Tag Archives: space.com

2 planets may lurk in solar system beyond Pluto, study says

planet-neptunian.jpg

March 26, 2014: A newly discovered planet-like object, dubbed “Sedna” is seen in this artist’s concept released by NASA. (AP)

There is evidence of at least two planets larger than Earth lurking in our solar system beyond Pluto, a new analysis of “extreme trans-Neptunian objects” reveals.

After studying 13 of these “extreme trans-Neptunian objects,” or ETNOs, the obits of these objects are different from a theory that predicts the orbits.

“The exact number is uncertain, given that the data that we have is limited, but our calculations suggest that there are at least two planets, and probably more, within the confines of our solar system,” Carlos de la Fuente Marcos, scientist at the UCM and co-author of the study, said in a statement Friday.

Theory says these objects should have an average distance to the sun of 150 astronomical units. These orbits should also have an inclination of 0 degrees, Space.com says.

However, the orbits of the ETNOs have semi-major axes ranging from 150-525 astronomical units and inclinations of about 20 degrees.

These potential worlds would be bigger than Earth and would lie nearly 200 astronomical units from the sun. Earth is one astronomical unit from the sun.

The new results may give way to evidence of the existence of Planet X, which is a rumored object as far away as 250 astronomical units from the sun and 10 times larger than Earth.

With the current instruments available to scientists, it is nearly impossible to spot these objects.

Click for more from Space.com.

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Curiosity Rover Drills Into Mars Rock, Finds Water

Space.com
Miriam Kramer
The hole drilled into this rock target, called "Cumberland," was made by NASA's Mars rover Curiosity on May 19, 2013.
© NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS The hole drilled into this rock target, called “Cumberland,” was made by NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity on May 19, 2013.NASA’s Curiosity rover is continuing to help scientists piece together the mystery of how Mars lost its surface water over the course of billions of years.The rover drilled into a piece of Martian rock called Cumberland and found some ancient water hidden within it. Researchers were then able to test a key ratio in the water with Curiosity’s onboard instruments to gather more data about when Mars started to lose its water, NASA officials said. In the same sample, Curiosity also detected the first organic molecules it has found. Mission scientists announced the discovery in a news conference today (Dec. 15) at the American Geophysical Union’s convention in San Francisco, where they also unveiled Curiosity’s first detection of methane on Mars.

“It’s really interesting that our measurements from Curiosity of gases extracted from ancient rocks can tell us about loss of water from Mars,” Paul Mahaffy, Curiosity’s SAM (Sample Analysis at Mars) instrument principal investigator at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, said in a statement. [Photos: The Search for Water on Mars]

Curiosity measured the ratio of deuterium (heavy hydrogen) to “normal” hydrogen. This D-to-H ratio can help scientists see how long it takes for water molecules to escape, because the lighter hydrogen molecules fly toward the upper atmosphere more freely than deuterium does.

The D-to-H ratio in Cumberland is about half the ratio found in the Martian atmosphere’s water vapor today, NASA officials said. This suggests that the planet lost much of its surface water after the Cumberland rock formed, space agency officials added in the same statement.

But the water sample is also about three times “heavier” than Earth’s oceans. This means that if Mars’ surface water started off with a D-to-H ratio like Earth’s, then most of the Martian water likely disappeared before Cumberland formed about 3.9 billion to 4.6 billion years ago.

The Cumberland measurement fills in a gap for scientists studying different epochs of Martian geological evolution. This sampling marks the first time scientists have been able to measure what the water on Mars may have been like during the Hesperian period, when this rock was formed, said Mahaffy, who is the lead author of a Mars water study published in the journal Science this week.

Previously, scientists have used Martian meteorites on Earth to sample Martian water; however, none of those space rocks date back to the Hesperian period.

“You have the whole period from 2.5 billion to 4 billion years old, and there’s no data that we have from Mars meteorites just because we haven’t found any yet, I guess,” Mahaffy told Space.com. “So, it’s very gratifying to be able to fill in that picture a little bit.”

Follow Miriam Kramer @mirikramer. Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook and Google+. Original article on Space.com.

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NASA’s futuristic spacesuits made for Mars walkers

NASASpacesuit1.jpg

Nasa

NASA is thinking hard about what the first boots to set foot on Mars will look like.

