School of Evolutionary Astrology Message Board

Discussion => Evolutionary Astrology Q&A => Topic started by: Rad on Jun 29, 2015, 06:13 AM

Post by: Rad on Jun 29, 2015, 06:13 AM
Hi All,

Thought we could start a new thread on space and solar system news as it occurs. Feel free to post any stories you find interesting.

God Bless, Rad

Post by: Rad on Jun 29, 2015, 06:14 AM
NASA scientists begin search for Mars landing sites

June 28, 2015
Shayne Jacopian for – @ShayneJacopian

In roughly two decades, NASA astronauts will be setting foot on Mars—and the space agency is already mapping out a good location for them to do so, according to a report from

NASA will be holding a four-day workshop at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, TX this October in an effort to stir up some real discussion about where the astronauts should do the whole small step/giant leap thing.

Researchers will be given the opportunity to propose 100-kilometer-wide “exploration zones” that they believe will not only actually be interesting enough to warrant exploration (we argue that it’s freakin’ Mars and anywhere would be pretty darn interesting, but we’ll leave that to NASA), but will also have resources to support humans, like water ice under the surface.

Data collection begins now

Using the Mars Odyssey and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, both of which began orbiting Mars in the previous decade, NASA will survey the Red Planet, gathering high-resolution images of the terrain as well as mineral samples.

“Humans are going to need high-resolution [imagery] over their whole exploration zone,” Green told “Therefore, we need to know where they’re going. It’s really that simple.”

Sounds like a solid plan. Anyone who’s ever gone out to eat with a group of friends should be on board with the whole “figuring out where you’re going before you actually leave” thing.

“This, I think, is an enormous step in defining how we’re going to operate on Mars, and what do we need to take with us, because we will have a much better idea of what’s there,” he added.

To [very, very loosely] paraphrase George Orwell: All red dirt is created equal, but some red dirt is more equal than the other red dirt. You want to send astronauts to the best red dirt you can find. Preferably, the kind with water under it.

Post by: Rad on Jun 29, 2015, 06:15 AM
How do planets form?

June 27, 2015
Chuck Bednar for – @BednarChuck

During the early stages of their formation, stars are surrounded by rotating disks of dust and gas, but how do these particles manage to avoid getting sucked into the star’s gravitational field for long enough to accumulate into celestial bodies?

Dr. Alan P. Boss from the Carnegie Institution for Science’s Department of Terrestrial Magnetism and his colleagues wanted to know, and they tackle the question in new research published earlier this week in The Astrophysical Journal. The current prevailing theory of rocky planet formation states that grains of dust collide and aggregate, growing increasingly larger until they form new worlds.

However, one of the problems with this theory is that the pressure gradient of the gas in the disk would create a headwind, pushing the still-forming pebble- and boulder-sized planetoids inwards to the forming protostar, thus destroying these young planets. Objects between one- and ten-meters in radius would be most susceptible to the gas drag, and if too many such objects wound up being lost, there would not be enough material left to form a planet.

Spiral arms play a key role

According to Dr. Boss and his team, observations of protostars that are still surrounded by their dust disks have revealed that those about the same size of the Sun often experience periodic bursts of explosive activity that last about 100 years. During these events, the star becomes more luminous and the disk experiences a period of gravitational instability.The study reveals that this phenomenon can cause smaller bodies to be scattered away from the developing star instead of towards it.

Furthermore, recent studies have shown that young stars have spiral arms that are believed to play a key role in the short-term disruptions of the disk, Boss and his co-authors said.

The gravitational forces of these spiral arms could scatter boulder-sized objects, making it possible for them to accumulate and form objects large enough to overcome gas drag. Modeling techniques used in the Carnegie team’s study could further demonstrate how these spiral arms help contain smaller planetoids on their way to becoming planets.

“This work shows that boulder-sized particles could, indeed, be scattered around the disk by the formation of spiral arms and then avoid getting dragged into the protostar at the center of the developing system,” Boss said in a statement. “Once these bodies are in the disk’s outer regions, they are safe and able to grow into planetesimals.”

Post by: Rad on Jun 29, 2015, 06:16 AM
Monster black hole wakes up after 26 years

June 26, 2015
Shayne Jacopian for – @ShayneJacopian

Wait, black holes can hibernate?! And then just… come back? Oh no…

Over the last week, the ESA Integral satellite has observed some powerful bursts of light created by a black hole “consuming a stellar companion.”

According to an ESA press release, this black hole, observed on June 15, 2015, is part of V404 Cygni, a system in the Milky Way galaxy in which a black hole and a star orbit one another.

The high-energy light is a result of material drifting from the star and into the black hole, with the material forming a disc of intensely hot material that gives off a bright light before quickly descending into the black hole.

“The behavior of this source is extraordinary at the moment, with repeated bright flashes of light on time scales shorter than an hour, something rarely seen in other black hole systems,” comments Erik Kuulkers, Integral project scientist at ESA. “In these moments, it becomes the brightest object in the X-ray sky – up to fifty times brighter than the Crab Nebula, normally one of the brightest sources in the high-energy sky.”

This behavior was previously observed in 1989 with the Japanese satellite X-ray Ginga, but V404 Cygni hasn’t been nearly as bright or active since, until now.

“The community couldn’t be more thrilled: many of us weren’t yet professional astronomers back then, and the instruments and facilities available at the time can’t compare with the fleet of space telescopes and the vast network of ground-based observatories we can use today. It is definitely a ‘once in a professional lifetime’ opportunity,” Kuulkers goes on.

Looks like Taylor Swift isn’t the only one partying like it’s 1989.

Post by: Rad on Jun 29, 2015, 06:17 AM
Three crescent moons imaged around Saturn

June 26, 2015
Chuck Bednar for – @BednarChuck

A new image captured by NASA’s Cassini orbiter and released by the US space agency earlier this week shows not just one or two, but three of Saturn’s moons as crescents.

According to the Washington Post, the picture was taken on March 25. While it captures the moons Mimas, Rhea, and Titan “striking the same interstellar pose” (so to speak), the image also emphasizes just how different each of these three moons are from one another.

Experts at the Cassini Imaging Team and the Cassini Imaging Central Laboratory for Operations (CICLOPS) explained that the view shown in the image is looking toward the Titan’s anti-Saturn hemisphere, and was captured using the spacecraft’s narrow-angle camera instrument.

The image was obtained at a distance of approximately 1.2 million miles from Titan. The scale of the image at Titan is 75 miles per pixel, CICLOPS noted. Mimas was 1.9 million miles away with an image scale of 11.4 miles per pixel, and Rhea was 2.2 million miles away with an image scale of 13.1 miles per pixel, officials at the imaging team added.

About the moons

Mimas, at just 246 miles across, is the smallest of the three and is made primarily of ice. It has a rough, cratered surface, and has a large one that making it resemble the Death Star of Star Wars fame, the newspaper said. That crater, known as the Herschel Crater, is 88 miles wide, has walls about three miles high, and is up to six miles deep in spots, according to NASA.

Rhea, the second largest moon of Saturn, has a diameter of 949 miles and is described by the US space agency as “a small, cold, airless body” with temperatures reaching as low as -364 degrees Fahrenheit in the shaded areas. It also has high reflectivity, suggesting it’s largely made out of water ice, and its surface contains subsidence fractures that make canyons.

The third object in the image, Titan, is Saturn’s largest moon with a diameter of roughly 3,200 miles across. It is also one of the most Earth-like worlds found to date, according to NASA, and has a thick atmosphere and organic-rich chemistry reminiscent of a frozen version of our planet. It appears to be fuzzy in the picture due to its dense atmosphere scattering the light.

Post by: Rad on Jun 29, 2015, 06:18 AM
Are there active volcanoes on Venus?

June 25, 2015
Chuck Bednar for – @BednarChuck

Despite its demise last December, the ESA’s Venus Express spacecraft is still providing data, and research based on evidence collected by the fallen orbiter has found that volcanoes on the Earth’s sister planet may still be actively spewing lava.

According to Discovery News, lava flows were reported on Venus as recently as 2010. However, the new findings appear to indicate that the planet’s volcanoes remain active. Reported this week by National Geographic, the volcanoes are producing eruptions responsible for spiking temperatures to more than 1500 degrees Fahrenheit in some parts of the planet.

Led by researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research and published in the May edition of the journal Geophysical Research Letters, the study reported that the ESA orbiter’s Venus Monitoring Camera revealed transient bright spots that are “consistent with the extrusion of lava flows” and cause surface temperature spikes.

The correlation of these transient bright spots with the extremely young Ganiki Chasma (a group of rift zones on the surface of Venus) and their similarity to regions of rift-associated volcanism on Earth combine to provide strong evidence that they are volcanic in origin and that Venus “is currently geodynamically active” – a discovery which co-author and Brown University planetary scientist James Head told Nat Geo was “really exciting.”

The past, present, and future of Venus volcano research

Venus’s history of volcanic activity is well known. In the early 1990s, the Magellan orbiter’s cloud-penetrating radar revealed that the surface of the planet was filled with mountains resembling volcanoes on Earth. Five years ago, Magellan’s data was compared to that from the Venus Express probe, and found minerals abundant in lava on Earth in some areas.

Also in 2010, Venus Express detected excess heat coming from three spots on the surface, suggesting that lava had flowed on the planet as recently as 2.5 million years ago. Then, in 2012, the orbiter recorded a sudden rise in atmospheric sulfur dioxide followed by a gradual decrease in the gas, commonly spewed from volcanoes.

That detection “provided even more evidence that the volcanoes are awake,” Discovery News said, and National Geographic added that these newly identified hotspots “are about as close as you could get to a smoking gun” in terms of evidence of ongoing volcanic activity. Furthermore, Suzanne Smrekar of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California called the findings “very significant.”

Learning more about volcanoes on Venus “will likely require another long-term mission, but unfortunately there is nothing firmed up yet,” Discovery News said. One proposed US mission, the Venus In Situ Explorer, would be able to examine the planet’s atmospheric composition in search of more details about its interior, and the website added that there may still be yet more data in the Venus Express archive that could help scientists glean new insights.

Post by: Rad on Jun 29, 2015, 06:19 AM
Blue auroras may greet first people on Mars

June 25, 2015
Chuck Bednar for – @BednarChuck

When astronauts first arrive on Mars, they may be greeted by a stunning blue-colored aurora in the southern hemisphere of the Red Planet, researchers from Aalto University in Finland and an international team of colleagues report in a recently-published study.

According to, while previous research confirmed there were southern auroras on Mars, the new Planetary and Space Science paper marks the first time a team of scientists has predicted that the phenomenon will actually be visible to the human eye.

“The study indicates that the strongest color in the Martian aurorae is deep blue,” author Cyril Simon Wedlund Aalto University’s Department of Radio Science and Engineering explained in a statement. “An astronaut looking up while walking on the red Martian soil would be able, after intense solar eruptions, to see the phenomena with the naked eye.”

The findings indicate that the upper atmosphere of the Red Planet may be closer in nature to that of Earth’s than previously believed. Even though Mars no longer has a global magnetic field, the planet still sporadically has smaller fields appear, particularly in the southern hemisphere, which can excite atmospheric atoms and molecules and cause them to produce light emission.

Creating simulated auroral displays

The presence of aurorae on Mars were originally confirmed by the European Space Agency’s Mars Express spacecraft and NASA’s MAVEN mission, according to However, neither of those missions could tell for sure whether or not the phenomenon would be visible to humans.

In their new study, Wedlund’s team used a sphere known as a Planeterella, in which magnetic fields and charged particles produced simulated auroral displays. In their experiment, they filled the Planeterella with carbon dioxide (the dominant component of the atmosphere on Mars) and watched as an electrical discharge was created in the simulated upper atmosphere.

This discharge created a blue glow following the magnetic field structure, said, and the study shows that aurorae on Mars occur in the visible range. Furthermore, the findings may help scientists better understand the physics, mass, and evolution of the Martian atmosphere.

Post by: Rad on Jun 29, 2015, 06:20 AM
Why does this Neptune-like exoplanet have a tail?

June 24, 2015
Chuck Bednar for – @BednarChuck

A red dwarf star is causing a giant cloud of hydrogen gas to escape from a warm, Neptune-mass world, causing the exoplanet to have a massive comet-like tail, astronomers at the University of Warwick in the UK report in the latest edition of the journal Nature.

According to the university, the phenomenon was depicted in an image by Dr. Mark Garlick, and the discovery seems to indicate that low mass exoplanets orbiting close to their host stars may have had a percentage of their atmospheres burned off due to extreme irradiation from the star.

The planet in question is Gliese 436b (also known as GJ 436b), which was discovered in August 2004 by R. Paul Butler from the Carnegie Institute of Washington and Geoffrey Marcy from the University of California, Berkeley using the radial velocity method. At the time, it was one of the smallest known transiting planets in terms of mass and radius.

First confident detection of atmosphere loss in Neptune-sizes exoplanets

According to co-author Dr. Peter Wheatley of the Warwick Astronomy and Astrophysics Group, a large cloud of hydrogen gas was seen absorbing light from its parent red dwarf star. The cloud is created as a result of x-ray emissions from the star burning off the planet’s upper atmosphere.

“We knew that some Jupiter-mass planets are gradually evaporating due to irradiation by their parent stars, and we set out to use the Hubble Space Telescope to try to detect absorption by hydrogen gas escaping from the Neptune-sized planet GJ 436b,” Dr. Wheatley told redOrbit via email. “We were amazed by the strength of the absorption we found.”

“Usually signals of planetary atmospheres are very subtle, but here we see a very extended comet-like tail from the planet that covers more than half of the star!” he added. “This is the first time anyone has made a confident detection of the atmosphere escaping from a Neptune-sized exoplanet. With such a strong signal, future measurements can probe the composition of the planetary atmosphere – and for other small planets as well.”

In fact, Dr. Wheatley and his colleagues believe that not only are such processes occurring on other exoplanets, but that they could be strong enough to result in the evaporation of the planet’s entire atmosphere.

Post by: Kristin on Jun 29, 2015, 09:43 AM
Hi Rad,

I love this new thread ~ thank you!!!


Post by: Rad on Jun 30, 2015, 06:01 AM
Should we colonize Venus instead of Mars?

June 29, 2015
Emily Bills for – @emilygbills

A recent YouTube video put out by PBS has caused a stir in the space community, as it points out all of the benefits of colonizing Venus over Mars. We’ve all been fixated on going to Mars, but have we set our sights on the wrong planet?

So what’s the big deal with Venus?

Venus is actually an easier and less costly target. It’s way closer to Earth, and we sent probes there long before we sent anything to Mars. Because of the distance, the roundtrip could be up to 50% shorter than a trip to Mars. (And a shorter trip is a big advantage. Think less supplies and fuel.)

The planet itself also has some significant advantages. Because it’s closer to the sun, you could get about 4 times more solar power than that on Mars, and with it’s extremely thick atmosphere, we’d be better protected from space radiation and debris. According to the video, the real kicker is the planet’s gravity: Venus has .9 Earth g’s, while Mars pales in comparison, coming in with less than .4 g’s. Prolonged exposure to low gravity could cause a super-speedy loss of bone mass, something that’s not great.

The video explains that the problem with Venus is that we can’t actually land on it. There’s so much CO2 on Venus that the surface is hotter than the Evangelical portrayal of hell. Along with the heat, the surface pressure is an even bigger problem at more than 90 Earth atmospheres and would crush us immediately.

So NASA proposed an alternative: cloud cities. The upper atmosphere of Venus is pretty close to an Earthlike environment (sans the sulfuric acid floating around), and NASA digs this. They mapped out a conceptual blueprint for this and call it the High Altitude Venus Operational Concept (or HAVOC).

The video spits out many reasons why Venus would be a better choice, and by the end, has everyone questioning why the heck anyone hasn’t thought of this before. We thought this was too good to be true, so we reached out to Dr. David Weintraub, a professor of astronomy at Vanderbilt University, and asked him what he thought about all this Venus business.

RedOrbit: Do you think Venus would be a better choice than Mars for colonization?

Dr. David Weintraub: No. I think this HAVOC idea is imaginative for exploration, but a little crazy for the idea of colonization. The folks at NASA are very imaginative. The idea of cloud colonies on Venus seems pretty far-fetched. (Star Wars, anyone?) Even if we can imagine these cloud vehicles in Venus’ atmosphere, there’s no water there. There’s sulfuric acid and carbon dioxide and interesting, nasty stuff there, but there is no water of any sort on Venus. Venus is bone dry, and it’s lost all of its water. We would either have to take water there or somehow manufacture water, so unless they figure out how to take the hydrogen out of the sulfuric acid and the oxygen out of the carbon dioxide to make water, it’s farfetched.

Whereas, one of the appealing things about Mars is that it has water. Yes it’s gravity is weaker and it’s further away; it’s colder; it’s atmosphere is thinner: All of that stuff is true. But Mars has water. We don’t know how much water it has, but Mars has some water, and we obviously can’t survive without water. That gives Mars such an enormous advantage, that it’s hard to even get beyond that for me.

RO: Couldn’t we take water there?

DW: We could take a little bit of water for something like seven astronauts living in an experimental chamber, so I could easily see in some imaginative future NASA scenario in which we launch some floating balloon with a half-dozen astronauts to float in the atmosphere of Venus for a year and do all sorts of experiments, and that could be REALLY neat. We could learn a lot, but that’s not colonizing Venus.

Now water’s simple: It’s hydrogen and oxygen, so someone needs to develop some widget that can take carbon dioxide and sulfuric acid and mix it together with ultraviolet light and presto! Out comes water. If somebody can make that widget, well, we’re in great shape.

But Mars has water, and that’s the magic of Mars.

Post by: Rad on Jun 30, 2015, 06:02 AM
First smaller-than-Earth exoplanet discovered

June 29, 2015
Chuck Bednar for – @BednarChuck

A planet located approximately 200 light-years from our solar system has been identified as the first alien world to be smaller than Earth in terms of both measured mass and size, according to a study published in a recent edition of the journal Nature.

The discovery was made by researchers from the Pennsylvania State University Department of Astronomy, the NASA Ames Research Center, the SETI Institute, and the University of Chicago Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics. They measured the size and mass of the Mars-sized planet Kepler-138b, an extrasolar planet in orbit around a red dwarf star.

According to, since Kepler 138b is about the same size as Mars, and Mars is just 53 percent as big as Earth, the new planet must be smaller than our home world. Furthermore, they found it to have a mass of about 6.7 percent that of Earth and two-thirds that of Mars, and is also the smallest exoplanet ever to have its density measured.

More about Kepler-138b and its sister planets

The new study, led by Penn State University astronomer Daniel Jontof-Hutter, looked at a total of three planets in orbit around a cold red dwarf, Kepler-138. It’s a cold, dim star located in the constellation Lyra, and is located roughly 10 million times further away from Earth than our sun, Jontof-Hutter said.

Two of the planets orbiting Kepler-138, Kepler-138c and Kepler-138d, are about 1.2 times the width of Earth, while Kepler-138b is slightly more than half the width of Earth. All three exoplanets orbit their star closely. Kepler-138b takes a little more than 10 days to complete one orbit, while Kepler-138c needs nearly 14 days and Kepler-138d requires approximately 23 days.

Using the NASA Kepler spacecraft, they were able to examine the relationship between gravity and the length of their orbits, and since they knew the strength of a planet’s gravitational pull is directly related to its mass, they were able to determine each planet’s size, the website explained. In addition, after Kepler-138b’s mass and width, they were able to determine its density, which is approximately two-thirds that of Mars and indicates that it is a rocky planet.

Because of its proximity to its host star, Kepler-138b is believed to be too hot to retain liquid water, as are its sister planets. In fact, Jontof-Hutter said the outermost of the three worlds could experience surface temperatures of 250 degrees Fahrenheit (120 degrees Celsius), while the innermost planet likely sees temperatures of up to 610 degrees F (320 degrees C).

Post by: Rad on Jun 30, 2015, 06:08 AM
Mars pyramid: Alien structure or everyday pareidolia?

NASA says it has spotted a pyramid on Mars. Did an advanced civilization once exist on Mars, or is the brain seeing patterns where there are none?

By Beatrice Gitau, Staff writer June 25, 2015   
Christian Science Monitor

Are there pyramids on Mars? Or is it just one pyramid-shaped rock?

On May 7, NASA's Mars Curiosity rover took a snapshot of an atypical stone on the Red Planet.

A raw image from the mission shows a rock that appears to be pyramid-shaped, leading some to speculate that it may be the result of intelligent sculptors. NASA, for its part, says it's just an ordinary rock.

Jim Bell, a member of NASA's Mars Rover Explanation Team told Indianapolis's WISH TV that the object was unlikely to be man- or alien-made, adding that rock formations which look like recognizable objects are very common.

But that hasn't stopped people from speculating about its origin or design. "I would theorize that the [artifact] is either the capstone of a much larger pyramid, possibly buried deep beneath the surface, or perhaps a marker stone," says a robotic narrator in a YouTube video uploaded by a user called Paranormal Crucible.

Writing for the website, Dr. Michael Salla speculates that NASA deliberately took pains to prevent showing other views of the object to the public in subsequent photos.

Or is it just a rock, as NASA says?

Perhaps interpretations of the object as a man-made structure are driven by our own expectations. A well-known psychological phenomenon known as pareidolia can cause people to interpret random images as significant or meaningful.

A series of reports published by Japanese palaeontologist Chonosuke Okamura in the 1970s and '80s demonstrate the dangers of interpretations resulting from pareidolia. Mr. Okamura described finding ancient fossils of dogs, fish, birds and men, all at tiny sizes, leading him to conclude that modern body shapes existed in ancient times, but at 1/350th scale. Okamura was awarded the 1996 Ig Nobel Prize for his research.

American astronomer and author Carl Sagan argues that pareidolia evolved as a survival tool that allowed humans to recognize faces from a distance or in the dark. The instinct was vital to identifying friend or foe, but Dr. Sagan noted that it could cause people to misinterpret patterns.

And don't underestimate the power of expectations, says Sophie Scott, professor of neuroscience at the University College London. "Being able to see Jesus's face in toast is telling you more about what's happening with your expectations, and how you're interpreting the world based on your expectations, rather than anything that's necessarily in the toast," Dr. Scott told the BBC.

In other words, seeing a pyramid on Mars, instead of just a funny-shaped rock, could tell us more about our expectations of life in Mars than anything about actual Martian history.

Post by: Rad on Jun 30, 2015, 06:11 AM

The Christian Science Monitor

Star of Bethlehem? Jupiter and Venus converge in night sky

On June 30, Jupiter and Venus will converge and create a dramatic 'star' in the Western sky after sunset.
By Beatrice Gitau June 27, 2015   

Jupiter and Venus are set to converge in an epic sky event. (NASA)   

Jupiter and Venus will merge into a dazzling "super-star" in the Western horizon by the end of June, NASA says.

The conjunction of the two planets has been building during the month of June and will culminate in a spectacular display on June 30. “Every night in June, the separation between Venus and Jupiter will visibly shrink,” says NASA.

A conjunction is when two or more objects appear very close together on the sky.

On the evening of June 30, Venus and Jupiter will appear in the sky just a third of a degree apart. “That's less than the diameter of a full Moon. You'll be able to hide the pair not just behind the palm of your outstretched hand, but behind your little pinky finger,” NASA enthuses.

Sky & Telescope suggests that a similar rare conjunction of Venus and Jupiter may have been what's been called the "Star of Bethlehem" in 3-2 BC.

While the conjunction is certainly visible with the naked eye, Sky and Telescope says viewing it with a telescope or binoculars will offer a different perspective: “Both planets will crowd into same telescopic field of view, Venus appearing as a fat crescent and round Jupiter accompanied by its four large moons. The two planets will appear nearly as the same size, but Jupiter, though much larger in reality, is much farther away.... Their globes will contrast dramatically in brightness, with Venus’s crescent appearing dazzling white compared to Jupiter’s duller, striped cloud deck.”

Pat Hartigan, an astronomer at Rice University, says the conjunction on June 30 is the best one we will have for over a decade, rivaled only by one on March 1, 2023, which will not be not quite as close.

So where and when should we look for it? Look to the west-northwest as soon as it gets dark, says Dr. Hartigan. "After about two hours for most latitudes the objects will become difficult to observe as they begin to set. They are bright. You might mistake them for airplanes."

Is this a significant astronomical event? Not really. "These planetary groupings in the sky have no effect on Earth or human affairs – except for one," says Alan MacRobert at Sky & Telescope. "They can lift our attention away from our own little world into the enormous things beyond. That's what amateur astronomers do all the time."

[Editor's note: The original story incorrectly indicated when the last, close convergence of Jupiter and Venus occurred.]

Post by: Rad on Jun 30, 2015, 07:15 AM
Christian Science Monitor

Young crater on Mars hints at Earth-like climate

For the first time, scientists calculate water volumes in a young crater on Mars, revealing Earth-like conditions in the recent past.

By Shontee Pant, Staff writer June 23, 2015   

An image by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on the NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter shows Gullies at the Edge of Hale Crater on Mars recorded during the month of April through early August 2009. (Reuters/NASA/JPL/University of Arizona/Handout)   

Mars is a planet of paradoxes, red in color but icy cold. Did its climate ever resemble that of our warm, blue planet? Maybe so, suggests a new study of Istok crater – and not billions of years ago, but in the recent geologic past.

A study led by Tjalling de Haas of Utrecht University has found that the gullies in Istok crater are similar to those on Earth, and could have formed during recent periods of high orbital obliquity.

Istok crater, located in the Aonia Terra region of Mars, has remarkably well-preserved debris-flow tracks, or gullies. These are the first tracks imaged clearly enough to allow scientists to calculate the amount and frequency of water that flowed through them. As he told the Monitor, this is "really something new!"

Debris flows, such as mudslides and avalanches, differ from pure-water flows in that they contain about only 20-60 percent water, located in the tiny gaps between the rocks and dirt.

Once the scientists had calculated the amount of water necessary to create the gullies they observed, they could estimate the amount of snowfall necessary to generate that much water.

Previous research concluded that these tracks could have been carved with just millimeters of water, but Dr. de Haas disagrees. His team calculated that inches or even feet of snow had to pile up at the heads of these valleys in order to explain the debris flow patterns visible in the images taken from orbit.

The Martian climate is currently quite dissimilar from Earth's climate, with very cold temperatures and an almost nonexistent atmosphere. Most of the known water on the planet is frozen at the poles or hidden in deep underground springs. But finding debris flow tracks in a crater that is less than a million years old – their best estimate dates the crater impact to about 190,000 years ago – demonstrates that temperatures were warm enough in the recent past to allow ice to melt, at least in that region.

How could that happen? De Haas theorizes that these Earth-like debris flows occurred at times of high orbital obliquity, because when Mars's axis is tilted more dramatically, it can have much hotter summers (and colder winters) than the present.

While Earth’s axis has remained relatively constant over its history, only shifting between 22.1 to 24.5 degrees (thanks to stabilization from our large moon), Mars has bobbled like a top over tens of millions of years, moving between an almost vertical axis down to an axial tilt of more than 60 degrees. Its axis is currently tilted 25 degrees, but during high obliquity intervals, Mars is lying down almost sideways with respect to its orbit, like Uranus does.

It's still uncertain exactly how much these dramatic changes in axial tilt affect Martian climate, but for comparison, a one degree change in Earth's axis may have ended the ice age, melting glaciers from New York City to Greenland. It's not unreasonable to conclude that massive axial swings on Mars could lead to greater climate variation, creating conditions where snow and ice can first accumulate and then melt, causing debris flows.   

This study, published in the current issue of Nature Communications, contributes to the emerging understanding of the dynamic climatic history of the red planet; if these results are replicated in other areas around the planet, it may turn out that Mars was once much more habitable than it currently is.

However, de Haas cautions that his team identified only “a local occurrence, and only during very short periods at high orbital obliquity.” More research is necessary, he adds, to determine whether these conditions were present elsewhere or whether they only speak to an isolated, transient incidence of climate conditions like those on Earth.


The Christian Science Monitor

Mars was not only habitable, it was downright Earth-like, Curiosity finds

Mars' Gale Crater had a long, thin lake that could have supported microbial life in a setting 'really similar to an Earth environment,' according to data collected by NASA's Curiosity rover.
By Pete Spotts, Staff writer December 9, 2013   

This file image shows a self-portrait of the Mars rover, Curiosity. Curiosity has uncovered signs of an ancient freshwater lake on Mars that may have teemed with microbes for tens of millions of years, far longer than scientists had imagined, new research suggests. (JPL-Caltech/MSSS/NASA/Reuters/FIle)   

NASA's Mars rover Curiosity has uncovered mineral and chemical leftovers in the rocks of Gale Crater that paint a remarkable picture of a modest lake whose mucky bed could have supported microbial life as early as 3.6 billion years ago.

In the process, the rover has laid bare the challenges and opportunities the rover's science team faces as it moves into the second phase of the mission: hunting for organic compounds that would enhance the crater's cosmic credibility as a once-habitable spot beyond Earth.

The lessons learned exploring a formation known as Yellowknife Bay suggest that well-preserved organics – easily destroyed by prolonged long exposure to radiation – may exist within reach of Curiosity's drill if the rover's handlers can find the right spot.

That is encouraging news for a mission that, seven months after it landed, answered "yes" to the question of whether its landing site could once have been habitable. The results released on Monday at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco add richness to the story.

The lakes, streams, and groundwater systems the team says were once in Gale Crater “are really similar to an Earth environment,” said John Grotzinger, a geologist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and the project scientist for the mission, at the briefing.

The lake, nestled against the base of Mt. Sharp, the crater's central peak, would have been similar in size to those in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York – perhaps 30 miles long by 3 miles wide. The climate likely would have been cold and arid, with water supplied by snow in the mountains that form Gale crater's rim.

The rocks the team explored span “millions to even tens of millions of years of time, which is quite a long window of habitability,” Dr. Grotzinger said. He and four colleagues summarized the results in six research papers appearing Friday in the journal Science.

Last March, after drilling into a rock named John Klein, the team announced that the site had been habitable. The site yielded evidence of flowing water. Chemical analysis of the rock sample revealed several of the basic chemical elements important for organic life.

Indeed, the team's interpretation of the data led the scientists to conclude that they had a system of environments that involved not just a lake, but the rivers that fed it and the groundwater deposits that would have developed there.

But there was still some uncertainty about whether the minerals analyzed formed locally, and so pointed to past habitats in the crater, or formed elsewhere and were transported and deposited, suggesting that perhaps the crater might not have had a complete package of traits for habitability.

Team members cleared that up in the new reports, which include analysis of a sample from a mudstone rock dubbed Cumberland. Unlike samples of Martian soil analyzed elsewhere, the clay Cumberland contained was heavy on magnetite and light on olivine, suggesting the clay formed from a local mineral mix, says Douglas Ming, a soil chemist at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston and the lead author of one of the six papers in Science.

Moreover, Cumberland's particular blend forms “in pretty benign conditions,” he says – fairly cold temperatures in waters that weren't too acidic or too basic.

Those are conditions “that are pretty unique, that microbes might have survived in,” he says.

Post by: Rad on Jul 01, 2015, 05:19 AM
Tiny black holes power brilliant phenomena

June 30, 2015
Brett Smith for – @ParkstBrett

Ultra-luminous X-ray sources (ULXs) are mysterious objects that emit brilliant light and about million times more powerful than the Sun.

A new study published in Nature Physics revealed a major detail about these strange phenomena: They are powered by “tiny monster” black holes with masses only about 100 times that of the Sun. (Seems pretty big to us.)

ULXs stream powerful and amazing outflows of material that are created as matter drops onto their black holes at a blindingly high pace. Scientists weren’t sure if these outflows were created by an extremely massive black hole, or a small veracious one. In addition to finding that they were powered by relatively small black holes, the study found these objects appear to be related to of SS 433, one of the most exotic items in our own Milky Way Galaxy.

The team said their findings also inform our knowledge of how supermassive black holes in galactic centers are created and just how matter rapidly drops onto those black holes.

At its most basic level, a ULX is a close binary system made of a black hole and a star. As material from the star drops onto the black hole, an accretion disk develops around it. As the gravitational energy of the matter is released, the deepest part of the disk is heated to a temperature greater than 10 million degrees, which causes it to give off strong X-rays.

In the study, researchers observed four ULX objects: Holmberg II X-1, Holmberg IX X-1, NGC 4559 X-7, and NGC 5204 X-1. Using the Subaru Telescope in Hawaii for four nights, researchers from Japan and Russia captured high-quality spectra data.

The width of a spectral line indicates the velocity dispersion of its gas and in each ULX, the study team discovered a broad emission line from helium ions. The velocity dispersion indicating it was heated to several tens of thousands of degrees in the system. Researchers also found that the width of the hydrogen line is greater than the helium line. Together, these findings indicate the gas must be speeding outward as a wind from the accretion disk or the companion star cools it down while it escapes.

The “supercritical accretion” seen from these tiny black holes is thought to be a possible way in which supermassive black holes form at galactic centers in a relatively short period of time, the researchers said.

Study author Yoshihiro Ueda, an astrophysicist at Kyoto University in Japan, noted in a press release there are still a number of unanswered questions regarding ULXs.

“We would like to tackle these unresolved problems by using the new X-ray observations by ASTRO-H, planned to be launched early next year, and by more sensitive future X-ray satellites, together with multi-wavelength observations of ULXs and SS 433,” he said.

Post by: Rad on Jul 01, 2015, 05:21 AM
Even really old stars have Earth-like planets

June 30, 2015
Brett Smith for – @ParkstBrett

If there is another civilization out there in the universe like our own, it may have had a couple billion years head start on us.

According to a new study published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, several distant stars with Earth-like planets are around 11 billion years old – that’s about 6.5 billion years older that the Sun.

The study is based on an examination of 33 stars with Earth-like planets identified by NASA’s Kepler satellite. For each star, researchers were able to determine age, density, diameter, mass, and distance from Earth with more precision than ever.

“Our team has determined ages for individual host stars before with similar levels of accuracy, but this constitutes the best characterized set of exoplanet host stars currently available,” study author Victor Silva Aguirre, from the Stellar Astrophysics Centre at Aarhus University in Denmark, said via press release.

Measuring like an earthquake

Stars examined in the study are actually solar-like oscillators that send out waves like the sound waves emanating from a stereo or musical instrument.

“The term solar-like oscillators means that the stars exhibit pulsations excited by the same mechanism as in the Sun: gas bubbles moving up and down,” Silva Aguirre said. “These bubbles produce sound waves that travel across the interior of stars, bouncing back and forth between the deep interior and the surface producing tiny variations in the stellar brightness.”

Study researchers were able to pick up these vibrations through asteroseismology – a technique similar to the one geologists use to map out the structure of the Earth’s interior during earthquakes. By inputting data of oscillation frequencies and average asteroseismic parameters, the researchers were able to parse information about each star with unprecedented accuracy.

While the study incorporated just a small section of the sky near the constellation Cygnus, the research team said it’s reasonable to conclude there are countless stars older than our Sun with Earth-like planets in the universe.

“One of the biggest questions in astrophysics is: does life exists beyond earth? To even begin answering this, we need to know how many planets like ours exist out there, and when they formed,” Silva Aguirre said. “The stars we studied harbor exoplanets of size comparable to earth, and our results reveal a wide range of ages for these host stars, both younger, as low as half the Sun’s age, and up to 2.5 times the age of the Sun.”

Post by: Rad on Jul 01, 2015, 05:22 AM
Even really old stars have Earth-like planets

June 30, 2015
Brett Smith for – @ParkstBrett

If there is another civilization out there in the universe like our own, it may have had a couple billion years head start on us.

According to a new study published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, several distant stars with Earth-like planets are around 11 billion years old – that’s about 6.5 billion years older that the Sun.

The study is based on an examination of 33 stars with Earth-like planets identified by NASA’s Kepler satellite. For each star, researchers were able to determine age, density, diameter, mass, and distance from Earth with more precision than ever.

“Our team has determined ages for individual host stars before with similar levels of accuracy, but this constitutes the best characterized set of exoplanet host stars currently available,” study author Victor Silva Aguirre, from the Stellar Astrophysics Centre at Aarhus University in Denmark, said via press release.

Measuring like an earthquake

Stars examined in the study are actually solar-like oscillators that send out waves like the sound waves emanating from a stereo or musical instrument.

“The term solar-like oscillators means that the stars exhibit pulsations excited by the same mechanism as in the Sun: gas bubbles moving up and down,” Silva Aguirre said. “These bubbles produce sound waves that travel across the interior of stars, bouncing back and forth between the deep interior and the surface producing tiny variations in the stellar brightness.”

Study researchers were able to pick up these vibrations through asteroseismology – a technique similar to the one geologists use to map out the structure of the Earth’s interior during earthquakes. By inputting data of oscillation frequencies and average asteroseismic parameters, the researchers were able to parse information about each star with unprecedented accuracy.

While the study incorporated just a small section of the sky near the constellation Cygnus, the research team said it’s reasonable to conclude there are countless stars older than our Sun with Earth-like planets in the universe.

“One of the biggest questions in astrophysics is: does life exists beyond earth? To even begin answering this, we need to know how many planets like ours exist out there, and when they formed,” Silva Aguirre said. “The stars we studied harbor exoplanets of size comparable to earth, and our results reveal a wide range of ages for these host stars, both younger, as low as half the Sun’s age, and up to 2.5 times the age of the Sun.”

Post by: Rad on Jul 01, 2015, 05:24 AM
Happy first-ever Asteroid Day!

June 30, 2015
Chuck Bednar for – @BednarChuck

Astronomers and space enthusiasts will be looking to the skies in search of near-Earth objects as part of the first-ever Asteroid Day on Tuesday – an event described by the organizers as a global awareness movement to learn how to protect ourselves from falling planetoids.

According to the event’s website, June 30 was chosen to be Asteroid Day because it was the day of the largest asteroid impact in recent Earth history, the 1908 Siberian Tunguska event. The goal of the event, the organizers told NBC News, is to increase awareness of potential asteroid-related threats and to focus on what to do should we face the threat of another massive impact.

Tom Jones, a planetary scientist and former NASA astronaut who’s an adviser for Asteroid Day, explained that nuclear-scale meteor blast which took place in Chelyabinsk, Russia back in 2013 was a wake-up call of sorts – a “crystallizing event for people who hadn’t been paying attention to the asteroid threat,” as he told NBC.

“Chelyabinsk isn’t in the news cycle anymore, but I don’t think the public has lost sight of the idea that we are repeatedly struck by asteroids,” he added. “The goal of Asteroid Day is to translate that awareness from Chelyabinsk… into ongoing support for government efforts and volunteer efforts to find asteroids… and have a plan on the shelf to do something about them.”

A petition calling for expanded anti-asteroid efforts

At the heart of Asteroid Day is an online petition, the 100X Declaration, which is calling for the world’s governments to “safeguard our families and quality of life on Earth” through the creation of programs to protect the planet from potential asteroid impacts.

“Unlike other natural disasters, we know how to prevent asteroid impacts,” the petition reads. “There are a million asteroids in our solar system that have the potential to strike Earth and destroy a city, yet we have discovered less than 10,000 – just one percent – of them. We have the technology to change that situation.”

They are calling for governments and space programs to use that technology to better detect and track Near-Earth objects that threaten populated parts of the planet; to increase efforts to discover and monitor close asteroids by 100-found, to 100,000 per year by 2025; and to adopt Asteroid Day as an official global holiday to further heighten awareness of the asteroid impact issue.

The petition has been signed by the likes of Bill Nye, science educator and head of the Planetary Society; astrophysicist and Queen guitarist Brian May; Carolyn Shoemaker, astronomer and co-discoverer of the Shoemaker-Levy comet; Brian Cox, particle physics professor at the University of Manchester; and former NASA Director of Operations in Russia Chris Hadfield.

A full list of Asteroid Day events can be viewed online at the event’s website.

Click to watch:

Post by: Rad on Jul 02, 2015, 06:17 AM
Type Ia supernova observed in ultraviolet light

July 1, 2015
Chuck Bednar for – @BednarChuck

Astrophysicists refer to Type Ia supernovae as “standard candles” because they are used to measure distances of objects throughout the universe, but are they really all the same? That’s what the authors of a new Nature study wanted to find out.

Researchers from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and the Weizmann Institute of Science joined forces recently to study more about these supernovae using a robotic telescope array located to observe a star just four days into an explosion.

Using instruments at the Palomar Transient Factory, they spotted the young supernova, and used NASA’s Swift Space Telescope to observe the blast in the invisible ultraviolet range. Thanks to these observations, the researchers were able to detect a brief but never-before-seen spike in the high-energy radiation early on in the supernova process.

UV observations shed new light on how supernovae happen

According to Professor Avishay Gal-Yam from the Weizmann Institute’s Particle Physics and Astrophysics Department, this increase fits with a model in which a dwarf star has a companion. The white dwarf, the professor explained, “is the mass of the Sun packed into a sphere the size of the Earth, while its companion is around 50-100 times bigger around than the Sun.”

The researchers explained that material flowed from the diffuse star to the denser one until the pressure from the added mass eventually caused the smaller of the two stars to detonate. They added that the radiation spike was caused by the initial material ejected during the blast hitting the companion star.

The findings demonstrate the importance of the ultraviolet-range observations of the exploding star. Gal-Yam said he is hopeful that the ULTRASAT mini-satellite currently in the works at the Weizmann Institute, the Israeli Space Agency, and NASA, can used observations in the UV range to determine if this process is common amongst type Ia supernovae.

“Ultraviolet is crucial, because initially, supernova blasts are so energetic that the most important information can only be gathered in short wavelengths. And it can only be seen from a space telescope, because the ultraviolet wavelengths are filtered out in the Earth’s atmosphere,” added Gal-Yam.

Post by: Rad on Jul 02, 2015, 06:19 AM
Universe may end in ‘Big Rip,’ study suggests

July 1, 2015
Chuck Bednar for – @BednarChuck

Researchers from Vanderbilt University in Nashville have come up with a new mathematical formulation that they say will help reconcile the classic notion of viscosity based on the laws of thermodynamics with Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

Their work, published earlier this year in the journal Physical Review D, should help determine just how “sticky” the universe is by explaining cosmological viscosity in a “simpler” and “more elegant” way while still being “mathematically sound” and obeying “all the applicable physical laws,” study co-author and physics professor Robert Scherrer said in a statement.

The new formula was developed by Marcelo Disconzi, an assistant professor of mathematics at Vanderbilt, along with Scherrer and fellow physics professor Thomas Kephart. It addresses the issues with cosmological viscosity by starting with the issue of relativistic fluids, a phenomenon produced by supernovae and the crushed, planet-sized stars known as neutron stars.

While scientists have previously successfully modeled what happens with ideal fluids, or those with no viscosity, most fluids are viscous in nature, and to date, nobody has managed to devise an accepted way to handle viscous fluids traveling at relativistic velocities. Past models used to predict what happens when these realistic fluids are accelerated to a fraction of the speed of light have been plagued by multiple blatant inconsistencies.

Building upon previous studies of cosmological viscosity

The problems with these models inspired Disconzi to tweak the equations of relativistic fluid dynamics in such a way that it does demonstrate those inconsistencies, including one glaring flaw in which they predicted conditions where these fluids were capable of traveling faster than the speed of light, which the professor called “disastrously wrong.”

“Strictly speaking, I did not come up with the formulation myself,” he told redOrbit via email. Rather, he said that he demonstrated that a previous proposal advanced by mathematician André Lichnerowicz in the 1950s “is a viable candidate for a theory of relativistic viscous fluids,” then teamed up with Scherrer and Kephart to “investigate formalism in the context of cosmology.”

“It is not known how to describe viscous fluids in the context of general relativity (GR),” he continued. “Over the years different approaches have been proposed,” including the Mueller-Israel-Stewart theory. While that proposal “does lead to a satisfactory description” in several situations, Disconzi explained that it also “contains some ad hoc features and ultimately does not completely rule out the existence of faster-than-light signals.”

Disconzi said that Lichnerowicz’s proposal remained largely unnoticed until he published a paper on the topic last year. That study “by no means settles the question of what the correct formulation of relativistic viscous fluids is,” he told redOrbit. “What it shows is that, under some assumptions, the equations put forward by Lichnerowicz have solutions and the solutions do not predict faster-than-light signals. But we still don’t know if these results remain valid under the most general situations relevant to physics.”

Implications for dark energy, ultimate fate of the universe

The formula described in the new study could also have significant implications for the ultimate fate of the universe, the university explained in a statement. Furthermore, it could shed new light on the basic characteristics of the unusual form of repulsive energy known as “dark energy,” the substance used to explain the accelerating expansion of the cosmos.

Since it was first discovered in the 1990s, there have been several theories that have attempted to explain the nature of dark energy, but most of them have failed to account for cosmic viscosity, the study authors explained. Disconzi said that it’s possible, but unlikely, that viscosity might be able to account for all of the acceleration that has been attributed to dark energy. It is more likely responsible for at least “a significant fraction of the acceleration,” he added.

Furthermore, the study also seems to support a radical scenario designed to address the ultimate fate of the universe, known as the “Big Rip.” This scenario proposes that the universe contains a phantom-type of dark energy that grows stronger over time, causing the expansion rate of the universe to become so great that material objects ultimately fall apart, causing individual atoms to disassembled and themselves into unbound elementary particles and radiation.

In this scenario, the universe will fall apart if the ratio between the pressure and density of dark energy (its equation of state parameter) falls below -1 – a value known by cosmologists as the “phantom barrier.” In previous models with viscosity, the “Big Rip” was impossible, because the universe could not evolve beyond the limit. In the new formulation, however, the barrier does not exist and viscosity actively drives the universe towards this specific end state.

So does that make the “Big Rip” scenario the most likely scenario when discussing the ultimate fate of the universe? “The fair answer is that nobody really knows,” Disconzi explained to redOrbit. “What is known from current observational data is that a ‘Big Rip’ scenario is possible, although the available data is far from conclusive. What our paper brings to the discussion is a mechanism that yields a ‘Big Rip’ in a fairly natural way, in contrast of most models of the ‘Big Rip’ where unnatural or ad hoc assumptions have to be introduced.”

Post by: Rad on Jul 02, 2015, 06:23 AM

The Christian Science Monitor

Why is NASA sending a boomerang to Mars?

NASA reveals plans to test the 'Prandtl-m' plane for future use on the red planet.

By Shontee Pant, Staff writer July 1, 2015   

NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center announced on Tuesday that it has plans to drop its Preliminary Research Aerodynamic Design to Land on Mars (Prandtl-m), a glider-like structure, from a high altitude balloon at the height of 100,000 feet this year.

"The aircraft would be part of the ballast that would be ejected from the aeroshell that takes the Mars rover to the planet," said Al Bowers, NASA Armstrong chief scientist and Prandtl-m program manager, in the NASA press release.

The spacecraft has a wingspan of two feet and would weigh less than a pound on Mars due to the lower gravitational pull on the red planet (on Earth it weighs 2.6 pounds). The glider will be created from either fiberglass or carbon fiber and would be able to fly for around 10 minutes.

The research group will attach either a mapping camera or a small, high-altitude radiometer to measure radiation at very high altitudes of Earth's atmosphere on the first balloon drop test. In the future, the team hopes to be able to attach both. Cameras could scan and take high-resolution photos of the surface they are covering, which would give more information to future manned-missions to Mars, including the potential Mars One mission.

The glider could travel, folded up, in a CubeSat – a small, box-like “nanosatellite” which has a volume of a quart and weigh close to three pounds. There is a mission going to Mars sometime between 2022 and 2024, and the glider would go along for the ride.

“The balloon would drop the CubeSat container and then the aircraft would deploy from the container right after the drop, unfold and fly away," said Mr. Bowers in the NASA press release. 

Three tests are scheduled for the Prandtl-m glider, including two balloon-drop tests on Earth and a possible sounding rocket flight to demonstrate how the glider would work on Mars. Sounding rocket flights enable scientists to test how objects on flights would react to a variety of space-like circumstances, as the rocket carries payloads 30 to 800 miles off the ground. The payload tests are simple, cost-effective, and efficient. One of the largest advantages from a monetary standpoint is that pieces of the rocket tested are retrievable.

The sounding rocket test would carry the rocket with the CubeSat attached and the glider inside, just as in the real launch. The rocket would launch to a height of 450,000 feet and then release the CubeSat. The glider would deploy at the 110,000-to-115,000-feet altitude range, just as though the mission were on Mars. Bowers credits the Prandtl-m concept to Dave Berger, a NASA Armstrong aeronautical engineer with the Education Office.

In 2014, the Armstrong Research Center at NASA worked on a Towed Glider Air-Launch System (TGALS), with the goal of creating a relatively inexpensive remotely or optionally piloted glider that could be towed by a large transport aircraft into space, and would be released at around 40,000 feet. The glider would hold a booster rocket that would help it enter into low Earth orbit. However, the current glider design is the first to be created for Mars.

"If the Prandtl-m completes a 450,000-foot drop, then I think the project stands a very good chance of being able to go to NASA Headquarters and say we would like permission to ride to Mars with one of the rovers." said Bowers.

Post by: Rad on Jul 02, 2015, 06:29 AM
Christian Science Monitor

NASA zeroes in on Pluto, detects frozen methane

As NASA's New Horizons makes final preparations to zoom past Pluto, the probe continues to make startling observations.

By Michelle Toh, Staff writer July 1, 2015   

As NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft closed in on Pluto’s surface, two weeks before its rendezvous with the ex-planet, it detected a substance scientists had long suspected was there: frozen methane.

Astronomers in California had first observed the chemical compound on Pluto in 1976.

But Will Grundy, the New Horizons Surface Composition team leader with the Lowell Observatory, said Tuesday’s detection was the first confirmation of their observations. “Soon we will know if there are differences in the presence of methane ice from one part of Pluto to another,” he said in a statement.
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NASA said Pluto’s methane may have always been there, “inherited from the solar nebula from which the solar system formed 4.5 billion years ago.”

The New Horizons spaceship will whiz past Pluto on July 14 “in a flyby that will give humanity its first up-close look at Pluto and its moons,” The Christian Science Monitor's Pete Spotts wrote in April.

So many questions surround the system that it presents “a scientific wonderland,” Alan Stern, lead scientist for the mission, told the Monitor.

Satellite photographs from the $700 million mission have already offered extraordinary glimpses at the dwarf planet that scientists speculate is even redder than Mars, with rivers of liquid neon flowing across the surface and a subsurface liquid-water ocean.

The latest image of Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, shows only two icy gray circles to the undiscriminating eye, but scientists have already detected new details.

“Pluto and Charon are becoming more distinct in their surface features,” Alice Bowman, the missions operations manager for New Horizons, said Tuesday in a mission update.

To ensure each instrument is in position for the historic encounter on the 14th, the spacecraft is undergoing final, minute adjustments, said mission design lead Yanping Guo of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. Tuesday's 23-second thruster burn kept New Horizons from arriving 20 seconds late and 114 miles off-target.

In addition, obstacles like icy debris are dealt with en route, NASA said.

"Our team has worked hard to get to this point, and we know we have just one shot to make this work," said Ms. Bowman in April. "We’ve plotted out each step of the Pluto encounter, practiced it over and over, and we’re excited the ‘real deal’ is finally here."

Post by: Rad on Jul 03, 2015, 05:18 AM
DARPA engineers organisms to terraform Mars

July 2, 2015
Chuck Bednar for – @BednarChuck

The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is reportedly in the process of developing engineered organisms capable of terraforming the surface of Mars, transforming the Red Planet into a habitable, hospitable environment closer to the Earth.

As explains, if humans are ever going to live on the Red Planet without simply being stuck inside buildings and synthetic environments, we would have to drastically alter its climate and surface features, which include low gravity, a thin atmosphere, and dangerous dust storms.

In addition, its distance from the sun would make it too cold for mankind to live normally, with temperatures on Mars averaging -50 degrees Celsius (-122 degrees Fahrenheit). The answer may lie in artificially altering the environment by genetically engineering plants and other organisms to heat up the planet, and potentially even thicken the atmosphere.

DARPA, which according to Motherboard has already been investing in genetic engineering and synthetic biology, claims that it is currently working on organisms that could ultimately make the Red Planet the type of place that humanity could someday (in the far off future) call home.

Creating new life forms using only the best genes

As Alicia Jackson, the deputy director of DARPA’s new Biological Technologies Office, said, “For the first time, we have the technological toolkit to transform not just hostile places here on Earth, but to go into space not just to visit, but to stay.”

The technological toolkit Jackson refers to includes research that’s been going on in her team’s lab for the past year, involving how to easily genetically engineer organisms of various types, not just the two most commonly used in synthetic biology projects (yeast and E. coli). Furthermore, DARPA has created new software, DTA GView, which was demonstrated at the conference. Jackson calls it the “Good Maps of genomes,” Motherboard said.

“There are anywhere from 30 million to 30 billion organisms on this Earth. We use two right now for engineering biology,” she explained. “I want to use any organism that has properties I want – I want to quickly map it and quickly engineer it. If you look at genome annotation software today, it’s not built to quickly find engineerable systems [and genes]. It’s built to look for an esoteric and interesting thing I can publish an academic paper on.”

“This torrent of genomic data we’re now collecting is awesome, except they sit in databases, where they remain data, not knowledge. Very little genetic information we have is actionable. With this, the goal is to, within a day, sequence and find where I can best engineer an organism,” Jackson continued, adding that the goal is to make it possible to choose the best genes from different organisms, then mix and match them to create completely new forms of life.

While these advances could be used in the aftermath of a natural or man-made disaster, if it proves successful could also be used on Mars. There, the organisms would ideally make planets like Mars habitable and lead to human colonies on other worlds.

Post by: Rad on Jul 03, 2015, 05:19 AM
Has the evolution of extraterrestrial life already happened?

July 2, 2015
Chuck Bednar for – @BednarChuck

Extraterrestrial lifeforms similar to humans should have already evolved on other planets like Earth. This makes it seem all the more odd that we have yet to discover any other civilizations like ours elsewhere in the universe, claims the author of a new book.

Professor Simon Conway Morris, a Fellow at St John’s College, University of Cambridge and the author of a new study on the topic of convergent evolution entitled The Runes of Evolution: How the Universe Became Self-Aware, argues that there is a universal “map of life” which dictates the manner in which all living creatures develop, regardless of their location in the cosmos.

Conway Morris’s book takes an established principle, the theory of convergent evolution (which states that species in different lineages will independently evolve similar features), and expands it. He suggests this type of convergence is common and has helped guide every aspect of life’s development on earth, ranging from the formation of proteins, the development of arms, legs and eyes, our intelligence and ability to use tools, and even how we experience orgasms.

All of these things, he argues, are inevitable once life emerges. As such, evolution is not random, but is instead a predictable process that follows a somewhat strict series of rules. If this is true, then it would indicate that life similar to that found on Earth would have obeyed those same rules and would have developed on other, similar planets, given the proper conditions.

We shouldn’t be alone…but we are

With astronomers discovering an increasing abundance of Earth-like planets located throughout the known universe, Professor Conway Morris said it’s rather extraordinary that we have yet to find any aliens that resemble and behave like us living on another planet – not to mention any life forms similar to the other living things, plants and animals alike, that live here.

He argues not only that if there are any aliens out there in the cosmos, they would be a lot like people in that they would have heads, torsos, and limbs. He also says that any life-bearing Earth-like planet would evolve other creatures similar to those we’re familiar with, and that there would almost undoubtedly be extraterrestrials with brains and human-like intelligence.

“The number of Earth-like planets seems to be far greater than was thought possible even a few years ago,” Professor Conway Morris said in a statement. “That doesn’t necessarily mean that they have life, because we don’t necessarily understand how life originates. The consensus offered by convergence, however, is that life is going to evolve wherever it can.”

“I would argue that in any habitable zone that doesn’t boil or freeze, intelligent life is going to emerge, because intelligence is convergent,” he added. “One can say with reasonable confidence that the likelihood of something analogous to a human evolving is really pretty high. And given the number of potential planets that we now have good reason to think exist, even if the dice only come up the right way every one in 100 throws, that still leads to a very large number of intelligences scattered around, that are likely to be similar to us.”

“The almost-certainty of ET being out there means that something does not add up, and badly,” the professor concluded. “We should not be alone, but we are.”

Post by: Rad on Jul 03, 2015, 05:20 AM
Huge sinkholes discovered on Rosetta’s comet

July 2, 2015
Chuck Bednar for – @BednarChuck

Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, better known as the comet being studied by the ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft, is filled with surface pits similar to the sinkholes found on Earth, a team of researchers reported in a paper published Wednesday in the journal Nature.

According to BBC News, Jean-Baptiste Vincent of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Göttingen, Germany and his colleagues explained in the new study that they believe material located beneath the comet’s surface vaporizes in some areas, causing holes that can no longer support the crust above them.

Vincent said that the collapse of that crust produces cylindrical holes that can be more than 100 meters deep. The largest one, he told the BBC, is roughly 200 meters wide and 200 meters deep, and their discovery “gives us the possibility to look inside the comet for the first time.”

The comet’s pits are believed to form similar to sinkholes on Earth, which occur when rain and other sources of water slowly begin to erode surfaces made out of limestone and similar types of rock. Over time, this results in underground holes that eventually break away the crust above them, allowing them to break through to the surface.

Discovery could reveal the age of the 67P’s surface

Thus far, 18 of these sinkhole-type pits have been located on Comet 67P, all of them located on the northern hemisphere of the four-kilometer wide object. As 67P travels closer towards the sun, it’s believed that buried volatiles will be driven off, opening up more of these hollows, according to BBC News reports.

While these holes may already exist to some degree on the comet, the loss of these volatiles will likely make the situation worse. The dusty ceilings above these voids will be unable to support their own weight, despite the fact that 67P has low-gravity, and will ultimately collapse inwards. This will expose the cavern walls to direct sunlight, causing ice there to melt.

Eventually, they believe these sinkholes will open out into shallow basis, which are also likely to merge. This will allow scientists to better understand how old different types of terrains on the comet are, as regions that are home to several of these pits are also certainly older than those with uncollapsed surfaces.

In their paper, Vincent’s team wrote that the comet’s pits were “probably created by a sinkhole process, possibly accompanied by outbursts. We argue that after formation, pits expand slowly in diameter, owing to sublimation-driven retreat of the walls… The size and spatial distribution of pits imply that large heterogeneities exist in the physical, structural, or compositional properties of the first few hundred meters below the current nucleus surface.”

Post by: Rad on Jul 06, 2015, 05:37 AM
Scientists predict stellar ‘fireworks’ in 2018

July 4, 2015
Chuck Bednar for – @BednarChuck

You may think your 4th of July fireworks are something special, but they pale in comparison to the high-energy pyrotechnics expected to occur in early 2018, as a stellar remnant roughly the same size as a city encounters one of our galaxy’s brightest stars.

As David Thompson, a deputy project scientist stationed at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and his colleagues explained recently in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, the encounter is expected to put on a rather memorable light show.

In fact, scientists are already in the process of organizing a global campaign to watch the event, which will involve a pulsar known as J2032+4127 swinging by its massive companion star, and will include everything from radio wavelengths to the highest-energy gamma rays detectable, the space agency said.

Pulsars make for quite the show

The pulsar, called J2032 for short, is the crushed core of a massive star that went supernova. The highly-magnetized object weighs almost twice as much as the sun and is approximately 12 miles across, NASA explained, and it spins seven times per second. It was discovered in 2009 by a team of researchers at the University of Manchester in the UK.

As they kept tabs on it from 2010 through 2014, physics professor Andrew Lyne said that his team “detected strange variations in the rotation and the rate at which the rotation slows down, behavior we have not seen in any other isolated pulsar. Ultimately, we realized these peculiarities were caused by motion around another star, making this the longest-period binary system containing a radio pulsar.”

That companion star is a Be star called MT91 213, and according to NASA, its mass is 15 times that of our sun, with a brightness 10,000 times higher than our host star. Be stars like MT91 213 are embedded in large disks of gas and dust and have strong stellar winds. When the researchers first discovered the pulsar, they notices that it was in the same direction as the Be star.

‘Astrophysical fireworks’ are worth the wait

However, as Paul Ray, an astrophysicist at the Naval Research Laboratory explained, “our initial measurements did not give any evidence that either star was a member of a binary system. The only way to escape that conclusion was if the binary system had a very long orbital period, much longer than the longest known pulsar-massive star binary at the time, which seemed unlikely.”

The pulsar was found to have an elongated orbit lasting about 25 years, and at one point in that orbit three years from now, it passes closest to its companion. As it whips around MT91 213, J2032 is expected to plunge through the star’s surrounding disk and set off what NASA is calling “astrophysical fireworks.”

This event is expected to help astronomers measure the gravity, magnetic field, stellar wind, and disk properties of the massive Be star, the agency said. It will also be special for other reasons, such as the fact that out of the half-dozen systems found thus far in which a massive star uses hydrogen as its central energy source, J2032’s has the greatest combined mass, has the longest orbital period, and is the closest to Earth (just 5,000 light years away).

“This forewarning of the energetic fireworks expected at closest approach in three years’ time allows us to prepare to study the system across the entire electromagnetic spectrum with the largest telescopes,” added Manchester astrophysics professor Ben Stappers.

Post by: Rad on Jul 07, 2015, 05:00 AM
Scientists: Alien life on Philae’s comet

July 6, 2015
Shayne Jacopian for – @ShayneJacopian

Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko is a comet that’s been studied in detail by the ESA’s Rosetta and Philae spacecraft since September of 2014. It’s also the same comet with a super weird balancing rock formation, and has some interesting properties (that one, for instance, plus several others) that two astronomers are now saying could possibly be attributed to life on the big ball of ice.

Well, micro-organisms—and ones that can thrive at temperatures as low as -40 degrees Celsius.

So did a giant mob of micro-organisms get together and push that big balancing boulder around just for shits and giggles? It’s not like there’s much else to do on a comet, right?

Not exactly.

Unusual features of the comet include an irregular “duck shape,” a black crust with widely varying texture, and underlying ice.

Dr. Max Wallis of the University of Cardiff and his colleague Professor Chandra Wickramasinghe, Director of the Buckingham Centre for Astrobiology, both suggest that these odd features are consistent with a mixture of ice and organic material when micro-organisms become active and move around as the comet approaches the sun and warms up.

A hospitable comet

The astronomers say the organisms probably require liquid water bodies, which they could find and inhabit in cracks between ice and snow, according to the source. Organisms containing anti-freeze salts could survive such conditions and even be active at -40 degrees Celsius. The comet reached that temperature last September when it was 500 million kilometers from the sun and some gas emissions could be observed.

Dr. Wallis said, “Rosetta has already shown that the comet is not to be seen as a deep-frozen inactive body, but supports geological processes and could be more hospitable to micro-life than our Arctic and Antarctic regions.”

Further evidence cited by the two astronomers as evidence for life on the comet includes complex organic molecules on the comet’s surface, observed in infrared images taken by Rosetta and other observations made by Philae.

“If the Rosetta orbiter has found evidence of life on the comet,” says Professor Wickramasinghe, “it would be a fitting tribute to mark the centenary of the birth of Sir Fred Hoyle, one of the undisputable pioneers of astrobiology.”

Post by: Rad on Jul 07, 2015, 05:51 AM
Astronomers peek at ‘hidden’ supermassive black holes

July 6, 2015
John Hopton for

A large number of supermassive black holes, which were hidden in the universe until now, have been observed by astronomers, ScienceDaily reports.

The opportunity was provided by NASA’s Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) satellite observatory, where an international team of scientists detected high-energy x-rays from five supermassive black holes previously obscured by dust and gas.

The fact that they rapidly feasted on surrounding material and emitted large amounts of radiation indicated to the team that they were much brighter and more active than previously thought.

Lead author George Lansbury, a postgraduate student in the Centre for Extragalactic Astronomy at Durham University, said: “For a long time we have known about supermassive black holes that are not obscured by dust and gas, but we suspected that many more were hidden from our view.”

“Thanks to NuSTAR for the first time we have been able to clearly see these hidden monsters that are predicted to be there, but have previously been elusive because of their ‘buried’ state.”

He added that: “Although we have only detected five of these hidden supermassive black holes, when we extrapolate our results across the whole Universe then the predicted numbers are huge and in agreement with what we would expect to see.”

Potentially millions

The findings add weight to the theory that millions of supermassive black holes could be lurking in the universe, hidden from view. NuSTAR, which launched in 2012, is capable of detecting much higher energy x-rays than previous satellite observatories could. It provides scientists with observation opportunities which were not previously possible.

Daniel Stern, the project scientist for NuSTAR at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, added: “High-energy X-rays are more penetrating than low-energy X-rays, so we can see deeper into the gas burying the black holes. NuSTAR allows us to see how big the hidden monsters are and is helping us learn why only some black holes appear obscured.”

Post by: Rad on Jul 07, 2015, 05:52 AM
DG Tauri pebbles may be planet nursery

July 6, 2015
Eric Hopton for

Four hundred and fifty light years away in the constellation of Taurus, a belt of centimeter-sized rock pebbles is circling the 2.5 million-year-old star DG Tauri. The pebbles’ orbit is perfectly placed to be the breeding ground for a new planet, and thanks to some brilliant combinations of technology, we can see the process as it happens over just a few million years. Hang in there.

The team behind the work, from the UK universities of St. Andrews and Manchester, presented their discovery at the National Astronomy Meeting in Llandudno, Wales.

Dust, gas, pebble, planet

Planets form from dust and gas disks surrounding young stars. Progressive “clumping” eventually produces bodies with sufficient mass to create significant gravity. Over millions of years, the clumps come together to make planets and moons.

Astronomers have already found many disks of gas and dust, as well as nearly 2000 fully formed planets, but have struggled to find the “intermediate stages” of formation.

Combining the power of multiple telescopes

Dr. Greaves and Dr. Anita Richards from the University of Manchester used the e-MERLIN array of radio telescopes centered on Jodrell Bank, Cheshire, England. The e-MERLIN range of telescopes stretches across England to produce an “interferometer” to effectively recreate the resolution of a single large telescope.

When the scientists used the interferometer to observe radio emissions from DG Tauri, they found a faint glow characteristic of the classic “rocks in orbit” disk formation.

“This was the first time for this project that we folded in data from the 76m-diameter Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank, which is the heart of the e-MERLIN array. We knew DG Tauri had a jet of hot gas flowing off its poles – a beacon for stars still in the process of forming – so we had an idea of what to look for. It was a real surprise to also see a belt of pebbles, with only a fraction of the data we hope to acquire. With the four-fold increase in radio bandwidth we are now working on, we hope to get similar images for a whole zoo of other young stars.”

Dr. Greaves added: “The extraordinarily fine detail we can see with the e-MERLIN telescopes was the key to this discovery. We could zoom into a region as small as the orbit of Jupiter would be in the Solar System. We found a belt of pebbles strung along a very similar orbit – just where they are needed if a planet is to grow in the next few million years. Although we thought this was how planets must get started, it’s very exciting to actually see the process in action!”

“Long wavelength data, such these fantastic e-MERLIN results, will be essential in constraining the next generation of computer models of discs around young stars.  Having an accurate idea of the location and amount of the centimeter-sized material in the disc will bring us closer to a consistent picture of how planets may eventually form,” added team member Dr. John Ilee, also of St. Andrews.

Greaves leads “PEBBLeS,” the Planet Earth Building Blocks Legacy e-MERLIN Survey. The project may never win the Nobel Prize for acronyms, but its ultimate and exciting aim is to zoom in and see “extrasolar Earths” being born.

This research was announced by the Royal Astronomical Society.

Post by: Rad on Jul 07, 2015, 05:54 AM
Stellar survey to reveal distribution of dark matter

July 6, 2015
Chuck Bednar for

A team of researchers from the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ) along with an international team of colleagues have started a new wide-area dark matter distribution survey that could help explain the role of dark energy in the expansion of the universe.

Using the using Hyper Suprime-Cam, a new wide-field camera installed on the Subaru Telescope in Hawaii, the NAOJ-led team conducted observations across an area of 2.3 square degrees in the skies near the constellation Cancer. They discovered nine large concentrations of dark matter, each of which was the mass of a galactic cluster, the Observatory said in a statement.

Surveying how dark matter is distributed, as well as how the distribution changes over time, is a key part of understanding how dark energy controls universal expansion. The results demonstrate that astronomers now have both the tools and techniques to understand dark energy, and the next step is to expand the survey to cover more than 1,000 square degrees.

The study is available online and has been published in The Astrophysical Journal. The research team was led by Dr. Satoshi Miyazaki of the NAOJ’s Advanced Technology Center and includes astronomers and astrophysicists from Princeton University and the University of Tokyo.

Using ‘weak lensing’ to study dark energy

Dr. Miyazaki, the lead developer of the HSC instrument, claims the key to understanding the properties of dark energy (and in turn the expansion of the universe) lies in mapping dark matter over a wide area. The results of their research thus far demonstrated that their current equipment and methodology is up to the task.

Using the HSC, the researchers are prepared to investigate how dark matter distribution has been changing over time, as well as conduct a detailed investigation into the expansion history of the universe. Since dark matter does not emit light and cannot be directly detected by telescopes, the team plans to seek out and analyze a phenomenon known as “weak lensing.”

Concentrated dark matter acts like a lens, bending light coming from even more distant objects. By analyzing how that background light is bent, and how the lensing distorts the shapes of those background objects, researchers can determine how dark matter is distributed in the foreground. This allows them to determine how it has assembled over time.

That knowledge can then be linked to the expansion history of the universe and reveal some of the physical properties of dark energy, its strength, and how it has changed throughout the years. To collect enough data to make this possible, astronomers need to observe galaxies more than a billion light years away across an area of more than 1,000 square degrees, which is now possible thanks to the combination of the Subaru telescope and the HSC instrument.

The HSC took a decade to develop, Dr. Miyazaki said, and has a field of view more than seven times larger than its predecessor. Using the instrument, the researchers have uncovered a greater number of galaxy clusters than predicted. If these findings hold up once the dark matter map is expanded, it could indicate that there is less dark energy as expected in the past, suggesting that the universe can expand gently and stars and galaxies can form quickly.

Post by: Rad on Jul 08, 2015, 05:20 AM
Start-up aims to offer on-demand meteor showers

July 7, 2015
Chuck Bednar for – @BednarChuck

Ever wanted to see a meteor shower, but wish you could do it on your own schedule instead of having to wait until just the right moment? Scientists at a Japanese start-up could soon be able to accommodate you by making it so that shooting stars can rain down on-demand.

According to, officials at the company, ALE, said they possess a secret chemical formula that they hope to place into small, one-inch wide spheres and shoot from a satellite, thus creating artificial meteor showers anytime their paying customers want them to.

ALE is said to be teaming with scientists at several universities to produce their synthetic meteor showers, which will reportedly cost more than $8,000 per meteor to fire off. In addition, the ALE representatives said that the process is bright enough to be visible even in big cities or other areas with light pollution – as long as there’s clear weather that night. Lena Okajima, the company’s founder and CEO, told AFP that the meteor showers could be called off up to 100 minutes in advance in the case of bad weather.

Designed for entertainment, but still scientifically beneficial

Naturally-occurring meteor showers take place when space dust and debris travel through the Earth’s atmosphere, heating up along the way and often burning up completely before they can reach the ground, but the artificial meteors would be launched from a microsatellite some 20 inches (50 centimeters) across.

The launch satellite, which AFP reports is currently being developed by the company along with researchers from other groups, would orbit the planet from north to south, at altitudes of roughly 250 to 310 miles (400 to 500 km), for months at a time before it fell back to the Earth and burned up along the way. Its meteorites would be incinerated in the atmosphere, just like real ones.

ALE is not revealing the chemical composition of the formula it plans to use in the pellets, but the firm said that it is considering altering it to create streaks of different colors.

While Okajima said the main purpose of the artificial shooting stars was “entertainment,” said that they “could also be valuable to scientists.” Researchers explained that by analyzing the light of a meteor, they can learn about the temperature, density, and movement of the atmosphere at that altitude. However, real meteor showers are unpredictable, while ALE’s will occur at a predetermined time and place, making them easier to find and study.

Post by: Rad on Jul 08, 2015, 05:50 AM
CS Monitor

How NASA telescope could reveal mysteries of supermassive black holes

NASA's NuSTAR telescope has spotted five previously undetected supermassive black holes, millions more could be lying in wait.

By Cristina Maza, Staff writer July 7, 2015   

It's hard to imagine that anything "supermassive" would be very good at hiding, but astronomers believe that there may be millions of supermassive black holes in the universe just waiting for the right tool to expose them.

The space agency's Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) just may be that instrument.

“While hidden from view from most other telescopes, NuSTAR can spot [black holes] by detecting the highest-energy X-rays, which can penetrate through the enshrouding gas and dust,” NASA’s website outlines.

So far, NuSTAR has identified five previously undetected supermassive black holes while scouring nine separate galaxies. Researchers presented those findings Monday at the Royal Astronomical Society’s National Astronomy Meeting in Llandudno, Wales.

So what exactly is a supermassive black hole?

“Black holes come in several different varieties, all of which are characterized by a dense concentration of mass compressed into a tiny space and a gravitational force so powerful it keeps light from escaping,” the Monitor’s Noelle Swan reported in September, following the discovery of a supermassive black hole inside one of the smallest known dwarf galleries.

“The most widely understood black holes are known as stellar black holes and can contain 20 times the mass of the sun within a ball of space with a diameter of about 10 miles. Supermassive black holes can be as vast as the entire solar system and contain as much mass as found in 1 million suns combined,” she continued.

The discovery in September hinted at the potential existence of around twice as many black holes as astronomers had originally predicted. Meanwhile, the findings presented in Wales on Tuesday suggests that these additional black holes could be discovered and observed. 
Recommended: Are you a space whiz? Take our quiz!

"Thanks to NuSTAR, for the first time, we have been able to clearly identify these hidden monsters that are predicted to be there, but have previously been elusive because of their surrounding cocoons of material," George Lansbury, the lead author of the findings, said Tuesday.

Post by: Rad on Jul 08, 2015, 09:23 AM
Exploring our moon today to learn more about Earth’s youth billions of years ago

The Conversation
08 Jul 2015 at 10:11 ET                   

The surface of the Earth preserves little or no information about its distant past. Constant tectonic activity has recycled Earth’s crust and shifted landmasses. Rainfall, wind, ice and snow have weathered away surface features over billions of years. Most of the craters formed by the impacts of asteroids and comets have been erased from the geologic record, with just over 100 known craters remaining on the continents.

But there is a place that we can go to learn more about the past of our own planet: the moon. In sharp contrast to Earth’s surface, that of the moon is covered with thousands of craters of all sizes, many of them produced shortly after the moon was born. The moon doesn’t have the winds, rivers or plate tectonics capable of erasing these marks of ancient impacts.

For that reason, the surface of the moon is like a window into the early history of our solar system. By studying the chemical composition of rocks and soil on our natural satellite, we could obtain a glimpse of the Earth’s own geological infancy – including the emergence of life.

Way back when

The Earth formed 4.54 billion years ago, after ancient asteroids known as planetesimals piled up into a single, planet-sized body as they orbited the sun. Scientists think the moon formed roughly 70 million years later, when a planet about the size of Mars collided with the young Earth. With the aid of sophisticated computer models, experts have shown that this huge collision created a donut-shaped envelope of molten rock and hot gas around the Earth. By calculating how this scorching disk would lose its heat, they’ve deduced that the moon condensed from all this hot material in less than 100 years.

Fast forward some 500 million years. Around this time, the giant planets Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune likely underwent a rearrangement of their orbits around the sun, as a result of complex gravitational interactions with myriad planetesimals. This rearrangement sent many asteroids on a collision course with Earth. When they crashed into our planet, their impacts launched terrestrial fragments into Earth’s orbit. A very exciting possibility is that some of those Earth rocks might have landed on the moon.

If those pieces of Earth did make it to the moon, they’re probably still lying somewhere on the lunar surface. Some studies predict a large concentration of impacts near the moon’s poles. In some regions, there may be as much as a golf cart’s mass worth of terrestrial material spread over an area equivalent to 140 soccer fields. Whether this mass is in the form of rocks or tiny dust particles depends on, among other things, how hard Earth’s fragments hit the lunar ground.

Messages from Earth on the moon

Regardless of their size, terrestrial remnants could contain invaluable information about our planet’s early years. For example, those terrestrial meteorites may hold a record of the chemical composition of the Earth’s ancient mantle, the hot layer of rock between the crust and the core. Learning about the composition of the Earth billions of years ago would allow us to make comparisons with our present-day planet. With more historical data, we could infer how a habitable planet evolves over time, which would enable us to understand extrasolar planetary systems.

And since we’re talking about habitability, consider this: if there are terrestrial meteorites on the moon, they could potentially give us details about the conditions on Earth right before, or even during, the emergence of life. Stuff to look for on the rock samples blasted off Earth would be organic carbon, minerals gathered by microorganisms, or maybe even fossilized microbes.

Evidence of Earth’s enigmatic past may also be found on the moon in a more subtle way. Some researchers have suggested that ancient atmospheric gases from Earth could be trapped in the lunar soil. Right around the time when the young Earth and moon were heavily bombarded by asteroids, the moon was half as close to the Earth as it is now. It’s therefore possible that Earth’s atmosphere came into contact with the lunar surface.

To search for traces of earthly gases on the moon, the proponents of this idea suggest using well-known experimental techniques to detect the presence of helium, nitrogen and oxygen in lunar grains. The idea would be to measure how much of their various isotopes – the differing flavors of an element based on how many neutrons they have in the atomic nucleus – are present. Since the number of neutrons in isotopes changes at known rates, it’s possible to measure how much of one isotope there is in a grain in relation to its “parent” isotope. That would tell you how long those particular elements have been attached to the grains. If it turns out that the isotopes have been there for at least four billion years, there’s a good chance they came from Earth.

Detecting four-billion-year-old terrestrial oxygen on the moon would be another way to learn about the appearance of life, since atmospheric oxygen would probably have been produced by ancient photosynthetic organisms. Moreover, finding equally old nitrogen could mean that the early Earth did not have a magnetic field as it does today, because electrically charged nitrogen atoms from Earth’s atmosphere would not be capable of reaching the moon had there been a magnetic field.

Does the moon hold some of the early Earth’s secrets?

We are still a long way from obtaining a clear understanding of our home planet. But the possibility of lunar exploration by private ventures, in addition to that carried out by national space agencies, raises the prospects of mind-blowing discoveries that can shed light on Earth’s mysteries.

We may well end up repeating the words of Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders: “We came all this way to explore the moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth.”

By Augusto Carballido, Baylor University

Augusto Carballido is Assistant Research Professor at Baylor University.

Post by: Rad on Jul 09, 2015, 06:01 AM
Saturn’s moon Enceladus may have weak interior

July 8, 2015
Chuck Bednar for

Geysers of ice and water vapor emanating from the surface of Enceladus experience an unusual delay that could indicate that the sixth-largest moon of Saturn lacks a strong interior, researchers claim in a new study published this week in the journal Nature Geoscience.

According to, scientists believe that beneath the surface of this icy moon, there is an ocean of liquid water that could potentially harbor life. By studying its geysers, they hope to find out more detail about what the subterranean surface of Enceladus is really like.

In their study, a team of researchers from the US, France, and the Czech Republic explained that “eruptions of water vapor and ice emanate from warm tectonic ridges” at the moon’s south pole, and that observations in the visible and infrared spectra have revealed “an orbital modulation of the plume brightness,” suggesting that the eruptions are “influenced by tidal forces.”

However, that activity appeared to be experiencing a delay of several hours compared to what simple tidal models predicted. This prompted the authors to “simulate the viscoelastic tidal response of Enceladus with a full three-dimensional numerical model and show that the delay in eruption activity may be a natural consequence of the viscosity structure in the south-polar region and the size of the putative subsurface ocean.”

What lies beneath the surface

They compared plume brightness data to simulations of varying normal stress levels along faults, and found that the activity was reproduced in two different interior models: one involving a low-viscosity convective region above a polar sea along the south pole at depths as little as 30km, and one involving a 60km to 70km thick convecting ice shell resting above a global ocean.

“Previous predictions were too simple, in that they ignored important details of the structure of Enceladus,” said Francis Nimmo, a planetary scientist at the University of California, Santa Cruz and co-author of the new study. “Enceladus experiences tides from Saturn, which provide a force on the ice shell. The ice shell flows in response to these forces, and because the flow is quite slow, the response is delayed by several hours.”

The research centers around the viscosity of fluids on the moon – its thickness, or the degree to which it resists flow. For instance, water is a relatively low-viscosity fluid while honey is a relatively high-viscosity one. Nimmo’s team found that, while a strong, high-viscosity ice shell would instantly react to tidal forces, a weaker, low-viscosity one would react more gradually, which could be explained by either of their two models.

“The timing of geyser activity gives us an insight into the interior of a rather complicated planetary body,” lead author Marie Běhounková, a planetary scientist at Charles University in Prague, told However, more data from the Cassini spacecraft is required before the researchers could try to determine which is the more likely of those models.

Post by: Rad on Jul 09, 2015, 06:01 AM
Is Mars humid enough to support life?

July 8, 2015
Chuck Bednar for

It might look as dry and arid as a desert, but scientists claim that Mars has a surprisingly high amount of moisture in its atmosphere, leading some experts to ponder whether or not the Red Planet could actually be humid enough to support life.

According to, the atmospheric moisture on Mars would be especially conducive to life if the water condenses during the early morning hours, forming short-lived puddles on the planet’s surface. This could theoretically make it possible for the planet’s apparently extremely harsh conditions to support living organisms, even without liquid surface water.

East Carolina University biology professor John Rummel, an astrobiology expert who previously worked with NASA, told the website via email that “the conditions on Mars, where the relative humidity is high and the available water vapor is approximately 100 precipitable microns, is the equivalent of the drier parts of the Atacama Desert in Chile.”

Rummel added there were several “special regions,” or zones where terrestrial organisms are likely to replicate on the Red Planet during a discussion at the Astrobiology Science Conference in Chicago last month. Those regions are “interpreted to have high potential for the existence of extant Martian life forms,” according to report.

Lichen-like life

Life here on Earth requires liquid surface water, but even though there is evidence that Mars was once home to liquid H2O, it currently has very little. The air is a different story, as Rummel said that nighttime relative humidity levels can reach as high as 80 to 100 percent.

Earth is home to some types of organisms, including lichens that can survive in arid regions by taking water directly from humid air. In fact, the website explains that some lichens are capable of photosynthesizing when relative humidity levels are as low as 70 percent. Studies indicate that one type of Antarctic lichen can adapt to life under simulated Martian conditions.

However, scientists have yet to discover a terrestrial lifeform that can reproduce under conditions where there is no liquid water, only humidity. Rummel said this doesn’t necessarily prohibit an organism from surviving on Mars. He told that falling nighttime temperatures may cause water to condense into ice or snow, which would then melt as temperature warm up in the early morning hours. This process could take a few minutes or several hours.

“Such short-term wet periods might be long enough and warm enough to allow for Earth organisms to metabolize and even reproduce,” he said. However, dry conditions aren’t the only thing prohibiting life from living on Mars, the website said – the lack of a global magnetic field, thin atmosphere and radiation levels could force lichen-like organisms underground.

Post by: Rad on Jul 09, 2015, 08:50 AM
‘Puts Star Wars makers to shame': First-of-its-kind five-star solar system discovered

International Business Times
09 Jul 2015 at 09:12 ET 

If there are planets in the vicinity of the 1SWASP J093010.78+533859.5 star system, they would probably be perennially bathed in light from five suns. Located just 250 light-years from Earth, this quintuple star system is the first of its kind to be detected by scientists.

In the cosmic scale, binary star systems -- two stars orbiting each other around a common center of gravity -- are a dime a dozen. Star systems with five stars, however, are believed to be extremely rare.

This particular system consists of a “contact eclipsing binary” wherein the two stars are orbiting so close together that they share an outer atmosphere, a detached binary where the component stars are separated by a distance of about 1.8 million miles and a lone star located nearly 1.2 billion miles from the detached binary. The contact binary system has an orbital period of just under six hours while the detached binaries complete an orbit in just over a day.

An artist’s impression of the five star system 1SWASP J093010.78+533859.5. The smaller orbits are not shown to scale relative to the larger orbit, as the binary components would be too close together to distinguish. The inset images are to scale, along with an image of the Sun for comparison. The blue dotted line marks the orbital path of the two pairs of stars. The fifth star, whose position is uncertain, is to the right of the left pair.  Marcus Lohr

“This is a truly exotic star system. In principle there’s no reason it couldn’t have planets in orbit around each of the pairs of stars. Any inhabitants would have a sky that would put the makers of Star Wars to shame -- there could sometimes be no fewer than five Suns of different brightnesses lighting up the landscape,” Marcus Lohr, from the U.K.’s Open University, who has been studying the star system since 2013, said in a statement. “Days would have dramatically varying light levels as the different stars were eclipsed. They would though miss out on night for a large part of their ‘year’, only experiencing darkness (and a night sky) when the stars were on the same side of their world.”

The presence of these stars was confirmed by astronomers studying data gathered by the international SuperWASP (Wide Angle Search for Planets) project, which provides an accurate measurement of the brightness of stars over time, allowing scientists to plot light curves, graphs depicting brightness against time.

“By combining the data from the five stars’ light curve and their spectra, the Open University researchers have been able to confirm that they are all gravitationally bound together in a single system,” the authors of the study published in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics, said, in the statement.                 

Post by: Rad on Jul 09, 2015, 08:56 AM
Astronomers observe black hole having breakfast in bed

Agence France-Presse
08 Jul 2015 at 20:47 ET                   

Astronomers who trained their telescopes on a strange stellar blip were rewarded with a front-row seat to the spectacle of a black hole waking up to devour breakfast.

The black hole at the centre of a galaxy 42 million light years away, in the constellation of Pisces, may have been dormant for millions of years, a team reported Thursday.

Scientists surveying the skies were lucky in 2012 to catch a flash of its awakening in a galaxy called NGC 660.

“The odds are pretty slim!” Megan Argo of the University of Manchester’s Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics told AFP.

“It is the first time we can watch it (a black hole awakening) happening in real time, so close to our own galaxy.”

Black holes are very dense regions in spacetime with a gravitational force so strong that even light cannot escape.

They normally lurk dormant and undetected at the centre of galaxies, but can occasionally be tracked by their spectacular feeding frenzies — guzzling gas and dust, sometimes entire stars, and spitting out jets of debris.

In 2012, astronomers using a single radio telescope in Puerto Rico to monitor galaxies, noticed NGC 660 become hundreds of times brighter in just a few months — “a very unlikely and very unusual event,” said Argo.

At first, it was not clear whether the burst was due to an exploding star, or the supermassive black hole.

So a team led by Argo trained radio telescopes in Britain, the Netherlands, Russia, China and South Africa on the galaxy, create a type of composite instrument with which to observe more detail.

They found a “very bright” object at the centre of NGC 660.

“Inactive black holes do not emit large mounts of radiation so we can only detect them by their gravitational effect on the orbits of stars around them. But the black hole in NGC 660 is now very obvious,” said a Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) statement.

Argo said the black hole must have been activated when some material, most likely gas and dust, ventured too close to resist the gravitational pull, and fell in.

How long it remains active will depend on how much “food” there is.

“Studies of this nearby event will help in our understanding of how galaxies evolved over the lifetime of the Universe,” added Argo.

The findings were presented Thursday at a meeting of the RAS National Astronomy Meeting in Llandudno, Wales.

Post by: Rad on Jul 10, 2015, 05:42 AM
‘Pac Man’ satellite to gobble up space junk

July 9, 2015
Chuck Bednar for – @BednarChuck

Researchers from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL) are drawing inspiration from an iconic video game character from the 1980s for an ongoing research project designed to tidy up the increasing amount of space junk floating in orbit around the Earth.

According to NBC News, the EPFL’s CleanSpace One project has been searching for a method to safely monitor, collect, and dispose of dead satellites not be re-entering the planet’s atmosphere in the foreseeable future, as well as other debris in low-Earth orbit.

On Monday, they opted to use what is being referred to as the “Pac-Man” technique: a spacecraft will be outfitted with a large cone-shaped net that will close once it consumes a satellite, similar to the way the old arcade game character gobbled up dots.

The clean-up satellite will be tested by capturing the SwissCube satellite, a small probe that no longer functions. CleanSpace One will be trapping the satellite, and once it is secure, the satellites will combust together in the atmosphere. The satellite could launch as early as 2018, NBC added.

Complex calculations required for a successful maneuver

Engineers from the Center for Space Engineering and Signal Processing 5 Laboratory (LTS 5) and their colleagues have spent three years working on the “Pac-Man” satellite as an effort to not only capture SwissCube, but other pieces of space debris as well, including projectiles travelling at speeds of up to 7 km per second, posing a threat to functional satellites.

It’s a difficult mission, according to EPFL officials. Christophe Paccolat, a doctoral student working at LTS5, said SwissCube “is not only a 10cm by 10cm object that’s tough to grasp, but it also has darker and lighter parts that reflect sunlight differently,” that can “perturb the visual approach system and thus also the estimates of its speed and distance.”

Likewise, project leader Muriel Richard-Noca said the mission is delicate, and that it takes just “one error in the calculation of the approach for SwissCube to bounce off CleanSpace One and rocket out into space.” To prevent that from happening, the researchers have constantly been testing the visual approach algorithms that will be used by the cleanup satellite, accounting for a variety of factors such as the CubeSat’s speed and the Sun’s angle of illumination.

Michel Lauria, an industrial technology professor whose students were involved in the project, said the Pac-Man method of capture was selected because it is “more reliable and offers a larger margin for maneuvering than a claw or an articulated hand.”

Click to watch:

Post by: Rad on Jul 11, 2015, 05:36 AM
Sun’s activity to reach lowest point since last ‘mini ice age’

July 10, 2015
Chuck Bednar for

Solar activity is expected to decrease by 60 percent during the 2030s, plummeting conditions to those not seen since Earth underwent its last “mini ice age” starting in 1645, according to new research presented Thursday at the UK National Astronomy Meeting in Llandudno, north Wales.

In their study, Professor Valentina Zharkova from the Northumbria University Department of Mathematics and Information Sciences and her colleagues explained that, by using a new model of the Sun’s solar cycle, they have been able to produce “unprecedentedly accurate predictions of irregularities” within the 11-year “heartbeat” of our solar system’s central star.

Their model uses dynamo effects in two layers of the Sun, one close to the surface and one deep within its convection zone, and predicts the drastic decline in solar activity. Previously, scientists attributed the cause of the solar cycle to caused by convecting fluid deep within the Sun, but that did not explain for differences and fluctuations unique to each cycle. The addition of the second dynamo, closer to the surface, gives them a more complete and accurate picture of events.

“We found magnetic wave components appearing in pairs, originating in two different layers in the Sun’s interior,” Zharkova explained. “They both have a frequency of approximately 11 years, although this frequency is slightly different, and they are offset in time. Over the cycle, the waves fluctuate between the northern and southern hemispheres of the Sun.”

Dynamos to become completely out of synch by 2030

She and her colleagues developed their model using a technique known as “principal component analysis” to analyze magnetic field observations from the California’s Wilcox Solar Observatory. They studies three solar cycles worth of magnetic field activity, and found that by combining the two waves together, they could predict solar cycle activity with a 97 percent success rate.

