Gravitational waves: A triumph for big science

Image copyright NSF
Image caption Some of the big questions in science now require big machines to answer them

The first direct detection of gravitational waves is without doubt one of the most remarkable breakthroughs of our time. The Advanced LIGO laboratories in the US states of Washington and Louisiana have traced the warping of space from the merger of two black holes about 1.3 billion light-years from Earth.

It represents the last great confirmation of Einstein's ideas, and opens the door to a completely new way to investigate the Universe. Astronomy and other fields of science are now entering a new era.

So, what exactly are gravitational waves?

According to Einstein's General Theory of Relativity, any accelerating mass should produce ripples in the fabric of space and time. The effect is very weak, however, and only the biggest masses, moving under the greatest accelerations, are expected to warp their surroundings to any appreciable degree. Put in this category the explosion of giant stars, the collision of ultra-dense dead ones, and the coming together of black holes. All these events should radiate gravitational energy at the speed of light.

When you say "weak", just how small is the effect?

Read full article Gravitational waves: A triumph for big science

Europe settles on design for Ariane 6 rocket

Media captionAirbus Safran Launchers' promotional video for the Ariane 6

The design for Europe's new Ariane 6 rocket has been settled and development will now move on apace, say officials.

The launcher is due to be introduced in 2020 and long-term will replace the Ariane 5 and Soyuz vehicles that currently operate out of French Guiana.

Read full article Europe settles on design for Ariane 6 rocket

James Webb: Hubble successor maintains course

Cryo-vac test Image copyright NASA/CHRIS GUNN
Image caption Soon to emerge: The instruments were placed in the Goddard vacuum chamber for testing late last year

The successor to the Hubble Space Telescope is reaching some key milestones in its preparation for launch in 2018.

Engineers are about to complete the assembly of the primary mirror surface on the James Webb Space Telescope.

Read full article James Webb: Hubble successor maintains course

'Case is made' for Anthropocene Epoch

People Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Humans have made an indelible mark on Planet Earth in a very short period of time

There is little doubt now that we have entered a new geological age, believes an international scientific panel.

The team, which has been tasked with defining the so-called Anthropocene, says humanity's impacts on Earth will be visible in sediments and rocks millions of years into the future.

Read full article 'Case is made' for Anthropocene Epoch

Enceladus: Does this moon hold a second genesis of life?

Artist's impression Image copyright RICHARD BIZLEY/SPL
Image caption The Enceladus Interplanetary Geyser Park: Might we go there someday?

The mighty Cassini probe has made many great discoveries at Saturn, but none top its extraordinary revelations at Enceladus.

What the plutonium-powered satellite has seen at this 500km-wide, ice-crusted moon is simply astounding.

Read full article Enceladus: Does this moon hold a second genesis of life?

Europe's ExoMars missions are go - finally

Artist's impression of TGO and Schiaparelli Image copyright ESA
Image caption Artist's impression: The satellite will release the lander three days out from Mars

The first of Europe's ExoMars missions is finally ready to get under way.

This initial venture will involve a satellite going to the Red Planet to study trace gases, such as methane, in the atmosphere.

Read full article Europe's ExoMars missions are go - finally

Curiosity rover: The reward for 'whale watching' on Mars

Whale Rock Image copyright NASA/JPL-CALTECH/MSSS
Image caption Whale Rock is about 50cm high and is made from sediment grains that bounced along a rippling stream bed

Whale Rock. It's got quite a story to tell.

When scientists first saw it in images returned from Nasa's Curiosity rover on Mars, they really weren't sure what to make of it.

Read full article Curiosity rover: The reward for 'whale watching' on Mars

Martian water streaks present exploration challenge

Streaks Image copyright NASA
Image caption The dark streaks - or "recurring slope lineae" - result from the movement of liquid water, Nasa scientists say

Wherever there's water, there's a good chance life can thrive.

H2O is the "lubricant" of biochemical reactions, and Nasa's announcement that liquid water flows under certain circumstances on the Red Planet will heighten expectation that this normally freezing, desiccated world might just provide a foothold for microbial organisms.

Read full article Martian water streaks present exploration challenge

Advanced Ligo: Labs 'open their ears' to the cosmos

Ligo optics Image copyright ADVANCED LIGO
Image caption Advanced Ligo represents one of the most sensitive measuring systems ever devised

The experiment that should finally detect ripples in the fabric of space-time is up and running.

Labs in the US states of Washington and Louisiana began "listening" on Friday for the gravitational waves that are predicted to flow through the Earth when violent events occur in space.

Read full article Advanced Ligo: Labs 'open their ears' to the cosmos

Philae video captures real-time comet landing

Media captionSeven photos have been smoothed into a real-time movie of the approach

A new video captures the moment Philae, Europe's now-famous comet lander, first approached Comet 67P for its historic landing on 12 November last year.

Philae acquired a series of still images with its Rolis descent camera.

Read full article Philae video captures real-time comet landing