There are always new discoveries in space exploration. What we know about space today is leaps and bounds beyond what you might have learned in school. Space facts from your youth may no longer be accurate or could just be a small part of a bigger story. New research has completely upended several of the most basic ideas: it is not a given that there are nine planets (RIP Pluto), and Saturn’s rings aren’t as unique as previously believed.
Some modern finds inspire hope among astronomers, while other discoveries can prove confusing and raise more questions than answers. Here are the highlights in the exciting and ever-changing frontier that is space.
Mars Had Tsunamis And Lava Waterfalls
Scientists have searched for proof of liquid water – the foundation for carbon-based life – on Mars for decades. In 2017, NASA researchers found evidence of tsunami activity on Mars from roughly three billion years ago, indicating the Red Planet may have had oceans at one time. Researchers speculate that an asteroid had plummeted into an ocean, causing the tsunami and shaping the planet’s topography. Scientists believe the asteroid’s impact created Lomonosov crater in the northern plains of Mars.
Researchers have long speculated that massive amounts of water once flowed on the Martian surface, and – at one point – “several large aquifers catastrophically ruptured,” flooding the northern plains. They could find no shoreline, however, until a topographic map revealed ridge-like indents below the surface. These grooves suggest that two tsunami waves formed Mars’s distinct patterns. In 2017, scientists released evidence of a large lava waterfall on the planet, which they nicknamed the Niagara Falls of Mars. It likely circled a crater in the planet’s Tharsis volcanic province.
The Moon Has A Lot More Water Than Previously Believed
In 2009, NASA revealed that scientists had found water molecules on the moon. Scientists discovered the water by using a cutting-edge spectrometer, which measures the light reflected off the moon’s surface. The tool, NASA’s Moon Mineralogy Mapper, can assess infrared wavelengths, which scientists deemed consistent with water molecules’ absorption patterns – a breakthrough confirmed by three separate spacecraft.
When scientists reevaluated “water-bearing volcanic glass” with more satellite data in 2017, they theorized that there was once – and may still be – a large amount of water deep below the surface. Researchers analyzed the glass beads collected during the Apollo 15 and 17 missions in the ’70s. The study indicated that water and the volcanic eruptions that had produced the water-bearing glass were widespread across the moon. Future visitors to the moon could use the water, giving the next generation of moonwalkers and potential moon-settlers options for life-sustaining natural resources.
The Oldest Stars Are About 14 Billion Years Old
Known as the Methuselah star, HD 140283 became the oldest-known star in the universe in 2007. Once estimated to be 16 billion years old – and placing its origin before the Big Bang – the Methuselah star, according to scientists, may be closer to 14 billion years old.
Asteroids Can Have Rings
Astronomers have long known that planets can have rings, but in 2014, they realized asteroids could, too. First discovered near Saturn in 1997, Chariklo has an estimated diameter of 302 kilometers – or about 188 miles. In 2013, scientists observed the asteroid traveling in front of a star, which had illuminated its features. What they found surprised them – Chariklo had two rings: the larger inner ring was four miles wide, while the outer ring was about half that size.
Chariklo is the first non-planetary body known to have rings, suggesting that others could exist. Researchers believe Chariklo may have at least one moon as well.
There Are Dwarf Planets With Moons
There are five dwarf planets in our solar system: Eris, Pluto, Makemake, Ceres, and Haumea. Pluto, formerly one of the nine planets in the solar system, became downgraded to a dwarf planet in 2006 – a decision that remains controversial. The closest dwarf planet to Earth is Ceres, which is the smallest and the only one with no moons. Conversely, Eris has one moon, Pluto has five, and Haumea has two.
Astronomers previously thought Makemake was moonless for a decade after its initial discovery, but the Hubble telescope spotted a moon orbiting the dwarf planet in 2016.
Scientists Have Discovered Several Earth-Like Planets
In 1995, astronomers discovered the first planet to revolve around a sun-like star. Twenty years later, the Kepler telescope detected a planet orbiting a star that resembles the sun in what scientists call the “habitable zone.” Since then, researchers have discovered several new planets, including many that could sustain human life.
In early 2017, NASA observed a group of Earth-sized, habitable-zone planets around a star called TRAPPIST-1. In November 2017, astronomers found Ross 128b, a planet only 11 light-years away from the Milky Way. Ross 128b circles a red dwarf star, and both are moving toward our solar system. In February 2018, NASA uncovered 95 new exoplanets outside of the solar system, planets with all kinds of shapes, sizes, and potential.
