NASA Announces Partnership with Boeing and SpaceX
Every single person who has ever launched into space has done it at the hands of a government agency: NASA, Roscosmos, and most recently, the Chinese National Space Administration. Of late, however, there has been a very noticeable dearth of launches from the United States. As the Shuttle program shut down, there was no new craft for the USA to use, and as a result they have been purchasing flights aboard the Russian Soyuz craft. This is limiting in many ways: it’s expensive, only 3 astronauts/cosmonauts can go at a time, subject to political strain. The United States needs a new launch system to get their astronauts to the Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and further. On 16 September 2014, NASA announced how they’re going to do that: by contracting two private American companies to do it for them. The two winners of the $6.8 billion competition were Boeing (with its CTS-100 capsule), and SpaceX (with its Dragon capsule). This decision marks a pivotal turning point in human history. This is the point where private industry became a part of human space flight.
MAVEN and MOM arrive at Mars
Mars needs MOM. Two satellites, MAVEN of the University of Colorado, USA, and MOM, of the Indian Space Research Organization, launched in November of 2013 on a 10 month trek to the red planet. They launched so close together, because in order to get to Mars in the most efficient way, engineers must launch when the planets are lining up properly. Waiting for the window, there can be a backlog of missions. As a result, both of the Mars-orbiters-to-be will be inserting into Martian orbit over the next 5 days: MAVEN on 21 September 2014, MOM on 24 September 2014. Both orbiters will be attempting to better understand the atmosphere of Mars. Specifically, MAVEN will be looking at how the Sun’s interaction with the Martian atmosphere leads to loss of volatile chemicals (such as carbon dioxide, nitrogen gas, and water). The MOM orbiter from India is more of a wayfinding mission. This is the first interplanetary mission India has ever attempted, and is meant to be a demonstration of the technology required to successfully insert into Martian orbit. Nevertheless, MOM carries with it atmospheric instruments, and ground imaging cameras.
Fat black hole in a little Galaxy
There are two kind of black holes in the Universe: super massive black holes (SMBH, weighing at millions or billions of solar masses) and stellar mass black holes (weighing at 10s to 100s of solar masses). A long held belief by astronomers is that most, if not all, large and well established galaxies would contain a SMBH at their centres. In many cases, we have direct evidence for the existence of SMBHs (see this video of stars orbiting the Milky Way’s SMBH, and this wikipedia list); by extension the assumption is that many major galaxies also house a similar object. Comparing the mass of the SMBH at the centre to the mass of the host galaxy, a relationship has been noticed, wherein the bigger the galaxy the bigger the SMBH. Typically, the mass of the SMBH would be 1% or less the mass of the galaxy (though there are some serious outliers to that relationship). It was unknown if any smaller or dwarf galaxies could harbour such a massive black hole.
A recent study using the Gemini Observatory has looked at the Ultra Compact Dwarf galaxy M60-UCD1. Astronomers suspected there to be an SMBH to be present, given to the unusual X-ray activity at the core. By measuring the speed at which stars at the centre of the dwarf galaxy orbit the centre, they were able to measure the mass of the object they’re orbiting. It weighs in at 21 million times the mass of the Sun, which is 5 times larger than the Milky Way’s SMBH. What makes that surprising is the dwarf galaxy is much smaller than the MW, both in size and mass. The dwarfs SMBH is 18% the mass of the host galaxy. The astronomers suspect it’s large mass compared to it’s host is likely because the dwarf galaxy was much bigger in the past, but has been stripped of most of its matter during an interaction with nearby major galaxy M60.