Archive for Outer Space

NASA’s Kepler spacecraft finds first alien planet of new mission


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    This artist’s concept shows the first planet discovered by NASA’s Kepler spacecraft during its K2 mission, a “super Earth” called HIP 116454b. The planet has a diameter of 20,000 miles, weighs 12 times as much as Earth and orbits its star once (David A. Aguilar (CfA))

NASA’s Kepler space telescope is discovering alien planets again.

The prolific spacecraft has spotted its first new alien planet since being hobbled by a malfunction in May 2013, researchers announced Dec. 18. The newly discovered world, called HIP 116454b, is a “super Earth” about 2.5 times larger than our home planet. It lies 180 light-years from Earth, in the constellation Pisces — close enough to be studied by other instruments, scientists said.

“Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, Kepler has been reborn and is continuing to make discoveries,” study lead author Andrew Vanderburg, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), said in a statement. “Even better, the planet it found is ripe for follow-up studies.” [Gallery: A World of Kepler Planets]

Kepler launched in March 2009, on a 3.5-year mission to determine how frequently Earth-like planets occur around the Milky Way galaxy. The spacecraft has been incredibly successful to date, finding nearly 1,000 confirmed planets — more than half of all known alien worlds — along with about 3,200 other “candidates,” the vast majority of which should turn out to be the real deal.

The spacecraft finds planets by the “transit method,” watching for the telltale dimming caused when a world cross the face of, or transits, its parent star from Kepler’s perspective. Such work requires incredibly precise pointing — an ability the spacecraft lost in May 2013, when the second of its four orientation-maintaining reaction wheels failed.

But the Kepler team didn’t give up on the spacecraft. They devised a way to increase Kepler’s stability by using the subtle pressure of sunlight, then proposed a new mission called K2, which would continue Kepler’s exoplanet hunt in a limited fashion and also study other cosmic objects and phenomena, such as active galaxies and supernova explosions.

NASA greenlit K2 for two years in May of this year, but Kepler first detected HIP 116454b even earlier. Vanderburg and his colleagues — who developed special software to analyze data gathered by the spacecraft in its compromised state — noticed a single transit of the planet in Kepler observations from a nine-day test run in February.

The astronomers then confirmed the discovery using the HARPS-North spectrograph on the Telescopio Nazionale Galileo in the Canary Islands, off the west coast of Africa.

HIP 116454b is about 20,000 miles wide and is 12 times more massive than Earth, scientists said. The planet’s density suggests that it is either primarily covered by water or is a “mini Neptune” with a large, thick atmosphere.

HIP 116454b lies just 8.4 million miles from its host star, an “orange dwarf” slightly smaller and cooler than the sun, and completes one orbit every 9.1 days. The close-orbiting planet is too hot to host life as we know it, researchers said.

The planet’s relative proximity to Earth means it will likely attract further attention in the future.

“HIP 116454b will be a top target for telescopes on the ground and in space,” said study co-author John Johnson, of Harvard University and the CfA.

The new study has been accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal.

While HIP 116454b is the first planet spotted by Kepler in its current state, it isn’t the first world to be confirmed in the wake of the May 2013 glitch. Many other discoveries have rolled in since then, as researchers work to validate the trove of planet candidates Kepler detected during its prime mission.


NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft wakes up for Pluto encounter in 2015


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    This artist’s rendering shows NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft during its flyby of Pluto and its moons on July 14, 2015. The spacecraft awoke from its final hibernation period on Dec. 6, 2014 in preparation for the epic Pluto encounter at the edg (Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute (JHUAPL/SwRI))

Pluto, get ready for your close-up: A NASA spacecraft has roused itself from the final slumber of its nine-year trek to the edge of the solar system, setting the stage for the first close encounter with Pluto next year.

The New Horizons spacecraft, currently located 2.9 billion miles from Earth, had been in hibernation since August — with most of its systems turned off to reduce wear. But late Dec. 6, mission scientists received a confirmation signal from New Horizons at the probe’s Mission Operations Center at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md. The probe is now wide awake for its 2015 flyby of Pluto.

