NASA’s Spitzer Confirms Closest Rocky Exoplanet

Using NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, astronomers have confirmed the discovery of the nearest rocky planet outside our solar system, larger than Earth and a potential gold mine of science data. Dubbed HD 219134b, this exoplanet, which orbits too close to its star to sustain life, is a mere 21 light-years away. While the planet itself can’t be seen directly, even by telescopes, the star it orbits is visible to the naked eye in dark skies in the Cassiopeia constellation, near the North Star. HD 219134b is also the closest exoplanet to Earth to be detected transiting, or crossing in front … Continue exploring

NASA’s Curiosity Rover Inspects Unusual Bedrock

Approaching the third anniversary of its landing on Mars, NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover has found a target unlike anything it has studied before — bedrock with surprisingly high levels of silica. Silica is a rock-forming compound containing silicon and oxygen, commonly found on Earth as quartz. This area lies just downhill from a geological contact zone the rover has been studying near “Marias Pass” on lower Mount Sharp. In fact, the Curiosity team decided to back up the rover 46 meters (151 feet) from the geological contact zone to investigate the high-silica target dubbed “Elk.” The decision was made after … Continue exploring

NASA’s Kepler Mission Discovers Bigger, Older Cousin to Earth

NASA’s Kepler mission has confirmed the first near-Earth-size planet in the “habitable zone” around a sun-like star. This discovery and the introduction of 11 other new small habitable zone candidate planets mark another milestone in the journey to finding another “Earth.” The newly discovered Kepler-452b is the smallest planet to date discovered orbiting in the habitable zone — the area around a star where liquid water could pool on the surface of an orbiting planet — of a G2-type star, like our sun. The confirmation of Kepler-452b brings the total number of confirmed planets to 1,030. “On the 20th anniversary … Continue exploring

NASA’s New Horizons Discovers Frozen Plains in the Heart of Pluto’s ‘Heart’

In the latest data from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, a new close-up image of Pluto reveals a vast, craterless plain that appears to be no more than 100 million years old, and is possibly still being shaped by geologic processes. This frozen region is north of Pluto’s icy mountains, in the center-left of the heart feature, informally named “Tombaugh Regio” (Tombaugh Region) after Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered Pluto in 1930. “This terrain is not easy to explain,” said Jeff Moore, leader of the New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging Team (GGI) at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California. … Continue exploring

NASA’s New Horizons ‘Phones Home’ Safe after Pluto Flyby

The call everyone was waiting for is in. NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft phoned home just before 9 p.m. EDT Tuesday to tell the mission team and the world it had accomplished the historic first-ever flyby of Pluto. “I know today we’ve inspired a whole new generation of explorers with this great success, and we look forward to the discoveries yet to come,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said. “This is a historic win for science and for exploration. We’ve truly, once again raised the bar of human potential.” The preprogrammed “phone call” — a 15-minute series of status messages beamed back … Continue exploring

Opportunity Rover’s 7th Mars Winter to Include New Study Area

Operators of NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity plan to drive the rover into a valley this month where Opportunity will be active through the long-lived rover’s seventh Martian winter, examining outcrops that contain clay minerals. Opportunity resumed driving on June 27 after about three weeks of reduced activity around Mars solar conjuntion, when the sun’s position between Earth and Mars disrupts communication. The rover is operating in a mode that does not store any science data overnight. It transmits the data the same day they’re collected. The rover is working about half a football field’s length away from entering the … Continue exploring

Methane Detected on Pluto

Yes, there is methane on Pluto, and, no, it doesn’t come from cows. The infrared spectrometer on NASA’s Pluto-bound New Horizons spacecraft has detected frozen methane on Pluto’s surface; Earth-based astronomers first observed the chemical compound on Pluto in 1976. “We already knew there was methane on Pluto, but these are our first detections,” said Will Grundy, the New Horizons Surface Composition team leader with the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. “Soon we will know if there are differences in the presence of methane ice from one part of Pluto to another.” Methane (chemical formula CH4) is an odorless, colorless … Continue exploring

NuSTAR Stares Deep into Hidden Lairs of Black Holes

Some of the “biggest and baddest” black holes around are buried under thick blankets of gas and dust. These monsters in the middle of galaxies are actively devouring material, but their hidden nature makes observing them a challenge. NASA’s Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) recently caught a glimpse of five of these secluded beasts. While hidden from view from most other telescopes, NuSTAR can spot them by detecting the highest-energy X-rays, which can penetrate through the enshrouding gas and dust. The research, led by astronomers at Durham University, United Kingdom, supports the theory that potentially millions of supermassive black holes … Continue exploring

