An artist’s impression of a gravitational microlensing event by a free-floating planet. (Jan Skowron/Astronomical Observatory, University of Warsaw)

Sky News This Week: November 5, 2020

In the news: Scientists spot a likely free-floating planet, the Canadian Space Agency asks for feedback on future exploration, and fresh data from a dead comet mission reveals cappuccino-like ice.

Rogue small planet found roaming the Milky Way

An artist’s impression of a gravitational microlensing event by a free-floating planet. (Jan Skowron/Astronomical Observatory, University of Warsaw)

Scientists spotted what they believe is a small planet-sized object wandering free in the Milky Way, unbound to any star. The research team — let by Polish astronomers — spotted the object during a “microlensing event” called OGLE-2016-BLG-1928. Microlensing occurs when a large object, such as a star or planet, passes in between the Earth and a distant star. The object temporarily focuses the light from the star, creating a quick brightening and fading again. This event was only 42 minutes long, suggesting the object was relatively tiny, perhaps the mass of Mars. The challenge of these observations is they can only happen once — when the object passes in front of a distant star — so it will be difficult to better characterize this object unless such an event happens again.

Source: University of Warsaw

The Canadian Space Agency wants your feedback on future exploration

The next decade or so should be an exciting time for Canada, if all goes to plan. The CSA has signed on to send humans to the Moon in line with NASA’s exploration plans, contributing the future Canadarm3 robotic arm. Now the agency wants to hear your feedback on how to proceed. Until January 31, 2021, you can submit your feedback to the CSA here whether you are a business, a space enthusiast or just an ordinary Canadian interested in the future of our country. Webinars will also be announced at a later date.

Source: CSA

‘Cappuccino’ on a comet

Ice spotted on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko is so weak that it has a consistency fluffier than cappuccino froth, according to the German Space Agency (DLR). The fresh information comes from a now-retired mission, Rosetta, which examined the comet for about two years as it drew closer to the Sun and began outgassing. Rosetta sent a lander called Philae to the surface, and the new data comes from reconstructing one of the “hops” Philae experienced as it tried to grip onto the surface. As Philae scrabbled against the ice, it revealed under-layers that were protected from the Sun’s radiation, providing scientists a rare look at untouched surface ice.

Source: DLR

A triplet on Mars points to watery past

The European Space Agency’s Mars Express spacecraft sent a new picture from the Red Planet showing a rare “triple crater” in its southern hemisphere. Scientists have a few theories for how that happened, with the most likely being that the impacting object broke into three pieces just before slamming into the surface. If this indeed happened, the atmosphere of Mars must have been much thicker during the cosmic crash four billion years ago. A thicker atmosphere would make it easier for water to flow on the surface, providing more credence for findings made by numerous landing missions and orbiters.

Source: ESA

Long-ago galaxies look weirdly mature

Artist’s illustration of a galaxy in the early universe that is very dusty and shows the first signs of a rotationally supported disk. (B. Saxton NRAO/AUI/NSF, ESO, NASA/STScI; NAOJ/Subaru)

A new survey of galaxies from the early universe shows that more massive ones existed billions of years ago than scientists predicted. The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) studied 118 distant galaxies to learn about a mysterious “growth spurt” that many galaxies underwent roughly 12.3 billion years to 12.8 billion years ago. To the research team’s surprise, they spotted more dust and heavy elements in these galaxies than expected. It’s a puzzling result that will require more study, as models predict that dying stars would produce these objects; however, at such a young age in the universe, it seems unlikely so many stars could have died.

Source: National Radio Astronomy Observatory

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.