Tag: Solar System

NASA’s New Horizons Spacecraft Snaps Image From 3.8 Billion Miles Away From Earth

At first glance it might not look like much – but, with a fuzzy purple and green photo, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has made history.

On December 5, New Horizons captured an image said to be the farthest from Earth ever taken, at a staggering 3.79 billion miles away.

And, just hours later, it beat its own record.

According to NASA, the remarkable false-color images sent back by New Horizons are also the closest-ever images captured of objects in the Kuiper Belt.

When New Horizon’s snapped a photo with its telescopic camera for a routine calibration frame of the Wishing Well star cluster, it was farther into space than even NASA’s Voyager 1 had been when it captured its famous ‘Pale Blue Dot’ image of Earth, the space agency says.

At the time, New Horizons was 3.79 billion miles (6.12 billion kilometers) from Earth.


Voyager, by comparison, was 3.75 billion miles (6.06 billion kilometers) from Earth when it captured its famous photo in 1990.

According to NASA, New Horizons is now the fifth spacecraft to fly beyond the outer planets of our solar system.

Hours after its first record-breaking image on Dec 5, it captured another. The latter shows a look at Kuiper Belt objects HZ84 and 2012 HE85.

The images were captured using the spacecraft’s Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI). And, NASA says they’re the closest images yet of objects in this region.

New Horizons has long been a mission of firsts – first to explore Pluto, first to explore the Kuiper Belt, fastest spacecraft ever launched,” said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

“And now, we’ve been able to make images farther from Earth than any spacecraft in history.”

New Horizons is now on its way to a KBO named 2014 MU69, with which it’s expected to make a close encounter on Jan 1, 2019.

Please like, share ans tweet this article.

Pass it on: New Scientist

NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter And ESA’s Venus Express Are Using Atmosphere To Get Closer To The Planet

Mars has historically been unfriendly to Earth’s attempts to visit it. More missions have been attempted to Mars than to any other place in the Solar System except the Moon, and about half of the attempts have failed.

Some of these failures occurred because Mars was the first planet Earth attempted to explore, and the early exploration attempts taught us many lessons that have made subsequent missions more successful.

But many failures have occurred relatively recently, proving again and again that space exploration is very, very difficult.

But since 1996, Mars exploration has undergone a Renaissance, with data from four orbiters and four landed missions developing a revolutionary new view of Mars as an Earth-like world with a complex geologic history.




ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter

This first mission of ESA’s ExoMars program consists of a Trace Gas Orbiter plus an Entry, descent and landing Demonstrator Module, known as Schiaparelli (which transmitted data during its descent before crash landing on the martian surface).

The main objectives of this mission are to search for evidence of methane and other trace atmospheric gases that could be signatures of active biological or geological processes and to test key technologies in preparation for ESA’s contribution to subsequent missions to Mars.

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is searching for evidence of past water on Mars, using the most powerful camera and spectrometer ever sent to Mars.

Its cameras are also helping in the search for landing sites for future Mars rovers and landers, and to monitor martian weather on a day-to-day basis.

Please like, share and tweet this article.

Pass it on: Popular Science

NASA Just Found Our Solar System’s Twin By Using Artificial Intelligent

Searching the stars for unique phenomena is not an easy process.

The problem is that space is simply too big, too diverse, and too wonderful.

Locating a specific kind of anomaly among the many wondrous sights scattered throughout the cosmos is near impossible for humans, without easily-distracted brains.

With so many stars to check, the process of scanning the galaxy to find planets like our own can take a lot of time and effort.

Thankfully, artificial intelligence can help us in the process of spotting distant stars and their neighboring planets.

NASA has announced that, thanks to an AI program that was given the task of spotting cool stuff in space, the agency has been able to find a solar system that looks uncannily like our own; albeit in miniature form.




The Kepler-90 system exists a distant 2,545 light years from Earth, but has drawn attention from the astrological society after an AI noted that its series of eight planets match up well with our own.

The primary difference is that its planets orbit a lot closer to the sun than those in our solar system, with the newly discovered Kepler-90i making a full rotation around the star in a matter of just fourteen Earth days.

In order to locate Kepler-90’s planets NASA’s AI had to scan through a daunting thirty five thousand potential signals from distant stars, over a period of four years.

