Are we alone? The interstellar search for alien life

Scientists seeking extraterrestrial life elsewhere in the universe have made a series of startling discoveries in recent months: alien life might not be so remote after all.


Astronomers searching for planets outside our solar system discovered the tiniest one yet in late February — one that’s about the size of our moon. But the new world, known as Kepler-37b, orbits too close to its sun-like star and is too sizzling to support life. Its surface temperature is an estimated 700 degrees Fahrenheit. It also lacks an atmosphere and water on its rocky surface.


Still, the quest is likely to yield life at some point. Astronomers have calculated that 6 percent of the galaxy’s 75 billion or so red dwarfs stars smaller and dimmer than the Earth’s own sun probably host habitable, roughly Earth-size planets. That works out to at least 4.5 billion such “alien Earths,” the closest of which might be found a mere dozen light-years away.

Source: NASA

Meanwhile, NASA continues the quest for life in our own solar system. Mars rover Curiosity relayed new images in late February of the first sample ever collected from the interior of a rock on another planet. No rover has ever drilled into a rock beyond Earth and collected parts of it.

Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Jan. 11, 2013: In the search for an Earth-like alien world, astronomers have had their eyes set on planets beyond our solar system. But some moons orbiting these exoplanets may be just as likely to support life, scientists say.”There is a habitable zone for exomoons, it’s just a little different than the habitable zone for exoplanets,” said Rory Barnes of the NASA Astrobiology Institute. Pictured: Artist’s conception of the three suns and the newly discovered Jupiter-sized planet from the perspective of a hypothetical moon orbiting the planet.

Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Jan. 9, 2013: A possible alien planet discovered by NASA’s Kepler space telescope is the most Earth-like world yet detected beyond our solar system, scientists say. With a radius just 1.5 times that of Earth, the potential planet is a so-called “super-Earth,” meaning it is just slightly larger than the Earth. Scientists say the planet, if confirmed, could be a prime candidate to host alien life.


The Kepler space telescope, launched March of 2009, has been a key new asset in the quest for life. Using data from the scope, which can better scan the heavens from outside of Earth’s atmosphere, scientists estimated in January that at least 17 billion Earth-sized exoplanets reside in the Milky Way Galaxy.

Source: NASA

Dec. 19, 2012: Astronomers detected five possible alien planets circling the star Tau Ceti, which is less than 12 light-years from Earth — a mere stone’s throw in the cosmic scheme of things. One of the newfound worlds appears to orbit in Tau Ceti’s habitable zone, a range of distances from a star where liquid water can exist on a planet’s surface.


Nov. 15, 2012: A potential “rogue” alien planet is wandering alone just 100 light-years from Earth, scientists said, suggesting that such starless worlds may be extremely common across the galaxy. The free-floating object, called CFBDSIR2149, is likely a gas giant planet four to seven times more massive than Jupiter.


Nov. 8, 2012: Astronomers have detected an alien planet that may be capable of supporting life as we know it and it too is Earth’s cosmic neighbor. Called HD 40307g, it’s located inside its host star’s habitable zone, a just-right range of distances where liquid water may exist on a world’s surface. And the planet lies a mere 42 light-years away from Earth.


Nov. 2, 2012: Asteroid belts similar to the one between Mars and Jupiter appear to be rare beyond our solar system, implying that complex alien life may be rare as well, a new study reported. Fewer than 4 percent of known alien solar systems are likely to have an asteroid belt like the one in our own neck of the woods, researchers found. Belts that look like ours may help spur the evolution of life, seeding rocky planets with water and complex chemicals but not pummeling the worlds with a constant barrage of violent impacts.


Oct. 17, 2012: There’s even an alien planet right in our solar system’s backyard, but don’t hope for an exploration mission anytime soon. The newfound world is much too far away for probes to visit using current technology, experts say. The scorching-hot alien planet Alpha Centauri Bb, which is about as massive as Earth, resides in the three-star Alpha Centauri system. While no other star is closer to our sun than the Alpha Centauri trio, they’re still about 4.3 light-years away, making a close-up look at the planet pretty much impossible right now.

