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Author Archives: Jason Major

ESO Images NGC 1055, a Spiral Galaxy “On the Edge”

The spiral galaxy NGC 1055, imaged by ESO’s VLT (Credit: ESO)

The European Southern Observatory’s unimaginatively-named but incredibly powerful Very Large Telescope (VLT) located on a remote plateau high in the mountains of Chile’s Atacama Desert has captured a detailed view of NGC 1055, a spiral galaxy a little larger than our own located 55 million light-years away. On galactic scales this is relatively close by, and our edge-on perspective allows astronomers to determine the three-dimensional structure of this island of stars.

Spiral galaxies across the Universe can be found at all angles in relation to our viewpoint here on Earth. Some we see “face on,” which dramatically shows a spiral galaxy’s long, arcing arms and bright center but make it difficult to get a sense of true shape or variations in density. With NGC 1055 we see it “on edge,” without which it likely wouldn’t be known that it’s being tugged by one of its galactic neighbors.

Read the full story from ESO here: A Galaxy on the Edge

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Curiosity’s Tracks Are Gone With The Wind

Images taken by Curiosity's MARDI camera show the effect of the thin Martian wind on its wheel tracks. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

Images taken by Curiosity’s MARDI camera show the effect of the thin Martian wind on its wheel tracks. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

Mars may have an atmosphere just 1% the density of Earth’s but it can still stir up enough of a breeze to quickly cover a rover’s tracks, as evidenced in the animation above. Captured by Curiosity’s downward-looking Mars Descent Imager (MARDI) camera on Jan. 23 and 24, 2017, the two pictures show an approximately 3-foot-wide area just beneath the rover (part of one wheel is visible at upper left.) In the first image Curiosity’s wheel tracks are fresh and crisp; in the second, they’ve been blurred by wind shifting the fine Martian sand. As summertime is the windiest season within Gale Crater, one could easily imagine the rover’s tracks being completely obliterated after a week or so!

Source: NASA’s Planetary Photojournal

SpaceX Says It Will Fly Humans Past the Moon in 2018 (But It Still Must Meet NASA’s Needs)

Illustration of a Falcon Heavy launch from KSC’s Pad 39A, the first of which is planned for summer 2017. (Credit: SpaceX)

On Monday, Feb. 27, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk announced plans for his company to send two privately-paying “space tourists” on a trip around the Moon in late 2018. According to Musk it’s a voyage that would send them, aboard SpaceX’s still-in-development Dragon 2 spacecraft, on a “long loop” past the Moon and out to about 400,000 miles before returning—farther than any of NASA’s Apollo missions and even farther into space than any humans have ever traveled.

This announcement came as a surprise to many people, especially those who know the amazingly enthusiastic nature of a late 2018 target and how much work yet remains for a crewed version of the Dragon spacecraft, especially considering SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy has yet to launch.

SpaceX’s news release on Monday was quickly met by one from NASA, with whom the company is currently under contract to develop human transportation capabilities for transport to the Space Station and whose taxpayer-provided funding is paying for development of the Dragon vehicle. SpaceX has yet to launch Dragon 2 or achieve human rating from NASA, even though it was slated to begin flying astronauts to Station next year.

“We will work closely with SpaceX to ensure it safely meets the contractual obligations to return the launch of astronauts to U.S. soil and continue to successfully deliver supplies to the International Space Station,” said NASA’s representatives—somewhat pointedly—in a responsive press release.

This news also happened to come just a couple of weeks after a report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) suggested that delays by SpaceX and Boeing—the two companies contracted to provide astronaut transportation to the ISS for NASA—will likely push any U.S. launches past 2018, requiring yet more Soyuz seats for American astronauts.

I don’t have any insider information from either SpaceX or NASA, but I can’t help but wonder how the former plans to achieve a 2018 launch of a crewed Dragon 2, and if the latter wonders if its needs—and the needs of the country—are being overlooked in favor of additional profit (which, admittedly, SpaceX as a privately-funded company relies upon.) In addition, is this putting Dragon 2 in direct competition with NASA’s Orion spacecraft?