An Unusual Mountain on Asteroid Ceres

Explanation: What created this large mountain on asteroid Ceres? No one is yet sure. As if in anticipation of today being AsteroidDay on Earth, the robotic spacecraft Dawn in orbit around Ceres took the best yet image of an unusually tall mountain on the Asteroid Belt’s largest asteroid. Visible at the top of the featured image, the exceptional mountain rises about five kilometers up from an area that otherwise appears pretty level. The image was taken about two weeks ago from about 4,400 kilometers away. Although origin hypotheses for the mountain include volcanism, impacts, and plate tectonics, clear evidence backing … Continue exploring

NASA Announces Television Coverage, Media Activities for Pluto Flyby

NASA is inviting media to cover New Horizons’ historic Pluto flyby in mid-July, including the spacecraft’s closest approach to Pluto on July 14, from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, site of the mission operations center. Media who wish to cover the events at APL must receive accreditation from the APL Public Affairs Office by June 30. Earlier registration is strongly encouraged, as space is very limited. To apply, and for more information, visit: http://pluto.jhuapl.edu/News-Center/Media-Registration.php

Hubble View of a Nitrogen-Rich Nebula

This NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image shows a planetary nebula named NGC 6153, located about 4,000 light-years away in the southern constellation of Scorpius (The Scorpion). The faint blue haze across the frame shows what remains of a star like the sun after it has depleted most of its fuel. When this happens, the outer layers of the star are ejected, and get excited and ionized by the energetic ultraviolet light emitted by the bright hot core of the star, forming the nebula. NGC 6153 is a planetary nebula that is elliptical in shape, with an extremely rich network of … Continue exploring

New Horizons Approaches During Anniversary of Charon’s Discovery

Pluto was discovered in 1930, but the icy world’s large companion remained hidden for 48 more years due to the close proximity of the pair, which made them appear to blur together in observations. Charon and Pluto are separated by about 12,000 miles, with Charon measuring about 790 miles in diameter– slightly more than half Pluto’s size. Scientists sometimes refer to the objects as a “double planet” due to their sizes and close proximity. Christy noticed that Pluto looked elongated in images, as if a blur moved around the planet at a rate of about 6.4 days, the time it … Continue exploring

Bright Spots Shine in Newest Dawn Ceres Image

New images of dwarf planet Ceres, taken by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, show the cratered surface of this mysterious world in sharper detail than ever before. These are among the first snapshots from Dawn’s second mapping orbit, which is 2,700 miles (4,400 kilometers) above Ceres. The region with the brightest spots is in a crater about 55 miles (90 kilometers) across. The spots consist of many individual bright points of differing sizes, with a central cluster. So far, scientists have found no obvious explanation for their observed locations or brightness levels. “The bright spots in this configuration make Ceres unique from … Continue exploring

Rosetta’s Lander Philae Wakes From Comet Nap

The European Space Agency’s Rosetta’s lander (Philae) is out of hibernation. The signals were received at ESA’s European Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt, Germany at 22:28 local time (CEST) on June 13. Since then, more than 300 data packets have been analyzed by the teams at the Lander Control Center at the German Aerospace Center. “Philae is doing very well: It has an operating temperature of minus 35 degrees centigrade and has 24 watts available,” said the German Aerospace Center’s Philae Project Manager Stephan Ulamec. “The lander is ready for operations.” For 85 seconds Philae “spoke” with its team on … Continue exploring

NASA Spacecraft Detects Impact Glass on Surface of Mars

NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) has detected deposits of glass within impact craters on Mars. Though formed in the searing heat of a violent impact, such deposits might provide a delicate window into the possibility of past life on the Red Planet. During the past few years, research has shown evidence about past life has been preserved in impact glass here on Earth. A 2014 study led by scientist Peter Schultz of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, found organic molecules and plant matter entombed in glass formed by an impact that occurred millions of years ago in Argentina. Schultz … Continue exploring

Asteroid Icarus to Make Distant Pass Tuesday

Asteroid Icarus will safely pass by Earth at more than 21 times the distance of Earth to the moon on June 16. To put it another way, Icarus, one of the first near-Earth asteroids ever discovered (1949), will approach no closer than five million miles away (eight million kilometers). On June 14, 2090, the asteroid will approach marginally closer, with a close approach distance of about 17 lunar distances (four million miles, or six-and-a-half million kilometers). Discovered back in 1949 using photographic plates on the 48-inch Schmidt telescope at Mount Palomar near San Diego, Icarus was one of early near-Earth … Continue exploring

Tethys the Target

Like most moons in the solar system, Saturn’s moon Tethys is covered by impact craters. Some craters bear witness to incredibly violent events, such as the crater Odysseus (seen here at the right of the image). While Tethys is 660 miles (1,062 kilometers) across, the crater Odysseus is 280 miles (450 kilometers) across, covering about 18 percent of the moon’s surface area. A comparably sized crater on Earth would be as large as Africa! This view looks toward the anti-Saturn hemisphere of Tethys. North on Tethys is up and rotated 42 degrees to the right.  The image was taken in visible light with the Cassini spacecraft … Continue exploring

