Archive for Outer Space

Hubble Space Telescope marks 25th anniversary in orbit this week

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    In this April 25, 1990 photograph provided by NASA, most of the giant Hubble Space Telescope can be seen as it is suspended in space by Discovery’s Remote Manipulator System (RMS) following the deployment of part of its solar panels and antennae. This was among the first photos NASA released on April 30 from the five-day STS-31 mission. The Hubble Space Telescope, one of NASA’S crowning glories, marks its 25th anniversary on Friday, April 24, 2015. With more than 1 million observations, including those of the farthest and oldest galaxies ever beholden by humanity, no man-made satellite has touched as many minds or hearts as Hubble. (NASA via AP) (The Associated Press)

One of NASA’s crowning glories, the Hubble Space Telescope, marks its 25th anniversary this week.

With 1 million-plus observations, including those of some of the farthest and oldest galaxies ever beheld by humanity, no man-made satellite has touched as many minds or hearts as Hubble.

NASA is celebrating Friday’s anniversary with ceremonies this week at the Smithsonian Institution and Newseum in Washington.

“Hubble has become part of our culture — very much,” said NASA’s science mission chief, John Grunsfeld, a former astronaut who flew on the final three Hubble repair missions.

A look at Hubble’s quarter-century in orbit about 350 miles above Earth:

A BLURRY START

A full decade in the making, Hubble rocketed into orbit on April 24, 1990, aboard space shuttle Discovery.

NASA wanted an observatory free of the atmosphere’s distortion and, in some cases, absorption of light. Stars, for example, do not appear to twinkle when seen from space. The telescope was named for American astronomer Edwin Hubble, who in the 1920s determined that the universe is expanding.

Sky-high excitement turned into bottomless agony when it quickly became apparent that the telescope’s primary mirror had been botched during manufacturing, resulting in blurry eyesight. Three years later, with NASA’s reputation and entire future on the line, a team of astronauts managed to restore Hubble’s promised vision with replacement parts.

OVERHAULS AND TUNEUPS

Shuttle astronauts visited Hubble five times, from 1993 to 2009, to make improvements and repairs to the 43-foot-long observatory, about the size of a school bus. That last mission almost didn’t happen: NASA canceled it for safety reasons in the wake of the 2003 shuttle Columbia disaster. But public uproar and changing NASA administration, along with detailed crew-rescue plans just in case, led to the flight’s reinstatement. By the time Atlantis blasted off on the last servicing mission, NASA put the investment in Hubble at $10 billion.

Three-time Hubble mechanic Grunsfeld was the last person to lay hands on the orbiting observatory. He recalls giving Hubble “a little pat and a salute,” and telling it, “Good travels, Hubble.”

IMPRESSIVE STATS

Hubble has traveled 3.4 billion miles, circling Earth nearly 137,000 times and making more than 1.2 million observations of more than 38,000 celestial objects, according to the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. The most distant objects spotted by Hubble — primitive galaxies — are some 13 billion light-years away and date to within 400 million or so years of the universe’s origin, known as the Big Bang.

Hubble provides an average of 829 gigabytes of archival data every month, according to the institute. Altogether, Hubble has produced more than 100 terabytes of data.

DISCOVERIES

Early on, Hubble proved the existence of super-massive black holes — and found they’re located at the center of most galaxies. It also helped to pinpoint the age of the universe at 13.8 billion years old, by determining the current rate of expansion of the universe with an uncertainty of just 3 percent, according to the Mario Livio, an astrophysicist at the space telescope institute.

Thanks to Hubble, he noted this week, astronomers now know that cosmic expansion is accelerating because of mysterious dark energy.

The space telescope has shown that the birth rate of stars hit a peak in the universe about 10 billion years ago and has been declining ever since, Livio said.

Astronomers have published 12,800 scientific papers based on data from Hubble. Some of the research on supernovas, or exploding stars, contributed to a Nobel Prize in physics in 2011.

FUTURE

NASA’s Grunsfeld said “there’s pretty high probability” that Hubble will keep working until at least 2020. Gravity is slowly lowering the telescope’s approximately 350-mile-high orbit, but the good news is that low solar activity is keeping the atmosphere thinner, which in turn should keep Hubble up until the 2030s.

