NASA’s Dawn spacecraft prepares to get up close and personal with dwarf planet Ceres

Dwarf Planet Mission-1.jpg

This Feb. 19, 2015 image shows the swarf planet Ceres provided by NASA, taken by the agency’s Dawn spacecraft from a distance of nearly 29,000 miles. It shows that the brightest spot on Ceres has a dimmer companion, which apparently lies in the same basin, seen at center of the image. Dawn is preparing to rendezvous with the largest object in the asteroid belt located between Mars and Jupiter, scheduled to go into orbit Friday, March 7 after a three-year journey. Dawn is about 590 miles in diameter. (AP Photo/NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA) (The Associated Press)

A NASA spacecraft is preparing to rendezvous with the largest object in the asteroid belt located between Mars and Jupiter.

The Dawn craft is on target to slip into orbit around the dwarf planet Ceres on Friday after a three-year journey. It’ll be the second stop for Dawn, which earlier visited the asteroid Vesta.

Dawn has been snapping pictures of Ceres as it nears the Texas-sized object. Sharper images are expected in the coming months as Dawn spirals closer to Ceres’ surface.

Launched in 2007 and powered by ion propulsion, Dawn is the first craft to target two space rocks to learn about the solar system’s evolution.

Dawn studied Vesta, the second massive object in the asteroid belt, from 2011 to 2012 and beamed back more than 30,000 images.

Leonard Nimoy leaves legacy beyond science-fiction

smiling leonard nimoy ap.jpg

April 26, 2009. Leonard Nimoy poses for a portrait in Beverly Hills, Calif. (The Associated Press)

Leonard Nimoy didn’t just leave a lasting impression on the science-fiction world, he also left his mark on science itself.

Seth Shostak, who researches the possibility of real-world extraterrestrial life as the senior astronomer at SETI Research, recalled that Nimoy was regularly willing to lend the organization a helping hand. When he was asked to narrate a planetarium introduction or appear as a guest at an event, Nimoy did so graciously and never charged.

“That struck me then, and it strikes me now,” said Shostak. “If you play a famous alien, you might have little interest in how science is searching for real aliens, but Nimoy was actually interested in the science — and he was always willing to help us out.”

Remembrances poured in from beyond the entertainment spectrum after news spread Friday about the death of the 83-year-old actor, who played the half-alien, half-human Spock in “Star Trek” films, TV shows and video games. NASA, Virgin Galactic, Intel and Google all sent messages, as did other groups motivated by Nimoy and his role as the truth-seeking science officer.

“Leonard Nimoy was an inspiration to multiple generations of engineers, scientists, astronauts and other space explorers,” said NASA administrator Charles Bolden. “As Mr. Spock, he made science and technology important to the story, while never failing to show, by example, that it is the people around us who matter most.”

NASA posted a photo online taken in 1976 of Nimoy and his “Trek” cast mates in front of NASA’s real-life space shuttle Enterprise, parked outside the agency’s manufacturing facilities in Palmdale, California.

Samantha Cristoforetti, an Italian astronaut aboard the International Space Station, similarly tweeted her condolences from space.

“Live Long and Prosper, Mr. #Spock!” she wrote.

Don Lincoln, a senior physicist at Fermilab, said he was inspired to go into science not just because Nimoy’s portrayal of the logical Mr. Spock but also because of “In Search of…,” the curious 1970s TV series hosted by Nimoy that was dedicated to mysterious phenomena.

“Despite the fact he worked in fiction, anyone who can inspire that many people to look into the sky and wonder has done something really important for mankind,” he said.

Lincoln noted that “Trek” and the character of Spock, armed with his Vulcan nerve pinch and phase set to stun, provided the world with a dynamic look at someone interested in science.

“The fact is that Spock was a cool geek,” said Lincoln. “Scientists are not always portrayed as being very strong. Usually, they’re the guy with the tape on their glasses and their pants too high. He was clearly a person who had desirable components beyond just being smart.”

Nimoy’s commitment to astronomy frequently warped from beyond the Alpha Quadrant and into the real world. He and his wife, Susan, donated $1 million to the renovation of the iconic Griffith Park observatory complex overlooking Los Angeles. The observatory’s theater is named after Nimoy.

