NASA: Mystery object is 54-year-old rocket, not asteroid

Scientists have confirmed that a mysterious object temporarily orbiting Earth is a 54-year-old rocket, not an asteroid after all

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — A mysterious object temporarily orbiting Earth is a 54-year-old rocket, not an asteroid after all, astronomers confirmed Wednesday.

The object was classified as an asteroid after its discovery in September. But NASA’s top asteroid expert, Paul Chodas, quickly suspected it was the Centaur upper rocket stage from Surveyor 2, a failed 1966 moon-landing mission. Size estimates had put it in the range of the old Centaur, which was about 32 feet (10 meters) long and 10 feet (3 meters) in diameter.

“Today’s news was super gratifying!,” Chodas said via email. “It was teamwork that wrapped up this puzzle.”

The object formally known as 2020 SO entered a wide, lopsided orbit around Earth last month and, on Tuesday, made its closest approach at just over 31,000 miles (50,476 kilometers). It will depart the neighborhood in March, shooting back into its own orbit around the sun. Its next return: 2036.

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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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Mystery object is 54-year-old rocket, not asteroid

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — A mysterious object temporarily orbiting Earth is a 54-year-old rocket, not an asteroid after all, astronomers confirmed Wednesday.



FILE - This Sept. 20, 1966 photo provided by the San Diego Air and Space Museum shows an Atlas Centaur 7 rocket on the launchpad at Cape Canaveral, Fla. A mysterious object temporarily orbiting Earth is the Centaur upper stage of this 54-year-old rocket, not an asteroid after all, astronomers confirmed Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020. Observations by a telescope in Hawaii clinched its identity, according to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. (Convair/General Dynamics Astronautics Atlas Negative Collection/San Diego Air and Space Museum via AP)


© Provided by Associated Press
FILE – This Sept. 20, 1966 photo provided by the San Diego Air and Space Museum shows an Atlas Centaur 7 rocket on the launchpad at Cape Canaveral, Fla. A mysterious object temporarily orbiting Earth is the Centaur upper stage of this 54-year-old rocket, not an asteroid after all, astronomers confirmed Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020. Observations by a telescope in Hawaii clinched its identity, according to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. (Convair/General Dynamics Astronautics Atlas Negative Collection/San Diego Air and Space Museum via AP)

Observations by a telescope in Hawaii clinched its identity, according to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

The object was classified as an asteroid after its discovery in September. But NASA’s top asteroid expert, Paul Chodas, quickly suspected it was the Centaur upper rocket stage from Surveyor 2, a failed 1966 moon-landing mission. Size estimates had put it in the range of the old Centaur, which was about 32 feet (10 meters) long and 10 feet (3 meters) in diameter.



In this Aug. 13, 1965 photo provided by the San Diego Air and Space Museum, technicians work on an Atlas Centaur 7 rocket at Cape Canaveral, Fla. A mysterious object temporarily orbiting Earth is a Centaur 7 upper stage rocket, not an asteroid after all, astronomers confirmed Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020. Observations by a telescope in Hawaii clinched its identity, according to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. (Convair/General Dynamics Astronautics Atlas Negative Collection/San Diego Air and Space Museum via AP)


© Provided by Associated Press
In this Aug. 13, 1965 photo provided by the San Diego Air and Space Museum, technicians work on an Atlas Centaur 7 rocket at Cape Canaveral, Fla. A mysterious object temporarily orbiting Earth is a Centaur 7 upper stage rocket, not an asteroid after all, astronomers confirmed Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020. Observations by a telescope in Hawaii clinched its identity, according to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. (Convair/General Dynamics Astronautics Atlas Negative Collection/San Diego Air and Space Museum via AP)

Chodas was proven right after a team led by the University of Arizona’s Vishnu Reddy used an infrared telescope in Hawaii to observe not only the mystery object, but — just on Tuesday — a Centaur from 1971 still orbiting Earth. The data from the images matched.

“Today’s news was super gratifying!,” Chodas said via email. “It was teamwork that wrapped up this puzzle.”

