Pluto’s ‘unprecedented’ ice provinces and other surprises from NASA’s New Horizons

View of Pluto's Atmosphere

View of Pluto’s Atmosphere (G.R. Gladstone et al./Science (2016))

Pluto, known for more than eight decades as just a faint, fuzzy and faraway point of light, is shaping up to be one of the most complex and diverse worlds in the solar system.

Pluto’s frigid surface varies tremendously from place to place, featuring provinces dominated by different types of ices — methane in one place, nitrogen in another and water in yet another, newly analyzed photos and measurements from NASA’s New Horizons mission reveal.

“That is unprecedented,” said New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern, who’s based at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. [Photos of Pluto and Its Moons]

“I don’t know any other place in the entirety of the outer solar system where you see anything like this,” Stern told “The closest analogy is the Earth, where we see water-rich surfaces and rock-rich surfaces that are completely different.”

That’s just one of the new Pluto results, which are presented in a set of five New Horizons papers published online today (March 17) in the journal Science. Taken together, the five studies paint the Pluto system in sharp detail, shedding new light on the dwarf planet’s composition, geology and evolution over the past 4.6 billion years.

A distant world coming into focus

Pluto was discovered in 1930 by American astronomer Clyde Tombaugh. The dwarf planet remained largely mysterious for many years thereafter, because it lies so far from Earth.

Pluto orbits in the Kuiper Belt, the icy realm beyond Neptune, at an average distance from the sun of about 40 astronomical units (AU). (One AU is the distance from the Earth to the sun — about 93 million miles, or 150 million kilometers.) That’s so remote that even the best photo by NASA’s famous Hubble Space Telescope portrays the dwarf planet as a mere blur of pixels.

But things began changing in a big way on July 14, 2015. On that day, New Horizons performed the first-ever flyby of Pluto, coming within just 7,800 miles (12,550 km) of its surface. The spacecraft saw towering water-ice mountains; flowing nitrogen-ice glaciers; pebbly “snakeskin” terrain; a vast, crater-free plain known as Sputnik Planum; and many other features that scientists are still trying to figure out.

One of the new papers dives deeply into the geology of these features, revealing new insights about their possible origin and evolution. The 620-mile-wide (1,000 km), nitrogen-ice-dominated Sputnik Planum, for example, apparently sits atop a huge and ancient impact basin, mission scientists say. [Sharpest Pluto Surface View Released by New Horizons Team (Video)]

Sputnik Planum is smooth and pristine, bearing no impact scars. This shows that the region was resurfaced extremely recently — 10 million years ago at most, and possibly much more recently than that, researchers said.

But other parts of Pluto harbor lots of visible craters, and some regions have a middling number, suggesting that the dwarf planet has been geologically active on a large scale over its entire history.

This finding came as a big surprise when it was first announced last year. Earth remains geologically active because it has a hot, molten core. Some icy satellites, such as Saturn’s moon Enceladus and the Jovian moon Europa, also harbor substantial internal heat, which is generated by the powerful gravitational tug of their giant parent planets. But something else is likely happening at Pluto.

“I think we have to rethink our whole understanding of geophysics — how you keep small planets active over time,” Stern said.

Stern isn’t sure what exactly is going on, but he has a favorite hypothesis: that a subsurface Pluto ocean has been slowly freezing over the eons.

“As it freezes, it releases latent heat,” he said. “It may be the freezing of this ocean that’s powering all this geology.”

More geology insights

The new geology paper also discusses and interprets a number of other Pluto features, such as the huge, dark-red Cthulhu Regio — which appears to owe its color to hefty concentrations of tholins, complex organic molecules that drifted down out of the dwarf planet’s atmosphere — and the towering peaks Wright Mons and Piccard Mons.

Wright Mons is perhaps 2.5 miles (4 km) high and 90 miles (150 km) wide. Piccard Mons is even bigger, rising about 3.7 miles into the Pluto sky and measuring 140 miles (225 km) across. Both of these peaks may have formed from cryovolcanic activity, the researchers said. [Ice Volcanoes on Pluto? New Imagery Points to It (Video)]

New Horizons also spotted long tectonic faults with very steep associated scarps — characteristics that suggest Pluto has a thick crust composed of water ice, mission team members said.