On the last Hubble mission in 2009, Grunsfeld installed a docking adaptor on the bottom of the telescope. The plan was — and still is — to one day launch an unmanned rocket to Hubble so a motor can be installed to guide the telescope toward a Pacific re-entry.

The 8-foot primary mirror is the main concern: It’s expected to survive the atmospheric plunge. That’s why NASA does not want Hubble coming down, uncontrolled, over populated areas.

SUCCESSOR

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is due to be launched in 2018 to a vantage point 1 million miles away.

The Webb will specialize in the infrared wavelength, allowing it to peer into some of the faintest, most distant recesses of the universe. This should enable the telescope — named after the late NASA administrator who guided the Mercury and Gemini programs, and set the stage for the Apollo moon landings — to look back even farther in time than Hubble and detect galaxies formed a mere 200 million years following the Big Bang.

By 2019, Webb should be up and running with the Hubble still in action and powerful, new ground telescopes pointing skyward.

“It will just be absolutely the most capability we will have ever had to look at the cosmos and try and understand it,” Grunsfeld said. “I’m convinced there are going to be some big discoveries.”

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Online:

NASA: http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/hubble

Space Telescope Science Institute: http://www.stsci.edu/portal/

Newfound alien planet is one of the farthest ever detected

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    NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope co-discovered an exoplanet more than 13,000 light-years from Earth, far from where most known exoplanets are. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

A NASA telescope has co-discovered one of the most distant planets ever identified: a gas giant about 13,000 light-years away from Earth.

The technique used by the Spitzer Space Telescope, called microlensing, is so new that it has only yielded about 30 planet discoveries so far. But the telescope’s potential for finding far-away worlds is vast, NASA said in a statement. And as astronomers begin to chart the location of these distant bodies, it will provide a sense of where planets are distributed in Earth’s Milky Way galaxy.

“We don’t know if planets are more common in our galaxy’s central bulge or the disk of the galaxy, which is why these observations are so important,” Jennifer Yee, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said in a NASA statement. Yee is the lead author on one of three new papers describing the discovery. [The Strangest Alien Planets (Gallery)]

Magnified starlight

Microlensing happens when one star travels in front of another from the perspective of an observer (in this case, on Earth). When this happens, the gravity of the star in front magnifies the light of the star behind it, acting like a lens. Should the star in front have a planet, that planet would create a “blip” during the magnification, NASA said in the statement.

The challenge, however, is pinning down how far away the closer star (and its planet) is from Earth. Microlensing tends to magnify the star behind, but usually the star in front is invisible to observers. That’s why about half of the 30 or so planets found with microlensing (including a few Tatooine-like planets) are at unknown distances from Earth.

To overcome the distance problem, astronomers used the Spitzer telescope in concert with the Polish Optical Gravitational Lensing Experiment (OGLE) Warsaw Telescope at the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile. OGLE routinely does microlensing investigations, but for Spitzer, this was the first time the long-running telescope had successfully used the technique to find a planet.

Quick telescope work

Prominent telescopes like Spitzer are usually fully booked with other astronomical observations. This makes it difficult to respond quickly when the astronomical community is alerted about a microlensing event, which lasts only 40 days on average. Spitzer officials, however, have worked to do these observations as early as three days after an event is announced.

The new planet’s microlensing event was quite long, roughly 150 days.

Spitzer orbits the sun from a position behind Earth (about 128 million miles away from its home planet, further than the Earth-sun distance). This vast distance from its home planet means the telescope sees microlensing events occur at a slightly different time than do telescopes on Earth.

Spitzer spotted the “blip” in the magnification about 20 days before OGLE did. By comparing the delay between what Spitzer and OGLE saw, astronomers could calculate the planet’s distance from Earth. Once they knew that measure, they were able to estimate the planet’s mass, which is roughly half that of Jupiter.

This is the first time Spitzer found a planet using microlensing, but it comes after 22 previous attempts with OGLE and other telescopes on the ground. Astronomers forecast Spitzer will examine 120 more microlensing events this summer.