“Mr. Nimoy was committed to people, community and the enlarged perspective conferred by science, the arts and the places where they meet,” the observatory said in a statement. “The theater honors Nimoy’s expansive and inclusive approach to public astronomy and artful inspiration.”

The actor, director and photographer narrated several films focusing on astronomy, including a 2012 short film about NASA’s Dawn mission and the 1994 IMAX documentary film “Destiny in Space.”

“All I can say is if and when we pick up a signal, it’ll be wonderful if the real aliens are half as appealing as Mr. Nimoy was as Spock,” said Shostak of SETI Research.

US needs a Mars colony, Buzz Aldrin tells senators

BuzzAldrinpic1.jpg

Former astronaut Buzz Aldrin takes his seat to testify before a Senate hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, February 24, 2015. (REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)

The United States must do more than just plant a flag on Mars if it wants to continue as a leader in the field of space exploration, Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin told senators this week.

“In my opinion, there is no more convincing way to demonstrate American leadership for the remainder of this century than to commit to a permanent presence on Mars,” Aldrin told members of the U.S. Senate’s Subcommittee on Space, Science and Competitiveness during a hearing Tuesday (Feb. 24).

Going to Mars without setting up a colony — launching only round-trip manned missions, in other words — would not be enough, nor would setting up human outposts on the moon, Aldrin said. [Buzz Aldrin’s Vision for Mars (Video)]

“Lunar settlements will only require a small step for the other nations to catch up,” he said.

Buzz Aldrin, who set foot on the moon just after Neil Armstrong in July 1969, has developed an architecture to establish a Mars colony, with the first manned Red Planet landings envisioned in 2038. He sketched out the basics for the senators.

“It’s an integrated plan that knits together return[ing] to the moon on a commercial and international basis, leveraging asteroid rendezvous, and settling Mars on a carefully developed risk-mitigation architecture,” Aldrin said. “It includes the use of a robotic cycler between Mars and Earth that will revolutionize the economics and safety aspects of human missions to Mars.”

Two other former NASA astronauts, Walt Cunningham and Mike Massimino, also spoke to the subcommittee Tuesday, and both were bullish on manned Mars exploration.

Indeed, Massimino said the benefits of human missions to Mars would probably be extensive and long-lasting. He cited the many life-improving spinoffs that came out of the Apollo and space shuttle programs, and the likelihood that humanity will need to find a second home in the solar system at some point, to ensure its survival in case something catastrophic should happen here on Earth.

“Mars might be that place. So if we decide to go there, it’s giving us another option,” said Massimino, who flew on two space shuttle missions that serviced NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, in 2002 and 2009.

“I really see it as an investment in our future, to inspire our young kids — and also, I think, to help our country and our economy for many years to come,” he added. “I think it would be a glorious thing to do.”

Cunningham, the lunar module pilot on the Apollo 7 mission to Earth orbit in 1968, told the senators that Mars is the next frontier in human spaceflight, and if the United States doesn’t lead a Red Planet effort, someone else will.

But getting people to Mars will be difficult and expensive, Cunningham said, estimating that a manned Red Planet project could cost up to three times as much as the Apollo moon program. (Apollo’s price tag was about $110 billion in today’s dollars.)

That’s too expensive for NASA to pull off at its current budget level, Cunningham said. These days, the space agency gets about a 0.5 percent share of the federal budget, compared to 4.5 percent at the height of the Apollo program.

“The budget has got to go up for NASA,” Cunningham said. “NASA’s budget is way too low to do the things that we talked about doing here this afternoon.”

Follow Mike Wall on Twitter @michaeldwall and Google+. Follow us@Spacedotcom, Facebook or Google+. Originally published on Space.com.

