Entries in Space (26)


Scientists Say 1 in 6 Stars May Have Own Earth-Size Planet

M. Kornmesser /ESA/NASA(NEW YORK) -- The Kepler Space Telescope, an observatory launched by NASA in 2009 to find Earth-like planets, has provided data that suggests there are billions of them -- enough that one in six stars may have at least one orbiting it.

Out of roughly 100 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy, a new analysis of Kepler data shows that around 17 percent of them have Earth-sized planets orbiting them, meaning there could be as many as 17 billion Earth-sized worlds.

Such planets, trillions of miles or more away, are too small for current technology to see, so Kepler watches thousands of stars -- and if one dims by a tiny amount regularly, that's a sign that perhaps a planet has crossed its face, blocking a little of its light. Researchers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics analyzed the entire data set from Kepler and concluded that virtually all sun-like stars have at least one planet.

"This is the first time we've been able to say with any certainty how many stars out there have Earth-like planets," Christine Pulliam of with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics told ABC News.

Francois Fression of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center presented the statistical study Monday at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Long Beach, Calif. A paper detailing the research has been accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal.

Contradicting previous findings, researchers also found that the type of star does not make certain sizes of planets more or less common. The team grouped planets into five different sizes and 17 percent of them, roughly 1 in 6, have a planet 0.8-1.25 times the size of Earth in an orbit of 85 days or less.

"As far as planets go, Earth-sized planets are very small," Pulliam said. "Jupiter-like planets are easier to find; however, our study finds that the smaller planets are more common."

Using Kepler data, Christopher Burke, a scientist at the SETI Institute, said that 58 planets found so far are believed to be in their host stars' habitable zones -- where any water on them has a chance of being liquid. Planets orbiting close to their suns are likely to be infernos; planets in distant orbits will probably be too icy.

Kepler's mission is to find and document Earth-sized planets at greater distances. The more planets discovered with Earth-like orbits in the habitable zone, the greater the chances of extraterrestrial life.

Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio


Explosion Spotted on Jupiter a Comet or Asteroid?

Hemera/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- A bright flash was spotted on Jupiter early Monday morning, and astronomers are trying to figure out exactly what hit it.

The flash was first spotted by Dan Peterson, an amateur astronomer from Racine, Wisc., who saw the flash through a telescope. He posted about his sighting on the Association of Lunar & Planetary Observers message board with the subject line, “I observed an explosion on Jupiter this morning!”  He reported that the explosion occurred inside the southern edge of Jupiter’s northern equatorial belt of clouds.

“My best guess is that it was a small undetected comet that is now history, hopefully it will sign its name on Jupiter’s cloud tops,” he wrote.

Astrophotographer George Hall of Dallas was shooting video of Jupiter at the time and caught the flash on camera at 6:35 a.m. Monday.

Glenn Orton, a senior research scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. said he believes a frozen comet may be the culprit.

“Most things in that part of the solar system are called Jupiter-family comets,” Orton said. “They’re ice balls that move in and have started co-orbiting around Jupiter. ”

The explosion doesn’t appear to have left any trace, Orton said. It was quickly swallowed up by Jupiter’s thick atmosphere.  Orton said he and other researchers will publish a paper about their observations in the next few months.

In August 2009, a space rock hit the planet leaving a giant black mark and sending debris into Jupiter’s clouds. In June 2010, another explosion caused an Earth-sized fireball to emerge from Jupiter, much like Monday’s sighting. Orton believes Monday’s impact was about the same size as that in 2010.

“It’s the big gravitational vacuum cleaner of the solar system,” Orton said.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


Space Station Saved By a Toothbrush?

iStockphoto/Thinkstock(HOUSTON) -- A $100 billion space station saved by a simple $3 toothbrush? It was the brainstorm of astronauts Sunita Williams and Akihido Hoshide and NASA engineers on the ground to use the toothbrush as a tool to clean a bolt that gave them so much trouble during a marathon 8-hour spacewalk last week.

They were trying to replace an electrical switching unit, but on Thursday they couldn't bolt it to the outside of the station.

