7 New Planets Could Mean We Are Not Alone…

Our universe just got a little more crowded! That’s because NASA announced today that they have discovered seven new Earth-sized planets, at least three of which could potentially support life. And the best news of all is that they are relatively close by.

NASA discovered seven nearby planets that could support life

All of the planets orbit TRAPPIST-1, an ultra-cool dwarf star roughly the size of Jupiter. The system is close to Earth, relatively speaking – TRAPPIST is located in the Aquarius constellation, less than 40 light years from us.

What makes these exoplanets special is they are temperate which meant that all seven could potentially have water. Three of the planets are in the habitable zone, making them the most likely candidates to support life.

The TRAPPIST system is named after the telescope in Chile with which researchers originally spotted the exoplanets. Their existence was recently confirmed with NASA’s Spitzer Telescope.

So far, all we know about our potential new homes is they are likely to be rocky. They are all also closer to their star than Mercury is to our Sun, but the star is so cool that the furthest of the seven is probably a ball of ice.

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NASA’s Amazing Free Space Travel Posters

Although we have not made it to Mars, Jupiter, Saturn or for that matter – anywhere other then our own moon yet NASA is giving away some most amazing – excellent space exploration posters for free.

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The posters are a continuation of the Exoplanet Travel Bureau poster series first created by JPL’s design studio last year. The studio, first put together 13 years ago, helps JPL’s scientists and engineers plan out future missions, which means they’re always aware of the latest and greatest ideas being bandied about the lab. When NASA came to them asking for additional posters in the series, they were able to integrate many ideas the agency had already been spitballing for the future—such as floating cities hovering above Venus.

NASA’s faux travel agency is, obviously, a tad grandiose in their claims. Mankind won’t set foot on another planet for at least another decade, and even that’s optimistic. Zipping off 42 light-years for some super-Earth skydiving will probably remain science fiction forever. But anything that keeps the public aware of the grandeur of space exploration is cool with us.

All 14 posters are available as free downloads at JPL’s website.

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NASA/JPL

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NASA/JPL

NASA/JPL

NASA/JPL

NASA/JPL

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Halloween 2016 Brings Our Planet Another Close Encounter

Not another closer call from our asteroid friends, but that’s what it looks like.

This time we have news about asteroid 2015 TB145 which is a sizable asteroid that is hurtling through space at speeds of over 78,293 mph , and it’s heading this way. Discovered only 10 days ago, the asteroid has caught the attention of scientists at NASA because on October 31 (Halloween night – you can’t make this stuff up), it is expected to draw closer to Earth than anything this size has since July 2006.

Don’t panic friends and tech blog readers. When NASA says “close”, they are talking “relatively close”, which in this case means 1.3 lunar distances, or about 310,000 miles from our comfy little planet.

“This is the closest approach by a known object this large until 1999 AN10 approaches within 1 lunar distance in August 2027,” a NASA report states. “The last approach closer than this … was by 2004 XP14 in July 2006 at 1.1 lunar distances.”

Detected on October 10 by the Pan-STARRS I survey in Hawaii, which employs several astronomical cameras and telescopes from around the world to identify potentially threatening near-Earth objects, asteroid 2015 TB145 is estimated to be between 918 to 2,034 feet in diameter.

NASA reports that we have had closer encounters recently, but not by something on this scale. In 2013, Russian motorists filmed a very large meteorite as it burn up in Earth’s atmosphere back in 1908, and crashed into a Russian forest.

According to NASA’s Near-Earth Object Observations Program, as of October 16 2015, 13,251 near-Earth objects have been discovered, 877 of which are asteroids with a diameter of approximately 1 kilometre or larger. Some 1,635 of these have been classified as Potentially Hazardous Asteroids (PHAs).

If all of this makes you a little nervous, don’t worry. NASA suggests that none of the asteroids or comets that they have identified will come close enough to impact Earth anytime in the foreseeable future. “All known Potentially Hazardous Asteroids have less than a 0.01 percent chance of impacting Earth in the next 100 years,” they reported back in August.

For me, the scarier part is that NASA did not spot 2015 TB145 until less than two weeks ago!