At the time of its wakeup call, New Horizons was just over 162 million miles from Pluto. About 20 people gathered in a conference room here at APL to await the signal from New Horizons. [Photos from NASA’s New Horizons Pluto Probe]

Wake up, Pluto probe

First word from the probe arrived at about 9:30 p.m. ET on Dec. 6 — generating a burst of happy applause from the attendees, including Alan Stern, New Horizon’s principle investigator, and Jim Green, NASA’s director of planetary sciences.

At 9:52 p.m. ET, mission managers confirmed that New Horizons was awake, with all systems functioning normally. The wakeup sets the stage for the probe’s flyby of Pluto on July 14, 2015.

“This is the turning of a page. This is changing from a mission in cruise to a mission at its destination,” said Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. Stern popped a champagne bottle and offered a toast to the mission following the signal confirmation.

New Horizons even got a wakeup song to mark the occasion: the tune “Where My Heart Will Take Me” by English tenor Russell Watson. The song, which included a special greeting from Watson for New Horizons, was played in the mission operations center after the confirmation signal was received. You canhear Watson’s New Horizons wakeup song here.

Epic Pluto encounter ahead

New Horizons will begin its Pluto science campaign in January, and will make its closest approach to Pluto in July. It will explore the outer-most and most-populated region of the solar system, the Kuiper belt, which is full of rocky, icy objects that have remained largely unchanged since the formation of the solar system.

“This is the place that this spacecraft was built to operate, and these are the operations that this team has waited a decade to actually go and execute,” Stern said. “So it’s game time.”

NASA launched the New Horizons mission in 2006 on a $700 million mission to be the first spacecraft ever to see Pluto and its five moons up close. The piano-size spacecraft is powered by a nuclear power source and has traveled nearly 3 billion miles to reach Pluto in a mere nine years, making it the fastest space probe ever launched). It has spent two-thirds of its journey in a hibernation state that has both prolonged the life of the instruments and reduced staff costs on the ground.

While New Horizons has gone through 18 hibernation periods, sleeping for about 1,873 days in all, this is the last one before it begins taking data on the Pluto system.

For 20 weeks of its flyby of Pluto, New Horizons will provide better photos of Pluto and its moons than those taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, Stern said. In analogy, if the spacecraft were flying over a city it would be able to count the individual buildings on the ground. New Horizons may also identify as-yet-unknown moons or rings around Pluto.

At the wake-up event, Stern handed out small, 2-inch-long pencils — whittled down from extensive use.

“This is the metaphor for persistence,” Stern said, holding up the pencil stub. “Since this mission went through so many ups and downs — the way the exploration of Pluto did — I thought this was an appropriate thing to give away. It’s very simple, but it’s meaningful.”

NASA’s new Orion spacecraft lifts off on first test flight


NASA’s Orion spacecraft blasts off in historic test flight

After scrubbing the initial launch on Thursday, NASA’s new Orion spacecraft made its inaugural test flight on Friday, lifting off from Cape Canaveral, Fla., at 7:05 a.m. ET.

Friday’s 4 hour and 23 minute orbital mission will take Orion deeper into space than any spacecraft built for humans has traveled in more than 40 years.

The unmanned flight, dubbed Exploration Flight Test-1, will provide NASA with vital information on the spacecraft’s performance. NASA plans to eventually use Orion on ambitious manned missions to Mars and an asteroid.

The launch was pushed back from Thursday after a series of delays and technical glitches, with NASA engineers focusing their attention on the ‘fill-and-drain’ valves on the Delta IV Heavy Rocket that carries Orion on the first stage of its journey. In a blog post, NASA explained that liquid nitrogen valves failed to close properly late in Thursday’s countdown to launch. During normal operation the valves stay open during fueling and shut tight a few minutes before liftoff to seal the fuel tank.

The Delta IV rockets performed well during Friday’s launch. “It was an awesome job, an awesome job by the Delta IV team,” said Mark Geyer, NASA’s Orion program manager, shortly after liftoff.

The launch comes at a crucial time for U.S. spaceflight, which has recently suffered some high-profile setbacks. On Oct. 28 an unmanned Antares rocketexploded in a fireball shortly after liftoff from a NASA launchpad in Wallops Island, Virginia. Just three days later Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo space tourism rocket crashed during a test flight over the Mojave Desert, killing one of the two pilots aboard and seriously injuring the other.

