Saturday, October 31, 2015

Who Kicked a Giant Planet Out of Our Solar System 4 Billion Years Ago? We're Looking at You, Jupiter!

Don't be fooled by Jupiter's romantic exterior (image courtesy NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute)

It’s like something out of an interplanetary chess game. Or maybe our Solar System playground during recess. Astrophysicists at the University of Toronto have found that a close encounter with Jupiter about four billion years ago may have resulted in another planet’s ejection from the Solar System altogether. The existence of a fifth giant gas planet at the time of the Solar System’s formation – in addition to Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune that we know of today – was first proposed in 2011. But if it did exist, how did it get pushed out? For years, scientists have suspected the ouster was either Saturn or Jupiter.

University of Washington Scientists Are the First to Simulate 3-D Exotic Clouds on an Exoplanet

Artistic depiction of exoplanet GJ1214b. Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Tyrogthekreeper

Scientists have catalogued nearly 2,000 exoplanets around stars near and far. While most of these are giant and inhospitable, improved techniques and spacecraft have uncovered increasingly smaller worlds. The day may soon come when astrophysicists announce our planet’s twin around a distant star. But size alone is insufficient to judge a globe. Though Earth and Venus are nearly identical in size, the latter’s surface is hot enough to melt lead. Astronomers must gather information about an exoplanet’s atmosphere, often through observing how the planet scatters or absorbs light from its parent star. But, that information is not always useful — as is the case with the exoplanet GJ1214b.

‘One Size Fits All’ When It Comes to Unravelling How Stars Form

An artist’s impression of the disk around the forming high-mass star AFGL 4176. The disk is 50 times larger than the size of Pluto's orbit, but it rotates around its star in a similar way to disks around forming low-mass stars.  Image credit: K.G. Johnston and ESO (background image)

Observations led by astronomers at the University of Leeds have shown for the first time that a massive star, 25 times the mass of the Sun, is forming in a similar way to low-mass stars. The discovery, made using a new state-of-the-art telescope called the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), which is based in Chile, South America, is published online by The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

The Youngest Crater on Charon?

This composite image is based on observations from the New Horizons Ralph/LEISA instrument made at 10:25 UT (6:25 a.m. EDT) on July 14, 2015, when New Horizons was 50,000 miles (81,000 kilometers) from Charon. The spatial resolution is 3 miles (5 kilometers) per pixel. The LEISA data were downlinked Oct. 1-4, 2015, and processed into a map of Charon’s 2.2 micron ammonia-ice absorption band. Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) panchromatic images used as the background in this composite were taken about 8:33 UT (4:33 a.m. EDT) July 14 at a resolution of 0.6 miles (0.9 kilometers) per pixel and downlinked Oct. 5-6. The ammonia absorption map from LEISA is shown in green on the LORRI image. The region covered by the yellow box is 174 miles across (280 kilometers). Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

New Horizons scientists have discovered a striking contrast between one of the fresh craters on Pluto’s largest moon Charon and a neighboring crater dotting the moon’s Pluto-facing hemisphere. The crater, informally named Organa, caught scientists’ attention as they were studying New Horizons’ highest-resolution infrared compositional scan of Charon. Organa and portions of the surrounding material ejected from it show infrared absorption at wavelengths of about 2.2 microns, indicating that the crater is rich in frozen ammonia – and, from what scientists have seen so far, unique on Pluto’s largest moon.

Researchers Model Birth of Universe in One of Largest Cosmological Simulations Ever Run

This series shows the evolution of the universe as simulated by a run called the Q Continuum, performed on the Titan supercomputer and led by Argonne physicist Katrin Heitmann. These images give an impression of the detail in the matter distribution in the simulation. At first the matter is very uniform, but over time gravity acts on the dark matter, which begins to clump more and more, and in the clumps, galaxies form. Image by Heitmann et. al.

Researchers are sifting through an avalanche of data produced by one of the largest cosmological simulations ever performed, led by scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE's) Argonne National Laboratory. The simulation, run on the Titan supercomputer at DOE's Oak Ridge National Laboratory, modeled the evolution of the universe from just 50 million years after the Big Bang to the present day — from its earliest infancy to its current adulthood. Over the course of 13.8 billion years, the matter in the universe clumped together to form galaxies, stars, and planets; but we’re not sure precisely how.

Spirals in Dust Around Young Stars May Betray Presence of Massive Planets

[Right] — Observations taken by the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope show a protoplanetary disk around the young star MWC 758. The disk has two spiral arms that extend over 10 billion miles from the star.  [Left] — A computer model reproduces the two-spiral-arm structure; the "x" is the location of a putative planet. The planet, which cannot be seen directly, probably excites the two spiral arms. Credit: Photo Credit: NASA, ESA, ESO, M. Benisty et al. (University of Grenoble), R. Dong (Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory), and Z. Zhu (Princeton University)

A team of astronomers is proposing that huge spiral patterns seen around some newborn stars, merely a few million years old (about one percent our sun's age), may be evidence for the presence of giant, unseen planets. This idea not only opens the door to a new method of planet detection, but also could offer a look into the early formative years of planet birth. Though astronomers have cataloged thousands of planets orbiting other stars, the very earliest stages of planet formation are elusive because nascent planets are born and embedded inside vast, pancake-shaped disks of dust and gas encircling newborn stars, known as circumstellar disks.

