“Humankind hasn't had an experience like this--an encounter with a new planet--in a long time,” he Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute and the mission’s principal investigator. “Everything we see on Pluto will be a revelation.” One of the fastest spacecraft ever built -- NASA's New Horizons -- which is fast approaching Pluto's tiny moon, Hydra, is hurtling through the void at nearly one million miles per day. Launched in 2006, it has been in flight longer than some missions last, and it is nearing its unexplored destination.
Continue reading "New Horizon Spacecraft Racing Towards the "Unexplored Planet" --"Could Have Astrobiological Potential"" »
Conditions on Earth for the first 500 million years after it formed may have been surprisingly similar to the present day, complete with oceans, continents and active crustal plates. This alternate view of Earth’s first geologic eon, called the Hadean, has gained substantial new support from the first detailed comparison of zircon crystals that formed more than 4 billion years ago with those formed contemporaneously in Iceland, which has been proposed as a possible geological analog for early Earth.
Continue reading "Early Earth's Hadean Era --"Surprising Similar to Today --With Oceans, Continents and Tectonic Plates"" »
“If the Sun were less intense, Mercury would be within the habitable zone, and therefore life would have to adapt to strange light cycles,” said Sarah Brown, an astrobiologist at the United Kingdom Center for Astrobiology in Edinburgh, Scotland. Mercury has an oddball orbit — it takes longer for it to rotate on its axis and complete a day than it takes to orbit the sun and complete a year. Researchers suggest photosynthesis could take place on an alien planet with a similarly bizarre orbit, potentially helping support complex life.
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There is an ongoing drama in the Saturnian ring system that causes small moons to be born and then destroyed on time scales that are but an eyeblink in the history of the solar system. SETI Institute scientists Robert French and Mark Showalter have examined photos made by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft and compared them to 30 year-old pictures made by the Voyager mission. They find that there is a marked difference in the appearance of one of the rings, even over this cosmologically short interval, a difference that can be explained by the brief strut and fret of small moons.
Continue reading "Mystery of Missing Bright Spots in Saturn's Rings --Solved by New Cassini Pics" »
Over the history of the Earth, billions of football-sized rocks have landed on its surface, some only slightly heated by the launch, reaching Earth in a matter of a few months. Recent research on lunar rocks discovered in Antarctica has shown that rocks greater than 10 kilograms in mass could be ejected from terrestrial planets -rocks capable of carrying living microbes- and survive the searing violence of the launch.
Continue reading "1.3 Billion-Year-Old Mars Meteorite --"New Evidence of Possibility of Life on Mars?"" »
At a public lecture Einstein gave in Pittsburgh in 1934, four hundred students were present when Einstein mathematically derived his famous mass-energy equivalence equation: E=mc2. This is thought to be the only surviving photo that shows Einstein working on that derivation, pulled from a halftone newspaper clipping by David Topper and Dwight Vincent of the University of Winnipeg, who discovered it in 2007.
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Around 12,800 years ago, a sudden, catastrophic event plunged much of the Earth into a period of cold climatic conditions and drought. This drastic climate change—the Younger Dryas—coincided with the extinction of Pleistocene megafauna, such as the saber-tooth cats and the mastodon, and resulted in major declines in prehistoric human populations, including the termination of the Clovis culture. A new study published in The Journal of Geology provides support for the theory that a cosmic impact event over North America some 13,000 years ago caused a major period of climate change known as the Younger Dryas stadial, or “Big Freeze.”
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Planet Venus, with its thick atmosphere made of carbon dioxide, its parched surface, and pressures so high that landers are crushed within a few hours, offers scientists a chance to study a planet very foreign to our own. Mysterious holes in the planet's ionosphere provide additional clues to understanding Venus's atmosphere, how the planet interacts with the constant onslaught of solar wind from the sun, and perhaps even what's lurking deep in its core.
Continue reading "Gigantic Holes in Venus's Hellish Atmosphere Provides Clues to Long-Standing Enigmas" »
Astronomers searching the atmospheres of alien worlds for gases that might be produced by life can't rely on the detection of just one type, such as oxygen, ozone, or methane, because in some cases these gases can be produced non-biologically, according to extensive simulations by researchers in the NASA Astrobiology Institute’s Virtual Planetary Laboratory.
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Kepler researchers want to understand how terrestrial planets like Venus, Earth and Mars and gas giant planets like Jupiter are distributed in planetary systems around other stars. Understanding how planetary systems form and where different types of planets form can shed light on whether our solar system is unique, or more likely, is a "standard" form of planetary system formation.
