NASA investigates building a cloud city on Venus


Handout image courtesy of NASA shows the planet Venus shortly before its transit of the Sun, June 5, 2012. (REUTERS/NASA/AIA/Solar Dynamics Observatory/Handout)

Just like out of a “Star Wars” movie, NASA is investigating the possibility of building a blimp-suspended city in the clouds high above Venus’ searing-hot surface. The project, known as the High Altitude Venus Operational Concept (HAVOC), is a spacecraft designed by the Systems Analysis and Concepts Directorate at NASA Langley Research Center for the purpose of exploring Earth’s closest neighbor. “There’ve been plenty of robotic missions along the way that have been proposed to explore Venus,” Project Head Dale Arney told “This one [is] looking at what it would take to explore it with humans and what the feasibility looks like in that realm.”

Despite Venus being closer to Earth than Mars by a few hundred million miles (depending on orbit), space agencies have been focusing their exploration efforts primarily on the red planet, and for good reason. While Venus has a similar density and chemical composition to Earth, the surface conditions have led researchers to refer to the planet as the solar system’s version of Hell. The mean temperature is a balmy 863 degrees Fahrenheit, the clouds are made of sulfuric acid, and there are more volcanoes (totaling, in some estimates, over 1,000,000) than on any other planet in the Milky Way. The air pressure is also 92% percent higher than Earth’s at sea level. Probes landing on the planet’s surface have only lasted, at most, two hours.

The HAVOC project, created by Arney and Chris Jones, would get around this problem by staying high above these hellish conditions — 30 miles above the surface, to be exact. First, a robotic probe would be sent to Venus to inspect the atmospheric conditions. Next, a crew would visit the planet’s orbit for a stay of 30 days, followed by a 30-day stay floating in the atmosphere. The primary feature of the concept is a 130 meter-long mobile blimp, its top covered with solar panels to utilize Venus’ close proximity to the sun. The helium-filled, solar-powered craft would hover above the highly acidic cloud-line for 30 days as a crew gathers information about the planet’s atmosphere.

While a permanent human presence in a blimp-suspended “cloud city” is the ultimate goal, Jones is quick to point out that they’re taking things one step at a time. “What we focused on in this study was understanding what an initial robotic and an initial, very short-term human mission would look like, and then just very notionally thought about what you could then build to beyond that — something like a more permanent presence. But our primary focus was on understanding what kind of technology system it would take to do any kind of mission at all, mainly to do the science and test out the technology it would need in order to enable those kinds of missions.”

A mission to Venus could be used as a test-run for crewed missions to Mars, the former taking 440 days using existing or near-term propulsion technology while a trip to the red planet would take 500 days at a minimum. Astronaut teams would also have the choice to abort a Venus mission and return to Earth immediately after arrival, whereas missions to Mars would have no such option: the crew would have to wait on the planet until just the right orbital alignment occurred for a safe return home.

So when can we expect to see an actual mission? NASA currently has no plans to send humans to Venus and according to the Langley branch’s head of public affairs Michael Finneran it may be a while before they do. “This is a visionary concept that is not being proposed for funding as a mission,” Finneran says. “If at some point NASA decided to fund a human mission to Venus, many concepts would be examined over a period of time before one was selected.”

Milky Way’s monster black hole unleashes record-breaking X-ray flare


The brightest flare ever seen near the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy was spotted by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory. (NASA/CXC/Amherst College/D.Haggard et al)

The giant black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy recently spit out the largest X-ray flare ever seen in that region, astronomers say.

The enormous eruption from the Milky Way’s core was detetected on Sept. 14, 2013, very close to the supermassive black hole known as Sagittarius A*. Pronounced “Sagittarius A star” and abbreviated as Sgr A*, the Milky Way’s monster black hole has a mass that is about 4.5 million times that of the sun. Scientists unveiled the discovery of the record-breaking flare this month at the 225th meeting of the American Astronomical Society.

