Gaseous signs of life on Venus aren’t seen in follow-up observations


Computer illustration of a view across the rocky surface of the planet Venus, showing clouds of sulphuric acid obscuring the Sun. Getty Images

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Last month, the science world was stunned and excited when Nature Astronomy published a paper indicating that the atmosphere of Venus appeared to contain trace amounts of phosphine, a gas associated with anaerobic bacteria on Earth that would be near-impossible to produce in any other fashion on Venus. If other scientific studies continued to confirm the report’s findings, that could mean that there is life in Venus’ clouds.

Now, two subsequent scientific investigations question the evidence on whether phosphine — and perhaps life — resides in the Venusian atmosphere. 

Scientists study the Venusian atmosphere by analyzing spectra, or plots of light emanating from the planet, and analyzing the wavelengths. Because different molecules produce different wavelengths when light shines through them, scientists can ascertain chemical compositions of various substances using this method. Whenever looking at spectral data, there is the risk that “noise” — meaning, any variable that could alter the wavelengths for reasons unrelated to the composition of the chemical compounds studied — can cause inaccurate results. Notably, the phosphine spectrum from Venus was faint to begin with. 

According to one paper in the scientific journal Astronomy & Astrophysics, written by Thérèse Encrenaz of the Paris Observatory and her colleagues, archived data from an infrared spectrograph in Hawaii called TEXES did not find any indication of phosphine in their data collected between 2012 and 2015. However, the TEXES spectrographic data looked at the cloud tops of Venus, while the original paper claiming phosphine appears in the upper atmosphere analyzed a lower part of the atmosphere, below the cloud tops. 

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While this does not automatically disprove that phosphine exists in the atmosphere, it opens up logistical questions about how it would move around Venus’ atmosphere.

Another paper submitted to Astronomy & Astrophysics that calls into question the evidence for Venusian phosphine was posted online just last week. Authored by astrophysicist Ignas Snellen from Leiden University in the Netherlands and his colleagues, the paper analyzed the same data from the ALMA telescope array in Chile that scientists initially used to find evidence of phosphine on Venus. After reducing the noise, they too concluded that “the presented analysis does not provide a solid basis to infer the presence of PH3 in the Venus atmosphere.”

Though the phosphine discovery is not disproven, these findings certainly put a damper on the exciting prospect of life on the second planet from the sun. Likewise, such scientific call-and-responses epitomize how good research is done. 

“It’s exactly how science should work,” Paul Byrne, a planetary scientist at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, told Science News. “It’s too early to say one way or the other what this detection means for Venus.”

Clara Sousa-Silva, an astrochemist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, expressed a similar view to Science News, telling the publication that

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For Halloween, NASA Turns Astronomy Into Film Posters

This week, NASA released several downloadable posters showing astronomical topics as vintage science fiction films in their Galaxy of Horrors. It’s not the first time they’ve turned science into creative vintage posters — but making posters isn’t the only reason NASA regularly works with artists. Many of the images that accompany official NASA communications about space research are created by visualization experts.

In the series of Halloween posters, NASA turned several astronomical phenomena into concepts for spooky holiday films. Dark Matter is the title of a fictional film with the subtitle “something else is out there”, while the galaxy MACS 2129-1 (which no longer forms new stars) formed the inspiration for an imaginary movie titled Galactic Graveyard.

What’s shown on the posters is directly inspired by real research. For example, the spider web on the Dark Matter poster is based on visualizations of the cosmic web.

The posters were created by NASA’s Exoplanet Exploration Program Office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. They previously created the Exoplanet Travel Bureau, complete with vintage travel posters of planetary destinations outside of the solar system. Like the Halloween posters, the destinations on the travel posters were all based on real research.

Turning scientific phenomena into movie posters may just be a bit of fun, but NASA regularly gets help from artists even when they share serious scientific data. Many of those beautiful images you see on their website, or accompanying news about exoplanetary research, are visualizations based on data collected by various NASA missions.

Even though some spacecraft can send back actual photographic data, not all of the information that NASA missions collect comes in the form of pictures. Often, it’s just numbers that researchers have to interpret to understand what’s going on both inside and outside of our galaxy. But NASA’s visualization studio can turn these numbers into images that represent the information in a more visual way. For example, they can make magnetic fields visible on screen, or show what a neutron star merger might look like.