Furthermore, they compared their predictions to average sunspot numbers, another strong marker of solar activity, and found that the observations and predictions matched closely. Based on their new model, they predict that the two waves will become increasingly offset during a cycle which peaks in 2022, and will become completely out of sync during the cycle afterwards (2030 -2040), which will result in “a significant reduction in solar activity.”

During that cycle, “the two waves exactly mirror each other – peaking at the same time but in opposite hemispheres of the Sun,” Zharkova explained. “Their interaction will be disruptive, or they will nearly cancel each other. We predict that this will lead to the properties of a ‘Maunder minimum’.”

“Effectively, when the waves are approximately in phase, they can show strong interaction, or resonance, and we have strong solar activity,” she added. “When they are out of phase, we have solar minimums. When there is full phase separation, we have the conditions last seen during the Maunder minimum, 370 years ago.”

Post by: Rad on Jul 11, 2015, 05:41 AM
Venus atmosphere studied with rare transit images

July 10, 2015
Brett Smith for – @ParkstBrett

Venus passes between us on Earth and the Sun just twice every 115 years and researchers have taken advantage of this recently-occurring event, known as a transit, to learn something about the various layers of the planet’s atmosphere.

In a new study, researchers described how they used a recent transit of Venus to analyze the composition of elements found in the planet’s atmosphere.

Since various elements absorb light somewhat differently, scientists measured the absorption of the Sun’s light passing through Venus’ atmosphere to find out what kinds of molecules can be found there. This piece of data is critical for planning missions to Venus, as atmospheric elements and compounds can affect the drag of a spacecraft when it enters the atmosphere.

Investigating the Venus transit

“Learning more about the composition of the atmosphere is very important for understanding the braking process for spacecraft when they enter the upper atmosphere of the planet, a process called aerobraking,” study author Fabio Reale said in a press release.

Throughout the transit, just the sides of the atmosphere were seen. However, they were especially interesting regions. On Venus, these are the areas where day becomes night and night becomes day, and these transition areas can set up interesting effects in the ionosphere. The information from the Venus transit revealed these two transition areas are practically the same.

“The planet appeared very round in all wavelengths,” said study author Dean Pesnell, a project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “If the transition from day to night were different from the transition from night to day, you would expect a bulge in the atmosphere on one side of the planet.”

Investigating the Venus transit can also help with research on planets around other stars, as exoplanets are typically uncovered by transits just like the one in this latest study. The more we can view transiting planets close to home, the more it will educate us on how to analyze planets that we can’t currently see very well. When instrument technology progresses, we may be able to collect better data on the atmospheres of exoplanets as well.

“In the future, there might be missions that have enough sensitivity to detect the difference in radius in different wavelengths,” Reale said. “In particular, if there are exoplanets with an extremely thick thermosphere, the size difference in different wavelengths will be larger and there will be a better chance of detecting the change.”

Post by: Rad on Jul 11, 2015, 07:13 AM
Earth-like planets in the Milky Way three times more likely than previously thought

11 Jul 2015 at 08:42 ET

New research has revealed that the elemental building blocks required to make Earth minerals are ubiquitious throughout the Milky Way, making the presence of Earth-like planets three times more likely than was previously believed.

Brad Gibson, a professor at the University of Hull in the U.K., presented the research at the National Astronomy Meeting in Llandudno, Wales on Wednesday, telling the gathered audience that every solar system has the same elemental building blocks as ours.

Prior to Gibson's research, scientists grouped planets into three categories: those richer in carbon, those with more magnesium and silicon, and those similar to Earth. The latest study, conducted with a team from E. A. Milne Centre for Astrophysics at the University of Hull, found that the minerals responsible for the landscapes of the planets in our solar system, and other systems where planets orbit stars, are made up of four elements: silicon, magnesium, carbon and oxygen. The exact ratio of these elements to one another, and the amount of pressure in a planet's atmosphere, determines the land masses and the heating and cooling of the planet's surface. That, in turn, dictates the weather and if the planet is hospitable to organic life.

Our own solar system exemplifies how not all planets with these building blocks have the potential to sustain life. "We only need to look to Mars and Venus to see how differently terrestrial planets can evolve," Gibson concluded. "However, if the building blocks are there, then it's more likely that you will get Earth-like planets – and three times more likely than we'd previously thought."

These discoveries came out of a simulation that Gibson's team designed in order to better understand the chemical evolution of the Milky Way. After they first ran the simulation, they were suprised to find the results did not match up with previous models.

"At first, I thought we'd got the model wrong," Gibson said at the conference. "As an overall representation of the Milky Way, everything was pretty much perfect. Everything was in the right place; the rates of stars forming and stars dying, individual elements and isotopes all matched observations of what the Milky Way is really like." But once they looked closely, they realized that the older findings had missed some key pieces of information. For one thing, previous attempts to figure out the chemical makeup of planetary systems looked only at large planets orbiting very bright stars, which the new study says can lead to uncertainties of 10 to 20 percent. In addition, they say, previous research teams did not have access to the technology needed to accurately identify the spectra of oxygen and nickel.   

Post by: Rad on Jul 13, 2015, 06:23 AM
Life-sustaining planets may be more common that previously thought

Shayne Jacopian for

Life-sustaining planets may not be as uncommon as previously thought—a new study has revealed that the basic ingredients for Earth-like planets can be found on rocky planets everywhere, contrary to the findings of a previous study that said these ingredients could only be found on relatively few planets.

Carbon, oxygen, and magnesium can all be found in many rocky planets. It was previously thought that only some contained these elements, but it turns out, the presence of these elements in in the right ratios is required for a planet to have an Earth-like crust.

"The ratio of elements on Earth has led to the chemical conditions 'just right' for life," said Brad Gibson, an astrophysicist at the University of Hull in the United Kingdom and the lead researcher for this study.

"Too much magnesium or too little silicon, and your planet ends up having the wrong balance between minerals to form the type of rocks that make up the Earth's crust," he added. "Too much carbon, and your rocky planet might turn out to be more like the graphite in your pencil than the surface of a planet like the Earth."

These findings come from a simulation of how the Milky Way galaxy was formed.

Here's an interesting video about the study on

Pretty neat, huh?

Of course, just because a planet has the same kind of terrain as Earth doesn’t necessarily mean it will support life. Size and proximity to a star (and the size of that star, for that matter) all come into play.

These new findings certainly increase a given planet’s odds, though. Maybe we're not alone out there.

Post by: Rad on Jul 16, 2015, 05:39 AM
CS Monitor

Astronomers discover 'Jupiter 2.0.' Could Earth 2.0 be next?

A planet and star closely resembling Jupiter and our sun have been spotted, leading scientists to believe there could also be an Earth-like planet out there.

By Gretel Kauffman, Staff writer July 15, 2015   

Jupiter has a doppelgänger, and it could help us find a planet identical to Earth.

A Brazilian-led team of scientists, researching sun-like stars in an attempt to find planetary systems similar to our own solar system, have discovered a planet with a very similar mass to Jupiter. What’s more, it orbits a star that looks like our sun, has the same mass, and is even the same age.

This is not the first Jupiter-sized planet found orbiting a Sun-like star. What sets this discovery apart is how closely it echoes both Jupiter's mass and its distance from its host star, and the similarities between its host star and the Sun.

Most astronomers agree that Jupiter’s strong gravitational influence played a prominent role in the formation of our solar system, and even in allowing life to thrive on Earth. The discovery of "Jupiter 2.0" opens up the possibility that planets very similar to Earth could also exist elsewhere in our galaxy, researchers say.

"The quest for an Earth 2.0, and for a complete Solar System 2.0, is one of the most exciting endeavors in astronomy," said Jorge Melendez, leader of the study and co-author of a paper that will appear in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics, in a statement. "We are thrilled to be part of this cutting-edge research."

Jupiter 2.0 was found using the HARPS instrument, mounted on the European Southern Observatory’s 3.6-meter telescope at the La Silla Observatory in Chile. The instrument uses the radial velocity method to tease out the slight wobble caused by the gravitational tugging of exoplanets on their parent stars. By deriving the frequency of the wobbles, astronomers are able to calculate a planet’s mass, orbital distance, and period.

"After two decades of hunting for exoplanets, we are finally beginning to see long-period gas giant planets similar to those in our own solar system, thanks to the long-term stability of planet hunting instruments like HARPS," said Megan Bedell, study collaborator and lead author of the paper. "This discovery is, in every respect, an exciting sign that other solar systems may be out there waiting to be discovered."

Post by: Rad on Jul 17, 2015, 05:27 AM
July 16, 2015

Scientists map out the universe’s dark matter

by Brett Smith
Red Orbit

Dark matter is thought to make up 80 percent of all mass in the universe, and yet because it doesn’t absorb or emit light – scientists can only make educated guesses as to its whereabouts.

Despite this difficulty,an international team of researchers has announced the creation of a dark matter map through research described in two recently published studies: one in the journal Physical Review D and one in the journal Physical Review Letters.

The map was created using data from the Dark Energy Survey (DES), an astrophysical survey that maps about one-eighth of the visible sky. While the DES is primarily dedicated to finding dark energy, the theoretical power driving the expansion of the universe, it can also help search for dark matter.

Researchers need an accurate measurement of all the matter in the universe and where it’s situated in order to complete cosmological tests accurately, said study author Vinu Vikraman, a postdoctoral researcher at the federal government's Argonne National Laboratory, in a press release.

Why do we need a dark matter map?

“We don’t know what dark matter really is or how to directly locate it in the universe,” Vikraman said. “This map will act as a valuable tool for cosmology to answer some of these questions, including those related to dark energy.”

The researchers were able to develop a “mass map” using weak gravitational lensing shear measurements created by the DES. Gravitational lensing is the bending of light caused by the mass encompassing all galaxies. This bending produces a distortion, or shear, of the galaxy’s shape, which researchers can then examine to find out the density and matter dispersal of the gravitational lens.

After creating the map, the scientists contrasted it to a new optical galaxy distribution map, also made from DES information. The data allowed the researchers to check for patterns in the dispersal of galaxies and dark matter.

“It also allows us to check our work,” Vikraman said, “since the distribution of galaxies is expected to trace the distribution of dark matter.”

The research team said connection between the galaxy distribution and the mass map is near what was projected by cosmological simulations that factor an accelerating growth of the universe.

Post by: Rad on Jul 17, 2015, 06:04 AM
CS Monitor

To infinity and beyond? What comes after Pluto

New Horizon's mission could extend beyond Pluto to explore the Kuiper Belt region. Eventually, the spacecraft will head on a never-ending trip out of the solar system.

By Sarah Caspari, Staff writer July 16, 2015   

Now that New Horizons’s nine-and-a-half year journey toward Pluto is complete, the work for scientists back on earth has just begun. But what comes next for the NASA spacecraft – a victory lap, or a life of quiet exile?

It all depends on funding, for now. Principal investigator Alan Stern has said he and his team are hoping to secure a grant to extend the mission. But eventually, New Horizons will be sent out to pasture in deep space.

Dr. Stern told Scientific American that New Horizons has the potential to run through the "mid to late 2030s," meaning that getting closer to Pluto than any spacecraft in history may be only one page in a long story of accomplishments.

"We've found two small objects, each roughly 50 kilometers across, for a potential post-Pluto flyby in 2019," Stern said, though the piano-sized spacecraft will only be able to visit one of the two, since they are each about a billion miles away from Pluto, in opposite directions.

"These are ancient, primordial building blocks of the Kuiper Belt planets," he explained, "and we could see them up close!"

The Kuiper Belt, a thick field of comet nuclei and icy bodies orbiting the sun far beyond the planets, includes "a few very exotic, very diverse small planets," said Stern.

"We’re curious about our place in the universe, and here’s a chance to understand the third region of the solar system, the Kuiper Belt objects, because those are probably the origins of planets," NASA spokesman Randii Wessen told McClatchy.

Eventually, New Horizons will follow its predecessors, two Pioneer and two Voyager spacecraft, on a path out of the solar system.

Pioneer 10 and 11 and Voyager 1 and 2 were all launched in the 1970s. Now, the Pioneers are "dead," but still heading out beyond the sun’s gravitational pull, Mr. Wessen said.

NASA gave the Pioneer missions "enough speed that the pull of the sun is going to slow them up," he said, "but it won’t stop them from their departure from the solar system. So they’re just going to glide, dead, leaving our star forever."

Voyager 1 and 2, the two slightly younger NASA missions, still transmit about 16 hours of data to NASA each day. Voyager 1 escaped the solar system in August 2012 and is now traveling through interstellar space. At 12 billion miles away, it is the farthest spacecraft from the sun, and the only one in interstellar space.

Both Voyagers are running out of power, says Wessen. "We’re slowly turning off things to reduce the electrical demand, so the power we do have is used for the critical systems."

When NASA first launched these spacecraft, they had to think ahead, not only anticipating their decades-long scientific missions, but also what – or whom – the vehicles might encounter.

The Voyagers, the Pioneers, and New Horizons all contain information and messages in case the vehicles reach intelligent beings, such as drawings of human figures, the ashes of the scientist who discovered Pluto, an American flag, and recordings of music and sounds that "symbolize mankind."

But that contact, if possible, is still a long way off, noted Wessen. Voyager 1 is some 72,000 years away from the nearest star.

"We're not even out of the driveway. We’re just starting to put our little toe out into the cosmic seas to see what’s out there," he said, adding, "I think it’s more likely that we’ll be able to fish these spacecraft out of the drink and bring them back than that they would be intercepted by some alien system."

Post by: Rad on Jul 18, 2015, 05:30 AM
One-in-a-billion star discovered by Gaia satellite

by Chuck Bednar
Red Orbit
July 18 2015

Astronomers from the University of Cambridge, along with an international team of colleagues and amateur scientists, have discovered the first ever known binary star system in which one of the stars is completely eclipsed by the other.

The discovery, which is detailed in Friday’s edition of the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, centers around a type of two-star system called a Cataclysmic Variable, in which one super dense white dwarf star is cannibalizing gas from its companion.

This particular system is located approximately 730 light years from Earth in the constellation Draco, and was discovered by the ESA’s Gaia satellite in August 2014. Named Gaia14aae, the system was first spotted when it suddenly and drastically increased in brightness over the course of a single day, Dr. Heather Campbell of the Cambridge Institute of Astronomy said.

“Gaia14aae was discovered by the Gaia satellite when it suddenly became 10 times brighter in August 2014,” Dr. Campbell told redOrbit via email. “We caught it with Gaia because one star is eating material off the other which causes occasional outbursts or transient events.”

“Additional observations of the system were made by the Center for Backyard Astrophysics (CBA), a collaboration of amateur and professional astronomers, who took many short images of the system,” she added. “The CBA noticed a regular dip in the brightness of Gaia14aae, every 47 minutes, which they attributed to an eclipse of the white dwarf by its companion.”

Discovery could improve understanding of Ia supernovae

Using spectroscopy from the William Herschel Telescope in the Canary Islands, Dr. Campbell’s team discovered that while Gaia14aae contains large amounts of helium, it lacked hydrogen, the most comment element in the universe. The absence of this element allowed them to classify the new system as a very rare type of system known as an AM Canum Venaticorum (AM CVn).

An AM CVn, she explained, is a kind of Cataclysmic Variable system in which both stars have lost all of their hydrogen. This discovery is “especially exciting” because “it is the first known AM CVn system where one star totally eclipses the other,” she told redOrbit. “This means we will be able to measure their sizes and masses to a higher accuracy than any similar system.”

The study authors also said that this new type of system could lead to a new way to study ultra-bright supernova explosions, which is one of the primary tools used to measure the expansion of the universe. Dr. Campbell explained that AM CVn systems “could hold the key to one of the greatest mysteries in modern astrophysics: what causes Ia supernova explosions?”

Type Ia supernovae occur in binary systems, and is essential in the field of astrophysics because their extreme brightness allows researchers to use them to measure the accelerated expansion of the Universe, she said. In the case of Gaia14aae, it’s not known whether the two stars will collide and cause a supernova explosion, or if the white dwarf will completely devour its companion star before that can happen. However, studying Gaia14aae will lead to new insight into how this type of supernovae explode, which is essential for more accurate measurements of dark energy.

“Gaia14aae was one of the first discoveries from the Gaia satellite, which will be searching for transient objects for the next four or more years,” Dr. Campbell concluded. “So watch this space for many more exciting discoveries. We announce all the new discoveries on our website so that other astronomers and the public can help us gain more information from the ground on the new discoveries to try to understand what they are.”

Post by: Rad on Jul 18, 2015, 06:03 AM
CS Monitor

In latest close-up images of Pluto, details of big heart take center stage

As it hurtles away from Pluto, New Horizons has returned only about 1 to 2 percent of the data it has on board. And it continues to gather more on the outbound leg of its journey.

By Pete Spotts, Staff writer July 17, 2015   

New close-up images of Pluto, released Friday, as well as fresh information about its atmosphere, are presenting the New Horizons science team with an ever-expanding set of puzzles.

As it hurtles away from the Pluto-Charon system, the spacecraft has returned only about 1 to 2 percent of the data it has on board. And it continues to gather more on the outbound leg of its journey. The craft is now some 2.4 million miles from Pluto.

New Horizons is completing a solar-system reconnaissance effort that saw its first success 53 years ago when Mariner 2 conducted a flyby of Venus – the first successful flyby of another planet in human history.

"I'm a little biased, but I have to tell you that I think the solar system saved the best for last," said Alan Stern, a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo., and New Horizons's lead scientist, during a briefing Friday.

Among the images the craft has beamed back: the first well-resolved image of Nix, an elongated moon about 25 miles across whose brightness falls midway between that of Pluto and of Charon.

But Pluto's big heart, which the team has informally named Tombaugh Regio, or Tombaugh Region, for the planet's discoverer, Clyde Tombaugh, currently is serving as center ring for the Pluto-Charon show.

The team has identified a concentrated patch of carbon-monoxide ice that has been observed from Earth for years. New Horizons data show that it covers much of the western half of Tombaugh Regio.

"It definitely catches the eye," said Dr. Stern. Across the rest of the hemisphere in which it appears, "there's no other carbon-monoxide concentration anything like this. It's a very special place on the planet."

The western region also hosts a broad, crater-free expanse of frozen plain that the science team has dubbed Sputnik Plenum, in honor of the first artificial satellite to orbit Earth. Seen from above, the plain looks as though it's been put together in segments that resemble odd-shaped garden pavers. The segments range in size from 12 to 20 miles across.

The region's lack of craters suggests that it could have formed within the past 100 million years, or "it could be only a week old, for all we know," said Jeff Moore, a planetary geologist at NASA's Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif., and a member of the New Horizons science team.

The giant polygon segments are separated by narrow troughs. Some troughs host collections of mounds and hills that rise above the surrounding plain. Other segments are pitted. The interiors of some troughs appear to be coated with dark material.

Researchers are sorting through possible explanations for these features. Something could be pushing the hills up from underneath, or they could represent knobs of material that stubbornly refuse to bow to forces that may be eroding and lowering the general landscape.

The segments themselves could be surface evidence of convection, Dr. Moore offered. The convection, driven by modest amounts of heat from Pluto's interior, could give the surface layer of nitrogen, carbon monoxide, and methane ice the look of boiling oatmeal.

Or the segments could form as the surface contracts, forming patterns similar to those in desiccated mud flats on Earth.

"We have various ways to test those ideas," Moore said.

The New Horizons science team also has gotten its first detailed glimpses of data on Pluto's atmosphere, gathered after the spacecraft zipped past the dwarf planet.

Previous measurements from Earth, using stars to backlight Pluto's atmosphere, could detect the presence of an atmosphere only to within 30 miles of the surface and as far out as 170 miles.

Once New Horizons finished its close approach to Pluto, it used the sun to backlight the planet's upper atmosphere, while radio signals sent from Earth probed conditions in the lower atmosphere.

The initial data show that the atmosphere is evenly distributed around Pluto, and it's being carried away by a constant flow of charged particles from the sun, known as the solar wind. Energy from the sun heats nitrogen molecules, which begin to rise into the upper atmosphere. There they are ionized by ultraviolet radiation from the sun. Once the nitrogen is ionized, the solar wind can strip it from the dwarf planet and carry it away.

New Horizons has detected the tail of ionized nitrogen that this process generates – a tail analogous to a comet's tail.

The team has yet to put numbers to the losses, noted Fran Bagenal, a planetary scientist at the University of Colorado at Boulder and a member of the mission's science team. But models suggest that Pluto's weak gravity and the loss process are pulling nitrogen, the atmosphere's main gas, from the planet at a rate of about 500 tons an hour – a loss rate 500 times larger than the pace at which Mars is losing its atmosphere.

Over Pluto's lifetime so far, that pace would have liberated enough nitrogen to form a layer of nitrogen ice up to 9,000 feet thick, Dr. Bagenal said.

Back on Sputnik Plenum, researchers have spotted dark smudges that could signal wind-borne dust that has settled in the lee of high spots on the landscape.

The material could be evidence of local erosion. The smudges could consist of hydrocarbons, perhaps, that have settled out of the atmosphere. Or the material making up the streaks could originate in plumes or geysers, features also associated with subsurface heat.

No such features have been observed, but data released since Wednesday suggest to the science team that such processes might be active today, replenishing the atmosphere's stock of nitrogen.

Post by: Rad on Jul 20, 2015, 06:26 AM
July 20, 2015

Browse through 100,000 space images with NASA’s new gallery

by Jonny Lim
Red Orbit

Do you like space? Do you like pictures of space?

Well now NASA has both for you in one place.

NASA has a wealth of celestial photos from various telescopes, manned missions, and probes. The agency recently made it easier for the public to access NASA’s photography catalog by creating a centralized image gallery.

This website combines over 70 NASA image galleries into a searchable database. There’s just about everything.

Yes, there’s over 100,000 pictures– which is a bit overwhelming, but there is no need to worry. NASA included a search engine to help you on your mission.

Step aside, Google. Space nerds have a new search engine at the ready.

Click here:

Post by: Rad on Jul 20, 2015, 07:13 AM
Searching for ET: Hawking to look for extraterrestrial life

Originally published July 20, 2015 at 5:43 am
The Associated Press

LONDON (AP) — Renowned physicist Stephen Hawking has joined a Russian billionaire to launch a major new effort to listen for aliens in the search for extraterrestrial life.

Hawking has offered his support to tech entrepreneur Yuri Milner’s Breakthrough Initiatives project — a $100 million quest to see if extraterrestrial intelligence exists. Milner, who made a fortune through investments in companies like Facebook, said the power and innovation of Silicon Valley could be harnessed to search the entire Milky Way and 100 nearby galaxies.

“There is no bigger question,” Hawking said. “It is time to commit to finding the answer to search for life beyond Earth.”

As well as using some of the world’s most powerful telescopes, the Breakthrough Listen project will support SETI@home, a University of California, Berkeley computing platform. The project will harness computer power, having 9 million volunteers working in tandem by donating spare computing power to a worldwide network, scanning the skies and looking for life — creating one of the biggest supercomputers in the world.

   The researchers say they will be able to collect as much data in one day that which was collected in a year.

“The scope of our search will be unprecedented — a million nearby stars, the galactic center the entire plane of the Milky Way and 100 nearby galaxies,” Milner said.

Hawking said it is time for questions to be answered.

“Somewhere in the cosmos, perhaps, intelligent life may be watching these lights of ours aware of what they mean,” Hawking said. “Or do our lights wander a lifeless cosmos, unseen beacons announcing that here on our rock, the universe discovered its existence?


Yuri Milner Is Investing $100 Million To Find Intelligent Extraterrestrial Life

Jordan Crook

“What is the greatest question ever asked?” poses Yuri Milner, layering smoked salmon atop toast points.

My palms are sweating. As if the meeting at the Ritz Carlton with one of the most powerful men in the world (for which I was slightly late) wasn’t intimidating enough, the wait for him to join me — during which the hotel staff informed me of his preferred booth — had me more rattled then I’ve ever been for a briefing. “Mr. Milner doesn’t mind that you’re in a t-shirt,” the waiter said to me as I waited. “He cares about what’s up there,” pointing to my head.

And now Milner is putting it to the test.

“What is the meaning of life?” is my first guess, and he seems mildly pleased but dissatisfied, so I follow with “How do we achieve happiness?”

Milner shakes his head politely, and corrects my mistakes with a smile.

“Are we alone?” he says, with all the wonder of a young boy.

Yuri Milner was named Yuri after Yuri Gagarin, and he explains to me that space exploration has been a dream of his since childhood. Before he was a founder or an investor (in companies like Facebook, Twitter, Airbnb, Uber, and a number of other unicorns), he was a scientist. It is his passion, not his business. Until now.

Breakthrough Initiatives

Milner is investing $100 million into a new project, announced today at the The Royal Society in London with Stephen Hawking, Martin Rees, Frank Drake, Geoff Marcy, Pete Worden, and Ann Druyan. The project is called Breakthrough Initiatives, and the first piece of the initiative will launch today.

Breakthrough Listen, in the words of Milner, is the most powerful, comprehensive and intensive scientific search ever undertaken for signs of intelligent life beyond our planet. The project will include the use of two of the world’s most powerful radio telescopes — Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia, and Parkes Telescope in New South Wales, Australia.

Milner explains that the program will survey the 1,000,000 closest stars to Earth in hopes of finding conditions suitable to life, searching the entire galactic plane of the Milky Way and beyond to the 100 closest neighboring galaxies.

This means that Breakthrough Listen will scan at least five times more of the radio spectrum, 100 times faster than previous initiatives funded by the government, and will cover 10x more of the sky than anything to have come before it.

All in all, the program should be 1000x more effective than any previous search for intelligent life beyond Earth.

Milner is tapping the collective intelligence of SETI@home, Berkeley’s distributed computing platform, which will afford the project 9 million volunteers around the world donating their extra computing power to the project.

But even with the support of one of the biggest supercomputers in the world, which those volunteers collectively represent, Milner isn’t leaving anything up to chance.

The entire project will be open-sourced, including the data pulled in from these telescopes and the software used to interpret it. The software built will also be compatible with other telescopes around the world, so that others can join in the search for intelligent life.

By open-sourcing the data and the software, the project will comprise it’s own open platform wherein developers, scientists and engineers can create their own applications and programs to further analyze the data, which will be the largest amount of this type of data (on space exploration) to ever be put in the hands of the public.

Of course, what good is the ability to detect a message or a sign of extraterrestrial life without the ability to communicate.

That’s why the second part of the Initiative, Breakthrough Message, will center around the actual content we’d like to transmit into the heavens for our potential galactic neighbors. The project will award $1,000,000 to the individuals who create digital messages that represent humanity and planet Earth. Thus far, there isn’t a lot of public information about this phase of the project, but Milner says that more details around the competition will be announced at a later date.

Milner has announced Breakthrough Initiatives today, but this has been a work in progress for some time now. To kick off the search, Milner has published an open letter signed by 30 of the world’s leading scientists.

Call To Action

    Who are we?

    A mature civilization, like a mature individual, must ask itself this question. Is humanity defined by its divisions, its problems, its passing needs and trends? Or do we have a shared face, turned outward to the Universe?

    In 1990, Voyager 1 swiveled its camera and captured the ‘Pale Blue Dot’ – an image of Earth from six billion kilometers away. It was a mirror held up to our planet – home of water, life, and minds. A reminder that we share something precious and rare.

    But how rare, exactly? The only life? The only minds?

    For the last half-century, small groups of scientists have listened valiantly for signs of life in the vast silence. But for government, academia, and industry, cosmic questions are astronomically far down the list of priorities. And that lengthens the odds of finding answers. It is hard enough to comb the Universe from the edge of the Milky Way; harder still from the edge of the public consciousness.

    Yet millions are inspired by these ideas, whether they meet them in science or science fiction. Because the biggest questions of our existence are at stake. Are we the Universe’s only child – our thoughts its only thoughts? Or do we have cosmic siblings – an interstellar family of intelligence? As Arthur C. Clarke said, “In either case the idea is quite staggering.”

    That means the search for life is the ultimate ‘win-win’ endeavor. All we have to do is take part.

    Today we have search tools far surpassing those of previous generations. Telescopes can pick out planets across thousands of light years. The magic of Moore’s law lets our computers sift data orders of magnitude faster than older mainframes – and ever quicker each year.

    These tools are now reaping a harvest of discoveries. In the last few years, astronomers and the Kepler Mission have discovered thousands of planets beyond our solar system. It now appears that most stars host a planetary system. Many of them have a planet similar in size to our own, basking in the ‘habitable zone’ where the temperature permits liquid water. There are likely billions of earth-like worlds in our galaxy alone. And with instruments now or soon available, we have a chance of finding out if any of these planets are true Pale Blue Dots – home to water, life, even minds.

    There has never been a better moment for a large-scale international effort to find life in the Universe. As a civilization, we owe it to ourselves to commit time, resources, and passion to this quest.

    But as well as a call to action, this is a call to thought. When we find the nearest exo-Earth, should we send a probe? Do we try to make contact with advanced civilizations? Who decides? Individuals, institutions, corporations, or states? Or can we as species – as a planet – think together?

    Three years ago, Voyager 1 broke the sun’s embrace and entered interstellar space. The 20th century will be remembered for our travels within the solar system. With cooperation and commitment, the present century will be the time when we graduate to the galactic scale, seek other forms of life, and so know more deeply who we are.

Meeting Adjourned

As I sit across from this man — part scientist, part entrepreneur, part husband, part billionaire — I wonder why he’s here with me. There are colleagues of mine who are far deeper into space exploration, science fiction, etc. than I am. I’m the girl who covers Tinder.

And yet, each time he gets to explain the full scope of the project, the historical context and technological progress with which it has been made possible, his eyes lighten and his smile softens. He represents the fulfillment of a dream had by millions of individuals, scientist or not, across the globe. It will take time, perhaps more than he or I has left on this Earth, but the quest has truly begun.

If there is intelligent life out there, beyond our own atmosphere, we are going to find it.

“We’re out of time,” Milner says looking at his watch. He stands, shakes my hand with a warm smile, and heads for the door.

Post by: Rad on Jul 21, 2015, 05:22 AM
July 20, 2015

Dawn spacecraft is back in action around Ceres

by Brett Smith
Red Orbit

On Friday, NASA announced it had recovered control of its Dawn probe – saving the $466 million mission from disaster.

On June 30, Dawn had just started spinning down to its third Ceres orbit when it experienced a glitch that forced it into a protective “safe mode” – which included halting all activities and sending a radio signal to ask for further instructions. After an analysis, the mission team was able to establish just what the problem was and they then cleared Dawn to go back to work.

“Engineers traced this anomaly to the mechanical gimbal system that swivels ion engine #3 to help control the spacecraft’s orientation during ion-thrusting. Dawn has three ion engines and uses only one at a time,” NASA officials wrote in an official update. “Dawn’s engineering team switched to ion engine #2, which is mounted on a different gimbal, and conducted tests with it from July 14 to 16.”

“They have confirmed that the spacecraft is ready to continue with the exploration of Ceres,” the statement added.

Mission moving forward

NASA officials said Dawn is expected to take around five weeks to steer from its second orbit, about 2,700 miles above Ceres down to the third, at an altitude of 900 miles. Officials have also noted there is no need to follow a specific timetable for starting the third science orbit.

“Because of the versatility of Dawn’s ion propulsion system and the flexibility of the mission’s plan for exploring Ceres, there is no special ‘window’ for starting or completing the spiral to the third mapping orbit,” the space agency said. “The plans for the third and fourth mapping orbits can be shifted to new dates without significant changes in objectives or productivity.”

Images from the mission release last month revealed a pyramid-shaped peak towering over large flat plain, as well as intriguing clues about Ceres’ mysterious “bright spots”.

“The surface of Ceres has revealed many interesting and unique features. For example, icy moons in the outer solar system have craters with central pits, but on Ceres central pits in large craters are much more common. These and other features will allow us to understand the inner structure of Ceres that we cannot sense directly,” Carol Raymond, deputy principal investigator for the Dawn mission, said in a statement.

Feature Image:  This artist concept shows NASA’s Dawn spacecraft above dwarf planet Ceres, as seen in images from the mission. (Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA)

Post by: Rad on Jul 21, 2015, 05:24 AM
July 19, 2015

NASA probe captures sun in blue light

by Chuck Bednar
Red Orbit

After spending more than three months in safe mode, the NASA Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory Ahead (STEREO-A) spacecraft captured a stunning new image of the sun that makes the Milky Way’s central star appear to be blue in color.

The picture, captured using STEREO-A’s Extreme Ultraviolet Imager on Wednesday, shows the sun in wavelengths of 171 angstroms, which are typically colorized in blue, according to the US space agency. This instrument, which continuously monitors the sun, collects images in several different wavelengths of light which are typically invisible to the human eye.

The solar orbiter only recently emerged from the far side of the sun, where it had been operating in safe mode, collecting and saving data from radio instruments since March 21. Last Saturday STEREO-A sent back its first images in more than three months, NASA officials said.

STEREO-A survived safe-mode operations unscathed

The three month safe mode was needed due to the geometry between the spacecraft, the Earth and the sun. While STEREO-A’s orbit around the sun is similar to Earth’s, it is slightly smaller and faster, meaning that the probe’s orbit stopped syncing with the Earth’s over the years.

This caused STEREO-A to wind up on the opposite side of the sun from the Earth, which it turn allowed it to capture a side of the star that we couldn’t see from our home planet. However, between March 24 and July 8, the spacecraft was close enough to the sun from that it caused interference, making the probe’s data transmission signal impossible to interpret during that period.

As the spacecraft kept orbiting, it eventually moved far enough away from the sun to exit this so-called transmission dark zone, and starting in late June, the STEREO-A team once again began to receive status updates from STEREO-A, thus confirming that it and its instrument was able to survive the extended period of safe-mode travel without suffering significant damage.

According to NASA, STEREO-A’s radio wave instrument collected and stored data on an almost continuous basis during the safe mode period, and on July 9, mission team personnel switched on the spacecraft’s solar wind and particle instruments. Then, last weekend, the imaging instruments were activated, including the Extreme Ultraviolet Imager that captured the latest photo.

Post by: Rad on Jul 21, 2015, 05:29 AM
July 20, 2015

Coma Cluster may be chock full of dark matter

by Chuck Bednar
Red Orbit

Using powerful computer simulations, a team of experts from the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research have determined that the Coma Cluster may be filled with massive amounts of dark matter, the substance believed to make up about 84 percent of the universe.

In the latest edition of the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, Cameron Yozin, a Ph. D. student at the ICRAR, and his colleagues explained how they studied galaxies which have fallen into the Coma Cluster, one of the largest structures in space, and found it could plausibility contain as much as 100 times more dark matter than visible matter.

The authors explained that the Coma Cluster, which is located some 300 million light years from Earth, could contain galaxies that fell into the cluster up to seven billion years ago. Based on the current theories of galaxy evolution, this discovery suggests that they may be rich in dark matter in order to protect visible matter from being destroyed.

“Our simulations consist of two primary components: a high-resolution model of a galaxy that represents those discovered in the Coma cluster, and a model of the cluster itself,” Yozin said to redOrbit via email. “Our aim was to simulate the evolution of these galaxies within the cluster for up to ten billion years, a timescale that is motivated by the 'red color' of the observed galaxies which implies that they haven't formed stars for a long time.”

“Accordingly, we have to build the model with the mass, size and gas content of these objects before they fell into the cluster, which could be very different to their properties as observed today,” he added. “For this, we make the appropriate assumption that these galaxies originally resembled galaxies that have been observed to be similar in mass but reside outside dense environments like the cluster.”

Study findings support the standard model of cosmology

Yozin explained that the Coma Cluster model consisted of dark matter in hot gas distributed in a specific way based on observations of these types of structures. He and his colleagues needed to simulate the cluster as it was up to 10 billion years ago, and they did so by extrapolating the most recent estimates of the actual cluster’s properties based on large-scale simulations.

“There are many influences acting on a galaxy residing within a structure like a cluster, but we cannot model everything because of limitations even on the computational speed of a supercomputer,” he said. “Prior experience, however, suggests that the gravitational interactions between the galaxy and the immense dark matter of the cluster, and hydrodynamical interactions between the galaxy's cold gas (which fuels star formation) and the cluster's hot gas, are most important and are therefore the only interactions we incorporate.”

Their simulations were completed using GRAPE (Gravity-Pipe), a supercomputer at the ICRAR that specializes in high resolution simulations requiring several gravitational calculations. Many of these simulations were conducted in order to obtain “a feasible range of scenarios” to explain the evolution of the Coma Cluster galaxies. The new study was inspired by a recent US-Canada team’s observational discovery of these galaxies that was published in 2014, and used the data of that previous study to set the initial conditions on the new computer simulations.

“The primary results that arose, include the finding that the aforementioned hydrodynamical interaction causes the galaxies to lose their gas almost as soon as they fall into Coma,” said Yozin. “The second major result is that to reproduce the presently observed properties of the galaxies within a sensible approximation of their long-term evolution in Coma, their visible matter must have been originally enveloped by a massive dark matter halo.”

He added that the findings “represent a plausible argument in favor of the standard model of cosmology – i.e. the model that incorporates dark matter as a fundamental component of all matter in the universe. An important feature of this model is that most galaxies are dominated in mass by dark matter, but as dark matter is invisible to us, we must rely on indirect evidence of its existence. The hypothesis outlined in our research suggests these recently discovered galaxies can provide such evidence.”

“Another intriguing implication is that the extreme faintness of these particular galaxies can be explained in terms of them falling into the Coma cluster very early on in their overall formation, before they had a chance to reach their potential of growing to be as large as possibly our own Milky Way galaxy,” Yozin concluded.

Post by: Rad on Jul 21, 2015, 05:57 AM
Earth from a million miles away: Dscovr satellite sends groundbreaking photo

Nasa’s new Deep Space Climate Observatory, hanging in gravitational balance between Earth and sun, sends high-quality snapshot that is first of its kind
Staff and agencies
Tuesday 21 July 2015 05.31 BST

A Nasa camera on the Deep Space Climate Observatory (Dscovr) satellite – hanging in gravitational balance between the Earth and the sun – has returned its first view of the entire sunlit side of the planet from one million miles away.

The satellite was launched in February on a Space X Falcon 9 rocket and recently reached its planned orbit at the first Lagrange point or L1, where Nasa says it will be able to constantly take science-quality images of the entire sunlit face of the Earth.

Historic pictures of planets in our solar system..View gallery:

Its first colour picture came from the spacecraft’s Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera (Epic) and was made by combining three separate images to create a photographic-quality image, Nasa said on Monday as it released the photograph.

The camera on the spacecraft – a project championed by Al Gore when he was vice-president – takes a series of 10 images using different light filters from ultraviolet to near-infrared. The red, green and blue channel images were used in these Earth images, Nasa said, with the initial Earth images showing the effects of sunlight scattered by air molecules and giving them a characteristic bluish tint. Further processing would remove the atmospheric effects and reveal land features.

“This first Dscovr image of our planet demonstrates the unique and important benefits of Earth observation from space,” said Nasa administrator Charlie Bolden, a former astronaut. “Dscovr’s observations of Earth, as well as its measurements and early warnings of space weather events caused by the sun, will help every person to monitor the ever-changing Earth and to understand how our planet fits into its neighbourhood in the solar system.”

Pluto pictures: new high-resolution image delights and intrigues scientists..Read more:

Eventually, when the satellite goes into full operation, new images are expected daily, Nasa has said. “The high quality of the Epic images exceeded all of our expectations in resolution,” said Adam Szabo, Dscovr project scientist at Nasa’s Goddard space flight centre in Greenbelt, Maryland. “The images clearly show desert sand structures, river systems and complex cloud patterns. There will be a huge wealth of new data for scientists to explore.”

Dscovr is a partnership between Nasa, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the US air force aimed primarily at maintaining real-time solar wind monitoring capabilities used for “space weather alerts” – forecasts and tracking of activity such as solar flares and their impact on Earth.

Data will be used to measure ozone and aerosol levels in Earth’s atmosphere, cloud height, vegetation properties and the ultraviolet reflectivity of Earth, according to Nasa.

Post by: Rad on Jul 21, 2015, 06:01 AM
CS Monitor

European engineers struggle to resume contact with comet lander

The European Space Agency's Philae lander hasn't communicated with is mothership since July 9. Engineers have sent a software patch to help the lander get by with a broken transmitter.

By Paul Sutherland, Sen July 20, 2015   
Sen—Europe’s Rosetta team have been continuing efforts to re-establish reliable contact with little lander Philae, lodged in an unidentified spot on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

Communications have been frustratingly intermittent, and the last signal the mothership received from the surface was on July 9. Engineers at the Lander Control Center at the German Aerospace Center (DLR) in Cologne suspect that one of Philae’s two transmitters is not working properly, and one of its two receivers is damaged too.

In the latest bid to improve the situation, a software patch was uploaded from Earth to Rosetta last week, to command Philae to work with one transmitter only, and this has now been sent from Rosetta to the lander. The team is hopeful that Philae will have received its new instructions, since it can pick up and accept commands “in the blind”, and so it should obey them when it is next charged with sunlight.

The patch is not the lander team’s last throw of the dice, however. Commands are also being prepared and tested that aim to get Philae carrying out its science operations once again. The lander's team wants to activate a command block that is still stored in Philae’s onboard computer, having been performed successfully following its dramatic landing on Nov. 12, 2014. If switched back on, that should allow Philae to run its pre-programmed activities again, via instruments MUPUS, ROMAP, SESAME, PTOLEMY and COSAC, without involving any moving mechanism on the lander. The data collected would then be sent back to Earth via Rosetta, providing a reliable link could be established.

Matt Taylor, Rosetta Chief Scientist, told Sen: “The patch is part of a strategy to overcome the issue of having infrequent and short lived communications coupled with the way in which the lander has been behaving. The key thing is that we have not had the lander in a science operable situation up to now, so the lander team is looking at modifying things onboard the lander to try to enable operations, given the non-nominal situation we are in.”

The last information received from Philae on July 9, following a successful second attempt to contact the landed via the separate antenna on its CONSERT instrument, gave the lander team some information to help it to understand Philae’s current situation. Emily Baldwin, of Rosetta’s communications team, reports in today’s Rosetta blog that the data suggests Philae may have shifted position slightly, altering the orientation of its antenna.

A clue to this came from data revealing how much sunlight was falling on each of the lander’s solar panels. Philae’s project manager, Stephan Ulamec of DLR, tells the blog: “The profile of how strongly the Sun is falling on which panels has changed from June to July, and this does not seem to be explained by the course of the seasons on the comet alone.”

If Philae has moved, this could have been caused by a jet of gas from within the comet as it gets warmer and ever more active in the approach to perihelion, its closest point to the Sun. It was already clearly sitting on uneven terrain, as was evident from the panoramic image it took of its surroundings after landing.

The Rosetta team has been facing another problem in getting the spacecraft and lander communicating again. Rosetta has been flying closer to the comet in recent weeks, around the boundary of its day and night side (the terminator), seeking the best location from which it can link up. This has taken the mothership to distances ranging from 180 to 153 km (112 to 95 miles) from the comet’s surface.

However, with a more dusty environment so close in, Rosetta’s star trackers, used for navigation, became confused again on the weekend on July 10-11 when they found it difficult to tell the difference between comet particles reflecting sunlight and the stars. The Rosetta blog reports that Rosetta was therefore being moved back to distances of between 170 and 190 km (105 to 118 miles), to keep it safe.

Post by: Rad on Jul 22, 2015, 06:03 AM
July 20, 2015

Next up for NASA: Juno spacecraft headed to Jupiter

by Shayne Jacopian
Red Orbit

As the excitement begins to die down (oh so slightly) over the New Horizons probe, and the data and photographs it captured of Pluto, NASA is now focusing on the Juno spacecraft, which is set to fly by Jupiter in less than a year, on July 4, 2016.

The solar-powered probe will precisely map the gas giant’s interior by analyzing Jupiter’s gravitational and magnetic fields, reports.

What does NASA hope to find?

The probe will reveal new insights about Jupiter’s composition—does it really have a solid core, or not?—as well as the planet’s evolutionary history. Furthermore, we’ll get some more never-before-seen close-up pictures (in this case, of Jupiter’s polar regions).

"We're already more than 90 percent of the way to Jupiter, in terms of total distance traveled," said Juno’s principal investigator Scott Bolton, of the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, in a statement.

"With a year to go, we're looking carefully at our plans to make sure we're ready to make the most of our time once we arrive."

While Juno was originally set to orbit the gas giant 30 times (once every 11 days) over the course of 15 months, NASA has decided to slow it down to a 14 day orbit, and to extend the study to 32 orbits spanning 20 months.

"The revised cadence will allow Juno to build maps of the planet's magnetic and gravity fields in a way that will provide a global look at the planet earlier in the mission than the original plan," said NASA officials in the same statements.

"We have models that tell us what to expect, but the fact is that Juno is going to be immersed in a strong and variable magnetic field and hazardous radiation, and it will get closer to the planet than any previous orbiting spacecraft," Scott Bolton said. "Juno's experience could be different than what our models predict — that's part of what makes space exploration so exciting."

Post by: Rad on Jul 22, 2015, 06:05 AM
Small spacecraft may someday be fired into space using lasers

by Chuck Bednar
Red Orbit
July 22 2015

In the world of science fiction, mankind journeys to other star systems in larger, multi-person spacecraft like the Enterprise or the Millennium Falcon, but now experts are proposing designs that would take interstellar vehicles in the opposite direction, making them smaller.

According to, Philip Lubin, a researcher from the University of California, Santa Barbara’s Experimental Cosmology Group, believes that firing smaller, wafer-like spacecraft into the stars using powerful lasers could be the ideal way to travel to other star systems.

In order to reach a destination far from the Milky Way in a halfway decent amount of time, a vehicle must be able to travel at high speeds. However, this raises a problem because travelling faster would require the ship to carry more propellant, and the added fuel would make it harder for the spacecraft to accelerate, thus preventing it from reaching those speeds.

To overcome this issue, researchers are imagining tiny ships that use solar, laser or microwave sails, the website explains. By surfing on the sun’s photons or by being shot from Earth orbit on a beam, a tiny spacecraft may not require an external propulsion source, the website said.

Mini-probes could make it to Mars in 30 minutes

Lubin’s proposal for these small, wafer-thin spacecraft is one of 15 proposals that have received a Phase 1 grant from NASA's Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC), an up to $100,000 award meant to encourage researchers to develop ambitious new solutions for space travel problems.

Lubin's concept, according to, is a “Roadmap to the Stars” detailing the step-by-step development and testing of miniature laser-propelled probes, each of which would weight just a single gram. The probes would be carried into space on a laser beam blasted from orbit, and each would carry tiny sensors that would be used to collect data and transmit it back to Earth.

The UCSB researcher said that recent advances in directed-energy technology have made it so propulsions systems that would have once required larger lasers can now be generated by ones that are far smaller and linked to amplifiers in orbit around the Earth. The laser array to be used to launch the system would be about six miles (10 km) across and could be scaled up over time from smaller, easier-to-use components, he explained to the website.

Ultimately, he envisions a large-scale laser system that would use between 50 to 70 gigawatts of power to propel small spacecraft with a 3.3-foot (1 meter) sail up to 26 percent the speed of light in 10 minutes. This vehicle, Lubin explained, could make it to Mars in 30 minutes, catch up to the Voyager one spacecraft in under 72 hours and reach Alpha Centauri in 15 years.

“What we're proposing is extremely difficult, extraordinarily difficult – but so far we don't see the fundamental showstopper,” he told “What prevents you from executing it except the hard work to do it and the technological evolution to get there?”

Post by: Rad on Jul 22, 2015, 06:24 AM
CS Monitor

China unveils plan to land on mysterious far side of the moon

If successful, China would be the first nation to explore the moon's far side and could lay the groundwork for a lunar base.

By Beatrice Gitau, Staff July 21, 2015   

The Chinese National Space Administration (CNSA) has unveiled its early plans for landing a spacecraft on the far side of the Moon. If all goes according to plan, China would be first country to go there.   

In a paper submitted to the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, China said that the unmanned lander and rover, currently named Chang’e-4, will launch in 2018 or 2019. The lander could lay the groundwork for an eventual lunar base.

Key objectives include performing the "first soft landing on the lunar far side in human history"; demonstrating technologies of lunar data relay, landing, and roving on complicated terrains of the lunar far side; and lunar night power generation.

The far side of the moon cannot be seen from Earth, due to a phenomenon known as tidal locking. Orbiters, of course, have mapped it in detail, but for most of human history, it was a total mystery.

The Soviet Luna 3 mission was the first to photograph the far side in 1959, and astronauts on the Apollo 8 mission were the first humans to see it with their own eyes.

China has already launched three lunar missions, two lunar orbiters and a lunar rover. In December 2013, its Chang’e 3 was the first spacecraft to soft-land on the Moon since 1976, making China only the third nation after the United States and Russia to land on the surface of the moon.

Japan and India are casting their eyes upward as well, in what has been dubbed an Asian space race. Earlier this year, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) announced plans to put an unmanned rover on the surface of the moon by 2018. And India has already successfully sent a spacecraft into Mars orbit.

China has invited the European Space Agency to partner in this coming lunar mission, and says it hopes to join the International Space Station team. China cannot currently participate in ISS programs because it was barred in 2011, when the US Congress passed a law prohibiting official American contact with the Chinese space agency due to concerns about national security, reports

    The 2011 law draws a sort of ex post facto justification from a study that was released in 2012 by the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, warning that China’s policymakers “view space power as one aspect of a broad international competition in comprehensive national strength and science and technology.” More darkly, there is the 2015 report prepared by the University of California, San Diego’s Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation, ominously titled “China Dream, Space Dream“, which concludes: “China’s efforts to use its space program to transform itself into a military, economic, and technological power may come at the expense of US leadership and has serious implications for US interests.”

China's intention to build a lunar base on the remote side of the moon was first reported in May, according to, and Chang'e-4 will work towards that, performing key experiments using lunar resources as well as observing the universe without interference from Earth. 

Some have speculated that China’s latest real goal is to dominate the moon’s resources, particularly water and helium-3 – a clean-burning fuel that could potentially offer an alternative to nuclear power.

While NASA has considered sending spacecraft to the moon’s far side, so far it has no plans to do so.

Post by: Rad on Jul 23, 2015, 05:44 AM
July 22, 2015

Why Earth, not Venus, became habitable

by Brett Smith
Red Orbit

Earth is, by far, the most habitable planet in our solar system, and a series of astronomical and geological events allowed our planet to be this way.

According to a new study in the journal Nature Geoscience, one of those key events was when Earth's initial crust, full of radioactive warmth-generating elements like uranium, was torn off the planet by asteroids peppering the planet in its early years – a phenomenon known as impact erosion.

In their report, the study team said losing uranium, as well as radioactive potassium, from the crust ultimately established the progression of Earth's plate tectonics, magnetic field and climate.

"The events that define the early formation and bulk composition of Earth govern, in part, the subsequent tectonic, magnetic and climatic histories of our planet, all of which have to work together to create the Earth in which we live," Mark Jellinek, an earth sciences professor at University of British Columbia, said in a statement. "It's these events that potentially differentiate Earth from other planets."

Differing extents of impact erosion

On Earth, moving tectonic plates lead to constant overturning of Earth’s exterior, which continuously cools down the underlying mantle, retains the planet’s powerful magnetic field and induces volcanic activity. Erupting volcanoes launch greenhouse gases from within the planet and frequent eruptions help to preserve the human-friendly climate that separates Earth from all other rocky planets.

By comparison, Venus is similar to Earth in terms of size, mass, density, gravity and composition. However, Venus has an atmosphere that is extremely hostile to life as we know it, with surface temperatures reaching around 880 degrees F.

“Earth could have easily ended up like present-day Venus,” Jellinek said. “A key difference that can tip the balance, however, may be differing extents of impact erosion.”

If Venus had endured less impact erosion than Earth, it would cool occasionally with cataclysmic swings in the strength of volcanic activity, driving spectacular and billion-year-long changes in climate.

“We played out this impact erosion story forward in time and we were able to show that the effect of the conditions governing the initial composition of a planet can have profound consequences for its evolution,” Jellinek said. “It’s a very special set of circumstances that make Earth.”

Post by: Rad on Jul 24, 2015, 05:34 AM
CS Monitor

NASA finds 'cousin' to Earth in age-old quest for other worlds

NASA announced Thursday that its planet-hunting mission, Kepler, has found an exoplanet that very closely resembles our own.

By Jessica Mendoza, Staff writer July 23, 2015   

NASA has found Earth’s closest lookalike to date.

The space agency announced Thursday that its planet-hunting mission, Kepler, has discovered an exoplanet that is comparable to our own in age and size, orbiting a Sun-like star at a distance that makes it neither too hot nor too cold to support life.

Kepler 452b, as the planet is called, is the smallest known planet outside our solar system that is in the habitable zone of a G2-class star, like the Sun. It is about 6 billion years old, 60 percent larger than the Earth in diameter, and sits in the constellation Cygnus, about 1,400 light-years away from Earth.

Its discovery – 20 years after scientists first proved that stars other than our own host planets – marks a milestone in humankind’s 2,500-year-old quest for other worlds.

The new planet circles its Sun-like star in an orbit that lasts 385 days, placing it firmly in the zone that scientists consider habitable – where temperatures are warm enough for there to be liquid water on the surface.

"Today the Earth is a little less lonely, because there’s a new kid on the block," Jon Jenkins, Kepler data analysis lead at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., said at a Thursday news conference announcing the discovery. "We believe … that this is the nearest thing that we’ve found to an Earth system analogue, a twin system to our own."

John Grunsfeld, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at the agency’s headquarters in Washington, called the new planet a "close cousin to the Earth."

    Earth’s bigger, older cousin! @NASAKepler discovers new distant planet that's near-Earth-size:
    — NASA (@NASA) July 23, 2015

It wasn’t until the 1990s that scientists confirmed that suns across the universe host their own planets. But the quest to find another habitable planet dates as far back as the ancient Greeks and Romans, whose philosophers challenged their contemporaries to conceive of the universe as infinite, and populated with a multitude of inhabited worlds.

Roman poet Titus Lucretius Carus is most frequently credited with originating the idea that the universe is infinite, in his poem "On the Nature of Things": " 'Tmust be confessed in other realms there are / Still other worlds, still other breeds of men, / And other generations of the wild."

During the Renaissance, Giordano Bruno disputed the uniqueness of the sun, suggesting in 1584 that the stars were other suns like ours, with their own planets. For his efforts, he was burned at the stake for heresy.

But all this remained pure conjecture until the development of the telescope in the early 17th century. Within a century or so, astronomers began noticing that stars varied in their brightness, and that they moved with respect to one another.

In 1925, Edwin Hubble proved the existence of other galaxies – clusters of stars similar to the Milky Way. His discovery "forever alters our view of the universe," according to NASA.

Seventy years later, Swiss astrophysicists Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz discovered the giant planet 51 Pegasi b, the first planet found to be orbiting a main-sequence star. The hunt for Earthlike planets has since taken on growing sophistication, through tools such as the Hubble Space Telescope, the Spitzer Space Telescope, and the Canadian telescope MOST. Spitzer in particular has been crucial in discovering water on an exoplanet.

Kepler’s launch in 2009, and developments in data interpretation since, have pushed the quest for habitable worlds further forward. Including the discovery of 452b, Kepler has now identified a total of 4,675 exoplanets.

And while there’s still plenty we don’t know about our newly discovered "cousin," scientists are optimistic about the future. Projects such as the James Webb Space Telescope and the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), scheduled to start in the next few years, suggest NASA has every intention of continuing the search for the age-old question: Are we alone in the universe?

"This is a great time we’re living in," said Dr. Queloz, who was present at Thursday’s conference. "This is just the beginning of a very long journey."

Post by: Rad on Jul 24, 2015, 05:36 AM
CS Monitor

Earth has a 'cousin,' says NASA. Will it soon have a twin?

The announcement today that NASA has discovered Earth's 'cousin' raises the question of when we could discover a direct Earth analogue. Scientists say the answer could be just decades away.

By Henry Gass, Staff writer July 23, 2015   

With today’s announcement that NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope has discovered a host of new, Earth-like planets – including one in our galaxy, Kepler-452b, described as an “older, bigger cousin to Earth” – the hunt for these extrasolar planets, or “exoplanets,” just took a giant leap forward.

For centuries, scientists weren’t sure if there were any planets at all outside our solar system. Speculation ended in 1992 when astronomers detected a pair of planets orbiting a pulsar. Three years later, scientists discovered the first exoplanet orbiting a star similar to our sun, and in the decades since, thousands of such planets have been discovered – ranging from giant, Jupiter-like gas planets to small, rocky Earth- and Mars-like planets.

Technological advances have helped accelerate the exoplanet hunt. And scientists now have a number of different techniques available to not only find such planets, but determine significant characteristics like their atmospheric composition and the presence of water – a compound that astronomers consider a key indicator of whether a planet could support life.

So how are these planets found? And how is the hunt likely to change in the coming years?

There are three primary techniques astronomers use to detect exoplanets. The first is the transit method: which involves watching a star and looking for a brief dimming of light as a planet passes between the star and the telescope. By studying this brief dimming of light, scientists can determine the size of the star and whether it orbits in the star system’s “Goldilocks zone” – the region where a planet could retain liquid water on its surface because it’s neither too hot nor too cold.

Astronomers can also determine the mass of exoplanets by measuring the “wobble” of its parent star – produced by the gravitational tug of the planet on its star. Finally, more advanced telescopes in the near future will be able image some exoplanets directly to determine the chemicals present in the planet’s atmosphere, the characteristics of its surface, and possibly even its weather patterns.

The Kepler Space Telescope has been operating for six years – essentially compiling a “galactic census” of exoplanets – but until recently scientists have been unable to examine the entire data set. Astronomers were able to document the presence of exoplanets in the habitable zones of stars through the transit technique, but they weren’t able to confirm if the planets satisfied all the criteria to be potentially Earth-like (such as mass and atmospheric composition).

Now, thanks to improved techniques and automated technology, astronomers are able to go back through old, unexamined Kepler data and identify which of the thousands of identified planets may be Earth-like.

“We’re no longer finding new [Earth-like] candidates due to collecting more data, we’re finding them because of improvements in techniques,” said Jeff Coughlin, a Kepler scientist at the SETI Institute, during a conference call with reporters.

As the Kepler mission went on, he added, “we were always able to document new [transiting] signals we found, but we weren’t able to go back and examine older signals.

To solve the data backlog, Dr. Coughlin said the Kepler team was able to write software that could automate the process of examining transit signals, meaning the software could go back through the Kepler data and determine, like a human scientist, if a planet has Earth-like characteristics.

The new announcement comes as NASA releases it’s seventh catalog of “candidate planets” found from the Kepler data set. The new catalog adds 521 new exoplanet candidates discovered by Kepler – including Kepler 452b – raising the total number of discovered candidates to 4,696. Of those 521, 12 have diameters between one to two times that of Earth, and nine of those orbit stars whose size and temperature are similar to our sun.

Candidates require follow-up observations and reassessment to verify they’re actual planets – the transit-like signal could be caused by a variety of other phenomena – but until the introduction of the automation software, time constraints meant that the Kepler team were usually unable to manually follow up on each candidate before the publication of the catalog.

The automation technology means that the seventh catalog is the first since 2011 to assess and reassess candidate planets.

“The resulting impact is that we are able to deliver a more uniform planet candidate catalog that utilizes the entire Kepler dataset, which will enable more accurate estimates of the number of small habitable zone planets in our galaxy,” said NASA in its briefing materials for the announcement.

Coughlin, who led the analysis of the new candidate catalog, said during the conference call that the eighth catalog will likely be released a year from now.

“People are asking, is this the end? Is this all we’re going to get?” he said. “My answer is heck no. There’s a lot more to come.”

“We’re really optimistic we’re going to continue to discover more small habitable-zone planets,” he added. “I expect discoveries from this data will continue for several decades.”

NASA is already developing its next generation of space telescopes that will scan the stars for Earth 2.0. But while these telescopes will be more sophisticated, scientists say they won’t be looking deeper into space. Instead they will be looking closer to home.

In 2017, NASA will launch the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite. The satellite will succeed Kepler – which is aging and survived a recent, scary breakdown in its stabilizing equipment – and continue scanning the sky for transiting signals.

The two-year TESS mission will monitor the hundreds of thousands of stars Kepler may have missed because the planets were orbiting stars so bright they were lost in the star’s glare. These include Earth-like planets that may be much closer to home than Kepler-452b, which is roughly 1,400 light-years away.

“No ground-based survey can achieve this feat,” says NASA on the TESS website.

The real breakthrough could come with the telescope scheduled to be launched in October 2018: the James Webb Space Telescope. Named after the former NASA administrator James Webb, the large infrared telescope will be able to analyze the atmospheres of exoplanets using a technique called spectroscopy.

According to the JWST website, the telescope will carry coronagraphs “to enable direct imaging of exoplanets near bright stars.”

“The image of an exoplanet would just be a spot, not a grand panorama, but by studying that spot, we can learn a great deal about it,” the website continues. “That includes its color, differences between winter and summer, vegetation, rotation [and] weather.”

Scientists are hoping the tag-team of the TESS and the JWST will, for the next few decades, identify and closely examine Earth-like planets that may be more easily explored by future generations.

“TESS will provide prime targets for further, more detailed characterization with the [JWST],” says NASA on the TESS website. “TESS's legacy will be a catalog of the nearest and brightest stars hosting transiting exoplanets, which will comprise the most favorable targets for detailed investigations in the coming decades.”

Coughlin said the next great discovery would be of a planet similar to Kepler-452b that’s closer to Earth.

“If we can find those planets, that gives humankind something to shoot for, and a generation from now may be able to reach that,” he added.

Today the Kepler team is savoring the discovery of Earth’s cousin. John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, told reporters during the conference call that they’re optimistic they’ll find a much closer relation soon.

“It’s an unfolding story,” he said. “We’re getting closer and closer to finding a twin like the Earth.”

Post by: Rad on Jul 24, 2015, 05:38 AM

CS Monitor

You can help discover aliens with your smartphone. Here's how.

Researchers are asking the public to aid them in their search for extraterrestrial life by downloading an app.

By Gretel Kauffman, Staff July 23, 2015   

Assisting scientists in their search for extraterrestrial life? There’s an app for that.

On Monday, physicist Stephen Hawking and Russian billionaire Yuri Milner announced a $100 million search effort aimed at discovering alien life. The project, known as Breakthrough Listen, is said to be "in the best position yet to make advances in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence."

The 10-year effort will use two of the world’s most advanced telescopes: the 100 meter (328 foot) Green Bank telescope in West Virginia, and the 64 meter (209 foot) Parkes telescope in New South Wales, Australia.

These telescopes will scan five times more of the radio spectrum, enabling scientists to listen for signals coming from millions of stars near Earth, one hundred times more quickly than has ever been done before. In past search efforts, only around 36 hours were taken per year from the radio telescopes; Breakthrough Listen will record thousands of hours of data.

"I'm proud of the stuff we've been doing," said Dan Werthimer, a researcher at the University of California at Berkeley and a member of the new project's steering group, in a Monitor interview. But "this is huge."

This process requires an immense amount of computing power to run, and scientists are counting on some of that number-crunching power coming from an unexpected source: your smartphone.

The Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing (BOINC) app, which is available for Android phones and computers, is a collaborative processing platform that has been used in a number of astrophysics, medical, and mathematical endeavors. In other words, BOINC allows scientists to tap into the spare processing power of personal devices all over the world to power their research.

The app is free, and don't worry about wasting data – it only runs on Wi-Fi.

“In searches such as this, the more eyes you can get on the prize the better,” CompTIA president Todd Thibodeaux told Forbes. “Harnessing the personal interests of possibly hundreds of thousands of people makes sense and couldn’t be accomplished cost effectively any other way.”

Garnering the attention and interest of the public is key for projects that require crowd sourced processing, says IDC research director Alys Woodward. When the public is on board, the potential for research skyrockets.

“Imagine if modern pharmaceuticals had been started the same way, with crowd sourced power and effort, instead of being driven by commercial interests,” Ms. Woodward said. “When there is a major human interest such as in these cases, the number of people who can help is immense.”

Post by: Rad on Jul 25, 2015, 05:21 AM
July 24, 2015

Brown dwarfs are more like stars than we thought

by Brett Smith
Red Orbit

Brown dwarfs are not-quite stars capable of sustaining hydrogen fusion reactions within their cores, and with a mass heavier than a gas giant like Jupiter, but lighter than a proper star.

But according to a new report in the Astrophysical Journal, brown dwarfs are formed by the same process that forms stars.

The report’s conclusion is based on the investigation of a clutch of still-forming brown dwarfs in a star-forming region some 450 light-years from Earth in the constellation Taurus. The scientists learned that four of them have the same kind of particle jets released by more-massive stars throughout their formation. The jets were discovered by radio observations with the Very Large Array, a radio astronomy observatory located in New Mexico.

The researchers also examined the brown dwarfs with the Spitzer and Herschel space telescopes to verify their status as very young celestial objects.

“This is the first time that such jets have been found coming from brown dwarfs at such an early stage of their formation, and shows that they form in a way similar to that of stars,” study author Oscar Morata, of the Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics of the Academia Sinica in Taiwan, said in a statement. “These are the lowest-mass objects that seem to form the same way as stars,” he added.

Lacking the mass to create the temperatures and pressures at their cores needed to induce the thermonuclear reactions that drive “normal” stars; brown dwarfs were largely theoretical objects until their unambiguous discovery in 1994.

Even after the discovery of brown dwarfs, scientists have wondered if they are more like stars than planets. Stars develop when a massive cloud of gas and dust in interstellar space collapses via gravity, gathering mass in the process. A disk of orbiting material then forms around the young star, and ultimately planets develop from the material in that disk. During the early stages of star formation, streams of material are powered outward from the poles of the disk. Planet formation, however, doesn’t involve any such jets.

While brown dwarfs-as-stars has been a popular theory, the discovery of these jets goes very far in confirming this suspicion.

“We conclude that the formation of brown dwarfs is a scaled-down version of the process that forms larger stars,” Morata said.

Post by: Linda on Jul 25, 2015, 06:55 PM
This is amaaazing ~ check this out!

From Pluto to the Sun

Post by: Rad on Jul 28, 2015, 06:58 AM

NASA's Curiosity Rover Eyes Weird Rock On Mars

by Mike Wall, Senior Writer   
July 28, 2015 07:30am ET

NASA's Mars rover Curiosity went out of its way to investigate a rock the likes of which it has never seen before on the Red Planet.

Measurements by Curiosity's rock-zapping ChemCam laser and another instrument revealed that the target, a chunk of bedrock dubbed Elk, contains high levels of silica and hydrogen, NASA officials said.

The abundance of silica — a silicon-oxygen compound commonly found here on Earth in the form of quartz — suggests that the bedrock may provide conditions conducive to the preservation of ancient carbon-containing organic molecules, if any exist in the area, the officials added. So Curiosity's handlers sent the rover back 151 feet (46 meters) to check Elk out.

"One never knows what to expect on Mars, but the Elk target was interesting enough to go back and investigate," ChemCam principal investigator Roger Wiens, of Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, said in a statement.

Elk lies near a spot on the lower reaches of the 3.4-mile-high (5.5 kilometers) Mount Sharp, called Marias Pass, whose rocks Curiosity had been studying. Marias Pass is a "geological contact zone" where dark sandstone meets lighter mudstone.

"We found an outcrop named Missoula where the two rock types came together, but it was quite small and close to the ground," Curiosity project scientist Ashwin Vasavada, of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said in the same statement. "We used the robotic arm to capture a dog's-eye view with the MAHLI [Mars Hand Lens Imager] camera, getting our nose right in there."

ChemCam had fired at the Elk bedrock from the top of a small hill close to Marias Pass, which Curiosity had summitted before taking a look at the contact zone. After looking at the Missoula outcrop, the 1-ton rover began moving on, but an analysis of ChemCam's data persuaded the team to turn Curiosity around for a closer look at Elk, mission team members said.

"ChemCam acts like eyes and ears of the rover for nearby objects," Wiens said.

As Curiosity gathers data, mission engineers continue to investigate a short circuit that cropped up in the rover's sample-collecting drill in February. No short circuits occurred during a July 18 engineering test, so the Curiosity team plans to conduct some drilling trials on rocks in the near future, NASA officials said.

Curiosity has been exploring Mars' 96-mile-wide (154 km) Gale Crater for nearly three years now. The six-wheeled robot touched down on the night of Aug. 5, 2012, on a mission to determine if Gale could ever have supported microbial life.

Curiosity scientists answered this question early in the mission, finding that Gale Crater once harbored an extensive lake-and-stream system that could have supported microbial life, if such organisms had ever evolved on the Red Planet.

Post by: Rad on Jul 28, 2015, 07:00 AM

Giant Crater on Saturn Moon Tethys Dazzles in Spectacular Photo

by Mike Wall, Senior Writer     
July 28, 2015 07:00am ET

A huge impact crater shines brightly on Saturn's icy moon Tethys in a gorgeous new photo taken by NASA's Cassini spacecraft.

The image highlights an impact basin on Tethys called Odysseus, which, at 280 miles (450 kilometers) across, is nearly half as wide as the Saturn moon itself. (The diameter of Tethys is about 660 miles, or 1,062 km).

The photo shows that Odysseus is considerably brighter than the surrounding landscape.

"This distinct coloration may result from differences in either the composition or structure of the terrain exposed by the giant impact," NASA officials wrote in a description of the image, which was released today (July 27).

Odysseus "is one of the largest impact craters on Saturn's icy moons, and may have significantly altered the geologic history of Tethys," NASA officials added.

Cassini captured the image on May 9, when it was about 186,000 miles (300,000 km) from Tethys. The photo's resolution is about 1.1 miles (1.8 km) per pixel, NASA officials said.

Tethys is the fifth-largest of Saturn's 62 known moons; only Titan, Rhea, Iapetus and Dione are bigger. Tethys, which is composed primarily of water ice, was discovered by the Cassini mission's namesake, Italian astronomer and mathematician Giovanni Domenico Cassini, in 1684.

Odysseus isn't the only outsize feature on Tethys; the satellite also features a 1,240-mile-long (2,000 km) canyon called Ithaca Chasma that's 62 miles (100 km) wide in places.

The $3.2 billion Cassini-Huygens mission — a collaboration involving NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency — launched in 1997 and arrived in the Saturn system in 2004. In January 2005, the mission's Huygens lander touched down on the surface of Titan, the ringed planet's largest moon.

Cassini will continue circling Saturn and studying the gas giant and its many moons until September 2017. The spacecraft will then end its mission with a bang, performing an intentional death dive into Saturn's thick atmosphere.

Post by: Rad on Jul 29, 2015, 05:19 AM
July 28, 2015

How cosmic winds affect galactic evolution

by Chuck Bednar
Red Orbit

While astronomers already knew that cosmic winds travelling through galaxies could cause star formation to come to an end by sweeping out interstellar material, new observations of a nearby galaxy have given them a better look at exactly what this process entails.

Their research, led by experts from Yale University and detailed in the Astronomical Journal, looked at Hubble images of a spiral galaxy in the Coma cluster, which is located approximately 300 million light years away and is the closest high-mass cluster to our solar system.

Lead author and Yale astronomer Jeffrey Kenney, who first encountered these images back in 2013, analyzed them to see how the cosmic wind was eroding dust and gas located at the leading edge of the galaxy. The wind, also known as "ram pressure", is caused by the orbital motion of the galaxy through hot gas in the cluster, the researchers explained in a statement Monday.

Kenney found a series of intricate dust formations on that disk’s edge as cosmic wind started to make its way through the galaxy, and while the gas and dust appeared to be piled up in one long ridge on the leading side, he found head-tail filaments protruding from the dust front that might have been caused by the separation of dense gas clouds from lower density gas.

Loss of gas will mark the end of star formation

Lower-density clouds of interstellar gas and dust can be easily carried by the cosmic winds, the study authors explained, but higher-density clouds cannot. As the winds blow, the denser gases begin to separate from lower density gas, which gets blown down stream. However, both higher and lower density lumps appear to be bound together, likely by magnetic fields.

“The evidence for this,” the Yale astronomer said, “is that dust filaments in the [Hubble Space Telescope] image look like taffy being stretched out. We're seeing this decoupling, clearly, for the first time.” He noted that the dust filaments in this Hubble image are similar to those found in the iconic “Pillars of Creation” image, except that they are roughly 1,000 times larger.

The images reveal that the bulk of the dust and gas is being pushed away by external forces, and that this results in the destruction of most of the cloud. Only the densest material, the pillars, are left behind, but even they have a limited shelf life. Since gas is required for the formation of new stars, once it is removed, the area is no longer able to act as a stellar nursery.

While in the Eagle Nebula, which is home to the “Pillars of Creation,” the pressure comes from the radiation emitted by nearby massive stars, the pressure in the Coma galaxy is produced by the orbital motion of the galaxy through hot gas in the cluster. While new stars are currently still being born in both types of pillars, they represent the last generation that will form in either.

Post by: Rad on Jul 29, 2015, 06:50 AM

Despite glitch, planet hunter's discoveries keep rolling in

Despite a malfunction two years ago, NASA's planet-hunting Kepler space telescope still managed to spot the very Earth-like exoplanet Kepler-452b, whose discovery was announced last week.

By Mike Wall July 28, 2015   

NASA's planet-hunting Kepler space telescope continues to zero in on the first "alien Earth" despite being hobbled by a malfunction more than two years ago.

Last Thursday (July 23), mission scientists announced the discovery of Kepler-452b, which they and NASA officials described as the most Earth-like exoplanet yet found. Kepler-452b circles a sunlike star at about the same distance Earth orbits the sun, but the alien world is about 60 percent wider than our home planet, so it's not a true "Earth twin."

Kepler-452b "is the closest thing that we have to another place that somebody else might call home," Jon Jenkins, Kepler data analysis lead at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, said during a news conference Thursday. [Exoplanet Kepler 452b: Closest Earth Twin in Pictures]
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While the discovery of Kepler-452b is new, the observations that led to it are several years old. The planet was dug out of data Kepler gathered during the first four years of its original planet hunt, which came to an end in 2013.

Digging through the data

The main goal of the $600 million Kepler mission is to determine how common Earth-like planets are across the Milky Way galaxy.

During its original round of operations, the Kepler spacecraft stared at more than 150,000 stars continuously and simultaneously, watching for tiny brightness dips that could betray the presence of a planet crossing, or "transiting," its host star's face. This work required extremely precise pointing, an ability Kepler lost when the second of its four orientation-maintaining reaction wheels failed in May 2013.

Kepler generally needs to observe multiple transits to detect a planet, so it can take a while for the observatory to spot a potentially habitable world. (Earth, after all, would transit the sun from a hypothetical alien Kepler's perspective just once a year.) Small, rocky planets also present a signal-to-noise issue that can be mitigated by observing multiple transits.

Kepler team members have therefore long maintained that the most interesting Kepler finds should come at relatively late stages in the mission. So, while Kepler observed beyond the 3.5 years prescribed by the prime mission plan, the failure of the second reaction wheel was initially "crushing," Jenkins said.

But only initially, for Kepler scientists have gotten better and better at analyzing the observatory's huge dataset and pulling out intriguing finds from the original planet hunt, team members said.

For example, the discovery of Kepler-452b was announced along with 521 newfound planet "candidates," bringing Kepler's total tally of potential planets to 4,696. Just 1,030 of these worlds have been confirmed by follow-up observations or analysis, but about 90 percent of them should end up being the real deal, mission scientists have said. [?10 Exoplanets That Could Host Alien Life]

Furthermore, 11 of the newly detected 521 candidates are similar to Kepler-452b: They're less than twice Earth's diameter and reside in their host stars' "habitable zone," that just-right range of distances in which liquid water could exist on a planet's surface.

Such detections were made with the aid of new software that automated some parts of the data-analysis process that had previously been done manually, said Kepler research scientist Jeff Coughlin, of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute in Mountain View, California.

Continued improvements in software and analysis techniques should result in more discoveries down the road, Coughlin added. Indeed, he said, the team plans to release another "catalog" of Kepler finds next year.

"We're really optimistic that we're going to continue to discover even more small, habitable-zone planets," Coughlin said during Thursday's news conference.

Kepler's enormous dataset is publicly archived, so it should give academics and citizen scientists plenty to chew on far into the future, he added.

"I really expect that discoveries will be coming from Kepler for the next several decades," Coughlin said.

Regardless of what happens in the future, Kepler's discoveries have already revolutionized exoplanet research. The spacecraft's finds suggest, among other things, that every Milky Way star hosts at least one planet on average; that rocky planets are extremely common throughout the galaxy; and that about 20 percent of all stars in the Milky Way host a roughly Earth-size planet in their habitable zones.

A new mission, too

And while team members pore over data from the original mission, Kepler continues to gather data during a new mission called K2. The observatory's handlers figured out a way to improve its pointing abilities using sunlight pressure as a sort of ersatz reaction wheel, and Kepler is now studying a variety of cosmic objects and phenomena, from distant supernova explosions to comets and asteroids in our own solar system.

The K2 plan also calls for continued exoplanet hunting, though on a much lesser scale than Kepler used to perform. (NASA announced the new mission's first alien-planet discovery this past December.)

The failure of the second reaction wheel "is kind of the best worst thing that could've ever happened to Kepler," Jenkins said. "It really broadens the field of exoplanets. It broadens the science that we can do with this phenomenal spacecraft."

Post by: Rad on Jul 30, 2015, 05:48 AM
CS Monitor

Lithium found in exploding star clears up stellar mystery

Astronomers looking out at Nova Centauri have spotted lithium for the first time in a stellar explosion.

By Michelle Toh, Staff writer July 29, 2015   

Astronomers peering through two telescopes in Chile at the brightest nova of the century so far have found something that could help clear up a longstanding mystery in astrophysics: How much lithium exists in stars.

For the first time, lithium has been detected in material ejected by a nova, a type of stellar explosion displaying a sudden burst of brightness. In this case, the scientists had been observing Nova Centauri, which exploded in 2013, according to the European Southern Observatory (ESO).

“This new finding fills in a long-missing piece in the puzzle representing our galaxy's chemical evolution, and is a big step forward for astronomers trying to understand the amounts of different chemical elements in stars in the Milky Way,” the ESO reported Wednesday.
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While models of the Big Bang at the birth of the universe 13.8 billion years ago allow astronomers to make reasonably accurate calculations about the amount of lithium that should be present, scientists have found that older stars do not have as much lithium as the models suggest, and younger ones have more.

“Lithium has now become an important quantitative test of stellar evolution,” wrote Verne V. Smith in a 2010 National Optical Astronomy Observatory study that looked at the amount of lithium in red giant stars.

In 2012, astronomers looking at the universe watched in awe as a planet was devoured by a red giant – one that contained an abnormally high abundance of lithium, The Christian Science Monitor reported.

Astronomers have long suggested that the lower lithium levels in younger stars “could be explained by novae expelling the element, ‘seeding’ space with lithium, and enriching the interstellar medium from which new stars are born,” according to Reuters.

But they couldn’t find any clear evidence of lithium in novae to prove this hypothesis.

The latest discovery, of lithium being expelled at some 1.24 million miles per hour in Nova Centauri, could – when extrapolated to the billions of other novae that have exploded in the Milky Way's history – explain the unexpectedly large amount of lithium in our galaxy, the ESO said.

“If we imagine the history of the chemical evolution of the Milky Way as a big jigsaw, then lithium from novae was one of the most important and puzzling missing pieces,” said Massimo Della Valle, a coauthor of the study that has been published in Astrophysical Journal Letters.

The disparity between the observed amount of lithium in older stars and the abundance estimated from Big Bang models, however, still remains a question without answers, according to Professor Della Valle and team leader Luca Izzo.

Post by: Rad on Jul 31, 2015, 04:45 AM
July 30, 2015

Earth’s magnetic field older than previously believed

by Chuck Bednar
Red Orbit

New research published in Thursday’s edition of the journal Science indicates that the Earth’s magnetic shield is far older than previously believed, which could mean that plate tectonics also started earlier and may explain why the planet is still habitable.

In the study, University of Rochester geophysicist John Tarduno and his colleagues report that their research has led them to conclude that the Earth’s magnetic field is more than four billion years old, not 3.45 billion years old, as previous estimates calculated in 2010 have claimed.

“A strong magnetic field provides a shield for the atmosphere,” protecting it from solar winds (streams of charged particles originating from the sun), Tarduno explained in a statement. “This is important for the preservation of habitable conditions on Earth,” as the magnetic field keeps the solar wind from stripping away the planet’s atmosphere and surface water.

The magnetic field is generated in the planet’s liquid iron core, and a steady release of heat is required for this “geodynamo” to operate. Today, plate tectonics assist with this heat release by transferring heat from the planet’s deep interior to the surface.

Findings may explain why Earth is still habitable (and Mars is not)

However, Tarduno said, the origins of plate tectonics are disputed, as some scientists believe that Earth did not have a magnetic field early on in its existence. Researchers have been attempting to determine how and when this magnetic field first arose, thus helping experts determine when and how plate tectonics began and how our homeworld was able to remain habitable.

The researchers looked at samples of a mineral known as magnetite, which records the magnetic field at the time they cooled from their molten state. The magnetite was obtained from zircon crystals collected from Western Australia, and they sampled zircon crystals of different ages and found evidence suggesting that the magnetic field is approximately 4.4 billion years old.

The measurements taken by Tarduno’s team reveal that the magnetic field likely helped protect the planet at a time when solar winds were 100 times stronger than they are today. Without it, he said, the protons that make up those solar winds would have ionized the atmosphere and caused the loss of the planet’s water – which may explain what happened to life on Mars.

Experts believe that Mars had an active geodynamo when it was formed, but that four billion years later, it had died off. As a result, the Red Planet lacked a magnetic field that could shelter the atmosphere from the solar winds, Tarduno explained. This could explain why Mars’ atmosphere is so thin, he added, as well as why the planet “was unable to sustain life.”

Post by: Rad on Jul 31, 2015, 04:46 AM
July 30, 2015

Beneath the surface: Exploring the composition of Philae’s comet, Part 1

by Chuck Bednar
Red Orbit

When Philae, the lander accompanying the ESA’s Rosetta probe, successfully touched down on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko and became the first man-made spacecraft ever to pull off such a feat, it captured the public’s imagination – and scored some epic data in the process.

The landing, which took place on November 12, 2014, as well as the in-depth analysis of 67P/C-G that followed, are the focus of several new studies appearing in a special edition of the journal Science on Thursday. In one of those papers, a team of scientists led by Jens Biele of the German Aerospace Center (DLR) detailed the events shortly after Philae’s harrowing landing.

Analyzing Philae’s impact, bounces and eventual touchdown

During its descent, the lander was supposed to activate a cold gas system, which would push it to the surface of the comet, activating a pair of anchoring harpoons to attach it to the ground. As it turns out, however, neither system operated as expected, causing Philae to bounce off the soft designated landing area and ultimately come to rest on a harder surface elsewhere.

Biele’s team analyzed the exact dynamics of those bounces and the compressive strengths of the two different surfaces based on the trajectory of the lander’s bounces. They analyzed the layering and mechanical properties of the comet’s surface, marking the first time that researchers were able to conduct actual, direct observations of the surface.

Based on their analysis of the landing, the authors concluded that Philae’s feet initially came into contact with a soft granular surface known as Agilkia. This particular surface was approximately 0.82 feet (0.25 meters) thick on top, with a harder layer located beneath it.

This layering gave the surface a compressive strength of about one kilopascal. In comparison, the location where the lander finally came to rest, a region known as Abydos, was found to have a compression strength of two megapascals. This could help explain why only one of Philae’s legs was able to find a foothold when it finally came to rest.

Instruments reveal fractured surface, reflective rock structures

In a related study, Jean-Pierre Bibring from the French National Centre for Scientific Research’s Space Astrophysics Institute (CNRS IAS) and his colleagues analyzed the surface of 67P using a series of panoramic images captured by Philae’s Comet Infrared and Visible Analyzer instrument shortly after the lander’s initial bounce and final touchdown.

These images revealed that the comet possessed “a fractured surface with complex structure and a variety of grain scales and albedos” or reflective rock structures “possibly constituting pristine cometary material.” Their work provides new insight into the structure and composition of these cometary constituents, which could reveal the processes and ingredients that form comets, as well as how they evolved to become so diverse.

A third paper looked at descent images captured by the Rosetta Lander Imaging System (ROLIS) instrument to better understand the geography of 67P/C-G. According to the authors, the comet’s surface of the comet is “photometrically uniform” and “covered by regolith composed of debris and blocks ranging in size from centimeters to 5 meters” in size.

Philae’s landing spot covered with porous dust, ice layer

This study, which was led by Stefano Mottola of the DLR Institute of Planetary Research, found boulders on the comet’s surface surrounded by depressions similar to the wind tails found on Earth. Using models, the authors confirmed that these regions were caused by a phenomenon in which soil particles become displaced as the result of an impactor (also known as “splashing”).

Finally, the DLR’s Tilman Spohn and his colleagues analyzed data from Philae’s Multi Purpose Sensors for Surface and Subsurface Science (MUPUS) thermal and penetrating sensors to learn that the comet has a daytime surface temperature of between 90 and 130 degrees Kelvin, and that the surface of its final landing spot is covered with a compact and porous layer of dust and ice.

However, they also reported that the MUPUS thermal probe could not fully penetrate the near-surface layers because the ground in that area was resistant to penetration. More accurately, they believe that the surface had a more than 4 megapascals resistance to penetration equivalent to an approximately two megapascal uniaxial compressive strength.

Post by: Rad on Jul 31, 2015, 04:47 AM
July 30, 2015

‘Brown gunk’ evidence of a salty sea on Europa

by Brett Smith
Red Orbit

The pale face of Jupiter’s moon Europa is crisscrossed with brown-color fissures that look like scratches from a massive cat when seen from orbit, and NASA scientists have suggested these fissures are filled with a salty, brown gunk carried to the moon’s surface by subsurface water.

NASA’s Kevin Hand and Robert Carlson concluded that the “brown gunk” is a briny sludge based on laboratory experiments they conducted designed to replicate conditions on the Jovian moon, according to their report in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

“That is our state-of-the-art term for it—brown gunk,” NASA'S Curt Niebur said at a recent press event.

“If we can determine what that brown gunk is,” Niebur added, “we can then understand what is in the water, what is in the oceans of Europa.”

Testing via Europa-in-a-can

Hand and Carlson developed what they called “Europa-in-a-can”, or a closed system designed to copy conditions on the distant moon. Essentially, the team exposed a briny solution to the cosmic radiation thought to blast Europa’s surface. They found that exposing the brine to Europa surface conditions caused chemical changes that resulted in yellow-brown discoloration comparable to the one seen on Europa's surface.

If the brown gunk is actually irradiated brine, it would indicate Europa has a subsurface ocean in direct contact with stone and enriched with possibly life-nurturing quantities of minerals. The team also saw their brine get darker the longer it was subjected to the experimental conditions, which suggests researchers might look for upwellings from the ocean by just seeking the lightest-colored brown gunk.

NASA is planning to send an orbital probe to Europa in the next decade, and although the mission is still in the planning phase – a few details have started to emerge. The mission is expected to use a high-resolution camera to capture extremely detailed pictures of the moon’s surface. The probe is also expected to have an on-board mass spectrometer to analyze the moon’s surface. Other on-board instruments will search for evidence of geothermal activity on Europa by looking for plumes of heated material blasting off its surface.

Post by: Rad on Jul 31, 2015, 06:01 AM

Dwarf planet's mysterious bright spots create mini-atmosphere, say scientists

The perplexing bright spots on Ceres, a dwarf planet in our solar system's asteroid belt, seem to be creating a localized atmosphere at the bottom of a crater.

By Mike Wall,
July 30, 2015   

The investigation into the dwarf planet Ceres' mysterious bright spots has taken an intriguing new twist.

The famous bright spots at the bottom of Ceres' Occator crater appear to be sublimating material into space, creating a localized atmosphere within the walls of the 57-mile-wide (92 kilometers) hole in the ground, new observations by NASA's Dawn spacecraft suggest.

"If you look at a glancing angle, you can see what seems to be haze, and it comes back in a regular pattern," Dawn principal investigator Christopher Russell, of UCLA, said during a presentation Tuesday (July 21) at the second annual NASA Exploration Science Forum, which took place at the agency's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California. [Photos of Ceres, Queen of the Asteroid Belt]
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The bright spots "are possibly subliming, or they're providing some atmosphere in this particular region of Ceres," Russell said. The haze covers about half of Occator crater and does not extend beyond the hole's rim, he added.

This new information would seem to bolster the argument of people who think Ceres' bright spots are composed of ice, rather than some sort of salt. (Those are the two leading possible explanations at the moment.)

"This is our major mystery," Russell said, referring to the nature of the bright spots.

During the talk, Russell revealed some other discoveries by Dawn. For example, the probe's observations show that Ceres is slighly smaller than researchers had thought — about 598 miles (962 km) in diameter, rather than 607 miles (974 km). That means the dwarf planet is about 4 percent denser than previously thought, Russell said.

Dawn has also spotted numerous long, linear features whose cause is unknown, as well as one big mountain that mission team members have dubbed "The Pyramid." This massif, which is about 3 miles (5 km) tall and 19 miles (30 km) wide, features a flat top and strangely streaked flanks, Russell said.

"It's got white sides on much of the surface," he said. "It just looks like the material is cascading down from above."

Overall, Dawn's observations are showing Ceres to be a relatively active world rather than an inert chunk of rock and ice, mission team members say.

"Some areas are less densely cratered than others, suggesting that there are geological processes that erase the craters," Dawn chief engineer and mission director Marc Rayman, of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, wrote in a blog post last month. "Indeed, some regions look as if something has flowed over them, as if perhaps there was mud or slush on the surface."

Scientists know from Ceres' density that the dwarf planet contains lots of water, the majority of which is almost certainly in the form of ice. But some researchers think liquid water may exist in places beneath Ceres' surface — intriguing because here on Earth, life thrives pretty much wherever liquid water pools or flows.

"It is possible that the water systems associated with Ceres may harbor life, and could be conducive to life more than some of the outer solar system bodies," Russell said. "So I would say, we really do need to spend some time in probing the surface of Ceres and checking out its astrobiological implications."

The $466 million Dawn mission launched in September 2007, tasked with studying the two largest objects in the asteroid belt — Ceres and the 330-mile-wide (530 km) Vesta. Dawn orbited Vesta from July 2011 through September 2012, and the spacecraft arrived at Ceres this past March.

Dawn is currently spiraling down to its third science orbit of Ceres, after experiencing engine problems that delayed the trek for more than two weeks. The spacecraft will reach this orbit, which lies about 900 miles (1,450 km) above Ceres' surface, in mid-August. (Dawn is equipped with ion engines, which are extremely efficient but generate low levels of thrust, so such orbital maneuvers take time.)

The probe will get closer still in January. Dawn's fourth and final science orbit lies at an altitude of just 235 miles (375 km). The probe will continue studying Ceres from that orbit until the end of its mission, in June 2016.

Post by: Rad on Jul 31, 2015, 06:03 AM
Are brown dwarfs stars or planets?

Researchers have found evidence of auroras, phenomena typically associated with planets, on brown dwarf stars.

By Denise Hassanzade Ajiri, Staff writer
July 30, 2015   

Classifying brown dwarfs is not easy. They are too massive to be planets, and too small to be stars, but at the same time have some characteristics of both.