What to do if there is no hardware store in the neighborhood and the next supply ship is months away? Build it yourself -- so they attached a simple toothbrush to a metal pole and voila! They were able to clean out the bolt's socket and finish the job.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


Mars Rover: NASA's Curiosity Spacecraft Sends Color Panorama

NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS(NEW YORK) -- The Mars rover Curiosity has been very busy on Twitter.

"Gale Crater Vista, in Glorious Color!" it tweeted today.

The tweets, of course, come from the press office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., mission control for the rover. It has more than 890,000 followers.

Curiosity's mission is to wander a Martian crater, looking for signs of whether it ever had the right chemistry, or building blocks, for microbial life. If anything ever lived there, Curiosity is equipped to find it.

Mission managers showed off the first color panorama today of the area where the rover landed, showing a pebble-strewn plain in the foreground and the rim of Gale Crater, slightly obscured by haze, on the horizon a few miles away. The crater was chosen as a landing target because it may have exposed bedrock -- a good place to look for life that was wiped out eons ago and, for the most part, buried over time.

[ CLICK HERE for Pictures: Mars Rover on Alien Plain ]

Looking at the panorama, Dawn Sumner, a mission scientist from the University of California at Davis, enthused about how the ship made an almost pinpoint landing after a long, elliptical 350-million-mile trip to Mars.

"In the hills in the distance," she said, "you see these beautiful knolls, recording the history of Gale Crater. It's very exciting to think about getting there, but it's quite a ways away."

Curiosity, about the size of a small car, has now raised the mast on its top deck on which its highest-resolution cameras are mounted. Its next job, to be completed in the next couple of days, sounds fairly mundane: Mission Control will send an upgrade of its computer operating system.

"It's a little like upgrading the software on your computer at home," said mission manager Michael Watkins. Curiosity's current software, he said, was written for the landing phase of the mission; it must now be replaced with commands for roving.

It will still be days before engineers, satisfied the rover is ready, will actually move it from its landing spot.

So far, aside from the rusty hue in the pictures, scientists concede that Curiosity has landed in a place that looks eerily like Earth -- never mind that it's 150 million miles away, drier than dust and perpetually frozen.

"You would really be forgiven for thinking that NASA was trying to pull a fast one on you, and we actually put a rover out in the Mojave Desert and took a picture," said project scientist John Grotzinger. "The first impression you get is how Earthlike this seems, looking at that landscape."

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Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


New Planet Found Orbiting Distant Star

NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt (SSC)(WASHINGTON) -- Thirty-three light-years away, in the constellation Leo the lion, astronomers say they have found a world considerably smaller than Earth, orbiting a dim red-dwarf star.

While scientists have confirmed the existence of more than 700 so-called exoplanets since 1995, most of them have been giant -- many considerably larger than Jupiter. This new world, say the researchers who found it, may be only 5,200 miles across, about two thirds as large as Earth.

"People have been picking at the low-hanging fruit, since Jupiter-sized planets are easier to see," said Kevin Stevenson, the researcher at the University of Central Florida who led the team making the find. "Now we're really pushing the limits of what our telescopes can find."

The newly found world is, for now, called UCF-1.01, and Stevenson and his colleagues found it with NASA's Spitzer space telescope in Earth orbit. It orbits a star called GJ 436. They spent a year watching it to confirm that it was indeed a distant world. They are publishing their find online Thursday in the Astrophysical Journal.

Stevenson and his group calculated that UCF-1.01 whips around its host star in only 1.4 Earth-days, at a distance of about 1.6 million miles (we're 93 million miles from our sun). Temperatures on its surface probably exceed 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, raising the possibility that some of it is molten, covered in lava. Any atmosphere would have boiled away long ago, said the researchers.

They could not see it directly -- its sun is nothing but a dot in a telescope -- but they could see a tiny dip in the star's brightness as the disc of UCF-1.01 passed in front of it. For now, they cannot even calculate its mass; current technology is not good enough for a reliable number.

Nobody will be launching a mission to UCF-1.01 anytime soon; there are other worlds, including moons of Jupiter and Saturn, that look much more promising as homes for living things. Still, the find suggests that if this world could be detected, others -- perhaps in the so-called habitable zones around their host stars -- may soon be found as well.

