Friday, July 31, 2015

Closest Rocky Exoplanet Found

This artist's rendition shows one possible appearance for the planet HD 219134b, the nearest confirmed rocky exoplanet found to date outside our solar system. The planet is 1.6 times the size of Earth, and whips around its star in just three days. Scientists predict that the scorching-hot planet -- known to be rocky through measurements of its mass and size -- would have a rocky, partially molten surface with geological activity, including possibly volcanoes. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Using NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, astronomers have confirmed the discovery of the nearest rocky planet outside our solar system, larger than Earth and a potential gold mine of science data. Dubbed HD 219134b, this exoplanet, which orbits too close to its star to sustain life, is a mere 21 light-years away. While the planet itself can't be seen directly, even by telescopes, the star it orbits is visible to the naked eye in dark skies in the Cassiopeia constellation, near the North Star. HD 219134b is also the closest exoplanet to Earth to be detected transiting, or crossing in front of, its star and, therefore, perfect for extensive research.

Earth Flyby of 'Space Peanut' Captured in New Video

Radar images of asteroid 1999 JD6 were obtained on July 25, 2015. The asteroid is between 660 - 980 feet (200 - 300 meters) in diameter. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/GSSR

NASA scientists have used two giant, Earth-based radio telescopes to bounce radar signals off a passing asteroid and produce images of the peanut-shaped body as it approached close to Earth this past weekend. The asteroid appears to be a contact binary -- an asteroid with two lobes that are stuck together. The images show the rotation of the asteroid, named 1999 JD6, which made its closest approach on July 24 at 9:55 p.m. PDT (12:55 a.m. EDT on July 25) at a distance of about 4.5 million miles (7.2 million kilometers, or about 19 times the distance from Earth to the moon).

Surprising Comet Discoveries Made by Philae Unveiled

Zooming in to a portion of the fractured cliff face imaged by CIVA camera 4 reveals brightness variations in the comet’s surface properties down to centimetre and millimetre scales. The dominant constituents are very dark conglomerates, likely made of organics. The brighter spots could represent mineral grains, perhaps even pointing to ice-rich materials.  The left hand image shows one of the CONSERT antennas in the foreground, which seems to be in contact with the nucleus. The dimensions of the antenna, 5 mm in diameter and 693 mm long, help to provide a scale to the image. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/Philae/CIVA

Complex molecules that could be key building blocks of life, the daily rise and fall of temperature, and an assessment of the surface properties and internal structure of the comet are just some of the highlights of the first scientific analysis of the data returned by Rosetta’s lander Philae last November. Early results from Philae’s first suite of scientific observations of Comet 67P/Churyumov­-Gerasimenko were published Thursday in a special edition of the journal Science.

Telescopes Team Up to Find Distant Uranus-Sized Planet Through Microlensing

This graphic illustrates how a star can magnify and brighten the light of a background star when it passes in front of the distant star. If the foreground star has planets, then the planets may also magnify the light of the background star, but for a much shorter period of time than their host star. Astronomers use this method, called gravitational microlensing, to identify planets. Credit: NASA, ESA, and A. Feild (STScI)

The W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii and NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope have made independent confirmations of an exoplanet orbiting far from its central star. The planet was discovered through a technique called gravitational microlensing. This finding opens a new piece of discovery space in the extrasolar planet hunt: to uncover planets as far from their central stars as Jupiter and Saturn are from our sun. The Hubble and Keck Observatory results appear in two papers in the July 30 edition of The Astrophysical Journal.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Russia Reveals Long-term Plans for Its Angara Launch Vehicle

Angara-5 rocket launches from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome on Dec. 23, 2014. Photo Credit: Russia's Defence Ministry press service/TASS

The Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center, a Moscow-based rocket manufacturer, has revealed its long-term plans for the newest Russian Angara launch vehicle. According to the company’s announcement, the rocket’s busy launch manifest includes 10 test launches in the next few years and a possible participation in the Sea Launch project. The plan also envisions developing reusable stages for Angara around 2025.

Stormy Seas in Sagittarius

This new NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image shows the Lagoon Nebula, an object with a deceptively tranquil name. The region is filled with intense winds from hot stars, churning funnels of gas, and energetic star formation, all embedded within an intricate haze of gas and pitch-dark dust.  Credit: NASA, ESA, J. Trauger (Jet Propulson Laboratory)

Some of the most breathtaking views in the Universe are created by nebulae — hot, glowing clouds of gas. This new NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image shows the centre of the Lagoon Nebula, an object with a deceptively tranquil name. The region is filled with intense winds from hot stars, churning funnels of gas, and energetic star formation, all embedded within an intricate haze of gas and pitch-dark dust.

SOHO Solar Observatory Greatest Comet Hunter of All Time

One of the more well-known comets observed by SOHO is Comet ISON, seen in the this time lapse photo from Nov. 28, 2013. Comet ISON comes in from the bottom right and moves out toward the upper right, getting fainter and fainter. The image of the sun at the center is from NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory. Credits: ESA/NASA/SOHO/SDO/GSFC

In 1995, a new solar observatory was launched. A joint project of ESA and NASA, the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory – SOHO – has been sending home images of our dynamic sun ever since. SOHO was planned to open up a new era of solar observations, dramatically extending our understanding of the star we live with. . . and it delivered. But no one could have predicted SOHO's other observational triumph: In the last two decades, SOHO has become the greatest comet finder of all time. In August 2015, SOHO is expected to discover its 3000th comet. Prior to the SOHO launch, only a dozen or so comets had ever even been discovered from space, and some 900 had been discovered from the ground since 1761.