Rare doomed planet with extreme seasons discovered

Kepler432b.jpg

Illustration provided by the University of Heidelberg of the orbit of Kepler-432b (inner, red) in comparison to the orbit of Mercury around the Sun (outer, orange). The red dot in the middle indicates the position of the star around which the planet is orbiting. The size of the star is shown to scale, while the size of the planet has been magnified ten times for illustration purposes. (Graphic: Dr. Sabine Reffert)

A rare planet has been discovered, and it doesn’t seem like a stop anyone would want to make on an intergalactic cruise. Found by two research teams independently of each other, Kepler-432b is extreme in its mass, density, and weather. Roughly the same size of Jupiter, the planet is also doomed- in 200 million years it will be consumed by its sun. “Kepler-432b is definitively a rarity among exoplanets around giant stars: it is a close-in gas-giant planet orbiting a star whose radius is ‘quickly’ increasing,” Davide Gandolfi, from the Landessternwarte Koenigstuhl (part of the Centre for Astronomy of the University of Heidelberg), told FoxNews.com. “The orbit of the planet has a radius of about 45 million kilometers [28 million miles] (as a reference point, the Earth-Sun distance is about 150 million kilometers [93.2 Million miles]), while most of the planets known to orbit giant stars have wider orbits. The stellar radius is already 3 million kilometers [almost 2 million miles] (i.e., about 4 times the Sun radius) and in less than 200 million years it will be large enough for the star to swallow up its planet.”

Gandolfi, a member of one of the research groups who discovered the rare planet, explains that much like Jupiter, Kepler-432b is a gas-giant celestial body composed mostly of hydrogen and helium, and is most likely to have a dense core that accounts for 6 percent or less of the planet’s mass. “The planet has a mass six times that of Jupiter, but is about the same size!” he says. “This means that it is not one of the largest planets yet discovered: it is one of the most massive!” The planet’s orbit brings it extremely close to its host star on some occasions, and very far away at others, which creates extreme seasonal changes. In its year – which lasts 52 Earth days – winters can get a little chilly and summers a bit balmy, to say the least. According to Gandolfi, “The highly eccentric orbit brings Kepler-432b at ‘only’ 24 million kilometers [15 million miles] from its host star, before taking it to about three times as far away. This creates large temperature excursions over the course of the planet year, which is of only 52 Earth days. During the winter season, the temperature on Kepler-432b drops down to 500 degrees Celsius [932 degrees Fahrenheit], whereas in summer it can goes up to nearly 1000 degrees Celsius [1832 degrees Fahrenheit].”

Then again, if you are crazy enough to visit Kepler-432b, you’d better do it fast. As stated before, its host star is set to swallow the planet whole in 200 million years, making the celestial body a rare find. “The paucity of close-in planets around giant stars is likely to be due to the fact that these planets have been already swallowed up by their host stars,” Gandolfi says. “Kepler-432b has been discovered ‘just in time before dinner!” The host star, which is red and possesses 1.35 times the mass of our sun, has partly exhausted the nuclear fuel in its core, and is slowly expanding, eventually growing large enough to swallow Kepler-432b. According to Gandolfi, this is a natural progression for all stars. “Stars first generate nuclear energy in their core via the fusion of Hydrogen into Helium,” he explained. “At this stage, their radii basically do not change much. This is because the outward thermal pressure produced by the nuclear fusion in the core is balanced by the inward pressure of gravitational collapse from the overlying layers. In other words, the nuclear power is the star pillar! Our Sun is currently ‘burning’ hydrogen in its core (please note that I used quotes: ‘burning’ does not mean a chemical reaction- we are talking about nuclear fusion reaction). However, this equilibrium between the two pressures does not last forever. Helium is heavier than hydrogen and tends to sink. The stellar core of the Kepler-432b’s host star is currently depleted of hydrogen and it is mainly made of inert helium. The star generates thermal energy in a shell around the core through the nuclear fusion of hydrogen into helium. As a result of this, the star expands and cools down. This is why we call it ‘red giant’- the reddish color comes from the fact that the external layers of the atmosphere of the star are cooling down because they expand.”

Both research teams (the other was from the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg) used Calar Alto Observatory’s 7.2- foot telescope in Andalucia, Spain. The planet was also studied by Landessternwarte Koenigstuhl researchers using the 8.5-foot Nordic Optical Telescope on La Palma, which is located in Spain’s Canary Islands.

Mountain-size asteroid to fly by Earth: How NASA will watch

Mountain-sized asteroid to zoom past Earth

A mountain-size asteroid will zoom past Earth Monday, marking the closest pass by such a large space rock until 2027.