Getting astronauts to the Red Planet is the chief long-term goal of the agency’s human spaceflight program, so NASA is developing many technologies to help make that happen. For instance, there’s the Space Launch System mega-rocket, the Orion crew capsule and a new line of prototype spacesuits called the Z-series.

 “We are heading for Mars; that’s what is the end goal right now for the suit,” said Phil Stampinato of ILC Dover, the Delaware-based company that won NASA contracts to design and build the first two iterations of the Z-series, the Z-1 and Z-2. [NASA’s Z-2 Spacesuit in Pictures: Futuristic Astronaut Suit Design Photos]

“So, everything that’s done to develop this suit is headed for a Mars mission, even if there is an asteroid mission or a lunar mission prior to that,” Stampinato said during a presentation with NASA’s Future In-Space Operations working group on June 4.

A new type of suit

NASA astronauts aboard the International Space Station currently don a bulky suit called the Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU) whenever they need to venture outside the orbiting lab. The EMU has performed well for decades, but its utility is pretty much limited to operations in microgravity.

“It’s a very, very poor walking suit,” NASA spacesuit engineer Amy Ross said in a video released by the space agency.

The Z-series suits, on the other hand, are designed to be more flexible, with a wider variety of uses — including ambling about on Mars and other planetary bodies.

“We’re trying to design [the new suit] to accommodate both improved microgravity EVA [extravehicular activity] capability as well as surface capability,” Ross said.

For example, new bearings in the Z-1’s shoulder, waist, hip, upper leg and ankles allow for increased leg movement and fine foot placement, she said.

The EMU has upper and lower portions, which wearers don separately and then link up at the waist. But astronauts crawl into the Z-series suits from the back, through a hatch.

“We think it’s less prone to [causing] injury, especially shoulder injury,” Ross said of the new entry design. “And then also, it provides support for some other exploration technology, like a suitport.”

Suitports are an alternative to airlocks, potentially allowing astronauts to enter and exit habitat modules, rovers and other structures quickly and easily without bringing dust and other contaminants inside.

Suitport interface plates are being developed right along with the Z-series spacesuits, in case NASA decides to go with this technology for its manned Mars missions, Stampinato said.

“They’re going to be suitport-compatible,” he said.

A ways to go

ILC Dover delivered the Z-1 spacesuit to NASA in 2011, and it was named one of the best inventions of the year by Time magazine in 2012.

The Z-2, which should be ready for testing by November, is different from its predecessor in several key ways. For example, the Z-1’s upper torso was soft, whereas the Z-2’s is made of a hard composite, improving the suit’s durability. The Z-2’s boots are also closer to flight-ready, while the materials used for the newer suit are compatible with the conditions that exist in the vacuum of space, NASA officials said.

But that doesn’t mean that astronauts will wear the Z-2 — or its successor, the Z-3, which is expected to be built by 2018 or so — to explore the surface of Mars. The suits are prototypes — testbeds that should help bring a bona fide Red Planet spacesuit closer to reality.

“Each iteration of the Z-series will advance new technologies that one day will be used in a suit worn by the first humans to step foot on the Red Planet,” space agency officials wrote about the Z-2 in April, when announcing the results of a public competition to choose a design for the suit’s protective outer layer. (The futuristic-looking “Technology” option won, giving the Z-2 a “Tron”-like new look.)

While spacesuit designers are focused on the future — NASA aims to get people to the vicinity of Mars by the mid-2030s — they’re also looking to the past for inspiration. The Apollo astronauts, after all, accumulated many hours of experience on the surface of another world during six landed moon missions from 1969 to 1972.

“We’ve read through all the debrief comments; we’ve talked to the crewmembers multiple times,” Ross said. “We are very aware of what they did like, didn’t like, were capable of, weren’t capable of. And so, we do take that into consideration.”

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Name a Martian crater for just $5 bucks

Name a Martian crater for just $5 bucks

By Mike Wall

Published February 28, 2014

  • Mars Landscape

    NASA’s 1997 Pathfinder mission to Mars returned this stunning image of the planet’s rocky red landscape. (NASA/JPL)

  • new impact crater on Mars.jpg

    A dramatic, fresh impact crater on Mars dominates this image taken by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on Nov. 19, 2013. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona)

Naming landmarks on Mars isn’t just for scientists and rover drivers anymore.