“By putting forth the idea that its Dragon spacecraft could essentially fly the same mission as Orion for much, much less than the government, SpaceX is boldly telling the Trump administration that the private sector could get the job done if Orion were axed from the space agency’s budget to cut costs,” writes space journalist Eric Berger on Ars Technica.

Read more in this story from Eric Berger here: SpaceX plans to send two people around the Moon in late 2018

Cassini Mission Highlight: Mile-High Spikes Along Saturn’s B Ring

Icy particles along Saturn's B ring rise dramatically in mile-high spikes, seen by Cassini in August 2009. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI)

Icy particles along Saturn’s B ring rise dramatically in mile-high spikes, seen by Cassini in August 2009. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI)

A field of spike-like structures rise up over two miles from the outer edge of Saturn’s B ring in the amazing image above, captured by Cassini during Saturn’s spring equinox in August 2009. These pointy perturbations are caused by the gravitational nudges of tiny (~1/2 mile) embedded moonlets traveling around Saturn within the B ring, causing fine icy particles to “splash” upwards from the otherwise relatively flat ring when they pass by them. The moonlets themselves are held in their orbits by the gravity of Mimas.

The spikes were made visible mainly because of the angle of illumination at the time of equinox, which on Saturn occurs every 15 years and in this instance was on Aug. 11, 2009.

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NOAA and NASA Open a New Set of Eyes on the Sun

These images of the sun were captured at the same time on January 29, 2017 by the six channels on the SUVI instrument on board GOES-16 (Credit: NOAA)

These images of the sun were captured on January 29, 2017 by the six channels on the SUVI instrument on board GOES-16. (Credit: NOAA)

Look out SDO—there’s another set of eyes watching the Sun in a wide swath of wavelengths! The images above are the first from the Solar Ultraviolet Imager (SUVI) instrument aboard NOAA’s new GOES-16 satellite, positioned in a geostationary orbit about 22,200 miles from Earth. These are SUVI’s first successful test images, captured on Jan. 29, 2017; once fully operational SUVI will monitor the Sun round the clock in six different UV and X-ray wavelengths, providing up-to-date data on the behavior of our home star.

Watch the first video of the Sun from GOES-16 data below:

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Seven Earth-sized Exoplanets Discovered Around a Single Nearby Star!

Artist's interpretation of the TRAPPIST-1 system, which contains at least seven rocky exoplanets. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC).

Artist’s interpretation of the TRAPPIST-1 system, which contains an ultra-cool dwarf star and at least seven rocky exoplanets. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC).

In what’s being called a “record-breaking exoplanet discovery” NASA announced today the detection of not one, not two, not three or four but seven exoplanets orbiting the ultra-cool dwarf star TRAPPIST-1, located just under 40 light-years away in the constellation Aquarius. (That’s astronomically very close, although still 235 trillion miles distant.) What’s more, these exoplanets aren’t bloated hot Jupiters or frigid Neptune-like worlds but rather dense, rocky planets similar in size to Earth…and at least three of them are well-positioned around their dim red star to permit liquid water to exist on their surfaces.

TRAPPIST-1 and its planets are like a miniature version of our inner Solar System; the star itself is only slightly larger than Jupiter with a mass about 8% of our Sun, and the planets B through H all have orbits smaller than the diameter of Mercury’s. Still, even an ultra-cool dwarf star has a habitable zone, and three of these planets lie within it. The others may very well also possess habitable regions on or inside them too.

“This discovery could be a significant piece in the puzzle of finding habitable environments, places that are conducive to life,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, D.C. “Answering the question ‘are we alone’ is a top science priority and finding so many planets like these for the first time in the habitable zone is a remarkable step forward toward that goal.”

The seven-planet system was confirmed through (and named for) the ground-based TRAPPIST (TRAnsiting Planets and PlanetesImals Small Telescope) telescope as well as observations from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope.

“This is the most exciting result I have seen in the 14 years of Spitzer operations,” said Sean Carey, manager of NASA’s Spitzer Science Center at Caltech/IPAC in Pasadena. “Spitzer will follow up in the fall to further refine our understanding of these planets so that the James Webb Space Telescope can follow up. More observations of the system are sure to reveal more secrets.”

Read the full news release here: NASA Telescope Reveals Record-Breaking Exoplanet Discovery

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