One of the other new Science papers maps out the distribution of various ices across Pluto’s surface. This material — primarily frozen methane, nitrogen, carbon monoxide and water — is deposited in a curiously distinct way, researchers found; some Pluto provinces are dominated by nitrogen ice, others by methane and so on (though there are places, such as Sputnik Planum, where several different ices are found in abundance).

This pattern suggests that volatile material (nitrogen, methane and carbon monoxide) is being moved around by sublimation, condensation and glacial flows on both seasonal and geological time scales, the researchers said.

More data coming

The five papers, which you can read for free on Science’s website, don’t represent New Horizons’ last word on Pluto — far from it. For example, mission team members plan to present more new results next week at the 47th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in The Woodlands, Texas.

And there’s still a lot of flyby data left to analyze. New Horizons has beamed only half of the close-encounter images and measurements back to mission control, Stern said; the entire treasure trove likely won’t be on the ground until October.

New Horizons may also perform another flyby that could help scientists better understand Pluto’s neighborhood. The spacecraft is currently cruising toward a small Kuiper Belt object called 2014 MU69, which lies about 1 billion miles (1.6 billion km) beyond Pluto. If NASA approves and funds a proposed extended mission, New Horizons will study 2014 MU69 up close on Jan. 1, 2019.

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Hubble finds cluster of massive stars in distant galaxy

The image shows the central region of the Tarantula Nebula in the Large Magellanic Cloud. The young and dense star cluster R136 can be seen at the lower right of the image. This cluster contains hundreds of young blue stars, among them the most massive star detected in the Universe so far. (NASA, ESA, P Crowther, University of Sheffield)

The image shows the central region of the Tarantula Nebula in the Large Magellanic Cloud. The young and dense star cluster R136 can be seen at the lower right of the image. This cluster contains hundreds of young blue stars, among them the most massive star detected in the Universe so far. (NASA, ESA, P Crowther, University of Sheffield)

Astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope have spotted the largest collection of monster stars – objects with masses over 100 times greater than the sun.

The international team has found five of these massive stars to go with four discovered earlier in cluster R136. The cluster, only a few light years across, is located in the Tarantula Nebula within the Large Magellanic Cloud, about 170,000 light-years away.

Related: Astronomers spot galaxy a record 13.4 billion light-years from Earth

Not only are they big but these stars are incredibly bright, researchers said. Together, these nine stars outshine the Sun by a factor of 30 million.

The cluster was found thanks the ultraviolet capabilities of the Hubble and its Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph and the findings will be published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

“The ability to distinguish ultraviolet light from such an exceptionally crowded region into its component parts, resolving the signatures of individual stars, was only made possible with the instruments aboard Hubble,” Paul Crowther from the University of Sheffield, and lead author of the study, said in a statement.

Related: Hubble captures star’s stunning blue bubble

In 2010 Crowther and his collaborators stunned the astronomy world with the discovery of four stars within R136, each with over 150 times the mass of the Sun. The findings came as a surprise, since they exceeded the upper-mass limit for stars believe to be possible at the time.

Researchers said their findings are not only showing that stars are much bigger than earlier believed but also helping to understand how they get so large. They also were able to investigate outflows from these behemoths, which are most readily studied in the ultraviolet. They eject up to an Earth mass of material per month at a speed approaching one percent of the speed of light, resulting in extreme weight loss throughout their brief lives.

Related: NASA wants to unlock the universe’s secrets with telescope more powerful than Hubble

“There have been suggestions that these monsters result from the merger of less extreme stars in close binary systems,” Saida Caballero-Nieves, a co-author of the study, said. “From what we know about the frequency of massive mergers, this scenario can’t account for all the really massive stars that we see in R136, so it would appear that such stars can originate from the star formation process.”

Engine used on penultimate space shuttle flight relit for new NASA rocket

The RS-25 engine No. 2059 arrives at the A-1 Test Stand at NASA's Stennis Space Center on Nov. 4, 2015. The engine was test fired on March 10, 2016.