Starting Wednesday, anybody with an Internet connection and a few dollars to spare can give a moniker to one of the Red Planet’s 500,000 or so unnamed craters, as part of a mapping project run by the space-funding company Uwingu.

“This is the first people’s map of Mars, where anybody can play,” said Uwingu CEO Alan Stern, a former NASA science chief who also heads the space agency’s New Horizons mission to Pluto. “It’s a very social thing.” [7 Biggest Mysteries of Mars]

Putting your stamp on Mars isn’t free. Naming the smallest craters will set you back $5, with prices going up as crater size increases. Uwingu will use the money raised by the project — which could be more than $10 million, if people name every available Martian crater — to fund grants in space exploration, research and education, which is the company’s stated chief purpose.

“We’re developing this grant fund — the Uwingu fund — for people who’ve been hit by sequestration,” Stern told Space.com. “There’s nothing like it right now. They have no place to go; it’s either NASA, NSF [the National Science Foundation] or you’re out of luck.”

Stern hopes the effort will succeed in naming all of Mars’ cataloged craters by the end of 2014, helping to fill in a lot of gaps in Red Planet cartography. (The company aims to solicit names for other Red Planet features, such as canyons and mountains, in the future.)

The project could also provide a sort of cultural snapshot, revealing what people are thinking about and what’s important to them at this moment, he added.

“It’s like taking a picture of ourselves,” Stern said. “What will people put? Will there be a lot of craters named for politicians? For artists, for relatives, for places on Earth? Sports teams?”

The crater-naming project is not a contest, working instead on a first-come, first-served basis. Names will be accepted immediately and will remain approved unless Uwingu officials later determine them to be profane or otherwise offensive.

Stern stressed that Uwingu (whose name means “sky” in Swahili) is not trying to supplant other Mars maps, such as the one generated by the United States Geological Survey. The 15,000 Red Planet features whose names have already been approved by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) will be grandfathered into Uwingu’s base map, officials said.

The Uwingu project also will not seek approval from the IAU, which has traditionally authorized “official” names for celestial bodies and their features. Rather, the crater monikers will be informal or popular names, Stern said. (Unofficial names can still come into wide usage: “The Milky Way,” for example, is not IAU-sanctioned.)

This is not Uwingu’s first foray into celestial-object naming. The company has also raised funds by asking the public to choose monikers for the thousands of exoplanets and exoplanet candidates being discovered around the galaxy, including Alpha Centauri Bb, the closest alien world to Earth.

IAU officials expressed disapproval of these previous projects, asserting last year that the exoplanet-naming efforts misled people into thinking they were helping select officially recognized names. But Stern fought back hard against this claim at the time, saying that Uwingu has always made clear that the projects sought only to choose “people’s choice” monikers.

To learn more about the Mars map project, and to buy a crater name of your own, go to www.uwingu.com.

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Details of 1st private manned Mars mission revealed

Details of 1st private manned Mars mission revealed

By Mike Wall

Published November 21, 2013

  • inspiration-mars-spacecraft

    An artist’s illustration of the Inspiration Mars Foundation’s spacecraft for a 2018 mission to Mars by a two-person crew. The private Mars mission would be a flyby trip around the Red Planet. (INSPIRATION MARS FOUNDATION)

  • inspiration-mars-spacecraft-concept

    An artist’s depiction of the planned Inspiration Mars spacecraft to send a married couple on a flyby mission around Mars.(INSPIRATION MARS)

  • inspiration-mars-mission-concept

    This image from an Inspiration Mars fact sheet shows the nonprofit space exploration group’s vision for its planned two-person Mars flyby mission, which it hopes to launch between 2017 and 2018. (INSPIRATION MARS)

  • inspiration-mars-mission-spacecraft-concept

    An artist’s illustration of the manned spacecraft for the Inspiration Mars mission to send two astronauts on a Mars flyby mission in 2017-2018. (INSPIRATION MARS)

A nonprofit space exploration group revealed exactly how it plans to launch two married astronauts on an ambitious manned flyby mission to the Red Planet by early 2018, a scenario that would involve NASA and federal funding along with a healthy dose of the pioneering spirit.