"The discovery was completely by accident," said Stevenson in a telephone interview with ABC News. They were looking at another, much larger planet orbiting the same star, "and there were these spurious signals we could not explain."

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Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


Asteroid Hunters Announce First Private Deep Space Mission

Artist's Rendering. Hemera/Thinkstock(MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif.) -- Asteroids could be heading for Earth right now, and the world should not have to live in fear. At least that’s the message of a group of scientists and former astronauts working on the issue. They announced plans today to launch the first privately funded deep space mission in history, a space telescope that would make sure the coast is clear for us.

The SENTINEL mission, announced by the B612 Foundation, would send a telescope into orbit around the sun in order to track small to mid-sized asteroids that could threaten Earth. NASA already works with a network of astronomers to track the most dangerous near-Earth asteroids, those more than two thirds of a mile across. They say they believe they have already identified nearly 90 percent of those deadly space rocks.

However, there is very little data on an estimated 500 million smaller objects that could do us harm — like whatever exploded over the Tunguska region of Siberia in 1908, leveling over 800 miles of forest.  The chairman and CEO of the B612 Foundation, former astronaut Ed Lu, says this is a problem.  He flew on the space shuttle, the International Space Station and Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

“We’ve identified and mapped only about one percent of these asteroids to date,” Lu said at a press conference. “During its 5.5-year mission survey time, Sentinel will discover and track half a million Near Earth Asteroids, creating a dynamic map that will provide the blueprint for future exploration of our solar system, while protecting the future of humanity on Earth.”

Don’t expect that dynamic map anytime soon. Launch of the Sentinel telescope is targeted for 2017 or 2018 -- that is, if the project, which would cost several hundred million of dollars, is able to find funding.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


China Set for Manned Space Launch This Month

George Doyle/Thinkstock(BEIJING) -- China will launch the country’s first-ever manned, space-docking mission in the next few weeks, according to the China National Space Administration.

The Shenzhou 9 spacecraft’s three-person crew will take off in mid-June and dock with the Tiangong 1 orbital module, according to China's official news agency Xinhua.  The launch will be China’s latest step toward achieving its goal to launch its own 60-ton manned space station by 2020.

In the days leading up to the launch, Shenzhou 9 and its carrier rocket, systems and crew are undergoing tests at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China’s Gobi Desert.  While the crew has yet to be publicly announced, the space agency has said that it might include female astronauts.

In orbit, Shenzhou 9 will dock with Tiangong 1, where crew members will perform scientific experiments.  China has recently prioritized developing a national space program, announcing in December a five-year plan with such milestones as launching a space station and collecting samples from the moon by 2016.  The launch will mark China’s fourth manned space flight, and first since 2008, when Chinese astronauts took their first spacewalk.

While China has invested heavily in its space program and was the third country to send humans into space, according to the New York Times, analysts say that the country is still years behind the United States in its space program.

Russians and Americans performed the first successful space dockings in the 1960s, and the last moon landing was the U.S. Apollo landing in 1972.  China’s long-term goal of a manned space station in 2020 coincides with the retirement of the International Space Station, which denies China access because of objections from the United States.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


Neil Armstrong Recalls Apollo Moon Landing in Rare Interview

Astronaut Neil Armstrong, commander of Apollo 11, in the Lunar Module Eagle after finishing mankind's first walk on the moon, July 21, 1969. (NASA/Newsmakers)(MELBOURNE, Australia) -- Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon 43 years ago, has tried to live a private life since Apollo 11 came back to Earth, but he did agree to give a rare interview -- to the head of an Australian accounting group.

In an hour-long conversation with Alex Malley of CPA Australia, Armstrong retold the story of his life as an astronaut, culminating in the 1969 landing, with his crewmate Buzz Aldrin, on the lunar plain they called Tranquility Base.

"I should say I thought we had a 90 percent chance of getting back to Earth on that flight," Armstrong said in this rare interview, "but only a 50-50 chance of making a successful landing on the first attempt."

The landing was so complicated, and their lunar landing ship Eagle so low on fuel that Armstrong touched down less than 30 seconds before Mission Control would have told them to give up and try to come home. Eagle's computer, overloaded with data as it tried to steer the ship to the surface, was trying to put them down in a crater full of boulders.

