Exoplanet hunters made key finds in 2015

File photo.  (NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech)

File photo. (NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech)

When it comes to science, exoplanets are easy to love. They play roles in most science fiction books and movies and spark the imagination of nearly everyone. Beyond the realm of fiction, understanding these worlds remains a significant challenge that astronomers are working hard to overcome.

As 2015 winds down, we caught up with noted exoplanet scientist Sara Seager, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, at the American Astronomical Society’s Extreme Solar Systems III conference in Hawaii to ask her perspective on the field over the past year. She pointed to the progress made in understanding rocky worlds and the significant strides made in capturing images of planets. The biggest steps, however, came in the slow progress made in better understanding how planets — both inside and outside of the solar system — are built, she said.

“We really want to know how planetary systems form. It’s very complicated, because there are so many different pathways,” Seager said. [Related: The Biggest Astronomy Discoveries of 2015]

A series of small steps

Seager said one of the biggest recent advances is the increased ability of scientists to measure the masses of small planets. While many Jupiter-size worlds have masses that can be measured due to the technique used to spot them, most of the planets found by NASA’s Kepler mission have only a known radius. Follow-up studies with other instruments have allowed astronomers to obtain the masses of these worlds in some cases, providing the density. Knowing whether an exoplanet has a density closer to rock or gas can help scientists get an idea of that world’s possible compositions.

“It looks like anything bigger than 1.6 Earth radii is not rocky,” Seager said. (One Earth radius is about 3,863 miles, or 6,378 kilometers.)

Seager also pointed out that the methods used to find and study exoplanetscontinue to improve.

“Each planet-finding technique took one to two decades to come to maturity,” she said.

Of these, the process of directly imaging a planet has made the greatest strides recently. One of the biggest challenges with the technique is in spotting the glow of a planet amid the far brighter light of a star. The farther away a planet lies from its sun, the easier that world is to identify. This makes the technique complementary to searches performed by NASA’s Kepler mission, which more easily studies worlds orbiting close to their stars.

“You could say they’ve been doing direct imaging forever, because people imaged binary stars, but now they’re able to see a fainter and fainter companion closer and closer to a hot star,” Seager said.

“They’re still really far from seeing Earths, but they’re definitely making strides.”

She estimated that direct imaging should be able to identify an Earth-like world within the next decade.

Hot Jupiter findings heat up

Another major highlight of the year is an improved understanding of the massive, short-orbiting planets known as hot Jupiters. These massive worlds orbit their suns in days or even hours, despite being far larger than Jupiter. The huge planets made up the bulk of the first exoplanet discoveries, yet scientists are still struggling to understand how these worlds formed and why they orbit so close to their suns.

“In exoplanets, there are a million little puzzles,” Seager said. “Hot Jupiters appeared not to have any companions initially, but it’s because we couldn’t really search the set of orbits where planets could live” that we didn’t see any companions.

Recent results have shown that hot Jupiters aren’t all loners after all. Several of these hot, massive planets turned out to have companions, which Seager said she finds exciting. Some of those are massive rocky bodies far larger than Earth, known as super-Earths.

“One of the original predictions said all hot Jupiters would have an interior super-Earth,” she said.

Although a handful of scientists think that hot Jupiters may have originally formed near their parent stars, most researchers think that the gas giants formed farther away, in the same region gas giants of Earth’s solar system lie. The planets then migrated inward. As they did so, Seager said, they shepherded any inner planets along with them, scientists think. The recent discoveries that some of these gas giants have companions suggests that, at least in some cases, that hypothesis may hold true.

“Nature probably can move planets around every possible way we can think of and more, so maybe that theory is right,” Seager said.

Strange new worlds ahead

Although she couldn’t name any single major events for the year that were surprising, she pointed out that understanding how planetary systems tick takes time. The biggest strides in the field this year seem to be the slow gathering of information to allow scientists to begin to put it all together.

“I think one of the big things happening is just the emergence of all of these different clues in different ways,” Seager said.

It takes the right person to put it all together, but Seager said that probably will take another decade or so.

That doesn’t mean scientists are ready to say they conclusively know how worlds form, a question that has plagued researchers for decades, she said.

“There’s no final story now. We can’t say, ‘Oh, now we understand all planet formation.’ That will be decades if not a century or more.”