The RS-25 engine No. 2059 arrives at the A-1 Test Stand at NASA’s Stennis Space Center on Nov. 4, 2015. The engine was test fired on March 10, 2016. (NASA)

A rocket engine that helped launch five space shuttle missions, including the penultimate flight of the program in 2011, was fired again on March 10 in preparation for the first crewed flight of NASA’s new heavy-lift rocket.

The space agency successfully test fired the RS-25 rocket engine for a full 500 seconds, clearing a milestone toward its exploration goals. The next time that particular engine, serial number 2059, fires for that length of time, it will be to launch astronauts on NASA’s first crewed mission beyond Earth orbit since thelast of the Apollo moon missions more than 45 years ago.

“What a great moment for NASA,” said Rick Gilbrech, the director of NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, where Thursday’s hot-fire test took place. “We have exciting days ahead with a return to deep space and a journey to Mars, and this test is a very big step in that direction.” [Photos: NASA’s Space Launch System for Deep Space Flights]

The 8-minute-long firing marked the first test of an RS-25 flight engine for NASA’s new Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, being built to carry humans on future missions into the solar system, including to the moon’s vicinity and Mars. Four of the engines, formerly known as space shuttle main engines (SSME), will help power the SLS core stage.

The engines NASA will use for the initial SLS missions are from the 16 flight articles remaining from the retired shuttle program. No. 2059 last flew as one of the three engines on the final flight of the space shuttle Endeavour, STS-134, in May 2011. The mission was the second-to-last flight for the orbiter fleet overall.

Prior to that, SSME 2059 helped launch the shuttle Atlantis on three missions, including two to the International Space Station — STS-117 in 2007 and STS-122 in 2008 — and on the final mission to upgrade the Hubble Space Telescope, STS-125 in 2009. It also helped power Endeavour’s STS-130 flight to deliver the Tranquility node and cupola to the space station in 2010.

“It’s a great feeling that this engine — that has carried so many astronauts into space before — is being prepared to take astronauts to space once again on SLS’s first crewed flight,” stated Steve Wofford, engines manager at Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, where the Space Launch System program is managed for NASA.

Modified for use on SLS, no. 2059 and three other shuttle-legacy RS-25D engines will fire at 109 percent thrust level and provide a combined two million pounds of thrust when they fly in the 2020s. Unlike on the shuttle, they will not be recovered for reuse, but instead be dropped into the ocean with the spent SLS core.

The first flight of the SLS on NASA’s uncrewed Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) is slated for 2018 or 2019. The first SLS launch with astronauts aboard an Orion crew spacecraft is targeted for the 2021 to 2023 timeframe, depending in part on available funding.

Stennis and Aerojet Rocketdyne, NASA’s prime contractor for the RS-25, will next conduct a development engine hot-fire series to test flight engine controllers and will continue to test RS-25 flight engines.

In addition, the B-2 Test Stand at Stennis is being readied to test the SLS core stage for EM-1, firing its four engines together. EM-1 will lift off using engines 2045, 2056, 2058 and 2060, a group that includes two of the three SSMEs that flew on board STS-135, the final shuttle mission, in July 2011.

In addition to 2059, EM-2 will launch with RS-25 engines 2047, the third engine flown on STS-135, and two engines that were built up after the space shuttle was retired, 2062 and 2063.

Watch a video of the RS-25 rocket engine No. 2059 hot fire for the SLS at collectSPACE.

Introducing Audi’s new moon robot — the Audi Lunar Quattro



It was bound to happen one day — the highways an byways of planet Earth no longer prove a challenging enough terrain for automakers, so now, they’re headed to the moon. At last week’s North American International Auto Show in Detroit, German automaker Audi debuted a brand new lunar rover that makes use of its famous Quattro all-wheel-drive system, appropriately named the Audi Lunar Quattro. And better yet, the little robot is 3D-printed, comprised of titanium and aluminium.

While Elon Musk has somewhat bridged the gap between space exploration and automobiles with his two companies, SpaceX and Tesla, it’s certainly interesting to see Audi using its own technology to send a robot of its own making to the moon. Well, not entirely of its own making. Audi has partnered with Berlin-based Part-Time Scientists to manufacture the lunar rover, and has already tested the robot ” in rough terrain around the world.”