The object formally known as 2020 SO entered a wide, lopsided orbit around Earth last month and, on Tuesday, made its closest approach at just over 31,000 miles (50,476 kilometers). It will depart the neighborhood in March, shooting back into its own orbit around the sun. Its next return: 2036.

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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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Supernova surprise creates elemental mystery

supernova
Cassiopeia A is a supernova remnant in the constellation Cassiopeia. Credit: NASA/CXC/SAO

Michigan State University (MSU) researchers have discovered that one of the most important reactions in the universe can get a huge and unexpected boost inside exploding stars known as supernovae.


This finding also challenges ideas behind how some of the Earth’s heavy elements are made. In particular, it upends a theory explaining the planet’s unusually high amounts of some forms, or isotopes, of the elements ruthenium and molybdenum.

“It’s surprising,” said Luke Roberts, an assistant professor at the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams, FRIB, and the Department of Physics and Astronomy, at MSU. Roberts implemented the computer code that the team used to model the environment inside a supernova. “We certainly spent a lot of time making sure the results were correct.”

The results, published online on Dec. 2 in the journal Nature, show that the innermost regions of supernovae can forge carbon atoms over 10 times faster than previously thought. This carbon creation happens through a reaction known as the triple-alpha process.

“The triple-alpha reaction is, in many ways, the most important reaction. It defines our existence,” said Hendrik Schatz, one of Roberts’s collaborators. Schatz is a University Distinguished Professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy and at the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams and the director of the Joint Institute for Nuclear Astrophysics—Center for the Evolution of the Elements, or JINA-CEE.

Nearly all of the atoms that make up the Earth and everything on it, people included, were forged in the stars. Fans of the late author and scientist Carl Sagan may remember his famous quote, “We’re all made of star stuff.” Perhaps no star stuff is more important to life on Earth than the carbon made in the cosmos by the triple-alpha process.

The process starts with alpha particles, which are the cores of helium atoms, or nuclei. Each alpha particle is made up of two protons and two neutrons.

In the triple-alpha process, stars fuse together three alpha particles, creating a new particle with six protons and six neutrons. This is the universe’s most common form of carbon. There are other isotopes made by other nuclear processes, but those make up just over 1% of Earth’s carbon atoms.

Still, fusing three alpha particles together is usually an inefficient process, Roberts said, unless there’s something helping it along. The Spartan team revealed that the innermost regions of supernovae can have such helpers floating around: excess protons. Thus, a supernova rich in protons can speed up the triple-alpha reaction.

But accelerating the triple-alpha reaction also puts the brakes on the supernova’s ability to make heavier elements on the periodic table, Roberts said. This is important because scientists have long believed that proton-rich supernovae created Earth’s surprising abundance of certain ruthenium and molybdenum isotopes, which contain closer to 100 protons and neutrons.

Supernova surprise creates elemental mystery
In the triple-alpha process, stars fuse three helium nuclei, also called alpha particles together (left) to create a single carbon atom with a
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NASA determines mystery space object 2020 SO is a ’60s rocket booster

centaurupperstage1964

This photo from 1964 shows a Centaur upper-stage rocket. Space object 2020 SO is one of these.


NASA

Welcome back, Surveyor 2 Centaur rocket booster. We just got a new chapter in a bittersweet space saga that involves a fiery launch, a doomed moon mission and decades of space wanderings. 

A rocket booster NASA used to launch the Surveyor 2 lunar lander in 1966 has returned to us for a temporary spin as a mini-moon in orbit around Earth. When scientists spotted it in September, they named it 2020 SO. On Wednesday, NASA announced the strange object has been positively identified as the ’60s booster.

While the booster did its job admirably back in 1966, the lander didn’t survive a crash landing on the moon’s surface.   

The booster’s specific orbit around the sun tipped astronomers off that it probably wasn’t an asteroid, one of the many space rocks that zip around our cosmic neighborhood. Some sleuthing tracked the booster back to near Earth in 1966. 