Lockheed Martin Successfully Tests Design Changes for Orion Spacecraft’s Fairing Separation System

An Orion fairing panel separates during a June test at Lockheed Martin's facility in Sunnyvale, California. Three fairing panels encase Orion's service model to protect it during ascent to space and are jettisoned once they are no longer needed. Credits: Lockheed Martin

NASA’s prime contractor for Orion, Lockheed Martin, successfully completed two ground-based tests to evaluate how Orion’s fairing panels will separate from the spacecraft on its way to space. The tests incorporated several changes designed to reduce spacecraft mass and help further prepare Orion for its first mission atop NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket to a distant lunar orbit. Lessons learned from last year’s flight test and building the initial spacecraft have provided valuable insight to inform these design improvements.

Dense Star Clusters Shown to Be Binary Black Hole Factories

A pair of closely orbiting black holes. Credit: Northwestern University

The coalescence of two black holes -- a very violent and exotic event -- is one of the most sought-after observations of modern astronomy. But, as these mergers emit no light of any kind, finding such elusive events has been impossible so far. Colliding black holes do, however, release a phenomenal amount of energy as gravitational waves. The first observatories capable of directly detecting these ‘gravity signals’ -- ripples in the fabric of spacetime first predicted by Albert Einstein 100 years ago -- will begin observing the universe later this year.

Scientists Unlock Secrets of Stars Through Aluminium

Radioactive decay of aluminium-26. Credit: ESA

Physicists at the University of York (UK) have revealed a new understanding of nucleosynthesis in stars, providing insight into the role massive stars play in the evolution of the Milky Way and the origins of the Solar System. Radioactive aluminium (aluminium-26, or Al26) is an element that emits gamma radiation through its decay enabling astronomers to image its location in our galaxy. Studying how Al26 is created in massive stars, scientists have distinguished between previously conflicting assumptions about its rate of production by nuclear fusion.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Unusual Red Arcs Spotted on Saturn's Moon Tethys

Unusual arc-shaped, reddish streaks cut across the surface of Saturn's ice-rich moon Tethys in this enhanced-color mosaic. The red streaks are narrow, curved lines on the moon's surface, only a few miles (or kilometers) wide but several hundred miles (or kilometers) long. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Like graffiti sprayed by an unknown artist, unexplained arc-shaped, reddish streaks are visible on the surface of Saturn's icy moon Tethys in new, enhanced-color images from NASA's Cassini spacecraft. The red arcs are narrow, curved lines on the moon's surface, and are among the most unusual color features on Saturn's moons to be revealed by Cassini's cameras. Images taken using clear, green, infrared and ultraviolet spectral filters were combined to create the enhanced-color views, which highlight subtle color differences across the icy moon's surface at wavelengths not visible to human eyes.

Astronomers Discover Powerful Aurora Beyond Solar System

Artist's impression of an auroral display on a brown dwarf. Credit: Chuck Carter and Gregg Hallinan/Caltech

Astronomers have discovered the first aurora ever seen in an object beyond our Solar System. The aurora -- similar to the famous "Northern Lights" on Earth -- is 10,000 times more powerful than any previously seen. They found the aurora not from a planet, but from a low-mass star at the boundary between stars and brown dwarfs. The discovery reveals a major difference between the magnetic activity of more-massive stars and that of brown dwarfs and planets, the scientists said. "All the magnetic activity we see on this object can be explained by powerful auroras," said Gregg Hallinan, of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). "This indicates that auroral activity replaces solar-like coronal activity on brown dwarfs and smaller objects," he added. The findings appear in the July 30 issue of the journal Nature. Hallinan worked with an international team of researchers from the U.S., the U.K., Ireland, Germany, Russia, and Bulgaria.

From Mercury to Pluto and Beyond: House Committee Holds a Hearing on Space Exploration

From left to right: NASA's Associate Administrator John Grunsfeld, New Horizons Mission Principal Investigator Alan Stern, Dawn Mission Principal Investigator Christopher Russell, Study Scientist of Europa Mission Concept Robert Pappalardo and Robert Braun of the Georgia Institute of Technology, testify before the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology on July 28, 2015. Photo Credit:

On Tuesday, July 28, the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology held a hearing entitled “The Exploration of Our Solar System: From Mercury to Pluto and Beyond,” to review recent planetary exploration successes and to assess new missions under development. The country’s leading space scientists also used the hearing to advocate for more funding for NASA’s space exploration program.

First Detection of Lithium from an Exploding Star

This image from the New Technology Telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory shows Nova Centauri 2013 in July 2015 as the brightest star in the centre of the picture. This was more than eighteen months after the initial explosive outburst. This nova was the first in which evidence of lithium has been found.  Credit:  ESO

The chemical element lithium has been found for the first time in material ejected by a nova. Observations of Nova Centauri 2013 made using telescopes at ESO’s La Silla Observatory, and near Santiago in Chile, help to explain the mystery of why many young stars seem to have more of this chemical element than expected. 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 light chemical element lithium is one of the few elements that is predicted to have been created by the Big Bang, 13.8 billion years ago. But understanding the amounts of lithium observed in stars around us today in the Universe has given astronomers headaches. Older stars have less lithium than expected, and some younger ones up to ten times more.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

National Transportation Safety Board Determines the Cause of 2014 SpaceShipTwo Crash

NTSB Acting Chairman Christopher Hart surveys one section of the SpaceShipTwo accident site. Credit: NTSB

The National Transportation Safety Board determined the cause of the Oct. 31, 2014 in-flight breakup of SpaceShipTwo, was Scaled Composite’s failure to consider and protect against human error and the co-pilot’s premature unlocking of the spaceship’s feather system as a result of time pressure and vibration and loads that he had not recently experienced. SpaceShipTwo was a commercial space vehicle that Scaled Composites built for Virgin Galactic. The vehicle broke up during a rocket-powered test flight, seriously injuring the pilot and killing the co-pilot.

