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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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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

Voyager 1’s Famous Long-Distance Valentine

Venus, Earth, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune as seen by Voyager 1 in 1990 (Credit: NASA)

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.”

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More Moons For Uranus?

Voyager 2 view of Uranus with  rings and moons noted (Credit: NASA/University of Arizona/Erich Karkoschka)

Voyager 2 view of Uranus with rings and moons noted (Credit: NASA/University of Arizona/Erich Karkoschka)

The distant ice giant Uranus may not have been visited by a spacecraft since Voyager 2’s “Grand Tour” flyby in 1986 but the data gathered then is still being used today to make new discoveries. Most recently, researchers think they have found evidence of two previously unknown moons around Uranus, potentially bringing the planet’s count up to 29.

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New Planet and Pluto Stamps Available Today!

New planetary exploration Forever stamps from the USPS

New planetary exploration Forever stamps from the USPS

They’re here and they’re from outer space! The U.S. Postal Service has two new sets of Forever® stamps based on NASA’s exploration of the Solar System: the Views of Our Planets and Pluto—Explored! series, both of which become available for purchase on May 31, 2016.

Designed by Antonio Alcalá, the Views of Our Planets stamps feature eight images of the major planets in the Solar System, as seen by various spacecraft over the past three decades. Pluto—Explored! highlights an extended-color image of the distant dwarf planet and a rendering of the New Horizons spacecraft, which gave us our first good look at Pluto in July 2015.

The last stamp to feature Pluto was a 29-cent version issued in 1991, which showed a featureless tan orb with the words “not yet explored” beneath it… we can now officially call that version obsolete!

Both sets are Forever stamps, which means they are always good as first-class postage for 1 oz. envelopes, whatever the current postage price may be. You can purchase both in collectible sheets at your local U.S. Post Office or online here.

*Note: the Pluto stamps are only available online.

Pale Blue Dot: Our Valentine from Voyager 1

If you’re in love with space exploration then you’ll fall for this: a picture of Earth (and five other planets) taken from the Voyager 1 spacecraft after it passed the orbit of Pluto in 1990, 26 years ago today. That image of our planet from almost 4 billion miles away inspired Carl Sagan to write his famous “Pale Blue Dot” passage, and reminds us that we are all just floating on “a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”

This is from a post I originally published in 2010. I’ll keep trotting it out until it’s not cool anymore. (Which I don’t think will ever will NEVER happen.)

Venus, Earth, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune as seen by Voyager 1 in 1990 (Credit: NASA)

On February 14, 1990, after nearly 13 years of traveling the solar system, the Voyager 1 spacecraft passed the orbit of Pluto and turned its camera around to take a series of photos of the planets. The image above shows those photos, isolated from the original series and are left to right, top to bottom: Venus, Earth, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune.

From that distance, over 4 billion miles from the Sun, the planets each appear as little more than a bright dot against the vastness of interplanetary space.

“That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. … There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world.”

– Carl Sagan

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