Electricity Directly Into Thrust

 

This past autumn, a professor at Wuhan University named Jau Tang was hard at work piecing together a thruster prototype that, at first, sounds too good to be true.

The basic idea, he said in an interview, is that his device turns electricity directly into thrust — no fossil fuels required — by using microwaves to energize compressed air into a plasma state and shooting it out like a jet. Tang suggested, without a hint of self-aggrandizement, that it could likely be scaled up enough to fly large commercial passenger planes. Eventually, he says, it might even power spaceships.

Needless to say, these are grandiose claims. A thruster that doesn’t require tanks of fuel sounds suspiciously like science fiction — like the jets on Iron Man’s suit in the Marvel movies, for instance, or the thrusters that allow Doc Brown’s DeLorean to fly in “Back to the Future.”

But in Tang’s telling, his invention — let’s just call it a Tang Jet, which he worked on with Wuhan University collaborators Dan Ye and Jun Li — could have civilization-shifting potential here in the non-fictional world.

“Essentially, the goal of this technology is to try and use electricity and air to replace gasoline,” he said. “Global warming is a major threat to human civilization. Fossil fuel-free technology using microwave air plasma could be a solution.”

He anticipates this happening fast. In two years, he says, he thinks Tang Jets could power drones. In a decade, he’d like to see them fly a whole airplane.

That would all be awesome, obviously. But it’s difficult to evaluate whether Tang’s invention could ever scale up enough to become practical. And even if it did, there would be substantial energy requirements that could doom aerospace applications.

One thing’s for sure: If the tech works the way he hopes, the world will never be the same.

Tang’s curriculum vitae flits between a dazzling array of strikingly disparate academic topics, from 4D electron microscopy to quantum dot lasers, nanotechnology, artificial photosynthesis, and, of course, phase transitions and plasmonics.

He’s held several professorships, done research at Caltech and Bell Laboratories, published scores of widely-cited papers, edited several scientific journals, and won a variety of awards. He holds a U.S. patent for a device he calls a “synchrotron shutter,” designed to capture electrons traveling near the speed of light.

Tang says he first stumbled onto the idea for the plasma thruster when he was trying to create synthetic diamonds. As he tried to grow them using microwaves, he recalls, he started to wonder whether the same technology could be used to produce thrust.

Other huge stories, like the coronavirus pandemic and the baffling saga of Elon Musk naming his baby “X Æ A-12,” were sucking a lot of oxygen out of the news cycle in early May, when Tang announced his invention to the world. A few outlets picked up Tang’s story, including New Atlas, Popular Mechanics, and Ars Technica, but no journalist appears to have actually talked to him.

Because of that, there was little fanfare surrounding the sheer scope of his ambition for the technology — and it went overlooked that Tang sometimes sounds as though he’s invented a hammer and is now seeing a lot of things as nails.

After describing his plans to conquer aerospace with his new thruster, for instance, he starts to describe plans to take on the automotive industry as well — with jet-powered electric cars.

“I think the jet engine is more efficient than the electric motor, you can drive a car at much faster speeds,” he mused. “That’s what I have in mind: to combine the plasma jet engine with a turbine to drive a car.”

But you wouldn’t want to drive behind it, he warned, because you could be scorched by its fiery jet stream.

Over the course of our interview, Tang also brought up the possibilities of using the technology to build projectile weapons, launch spaceships, power boats, and even create a new type of stove for cooking. On that last point, Tang said that he’s already built a prototype kitchen stove powered by a microwave air plasma torch — but it’s so deafeningly loud that it sounds like a constant lightning strike.

Technically, the Tang Jet is an attempt to build a “plasma thruster,” a concept that’s periodically gained attention in scientific circles. Michael Heil, a retired aerospace and propulsion engineer with a long career of Air Force and NASA research, told Futurism that Tang’s research reminds him of several other attempts to build air propulsion tech that he’s encountered over the years.

Plasma thrusters like those that would power a Tang Jet have been around for a while. NASA first launched a satellite equipped with plasma thrusters back in 2006, but its capabilities are a far cry from what Tang is proposing with his research.

Engineers have long dreamed of a plasma jet-powered plane, but every attempt has been smacked down by the technological limitations of the day. For example, New Scientist reported in 2017 that a team from the Technical University of Berlin attempted to build a similar thruster — but like every attempt over the previous decade, their work never became useful outside of the lab.