Friday, October 30, 2015

First Detection of Molecular Oxygen at a Comet

ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft has made the first in situ detection of oxygen molecules outgassing from a comet, a surprising observation that suggests they were incorporated into the comet during its formation. Rosetta has been studying Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko for over a year and has detected an abundance of different gases pouring from its nucleus. Water vapour, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide are the most prolific, with a rich array of other nitrogen-, sulphur- and carbon-bearing species, and even ‘noble gases’ also recorded.

New Horizons Carries Out Third KBO Targeting Maneuver

Path to a KBO: Projected route of NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft toward 2014 MU69, which orbits in the Kuiper Belt about 1 billion miles beyond Pluto. Planets are shown in their positions on Jan. 1, 2019, when New Horizons is projected to reach the small Kuiper Belt object. NASA must approve an extended mission for New Horizons to study the ancient KBO. Credit: NASA

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has successfully completed the third in a series of four maneuvers propelling it toward an encounter with the ancient Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU69, a billion miles farther from the sun than Pluto. The targeting maneuver, performed with the spacecraft’s hydrazine-fueled thrusters, started at approximately 1:15 p.m. EDT on Wednesday, Oct. 28, and lasted about 30 minutes – surpassing the Oct. 25 propulsive maneuver as the largest ever conducted by New Horizons.

Geologists Help NASA Plan for Human Exploration of Mars

The alpha and omega of Martian history. Deuteronilus contains many features of scientific interest. Credit:

This week NASA is assembling scientists from across the country in Houston to start thinking about locations on Mars that would be good candidates for human exploration. Among those gathering for the Landing Sites/Exploration Zones Workshop for Human Missions to the Surface of Mars, is a Brown University geologist who has first-hand experience in planning missions to explore another world.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Russia Hopes to Land Humans on the Moon in 2029

Russia’s growing interest in the moon manifests itself in more and more bold announcements regarding the future manned landing on a lunar surface. On Tuesday, Oct. 27, one of the country’s top space industry officials, Vladimir Solntsev revealed that Russia aims to land a man on the moon in 2029. “A manned flight to the moon and lunar landing is planned for 2029,” said Solntsev, the head of the RKK Energia company.

Cassini Completes Deepest-Ever Dive Through Enceladus Plume

NASA's Cassini spacecraft completed its deepest-ever dive through the icy plume of Enceladus on Oct. 28, 2015. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA's Cassini spacecraft successfully completed its close flyby of Saturn's moon Enceladus on Wednesday, passing 30 miles (49 kilometers) above the moon's south polar region at approximately 8:22 a.m. PDT (11:22 a.m. EDT). Mission controllers established two-way communication with the spacecraft this afternoon and expect it to begin transmitting data from the encounter this evening. Images are anticipated in the next 24 hours.

Six Women Embark on a Simulated Flight to the Moon

Six Russian women will spend eight days in a confined space simulating a flight to the Moon. Credit: Vyacheslav Prokofyev/TASS

Six Russian women will spend eight days in a confined space simulating a flight to the Moon. The experiment is taking place from October 28 to November 4 under the auspices of the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of Biomedical Problems (IBP). The isolation experiment "Moon-2015" simulates an eight-day-long flight from the Earth to the Moon and aims at testing the psychology and physiology of the female organism.

NASA Astronauts Complete Spacewalk

Expedition 45 Commander Scott Kelly took this photograph during a spacewalk on Oct. 28, 2015. Sharing the image on social media, Kelly wrote, "#SpaceWalkSelfie Back on the grid! Great first spacewalk yesterday. Now on to the next one next week. #YearInSpace". Credit: NASA

NASA astronauts Scott Kelly and Kjell Lindgren ended their spacewalk at 3:19 p.m. EDT with the repressurization of the U.S. Quest airlock, having completed most of the major tasks planned for their excursion outside the International Space Station. Kelly and Lindgren applied a thermal cover on the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer; applied grease to a number of components in one of the latching ends of the Canadarm2 robotic arm; and began work to rig power and data system cables for the future installation of a docking port to the station that will be used for the arrival of the Boeing Starliner CST-100 and SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft.

Study Solves Mysteries of Voyager 1's Journey into Interstellar Space

This artist's concept shows NASA's Voyager spacecraft against a backdrop of stars. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In a study published Wednesday in the Astrophysical Journal Letters, scientists from the University of New Hampshire (UNH) and colleagues answer the question of why NASA's Voyager 1, when it became the first probe to enter interstellar space in mid-2012, observed a magnetic field that was inconsistent with that derived from other spacecraft observations. Voyager 1 sent back several different indications that it had punched through the edge of our sun's massive protective bubble inflated by solar wind--the heliosphere--after a 35-year journey. But the magnetic field data gathered by the spacecraft was not what scientists had expected to see. The UNH-led study resolves the inconsistencies.

New Component of Milky Way Found

Astronomers using the VISTA telescope at ESO’s Paranal Observatory have discovered a previously unknown component of the Milky Way. By mapping out the locations of a class of stars that vary in brightness called Cepheids, a disc of young stars buried behind thick dust clouds in the central bulge has been found.  This diagram shows the locations of the newly discovered Cepheids in an artist’s rendering of the Milky Way. The yellow star indicates the position of the Sun.  Credit:  ESO/Microsoft WorldWide Telescope

Astronomers using the VISTA telescope at ESO’s Paranal Observatory have discovered a previously unknown component of the Milky Way. By mapping out the locations of a class of stars that vary in brightness called Cepheids, a disc of young stars buried behind thick dust clouds in the central bulge has been found. The Vista Variables in the Vía Láctea Survey (VVV) ESO public survey is using the VISTA telescope at the Paranal Observatory to take multiple images at different times of the central parts of the galaxy at infrared wavelengths. It is discovering huge numbers of new objects, including variable stars, clusters and exploding stars.

