Astronaut in Space Sees Mount Etna Volcano Eruption (Photo)
By Mike Wall, Space.com Senior Writer | March 23, 2017 07:00am ET
One of the world’s most active volcanoes lights up the night in a spectacular new astronaut photo.
Tongues of red-hot lava slide down Sicily’s Mount Etna in the image, which was captured from the International Space Station on Saturday (March 19) by European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Thomas Pesquet.
“The volcano is currently erupting and the molten lava is visible from space, at night! (the red lines on the left),” Pesquet wrote on Twitter Tuesday (March 21), where he posted the image.
“The red-hot lava flowing from Mount Etna can be seen clearly in the image from Sentinel-2A,” ESA officials wrote in an image description. “The surrounding snow has been processed in blue to distinguish from the clouds.”
With a peak about 10,900 feet (3,320 meters) above sea level, Mount Etna is the tallest active volcano in Europe. It sits near the subduction boundary between the African and Eurasian tectonic plates. Written records of Etna’s frequent eruptions go all the way back to 425 B.C.
Pesquet is a member of the space station’s current Expedition 50 crew. He arrived at the orbiting lab in November and is scheduled to come back to Earth in early June, along with NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson and cosmonaut Oleg Novitskiy. This is Pesquet’s first space mission.
It was a rough month for Phobos, as astronomers decreed—yet again—that Mars is ripping its lumpy moon apart. But apparently, Phobos’ loss is the Red Planet’s gain. After the satellite is torn to pieces, its fragments will fan out into a disk and 20 million years from now, Mars will become a ringed planet.
That’s the conclusion of a UC Berkeley-led study published this week inNature Geoscience, which takes Phobos’ violent demise to an unexpectedly beautiful conclusion. But this little moon’s fate is more than just a cosmic curiosity. Rather, the researchers argue that Phobos could be a window into the origin of ring systems throughout the Solar System and beyond.
We’ve known for years that Phobos’ days are numbered. A mere 16 miles in diameter, the ruddy, cratered satellite is being reeled in by Mars’ gravity, which means eventually, Phobos should crash into the Red Planet. (In fact,Mars might have already killed another moon in exactly the same manner.) But recently, astronomers have come to suspect that Phobos could be broken up by Mars’ gravity long before a Deep Impact situation develops.
Just as the tug of the Earth on the Moon manifests as tides, Mars’ gravitational pull leaves telltale traces on Phobos—a series of fractures across the moon’s surface. Earlier this month, a NASA-led study concluded that those fractures are the early signs of structural failure, and that 30 to 50 million years from now, miserable Phobos will be shredded to bits by this “tidal flexing.” Ben Black, lead author on the new Nature Geoscience paper, likens the dismemberment of Phobos to a giant pulling apart a granola bar, scattering crumbs and chunks everywhere.
After modeling the break up of Phobos and coming up with their own estimate for the moon’s demise—10 to 20 million years from now—Black and his co-author Tushar Mittal wanted to find out what’ll happen next. Will Phobos’ remains rain down on the Red Planet in an apocalyptic meteorite shower? Or will the moon go out peacefully, its sundered fragments settling into stable orbits around Mars?
Phobos’ Stickney crater (top) was created by an impact that could have torn the moon apart if it were a little more porous. Image Credit: NASA.
A little bit of both, according to Black and Mittal’s new models. Large chunks of Phobos strong enough to resist gravitational breakup will eventually spiral in and collide with Mars in oblique, low-velocity impacts. “The size of any chunks that might crash into Mars is hard to predict,” Black told Gizmodo in an email. But: “We expect them to crash along the equator, so that is where any hazard would be concentrated.” Future Martian planners, take note.
The rest of Phobos will fan out to form a planetary ring system. The exact lifespan of that ring will depend on how close Phobos is to Mars when it breaks apart, something astronomers aren’t yet sure of.
“If the moon broke apart at 1.2 Mars radii, about 680 kilometers above the surface, it would form a really narrow ring comparable in density to that of one of Saturn’s most massive rings,” Mittal said in a statement. “Over time it would spread out and get wider, reaching the top of the Martian atmosphere in a few million years, when it would start losing material because stuff would keep raining down on Mars.”