The problems with these attempts aren’t so much faults with the theory — the concept of generating thrust with a plasma torch is fairly sound. Rather, issues begin to pop up when working out the logistics of building a vehicle that actually works.

Tang has little interest in commercializing the jet himself. Instead, he wants to demonstrate its merits in hopes that well-funded government leaders or titans of industry will be inspired to take the ideas and run with them.

“The steps toward realization of a full plasma jet engine would cost lots of money, time and energy,” he said. “Such investment is beyond our present resources. Such tasks should be taken by aerospace industries or governmental agencies.”

That’s a common mindset for scientists, said Christopher Combs, an aerodynamics researcher at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

“That’s what us academics do, we figure out the physics and say ‘Well I don’t want to make a product,’” he told Futurism. “It’s kind of a common refrain to see people in academia who have had something that gets a lot of attention.”

Though he’s intrigued by the underlying principles of the Tang Jet, Combs says it’s unlikely that it will scale up to the size needed to lift a plane — in other words, the same challenges that proved insurmountable to previous plasma thrusters will rear their heads once again. The current prototype, for perspective, only produces about 10 Newtons of thrust — about the same as a medium-sized model rocket.

“You’re talking about scaling something by five orders of magnitude — more than 100,000 times!” Combs said. “Which almost never works linearly. Lots of engineering happens in the middle.”

And even if it were to scale perfectly, there’s the issue of power. Iron Man’s suit was powered by an “Arc Reactor,” and the flying DeLorean was powered by a “Mr. Fusion” unit that turned household trash into more than a gigawatt of power — both of which, unfortunately, are fictional.

Fossil fuels store vastly more energy by weight than batteries, and that’s unlikely to change any time soon. And that’s too bad, because the Tang Jet needs a whole lot of power.

According to a paper Tang and his collaborators published about the thruster prototype in the journal AIP Advances in May, the technology produces about 28 Newtons of thrust per kilowatt of power. The engines on the Airbus A320, a common commercial jet, produce about 220,000 Newtons of thrust combined, meaning that a comparably-sized jet plane powered by Tang Jets would require more than 7,800 kilowatts.

For perspective, that would mean loading an aircraft up with more than 570 Tesla Powerwall 2 units for a single hour of flight — an impractical load, especially because the A320’s payload could only carry about 130 of the giant battery units. Long story short, no existing battery tech could provide enough juice.

“Does this thing just become a flying Tesla battery?” Combs said. “With the weight of these batteries, you don’t have room for anything else.”

The battery weight issue doesn’t doom the Tang Jet, but it pushes options for its power source into the fringe. Tang is banking on improvements to battery technology over the next years and decades; those Technical University of Berlin researchers speculated about nuclear fusion. Unfortunately, any possible answers could be decades away or impossible.

It is worth noting that there exist compact nuclear fission reactors, like Russia’s KLT-40S, that produce enough power and weigh little enough that they could fit in a passenger plane or rocket.

But the safety and environmental implications of nuclear-powered aircraft are grim, and Heil was quick to point out that generating enough power isn’t the only problem facing a Tang Jet. Actually getting the electricity from the power source to the thrusters would pose its own difficulties, perhaps requiring superconducting materials that don’t exist yet.

“You need power to generate thrust. And how do you move that power around on the aircraft?” Heil said. “Moving and controlling megawatts from the reactor to the jet is a huge challenge. You have to use big thick copper wires, that adds a lot of weight.”

Overall, both Combs and Heil questioned the feasibility of a practical Tang Jet based on the technology we have today. Without a quick fix to the energy problem, it’s certainly a tall order.

But both said they were fascinated by the research and hoped to see future progress. They also pointed out that a plasma thruster could be useful for pushing satellites or spacecraft that are already in orbit — though at that point it would need to bring propellant with it rather than using atmospheric air, since there’d be none in the vacuum of space.

The bottom line, Heil and Combs agreed, is that we won’t have a firmer grasp of the future of the tech until Tang’s colleagues have evaluated and experimented with it.

“I’m rooting for this, and I’d love to see it pan out,” Combs said. “But the scientist in me has some questions and some concerns.”