Study Reveals Origin of Organic Matter in Apollo Lunar Samples

Astronaut Alan L. Bean, Lunar Module pilot for the Apollo 12 lunar landing mission, holds a container filled with lunar soil collected while exploring the lunar surface. Astronaut Charles "Pete" Conrad Jr., commander, who took this picture, is reflected in the helmet visor. Credits: NASA

A team of NASA-funded scientists has solved an enduring mystery from the Apollo missions to the moon – the origin of organic matter found in lunar samples returned to Earth. Samples of the lunar soil brought back by the Apollo astronauts contain low levels of organic matter in the form of amino acids. Certain amino acids are the building blocks of proteins, essential molecules used by life to build structures like hair and skin and to regulate chemical reactions.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

ULA Announces Its New Executive Leadership Team

George Sowers, head of all ULA advanced programs. Credit: ISPCS

United Launch Alliance (ULA) has announced its new executive leadership team that will lead the company’s transformation, maintain focus on mission success and develop ULA’s new launch vehicle Vulcan. “As we work to transform the way ULA does business, and in turn, the launch services business as a whole, it is critical to ensure we have exceptional people leading this company into the future,” said Tory Bruno, president and chief executive officer. “This reorganization will align ULA to position our product line to support emerging market needs, continue to drive out cost, and maintain our strong record of reliability and mission success.”

Russia Postpones Maiden Flight of Its Progress-MS Spacecraft

Progress-MS spacecraft in the vacuum chamber at the Baikonur Space Center. Photo Credit: RKK Energia

Russia decided to delay the first launch of the newest version of its flagship Progress cargo craft. The RKK Energia company, which manufactures the spacecraft, revealed on Tuesday, Oct. 27, that the maiden flight of the Progress-MS vehicle will be postponed for a month – until Dec. 21, 2015. "The launch will be postponed for a month," said Vladimir Solntsev, the president of RKK Energia.

Halo Satellite Will Search for 'Missing' Normal Matter

Though NASA has launched many cube satellites, most are studying objects within our solar system. UI Professor Philip Kaaret’s project will be one of the first cube satellites equipped to look outside our solar system and discover if this hypothesized, hidden part of the Milky Way galaxy truly exists. Courtesy of NASA/CXC/M.Weiss

Studies of the early universe show that 5 percent of all mass and energy should be in normal matter—that is, the visible stuff of the universe, composed of protons and neutrons. However, when scientists add up all the normal matter, the numbers don’t work out: About half of it is missing. One possible explanation is that the missing matter exists in huge halos of hot gas surrounding galaxies.

NASA Marks Completion of Test Version of Key SLS Propulsion System

Space Launch System Program Manager John Honeycutt thanks United Launch Alliance (ULA) and Boeing Co. employees for their work on the completed interim cryogenic propulsion stage (ICPS) test article during a media event Oct. 26 at ULA’s facility in Decatur, Alabama. The ICPS is the liquid oxygen/liquid hydrogen-based system that will give Orion the big, in-space push needed on that mission to fly beyond the moon before it returns to Earth. Credits: ULA

A structural test article of the interim cryogenic propulsion stage (ICPS) for NASA’s new deep-space exploration rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), has been completed at United Launch Alliance in Decatur, Alabama, prior to handover to the Boeing Company of Chicago. Boeing is the prime contractor for the SLS core stage. The first flight test of the SLS, called Exploration Mission-1, will feature a Block 1 configuration for a 70-metric-ton (77-ton) lift capability and carry an uncrewed Orion spacecraft beyond low-Earth orbit to test the performance of the integrated system. The ICPS is the liquid oxygen/liquid hydrogen-based system that will give Orion the big, in-space push needed on that mission to fly beyond the moon before it returns to Earth.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Researchers Shed New Light on Black Holes

A supermassive black hole is depicted in this artist's concept, surrounded by a swirling disk of material falling onto it. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Patience and observation have paid off for Saint Mary’s University researchers with a discovery that just may hold one of the keys to the Universe. For Dr. Luigi Gallo, a professor in the Department of Astronomy and Physics, the excitement began in 2014 when the NASA Explorer mission Swift detected a large flare of light coming from Markarian 335 (Mrk 335), a supermassive black hole located 324 million light-years away in a distant galaxy.

Probing the Mysteries of Europa, Jupiter's Cracked and Crinkled Moon

Mapping the composition of the surface of Europa has shown that a few large areas have large concentrations of what are thought to be salts. These salts are systematically located in the recently resurfaced "chaos regions," which are outlined in black. One such region, named Western Powys Regio, has the highest concentration of these materials presumably derived from the internal ocean, and would make an ideal landing location for a Europa surface probe. Credit: M.E. Brown and P.D. Fischer/Caltech , K.P. Hand/JPL

Jupiter's moon Europa is believed to possess a large salty ocean beneath its icy exterior, and that ocean, scientists say, has the potential to harbor life. Indeed, a mission recently suggested by NASA would visit the icy moon's surface to search for compounds that might be indicative of life. But where is the best place to look? New research by Caltech graduate student Patrick Fischer; Mike Brown, the Richard and Barbara Rosenberg Professor and Professor of Planetary Astronomy; and Kevin Hand, an astrobiologist and planetary scientist at JPL, suggests that it might be within the scarred, jumbled areas that make up Europa's so-called "chaos terrain." A paper about the work has been accepted to The Astronomical Journal.