The so-called “megaflare” flare was spotted by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, which can peer through dust and starlight to the center of the Milky Way. The event was 400 times brighter than the normal level of radiation from this region and nearly three times brighter than the previous record-holding flare, recorded in 2012. A second X-ray flare, with a flash 200 times brighter than normal levels, was then seen on Oct. 22, 2014. [No Escape: Black Holes Explained (Infographic)]

Daryl Haggard, of Amherst College in Massachusetts, presented the findings at a news conference here at the AAS meeting on Jan. 5. Haggard and her colleagues have two possible explanations for what might have caused the flare. First, the black hole may be behaving like our own sun, which also emits bright X-ray flares. In the sun, these flares occur when magnetic-field lines become very tightly packed together or twisted, and the researchers said it’s possible something similar took place near the black hole.

It’s also plausible that the flare was the product of Sgr A* having a snack. An asteroid or other object may have come too close to the black hole, ripping it apart. The debris would have accelerated rapidly and potentially radiated a bright burst of X-rays.

“If an asteroid was torn apart, it would go around the black hole for a couple of hours — like water circling an open drain — before falling in,” Fred Baganoff, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a member of the research team,said in a statement. “That’s just how long we saw the brightest X-ray flare last, so that is an intriguing clue for us to consider.”

Researchers saw the flare by chance while watching Sgr A* in anticipation of a different event: A gas cloud called G2 was set to make a close pass by Sgr A*, and some scientists hypothesized that material from G2 would fall into the black hole, generating a bright display of X-rays, NASA officials said in a statement. But no X-ray signal was detected as G2 made its closest approach to Sgr A*. The new flares do not appear to be part of the missing light show, according to Haggard.

“We do not think flares are connected to the G2 object,” Haggard said. “And the reason for that is that the time scales don’t quite match. The time scale for these flares is fairly rapid — thousands of seconds,” or an hour or two, she said.

This time scale is characteristic of an object roughly one astronomical unit (the distance from the Earth to the sun) from Sgr A*, Haggard added. G2’s closest approach to Sgr A* was 150 astronomical units, “so the time scale doesn’t quite match up,” she added.

Haggard and her colleagues are hoping for flares from Sgr A*. With more detailed observations, she said, it might be possible to discern whether Sgr A* is rotating or stationary — a feature that can change aspects of a black hole’s physiology.

Do Mars rover photos show potential signs of ancient life?


File photo. (REUTERS/NASA/Handout)

A careful study of images taken by the NASA rover Curiosity has revealed intriguing similarities between ancient sedimentary rocks on Mars and structures shaped by microbes on Earth. The findings suggest, but do not prove, that life may have existed earlier on the Red Planet.

The photos were taken as the Mars rover Curiosity drove through the Gillespie Lake outcrop in Yellowknife Bay, a dry lakebed that underwent seasonal flooding billions of years ago. Mars and Earth shared a similar early history. The Red Planet was a much warmer and wetter world back then.

On Earth, carpet-like colonies of microbes trap and rearrange sediments in shallow bodies of water such as lakes and coastal areas, forming distinctive features that fossilize over time. These structures, known as microbially-induced sedimentary structures (or MISS), are found in shallow water settings all over the world and in ancient rocks spanning Earth’s history. [The Search for Life on Mars: A Photo Timeline]

Nora Noffke, a geobiologist at Old Dominion University in Virginia, has spent the past 20 years studying these microbial structures. Last year, she reported the discovery of MISS that are 3.48 billion years old in the Western Australia’s Dresser Formation, making them potentially the oldest signs of life on Earth.

In a paper published online last month in the journal Astrobiology (the print version comes out this week), Noffke details the striking morphological similarities between Martian sedimentary structures in the Gillespie Lake outcrop (which is at most 3.7 billion years old) and microbial structures on Earth.

The distinctive shapes include erosional remnants, pockets, domes, roll-ups, pits, chips and cracks, which on Earth can extend from a few centimeters to many kilometers.

Although Noffke makes a tantalizing case for possible signs of ancient life on Mars, her report is not a definitive proof that these structures were shaped by biology. Getting such confirmation would involve returning rock samples to Earth and conducting additional microscopic analyses, a mission that isn’t scheduled anytime in the near future.

“All I can say is, here’s my hypothesis and here’s all the evidence that I have,” Noffke says, “although I do think that this evidence is a lot.”

