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Tag archives: NASA

Exoplanets are everywhere

Known exoplanets

The latest haul of exoplanets is skewed towards Earth-like masses. (Courtesy: NASA)

By Hamish Johnston

Just a few years ago the idea that more than 700 exoplanets could be discovered in a single study would seem fantastical. But that’s exactly what astronomers working on NASA’s Kepler mission have just done.

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Cress on the Moon, more physics books, a radioactive ‘foot’ and more

A small green sprout of cinnamon basil, grown on board the International Space Station in 2007

A small green sprout of cinnamon basil, growing on board the International Space Station in 2007. (Courtesy: NASA)

By Tushna Commissariat

Early this week, a story in the Telegraph caught our eye – NASA is planning on sending turnip, cress and basil seeds to the Moon to germinate them! This is most definitely not the first time that plants have been grown beyond the realms of Earth. Indeed, potatoes were grown on board during a 1995 Space Shuttle mission and many experiments involving germinating seeds were done on the International Space Station. The goal of these studies was to understand the effects of microgravity on plant growth. But now, NASA plans to take this one step further in 2015 with their Moon Express mission, which will include the Lunar Plant Growth Chamber that will carry seeds and enough air and nutrients to allow the seeds to sprout and grow. Will fresh salad be on an astronaut’s menu soon?

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Project Einstein, NASA shares its wealth, how the kettle got its whistle and more

This image of the Mona Lisa has been stabilized using technology developed by NASA to study solar flares (Courtesy: Marblar)

This image of the Mona Lisa has been stabilized using technology developed by NASA to study solar flares. (Courtesy: Marblar)

By Hamish Johnston

The best thing about science fiction is that it is fiction, and nit-picking about scientific accuracy shouldn’t get in the way of telling a good story. That’s the theme of Roger Highfield’s review of the latest blockbuster Gravity. Writing in his old paper The Daily Telegraph, Highfield – who now works at London’s Science Museum – takes exception to a series of Tweets by the celebrity astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson about the film. Among other things, the Tweets complain that Sandra Bullock’s hair should be wafting around in zero gravity, not hanging down as it would on Earth. Despite these and other “scientific holes big enough to fly a Saturn V rocket through” both Highfield and Tyson agree that Gravity is a film well worth seeing. The review is called “Gravity: how real is the science?“.

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NASA badly hit by government shutdown

Photo of NASA headquarters

NASA headquaters, Washington DC. (Courtesy: NASA)

By James Dacey

US citizens woke up this morning to the unbelievable news that their federal government would be shutting down all its “non-essential” services after the two houses of Congress failed to reach an agreement on a new budget. What this means in practice is that hundreds of thousands of federal employees will now face unpaid leave – and NASA’s workforce is among the most badly affected.

A staggering 97% of NASA’s 18,134 employees have been granted leave of absence, according to the Office of Management and Budget, quoted in the New York Times. This is the highest percentage of all the federal departments and agencies to be affected by the shutdown. Other federal workers affected include 94% of the 16,205 employees of the Environmental Protection Agency, along with 69% of the 13,814 working within energy.

“Due to the gov’t shutdown, all public NASA activities/events are cancelled or postponed until further notice. Sorry for the inconvenience,” read a rather understated tweet from NASA earlier today. Within the past few hours, the NASA website has also shutdown indefinitely.

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NASA asked, so we waved at Saturn

By James Dacey

Wave at Saturn collage

Wave at Saturn collage. (Courtesy: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

On 19 July the Cassini spacecraft turned back to face Earth from its location by Saturn and captured this humbling photo of our planet as a tiny dot behind Saturn’s rings. As part of the event, NASA encouraged people to snap pictures of themselves waving at Venus and to share these via social-media sites. Now, 1400 of these images have been used to create this collage, which includes people from more than 40 countries and 30 US states.

“While Earth is too small in the images Cassini obtained to distinguish any individual human beings, the mission has put together this collage so that we can celebrate all your waving hands, uplifted paws, smiling faces and artwork,” says Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.

NASA has, however, released a larger version of the “Wave at Saturn” collage where you can zoom in to make out individual images. It is well worth doing so, as you quickly come across the whole spectrum of gestures from the gentle wave to the Vulcan salute.

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Kepler – it’s not all doom and gloom just yet

By Tushna Commissariat

Illustration of Kepler

NASA’s Kepler space telescope. (Courtesy: NASA)

To much general dismay, earlier this month NASA officials announced that their Kepler space telescope had gone into a self-imposed “safe mode”, something that the telescope is programmed to do if one of its primary systems is not fully functional. Although the telescope was then rebooted, it shut down again this week and it seems that all is definitely not well with our favourite exoplanet spotter: the mission collaboration announced that the instrument has suffered a critical failure and may never be fully operational again.

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Voyager 1, where art thou?