Originally available here


‘Lunartic’ snaps awesome photo of airplane crossing the Moon


Living right on the flight path to Los Angeles International Airport delivers stunning night sky shots of the moon for astrophotographer <a href=" www.facebook.com/TheLunartics"> Raul Roa </a>. Roa took the image in Whittier, Calif.

Living right on the flight path to Los Angeles International Airport delivers stunning night sky shots of the moon for astrophotographer Raul Roa . Roa took the image in Whittier, Calif. (Raul Roa | TheLunartics)

Living right on the flight path to Los Angeles International Airport delivers stunning night sky shots of the moon for astrophotographer Raul Roa.

Roa takes photos of the moon as airplanes cross its face from his home in Whittier, California.  And, he often has a group of friends with him who call themselves the “lunartics.”

Roa took his first such image one night, when on his way home, he watched a plane cross the full moon. Pulling over to stop, he was able to capture another plane shortly after in the same area.  [Moon Photography Tips: A Photo Guide]

“There and then I decided to make it my goal to deliberately capture planes crossing the moon. I began to look for the moon as it rose and began to follow its pattern and airplanes patterns as they passed over my home. It was hit and miss the first couple of months but I still managed to capture exciting photos of planes and the moon,” Roa wrote in an email to Space.com.

Many factors come into play when taking these images. The moon has to be at the right spot in the sky relative to the plane’s altitude and flight path. And, a proper exposure for the moon, camera equipment and location on the ground all combine to grab the moving plane. The size of the plane and where the moon hands in the sky also makes or breaks the shot.

“The moon low in the sky gives us tiny planes because they have to be low in the horizon as well and therefore much farther away. A higher moon gives up great big planes because they have to be higher in the sky and much closer to us on the ground,” Roa added.

Roa enjoys these photos so much, he’s begun taking images of planes crossing the moon in daylight too.  But, his night photography provides lasting excitement.

Follow us @Spacedotcom. We’re also on Facebook and Google+. Original story on Space.com.

Originally available here

Space fuel: Plutonium-238 created after 30-Year wait

Scientists mixed neptunium oxide with aluminum and pressed the result into pellets. They then irradiated the pellets to create neptunium-238, which decayed quickly into plutonium-238.

Scientists mixed neptunium oxide with aluminum and pressed the result into pellets. They then irradiated the pellets to create neptunium-238, which decayed quickly into plutonium-238. (Oak Ridge National Laboratory)

Scientists have produced a powder of plutonium-238 for the first time in nearly 30 years in the United States, a milestone that they say sets the country on a path toward powering NASA’s deep-space exploration and other missions.

Plutonium-238 (Pu-238) is a radioactive element, and as it decays, or breaks down into uranium-234, it releases heat. That heat can then be used as a power source; for instance, some 30 space missions, including the Voyager spacecraft, which explored the solar system’s outer planets in the 1970s, have relied on the oxide form of the plutonium isotope. (An isotope is atom of an element with a different number of neutrons.)

During the Cold War, the Savannah River Plant in South Carolina was pumping out Pu-238. “Those reactors were shut down in 1988, and the U.S. has not had the capability to make new material since then,” said Bob Wham, who leads the project for the Nuclear Security and Isotope Technology Division at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). [8 Rare Elements That You’ve Never Heard Of]

After U.S. production of the isotope stopped, Russia supplied the Pu-238 needed for space missions. However, Russia has also stopped producing the material. Two years ago, NASA began funding a new effort to produce plutonium-238, giving about $15 million a year to the DOE Office of Nuclear Energy.

Plutonium-238 is an ideal power source for space missions for several reasons, including the element’s so-called half-life of about 88 years. Half-life is the time it takes for half of the atoms of an element to decay. That means the isotope’s heat output won’t be reduced to half for 88 years. Plutonium-239, which has a half-life of 24,110 years, is the isotope most commonly formed from uranium in nuclear reactors, according to the World Nuclear Association.

In addition, “it’s stable at high temperatures, can generate substantial heat in small amounts and emits relatively low levels of radiation that is easily shielded, so mission-critical instruments and equipment are not affected,” Wham said.

In the new achievement, Wham and his colleagues created 50 grams (1.8 ounces) of Pu-238 — about one-eighth of a cup (30 milliliters) — or enough to characterize the substance, he said.