“The fact that she pointed out these structures is a great contribution to the field,” says Penelope Boston, a geomicrobiologist at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology. “Along with the recent reports of methane and organics on Mars, her findings add an intriguing piece to the puzzle of a possible history for life on our neighboring planet.”

A careful analysis

“I’ve seen many papers that say ‘Look, here’s a pile of dirt on Mars, and here’s a pile of dirt on Earth,'” says Chris McKay, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center and an associate editor of the journal Astrobiology. “And because they look the same, the same mechanism must have made each pile on the two planets.'” [Life on Mars? The Exploration and Evidence]

McKay adds: “That’s an easy argument to make, and it’s typically not very convincing. However, Noffke’s paper is the most carefully done analysis of the sort that I’ve seen, which is why it’s the first of its kind published in Astrobiology.”

The images on which Noffke drew are publicly available on the Mars Science Laboratory page on NASA’s website.

“In one image, I saw something that looked very familiar,” Noffke recalls. “So I took a closer look, meaning I spent several weeks investigating certain images centimeter by centimeter, drawing sketches, and comparing them to data from terrestrial structures. And I’ve worked on these for 20 years, so I knew what to look for.”

Noffke compared the rover pictures to images taken at several sites on Earth, including modern sediment surfaces in Mellum Island, Germany; Portsmouth Island, USA; and Carbla Point, Western Australia; as well as older fossils of microbial mats in Bahar Alouane, Tunisia; the Pongola Supergroup in Africa; and the Dresser Formation in Western Australia.

The photos showed striking morphological similarities between the terrestrial and Martian sedimentary structures. [Poll: Do You Think Life Exists on Mars Now?]

The distribution patterns of the microbial structures on Earth vary depending on where they are found. Different types of structures are found together in different types of environments. For instance, microbial mats that grow in rivers will create a different set of associations than those that grow in seasonally flooded environments.

The patterns found in the Gillespie Lake outcrop are consistent with the microbial structures found in similar environments on Earth.

What’s more, the terrestrial structures change in a specific way over time. As the microbial mats form, grow, dry up, crack and re-grow, specific structures become associated with them. Here again, Noffke found that the distribution pattern in Martian rocks correspond with microbial structures on Earth that have changed over time. Taken together, these clues strengthen her argument beyond simply pointing out the similarities in shape.

In her paper, she also describes alternative processes through which these could have formed. For instance, the chips, pits and cracks could be the product of erosion by salt, water, or wind.

“But if the Martian structures aren’t of biological origin,” Noffke says, “then the similarities in morphology, but also in distribution patterns with regards to MISS on Earth would be an extraordinary coincidence.”

“At this point, all I’d like to do is point out these similarities,” she adds. “Further evidence must be provided to verify this hypothesis.”

Confirmation pending

At the end of her report, Noffke outlines a detailed strategy for confirming the potential biological nature of the Martian structures. Unfortunately, one important step — returning samples to Earth for further analyses — is just not feasible yet. [Mars Could Have Supported Life, NASA Finds | Video]

Noffke also lists a series of measurements Curiosity could potentially do to strengthen the case if it came across such structures again, including looking for organic or chemical signatures using its Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument.

But McKay says this likely would not work. “In principle, that instrument could tell us something about the nature of these materials biologically, if there were still large amounts of biological organics in the samples,” he explains. “But these are just ancient sedimentary structures, and biology has long since left.”

“What’s more, in practice this instrument is restricted,” he adds. “There was a contamination spill in the instrument presumably during landing. So it has a very high background contamination level.”

On Earth, scientists typically confirm the biological nature of microbial sediment structures by searching for specific microscopic textures, which involves cutting rocks into thin slices and studying them under a microscope.

On Mars, this would be very difficult do from an engineering perspective, although McKay doesn’t rule out the possibility for future missions. “I don’t know if it can be done, but engineers are pretty smart,” he says. “If you give them a challenge, they usually find a solution.”

He adds: “A sample-return mission would be the gold standard. But that’s just unlikely to happen anytime soon.”

