Written by Whitney Clavin
Pasadena, CA – The discovery of a super-Earth-sized planet orbiting a sun-like star brings us closer than ever to finding a twin of our own watery world. But NASA’s Kepler space telescope has captured evidence of other potentially habitable planets amid the sea of stars in the Milky Way galaxy.
To take a brief tour of the more prominent contenders, it helps to zero in on the “habitable zone” around their stars. This is the band of congenial temperatures for planetary orbits — not too close and not too far.
Washington, D.C. – NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has discovered a region of cold, dense ionized gas tens of thousands of miles beyond Pluto — the planet’s atmosphere being stripped away by the solar wind and lost to space.
Beginning an hour and half after closest approach, the Solar Wind Around Pluto (SWAP) instrument observed a cavity in the solar wind — the outflow of electrically charged particles from the Sun — between 48,000 miles (77,000 km) and 68,000 miles (109,000 km) downstream of Pluto.
Written by Dr. Tony Phillips
Washington, D.C. – If you love stargazing, there’s a date you need to mark on your calendar. It’s June.
That’s right, the whole month!
Throughout the month of June 2015, the two brightest planets in the night sky, Venus and Jupiter, are going to converge for a jaw-dropping close encounter. You don’t want to miss any of the action.
When the sun goes down, step outside and look west. You don’t have to wait until the sky fades to black. Venus and Jupiter are so bright, you can see then shining through the twilight.
Written by Guy Webster
Pasadena, CA – NASA’s Curiosity rover is using a new experiment to better understand the history of the Martian atmosphere by analyzing xenon.
While NASA’s Curiosity rover concluded its detailed examination of the rock layers of the “Pahrump Hills” in Gale Crater on Mars this winter, some members of the rover team were busy analyzing the Martian atmosphere for xenon, a heavy noble gas.
Curiosity’s Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) experiment analyzed xenon in the planet’s atmosphere. Since noble gases are chemically inert and do not react with other substances in the air or on the ground, they are excellent tracers of the history of the atmosphere.
Written by Guy Webster
Pasadena, CA – NASA’s next mission to Mars, scheduled to launch one year from today to examine the Red Planet’s deep interior and investigate how rocky planets like Earth evolved, now has one specific site under evaluation as the best place to land and deploy its science instruments.
The mission called InSight — an acronym for “Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport” — is scheduled to launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. The launch period runs from March 4th to March 30th, 2016, and will mark the first California launch of an interplanetary mission.
Written by Elizabeth Landau
Pasadena, CA – Valentine’s Day is special for NASA’s Voyager mission. It was on February 14th, 1990, that the Voyager 1 spacecraft looked back at our solar system and snapped the first-ever pictures of the planets from its perch at that time beyond Neptune.
This “family portrait” captures Neptune, Uranus, Saturn, Jupiter, Earth and Venus from Voyager 1’s unique vantage point. A few key members did not make it in: Mars had little sunlight, Mercury was too close to the sun, and dwarf planet Pluto turned out too dim.
NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope data helps astronomers find old Planetary System with Five Small Planets
Written by Whitney Clavin
Pasadena, CA – 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, with the smallest comparable to the size of Mercury and the largest to Venus. All five planets orbit their sun-like star in less than 10 days, which makes their orbits much closer than Mercury’s sweltering 88-day orbit around the sun.
Written by Preston Dyches
Pasadena, CA – Researchers studying data from NASA’s Cassini mission have observed that Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, behaves much like Venus, Mars or a comet when exposed to the raw power of the solar wind. The observations suggest that unmagnetized bodies like Titan might interact with the solar wind in the same basic ways, regardless of their nature or distance from the sun.
Titan is large enough that it could be considered a planet if it orbited the sun on its own, and a flyby of the giant moon in December 2013 simulated that scenario, from Cassini’s vantage point.
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Pasadena, CA – When Galileo first observed Venus displaying a crescent phase, he excitedly wrote to Kepler (in anagram) of Venus mimicking the moon-goddess. He would have been delirious with joy to see Saturn and Titan, seen in this image, doing the same thing.
More than just pretty pictures, high-phase observations — taken looking generally toward the Sun, as in this image — are very powerful scientifically since the way atmospheres and rings transmit sunlight is often diagnostic of compositions and physical states.
Written by Tony Phillips
Washington, D.C. – Generally speaking, space missions fall into one of three categories: difficult, more difficult, and ridiculously difficult.
Flybys are difficult. A spaceship travels hundreds of millions of miles through the dark void of space, pinpoints a distant planet or moon, and flies past it at 20 to 30 thousand mph, snapping pictures furiously during an achingly brief encounter.
Going into orbit is more difficult. Instead of flying past its target, the approaching spaceship brakes, changing its velocity by just the right amount to circle the planet. One wrong move and the spacecraft bounces off the atmosphere, becoming an unintended meteor.
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