Such images and videos form a great backdrop for scientific presentations and papers, but they can also help researchers think more visually about the data they collected. When images are not based on real visual data, the visualization experts have some freedom to decide which colors they can use to make the image more informative, or even which orientation to show an image in. After all, up or down are just arbitrary directions in outer space.

But while most of the visualizations that NASA creates are meant to be informative, NASA’s Galaxy of Horrors is just a bit of fun and entertainment. The posters are intended as a fun way to

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New Jersey education officials still don’t know the depth of state’s digital divide

More than seven months after schools closed in March, and as coronavirus cases are rising again in New Jersey, the state Department of Education still does not have a solid handle on how many students lack access to the internet or devices on which to learn remotely.

a desk with a laptop computer sitting on top of a table: Chromebooks are seen after being cleaned at an elementary school in August.

© John Moore/Getty Images
Chromebooks are seen after being cleaned at an elementary school in August.

“We are working to collect updated info on the digital divide,” Mike Yaple, a DOE spokesperson, said in an email. Asked for a “ballpark figure” or an estimate on how many students are still struggling to connect, Yaple could not produce one and said the data could take “a few days, a week, or a few weeks,” to compile.


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Tracy Munford, a spokesperson for the department, said in an email Friday that the DOE “has compiled data submitted by school districts and is currently reviewing the data to ensure accuracy.”

The state reported in June that more than 358,000 students needed devices. Since then, some districts have taken it upon themselves and placed massive orders for laptops and Chromebooks, assuming reimbursements will come. Local philanthropists and businesses have also made donations to get students online.

It remains unclear how well this patchwork of solutions has worked.

Now, the New Jersey School Boards Association is calling on the DOE — under the new leadership of acting Commissioner Angelica Allen-McMillan — to produce documentation showing what the state has done to try and close the divide.

In its latest report, the NJSBA surveyed school officials and interviewed local board of education members and superintendents and found that as of July, nearly a quarter of the superintendents who responded said 16 percent or more of their students lacked internet access. Some said they did not have enough time to develop and implement their reopening plans accordingly.

Among other recommendations, the association is urging the DOE to make public a status report detailing how $54 million in “Bridging the Digital Divide” grants and related philanthropic contributions announced in July have been spent and used by schools.

POLITICO has attempted to obtain information on the grants through a public records request but was told the “application and review process is still ongoing.”

The association also recommends the Department of Education develop a statewide report on what students learned during the shutdown, a strategic plan to address learning loss, a report on the experience of New Jersey’s 246,693 special education students during the shutdown and a program to improve online learning.

The school boards association report — and months of conversations with teachers, superintendents and lawmakers — has revealed a foggy picture of what exactly the state has done to help get kids connected.

State Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), the most vocal critic of the DOE and the Murphy administration’s approach to handling the digital divide and remote learning, said in an interview last month that “it’s been a complete debacle.”

“I know everybody was hoping for a best-case scenario but

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Ancient marine predator had a built-in float

Ancient marine predator had a built-in float
An illustration of Brevicaudosaurus. Credit: Tyler Stone BA ’19, art and cinema; see his website

About 240 million years ago, when reptiles ruled the ocean, a small lizard-like predator floated near the bottom of the edges in shallow water, picking off prey with fang-like teeth. A short and flat tail, used for balance, helps identify it as a new species, according to research published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

Paleontologists at the Chinese Academy of Scientists and Canadian Museum of Nature have analysed two skeletons from a thin layer of limestone in two quarries in southwest China. They identified the skeletons as nothosaurs, Triassic marine reptiles with a small head, fangs, flipper-like limbs, a long neck, and normally an even longer tail, probably used for propulsion. However, in the new species, the tail is short and flat.

“Our analysis of two well-preserved skeletons reveals a reptile with a broad, pachyostotic body (denser boned) and a very short, flattened tail. A long tail can be used to flick through the water, generating thrust, but the new species we’ve identified was probably better suited to hanging out near the bottom in shallow sea, using its short, flattened tail for balance, like an underwater float, allowing it to preserve energy while searching for prey,” says Dr. Qing-Hua Shang from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, in Beijing.