Continue reading ""Is Our Solar System Unique or the 'Standard'?" --Kepler Mission Scientists " »
Quasars are supermassive black holes that live at the center of distant massive galaxies. They shine as the most luminous beacons in the sky across the entire electromagnetic spectrum by rapidly accreting matter into their gravitationally inescapable centers. New work from Carnegie’s Hubble Fellow Yue Shen and Luis Ho of the Kavli Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics (KIAA) at Peking University solves a quasar mystery that astronomers have been puzzling over for 20 years. Their work, published in the September 11 issue of Nature, shows that most observed quasar phenomena can be unified with two simple quantities: one that describes how efficiently the hole is being fed, and the other that reflects the viewing orientation of the astronomer.
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The question of how massive stars spend their short lives until they become supernovae is of great interest for astrophysicists. According to the standard theory, which is only applicable to isolated stars, only cool and extended (red supergiants) or hot and blue (Wolf-Rayet stars) are able to become supernovae. However, growing evidence suggests that most massive stars are not lonely singles but they belong to close binary systems with profuse interactions. Episodes of mass transfer between the members of binary star systems affect the way the stars evolve, meaning that there are a great many more potential scenarios for the final stages of supernova progenitors.
Continue reading "Supernova Puzzle Solved --"The Disappearing Yellow Supergiant"" »
A new survey of galaxies by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope is taking a plunge into the deep and uncharted waters of our cosmos. In one of the longest surveys the telescope will have ever performed, astronomers have begun a three-month expedition trawling for faint galaxies billions of light-years away. The results are already yielding big surprises.
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"Understanding organic dust is important, because such materials are more resistant to destruction during atmospheric entry, and some could have been delivered intact to the early Earth, thereby fueling the emergence of life,” said Michael Mumma, director of the Goddard Center for Astrobiology and a co-author on the study. "These observations open a new window on this poorly known component of cometary organics."
Continue reading ""Ghostly Organic Atmospheres of Comets Fueled the Emergence of Life" --Goddard Center for Astrobiology" »
The Milky Way galaxy is orbited by more than 150 globular star clusters, which are balls of hundreds of thousands of old stars dating back to the formation of the galaxy. One of these, along with several others in the constellation of Sagittarius (The Archer), was found in the late eighteenth century by the French comet hunter Charles Messier and given the designation Messier 54.
Continue reading "A Mystery of the Early Universe --"The Missing Element"" »
Scientists have found evidence of plate tectonics on Jupiter’s moon Europa. Plate tectonics are essential to life as we know it, according to Diana Valencia of Harvard University. Plate tectonics -the movement of huge chunks, or plates, of a planet's surface- are crucial to a planet's habitability because they enable complex chemistry and recycle substances like carbon dioxide, which acts as a thermostat and keeps Earth balmy. Carbon dioxide that was locked into rocks is released when those rocks melt, returning to the atmosphere from volcanoes and oceanic ridges. "Recycling is important even on a planetary scale," Valencia explained.
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The 2020 Mars rover has the overarching goal of seeking the signs of life, following up on the Curiosity rover's discovery at the Gale Crater landing site (above) that Mars could have been habitable billions of years ago. So the focus of the NASA science community is: Where would be the best place on Mars where evidence of life might have been preserved, according to Michael Meyer, NASA's lead scientist for the Mars program. NASA officials have identified more than 50 potential landing spots requested by the scientific community during a workshop held in May. Now, NASA officials working with the rover are going to start investigating those suggestions to see which will be the best fit for the spacecraft and its mission, specifically an area that isn't too rocky or high in altitude.
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A team of scientists At the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile has discovered the first evidence of water ice clouds on an object outside of our own Solar System. Water ice clouds exist on our own gas giant planets -- Jupiter, Saturn (above), Uranus, and Neptune -- but have not been seen outside of the planets orbiting our Sun until now.
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"Sunspots have been the perennial marker for understanding the mechanisms that rule the sun's interior," said Scott McIntosh, a space scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. "But the processes that make sunspots are not well understood, and far less, those that govern their migration and what drives their movement. Now we can see there are bright points in the solar atmosphere, which act like buoys anchored to what's going on much deeper down. They help us develop a different picture of the interior of the sun."
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Computer simulations of the formation of our galaxy suggest that there should be many more, smaller galaxies around the Milky Way than are observed through telescopes. This has thrown doubt on the generally accepted theory of cold dark matter, a substance that scientists predict should allow for more galaxy formation around the Milky Way than is seen. Cosmologists and particle physicists at the Institute for Computational Cosmology (ICC) and the Institute for Particle Physics Phenomenology (IPPP), at Durham University, working with colleagues at LAPTh College & University in France, think they have found a potential solution to the problem.