Follow Johnny Bontemps on Twitter. This story was provided by Astrobiology Magazine, a web-based publication sponsored by the NASA astrobiology program. Follow @Spacedotcom, Facebook and Google+.

Outside the spacecraft: Smithsonian celebrates 50 years of spacewalks

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    “Outside the Spacecraft: 50 Years of Extra-Vehicular Activity” is on view at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. Jan. 8 through June 8, 2015. (Smithsonian)

The Smithsonian is inviting the public to take a stroll through half a century of spacewalks.

In its new exhibition, “Outside the Spacecraft: 50 Years of Extra-Vehicular Activity,” the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. pays tribute to the 50th anniversary of the first two human ventures into open space. Opening Jan. 8, the six-month exhibit presents art, photography, artifacts and personal accounts that relate the continuing story of extravehicular activity or EVA — or as it is colloquially known, spacewalking.

“‘Outside the Spacecraft’ is the museum’s opportunity to celebrate 50 years of people doing the most amazing thing I can think of and that is learning how to live and work in space using their own ‘personal spacecraft’ and special tools,” Jennifer Levasseur, the curator of the exhibit, told “Our collection is so strong in EVA-related items that this is the perfect opportunity for us to show people some unique objects and connect them to things like art, photography, and the work we do to preserve EVA history.” [Evolution of the Spacesuit in Photos]

EVA changed the nature of human spaceflight. Whereas rockets could get humans into space, the ability for them to leave their spacecraft and work outside made possible walking on the moon, repairing and upgrading the Hubble Space Telescope, and assembling the International Space Station.

“As an achievement within the history of spaceflight, EVA is crucial to a long-term ability to reside in space,” said Levasseur. “We needed the capability in order to build and maintain space equipment, as we continue to see on the space station.”

First spacewalks 50 years ago

The first spacewalk was performed by Russian cosmonaut Alexei Leonov on March 18, 1965. His 12-minute, historic feat was followed three months later by NASA astronaut Edward White, who spent over 20 minutes in open space on June 3 of that same year.

Finding artifacts to represent White’s walk in space was not difficult, explained Levasseur. The museum already had most of the equipment he used that day, including the spacesuit that he wore and the camera that he carried (the National Air and Space Museum also displays the Gemini 4 spacecraft from which White exited). [Giant Leaps: Biggest Moments in Human Spaceflight]

Representing Leonov however presented a challenge. The museum displays the cosmonaut’s training spacesuit and airlock, but in another of its galleries. His flown spacesuit, Voskhod 2 spacecraft and equipment are all on exhibit in Russia.

“We have to tell the stories of Leonov and White, which is more difficult as a [U.S.] national museum in the case of Leonov,” Levasseur explained. “In his case, we could tell a different aspect of his story with the military uniform he donated to us.”

The curators were also able to encompass both historic outings through the imagery they generated.

“The visuals of those [spacewalks], moving and still, are included to really show people what it looked like those first times,” Levasseur described. “And we can bring that full circle by including some very recent photographs of ISS EVAs at the end [of the exhibit].”

Over the Earth and on the moon

“Outside the Spacecraft” spans the history of spacewalks, from Leonov’s and White’s first EVAs 50 years ago to the 369th spacewalk made last June by a pair of cosmonauts outside the International Space Station. In the half century since the initial outings, more than 200 people have “gone EVA” on nearly 375 excursions.

Twelve of those people exited their spacecraft to walk on the surface of the moon.

“Special [as part of the exhibit] are the Apollo 11 objects,” Levasseur told collectSPACE, referring to the first mission to land men on the moon. “[Neil] Armstrong’s headset, the lunar module film camera that recorded the first landing, and a waist tether used in the LM as well — the last two of which are on loan to us, and are promised donations, from the Armstrong family.”

Other rare, and rarely-seen, EVA artifacts included in the exhibition include spacewalker Eugene Cernan’s Gemini 9 pressure suit, which is now so fragile that it is uncommon for it be to be displayed, and the cover to Cernan’s oxygen purge system (OPS) that he used in December 1972 when he became the last man to walk on the moon.