Telescope observations have now revealed the stainless steel composition of 2020 SO. This cosmic detective work involved comparing spectrum data on the enigmatic object with data gathered on a known Centaur rocker booster that’s been floating around in space since 1971. It was a match. 

The object has attracted a lot of interest due to the mystery surrounding it and the fact that it was captured into an Earth orbit that makes it a cute little visiting mini-moon. The Virtual Telescope Project livestreamed 2020 SO when it came in close to Earth on Nov. 30.

The Centaur booster will stick around with us for a few months, but is expected to continue its space adventures back in orbit around the sun sometime in March 2021. At which point we can all say, “Goodnight, Centaur. Goodnight, mini-moon.”


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Laboratory experiments unravelling the mystery of the Mars moon Phobos

Laboratory experiments unravelling the mystery of the Mars moon Phobos
Paul Szabo in the lab at TU Wien Credit: TU Wien

Of course, there is no weather in our sense of the word in space—nevertheless, soil can also “weather” in the vacuum of space if it is constantly bombarded by high-energy particles, such as those emitted by the sun. The Martian moon Phobos is affected by a special situation: it is so close to Mars that not only the solar wind but also the irradiation by particles from Mars plays a decisive role there. A research team from TU Wien has now been able to measure this in laboratory experiments. In just a few years, a Japanese space mission will take soil samples from Phobos and bring them back to Earth.


Billions of years of particle irradiation

“There are different theories of how the Mars moon Phobos could have formed”, says Paul Szabo, who is working on his Ph.D. thesis in the research group of Prof. Friedrich Aumayr at the Institute of Applied Physics at TU Wien. “It is possible that Phobos was originally an asteroid that was then captured by Mars, but it could also have been created by a collision of Mars with another large object.”

When investigating such celestial bodies, one must always bear in mind that their surfaces have been completely changed over billions of years by cosmic particle bombardment. The surface of the Earth remains unaffected by this, because our atmosphere shields the particles. However, the geology of celestial bodies without atmospheres, such as our Moon or Phobos, can only be understood if it is possible to correctly assess “space weathering”.

Therefore, elaborate experiments were conducted at TU Wien: “We used a mineral like it is found on Phobos and bombarded it in vacuum chambers with different charged particles,” explains Paul Szabo. “Using an extremely precise balance, we can measure how much material is removed in the process and how much each particle affects the surface.

Laboratory experiments unravelling the mystery of the Mars moon Phobos
Markus Wappl, Paul Szabo, Friedrich Aumayr und Herbert Biber (left to right). Credit: TU Wien

The special properties of the moon Phobos must be taken into account: Its distance from the surface of Mars is less than 6000 km—not even two percent of the distance between our Moon and the Earth. Just like our Moon, it is in a tidally locked rotation around its planet: The same side always faces Mars.

“Because of the extremely small distance between Mars and Phobos, not only particles emitted from the Sun play a role on the surface of Phobos, but also particles from Mars,” says Paul Szabo. The Martian atmosphere consists mainly of carbon dioxide. But in the outer regions of the atmosphere there are also larger amounts of oxygen. When particles from the solar wind penetrate there, oxygen ions can be created, which then hit Phobos at high speed and change the surface material.

Data for 2024 space mission

“With our measuring methods we were able to estimate the erosion of Phobos much more accurately than was previously possible,” says Friedrich

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Mystery Gelatinous Party Balloon-Like Animal Discovered In Puerto Rico [VIDEO]

KEY POINTS

  • The new jelly comb species shares a few similarities with other ctenophores
  • The discovery was part of NOAA’s underwater exploration of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands
  • There have been about 100 to 150  species of comb jellies identified and validated in the past few years

In 2015, scientists encountered a peculiar creature that was shaped like a party balloon and had a gelatinous texture. After five years, they finally have a name for that mystery animal found off a Puerto Rican shore.

Scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) named the ocean creature Duobrachium sparksae. They identified it as a new species of ctenophore or what is more popularly known as the comb jellies. 

