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Author Archives: Jason Major

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, 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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OSIRIS-REx Captures a Picture of Jupiter from L4

Jupiter imaged by OSIRIS-REx on Feb. 12, 2017. The visible moons are Callisto, Io, and Ganymede. (NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona)

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx may be designed to study asteroids close up but recently it’s captured a view of something farther away and much, much larger: the giant planet Jupiter and three of its largest moons at a distance of over 400 million miles!

The image was taken on Feb. 12, 2017, when the spacecraft was 76 million miles (122 million km) away from Earth—near the Earth-Sun L4 point—and 418 million miles (673 million km) from Jupiter. It’s a combination of two images taken with the PolyCam instrument, OSIRIS-REx’s longest range camera, which will capture images of the asteroid Bennu from a distance of over a million miles.

Read the full article here: NASA’s OSIRIS-REx Takes Closer Image of Jupiter

Can Pluto Be a Planet Again Already?

New enhanced-color image of Pluto from New Horizons (NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

Enhanced-color image of Pluto from New Horizons (NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

Ever since the discovery of Pluto by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930 our Solar System was known to have nine planets orbiting the Sun. “My Very Eager Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas” was a popular mnemonic in my elementary school days to help remember the order of major planets from Mercury outward. But in 2006, a controversial decision by the International Astronomical Union—spurred in part by Caltech astronomer Mike Brown—changed the specifications on what officially classifies a planet in the Solar System, thereby stripping Pluto of its 76-year-old designation. The reclassification, done by an in-person vote at a meeting in Prague (at which only about 400 of over 9,000 IAU members were in attendance) has been a topic of debate—often fierce—in the astronomical community ever since, and now some scientists are demanding to have it redefined again.

The new definition, based on a 2017 proposal by six planetary scientists, would classify “at least 110” known objects in the Solar System as planets—including Pluto.

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Meteors May Make Your Hair Hiss

Meteors typically occur about 50 to 75 miles above the ground. This one was photographed from above by astronaut Ron Garan aboard the ISS in August 2011. (NASA image)

Meteors typically occur about 50 to 75 miles above the ground. This Perseid meteor was photographed from above by astronaut Ron Garan aboard the ISS in August 2011. (NASA image)

Have you ever gone outside on a cold, clear night to watch a meteor shower and witness a super-bright fireball racing across the sky so brilliantly that you could swear you could hear it? Turns out the sizzling noise might not have been all in your head after all…but rather on it. (And here’s science to prove it.)

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Juno Will Not Enter Tighter Orbits Around Jupiter, Team Decides

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NASA’s Juno spacecraft will remain in 53-day-long orbits of Jupiter rather than rocket down to smaller 14-day orbits, despite the mission’s original plan to do so. Announced today, Feb. 17, this decision comes after evaluation of issues with helium valves that prevented orbital reduction burns in October and December of 2016.

“During a thorough review, we looked at multiple scenarios that would place Juno in a shorter-period orbit, but there was concern that another main engine burn could result in a less-than-desirable orbit,” said Rick Nybakken, Juno project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “The bottom line is a burn represented a risk to completion of Juno’s science objectives.”

Even though Juno will remain in wider orbits its scientific objectives and capability to achieve them shouldn’t be affected—if anything, it will get a chance to explore more of Jupiter’s magnetic environment while reducing the time it spends in some of the more damaging regions of Jupiter’s radiation belts.

The solar-powered Juno spacecraft launched aboard a ULA Atlas V 551 rocket from Cape Canaveral on Aug. 5, 2011. After nearly five years and 1.7 billion miles of travel Juno arrived in orbit at Jupiter on July 4, 2016.

Read the full story here: NASA’s Juno Mission to Remain in Current Orbit at Jupiter

There’s a Cerulean Storm Swirling on Saturn’s North Pole

RGB color-composite of Saturn from raw images acquired on Feb. 13, 2017. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI/Jason Major)

RGB color-composite of Saturn from raw images acquired on Feb. 13, 2017. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI/Jason Major)

Like some giant beast’s great blue eye Saturn’s north polar vortex appears to glare up at Cassini’s wide-angle camera in this image, a color-composite made from raw images acquired in red, green, and blue visible light wavelengths on February 13, 2017.

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