Because the scientists were using existing infrastructure at the Department of Energy, they needed to adapt the plutonium-making process. “For example, the current DOE operating research reactors are smaller than those used at Savannah River,” Wham said. “Therefore, we need to modify the technology to work within the existing operating reactors.”

Next, the scientists will test the purity of the sample and work on scaling up the manufacturing process.

“Once we automate and scale up the process, the nation will have a long-range capability to produce radioisotope power systems such as those used by NASA for deep-space exploration,” Wham said.

The next NASA mission with a plan to use such radioisotope power is the Mars 2020 rover, set for launch in July 2020, the researchers said. The rover will be designed to look for signs of life on the Red Planet, collect rock and soil samples for testing on Earth, and investigate technology for human exploration.

Copyright 2015 LiveScience, a Purch company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Congress is pushing NASA to develop a deep space habitat by 2018

The ISS-derived Deep Space Habitat concept demonstrator evaluation will focus on the following elements, from left to right, Lab/Hab, tunnel, and Multi-Purpose Logistics Module. (NASA)

The ISS-derived Deep Space Habitat concept demonstrator evaluation will focus on the following elements, from left to right, Lab/Hab, tunnel, and Multi-Purpose Logistics Module. (NASA)

Though dust has hardly settled on NASA’s triumphant budget increase doled out by members of Congress this month, the agency is already hard at work proving it deserves the extra funding. Its next order of business? Heed Congress’ instruction to develop a sufficient prototype model of a deep space habitat by no later than 2018. For those glancing at the calendar, 2018 is just two short years away, meaning NASA has roughly 730 days to show off what could likely shape deep space travel for dozens of decades. No pressure.

As high as these stakes sound to non-rocket scientists, NASA likely took Congress’ urging in stride considering the agency’s momentous 2015 is solely responsible for the increase in funding. Packaged inside the budget given to the Advanced Exploration Systems program — which will receive $350 million in 2016 — NASA’s deep space habitat prototype has roughly $55 million of funding to work with. The hope is that by the late 2020s, full-fledged cislunar (between Earth and the moon) testing of a capable habitat will be possible, and by 2030, human missions to Mars will be able to launch from it.

NASA International Space Station director Sam Scimemi envisions habituation testing (as well as testing of other essential space tech) to take place during what he calls a “shakedown cruise” in cislunar space. This extensive testing, he hopes, should provide enough proof NASA is able to develop a proficient model for long-duration, human-led missions to Mars. According to Scimemi, this idea is “our big objective for cislunar space for human spaceflight.”

Currently, NASA has yet to formally announce how exactly it plans on carrying out Congress’ wishes, with Scimemi pointing out that no specific planning has taken place. Acknowledging that the plan is still very much in its infancy, the agency has chosen to withhold even the smallest of details or requirements surrounding the project as it progresses. The way Scimemi sees it, as soon as an early photograph gets released, people will instantly rush to assume that’s the final configuration of the habitat.

What NASA has begun doing, however, is putting money into various research studies aimed at producing the best types of habituation concepts. Functioning under its Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (dubbed NextSTEP), these studies were awarded via contracts to companies like Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Orbital ATK, and others. Much of the awarded contracts were given to primarily focus on not only designs of a deep space habitat, but to solve the conundrum of effective life support systems as well.

“We plan to leverage the output of those studies to shape our plan and then go to a next round,” Scimemi says.

Though NASA broke some ground on the project, Congress’ intended funding will essentially force the agency to move a bit quicker than expected. Despite the hurried schedule — again, a prototype must be ready to show Congress by 2018 — people close to the project see the deadline as a sort of jump start to the program. Bigelow Aerospace’s director of D.C. operations and business growth Mike Gold even went so far as to say Congress’ push was the “missing piece of the human space exploration puzzle.”

Once a proper guideline is decided on and a suitable outline comes into focus, NASA is expected to alert Congress of its impending work 180 days prior. As mentioned earlier, the agency has remained tight-lipped regarding the project, so it’s unknown when initial prototypes might be made public. Considering the relatively short clock has already begun ticking on the project, it’s reasonable to expect big news regarding a deep space habitat prototype sometime in 2016.

