Monday, 29 June 2015


10 Crazy Ideas From The World Of Space Exploration
By Radu Alexander,
Listverse, 29 June 2015.

If, 100 years ago, you told people that a machine we made would land on Mars and send us back photos, many of them would have thought you insane. That’s the thing about space exploration. It is such a new concept with innovations made every day that it’s hard to distinguish science fact from science fiction. All space-related ideas sounded crazy at one point or another. Some of them worked and don’t sound as crazy anymore. Others are still pretty out there.

10. The Squid Rover


Jupiter’s moon Europa has long been seen as a great candidate for extraterrestrial life due to the high likelihood of the moon having oceans under an icy crust. We have been itching to send something there to see exactly what Europa has to offer. A proposed joint venture between NASA, ESA, and the Japanese and Russian space agencies to schedule a mission to Europa in 2020 was cancelled due to NASA’s budget problems. Currently, an ESA-led mission named JUpiter ICy moons Explorer (JUICE) is scheduled for a 2022 launch. The probe would arrive on Europa in 2030. When it does, it might carry a very peculiar rover.

The device in question is a soft-robotic rover with electrodynamic power scavenging. We call it a squid rover due to its unique architecture clearly based on that particular cephalopod. The concept was created at Cornell University and was approved by NASA for further research. It’s part of the new NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program, which, in its own words, “aims to turn science fiction into science fact.”

The rover is still very much in its early stages. It would feature tentacle-like structures that would harvest local magnetic fields as a source of energy, as well as electroluminescent “skin” that would illuminate the underwater environment.

9. Project HARP

Photo via Wikimedia

From the world of sci-fi, we move on to the world of Looney Tunes. At least, that’s what Project HARP would appear to be at first glance. Short for High-Altitude Research Project, this was a joint venture between the US Department of Defense and the Canadian Department of National Defense to send projectiles into space using a giant gun.

The project was started in 1961 mostly due to Canadian ballistics engineer Gerald Bull. He had gotten the idea a decade earlier while working on ICBM missiles at the Canadian Armaments and Research Development Establishment (CARDE). The project was set up on an airport in Barbados so projectiles could be fired in the Atlantic Ocean. At first, a 20-meter-long gun (65 ft) was used, but it was upgraded to 40 meters (130 ft) pretty quickly. The whole installation was ready in 1962, but the Cuban Missile Crisis postponed the operation until the next year.

Initial results were promising, and another test site was set up in Yuma, Arizona. In 1966, this gun shot a 180-kilogram (400 lb) projectile at a speed of 3,600 meters (12,000 ft) per second at a record altitude of 180 kilometres (590,000 ft). As time passed, more and more backers lost interest in the project and pulled funding. Eventually, the Vietnam War and worsening relationships between the USA and Canada forced the project to shut down. The gun in Barbados is still there today, a relic overlooking the Caribbean Sea.

8. The Titan Submarine

Like Europa, Saturn’s moon Titan is seen as the Holy Grail for space explorers. It has above-surface methane lakes and oceans that we are just itching to investigate. In 2004, the Cassini spacecraft mapped out the moon extensively and gave us a pretty good idea of its geography. In 2005, the Huygens probe landed on the moon and sent back the first photos from its surface. The next step would be to create something that could explore the depths of Titan’s waters, and for that, we are going to build a space submarine.

The submarine design was proposed by Dr. Ralph Lorenz at the Lunar and Planetary Science Convention and was approved by NASA. If launched, it would head for the Kraken Mare, Titan’s largest sea. On the outside, the drone would resemble a regular submarine, apart from a large antenna that would be necessary to transmit the data over a billion miles back to Earth. However, the conditions on Titan would require the submarine to deal with unique problems. For starters, temperatures on the moon can reach -180 degrees Celsius (-290 °F).

Furthermore, we have no idea what depths the sub will have to deal with. The depth, as well as the sea’s composition, will make design elements like a traditional ballast tank unfeasible. The sub will even require a special delivery system using a variant of the military X-37B mini shuttle due to its size and shape.

7. Project Horizon


The space race between the United States and the Soviet Union triggered the most productive era of space exploration. Even so, this was a whole new world, still in its infancy, so a lot of trial and error was required to figure out what worked and what didn’t. Before the Apollo program finally put a man on the Moon in 1969, many other plans were made and scrapped.