During Friday’s test flight, Orion will orbit earth twice, covering more than 60,000 miles and reaching an altitude of 3,600 miles, almost 14 times beyond the International Space Station’s orbit. Orion is expected to reach its peak altitude 3 hours and 5 minutes into its flight.

The successor to the now-retired Space Shuttles is expected to reach a speed of 20,000 mph on its return through the earth’s atmosphere, generating temperatures around 4,000 degrees on the spacecraft’s heat shield. The 16.5-foot heat shield has been described by NASA as the largest and most advanced of its kind.

The mission will also provide a crucial test of Orion’s avionics and control systems, as well as the parachutes that will deploy on its return to earth. Orion isrigged with 1,200 sensors to gauge its durability for the day when astronauts climb aboard during the decade ahead.

Eventually Orion will carry a crew of four astronauts to deep space destinations, which include an asteroid to be corralled in lunar orbit for human exploration in the 2020s, followed by Mars in the 2030s.

Orion’s crew module is expected to splashdown in the Pacific Ocean about 600 miles off the coast of Baja California, where it will be retrieved by a joint NASA and U.S. Navy team. Orion will be brought back to the U.S. on board the USS Anchorage.

The $370 million test flight is being managed by NASA contractor Lockheed Martin. The Delta IV Heavy Rocket was built by United Launch Alliance.

Future Orion launches will use the mega rocket still under development by NASA, known as SLS or Space Launch System. The first Orion-SLS launch is targeted for 2018, unmanned, followed by the first piloted mission in 2021.

Space tourists face unique health risks



Space tourists may soon be plunking down six figures and buying passage to a low-earth orbit – but they should know there are likely to be health risks, experts say.

Both coming and going, spaceflight can threaten tourists’ health, with potential dangers from higher gravitational forces during acceleration, and space motion sickness that strikes some people in low and zero-gravity.

Outside of the Earth’s protective magnetosphere, space radiation might also pose a risk, possibly to implanted medical devices.

And a hidden threat might be the unpredictable ways people act while confined in a ship in this new situation.

But the experts’ bottom-line message? There’s too little information now to definitively answer the question of who is fit for this kind of travel.

“We don’t have a specific list of conditions that would be disqualifying, but certainly uncontrolled medical problems (whether it’s hypertension or heart disease or lung disease, or many other conditions), would most likely cause concern and result in disqualification,” Dr. Tarah Castleberry, an assistant professor of aerospace medicine at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, told Reuters Health by email.

Castleberry and her colleagues are a part of an academic network created by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration to assess challenges in commercial spaceflight. Recently in the quarterly journal New Space they published an outline of what remains to be done to understand the health risks (see

So far, most data on the risk of spaceflight comes from professional astronauts. But space tourists will likely be a much more diverse group, with a broader range of health conditions.

Earlier this year, researchers from Castleberry’s group ran 335 volunteers through a centrifuge that simulates the forces of acceleration in spaceflight. Most had one of five medical conditions: hypertension, diabetes, back or neck problems, cardiovascular or lung disease.

No one suffered significant damage or setbacks from the experience, the researchers reported last July in the journal Aviation, Space and Environmental Medicine ( The most common complaint was grayout, the blurred vision that is a precursor to blackout, which occurred in more than two-thirds of the volunteers. Twenty percent had nausea, and six percent had chest discomfort.

With historical data so limited, it’s difficult to make predictions, the researchers say.

They have drawn up a shopping list of tools that could answer some of these questions and offset risks. Their to-do list includes setting medical standards for spaceflight crew and developing training and risk management systems. They also want to create a health database to collect information from space tourists.

Fliers could potentially wear monitoring devices, the researchers say – but most off-the-shelf products are not up to the task. New devices may have to be developed to track heart rate, breathing, skin temperature and other useful measurements.

Those measures may start to fill the gap in medical knowledge about this new endeavor, but more study and more scientific publication is needed.

“The aerospace medical profession is one of the smallest and least published fields in scientific literature,” Drs. Natacha Chough and Rebecca Blue, also at the University of Texas Medical Branch, wrote in a New Space editorial.

The problem with the lack of data may be compounded by the public’s high expectations for safety.

“The only real reference point right now is commercial air travel, and we are a victim of our own excellent safety measures,” says Dr. Clay Cowl, chair of the Division of Preventive, Occupational and Aerospace Medicine at Mayo Clinic in Rochester Minnesota, who was not involved in Castleberry’s research.