The Inspiration Mars project — which is led by multimillionaire Dennis Tito, the world’s first space tourist — hopes to partner with NASA, using much of the space agency’s equipment and expertise as well as an infusion of federal money to get off the launch pad by early January 2018.

“Perhaps several hundred million dollars in new federal spending can make this mission happen,” Inspiration Mars officials wrote in a report, released Wednesday, that outlines the mission’s proposed architecture. “We now call on our nation’s leaders to seize this singular opportunity to begin human exploration of the solar system and affirm America’s leadership throughout the world.” [Private Mission to Mars Explained (Infographic)]

‘Perhaps several hundred million dollars in new federal spending can make this mission happen.’

– Inspiration Mars officials

The proposed “Mission for America” would launch a married couple toward the Red Planet sometime between Dec. 25, 2017 and Jan. 5, 2018, to take advantage of a rare favorable alignment of Mars and Earth.

The two astronauts would not land on the Red Planet but would cruise within 100 miles of its surface before heading back home, eventually touching down on Earth in May 2019 after spending 501 days in space.

The flyby mission will help inspire the next generation of researchers and engineers, preserving America’s competitive edge in science and technology, Inspiration Mars officials say. It should also lay the foundation for even more ambitious manned exploration of the solar system, they add.

“There’ll be a lot of science return and techology return,” Taber MacCallum, Inspiration Mars’ chief technology officer, told reporters during a teleconference today. “We will, I think, sort of break the sound barrier for going to Mars and back, enabling a range of missions to occur in the future.”

The current mission plan, as outlined in the report, calls for using NASA’s Space Launch System mega-rocket (SLS), which is in development with a first flight slated for late 2017.

The flyby mission would require two launches in quick succession. In the first liftoff, an SLS would loft four payloads to Earth orbit: an SLS upper-stage rocket; a 600-cubic-foot habitat module derived from Orbital Sciences’ Cygnus cargo vessel; a service module that would support the habitat module with power, propulsion and communications systems; and an Earth re-entry pod, which would be based on NASA’s Orion capsule.

The second launch — this one likely using a commercial rocket — would deliver the two astronauts to orbit aboard a yet-to-be-selected private spaceship. The crewmembers would then transfer to the habitat module, and the SLS upper stage would propel them on toward Mars.

The married couple would spend virtually the entire mission in the habitat module, transferring to the re-entry pod in the last few hours of the mission.

Inspiration Mars officials acknowledge that making all of this happen will be challenging. The re-entry pod, for example, will have to protect the astronauts from the blazing heat generated when it slams into Earth’s atmosphere at about 32,000 mph.

But it can be done, and the current plan — which emphasizes the use of technology already proven or in development whenever possible — gives the mission the best chance of success, Inspiration Mars officials say.

“We submit this report with unreserved faith in the men and women of NASA, with a singleminded commitment to surmounting every obstacle, and with complete confidence that this mission can be done,” they write in the report.

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Brightest explosion ever seen in the universe

Brightest explosion ever seen in the universe

By Denise Chow

Published November 22, 2013

  • brightest-gamma-ray-burst

    An unusually bright gamma-ray burst produced a jet that emerged at nearly the speed of light. (NASA/SWIFT/CRUZ DEWILDE)

  • gamma-ray-burst-swift-nasa

    A gamma-ray burst that exploded in April 2013 is the most luminous object in the field, as seen in this image from NASA’s Swift satellite. All the other objects seen in the image are stars from our own galaxy, while the gamma-ray burst is milli (NASA/SWIFT SATELLITE)

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    Close-up image of the brightest gamma-ray burst ever seen, taken in April 2013 by the ultraviolet/optical telescope on NASA’s Swift satellite. (NASA/SWIFT SATELLITE)

A mysterious blast of light spotted earlier this year near the constellation Leo was actually the brightest gamma-ray burst ever recorded, and was triggered by an extremely powerful stellar explosion, new research reports.

On April 27, several satellites — including NASA’s Swift satellite and Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope — observed an unusually bright burst of gamma radiation. The explosion unleashed an energetic jet of particles that traveled at nearly the speed of light, researchers said.

“We suddenly saw a gamma-ray burst that was extremely bright — a monster gamma-ray burst,” study co-author Daniele Malesani, an astrophysicist at the Niels Bohr Institute at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, said in a statement. “This [was] one of the most powerful gamma-ray bursts we have ever observed with the Swift satellite.” [Top 10 Strangest Things in Space]

The gamma-ray burst was described in a series of studies published online Thursday in the journal Science.