Source: L. Calcada/European Southern

The Allen Telescope Array — a large number of small satellite dishes designed to add the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. In the desert northeast of San Francisco, California, the array is expected to someday consist of 350 antennas, constantly scanning the stars for signs of life.

Source: SETI Institute

Oct. 11, 2012: Move over, Hope Diamond. The most famous gems on Earth have new competition in the form of a planet made largely of diamond, astronomers say.The alien planet, a so-called “super-Earth,” is called 55 Cancri e and was discovered in 2004 around a nearby star in our Milky Way galaxy. After estimating the planet’s mass and radius, and studying its host star’s composition, scientists now say the rocky world is composed mainly of carbon (in the form of diamond and graphite), as well as iron, silicon carbide, and potentially silicates.


Sep. 27, 2012: The NASA rover Curiosity beamed back pictures of bedrock that suggest a fast-moving stream, possibly waist-deep, once flowed on Mars — a find that the mission’s chief scientist called exciting. There have been previous signs that water existed on the red planet long ago, but these images show pebbles rounded off, likely by water, offered the most convincing evidence so far of an ancient streambed.

Source: AP/NASA

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Is millionaire space tourist planning trip to Mars?

By Mike Wall

Published February 23, 2013

  • nasa-hubble-mars-2003

    NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope snapped this shot of Mars on Aug. 26, 2003, when the Red Planet was 34.7 million miles from Earth. The picture was taken just 11 hours before Mars made its closest approach to us in 60,000 years. (NASA/ESA)

Buzz is building about a planned 2018 private mission to Mars, which may launch the first humans toward the Red Planet.

A nonprofit organization called the Inspiration Mars Foundation — which is led by millionaire Dennis Tito, the world’s first space tourist — will hold a news conference on Feb. 27 to announce the 501-day roundtrip mission, which will aim for a January 2018 launch.

“This ‘Mission for America’ will generate new knowledge, experience and momentum for the next great era of space exploration,” Inspiration Mars officials wrote in a media advisory yesterday (Feb. 20). “It is intended to encourage all Americans to believe again, in doing the hard things that make our nation great, while inspiring youth through Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education and motivation.”

Tito made history in 2001, plunking down a reported $20 million for an eight-day trip to the International Space Station aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft. [Photos: The First Space Tourists]


‘A crewed free-return Mars mission would fly by Mars, but not go into orbit around the planet or land on it.’

– Millionaire Dennis Tito


Tito will participate in the Feb. 27 news conference. So will Taber MacCallum and Jane Poynter, CEO and president, respectively, of Paragon Space Development Corp., which has expertise in life-support systems; and space-medicine expert Jonathan Clark of the Baylor College of Medicine.

The speakers’ backgrounds and the lofty goals articulated in the media advisory have led some people to speculate that Inspiration Mars is planning a manned mission to the Red Planet. And it looks like that may be the case, according to some media reports.

On March 3, Tito will give a talk called “Feasibility Analysis for a Manned Mars Free Return Mission in 2018” at an aerospace conference in Montana, the NewSpace Journal reported Thursday, Feb. 21.

The NewSpace Journal says it obtained a copy of the paper Tito plans to present in Montana and gives a summary of its main thrust.

Tito’s paper discusses “a crewed free-return Mars mission that would fly by Mars, but not go into orbit around the planet or land on it. This 501-day mission would launch in January 2018, using a modified SpaceX Dragon spacecraft launched on a Falcon Heavy rocket,” the NewSpace Journal writes. “According to the paper, existing environmental control and life support system (ECLSS) technologies would allow such a spacecraft to support two people for the mission, although in Spartan condition.”

The mission would be privately financed and cheaper than previous estimates for manned Mars efforts, the NewSpace Journal adds, though no overall cost is given.