So far, microlensing has helped astronomers find 30 planets at distances as far as 25,000 light-years away from Earth. That’s in addition to the more than 1,000 closer worlds discovered by the planet-hunting Kepler space telescope and ground-based observatories using other techniques. Astronomers are using the microlensing events to seek out planets in the central “bulge” of the Milky Way, a spot where stars are more densely packed and tend to cross more often.

Meteorites help date the violent birth of Earth’s moon

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    Earth’s moon probably formed during a cataclysmic impact between Earth and a Mars-size object that scientists call Theia. A study of meteorites suggests that this collision may have occurred 4.47 billion years ago, scientists say. (NASA)

The cataclysmic collision between Earth and a Mars-size object that forged the moon may have occurred about 4.47 billion years ago, suggests a study of meteorites with ancient fragments from that cosmic impact.

This finding suggests that, one day, it may be possible to find samples of what the primordial Earth was like before the giant impact that formed the moon, or to uncover bits of the impacting rock itself.

Earth was born about 4.5 billion years ago, and scientists think the moon formed shortly afterward. The leading explanation for the moon’s origin, known as the giant impact hypothesis, suggests that the moon resulted from the collision of two protoplanets, or embryonic worlds. One of those was the young Earth, and the other was a potentially Mars-size object called Theia. The moon then coalesced from the rubble. [How Earth’s Moon Was Made (A Photo Timeline)]

“By understanding the moon, we can tell the story of the early bombardment of Earth,” study lead author William Bottke, a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, told Space.com.

However, the precise timeline of this giant impact event is under dispute. The ages of the most ancient lunar samples the Apollo astronauts brought back are still debated, since these samples have typically been battered and heated by subsequent cosmic impacts.

“To understand the formation and evolution of our world as well as those in the inner solar system, we need to understand the timing of major events during the planet-formation era,” Bottke said.

To find out more about this giant impact, scientists developed a computer model of the event. They found that the impact not only created a disk of debris near Earth that formed the moon, but it also ejected huge amounts of rubble — as much as several percent of Earth’s mass — away from Earth and the moon.

The simulations found that numerous fragments from the moon-forming impact — hundreds of millions of which were at least a mile long — blasted the asteroid belt, striking asteroids there at speeds of more than 22,370 mph, more than twice as fast as typical crashes in the belt. These collisions from the moon-forming impact would have generated superheated material, the researchers said.

“In an explosion, there is often collateral damage, where nearby buildings and innocent bystanders are affected,” Bottke said. “Investigators can learn about the explosive device and the explosion itself by studying what happened to people, infrastructure, and whether trace amounts of the explosive device can be found among the blast damage. Here, the ‘innocent bystanders’ were the main-belt asteroids.”

Collisions against these asteroids in more recent times returned these remnants to Earth in stony meteorites, which the scientists now have analyzed and used to date the age of the impact.

“In a sense, the asteroid belt has been an eyewitness to multiple ‘drive-by shootings’ from the earliest time in solar system history,” Bottke said. “By reading the traces left behind, we can use asteroid samples to tell us who did it, when they did it and how they did it.”

The researchers deduced that the moon-forming impact occurred about 4.47 billion years ago, in agreement with many previous estimates.

“We can now use asteroids, for the first time, to tell us about many of the major events that took place in the inner solar system during the planet-formation era,” Bottke said. “This gives us a new window on a time period which has been virtually unknown up to now.”

This research “raises the intriguing possibility that trace amounts of the primordial Earth or moon-forming impactor called Theia may still be found on asteroids today, or possibly within some of our meteorites,” Bottke said. “It may be simply a matter of looking and asking the right questions. Finding these materials would be one of the Holy Grails of geology — we have no rocks older than 4 billion years old on Earth, and no one knows the exact nature of the original building blocks of our planet.”

If future research can uncover examples of this impact in asteroid samples, “possibly by getting them from an asteroid sample return mission like OSIRIS-REx, we would have one of the key pieces of the puzzle explaining why our world is the way it is, and what has changed since its infancy,” Bottke said.

The scientists detailed their findings in the April 17 issue of the journal Science.

Radio bursts from space reveal strange mathematical pattern

Nine-year-old Satomi Matsubara waves as she rides a bicycle with E.T. at a pre-opening preview of Un..

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Eleven fast radio bursts from space seem to follow a strange mathematical pattern, according to a new study – and it has researchers scratching their heads.