If, however, Phobos breaks up further from Mars, the ring could persist for up to 100 million years. Either way, it won’t be much of a sight from Earth—while Saturn’s rings get their brilliant sheen from ice, Phobos is composed mainly of dark, carbon-rich rocks. But for anyone living on Mars tens of millions of years from now, the Phobos Ring will be a permanent fixture in the sky.
In our Solar System alone, Saturn, Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune all have ring systems. According to Black, Phobos’ future fate offers one possible scenario for the evolution of planetary rings in the early Solar System, when astronomers suspect there were even more moons surrounding the gas giants. “We expect that inwardly migrating moons like Phobos should be a relatively common product of planet formation,” said Black. “So the same processes we describe for Phobos’ future could have occurred in the past in our Solar System.” In fact, it’s possible that all the ring systems in our Solar System include the shattered remnants of bygone moons.
And if Mars has the gravitational brawn to flatten a moon into a dusty pancake, there’s no reason small rocky worlds beyond our Solar System shouldn’t have ring systems, too. “I think rings may be common although short-lived around planets in other star systems,” NASA’s Terry Hurford, who is involved with other research on Phobos, told Gizmodo in an email. “The rings may not last long but if they are produced frequently then we should see some around planets.”
Who knows, maybe humanity’s second home will have its very own rings. Although given the 30 million-year forecast for Mars—cloudy with a chance of fiery, dismembered moon chunks—I’m honestly not sure how I feel about that possibility.
Living and boning in space—particularly on Mars—has fascinated our degenerate species for decades. Recently, SpaceX founder Elon Musk decided to put his very large amount of money where his mouth is by announcing his plans to colonize the Red Planet. NASA also likes to bloviate about its Journey to Mars in the 2030s, and there are a handful of other, shadier plans to colonize the Red Planet championed by celebrities, billionaires, and even the UAE.
But there’s a big difference between putting a few boots on the ground and setting up a long-term base on another planet. Regarding human colonization of Mars, there are a host of concerns—in particular, how will humans fare, both physically and psychologically, in such a harsh environment? In a paper published recently in the journal Space Policy, Konrad Szocik, a cognitive scientist at the University of Information Technology and Management in Rzeszow, Poland, argues that sending astronauts to live aboard the ISS is not adequate training for life on Mars. In fact, Szocik surmises humans will have to alter their bodies in a pretty extreme way in order to physically and emotionally sustain themselves in a Martian colony.
Other Mars enthusiasts, including Elon Musk, disagree.
“My idea is that [the] human body and mind is adapted to live in the terrestrial environment,” Szocik told Gizmodo in an email. “Consequently, some particular physiological and psychological challenges during [the] journey and then during living on Mars probably will be too difficult for human beings to survive. For instance, we should take into account the high risk of health problems during that mission and no direct professional medical support and care.”
In his paper, Szocik explores some of the preventative treatments other researchers have suggested astronauts undergo before heading to Mars. He notes that some have suggested “placing the crew into a coma before the journey,” which could reduce energy requirements, prevent muscle atrophy, and provide extra shielding from deep space radiation, and even “removing the appendix to avoid great dangers.”
Indeed, in 2012, researchers at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) enumerated the potential risks and rewards of performing appendectomies and cholecystectomies—the removal of the gallbladder—before sending astronauts into extended periods of spaceflight. The logic is pretty simple: If someone’s appendix or gall bladder bursts in space, surgery could more worse than unpleasant—it could be impossible.
Szocik also argues that the first crewed missions to the Red Planet could take a heavy psychological toll. Though early colonizers would presumably undergo intense psychological screening, the pressures of isolation in a high-risk environment are daunting. But early results from NASA’s HI-SEAS experiment, which mimics this isolation by sealing off small crews in a dome near the top of the Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii, are promising. Recently, a crew that spent a year in this pseudo-Martian environment emerged pretty upbeat and positive, despite being trapped among each other’s foul odors and character flaws.
