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Dawn Easing Into Its Final Science Orbit
After successfully completing nearly five months scrutinizing the giant asteroid Vesta at its lowest orbit altitude, NASA’s Dawn spacecraft will begin its final major science data-gathering phase at Vesta on June 15, at an average altitude of 680 kilometers above the surface. Over the past six weeks, Dawn has been gently spiraling up from its lowest orbit — 130 miles, or 210 kilometers, above the surface — to the final planned science orbit, known as high-altitude mapping orbit 2.
Data from NASA’s Voyager 1 Point to Interstellar Future
Data from NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft indicate that the venerable deep-space explorer has encountered a region in space where the intensity of charged particles from beyond our solar system has markedly increased. Voyager scientists looking at this rapid rise draw closer to an inevitable but historic conclusion — that humanity’s first emissary to interstellar space is on the edge of our solar system.
Alien Earths Could Form Earlier Than Expected
Building a terrestrial planet requires raw materials that weren’t available in the early history of the universe. The Big Bang filled space with hydrogen and helium. Chemical elements like silicon and oxygen — key components of rocks — had to be cooked up over time by stars. But how long did that take? How many of such heavy elements do you need to form planets? Previous studies have shown that Jupiter-sized gas giants tend to form around stars containing more heavy elements than the Sun.
Cassini Sees Tropical Lakes On Saturn’s Moon Titan
NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has spied long-standing methane lakes, or puddles, in the “tropics” of Saturn’s moon Titan. One of the tropical lakes appears to be about half the size of Utah’s Great Salt Lake, with a depth of at least 1 meter. The result, which is a new analysis of Cassini data, is unexpected because models had assumed the long-standing bodies of liquid would only exist at the poles.
No Evidence for ‘Knots’ in Space: Theories of Primordial Universe Predict Existence of Knots in Space
Theories of the primordial Universe predict the existence of knots in the fabric of space — known as cosmic textures — which could be identified by looking at light from the cosmic microwave background (CMB), the relic radiation left over from the Big Bang. Using data from NASA’s Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) satellite, researchers from UCL, Imperial College London and the Perimeter Institute have performed the first search for textures on the full sky, finding no evidence for such knots in space.
Small Planets Don’t Need ‘Heavy Metal’ Stars to Form
The formation of small worlds like Earth previously was thought to occur mostly around stars rich in heavy elements such as iron and silicon. However, new ground-based observations, combined with data collected by NASA’s Kepler space telescope, show small planets form around stars with a wide range of heavy element content and suggest they may be widespread in our galaxy.
‘Extremely Little’ Telescope Discovers Pair of Odd Planets
Even small telescopes can make big discoveries. Though the KELT North telescope in southern Arizona carries a lens no more powerful than a high-end digital camera, it’s just revealed the existence of two very unusual faraway planets. One planet is a massive, puffed-up oddity that could change ideas of how solar systems evolve. The other orbits a very bright star, and will allow astronomers to make detailed measurements of the atmospheres of these bizarre worlds.
Near-Space Tourism Balloon Runs Test Launch
A new tourist experience could be provided within five years by a huge balloon that offers stunning views of the horizon and the blackness of space. The designer tested the launch procedure last month, using a smaller version of the helium balloon and its passenger pod. The May 29 test was halted when a wind gust damaged the balloon’s envelope. The video description of the launch test said a repeat test of the balloon, designed by the Spanish company Zero 2 Infinity, is “scheduled soon.”
Europeans to Build World’s Biggest Eye On the Sky: Largest Optical/Infrared Telescope
The European Southern Observatory (ESO) is to build the largest optical/infrared telescope in the world. At its meeting in Garching June 11, the ESO Council approved the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) Programme, pending confirmation of four so-called ad referendum votes. The E-ELT will start operations early in the next decade. ESO’s governing body, the Council, met today (June 11), at the ESO Headquarters in Garching, Germany.
Neighbor Galaxies May Have Brushed Closely, Astronomers Find
Two of our Milky Way’s neighbor galaxies may have had a close encounter billions of years ago, recent studies with the National Science Foundation’s Green Bank Telescope (GBT) indicate. The new observations confirm a disputed 2004 discovery of hydrogen gas streaming between the giant Andromeda Galaxy, also known as M31, and the Triangulum Galaxy, or M33.
NASA’s Mars Odyssey Orbiter Puts Itself Into Standby Safe Mode
NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter put itself into a precautionary standby status early Friday, June 8, Universal Time (Thursday evening, Pacific Time), when the spacecraft detected unexpected characteristics in movement of one of its reaction wheels. The spacecraft uses three of these wheels as the primary method for adjusting and maintaining its orientation. It carries a spare reaction wheel.
Hubble Spots a Bright Spark in a Nearby Spiral Galaxy
A new image, taken by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, shows a detailed view of the spiral arms on one side of the galaxy Messier 99. Messier 99 is a so-called grand design spiral, with long, large and clearly defined spiral arms — giving it a structure somewhat similar to the Milky Way. Lying around 50 million light-years away, Messier 99 is one of over a thousand galaxies that make up the Virgo Cluster, the closest cluster of galaxies to us.
WISE Finds Few Brown Dwarfs Close to Home
Astronomers are getting to know the neighbors better. Our sun resides within a spiral arm of our Milky Way galaxy about two-thirds of the way out from the center. It lives in a fairly calm, suburb-like area with an average number of stellar residents. Recently, NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, has been turning up a new crowd of stars close to home: the coldest of the brown dwarf family of “failed” stars. Now, just as scientists are “meeting and greeting” the new neighbors, WISE has a surprise in store: there are far fewer brown dwarfs around us than predicted.
Rocket Sled Tests Are Technology Pathway to Safely Land Humans, Habitats and Cargo On Mars
Traveling 300 million miles through deep space to reach the planet Mars is difficult; successfully landing there is even harder. The process of entering the Red Planet’s atmosphere and slowing down to land has been described as “six minutes of terror.” During the first four minutes of entry, friction with the atmosphere slows a spacecraft considerably. But at the end of this phase, the vehicle is still traveling at over 1,000 mph with only 100 seconds left before landing.
How Black Holes Change Gear
Black holes are extremely powerful and efficient engines that not only swallow up matter, but also return a lot of energy to the Universe in exchange for the mass they eat. When black holes attract mass they also trigger the release of intense X-ray radiation and power strong jets. But not all black holes do this the same way. This has long baffled astronomers. By studying two active black holes researchers at the SRON Netherlands Institute for Space Research have now gathered evidence that suggests that each black hole can change between two different regimes, like changing the gears of an engine.
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