Wall-Less Hall Thruster May Power Future Deep Space Missions

PPS-FLEX firing in wall-less mode in the PIVOINE-2g vacuum chamber. Credit: CNRS/LAPLACE and CNRS/ICARE

Hall thrusters are advanced electric rocket engines primarily used for station-keeping and attitude control of geosynchronous communication satellites and space probes. Recently, the launch of two satellites based on an all-electric bus has marked the debut of a new era - one in which Hall thrusters could be used not just to adjust orbits, but to power the voyage as well. Consuming 100 million times less propellant or fuels than conventional chemical rockets, a Hall thruster is an attractive candidate for exploring Mars, asteroids and the edge of the solar system. By saving fuel the thruster could leave room for spacecraft and send a large amount of cargo in support of space missions. However, the current lifespan of Hall thrusters, which is around 10,000 operation hours, is too short for most space explorations, which require at least 50,000 operation hours.

Artificial Intelligence Finds Messy Galaxies

Credit: ESA/NASA/AVO/Paolo Padovani

An Australian National University (ANU) astrophysics student has turned to artificial intelligence to help her to see into the hearts of galaxies. PhD student Elise Hampton was inspired by neural networks to create a program to single out from thousands of galaxies the subjects of her study - the most turbulent and messy galaxies. "I love artificial intelligence. It was actually a very simple program to write, once I learnt how," said Hampton, who is studying at the ANU Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics.

World View a Step Closer to Balloon Space Flight

Pre-launch balloon fill. Credit: World View

World View, the commercial spaceflight company, has successfully completed a major milestone test flight this past weekend, keeping the company on track to meet its 2017 goal for private flights with passengers to the edge of space. This test flight carried a scaled down, replica spacecraft to a final altitude of 100,475 feet, successfully marking the transition from sub-scale testing to a historical next stage of development – full scale testing.

Scientists Predict that Rocky Planets Formed from ‘Pebbles’

Southwest Research Institute scientists developed a new process in planetary formation modeling that explains the size and mass difference between the Earth and Mars. Mars is much smaller and has only 10 percent of the mass of the Earth. Conventional solar system formation models generate good analogs to Earth and Venus, but predict that Mars should be of similar-size, or even larger than Earth. Image Courtesy of NASA/JPL/MSSS

Using a new process in planetary formation modeling, where planets grow from tiny bodies called “pebbles,” Southwest Research Institute scientists can explain why Mars is so much smaller than Earth. This same process also explains the rapid formation of the gas giants Jupiter and Saturn, as reported earlier this year. “This numerical simulation actually reproduces the structure of the inner solar system, with Earth, Venus, and a smaller Mars,” said Hal Levison, an Institute scientist at the SwRI Planetary Science Directorate. He is the first author of a new paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States (PNAS) Early Edition.

Dawn Spacecraft Heads Toward Final Orbit

This mosaic shows Ceres' Occator crater and surrounding terrain from an altitude of 915 miles (1,470 kilometers), as seen by NASA's Dawn spacecraft. Occator is about 60 miles (90 kilometers) across and 2 miles (4 kilometers) deep. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

NASA's Dawn spacecraft fired up its ion engine on Friday, Oct. 23, to begin its journey toward its fourth and final science orbit at dwarf planet Ceres. The spacecraft completed two months of observations from an altitude of 915 miles (1,470 kilometers) and transmitted extensive imagery and other data to Earth.

High-Tech Methods Study Bacteria on the International Space Station

Where there are people, there are bacteria, even in space. But what kinds of bacteria are present where astronauts live and work? Researchers from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, in collaboration with colleagues at other institutions, used state-of-the-art molecular analysis to explore the microbial environment on the International Space Station. They then compared these results to the bacteria found in clean rooms, which are controlled and thoroughly cleaned laboratory environments on Earth. They report their findings in the open access journal Microbiome.

Monday, October 26, 2015

China Launches Its Tianhui-1C Earth Observation Satellite

A Long March 2D carrier rocket carrying the Tianhui-1C mapping satellite blasts off from the launch pad at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China's Gansu Province, Oct. 26, 2015. Image Credit: Xinhua/Yang Shiyao

China successfully launched its Long March 2D rocket, lifting the Tianhui-1C mapping satellite into orbit at 3:10 a.m. EDT (7:10 GMT) on Monday, Oct. 26, 2015. The liftoff took place from the Launch Area 4 (LA-4) at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the northwestern province of Gansu.

New Report Offers NASA Framework for Establishing Priorities Among Earth Observations

NASA' EPIC instrument that flies aboard NOAA's DSCOVR satellite captured three tropical low pressure areas developing in the Indian Ocean on October 25 at 05:37 UTC (12:37 a.m. EDT). Credits: NASA/NOAA

A new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine offers NASA a framework for prioritizing satellite observations and measurements of Earth based on their scientific value. NASA’s Earth Science Division conducts a coordinated series of satellite and airborne missions for long-term global observations of the land surface, biosphere, solid Earth, atmosphere, and oceans. Data from these observations are used to understand Earth as an integrated system and to support critical societal applications, including resource management, weather forecasts, climate projections, agricultural production, and natural-disaster response.

Long Filament Seen on a Very Quiet Sun

Image credit: NASA/SDO

This past week the sun featured a long dark line, known as a filament, which stretched at least halfway across its face as seen in the top half of this image from NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory, captured on Oct. 21, 2015. This filament is about the length of 50 Earths side-by-side. Filaments are elongated clouds of solar material that are tethered above the sun by magnetic forces.