Saturn’s Rings Are Translucent, Its Poles Are Hexagonal, And Its Moons Have Geysers
Discoveries about Saturn and its rings and moons continue to amaze astronomers. The rings around Saturn are its best-known feature. Galileo first observed Saturn’s rings in the 17th century, and in 2007, the Cassini orbiter offered details of the rings and their makeup.
Cassini provided new images of Saturn’s northern polar region, which is hexagonal. Scientists initially identified the unique shape of Saturn’s polar regions in 1980 when the Voyager spacecraft flew by the planet. With more information on the poles, scientists now theorize that they may influence seasons and temperatures on Saturn.
Another discovery about Saturn involves one of its 62 moons, Enceladus. Geysers on the moon, detected by Cassini in 2005, have weakened, and scientists believe that the thrust of Enceladus’s geysers is relevant to its orbit around Saturn. The geysers implicate the moon’s life-carrying potential.
Comet Lovejoy Expels Alcohol
Discovered in 2014, Comet Lovejoy – formally known as C/2014 Q2 – passed close to the sun in January 2015. During this, the bright comet expelled liquid at a rate of about 20 tons per second, which scientists were able to observe. According to a group of European astronomers, Comet Lovejoy released a cloud comprising alcohol, sugar, and 19 other organic molecules. At its peak, Comet Lovejoy discharged “as much alcohol as in at least 500 bottles of wine every second.”
Researchers are working to determine if the material was part of the primordial cloud that formed our solar system.
Lucy Is A Massive Diamond Star
Scientists initially observed Lucy – categorized as white dwarf star BPM 37093 (V886 Centauri) – pulsating in 1992, with its core temperature below 12,000 degrees Fahrenheit. In 1995, scientists used frequency spectra to determine Lucy’s composition. They found Lucy’s core mostly consisted of crystallized carbon – so in layman’s terms, Lucy is a giant diamond, roughly 4,000 kilometers in diameter or just shy of 2,500 miles.
As the largest diamond in the solar system, Lucy’s name was a foregone conclusion – its name derives from the Beatles song, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.”
Dark Flow, Dark Energy, And Dark Matter Exist – They’re Merely Hard To Prove
As much as 80% of the universe consists of dark matter – unobservable material that gives off no light or energy. Scientists are aware dark matter exists, but they continue to have difficulty proving it. Within dark matter, there is dark energy, the force driving the universe’s expansion. Furthermore, NASA observed a spatial event they coined “dark flow” – a phenomenon that seems to pull matter in unexplained directions through the universe. When scientists discovered galaxy clusters moving in directions deemed inconsistent with the universe’s natural expansion, they posited the “dark flow” theory.
From what they can tell at this time, “dark flow” comes from somewhere outside the known universe.
NASA Figured Out The Scent Of Comets
As part of its Rosetta mission, the European Space Agency (ESA) sent the Philae probe into a comet. Rosetta, an orbiter launched in 2004, circled the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko for two years before Philae touched down. The project’s goal was to better understand comets by learning their composition. According to National Geographic, Philae, which hibernated after landing, revealed that the surface contained “ammonia, hydrogen cyanide, and hydrogen sulfide, which together smell like pungent urine, almonds, and rotten eggs.”
Philae was able to find amino acids, capture photographs, and answer questions about the comet’s shape.
The Baby Boom Galaxy Births A New Star Every Two Hours
Discovered in 2008, the Super Starburst Galaxy, or the Baby Boom Galaxy, is an estimated 12.3 billion light-years away and produces an average of 4,000 new stars annually. At a rate of one new star every two hours, the Baby Boom Galaxy is an enigma to NASA astronomers, who had initially observed the galaxy using the Spitzer Space Telescope. As one of many starburst galaxies found, the Baby Boom Galaxy defies conventional theories about universe expansion. Astronomers have believed that galaxies form stars over long periods of time by merging small materials to create larger objects.
With so many stars formed in such a short period, scientists remain puzzled and may need to reevaluate their theory as they witness the “formation of one of the most massive elliptical galaxies in the universe.”
Scientists Found ‘The Godzilla Of Earths’ Planet
In 2014, Harvard astronomers discovered a mega-planet, or the Godzilla of Earths, more than 550 light years away. The planet, also called mega-Earth and super-Earth weighs 17 times more than Earth and its diameter measures about 18,000 miles. The planet circles a sun-like planet called Draco, contained within a constellation formed about 3 billion years after the Big Bang. Labeled Kepler-10c, the exoplanet is rocky and solid, which surprised scientists who thought it would be gaseous, similar to Jupiter.
Any oxygen and water on Kepler-10c’s heavy atmosphere can immediately turn into a solid substance, rendering the exoplanet inhospitable.