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A closer peek at exoplanets, Martian rivers and the largest T. rex: This week in space and science

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CNN —  

This week, a super-telescope peered into the atmosphere of an exoplanet, the world’s largest Tyrannosaurus rex fossil was announced, and a global network of rivers was found on Mars.

The Hubble telescope also spied an asteroid as it broke apart, and the all-female spacewalk didn’t happen because of a spacesuit fail.

Here’s everything you missed this week in space and science.

One stormy exoplanet

For the first time, a super-telescope has revealed a complex atmosphere on an exoplanet, according to a new study. The observation revealed a planet-wide storm where clouds of iron and silicates stay in motion.

The exoplanet, dubbed HR 8799e, is part of a system 130 light-years from Earth in the Pegasus constellation. HR 8799e is only 30 million years old, considered a baby exoplanet in our universe. It’s one of three planets around the star HR 8799 and the closest to its host star. The researchers believe that it takes between 40 and 50 years for the planet to make one orbit around its star.

And apart from the giant storm, it wouldn’t be a fun vacation spot because the average surface temperature hovers around 1,616 degrees Fahrenheit.

But it does sound like a world that would exist in the “Star Wars” universe, and it’s exciting that telescopes are helping us to directly observe exoplanets in addition to finding them.

But wait, there’s another exoplanet!

NASA’s planet-hunting TESS mission has only been surveying the sky since July, but it’s already making incredible discoveries.

In January, three exoplanet discoveries were connected to the initial observations from TESS. Now, data collected by TESS has determined a new Saturn-size planet.

TOI (TESS Object of Interest) 197.01 is considered to be a “hot Saturn.” It’s similar in size to that planet and orbits its host star at a close distance, circling it every 14 days, which creates a high surface temperature on the planet. The exoplanet is a gas giant with a radius nine times that of Earth and about 60 times the mass of Earth. The host star is 5 billion years old and slightly heavier and larger than our sun.

Asteroseismologists discovered the planet by studying seismic waves called starquakes in stars where the brightness appears to shift. The astronomers can determine the age of the star, as well as its mass and radius. Combining that data with other observations reveals the properties of the exoplanets that orbit these host stars.

Members of the TESS team also identified a list of what might be the most promising stars to support planets in the habitable zone called the TESS Habitable Zone Star Catalog.

The catalog includes 1,822 stars that TESS could observe where planets slightly larger than Earth would exist in the habitable zone of their star. The habitable zone, called the Goldilocks zone, is when conditions are warm enough to allow liquid water to exist on the planet’s surface. And liquid water is the foundation of life as we know it.

And astronomers at the University of Texas at Austin partnered with Google to use artificial intelligence in the search for exoplanets. They were able to uncover two planets hidden in data from the now-retired Kepler space telescope.

The two planets are slightly larger than Earth, closely orbit their host stars and have hot surface temperatures. And they’re not exactly in the neighborhood. Both host stars are between 1,230 and 1,300 light-years away in the Aquarius constellation.

I bless the rains down on Mars

Today, Mars seems like a cold, arid place with planet-encircling dust storms that kill rovers (RIP, Opportunity).

But photos gathered during NASA’s missions orbiting Mars have revealed that the planet was once home to raging rivers – and that those rivers existed more recently than previously thought, according to a new study.

A photo of a preserved river channel on Mars, taken by an orbiting satellite, with color overlaid to show different elevations (blue is low, yellow is high).
NASA
A photo of a preserved river channel on Mars, taken by an orbiting satellite, with color overlaid to show different elevations (blue is low, yellow is high).

The rivers were two times wider than any on Earth, according to the deep riverbeds they left carved into the surface, and they could be found at hundreds of locations across the planet. NASA’s photos showed well-preserved river channels, deltas and fan-shaped masses of material called alluvium that is carried and deposited by water.

Researchers were able to analyze 200 river channels and determine that between 1 billion and 3.6 billion years ago, intense runoff occurred.

Around the same time as the runoff, which may have been driven by heavy-precipitation events, the climate model for ancient Mars suggests that it was drying out and losing its atmosphere to become the dry planet we know today, with a thin whisper of an atmosphere.

So that makes it even more difficult for scientists to figure out what happened over the course of the climate history of Mars.

Godspeed to the Curiosity rover, holding down the fort until the Mars 2020 rover arrives and the two missions can help us learn more about the confounding Red Planet.

Meet Scotty, the heavyweight champ of T. rexes

About 66 million years ago, an old battle-scarred Tyrannosaurus rex roamed prehistoric Saskatchewan. Researchers uncovered the fossil to reveal that “Scotty” was 42 feet long and had leg bones that could support its weight of about 9.7 tons. That makes this Tyrannosaurus bigger than any other carnivorous dinosaur.

Here's Scotty, the biggest and baddest T. rex ever found.
Amanda Kelley
Here's Scotty, the biggest and baddest T. rex ever found.

“Scotty” was nicknamed for the celebratory scotch that was imbibed on the night the fossil was discovered.

T. rexes weren’t known for living long. They were quick to grow and often died young. Scotty was in his early 30s when he died, making him the oldest ever found, and he carried the battle scars to show how hard he fought to live.

Researchers catalogued the injuries recorded on his bones and discovered an infected jaw, broken ribs and what looks to be a bite from a fellow T. rex on his tail.

If you want to see Scotty for yourself, the impressive fossil will be on display in a new exhibit at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum beginning in May. And make sure to toast him when you do.

This asteroid is all over the place

When an asteroid engaged its self-destruct mode, there were enough telescopes on the ground and in space to capture it, including the Hubble Space Telescope.

In case you’re wondering what that looks like, it’s pretty spectacular.

The asteroid 6478 Gault is seen with two tails indicating its self-destruction.
NASA/ESA/K. Meech/J. Kleyna/Univ. of Hawaii/O. Hainaut/European Southern Observatory
The asteroid 6478 Gault is seen with two tails indicating its self-destruction.

The asteroid 6478 Gault has two narrow tails, showing the self-destruction in real time as its material is released into space.

“This self-destruction event is rare,” said Olivier Hainaut of the European Southern Observatory. “Active and unstable asteroids such as Gault are only now being detected by means of new survey telescopes that scan the entire sky, which means asteroids such as Gault that are misbehaving cannot escape detection any more.”

We’re still waiting for the all-female spacewalk

NASA astronauts Anne McClain and Christina Koch were set to make history Friday as the first all-female crew to conduct a spacewalk at the International Space Station. But Koch was instead joined by male colleague Nick Hague due to spacesuit availability.

NASA said Monday that it has only one spacesuit torso in size medium available at the station. The agency clarified Tuesday that it has more than one medium-size spacesuit torso aboard but that to stay on schedule with space station upgrades, “it’s safer and faster to change spacewalker assignments than reconfigure spacesuits.”

CNN called NASA to find out more, and you can read the whole interview here.

“I think it’s just inevitable that there will be an all-female spacewalk. It just won’t be this Friday,” said Stephanie Schierholz of the NASA Public Affairs Office.

We’ll keep hoping!

Gianluca Mezzofiore and Amanda Jackson contributed to this report.

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