The entire project is part of the Google Lunar XPrize challenge, an initiative that first launched back in 2007 and comes with $30 million prize. The goal, according to the contest website, is to “incentivize space entrepreneurs to create a new era of affordable access to the Moon and beyond,” and has already seen huge innovations from companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin.

But don’t count Audi out of the running — in fact, the Audi Lunar Quattro, with its multiple cameras, solar panel, and prominent Audi logo, is one of 16 remaining contestants in the challenge. And better still, it’s slated for a 2017 liftoff, according to Viknesh Vijayenthiran of Motor Authority. Once it gets to the moon, the Quattro will be controlled entirely by a control center here on Earth, and will hope to move 500 meters along the lunar surface, sending photos back to our home planet all along the way.

It’s a lofty goal, especially considering that man hasn’t actually stepped foot on the moon in four decades. But with projects like those coming out of XPrize, that may soon change. “If you bring the right technology back to the Moon, you can pave the way for more exploration,” Robert Bhme, CEO of PT Scientists, told The Verge. “And not just exploration, but also to find a commercial benefit for future missions … There is value that you can take away from being on the surface of the Moon. It’s important to show what could be done.”

Also watch: Introducing Project Loon

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Solar eclipse to darken skies over Asia, Pacific

During total solar eclipses — such as this one seen from the northern tip of Australia on Nov. 13, 2012 — the light halo of the sun’s atmosphere, called the corona, can be seen. Not only are such eclipses beautiful, they also provide a unique opportunity for scientists to study the corona. (NASA/Romeo Durscher)

During total solar eclipses — such as this one seen from the northern tip of Australia on Nov. 13, 2012 — the light halo of the sun’s atmosphere, called the corona, can be seen. Not only are such eclipses beautiful, they also provide a unique opportunity for scientists to study the corona. (NASA/Romeo Durscher)

Jay Pasachoff has taken off to a tiny island in Indonesia made famous by naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace while Mike Kentrianakis is a grabbing a coveted seat aboard an Alaska Airlines flight headed to Honolulu.

While they are in different parts of the world, both men are motivated by the same desire – to catch a glimpse of Tuesday’s solar eclipse.

It is set to occur from 8:38 p.m. to 8:42 p.m. A total eclipse will witnessed in parts of Southeast Asia including Indonesia and the Pacific Ocean and a partial eclipse upwards of 70 percent will be visible in parts of Alaska, Hawaii, Guam, and America Samoa.

Related: Total solar eclipse, supermoon, equinox: Friday’s celestial triple play

“Each time is like going to the seventh game of the World Series with the score tied in the ninth inning,” said Pasachoff, the chairman of the International Astronomical Union Working Group on Solar Eclipses who was leading a tour group that will watch the eclipse from the island of Ternate, an island where Wallace penned his famous 1858 essay on evolution by natural selection.

Much of the excitement around the eclipse is in Indonesia, where many islands will go dark. Hotels have been booked since 2014, eclipse watchers Sam Huang, and local festivals are being organized across the sprawling island nation to celebrate the occasion.

“I look forward to watching the moon slowly cover the sun and seeing the sky grow darker and darker until I am able to see the stars and planets,” Huang, who is traveling to the island of Palu from the Philippines to watch the eclipse, told  “I’ve heard it’s almost a supernatural experience, and of course hearing the reactions of everyone around me will be fun to experience.”

Related: Sunday’s rare supermoon eclipse: What you need to know

Kentrianakis, who is the solar eclipse project manager for the American Astronomical Society, has booked seat 6F on Alaska Airlines Flight 870 to watch the solar eclipse at about 36,000 feet. After hearing from intrepid “eclipse-chaser” Joseph Rao last fall that flight 870 would be in the right place at the wrong time for the eclipse, the airline said it agreed to reschedule the flight so it would depart 25 minutes later.

“I must say being a veteran eclipse chaser I’m a little nervous about this one. Why? I’ve never viewed a total solar eclipse from an airplane,” said Kentrianakis, who says he and his fellow passenger will be the only Americans not leaving the United States to view the eclipse.