The scientists have named the new species Brevicaudosaurus jiyangshanensis, from the Latin ‘brevi’ for ‘short,’ ‘caudo’ for ‘tail,’ and the Greek ‘sauros’ for ‘lizard.’ The most complete skeleton of the two was found in Jiyangshan quarry, giving the specimen its species name. It’s just under 60cm long.

Ancient marine predator had a built-in float
Brevicaudosaurus jiyangshanensis, gen. et sp. nov., skeletons in dorsal view. A, IVPP V 18625, holotype; B, IVPP V 26010, referred specimen. Credit: QING-HUA SHANG, XIAO-CHUN WU and CHUN, Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology

The skeleton gives further clues to its lifestyle. The forelimbs are more strongly developed than the hind limbs, suggesting they played a role in helping the reptile to swim. However, the bones in the front feet are short compared to other species, limiting the power with which it could pull through the water. Most of its bones, including the vertebrae and ribs, are thick and dense, further contributing to the stocky, stout appearance of the reptile, and limiting its ability to swim quickly but increasing stability underwater.

However, thick, high-mass bones act as ballast. What the reptile lost in speed, it gained in stability. Dense bones, known as pachyostosis, may have made it neutrally buoyant in shallow water. Together with the flat tail, this would have helped the predator to float motionless underwater, requiring little energy to stay horizontal. Neutral buoyancy should also have enabled it to walk on the seabed searching for slow-moving prey.

Highly dense ribs may also suggest the reptile had large lungs. As suggested by the lack of firm support of the body weight, nothosaurs were oceanic nut they needed to come to the water surface for oxygen. They have nostrils

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Newly discovered Triassic lizard could float underwater to pick off prey

Some 240 million years ago, the Triassic predator Brevicaudosaurus jiyangshanensis skulked, nearly motionless, in the sea — and researchers found clues in its skeleton that could explain its unusual hunting methods.

Scientists at the Chinese Academy of Scientists in Beijing and Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa studied two skeletons discovered in a thin layer of limestone in two quarries in southwest China. The most complete skeleton, measuring just under 60 centimeters long, was found in a quarry in Jiangshan.

Experts identified the 240 million-year-old remains as a previously unknown species of nothosaurs: small-headed marine reptiles with fangs, flipper-like limbs and a long neck. Usually, nothosaurs had a longer tail, which experts think was used for propulsion — but the newly discovered reptile had a short and flat tail.

The reptile’s forelimbs were more developed than its hind limbs, and could have played a role in helping the animal to swim, the researchers noted. With its thick and dense bones — including vertebrae and ribs — it was likely stocky and stout in appearance.

What’s more, Brevicaudosaurus jiyangshanensis was not necessarily a speedy swimmer, experts believe, based on the evidence. However, its dense bones may have afforded it an advantage: stability. Its thick, high-mass bones could have made it neutrally buoyant in shallow water, and with the help of its flat tail, the predator could float motionless underwater while using little energy.

Stealth hunter

The creature, researchers also believe, could have used its neutral buoyancy to stalk the seabed in search of its next meal.

“Our analysis of two well-preserved skeletons reveals a reptile with a broad, pachyostotic body (denser boned) and a very short, flattened tail,” said study co-author Qing-Hua Shang, a paleontologist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, in a statement. “A long tail can be used to flick through the water, generating thrust, but the new species we’ve identified was probably better suited to hanging out near the bottom in shallow sea, using its short, flattened tail for balance, like an underwater float, allowing it to preserve energy while searching for prey,” Shang added.

'Massive' coral reef taller than the Empire State Building discovered in Australia

The reptile was well suited for underwater hunting: neutral buoyancy should also have enabled it to walk on the seabed searching for slow-moving prey. Meanwhile, the skeleton’s high density ribs also suggest the reptile had large lungs, increasing the time the species could spend without surfacing.

Paleontologists found another feature that would help Brevicaudosaurus in its underwater exploits: The creature also had thick, long stapes — bar-shaped bones in the middle ear, used for sound transmission — which could have helped the reptile hear under the surface.