“Of our ‘never before seen on display’ objects, I would say that Cernan’s OPS cover from Apollo 17 is fantastic since we opened its NASA packaging just for this exhibit,” said Levasseur.

Also on display is an Omega Speedmaster chronograph that has been taken apart to reveal its internal workings. Omega, as a sponsor of the exhibit, prepared this special cross-section presentation, which is displayed beside the wristwatch that Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt used on the lunar surface.

Putting ourselves in their shoes

“With a small temporary exhibit, in this particular exhibit space, we can highlight objects we do not normally get to showcase because of their fragility, and give people an intimate experience,” Levasseur stated. “It is also a place where people can feel immersed in EVA because of our use of photography from EVAs, which are really our best way to connect with the astronauts and feel like we could put ourselves in their shoes.”

“Outside the Spacecraft” will be open at the National Air and Space Museum through June 8, 2015. The exhibition is accompanied by an online display  designed to be used on mobile devices as visitors tour the gallery.

The museum is also inviting people to join the tradition of spacewalk-inspired art and create their own artwork based upon photographs of EVA. Selected works will be featured on the “Imagining Spacewalks” project Tumblr page.

“Since [spacewalkers] are carrying all the necessities of life and work with them, it all feels far more personal than what you might think about with a broad look at human spaceflight,” Levasseur said.

Click through to collectSPACE to watch a behind the scenes video of the Smtihsonian’s new “Outside the Spacecraft” exhibit.

Follow on Facebook and on Twitter at @collectSPACE. Copyright 2015 All rights reserved.

NASA spots more planets out of solar system that may be like Earth

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This artist’s conception provided by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics depicts an Earth-like planet orbiting an evolved star that has formed a stunning “planetary nebula.” Earlier in its life, this planet may have been like one of the eight newly discovered worlds orbiting in the habitable zones of their stars. (AP Photo/Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, David A. Aguilar) (The Associated Press)

Earth has a few more near-twin planets outside our solar system, tantalizing possibilities in the search for extraterrestrial life.

Astronomers announced Tuesday that depending on definitions, they have confirmed three or four more planets that are about the same size as Earth and are in the not-too-hot, not-too-cold “Goldilocks Zone” for liquid water to form.

These planets are likely to be rocky like Earth, and not gas giants or ice worlds. They get about the same heat from their star as we get from the sun, according to the latest results from NASA’s planet hunting Kepler telescope.

But don’t book your flights yet.

They may be close to Earth in size and likely temperature in the gargantuan scale of the universe, but they aren’t quite close enough for comfort.

Consider two of the new planets, the nearest to Earth discovered to date. If they have atmospheres similar to Earth’s — a big if — one would be a toasty 140 some degrees and the other would hover around zero, said study lead author Guillermo Torres, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

Life conceivably could evolve and adapt to those temperatures, he said.

Oh, and they aren’t actually within commuting distance of Earth. Those two are 500 and 1,100 light years away; a light year is 5.9 trillion miles.

What’s important, said SETI Institute astronomer Douglas Caldwell, a study co-author who presented the findings at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Seattle, is that astronomers are a bit closer to finding twins of Earth and answering the age-old question: Are we alone?

“These planets do exist; we didn’t know that before,” Torres said in a phone interview from Cambridge, Massachusetts. “What we’re really looking for is signs of life eventually. We’re not there yet. It will take many years but this is the first step.”

Torres’ team confirmed earlier discoveries and added new ones, bringing the total known number of planets that are no bigger than twice Earth’s size and in the habitable temperature zone to eight or nine. But that’s only from a short search of a small part of our galaxy, so Torres believes that Earth-like planets are common throughout the cosmos, though he cannot prove it yet.

Torres likes to include one planet that would bump the new findings from three to four, but Caldwell said that planet may or may not be habitable.

It doesn’t matter much. “We do not need to talk about the one or two exoplanets that could be like Earth, we are finding so many,” said Lisa Kaltenegger, director of Cornell University’s Pale Blue Dot Institute. She wasn’t part of the study.

