Showing posts from July, 2016

Miniature Space Telescope Could Boost the Hunt for "Earth Proxima"

A new film presents an innovative plan to image potentially habitable planets around our sun's closest stellar neighbor—Alpha Centauri The search for exoplanets—planets orbiting stars other than our sun—has been a booming subfield of astronomy for more than 20 years. Astronomers have used ground-based observatories as well as space telescopes like NASA’s planet-hunting Kepler mission to discover thousands of worlds in a broad range of sizes and orbits around a wide variety of stars, and are poised to find tens to hundreds of thousands more in years to come. Yet one key question remains unanswered: Of the billions of potentially habitable, potentially Earth-like planets that statistics tell us should exist in the Milky Way, how far off is “Earth Proxima”—the very closest one? Ruslan Belikov and Eduardo Bendek, two scientists at NASA Ames Research Center, believe we may need to look no farther than the twin sunlike stars Alpha Centauri A and B some 4.4 light-years away. Extrapo

2 'Nearby' Exoplanets Confirmed to Be Rocky — and May Be Habitable

Two Earth-size planets orbiting a nearby star are now confirmed to be rocky, strengthening the case that they might be habitable, a new study finds. The atmospheres of these worlds may range from vanishingly thin, like that of Mars, to hellishly dense, like Venus' air — and, possibly, comfortably in between, like Earth's, the researchers said. In May, astronomers reported the discovery of three Earth-size planets orbiting a dim, cold, red star named TRAPPIST-1. This "ultracool dwarf" is located in the constellation Aquarius, about 39 light-years from Earth. (For comparison, Alpha Centauri, the nearest star system to our own, is about 4.3 light-years from Earth.) Previous research found that TRAPPIST-1 is 2,000 times dimmer than the sun, a bit less than half as warm as the sun, about one-twelfth the sun's mass, and less than one-eighth the sun's width, making it only barely larger in diameter than Jupiter. Ultracool dwarfs such as TRAPPIST-1 are very

2 Newfound Alien Planets May Be Capable of Supporting Life

NASA's Kepler space telescope has spotted four possibly rocky alien planets orbiting the same star, and two of these newfound worlds might be capable of supporting life. The four exoplanets circle a red dwarf — a star smaller and dimmer than the sun — called K2-72, which lies 181 light-years from Earth in the Aquarius constellation. All four worlds are between 20 percent and 50 percent wider than Earth, making them good candidates to be rocky, discovery team members said. Two of the four planets, known as K2-72c and K2-72e, appear to be in the star's "habitable zone" — that just-right range of distances at which liquid water can exist on a world's surface, the scientists added. Because K2-72 is a red dwarf, its habitable zone is much closer in than that of the sun. For example, K2-72c completes one orbit every 15 Earth days, yet it is likely just 10 percent warmer than our planet. K2-72e has a 24-Earth-day year, and it's about 6 percent colder than Ear

No. 5! SpaceX Lands Another Rocket During Space Station Cargo Launch

SpaceX pulled off its fifth rocket landing in the last seven months early Monday morning (July 18), this time bringing a booster back during a successful cargo launch toward the International Space Station (ISS). SpaceX's two-stage Falcon 9 rocket blasted off at 12:45 a.m. EDT (0445 GMT) Monday from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, sending the company's robotic Dragon spacecraft speeding toward the ISS on a resupply mission for NASA About 2.5 minutes after liftoff, the Falcon 9's first stage separated and performed a series of engine burns to head back to Cape Canaveral. At 12:53 a.m. EDT (0453 GMT), the booster touched down softly a few miles south of its launch pad, eliciting a huge round of cheers from the SpaceX personnel gathered at the company's headquarters in Hawthorne, California. [Photos: SpaceX Launches Cargo Mission, Lands Rocket Again] "It's a great day for SpaceX, a great day for NASA," Joel Montalbano, NASA’s deputy manager

Kepler has not slowed down in K2 mission: 104 new confirmed alien planets

Confirmed exoplanets are still pouring in from Kepler data, even after the 2013 malfunction that led to the rebooted mission, K2. The spacecraft has now added over a hundred more confirmed exoplanets to its impressive exoplanet hunting resume. When it comes to spotting alien worlds, NASA's Kepler spacecraft takes the proverbial cake. Data from the craft is responsible for the discovery of more than 2,000 confirmed exoplanets. And it doesn't seem to be slowing down in its second mission, dubbed K2. The K2 research team has just validated 104 more exoplanets, some of which show tantalizing signs of habitability. This continued success suggests the 2013 malfunction that temporarily took Kepler out of commission was just a hiccup. Now scientists predict that 500 to 1,000 new exoplanets will be discovered over the course of K2's planned four-year mission, according to a paper published Monday in the Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series announcing the newly conf

