Tag Archives: astronomy

NASA’s Opportunity Rover Just Set the Off-World Driving Distance Record

NASA’s Opportunity rover landed on the surface of Mars in January of 2004. As of Sunday (July 26), the Opportunity rover had driven a total distance of 25 miles (40 kilometers).

Opportunity took the top spot in total off-world distance traveled by surpassing Russia’s Lunokhod 2 lunar rover, which traveled a total distance of 39 kilometers across the surface of the moon between January and May of 1973.

The Russian rover helped to bring about a golden age of space exploration in the 70s. As a sign of respect, the Opportunity rover’s operators decided to commemorate the Russian rover by naming one of the first craters they encountered after it.

Tracing the path that Opportunity has taken since it landed on Mars in 2004. On the left rim of the large Endeavor Crater, you can see the Lunokhod 2 crater. Click to enlarge (Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/NMMNHS)

The craziest part of this record is that the Opportunity rover was only expected to travel a short distance when it was first sent to Mars in 2004. Here’s John Callas, who manages the Mars Exploration Project at NASA’s Jet-Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California:

“This is so remarkable considering Opportunity was intended to drive about one kilometer and was never designed for distance. But what is really important is not how many miles the rover has racked up, but how much exploration and discovery we have accomplished over that distance.”

The Opportunity rover is collecting data on Mars as part of a long-term plan for a manned mission to the planet around the year 2030.

The infographic below compares the distances driven by different rovers throughout the years. Click to enlarge (courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech):

Read the original story from NASA here.

NASA Is Seeking Help In Potentially Finding Life On Jupiter’s Moon Europa (Video)

NASA is confident that underneath Jupiter’s moon Europa there could be more water than in our oceans here on Earth. So naturally, Europa has attracted a lot of attention, encouraging the curious to ask, “Could there be life on Europa?”.

Currently, NASA is aiming to send a new mission to Europa by 2025. The White House’s 2015 federal budget allocates $15 million towards making this Europa mission a reality.

Europa has recently become one of NASA’s main focuses because,  out of all the other planetary bodies in our solar system, it has arguably the greatest chance of harboring life.

From Space.com…


“Every 10 years, the U.S. National Research Council, a nonprofit organization that advises the government, issues a report that recommends a planetary exploration strategy for NASA and the National Science Foundation. The current report (which covers 2013 to 2022) ranks an exploration of Europa among the highest priority missions. According to the report, the future mission should focus on taking a closer look at the ocean that scientists suspect lies below the surface; characterizing its icy crust and looking for any subsurface liquid water; determining the surface composition and chemistry; examining surface features and identifying landing areas for future missions; and understanding the purpose of its magnetosphere — the magnetic field surrounding the celestial body. NASA officials said the instrument proposals should focus on at least one of these exploration goals. The announcement calls for instruments designed for a spacecraft that will orbit Europa or complete several flybys, since astronomers do not yet have enough data to pinpoint safe landing sites on the icy moon.”


The video below describes Europa in more detail.

NASA hopes that by providing monetary incentives to private parties, they will encourage competition and innovation, leading to affordable development processes for the instruments necessary for new missions like the upcoming one to Europa.

Two of the main challenges for teams developing instruments are overcoming Jupiter’s high levels of radiation and making sure that no organic material from Earth (like microorganisms, for example) is introduced to Europa’s potentially habitable surface.

The competition ends in April 2015. NASA will select the top 20 proposals, rewarding $25 million to each of the selected teams to further advance their designs for their instruments. NASA will also select eight winners whose instruments will be developed and actually used in NASA’s mission to Europa.

This competition is included in NASA’s budget to get to Europa, according to Space.com…

“NASA is in the process of designing a mission that will cost less than $1 billion and will still meet as many of the exploration goals as possible.”

Check out NASA’s full guidelines for Europa mission science instrument ideas here.

You can also learn more about how Europa works in this infographic from Space.com (click to enlarge):

A Few Reasons Why Tomorrow Might Be A Bit of a Strange Day…

Tomorrow will not be your ordinary Friday. For starters, tomorrow is the 13th, making tomorrow a Friday the 13th.

There will also be a full moon in the sky when the clock strikes 12:01 a.m. tomorrow morning. The last time that happened? October 13, 2000. The next time it will happen? August 13, 2049.

I’m not one for superstitions, but there is one thing I haven’t mentioned yet. Our sun has been shooting off powerful solar flares the last few days, including this one captured by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory early Tuesday morning:

Three recent solar X-flares emitted by the Sun. Click to enlarge (Courtesy of NASA/SDO)

Solar flares are brief, high-radiation eruptions that happen on the surface of the Sun. The three flares emitted in the past two days (pictured above) have been X-flares, the most powerful classification of solar flare. X-flares emit radiation at virtually every wavelength, from radio waves, to the light we can see, to x-rays and gamma rays.

Because of all of the different electromagnetic waves that the flares emit, they can disrupt communications here on Earth. In fact, the flare in the video above caused a temporary radio blackout here on Earth, according to Space.com.