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Two Mile Wide Asteroid Set To Visit Us Tomorrow

NASA has confirmed that a two-mile wide asteroid will zoom past the Earth tomorrow travelling at 40,000 miles per hour.

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NASA has been tracking the giant rock and has given the all-clear that it will not collide with our planet.

Experts have estimated the size of the asteroid, officially called 86666 (2000 FL10) to be between 0.7 and 1.6 miles wide.

It is roughly a quarter of the size of Mount Everest and more than 15 times bigger than any other asteroid NASA is watching.

The asteroid was first spotted 16 years ago and has been classified as a Near-Earth asteroid.

An object is considered a potentially hazardous object (PHO) if it comes within 4,600,000 miles of Earth and is of a size large enough to cause significant damage in the event of an impact.

But while 86666 (2000 FL10) is certainly a large object that will come close to earth it is not thought that it will come close enough to cause any damage.

Nasa has released an animated projection of the asteroid’s path, which you can watch below. 86666 appears from the top left of the screen as it nears Earth’s orbit.

Asteroid 86666 Nasa animated gif

NASA uses its highly automated collision monitoring system Sentry to continually scan the most current asteroid catalog for possibilities of future impact with Earth over the next 100 years.

If 86666 (2000 FL10) passes by our planet safely, which we should all be seriously hoping it does it will again return in 23 years

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NASA’s Pluto App

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft blasted off in 2006, with the objective to perform the closest flyby of Pluto ever performed and it’s about to reach its destination.

You might not realize it, but most pictures you’ve seen of Pluto in the past is simply an artist’s impression of what the little blue planet might look like. We’re about to get our first ever detailed, color images of the planet after a long wait.

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An app for Mac and PC from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab called “Eyes on the Solar System” lets you watch a live computer simulation of New Horizons’ approach.

You can watch what it sees, how it maneuvers and what it’s currently scanning. It’s only a simulation, but it’s the next best thing since it’s not possible to livestream from a spacecraft that far away.

The spacecraft will be closest in just over 24 hours, at 7.5 miles from the surface.

As New Horizons approaches it’s creating long-range imagery and performing detailed mapping of the surface for the first time.

NASA has already started publishing pictures of Pluto and its moon, Charon, for the first time, which are providing incredible insights into what the surface of the planet looks like. Perhaps we can make it an official planet again, now?

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Pluto Rises

I have written about NASA’s New Horizon spacecraft many times. That is simply because this little starship is traveling very far and is now exploring Pluto which resides on the farthest outreaches of of our solar system.

Now for the first time, images from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft are revealing bright and dark regions on the surface of faraway Pluto, the primary target of the New Horizons close flyby in in later mid-July.

The images were captured in early to mid-April from within 70 million miles using the telescopic Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) camera on New Horizons. A technique called image deconvolution sharpens the raw, unprocessed images beamed back to Earth. New Horizons scientists interpreted the data to reveal the dwarf planet has broad surface markings, some bright, some dark including a bright area at one pole that may be a polar cap.

“As we approach the Pluto system we are starting to see intriguing features such as a bright region near Pluto’s visible pole, starting the great scientific adventure to understand this enigmatic celestial object,” says John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “As we get closer, the excitement is building in our quest to unravel the mysteries of Pluto using data from New Horizons.”

Also captured in the images is Pluto’s largest moon, Charon, rotating in its 6.4-day long orbit. The exposure times used to create this image set, a tenth of a second, were too short for the camera to detect Pluto’s four much smaller and fainter moons.

New Horizons spacecraft promises to reveal more about Pluto.

Since it was discovered in 1930, Pluto has remained an enigma. It orbits our sun more than 3 billion miles (about 5 billion kilometers) from Earth, and researchers have struggled to discern any details about its surface. These latest New Horizons images allow the mission science team to detect clear differences in brightness across Pluto’s surface as it rotates.

“After traveling more than nine years through space, it’s stunning to see Pluto, literally a dot of light as seen from Earth, becoming a real place right before our eyes,” said Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator at Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. “These incredible images are the first in which we can begin to see detail on Pluto, and they are already showing us that Pluto has a complex surface.”

The images the spacecraft returns will dramatically improve as New Horizons speeds closer to its July rendezvous with Pluto.