More on Tang’s plasma jets: Scientists Create Jet Engine Powered by Only Electricity

Hubble Observed a “Flapping Shadow”

 

“The shadow moves. It’s flapping like the wings of a bird!”

NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope just caught the “bat shadow” of a newborn star moving — a sight the space agency evocatively compared to a pair of flapping bat wings.

“The shadow moves. It’s flapping like the wings of a bird!” Klaus Pontoppidan, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, and lead author of a paper about the discovery in the Astrophysical Journal, said in a statement.
The star, called HBC 672 and located some 1,400 light years away in the Serpent nebula, is just one or two million years old — practically a baby in cosmic terms. It casts the shadow due to a warped and flared disk surrounding it.

“You have a star that is surrounded by a disk, and the disk is not like Saturn’s rings — it’s not flat,” explained Pontoppidan. “It’s puffed up. And so that means that if the light from the star goes straight up, it can continue straight up — it’s not blocked by anything.”
 
But if the ring does block it, the light “doesn’t get out and it casts a shadow,” he added.

The disk surrounding the young star is likely made out of gas, dust and rock and has two peaks on opposite ends, like a horse saddle. Light cast through this ring ends up looking like a pair of flapping wings.

The disk itself is too small and far away for Hubble to observe it directly, so the team had to resort to examining its massive shadow.

The astronomers suspect a planet in the star’s orbit could be warping and shifting the shape of the ring, and therefore the movement of its shadow. Such a planet would take an estimated 180 Earth-days to circle its parent star.

The star may be extremely young, but its ring of rock and dust is enormous. The size of just the shadow alone would be hundreds of times the size our entire solar system, according to NASA. Light would take more than a month to travel that distance.

By taking additional pictures using filters, the team was able to create a gorgeous, colored image of the star and its “bat shadow.”

READ MORE: Hubble Sees Cosmic Flapping ‘Bat Shadow’ [NASA]

Detects Ancient Life … in Australia

 

Test Run

In order to make sure it was ready to hunt for extraterrestrial life on Mars, scientists put NASA’s new Perseverance rover through its paces using samples from the next best thing: Australia’s deserts.

When it launches to Mars in July, Perseverance will go on the hunt for signs of ancient, microbial life. Now, new research provides a promising sign that its tech is up to the task: while analyzing samples from Australia’s Flinders Ranges, the rover was able to find physical fossils and signs of microbes from hundreds of millions of years ago.

Historic Reconstruction

After finding traces of ancient life, researchers were able to use data collected by Perseverance to make an educated guess about what environmental conditions they lived in. Their work, published in March in the journal Astrobiology, could help steer future astrobiological research into other worlds’ ancient history.

“What is interesting is that we did find signs of ancient microbial life from the Cambrian period — which is when animals first evolved on earth,” University of New South Wales astrobiologist Bonnie Teece said in a press release. “We found biomarkers, we found organic compounds and we found physical fossils and minerals that are associated with biology on Earth.”

Dry Run

Teece argues that the Flinders Ranges makes a reasonable analog for Mars because of the dry, dusty, and wind-swept terrain, as well as the fact that fossils could be degraded by the same sorts of heat and pressure there and on Mars.

“We wanted to use the same techniques that are on the Rover to pinpoint the best areas for looking for life and show that these techniques work together well,” Teece said in the release.

Editor’s note 5/5/2020: This article has been updated to clarify that Perseverance analyzed samples from Flinders Ranges but wasn’t brought there itself.

READ MORE: Astrobiologists put Mars Rover life-detecting equipment to the test [University of New South Wales]
More on Perseverance: NASA’s New Mars Rover Still Launching in July Despite Coronavirus

Extremely Earth-Like Exoplanet

 

It’s the most similar to Earth in size and estimated temperature out of the thousands of exoplanets discovered by Kepler.

“This intriguing, distant world gives us even greater hope that a second Earth lies among the stars, waiting to be found,”  Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, who was not part of the research, said in a statement.

The exoplanet, called Kepler -1649c, orbits its small red dwarf star within the system’s habitable zone, a distance at which rocky planets receive enough star radiation to allow for liquid water to exist. It’s almost precisely the same size as large as Earth and receives 75 percent of the amount of light Earth receives from the Sun.

In other words, it’s a distant world that’s likelier than many others to support life. At 300 light-years from Earth, it’s the most similar to Earth in size and estimated temperature out of the thousands of exoplanets discovered by the Kepler space telescope, according to the researchers.

