Evidence for Complex Molecules on Pluto's surface

New data from the Hubble Space Telescope indicates that complex hydrocarbon and/or nitrile molecules may be present on the surface of Pluto.

The Cosmic Origins Spectrograph aboard NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope recently discovered a strong ultraviolet-wavelength absorber on Pluto’s surface. Image Credit: NASA/ES

The new and highly sensitive Cosmic Origins Spectrograph aboard the Hubble Space Telescope has discovered a strong ultraviolet-wavelength absorber on Pluto's surface, providing new evidence that points to the possibility of complex hydrocarbon and/or nitrile molecules lying on the surface, according to a paper recently published in the Astronomical Journal by researchers from Southwest Research Institute and Nebraska Wesleyan University.


Lovejoy from Space

International Space Station Commander Dan Burbank captured spectacular imagery of Comet Lovejoy as seen from about 240 miles above the Earth’s horizon on Wednesday, Dec. 21. Burbank described seeing the comet as “the most amazing thing I have ever seen in space,” in an interview with WDIV-TV in Detroit.


NASA Telescopes Help Find Rare Galaxy at Dawn of Time

This image shows one of the most distant galaxies known, called GN-108036, dating back to 750 million years after the Big Bang that created our universe. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/STScI/University of Tokyo. Click to enlarge.

Astronomers using NASA's Spitzer and Hubble space telescopes have discovered that one of the most distant galaxies known is churning out stars at a shockingly high rate. The blob-shaped galaxy, called GN-108036, is the brightest galaxy found to date at such great distances.

Dawn Obtains First Low Altitude Images of Vesta

NASA's Dawn spacecraft has sent back the first images of the giant asteroid Vesta from its low-altitude mapping orbit. The images, obtained by the framing camera, show the stippled and lumpy surface in detail never seen before, piquing the curiosity of scientists who are studying Vesta for clues about the solar system's early history.

NASA's Dawn spacecraft has spiraled closer and closer to the surface of the giant asteroid Vesta. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

At this detailed resolution, the surface shows abundant small craters, and textures such as small grooves and lineaments that are reminiscent of the structures seen in low-resolution data from the higher-altitude orbits. Also, this fine scale highlights small outcrops of bright and dark material.


Discovered First Earth-Size Planets Beyond Our Solar System!

This chart compares the first Earth-size planets found around a sun-like star to planets in our own solar system, Earth and Venus. Image credit: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech

NASA's Kepler mission has discovered the first Earth-size planets orbiting a sun-like star outside our solar system. The planets, called Kepler-20e and Kepler-20f, are too close to their star to be in the so-called habitable zone where liquid water could exist on a planet's surface, but they are the smallest exoplanets ever confirmed around a star like our sun.

Comet Lovejoy , the survivor!

Comet Lovejoy. A surprise in  Tasmanian summer early morning twilight with the waning Moon. The comet's tail was just naked eye and perhaps a degree long.

Tasmania, amateur astronomer Peter Sayers did see the tail with his unaided eyes--"but just barely," he says. Credit: Peter Sayers

The visibility of the tail could improve in the days ahead as the comet moves away from the sun and the background sky darkens accordingly. Early-rising sky watchers should be alert for this rare apparition.

Phobos-Grunt will reenter on January

Hayabusa spacecraft disintegrates upon re-entry (NASA)

On Dec. 16, 2011, Roskosmos reported parameters of Phobos-Grunt's orbit as 275.7 by 201.3-kilometers and predicted its reentry between the 6th and 19th of January 2012. According to the agency, more accurate prediction of the reentry time and its location could be made no earlier than few days in advance. Around 20-30 fragments with a total mass of no more than 200 kilograms were to reach the Earth surface, the agency said.

Roskosmos confirmed that 10 micrograms of the radioactive Cobalt-57 isotope were a part of one of the scientific instruments onboard the spacecraft, however a tiny amount of material and its slow decay rate would render it harmless to the environment. All propellant onboard the spacecraft would burn up at an altitude of around 100 kilometers, Roskosmos said.