Now, by observing one of these so-called failed stars, a team led by Gregg Hallinan, an assistant professor of astronomer at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, has found a feature that makes brown dwarfs more like super-sized planets.

Professor Hallinan and his team have discovered that a brown dwarf 20 light-years away hosts powerful auroras near their magnetic poles, according to a Caltech report. The researchers published their findings in the July 30 issue of the journal Nature.

“We're finding that brown dwarfs are not like small stars in terms of their magnetic activity; they're like giant planets with hugely powerful auroras,” Hallinan said in the report. "If you were able to stand on the surface of the brown dwarf we observed – something you could never do because of its extremely hot temperatures and crushing surface gravity – you would sometimes be treated to a fantastic light show courtesy of auroras hundreds of thousands of times more powerful than any detected in our solar system.”

Auroras, the radiant displays of colors in the sky known on Earth as the northern or southern lights, are seen on all planets with magnetic fields in the solar system, according to's Charles Q. Choi. "They are caused by currents in the magnetosphere of a planet — the shell of electrically charged particles captured by a planet's magnetic field — that force electrons to rain down on the atmosphere, colliding with the molecules within and making them give off light," Mr. Choi explains.

In the early 2000s, astronomers found that brown dwarfs emit radio waves, but not in the same way that stars do.

In 2006, Hallinan, back then a graduate student, discovered that brown dwarfs can actually pulse at radio frequencies. That discovery led him to speculate that those radio emissions could be caused by auroras.

Hallinan and his colleagues conducted an extensive observation on a Jupiter-size brown dwarf called LSRJ 1835+3259, using the most powerful radio telescope in the world, as well as optical instruments.

He notes that brown dwarfs offer a convenient stepping stone to studying exoplanets, planets orbiting stars other than our sun. "I'm trying to build a picture of magnetic field strength and topology and the role that magnetic fields play as we go from stars to brown dwarfs and eventually right down into the planetary regime," he says.

Post by: Rad on Jul 31, 2015, 08:22 AM
Astronomers surprised to discover three ‘super Earths’ orbiting dwarf star

Agence France-Presse
31 Jul 2015 at 09:05 ET                   

Astronomers said Thursday they had found a planetary system with three super-Earths orbiting a bright, dwarf star — one of them likely a volcanic world of molten rock.

The four-planet system had been hiding out in the M-shaped, northern hemisphere constellation Cassiopeia, “just” 21 light years from Earth, a team reported in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics.

It comprises four planets — one giant and three super-Earths orbiting a star dubbed HD219134.

Super-Earths have a mass higher than Earth’s but are lighter than gas giants like Neptune, Saturn or Jupiter. They can be made of gas, rock, or both.

The planet with the shortest orbit, HD219134b, zips around every three days, and has now been observed transiting across the face of its star as seen from the vantage point of Earth.

Measurements from the ground and with NASA’s Spitzer space telescope showed its mass was 4.5 times higher than Earth’s, and that it was 1.6 times larger.

“Its mean density is close to the density of Earth, suggesting a possibly similar composition as well,” said a press statement from the University of Geneva, whose astronomers took part in the research.

“It’s very close to the star. The temperature is about 700 degrees” Kelvin (427 Celsius, 800 Fahrenheit), study co-author Stephane Udry told AFP.

“Probably the surface is melting… kind of a melted lava world with volcanoes… not good for life.”

It was not in the so-called “habitable zone” of its star, and would not have liquid water necessary for life.

But HD219134b is exciting for another reason: it is the closest transiting planet known to scientists, and thus offers a rare opportunity for further study of its composition and atmosphere against the backdrop of its star.

“These transiting systems are especially interesting in that they allow characterisation of the atmosphere of the planet (by studying) the light of the star going through the atmosphere,” Udry said.

And the system is relatively near at a distance of 21 light years from Earth. By comparison, the closest star to our Sun is three light years away, and the second six light years.

Among HD219134b’s fellow planets, the second furthest from the star weighs 2.7 times as much as Earth and orbits in 6.8 days, the next is 8.7 times more massive than Earth with a 47-day orbit.

A giant planet further out orbits once every three years, the team said.

Post by: Rad on Aug 01, 2015, 05:35 AM
Beneath the surface: Exploring the composition of Philae’s comet, Part 2

by Chuck Bednar
Red Orbit
Aug 1 2015

Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, the destination of the ESA’s Rosetta probe and Philae lander, has a dust-to-ice level of 0.4 to 2.6 and a very high porosity of 75 percent to 85 percent, according to one of several studies published Thursday in a special edition of the journal Science.

Wlodek Kofman of the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) and his colleagues used the Comet Nucleus Sounding Experiment by Radiowave Transmission (CONSERT) instrument to direct electromagnetic signals through the nucleus of the comet.

No scattering pattern was detected in the signals, indicating that the interior of 67P/C-G is likely homogenous or uniform throughout. Furthermore, they reduced the size of uncertainty over Philae’s final landing site down to roughly 21-by-34 square meters, and found that the average permittivity (resistance of the electrical field) is about 1.27.

Comets not ruled out as source of Earth’s organic compounds

A separate study led by Fred Goesmann of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research analyzed the 67P/C-G’s composition using the Cometary Sampling and Composition (COSAC) instrument, which was made to identify organic compounds in the comet in order to determine if comets delivered materials crucial to chemical and biological evolution to the Earth.

COSAC, which is a mass spectrometer designed to analyze organic molecules on the surface of the comet following Philae’s touchdown, took a reading in what the authors refer to as “sniffing” mode 25 minutes after first contact. It detected a total of 16 organic compounds – including four never before seen in a comet (methyl isocyanate, acetone, propionaldehyde, and acetamide).

In an email, Dr. Goesmann told redOrbit that his team’s interpretation of the mass spectrum was “surprisingly unsurprising.” While he said that the findings probably did not reveal all that much about the origins of life, the detections of organics on a comet suggests that is such material were to “fall onto a planet in the right environment, emerging life could make use of it.”

“As far as I am aware,” he added, “the two main theories about the development of complicated organic chemistry on Earth are: A. hot springs in deep oceans and B. external delivery by comets or meteorites.” His team’s findings indicate that the latter option “should not be ruled out.”

Studying materials preserved from the early solar system

Finally, in related research conducted by Ian Wright of The Open University’s Department of Physical Sciences and his colleagues, Philae’s Ptolemy instrument was used to analyze Comet 67P/C-G’s organic compounds. Wright’s team analyzed mass spectra taken by Ptolemy roughly 20 minutes after the lander’s initial touchdown to determine its chemical content.

The instrument, which measures stable isotope ratios, found regular mass distributions indicative of the presence of a radiation-induced polymer on the comet’s surface. Specifically, Ptolemy was able to detect signs of compounds with additional -CH2- and -O- groups, suggesting the presence of a radiation-induced polymer on the surface.

Furthermore, Wright and his co-authors report that these measurements may indicate an absence of benzene and other aromatic compounds, a lack of sulfur-bearing species, and an extremely low concentration of nitrogenous material on the comet. Since the properties of cometary material are indicative of the physical and chemical conditions during their formation, the study basically provides a look at materials preserved from the formation of the solar system.

“In the history of the Solar System, there was a moment in time when a bunch of abiological compounds somehow got together in the right configuration to initiate the origin of life. You can’t study that process on Earth because it has gone to completion,” Wright told redOrbit. “In order to gain an insight into what these things might have looked like, you need to go and study a surviving remnant from a time before this took place. Comets offer just that possibility.”

Post by: Rad on Aug 01, 2015, 05:37 AM
July 31, 2015

Brightest aurora ever discovered in outer space

by Emily Bills
Red Orbit

If you think the aurora on Earth is amazing, check this out: astronomers have discovered the first auroras ever seen outside of our solar system, and they’re 1 million times brighter than any aurora witnessed on Earth.

What are auroras?

Those colorful streaks of light you see streaming in the northern or southern skies are called auroras, and guess what? You can see auroras on all the other planets with a magnetic field. Auroras are caused by currents in the magnetosphere, sending down electrons that mix with other molecules to create the brilliant displays.

We had no idea auroras appeared on planets outside of our solar system – until now.

Brown dwarf star shows telltale aurora signs

According to, astronomers checked out a super mysterious Jupiter-sized object called LSR J1835+3259 located outside our solar system in their quest for these ‘alien’ auroras. These astronomers said it’s too heavy to be a planet and too light to be a star, so they suggested it’s a brown dwarf.

In 2008, scientists discovered that LSR J1835+3259 actually emitted radio waves in spurts and were surprised, because radio waves usually come from aurorae in our solar system. Could this be? Scientists had to investigate, so they used the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array in New Mexico to scan radio wavelengths of light, as well as the Hale Telescope in California and the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii to measure visual wavelengths and found signs of auroras.

According to the lead author of the study, Gregg Hallinan, the auroras that would be seen on this brown dwarf would be red – unlike the blues and greens we see here on Earth. The auroras would also possibly be 1 million times brighter than any aurora seen on Earth, and 200 times brighter than auroras on Jupiter, the planet with the brightest known auroras.

While it’s unknown how LSR J1835+3259’s auroras form at this time, Hallinan and his team have developed a telescope, the Owens Valley Long Wavelength Array, to detect these far-off, super bright auroras. He theorizes that electrically charged particles could rain down from dust onto the planet, or that an Earth-sized planet could be generating the auroras as it zooms through its magnetic field.

Either way, Hallinan is excited by the results so far from his telescope: "We've already confirmed aurorae for a few more objects," Hallinan said. "Maybe 10 percent or higher of brown dwarfs may exhibit aurorae."

Post by: Rad on Aug 01, 2015, 05:52 AM
CS Monitor

NASA's discovery of closest super-Earth is a 'kind of Rosetta Stone'

Using NASA's Spitzer telescope astronomers confirm the discovery of the nearest rocky planet outside our solar system, larger than Earth and a 'gold mine' for researchers.

By Kelsey Warner, Staff July 31, 2015

NASA did not take a vacation this July, closing out a busy month by confirming the discovery of the nearest rocky planet outside our solar system.

Larger than Earth and at "a mere" 21 light years away, the exoplanet - so-called because it orbits a star other than the Sun - offers a unique opportunity for research, according to NASA scientists, because it is so close. Most known planets are hundreds of light years away. 

Named HD 219134b, the exoplanet orbits too close to its star to sustain life, and cannot be seen directly, even by telescopes, but the star it orbits is visible to the naked eye in dark skies in the Cassiopeia constellation, near the North Star. The rocky planet was first detected by a telescope instrument on the Canary Islands called HARPS-North, which measured the planet's mass and orbit by the gravitational “tug” it exerts on the star it orbits. The planet was determined to have a mass 4.5 times that of Earth, and a “speedy” three-day orbit around its star, according to NASA.
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Spitzer, a space telescope that detects heat radiation, followed up on the initial data, and discovered the planet transits its star. The planet's size is about 1.6 times that of Earth, according to Spitzer’s measurements. Combining the size and the mass picked up by HARPS-North, scientists determined a density of 3.5 ounces per cubic inch, which makes HD 219134b a rocky planet.
What makes a planet livable? Five things scientists look for.

Rocky planets that are bigger than Earth, like the one just discovered, belong to a growing class of planets termed super-Earths, according to NASA.

"Thanks to NASA's Kepler mission, we know super-Earths are ubiquitous in our galaxy, but we still know very little about them," said co-author Michael Gillon of the University of Liege in Belgium, lead scientist for the Spitzer detection of the transit, in a statement. "Now we have a local specimen to study in greater detail. It can be considered a kind of Rosetta Stone for the study of super-Earths."

The conclusion that our closest rocky neighbor crosses its star has NASA anticipating a scramble to find out as much as possible from the ground and space. Only a small fraction of exoplanets can be detected transiting their stars due to their relative orientation to Earth. When the orientation is just right, the planet’s orbit places it between its star and Earth, dimming the detectable light of its star. As the planet passes before its star, researchers can tease chemical data out of the dimming starlight that results. If the planet is determined to have an atmosphere, chemicals in it can imprint patterns in the observed starlight, according to NASA.

"Transiting exoplanets are worth their weight in gold because they can be extensively characterized," said Michael Werner, the project scientist for the Spitzer mission at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in a statement. "This exoplanet will be one of the most studied for decades to come."

Post by: Rad on Aug 03, 2015, 05:03 AM
August 2 2015

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter ready for InSight Lander’s 2016 arrival

by Chuck Bednar
Red Orbit

Although the NASA InSight lander isn’t set to make it to the Red Planet until next year, preparations are already underway for its arrival, as the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is getting into position to receive radio transmissions from the next-gen spacecraft.

On Wednesday, the MRO fired six of its intermediate-sized thrusters for 75 seconds, adjusting the timing of its orbit so that it crosses the equator one-half hour earlier, at 2:30 pm local solar time instead of 3pm, Engadget said. It was the orbiter’s biggest such maneuver since 2006.

The thrusters, which produce 22 newtons (or five pounds) of thrust each, were used to put the MRO in the right location for it to support the InSight upon its arrival on September 28, 2016, explained NASA. These six engines were previously used to correct the spacecraft’s trajectory during its journey from Earth to Mars.

Next MRO maneuvers scheduled for October 2016

InSight is scheduled to lift off in March 2016, and will be accompanied by a pair of CubeSats that Engadget explains will serve as communications-relay satellites, transmitting messages to the ground team with little to no delay. The MRO will also record those signals, serving as the mission’s official documentation before the lander touches down on the planet’s surface.

“Without making this orbit change maneuver, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter would be unable to hear from InSight during the landing, but this will put us in the right place at the right time,” said MRO Project Manager Dan Johnston of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

Upon its arrival, InSight will analyze the deep interior of Mars, searching for new clues about the formation and early evolution not only of this planet, but of all rocky worlds, including Earth. In the meantime, MRO will keep collecting high-resolution imagery, atmospheric profiles, spectral data and other information, and will continue providing communication relay support for rovers.

The next scheduled orbital maneuvers for MRO are scheduled for October 2016 and April 2017, NASA said. Each of those will use “the six intermediate-size thrusters longer than three minutes. These will return it to the orbit timing it has used since 2006, crossing the equator at about 3am and 3pm, local solar time, during each near-polar loop around the planet,” the agency added.

Post by: Rad on Aug 03, 2015, 06:23 AM
CS Monitor

Comet lander Philae detects organic molecules

Philae, the European Space Agency's comet lander, has identified complex molecules on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, chemicals similar to those that may have furnished Earth with the ingredients for life.

By Paul Sutherland
August 2, 2015   

Sen—Though Rosetta’s little lander Philae made an unexpected bounce across the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, and is now playing a game of hide-and-seek with mission controllers, it has already provided a wealth of information about its strange new home.

In particular, it has identified complex molecules dating from the early Solar System that could have been ingredients in the recipe that delivered life to our planet. Those results, and findings from other experiments were published this week in the journal Science.

Philae was pre-programmed to carry out a number of experiments as soon as it landed at its designated site, Agilkia, on November 12, following a seven hour descent from the mothership. One was to “sniff the air” so that experiments COSAC (Cometary Sampling and Composition) and Ptolemy could determine the chemical make-up of the gas and dust being given off by the comet.

Unexpectedly, the probe did its sniffing while it was in flight again above the comet, because the harpoons had failed to fire to anchor it to the surface. However, both experiments successfully took samples. COSAC was able to analyse material that was kicked off the surface on first touchdown and entered tubes at the base of the lander. At the same time, Ptolemy got a taste of gas entering tubes at the top of Philae.

COSAC collected ice-poor dust grains that contained 16 organic compounds, including many rich in carbon and nitrogen compounds. But it also detected four that had never been seen in a comet before—methyl isocyanate, acetone, propionaldehyde and acetamide.

Ptolemy’s samples were of gases making up the “atmosphere”, or coma, of the comet, and included water vapour, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide, plus smaller amounts of carbon-bearing organic compounds, including formaldehyde.

What excites the scientists is that some of these compounds are important for the production of the buildings blocks of life, including amino acids, sugars and nucleobases. Because comets are leftover debris from the formation of the Solar System, more than four billion years ago, the presence of the compounds suggests that life’s ingredients were coming together in chemical processes even at that early stage.

Writing for academic news site The Conversation, UK comet expert Professor Monica Grady gave her view on the discovery. She is married to Professor Ian Wright, who works with the Ptolemy results at the Open University. Grady said: “While this is a long, long way from finding life itself, the data shows that the organic compounds that eventually translated into organisms here on Earth existed in the early Solar System.

“One of the declared goals of the Rosetta mission when it was approved in 1993 was to determine the composition of volatile compounds in the cometary nucleus. And now we have the answer, or at least, an answer: the compounds are a mixture of many different molecules. Water, carbon monoxide (CO) and carbon dioxide (CO2)—this is not too surprising, given that these molecules have been detected many times before around comets. But both COSAC and Ptolemy have found a very wide range of additional compounds, which is going to take a little effort to interpret.”

Grady concluded: “Most importantly, both of those sets of data show that the ingredients for life were present in a body which formed in the earliest stages of Solar System history. Comets act as messengers, delivering water and dust throughout the Solar System—now we have learnt for certain that the ingredients for life have been sown far and wide through the 4.567 billion years of Solar System history. The challenge now is to discover where else it might have taken root.”

The fact Philae landed three times as it bounced to its final resting place in a region called Abydos means that the scientists got data from more than one site and have been able to compare different regions. That included surface properties and details of the comet’s interior. As it descended, and on final touchdown, the probe also imaged parts of the comet up close with its ROLIS and CIVA cameras, providing details about bouders littering the surface and the coarse soil.

Philae’s MUPUS instruments found that Abydos has harder material, probably compacted dust and ice, at the surface than Agilkia, where Philae first bounced. MUPUS also measured a variation in temperature between -180°C and -145°C as the comet rotated in its 12.4 hour daily cycle. Another experiment, CONSERT, used instruments on Rosetta and Philae to beam radio waves through the comet’s nucleus, revealing that its smaller lobe is a fairly homogeneous mix of loosely compacted dust and ice.

Professor Jean-Pierre Bibring, a lead lander scientist and principal investigator of the CIVA instrument, said in a statement: “Taken together, these first pioneering measurements performed on the surface of a comet are profoundly changing our view of these worlds and continuing to shape our impression of the history of the Solar System.”

Nothing has been heard from the lander since July 9, following occasional, intermittent contact after it “phoned home” on June 13, ending seven months of silence. Since July 25, Rosetta has moved into a position where it can explore Comet 67P’s southern landscape in the run-up to Perihelion, its closest point to the Sun, and from there it will be unable to communicate with Philae anyway. But in a couple of weeks, it will be within range again, and the science team will be hoping to establish contact with the lander once more.

Post by: Rad on Aug 04, 2015, 05:00 AM
August 3, 2015

Cassini gears up for final look at Saturn’s icy moons

by Chuck Bednar
Red Orbit

NASA’s Cassini mission is gearing up for the home stretch, as the Saturn-orbiting spacecraft will get its final looks at the icy moons of Enceladus and Dione over the next six months, starting in a couple of weeks with the latter, according to report published late last week.

Cassini will be conducting three additional flybys of Enceladus, an extremely bright object that reflects nearly all of the sunlight that strikes it and which has already been analyzed by the probe on multiple occasions, and one of Dione, which said will take place on August 17.

Why so much interest in these icy moons? Discovery News explains that NASA believes they may represent some of the best chances of finding life on other planets, as there might be liquid oceans filled with microbes lurking beneath their frozen surfaces. Gravitational interactions with Saturn may warm them enough to allow these tiny living creatures to survive, they said.

Searching for evidence of plumes on Dione

First up will be Dione, where Cassini will conduct gravitational measurements to learn more about the icy shell and interior of this moon. Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told Discovery News that they believe Dione may have the same type of eruptions as Enceladus, and they hope to find out for sure this month.

“We haven't found the equivalent of a smoking gun,” Spilker said. The lack of evidence may be due to the larger size of the moon. A bigger moon means more gravity, which could be pulling down the plumes and making them more difficult to see. In addition to this month’s flyby, far-off observations set for 2017 could also be used to find evidence of these plumes.

The spacecraft will also be looking at the plumes of Enceladus, which were first discovered by the probe’s magnetometer instrument, in the best detail thus far. The final three flybys of the popular Cassini target are scheduled to begin on October 14, with a view of the north pole. A “plunge” into a known plume location is set to follow two weeks later, and the probe will travel to the moon’s south pole to study the thermal environment there in December.

Cassini’s mission is expected to end in 2017, when it will use the gravity of Saturn’s moon Titan to “hop” into a spot in the inner part of the planet’s rings. Once it arrives, it will remain there for 22 orbital cycles before plummeting into the atmosphere on September 15.

Post by: Rad on Aug 05, 2015, 05:21 AM
August 4, 2015

Ghostly remnants of galaxy interactions uncovered in nearby galaxy group

by Chuck Bednar
Red Orbit

New observations of the large spiral galaxy M81, conducted with the Subaru Telescope's Hyper Suprime-Cam, has allowed researchers to demonstrate hierarchical galaxy assembly processes in a nearby galaxy located outside of the Local Group for the first time.

The observations, which were part of a galactic archaeology study led by researchers from the Shanghai Astronomical Observatory and the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan, used the telescope’s prime-focus camera to observe M81 and two of its brightest neighbors, M82 and NGC3077, using deep, super-wide field images of the galaxies and their stars.

“Until now, the outskirts of Milky Way and Andromeda Galaxy are the only places which have been surveyed to sufficiently faint depths and wide areas to enable detailed tests of the hierarchal galaxy assembly process on these scales,” study author Dr. Sakurako Okamoto of the Shanghai Astronomical Observatory told redOrbit via email.

“With such a small sample, it is not possible to determine which behavior is representative or to discount the idea that one of these systems may be anomalous in their properties. Therefore, M81 is a prime target as the third case,” added Dr. Okamoto.

Young star, neutral hydrogen distributions linked

They discovered that the spatial distribution of the young stars in these galaxies closely followed that of their distribution of neutral hydrogen. The study will help astronomers to refine their understanding of galaxy formation and evolution, particularly those models based on the concept that galaxies develop from small “overdensities” and become larger-scaled structures.

Known as hierarchical galaxy assembly, this model has been applied to both the Milky Way and to the Andromeda Galaxy, demonstrating that these galaxies originally formed as part of a local over-density in the primordial matter distribution (the earliest matter accumulations known in the young universe). Over time, they grew through the collection of smaller building blocks, some of which might have survived later mergers to become present-day dwarf satellite galaxies.

According to Dr. Okamoto’s team, establishing the presence and nature of these satellite galaxies and determining the large-scale structure and stellar content of halos within them is necessary to better understand and explain the physics of hierarchical galaxy assembly. Over the past 10 years astronomers conducting large photometric surveys (measuring light intensity of celestial objects) have discovered several new satellite galaxies, over-densities, and stellar streams surrounding the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies.

Researchers study the properties of stars in these systems to reconstruct the stellar contents found in early-stage galaxies, a field known as “galactic archeology” or “near-field cosmology”. In this type of research, it’s necessary to resolve individual stars in a galaxy across a sizable percentage of the galaxy’s radius, but until now, only the outskirts of the Milky Way and Andromeda have been the only areas analyzed deeply enough to allow for in-depth tests of the hierarchical galaxy assembly process across a vast scale, they added.

Demonstrating how galaxies cannibalize smaller neighbors

By using the Hyper Suprime-Cam (HSC) to study the archeology of M81, a galaxy located some 11.7 million light years away, the researchers were able to observe out to a projected radius of a half-million light-years from the center of the spiral galaxy. The sensitivity of the camera made it possible for the researchers to observe old red giant branch (RGB), young main-sequence (MS) stars, red supergiants, and asymptotic giant-branch stars at the distance of M81.

Their study revealed that the bright stars were primarily focused in the inner disk of M81 while most of the young stars in outlying concentrations were fainter and had luminosity distributions similar to those of the stellar stream between M81 and NGC 3077. The stars are between 30 and 160 million years old, and the research indicates that these systems were most likely produced by recent tidal interactions between M81, M82, and NGC 3077.

Furthermore, the astronomers found that the distribution of RGB stars revealed that the extended stellar halos of these three galaxies overlap one another, and that M82 and NGC 3077 have outer regions that are highly perturbed, likely due to the recent gravitational encounter. They also were able to discover that the RGB stars in the outer halo of M82 were bluer in color than those in M81 or the inner halo of M82, indicating that they contained less metal.

“Our results show in detailed that how galaxies capture and cannibalize their smaller neighbors and how large galaxies like the Milky Way have formed and evolved over time,” Dr. Okamoto told redOrbit. “People can use it to infer the hierarchal galaxy assembly at the nearby and distant universe, and trace how galaxies evolve.”

Post by: Rad on Aug 05, 2015, 05:25 AM
August 4, 2015

Cassini spots streaks on Saturn moon, Tethys

by Brett Smith
Red Orbit

Even though NASA’s Cassini probe has been orbiting Saturn and its moons for more than a decade, the bus-sized craft still has a lot to discover.

Case in point, images captured in April revealed never-before-seen red streaks arcing across the surface of Saturn’s icy Tethys moon.

Cassini captured the streaks while using clear, green, infrared, and ultraviolet spectral filters in order to create comprehensive mosaic images of Tethys, an ice covered moon with a diameter of 660 miles. The strips had been notice in previous captured images, but the angles at which those images were not ideal.

Fairly fresh marks

As Saturn’s upper hemisphere has been entering summertime these past few Earth years, the northern lines on Tethys have progressively become visible, and Cassini has captured the vivid reddish features. NASA scientists said the arcs look fairly fresh on geological timescales.

“The red arcs really popped out when we saw the new images,” Cassini scientist Paul Schenk of the Lunar and Planetary Institute, said in a NASA press release. “It’s surprising how extensive these features are.”

"The red arcs must be geologically young because they cut across older features like impact craters, but we don't know their age in years." said Paul Helfenstein, a Cassini imaging scientist at Cornell University. "If the stain is only a thin, colored veneer on the icy soil, exposure to the space environment at Tethys' surface might erase them on relatively short time scales."

Similar marks have been spotted on Jupiter’s moon of Europa and scientists believe those streaks are caused by chemical changes to briny waters seeping up from the Jovian moon’s subsurface sea.

Inquiring minds who want to learn more about the mysterious streaks won’t have to wait long. NASA scientists are already planning another fly-by designed to take a closer look.

"After 11 years in orbit, Cassini continues to make surprising discoveries," said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. "We are planning an even closer look at one of the Tethys red arcs in November to see if we can tease out the source and composition of these unusual markings."

Post by: Rad on Aug 06, 2015, 05:13 AM
August 6, 2015

NASA celebrates 3 years on Mars with Curiosity AMA

by Emily Bills
Red Orbit

In celebration of the rover's 3rd “landiversary”, the NASA engineers and scientists behind the lovable Curiosity rover trekking across Mars did an informative AMA on reddit yesterday afternoon.

Many scientists were present for the AMA, including Nagin Cox, the Mission Lead, and Kim Lichtenberg, the Mission Operation Engineer. But the star of the afternoon was none other than Curiosity herself, posting with the help of the JPL Social Media Team.

Curiosity touched down on August 6, 2012, although it was still August 5th here on Earth, and has traveled about 6.8 miles on the Red Planet.

During the AMA, many people asked about finding life on Mars.

“It's a long shot, but some day we might find life deeper on Mars. The environment on the surface of Mars today is quite harsh for life as we know it, but if life exists on Mars, it would be protected from radiation at depth and liquid water could be stable there too.”

Folks on reddit were also very ‘curious’ about Curiosity’s lifespan, especially in regards to its metal wheels. NASA’s response was hopeful that the rover will survive much longer.

“Curiosity has already survived longer than its nominal mission of one Mars year. We've just surpassed 11 km on the surface, and so far, the biggest hindrance has been wear of the wheels. While they are wearing at the expected rate, they won't last forever. We expect to be able to traverse many more kilometers in the future. Rover power shouldn't be an issue, as the rover's RTG should keep us running for a long time.”

You can read the rest of the AMA here, or feast your eyes on some highlights below:

On the discovery that surprised NASA engineers the most:

Definitely, the discovery that that Yellowknife Bay was once a habitable environment. We learned that with the first drill hole on Mars!”

RedOrbit asked if Curiosity would be getting a quad-copter buddy anytime soon, and both the scientists and Curiosity answered this one:

“There is certainly discussion of how helpful it would be to have the ability to see ‘over the hill’ and there is now early development going on addressing ‘UAVs’ on Mars,” Nagin said.

“Have you seen the prototype Mars helicopter under development at JPL? (WANT) While I won't have one, it's possible that a future mission will,” Curiosity replied.

On what technology the team wished they could have put on the rover:

"A higher mounted camera to see farther and over low-lying features. Also, some kind of ground penetrating radar (GPR) to see bedrock layers underneath us. GPR will be on the future Mars2020 rover."

On what the future looks like for Curiosity:

"The long-term science goal is to traverse up the side of Mt. Sharp to study the changing layers that we see in the mountain. As we ascend, it's like a time capsule, as subsequent layers reflect different time periods of Mars' history. We're at the base of the mountain right now, studying the earliest, oldest time in Mars' history. Curiosity has been designed to last much longer than its one-Mars-year nominal mission, and all signs so far point to a long life for the rover."

We love you, Curiosity! Wishing you a happy "landiversary" and many more years to come.

Post by: Rad on Aug 06, 2015, 05:14 AM
August 5, 2015

Everything you need to know about August’s Perseid meteor shower

by Emily Bills
Red Orbit

The annual Perseid meteor shower in August is a fan-favorite as it takes place during the dog days of summer, is one of the more reliable showers, and can be seen from almost anywhere in the Northern Hemisphere (as long as it’s relatively dark). According to, we’re super lucky this year as the waning crescent moon comes up right before the sunrise, guaranteeing us darker skies for this shower. Hooray!

How to watch the Perseids

While you will need no special equipment to watch the meteors streak across the sky, you’ll want to go somewhere dark – away from city lights. Grab a blanket to sit on and some friends and start watching the skies in the second week of August when the Delta Aquarid meteor shower is also in full swing (double whammy!). The Perseids are known to rise to a peak and then die down quickly after, so keep watching into the second week of August.

It’s typically always better to spot meteors later into the night (especially after midnight), but don’t completely rule out early evening stargazing! You could spot an earthgrazer – a long, slow, and colorful meteor ambling horizontally across the sky. These are pretty rare but can be very memorable, so definitely keep an eye out!

Make sure you also watch for persistent trains, or the ionized gas trails left over from a meteor slicing through the sky.

This meteor shower tends to come in spurts and has lulls, so give yourself plenty of viewing time. We recommend at least a few hours, and if you’re lucky, you could see up to 50 meteors per hour!

The anticipated best dates for viewing are August 11-14.

Where are the meteors coming from?

Each year Earth crosses paths with comet Swift-Tuttle from around July 17 to August 24, and this comet is actually the source of the Perseid meteors. It’s the debris from the comet that litter the sky, but we don’t really get into the rubble until around the second week of August.

The Swift-Tuttle comet, according to, has a very oblong orbit, taking it outside of Pluto’s orbit when it’s furthest from the sun. As the comet approaches the sun, it warms the comet’s ices and releases a fresh batch of debris into the sky.

The Perseids are named after the constellation Perseus. (Perseus was the dude in Greek mythology who defeated Medusa, cutting off her snake-infested head.) If you trace all the Perseid meteors backwards, they seem to radiate from this constellation, hence the name.

Sit back, relax, and enjoy the showers this summer!

Post by: Rad on Aug 06, 2015, 05:16 AM
Neutron star takes on form of black hole with huge jets

by Chuck Bednar
Red Orbit
Aug 6 2015

Black holes, previously believed to have been the only objects in the universe capable of forming powerful jets of materials shooting out into space, now have a little “friendly competition” in the form of an extremely dense double-star system known as PSR J1023+0038.

New observations conducted of this neutron star have revealed that it is also blasting these strong jets, scientists from the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) reported in research published this week in the Astrophysical Journal. Originally identified as a neutron star in 2009, it wasn’t until 2013 and 2014 that the researchers realized PSR J1023+0038 was actually producing stronger-than-expected jets, they explained.

Neutron stars, which are formed when a massive star undergoes a supernova, causing its central parts to collapse beneath their own gravity, are essentially stellar corpses, ICRAR astronomer Dr. James Miller-Jones explained in a statement. In PSR J1023+0038’s case, the study authors said that they expected to find it producing a weak jet, since it was only consuming a small amount of material, but observations revealed its jets rivaled those of a black hole in strength.

Exploring the significance of this discovery

So what makes this discovery important? Lead investigator Dr. Adam Deller, an astronomer at the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy (ASTRON), explained to redOrbit via email that the detection of these jets “highlights a gap in our understanding of how accretion works.”

Accretion, he explained, is a fundamental process which plays a key role in turning protostars into main sequence stars which form many of the elements found in the universe, growing into the supermassive black holes found at the centers of nearly all galaxies. Prior to their research, Dr. Deller said, researchers believed that there was a clear-cut distinction between how accretion worked onto black holes and how it worked onto neutron stars and other objects.

“This result implies that black holes are less special than we thought,” he added, “even though unlike everything else in the universe, they have an event horizon.” Neutron stars, in comparison, have a solid surface, Dr. Miller-Jones added. Discovering that these stars can also produce these powerful jets “suggests that an event horizon is not needed to produce jets,” he noted, “which gives us an important clue as to how jets get launched and accelerated in the first place.”

Dr. Miller-Jones pointed out that there are “competing theoretical models for how jets can be produced, and a better understanding of the similarities and differences between the jets in black holes and neutron stars can give us important clues as to the conditions needed to produce jets, hence helping pin down which of those theoretical models is more correct.” He and Dr. Deller also said that they hope the findings will improve the overall understanding of these jets.

Exploring the phenomenon of ‘transitional’ neutron stars

The study authors explained that PSR J1023+0038 is what is known as a “transitional” neutron star, meaning that it shifts between accreting and non-accreting phases – in other words, the star spends several years being powered primarily by the rotation of the neutron star, but changes to an active gathering state on occasion, becoming far brighter in the process.

“PSR J1023+0038 is actually a really interesting system, that only accretes some of the time,” Dr. Dellar explained. “The rest of the time it acts like a normal ‘radio pulsar’, which is a neutron star that acts like a cosmic lighthouse: it has a very strong magnetic field, and it emits very strong radiation from its magnetic poles, but it also rotates, and that rotation causes the beam of radiation to sweep across the sky, so we see regular "pulses" of emission here on Earth.”

When it was originally discovered, he told redOrbit, it was behaving like a radio pulsar, and continued to do so until 2013. At that time, it began to accrete gas that had been falling off of its companion star. The infalling material interfered with the processes which generated the radio pulses, causing them to disappear and prompting Dr. Dellar and his colleagues use telescopes to look at it in the optical and X-ray bands.

“All the hallmarks of accretion were present,” he said. Having found that the neutron star was accreting material, they used the Very Large Array to search for radio emissions coming from the jet of material being blasted out of the system. This emission, Dr. Dellar explained, was not the same as the one they observed when they found that PSR J1023+0038 was a radio pulsar – “it has a different spectrum, and it doesn't pulse with the rotation of the neutron star.”

This emission is “coming from the electrons racing away from the system at relativistic speeds in the jet,” and once they found it, they used it to estimate how strong the jet is. Much to the team’s surprise, he said, “it came out much stronger than we had expected!” PSR J1023+0038 is just the third “transitional” pulsar to be found, Dr. Dellar added, and to follow up on their study, he and Dr. Miller-Jones hope to find and study more of these types of systems.

Post by: Rad on Aug 06, 2015, 05:18 AM
August 5, 2015

Astronomers just found the largest cosmic feature ever

by Brett Smith
Red Orbit

A team of American and Hungarian astronomers has announced the discovery of the largest cosmic feature in the known universe – a ring of nine gamma ray bursts (GRBs) 5 billion light-years across.

GRBs are the brightest events in the universe, releasing the same amount energy in a few seconds as the Sun does over its 10 billion year existence. They are believed to be the result of substantial stars crumbling into black holes, and their tremendous luminosity assists astronomers in the mapping of faraway galaxies, something the team made use of.

The GRBs that comprise the newly found ring were seen using a wide variety of space- and ground-based observatories. The bursts to be at similar distances from us, around 7 billion light years, and more than 70 times the diameter of a full moon, indicating that the ring is greater than 5 billion light years across.

Most up-to-date models indicate the structure of the cosmos is consistent on the largest scales. This new find and other recent discoveries challenge that theory, which sets the theoretical size limitation of 1.2 billion light years for the largest structures. The newly discovered feature is nearly five times as large.

Chuck everything we know out the window?

"If we are right, this structure contradicts the current models of the universe,” team member Lajos Balazs of Konkoly Observatory in Budapest, said in a press release. “It was a huge surprise to find something this big -- and we still don't quite understand how it came to exist at all."

The team said they want to now find out more around the GRB ring, and determine if the known operations for galaxy formation and large scale structure might have led to its creation, or if astronomers need to drastically modify their theories of the development of the cosmos as we know it.

Powerful GRBs can occur relatively close to our galaxy. In November 2013, astronomers reported a recent GRB from a galaxy that is relatively near, about 3.75 billion light-years away.

"We normally detect GRBs at great distance, meaning they usually appear quite faint. In this case the burst happened only a quarter of the way across the Universe meaning it was very bright,” said Paul O'Brien of the University of Leicester's Department of Physics and Astronomy said in a statement.

(Image caption: An image of the distribution of GRBs on the sky at a distance of 7 billion light years, centered on the newly discovered ring. The positions of the GRBs are marked by blue dots. Credit: L. Balazs)

Post by: Rad on Aug 07, 2015, 05:52 AM
Photos show dark side of the moon from 1 million miles away

by Shayne Jacopian
Red Orbit
Aug 7 2015

A NASA camera on the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) satellite has captured a series of images of the moon passing over the Earth, allowing us to see the dark side of the moon fully illuminated in a really cool GIF.

NASA’s Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera (EPIC), a camera with a four megapixel sensor (here’s a handy explanation for why NASA doesn’t mind using seemingly low resolution cameras) captured these images from on July 16 from 1 million miles away, the distance from which the DSCOVR satellite orbits Earth. An Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) spacecraft, DSCOVR’s job is to monitor solar weather in real-time.

The EPIC camera, which captures images in monochrome, generated these “natural color” images by taking three monochrome images 30 seconds apart, then combining them to produce one RGB image.

Aside from some weird artifacts, (taking three different-colored images of a moving object and piecing them together can do that), it produced a beautiful series of images that expose a detailed and well-lit far side of the moon and a brilliant Earth.

“It is surprising how much brighter Earth is than the moon," said Adam Szabo, a DSCOVR project scientist at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. "Our planet is a truly brilliant object in dark space compared to the lunar surface.”

EPIC will begin regular observations next month, providing images of the Earth on a daily basis at a public website. These will help NASA gather data, and also allow the rest of us to see more cool stuff like this!

NASA notes: “DSCOVR is a partnership between NASA, NOAA, and the U.S. Air Force with the primary objective of maintaining the nation’s real-time solar wind monitoring capabilities, which are critical to the accuracy and lead time of space weather alerts and forecasts from NOAA.”

You can find more information about the DSCOVR here.

Post by: Rad on Aug 07, 2015, 05:58 AM
August 6, 2015

Scientists solve mystery of planetary ring particle distribution

by Chuck Bednar
Red Orbit

An international team of scientists have successfully solved a longstanding riddle by discovering that planetary rings, such as those found in orbit around the planet Saturn, have universally similar particle distributions, and are in a steady state independent of their history.

The findings, which were published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), set out to determine if the icy rings around Saturn were unique in terms of their particle size distribution, or if the observed distribution was generic for all planetary rings.

They concluded that a power-law size distribution with large-size cutoff, as observed in the rings surrounding the gas giant was universal for systems where there was a sustained balance between aggregation and disruptive collisions. As a result, the same basic size distribution is expected for any ring system where collisions are involved, such as those around Uranus or Chiron.

“This was a fortunate collaboration of leading experts from different areas with astrophysicists,” lead author Professor Nikolai Brilliantov of the University of Leicester, told redOrbit. “The team was comprised of top-level specialists in kinetic theory, statistical physics, differential equations and numerical analysis who collaborated with leading scientists in the field of Saturn rings.”

Law of inverse cubes help explain universal nature of rings

As Professor Brilliantov, a member of the university’s Department of Mathematics explained in a statement, previous research on Saturn’s rings revealed that they are comprised of ice particles ranging in size from several centimeters to nearly 10 meters. Since these particles are most likely debris left over from a past catastrophic event, the varying sizes is not surprising.

What is surprising, however, is the that the relative abundance of different sized particles follows with a high degree of accuracy the mathematical law of inverse cubes, he said. In other words, the abundances of two meter particles is roughly eight times less that of one meter particles, the abundance of three meter particles is 27 times smaller, and so on.

Brilliantov said that this stays true up to the size of about 10 meters, at which point there is a sudden drop in abundance. The explanation as to why the rings follow the law of inverse cubes, and the reason for such a drastic drop at the 10 meter size range, had long remained a mystery, but the authors of the new study have come up with a solution by solving “an enormous number of differential equations” on incredibly fast computers, he told redOrbit via email.

“If particles comprising rings merge, colliding with very small velocities and break into small pieces, colliding with very large velocities, the distribution of particles' sizes will have a universal form, provided the rings are in a steady state,” the professor said. “Hence, if one observes that a size distribution in rings deviates from the universal law, one can conclude that either the rings are not yet formed, or some catastrophic event has happened recently.”

“On the other hand, if the rings obey the universal size distribution, the parameters of the distribution provide a comprehensive information about the rings' particles,” Brilliantov said, noting that he and his colleagues believe that these types of rings also exist beyond our Solar System.

Post by: Rad on Aug 08, 2015, 05:15 AM
August 7, 2015

Pulsar reveals gravity is constant across the Universe

by Eric Hopton
Red Orbit

It’s taken 21 years astronomers studying the pulsar PSR J1713+0747 to answer a simple but fundamental question in cosmology. Is gravity constant everywhere at all times?

Albert gets it right again

If the predictions of Einstein’s theory of general relativity are correct, the answer has to be yes. Final analysis of all that data from PSR J1713+0747 proves that, once again, old Albert was bang on the money.

Gravity does indeed appear to be “reassuringly constant across the Universe," according to the study.

Astronomers used the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Green Bank Telescope (GBT) in West Virginia and its Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico to gather precise measurements of the steady pulsar’s signature “tick”. The results produced “the best constraint ever of the gravitational constant measured outside of our Solar System”.

In case you didn’t know, pulsars are the rapidly spinning superdense remnants of massive stars which exploded as supernovas. As pulsars rotate, they produce characteristic radio waves which emanate from their magnetic poles and burst out across the universe and can be picked up here on Earth.

Cosmic laboratories with perfect time

Pulsars may be tiny objects at less than 15 miles across, but they are incredibly dense. Their rate of spin is so consistent that they match the best atomic clocks on Earth, making pulsars perfect cosmic laboratories for studying space, time, and gravity.

PSR J1713+0747 is one of the brightest and most stable of all known pulsars. It orbits its companion white dwarf star approximately every 68 days, an unusually wide orbit for a pulsar system. This separation is essential for the study of gravity because the effect of gravitational radiation, (the steady conversion of orbital velocity to gravitational waves predicted by Einstein), is especially small and would have negligible impact on the pulsar’s orbit.

Uncanny consistency

“The uncanny consistency of this stellar remnant offers intriguing evidence that the fundamental force of gravity, the big ‘G’ of physics, remains rock-solid throughout space,” said Weiwei Zhu, lead author of the study published in the Astrophysical Journal.

“This is an observation that has important implications in cosmology and some of the fundamental forces of physics. Gravity is the force that binds stars, planets, and galaxies together. Though it appears on Earth to be constant and universal, there are some theories in cosmology that suggest gravity may change over time or may be different in different corners of the Universe,” said Scott Ransom, an astronomer with the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO).

These findings are consistent with earlier related research in our own Solar System. Precise laser ranging studies of the distance between the Earth and the moon found the same consistency over time.

“These results, new and old, allow us to rule out with good confidence that there could be ‘special’ times or locations with different gravitational behavior. Theories of gravity that are different from general relativity often make such predictions, and we have put new restrictions on the parameters that describe these theories,” added Ingrid Stairs, a co-author from the University of British Columbia in Canada.

Zhu concluded: “The gravitational constant is a fundamental constant of physics, so it is important to test this basic assumption using objects at different places, times, and gravitational conditions. The fact that we see gravity perform the same in our Solar System as it does in a distant star system helps to confirm that the gravitational constant truly is universal.”

Post by: Rad on Aug 08, 2015, 05:45 AM
CS Monitor

Two studies offer new clues to how galaxies form and emerge from 'dark ages'

The results, unveiled this week, provide fresh revelations about the formation and evolution of galaxies early in the universe's history and their impact on the evolution of the cosmos.

By Pete Spotts, Staff writer August 7, 2015   

A team of astronomers has taken the measure of the most distant galaxy yet. It shines with unexpected brightness – an observation that could yield new insights into a period when the universe was emerging from its "dark ages."

The results come from one of two studies unveiled this week that each provide fresh revelations about the formation and evolution of galaxies early in the universe's history and their impact on the evolution of the cosmos.

The dark ages lasted for some 400 million years after the universe cooled following the Big Bang. During this period, a fog of neutral hydrogen gas permeated the cosmos between infant galaxies. Over time, however, the collective radiation from the enormous, hot stars that filled these growing galaxies slowly burned off the fog by ionizing the hydrogen. The gradual clearing allowed radiation to traverse the cosmos.

NASA's Hubble and Spitzer Space Telescopes initially spotted the galaxy. Their data hinted that it was filled with what some team members termed unusually hot stars. Using the 10-meter Keck telescope in Hawaii, the research team detected the galaxy, designated EGSY8p7, via ultraviolet light coming from its young, massive, hydrogen-burning stars.

The detection of this light was a surprise, noted Richard Ellis, an astronomer at the California Institute of Technology and a member of the international team, in a statement. The galaxy's record-breaking distance translates into a look-back time during which the cosmos should have been filled with clouds of neutral hydrogen.

Based on redshift, a measure of the expansion rate of the universe that can be used as a yardstick, the galaxy sits at a redshift of 8.68, or some 13.2 billion light-years away.

The previous record-holder appears at a redshift of 7.73. Astronomers have noted that around redshift 6, ultraviolet light from galaxies grows increasingly hard to spot because the hydrogen fog is too dense at longer redshifts to allow as much ultraviolet light through.

Galaxies like EGSY8p7 will offer new insights into how re-ionization lifted the cosmos out of its dark ages, noted Adi Zitrin, another CalTech astronomer and the lead author of a paper describing the observation and set for publication in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

The re-ionization process could be "very lumpy, so that we happen to see an object in a more re-ionized line of sight," he writes in an e-mail. The general environment could be more uniformly foggy, but the object itself was energetic enough to form a bubble of re-ionized gas around it, rendering it visible. Or "the current, yet uncertain timeline for re-ionization may be somewhat off, and in this case this object will help pin it down better."

The second study speaks to the question of how galaxies form.

Another team, led by CalTech astrophysicist Christopher Martin, detected a rotating disk of gas some 400,000 light-years across and some 10 billion miles away taking up cold hydrogen gas via what could be termed a strand of cosmic pasta.

Gravity from the protogalaxy and its halo of dark matter is drawing a filament of hydrogen gas toward the disk, which gathers it up as the disk rotates. The filament is part of a larger, more extensive filament of tenuous matter. These larger filaments form webs interlinked throughout the cosmos and along which galaxies appear. The filaments typically are separated by vast voids of virtually galaxy-free space.

For a long time, researchers had held that galaxies formed within halos of dark matter – a type of matter that so far can only be detected through its gravitational influence on matter that researchers can detect directly. As the dark-matter halos collapse, they compress the hydrogen gas they harbor and heat it significantly. Only after the gas slowly cools to about 10,000 degrees Celsius (18,000 degrees Fahrenheit) can clouds of this "cold" gas collapse to form stars, and at a steady pace.

This explanation held up until the late 1990s, when astronomers found that it couldn't explains the enormous bursts of star formation that they were observing in galaxies that appeared at distances corresponding to about 2 billion years after the Big Bang.

That led researchers to develop a "cold flow" model, in which hydrogen embedded in the cosmos's larger filaments cools and collapses into thin strands. If strands are thinner than the size of the dark matter halo surrounding the protogalaxies, they can readily be drawn in and "will connect directly to galaxies or protogalaxies, often by forming disks," explains Dr. Martin in an e-mail.

Once part of the protogalaxy, the gas can quickly begin the gravitational collapse that forms stars.

But slurping the cosmic pasta has its limits, Martin suggests. As the universe expands, the dimensions of the filaments and their strands grow. Once the strand of hydrogen grows larger than the protogalaxy's dark-matter halo, the flow of gas into the galaxy becomes more inefficient. Other factors may slow or vary the supply as well, he notes.

"Most of this is speculation at this point," he acknowledges, adding that it's an active area of research. The results appear online, published by the journal Nature.

Post by: Rad on Aug 08, 2015, 05:56 AM
August 7, 2015

You can now drive around Mars with this Curiosity simulator

by John Hopton
Red Orbit

It’s been three years since NASA’s Curiosity rover landed on Mars, and the agency has marked the occasion with two online tools allowing users to interactively explore the planet through their browser.

Mars Trek, a free, web-based application, provides detailed imagery of Mars using real data obtained by NASA exploration over several decades. It features interactive maps, and uses standard keyboard gaming controls to navigate across the planet’s surface. Information about topography can even be translated into 3D-printable form, meaning physical models of surface features can be printed out.

Mars Trek is not just a toy. Developed by NASA's Lunar Mapping and Modeling Project, it is being used to investigate potential landing points for the Mars 2020 rover, and is expected to contribute to selecting candidate landing sites for the agency’s first manned mission - planned for the 2030s.

“This tool has opened my eyes as to how we should first approach roaming on another world, and now the public can join in on the fun,” said Jim Green, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division in Washington. “Our robotic scientific explorers are paving the way, making great progress on the journey to Mars. Together, humans and robots will pioneer Mars and the solar system."

With some nods to Google Earth, Mars Trek has zoom functions, and 2D and 3D options. It also gives easy-to-digest information about the size of features on the planet’s surface, comparing them to objects such as school buses or the Golden Gate Bridge.

Riding with the rover

The second tool, Experience Curiosity, allows us to travel along with the rover, simulating Mars in 3D using data from Curiosity, and NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). The idea is that users can see what the rover itself sees through its cameras, as if it were their own little exploration vehicle.

"We've done a lot of heavy 3-D processing to make Experience Curiosity work in a browser. Anybody with access to the web can take a journey to Mars," said Kevin Hussey, manager of the Visualization Applications and Development group at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California, which manages and operates the Curiosity rover.

Other features of Experience Curiosity include:

- Pointing out locations of interest on Mars, such as Garden City, a collection of light and dark veins made from mineral deposits left behind by flowing water in the distant past.

- Explaining the technology involved in individual parts of Curiosity

- Allowing users to toggle with the different parts as if playing around with the machine itself

For anyone keen on exploring the Red Planet but who doesn’t quite feel like signing up for Mars One, these tools are the second best thing.


What is this mysterious, woman-shaped figure on Mars?

by Christopher Pilny
Red Orbit
Aug 8 2015

First it was the man on the moon; then it was the bright spots on Ceres; now a mysterious, woman-shaped figure on Mars that looks eerily similar to Rose DeWitt-Bukater?

The original image was sent back by NASA's Curiosity rover, and is part of the extensive gallery the Jet Propulsion Laboratory has provided on its site. Though, not all of them show "figures" like this one--what UFO Sightings Daily, clearly weighing titles for their next poetry slam, has called "a woman partly cloaked".

Here's the full image if you want some perspective.

woman-shaped figure

While she/it is much smaller in this version, it's like that image of Ted Cruz and grandpa Munster: once you see it, you can't un-see it.

So whether or not this proof of alien life (LOL), we'll continue to pour over the photo and debate what that hazy figure actually is. Could be a ghost. Could be an ancient statue. Could be the trick of light upon Martian soil. Doesn't matter in the end.

As ever-hopefuls of extraterrestrial life, our hearts will go on.


Curiosity Mars rover completes third year on Red Planet (+video)

NASA's Mars rover, Curiosity, touched down on Mars on August 5, 2012.

By Mike Wall, August 6, 2015   

NASA's Mars rover Curiosity has now been trundling across the Red Planet for three very productive and eventful years.

Curiosity landed on the night of Aug. 5, 2012, pulling off a dramatic and unprecedented touchdown with the aid of a rocket-powered "sky crane" that lowered the 1-ton rover gently to the Martian surface via cables.

The six-wheeled robot then set out to determine if its immediate environs — a 96-mile-wide (154 kilometers) crater named Gale — could ever have supported microbial life. That work and more are chronicled in a newNASA video on Curiosity's discoveries on the Red Planet.

Latest Amazing Mars Photos by Curiosity:

Curiosity quickly succeeded in this main task. The rover's observations of rocks at an area near its landing site called Yellowknife Bay allowed mission scientists to deduce that Gale Crater supported a potentially habitable lake-and-stream system for long stretches in the ancient past — perhaps for millions of years at a time.

Curiosity departed the Yellowknife Bay area in July 2013, making tracks toward the foothills of the towering Mount Sharp, which rises 3.4 miles (5.5 km) into the Martian sky from Gale's center.

Mount Sharp's base has been Curiosity's primary destination since before the $2.5 billion mission's November 2011 launch. The rover team wants Curiosity to climb up through the mountain's lower reaches, reading a history of Mars' changing environmental conditions in the rocks along the way.

Curiosity reached the mountain in September 2014, rolling up to a Mount Sharp outcrop team members dubbed Pahrump Hills. The rover studied the Pahrump Hills area for about five months, drilling into rocks three separate times for analysis purposes.

"That was an investment of time specifically because it was the first chance we got to see what the mountain was made out of," said Curiosity project scientist Ashwin Vasavada, of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. "That was a great five months."

Curiosity left Pahrump Hillls in March to investigate outcrops higher up the mountain. Recently, the rover has been eyeing a geological "contact zone" where two distinct rock types come together.

"It's been an adventure, partly because we're on the mountain now, and driving is much more challenging," Vasavada told

For example, thick sand and steep, slippery terrain thwarted Curiosity's first attempt to reach the contact zone. But the rover team found another route and got Curiosity where it needed to go.

The rover's work at Mount Sharp's base so far strongly suggests that liquid water deposited the bottom layers of the mountain, Vasavada said. These results extend the discoveries made at Yellowknife Bay, providing a more complete picture of the region.

"Our view of Gale Crater as an ancient habitable environment has grown tremendously, both spatially and through time in Mars history," Vasavada said. "And that's really what the rest of the mission will be about as well."

Curiosity currently sits at an elevation of perhaps 66 to 98 feet (20 to 30 meters) above Gale Crater's floor, he added. The rover team would ideally like to climb about 1,650 feet (500 m) up, to sample a number of different Mount Sharp layers.

Such mountaineering will take time — time that the mission team does not officially have at the moment. Curiosity is about halfway through its first two-year extended mission, which NASA approved after the two-year prime mission ended in 2014. The rover's handlers plan to keep applying for additional two-year extensions for the foreseeable future, Vasavada said.

He said he thinks they'll have a very good case for at least the next four years, because Curiosity remains productive and in good health.

The rover team has made a lot of progress in troubleshooting a glitch that recently cropped up in Curiosity's drilling mechanism, and concerns about the mounting damage to the rover's six wheels have abated recently, Vasavada said.

Curiosity's handlers think they know how to avoid the types of terrain that inflict the most dings and dents, and they're making some changes to the software that drives the wheels, he explained.

"The combination of all those things makes us confident now that the wheels are going to last as long as we need them to in the mission that we have planned to get higher up on Mount Sharp," Vasavada said.

Click to watch:


7 Biggest Mysteries of Mars

by Charles Q. Choi, Contributor   

Mars was known as the "fire star" to ancient Chinese astronomers, and scientists are still burning with questions regarding the Red Planet. Even after dozens of spacecraft have been sent to Mars, much remains unknown about that world. Here are some of the biggest unsolved mysteries we have about Mars.

Why does Mars have two faces?

Scientists have been puzzling over the differences between the two sides of Mars for decades. The northern hemisphere of the planet is smooth and low — it is among the flattest, smoothest places in the solar system, potentially created by water that once flowed across the Martian surface. [Detailed Mars Globe: Featured in the Store (]

 Meanwhile, the southern half of the Martian surface is rough and heavily cratered, and about 2.5 miles to 5 miles (4 km to 8 km) higher in elevation than the northern basin. Recent evidence suggests the vast disparity seen between the northern and southern halves of the planet was caused by a giant space rock smacking into Mars long ago.

What is the source of methane on Mars?

Methane — the simplest organic molecule — was first discovered in the Martian atmosphere by the European Space Agency's Mars Express spacecraft in 2003. On Earth, much of the atmospheric methane is produced by life, such as cattle digesting food. Methane is suspected to be stable in the Martian atmosphere for only about 300 years, so whatever is generating this gas did so recently.

 Still, there are ways to produce methane without life, such as volcanic activity. ESA's ExoMars spacecraft planned for launch in 2016 will study the chemical composition of Mars' atmosphere to learn more about this methane.

Does liquid water run on the surface of Mars now?

Although large amounts of evidence suggest that liquid water once ran on the surface of Mars, it remains an open question as to whether or not it occasionally flows on the face of the Red Planet now. The planet's atmospheric pressure is too low, at about 1/100th of Earth's, for liquid water to last on the surface. However, dark, narrow lines seen on Martian slopes hint that saltwater could be running down them every spring.

Were there oceans on Mars?

Numerous missions to Mars have revealed a host of features on the Red Planet that suggest it was once warm enough for liquid water to run across its surface. These features include what appear to be vast oceans, valley networks, river deltas and minerals that required water to form.

 However, current models of early Mars' climate cannot explain how such warm temperatures could have existed, as the sun was much weaker back then, leading some to ask whether these features might have been created by winds or other mechanisms. Still, there is evidence suggesting that ancient Mars was warm enough to support liquid water in at least one site on its surface. Other findings hint that ancient Mars was once cold and wet, not cold and dry nor warm and wet, as is often argued.

Is there life on Mars?

The first spacecraft to successfully land on Mars, NASA's Viking 1, began a mystery that remains tantalizingly unsolved: Is there evidence of life on Mars? Viking represented the first and so far only attempt to search for life on Mars, and its findings are hotly debated today. Viking had detected organic molecules such as methyl chloride and dichloromethane. However, these compounds were dismissed as terrestrial contamination — namely, cleaning fluids used to prepare the spacecraft when it was still on Earth.

 The surface of Mars is very hostile to life as we know it, in terms of cold, radiation, hyper-aridity and other factors. Still, there are numerous examples of life surviving in extreme environments on Earth, such as the cold, dry soils of the Antarctic Dry Valleys and the hyper-arid Atacama Desert in Chile.

 There is life virtually wherever there is liquid water on Earth, and the possibility that there were once oceans on Mars leads many to wonder if life ever evolved on Mars and, if so, whether it might be extant. Answering these questions might help shed light on how common life may or may not be in the rest of the universe.
Did life on Earth begin on Mars?

Meteorites discovered in Antarctica that came from Mars — blasted off the Red Planet by cosmic impacts — have structures that resemble ones made by microbes on Earth. Although much research since then suggests chemical rather than biological explanations for these structures, the debate continues. These findings do raise the tantalizing possibility that life on Earth actually originated on Mars long ago, carried here on meteorites.

Can humans live on Mars?

To answer whether or not life did or does exist on Mars, people might actually have to go there and find out.

 NASA's plan as of 1969 was to have a human Mars mission by 1981 and a permanent Mars base in 1988. However, interplanetary human voyages pose definite scientific and technological challenges. One would have to deal with the rigors of travel — issues of food, water and oxygen, the deleterious effects of microgravity, potential hazards such as fire and radiation and the fact that any such astronauts would be millions of miles away from help and confined together for years at a time. Landing, working, living on another planet and returning from it would offer a host of challenges as well.

 Nevertheless, astronauts seem eager to find out. For example, this year six volunteers lived in a pretend spacecraft for nearly a year and a half in the so-called Mars500 project, the longest spaceflight simulation ever conducted, aimed at replicating a manned mission to Mars from beginning to end. There are even numerous volunteers for a one-way trip to the Red Planet. Tiny rock-eating microbes could mine precious extraterrestrial resources from Mars and pave the way for the first human colonists, and farmers could grow crops on its surface. The mystery as to whether or not humans will ever go to Mars may rest largely on whether or not the powers-that-be can be convinced to go there.

Post by: Rad on Aug 10, 2015, 05:07 AM
August 9, 2015

Plant biopigments could be used to detect life on other planets

by Chuck Bednar
Red Orbit

An international team of researchers has devised an unusual new way to search for life on other planets – searching for distinctive traces of biological photosynthetic pigments (biopigments) of plants in the light they reflect using polarization filters.

As Dr. Svetlana Berdyugina of the Institute of Physics of the University of Freiburg and the Freiburg Kiepenheuer Institute for Solar Physics and colleagues reported in the latest edition of the International Journal of Astrobiology, if these biopigments were present as a sign of life on another world, they would give off a detectable polarized signature in the reflected light.

Photosynthetic biopigments are plant substances which absorb and reflect particular wavelengths of visible light, thus making them appear in color in reflected wave ranges, the study authors said in a statement. They give plants (and other life forms) their colorful appearance, and the research team found unique traits in the part of the light spectrum they reflect.

Specifically, they found that the part of the spectrum reflected in colors given off by different types of plants oscillates in particular directions, which means that it becomes polarized. Each of these biopigments leave behind a colorful footprint in the polarized light, and the researchers can detect this signature with the help of polarization filters.

Discovery of habitable zone planets not a prerequisite

By using these polarization filters, which they explain work in much the same that that 3D movie glasses or polarized sunglasses do, the study authors can detect this unique signature in polarized light from plants that may exist on distant worlds. The high contrast of the biosignatures found in this light could help detect exoplanetary signals typically masked by stellar light.

“This technique could be instrumental in searching for life in Alpha Centauri, the planetary system closest to the Sun,” Dr. Berdyugina explained in a statement, noting that the nearby star Alpha Centauri B is ideal for conducting such searches due to its close proximity to Earth.

To date, no planet has been found in Alpha Centauri B's habitable zone (the distance from a star at which a world is capable of maintaining liquid water on its surface). However, Dr. Berdyugina said that the newly-devised polarization technique could be used “to search for biosignatures that point to life” even now, before such a planet’s discovery.

Before more distant planetary systems can be explored using this method, however, larger telescopes will need to be built, she added. For now, though, Dr. Berdyugina and her colleagues from the University of Hawaii and the University of Aarhus in Denmark will have to be content to look for these biosignatures in the light emitted by the Alpha Centauri system.

Post by: Rad on Aug 10, 2015, 06:10 AM
Rosetta and comet 67P approach their rendezvous with the Sun

Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko will reach its closest point to the Sun in its 6.5-year orbit on Aug. 13, 2015, accompanied by the Rosetta spacecraft.

By Sara Aridi, Staff writer August 8, 2015   

In August 2014, ten years after its launch, Rosetta reached comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, which is currently about 100 million miles away from Earth. Since then, it has been orbiting the flying space rock, studying the comet’s nucleus and environment as they travel together on a slow loop around the sun.

On Thursday, comet 67P will reach its closest point to the Sun in its 6.5-year orbit, and thanks to Rosetta, scientists will get a "ringside view," The Guardian reports.

As a comet inches toward the Sun, sublimated ice, dust, and gas start to erupt from its surface, creating a halo known as a coma. Scientists can’t wait to witness that activity at its peak when the comet reaches perihelion, its closest point to the Sun, on August 13. 
Recommended: In Pictures Space photos of the day: Comets

    Heading into my last pre-perihelion weekend; today I'm 186.3million km from the Sun! #perihelion2015 #perihelionparty
    — ESA Rosetta Mission (@ESA_Rosetta) August 7, 2015

"Perihelion is an important milestone in any comet’s calendar," said Rosetta project scientist Matt Taylor. This particular perihelion is especially exciting to scientists, he says, "because this will be the first time a spacecraft has been following a comet from close quarters as it moves through this phase of its journey.” 

Last week, the European Space Agency (ESA) released images of comet 67P, including the one seen above, taken by Rosetta from about 100 miles away. The photos show "prominent jets of dust and gas streaming from the nucleus," which the ESA says provide "dramatic views" but also make it harder to navigate Rosetta.

"Rosetta’s star trackers have struggled to identify stars among the large amount of debris being ejected from the nucleus during the last week and is therefore currently moving to safer distances," wrote the ESA.

Comets are leftover remnants from the solar system's planet-building stage, which ended some 4.5 billion years ago, writes The Christian Science Monitor’s Pete Spotts. Comet 67P is so far from Earth that it can only be observed through a telescope – or with a revolutionary spacecraft.

Since Rosetta began traveling in orbit around the space rock, it has made some groundbreaking discoveries.

"[Comet 67P] sports a rubber-duck-shaped nucleus with goosebumps. It's a Baby Huey, sporting a mass of 10 billion metric tons. It displays more variety in the amount and relative abundance of the gases it sheds than researchers expected. And it sports an array of dust and chunks of debris up to six feet across that orbit the nucleus, like bees unwilling to leave the hive's neighborhood," Mr. Spotts wrote.

Last month, the ESA pushed back Rosetta's mission end-date from December 2015 to September 2016, giving researchers more time to study comet 67P after perihelion. Scientists hope the probe will eventually land on the surface of the comet, but acknowledge that it may not be possible.

"We’ll first have to see what the status of the spacecraft is after perihelion and how well it is performing close to the comet, and later we will have to try and determine where on the surface we can have a touchdown," Rosetta Mission Manager Patrick Martin said in a statement.

If Rosetta can land on comet 67P, it will be able to collect "unique data from an unprecedentedly close distance," says the ESA.

"Our problem at this stage is getting close to 67P," Mark McCaughrean, a senior scientist at the ESA, told The Guardian.

"As a result, we have to keep Rosetta relatively high above the comet, which means we cannot study it in the detail that we might have wished for. On the other hand, we are – for the first time – getting an unprecedented view of a comet as it sweeps round the Sun."

Post by: Rad on Aug 10, 2015, 06:12 AM
CS Monitor

Humongous whirling gas cloud holds clues to how galaxies form

Astronomers have spotted a protogalactic disk, a cloud of gas that could some day turn into a galaxy.

By Charles Q. Choi, August 6, 2015   

For the first time, astronomers have spotted a protogalactic disk — a giant whirling cloud of gas that gives birth to a galaxy — and the discovery could reveal clues about how galaxies form.

Galaxies are strung together in filaments separated by immense voids. These filaments are connected in a gargantuan tangle known as the cosmic web.

Much remains a mystery about how galaxies form. Researchers suggest that a key player is a kind of current known as a cold accretion flow. These rivers of gas can get as hot as 18,000 degrees Fahrenheit (10,000 degrees Celsius) — they are only "cold" relative to the kinds of extraordinarily hot winds astronomers regularly see in the universe, such as those around black holes.

One model suggests that, at the points where these filaments intersect, cold accretion flows streaming along the cosmic web's filaments create disklike or ringlike structures, and that these "protogalactic disks" eventually coalesce into galaxies.

To learn more about how galaxies are born, scientists analyzed the first filament that astronomers ever imaged, a giant structure 1.5 million light-years long and 10 billion light-years away from Earth that was discovered in 2010.

This filament is about one-third as bright as the Milky Way, making it 3 billion times more luminous than the sun and more than 10 times brighter than what is expected for a filament. The filament is probably unusually radiant because it is illuminated by a quasar, the brightest type of object in the universe, researchers have said.

Using the Cosmic Web Imager at Palomar Observatory in California, the scientists discovered that the brightest spot in the filament is a spinning protogalactic disk of hydrogen.

"It is rare and surprising to discover a completely new kind of object," said study lead author Christopher Martin, an astrophysicist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

The researchers found that this protogalactic disk is more than 407,000 light-years wide, weighs as much as about 100 billion suns, and is surrounded by a "halo" of invisible dark matter weighing as much as 10 trillion suns. For comparison, the Milky Way may be 160,000 light-years in diameter, and it weighs perhaps 1 trillion suns.

These findings reveal how cold accretion flows might help build protogalaxies — clouds of gas that give birth to galaxies, Martin said.

"It is extremely rare in astrophysics to be able to uncover the physical processes behind an observed phenomenon," he told "In this case, we will be able to study the processes that form the basic constituent of the universe, galaxies."

In the future, Martin and his colleagues plan to find more protogalactic disks and study them with a larger telescope and better instruments.

"We are about to commission the perfect instrument for this — the Keck Cosmic Web Imager, which will be mounted at the Nasmyth focus of the W. M. Keck Observatory Keck II telescope [in Hawaii]," Martin said. "We plan to start observing at the beginning of 2016 with the Keck Cosmic Web Imager."

The scientists detailed their findings online today (Aug. 5) in the journal Nature.

Post by: Rad on Aug 11, 2015, 05:11 AM
August 10, 2015

Kepler discovers new planet in habitable zone orbiting pair of stars

by Chuck Bednar
Red Orbit

A team of astronomers has discovered a new planet orbiting two stars, and not only is this new world the 10th so-called circumbinary planet discovered to date by the NASA Kepler Mission, it is also located squarely in the habitable zone of its host stars.

Stephen Kane, an assistant professor of physics and astronomy at San Francisco State University, and San Diego State University Professor William Welsh have dubbed the world Kepler-453b. Its discovery is detailed in a paper set to be published in The Astrophysical Journal and will be officially announced Friday at the annual IAU meeting in Honolulu.

Kane, who is the head of NASA's Kepler Habitable Zone Working Group, explained that he and his fellow astronomers were fortunate to have made the discovery when they did, because if they were observing the area where Kepler-453b was located any earlier or later, they would not have seen anything and would likely have just assumed that there was no planet in the vicinity.

A really lucky discovery

In most instances, astronomers spot exoplanets by observing the decrease in starlight as a planet transits or passes between its host star and Earth. In Kepler-453b’s case, though, it is affected by the gravitational pull of two stars, not just one, Kane explained in a statement.

As a result, its orbit is more erratic in nature, and the transits of such planets are visible just nine percent of the time. Had researchers not discovered the new planet now, they would not have had another chance at spotting it for more than 50 years.

“Yes, there was a certain amount of luck involved for this discovery,” Kane told redOrbit via email. “The Kepler spacecraft monitored the stellar system for about four years but it was only in the latter part of the observations that we saw the signature of the planet.”

“The reason for this is that the axis of the system slowly moves around like a spinning top with a period of 103 years. That means that sometimes the planet passes between us and the stars of the system but most of the time we would not see any signature,” he added. “Kepler just happened to be viewing the system at the right time for us to make the detection.”

Planet likely a gas giant, but may have rocky moons

During its transit, Kepler-453b blocked 0.5 percent of its host stars' light, allowing researchers to observe that the new planet has a radius about 6.2 times the size of the Earth, or about 60 percent larger than Neptune. Based on the size measurements, they determined that it is not a rocky planet but a gas giant. Thus, despite being in its stars’ habitable zone, it is unable to support life.

However, it may have rocky moons orbiting it that could still be home to living organisms, and the nature of the discovery suggests that there are a lot more of these kinds of planets than we are thinking, according to Kane. Astronomers are just looking at the wrong times, he noted.

“We calculated that the planetary transits are only visible from Earth nine percent of the time, which means (for similar systems) there around 11.5 systems that are not showing signs of transits during the course of Kepler observations,” he told redOrbit. “This means that there is a lot of value to continuing to monitor such systems since there's many planetary systems that are avoiding detection simply because we're not looking at the right time.”

A vastly different stellar binary than you’d see in Star Wars

Kane added that there were “a few other really interesting things about this system,” including the fact that the stellar binary contained a star that is “quite similar” to the Sun (approximately 94 percent the size of our solar system’s central star) and a smaller second star that is just 20 percent the size of the sun and emits only one percent of the larger star’s energy.

“That means that the primary star vastly outshines the secondary star and would be an interesting view from the planet,” he explained. “By contrast, the view of the double stars from the surface of Tatooine in Star Wars shows them as being more or less identical. In the case of Kepler-453b, one would see a bright star like the Sun along with a fainter red star.”

Post by: Rad on Aug 11, 2015, 05:14 AM
August 10, 2015

Salt flat could have been Mars’ last lake

by Shayne Jacopian
Red Orbit

Researchers at the University of Colorado in Boulder have discovered evidence for at least one ancient body of water on Mars, according to a release.

The full study was published in the journal Geology. Examining an 18-square-mile salt deposit in the Red Planet’s Meridiani region, the researchers say this is strong evidence for a now-evaporated large body of water, citing Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats as an example of such a phenomenon.

Analysis of the salty terrain and its surrounding features reveal that this former lakebed is about 3.6 billion years old—well past the time period when Mars would have been warm enough to sustain surface water all over the planet. This could mean this was one of the planet’s last lakes.

"This was a long-lived lake, and we were able to put a very good time boundary on its maximum age," said Brian Hynek, lead author of the study, in the release. "We can be pretty certain that this is one of the last instances of a sizeable lake on Mars."

Based on analysis of the terrain, the researchers say the lake was roughly 8% as salty as the Earth’s oceans, and would have been hospitable to microbial life. Hynek added, "By salinity alone, it certainly seems as though this lake would have been habitable throughout much of its existence.”

Post by: Rad on Aug 11, 2015, 07:48 AM
The universe’s declining energy means it’s ready for a slow death: astronomers

Agence France-Presse
10 Aug 2015 at 18:02 ET                   

The Universe is experiencing a slow death, like a person resting on the sofa awaiting eternal sleep, according to astronomers from a project which measured the energy generated by 200,000 galaxies.

The international team carried out the most precise measurements of energy generation in a large portion of space ever completed and found that it is only half of what it was two billion years ago and fading.

“The Universe is fated to decline from here on in, like an old age that lasts forever,” said Simon Driver from the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) in Western Australia.

“The Universe has basically plonked itself down on the sofa, pulled up a blanket and is about to nod off for an eternal doze.”

Researchers used seven of the world’s most powerful telescopes to observe galaxies at 21 different wavelengths, from ultraviolet to the far infrared, as part of the Galaxy and Mass Assembly Survey (GAMA).

Observations collected over eight years from the Anglo-Australian Telescope in rural New South Wales state were used in conjunction with those from orbiting space telescopes operated by NASAand the European Space Agency.

“We used as many space and ground-based telescopes we could get our hands on, to measure the energy output of over 200,000 galaxies across as broad a wavelength range as possible,” said Driver, who is presenting the findings to the International Astronomical Union in Hawaii on Monday.

– Galactic slowdown –

Driver said while most of the energy sloshing around in the Universe was created in the aftermath of the Big Bang, additional amounts were constantly being released by stars as they fused elements such as hydrogen and helium together.

“This newly released energy is either absorbed by dust as it travels through the host galaxy, or escapes into intergalactic space and travels until it hits something such as another star, planet, or very occasionally a telescope mirror,” he said.

Andrew Hopkins, from the Australian Astronomical Observatory, said while it had been known for some time that the rate at which the Universe was forming stars was declining, the new data showed that the rate of energy production was reducing the same way across all different wavelengths.

“It doesn’t matter which wavelength you look at the Universe in, it is slowing down in its energy production in the same way,” Hopkins told AFP via telephone from Hawaii.

“As the Universe expands and as the rate of expansion accelerates we know that the rate at which galaxies can continue to evolve is going to slow down and this is reflected in the rate that we have been able to measure of how fast they are forming their stars.”

It is hoped that the survey data will help scientists better understand how different types of galaxies form.

Researchers also want to expand their work to map energy production over the entire history of the Universe using new facilities, including the world’s largest radio telescope, the Square Kilometre Array, which is set to be built in Australia and South Africa over the next decade.

Post by: Rad on Aug 12, 2015, 06:09 AM
CS Monitor

How a private space company is planning to mine asteroids by 2025

Planetary Resources president Chris Lewicki outlined some bold plans following a successful first launch of a test spacecraft from the International Space Station.

By Kelsey Warner, Staff August 11, 2015   

Planetary Resources deployed its first spacecraft from the International Space Station last month, with the goal of becoming an asteroid-mining company in the next decade. The Washington-based company aims to launch a series of increasingly sophisticated satellites with an eye toward bringing resources from space within Earth's grasp.

"We have every expectation that delivering water from asteroids and creating an in-space refueling economy is something that we'll see in the next 10 years – even in the first half of the 2020s," said Chris Lewicki, Planetary Resources president and chief engineer.

"After that, I think it's going to be how the market develops," Mr. Lewicki told, referring to the timeline for going after the precious metals and water available on asteroids.
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Last April, Planetary Resource's satellite, Arkyd-3R, flew successfully into space, getting a ride aboard the SpaceX Falcon 9 as part of a resupply to the International Space Station. It was brought onto the ISS by astronauts, and in July was launched from the airlock of the Kibo science module into low-Earth orbit (about 100 to 150 miles from the surface), a “significant milestone” for the company. Its mission over the following 90 days is to test various technologies that later spacecraft from the company will use to venture out into the solar system, prospecting for resource-rich asteroids.

Based on findings from this first launch, Planetary Resources hopes to get more ambitious over time. The goal is to begin transforming asteroid water into rocket fuel within a decade, and eventually to harvest valuable and useful platinum-group metals from space rocks, according to

The Arkyd-6, which is scheduled to launch to orbit in December aboard SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket, is the next generation, and has more advanced avionics and electronics than the first satellite, as well as a "selfie cam" courtesy of the Kickstarter project that funded Arkyd-6 back in 2013, with more than 17,000 contributors amassing $1.5 million to get the hardware into space. This latest model will also carry an instrument capable of detecting water and water-bearing minerals, Lewicki said.

The next step is the Arkyd 100, which is twice as big as the Arkyd-6 and will launch in search of potential mining targets from low-Earth orbit. Planetary Resources aims to launch the Arkyd-100 in late 2016, Lewicki said. The following two generations, known as "interceptors" and "rendezvous prospectors," respectively, will be capable of performing inspections of near-Earth asteroids in deep space.

If all goes according to plan, an Arkyd 300 will launch toward a yet-to-be-selected target asteroid by late 2018 or early 2019, Lewicki said.

"It is an ambitious schedule," he told But such rapid progress is feasible, he added, because each new entrant in the Arkyd series builds off technology that has already been demonstrated.

Planetary Resources counts among its advisors Google cofounder Larry Page and Alphabet, Inc. chairman Eric Schmidt, Virgin’s Sir Richard Branson, and former Microsoft CTO David Vaskevitch, as well as filmmaker James Cameron, alongside veteran NASA astronauts and MIT professors.

As Arkyd-3 was docking at the ISS last spring, Congress passed the “Space Resource Exploration and Utilization Act,” guaranteeing US space corporations the rights to keep whatever they bring back from space.

Post by: Rad on Aug 13, 2015, 05:18 AM
August 12, 2015

Asteroid mining could be less than 10 years away, experts claim

by Chuck Bednar
Red Orbit

Sending a spacecraft to a far-off asteroid in order to mine its resources may seem like a long-term proposition, but companies could be transforming water contained on these rocky space objects into rocket fuel within the next 10 years, according to recent reports.

As explained on Tuesday, Washington-based asteroid mining company Planetary Resources has already deployed its first probe from the International Space Station (ISS), and hopes to launch a series of improved spacecraft over the next few years. At first, the goal is to make propellant from H20, but ultimately they hope mine metals from space rocks.

In a statement, Dr. Peter H. Diamandis, co-founder and co-chairman of Planetary Resources, called last month’s deployment of the firm’s Arkyd 3 Reflight (A3R) spacecraft “a significant milestone for Planetary Resources as we forge a path toward prospecting resource-rich asteroids. Our team is developing the technology that will enable humanity to create an off-planet economy that will fundamentally change the way we live on Earth.”

Likewise, Planetary Resources president and chief engineer Chris Lewicki told that the company had “every expectation” that they would be gathering water and working to create an in-space refueling station within “the next 10 years,” and possibly as early as “the first half of the 2020s... We’re moving very fast... those things will come... sooner than we might think.”

First resource-harvesting missions could happen by 2020

Along with competitor Deep Space Industries, Planetary Resources is looking to harness natural resources found in asteroids. To start with, they will be looking to draw water from a special type of space rock known as a carbonaceous chondrite. The water could be used for drinking, to keep astronauts safe from radiation, and broken down into oxygen and hydrogen for refueling.

Carbonaceous chondrites could also be harvested for minerals such as iron, nickel, and cobalt, the website explained, and ultimately the companies hope they will be able to extract rare metals from the platinum group on asteroids, for use in electronics and other high-end technology.

“Ultimately, what we want to do is create a space-based business that is an economic engine that really opens up space to the rest of the economy," Lewicki told The next step for the company will be to launch the Arkyd-6, a probe that is twice as large as the one launched back in July. By late next year, they hope to have an even bigger version ready for deployment.

Eventually, that model (the Arkyd 100) will be replaced by the 200 and the 300, both of which will be designed to perform up-close inspections of near-Earth asteroids in search of a potential mining target. If all goes well, the company hopes to send the 200 into orbit on a test flight by 2018 and the 300 to a target asteroid still to be identified by late 2018 or early 2019.

Deep Space Industries, on the other hand, is still in the process of designing and building probes, according to Company representatives have previously said that they intend to send a resource-collecting mission to a near-Earth asteroid no later than 2020, the website added.

Post by: Rad on Aug 13, 2015, 06:25 AM
CS Monitor

How can a supermassive black hole be so teeny?

Astronomers have found the tiniest supermassive black hole ever to be detected to date.

By Sara Aridi, Staff writer August 12, 2015   

The universe is full of surprises. Some of them can be the most telling paradoxes, and the latest discovery made by researchers at the University of Michigan is just that. 
Astronomers have found the tiniest supermassive black hole ever to be detected to date. Located in the center of a dwarf disk galaxy called RGG 118 about 340 million light years from Earth, this oxymoronic object could unveil how larger black holes have evolved in their host galaxies since they formed at least 13 billion years ago.

“Black holes come in several different varieties," writes The Christian Science Monitor’s Noelle Swan. 

“The smallest kind, called a primordial black hole, is the size of a single atom, but it contains the mass of a large mountain. The most widely understood black holes are known as stellar black holes and can contain 20 times the mass of the sun within a ball of space with a diameter of about 10 miles.”
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Yet supermassive black holes, writes Ms. Swan, can be as vast as our entire solar system. Though the latest discovery has been described as “teeny,” – in our world – it’s anything but.
Astronomers estimate the black hole in RGG 118 is about 50,000 times the mass of the Sun. But it’s nearly 100 times less massive than the supermassive black hole found in the center of the Milky Way and 200,000 times “smaller” than the biggest black hole known to exist, reports the Chandra X-Ray Observatory.

While the astronomical object may be relatively small, it could lead to some pretty big discoveries.

"These little galaxies can serve as analogs to galaxies in the earlier universe," said Vivienne Baldassare, a doctoral student at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor and co-author of the study, in a press release.

"For galaxies like our Milky Way, we don't know what it was like in its youth," said Ms. Baldassar. "By studying how galaxies like this one are growing and feeding their black holes and how the two are influencing each other, we could gain a better understanding of how galaxies were forming in the early universe."

Post by: Rad on Aug 14, 2015, 05:34 AM
August 13, 2015

Faint ‘young Jupiter’ spotted with methane atmosphere

by Chuck Bednar
Red Orbit

A newly discovered exoplanet that weighs just twice as much as Jupiter is believed to be the lowest-mass exoplanet ever directly imaged using a space telescope instrument, according to a new study published in the latest edition of the journal Science.

Known as 51 Eridani b, this new world is the first exoplanet to be discovered using the Gemini Planet Imager (GPI), a new imaging instrument perched on top of the Gemini South Telescope in Chile that was initially deployed in 2013. It is classified as a young Jupiter, is a million times less bright than its central star, and has a rather unique atmosphere, the study explains.

“Of all the directly imaged planets so far, this is the first one where we’ve gotten a spectrum that shows methane,” Bruce Macintosh, the head of the GPI team, a professor of physics at Stanford University and a member of the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology, said to redOrbit via email. “Methane is very common in Jupiter’s atmosphere (and all other giant planets seen so far), but has been really hard to see in extrasolar planets.”

Why has it been so difficult to see methane in exoplanets?

Macintosh believes it is likely because they tend to be either “too hot” or “too cloudy”. Conversely, 51 Eridani b “has cooled off enough that the clouds are breaking up and the methane is stable. It’s exactly what we were looking for.”

Furthermore, the faint nature of the planet, combined with its relatively close proximity to the star it orbits, makes it “the most Jupiter-like planet ever imaged – except, of course, that it’s so young, which is why we can see it,” he added. The new planet is believed to be just 20 million years old – “still warm from energy released when it formed,” the Stanford professor noted.

Unlike Kepler, GPI can directly detect exoplanets

As mentioned above, 51 Eridani b is the first exoplanet discovered by the Gemini Planet Imager, an instrument designed to find and analyze faint young planets that orbit around bright stars. While NASA’s planet-hunting Kepler mission has successfully found thousands of never-before-seen alien worlds, the two tools use different techniques to find new planets.

Kepler searches for a loss of starlight as a planet transits, or passes in front of, its central star. GPI, on the other hand, was designed to search directly for light from the planet itself. Kepler looks for the shadow of a planet, while GPI seeks out their glow, using a process called direct imaging to find planets of lower mass with a closer proximity to their stars.

“GPI was designed from the beginning just to see these planets,” Macintosh said. “We have special masks to block the light from the star and let us separate the planet from the star, and a very advanced adaptive optics system that can do a extremely good job fixing the turbulence in the earth’s atmosphere and the slight imperfections in the telescope that would hide a planet.”

“The planet light is fed into a spectrograph specifically designed for analyzing what we see in planets, so it’s nice to see it doing what it’s supposed to do,” he said, adding that he and his colleagues were currently looking at 600 young stars near the sun in the hopes that they will be able to find and study more planets.

“The big question, of course, is whether earth-like planets are common,” he concluded. “We can’t image those directly, but if we can understand how the giant planets form, that might provide clues to how smaller planets also form, and help us understand if, for example, all the Kepler ‘super-earths’ are really nice rocky planets, or ‘mini-neptunes’, or something else even weirder... it’s very clear that our solar system just isn’t typical in any way.”

Post by: Rad on Aug 14, 2015, 06:05 AM
Astronauts could reach Mars with engines being tested by Nasa – video


A huge cloud of smoke bursts from the A-1 test stand as scientists ignite a ‘hot fire’ test, designed to measure the engine’s ability to withstand intense temperature and pressure conditions at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi on Thursday. The RS-25 engine could eventually propel astronauts to places such as Mars

Click to watch: <iframe src="" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>

Post by: Rad on Aug 17, 2015, 05:54 AM
CS Monitor

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter marks 10th anniversary of launch

NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter lifted off from Cape Canaveral 10 years ago last Wednedsay, and in the following decade has sent back a treasure trove of data about the Red Planet.

By Mike Wall, August 16, 2015   

The sharpest set of eyes peering down at Mars launched toward the Red Planet 10 years ago Wednesday.

NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) blasted off atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on Aug. 12, 2005, from Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

The probe reached Mars in March 2006, then performed more than 400 dips into the planet's thin atmosphere over the next five months during an "aerobraking" campaign that shifted its orbit from highly elliptical to nearly circular. [Amazing Photos by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter]
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MRO began its science mission — which was originally pegged for one Martian year, or about two Earth years — in November 2006. Nearly a decade later, the spacecraft is still going strong in Mars orbit,  searching for signs of past water activity, scouting out sites for future robotic and human missions and helping relay data from NASA's Opportunity and Curiosity rovers back to Earth.
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"Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has found evidence of diverse watery environments on early Mars, some more habitable than others. MRO has discovered that Mars' south polar cap holds enough buried carbon-dioxide ice to double the planet's current atmosphere if it warmed. It’s caught avalanches and dust storms in action," MRO project scientist Rich Zurek, of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, said in a statement.

"The spacecraft's longevity has made it possible to study seasonal and longer-term changes over four Martian years," Zurek added. "These studies document activity such as moving dunes, freshly excavated impact craters — some of which expose subsurface ice — and mysterious strips that darken and fade with the seasons and are best explained as brine flows."

MRO is equipped with six different science instruments, including the HiRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment) camera, which is capable of revealing features as small as a desk on the Red Planet's surface.

The spacecraft returns more data to Earth than the other six active Mars missions — Opportunity, Curiosity, NASA's Mars Odyssey and MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution) orbiters, Europe's Mars Express and India's Mangalyaan probe — combined, NASA officials said.

"Ten years after launch, MRO continues full science and relay operations," Kevin Gilliland, spacecraft engineer for the mission at Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver, said in the same statement. (Lockheed Martin built MRO and helps JPL operate the spacecraft.)

"We've kept our operations efficient. We've been able to bring back an astonishing amount of science data — more than 250 terabits so far," Gilliland added. "Even after more than 40,000 orbits, the mission remains exciting, with new challenges such as taking close-up images of a passing comet last year and supporting next year's InSight landing."

That comet was Siding Spring, which buzzed Mars last October, sending material raining into the planet's thin atmosphere. And "InSight" refers to NASA's InSight Mars lander, which will touch down in September 2016 to probe the Red Planet's internal structure.

MRO isn't the only NASA Mars explorer to celebrate an anniversary this month. On Aug. 5, Curiosity marked three years on the surface of the Red Planet.

Post by: Rad on Aug 18, 2015, 05:33 AM
August 17, 2015

Everything you ever wanted to know about Hubble

by Emily Bills
Aug 18 2015
Red Orbit

This April marked the celebration of Hubble’s 25th anniversary, so we thought we’d honor our telescope pal by telling you a little bit about Hubble, what he does, and what will happen to him in the future.

About Hubble

 In 1990, Hubble was born and launched into low-earth orbit, where its position above the atmosphere gives us a unique viewpoint of our vast universe. Manned at the Goddard Spaceflight Center and about the size of a bus, Hubble orbits the earth every 97 minutes, according to It moves at a speed of 5 miles per second, and could travel across the US in just 10 minutes. Talk about a speedy roadtrip!

Hubble’s mirror captures the light as it moves and directs it into many of its scientific instruments. Known as a Cassegrain reflector, as light hits Hubble’s main mirror, it is bounced off and hits its secondary mirror. The secondary mirror sends light to one of the 6 scientific instruments located on the telescope itself. Our two favorite instruments are the Wide Field Camera and the Advanced Camera for surveys.

Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 sees near-infared, visible, and near-ultraviolet light, and has a much higher resolution and field of view than its other instruments, according to It’s a newer instrument and has been used to study dark energy and dark matter.

Its Advanced Camera for Surveys is designed to study the earliest activities in the universe and also helps to map the distribution of dark matter and detects the most distant and the biggest objects in the universe.

Hubble’s Greatest Hits Album

With so many achievements that changed the way we look at the universe, it’s hard to pick just a few for our favorite telescope’s “greatest hits”, but we’ll try!

1. Hubble has successfully revealed the age of the universe to be 13 to 14 billion years old.

2. The only telescope that could examine supernovae that were much dimmer than expected, Hubble was the key player in the discovery that because of dark energy, the universe’s expansion is actually speeding up – not slowing down!