Related: How to watch the ‘ring of fire’ solar eclipse online

“Having seen nine total solar eclipses on the ground all across the world, I don’t know what to expect,” he told “From what I hear it’s quite spectacular seeing the entire shadow of the Moon sweep across the skyscape and envelope the plane into darkness. I can’t imagine it getting more dramatic than that.“

And if you can’t see the eclipse first hand, there will be plenty of options to see it live on the web. NASA TV will broadcast it live while the Slooh Community Observatory is streaming the eclipse.

An eclipse occurs when the moon passes directly between Earth and the sun.

When the moon’s shadow falls on Earth, observers within that shadow see the moon block a portion of the sun’s light. During totality, the sun appears to have a wispy white halo, offering ground observers a rare direct view of its atmosphere or corona, normally kept out of sight by the intense brightness of the solar disc.

This one is considered especially significant because it is lasting for several minutes. Eclipse range from zero to seven minutes and the next one, which takes place across the United States on Aug. 21, 2017, is expected to last about 2 minutes and 41 seconds.

For scientists like Pasachoff, a total eclipse offers a rare chance to directly observe the interactions between different layers of the sun’s atmosphere, known as the photosphere, chromosphere and the solar corona.

Related: Faeroe Islands and Svalbard get ready for total solar eclipse

“It’s shape changes all the time so we only get these high resolution glimpses for two or three minutes every year or two,” Pasachoff said of the corona.

“If you were a heart surgeon and somebody told you that you had to go to Indonesia to look into a human heart for two minutes and then somebody told you two years later you had to go Africa for another two minutes, there would be no question,” he said. “You wouldn’t be asking why bother going back.”

An eclipse also gives scientists the opportunity to study coronal mass ejections, where bubbles of gas burst forth from the sun’s corona and sometimes head to Earth. In the worst case scenarios, they can spark solar storms which can knock out communication networks and disable satellites.

“Every eclipse is different because the Sun goes through an 11 year sunspot cycle and there are big eruptions that come out of the sun – some of which hit the earth and can zap billion dollar satellites,” Pasachoff said, who will be observing this eclipse with a series of telephoto lens and a small telescope. “We want to know about these eruptions and how fast they go and how to predict them.”

Astronomers spot galaxy a record 13.4 billion light-years from Earth

This image provided by the Space Telescope Science Institute, taken with the Hubble Space Telescope, shows a hot, star-popping galaxy that is far, far away, farther than any previously detected, from a time when the universe was a mere toddler of about 400 million years old. (Space Telescope Science Institute via AP)

This image provided by the Space Telescope Science Institute, taken with the Hubble Space Telescope, shows a hot, star-popping galaxy that is far, far away, farther than any previously detected, from a time when the universe was a mere toddler of about 400 million years old. (Space Telescope Science Institute via AP)

Astronomers say they have discovered a hot, star-popping galaxy that is far, far away — farther than any previously detected, from a time when the universe was a mere toddler of about 400 million years old.

By employing a different technique — one that has raised some skepticism — a team of astronomers exposed a time period they’d thought was impossible to observe with today’s technology. They used the Hubble Space Telescope and found the light wave signature of an extremely bright galaxy 13.4 billion light-years away, according to a study published Thursday by Astrophysical Journal. The margin of error is plus or minus 5 million light-years. A light-year is about 5.8 trillion miles.

It shatters old records for distance and time in a big way, and may remain the farthest that can be seen for years, until a new space telescope is launched, the team of astronomers said.

With that light signature, astronomers were able to produce a photo of this galaxy that’s fuzzy and all-too deceptive in color. It appears darkish red and indistinct, when in reality it’s so hot it is bright blue, but the light has traveled so long and far that it has shifted to the very end of the color spectrum, to dark red. And that fuzziness masks an incredible rate of star formation that’s 10 times more frenetic than our Milky Way, said study co-author Gabriel Brammer, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute.

“It really is star bursting,” Brammer said. “We’re getting closer and closer to when we think the first stars formed … There’s not a lot of actual time between this galaxy and the Big Bang.”

If we were back in time and near this galaxy (named GN-z11), we’d see “blue, stunning, really bright young stars” and all around us would be “very messy looking objects” that are galaxies just forming — not the large bright spirals we think of as galaxies, said study co-author Garth Illingworth at the University of California Santa Cruz.

