When isolated stars like our Sun reach the end of their lives, they’re expected to blow off their outer layers in a roughly spherical configuration: a planetary nebula. But the most spectacular bubbles don’t come from gas-and-plasma getting expelled into otherwise empty space, but from young, hot stars whose radiation pushes against the gaseous nebulae in which they were born. While most of our Sun’s energy is found in the visible part of the spectrum, more massive stars burn at hotter temperatures, producing more ionizing, ultraviolet light, and also at higher luminosities. A star some 40-45 times the mass of the Sun, for example, might emit energy at a rate hundreds of thousands of times as great as our own star.
If you want to collect data with a variety of instruments over an entire planet as quickly as possible, there are two trade-offs you have to consider: how far away you are from the world in question, and what orientation and direction you choose to orbit it. For a single satellite, the best of all worlds comes from a low-Earth polar orbit, which does all of the following:
The farther away you look in the distant universe, the harder it is to see what’s out there. This isn’t simply because more distant objects appear fainter, although that’s true. It isn’t because the universe is expanding, and so the light has farther to go before it reaches you, although that’s true, too. The reality is that if you built the largest optical telescope you could imagine — even one that was the size of an entire planet — you still wouldn’t see the new cosmic record-holder that Hubble just discovered: galaxy GN-z11, whose light traveled for 13.4 billion years, or 97% the age of the universe, before finally reaching our eyes.
Imagine a world very different from our own: permanently shrouded in clouds, where the sky was never seen. Never had anyone see the Sun, the Moon, the stars or planets, until one night, a single bright object shone through. Imagine that you saw not only a bright point of light against a dark backdrop of sky, but that you could see a banded structure, a ringed system around it and perhaps even a bright satellite: a moon. That’s the magnitude of what LIGO (the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory) saw, when it directly detected gravitational waves for the first time.
When you think about the new stars forming in the Milky Way, you probably think of the giant star-forming regions like the Orion Nebula, containing thousands of new stars with light so bright it’s visible to the naked eye. At over 400 parsecs (1,300 light years) distant, it’s one of the most spectacular sights in the night sky, and the vast majority of the light from galaxies originates from nebulae like this one. But its great luminosity and relative proximity makes it easy to overlook the fact that there are a slew of much closer star-forming regions than the Orion Nebula; they’re just much, much fainter.
Our greatest, largest-scale surveys of the universe have given us an unprecedented view of cosmic structure extending for tens of billions of light years. With the combined effects of normal matter, dark matter, dark energy, neutrinos and radiation all affecting how matter clumps, collapses and separates over time, the great cosmic web we see is in tremendous agreement with our best theories: the Big Bang and General Relativity. Yet this understanding was only possible because of the pioneering work of Edwin Hubble, who identified a large number of galaxies outside of our own, correctly measured their distance (following the work of Vesto Slipher’s work measuring their redshifts), and discovered the expanding universe.
One hundred years ago, Albert Einstein first put forth his theory of General Relativity, which laid out the relationship between spacetime and the matter and energy present within it. While it successfully recovered Newtonian gravity and predicted the additional precession of Mercury’s orbit, the only exact solution that Einstein himself discovered was the trivial one: that for completely empty space. Less than two months after releasing his theory, however, the German scientist Karl Schwarzschild provided a true exact solution, that of a massive, infinitely dense object, a black hole.
Of all the planets in the solar system other than our own, Mars is the one place with the most Earth-like past. Geological features on the surface such as dried up riverbeds, sedimentary patterns, mineral spherules nicknamed “blueberries,” and evidence of liquid-based erosion all tell the same story: that of a wet, watery past. But although we’ve found plenty of evidence for molecular water on Mars in the solid (ice) and gaseous (vapor) states, including in icecaps, clouds and subsurface ices exposed (and sublimated) by digging, that in no way meant there’d be water in its liquid phase today.
The moon represents perhaps the first great paradox of the night sky in all of human history. While its angular size is easy to measure with the unaided eye from any location on Earth, ranging from 29.38 arc-minutes (0.4897°) to 33.53 arc-minutes (0.5588°) as it orbits our world in an ellipse, that doesn’t tell us its physical size. From its angular size alone, the moon could just as easily be close and small as it could be distant and enormous.