“It is true that psychological issues (“behavioral health” in NASA’s terminology) will be a major concern,” Mark Shelhamer, former chief scientist at NASA’s human research program, told Gizmodo. “In that sense, the ISS is not a great venue for simulating a Mars mission. ISS is isolated and confined (though not as much as a Mars spacecraft will be). However, crews rotate so that there is a set of new faces every three months, and there is a very robust and effective psychological support structure in place (astronauts can speak to friends, family, physicians, and psychologists on Earth at any time, with no communication lag).”
Overall, Szocik argues that no Earthly preparation can necessarily give someone everything they need to survive Mars in the longterm. “I think that medicine can be insufficient and that there will be necessary some permanent solutions like genetical and/or surgical modifications,” Szocik said, adding that we should use the idea of transhumanism—that by harnessing science and technology, we can enhance ourselves to survive in vastly different environments—to prepare.
This concept isn’t exactly new: futurists have long proposed that humanity will need to use biology, nanotechnology, information technology, and cognitive science to make us more equipped for life in space. But while accelerating our own biological evolution in order to boost our chances of survival on Mars admittedly sounds badass, not everyone’s convinced it’s feasible, ethical, or necessary.
“Already, people have suggested selecting astronauts for genetic predisposition for such things as radiation resistance,” Shelhamer said. “Of course this idea is fraught with problems. For one, it’s illegal to make employment decisions based on genetic information. For another, there are usually unintended consequences when making manipulations like this, and who knows what might get worse if we pick and choose what we think needs to be made better.”
While he admits Szocik’s ideas are interesting, Shelhamer feels they’re ultimately unnecessary. “I think we can give astronauts the tools—physical, mental, operational—so that they are, individually and as a group, resilient in the face of the unknown,” he said. “This is what I’m working on now, but it’s still in the very early stages. What kind of person thrives in an extreme environment? What types of mission structures are in place to help that person? This needs to be examined systematically.”
Would-be future Martian president Elon Musk was even blunter when asked to comment on the idea that humans would have to alter their biology to survive on Mars, calling the entire premise “ridiculous.” “Being in deep space or Earth orbit for long periods is far worse than Mars,” Musk told Gizmodo over a Twitter DM. “Buzz Aldrin is still doing fine, as are the other astronauts.”
Even if the optimists in the room are right, and we don’t have to modify ourselves to live out healthy adult lives on Mars, a salient question remains when it comes to colonization: How will we reproduce? Although not nearly as bad as deep space, the surface of Marsreceives some intense radiation, owing to the fact that its atmosphere is much thinner than Earth’s, and it has no global magnetic field todeflect energetic particles. This is particularly concerning for women looking to get pregnant, as even small doses of ionizing radiation can have severe health consequences for developing fetuses. In all likelihood, long term settlements would have to be built beneath the planet’s surface to protect folks, particularly the young, old, sick and pregnant, from solar energetic particles and galactic cosmic rays.
“We do not know how reduced gravity and radiation will affect the process of human reproduction,”Szocik said. “We can suppose that this impact could be deleterious.”
Szocik added that in order to maintain a colony that can sustain itself without inbreeding, we’ll have to send a ton of people to Mars, which could be difficult. Therefore, he suggests “taking into account an opportunity of human cloning or other similar methods,” in order to keep the colony going. Hmm.
Stretching humanity across several planets sounds exciting. It also sounds terrifying! Hopefully, upcoming missions like NASA’s 2020 rover will give us more insight into how we can live (and fuck) on such a cold, unfeeling planet.
Perishing alone in space—in a gaseous cloud of stench—ranks pretty highly on the list of Terrible Ways to Die. Sadly, that was the fate of one unfortunate star trapped in the Calabash Nebula, nicknamed the “Rotten Egg Nebula” due to its high sulphur content. If you’ve ever smelled sulphur—or dog farts—you already understand the name.
The above image was captured in January by the Hubble Space Telescope. It’s very rare to see a star in this phase of its death, since the evolution from red giant to planetary nebula happens extremely fast.
As the star dies, it ejects material in all directions at rapid-fire speed. The yellow clouds seen in the picture move at about 1,000,000 kilometers per hour. In the next 1,000 years, the nebula will become a shell of ionized gas known as a planetary nebula.