Torres and Caldwell highlighted the two new planets that are closest in size to Earth. The closest, called Kepler 438-b, is only 12 percent larger than Earth and gets about 40 percent more energy from its star than we do from the sun, so it would probably be warmer, Torres said. It tightly circles a small cooler red star with its year lasting only 35 Earth days and the sun in its sky would be red, not yellow.

It may hot, but “there are bacteria on Earth that live very comfortably in those temperatures, no problem,” Torres said.

The other, Kepler 442-b, is about 34 percent bigger than Earth but gets only two-thirds of the energy from its sun as we do, Torres said.

NASA also announced that its planet-hunter telescope confirmed its 1,000th planet outside the solar system, most quite unlike Earth and not in the habitable zone. Added to those discovered by other telescopes, astronomers have now discovered more than 1,800 planets that are outside the solar system.

The biggest alien planet discoveries of 2014


Artist’s concept of Kepler-186f, the first Earth-size planet found orbiting in the habitable zone of its parent star. Kepler-186f orbits a red dwarf about 490 light-years from Earth. (NASA Ames/SETI Institute/JPL-Caltech)

This past year was a banner one for the field of exoplanet science, with the tally of known alien worlds doubling to nearly 2,000 by the end of 2014.

Here’s a look at the top exoplanet discoveries of 2014, from the first potentially habitable Earth-size world to a staggering haul of 715 newly announced alien planets:

‘Earth’s cousin’

In April, scientists announced the discovery of Kepler-186f, the first known Earth-size planet that resides in its star’s “habitable zone” — the range of distances that could support the existence of liquid water on a world’s surface. [10 Exoplanets That Could Host Alien Life]

As its name suggests, Kepler-186f was found by NASA’s prolific Kepler space telescope. The planet lies 490 light-years from Earth and is just 10 percent wider than our home world. Kepler-186f is not the elusive “Earth twin” that astronomers have long sought; the planet circles a red dwarf, a star smaller and dimmer than the sun. But Kepler-186f is a member of the family nonetheless, with its discoverers characterizing it as an “Earth cousin.”

A habitable world next door?

Kepler-186f isn’t the only planet found last year that might be capable of supporting life. A world called Gliese 832c is also potentially habitable — and it lies just 16 light-years away, a mere stone’s throw considering the vast scale of the universe.

Astronomers found Gliese 832c, which also orbits a red dwarf, using three different ground-based instruments. The exoplanet is a “super Earth” at least five times as massive as Earth, its discoverers say. While Gliese 832c may be habitable, it could also resemble scorching-hot Venus, whose thick atmosphere has led to a runaway greenhouse effect.

715 newfound exoplanets

Exoplanet discoveries usually come in drips and drops, but in February, the Kepler team unleashed a torrent: Researchers announced the spacecraft had spotted 715 new alien worlds, nearly doubling the known population in one fell swoop.

More than 90 percent of the newfound planets are smaller than Neptune, and four of them are habitable-zone worlds less than 2.5 times the size of Earth, scientists said.

Researchers confirmed this huge haul of Kepler planets using a technique called “validation by multiplicity,” which relies on probability and statistics rather than additional observations by other telescopes.

‘The Godzilla of Earths’

Another headliner from 2014 is Kepler-10c, a planet about 17 times more massive than Earth. Such hefty worlds were thought to be primarily gaseous, but Kepler-10c is rocky.

Kepler-10c is therefore the first known member of a new class of exoplanets, the “mega-Earths.” This “Godzilla of Earths,” as one of its discoverers described Kepler-10c, orbits a sunlike star that lies about 560 light-years from Earth.

Gas dwarfs

Just as rocky planets can apparently be much larger than previously thought, gaseous worlds can be surprisingly small. That’s the conclusion of another 2014 study, which laid out the classification of “gas dwarf” exoplanets. [The Strangest Alien Planets (Gallery)]

After studying more than 600 newfound Kepler planets, the researchers determined that worlds less than 1.7 times the size of Earth are likely to be rocky, while those at least 3.9 times bigger than our planet are gaseous. Most worlds between these two extremes are probably “gas dwarfs,” planets with rocky cores and thick hydrogen-helium atmospheres that never grew to the size of Saturn, Jupiter and other gas giants, the study found.

The first exomoon?