‘The exploding matter was traveling at [nearly] the speed of light.’

– Giacomo Vianello, a postdoctoral scholar at Stanford University

Gamma-ray bursts, or GRBs, are the most powerful type of explosions in the universe and typically mark the destruction of a massive star. The original stars are too faint to be seen, but the supernova explosions that signal a star’s death throes can cause violent bursts of gamma radiation, researchers said.

Gamma-ray bursts are usually short but extremely bright. Still, ground-based telescopes have a tough time observing them because Earth’s atmosphere absorbs the gamma radiation.

The extremely bright gamma-ray burst seen earlier this year, officially dubbed GRB 130472A, occurred in a galaxy 3.6 billion light-years away from Earth, which, though still far away, is less than half the distance at which gamma-ray bursts have previously been seen. This closer proximity to Earth enabled astronomers to confirm for the first time that one object can simultaneously create a powerful GRB and a supernova explosion.

“We normally detect GRBs at great distance, meaning they usually appear quite faint,” study co-author Paul O’Brien, an astronomer at the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom, said in a statement. “In this case, the burst happened only a quarter of the way across the universe — meaning it was very bright. On this occasion, a powerful supernova was also produced — something we have not recorded before alongside a powerful GRB — and we will now be seeking to understand this occurrence.”

The jet produced by the gamma-ray burst was formed when a massive star collapsed on itself and created a black hole at its center. This generated a blast wave that caused the stellar remnants to expand, producing a glowing shell of debris that was observed as an extremely bright supernova explosion.

After analyzing properties of the light produced by the gamma-ray burst, scientists determined that the original star was only three to four times the size of the sun, but was 20 to 30 times more massive. This extremely compact star was also rapidly rotating, the researchers said.

The GRB was the brightest and most energetic ever witnessed and triggered dynamic internal and external shock waves that are still not well understood. Though scientists have a clearer view of the violent explosion, mysteries remain. For instance, space telescopes detected more photons and more high-energy gamma-rays than theoretical models predicted for a gamma-ray burst of this magnitude.

Researchers are still investigating why the energy levels seen with GRB 130472A do not quite match predictions from existing models of gamma-ray bursts. Their results could lead to more refined theories about how particles are accelerated, which could help astronomers better predict the behavior of cosmic events.

“The really cool thing about this GRB is that because the exploding matter was traveling at [nearly] the speed of light, we were able to observe relativistic shocks,” study co-author Giacomo Vianello, a postdoctoral scholar at Stanford University in California, said in a statement. “We cannot make a relativistic shock in the lab, so we really don’t know what happens in it, and this is one of the main unknown assumptions in the model. These observations challenge the models and can lead us to a better understanding of physics.”

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Astronauts warn UN of threat to Earth from asteroids

Astronauts warn UN of threat to Earth from asteroids

By Laura Poppick

Published October 28, 2013

  • asteroid-impact

    An artist’s illustration of a massive asteroid impact on earth. Some single-celled organisms may be able to survive extreme impacts such as these, scientists say. (NASA/DON DAVIS)

  • potential-hazardous-asteroids-crop

    This NASA graphic shows the orbits of all the known Potentially Hazardous Asteroids (PHAs), numbering over 1,400 as of early 2013. Shown here is a close-up of the orbits overlaid on the orbits of Earth and other inner planets. (NASA/JPL-CALTECH)

NEW YORK –  Members of the United Nations met with distinguished astronauts and cosmonauts this week in New York to begin implementing the first-ever international contingency plan for defending Earth against catastrophic asteroid strikes.

Six of the space travelers involved in these U.N. discussions discussed the asteroid defense effort Friday in a news conference hosted by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson at the American Museum of Natural History. Their goal: to drive home the very-real threats posed by near-Earth objects (NEOs), or asteroids traveling within the radius of Earth’s orbit with the sun. You can see a video of the asteroid defense discussion here.