Project Horizon is a recently declassified plan of the US Army to build a military base on the Moon. That project would be overly ambitious even today, but the program was developed in 1959. The army considered it feasible to complete the base and equip it with soldiers and astronauts within the following decade.

Maybe this was incredibly optimistic of the army, or maybe it just shows how eager both sides were to gain the upper hand in the Cold War. The report stressed how critical it was to establish a military presence on the Moon, considering it only a matter of time before the Soviets attempted the same.

The project never went further than the planning stage. It if had, it would have called for almost 150 Saturn rockets to be launched to carry the cargo. When it was finished, the base would have housed 10–20 people. Until then, the astronauts could have used natural “holes” found on the Moon, covered and sealed with pressure bags, to create living areas.

6. The Wrangler

Photo credit: NASA

The universe can be a dangerous place. Many things can snuff out life on our entire planet without too much effort: gamma-ray bursts, supernovas, colliding galaxies, and more. And, of course, one threat already struck our planet in the past - asteroids. The Earth has been hit by asteroids during its 4.5 billion years of existence, and it is likely that it will be hit again in the future. It might happen tomorrow (it won’t) or in a billion years, but people at NASA are already looking into solutions for this problem.

One solution is called the Weightless Rendezvous And Net Grapple to Limit Excess Rotation (WRANGLER) system, courtesy of Tethers Unlimited, Inc. This net and tether system could be deployed by a satellite to capture and de-spin an asteroid, rendering it (mostly) harmless. The program has already been accepted to the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts Program, and it is being developed as a simpler, more cost-effective alternative to NASA’s own Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM).

There are two main components to the system. One is the GRASP net capture device, and the other is the SpinCASTER tether/winch mechanism. By using the leverage of a tether, a small satellite would be able to reduce the angular momentum of a much larger object. The WRANGLER has already proven successful in a microenvironment and is currently being developed to full scale.

5. Zvezda Moon Base

Photo credit: Alexey Leonov

The Americans weren’t the only ones keen to put an inhabitable base on the Moon. The Soviets were just as eager. They started their lunar program in secret with two goals: first, to do a manned lunar flyby and then to actually land cosmonauts on the Moon. However, the US beat them on both counts, so the projects were scrapped and kept hidden until the ’90s.

Next up came the idea of constructing a permanent base on the Moon, known as Zvezda (Russian for “star”) or the DLB Lunar Base. The project started in 1962 and was headed by lead Soviet space engineer Sergei Korolev. The moon base would have been made out of nine separate modules, each one with a specific purpose, such as living quarters, dining, medical, or a laboratory. Together, they would have weighed 18 tons, so they needed to be delivered separately. Additionally, the cosmonauts would have had access to Lunokhod robotic rovers to help them get around on the Moon.

The project received considerably more attention and funding after 1969, bolstered by the Americans’ efforts. However, its success relied on the effectiveness of the N1 rocket (the Russian equivalent of the Saturn V rocket) used to deliver heavy payloads beyond low-Earth orbit. When the N1 failed to work properly, the rocket and all projects dependent on it were cancelled.

4. The Stanford Torus

Photo credit: Don Davis

The International Space Station has housed inhabitants for almost 15 years. Mir was operational from 1986 until 2001. However, while massive in size, these stations are not really intended to house a lot of people. Mir had a crew of three. The ISS has a capacity to support six residents, although it now currently has three people aboard. The Stanford torus was a bit more ambitious than that. It was an idea for a space habitat meant to support 10,000 people.

The plan for this design came in 1975 as the result of a summer study organized by NASA and Stanford University. It consisted of a torus (a donut-shaped ring), which was 1.5 kilometres (1 mi) in diameter and was capable of performing a full rotation every minute to replicate Earth’s gravity.

The Stanford torus never advanced past the idea stage. The design for the torus required 10 million tons of material, most of it extracted from the Moon and from asteroids. Only materials unavailable there would have been brought over from Earth. The space station would have been located at the Earth-Moon L5 Lagrangian point - a point where a small object between two large bodies is affected by their gravity so that it can maintain a stable position.

3. Printable Spacecraft


3-D printing seems to be the technology of the future, with almost no limit to what it can accomplish. We are already capable of printing flexible electronics that work on common consumer goods like cell phones. These are not only cheaper and easier to make but also smaller and lighter. One ambitious idea coming out of NASA’s own Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) suggests that, in the future, we might be able to print entire spacecraft.