The purported involvement of California-based SpaceX is not a huge surprise, as company founder Elon Musk has repeatedly stressed his desire to help humanity reach and eventually colonize Mars. Indeed, SpaceX has been developing a mission concept called “Red Dragon,” which would use its Dragon capsule to send astronauts to the Red Planet.

A 501-day mission would pose potentially serious physiological and psychological issues for astronauts (standard stints aboard the space station are currently just six months).

Researchers have tried to understand the psychological and sociological effects of being isolated in cramped quarters for long stretches, notably during the Russia-based Mars500 mock mission, which wrapped up in November 2011. But the physiological effects may be tougher to simulate and mitigate, experts say.

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Has dark matter finally been found? Big news coming

By Clara Moskowitz

Published February 18, 2013

  • dark matter NASA.jpg

    the distribution of dark matter, galaxies, and hot gas in the core of the merging galaxy cluster Abell 520, formed from a violent collision of massive galaxy clusters. “False-colored” maps showing the concentration of starlight, hot gas, and dark matter in the cluster are superimposted on a natural-color image of the galaxies. (NASA, ESA, CFHT, CXO, M.J. Jee, and A. Mahdavi)

  • NASA dark matter detector.jpg

    The powerful Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer-2 (AMS) is visible at center left. The blackness of space and Earth’s horizon provide the backdrop for the scene, on May 20, 2011 (Flight Day 5 of the STS-134 shuttle mission). (NASA)

BOSTON –  Big news in the search for dark matter may be coming in about two weeks, the leader of a space-based particle physics experiment said Sunday at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

That’s when the first paper of results from the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, a particle collector mounted on the outside of the International Space Station, will be submitted to a scientific journal, said MIT physicist Samuel Ting, AMS principle investigator.

Though Ting was coy about just what, exactly, the experiment has found, he said the results bear on the mystery of dark matter, the invisible stuff thought to outnumber regular matter in the universe by a factor of about six to one.

“It will not be a minor paper,” Ting said, hinting that the findings were important enough that the scientists rewrote the paper 30 times before they were satisfied with it. Still, he said, it represents a “small step” in figuring out what dark matter is, and perhaps not the final answer. [Photos: AMS Hunts Exotic Particles In Space]


‘We believe we’re on the threshold of discovery.’

– Michael Turner, a cosmologist at the University of Chicago


Some physics theories suggest that dark matter is made of WIMPS (weakly interacting massive particles), a class of particles that are their own antimatter partner particles. When matter and antimatter partners meet, they annihilate each other, so if two WIMPs collided, they would be destroyed, releasing a pair of daughter particles — an electron and its antimatter counterpart, the positron, in the process.

The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer has the potential to detect the positrons and electrons produced by dark matter annihilations in the Milky Way. The $2 billion machine was installed on the International Space Station in May 2011, and so far, it has detected 25 billion particle events, including about 8 billion electrons and positrons. This first science paper will report how many of each were found, and what their energies are, Ting said.

If the experiment detected an abundance of positrons peaking at a certain energy, that could indicate a detection of dark matter, because while electrons are abundant in the universe around us, there are fewer known processes that could give rise to positrons.

“The smoking gun signature is a rise and then a dramatic fall” in the number of positrons with respect to energy, because the positrons produced by dark matter annihilation would have a very specific energy, depending on the mass of the WIMPs making up dark matter, said Michael Turner, a cosmologist at the University of Chicago who is not involved in the AMS project. “That’s the key signature that would arise.”

Another telling sign will be the question of whether positrons appear to be coming from one direction in space, or from all around. If they’re from dark matter, scientists expect them to be spread evenly through space, but if they’re created by some normal astrophysical process, such as a star explosion, then they would originate in a single direction.

“There is a lot of stuff that can mimic dark matter,” said theoretical physicist Lisa Randall of Harvard University, who is also not involved in the project but said she’s eagerly awaiting the AMS results. “In these experiments the question is when do you have antimatter that could be explained by astrophysical sources, and when do you have something that really could be an indication that you have something new?”