The Russian Federal Space Agency proposed sending a new mission to Phobos in 1999. Called Phobos-Grunt (“grunt” being the Russian word for “soil”), this mission aimed to gather a sample of soil from the moon’s surface and send it back to Earth for analysis. Although an unmanned sample return mission sounds complicated, the Russian space program has succeeded many times in conducting similar missions closer to home. Unfortunately Mars seems too far away again for Russia.

Above: The final architecture of the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft. Credit: NPO Lavochkin


Fear No Supernova nor Gamma-Ray Burst for 2012

Given the incredible amounts of energy in a supernova explosion – as much as the sun creates during its entire lifetime – another erroneous doomsday theory is that such an explosion could happen in 2012 and harm life on Earth. However, given the vastness of space and the long times between supernovae, astronomers can say with certainty that there is no threatening star close enough to hurt Earth.
Supernova 1987A was the closest exploding star seen in modern times. It occurred in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a small galaxy that orbits our own Milky Way. Images taken by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope were combined to make this composite of the blast's expanding debris. Credit: NASA / ESA / P. Challis and R. Kirshner (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics)

Astronomers estimate that, on average, about one or two supernovae explode each century in our galaxy. But for Earth's ozone layer to experience damage from a supernova, the blast must occur less than 50 light-years away. All of the nearby stars capable of going supernova are much farther than this.

NASA Concludes 2011 Testing of J-2X Engine

NASA conducted its final J-2X rocket engine test of the year Dec. 14, the 10th firing in a series of tests on the new upper-stage engine that will carry humans farther into space than ever before.

The J-2X engine was test fired on the A-2 Test Stand at NASA's Stennis Space Center, in south Mississippi. The test was performed at the 100 percent power level. The main focus of this test was to characterize engine performance calibration and the effects of fuel inlet pressure variations. The results of this test are being analyzed.


Life Possible on Extensive Parts of Mars

A new study indicates that extensive regions of the sub-surface of Mars could contain water and be at comfortable temperatures for terrestrial - and potentially martian - microbes. 

The Curiosity rover touches down on the Martian surface in this artist rendition. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Scientists from The Australian National University have found that extensive regions of the sub-surface of Mars could contain water and be at comfortable temperatures for terrestrial – and potentially martian – microbes.


NASA's Dawn Spirals Down to Lowest Orbit

This artist's concept shows NASA's Dawn spacecraft orbiting the giant asteroid Vesta. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA's Dawn spacecraft successfully maneuvered into its closest orbit around the giant asteroid Vesta today, beginning a new phase of science observations. The spacecraft is now circling Vesta at an altitude averaging about 130 miles (210 kilometers) in the phase of the mission known as low altitude mapping orbit.


Is this NASA secret Mission?

NASA has been given a presidential directive to land astronauts on an asteroid by 2025. Is a human mission to an asteroid possible in this time-frame, and what benefits will such a mission provide for the future of space exploration?

This artist's concept shows NASA's giant rocket, the Space Launch System, soaring off a launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The rocket is NASA's new booster for deep space missions to an asteroid and ultimately Mars.

Why is so urgent  that endeavor that the development and training attaining that goal is as hard as the apollo programme on the 60s?

More Training to work on an Asteroid

NASA’s Research and Technology Studies (RATS) team will conduct its 2012 events in two phases. The first phase is further separated into two, three-day parts, conducted at Johnson Space Center’s (JSC) Building 9.

A mock Multi-Mission Space Exploration Vehicle (MMSEV) is show in the "flying" configuration, mounted on an air sled, moving across the air-bearing floor.

Phase 1 will take place Dec. 13-15, 2011, and Jan. 18-20, 2012. This phase will focus on determining functionality and habitability of the Multi-Mission Space Exploration Vehicle (MMSEV). The MMSEV has a flexible architecture, allowing it to rove on a planetary surface atop a wheeled chassis, or fly in space using advanced in-space propulsion systems.

Earth Flips Magnetic Poles All the Time

Scientists understand that Earth's magnetic field has flipped its polarity many times over the millennia. In other words, if you were alive about 800,000 years ago, and facing what we call north with a magnetic compass in your hand, the needle would point to 'south.' This is because a magnetic compass is calibrated based on Earth's poles.