The Printable Spacecraft is another plan coming out of the NIAC. It is currently in Phase 2, so it has already gone through and succeeded in its original objective, which was to see if it was possible to print all the electronics necessary for a functional spacecraft. The second phase has several new objectives, including actually printing a bench-top model spacecraft. NASA also needs to determine how practical it is to create a printed spacecraft for just a single mission.

If everything works, NASA believes that cheap and effective printed spacecraft will revolutionize space exploration. It estimates that some kind of working prototype is about 10 years away, but it also imagines how, in the distant future, you could just carry a printer with you and create whatever probes or crafts you might need onsite.

2. Venus Landsailing Rover

Photo credit: NASA

Venus is not a very friendly place. Due to temperatures that reach 450 degrees Celsius (840 °F) and a corrosive atmosphere, exploring our neighbouring planet has proven to be quite difficult. So far, the best we could do was land a stationary rover on the surface of Venus that remained operational for a whopping two hours. Compare that to the rovers that function for years and years on Mars, and we see that exploring Venus is still one of our most ambitious goals despite its close proximity.

Now, we have a new approach thanks to the NASA Glenn Research Centre - the Venus Landsailing Rover. Dubbed the Zephyr, this new rover goes back to basics and seeks to harness the power of the wind for propulsion, just like a typical sail. Even though Venus doesn’t have very strong winds (they only reach around 3 kilometres [2 mi] per hour), the pressure on the planet would ensure that even a small breeze was capable of generating significant power.

The Zephyr would be built out of materials more than capable of withstanding the high temperatures. It would mostly remain stationary, only deploying its sail when it needs to move to a new spot. This is helped by Venus’s flat landscape, which has very few obstructions. Using such a conservative approach to energy consumption, NASA estimates that Zephyr would be able to survive a whole month on the planet.

1. Project Orion

Photo credit: NASA

Space travel requires a lot of resources, so we are always on the lookout for new potential sources of energy better than what we already have. Back in the 1950s, it seemed like nothing was more powerful than the atomic bomb. An on-going effort sought new uses for this incredible source of energy that weren’t as destructive as its main purpose. Maybe it could be used to power a spacecraft?

The idea of nuclear pulse propulsion was developed by physicists Ted Taylor and Freeman Dyson. They worked on their plan, named Project Orion, to develop a way of propelling a spacecraft using a series of atomic bomb detonations behind it. The concept of a nuclear drive was not a new one. This idea had been previously explored by Stanislaw Ulam, a Polish-American mathematician who took part in the Manhattan Project.

Work on the project started in 1958. Back then, NASA didn’t exist yet, so Project Orion was funded by the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) of the Department of Defense, which only had a passing interest. When NASA was established, it and the Air Force divided up ARPA’s projects, with Orion left out in the cold, as nobody saw it as an asset. It would be a few years before NASA got involved, but by then, the Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963 on nuclear weapons made it impossible for Orion to develop, given the large amounts of potential nuclear fallout.

Top image: An artist's rendering of a soft-robotic lamprey-like rover. Credit: NASA/National Science Foundation via Cornell University.

[Source: Listverse. Edited. Top image added.]


6 Problems Facing Driverless Cars
By Jake Mellett,
Click Mechanic, 2 June 2015.

A staple of science fiction, autonomous cars are often the most visible technology of imagined futures. But unlike lightsabers and teleportation, the autonomous vehicles is close to becoming a reality. With tech giants Google already having made great strides in developing prototype cars - which are currently being tested on roads across the USA - car manufacturers have also begun pushing for an autonomous revolution.

But before that can happen, there’s a number of major hurdles that developers and governments will need to overcome before driverless cars make it to your local dealership. This infographic, brought to you by Click Mechanic, explains what these roadblocks are.


Infographic Sources:
1. Davies, A (2014). Avoiding squirrels and other things Google’s robot car can’t do.
2. Davies, A (2015). This is big: A robo-car just drove across the country.
3. Esnor, J (2015). The 7 kings that need to be worked out before driverless cars go global.
The Telegraph.
European Commission. (2015). eCall: time saved = lives saved.
Ford. (2015). Fusion hybrid SE.
General Motors. (2013). Emerging technology: Driving safety, efficiency and independence.
7. Gomes, L. (2014). Hidden obstacles for Google’s self-driving cars.
MIT Technology Review.
Greater London Authority. (2014). Smart London Plan.
9. Hodson, H. (2015). The four main roadblocks holding up self-driving cars.
New Scientist.
10. Lazzaro, S. (2015). Self-driving cars will be in in 30 U.S. cities by the end of next year.
11. Sorokanich, R. (2014). 6 Simple things Google’s self driving car still can’t handle.
12. Wakefield, J. (2015). Driverless car review launched by UK government.
BBC News.

