Exoplanet the size of Neptune 90-light years from Earth could have water vapor, researchers suggest - Godz
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Exoplanet the size of Neptune 90-light years from Earth could have water vapor, researchers suggest



A new Neptune-sized exoplanet with a ‘substantial atmosphere’ and the potential for water has been identified in deep space, according to a new study.

Known as TOI-1231 b, the exoplanet has a 24-day orbit around its star, TOI-1231, and could have an atmosphere similar to Neptune, given its size and density. 

There is also the potential for water vapor on the planet, which is 90 light-years from Earth, leaving scientists intrigued.

‘The low density of TOI-1231 b indicates that it is surrounded by a substantial atmosphere rather than being a rocky planet,’ said the study’s co-author, Diana Dragomir, an assistant professor in UNM’s Department of Physics and Astronomy, in a statement. ‘But the composition and extent of this atmosphere are unknown!’ 

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Dragomir continued: ‘TOI-1231 b could have a large hydrogen or hydrogen-helium atmosphere, or a denser water vapor atmosphere. Each of these would point to a different origin, allowing astronomers to understand whether and how planets form differently around M dwarfs when compared to the planets around our Sun, for example.’

M dwarfs are types of stars that are significantly smaller than the Sun, ranging between eight percent and 50 percent of its mass.  They are the most abundant class of stars. 

Researchers discovered a Neptune-sized exoplanet, known as TOI-1231 b, with a ‘substantial atmosphere’ and the potential for water

The exoplanet has a 24-day orbit around its star and could have an atmosphere similar to Neptune, given its size and density. There is also the potential for water vapor on the planet, which is 90 light-years from Earth 

Water vapor on TOI-1231 b may be a possibility, but it is still one of the coolest exoplanets discovered, with an expected temperature of 140 degrees Fahrenheit.

Previous studies have suggested that planets with a temperature like this could have clouds high in the atmospheres, but further research into the exoplanet K2-18 b shows there is the potential for water in the atmosphere.

‘TOI-1231 b is one of the only other planets we know of in a similar size and temperature range, so future observations of this new planet will let us determine just how common (or rare) it is for water clouds to form around these temperate worlds,’ said the study’s lead author, Jennifer Burt.

The exoplanet was discovered by NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) and later confirmed with the Planet Finder Spectrograph (PFS) on the Magellan Clay telescope at Las Campanas Observatory in Chile.

Burt said the researchers were able to measure the radius and mass of the planet, which allowed them to theorize it’s similar to Neptune in its composition.   

‘Those values in turn allowed us to calculate the planet’s bulk density and hypothesize about what the planet is made out of,’ Burt explained. 

‘TOI-1231 b is pretty similar in size and density to Neptune, so we think it has a similarly large, gaseous atmosphere.’

Scientists hope to further examine the planet’s atmosphere with the Hubble Space Telescope and the James Webb Telescope, set to launch later this year. 

‘This new planet we’ve discovered is still weird – but it’s one step closer to being somewhat like our neighborhood planets,’ Burt continued. ‘Compared to most transiting planets detected thus far, which often have scorching temperatures in the many hundreds or thousands of degrees, TOI-1231 b is positively frigid.’  

The study is set to be published in The Astronomical Journal, but a pre-print version can be read here

Last month, NASA delayed the launch of the $10 billion Hubble replacement because the rocket to launch it is not yet ready, among other reasons. 



NASA and partners plan to launch their next major space telescope later this year and it will serve as the natural successor to Hubble.

Primarily an infrared telescope, it will have a wider spectrum view than Hubble and operate further out from the Earth, in a solar orbit, rather than an Earth orbit. 

Research by Ohio State University claims that within five years of it coming online, James Webb will have found signs of alien life on a distant world.

Graduate student Caprice Phillips calculated that it could feasibly detect ammonia created by living creatures around gas dwarf planets after just a few orbits. 

The James Webb telescope has been described as a ‘time machine’ that could help unravel the secrets of our universe.

The telescope will be used to look back to the first galaxies born in the early universe more than 13.5 billion years ago.

It will also observe the sources of stars, exoplanets, and even the moons and planets of our solar system.

The James Webb Telescope and most of its instruments have an operating temperature of roughly 40 Kelvin.

This is about minus 387 Fahrenheit (minus 233 Celsius). 

Officials from the space agencies responsible for the telescope say the cost may exceed the $8 billion (£5.6 billion) program cap set by Congress.

NASA has already poured $7 billion (£5 billion) into the telescope since it was first proposed as a replacement for the long-running Hubble space telescope.