Asteroid 2004 BL86, which is about 1,800 feet wide, will come within 745,000 miles of our planet Monday — about three times the distance between Earth and the moon. While this flyby poses no threat to Earth, it does present a rare opportunity to get a good look at a near-Earth asteroid, NASA officials say.

Scientists are eager to study 2004 BL86 to pinpoint its orbit, observe its surface and even look for moons. The plan is to track the fast-moving asteroid using the 230-foot dish-shaped Goldstone antenna at NASA’s Deep Space Network in California, as well as the 1,000-foot  Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. These radio dishes will beam microwave signals at the asteroid, which will then bounce off the target and return to Earth. [Photos: Potentially Dangerous Asteroids]

“For objects that get this close, that are this large, the radar observations are really analogous to a spacecraft flyby in terms of the caliber of the data that we can get,” said Lance Benner of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, who is the principal investigator for the Goldstone observations of the asteroid.

The resulting black-and-white images can reveal unprecedented details about asteroids, whereas most ground-based telescopes would see only a point of light. But the first item on the team’s checklist will be to nail the space rock’s location in space and time. This will enable a better understanding of the object’s orbit and its future motion, scientists say.

Even though 2004 BL86 poses no threat to Earth for the foreseeable future, it’s still a good idea to keep a close eye on the asteroid, Benner said.

“Really, it’s an inexpensive form of insurance to monitor these objects on a regular basis,” he told Space.com.

Benner also postulates that such work will benefit commercial companies that plan to visit and mine asteroids in the future.

 

The researchers expect to obtain resolutions as fine as 13 feet per pixel, so the images of 2004 BL86 should reveal details as small as the length of a typical car. This will allow the scientists to assess how rugged or smooth the space rock’s surface is.

“It’s expected to be one of the best radar-imaging targets of this calendar year,” Benner said.

If Benner and his colleagues get enough images as the object spins, they can start to reconstruct its three-dimensional shape in order to understand how it rotates. They also plan to search for any moons in tow. About 17 percent of asteroids in 2004 BL86’s size range tend to have smaller objects trailing along with them.

The Goldstone antenna will track the asteroid for 5 to 6 hours most nights from Jan. 27 to Feb. 1. The Arecibo Observatory, however, will only be able to spot 2004 BL86 on the night of Jan. 27. Its radar is not fully steerable, and the space rock will be zipping through the sky at 2 degrees (roughly four times the width of the moon) per hour.

“The thing that excites us the most is that we don’t know anything about it, but it’s likely that we’ll learn a great deal and see a lot of detail,” Benner said. “Whenever one of these objects comes really close like this, it offers such an outstanding opportunity — we almost always see things we haven’t seen before. And so we’re expecting some kind of surprise.”

You can watch 2004 BL86’s flyby in visible light (as opposed to radar observations) live online Monday via the Virtual Telescope Project in Italy.

Editor’s note: If you capture a telescope view of asteroid 2004 BL86 during its flyby and want to share it with Space.com, you can send images and comments to managing editor Tariq Malik at: spacephotos@space.com.

 

1-year space station mission may pave NASA’s way to Mars

InternationalSpaceStationEarth.jpg

Backdropped by Earth, the International Space Station is seen in an image taken by a crew member onboard the space shuttle Endeavour in this undated NASA handout photo. (REUTERS/NASA/Handout via Reuters)

The first crew to embark on a yearlong International Space Station mission could help NASA get to Mars.

NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko will launch to the space station in March with cosmonaut Gennady Padalka. Kornienko and Kelly will remain on the orbiting outpost performing research until March 2016. This mission will mark the first time a crew has spent a continuous year on the space station, and researchers are planning to take advantage of it. Scientists and doctors on the ground will monitor the way Kelly and Kornienko’s bodies change throughout the year in order to understand the potential effects of long-term spaceflight (like a mission to Mars) more fully.

“As a test pilot and as an engineer, what fascinates me is the space station as a whole experiment,” Kelly said during a news conference Jan. 15. “Traveling around Earth at 17,500 mph in a vacuum, extremes of temperature and pressure, building this facility that allows us to understand how to operate for long periods of time in space to allow us someday to go to Mars.” [Most Extreme Human Spaceflight Records]

Astronauts will likely need to spend more than a year in weightlessness if flying to Mars. The kind of research that Kornienko and Kelly are expected to perform in orbit could be a first step toward understanding how to mitigate any harmful changes the body might go through during a long trip in space.