[Post Source: Click Mechanic. Edited. Top image added.]


Tasty Tech Eye Candy Of The Week (June 28)
By Tracy Staedter,
Discovery News, 28 June 2015.

Throwable cameras, 3D-printed hearts and cars and magnetically levitating hoverboards right out of the 80s movie 'Back to the Future' round out this week's Tasty Tech gallery.

1. Throwable Camera


In July, you'll be able to purchase the new throwable camera from the Boston start-up company Bounce Imaging. Developed by MIT alums, the camera gives rescue personnel and law enforcement a way to see and image an environment that may be inaccessible or even hazardous. The so-called "tactical sphere" comes equipped with cameras and sensors that transmit panoramic images to a smartphone.

2. Audi Moon Rover


Car maker Audi is getting into the Moon Race. They've announced that they're supporting the Part-Time Scientists group and entering the Google Lunar XPRIZE competition with a quattro all-wheel drive vehicle. The company plans to develop an aluminium vehicle that will launch into space in 2017. Once on the moon, solar panels will harness sunlight, save it to a lithium-ion battery, and use it to power four electric wheel hub motors. Winners of the XPRIZE will receive US$30 million to develop their vehicle.

3. Flexible Nanostructured Display


A new lightweight display changes colour on demand, not with light or traditional technologies used in LCD displays, but by applying a specific voltage to an ultrathin nanostructured surface. The display is only a few microns thick - much thinner than a human hair - and could be made into displays as flexible as clothing that change colour on demand.

4. 3-D Dino Tracks


Five dinosaur tracks salvaged from a quarry near Goslar in Lower Saxony, Germany, have been used to create three-dimensional digital models that show how the individual footprints were positioned in relation to one another. That evidence, pieced together by palaeontologists from the University of Bonn, working with Dinosaur Park M√ľnchehagen and the State Museum of Hanover, suggests that 154 million years ago, carnivorous dinosaurs immigrated to an island via a land bridge to hunt herbivorous.

5. 3D-Printed Car


For an emission-free car to be totally clean, it needs to be manufactured without the use of fossil fuels. Designer Kevin Czinger who founded San Francisco-based Divergent Microfactories has developed a 3D-printing technology to print the world's first supercar, he's dubbed Blade. The car's frame is made from pieces of carbon fibre tubing connected by 3D-printed aluminium joints. Because Blade requires less manufacturing space and can be created faster, it uses less materials and energy to produce, greatly reducing emissions.

6. 3D-Printed Heart


Experts from Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital have used computed tomography (CT) and three-dimensional transesophageal echocardiography (3DTEE) to create an accurate 3D-printed prototype of a heart. Because the three-dimensional model is based on images of a real heart, it gives doctors a better way to diagnose and ultimately treat heart disease.

7. Rooftop Park


A new building going up in Brooklyn's Bushwick neighbourhood will not only be the largest residential building in the area, but will also sport a green roof with some fantastic outdoor amenities. Residents will have access to an urban farm, a cross-training circuit and bocce ball court, among other features.

8. Ford's Electric Bicycle


Ford CEO and President Mark Fields spoke at a media event this past week in San Francisco about Ford's role in the future of urban mobility. The company's Smart Mobility program is three-pronged, involving lightweight, folding electric bicycles for commuters that take trains into the city from the suburbs. The second prong is an app for drivers looking for parking spaces in the city. And the third prong involves ride-sharing vans that can be hailed like Uber cabs with an app.

9. Organ on a Chip


This tiny chip has won a big prize. The organ-on-a-chip mimics real human organs, such as lungs and stomachs and allows researchers to quickly test drug combinations. It was developed by Donald Ingber and Dan Dongeun Huh at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute and won the overall prize for the Design Museum's Design of the Year Award for 2015. [Video]

10. Maglev Hoverboard


Toyota's luxury car brand Lexus has created a prototype hoverboard called Slide that uses the same technology used for maglev trains. The device requires magnets to be embedded in the ground in order to repel those embedded in the board, limiting its range to special tracks. But to anyone who ever fantasized about riding a hoverboard, ala 'Back to the Future,' they'll take it.