According to study co–authors Michael Hippke of the Institute of Data Analysis in Neukirchen-Vluyn, Germany, and John Learned of the University of Hawaii in Manoa, the bursts– which were first detected in 2001 – all had dispersion measures that were integer multiples of the same number: 187.5. “The astronomers that found [the bursts] have not seen such things before and do not understand them,” Learned told FoxNews.com.

Nobody knows what causes fast radio bursts, known as FRBs. They only last a few milliseconds, and only one so far has been captured live (by the Parkes Telescope in Australia last year). Though the bursts release just as much energy in a few milliseconds as the sun does in a month, their brevity indicates that the source must be small, with estimates being several hundred miles across at most.

Researchers use dispersion measures, which records how much “space gunk” the burst has passed through, to estimate the distance an FRB has travelled. For instance, a low frequency FRB will have more gunk on it, indicating a longer trip, whereas a high frequency FRB will be cleaner, indicating it came from closer to Earth.

The fact that all of the FRBs’ dispersion measures are integer multiples of 187.5 has, according to Hippke and Learned’s team’s calculations, a 5 in 10,000 chance of being coincidental. The dispersion measures also indicate that their origin is relatively close to Earth, but unlikely from within our own galaxy.

There are numerous theories on where these bursts came from, including speculation that the messages are from extraterrestrial intelligence. To the scientific community, however, this theory doesn’t really hold water, and is seen as more of a last resort only after all other avenues have been exhausted.

“We think these are likely from some very energetic process, like a burst from a high magnetic field neutron star or energy released [when] two neutron stars merge,” Professor Maura McLaughlin of the West Virginia University Center for Astrophysics explained. “The thing that made people think they were possibly from ETs was a recent paper that showed that one fundamental property is quantized in a way that wouldn’t be expected if the signals were naturally occurring. However, I imagine that correlation will totally go away once more are discovered.”

Learned himself is dubious of an alien source as well, noting that he and Hippke only noted the dispersion measures’ “peculiar” pattern, and that they may even be coming from Earth. “We are now leaning more towards a terrestrial, anthropogenic interpretation,” he said. “At this point I would place my money on some sort of governmental satellite, not a natural phenomena, but I would not bet much. More data, which reportedly [is] being analyzed but which we have no insider information about yet, will be most interesting and refute or confirm our hypotheses.” He also noted that he’d only look to an ETI interpretation once all other possibilities have been eliminated.

As for McLaughlin, she believes there’s no way the FRBs could be messages from aliens, as the signals are very broadband and emitted over a wide range of radio frequencies. “It would take a LOT of energy for an alien civilization to produce these bursts – they’d need to harness the energy of many, many suns – and there’s no real advantage for communication to send a signal over such a large bandwidth.”

NASA tests Mars ‘flying saucer’

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This artist’s concept shows the test vehicle for NASA’s Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD), designed to test landing technologies for future Mars missions. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

NASA has given the world another glimpse of its revolutionary flying saucer technology, which will play a crucial role in future Mars missions.

The 15-foot wide, 7,000-pound test vehicle underwent a “spin test” on a table at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. during a live broadcast Tuesday, ABC News reports.

The flying saucer is part of NASA’s Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) project, which aims to develop landing vehicles for future missions.

NASA says the project tests “breakthrough technologies that will enable large payloads to be safely landed on the surface of Mars, or other planetary bodies with atmospheres, including Earth.” According to the space agency, the technologies will also offer access to more of the red planet’s surface by enabling landings at higher-altitude sites.

As part of its LDSD research, NASA will fly a rocket-powered saucer-shaped test vehicle into near-space from the Navy’s Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai, Hawaii, in June.

Last year an LDSD test in Hawaii was deemed a success by engineers, despite the vehicle’s huge parachute apparently failing to deploy properly, according toSpace.com.

 

‘Space nets’ aim to capture threats to satellites and spacecraft

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One capture concept being explored through ESA’s e.Deorbit system study for Active Debris Removal – capturing the satellite in a net attached to either a flexible tether (as seen here) or a rigid connection. (ESA)

Technology thousands of years old has been overhauled to capture threats to space hardware.

Space junk poses a serious threat, particularly to humans in space whether in the International Space Station, space shuttles, or other spacecraft.