When it is launched in 2021, it will be the world’s biggest and most powerful telescope, capable of peering back 200 million years after the Big Bang.

James Webb is designed to last for five years but NASA hopes it will operate for a decade or more, although due to its distance from Earth it can’t be easily repaired.

It is 66ft by 46ft and will operate at the Sun-Earth Lagrange point about 930,000 miles from the Earth – almost four times further out than the moon. 

The telescope is set to launch on a European workhorse Ariane-5 rocket at the end of October 2021, with the first observations expected in 2022.


This post first appeared on The Sun

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SpaceX ignored warnings that SN8 blastoff in December might not be safe




Elon Musk‘s aerospace company SpaceX ignored at least two warnings from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that launch of its SN8 rocket last December might not be safe, leaked documents show. 

Warnings from the FAA were based on its launch-weather modelling software, according to the documents, which were seen by the Verge

If the rocket had exploded, its shockwave could be strengthened by weather conditions like wind speed and endanger nearby homes, the models suggested.  

But SpaceX ignored the warnings because it said the FAA’s software could be interfered with to provide ‘better or worse results for an identical scenario’. 

SpaceX went ahead with the launch, violating its launch license from the FAA in the process. SN8 ended up launching successfully but crash-landing in a ball of flames.  

Image shows SpaceX’s Starship SN8 rocket prototype taking off at the company’s Boca Chica, Texas facility during an attempted high-altitude launch test on December 9, 2020

According to the FAA, SpaceX ‘prioritised speed over safety’ with the launch, which took place at its Boca Chica, Texas testing facility at 5:45pm ET (10:45pm GMT) on December 9.

SpaceX’s violation of its launch license was ‘inconsistent with a strong safety culture,’ the FAA’s space division chief Wayne Monteith said in a letter to SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell. 

‘Although the report states that all SpaceX parties believed that such risk was sufficiently low to comply with regulatory criteria, SpaceX used analytical methods that appeared to be hastily developed to meet a launch window.’ 

SN8 soared straight up into the air for its first high-altitude flight and over the Gulf of Mexico before performing its in-flight manoeuvres 

SpaceX’s Starship SN8 rocket prototype crashing on landing at the company’s Boca Chica, Texas facility

Monteith also slammed SpaceX for proceeding with the launch based on ‘impressions’ and ‘assumptions’ rather than procedural checks.

The Verge adds: ‘FAA investigators couldn’t determine whether the SN8 license violation was intentional, according to people involved in and briefed on the investigation, speaking on the condition of anonymity.’

SpaceX didn’t end up receiving any penalties from the FAA and went on to launch its next prototype, SN9, in February. 

SN9 itself faced regulatory hurdles from the FAA, leading Musk to grumble that ‘humanity will never go to Mars’ if it were up to the agency. 

SpaceX is yet to reply to MailOnline’s request for comment regarding the report from the Verge on the SN8 launch. 

It’s not known the extent to which Elon Musk (pictured) made the final decisions leading up to the launch of SN8 on December 9


On May 5, SpaceX successfully launched and landed its Starship Serial Number 15 rocket.

It became the only one of its prototypes to survive a high altitude flight test.  

The prototype climbed through the sky until it reached six miles, hovered for a moment and then performed the infamous sideways flip, dubbed a ‘belly flop’ maneuver by Musk.

‘Starship landing nominal,’ Musk tweeted moments after his pride and joy made a safe and successful landing on the pad.

SN16 is set to launch later in June.


It is currently unclear what role Musk himself played in the decision to launch SN8. The billionaire founder and CEO of the firm is yet to publicly address the issue. 

SpaceX is planning to send humans to Mars using a two-stage spacecraft composed of Starship (the passenger-carrying section) and the Super Heavy rocket booster.

However, the firm has some work to do to finish the construction of the $216 million Starship, previously known as ‘BFR’, at SpaceX’s Texas development site. 

Starship SN8 – short for ‘serial number eight’ – was one of the several prototypes of its Starship rocket to be launched by the company.  

It successfully reached its goal of getting as high as 7.8 miles (41,000 feet), soaring out over the Gulf of Mexico. 

After about five minutes, it flipped sideways as planned and descended in a free-fall back to the southeastern tip of Texas near the Mexican border. 

The sideways flip, dubbed a ‘belly flop’ manoeuvre by Musk, was designed to mimic the technique Starship will use when returning through Earth’s atmosphere from space – presenting the ‘belly’ as it enters the atmosphere reduces the speed of descent as it approaches the ground.   

