The crazy storm on Saturn

Fun fact: Saturn has a storm that's every bit as big as Jupiter's better-known Great Red Spot. It's been spinning over Saturn's north pole for 30 years. And it's shaped like a hexagon.

The planets as anthropomorphic characters

Alberta College of Art and Design student Mary, AKA Thoughts Up North, created these fantastical characters based on the planets of our solar system: "The colors are all based off the planets’ true colors, and the designs are a mix of the names’ mythos and Holst’s “The Planets” suite. They get progressively less human the further they are from the Sun, which I thought was fun." Pictured above are Mercury, Venus and Earth; Mars is gonna be everyone's favorite. Pluto fans will be delighted at its inclusion--maybe. [via Metafilter]

The least desirable addresses in the Universe

Can I interest you in a summer home on COROT-7b? Sure, the estimated surface temperature is 4,580 degrees F, the year is only 20 hours long, and it's probably just lousy with volcanoes. But, when it rains on COROT-7b, it rains rocks. No takers? Just in case, you should check out Lee Billings' slideshow on fantastically horrible planets.

"Definitive proof" of Mars water

Mars' landscape was formed by flowing water, and the proof is in the pebbles. [BBC]

Kepler 62, a planetary system like our own

Two of the five planets seen circling a distant star may be capable of supporting life, reports the team operating the Kepler Space Telescope. Relatively close to Earth's size and within their sun's habitable zone, the worlds—1200 light years away—are the most tantalizing yet in a search that began in 2009. [The Atlantic]

Space probe Voyager 1 reaches outer edges of solar system

Artist concept of NASA's Voyager spacecraft. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The Voyager 1 space craft, which was launched in 1977 to explore outer planets, has entered a new region on its way out of our solar system. It's now more than 11 billion miles (18 billion km) away from Earth and it detected "two distinct and related changes in its environment on August 25, 2012," according to a paper published in Geophysical Research Letters today and reported by Reuters earlier this week. "The probe detected dramatic changes in the levels of two types of radiation, one that stays inside the solar system, the other which comes from interstellar space."

Read the rest

The real end of the world

Once again, Earth has not been destroyed in a fiery apocalypse. But, someday, our luck will run out. Be prepared! At The Guardian, Ian Sample and Alok Jha helpfully explain how our universe will one day (finally) be destroyed. The good news: By the time that happens, you'll already be dead. [Watch Ian Sample demonstrate different scenarios for the destruction of Earth] [Watch Alok Jha describe the ultimate fate of the universe]

Apparently, planets don't always orbit stars

Because sometimes nature just likes to mess with you, here's CFBDSIR2149. It's an object in space — a relatively nearby object in space, as evidenced by the fact that this is an actual picture of it — and scientists are pretty sure that it's a planet. If they're right, then CFBDSIR2149 is also a "rogue planet", so called because it doesn't actually orbit a star. Seriously. It's just hanging out in space, doing its own thing.

Also, it's not the first time a rogue planet has been identified.

In fact, these things are probably not even particularly rare. A 2011 study published in the journal Nature estimated that rogue planets might even outnumber normal stars by 2-to-1 in the Milky Way Galaxy.

It's worth noting that rogue planets do not seem to be Earth-like. For instance, CFBDSIR2149 is roughly the size of Jupiter and, with an estimated surface temperature of 850 degrees Fahrenheit, it is not exactly a pleasant place for people. As for rogue planets come from: That's a mystery. One of the things that makes CFBDSIR2149 special, according to Phil Plait, is that it's actually close enough to us that we can collect some good data on the thing.

Read Phil Plait's description of CFBDSIR2149 at the Bad Astronomy Blog

Read the research paper announcing the discovery of CFBDSIR2149

Read about rogue planets in a Science News story from last year

Image: CFHT/P. Delorme

NASA finds Cookie Monster on surface of Mercury

Image: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab/Carnegie Institution of WA

"The superposition of younger craters on older craters (in this case two smaller craters upon the rim of an older crater) can result in landforms that appear to resemble more familiar shapes to human eyes." Definitely Cookie Monster. More: NASA.

(thanks, Miles O'Brien)

Goldilocks in space: Interview with Lee Billings about the hunt for aliens and habitable planets

Are we alone in the Universe? Last year, journalist Lee Billings wrote an excellent series of guest posts for BoingBoing about the quest to answer that question. One of those posts — Incredible Journey: Can we reach the stars without breaking the bank? — was recently reprinted in The Best Science Writing Online 2012.

As part of the publication of that anthology, journalist Steve Silberman interviewed Lee about space, the final frontier, and the voyages of starships (both the ones that already exist and the ones we imagine and hope for).

Silberman: Several times a year now, we hear about the discovery of a new exoplanet in the “Goldilocks zone” that could “potentially support life.” For example, soon after he helped discover Gliese 581g, astronomer Steven Vogt sparked a storm of media hype by claiming that “the chances for life on this planet are 100 percent.” Even setting aside the fact that the excitement of discovering a planet in the habitable zone understandably seems to have gone to Vogt’s head at that press conference, why are such calculations of the probability of life harder to perform accurately than they seem?