Astronomers may have detected the moon of an alien planet for the first time in 2014, but we’ll never know for sure.

The team used a technique called gravitational microlensing, which notes how a foreground object’s gravity warps the light from a distant star when it passes in front of the star from Earth’s perspective. The researchers saw one lensing event caused by a foreground object that could be one of two things: a free-flying “rogue planet” with a rocky exomoon, or a small star that hosts a planet about 18 times more massive than Earth.

Unfortunately, there’s no way to follow up on the find, because microlensing events are random encounters. So the search for the first confirmed exomoon continues.

The first exoplanet of Kepler’s new mission

Kepler’s original exoplanet hunt ground to a halt in May 2013, when the second of its four orientation-maintaining reaction wheels failed. But the Kepler team devised a way to stabilize the observatory using sunlight pressure, and in May 2014, NASA approved a new, two-year mission for the spacecraft called K2, during which it has been hunting for alien planets, supernova explosions and other cosmic phenomena. [Gallery: A World of Kepler Planets]

The first K2 exoplanet is now in the books. In December, researchers announced that Kepler had discovered a world called HIP 116454b, which is about 2.5 times bigger than Earth and lies 160 light-years away.

However successful K2 turns out to be, the new mission won’t approach the exoplanet tally Kepler racked up during its pre-glitch operations. Kepler’s original mission netted nearly 4,200 planet candidates, nearly 1,000 of which have been confirmed to date. Kepler scientists expect about 90 percent of the candidates will turn out to be bona fide planets.

The oldest potentially habitable alien planet

Also this year, astronomers announced the discovery of Kapteyn b, a super Earth that orbits in the habitable zone of a red dwarf located just 13 light-years away from our solar system.

Kapteyn b is 11.5 billion years old, making it the most ancient known planet that may be capable of supporting life. To put that age into perspective: Earth is less than 4.6 billion years old, while the universe itself was born 13.8 billion years ago. So if life took root early in Kapteyn b’s history, it has had a very long time to evolve.

Planets around every star?

Another 2014 study suggests that virtually every red dwarf in the Milky Way galaxy hosts at least one planet — and that at least 25 percent of these small, dim stars in the sun’s own neighborhood host habitable-zone worlds.

That translates to a lot of life-friendly real estate; red dwarfs make up at least 70 percent of the galaxy’s 100 billion or so stars.

The team arrived at these conclusions after analyzing observations made by two instruments in Chile — the High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) and the Ultraviolet and Visual Echelle Spectrograph (UVES). The results bolster previous findings made by researchers who looked at Kepler data, indicating that the Milky Way is teeming with billions of planets.

Earth-like worlds in two-star systems?

This year, for the first time, astronomers found a rocky planet in an Earth-like orbit around a single star in a two-star system.

The world, known as OGLE-2013-BLG-0341LBb, lies about 3,000 light-years from Earth and is likely too cold to support life as we know it (it circles a red dwarf). And it’s not the first planet to be spotted in a two-star system, or the first one known to circle just one of a binary’s two stars.

But the discovery of OGLE-2013-BLG-0341LBb is significant, showing that rocky planets can form relatively far from their host stars even in two-star systems, researchers said. (Previously, it was thought that a nearby companion star might disrupt the planet-forming disk too much for this to occur.) Its existence suggests that habitable planets may be more common than scientists had supposed; half of all Milky Way stars exist in binary systems.

NASA must sharpen its space skills, say experts


Space Shuttle Discovery lifts off at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. April 5, 2010. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

NASA could lose its lead in the space race to China or Russia if it doesn’t revitalize its workforce, a new study has found.

“In the longer term (two to three decades from now), China appears to be best positioned to be a challenger for the top spot,” Prof. Loizos Heracleous of Warwick Business School in the U.K. told He and Steven Gonzalez of NASA’s Johnson Space Center co-authored the study, Two modest proposals for propelling NASA forward, which was published on Nov. 17 in Space Policy.

“This is due to the amount of resources [China] dedicates to space activities, the breadth of its programs, its long-term thinking and its determination,” Heracleous continued.