Deep Discoverer, a remotely operated underwater vehicle, was instrumental in finally identifying and naming the new ctenophore species. Details of the whole process were published in the journal Plankton and Benthos Research. 

The high-resolution video produced by Deep Discoverer made the scientists capable of observing the fascinating behavior of the Duobrachium sparksae

“It moved like a hot air balloon attached to the seafloor on two lines, maintaining a specific altitude above the seafloor,” Mike Ford, NOAA fisheries scientist, explained in a press release.

“Most comb jellies have eight rows of comb-like cilia that rhythmically beat, refracting light into colors, as they paddle through the water,” Ford pointed out.  

Apart from having a peculiar appearance, the new jelly comb species shares a few similarities with other ctenophores. For example, it has long tentacles as well.  

“We can consider that it serves similar roles to other ctenophores near the ocean floor and it also has some similarities to other ctenophores in open ocean areas,” Ford added. 

What has yet to be identified is whether the new species is also carnivorous and an efficient predator that preys on small arthropods and larvae.

There have been about 100 to 150  species of comb jellies identified and validated in the past years. Comb jellies have been living in the ocean for at least 500 million years now. They look like jellyfishes but the two species are not related. 

The discovery of the Duobrachium sparksae took place as part of NOAA’s underwater exploration aimed at documenting the deep-sea ecosystems and seafloor within Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. 

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Visitors track down mystery desert monolith in Utah

Some intrepid visitors have been flocking to a remote part of southern Utah in a bid to be among the first to see the mystery metal monolith.



a person wearing a hat: Photograph: @davidsurber_/Reuters


© Provided by The Guardian
Photograph: @davidsurber_/Reuters

The structure in the Red Rock desert was first discovered last week from the air by a helicopter pilot and wildlife officers who were carrying out an annual count of bighorn sheep.

They did not share its coordinates, hoping to put people off trying to make their own pilgrimages in case they got lost in the remote area. But for some, the intrigue was overwhelming.

Related: Theories abound over mystery metal monolith found in Utah

Around 48 hours after news of their finding was made public, pictures appeared on Instagram of people who had managed to find it.

Gallery: Lost in labyrinths: world’s most magnificent mazes (StarsInsider)

Among them was David Surber, 33, a former US army infantry officer, who drove for six hours through the night to find it after spotting a Reddit post purporting to have found its coordinates.



a person wearing a hat: David Surber with the monolith in Red Rock Desert, Utah, in this still image obtained from a social media video.


© Photograph: @davidsurber_/Reuters
David Surber with the monolith in Red Rock Desert, Utah, in this still image obtained from a social media video.

“Awesome journey out to the monolith today,” he wrote on Instagram, where he also shared its location. “Regardless of who built it or where it came from. It was a positive escape from today’s world. Some for many people to rally behind and enjoy together.”

He said he was alone with the structure, which he described as formed of aluminium and formed of “three pieces riveted together”, for about 10 minutes before others arrived.

“Overall not too crowded you all want to make the journey,” he wrote.

Tim Slane, who shared the coordinates on Reddit, said he worked them out by tracking the flight path of the helicopter.

It is not known what the origins of the object, estimated by Bret Hutchings, the helicopter pilot who discovered it, to be between 10ft and 12ft high (about three metres), are.

But it has been compared to the work of several minimalist sculptors, including the late John McCracken.

A spokesperson for his gallerist, David Zwirner, told the Guardian earlier this week it was not one of McCracken’s works, saying they believed it could be “a work by a fellow artist paying homage to McCracken”. But Zwirner later told the New York Times it could in fact be by the artist.

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new suspect found in galactic mystery

The case of the missing dark matter: new suspect found in galactic mystery
A ground-based view of the sky around the galaxies NGC1052-DF4 and NGC1052-DF2 – another galaxy with little to no dark matter. NGC1052-DF2 is next on Dr Montes’ list of galactic mysteries to solve. Photo: ESA/Hubble, NASA, Digitized Sky Survey 2. Credit: Davide de Martin

A faraway galaxy with almost no dark matter has threatened to break our theory of galaxy formation. New evidence suggests the galaxy isn’t an anomaly—but a victim of theft.


