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NASA has chosen three companies whose craft it will use to ship cargo to the ISS and we've got new details about the brightest supernova we've ever observed.

Also, we are super excited about the possible new ninth planet and will cover that in next week's Space News!
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Caitlin: There’s a lot that’s changed in the space industry over the last few years, but one of the most important changes has been in how we get to space. These days, there are a whole bunch of private companies making rockets that can launch satellites or dock with the International Space Station. Which means there are plenty of cool new spacecraft that NASA can use to ferry cargo, and soon people, back and forth.

Last week, NASA announced that it had chosen which companies, and which craft, that it’ll be using -- paying up to 14 billion dollars for a series of unmanned missions to the ISS from 2019 to 2024. They’ll be splitting that money among three companies, who will get at least 6 cargo missions each: SpaceX, who you hear us talk about all the time, Orbital ATK, and a new player in the mix: Sierra Nevada.

Sierra Nevada’s spaceship is called the Dream Chaser, and one of the first things you might notice about it is that it looks different from your average cargo capsule. Instead of being a kind of tapered blob, the Dream Chaser looks a whole lot more like a streamlined version of the Space Shuttle, which was retired in 2011. And for good reason: Like the Space Shuttle, the Dream Chaser is a spaceplane -- it can go to space, but like a regular plane, it can also land on a runway and be reused.

For cargo missions, that’s handy, because scientists will be able to access Dream Chaser’s payload within just a few hours of landing -- as opposed to recovering cargo from the capsules we use now, which can take a day or two. It also means that researchers will be able to conduct more fragile experiments, like with plants and animals that might be too delicate for a traditional capsule landing -- splashing into the ocean or thudding onto the ground with parachutes. The Dream Chaser that’ll be used for upcoming missions is only designed to carry cargo, but there’s another version meant for people, too -- the company has bid on flying people for NASA in the past, but it hasn’t gotten the chance yet.

Still, this contract means that we’ll soon be seeing spaceplanes gliding down from the ISS onto runways again. And if all goes well, someday we might be flying in them again, too. So that’s one bright new star in space-science news. And here’s another really bright one: Last week in the journal Science, astronomers announced new details about the most luminous supernova ever observed -- and its origins are still a mystery. The supernova is 3.8 billion light years away. But, for perspective, if this thing were 3000 light years away, it would look brighter than the full moon in our night sky. And at its peak, it would have been 20 times more luminous than all of the hundred billion or so stars in the Milky Way galaxy, combined. Basically, it’s putting out a LOT of light. And the researchers want to know how.

The team discovered this extra-weird point of light back in June 2015, using a set of telescopes in Chile. Now that they’ve spent more time observing it, they know a lot about what kind of light it’s putting out, and how that light changes over time. But the data don’t seem to match up with what we know about supernovas. Normally, supernovas happen when stars become unstable and essentially explode. The specifics depend on the kind of supernova you’re talking about. But the astronomers don’t know what would make a supernova this luminous.

One clue they’ve found is that the exploding star doesn’t have much hydrogen in it. That makes it part of a class of supernovas that happen when a star collapses into what’s known as a magnetar -- a kind of star with a lot of magnetic energy -- and all that energy makes the supernova extra bright. Problem is, that kind of supernova usually only happens in dimmer galaxies. And this one comes from a big galaxy, with a lot of stars putting out plenty of light.

Now, it’s also possible that this explosion comes from a huge star that came a little too close to the black hole at the center of its galaxy. But in that case, astronomers would be seeing plenty of the hydrogen that you’d find in a big star. Which, again, they’re not. So, no one’s really sure what’s going on, but they do have plans to find out. The team will keep watching the explosion, monitoring its light to see what happens as it fades. They’re also planning to observe it with the Hubble Space Telescope, which is powerful enough to pinpoint the supernova’s location within its galaxy. If it turns out to be close to the center, that might mean that it is a star being torn apart by a black hole. Either way, it should help us learn a little more about the biggest supernova explosion we’ve ever seen.

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