Originally available here

NASA postpones next Mars mission due to leaky seal on key instrument

This August 2015 artist's rendering provided by NASA/JPL-Caltech depicts the InSight Mars lander studying the interior of Mars. The spacecraft was scheduled to launch for Mars in March 2016 but NASA said Tuesday, Dec. 22, that managers have suspended the launch because of an air leak in one of two prime science instruments, a seismometer which belongs to the French Space Agency.  (NASA/JPL-Caltech via AP)

This August 2015 artist’s rendering provided by NASA/JPL-Caltech depicts the InSight Mars lander studying the interior of Mars. The spacecraft was scheduled to launch for Mars in March 2016 but NASA said Tuesday, Dec. 22, that managers have suspended the launch because of an air leak in one of two prime science instruments, a seismometer which belongs to the French Space Agency. (NASA/JPL-Caltech via AP)

NASA is calling off its next mission to Mars because there isn’t enough time to fix a leaky seal on a key science instrument.

The InSight spacecraft was set for launch in March. The problem is with a protective pouch around the lander’s seismometer, which was designed to measure ground movement on the red planet.

NASA managers and French designers of the instrument said Tuesday they must now decide whether the pouch’s vacuum seal needs to be repaired, redesigned or the mission scrapped.

The next opportunity to launch the InSight lander is in May 2018 since the best chances of launching missions between Earth and Mars occur for just a few weeks every 26 months.

“We’re close enough to launch but unfortunately we don’t have enough time to try to identify the leak, fix it and recover and still make it to the launch pad in March,” said John Grunsfeld, NASA’s science mission chief.

The goal of the mission was to explore the interior core, mantle and crust of Mars in a way that no other planet has been studied outside of Earth. So far, $525 million has spent on the $675 million mission.

“We know the interior of Earth and its structure very well, but of the other planets, Mars is our only hope to make those kinds of measurements,” said Jim Green, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division.

NASA managers said it could take several months of analysis and discussion before they decide how to proceed. A redesign of the part could make the 2018 opportunity unlikely since it could take up to five years.

NASA officials said the delay of the InSight mission wouldn’t affect the schedule of any other missions to Mars.

The three sensors on the seismometer need a vacuum seal around them to withstand the harsh, frigid Martian environment. Leaks had showed up during previous tests and mission team members thought the problem had been fixed. But the latest tests this week showed another leak of unknown origin.

The spacecraft was delivered to Vandenberg Air Force Base in California last week in anticipation of a launch. It will be sent back to Lockheed Martin’s plant in Denver. It would have landed on Mars six months after launch.

Originally available here

Christmas in space: Irradiated turkey and ‘Star Wars’ screeners


Christmas isn’t going to be out of this world for the astronauts in the International Space Station –but it doesn’t seem too bad. (NASA)

While many of us will be sitting down to turkey roasts and honey glazed ham with our families on Christmas night, the astronauts aboard the International Space Station will be having their own special Christmas meals — and perhaps watching a screener copy of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which was sent up to them along with a projection screen.

American astronaut Timothy Kopra, British astronaut Tim Peake and Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko traveled to the ISS aboard Soyuz 2 last week for a six-month mission known as Expedition 46. They joined American Commander Scott Kelly and Russian flight engineers Mikhail Kornienko and Sergey Volkov, who were already on board. (You can look up and see the ISS for yourself. Check the tracker on the NASA website for the best times and places.)

Vickie Kloeris, NASA’s space food systems laboratory manager, said Kopra’s Christmas dinner will include many of the same items his fellow Americans enjoy on Earth: turkey, cornbread dressing, candied yams, green beans with mushrooms, cherry blueberry cobbler and spiced apples.

But Kopra’s meal will be prepared a bit differently, because the ISS is no place for floating crumbs and gravy, and food must last for months without refrigeration. That means even innocuous items like salt and pepper are available only in liquid form, and everything must be non-perishable — irradiated, thermostabilized or freeze-dried.

As for fancy, Christmas-y dinner plates … Those are for the earthbound. They need gravity to stay on the table.

Dinner in space comes in tins or pouches only: The irradiated turkey comes in a sealed foil pouch; The mashed potatoes, cornbread stuffing and green beans are freeze-dried; the candied yams and cobbler are thermostabilized.

Astronauts place the irradiated and freeze-dried pouches into a station where they’re filled with hot water and rehydrated — a process that takes seconds. Thermostabilized food is prepared even faster: Just cut open a pouch of yams. Tether the works to the dinner table with bungee cords, and dig in.