Scientists estimate that there are roughly 1 million near-Earth asteroids that could potentially pose a threat to the planet, but only a small fraction of these have actually been detected by telescopes. There are about 100 times more asteroids lurking in space than have ever been located, said Edward Lu, a former NASA astronaut and co-founder of the non-profit B612 Foundation advocating asteroid defense strategies. “Our challenge is to find these asteroids first, before they find us,” Lu said. [Photos: Potentially Dangerous Asteroids Up Close]

‘This decision of what to do, how to do it and what systems to use has to be coordinated internationally.’

– Former NASA astronaut and B612 co-founder Russell Schweickart

To help achieve this goal, Lu co-founded an organization called the B612 Foundation in 2002. Today, the group is developing a privately built infrared space telescope — called the Sentinel Space Telescope — with the sole purpose of locating threatening asteroids. The foundation hopes to launch the telescope by 2018.

The Sentinel telescope will help space agencies identify threatening near-Earth objects years before they hit Earth, providing governments and space agencies with enough time to take action, Lu and his colleagues said. Such action would entail deploying a spacecraft — or multiple spacecrafts, depending on the size of the space rock — toward the asteroid in order to smack it off course.

The technology and funds to deflect an asteroid in this way already exist, the panel explained, but the Association of Space Explorers, a group that includes active and retired astronauts, decided to involve the United Nations in their decision-making efforts to avoid nationally biased action in the event of an emergency.

“The question is, which way do you move [the asteroid]?” former NASA astronaut and B612 co-founder Russell Schweickart said in the news conference. “If something goes wrong in the middle of the deflection, you have now caused havoc in some other nation that was not at risk. And, therefore, this decision of what to do, how to do it and what systems to use has to be coordinated internationally. That’s why we took this to the United Nations.”

The panel hopes that the discussions with the United Nations this week —which extend from discussions dating back to 2008, when the panel presented the United Nations with the first draft of a report titled “Asteroid Threats: A Call for Global Response” —will improve public awareness of the threats at hand, and encourage policymakers to develop plans and appoint leaders to deal with threats in a timely manner.

The explosion of a truck-size asteroid over Chelyabinsk, Russia, this past February —which blew out windows throughout the entire city and injured more than 1,000 people —helped draw public attention to what the panelists described as the often-overlooked and underappreciated threat to the planet.

“It did make a difference in policymakers realizing that this is not just a science-fiction concept, or something that will happen in 100 or 500 years in the future,” Thomas Jones, former NASA astronaut and senior research scientist at the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition, told SPACE.com at the news conference. “The fact that it happened right now, I think, enforced the reality.”

The recommendations that the group presented to the United Nations this week provide an outline of what governments will ultimately implement in the event of an emergency. However, the details of these recommendations are still in the works, Schweickart said.

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Astronauts see strange cloud in space

Astronauts see strange cloud in space, remnant of missile launch

By Miriam Kramer

Published October 15, 2013

  • hopkins-twitter-iss-photo-cloud.jpg

    Oct. 10, 2013: NASA Astronaut Mike Hopkins took this photo from the International Space Station. “Saw something launch into space today. Not sure what it was but the cloud it left behind was pretty amazing,” the Expedition 37/38 Flight Engineer tweeted.(MIKE HOPKINS (VIA TWITTER AS @ASTROILLINI))

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    Oct. 11, 2013: Astronaut Luca Parmitano of Italy tweeted this photo of a missile launch seen from the International  Space Station.(LUCA PARMITANO (VIA TWITTER AS @ASTRO_LUCA))

Astronauts on the International Space Station have beamed home photos of an eerie space cloud outside their orbital home, a strange sight apparently created by a recent missile launch.

The astronaut photos were captured on Oct. 10 by NASA astronaut Mike Hopkins and European Space Agency astronaut Luca Parmitano who took to Twitter under their pen names (@AstroIllini and @astro_luca, respectively) to share the unnatural looking space cloud formation with Earth.

“Saw something launch into space today,” Hopkins wrote. “Not sure what it was but the cloud it left behind was pretty amazing.” At first, Hopkins wasn’t sure what created the odd looking cloud outside the window of the orbiting laboratory, but Parmitano cleared up the confusion with a Twitter post of his own. [Amazing Space Photos by Astronaut Luca Parmitano]

“A missile launch seen from space: an unexpected surprise!” Parmitano wrote in a post on Oct. 11. One of the Italian astronaut’s photos shows a curving contrail left in the missile’s wake and another features a wispy cloud formed in space after the missile disintegrated.