While the resulting image is nothing short of stunning, let’s not forget it’s located over 5,000 lightyears away in the constellation of Puppis, AKA “The Poop Deck.” Gross.
“Hot Jupiters” aren’t particularly sexy exoplanets—just clingy ones. These gas giants orbit tightly around their host stars, and despite their name, they’re typically more massive than Jupiter. And, as you’d expect, much hotter.
According to the University of Arecibo, 74o of the 3,442 confirmed exoplanetsare Hot Jupiters. These distant giants—full of gas and mystery—have certainly piqued our interest in recent years as exoplanet research has evolved. As Space.com notes, some hot Jupiters defy theoretical models of planetary formation because they’re so damn large. But new research suggests we might have the answer to that enigma, at least: Hot Jupiters aren’t born abnormally big—they just “puff” up over time.
Using the Hungarian-made Automated Telescope Network (HATNet) in Mount Hopkins, Arizona and Mauna Kea, Hawaii, a team of scientists identified two particularly large Hot Jupiters, dubbed HAT-P-65b and HAT-P-66b. These exoplanets—2,745 and 3,025 lightyears from Earth, respectively—orbit their star 10 times closer than Mercury orbits our sun.
After comparing these two Hot Jupiters to 200 other exoplanets, the scientists found that HAT-P-65b and HAT-P-66b are unusually large for their respective ages (5.46 billion and 4.66 billion years-old). The team hypothesized that since these two Hot Jupiters orbit so closely to their host stars, they receive enormous amounts of radiation, over time expanding like cosmic pufferfish. The group’s findings have been published in the December issue of The Astronomical Journal.
Joel Hartman, a lead author on the study, suggests the research offers new insights about these elusive giants.
“[We found] many [Hot Jupiters] are a lot larger than predicted by theoretical models of planetary structure (some planets are up twice the size of Jupiter, but the largest they could be, according to the models, is about 1.5 times the size of Jupiter),” he told Gizmodo. “Some of them are on wildly inclined orbits with respect to the spins of their hosts—some even orbit backwards around their stars.”
It’s no coincidence that HAT-P-65b and HAT-P-66b have ballooned to become 1.9 and 1.6 times Jupiter’s diameter. Hartman and his team found that both of the planets’ respective stars have completed 80 percent of their life cycles, meaning they’re nearing the end of the main sequence. Before they die, stars burn brighter and emit more radiation, which could cause their Hot Jupiters to expand.
“As stars get older they also get brighter, and deposit more energy into the upper atmospheres of any close-in planets they might harbor,” Hartman said. “If this energy can make its way down to the core of a gas giant planet it would cause the planet to expand. This idea has been floating around for quite a while as a possible explanation for why some hot Jupiters can be extremely large. But, no one has been able to convincingly demonstrate a mechanism for transporting the energy deep into the interior of the planet.”
This study is much more than unlocking the secrets of a cool space mystery, though it totally does that, too. The research helps us better understand how a star’s radiation can impact the way planets evolve.
“Furthermore, if we want to apply these theoretical models to infer the properties of smaller and more distantly orbiting planets which are harder to observe in detail (e.g., habitable Earth-like planets), we need to test the theories, and make sure they work for the planets that we can study in the most detail,” Hartman said.
Astronauts who return to Earth after long-duration space missions suffer from untreatable nearsightedness. Scientists have now isolated the cause, but finding a solution to the problem will prove easier said than done.
The problem, say researchers from the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, has to do with volume changes in the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) found around the brain and spinal cord. Prolonged exposure to microgravity triggers a build-up of this fluid, causing the astronauts’ eyeballs to flatten, which can lead to myopia. A build-up of CSF also causes astronauts’ optic nerves to stick out, which is also not good, as the optic nerve sends signals to the brain from the retina. This is causing nearsightedness among long-duration astronauts, and it’s problem with no clear solution in sight (so to speak).
