Author Archives: Josephine Kanini

NASA Picks Four Potential Landing Sites for 2016 Mars Mission

Mars is the planet we have explored most in the solar system but we are not even close to uncovering the mysteries of the red planet.  NASA has an unmanned Mars lander mission scheduled for 2016. Currently, scientists are evaluating potential landing sites for the lander. From 22 potential landing sites, NASA has now narrowed down to four.

NASAs Mars Insight Lander

NASAs Mars Insight Lander Image Source

The four sites are located near each other in an equatorial plain located in the Elysium Planitia region of Mars. This choice wasn’t guided by the suitability of the site for mission objectives. Mission safety and survival were the main concerns.

These four sites are the safest for landing because of the smooth terrain which has a few rocks and little slope. All the four are located in an area near the equator to ensure that the lander’s solar array has adequate power all year round. The region also has low elevation to ensure there is sufficient atmosphere above the site for a safe landing.

What Is The Mission About?

The lander is known as InSight, which stands for Interior Exploration Using Seismic Investigations Geodesy and Heat Transport. It is set to launch in March 2016, travel to Mars for six months and land in September 2016.

The probe will explore the interior of Mars and not the surface. This study will help us gain a deeper understanding of the processes that formed and shaped the rocky planets of the inner solar system including Earth. Being a stationery lander, it will not move about on the surface of mars like the Mars Exploration Rovers.

Now NASA scientists will focus two of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s cameras to study the four sites and select the best site for the landing mission.

 

 

Weekly Space News Round-up, August 31-September 6

Researchers Observe an Exoplanet with a Water Rich Atmosphere  

As the search for Earth like and potentially habitable planets outside the solar system (exoplanets) continues, a Japanese Team of astronomers and planetary scientists has observed what seems to be a water rich atmosphere on an exoplanet.

Artists Concept of The Transit of GJ 1214b in Blue Light

Artists Concept of The Transit of GJ 1214b in Blue Light Image Source

This exoplanet is known as GJ 1214b. It is 40 light years from us and was discovered in 2009. Its mass and radius is larger than that of Earth but smaller than that of ice giants such as Neptune and Uranus making it a super earth.

The researchers made blue light observations of the light scattering of GJ 1214b’s transit around its star to determine whether its atmosphere is rich in water or hydrogen.

What they found hints that the planet has a water-rich atmosphere and their findings are consistent with findings from observations made in other colors. The researchers plan to make follow-up observations to confirm their findings.

Possibility to Observe Dark Energy Turn On

Our universe has been and is expanding. The force of gravity should be slowing down the rate of expansion but it is not. The universe is expanding much faster now.  The force accelerating the expansion remains a mystery but cosmologists have considered different possibilities. The most accepted theory is a mysterious force known as dark energy.

We cannot see dark energy directly but there is a possibility that astronomers will see it turn on and learn more about its nature in the Dark Energy Survey.

A five year mission to map an eighth of the sky in incredible detail creating a time lapse movie of the past 8 billion years of a section of the universe is going on at the Cerro Tololo astronomical Observatory in Chile.

On a moonless night, it gets so incredibly dark outside this observatory that you cannot see your feet or hands. If you hold your hands up to the sky in the pitch darkness, you see a hand shaped hole with no stars in it.

Supermassive Black Holes Keep Galaxies from Expanding

The universe is expanding. Galaxies are not. Scientists have always wondered why. Something mysterious must be regulating their rate of star formation and keeping them from growing more massive or overflowing with stars.

New observations have shown one supermassive black hole’s jets blowing huge amounts of potential star forming material clear out of its galaxy. These powerful jets keeping the raw material for star formation out of galaxies may be the reason why galaxies are not getting bigger. For example, the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy might be preventing our galaxy from expanding.

September Night Sky: See Venus and Moon Together on Sept 8

Get your telescopes ready this Sunday evening (Sept 8) to watch Venus and the Moon together in the sky. The crescent moon will pass near the dazzling planet Venus.

The best time to view this event is just before and after sunset. If you live in Argentina or Chile, you are especially lucky as you will have an opportunity to witness the spectacular event known as an occultation where the moon will actually pass in front of Venus.

NASA Prepares for First Virginia Space Coast Launch to the Moon

If you’ve never witnessed a launch to the Moon, here is good news for you. NASA is about to send a new probe to the moon. The new mission is not a landing mission but it is a great opportunity to witness a launch to the moon.