Suzaku Spacecraft Finds Common Chemical Makeup at Largest Cosmic Scales

This visible light view shows the central part of the Virgo Cluster. The brightest object is the giant elliptical galaxy M87 (left of center). The image spans approximately 1.2 degrees, or about 2.4 times the apparent diameter of a full moon. Credits: NOAO/AURA/NSF

A new survey of hot, X-ray-emitting gas in the Virgo galaxy cluster shows that the elements needed to make stars, planets and people were evenly distributed across millions of light-years early in cosmic history, more than 10 billion years ago. The Virgo cluster, located about 54 million light-years away, is the nearest galaxy cluster and the second brightest in X-rays. The cluster is home to more than 2,000 galaxies, and the space between them is filled with a diffuse gas so hot it glows in X-rays. Using Japan's Suzaku X-ray satellite, a team led by Aurora Simionescu, an astrophysicist at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) in Sagamihara, acquired observations of the cluster along four arms extending up to 5 million light-years from its center.

A Tale of Two Hemispheres

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Enceladus is a world divided. To the north, the terrain is covered in impact craters, much like other icy moons. But to the south, the record of impact cratering is much more sparse, and instead the land is covered in fractures, ropy or hummocky terrain and long, linear features.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

What Is the Fate of the Hottest and Most Massive Touching Double Star?

This artist’s impression shows VFTS 352 — the hottest and most massive double star system to date where the two components are in contact and sharing material. The two stars in this extreme system lie about 160 000 light-years from Earth in the Large Magellanic Cloud. This intriguing system could be heading for a dramatic end, either with the formation of a single giant star or as a future binary black hole.  Credit: ESO/L. Calçada

The double star system VFTS 352, located about 160,000 light-years away in the Tarantula Nebula is heading for catastrophe. The two stars, found lately by an international team of astronomers, will face a cataclysmic fate, but how exactly their life will end is yet to be determined. “Theorists like me are debating about the future of the system,” Selma E. De Mink of the University of Amsterdam, one of the co-discoverers of this system, told

Maneuver Moves New Horizons Spacecraft toward Next Potential Target

Artist's impression of NASA's New Horizons spacecraft encountering a Pluto-like object in the distant Kuiper Belt. (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Steve Gribben)

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has carried out the first in a series of four initial targeting maneuvers designed to send it toward 2014 MU69 – a small Kuiper Belt object about a billion miles beyond Pluto, which the spacecraft historically explored in July. The maneuver, which started at approximately 1:50 p.m. EDT on Oct. 22, used two of the spacecraft’s small hydrazine-fueled thrusters, lasted approximately 16 minutes and changed the spacecraft’s trajectory by about 10 meters per second. Spacecraft operators at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, began receiving data through NASA’s Deep Space Network at approximately 8:30 p.m. EDT that indicated a successful maneuver.

Telescopes Provide Unique Observations in Support of the ESA Rosetta Mission

INT/WFC image of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko obtained on 14th October 2015. Credit:

The European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission is currently exploring comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, returning incredible views of this tiny frozen world. The Rosetta mission is a hugely ambitious endeavour – the first spacecraft to orbit a comet and follow it on its journey towards the Sun, accompanied by its lander, Philae, which made the first ever landing on a comet in November 2014. Observatories across the planet are supporting this mission, and the ING is playing an important part in this – especially in providing unique observations this year as the comet passed its closest point to the Sun and highest level of activity.

Researchers Catch Comet Lovejoy Giving Away Alcohol

Picture of the comet C/2014 Q2 (Lovejoy) on 12 February 2015 from 50km south of Paris. Credits: Fabrice Noel

Comet Lovejoy lived up to its name by releasing large amounts of alcohol as well as a type of sugar into space, according to new observations by an international team. The discovery marks the first time ethyl alcohol, the same type in alcoholic beverages, has been observed in a comet. The finding adds to the evidence that comets could have been a source of the complex organic molecules necessary for the emergence of life.

Kerberos Revealed by New Horizons

This image of Kerberos was created by combining four individual Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) pictures taken on July 14, approximately seven hours before New Horizons’ closest approach to Pluto, at a range of 245,600 miles (396,100 km) from Kerberos. The image was deconvolved to recover the highest possible spatial resolution and oversampled by a factor of eight to reduce pixilation effects. Kerberos appears to have a double-lobed shape, approximately 7.4 miles (12 kilometers) across in its long dimension and 2.8 miles (4.5 kilometers) in its shortest dimension. Image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

Images of Pluto’s tiny moon tiny Kerberos taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft – and just sent back to Earth this week – complete the family portrait of Pluto’s moons. Kerberos appears to be smaller than scientists expected and has a highly-reflective surface, counter to predictions prior to the Pluto flyby in July. “Once again, the Pluto system has surprised us,” said New Horizons Project Scientist Hal Weaver, of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland.

Looking at the Earliest Galaxies

This image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope shows the galaxy cluster MACS J0416.1–2403. This is one of six being studied by the Hubble Frontier Fields programme, which together have produced the deepest images of gravitational lensing ever made.  Due to the huge mass of the cluster it is bending the light of background objects, acting as a magnifying lens. Astronomers used this and two other clusters to find galaxies which existed only 600 to 900 million years after the Big Bang.  Credit: NASA, ESA and the HST Frontier Fields team (STScI)

Before light traveled across it, the universe was a dark place. For about a billion years after the Big Bang, the cosmos was cloaked in a thick fog of hydrogen gas that kept light trapped. But as early stars began to form, hydrogen began to clear through a process called “reionization”, letting light escape in all directions and turning the universe transparent. This event played a central role in the formation of the universe as we know it. Now, using observations from the Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers led by the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) have “looked back in time” by discovering over 250 of the earliest dwarf galaxies, and have also determined that these were vital to reionization. The work will be published in the Astrophysical Journal.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

NASA Completes Critical Design Review for Its Space Launch System

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

For the first time in almost 40 years, a NASA human-rated rocket has completed all steps needed to clear a critical design review (CDR). The agency’s Space Launch System (SLS) is the first vehicle designed to meet the challenges of the journey to Mars and the first exploration class rocket since the Saturn V. SLS will be the most powerful rocket ever built and, with the agency’s Orion spacecraft, will launch America into a new era of exploration to destinations beyond Earth’s orbit. The CDR provided a final look at the design and development of the integrated launch vehicle before full-scale fabrication begins.