Regardless of whether AMS has found dark matter yet, the scientists said they expected the question of dark matter’s origin to become clearer soon. In addition to AMS, other experiments such as the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, and underground dark matter detectors buried around the world, could also make a discovery in the near future.

“We believe we’re on the threshold of discovery,” Turner said. “We believe this will be the decade of the wimp.”

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Woman hit by space junk, lives to tell the tale


Published February 16, 2013

  • Lottie Williams space junk

    What’s it like to get hit by falling space junk? Ask Lottie Williams. (Lottie Williams)

And you thought lightning strikes were rare.

A defunct NASA satellite is set to plunge to Earth, with a 1-in-3,200 chance that someone could get hurt, according to the space agency. That has many wondering: What’s it like to get hit with a piece of space junk?

Lottie Williams — perhaps the only person in history to ever get hit by falling space junk — knows the answer. Back in January of 1997, she and two friends were walking through a park in Tulsa, Oklahoma around 3:30 a.m. when they saw a huge fireball streaking from the skies.

“We were stunned, in awe,” Williams told She thought she’d just witnessed a shooting star. “It was beautiful.”

Less than thirty minutes later, that awe turned to fear.

“We were still walking through the park when I felt a tapping on my shoulder,” Williams explained. With no one near her at the time, she started to run, thinking a stranger had appeared out of the shadows. Then she heard something hit the ground behind her.

“The weight was comparable to an empty soda can,” Williams told “It looked like a piece of fabric except when you tap it, it sounded metallic.” Williams was sure she’d found a piece of a shooting star.

Excited by her discovery, she took the fallen piece of sky to her local library where she was referred to the astronomy club (given her space-rock theory), as well as the National Weather Service — who told her about a Delta II rocket that had re-entered the atmosphere the night before.

Beginning to realize what had happened, Williams took the piece to the University of Tulsa where Dr. Winton Cornell, an applied associate professor in the Department of Geosciences, studied it with an electron microscope and blasted it with X-rays.

“It had been partly melted and resembled fiberglass. It appeared to be the kind of material NASA used to insulate fuel tanks,” Cornell told

Williams then sent it CORD (the Center for Orbital and Reentry Debris Studies), where they did further analysis confirming the piece of blackened, woven material to be part of the fuel tank of a Delta II rocket that had launched a U.S. Air Force satellite in 1996.

She is now featured on the site as the only individual to be struck by space debris.

Williams also claims to have talked to NASA and even received a letter from the deputy secretary of defense — though today she can’t find it — apologizing for what happened while not actually admitting where the piece of material actually came from.

“A lot of people thought it was a hoax,” Williams said.

“I just want people to know this actually happened.”

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Hundreds reportedly injured by blasts as meteor falls in Russia

Published February 15, 2013

Associated Press



Fire in the sky: 500 injured as meteor falls in Russia

An 11-ton meteor streaked at supersonic speed over Russia’s Ural Mountains on Friday, setting off blasts that injured some 500 people and frightened countless more.


A meteor that scientists estimate weighed 11 tons streaked at supersonic speed over Russia’s Ural Mountains on Friday, setting off blasts that injured some 500 people and frightened countless more.

The Russian Academy of Sciences said in a statement that the meteor over the Chelyabinsk region entered the Earth’s atmosphere at a speed of at least 33,000 mph and shattered about 18-32 miles above ground.

The fall caused explosions that broke glass over a wide area. The Emergency Ministry says more than 500 people sought treatment after the blasts and that 34 of them were hospitalized.

“There was panic. People had no idea what was happening. Everyone was going around to people’s houses to check if they were OK,” said Sergey Hametov, a resident of Chelyabinsk, about 930 miles east of Moscow, the biggest city in the affected region.


‘We saw a big burst of light then went outside to see what it was and we heard a really loud thundering sound.’

– Eyewitness Sergey Hametov, a resident of Chelyabinsk, the biggest city in the affected region


“We saw a big burst of light then went outside to see what it was and we heard a really loud thundering sound,” he told The Associated Press by telephone.