“My fear is that public tolerance for a bad outcome is not like it was when we introduced the public to regular flight in fixed-wing aircraft. There were a lot of health risks at that time before we came up with things like pressurized cabins, before we came up with ways to mitigate the problems with traveling at altitude,” Cowl told Reuters Health by phone.

Something that’s a nuisance on the ground can become an emergency during the flight. Indigestion, for example, could become a medical concern as pockets of gas trapped in the body expand at high altitudes, Cowl says. And unexpected behavior could become a problem if the flight triggers a phobia or a passenger gets angry.

“In credit to the groups thinking about space flight, my opinion is that we’re going to have to figure out ways to mitigate potential side effects of this travel as much as possible because I don’t know what the public appetite is going to be to tolerate in-flight emergencies and catastrophes,” Cowl said.

NASA launching new Orion spacecraft on test flight, Thursday debut paving way for Mars visits

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FILE – In this Nov. 12, 2014 file photo, after a 22-mile journey from the Launch Abort System Facility at the Kennedy Space Center, the Orion Spacecraft arrives at Space Launch Complex 37B at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, in Cape Canaveral, Fla. The test flight for Orion is scheduled to launch on Dec. 4. (AP Photo/John Raoux, File) (The Associated Press)

NASA’s quest to send astronauts out into the solar system begins this week with a two-laps-around-Earth test flight.

The new Orion spacecraft is not going to Mars just yet; Thursday’s debut will be unmanned and last just 4½ hours. But it will be the farthest a built-for-humans capsule has flown since the Apollo moon missions, shooting 3,600 miles out into space in order to gain enough momentum to re-enter the atmosphere at a scorching 20,000 mph.

The dry run, if all goes well, will end with a Pacific splashdown off Mexico’s Baja coast. Navy ships will recover the capsule, a la Apollo, for future use.

This initial Orion is rigged with 1,200 sensors to gauge its durability for the day when astronauts do climb aboard during the decade ahead. Advertised destinations include an asteroid to be corralled in lunar orbit for human exploration in the 2020s, followed by Mars in the 2030s.

“We’re approaching this as pioneers,” said William Hill of NASA’s exploration systems development office. “We’re going out to stay eventually. … It’s many, many decades away, but that’s our intent.”

Lockheed Martin Corp. built the capsule and is staging the $370 million test flight for NASA.

Orion is NASA’s first new spacecraft for humans in more than a generation, succeeding the now-retired space shuttles. Unlike the capsules under development by two U.S. companies for space station crew transport, Orion is meant for the long haul, both in time and space; it would be supplemented with habitats for potential Mars trips.

“We need a spacecraft that’s going to be sturdy enough and robust enough” to carry astronauts well beyond low-Earth orbit for weeks and months at a time, said Lockheed Martin’s Bryan Austin, a former NASA shuttle flight director who will oversee Orion’s maiden voyage.

“That’s how Orion really separates itself from the commercial field. They’re there to get you to station and back. Of course, we’re there to be hardened enough to sustain it for that long duration.”

For this orbital tryout, a Delta IV rocket will hoist Orion from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Liftoff is scheduled for 7:05 a.m. EST, just after sunrise. The rocket, with Orion and its launch escape tower at the tiptop, stretches 242 feet high.

Future Orion launches will use the mega rocket still under development by NASA, known as SLS or Space Launch System. The first Orion-SLS launch is targeted for 2018, unmanned, followed by the first piloted mission in 2021.

No one at NASA is pleased with such a poky pace. At best, it will be seven years before astronauts fly Orion — anywhere. By comparison, it took eight years from the time President John Kennedy announced his intentions of landing a man on the moon — before John Glenn had even rocketed into orbit — to Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s lunar boot prints in 1969.

Given the present budget situation, “it is what it is,” said Kennedy Space Center’s director Robert Cabana, a former astronaut. And the presidential election ahead could bring further delays and uncertainties.

In any case, don’t confuse Orion with NASA’s old-time Apollo capsules.

For one, the 11-foot-tall Orion is designed to hold four astronauts, one more than Apollo. For relatively short outings of three weeks or so, Orion could accommodate six.