Astronomers Peer Inside Stars, Finding Giant Magnets

Artistic representation (not to scale) of a red giant star with strong internal magnetic fields. Waves propagating through the star become trapped within the stellar core when a strong magnetic field is present, producing a "magnetic greenhouse effect" that reduces the observed amplitude of stellar pulsations. Credit: Rafael A. García (SAp CEA), Kyle Augustson (HAO), Jim Fuller (Caltech) & Gabriel Pérez (SMM, IAC), Photograph from AIA/SDO

Magnetic fields have important consequences in all stages of stellar evolution, from a star’s formation to its demise. Now, for the first time, astrophysicists are able to determine the presence of strong magnetic fields deep inside pulsating giant stars. A consortium of international researchers, including several from UC Santa Barbara’s Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics (KITP), used asteroseismology — a discipline similar to seismology — to track waves traveling through stars in order to determine their inner properties. Their findings appear in the journal Science.

ULA Prepares for GPS IIF-11 Satellite Launch

Artist's impression of a Block IIF GPS satellite in orbit. Image Credit: USAF

United Launch Alliance (ULA) gears up for the upcoming launch of the newest navigation satellite, designated GPS IIF-11, for the U.S. Air Force. The preparations of the Atlas V booster that will loft the satellite into space, are in full swing before the liftoff scheduled for Oct. 31 from the Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Landing Site Recommended for ExoMars 2018 Mission

Oxia Planum has been recommended by the Landing Site Selection Working Group as the primary candidate for the landing site of the ExoMars 2018 mission. Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin & NASA MGS MOLA Science Team

Oxia Planum has been recommended as the primary candidate for the landing site of the ExoMars 2018 mission. ExoMars 2018, comprising a rover and surface platform, is the second of two missions making up the ExoMars program, a joint endeavor between ESA and Russia’s Roscosmos. Launch is planned for May 2018, with touchdown on the Red Planet in January 2019.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Researchers Compile the Largest Astronomical Image of All Time

A small section of the Milky Way photo showing Eta Carinae  © Lehrstuhl für Astrophysik, RUB

Astronomers at the Ruhr-Universität Bochum in Germany, have compiled the largest astronomical image to date. The picture of the Milky Way contains 46 billion pixels. In order to view it, researchers headed by Prof Dr Rolf Chini from the Chair of Astrophysics have provided an online tool. The image contains data gathered in astronomical observations over a period of five years.

Cosmic 'Death Star' is Destroying a Planet

In this artist’s conception, a tiny rocky object vaporizes as it orbits a white dwarf star. Astronomers have detected the first planetary object transiting a white dwarf using data from the K2 mission. Slowly the object will disintegrate, leaving a dusting of metals on the surface of the star. Credits: CfA/Mark A. Garlick

The Death Star of the movie Star Wars may be fictional, but planetary destruction is real. Astronomers announced today that they have spotted a large, rocky object disintegrating in its death spiral around a distant white dwarf star. The discovery also confirms a long-standing theory behind the source of white dwarf "pollution" by metals. "This is something no human has seen before," says lead author Andrew Vanderburg of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA). "We're watching a solar system get destroyed."

Astronomers Catch a Black Hole Shredding a Star to Pieces

This illustration of a recently observed tidal disruption, named ASASSN-14li, shows a disk of stellar debris around the black hole at the upper left. A long tail of ejected stellar debris extends to the right, far from the black hole. The X-ray spectrum obtained with NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory (seen in the inset box) and ESA's XMM-Newton satellite both show clear evidence for dips in X-ray intensity over a narrow range of wavelengths. These dips are shifted toward bluer wavelengths than expected, providing evidence for a wind blowing away from the black hole. Credit: Spectrum: NASA/CXC/U.Michigan/J.Miller et al.; Illustration: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss

When a star comes too close to a black hole, the intense gravity of the black hole results in tidal forces that can rip the star apart. In these events, called tidal disruptions, some of the stellar debris is flung outward at high speeds, while the rest falls toward the black hole. This causes a distinct X-ray flare that can last for years. A team of astronomers, including several from the University of Maryland (UMD), has observed a tidal disruption event in a galaxy that lies about 290 million light years from Earth. The event is the closest tidal disruption discovered in about a decade, and is described in a paper published in the October 22, 2015 issue of the journal Nature.

Scientists Predict Cool New Phase of Superionic Ice that Could Exist on Uranus and Neptune

The cartoon shows the distribution of the MLWC (depicted in blue) in real space. The red and silver balls are the oxygen and hydrogen atoms, respectively. The MLWC distribution and atom position from a liquid water simulation at standard temperature and density is also shown for comparison (paler colours and dashed line). The dramatic change in the MLWC distribution signals a dramatic change in the chemical bond from low to high pressure phases of water. Credit:

Scientists have predicted a new phase of superionic ice, a special form of ice that could exist on Uranus and Neptune, in a theoretical study performed by a team of researchers at Princeton University. "Superionic ice is this in-between state of matter that we can't really relate to anything we know of -- that's why it's interesting," Salvatore Torquato, a Professor of Chemistry who jointly led the work with Roberto Car, the Ralph W. '31 Dornte Professor in Chemistry. Unlike water or regular ice, in superionic ice the water molecules dissociate into charged atoms called ions, with the oxygen ions locked in a solid lattice, while the hydrogen ions move like the molecules in a liquid.