It’s well documented that astronauts who fly long-duration space missions suffer from blurry vision upon returning. “People initially didn’t know what to make of it, and by 2010 there was growing concern as it became apparent that some of the astronauts had severe structural changes that were not fully reversible upon return to earth,” noted lead study author Noam Alperin in a statement. The syndrome, dubbed visual impairment intracranial pressure (VIIP), was reported in nearly two-thirds of astronauts following long-duration missions aboard the International Space Station (ISS).
Prior to the new study, scientists thought the problem had to do with a shift of vascular fluid towards the upper body during exposure to microgravity. The new research (which will be presented today at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America), points to the normally protective cerebrospinal fluid as the likely culprit.
On Earth, the CSF system can accommodate sudden changes in pressure, such as when a person rises from a lying position to sitting or standing position. But in space, this system is confused by the lack of the posture-related pressure changes. Brain scans taken of astronauts both before and after long-duration space missions revealed the flattening of the eyeballs and increased optic nerve protrusion. Importantly, the astronauts also exhibited significantly greater post-flight increases in CSF volume in the area around the optic nerves and the cavity where CSF is produced.
Armed with this new information, scientists will now have to find a way to prevent this from happening (artificial gravity, anyone?), and to treat the condition when the astronauts arrive back on Earth (laser eye surgery is one possibility, but this procedure may not address the full scope of the damage done). In the meantime, space will continue to be a discouragingly inhospitable place for humans.
Spaceflight is not for the faint of heart—literally. The first results of NASA’stwin study, released just this week, revealed that space physically impacts astronauts on multiple levels, right down to shifts in gene expression. Now, a group of scientists at the University of Michigan have released research that suggests spaceflight alters astronauts’ brains.
The team studied 26 astronauts who spent various amounts of time in space, between 2008 to 2012. Twelve of the astronauts spent two weeks as shuttle crew members, while the other 14 spent six months aboard the International Space Station (ISS). After examining structural MRIs from all the astronauts taken before and after spaceflight, the researchers found that all subjects experienced both increases and decreases in the volume of gray matter in different regions of the brain. Gray matter is responsible for many key functions, including muscle control, emotions, memory and sensory perception.
Naturally, those who spent more time in space were impacted more dramatically. The team’s findings were published on December 19, 2016 inNature Microgravity.
“Some of the areas show decreases in gray matter volume, and I don’t want anyone to think that means you go to space and lose brain cells,” University of Michigan professor Rachel Seidler, a co-author on the study, told Gizmodo. “The losses are coming from shifts in fluid in the brain that happen with flight.”
Specifically, the shifts in gray matter volume appear due microgravity, which describes the very slight presence of gravity aboard the ISS.
“Imagine gravity pulling all the fluids toward your feet, and in space you don’t have that happening.” Seidler said. “There’s more fluid toward the head—you may have seen photos of astronauts where they have puffy faces in space—but there’s a shift in fluid in the brain as well.”
The group found that during spaceflight, gray matter volume increased in small regions of the brain that control leg movement, which could reflect how the brain retrains the body to move in microgravity. In other areas of the brain, gray matter volume decreased, possibly due to a redistribution of thecerebrospinal fluid that coats the central nervous system.
Astonishingly enough, we know almost nothing about how space impacts the brain. This study is the first to ever analyze how brain structure could change due to microgravity. While it’s still unclear how—or if—gray matter volume returned to pre-flight levels in the astronauts studied, Steidler is conducting a separate ongoing study that analyzes astronauts’ brains in the six months after their returns from space.
“Because of the amount of exercise they’re doing now, astronauts are coming back with their [muscles and bones] pretty well protected,” Steidler said. “But the brain is really still an open question…we don’t yet have available follow-up data to see how long it takes the brain to recover.”
With certain Earthlings’ grand ambitions to go to Mars, it’s important to understand how long stints in space can affect the human body. But this research could also be key to understanding health conditions here on Earth. Steidler said studies like this could help medical professionals better understand brain disorders like normal pressure hydrocephalus, which is caused by a build up of fluid in the brain.
“It’s very interesting to use this as a model to study the maximum capacity for neuroplasticity in the healthy brain,” she explained. “It’s an important model for understanding how much the brain can change when faced with an environment you’ve never been in before.”