Artist Illustration of The LADEE Probe Orbiting the Moon

Artist Illustration of The LADEE Probe Orbiting the Moon Image Source

The probe is known as LADEE, which stands for Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer. It is a small, car size robotic probe that has the innovative and budget friendly common bus design.

Final preparations to launch it on September 6 are ongoing. It will launch from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island aboard a US Air Force Minotaur V rocket, an excess ballistic missile converted into a space launch rocket. It will begin its mission and activities one month after launch.

The probe will study the structure and composition of the thin lunar atmosphere and investigate whether dust is being lofted into the lunar sky. Its findings will answer prevailing questions about the moon and give insights on other bodies in the solar system.

The Moon’s atmosphere is believed not to be so different from that of other bodies in the solar system. By understanding the characteristics and atmosphere of the moon, scientists will be able to understand other bodies in the solar system including other natural satellites, asteroids, comets and planets. It will also test the common bus design to inform its application on future missions.

A Mission of Many Firsts

The LADEE mission is a mission with many firsts. It is the first spacecraft designed, developed, built, integrated and tested by NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffat Field, California. It is the first flight of the Minotaur V rocket testing of a high data rate laser communication system. Finally, it is the first launch beyond Earth orbit from NASA’s Virginia space coast launch facility.

Weekly Space News Roundup, August 24-30

Magmatic Water Found on the Moon’s Surface

The discovery of liquid water anywhere else in the universe other than Earth is always a big deal because water is considered a necessity of life.

Scientists have detected magmatic water on the surface of our Moon. Magmatic water is water that comes from deep within the Moon’s interior, in the lunar crust and mantle.

This is the first time such a detection of this type of lunar water has occurred. For years, the rocks on the moon were believed to be completely dry. Some water was detected in Apollo samples but was assumed to be contamination from Earth.

Then a few years ago, the interior of the moon was revealed not be to be as dry as previously believed. Around the same time, a thin layer of water was found on the lunar surface. It was taken to result from solar wind interacting with the surface of the Moon.

The discovery published in the August 25 issue of Nature Geoscience adds to the understanding of lunar water and opens up possibilities for farther studies.

Prepare To Take a Peek of Comet ISON This September

Get ready to spot Comet ISON this September by keeping your telescope ready.

Astronomers are following this comet as it brightens. It will appear as a glowing dirty snowball. It could make just a good show or a spectacular show that will make history.

In early September, it will come within range of 8 inch telescope and 4-inch telescope at the end of the month.

Since it is approaching Earth from the morning side, it is best viewed two hours before sunrise as it lies low in the East before dawn.

For information on how best to view it and charts of its location go to Astronomy.com

Are We All Martians?

A team of researchers claim to have found evidence that we are all Martians supporting the long debated theory that life on Earth started on Mars then landed on Earth through rocks flung after massive collisions with asteroids or comets.

Professor Steven Benner, a reputable American chemist, presented the controversial theory on August 29 claiming that Earthlings are Martians. His claims are based on findings by his team of researchers and will probably raise debate and controversy on the origin of life.

The Mars Curiosity Roverfound evidence of liquid water on Mar’s past indicating that the red planet might have harbored life in the past. Additionally, about 120 asteroids whose origin is Mars have been found on Earth.

Our Galaxy’s Supermassive Black Hole is a Sloppy Eater

At the center our galaxy, the Milky Way, there is a supermassive black hole. It is like a monster; gigantic, dark and greedy. For a long time, it was believed to consume anything that comes near it. Not any more!

The Chandra X-ray Observatory has revealed that it is a sloppy eater. It does not consume everything that comes close to it. It spits back some of the material into space.

A cool image shows it capturing hot gas ejected by nearby stars and funneling it towards its event horizon indicating that it does not devour everything.

 

New Earth Size Exoplanet Discovered

700 light years from us is an Earth size planet where almost three years pass in the time it takes for Earth to rotate on its own axis. Welcome to Kepler 78b!

Kepler 78b Orbiting Its Star At A Very Close Distance

Kepler 78b Orbiting Its Star At A Very Close Distance Image Source: National Geographic

We just learnt of its existence this year when a team of astronomers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) detected the exoplanet when studying the data collected by the Kepler Space Telescope in its observation of more than 150,000 stars in a section of the galaxy to look for Earth size planets.

They named the new exoplanet Kepler 78b and the discovery was published in the Astrophysical Journal.