Evolution of the Universe in an Unmatched Precision

Simulation of the visible structures of the universe: The most comprehensive simulation within the Magneticum Pathfinder Project covers the spatial area of a cube with a box size of 12.5 billion light years. Credit: Klaus Dolag/LMU,

Within modern cosmology, the Big Bang marks the beginning of the universe and the creation of matter, space and time about 13.8 billion years ago. Since then, the visible structures of the cosmos have developed: billions of galaxies which bind gas, dust, stars and planets with gravity and host supermassive black holes in their centers. But how could these visible structures have formed from the universe's initial conditions?

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Huge Asteroid to Zip by Earth on Halloween

A giant asteroid designated 2015 TB145 will zip by the Earth on Oct. 31 at around 1.3 lunar distances (LD) - approximately 310,000 miles. The space rock, about 1,542 feet in diameter, was recently spotted by NASA's Pan-STARRS I survey. The space research team expects the asteroid to fly by our planet with a speed of 78,000 mph. 2015 TB145 is the biggest known asteroid to sweep near Earth until 2027.

Obama Hosts Second Astronomy Night

President Barack Obama delivers remarks during the second White House Astronomy Night on Monday, Oct. 19, 2015. The second White House Astronomy Night brought together students, teachers, scientists, and NASA astronauts for a night of stargazing and space-related educational activities to promote the importance of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education. Photo Credit: (NASA/Joel Kowsky)

President Barack Obama hosted on Monday, Oct. 19, the second-ever White House Astronomy Night and highlighted the importance of inspiring more girls and boys with the wonder of science and space. The event brought together students, teachers, astronomers, engineers, scientists, and space enthusiasts for an evening of stargazing – a cherished hands-on learning activity. "I love astronomy night," the president said last night while addressing the crowd. "This is some of the most fun I have on this job."

Most Earth-Like Worlds Have Yet to be Born

This is an artist's impression of innumerable Earth-like planets that have yet to be born over the next trillion years in the evolving universe. Credits: NASA, ESA, and G. Bacon (STScI)

Earth came early to the party in the evolving universe. According to a new theoretical study published today in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, when our Solar System was born 4.6 billion years ago only eight percent of the potentially habitable planets that will ever form in the universe existed. And, the party won't be over when the sun burns out in another 6 billion years. The bulk of those planets - 92 percent - have yet to be born. This conclusion is based on an assessment of data collected by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope and the prolific planet-hunting Kepler space observatory.

Scientists Publish Case Study on Growing Food in Space

Matt Damon's character in "The Martian" growing plants on Mars. Credit: 20th Century Fox

Scientists at Washington State University and the University of Idaho are helping students figure out how to farm on Mars, much like astronaut Mark Watney, played by Matt Damon, attempts in the critically acclaimed movie "The Martian." Washington State University physicist Michael Allen and University of Idaho food scientist Helen Joyner teamed up to explore the challenge. Their five-page study guide was published online at the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science the day the movie premiered earlier this month, said Allen.

IBEX Sheds New Light on Solar System Boundary

This image shows a sky map of neutral oxygen atoms--represented by the variously colored pixels--coming towards (foreground) the IBEX spacecraft from the boundary of our solar system. The most intense feature, like a spotlight in the sky, is in red and shows interstellar oxygen wind coming towards IBEX, with the second wind component highlighted by the dashed yellow ellipse. The white dot indicates the direction in which Voyager 1 is heading away from the foreground. Voyager 1 currently traverses the layer of the heliosphere from which the second wind component originates. Image adapted from a figure in the ApJS paper authored by UNH graduate student Jeewoo Park.

A team of scientists presented findings from six years of direct observations made by NASA's Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX) mission of the interstellar wind that blows through our solar system in 14 papers published today in an Astrophysical Journal Supplement (ApJS) Special Issue. Launched Oct. 19, 2008, IBEX has now consolidated and refined the physical conditions of the material that surrounds our solar system--the interstellar medium--and has opened a new and unique view into the interface just outside our solar system's boundary.

Groundbreaking Space Observatory to Image Exoplanets and Tackle a Universe of Questions

An artist’s rendering of WFIRST-AFTA (Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope – Astrophysics Focused Telescope Assets). From the cover of the WFIRST-AFTA Science Definition Team Final Report (2013-05-23). Credit: NASA / Goddard Space Flight Center WFIRST Project – Mark Melton, NASA/GSFC

NASA’s Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) will try to answer vital questions in both exoplanet detection and dark energy research. The powerful role that spaceborne telescopes can play in the future was underscored by a seminal study in 2010 called New Worlds, New Horizons in Astronomy and Astrophysics, written by the U.S. National Research Council. That study, which laid out a blueprint for ground- and space-based astronomy and astrophysics for the decade of the 2010’s, rated WFIRST as the top-priority large-scale mission.

