The more we study it, the universe continues to become curiouser and curiouser, and the last few weeks have been no exception: X marks the center of the galaxy; one of Saturn’s rings was broken; and NASA plans to destroy Juno space probe — to protect aliens?
Astronomers at the Max Planck Institute and the University of Toronto have verified the existence of an extremely large X-shaped arrangement of stars at the center of the Milky Way galaxy, a structure that was hinted at by previous observations of other galaxies and computer models. From Earth’s point of view, the galaxy’s central bulge of millions of stars looks like a peanut shape, with the X-structure being an integral part of this.
"The shape of the bulge tells us about how it has formed. We see the X-shape and boxy morphology so clearly in the WISE image and this demonstrates that internal formation processes have been the ones driving the bulge formation," explains Melissa Ness, with the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy.
Saturn’s outermost ring, the F Ring, was recently broken by an unknown object. Continually re-shaped by its shepherd moon, Prometheus, the thin ring is a dynamic environment, providing researchers an ever-changing feature to study. But a small object caused the ring to break outright, interrupting its otherwise continuous, albeit vaguely serpentine, circumference of the planet. The object is suspected to have been part of the core of the ring itself, and its interaction with other material within the ring caused teh breakage.
"There’s good evidence that there’s a lot of these sized bodies in the core of the ring itself, but you can’t normally see them because they’re covered by the dust cloud around them," explains John Weiss, a planetary ring expert with Washington State’s St. Martin’s University. "But they’re in there, and every so often move across the ring space and blow a bunch of those dust particles out. This one was traveling faster than [3 feet (0.9 meters)] per second."
The incident is suspected to have occurred just a few days before the image of the breakage was taken, on April 8. Since then, the gap in the ring has closed, with the remaining material settling back into its usual equilibrium.
And last, but certainly not least, we look to Jupiter, where the Juno space probe, having recently entered orbit there, is scheduled to only make 37 orbits around the giant planet. Although this mightn’t sound like much, each of these orbits lasts 2 weeks — Jupiter is a big planet, after all — giving it nearly another year and a half left to gather data. At the end of it’s mission, NASA plans to de-orbit the spacecraft, causing it to burn up in Jupiter’s atmosphere.
The reason: to protect potential alien life that might exist on Jupiter’s moons from Earth-borne microbial contamination that might be present on the space probe. Scientists consider the Jovian moon Europa to be an excellent candidate for finding life, and want to avoid accidentally wiping it out with a foreign organaism before they have a chance to discover it.