NASA officials have a good sense of how the body behaves when exposed to the rigors of spaceflight for up to six months, but after that, the data is a little hazy.

Kelly will be the first American to spend a full year in space, however, Kornienko will not be the first cosmonaut to do so. A number of Russians spent a continuous year on the Mir space station in the 1980s and 1990s.

“We know a lot about six months, but we know almost nothing about what happens between six and 12 months in space,” Julie Robinson, a space station program scientist, said during the news conference yesterday. Kelly and Kornienko’s one-year mission is designed to help fill in the gaps between what the body experiences after six months versus what it experiences after one year.

Kornienko and Kelly’s eyes will be monitored for any changes to their eyesight or ocular health during the mission, NASA officials said. Astronauts have noticed changes in intracranial pressure due to fluid shifts that can result in possibly negative changes to the eyes, scientists have said.

Scientists are also interested in monitoring the microbial environment (microbiome) inside the crewmembers, keeping tabs on their physical performance, fine motor skills, metabolism and other health factors throughout the mission.

Once the two crewmembers are back on the ground, officials will test their ability to perform certain tasks that might be needed once a group arrives on Mars for the first time after a long spaceflight. Explorers might need to perform tasks like light construction of a habitat, or moving items around, with some dizziness and other symptoms induced by arriving back in a higher gravity environment.

Those ground tests are “looking at the practical tasks that astronauts have to do after a transit to Mars, things they would have to do right away after they land on Mars,” Robinson said. “One thing that crewmembers would have to do is get out of their suits, get out of the protection that they’ve been in for a pretty rough landing. They have to be able to jump out of a vehicle perhaps, jumping down some stairs.”

 

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft releases new images of dwarf planet Ceres

ceres-012015.jpg

This processed image, taken Jan. 13, 2015, shows the dwarf planet Ceres as seen from the Dawn spacecraft. The image hints at craters on the surface of Ceres. Dawn’s framing camera took this image at 238,000 miles from Ceres. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA)

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft is approaching the dwarf planet Ceres and new images released Monday show a closer view of the planet’s surface.

“We know so much about the solar system and yet so little about dwarf planet Ceres. Now, Dawn is ready to change that,” said Marc Rayman, Dawn’s chief engineer and mission director, according to a news release from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The NASA spacecraft is scheduled to conduct a 16-month study of Ceres and will send increasingly better and better images as it gets closer to the planet. It is the first time a spacecraft has ever visited a dwarf planet.

“Already, the [latest] images hint at first surface structures such as craters,” said Andreas Nathues, lead investigator for the framing camera team at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Gottingen, Germany.

The images, taken by Dawn 238,000 miles from Ceres on January 13, are at about 80 percent the resolution of Hubble Space Telescope images taken in 2003 and 2004. The next set of images to be released by Dawn – at the end of January – will be the clearest yet, NASA says.

Ceres, which lies between Mars and Jupiter, has an average diameter of 590 miles and is the largest body in the main asteroid belt. It is believed to contain a large amount of ice and scientists say the surface of the planet could be concealing an ocean.

“The team is very excited to examine the surface of Ceres in never-before-seen detail,” said Chris Russell, principal investigator for the Dawn mission. “We look forward to the surprises this mysterious world may bring.”

The Dawn spacecraft has already delivered more than 30,000 images of Vesta – the second largest body in the main asteroid belt – during an orbit in 2011 and 2012.

Air Force UFO files hit the Web

UFOpic1.jpg

File photo. A sign off route U.S. 285, north of Roswell, New Mexico, points west to the alleged 1947 crash site of a flying saucer on the Corn Ranch. (Reuters)

From eyewitness accounts of “trails of light” streaking across the sky to sightings of flying saucers, now amateur Mulder and Scullys alike can see if the truth really is out there by poring over almost 130,000 pages of declassified UFO documents that are now available online, reports MilitaryTimes.com. After spending decades filing Freedom of Information Act requests, John Greenewald, a UFO enthusiast, posted declassified records from Project Blue Book — the U.S. Air Force’s records on alleged UFO and extraterrestrial sightings — on an online database.