Fertility Deities on Dwarf Planet Ceres

This pair of images shows color-coded maps from NASA's Dawn mission, revealing the highs and lows of topography on the surface of dwarf planet Ceres. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Acting on behalf of the NASA Dawn mission team, researchers from the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) chose 17 of approximately 150 fertility deities to name the most prominent craters on Ceres, which they presented to the International Astronomical Union (IAU). These names were chosen because the dwarf planet bears the name of the Roman goddess of agriculture. Now, deities from five continents – from Hawaii's Haulani and Occator, the Roman god of the harrow, to the German goddess Gaue – populate the dwarf planet's extremely varied surface. Tamayie, the Polynesian god of the coconut tree, and the Mexican deity Nanahuatl did not make the line-up.

Researcher Bakes Asteroids to Find Water

Asteroid Ida with its moon Dactyl. Credit: LANL

A Missouri University of Science and Technology researcher is cooking up something new in the lab – baking meteorites to learn how to produce water and other easily evaporated compounds from asteroids. Dr. Leslie Gertsch, an associate professor of geological engineering at Missouri S&T, hopes to find a sustainable way for near-Earth objects (NEOs) like asteroids and comets to produce consumable materials in space instead of pushing them up from the Earth’s surface.

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Preparing for Mars Lander's 2016 Arrival

NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter passes above a portion of the planet called Nilosyrtis Mensae in this artist's concept illustration. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

With its biggest orbit maneuver since 2006, NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) will prepare this week for the arrival of NASA's next Mars lander, InSight, next year. A planned 77-second firing of six intermediate-size thrusters on July 29 will adjust the orbit timing of the veteran spacecraft so it will be in position to receive radio transmissions from InSight as the newcomer descends through the Martian atmosphere and touches down on Sept. 28, 2016. These six rocket engines, which were used for trajectory corrections during the spacecraft's flight from Earth to Mars, can each produce about 22 newtons, or five pounds, of thrust.

Undergraduates Discover the Densest Galaxies Known

Artist's depiction of the night sky as seen from a planet at the heart of an ultracompact galaxy. More than a million stars are visible with the naked eye, in contrast to the few thousand visible from Earth. Image credit: NASA, ESA, G. Bacon (STScI) and P. van Dokkum (Yale University)

Two undergraduates at San José State University have discovered two galaxies that are the densest known. Similar to ordinary globular star clusters but a hundred to a thousand times brighter, the new systems have properties intermediate in size and luminosity between galaxies and star clusters. The first system discovered by the investigators, M59-UCD3, has a width two hundred times smaller than our own Milky Way Galaxy and a stellar density 10,000 times larger than that in the neighborhood of the Sun. For an observer in the core of M59-UCD3, the night sky would be a dazzling display, lit up by a million stars. The stellar density of the second system, M85-HCC1, is higher still: about a million times that of the Solar neighborhood. Both systems belong to the new class of galaxies known as ultracompact dwarfs (UCDs).

'Bathtub Rings' Suggest Titan's Dynamic Seas

Images from Cassini show one of the large seas (left) and several small lakes (right) on Saturn’s moon Titan. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech-University of Arizona

Saturn’s moon, Titan, is the only object in the Solar System other than Earth known to have liquid on its surface. While most of the lakes are found around the poles, the dry regions near the equator contain signs of evaporated material left behind like rings on a bathtub that, when combined with geological features, suggest that the location of the liquids on the moon has shifted over time. “Today, Titan’s equatorial region is more like a desert—there is a huge sand sea of these phenomenal linear dunes and no lakes or seas,” Shannon MacKenzie, a graduate student in physics at the University of Idaho told Astrobiology Magazine.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Dust Pillars of Destruction Reveal Impact of Cosmic Wind on Galaxy Evolution

This Hubble Space Telescope image of a spiral galaxy in the Coma cluster highlights dust extinction features. (Image courtesy of NASA, ESA, and Roberto Colombari)

Astronomers have long known that powerful cosmic winds can sometimes blow through galaxies, sweeping out interstellar material and stopping future star formation. Now they have a clearer snapshot of how it happens. A Yale University analysis of one such event in a nearby galaxy provides an unprecedented look at the process. Specifically, Yale astronomer Jeffrey Kenney looked at the way the cosmic wind is eroding the gas and dust at the leading edge of the galaxy. The wind, or ram pressure, is caused by the galaxy’s orbital motion through hot gas in the cluster. Kenney found a series of intricate dust formations on the disk’s edge, as cosmic wind began to work its way through the galaxy. The research is described in the Astronomical Journal.

Cassini Sees Bright Basin on Tethys

Saturn's moon Tethys seen by Cassini spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

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. This distinct coloration may result from differences in either the composition or structure of the terrain exposed by the giant impact.

Israeli Radiation Vest to Serve Deep-Space Astronauts

StemRad 360 Gamma. Credit: StemRad

An Israeli company is partnering with Lockheed Martin for joint research and development (R&D) to see if its radiation shielding technology - initially designed to protect nuclear first responders from gamma radiation - can be used to defend astronauts exploring deep space. StemRad, based in Tel Aviv with a branch in Palo Alto, California, works with militaries, nuclear energy sources and governmental agencies to create protection equipment for first responders to radiological events and disasters. The Israeli company's 360 Gamma is a vest protecting the source of bone marrow stem cells from gamma radiation exposure, thereby allowing the stem cells to stay safe and replenish cells throughout the body.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

China Launches Two Satellites for Its BeiDou Navigation System

A Long March-3B rocket carrying two new-generation satellites for the BeiDou Navigation Satellite System (BDS) blasts off from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in the southwest China's Sichuan Province, July 25, 2015. Credit: Xinhua/Zhu Zheng