“The fact that Hubble has been able to look back to almost the time of the first stars in the universe [is its greatest achievement]. While doing this, it discovered that

the expanding universe is actually accelerated. Totally unexpected and at

this time unexplained,” Dr. Bob O’Dell, NASA’s Project Scientist for Hubble, told redOrbit via email.

3. Hubble has shown astronomers galaxies in all stages of evolution, from “toddler” galaxies formed when the universe was young to old geezer galaxies. This has immensely helped scientists understand how galaxies are formed.

4. Hubble helped us understand what gamma-ray bursts are (those weird and powerful energy explosions), and that they occur in distant galaxies when huge stars collapse.

What will happen to Hubble in the future?

All good things must come to an end, and sadly this is true for Hubble. After several servicing missions – 4 in fact – Hubble was really only supposed to last until 2013, but he’s still going strong! However, with the launch of Hubble’s successor, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), just around the corner, there are no new plans for a dangerous repair mission.

Dr. O’Dell describes Hubble’s end as pretty bleak: “Eventually the drag from the upper parts of the Earth's atmosphere, will slow it down and it will crash into the lower atmosphere and break up. This will be about 15-20 years. During the last servicing mission, a bracket was attached to the aft end of the telescope. This is there to allow a robotic satellite equipped with a small rocket to attach to it. If that is done, the location where it comes down can be controlled - probably being aimed into the Pacific Ocean. With the demise of the Shuttle, nothing can retrieve it.”

The James Webb Telescope is scheduled to launch in 2018, and Dr. O’Dell says the JWST will be several times bigger than Hubble, and will actually be “flying in tandem with Earth on the other side of the moon so it will always be on the line between the Sun and the Earth.”

Because it’s on the other side of the moon, there are no plans for service missions, and its lifespan is only 5-10 years.

However, Hubble’s funding isn’t up until 2020, and if JWST launches in 2018, they could be up there together for a few years, imaging our universe together.

Post by: Rad on Aug 18, 2015, 06:14 AM
CS Monitor

First Look: Cassini sidles up to Saturn's Dione moon

Images from Cassini's final up-close flyby of Saturn's moon Dione should start arriving in a few days. In the meantime, here's a glimpse of other lunar views the robotic space craft has beamed back to Earth.

By Henry Gass, Staff writer August 17, 2015   

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft zipped past Saturn’s moon Dione earlier this afternoon, and scientists expect fresh images from the flyby to start arriving within a few days.

Cassini’s closest approach, coming within 295 miles of the moon’s surface, came at 2:33 p.m. this afternoon, NASA reported. The spacecraft has been orbiting Saturn since 2004, and has already conducted similar “gravity science investigations” of a handful of the ringed planet’s 62 known moons. In 2011, the spacecraft performed an even closer flyby of the moon, dropping with 60 miles of its surface.

From today’s flyby, Cassini’s cameras and spectrometers will offer NASA scientists a high-resolution look at Dione’s north pole. Scientists also expect the data to give them a better knowledge of the moon’s internal structure.

Bonnie Buratti, a member of the Cassini science team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., said that four previous flybys of Dione have provided “hints of active geologic processes,” including evidence of transient atmosphere and ice volcanoes.

“But we’ve never found the smoking gun,” she said in a NASA statement. “The fifth flyby of Dione will be our last chance.”

The last Dione flyby is one of several missions for the spacecraft’s final year. For its “grand finale,” NASA says, Cassini will repeatedly dive through the space between Saturn and its rings.

Here is a sampling of some of the latest lunar views captured by Cassini. More information is available on the Cassini Solstice Mission website.

With the expanded range of colors visible to Cassini's cameras, differences in materials and their textures become apparent that are subtle or unseen in natural color views. Here, the giant impact basin Odysseus on Saturn's moon Tethys stands out brightly from the rest of the illuminated icy crescent. The view was acquired on May 9, 2015 at a distance of approximately 186,000 miles (300,000 kilometers) from Tethys.

Dione in this image is the upper moon, while Tethys is the lower. This view looks toward the anti-Saturn side of Dione. North on Dione is to the right. The image was taken in visible light with the Cassini spacecraft narrow-angle camera on April 4, 2015.

Titan may be a ''large'' moon - its name even implies it! - but it is still dwarfed by its parent planet, Saturn. Although Titan (3200 miles or 5150 kilometers across) is the second-largest moon in the solar system, Saturn is still much bigger, with a diameter almost 23 times larger than Titan’s. The image was taken with the Cassini spacecraft wide-angle camera on April 18, 2015 using a near-infrared spectral filter with a passband centered at 752 nanometers.


Retro moon: Cassini spacecraft studies moon that orbits Saturn backward

The tiny moon of Hyrrokkin is one of the Norse group of Saturn's 60 or so moons, which orbits the gas giant in a retrograde direction.

By Morgan Rehnberg, August 17, 2015   

Sen—When we think of the moons of Saturn, many worlds spring to mind: cloud-shrouded Titan, water-spewing Enceladus, and Death Star-like Mimas merely form the head of the line. But, while impressive, these satellites and others like them form a relatively small fraction of all Saturnian moons. Wandering much farther from Saturn is a group whose population comprises nearly half of the planet’s more than 60 satellites, and this week NASA’s Cassini spacecraft took time to study one of these distant objects.

Twenty-nine moons make up the so-called Norse group of satellites around Saturn. Only large Phoebe has been studied in detail, but this week’s target, Hyrrokkin, is much smaller— only around 8 km in size—and farther away. That means that even in Cassini’s high-powered Narrow-Angle Camera, Hyrrokkin appears as nothing more than a point of light.

What can we learn from that point of light? For one, it will help scientists pin down the moon’s orbital trajectory. Hyrrokkin’s orbit has high eccentricity, meaning it moves dramatically closer and farther from Saturn as it circles the planet. But what sets the Norse group apart is the direction they orbit: retrograde, astronomy jargon for backwards. This means that these objects probably did not form with Saturn. Instead, over the last few billion years, they were probably captured when straying too close to the planet.

By monitoring how the apparent brightness of Hyrrokkin changes over time, astronomers will also be able to deduce better constraints on the shape and rotational characteristics of the moon.
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Photos of the Day Photos of the day 08/17

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a collaborative effort between NASA, ESA, and the Italian Space Agency. Launched in 1997, it reached Saturn in 2004 and has since been studying the planet, its moons, and its rings. In 2005, the Huygens probe made the first landing on Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. After completing its second mission extension in 2017, Cassini will make a series of close passes to the planet and then end its time at Saturn by plunging into the planet’s atmosphere.

Post by: Rad on Aug 19, 2015, 05:10 AM

August 18, 2015

Cassini spacecraft completes last flyby of Saturn’s Dione

by Chuck Bednar
Red Orbit

Cassini’s farewell tour officially got underway on Monday, as the NASA spacecraft made its final close flyby of Saturn’s icy moon Dione and conducted a gravity experiment during closest approach to the satellite, officials from the US space agency have confirmed.

The probe made its closest approach to Dione’s surface at 2:33pm EDT (11:33am PDT), coming within 295 miles (474 km) of the moon’s surface. During the flyby, it collected data about the internal structure of the satellite and the rigidity of its outer shell, as well as a set of observations from the well-lit, anti-Saturn side using its camera and spectrometer instruments.

In a statement, mission controllers said that they expected the first new images to start arriving on Earth within a few days following Cassini’s final encounter with the moon. During the flyby, the spacecraft’s instruments were expected to get a high-resolution look at Dione’s north pole, a feature that it had not previously been able to get a good look at.

In addition, the probe’s Composite Infrared Spectrometer (CIRS) was set to map areas on the icy moon that had unusual thermal anomalies, or regions that are especially good at trapping heat. In addition, Cassini’s Cosmic Dust Analyzer was set to continue its search for dust particles emitted by the moon during its fifth targeted encounter with Dione.

Taking one final look at ‘an enigma’

“Dione has been an enigma,” said Bonnie Buratti, a Cassini science team member at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California. She explained that it has been “giving hints of active geologic processes, including a transient atmosphere and evidence of ice volcanoes. But we've never found the smoking gun. The fifth flyby of Dione will be our last chance.”

“This will be our last chance to see Dione up close for many years to come,” added Cassini deputy project scientist Scott Edgington. “Cassini has provided insights into this icy moon's mysteries, along with a rich data set and a host of new questions for scientists to ponder.”

Cassini, which has been orbiting Saturn since 2004, is currently completing a series of final close moon flybys, after which time it will leave Saturn's equatorial plane to begin a year-long setup of its final year of operation. During that last phase of the mission, the spacecraft will be repeatedly diving through the space between Saturn and its rings, according to the US space agency.

Cassini’s closest-ever flyby of Dione was in December 2011, when it came to within 60 miles (100 km) of the moon’s surface. It has revealed that the bright, wispy terrain on the satellite is a system of braided canyons with bright walls, and project scientists are hopeful that they will be able to find out if it has geologic activity similar to that found on Enceladus.

Post by: Rad on Aug 19, 2015, 05:38 AM
CS Monitor

Neon on the moon: Does it glow?

NASA publicized findings from a seven month-long mission to study the moon's exosphere on Monday.

By Kelsey Warner, Staff August 18, 2015   

What do Las Vegas and the moon have in common?

The answer, according to NASA, is an abundance of neon.

"The presence of neon in the exosphere of the moon has been a subject of speculation since the Apollo missions, but no credible detections were made," said Mehdi Benna of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland in a statement. "We were very pleased to not only finally confirm its presence, but to show that it is relatively abundant."

Dr. Benna is lead author of a recent paper that describes the observations gleaned by LADEE – pronounced "laddie" – a robot that orbited the moon for about seven months, gathering measurements of the structure and composition of the lunar atmosphere.

The moon offers clues to other bodies in the solar system, such as large asteroids, Mercury, and the moons of outer planets.

The LADEE instrument, which is short for Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer, confirmed that the moon’s exosphere is made up of mostly helium, argon, and neon. Their relative abundance is dependent on the time of day on the moon – argon peaks at sunrise, while neon peaks at 4 a.m. and helium at 1 a.m, according to NASA.

While most of the thin lunar exosphere comes from wind generated from the sun, LADEE found that some gas in the exosphere comes from lunar rocks. Argon-40 comes from the decay of naturally occurring radioactive potassium-40, found in the rocks of all the terrestrial planets as a leftover from their formation, according to NASA.

LADEE also revealed that the helium in the lunar exosphere comes from an unexpected place: "About 20 percent of the helium is coming from the moon itself, most likely as the result from the decay of radioactive thorium and uranium, also found in lunar rocks," said Benna.

The moon's atmosphere is technically referred to as an exosphere because it’s so thin, its atoms rarely collide. Due to the thinness of the moon’s exosphere – about 100 trillion times less dense than Earth's atmosphere at sea level – the neon does not glow.

Though not showy, surface boundary exospheres are "the most common class of atmosphere in our solar system," said Sarah Noble, LADEE's program scientist, "yet it is one we don't know much about."

Benna agrees that it is "critical to learn about the lunar exosphere before sustained human exploration substantially alters it," he said. The exosphere is so thin, he explains, "Rocket exhaust and outgassing from spacecraft could easily change its composition."

In addition to clearing up some lingering mysteries about Earth’s moon, the LADEE instrument signified a step toward modernizing production for NASA. The spacecraft's body "innovated away" from custom designs and transitioned the space agency to assembly-line production, which could drastically reduce the cost of spacecraft development, "just as the Ford Model T did for automobiles," say NASA officials.

LADEE met a swift demise in April 2014 when, its primary research mission concluded, NASA allowed the instrument to fly closer and closer to the lunar surface, gathering unprecedented exosphere measurements before ultimately crashing into the moon just days before it would have run out of fuel. But the contributions to science LADEE provided will endure.

"The data collected by LADEE addresses the long-standing questions related to the sources and sinks of exospheric helium and argon that have remained unanswered for four decades," said Benna. "These discoveries highlight the limitations of current exospheric models, and the need for more sophisticated ones in the future."

Post by: Rad on Aug 20, 2015, 05:13 AM

August 19, 2015

Mars orbiter photographs part of solar system’s largest canyon

by Chuck Bednar
Red Orbit

The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) has released a detailed 3D image depicting Ophir Chasma, a canyon on Mars believed to be part of the largest such chasm in the solar system.

Using the Mangalyaan orbiter’s Mars Color Camera instrument, the probe captured an image of a long, steep depression located in the Coprates Quadrangle on Mars, which the ISRO explained can be found at 4° south latitude and 72.5° west longitude on the Red Planet. The walls of Ophir Chasma have multiple layers, they added, and the floor contains large, layered mineral deposits.

The new image depicts the 197-mile (317km) long, 38.5-mile (62km) wide canyon in a resolution of 96 megapixels, the agency said. It was taken at an altitude of about 1,154 miles (1,857km) and comes on the heels of images snapped earlier this year by Mangalyaan that shows a stunning 3D view of Arsia Mons, a massive volcano on Mars with a 10-mile (16km) peak.

About India’s successful, low budget Mars orbiter

According to CNET and BBC News, the images were actually taken on July 19 and released in time to commemorate India’s Independence Day. Launched in November 2013 and costing only $74 million, India’s Mars Orbiter Mission marked the country’s first interplanetary mission, and the first time any nation successfully sent a probe to Mars on its first attempt.

Mangalyaan, which means "Mars-craft" in Sanskrit, had a budget just a fraction of similar missions to the Red Planet (the Maven mission, for instance, ran NASA $671 million). The ISRO probe reached orbit around Mars in September 2014, and since then, it has been studying the planet’s surface and atmosphere, while also using cameras and spectrometers to capture images.

In addition to collecting data from Mars, one of the mission’s primary objectives is to serve as a demonstration of India’s ability to research, design and deploy interplanetary space technology, according to CNET. The surface images sent back to Earth will also help the country’s scientists better understand the geological processes taking place on the Red Planet.

Other objectives of the mission include establishing deep space communication, navigation, mission planning, and management capabilities; incorporating a series of autonomous features to handle contingency situations, and investigating the morphology, mineralogy, surface features, and atmosphere using indigenous scientific instruments, the ISRO website said.

Post by: Rad on Aug 20, 2015, 05:14 AM
August 19, 2015

Company granted patent for 12-mile-high ‘space elevator’

by Brett Smith
Red Orbit

As SpaceX and Virgin Galactic have both recently demonstrated, launching anything into space is a costly and dangerous endeavor.

In a development that could skirt some issues related to a space launch, a Canadian company has recently patented a 12-mile-high tower with an elevator that would carry passengers and cargo high above the Earth to a large platform where they could be loaded onto a space plane for the remainder of the journey into orbit.

The proposed tower would be supported by a sequence of gas-pressurized cells and be capable of transporting up to 10 tons of cargo at about 7 miles per hour. The elevator would take approximately 60 minutes to travel from the surface to the upper platform.

The elevator would weigh approximately the same amount as a large tanker ship and is projected to cost around $5 billion to build, however it is projected to reduce the cost of reaching low Earth orbit by 30 percent as opposed to using a rocket launch. Conventional rocket launches can cost well over $250 million, while a less expensive commercial flight from SpaceX has a listed launch price of more than $61 million.

Brendan Quine, an engineering professor at York University who patented the elevator through the company Thoth Technology, said the developmental team worked on the idea for eight years before obtaining the US patent in July.

This could actually be the answer to affordable space travel

"Other inflated tower designs have been explored previously, but they typically use buttress designs or support cables that we believe [are] impractical," Quine told CNBC.

Graham Warwick, a managing editor at Aviation Week, said that the aerospace industry is very much interested in a cheaper way to launch goods and people into orbit.

“(A) true space elevator (stretching all the way into space) would be hideously expensive to construct if we knew how, so this is another way to do it," Warwick told CNBC. "Once built — if built, and if it works — this would seem to offer easier, more routine access to space. For spacecraft and for people."

Thoth has announced plans to build a 0.9-mile-tall pilot elevator, before building the full tower. If built, the smaller tower would be the world's largest structure.

Post by: Rad on Aug 21, 2015, 05:22 AM
August 20, 2015

Astronauts capture rare image of a bright red sprite

by Chuck Bednar
Red Orbit

Astronauts on the International Space Station released an image earlier this week that captures an orbital view of thunderstorms over southern Mexico and an unusual and short-lived phenomenon known as a big red sprite along the right edge of the picture.

According to Discovery News, the photo was taken on August 10 as recumbent Orion was rising over Earth’s limb, and it clearly shows a cluster of bright red and purple streamers rising above a white- and blue-colored flash of lightning and forming an object resembling a jellyfish.

Like lightning, sprites are bursts of electromagnetic discharge, Tech Insider explained, and they are basically sparks created above storm clouds in the upper atmosphere that follow the lightning beneath the cloud. This lightning charge creates an electrical field that, should it be able to grow large enough, generates a spark.

Sprites can extend upwards of 50 to 55 miles into the atmosphere, and appear to be at brightest between 40 to 45 miles above the Earth’s surface. They are red in color because the nitrogen in the higher parts of the atmosphere is excited by the burst of electricity, Tech Insider said.

Not the first time the ISS crew has photographed sprites

Sprites themselves are fairly common, although photographs such as this one are rather rare because these events are extremely short-lived, lasting only three to 10 milliseconds on average. They have been captured previously by the ISS crew, but rarely in such a high-quality image.

Despite that rare nature, however, Discovery News noted that the same storm resulted in not one but two photographs of sprite outbursts, both of which had been captured on camera as the space station was moving towards the southeast. The other one had actually been taken a few minutes earlier, but lacks the quality of the one taken later.

The exact mechanisms that create these phenomena are not yet known, and they could provide insight into the complex nature of the planet’s electrical environment, as well as how storms and weather interact with and influence that environment. Experts have suggested that searching for sprite activity on other planets may help find worlds capable of harboring life.

Post by: Rad on Aug 21, 2015, 05:31 AM
Nasa says the world is not going to end in September

Space agency kills off internet rumour by confirming an asteroid strike will not wipe out humanity in the next few weeks, or years, or decades

Claire Phipps
Friday 21 August 2015 06.33 BST

Good news for those with plans for October and beyond: the Earth will still be in existence.

Nasa has confirmed – after rumours swept the internet about an imminent asteroid strike expected between 15 and 28 September – that the two-week period in question will be entirely free of Earth-destroying space attacks.

The likelihood of any known potentially hazardous asteroid striking the planet within the next 100 years stands at 0.01%, the space agency said in a statement.

Persistent rumours on “numerous recent blogs and web postings” that an errant asteroid is due to wipe out not just Puerto Rico, but the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the United States and Mexico, as well as Central and South America, persuaded Nasa scientists that they needed to speak up, the statement says.

“There is no scientific basis – not one shred of evidence – that an asteroid or any other celestial object will impact Earth on those dates,” said Paul Chodas, manager of Nasa’s near-Earth object office at the jet propulsion laboratory in Pasadena, California.

“If there were any object large enough to do that type of destruction in September, we would have seen something of it by now.”

It is not the first time Nasa has punctured the excitement of doom-mongers. In 2012, it dismissed claims that the comet Elenin was on its way to destroy mankind, calling it a “trail of piffling particles”.

The space agency was also proved right in its assertion that the world would not end on 21 December 2012, as the Mayan calendar came to an end, heralding the apocalypse.

“There is no existing evidence that an asteroid or any other celestial object is on a trajectory that will impact Earth,” Chodas said. “In fact, not a single one of the known objects has any credible chance of hitting our planet over the next century.”

The jet propulsion lab’s asteroid watch website helpfully lists the next five close approaches by asteroids to the Earth. Of these, the riskiest will pass within 1,689,811 km (1,050,000 miles) of our planet on 21 August. Which is today. So be careful out there.

Post by: Rad on Aug 21, 2015, 05:34 AM
To Mars and boldly beyond: space missions to look out for

A new world of space exploration is unfolding over the next few years, from the ExoMars robot drilling to asteroid exploration, the ESA’s mission to Jupiter’s icy moons and the Solar Orbiter

Hannah Devlin science correspondent
Aug 21 2015 14.00 BST


If there was ever life on Mars, it probably existed during the first billion years following the planet’s formation, when the Martian surface was far warmer and wetter than today. The central aim of the European Space Agency’s ExoMars mission, is to seek out any remaining bio-signatures left behind. The mission’s first launch, of an orbiter that will sample the Martian atmosphere, is scheduled for next year. The highlight, though, will be the arrival of the six-wheeled ExoMars Rover, due to go up in 2018. The rover follows the Curiosity robot, but while Curiosity could only penetrate a few centimetres beneath the Martian soil, ExoMars will be able to drill two metres below the surface to search for preserved organic matter protected from the harsh surface radiation. ESA scientists are currently debating the landing site for the rover most likely to yield signs of ancient life – a likely option is an ancient riverbed which would have been a watery environment in the past and where sediments would have been buried and preserved quickly in the past.

The world was gripped when the Rosetta mission carried out the incredible feat of landing a spacecraft on a comet. Nasa has hatched an, arguably, even bolder plan to send a robotic spacecraft to grab a four-metre chunk of asteroid, tow it along and place it in orbit about the moon. The mission is in the planning stages – if funded it would launch in 2020 – but if it goes ahead the manoeuvres involved could provide some of the most dramatic moments of space exploration to date. The spacecraft would slowly spiral out of Earth orbit and then spend about two years chasing the target asteroid. A set of anchoring grippers would retrieve several tons of asteroid material (another option considered was using a gigantic “capture” bag). Why bother capturing a pet asteroid? Scientists say it would be good practice for if Earth was ever threatened with an impact from a giant asteroid that we wanted to redirect.

Asteroid exploration

Nasa’s Orion spacecraft is designed to take humans deeper into space than ever before, with the ultimate goal of going to Mars in the mid-2030s. Orion is bigger than Apollo, designed to carry up to six astronauts, and far more advanced than its predecessor. A successful unmanned test flight took place in 2014, but the big question is where the spacecraft will go next, once astronauts are on board. The first manned flight of Orion is due in 2021. A possible interim step, before Mars, would be visiting the ARM captured asteroid (assuming that mission goes ahead) and collecting samples in the mid-2020s. Such a mission might replicate some of the operational challenges of a Mars mission, but a real unknown is the question of whether the human body could tolerate spending long durations in deep space. Solar and cosmic radiation is intense and living in low gravity is known to rapidly degrade bone and muscle strength.

The European Space Agency’s Jupiter icy moons explorer (Juice) mission is due to launch in 2022 and will give us the richest detail yet of the Jovian moons.

The spacecraft, which will take around eight years to arrive, will make a series of flybys of Callisto and Europa, before settling into orbit around Ganymede, the largest moon in the solar system. All three of the moons are suspected to have liquid oceans of water beneath thick crusts of ice at the surface, making them potentially the most likely places in the solar system for life to be able to thrive today. The conditions beneath the surface of Europa have been compared to Antarctica’s subglacial lakes. The spacecraft will peer beneath the icy surfaces using radar imaging and will also beam back images of the icy, fractured lunar surfaces.

Solar Orbiter

The European Space Agency’s sun-observing satellite is set to be launched in 2018 and will travel closer to the sun than any mission yet flown. The spacecraft will go into orbit approximately 21m miles from the surface, closer to the orbit of Mercury. The spacecraft’s sun-facing side will reach about 600C.

The pictures will reveal the sun’s weird landscapes and violent activity in unprecedented detail, showing flares, coronal mass ejections, swirling gases and the formation of loops in the strong magnetic field. The on-board camera is designed to show details spanning just 110 miles - for comparison, the Sun’s visible disc is 800,000 miles wide. The Orbiter will be the first to provide close-up views of the sun’s polar regions, which are almost impossible to observe from Earth. The rare view of the solar poles will help us to understand how the sun’s internal dynamo generates its powerful magnetic field and the observations could also reveal for the first time what happens when the sun’s magnetic field flips direction as it did in 2013.

James Webb Telescope

Since 1990, the Hubble Space telescope has brought the world images of startling beauty and insights into the earliest niverse. The James Webb Telescope, scheduled for a 2018 launch, is its natural successor. The telescope will feature a sunshield the size of a tennis court and a 6.5-metre mirror, the largest to be launched into space. While Hubble looked mostly in the visible range, James Webb will be focused on infrared, which will allow it to gaze back to the primordial universe to see the first stars and galaxies forming after the Big Bang. The telescope should allow astronomers to hone in on some of the growing list of exoplanets (the catalogue now extends to thousands) to observe them directly. Until now, we have only had the crudest information about these other distant worlds – mass, orbit, approximate temperature – mostly gathered from indirect observations of them passing in front of their host star. Observations with the James Webb will be able to observe the planets directly, including whether their atmospheres contain carbon dioxide, methane and water vapour.

Post by: Rad on Aug 21, 2015, 05:36 AM
This is the way the world ends: not with a bang, but with a Big Rip

New model suggests that as the universe expands everything from galaxies to space-time itself will be torn apart - but not for about 22 billion years

Hannah Devlin, science correspondent
Aug 21 2015 07.52 BST

Everything we know, and everything else besides, burst into existence at the Big Bang. Now scientists have concluded that we could be heading for an equally dramatic cosmic finale: the Big Rip.

A new theoretical model suggests that as the universe expands, everything, from galaxies, planets and atomic particles to space-time itself, will eventually be torn apart before vanishing from view.

There’s no need for immediate alarm, however: the extreme sequence of events is predicted for around 22 billion years from now.

Dr Marcelo Disconzi, the mathematician who led the work at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, said: “The idea of the Big Rip is that eventually even the constituents of matter would start separating from each other. You’d be seeing all the atoms being ripped apart ... it’s fair to say that it’s a dramatic scenario.”

Scientists are now fairly convinced that the universe began with the Big Bang, around 13.8 billion years ago – starting at a pinpoint of incredibly high density and expanding to what we have today.

But our ultimate cosmic destiny is still the subject of intense debate.

“The only thing we definitely know is that the universe is expanding and that the rate is accelerating,” said Disconzi. “That’s about the only thing we know for sure.”

The latest work suggests that this acceleration may become faster and faster until every point in space itself is moving apart at an infinite rate – at which point the Big Rip occurs.

“Mathematically we know what this means,” said Disconzi. “But what it actually means in physical terms is hard to fathom.”

The evidence for an accelerating expansion comes from observations of distant supernovae. The further away they are the redder they appear, because the light has been stretched out as it travels through space to reach us.

To explain this increasing rate of expansion, scientists have come up with a cosmological placeholder, known as dark energy, which is believed to make up about 70% of the content of the universe.

“It’s the physicists’ way to hide their ignorance by giving it a mysterious name,” said Professor Carlos Frenk, a cosmologist at the University of Durham. “We don’t have any physically compelling way to explain it.”

Whether the universe’s expansion continues to speed up or gradually eases off comes down to a sort of gladiatorial battle between two opposing cosmic forces.

“You have this competition between dark energy, that tries to expand the universe, and gravity, that tends to make it collapse again,” said Disconzi. The question is who wins?”

Under the gravity wins scenario, known as the Big Crunch, the expansion eventually slows down and a kind of reverse of the Big Bang occurs.

But scientists have been shifting in favour of a situation called the Big Freeze where the universe continues to expand, eventually growing so vast that supplies of gas become too thin for new stars to form and a thin soup of radiation is left. Eventually this cools down to the point where time loses any meaning because nothing happens any more.

The latest work suggests that we could be heading for less a gentle finale, and predicts that dark energy wins out in the most dramatic possible fashion.

The paper, published in the journal Physical Review D, refines current models by finding a more consistent way to account for a property called bulk viscosity, a measure of a fluid’s ability to expand or contract. In this case, the fluid is the universe itself.

Previously, according to Disconzi, viscosity had been included in the equations but in a way that predicted that under certain conditions fluids could travel faster than light.

“This is disastrously wrong, since it is well-proven that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light,” said Disconzi.

The latest formulation gets rid of this inconsistency, but also gives a revised prediction of where the Universe is heading, suggesting that eventually the expansion of the universe will accelerate at an infinite rate.

“A Big Rip scenario is a natural consequence of the equations,” said Disconzi.

One way to think of the lead-up to the event, is a speeding car that goes 10mph faster for every mile it travels. But the rate of acceleration gradually increases until it goes 10mph faster for every half mile, and then every quarter of a mile and eventually every foot. Ultimately, the front and the back bumpers tear apart from each other and then rip apart themselves.

Whether this occurs in the cosmic version depends on how dark energy behaves in the distant future - a question that Frenk describes as the realm of pure speculation.

“Under the rip scenario, dark energy gets stronger and you get this wild expansion that essentially rips space-time apart,” he added. “The universe would vanish in front of your eyes. Basically, you don’t want to be around for it.”

Post by: Rad on Aug 22, 2015, 05:27 AM
August 21, 2015

Curiosity takes a killer selfie on Mars’ Mount Sharp

by Chuck Bednar
Red Orbit

Using its robotic arm as a selfie stick, NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity was able to snap some epic low-angle pictures of itself at a site located in the foothills of Mount Sharp earlier this month.

According to BBC News and, Curiosity snapped the images using the camera at the end of its robotic arm on August 5 while at Marias Pass. NASA officials then took those pictures and stiched them together to create the rover’s latest selfie, which was released on Tuesday.

NASA attempts to take one of these mosaics at every location where Curiosity drills into the surface of the Red Planet, BBC News explained. However, this latest one was different than the others in that it was taken from a lower angle than previous pictures.

The newest photograph was taken at “Buckskin,” the seventh place where the rover has drilled into rock to collect samples for analysis since the start of its mission, BBC said. NASA hopes that analysis of the samples will reveal why the Pass is so “wet.”

Rover studying rocks, searching for water when not taking selfies

Compared with previous pictures, this latest Curiosity selfie shows more of its front and underside, and also shows a pair of grey patches located in front of the rover. One patch (the triangular shaped one) is where the samples were extracted from, while the other was where it dumped the powdered rock grain that was too large to be internally analyzed.

While at Marias Pass, the rover studied what is known as a “geological contact zone,” or an area where two different types of rock come together, using its Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons (DAN) instrument. The DAN instrument detected elevated hydrogen levels beneath the rover’s wheels, a sign that there may be a large quantity of water molecules bound to minerals there.

“The ground about one meter beneath the rover in this area holds three or four times as much water as the ground anywhere else Curiosity has driven during its three years on Mars,” DAN principal investigator Igor Mitrofanov explained, according to

Activity at the site marked the first full drilling operations performed by the rover since its hammering percussive mechanism experienced a brief short circuit back in February, the website noted.

It finished up work at Marias Pass on August 12 and continued travelling up Mount Sharp. The goal is to travel through the lower regions of the mountain, analyzing rocks and finding changes in the rocks there that had taken place over time. Over the past week, Curiosity has driven a total of 433 feet (132 meters), bringing its total distance traveled to 6.9 miles (11.1 km).

Post by: Rad on Aug 24, 2015, 05:26 AM
August 23, 2015

Confirmed: Cosmic neutrinos exist!

by Chuck Bednar
Red Orbit

Scientists at the IceCube Neutrino Observatory in Antarctic have verified the existence of the tiny energetic particles known as cosmic neutrinos, which are believed to be produced by some of the most violent phenomena in the universe, including supernovae and black holes.

According to Gizmodo, Live Science and NBC News, researchers at an observatory located deep beneath the ice near the South Pole have spotted the ephemeral, nearly massless particles coming from the Milky Way and from locations beyond our galaxy. Researchers also shed new light on the origins of cosmic rays.

In a new study published Thursday in the journal Physical Review Letters, the IceCube Neutrino Observatory scientists reported that they found 21 high-energy muons in two years worth of data collected by thousands of sub-surface optical sensors. These particles are created when neutrinos collide with another object, providing evidence showing cosmic neutrinos can traverse space.

Next step is to confirm the neutrinos’ origins

IceCube project scientists previously found neutrinos from outside our galaxy two years ago, but in order to confirm the detection they had to make sure that the neutrinos were not originating from the sun or another source in the Milky Way. They did so by searching for neutrinos that had similar energies and were coming from multiple directions at the same speed.

This indicated that the neutrinos were independent of the Earth's rotation and orbit around the sun, something that is only possible if their source was from outside the galaxy. They also had to filter out muons created when cosmic rays crashed into the planet's atmosphere, which they did by pointing the observatory through the Earth towards the sky in the Northern Hemisphere.

Of the 35,000 neutrinos recorded between May 2010 and May 2012, less than two dozen of them had high enough energy levels to suggest that they came from cosmic sources, claims LiveScience. The next step is to determine exactly where these muons are coming from, Gizmodo added.

Furthermore, the authors found that the characteristics of the muon neutrinos are not a good fit with several existing models used to explain their origins. While this topic is not discussed at length in their study, they said that the data appears to show that they do not come from gamma-ray bursts or active galactic nuclei, though more research is needed to know for sure.

Post by: Rad on Aug 24, 2015, 06:08 AM
CS Monitor

Is dark energy caused by 'chameleon' particles?

Dark energy, the mysterious force thought to be driving the acceleration of the universe's expansion, could be caused by particles whose mass varies based on its surroundings.

By Nola Taylor Redd, August 23, 2015   

Two experiments on Earth are helping to shine light on the hidden characteristics of dark energy and dark matter — elusive phenomena that make up nearly 95 percent of the universe but remain hidden from direct detection.

The new dark matter and dark energy experiments narrowed the realm where the mysterious material can lie, thus helping scientists to better understand the strange stuff that, together, constitutes the majority of the universe.

In search of the mysterious "chameleon particle" — a potential source of dark energy — a team of scientists, led by Paul Hamilton, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, Berkeley, measured the forces acting on a falling cesium atom. In a separate study, researchers with the Xenon Collaboration of universities investigated how dark matter might interact with the electrons of an atom. Although neither team found the mysterious particle they sought, they were able to better constrain the characteristics of dark energy and dark matter.

Chameleon energy

In 1998, scientists used NASA's Hubble Space Telescope to determine that the universe is expanding faster each year — an unexpected result. They concluded that a source of energy, dubbed "dark energy" because it remains unseen, is responsible for the push. The elusive energy makes up about 68 percent of the total energy of the universe.

A number of experiments have sought to unravel the mysteries of the hard-to-find energy. Some suggested that dark energy is woven into the very fabric of the universe, while others thought it could be represented by any number of hypothetical particles.

In 2004, theorist Justin Khoury, of the University of Pennsylvania, suggested that the reason dark energy has not been directly detected could be that it is hiding.

Khoury, who is one of the authors on the research for the dark energy experiment, suggested that the "chameleon" particles vary in mass depending on the density of the surrounding matter. Inside a laboratory, with matter all around, chameleons would have a large mass but a small reach, while in the empty depths of space, chameleons could exert their influence over longer distances. (In physics, a low mass implies a long-range force, while a high mass implies a shorter range.)

"In empty space, it is light, so that it doesn't clump like normal matter to form galaxies," Holger Muller, of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, told by email. Muller was also part of the team of scientists searching for dark energy.

When Hamilton read an article by theorist Clare Burrage, of the University of Nottingham, last year on how to detect chameleon particles, he wondered if an instrument built by Muller to detect gravitational anomalies by studying the difference in phase between atomic matter waves along different paths would be able to detect dark energy.

Hamilton and his colleagues dropped cesium atoms above an aluminum sphere 1 inch (2.5 centimeters) in diameter, and then used sensitive lasers to measure the forces acting on the atoms while they were in free fall.

Muller said the instrument "is one of the most sensitive ways of measuring forces." Because dark energy only interacts with the outermost layers of objects, using atoms in a vacuum should allow the team to determine if dark energy interacted with the atoms.

The experiment detected no forces other than Earth's gravity. Although the nondetection might seem discouraging, it helped in the ongoing process of characterizing dark energy, ruling out chameleon-induced forces a million times weaker than gravity, as well as several other possibilities.

According to Muller, the experiments are now between 10 and 1,000 times more sensitive than previous experiments.

"Improving it by another such step would either definitely rule out the chameleon model — and lots of others — or detect them," he said.

"Chameleons can't 'hide' indefinitely, and so if dark energy takes this form, we'll either know soon or definitely know that it isn't the case."

Where dark matter is not

Much like dark energy, dark matter has remained an elusive material spotted only by its indirect effects on how regular matter behaves. Over the past few decades, a number of experiments have searched for the unusual matter, but it has remained stubbornly hidden.

Most scientists think dark matter is composed of weakly interacting massive particles, or WIMPS, so most direct-detection experiments are searching for signs that their detectors are affected by these unusual particles. Scientists expect that the massive particles would interact primarily with the nucleons — one of the types of particles making up the atomic nucleus — of the detecting material, creating a signal known as a nuclear recoil. However, none has spotted any signs attributed to dark matter.

However, some experiments are searching instead for an annual variation in the number of detection events, due to the velocity of the detector as the Earth orbits the sun each year. One of these is the DAMA/LIBRA experiment in Italy, which in 2013 reported the observation of a signal that could be attributed to dark matter.

Because other experiments are searching for nuclear recoil rather than annual changes, no other studies have been able to confirm their results.

The lack of nuclear recoil in some experiments, combined with the results by the DAMA/LIBRA collaboration, provoked some scientists to question whether dark matter might interact predominantly or exclusively with another part of the atom.

But some scientists wondered if dark matter might prefer to interact predominantly or exclusively with the outermost orbiting particles of the atom — the electrons — rather than those in its heart.

"Then all these experiments would be basically throwing away their dark-matter signal, treating it as background," said Mayra Cervantes, of Perdue University in Indiana. Cervantes is a member of the Xenon Collaboration, an international group of scientists searching for dark matter.

The XENON100 experiment differentiates between nuclear recoils and electron recoils, allowing scientists to search for a dark matter particle that interacts with electrons. Although the Xenon Collaboration did not directly detect dark matter, it was able to rule out characteristics of other models based on their lack of detection.

"In this search, we excluded a variety of models," Cervantes told in an email. "That's a very important step ahead, because it tells us where the dark matter is not, and that, for sure, will open new directions to continue our searches."

At the same time, the sensitivity of instruments searching for WIMPS continues to improve.

"It is still possible that the dark matter is more or less what we imagine: a WIMP that would interact with the nucleons of our detector," Cervantes said. "However, the interaction could be very feeble, so our detector needs to be more sensitive to be able to see this dark matter."

The results of both experiments, along with an accompanying News and Views article discussing their implications, were published online today (Aug. 20) in the journal Science.

Post by: Rad on Aug 25, 2015, 05:20 AM
August 24, 2015

Is Mars about to be as visible to the naked eye as the Moon?

by Chuck Bednar
Red Orbit

Are stargazers about to be treated to a rare phenomenon in which Mars will be as visible in the night sky as the Moon, appearing every bit as large as Earth’s natural satellite even without help from powerful telescopes?

The answer is: no, unfortunately not, according to astronomers.

The reports, which have been going viral in recent weeks, are part of what refers to as the "Mars Hoax”, which finds its origins in an email sent out by an unidentified source all the way back in 2003. Based on a misinterpretation of that message, some people have come to think that the Red Planet will be closer to Earth than ever before on Thursday (August 27).

According to the website, the email appears to have been sent in an effort to pass along some interesting (and accurate) information about a close encounter with Mars on August 27, 2003, in which the planet would come to “within 34,649,589 miles (55,763,108 kilometers)” of Earth and would be the one of the brightest objects in the night sky.

“It will attain a magnitude of -2.9 and will appear 25.11 arc seconds wide,” the email reportedly said. “At a modest 75-power magnification, Mars will look as large as the full moon to the naked eye. Mars will be easy to spot.” Somewhere along the line, however, the date and the need to use telescopes to see the phenomenon were lost and an urban legend was born.

The truth behind the rumors

As Snopes pointed out, the information is necessarily false or a hoax, it’s simply outdated. Back in August 2003, Mars did actually appear to be six times larger and 85 times brighter in the night sky than normal, the website said. It was the planet’s closest approach in nearly 60,000 years but only appeared larger to those using telescopes, not to the unaided observer.

Snopes added that the Red Planet did have a second close encounter with Earth, in October 2005, but that it appeared 20 percent smaller than it had two years earlier. Mars also made a somewhat close approach to Earth in December 2007, as it was about 55 million miles from Earth. In 2018, it will be about as close as it was in 2003, and will appear closer in the year 2287.

Finally, pointed out that even though Mars was brighter than usual, it was still not the second-brightest object in the night sky, behind only the moon. In fact, Venus still appeared to be brighter, and even at its brightest, Mars was a full magnitude fainter than Venus, they noted.

Currently, Mars is nearly seven times farther away than it was back in 2003, nearly 240 million miles (385 million kilometers) from the Earth, the website said. Furthermore, at magnitude +1.7, the Red Planet is about 70 times fainter compared to 2003, meaning that binoculars or telescopes are needed to even find it in the sky.

Post by: Rad on Aug 26, 2015, 05:22 AM
August 25, 2015

Ancient lunar ‘fire fountain’ mystery solved

by Shayne Jacopian
Red Orbit

The decades-old mystery of ancient lunar volcanic “fire mountains” may finally have been solved, thanks to a new study from Brown University researchers. They found that this volcanic activity was likely fueled by carbon monoxide gas, reports Discovery News.

Utilizing newer analytical techniques than what was available when lunar volcanic activity was first suggested by green and orange glass beads found in soil samples during Apollo missions in the ‘70s, the researchers found that the glass beads’ concentrations of carbon and water decreased towards their centers, indicating degassing. Continuing the study with computer models, they found that the fire mountains were likely fueled by carbon monoxide.

"The question for many years was what gas produced these sorts of eruptions on the Moon," co-author of the study Alberto Saal, an associate professor of earth, environmental, and planetary science said in a press release. "The gas is gone, so it hasn't been easy to figure out."

Carbon driving early processes

Published originally in Nature Geoscience, the study suggests that lava in lunar fire mountains contained large quantities of carbon, and that as it rose to the surface, it combined with oxygen to make carbon monoxide.

"Most of the carbon would have degassed deep under the surface," said Saal. "Other volatiles like hydrogen degassed later, when the magma was much closer to the surface and after the lava began breaking up into small globules. That suggests carbon was driving the process in its early stages."

The amount of carbon detected in the glass beads was very similar to the levels of carbon in basalts erupting at Earth’s mid-ocean ridges, according to the source. The similarity of the Earth’s and Moon’s volatile reservoirs may help to further confirm the theory that the Moon was formed by a chunk of the Earth breaking off as a result of a collision with a Mars-sized object.

"The volatile evidence suggests that either some of Earth's volatiles survived that impact and were included in the accretion of the Moon or that volatiles were delivered to both the Earth and Moon at the same time from a common source—perhaps a bombardment of primitive meteorites," Saal said.

Post by: Rad on Aug 27, 2015, 05:06 AM
August 26, 2015

Colliding satellites formed Saturn’s craziest ring

by Shayne Jacopian
Red Orbit

Scientists at Kobe University in Japan may have found what caused at least one of Saturn’s rings to come into being.

Research published in the journal Nature Geoscience reveals that Saturn’s F Ring, the outermost and thinnest of the planet’s several rings, is most likely the result of a collision of two small satellites occurring during the last stage of the planet’s satellite formation, CNET reports.

Professor Ohtsuki Keiji and doctoral student Hyodo Ryuki explain that Saturn’s rings used to be made up of much smaller particles in a far greater quantity. Over time, they began to accrete and form larger pieces of rock near the outer edges of the rings.

The researchers discovered that the F Ring was created when two large satellites at the outer edge of the planet’s rings collided, with debris creating the thin and sparse outermost ring and the dense cores of the satellites forming the moons Prometheus and Pandora.

"Through this study, we were able to show that the current rings of Saturn reflect the formation and evolution processes of the planet's satellite system," Ryuki said.

"As plans are underway in and outside of Japan to explore the satellite system of Jupiter and the satellites of Mars, we will continue to unravel the origin of satellite systems, which is key to understanding the formation process of planetary systems," Keiji added.

Post by: Rad on Aug 27, 2015, 05:10 AM
August 26, 2015

Are private space stations, companies on Mars in our future?

by Chuck Bednar
Red Orbit

Space travel is one of those rare endeavors where people from all over the world seem to join together without thought of individual accolades or personal gain of any sort. But could that all be about to change?

On Monday, ran a pair of related stories, one of which suggested that there was a “strong” possibility that the first commercial space stations will be built within the next decade, and another indicating that officials with the Mars One project are attempting to solicit funding from billionaires, possibly in exchange for naming rights to the proposed colony.

As the website explained, the transition over to commercial space stations is one that is being directly overseen by NASA, as the US space agency looks to transition away from government operated facilities such as the International Space Station in the future. Instead of building new orbiting bases after the ISS is retired in 2024, it is turning to the private sector to do so.

Commercial firms are already using the space station for experiments, research, and to launch tiny probes known as cubesats, and once private industry begins creating platforms for additional types of activities, NASA will completely offload those tasks to third parties, the agency said. It has no plans to become “an anchor tenant” to a commercial space station, said.

Mars One mission counting on billionaire benefactor?

Meanwhile, a separate story published by the website explained that the Netherlands-based Mars One project is looking for some financial assistance as it tries to establish a permanent colony on the Red Planet. As such, it is hoping to hear from a wealthy investor interested in sponsoring the nonprofit’s endeavors by contributing in exchange for naming rights to the settlement.

Mars One “is so ambitious and – I think 'crazy' is the right word – that we might actually get a phone call from a billionaire who says, 'I want to make this happen,” co-founder and CEO Bas Lansdorp told “I want the first city on Mars to be called Gatesville or Slim City,” a reference to Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and Mexican tycoon Carlos Slim Helu.

Lansdorp made those comments earlier this month at the 18th annual International MarsSociety Convention in Washington DC. The organization’s plans, starting with the launching of a lander and an orbiting communications satellite in 2020 and culminating with a manned mission to set up the colony in 2027, will cost an estimated $6 billion – possibly even more, experts argue.

Furthermore, the long-term goal is to launch new four-person crews to Mars every two years to build up the extraterrestrial settlement, at an estimated cost of about $4 billion per voyage to the Red Planet. Add in inflation, and MIT graduate students Andrew Owen and Sydney Do said that they believed that the costs would become unsustainable over time.

To help cover the cost of the mission, Lansdorp has floated the idea of recruiting a billionaire to contribute to the campaign. While he emphasized that Mars One isn’t simply waiting around for a white knight with a blank check to show up, he told that it would be a “positive surprise” to have a benefactor sponsoring the project.

Post by: Rad on Aug 27, 2015, 05:14 AM
Stem cells survive simulated return to Earth on space capsule

by Chuck Bednar
Red Orbit
Aug 27 2015

Even though the prototype capsule carrying them experienced problems with its attempted simulated landing, a cargo of adult stem cells survived a fall back to Earth during a drop test designed as part of an initiative to study how space affects the biological units.

According to, the capsule being used to transport the stem cells experienced issues related to the deployment of its parachute during the simulating landing. The cause of the failure is being investigated, but officials said that it is not related to the design of the parachute.

The RED-4U capsule was created by Atlanta-based Terminal Velocity Aerospace (TVA) to fly to the International Space Station and return science experiments to Earth, Dominic DePasquale, the company’s CEO, explained to the website on Tuesday. As part of this latest experiment, it had been carrying a cargo of adult stem cells provided by the Mayo Clinic.

Stem cells may grow more quickly in space

Those stem cells, which are capable of developing into any type of cell, are reportedly “thriving” despite the parachute deployment problem, said. The Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) gave the clinic a $30,000 grant to develop new techniques for growing stem cells in space, but thus far, no launch date has been announced.

DePasquale told that there is “evidence... from prior testing” that stem cells “will grow up to 10 times faster in space and have higher purity and other advantages as well.” The goal of this latest TVA flight test, which was funded by NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program, was to demonstrate low-cost communications array and electronics systems.

While the current test involved a balloon from Near Space Corp., which carried the RED-4U capsule to a height of about 20 miles (32 kilometers) before descending on a simulated return-from-space trajectory, TVA plans to fly the capsule into space in the near future. The next step involves ground testing and an additional round of parachute trials, said.

TVA, which was founded in 2012, is also testing a new flight protocol technology which allows airplanes to receive “situational awareness” about other flights. This system is known as ADS-B, and DePasqaule said that it will minimize the need for ground support tracing. It will be used by the Federal Aviation Administration to supplement and possibly replace traditional radar.

Post by: Rad on Aug 28, 2015, 05:24 AM
August 27, 2015

NASA to design probes for upcoming missions to Uranus, Neptune

by Chuck Bednar
Red Orbit

Scientists at NASA have been asked to brainstorm new concepts for probes that could be sent to the last of the solar system’s planets yet to be orbited, Uranus and Neptune, as part of a mission that could launch in less than 15 years, according to published reports.

NASA’s request that members of its Jet Propulsion Laboratory facility in Pasadena, California begin assessing how to create and operate robotic spacecraft to send to these planets indicate that those worlds “are near the top of the space agency’s to-do list in the coming decades,” astronomy website Spaceflight Now said on Tuesday.

At a meeting of a NASA-sponsored working group devoted to outer planets research, the head of the agency’s planetary science division, Jim Green, explained that the goal was to develop low cost, scaled-back orbiters that could be launched in the late 2020s or early 2030s. Those probes would study the compositions, structures, and moons of Uranus and Neptune.

“We want to identify potential concepts across a spectrum of price points,” Green said, according to the website, adding that one of the obstacles that NASA has to overcome in order to make this mission a reality is “the huge price tag it takes... to get out to the outer solar system.”

Uranus and Neptune will have to wait their turn, however

Spaceflight Now explained that this is the first step in what will be an ongoing, multi-year effort to send a mission to the icy giant planets. The process will include cost evaluations and technical assessments, as well as federal budgeting and scientific peer review, Green said. Results from the evaluations will be presented to National Research Council scientists in the early 2020s.

A mission to Uranus and/or Neptune would most likely be “a multibillion-dollar flagship-class mission” similar to the Cassini orbiter, which travelled to Saturn, or the forthcoming probe that will be sent to explore Jupiter’s icy moon Europa. NASA’s funding issues mean that only one such project can be in development at a time, so the proposed mission would almost certainly have to wait until the Europa mission launches in 2022.

“Obviously, it’s not going to be easy to be able, even after we get Europa under our belt, to actually execute on the next large mission,” Green said, “but we need to make progress to understand our science priorities and look at this in a way that will prepare us for the next decade, but also utilize new technologies and capabilities that have come up (since the last decadal survey).”

Post by: Rad on Aug 28, 2015, 05:28 AM
August 27, 2015

Look up! Supermoon to shine bright August 29th

by Emily Bills
Red Orbit

Look to the skies this Saturday, because the first in a series of 3 full supermoons will be out! This month, the supermoon occurs on Sunday, August 30, at 11 a.m. EDT, about 18 hours after the full moon, according to Because the supermoon occurs during the daytime in the US, the best time to view the full moon close to its supermoon status will be on Saturday night.

What is a supermoon?

Supermoons didn’t always have this name. In fact, the name supermoon came into existence on March 19, 2011 when media outlets used the term to describe the full moon. Before 2011, they were called perigee full moons, according to

Astrologer Richard Nolle described a supermoon as “a new or full moon which occurs with the moon at or near (within 90% of) its closest approach to Earth in a given orbit.” By this definition, a new moon or full moon has to come within 224,834 miles (or 361,836 kilometers) of Earth to be considered a supermoon. This Saturday kicks off a full moon trio with the other two being on September 28 and October 27.

While all full moons cause bigger tides, but these closer supermoons elevate the tides even more, according to Earthsky.

When there’s a new moon each month, the sun, Earth, and moon are aligned with the moon sandwiched in between. This causes some pretty wide-ranging tides that are called spring tides. These closer new moons and full moons, or supermoons, accentate the spring tides even more, causing a perigean spring tide. This probably won’t cause flooding, but if you live near the coast, just keep an eye on the weather!

Get stoked for the next supermoon

While Saturday's supermoon will be cool, September's supermoon on the 27th will be even cooler, as it will be the closest and biggest supermoon this year at 221,753 miles (356,877 km). Plus, it occurs at night in North America, so we will be able to see it at its peak. This full moon in September is traditionally called the Harvest Moon because it would light the night, giving farmers a few extra hours to harvest their crops. This supermoon will also pass through Earth's shadow, causing a total eclipse of the moon! Double whammy.

Happy skywatching, and don't forget to glance up this Saturday night!

Post by: Rad on Aug 28, 2015, 05:30 AM
August 27, 2015

New images are closest yet of dwarf planet Ceres

by Chuck Bednar
Red Orbit

Earlier this week, NASA released the latest batch of photos collected by the Dawn spacecraft of Ceres, and the new images provide the closest look yet at the large, cone-shaped mountain found in the southern hemisphere and other surface features of the dwarf planet.

While using its framing camera to map the dwarf planet’s surface at an orbital altitude of 915 miles (1,470 kilometers) on August 19, Dawn managed to get an up-close look at the four mile (six kilometer) tall mountain. The image was taken at a resolution of 450 feet (140 meters) per pixel, and reveals narrow, braided fractures and an unusual bright region.

NASA also released images of a mountain ridge in the center of Urvara crater, and Gaue crater, a large crater with a sunken-in center. Urvara crater is 101 miles (163 kilometers) in diameter and was named after an Indian and Iranian deity of plants and fields, while Gaue crater is was named after a Germanic goddess and is 52 miles (84 kilometers) in diameter.

Dawn mapping gravity field in preparation for final orbit

At its current altitude, Dawn takes 11 days to capture and transmit images of Ceres’ surface back to Earth, according to NASA. Each of those 11-day cycles 14 orbits, the agency added, and over the next eight weeks, the spacecraft will successfully map the dwarf planet’s entire surface a total of six times. That data will allow NASA scientists to create 3D models of Ceres.

During this time, Dawn will also gather data can will provide new insight into the minerals found on the surface of Ceres using its visible and infrared mapping spectrometer instruments.

Furthermore, mission scientists and engineers are in the process of refining their measurements of Ceres’ gravitational field, and that information will be used to help design Dawn’s next orbit, which will be its lowest. This final orbit will be at an altitude of just 230 miles (375 kilometers), and the spacecraft will begin its descent to this height in late October.

“Dawn is performing flawlessly in this new orbit as it conducts its ambitious exploration,” Dawn chief engineer and mission director Marc Rayman from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, said in a statement. “The spacecraft's view is now three times as sharp as in its previous mapping orbit, revealing exciting new details of this intriguing dwarf planet.”

Post by: Rad on Aug 28, 2015, 06:23 AM
CS Monitor

Butterflies in space? Hubble beams back specular image of iridescent 'wings'

Two stars, dust, and luck creates the phenomenon, according to NASA, but how exactly that occurs is 'one of the great classic problems of modern astrophysics.'

By Kelsey Warner, Staff August 27, 2015   

In space, stardust can mimic familiar Earthly shapes. An example of this was recently beamed back from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope: stunning images of a butterfly nebula.

The butterfly in the cosmos is actually called the Twin Jet Nebula, as well as the much less descriptive (to non-astronomers) PN M2-9.

The phenomenon is created through a bit of good fortune, NASA acknowledges, as well as a large amount of dust surrounding a slowly dying larger star, accompanied by a smaller star, in this case a small white dwarf, which come together with the effect of two shimmering wings. Both "wings" stretch from the central two-star system. The winged shape is believed to be created from the binary stars orbiting a common mass and fueled by two enormous gas jets speeding through space at 621,400 mph, each jet on a trajectory that is curved with the orbit paths of the two stars. The expansion has been measured, according to NASA, and scientists estimate the nebula was created a relatively short 1,200 years ago.
Recommended: Could you pass Astronomy 101? Take the quiz!

The glowing and expanding shells of gas clearly visible in the image represent the final stages of life for an old star of low to intermediate mass according to NASA. "Astronomers have found that the two stars in this pair each have around the same mass as the sun, ranging from 0.6 to 1.0 solar masses for the smaller star, and from 1.0 to 1.4 solar masses for its larger companion," NASA reports.

The multitude of colors captured by the Hubble image demonstrates the complexity of the so-called Twin Jet Nebula, which glows because the larger dying star has shed its outer layers, with help from the white dwarf's orbit, revealing a core that illuminates the surrounding action. The image highlights the nebula’s twin shells and tendrils of expanding gas in great detail. Hubble has captured many butterfly nebulae before, and this one in particular was imaged previously in 1997, but Hubble captured PN M2-9 in June of 2015 using newer technology, and therefore capturing greater detail.

PN-M2 9 is in fact descriptively named. The M refers to Rudolph Minkowski, a German-American astronomer who first discovered the nebula in 1947. The PN references the fact that M2-9 is a planetary nebula.

Another research team at the European Southern Observatory in Chile also captured images, released in June, of another butterfly nebula; this one believed to be much earlier in its formation, and therefore that much more important to observe, according to the research team. A lead researcher in its study, Pierre Kervella, called the origin of butterfly nebula "one of the great classic problems of modern astrophysics."

Mr. Kervella said his team is trying to track the evolution of this butterfly nebula. He hopes to determine "how, exactly, stars return their valuable payload of metals back into space – an important process, because it is this material that will be used to produce later generations of planetary systems."

Post by: Rad on Aug 29, 2015, 05:33 AM
August 28, 2015

History of galaxies revealed by astronomers for first time

by Chuck Bednar
Red Orbit

For the first time, astronomers have found evidence proving that the structure of a galaxy can change over the course of its lifetime, demonstrating that a large proportion of them have gone through a significant “metamorphosis” after initially being formed.

The study, which has been published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, used the Hubble and Herschel telescope to observe roughly 10,000 galaxies and classified each one into two primary types: flat, rotating, disc-shaped galaxies (like the Milky Way); and large, spherical galaxies with a swarm of disordered stars, according to the authors.

As lead author and Cardiff University Professor Steve Eales told redOrbit via email, “The rate at which stars are forming in a galaxy is proportional to the energy output of the galaxy. Essentially we measured the total energy output of all the galaxies in a small region of sky, out in space and therefore back in time, and found that most of the energy output was from disk galaxies.”

“We used this calorimetric measurement to calculate that at least 81 percent of the stars that had ever formed had formed in disk-galaxies like our own,” he added. “However, in the Universe today only 49 percent of the stars are in disk galaxies. Therefore, there must have been a major transformation of disk galaxies into spheroidal galaxies (ellipticals and galaxies with huge stellar bulges) after most of the stars had formed.”

Two main theories to explain this metamorphosis

According to Professor Eales, although experts have previously claimed that this transformation had occurred, he and his colleagues are the first to actually measure its size. They hope that by detecting the first direct evidence of this phenomenon, they will be able to shed new light on the processes responsible for causing these changes to happen in the first place.

Professor Eales told redOrbit that there are two main possible causes for this metamorphosis: “(a) galaxy mergers in which two disk galaxies are scrambled together into a elliptical; or (b) the gradual motion of newly formed stars in a disk into the center of a galaxy, gradually building up a big pile of stars.” He added that the cause may be “something we haven't thought of.”

The first theory proposes that the transformation was caused by a series of cosmic catastrophies in which two disk-dominated galaxies wandered too close to each other, and were forced by the graviational pull to merge into a single entity, which would destroy the disks in the process. The second is a less violent theory in which the stars eventually moved to the galaxy’s center.

Professor Eales also emphasized that the research would not be possible without the Herschel Space Observatory, which is larger than Hubble, has a 3.5m mirror and operates in the infrared part of the spectrum instead of the optical. Herschel, he added, “has made it possible to measure the 50 percent of the energy from galaxies that is obscured by interstellar dust.”

Post by: Rad on Aug 30, 2015, 05:34 AM
August 28, 2015

Lonely supernova is exiled by black holes

by Brett Smith
Red Orbit

Supernovae typically occur within galaxies, where stars with the potential to explode number in the billions. However, a supernova will occasionally take place in the space between galaxies.

According to a new report in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, isolated supernovae could be the result of a strange chain of factors and events, including double-star systems, combining galaxies, and twin black holes.

"This story has taken lots of twists and turns, and I was surprised every step of the way," study author Ryan Foley, and assistant professor of astronomy at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said in a news release. "We knew these stars had to be far from the source of their explosion as supernovae and wanted to find out how they arrived at their current homes."

Why are these supernovae so lonely?

Spectacular stellar explosions referred to as supernovae often happen when big stars exhaust their fuel and end their lives with massive explosion. Foley said he was interested in isolated explosions caused by a somewhat different process: the remnants of burned-out stars known as white dwarfs, joining together and triggering the explosion. This indicated both stars had, for some reason, left their galaxy jointly before their explosion. Some pairs had journeyed as far as 500,000 light-years from their place of origin.

To reach his study’s conclusion, Foley analyzed 13 isolated supernovae to figure out how quickly the binary stars must have been moving before the explosion. To achieve this, he viewed observational information captured at the Lick Observatory in California, as well as the W. M. Keck Observatory and the Subaru Telescope, both in Hawaii. He discovered that the star pairs had attained velocities very similar to stars chucked from the Milky Way by the supermassive black hole at its core, greater than 5 million miles per hour.

The astronomer then turned his attention to the maturing galaxies in the region of the speeding supernovae. Investigating Hubble archival images, he validated that many are substantial elliptical galaxies that were combining or had recently combined with other galaxies. Other observations supplied circumstantial information for such encounters, revealing the cores of several of these galaxies had active supermassive black holes powered by the collision. A number of the galaxies also sit in dense surroundings in the middle of galaxy clusters, a prime spot for mergers. The distinguishing clue of a merger was found to be strong dust lanes striking through the centers of many of these clusters.

To explain how a double-star system escapes the bounds of a galaxy, Foley indicated that a pair of supermassive black holes in the combining galaxies can offer the gravitational slingshot to catapult the binary stars into intergalactic space. Hubble findings reveal almost every galaxy has a substantial black hole at its center. Based on Foley's scenario, after two galaxies merge, their black holes progress to the core of the new galaxy, each with a trailing a bunch of stars. As the black holes creep around each other, one of the binary stars may amble too close flinging the entire system and push the two stars even closer, Foley said.

"The interaction with the black holes shortens” the fuse for a supernova, Foley explained.

Finally, Foley noted these atypical supernovae appear to exhibit a fusion chain that stops midway, oddly leaving behind a high amount of calcium and very little iron.

"Everything points to a weak explosion," Foley said. "We know that these blasts have lower kinetic energy and less luminosity than typical supernovae. They also appear to have less ejected mass, whereas a more energetic explosion should completely unbind the star."

Post by: Rad on Aug 30, 2015, 05:38 AM
August 29, 2015

Would alien life spread like a virus?

by Chuck Bednar
Red Orbit

It’s probably just a matter of time before scientists have the technology to detect signs of life on extraterrestrial planets, but where did that life come from to begin with? Did it just pop up out of nowhere, or might it have come from another source located in the depths of space?

Astrophysicists from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) are attempting to tackle this very issue, and in new research accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal Letters, they demonstrate that if life can travel between the stars, it would spread in a particular pattern that we could identify here on Earth.

As Discovery News explains, advanced technology could enable scientists to not only seek out the signatures of alien life in the atmospheres of far-off planets, but could continue to track those signals as those life forms spread like a virus throughout the entire cosmos (a process known as panspermia). The research was conducted by CfA researchers Henry Lin and Avi Loeb.

“In our theory clusters of life form, grow, and overlap like bubbles in a pot of boiling water,” Lin said, with Loeb adding that life “could spread from host star to host star in a pattern similar to the outbreak of an epidemic... The Milky Way galaxy would become infected with pockets of life.”

Seeds would need to spread quickly to be detected

The authors explain that there are two basic ways in which life can travel beyond the star from where it originated: through natural processes such as gravitational slingshots from asteroids or comets, or for intelligence lifeforms to deliberately travel further out into space.

Their study does not address the ways in which panspermia could occur; rather, it investigates if we would be able to detect it, and concludes that we could indeed. Their model suggests that the seeds of life would depart from a point of origin and spread outwards in all directions.

If seeds can make it to a habitable planet orbiting a nearby star, it can start taking root there, the study authors said. Eventually, this process may result in the development of several worlds that supporting life across the entire galaxy. The seeds of life could gain a foothold on the planet they travel to and begin sprouting life in this environment, ultimately repeating the process.

Once scientists are able to pinpoint signs of life in the atmospheres of other planets, the next step will be to look for a pattern of panspermia. However, Lin and Loeb caution that such a pattern will only be detectable if life spreads fairly rapidly, because stars which are currently neighbors slowly drift apart from one another, and this would blur out the patterns of these clusters.

Post by: Rad on Aug 30, 2015, 05:39 AM
August 29, 2015

LHC finds subatomic particles that may defy the Standard Model

by Chuck Bednar
Red Orbit

Scientists conducting experiments at the CERN Large Hadron Collider (LHC) have found new evidence of subatomic particles treated in strange ways not predicted by the Standard Model of particle physics, a potentially significant find in the search for non-standard phenomena.

The research team, whose findings will appear in the September 4 edition of the Physical Review Letters, looked at data collected by the LHCb detector during the first run of the particle collider back in 2011 and 2012. They analyzed B meson decays, which are processes that produce lighter particles including two types of leptons: the tau lepton and the muon.

Unlike electrons, which are stable leptons, tau leptons and muons are highly unstable and decay in less than a second, the study authors explained. A Standard Model concept known as “lepton universality” assumes that leptons are treated equally by all fundamental forces, meaning that the tau lepton and the muon should decay at the same rate, once corrected for differences in mass.

However, the team discovered a slight but noticeable difference in the predicted rates of decay, which suggests that there could be some yet-undiscovered particle or force that is interfering in this process. The new discovery appears to directly violate the rules of the Standard Model.

Findings, if corroborated, may be evidence of non-standard physics

“The Standard Model says the world interacts with all leptons in the same way,” co-author and University of Maryland professor Hassan Jawahery explained. “There is a democracy there. But there is no guarantee that this will hold true if we discover new particles or new forces.”

“Lepton universality is truly enshrined in the Standard Model. If this universality is broken, we can say that we've found evidence for non-standard physics,” Jawahery said, adding that if their findings are corroborated, “we will have decades of work ahead.” The findings potentially may help physicists uncover “new ways to look at standard and non-standard physics.”

The results of this new experiment join a similar lepton decay finding previously detected at the BaBar experiment at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, which suggested a similar deviation from Standard Model predictions, the study authors said. Both experiments involved the decay of B mesons, but they differed in the types of collisions driving their findings, they added.

“The experiments were done in totally different environments, but they reflect the same physical model. This replication provides an important independent check on the observations,” explained study co-author Brian Hamilton of UMD. “The added weight of two experiments is the key here. This suggests that it's not just an instrumental effect – it's pointing to real physics.”

“While these two results taken together are very promising, the observed phenomena won't be considered a true violation of the Standard Model without further experiments to verify our observations,” added co-author Gregory Ciezarek, a physicist at the Dutch National Institute for Subatomic Physics (NIKHEF).

Post by: Rad on Aug 31, 2015, 05:36 AM
Kuiper Belt object chosen as next target for New Horizons

by Chuck Bednar
Red Orbit
Aug 31 2015

Following its successful mission to the Pluto system last month, NASA’s New Horizons probe will now head to a small Kuiper Belt object (KBO) known as 2014 MU69, officials from the US space agency officially announced on Friday.

2014 MU69 is located approximately one billion miles (1.6 billion kilometers) beyond Pluto, and was discovered using the Hubble telescope as scientists searched for potential KBO fly-by targets for New Horizons in June 2014.

According to, NASA officials must approve a mission extension until 2019 for the fly-by to take place. The New Horizons team must write a proposal to the agency to convince them to fund a KBO exploration mission, and once that proposal is submitted next year it will be evaluated by an independent team before being reviewed by the agency itself.

“Even as the New Horizons spacecraft speeds away from Pluto out into the Kuiper Belt, and the data from the exciting encounter with this new world is being streamed back to Earth, we are looking outward to the next destination for this intrepid explorer,” John Grunsfeld, chief of the NASA Science Mission Directorate in Washington, said in a statement.

Scientists preparing for a fly-by that may never happen

Even though the proposal is pending, noted that the New Horizons team has to start planning immediately for a possible encounter with 2014 MU69. Starting in October, they will begin executing a series of four maneuvers that will put the spacecraft on a path to encounter the new object – an encounter that would likely take place on January 1, 2019.

2014 MU69 was one of five potential targets found during a search that started in 2011, and was one of five that was within New Horizon’s flight path. NASA scientists estimate that it is nearly 30 miles (45 kilometers) across, or 10 times larger and 1,000 times more mass than most comets. It is no more than one percent as large and 1/10,000th as massive as Pluto, the agency said.

“2014 MU69 is a great choice because it is just the kind of ancient KBO, formed where it orbits now, that the Decadal Survey desired us to fly by,” explained Alan Stern, Principal Investigator of the New Hoirzons mission from the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Colorado.

“Moreover, this KBO costs less fuel to reach [than other candidate targets], leaving more fuel for the flyby, for ancillary science, and greater fuel reserves to protect against the unforeseen,” Stern added. The probe, he and his colleagues noted, carries enough extra hydrazine fuel for such a fly-by, as well as power and communication systems that are more than up for the task.

Post by: Rad on Aug 31, 2015, 05:39 AM
The Pluto System As Seen By New Horizons Spacecraft

Red Orbit
Aug 31 2015

Click to watch:

The Year of Pluto - New Horizons Documentary Brings Humanity Closer to the Edge of the Solar System

Click to watch:

Post by: Rad on Aug 31, 2015, 05:40 AM
August 30, 2015

Buzz Aldrin wants to build his own colony on Mars

by Chuck Bednar
Red Orbit

A former NASA astronaut and one of the first men on the moon wants to colonize Mars within the next 25 years, and he’s joining forces with scientists at the Florida Institute of Technology in an attempt to make that a reality, as various media outlets reported on Friday.

According to the Associated Press (AP), 85-year-old Apollo 11 crewmember Buzz Aldrin said that he has “a master plan” to create a human outpost on the Red Planet by 2039 – which happens to be the 70th anniversary of his historic voyage to the moon. However, he admitted that the time frame for the proposed mission was “adjustable.”

So what is this master plan? Aldrin proposed using the moons Phobos and Deimos as a “stepping stone” of sorts to make it to the surface of Mars, the AP said. He said that he disliked the concept of “one-way” trips (such as those proposed by the Mars One project), adding that he envisioned a typical tour-of-duty on Mars as lasting 10 years before astronauts were ferried back to Earth.

Research to take place at the new Buzz Aldrin Space Institute

“The Pilgrims on the Mayflower came here to live and stay,” Aldrin explained. “They didn’t wait around Plymouth Rock for the return trip, and neither will people building up a population and a settlement” on Mars. The project has long been a passion for Aldrin, who initially devised the concept of a round-trip Earth-to-Mars spacecraft system in 1985, said Gizmodo.

Aldrin, who will also serve as a research professor of aeronautics and a senior faculty adviser for the soon-to-be-open Buzz Aldrin Space Institute and FIT, told reporters that he was “thrilled to be partnering with FIT,” and that while he was “proud” of all that he accomplished as a part of NASA, he wanted to be remembered “more for my contributions to the future.”

In a statement, FIT said that it would be supporting the development of lunar resources in order to support a potential Mars settlement, primarily through Aldrin’s concept of progressive flights to asteroids, the moons of Mars, and finally to the surface of the Red Planet itself. Aldrin joins a pair of other ex-NASA astronauts, Winston Scott and Sam Durrance, on the FIT faculty.

“Florida Tech has long been at the forefront of exploration,” Florida Tech President and CEO Anthony J. Catanese said in a statement. “Having Dr. Aldrin build this new initiative at Florida Tech is indeed an honor. We look forward to meaningful collaboration as humankind’s new vision for space unfolds.”

Post by: Rad on Aug 31, 2015, 06:32 AM
CS Monitor

A year in a bubble: NASA begins most ambitious Mars-analog mission yet

A team of six NASA scientists begin a 365-day isolation experiment simulating life on Mars. How soon will a crewed mission be a reality?

By Annika Fredrikson, Staff August 29, 2015   

On Friday, a team of six sealed themselves inside a dome for a year, all in the name of science. Or at least, in the name of Mars.

The three men and three women, all scientists, are attempting to simulate what life would be like during a Mars mission. During the NASA-funded experiment, they will spend 365 days inside a 36-foot-wide, 20-foot tall-dome on the northern slope of Hawaii's Mauna Loa volcano.

"The HI-SEAS site presents a remarkably high-fidelity environment for this type of long-duration space study," said UH Mānoa’s Kim Binsted, the principal investigator for HI-SEAS III, in a NASA press release. "Looking out the single porthole window, all you can see are lava fields and Mauna Kea in the distance. Once the door is closed, and the faux airlock sealed, the silence and physical separation contribute to the ‘long way from home’ experience of our crew members."

The year-long isolation project is NASA's fourth mission in the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS) research project and the longest US isolation experiment to date. HI-SEAS IV is the second-longest Mars analog in the world, surpassed only by the third mission of the Mars500 project, jointly conducted by Russia, China and the European Space Agency, during which six men lived for 520 days in a contained 12-by-66 foot capsule.

NASA is using the HI-SEAS missions to study crewmember cohesion and the emotional and psychological effects of living in cramped quarters with limited exposure to sunlight.

Sound like a recipe for disaster? Just imagine an actual crewed mission to Mars, which NASA estimates could take three years to complete. That’s 1,095 days in isolation with the same handful of people.
Who is going?

Fortunately, the HI-SEAS IV team is an extraordinary group: crew commander and soil scientist Carmel Johnston, architect Tristan Bassingthwaighte, doctor and journalist Sheyna Gifford, German physicist and engineer Christiane Heinicke, pilot and former flight controller at Lockheed Martin Andrzej Stewart, and French astrobiologist Cyprien Verseux.

Each will have their own particular tasks during the mission.

Mr. Bassingthwaighte is completing his doctorate in architecture, and he will be investigating how to create more livable environments in the extreme climates of Mars and Earth.

Ms. Johnston will research food production under artificial light.

Mr. Verseux will work on "making human outposts on Mars as independent as possible of Earth, by using living organisms to process Mars’ resources into products needed for human consumption," according to an article posted by University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa.

As they perform their work, each member will have a sleeping cot and desk and be unable to go outside without donning a spacesuit, reported the BBC.

At least they will be able to leave the enclosure, unlike the team who spent two years inside the glass Biosphere 2, also in the name of science.

To simulate needed protection from solar radiation, the HI-SEAS dome has only one small porthole, reported ABC News. While factors such as weightlessness can’t be simulated, the dome does regulate electricity use, rely mainly on solar power, and have a strictly limited water supply.

"Showers in the isolated environment were limited to six minutes per week," wrote HI-SEAS Mission III member, Jocelyn Dunn on her blog.

The crew will have Internet access, with a built-in delay of 15 to 20 minutes to simulate the time it would take a radio signal to travel from Earth to Mars at the speed of light.

Is it worth it?

"I believe in a humankind that is space-faring, that expands its frontiers," said Diego Urbina, one of the men from the Mars500 team, in a video. "I believe we cannot risk losing everything we have done by putting all our eggs in one basket – Earth.”

In her blog, HI-SEAS IV doctor and journalist Ms. Gifford writes, “My existence on this planet means that we’re headed for Mars someday, maybe even someday soon.... I’m going to Hawaii now. Then a handful will make it all the way there.”

While experimental data from the mission is confidential, you can follow crew members Gifford, Mr. Stewart, and Mr. Verseux on their personal blogs.

NASA anticipates at least fifteen years before a crewed mission will actually launch for Mars

Post by: Rad on Sep 01, 2015, 06:07 AM
CS Monitor

Dynamic duo: Twin black holes fuel quasar closest to Earth

Scientists using the Hubble Space Telescope have found that the nearest galaxy to Earth that hosts a quasar is powered by twin black holes orbiting each other.

By Jessica Mendoza, Staff writer August 31, 2015   

Astronomers have come to expect to find massive black holes at the center of the universe's brightest bodies, but last week, NASA astronomers revealed a startling new finding: a pair of "furiously whirling" black holes at the heart of a galaxy called Markarian 231.

Located some 600 million light years from our solar system, Mrl 231 is the closest galaxy to Earth that hosts a quasar core. The idea that quasars host black holes is not new, but this discovery – found with the help of the Hubble Space Telescope – suggests that they may contain binary, or twin, black holes more often than originally thought.

“We are extremely excited about this finding because it not only shows the existence of a close binary black hole in Mrk 231, but also paves a new way to systematically search binary black holes via the nature of their ultraviolet light emission,” Youjun Lu of the National Astronomical Observatories of China, Chinese Academy of Sciences, said in a statement published by NASA.
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As gas and dust swirl around a quasar, the material gets sucked inward into the black hole at its core, where the black hole's gravity compresses and heats it, producing radiation.

The black hole's magnetic fields concentrate much of that radiation into jets that stretch from each pole deep into space – jets that appear as bright points far outshining the galaxies where they originated.

Scientists first observed a mysterious hole in the center of the Mrk 231 quasar’s accretion disk, or the ring of gas that spirals around the black hole. Using modeling studies, the researchers concluded that the best explanation for the hole is that the center of the disk is carved out by two black holes – one larger and one smaller – orbiting each other.

Researchers say the primary black hole in Mrk 231 is about 150 million times the mass of our sun, while its partner weighs in at about 4 million solar masses.

The duo likely fell into orbit around one another as a result of the merger between two galaxies, and together generate huge amounts of energy that causes the core of the host galaxy to outshine the rest of its stars.
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“The structure of our universe, such as those giant galaxies and clusters of galaxies, grows by merging smaller systems into larger ones, and binary black holes are natural consequences of these mergers of galaxies,” said co-investigator Xinyu Dai of the University of Oklahoma, in NASA's statement.

The merger has also led Mrk 231 to produce stars at a rate 100 times the Milky Way.

The two black holes are predicted to spiral together and collide within a few hundred thousand years.

Post by: Rad on Sep 02, 2015, 05:14 AM
September 1, 2015

NASA discussing possible life-hunting mission to Enceladus

by Chuck Bednar
Red Orbit

The hunt for alien life could be centered on not one, but two gas giant satellites over the next decade, as NASA is reportedly considering sending a spacecraft to Saturn’s moon Enceladus to go along with a previously-announced mission to Jupiter’s satellite, Europa.

According to, the US space agency is planning to launch a spacecraft to Europa in the early- to mid-2020s, and is currently mulling over a proposal that would launch the Enceladus Life Finder (ELF) to study Saturn’s icy moon by the end of 2021.

ELF is one of approximately two-dozen concepts submitted to NASA earlier this year through its Discovery Program, an initiative created as a way to send low-cost, focused science missions to a variety of destinations throughout the solar system. Finalists will be selected later this month and the overall winner will be announced in September 2016, the website said.

Probe would search for amino acids, other signs of life

Along with Europa, Enceladus is believed to be one of the most likely candidates to be home to alien life, as both moons possess liquid water beneath an icy surface. Members of the ELF team told that they believe their proposal is a strong candidate to win the competition.

“We think we have the highest chance of success of getting an indicator of [alien] life for really any mission at this point,” principal investigator Jonathan Lunine of Cornell University said. It would be equipped with two mass spectrometers (one to study gaseous plume molecules and one focusing on solid grains) in search of amino acids, fatty acids, methane, and other molecules.

In addition, it would collect samples from geysers of water ice, salts, and carbon-filled organic molecules emitting from the moon’s south polar region. Those jets, which were first discovered by the Cassini spacecraft in 2005, are powered by Saturn’s gravity and reach far out into space. Scientists believe they may be in contact with Enceladus' underground ocean.

The ELF probe would collect “free samples” from these geysers, Lunine said, giving them the opportunity to see if there are signs of life in the underground ocean without needing to land or drill. Positive results for all three substances it will be searching for would “strongly argue for life within Enceladus,” the ELF team said.

Solar-powered spacecraft would be ready by 2020

In addition, Lunine told that a fourth test for life may be possible. Currently, the mission plans for a technology demonstration involving an instrument that will determine the chilarlity or “handedness” of amino acids. Earth-based life uses left-handed amino acids instead of right-handed ones, and similar results on Enceladus could be indicative of alien life.

If selected, the ELF mission will have a cost ceiling of $450 million, not counting post-launch operations, and will be ready to fly by the year 2020. As things currently stand, it would launch by 2021 and would take 9.5 years to reach Saturn. Once there, it would enter orbit around the planet and fly through the moon’s plumes up to 10 times over a three-year span.

ELF would be solar-powered, and would be the first spacecraft of its kind to operate at a place as far away from the Sun as Saturn. Lunine explained that his team is confident that the solar-power tech is up to the task, telling the website that it is “a very feasible way to conduct the mission.”

Post by: Rad on Sep 02, 2015, 05:16 AM
September 1, 2015

Neptune will be the closest to Earth tonight!

by Emily Bills
Red Orbit

Neptune comes closest to Earth today – but by close, we don’t actually mean close. Neptune is very far away, and is more than 30 times as far from the sun as Earth, or about 4.5 billion km (or 2.8 billion miles) away from the sun, according to NASA. We're almost as excited as Mrs. Puff from Spongebob.

Neptune will also reach opposition tonight – a fancy word for being opposite the sun in our sky. According to, Neptune will rise in the east for the sunset, reach its highest point in the sky around midnight, and then set in the west close to sunrise.

It will be visible (with a telescope or a good pair of binoculars!) in front of the constellation Aquarius. Even then, it will just look like a faint star, and it’s about 5 times fainter than the very dimmest star, so you’ll definitely need to get your star charts or apps out.

Although Neptune is the fourth largest planet, it’s just too far away to even see in our night sky – usually. At just a hair smaller than Uranus, four Earths side by side would equal the diameter of both planets. It’s very difficult (but possible!) to see Uranus unaided by a telescope or binoculars, unlike Neptune.

Post by: Rad on Sep 02, 2015, 05:46 AM
CS Monitor

Blood moon prophesy: The science behind the hype

The lunar eclipse happening later this month has some ministers prophesying the end of the world. Here, we explain the science behind those predictions.

By Olivia Lowenberg, Staff September 1, 2015   

The lunar eclipse set to occur later this month has both skywatchers and some Christians excited, but for very different reasons.

John Hagee, founder and current leader of the Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, Texas, has been prophesying for months that the upcoming "blood moon," so named for the reddish hue that the moon takes on as it is illuminated by sunlight passing through the Earth's atmosphere, will bring calamity.

Hagee's 2013 book, "Four Blood Moons" sought to draw parallels between previous lunar eclipses and important events in Jewish history, such as the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492 to the creation of the Israeli state in 1948.

The upcoming eclipse is the fourth in a series that began on April 15 last year. Pastor Hagee told the London-based evangelical Christian news site Christian Today this next one will "point to dramatic events in the Middle East."

John Hagee Ministries' website also sells "Four Blood Moons" T-shirts, for $15, to spread the word about the link between the movements of celestial bodies and events on Earth.

"The heavens are God's billboard. He's been sending signals to Earth, and we haven't been picking them up," Hagee told Christian Today.

NASA, it is safe to say, does not share Hagee's interpretation. According to the space agency, the clustering of lunar eclipses is not a divine harbinger, but merely a consequence of the inclination of the moon's orbit around the Earth and the decreasing eccentricity of the Earth's orbit around the sun.

If the moon orbited us on the same plane that we orbit the sun, lunar eclipses would be a monthly occurrence. But instead, the moon orbits about five degrees off, meaning that the moon passes through the Earth's shadow much less frequently, between two and five times per year.

Eclipses, including this one, frequently occur in "tetrads," or groups of four. As the Monitor's Liz Fuller-Wright pointed out after the April 2014 eclipse, tetrads tend to happen in clusters.

For example, she writes, the years 1582 to 1908 saw no tetrads, but the period from 1909 and 2156 has 17. The most recent tetrad fell in 2003-2004.

Fuller-Wright continues:

    The tetrad "seasons" are tied to the slowly decreasing eccentricity of Earth's orbit, which is still slightly oval-shaped. Once Earth's orbit becomes a perfect circle, in the distant future, tetrads will no longer be possible.

In the past, when apocalyptic predictions have peaked, NASA has sought to reassure the public. In 2012, amid anxieties of a Mayan armageddon, NASA was called upon to offer its comments as to whether or not the world would, in fact, end. "The Maya calendar did not end on Dec. 21, 2012, and there were no Maya prophecies foretelling the end of the world on that date,” said Dr. John Carlson, director of the Center for Archaeoastronomy.

Geoffrey Gaherty, a writer for Starry Night Education, comments, “As an ardent skywatcher who derives much pleasure from beautiful events like lunar eclipses, it saddens me that there are ‘prophets of doom’ in the world who view these life-enriching events as portents of disaster.”

The fourth lunar eclipse of the tetrad is set to begin with a penumbral eclipse at 8:11 p.m. Eastern Time on September 27 and end at 1:22 a.m. Eastern Time on the 28th.

Post by: Rad on Sep 03, 2015, 05:14 AM
September 2, 2015

Distant rocky planets’ interiors may be far different than Earth

by Chuck Bednar
Red Orbit

Rocky planets orbiting distant stars may not necessarily have the same basic type of chemical or mineral composition as Earth, researchers from the Carnegie Institute of Science, the University of Chicago and Stony Brook University claim in a recently published study.

Writing in the journal Scientific Reports, Carnegie's Sergey Lobanov, Nicholas Holtgrewe, and Alexander Goncharov demonstrated that the interiors of these far-off worlds may have different magnesium compounds than those commonly found on our home planet.

Along with oxygen, magnesium is one of the most abundant elements in the Earth’s mantle, the researchers explained. However, that doesn’t mean that other rocky planets would have a similar mantle mineralogy, as the composition of these planets are likely every bit as different from one another as their respective stars are from each other.

For instance, some stars that are home to rocky worlds have been found to have elevated levels of oxygen. This in turn could make the element more abundant in the interior of the planets, as the chemical makeup of a star has a direct impact on the chemical makeup of every planet that formed around it.

Proving MgO2 can synthesize under the right conditions

If it is possible for a planet to be more oxidized than Earth, this could also have an impact on the various compounds found in its interior as well. The researchers focused on the abundance of two magnesium compounds – magnesium oxide (MgO) and magnesium peroxide (MgO2).

MgO, they said, is known to be extremely stable, even under high pressures, and is not reactive under the conditions found in the Earth’s lower mantle. MgO2, on the other hand, can be formed in the laboratory under high-oxygen concentrations but tends to be unstable when heated, which would be the case in the interior of a forming rocky planet.

Building on previous theoretical calculations, Lobanov’s team used a laser-heated, diamond-anvil cell to bring small samples of magnesium oxide and oxygen to different pressure levels in order to mimic planetary interiors, determining whether or not it is possible to synthesize stable magnesium peroxide under such conditions.

They exposed MgO2 to ambient pressure 1.6 million times normal atmospheric pressure (0-160 gigapascals) and temperatures of more than 3,140 degrees Fahrenheit (2,000 Kelvin), and discovered that at under about 950,000 times normal atmospheric pressure (96 gigapascals) and at temperatures of 3,410 degrees Fahrenheit (2,150 Kelvin), MgO reacted with oxygen to form magnesium peroxide.

Lobanov: Exoplanet mineralogy may be vastly different than Earth’s

“Planetary physical properties are dependent on its composition,” Dr. Lobanov told redOrbit via email. “Our study is just an example of how exoplanet deep mineralogy may be different from our Earth. In fact, we may think of many new minerals that for some reasons are absent on Earth. MgO2 may be one of the most abundant minerals on a planet where oxygen is more abundant than on our Earth, but we don't really know how abundant such oxidized planets are.”

“As we discover more and more about exoplanets it would become increasingly interesting to explore how unique our Earth is,” he added. “As of now, it really seems that there are a lot more types of planets than we have in Solar System. One of the key questions is how planetary interiors composed of yet unknown minerals control some planetary features we are used to on Earth such as plate tectonics and life, for example.”

Post by: Rad on Sep 03, 2015, 05:19 AM
September 2, 2015

Researchers shoot lasers to de-spin tiny ‘asteroids’

by Shayne Jacopian
Red Orbit

A team of researchers from the University of California in Santa Barbara has figured out how to deflect asteroids and stop them from spinning—using lasers. Yes!

The Directed Energy System for Targeting of Asteroids and exploRation (or DE-STAR) system was designed to stop the rotation of spinning asteroids and propel them elsewhere.

A group of students led by Travis Brashears ran a series of tests simulating just how this would work in space conditions. They used basalt to simulate an asteroid (basalt and known asteroids have similar composition) and directed a laser at the small rock until it was white hot.

As the laser eroded material from the rock, in a process called laser ablation, the rock sample’s mass changed and in effect produced a “rocket engine” where the asteroid uses itself as a propellant—in space, this could alter the asteroid’s trajectory.

Watch the video here.

"What happens is a process called sublimation or vaporization, which turns a solid or liquid into a gas," explained Brashears, who is now a freshman at UC Berkeley—he began working in the lab during high school as part of UCSB's Research Mentorship Program.

"That gas causes a plume cloud—mass ejection—which generates an opposite and equal reaction or thrust —and that's what we measure."

Slow her down

Additionally, the team tested whether they could actually slow down an asteroid’s spinning with lasers. It turned out, they could. Using magnets to spin a basalt sample, they aimed the laser in the opposite direction, successfully stopping and reversing its rotation.

"Our video shows the basalt sample slowing down, stopping and changing direction and then spinning up again," said Brashears. "That's how much force we're getting. It's a nice way to show this process and to demonstrate that de-spinning an asteroid is actually possible as predicted in our papers."

This has major implications for the future of asteroid mining. The ability to manipulate a spinning asteroid’s speed is important if we want to capture, explore, and subsequently mine an asteroid—something that NASA plans to do with its Asteroid Redirect Mission. It remains only a theoretical mission, but these small-scale experiments could help pave the way for it to become a reality.

Post by: Rad on Sep 03, 2015, 06:07 AM
CS Monitor

Did Curiosity really find a levitating spoon on Mars?

Mars has seen its fair share of pareidolia in recent months. But a soup spoon? The debate goes on.

By Michelle Toh, Staff writer September 2, 2015   

For a while, there was the Mars rat – or if you squinted, maybe some kind of lizard.

Then came the Martian jelly doughnut – later shown to be a piece of broken rock moved by the Opportunity rover. This summer, it was a pyramid, theorized by some to be the creation of intelligent life. NASA said it was just an ordinary rock.

For years, the curiouser and curiouser have speculated about structures on the Red Planet, and for all of NASA’s official dismissals, can’t seem to stop from hypothesizing about the Curiosity rover’s latest “sighting”: a floating spoon.
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Users on Unmanned Spaceflight, an online forum moderated by the Planetary Society, described the object as “ridiculously long and delicate” and a “soup spoon.”

    Look at this freaking LEVITATING SPOON SHAPED OBJECT on Mars that Fredk found in a @MarsCuriosity image! #WheresFork
    — Austin Braun (@Braun23Austin) September 1, 2015

    A spoon of Mars. Without caramel. Ok, it was awful.
    — Veronica Remondini (@PherosNike) September 1, 2015

“Once you spot it, it becomes obvious; it really does look like a spoon hanging in the air, just above the surface of some layered rock,” reports Discovery News’ Ian O’ Neill. “But as Mars is devoid of any civilization, advanced or otherwise, that is capable of manufacturing said spoon, there’s probably a more logical answer.”

“It's unclear how old the delicate feature may be or how long it will be able to survive on the surface before its worn down by Martian weather,” writes ABC News.

