Who will it be?
Image: mashable/Christopher Mineses

From the moment that SpaceX’s Elon Musk announced the company’s intention to send two unnamed people in a long loop around the moon in 2018, people started speculating about who those mystery passengers might be.

Musk didn’t give out many clues about the individuals who contracted the company for the flight, aside from saying that they put down a hefty deposit and they know each other.

However, that won’t stop us from wildly speculating about who the maybe famous and definitely rich folks flying to the moon with SpaceX might be.

Richard Branson

Yes, yes, its true that Richard Branson has his own commercial spaceflight program in Virgin Galactic and Virgin Orbit, but Virgin isnt aiming for the moon right now.

Therefore, this SpaceX offering wouldn’t be in direct competition with his own favorite space plans as of right now.

Branson is eccentric and daring enough to want to fly to the moon, so it would follow that he could be the one contracting SpaceX to fly him in a long loop above the lunar surface.

A hover test of the Dragon capsule built for crew.

Image: spacex/flickr

James Cameron

Even though Musk specifically said that the people contracting SpaceX to fly them to the moon aren’t from Hollywood, we’re still leaving Titanic director James Cameron on this list.

Cameron has been a space fan for a long while, and in 2011, it was reported that he shelled out more than $100 million for a flight around the moon with Space Adventures, a private firm that pairs would-be space tourists with their rides to orbit. He has yet to take his trip, so who knows, maybe he’s one of the people who’s opted to ride with SpaceX.

Cameron is also an adventurer who supports scientific inquiry. In 2012 he dove deep into the Mariana Trench, breaking a world record for the deepest solo dive in the process.

South Parkhas even made fun of his somewhat odd penchant for exploration, so this doesn’t seem outside of the realm of possibility for “the bravest pioneer.”

Random billionaires

In all likelihood, the people who already put down a deposit with SpaceX are probably folks we’ve never heard of.

In order to fly on a flight like this one, you basically just need a lot of expendable income millions and millions of dollars of it and a will to head out into the unknown. Plus, you probably need a lot of time on your hands for training and the like.

Don’t be surprised if Musk announces that a couple of CEOs for huge international corporations are the ones asking to head to the moon on this first flight.

NASA

Artist’s illustration of the Falcon Heavy rocket.

Image: spacex

Even though Musk said that a couple of private individuals were the ones contracting SpaceX for this flight, it’s still possible that NASA astronauts could be the first people to fly on SpaceX’s system.

Musk made it clear that if NASA wanted to take the flight profile for itself, then SpaceX would absolutely let them fly the first flight of the Dragon and Falcon Heavy bound for the moon.

SpaceX owes a lot to NASA, particularly because the space agency’s significant investments in the company have helped it stay afloat since its founding in 2002.

NASA already has an uncrewed mission to circumnavigate the moon on the books for 2018 or 2019, so it’s possible that the agency will want to cooperate with SpaceX on some kind of moon venture in the future.

Sergey Brin

Google co-founder and current president Sergey Brin might be one of the best guesses we have for the person heading to the moon with SpaceX.

Brin once put down some money with Space Adventures for a flight to the International Space Station, but he has yet to fly.

Brin is also involved with the Google Lunar X Prize, a competition designed to spark commercial development of the moon by awarding a $20 million prize to the first private company to fly to and land a spacecraft on the moon and perform a series of specific tasks.

Please just let one of them be a woman

The only people who have ever flown to the surface of the moon or its general vicinity have been men.

I’d say it’s about time a woman made it there, don’t you?

Read more: http://mashable.com/2017/03/05/spacex-moon-trip-elon-musk-passengers/

Artist's illustration of two neutron stars merging.
Image: nasa

Billions of years ago, two black holes merged in a violent explosion that rippled the fabric of our universe.

Those cosmic ripples known as gravitational waves produced by this collision spread far and wide in all directions, carrying with them information about the black holes that brought them into being.

In September 2015, that information made it to Earth. While these weren’t the first gravitational waves to reach our planet, they were the first we could observe.

Two powerful tools known as theLaser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatories (LIGO) were able to directly observe the gravitational waves sent out by the two black holes, opening up a new way for scientists to study the inner-workings of some of the most extreme objects in the universe.

Until now, scientists studying the cosmos were limited to just staring at our universe using different wavelengths of light.

Artist’s illustration of colliding black holes.

