NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is expected to radio home any minute now. We're watching on NASA TV. The moment will end a nearly 22-hour radio blackout as the probe focused on a series of close-up observations of Pluto and its moons.
From SpaceFlight Now:
Engineers expect to lock on to a carrier signal, then start receiving housekeeping data on the status of the New Horizons spacecraft. No science data will come down during Tuesday night’s pass.
“The reason why you’re not seeing more things immediately is because the spacecraft is spending all its time making the observations of the Pluto system,” says Hal Weaver, New Horizons’ project sciences from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland. “That’s what we wanted to do. Of course, you want to optimize the scientific return from the mission.
A signal from New Horizons will be a celebratory moment for the hundreds of engineers and scientists working on the mission. The cessation of communications was part of the plan going into the flyby because New Horizons carries a fixed antenna, meaning mission managers have to choose between contacting Earth and conducting scientific work at Pluto.
“Now that I have a reasonable-resolution global color view of Pluto,” writes Emily Lakdawalla, “I can drop it into one of my trademark scale image montages, to show you how it fits in with the rest of the similar-sized worlds in the solar system: the major moons and the biggest asteroids.” Read the rest
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Alex Boese has a great article on About Entertainment on the history of people who claimed ownership of stars, moons, and planets and then sold deeds to plots of land on the heavenly bodies. And they had buyers!
In 2013, Maria Angeles Duran began selling plots of land on eBay. That, in itself, isn't unusual, but the land she was selling was located on the sun. She offered square-meter plots for the price of 1 euro each. By 2015, she had over 600 buyers, but then eBay pulled the plug on her, saying her auctions violated its "intangible goods" policy.
Duran didn't take this lying down. She sued the auction site for violation of contract, arguing that the sun is, indeed, a tangible object, and a Spanish court agreed to hear her case.
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]
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]
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."
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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 about rogue planets in a Science News story from last year
Image: CFHT/P. Delorme
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?
Buy the anthology The Best Science Writing Online 2012, featuring amazing stories from all around the Internets
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.
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.