NASA has not confirmed what the object is, but it did say that the image could simply be another case of Martian pareidolia, according to the Tech Times. The term refers to a psychological phenomenon of people interpreting things they see as a familiar pattern or object.

The “spoon” could be an optical illusion caused by the shadows, writes Discovery's Mr. O’ Neill. He goes on to conclude:

    So, once again, this little nugget of Mars pareidolia is a rock that happens to be shaped like a spoon. But it’s a fascinating rock, and an awesome find, providing some geological hints as to the erosion processes that can etch out such delicate formations on the surface of the Red Planet.

Post by: Rad on Sep 04, 2015, 06:12 AM

Why NASA wants to bring hoverboard technology to space

NASA is teaming up with a technology company that has made a functional hoverboard. The space agency aims to use hoverboard technology to control small satellites in space without touching them.

By Mike Wall, September 3, 2015   

It's a vision of the future that may even have eluded Marty McFly: hoverboard tech in space.

NASA wants to make this vision a reality, and soon. The space agency is teaming up with California-based company Arx Pax, which has developed a real-life hoverboard using a technology called Magnetic Field Architecture (MFA).

The collaboration — which takes the form of a Space Act Agreement — aims to find a way to manipulate tiny satellites called cubesats without actually touching them.

"Arx Pax and NASA will work together to design a device with the ability to attract one object to another from a distance," Arx Pax representatives said in a statement today (Sept. 2). "The device will draw, as well as repel, satellites at the same time, meaning it will hold a satellite at a distance and won't allow it to move away or toward the capture device. This will enable the capability to capture, and possibly manipulate, microsatellites or other objects without making physical contact with them."

Arx Pax has built MFA tech into engines that create and manipulate magnetic fields, allowing them to hover over conductive surfaces. One such "hover engine" drives Arx Pax's Hendo Hoverboard, which was introduced in October 2014.

The same principle can theoretically be applied to move and control cubesats, which can be smaller than a cereal box. (The basic building blocks of cubesats are "units" that measure 4 inches, or 10 centimeters, on a side. "3U" cubesats are the size of three of these units put together, 6U cubesats are as big as six of them, and so on.)

But a space-based hover engine wouldn't draw spacecraft in from far away like a tractor beam from "Star Trek."

"We're talking on the scale of centimeters," Arx Pax co-founder and CEO Greg Henderson told The Verge.

Post by: Rad on Sep 04, 2015, 06:21 AM
Astronomers glimpse huge, eco-conscious space shrimp

The Prawn Nebula is shown generating new stars in "cosmic recycling" in a new telescope image.

By Sarah Lewin, September 3, 2015   

Nebula shows "cosmic recycling" at work: Glowing clusters of newborn stars illuminate surrounding gas, expelled from an earlier stellar generation, which will eventually form into even newer stars.

The 2.2-meter telescope at the European Southern Obsevatory's La Silla Observatory in Chile snapped a choice section of the reddish nebula studded by young blue stars in a newly released image. The nebula, also called Gum 56 and IC 4628, is hard to see with the naked eye although it's around 250 light-years across — it is very faint, and mostly emits light at wavelengths not visible to humans.

That invisibility conceals a lot of action, as new stars form from the stellar nursery of the nebula's gas and debris: "The material forming these new stars includes the remains of the most massive stars from an older generation that have already ended their lives and ejected their material in violent supernova explosions," ESO officials said in a statement. "Thus the cycle of stellar life and death continues." When the dust and gas grows dense enough, a portion will collapse down into the beginnings of a star.

Large clouds of charged hydrogen gas provide the red glow to the nebula. As ultraviolet energy is emitted from the young stars, it hits the nearby hydrogen and excites it, prompting the release of light with hydrogen's distinct reddish tinge.

The source of most of that radiation is a pair of rare, extremely bright blue giant stars (out of view in this photo). The huge, powerful stars have short life spans — only a million years or so before exploding into a supernova — and they generally appear in areas with rapid star growth.

Despite the rare stars, the area has not been carefully explored (besides in an extremely detailed 2013 image): "Given the two very unusual blue giants in this area and the prominence of the nebula at infrared and radio wavelengths, it is perhaps surprising that this region has been comparatively little studied as yet by professional astronomers," ESO officials said in the statement.

Click to watch:

Post by: Rad on Sep 05, 2015, 05:26 AM
September 4, 2015

NASA: We want to tether a spacecraft to a comet and fly through space

by Chuck Bednar
Red Orbit

NASA is reportedly working on a new spacecraft that borrows a page from Spider-Man’s book, using a harpoon and a long tether to swing from one asteroid or comet to another and using the kinetic energy of those objects to enter orbit and complete landing maneuvers.

The project, known as Comet Hitchhiker, is being funded through the US space agency’s NIAC (NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts) program and would use its harpoon to secure a foothold on a comet or asteroid. Once it is attached, it would release some of its tether while applying the brake in order to capture kinetic energy from its target, according to

Next, the Comet Hitchhiker would land by reeling in the line, which would be approximately 62 miles to 620 miles (100 to 1,000 kilometers) long. Using the harvested kinetic energy to quickly collect the tether would propel the probe away from the object and towards its next target. Most importantly, this would enable the spacecraft to travel without using propellant.

In a statement, Masahiro Ono, principal investigator of the project from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, explained that, “This kind of hitchhiking could be used for multiple targets in the main asteroid belt or the Kuiper Belt, even five to 10 in a single mission.”

Comet-catching concept similar to reeling in a fish

The technique, the agency explained, is similar to fishing: Once you get a bite from a big fish, you initially release some of the fishing line with moderate tension instead of keeping it tight. Provided you have enough line, the boat you are on will ultimately catch up with the fish.

Similarly, once the Comet Hitchhiker hooks its “fish” and matches velocity to that asteroid or comet, it lands by reeling in its tether and descending gently. Once its ready to move on, it uses its harvested energy to quickly retrieve its tether, which accelerates it away from the object it is currently on. This technique could help it reach distant objects fairly quickly, Ono said.

In fact, the research team calculated that using zylon and kevlar, the spacecraft would be capable of executing a velocity change of nearly one mile per hour (1.5 kilometers per hour), which Ono explained is “like going from Los Angeles to San Francisco in under seven minutes.” A 6.2 mile per second (10 km per second) speed is possible, but would require advanced materials such as a carbon nanotube tether and a diamond harpoon, the Comet Hitchhiker team noted.

Of course, as pointed out, this is all merely speculation at this point. The project is in Phase I NIAC study at this point, having received a grant of about $100,000 to begin initial work over a nine-month period. The next steps for the Comet Hitchhiker team, NASA said, are to run additional simulations and attempt to cast a mini-harpoon at a simulated comet or asteroid.

Post by: Rad on Sep 05, 2015, 09:10 AM
09/02/2015 03:05 PM

Our Solar System: You Are Now Leaving Earth

By Christoph Seidler and Anne Martin  (Videos) .. Click here to watch all these incredible videos with the original article:

With eight planets, five dwarf planets, at least 146 moons, more than half a million known asteroids and about 4,000 comets, the solar system is more crowded than you might think. Come join us on our cosmic voyage. And don't forget to turn on the Sound.

    "The solar system is an insignificant bunch of dust. It also happens to be where we live." (Gene Shoemaker)

Our solar system is four-and-a-half billion years old. Science is only gradually gaining insights into its endless expanse. NASA's New Horizons spacecraft recently paid a visit to Pluto. For the first time since its discovery 85 years ago, mankind now knows what the planet looks like. This tour through the solar system takes you to Pluto and beyond.

Our journey starts at the sun, which makes up 99.8 percent of the mass of our solar system. The sun's gravitational force ensured that the planets, including Earth, were able to form.

By Milky Way standards, the sun is a perfectly normal, average star. With surface temperatures of about 5,000 degrees Celsius (9,032 degrees Fahrenheit), and up to 15 million degrees Celsius at its core, the sun derives its energy from the process of nuclear fusion. Hydrogen atoms melt into helium, fueling the solar fire.

The good news is that this will continue for about another 5 to 6 billion years. The bad news is that at the end of this period, the sun could expand to the point that it will swallow Earth.

From the hottest place in the solar system, we now go to somewhat cooler realms. The first stop is a planet of extremes.

With temperatures ranging from minus 180 to plus 430 degrees Celsius, Mercury has the largest temperature fluctuations of all planets as a result of its proximity to the sun. The side that happens to be facing the sun heats up while the other side cools off. Did you bring your long johns? They might come in handy now.

Mercury's surface, with its many craters, resembles the surface of Earth's moon. There is tons of water ice in craters on the planet's poles.

Given its proximity to the sun, Mercury has seen relatively few visits by spacecraft to date. In 1974 and 1975, the US spacecraft Mariner 10 flew past Mercury three times and once even came within 320 kilometers (199 miles) of its surface. In March 2011, Messenger became the first spacecraft to orbit the planet. It was then deliberately crashed into Mercury in April 2015.

From Mercury, we continue to our cosmic neighbor, a true beauty, but one that packs a punch.

Next to the moon, Venus is the brightest object in the terrestrial night sky. As far as size goes, Venus is pretty similar to Earth. Other than that, they have little in common -- in fact, this place is the opposite of cozy.

The planet's dense atmosphere wouldn't be much fun for human beings. It consists of 96 percent carbon dioxide, with air pressure that is 90 times as high as on Earth's surface. If you were hoping to travel in comfort here, we hope you brought a diving bell along. Your equipment should also be good enough to withstand the pressure.

The average ground temperature on Venus is 462 degrees Celsius. At those temperatures, metals like lead become liquid. Sulfuric acid rain and volcanic activity also help make Venus a pretty unpleasant place.

The US Mariner 2 spacecraft completed the first successful Venus flyby in December 1962, at an altitude of 35,000 meters (114,830 feet). The Soviets achieved the first hard landing with Venera 2 in March 1966, but it was unable to collect and send data back to Earth. Venera 7 achieved this in August 1970, for an impressive 23 minutes. Remember, it's hot up there, so maybe it's a good idea to keep your distance from Venus. Since April 2006, the European Venus Express spacecraft has been transmitting data from its orbit around the planet.

So-called Aten asteroids, of which more than 900 are known, can be found on the route toward Earth. In principle, some of them could even cross Earth's orbit and pose a threat to the planet. But there is currently no evidence that any specific asteroid is about to crash into Earth anytime soon.

Astronaut Thomas Reiter Peers at Earth from Space:

The most recognizable feature of Earth from space is its blue color. Oceans cover about 70 percent of its surface. With an average depth of 3,500 meters, many parts of our oceans remain as unexplored as space.

When it comes to land surface, human beings are of course deeply familiar with their home planet. This applies to the 7.2 billion people who explore their world on the ground every day, the three to six residents of the International Space Station and countless earth observation satellites, which keep a constant eye on all signs of life.

Before we go from Earth to the next planet, let's take a little detour to our neighbor.

Thomas Reiter Looks Skyward to the Moon

So far, the moon is the only celestial body in space on which humans have landed. Of course, it's also the one we are most familiar with, given its visibility in the night sky. Although some of the craters on its surface can be seen with the naked eye, the moon's largest, at its south pole, is not visible from Earth.

The first spacecraft to fly past the moon was the Soviet Union's Lunik 1, in January 1959. Its successor, Lunik 2, made a landing in the same year, but it was a hard landing. The Soviets accomplished the first soft landing with the Luna 9 spacecraft in February 1966.

More than three years later, in July 1969, two human beings landed on the moon for the first time, as part of NASA's Apollo 11 mission. A total of 12 people -- all men, and all Americans -- have set foot on the moon. But that happened more than 40 years ago. Johann-Dietrich Wörner, head of the European Space Agency (ESA), is currently campaigning for an international, manned moon base. Let's see where that leads.

    "Don't tell me that man doesn't belong out there. Man belongs wherever he wants to go -- and he'll do plenty well when he gets there." (Wernher von Braun, the famous German-American aerospace engineer who designed the Saturn V launch vehicle that propelled the Apollo spacecraft to the moon.)

Better shake off that dust! The nearest dry cleaner is a long, long way away. On the way to Mars, our flight passes the so-called Apollo asteroids, of which more than 7,000 are known. Some of them could cross Earth's orbit, but there is currently no indication of an impending collision. Let's get a move on it. There's nothing to see here.

When Will Men be able to travel to Mars?

Mars is the second-smallest planet in the solar system after Mercury. Because a significant portion of its surface is covered with dusty iron oxide, it is known as the Red Planet. Although its atmosphere is very thin, there are still storms on Mars. It's also pretty chilly there, with temperatures ranging from minus 153 to plus 20 degrees Celsius, depending on the place and time. Although Mars seems cold and barren today, it used to be a lot more pleasant, and there was even liquid water on the planet.

There is two-thirds less gravity on Mars than on Earth. Even with a bulky space suit on, you could still jump three times higher than you could at home. If your old gym teacher could only see!

The Olympus Mons on Mars is the tallest volcano in the solar system. The mountain, known as a shield volcano, is about 25 kilometers high, or almost three times as high as Earth's Mount Everest. The Red Planet also has the deepest canyons in the solar system. The Valles Marineris, for example, is steep and runs up to seven kilometers deep.

Mars is a popular destination for research spacecraft from Earth. The Soviet Union achieved the first flyby in June 1963, with Mars 1. In July 1965, the US' Mariner 4 spacecraft delivered the first images of Mars, from a distance of about 10,000 kilometers. The Soviets accomplished the first successful landing in December 1971, with their Mars 3 craft. In December 2003, the Europeans made a hard landing on Mars with the Beagle 2. Meanwhile, the Mars Express has been in orbit since December 2003, together with four other active spacecraft.

NASA currently has two robotic vehicles on Mars, Opportunity and Curiosity. The agency is officially pursuing a plan to accomplish a manned Mars landing, sometime after 2030. Some astronauts are keen to make the trip, including Alexander Gerst of Germany.

On the way to the edge of the solar system, our route now passes through the asteroid belt. It contains half a million known asteroids, and more are constantly being added to the list. These rocks of various sizes are remnants from the early days of the solar system. Rapidly growing Jupiter once ensured that they could not come together to form a planet. This is one reason asteroids are so interesting to scientists -- as a sort of cosmic time capsule.

Asteroids are constantly colliding with each other or -- if they are thrown out of their orbits -- with planets. Asteroids have collided with Earth before, sometimes with dramatic consequences. We don't have to worry about an asteroid entering a collision course with Earth in the near future, but sooner or later it will happen again - an eventuality we are still poorly equipped to deal with. NASA is thinking about a manned asteroid mission. But so far only thinking about it.

There is a very special dwarf planet orbiting within the asteroid belt.

The especially fascinating features of the dwarf planet Ceres are its white spots, the origins of which still remain a mystery.

The goal of NASA's Dawn spacecraft is to unlock Ceres' secrets. It has been orbiting Ceres since March 2015 and has already sent back large numbers of images.

The European Space Agency's Rosetta spacecraft has been orbiting the comet 67P/ Churyumov-Gerasimenko since August 2014. Like asteroids, comets are also leftovers from the early days of the solar system. The comet, affectionately known as Churi, which Rosetta and its small Philae landing robot are studying, is only one of 4,000 known comets. Never before has mankind learned as much about this type of object.

We are now about to enter the region of the so-called gas planets. The biggest one is the next station on our journey through the solar system.

Jupiter is the giant of the solar system -- larger and with a greater mass than all of its relatives, making up 70 percent of the combined mass of all planets in the solar system. It presumably has a solid core, and it is surrounded by giant layers of gas, consisting mainly of hydrogen and helium. Unimaginably powerful storms rage within those layers. The layers are also responsible for Jupiter's rings. Another known feature of Jupiter is the Great Red Spot, a storm system larger than Earth.

At the end of 1973, NASA's Pioneer 10 became the first spacecraft to fly past Jupiter, transmitting data back to Earth from an altitude of 130,000 kilometers. In December 1995, the NASA Galileo spacecraft dropped a probe into Jupiter's atmosphere, where it burned up in 2003. NASA's Juno probe is currently en route to Jupiter, where it is expected to arrive in just under a year.

In addition to the planet itself, Jupiter's moons, of which there are at least 50 (more than any other planet), are also of interest to scientists. For instance, they believe that there is an ocean of water under thick ice on giant Ganymede, which is larger than Mercury.

The Jupiter moon Europa, a veritable flying snowball, is also fascinating to scientists, who speculate that simple life forms may exist there as well. The conditions for life there are not bad, prompting repeated discussion about a possible Europa landing mission. In 2022, ESA plans to launch its spacecraft Juice, with which it hopes to at least conduct a flyby of the Jupiter moon.

    "Can we actually "know" the universe? My God, it's hard enough to find your way around in Chinatown." (Woody Allen)

The next gas giant is Saturn, the second-largest planet. Its rings, the planet's most salient feature, are made up of water ice and rock. What most people probably don't know is that there are more than 100,000 individual rings, some with a diameter of almost a million kilometers.

As on Jupiter, there are storms raging on Saturn of almost unimaginable dimensions. They spin through the atmosphere for months, generating giant bolts of lightning 10,000 times stronger than those found on Earth. And like Jupiter, Saturn appears to have a solid core.

Mankind has known what Saturn looks like up close since September 1979, when the Americans successfully completed the first flyby, at a distance of 22,000 kilometers, with Pioneer 11. The Cassini spacecraft has been orbiting Saturn since July 2004 and is still transmitting data today.

Scientists are also interested in Saturn's moons, the biggest of which, Titan -- like Jupiter's moon Ganymede -- has a larger diameter than Mercury. In January 2005, ESA's Huygens lander managed to gather data for 70 minutes on the moon's surface, which is usually concealed by a thick atmosphere. Titan also has giant hydrocarbon seas. It's a fascinating but uncomfortable world.

The next stop is Uranus, also a gas planet. It has a bluish-green shimmer, because methane gas in its atmosphere swallows some of the incoming sunlight. The reflected remaining light creates the planet's characteristic Color.

No one has ever seen Uranus's small core beneath its atmosphere. The gas planet has a uniquely tilted rotational axis, probably the result of a collision long ago. It's also pretty cold there, so let's keep going!

So far only the US' Voyager 2 spacecraft has flown past Uranus, coming within 71,000 kilometers of the planet in January 1986. Another mission is unlikely to take place within the next two decades.

The icy planet Neptune is even farther out in the solar system. This planet also has a dense, gaseous atmosphere, in which storms churn at speeds of more than 2,000 kilometers per hour.

There are seasons in Neptune's atmosphere, but they last 40 years.

Voyager 2 has also been the only visitor from Earth to Neptune to date. In August 1989, the spacecraft approached the planet's north pole at a distance of about 5,000 kilometers, only to continue flying farther out into space.

Neptune's Triton moon is considered the coldest place in the solar system visited to date. Temperatures as low as minus 2,235 degrees Celsius have been measured on Triton, where ice geysers spew nitrogen.

In the past, we would have been flying on to the next planet. But according to a vote by the International Astronomical Union, Pluto is no longer considered a planet. Pluto, now classified as a dwarf planet, is probably the best known object in the so-called Kuiper belt.

Given Pluto's location far out in the solar system, light from the sun is very weak on the dwarf planet. It takes more than four-and-a-half hours to reach it, which is how long the trip would take if one were to fly there at the speed of light.

Pluto isn't at the end of the solar system by a long shot, but man still knows very little about the darkness beyond. Scientists cannot rule out the possibility that yet another, still unknown planet is orbiting the sun beyond Pluto.

Astronomers know even less about a structure called the Oort Cloud. They believe it contains an unimaginably large number of objects made of rock and ice, left behind when the solar system was created. No one has actually observed the cloud, but many believe it exists, as a sort of garbage dump of the solar system. Gravitational effects occasionally propel objects from the Oort Cloud into the inner solar system, where they become long-period comets.

The edge of the Oort Cloud could be 1.6 light-years away from Earth, or almost half the distance to the nearest star, Proxima Centauri. It is significantly smaller than the sun and has only an eighth of its mass. Traveling at the speed of light, it would take more than four years to reach Proxima Centauri. Put differently, if the distance between the sun and Earth were only one meter, Proxima Centauri would be about 270 kilometers away. But we'll save this part of the trip for another journey.

    "Today's science fiction is tomorrow's science fact." (Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke)

Note: The numbers used in the article on individual celestial bodies were obtained from Moons whose existence has not yet been confirmed were not taken into account. The distances quoted for the approach videos are based on the shortest distances from the sun .

Author: Christoph Seidler. Videos: Anne Martin. Editor: Holger Dambeck. Research and fact-checking: Almut Cieschinger, Maximilian Schäfer. Copyediting: Sarah Omar. Design: Hanz Sayami. Coordination: Jule Lutteroth. Translation: Christopher Sultan.

Post by: Rad on Sep 07, 2015, 05:25 AM
Researchers discover most distant galaxy ever observed

by Shayne Jacopian
Red Orbit

A team of researchers from the California Institute of Technology has detected what may be the most distant galaxy ever discovered, according to a release from the institution.

Publishing their findings in Astrophysical Journal Letters, Adi Zitrin, a NASA Hubble Postdoctoral Scholar in Astronomy, and Richard Ellis, a professor of astrophysics at University College London (and who was formerly a professor at Caltech for 15 years) presented evidence of a galaxy called EGS8p7 that is over 13.2 billion years old.

Earlier this year, NASA made EGS8p7 a candidate for further investigation based on data gathered by the Hubble and Spitzer telescopes. They used the multi-object spectrometer for infrared exploration (MOSFIRE) at the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii to perform a spectrographic analysis of the galaxy to determine its redshift—how the galaxy’s light changes based on its movement in space.

Redshift is difficult to determine when studying the most distant objects in the universe, due to the way light behaved in the universe’s first half-billion years. As the first galaxies “turned on”, some of their light would have been muffled by clouds of neutral hydrogen atoms—eventually, however, those hydrogen atoms were reionized by the ultraviolet emissions that they previously filtered out. EGS8p7 is so old, however, that theoretically, the researchers should not have been able to observe a Lyman-alpha line from the galaxy.

"If you look at the galaxies in the early universe, there is a lot of neutral hydrogen that is not transparent to this emission," said Zitrin. "We expect that most of the radiation from this galaxy would be absorbed by the hydrogen in the intervening space. Yet still we see Lyman-alpha from this galaxy."

"The surprising aspect about the present discovery is that we have detected this Lyman-alpha line in an apparently faint galaxy at a redshift of 8.68, corresponding to a time when the universe should be full of absorbing hydrogen clouds," Ellis added.

Other possibilities

Of course, other evidence offers a possible explanation.

"Evidence from several observations indicate that the reionization process probably is patchy," Zitrin said. "Some objects are so bright that they form a bubble of ionized hydrogen. But the process is not coherent in all directions."

"The galaxy we have observed, EGS8p7, which is unusually luminous, may be powered by a population of unusually hot stars, and it may have special properties that enabled it to create a large bubble of ionized hydrogen much earlier than is possible for more typical galaxies at these times," adds Caltech graduate student Sirio Belli.

Zitrin notes that these findings may change how we look at the timeline of reionization in the early universe’s hydrogen clouds.

"We are currently calculating more thoroughly the exact chances of finding this galaxy and seeing this emission from it, and to understand whether we need to revise the timeline of the reionization, which is one of the major key questions to answer in our understanding of the evolution of the universe.”

Post by: Rad on Sep 07, 2015, 05:30 AM
September 5, 2015

Secrets of star formation uncovered in nearby Andromeda galaxy

by Chuck Bednar
Red Orbit

In work that will help scientists better understand the formation history of stars in the universe, researchers analyzed images from the nearby Andromeda galaxy and found that it contains roughly the same percentage of newborn stars based on mass as our own Milky Way galaxy.

As part of their research, which was published earlier this summer in the Astrophysical Journal, Daniel Weisz from the University of Washington and his colleagues reviewed more than 2,700 images of young blue star clusters in Andromeda that had been captured using the Hubble Space Telescope. The pictures were assembled from 414 mosaic photographs of the galaxy.

The project, which NASA described as “a unique collaboration between astronomers and ‘citizen scientists,’” determined what percentage of stars has a specific mass within a cluster – also called the Initial Mass Function (IMF). This was the main reason for Hubble’s recent panoramic survey of Andromeda, called the Panchromatic Hubble Andromeda Treasury (PHAT) program.

As part of the PHAT program, nearly 8,000 images of 117 million stars in the galaxy’s disk were taken in near-ultraviolet, visible, and near-infrared wavelengths, the US space agency said. These observations provided scientists with the first IMF measurements from beyond our galaxy’s own local stellar neighborhood, and enabled them to compare the masses of the different groups.

Heavy elements likely limited in the early universe

By comparing data from a larger-than-ever sample size of star clusters, all of which were about the same distance from Earth (2.5 million light-years), Weisz and his co-authors found that each of the clusters surveyed had similar IMF readings. In addition, much to the researchers’ surprise, the distribution was consistent across types of stars, from blue supergiants to red dwarfs.

The survey also revealed that the brightest, most massive stars in these clusters were about 25 percent less abundant than previous research had predicted. The light from these stars are used by astronomers to weigh distant star clusters and galaxies, as well as to measure how rapidly the clusters are forming stars. The findings suggest that previous mass estimates incorrectly assumed that there were too few faint low-mass stars forming with the brighter, more massive ones.

“This evidence also implies that the early universe did not have as many heavy elements for making planets, because there would be fewer supernovae from massive stars to manufacture heavy elements for planet building,” NASA explained. “It is critical to know the star-formation rate in the early universe – about 10 billion years ago – because that was the time when most of the universe's stars formed.”

Post by: Rad on Sep 07, 2015, 06:28 AM
CS Monitor

NASA and 'The Martian' partner to make space 'cool' – and accurate

Ridley Scott partnered with NASA scientists to make 'The Martian' as realistic as possible. 'The more that happened, the more I got excited,' says NASA's Jim Green.

By Francis French and Robert Pearlman, September 6, 2015   

In Hollywood's many visions of space exploration, few films have come as close to NASA's own goals at the time of their release as "The Martian."

At a recent media event that previewed NASA's "Journey to Mars" and the Ridley Scott film, NASA's Jim Green integrated images from the movie into his talk about real missions to the Red Planet, subtly blurring the line between reality and imagination.

Mr. Scott wanted to make 'The Martian' realistic, so NASA helped, said Dr. Green, who directs NASA's planetary science division. "I really appreciated pulling together teams of people and answering the questions that he asked," he said. "And the more that happened, the more I got excited about it."

"Because it does indeed look very realistic – there are a lot of realistic elements in it – and it is very much appreciated from a NASA perspective," he said.

Green and Scott came together to discuss their respective visions for the exploration of Mars at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, where they were joined by astronaut Drew Feustel, actor Matt Damon and Andrew Weir, whose novel "The Martian" was the basis for the film.

"It never occurred to me that it would have mainstream appeal," Mr. Weir said of his 2011 book, which he initially self-published online. "I just thought it would be this complete niche, that very few people would be interested in."

"My favorite thing," he added, "is when I get fan mail that begins 'I don't normally read science fiction, but...'"

Emphasis on the science

As the movie trailers have already revealed, Mr. Damon plays NASA astronaut Mark Watney, who finds himself stranded on Mars in the near future. His only hope for survival is to "science the [expletive] out of this planet," Watney memorably states in both the book and the film.
Recommended: In Pictures Exploring Mars with rovers Curiosity and Opportunity

Weir went to some lengths to make sure that the science he presented was correct, going so far as first calculating the trajectory that his Ares III astronaut crew would take to reach Mars, such that where and when they landed was scientifically accurate.

Scott was keen to get the science as correct as possible, too.

What he found though was that it was more of a challenge to make a movie where the engineering was grounded in reality than one where the science fiction could be more futuristic. For example, to get around the fact that Mars has less gravitational pull than on Earth, Scott rationalized how his astronauts walked on the surface.

"It is a fairly chunky suit," he explained. "Fairly heavy, so the mathematics roughly works out at, more or less, just under normal movement."

"It's a situation where you just have to suggest it, I think," Damon added. "We're not at a point where we can do 40 percent gravity. We can do weightlessness, we can get on wires and do that space stuff, or you can do the 'Vomit Comet' [parabolic flights]."

"But it's not what these real guys can do – I'm sitting next to one," he said, pointing at Feustel to his right.

"These things are very real for us," said the veteran of two spaceflights, "these visions of exploration, and this brings them to life. Thank you for making us look good."

"We are not as smart and cool as we look up there on the screen," Feustel remarked.

As it turns out, being cool is something the space agency, and its astronauts, find can be difficult.

"The challenge we have at NASA – even as astronauts – part of our role is to go out and educate the public, talk to kids and inspire people. But unfortunately we do that with boring things that we do really well," Feustel said.

"I mean, we have been exploring space with humans for a long, long time – more than fifty years – and the challenge we have is, we do it well, we do it right, we try not to make mistakes, and we keep the drama out of it," he stated. "I watched this movie, I read this book, and it's just amazing – I was really captivated. But as an astronaut, the last thing you want to have happen is something to go wrong, someone to be left behind, someone to be dead. That is not part of our business."

And so that is where movies like "The Martian" can play a role, observed Weir.

"If the public has an interest in science that drives a market demand for science-based entertainment and when you have guys like [Scott and Damon] making stuff of this quality, you are going to get butts in seats. That's going to encourage more people to make similar movies," he said. "So people are more interested in actual science fiction as opposed what science fiction used to be, which is just fantasy with a scientific skin on it."

Damon says he hopes "The Martian" will make a small difference in advancing getting humans to Mars.

"I don't have any lofty expectations, but I do hope some kids see it and geek out in science and enjoy it," he said. "And maybe it's one thing amongst many other things in their life that might push them in that direction."

Post by: Rad on Sep 07, 2015, 06:30 AM

Supermoon lunar eclipse to occur this month: Who will see it best?

On September 27, a rare combination of supermoon and a lunar eclipse will grace the Earth’s skies for the first time since 1982.

CS Monitor

Sky gazers will be treated to a colorful cosmic show this fall.

On September 27, the moon will reach its full phase while also nearing its closest point to Earth in its orbit, creating views of a "supermoon."

A supermoon happens when the moon reaches its peak while it is at the closest possible distance to the earth, making the moon’s diameter appear around 14 per cent bigger and can look up to 30% brighter than usual, according to NASA.

Full moons vary in size because of the oval shape of the Moon's orbit. As the moon travels its elliptical path around Earth, it gets about 30,000 miles closer at perigee than at its farthest extreme, apogee.  Full moons close to perigee seem extra big and bright.

"In practice, it's not always easy to tell the difference between a supermoon and an ordinary full moon," NASA says. "A 30 percent difference in brightness can easily be masked by clouds and haze.  Also, there are no rulers floating in the sky to measure lunar diameters. Hanging high overhead with no reference points to provide a sense of scale, one full Moon looks about the same size as any other."

But this September’s supermoon will be a special one. It will also coincide with a lunar eclipse, making it a supermoon lunar eclipse – an event that has happened just five times since 1910. The last time the two events converged was in 1982 and the next time will be 2033, NASA officials said in a video.

The eclipse will last for over 3 hours. 

During a total lunar eclipse, the sun, earth, and moon form a straight line. The earth blocks any direct sunlight from reaching the moon. “But the moon doesn't go completely dark during total eclipses; rather, it often turns a reddish hue because it's hit by sunlight bent by Earth's atmosphere. For this reason, total lunar eclipses are often referred to as 'blood moons,'" explains.

The eclipse will begin after sunset and will be visible from most of North America, South America, Europe, West Asia, and parts of Africa, according to

Weather permitting sky gazers in the US will literally have front row seats – they will be treated to a striking sky show. 

 “People on the US East Coast and parts of Central United States will have some of the best views of the Eclipse, which will occur after moonrise and before local midnight (00:00 on September 28). At some locations in the Eastern US, the last stages of the Eclipse will occur after midnight on September 28,” notes.

Mark your calendar for September 27 and enjoy the supermoon lunar eclipse.

Post by: Rad on Sep 07, 2015, 06:34 AM
CS Monitor

NASA's latest baby: Hedgehog robot to hop around asteroids

Researchers at NASA are developing a robot capable of maneuvering low gravity surfaces such as comets and asteroids.

By Annika Fredrikson, Staff September 6, 2015   

As space exploration widens, NASA researchers are developing a robot that can land on micro-gravitational bodies in order to allow for further study of asteroids and comets.

Nicknamed “Hedgehog,” the cube-shaped robot is designed for objects with low gravitational pull. Asteroids and comets have almost no measurable gravity, so existing spacecraft can experience difficulties when trying to land on the surface, as the European Space Agency's Philae lander discovered last year.

“Hedgehog is a different kind of robot that would hop and tumble on the surface instead of rolling on wheels,” Issa Nesnas, NASA team leader said in a news release. “It can operate no matter which side it lands on.”

Scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab, Stanford University, and MIT have developed two prototypes so far, both with a system of programmable spinning and breaking flywheels, reports Nature World Report. The JPL prototype has eight spikes and uses disc brakes, while the Stanford prototype has smaller spikes and uses friction belts that stop the flywheels "abruptly," explains NASA.

The braking systems can also control how the Hedgehog hops from place to place.

"By controlling how you brake the flywheels, you can adjust Hedgehog's hopping angle. The idea was to test the two braking systems and understand their advantages and disadvantages," said Marco Pavone, leader of the Stanford team, who originally proposed Hedgehog with Dr. Nesnas in 2011.

The Hedgehog's spikes serve double duty, as feet for hopping and as probes to spear samples of dust and other material.

"The geometry of the Hedgehog spikes has a great influence on its hopping trajectory. We have experimented with several spike configurations and found that a cube shape provides the best hopping performance," says Benjamin Hockman, lead project engineer at Stanford. "The cube structure is also easier to manufacture and package within a spacecraft."

Overall, this “hopping” design is superior to a wheeled robot like the Mars Rover for a low-gravity surface, where "the slightest turn of their wheels could give them enough inertia to leave the surface and flip upside down," says Discovery News. The cube shape allows the robot to function no matter which direction it’s facing. The robot can even maneuver itself out of a crater or hole with a “tornado” technique in which the robot spins so quickly it lifts off the surface.

The prototypes are still in development and not yet fully autonomous, but they have been flown on several parabolic flights. NASA reports that Hedgehogs are more cost-effective than rovers, making it highly possible that successful asteroid landings are in the near future.

Post by: Rad on Sep 08, 2015, 07:48 AM
Space mission could solve 100-year-old mystery of gravitational waves

07 Sep 2015 at 14:29 ET

Since Albert Einstein predicted the existence of gravitational waves with his theory of general relativity in 1915, physicists have been on the hunt to confirm their existence. These waves are ripples in the spacetime continuum which, if discovered, could allow us to look back to the origins of the universe. Now, a forthcoming $478.6 million European Space Agency (ESA) mission could be about to take a step towards finding them.

Last week, the ESA's LISA Pathfinder probe was removed from display at the IABG space center near Munich, Germany, and packaged up to go to its launch site in French Guiana. In November, it will be blasted nearly one million miles into space, and its team hopes it will provide a proof-of-concept that gravitational waves exist, and that they can be detected.

Scientists believe that gravitational waves are caused by cataclysmic events, such as the merging of supermassive black holes or collisions between separate galaxies. However, despite the massive energy needed to produce the waves, they are very faint and difficult to detect. A ground observatory stands little chance of detecting them as something as simple as a passing train could interfere with the detectors, Gizmodo reports.

This is where the Pathfinder comes in. Its purpose is to test, in space, the technologies required for detecting gravitational waves. If the Pathfinder can prove the technology works, the ESA will be able to confidently scale up the project. Pathfinder is a precursor to a full-scale mission by the ESA, called L3, which has a tentative launch date of 2034, and will reportedly cost more than $1.3 billion.

Paul McNamara, project scientist at LISA Pathfinder, has high hopes for the mission. So far, astronomers and physicists have investigated the universe using electromagnetic radiation, such as infrared, X-rays and gamma rays. If gravitational waves could be detected, a whole new realm of discoveries may await.

"We're adding a completely new dimension, something that's not electromagnetic. We can see the universe as it is today, [but] with gravitational waves we can actually hear the universe. It's like a sound, a vibration of spacetime," says McNamara.

Unlike electromagnetic radiation, which is scattered as it passes through the matter in the universe, gravitational waves can penetrate through matter and be used by scientists to look much further back into the history of the universe.

As objects move further away from Earth, the light emitted by them becomes shifted towards the red end of the light spectrum. The degree of this shifting is referred to as redshift, and a higher redshift value means light is coming from a more distant galaxy. Currently, the furthest galaxy ever discovered, EGS8p7, has a redshift value of 8.68. McNamara estimates that, if gravitational waves were detected, they would allow us to see parts of the universe with a redshift value of 30. In other words, more than three times as old as what we currently see. "We can see things [with gravitational waves] which you just can't see with electromagnetic light. So basically, we open up this whole new way of observing the universe," he says.

Matt Whyndham, a lecturer in the Department of Space & Climate Physics at University College London, says the detection of gravitational waves would allow "a new form of astronomy" to develop. He uses the analogy of an earthquake to show how the waves would allow us to discover things not visible with light in the electromagnetic spectrum.

"If you're looking at an island that has an earthquake on it, you can look at it through a telescope and see it through light," says Whyndham. "If you've got an earthquake detector, you can feel it in the ground. So the gravitational wave is like an earthquake detector, but of the galaxy or the universe."

He emphasizes that if the mission could throw some light on the mystery of gravitational waves, it would constitute a massive advance. "They've been on the blackboard for getting on 100 years, and this would be the first time that we would have been able to detect them with a machine," he says.

Post by: Rad on Sep 09, 2015, 04:50 AM
September 8, 2015

Planck satellite captures stunning new images of Magellanic Clouds

by Shayne Jacopian
Red Orbit

The European Space Agency recently released an image captured by their Planck satellite of the two Magellanic Clouds, some of the closest objects to our Milky Way galaxy.

The Large Magellanic Cloud is about 160,000 light-years away, and appears as the large red and orange blob near the middle of the image, while the Small Magellanic Cloud is a bit further away—200,000 light-years—and is the similarly-colored blob closer to the bottom left corner of the image.

Each is classified as a dwarf galaxy, weighing between seven and ten billion times as much as the Sun. In comparison, the Milky Way galaxy weighs at least around 210 billion times as much as the sun, with some estimates being much higher.

If you were wondering how this image looks like some kind of Vincent van Gogh painting, then you’re in luck—we have answers!

The hazy appearance is caused by things floating around in the foreground—hundreds of thousands of light years worth of foreground.

Light and dust from every galaxy between the Planck satellite and the two Magellanic Clouds interfered with the dwarf galaxies’ radiation. The Planck satellite measures cosmic background radiation, and since all of these objects in space give off different kinds of radiation in different levels of intensity, the data gathered by the satellite is represented as the swirly, trippy image you see here.

To revive some 1980s slang in the most cheesy but also the most appropriate way possible: pretty freakin’ stellar, huh?

Post by: Rad on Sep 09, 2015, 05:43 AM
China plans to land lunar probe on far side of moon

Chang’e 4 mission to far side of moon is planned for sometime before 2020, leading engineer says
THe moon over Beijing, China

Associated Press in Beijing
Wednesday 9 September 2015 10.19 BST

China’s increasingly ambitious space programme plans to attempt the first-ever landing of a lunar probe on the moon’s far side, a leading engineer said.

The Chang’e 4 mission is planned for sometime before 2020, Zou Yongliao, from the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ moon exploration department, told state broadcaster CCTV in an interview broadcast on Wednesday.

Zou said the mission’s objective would be to study geological conditions on the moon’s far side.

That could eventually lead to the placement of a radio telescope for use by astronomers, something that would help “fill a void” in man’s knowledge of the universe, Zou said.

Radio transmissions from Earth are unable to reach the moon’s far side, making it an excellent location for sensitive instruments.

China’s next lunar mission is scheduled for 2017, when it will attempt to land an unmanned spaceship on the moon before returning to Earth with samples. If successful, that would make China only the third country after the United States and Russia to have carried out such a manoeuvre.

China’s lunar exploration programme, named Chang’e after a mythical goddess, has already launched a pair of orbiting lunar probes, and in 2013 landed a craft on the moon with a rover on board.

China has also hinted at a possible crewed mission to the moon.

China sent its first astronaut into space in 2003 and has powered ahead with a series of methodically timed steps, including the deploying of an experimental space station.

Post by: Rad on Sep 09, 2015, 06:12 AM
CS Monitor

More Pluto images on way: 'the best data' still to come

Later this week, mission scientists are expected to publicly unveil the first images in what is expected to be a 15-month flow of data from the New Horizons spacecraft, following its flyby of Pluto in July.

By Pete Spotts, Staff writer September 8, 2015   

Call it "Pluto and Charon: Up Close and Personal," the sequel.

Later this week, mission scientists are expected to publicly unveil the first images in what is expected to be a 15-month flow of data from the New Horizons spacecraft, following its flyby of the Pluto-Charon system July 14.

The sequel actually began to roll Saturday, when New Horizons beamed back the first of what the mission's lead scientist, Alan Stern, has dubbed "the best data" – the most detailed images and spectra, as well as additional data on Pluto's atmosphere and other features of the binary planet system and its moons.

"From the imagery I saw coming down over the weekend, it's really, really spectacular stuff," says Dr. Stern, an associate vice president at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo.

The mission's goal is to provide data that yield deeper insights into how Pluto and Charon formed and evolved.

Indeed, Pluto's geological evolution appears to be ongoing.

Shortly after New Horizons buzzed the binary planet and its moons on July 14, it beamed back stunning "first look" images. On Pluto, the images revealed a mountain range rivaling portions of the Rockies and built from blocks of ice. A large expanse of frigid plains, named Sputnik Planum, looks to be geologically young and in at least one region is covered with segments that could point to lava-lamp-like convection beneath the surface.

The science team also found evidence that nitrogen ice may be flowing, glacier-like, around higher terrain where Sputnik Planum borders on uplands.

On Charon, images revealed large impact craters as well as canyons that appear to be among the deepest in the solar system.

Once these initial high-resolution images and some initial spectra reached the ground, however, the team decided to focus on returning data from three instruments whose data sets were far smaller. That transfer of data would take much less time than is the case for the rest of the data.

During the seven weeks that followed, data from a student experiment, the Student Dust Counter, as well as from two instruments that reveal information about Pluto's escaping atmosphere and its interaction with the solar wind, reached Earth.

As with the other data so far, "all went well," says Frances Bagenal, a space physicist at the University of Colorado at Boulder who leads the team that is analyzing the data pertaining to the solar wind and the energetic particles escaping from Pluto's atmosphere.

Dr. Bagenal notes that as the data were coming down, a geophysics journal said "yes" to publishing her analysis that predicted the region around Pluto in which the solar wind and Pluto's atmosphere interacted was fairly large.

But only hours after Bagenal received the "yes," data from New Horizons showed that the interaction region was much smaller than she had predicted.

"That's the way science goes," she quipped in an e-mail.

Now, New Horizons is heading for its next target, an object deeper in the Kuiper Belt, a vast solar-system junkyard that stretches for nearly 2 billion miles beyond Neptune. The object, tagged as 2014 MU69, is a prime target because unlike Pluto, it appears to have formed in its current orbit, nearly a billion miles farther out than Pluto.

New Horizons will set a course for 2014 MU69 via four maneuvers that it will perform in late October and early November, says Stern of the Southwest Research Institute.

Even so, New Horizons' primary mission is over. So planners must ask the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to extend the mission, a proposal that is due at NASA headquarters next year.

The team should have an answer by late next summer, Stern says. By then, the craft will already be one third of the way to the target, which represents a class of objects that the astronomical community in general has been eager to see New Horizons visit.

Post by: Rad on Sep 10, 2015, 05:15 AM
September 9, 2015

NASA’s Europa mission may actually land on (potentially) life-harboring moon

by Brett Smith
Red Orbit

Jupiter’s moon Europa could potentially harbor life beneath its icy surface, and it's looking like NASA may actually end up touching down on this moon, according to

Previous descriptions of a Europa mission had outlined a series of fly-bys performed by a NASA probe that would be launched in the mid 2020s. But last week, Robert Pappalardo, a Europa project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California, said a lander isn’t out of the question.

"We are actively pursuing the possibility of a lander," Pappalardo said during a panel discussion at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics' Space 2015 conference. "NASA has asked us to investigate: What would it take? How much would it cost? Could we put a small surface package on Europa with this mission?"

A subsurface sea?

The 1,900-mile-wide Europa is topped with an ice shell about 50 miles thick. However, scientists think an enormous ocean about 12 miles deep lies below this crust.

While five other moons in the solar system are thought to harbor similar subsurface seas, Kevin Hand, deputy chief scientist at JPL's Solar System Exploration Directorate, said during the same panel discussion only the oceans of Europa and Saturn's Enceladus are likely touching the rocky mantle, whereas other moons' oceans are likely trapped between layers of ice. Such a situation on Europa and Enceladus makes a variety of interesting chemical reactions possible, Hand said.

Scientists know enough about Europa to suppose that its ocean has existed since the start of the solar system 4.5 billion years ago, giving life sufficient time to evolve, Hand said. Modeling work on the 310-mile-wide Enceladus is less mature, so it's uncertain how long the Saturn satellite has had its sea.

"When it comes to habitability, we'd like to have the knowledge that the potentially habitable environment has been there for a significant duration," Hand said.

However, enthusiasm around a possible Enceladus mission is high as well, particularly because the Saturn moon's strong geysers offer a way to sample its ocean from orbit. In fact, NASA is contemplating a prospective mission known as Enceladus Life Finder (ELF) that would do simply that.

Post by: Rad on Sep 10, 2015, 05:18 AM
September 9, 2015

How anyone can become an expert black hole hunter

by Abbey Hull
Red Orbit

Anyone can be an astronomer nowadays, thanks to Radio Galaxy Zoo, a newly developed online tutorial teaching volunteers how to spot space phenomenon like black holes in host galaxies. After studying the citizen science project, researchers are finding that trained volunteers are as good as professional astronomers in studying radio waves to find high amounts of energy.

With the results published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, Dr. Julie Banfield of the ARC Centre of Excellence for All-Sky Astrophysics and Dr. Ivy Wong at the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research tested the new online training before opening it to the public.

The research team tested both a team of trained citizen scientists and a team of ten professional astronomers, providing 100 images to test their locating abilities.

“With this early study we’ve comfortably shown that anyone, once we’ve trained them through our tutorial, are as good as our expert panel,” Banfield announced.

Radio Galaxy Zoo in its first year

The project, now open to the public, provides telescope images to volunteers and asks them to match “radio sources” with its host galaxy. The images are taken in both the radio and infrared part of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Already in the first year, volunteers have matched 60,000 radio sources to host galaxies. Doesn’t sound like a lot? Think of it this way—to do the same amount of work, a single astronomer working 40 hours a week would have to work around 50 years to produce the same results.

“We have asked our volunteers to identify 170,000 radio sources that are most likely to have unusual structures using current datasets, so we are better prepared for what we could find in the upcoming next generation radio surveys,” Wong explained.

With radio images from the Very Large Array in New Mexico and CSIRO’s Australia Telescope Compact Array, and infrared images from NASA’s Spitzer and WISE Space Telescopes, volunteers continue to show success and a hopeful future for the Radio Galaxy Zoo project.

The future of citizen scientists

Professional astronomers talk to Radio Galaxy Zoo participants on a daily basis to keep an eye out for objects of interest.

“In the upcoming all-sky radio surveys, we are expecting 70 million sources—10 percent of which will not be classifiable by any of the computer algorithms currently available,” Wong stated. “These 10 percent will have weird and complex structures that need a human brain to interpret and understand rather than a computer program.”

Post by: Rad on Sep 10, 2015, 05:21 AM
September 9, 2015

Could this robot be the first permanent ISS crew member?

by Chuck Bednar
Red Orbit

The International Space Station (ISS) may soon have its first permanent resident: a humanoid robot created by researchers from the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) that is capable of passing along information from one team of astronauts to another.

The robot, which has been named Nao, was created by CNRS senior researcher Peter Ford Dominey and his colleagues, and has been given “an autobiographical memory” so that it can pass on information learned from one group of humans to another.

On the space station, it would use this ability to act as a liaison between different crews as they change every six months, sharing information obtained by the departing astronauts to their successors, Dominey’s team explained in a statement. They presented their findings last week at the 24th International Symposium on Robot and Human Interactive Communication in Japan.

Autobiographical memory, the researchers explained, includes only those events personally experienced by the robot, as well as the context in which they were experienced. It enables the unit to date and locate memories, and to determine who was present during said event.

Following successful simulations, Nao could be headed to space

In order for Nao to be able to understand cooperative behavior, and thus be able to culturally share its knowledge and experiences, it uses a system developed by Dominey and his fellow engineers. Using this system, a human agent can teach the robot new actions through physical demonstrations, visual imitations, or voice commands.

All of these actions are then combined into procedures and stored in Nao’s autobiographical memory, allowing it to reproduce them for other humans as needed. The CNRS team has tested their new system by simulating a scenario that could actually happen on the ISS: Nao helped a scientist fix a damaged electronic card, following his directions during the repair process.

Should the same event happen again, the researchers said, the memory of the event will enable the robot to use a video system to show a new member of the crew how to repair the card. Also, it could answer questions about the previous repair process and help with the new procedure. If another type of failure occurred, it could share its experiences with the original type of failure, while also record the steps required to fix the new issue for use by future crew members.

“These results demonstrate the feasibility of this system, and show that such humanoid robots represent a potential solution for the accumulation and transfer of knowledge,” the CNRS said Monday in a statement. They added that Dominey’s team is now hoping to test Nao “in the real conditions of space operations, with zero gravity.”

Post by: Rad on Sep 11, 2015, 05:59 AM
September 10, 2015

Hubble uncovers clues about the earliest galaxies in the universe

by Brett Smith
Red Orbit

According to a new report published in the journal Nature Communications, a team of American researchers has generated the most precise statistical description to date of the earliest galaxies in the universe 500 million years after the Big Bang.

The study team said they were able to develop a fresh statistical method to investigate Hubble Space Telescope information grabbed during lengthy sky surveys. The technique made it possible for the researchers to separate signals from the noise in Hubble’s deep-sky visuals, supplying the first approximation of the amount of small, early galaxies in the early universe.

There's more where that came from

The scientists figured that there are close to 10 times more of these galaxies than had been detected prior by Hubble surveys.

“For this research, we had to look closely at what we call ‘empty pixels,’ the pixels between galaxies and stars,” study author Asantha Cooray, a professor of physics at the University of California, Irvine, said in a news release. “We can separate noise from the faint signal associated with first galaxies by looking at the variations in the intensity from one pixel to another. We pick out a statistical signal that says there is a population of faint objects.”

“We do not see that signal in the optical [wavelengths], only in infrared,” Cooray noted. “This is confirmation that the signal is from early times in the universe.”

He said primordial galaxies were very different from the well-defined spiral and disc-shaped galaxies visible all over the known universe. The main differences being that were fainter and highly populated by giant stars. Cooray said more evidence of his team’s findings will likely come with the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope in 2018.

“These galaxies are very faint,” he said, “so if we have a bigger telescope, like James Webb, we’ll be able to go very deep and see them individually.”

“This is a very exciting finding,” said study author Henry C. Ferguson, an astronomer at Baltimore’s Space Telescope Science Institute. “It’s the first time that we’ve been able to convincingly measure this subtle signature of early galaxies with Hubble, giving us a firmer handle on what to look for when the James Webb Space Telescope launches a few years from now.”


Feature Image: The three panels show different components of near-infrared background light detected by the Hubble Space Telescope in deep-sky surveys. The one on the left is a mosaic of images taken over a 10-year period. When all the stars and galaxies are masked, the background signals can be isolated, as seen in the second and third panels. The middle one reveals “intrahalo light” from rogue stars torn from their host galaxies, and the panel on the right captures the signature of the first galaxies formed in the universe. Credit: Ketron Mitchell-Wynne / UCI

Post by: Rad on Sep 11, 2015, 06:01 AM
September 10, 2015

Amazing! Astronaut on ISS drives rover on Earth

by Chuck Bednar
Red Orbit

Placing a round metal peg in a round hole in a task board is a challenging task for a young child, but tends to be rather easy for adults – unless you do what ESA astronaut Andreas Mogensen did and raise the degree of difficulty by using a remote-controlled rover in space.

As Engadget explained on Wednesday, Mogensen was able to control a ground-based rover 248 miles away while on board the International Space Station (ISS) using an ESA-developed force-feedback joystick. The device allowed him to feel when the robot encountered resistance on the ground and gave him enhanced ability to control its limbs.

Using this haptic feedback enabled him to complete an experiment in which he used the rover to place the peg into a task board hole offering less than one-sixth of a millimeter of clearance. The peg had to be inserted four centimeters to complete an electrical connection, the agency said, and while the task took 45 minutes on the first try, Mogensen needed just 10 on his second.

First-ever use of force-feedback robotics from orbit

André Schiele of the ESA’s Telerobotics and Haptics Laboratory led the experiment, and in a statement, he said that the organization was “happy” with the results of the trial. The trial took place Tuesday at the ESA’s ESTEC technical centre in Noordwijk, the Netherlands and was observed by a group of telerobotics engineers, center personnel, and the media.

“Andreas managed two complete drive, approach, park and peg-in-hole insertions, demonstrating precision force-feedback from orbit for the very first time in the history of spaceflight,” Schiele said. “He had never operated the rover before but its controls turned out to be very intuitive.”

Mogensen used the force-feedback joystick to control the Interact Centaur rover, which was designed and built by members of the Telerobotics and Haptics Lab along with graduate students from the Delft University of Technology. The 4x4-wheeled rover has a camera head, a pair of arms used for remote force-feedback operation, and an array of proximity and location sensors.

“The Interact experiment is a first step towards developing robots that provide their operators with much wider sensory input than currently available,” the ESA said in a statement. “In future, similar systems could be used for ground-based operators to oversee dexterous robotic tasks in orbit – such as removing debris around Earth – or even to build a base on the Moon.”

Post by: Rad on Sep 11, 2015, 06:44 AM
CS Monitor

Mysterious bright spots on Ceres come into focus

NASA's Dawn spacecraft captured another series of photos in its third orbit of the dwarf planet.

By Kelsey Warner, Staff writer September 10, 2015   

Ceres, the dwarf planet with secrets, is a little less mysterious today because of closer-than-ever photos snapped from NASA's Dawn spacecraft. But not by much.

The latest images, released Wednesday by NASA, still do not reveal what those bright spots are on the floor of Ceres' Occator crater. But NASA scientists have a slightly deeper understanding of these unique features thanks to new images with a resolution of 450 feet per pixel, the best yet captured of Ceres by NASA's Dawn spacecraft. This is cause for optimism at mission headquarters at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

"Dawn has transformed what was so recently a few bright dots into a complex and beautiful, gleaming landscape," said Marc Rayman, Dawn's chief engineer and mission director, in a NASA blog post. "Soon, the scientific analysis will reveal the geological and chemical nature of this mysterious and mesmerizing extraterrestrial scenery."

The latest view of the Occator crater adds better definition to the shapes of the brightest spot and the features of the crater floor. Capturing both the bright spot and the dimmer crater floor in the same view actually required compiling two separate images; one properly exposed for the brightness of the mysterious spots, and one for the surrounding surface.

Following Dawn's last orbit around the dwarf planet in June, “Dawn scientists can now conclude that the intense brightness of these spots is due to the reflection of sunlight by highly reflective material on the surface, possibly ice,” Dawn’s principal investigator, Christopher Russell said in a statement at the time.

These latest images have three times the resolution of those captured during Dawn's previous orbit in June, and ten times  that of those transmitted during the spacecrafts first orbit in April and May.

The spacecraft has already completed two 11-day cycles of mapping the surface of Ceres from its current altitude, and began the third on Thursday. Dawn will map all of Ceres' surface six times over the next two months. Each cycle includes 14 orbits, and will take images a a different angle for each cycle in hopes of gathering enough imagery to assemble stereo views and 3-D maps of the surface.

Dawn's claim to fame is as the first mission to visit a dwarf planet, and the first to orbit two distinct solar system targets. The spacecraft first orbited protoplanet Vesta for just over a year in 2011 and 2012, and arrived at Ceres on March 6, 2015.

Scientists have made animations that provide a virtual fly-around of the mysterious "lights of Occator", which you can view here:

Post by: Rad on Sep 11, 2015, 06:46 AM
CS Monitor

Could China be the first to land on the far side of the moon?

China's space program plans a mission to land a probe on the side of the moon that never faces Earth. Radio signals from Earth cannot reach the moon's far side.

By Associated Press September 9, 2015   

Beijing — China's increasingly ambitious space program plans to attempt the first-ever landing of a lunar probe on the moon's far side, a leading engineer said.

The Chang'e 4 mission is planned for sometime before 2020, Zou Yongliao from the Chinese Academy of Sciences' moon exploration department told state broadcaster CCTV in an interview broadcast on Wednesday.

Zou said the mission's objective would be to study geological conditions on the moon's far side, also known as the dark side.

That could eventually lead to the placement of a radio telescope for use by astronomers, something that would help "fill a void" in man's knowledge of the universe, Zou said.

Radio transmissions from Earth are unable to reach the moon's far side, making it an excellent location for sensitive instruments.

China's next lunar mission is scheduled for 2017, when it will attempt to land an unmanned spaceship on the moon before returning to Earth with samples. If successful, that would makeChina only the third country after the United States and Russia to have carried out such a maneuver.

China's lunar exploration program, named Chang'e after a mythical goddess, has already launched a pair of orbiting lunar probes, and in 2013 landed a craft on the moon with a rover onboard.

China has also hinted at a possible crewed mission to the moon.

China sent its first astronaut into space in 2003 and has powered ahead with a series of methodically timed steps, including the deploying of an experimental space station.

Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Post by: Rad on Sep 12, 2015, 05:25 AM
September 11, 2015

New Horizons team delves into Charon’s Red Pole mystery

by Shayne Jacopian
Red Orbit

Remember New Horizons? You know, the satellite that got that snapped that really cool picture of Pluto not too long ago?

Well, it’ll take about fourteen more months for all of the data on Pluto and its moons to actually get to Earth, which means it’s going to be the equivalent of sporadic Christmases here at redOrbit every time a new discovery is made using the data that will be continuously arriving for the next year.

One thing that scientists are anxiously awaiting data on is Charon’s “Red Pole,” spotted in one of the images of the moon sent back by New Horizons.

Charon has a large dark spot with a reddish hue at its north pole, and the New Horizons team says that it appears to be a thin deposit of a dark material draped over a sharp, angular feature in the moon’s terrain. Unfortunately, speculation is what we’re stuck with until higher resolution imagery, as well as data from New Horizons’ other instruments, is beamed back to Earth.

A probable theory

What can be reasonably hypothesized, though, is that given the extremely cold temperatures at Charon’s poles (between -433 and -351 degrees Fahrenheit—barely above absolute zero) the dark spot is caused by a phenomenon called “cold-trapping”, in which gases in the moon’s atmosphere freeze solid and sink to the ground.

“We know Pluto’s atmosphere is mainly nitrogen, with some methane and carbon monoxide,” said Carly Howett, senior researcher at Southwest Research Institute, “so we expect that these same constituents are slowly coating Charon’s winter pole. The frozen ices would sublimate away again as soon as Charon’s winter pole emerges back into sunlight, except for one important detail: solar radiation modifies these ices to produce a new substance, which has a higher sublimation temperature and can’t sublimate and then escape from Charon.”

We won’t know for sure about the chemical makeup of the moon’s Red Pole until more data arrives on Earth, but the data is expected in the next few weeks.

Post by: Rad on Sep 12, 2015, 05:26 AM
September 11, 2015

Barrage of small asteroids shattered moon’s upper crust, study finds

by Chuck Bednar
Red Orbit

While most scientists believe that the moon was severely pummeled by an array of asteroids roughly four billion years ago, a new study from research scientists at MIT and elsewhere has found that this event may have had a greater-than-expected impact on the lunar surface.

Known as the Late Heavy Bombardment, the sustained asteroid impacts were so heavy in some regions of the dark side of the moon that they completely shattered the upper crust. These areas, known as the lunar highlands, were left as fractured and porous as they could be – until additional impacts sealed back up the previously created cracks.

Jason Soderblom of the MIT Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences and his fellow investigators explained in a statement that they observed this effect in the upper layer of the lunar crust (also known as the megaregolith). Small craters no more than 30 km in diameter dominate this layer, while deeper layers have larger craters and less porous terrain.

The authors, who published their findings in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, used data from the NASA Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) satellites to map the gravity field in and around more than 1,200 craters in the lunar highlands, then used that information in a series of calculations to determine if an impact increased or decreased porosity.

For craters smaller than 30 km in diameter, Soderblom’s team found impacts that both increased and decreased porosity in the upper layer of the moon’s crust. Larger craters, on the other hand, were found much deeper in the moon’s crust and only increased in porosity further down, which indicates that the deeper layers are less fractured than the megaregolith.

Research could provide insight on origins of life, Late Heavy Bombardment

The evolution of the moon’s porosity could give scientists new insight into some of the earliest life-supporting processes occurring in the solar system, as the interaction of water and rock can provide a significant source of energy and may have played a key role in the evolution of life on Earth, Soderblom explained to redOrbit via email.

“A rocky layer that is porous and fractured has an increased surface area, which increases the rates at which water-rock reactions occur. Understanding how porosity formed and evolved in Earth's crust, therefore provides insight into these reaction rates,” Soderblom said. “The moon has undergone little modification over the lifespan of the solar system, and so it provides us a great way to look back in time at what the Earth, and the other terrestrial planets, might have looked like in the early solar system.”

In addition, he and his co-author hope to discover where these different types of impactors came from, and as a result, to understand more about the origins of the Late Heavy Bombardment. As Soderblom explained, the total number of craters that formed on the moon (its cumulative record of craters) is one of “the great outstanding questions in the history of the solar system.”

However, the far side of the moon simply has too many craters to retrieve this information, he said. Thus, he and his colleagues hope to use the structure of the subsurface to retrieve this data. To this end, they are developing a model that will simulate the evolution of impact-generated porosity in the lunar subsurface.

“Knowing this will allow us to understand the magnitude of the Late Heavy Bombardment – and, in fact, test whether it occurred at all – and to investigate the significance of this event for other planetary bodies throughout the Solar System,” he concluded.

Post by: Rad on Sep 12, 2015, 05:28 AM
September 11, 2015

Earth to aliens message could win $1 million (but may not be sent)

by John Hopton
Red Orbit

A British research group committed to the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence (Seti) has voted in favor of creating a message that could be broadcast to aliens, but are undecided as to whether it should actually be sent.

They will enter a $1 million contest held by Breakthrough Message and funded by tech billionaire Yuri Milner. Anyone is welcome to enter, but Breakthrough Message has promised not to actually send the winning entry into space until a debate has been held on the advisability of such a move.

The message is supposed to accurately represent human civilization to extra-terrestrial beings, the BBC reports.

At a recent conference of the UK Seti Research Network (UKSRN), the group's 20 members were divided in an informal vote on whether their message should be transmitted.

"We did a show of hands and we were perfectly evenly split," said Dr. Anders Sandberg, speaking at the British Science Festival in Bradford. However, the network was certain that the message should be composed, if not necessarily sent.

"What we could agree on was that it was worthwhile and important to try to devise that message, so that we can reach the best possible version," Dr. Sandberg explained.

He and three other members will now begin to think about the nature of the message, with a possible two drafts on the table. One could use pictures, another more abstract content such as language or mathematics.

Dr. Sandberg admits his team could face stiff competition. "There's a fair chance that we'll get beaten by a schoolgirl somewhere, and in that case more power to her!" he said.

Is contacting aliens a good idea?

Speaking on the paradox of composing a message but potentially not broadcasting it, Dr. Sandburg said:

"It seems a bit silly in a sense, this prize for a message that they promise not to send. But on the other hand, from a scientific perspective, it's a really interesting question: how do you construct a message that an alien intelligence could receive?"

The new competition will look for novel delivery methods as well as excellent content.

Passions are high on both sides of the debate over how sensible trying to contact aliens really is. Some believe doing so is a good thing, because at the very least it will cause us to take a long hard look at ourselves and what we represent. At the other extreme, we get be put in touch with wiser, more advanced civilizations that could help to sort out our many problems.

Dr. Jill Stuart, who studies space law and policy at the London School of Economics and who supported the group's decision to construct a message, strongly believes that communication attempts are a good idea.

"I'm very explicitly in favour," she said, "not only because I think it's worth trying to contact them, but because of what I think it makes us do - reflecting back on ourselves, building a potential regime for how we could communicate, and so on."

Dr. Sandberg is well aware of the arguments against. "The most naive one would be that aliens will come and eat us or invade us," he said. "That is probably not very likely. But a more sophisticated version is that we have seen what happens when more advanced civilisations encounter less advanced ones."

However, he says: "We have a lot of these uncertainties, but we also know that our own civilisation is in a fair bit of trouble. We face some pretty big threats.

"That means it might be a good idea to gamble... If aliens told us something about how to handle our climate, or artificial intelligence, we might want to listen."

Post by: Rad on Sep 12, 2015, 06:24 AM
CS Monitor

Does oxygen necessarily mean aliens?

Astrobiologists find that the presence of oxygen in a planet's atmosphere may not necessarily mean that life exists there.

By Eva Botkin-Kowacki, Staff writer September 11, 2015   

Scientists and E.T. enthusiasts may have to rethink an allegedly telltale sign that a planet has life.

The presence of oxygen, specifically O2 , in a planet's atmosphere has long been thought to be a near-certain signal that there are, or at least were, living organisms engaging in photosynthesis on the planet. But new research suggests that oxygen can exist in large quantities without being produced by living things.

A study published Thursday in Scientific Reports found that some planets could have "abiotic" oxygen, produced through a a photocatalytic reaction of titanium oxide.

For scientists hunting for extraterrestrial life, this abiotic oxygen could create a false positive, the researchers caution.

Atmospheric oxygen, like water and complex organic molecules, have long been considered biomarkers, that is, signals that life is present.

"To search for life on extrasolar planets through astronomical observation, we need to combine the knowledge from various scientific fields and to promote astrobiology researches to establish the decisive signs of life,” study author and astrobiology professor Norio Narita said in a news release.

"Although oxygen is still one of possible biomarkers," said Dr. Narita, the new results suggest that scientists should "look for new biomarkers besides oxygen."

Water has been a popular biomarker, especially as it has been found in moons in our solar system and in atmospheres around other Earth-like planets.

This isn't the first time scientists have debunked a signifier. In 2013, astronomers found that a planet could be surrounded by atmospheric gases that suggested life, but that those gases too could be a false indication. "Beware the habitable-planet poseur," wrote the Christian Science Monitor's Pete Spotts.

It's all part of the evolving understanding of planetary processes and what they mean for extraterrestrial life.

NASA isn't discouraged. Within 20 to 30 years, says NASA chief scientist Ellen Stofan, scientists will find clear evidence of life "out there."

Post by: Rad on Sep 13, 2015, 05:57 AM
September 12, 2015

Scientists find gigantic ice slab under Martian surface

by Chuck Bednar
Red Orbit

Researchers from the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory (LPL) have discovered an enormous slab of ice, roughly equal to the size of Texas and California combined, located just beneath the surface of Mars in the planet’s northern hemisphere.

According to, the ice may have been the result of snowfall that occurred on the Red Planet tens of millions of years ago, as evidence suggests that the now cold and dry world once was covered by rivers and lakes. The discovery “could help us understand if locations on Mars were once habitable,” lead author Ali Bramson told the website on Thursday.

Experts already knew about the vast amounts of ice beneath the planet’s surface at high latitudes around the poles, but they recently started discovering water ice hidden in the middle and lower latitudes. Life and liquid water go hand-in-hand on Earth, so scientists believe Mars may have harbored life when it was wet, and living organisms may be hidden in underground aquifers.

Bramson, a planetary scientist at the LPL, and her colleagues, looked at an unusual crater in the Arcadia Planitia region of Mars, located in the mid-latitudes around the same region as the US-Canadian border on Earth. The crater is terraced, they explained, and between 1,075 and 1,410 feet (328 to 430 meters) wide.

How did the ice manage to survive all this time?

The terraced crater is somewhat unusual for Mars, the UA team said in a statement, as most craters are bowl-shaped. Using data from the NASA Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera, they set out to learn why this crater had such an odd shape, creating 3D models of the surface to measure the depth of the terraces.

Bramson’s team then used the MRO’s Shallow Radar (SHARAD) instrument to fire radar pulses at Mars, which allowed them to measure how long it took for those signals to penetrate the layers of the surface and rebound to the orbiter. They combined both sets of data to determine the speed of the radar waves, which helped them determine that the layers were made of water ice.

The researchers also said they found an enormous hunk of ice located just below the regolith of the Red Planet. This icy slab is approximately 130 feet thick, Bramson and her colleagues said in research published Wednesday in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

“Knowing where the ice is and how thick it is can tell you about Mars’ past climates” said associate professor and study co-author Shane Byrne in a statement. “The fact that the ice is so thick and widespread leads us to think it came into place during one of Mars’ past climates when it snowed a bunch, ice accumulated, was buried, and then preserved.”

“There have been a lot of climate changes between now and the tens of millions of years ago when we suspect the ice was put there. But it shouldn’t be stable today, and other past climates of ice instability in this region mean the ice should’ve sublimated away into the dry Martian atmosphere by now. So, that’s what we need to investigate,” he added. “What kept the ice around all this time? There’s no climate model that we have now that explains this.”

Post by: Rad on Sep 14, 2015, 04:57 AM
September 13, 2015

Scientists revise Io model because ‘volcanoes were in the wrong places’

by Chuck Bednar
Red Orbit

Jupiter’s moon is the most volcanically active object of its kind in the solar system, and is home to hundreds of erupting craters capable of shooting lava up to 250 miles (400 kilometers) into the air – but why does it seem like those volcanoes are in all the “wrong” places?

Thanks to new analysis of tidal flow in a subsurface ocean of magma, NASA scientists may have finally discovered the answer: oceans beneath the crusts of this tidally-stressed moon could be more common and longer-lasting than previously expected. A paper discussing their findings was published earlier this summer in the Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series.

“This is the first time the amount and distribution of heat produced by fluid tides in a subterranean magma ocean on Io has been studied in detail,” lead author Robert Tyler of the University of Maryland, College Park and NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, said in a statement. “We found that the pattern of tidal heating predicted by our fluid-tide model is able to produce the surface heat patterns that are actually observed on Io.”

The intense geological activity found on Io, Tyler and his colleagues explained, is caused by a kind of gravitational tug-of-war between Jupiter and gravity from the neighboring satellite Europa. The faster-moving Io finishes two orbits every time Europa completes one, meaning that the former feels the gravitational pull of the latter at the same orbital location every time.

This causes Io’s orbit to be distorted into an oval shape, which makes it flex as it travels around Jupiter and causes material within the moon to change position. This shifting causes friction and generates heat, similar to how rubbing your hands together warms them up, the agency said.

Answer lies in a mixture of fluid and solid tidal heating

Earlier theories used to explain Io's heat generation looked at the moon as a clay-like object that is solid, but able to be deformed. However, when scientists using this explanation in computer models, they learned that the majority of the volcanoes were not located where they should have been – they were located 30 to degree degrees to the East of where models predicted the most intense heat should have been produced.

The results turned out to be too consistent to be dismissed as an anomaly, so Tyler’s team needed to find an alternative to the traditional solid-body tidal heating models. They ultimately came up with an explanation that centered around the interaction between heat produced by fluid flow and heat from solid-body tides, co-author Christopher Hamilton of the University of Arizona said.

“Fluids – particularly 'sticky' (or viscous) fluids – can generate heat through frictional dissipation of energy as they move,” Hamilton explained in a statement. He and his colleagues believe that most of the ocean layer is a partially-molten slurry that is mixed with solid rock. As molten rock flows under gravity’s influence, it rubs against the solid rock surrounding it, generating heat.

Hamilton said that this process “can be extremely effective for certain combinations of layer thickness and viscosity which can generate resonances that enhance heat production,” and his team believes that this a mixture of fluid and solid tidal heating may offer the best explanation for the Jovian moon’s volcanic activity.

Their findings may also have implications for the search for life on other planets, according to NASA. Some tidally stressed moons, such as Europa and Enceladus, have liquid water oceans beneath their icy surfaces. Those subsurface oceans may contain the ingredients required for life to exist, and the new study suggests that these oceans may be more common and longer lasting than previously believed – no matter if they’re made of magma, water, or something else.

Post by: Rad on Sep 14, 2015, 06:06 AM
CS Monitor

Space records shatter as astronaut returns home

Russian cosmonaut Gennady Padalka has broken the record for longest time in space – by more than two months.

By Annika Fredrikson, Staff September 12, 2015   

2 years, 4 months, 29 days. That’s how long Russian cosmonaut Gennady Padalka has spent orbiting Earth.

Upon returning from the International Space Station (ISS) today, Mr. Padalka became the most-experienced space flier on the planet, breaking the previous record for the longest amount of time spent in space, held by his countryman Sergei Krikalev, who completed 803 days over 6 missions.

In just five missions, Padalka has him beat by 76 days.

"I like to fly," he said in March, before launching on his latest mission.

The space frontier has transformed during Padalka's twenty-plus years as a cosmonaut: The Mars Pathfinder and the Phoenix Mars lander explored Mars, the Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR) spacecraft landed on asteroid Eros, Cassini investigated Saturn’s rings, Stardust brought comet dust back to Earth, and Dawn became the first spacecraft to orbit an asteroid.

Padalka's own achievements have contributed to crewed spaceflight, first on Mir and then with four missions to the ISS.

Padalka’s first mission took him to the Mir Space Station in 1998, where he began preparations to shut down the Russian station. He repaired Mir's life-support system, did cabling work to optimize solar power collection, and gathered experimental data from the space station's exterior, according to Spaceflight101.

Padalka spent much of his second mission aboard ISS in 2004 on maintenance and a series of human research studies. In 2009, Padalka commanded a six-man crew, collaborated with the Dextre robot, inaugurated the Japanese Robotic Arm & Kibo’s airlock, and completed structural assessments of the outboard solar arrays.

The next year, as part of ISS Expedition 31/32, Padalka contributed to dozens of experiments, including investigating astronaut physiology, examining high speed and thermal neutrons, and testing the first humanoid robonaut.

Expedition 44 marked Padalka’s fifth mission, and he told interviewers before launching in March that he hopes to pass 1,000 days in space on his next mission reported Spaceflightnow.

"I still hope that spending a long time in space, and conducting experiments with my colleagues, who are also approaching this record, will be of huge significance for future missions," he says in a NASA video:

Post by: Rad on Sep 15, 2015, 04:59 AM
September 14, 2015

Astronomers look into ‘amniotic sac’ of planet-hosting star for first time

by Abbey Hull
Red Orbit

In a paper recently published in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, an international team of astronomers witness the ‘amniotic sac’ of a star for the first time. Like proud parents at their first sonogram, these researchers saw the innermost region of a developing solar system through observing its parent star, named HD 100546.

“Nobody has ever been able to probe this close to a star that is still forming and which also has at least one planet so close in,” said Dr. Ignacio Mendiguitía, lead author from the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Leeds. “We have been able to detect for the first time emission from the innermost part of the disk of gas that surrounds the central star. Unexpectedly, this emission is similar to that of ‘barren’ young stars that do not show any signs of active planet formation.”

“Considering the large distance that separates us from the star (325 light-years), the challenge was similar to trying to observe something the size of a pinhead from 100km away,” said Rene Oudmaijer, professor at the University’s School of Physics and Astronomy and co-author of the study.

To observe this miraculous birth, astronomers used the aptly named VLTI—Very Large Telescope Interferometer in Chile, which uses the observation power of four 8.2m-wide telescopes. And what they saw amazed them.

An amazing sight

Now HD 100546 is a relatively young star, being a thousandth the age of the Sun. The star is surrounded by a disk-shaped structure call a ‘proto-planetary disk,’or a gas and dust-filled common occurrence around many young stars.

However, this disk was different in its size. Think of it in this way: If HD 100546 star was placed in the center of our Solar System, its outer edge of the disk would extend around ten times the orbit of Pluto.

“More interestingly, the disk exhibits a gap that is devoid of material,” Mendigutía said. “This gap is very large, about 10 times the size of the space that separates the Sun from the Earth. The inner disk of gas could only survive for a few years before being trapped by the central star, so it must be continuously replenished somehow.”

“We suggest that the gravitational influence of the still-forming planet—or possibly planets—in the gap could be boosting a transfer of material from the gas-rich outer part of the disk to the inner regions,” he continued.

Hence, the researchers’ surprise upon finding a system. These cases are extremely rare, with only one other case being reported of possessing a disk ten times further out from its planet star than the one in this current study.

“With our observations of the inner disk of gas in the HD 100546 system, we are beginning to understand the earliest life of planet-hosting stars on a scale that is comparable to our Solar System,” Oudmaijer said.

Post by: Rad on Sep 15, 2015, 05:04 AM
September 14, 2015

Brand new Pluto pictures show a beautiful, complex world

by Shayne Jacopian
Red Orbit

As we continue to receive new data and images from New Horizons, we’re going to be hearing about Pluto quite a lot over the next year or so. (Yay!) The news today is of a new set of photos of the dwarf planet, now that New Horizons has resumed sending images after taking a break to send data sets.

With these new photos, the New Horizons team is remarking at just how complex Pluto’s terrain is, with an “over-the-top” mixture of craters, ice flows, mountains, valleys, and (maybe) even some dunes, according to Discovery News.

"Pluto is showing us a diversity of landforms and complexity of process that rival anything we've seen in the solar system," said New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern in a statement.

You can check out all of the new photos compiled in a video at

The new images have a resolution of about 400 meters per pixel.

From space, that’s pretty high-res.

"The surface of Pluto is every bit as complex as that of Mars," said Jeff Moore, leader of the New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging (GGI) team at NASA's Ames Research Center in California. "The randomly jumbled mountains might be huge blocks of hard water-ice floating within a vast, denser, softer deposit of frozen nitrogen within the region informally named Sputnik Planum."

Additionally, they think there might be dunes.

"Seeing dunes on Pluto — if that is what they are — would be completely wild, because Pluto's atmosphere today is so thin," said William B. McKinnon, a GGI deputy lead. "Either Pluto had a thicker atmosphere in the past, or some process we haven't figured out is at work. It's a head-scratcher."

Click here for some more of those images we’ve been bragging on! :

Post by: Rad on Sep 16, 2015, 05:11 AM
September 15, 2015

Depending on their ‘air conditioning systems’, rocky planets may be habitable

by Shayne Jacopian
Red Orbit

Belgian scientists have found that just because a rocky planet isn’t like Earth doesn’t mean that it can’t be habitable.

Running 165 climate simulations on exoplanets that have a permanent “light side” and “dark side”, researchers from KU Leuven found that two of the three climates they analyzed could possibly support life, according to a release from the university.

Most exoplanets orbit red dwarf stars, which are comparatively small and cool—therefore, these planets have to be really close to their stars in order to have liquid water, and this close proximity to a star makes these planets easy for researchers to study.

At first glance, one would assume that since many of these planets have one side permanently facing their sun, they must be extremely hot on one side and extremely cold on the other. However, according to this study, that may not always be the case.

Some of these planets have a sort of “air conditioning system”. While exoplanets with rotation periods under 12 days tend to form an eastward wind jet high in the atmosphere above the equator (called a superrotation) that interferes with the planet’s atmospheric circulation in such a way as to render its day side too hot to support life, a couple of other climate scenarios could potentially be habitable.

In one scenario, two weaker westward wind jets form at higher latitudes, circulating the air to warm the dark side and cool the sunny side. In another model, a superrotation combines with higher-latitude wind jets in a way that leaves the planet’s “air conditioning system” unaffected.

These findings show that just because a rocky exoplanet isn’t nearly identical to Earth and revolving around a nearly identical sun doesn’t mean that it should necessarily be tossed away as an uninhabitable planet unworthy of further investigation.

Post by: Rad on Sep 16, 2015, 06:04 AM
CS Monitor

How NASA's astronaut twins are preparing us for Mars

Scott Kelly will break US endurance records in space while his identical twin brother, retired astronaut Mark Kelly, stays behind on Earth.

By Olivia Lowenberg, Staff September 15, 2015   

NASA is preparing for long-term missions to deep space with the help of a pair of identical twins. On March 27th of this year, NASA astronaut Scott Kelly launched to the International Space Station, beginning a one-year mission in space.

Back on Earth, Scott's identical twin brother, retired NASA astronaut Mark Kelly, has been participating in a number of comparative genetic studies to compare and investigate the effects of long-duration spaceflight on the human body.

"This knowledge is critical as NASA looks toward human journeys deeper into the solar system, including to and from Mars, which could last 500 days or longer," say NASA officials in a press release. NASA is working toward putting humans on Mars in the 2030s.
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The Kelly brothers both became NASA astronauts in 1996 after careers in the Navy. When asked who got the better end of the deal on the twin study, Scott first gave a diplomatic answer to USA Today: that it was a "privilege" to be part of the mission.

Then he admitted, "But sometimes when [Mark] sends me pictures of his breakfast, I'm a little envious."

In addition to studying the health effects of long-term space travel, NASA is monitoring effects of isolation on individual crew performance, as well as how crew interactions change over the 12-month period. The data collected will benefit not only future deep-space missions, but all NASA human spaceflight projects.

A full year in space would break several US endurance records. On this mission, Scott Kelly will spend 342 days in orbit, resulting in a lifetime total of 522 days in space, well past current US record holder Mike Fincke’s mark of 382 days. He will also break the current record for the longest single mission aboard the ISS, set by NASA astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin.

Scott's Russian counterpart, cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko, will share his 342 days in space. The two launched into space with Russian cosmonaut Gennady Padalka, who remained onboard for six months, becoming the new record holder for most cumulative time spent in space by any human.

After completing his work aboard the space station with Kelly and Kornienko, Mr. Padalka had totaled 879 days in space – "the equivalent of nearly two and a half years on five different flights," as NPR reported. He has said he would like to try for a total of 1,000 days in space.

In addition to scientific advances, the Kelly and Kornienko mission presents an opportunity to warm relations between the United States and Russia; the research collected will be shared between the two countries, as will the costs.

Russia is in the midst of a recession, prompted by falling oil prices and economic sanctions imposed after the country's invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea. Space News reports that the slowdown is preventing Russia from developing their plans for a separate space station.

"Space can be, and is, a bridge to cooperate even in difficult political situations," Johann-Dietrich Woerner, chairman of the German Aerospace Center, told Space News.

Post by: Rad on Sep 16, 2015, 06:09 AM
CS Monitor

Supermoon eclipse coming Sept. 27: How rare is the celestial treat?

Supermoons and lunar eclipses are both somewhat rare, but it can take decades for both to occur at the same time.

By Eva Botkin-Kowacki, Staff writer September 15, 2015   

If you happen to stare up at the sky a couple hours before midnight on September 27, you might see a gigantic red moon.

Don’t be alarmed. Nothing is wrong with the moon.

In fact, you’ll be witnessing a rare celestial event: a supermoon coinciding with a total lunar eclipse.
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Both phenomena create intriguing displays high in the sky, but the last time the two happened together was more than 30 years ago.

"That’s rare because it’s something an entire generation may not have seen," Noah Petro, deputy project scientist for the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center told NASA. The last time the two stellar events combined was in 1982, and NASA experts predict the next one won't occur until 2033.

On their own, supermoons and lunar eclipses are already considered to be celestial treats, each only occurring a handful of times each year. However, sky gazers must wait decades for the two to occur at once.

So-called supermoons are an optical illusion that appears when a full moon coincides with a particular point in satellite's orbit around the Earth.

"Because the orbit of the moon is not a perfect circle, the moon is sometimes closer to the Earth than at other times during its orbit," said Dr. Petro. "When the moon is farthest away it’s known as apogee, and when it’s closest it’s known as perigee."

The perigee full moon has been dubbed a "supermoon" because it appears about 14 percent larger and 30 percent brighter than an apogee full moon.  The supermoon is also 31,000 miles closer to Earth than an apogee moon, a distance more than the circumference of our planet.

On September 27th, 2015 there will be a very rare event in the night sky – a supermoon lunar eclipse. Watch this animated feature to learn more:

Lunar eclipses may seem even stranger.

The moon gets caught in the shadow of Earth for over an hour as the planet moves between the moon and the sun.

But the moon won’t disappear entirely. Sunlight still reaches the moon’s reflective surface, but the light is bent as it moves through Earth’s atmosphere. This gives the moon a reddish hue.

A humongous red moon may have been frightening to ancient peoples such as the Incans and Mesopotamians, but there’s no cause for alarm, said Petro.

"It’s just planetary dynamics," he said. "The orbit of the moon around Earth is inclined to the axis of Earth and the orbital plane of all these things just falls into place every once in a while. When the rhythms line up, you might get three to four eclipses in a row or a supermoon and an eclipse happening."

The strange celestial event won’t leave much of a mark. "The only thing that will happen on Earth during an eclipse is that people will wake up the next morning with neck pain because they spent the night looking up," Petro said.

Post by: Rad on Sep 17, 2015, 04:51 AM
September 16, 2015

Philae video shows how it landed on Comet 67P

by Brett Smith
Red Orbit

Earlier this week, the European Space Agency (ESA) released a video showing the point-of-view of its ill-fated Philae lander as it approached its final destination, Comet 67P.

The video was composited from a series of still images taken ten seconds apart from the probe’s Rolis descent camera. The images captured the probe’s descent from nearly 220 feet down to about 30 feet above the comet’s surface.

Click to watch:

Made using digital effects, the smoothly-flowing, minute long video gives the viewer a sense of what it might have been like to look down as the lander closes in on the comet’s surface.

According to BBC News, the ESA said it released the video to coincide with the determination of the landing site on Comet 67P. Philae did not come to rest at its chosen landing site, called Agilkia. The lander quickly bounded away from the site, moving high over the comet for over a half-a-mile, before finally settling into a dark ditch.

At a standstill

Philae's location, known as Abydos, is not accurately known, but researchers have a good idea about, to within a few yards. Philae has been unable to establish regular communication with Rosetta, the ship that launched the lander and is still circling the comet.

Phile was functionally communicating for 60 hours after its landing on November 12 of last year. However, the lander went silent after that. Resting currently in a dark ditch, it is not able to recharge its solar-powered battery.

When seasonal changes caused lighting conditions to change earlier this year, seven communiqués with Philae were made. However, the links were too short to restart any observations on the exterior of 67P.

The ESA said it wants to try again later in the year when Rosetta is able to drift close to the comet again. At present, the relay satellite is orbiting at a distance of many hundred miles, and moving Rosetta closer risks the probe running into the blizzard of dust and gas now streaming off the comet. The dust storm would probably disrupt Rosetta's capacity to get around the comet, possibly putting it in dangerous situations.

Post by: Rad on Sep 17, 2015, 04:52 AM
September 16, 2015

Dust discs of nearby red dwarfs shed light on planet formation

by Chuck Bednar
Red Orbit

Talk about a happy accidents: Astronomers have unexpectedly stumbled upon a group of young red dwarf stars located not far from our solar system, and their discovery could provide them with the rare opportunity to study slow-motion planet formation.

As reported in the latest edition of the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical, two of the newly-discovered red dwarf stars have large discs of dust surrounding them, a feature that is indicative of planets that are still in the process of forming. Thus, by studying these stars, the astronomers may be able to get a glimpse of a new solar system as it evolves.

“Orbiting disks of dusty material from which planets form are very rare around stars older than 5-10 million years,” lead researcher Dr. Simon Murphy from the ANU Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics explained to redOrbit via email. “Our serendipitous discovery of two such disks around what we believe are 16 million years stars is therefore very surprising.”

Planets may have more time to form than we thought

The stars were discovered in a young group known as Scorpius-Centaurus, and based on the research, the researchers concluded that either these stars are younger than 16 million years old (meaning that Scorpius-Centaurus has an unexpectedly large age spread) or that disks around stars with masses far lower than the Sun’s last longer than previously believed.

“Because planets are born in these disks, this implies there could be much more time available to form planets than previously thought, especially rocky planets like the Earth which form through the slow build-up of smaller bodies,” said Dr. Murphy, who was aided on the paper by co-author and University of New South Wales (UNSW) Canberra Professor Warrick Lawson.

“There would also be more time for gas giant planets formed early on to migrate within the disk, potentially disrupting the formation of smaller bodies,” he added. “Further observations of these and other nearby disks, especially at infrared and millimeter wavelengths, allow us to construct a detailed picture of disk temperature, structure, chemistry and mineralogy, as well as how these are influenced by the mass of the parent star.”

So why do these red dwarfs still have their discs, anyway?

The mystery remains: Why did these red dwarf stars still have their rings, when other, similarly-aged stars typically do not? Dr. Murphy said this was “still very much an open question.” He told redOrbit that if the mass of the parent star has an influence on the longevity of disks, then the processes through which the disk is cleared of gas and dust (thus halting the formation of gas giants) “must be less efficient around lower mass stars like red dwarves.”

Two possible solutions to this puzzle in the new study, he said. One involves grain growth, in which larger dust grains form more quickly in disks around higher mass stars, rendering them invisible to detection at infrared wavelengths. The other centers around photo-evaporation, where the intense radiation from a star evaporates its disk. Since higher mass stars are more luminous, Dr. Murphy said, they photo-evaporate their disks more rapidly.

Post by: Rad on Sep 17, 2015, 06:15 AM
CS Monitor

As global ocean is confirmed for Saturn moon, scientists hope for new mission

The Enceladus Life Finder mission, involving a small orbiter, would sample the Saturn moon's geyser-like plumes for evidence of habitability and perhaps life.

By Pete Spotts, Staff writer September 16, 2015   

"If Enceladus has life, we will find it."

It's a brash boast regarding Saturn's small, ice-covered moon, but a team of scientists has backed it up by asking the National Aeronautics and Space Administration for the money to build a small orbiter designed to sample the moon's geyser-like plumes for evidence of habitability and perhaps life.

NASA's reply is due before the end of the month. As the researchers await the agency's decision, they have been heartened by confirmation that Enceladus hosts a global ocean beneath its icy crust.
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Announced Tuesday, the confirmation puts to rest the alternative: that the plumes' source is large pocket of liquid water limited to the moon's south polar region.

The difference between a regional sea – with the capacity of Antarctica's Lake Vostok – and a global ocean is more than academic.

Both could be hospitable to life under the right conditions, says Steven Vance, an astrobiologist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. But "a global ocean is much more compelling."

It allows researchers to entertain the possibility that Enceladus' ocean could host a diverse, vigorous ecology, supported by global ocean circulation patterns, Dr. Vance says.

The very presence of a global ocean "says maybe it's been there for a long time," he adds. "If you want to know whether there might be complex life in some extraterrestrial ocean, you want to know if the ocean's been there for a long period of time."

Overnight, Enceladus has become a more accurate, if smaller, analogue to Jupiter's moon Europa, which also shows evidence of hosting an under-ice, global ocean. In June, NASA announced it would begin development work on a spacecraft to visit Europa, to be launched in the 2020s. The insights that researchers gain at Enceladus about icy moons with global oceans could help with planning for the mission to Europa, Vance says.

The new analysis, published online Tuesday in the journal Icarus, "makes clear how important Enceladus is," writes Jonathan Lunine, a planetary scientist at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., who heads the team proposing the Enceladus Life Finder (ELF) mission, in an e-mail. "I’m keeping my fingers crossed."