“Perhaps this small, slow-swimming marine reptile had to be vigilant for large predators as it floated in the shallows, as well as being a predator itself,” said co-author Xiao-Chun Wu, a paleobiologist at the Canadian Museum of Nature, in a statement.

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Red coating contaminates SpaceX rockets, delays crew launch

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — SpaceX’s second astronaut flight is off until mid-November because red lacquer dripped into tiny vent holes in two rocket engines that now must be replaced.

SpaceX and NASA officials announced the discovery of the potentially damaging contamination Wednesday.

The clogged holes were found after the aborted launch of a GPS satellite on Oct. 2. Two of those engines were contaminated with the bright red coating, which protects engine parts during cleaning.

SpaceX later found the same problem with two of the nine booster engines on the rocket that will launch four astronauts to the International Space Station. It will be SpaceX’s second launch of astronauts for NASA after a successful test flight earlier this year.

The engine trouble prompted SpaceX and NASA to bump the launch to Nov. 14, two weeks later than planned.

A company vice president, Hans Koenigsmann, said new procedures are being implemented to the prevent the problem.

“The important part, I think, for us is that we caught it before anything happened,” Koenigsmann told reporters. “Really important for us that we fix it … and make sure that never happens again.”

The clogged vent holes — located in the engine gas generators — are just one-sixteenth of an inch (1.6 millimeters).

On-board computers detected the problem and halted the Oct. 2 countdown in the final few seconds. The contaminated engines could have been badly damaged if they had fired, Koenigsmann said.

The cleaning process is done by an outside company, which was not identified. The problem appears to have cropped up in just the last couple months, he noted, affecting brand new boosters but not the older ones that already have been recycled several times.

SpaceX’s next launch for NASA — a satellite to monitor sea level change — is scheduled for Nov. 10 from California following the replacement of one contaminated engine.


The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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SpaceX fixes flaw in Falcon 9 rocket engines ahead of November NASA astronaut launch

NASA said it is confident that the problem has been fixed, but that there are still several data reviews to come before the launch. The agency said it would authorize SpaceX to fly the mission only if officials were confident the rocket is safe.

“I think we see a pretty good path to get to flight, and we’ll fly when we’re ready,” Steve Stich, the manager of NASA’s commercial crew program, told reporters in a news conference. “We’re certainly taking the time, and the SpaceX team is committed to flying when we’re ready as well.”

The mission for the Space Force was aborted just two seconds before launch after sensors detected an over pressurization inside a couple of engine nozzles.

SpaceX crews could find nothing wrong with the engines on the pad, so they took them to a testing facility in Texas, where they discovered that two tiny valve lines were clogged with a lacquer-like substance used to prevent corrosion, said Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX’s vice president of build and flight reliability.

The problem forced the engines to start prematurely, but the rocket’s computers detected the problem and forced the shutdown autonomously. SpaceX had to delay a couple of other launches recently because of mechanical issues, and Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder and chief executive, said on Twitter he was going to Cape Canaveral to conduct a “broad review” of operations there.

“No question, rocketry is tough and requires a lot of attention to detail,” Koenigsmann said. “Rockets are humbling. Every day I work with them, it’s always a challenge and it’s always difficult. And you have to be super diligent and on your toes to get this right.”

If the rocket had fired, he said, it would have been what’s called a “hard start,” which he said is “not necessarily bad. In most cases, it rattles the engine and it may cause a little bit of damage on the engines. In extreme cases, it may cause more damage to the engines. In general, you do not want that. You want a good start-up.”

He said that the rocket was safe “the whole time” because it was “held down on the ground” while the rocket’s computers shut down the operation before it could launch.

SpaceX’s rockets will only fly, he said, “when we know the engines are running and running well.”

The mission on Nov. 14 would be the second time SpaceX has flown humans. The first launch, in May, was a test flight that propelled two NASA astronauts, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, for a two-month stay on the space station. That flight was deemed a success, allowing SpaceX to proceed with a flight of a full contingent of four — NASA astronauts Mike Hopkins, Shannon Walker and Victor Glover, as well as Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi.