“People often ask us, ‘Hey, this thing looks like a capsule, it looks like Apollo,’ and people will confuse that with ‘it’s not new,’ ” said Scott Wilson, NASA’s Orion production operations manager. While physics drives the capsule’s outer bell shape, “everything else in the capsule is state-of-the-art,” he said.

“Everything, from the thrusters, from the environmental control systems, to the structure itself” is benefiting from all the advances in technology, Wilson said. With no one on board, this first Orion will have hunks of aluminum in place of seats for ballast, simulators instead of cockpit displays and, obviously, no life-support.

The heat shield on Orion’s base, designed to protect the craft from the searing temperatures of atmospheric re-entry, is 16.5 feet across and is the biggest, most advanced of its kind ever made, according to NASA. On this flight, Orion will reach close to 4,000 degrees, not quite the 5,000 degrees that would be generated from a moon mission, but close enough for a shakedown.

That’s why Orion will aim for a 3,600-mile-high peak altitude, more than 14 times higher than the International Space Station — to pick up enough speed to come back fast and hot.

NASA is pulling out all the stops for Orion’s inaugural run. The space agency has teamed up with the nonprofit, educational Sesame Street Workshop to promote not just this mission, but the effort to send astronauts to Mars. Comics, video and graphics are building up the countdown.

“The astronauts of the 2030s and beyond are today’s preschoolers,” NASA explains on its website.

There’s even a new countdown clock to herald the event.

Last week, Kennedy Space Center took down its familiar launch countdown clock dating back to the Apollo program; officials said it had become too expensive to fix and maintain. A new multimedia display went up in its place, just as long at 26 feet, but taller at 7 feet.

Scientists discover Earth’s ‘Star Trek’-style invisible shield



Illustration by Andy Kale, University of Alberta. (Copyright Regents of the University of Colorado)

A team of scientists led by the University of Colorado Boulder has discovered an invisible “Star Trek”-style shield that blocks so-called “killer electrons” 7,200 miles above Earth.

The electrons, which travel at near light-speed, are capable of damaging space electronics and can put astronauts in danger.

The shield, which forms a barrier to particle motion, was found in the Van Allen radiation belts, according to Distinguished Professor Daniel Baker, director of CU-Boulder’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, who led the study. The radiation belts, which are held in place by Earth’s magnetic field, are two doughnut-shaped rings that are packed with high-energy electrons and protons.

“It’s almost like these electrons are running into a glass wall in space,” said Baker, in a statement. “Somewhat like the shields created by force fields on Star Trek that were used to repel alien weapons, we are seeing an invisible shield blocking these electrons. It’s an extremely puzzling phenomenon.”

The scientists discovered an “extremely sharp” boundary at the inner edge of the outer radiation belt, which appears to block electrons from breaking through the shield and moving towards Earth’s atmosphere.

The CU-Boulder team previously thought that the electrons drifted into Earth’s upper atmosphere, where they would be wiped out by air molecules.

Scientists have gained insight into the Van Allen belts in recent years. In 2012, for example, two NASA probes found that the belts alter more rapidly than previously thought, with particles in the areas undergoing swift changes in energy, time and spatial distribution.

Last year a team led by Daniel Baker used the probes to discover a third, transient “storage ring” between the inner and outer Van Allen belts. The third ring appears to come and go, depending on space weather.

The radiation belts are named after celebrated University of Iowa physicist James Van Allen, who discovered them in 1958. Van Allen, who is widely regarded as a pioneer in magnetospheric space research, died in 2006 at the age of 91.

Color of Jupiter’s great red spot comes from epic sunburn



The Great Red Spot’s clouds are much higher than those elsewhere on Jupiter. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/ Space Science Institute)

The Great Red Spot on Jupiter’s face is secretly dull in color. But the swirling storm looks crimson thanks to something like a cosmic “sunburn,” scientists say.

New experiments show that the gases in the upper atmosphere of Jupiter turn a reddish hue when they’re hit with sunlight. Underneath, the Great Red Spot probably looks gray or white.