Astronomers measure the distance an object by calculating how much the light changes from blue to red, called redshift. This discovery is of a galaxy with redshift of 11.1; until this discovery, the previous highest redshift was 8.68, about 580 million years after the Big Bang. For a long time, competing teams of astronomers were just trying to reach a redshift of 9, about 550 million years after the Big Bang. But the new discovery blew all that out of the water, surprising the team that found it, said study lead author Pascal Oesch of Yale.

The way they did it was different than the old methods of using a standard light wave signature marker, with the spectrum measured precisely by ground telescope. Instead, the team looked beyond that bright line to a longer, but messier light wave spectrum, using what’s considered a rougher tool, Illingworth said.

Competing astronomer Richard Ellis at the European Southern Observatory, who found the previous record far galaxy, was skeptical. He said the light signatures used by Oesch’s teams are “noisier and harder to interpret” and may overlap with competing nearby stars or galaxies. And for GN-z11 to be that visible it would have to be three times brighter than typical galaxies, he said in an email.

Oesch said the team made sure “this was as clean as possible a measurement” with little contamination. He said the technique they used is starting to become standard.

But Oesch, Brammer and Illingworth said don’t expect new discoveries farther and older than this one, because they have pushed Hubble to its limit. Only when the next NASA space telescope is launched and operating, probably in 2019, will astronomers see farther.

Astronomer Dimitar Sasselov at Harvard, who wasn’t part of the research, called the discovery exciting and interesting: “Seeing and understanding the first galaxies and the first stars is an essential part of our origins story.”

Asteroid set to whiz past Earth sometime this month

NASA has created a special office to deal with coordinating response to threatening near-Earth objects (NEOs).

NASA has created a special office to deal with coordinating response to threatening near-Earth objects (NEOs).(Texas A&M)

An asteroid is making a second run at Earth, this time whizzing past in the next few days.

NASA is projecting that the basketball-court-sized asteroid, 2013 TX68, should fly by from March 5 to March 8. It will be the second time the asteroid has come near Earth, passing two years ago at a comfortable distance of about 1.3 million miles.

“We already knew this asteroid, 2013 TX68, would safely fly past Earth in early March, but this additional data allow us to get a better handle on its orbital path,” Paul Chodas, manager of NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS), said in a statement. “The data indicate that this small asteroid will probably pass much farther away from Earth than previously thought.”

Related: Asteroid-mining company 3D-prints object from space rock metals

CNEOS’s latest prediction are that 2013 TX68 will fly by roughly 3 million miles from our planet. There is still a chance that it could pass closer, but certainly no closer than 15,000 miles above Earth’s surface.

“There is no concern whatsoever regarding this asteroid – unless you were interested in seeing it with a telescope,” said Chodas.
“Prospects for observing this asteroid, which were not very good to begin with, are now even worse because the asteroid is likely to be farther away, and therefore dimmer than previously believed.”

Sean Marshall, a Cornell University grad student who works on observations of near-Earth asteroids, said the closest approach could be within Earth’s ‘ring’ of geostationary satellites or as far out as 40 times the distance to the Moon.

Related: Fireball meteor exploded over the Atlantic earlier this month

“Should this asteroid come closer than the geostationary satellites, it would be a rare occurrence — that only happens about once per decade for large asteroids,” Marshall said in a statement. “What we know for sure is that it
will not collide with Earth this month, so do not panic.”

The asteroid was discovered by the NASA-funded Catalina Sky Survey on Oct. 6, 2013, as it approached Earth on the nighttime side. After three days of tracking, the asteroid passed into the daytime sky and could no longer be observed. Because it was not tracked for very long, scientists cannot predict its
precise orbit around the Sun.

The arrival of 2013 TX68 is just the latest space rock to mesmerize asteroid hunters.

There was a close encounter with another asteroid on Christmas Eve. In that case, asteroid 2003 SD220 passed about 6.6 million miles from Earth — or about 27 times farther than the moon is from Earth. The asteroid was not visible to the naked eye.

Less than a month later, NASA announced it was opening a special office to track asteroids.