This is where machine learning was able to come into play to help make the process easier—the AI was fed data from around fifteen thousand signals that NASA had previously investigated.

So the AI had a pretty good idea of what it was looking for based on the kinds of readings that NASA had flagged as noteworthy among the program’s database of reference materials.

From there, it was a simple matter of letting the AI run checks for all potential star systems against its database until the program found something that matched what it was looking for, which happened to be a bunch of newly discovered planets orbiting Kepler-90.

Kepler-90 isn’t actually the most exciting solar system in the galaxy—it’s unlikely that its super hot worlds will bear life, or even any noteworthy new discoveries.

What is special, is the fact that an AI managed to identify Kepler-90 as fitting the right parameters for investigation.

This shows that there really are benefits to employing machine learning as a technique for searching the cosmos for interesting research subjects without the need for a human to slog through thousands of signals in order to find a few interesting stars that warrant a closer look.

Essentially, NASA is building a self-teaching search engine that can trawl through all of our records of the stars to find things that look interesting, based only on a vague description of what scientists are looking for.

The future of space exploration is going to be a whole lot easier if we can trust an artificial intelligence to do all the boring stuff for us.

Please like, share and tweet this article.

Pass it on: New Scientist

Planet Nine Could Be Our Solar System’s Missing ‘Super Earth’

Planet Nine is out there, and astronomers are determined to find it, according to a new statement from NASA. In fact, mounting evidence suggests it’s hard to imagine our solar system without the unseen world.

The hypothetical planet is believed to be about 10 times more massive than Earth and located in the dark, outer reaches of the solar system, approximately 20 times farther from the sun than Neptune is.

While the mysterious world still has yet to be found, astronomers have discovered a number of strange features of our solar system that are best explained by the presence of a ninth planet, according to the NASA statement.

There are now five different lines of observational evidence pointing to the existence of Planet Nine,” Konstantin Batygin, a planetary astrophysicist at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, said in the statement.




If you were to remove this explanation and imagine Planet Nine does not exist, then you generate more problems than you solve.”

“All of a sudden, you have five different puzzles, and you must come up with five different theories to explain them.

In 2016, Batygin and co-author Mike Brown, an astronomer at Caltech, published a study that examined the elliptical orbits of six known objects in the Kuiper Belt, a distant region of icy bodies stretching from Neptune outward toward interstellar space.

Their findings revealed that all of those Kuiper Belt objects have elliptical orbits that point in the same direction and are tilted about 30 degrees “downward” compared to the plane in which the eight official planets circle the sun.

Using computer simulations of the solar system with a Planet Nine, Batygin and Brown also showed that there should be even more objects tilted a whopping 90 degrees with respect to the solar plane.

Further investigation revealed that five such objects were already known to fit these parameters, the researchers said.

Since then, the astronomers have found new evidence that further supports the existence of Planet Nine.

With help from Elizabeth Bailey, an astrophysicist and planetary scientist at Caltech, the team showed that Planet Nine’s influence might have tilted the planets of our solar system

Which would explain why the zone in which the eight major planets orbit the sun is tilted by about 6 degrees compared to the sun’s equator.

Finally, the researchers demonstrate how Planet Nine’s presence could explain why some Kuiper Belt objects orbit in the opposite direction from everything else in the solar system.

Going forward, the researchers plan to use the Subaru Telescope at Mauna Kea Observatory in Hawaii to find Planet Nine, and then deduce where the mysterious world came from.

The most common type of planets discovered around other stars in our galaxy has been what astronomers call “super Earths” — rocky worlds that are larger than Earth but smaller than Neptune.

However, no such planet has yet been discovered in our solar system, meaning that Planet Nine could be our missing “super Earth,” the researchers said.

Please like, share and tweet this article.

Pass it on: New Scientist

These Weird Red Arcs On Saturn’s Moon Tethys Can’t Be Explained

An icy moon of Saturn has mysterious red arcs of material crisscrossing its surface — and no one knows exactly how they got there.

The Cassini spacecraft caught these graffiti-like features on camera as it imaged the northern side of the Tethys, which is one of Saturn’s larger moons.

While the arcs faintly show up in 2004 pictures, the latest images, from April, are the first to really show their colors by incorporating the right viewing conditions and wavelengths invisible to the human eye.

