1. Discovery of Water On The Moon

October’s most exciting science news was the discovery of water on the surface of the Moon. The discovery was made using the SOFIA (Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy) observatory, which is the world’s largest flying observatory. It has detected water molecules in the Clavius Crater, which is one of the largest lunar craters visible from the Earth. Data from this location reveal water in concentrations of 100 to 412 parts per million – roughly equivalent to a 12-ounce bottle of water – trapped in a cubic meter of soil spread across the lunar surface.

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Illustration of SOFIA (Image: NASA)

NASA notes that this discovery is possible because of the research done by the Cassini-Huygens mission, the Deep Impact Comet mission, ISRO’s Chandrayaan-1 mission, and its ground-based Infrared Telescope facility. However, all these missions could not definitively distinguish the form in which hydration was present – either H2O or OH.

Researchers scanned the lunar surface at a more precise wavelength than had been used before – six microns instead of three. This allowed them to “unambiguously” distinguish the spectral fingerprint of molecular water, said co-author Casey Honniball, of the Hawaii Institute of Geophysics and Planetology. The research paper has been published in the journal Nature Astronomy.

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2. New Salivary Glands

It’s not everyday researchers discover a new gland/organ in the human body. But when they do, it’s quite exciting! In an accidental discovery, scientists have discovered a secret set of salivary glands. The first hint of this new gland emerged while Wouter Vogel, a radiation oncologist at the Netherlands Cancer Institute (NCI) was probing for damage to salivary glands after radiotherapy for cancer in the head, neck, or brain.

These glands are responsible for the moistening of the upper throat region. The results have been published in Radiotherapy and Oncology.

3. Betelgeuse

Orion’s supergiant Betelgeuse sparked interest among astronomers after its apparent magnitude drastically decreased. Many speculated that the star’s end is near. But now researchers have claimed that we might have to wait for another 100,000 years before the star explodes. They have also shown that Betelgeuse is much smaller and closer than previously thought.

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Betelgeuse as seen in sub-millimeter wavelengths by the ALMA telescope in Chile. The “bump” on the left side is hot gas slightly protruding from the red supergiant star’s extended atmosphere. Image via ALMA (ESO/ NAOJ/ NRAO)/ E. O’Gorman/ P. Kervella/ ASU.

Meridith Joyce at ANU, who led the study, stated:

It’s normally one of the brightest stars in the sky, but we’ve observed two drops in the brightness of Betelgeuse since late 2019. This prompted speculation it could be about to explode. But our study offers a different explanation. We know the first dimming event involved a dust cloud. We found the second smaller event was likely due to the pulsations of the star.

According to new estimates, Betelgeuse lies at a distance of 530 light years, which is 25% closer than previously thought. They have also found that Betelgeuse has a diameter that is two-thirds of the previous estimate. The mass of the supergiant as reported is 6.5–19 M —slightly lower than typical literature values.

The research paper titled “Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: New Mass and Distance Estimates for Betelgeuse through Combined Evolutionary, Asteroseismic, and Hydrodynamic Simulations with MESA” has been published in The Astrophysical Journal.

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4. Aliens Can Spot Us? Maybe Yes!

According to new research published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, there are about 1000 nearby stars that can see Earth as a transiting planet. This is the technique that is used by astronomers to discover exoplanets. They study the light curve of the star. Whenever the exoplanet passes in front of its parent star as seen from the Earth, the star’s brightness decreases – a dip in the light curve.

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Image: NASA

About 5% of the 1,004 stars are likely too young for intelligent life to have evolved, the researchers surmise, even if a planet with habitable conditions orbited them. But the remaining 95% belong to star categories that can sustain life for billions of years, which Earth’s experience suggests is long enough for intelligent life to evolve, assuming conditions are right.

The next step, the researchers wrote, is to focus on intelligent life-hunting operations on the 1,004 stars identified in their paper. They specifically mentioned SETI’s Breakthrough Listen program, designed to detect communications from advanced alien civilizations.

5. The Nobel Prizes

The month began with the announcements of this year’s Nobel Prizes. Research on black holes, hepatitis C virus, and genome editing has been awarded 2020’s Nobel Prizes.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences decided to award the Nobel Prize in Physics 2020 with one half to Roger Penrose “for the discovery that black hole formation is a robust prediction of the general theory of relativity” and the other half jointly to Reinhard Genzel and Andrea Ghez “for the discovery of a supermassive compact object at the centre of our galaxy”.

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Roger Penrose, Reinhard Genzel and Andrea Ghez were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for 2020, for their findings in cosmology. Image Credit: Niklas Elmehed/Twitter/Nobel Prize

The 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry is awarded to Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna “for the development of a method for genome editing”.

The 2020 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine is awarded jointly to Harvey J. Alter, Michael Houghton and Charles M. Rice “for the discovery of Hepatitis C virus”. Thanks to their discovery, highly sensitive blood tests for the virus are now available and these have essentially eliminated post-transfusion hepatitis in many parts of the world, greatly improving global health.

6. Smallest Unit Of Time Ever Measured

In a quantum experiment, German scientists have measured the smallest unit of time ever in ‘zeptoseconds’. One zeptosecond is equal to 10-21s (a trillionth of a billionth of a second). The research was a project of physicists from Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany. The team said the experiment represents major progress in “the global race” to measure shorter and shorter units of time.

Watch our ‘Introduction to Quantum Mechanics’ series:

7. Fastest Speed Of Sound

Researchers have clocked the fastest speed of sound – a zippy 22 miles/second. This theoretical answer is twice the speed of sound in diamond.

This number is based on two important physical constants: the fine structure constant which is a number that describes the electromagnetic force that holds together elementary particles such as electrons and protons. (It happens to be approximately 1/137.) and the proton to electron mass ratio.

The authors have noted in the abstract of their paper (published in Science Advances) that their expands the current understanding of how fundamental constants can impose new bounds on important physical properties.

8. Fast Radio Bursts

Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs) are extremely powerful bursts of radio waves. Discovered back in 2007, they had an extragalactic origin till April 2020, when a dead star SGR 1935+2154 flared up and became the first source of FRBs in the Milky Way.

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It seems like the star is back in action. On 8 October 2020, the CHIME/FRB collaboration detected SGR 1935+2154 emitting three-millisecond radio bursts in three seconds. Following up on the CHIME/FRB detection, the FAST radio telescope found something else – a pulsed radio emission consistent with the magnetar’s spin period.

“It’s really exciting to see SGR 1935+2154 back again, and I’m optimistic that as we study these bursts more carefully, it will help us better understand the potential relationship between magnetars and fast radio bursts,” astronomer Deborah Good of the University of British Columbia in Canada, and member of the CHIME/FRB, told ScienceAlert.

The detection has been reported in Astronomer’s Telegram and is currently under analysis.

If you want to learn Astrophysics right from the beginning, read our 30-Article Basics of Astrophysics series

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