Schematic illustration of Earth's magnetic field. Credit/Copyright: Peter Reid

The N-S markings of a compass would be 180 degrees wrong if the polarity of today's magnetic field were reversed. Many doomsday theorists have tried to take this natural geological occurrence and suggest it could lead to Earth's destruction. But would there be any dramatic effects? The answer, from the geologic and fossil records we have from hundreds of past magnetic polarity reversals, seems to be 'no.'


SETI Targets Kepler Planets

The Allen Telescope Array (ATA) is once again searching for signals of extraterrestrial intelligence. New targets for ATA will include exoplanet candidates discovered by NASA's Kepler space telescope.

The Allen Telescope Array (ATA) is a "Large Number of Small Dishes" (LNSD) array designed to be highly effective for “commensal” (simultaneous) surveys of conventional radio astronomy projects and SETI (search for extraterrestrial intelligence) observations at centimeter wavelengths. Credit: SETI

The Allen Telescope Array (ATA) is once again searching planetary systems for signals that would be evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence. Among its first targets are some of the exoplanet candidates recently discovered by NASA's Kepler space telescope.


Asteroid 2003 XV

The 12 - 28 metre wide asteroid 2003 XV will make a close pass (1.1 lunar distances, 0.0027 AU), travelling at 11.93 km/second, to the Earth-Moon system on the 7th December, 2011  06:41 UTC.

NASA's Kepler Confirms Its First Planet In Habitable Zone

NASA's Kepler mission has confirmed its first planet in the "habitable
zone," the region around a star where liquid water could exist on a planet’s surface. Kepler also has discovered more than 1,000 new planet candidates, nearly doubling its previously known count. Ten of these candidates are near-Earth-size and orbit in the habitable zone of their host star. Candidates require follow-up observations to verify they are actual planets.

This artist's conception illustrates Kepler-22b, a planet known to comfortably circle in the habitable zone of a sun-like star. Image credit: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech


Phobos-Grunt falling apart?

On December 3rd, according to US radar data, two objects apparently separated from Phobos-Grunt on November 29 (around mid-day) and on November 30. Both objects apparently slowly drifted away from the main spacecraft, then quickly lost the altitude and at least one of them reentered the Earth atmosphere on December 1. Available radar data enabled to conclude about relatively high density of one piece and estimate its size at 0.1 meters and mass at around 0.5 kilograms.

Probably this is the end for Phobus-Grunt, the spacecraft was slowly losing its altitude: the apogee (the highest point of the orbit) descended from 345 kilometers following the launch on November 9 to around 308 kilometers; while the perigee following a slight boost from original 204 kilometers to around 206 kilometers between November 18 and November 21, then decayed to 203 kilometers.



New Horizons Becomes Closest Spacecraft to Approach Pluto

NASA’s New Horizons mission reached a special milestone yesterday, Dec. 2, 2011, on its way to reconnoiter the Pluto system, coming closer to Pluto than any other spacecraft.

It’s taken New Horizons 2,143 days of high-speed flight – covering more than a million kilometers per day for nearly six years—to break the closest-approach mark of 1.58 billion kilometers set by NASA’s Voyager 1 in January 1986.

Click on the image to view the current position of New Horizons as it races toward Pluto.
“What a cool milestone!” says New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute. “Although we’re still a long way — 1.5 billion kilometers from Pluto — we’re now in new territory as the closest any spacecraft has ever gotten to Pluto, and getting closer every day by over a million kilometers.


Photos show Phobos Grunt - update 02 December

The European ground station in Maspalomas joined the effort to contact Phobos-Grunt on December 1 with two attempts, however still nothing was heard from the spacecraft. A station in Perth planned to send commands too, but ESA reported less than favorable conditions: during one pass, the spacecraft would be totally in darkness (and therefore likely without power), during another - only with limited sunlight, while two passes in the daylight would not be optimal for pointing the antenna.

To photos taken by Ralf Vandebergh seem to show that the probe's solar panels were deployed (center).
Copyright © Ralf Vandenbergh. Published here with permission.