Should the outer-world travelers feel like a last-minute change of menu, choices include shrimp cocktail, mac & cheese and beef tips with mushrooms. Contrary to popular belief, fresh fruit and vegetables are allowed on board and are frequently brought up by new crewmembers — but they must be eaten in the first few days, before they rot.

It takes a lot of planning to tether food to an astronaut’s table, because it’s a very long trip to the nearest grocery store.

Well in advance of a mission, NASA Food Lab at Johnson Space Center in Houston begins collaborating with the astronauts on their menus. “We begin working approximately one year in advance of the launch of the crewmember,” Kloeris said.

Astronauts can choose from over 200 items and get to taste-test their food in the lab. They’re allowed to make nine containers-worth of special requests, which are tested and approved by NASA before being sent up in a supply mission. On Expedition 46, special requests included That’s It fruit bars, which have an 18-month shelf life and are temperature resistant, even though they’re pure fruit.

Food in space doesn’t taste as good as it does on earth — cabin pressurization dulls taste buds and mimics a head cold, just as in an airplane — but that just might improve the taste of fruitcake.

A particular treat awaits Peake when he sits down with his crewmates for dinner. His Christmas meal was prepared by the celebrated Michelin-starred British chef Heston Blumenthal, in conjunction with British schoolchildren following a national contest known as The Great British Space Dinner. Peake’s Christmas meal will include a Sunday roast in the shape of a helmet and a Christmas pudding.

In a holiday video recorded on board the ISS this week with Kopra and Kelly, Peake said, “Christmas is traditionally a time for friends and families to get together. And although we can’t be with our friends and families this year, we’ll be orbiting the earth 16 times on Christmas Day and sending all our good wishes to everybody back down on beautiful planet Earth.”

Originally available here

SpaceX launches rocket 6 months after accident, then lands

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket successfully lands at historic Complex 13 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Monday, Dec. 21, 2015. The rocket, carrying 11 communications satellites for Orbcomm, Inc., is the first launch of the rocket since a failed mission to the International Space Station in June. (Craig Bailey/Florida Today via AP)

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket successfully lands at historic Complex 13 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Monday, Dec. 21, 2015. The rocket, carrying 11 communications satellites for Orbcomm, Inc., is the first launch of the rocket since a failed mission to the International Space Station in June. (Craig Bailey/Florida Today via AP)

SpaceX sent a Falcon rocket soaring toward orbit Monday night with 11 small satellites, its first mission since an accident last summer. Then in an even more amazing feat, it landed the 15-story leftover booster back on Earth safely.

It was the first time an unmanned rocket returned to land vertically at Cape Canaveral, Florida, and represented a tremendous success for SpaceX. The company led by billionaire Elon Musk is striving for reusability to drive launch costs down and open up space to more people.

SpaceX employees broke into cheers and chants, some of them jumping up and down, following the smooth touchdown nine minutes after liftoff. Previous landing attempts ended in fiery blasts, but those aimed for an ocean platform.

“The Falcon has landed,” SpaceX TV commentators announced.

The top officer at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Brig. Gen. Wayne Monteith, noted that the returning booster “placed the exclamation mark on 2015.”

“This was a first for us at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, and I can’t even begin to describe the excitement the team feels right now having been a part of this historic first-stage rocket landing,” Monteith said in a statement.

Across the country, SpaceX employees jammed company headquarters in Hawthorne, California, anxiously awaiting success outside Mission Control. They cheered at full throttle when the first stage separated cleanly two minutes into flight and reoriented itself for an unprecedented return to Cape Canaveral. Then the roar became deafening, as TV cameras showed the first-stage booster landing on extended legs at its new, dedicated landing zone. SpaceX commentators called it “incredibly exciting” and were visibly moved by the feat.

“This has been a wildly successful return to flight for SpaceX,” said one SpaceX launch commentator. “We made history today.”

The touchdown was a secondary objective for SpaceX. The first was hoisting the satellites for OrbComm, a New Jersey-based communication company. All 11 were successfully deployed.

OrbComm chief executive officer Marc Eisenberg seemed just as excited about the booster landing as his satellites reaching orbit.

“Here she comes back,” Eisenberg said via Twitter, sharing a photo of the returning booster. Then: “Bullseye.”