Image: LIGO

While this type of investigation has completely transformed our understanding of how stars, galaxies, planets and other objects work, it also has left us in the dark when trying to understand the inner lives of black holes and other exotic objects.

All of that is changing now, however.

In the not too distant future, scientists should be able to peer into the hearts of exploding stars, figure out how matter is changed within the hot, high-pressure center of a neutron star, and better characterize what a black hole really is all thanks to barely-detectable waves sent out to the far ends of the observable universe.

Being an astronomer right now, as gravitational wave science begins in earnest is “kind of the equivalent of being there when Galileo put together his first telescope,” scientist Edo Berger, who is involved in LIGO-related research, said in an interview.

A light turning on

The entire history of astronomy has hinged on studying the universe with light, but now, we have an entirely different way to peer out into the cosmos. It’s as if astronomy as we know it has gained a new sense.

Instead of trying to look directly at something like a black hole that doesn’t give off light, astronomers can now piece apart the “chirps” of gravitational waves to learn more about the masses, sizes and lives of the objects that created them.

“… Using gravitational waves we can probe environments that are enshrouded with a lot of matter which blocks our view,” Harvard University astronomer Avi Loeb said via email.

“For example, when a massive star collapses or when a neutron star gets swallowed by a stellar-mass black hole, or when two massive black holes coalesce while being surrounded by gas duringthe merger of two galaxies, we cannot easily probe the center of the action because it is hidden behind a veil of matter,” Loeb added.

“But gravitational waves can penetrate easily through matter and reveal the inner working of such engines. “

Image: Bob Al-greene/mashable

You can’t feel or see gravitational waves move through Earth’s part of space, but they do affect us nonetheless.

In fact, the signal discovered in September warped all of the matter on Earth including all of the matter in our bodies by just a fraction of a proton.

And that’s what LIGO had to measure. Both observatories one located in Louisiana, another in Washington recorded the moment the gravitational waves passed through Earth’s part of space at the same time.

The twin “L”-shaped observatories both have a laser that runs down each arm of the L to mirrors located at the end of the arms. If no gravitational waves pass through Earth, the lasers should each bounce back to the middle at precisely the same time, but if a wave were to pass through, that timing would be off.

This is because the matter around the laser stretches ever so slightly as the wave passes through, changing the length of the arms but not affecting the light itself.

“What LIGO had to do to detect the waves was to measure the motion of mirrors (due to the passing gravitational wave) that was smaller than a single proton,” LIGO researcher Nergis Mavalvala said.

“Imagine that, put mirrors 4km (2.5 miles) apart and watch them get closer or farther to each other by a distance one-one-thousandth the size of a proton.”

Discoveries already pouring in

Scientists have already analyzed data brought to Earth by the gravitational waves discovered in September, characterizing the black holes that created those ripples like never before.

A study published in June 2016 found that the two black holes which gave rise to the gravitational waves actually began their lives as massive stars orbiting one another.

Eventually, after millions of years in orbit around one another, the stars collapsed, forming two black holes about 30 times the mass of our sun. And one day, those black holes merged, rippling the fabric of space and time like a bowling ball spinning around on a bed sheet.

The authors of the study used data gathered by LIGO to create a computer model of the universe that would have given rise to the gravitational waves detected here on Earth billions of years after the black hole merger.

“The black holes were monsters, and the results show that their progenitor stars would have been some of the brightest and most massive in the universe,” physicist J.J. Eldridge wrote in a piece accompanying the study at the time.

Neutron stars and a new state of matter

LIGO should eventually do even more than reveal the secret lives of black holes as well.

In the future, astrophysicists are hoping to use gravitational wave tools to figure out what’s going on in the intensely hot, high pressure middle of a very mysterious class of stars known as neutron stars.

“You build an instrument for things you want to measure, and then you see things that you didn’t expect to see”

Neutron stars are more massive than the sun but packed down into an area the size of the city of Boston. These types of stars form when stars about four to eight times the size of our sun die.

The hearts of these stars might actually be so dense and high pressure, that they warp molecules into a totally different state of matter than what can be observed in labs on Earth.

“In this case, of course, it [the matter in a neutron star] exists in a state that we’re not familiar with from our own personal experience because we’ve never witnessed those kinds of pressures,” Berger said.

At the moment, LIGO isn’t able to easily detect neutron star mergers as they are somewhat less energetic than black hole collisions, but in the future it should be able to as its sensitivity advances, revealing the hearts of those dense objects.