The rocket exploded the moment it hit the ground, leaving nothing behind but what remained of the craft’s nose cone, debris and a cloud of smoke.  

SN8 went up 7.8 miles, attempted a ‘belly flop’ in the air, turned back upright then aimed to land safely back at the testing facility in Texas but failed due to coming in too fast and crash landing

Musk, however, deemed the launch a success. He said that the prototype – even though it was destroyed – collected a trove of data that will bring SpaceX one step closer to sending humans to Mars.       

The full-scale, stainless steel prototype stood at 160 feet (50 meters) tall and was 30 feet (9 meters) in diameter. It was the first Starship prototype equipped with a nose cone, body flaps and three engines.

It was shooting for an altitude of up to eight miles (12.5 kilometres), which is almost 100 times higher than previous hops and skimming the stratosphere. 

The sideways flip, dubbed a ‘belly flop’ manoeuvre by Musk, was designed to mimic the technique Starship will use when returning through Earth’s atmosphere. Pictured, SN8

SpaceX’s first super heavy-lift Starship SN8 rocket explodes during a return-landing attempt

‘With a test such as this, success is not measured by completion of specific objectives but rather how much we can learn,’ SpaceX wrote in a statement

The test flight was initially set for December 2, then pushed to December 4 and then to December 7 then it was scheduled again for December 8, which was scrubbed at the last minute, before finally going ahead the next day.

This ‘hop’ was a historic event for SpaceX, as previous prototypes only hit 500 feet in the air – but it also proved the most destructive.  

Upon touching down, however, the craft became engulfed in flames and ruptured, parts scattering. The entire flight lasted just over six minutes and 40 seconds. 

The Starship two-stage-to-orbit heavy lift vehicle has been in development since 2012 and is designed to bring the cost of launch down by being more reusable. 

The high-altitude flight was focused on testing a number of features of the giant spaceship, that could take the first passengers to Mars as early as 2026, according to Musk.

NASA has chosen Elon Musk ‘s SpaceX to build the spacecraft that take the first woman and next man to the moon. SpaceX’s HLS Starship will include the company’s tested Raptor engines, along with pulling inspiration from the Falcon and Dragon vehicles’ designs

The SpaceX CEO previously said there was a ‘fighting chance’ the first Starship flight to Mars could happen as early as 2024. 

This is the same year that NASA will send the first woman and next man to the Moon in 2024, as part of the Artemis mission.

Coincidentally, SpaceX was since awarded a $2.9 billion contract by NASA in April to build the spacecraft for the mission.  

The four spacefaring heroes will be carried to the Moon on the Starship HLS, a lunar lander variant of the Starship spacecraft.  

NASA will land the first woman and next man on the Moon in 2024 as part of the Artemis mission

Artemis was the twin sister of Apollo and goddess of the Moon in Greek mythology. 

NASA has chosen her to personify its path back to the Moon, which will see astronauts return to the lunar surface by 2024 –  including the first woman and the next man.

Artemis 1, formerly Exploration Mission-1, is the first in a series of increasingly complex missions that will enable human exploration to the Moon and Mars. 

Artemis 1 will be the first integrated flight test of NASA’s deep space exploration system: the Orion spacecraft, Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and the ground systems at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.  

Artemis 1 will be an uncrewed flight that will provide a foundation for human deep space exploration, and demonstrate our commitment and capability to extend human existence to the Moon and beyond. 

During this flight, the spacecraft will launch on the most powerful rocket in the world and fly farther than any spacecraft built for humans has ever flown.

It will travel 280,000 miles (450,600 km) from Earth, thousands of miles beyond the Moon over the course of about a three-week mission. 

Artemis 1, formerly Exploration Mission-1, is the first in a series of increasingly complex missions that will enable human exploration to the Moon and Mars. This graphic explains the various stages of the mission

Orion will stay in space longer than any ship for astronauts has done without docking to a space station and return home faster and hotter than ever before. 

With this first exploration mission, NASA is leading the next steps of human exploration into deep space where astronauts will build and begin testing the systems near the Moon needed for lunar surface missions and exploration to other destinations farther from Earth, including Mars. 

The will take crew on a different trajectory and test Orion’s critical systems with humans aboard.

The SLS rocket will from an initial configuration capable of sending more than 26 metric tons to the Moon, to a final configuration that can send at least 45 metric tons. 

Together, Orion, SLS and the ground systems at Kennedy will be able to meet the most challenging crew and cargo mission needs in deep space.

Eventually NASA seeks to establish a sustainable human presence on the Moon by 2028 as a result of the Artemis mission.