New Orion image hints at a wealth of Earth-sized planets awaiting discovery

A stunning new image of a nearby star-forming region reveals a wealth of unexpected planets and spurs hope for finding Earth-like worlds Stars and planets form in clouds of dust and gas called nebulae. One of the nearest is the Orion Nebula. This new image has been taken at infrared wavelengths and sees more deeply into the nebula than ever before. Peering through the veils of dust and gas, it reveals not just stars but many more planetary mass objects than expected. Lead scientist Holger Drass, Astronomisches Institut, Ruhr-Universität Bochum, Germany, says, “Our result feels to me like a glimpse into a new era of planet and star formation science.” There are so many planet-sized objects revealed in the details of this image that he goes on to say that it gives him hope that the next generation of ground-based telescopes “will discover a wealth of smaller Earth-sized planets”. The search for planets like the Earth is a current focus for astronomers. Although m

Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin venture gets set to pick up the pace for spaceship test flights

Blue Origin, the space venture founded by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos, plans to accelerate its current once-every-eight-weeks schedule for flight tests of its New Shepard suborbital spaceship, leading up to the first crewed flights next year, one of the company’s executives said today. The variety of scientific experiments being flown on the flights will also widen, according to Erika Wagner, Blue Origin’s business development manager. Wagner provided a glimpse of the road ahead for the New Shepard program at the International Space Station Research and Development Conference, which is under way this week in San Diego. The New Shepard spacecraft was built at Blue Origin’s headquarters in Kent, Wash., but it’s undergoing testing at the company’s West Texas launch site. The reusable, hydrogen-fueled craft already has made four successful uncrewed flights to the edge of outer space and back, including two missions that carried research payloads. Wagner told the San Diego audienc

Five new planets orbiting a distant bright star discovered by NASA’s Kepler spacecraft

A team of astronomers, led by Andrew Vanderburg of the Harvard–Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), has recently detected five new exoplanets circling a bright star designated HIP 41378, which lies some 380 light-years away. The newly found alien worlds are larger than our planet, with sizes ranging from about 2.5 times the size of Earth to the size of Jupiter. The findings were presented in a paper published June 27 on the arXiv pre-print server. The planetary system was spotted by NASA’s prolonged Kepler mission, known as K2. HIP 41378 was observed by K2 for a period of about 75 days between April 27, 2015, and July 10, 2015. This new data, complemented by follow-up spectroscopic observations, allowed the scientists to detect transiting events and distinguish five planetary candidates. However, the team admits that it wasn’t an easy task to unveil the new exoplanets. “Finding these planets was challenging in several ways. One challenge is in processing K2 data so t

Looking to space as an asteroid miner

When the pioneers of yore set out to explore North America, they didn’t load up their horses and covered wagons with wood, bricks, and endless food or water. Rather, they brought with them saws, arrows, and pickaxes to chop down trees for shelter, hunt for food, and mine the land for other life-saving resources. In a similar vein, Chris Lewicki is leading his own team of covered wagons—across space, to mine for resources left over from the solar system’s birth. As the CEO and chief asteroid miner of Planetary Resources, Inc. in Redmond, Washington, the 42-year-old aerospace engineer is looking to identify how the materials in near-Earth asteroids—namely metals and water—can be used to one day facilitate long-haul space missions and travel, and even save the Earth’s resources from being overused. Lewicki and his team operate within an emerging movement called NewSpace, whereby aerospace companies work to develop space tourism services or underlying technologies at low cost. Asteroid

Triple Sunrises, Sunsets at This Strange New World

Imagine a planet with triple sunrises and sunsets every day for part of the year, and nonstop daylight at other times. Astronomers revealed such a place Thursday: a strange new world in the Constellation Centaurus that has not one, not two, but three suns. What's more, a year there lasts half a millennium from Earth's perspective. Discoverer and lead author Kevin Wagner said he's thrilled "to have seen such a beautiful part of nature that nobody else has seen." As amazing as three sunsets and sunrises are, "I think nature will have some other surprises in store for us as we continue exploring," Wagner, a doctoral student at the University of Arizona at Tucson, said via email. Triple-star systems with detected planets are rare enough; this is believed to be just the fifth such discovery. But the giant gassy world in this one — formally known as Planet HD 131399Ab — has the biggest known orbit in a multi-star system. Its orbit is double Pluto'