Tardigrades, or water bears, are tough little creatures. They’re only half a millimeter long fully-grown, but they can live through almost anything: temperatures as low as -458 degrees Fahrenheit or as high as 300 degrees, pressures six times greater than those in the deepest ocean trenches, extraordinary amounts of radiation, even the vacuum of space. Last month, researchers in Japan published an analysis of the entire genome of one of the most resilient tardigrade species.
Next year, China’s space station will fall out of the sky.
China launched Tiangong-1, its first orbiting laboratory, in 2011, and since then it has been home to a rotating cast of experiments and astronauts. In 2013, Tiangong-1’s primary mission period ended, so China put the spacecraft into “sleep mode” and stopped sending astronauts to the station, although data continued to stream in about how parts were holding up on the empty, dormant station. In March of this year, Tiangong-1, which translates to “Heavenly Palace,” was shut down for good.
The moon’s origin story is a violent one: most astronomers agree that the moon was formed soon after the Earth’s formation, when a Mars-sized object called Theia struck Earth at an angle, maybe chipping off a chunk of the planet. The molten remains of Theia, the chunk of debris, and a cloud of vaporized material from the collision were captured in Earth’s gravity. They then eventually coalesced together to become the moon that we know today, coated in a layer of Earth dust from the collision and thus very geologically similar to Earth.
NASA’s Dawn spacecraft has been taking images of Ceres, the largest body in the asteroid belt, since December 2014. As Dawn’s orbit brought it closer to the dwarf planet’s surface, a mystery appeared: Ceres has bright spots. Over 130 separate areas on Ceres, reaching up to 6 miles wide, shine out from their dark surroundings. After months of study and speculation, scientists have confirmed that the brightest spots are made of sodium carbonate, making Ceres’ Occator Crater the largest deposit of this sort of mineral ever found beyond Earth.
The space beyond Neptune may be cold and remote, but it’s far from lonely. The Kuiper belt, an icy disk of frozen remnants from when our solar system was formed, is full of asteroids and other chunks of rock and ice. Three of those chunks, Pluto, Haumea and Makemake, are actually dwarf planets: they are like planets, but they haven’t cleared their orbital path of debris. Now, astronomers working on the Outer Solar System Origins Survey (OSSOS) in Hawaii have discovered a new potential dwarf planet in the Kuiper belt.
Mars’s atmosphere is mostly carbon dioxide; however, NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) has now detected atomic oxygen in Mars’s atmosphere, providing a clue to Mars’s energy cycle and its potential for life. Atomic oxygen is a single oxygen atom, unlike the oxygen (O2) breathed by humans, which contains two. Atomic oxygen reacts and bonds with other elements more easily than O2, so it is extremely difficult to detect. NASA’s Mariner and Viking missions measured atomic oxygen on Mars in the 1970s, but it has not been studied since; this marks the first time that scientists have been able to observe atomic oxygen from afar.