“Spot” might be a bit of a misnomer for the most powerful storm in the solar system. The vortex is wider than two Earths, at about 7,500 miles across, and it packs winds up to 425 mph. The storm is also extremely long-lived; it has been present on Jupiter ever since astronomers started observing the planet through telescopes, making it centuries old at least. [Jupiter’s Great Red Spot in Photos]

Scientists were treated to incredibly detailed views of Jupiter and its big spot when NASA’s Cassini spacecraft flew past the giant planet in December 2000. Cassini has since moved on and is currently in orbit around its main destination, Saturn. But data from the probe’s Jupiter flyby inspired Cassini scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, to figure out what makes the Great Red Spot red.

In the lab, the researchers created clouds of ammonia and acetylene gases to mimic the clouds in the upper reaches of Jupiter’s atmosphere. They blasted these chemicals with ultraviolet light to simulate the sun’s effects. This produced a reddish material, which had the same light-scattering properties as the Great Red Spot, the researchers said.

“Our models suggest most of the Great Red Spot is actually pretty bland in color, beneath the upper cloud layer of reddish material,” Kevin Baines, a Cassini team scientist, said in a statement from NASA. “Under the reddish ‘sunburn’ the clouds are probably whitish or grayish.”

At first, Baines and colleagues thought the red color might be produced by the breakdown of ammonium hydrosulfide, the chemical that makes up one of Jupiter’s main cloud layers. But in the lab, this substance turned bright green when hit with UV light. After that mismatch, they tested which combinations of ammonia with hydrocarbons would produce the best fit for the Great Red Spot. It turned out to be ammonia and acetylene, the researchers said.

Baines presented the findings this week at the American Astronomical Society’s Division for Planetary Science Meeting in Tucson, Arizona.

Comet lander still ‘talking,’ but scientists face race against time



A panoramic image of the comet’s surface taken by the Philae lander. (ESA/Rosetta/Philae/CIVA)

The European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft has regained contact with its history-making Philae comet lander, although scientists now face a race against time to extract as much data as possible from the probe before its battery runs out on Saturday.

Scientists had endured an agonizing wait Friday before the Rosetta orbiter re-established contact with the probe. After finally touching down in the wrong location on Wednesday, there were fears that the lander would run out of battery power before the connection could be made.

“Philae still talking!” declared the agency, in a blog post late on Friday, confirming that Rosetta’s “communication pass” began at 5:29 p.m. ET.

The Philae lander made history on Wednesday when it became the first probe to land on a comet. 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, which  is about 2.5 miles wide and travels at speeds up to 84,000 miles per hour, is 317 million miles from earth.

The challenge for scientists now is to grab as much information as possible from the probe  before its power is exhausted. The probe’s exact location on the comet also remains unknown, according to the ESA.

“While the search for the final landing site is still on-going, the lander is racing against the clock to meet as many of the core science goals as possible before the primary battery is exhausted,” explained the ESA, in its blog post. “Under the low illumination conditions at Philae’s location, it is unlikely that the secondary batteries will charge up enough to enable extended surface operations.”

With Philae’s solar panels unlikely to generate enough long-term power for the secondary batteries, the probe’s mission is expected to end sometime on Saturday, according to the ESA.  “Future contacts are possible if the illumination conditions change as the comet orbits closer to the Sun, enabling solar power to flow again,” it added.

During a press conference early on Friday, ESA scientists said that the probe may receive enough solar power to communicate when its orbit nears the sun in August 2015.

Known as a “short period comet,” 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko takes 6.6 years to orbit the sun.

The culmination of an audacious 10-year mission, the Philae lander separated from its Rosetta mothership and successfully descended to the comet Wednesday. The touchdown, however, was fraught with problems, and the lander bounced twice before landing in the shadow of a cliff – a serious problem for the solar panels designed to provide long-term power to Philae after its primary battery is exhausted.

In Friday’s press conference, ESA scientists discussed altering Philae’s position by activating its landing gear in an attempt to illuminate its solar panels.

On Friday evening ESA Operations tweeted that Philae’s landing gear “lifted 4cm” (1.6 inches), adding that probe’s “main body rotation” was complete.

Designed to collect a host of data, one of Philae’s key tools is a drill, which will help scientists analyze the comet’s structure.

On Friday the ESA confirmed that the drill has extended around 10 inches from the lander’s base plate, but were unable to tell whether it has penetrated the comet’s substrate.