Since the test flight, though, SpaceX has said it noticed a bit more erosion on the heat shield in a couple of isolated areas. Speaking in September, Koenigsmann said there “was nothing to be

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College Football Playoff hopes, most interesting trend, best player and more

Halfway through its season — well for some teams — the Big 12 has done its best to contribute to the weirdness that is 2020.

It lost three times to the Sun Belt in one day.

Teams are actually playing defense. Really.

And for the first time since 2014, Oklahoma is not the front-runner to claim the Big 12 championship.

The Sooners (3-2, 2-2 Big 12) aren’t totally out of the picture but need to have a lot of things happen to both Oklahoma State and Kansas State, among others, to reach the Big 12 title game in Arlington. And the odds look even longer for the four Texas schools — Baylor, Texas Tech, Texas and TCU.

“I think a lot of things are progressing,” Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley said last week on a media Zoom call. “I don’t see anything that’s unfixable. I don’t see anything that says we can’t do it. It’s just you see kind of the top of the mountain, and you’re just climbing your ass off as fast as you can to get there, and that’s what we’re doing right now.”

Yes, the Bedlam game with Oklahoma State looms large, but so do a few other games too.

Here’s a breakdown of what happened and what is to come for the Big 12:

College Football Playoff hopes: Uh, not great — outside of Oklahoma State running the table with some impressive wins. Let’s face it, bet on at least one representative each from the SEC, ACC and Big Ten. That leaves the Big 12′s best vying with the Pac-12 and the best conference runner-ups. And that opening weekend won’t help matters in the selection committee room with three losses against the Sun Belt, which unofficially ranks as the conference’s Worst Moment (so far).

Most interesting trend: Big 12 defenses are actually playing defense, and not just one or two of them, but the majority.

The video game offensive numbers have hit pause. Games are looking like real football. Among teams that have played more than one game, West Virginia is first nationally in total offense and Oklahoma State is tied for fourth in scoring defense. Seven Big 12 teams rank among the top 50 in total defense. Scores like Texas’ 63-56 overtime win at Texas Tech are now the exception, not the norm.

“Defenses have seen what’s happened in this league for the last eight years and they’ve rallied and done some things differently, particularly playing coverage guys deeper than they did four or five years ago,” Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said recently.

Hottest seat: Even during a pandemic and a campus financial crunch and with significant buyout, folks at Texas can get testy and impatient when football underachieves. Things temporarily quieted for coach Tom Herman after Texas beat Baylor and players joined in the postgame observation of The Eyes of Texas. It may not stay that way, especially with Oklahoma State up this week. The final five games of the regular season are

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NASA optimistic SpaceX Falcon 9 engine issue resolved, clearing way for crew launch

A “subtle” engine problem that triggered the last-second abort of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket earlier this month has been resolved, engineers believe, and if ongoing tests go well, NASA plans to press ahead with the launch of four astronauts atop another Falcon 9 on November 14, officials said Wednesday.

In the meantime, SpaceX “Crew-1” commander Michael Hopkins, pilot Victor Glover, Shannon Walker and Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi went into initial quarantine last weekend, taking additional steps beyond those already in place due to the coronavirus to ensure all four are virus-free for launch.

Liftoff from historic pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center is targeted for 7:49 p.m. EST on Saturday, November 14. If all goes well, the Crew Dragon will execute an automated rendezvous, docking at the space station’s forward port eight-and-a-half hours later, around 4:04 a.m. the next day.

The SpaceX Crew-1 astronauts during a visit to SpaceX’s Hawthorne, Calif., spacecraft manufacturing facility (left to right): Shannon Walker, pilot Victor Glover, commander Michael Hopkins and Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi.


If bad weather or other issues delay an on-time launch, the crew has a backup launch opportunity at 7:27 p.m. on Sunday, November 15, setting up a docking the following day. If not off the ground by then, the crew likely would have to wait until after a Russian spacewalk on November 18.

“The crew’s doing well,” said Steve Stich, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. “As we started to work through the (engine) anomaly and started to see a path to get to flight on the 14th, we did put the crew in a soft quarantine over this past weekend.