Top image: Audi Lunar quattro all-wheel drive vehicle. Credit: Volkswagen Group.

[Source: Discovery News. Edited. Top image and links added.]

Sunday, 28 June 2015


10 Solar System Mysteries That Baffle Our Best Scientists
By Heather Ramsey,
Listverse, 28 June 2015.

Even though we’ve already told you about the mysteries of our solar system here, here, and here, we’re back with more mysterious sights and sounds that baffle our best scientists. At least one of them has fuelled conspiracy theories, but that’s just part of the fun.

10. Mysterious ‘Sounds’ In Space

The video above presents five mysterious “sounds” from space, three of which are definitely within our solar system. All of the sounds are actually radio waves or plasma waves translated into sound that humans can hear.

First, we hear the eerie sounds that NASA’s Cassini spacecraft detected as radio emissions from Saturn’s poles in April 2002. The variations in frequency and time corresponded to activity in Saturn’s auroras, like the radio emissions from our own northern and southern lights. Scientists believe the complex band of rising and falling tones came from many small radio sources that moved along Saturn’s magnetic field lines near its polar regions. Conspiracy theorists think it sounds like alien speech.

Second, we hear NASA’s Voyager I enter interstellar space (if you don’t count the Oort cloud) in 2012. That’s the farthest any of our spacecraft have travelled from Earth. It took 35 years to hear the eerie sound of that dense plasma (ionized gas) vibrating as it collided with a blast wave from an eruption on the Sun.

Third, we hear “xylophone music” from Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, as recorded by the Rosetta spacecraft in August 2014. Scientists believe the music comes from “oscillations in the magnetic field in the comet’s environment,” according to an ESA blog post. “To make the music audible to the human ear, the frequencies [were] increased by a factor of about 10,000.” Even now, it’s a mystery exactly how those oscillations work.

Next, we hear the whistling sound (electromagnetic “whistler” emissions) of lightning on Jupiter, as recorded by Voyager. When the emitted waves hit the plasma above the planet, the higher frequencies moved faster than the lower frequencies along Jupiter’s magnetic field. That’s why we hear those otherworldly whistling effects, which sound like Gorn weapons attacking the Enterprise landing party in the Star Trek episode “Arena.”

Finally, we hear the “heartbeat” of a feeding black hole in binary star system GRS 1915+105, as recorded by NASA’s Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer in 1996 and converted to sound by scientists at MIT. NASA also recorded a heartbeat from the black hole in system IGR J17091-3624 in 2003.

9. Hidden Magnetic Portals Around Earth

If you’re familiar with the science fiction concept of a wormhole - a tunnel shortcut connecting two distant places in outer space - then you understand what a magnetic portal is. The difference is that magnetic portals are known to be real. They’re hidden all around Earth, opening and closing dozens of times every day. They’re also unstable, invisible, and usually short-lived. For the brief time we’ve known about them, they’ve been hard to predict. But that may be changing.

Earth is surrounded by a magnetosphere, an invisible magnetic field generated by our planet’s molten core. In the upper atmosphere, the lines of magnetic force between our planet and the Sun sometimes meet to form X-points, openings to these hidden magnetic portals. Each portal forms an unbroken, 150-million-kilometre (90 million mi) path from Earth’s atmosphere to the Sun’s atmosphere, allowing large numbers of solar particles to quickly flow into our magnetosphere if the portal stays open long enough. When that happens, these solar particles can produce geomagnetic storms, possibly causing auroras and disruptions to our electrical grids.

Plasma physicist Jack Scudder found that we may be able to predict X-points. “We have found five simple combinations of magnetic field and energetic particle measurements that tell us when we’ve come across an X-point or an electron diffusion region,” said Scudder. “A single spacecraft, properly instrumented, can make these measurements.”

NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale Mission was launched in early 2015 to look for these magnetic portals and gather more information about them.

8. Dark Lightning

Although the risk is believed to be small, you may already have been hit by dark lightning - and its beams of antimatter - without knowing it.

Dark lightning is also known as “terrestrial gamma-ray flashes.” Thunderstorms not only produce electricity through visible lightning - they also produce powerful flashes of radiation through silent dark lightning that’s nearly invisible. Gamma ray emissions are typically associated with nuclear explosions, supermassive black holes, and supernovas. So it was a surprise to find these emissions coming from thunderstorms.