The booster-landing zone, a former Atlas missile-launching site, is about six miles from the launch pad. SpaceX is leasing the touchdown area — marked by a giant X — from the Air Force. The reinforced concrete provides a stable surface, unlike the barges used for the initial attempts, primarily for increased safety.

On its previous flight back in June, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket failed shortly after liftoff, destroying a supply ship intended for the International Space Station. A snapped strut in the upper stage was to blame. SpaceX spent months correcting the problem and improving the unmanned rocket. It hopes to resume supply runs for NASA in February.

Musk, who also runs the Tesla electric car company, says he can drastically reduce launch costs by reusing rocket parts. Three tries at vertical landings of the first-stage boosters earlier this year failed; in each case, the segment aimed for a modified barge off the coast of Jacksonville, Florida. This time, Musk opted for a true land landing. His ultimate goal, for human missions, is Mars. Besides the space station supply runs, he’s working to turn the Dragon capsules into spaceships for crews traveling to and from the orbiting lab.

Blue Origin, another billionaire’s rocket company, successfully landed a booster last month in West Texas. That rocket, though, had been used for a suborbital flight. The SpaceX booster was more powerful and flying faster in order to put satellites into orbit.

Originally available here

Cassini probe to make one last flyby of Saturn’s moon Enceladus

An exciting chapter of space exploration history will come to a close as NASA's Cassini spacecraft makes its final close flyby of Saturn's active, ocean-bearing moon Enceladus. (NASA/JPL-CalTech)

An exciting chapter of space exploration history will come to a close as NASA’s Cassini spacecraft makes its final close flyby of Saturn’s active, ocean-bearing moon Enceladus. (NASA/JPL-CalTech)

NASA’s Cassini probe will close a significant chapter Saturday when it makes its final close flyby of Saturn’s ocean-bearing moon Enceladus.

Already the subject of several dazzling images, Cassini will whiz past Enceladus at a distance of 3,106 miles (4,999 kilometers) on Saturday at 9:49 a.m. PST (12:49 p.m. EST).

But don’t despair. Even after this final pass, there will be plenty more of Enceladus – just at a much greater distance. The Cassini mission is slated to continue through September 2017 and will keep observing Enceladus – but four times further than what it will see on Saturday.

Related: Cassini probe takes ‘cosmic bulls-eye’ of Saturn moons Enceladus,Tethys

The upcoming flyby will focus on measuring how much heat is coming through the ice from the moon’s interior — an important consideration for understanding what is driving the plume of gas and icy particles that sprays continuously from an ocean below the surface.

“Understanding how much warmth Enceladus has in its heart provides insight into its remarkable geologic activity, and that makes this last close flyby a fantastic scientific opportunity,” Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, said in a statement.

While historic, this will not be Cassini’s closest encounter with Enceladus. The probe is keeping its distance to allow the Composite Infrared Spectrometer instrument on board to observe heat flow across Enceladus’ south polar terrain.

Related: Check out this stunning Cassini image of Saturn’s rings and its moon Enceladus

“The distance of this flyby is in the sweet spot for us to map the heat coming from within Enceladus — not too close, and not too far away. It allows us to map a good portion of the intriguing south polar region at good resolution,” said Mike Flasar, CIRS team lead at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland.

This flyby probably won’t result in as many stunning images as in the past, partly because the south polar region of Enceladus is presently in the darkness of the years-long Saturnian winter. The absence of heat from the Sun makes it easier for Cassini to observe the warmth from Enceladus itself.

Cassini completed a daring dive through the moon’s erupting plume on Oct. 28, passing just 30 miles above the surface. Scientists are still analyzing data collected during that encounter to better understand the nature of the plume, its particles and whether hydrogen gas is present — the latter would be an independent line of evidence for active hydrothermal systems in the seafloor.

Since 2004, Cassini has been orbiting Saturn at a distance of about 980 million miles from Earth. In that time, the mission which is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency, has made dozens of flybys of Saturn’s moons.

Related: NASA releases incredible closeup images of Saturn’s moon Dione

Enceladus has been the surprising star of this mission.

The spacecraft discovered geologic activity on Enceladus, not long after arriving at Saturn, prompted changes to the mission’s flight plan in order to maximize the number and quality of encounters with the icy moon.

Scientists also detected signs of the moon’s icy plume in early 2005, followed by a series of discoveries about the material gushing from warm fractures near its south pole. They announced strong evidence for a regional subsurface sea in 2014, revising their understanding in 2015 to confirm that the moon hosts a global ocean beneath its icy crust.