But plenty of questions remain before we can definitively say that the planet is capable of supporting life. For one, we don’t know what its atmosphere looks like — the key determinant of the planet’s surface temperature.

The team made the discovery while re-analzying older observations from NASA’s now-retired Kepler space telescope program. Kepler -1649c orbits its star at an extremely short distance — a full revolution takes only 19.5 Earth days — alongside a similarly sized rocky planet that orbits at half the distance of Kepler-1649c.

“Out of all the mislabeled planets we’ve recovered, this one’s particularly exciting — not just because it’s in the habitable zone and Earth-size, but because of how it might interact with this neighboring planet,” Andrew Vanderburg, researcher at the University of Texas at Austin and lead author of the paper published today in The Astrophysical Journal Letters, said in the statement.

The two rocky planets orbit their host star at an exact ratio: Kepler-1649c completes nine orbits in almost exactly the same time the inner planet completes four orbits. The researchers believe this could make the system extremely stable over a long period of time.

“The more data we get, the more signs we see pointing to the notion that potentially habitable and Earth-size exoplanets are common around these kinds of stars,” said Vanderburg.

“With red dwarfs almost everywhere around our galaxy, and these small, potentially habitable and rocky planets around them, the chance one of them isn’t too different than our Earth looks a bit brighter,” he added.

READ MORE: New Earth-sized planet found in habitable sweet-spot orbit around a distant star [TechCrunch]
More on exoplanets: Bizarre Exoplanet Might Be a Gas Giant That Lost its Gas

Evidence of Ancient Life on Mars

 

An international team of astrobiologists claim that organic molecules discovered by NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover could be evidence of life on Mars.

In a paper published in the journal Astrobiology, the team argues that the presence of “thiophenes,” which are special compounds found in coal, crude oil and white truffles back on Earth, could be a sign of ancient life on the Red Planet.

“We identified several biological pathways for thiophenes that seem more likely than chemical ones, but we still need proof,” Washington State University astrobiologist and lead author Dirk Schulze-Makuch said in a statement.

The team, however, isn’t jumping to any conclusions just yet.

“If you find thiophenes on Earth, then you would think they are biological, but on Mars, of course, the bar to prove that has to be quite a bit higher,” Shulze-Makuch added.

While thiophenes are made up of two bio-essential elements, carbon and sulfur, it’s still very possible they could’ve been created during meteor impacts that heat sulfates to high temperatures — a possible explanation the researchers are also considering.

If the compounds were indeed a sign of life, they could’ve been the result of bacteria some three billion years ago breaking down sulfates — or alternatively could have been broken down by the bacteria.

But, again, it’s far too early to draw conclusions.

The Curiosity rover analyzes compounds by breaking them down into fragments. The upcoming European Space Agency’s Rosalind Franklin rover, however, could fill in the gaps with its Mars Organic Molecule Analyzer (MOMA), which doesn’t use the same destructive technique as Curiosity.

What has Schulze-Makuch most excited is the possibility of finding differing ratios of heavy and light isotopes in compounds, the result of organisms breaking down elements and “a telltale signal for life,” according to the researcher.

“As Carl Sagan said ‘extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,’” Schulze-Makuch said. “I think the proof will really require that we actually send people there, and an astronaut looks through a microscope and sees a moving microbe.”

READ MORE: Organic molecules discovered by Curiosity Rover consistent with early life on Mars: study [Washington State University]
More on Curiosity: NASA Mars Rover Snaps Glorious 1.8 Billion Pixel Panorama

Student Discovers 17 Planets

 

Planet Party

By combing through data collected by NASA’s planet-hunting Kepler space telescope, University of British Columbia astronomy PhD candidate Michelle Kunimoto discovered evidence of an impressive 17 new exoplanets — including a roughly Earth-sized world found in the “habitable zone,” the region around a star where liquid water could exist.

“This planet is about a thousand light years away, so we’re not getting there anytime soon!” Kunimoto said in a statement. “But this is a really exciting find, since there have only been 15 small, confirmed planets in the Habitable Zone found in Kepler data so far.”

Transit Method

Kunimoto used the “transit method” to find the planets, one of the most widely used planet-hunting methods.