The debris also poses a threat to satellites, which fulfill a critical role for militaries, governments, and businesses. Satellites, for example, help provide television, weather data, phone services and GPS navigation to the public.

The only way to protect current and future missions, as well as the satellites essential to everyday life, is to remove threats lurking in space.

The solution? Fishing. Recent tests for space age ‘space nets’ by the European Space Agency have proved very successful.

While fishing nets have been in use for several thousand years, space nets take this this ancient piece of technology to a whole new level.

The hope is that nets could be deployed to capture and remove space threats.

 

The threat

Earth is entirely surrounded by a “halo” of junk in space.  Space debris can be natural, like meteroids, or can be manmade.

There are more than half a million pieces of debris and, according to NASA calculations, at least 17, 000 trackable objects larger than a coffee cup.

A collision with any of these could be catastrophic to a mission.

Why does the size matter?

Just a single centimeter-sized screw could hit a spacecraft with the impact of a hand grenade.

Space junk travels at speeds up to 17,500 mph – this velocity means just a teeny tiny piece of junk, like a fleck of paint, could damage a spacecraft or satellite.

Abandoned spacecraft, launch vehicle stages, and mission debris are just a few of the sources of junk large and small.

Some of the stuff up there is several tons and, clearly, a collision would have serious results. Some debris, such as batteries and leftover fuel, could also be explosive as a result of solar heating.

One collision could even produce a chain reaction of further collisions.

For example, a defunct Russian satellite collided with and destroyed a U.S. Iridium commercial satellite in 2009. This collision added more than 2,000 pieces of trackable debris to the space junk problem.

In another example, when China deployed a missile to destroy a satellite in 2007, an additional 3,000 pieces of debris was added to space.

The tests

The ESA announced that its cutting-edge nets passed orbit testing with flying colors this week.

To test the nets in a space-like atmosphere, Canada’s Falcon 20 aircraft flew parabolic arcs. Each arc provided 20 seconds of weightless conditions as the plane fell through the sky and cancelled out gravity.

Over the course of 21 parabolas and two days, twenty net tests were conducted inside the aircraft.

The rainbow-colored nets were packed inside paper cartons. Each corner was weighted to help it entangle its target. A compressed air ejector shot the net at a satellite. The thinner version of the net proved more successful than the thicker one.

The ESA reported that the nets worked so well that they usually had to be cut away with a knife.

The National Research Council of Canada, Poland’s SKA Polska and OptiNav and Italy’s STAM were involved in the ESA project.

The challenges of capturing space junk

Capturing space junk is not easy. Standard space dockings are extremely difficult, but the ESA mission to capture derelict satellites adrift in the protected zone is even more challenging.

A satellite’s speed, size, and trajectory are just a few of the factors that make capturing space threats difficult.

One advantage of nets is they can be scaled to capture larger or smaller objects.  Also, they can handle all sorts of target shapes, rotation rates, and speeds.

In addition to deploying nets, several other approaches have been considered like harpoon, tentacles and mechanical arms, and ion beams.

Mission 2021

ESA’s e.Deorbit mission aims to capture a large piece of space debris at least 4,000 kg – that’s nearly 9,000 pounds. After capture, the mission will remove it out of the Low Earth Orbit protected zone into the atmosphere or above the 1,243-mile LEO line.

Ballet dancer turned defense specialist Allison Barrie has traveled around the world covering the military, terrorism, weapons advancements and life on the front line. You can reach her at wargames@foxnews.com or follow her on Twitter@Allison_Barrie.

NASA details plans to pluck rock off asteroid, explore it

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This Monday, Sept. 12, 2005 photo provided by Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency shows an asteroid named Itokawa photographed by the Hayabusa probe. On Wednesday, March 25, 2015, NASA announced it is aiming to launch a rocket to an asteroid in five years and grab a boulder off of it – a stepping stone and training mission for an eventual trip sending humans to Mars. Itokawa, 2008 EV5 and Bennu are the candidates for the mission. (AP Photo/Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) (The Associated Press)

NASA is aiming to launch a rocket to an asteroid in five years and grab a boulder off of it — a stepping stone and training mission for an eventual trip sending humans to Mars.