While visible lightning moves from cloud to cloud or between cloud and ground in a bolt formation, dark lightning flies upward in all directions toward space, including into the airspace where commercial planes fly. If you’re a frequent flier, you may be getting blasted with radiation more often than you realize. We also know that dark lightning spews space with positrons, the antimatter equivalent of electrons.

Scientists believe your radiation dose from a hit of dark lightning is probably equivalent to having a CT scan, but they don’t know for sure. If you receive enough radiation one time or cumulatively, your body might be damaged by dark lightning. But you won’t suffer the noticeable harm that occurs with a direct hit by visible lightning.

The risk of being zapped by dark lightning is small because airline pilots try to avoid flying through thunderstorms. “Doses never seem to reach truly dangerous levels,” said physicist Joseph Dwyer. “The radiation from dark lightning is not something that people need to be frightened about, and it is not a reason to avoid flying. I would have no problem getting on a plane with my kids.”

There’s a lot we don’t know about dark lightning. Although we believe it’s produced when high-energy electrons smash into air molecules during a thunderstorm, we don’t know exactly how visible lightning and dark lightning are related. We also aren’t sure how often dark lightning occurs or if anyone has ever been hit by it.

7. Mysterious Bright Spots On Ceres


Previously, we told you that Feature 5, a bright spot on the surface of dwarf planet Ceres, might be a cryovolcano, a water-erupting volcano that may indicate an underground ocean. Now, newer pictures from NASA’s Dawn spacecraft are adding to the mystery.

First, we saw another bright spot, called “Feature 1,” on Ceres’s surface. But the two spots looked different when viewed in thermal images. Feature 1 showed up as a dark spot in infrared images, meaning it was cooler than the area surrounding it. However, Feature 5 didn’t appear at all in thermal images, so its temperature was the same as its surroundings. We don’t know what this means yet. It may be that the spots are made of different material or the ground surrounding them is different.

The next round of images only deepened the mystery. Instead of only two spots, we found that the spots are actually several separate bright points of various sizes that have a central cluster. The brightest spots are contained in a crater about 90 kilometres (55 mi) wide.

“The bright spots in this configuration make Ceres unique from anything we’ve seen before in the solar system,” said Christopher Russell, who leads the Dawn mission. “The science team is working to understand their source. Reflection from ice is the leading candidate in my mind, but the team continues to consider alternate possibilities, such as salt.”

Ceres is also missing the large surface craters that we expected to see. “When we compare the size of [Ceres’s] craters with those we see on [protoplanet] Vesta, we are missing several larger craters,” said Russell. “That’s something we’ve got to learn more about.”

However, Ceres shows more evidence of activity like landslides and flows on its surface than Vesta does. Ceres also has a steep mountain rising from a rather smooth surface.

6. Mercury Just Doesn’t Make Sense


For four years, NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft orbited Mercury, sending us pictures of cliffs (aka “fault scarps”) that looked like enormous stair steps. The biggest ones were over 1,000 kilometres (600 mi) long and over 3,000 meters (10,000 ft) high.

Fault scarps are created when rocks are pushed into these patterns along fractures in the crust of a planet. For Mercury, many scientists believe the scarps are surface “wrinkles” that were created when the planet shrank by up to 14 kilometres (9 mi) in diameter as its core transformed from molten to solid. Still, the scarps don’t look right. If they formed due to shrinkage, they should be uniform across Mercury’s surface. Instead, the majority of scarps run along two wide strips from north to south on either side of the planet. Also, there are only half as many scarps in the northern hemisphere as in the southern hemisphere.

But that’s not the only strange thing about Mercury. It’s also too far from the Sun.

As scientists have studied data from NASA’s Kepler spacecraft, they’ve noticed that only one other solar system looks like ours. In fact, many stars are surrounded by Systems of Tightly packed Inner Planets (STIPs). Over time, collisions between these inner planets leave only a few survivors. If scientists are modelling this correctly, our solar system had up to four more planets orbiting inside of Venus in earlier times. When all the collisions were over, Mercury was the sole survivor.

That may explain why Mercury contains too many heavier elements and not enough lighter elements. Maybe collisions with other space objects ripped away the planet’s lighter crust, exposing a denser layer. It might also account for why models of our solar system show that we had too much material orbiting the Sun to form only one planet as close as Mercury.

