This Week in Space

Two Dead Stars Collide

In August, the collision of two dead stars was observed.  Two neutron stars in a distant galaxy –NGC 4993, some 130 million light-years from us– spun around each other, drawing closer and closer until they finally met in a violent explosion.  A ‘nova’ is the abrupt increase in a star’s brightness; this collision was so bright, it’s being called a kilonova, 1,000 times more powerful than a nova.  The distance of this galaxy from us means we’re just now witnessing an event that happened back when dinosaurs walked the Earth; so why should we care?

This is coming off of a Pulitzer Prize win by three American astrophysicists for work on gravitational waves.  Gravitational waves, first proposed by Albert Einstein a hundred years ago in his theory of general relativity, are disturbances caused in the fabric of space-time, allowing us to ‘witness’ distant events and get a better understanding of objects in faraway galaxies, like black holes and neutron stars.

The collision was observed by LIGO, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, and scientists all over the world are excited with the results.

Neutron stars are formed when intense pressure crushes together protons and electrons to form neutrons; this explosion got rid of that pressure, and threw the newly-separated protons and electrons into space to form various chemical elements.  Now the Hubble Telescope is looking into just what kind of elements are formed, and scientists are proposing that some of the elements we use here on Earth –like gold and plutonium– come from collisions of neutron stars.  Further study may prove them right, and turn up answers on just how these heavy elements made it to Earth.


The Out-of-Control Chinese Space Station

China’s space laboratory, Tiangong 1, is about to make an abrupt return to Earth.  The 8-and-a-half ton station was launched in September 2011, and China reported in September 2016 that they had lost control of the station.  Recent predictions say the station will land anytime between October 2017 and April 2018.  The problem is, they don’t know where.

China is monitoring the station’s progress through the atmosphere, and assured the United Nations that it wasn’t likely to do any serious damage.  But is definitely still is worth keeping an eye on the sky –even though most of it will burn up on reentry, there will certainly still be debris that could cause some problems.


ISS, this is the Pope Calling

Pope Francis will make a call to the International Space Station on October 26.  He’s garnered praise from the scientific community for speaking out about the dangers of climate change, and for encouraging solutions to world problems through the Pontifical Academy of Science.  The six-member crew of the ISS will receive the satellite call at 3 p.m. (GMT), but this isn’t the first time papal hailing frequencies have been opened –Pope Benedict XVI made the Vatican’s first call to space in 2011.