“Cassini’s legacy of discoveries in the Saturn system is profound,” Spilker said. “We won’t get this close to Enceladus again with Cassini, but our travels have opened a path to the exploration of this and other ocean worlds.”

Originally available here

Earth never looked so good

File Photo. (NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University)

File Photo. (NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University)

In this amazing image from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), Earth appears to rise over the Moon’s lunar horizon.

The center of the Earth is just off the coast of Liberia and the large tan area seen here in the upper right is the Sahara Desert, and just beyond is Saudi Arabia. The Atlantic and Pacific coasts of South America are visible to the left. On the moon, we get a glimpse of the crater Compton, which is located just beyond the eastern limb of the moon, on the lunar farside.

Related: Earth stole water and more from the young Moon

“The image is simply stunning,” Noah Petro, deputy project scientist for LRO at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, said in a statement. “The image of the Earth evokes the famous ‘Blue Marble’ image taken by Astronaut Harrison Schmitt during Apollo 17, 43 years ago, which also showed Africa prominently in the picture.”

This image was composed from a series of images taken Oct. 12, when LRO was about 83 miles above the moon’s farside crater Compton. To take the image, the spacecraft had to be rolled to the side while the LRO was traveling faster than 3,580 miles per hour relative to the lunar surface below the spacecraft.

Related: Strange volcanic structure found on moon’s south pole

NASA’s first Earthrise image was taken with the Lunar Orbiter 1 spacecraft in 1966 and its most iconic was taken by the crew of the Apollo 8 mission as the spacecraft entered lunar orbit on Christmas Eve Dec. 24, 1968. That evening, the astronauts — Commander Frank Borman, Command Module Pilot Jim Lovell, and Lunar Module Pilot William Anders — held a live broadcast from lunar orbit, in which they showed pictures of the Earth and moon as seen from their spacecraft.

Said Lovell, “The vast loneliness is awe-inspiring and it makes you realize just what you have back there on Earth.”

Originally available here

Cosmic lightsaber slices through clouds in awesome new image

  • A young star wields a double-bladed lightsaber of its own creation in this infrared image captured by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope.

    A young star wields a double-bladed lightsaber of its own creation in this infrared image captured by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope. (ESA/Hubble & NASA, D. Padgett (GSFC), T. Megeath (University of Toledo), and B. Reipurth (University of Hawaii))

A powerful lightsaber slices through the dark clouds of dust and gas that surround it. It’s not a scene from the new “Star Wars” movie but an image captured by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope.

Formed by material falling onto a newborn star, the two beams of light shoot outward from their star at supersonic speeds to create the two jets that look likethe double-sided lightsaber wielded by Darth Maul in “Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace.”

Collapsing clouds of dust and gas create new stars as they fall inward. Cloaked by dust and gas, the protostar grows massive enough to harness its power and begin the fusion process. In some cases, the material streaming onto the young star erupts into fiery jets that burst from the stellar poles. [Video of the Celestial ‘Double-Bladed Lightsaber’ Seen By Hubble]

As the powerful jets collide with surrounding material, they create curved shock waves at their ends. These create tangled, knotted clumps of material calledHerbig-Haro (HH) objects, according to a statement from the European Space Agency (ESA). The HH object in the new Hubble image around the young star is known as HH 24.These supersonic shock fronts then heat the surrounding gas to thousands of degrees Fahrenheit, ESA officials say.

The double jets of this cosmic lightsaber are unusually short for these types of objects, stretching less than a quarter of a light-year from end to end, or about 1.34 trillion miles (2.15 trillion kilometers), according to a 1996 research paper announcing the discovery of the jet. The jets also appear to have a closer interaction with the surrounding region compared to similar objects. These two characteristics suggest that the jets, which last only a few thousand years, formed rather recently.

The young star lies not in a galaxy far, far away, but within our own Milky Way galaxy, clawing its way to life just over 1,350 light-years away in the constellation Orion.

Barely visible in the image are smaller jets, created by more newborn stars. In fact, this is  the densest concentration of HH jets known in such a small region, ESA officials said.

The Hubble telescope took the images of the region in infrared light, allowing the telescope to pierce the veil of gas and dust surrounding the newly formed stars and thus capture clear views of them.

Originally Available here