This Week In Space
Welcome to This Week In Space (TWIS), a weekly roundup of the most important space-related news stories on the planet.
Elon Musk Reveals Prototype Starship Illustration On Twitter
SpaceX founder Elon Musk, via Twitter, posted an illustration of what his Mars-bound Starship will look like when completed. A real-life “test hopper” version of Starship is currently under construction in Southern Texas.
Originally called the BFR (Big Falcon Rocket), Musk announced a name change to the second stage rocket component in November 2018 to Starship. The first stage booster will be called ‘Super Heavy’. Starship is meant to eventually replace all current SpaceX launch vehicles and will function as a multi-purpose space transport system, including destination to Mars.
Elon Musk informed a curious Twitter user that test flights with the Starship hopper will begin within four to eight weeks.
Update: it appears that the construction of the Starship test hopper is now complete. Elon Musk shared images of the test vehicle on Twitter at the end of the week.
Citizen Scientists Discover Potentially Habitable Exoplanet
Using data from NASA’s famous Kepler and K2 planet-hunting missions, scientists were able to discover a new exoplanet orbiting its star’s habitable zone. This new planet, named K2-288Bb, is located 226 light-years away in the constellation Taurus.
K2-288Bb’s existence was originally proposed after NASA scientists noticed two recorded transits of the planet using Kepler data. Unfortunately, confirming the existence of an exoplanet with this method requires three recorded transits.
During Kepler’s initial planet-hunting mission in 2013, a catastrophic mechanical failure resulted in the need for NASA engineers to concoct an alternative way to finish out the mission. Thus, the K2 leg of the Kepler mission was born.
Realizing that there was an untapped trove of exoplanet data to scrutinize from the K2 mission, NASA scientists uploaded the data to a database for citizen scientists to play around with. In an amazing demonstration of the power of crowd-sourcing science to the general public, citizen scientists were able to find the third transit of K2-288Bb and confirm its existence.
Even more noteworthy is the nature of the planet itself. Not only does it exist within the habitable zone of its parent star, but it also fits the size classification of a rare breed of planets known as the ‘Fulton gap’, a group of planets which are about 1.5 to 2 times the of Earth. This is uncommon for planets within a certain range of a parent star.
White Dwarf Stars Turn Into Crystals
Based on observations by the European Space Agency’s Gaia space telescope, astronomers were able to confirm a 50-year-old study which proposed that certain stars eventually turn into white, glowing crystal spheres in space.
White Dwarfs are a classification of stars that form when Red Giant stars run out of fuel from fusion energy and begin shedding layers of their atmosphere. This is how many nebulae are formed. In other words, a White Dwarf star is the core-remnant of a dying Red Giant star.
After studying 15,000 White Dwarf stars within a 300 light year radius of Earth, scientists discovered oddities in the color and luminosity of these stars that led researchers to go back and compare them to current models of stellar evolution. What they found is that while discarding excess heat, White Dwarfs enter a period of phase transition, where the oxygen and carbon in their atmospheres change from liquid to a solid crystal lattice state. As these stars transition into their crystallized form, they also slow down their aging process considerably, meaning that White Dwarfs are actually as much as two billion years older than previously thought.
What this study proves is that all White Dwarfs will become glowing, white-hot crystal spheres in the sky at some point in their lifespan. What’s more, it turns out that the star at the center of our very own solar system, the Sun, will eventually become a crystallized White Dwarf as well, in about 10 billion years.