Wide-field view of the region of the sky where HR 6819 is locate
This wide-field view shows the region of the sky where HR 6819 can be found, a triple system consisting of two stars and the closest black hole to Earth ever found. (ESO)

Sky News This Week: May 6, 2020

Scientists find the closest black hole to Earth, and the reason for Venus’ fast-spinning atmosphere. Read the latest in space news here.

As a Canadian science and space journalist, I’m excited to be bringing you a biweekly synopsis of the top astronomy and space stories. In the news: we have a new estimate for the lifespan of Mars’ global magnetic field, scientists think they have a handle on why Venus’ atmosphere rotates more quickly than the planet, and a black hole was discovered relatively close to Earth.

Stealth black hole spotted close to Earth

Artist’s impression of the triple system with the closest black hole. (ESO)

Astronomers found the closest-ever black hole to Earth, at only 1,000 light-years from our planet (roughly 250 times the distance of the nearest star system, Alpha Centauri).

This black hole is a squeaker, at only four times the mass of the Sun and so inactive that it is hard to spot with a telescope. The research team found the lurking black hole using the 2.2-metre telescope at the European Southern Observatory’s La Silla Observatory in Chile, finding evidence for the invisible object by tracking its two companion stars. The team says the observations could help shed light on how mergers of large objects occur, since the black hole is so close to other stars.

Source: European Southern Observatory

Canadian company gets fresh ISS contract

MDA, the long-running expert in Canadian robotics, received $190 million from the Canadian Space Agency to extend its servicing contract on the International Space Station for the next four years, until 2024.

The contract includes operations and maintenance to the suite of robotic operators on the ISS, which includes the Canadarm2 robotic arm, the Dextre robotic hand, and the Mobile Base System. Canadarm2, which is controlled by astronauts, is regularly used for cargo ship dockings and space station maintenance. Dextre also performs smaller cargo lifts and dexterous maintenance jobs, and is commonly operated by controllers in Montreal.

The year 2024 is the current end date of ISS operations, although the international consortium is strongly considering an extension to at least 2028.

Source: MDA

Mars magnetic field persisted longer than imagined

The magnetic field on Mars originated at the dawn of the Solar System 4.5 billion years ago and lasted for about 800 million years — earlier and longer than originally imagined, new findings from Canadian researchers and others reveal.

Knowing about the presence of the magnetic field is important to making predictions about Martian life, since a stronger magnetic field could filter out deadly radiation to organisms. The new data came from analyzing magnetism in rocks using the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft.

Source: University of British Columbia

Martian helicopter named Ingenuity

The flying companion to the Perseverance Mars rover finally has a name.

Vaneeza Rupani, a junior at Tuscaloosa County High School in Northport, Alabama, named the experimental helicopter “Ingenuity” and won NASA’s Name the Rover essay contest, which attracted 28,000 entries. Rupani’s essay said the concept of ingenuity “allows people to accomplish amazing things”, including dealing with interplanetary travel.

Ingenuity will be the first flying vehicle on Mars and will test the idea of scouting ahead of a rover and examining features by air. The helicopter is expected to launch this summer as a side mission to the Perseverance rover, which will search for signs of ancient habitability on the Red Planet.

Source: NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory

How Venus’ atmosphere rotates so fast

Solar heating on Venus makes the atmosphere rotate faster than the planet itself, according to results from Japan’s Akatsuki spacecraft.

The insight came from a new way of tracking clouds and figuring out wind velocities based on the observations of infrared and ultraviolet cameras on the spacecraft. The results from the study could also be applied to exoplanets that are extremely close to their parent suns, since Venus’ slow rotation of 243 days is similar to the situation of exoplanets perpetually locked with one side facing a star.

Source: Hokkaido University

Elizabeth Howell (Ph.D.) is a Canadian space journalist who has been obsessed with the topic ever since she, as a young teenager, saw the movie Apollo 13 in 1996. She grew up wanting to be an astronaut. While that hasn’t happened (yet), Elizabeth has seen five human spaceflight launches — including two from Kazakhstan — and she participated in a simulated Red Planet mission at the Mars Society’s Mars Desert Research Station in Utah.