The Planetary Defense Coordination Office formalizes the agency’s existing program for detecting and tracking near-Earth Objects. The office is located within NASA’s Planetary Science Division, which is in the agency’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

Related: Meteorite hunters find 6 space rocks from Florida fireball

The space agency explained that more than 13,500 near-Earth objects have been discovered to date – more than 95 percent of them since NASA-funded surveys began in 1998. About 1,500 NEOs are now detected each year, according to NASA.

There were also several meteor sightings in February – including one in India that reportedly killed man, though that has been dismissed by NASA. A fireball exploded over the Atlantic Ocean also in February and six space rocks from a meteor were found in Florida.

NASA releases new ultraviolet image of Mars’ moon Phobos

(Credits: CU/LASP and NASA)

(Credits: CU/LASP and NASA)

NASA has released a new image of Mars’ moon Phobos, allowing scientists to better assess the mysterious object.

The space agency’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission made a series of close approaches to Phobos in late November and early December 2015, according to a NASA statement.

Related: Mars’ moon Phobos could be headed for destruction

“Among the data returned were spectral images of Phobos in the ultraviolet,” NASA explained. “The images will allow MAVEN scientists to better assess the composition of this enigmatic object, whose origin is unknown.”

NASA explained that comparing MAVEN’s images and spectra of the surface of Phobos to data from asteroids and meteorites will help scientists understand whether the moon is “a captured asteroid” or was formed in orbit around Mars. The data will be useful to scientists look for organic molecules on Phobos’ surface, the space agency said.

Related: Hubble captures star’s stunning blue bubble

Last year scientists explained that Phobos may be heading for destruction, noting the spatial cracks crisscrossing the moon’s surface – much like cracks in the foundation of your home

Scientists release in-depth map of the Milky Way

Image of the Milky Way in the direction of the constellation Scorpius with the NGC 6334 (Cat’s Paw Nebula, upper left) and the emission nebula RCW 120 (upper right). (ESO/APEX/ATLASGAL consortium/NASA/GLIMPSE consortium)

Image of the Milky Way in the direction of the constellation Scorpius with the NGC 6334 (Cat’s Paw Nebula, upper left) and the emission nebula RCW 120 (upper right). (ESO/APEX/ATLASGAL consortium/NASA/GLIMPSE consortium)

A spectacular map of the Milky Way has been produced that is allowing astronomers to study the cold universe, which is the gas and dust that are only a few tens of degrees above absolute zero.

Dubbed the APEX Telescope Large Area Survey after the telescope used in Chile, the survey includes most of the regions of star formation in the Milky Way. The Chilean telescope has mapped the full area of the Galactic Plane visible from the southern hemisphere for the first time at submillimetre wavelengths — between infrared light and radio waves — and in finer detail than recent space-based surveys.

Related: New star puts on a show in stunning image

The APEX data shows up in red and the background blue image was imaged at shorter infrared wavelengths by the NASA Spitzer Space Telescope as part of the GLIMPSE survey.

ATLASGAL has allowed us to have a new and transformational look at the dense interstellar medium of our own Milky Way,” European Southern Observatory’s Leonardo Testi, who is a member of the ATLASGAL team and the European Project Scientist for the ALMA project, said in a statement. “The new release of the full survey opens up the possibility to mine this marvelous dataset for new discoveries. Many teams of scientists are already using the ATLASGAL data to plan for detailed ALMA follow-up.”

APEX, the Atacama Pathfinder Experiment telescope, is located at 16,732 feet altitude on the Chajnantor Plateau in Chile’s Atacama region.

Related: Hundreds of hidden galaxies glimpsed behind Milky Way

At the heart of APEX are its sensitive instruments. One of these, LABOCA (the Large Bolometer Camera), the largest such detector in the southern hemisphere, was used for the ATLASGAL survey. LABOCA, built at the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy (MPIfR ) in Bonn, Germany, measures incoming radiation by registering the tiny rise in temperature it causes and can detect emission from the cold dark dust bands obscuring the stellar light.

This allows astronomers to detect emissions spread over a larger area of sky and to estimate the fraction of dense gas in the inner galaxy.

“If we combine the high spatial resolution ATLASGAL data with observations from ESA’s Planck satellite, the resulting data reach space quality with a 20 times higher resolution,” MPIfR’s Axel Weiss, who was responsible for the merging of the data, said in a statement.