The Air Force project was based out of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio and ran from 1947 to 1969. Through the project, the Air Force amassed a total of 12,618 recorded sightings. Out of that total, 701 incidents remain “unidentified.” A University of Colorado report called the “Scientific Study of Unidentified Flying Objects” found that “there has been no evidence indicating that sightings categorized as ‘unidentified’ are extraterrestrial vehicles,” according to a 1985 Air Force fact sheet. Project Blue Book officially ended on Dec. 17, 1969.

While the documents do not shed any new light on UFO sightings, they do not quiet the fascination both conspiracy theorists and the casual “X-Files” fan have with alleged sightings of extraterrestrial aircraft.

“People have this fascination when it comes to UFOs,” Greenewald told the New York Daily News. “We can have our speculation that it’s top secret, but we simply don’t know.”

While Project Blue Book files have long been available to the public on microfilm at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., this marks the first time that the complete collection of declassified documents has been made available through a searchable online database.

One thing that may disappoint UFO fans is the scant reference to Roswell, New Mexico in the database. Conspiracy theorists claim the U.S. military found and covered up evidence of an alien spaceship crash in the alleged 1947 Roswell incident.

According to the fact sheet, “the National Archives has been unable to locate any documentation among” the project’s records “which discuss the 1947 incident in Roswell, New Mexico.”

The Roswell location itself does make a few brief appearances in the files. The database includes a few blurry images of lights in the sky that were taken at the New Mexico location in 1949. Additionally, a 1950 document mentions airmen at Roswell reporting a “bluish-white” circular object 10 feet in diameter speed by at 8,000 feet.

Some things might always remain a mystery.

After 17 years in orbit, how durable is the International Space Station?

SpaceStationCapsule.jpg

FILE- In this April 20, 2014, image made from a frame grabbed from NASA-TV, the SpaceX Dragon resupply capsule begins the process of being berthed on to the ISS. (AP Photo/NASA-TV, File)

Even though the ammonia leak that forced a partial evacuation of the International Space Station’s U.S. section on Wednesday proved to be a false alarm, the news did raise questions on the station’s durability.

Since the station’s inception in 1998, the habitable satellite has endured a multitude of maintenance issues, from pump failures to damaged panels. “We’ve had other, what have turned out to be more serious, problems on the space station,” NASA spokeswoman Stephanie Schierholz told FoxNews.com. “For example, there was an actual ammonia pump failure [in 2010], and so it had to be replaced and required space walks. The actions we took [Wednesday] were for a worst-case scenario like that.”

The now 17 year-old International Space Station (ISS) has been occupied for 5,187 days and circled the Earth 92,357 times, so a little wear-and-tear would seem unavoidable.  While the station has been in orbit since 1998, it actually wasn’t completed until recently.

“The first piece of the space station was put in orbit [in 1998], but the assembly actually took quite a bit of time, and wasn’t completed until 2011,” Schierholz said. “We were using the space shuttle to complete the building of the ISS, because we would bring pieces of the station up in the space shuttle, so every time we brought up a new piece it’d change the configuration. So the building of the space station took quite a bit of time.”

The road to the station’s assembly saw more than its fair share of bumps along the way. Following the space shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003, there was a two-and-a-half year suspension of the U.S. shuttle program, leading to a large waste accumulation aboard the ISS that held up operations in 2004. A computer failure in 2007 left the station temporarily without thrusters and oxygen generation, followed by a torn solar panel that same year which required astronaut Scott Parazynski to make a daring impromptu spacewalk on the end of the space shuttle’s OBSS inspection arm. In 2010 there was the aforementioned ammonia pump failure, which, according to Schierholz, “would be the top [maintenance issue that has come up] from an unexpected work/volume of work-required [standpoint]. The interesting thing about all these [problems] is that they’re anticipated failures — we train the astronauts for them. We do plan space walks to replace parts that we expect or are at the end of their life cycle. This failed sooner than we expected it to.”

The following year saw the station almost collide with what is becoming a rapidly rising threat: orbital debris. With more and more “dead” satellites in orbit, the possibility of one of them hitting the ISS is a growing one. These satellites sometimes slam into one another, the ensuing blast creating thousands of pieces of orbital debris.