Another Chelyabinsk resident, Valya Kazakov, said some elderly women in his neighborhood started crying out that the world was ending.

Some fragments fell in a reservoir outside the town of Cherbakul, the regional governor’s office said, according to the ITAR-Tass news agency. It was not immediately clear if any people were struck by fragments.

The agency also cited military spokesman Yarslavl Roshupkin as saying that a 20-foot-wide crater was found in the same area which could be the result of fragments striking the ground.

Meteors typically cause sizeable sonic booms when they enter the atmosphere because they are traveling much faster than the speed of sound. Injuries on the scale reported Friday, however, are extraordinarily rare.

Interior Ministry spokesman Vadim Kolesnikov said that about 6,000 square feet of a roof at a zinc factory had collapsed. There was no immediate clarification of whether the collapse was caused by meteorites or by a shock wave from one of the explosions.

Reports conflicted on what exactly happened in the clear skies. A spokeswoman for the Emergency Ministry, Irina Rossius, told The Associated Press that there was a meteor shower, but another ministry spokeswoman, Elena Smirnikh, was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying it was a single meteor.

Amateur video broadcast on Russian television showed an object speeding across the sky about 9:20 a.m. local time (0320 GMT), leaving a thick white contrail and an intense flash.

Donald Yeomans, manager of U.S. Near Earth Object Program in California, said he thought the event was probably “an exploding fireball event.”

“If the reports of ground damage can be verified, it might suggest an object whose original size was several meters in extent before entering the atmosphere, fragmenting and exploding due to the unequal pressure on the leading side vs. the trailing side (it pancaked and exploded),” Yeoman said in an email to The Associated Press.

“It is far too early to provide estimates of the energy released or provide a reliable estimate of the original size,” Yeomans added.

Russian news reports noted that the meteor hit less than a day before the asteroid 2012 DA14 is to make the closest recorded pass of an asteroid — about 17,150 miles.

But the European Space Agency, in a post on its Twitter account, said its experts had determined there was no connection.

Small pieces of space debris — usually parts of comets or asteroids — that are on a collision course with the Earth are called meteoroids. When meteoroids enter the Earth’s atmosphere they are called meteors. Most meteors burn up in the atmosphere, but if they survive the frictional heating and strike the surface of the Earth they are called meteorites.

The dramatic events prompted an array of reactions from prominent Russian political figures. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, speaking at an economic forum in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, said the meteor could be a symbol for the forum, showing that “not only the economy is vulnerable, but the whole planet.”

Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the nationalist leader noted for vehement statements, said “It’s not meteors falling, it’s the test of a new weapon by the Americans,” the RIA Novosti news agency reported.

Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said the incident showed the need for leading world powers to develop a system to intercept objects falling from space.

“At the moment, neither we nor the Americans have such technologies” to shoot down meteors or asteroids, he said, according to the Interfax news agency.

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The race for taxis, lifeboats and beyond in space


War Games

Published February 14, 2013

America is a giant leap closer to developing a new, made-in-the-USA spacecraft to launch astronauts into space once again.

The Dragon capsule from Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) returned successfully from the first private cargo mission in Oct. 2012, making it a clear leader in the race to build a spacecraft suitable for humans. But oddsmakers are scrambling to revise the leaderboard: Lockheed Martin just announced it would join forces with Sierra Nevada to build the competition, the futuristic Dream Chaser.

The Dream Chaser is the only spacecraft with wings. It can carry as many as seven astronauts to space and is designed to land on a conventional runway.  Along with the CST-100 capsule from Boeing, these three shuttles are locked in a race to bring manned spaceflight back to the U.S.

Space dominance is essential to national security, experts agree.


‘Lockheed Martin has joined our Dream Chaser team … [now] how do we get this vehicle really fit to fly safely?’

– Mark Sirangelo, Sierra Nevada’s executive vice president and chairman of its space systems division


Lockheed Martin’s history should help. The company has extensive experience building spacecraft and high-performance aircraft composite structures – the company will be building Dream Chaser’s vehicle composite structure.