The electromagnetic spectrum. Click to enlarge

Did I mention CMEs? CME stands for coronal mass ejection. This occurs when a powerful solar flare emits a plasma burst along with the radiation. A plasma burst can cause polar geomagnetic storms which are capable of severely disrupting communications and satellite systems, including GPS.

Along with having the potential to cause low levels of radiation poisoning in humans, a strong CME would also create surges in electrical wires, destroying transformers and leaving millions without power.

Despite the scary stuff, CME’s are pretty fascinating. These plasma burst clouds actually compresses Earth’s own magnetic field, which is what causes so many of the potential issues.

Artist depiction of how a CME plasma burst interacts with Earth’s magnetoshpere (Courtesy of NASA)

At first, officials at the U.S. Space Weather Prediction Center didn’t think that the flare in the video above had emitted a CME, only to find later that it had actually produced two of them.

They are expected to give Earth a glancing blow when they reach Earth orbit…tomorrow, Friday the 13th.

Watch A Four-Year Timelapse of A Mysterious Cosmic Explosion Captured By the Hubble Telescope (Video)

Back in January of 2002, astronomers witnessed a huge explosion from the star V838 Monocerotis, a red variable star about 20,000 light years away from our Sun.

At first, they thought it was a typical supernova (the explosion of a dying star), but after watching the explosion dim then brighten twice over a period of only a few months (supernovas will usually only dim after the initial bright explosion), astronomers really weren’t sure what they were dealing with.

Check out a time-lapse of the explosion from 2002-2006 below (full screen highly suggested).

So what exactly is going on with this explosion? Well, there are five possibilities that have been proposed so far:

  1. The explosion was a supernova, just a very unique one with a multi-outburst pattern, which would explain the multiple brightening and dimming events. Most scientists agree that the large size and young age of the stars in that region makes this explanation unlikely, however.
  2. The explosion was a thermal pulse. When moderately-sized stars run out of fuel, they explode (in a supernova), leaving behind a dense core of hydrogen and helium. Sometimes this hydrogen and helium core can be re-ignited, illuminating the layers of ejected star material from the supernova explosion. Again, however, the star’s young age makes this possibility unlikely.
  3. Another theory also proposes a helium flash, but one that occurred as a result of thermonuclear processes in a massive supergiant star. Supergiants can be large enough for an outer layer of helium to ignite and start the fusion process without the whole star being destroyed. This theory fits with the star’s age, but it doesn’t seem that V838 Monocerotis had enough mass for this process occur.
  4. Planetary capture: when a star grows to large proportions, it can start consuming nearby planets. The friction generated when a very large planet gets pulled apart by the star’s gravity can produce enough energy to spark deuterium fusion, which releases massive amounts of energy (like what we see in the time-lapse).
  5. The explosion was a result of a mergeburst. Sometimes, in clusters of younger stars (where orbits can be very unstable), two main-sequence stars can collide, creating an explosion similar to the one in the video. The relatively young age of the stars near V838 Monocerotis make this a reasonable possibility, and this hypothesis has also been supported by computer modeling.

It’s awesome to study the stars and find out exactly why they act the way they do, but sometimes explanations can be elusive. So while we search for answers, we should also make sure we take the time to simply enjoy watching this mesmerizing cosmic phenomenon.

(h/t Gizmodo)

NASA Made an Amazing Mosaic of Earth Using Over 36,000 Selfies Taken All Across the Globe

Last month, NASA set out to create a “global selfie”. First, they asked people around the world to take pictures of themselves with a little NASA placard saying where they were. They then compiled the 36,422 selfies they got into a stunningly accurate mosaic of the Earth.

A close up of part of the mosaic (Courtesy of NASA)

For Earth Day (April 22), NASA used social media to pose the question, “Where are you on Earth right now?”, encouraging fans and followers to take selfies and post them using the hashtag #GlobalSelfie.

Selfies were taken on every continent (including Antarctica), and 113 different countries and regions were represented. Each picture was used as a tile on the earth, creating a fully zoomable global mosaic that you can view by clicking the image below.

Everybody got in on the fun, including Elmo, a lego pilot, an astronaut and even a lazy cat. Check out some of the coolest selfie submissions below.

(h/t RT)

How to Watch the First Ever Camelopardalid Meteor Shower Tonight (Live Stream)

Starting at around 11 p.m. Eastern time tonight, the Camelopardalid Meteor Shower will be peaking in the night sky. The meteors are the debris left behind by the comet P/209 LINEAR almost two centuries ago.

On May 23/24, Earth will be passing through this trail of debris, which is why the meteors will be visible to us here on Earth tonight for the first time ever. The comets will appear to be coming from the constellation Ursa Major (the Big Dipper).

Astronomers are predicting that the shower could be pretty spectacular, with some estimating as many as 200 meteor sightings per hour. The shower will peak between 2 and 4 a.m. Eastern time tomorrow morning.