Voyager 1 xkcd webcomic

The “Voyager 1” xkcd.com webcomic (Credit: Randall Munroe/Creative Commons)

By Tushna Commissariat

It’s a running joke at the Physics World news desk – the exact location of the Voyager 1 probe and how often we end up writing about how it really has nearly left the solar system this time. So we decided to wait and watch when the news broke on Wednesday evening this week that the probe had left the solar system for sure (again).

Unsurprisingly, the next morning our inboxes included a slightly sheepish “status update” message from NASA. “The Voyager team is aware of reports today that NASA’s Voyager 1 has left the solar system,” says Edward Stone, Voyager project scientist based at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena. “It is the consensus of the Voyager science team that Voyager 1 has not yet left the solar system or reached interstellar space. In December 2012 the Voyager science team reported that Voyager 1 is within a new region called ‘the magnetic highway’ where energetic particles changed dramatically. A change in the direction of the magnetic field is the last critical indicator of reaching interstellar space, and that change of direction has not yet been observed.”

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Islands in a Martian stream

Image of an ancient Martian river channel that has been buried by volcanic material

Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution/NASA/JPL-Caltech/Sapienza University of Rome/MOLA Team/USGS

By Hamish Johnston

A very long time ago, a large amount of water is thought to have flowed on the surface of Mars – and the above image shows what scientists think is an ancient Martian river channel that has been buried by volcanic material.

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Curiosity on Mars

Mars

By Michael Banks in Boston

John Grotzinger, project scientist for NASA’s Curiosity mission, might be best known for whipping up a media frenzy in late November when he told NPR that data from one of the probe’s 10 instruments was “gonna be one for the history books”.

While the news that the probe had discovered evidence of organic molecules in the soil but more tests were needed was less than earth shattering, today at the 2013 AAAS meeting in Boston, Grotzinger gave an update on the mission that touched down on Mars on 6 August 2012.

If you don’t fancy reading any more, the bottom line is that everything is working as expected.

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Earth’s silent hitchhiker seen at last

Artist image of the first Earth Trojan asteroid
This artist’s concept illustrates the first known Earth Trojan asteroid (Credit: Paul Wiegert, University of Western Ontario, Canada)

By Tushna Commissarat

Looks as if the Earth has a cohort – one that has been hitching a ride with our planet’s orbit for a while now. Astronomers sifting through data from NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) mission have discovered the first known “Trojan” asteroid orbiting the Sun along with the Earth. It has been known since 1772 that stable small bodies can share the same orbit with a planet or a moon – as long as they remain at stable points in front of or behind the main body. Such Trojan asteroids have been found orbiting Jupiter, Mars, two of Saturn’s moons and Neptune, but had not been seen for the Earth until now. This is because they are difficult to detect, being relatively small and appearing near the Sun from the Earth’s point of view.

Trojans circle around “Lagrange points” – gravity wells where small objects can be relatively stable compared with two larger objects, in this case the Sun and the Earth. The points that the Earth’s Trojan – called 2010 TK7 – orbits around are known as the L4 and L5 points, and are 60° in front of and behind the Earth, respectively. As they constantly lead or follow in the same orbit as the planet, they can never collide with it; so you can breathe a sigh of relief if you were worried about a possible armageddon.

“These asteroids dwell mostly in the daylight, making them very hard to see,” says Martin Connors of Athabasca University, Canada, lead author of a paper about the discovery published in Nature. “But we finally found one, because the object has an unusual orbit that takes it farther away from the Sun than is typical for Trojans. WISE was a game-changer, giving us a point of view difficult to have at the Earth’s surface.”

The WISE telescope scanned the entire sky in the infrared from January 2010 to February this year. The researchers began looking for data for an Earth-bound Trojan using data from NEOWISE – a WISE mission that focused in part on near-Earth objects (NEOs), such as asteroids and comets. NEOs are bodies that pass within 45 million kilometres of Earth’s path around the Sun. The NEOWISE project observed more than 155,000 asteroids in the main belt between Mars and Jupiter, and more than 500 NEOs, discovering 132 that were previously unknown. The team found two Trojan candidates – of these, 2010 TK7 was confirmed as an Earth Trojan after follow-up observations were made using the Canada–France–Hawaii Telescope in Hawaii.

2010 TK7 is roughly 300 metres in diameter, at a distance of about 80 million kilometres from Earth. It has an unusual orbit that traces a complex motion near the Lagrange points in the plane of the Earth’s orbit, although it also moves above and below the plane. The asteroid’s orbit is well defined and remains stable for at least 10,000 years. For the next 100 years, it will not come closer to the Earth than 24 million kilometres (by angela). An animation, with a Star Wars worthy soundtrack, showing the orbit can be found below. (Image and video credit: Paul Wiegert, University of Western Ontario, Canada.)

A handful of other asteroids also have orbits similar to Earth. Such objects could make excellent candidates for future robotic or human exploration. Unfortunately, asteroid 2010 TK7 has not been deemed worthy of exploration because it travels too far above and below the plane of Earth’s orbit, and so would require a large amount of fuel to reach it.

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