Scientists discovered the plumes in 2005, during the initial stage of NASA and the European Space Agency's Cassini-Huygens mission to the Saturn system. Since then, evidence has mounted that the plumes, which resupply Saturn's E-ring with fresh material, originate from a layer of water perhaps six miles thick. This ocean lies beneath a shell of ice between 19 and 25 miles thick and sits atop a rocky core. The plumes escape from a series of fissures in the ice, dubbed tiger stripes, near the moon's south pole.

Evidence also has mounted that the large, rocky core is porous, allowing water to flow through it to pick up heat. This would reinforce an idea that at least in the south polar region, where the icy tiger stripes exhibit more warmth than the surrounding surface, a hydrothermal field may lie beneath the ocean.

Indeed, the porous core could mean that Enceladus "is one big hydrothermal system," says Vance, who is familiar with the new study as well as the proposal of Dr. Lunine's team.

It is into the plumes that Lunine and colleagues hope to send their ELF. It is one of several Discovery Program proposals that NASA is sorting through in selecting one for launch around 2021.

Cassini already has laid the groundwork, uncovering sodium and potassium in the plumes, in addition to water, methane, and simple and complex organic molecules, as well as oxygen and nitrogen. Tiny silica grains that the craft may have detected would point to water in contact with rock at high temperatures.

Energy, a salty ocean, and organics render the presence of life plausible, the team holds.

ELF would build on this, carrying spectrometers far more capable than those on Cassini. One spectrometer would analyze gases in the plumes. The other would gather and analyze dust grains.

The instruments would determine how habitable the ocean truly is – its temperature, how acidic or alkaline it might be (initial evidence suggests alkalinity comparable to household ammonia), and how much chemical energy is available to support life, for example.

They also would look for patterns in the mix of amino acids that appear significantly different from those formed through nonbiological processes, hunt for clustering among molecules known to build membranes, and look for isotopic signals that life might be present.

The team envisions eight to 10 flybys: the first four to meet the basic science goals; four more to zero in on intriguing initial observations or to erase ambiguity in the early results; and two additional orbits for contingencies.

Post by: Rad on Sep 18, 2015, 04:56 AM
September 17, 2015

Earth’s tidal forces are ‘massaging’ the moon

by Brett Smith
Red Orbit

Earth’s gravity may have played a role in the fault line that formed along the face of the Moon, according to a new report in the journal Geology.

In 2010, scientists reported on the discovery of 14 cliffs referred to as "lobate scarps" on the moon's exterior, which added to approximately 70 that were already known. Due mostly to their arbitrary distribution across the lunar exterior, the science team determined the moon is shrinking.

These small faults are normally less than 6.2 miles in length and just tens of yards deep. Scientists have said they are probably produced by global contraction caused by cooling of the moon's hot interior. As the insides of the moon cool and sections of the liquid outer core harden, the volume decreases; consequently the moon contracts and the crust buckles.

After more than six years in orbit, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC) has imaged almost three-fourths of the lunar exterior at high resolution, enabling the discovery of more than 3,000 features.

These globally dispersed faults have emerged as the most typical tectonic landform on the moon, and an investigation of the orientations of these small scarps produced an unexpected result: the faults produced as the moon shrinks are being affected by surprise source, gravitational tidal forces from Earth.

Global contraction by itself should produce a range of thrust faults with no specified pattern in the orientations of the faults, since the contracting forces have equal magnitude globally.

The moon gets realigned and massaged

"This is not what we found," study author Thomas Watters, of the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, said in a NASA news release. "There is a pattern in the orientations of the thousands of faults and it suggests something else is influencing their formation, something that's also acting on a global scale -- 'massaging' and realigning them."

The other forces acting on the moon seem to come from Earth, the study team said. When the tidal forces from our planet are superimposed on the moon’s global contraction, the blended stresses should trigger predictable orientations of the fault scarps.

"The agreement between the mapped fault orientations and the fault orientations expected by the modeled tidal and contractional forces is pretty striking," Watters said.

"The discovery of so many previously undetected tectonic features as our LROC high-resolution image coverage continues to grow is truly remarkable," said Mark Robinson, LROC principal investigator from Arizona State University.

"Early on in the mission we suspected that tidal forces played a role in the formation of tectonic features, but we did not have enough coverage to make any conclusive statements. Now that we have NAC images with appropriate lighting for more than half of the moon, structural patterns are starting to come into focus."

Post by: Rad on Sep 18, 2015, 05:19 AM
September 17, 2015

‘Hot Jupiter’ exoplanets may form super fast

by Shayne Jacopian
Red Orbit

Two decades after first being discovered, “hot Jupiter” exoplanets, or gas giants that orbit much closer to their star than gas giants in our solar system, have been shown to form really quickly, according to a press release.

Until now, astronomers have hypothesized that hot Jupiters either form early in a solar system’s development, or are formed later in a solar system’s development and flung closer to the star by unstable interactions with other planets’ paths of orbit.

Using the spectropolarimeter ESPaDOnS on the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope, the research team, led by Jean-François Donati, observed stars in formation in the constellation Taurus, 450 light-years from Earth. They found that the developing star V830 Tau has a planet 40% more massive than Jupiter orbiting 15 times closer to it than Earth does to the Sun. This suggests that hot Jupiter exoplanets may be extremely young and more likely to be found orbiting very new stars, taking only several million years to develop.

This sheds light on solar systems’ early development and how they may evolve over time—since hot Jupiters are most likely to be found orbiting young or still-developing stars, it raises the question of whether it’s common for gas planets to form close to a star and later move away, making room for rocky planets.

Post by: Rad on Sep 18, 2015, 05:57 AM
CS Monitor

New Pluto images suggest the dwarf planet is still evolving

Making good on its promise that the 'best data' is yet to come, NASA on Thursday released several new images from the New Horizons spacecraft's historic flyby of Pluto.

By Max Lewontin, Staff September 17, 2015   

Even after being downgraded to a "dwarf planet" Pluto, the ninth planet in our solar system, continues to draw attention.

What we know about the planet, its atmosphere and Charon, its largest moon, is still evolving, as scientists release images taken from the New Horizons spacecraft, following its flyby of Pluto on July 14. New images from the the spacecraft released by NASA on Thursday reveal a landscape that is both familiarly rugged and somewhat otherworldly.

Here are a few of the latest images, already making good on the New Horizon team's promise that the "best data" is yet to come.

A few minutes after its closest approach to Pluto, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft points back toward the sun from 11,000 miles away, showing the planet's rugged, mountainous terrain covered in ice. The smooth Sputnik Planum is at right, next to rugged mountains up to 11,000 feet high. NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI   

Pluto's geological evolution may be ongoing, as the Monitor's Pete Spotts reported. The agency has released several images of a smooth plain it is calling Sputnik Planum.

A composite image of several New Horizons views of Pluto shows a smooth, frigid plain which NASA is calling Sputnik Planum. at left. The expanse to the right, NASA says, may be coated in nitrogen ice which comes from the surface of Sputnik Planum NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI   

The images even show the planet's changing weather patterns:
This image from the New Horizons spacecraft shows a low-lying haze of fog at sunset on Pluto's surface. "In addition to being visually stunning, these low-lying hazes hint at the weather changing from day to day on Pluto, just like it does here on Earth," says Will Grundy, lead of the New Horizons Composition team, in a statement released by the agency. NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI   

Despite the promise shown by the New Horizons mission in chronicling Pluto's ongoing evolution, the agency is unsure whether it will extend the mission, saying it will have a decision by next year.

Post by: Rad on Sep 19, 2015, 05:49 AM
September 18, 2015

Astronauts could live in this cool 3D-printed bubble house on Mars

by Chuck Bednar
Red Orbit

If you’re going to spend upwards of 300 days to fly to Mars, you want to have a nice crib to kick back in once you get there! That’s exactly what one team of French researchers is attempting to provide with a bubble-shaped habitat that can be 3D printed on the Red Planet.

According to and Discovery News, the design is known as the Sfero Bubble House and it was designed by a group of scientists or engineers brought together under the umbrella of additive manufacturing company, Fabulous. It was made for NASA’s 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge, but didn't make the cut, possibly because the design was not submitted in time.

The Sfero house would include both an internal and an external dome, with a “protective pocket of water” between the two, architecture publication Dezeen explained. A lone corridor would be on the planet’s surface, allowing access into the two-tiered interior. The upper workstations and the lower sleeping quarters would being connected by a spiral staircase, the website added.

Construction would begin with the placement of a long central pole that would drill into the ground and extend a pair of robotic arms, one of which would collect and sort material from the surface while the other would use the material to 3D print the internal and external domes.

Made completely of Martian materials

The Sfero Bubble House would be manufactured completely out of Martian soil, and reports indicate that the habitat itself would be partially buried beneath the surface so that just the top floor is on the ground. It would be spherical in shape in order to provide adequate resistance to the low atmospheric density of Mars, and would also contain an indoor garden.

Ideally, the habitat would be built in Gale crater, which is known to be home to a large amount of iron deposits. The design would use the iron oxide as raw materials for the 3D printing process, fusing together powdered iron particles using lasers, and the arms would search for permafrost to melt down for the water pocket, which would protect astronauts from radiation.

“With Sfero, we are pushing the idea that a habitat should adapt itself to its surroundings, to the native and available resources,” said Fabulous founder Arnault Coulet, according to “The value our project is to show that there is a French expertise in space research and in 3D printing. We want to show that these techniques are also achievable for fabrication emergency shelters [on Earth].”

Post by: Rad on Sep 20, 2015, 10:14 AM
To Scale: The Solar System

Published on Sep 16, 2015

On a dry lakebed in Nevada, a group of friends build the first scale model of the solar system with complete planetary orbits: a true illustration of our place in the universe.

Click to watch this remarkable film:

Post by: Rad on Sep 21, 2015, 06:15 AM
CS Monitor

We are closer than ever to crewed Mars mission, NASA chief says

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden says that the space agency is closer than ever before to launching a manned mission to the Red Planet.

By Mike Wall, September 20, 2015   

NASA is closer to putting boots on Mars than it's ever been before, the space agency's chief says.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, a former space shuttle commander, said he envisioned becoming the first person to explore Mars when he checked in for astronaut training at Houston's Johnson Space Center in 1980.

Back then, a crewed Red Planet mission was believed to be 30 years away, Bolden said. That proved to be an overly optimistic assessment, of course. But NASA's current goal of getting astronauts to Mars in the 2030s is eminently achievable, Bolden added.

"We are farther down the path to sending humans to Mars than at any point in NASA's history," Bolden said Thursday (Sept. 17) during an event at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. that detailed NASA's manned Mars plans.

NASA Deputy Administrator Dava Newman and Jim Green, director of NASA's planetary science division, also took part in the discussion, which was webcast live on NASA TV. So did a number of NASA researchers, as well as Andy Weir, author of the sci-fi novel "The Martian," which has been made into a movie starring Matt Damon that opens on Oct. 2.

"We have a lot of work to do to get humans to Mars, but we'll get there," Bolden said.

Some of this work includes developing a capsule called Orion and the Space Launch System (SLS) megarocket to help get astronauts to deep-space destinations. Orion and the SLS are scheduled to fly together for the first time, on an unmanned test flight, in 2018.

Newman cited the fact that astronauts recently grew (and ate) lettuce on the International Space Station, as part of an experiment designed to better understand the production of food crops away from Earth.

Furthermore, two crewmembers on the orbiting lab — NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko — are halfway through an unpredecented yearlong mission that is characterizing the pyschological and physiological effects of long-duration spaceflight. Such work should inform planning for crewed Red Planet missions, which could take astronauts away from Earth for 500 days or more, NASA officials have said.

Newman also mentioned the Mars Oxygen ISRU Experiment (MOXIE), one of seven science instruments that NASA's next Mars rover will carry toward the Red Planet when it blasts off in 2020.

MOXIE will pull carbon dioxide from the thin Martian atmosphere and turn it into pure oxygen and carbon monoxide, demonstrating technology that could keep settlers alive on the Red Planet — and help them blast off the surface when it's time to go home. (Oxygen can be used as an oxidizer, helping to burn rocket fuel.) 

"We're going to make oxygen on another planet — the first time ever to make oxygen on another planet," Newman said. "These experiments — they're real, they're here."

Such work is being done in service of an epic and monumental goal.

"Putting boots on Mars is possibly the most exciting thing humans will ever do," Bolden said.

"We have been engaged in getting to Mars — getting humans to Mars — for at least 40 years, beginning with the first precursors," he added. "I have no doubt that we can accomplish what we have set our minds to do."

Post by: Rad on Sep 22, 2015, 05:12 AM
September 21, 2015

Can we extract water from asteroids using extreme heat?

by Chuck Bednar
Red Orbit

In what is being called a potential “game changer” for the proposed use of asteroids as a way to gather resources for space exploration, one company is developing a new technique of gathering water and other valuable minerals out of interstellar rocks using light and heat.

According to, the technique is known as “optical mining.” Supporters believe that the method would allow large quantities of asteroid water to be collected and used to help create a less expensive, more accessible propellant for shuttles and probes traveling through space.

Known as the Asteroid Provided In-Situ Supplies (Apis) plan, the patent-pending, NASA-funded technique could significantly reduce the cost of spaceflight. Apis team scientists presented their NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC)-funded concept earlier this month at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics' (AIAA) Space 2015 meeting.

Apis is funded in part by an NIAC fellowship and grant, and principal investigator Joel Sercel, founder and principal engineer at ICS Associates Inc. and TransAstra, told that they are in the process of “putting together a business model... that moves reusability into space and more commercial methods and practices into deep space.”

Sercel, who formerly worked at the US space agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California and helped create the NASA Solar Technology Application Readiness (NSTAR) ion propulsion system used on the Dawn spacecraft, said Apis could support space exploration by offering consumables and propellant for forthcoming missions to the moon and Mars.

But does it actually work?

The goal of the Apis optical mining method, Sercel told, is to excavate carbonaceous chondrite asteroid surfaces, forcing water and other volatile substances out of excavated material and into an inflatable bag – and doing it all without the need for complex robotic machines.

His team proposes harvesting up to 100 metric tons of water from a near-Earth asteroid, and then taking the collected material to a depot location (possibly in orbit around the moon) using a lone SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launch. Sercel said that he and his colleagues have already conducted a series of simulations and experiments to find out how the approach would work in space.

The Apis team is using the large solar furnace at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico as part of their experiments, and by the end of next month, he said that they will conduct a series of proof-of-concept experiments in which they will superheat mock asteroids, using mirrors to simulate reflected and concentrated sunlight.

The ultimate goal is to use a process called spalling, in which miniature but explosive pops of expanding gas force out particles and other gases, from which water and other volatiles could be harvested. Sercel told that he hopes the upcoming experiments demonstrate that the materials can be excavated using highly-concentrated beams of optical energy.

“It actually digs holes and tunnels into the rock,” he said. “The heat goes in, is absorbed in thin layers and drives out the volatiles in tiny, explosive-like pops that eject material in a controllable way. We believe that highly concentrated sunlight can drill holes, excavate, disrupt, and shape an asteroid while the asteroid is enclosed in a containment bag.”

Post by: Rad on Sep 22, 2015, 05:47 AM
CS Monitor

How soon will we get to Mars?

NASA says we're closer than ever to sending a manned mission to the red planet.

By Cathaleen Chen, Staff September 21, 2015   

Fiction and reality are intertwining, as humanity edges closer to launching a manned mission to Mars.

Before the International Space Station crew enjoyed their advanced screening of "The Martian," a film about an astronaut stranded on Mars, the story’s novelist Andy Weir attended a NASA event in which administrator Charles Bolden said we are now closer than ever to setting foot on the Red Planet.

"We are farther down the path to sending humans to Mars than at any point in NASA's history," Bolden said at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C. Thursday. "We have a lot of work to do to get humans to Mars, but we'll get there."

At the Thursday event, the space agency’s personnel discussed details of the Mars mission, including the development of the Orion spacecraft and the Space Launch System megarocket, the most powerful launch vehicle to date. The two are will fly together as part of an unmanned test flight in 2018.

Some preliminary work will be conducted by NASA’s next Mars Rover, to be launched in 2020. The rover will carry the Mars Oxygen ISRU experiment, or MOXIE, which turns carbon dioxide from the Martian atmosphere into breathable oxygen and carbon monoxide. in addition to allowing humans on Mars to breathe, the oxygen could also be used as fuel for the flight home.

“We’re going to make oxygen on another planet – the first time ever to make oxygen on another planet,” said NASA deputy administrator Dava Newman. "These experiments – they’re real, they’re here."

NASA projects that humans will arrive on Mars sometime in the 2030s. The journey would involve more than a dozen major components, beginning in low-Earth orbit in the International Space Station, where astronauts recently grew and ate lettuce as part of an experiment to better understand the production of food crops away from Earth. The space station allows for a better understanding of how the human body changes in space and what health risks for which to prepare.

The next step is deep space, where NASA plans to send a solar-electric powered robotic spacecraft to capture a near-Earth asteroid. Then, the asteroid will be taken to the Lunar Distant Retrograde Orbit, a stable orbit at an altitude about a fifth of the distance between the Earth and the moon. This portion of the journey is called the Asteroid Redirect Mission and will help NASA test new systems and capabilities, such as Solar Electric Propulsion, a project involving high-power technologies designed to support a variety of spaceflight activities.

There’s even a possibility that a precursor mission will be made to Mars’s moon, Phobos. The first human flight to Mars might land there initially to prime future crews in plummeting into the planet's gravity well.

Regardless of the technical objectives ahead, the prospect of going to Mars has been etched into popular and political culture. According to a 2013 poll commissioned by Boeing and the nonprofit Explore Mars, 75 percent of Americans want to double NASA’s budget so humans can get to the Red Planet. For NASA to meet the goal of its proposed mission, it says Congress would need to approve President Obama’s proposed budget of $18.5 billion for the 2016 fiscal year — a $500 million increase from 2015.

The journey to Mars won’t be like the space race of the mid-20th century, but currently there are several private and public entities that have Mars expeditions in mind. SpaceX, for instance, believes it could send people to Mars by 2026.

Whatever the case may be in 15 years, the future has never been so near.

"Putting boots on Mars is possibly the most exciting thing humans will ever do," Bolden says. "I have no doubt that we can accomplish what we have set our minds to do."

This hand out image taken from the European Space Agency's Mars Express spacecraft shows the Martian north polar ice cap with layers of water, ice and dust for the first time in perspective view.

Post by: Rad on Sep 22, 2015, 05:53 AM
CS Monitor

WATCH 'sheer beauty and power' of Pluto unfold in NASA flyover animation (+video)

A NASA scientist created a second animation from the hundreds of photos being beamed back by the spacecraft.

By Kelsey Warner, Staff writer September 21, 2015   

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft captured hundreds of photos during its flyby of Pluto in mid-July that are still being returned to Earth. The latest batch inspired one NASA scientist to produce an animation that shows what it might be like to take a bird’s eye view tour through Pluto’s thin atmosphere and soar along the path that New Horizons explored.

Stuart Robbins, a research scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo., has been using New Horizons’ images to map craters across the surfaces of Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, in order to better understand the impact of the Kuiper Belt’s many asteroids, comets, and ice chunks striking the dwarf planet and its moon. While mapping craters is his area of research, Dr. Robbins seeks to “convey some of the sheer beauty and power of the features New Horizons is revealing” with his animations.

The “mosaic” of images that make up the animation, as Robbins terms it, starts with the “heart” of Pluto – informally named Tombaugh Regio – and the surrounding region.
On Pinterest?For more on stars and planets, follow the Monitor's Astronomy board!

The tour high-flies over Norgay Montes, an icy mountain range that juts 2 miles from the planetary surface, at a height of about 120 miles. The animation then veers north, over Sputnik Planum, an icy plane within the heart, and over Cthulhu Regio, one of Pluto’s darkest areas. The differences in brightness between the vast plane and dark spot are some of the largest natural brightness variations of any object in the solar system, Robbins writes in a blog post for NASA.

The vantage point rises to a height of about 150 miles and turns east, with Pluto’s north pole to the left, the so-called heart the focal point, and older, more cratered areas standing out in marked contrast to the younger glaciers of the “heart’s” left lobe, Sputnik Planum, according to Robbins. The flight rises to a height of more than 1,500 miles above the planet’s surface.

Click to watch:

Chasing Pluto documentary..Click to watch:

Post by: Rad on Sep 23, 2015, 04:55 AM
September 22, 2015

So…Mercury could one day collide with Earth

by Chuck Bednar
Red Orbit

Doomsday theories have long suggested that a giant asteroid could crash into the Earth, and that such an impact would have a devastating impact on the planet. But what if an asteroid wasn't the space rock that humanity needed to be most concerned about?

According to Science, there exists an apocalyptic scenario suggesting that Mercury could one day collide with the Earth, wiping out all life on the planet. Fortunately, newly published work led by University of Hawaii, Manoa physicist Richard Zeebe, has revealed that such a possibility is far less likely than previously believed.

As part of his research, which appeared in the September 20 issue of The Astrophysical Journal, Zeebe used a Cray supercomputer that had just been purchased by his university to run a total of 1,600 simulations of our solar system’s future – each with Mercury in a different position.

None of those simulations ended with the two planets colliding over a span of five billion years, the study author explained. He concluded that our planet’s orbit is highly stable over that period of time, and that the odds of another world crashing into Earth are, shall we say, astronomical.

Earth may (or may) not be safe, but Mercury could be in trouble

However, not everyone agrees that mankind and breathe easy. Jacques Laskar, an astronomer at the Paris Observatory would previously was part of a team that conducted a greater number of computer simulations (over 2,500) and found that Earth may be susceptible to massive collisions, said that Zeebe did not run enough simulations to discover such a rare occurrence.

“It's like if someone was in a lake, he fished for two hours, he says, ‘I don't find any fish, so there are no fish in this lake,' ” Laskar told Science. In response Zeebe said that while he conducted less simulations, his more effectively tracked Mercury while it was moving at high speed, as happens when the planet is in an elongated orbit that brings it closer to the sun, the website said.

One point the two scientists do apparently agree on is that Mercury faces an uncertain future. In about one percent of both Laskar and Zeebe’s simulations, the planet ultimately acquires a highly elliptical orbit. In three instances, it wound up colliding with the sun, and in seven others, it hit Venus. While that event produced no adverse effects for Earth, “it would be quite a spectacle,” the University of hawaii physicist told Science.

Post by: Rad on Sep 23, 2015, 05:42 AM
CS Monitor

Is 'The Martian' accurate? How 500 days in space would affect you

The new film 'The Martian' is getting a lot of press for its cool technology. There's also a lot at stake for the humans in the movie, too.

By Olivia Lowenberg, Staff September 22, 2015   

Is “The Martian,” the upcoming science-fiction film from noted director Ridley Scott ("Aliens," "Prometheus"), scientifically accurate? The answer is yes.

"Martian" centers on NASA astronaut Mark Watney, who becomes stranded on Mars after he is presumed dead by his crew mates and left behind on the Red Planet.

Filmed over the course of 70 days in Budapest, Hungary, the film worked to ensure that it followed NASA protocol, from Mark’s rover to the potato crops that help him survive. One of the movie’s most striking features, however, is how deeply it dives into the psychological impact of long-term isolation.

“I’m the first person to be alone on a planet,” Mark (Matt Damon) says partway through the movie. “400 billion years, and then there’s me.” Not only is Watney separated from the rest of humanity, but forced to scrape by on whatever resources he can find or improvise.

Rather than retreating into a dour procedural, however, the movie presents his isolation as an opportunity: Watney is forced to figure out how to survive entirely on his own. Though he may be physically alone, he is not alone psychologically; Watney narrates each course of action by checking in with cameras placed throughout the “HAB,” or habitation module, on Mars.

This is one of several aspects in the movie that conforms to NASA science. In order to prepare astronauts for long-term space missions, NASA built a HERA (Human Exploration Research Analog), a two-story habitat designed to simulate conditions of long-term missions, at the Johnson Space Center in Texas. Both the HAB that Mark lives in, and the test version that the crew on earth use to get ready for the rescue mission, look very similar to the HERA at the Johnson Center.

Also of crucial importance is the question the movie asks about the impact of Mark’s exile on the other members of his crew, both those who are on Earth at Mission Control and those who accidentally left him behind. The leader of Watney's mission, Captain Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain), is forced to make a tough decision: whether to return to Earth and let another mission retrieve him, or turn around and get him themselves, despite the risk for her crew and the time it would add to their mission.

In preparing for its own real-world manned missions to Mars in the 2030s, NASA is looking into how long-term space flight could affect both individuals and groups.

Research has long indicated that solitary confinement in prisons produces extremely negative effects on decision-making and emotions. This March, NASA Astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian Cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko departed for a year in orbit aboard the International Space station, to study, among other things, the ways that long-term isolation in space affects emotional health. While the study remains ongoing, its conclusions thus far have determined that being in space for such a long period could have a negative effect on performance. NASA is interested in mitigating those effects as much as possible.

For his part, Mr. Damon spent the majority of his time alone while filming, working one-on-one with director Ridley Scott. This enabled him to dive more fully into his role, as the "contemporary version of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe." The character's extended stay on Mars leaves him profoundly weak and emotionally fragile.

A manned mission to Mars could last two to three years, and many of the potential pitfalls remain unknown. Little is known about the long-term effects of radiation or microgravity in deep space. NASA would need to carefully prepare for psychological stresses upon the crew as well. Biosphere 2 crew member Jane Poynter and co-founder of Paragon Space Development Corporation told National Geographic that specific training would be a must for Mars mission crew members, to mitigate the effects of depression and stress caused by isolation.

One of the most important assets for a member of such a crew may be a sense of humor, something Watney has in abundance, Jason Kring of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University told National Geographic. A person with a good sense of humor can smooth over disagreements and keep the group laughing.

Post by: Rad on Sep 24, 2015, 05:08 AM
September 23, 2015

Get pumped: Mega rare supermoon converges with eclipse Sunday!

by Emily Bills
Red Orbit

If you have plans late night on Sunday, you may want to cancel them! A supermoon is cool on its own, sure, but toss in an eclipse and you've got a whole new ballgame.

Late night this Sunday, September 27, you'll be able to witness a sight of epic proportions as a total lunar eclipse masks the giant supermoon for longer than an hour.

While this particular supermoon happens every year, and a lunar eclipse occurs twice a year, the combo of the two only happens once every 30 years, according to NASA. The last supermoon/eclipse combo happened in 1982, so this is something an entire generation hasn't seen yet.

Here's a handy video put out by NASA explaining this phenomenon in a little more detail:

What's gonna happen

Don't worry, the moon isn't actually changing! A supermoon occurs when the moon reaches perigee—because the moon's orbit isn't a perfect circle it comes closest to Earth during these times. It will appear 14% bigger and be 30% brighter than it does any other night during the year.

Viewers will be able to behold the supermoon soon after sunset, while the lunar eclipse will begin at 8:11 p.m. EDT with the Earth's shadow dimming the giant moon. According to NASA, the shadow will start to be very noticeable at 9:07 p.m. EDT, and the main event (the total eclipse) will start at 10:11 p.m.

We can't wait! But in the meantime, here are a few moon jokes to wet your whistle.

Q: How does a man on the moon get his hair cut?


Q: When is the moon not hungry?

A. When he is full!

Okay, we're done.

Post by: Rad on Sep 24, 2015, 05:11 AM
September 23, 2015

Radio telescopes could scope out hidden stars in galactic center

by Cat Wilson
Red Orbit

The Hubble telescope has given us breathtaking pictures of the universe and has vastly improved our understanding of it. But the center of our universe is still very mysterious, because even Hubble's infrared images can't give us the full story when pesky space dust obscures the stars at the center. What's there to do?

Researchers with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, have overcome this challenge with a radio telescope—which sees a different part of the spectrum and can look right through space dust.

At least that’s the theory, presented in a paper to be published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. The researchers believe that using a radio telescope, which measures longer wavelengths than optical, could reveal stars currently hidden to their optical counterparts.

Why haven't they tried this before?

The theory is not without drawbacks. Under normal circumstances, stars are not bright enough to be detected via radio, which is why this has not been tried before. The breakthrough is in how they hope to capture the images, in what lead author Idan Ginsburg describes as the "cosmic equivalent of sonic boom from an airplane.” As the star exceeds the speed of sound, it could shed material which, in the form of stellar wind, might create a shockwave with interstellar gases. That in turn could be detected by the radio telescopes.

Further complicating the matter is the star’s speed. It can only obtain the speed necessary under certain circumstances; such as when it is approaching a black hole. This is where the galactic center comes in. As confirmed by the Hubble telescope, the Milky Way galaxy is centered around a super-massive black hole whose gravity would be sufficient to speed a star up. At that point the astronomical sonic boom would occur, potentially allowing the excited electrons to be detected.

The test case will be a star called S-2, which is bright enough to be seen on infrared. It is projected to reach the optimal distance between late 2017 and early 2018. If the theory is correct, scientists will be able to identify the radio signals and extrapolate them to detect the stars not bright enough to be seen in infrared.

As one of the co-authors, Avi Loeb, explains, “S2 will be our litmus test. If it's seen in the radio, then potentially we can use this method to find smaller and fainter stars – stars that can’t be seen any other way.”

If the theory is valid, the results could revolutionize our understanding of the galaxy in much the same way that Hubble’s early observations did.

Post by: Rad on Sep 25, 2015, 04:52 AM
September 24, 2015

Rosetta’s Comet 67P has it’s own ice-water cycle

by Savanna Walker
Red Orbit

The European Space Agency’s probe Rosetta, which arrived at Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko over a year ago, has recently provided evidence for a daily water-ice cycle on comets allowing them to periodically renew their surfaces.

Scientists were originally bewildered by how the comet’s surface began to rapidly change after a period of relative stability. Thanks to data from Rosetta, they’ve realized that water and ice on the comet’s surface appears and disappears in sync with the comet’s rotation period.

The water-ice turns into gas when illuminated by the sun, and the area rapidly cools once the comet rotates. The lower layers of the comet, however, remain warm from the sun, and the water-ice finds its way back to the surface through the porous interior of the comet. Once it reaches the now cold surface, this water freezes over, covering the comet in a layer of ice once again. When the newly frozen area is exposed to the sun when the comet rotates, the cycle begins all over again.

Fabrizio Capaccioni, principal investigator at INAF-IAPS, states that while this cycle was suspected for some time, now we finally have observational proof. This solves the mystery of why comets’ surfaces are frequently devoid of ice but at the same time outgassing water.

Still doesn't account for the comet's odd shape

However, scientists aren’t sure if this accounts for 67P’s odd shape, which is twin-lobed and described as duck shaped. It may have been originally two comets that fused over time, or the neck of the comet has been unusually active, slowly reshaping the body.

Rosetta will now begin to observe 67P 932 miles from the comet’s nucleus, which is the farthest the spacecraft has ever been from its subject. Scientists hope to get a larger view of the comet, as well as observe how the gas around it interacts with solar wind. Rosetta is the first mission to ever orbit a comet, the first to ever execute a soft landing on the comet itself, and can now add discovery of the water-ice cycle to its list of accomplishments.

Post by: Rad on Sep 25, 2015, 06:04 AM
The six biggest myths about the Moon

Sunday's 'supermoon' lunar eclipse affords an opportunity to debunk some of the most persistent myths about Earth's natural satellite.

By Nola Taylor Redd, September 24, 2015   

Sunday's rare "supermoon" total lunar eclipse has prompted greater discussion of the moon — and those discussions sometimes involve persistent lunar myths.

Some of these myths are simple misconceptions, such as the notion that the moon is perfectly round (it's not), or that it lacks gravity (all celestial bodies exert some gravitational force). Other myths are more conspiracy-oriented, such as the idea that the Apollo moon landings were faked.

Below you can read about a few of the most prevalent lunar myths. The discussion may give you something to think about Sunday evening (Sept. 27) while watching the first supermoon lunar eclipse — so named because it will occur when the moon appears abnormally large and bright in the sky — since 1982, and the last until 2033.

Myth 1: The supermoon eclipse heralds the end of the world

Sunday's supermoon eclipse is the last of the current lunar tetrad, a series of four lunar eclipses that have occurred over the last 18 months. Some people have regarded the tetrad as a sign of the end of the world. This dubious claim was made in a recent book about four "blood moons," a term rarely used by astronomers.

While eclipse tetrads are rare, they have taken place in the past, and will continue to occur in the future. A previous tetrad occurred in 2003 and 2004, and such groupings will occur seven more times in the current century.

"Throughout human history, people have always thought that things in the sky that they didn't understand were either signs of apocalypse or good luck, or the gods were angry or pleased," Noble said. "Lunar tetrads are simply the result of orbital dynamics and geometry — no need to invoke the supernatural or the end of the world."
Myth 2: The moon grows larger during moonrise

I've actually had arguments — er, enthusiastic discussions — with people regarding whether or not the moon moves closer to the Earth as it rises, making it appear larger than normal. While the moon does vary in distance from the Earth during its month-long orbit, the differences aren't significant during a single trek across the sky.

Rather, the reason the moon looks larger near the horizon is due to an optical effect known as the Ponzo illusion.

"The human mind judges an object's size based on its background," Noble said. "We think of things on the horizon as being further away from us, so our brains fool us into thinking the moon must be bigger."

The moon's orbit is slightly elliptical, so its distance from Earth varies from approximately 222,000 miles (357,000 kilometers) to 252,000 miles (406,000 km) over the course of a month. During the lunar eclipse this weekend, the moon will be at perigee, the closest point to Earth, at which point Noble said it appears about 14 percent bigger and up to 30 percent brighter than the moon at its most distant.

"If it is a clear night, this moon, pre- and post-eclipse, will be about 15 percent brighter than the average moon," Noble said.

Myth 3: The moon has a 'dark side'

As the moon orbits Earth, it keeps one face perpetually turned toward the planet. This fact has prompted some to refer to the distant lunar hemisphere as the "dark side" of the moon, as popularized by a 1973 Pink Floyd album of the same name. However, this label is false, because during the new-moon phase, when the surface pointed toward Earth is all but unseen, the "dark" hemisphere is pointed toward the sun.

While lunar "back side" is acceptable, "far side" is the preferred term among scientists, said Sarah Noble, who served as program scientist for NASA's Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) mission, which ended in April 2014 when the orbiter intentionally crashed into the surface of the moon.

Several missions have orbited the moon and provided a great deal of information about the far side. Most recently, NASA'S Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) has obtained imagery and topography of the entire moon, including the far side.

"We know quite a lot about the lunar far side," Noble told by email.

Myth 4: The moon has no gravity

Freewheeling astronauts on the moon may give observers the idea that Earth's companion has no gravity, but that would be false. Everything with mass has gravity, and the strength of an object's gravitational field is determined by its mass.

The moon is much less massive than Earth; the Apollo astronauts who explored its surface experienced gravity just 17 percent as strong as that of their home planet.

Smaller objects, such as asteroids and Mars' tiny moons Phobos and Deimos, have much weaker gravity still.

"You wouldn't really land on them; it would be more like docking with them," Noble said of these bantam bodies. Explorers would have to anchor to them, or hover nearby.

"Likewise, astronauts would probably remain tethered to the ship, in case they accidentally launch themselves off the surface," Noble added. "I imagine that exploring would look more like rock climbing than hiking, with astronauts scrambling around using their hands as much as their feet to navigate."

Myth 5: 'The man in the moon'

Many people claim to see "the man in the moon" on the lunar surface. On the near side, lava flowed from volcanoes that were active from one to four billion years ago into craters and basins created by impacts, forming dark regions called "mare."

"Because of a psychological phenomenon called pareidolia, humans tend to interpret patters as familiar things, particularly faces, so we see the man in the moon," Noble said.

She pointed out that other cultures see a rabbit rather than a human face, inspiring the name for the recent Chinese lander, Yutu, which means "Jade Rabbit." The rabbit was mentioned during the Apollo 11 landing in 1969, when the following conversation took place between mission control in Houston and Michael Collins, the astronaut who remained in the lunar orbiter:

"Houston: Among the large headlines concerning Apollo this morning, there's one asking that you watch for a lovely girl with a big rabbit. An ancient legend says a beautiful Chinese girl called Chango-o has been living there for 4,000 years. It seems she was banished to the moon because she stole the pill of immortality from her husband. You might also look for her companion, a large Chinese rabbit, who is easy to spot since he is always standing on his hind feet in the shade of a cinnamon tree. The name of the rabbit is not reported.

Michael Collins: OK. We'll keep a close eye out for the bunny girl."

Myth 6: Humans didn't actually land on the moon

Noble said the most common myth she is asked about is the idea that the Apollo missions never landed on the moon. Naysayers claim that the necessary technology did not exist to make such a trip possible in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Noble said she normally responds to these claims by pointing to her research looking at the rocks and soils returned by the Apollo astronauts, and how they differ from terrestrial rocks.

But modern lunar missions have helped to provide further evidence for the historic missions.

"Another great response is the images from LRO that actually show the footprints and flags we left behind," Noble said.

Editor's note: If you snap an amazing photo of Sunday's supermoon lunar eclipse and want to share it with, send images and comments in to managing editor Tariq Malik at

Follow Nola Taylor Redd on Twitter @NolaTRedd or Google+. Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook orGoogle+. Originally published on

Post by: Rad on Sep 25, 2015, 06:06 AM
CS Monitor

Messier 17: Could a massive cosmic rose smell as sweet by any other name?

A spectacular nebula, Messier 17, rapidly churns out newborn stars that create its distinctive rosy glow.

By Eva Botkin-Kowacki, Staff writer September 24, 2015   

"A rose by any other name would smell as sweet," said Juliet. Does that still apply if the rose is a giant cloud of gas and dust?

Officially named Messier 17, this spectacular nebula is now visible in stunning relief in a newly released photo from the European Southern Observatory's La Silla telescope in Chile.

The rose-hued stellar nursery has earned many colorful nicknames, including the Omega Nebula, the Checkmark Nebula, the Horseshoe Nebula, the Lobster Nebula, and the Swan Nebula. Whatever you call it, Messier 17 remains a gigantic hotbed of star-birth – one of the youngest and most active in our galaxy. Astronomers have counted nearly 800 young stars emerging in its center, with even more stars scattered across the whole nebula.

You can see Messier 17 in the constellation Sagittarius (The Archer), where the cosmic rose stands out as particularly bright against one of the darker regions of the Milky Way. It stretches 15 light years across and its gas has more than 30,000 times the mass of the Sun, astronomers estimate.

What gives this stellar nursery, located 5,500 light-years from Earth, its rosy hue? Glowing hydrogen gas.

Infant stars emit ultraviolet light that excites the hydrogen gas around them. That excited gas radiates in the pink to red wavelengths, bright enough to catch astronomers' eyes.

Messier 17's official name comes from Charles Messier, a French astronomer who searched the sky for comets. As he hunted, Mr. Messier also noted the locations of bright celestial objects that were not comets, so he wouldn't be confused. He numbered the radiant objects in his published astronomical catalog in 1764.

But Messier wasn't the first to spot the spectacular rosy nebula. Swiss astronomer Jean-Philippe Loys de Chéseaux had found the cosmic rose around 1745, but his work was not widely publicized, so when Messier independently discovered the same nebula later, the Frenchman received the credit.
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Messier 17's many nicknames come from its appearance, which reminds some of the Greek letter omega, while to others it looks like a swan, a horseshoe, or a lobster.

The glow of this vast celestial rose is interrupted by darker spots and webs, caused by dust that blocks the light from the excited hydrogen gas.

Increasingly powerful telescopes have allowed astronomers to see more and more colors hidden in the nebula. When the ESO took a closeup six years ago, astronomers described a "fascinating palette of subtle colour shades across the image," caused by "different gases (mostly hydrogen, but also oxygen, nitrogen and sulphur) that are glowing under the fierce ultraviolet light radiated by the hot young stars."

Post by: Rad on Sep 26, 2015, 06:48 AM
CS Monitor

NASA Mars probe anniversary: A look back over one year at the Red Planet

MAVEN, a NASA spacecraft orbiting Mars, has been gathering data on the planet for the past year.

By Mike Wall, September 25, 2015   

NASA's newest Mars probe has now been circling the Red Planet for a year.

The Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) spacecraft arrived in orbit around the Red Planet on Sept. 21, 2014, 10 months after blasting off from Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

MAVEN endured a two-month checkout phase on orbit and then began studying Mars' atmosphere, in an attempt to determine how fast the planet's air is escaping into space. Such information will help researchers better understand how and when Mars shifted from a relatively warm and wet world in the ancient past to the cold and dry planet it is today, NASA officials have said. [NASA's MAVEN Mission to

Everything is going well so far with the $671 million mission, and all of MAVEN's systems and instruments are in good shape, team members said.

"We're obtaining an incredibly rich data set that is on track to answer the questions we originally posed for MAVEN and that will serve the planetary science community for a long time to come," MAVEN principal investigator Bruce Jakosky, of the University of Colorado's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics in Boulder, said in a statement.

MAVEN's first year at Mars has been quite eventful. In October 2014, for example, the spacecraft survived the close approach of Comet Siding Spring, which zoomed within just 87,000 miles (139,500 kilometers) of the Red Planet's surface.

Observations by MAVEN, NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and Europe's Mars Express spacecraft revealed that dust and other material shed by the comet created a temporary layer high up in the Red Planet's atmosphere.

MAVEN has also spotted auroral displays — similar to the northern and southern lights here on Earth — that penetrate surprisingly deeply into the Martian atmosphere and discovered a strange dust cloud that extends from about 93 miles (150 km) above the planet's surface to an altitude of 190 miles (300 km).

The spacecraft can also serve a relay function, helping link up communications between NASA's Opportunity and Curiosity rovers and their handlers on Earth.

The orbiter seeks to rewind the planet's geologic history back to the wet, warm epoch that might have spawned life. MAVEN's instruments may help scientists understand why the planet lost much of its atmosphere. Click to watch:

MAVEN's primary, one-year mission will end this November, but NASA has extended the probe's operations through at least September 2016.

MAVEN, MRO and Mars Express are three of five operational spacecraft currently studying the Red Planet from orbit. The others are NASA's Mars Odyssey probe and India's first-ever Red Planet spacecraft, which is known as Mangalyaan. Mangalyaan marks its one-year Mars anniversary tomorrow (Sept. 24).

Post by: Rad on Sep 28, 2015, 04:58 AM
September 26, 2015

Dragon-scale terrain, lakes of ‘pasta sauce’ found on Pluto

by Chuck Bednar
Red Orbit

Once again, scientists have found themselves surprised and amazed by Pluto, as the latest batch of information and images from the New Horizons spacecraft reveal that the dwarf planet has an odd, rippled landscape lined with craters filled with something that looks like pasta sauce.

According to National Geographic, the newest pictures reveal a rough, scalloped texture which NASA scientists say is reminiscent of dragon scales or tree bark, and in addition to the apparent sauce-filled craters, the US space agency also discovered pits that resemble Triton’s cantaloupe terrain and mountains that look as if they’re bleeding, the website said.


Detail of the "dragon scale" texture on Pluto

“It’s a unique and perplexing landscape stretching over hundreds of miles,” William McKinnon, the New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging (GGI) team deputy lead from Washington University in St. Louis, said of the unusual dragon-scale terrain. He added that it could be “some combination of internal tectonic forces and ice sublimation driven by Pluto’s faint sunlight.”



This newly-released “color extended” image show a region of Pluto roughly 330 miles across along the dwarf planet’s day-night divide, according to Mashable. It was captured on July 14, during the probe’s closest approach to Pluto, and also depicts dune-like features, what appears to be the shoreline of a shrinking glacial ice lake, and fractured ice mountains with sheer cliffs.

Data reveals unusual methane patterns across the planet

The pictures, which were originally taken by New Horizons’ wide-angle Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC) and downlinked to Earth on September 19, reveals the dwarf planet’s unusually rich color palette, GGI deputy lead John Spencer from Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado said in a statement.

The team used MVIC’s infrared channel “to extend our spectral view of Pluto,” he said. Then they enhanced Pluto’s surface colors “to reveal subtle details in a rainbow of pale blues, yellows, oranges, and deep reds. Many landforms have their own distinct colors, telling a wonderfully complex geological and climatological story that we have only just begun to decode.”

“With these just-downlinked images and maps, we’ve turned a new page in the study of Pluto, beginning to reveal the planet at high resolution in both color and composition,” added SwRI’s Alan Stern, principal investigator on the New Horizons mission. “I wish Pluto’s discoverer Clyde Tombaugh had lived to see this day.”

Data sent back to Earth by the probe also included methane maps that showed that while the region of the planet known as Sputnik Plaum has an abundance of methane, there is none of the gas in the relatively dark patch known as Cthulhu Regio. Thus far, methane been found on crater rims and in icy planes, but none has yet been detected in the middle of those craters, nor has there been any sign of the substance in the dwarf planet’s dark regions.

“It's like the classic chicken-or-egg problem,” said New Horizons scientist Will Grundy. “We’re unsure why this is so, but the cool thing is that New Horizons has the ability to make exquisite compositional maps across the surface of Pluto, and that’ll be crucial to resolving how enigmatic Pluto works.”

Post by: Rad on Sep 28, 2015, 05:24 AM
CS Monitor

Big announcement: Did NASA just find liquid water on Mars?

The US space agency has scheduled a special news conference for 11:30 a.m. ET on Monday to announce a 'major science finding.'
By Kelsey Warner, Staff writer September 27, 2015   

NASA will announce a "major science finding" about Mars on Monday.

A news conference is scheduled for 11:30 a.m. ET, and will be broadcast live on NASA Television as well as its website.

The space agency’s press release does not specify what the finding is, but the list of participants in the news conference provides some clues.

One of the names is Lujendra Ojha, a Ph.D. candidate in planetary science who co-authored a study published in Science in 2011 claiming the first evidence of what could be liquid briny water on Mars. The source of this water could be below the surface, Mr. Ojha said at the time.

"There's going to be years of research put into this to even prove that this is definitely a proof of water. And from that, we can move on: OK if this is water, what are the chances that life could be in these kinds of surroundings?" he said.

NASA currently has five active missions on Mars. The two rovers Opportunity and Curiosity, which landed in 2004 and 2012, respectively, and three orbiters Mars Odyssey, MRO, and MAVEN (which stands for Mars Environment and Volatile Evolution).

The MRO orbiter, which has been in space since 2006, has the HiRISE camera onboard. The principal investigator for the camera, Alfred McEwen, will be part of Monday’s conference.

The HiRISE camera features a telescopic lens that can pick out features as small as one meter across on the Martian surface. The camera also collects images in near-infrared wavelengths, allowing researchers to learn about the mineralogy of Mars, according to

"These new, high-resolution images are providing unprecedented views of layered materials, gullies, channels, and other science targets, in addition to characterizing possible future landing sites," NASA officials wrote in a description of the HiRISE instrument.

Jim Green, director of planetary science at NASA headquarters, will be taking part in Monday's news conference. Michael Meyer, lead scientist for the Mars Exploration Program, and Mary Beth Wilheim, of NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, will be participating as well.

NASA has plans to send humans to Mars by the 2030s and is currently developing capabilities to make long-term space travel possible.

During Monday's conference, NASA will be answering questions from the public on Twitter using the hashtag #AskNASA.

Post by: Rad on Sep 28, 2015, 10:42 AM
NASA scientist: ‘There is liquid water today on the surface of Mars’

Ian Sample, The Guardian
28 Sep 2015 at 11:15 ET                   

Liquid water runs down canyons and crater walls over the summer months on Mars, according to researchers who say the discovery raises the odds of the planet being home to some form of life.

The trickles leave long, dark stains on the Martian terrain that can reach hundreds of metres downhill in the warmer months, before they dry up in the autumn as surface temperatures drop.

Images taken from the Mars orbit show cliffs, and the steep walls of valleys and craters, streaked with summertime flows that in the most active spots combine to form intricate fan-like patterns.

Scientists are unsure where the water comes from, but it may rise up from underground ice or salty aquifers, or condense out of the thin Martian atmosphere.

“There is liquid water today on the surface of Mars,” Michael Meyer , the lead scientist on Nasa’s Mars exploration programme, told the Guardian. “Because of this, we suspect that it is at least possible to have a habitable environment today.”

The water flows could point Nasa and other space agencies towards the most promising sites to find life on Mars, and to landing spots for future human missions where water can be collected from a natural supply.

Some of the earliest missions to Mars revealed a planet with a watery past. Pictures beamed back to Earth in the 1970s showed a surface crossed by dried-up rivers and plains once submerged beneath vast ancient lakes. Earlier this year , Nasa unveiled evidence of an ocean that might have covered half of the planet’s northern hemisphere in the distant past.

But occasionally, Mars probes have found hints that the planet might still be wet. Nearly a decade ago, Nasa’s Mars Global Surveyor took pictures of what appeared to be water bursting through a gully wall and flowing around boulders and other rocky debris. In 2011, the high-resolution camera on Nasa’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter captured what looked like little streams flowing down crater walls from late spring to early autumn. Not wanting to assume too much, mission scientists named the flows “recurring slope lineae” or RSL.

Researchers have now turned to another instrument on board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter to analyse the chemistry of the mysterious RSL flows. Lujendra Ojha , of Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, and his colleagues used a spectrometer on the MRO to look at infrared light reflected off steep rocky walls when the dark streaks had just begun to appear, and when they had grown to full length at the end of the Martian summer.

Writing in the journal Nature Geosciences , the team describes how it found infra-red signatures for hydrated salts when the dark flows were present, but none before they had grown. The hydrated salts – a mix of chlorates and percholorates – are a smoking gun for the presence of water at all four sites inspected: the Hale, Palikir and Horowitz craters, and a large canyon called Coprates Chasma.

“These may be the best places to search for extant life near the surface of Mars,” said Alfred McEwen, a planetary geologist at the University of Arizona and senior author on the study. “While it would be very important to find evidence of ancient life, it would be difficult to understand the biology. Current life would be much more informative.”

The flows only appear when the surface of Mars rises above -23C. The water can run in such frigid conditions because the salts lower the freezing point of water, keeping it liquid far below 0C.

“The mystery has been, what is permitting this flow? Presumably water, but until now, there has been no spectral signature,” Meyer said. “From this, we conclude that the RSL are generated by water interacting with percholorates, forming a brine that flows downhill.”

John Bridges , a professor of planetary science at the University of Leicester, said the study was fascinating, but might throw up some fresh concerns for space agencies. The flows could be used to find water sources on Mars, making them prime spots to hunt for life, and to land future human missions. But agencies were required to do their utmost to avoid contaminating other planets with microbes from Earth, making wet areas the most difficult to visit. “This will give them lots to think about,” he said.

For now, researchers are focused on learning where the water comes from. Porous rocks under the Martian surface might hold frozen water that melts in the summer months and seeps up to the surface.

Another possibility is that highly concentrated saline aquifers are dotted around beneath the surface, not as pools of water, but as saturated volumes of gritty rock. These could cause flows in some areas, but cannot easily explain water seeping down from the top of crater walls.

A third possibility, and one favoured by McEwen, is that salts on the Martian surface absorb water from the atmosphere until they have enough to run downhill. The process, known as deliquescence, is seen in the Atacama desert, where the resulting damp patches are the only known place for microbes to live.

“It’s a fascinating piece of work,” Bridges said. “Our view of Mars is changing, and we’ll be discussing this for a long time to come.”

Post by: Rad on Sep 29, 2015, 05:01 AM
September 28, 2015

Cosmic ‘fossils’ show how massive galaxies evolve

by Savanna Walker
Red Orbit

An international team led by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich has observed dead galaxies dating from 4 billion years after the Big Bang. They also found the predecessors of the dead galaxies, allowing them to observe their formation and evolution over 11 billion years, according to a press release.

These ancient galaxies are very similar to local elliptical galaxies, which also no longer produce stars. The local galaxies are about ten billion years old and have large quantities of heavy elements and alpha-elements.

Scientists are still unsure as to how long star formation generally occurs and why it stops, but they believe that based on the composition of elements, these local galaxies formed large amounts of stars in a relatively short period of time.

Old geezer galaxies

By observing the contents of the much older galaxies, scientists were able to observe galaxy development much closer to formation. The Subaru Telescope is able to view multiple objects at once, and this allowed the team to study 24 faint galaxies and compose a spectrum of the group.

To see what the massive dead galaxies looked like during star formation, the team sought out the progenitors of their sample. They found large star-forming galaxies 1 billion years before the dead galaxies, and determined that they would shortly stop producing stars and age into the set previously studied.

The team determined that the galaxies were already one billion years old when observed four billion years after the Big Bang. They also have 1.7 times more heavy elements than hydrogen, and their alpha-elements are twice enhanced relative to iron, a composition that is similar to the local dead galaxies.

Like those, the high amount of alpha-elements in the dead galaxies observed leads scientists to believe that their stars were also formed relatively quickly. This is also the first time that alpha-element content has been measured in dead galaxies.

Post by: Skywalker on Sep 29, 2015, 05:11 AM
Hi Rad,

If I remember correctly, JWG stated somewhere (I think in Pluto 2) that humans would colonize Mars in the near future.. Well it seems to be happening!

All the best

Post by: Rad on Sep 29, 2015, 05:13 AM
Hi Skywalker,

Yes, he said that many times through various formats.

God Bless, Rad

Post by: Rad on Sep 29, 2015, 06:07 AM
CS Monitor

'All quiet on the cosmic front': Was Einstein's theory wrong?

Scientists have spent 11 years listening for evidence of gravitational waves as predicted by Einstein's general theory of relativity. So far, at least, they've found nothing but silence.

By Michael Holtz, Staff writer September 28, 2015   

Ryan Shannon has spent the last 11 years with his ear to the cosmos, but he still hasn’t heard what he’s been listening for.

Using the high-precision Parkes telescope, Dr. Shannon and a team of scientists have tried for more than a decade to detect the most elusive element of Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity: gravitational waves. They revealed last week that they have so far come up empty in their search, casting doubt on our understanding of galaxies and black holes.

"We heard nothing. Not even a whimper," said Shannon, who works at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) in Australia, in a news release. "It seems to be all quiet on the cosmic front – at least for the kind of waves we are looking for."

Since first proposed by Einstein a century ago, the general theory of relativity has withstood nearly every scientific test thrown at it. Its postulation of gravitational waves – which could help us look back into the very beginning of the universe – remains its only prediction that scientists have been unable to confirm.

In their search for proof of the existence of gravitational waves, Shannon and his team of researchers focused their attention on pairs of black holes circling around each other at the center of galaxies. Their theory is that as the black holes merge, they send ripples through space and time. The scientists have tried to detect these gravitational waves by using pulsars, dead stars that create regular pulses of light with such regularity that they’re used as cosmic clocks. As explains:

    Scientists with the Parkes Pulsar Timing Array want to look for interruptions in the regular pulse of these pulsars caused by gravitational waves. Put simply, if a gravitational wave passed by a pulsar, it could warp the space-time between the pulsar and Earth. This could cause a hiccup in the timing of the otherwise extremely regular light pulses.

Theoretical work has suggested that the Parkes telescope should be sensitive enough to detect the waves. But Vikram Ravi, a postdoctoral fellow at the California Institute of Technology and member of the research team, said he and his colleagues reached that level of sensitivity but still found nothing. That means, if it waves do exist, they are quieter than scientists predicted.

"So what it means is that the theorists – including me – need to come up with better models," Mr. Ravi told "They need to think a bit harder about what the gravitational wave signal may actually look like."

The team’s findings were published Wednesday in the journal Science.

Click to watch:

Post by: Rad on Sep 29, 2015, 06:09 AM
CS Monitor

India's space telescope: Is it a big deal?

Launched today, the country's Astrosat telescope is the first one in space from a developing country.

By Lonnie Shekhtman, Staff September 28, 2015   

On Monday, India added another notch to its space belt by launching its first space observatory into orbit.

The telescope, called Astrosat, launched this morning along with satellites from the US, Canada, and Indonesia from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota, in the state of Andhra Pradesh.

“This scientific satellite mission endeavours for a more detailed understanding of our universe,” said the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) in an announcement. Astrosat will study distant stars, white dwarfs, pulsars, and the supermassive black hole astronomers believe lies at the center of our Milky Way galaxy, reports the Hindustan Times.

The launch marks a milestone in India’s burgeoning space program and a boon to national pride in a developing country that’s eager to foster a vibrant technology business sector.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi was in Silicon Valley just this weekend meeting with tech executives from Facebook, Microsoft, and Google to promote India as an innovation hub and a fertile investment opportunity.

“Modi wants to transform India using technology and innovation in a way no other Indian leader has before,” M.R. Rangaswami, an Indian-American entrepreneur in Silicon Valley told Forbes last week.

India's space technology has seen significant momentum recently. In September 2014, it became the first Asian country to successfully orbit Mars, on its initial attempt, during a mission called Mangalyaan.

Only the United States, the former Soviet Union, and the European Space Agency had done that before, though not on their first tries, reported The Christian Science Monitor.

The event gripped the nation, as tens of millions of people across India followed the progress of the Mangalyaan mission on TV.

"We have dared to reach out into the unknown and have achieved the near impossible," Modi said of Mangalyaan last year, according to the Monitor.

With the launch of the Astrosat today, which is a tenth of the size of NASA’s Hubble telescope, India claimed another first: becoming the first developing country to place an observatory in space, reported the Guardian.

Only the space agencies of the United States, Japan, Russia, and Europe currently have telescopes in space collecting data.

Chief Minister of the state of Gujarat, Anandiben Patel, this morning tweeted, "With the successful launch of ASTROSAT, India joins a league of elite nations having space observatory. Hearty congrats to@ISRO, you make us proud!"

With a space exploration budget of about $1 billion – compared with $17.6 billion in the US – India has developed satellite, communication and remote sensing technologies to measure coastal soil erosion, assess the extent of remote flooding, and manage forest cover for wildlife sanctuaries, reports The New York Times.

Post by: Rad on Sep 30, 2015, 05:35 AM
Water on Mars: Nasa faces contamination dilemma over future investigations

Curiosity rover already on red planet cannot study streaks left by flowing water because it could be carrying bugs from Earth

Ian Sample Science editor
Wednesday 30 September 2015 07.07 BST

Nasa scientists may still be celebrating their discovery of liquid water on Mars, but they now face some serious questions about how they can investigate further and look for signs of life on the red planet.

The problem is how to find life without contaminating the planet with bugs from Earth.

Researchers at the space agency are keen for the Curiosity rover to take a closer look at the long dark streaks created by liquid water running down craters and canyon walls during the summer months on Mars.

But the rover is not sterile and risks contaminating the wet areas with earthly bugs that will have hitched a ride to the planet and may still be alive.

The vehicle has been trundling around the large Gale crater looking for evidence that Mars was habitable in the ancient past. It has so far uncovered evidence of past river networks and age-old lakes.

However, the dark, damp streaks, called recurring slope lineae (RSL), are a different prospect. Because they are wet at least part of the time, they will be designated as special regions where only sterile landers can visit. But such a restriction could hamper scientists’ hopes of looking for current life on Mars.

“There will be heated discussions in the next weeks and months about what Curiosity will be allowed to do and whether it can go anywhere near the RSLs,” said Andrew Coates of University College London’s Mullard space science laboratory.

“Curiosity now has the chance, for example, to do some closer up, but still remote, measurements, using the ChemCam instrument with lasers, to look at composition. I understand there is increasing pressure from the science side to allow that, given this new discovery.”

An organisation called the committee on space research (Cospar) draws up the rules on what is called planetary protection, which exist to prevent missions from Earth contaminating the pristine environments of other worlds. Landers that are searching for life must be exceptionally clean, and fall under category IVb, but those entering special regions are category IVc missions and must be cleaner still.

Curiosity was designed for category IVb, and under Cospar rules is not allowed to enter areas where water might be flowing. But that might be up for discussion. Nasa’s Jim Green argues that the intense radiation environment on Mars, in particular the ultraviolet light, might have killed any bugs Curiosity carried into space, and so may be clean enough to move into the sites.

A recent report from the US National Academy of Sciences and the European Science Foundation, however, suggests that UV light might not do the job, and could make matters worse. “Although the flux of ultraviolet radiation within the Martian atmosphere would be deleterious to most airborne microbes and spores, dust could attenuate this radiation and enhance microbial viability,” the report states.

Curiosity could inspect the flows from a distance, using its onboard laser to take more measurements of the dark streaks. But a more controversial option is to find a flat region at the bottom of one of the flows, and scoop up some Martian soil for analysis.

The next rover due to land on the planet is a joint mission named ExoMars from the European and Russian space agencies, set to launch in 2018. The plan is for the rover to drill up to two metres into the Martian soil to look for life past or present.

“For the ExoMars 2018 rover, the planetary protection is being very carefully looked at and a combination of baking and cleaning is planned to avoid any possible mishaps and make sure it is IVb so it can make the best possible life-searching measurements in the regions it can get to,” said Coates, who is leading the camera team on the rover.


The Guardian view on the discovery of liquid water on Mars: cause for great celebration


Now the search is on to find living organisms on the red planet. Even traces of primitive microbes would rank among the most important discoveries in history

Tuesday 29 September 2015 19.34 BST

When ancient explorers set off from home they would follow the water, along rivers and coastlines, from lake to lake. There was little else they could do; for water is unique. The simple combination of hydrogen and oxygen is crucial for life as we know it. Without liquid water, cells fail, and so do those functions that define us.

The US space agency put the same intuition at the heart of its exploration of Mars. On our home planet, where there is water, life is never far away. And it is this that makes Nasa’s latest discovery so exciting: that water may flow on Mars today, at least in the warmer months of summer. It is very likely that there is life on the red planet, said one of the scientists on the team.

No one knows where the flows on Mars come from. The water could seep from underground ice or from ancient saline aquifers. Water vapour might condense out of the thin Martian atmosphere, to form a damp sludge on crater walls that slides downhill. Some or all of these might happen at different spots on Mars. Finding out is a question that will keep scientists busy for some time yet.

Then there is the question of life. To find living organisms on Mars – even primitive microbes – would rank among the most important discoveries in history. The planet, and the prospect of it bearing life, has enthralled people since Galileo first observed Mars more than 400 years ago, and more intensely since Nasa’s Mariner 4 swung past it in 1965, beaming back to Earth the first close-up images from another world. If traces of living organisms were found, no longer could life on Earth be considered unique. Rather, it would point to life as commonplace, even if intelligent life were less so.

But is it all worth it? The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, whose instruments detected flowing water on Mars, cost Nasa nearly $750m a decade ago. There are some who would argue that, instead of blasting robots into space, we should build more hospitals here on Earth. But that is shortsighted. The money was not launched into a void. It was spent here on Earth, on problem-solving. Space is the toughest environment we have to work in, and creates fiendish problems that need smart people to solve them. As in any sector, people move in and out. Smart people who cut their teeth in the space industry move into schools, engineering firms, life science companies. And without smart people, societies have only one way to go – backwards.

The problem facing Nasa now is what to do next. International agreements forbid space agencies from contaminating other planets with bugs from home, and so the Curiosity rover, with its earthly bacteria, cannot start digging around for alien organisms. They cannot hunt for life on Mars without first protecting Mars from life on Earth.

Space exploration is a never-ending story of overcoming problems. Already, scientists are working out how they might get the rover close enough to make measurements of Martian water flows without contaminating the sites. If Curiosity cannot visit them safely, a joint European-Russian rover named ExoMars might take on the task. The robot will be as clean as the 1970s Viking landers, and aims to drill two metres under the surface, to look for past or present life. These new explorers deserve celebration, and – as ever – water will be their guide.

Post by: Rad on Sep 30, 2015, 05:47 AM
CS Monitor

Does liquid water on Mars make things easier for visitors from Earth?

If water does, indeed, exist on Mars, it would mean that refuel rockets would no longer have to include water with their supplies, allowing human teams to be much more self-sustaining.

By Olivia Lowenberg, Staff September 29, 2015   

NASA scientists have officially confirmed that the dark rivulets and deep valleys captured in images of Mars may actually be tracks of salt water. The discovery has enormous potential both for questions it may answer about life forms that could exist on the planet, as well as what it means for future manned missions to Mars.

The water "may be an important resource for future human explorers and inhabitants of Mars, and decrease the cost and increase the resilience of human activity on the Red Planet," discovery team member Mary Beth Wilhelm, of NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, said during a news conference announcing the discovery.

The discovery will no doubt boost ticket sales for the sci-fi adventure film “The Martian,” which zooms into theaters this Friday. It follows the story of an astronaut (played by Matt Damon) who is stranded on Mars and forced to survive there while awaiting rescue.

Google has also joined in on the fun, as the company put up a Google doodle on its homepage featuring a cartoon version of the Red Planet drinking a cup of water. 

According to estimates, the amount of water involved in the formation of the known streaks that dot Mars’s surface could fill 40 Olympic-size swimming pools.

"That sounds like a lot if it's all in one place. But that's dispersed over a very wide area," Alfred McEwen, a researcher at the University of Arizona's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory in Tucson, told The Christian Science Monitor. "So what we're dealing with is thin layers of wet soil."

The formations, a mixture of hydrated salt and brine, appear during warm months but disappear when it gets colder, which caused the initial speculation that water was involved in their formation. That hypothesis has now been confirmed, thanks to images from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, or MRO.

The MRO has been looking for evidence of water on Mars since 2005, but the new images, showing narrow streaks flowing downhill, are the strongest indication yet that water does, indeed, exist on Mars. It is not yet known where, exactly, Mars’s water comes from, but researchers are hoping to put together that piece of the puzzle next. That discovery could yield some clues as to what life – if any – could exist on the Red Planet.

“Considering how many millions and millions of years we had standing and running water on that planet, I think the likelihood of finding life goes up significantly,” Doug McCuistion, a former head of NASA’s Mars program, told the Boston Herald. “If the water went underground, life might have gone underground with it.”

The discovery of water would also be an enormous boon for the mission teams that NASA is hoping to send to Mars in the 2030s. If water does, indeed, exist on Mars, it would mean that refuel rockets would no longer have to include water with their supplies, allowing human teams to be much more self-sustaining.

Earlier this year, NASA began to test the potential for those missions through the Year In Space study, which examines the effects of long-term spaceflight on the human mind and body. NASA missions to Mars would typically last between two to three years.

Post by: Rad on Oct 02, 2015, 05:44 AM
October 1, 2015

Earth-like exoplanets orbiting dim stars may have magnetic fields

by Chuck Bednar
Red Orbit

Now there's an even greater chance of finding extraterrestrial life!

Researchers have discovered that Earth-like planets in close orbits around dim stars could have magnetic fields strong enough to help protect them from radiation and cosmic rays—meaning these worlds could potentially be more habitable than previously believed.

According to Forbes and the Daily Mail, a team of scientists led by Peter Driscoll, a geophysicist at the Carnegie Institution in Washington DC, found that these exoplanets most likely possess magnetic fields strong enough to protect life on the surface by deflecting charged particles in the stellar winds.

The research, published last week in the journal Astrobiology, used computer models to analyze earth-mass planets that are in close orbit around M-dwarf stars. Driscoll’s team looked at orbital interactions and heat-based simulations, and found these planets are often tidally locked, which means the same side constantly faces the host star due to their gravitational pull.

This gravitational pull also generates tidally-created heat inside the planet, and the more of this tidal heating that a planetary mantle experiences, the better job it does at dissipating its heat and keeping its core cool. This process helps create a magnetic field similar to that found around the Earth, which protects the planet’s atmosphere from being lost to space.

Magnetic fields can form, be sustained for billions of years

The computer simulations, which ranged from one stellar mass (the size of our sun) to about one-tenth of that size, proved false the long-standing notion that tidally-locked planets most likely did not have protective magnetic fields and were thus left exposed to their stars, the authors said.

Co-author Rory Barnes, an astronomer at the University of Washington, explained to Forbes that the simulations generated magnetic fields for Earth-sized exoplanets in most cases—which was a surprise to him, apparently. “I really expected the tidal heating to shut down the magnetic field,” Barnes said, but instead it found that these fields could be sustained for billions of years.

He explained that he believed the tidal heating taking place close to a planet’s surface would suppress the heat flow from the core, which in turn would prevent magnetic field generation. In reality, they found that the simulated world cooled quickly through its surface, which also made it possible for the core to cool down too, and the protective layer to form and persist.

“I was excited to see that tidal heating can actually save a planet in the sense that it allows cooling of the core. That's the dominant way to form magnetic fields,” Barnes told the Daily Mail. Given that low-mass stars are most active during the first billion years or so of their life spans, he added, “magnetic fields can exist precisely when life needs them the most.”

Post by: Rad on Oct 02, 2015, 06:34 AM
CS Monitor

Why NASA could be sending robots to Venus

NASA will be building on its recent highly successful Mars missions by exploring our other next-door neighbor in the solar system.

By Olivia Lowenberg, Staff October 1, 2015   

As part of its Discovery Program, in which contestants from universities and NASA-affiliated research centers propose ideas for space missions that will have a low cost (usually under $425 million) but a high scientific yield, NASA selected five participants to join in the development of new exploratory ventures. This expands the number of winners in the program beyond the typical one or two.

"The selected investigations have the potential to reveal much about the formation of our solar system and its dynamic processes,” John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, said in a statement. “Dynamic and exciting missions like these hold promise to unravel the mysteries of our solar system and inspire future generations of explorers. It’s an incredible time for science, and NASA is leading the way.”

In particular, NASA is looking to build off of its recent highly successful explorations to Mars, in which the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter took flyby images that revealed the Red Planet has water underneath its craggy surface. There are two possible missions to Venus that, if funded, could send unmanned spacecraft to Venus, our closest planetary neighbor. The information that these robotic probes could collect would answer many questions about Venus' atmosphere and surface.

Each of the two proposed missions to Venus would fall under the direction of a different NASA center. The first, Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble gases, Chemistry, and Imaging (DAVINCI), would study the chemical makeup of Venus’ atmosphere. The robotic probe would also use its imaging tools to determine if there are any active volcanoes on Venus’ surface, and how its planetary landscape interacts with its atmosphere.

Lori Glaze, of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, would be the principal investigator for the DAVINCI project. The Goddard Center has done research on Venus in the past; this summer, they examined how light filters through Venus’ atmosphere.

“Learning more about the composition of the atmosphere is very important for understanding the braking process for spacecraft when they enter the upper atmosphere of the planet, a process called aerobraking,” Fabio Reale, the director of that scientific investigation, said in a statement.

The second proposed mission to Venus, called the Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy mission, or VERITAS, seeks to go below the atmosphere. If funded, VERITAS would produce topographical images of Venus’ surface, creating “the first maps of deformation and global surface composition,” according to NASA.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California would direct the VERITAS project. The JPL has launched several successful unmanned spacecraft  to Venus in the past. In 1990, the JPL sent the unmanned spacecraft Magellan to Venus, where it made several successful orbits around that planet, mapping various locations along its surface until it decayed upon entry into Venus’ atmosphere in 1994. 
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“The Discovery Program announcement sends a very positive message that it’s time to go back to Venus,” Glaze told Science Magazine.

Post by: Rad on Oct 02, 2015, 06:39 AM
CS Monitor

Technicolor map of Ceres offers tantalizing view of dwarf planet

New maps collected by NASA's Dawn spacecraft highlight mountains and craters in the dwarf planet Ceres.

By Cathaleen Chen, Staff October 1, 2015      

New topographic maps of Ceres reveal the geological wonders of the dwarf planet, located in the asteroid belt between Jupiter and Mars.

Thanks to NASA's Dawn spacecraft, which has been orbiting the cratered planet at an altitude of 915 miles, scientists now have fascinating images that showcase the elevation and compositional differences across Ceres.

For instance, one view shows the color-coded topographic image of Occator, a 56-mile-wide crater, home of Ceres' mysterious bright spots. Another map highlights the pyramid mountain that rises four miles high. These new visual data are keeping scientists busy in trying to understand the processes that could produce such enticing Cerean landscape.

The new map also feature more than a dozen names for Ceres’ terrain recently approved by the International Astronomical Union. The new names such as Ysolo Mons for a 12-mile wide mountain near Ceres' north pole are all eponymous for agricultural spirits and deities from cultures all over the world.

"The irregular shapes of craters on Ceres are especially interesting, resembling craters we see on Saturn's icy moon Rhea," Carol Raymond, Dawn's deputy principal investigator based at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a statement. "They are very different from the bowl-shaped craters on Vesta."

Another interesting phenomenon came from Dawn’s gamma ray and neutron spectrometer, which detected three bursts of energetic electrons that may have been caused by interaction between Ceres and radiation from the sun.

NASA officials say they don’t fully understand the observation, but it may be vital in forming a complete picture of Ceres. 

After about six months of orbiting the tiny planet, Dawn will descend to its lowest and final orbit starting in October. There, the spacecraft will continue its observations. At an altitude of only 230 miles, the imaging resolutions will be higher than ever before.

Dawn is the first probe ever to orbit a dwarf planet, and the first to circle two different extraterrestrial objects. In 2011 and 2012, the spacecraft orbited Vesta, another dwarf planet on the asteroid belt.


Ceres map reveals bizarre bright spots, huge pyramid

A 4-mile tall pyramid-shaped mountain and a 56-mile wide crater are just two of the features mapped by NASA's Dawn spacecraft, which has been orbiting the dwarf planet since March.

By Mike Wall, October 1, 2015   

New maps of Ceres show the dwarf planet's mysterious bright spots and huge, pyramid-shaped mountain in a new light.

The new maps of Ceres come courtesy of NASA's Dawn spacecraft, which has been orbiting the heavily cratered dwarf planet since March. The maps highlight the compositional and elevation differences across Ceres, the largest object in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

For example, one new topographic map focuses on an odd mountain dubbed "the Pyramid," which rises about 4 miles (6.4 kilometers) into space from Ceres' surface. And another map zeroes in on the 56-mile-wide (90 km) Occator crater, whose floor features the most luminescent of the dwarf planet's enigmatic bright spots.

The mission team also put together global Ceres composition and topographic maps, the latter of which includes names for some features on the dwarf planet that were recently approved by the International Astronomical Union.

These names all have an agricultural theme. For instance, a 12-mile-wide (20 km) mountain near Ceres' north pole now bears the appellation Ysolo Mons, after a festival in Albania marking the first day of the eggplant harvest, NASA officials said.

The new Ceres maps are being discussed at the European Planetary Science Conference (EPSC) in Nantes, France, which runs from Sept. 27 through Oct. 2. At EPSC, Dawn team members are also talking about a puzzling observation made by the spacecraft — three bursts of energetic electrons from Ceres that may have been produced by interactions between the dwarf planet and solar radiation, NASA officials said.

"This is a very unexpected observation for which we are now testing hypotheses," Dawn principal investigator Chris Russell, of the University of California, Los Angeles, said in a statement. "Ceres continues to amaze, yet puzzle us as we examine our multitude of images, spectra and now energetic particle bursts."

Post by: Rad on Oct 02, 2015, 06:43 AM
CS Monitor

New technique would use sunlight to extract water from asteroids

Called optical mining, the technique focuses the sun's rays to bake water out of the asteroid, providing a cheap propellant for spacecraft.

By Leonard David, October 1, 2015   

Pasadena, Calif. — A new way to harvest asteroid resources is being eyed as a possible game changer for space exploration.

The patent-pending innovation, called "optical mining," could allow huge amounts of asteroid water to be tapped, advocates say. This water, in turn, could provide relatively cheap and accessible propellant for voyaging spacecraft, lowering the cost of spaceflight significantly.

Development of the optical-mining idea has been funded by a NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) fellowship and grant, along with a small business contract. The concept — which is also known as the Asteroid Provided In-Situ Supplies plan, or Apis — was detailed here during a special NIAC session held on Sept. 2 during the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics' (AIAA) Space 2015 meeting.

"We're putting together a business model … one that moves reusability into space and more commercial methods and practices into deep space," Apis principal investigator Joel Sercel, founder and principal engineer at ICS Associates Inc. and TransAstra, told

Sercel said that Apis can support NASA's plans for human exploration by providing mission consumables and propellant for all missions of the agency's Evolvable Mars Campaign, including human exploration efforts to lunar orbit, crewed missions to near-Earth asteroids in their native orbits, exploration of the moon andexploration of Mars.

Sercel formerly worked at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and was a lead innovator for the NASA Solar Technology Application Readiness (NSTAR) ion propulsion system. NSTAR powers NASA's Dawn spacecraft, which is currently orbiting the dwarf planet Ceres.

Loads of water

Sercel said that the optical-mining approach aims to excavate carbonaceous chondrite asteroid surfaces and drive water and other volatile materials out of this excavated material and into an enclosing, inflatable bag, all without the need for complex or impractical robotics.

The Apis plan involves harvesting up to 100 metric tons of water from a near-Earth asteroid, and taking the material to lunar orbit or other depot locations, using only a single SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launch, Sercel added.

Apis team members have already performed computer simulations and lab experiments on meteorite samples to get a better idea of how to approach the intended work in space.

Light and heat

Sercel and his colleagues are using their large solar furnace at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico to shed light andheat onto the idea.

Since the late 1970s, researchers have used this furnace to simulate the sudden heat generated by a nuclear explosion. The furnace makes use of two primary sets of mirrors. One large, flat set can pivot around to seize the rays of the sun and direct them though a shutter system onto the second set of mirrors, which, in turn, focuses the light and heat onto the target.

In the September-October time frame, Sercel said, the Apis team will do proof-of-concept experiments at the White Sands facility. Hardware brought to the test site will hold cantaloupe-sized asteroid simulant.

In-space spalling

The products of interest to Sercel are volatiles, especially water. Volalites can be harvested from rock by a process called spalling, in which tiny, explosive pops of expanding gas drive out particles and gas.

Sercel said that the New Mexico tests could show that highly concentrated optical energy excavates the surface of material in a controlled way, analogous to how intense lasers can ablate surfaces, constantly exposing new material and forcing water out of the spalled material.

"It actually digs holes and tunnels into the rock. The heat goes in, is absorbed in thin layers and drives out the volatiles in tiny, explosivelike pops that eject material in a controllable way," Sercel said. "We believe that highly concentrated sunlight can drill holes, excavate, disrupt and shape an asteroid while the asteroid is enclosed in a containment bag."

Solid ice

The Apis solar-thermal oven scheme makes use of thin-film inflatable structures stemming from work on NASA's Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). The ARM plan calls for plucking a boulder off a near-Earth asteroid using a robotic probe, then hauling this chunk of rock to lunar orbit, where it could be visited by astronauts. [NASA's Asteroid Capture Mission in Pictures] 

But in the Apis case, the inflatable capture system is fabricated from high-temperature material and designed to fully enclose the target.

After the asteroid has been encapsulated and de-spun, an inflatable solar concentrator churns out direct solar-thermal energy to the asteroid surface. This heat is used to excavate the asteroid and force the water to outgas into the enclosing bag.

From there, the outgassing water is pumped into a passively cooled bag and stored as solid ice.

Storage bag

Up to 120 tons of water, collected over several months, could be stored in this manner, Sercel said. The Apis system would then transport the harvested water to lunar orbit, using some of the asteroid water as fuel for its onboard solar-thermal propulsion system.

Once in orbit around the moon, the water can be converted into consumables and propellant to support a variety of enterprises, including human exploration beyond low-Earth orbit.

"Apis is a commercially viable approach to the extraction, processing and delivery of water from asteroids to in-space assets," Sercel concluded.

Digging in

Along with Sercel, mining experts are digging into the question of how best to extract and exploit space resources.

"After many years of dead-end investigations trying unsuccessfully to adapt terrestrial mining techniques to extract resources from asteroids in the future, we are excited to finally participate in the development of what we consider the most feasible and effective technique to recover valuable volatile elements, such as space propellants, from asteroids," Angel Abbud-Madrid, director of the Center for Space Resources at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Colorado, told via email.

Both Abbud-Madrid and Chris Dreyer, also from the Center for Space Resources, are working with the TransAstra team on several projects exploring the optical-mining concept.

Leonard David has been reporting on the space industry for more than five decades. He is former director of research for the National Commission on Space and is co-author of Buzz Aldrin's 2013 book "Mission to Mars – My Vision for Space Exploration" published by National Geographic with a new updated paperback version released in May 2015. Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook or Google+. Originally published on   

Post by: Rad on Oct 03, 2015, 05:03 AM
October 2, 2015

Planet Venus or Psyche asteroid? NASA trying to decide next mission

by Brett Smith
Red Orbit

For its next major mission to launch in or around 2020, NASA has narrowed its focus to two primary objectives: Venus or the Solar System’s asteroids.

According to a NASA statement, over the next year, scientists and administrators will assess five investigation concepts—two of the missions would send a probe to Venus, while three of the potential missions would study either single or multiple asteroids.

"The selected investigations have the potential to reveal much about the formation of our solar system and its dynamic processes," said John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. "Dynamic and exciting missions like these hold promise to unravel the mysteries of our solar system and inspire future generations of explorers. It's an incredible time for science, and NASA is leading the way."

Which mission will they choose?

One mission called Psyche would deliver a probe to metallic asteroid Psyche, which scientists suspect is the core of a proto-planet that shed its rocky surface layers due to a brutal collision. Another asteroid mission would investigate the Jupiter Trojan asteroids—a gaggle of asteroids sharing Jupiter's orbital path. Researchers think they might offer details on how the solar system developed.

The third asteroid mission would be an extensive asteroid-cataloguing effort. The mission would use the planned Near Earth Object Camera to find and start to define "10 times more near-Earth objects (asteroids) than all NEOs discovered to date."

As for the Venus missions, one would focus on tracking the planet's ever-changing topography while the other mission would assess its atmosphere.

In addition to those two missions, NASA is also said to be working on a project that would send a piloted, helium-filled airship to explore the atmosphere of Venus. The HAVOC (High Altitude Venus Operational Concept) project could involve not just investigating Earth’s sister planet, but also setting up human colonies in the clouds that fill its acidic skies.

Instead, HAVOC would sit about 30 miles above the surface in an atmospheric pressure closer to that of Earth. Average temperatures at that altitude would be around 170 degrees Fahrenheit.

Post by: Rad on Oct 04, 2015, 08:45 AM
After Mars, hunt for water and life goes deep into the solar system

The Guardian
03 Oct 2015 at 22:50 ET                   

Without water, life as we understand it would be impossible. It is the one substance upon which our existence depends. And now it has been found streaking down the red, dusty slopes of the hills of Mars.

The discovery, announced by Nasa last week , that the Red Planet has running water has provided scientists who are seeking life there with a major boost. As Jim Green, Nasa’s director of planetary science, put it: “If you look at Earth, water is an essential ingredient. Wherever we find water, we find life.”

Hence the international acclaim for the discovery, although the hunt for water, and life, in the solar system is not restricted to Mars. Indeed, astronomers have recently found that our solar system is awash with tantalising pools of the stuff, including several moons of both Jupiter and Saturn. Now researchers are competing for funds to back projects to study these very different, remarkable worlds, even though some are found more than a billion miles from the nurturing warmth of the sun.

It is a tour of the solar system that takes us deep into space, though it begins at Mars, one of our nearest planetary neighbours. Space engineers have been sending probes there for decades, but until recently their record was poor, with a substantial number either missing or crashing into their target s. Success rates have improved over the past decade, however. As a result, there are now five satellites in orbit round Mars, all returning data, while two robot rovers continue to trundle across its surface.

Nevertheless, it has taken this armada a very long time to find evidence of water on the planet, which shows how inhospitable and arid conditions are on Mars. Its atmospheric pressure is only 0.6% of Earth’s and its surface is bombarded by ultraviolet radiation. Any reservoirs of water or deposits of lifeforms will exist only underground, scientists believe. Finding them will be tricky.

One bold effort will be made by Europe’s ExoMars lander mission in 2018. Launched on a Russian Proton rocket, it is designed to set down a robot rover that is under construction at Astrium’s construction plant in Stevenage, Hertfordshire. The rover will be fitted with a long drill that will allow samples to be taken from depths of two metres. These will then be analysed for signs of biological activity.

“ExoMars is designed to identify complex organic materials, but in a way that will allow scientists on Earth to determine if they were produced by living organisms or by straightforward chemical activity,” said Ralph Cordley, a project leader for the ExoMars mission. “The fact that we now have found signs of running water on the Martian surface is tremendously encouraging, of course.”

Water on Mars remains a tantalising prospect, nevertheless – in contrast to several other parts of the solar system where it exists in abundance. Of these, Europa – one of the main moons of Jupiter – is probably the most striking. Covered in a coat of ice, it is the smoothest object in the solar system (with the possible exception of George Clooney) and is known to have a reservoir of water, mixed with organic materials, deep below its surface.

This alien ocean is also considered to be a likely place to find life and two separate missions – to be launched around 2020 – are now being designed to study Europa: the US Europa mission and the European Juice – Jupiter Icy Moon Explorer – mission. The latter will also investigate Jupiter’s moons Ganymede and Callisto. By contrast the US mission will concentrate on Europa, making dozens of sweeps over its surface in an attempt to detect any complex, organic material that might evaporate from its surface.

“If there is life in Europa, it almost certainly was completely independent from the origin of life on Earth,” said Robert Pappalardo, the mission project scientist. “Europa is so important because we want to understand: are we alone in the universe?”

Not everyone agrees with this idea of Europa’s prime importance, however. John Zarnecki, a director at the International Space Science Institute in Berne, Switzerland, believes an even more distant target provides richer promise of finding watery life in the solar system: Titan. Orbiting the planet Saturn one billion kilometres from Earth, the moon, which has a thick atmosphere of nitrogen, has been revealed to be a world with lakes and seas of methane on its surface.

“It also has great stretches of dunes and complex hydrocarbons,” said Zarnecki, who helped design key instruments for the Huygens probe that landed on Titan in 2005. “Most exciting of all, however, are the signs – provided by radar studies of Titan – that it also has a subsurface ocean and that could provide a home for primitive life,” said Zarnecki. “Titan probably has a warm core which is keeping that layer of water in a warm liquid state. Thus, we have the prospect of a rich soup of hydrocarbons, created on the surface, and which could be filtering through Titan’s crust to a subterranean ocean. Perfect for life. There could be colonies of bugs thriving down there.”

Titan is remote, and drilling down through its surface to an underground ocean will be extraordinarily difficult. One idea is to land a spaceship on one of Titan’s lakes of methane, where it could sail around searching for complex organic chemicals, the precursors of life. However, the mission – the Titan Mare Explorer (TiME) – was recently vetoed by senior Nasa officials , although Zarnecki and others hope it will be resurrected.

Titan is not the only moon of Saturn to attract attention, however. Observations by the robot craft Cassini, which has been orbiting Saturn since 2004, have shown that, at the south pole of Enceladus, an underground ocean appears to rise close to the surface. And at a few sites cracks have developed, allowing water to bubble to the little moon’s surface before being vented into space. In addition, complex organic chemicals appear to have built up in its sea. The importance of this combination of factors is stressed by Nasa astrobiologist Chris McKay. “Enceladus is a small world with an ocean below its icy surface. Even better, plumes from that ocean are vented into space and that means easy access. This is the place to go,” he insists.

Detailed plans have been prepared to launch a probe that would sweep across Enceladus’s surface to gather droplets of water in its plumes. Instruments in the spacecraft, called the Enceladus Life Finder, would then analyse those droplets for amino acids, carbon isotopes and other features that would indicate biological activity. “We would also study Enceladus’s ocean in detail as well as the plumes of water it produces,” said the project leader, Jonathan Lunine. “It may be a sterile ocean – or it could clearly be a place where there is life.” If the latter, then a later mission would be designed to bring samples back to Earth.

The project has been backed by several leading scientists, but recently suffered a major setback when Nasa removed it from its list of forthcoming planetary missions. “We will redesign the project and resubmit, but there is no doubt this has set us back two or three years,” said Lunine. It is doubtful that a mission could reach Enceladus before 2030. Nor is there much prospect, at present, for a mission to Titan to get there any earlier.

“Mars and Europa are the two frontrunners now,” Lunine acknowledged. “Whether it stays that way is another matter.”


A molecule of water consists of two atoms of hydrogen and one of oxygen. The origins of these elements are intriguing. The former are the direct leftovers of the big bang 13.8 billion years ago, when the universe exploded into existence, spraying out particles that eventually coalesced into protons and electrons, the building blocks of hydrogen. Later those hydrogen atoms formed clouds, which began to shrink and rotate. Stars were created from these clouds and the nuclei of hydrogen atoms fused to form those of helium. These fused, in turn, to make carbon and then oxygen. Then the stars exploded, spraying space with oxygen, which later combined with hydrogen to form water.

Post by: Rad on Oct 04, 2015, 08:51 AM
NASA: Water found on Mars - 2015 Discovery Science Universe Documentary

Click to watch this documentary:

Universe Documentaries 2015: Latest Secrets of Mars..National Geographic Documentary

Click to watch:

Post by: Rad on Oct 05, 2015, 08:43 AM
What tore open the surface of Charon? Stunning photos

Charon: The latest images of Pluto's largest moon reveal a canyon system four times as long as the Grand Canyon.

By Olivia Lowenberg, Staff October 2, 2015   

What’s up with Pluto’s biggest moon? A lot, according to scientists.

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, the first to travel to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt of which it is a part, have yielded the first detailed color images of Charon, the largest of Pluto’s five moons. At 750 miles in diameter, Charon is about half as wide as Pluto (1,430 miles) itself.

“We thought the probability of seeing such interesting features on this satellite of a world at the far edge of our solar system was low,” Ross Beyer, an affiliate of the New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging (GGI) team from the SETI Institute and NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., said in a statement. “But I couldn't be more delighted with what we see."

The images from New Horizons, taken on July 14 and finally transmitted back to Earth on Sept. 21, reveal a belt of fractures and canyons slightly north of the moon’s equator – a canyon system four times as long as the Grand Canyon and in some places twice as deep.

“It looks like the entire crust of Charon has been split open,” John Spencer, deputy lead for GGI at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo., said in the statement. “With respect to its size relative to Charon, this feature is much like the vast Valles Marineris canyon system on Mars.”

Scientists at NASA are still looking into possible explanations for why these geological events occurred – or may, in fact, still be ongoing. One possibility is cyrovolcanism, in which water, ammonia, or even methane erupts instead of molten rock. Researchers are still determining whether that process happens on Pluto as well:

Stunning images of Pluto and Charon: Not just ice balls anymore

Images of Pluto and its largest moon Charon, released Wednesday, show complex worlds with spectacular surface features that rival anything found elsewhere in the solar system.

By Pete Spotts, Staff writer JULY 15, 2015

LAUREL, MD. — Pluto and Charon are dead; long Live Pluto and Charon.

Gone forever are notions that the main actors in this binary planet system are relatively unremarkable ice balls beyond Neptune, thanks to NASA's New Horizons mission.

Images released today show complex worlds with spectacular surface features that rival anything found elsewhere in the solar system but with their own unique twists:

• On Pluto, mountain ranges that appear to be built from ultra-hard water ice tens of miles wide vault up to 11,000 feet above the surrounding terrain. For mission scientists, they evoke comparisons with the Rocky Mountains in the western United States. Indeed, the dwarf planet seems to be made largely of water ice, covered by a relatively thin veneer of nitrogen, methane, and carbon monoxide ices.

• On Charon, Pluto’s largest moon, canyons up to 4 miles deep are etched across its face, comparable in depth to Valles Marineris on Mars – one of the red planet's most impressive features. Charon also hosts a set of troughs, and cliffs extend for more than 600 miles across the surface.