“They’ve been in a lot of the telecons and listening to what’s going on with the vehicles. We have a little bit more work to do on this engine anomaly, but I think we see a pretty good path to (launch). We’ll fly when we’re ready.”

NASA managers originally hoped to launch the SpaceX Crew-1 mission earlier this month. But the flight was delayed, first to allow more time between Rubins’ October 14 launch and the return to Earth of another three-man Soyuz crew on October 21, and then because of a last-second Falcon 9 launch abort Oct. 3.

The Falcon 9, carrying a U.S. Space Force Global Positioning System navigation satellite, was not damaged, but the flight was put on hold while engineers worked to pin down what went wrong and what might be needed to prevent additional problems.

During a teleconference Wednesday, Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX vice president for Build and Flight Reliability, said the rocket’s flight computer commanded the abort after detecting unusual pressure readings in the turbopump machinery used by two of the rocket’s nine first stage engines.

The suspect engines were removed and shipped to SpaceX’s Texas flight test facility where engineers were able to replicate the pressure readings.

Koenigsmann said a detailed inspection revealed a tiny amount of nail polish-like red lacquer, used to clean components after anodizing treatments, that had

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NASA spacecraft captures new, bright, electrical flashes on Jupiter

  • NASA’s Juno spacecraft discovered that Jupiter’s atmosphere produces lightning-like electrical outbursts called transient luminous events.
  • On Earth, these colorful lights occur during thunderstorms, when lightning strikes produce red tendrils called “sprites” or glowing disks called “elves” high above the clouds.
  • Scientists predicted that Jupiter would have sprites and elves too, since it has lightning — but nobody had captured these alien flashes of light until now.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

NASA’s Juno spacecraft just captured images of colorful bursts of lightning-like electricity high in Jupiter’s atmosphere.

These phenomena — jellyfish-shaped “sprites” and glowing disks called “elves” — also occur high up in Earth’s atmosphere during thunderstorms. They were first documented in 1989. Scientists predicted that other planets that have lightning, like Jupiter, would also produce these transient luminous events.

But nobody had ever seen alien sprites or elves until now.

Juno has been orbiting Jupiter since 2016 and collecting images of its aurorae in ultraviolet light. A team of researchers processing those snapshots recently noticed something odd.

jupiter sprite lightning atmosphere

The south pole of Jupiter and a potential transient luminous event — a bright, unpredictable flash of light (circled in yellow) — captured by Juno on April 10.


“In the process of putting together those images, we noticed that very occasionally we saw these surprising, short-lived, bright flashes,” Rohini Giles, a researcher on the Juno team, said in a press conference on Tuesday during the annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society’s Division for Planetary Sciences.

“We then went and searched through all of the data that we’ve taken over four years of the mission, and we found a total of 11 flashes, all with very similar properties,” she added.

Each of these outbursts lasted just a few milliseconds.

Giles’ team on Tuesday published a new study on these flashes in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets.

On Earth, sprites appear as long, red tendrils, sometimes trailing down from a diffuse halo. They happen when a lightning strike produces a high-altitude “quasi-electrostatic field,” Giles said.

red sprite lightning earth iss thunderstorm skitch

Red sprites above the US photographed from the International Space Station in 2015.


In other cases, lightning strikes send electromagnetic pulses upward. The pulses produce glowing disks: elves.

“On Earth, sprites and elves appear reddish in color due to their interaction with nitrogen in the upper atmosphere,” Giles said. “But on Jupiter, the upper atmosphere mostly consists of hydrogen, so they would likely appear either blue or pink.”

Juno can’t confirm that these events were triggered by lightning strikes, since the probe’s lightning-detecting instrument is on the other side of the spacecraft from its UV-imaging instrument. Images from the two instruments are taken at least 10 seconds apart, a delay that’s too long to capture the same flash of light.

jupiter great red spot hubble

A Hubble Space Telescope photo of Jupiter taken on June 27, 2019, reveals the planet’s Great Red Spot.

NASA, ESA, A. Simon (Goddard Space Flight Center) and M.H. Wong (University of California, Berkeley)

But everything else points to these 11 outbursts being transient

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