Visible light images from NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory show the Sun at solar minimum in December 2019 and the last solar maximum in April 2014. Sunspots freckle the Sun during solar maximum; the dark spots are associated with solar activity. (NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory/Joy Ng)

Sky News This Week: September 30, 2020

A planet survives a catastrophe at its nearby star, the Sun enters new and potentially weak solar cycle, and a Canadian robot goes on a leak hunt in space.

‘Biomarker’ molecule found in atmosphere of Venus

Molecules of phosphine have been found high in the clouds of Venus, which could have been made by microbes living in an oxygen-free environment. There are alternative natural ways of producing phosphine, such as through volcanoes, but modelling from the team has ruled that out for now. Still, the scientists caution that much more study needs to be done before confirming “life” at Venus. The planet is acidic, even at higher altitudes with more temperate temperatures than the oven-like, high-pressure surface.

For more on this story, read SkyNews’ full article here.

Sources: Cardiff University, Nature Astronomy

Sun enters new, potentially weak solar cycle

Visible light images from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory show the Sun at solar minimum in December 2019 and the last solar maximum in April 2014. Sunspots freckle the Sun during solar maximum; the dark spots are associated with solar activity. (NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory/Joy Ng)

Aurora watchers should set their calendars now for 2025. That’s the expected peak of the new 11-year solar cycle, which tracks the number of sunspots on the surface of the Sun along with solar activity such as flares and particle ejections. At times, these particles collide with Earth’s magnetic field and produce colourful auroras, especially in the northern regions of Canada. The last solar cycle, called Solar Cycle 24, was relatively weak. Scientists are expecting the same thing for Cycle 25 because magnetic activity in the Sun’s poles now (at the minimum of activity) is similar to what scientists saw during the beginning of the last cycle, 11 years ago. Stronger bouts of solar activity can threaten satellites and power lines through shorting out vital electronics, which is why scientists watch the Sun so closely.

Source: NASA

Planet survives after death of its star

Astronomers found the first known “intact” planet orbiting a white dwarf star that used to be much larger before letting go of most of its gas. The find is remarkable as it indicates planets can survive even after catastrophic events at their parent star. The Jupiter-sized planet is called WD 1856 b and orbits quite close to its white dwarf, 60 times faster than Mercury orbits the Sun. The star and planet are roughly 80 light-years away from Earth in the constellation Draco. How the planet survived after such a massive change in its star is not yet known.

Sources: University of California Riverside, Nature

New storms pop up on Jupiter

The venerable Hubble Space Telescope spotted one new storm on the largest planet in the solar system when it did an annual checkup of Jupiter in August. One of Hubble’s tasks is periodically turning its eyes to the outer planets, to look at long-term changes in these worlds and help scientists better understand weather and other processes. Telescopic observations by Hubble found one new storm, and amateurs spotted two more in ground observations using much smaller telescopes. The research team confirmed also that the Great Red Spot continues to shrink (which it has been doing since 1930) and that another storm called Oval BA is appearing to darken.

Source: Space Telescope Science Institute

Canadian robot sniffs out ammonia leak in space

Canada’s Dextre robot was set to roam the International Space Station in mid-September in search of a small ammonia leak on the orbiting complex. The robot was expected to perform two days of scanning using two Robotic External Leak Locators, which were installed on the Canadian Mobile Base System during a July 2020 spacewalk. Ammonia is a coolant on the space station that is needed to keep electronics and experiments from overheating in the extreme environment of space, especially when sunlight falls upon the station. The toxicity of ammonia, however, requires extreme caution when involving astronauts. A Canadian Space Agency press release also noted Dextre would shift gears later in the season, turning to other specialized tools to demonstrate cryogenic refuelling, a key ability that could help make space exploration more sustainable by extending the useful lifetimes of satellites and spacecraft.

Source: Canadian Space Agency

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.