In this competition, formally known as the Commercial Crew Program (CCP) initiative, NASA partners with the private sector to leverage the Agency’s five decades of human spaceflight experience against private sector experience and innovation.

Since the launch of this challenge at the close of the space shuttle program, American companies have been competing to restore human spaceflight capabilities to the U.S. with a safe, reliable and cost-effective means into and out of low-Earth orbit for government and commercial customers – in a way, a space taxi.

With the end of the Space Shuttle program, the U.S. lost its own transportation capabilities to the International Space Station. Once CCP is achieved, Americans will no longer have to rely on the expensive lift from Russia’s Soyuz rockets.

Space Taxi or Lifeboat
The teams are competing to create a system that will deliver equipment and a minimum of four astronauts to the space station and return them to Earth at least twice a year.

In the event of an emergency on the launch pad, during launch or ascent, the competing teams must have solutions to assure crew safety.

If there is an emergency while in space, the spacecraft must be able to serve as a 24-hour safe haven, sort of like a space lifeboat.  It also needs to be able to stay docked to the station for at least 210 days.

Of the three designs, NASA will ultimately choose its favorite for ferrying American astronauts to and from the International Space Station, but the end result could be more than one spacecraft to provide safe, reliable and less expensive space access.

Roadmap to Space
These three companies are now beginning the first phase of the certification efforts to confirm their commercial spacecraft is safe to carry crews to the station.

During Phase 1 — which is expected to last about 15 months from Jan. 22, 2013, through May 30, 2014 — NASA and the companies will establish that each spacecraft, launch vehicle, ground operations and mission control center meet flight safety and performance requirements.

Phase 2 next year will mark the start of final development, building, verifying and validating the systems are ready to fly astronauts by 2017.

Dream Chaser, for example, completed its helicopter drop test in late 2012 and has a suborbital test scheduled for this year and an orbital test in 2014. SpaceX is planning for a pad abort test and in-flight abort test, while Boeing will be verifying its spacecraft and launch vehicle compatibility.

Moon and Beyond
Providing the CCP program is successful, NASA will then become a customer using the new spacecraft to transport American flight crew to the International Space Station to continue their critical science research.

While NASA is working with the private sector for low-Earth orbit International Space Station cargo re-supply and crew transportation, NASA has retained responsibility for travel beyond the moon.

As the lead in deep-space exploration, the agency is developing the Orion spacecraft crew capsule and the heavy lift rocket Space Launch System (SLS).

SLS and Orion will provide an entirely new capability for human exploration beyond low-Earth orbit and make new exploration missions of the solar system possible, the agency says.

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Earth-buzzing asteroid worth $195 billion, space miners say

By Mike Wall

Published February 13, 2013

  • An artist’s conception of the Feb. 15 flyby of asteroid 2012 DA14. (NASA.)

  • asteroid-path-130211

    This graphic shows 2012 DA14’s path past Earth. (NASA.)

The space rock set to give Earth a historically close shave this Friday, Feb. 15, may be worth nearly $200 billion, prospective asteroid miners say.

The 150-foot-wide asteroid 2012 DA14 — which will zoom within 17,200 miles of Earth on Friday, marking the closest approach by such a large space rock that astronomers have ever known about in advance — may harbor $65 billion of recoverable water and $130 billion in metals, say officials with celestial mining firm Deep Space Industries.


‘While this week’s visitor isn’t going the right way for us to harvest it, there will be others that are.’

– Deep Space chairman Rick Tumlinson


That’s just a guess, they stressed, since 2012 DA14’s composition is not well known and its size is an estimate based on the asteroid‘s brightness.

The company has no plans to go after 2012 DA14; the asteroid’s orbit is highly tilted relative to Earth, making it too difficult to chase down. But the space rock’s close flyby serves to illustrate the wealth of asteroid resources just waiting to be extracted and used, Deep Space officials said. [Deep Space Industries’ Asteroid-Mining Vision in Photos]

“While this week’s visitor isn’t going the right way for us to harvest it, there will be others that are, and we want to be ready when they arrive,” Deep Space chairman Rick Tumlinson said in a statement Tuesday.