If visibility in your area is limited, not to worry. Slooh will be live-streaming the whole event- you can check it out below:

 

What It Looks Like When Two Neutron Stars Rip Each Other Apart to Form a Black Hole (Video)

A neutron star is what’s left behind when a massive star (typically 8-30 times the size of our Sun) explodes into a supernova. These supergiant stars get so large that they are no longer able to remain stable under their own intense gravity, collapsing in on themselves.

The gravity is so massive that it exceeds the strength of the atomic forces within particles, causing them to eject protons and electrons. The ball of neutrons they leave behind is so dense that a teaspoonful of the material would weigh as much as Mount Everest!

A neutron star (the tiny white dot in the middle) surrounded by the remnants of the supernova explosion that created it. Click to enlarge (Photo: NASA/Andrew Fruchter)

Neutrons stars have a “mass threshold”- if they take on too much mass, even the neutrons themselves will collapse. When two of these extremely dense neutron stars collide, the extra mass they add to one another causes their massive gravitational forces to tear each other apart.

They go into a blindingly-fast death spin, ejecting massive amount of material while merging into a doughnut like structure with a black hole at its center. The entire process takes just 20 milliseconds (that is 1/50th of a second, if you’re wondering).

Check out a simulation of the amazing phenomenon courtesy of NASA:

Now You Have No Excuse To Miss the Lyrid Meteor Shower Tonight

Once a year, Earth experiences the Lyrid meteor shower as it passes through a region of cosmic debris left behind by a comet known as Comet Thatcher, which orbits the sun once every 415 years leaving behind fresh debris each time.

This year, that’ll be happening tonight. The shower is expected to be at its peak in the early morning hours of Tuesday (4/22/14). If you’re in an area where the weather inhibits sky visibility, Space.com will be providing two webcasts of the event via NASA and slooh.com.

No word yet on whether or not you can wish on a shooting star you see via live stream…

How to find the lyrid meteors in the night sky
How to find the lyrid meteors in the night sky

Here’s some pictures of last year’s Lyrid meteor shower (click an image to enlarge):

 

View the full gallery from Space.com here.

 

 

Blowing the Top Off a Mountain to Build a Telescope So Big It Can See Signs of Life On Other Planets

In a few short weeks, engineers in the Chilean Coastal Ranges of the Andes Mountains in South America will be blowing off the top of Cerro Armazones.  Standing at 10,000 feet, it’s one of the tallest peaks in the region. Here’s Gird Hudepohl, the head engineer for the project:

“We will take about 80ft off the top of the mountain to create a plateau – and when we have done that, we will build the world’s biggest telescope there.”

Cerro Armazones, future site of the world’s largest telescope (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

The Coastal Ranges region is extremely arid, which increases visibility since water vapor in the air obscures a telescope’s vision (this is also why telescopes at high elevations have much better vision than those closer to sea level).

This isn’t Hudepohl’s first rodeo. He works for the European Southern Observatory and was in charge of the demolition of another nearby peak (Cerro Paranal) which is now home to one of the world’s most advanced observatories.

The observatory at Cerro Paranal is equipped with four VLTs (Very Large Telescopes), each the size of “a block of flats” and each equipped with an 8m wide primary mirror (thats more than 24 feet).

Here’s some pictures of the European Southern Observatory (click an image to enlarge):

The new telescope, however, will be bigger than all four of those VLTs combined. The E-ELT (European Extremely Large Telescope- they’re not very creative with the names obviously) will be equipped with a massive 39m (128ft) primary mirror made up 800 segments, each 1.4 meters in diameter but only a few centimeters thick. Each segment must be calibrated with microscopic precision for the telescope to function correctly.

When it’s finished (projected completion is 2025), the telescope will be housed in a 74m (~243ft) dome and weigh in at almost 3,000 tons. The project has a price tag of $1.34 billion.

Artist rendering of the completed E-ELT

The telescope is obviously extremely expensive, but the potential benefits it will provide are well worth it. Here’s Cambridge University astronomer Professor Gerry Gilmore explaining why the E-ELT will be such a major breakthrough:

“[Right now] we can see exoplanets but we cannot study them in detail because – from our distant perspective – they appear so close to their parent stars. However, the magnification which the E-ELT will provide will mean we will be able to look at them directly and clearly. In 15 years, we should have a picture of a planet around another star and that picture could show its surface changing colour just as Earth does as the seasons change – indicating that vegetation exists on that world. We will then have found alien life.”

Read the full story from The Guardian here.

If You Missed The Blood Moon You Can Watch The Whole Thing Here In Just 9 Seconds (Gif)

You may have heard people talking about the “blood moon” that happened last night. If you missed it, not to worry! Here’s the entire event (which took just under two and a half hours) in just 9 seconds:

Getty Images (25); Gif by Mia Tramz/TIME

To learn more about what caused the blood moon checkout our post about the event from yesterday.

Edit: Just found another cool gif of the event from another perspective-Enjoy!