“Every time a planet passes in front of a star, it blocks a portion of that star’s light and causes a temporary decrease in the star’s brightness,” she explained. “By finding these dips, known as transits, you can start to piece together information about the planet, such as its size and how long it takes to orbit.”

Stay Tuned

The Earth-like planet is about 1.5 times the size of our own planet, and has an orbit just larger than Mercury’s. But it only gets about a third of the light that Earth gets from the Sun.

Kunimoto and her PhD. supervisor Jaymie Matthews are excited to find more planets in the habitable zone.

“How many Earth-like planets are there? Stay tuned,” said Matthews.

READ MORE:Astronomy student discovers 17 new planets, including Earth-sized world [University of British Columbia]
More on exoplanets: Astronomers Conclude Massive Exoplanet Could Host Life

You can be a NASA Moon Astronaut

 

Taking Names

NASA is officially accepting applications for astronauts to travel to the Moon as part of its Artemis mission. You can send in your own application, if you think you have what it takes, between March 2 and 31.

“We’re celebrating our 20th year of continuous presence aboard the International Space Station in low-Earth orbit this year, and we’re on the verge of sending the first woman and next man to the Moon by 2024,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a statement.

Job Requirements

If you make the cut, you might soon be traveling to the International Space Station aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon or Boeing Starliner spacecraft developed as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.

Candidates will have to show proof of a master’s degree in a STEM field and “two years of related, progressively responsible professional experience, or at least 1,000 hours of pilot-in-command time in jet aircraft,” according to NASA.

Résumé Booster

In the longer term, NASA is hoping to send humans to the Moon’s surface using its Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft as soon as 2024. To get to Mars, you’ll have to wait until the mid-2030s.

“For the handful of highly talented women and men we will hire to join our diverse astronaut corps, it’s an incredible time in human spaceflight to be an astronaut,” he added.

READ MORE: Explorers Wanted: NASA to Hire More Artemis Generation Astronauts [NASA]
More on astronauts: NASA Astronaut Sets Space Record, Says She’ll Miss Microgravity

Epic Selfie In Space

 

Space Selfie

NASA astronaut Jessica Meir recently shared what might be one of the coolest selfies ever via her Twitter account.
Since September 2019, Meir has been a member of the International Space Station crew. In January, she ventured out of the ISS for a pair of spacewalks — and managed to snap a couple of out-of-this-world self-portraits, while floating in space.

Big Smile

According to Meir’s tweet, she used a Nikon D5 with a 28 millimeter lens in a protective case to capture both pictures.

One of the photos is done in traditional selfie style, with Meir pointing the camera directly at her smiling face while the Earth can be seen in the reflection of her helmet.

For the other photo, she snapped a pic of her reflection by using one of the ISS’s solar panels as an ad hoc mirror. In that one, the curve of the Earth can be seen behind Meir.



Fine, visor up this time – but at least the magnificent Earth still makes an appearance too. All (and other photos) made possible with a Nikon D5 with a 28 mm lens in a protective housing (visible in center of 2nd photo). SelfieSunday

Still Badass

Meir isn’t the first astronaut to take a space selfie. That would be Buzz Aldrin, who snapped his own photo while spacewalking outside the Gemini 12 mission in 1966.

More than 50 years may have passed since Aldrin took that iconic photo — but it’s still hard to imagine a more badass setting for a selfie than space.

Read More: 
NASA Astronaut Jessica Meir Took a Space Selfie, Capturing her Reflection in the Space Station [Universe Today]

More on Meir:
Piece of Astronaut’s Spacesuit Falls off During Spacewalk

Astronauts are getting CLOTS

 

According to a shocking report by NASA scientists, blood flow can stop and even reverse in the upper bodies of astronauts.

The study could have some major implications about prolonged trips through deep space, as we’re still trying to nail down the exact effects of spending long periods in microgravity.

The study looked at periodic ultrasound tests of 11 healthy astronauts who staffed the International Space Station.

The results were alarming: blood flow had either stagnated or reversed in the left internal jugular vein, a major blood vessel on the side of the neck, in seven crew members. The tests also found a clot and a partial clot in two of the crew members after their return to Earth.

A paper of the study was published in the journal JAMA Network Open on Wednesday.

