Astronomy Rewind: November 2019

The Fastest Star Ever, Oxygen On Mars, Cartosat-3 Launch, And More!

“Mortal as I am, I know that I am born for a day, but when I follow the serried multitude of the stars in their circular course, my feet no longer touch the earth; I ascend to Zeus himself to feast me on ambrosia, the food of the gods.”

— Ptolemy, Astronomer

To find answers about Earth, we look to space. Last month, we may have found yet another clue to the origin of life. Japanese and American researchers uncovered evidence of ribose (a sugar essential for the formation of life) in meteorites. Their results show that the sugar was formed around the time of the early solar system. Meteorites carrying sugar molecules may have nudged the creation of RNA, setting the formation of life in motion. That’s not the only big news in recent times. From finding a Neptune-sized exoplanet (orbiting a nearby star) to observing a star-spawning black hole, it has been a remarkable month for space enthusiasts.

With all these intriguing discoveries at hand, we enter the last month of the decade. In this edition of Rewind, join us as we look back on an eventful November.

Top Highlights

➼ The Tryst Between Anti-matter and Dark Matter

3-D map of the large-scale distribution of dark matter, reconstructed from measurements of weak gravitational lensing with the Hubble Space Telescope

Everything you see isn’t everything that exists. The two most mysterious terms akin to this in physics are undoubtedly antimatter and dark matter. They are what we cling to, for help in figuring out the universe. So far, we have very limited knowledge about them. We are also unsure about how much we don’t know.

At the time of the Bigbang, there should have been equal amounts of matter and antimatter, but the universe that we observe today hardly has any antimatter in it. Where did it all go? Nobody knows. Coming to dark matter, we do know that it must exist, but what it exactly is, remains a question mark.

Have you ever wondered if there could be any connection between these two mysterious entities?

According to some predictions, our estimate of the matter contained in the universe is off by a whopping factor: nine orders of magnitude. Since matter and antimatter annihilate each other, analyzing antimatter is a difficult task. The elusive nature of dark matter doesn’t lend itself well to study either.

In November, researchers from the RIKEN Cluster for Pioneering Research tested speculation they had regarding a connection between antimatter and dark matter. They trapped an antiproton in a magnetic field so that it would not be annihilated. They measured its spin precession frequency and attributed any changes in it to dark matter particles. In the future, they plan to increase the accuracy of these measurements to better observe and understand dark matter.

Could there be a chance that antimatter interacts differently with dark matter? This, in fact, might hold an important clue in this universal puzzle.

To know more, visit-

➼ Meet The Fastest Star In The Milky Way

An artist’s depiction of a hypervelocity star, US 708 (the blue star on the left). Credit: ESA/Hubble, NASA, S. Geierhttp://www.keckobservatory.org/images/made/images/press_images/us708_sn_1800_1315.jpeg -

How fast is too fast, enough to escape our home galaxy?

Did you know that if you throw an object up at a speed of 11.186 km/s, it will reach outer space? That’s the escape velocity of Earth. If you want that same object to cross the solar system itself, you need to toss it at about 42.1 km/s.

What if you want to get out of the Milky Way? Assistant Professor, Sergey Koposov from Carnegie Mellon University discovered a star that is travelling at such speeds (in fact, the fastest to date). Sweeping through space at about 1,755 km/s, S5-HVS1 is about 29,000 light-years from Earth. Such unusual stars are often referred to as hypervelocity stars. For a quick comparison, the Sun travels at “just” about 200 Km/s with respect to the galactic centre.

Why are they so fast? The answer can be estimated by simply tracing back the path to understand its history and whereabouts, which in this case, led us to the supermassive black hole at the centre of our galaxy. The theory goes that, stars attain such high speeds by getting ejected from a binary system by a black hole, while the other star goes into orbit around the black hole itself. This is known as the hills mechanism, and the latest discovery appears to proves the same.

To read more, visit-

➼ What Happens To Your Heart When You Go To Space?

Figure 1 (From the referenced research paper). Evaluating the Effects of Spaceflight on hiPSC-CM Structure and Function

Alan Shepard spent 15 minutes in space in 1971. By the end of 2019, Valeri Polyakov spent more than 437 days aboard the Mir space station. As we foray into space for increasing lengths of time, scientists are curious to know the impact it has on the human body. Previous studies in this regard measured the effect of space travel on the heart. Scientists noted that a person’s heart rate and arterial pressure dropped during their stay in space.