“If every star once had a system of STIPs, then it would mean that the modellers have been missing the boat on planetary formation for a long time,” said scientist Kevin Walsh. “We have always been trying to build models just to get our four rocky planets, whereas if this idea is right, then we have long ignored the possibility of also forming three to five planets as big as or even much bigger than Earth inside the orbit of Mercury. This would be extremely cool!”

5. Mysterious Cloud-Like Plumes Over Mars

Photo credit: NOAA

In early 2012, amateur astronomer Wayne Jaeschke spotted a strange cloud over Mars. Unlike the thin, wispy clouds that normally form over the planet, these monster flares erupting from the surface topped out at an altitude of 240 kilometres (150 mi), appearing to be over twice as high as any previous cloud. They were also extremely wide at 500-1,000 kilometres (300-600 mi) across.

The first plumes lasted a little over a week in March 2012. Similar plumes appeared briefly in April 2012. Even after consulting other amateur astronomers, Jaeschke couldn’t account for what he saw. So he brought his findings to the pros, but they were stumped, too.

After checking historical data, professional astronomers found Hubble Space Telescope images from 1997 that showed a similar cloud on Mars. The pros concluded that the odd plumes weren’t made of ice crystals because the atmosphere on Mars is too warm for that. It was also unlikely that the plumes were an aurora, similar to the northern lights on our planet. The type of solar activity needed to create an aurora was absent on the days the Martian plumes appeared. Still, they were 1,000 times more luminous than anything ever observed on Earth.

Not all planetary scientists believe these plumes are real. But the rest argue that 19 different observers recorded the odd eruptions.

In a separate finding from NASA’s Mars orbiter, scientists have spotted evidence of “impact glass” in some craters on Mars. Dark in colour like newly cooled lava, impact glass forms when a comet or asteroid smashes into a planetary surface and melts a large area of rock and soil that quickly hardens.

This material can preserve traces of life that survived before and after impact, almost like a time capsule. Impact glass can also trap atmospheric gases existing when the crash occurred. So if we can find a way to examine it, impact glass may solve some ancient mysteries about the Red Planet.

4. The Origin Of Russia’s Asteroid

In February 2013, an undetected meteor 20 meters (65 ft) wide exploded with the power of 30 Hiroshima bombs over Chelyabinsk, Russia, just east of the Ural Mountains. Fortunately, no one died. But a shock wave hit the city about a minute later, causing over 1,200 injuries from the flying glass of shattered windows.

Over two years later, we still don’t know the origin of the meteor. At first, we thought it was a chunk of 1999 NC43, a near-Earth asteroid that’s about 2 kilometres (1 mi) wide. But it seems the only thing they shared was a similar orbit around Earth. “The composition of [the] Chelyabinsk meteorite that was recovered after the event is similar to a common type of meteorite called LL chondrites,” said scientist Vishnu Reddy. “The near-Earth asteroid has a composition that is distinctly different from this.” Ultimately, scientists had to admit that they can’t easily link a meteor to a specific asteroid because the majority of asteroids are extremely small and have chaotic orbits.

We were lucky that the Chelyabinsk meteor didn’t explode closer to the ground, causing even more injuries and damage. But it served as a warning that we need to search preemptively for asteroids that could be hazardous to us. As a result, the ESA created an asteroid warning centre. In 2018, the non-profit B612 Foundation, an organization dedicated to protecting Earth from asteroids, also expects to launch the Sentinel Space Telescope to search for asteroids. If we can find them soon enough, we have the technology to prevent future catastrophes from meteors in a cost-effective way.

3. Pluto’s Miniature Solar System

Photo credit: NASA

Unlike anything we’ve seen before, Pluto and its five moons resemble a miniature solar system. Scientists believe that Charon, the largest moon, was created from a collision between Pluto and an unknown large object. The other moons - Hydra, Kerberos, Nix, and Styx - may have formed out of the debris from that impact. If that’s true, all the moons should look alike. They don’t.

Using photos from the Hubble Space Telescope, scientists realized that Kerberos is darker than Hydra, Nix, and Styx. If they all formed from the same impact, that doesn’t make sense. So where did Kerberos come from?

