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New Horizons–Pluto & Beyond

March 14, 2013 1 comment

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The math behind the New Horizons space mission is boggling: launched in early 2006, the spacecraft is in transit to the dwarf planet Pluto and its five known natural satellites, two of which were discovered after the mission launch. Pluto orbits more than 48 times as far from the Sun as does the Earth, and when New Horizons sweeps by its destination in 2015, it will have been en route for more than nine years. That’s right, folks: Pluto lies more than 5.7 billion km (3.54 billion mi) from Earth.

And though the distant Plutonian system is NH’s goal, it has already had quite a cruise getting to where it is (at present, about five astronomical units from its destination). The spacecraft has flown by the small asteroid 132524 APL, measuring its chemical composition (the asteroid turns out to be S-type), and Jupiter and its moons (September 2006), sending back some spectacular photos from the encounter.

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But this is the boggling part: after photographing Jupiter and its court, New Horizons began its years-long, deep-space cruise. And after the Pluto flyby, there may be more: NH might be able to study some Kuiper Belt objects. The incentive is great: not many spacecraft have gotten this far carrying a science payload this sophisticated.

And here’s the kicker: New Horizons is the first of NASA’s New Frontier missions, which will also study Jupiter and Venus.

Kazahwa-wow-wow!

RT

Photo: TopLaunch of the New Horizons space probe, January 19, 2006. WikiCmns; NASA, Public Domain. BottomJupiter detail via LEISA infrared camera, re-mapped to visible colors and contrast-enhanced. Taken by New Horizons probe. WikiCmns; NASA/JPL; Public Domain.

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Cassini sees Venus … while orbiting Saturn

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wow!  RT

(reposted from jf)

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Cassini sees Venus … while orbiting Saturn.

Space Walk!!!

January 23, 2013 Leave a comment

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It’s been decades since Alexei Leonov became the first person to walk in space (on March 18, 1965), but somehow the thrill of seeing someone floating (or working) in space has never vanished. The gentleman in this picture is commander Sergey Alexandrovich Volkov (photographed by Flight Engineer Dmitriyevich Oleg Kononenko) during expedition 17 to the ISS. Kononenko is at the end of the manual Strela crane operated by the commander; the crane has a mass of around 45kg. An orange safety lifeline along the boom fastens the men to the Space Station.

It’s remarkable what we can accomplish when we set our minds to it.   RT

(And, for the record, the first woman to walk in space was Soviet cosmonaut Svetlana Savitskaya–on July 17, 1984.)

Photograph: WikiCmns, NASA, Public Domain.

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The Keck Observatory

January 19, 2013 2 comments

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More cool, this time from Hawaii. The telescopes of the W.M. Keck Observatory, located near the summit of Mauna Kea, combine to form the largest observable telescope in the world. Each of the primary mirrors is composed of 36 hexagonal segments that work together as a single unit, and the two primary mirrors can work together as a single astronomical interferometer. How much observational power does all this amount to? Here’s a single fact: the Near Infrared Camera for the Keck I telescope is so sensitive it could detect the equivalent of a single candle flame on the Moon. Chew them beans.   RT

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PhotoThe twin Keck Telescopes atop Mauna Kea, Hawaii. WikiCmns; NASA; Public Domain.

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Comet Donati, 1858

January 14, 2013 4 comments

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RT has seen falling stars on a few moonless nights, but nothing like this, the appearance of Comet Donati in 1858. It must be a thrilling experience, to see the heavens brought so close to earth.

Wikipedia offers this vignette about Donati:

Abraham Lincoln, then a candidate for a seat in the U.S. Senate, sat up on the porch of his hotel in Jonesboro, Illinois to see “Donti’s Comet” on September 14, 1858, the night before the third of his historic debates with Stephen Douglas.

CD was the second brightest comet visible from earth during the 19th century; only the Great Comet of 1811 was brighter.

Lincoln, Douglas, and their generation are likely to preserve the memory of the comet’s beauty inviolate for some time; Comet Donati has an orbital period of 1,739 years.    RT

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p.s. Actually, Comet Donati was the first comet to be photographed, but RT has not been able to find an online copy of the photographs…

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Illustration: Comet Donati, 1858 (published 1888). Author and source: E. Weiss. WikiCmns. Public Domain.

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Mother Earth

December 31, 2012 Leave a comment

File:Europe, North Africa and Western Asia at night by VIIRS.jpg

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home, sweet home (or at least a part of it)….  RT

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Photo: Africa, Europe, Asia (parts thereof); WikiCmns; NASA Earth Observatory; Public Domain.

Postcard from Cassini

November 30, 2012 2 comments

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The ice moon Enceladus transits Titan, the second-largest moon in the Solar System, with Saturn’s rings bisecting the image. A photograph to make us think of the approaching Solstice and other moments of magic.

Thank you, Cassini!    

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Photo: WikiCmns; NASA/JPL; Public Domain with attribution.

Saturn’s Moon, Methone

November 13, 2012 5 comments

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One of the latest images from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft:

Saturn’s moon, Methone, “The Grey Egg”

Enjoy!

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Photo: Methone, NASA website, Public Domain w/ attribution

Neil Armstrong, 1930-2012

August 26, 2012 2 comments

Mr. Armstrong dared death many times. He knew the truth: the only way to get there is by going. Best wishes to him on his latest voyage!   RT

Photo: Neil Armstrong After his First Moonwalk; WikiCmns; NASA/JPL; Public Domain w/ attribution.

Elsewhere in Outer Space…New Earth

August 11, 2012 3 comments

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The attention being paid to the rover Curiosity’s arrival on Mars is understandable, but what’s going on elsewhere in the cosmos? Here’s the latest word on the Kepler spacecraft (which is looking for earth-sized planets outside our solar system): Kepler has discovered 74 confirmed planets, of which two are earth-sized (though neither is in its star’s habitable zone). The total number of exoplanets discovered to date: 777.

Now here is where the numbers really get interesting. Analysis of exoplanet data has led to the following conclusions: the Milky Way contains 100 billion or so stars; each of these stars is estimated to have 1.6 planets. Crunching the numbers, this means that our galaxy is estimated to contain 160 billion solar-bound planets.

Let’s take this a bit further. Many conditions are necessary for the formation of life on a planet. One of the most important is that a planet orbit a star of the correct type, spectral class “G” to “mid-K.” Five to ten percent of stars fall into this range; applying this filter leaves us with 8-16 billion candidate planets.

And here’s another consideration: the planet must fall within a star’s habitable zone. The Kepler team estimates that at least half a billion planets meet this criterion.

There are other requirements candidates have to meet: their star must have a high metallicity, low variation, and a stable habitable zone. The planet must also have a high mass, an orbital inclination not too far off the ecliptic, and geochemistry capable of producing amino acids, the building blocks of life. Did I mention surface water (lots of it)?

OK, it’s a lot. But how many New Earths do we really need? A hundred? A thousand? Heck, the discovery of just one would send shivers down our backs, especially if the particular planet features copious oxygen in its atmosphere. And I won’t even speculate what the response would be if we found chlorophyll in its chemical signature.

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And after all, there is the question of how to get there. That’s why the photograph above was taken by the Huygens probe, which landed on Saturn’s moon Titan. We can get there.

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Photo: Composite Image Taken During Huygen’s Descent to the Surface. WikiCmns; NASA/JPL Public Domain with attribution.