"Those slopes are steep, the rocks are very large -- the size of automobiles," he said. He took over manual control, skittering over the lunar surface in search of a safe place to land.

"There's so many unknowns in that descending from lunar orbit down to the surface that hadn't been demonstrated by testing," Armstrong said in the interview, "and there was a big chance that we didn't understand something in there properly, and we had to abort and come back to Earth without landing."

Armstrong, now 81, has spent the years since Apollo 11 as an engineering professor, a member of corporate boards and an occasional public advocate for continued space exploration. He said he thought it a pity that the Obama administration and Congress today disagreed on America's future in space, with NASA caught as a "shuttlecock" between them.

"NASA has been one of the most successful public investments in motivating students to do well and achieve all they can achieve," said Armstrong. "It's sad that we are turning the program in a direction where it will reduce the amount of motivation and stimulation it provides to young people. And that's a major concern to me."

In the interview Armstrong is characteristically soft-spoken, choosing his words slowly, often fending off questions by repeating things he said in the years after his return from the moon. Has made occasional public appearances in recent years to testify before Congress or mark major anniversaries of the space effort. He has declined most other requests for interviews, and stopped giving autographs when people sold them for thousands of dollars.

So why did he agree to talk to a CPA? Malley, quoted by Australian media, said, "I know something not a lot of people know about Neil Armstrong -- his dad was an auditor."

Armstrong was asked about the rumors over the years that the moon landings were faked, and he chuckled. "It was never a concern to me because I know that one day, somebody's going to go fly back up there and pick up the camera that I left."

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


You’ve Never Seen Earth Like This

Research Center for Earth Operative Monitoring(NEW YORK) -- The highest resolution image of earth ever taken didn’t come from NASA. The image was captured by Russian weather satellite, Electro-L, and unlike NASA’s famous “blue marble” photo, it is a single shot, not a composite of different images.

The 121 megapixel photo was taken as Electro-L orbited 22,369 miles above the equator, according to Gizmodo. The satellite took a photo every half hour combining four different wavelengths of light, three visible and one infrared. The infrared light is the reason the vegetation appears orange in the image.

In the video below, the photos, which were taken in May of 2011, are combined to show the passage of time.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

Enormous Sunspot Could Lead to Solar Flares

A massive sunspot has the potential to create solar flares like these, directed toward Earth. NASA image.(WASHINGTON) -- The largest sunspot seen in years has appeared on the surface of the sun, and scientists say it could generate solar flares whose effects are visible on Earth.

The sunspot cluster -- shaped a little like the islands of Hawaii -- is much larger than Earth. It measures 100,000 miles from end to end, while the diameter of the Earth is approximately 7,900 miles.

We on the surface are happily shielded by Earth’s magnetic field and atmosphere, but sensitive electronics have, on occasion, been fried by solar radiation.

“We are going toward the peak of the solar cycle right now,” said Lead Scientist for NASA’s Living With a Star Program, Madhulika Guhathakurta. “It typically goes through an 11-year cycle in which the magnetic field in the sun goes from minimum to maximum. Right now, we’re rising toward the maximum and during that time, the number of sunspots increases.”

The placement of the sunspot cluster could mean solar flares directed toward Earth, but NASA says not to worry.

“Everyone is watching the sunspot because it has the potential to produce strong flares, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re going to have a severe magnetic storm,” Guhathakurta said.

“We can’t predict anything ahead of time,” Guhathakurta said. “We have to wait for particles to arrive at a certain point where we have a spacecraft, and this measures the particles and the orientation of the magnetic field -- that’s when we’ll know if the particles will penetrate through.”

NOAA and NASA would then issue a forecast alert to notify people of the possibility of disruptions.

If particles penetrate through, they do have the potential to affect satellites, interfere with radio signals and, in the most severe situations, create voltage fluctuations in power grids.  A 1989 power blackout in Quebec was later blamed on a solar storm, though there’s been nothing comparable since.

But, Guhathakurta said, "There’s really nothing to be afraid of. It’s typically only electronics and machinery that are affected.”

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

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