This is partly because Saturn and its moons’ northern hemispheres are currently in summer, providing better illumination of this region.

The features were a surprise to scientists because red tints are rare in the solar system.




Until now, astronomers have spotted a few small, reddish craters on Saturn’s icy moon Dione, and identified many rouge zones on the icy surface of Jupiter’s Europa.

Scientists don’t exactly know how these features occurred. Perhaps they are ice with chemical impurities, leftovers from gas released from the moon or artifacts from features that were smaller than the resolution of the image.

The red arcs must be geologically young, because they cut across older features like impact craters, but we don’t know their age in years.” Paul Helfenstein, a Cassini imaging scientist at Cornell University who helped plan the observations, said in a statement.

If the stain is only a thin, colored veneer on the icy soil, exposure to the space environment at Tethys’ surface might erase them on relatively short time scales.

Icy moons lke Tethys are considered a key area of interest in our solar system because they could host microbial life if enough chemical energy and warmth is available in the oceans below the ice.

In recent years, plumes of gas have been repeatedly observed at Enceladus, another of Saturn’s moons, and in 2013 the Hubble Space Telescope spotted a single, large-plume event at Europa.

Cassini will do follow-up observations of Tethys at a higher resolution later this year. The mission is in the final two years of work before the spacecraft runs low on fuel in September 2017.

When that happens, it will plunge into Saturn’s atmosphere to protect the icy moons from possible contamination.

Please like, share and tweet this article.

Pass it on: New Scientist

NASA Reveals That Our Solar System’s First Interstellar Visitor Is Shaped Like A Cigar

A newly discovered object from another star system that’s passing through ours is shaped like a giant cigar with a reddish hue, astronomers have revealed.

The asteroid, named ‘Oumuamua by its discoverers, is up to one-quarter mile (400 meters) long and highly-elongated – perhaps 10 times as long as it is wide.

That aspect ratio is greater than that of any asteroid or comet observed in our solar system to date.

While its elongated shape is quite surprising, and unlike asteroids seen in our solar system, it may provide new clues into how other solar systems formed.

The observations and analyses were funded in part by NASA and appear in the Nov. 20 issue of the journal Nature.




They suggest this unusual object had been wandering through the Milky Way, unattached to any star system, for hundreds of millions of years before its chance encounter with our star system.

For decades we’ve theorized that such interstellar objects are out there, and now, for the first time, we have direct evidence they exist,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

“This history-making discovery is opening a new window to study formation of solar systems beyond our own.”

Combining the images from the FORS instrument on the ESO telescope using four different filters with those of other large telescopes.

A team of astronomers led by Karen Meech of the Institute for Astronomy in Hawaii found that ‘Oumuamua varies in brightness by a factor of ten as it spins on its axis every 7.3 hours.

No known asteroid or comet from our solar system varies so widely in brightness, with such a large ratio between length and width.

The most elongated objects we have seen to date are no more than three times longer than they are wide.

This unusually big variation in brightness means that the object is highly elongated: about ten times as long as it is wide, with a complex, convoluted shape,” said Meech.

These properties suggest that ‘Oumuamua is dense, comprised of rock and possibly metals, has no water or ice, and that its surface was reddened due to the effects of irradiation from cosmic rays over hundreds of millions of years.

Scientists are certain this asteroid or comet originated outside our solar system.

First spotted last month by the Pan-STARRS telescope in Hawaii, it will stick around for another few years before departing our sun’s neighborhood.

Jewitt and his international team observed the object for five nights in late October using the Nordic Optical Telescope in the Canary Islands and the Kitt Peak National Observatory near Tucson, Arizona.

At approximately 100 feet by 100 feet by 600 feet, the object has proportions roughly similar to a fire extinguisher — though not nearly as red, Jewitt said.

The slightly red hue specifically pale pink and varying brightness are remarkably similar to asteroids in our own solar system, he noted.

In a paper to the Astrophysical Journal Letters, the scientists report that our solar system could be packed with 10,000 such interstellar travelers at any given time.

It takes 10 years to cross our solar system, providing plenty of future viewing opportunities, the scientists said.

Please like, share and tweet this article.

