They say space is the place — and there’s a whole lot going on out there. Here’s what you may have missed this week in outer space.
Wildlife on Mars?
Early in the week, the internet was ablaze over an image captured by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter that bears a striking resemblance to a bear.
The image, which was originally captured in December, shows a patch of the Martian landscape, outlined by what NASA calls a "circular fracture pattern," with two craters for eyes and what appears to be a volcanic formation for a nose and mouth.
Now, some have been quick to attribute this to a phenomenon known as "pareidolia," the tendency for humans to derive meaningful images from random patterns. These killjoys argue that in a topography as vast and varied as Mars there are bound to be things that sort of look like other things — and, sure, they may technically be right — but it really does look like a bear.
Don’t look up
On Wednesday night, a bright-green comet known as "C/2022 E3 (ZTF)" or simply "The Green Comet," reached its closest point to Earth in 50,000 years, becoming temporarily visible to the naked eye for the first time since the Stone Age. In case you missed it, you may still have a chance between now and about Feb. 10.
Astronomers say the comet is best viewed on the northern horizon between about 10 p.m. ET and just before dawn. Although if you live in a city with tall buildings and serious light pollution, you may be out of luck.
Do planets get moon envy?
The International Astronomical Union's Minor Planet Center, an organization operating at the Smithsonian Institute that keeps track of this kind of thing, has listed 12 newly discovered moons orbiting Jupiter, bringing the gas giant's total to a whopping 92 natural satellites. Jupiter now officially holds the title for most moons in our solar system, beating out Saturn's previous record of 83.
For those playing at home: Earth still only has one moon.
On Thursday, the NASA astronaut Nicole "Duke" Mann and Koichi Wakata from Japan's JAXA space program took part in a seven-hour spacewalk to help prepare for the installation of a new solar array on the International Space Station. Once completed, NASA estimates the new solar array will increase the power supply aboard the ISS by up to 30%.
SpaceX is still doing their thing
Back down on Earth, SpaceX launched its 200th Falcon 9 rocket, carrying another batch of Starlink satellites into orbit, on Thursday. The Elon Musk-led space corporation has deployed nearly 4,000 satellites to its fledgling Starlink internet service, which offers high-speed connections in remote parts of the world, from war-torn Ukraine to luxury yachts. SpaceX plans to add thousands more satellites to its network in the coming years. The next launch is scheduled for Sunday, Feb. 5.
Veteran astronauts honored
Vice President Kamala Harris awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor to former astronauts Douglas Hurley and Robert Behnken, who piloted the first manned SpaceX mission in conjunction with NASA to the ISS in 2020. The "Dragon Endeavour" launch also marked the first U.S.-led manned spaceflight since NASA's space shuttle program was retired in 2011.
“Bob and Doug and the team at SpaceX worked for years to design a new crew capsule, aptly named the ‘Crew Dragon,’” Harris said at the ceremony on Tuesday. “They understood the stakes of their work for our nation, for our world, and importantly for the astronauts who would one day entrust their lives to the Dragon capsule.”
Finally, this week marked the 20th anniversary of the Columbia space shuttle disaster. During reentry into Earth's atmosphere, Columbia broke apart, killing all seven astronauts aboard. In addition to the tragic loss of the crew, the investigation that followed exposed a major flaw in the shuttle's heat shielding, marking the beginning of the end for the space shuttle program eight years later.