• On both, evidence suggests that they have had internal heat sources that allowed these bodies to refresh their surfaces within the past 100 million years. For Charon, the evidence comes in the form of an unexpectedly smooth surface, apparently lacking craters. For Pluto, geophysical activity appears to be ongoing.

This represents a fundamental discovery, mission scientists say.

Often, icy bodies that show such geological activity – think Saturn's moon Enceladus, for example – typically are moons orbiting giant planets.

The heat source driving the activity comes from friction inside a moon generated through gravitational interactions with the host planet as well as with any neighboring moons.

"That can't happen on Pluto," says John Spencer, a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute and a member of the New Horizons science team. "There is no giant body that can be deforming Pluto on an ongoing, regular basis" to heat its interior.

Charon is too small to do that, he adds.

"This is telling us that you do not need tidal heating to power ongoing recent geological activity on icy worlds," he says. "That's a really important discovery that we just made this morning."

"We've settled the fact that these very small planets can be very active after a long time," added Alan Stern, also with the Southwest Research Institute and the New Horizons mission's lead scientist. "This is going to send a lot of geophysicists back to the drawing board to try to understand how exactly you do that."

The science team offers two potential explanations for the heat needed to produce geological activity: the decay of radioactive elements in a rocky core or the slow freeze-up of a subsurface ocean. The act of freezing releases heat. It also causes water to expand, a force that could have contributed to some of the surface features examined so far.

    The notion of a thin veneer of other ices atop water ice also could imply active cryovolcanism on Pluto (the volcanic eruption of volatiles such as water, ammonia, or methane, instead of molten rock), although no evidence for that activity has appeared at this early stage of data analysis.

    At the pace Pluto is losing its largely nitrogen atmosphere, over the course of the age of the solar system the planet would have lost the equivalent of a layer of nitrogen ice between 300 meters and 3 kilometers thick.

    "If we only see a veneer, what's going on?" asks Alan Stern, at the Southwest Research Institute and the New Horizons mission's lead scientist. The nitrogen ice on the surface that is the source of the atmosphere's nitrogen needs to be replaced somehow.

    "There must be internal activity that is dredging nitrogen up through cryovolcanism or geysers or some other process that's active into the present on this planet," he says.

New Horizons will continue to bring back even more detailed images of Charon over the next year, and mission project scientist Hal Weaver, of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., predicts that with those transmissions, “Charon’s story will become even more amazing!”

Post by: Rad on Oct 06, 2015, 05:08 AM
October 5, 2015

Going to Mars really isn’t that crazy of an idea, expert says

by Brett Smith
Red Orbit

The new film The Martian makes a manned mission to Mars look like it is well within our reach, and a recent essay from Emory University physics professor Sidney Perkowitz emphasized that such a mission isn’t so far off.

Based on a novel by Andy Weir, the film shows how an astronaut stranded on Mars could use the Red Planet’s limited resources to his advantage and sustain his own life. “Both book and movie try to be as true to the science as possible—and, in fact, the science and the fiction around missions to Mars are rapidly converging,” Perkowitz said.

The Emory professor said manned missions will likely look to Martian resources in order to ease the logistical nightmare of transporting a crew to the planet and back.

“One NASA scenario would, over several years, pre-position supplies on the Martian moon Phobos, shipped there by unmanned spacecraft; land four astronauts on Phobos after an eight-month trip from Earth; and ferry them and their supplies down to Mars for a 10-month stay, before returning the astronauts to Earth,” Perkowitz said.

When it comes to the journey, mission planners would have to consider both the physical and psychological demands of such a journey. Perkowitz said careful screening and training would be essential to the mission’s success.

Relying on the Red Planet

Once astronauts get to Mars, Perkowitz said, they would almost have to utilize planetary resources in order to survive.

“Fortunately, water and oxygen should be available,” he said. “NASA had planned to try a form of mining to retrieve water existing just below the Martian surface, but the new finding of surface water may provide an easier solution for the astronauts.” He added that oxygen could be extracted from the Martian atmosphere.

Perkowitz said rocket fuel, in the form of methane, could likely be sourced from Mars and experiments onboard the International Space Station have shown that growing food in space is possible.

“Every extra pound that has to be hauled up from Earth makes the project that much more difficult,” he said. “‘Living off the land’ on Mars, though it might affect the local environment, would hugely improve the odds for success of the initial mission—and for eventual settlements there.”

Post by: Rad on Oct 06, 2015, 06:10 AM
CS Monitor

How our view of Mars has changed

Over centuries of gazing at Mars, research has changed our vision of the planet multiple times.

By Laura Geggel, October 5, 2015    

The dusty-red sphere now called Mars has fascinated stargazers since the dawn of humanity, but Earthlings' view of the planet has changed drastically over the years. Once thought of as a lush alien world teeming with life, it was later dismissed as an arid, desolate orb. But now, scientists have announced the Red Planet has long, fingerlike strips of seeping, salty, liquid water that just might aid in the search for extraterrestrial life.

The finding, revealed Monday (Sept. 28) by NASA scientists, once again changes the way people view the bright-red planet, Mars experts told Live Science.

The ancient Greeks and Romans named Mars — a planet barely more than half Earth's size — after the god of war. But they likely didn't realize it was another world, with two moons to boot, said Bruce Jakosky, a professor of geological sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder.

In the 1600s and 1700s, astronomers tinkered with nascent telescopes and discovered that Mars, like Earth, was a planet and had a roughly 24-hour day-and-night cycle. At this time, people assumed intelligent beings were scampering over the Martian surface, Jakosky said.

Early astronomers had other fanciful, and often mistaken, views of Mars. In 1784, the British astronomer Sir William Herschel wrote that the dark areas on Mars were oceans, and the light areas land. He also speculated the planet was home to aliens, who "probably enjoy a situation similar to our own," according to NASA. (He also apparently thought intelligent life was living under the sun's surface in a cool spot, NASA reported.)

In 1877, Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli reported seeing grooves or channels on Mars with his telescope. Schiaparelli called these features "canali," which can mean "natural channels" in Italian. The word was mistakenly translated into "canals" in English, a phrasing that suggested handiwork by living beings. American businessman and astronomer Percival Lowell popularized the idea, and wrote three books about aliens that likely created the canals to survive on a drying planet.

"The canals were an attempt, [Lowell] thought, by intelligent beings to carry water from the poles, where there was water, to the rest of the planet," said Richard Zurek, chief scientist for the Mars Program Office at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

It wasn't until NASA's Mariner space missions in the 1960s and 1970s that researchers could confidently prove there were no alien-made canals, Zurek said.

"We almost went to the other extreme, because we saw a hilly, cratered landscape on the first flybys of the planet," Zurek told Live Science, referring to the Mariner 4 mission. "That suggested it was more like the moon than it was like the Earth."

Until then, scientists had speculated that Mars had a thick atmosphere that could trap heat and help the planet support life at its distant location from the sun. Mars orbits at about 142 million miles (229 million kilometers) from the sun, compared with Earth's 93-million-mile (150 million km) leap from the sun. But this wasn't the case; Mars' atmosphere is about 100 times thinner than the gas layer surrounding Earth, partially explaining why the Red Planet is such a cold, barren place, Jakosky said.

"All the way up through [NASA's] Mariner 6 and 7 in 1969, you could think of the potential for life on Mars as declining," Jakosky said. "In 1971, we orbited the Mariner 9 spacecraft, and that changed things. It took global pictures of Mars, and we saw things that looked very Earth-like, including streambeds, river channels and volcanoes. People thought, 'Well, maybe there's the potential for liquid water and potential for life after all.'"

In the 1970s, the NASA Viking missions landed on Mars and took samples of the soil to look for signs of microbial life. But they recorded none, Jakosky said. In fact, the Viking mission scientists called Mars "self-sterilizing," describing how the combination of the sun's UV rays and the chemical properties of the soil prevented life from forming in those soils, according to NASA.

Spacecraft in the 1990s renewed the search for water. The Mars Global Surveyor orbited the planet and took high-resolution images of the surface, finding evidence of ancient gullies. Additional watery evidence came from Martian meteorites that have smashed into Earth, carrying telltale signs of liquid flowing through them, Jakosky said.

Since then, robotic missions have scoured the Red Planet for signs of liquid water. Frozen water is locked up in Mars' roughly mile-thick (1.6 kilometers) ice caps, and enough water vapor resides in the atmosphere to form clouds. Even so, liquid water is more elusive, Zurek said.

Perhaps Mars had water millions or billions of years ago, but that water has since frozen on the surface or been lost to space, Zurek said. (The NASA spacecraft Maven is already examining the Martian atmosphere and helping scientists decipher how Mars lost its water, if that did happen, he said.)

The new finding gives researchers a good spot to look for life on Mars, Zurek said. But the newfound salty streaks aren't like rivers that flow on Earth, he cautioned. [5 Mars Myths and Misconceptions]

"If I pour pure liquid water out on the [Martian] surface today, it's either going to boil way into the atmosphere or it's going to freeze there on the surface," he said.

Any water on Mars is likely laden with salts called perchlorates, which lower water's freezing point to about minus 70 degrees Celsius (minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit), Zurek said.

Moreover, the liquid water — if indeed it is that — only appears during the warm seasons, he said.

"These features grow in a slow, seasonal kind of way, not in a rapid outburst of a flow or a stream," Zurek said. "But nevertheless, here's a source of water that could be staying liquid for a time on the planet."

Extremely salty water isn't necessarily good for life, but perhaps extremophiles can live in those environments, he said.

"We don't know what the evolution of life might have been on the planet, if it ever originated," Zurek said. "But at least this tells us some places where we could go look for evidence of this. It is briny, and there may not be much of it, but it is a place that we could go look."

In a way, the discovery isn't so different from what astronomers were looking for years ago, he said.

"It's not that ancient canal network delivering massive amounts of water out to the desert, but it's curious the way that those early themes over 100 years ago are still playing today," Zurek said.

Post by: Rad on Oct 07, 2015, 05:14 AM
October 6, 2015

NASA joins forces with the Navy to prepare for Mars mission

by Chuck Bednar
Red Orbit

NASA officials are working with members of the US Navy submarine force to learn more about how people cope with month-long simulations of transportation into non-terrestrial environments such as space or the deep sea, according to media reports published on Monday.

According to The Washington Post, NASA and the Navy are collaborating at a Naval base in Groton, Connecticut in order to measure how personnel deal with stress during four-week mock space flights. Astronauts, like sailors traveling through ocean depths, are isolated for long periods of time and have to rely on their crew mates to survive.

Brandon Vessey, a scientist with NASA's human research program, told the Associated Press that the organization has “a shared interest with the Navy in team resilience. The agencies started working together about five years ago when the submarine force extended an invitation to NASA to search for ways to help tactical team members work together better.

While working at the Naval Submarine Medical Research Laboratory in Groton, Navy scientists developed a way to evaluate the performance of those tactical teams. Their method focused on a series of essential team practices, including dialogue, critical thinking skills, and decision-making capabilities, and they devised a way to measure how well they were able to deal with setbacks.

New experiments scheduled to begin early next year

In January or February, NASA and the Navy will begin a new experiment designed to shed light on the potential behavior issues that crew members will experience while traveling on upcoming missions to an asteroid in 2025 and to Mars sometime in the 2030s, according to AP reports.

Using a capsule roughly the same size as a two-bedroom apartment, NASA will be monitoring the performance and behavior of astronauts participating in longer-term space missions during a series of experiments conducted at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. Four volunteers are to live and work in the habitat for 30 day periods at any given time.

The habitat, which is called the Human Exploration Research Analog, will also feature a model airlock and will be supported by a miniature version of mission control. Audio and video records of the subjects will be kept and sent to Navy scientists at the Groton lab for analysis.

Former submarine commander Ronald Steed said that traveling on a space ship would be similar to being a member of a submarine crew. In particular, he said, just as a sub commander “can’t always call to shore, you can’t just call back to Earth for advice... [he/she must] have a set of tools that let him or her look at the crew and make a determination about where they are.”

Post by: Rad on Oct 07, 2015, 05:16 AM
October 6, 2015

Get stoked! Draconid meteor shower peaks this week

by Savanna Walker
Red Orbit

The Draconid meteor shower will be happening this week! Get stoked. In 2012, viewers recorded up to a thousand meteors per hour, but the shower has a temperamental history, with some years being much more impressive than others, according to National Geographic.

This shower is Draco Malfoy's favorite for obvious reasons.


The shower will be in the general area of the constellation Draco in the northwestern skies. It will peak the 8th and the 9th of October, just after sunset.

Generally, this particular shower doesn’t have too many meteors, averaging only a few per hour. A show like that of 2012 isn’t expected to happen this year, but the shower isn’t exactly predictable so don’t rule it out yet!

How to view it

Even if it isn’t as spectacular an event as in previous years, the viewing conditions for the Draconid shower are expected to be excellent, so it's worth a shot. The moon will be in waning crescent and won’t rise until early morning, so the sky will be dark for the shower. And these meteors are generally quite slow, which makes them very easy to spot.

The best time to view the shower is right before nightfall, facing the northwestern sky. It will be most visible in the Northern Hemisphere, specifically Europe, the U.S., Canada, and northern Asia.

The meteors emanate from the head of the Draco constellation, looking on good years like fire coming out of the dragon’s mouth. They're produced by the debris tailing Comet 21P/Giacobini-Zinner, and are sometimes called the Giacobinids, after the comet’s discoverer, Michel Giacobini, who discovered the comet in 1900.

The comet’s debris produced amazing displays in 1933, 1946, and in 2011 there were over 600 meteors per hour! Dang. Maybe we'll get lucky.

The Draconid shower is also a precursor to the Orionid shower, which will peak around October 21 and last until November 14. The Orionids have the second highest entry velocity and are even known to showcase green or yellow meteors, and if we’re very lucky, the occasional fireball (a big, slow-burning meteor).

Post by: Rad on Oct 08, 2015, 04:57 AM
Navy rocket tests how dusty plasma affects the ionosphere

by Brett Smith
Red Orbit

Whenever an object moves very fast through the atmosphere--like, say, a meteorite--it results in the generation of "dusty plasma", or hot, charged gas much like normal plasma, but dirtied with aerosols and dust from the atmosphere.

"From a practical standpoint, normal atmospheric dynamics can get completely disrupted for a period of time," said Robert Holzworth, a University of Washington professor of Earth and space sciences, before the launch.

In order to learn more about dusty plasma, the US Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) recently launched a sounding rocket in an attempt to create an artificial plasma cloud in the upper-atmosphere.

dusty plasma

After entering the ionosphere, the sounding rocket released 37 small rockets simultaneously to inject nearly 150 pounds of dust made up of aluminum oxide particulates, combined with more than 290 pounds of atomized carbon dioxide, water vapor, hydrogen, and other materials.

Dubbed the Charged Aerosol Release Experiment (CARE II), the launch took place right after sunset—making the dust particles highly visible to cameras on the ground and on an airborne platform. The team said they saw the large amount of dust and exhaust material generate a so-called "dirty plasma" with high-speed pickup ions. Clearly seen from the ground, the released dust generated a cloud and formed charged particulates. This plasma then made waves that spread radar signals employed for remote sensing.

The researchers gathered measurements of the dusty plasma with plasma probes and electrical field booms on a deployable instrument payload. Ionospheric disruptions were observed with multi-frequency beacon signals from the rocket payload that were picked up by a network of ground devices. Ground radars and optical instruments documented the dust release.

Better understanding of plasma

"The CARE launch was fully successful," Paul A. Bernhardt, CARE principal investigator, said in a Navy news release. "Ground-based radars tracked the effects on the ionosphere for twenty minutes, providing valuable data on how rocket motors affect ionospheric densities. The data will be used to validate simulations of natural disturbances in the upper atmosphere."

"Most plasmas in the atmosphere are actually 'dusty' in that they have extra stuff in them like dust and aerosols," Holzworth had said before the launch. "That's a problem because our descriptions of plasmas and how they behave really don't apply to much of anything that we study in the real world. So as we learn more we're hoping we can improve our models and understand how dusty plasmas work in the atmosphere."

Post by: Rad on Oct 08, 2015, 04:59 AM
October 7, 2015

Where should we look next for alien life? Astronomers develop ‘habitability index’ to help guide the search

by Brett Smith
Red Orbit

With countless places to look in the Universe, it’s hard for scientists to know where to look for even the possibility of extraterrestrial life.

Where to look?

But now, astronomers from the University of Washington have led the effort to develop a methodology for prioritizing which of the thousands of distant planets call for closer inspection in the search for life beyond our world, according to a new study published by the Astrophysical Journal.

"Basically, we've devised a way to take all the observational data that are available and develop a prioritization scheme," said study author Rory Barnes, "so that as we move into a time when there are hundreds of targets available, we might be able to say, 'OK, that's the one we want to start with.'"

Typically, astronomers spot faraway planets, also known as exoplanets, when the worlds "transit" or pass across their host star, blocking some of the star's light from reaching us. The James Webb Space Telescope, planned to launch in 2016, is expected to use "transit transmission spectroscopy" to analyze exoplanets intently for signs of life.

Because using the Webb telescope is costly and the work is time-consuming, the UW researchers developed a tool to help determine which exoplanets might have the optimal chance of hosting life and are worthy of our attention.

Astronomers have tended to focus their search by seeking planets in their star's "habitable zone"—more casually dubbed the "Goldilocks zone"—which is the ring of space that's "just right" to permit a planet to have liquid water on its exterior, possibly giving life the opportunity to coalesce. Thus far, that has been just a kind of binary status, suggesting only if a planet is, or is not, inside of that location deemed right for life.

"That was a great first step, but it doesn't make any distinctions within the habitable zone," Barnes said in a statement. "Now it's as if Goldilocks has hundreds of bowls of porridge to choose from."

The best prospects for life

In order to develop a more flexible framework for prioritization, researchers considered estimations of a planet’s rockiness, with rocky planets being Earth-like. They also included a phenomenon known as “eccentricity-albedo degeneracy,” which combines the energy a planet reflects back to space, called albedo, and the circularity of its orbit, which impacts the amount of energy it receives from its host star.

The greater a planet’s albedo, the more energy is reflected into space, leaving less at the exterior to warm the planet and support possible life. However the more noncircular a planet’s orbit, the less energy it gets when passing near to its star in its elliptic trip.

A life-friendly balance for a planet close to the inner edge of the habitable zone would be a greater albedo to cool the planet by sending some of that heat into space. On the other hand, a planet near the cool periphery of the habitable zone would likely need a greater level of orbital eccentricity to supply the energy required for life.

After ranking all the planets so far found by the Kepler Space Telescope, the team discovered the best prospects for life are those that receive approximately 60 percent to 90 percent of the solar radiation that the Earth get from the Sun, in keeping with the confines of the Goldilocks zone.

The team said the robustness of the habitability index will increase as we learn more about exoplanets from both observations and theory.

Post by: Rad on Oct 08, 2015, 05:53 AM

CS Monitor

Astronomers spot mysterious, fast-moving ripples in dust around star

Scientists have detected wavelike ripples hurtling across the accretion disk around a red dwarf star some 32 light-years from Earth.

By Sarah Lewin, October 7, 2015   

Scientists were looking for planets forming in the large disk of dust surrounding a young star when they encountered a surprise: fast-moving, wavelike arches racing across the disk like ripples in water.

The team first spotted the five structures in data from the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope in Chile while searching for lumps and bumps that might indicate planets forming around the young star. When the researchers looked back at images taken with the Hubble Space Telescope in 2010 and 2011, they managed to spot the same features — but in new locations. A new video of the mysterious ripples, describes the strange features as seen by ESO scientists.

"Our observations have shown something unexpected," Anthony Boccaletti, a researcher from LESIA (Observatoire de Paris/CNRS/UPMC/Paris-Diderot) in France and lead author on the paper, said in a statement. "The images from [the Very Large Telescope instrument] SPHERE show a set of unexplained features in the disk, which have an archlike or wavelike structure unlike anything that has ever been observed before."

By cross-referencing with the earlier Hubble records of the star, the team saw that the strange ripples were moving incredibly fast.

"We reprocessed images from the Hubble data and ended up with enough information to track the movement of these strange features over a four-year period," Christian Thalmann, a team member from ETH Zurich, in Switzerland, said in the statement. "By doing this, we found that the arches are racing away from the star at speeds of up to 40,000 km/h [24,855 mph]!"

The red dwarf star AU Microscopii, called AU Mic for short, is 32 light-years from Earth and half the mass of the sun. Because of its heavy, uneven disk of debris, which Earth observers see edge-on, researchers have kept a careful eye on the star to watch for planets coalescing from the dust (noticing fluffy, "dryer-lint" evidence of planetary precursors in 2007, for instance).

The newly spotted features are racing away at terrific speeds. The outermost ones are moving faster, and at least three appear to be moving quickly enough to escape the star's gravitational pull, officials said in the statement. The waves are likely not caused by the collision of large asteroidlike objects or changes in the star's gravity, the researchers said.

"One explanation for the strange structure links them to the star's flares," co-author Glenn Schneider, of Steward Observatory in Arizona, said in the statement. "AU Mic is a star with high flaring activity — it often lets off huge and sudden bursts of energy from on or near its surface."

"One of these flares could perhaps have triggered something on one of the planets — if there are planets — like a violent stripping of material which could now be propagating through the disk, propelled by the flare's force," Schneider said.

The scenario is still speculative; it will take a lot of continued observation with the Very Large Telescope and other instruments to work out exactly what's causing the racing waves. The research paper suggests the hugeAcatama Large Millimeter/submillimeter array in Chile, for instance, to monitor the gas movement in the system. An accompanying "News and Views" column points out that the Gemini South telescope in Chile has also observed the system, but with a different field of view. Researchers may have to pool measurements from a number of perspectives to get to the bottom of the ripples.

"Cases such as that of AU Mic, in which disks can be imaged in great detail but any planets present are unseen, are likely to remain more common than directly imaged planets," Marshall Perrin, a researcher at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Maryland, who was not involved with the study, wrote in the "News and Views" column. "Lucky for astronomers, then, that circumstellar disks still turn out to have surprises such as the fast-moving dust features of AU Mic."

The new research was described Oct. 7 in the journal Nature.

Email Sarah Lewin at or follow her @SarahExplains. Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook and Google+. Original article on

Post by: Rad on Oct 08, 2015, 05:58 AM

What will be the first corporation on the moon?

The private race to the moon is intensifying, as companies vie for Google's Lunar X Prize.

By Mike Wall, October 7, 2015   

The private race to the moon is really starting to heat up.

A team from Israel called SpaceIL has signed a contract to launch its robotic lunar lander toward the moon aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in the second half of 2017. SpaceIL is therefore a strong contender to win the $20 million top prize in the Google Lunar X Prize (GLXP), contest organizers said.

"We are proud to officially confirm receipt and verification of SpaceIL's launch contract, positioning them as the first and only Google Lunar X Prize team to demonstrate this important achievement thus far," X Prize Vice Chairman and President Bob Weiss said in a statement.

"The magnitude of this achievement cannot be overstated, representing an unprecedented and monumental commitment for a privately funded organization, and kicks off an exciting phase of the competition in which the other 15 teams now have until the end of 2016 to produce their own verified launch contracts," Weiss added. "It gives all of us at X Prize and Google the great pride to say, 'The new space race is on!'"

SpaceIL is not the only GLXP team with firm plans to head to the moon. For example, California-based Moon Express announced its own launch deal with the spaceflight company Rocket Lab last week, and Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic signed a contract with SpaceX back in 2011.

Moon Express aims to launch its robotic MX-1 lander to the moon for the first time in 2017, while Astrobotic team members have said they plan to loft their Griffin lander atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket sometime next year.

But SpaceIL is the only team so far to initiate the verification process, in which contest organizers review and assess the launch contract and supporting documents, X Prize representatives told This milestone is a big deal: At least one GLXP team had to announce a verified launch contract by the end of 2015 for the competition to be extended through Dec. 31, 2017.

The Google Lunar X Prize was created in 2007 to encourage the development of the private spaceflight industry, and hopefully help usher in a new era of affordable access to the moon and other space destinations.

The first privately funded team to successfully land a robotic craft on the moon, have the lander move at least 1,650 feet (500 meters), and beam high-definition video and photos back to Earth by the end of 2017 will win the $20 million grand prize. The second team to accomplish these goals will get $5 million; another $5 million is set aside for other milestones, bringing the total purse to $30 million.

Sixteen teams remain in the competition.

SpaceIL signed its launch deal with Seattle-based Spaceflight Industries, which recently purchased a Falcon 9launch from SpaceX. (Falcon 9 flights currently sell for about $60 million.) SpaceIL's lunar lander will get a "co-lead spot" on the launch, sitting inside a capsule among a number of secondary payloads, GLXP representatives said.

SpaceIL team members announced the contract today (Oct. 7) at a press conference in Jerusalem, Israel, during which they also revealed the new design of their 1,100-lb. (500 kilograms) lander, which is about 5 feet high by 6.6 feet wide (1.5 by 2 m).

"Last year, we made significant strides toward landing on the moon, both in terms of project financing and in terms of the engineering design, and now, we are thrilled to finally secure our launch agreement," SpaceIL CEO Eran Privman said in the same statement. "This takes us one huge step closer to realize our vision of recreating an 'Apollo effect' in Israel: to inspire a new generation to pursue science, engineering, technology and math."

To date, only three entities have succeeded in soft-landing a spacecraft on the lunar surface — the governments of the United States, the former Soviet Union and China.

Post by: Rad on Oct 09, 2015, 06:28 AM
CS Monitor

Blue skies and water-ice on Pluto: How alike are Earth and the dwarf planet?

New color photos of Pluto reveal that the dwarf planet has blue skies and water-ice.

By Mike Wall, October 9, 2015   

The more scientists learn about Pluto, the more interesting the dwarf planet gets.

During its historic flyby of Pluto this past July, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft discovered towering ice mountains and vast glaciers on the frigid body. And now, flyby images recently beamed home by New Horizons reveal that the faraway dwarf planet has blue skies similar to those of Earth.

"Who would have expected a blue sky in the Kuiper Belt?" New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado, said in a statement today (Oct. 8). The Kuiper Belt is the ring of icy bodies that lies beyond Neptune's orbit. "It's glorious." 

The newly received image is the mission's first color photo of Pluto's atmosphere, team members said. (New Horizons sent home atmosphere photos shortly after the July 14 close approach, but they were all in black and white.)

The blue color comes from complex organic molecules in Pluto's atmosphere called tholins, which are themselves probably gray or red but scatter light in blue wavelengths, New Horizons team members said. The same basic phenomenon explains why Earth's sky is blue.

"That striking blue tint tells us about the size and composition of the haze particles," mission team member Carly Howett, also of SwRI, said in the same statement. "A blue sky often results from scattering of sunlight by very small particles. On Earth, those particles are very tiny nitrogen molecules."

Ultraviolet radiation from the sun breaks apart nitrogen and methane high up in Pluto's tenuous but extended atmosphere, allowing tholins and other complicated molecules to form, researchers said. The tholins eventually drift down to Pluto's surface, which explains why the dwarf planet sports a reddish-brown hue.

These tholins typically settle onto ices composed of nitrogen and other exotic substances (exotic to those with Earth-based sensibilities, at least). But some regions of exposed water-ice do exist on Pluto's surface, newly received New Horizons data reveals.

Mission scientists said they aren't sure why the water ice crops up where it does — generally, in some of the reddest areas on Pluto.

"I'm surprised that this water ice is so red," said science team member Silvia Protopapa, of the University of Maryland. "We don't yet understand the relationship between water ice and the reddish tholin colorants on Pluto's surface."

New Horizons sent back a small portion of its flyby data shortly after the epic encounter but stored most of this treasure trove on board for later transmission. The spacecraft began beaming the entire data set back to mission control last month; all of it should be on the ground by the end of 2016, team members have said.

New Horizons is currently 3.1 billion miles (5 billion kilometers) from Earth and in good health. The mission team aims to perform a flyby of a second, much smaller Kuiper Belt object in early 2019 if NASA approves and funds an extended mission for the spacecraft.

Post by: Rad on Oct 09, 2015, 06:31 AM
CS Monitor

Mars had more than water, it had lakes: What could that mean?

Previously scientists believe that wet conditions were transient or only existed underground. This new evidence not only proves that water existed above ground, but also that it was long-lasting.

By Annika Fredrikson, Staff October 8, 2015   

Last week NASA confirmed the presence of water on Mars. But today, they’ve released a new study that suggests lakes on Mars’ surface stored enough water to support life billions of years ago.

Observations from NASA’s Curiosity rover indicate “that a series of long-lived streams and lakes existed at some point between about 3.8 to 3.3 billion years ago,” says Ashwin Vasavada, Mars Science Laboratory project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

“Using data from the Curiosity rover, the team has determined that, long ago, water helped deposit sediment into Gale Crater, where the rover landed more than three years ago,” JPL's Whitney Clavin writes. “The sediment deposited as layers that formed the foundation for Mount Sharp, the mountain found in the middle of the crater today.”

Previously, scientists believed that wet conditions were transient or only existed underground, but this discovery undermines that theory. The new analysis not only proves that water existed above ground, but also that it was long-lasting.

Furthermore, Curiosity images confirm that the bottom layers of Mount Sharp were in fact created by deposits from rivers and lakes, over a period of about 500 million years. The images show that sand and gravel from the northern wall of the Gale Crater were transported by shallow streams that formed deltas at an ancient lake. Scientists estimate the lakes existed for over 10,000 years, the Guardian reported.

But how does the existence of an ancient lake answer the question on everyone’s mind: What does this mean for the possibility of life on Mars today?

Lead author of the study and California Institute of Technology professor John Grotzinger, told, "Even if the lake goes away, there's still going to be a groundwater table. If life had evolved on Mars, you now have a habitat which is perpetually wet that would allow microbes to be sustained."

As scientists, with the aid of rovers, continue to learn more about the Red Planet, the possibility of life becomes seemingly more and more attainable, but many unknowns still remain.

"What we thought we knew about water on Mars is constantly being put to the test,” Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA’s Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters in Washington, told Mr. Clavin. "It’s clear that the Mars of billions of years ago more closely resembled Earth than it does today. Our challenge is to figure out how this more clement Mars was even possible, and what happened to that wetter Mars."


Why lakes on ancient Mars could boost chances for life

NASA's Curiosity rover found that Mars' Gale Crater likely had lakes for hundreds or thousands of years at a time.

By Mike Wall, October 8, 2015   

Ancient Mars harbored long-lasting lakes, boosting the odds that life could have existed on the Red Planet billions of years ago, a new study suggests.

A series of freshwater lakes within Mars' 96-mile-wide (154 kilometers) Gale Crater likely persisted for hundreds or thousands of years at a time, and perhaps even longer, according to the new study, which is based on observations made by NASA's 1-ton Curiosity rover.

While these individual lakes were apparently transient, drying out and filling up repeatedly over time, the overall lake-and-stream system inside Gale Crater existed for a quite a long time, researchers said.
"Even if the lake goes away, there's still going to be a groundwater table," study lead author John Grotzinger, of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, told

"If life had evolved on Mars, you now have a habitat which is perpetually wet that would allow microbes to be sustained," added Grotzinger, a Curiosity team member who previously served as project scientist on the $2.5 billion mission. "Those environments would have existed probably for millions, if not tens of millions of years throughout the rocks that we see."

Habitable ancient Mars

Curiosity has been exploring the spacious interior of Gale Crater since August 2012, when the car-size rover landed on a mission to determine if the area could ever have supported microbial life.

Curiosity succeeded in this main task quickly, finding evidence near its landing site that a habitable lake-and-stream system existed within the crater about 3.5 billion years ago.

The new study, which was published online today (Oct. 8) in the journal Science, further characterizes that system and its duration. Grotzinger and his colleagues analyzed photos taken by Curiosity near the robot's landing site and throughout its 5-mile-long (8 km) traverse to Mount Sharp, which rises 3.4 miles (5.5 km) into the Martian sky from Gale's center. (Curiosity set out for Mount Sharp's foothills in July 2013 and arrived there in September 2014.)

Those photos contain copious evidence of river, delta and lake environments within Gale, which is thought to have formed after a massive impact about 3.8 billion years ago. Streams carried sediments from the crater's northern rim and walls down to the floor, where the intermittent lake existed, study team members said.

It's unclear how deep the Gale lake was, Grotzinger said, though he suggested a possible maximum depth in the "tens of meters" range.

Water may have gotten to the crater rim in the form of snow, or perhaps as ice that condensed out of the atmosphere, Grotzinger said. Gale's northern rim lies adjacent to Mars' extensive northern plains, which some scientists think hosted an ocean when the crater lake system existed.

"If there was some type of a northern ocean, that would be a very convenient way to get water vapor and moisture on the northern rim to generate the very localized deposits we see in Gale Crater itself," Grotzinger said.

Mars has no oceans today, of course, or any liquid surface water that's stable for long periods of time. (However, scientists recently announced that the seasonal dark streaks on some Martian slopes are caused by flowing water.)

Researchers are trying to understand what happened to the Red Planet's surface water, and Curiosity's observations should help them in that quest, Grotzinger said. Indeed, Curiosity is now climbing up through Mount Sharp's lower reaches, reading the rocks for clues about how Mars' climate has shifted over time.
Mount Sharp mystery solved

Mount Sharp, which is also known as Aeolis Mons, is a bizarre massif with no close analogues here on Earth. Researchers have been debating how the mountain's core formed, whether its constituent particles were delivered mostly by water or by wind.

The new study strongly supports the water hypothesis.

"It seems to have formed largely by erosion of pre-existing strata that were deposited in aqueous environments," Grotzinger said.

That erosion comes courtesy of the wind, which has been carving away portions of the original mound over the eons.

Scientists can estimate the age of a planetary surface by counting its craters, which accumulate at a relatively constant rate over long periods of time. Crater counting suggests that the terrain Curiosity has been exploring was exposed by around 3.3 billion years ago, researchers said.

The processes that built and eroded away the mound that became Mount Sharp therefore seem to have acted surprisingly quickly, Grotzinger said.

"In that interval of 500 million years, you had the crater becoming filled up with sediments deposited in aqueous environments, perhaps also associated with final filling up of drier sediments that make the bulk of Mount Sharp," Grotzinger said. "All of that has to be eroded back down again. I think that's new. That's one of the really interesting implications."

Post by: Rad on Oct 09, 2015, 06:38 AM
CS Monitor

Why NASA and ESA are trying to crash a spaceship into an asteroid

The international space community has identified a target to help deflect asteroids away from Earth.

By Michelle Toh, Staff October 8, 2015   

European and American space officials have launched plans to deflect asteroids away from the Earth, in hopes of better protecting the planet and of understanding the way asteroids form and operate.

Or, as Quartz puts it, “NASA and ESA are forming a super space team to prevent armageddon.”

The project, called the Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment (AIDA) Mission, was first announced in 2012. But it wasn’t until this year that officials declared a target for its studies: a near-Earth binary asteroid named 65803 Didymos.

This system, whose name is Greek for "twin," contains two asteroids: a small one (“Didymoon”) orbiting its larger counterpart (“Didymos”).

NASA's and the European Space Agency's schedules has been synchronized, but each mission is “fully independent,” ESA says on its website. “Therefore if for some reason one of the spacecraft cannot contribute to the joint campaign, the other would still be able to achieve its individual mission goals.”

ESA’s Asteroid Impact Mission (AIM) will launch first in October 2020. These will examine the structure of the asteroids and observe as NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spacecraft joins two years later.

Then comes DART’s crash – “straight into the asteroid moon [Didymoon] at about 6 km/s,” said ESA. “DART’s shifting of Didymoon’s orbit would mark the first time humanity has altered the dynamics of a Solar System body in a measurable way.”

What, one might ask, is the point of all this?

Perhaps the most poignant example comes from 2013 Chelyabinsk, Russia, when a meteor explosion described as “a tiny asteroid” tore through the city, injuring as many as 1,000 people. While such high numbers of casualties were unprecedented, “the risk of asteroid impacts ... may be 10 times greater than previously thought,” later reported.

“Our Earth is constantly bombarded by small asteroids that try to penetrate its protective atmosphere,” ESA explains. “The vast majority don't get through, but larger asteroids could pose a threat.”

The international mission hopes to “provide a baseline for planning any future planetary defense strategies,” the agency says, “offering insight into the kind of force needed to shift the orbit of any incoming asteroid, and better understand how the technique could be applied if a real threat were to occur.”

Click to watch:

Post by: Rad on Oct 10, 2015, 05:05 AM
October 9, 2015

Our universe is actually really simple, we’re just complicating it ourselves

by Abbey Hull
Red Orbit

Our universe is a vast place, full of mysteries and scientific discoveries yet to be found…and may be more like a Rube Goldberg machine than ever before.

According to one of the world’s leading theoretical physicists Neil Turok, Director of the Perimeter Institute of Theoretical Physics in Ontario, Canada, the universe is actually really simple, we’re just overcomplicating it ourselves.

This calls for a revolution

Turok believes that, if anything, the universe is actually telling us it's surprisingly straightforward. But to fully grasp this new theory, we will need a revolution in physics.

In his interview with Discovery News, Turok pointed out some of our biggest discoveries in the past few decades that confirmed the universe’s structure on cosmological and quantum scales.

“On the largest scales, we’ve mapped the whole sky—the cosmic microwave background—and measured the evolution of the universe, the way it’s changing, the way it’s expanding…and these discoveries reveal that the universe is astonishingly simple,” he said. “In other words you can describe the structure of the universe, its geometry, and the density of matter…you can essentially describe all that with just one number.”

Wait, the entire universe in a single number? That’s simpler than our simplest atom, the hydrogen atom, which has 3 numbers due to its electron orbiting a proton. What does he mean?

“It basically tells us that the universe is smooth but it has a small level of fluctuation, which this number describes. And that’s it. The universe is the simplest thing we know.”

Where’s the proof?

The universe has proven its simplicity before. In 2012, physicists discovered the particle that mediates the Higgs field—the Higgs boson—only to realize it was the simplest type of Higgs described by the Standard Model of physics.

“Nature has gotten away with the minimal solution, the minimal mechanism you could imagine to give particles their mass, their electric charges and so on and so forth,” Turok explained.

If 20th century physics taught us anything, it was that there is a wealth of new particles when a person probes deeper into the quantum realm. So, as experimental results generated a zoo of new information, theoretical models are taking the lead in predicting more and more complex particles and forces.

But now, these complexities have begun to stall our progress, as the most advanced theoretical ideas about what lies “beyond” our current understanding of physics are turning up little experimental results to support their theories.

“We’re in this bizarre situation where the universe is talking to us; it’s telling us that it’s extremely simple. At the same time, the theories that have been popular (from the last 100 years of physics) have become more and more complicated and arbitrary and un-predictive,” Turok stated.

To emphasize this point, Turok pointed out String Theory, claiming to be the “final unified theory” of placing the entire universe into one simple theory. However, as more experiments occur, researchers are finding that experimental evidence is not agreeing with their complex theories.

The next physics revolution

In order to explain the origins of our universe and its mysteries like dark matter and dark energy, a physics revolution may require us to look at our cosmos in a way we never have before to see the simplicity of our universe.

“We need a very different view of basic physics. This is the time for radical, new ideas,” Turok concluded. He believes that this is a great time in human history for the revolution to occur. The young people who enter into the world of theoretical physics may be the generation to transform the way we view the universe.

Post by: Rad on Oct 10, 2015, 05:37 AM
CS Monitor

Beneath an azure sky: Pluto's 'gorgeous' blue halo intrigues scientists

The New Horizon's team was shocked to find the dwarf planet features a blue sky similar to that on Earth.

By Patrick Torphy, Staff October 9, 2015   

If you were to stand on Pluto’s surface and look up, you might feel right at home: NASA says the dwarf planet has a beautiful azure sky similar to Earth’s.

The space agency's New Horizons spacecraft first caught sight of Pluto’s blue skies while on a historic flyby in July, but the images were just beamed down last week and released to the public on Thursday.

"Who would have expected a blue sky in the Kuiper Belt? It's gorgeous," said principal scientist for New Horizons Alan Stern in a press release, referring to an area in the far edges of our solar system.
Recommended: Could you pass Astronomy 101? Take the quiz!

Scientists say the atmosphere’s particles are actually gray and red, but how those particles scatter blue light is what intrigues scientists. This discovery can also give insight on the size and composition of haze particles surrounding Pluto, where the sun is 3.6 billion miles away, causing constant dusk.

NASA compares Pluto’s high-altitude haze to that of Saturn's moon Titan, and attribute both to the an interaction between molecules.

“A blue sky often results from scattering of sunlight by very small particles. On Earth, those particles are very tiny nitrogen molecules. On Pluto they appear to be larger – but still relatively small – soot-like particles we call tholins,” said science team researcher Carly Howett in the release.

Scientists also discovered numerous water ice patches on the surface of Pluto, which strangely appear to be red.

Regions with exposed water ice are highlighted in blue in this composite image ( below)  from New Horizons' Ralph instrument, combining visible imagery from the Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC) with infrared spectroscopy from the Linear Etalon Imaging Spectral Array (LEISA). The strongest signatures of water ice occur along Virgil Fossa, just west of Elliot crater on the left side of the inset image, and also in Viking Terra near the top of the frame. A major outcrop also occurs in Baré Montes towards the right of the image, along with numerous much smaller outcrops, mostly associated with impact craters and valleys between mountains. The scene is approximately 280 miles (450 kilometers) across. Note that all surface feature names are informal. NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute   

“Large expanses of Pluto don’t show exposed water ice because it’s apparently masked by other, more volatile ices across most of the planet. Understanding why water appears exactly where it does, and not in other places, is a challenge that we are digging into,” said science team member Jason Cook.
Recommended: Stunning new Pluto images: Could we have imagined this 50 years ago?

New Horizons launched in 2006 and is now already 63 million miles past Pluto. The spacecraft is operated for NASA by Johns Hopkins University in Maryland. The team plans to perform another flyby of a smaller object in the Kuiper Belt in 2019 if NASA approves funding to extend the mission.

Post by: Rad on Oct 12, 2015, 05:29 AM
CS Monitor
How did Mars get its water?

NASA scientists say that questions about the origin of water on Mars are among the many unsolved mysteries of the Red Planet.

By Kelsey Warner, Staff October 11, 2015   

Mars has been on a bit of a press junket the past couple of weeks. But instead of promoting a blockbuster movie, the Red Planet is settling a centuries-old debate: Is there liquid water on Mars?

A new study from NASA's Mars Science Laboratory and the team operating the Curiosity rover – which has been gathering data on Mars since it landed three years ago – confirmed that the planet, billions of years ago, had lakes of water over an extended period of time.

"Observations from the rover suggest that a series of long-lived streams and lakes existed at some point between about 3.8 to 3.3 billion years ago,” said Ashwin Vasavada, Mars Science Laboratory project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and co-author of the new Science article (paywall) published Friday, adding that the presence of water long ago allowed sediment, “delivered” by rivers and lakes, to slowly build the lower layers of Mount Sharp, the central peak located in Gale Crater, where the Curiosity rover is focusing its data-mining.

Two millennia after Babylonians first spotted Mars moving against the backdrop of stars, theologian and scientist William Whewell concluded in 1854, with little evidence, that Mars had green seas and red land, and wondered if there might be life there.

The findings published Friday support the idea of Martian life, and confirm the conjecture about a year ago by NASA that ancient lakes may be found on Mars, and add to the developing story of a watery Mars. Last month, NASA scientists confirmed that water currently flows on Mars.

"What we thought we knew about water on Mars is constantly being put to the test,” said Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA’s Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "It’s clear that the Mars of billions of years ago more closely resembled Earth than it does today. Our challenge is to figure out how this more clement Mars was even possible, and what happened to that wetter Mars." 

Prior to Curiosity landing on Mars in 2012, scientists had already postulated that Gale Crater had been filled with layers of sediments. Some hypotheses were "dry," suggesting that sediment accumulated from wind-blown dust and sand, according to NASA. Others held firm to the possibility that layers of sediment were created in ancient lakes.

The latest data from Curiosity indicate that the wet theories were indeed correct for the lower portions of Mount Sharp. Based on the new analysis, the filling of at least the bottom layers of the mountain was caused mostly by ancient rivers and lakes over a period of less than 500 million years, NASA reports, with evidence in the geology of fast-moving streams, and the possibility that those streams emptied into bodies of standing water.

Still unknown is the original source of the water. For flowing water to have existed on the surface, Mars must have had a thicker atmosphere and warmer climate than has been theorized for the ancient era when Gale Crater experienced the intense geological activity, according to NASA.

Some of the water may have been supplied to the lakes by snowfall and rain in the highlands of the Gale Crater rim, the space agency theorizes, but scientific models have so far only maintained the mystery.

"We have tended to think of Mars as being simple," said John Grotzinger, the lead author of the new research. "We once thought of the Earth as being simple too. But the more you look into it, questions come up because you're beginning to fathom the real complexity of what we see on Mars. This is a good time to go back to reevaluate all our assumptions. Something is missing somewhere."

Post by: Rad on Oct 12, 2015, 05:47 AM
CS Monitor

Inside NASA's three-phase plan to put humans on Mars

NASA's plan to put boots on the Red Planet sometime in the 2030s will first require honing humanity's spaceflight expertise in the proving ground between Earth and the moon.
By Mike Wall, October 11, 2015   

The path to Mars goes through the moon — or the region of space near the moon, anyway.

NASA aims to put boots on Mars in the 2030s after first gathering human-spaceflight experience and expertise in low Earth orbit and the "proving ground" of cis-lunar space near the moon.

NASA has been working on this three-stage path to the Red Planet for some time, and the space agency lays out the basic plan in a 36-page report called "Journey to Mars: Pioneering Next Steps in Space Exploration," which was released Thursday.

"This strategy charts a course toward horizon goals while delivering near-term benefits and defining a resilient architecture that can accommodate budgetary changes, political priorities, new scientific discoveries, technological breakthroughs and evolving partnerships," William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for Human Exploration and Operations at NASA Headquarters, said in a statement.

The first step in the three-phase Mars plan is already underway; NASA astronauts and their international colleagues have been living aboard the International Space Station continuously, in roughly six-month-long crew rotations, since November 2000. (The station will keep operating through at least 2024.)

These spaceflyers' experiences are helping researchers and mission planners better understand how spaceflight affects the human body and mind. In addition, the space station allows NASA and its partners to develop and test critical technologies in areas such as life support and space-to-ground communications, agency officials said.

The International Space Station orbits just 250 miles (400 kilometers) from Earth's surface. Robotic cargo ships bring supplies on a regular basis to the astronauts, who can be back on their home planet in a matter of hours if need be. Mars pioneers will have to be much more independent, and that's what the next step in NASA's Red Planet plan — the proving ground — is all about.

NASA aims to gain deep-space experience near the moon on a series of missions over the next decade or so. One such project is the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), in which a robotic probe — powered by advanced solar-electric propulsion, which NASA regards as a key technology for hauling big payloads to Mars — will pluck a boulder off a near-Earth asteroid and haul it to lunar orbit, where it can be visited by astronauts in the future.

Agency officials want the first astronaut visit to come by 2025. Spaceflyers will rendezvous with the asteroid chunk using NASA's Orion crew capsule and Space Launch System (SLS) megarocket, both of which are in development. [Space Launch System: NASA's Giant Rocket Explained (Infographic)]

Orion's maiden flight, an uncrewed affair that used a United Launch Alliance Delta IV rocket, came last December. The capsule and SLS are scheduled to fly together for the first time in 2018, on a seven-day-long, uncrewed journey around the moon.

NASA also aims to test a deep-space habitation system in the proving ground, for short durations in the early 2020s and for longer missions later in the decade, according to the new report.

"A modular, pressurized volume would enable extended stays by crews arriving with Orion," the report states. "This initial habitation capability in cis-lunar space would demonstrate all the capabilities and countermeasures necessary to send humans on long-duration transit missions to Mars."

Sending astronauts to Mars is the third stage of the plan. This ambitious goal will be enabled by international cooperation, the knowledge and expertise gained by human missions to the space station and the proving ground, and by all the data gathered by robotic Red Planet explorers, according to the new report.

NASA currently has two operational Mars rovers (Opportunity and Curiosity) and three functioning orbiters circling the Red Planet — Mars Odyssey, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and MAVEN (whose name is short for Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution). India and Europe also control active Mars orbiters, called Mangalyaan and Mars Express, respectively.

These spacecraft have already returned information of interest to the crewed Mars effort. For example, scientists analyzing MRO data announced late last month that the seasonal dark streaks on some Martian slopes are caused by liquid water.

And more robotic Mars missions are on the way. NASA plans to launch a lander called InSight next year to probe the Red Planet's interior and a highly capable rover in 2020. The Mars 2020 rover will hunt for signs of past life and cache samples for future return to Earth, among other tasks. It will also carry a technology-demonstrating instrument that generates oxygen from Mars' atmospheric carbon dioxide.

In addition, the European Space Agency's ExoMars project will send an orbiter toward the Red Planet in 2016, and a life-hunting rover in 2018.

"Robotic science pathfinder missions will continue well into the next decade to meet high-priority science objectives and prepare for future human missions to Mars," the new NASA report states. "Robotic missions after Mars 2020 are in their conceptual stages and will address key exploration questions, such as characterizing the complex gravitational environment of the Martian moons; identifying resources and areas of scientific interest; understanding the effects of space radiation; validating EDL [entry, descent and landing] techniques; and studying regolith mechanics and dust."

NASA is still working out the details about the journey to Mars. For example, astronauts may stop at one of Mars' two tiny moons, Phobos and Deimos, along the way. But putting boots on the Red Planet's surface, and setting up a permanent outpost, remain the ultimate goals.

"There are challenges to pioneering Mars, but we know they are solvable," the report states. "We are developing the capabilities necessary to get there, land there, and live there."

You can download the new NASA Mars report for free here:


CS Monitor

Why does Congress call Mars plan a 'journey to nowhere'?

Movies like 'The Martian' and new NASA discoveries are capturing public imagination about space exploration, but Congress seems less excited.

By Lucy Schouten, Staff October 10, 2015   

Scientists have worked toward a crewed Mars mission for years, and now movies like "The Martian" and new evidence of liquid water on Mars are crystallizing enthusiasm for Mars from the public and Congress.

"Scientists for years have been pointing out that as far as technology goes, we don't really need that much more," James Schwab, who has participated in two Mars Rover challenges, told The Christian Science Monitor. "It's probably indicative of a shift in thought. For a lot of people it's seeing movies like 'The Martian' and 'Interstellar.' "

NASA collaborated with filmmakers to make "The Martian" as scientifically accurate as possible. Star Matt Damon said said he hoped "The Martian" could give viewers a taste for Mars exploration and encourage support for science.

"I don't have any lofty expectations, but I do hope some kids see it and geek out in science and enjoy it," he told

But outside of Hollywood, NASA is struggling. Congressional Republicans had harsh words for NASA's newly released report, "Journey to Mars," reported The Hill. They wanted more details, particularly about logistics, they said.

"It's just some real pretty photographs and some nice words," said Rep. Lamar Smith (R) of Texas, who chairs the House Science Committee, during the hearing. "This [report] sounds good, but it is actually a journey to nowhere until we have that budget and we have that schedule and we have the deadlines."

Republicans also criticized the Obama administration for cutting space funding. Congress shares the blame, said ranking Democrat Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas.

"Too many times in recent years, NASA's had no idea when it would actually get an appropriation, when it would actually be reauthorized, whether that appropriation would be for more than a few months or whether they may even have to suspend their work due to government shutdown," she said, according to The Hill.  

Although he gave unfavorable reviews to NASA's operating plan, Representative Smith's interest in Mars appears genuine, particularly after NASA announced evidence of water on the red planet.

"We live in exciting times," he told the Dallas Morning News. "The more evidence we find of (water on Mars), the more encouraged I am for future Mars missions."

Have the popular success of the Mars Sojournor Rover and the thrill of seeing Matt Damon on Mars given the public and Congress renewed hope in a Mars project?

A Mars landing is possible, says Robert Zubrin, president of the Mars Society, if NASA returns to the "mission-driven approach" of the Apollo era.

"We are much closer today to being able to send humans to Mars than we were to being able to send men to the Moon in 1961, and we were there eight years later," Dr. Zubrin told the Mars Society in August. "Given the will, we could have humans on Mars within a decade."

Post by: Rad on Oct 13, 2015, 04:46 AM
October 11, 2015

NASA outlines plan for trip to Mars

by Susanna Pilny
Red Orbit

More and more Mars related news seems to come out every day: Liquid water exists on the surface, and now we have confirmation that lakes and streams once crisscrossed over the planet. The next big step for Mars (outside of extraterrestrial life) is actually getting there, and luckily for us NASA just released a 36-page plan detailing just how they plan to do that.

“NASA is closer to sending American astronauts to Mars than at any point in our history,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden in a press release. “Today, we are publishing additional details about our journey to Mars plan and how we are aligning all of our work in support of this goal. In the coming weeks, I look forward to continuing to discuss the details of our plan with members of Congress, as well as our commercial and our international and partners, many of whom will be attending the International Astronautical Congress next week.”

What’s the game plan?

According to this plan, NASA has broken the lead-up to leaving for Mars into three steps. First, the current Earth Reliant step, in which NASA uses the International Space Station’s microgravity lab to test new technology and to test how space affects human health and performance.

The next step, the Proving Ground, is set to begin in 2018. NASA plans to launch a new deep space capsule named Orion using the Space Launch System, the most powerful rocket ever built. Orion will orbit around the moon in cislunar space to help NASA test what is necessary for humans to live and work at further and further distances from Earth.

The Proving Ground step will be especially key to ensuring the transportation and habitation capacities created will be suitable for the journey to Mars. Further, this step will help NASA better understand the health risks associated with deep space travel—astronauts who make the journey to Mars will spend 1,100 days exposed to dangerously high levels of radiation.

Finally, Earth Independent activities will combine what was learned in the previous two steps in order to enable human missions to areas near Mars, or maybe even into orbit around Mars or one of its moons, with the eventual goal of landing on the surface of the red planet.

Missing from this report are a lot of important pieces of information. For example, no detailed timeline or budget has been given for this plan. (However, one graphic estimates the date of Mars launch to be around 2030 or later, and NASA merely mentions its plans “are affordable within NASA’s current budget”.) It is important to remember, however, that most of the missing items—like how astronauts will grow food in space—are still being researched.

NASA seems confident those fine details will be worked out in the end.

“NASA’s strategy connects near-term activities and capability development to the journey to Mars and a future with a sustainable human presence in deep space,” explained William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for Human Exploration and Operations at NASA Headquarters. “This strategy charts a course toward horizon goals, while delivering near-term benefits, and defining a resilient architecture that can accommodate budgetary changes, political priorities, new scientific discoveries, technological breakthroughs, and evolving partnerships.”


October 12, 2015

A lighter step will help Mars rovers move quickly over loose terrain

by Abbey Hull
Red Orbit

Advancing our knowledge of the natural world and the robotic world, researchers have found that large feet and light steps can benefit fast animals and robots who travel across loose sand or soil.

Recently published in the journal Bioinspiration & Biomechanics, researchers out of Georgia Institute of Technology, University of California at Berkeley, and Northwestern University, explore how different animals respond to different terrain, hoping to influence traveling robots in the same way.

“It’s important to understand the biomechanics and controls of good movement,” Daniel Goldman, an author of the paper, said in a statement. “If we can find out how these animals solve the problem we can make better robots.”

How animals adjust for different terrains

Nearly marking 10-years of development following efforts by Wyatt Korff and Goldman, who created the first test-bed at UC Berkeley with Robert J. Full, researchers made a test-bed to test various animals and one hexapedal robot on how they move on loose ground.

“This is like developing the terrestrial equivalent of a wind tunnel in terms of studying movement over different terrain,” explained Goldman. “It allows us to look at movement across the ground in a variety of highly controlled states and really see how these animals adjust to different types of terrain.”

Five animals were chosen for this study based on their body types, native habitats, and fast-movement styles across loose ground. “We deliberately wanted to have a range of specialties,” added Goldman. “We’ve got sandrunners—but also animals that have to run across sand, forests, and in trees—quite different surfaces.”

Making Mars rovers faster

Along with these animals, researchers added a six-legged robot and its computer simulation into the testing mix, studying the aspects of its locomotion on loose terrain. Goldman explained that a "robophysics" approach is key to understanding movement for robot-design application.

“We’d love to be able to explore, for example Mars, really quickly—but the robots we have are relatively heavy and slow,” he continued. “One of the major problems is that they’re stymied by changes in the ground they’re moving on—these results offer an insight in where to develop things next.”

Hoping to take their research further into helping robotic design, researchers from Goldman’s team at Georgia Tech are now studying how animals move over lands with heterogeneities, like boulders. These lizards and snakes of our natural world may very well help a future Mars rover travel much quicker one day.


October 12, 2015

NASA orbiter shows where The Martian took place on Mars

by Brett Smith
Red Orbit

As part of a series of on-going tie-ins with the release of the film The Martian, NASA has just posted photos of where Mark Watney, played by Matt Damon, would have been stranded on the Red Planet.

The film follows Watney’s struggle to return to Earth after being accidentally stranded on Mars. Ares 3, the location of the fictional NASA habitat were Watney is stranded, is based on an actual location on Mars, and real-life NASA scientists were able to find that location.

Taken with the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) onboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the photos showed both the location where Ares 3 is located and the various surrounding terrains Damon’s character would have had to traverse.

Although The Martian is fiction, the film’s director Ridley Scott wanted to make it as believable as possible, and so he turned to NASA for technical advice.

“We just wanted to help him paint the picture,” James L. Green, the director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, told the Los Angeles Times. “You want to get the science right. Once you do that, you can put a lot of other story elements in,” Scott told the paper.

Not 100%, but close enough

Although the production team consulted heavily with NASA and toured its facilities, Green did say that a few parts of the film struck him as odd, from a scientific point-of-view. For instance, he said the dust storm that (SPOILER ALERT!) leads to Watney’s stranding seemed unusually harsh when you consider Mars has a wispy, thin atmosphere that could probably "not even enough wind to straighten an American flag," Green said, much less whip up large rocks and pebbles.

Rather than focus on 100 percent scientific accuracy, Scott said he wanted to convey the scope and scale of the Red Planet.

"The Schiaparelli crater is almost 500 kilometers (310 miles) in diameter,” he said. “The tallest volcano is more than 50,000 feet, which is more than 20,000 feet taller than Everest. So you realize the scale of what we're dealing with."

With the somewhat ironic announcement liquid water found on Mars just before the film’s release, some observers pointed out the film is already behind the times. Green responded to that criticism by saying classic science fiction “is still a classic."

“We still read H.G. Wells, and how far has science come since then?" he asked.

Post by: Rad on Oct 13, 2015, 04:49 AM
October 12, 2015

Scientists grow sweet potatoes and strawberries in Martian-like greenhouse

by John Hopton
Red Orbit

Scientists using a prototype "Martian greenhouse" at the University of Arizona are trying to grow crops without all the benefits of natural, Earthly conditions.

With the aim being to investigate crop-growing in space as well as advanced techniques for future food security on Earth, the project is being funded by NASA and brings together researchers from different disciplines to grow crops that could survive on Mars and the moon, Futurity reports.

The greenhouse is a plastic-covered cylinder called the Controlled Environment Agriculture Center (CEAC), and uses hydroponics (crop growth using nutrient rich solutions rather than soil). So far, the location has produced sweet potatoes and strawberries. The products are almost 100 percent harvestable and are said to be high quality.

As well as providing options for crop production in unusual places (such as Mars or the moon), the hydroponics system and controlled-environment greenhouse provide yields 10 times greater than those in an open field.

“This (lunar and Martian) greenhouse is being supported by NASA so that someday people will live and work on another planet. When they do, they need food,” said Gene Giacomelli, a horticultural engineer and director of the CEAC.

Difficult but disease-free

Having recently seen the movie The Martian, in which Matt Damon plays a botanist stranded on Mars who has to figure out how to grow potatoes in hostile conditions, Giacomelli said: “We had the exact same challenges.”

However, the University of Arizona system does have some major advantages to go with the challenges. Because all materials are known and controlled, unexpected disease and food-borne illness pathogens will not be a concern to those who end up eating the food.

The researchers may lack some of the natural conditions of traditional farming, but they do have the benefit of utmost control. “We have a wide array of sensors that monitor all of the environmental conditions in there,” said Erica Hernandez, a NASA Space Grant intern and an undergraduate student in plant sciences.

“We have a controller that we can program and make changes to the day-to-day routine that the plants experience, and just being able to collect all of that data and really understand the behavior of the system through that data is very interesting for me.”

As a clip from a documentary about the greenhouse explains, the plants sit in their pods in darkness for periods as they would during the night, and conditions begin to brighten and change as they would during day.

Post by: Rad on Oct 14, 2015, 05:19 AM
Earth’s inner core began forming earlier than thought, study says

by Chuck Bednar
Red Orbit
Oct 14 2015

Originally believed to have formed as little as 500 million years ago, the Pluto-sized ball of iron at the center of our planet actually came about between 1.0 and 1.5 billion years ago, researchers from the University of Liverpool’s School of Environmental Sciences have discovered.

The core, which is the Earth’s deepest layer, formed when molten iron in the surrounding outer core solidified. Establishing precisely when it originated has been the topic of spirited debate in the scientific community, and as the authors of the new study explained in a recent edition of the journal Nature, the answer was found in the magnetic records of ancient igneous rocks.

Lead author Dr. Andy Biggin, an expert in paleomagnetism, analyzed those records and found a sharp increase in the strength of the planet’s magnetic field which occurred between 1.0 and 1.5 billion years ago. The researchers believe that this is indicative of the first presence of solid iron at the Earth’s center and the point at which the cooling outer core began to “freeze.”

In a statement, Dr. Biggin admitted that this timeline is “highly controversial” but said that it was “crucial for determining the properties and history of the Earth’s interior” and added that it “has strong implications for how the Earth’s magnetic field – which acts as a shield against harmful radiation from the sun, as well as a useful navigational aid – is generated.

“The results suggest that the Earth’s core is cooling down less quickly than previously thought which has implications for the whole of Earth Sciences, the Liverpool researcher added. “It also suggests an average growth rate of the solid inner core of approximately 1mm per year which affects our understanding of the Earth’s magnetic field.”

Explaining why Earth has life and Mars doesn’t

According to Live Science and Discovery News,  the original rocky fragments of Earth began to merge a little over 4.5 billion years ago, and for much of its early life, the planet was just a mass of molten rock. Eventually, however, the surface cooled and formed a crust which floated on top of its liquid core, ultimately developing an atmosphere and biological life.

Somewhere in the midst of all this, the molten iron found deep within the planet solidified, but experts have long debated exactly when this process would have taken place. Some argue that it occurred just 500 million years ago, while other believe that the inner core formed roughly 2.0 billion years ago. This new research appears to narrow the timeframe down somewhat.

“The theoretical model which best fits our data indicates that the core is losing heat more slowly than at any point in the last 4.5 billion years and that this flow of energy should keep the Earth’s magnetic field going for another billion years or more, said Dr. Biggin.

“This contrasts sharply with Mars which had a strong magnetic field early in its history which then appears to have died after half a billion years,” he added. The lack of protection from solar radiation could help to explain why Earth is home to a wide variety of living organisms while the Red Planet appears to be devoid of life.

Post by: Rad on Oct 14, 2015, 06:02 AM
Spectacular Hubble photo: A bright galaxy holds a hidden secret

The Hubble Space Telescope captured a remarkably clear photo of the barred spiral galaxy NGC 4639.

By Eva Botkin-Kowacki, Staff writer October 13, 2015   

Over 70 million light-years away lies a galaxy called NGC 4639. Despite this distance, the Hubble Space Telescope captured a spectacular – and remarkably clear – image of the spiral galaxy.

On the surface, the photo appears to be an excellent example of a barred spiral galaxy with a visual bar running through the core of the galaxy – no small feat in and of itself. But researchers also found that the image held a surprise hidden in that bright core: a massive black hole.

Like a hungry monster the black hole consumes the gases surrounding it, emitting powerful X-rays as the hot gas surges toward the black hole. A broad spectrum of light also emanates from the center of the galaxy. Together, these various radiations give the galaxy its defining features.
Recommended: Could you pass Astronomy 101? Take the quiz!

The naked, untrained eye cannot discern the black hole from the star factory around it, but scientists were able to identify some telltale features of the voracious core in the spectrum of light coming from the center of the galaxy.

NGC 4639 is neither outstanding nor unique in its structure. Scientists think most galaxies have a black hole at their core.

The Hubble image displays the barred spiral well. A barred spiral is characterized by a bar-like structure at the centre of the galaxy.

Composed of stars, bars are found frequently in spiral galaxies. Some two-thirds of spiral galaxies contain bars. Astronomers think the bar formation may be a natural phase of a spiral galaxy’s evolution.

Sprinkled like fairy dust throughout a galaxy’s spiral arms are bright star nurseries. These regions of active star formation can extend several hundred light-years across and contain hundreds or thousands of young stars.

NGC 4639 is tucked in the Virgo cluster of galaxies as part of the constellation Virgo.

Astronomers and other space enthusiasts celebrated 25 years with Hubble earlier this year. Over a quarter century, Hubble has beamed home many spectacular images.

As The Christian Science Monitor’s Pete Spotts wrote in April:

    Dubbed the 'people’s telescope,' it has provided the raw material for astronomical images that some art historians have likened to the Romantic landscapes captured in 19th-century paintings and photographs of the American West. It has brought the cosmos into classrooms and living rooms around the world.

Hubble turns to a closer celestial body

Researchers also use Hubble to capture yearly photos of Jupiter, in an effort to document and map changes to the landscape.

Through these images, researchers have been keeping an eye on Jupiter's Great Red Spot. This year's images, released Tuesday, continue to show that the spot is shrinking, as previous years have suggested.

These new images also feature a wave, only seen once before on the planet decades ago. A similar wave pattern can appear on Earth associated with cyclone formation.

“Every time we look at Jupiter, we get tantalizing hints that something really exciting is going on,” said Amy Simon, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in a NASA news release. “This time is no exception.”

Post by: Rad on Oct 14, 2015, 06:06 AM
Martian river likely carried pebbles tens of miles: What could it mean?

Pebbles spotted on Mars traveled about 30 miles down a river billions of years ago, say researchers.

By Eva Botkin-Kowacki, Staff writer October 13, 2015   

Currently cold and dry Mars may have had rivers some 3 billion years ago.

Scientists now have evidence that a river once flowed for tens of miles through Gale Crater on the Red Planet.

Pebbles, captured in images beamed back to Earth by the Mars Curiosity rover in 2012, alerted scientists to the possibility of rivers on Mars – and water has long been considered a prerequisite for life.
Recommended: Could you pass Astronomy 101? Take the quiz!

Those rounded Martian rocks traveled some 30 miles from their original home, likely carried along by a vigorous ancient river, say researchers.

Using just the shape of the pebbles, researchers were able to estimate the distance they had traveled. The geophysicists and mathematicians reported their findings in a paper Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications.

“An object’s shape can itself tell you a lot,” said study co-author and mathematician Gábor Domokos in a news release. “If you go to the beach, natural history is written underneath your feet. We started to understand that there is a code that you can read to begin to understand that history.”

As rocks are carried along with a river’s current, they rub against other rocks in the riverbed. This abrasion leaves the rocks progressively smoother and rounder as they travel.

On Earth, scientists can examine other environmental factors that might help determine the distance a pebble has traveled. But the Martian pebbles have only been available to scientists via the images captured by Curiosity.

So the researchers looked at existing data and examined rivers on Earth, namely one flowing down a Puerto Rican mountain, to create a method for examining the image of Martian pebbles.

“We started at the headwaters, where chunks of angular rock are breaking off from the walls of the stream, and went downstream,” Dr. Jerolmack said. “Every few hundred meters we would pull thousands of rocks out and take images of their silhouette and record their weight.”

Using data gathered previously in conjunction with this new data, the researchers spotted a trend of shape evolution and mass loss as the rocks were transported downstream. From this, they created a mathematical model to calculate the data in reverse and determine how far a rock had traveled from its size and shape.

“Thousands of years ago, Aristotle pondered the question of pebbles on the beach and how they become rounded,” Jerolmack said. “But until recently, descriptions of pebble shape have been qualitative, and we lacked a basic understanding of the rounding process.”

“Now we have a new tool we can use to help reconstruct ancient environments on Earth, Mars and other planetary bodies where rivers are found such as Titan,” Jerolmack said.

A more precise look back at the rocks’ path

Scientists have already reported that the shape of these pebbles suggests a riverbed that flows for miles in May 2013 in the journal Science.

"In order to have moved and formed these rounded pebbles, there must have been flowing water with a depth of between 10 centimeters (4 inches) and 1 meter (3.3 feet) and a flow rate of about 1 meter per second – or 3.6 km/h (2.2 mph) – slightly faster than a typical natural Danish stream," Morten Bo Madsen, head of the Mars research group at the Niels Bohr Institute, said in a statement at the time.

This 2013 report may have outlined many details of the ancient Martian river suggested by these pebbles, but it’s this current study that pins down just how far those Martian rocks traveled.
Other signs of water – and life

Rivers may not have been the only bodies of water on Mars billions of years ago. The river-systems likely flowed into lakes.

The Curiosity rover led researchers to find sediment deposited into Gale Crater on the Red Planet, much in the same way deposits build up in lakes on Earth.

Although liquid water may have been plentiful on Mars billions of years ago, the planet may not be completely dried out. Scientists found evidence of salt water, ebbing and flowing with the seasons.

The amount of water currently on the planet seems to be small, but water seems to be key in making an environment hospitable to life.

Finding evidence of water is particularly exciting, John Grunsfeld, NASA's associate administrator for the agency's science mission directorate, told The Christian Science Monitor's Pete Spotts, "because it suggests that it would be possible for there to be life today on Mars."

Post by: Rad on Oct 14, 2015, 06:16 AM
CS Monitor

Miniature satellite reaches orbit. Could CubeSats be the next frontier for NASA?

NASA's tiny satellite, CubeSat, is now orbiting Earth in a preliminary test of the satellite's laser technology.

By Eva Botkin-Kowacki, Staff writer October 13, 2015   

NASA’s tiny satellite has made it to space.

The space agency confirmed Friday that the Optical Communications and Sensor Demonstration (OCSD) CubeSat spacecraft is now in orbit.

Next, the miniature satellite will demonstrate use of its laser.

The arrival of this CubeSat in space is just the first of two flight demonstrations planned to test the tiny spacecraft.

“This first OCSD demonstration will be very important,”  said Andres Martinez, deputy program manager for Small Spacecraft Technology at NASA’s Ames Research Center at Moffett Field in a news release.

The most compact object ever to be flown in space, the CubeSat will demonstrate high-speed optical transmission of data from the 6-watt laser mounted on the tiny satellite, sending the data from Earth’s orbit to receptors on the ground.

This test will provide NASA scientists with data to evaluate the precision of the laser.

Two CubeSats will be launched in the second round of OCSD testing to further evaluate what is learned in the first mission and to test proximity operations.

“Laser communications is very important as it enables the transmission of data from high value science experiments, imaging and other sensors,” said Richard Welle, director of the Microsatellite Systems Department at The Aerospace Corporation.

Each CubeSat is small enough to hold in your hand. Weighing just 5 pounds, the tiny satellite is four inches by four inches by 6.7 inches. The laser is hard-mounted to the miniature spacecraft.

"Technology demonstration missions like OCSD are driving exploration," said Steve Jurczyk, associate administrator for the Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) in a news release. "By improving the communication capability of small spacecraft to support data-intensive science missions, OCSD will advance the potential to become a more viable option for mission planners."

But, said Mr. Martinez, “we need to learn how to crawl before we walk.”

OCSD may provide just such technical progress.

“I think the key value of small satellites is the way it encourages very rapid turnover of technology,” said Dr. Welle. “It’s kind of like the electronics revolution where you achieve next generation technology in a few months, instead of years.”

NASA already has big plans for the tiny satellites. The CubeSats could be going to Mars. Once near the Red Planet, the CubeSats would relay data back to Earth.

Post by: Rad on Oct 15, 2015, 06:18 AM
CS Monitor

Hubble's spectacular Jupiter portrait: What happened to the Great Red Spot?

The annual photos of the outer planets help update NASA's maps and include characteristics like wind, clouds, storms, and atmospheric chemistry.

By Kelsey Warner, Staff October 14, 2015   

Every year, NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope snaps photos of the solar system's outer planets. This year, the "people's telescope" has turned in images of Jupiter with a rarely seen wave just north of the planet's equator, as well as a surprising feature at the center of the planet's Great Red Spot.

“Every time we look at Jupiter, we get tantalizing hints that something really exciting is going on,” said Amy Simon, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland in a statement. “This time is no exception.”

The annual photo shoot helps contemporary and future researchers observe changes over time on the giant planets spinning far from the sun. Hubble's captures help update maps and include characteristics like winds, clouds, storms, and atmospheric chemistry, according to the space agency.

The Great Red Spot, a major anticyclonic storm (meaning the winds turn counterclockwise, even though its in the planet's southern hemisphere), continues to shrink and become more circular, as has been observed for years. Its name is also becoming less true, as the storm weakens the spot is appearing more orange. The long axis of the storm is about 150 miles shorter now than it was in 2014, according to NASA, which adds that the storm had been shrinking at a faster rate than usual.

NASA also reports seeing a unique "wispy filament" that crosses the width of the storm's vortex, and moves with winds that can exceed 330 miles per hour.

The other curiosity is in Jupiter’s North Equatorial Belt, where researchers spotted a mysterious wave that had been observed on the planet just once before, decades ago. In those images, taken by Voyager 2, "the wave is barely visible," according to NASA, until with this latest set of images, where a wave can be seen in a region of cyclones and anticyclones. Baroclinic waves, which are similar, can occasionally be seen in Earth’s atmosphere where cyclones are forming.

“Until now, we thought the wave seen by Voyager 2 might have been a fluke,” said co-author Glenn Orton of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “As it turns out, it’s just rare!”

Hubble will also take researchers to Neptune and Uranus, and maps of those planets will also be created and put in the public archive, as part of NASA's Outer Planet Atmospheres Legacy program.

Co-author Michael H. Wong of the University of California, Berkeley underscored the value of the program in a statement, saying the maps scientists create year over year are not just to further understand our distant neighbors, "but also the atmospheres of planets being discovered around other stars, and Earth’s atmosphere and oceans, too.”

Post by: Rad on Oct 16, 2015, 04:46 AM
October 15, 2015

How a lunar ‘gas station’ could help us get to Mars

by Chuck Bednar
Red Orbit

The payload of a manned mission to Mars could be reduced by more than two-thirds if the crew took a detour to the moon to refuel their spacecraft, researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) reported this week in the Journal of Spacecraft and Rockets.

According to MIT aeronautics and astronautics professor Olivier de Weck, a vehicle carrying astronauts could make a detour to the lunar surface, where it could use fuel that was created from soil and water ice mined from craters there. By doing so, they could reduce the mass of the spacecraft by as much as 68 percent, based on the study authors’ calculations.

The researchers created a model to determine the best route for a trip to the Red Planet, finding that the most mass-efficient path involved launching from the ground with just enough propellant to reach orbit around the Earth. Then a fuel-producing facility on the moon would launch tankers of fuel into space, placing them into gravitational orbit to be picked up by the Mars crew.

“This is completely against the established common wisdom of how to go to Mars, which is a straight shot to Mars, carry everything with you,” said de Weck. “The idea of taking a detour into the lunar system... it’s very unintuitive. But from an optimal network and big-picture view, this could be very affordable... because you don’t have to ship everything from Earth.”

‘In-situ resource utilization’ would significantly reduce launch mass

Historically, space travel missions have used two different strategies to ensure that the crew had access to an adequate supply of resources. One is the carry-along approach in which the supplies and fuel needed by the crew traveled with them at all times, and the other is a resupply approach in which resources are replenished at regular intervals (the ISS, for example).

This may not be a sustainable approach as humanity ventures further away from Earth, de Weck and her colleagues wrote. They propose that Mars missions, as well as voyages to other far off destinations, require new strategies based on “in-situ resource utilization”. This concept centers around the production and collection of fuel and provisions en route to a destination.

During the in-situ resource utilization approach, materials ordinarily carried into space from Earth would be replaced by those produced in space, MIT explained. For instance, water ice, (which has been found on Mars and the moon), could theoretically be mined and converted into fuel. In their study, the researchers created a variety of different possible routes to Mars to determine if taking a series of pit stops en route to Mars would be more efficient than direct travel.

They found that the lunar-based refueling stop minimized mass that was launched from Earth, but it also assumed a future scenario in which propellant could be processed on and transported from the moon to a point in orbit, and that fuel depots can be established at gravitationally-bound locations in space (also known as Lagrange points). Nonetheless, the team said that their work emphasizes the importance of creating a resource-producing infrastructure in space.

Post by: Rad on Oct 16, 2015, 04:51 AM
October 15, 2015

Why stuff slams into Ceres and sticks to it like a dartboard

by Shayne Jacopian
Red Orbit

New research published by Brown University in the journal Geophysical Research Letters has found that surface of the dwarf planet Ceres is likely made up of billions of years of meteoric material, according to a statement from the university.

Studying images taken recently by the Dawn spacecraft and taking note of how bland the dwarf planet’s surface looked, researchers sought to find out why its terrain was so uniform and its coloration so plain.

“It’s really bland in the telescopic observations,” said Terik Daly, a Ph.D. student at Brown and the lead author of the study, in the release. “It’s like someone took a single color of spray paint and sprayed the whole thing. When we think about what might have caused this homogeneous surface, our thoughts turn to impact processes.”

Cool tech answers why Ceres' surface is so boring

To study these impact processes, Daly and the study’s co-author, Peter Schultz, a professor of earth, environmental, and planetary sciences at Brown, utilized NASA’s Vertical Gun Range—a cannon with a 14-foot barrel used to launch projectiles at 16,000 miles per hour—to simulate an asteroid impact with the dwarf planet.

Daly and Schultz simulated a few possible versions of the low-density surface of Ceres, creating a porous silicate surface, an icy surface, and a mixed surface. Firing small pebbles of basalt and aluminum at the simulated planets, they found that in every instance, most of the “meteor” material remained lodged in the “planet” material.

“We show that when you have a vertical impact into snow—an analog for the porous ice we think might be just beneath the surface of Ceres—you can have about 77 percent of the impactor’s mass stay in or near the crater,” Daly said.

“This is really contrary to previous estimates for small bodies,” Schultz added. “The thought was that you’d eject more material that you’d collect, but we show you can really deliver a ton of material.”

Especially on an icy surface, which Daly and Schultz found to retain the most material. The researchers say that billions of years of impacts and the mixing together of different non-native materials is the likely cause of the planet’s bland, boring surface. They hope to further confirm this as new data arrives from the Dawn spacecraft.

Post by: Rad on Oct 16, 2015, 05:10 AM
Pluto as we know it now: Nasa report unwraps enigma of dwarf planet

Researchers present collection of New Horizons data, revealing water icebergs on ‘a surface unlike any planetary surface we’ve ever seen before’

Watch a simulated flyover of Pluto made using a sequence of high-resolution images Photograph: Nasa/Reuters...

Ian Sample Science editor
Thursday 15 October 2015 19.00 BST

The moment Pluto was transformed from a fuzzy spot on the edge of the solar system to an exotic world with a spectacular landscape will be recorded by historians as 15 July 2015.

When Nasa’s New Horizons spacecraft barrelled past Pluto the day before, it became the first mission to visit the object. A day later, the probe made contact with Earth. Since then, scientists on the team have released one breathtaking image after another, revealing vast, smooth plains, towering ice mountains and an inviting blue haze of hydrocarbons.

New Horizons: ten facts about Nasa's astonishing Pluto mission and beyond..Read more:

In a report published in Science on Thursday, the researchers paint their most detailed picture yet of Pluto, from data beamed back from the probe more than 4.5bn miles away.

“We went from having images that were maybe three pixels across to images thousands of pixels across, so we are essentially seeing Pluto for the first time in terms of its landscapes and geological story. It’s completely new and completely spectacular,” said John Spencer, a member of the science team at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. “We are seeing a surface unlike any planetary surface we’ve ever seen before.”

By sheer luck, New Horizons happened to capture images of what must be one of the most remarkable features on Pluto’s surface. The bright, smooth region named Sputnik Planum is a plain of frozen nitrogen that covers hundreds of miles. There are no craters in the region, leading scientists to think it is no more than 100m years old. From the east, nitrogen glaciers pour into the plain. On the west, what appear to be water icebergs have piled up into a rugged, mountainous heap.

“The best idea we have is that they are water icebergs which are being dislodged from the crust which we think is mostly water ice, and somehow tilted and upended and jostled around to produce these mountains,” said Spencer. On Pluto, nitrogen freezes into a soft, mushy substance in which water ice floats. “It would be like floating in blancmange,” said Spencer.

Watch a simulated flyover of Pluto’s icy plains Photograph: Nasa/Reuters...

Deep in the heart of Pluto, radioactive decay produces a modicum of heat that warms the body ever so slightly. The surface temperatures vary from place to place, but rarely creep above -230C.

To the east of Sputnik Planum are tall, blade-like ridges that stand several hundred metres tall. When the planet was younger, and its atmosphere thicker, strong winds may have carved out the terrain.

The atmosphere of Pluto is 100,000 times thinner than that on Earth, but when New Horizons sped past and looked back towards the sun, it captured images of a blue haze circling the world. Spencer said that frozen hydrocarbons in the atmosphere produce the effect, which reaches up to 100 miles above Pluto’s surface. “The sky would look blue if you were on the surface and looked at the sun,” said Spencer.

Beyond the exotic features of the surface and atmosphere, New Horizons measured the size of Pluto more accurately than had ever been done from observatories. Its diameter, at 1,475 miles, is smaller than thought, meaning Pluto’s density must be greater and closely match that of its moon, Charon. Just as a cosmic collision probably knocked material off the Earth to form the moon, so Charon formed when Pluto suffered a similarly catastrophic impact.

Mission scientists expect to wait a full year to get all of the data back from the flyby. To date, only half of the best stuff, according to Spencer, has been downloaded.

New Horizons is now on course for its next rendezvous in 2019, with an object called 2014MU69 in the Kuiper belt, which lies beyond the orbit of Neptune.

Post by: Rad on Oct 16, 2015, 05:54 AM
CS Monitor

Mysterious star activity spotted. Could it be aliens?

Probably not, but those strange dips in light around a distant star captured by NASA’s Kepler telescope currently lack a satisfactory explanation.

By Olivia Lowenberg, Staff October 15, 2015   

Strange dips in light from a star some 1,480 light years from Earth captured by NASA’s Kepler telescope have astronomers searching for an explanation.

The Kepler telescope has been observing several stars for many years, but one star in particular stands out for its unusual light patterns. In its quest to find other habitable planets, Kepler has been keeping an eye on more than 150,000 stars during its journey through the galaxy. In particular, Kepler was looking for dips in light emitted by those stars that could be an indication of planets passing in front of them.

What Kepler found around star KIC 8462852 was unlike any of the other stars that the telescope observed.

“We’d never seen anything like this star,” Dr. Tabetha Boyajian, a postdoctoral astronomy fellow at Yale, told The Atlantic. “It was really weird. We thought it might be bad data or movement on the spacecraft, but everything checked out.”

The pattern of light that reaches us from KIC 8462852 is highly irregular. Every few years, it dims inexplicably, for reasons Dr. Boyajian and her astronomy team have not been able to attribute to orbiting planets. What is even more striking is that KIC 8462852 is a mature star. In a young star, the amount of volatility in its light patterns could be easily attributed to extra dust clouds, which would then give off a high amount of infrared light.

Dr. Boyajian and her co-authors explained in a recent paper that KIC 8462852 also could not be influenced by the light coming from neighboring stars, as the distance between them is too great. The researchers are concluding that the source of KIC 8462852’s flickering comes from a giant mass of particles that have remained floating around the star, in apparent defiance of how orbiting bodies are expected to behave.

“It was kind of unbelievable that it was real data,” Dr. Boyajian told New Scientist. “We were scratching our heads. For any idea that came up there was always something that would argue against it.”

Because the scientists have also ruled out the possibility that the orbiting objects could be comets or pieces from an asteroid impact, other astronomers are raising the question of alien engineering.  

“When Dr. Boyajian showed me the data, I was fascinated by how crazy it looked,” Dr. Jason Wright, associate professor of astronomy at Pennsylvania State University, told The Atlantic. “Aliens should always be the very last hypothesis you consider, but this looked like something you would expect an alien civilization to build.”

For Dr. Wright, the collection of particles around the star demonstrates the possibility of an ‘alien megastructure,’ or a collection of devices that an alien civilization could possibly have built to harness solar energy.

In order to find out if aliens are, in fact, responsible for these bizarre objects near the star, Dr. Boyajian and her fellow researchers are teaming up with the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley. They will be pointing radio dishes at the star to search for those radio waves that technological devices, at least the ones made by humans, tend to emit.

While Dr. Wright admits that extraterrestrial life could be a possibility, he told Slate, “there is a need to hypothesize, but we should also approach it skeptically.”


The Most Mysterious Star in Our Galaxy

Astronomers have spotted a strange mess of objects whirling around a distant star. Scientists who search for extraterrestrial civilizations are scrambling to get a closer look.

Kevin Morefield

In the Northern hemisphere’s sky, hovering above the Milky Way, there are two constellations—Cygnus the swan, her wings outstretched in full flight, and Lyra, the harp that accompanied poetry in ancient Greece, from which we take our word “lyric.”

Between these constellations sits an unusual star, invisible to the naked eye, but visible to the Kepler Space Telescope, which stared at it for more than four years, beginning in 2009.

“We’d never seen anything like this star,” says Tabetha Boyajian, a postdoc at Yale. “It was really weird. We thought it might be bad data or movement on the spacecraft, but everything checked out.”

Kepler was looking for tiny dips in the light emitted by this star. Indeed, it was looking for these dips in more than 150,000 stars, simultaneously, because these dips are often shadows cast by transiting planets. Especially when they repeat, periodically, as you’d expect if they were caused by orbiting objects.

The Kepler Space Telescope collected a great deal of light from all of those stars it watched. So much light that Kepler’s science team couldn’t process it all with algorithms. They needed the human eye, and human cognition, which remains unsurpassed in certain sorts of pattern recognition. Kepler’s astronomers decided to found Planet Hunters, a program that asked “citizen scientists” to examine light patterns emitted by the stars, from the comfort of their own homes.

In 2011, several citizen scientists flagged one particular star as “interesting” and “bizarre.” The star was emitting a light pattern that looked stranger than any of the others Kepler was watching.

The light pattern suggests there is a big mess of matter circling the star, in tight formation. That would be expected if the star were young. When our solar system first formed, four and a half billion years ago, a messy disk of dust and debris surrounded the sun, before gravity organized it into planets, and rings of rock and ice.

But this unusual star isn’t young. If it were young, it would be surrounded by dust that would give off extra infrared light. There doesn’t seem to be an excess of infrared light around this star.

It appears to be mature.  

And yet, there is this mess of objects circling it. A mess big enough to block a substantial number of photons that would have otherwise beamed into the tube of the Kepler Space Telescope. If blind nature deposited this mess around the star, it must have done so recently. Otherwise, it would be gone by now. Gravity would have consolidated it, or it would have been sucked into the star and swallowed, after a brief fiery splash.

“It looked like the kind of thing you might expect an alien civilization to build.”

Boyajian, the Yale Postdoc who oversees Planet Hunters, recently published a paper describing the star’s bizarre light pattern. Several of the citizen scientists are named as co-authors. The paper explores a number of scenarios that might explain the pattern—instrument defects; the shrapnel from an asteroid belt pileup; an impact of planetary scale, like the one that created our moon.

The paper finds each explanation wanting, save for one. If another star had passed through the unusual star’s system, it could have yanked a sea of comets inward. Provided there were enough of them, the comets could have made the dimming pattern.

But that would be an extraordinary coincidence, if that happened so recently, only a few millennia before humans developed the tech to loft a telescope into space. That’s a narrow band of time, cosmically speaking.

And yet, the explanation has to be rare or coincidental. After all, this light pattern doesn’t show up anywhere else, across 150,000 stars. We know that something strange is going on out there.

When I spoke to Boyajian on the phone, she explained that her recent paper only reviews “natural” scenarios. “But,” she said, there were “other scenarios” she was considering.

Jason Wright, an astronomer from Penn State University, is set to publish an alternative interpretation of the light pattern. SETI researchers have long suggested that we might be able to detect distant extraterrestrial civilizations, by looking for enormous technological artifacts orbiting other stars. Wright and his co-authors say the unusual star’s light pattern is consistent with a “swarm of megastructures,” perhaps stellar-light collectors, technology designed to catch energy from the star.

“When [Boyajian] showed me the data, I was fascinated by how crazy it looked,” Wright told me. “Aliens should always be the very last hypothesis you consider, but this looked like something you would expect an alien civilization to build.”

Boyajian is now working with Wright and Andrew Siemion, the Director of the SETI Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley. The three of them are writing up a proposal. They want to point a massive radio dish at the unusual star, to see if it emits radio waves at frequencies associated with technological activity.

If they see a sizable amount of radio waves, they’ll follow up with the Very Large Array (VLA) in New Mexico, which may be able to say whether the radio waves were emitted by a technological source, like those that waft out into the universe from Earth’s network of radio stations.

Assuming all goes well, the first observation would take place in January, with the follow-up coming next fall. If things go really well, the follow-up could happen sooner. “If we saw something exciting, we could ask the director for special allotted time on the VLA,” Wright told me. “And in that case, we’d be asking to go on right away.”

In the meantime, Boyajian, Siemion, Wright, the citizen scientists, and the rest of us, will have to content ourselves with longing looks at the sky, aimed between the swan and the lyre, where maybe, just maybe, someone is looking back, and seeing the sun dim ever so slightly, every 365 days.

Post by: Rad on Oct 17, 2015, 04:57 AM
Scientists discover reason behind mysterious lunar mound

by Brett Smith
Red Orbit

Lunar researchers have long been baffled by a large mound near the Moon’s southern pole, but now, a new paper in the journal Geophysical Research Letters make a strong case that the mound was formed by a massive impact and the resulting, highly-unusual volcanic activity.

The geological formation, known as Mafic Mound, stands around 800 meters (0.5 miles) tall and 75 kilometers (46 miles) across; and it sits in the middle of a giant impact crater called the South Pole-Aitken Basin.

"If the scenarios that we lay out for its formation are correct, it could represent a totally new volcanic process that's never been seen before," study author Daniel Moriarty, a planetary sciences researcher at Brown University, said in a news release.

Explaining the unusual

Named for rocks full of minerals such as pyroxene and olivine, the Mafic Mound was first identified in the 1990s by Carle Pieters, a planetary geologist at Brown. The formation is notable for its unusual mineralogical makeup, which differs the surrounding stone. While the mound has a highly concentrated amount of high-calcium pyroxene, the nearby stone is low in calcium.

"This unusual structure at the very center of the basin begs the question: What is this thing, and might it be related to the basin formation process?" Moriarty said.