Pass it on: New Scientist

Have You Ever Wonder Why Jupiter’s Great Red Spot Isn’t White?

The giant cyclonic storm that swallowed Alaska last week has nothing on Jupiter’s Great Red Spot. The GRS is a cyclone, too, but one so immense it could gulp down the Earth in one shot and still have room for Mars.

It’s been swirling for centuries, at the very least, and while it’s smaller than it used to be, nobody thinks it’s going away.

All of this is pretty well known to planetary scientists. What they don’t know is the answer to a very simple question: Why is the Red Spot, well, red?

There are some other places on Jupiter that are reddish,” says Kevin Baines of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), “although they’re more of a reddish-brown.

The spot’s color, however, is pretty much unique and thus pretty mysterious.




In fact, Baines adds, “back in the 1970’s, when we were trying to sell the Galileo mission to Congress, it really resonated that we were going to try and answer that question.”

Now Baines and two JPL colleagues may have finally done it — not with data from Galileo, which orbited Jupiter and its moons from 1995 to 2003, but from the Cassini probe, which took a few snapshots en route to Saturn.

Those images, supplemented by laboratory experiments, suggest that the red color is just a thin dusting on the very top of swirling clouds that are otherwise white.

I call it the creme brulee model,” Baines says, “or the strawberry frosting model.”

Cassini was essential to solving the mystery because its instruments were sensitive to a broader range of light wavelengths than Galileo’s, and could thus show that the very center of the Red Spot is redder than the rest.

The center is also at the highest altitude of what’s already an unusually high-altitude feature. “It reaches something like 50,000 feet higher than the surrounding clouds,” says Baines.

That exposes the swirling clouds to more intense ultraviolet light from the sun than most of Jupiter’s clouds.

And when the JPL scientists did lab experiments to test the effects of ultraviolet rays on chemicals such as ammonia, acetylene and various hydrocarbons, which are abundant in Jupiter’s atmosphere, they got the same red colors seen on the giant planet itself.

This isn’t the only evidence that the Spot’s red is created from above rather than coming from reddish gases upwelling from below, which is the leading alternate theory: There actually are some other tiny spots of red dotted around Jupiter, and they also coincide with clouds of unusually high altitude.

The Red Spot, in short, as a JPL press release cutely puts it, represents “a sunburn, not a blush,” on the face of the Solar System’s largest planet.

Please like, share and tweet this article.

Pass it on: New Scientist

First Earth-Size Planet That Could Support Life Found

For the first time, scientists have discovered an Earth-size alien planet in the habitable zone of its host star, an “Earth cousin” that just might have liquid water and the right conditions for life.

The newfound planet, called Kepler-186f, was first spotted by NASA’s Kepler space telescope and circles a dim red dwarf star about 490 light-years from Earth.

While the host star is dimmer than Earth’s sun and the planet is slightly bigger than Earth, the positioning of the alien world coupled with its size suggests that Kepler-186f could have water on its surface, scientists say.




One of the things we’ve been looking for is maybe an Earth twin, which is an Earth-size planet in the habitable zone of a sunlike star,” Tom Barclay, Kepler scientist and co-author of the new exoplanet research said.

This [Kepler-186f] is an Earth-size planet in the habitable zone of a cooler star. So, while it’s not an Earth twin, it is perhaps an Earth cousin. It has similar characteristics, but a different parent.

Scientists think that Kepler-186f — the outermost of five planets found to be orbiting the star Kepler-186 orbits at a distance of 32.5 million miles, theoretically within the habitable zone for a red dwarf.

Earth orbits the sun from an average distance of about 93 million miles, but the sun is larger and brighter than the Kepler-186 star, meaning that the sun’s habitable zone begins farther out from the star by comparison to Kepler-186.

Other planets of various sizes have been found in the habitable zones of their stars.

However, Kepler-186f is the first alien planet this close to Earth in size found orbiting in that potentially life-supporting area of an extrasolar system, according to exoplanet scientists.

Please like, share and tweet this article.

Pass it on: New Scientist

 

New Horizons Discovers Pluto Has Blue Skies and Frozen Water

The first crewed mission to Pluto is going to be a master class in homesickness. After traveling 4.7 billion miles to the icy rock, those future pioneers breathing bottled air, bundled in awkward space clothes, buoyant in low gravity will have little to remind them of home.

