Astronomers Discover Ancient System with Five Small Planets

Astronomers using data from NASA’s Kepler mission have discovered a planetary system of five small planets dating back to when the Milky Way galaxy was a youthful two billion years old. The tightly packed system, named Kepler-444, is home to five planets that range in size, the smallest comparable to the size of Mercury and the largest to Venus. All five planets orbit their sun-like star in less than ten days, which makes their orbits much closer than Mercury’s sweltering 88-day orbit around the sun. “While this star formed a long time ago, in fact before most of the stars in the Milky Way, we have no indication that any of these planets have now or ever had life on them,” said Steve Howell, Kepler/K2 project scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California. “At their current orbital distances, life as we know it could not exist on these … Continue exploring

Radar Image of Asteroid 2004 BL86 Released

Scientists working with NASA’s 230-foot-wide (70-meter) Deep Space Network antenna at Goldstone, California, have released the first radar images of asteroid 2004 BL86. The images show the asteroid, which made its closest approach today (Jan. 26, 2015) at 8:19 a.m. PST (11:19 a.m. EST) at a distance of about 745,000 miles (1.2 million kilometers, or 3.1 times the distance from Earth to the moon), has its own small moon. The 20 individual images used in the movie were generated from data collected at Goldstone on Jan. 26, 2015. They show the primary body is approximately 1,100 feet (325 meters) across and has a small moon approximately 230 feet (70 meters) across. In the near-Earth population, about 16 percent of asteroids that are about 655 feet (200 meters) or larger are a binary (the primary asteroid with a smaller asteroid moon orbiting it) or even triple systems (two moons). The resolution … Continue exploring

Asteroid to Fly By Earth Safely on January 26

An asteroid, designated 2004 BL86, will safely pass about three times the distance of Earth to the moon on January 26. From its reflected brightness, astronomers estimate that the asteroid is about a third of a mile (0.5 kilometers) in size. The flyby of 2004 BL86 will be the closest by any known space rock this large until asteroid 1999 AN10 flies past Earth in 2027. At the time of its closest approach on January 26, the asteroid will be approximately 745,000 miles (1.2 million kilometers) from Earth. “Monday, January 26 will be the closest asteroid 2004 BL86 will get to Earth for at least the next 200 years,” said Don Yeomans, who is retiring as manager of NASA’s Near Earth Object Program Office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, after 16 years in the position. “And while it poses no threat to Earth for the foreseeable future, … Continue exploring

Asteroid to Fly By Earth Safely on January 26

An asteroid, designated 2004 BL86, will safely pass about three times the distance of Earth to the moon on January 26. From its reflected brightness, astronomers estimate that the asteroid is about a third of a mile (0.5 kilometers) in size. The flyby of 2004 BL86 will be the closest by any known space rock this large until asteroid 1999 AN10 flies past Earth in 2027. At the time of its closest approach on January 26, the asteroid will be approximately 745,000 miles (1.2 million kilometers) from Earth. “Monday, January 26 will be the closest asteroid 2004 BL86 will get to Earth for at least the next 200 years,” said Don Yeomans, who is retiring as manager of NASA’s Near Earth Object Program Office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, after 16 years in the position. “And while it poses no threat to Earth for the foreseeable future, … Continue exploring

Rosetta Comet ‘Pouring’ More Water Into Space

There has been a significant increase in the amount of water “pouring” out of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, the comet on which the Rosetta mission’s Philae lander touched down in November 2014. The 2.5-mile-wide (4-kilometer) comet was releasing the earthly equivalent of 40 ounces (1.2 liters) of water into space every second at the end of August 2014. The observations were made by NASA’s Microwave Instrument for Rosetta Orbiter (MIRO), aboard the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft.  Science results from the MIRO team were released today as part of a special Rosetta-related issue of the journal Science. “In observations over a period of three months [June through August, 2014], the amount of water in vapor form that the comet was dumping into space grew about tenfold,” said Sam Gulkis, principal investigator of the MIRO instrument at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and lead author of a paper appearing in the … Continue exploring

Gullies on Vesta Suggest Past Water-Mobilized Flows

Protoplanet Vesta, visited by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft from 2011 to 2013, was once thought to be completely dry, incapable of retaining water because of the low temperatures and pressures at its surface. However, a new study shows evidence that Vesta may have had short-lived flows of water-mobilized material on its surface, based on data from Dawn. “Nobody expected to find evidence of water on Vesta. The surface is very cold and there is no atmosphere, so any water on the surface evaporates,” said Jennifer Scully, postgraduate researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles. “However, Vesta is proving to be a very interesting and complex planetary body.” The study has broad implications for planetary science. “These results, and many others from the Dawn mission, show that Vesta is home to many processes that were previously thought to be exclusive to planets,” said UCLA’s Christopher Russell, principal investigator for the Dawn … Continue exploring

Dawn Delivers New Image of Ceres

As NASA’s Dawn spacecraft closes in on Ceres, new images show the dwarf planet at 27 pixels across, about three times better than the calibration images taken in early December. These are the first in a series of images that will be taken for navigation purposes during the approach to Ceres. Over the next several weeks, Dawn will deliver increasingly better and better images of the dwarf planet, leading up to the spacecraft’s capture into orbit around Ceres on March 6. The images will continue to improve as the spacecraft spirals closer to the surface during its 16-month study of the dwarf planet. “We know so much about the solar system and yet so little about dwarf planet Ceres. Now, Dawn is ready to change that,” said Marc Rayman, Dawn’s chief engineer and mission director, based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. The best images of Ceres so … Continue exploring

Black Hole Candidate Discovered

Searching for Black Holes: Black Holes emit jets of radio emissions detectible through radio telescopes. Below are two images. The first is an artist impression of what a black hole would look like. The second set of images were collected by the WISE Infrared Telescope and radio data from the Very Large Array in New Mexico. By combining the data from both image sets, a black hole candidate has been identified for galaxy J134831.4+094528. The candidate black hole was discovered  by Prof. Antonio Paris, Chief Scientist at the Center for Planetary Science.        

