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.”
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
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
If you’re in love with space then you’ll fall head over heels for this: it’s a picture of Earth taken from the Voyager 1 spacecraft after it passed the orbit of Pluto back in 1990—on Valentine’s Day, no less. That image of our planet from almost 4 billion miles away inspired Carl Sagan to write his famous “Pale Blue Dot” passage, which reminds us that we are all just riding on “a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”
Even if you’re feeling inundated by Valentine-themed everything at the moment, if you love space and you’re at all creative you’re definitely going to adore this. With Cassini in the final months of its 13 years at Saturn, NASA wants you to share your love of the spacecraft, its discoveries, and the ringed planet and its fascinating family of moons.
“We’re so gratified that Cassini’s images have inspired people to work with the pictures themselves to produce such beautiful creations,” said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “It’s been truly wonderful for us to feel the love for Cassini from the public. The feeling from those of us on the mission is mutual.”
In honor of Cassini’s last year in orbit (as well as its last Valentine’s Day!) the mission team is inviting all the Saturn lovers out there to share their Cassini-inspired creations through the “Cassini Inspires” outreach program. Digital art, processed images, paintings, drawings, songs, poems…if it drew any inspiration at all from something Cassini made possible, share it with the world!
It sounds like a surprise challenge posed by the “Dungeon Master” in a game of Dungeons & Dragons but this is sort of what happened on a cosmic scale on Feb. 6, 2017, when the 200-meter (656-foot) -wide asteroid 2017 BQ6 passed by Earth. Using the radar imaging capabilities of the giant 70-meter antenna at NASA’s DSN facility in Goldstone, CA, scientists got a good look at the object as it passed—and it does seem to resemble a tumbling gaming die!
“The radar images show relatively sharp corners, flat regions, concavities, and small bright spots that may be boulders,” said Lance Benner of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, who leads the agency’s asteroid radar research program. “Asteroid 2017 BQ6 reminds me of the dice used when playing Dungeons and Dragons. It is certainly more angular than most near-Earth asteroids imaged by radar.”