The moon has figured prominently in our culture, popping up in songs, poems, and literature throughout the centuries. So NASA’s confirmation that there’s a second moon piqued the curiosity of the masses. Asteroid 2016 HO3 is between 120 to 300 feet in diameter, and really needs a better name so the poets can start composing. While the tiny asteroid likely didn’t enter the scene until about 100 years ago, NASA scientists anticipate it will continue to orbit Earth for several more centuries.
4.302 exoplanets. That’s the staggering number delivered recently by the Kepler space telescope, and NASA determined 1,284 of those could likely be classified as planets. Past that, 1,327 might be planets too, but the agency needs to research them a little further to officially slap a label on them. On top of all that, the same study confirmed 984 other space objects are also planets. Sifting through these large numbers produces more exciting numbers: out of all of these planets, about nine could potentially support life. It’s the “largest number of exoplanets ever identified at one time.” The universe we know just got a whole lot broader.
Are we the only sentient beings in the universe? It’s a question typically asked by conspiracy theorists and science fiction authors; NASA’s not known for chasing aliens and UFOs. But the Kepler mission aims to discover terrestrial planets, especially those that might have water and might be able to support life. Before the massive amount of exoplanets were discovered, the Kepler mission identified six other planets in the “habitable zone” of their suns. Two are rocky like Earth, and three could contain liquid water. Science Mission Directorate associate administrator John Grunsfeld said, “Each result from the planet-hunting Kepler mission’s treasure trove of data takes us another step closer to answering the question of whether we are alone in the Universe.” Sounds like maybe they could be searching for aliens after all.
When we think of weather on Mars, we usually imagine freezing cold temperatures. Usually we’re right; the red planet’s temperature hovers around -80 degrees Fahrenheit most days. That’s one reason why NASA’s discovery of water on Mars was so riveting. Apparently during the summer time, temperatures can swing up to 70 degrees Fahrenheit, which is plenty warm enough to thaw ice. The agency said they now think ‘rivers’ of water flow intermittently on Mars. Water is one of the keys to supporting life, and while Mars may not have enough water now, it’s an exciting sign that maybe, just maybe, the planet could someday support a colony of humans.
NASA’s discoveries come not only in the form of second moons and habitable planets, but also in advances to help astronauts thrive in space. The agency developed “forward osmosis” technology to transform pee into a sugary drink. Old urine filters required tons of electricity to function, but the new product relies on a semi-permeable bag, performing marvelous feats without needing much energy. In space, every inch matters, and the forward osmosis technology would not only save room, but allow astronauts to reuse even their own pee. Talk about a win for long space journeys – like a mission to Mars.
NASA’s also tackling robotics. Researchers at their Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) designed a robot that’s reminiscent of a monkey, called RoboSimian, for search and rescue missions in environments dangerous for humans. JPL entered the monkey-like robot in DARPA’s Robotics Challenge, where robots entered had to drive a vehicle, open a door, open a valve, use a power drill to cut a hole, navigate difficult terrain, and walk up stairs. Maybe real monkeys typically don’t use power drills or drive vehicles, but RoboSimian was up for most of the tasks. While the robot ultimately stumbled over a few of the jobs, like moving a plug between sockets, in a competition with 22 entrants it still placed fifth.
One mind-blowing discovery isn’t so much a discovery as it is a confession: we know so little about Pluto. We’ve known for many years the planet is extremely cold, but the New Horizons mission has provided loads new information about the dwarf planet that reveals there’s still much to learn. Here’s that thought summed up in two words: ice volcanoes. There are two mountains near Pluto’s south pole that appear to have depressions at the peak, kind of like a volcano. NASA thinks they might have formed when ice, ammonia, methane, or nitrogen erupted, so the agency has started referring to them as “cryovolcanoes.” We’re still not quite sure if they are indeed ice volcanoes, but NASA’s working on answers to the mysteries of Pluto, so stay tuned for future mind-blowing discoveries.