The space agency Wednesday unveiled details of the $1.25 billion plan to launch a solar-powered unmanned spaceship to an asteroid in December 2020. The ship would spend about a year circling the large space rock and pluck a 13-foot boulder off its surface using robotic arms. It would have three to five opportunities to grab the rock, said Robert Lightfoot, NASA’s associate administrator.

The smaller rock would be hauled near the moon and parked in orbit around the moon. Using a giant rocket ship and the Orion crew capsule that are still being developed, two astronauts would fly to the smaller rock in 2025 and start exploring. Astronauts aboard Orion would dock with the robotic ship, make spacewalks, climbing around the mini-asteroid to inspect and document, and even grab a piece to return to Earth.

The smaller rock might not even be big enough for the two astronauts to stand on; it would have fit in the cargo bay of the now-retired space shuttles.

The mission will “demonstrate the capabilities we’re going to need for further future human missions beyond low Earth orbit and then ultimately to Mars,” Lightfoot said.

Lightfoot also identified the leading target. It’s a 1,300-foot wide space rock discovered in 2008 called 2008 EV5, making it somewhat larger than most of the asteroids that circle the sun near Earth. Two other space rocks are being considered, called Itokawa and Bennu.

NASA managers chose this option over another plan that would lasso or use a giant bag to grab an entire asteroid and haul it near the moon. The selected plan is about $100 million more expense but it was picked by managers in a meeting Tuesday because it would test technologies and techniques “we’re going to need when we go to another planetary body,” Lightfoot said during a telephone press conference. Those include “soft landing” and grabbing technologies, he said.

A few years ago, the administration proposed sending astronauts to an asteroid and landing on it, but later changed that to bringing the asteroid closer to Earth.

The $1.25 billion price does not include the larger costs of the rockets launching the spaceships to the asteroid and the smaller boulder.

The entire project called ARM for Asteroid Redirect Mission would also test new spacesuits for deep space, as opposed to Earth orbit, and may even help companies look at the idea of mining asteroids for precious metals, said NASA spokesman David Steitz.

Steitz said by getting closer to the large asteroid, the mission will help with “planetary defense” techniques, learning how to nudge a threatening space rock out of harm’s way.

Scott Pace, space policy director at George Washington University and a NASA associate administrator in the George W. Bush administration, said the concept in some ways makes sense in terms of training, engineering and cost, but “it still leaves the larger questions: What this leads to and why?”

American, Russian leave Earth this week for year in space

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    In this photo provided by NASA, astronaut Scott Kelly sits inside a Soyuz simulator at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center (GCTC), Wednesday, March 4, 2015 in Star City, Russia. On Saturday, March 28, 2015, Kelly and cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko will travel to the International Space Station to begin a year-long mission living in orbit. (AP Photo/NASA, Bill Ingalls) (The Associated Press)

An American astronaut and a Russian cosmonaut are moving into the International Space Station this week and staying for an entire year.

After more than two years of training, Scott Kelly and Mikhail Kornienko are eager to get going. It will be the longest space mission ever for NASA, and the longest in almost two decades for the Russian Space Agency, which holds the record at 14 months.

Their Soyuz rocket is scheduled to blast off from Kazakhstan on Friday afternoon in the U.S. (early Saturday morning in Kazakhstan.)

The world’s space agencies want to know how the body adapts to an entire year of weightlessness before committing to even longer Mars expeditions. The typical stint at the space station is six months.

Ring of light: Total eclipse over Svalbard islands in Arctic

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March 20, 2015: A man watches the partial solar eclipse trough an X ray film at the Kalemegdan citadel in Belgrade, Serbia. (The Associated Press)

Sky-gazers in the Arctic were treated to a perfect view of a total solar eclipse Friday as the moon completely blocked out the sun in a clear sky, casting a shadow over Norway’s remote archipelago of Svalbard.

People shouted, cheered and applauded as Longyearbyen, the main town in Svalbard, plunged into darkness. The skies were clear, offering a full view of the sun’s corona — a faint ring of rays surrounding the moon — that is only visible during a total solar eclipse.

A few hundred people had gathered on a flat frozen valley overlooking the mountains, and people shouted and yelled as the sudden darkness came. A group of people opened bottles of champagne, saying it was in keeping with a total solar eclipse tradition.