Russia’s Strategic Rocket Forces launched the missile, according to a blog post on RussianForces.org. The Topol/SS-25 missile launched from Kapustin Yar to the Sary Shagan test site in Kazakhstan.

“According to a representative of the Rocket Forces, the test was used to confirm characteristics of the Topol missile, to test the systems of the Sary Shagan test site, and ‘to test new combat payload for intercontinental ballistic missiles,'” RussianForces.org wrote on Oct. 10.

Russia also conducted a similar test from Kapustin Yar to Sary Shagan in June 2012, RussiaForces.org said.

Parmitano and Hopkins are joined by four other spaceflyers on the International Space Station. NASA’s Karen Nyberg and Russian cosmonauts Fyodor Yurchikhin, Oleg Kotov and Sergey Ryazanskiy round out the Expedition 37 crew. Ryazanskiy, Hopkins and Kotov launched to the station at the end of September. Current station commander Yurchikhin, Nyberg and Parmitano are scheduled to fly back to Earth on Nov. 11.

Although NASA is currently closed due to the government shutdown, astronauts on the station are apparently still able to post photos on social media websites.

Twitter is just one of the ways that astronauts are able to communicate with people on the ground. Nyberg actively posts post photos on the website Pinterest and Parmitano blogs about his adventures in spaceflight through ESA. The station astronauts can also video chat with their loved ones on the surface of Earth.

The $100 billion orbiting laboratory is the size of a five-bedroom house with the wingspan of a football field. It is the largest structure ever built in space and has been continually staffed by a rotating crew of astronauts and cosmonauts since 2000.

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NASA finds plastic ingredient on Saturn’s moon Titan

NASA finds plastic ingredient on Saturn’s moon Titan

By Miriam Kramer

Published October 02, 2013

  • PIA14924

    Saturn’s moon Titan’s atmosphere creates a ring of light outlining the large moon. Image uploaded on Sept. 30, 2013. (NASA/JPL-CALTECH/SSI)

For the first time, a chemical essential for the creation of plastic on Earth has been found in a far-off part of the solar system: Saturn’s largest Titan.

The discovery, made by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft currently orbiting Saturn, found that the atmosphere of Titan contains propylene, a key ingredient of plastic containers, car bumpers and other everyday items on Earth. NASA scientists announced the discovery  with a video describing the propylene find on Titan.

“This chemical is all around us in everyday life, strung together in long chains to form a plastic called polypropylene,” Conor Nixon, a NASA planetary scientist and lead author of a paper detailing the new research in the Sept. 30 issue of the Astrophysical Journal Letterssaid in a statement. “That plastic container at the grocery store with the recycling code 5 on the bottom — that’s polypropylene.” [Amazing Photos: Titan, Saturn’s Largest Moon]

‘This chemical is all around us in everyday life.’

– Conor Nixon, a NASA planetary scientist 

Scientists used Cassini’s composite infrared spectrometer (CIRS) instrument, which measures infrared light given off by Saturn and its moon, made the discovery.

The new study helps piece together a long-standing mystery about Titan’s atmosphere. When Voyager 1 conducted the first close flyby of the moon in 1980, it recognized gasses in the moon’s brown atmosphere as hydrocarbons.

Scientists have found that hydrocarbons — which make up fossil fuels on Earth — form on Titan after sunlight breaks apart methane and the chemicals reform into chains of two or more carbons. Voyager found evidence of the heaviest three-carbon hydrocarbon, propane, and the spacecraft also discovered propyne — one of the lightest in the family.

The middle-weight chemicals like propylene, however, were missing from the Voyager data.

“This measurement was very difficult to make because propylene’s weak signature is crowded by related chemicals with much stronger signals,” Michael Flasar, Goddard scientist and principal investigator for the CIRS instrument, said in a statement. “This success boosts our confidence that we will find still more chemicals long hidden in Titan’s atmosphere.”

Titan is about half the size of Earth and is the second-largest moon in the solar system — only Jupiter’s Ganymede beats it out in size. The moon is also the only one in the solar system that harbors clouds and a planet-like atmosphere, which is mostly composed of nitrogen and methane.

