Pluto’s Flyover Amazes

It might not be a planet anymore, but Pluto is still a pretty amazing place. It’s a rocky world covered in a thick layer of water ice and frozen nitrogen, and it’s close enough that we can study it with relative ease. Now, using data gathered by the New Horizons spacecraft when it flew past the pint-sized planet in 2015, NASA has published a video that offers the best look yet at what it would be like to fly high over Pluto’s frigid peaks and valleys, and it’s glorious.

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New Horizon approaching Pluto.

Flyover Explained

“This dramatic Pluto flyover begins over the highlands to the southwest of the great expanse of nitrogen ice plain informally named Sputnik Planitia,” NASA explains of the video. “The viewer first passes over the western margin of Sputnik, where it borders the dark, cratered terrain of Cthulhu Macula, with the blocky mountain ranges located within the plains seen on the right. The tour moves north past the rugged and fractured highlands of Voyager Terra and then turns southward over Pioneer Terra — which exhibits deep and wide pits — before concluding over the bladed terrain of Tartarus Dorsa in the far east of the encounter hemisphere.”


We have had an interesting relationship with Pluto lately. After many decades being labeled the ninth planet in our Solar System, scientists reclassified Pluto about ten years ago, officially dubbing it a dwarf planet rather than a full-fledged one.

If you want to learn more about Pluto and it’s fall from it’s planet classification check out Neil deGrasse Tyson’s excellent “The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America;s Favorite Planet”.

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Doom in 2029?

Asteroids are one of the most serious threats to life on earth that we know of. This is not something we think about very often. It was almost certainly an asteroid that took out the dinosaurs. This is a very real threat that humanity faces. The good news is that scientists are getting better at watching out for these large rocks which whiz by our planet more often then you might think. The bad news is that, today there is very little we can do about one of these striking us. See my rant at the end of this article for more about what we can do.

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This week it was reported that a massive asteroid, called 99942 Apophis, is going to make a very close pass of Earth in 2029, and that flyby could determine the fate of our planet.

“We can rule out a collision at the next closest approach with the Earth,” Astronomer Alberto Cellino told Astrowatch. “But then the orbit will change in a way that is not fully predictable just now, so we cannot predict the behavior on a longer timescale.”

The flyby in 2029 will be very-very close, with the asteroid expected to pass within 20,000 miles of Earth’s surface. That’s a ridiculously close by space standards, and it’s such a tight squeeze that the gravity of Earth is expected to alter the path of Apophis in such a way that its future passes will become much more unpredictable until further forecasting can be accomplished.

This video from the Discovery Channel depicts that tragic events of a large asteroid striking our planet.

The threat from Apophis is particularly scary because of its size. The asteroid has a diameter of over 1,200 feet, and a collision with our planet would be a catastrophic event. Scientists have forecasted the potential impact, estimating that the rock would strike with an amazing 750 megatons of energy. By comparison, the Tunguska event — which flattened a huge forested area in Russia’s Siberia — is thought to have only been about 10 megatons of force.

My Asteroid Influenced Rant

All of this talk of potential global doom from space kind of makes you think that we should be working together as opposed to engaging in endless political arguments. Our combined energy should be used to better ourselves and collectively protect each other. The type of healthcare we have, or what political ideology we each have will help us ZERO if we can’t prevent a rock like 99942 Apophis from striking our little blue marble. Instead of engaging in endless arguments we should collectively science it up and work on preventing disasters like the one that is possible in 2029.

OK – now I need to go watch an episode of Star Trek.

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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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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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Lyrid Meteor Shower Arriving April 22 & 23

We are entering my second favorite time of the year to stargaze, Spring – second only to the fall season.

Soon, very soon we will be in store for a meteor shower show.  The following news report is taken in part from from AccuWeather.

Beginning late in the evening, tomorrow, April 22 and continuing through the early morning hours of April 23, the peak of the Lyrid meteor shower will dazzle skygazers around the world.

Observers can expect to see 10-20 meteors darting across the sky during the height of the shower, but the Lyrids have a history of putting on surprising performances. In 1982 and 1922, the shower delivered a reported 90 meteors per hour.

The Lyrids will be visible to viewers in most parts of the world, but the timing of the peak may favor those in Europe, according to Slooh.

Astronomy fans saddled with inclement weather or cloudy skies, can view Slooh’s live broadcast of the meteor shower beginning at 8 p.m. EDT Wednesday.

Slooh frequently airs live astronomy events by using community observatories from all around the world. Additionally, Slooh’s broadcast will have an accompanying radio feed that allows viewers to hear the sounds of the meteors entering the ionosphere. After the event concludes, Slooh will show a replay of the event.

“As the meteors enter the ionosphere, they, appropriately enough, ionize the air and that serves as a reflector for radio waves, so they actually give a crackle and a sound at the speed of light,” Slooh Astronomer Bob Berman previously told AccuWeather.com.

The best viewing conditions in the U.S. will stretch from the northern Plains to the Upper Midwest, then down into the Ohio Valley and the mid-Atlantic region, AccuWeather.com Senior Meteorologist Dave Dombek said.

The worst conditions, due to cloud coverage, might actually be across the Gulf Coast area from southern Texas over to parts of Florida, Dombek said. Other regions that could be hampered by clouds include the northern Rockies, northern Great Lakes, upstate New York and northern New England.

“This year the moon will be a waxing crescent only one-fifteenth the brightness of a full moon, and it will set early, allowing excellent dark sky conditions for this shower,” Berman said. “Typically, Lyrids produce a gratifying number of fireballs, which is surprising since their moderate speeds of 30 miles per second is only about 75 percent that of the August Perseids or November Leonids. This should be an exciting experience.”

The best time for viewing the Lyrids at their peak will occur between the midnight and predawn hours Thursday and observers can look anywhere in the sky to see the Lyrids, provided skies are clear.

The Lyrids radiant point is about 10 degrees southwest of the star Vega, a blue-white star that can be seen by stargazers in the Northeast by 10 p.m. in mid-April, according to Slooh.

Here are some more meteor showers on the schedule this year.

Unlike other meteor showers, such as the Quadrantids in January, there is no sharp peak for the Lyrids. As the star Vega gets higher in the sky later at night, you tend to see more meteors, Berman said.

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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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