He noted that other countries, too, are getting in on the space game — nations like India, which recently launched an orbiter to Mars at the “incredibly low cost” of $74 million, though its program “lacks the scope of the U.S., Russian or Chinese programs.”

But those countries’ space programs are gaining momentum and closing ground, he said.

Heracleous and Gonzalez have written in their study that NASA can overcome its predicament by addressing two issues — its lack of employee turnover and its budgetary problems.

  • In the 1960s, NASA’s annual turnover rate was 10 to 15 percent, ensuring a continuous influx of fresh talent and ideas. Today it’s 1.7 percent (excluding retirees), with 58 percent of its workers between the ages of 45 and 59. Using a successful government program, Sandia’s Entrepreneurial Separation to Transfer Technology (ESTT), as a model, the authors propose that employees be allowed to leave NASA to start new companies or help existing organizations, with guaranteed reinstatement if they decide to return. This would give scientists an opportunity to gain new insights and perspectives on their technology before returning to NASA.
  • During the Cold War, NASA received 4.5 percent of the federal budget; today it’s down to 0.5 percent. The authors say this can be addressed by making NASA a network organization that is properly integrated internally and externally, meaning there is an organized working partnership not only between NASA centers but also with other superior space technology organizations.

“It would be beneficial if NASA could be given the freedom to manage its human resources and infrastructure based on performance-based, market-oriented, competitive principles,” Heracleous said. “Such a move would have positive consequences organizationally and strategically, including the ability to revitalize its workforce and facilitate transfer of relevant competencies from wherever they reside.”

Heracleous blames lack of support and funding for NASA’s struggles. “NASA has not been resting on its laurels,” he said. “However, it has been constrained by several factors, including a misalignment between long-term project timescales on one hand, and uncertainty in terms of political support, funding cycles and leadership stability on the other hand.”

Time will tell if NASA takes the authors’ proposal into consideration and implements its methods.

“No doubt there are additional dimensions than the obvious scientific ones to take into consideration, such as socioeconomic as well as military ones,” Heracleous said.

But with the space race heating up, time is running out.

“China, for example, has been explicit about wishing to mine precious minerals on other planets and asteroids,” Heracleous said.

This is the universe’s coldest known spot

This is the universe's coldest known spot

Omaha photographer Lane Hickenbottom photographs the night sky in a pasture near Callaway, Neb. on Wednesday night, July 23, 2014. With no moon in the sky, the Milky Way was visible to the naked eye. (AP Photo/The Wichita Eagle, Travis Heying)

Think winter is cold in your neck of the woods? It’s nothing compared to the Boomerang Nebula (also known as the Bow Tie Nebula), where a dying star 5,000 light-years away has created the coldest known place in the universe,Smithsonian reports in a wintery look at the 2013 discovery.

And by cold, we mean 1 degree Kelvin or minus 458 degrees Fahrenheit—just a smidge less frosty than absolute zero. Researchers measured the temperature last year in northern Chile with a special telescope dubbed ALMA, Space.comreported.

“This ultra-cold object is extremely intriguing, and we’re learning much more about its true nature with ALMA,” said the NASA scientist behind the research. “What seemed like a double lobe, or ‘boomerang’ shape … is actually a much broader structure that is expanding rapidly into space.” The dying star, which once resembled our sun, is producing the Boomerang Nebula by emitting lots of gas in “a process similar to how refrigerators stay cold by using expanding gas,” noted

The star will eventually expand into a red giant, run empty on gas, and dissipate into a highly dense stellar remnant called a white dwarf. But the nebula, which was named back in 1980, will lose its coldest-ever ranking as soon as 2016, when NASA plans to place a Cold Atom Lab inside the International Space Station and create temperatures above absolute zero by just 1/10 billionth of a degree, io9 reports.

The lab will be used to explore “previously inaccessible” low temperatures “where interesting and novel quantum phenomena can be expected,” saysNASA. (In other space news, Kepler has “risen from the ashes.”)

This article originally appeared on Newser: Scientists Find ‘Coldest Place in the Universe’

More From Newser

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

  • kepler-k2-exoplanet

    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

  • pluto-new-horizons-art

    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.”