Cassini launched to space in 1997, arriving in orbit around Saturn in July 2004. The mission — centered on understanding Saturn and its many moons — is expected to continue until 2017 when the spacecraft will be crashed into Saturn’s atmosphere.

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Super-Earth Alien Planet May Have ‘Plasma’ Water Atmosphere

Super-Earth Alien Planet May Have ‘Plasma’ Water Atmosphere

Space.com  |  By Nola Taylor ReddPosted: 10/02/2013 9:21 am EDT  |  Updated: 10/03/2013 12:01 pm EDT

A nearby alien planet six times the size of the Earth is covered with a water-rich atmosphere that includes a strange “plasma form” of water, scientists say.

Astronomers have determined that the atmosphere of super-Earth Gliese 1214 b is likely water-rich. However, this exoplanet is no Earth twin. The high temperature and density of the planet give it an atmosphere that differs dramatically from Earth.

“As the temperature and pressure are so high, water is not in a usual form (vapor, liquid, or solid), but in an ionic or plasma form at the bottom the atmosphere — namely the interior — of Gliese 1214 b,” principle investigator Norio Narita of the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan told SPACE.com by email. [The Strangest Alien Planets (Gallery)]

Using two instruments on the Subaru Telescope in Mauna Kea, Hawaii, scientists studied the scattering of light from the planet. Combining their results with previous observations led the astronomers to conclude that the atmosphere contained significant amounts of water.

A wellspring of exotic water

Located 40 light-years from the solar system in the constellation Ophiuchus, the planet orbits its cooler, low-mass M-type star once every 38 hours, 70 times closer than Earth is to the sun.

Its close proximity means that its temperatures reach up to 540 degrees Fahrenheit (280 degrees Celsius). Six times as massive as Earth, Gliese 1214 b is less than three times as wide, falling between the Earth and the solar system’s ice giants Uranus and Neptune in size.

The high temperatures of the planet may affect the hydrogen and carbon chemistry, which could produce a haze in the atmosphere. But determining if the weather is clear or perpetually overcast on Gliese 1214 b would be difficult, as differences in the two atmospheres are small.

“At high pressure and high temperature, the behavior of water is quite different from that on the Earth,” Narita said. “At the bottom of the water-rich atmosphere of Gliese 1214 b, water should be a super-critical fluid.”

super earth waterArtist’s rendition of the relationship between the composition of the atmosphere and transmitted colors of light of an alien planet. Top: If the sky has a clear, upward-extended, hydrogen-dominated atmosphere, Rayleigh scattering disperses a large portion of the blue light from the atmosphere of the host while it scatters less of the red light. As a result, a transit in blue light becomes deeper than the one in red light. Middle: If the sky has a less extended water-rich atmosphere, the effect of the Rayleigh scattering is much weaker than in a hydrogen-dominated atmosphere. In this case, transits in all colors have almost the same transit depths. Bottom: If the sky has extensive clouds, most of the light cannot be transmitted through the atmosphere.

Unlike terrestrial planets, the super-Earth doesn’t have a solid surface, making the height of the atmosphere difficult to define. Instead, atmospheric scientists introduce a concept called the scale height, a height determined by changes in the increase or decrease of atmospheric pressure by a set amount. On Earth, the scale height is about 6 miles (10 kilometers), while on Gliese 1214 b it is three times deeper, according to Narita.

“We predict that ionic or plasma water can be seen deep inside the planet,” Narita said. “However, we may not be able to find hot ‘ice’ — high pressure-ices — inside of Gliese 1214 b.”

Originally discovered in by the MEarth Project, which tracks more than 2,000 low-mass stars in search of planets, Gliese 1214 b was confirmed by the European Space Agency’s High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher in Chile.

As a planet travels across the face of its star, or transits, it blocks the star’s light slightly, allowing scientists to determine characteristics about it based on how much the light dims.

Though water is often considered a necessary ingredient for life by scientists, Narita doesn’t think that the super-Earth will be promising due to its close orbit, which lies within the star’s habitable zone, the region where liquid water can exist.

“Although water vapor can exist in the atmosphere, liquid water — namely oceans — would not exist on the surface of this planet,” he said. “So unfortunately, we do not think this planet would be habitable.”

Narita’s team intends to continue studying the planet with spectroscopic observations in the visible wavelength, and anticipates that other astronomers will follow.

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