In a paper published in November, researchers from the Stanford University School of Medicine examined human heart cells, cultured from stem cells in the International Space Station. These cells showed remarkable ability to adapt, as they underwent several changes in gene expression, with their mitochondria and beating capacity being the most strongly affected parameters. Even more notable is the fact that upon return to Earth, these cells adapted to their new environment and took on more familiar gene expressions. This opens up several possibilities on the changes to astronauts’ heart health over extended stays in space and helps us be better equipped to handle them.

As of the current understanding, the Human heart appears pretty robust in adaptation to extreme changes in gravity.

To know more, visit-

➼ Oxygen On Mars?

Credits: Melissa Trainer/Dan Gallagher/NASA Goddard

Mars and methane have an obscure history. The levels of methane in the martian atmosphere baffled scientists for years, but this new discovery came out of the syllabus. The existence of Oxygen on Mars may sound like an ideal plot for a science fiction movie, but the truth is, it’s always been there, in minute amounts.

The air above the Gale crater, where the Curiosity rover is, consists of about 0.16% of molecular oxygen. Like in the case of methane, the puzzle here is the anomalous changes in its levels, which can’t yet be explained by any known process.

As you can see in the graph above, in summer, the levels rose more than predicted, and in winter, they were lower than expected. What’s creating this extra oxygen? It’s just another chapter added to the mysteries of mars.

In the words of Melissa Trainer, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, “This is the first time where we’re seeing this interesting behavior over multiple years. We don’t totally understand it. For me, this is an open call to all the smart people out there who are interested in this: See what you can come up with.”

To know more, check out the following paper, Seasonal Variations in Atmospheric Composition as Measured in Gale Crater, Mars.

Mission Updates

Space research centers across the globe have been buzzing with activities over the last 30 days. There were some historic launches, breathtaking telescopic observations and more. Here are some fascinating ones to know-

  • What did ESA’s LISA Pathfinder accomplish? The first steps towards building a future space-based gravitational wave observatory! If this intrigues you, find out more in this short video.
  • It’s been more than a year since Voyager 2 left the heliosphere to enter the interstellar space, the second spacecraft to ever do so, and it continues to communicate with Earth to this day. Recently, five new research papers were published detailing Voyager’s observations since its miraculous crossing. If you want to know the conditions of space beyond the solar system, you should definitely check them out!
  • Remember the New Year of 2019? While the entire world was in celebrations, scientists at NASA, and space enthusiasts across the globe stay put with tension and curiosity, awaiting the return of data from one of humanity’s farthest explorer, New Horizons, as it flew past the object MU69 in the Kuiper belt, at a whopping 6.6 billion km from Earth. Nicknamed as ‘Ultima Thule’ back then, it now got an official name, Arrokoth, meaning sky in a native American language.
Composite image of primordial contact binary Kuiper Belt Object 2014 MU69 from New Horizons Spacecraft Data
  • Coming to India, on November 27, ISRO successfully launched PSLV-C47, which put the satellite Cartosat-3 into orbit, along with a few other nano-satellites from the United States.

Eye Candy

This recent picture from Hubble shows a galaxy nicknamed the Sunburst Arc that has been split into a kaleidoscope illusion of no fewer than 12 images formed by a massive foreground cluster of galaxies 4.6 billion light-years away. Credits: NASA, ESA and E. Rivera-Thorsen (Institute of Theoretical Astrophysics Oslo, Norway)

Bonus News

Are we alone in this universe?’

The ultimate question humanity has pursued since forever now. New research throws better light on where exactly to look for life elsewhere.

For a deeper understanding, you can refer to this article, previously published on Nakshatra-

The Dance Of Avoidance

Neptune Moon Dance: This animation illustrates how the odd orbits of Neptune’s inner moons Naiad and Thalassa enable them to avoid each other as they race around the planet. Credits: Jet Propulsion Laboratory, NASA

We are all familiar with the circular or elliptical orbits, but ever seen a moon like this? Naiad is a one of a kind moon of Neptune, that gracefully dances around its host. To know about how this came to be, visit-

Winter is here, and as the temperatures drop, the sky presents a great opportunity for stargazing. Mark your calendars for December 26 for the Annular Solar Eclipse, which will be visible from several parts of southern India including the city of Tiruchirappalli where our club is located at. Stay tuned for interesting updates as we cover this event in detail.

Before we end this article, Happy Thanksgiving from all of us at Nakshatra, and from the Astronauts of expedition 61 from the International Space Station!

This article was co-authored by unexpected-patronus of Nakshatra, NIT Trichy.

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