Given the speed at which technology progresses in today’s world, it’s easy to forget how little we actually know. If every human on the planet has a miniature computer in their pocket, we must be well-versed in the ways of the universe. But, we’re not. We are drastically undereducated when it comes to forces outside Earth, and even with some on our home planet. There is quite literally a world of information still left to be discovered, and scientists are finding new, peculiar, fascinating things every single day. Some of them are, in the grand scheme, minor while others change our entire thought process.
Here are five recent discoveries that have us astounded, and excited for the future.
The Kepler Space Telescope is, for the most part, on exoplanet duty. Its job is to find small, rocky worlds in orbit around distant stars, doing so by tracking dips in starlight from the stars as exoplanets pass in front of them. But it is also capable of discovering artificial structures, and recently it detected a strange transit signal from star KIC 8462852. The star was exhibiting odd dips in light, without a clear explanation why. The only reason favored by researchers is a clump of exocomets that could have been disturbed by a nearby star and then shot in front of KIC 8462852. The other, far cooler and far less likely, option is that the transit signal oddity is caused by an alien structure orbiting the star.
One of the more fun discoveries came courtesy of Comet Lovejoy or C/2014 Q2, which was recently found to be releasing as much alcohol as 500 bottles worth of wine every second during peak activity. The comet also releases ethyl alcohol, as well as a simple sugar called glycolaldehyde. The complex molecules from Comet Lovejoy help boost the hypothesis that comets deposited organic material on early Earth that helped the origin of life.
If you haven’t gathered, comets are pretty important. Many scientists believe they hold keys to the history of the universe, and could even be pristine remnants of the early solar system. The discovery of oxygen on comet 67P is enormous. It’s the first time molecular oxygen (the form we breathe) has been found on a comet and it’s highly surprising. Scientists did not expect oxygen could survive for massive amounts of time in space without combining with another substance, given its reactive quality. The fact that 67P does contain oxygen could discredit some theories on the formation of the solar system. Now that it can be argued the substance is ancient, the belief that it formed beyond the solar system in what is known as the interstellar medium (the matter that exists between star systems in a galaxy) could become defunct.
On October 31, 2015, an asteroid that is now believed to be a dead comet, made a close flyby of Earth. Imaging showed that the asteroid appears eerily close to a human skull. Its shape, plus impeccable timing, earned the rock the nickname “Spooky,” or “Great Pumpkin.”
The Hubble Space Telescope took a long gander at our solar system’s largest planet earlier this month so that researchers could investigate Jupiter’s shrinking signature red spot. They found that the spot is half the width it was 100 years ago, and though the rate of shrinkage has slowed, it is still continuing to dwindle. While looking at Jupiter, scientists also noticed that a wave-like structure has formed north of the planet’s equator. Similar waves had been seen when Voyager 2 flew by in 1979 but, at the time, the waves were considered ephemeral and Voyager was simply in the right place at the right time to capture them. Their recurrence has sparked interest in their origin, with one theory suggesting they are baroclinic waves, which form on Earth at the beginning of a cyclone.