Deep Space Industries wants to use asteroid resources to help humanity expand its footprint out into the solar system. The company plans to convert space rock water into rocket fuel, which would be used to top up the tanks of off-Earth satellites and spaceships cheaply and efficiently.

Asteroidal metals such as iron and nickel, for their part, would form the basis of a space-based manufacturing industry that could build spaceships, human habitats and other structures off the planet.

The idea is to dramatically reduce the amount of material that needs to be launched from Earth, since it currently costs at least $10 million to send 1 ton of material to high-Earth orbit, officials said.

“Getting these supplies to serve communications satellites and coming crewed missions to Mars from in-space sources like asteroids is key if we are going to explore and settle space,” Tumlinson said.

Deep Space Industries is just one of two asteroid-mining firms that have revealed their existence and intentions in the past 10 months. The other is Planetary Resources, which has financial backing from billionaires such as Google execs Larry Page and Eric Schmidt.

Deep Space aims to launch a phalanx of small, robotic prospecting probes called Fireflies in 2015. Sample-return missions to potential targets would occur shortly thereafter, with space mining operations possibly beginning around 2020.

Planetary Resources also hopes its activities open the solar system up for further and more efficient exploration. The company may launch its first low-cost prospecting space telescopes within the next year or so.

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Asteroid 2012 DA14: 5 Surprising Facts About Friday’s Earth Flyby

Published February 14, 2013

  • 32012 DA14 was discovered by amateur astronomers
  • Alexandra Bolling, NRAO/AUI/NSF

    4Its closest approach point will be over Sumatra
  • NASA

    5Asteroids like 2012 DA14 fly by Earth every 40 years

While there is no chance that asteroid 2012 DA14 will hit Earth this Friday, the asteroid’s flyby is history-making for several other reasons.

  • 1This is asteroid 2012 DA14’s closest pass ever


    Using intricate mapping techniques, researchers have already plotted the 150-foot space rock’s trajectory far out into the future. When the asteroid flies by Earth, the planet’s gravity will force the asteroid into a new orbit that won’t bring it this close to the Earth for years to come. [Asteroid 2012 DA14’s Close Shave Explained (Infographic)]

  • 2Asteroids like 2012 DA14 have hit Earth before


    Scientists think the “Tunguska Event” over Siberia in 1908 was caused by a 100-foot asteroid. This space rock exploded in midair, leveling trees across 825 square miles in the region.

    If 2012 DA14 did enter Earth’s atmosphere, it probably would react similarly — exploding above the ground and causing destruction over a wide area, but not endangering human civilization or causing other major global problems.

  • 32012 DA14 was discovered by amateur astronomers


    Asteroid 2012 DA14 was discovered by a team of amateur astronomers affiliated with the La Sagra Sky Survey at the Astronomical Observatory of Mallorca in southern Spain on Feb. 23, 2012.

    At the time, the asteroid was about 2.7 million miles away from Earth. After the group reported the finding, NASA and other space agency scientists began tracking the asteroid to track its path and make sure it posed no threat to the planet.

  • 4Its closest approach point will be over Sumatra

    Alexandra Bolling, NRAO/AUI/NSF

    On Friday, when asteroid 2012 DA14 approaches within 17,200 miles of Earth, it will be over Sumatra, Indonesia at its closest point while zipping by the planet. That’s just one-thirteenth the average distance from Earth to the moon.

    At its closest approach on Friday at 2:24 p.m. EST (1924 GMT), the asteroid will be 5,000 miles closer to Earth than the ring of GPS, weather and communications satellites in orbit around the planet. Still, the satellites and the planet are safe from impact, researchers say.

  • 5Asteroids like 2012 DA14 fly by Earth every 40 years


    Based on a statistical analysis, NASA researchers have found that asteroids like 2012 DA14 only graze Earth this closely once every 40 years or so. Similar asteroids can actually hit the Earth once every 1,200 years.

