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India's attempt to land on the Moon resulted in a loss of contact with the Vikram lander.


An artist's conception of Chandrayaan 2 with the Vikram lander in orbit around the Moon.

It wasn't meant to be. After a six-week journey, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) lost contact with Chandrayaan 2's Vikram lander shortly before it was supposed to have touched down on the lunar surface. The Moon landing was set to occur on September 6th at 20:22 UT / 4:22 p.m. EDT. Vikram (Sanskrit for "valor") separated from the Chandrayaan 2 orbiter on September 2th at 7:45 UT for a four-day descent that would take it 62 miles (100 kilometers) down to the lunar surface.

"India is proud of our scientists!" says India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Twitter. "They've given their best and have always made India proud. These are moments to be courageous, and courageous we will be!"

The landing attempt occurred on a plain near the lunar south pole on the nearside of the Moon, between the Manzinus C and Simpelius N craters. The site is located near -71°S, and a successful touchdown would have made it the closest soft landing near a lunar pole to date. China's Chang'e 4 mission landed near -47°S latitude on January 3rd.

Long-lived, string-shaped groups of stars align with the Milky Way’s spiral arms — and they may provide clues to what those arms looked like long ago.

Astronomers have identified thousands of stellar groups within 3,000 light-years of the Sun. But the 3D map they created resembles a tangle of yarn more than it does a field of stars.

That’s because hundreds of the groups they discovered appear to be filamentary, thread-like structures. These threads of stars may trace the evolution of the Milky Ways’ spiral arms, Marina Kounkel (Western Washington University) and colleagues explain in the August 23rd Astronomical Journal.

This diagram shows a face-on view of stellar groups – clusters (dots) and co-moving groups (thick lines) of stars – within 3,000 light-years of the Sun (located at the center of the image).
Courtesy of M. Kounkel & K. Covey (2019)

Machines Pull the Strings

Kounkel and her colleagues started with 20 million stars for which the European Space Agency’s Gaia satellite had measured positions on the sky and distances from Earth, as well as velocities toward or away from Earth. The researchers used a type of artificial intelligence called unsupervisedmachine learning to sort through the immense amount of data, determining whether and how these stars are clustered.

A rash of unusually colorful sunsets follows in the wake of two major volcanic eruptions. 

Raikoke blows its top

Astronauts on the International Space Station photographed the Raikoke volcano eruption on the Kuril Islands on June 22nd. The blast shot plumes of volcanic ash and sulfurous aerosols into the stratosphere, causing the recent colorful sunsets.

Several evenings ago I noticed an intense purple-pink glow in the western sky about 15 minutes past sunset. I hadn’t seen that color in a long, long time.  Could a volcanic eruption be the cause? Volcanoes are known to seed the stratosphere with ash that intensifies sunset colors.

Checking, I learned that the Raikoke volcano in the Kuril Islands and the Ulawun volcano in Papua New Guinea each had blasted gases and dust more than 18 km (11 miles) high on June 22nd and August 3rd, respectively — high enough to penetrate the stratosphere. My hunch proved correct!

Air molecules, along with the tiniest dust particles and some aerosols, scatter blue and violet light from the Sun's white light to color the sky blue. Violet is scattered the most, and if our eyes were as sensitive to this color as they are to blue, the daytime sky would lean toward violet.

A hot Jupiter is on the verge of falling into its host star.

Hot Jupiter

This artist’s view shows a hot Jupiter exoplanet in a tight orbit around its parent star.
NASA / JPL-Caltech

A mere 3 million years from now — a cosmic eye-blink away — the star WASP 12 might consume its exoplanet WASP-12b. According to Joshua Winn (Princeton University), it looks like astronomers are actually witnessing the enigmatic hot Jupiter as it slowly but steadily spirals inward. Winn presented the latest results on the planet’s apparent orbital decay on August 20th at the 4th Extreme Solar Systems conference in Reykjavik, Iceland.

WASP-12b is a puffed-up gas giant, transiting its Sun-like star every 1.1 days from a distance of just 0.02 astronomical units (a.u.), about nine times the Earth-moon distance. In 2017, a team led by Kishore Patra (University of California at Berkeley) announced that the planet’s orbit appears to be shrinking: The time intervals between successive transits across its parent star decrease by 29 milliseconds per year. So, since its discovery in 2008, the orbital period seems to have shortened by 0.3 seconds. Now, new evidence supports the idea that we’re viewing the last stage of this planet’s existence.

The Fate of Hot Jupiters

Download September's Sky Tour astronomy podcast for tips on observing Jupiter, Saturn, and the easy-to-spot Summer Triangle.

This episode is sponsored by Celestron, manufacturer of high-quality telescopes and an industry leader in developing exciting optical products with revolutionary technologies.


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This month's Sky Tour let's you celebrate the equinox; get the backstory on this month's Harvest Moon; check in with Venus, Jupiter, and Saturn; and explore the Summer Triangle.

On this month's equinox (September 23rd at 3:50 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time), the Sun shines directly down on Earth’s equator as it heads south in declination. Equinox comes from the Latin word aequinoctium, meaning “equal nights” — days and nights everywhere are both 12 hours long.

Harvest Moon Sept 2019

This month's full Moon is called the "Harvest Moon" because it appears low in the eastern sky at the same time on several consecutive evenings.