Early on Thursday, the ESA released the first picture taken by the probe after determining that the craft had stabilized following its tension-filled landing. The agency subsequently released the first panoramic picture taken from the lander. The three feet of Philae’s landing gear can be seen in some of the frames.

Philae and the Rosetta spacecraft planned to use 21 instruments to analyze the comet. Scientists hope the $1.62 billion mission will help them better understand comets and other celestial objects, as well as possibly answer questions about the origins of life on Earth

Jupiter’s Great Red Spot isn’t what we thought it was: researchers


Jupiter's Great Red Spot isn't what we thought it was: researchers

This undated composite handout image provided by NASA, taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, shows the Great Red Spot in 2014, left; in 1995, top right; 2009, center right; and 2014, bottom right. (AP Photo/NASA)

Scientists have made their own version of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot in a lab, and it suggests that the spot’s cause is very different from what’s been postulated.

An existing theory holds that the spot is the result of chemicals underneath the planet’s clouds. But following the new research, experts say that the sun is responsible for the color: Sunlight may break up chemicals in Jupiter’s atmosphere, reports.

Scientists in Pasadena, Calif., came to the conclusion after re-creating the effects at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. They were able to get a Spot-like red effect by directing ultraviolet light at ammonia and acetylene, gases that are both found on the planet.

Their new theory: “Most of the Great Red Spot is actually pretty bland in color, beneath the upper cloud layer of reddish material,” says a researcher.

“Under the reddish ‘sunburn’ the clouds are probably whitish or grayish.” So why is it confined to just one spot? “The Great Red Spot … reaches much higher altitudes than clouds elsewhere on Jupiter,” the expert notes.

The Spot is actually a storm with winds of up to hundreds of miles per hour, theDaily Mail reports. Wind in the area brings ammonia particles closer to the sun, and a vortex keeps them there, the researchers say.

The Spot, by the way, is a lot smaller than it used to be.

Philae probe reaches comet, makes space history


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    This image of 67P/CG was shot by Philae’s ROLIS instrument during descent. The lander was approximately 2 miles from the comet’s surface when the image was taken. (ESA/Rosetta/Philae/ROLIS/DLR)

The European Space Agency’s Philae lander has made space history by successfully reaching the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

The landing, which took place at 11:03 a.m. ET, was accompanied by rapturous scenes at the ESA’s control room in Darmstadt, Germany.

Philae is the first probe to land on a comet.

“This is a big step for human civilization,” said ESA Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain, during a press conference in the Darmstadt control room.

Just before 1 p.m. ET ESA released an image of the comet taken by Philae during its descent, when the lander was about 2 miles above the surface of 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

Earlier on Wednesday, the ESA released the first image of its Philae lander separating from the Rosetta mothership on its ambitious mission toward the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

The separation, which took place around 4 a.m. ET, marked the start of a 7-hour journey to the comet’s surface. The Rosetta spacecraft and its Philae lander have been on a decade-long mission through the solar system to rendezvous with the comet.

The comet, which is about 2.5 miles wide, travels at speeds up to 84,000 miles per hour.

The washing machine-sized lander was designed to drift down to the comet and latch on using harpoons and screws. During the descent, scientists were powerless to do anything but watch, because the vast distance to Earth — 311 million miles — made it impossible to send instructions in real time.

“The harpoon is going down, we’re sitting on the surface,” said an ESA official in the agency’s  control room, shortly after 11 a.m. ET.

Later, however, Philae’s telemetry data suggested that the probe experienced something of a bumpy landing.

Indications were that the spacecraft touched down almost perfectly, save for an unplanned bounce, said Stephan Ulamec, head of the lander operation.

Thrusters that were meant to push the lander onto the comet’s surface, and harpoons that would have anchored it to the comet failed to deploy properly. Initial data from the spacecraft indicated that it lifted off again, turned and then came to rest.

“Today we didn’t just land once; we maybe even landed twice,” said Ulamac.

Scientists were still trying to fully understand what happened but so far most of the instruments are working fine and sending back data as hoped, he added.

The plan is that Rosetta and Philae will accompany the comet as it hurtles toward the sun and becomes increasingly active as it heats up. Using 21 different instruments, they will collect data that scientists hope will help explain the origins of comets and other celestial bodies.

The $1.6 billion mission launched in 2004.