NASA’s Hubble Finds Pluto’s Moons Tumbling in Absolute Chaos

  If you lived on one of Pluto’s moons, you might have a hard time determining when, or from which direction, the sun will rise each day. Comprehensive analysis of data from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope shows that two of Pluto’s moons, Nix and Hydra, wobble unpredictably. “Hubble has provided a new view of Pluto and its moons revealing a cosmic dance with a chaotic rhythm,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “When the New Horizons spacecraft flies through the Pluto system in July we’ll get a chance to see what these moons look … Continue exploring

NASA Selects Prof. Paris for the Search for Habitable Planets Expedition 2015

The Mars Space Flight Facility, School of Earth and Space Exploration has selected Professor Antonio Paris to participate in the 2015 Search for Habitable Planets Environment Expedition. The week-long field trip, held in Arizona, will center on habitable planets beyond Earth, astrobiology, and planetary geology. The NASA team will conduct field research at the Grand Canyon, Meteor Crater, Sunset Crater, Lowell Observatory, and rover analog field sites. The expedition will be held from June 21-27, 2015. Background: Antonio Paris is a Professor of Astronomy at St. Petersburg College and the Director of Planetarium and Space Programs at the Museum of Science … Continue exploring

Cassini Prepares for Last Up-close Look at Hyperion

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft will make its final close approach to Saturn’s large, irregularly shaped moon Hyperion on Sunday, May 31. The Saturn-orbiting spacecraft will pass Hyperion at a distance of about 21,000 miles (34,000 kilometers) at approximately 6:36 a.m. PDT (9:36 a.m. EDT). Mission controllers expect images from the encounter to arrive on Earth within 24 to 48 hours. Mission scientists have hopes of seeing different terrain on Hyperion than the mission has previously explored in detail during the encounter, but this is not guaranteed. Hyperion (168 miles, 270 kilometers across) rotates chaotically, essentially tumbling unpredictably through space as it … Continue exploring

Mars Rover’s Laser-Zapping Instrument Gets Sharper Vision

  Tests on Mars have confirmed success of a repair to the autonomous focusing capability of the Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover. This instrument provides information about the chemical composition of targets by zapping them with laser pulses and taking spectrometer readings of the induced sparks. It also takes detailed images through a telescope. Work by the instrument’s team members at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and in France has yielded an alternative auto-focus method following loss of use of a small laser that served for focusing the instrument during Curiosity’s first two … Continue exploring

Hubble Observes One-of-a-Kind Star Nicknamed ‘Nasty’

First discovered several decades ago, Nasty 1 was identified as a Wolf-Rayet star, a rapidly evolving star that is much more massive than our sun. The star loses its hydrogen-filled outer layers quickly, exposing its super-hot and extremely bright helium-burning core. But Nasty 1 doesn’t look like a typical Wolf-Rayet star. The astronomers using Hubble had expected to see twin lobes of gas flowing from opposite sides of the star, perhaps similar to those emanating from the massive star Eta Carinae, which is a Wolf-Rayet candidate. Instead, Hubble revealed a pancake-shaped disk of gas encircling the star. The vast disk … Continue exploring

NASA’s New Horizons Spots Pluto’s Faintest Known Moons

It’s a complete Pluto family photo – or at least a photo of the family members we’ve already met. For the first time, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has photographed Kerberos and Styx – the smallest and faintest of Pluto’s five known moons. Following the spacecraft’s detection of Pluto’s giant moon Charon in July 2013, and Pluto’s smaller moons Hydra and Nix in July 2014 and January 2015, respectively, New Horizons is now within sight of all the known members of the Pluto system. “New Horizons is now on the threshold of discovery,” said mission science team member John Spencer, of … Continue exploring

Astronomers Set a New Galaxy Distance Record

An international team of astronomers, led by Yale University and the University of California scientists, pushed back the cosmic frontier of galaxy exploration to a time when the universe was only 5 percent of its present age of 13.8 billion years. The team discovered an exceptionally luminous galaxy more than 13 billion years in the past and determined its exact distance from Earth using the combined data from NASA’s Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes, and the Keck I 10-meter telescope at the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii. These observations confirmed it to be the most distant galaxy currently measured, … Continue exploring

Hubble Spots the Layers of NGC 3923

The glowing object in this Hubble Space Telescope image is an elliptical galaxy called NGC 3923. It is located over 90 million light-years away in the constellation of Hydra. NGC 3923 is an example of a shell galaxy where the stars in its halo are arranged in layers. Finding concentric shells of stars enclosing a galaxy is quite common and is observed in many elliptical galaxies. In fact, every tenth elliptical galaxy exhibits this onion-like structure, which has never been observed in spiral galaxies. The shell-like structures are thought to develop as a consequence of galactic cannibalism, when a larger … Continue exploring