In the study, research analyzed multiple datasets from various orbiting lunar probes. The team concluded the Mafic Mound was produced by one of two unique volcanic operations put in place by the giant South Pole-Aitken impact. An impression of that size would have made a cauldron of melted stone as much as 50 kilometers (31 miles) deep. As that sheet of impact melt cooled down and crystallized, it would have shrunk, causing still-molten material in the heart of the melt sheet to be squeezed out the top, like toothpaste coming out of a tube. Ultimately, that erupted material may have formed the mound.

Models built by the study team suggest that such a process should have produced a mound rich in high-calcium pyroxene.

Other possibilities

Another explanation involves potential melting of the Moon’s mantle right after the South Pole-Aitken impact. The impact would have sent tons of stone out of the basin, making a low-gravity area. The reduced gravity could have made it possible for the middle of the basin to rebound upward. Such upward motion would have triggered part melting of mantle material, which could have erupted to create the mound, the report said.

Both scenarios fit to the very comprehensive datasets used in the study, Moriarty said. If either is valid, it would signify a unique sequence on lunar exterior. Moriarty noted a sample return mission to the South Pole Aitken Basin would be a good way to try to confirm the study conclusions.

"It's the largest confirmed impact structure in the solar system and has shaped many aspects of the evolution of the Moon," Moriarty said. "So a big topic in lunar science is studying this basin and the effects it had on the geology of the Moon through time."

Post by: Rad on Oct 17, 2015, 05:01 AM
October 16, 2015

NASA releases first New Horizons study, finds the dwarf planet larger, more ice-rich than thought

by Chuck Bednar
Red Orbit

Evidence of multiple layers of haze in the atmosphere of Pluto and the discovery that the dwarf planet is both larger and more ice-rich than previously thought were among the findings reported by the New Horizons team in the October 16 edition of the journal Science.

In the study, first author Alan Stern from the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), the principal investigator for the New Horizons mission, and his colleagues also detailed that Pluto was home to a wide variety of landforms and terrain ages, as well as an array of different compositions and colors. They also found evidence for a water-ice rich crust and layers of atmospheric haze.

The publication of the paper comes just three months after the NASA probe’s historic July flyby of the Pluto system, during which time it passed within 8,507 miles (13,691 kilometers) from the dwarf planet’s surface at its closest approach. More than 150 New Horizons scientists and NASA personnel were credited as authors of the new study, according to the SwRI.

“The New Horizons mission completes our initial reconnaissance of the solar system, giving humanity our first look at this fascinating world and its system of moons,” Jim Green, director of planetary science at NASA HQ, said in a statement. “[It] is not only writing the textbook on the Pluto system, it’s serving to inspire current and future generations to keep exploring.”

Dwarf planet and its moons home to many surprises

Among the findings reported in the newly published paper is the discovery that Pluto’s surface has a substantial amount of variation in terms of color, composition and surface reflectivity (or albedo). Stern and his colleagues also found evidence of tectonic extension, surface volatile ice convection, possible wind streaks, glacial flow and geologically young surface units.

In addition to the haze layer, analysis of Pluto’s atmosphere found that it was highly extended, with trace amounts of hydrocarbons and a surface pressure of about 10 microbars. The dwarf planet and its moon Charon were found to differ by less than 10 percent, which the authors said suggested that their precursor bodies were at most only moderately differentiated pre-collision.

This would have “profound implications” for the timing, duration and accretion mechanisms of the ancestral Kuiper Belt, the researchers wrote. They also found possible evidence that Charon has a heterogeneous crustal composition due to unusual dark terrain in its north pole, and noted that New Horizons collected the first-ever measurements of the sizes and albedo of Pluto’s tiny moons Nix and Hydra. The authors added that no new moon were located in the system.

“The Pluto system surprised us in many ways, most notably teaching us that small planets can remain active billions of years after their formation,” Stern said, adding that he and his fellow researchers also learned “important lessons by the unexpected degree of geological complexity that both Pluto and its large moon Charon display.”


Feature Image: This high-resolution image captured by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft combines blue, red and infrared images taken by the Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC). Pluto’s surface shows a remarkable range of subtle colors, digitally enhanced in this view to a rainbow of pale blues, yellows, oranges, and deep reds. The bright expanse is the western lobe of the “heart,” informally known as Tombaugh Regio. The lobe, informally called Sputnik Planum, has been found to be rich in nitrogen, carbon monoxide, and methane ices. Pluto’s diameter is 1,473 miles (2,372 kilometers).  (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)

Post by: Rad on Oct 17, 2015, 05:40 AM
CS Monitor

Spectacular photos of Saturn's icy moon Enceladus captured by Cassini

Photos from NASA's Cassini spacecraft show the north pole of Enceladus.

By Mike Wall, October 16, 2015   
Space Science Institute/JPL-Caltech/NASA/Reuters
NASA's Cassini spacecraft has captured its best-ever looks at the north polar region of Saturn's ocean-harboring moon, Enceladus.

Cassini zoomed within 1,142 miles (1,838 kilometers) of Enceladus Wednesday (Oct. 14), performing its 20th close flyby of the icy satellite since arriving in the Saturn system in 2004. The spacecraft has already beamed home some of the new close-encounter images, and more will come down to Earth in the next few days, NASA officials said.

Many of Cassini's previous Enceladus flybys occurred when the moon's far northern reaches were cloaked in winter darkness. But northern summer has arrived in the Saturn system, and the recent flyby brought the mysterious region out into the light.

"The northern regions are crisscrossed by a spidery network of gossamer-thin cracks that slice through the craters," Cassini imaging team member Paul Helfenstein, of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, said in a statement. "These thin cracks are ubiquitous on Enceladus, and now we see that they extend across the northern terrains as well."

In Pictures Cassini's view of Saturn:

Cassini spotted powerful water-ice geysers near Enceladus' south pole in 2005. These jets are blasting into space material from the ocean of liquid water that sloshes beneath Enceladus' ice shell, scientists say.

Mission scientists will scan the new flyby images for signs of activity coming from the north polar region as well, NASA officials said.

Wednesday's flyby serves as a prelude to another upcoming close encounter: On Oct. 28, Cassini will cruise within just 30 miles (49 km) of Enceladus' south polar region, NASA officials said.

"During the encounter, Cassini will make its deepest-ever dive through the moon's plume of icy spray, sampling the chemistry of the extraterrestrial ocean beneath the ice," agency officials wrote in the same statement.

"Mission scientists are hopeful data from that flyby will provide evidence of how much hydrothermal activity is occurring in the moon's ocean, along with more detailed insights about the ocean's chemistry —both of which relate to the potential habitability of Enceladus," they added.

Cassini will fly by Enceladus again on Dec. 19, approaching within 3,106 miles (4,999 km) of the satellite and gathering data that should help scientists gauge how much heat is coming from the satellite's interior. (That heat is generated by friction, which itself is primarily the result of Saturn's powerful gravitational pull, researchers say.)

Those two future flybys will be Cassini's last close encounters with the 314-mile-wide (505 km) Enceladus. Cassini will end its $3.2 billion mission — which is a collaboration involving NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency — with an intentional death dive into Saturn's thick atmosphere in September 2017.

You can see more Enceladus images from Wednesday's flyby here:

Post by: Rad on Oct 18, 2015, 07:19 AM
October 17, 2015

Will Europe and Russia colonize the moon?

by Chuck Bednar
Red Orbit

The European Space Agency (ESA) and the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) are planning to send a lunar lander to an unexplored area of the moon’s south pole in the first of a series of missions designed to assess conditions for a possible settlement.

According to BBC News, which broke the news of the proposed collaboration between the two space agencies, the mission will be called Luna 27 and will assess whether or not there is enough water and raw materials there to make fuel and oxygen. It is scheduled to launch in 2020.

The project is said to be one of several Roscosmos-led missions designed to return astronauts to the moon, the UK news organization reported. Luna 27 will pick up where Soviet-era projects of the 1970s left off, Professor Igor Mitrofanov of the Space Institute in Moscow explained.

“We have to go to the Moon. The 21st Century will be the century when it will be the permanent outpost of human civilization,” Mitrofanov, the lead scientist on the mission, told the BBC. “Our country has to participate in this process... [and] we have to work together with our international colleagues,” including the ESA and the US space agency NASA, he added.

Missions to hunt for usable water-ice, other resources

Likewise, Bérengère Houdou, head of the lunar exploration group at the ESA's European Space Research and Technology Centre (ESTEC), said that he and his colleagues “have an ambition to have European astronauts on the Moon.” Houdou also confirmed to the BBC that the agency was involved in “discussions at international level... on how to go back to the Moon.”

The ESA has been mulling over the possibility of building a moon base for three years, and when Johann-Dietrich Wörner took over as the head of the agency, one of the first things he brought up was his desire to recruit international partners to construct such a facility on the lunar dark side.

Reports indicate that the early missions will be unmanned, and that Luna 27 will be landing on the outskirts of the South Pole Aitken (SPA) basin. The south polar region on the moon is dark nearly all of the time, and is among the coldest places in the Solar System, which means that it could be rich in water and other chemicals that have been shielded from the sun’s heat.

Dr. James Carpenter, lead scientist on the project for the ESA, told BBC News, “The south pole of the Moon is unlike anywhere we have been before... Due to the extreme cold there you could find large amounts of water-ice and other chemistry... which we could access and use as rocket fuel or in life-support systems to support future human missions.”

Post by: Rad on Oct 18, 2015, 09:13 AM
WATCH: NASA releases dramatic video of solar winds and a massive coronal hole larger than 50 Earths

Tom Boggioni
Raw Story
17 Oct 2015 at 12:47 ET                   

NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory released dramatic video this week showing a very active sun sporting an enormous coronal hole along with a mass of solar material lifting off the sun’s surface and swirling about.

According to NASA, the coronal hole is larger than 50 Earths and covers almost the entire northern hemisphere of the sun, an estimated 8 to 10 percent of the total solar surface, making it one of the largest polar holes scientists have observed in decades.

Scientists explain that coronal holes spew out fast solar wind — traveling an estimated 400-500 miles per second — roughly twice the speed of the normal solar wind causing material to stream off the sun and into the solar system.

In the videos below — one provided by NWR — the coronal hole can be seen evolving. In the other — provided by NASA — a huge solar wind sweeps in picking up material over a 10-hour period.

Post by: Rad on Oct 20, 2015, 05:13 AM
Real Martians Moment: MOMA-Digging Below the Martian Surface

Red Orbit

Click to watch:

Post by: Rad on Oct 20, 2015, 05:17 AM
October 19, 2015

Crystals reveal questioned lunar and Earth impact dates

by Chuck Bednar
Red Orbit

Widely accepted but never actually proven, the massive collision that caused material to be ejected from the Earth to form the moon may not have happened 50 million years after the planet’s formation, experts from the University of Wisconsin-Madison now claim.

Likewise, the late heavy bombardment, a wave of impacts which could have caused hellish conditions on the surface of the young world, may not have occurred four billion years ago, despite longstanding claims by the scientific community. It’s not that researchers behind the study doubt the events occurred; rather, it's the dating process they call into question.

These cataclysmic events are dated using exceptionally durable crystals called zircons, Aaron Cavosi of UW’s NASA Astrobiology Institute and his colleagues explained. Many of the details of both events were discerned from the analysis of zircons collected by Apollo astronauts on the moon four decades ago, and the researchers believe there may be issues with this method.

Specifically, they write in the journal Geology, the lunar zircons are “ex situ” (meaning that the minerals were removed from the rocks in which they formed). This is problematic since it means that geoscientists are unable to review other evidence that could corroborate the impacts.

Zircons may reveal age not of impacts, but of surrounding rocks

“While zircon is one of the best isotopic clocks for dating many geological processes, our results show that it is very challenging to use ex situ zircon to date a large impact of known age,” noted Cavoisie. While many zircons show evidence of shock, he said, “once separated from host rocks, ex situ shocked zircons lose critical contextual information.”

A zircon’s so-called “clock” occurs as lead isotopes accumulate during the radioactive decay of uranium, the UW researchers explained. Using precise isotope measurements based on the half-life of uranium, scientists can calculate how long lead has been accumulating. If the lead was all lost during impact, it resets the clock and should reveal how long ago a collision took place.

Using this technique, the date of the late heavy bombardment was placed at between 3.9 billion and 4.3 billion years ago. However, Cavosie and colleagues collected and tested zircons from an impact site in South Africa, and found that while the zircons contain signs of shock deformation, they recorded the age of the rocks they formed in, which were about one billion years older than the impact itself. The discovery could force a re-evaluation of the planet’s early history.

“For a long time people have been saying if zircon is really involved in a major impact shock, its age will be reset, so you can date the impact,” explained UW-Madison geoscience professor John Valley. “Aaron has been saying, ‘Yes, sometimes, but often what people see as a reset age may not really be reset.’ Zircons are the gift that keep on giving, and this will not change that, but we need to be a lot more careful in analyzing what that gift is telling us.”

Post by: Rad on Oct 20, 2015, 06:38 AM
CS Monitor

How to search for aliens near bizarre dimming star, according to scientists

The dimming was too significant to be caused by a planet crossing the star's face, and now scientists are moving on the possibility that it might be intelligent life.

By Kelsey Warner, Staff October 19, 2015   

Forty-two antennas are now pointed toward the universe's latest mystery, searching for what some researchers speculate could be an alien megastructure that may surround a star 1,500 light-years from Earth.

Astronomers from the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute (SETI) have started to look a bit closer at the star using their Allen Telescope Array (ATA), a system of relatively small radio dishes with a total of 42 antennas that lies about 300 miles northeast of San Francisco, reports. They are hoping to hear radio signals coming from the vicinity of KIC 8462852, a star first detected by NASA's Kepler space telescope.

    Star KIC 8462852 is in the news. Its dimming might be due to alien constructions. Hang tight: The Allen Telescope Array is looking.
    — The SETI Institute (@SETIInstitute) October 17, 2015

KIC 8462852 caught the attention of the larger scientific community after researchers noticed an irregular dimming in the light produced by the star. The Planet Hunters, who recently published a paper, noticed the star dimmed dramatically several times over the past few years, a stark contrast to the hundreds of thousands of other stars Kepler captured in its four-year run as "the people's telescope," searching for planets far away that may be similar to Earth.
Recommended: Could you pass Astronomy 101? Take the quiz!

The dimming of up to 20 percent of the light of the star is not easily explained by existing models. Some have speculated that the cause could be an artificial structure built by intelligent life.

And now the hunt is on.

But for SETI, this is all in a day's work. The dish system that is monitoring the mysterious star also has several other space spying missions underway. Among them is what the SETI Institute calls a "reconnaissance" of other unusual star systems that Kepler observed on its mission, according to the organization. 

The ATA is also listening in on a star grouping near the center of the Milky Way galaxy, where the density of stars is the highest. The institute believes "it’s conceivable that truly advanced societies might place a 'beacon' there."

When the ATA was first built, researchers wanted to build 350 individual antennas. But cost constraints – the SETI Institute is a nonprofit that relies on private funding – kept it at 42.

“These are dynamic times for SETI,” says Andrew Siemion, the director of the University of California-Berkeley’s SETI Research Center in an interview earlier this month with The Atlantic. Fueling the optimism is a pledged $100 million from Russian billionaire Yuri Milner to fund a new research program, spread across several academic institutions. That’s the largest cash gift in SETI’s history, and Mr. Siemion says he hopes it will inspire others.

Milner’s pledge, The Atlantic reports, will fund an international cohort of SETI institutions that will use the money to point radio telescopes at thousands of nearby stars, listening for radio signals directed at Earth. Known as Breakthrough Listen, the program will investigate each star more thoroughly than ever before.

At a congressional hearing on the possibility of life on other planets that took place earlier this month, NASA's Chief Scientist Ellen Stofan told lawmakers that Mars is her top candidate for finding life beyond Earth.

"We now know that Mars was once a water world, much like Earth, with clouds and a water cycle and indeed some running water currently on the surface. For hundreds of millions of years about half the northern hemisphere of Mars had an ocean possibly a mile deep in places," Stofan said.

"Life as we know it requires liquid water that has been stable on the surface of a planet for a very long time. That's why Mars is our primary destination in our search for the life in the solar system," she added.

Post by: Rad on Oct 20, 2015, 06:40 AM

No, there isn't a Buddha on Mars. What’s behind all these bizarre 'sightings'?

First there was the face of a man, then a rat, even a levitating spoon has been 'spotted' in photos of the Red Planet. The latest 'sighting' stars a 'stunning Martian God.'

By Cathaleen Chen, Staff October 19, 2015   

Were Martians spiritual beings?

Some enthusiasts seem to believe so, after a new unusual rock formation that resembles Buddha was brought to light by YouTube user Paranormal Crucible.

After blowing up a photo taken by the Mars Curiosity Rover from more than a year ago, the user points out an "artifact" of “stunning Martian god” in top right corner.

While the majority of commenters appear to be giggling at the video as a good-natured hoax, some viewers appear to have latched onto the images as, in their eyes, yet another piece of evidence that there's more happening on Mars than the government wants us to know about.

“This photo alone should be enough to convince the United Nations that intelligent life once existed on Mars, but NASA doesn't want anyone to know the truth, because they will be asked to share the info and technology that they have found,”  Scott C. Waring of writes upon seeing the video, which features “enhanced and processed” versions.

The final depiction shows a seated figure with a bare human body.

“This is incredible. What a conclusive find concerning past life,” YouTube user Harvey Halloway writes in a comment, posing a theory of his own, “What if life started on Mars as a planet cooling first. As it became less inhabitable and earth became more so we immigrated so to speak. Just a thought on why so many earth like objects are found there.”

Indeed, many bizarre objects have been sighted on Mars, thanks to Curiosity’s high-definition photo capabilities. There was the levitating spoon. The Mars rat. And who could forget tiny Bigfoot, suspended in movement atop an ordinary rock?

For nonbelievers, the phenomenon of seeing faces in inanimate things is called pareidolia, a psychological quirk. 

As the Christian Science Monitor reported in the case of Mars rat,

    Pareidolia refers to the tendency of the human brain to perceive animals or other familiar shapes in vague or random images. For example, the face of Christ Jesus in a grilled cheese sandwich or a tortilla. The phenomenon has fueled a great deal of excited speculation about the Red Planet over the years, most famously after some people saw a humanoid face on Mars in photos taken by NASA's Viking 1 orbiter in 1976.

As for those who see these images as actual proof for life on Mars, sometimes believing is a remedy for the tumultuous fate of life. According to two studies published in the Applied Cognitive Psychology journal in August, conspiracy theorists are more likely than everyone else to feel a lack of control over life.

“We found that if you give people a feeling of control, then they are less inclined to believe those conspiracy theories,” Jan-Willem van Prooijen, a professor of social and organizational psychology at VU University Amsterdam, told Time magazine. “Giving people a sense of control can make them less suspicious over governmental operations.”

NASA probably isn't hiding proof of deity-worshipping life on Mars. But for some, it's nice to fancy so.

Post by: Rad on Oct 20, 2015, 09:01 AM
After 100 years, Einstein’s theory stands test of time

Agence France-Presse
20 Oct 2015 at 07:32 ET                   

Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity is about to celebrate its 100th anniversary, and his revolutionary hypothesis has withstood the test of time, despite numerous expert attempts to find flaws.

“Einstein changed the way we think about the most basic things, which are space and time. And that opened our eyes to the universe, and how the most interesting things in it work, like black holes,” said David Kaiser, professor of the history of science, technology and society at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Einstein, a celebrated German-born theoretical physicist who spent the final years of his life at Princeton University in the northeastern United States, presented his theory on November 25, 1915 before the Prussian Academy of Science.

The document was published in March 1916 in a journal called Annalen der Physik.

The general theory of relativity was among the most revolutionary in history; it marked a major leap from the law of universal gravitation put forth by Sir Isaac Newton in 1687.

Einstein believed that “space and time are not fixed, which was what others had thought, but are flexible, dynamic phenomena like other processes of the universe,” said Michael Turner, director of the Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics.

“So space bends and time warps, and it was a whole new way at looking at gravity.”

Einstein had put forth a more restrained version of his theory in 1905, the special theory of relativity, which left out gravity but described the relationship between space and time. It held that the speed of light is the same in a vacuum, and the laws of physics do not change regarding inert objects.

– Precursor to GPS –

He also came up with his famous equation, E=mc2, which says that energy equals mass times the speed of light in a vacuum, squared. In other words, mass and energy are the same but in different forms.

Ten years later, the general theory of relativity offered a larger and more explanatory vision, adding gravity’s role in the space-time continuum.

Therefore, time would move more slowly in proximity to a powerful gravitational field, such as that of a planet in the void of space.

This relationship has been verified by comparing two atomic clocks, one on Earth and the other in a high-altitude airplane where it shows a slight delay.

Global positioning systems (GPS) are an application of this phenomenon.

Satellites have clocks that are precisely adjusted to account for this time difference, otherwise GPS would not be able to function.

According to the theory of general relativity, light is also warped by powerful gravitational fields, which British astronomer Arthur Eddington confirmed with his observations on the deflections of starlight by the Sun in 1919.

Einstein also predicted that stars at the end of their lives would collapse under their own gravity.

Their external envelope would explode in a supernova while their heart would form a very dense object known as a neutron star, or a rapidly spinning pulsar.

They could also transform into a black hole, which such a huge gravitational field that space and time could not escape.

According to Einstein, these celestial bodies, given their masses, should provoke waves in space time much like a thrown stone causes ripples in water.

These are the gravitational waves that astronomers hope to observe first-hand.

– String theory –

This would “confirm one of the last great but as yet untested predictions from Einstein, equation that space and time are not really dynamical but they can ripple, like the surface of a pond,” said Kaiser.

Instruments have been designed to capture this phenomenon, including the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) in the United States and VIRGO, a gravitational wave detector in Italy in Europe.

An enormous challenge remains — to reconcile the general theory of relativity with quantum physics, the two big pillars of modern physics.

Quantum physics, contrary to relativity, perfectly describes phenomena on an atomic level and has numerous applications, from transistors to computers.

Turner said the most popular theory for reconciling the two is string theory, which holds that particles are not the fundamental building blocks of matter but are elastic strings that vibrate at different frequencies.

“String theory might answer that deep question of what space and time are,” Turner told AFP.

“It suggests it could be extra dimensions and that the number of dimensions of space and time could change,” he added.

“And if you take the most extravagant view of that, maybe space and time did not exist and they emerged from something else.”

Turner described string theory as an “empty vessel,” and added: “the great thing about an empty vessel is that we can put our hopes and dreams in it.”

“We are now ready for the next Einstein to open our eyes a little more.”

Post by: Rad on Oct 21, 2015, 05:51 AM
CS Monitor

What's likelihood another planet will host intelligent life? 92 percent.

Even after giving birth to 100 million trillion Earth-mass planets in the habitable zones of host stars, the cosmos has the raw material to produce more than 10 times that number, according to a new study.

By Pete Spotts, Staff writer October 20, 2015   

For the better part of the universe's 13.8-billion-year history, it has churned out vast numbers of planets, a natural outcome of star formation. But that was just a warmup.

Even after giving birth to 100 million trillion Earth-mass planets in the habitable zones of their host stars, the cosmos has the raw material to produce more than 10 times that number, according to a new estimate of past and future planet-formation.

It remains to be seen how much of this material gets incorporated into new stars and planets. Before the last star fades, however, it's highly likely that the universe will have hosted more than one world with intelligent life, according to the analysis, conducted by Peter Behroozi and Molly Peeples, researchers at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.

The study's attempt to peer into the future of planet-building is noteworthy, according to Avi Loeb, a Harvard University astrophysicist and director of the Institute for Theory and Computation at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass.

Many astronomers have a tendency to avoid exploring the implications of their observations for the future of the cosmos, Dr. Loeb says. They limit their analyses to what they can measure of the past and present.

“It's as interesting to think about the future as it is about the past; you learn from it,” he says. In this case, it's the duo’s estimate of the universe's remaining potential for hosting Earth-like planets, and by extension its potential for hosting other intelligent civilizations.

The study, published Tuesday in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society in Britain, was “a fun side project” inspired by a larger effort to improve ways of estimating star-formation rates as galaxies formed and evolved, Dr. Behroozi says.

“We know the history of stars. Why can't we figure out the history of planets, too?” he says. “Then you realize that the universe is not even close to being done forming stars. Therefore, it's not close to being done forming planets either.”

The duo used data from the NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, its Kepler planet-hunting mission, and the Sloan Digital Sky Survey to tease out the history of star formation. From that, they drew estimates of planet formation in galaxies throughout the cosmos, using Kepler's estimates of the number and types of planets in the Milky Way as a benchmark.

Planets in our solar system are relative newcomers compared with planets across the cosmos. Star formation peaked about 10 billion years ago, while the sun and its planets formed roughly 4.6 billion years ago. Yet even at its peak, star formation failed to exhaust the hydrogen gas available. Since star formation across the cosmos is slowing, a generous reservoir of hydrogen remains to continue the process.

Based on the gas remaining and the projected rates of planet formation, Earth has appeared after less than 8 percent of the cosmos's expected planet-forming lifetime. Some 92 percent of the planets the universe has the potential to form have yet to appear.

From that, the duo concludes that there is roughly a 92 percent chance that humans are not the only civilization the cosmos will host over a history that will be measured in tens of trillions of years.

For many who already are convinced that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe, that may not come as revelation. But no other civilization has yet been detected. Behroozi and Dr. Peeples note that their estimate is independent of the contentious 1961 Drake Equation, which tries to estimate the probability that a civilization beyond Earth exists with the technological capability to use radio communication.

Post by: Rad on Oct 21, 2015, 05:53 AM
CS Monitor

Spooky asteroid to zoom past Earth on Halloween

An asteroid is anticipated to come within 310,000 miles of Earth, its nearest approach is estimated at 11:14 a.m. Eastern on October 31.

By Kelsey Warner, Staff October 20, 2015   

Back in August, in response to a viral conspiracy theory, NASA released a statement denying that Earth would be struck by a large asteroid a few weeks hence, causing widespread destruction.

It turns out that the space agency was right. But what about the one headed our way on Halloween?

An asteroid is anticipated to come within 310,000 miles of Earth – about a third longer than the average distance to the moon – its nearest approach is estimated at 11:14 a.m. Eastern on October 31, according to NASA.

Called 2015 TB145, the asteroid was spotted by astronomers on October 10 using the Panoramic Survey Telescope & Rapid Response System (Pan-STARRS) at the University of Hawaii's Institute for Astronomy. NASA estimates the space rock measures between 984 and 1,542 feet in diameter and is traveling "unusually fast," according to the space agency, at about 78,000 miles per hour.

"The flyby presents a truly outstanding scientific opportunity to study the physical properties of this object," NASA said in a statement.

NASA's Near-Earth Object Project has been detecting so-called Near-Earth objects since 1998, coordinating efforts worldwide with hundreds of other programs and astronomers to locate, track, and research potentially dangerous asteroids and comets that could come close to Earth.

According to NASA, no known object poses an imminent threat, but a more grassroots approach sprung up in 2013 to help catalogue those space rocks that have yet to be identified.

Called the Grand Challenge, the NASA program asks amateur astronomers around the world to help NASA "track all asteroid threats to human populations, and to know what to do about them," Jason Kessler, the director of the program said in an interview with CNN.

"We have discovered about 95% of the one kilometer or larger asteroids, that's roughly the size of the one that is thought to have wiped out the dinosaurs upon impact," Mr. Kessler said. "Unfortunately we only know about roughly 1% of those asteroids that get down to the 30 meter size, so there's a tremendous amount out there that we have yet to discover."

He added that, although the data sounds menacing, "Nothing we know of is threatening Earth right now."

As of October 16, 13,256 Near-Earth objects (NEOs) have been identified; of those, 1,635 have been classified as Potentially Hazardous Asteroids (PHAs) due to their size.

Post by: Rad on Oct 22, 2015, 06:17 AM
Astronomers spot white dwarf 'Death Star' vaporizing planet

A dwarf planet some 570 light-years from Earth is slowly disintegrating from its star's intense radiation, say astronomers.

By Sarah Lewin, October 22, 2015   

The planet-destroying Death Star from "Star Wars" may be fictional, but a star at the end of its life and only a bit bigger than Earth could be its real-world twin: The star is currently destroying and disintegrating an orbiting planet bit by bit.

The ill-fated planetary body and its debris are about the size of Texas or the dwarf planet Ceres, the largest asteroid in Earth's solar system, and it will be fully destroyed within about a million years. Scientists watching the object disintegrate will get the best-ever view of a solar system's death, researchers said — and a look at the likely future of our own system.

Scientists observed the crumbling planet using NASA's Kepler space telescope and pulled out further detail through ground observation. This marks the first time scientists have ever seen a planetary body passing around a tiny, faint white dwarf (the planet's destroyer), researchers report in a new study.

"This is something no human has seen before," Andrew Vanderburg, a graduate student at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and lead author of the new study, said in a statement. "We're watching a solar system get destroyed."

"What we're seeing are fragments of a disintegrating planet that is being vaporized by [the white dwarf's] starlight and is losing mass," Vanderburg told "The vapor is getting lost into orbit, and that condenses into dust which then blocks the starlight."

Watching the dust from the decomposing object change the light from the white dwarf is a major milestone for understanding stars and the planets that orbit them, the researchers said.
Stellar mystery

As a star grows old, it balloons outward into a huge red giant, swallowing anything orbiting too close to it. Researchers say that, in the case of Earth's solar system, the sun will grow to engulf Mercury, Venus and possibly Earth in about 5 billion years.

Eventually, an old star runs out of fuel; then, it sheds its massive outer envelope into space, and its core contracts into a small, dense white dwarf. (White dwarfs are the final form of stars close to our sun's size, whereas much larger stars end in supernova explosions.)

Any elements heavier than hydrogen or helium should soon be sucked into the center of that white dwarf, but as astronomers learned to peer closer, they noticed something strange: Many white dwarfs somehow still have heavy elements like magnesium and iron in their atmospheres that should have been pulled inward. So, astronomers surmised, something must be continuously adding those elements to the surface.

Some astronomers suspected that planets and other bodies orbiting the white dwarf, knocked off-kilter by the star's loss of mass, might collide with one another and shatter into asteroidlike pieces, which, if they wander too close, would be pulled apart by the dwarf's gravity. Then, those pieces would form a disk of dust that would fall into the star, replenishing its supply of metals.

Astronomers had noticed, in some cases, the very planet-like makeup of those dusty veils. But because nobody had ever seen the broken-up planets themselves passing around a white dwarf, it remained an educated guess.

Seeing strange signals

Now, Vanderburg's group has spotted just such a signature in the recurring decline and reappearance of a white dwarf's light picked up by the Kepler space telescope during its K2 mission. White dwarfs are small, so such "transits" occur quickly as objects orbit them and are easy to miss.

But because white dwarfs are so small, the passing bodies can block out more light and make the change much more noticeable. This particular white dwarf star is about 570 light-years from Earth in the constellation Virgo, and the object orbits its star at a distance of about 520,000 miles (837,000 kilometers) — more than twice the distance from the Earth to the moon, researchers said in the statement.

By incorporating data from ground-based telescopes as well, the group was able to piece together a more detailed view of the object passing in front of the star. The transits were very short, confirming that the thing being blocked out was very small, like a white dwarf. Moreover, the transits were asymmetrical in how much light they blocked over time, providing the researchers a key clue to interpreting the scenario.

"Instead of being transited by a solid planet, the white dwarf was being transited by a planet that has a dusty, cometlike tail trailing behind it," Vanderburg said. That tail, rather than just an isolated object orbiting, would make the starlight change unevenly over time. There are likely several fragments making the journey and entering astronomers' view, Vanderburg said.

The data that finally supported this conclusion and pulled all the observations together reached Vanderburg in an email at 1 a.m, just before he was going to sleep — and he was up for the next five hours because the data "was just so exciting and so stunning," he said. For the first time, researchers were seeing the 10-year-old theory about how white dwarf systems evolve directly confirmed in the night sky.

New views

Other researchers are similarly enthused by this finding, Vanderburg said, and almost all of them have their own theories for what, exactly, is happening.

"We've never witnessed something like this," said Francesca Faedi, an astronomer at the University of Warwick in England, and author of a "News and Views" column accompanying the new results, published online today (Oct. 21) in the journal Nature.

"It's the first object known to have been born, survived and [be] dying around the host star — which is very cool," she told

By watching a planetary body break apart around the white dwarf, researchers will be able to get a sense of the different elements inside it as it disintegrates. They will also be able to study its atmosphere much more easily than if it were orbiting a larger star — simply because it covers up more of the star and creates a bigger signal for today's technology to analyze. By finding white-dwarf transits in Kepler data, researchers will get the closest look yet at such exoplanets.

The Strangest Alien Planets (Gallery):

"Finally, white dwarfs get a little bit of fuss around them," Faedi said. "They deserve that."

Seeing the final stages of a planetary system around such a dwarf is key, she added. "We cannot have a nice picture of exoplanets, we cannot understand exoplanets, unless we understand how they got formed, how they evolve dynamically and how they die," Faedi said.

And while they're at it, systems like these give astronomers hints about what will happen when the sun becomes Earth's own "Death Star." Of course, by then Earth will be burnt to a crisp following the sun's expansion into a red giant, if not engulfed altogether. But at least it won't have succumbed to the Dark Side.

Post by: Rad on Oct 22, 2015, 06:19 AM
Rare embrace: Scientists find star-crossed kiss, 160,000 light-years away

In the far off Tarantula Nebula, two twin stars are locked in a rare celestial embrace. What happens next could be a boon for stellar physics.

By Kelsey Warner, Staff October 21, 2015   

Things are heating up in the Tarantula Nebula.

The area is the most active in the universe for new stars, and is some 160,000 light-years from Earth, according to the European Southern Observatory (ESO), an intergovernmental astronomy organization. Two of those stars in particular, a unique binary star system known as VFTS 252, have drawn particular attention as they appear to have come together in a rare celestial embrace.

VFTS 352 is made up of two "very hot, bright and massive stars that orbit each other in little more than a day," according to ESO. The stars' cores are a mere 12 million kilometers apart, which has allowed a bridge to form between the two, conjoining the envelopes of gas that envelop each, and bringing the pair together in what is known as an overcontact binary, a very rare occurrence in the universe.

Two key observations are made from star systems like VFTS 352. They are believed to be the primary creators of elements such as oxygen, and "exotic behavior," according to ESO, might be displayed by so-called “vampire stars”, wherein a smaller star "sucks" material from its larger neighbor. Because VFTS 352 is comprised of two stars very similar in mass, the secondary phenomenon is unlikely to be seen, though they are sharing roughly 30 percent of their material, according to ESO.

“The VFTS 352 is the best case yet found for a hot and massive double star that may show this kind of internal mixing,” says lead author Leonardo A. Almeida of the University of São Paulo, Brazil, in a statement. “As such it’s a fascinating and important discovery.”

The system Mr. Almeida's team discovered is extremely rare because the phase of life being observed in these particular stars is relatively short, according to the researchers, which makes it tough to "catch them in the act."

VFTS 352 is unique for its size, it is the most massive known in its "tiny class" with a total mass of about 57 times that of the sun, and with areas on the surface that top 72,000 degrees Fahrenheit, according to ESO. For comparison, the sun's photosphere is about 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit. In the case of VFTS 352, both stars in the system nearly identical in size, which means that material can be mutually shared rather than pulled from one to the other.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the young binary system is star-crossed and faces "a cataclysmic fate" the researchers predict will happen in one of two ways.

The first, the stars may combine to form one enormous single star.

“If it keeps spinning rapidly it might end its life in one of the most energetic explosions in the Universe, known as a long-duration gamma-ray burst,” said the lead scientist of the project, Hugues Sana, of the University of Leuven in Belgium, in the release.

Or, they may explode.

"In the case of VFTS 352, the components would likely end their lives in supernova explosions, forming a close binary system of black holes. Such a remarkable object would be an intense source of gravitational waves,” says Selma de Mink of the University of Amsterdam.

If the second possible outcome occurs, it would offer an opportunity for an "observational breakthrough in the field of stellar astrophysics," according to ESO. Waves in space-time are created by changes in robust gravitational fields, as described by Einstein's theory of gravity, but the phenomenon has never been observed first-hand, according to

Post by: Rad on Oct 22, 2015, 06:21 AM
CS Monitor

Earth isn't nearly as unique as we may think, says new study

Scientists speculate that there are likely 1 billion Earth-sized worlds in the Milky Way galaxy right now, and potential for many more to form throughout the universe.

By Kelsey Warner, Staff October 21, 2015   

The vast majority of habitable planets have yet to be born, according to a new theoretical study.

Researchers culled the data from NASA's Hubble Telescope and the planet-seeking Kepler space observatory and concluded that when our solar system developed 4.6 billion years ago, just eight percent of the planets capable of harboring life had formed in the universe. That means 92 percent of the universe's potentially livable planets are still just dust and gas.

"Our main motivation was understanding the Earth's place in the context of the rest of the universe," said study author Peter Behroozi of the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Md., in a statement. "Compared to all the planets that will ever form in the universe, the Earth is actually quite early."

And, the researchers add, planets will still be forming long after our sun burns out in 6 billion years.

"There is enough remaining material [after the "big bang"] to produce even more planets in the future, in the Milky Way and beyond," added co-investigator Molly Peeples of STScI.

According to Dr. Behroozi and Dr.. Peeples, a benefit of our relatively young planet is getting to witness as the universe takes shape. The Hubble space telescope allowed them to "trace our lineage from the big bang through the early evolution of galaxies," which produced their research.

Based on the survey, the research pair theorizes there are 1 billion Earth-sized worlds in the Milky Way galaxy right now, a sizable portion are assumed to be rocky. That estimate, they say, "skyrockets" when the other 100 billion galaxies in the observable universe are taken into account.

The study's look at what is still to come for planets is worth acknowledging, according to Avi Loeb, a Harvard University astrophysicist and director of the Institute for Theory and Computation at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass., in a interview with The Christian Science Monitor earlier this week.

Most astronomers tend to avoid exploring what their observations mean for the future of the universe, Dr. Loeb says. They stop short of extending their analyses beyond what they can measure of the past and present.

“It's as interesting to think about the future as it is about the past; you learn from it,” he said.

The research concludes there is a preponderance of evidence that supports more Earth-sized planets in habitable zones adjacent to stars that will form in the future. And that future is vast: the last star is expected to burn out 100 trillion years from now.

Post by: Rad on Oct 22, 2015, 07:02 AM
Einstein wouldn’t like it: New test proves universe is ‘spooky’

21 Oct 2015 at 13:15 ET                   

The universe really is weird, which is bad news both for Albert Einstein and for would-be hackers hoping to break into quantum encryption systems.

Eighty years after the physicist dismissed as “spooky” the idea that simply observing one particle could instantly change another far-away object, Dutch scientists said on Wednesday they had proved decisively that the effect was real.

Writing in the journal Nature, researchers detailed an experiment showing how two electrons at separate locations 1.3 km (0.8 mile) apart on the Delft University of Technology campus demonstrated a clear, invisible and instantaneous connection.

Importantly, the new study closed loopholes in earlier tests that had left some doubt as to whether the eerie connection predicted by quantum theory was real or not.

Einstein famously insisted in a 1935 scientific paper that what he called “spooky action at a distance” had to be wrong and there must be undiscovered properties of particles to explain such counter-intuitive behavior.

The idea certainly confounds our day-to-day experience of the world, where change only appears to occur through local interactions. But in recent decades scientific evidence has been building that particles can indeed become “entangled”, so that no matter how far apart they are, they will always be connected.

The Delft experiment is conclusive because, for the first time, scientists have closed two potential loopholes at once.

The first suggests that particles could somehow synchronize behavior ahead of time, while the second implies that testing might detect only a subset of prepared entangled pairs.

To prove their case, the team led by Delft professor Ronald Hanson used two diamonds containing tiny traps for electrons with a magnetic property called spin and measured all entangled pairs across 1.3 km separating two laboratories.

The experiment effectively closes a chapter in an 80-year scientific debate, but Hanson said it also had important implications for the future, since sophisticated cryptography is already using quantum properties to guarantee data security.

Such quantum encryption systems will only be 100 percent secure, however, if all loopholes are closed, as in the Delft system.

“Loopholes can be backdoors into systems,” Hanson told Reuters. “When you go loophole-free then you add an extra layer of security and you can be absolutely certain there is no way for hackers to get in.”

Post by: Rad on Oct 23, 2015, 05:52 AM

NASA almost ready for first-ever asteroid hunt

Scientists are one small step closer to getting their hands on an asteroid, as engineers have finished assembling the first spacecraft designed to bring a sample from space rocks back to earth.

By Lucy Schouten, Staff October 22, 2015   

A spacecraft designed to catch up with an asteroid and vacuum up some of the dust on its surface seems like something out of science fiction, but NASA says it's ready for a test drive.

Lockheed Martin announced Wednesday that engineers have finished assembling a spacecraft designed to take the first-ever samples of an asteroid. The US aerospace company is ready to test the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft to ensure it can successfully undergo the physical buffeting of a rocket launch and a trip through space, the Denver Post reports.

"This is an exciting time for the program, as we now have a completed spacecraft and the team gets to test drive it, in a sense, before we actually fly it to Bennu,” said Rich Kuhns, OSIRIS-REx program manager at Lockheed Martin, in a news release.

The tests aim to "shake-and-bake" the spacecraft, Erin Morton from the University of Arizona, which is leading the investigation for the OSIRIS-REx, tells The Christian Science Monitor. It will be spun to simulate launching, which is actually the most stressful part of the mission for the spacecraft. The tests will also expose OSIRIS-REx to both extreme heat and cold at the same time, to simulate when the craft will have one side facing the sun in space.

After five months of testing at a facility south of Denver, the launch is set for September 2016 at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The mission will send the OSIRIS-REx to an asteroid called Bennu, which scientists chose for its carbon-rich surface, in the hope of understanding how life could begin in the solar system, Ms. Morton told The Christian Science Monitor.

The OSIRIS-REx will not land on the asteroid, but it has a probe that resembles a mosquito proboscis that will take the sample.

"We're going to touch the asteroid for about five seconds and vacuum part of it up," Morton told The Christian Science Monitor.

Engineers plan on welcoming the OSIRIS-REx back to Earth after it circles the sun and returns with its sample. Researchers can use what they learn from the OSIRIS-REx mission in the following mission to an asteroid, planned for the early 2020s.

NASA's Asteroid Redirect Mission aims to use a robot spacecraft to capture a nearby asteroid and place it in a "stable orbit" around the moon. The asteroid would furnish astronauts with a "proving ground" for Mars landings, helping NASA develop new technologies for sample collection, rendezvous and docking, and transporting large masses, the agency says.

In addition to helping answer questions about the origin of the solar system, the mission could also advance a defense project, so to speak, that has concerned some astronomers.

The asteroid missions will aid in research that will help develop "planetary defense techniques to deflect dangerous asteroids and protect Earth if needed in the future," according to NASA's website. NASA ultimately wants a system that could reroute a comet, should one large enough to cause problems fly too close to Earth.

Post by: Rad on Oct 23, 2015, 06:03 AM
CS Monitor

Explore the Milky Way in the biggest photo ever taken

German astronomers compile the largest Milky Way image ever taken by photographing small segments each day for five years.

By Story Hinckley, Staff October 22, 2015   

German Astronomers have complied the largest astronomical image ever made, producing a glittering picture of the Milky Way with 46 billion pixels.

The leader of the project, Moritz Hackstein, a doctoral candidate at Ruhr-Universitat Bochum in Germany, compiled the detailed images for his PhD thesis to record how stars were changing in the sky, through variable objects such as medium brightness. The team found 64,151 variable sources of light, with over 56,000 of these sources being seen for the first time, According to reports.

“For five years, the astronomers from Bochum have been monitoring our galaxy in the search of objects with variable brightness,” the university said in a statement. “More than 50,000 new variable objects, which had hitherto not been recorded in databanks, have been discovered by the researchers so far.”

The Milky Way is so large that astronomers had to divide it up into 268 subsections. They would spend several days on each section, taking multiple photographs. Before creating the 46 billion-pixel image, the astronomers had to spend several weeks working on calculations to make sure the end image was configured correctly.

The end result includes both new evidence on star systems for astronomers, as well as simply a really cool image for the public.

By using the online tool ( ) developed by the researchers, “any interested person can view the complete ribbon of the Milky Way at a glance, or zoom in and inspect specific areas,” the release explains. Viewers can even search by specific star or nebula.

The researchers used telescopes from Bochum’s observatory in Chile's Atacama Desert, “the world’s prime location for astronomical observations.” The RUB observatory’s telescopes might not be as powerful as the European “Very Large Telescope” observatory on Cerro Paranal, but Rolf Chini, the director of the RUB observatory, says they are more effective because RUB astronomers don’t have to fight for gazing time.

“The average astronomer is assigned five to ten hours observation time per year on the large telescopes – if he’s lucky,” Dr. Chini explains to Rubin Science Magazine, making it impossible for astronomers to focus on an extended study.

“Being in Chile is great,” Chini tells Rubin Science. “However, getting there is very stressful.” To reach the RUB observatory, Chini flies from Germany to Madrid, then Madrid to Santiago de Chile, followed by a domestic flight and a two-hour drive.

Post by: Rad on Oct 24, 2015, 05:10 AM
October 23, 2015

Big news! NASA completes SLS critical design review…next stop, Mars!

by Brett Smith
Red Orbit

NASA has announced, for the first time in almost four decades, the completion of the critical design review (CDR) phase of a rocket built for humans.

The space agency’s Space Launch System (SLS) is designed to send astronauts to Mars, and it's the first rocket system NASA to pass through the CDR phase since the Saturn V.

The SLS is now set to be built.

“We’ve nailed down the design of SLS, we’ve successfully completed the first round of testing of the rocket’s engines and boosters, and all the major components for the first flight are now in production,” said Bill Hill, deputy associate administrator of NASA’s Exploration Systems Development Division, in a statement.

“There have been challenges, and there will be more ahead, but this review gives us confidence that we are on the right track for the first flight of SLS and using it to extend permanent human presence into deep space.”

Next stop, Mars!

Along with the Orion spacecraft, which is also still being developed, SLS is expected to send astronauts to Mars at some point in the coming decades.

The CDR offered a last check of the design and development of the integrated launch vehicle prior to full-scale fabrication. The process examined the initial of three configurations planned for the rocket, dubbed SLS Block 1. The Block I configuration will have at least a 77-ton lift capability and be propelled by twin boosters and four RS-25 engines.

The Block 1B upgrade would use a more powerful upper stage with a 115-ton lift capacity. Block 2 will add a pair of boosters to offer a 143-ton lift capacity. In each configuration, SLS will use the same core stage and four RS-25 engines.

The next step for SLS is design validation, which will occur in 2017 after manufacturing, integration, and evaluating is finished. The design validation will compare the actual final product to the rocket’s design. The last review, the flight readiness review, will occur just before the 2018 flight readiness date.

“This is a major step in the design and readiness of SLS,” said John Honeycutt, SLS program manager. “Our team has worked extremely hard, and we are moving forward with building this rocket. We are qualifying hardware, building structural test articles, and making real progress.”

Post by: Rad on Oct 24, 2015, 05:50 AM
CS Monitor

Kerberos revealed: Pluto's smallest moon takes bizarre shape

Newly obtained images of Kerberos challenges initial theories about Pluto's smallest moon.

By Michael Holtz, Staff writer October 23, 2015   

Keberos, the smallest of Pluto’s four moons, defied expectations when images of it taken by NASA’s New Horizons arrived on Earth earlier this week.

The moon appears to be smaller than scientists expected and has a highly reflective surface, observations that disprove predictions made before the Pluto flyby in July.

“Once again, the Pluto system has surprised us,” said New Horizons project scientist Hal Weaver, a professor at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland, in a statement released on Thursday by NASA.

The new images, which arrived Tuesday, show that Kerberos has a double-lobed shape. The larger lobe is approximately five miles across and the smaller lobe approximately three miles across.

Scientists speculate that the merger of two smaller objects might have formed the unusually shaped moon.

The reflectivity of Kerberos’ surface is similar to that of Pluto’s other small moons. It suggests that Kerberos, like the others, is coated with relatively clean water ice. NASA said the unexpected results would lead to a better understanding of Pluto’s satellite system.

Astronomers stumbled across Kerberos while searching for rings around the dwarf planet with the Hubble Space Telescope in 2011. At the time, they expected it to be big and dark – not small and bright.

“Now that we have new and more precise measurements of the orbits of the moons,” writes Mark Showalter, a senior research scientist at the SETI Institute in California, “I boldly predict that we will soon learn that the mass of Kerberos is much lower than we had previously thought.”
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Originally designated S/2011 – and sometimes referred to as P4 – Kerberos is named after the three-headed dog of Greek mythology. All four of Pluto's moons are named for mythological figures associated with the underworld.

Kerberos is located between the orbits of Nix and Hydra, both of which Hubble discovered in 2005. Charon, Pluto’s third moon, was discovered in 1978.

Post by: Rad on Oct 24, 2015, 05:53 AM
CS Monitor

Has Hubble opened a window back in time to the earliest galaxies?

Using the NASA/ESA Hubble Telescope, a team of astronomers found galaxies that existed less than a billion years after the Big Bang, making this one of the most significant discoveries of dwarf galaxies from that time.

By Patrick Torphy, Staff October 23, 2015   

It may have been “Back to the Future” Day on Wednesday, but today scientists announced they were able to look back into the past – literally.

Using the NASA/ESA Hubble Telescope, a team of astronomers found more than 250 galaxies that were in existence less than a billion years after the Big Bang, making this one of the most significant discoveries of dwarf galaxies from that time.

“The light from these galaxies took over 12 billion years to reach the telescope, allowing the astronomers to look back in time when the universe was still very young,” according to a statement from Hubble.
Recommended: Could you pass Astronomy 101? Take the quiz!

The team found that all the light coming from these galaxies may have played an important part in one of the universe’s most enigmatic eras called the epoch of reionization. That’s when the dense fog of hydrogen gas that used to blanket the early universe began to dissipate. As the fog cleared, the universe became translucent to ultraviolet light, which could then move over longer distances without being obstructed by the hydrogen gas.

“The faintest galaxies detected in these Hubble observations are fainter than any other yet uncovered in the deepest Hubble observations,” said Johan Richard from the Observatoire de Lyon, France, in the statement.

Through this observation, astronomers were able to discern whether these very galaxies were part of that process. The tiniest but most abundant galaxies in this study could be considered to have important roles in maintaining the universe’s transparency, therefore telling scientists “with some confidence” that the epoch of reionization happened about 700 million years after the Big Bang.

The Hubble Telescope has been opening doors to the distant universe for 25 years, as The Christian Science Monitor's Pete Spotts reported in April:

    Although the orbital observatory has endured its share of problems, it has overcome the setbacks to emerge as one of the world’s most important astronomical instruments since the tiny telescope Galileo turned toward the heavens.

    As astrophysicist Mario Livio puts it: Hubble “is arguably the most successful experiment in the history of science.”

For this latest discovery, the team, led by Hakim Atek of the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Switzerland, took advantage of gravitational lensing images captured with the most depth possible. This allows for the universe’s first generation of galaxies to be searched for and studied.

Post by: Rad on Oct 26, 2015, 05:12 AM
October 25, 2015

Woah: Newly-discovered comet spews sugar and alcohol

by Shayne Jacopian

An international research team has observed a comet releasing large quantities of alcohol and sugar into space, according to a release from NASA’s Goddard Space Center.

This is the first time the same kind of alcohol that’s in alcoholic beverages has been observed in a comet, and the aptly named Comet Lovejoy is releasing a whole lot of it.

"We found that comet Lovejoy was releasing as much alcohol as in at least 500 bottles of wine every second during its peak activity," said Nicolas Biver of the Paris Observatory, France, the lead author of the paper detailing the researchers’ findings.

Published in Science Advances, the study indicates that the researchers found 21 kinds of organic molecules in gas released by the comet, including ethyl alcohol (yes, that’s the drinkable kind) and the simple sugar molecule, glycolaldehyde.

Scientists made these observations when Comet Lovejoy was at its closest to the sun, on January 30 of this year. One of the most active comets in nearly two decades, it released gas and vapor in quantities of twenty tons per second, according to the source. It was also one of the brightest comets observed in many years, and this allowed the researchers to get a really good reading of the comet’s microwave glow with a 30-meter diameter radio telescope in Sierra Nevada, Spain.

Each of the gases in a comet glows at a certain microwave frequency when heated by the sun, and modern equipment can read a wide range of frequencies at the same time, so despite a fairly short observation window, the research team was able to determine what was on the comet and how much there was.

And some of that was a crap-ton of alcohol.

Post by: Rad on Oct 26, 2015, 05:35 AM

Ingredients for life were here from the beginning, comet study suggests

As it approached the sun, Comet Lovejoy began ejecting complex organic molecules, suggesting that the building blocks of life were present in our solar system when the planets formed.

By Mike Wall, October 25, 2015   

The basic building blocks of life may have been present on Earth from the very beginning.

Astronomers detected 21 different complex organic molecules streaming from Comet Lovejoy during its highly anticipated close approach to the sun this past January. Many of these same carbon-containing compounds have also been spotted around newly forming sunlike stars, researchers said.

"This suggests that our proto-planetary nebula was already enriched in complex organic molecules (as disk models suggested) when comets and planets formed," study lead author Nicolas Biver, of the Paris Observatory, told via email.

7 Theories on the Origin of Life:

Biver and his colleagues studied Comet Lovejoy with the Institut de Radioastronomie Millimétrique's 100-foot-wide (30 meters) radio telescope in Spain during two separate three-day stretches in January 2015. That's when the spectacular, green-hued comet was making its closest approach to the sun.

At the time of the observations, Lovejoy was about 0.6 astronomical units (AU) from Earth and 1.3 AU from the sun, researchers said. (One AU is the distance from Earth to the sun, about 93 million miles, or 150 million kilometers.)

The sun's heat drove a great deal of material from the comet's surface out into space; indeed, Lovejoy was one of the most active comets to cruise through Earth's neighborhood since the superbright Hale-Bopp in 1997, the researchers write in the new study, which was published online today (Oct. 23) in the journal Science Advances.

Biver and his team spotted 21 different complex organics in the cloud of material surrounding Lovejoy, including two — ethyl alcohol and the simple sugar glycolaldehyde — that had never been seen in a comet before.

The researchers also calculated the abundances (relative to water) of each type of organic molecule, and compared these abundances to those of organics observed in Comet Hale-Bopp and around two "protostars" by other research teams.

Overall, organics are quite abundant in comets — often more abundant, in fact, than they are around newly forming stars. This result is "in line with their [organics'] synthesis through grain-surface reactions and ice irradiation in the early solar nebula," Biver and his colleagues wrote in the study.

Modeling work suggests that the solar system's four biggest planets — Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune — migrated significantly in the solar system's early days. Some of these dramatic movements likely sent huge numbers of comets careening toward the realm of the rocky planets, which includes Earth and Mars, 4 billion years ago or so.

"So even if Earth was born dry and depleted of volatile elements, complex organics formed further away may have been supplied in large amount via comet nuclei early and certainly contributed to the emergence of more-complex molecules and ultimately life," Biver said.

Post by: Rad on Oct 26, 2015, 06:07 AM
CS Monitor

Mars, Venus, and Jupiter dance together in predawn sky

Monday morning's close conjunction of Venus, Jupiter and Mars can be viewed with the naked eye.

By Geoff Gaherty, October 26, 2015   

Venus has been dominating the morning sky for the past two months, and Monday (Oct. 26), it will form a vivid tableau with Jupiter and Mars as it reaches its farthest point from the sun.

In the early morning of Oct. 26, Venus will reach its greatest elongation west — 46 degrees west of the sun, or to the right in the sky. (Directions in the sky are the reverse of directions on the surface of the Earth, so west is to the right in the sky if you live in the Northern Hemisphere.)

The inner planets, Mercury and Venus, never stray far from the sun in Earth's sky. Mercury was at its greatest elongation west, 18 degrees from the sun, last Friday (Oct. 16), and is now moving back toward the sun. Venus is still moving away from the sun, but will pause and reverse directions on Oct. 26. Mars and Jupiter, with orbits outside that of Earth, both appear to be moving steadily westward relative to the sun.

As a result, Venus and Jupiter will pass very close to each other — within 1.1 degrees — on Monday.

Venus is by far the brightest of the two, at magnitude minus 4.6, while Jupiter is nearly three magnitudes fainter, at magnitude minus 1.8. Mars, which is also nearby in the sky, is a distant third in brightness, at magnitude 1.7 — more than three magnitudes fainter than Jupiter and six magnitudes fainter than Venus. (For comparison, the darkest object the human eye can see is magnitude 6.)

This close conjunction of Venus, Jupiter and Mars is best observed with the naked eye or binoculars. In a telescope, Venus will appear as a perfect miniature quarter moon, because at its greatest elongation, it is lit by the sun exactly from its left side. It appears 24 arc seconds in diameter, slightly smaller than Jupiter's 33 arc seconds but much larger than Mars' mere 4 arc seconds. A full moon, for contrast, is about 1,800 arc seconds wide.

Venus appears brightest because it is close to both the sun and the Earth. Jupiter is much larger in actual diameter — but it's far from the sun, so it's lit dimly. Mars — in between Venus and Jupiter in its distance from the sun, and small in size — is currently very far from Earth, so it appears even dimmer.

To put them into perspective, even though they're grouped closely together in our sky, the three planets vary greatly in distance from the Earth. Venus is closest, at 0.69 astronomical units (AU) on that particular day — 0.69 times the average distance between Earth and the sun. Mars is next, at 2.2 AU, and Jupiter is the farthest of the three, at 6.0 AU — nearly 10 times farther than Venus.

Many photographers have been taking advantage of the close approach of these three planets to capture them in the dawn sky, though the different brightnesses present a challenge in exposure. As always, we welcome your pictures of this beautiful event.

Post by: Rad on Oct 26, 2015, 06:09 AM

Is Spooky the Halloween Asteroid really a comet?

Spooky the Halloween Asteroid, a 1,300-foot-wide object set to zoom past the Earth on October 31, may actually be a comet, say NASA scientists.

By Mike Wall, October 26, 2015   

The big asteroid that will zoom past Earth on Halloween may actually be a comet, NASA researchers say.

The roughly 1,300-foot-wide (400 meters) asteroid 2015 TB145, which some astronomers have dubbed "Spooky," will cruise within 300,000 miles (480,000 kilometers) of Earth on Halloween (Oct. 31) — just 1.3 times the average distance between our planet and the moon.

Though 2015 TB145 poses no threat on this pass, the flyby will mark the closest encounter with such a big space rock until August 2027, when the 2,600-foot-wide (800 m) 1999 AN10 comes within 1 Earth-moon distance (about 238,000 miles, or 385,000 km), NASA officials said.

Astronomers plan to beam radio waves at 2015 TB145 on Halloween using a 110-foot-wide (34 m) antenna at NASA's Deep Space Network facility in Goldstone, California, then collect the reflected signals with the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia and Puerto Rico's Arecibo Observatory.

Such work should reveal key details about the space rock's size, shape, surface features and other characteristics — including, perhaps, its true identity.

"The asteroid's orbit is very oblong with a high inclination to below the plane of the solar system," Lance Benner, of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said in a statement.

"Such a unique orbit, along with its high encounter velocity — about 35 kilometers or 22 miles per second — raises the question of whether it may be some type of comet," added Benner, who leads NASA's asteroid radar research program. "If so, then this would be the first time that the Goldstone radar has imaged a comet from such a close distance."

Asteroid 2015 TB145 will be too faint to spot on Halloween with the naked eye, but anyone who's interested can get a look at the object online, thanks to live telescope views provided by the Slooh Community Observatory and the Virtual Telescope Project.

The Virtual Telescope Project will air a webcast at 8 p.m. EDT on Oct. 30 (0000 GMT on Oct. 31), whileSlooh's broadcast begins at 1 p.m. EDT (1700 GMT) on Oct. 31.

2015 TB145, which was just discovered on Oct. 10, completes one lap around the sun every three years or so. It's part of a near-Earth object (NEO) population thought to number in the millions.

Just 13,000 NEOs have been detected to date, meaning there are lots of potentially dangerous space rocks cruising through Earth's neighborhood unseen and unnamed. But there is some good news: Models suggest that about 95 percent of the biggest NEOs — the ones that could threaten human civilization if they hit Earth — have been discovered, and none of them pose a danger for the foreseeable future.

Post by: Rad on Oct 26, 2015, 08:31 AM
Physicists prove ‘quantum spookiness’ and start chasing Schrödinger’s cat

The Conversation
26 Oct 2015 at 09:13 ET                   

The world of quantum mechanics is weird. Objects that are far apart can influence each other in what Albert Einstein called “spooky action at a distance”, and cats can potentially be dead and alive at the same time. For decades, scientists have tried to prove that these effects are not just mathematical quirks, but real properties of the physical world.

And they are getting somewhere. Researchers have finally proven in a new study that the link between particles at a distance reflects how the universe behaves, rather than being an experimental artefact. Meanwhile, another team of researchers have set out to show that a living creature, albeit a bacterium, can be in two different quantum states at the same time – just like the cat in Schrödinger’s thought experiment.

Bell’s inequality test

But let’s begin with the paper, published in Nature, which proves that the world is inherently spooky. All systems described by quantum mechanics can display so-called entanglement. For example an electron, like a coin, can spin in two directions (up and down). But two electrons can be entangled so that a measurement of the spin of one electron will define the spin of the other.

According to quantum mechanics, the spin of one electron cannot be known in advance of a measurement yet will be perfectly correlated with the other, even if it is in a distant location. Einstein didn’t like this because it seemed to imply that the information can be sent from one electron to the other instantaneously – breaking a rule that says nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. He instead thought that there were “hidden variables” encoded in each electron that could determine the result if only we could access them.

But in the 1960s, Northern Irish scientist John Bell came up with a method to test Einstein’s theory. “Bell’s inequality” is satisfied only if actions in one location cannot affect another instantly and the outcomes of measurements are well-defined beforehand – something dubbed “local realism”.

Bell showed, theoretically, that quantum entanglement would violate his inequality test but local realist theories containing Einstein’s hidden variables would not. This is because the link between entangled particles is stronger than Einstein wanted to believe. So if the measured correlation between pairs of particles from an experiment was above a certain threshold, it would be incompatible with hidden variables and entanglement would win the day.

Bell’s theorem:

The desire to test this in the lab has driven huge experimental advances in the 51 years since Bell’s paper. However, all implementations of Bell tests to date have contained loopholes that have left some wiggle room for the universe to obey local realist theories.

One of these was that the efficiency of the measurements was too low (known as the detection loophole). Although the data obtained violated Bell’s inequality test, it may not be a representative sample of a complete set due because some photons in the experiment couldn’t be detected. Another loophole was that the measurements were too slow (the locality loophole). If the measurement devices were able to communicate via some unknown, slower-than-light channel they could share information and influence the outcome of the impending measurement.

The new study is the first experiment to simultaneously close both of these loopholes in a test of Bell’s inequality. The scientists used a laser to make two specific electrons, each within a diamond located over 1km apart, to increase their energy and emit a particle of light (a photon), which was entangled with the state of the electron. The photons were then sent through an optical fibre to be united at a third location. If they arrived at just the same time, the photons would interact with each other and become entangled – meaning their remote electron buddies would become entangled too.

The electrons’ spins were then measured to test Bell’s inequality. The two loopholes were closed by ensuring that the efficiency and speed of the read-out were sufficiently high. As a result, the team were able to demonstrate conclusively that the universe does not obey local realism: the outcomes of measurements cannot be known in advance, and half of an entangled state can exert spooky action on its remote partner.

Physics’ famous feline

Entanglement is not the only type of unusual quantum behaviour. Another effect, known as superposition, is the ability of a particle to exist in two states (for example spin or even location) simultaneously, and is now regularly observed in laboratories around the world. For example, electrons have been known to travel through two slits at the same time – when we are not watching. The minute we observe each slit to catch this behaviour in action, the particle chooses just one.

Quantum superposition made easy:

However, we do not directly observe these effects in daily life. For example, my glass cannot be in two places at once or I would struggle to drink. But because we don’t encounter such bizarre things, it would seem logical that at some scale things “switch over” from the weird world of the quantum to our familiar everyday.

But what is the scale at which this switch happens? If we had a technically perfect experiment, would we be able to observe large objects in these superposition states? This is the question posed by Schrödinger’s thought experiment in which a cat is placed in a sealed box with a flask of poison and a single radioactive atom, which will undergo decay at a random time. If the atom decays, the flask is broken and the cat is poisoned; if it does not, the cat lives on. By waiting for the atom to decay, does the cat exist in both states at once as the atom does? We know that when we open the box, we must find the cat alive or dead, but is it a property of the universe or the observer that makes the cat “choose” its state?

Back to the team preparing to address this very question. Their proposal involves putting a bacterium rather than a cat in a state of superposition. Recent technical advances based on superconducting microwave resonators – devices used to detect radiation and for quantum computation – have enabled physicists to observe quantum effects in tiny flexible aluminium membranes (known as micromechanical oscillators) coupled to the circuits.

Tiny membranes count as large objects in the world of quantum physics because, even with a mass of only 50 picograms (50 trillionth of a gram), they contain hundreds of billions of atoms. However, these resonators have to be cooled to within a fraction of absolute zero (-273°C) before any quantum behaviour emerges. Otherwise thermal vibrations mask the effects.

The team plans to put a bacterium on top of such a membrane, which would then be cooled to its lowest state of energy. The membrane would then be placed into a superposition of two different states of motion: two different types of oscillations. They aim to show that the effect of the bacterium on the properties of the oscillator would be minimal, with the oscillator effectively behaving as if the bacterium were not there. In this way, the bacterium would effectively be in two states of motion at once. The researchers also plan to entangle the position of the bacterium with the spin of an electron inside it.

The proposed experiment would be impressive – but mainly for showing that quantum mechanics holds true for objects bigger than subatomic particles. But it seems unlikely to answer whether Schrödinger’s cat can be alive and dead at the same time because the bacterium would remain in a constant glass-like state of cryopreservation. If this were the cat, it would exist in suspended animation rather than in a superposition of simultaneous life and death.

Post by: Rad on Oct 27, 2015, 06:16 AM
CS Monitor

Why astronomers can't wait for strange flying object to plummet to Earth

Astronomers will be keeping a close eye on the Indian Ocean next month for a hunk of space debris expected to crash down off the coast of Sri Lanka.

By Lonnie Shekhtman, Staff October 26, 2015   

Astronomers predict that on November 13 a piece of “space junk” will plummet to Earth from above the Indian Ocean, about 40 miles off the coast of Sri Lanka. Most of the unidentified object will likely burn up, with any leftovers expected to plunge into the ocean.

Astronomers say the object, dubbed WT1190F, is likely a component from a rocket or from a recent mission to the moon. Skywatchers first spotted the debris earlier this month from the Catalina Sky Survey, a lab at the University of Arizona in Tucson that identifies asteroids and comets that swing close to Earth.

"It's coming in fast and will get very hot,” Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics told Popular Mechanics. “It's possible a few dense parts of say a rocket engine will survive to impact the ocean," he said. ​

NASA estimates that there are roughly 500,000 pieces of debris orbiting the planet, and some of that detritus inevitably falls back to Earth every year. While much of it burns up in the atmosphere, it can cause problems for people on Earth. As The Christian Science Monitor previously reported: "In 2006, a Chilean airliner carrying 270 passengers came within 35 seconds of colliding with a derelict Russian satellite that was plummeting into the Pacific faster than the speed of sound."

Although space debris hits Earth each year, researchers don’t often spot it before it strikes. Identifying WT1190F before it touches down is a win for astronomers because it allows them to study its trajectory and to test their worldwide response procedures in case a dangerous space object crashes onto Earth, reports Nature.

“What we planned to do seems to work,” Gerhard Drolshagen, co-manager of the European Space Agency’s near-Earth objects office in the Netherlands, told Nature. “But it’s still three weeks to go,” he said.

WT1190F is between 3 to 7 feet in size, astronomers say, and with a low density and probably hollow, suggesting it's an empty rocket stage. Dr. McDowell calls it “a lost piece of space history that’s come back to haunt us” as it is possible that the object has been orbiting far beyond the moon for decades, dating back to the Apollo program of the 1960s and early 70s.

Although this piece of debris is not expected to cause any damage on Earth when it touches down on November 13, “I would not necessarily want to be going fishing directly underneath it,” astronomy software developer Bill Gray, who has been tracking the debris with astronomers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told Nature.

Post by: Rad on Oct 27, 2015, 07:16 AM
NASA spacecraft to fly through icy spray of Saturn moon

Agence France-Presse
27 Oct 2015 at 05:27 ET                   

An unmanned NASA spacecraft is about to make its deepest dive ever into the icy spray emanating from the underwater ocean on Saturn’s moon, Enceladus.

The tiny moon orbiting the sixth planet from the sun stunned scientists when they discovered it had an icy plume in 2005.

After years of observations, NASA announced earlier this year that Enceladus definitely has a subterranean ocean, widening the search for alien life in our solar system.

While the Cassini probe’s flyby on Wednesday will not be able to detect if there are life forms in the spray, scientists hope the close pass will give them new insight into the habitability of the extraterrestrial ocean.

“This daring flyby will bring the spacecraft within 30 miles (48 kilometers) of the surface of Enceladus’s south polar region,” NASA said in a statement.

“The encounter will allow Cassini to obtain the most accurate measurements yet of the plume’s composition, and new insights into the ocean world beneath the ice.”

The flyby should take place at 1522 GMT on Wednesday, though the scientific data it collects may not be published for months.

Scientists hope that the trip will tell them how much icy material is emanating from Enceladus, and perhaps what kinds of complex organic molecules it contains, though not with enough detail to determine if anything is alive.

The $3.26 billion mission is a joint project by the US space agency, European space agency and Italian space agency.

Cassini is the first spacecraft to orbit Saturn, and it has been circling the planet since 2004.

It is making a series of flybys of Enceladus, including a final pass in December.

Post by: Rad on Oct 28, 2015, 06:18 AM
CS Monitor

Scientists create acoustic 'tractor beam'

A team of engineers from the Universities of Sussex and Bristol built a sonic tractor beam that uses sound waves to remotely manipulate objects.

By Mike Tokars, Staff October 27, 2015   

A team of engineers from the Universities of Sussex and Bristol built a device that uses sound waves to remotely lift and move objects – just like a UFO-abduction tractor beam, but without the aliens and malice.

“In our device we manipulate objects in mid-air and seemingly defy gravity,” said Sriram Subramanian, professor of informatics at University of Sussex – formerly of Bristol – in a press release.

But there is nothing supernatural about the sonic tractor beam.

In a paper published Tuesday in the Nature Communications, Dr. Subramanian and his colleagues explain that it works using by surrounding an object with high-pitched, high-intensity sound produced by “64 miniature loudspeakers (driven at 40Khz with 15Vpp, around 9 Watts of power)” that create an acoustic hologram, or force field, in which the object can be immobilized, levitated, moved and rotated by carefully controlling audio output.

In testing, scientists controlled a spherical bead made of expanded polystyrene and measuring 1.98mm in diameter. Researcher Asier Marzo said, “It was an incredible experience the first time we saw the object held in place by the tractor beam. All my hard work has paid off, it’s brilliant.”

Professor Bruce Drinkwater, of Bristol University’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, said, “We all know that sound waves can have a physical effect. But here we have managed to control the sound to a degree never previously achieved.”

The team discovered three shapes of acoustic force fields capable of working as a tractor beam. The first, “resembles a pair of fingers or tweezers;” the second is an “acoustic vortex” that traps an object at its core; and the third is “best described as a high-intensity cage,” that holds an object in place from all directions.

The team is working on variants of the technology, including a larger beam, “with a different working principle,” that will hopefully levitate a soccer ball from 30 feet away; and a scaled down version, for “manipulating particles inside the human body,” which could aid in microsurgery. The engineers also believe their sonic tractor beam carries the capacity for a wide array of applications, such as a “sonic production line,” that could assemble delicate products without physical contact.

The sonic tractor beam was created in a partnership with Ultrahaptics, a company co-founded by Professor Subramanian in 2013 with technology originally developed at Bristol, which employs ultrasound for projection of sensations, “through the air and onto the user” – enabling one to “receive tactile feedback without needing to wear or touch anything.”

With Ultrahaptics, users are able to “’feel’ touch-less buttons and get feedback for mid-air gestures or interact with virtual objects.” The company is currently courting commercial customers from multiple markets.


CS Monitor

Out of the realm of 'Star Trek': Scientists develop sonic tractor beam

Researchers create a sonic tractor beam, capable of lifting small objects.

By Eva Botkin-Kowacki, Staff writer October 27, 2015   

Tractor beams may seem like the stuff of science fiction, but in recent years, they have moved out of the realm of "Star Trek" and "Star Wars." Last year, physicists created a long-distance optical tractor beam that can repel and attract objects. Now, an international team of scientists has developed a sonic tractor beam that can actually lift small objects.

Using high-amplitude sound waves, the researchers generated an acoustic hologram that can pick up small objects, as described in a paper published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications.

"I think it is important to explore all the different technologies for contactless manipulation," study lead author and PhD student Asier Marzo told The Washington Post. "In the past, our hands were our main tool to manipulate objects but we need new tools for solving today’s challenges."

"Using sound waves has several advantages: sound waves have the best ratio of input power to exerted force. Sound can travel through air, water and human tissue." he said.

Study co-author Bruce Drinkwater, a mechanical engineer, told Live Science, ”We've all experienced the force of sound – if you go to a rock concert, not only do you hear it, but you can sometimes feel your innards being moved.” He said, "It's a question of harnessing that force."

The frequency of the sound waves determines what the mysterious ray can pick up.

"The lower the frequency, the larger the object," Mr. Marzo explained. "So for instance if you want to levitate a soccer ball, the necessary sound waves will be dangerous for human hearing."

He also told Smithsonian, “To pick up a beach ball-sized object would require 1,000 Hz. But that enters the audible range, which could be annoying or even dangerous to the human ear.”

Fictitious tractor beams can carry people and even spaceships. But this sonic tractor beam likely doesn’t have the same abilities.

“The power required to lift a human would probably be lethal,” said Marzo. “If you apply too much ultrasound power to a liquid, you will create microbubbles.” As most of a human body is water, this method likely won’t be safe.

Still, this creation could be groundbreaking.

“Here we have managed to control the sound to a degree never previously achieved,” Dr. Drinkwater said in a news release.

Marzo said: "It was an incredible experience the first time we saw the object held in place by the tractor beam. All my hard work has paid off, it's brilliant."

Click to watch:

Post by: Rad on Oct 29, 2015, 06:44 AM
CS Monitor

Flyby of intriguing Saturn moon shows how search for life is evolving

The Cassini probe zipped through the icy plumes of Enceladus Wednesday, looking for evidence that the moon's hidden sea is habitable. The search for life in the solar system is increasingly pointing to new and less-accessible destinations. 

By Pete Spotts, Staff writer October 28, 2015   

Of all the objects in the solar system that might be hospitable for life as we know it, no place is shouting louder for attention than Saturn’s moon Enceladus.

That could become a roar now that NASA’s Cassini orbiter has completed its latest and closest flyby. The spacecraft dipped deep into the plumes of water ice erupting from fissures in the moon’s icy surface to help answer the question: Could life truly thrive in the liquid-water ocean beneath the moon’s ice?

Up to now, evidence has favored yes. If Wednesday’s encounter reinforces the case, it could make Enceladus one of the most compelling objects in the solar system for further study.

Indeed, from Jupiter’s moon Europa, which is also thought to have an under-ice ocean, to Saturn’s moon Titan, where liquid methane falls as rain, runs as rivers, and collects in vast seas, some of the most intriguing places for exploration could be among the hardest to explore.

How, after all, do you explore an ocean that could be under miles of ice – or made of frigid methane? Scientists have already begun to consider how to answer these challenges, from a nuclear-powered lander equipped with a driller-probe to a mission that could return a sample of Enceladus ice to Earth.

Whether any of these visions become a reality could hinge in no small part on Cassini’s quick passage through Enceladus’s tenuous veil Wednesday.

Depending on the results, “I hope we are able to use this flyby as a motivator for moving forward to the next steps,” says Jonathan Lunine, a planetary scientist at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.
Enticing Enceladus

In the search for life beyond Earth, Enceladus is particularly enticing because of its plumes. When researchers sample the plume, they are in effect sampling the under-ice ocean. No landing or drilling required.

Europa’s ocean, meanwhile, is also hidden beneath miles of ice, and only one, brief plume has ever been observed there. For its part, Titan’s hydrocarbon lakes and seas represent an environment so alien that some researchers say they aren’t sure how they would look for evidence of life.

Yet finding even microbial life on one of these outer-solar-system moons could be even more profound than finding similar life on Mars, some researchers suggest. 

Life on Enceladus would represent strong evidence that life emerged in the inner and outer solar systems independently. Mars and Earth have exchanged enough material early in their histories that simple microbes, or at least some of the more complex chemical building blocks for life, could have originated on either planet and colonized the other, some argue.

As for Wednesday’s flyby, Cassini’s instruments aren’t set up to detect evidence for life, mission officials say. But they can spot key pieces of geochemical evidence that the ocean is livable.

Cassini has the capability “to tell us about the characteristics of that ocean,” says Curt Niebur, NASA’s Cassini program scientist.

Measurements of molecular hydrogen serve as direct evidence of hydrothermal activity on the ocean floor, which is thought to be driving the plume’s eruptions. Confirmation of the presence of hydrogen, and better measurements of its amounts, could also provide clues about hydrothermal activity, notes Linda Spilker, the mission’s project scientist. The more hydrogen Cassini finds, the higher the level of hydrothermal activity beneath the plume region.

Past flybys have revealed carbon dioxide, methane, and organic molecules in Enceladus’s plume.

“With our much deeper dive through the plume, we’ll have a chance to sample potentially larger particles," which could be new organics that researchers haven’t seen before, Dr. Spilker adds.

The team also is trying to tease out the nature of the plume sources. Some send material into space in narrow jets, suggesting conduits rising through the ice. Others spew material in curtain-like eruptions, suggesting that cracks in the ice may run all the way down to where ice meets ocean.

Each tells a story of how much heat is driving the eruptions, Spilker says.

The Cassini team hopes to have images from the flyby on the ground over the next day or two. Researchers anticipate a quick first-look at the data on composition next week.
What would a mission look like?

What comes next for Enceladus, and when, remains an open question.

Late last year, NASA bypassed a mission proposal to send an orbiter to sample the plume with two instruments capable of detecting evidence for life, says Dr. Lunine, who leads the team working on the mission, dubbed the Enceladus Life Finder. The team plans to refine and resubmit the proposal when another call comes for proposals for Discovery-class missions, which cost about $450 million each.

A variation on the orbiter theme involves a sample-return mission dubbed LIFE, for Life Investigation For Enceladus. An orbiter would gather samples from Enceladus’s plumes, as well as from Titan’s atmosphere and Saturn’s E-ring. Enceladus’s plumes provide the material for the ring. This, too, is envisioned at a Discovery-class mission.

An example of a more ambitious ideas for perhaps the 2030s involves an orbiter with a lander and an ice drill to melt its way into Enceladus’s crust. Dubbed the Enceladus Explorer, the mission’s obiter/lander combination would orbit Enceladus while instruments on the orbiter identified potential landing sites near where the plumes emerge from the crust – a daunting task given the jumbled nature of the crust in the region.

After the lander touches down, it would release a driller called the IceMole. Researchers have tested an IceMole prototype in alpine glaciers in Europe and Antarctica, says Konstantinos Konstantinidis, a graduate student at the Bundeswehr University in Munich, Germany, and one of the architects of the Enceladus Explorer (EnEx) concept.

Late last year, a team led by the German Aerospace Center used the probe to burrow through more than 60 feet of ice to return uncontaminated samples of water from a lake beneath Blood Falls glacier in Antarctica.

On Enceladus, the IceMole would look for cells or cell-like structures in the water, for biochemical evidence of cell reproduction, and for byproducts of cell activity. Methane is one byproduct.

Such a mission presents enormous challenges, from the size of the rocket needed to get it into space to the size of the budget needed to get the project off the ground. Mr. Konstantinidis and colleagues estimate that such a mission would cost about 3 billion euros ($3.3 billion US), meaning several nations would need to pitch in to bear the cost, he says.

Similar hopes for a mission to Europa rose in 1996 when it became increasingly clear that the moon had a subsurface ocean. NASA responded with a plan for a Europa Orbiter, with a proposed launch in 2003. But NASA canceled the program.

NASA and the European Space Agency continued to weigh concepts, with the ESA now planning a Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer mission in 2022 and NASA moving forward on its own version to launch later in the decade. Earlier this year, NASA chose the nine science instruments that will be on its mission.

“Here we are, 16 years later, and we’re just getting going on another Europa mission,” Lunine says. “I really hope that’s not the story we’re going to see with the Saturn system.”

Post by: Rad on Oct 29, 2015, 06:46 AM
Astronomers discover new disk of young stars at heart of Milky Way

Astronomers have found a disk of young stars across the center of the Milky Way, a feature previously unknown to scientists.   

By Beatrice Gitau, Staff October 28, 2015   

A team of astronomers have discovered a new component of the Milky Way galaxy – a disk of much younger stars hidden among old stars.

They found the young stars hidden behind thick dust clouds in the galaxy's central bulge, using data gathered by the European Southern Observatory’s VISTA telescope between 2010 and 2014.

"The central bulge of the Milky Way is thought to consist of vast numbers of old stars. But the VISTA data has revealed something new – and very young by astronomical standards!" said Istvan Dékány of the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, lead author of the new study, in a news release.

The astronomers found 655 variable stars called Cepheids that "expand and contract periodically, taking anything from a few days to months to complete a cycle and changing significantly in brightness as they do so," the team explained.

A Cepheid's brightness pulses so predictably that astronomers can use Cepheids to calculate distances to other galaxies, since observed brightness drops by the square of the distance.

Of the 655 Cepheids they found in the heart of the Milky Way, 35 were "classical Cepheids," which are typically young stars, they explain in a report published in Astrophysical Journal Letters.

"All of the 35 classical Cepheids discovered are less than 100 million years old," said Dante Minniti of the Universidad Andrés Bello in Chile, a co-author of the paper.

"The youngest Cepheid may even be only around 25 million years old, although we cannot exclude the possible presence of even younger and brighter Cepheids," he added.

The connection between brightness and the period of Cepheid stars – that bright Cepheids have a longer, slower pulse than dimmer ones – was first discovered by US astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt in 1908.

These young stars at the galaxy center suggest a continuous supply of newly forming stars there, over at least the last 100 million years. The astronomers will keep investigating to determine whether they indeed formed at the heart of the Milky Way or whether they originated somewhere else.

Post by: Rad on Oct 29, 2015, 09:32 AM
Oxygen found on Rosetta’s comet: ‘Most surprising discovery’ so far

Los Angeles Times
29 Oct 2015 at 08:30 ET 

 Scientists from the Rosetta mission have found oxygen in the atmosphere of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko — a discovery that could change our understanding of how the solar system formed.

The molecular oxygen (O2) was detected by the ROSINA mass spectrometer, one of a suite of instruments aboard the Rosetta spacecraft that has been traveling with the comet since August 2014.

The revelation came as quite a shock.

"The first time we saw it, we all went a little bit into denial because molecular oxygen was really not expected to be found on a comet," said Kathrin Altwegg of the University of Bern, Switzerland, the project leader for ROSINA, the Rosetta Orbiter Spectrometer for Ion and Neutral Analysis.

"It does not sound that spectacular, but it is actually the most surprising discovery we have made so far on 67P," she said of the comet, which is about to pass the orbit of Mars.

Molecular oxygen is common on Earth, but it is rarely seen elsewhere in the universe. In fact, astronomers have detected molecular oxygen outside the solar system only twice, and never on a comet.

Oxygen is highly reactive, meaning it likes to bond to other kinds of atoms. Therefore, it was previously thought that all the oxygen present at the dawn of the solar system would have combined with the abundant hydrogen present at the time to form H20, or water.

Even if some pure oxygen managed to make it out of the primordial cloud of dust and gas from which our solar system emerged, computer models suggest that in the 4.5 billion years since then, the oxygen would have had ample opportunity to be reprocessed in the chaotic early days of the solar system formation.

"All the models say it shouldn't be there and it shouldn't survive for such a long time," said Andre Bieler, who studies cometary science at the University of Michigan.

But instead, the ROSINA instrument found that oxygen is the fourth most abundant compound in the gaseous coma of 67P after water, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide.

"It is not only that we have oxygen, we have a lot of oxygen," Altwegg said.

To make sure the O2 readings were not caused by an instrumental defect, the team checked oxygen levels at different distances from the comet. The closer to the comet the spacecraft flew, the more oxygen it detected. As it flew farther away, it detected less.

One way molecular oxygen can form in space is through a process called radiolysis. This occurs when energetic particles coming off the sun break up the bonds of water ice. Experiments have shown that hydrogen can diffuse out of this process, leaving the oxygen with no other molecules with which to react, Bieler said.

Like all objects in the solar system, comet 67P has been hit with this high-energy radiation for billions of years, but it is unlikely that radiolysis can explain all the oxygen in the comet, the researchers said. High-energy particles from the sun would penetrate only a few meters into the comet's surface. Yet each time the comet flies around the sun, it sheds between one and 10 meters from its circumference.

In a Nature paper describing the discovery, the researchers note that the ratio of water to oxygen in the comet's atmosphere remained the same over the many months that ROSINA was collecting measurements. This suggests that the oxygen is present throughout the body of the comet and not just at its surface, Bieler said.

And if that's the case, the next logical conclusion is that molecular oxygen was present at the time the comet formed.

This leads to two puzzles for computer modelers to tackle. The first question: What conditions were necessary for molecular oxygen to get trapped in the icy crystals of a comet like 67P? The second: How did that oxygen remain in its pure state for so long?

"This work tells us that the building process of our solar system had to be very gentle for those ice grains to never have really been heated up or reprocessed," Bieler said.

"The cometary community has always said that comets are some of the least-processed bodies in the solar system," he said. "Now we have evidence that at least a significant part of this comet survived the whole formation of our solar system."

That makes it a very pristine object indeed.

Post by: Rad on Oct 30, 2015, 05:00 AM
October 29, 2015

Russia announces it will send humans to the Moon in 2029

by Savanna Walker
Red Orbit

The Russian Federal Space Agency, Roscosmos, is planning to send humans to the moon in 2029, with the agency’s ultimate goal is to create and maintain a lunar station.

According to the Verge, the spacecraft is being built now, and will be sent on its first mission in 2021. Russia has never landed an astronaut on the moon; they had planned to do so in the 1960’s, but stopped their efforts once the Apollo landings occurred.

The European Space Agency has also been discussing a possible collaboration with Roscosmos. The two agencies hope to send a mission, Luna 27, to the south pole of the Moon and then continue a series of explorations.

International discussions for lunar mission

"We have an ambition to have European astronauts on the Moon. There are currently discussions at international level going on for broad cooperation on how to go back to the Moon," Bérengère Houdou, head of lunar exploration at ESA, told BBC News.

“The 21st century will be the century when it will be the permanent outpost of human civilization, and our country has to participate in this process,” he added. Luna 27 will be part of Russia’s Luna-Globb program, which aims to establish a robotic lunar base on the Moon. The new chief of the ESA, Johann-Dietrich Woerner, is a strong advocate for Moon colonization and has proposed plans for a global “space village” on its surface, according to RT.

The Chinese Lunar Exploration Program has also been exploring the Moon. It launched the Chang’e program in 2007 and has sent a series of probes to lunar orbit and the surface of the Moon. Russia has expressed interest in collaborating with China as well, given that both countries hope to send humans to the Moon with in the next decades. NASA, however, is still focused on Mars and will try to send humans to the planet by the 2030s.

Post by: Rad on Oct 30, 2015, 06:10 AM
CS Monitor

Flyby of intriguing Saturn moon shows how search for life is evolving

The Cassini probe zipped through the icy plumes of Enceladus Wednesday, looking for evidence that the moon's hidden sea is habitable. The search for life in the solar system is increasingly pointing to new and less-accessible destinations. 

By Pete Spotts, Staff writer October 28, 2015   

Of all the objects in the solar system that might be hospitable for life as we know it, no place is shouting louder for attention than Saturn’s moon Enceladus.

That could become a roar now that NASA’s Cassini orbiter has completed its latest and closest flyby. The spacecraft dipped deep into the plumes of water ice erupting from fissures in the moon’s icy surface to help answer the question: Could life truly thrive in the liquid-water ocean beneath the moon’s ice?

Up to now, evidence has favored yes. If Wednesday’s encounter reinforces the case, it could make Enceladus one of the most compelling objects in the solar system for further study.

Indeed, from Jupiter’s moon Europa, which is also thought to have an under-ice ocean, to Saturn’s moon Titan, where liquid methane falls as rain, runs as rivers, and collects in vast seas, some of the most intriguing places for exploration could be among the hardest to explore.

How, after all, do you explore an ocean that could be under miles of ice – or made of frigid methane? Scientists have already begun to consider how to answer these challenges, from a nuclear-powered lander equipped with a driller-probe to a mission that could return a sample of Enceladus ice to Earth.

Whether any of these visions become a reality could hinge in no small part on Cassini’s quick passage through Enceladus’s tenuous veil Wednesday.

Depending on the results, “I hope we are able to use this flyby as a motivator for moving forward to the next steps,” says Jonathan Lunine, a planetary scientist at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.
Enticing Enceladus

In the search for life beyond Earth, Enceladus is particularly enticing because of its plumes. When researchers sample the plume, they are in effect sampling the under-ice ocean. No landing or drilling required.

Europa’s ocean, meanwhile, is also hidden beneath miles of ice, and only one, brief plume has ever been observed there. For its part, Titan’s hydrocarbon lakes and seas represent an environment so alien that some researchers say they aren’t sure how they would look for evidence of life.

Yet finding even microbial life on one of these outer-solar-system moons could be even more profound than finding similar life on Mars, some researchers suggest. 

Life on Enceladus would represent strong evidence that life emerged in the inner and outer solar systems independently. Mars and Earth have exchanged enough material early in their histories that simple microbes, or at least some of the more complex chemical building blocks for life, could have originated on either planet and colonized the other, some argue.

As for Wednesday’s flyby, Cassini’s instruments aren’t set up to detect evidence for life, mission officials say. But they can spot key pieces of geochemical evidence that the ocean is livable.

Cassini has the capability “to tell us about the characteristics of that ocean,” says Curt Niebur, NASA’s Cassini program scientist.

Measurements of molecular hydrogen serve as direct evidence of hydrothermal activity on the ocean floor, which is thought to be driving the plume’s eruptions. Confirmation of the presence of hydrogen, and better measurements of its amounts, could also provide clues about hydrothermal activity, notes Linda Spilker, the mission’s project scientist. The more hydrogen Cassini finds, the higher the level of hydrothermal activity beneath the plume region.

Past flybys have revealed carbon dioxide, methane, and organic molecules in Enceladus’s plume.

“With our much deeper dive through the plume, we’ll have a chance to sample potentially larger particles," which could be new organics that researchers haven’t seen before, Dr. Spilker adds.

The team also is trying to tease out the nature of the plume sources. Some send material into space in narrow jets, suggesting conduits rising through the ice. Others spew material in curtain-like eruptions, suggesting that cracks in the ice may run all the way down to where ice meets ocean.