Chinese Long March-3B rocket successfully launched two new-generation satellites on Saturday, July 25 for the country’s homegrown global navigation and positioning network. The lift-off occurred at 8:29 a.m. EDT (8:29 p.m. Beijing Time; 8:29 GMT) from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in the southwest China's Sichuan Province. The satellites, designated BDS (short for BeiDou Navigation Satellite System) M1-S and M2-S were put into a medium Earth orbit (MEO) about 13,700 miles above Earth, three and a half hour after the launch.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Russia Extends Operation of the International Space Station Until 2024

Russian Progress and Soyuz spacecraft docked to the International Space Station. Photo Credit: ESA/NASA

The Russian government has accepted NASA’s proposal to prolong the life of the International Space Station (ISS) until 2024. This decision ends fears that the tensions between the U.S. and Russia over the Ukraine crisis would jeopardize NASA-Roscosmos space cooperation. "I have informed my colleagues that the Russian government has approved the operation of the ISS until 2024,” Roscosmos head Igor Komarov told a news conference on Thursday, July 23 after Wednesday's successful manned launch of the Soyuz TMA-17M spacecraft to the ISS. He added that political disagreements between the partner states have not affected the ISS program, acknowledging that outer space is a sphere where national and political interests were to be subordinated to common values.

Friday, July 24, 2015

New Horizons Team Finds Haze, Flowing Ice on Pluto

Annotated image of the northwestern region of Pluto’s Sputnik Planum, swirl-shaped patterns of light and dark suggest that a surface layer of exotic ices has flowed around obstacles and into depressions, much like glaciers on Earth. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

Flowing ice and a surprising extended haze are among the newest discoveries from NASA’s New Horizons mission, which reveal distant Pluto to be an icy world of wonders. “We knew that a mission to Pluto would bring some surprises, and now — 10 days after closest approach — we can say that our expectation has been more than surpassed,” said John Grunsfeld, NASA’s associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate. “With flowing ices, exotic surface chemistry, mountain ranges, and vast haze, Pluto is showing a diversity of planetary geology that is truly thrilling."

United Launch Alliance Successfully Launches WGS-7 Satellite

A Delta IV rocket lifts off carrying the seventh Wideband Global SATCOM satellite for the U.S. Air Force. Credit: ULA

A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV rocket successfully launched the seventh Wideband Global SATCOM (WGS) communications satellite for the U.S. Air Force at 8:07 p.m. EDT Thursday from Space Launch Complex-37 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. “Kudos to the Air Force and all of our mission partners on today’s successful launch and orbital delivery of the WGS-7 satellite. The ULA team is honored to work with these premier U.S. government and industry mission teammates and to contribute to the WGS enhanced communications capabilities to the warfighter,” said Jim Sponnick, ULA vice president, Atlas and Delta Programs. “The team continues to emphasize reliability, and one launch at a time focus on mission success to meet our customer’s needs.”

Treasure Hunting in Archive Data Reveals Clues About Black Holes’ Diet

A snapshot image from a computer simulation of a star disrupted by a supermassive black hole. The red-orange plumes show the debris of the star after its passage near the black hole (located close to the bottom left corner of the image). About half of the disrupted star moves in elliptical orbits around the black hole and forms an accretion disc which eventually shines brightly in optical and X-rays. Image courtesy of J. Guillochon (Harvard University) and E. Ramirez-Ruiz (University of California at Santa Cruz)

Using archival data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, as well as from the XMM-Newton and Chandra X-ray telescopes, a team of astronomers at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics have discovered a gigantic black hole, which is probably destroying and devouring a big star in its vicinity. With a mass of 100 million times more than our Sun, this is the largest black hole caught in this act so far. The results of this study are published in this month’s issue of the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

NASA's Space Launch System Design 'Right on Track' for Journey to Mars

Artist concept of the SLS Block 1 configuration. Credits: NASA/MSFC

You know the feeling of pride and achievement when you've worked really hard on a term paper, and finally turn it in? That's how the critical design review team for NASA's Space Launch System is feeling this week as the program completed its review. The in-depth review – the first in almost 40 years for a NASA exploration class vehicle -- provides a final look at the design and development of the integrated rocket before full-scale fabrication begins. Throughout the course of 11 weeks, 13 teams – including representatives from several NASA field centers – reviewed more than 1,000 files of data as part of the comprehensive assessment process.

Brown Dwarfs, Stars Share Formation Process, New Study Indicates

Artist's conception of a very young, still-forming brown dwarf, with a disk of material orbiting it, and jets of material ejected outward from the poles of the disk. Credit: Bill Saxton, NRAO/AUI/NSF

Astronomers using the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA) have discovered jets of material ejected by still-forming young brown dwarfs. The discovery is the first direct evidence that brown dwarfs, intermediate in mass between stars and planets, are produced by a scaled-down version of the same process that produces stars. The astronomers studied a sample of still-forming brown dwarfs in a star-forming region some 450 light-years from Earth in the constellation Taurus, and found that four of them have the type of jets emitted by more-massive stars during their formation. The jets were detected by radio observations with the VLA. The scientists also observed the brown dwarfs with the Spitzer and Herschel space telescopes to confirm their status as very young objects.

Curiosity Rover Inspects Unusual Bedrock

A rock fragment dubbed "Lamoose" is shown in this picture taken by the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) on NASA's Curiosity rover. Like other nearby rocks in a portion of the "Marias Pass" area of Mt. Sharp, Mars, it has unusually high concentrations of silica. The high silica was first detected in the area by the Chemistry & Camera (ChemCam) laser spectrometer. This rock was targeted for follow-up study by the MAHLI and the arm-mounted Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer (APXS). Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Approaching the third anniversary of its landing on Mars, NASA's Curiosity Mars rover has found a target unlike anything it has studied before -- bedrock with surprisingly high levels of silica. Silica is a rock-forming compound containing silicon and oxygen, commonly found on Earth as quartz. This area lies just downhill from a geological contact zone the rover has been studying near "Marias Pass" on lower Mount Sharp.

