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October 2018: Monsters in the Studio

October 2018

In the show this time, we talk to Dr. Tony Irving about finding and studying Martian meteorites, Emma Alexander rounds up the latest news, and we find out what we can see in the October night sky from Ian Morison and Haritina Mogosanu.

The News

In the news this months: successful landings on an asteroid, matter falling into a black hole at nearly a third of the speed of light, and the Breakthrough prize awarded to the discoverer of pulsars, Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell.

Firstly, JAXA, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, has successfully landed rovers on the asteroid Ryugu as part of its Hayabusa 2 mission. We discussed this as an Odd & End in the previous episode, but we're happy to report that things have progressed and gone smoothly since then. On the 21st of September, two rovers MINERVA-II 1 A and B were released onto Ryugu's surface. They have been designed to 'hop' across the low-gravity environment of the asteroid's surface, and are carrying cameras and a thermometer. We already have some incredible dynamic shots from the rovers as they hop across the surface.

Another lander has now successfully touched down, as of recording on the 3rd of October. MASCOT, the Mobile Asteroid Surface Scout, has already started to gather data from its instruments, which consist of a camera, a radiometer, a spectrometer and a magnetometer. However, by the time you've listened to this, MASCOT will be no more. Its battery is expected to die 16 hours after touchdown.

Eventually, Hayabusa 2 will collect samples from the asteroid, with the aim of bringing them back to Earth to be studied. The aim is for the spacecraft to depart in December next year, and they should be home in 2020. Studying asteroids can help us understand the formation of our Solar System, including the origin and evolution of Earth. They are essentially leftover building materials from the formation of the Solar System 4.6 billion years ago and offer us an insight into how it might have been back then.

Next up, we have some extreme physics and super speeds. A clump of matter has recently been spotted falling directly into a black hole at almost 90,000 km a second. This is nearly a third of the speed of light! The observations were made with the European Space Agency's XMM Newton X-Ray observatory, which is in orbit around the Earth. The supermassive black hole has a mass 40 million times that of the Sun, and is located in a galaxy around one billion light years away. Astronomers watched the clump of matter fall into the black hole over the course of a day, by looking at the different wavelengths of X-Rays emitted by the material surrounding the black hole. The falling matter was notable for not having any rotation, which is usually to be expected from the rotation of accretion disks around black holes. Accretion disks consist of the matter falling into the black hole. As the matter moves closer into the black hole, its gravitational potential energy is converted into observable radiation. The study, which is published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, may be the first direct evidence for chaotic accretion in such a system.

And finally, some news on recent prize winners. Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell has won the $3-million Breakthrough Prize for her discovery of pulsars, which are highly magnetised, rapidly rotating neutron stars that emit pulses of radio emission. The original discovery 50 years ago arose from her meticulous work on quasars – in fact, pulsars only made their way into the appendix of her thesis! The Prize was awarded for both her scientific achievements in this field and her "inspiring leadership” over the past five decades. The Breakthrough prizes, launched in 2012, are funded by entrepreneurs and are awarded in fundamental physics, life sciences and mathematics. They are usually handed out in December, based on selections made after an open nomination process. But the selection committee can decide to make special awards, bypassing the standard nomination procedure, to those they deem particularly deserving – which in the past has included the likes of Stephen Hawking and the LIGO gravitational wave collaboration.

Professor Bell Burnell's discovery of pulsars was also awarded the 1974 Nobel prize in Physics, but only her supervisor was recognised. Up until this year, only two women have ever been awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics: Marie Curie and Maria Gopper-Mayer. That has now changed as of this month: Donna Strickland shares the 2018 prize with Arthur Ashkin and Gerard Mourou, for their discoveries in laser physics. So congratulations all round!

Interview with Dr. Tony Irving

A geologist by trade, Dr. Tony Irving (University of Washington) is well-placed to study the growing number of lunar and Martian meteorites known to science. We discuss how such objects are found here on Earth, what secrets can be uncovered by studying them, and what future Moon and Mars missions might entail for meteoritical science.

The Night Sky

Northern Hemisphere

Ian Morison tells us what we can see in the Northern Hemisphere night sky during October 2018.

The Planets

Southern Hemisphere

We welcome back a familiar voice for our long-term listeners - Haritina Mogosanu from the Carter Research Center in New Zealand speaks about the Southern Hemisphere night sky during October 2018.

Southern Hemisphere

  • Introduction.

    Welcome to October, this is the New Zealand Night Sky and I am Haritina Mogosanu from Space Place at Carter Observatory. It's great to be back on the Jodcast with more stories and wonders of the southern hemisphere's sky.

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