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Hubble spots interstellar comet as it rounds sun

Comet 2I/Borisov
Comet 2I/Borisov appears as a bright dot within a haze of dust, with a distant spiral galaxy in the background of the Hubble Space Telescope image, taken on Nov. 16. The comet was about 203 million miles from Earth when the picture was taken. (NASA / ESA / UCLA / D. Jewitt)

The Hubble Space Telescope has snapped the best images to date showing the interstellar comet known as 2I/Borisov, and one of the pictures shows a faraway spiral galaxy just off to the side.

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Second interstellar visitor confirmed

2I/Borisov
A two-color composite image from the Gemini North Multi-Object Spectrograph in Hawaii shows the interstellar object 2I/Borisov. Blue and red dashes are images of background stars that appear to streak due to the comet’s motion. (Gemini Observatory / NSF / AURA Image / Travis Rector)

Two years after astronomers made their first detection of a celestial object that came into our solar system from the neighborhood of another star, they have now confirmed the existence of another one.

The comet, originally known as C/2019 Q4 (Borisov), was discovered on Aug. 30 by Gennady Borisov at the MARGO observatory in Crimea, a region that’s contested by Ukraine and Russia.

Based on an analysis of night-by-night observations, the International Astronomical Union announced today that the comet is “unambiguously interstellar in origin,” coming in from far beyond our solar system. The IAU also gave the object a new name to befit its interstellar status: 2I/Borisov.

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How to shield a probe for trip to Alpha Centauri

Image: Starshot nano-probe
An artist’s conception suggests how light from a battery of laser-equipped antennas can power a sail to the Alpha Centauri system. (Credit: Breakthrough Initiatives)

The scientists behind the Breakthrough Starshot mission are already fine-tuning the design for their nano-probes to increase the odds they’ll survive the trip to Proxima Centauri b.

In a paper posted to the arXiv pre-print server last week, researchers lay out their latest calculations on the kinds of damage their scaled-down spacecraft could face as they speed toward the Alpha Centauri system at 20 percent of the speed of light.

The mission and the study have taken on greater importance, due to this week’s announcement that a potentially habitable planet has been detected in orbit around Proxima Centauri, a red dwarf that’s part of the star system. It’s the star that’s closest to our own solar system, lying only 4.2 light-years away.

In astronomical terms, Proxima Centauri is right next door. But in mission planning terms, it’s far, far away. It would take tens of thousands of years for a conventional spacecraft to get there.

To reduce that time frame, Breakthrough Starshot has proposed sending bunches of lightweight electronic wafers, known as “Starchips.” The Starchips would be accelerated to relativistic speeds by aiming powerful lasers at film-thin light sails that carry the probes along.

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6 small steps toward cooler spaceships

Image: Magbeam station
An artist’s conception shows a Magbeam station emitting a plasma beam to propel a target spacecraft beyond Jupiter. (Credit: UW Advanced Propulsion Lab)

SPOKANE, Wash. — Is there a better way to power a spaceship? The basic tools of the rocket trade have been refined over the course of nearly nine decades, but there’s only so far the physics will take us. If we ever want to send anything to another star system, as described in Kim Stanley Robinson’s newly published book“Aurora,” we’ll have to come up with new technologies.

Some of those technologies were laid out at Sasquan, the world science-fiction convention playing out this week in Spokane, during a session on the art and science of spaceships. And it turns out many of those technologies have a Seattle spin. Get a quick rundown on six research areas, with links to the local connections.

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