Monday, October 19, 2015

NASA’s Proposed Lucy Mission to Study the Fossils of Planet Formation

Artist's concept of Lucy mission. Image Credit: Southwest Research Institute

A NASA mission to study five primitive asteroids orbiting near Jupiter, called Trojans, has entered its concept design study phase. The spacecraft, named Lucy after the iconic hominin skeleton, will try to answer essential questions about the origin of our solar system. “The Trojans are objects that formed throughout the outer solar system. Thus, they contain important clues about how the giant planets formed. In addition, the Trojans were likely placed on their current orbits by the migration of the planets, and so they will also tell us about that process as well,” Harold F. Levison, the Principal Investigator for Lucy at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), told

Gored Clump Seen in Saturn's F Ring

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Saturn's dynamic F ring contains many different types of features to keep scientists perplexed. In this image we see features ring scientists call ''gores,'' to the right of the bright clump, and a ''jet,'' to the left of the bright spot. Thanks to the ring's interaction with the moons Prometheus and Pandora, and perhaps a host of smaller moonlets hidden in its core, the F ring is a constantly changing structure, with features that form, fade and re-appear on timescales of hours to days.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Curious Case of 'Young Jupiter' Exoplanet

An artistic conception of the Jupiter-like exoplanet, 51 Eridani b, seen in the near-infrared light that shows the hot layers deep in its atmosphere glowing through clouds. Because of its young age, this young cousin of our own Jupiter is still hot and carries information on the way it was formed 20 million years ago. Credit: Danielle Futselaar & Franck Marchis, SETI Institute.

The newly discovered exoplanet 51 Eridani b, located about 100 light years from our planet in the constellation Eridanus is a curious example of a young Jupiter-like planet, only 20 million years old. The exoplanet looks like an infant in its cradle when compared to our solar system’s biggest gas giant that was formed about 4.5 billion years ago. “Although many Jupiter analogs have been detected this is the closest Jupiter analog that has been directly imaged,” Fredrik Rantakyro, Gemini Planet Imager (GPI) scientist and one of the co-discoverers of 51 Eridani b, told

China’s Long March 3B Rocket Successfully Launches APStar-9 Satellite into Orbit

Chinese Long March 3B rocket launches APStar-9 satellite on Oct. 15, 2015. Photo Credit:

China successfully launched the APStar-9 commercial communications satellite using its Long March 3B rocket on Friday. The liftoff took place as scheduled at 12:16 p.m. EDT (16:16 GMT) from the Launch Area 2 (LA-2) at the Xichang Satellite Launch Center located in Sichuan province. During the mission, lasting approximately 26 minutes and ending in spacecraft separation, the rocket fired its third stage twice. Chinese media reported that monitoring data collected after the satellite separated from the launch vehicle, indicated that it had reached its designated geostationary transfer orbit (GTO), 142 degrees East longitude.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Study Questions Dates for Cataclysms on Early Moon, Earth

The deformed lunar zircon at center was brought from the moon by Apollo astronauts. The fractures characteristic of meteorite impact are not seen in most lunar zircons, so the ages they record probably reflect heating by molten rock, not impact.  Photo: Apollo 17/Nicholas E. Timms

Phenomenally durable crystals called zircons are used to date some of the earliest and most dramatic cataclysms of the solar system. One is the super-duty collision that ejected material from Earth to form the moon roughly 50 million years after Earth formed. Another is the late heavy bombardment, a wave of impacts that may have created hellish surface conditions on the young Earth, about 4 billion years ago. Both events are widely accepted but unproven, so geoscientists are eager for more details and better dates. Many of those dates come from zircons retrieved from the moon during NASA's Apollo voyages in the 1970s.

Large Solar Storms 'Dodge' Detection Systems on Earth

Solar flares can provoke geomagnetic perturbations to the Earth. Credit: NASA

According to observations from the Tihany Magnetic Observatory in Hungary, the indices used by scientists to assess the Sun's geomagnetic perturbations to the Earth are unable to detect some of these events, which could put both power supply and communication networks at risk. The Tihany Magnetic Observatory registered a solar storm similar to the largest one ever recorded while other observatories were completely unaware of the event.

Common Accretion across Young Stellar Objects, White Dwarfs, Black Holes and Supermassive Black Holes

The figure shows that the observed characteristic break frequencies, obtained from the power spectral density of various accreting systems, agree very well with the predicted characteristic break frequencies. The predicted frequencies have been derived by inserting the observed masses, radii, and mass accretion rates into the best-fit relationship to the combined supermassive black hole, stellar-mass black hole and accreting white dwarf sample. The figure additionally shows the position of the young-stellar object V866 Sco with the filled magenta circle. This demonstrates that the variability plane of accreting systems extends from supermassive black holes all the way to young-stellar objects. Figure extracted from Scaringi, S. et al, 2015, Science Advances, 1, e1500686

An international team of astronomers, led by Dr Simone Scaringi of the Max-Planck-Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, have discovered a previously unknown link between the way young stars, white dwarfs and black holes grow feeding from their surroundings. In a paper published in Science Advances, the authors show how the "flickering" in the brightness variations of young stellar objects (YSOs) - very young stars in the final stages of formation - is similar to the flickering seen from ancient black holes or white dwarfs as they violently pull matter from their surroundings in a process known as accretion.

ILS Launches Proton-M Rocket with Türksat-4B Communications Satellite

Proton-M launch of Türksat-4B on Oct. 16, 2015. Photo Credit: Roscosmos

International Launch Services (ILS) company successfully launched on Friday, Oct. 16, a Turkish communications satellite using a Russian Proton-M booster. Liftoff took place at 4:40 p.m. EDT (20:40 GMT) from the site 200/39 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The Türksat-4B satellite will be put into a geostationary orbit (GEO) 50° degrees East.