Kepler 78b Has One of the Shortest Orbital Periods

When they made the discovery, the team was focused on finding Earth size planets that have extremely short orbital periods. They found one of the shortest orbital periods ever discovered.

The new exoplanet orbits its star in 8.5 hours. That is how short a year is there.

The fact that it is extremely close to its parent star means that it only has a little distance to cover in its orbit.

In fact, it is 40 times closer to its star than Mercury is to the sun.

Its star rotates at a speed more than twice that of the sun indicating that it is probably a relatively young star that has not had much time to slow down.

Kepler 78b is a small fireball of a planet

It is so near its star that its surface temperatures is likely to be as high as a scorching 3000 degrees Kelvin. Its surface is covered by a massive ocean of lava.

Scientists are planning to study the gravitational effect it has on its star given its close proximity and use the results to estimate its mass.

Kepler 78b is an Earth Size Exoplanet

The new exoplanet is the size of Earth. To determine its size, astronomers measured the light emitted by the planet and determined the amount by which the overall light dimmed when the planet passed behind the star.

This discovery marks the first time that astronomers managed to detect the light given off by a planet that small. The light is emitted by radiation from its heated surface and the light reflected by the lava and atmospheric vapor on its surface. By studying the light using advanced telescopes, we could learn more about the planet’s composition, surface and reflective properties.

Is Kepler 78b A Habitable Exoplanet?

Given its close proximity to its star and the scorching temperature, Kepler 78b is most likely not habitable.

Living there would be like living on a volcano. Its surface is covered by molten lava.

 

Weekly Space News Roundup, August 16-23

The Sharpest Photos of the Night Sky Ever Taken

Astronomers have captured the sharpest images of the night sky ever!

Sharpest Photo of the Night Sky Ever Taken

Sharpest Photo of the Night Sky Ever Taken Image Source

The photos were taken by the Magellan Telescope with a new type of camera that is able to capture extremely sharp images.

Astronomers at the University of Arizona, the Arcetri Observatory and the Carnegie Observatory spent twenty years developing the camera.

Their efforts finally paid off when the camera captured the sharpest images of the night sky ever.

The Magellan camera has a 21-foot diameter mirror and can take sharper images than the Hubble telescope camera that has an 8-foot mirror.

The camera is so powerful that it can see a dime more than 100 miles away. Its resolution is so powerful that it can see a baseball diamond on the moon from Earth.

Juno Has Completed Half of Its Journey to Jupiter

Did you know that NASA has a spacecraft headed to Jupiter, the largest planet in the solar system, right now?

The spacecraft is called Juno and it has already completed half of its five years long journey to Jupiter.

Launched on August 5 2011, it reached this significant milestone on 12 August 2013.

Come October, it will fly by close to Earth for a speed boost that will propel it to its destination.

It is expected to arrive to its destination on July 4 2016.

Once there, it will orbit Jupiter 33 times, peer through Jupiter’s dense clouds and use its instruments to study the gas giant.

Artists Concept of Juno Spacecraft Orbiting Above Jupiter

Artists Concept of Juno Spacecraft Orbiting Above Jupiter Image Source: National Geographic

Image of Earth Waving at Saturn Released

Did You Wave at Saturn on July 19?

The image of Earth waving at Saturn was released on August 21.

For the first time, Earth knew that its picture was been taken and its inhabitants could pose and wave at the planet.

The wave at Saturn event was organized by NASA’s Cassini mission on July 19 when the Cassini spacecraft turned towards Earth to take our picture.

During the pose waving at the ringed planet, people shared more than 1,400 images of themselves waving at Saturn.

Now the mission team has used the images to create a collage as below:

Earth Waves at Saturn and Cassini on July 19, 2013

Earth Waves at Saturn and Cassini on July 19, 2013 You Can View The Full Resolution Image Here

WISE Spacecraft Back To Work to Hunt for Asteroids

The retired Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) spacecraft has been reactivated to hunt for asteroids.

The spacecraft was switched off two and a half years ago and will resume operation in September 2013 for three more years.

During its new mission, it will determine the population of potentially hazardous near-Earth objects including asteroids and comets and identify the ones worthy of asteroid missions for farther exploration.

During its original mission, it discovered and characterized thousands of asteroids in the solar system.

Artist Concept of the WISE Spacecraft Orbiting Earth

Artist Concept of the WISE Spacecraft Orbiting Earth Image Source

 

Galaxies 11 Billion Years Ago Surprises Astronomers

Have you ever wondered how the universe looked like billions of years ago? Human beings have always wanted to know how the young universe was like. If only time travel were possible!