Dark matter—an invisible substance as enigmatic as its name suggests—is a key ingredient in helping galaxies form and stay alive.

It creates the strong gravity needed to spark galaxy formation and keep existing galaxies structurally intact.

But astronomers have been puzzled since last year’s discovery of ‘NGC1052-DF4’, a stable and long-lived galaxy with almost no dark matter. How can the galaxy exist without this important ingredient? Are our theories about galaxy formation wrong?

Today, an international study led by UNSW Sydney suggests the dark matter was there to begin with—it’s just been stolen by a greedy neighbour.

“The dark matter isn’t there because it’s already been removed,” says Dr. Mireia Montes, lead author of the study and astronomical researcher at UNSW Science and the Space Telescope Science Institute.

“We found that the gravitational pull from the nearby massive galaxy NGC1035 is removing its stars—and dark matter.”

The research, published today in The Astrophysical Journal, provides an explanation for why so much dark matter is missing from the galaxy without contradicting our existing understanding of galaxy formation.

“When two galaxies are passing close to each other, they suffer from each other’s gravitational pull,” says Dr. Montes. “Our very deep imaging found faint stars being pulled away by the larger galaxy—an interaction called ‘tidal disruption’.”

The same phenomenon can also be found on Earth: in our case, the Moon’s gravitational pull influences Earth’s ocean tides. But tidal disruption can cause galaxies—which aren’t as solid as Earth or the Moon—to bend and lose their shape.

If the tidal disruption theory is correct, the smaller galaxy NGC1052-DF4 will soon start to show more signs of deterioration. It could eventually disintegrate entirely.

“Tidal stripping would remove a significant percentage of dark matter before affecting the stars,” says Dr. Montes.

“If the stars are starting to be disrupted now, most of the dark matter has already escaped.”

Dr. Ignacio Trujillo, co-author of the paper and researcher at the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias (IAC), says “With time, the galaxy will end being cannibalised by the large system around it (NGC1035), with at least some of their stars free floating in the deep space”.

A powerful magnifying glass

Dr. Montes and her colleagues used powerful telescopes and deep imaging techniques—including long-exposure photography of up to 60 hours—to find the faint clues in the outer edges of the galaxy.

These techniques are capable of illuminating very dim stars and galaxies, or what astronomers call the ‘low surface brightness’ of the universe.

The case of the missing dark matter: new suspect found in galactic mystery
At first glance, the galaxy NGC1052-DF4 (centre) appears to be intact. But faint
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Theories abound over mystery metal monolith found in Utah

A giant, metal mystery slab has captured the attention of millions, as people speculate over how such a structure came to be in a remote part of southern Utah.



a close up of a rock wall: Photograph: Utah Department of Public Safety/Reuters


© Provided by The Guardian
Photograph: Utah Department of Public Safety/Reuters

The object was first spotted last week by a helicopter pilot and wildlife officers who were flying above the rugged area to conduct an annual count of bighorn sheep for the state. It immediately drew comparisons to the monolith featured in 2001: A Space Odyssey as well as inviting suggestions it could be the work of extraterrestrials.



a close up of a rock wall: The metal monolith found in a remote part of Utah.


© Photograph: Utah Department of Public Safety/Reuters
The metal monolith found in a remote part of Utah.

The helicopter pilot, Bret Hutchings, had the opportunity to see the big metal slab up close and guessed it was probably the work of an artist and between 10ft and 12ft high (about 3 metres).

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“I’m assuming it’s some new wave artist or something or, you know, somebody that was a big 2001: A Space Odyssey fan,” Hutchings told local news station, KSLTV, which first reported on the slab.

The work was compared to those of many minimalist sculptors, including artist John McCracken, who died in 2011. His gallerist, David Zwirner, told the Guardian the mystery object was not one of his works.