“They are an issue,” Schierholz said, “because if something were to hit the space station – the ISS is traveling at 17,500 mph, a piece of debris could be travelling at the same speed, and there’s going to be some damage that’s caused as a result of that. The U.S. Air Force tracks any piece of debris that’s bigger than a golf ball, and there’s a certain amount of protection from micrometeroid debris, which is natural stuff in the universe that is too small to cause any real problems. But any debris that was put there as a result of an accident is a concern to us, especially because we have people on board.” To avoid disaster, thrusters are fired to adjust the station’s orbit out of harm’s way.

So after 17 years of dodging space junk and enduring technical problems, the question remains: how much longer can the ISS stay operational? According to NASA, for as long as the U.S. and its international partners pay to maintain it.

“The space station is certified for a particular lifetime,” Schierholz said. “So that’s how we assess the future lifespan of the space station.”

The NASA spokeswoman explained that certification involves ensuring that spare parts and backup supplies are available to keep the space station running.

“Currently it’s certified through 2020, and the President of the United States has said that they will extend it to 2024,” she added. “But then the other piece of it is making sure that it’s funded, that we have more international support for continuing to operate the space station.” As for the ISS lasting beyond 2024, “that’s more of a matter of supplies and being able to repair parts that break,” said Schierholz.

Sweet! Deep-space sugars may reveal clues about origins of life

analogs-deep-space-ice

By studying analogs of deep space ice, scientists might be able to learn more about how life on Earth could have evolved. (Courtesy of de Marcellus et al. Other Resources url: n/a)

Sugars may form in the types of ice found in deep space — a finding that could help to explain how comets and meteorites could have seeded the primordial Earth with key ingredients for life, researchers say.

In the dense molecular clouds from which stars and planetary systems are born, ices are, by far, the most abundant solids. Prior research had found that cosmic rays and ultraviolet radiation can help convert the chemicals that make up the bulk of these interstellar ices into complex organic matter, such as the precursors of proteins and fats.

“Ices are abundant in the interstellar medium, and it is unavoidable that some of them will receive energy from ultraviolet photons or cosmic rays, leading to molecular complexification,” study co-author Louis Le Sergeant d’Hendecourt, an astrophysicist at the Space Astrophysics Institute in Orsay, France, told Space.com. [5 Bold Claims of Alien Life]

Now, scientists have detected sugars in experiments that mimic the way interstellar ices can evolve over time. Sugars are more than just sweet nutrients; they serve as the backbones of nucleotides, which, in turn, serve as the building blocks of the nucleic acids that make up DNA and its cousin RNA.

“DNA is the genetic source code for all known living organisms,”study co-author Uwe Meierhenrich, a chemist at the University of Nice Sophia Antipolis in France, told Space.com.

In the experiments, scientists created thin films made up of frozen water, methanol and ammonia in a vacuum chamber kept at minus 319 degrees Fahrenheit. They irradiated these ices with ultraviolet rays to mimic how such material would evolve over time in interstellar space. Then, they slowly warmed the samples to room temperature and analyzed them.

In a first-of-its-kind discovery, the researchers detected compounds known as aldehydes. Most sugars derive from these compounds; the simplest and best-known example of an aldehyde is formaldehyde.

Among the 10 aldehydes the scientists detected were two sugar-related compounds, glycolaldehyde and glyceraldehyde — key precursors of nucleic acids, the building blocks of genetic material.

“Glyceraldehyde is a molecule of outstanding importance,” Meierhenrich said.

The researchers cautioned that their experiments did not create life, but rather only the key building blocks for life. Still, they said these findings may help reveal how ancient comets and meteorites might have seeded a lifeless Earth and other planets with the chemistry needed for life to evolve.

Future research into interstellar ices can explore the mystery of why the compounds that make up life on Earth usually come in one form but not the other, the researchers said. Many organic molecules can come in two different forms that are mirror images of each other, like left and right hands. DNA on Earth is usually “right-handed,” not “left-handed,” because the sugar that makes up DNA’s backbone is “right-handed.” In the future, the scientists would like to investigate whether sugars in interstellar ices might also be either left-handed or right-handed.

The scientists detailed their findings online Jan. 12 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.