Hubble has managed to look way back in time and observe the true shape and size of different types of galaxies 11 billion years ago.

Scientists are surprised because what they have observed is not at all what they had expected to the universe to have been like.

Galaxies Today, 4 Billion Years Ago and 11 Billion Years Ago

Galaxies Today, 4 Billion Years Ago and 11 Billion Years Ago Image Source: ESA

What is The Hubble Sequence?

Astronomers use a system known as the Hubble sequence to classify galaxies. This system classifies galaxies according to their morphology and star forming activities.

There are spiral, elliptical and irregularly shaped galaxies. Today, the two main types of galaxies observed are spiral and elliptical with lenticular types falling in between.

The True Shape and Size of Galaxies 11 Billion Years Ago

To determine the morphology of the galaxies 11 billion years ago, Astronomers have used observations from Hubble’s CANDLE Survey to study the shapes, sizes and colors of distant galaxies covering the last 80% of the history of the universe.

They examined the anatomy of distant galaxies when the universe was very young and only galaxies existed.

In the observations, the galaxies look even more mature than was estimated by galaxy formation models that early in the history of the universe.

Apparently back then there were blue star forming galaxies with complex shapes and massive red galaxies no longer forming stars. Galaxies as large as the Milky Way were observed.

The First Comprehensive Study of Distant Galaxies

The Hubble observation is the first extensive study of the galaxies that existed far back in time.

Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3) high resolution and strong sensitivity observed the infrared universe to study the galaxies in their visible rest form and compare them with galaxies today.

With these observations, astronomers can analyze a large number of these galaxies consistently and to details. This observation will help us learn more about galaxies in the early universe.

The Hubble Sequence Applied 11 Billion Years Ago

Astronomers knew that the Hubble sequence applied as far as 8 billion years ago. These observations confirm that galaxies this far back in time fit into the different classifications of the Hubble sequence. It shows that the sequence was accurate as far as 11 billion years ago.

Now that the Hubble Sequence is the basis of much of what we know about how galaxies form and evolve, it is great to know that it is consistent with how the galaxies were 11 billion years ago.

Weekly Space News Roundup, August 10-16

What Next for Disabled Kepler Space Telescope?

This is the exact question NASA’s scientists are asking themselves after engineers were unable to restore its damaged two wheels. They scientists are now on a mission to find a new mission for the probe.

Artist Concept of Kepler Space Telescope

Artist Concept of Kepler Space Telescope Image Source

Problems started in May 2013 when two reaction wheels failed due to friction. Engineers tried to bring the wheels back to life in vain.

Now that it can’t focus its three wheels to search for Earth size planets, a new use has to be found for it since its systems and cameras are still working perfectly.

It could focus on the exoplanets it has discovered so far or start looking for alien worlds, comets, asteroids and supernovas.

During its original mission, it discovered 135 confirmed exoplanets and 3500 planet candidates that require farther observations to confirm their existence.

Has Voyager 1 Finally Left the Solar System?

Controversy surrounds voyager 1’s location. Some astronomers believe it already left the solar system and entered interstellar space to begin exploring the Milky Way galaxy while some believe that it is still at the boundary where the sun’s influence begins to wane.

According to a University of Maryland team of scientists, Voyager 1 has left the solar system and entered interstellar space becoming the first manmade object to officially leave the solar system.

However, NASA and some other scientists believe the spacecraft is still in a transition zone between the solar system and the rest of the Milky Way galaxy.

Voyager 1 At The Edge of The Solar System

Voyager 1 At The Edge of The Solar System Image Source

Perseid Meteor Showers on the August Night Sky

August 12 and August 13 were the best days to view the annual Perseid meteor shower, a spectacular natural display of fireworks.

This shower originates from a radiant in the constellation of Perseus and is active every year from around 17 July to August 24 and is visible with the naked eye.

During this year’s Perseid meteor shower photographer Michael K. Chung and several others surprisingly captured a meteor explosion of a shock wave or debris ring on the early morning of August 12.

Mars Curiosity Rover Captures Phobos and Deimos Together

The Mars Science Laboratory aka Curiosity Rover captured the two moons of Mars together in the sky.

It captured about 41 images on August 1 when one moon eclipsed the other. The mission team used the images to create a time-lapse movie of the two moons.

This is the first time that the two moons have been imaged together from the Martian surface. The Mars Express Orbiter had captured them together from orbit.