The space agency hopes this colony will uncover new scientific discoveries, demonstrate new technological advancements and lay the foundation for private companies to build a lunar economy. 


This post first appeared on The Sun

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Rare Egyptian vulture is spotted on the Isles of Scilly in first UK sighting for 150 YEARS 




They are known for applying brightly-coloured mud to their faces ‘like make-up’.

But now a rare Egyptian vulture, considered endangered worldwide, has been seen in the UK for the first time in more than 150 years.

The bird of prey, also known as ‘the pharaoh’s chicken’ because of its links to ancient Egypt, was spotted on the Isles of Scilly in what has been described as a ‘once-in-a-century’ sighting.

It is thought it may have come from northern France and became confused while migrating.

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Rare sighting: An Egyptian vulture, considered endangered worldwide, has been seen in the UK for the first time in 150 years

The bird of prey, also known as ‘the pharaoh’s chicken’ because of its links to ancient Egypt, was spotted on the Isles of Scilly

Lost? It is thought the bird (pictured in Tresco) may have come from northern France and became confused while migrating


The Egyptian vulture (Neophron percnopterus) occupies a large range, with isolated resident populations in Cape Verde and the Canary Islands.

They are also seen in northern France and southern Spain, as well as Ethiopia and East Africa, Arabia and the Indian subcontinent.

They are considered endangered worldwide, but 60 breeding pairs and a total populations of 300 occur on Fuerteventura, the second largest of the Canary Islands.

The species faces a number of threats, with European populations affected by poisoning, electrocution, collisions with wind turbines, reduced food availability and habitat change. 

Source: The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 


Only two previous official sightings of the vulture have been recorded in the UK – one in Somerset in 1825 and another in Essex in 1868. 

However, there was not a happy ending for either bird. 

The one seen in Peldon, Essex, was shot dead by a farm worker who caught the ‘strange bird’ feeding on his geese, while the other suffered the same fate after being spotted at Bridgwater Bay in Somerset and Bristol.

On the Isles of Scilly the Egyptian vulture was first seen at Peninnis Head on St Mary’s on Monday before moving on to the island of Tresco.

Will Wagstaff was leading a birding tour group when he spotted the vulture perching on a pine on Tresco.

‘The news that a “big bird” had been seen in the fog over St Mary’s early in the day was intriguing to say the least – especially as the range of species being suggested was rather wide,’ he said.

‘To say I was surprised to then see an Egyptian vulture appear out of the mist over my head was an understatement.  

‘It only takes one bird to make a day and what a bird it was.’ 

More birdwatchers are now expected to travel to the isles in the hope of seeing the rare species, which has been featured in Egyptian hieroglyphs and is one of only a few birds of prey known to use tools when hunting. 

In areas of Africa, where ostrich eggs form part of its diet, the Egyptian vulture has been known to use a pebble held in its beak to hammer and break the eggs. The bird also eats rodents and reptiles. 

Egyptian vultures are normally found in parts of southern Spain and northern France, as well as Africa and Asia, but are in decline worldwide.

They have also been filmed colouring themselves red on Fuerteventura, the second largest of the Canary Islands, in behaviour that has baffled scientists.

The vultures, which have a yellow face and white feathers, dip their heads in mud and rub it from side to side to dye their head, neck and chest darker. 

Only two previous official sightings of the vulture have been recorded in the UK – one in Somerset in 1825 and in Essex in 1868

On the Isles of Scilly the Egyptian vulture was first seen at Peninnis Head on St Mary’s on Monday before moving on to Tresco

Experts have no idea why they do it but think it might be to show their importance and authority to other birds of the same kind.  

The Isles of Scilly sighting will be analysed by the British Birds Rarities Committee before being passed to the British Ornithologists Union Records Committee to confirm that it is of wild origin. 

As long as this is the case it will be recorded as the third official sighting of the Egyptian vulture in Britain.

Professor Stuart Bearhop, an ecologist with the University of Exeter, described the sighting as ‘remarkable’ and said it was ‘extremely likely’ to be a wild bird.

‘These birds are in decline and so numbers are much lower now than they have been historically so there are less birds around to arrive here,’ he told MailOnline.

‘The decline has led to conservationists in southern Europe releasing captive bred or reared birds back into the wild to try and boost numbers and this would be a potential place that the bird on the Isles of Scilly could have come from. 

On the Isles of Scilly the Egyptian vulture was first seen at Peninnis Head on St Mary’s on Monday before moving on to the island of Tresco

‘These birds are usually fitted with coloured rings and for the serious birders are a problem because they are not of true wild origin. 