NASA Finds ‘Earth’s Cousin’

This artist's concept depicts one possible appearance of the planet Kepler-452b, the first near-Earth-size world to be found in the habitable zone of star that is similar to our sun. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle

NASA's Kepler mission has confirmed the first near-Earth-size planet in the “habitable zone” around a sun-like star. This discovery and the introduction of 11 other new small habitable zone candidate planets mark another milestone in the journey to finding another “Earth.” The newly discovered Kepler-452b is the smallest planet to date discovered orbiting in the habitable zone -- the area around a star where liquid water could pool on the surface of an orbiting planet -- of a G2-type star, like our sun. The confirmation of Kepler-452b brings the total number of confirmed planets to 1,030. "On the 20th anniversary year of the discovery that proved other suns host planets, the Kepler exoplanet explorer has discovered a planet and star which most closely resemble the Earth and our Sun," said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at the agency’s headquarters in Washington. “This exciting result brings us one step closer to finding an Earth 2.0."

Thursday, July 23, 2015

New Crew Arrives at Space Station

All six Expedition 44 crew members gathered inside the Zvezda service module for a crew greeting ceremony with new crewmates (front row from left) Kimiya Yui, Oleg Kononenko and Kjell Lindgren. In the back from left are Mikhail Kornienko, Gennady Padalka and Scott Kelly. Credit: NASA TV

Three crew members representing the United States, Russia and Japan have arrived at the International Space Station (ISS) to continue important research that advances NASA's journey to Mars while making discoveries that can benefit all of humanity. NASA astronaut Kjell Lindgren, Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut Kimiya Yui launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 5:02 p.m. EDT Wednesday (3:02 a.m., Thursday, July 23 in Baikonur) and docked at the station at 10:45 p.m., after orbiting Earth four times. The hatches between the Soyuz TMA-17M spacecraft and the ISS officially opened at 12:56 a.m. EDT Thursday. Expedition 44 Commander Gennady Padalka of Roscosmos, as well as Flight Engineers Scott Kelly of NASA and Mikhail Kornienko of Roscosmos welcomed the new crew members aboard their orbital home.

Researchers Find 'Frozen' Recipe for Extraterrestrial Vitamin

This is an artist's concept of a protoplanetry disk surrounding a forming star that is ejecting jets of material (yellow beams). Such disks contain countless tiny dust grains, many of which become incorporated into asteroids, comets, and planets. Credits: NASA Goddard

Vitamin B3 could have been made on icy dust grains in space, and later delivered to Earth by meteorites and comets, according to new laboratory experiments by a team of NASA-funded researchers. Vitamin B3, also known as niacin or nicotinic acid, is used to build NAD (nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide), which is essential to metabolism and probably ancient in origin. The result supports a theory that the origin of life may have been assisted by a supply of biologically important molecules produced in space and brought to Earth by comet and meteor impacts. The new work builds on earlier research by the team in which they analyzed carbon-rich meteorites and discovered that vitamin B3 was present at concentrations ranging from about 30 to 600 parts-per-billion. In that work, the team performed preliminary laboratory experiments that showed vitamin B3 could be made from a simpler building-block organic molecule called pyridine in carbon dioxide ice under conditions that simulated the environment in space.

ALMA Witnesses Assembly of Galaxies in the Early Universe for the First Time

This view is a combination of images from ALMA and the Very Large Telescope. The central object is a very distant galaxy, labelled BDF 3299, which is seen when the Universe was less than 800 million years old. The bright red cloud just to the lower left is the ALMA detection of a vast cloud of material that is in the process of assembling the very young galaxy. Credit: ESO/R. Maiolino

The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) has been used to detect the most distant clouds of star-forming gas yet found in normal galaxies in the early Universe. The new observations allow astronomers to start to see how the first galaxies were built up and how they cleared the cosmic fog during the era of reionisation. This is the first time that such galaxies are seen as more than just faint blobs. When the first galaxies started to form a few hundred million years after the Big Bang, the Universe was full of a fog of hydrogen gas. But as more and more brilliant sources — both stars and quasars powered by huge black holes — started to shine they cleared away the mist and made the Universe transparent to ultraviolet light. Astronomers call this the epoch of reionisation, but little is known about these first galaxies, and up to now they have just been seen as very faint blobs. But now new observations using the power of ALMA are starting to change this.

Mysterious Spots on Ceres May Have Haze Over Them

The brightest spots on dwarf planet Ceres are seen in this image taken by NASA's Dawn spacecraft on June 6. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Tucked deep inside the asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, is another dwarf planet called Ceres orbits the Sun and something wonderfully interesting has just been spotted by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, which has been orbiting Ceres since March. The dwarf planet has a haze that appears occasionally in a crater above some of its mysterious white spots. The phenomenon, observed by Dawn, suggests that the bright spots “could be providing some atmosphere in this particular region of Ceres”, says Christopher Russell, a planetary scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles. Russell, the mission’s principal investigator, described its initial findings during an exploration meeting at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, on July 21.

Pulsar Punches Hole In Stellar Disk

This trio of images contains evidence from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory that a clump of stellar material has been jettisoned away from a double star system at incredibly high speeds. This system, known as PSR B1259-63/LS 2883 – or B1259 for short – is comprised of two objects in orbit around one another. The first is a star about 30 times as massive as the Sun that has a disk of material swirling around it. The other is a pulsar, an ultra-dense neutron star left behind when an even more massive star underwent a supernova explosion. Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/PSU/G.Pavlov et al; Illustration: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss

A fast-moving pulsar appears to have punched a hole in a disk of gas around its companion star and launched a fragment of the disk outward at a speed of about 4 million miles per hour. NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory is tracking this cosmic clump, which appears to be picking up speed as it moves out. The double star system PSR B1259-63/LS 2883 – or B1259 for short – contains a star about 30 times as massive as the Sun and a pulsar, an ultra-dense neutron star left behind when an even more massive star underwent a supernova explosion.