“We can only imagine what surprises will be revealed when New Horizons passes approximately 7,800 miles (12,500 kilometers) above Pluto’s surface this summer,” said Hal Weaver, the mission’s project scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland.

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Are We Alone? NASA Seeks to Find Out

Is there life… out there? NASA, just like me really wants to know.

NASA stated earlier this week that it is launching an interdisciplinary effort aimed at searching for extraterrestrial life.

Known as the Nexus for Exoplanet System Science (NExSS), the project will bring together a wide range of scientists, researchers, and academics to try to “better understand the various components of an exoplanet [a planet around a star], as well as how the planet stars and neighbor planets interact to support life.”

NASA said that since the discovery of the first exoplanet in 1995, it has found more than 1,000 of them, with thousands more likely to be similarly designated in the future. At the same time, NASA said, scientists are trying to figure out which of these many worlds are, at least in theory, habitable, and which may have signs of life.

“The key to this effort is understanding how biology interacts with the atmosphere, geology, oceans, and interior of a planet,” NASA wrote, “and how these interactions are affected by the host star. This ‘system science’ approach will help scientists better understand how to look for life on exoplanets.”

NASA’s new project, run by its Science Mission Directorate, will bring together earth scientists, planetary scientists, heliophysicists, and astrophysicists “in an unprecedented collaboration to share their perspectives, research results, and approaches in the pursuit of one of humanity’s deepest questions: Are we alone?”

NExSS will be run by Natalie Batalha of the NASA Ames Research Center, Dawn Gelino of the NASA Exoplanet Science Institute, and NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies’ Anthony del Genio. It will also have members from 10 universities and two research institutes. The team members were chosen based on proposals submitted to the directorate.

I for one wish NASA well on there mission to finally answer the question, “Are We Alone”.

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Life in 10 Years?

Captain Kirk faces off with a Hota, a silicone based life form from the original Star Trek.

Captain Kirk faces off with a Hota, a silicone based life form from the original Star Trek.

It’s been a couple of weeks since I have posted a good space/science story. So with that in mind here you go.

It seems we may discover life “out there” sooner then later.

NASA believes that we will find signs of alien life in as little as 10 years including “definitive evidence” in about 20. Don’t worry because it it “hopefully” will not be the human-hating advanced races we have seen depicted in Hollywood movies. There is actually a good chance this alien life will simply turn out to be microbes. But this if true, will be very big news and will probably change how human being’s look at themselves, and could change the course of history.

Chief scientist of NASA, Ellen Stofan, made the bold prediction while speaking during a panel discussion.

“We know where to look,” Stofan said. “We know how to look. In most cases we have the technology and we’re on a path to implementing it. And so I think we’re definitely on the road.”

We have seen environments all over our solar system that suggest microbial life can be supported away from our little planet. Our closest neighbor, Mars was probably, in the past a hotbed of activity, while Europa, Ganymede, and Enceladus have all shown evidence of environments conducive to these little microorganisms. We do notknow for sure that these moons or planets harbor life, but NASA feels these are our best shots.

Here is a image of a JPL proposal for a Europan ocean explorer. There is real evidence that life may exist on Jupiter’s most famous moon.

 

NASA has some aggressive plans over the next few decades to follow up on its early discoveries, with the ultimate goal of sending humans to Mars. It might not be the paradise of our own blue marble, but the potential for life could solve some major mysteries about what’s out there in the universe.

Are we alone? it looks like we are closer than ever to figuring that out.

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Exploring The Mysterious Ceres

I promised good science and space articles from time to time when something strikes my interest and here today we have a good one. Do you recall a couple of years ago that Pluto was downgraded to “dwarf planet” status. Did you know that Pluto was not the only “dwarf planet”?

Well it’s not and there is some very exciting news about another little dwarf planet in our very own solar system.

Ceres (pronounced “series”) is in the asteroid belt but it’s not really an asteroid at all. Technically, Ceres is a dwarf planet, making it an improbable body that’s of immediate interest to astronomers. There are jets of what looks to be water vapor spewing up into space leading to speculation about the possibility of alien life. Sadly it is unlikely that Ceres actually holds life, but because it is a dwarf planet stuck in the asteroid and that water vapor is jetting up into space we have a major astronomical mystery and we may soon get some answers. Oh did I mention that there are two bright spots on the planet? More on that shortly.