    Larger asteroids are even less likely to give the planet such a close shave. NASA researchers say that their Near Earth Object Program has helped to detect and track 90 percent of the largest near-Earth asteroids, and so far none of these behemoths are known to pose an impact threat in the foreseeable future.

    NASA will also be live-streaming the flyby via a telescope at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. ET (2100 to 0200 Feb. 16 GMT) on Friday.

150-foot asteroid to zoom near Earth this week

By Tariq Malik

Published February 12, 2013

  • asteroid-2012-da14-art

    This NASA diagram depicting the passage of asteroid 2012 DA14 through the Earth-moon system on Feb. 15, 2013 (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

  • asteroid-2012-da14-size-field

    Asteroid 2012 DA14 is about the size of half a football field and will make a close approach to Earth on Feb. 15. (NASA)

  • yarkovsky-effect-diagram

    This diagram shows how the Yarkovsky Effect slows an asteroid’s orbital motion; opposite rotation direction would speed up the orbital motion. Astronomers around the world are preparing to study the close approach of asteroid 2012 DA14 on Feb. (Alexandra Bolling, NRAO/AUI/NSF)

An asteroid half the size of a football field will buzz close by Earth on Friday, coming closer than many weather satellites, but there is absolutely no chance the space rock will hit the planet, NASA says.

The asteroid 2012 DA14 will approach within 17,200 miles of Earth when it zips by the planet on Friday (Feb. 15). It will be 5,000 miles closer than the ring of weather, communications and GPS navigation satellites that orbit the Earth, but it poses no impact threat, NASA scientists assured.

According to detailed observations of the 150-foot 2012 DA14 since its discovery last year, “there is no chance that the asteroid might be on a collision course with Earth,” NASA officials said in a statement.


‘There is no chance that the asteroid might be on a collision course with Earth.’

– NASA officials


But the space rock encounter will mark the closest-ever known Earth flyby of an asteroid the size of 2012 DA14, with NASA scientists and astronomers around the world preparing to take advantage of the event to take a close look at how asteroids work.

One study in particular seeks to pin down exactly how the asteroid spins on its axis.

“Knowing the direction of spin is essential to accurately predicting its future path, and thus determining just how close it will get to Earth in the coming years,” study leader Michael Busch of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) said in a statement.

Busch and his colleagues will use two huge radio telescopes in New Mexico, the Very Large Array and Very Long Baseline Array, along with NASA’s Goldstone radar antenna in California in an attempt to determine the direction of asteroid 2012 DA’s spin.

The telescopes seek out so-called “speckles” in the radio signals reflected by the asteroid’s uneven surface, and then compare which observatory detected the speckles first in order to determine the spin direction.

Knowing an asteroid’s spin is key to understanding how a space rock radiates heat from absorbed sunlight over time. That, in turn, can allow astronomers to project how an asteroid’s orbit can change over long periods as it circles the sun.

Asteroids, like Earth, have a warmest part of their day, during which time they develop a hotspot that can be observed in infrared light. Later, the asteroid emits the absorbed radiation back out into space, which can serve as a gentle — but firm — jet-like push forward, researchers said.

The phenomenon is called the “Yarkovsky effect” after the 19th-century Russian engineer I.O. Yarkovsky, who first identified it.

“When the asteroid passes close to the Earth or another large body, its orbit can be changed quickly by the gravitational effect of the larger body, but the Yarkovsky Effect, though smaller, is at work all the time,” Busch said.

Asteroid 2012 DA14 was discovered in 2012 by astronomers with the La Sagra Sky Survey at the Astronomical Observatory of Mallorca in Spain. The asteroid will make its closest approach to Earth at 2:24 p.m. EST (1924 GMT) Friday, at which time it may be visible in telescopes and binoculars to observers in Asia, Australia and Europe, where the local time will be nighttime.

Visit each day this week for complete coverage of asteroid 2012 DA14 and its Earth flyby.

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