Could 'Windbots' Someday Explore the Skies of Jupiter?

An artist's rendering shows a windbot bobbing through the skies of Jupiter, drawing energy from turbulent winds there. This notional windbot is portrayed as a polyhedron with sections that spin to absorb wind energy and create lift, although other potential configurations are being investigated. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Among designers of robotic probes to explore the planets, there is certainly no shortage of clever ideas. There are concepts for robots that are propelled by waves in the sea. There are ideas for tumbleweed bots driven by wind, rolling across Antarctica or Mars. Recently a team of engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, wondered if a probe could be buoyant in the clouds of Earth or a distant gas giant planet, like Jupiter. That team has recently begun studying their question, thanks to a one-year, $100,000 study, funded by NASA's Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program. They're investigating the feasibility of creating a windbot, a new class of robotic probe designed to stay aloft in a planet's atmosphere for a long time without wings or hot-air balloons. The NASA-funded study will systematically investigate how future spacecraft of this kind could stay airborne and harvest energy.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Expedition 44 Crew Launches to Space Station

The Soyuz TMA-17M rocket launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Thursday, July 23, 2015 carrying Expedition 44 Soyuz Commander Oleg Kononenko of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos), Flight Engineer Kjell Lindgren of NASA, and Flight Engineer Kimiya Yui of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) into orbit to begin their five month mission on the International Space Station. (Photo Credit: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani)

A Russian Soyuz-FG rocket successfully lifted off from the launch pad 1/5 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, located in Kazakhstan. The launch vehicle is carrying the Soyuz TMA-17M spacecraft, heading to the International Space Station (ISS) with three Expedition 44 crew members. The lift off occurred as scheduled, at 5:02 p.m. EDT (21:02 GMT) Wednesday, July 22 (3:02 a.m. local time Thursday, July 23). "The spacecraft has separated from the third stage of the carrier rocket, has begun an autonomous flight and is heading for the ISS," a spokesman for the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) said.

JAXA Asks Public to Name Hayabusa-2's Target Asteroid

Artist's rendering of Hayabusa-2 probe exploring asteroid 1999 JU3. Credit: Akihiro Ikeshita

Japanese space scientists are on the hunt for a new name for an asteroid that may contain the secret of life, with a public competition beginning Wednesday. The asteroid, which currently goes by the rather prosaic "1999 JU3" is the intended destination for a Japanese spacecraft, which mission controllers hope will be able to gather samples and bring them back to Earth. Researchers at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) say 1999 JU3 is likely to contain organic or hydrated materials that could provide clues about the origin and evolution of the solar system, as well as the building blocks of life.

Spain and Chile to Host World's Largest Array of Gamma Ray Telescopes

La Palma site at night. Credit: Daniel Lopez/IAC

On July 16, 2015, the Cherenkov Telescope Array (CTA) Resource Board decided to enter into detailed contract negotiations for hosting CTA on the European Southern Observatory (ESO) Paranal grounds in Chile and at the Instituto de Astrofisica de Canarias (IAC), Roque de los Muchachos Observatory in La Palma, Spain. The Board, composed of representatives of ministries and funding agencies from Austria, Brazil, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Italy, Namibia, the Netherlands, Japan, Poland, South Africa, Spain, Switzerland and the UK, decided after months of negotiations and careful consideration of extensive studies of the environmental conditions, simulations of the science performance and assessments of construction and operation costs to start contract negotiations with ESO and Spain. The Namibian and Mexican sites will be kept as viable alternatives.

Seeing Triple: New 3-D Model Could Solve Supernova Mystery

The final seconds in the life of a very massive star are captured in 3-D by an MSU-led team of scientists. This is the first time a 3-D model of such a star has been developed and could lead to a better understanding of why these stars blow up as supernovae. Photo courtesy of S.M. Couch.

Giant stars die a violent death. After a life of several million years, they collapse into themselves and then explode in what is known as a supernova. How these stars explode remains a mystery. However, recent work led by Michigan State University (MSU) may bring some answers to this astronomical question. In a paper published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters, the team details how it developed a three-dimensional model of a giant star’s last moments. “This is something that has never been done before,” said Sean Couch, an MSU assistant professor of physics and astronomy and lead author of the paper. “This is a significant step toward understanding how these stars blow up.”

Why We Live on Earth and Not Venus

Images of Earth and Venus. Photo: NASA

Compared to its celestial neighbours Venus and Mars, Earth is a pretty habitable place. So how did we get so lucky? A new study sheds light on the improbable evolutionary path that enabled Earth to sustain life. The research, published this week in Nature Geoscience, suggests that Earth’s first crust, which was rich in radioactive heat-producing elements such as uranium and potassium, was torn from the planet and lost to space when asteroids bombarded the planet early in its history. This phenomenon, known as impact erosion, helps explain a landmark discovery made over a decade ago about the Earth’s composition. Researchers with the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Canada and University of California, Santa Barbara say that the early loss of these two elements ultimately determined the evolution of Earth’s plate tectonics, magnetic field and climate.