“This was an unexpected finding,” Michael Stenger, senior author and manager at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, told NBC News. “We did not expect to see stasis and reverse flow. That is very abnormal. On Earth, you would immediately suspect a massive blockage or a tumor or something like that.”

And that could have some very serious effects on astronauts’ health.

“If you get a clot in the internal jugular vein, the clot could travel to the lungs and cause a pulmonary embolism — that’s very dangerous,” professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins University Andrew Feinberg told NBC./blockquote>

Caterpillars on the Moon

 

Space Prospector

Iconic construction vehicle company Caterpillar is working with NASA to build machines that could excavate and mine the lunar surface.

The goal is to determine whether it makes sense to send autonomous or remote-controlled construction equipment to the Moon, according to CNBC, to gather rocks, dust, and water that NASA could use as raw materials for its planned lunar outpost.

Self-Driving Shovel

NASA and Caterpillar have long collaborated on robotics projects, CNBC reports. But it’s the company’s autonomous capabilities — unusual for the construction vehicle market — that make it a standout candidate to build lunar infrastructure.

“There are many synergies between what NASA needs to meet exploration goals and Caterpillar technologies used every day on Earth,” NASA spokesperson Clare Skelly told CNBC.

Hazardous Workplace

Though Caterpillar’s resource industries division president, Denise Johnson, wouldn’t confirm any tangible lunar mission plans to CNBC, the idea of using at least semi-autonomous vehicles on the Moon is to cut down on how much dangerous construction work astronauts would have to do themselves.

“Customers are finding it difficult to operate in those remote locations, getting personnel in and out in a consistent way, which drives the value proposition,” Johnson told CNBC, specifically referring to using autonomous tech in hazardous areas on Earth. “The application of the technology becomes a necessity to make it work from a value-add perspective.”

READ MORE: Caterpillar’s autonomous vehicles may be used by NASA to mine the moon and build a lunar base [CNBC]
More on the Moon: NASA’s Plan for a Lunar Outpost Just Leaked

If Earth Collided with a Black Hole

 

Worlds Collide

A new online tool calculates just how much cosmic destruction a run-in between the Earth and a black hole would cause.
The aptly-named Black Hole Collision Calculator determines how much a black hole would expand and the amount of energy it would release if it absorbed the Earth — or any other object, since the calculator is totally customizable, Space.com reports.
 

Big Kaboom

Particle physicist Álvaro Díez created the tool, which is hosted on the calculator database project Omni Calculator. Based on his calculations, a black hole swallowing the Earth would release some 55 quintillion times the planet’s annual energy consumption.
But even that destructive event would be a light snack for a supermassive black hole — its event horizon would only expand by a hundredth of a trillionth of a percent, per the calculator.
The main flaw with the calculator? The artistic rendering of a black hole obliterating the Earth that pops up next to the results doesn’t change to match any increasingly goofy collisions.
 

READ MORE: See What a Black Hole Would Do to Earth with Online ‘Collision Calculator’ [Space.com]
More on cosmic annihilation:Two Supermassive Black Holes Are on a Devastating Crash Course
 

Smallest Dwarf Planet in Solar System

 

Moving On Up

The asteroid Hygiea just got a promotion.

Using European Southern Observatory’s SPHERE instrument at the Very Large Telescope (VLT), astronomers were able to get their most detailed look yet at Hygiea, an object in the asteroid belt.

And based on what they saw, they think the asteroid deserves reclassification as a dwarf planet — making it the smallest one yet identified in the entire solar system.

Four For Four

To be classified as a dwarf planet, an object must meet four requirements: it must be spherical, it must orbit the Sun, it can’t be a moon — and it must not have cleared the neighborhood around itself, which would make it a proper planet.

Astronomers already knew that Hygiea met the latter three requirements, and the new VLT data allowed them to confirm the first.

“Thanks to the unique capability of the SPHERE instrument on the VLT, which is one of the most powerful imaging systems in the world, we could resolve Hygiea’s shape, which turns out to be nearly spherical,” lead researcher Pierre Vernazza said in a news release. “Thanks to these images, Hygiea may be reclassified as a dwarf planet, so far the smallest in the Solar System.”

READ MORE: ESO Telescope Reveals What Could be the Smallest Dwarf Planet Yet in the Solar System [European Southern Observatory]
More on dwarf planets: Astronomers Just Found a Dwarf Planet Three Times As Far Away As Pluto