its rings, beginning its final journey which ends on Friday. You can read more about Cassini's journey in John Wenz's love letter to "NASA's greatest achievement" at The Week, or let NASA do its own bragging in the lovely video below.

Godspeed, Cassini. Peter Weber

September 2, 2016

The explosion of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket Thursday morning during a pre-launch fueling operation is a setback for Elon Musk's commercial operations, but also for NASA's plan to use SpaceX and Boeing to shuttle astronauts to the International Space Station and Facebook's push to bring internet connectivity to sub-Saharan Africa. Nobody was reported injured during the dramatic explosion, but the payload included a $200 million Israeli communications satellite that Facebook planned to use in CEO Mark Zuckerberg's Internet.org initiative, which he is currently promoting in Kenya.

On Facebook, Zuckerberg said he is "deeply disappointed to hear that SpaceX's launch failure destroyed our satellite," while SpaceX president Gwynn Shotwell pledged "we will carefully investigate and address this issue." Musk said on Twitter that the problem seemed to be tied to the upper-stage oxygen tank.

SpaceX has successfully launched 27 Falcon 9 rockets, including eight in 2016, with 10 more scheduled by year's end. This is its second exploded rocket, and the first that destructed before liftoff. "SpaceX is running a punishing schedule," Scott Pace, the director of George Washington University's Space Policy Institute, tells The New York Times. "There is probably some human factor involved here." Still, Thursday's was a rare event, says Jonathan McDowell at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, tracing the last launchpad explosion at Cape Canaveral back to 1959. You can watch Thursday's explosion, captured by US Launch Report, in the NBC News video below.

NASA had hoped that SpaceX would start transporting astronauts to the ISS by the end of the year, but that was unlikely even before Thursday's explosion. NASA inspector general Paul K. Martin said in a report coincidentally issued Thursday that SpaceX and Boeing probably won't carry astronauts before the second half of 2018. NASA looked on the bright side: "Today's incident — while it was not a NASA launch — is a reminder that spaceflight is an incredible challenge, but our partners learn from each success and setback." Peter Weber

August 6, 2014

The European Space Agency's Rosetta spacecraft has spent the last 10 years chasing down a comet hurtling through space at about 34,000 mile per hour — and if everything goes as planned on Wednesday morning, Rosetta will catch her prey.

At about 4:45 a.m. (EDT) on Wednesday, Rosetta is projected to catch up with Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko and maneuver to enter into orbit around the comet — a first for human space exploration. The key event will be an engine burn expected to last about 6.5 minutes. You can watch live, via this ESA livestream:

Since launching from French Guiana in 2004, Rosetta has traveled four billion miles, taken samples from two asteroids, and zoomed close to the Earth, Mars, and Jupiter. Its ultimate goal is to send its lander, Philae, to the surface of the 2.5-mile-wide Comet 67P in November and gather samples for earthlings to analyze. ESA scientists want to study the possibility that comets crashing into the Earth in its early years deposited the organic material from which all life sprung.

If you want to learn more about Rosetta's historic mission, The Week has this primer and Space.com has a helpful infographic. Peter Weber

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