How Astronomers Search for Black Holes

Black holes are found at the center of most, if not all, galaxies. The bigger the galaxy, the bigger the black hole and the more sensational the effect it can have on the host galaxy. These supermassive black holes drag in nearby material, growing to billions of times the mass of our sun and occasionally producing spectacular jets of material traveling nearly as fast as the speed of light. These jets often can’t be detected in visible light, but are seen using radio telescopes.

Space Station Worms Help Battle Muscle and Bone Loss

Two Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) investigations on the International Space Station help researchers seek clues to physiological problems found in astronauts by studying Caenorhabditis elegans — a millimeter-long roundworm that, like the fruit fly, is widely used as a model for larger organisms. The results of the investigation could lead to new treatments for bone and muscle loss in humans living in space. Findings may also be beneficial to people on Earth suffering from muscle and bone diseases. “Spaceflight-induced health changes, such as decreases in muscle and bone mass, are a major challenge facing our astronauts,” said Julie Robinson, NASA’s Chief Scientist for the International Space Station Program Office at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. “We investigate solutions on the station not only to keep astronauts healthy as the agency considers longer space exploration missions, but also to help those on Earth who have limited activity as a result … Continue exploring

Scientists Pinpoint Saturn With Exquisite Accuracy

Scientists have paired NASA’s Cassini spacecraft with the National Science Foundation’s Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA) radio-telescope system to pinpoint the position of Saturn and its family of moons to within about 2 miles (4 kilometers). The measurement is some 50 times more precise than those provided by ground-based optical telescopes. The feat improves astronomers’ knowledge of Saturn’s orbit and benefits spacecraft navigation and basic physics research. The team of researchers used the VLBA — a giant array of radio-telescope antennas spread from Hawaii to the Virgin Islands — to pinpoint the position of Cassini as it orbited Saturn over the past decade by receiving the signal from the spacecraft’s radio transmitter. They combined this data with information about Cassini’s orbit from NASA’s Deep Space Network. The combined observations allowed the scientists to make the most accurate determinations yet of the position of the center of mass, or barycenter, of … Continue exploring

Monster black hole is revealed

A new high-energy X-ray image from NASA’s Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array, or NuSTAR, has pinpointed the true monster of a galactic mashup. The image shows two colliding galaxies, collectively called Arp 299, located 134 million light-years away. Each of the galaxies has a supermassive black hole at its heart. NuSTAR has revealed that the black hole located at the right of the pair is actively gorging on gas, while its partner is either dormant or hidden under gas and dust. The findings are helping researchers understand how the merging of galaxies can trigger black holes to start feeding, an important step in the evolution of galaxies. “When galaxies collide, gas is sloshed around and driven into their respective nuclei, fueling the growth of black holes and the formation of stars,” said Andrew Ptak of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, lead author of a new study accepted for … Continue exploring

Hubble Discovers That Milky Way Core Drives Wind at 2 Million Miles Per Hour

At a time when our earliest human ancestors mastered walking upright the heart of our Milky Way galaxy underwent a titanic eruption, driving gases and other material outward at 2 million miles per hour. Now, at least 2 million years later, astronomers are witnessing the aftermath of the explosion: billowing clouds of gas towering about 30,000 light-years above and below the plane of our galaxy. The enormous structure was discovered five years ago as a gamma-ray glow on the sky in the direction of the galactic center. Astronomers have since observed the balloon-like features in X-rays and radio waves, but needed NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope to measure for the first time the velocity and composition of the mystery lobes. They now seek to calculate the mass of the material being blown out of our galaxy, which could help determine the cause of the outburst. Although astronomers have seen gaseous streams … Continue exploring

NASA Satellites Measure Increase of Sun’s Energy Absorbed in the Arctic

NASA satellite instruments have observed a marked increase in solar radiation absorbed in the Arctic since the year 2000 – a trend that aligns with the steady decrease in Arctic sea ice during the same period. While sea ice is mostly white and reflects the sun’s rays, ocean water is dark and absorbs the sun’s energy at a higher rate. A decline in the region’s albedo – its reflectivity, in effect – has been a key concern among scientists since the summer Arctic sea ice cover began shrinking in recent decades. As more of the sun’s energy is absorbed by the climate system, it enhances ongoing warming in the region, which is more pronounced than anywhere else on the planet. Since the year 2000, the rate of absorbed solar radiation in the Arctic in June, July and August has increased by five percent, said Norman Loeb, of NASA’s Langley Research … Continue exploring

Saturn’s Moons: What a Difference a Decade Makes

Almost immediately after NASA’s twin Voyager spacecraft made their brief visits to Saturn in the early 1980s, scientists were hungry for more. The Voyagers had offered them only a brief glimpse of a family of new worlds — Saturn’s icy moons — and the researchers were eager to spend more time among those bodies. The successor to the Voyagers at Saturn, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, has spent the past 10 years collecting images and other data as it has toured the Ringed Planet and its family of satellites. New color maps, produced from this trove of data, show that Cassini has essentially fulfilled one of its many mission objectives: producing global maps of Saturn’s six major icy moons. These are the large Saturnian moons, excluding haze-covered Titan, known before the start of the Space Age: Mimas, Enceladus, Tethys, Dione, Rhea and Iapetus. Aside from a gap in the north polar region … Continue exploring