New Horizons Sees Nix and Hydra and Finds Second Mountain Range in Pluto’s ‘Heart’

Pluto’s moon Nix (left), shown here in enhanced color as imaged by the New Horizons Ralph instrument, has a reddish spot that has attracted the interest of mission scientists. The data were obtained on the morning of July 14, 2015, and received on the ground on July 18. At the time the observations were taken New Horizons was about 102,000 miles (165,000 km) from Nix. The image shows features as small as approximately 2 miles (3 kilometers) across on Nix, which is estimated to be 26 miles (42 kilometers) long and 22 miles (36 kilometers) wide.  Pluto's small, irregularly shaped moon Hydra (right) is revealed in this black and white image taken from New Horizons' LORRI instrument on July 14, 2015 from a distance of about 143,000 miles (231,000 kilometers). Features as small as 0.7 miles (1.2 kilometers) are visible on Hydra, which measures 34 miles (55 kilometers) in length.   Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

While Pluto's largest moon, Charon, has grabbed most of the lunar spotlight, two of Pluto's smaller and lesser-known satellites are starting to come into focus via new images from NASA's New Horizons spacecraft. Nix and Hydra – the second and third moons to be discovered – are approximately the same size, but their similarity ends there. New Horizons' first color image of Nix, in which colors have been enhanced, reveals an intriguing region on the jelly bean-shaped satellite, which is estimated to be 26 miles (42 kilometers) long and 22 miles (36 kilometers) wide.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Alien Hunt Gets Serious Funding Boost

(L-R) DST Global Founder Yuri Milner, Theoretical Physicist Stephen Hawking and Cosmologist and astrophysicist Lord Martin Rees attend a press conference on the Breakthrough Life in the Universe Initiatives, hosted by Yuri Milner and Stephen Hawking, at The Royal Society on July 20, 2015 in London, England. (Photo by Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images for Breakthrough Initiatives)

The Breakthrough Prize Foundation, an organization created by investor Yuri Milner, has announced that it will commit $100 million over the next ten years to a new, large-scale Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) initiative. The intention is to use existing radio telescopes in West Virginia (the 100 meter Green Bank Telescope) and Australia (the 64 meter Parkes Telescope) to examine up to one million star systems for radio signals that would betray the presence of intelligence. The funding will allow the development of new receiving technologies that can speed up the search for radio broadcasts.

India Successfully Tests Its Cryogenic Rocket Engine

Indigenously developed High Thrust cryogenic rocket engine successfully ground tested on July 16, 2015. Credit: ISRO

India’s first indigenously designed and developed High Thrust cryogenic rocket engine generating a nominal thrust of 19 tonnes was successfully endurance hot tested for a duration of 800 seconds on July 16, 2015 at the Indian Space Research Organisation's (ISRO) Propulsion Complex, Mahendragiri. This duration is approximately 25% more than the engine burn duration in flight. The engine will be used for powering the Cryogenic stage (C25), the upper stage of the next generation GSLV Mk-III launch vehicle of ISRO, capable of launching four tonne class satellites.

Lunar IceCube Wins Coveted Slot on NASA's Exploration Mission-1

Morehead State University and Goddard are partnering to create the Lunar IceCube mission shown in this artist’s rendition. Credits: Morehead State University

Lunar IceCube has won a coveted slot as one of 12 diminutive secondary payloads to deploy during the first planned flight in 2018 of NASA’s next-generation Space Launch System (SLS) and the second for its Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle — an event that scientists say will signal a paradigm shift in interplanetary science. Morehead State University in Kentucky is leading the six-unit (6-U) CubeSat mission, with significant involvement from scientists and engineers at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and the Massachusetts-based Busek Company.

Broken Strut Blamed for SpaceX’s Falcon 9 Rocket Explosion

Disintegration of the SpaceX CRS-7 launch vehicle approximately two minutes after liftoff as seen from a NASA tracking camera. Credit: NASA

On June 28, 2015, following a nominal liftoff, SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket experienced an overpressure event in the upper stage liquid oxygen tank approximately 139 seconds into flight, resulting in loss of mission. Prior to the mishap, the first stage of the vehicle, including all nine Merlin 1D engines, operated nominally; the first stage actually continued to power through the overpressure event on the second stage for several seconds following the mishap. In addition, the Dragon spacecraft not only survived the second stage event, but also continued to communicate until the vehicle dropped below the horizon and out of range.

Monday, July 20, 2015

The Eagle Has Landed 46 Years Ago

In this July 20, 1969 file photo, astronaut Edwin E. "Buzz" Aldrin Jr. stands next to a U.S. flag planted on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission. Aldrin and Neil Armstrong were the first men to walk on the lunar surface. Credit: Neil A. Armstrong/NASA via AP

More than a half billion people watched the televised first moonwalk July 20, 1969, where Neil Armstrong uttered the now-famous words, "That is one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." Astronauts Armstrong, Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin and Michael Collins left Earth on July 16 from Cape Kennedy in Florida. Armstrong and Aldrin stepped onto the moon a few days later. The men spent 21 hours, 36 minutes on the moon before joining back up with Collins in the command module. The mission accomplished the objective set by President John F. Kennedy in 1961, which was to land a man on the moon then return to Earth. When the crew landed on the moon exactly 46 years ago, Armstrong radioed: “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”

Deep Space Climate Observatory Provides 'EPIC' View of Earth

Earth as seen on July 6, 2015 from a distance of one million miles by a NASA scientific camera aboard the Deep Space Climate Observatory spacecraft. Credits: NASA

A NASA camera on the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) satellite has returned its first view of the entire sunlit side of Earth from one million miles away. The color images of Earth from NASA’s Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera (EPIC) are generated by combining three separate images to create a photographic-quality image. The camera takes a series of 10 images using different narrowband filters -- from ultraviolet to near infrared -- to produce a variety of science products. The red, green and blue channel images are used in these Earth images.