“While this is not a work by the late American artist John McCracken, we suspect it is a work by a fellow artist paying homage to McCracken,” a David Zwirner spokesperson said.

One thing that is known is that without authorization, it is illegal to install structures or art on federally managed public lands, according to Utah’s department of public safety (DPS). This is true, “no matter what planet you’re from”, the agency said in a statement.

The agency said it does not plan to reveal is the exact location of the object. “It is in a very remote area and if individuals were to attempt to visit the area, there is a significant possibility they may become stranded and require rescue,” DPS said.

That did not stop Reddit users from identifying its likely whereabouts, as well as discussing theories about the ways the object could have got there and why.

In zoomed in photos of the structure, Reddit users noted there were lines by its base which suggested a rock saw had been used to put it in the ground and that it appeared to be held together with screws, dispelling the theory it could be one large hunk of metal.

The structure also caused controversy in the geography world, which took issue with Utah’s government using the word “monolith” to describe the object.

A monolith is technically a geographic feature made of stone, while this slab appears to be made of metal. Merriam Webster’s dictionary, however, allows for a looser interpretation of monolith as “a massive structure” and it is the word used to describe the structure director Stanley Kubrick made famous in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

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Gemini North observations enable breakthrough in centuries-old effort to unravel astronomical mystery

Blast from the past
The enigmatic CK Vulpeculae nebula. The team of astronomers measured the speeds and changes in positions of the two small reddish arcs about 1/4 of the way up from the bottom and 1/4 of the way down from the top to help determine that the nebula is expanding five times faster than previously thought. Credit: International Gemini Observatory/NOIRLab/NSF/AURAImage processing: Travis Rector (University of Alaska Anchorage), Mahdi Zamani & Davide de Martin

An international team of astronomers using Gemini North’s GNIRS instrument have discovered that CK Vulpeculae, first seen as a bright new star in 1670, is approximately five times farther away than previously thought. This makes the 1670 explosion of CK Vulpeculae much more energetic than previously estimated and puts it into a mysterious class of objects that are too bright to be members of the well-understood type of explosions known as novae, but too faint to be supernovae.


350 years ago, the French monk Anthelme Voituret saw a bright new star flare into life in the constellation of Vulpecula. Over the following months, the star became almost as bright as Polaris (the North Star) and was monitored by some of the leading astronomers of the day before it faded from view after a year. The new star eventually gained the name CK Vulpeculae and was long considered to be the first documented example of a nova—a fleeting astronomical event arising from an explosion in a close binary star system in which one member is a white dwarf, the remnant of a Sun-like star. However, a string of recent results have thrown the longstanding classification of CK Vulpeculae as a nova into doubt.

In 2015, a team of astronomers suggested that CK Vulpeculae’s appearance in 1670 was the result of two normal stars undergoing a cataclysmic collision. Just over three years later, the same astronomers further proposed that one of the stars was in fact a bloated red giant star, following their discovery of a radioactive isotope of aluminum in the immediate surroundings of the site of the 1670 explosion. Complicating the picture even further, a separate group of astronomers proposed a different interpretation. In their paper, also published in 2018, they suggested that the sudden brightening in 1670 was the result of the merger between a brown dwarf—a failed star too small to shine via thermonuclear fusion that powers the Sun—and a white dwarf.

Now, adding to the ongoing mystery surrounding CK Vulpeculae, new observations from the international Gemini Observatory, a Program of NSF’s NOIRLab, reveal that this enigmatic astronomical object is much farther away and has ejected gas at much higher speeds than previously reported.

Blast from the past
This wide-field view shows the sky around the location of the historical exploding star CK Vulpeculae. The remains of the nova are only very faintly visible at the center of this picture. Credit: ESO/Digitized Sky Survey 2.Acknowledgment: Davide De Martin

This team, led by Dipankar Banerjee of Physical Research Laboratory Ahmedabad, India, Tom Geballe of Gemini Observatory, and Nye Evans of Keele University

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