Billings: The question of habitability is a second-order consideration when it comes to Gliese 581g, and that fact in itself reveals where so much of this uncertainty comes from. As of right now, the most interesting thing about the “discovery” of Gliese 581g is that not everyone is convinced the planet actually exists. That’s basically because this particular detection is very much indirect — the planet’s existence is being inferred from periodic meter-per-second shifts in the position of its host star. The period of that shift corresponds to the planet’s orbit as it whips from one side of the star to the other; the meter-per-second magnitude of the shift places a lower limit on the planet’s mass, but can’t pin down the mass exactly. So that’s all this detection gives you — an orbit and a minimum mass. That’s not a lot to go on in determining what a planet’s environment might actually be like, is it?

Read the full interview at Steve Silberman's Neurotribes blog

Buy the anthology The Best Science Writing Online 2012, featuring amazing stories from all around the Internets

Searching the universe for habitable planets (video)

Filmmaker Matt Checkowski sends word of two cool new documentary shorts he produced for the University of California video series "Onward California." These episodes focus on the work of a UC Santa Cruz astrophysicist who has discovered two potentially human-inhabitable planets.

Most of the universe is incredibly hostile, it's a vacuum, it's freezing-cold space or you're burning hot near a star. The first habitable planet found outside our solar system is in a habitable-zone orbit; it's a place of refuge from the unbelievable harshness of the universe. This episode of Onward California follows Steve Vogt, a UC Santa Cruz professor of astronomy and astrophysics, into the Lick Observatory, where he has devoted years of research to find earth-like planets.

Watch: An Incredibly Hostile Universe and How To Discover Habitable Planets.

What the transit of Venus looked like to Captain Cook

In 1769, Captain James Cook was part of a massive, coordinated effort to document the transit of Venus from multiple spots around the globe. It was all part of calculating the size of the solar system, and you can read about it in Andrea Wulf's new book, Chasing Venus.

Read more about Chasing Venus at the Brain Pickings blog

The practical side of the transit of Venus

The transit of Venus is cool.

I think we can all agree on that. On Tuesday, the planet Venus will pass between us and the Sun—a little black dot sliding across the face of a giant, yellow ball. Barring the Singularity, this will be your last opportunity to see a transit of Venus. The next one won't happen until December of 2117.

But, beyond looking nifty and reminding you of your own mortality, what, exactly, is the transit of Venus good for? Is this a cultural event, a scientific event, or a little of both?

Historically, the transit of Venus provided the data that allowed us to gauge the size of the solar system for the first time. This time around, according to Space.com, researchers will be watching the transit with an eye to the universe outside our solar system. That's because what we learn from the transit of Venus could help us identify planets (including Earth-ish planets) elsewhere in the galaxy.

Astronomers already key in on transits to search for alien worlds, often finding them by detecting the telltale dips in brightness exoplanets cause when they pass in front of their parent stars. NASA's Kepler space telescope has been very successful using this technique, flagging more than 2,300 candidate alien planets to date.

“During the transit, Venus Express will make important observations of Venus’ atmosphere that will be compared with ground-based telescopes to help exoplanet hunters test their techniques," said Håkan Svedhem, ESA’s Venus Express project scientist.

Read the rest of the Space.com story

Find lots of educational materials, how-tos, and useful transit of Venus information at TransitofVenus.org

Check out Discovery News' guide to safely photographing the transit of Venus

Vesta, the planet that might have been

This is Vesta, the second largest asteroid in our solar system's main asteroid belt. Specifically, this is a view of Vesta's south pole, taken by NASA's Dawn spacecraft last September.

As it turns out, Vesta is a great illustration of the power of chance in the universe. Data collected by Dawn is showing that, once upon a time, this asteroid was on its way to planethood. But, for several reasons, it simply never grew large enough. From Science News:

... according to Dawn observations, Vesta did indeed agglomerate enough rocky debris as it grew to heat itself by the decay of the rock's radioactive elements. That heat led to the separation of the primordial body into a rocky crust, an underlying rocky mantle, and a central metallic core, hallmarks of planet Earth and the other rocky planets. Dawn was the first to detect Vesta's now-solid core.

Vesta isn't unique in this, but it does provide an interesting moment to stop and think a little bit about randomness and the process of planetary birth. This news about Vesta is a nice reminder that there's really no reason why our solar system has to have eight planets. It could have had fewer. It could have had more. And some bodies—like Ceres and Pluto—are really only a trick of taxonomy away from being planets.

Read more about Vesta on Science News

Gomez's Hamburger: A great name for a star

Thanks to a tweet by Ars Technica's John Timmer, I was introduced this morning to Gomez's Hamburger—a delightfully named astronomical feature about 900 lightyears away from Earth.

The name is funny. But what makes Gomez's Hamburger worth posting about here is that it gives you a glimpse of a process you've probably only read about before. Scientists think that planets form out of clouds of gas and dust circling a star. Over time, bits of dust clump together into larger objects, which in turn collide and smush into even larger objects. Eventually, instead of a star sitting in a dust cloud like Pigpen from Peanuts, you've got a classy, mature star orbited by a series of planets.

Gomez's Hamburger is most likely a young star sitting in a dust cloud. The dust is actually the meat in this sandwich. The "buns" are actually light reflecting off of the dust.