‘However, this bird almost certainly does not have any rings on it, so it is extremely likely that it is of wild origin.’

Among the bird watchers who captured it was Scott Reid, who posted several pictures on Twitter.  

‘A few flight shots of the Egyptian vulture from yesterday afternoon,’ he tweeted. ‘An exceptionally cool bird in flight, a very surreal moment seeing it in Scillonian air space.’

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Orcas have complex social structures including close ‘friendships’ 




Killer whales – also known as orcas – have complex social structures including close ‘friendships’, a new study reveals.

Scientists at the University of Exeter used drones to film the animals – one of the world’s most powerful predators – in the Pacific Ocean. 

The team found killer whales (Orcinus orca) spend more time interacting with certain individuals in their pod, and tend to favour those of the same sex and similar age.

Results from the new study are based on 651 minutes of video filmed over 10 days. 

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Orcas are the largest member of the dolphin family. While they are most abundant in colder waters like Antarctica, Norway, and Alaska, they are also found in tropical and subtropical waters

The study, led by the University of Exeter and the Center for Whale Research (CWR), also found that the whales become less socially connected as they get older.

Orcas are one of the most recognisable marine mammals, with their distinctive black and white bodies. 

‘Until now, research on killer whale social networks has relied on seeing the whales when they surface, and recording which whales are together,’ said lead author Dr Michael Weiss, of the University of Exeter.

‘However, because resident killer whales stay in the social groups into which they’re born, how closely related whales are seemed to be the only thing that explained their social structure.

‘Looking down into the water from a drone allowed us to see details such as contact between individual whales.

Orcas (killer whales) are one of the most recognisable marine mammals, with their distinctive black and white bodies


Orcas are the only natural predator of the great white.

Scientists have found proof that they are gashing the sharks open and eating their fatty livers. 

Scientists speculate this behaviour may be behind the disappearance of great whites from the waters of False Bay, off of the coast of Cape Town.

Great whites frequented the area between the months of June to October every year as part of their annual winter hunting season.

They were drawn to the region by the presence of the so-called Seal Island, a rock home to a huge seal colony.

However, they have themselves fallen pray to orcas — and are on the retreat.


‘Our findings show that, even within these tight-knit groups, whales prefer to interact with specific individuals.

‘It’s like when your mum takes you to a party as a kid – you didn’t choose the party, but you can still choose who to hang out with once you’re there.’

Patterns of physical contact – one of the social interactions the study measured –suggest that younger whales and females play a central social role in the group. The older the whale, the less central they became.

The new research built on more than four decades of data collected by CWR on southern resident killer whales, a critically endangered population in the Pacific Ocean.

‘This study would not have been possible without the amazing work done by CWR,’ said Professor Darren Croft, of Exeter’s Centre for Research in Animal Behaviour.

‘By adding drones to our toolkit, we have been able to dive into the social lives of these animals as never before.

‘We were amazed to see how much contact there is between whales – how tactile they are.

‘In many species, including humans, physical contact tends to be a soothing, stress-relieving activity that reinforces social connection.

‘We also examined occasions when whales surfaced together – as acting in unison is a sign of social ties in many species.’

The results, published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, show killer whales exhibit interesting parallels in social bond formation and social life histories with primates, including humans. 

Orcas are born into a family group and remain with that group for the rest of their lives and form very highly co-ordinated hunting packs

Orcas are the largest member of the dolphin family and have a wide range – they’re found in every single ocean on Earth. 

They’re technically a species of dolphin but will hunt other types of dolphin for food, as well as fish, seals and sea lions, sharks, large whales, cephalopods (octopods and squids), seabirds and more. 

They are apex predators that have been known to eat most animals, including large sharks. Highly intelligent and social creatures, they work as a pack to hunt and kill their prey depending on its size. 


Killer whales are ‘toothed’ whales, with true teeth rather than fibrous plates for filter-feeding.  

Usually black and white, in Antarctic waters their skins are covered with a film of plankton called diatoms, which gives them a brownish and yellowish hue.

Male orca whales (9.75m) grow significantly larger than females (8.5m).


Orcas are born into a family group and remain with that group for the rest of their lives and form very highly co-ordinated hunting packs. 

They catch single prey ranging from dolphins, porpoises and even whales including the blue whale. 


Orca whales are found almost everywhere throughout the earth’s oceans.  

They are common in Antarctic waters, with a population estimated at about 70,000.

Credit: Australian Arctic Program  



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