Continue reading ""There Should be Many More Smaller Galaxies Orbiting the Milky Way" --Astronomers Identify Cause" »
On January 21, 2014, astronomers witnessed a supernova soon after it exploded in the Messier 82, or M82, galaxy. Telescopes across the globe and in space turned their attention to study this newly exploded star, including Chandra. Astronomers determined that this supernova, dubbed SN 2014J, belongs to a class of explosions called “Type Ia” supernovas.
Continue reading "Image of the Day --Spectacular White-Dwarf Supernova Observed" »
The Eta Carinae star system does not lack for superlatives. Not only does it contain one of the biggest and brightest stars in our galaxy, weighing at least 90 times the mass of the sun, it is also extremely volatile and is expected to have at least one supernova explosion in the future.
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An international team that has discovered what they believe is evidence of a planet forming around a star about 335 light years from Earth. The team members initially set out to study the protoplanetary disk around a star known as HD 100546, and as sometimes happens in scientific inquiry, it was by "chance" that they stumbled upon the formation of the planet orbiting this star. A protoplanetary disk, or circumstellar disk, is a very large disk of material orbiting a newly formed star out of which a planetary system may form. The team was studying the warm gas in this disk using a technique called spectro-astrometry, which allows astronomers to detect small changes in the position of moving gas.
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"A metaphorical chip holding all the programming for our universe stores information like a quantum computer." This is the radical insight to the foundation of our Universe developed by Mark Van Raamsdonk, a professor of theoretical physics at the University of British Columbia, that says that the world we see around us is a projection from a set of rules written in simpler, lower-dimensional physics—just as the 2D code in a computer’s memory chip creates an entire virtual 3D world.
Continue reading ""A Strange New Theory of How Space-Time is Emerging" (Weekend Feature)" »
In 2013, huge active plumes containing water vapour being released from the surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa were discovered. This sensational find was made using the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. Europa has been a focus of extraterrestrial research for some time now, as there were clear indications that it harbors a liquid ocean beneath its icy crust. Now, it appears, the geysers have vanished.
Continue reading "The Mystery of Europa's Vanished Geysers --"Reached 200 Kilometers in Height"" »
NASA astronomers announced in 2012 that they can predict with certainty the next major cosmic event to affect our galaxy, sun, and solar system: the titanic collision of our Milky Way galaxy with the neighboring Andromeda galaxy. The Milky Way is destined to get a major makeover during the encounter, which is predicted to happen four billion years from now. It is likely the sun will be flung into a new region of our galaxy, but our Earth and solar system are in no danger of being destroyed.
Continue reading "A Vivid Preview of the Milky Way's Fate --A Collision of Two Galaxies When Universe was Half Its Current Age" »
“Dark matter is some unknown matter, most likely a new elementary particle or particles beyond the Standard Model,” said Mikhail Medvedev, professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Kansas. “It has never been observed directly, but it reveals itself via gravity it produces in the universe. There are numerous experiments around the world aimed at finding it directly.”
Continue reading "New 'Weird Physics' Theory of Dark Matter --"Has Several Masses Simultaneously"" »
The NASA Kepler Space Telescope has confirmed about 1000 exoplanets, as well as thousands more stars considered “Kepler objects of interest”, dubbed KOIs – stars that could possibly host planets. Until now, there has been an unanswered question about exoplanet host stars; how many host stars are binaries? Binary stars have long been known to be commonplace – about half the stars in the sky are believed to consist of two stars orbiting each other.
Continue reading ""Exoplanet Systems with Binary Stars are Much More Common than was Believed Even a Few Years Ago”" »
Astronomers have determined that our own Milky Way galaxy is part of a newly identified ginormous supercluster of galaxies, which they have dubbed "Laniakea," which means "immense heaven" in Hawaiian. This discovery clarifies the boundaries of our galactic neighborhood and establishes previously unrecognized linkages among various galaxy clusters in the local Universe.The Milky Way resides in the outskirts of the supercluster, whose extent has for the first time been carefully mapped using these new techniques. This so-called Laniakea Supercluster is 500 million light-years in diameter and contains the mass of one hundred million billion Suns spread across 100,000 galaxies.
Continue reading "Milky Way Found to Exist on Outskirts of a Vast Supercluster of 100,000 Galaxies" »