Maybe Pluto captured Kerberos in a collision with a different object. However, if Kerberos formed from the same crash that created the other moons, it may simply be a darker piece of the colliding object’s core. That doesn’t really explain the colour difference, though. Scientists believe the colours of the moons would have become similar as they swapped material with each other over the billions of years they’ve existed.

According to another theory, the moons are all the same inside, even if Kerberos looks different on the outside. But we’re too far away to be able to make that determination. One final theory is that Kerberos looks different because it has a different shape, perhaps like a doughnut or potato, when compared to its fellow moons.

The other surprise for scientists is that Hydra, Nix, and Styx are in a Laplace resonance, which means they exert gravitational influences on each other to lock their orbits into a kind of cosmic dance around Pluto. In our solar system, only Jupiter’s moons Europa, Ganymede, and Io are in that kind of orbital resonance.

In general, orbital resonance means that the gravitational influence of at least two objects locks them in orbit around a parent body in a distinct pattern. For example, Pluto and Neptune are in a 2:3 resonance. Pluto makes two orbits around the Sun (its parent body) for every three that Neptune makes.

2. X-Files From The Edge Of Space

It’s been about 50 years since we recorded atmospheric infrasound, sound waves below 20 hertz in frequency. Those frequencies are below the human capacity to hear, so the sounds on the video above have been made 1,000 times faster to be audible. Daniel Bowman, the University of North Carolina graduate student who recorded them, thinks the eerie hisses, crackles, and whistles sound like something from The X-Files. To others, it sounds like radio interference.

Scientists are intrigued by the sounds because they can’t explain their origin. As part of the High Altitude Student Platform (HASP) in 2014, Bowman flew for nine hours on a high-altitude balloon to over 37,500 meters (125,000 ft) above the Earth’s surface. That atmospheric region is called “near space,” below outer space where satellites orbit but above commercial airspace where airplanes fly. With equipment he built himself, Bowman was the first person to record infrasound at that height.

Although scientists in the 1960s believed that atmospheric infrasound would be a good way to identify nuclear explosions, their interest subsided when ground-based sensors were able to do the job. So the complexity of Bowman’s recordings over New Mexico caught today’s scientists by surprise. They intend to send another HASP balloon to investigate the unusual infrasound. “I think this work has opened new ground for more research,” said geophysicist Omar Marcillo. “It’s very important for the entire community.”

So far, serious scientists don’t think the source is aliens. Weather events like storms can create infrasonic sound waves. So can earthquakes, meteors, and volcanoes. As to what produced the infrasound on this recording, scientific guesses include clear air turbulence, wind turbulence, crashing ocean waves, gravity waves, signals from a nearby wind farm, and vibrations from the balloon’s cable.

1. Planet X


As recently as 2014, scientists were claiming that Planet X, a planet hypothesized to lie beyond Pluto in our solar system, did not exist. But in early 2015, researchers changed their tune. After analyzing the orbits of 13 extreme trans-Neptunian objects (ETNOs) - distant bodies like dwarf planets Sedna and 2012 VP113 that orbit the Sun beyond Pluto - some scientists now believe that at least two more planets bigger than Earth, Planet X and Planet Y, may really be out there.

Theoretically, the ETNO orbits should be an average of 150 astronomical units (AU) from the Sun. An AU equals about 150 million kilometres (90 million mi), the distance between Earth and the Sun. These orbits are also predicted to be inclined at about zero degrees. But the theory doesn’t agree with reality. The 13 ETNOs have actual orbits with an average distance between 150 and 525 AU and inclinations averaging around 20 degrees.

“This excess of objects with unexpected orbital parameters makes us believe that some invisible forces are altering the distribution of the orbital elements of the ETNOs, and we consider that the most probable explanation is that other unknown planets exist beyond Neptune and Pluto,” said lead researcher Carlos de la Fuente Marcos. “The exact number is uncertain...but our calculations suggest that there are at least two planets, and probably more, within the confines of our solar system.”

Of course, there could be other explanations for these unexpected orbits. But given that we didn’t think anything was beyond Pluto in our solar system until 1992 and we only recently found 2012 VP113, no one can say with certainty that more planetary bodies don’t exist in the outer reaches of our solar system. Our technology isn’t advanced enough to detect everything yet.

Top image: Artist’s conception of the rogue planet Nibiru, or Planet X. Credit: gilderm | sxc.huh via NASA Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute.

[Source: Listverse. Edited. Top image added.]