The Dawn spacecraft (image below) arrived at Ceres last week carrying a scientific payload that was previously trained on the second largest object in the asteroid belt, called Vesta. Using its pioneering ion propulsion system, which provides low, constant thrust with remarkably little on-board fuel, Dawn was able to not just perform a flyby, but bump itself into a stable orbit. Soon, Dawn’s ion thrusters will direct it into a similar spiral around Ceres, making it the first ever multi-target mission to enter a stable orbit around two different objects in deep space.

In orbit, Dawn will spend several weeks spiraling down to its “science orbit,” from where it will be able to take detailed surface readings with its multiple scientific payloads. Primarily, it will build a map of the surface of Ceres in the visible and infrared portions of the spectrum and look at the chemical composition of the surface rocks.

Of course the real main question has to do with the Ceres mystery: why does the dwarf planet have bright spots and water vapor jetting up into space?

The bright sports are something that astronomers first noticed several months ago, in addition to the water vapor. There seems to be a well-defined bright spot on the surface of Ceres. Closer inspection has revealed that it is actually two bright spots, both apparently located at the bottom of a major crater. This led some to speculate that they might be cryovolcanoes which are planetary pimples that spew frozen substances rather than molten ones. However NASA believes the spots may be even more important than that. The official theory is the bright spots are actually static reflections of the Sun’s light, and probably arise from either ice or salt fields. If this is true – wow.

Why does this have the Wow factor?

Well it is because water is the primary substance we associate with life. Ceres has long been thought to harbor a subterranean ocean, and these bright spots might mean that some ancient meteor actually blasted down to give us a clean view of the frozen surface. On the other hand, these could be enormous fields of reflective salt crystals, which would be equally amazing in its own way. The spots could even be caused by large amounts of exposed metals, though if we do find some wonderful ore deposits, we’ll be able to do little more than drool over them.

Artist concept of the Dawn spacecraft near Mars. Image credit: NASA/JPL

 

Future Exploration of Ceres

An extended mission to Ceres would probably only be possible if launched from a Mars station.

Ceres is so massive that it probably maintains a very thin atmosphere of its own, but perhaps more impressive is that it is also the only body in the asteroid belt known to have been rounded by its own gravity, helping to define it as a dwarf planet. The main reason most asteroids tend to be oblong is that they are not’t heavy enough to exert enough gravitational force to make their own rocky structures flow. Ceres presents a nice surface for science (and perhaps someday visitation) because its life history means it does not have nearly so irregular a surface.

Is there a life on Ceres? Probably not and we should find out shortly. However even without life Ceres is turning out to be one very interesting place I would like to visit.

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NASA Targets 2017 for Return to Manned Space Travel

After a hiatus of six long years, US astronauts will finally return to space in a revolutionary new pair of private crew capsules under development by Boeing and SpaceX, starting in 2017. Just as importantly this will finally end our embarrassing our current reliance on the Russians for launching our astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS).

So what he have is that in two years from now, crews will start travelling to space aboard the first US commercial spaceships ever built, launching atop US rockets from US soil. These new “human rated spaceships” which are also known as “space taxis” are being designed and manufactured as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP).

Boeing’s commercial CST-100 'Space Taxi' will carry a crew of five astronauts to low Earth orbit and the ISS from US soil.   Mockup with astronaut mannequins seated below pilot console and Samsung tablets was unveiled on June 9, 2014 at its planned manufacturing facility at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com

A two person mixed crew of NASA astronauts and company test pilots will fly on the first test flights going to the space station in 2017.

Hatch opening to Boeing’s commercial CST-100 crew transporter.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com

Severe budget cuts by Congress forced NASA into a two year delay in the first commercial crew flights from the original target of 2015 to 2017  and also forced NASA to pay hundreds of millions of more dollars to the Russians for crews seats instead of employing American aerospace workers.

The first unmanned test flights of the SpaceX Dragon V2 and Boeing CST-100 are scheduled to occur by late 2016 or early 2017. Manned flights to the ISS could follow by the spring and summer of 2017.

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