But upon landing, they might just ease their pangs of longing by gazing up into the dwarf planet’s sky—which, scientists now know, is blue just like Earth’s.

NASA broke the news today by sharing the above photo of Pluto’s cerulean halo, taken in July by the New Horizons spacecraft.

Like Earth’s heavenly hue, Pluto’s blue sky is caused by tiny, sunlight-scattering particles in the atmosphere. Those particles probably begin as molecular nitrogen and other trace gases.




The sun’s ultraviolet rays break down and ionize these molecules, which then combine into larger (though still microscopic) particles.

The particles aren’t blue themselves; they’re reddish to grey, and are heavy enough that they eventually fall back down to the dwarf planet’s surface.

But wait! There’s more! See those conveniently-colored blue blobs on the above close-up? Those are frozen water, confirmed by combining spectral infrared and visible light data taken by two of New Horizons’ imagers.

What’s compelling to scientists (besides the fact that water exists) is why it appears where it does: on rocky outcrops near craters, and between mountains.

Another mystery is the water’s hue, which appears bright red in color imagery.

The New Horizons team thinks this indicates some sort of relationship between the surface ice and those atmospheric particles responsible for Pluto’s blue sky.

Maybe I’m biased, but those pretty skies and chunks of water make Pluto seem like a pretty good setting for Hollywood’s next lost-in-space blockbuster.

Damon, you up for getting stranded on yet another world?

Please like, share and tweet this article.

Pass it on: Popular Science

Neptune’s Moon: Triton

We don’t know with what beverage William Lassell may have celebrated his discovery of Neptune’s moon, Triton, but beer made it possible.

Lassell was one of 19th century England’s grand amateur astronomers, using the fortune he made in the brewery business to finance his telescopes.

He spotted Triton on 10 October 1846 — just 17 days after a Berlin observatory discovered Neptune.

Curiously, a week before he found the satellite, Lassell thought he saw a ring around the planet. That turned out to be a distortion caused by his telescope.

But when NASA’s Voyager 2 visited Neptune in 1989, it revealed that the gas giant does have rings, though they’re far too faint for Lassell to have seen them.

Since Neptune was named for the Roman god of the sea, its moons were named for various lesser sea gods and nymphs in Greek mythology.




Triton (not to be confused with Saturn’s moon, Titan), is far and away the largest of Neptune’s satellites. Dutch-American astronomer Gerard Kuiper (for whom the Kuiper Belt was named) found Neptune’s third-largest moon, Nereid, in 1949.

He missed Proteus, the second-largest, because it’s too dark and too close to Neptune for telescopes of that era.

Proteus is a slightly non-spherical moon, and it is thought to be right at the limit of how massive an object can be before its gravity pulls it into a sphere.

Proteus and five other moons had to wait for Voyager 2 to make themselves known. All six are among the darker objects found in the solar system.

Astronomers using improved ground-based telescopes found more satellites in 2002 and 2003, bringing the known total to 13.

Voyager 2 revealed fascinating details about Triton. Part of its surface resembles the rind of a cantaloupe.

Ice volcanoes spout what is probably a mixture of liquid nitrogen, methane and dust, which instantly freezes and then snows back down to the surface.

One Voyager 2 image shows a frosty plume shooting 8 km (5 miles) into the sky and drifting 140 km (87 miles) downwind.

Triton’s icy surface reflects so much of what little sunlight reaches it that the moon is one of the coldest objects in the solar system, about -400 degrees Fahrenheit (-240 degrees Celsius).

Triton is the only large moon in the solar system that circles its planet in a direction opposite to the planet’s rotation (a retrograde orbit), which suggests that it may once have been an independent object that Neptune captured.

The disruptive effect this would have had on other satellites could help to explain why Nereid has the most eccentric orbit of any known moon it’s almost seven times as far from Neptune at one end of its orbit as at the other end.

Neptune’s gravity acts as a drag on the counter-orbiting Triton, slowing it down and making it drop closer and closer to the planet.

Millions of years from now, Triton will come close enough for gravitational forces to break it apart possibly forming a ring around Neptune bright enough for Lassell to have seen with his telescope.

Please like, share and tweet this article.

Pass it on: New Scientist