Alt-week takes a look at the best science and alternative tech stories from the last seven days.
If this week's gaggle of science news gives you a neck ache, we apologize. That's because we're fully up amongst the stars, with three different tales of astronomic endeavor. Water-bearing space rubble, satellite sling-shots and lonely planets, to be precise. This is alt-week.
When NASA launched Juno from the Atlas V rocket in 2011, it meant the beginning of a five-year journey to our next-but-one planetary neighbor. So, here in 2013, you'd think it'd be well on its way? Well, it is. But, it might surprise you to find out that three days ago it was just 347 miles from Earth. That's less than the distance between Boston and Baltimore. As you might have figured out, it's not actually taking its sweet time, it's already been out past Mars, at which point engines were deployed to send it back this way. Juno will use Earth's gravity to "slingshot" itself back out towards the gas giant, increasing its velocity by 16,330 miles per hour as it does so. The journey is actually past its halfway point, with estimates pegging July 4, 2016 as the arrival date. Plenty of time to work through the in-flight movie collection, then.
Water: it's widely believed to be the universal key for life. As such, the hunt for signs of any beyond our planet has, in many ways, primarily been a hunt for the wet stuff. News, then, that a white dwarf star 170 light years away once hosted a rocky body or asteroid that was between 26 and 28 percent water by volume has shone a fresh light onto the ongoing hunt for extraterrestrial life. The host star -- GD61 -- has long since caused the demise of whatever the water-bearing rock was, thanks to its transition to white dwarf likely causing its enlarged gravitational pull to swallow it up. Traces of oxygen were observed in layers of pollution surrounding GD61, which was jointly observed by the Hubble Telescope and a telescope at the W.M. Keck Observatory. Once the scientists ruled out their first likely source -- carbon dioxide -- they were left with the only other "viable" origins -- water. The Smithsonian reminds us this is even more significant as it's the first time water has been found on a rocky (rather than gassy) body beyond our solar system. So, while there's no chance of finding any proof of life, the fact that the key building blocks could have been there is a still a big deal.
If 170 light years is a little too far for your tastes, how about a rogue world, loose in interstellar space, a "mere" 80 light years away? This is no tumbling asteroid, either, with the renegade planet estimated to be approximately six times the size of Jupiter. PSO J318.5-22 -- as it's known in astronomical circles -- isn't orbiting a star, which is interesting enough in its own right, but it also makes it useful. The absence of a solar parent makes studying the gas giant all the easier due to the lack of "noise" a sun can create. Formed a "mere" 12 million years ago, PSO J318.5-22 was spotted by the Pan-STARRS 1 telescope in Maui. Michael Liu of the Institute for Astronomy at the University of Hawaii at Manoa explains that this is the first free-floating object discovered of its kind. The free-wheeling planet was actuality spotted during a hunt for cooler stars known as brown dwarfs. The giveaway was its extreme red color, much redder than any known brown dwarfs have ever been observed to be.
[Image credits: Mark A. Garlick, N. Metcalfe & Pan-STARRS 1 Science Consortium, NASA ]