Simulation of gravitational waves.

Image: NASA/C. HENZE

Gravitational wave science also has the ability to add to the already rich tapestry of science done by looking at light in the universe.

Some astronomers are already attempting to pinpoint the optical sources of gravitational waves to see if there’s any kind of light signal that goes along with mergers of black holes.

At the moment, LIGO isn’t very good at pinpointing exactly where a signal is coming from in the sky, so other technologies could be further developed to meet that challenge in the future, allowing scientists to gather precise data on the sources of gravitational waves, LIGO’s Mavalvala said.

And one day, LIGO and the host of new technology that will be produced around it may even hear a new signal that scientists can’t even imagine now.

“You build an instrument for things you want to measure, and then you see things that you didn’t expect to see,” Mavalvala said.

“I think that’s the true promise of these instruments.”

Watch black holes collide in VR

Take a VR journey through space and time in the latest episode of The Possible.Click here to download the Within app to watch The Possible.

BONUS: These scientists are proving Einstein wrong

Read more: http://mashable.com/2017/02/27/gravitational-waves-future-of-astronomy/

The full moon during a penumbral lunar eclipse in 2013.
Image: Hildenbrand/Epa/REX/Shutterstock

This weekend is set to start off with a cosmic bang.

On Friday night, the full moon will be eclipsed by the shadow of the Earth, and in the darkness of Saturday morning, just hours after the eclipse, a green-tinted comet will make its closest flyby of Earth.

This skywatching coincidence should make for an interesting start to the weekend for people around the world who are able to see both the comet and the eclipse.

First, an eclipse

The shadow of the Earth should start encroaching on the face of the moon’s surface starting at around 5:30 p.m. ET and lasting for 4.5 hours as the moon dips deep into Earth’s outer shadow known as the penumbra and comes back out again.

A diagram of how lunar eclipses work.

Image: Sky & Telescope illustration

If you have a view of the moon during that period of time, you should be able to see at least part of the penumbral eclipse.

The Friday eclipse won’t be like a dramatic total lunar eclipse, which can turn the moon a deep shade of red, but a penumbral eclipse is still beautiful in its subtlety.

“The outer part of Earths penumbra is so pale that you wont notice anything until the Moons edge has slid at least halfway in,” Alan MacRobert, a senior editor at Sky & Telescope magazine, said in a statement. “So start looking about 90 minutes before mid-eclipse.”

The shadow should start encroaching on the moon’s left side, slowing moving inward and then slowing moving in reverse as the moon comes out of its dip into Earth’s shadow.

A view of a penumbral eclipse in 2012.

Image: Hong Kong Space Museum/Sky & Telescope

“With time, the dusky shading will become more prominent, and as mid-eclipse approaches, the lopsidedness of the moons illumination will be totally obvious,” Sky & Telescope added in the statement.

The northern bit of the moon’s face should look slightly darker than the rest of the lunar surface, the magazine added, because it will be the bit closest to the deep shadow of the Earth, known as the umbra.

Then, a comet

Once the eclipse ends, the next bit of our cosmic weekend can start in earnest.

In the wee hours of Saturday morning, Comet 45P will make its closest approach with Earth, bringing it nearer to our planet than any other comet has been in about 30 years.

The comet won’t be visible with the naked eye, but if you have a pair of binoculars or even better a backyard telescope they should at least give you some sense of what this icy wanderer looks like.

During this close approach, Comet 45P will fly about 7.4 million miles from Earth.

“It’ll be visible in the morning sky in the constellation Hercules,” NASA said in a skywatching video. “The comet then passes through the constellations Corona Borealis (the Northern Crown), Botes (the Herdsman), Canes Venatici (Botes’ hunting dogs) and Ursa Major. Then on to Leo by the end of February.”

If you don’t catch the comet this time, don’t worry, you’ll have another chance to see it when it comes back around in 2022, according to NASA.

If you aren’t in a part of the world that affords you the ability to see the comet and lunar eclipse or if it’s cloudy in your area then the skywatching organization Slooh has you covered.

Slooh will air two live broadcasts to share live views of the comet and the lunar eclipse with expert commentary. The live eclipse broadcast will begin at 5:30 p.m. ET, with the comet show set for 10:30 p.m. ET on Slooh’s website.

Read more: http://mashable.com/2017/02/10/comet-lunar-eclipse-skywatching-weekend/