“I was just blown away. I couldn’t believe it,” said Hilary Castle, 58, from London.

“It was just fabulous, just beautiful and at the same time a bit odd and it was too short,” said Mary Rannestad, 60, from Minnesota.

A solar eclipse happens when the moon lines up between the sun and the Earth. This casts a lunar shadow on the Earth’s surface and obscures the sun. During a partial eclipse, only part of the sun is blotted out.

Though some enterprising eclipse-seekers got exactly what they were hoping for, others were less lucky. A blanket of clouds in the Faeroe Islands in the North Atlantic blocked thousands of people from experiencing the full effect of the total eclipse.

The Faeroes and Svalbard were the only two places on land where the eclipse was total. About 20,000 visitors had traveled to the two remote island groups to watch the spectacle.

Despite the clouds in the Faeroes, tourists and residents in Torshavn alike hooted and applauded as the daylight dimmed for about 2 minutes and 45 seconds.

“It was a pretty big disappointment not to be able to see the sun,” said Janaki Lund Jensen, who had sailed from Copenhagen with 884 others to see the eclipse. Hotel rooms have been booked for years as thousands came to the Faeroe Islands to try to see the eclipse.

Sigrun Skalagard, in the northern parts of the Faeroes, said birds there went silent and dogs started howling.

“Some people were surprised to see how fast it became dark,” she said.

A partial solar eclipse could be seen Friday across Europe and parts of Asia and Africa. Britain’s Met Office said 95 percent of the sun was covered in the Hebrides, Orkneys and Shetland Islands, and one percent less further south in Glasgow and Edinburgh.

In Copenhagen, the sun was 85 percent covered up while 80 percent was hidden in southern Sweden. Cloudy weather put a lid across large parts of the continent, making it hard to see the eclipse. However, a thin cloud cover allowed people in Stockholm to watch the eclipse without protective glasses, as the faint disk of the sun could be seen through the overcast sky.

The last total eclipse was in November 2012 over Australia. The next one will be over Indonesia in March 2016, according to NASA.

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Gashka reported from Torshavn, Faeroe Islands. Associated Press writers Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen and Karl Ritter in Stockholm contributed to this report.

Major solar storm hits Earth

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A severe solar storm smacked Earth with a surprisingly big geomagnetic jolt Tuesday, potentially affecting power grids and GPS tracking while pushing the colorful northern lights farther south, federal forecasters said.

In a statement released early on Wednesday, The Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colorado said that the geomagnetic storm had subsided. “Solar wind speed remains high, however, and G1 (Minor) storm episodes are still possible,” it said.

The most extreme geomagnetic storms are ranked as G5 storms by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Space.comnotes that on Halloween 2003 a powerful geomagnetic storm forced astronauts to seek shelter on the International Space Station because of potentially dangerous radiation levels, while also stressing power grids on Earth.

So far no damage from the St. Patrick ’s Day solar storm has been reported. Two blasts of magnetic plasma left the sun on Sunday, combined and arrived on Earth about 15 hours earlier and much stronger than expected, said Thomas Berger, director of the Space Weather Prediction Center, on Tuesday.

The storm ranked a 4, called severe, on the NOAA’s scale for geomagnetic effects. It was the strongest solar storm to blast Earth since the fall of 2013. It’s been nearly a decade since a level 5 storm has hit Earth.

Forecasters figured it would come late Tuesday night into Wednesday morning; instead, it arrived just before 10 a.m. EDT. They had forecast it to be a level 1.

“It’s significantly stronger than expected,” Berger said, on Tuesday. Forecasters had predicted a glancing blow instead of dead-on hit. Another theory is that the combination of the two storms made it worse.

The storm had the potential to disrupt power grids but only temporarily, while also causing degradation of the global positioning system, affecting tracking maps and locators.

Often these types of storm come with bursts of radiation that can affect satellite operations, but this one has not, Berger said.

But the most noticeable effect is usually considered a positive. The Aurora Borealis or northern lights that usually can be viewed only in the far north dip south, so more people can enjoy the colorful sky show.

Forecasters said early Tuesday, before sunrise, auroras were already seen in the northern tier of the U.S., such as Washington state, North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.