ALMA Greatly Improves Capacity to Search for Water in Universe

Band 5 receiver integrated into a Front End with all the others Bands (3 to 10). Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), N. Tabilo

After more than five years of development and construction, the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) successfully opened its eyes on another frequency range after obtaining the first fringes with a Band 5 receiver, specifically designed to detect water in the local Universe. Band 5 will also open up the possibility of studying complex molecules in star-forming regions and protoplanetary discs, and detecting molecules and atoms in galaxies in the early Universe, looking back about 13 billion years.

Dead Galaxies in Coma Cluster May Be Packed with Dark Matter

This artist's impression of the ‘quenching’ process shows how a normal blue (star-forming) galaxy lost its gas while falling into the Coma Cluster very early on in its formation. Credit: Cameron Yozin, ICRAR/UWA

Galaxies in a cluster roughly 300 million light years from Earth could contain as much as 100 times more dark matter than visible matter, according to an Australian study. The research, published today, used powerful computer simulations to study galaxies that have fallen into the Coma Cluster, one of the largest structures in the Universe in which thousands of galaxies are bound together by gravity. "It found the galaxies could have fallen into the cluster as early as seven billion years ago, which, if our current theories of galaxies evolution are correct, suggests they must have lots of dark matter protecting the visible matter from being ripped apart by the cluster.”

Sunday, July 19, 2015

New Space Station Trio to Be Launched on Wednesday

In the Integration Facility at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, Expedition 44 crewmembers Kjell Lindgren of NASA (left), Oleg Kononenko of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos, center) and Kimiya Yui of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (right) pose for pictures July 11 prior to a fit check dress rehearsal session. Photo Credit: GCTC

Three new Expedition 44 crew members have already arrived at the Baikonur Space Center in Kazakhstan, where they are finishing their preparations for the upcoming Soyuz TMA-17M flight to the International Space Station (ISS). The trio consisting of Commander Oleg Kononenko (Roscosmos) and Flight Engineers Kjell Lindgren (NASA) and Kimiya Yui (JAXA) will be blasted off to the ISS at at 5:02 p.m. EDT Wednesday, July 22 (3:02 a.m. local time Thursday, July 23) from the launch pad 1/5 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome.

Russian Angara Rocket to Launch Commercial Missions

Angara 1.2 rocket on the launch pad. Credit: Roscosmos/ILS

International Launch Services (ILS) has announced that it will use the new Russian Angara 1.2 rocket for commercial launches starting in 2017. The launches will be conducted from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in Northern Russia. “We are excited about these new offerings. Angara 1.2 has significantly higher performance than Vega and other small launchers, at a more affordable price tag,” said Phil Slack, ILS President.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

New Horizons Reveals Pluto's Mysterious Frozen Plains and Extended Atmosphere

Jim Green, director of Planetary Science at NASA Headquarters in Washington, left, Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator at Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado; Randy Gladstone, New Horizons co-investigator at SwRI in San Antonio; Fran Bagenal, New Horizons co-investigator, University of Colorado, Boulder; and Jeffrey Moore, New Horizons co-investigator at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California are seen during a New Horizons media briefing where new images and science findings collected by the spacecraft during the historic flyby of Pluto were discussed Friday, July 17, 2015 at NASA Headquarters in Washington. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

In the latest data from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, a new close-up image of Pluto reveals a vast, craterless plain that appears to be no more than 100 million years old, and is possibly still being shaped by geologic processes. This frozen region is north of Pluto’s icy mountains, in the center-left of the heart feature, informally named “Tombaugh Regio” (Tombaugh Region) after Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered Pluto in 1930. “This terrain is not easy to explain,” said Jeff Moore, leader of the New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging Team (GGI) at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California. “The discovery of vast, craterless, very young plains on Pluto exceeds all pre-flyby expectations.”

NASA Unveils New Launch Pad at KSC

Center Director Bob Cabana, center, helps cut the ribbon on the new Small Class Vehicle Launch Pad, designated 39C, at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Also helping to cut the ribbon are, from left, Pat Simpkins, director, Engineering Directorate; Rich Koller, senior vice president with design firm Jones Edmunds; Scott Colloredo, director, Center Planning and Development; and Michelle Shoultz, president of Frazier Engineering; The new launch pad, located in the southeast area of the Launch Pad 39B perimeter, is designed to attract smaller aerospace companies and enable them to develop and launch their vehicles from Kennedy. The Ground Systems Development and Operations Program oversaw construction of the new pad and is working with Center Planning and Development to grow commercial space efforts at Kennedy. Credits: NASA

NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida took another step forward in its transformation to a 21st Century multi-user spaceport with the completion of the new Small Class Vehicle Launch Pad, designated 39C, in the Launch Pad 39B area. This designated pad to test smaller rockets will make it more affordable for smaller aerospace companies to develop and launch from the center, and to break into the commercial spaceflight market. Kennedy Director Bob Cabana and representatives from the Ground Systems Development and Operations (GSDO) Program and the Center Planning and Development (CPD) and Engineering Directorates marked the completion of the new pad during a ribbon-cutting ceremony July 17.

Preparing to Build ESA's Jupiter Mission

Juice, the JUpiter ICy moons Explorer mission, in the Jovian system. Credit: ESA/AOES

Airbus Defence & Space in France has been selected as the prime industrial contractor for ESA’s Juice mission to Jupiter and its icy moons. The agency’s Industrial Policy Committee approved the award of the €350.8 million contract yesterday. Pending the negotiation of contractual details, this should allow work to start by the end of this month. The formal contract signing will take place after the summer break. The contract covers the industrial activities for the design, development, integration, test, launch campaign, and in-space commissioning of the spacecraft. The Ariane 5 launch is not included and will be procured later from Arianespace. The spacecraft will be assembled in Toulouse, France, and many other ESA Member States will also be involved in Europe’s first mission to the largest planet in the Solar System.