Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Scientists Discover 3 Earth-Like Planets That May Have Aliens

Astronomers have discovered three Earth-like exoplanets orbiting an ultracool dwarf star, just 40 light years from Earth. Scientists say that the sizes and temperatures of these planets are comparable to those of Earth and Venus, and are the best targets found so far for the search for life outside our solar system.  

Researchers focused the TRAPPIST (TRAnsiting Planets and PlanetesImals Small Telescope) on the ultracool dwarf star, 2MASS J23062928-0502285, now known as TRAPPIST-1, a Jupiter-sized star that is one-eighth the size of our sun and significantly cooler. Over several months starting in September 2015, the scientists observed the star’s infrared signal fade slightly at regular intervals, suggesting that several objects were passing in front of the star.

With further observations, astronomers confirmed the objects were indeed planets, with similar sizes to Earth and Venus. The two innermost planets orbit the star in 1.5 and 2.4 days, though they receive only four and two times the amount of radiation, respectively, as the Earth receives from the sun. The third planet may orbit the star in anywhere from four to 73 days, and may receive even less radiation than Earth. 

Given their size and proximity to their ultracool star, researchers believe that all three planets may have regions with temperatures well below 400 kelvins, within a range that is suitable for sustaining liquid water and life.

Because the system is just 40 light years from Earth, study co-author Julien de Wit, says scientists will soon be able to study the planets’ atmospheric compositions, as well as assess their habitability and whether life actually exists within this planetary system.

“These planets are so close, and their star so small, we can study their atmosphere and composition, and further down the road, which is within our generation, assess if they are actually inhabited,” de Wit says. “All of these things are achievable, and within reach now. This is a jackpot for the field.”

From their observations, the scientists determined that all three planets are likely tidally locked, with permanent day and night sides. The two planets closest to the star may have day sides that are too hot, and night sides too cold, to host any life forms. However, there may be a “sweet spot” on the western side of both planets — a region that still receives daylight, but with relatively cool temperatures — that may be temperate enough to sustain conditions suitable for life. The third planet, furthest from its star, may be entirely within the habitable zone.

Image credit: M. Kornmesser/ESO 
Article Source: Jennifer Chu / MIT News Office

Watch The Eta Aquarids Meteor Shower In May 2016

Skywatchers can view the Eta Aquarids meteor shower during the predawn mornings from May 3rd to May 8th, 2016.  The meteor shower peaks on the night of May 5th into the morning of May 6th, 2016.

While not as intense or brilliant as other meteor showers during 2016, Eta Aquarid meteors are known for their speed - traveling at about 66 km/s (148,000 mph) into Earth's atmosphere. Fast meteors can leave glowing "trains" (incandescent bits of debris in the wake of the meteor) which last for several seconds to minutes.

Eta Aquarids are pieces of debris left over from comet 1P/Halley. Every 76 years, Halley's Comet returns to the inner solar system and its nucleus sheds a layer of ice and rock into space. The dust grains left by Halley's Comet eventually become the Eta Aquarids in May and the Orionids in October if they collide with Earth's atmosphere.

When to watch tonight's meteor shower

The Eta Aquarids will be viewable all over the world during pre-dawn hours. In 2016, the New Moon on May 6 will darken the night sky and make viewing meteor shower easier than other years.

Where to watch the May 2016 meteor shower

Although the southern hemisphere has the better view, the Eta Aquarids are capable of producing 30 meteors per hour during the meteor shower's peak in the Northern Hemisphere (and around 10 meteors per hour during the dates before and after the peak). Cloudless skies and far away from city lights are ideal for watching meteor showers. 

Where to look for the Eta Aquarid meteors

Lie on your back and look straight up.  You can tell if a meteor belongs to a particular shower by tracing back its path to see if it originates near a specific point in the sky, called the radiant. The constellation in which the radiant is located gives the shower its name. In this case, Eta Aquarids appear to come from a point in the constellation of Aquarius.

Aquarius is higher up in the sky in the Southern Hemisphere than it is in the Northern Hemisphere. In the Northern Hemisphere, Eta Aquarid meteors can be seen as "earthgrazers." Earthgrazers are long meteors that appear to skim the surface of the Earth at the horizon.

Image Credit: NASA

Thursday, April 28, 2016

SpaceX To Launch Mission To Mars In 2018

SpaceX Red Dragon on Mars

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida - SpaceX announced on Wednesday that the innovative aerospace company will launch its 'Red Dragon' capsule to Mars aboard a Falcon Heavy rocket as soon as 2018. 

The Falcon Heavy is designed to lift into orbit over 53 metric tons (117,000 lb) - a mass equivalent to a 737 jetliner loaded with passengers, crew, luggage and fuel, according to SpaceX's website.  Only the Saturn V rocket used for the Apollo moon landings could deliver more payload to orbit.

The "Red Dragon" is the name of the first test flight of SpaceX's Dragon 2 spacecraft which could be used on missions to planets beyond Mars.

"Dragon 2 is designed to be able to land anywhere in the solar system," SpaceX CEO Elon Musk Tweeted. "Red Dragon Mars mission is the first test flight."

However, the Dragon 2 is not designed to transport humans to other planets.

"But wouldn't recommend transporting astronauts beyond Earth-moon region," Tweeted Musk. "Wouldn't be fun for longer journeys. Internal volume ~size of SUV."

The full details of SpaceX's mission to Mars have yet to be revealed, but is part of a 2014 contract with NASA where the space agency would provide technical data and expertise to support  " ... SpaceX’s anticipated development of space transportation capabilities to and from Mars for unmanned science, and ultimately crew missions ..."

Image credits: SpaceX

Falcon Heavy

SpaceX Breaks ULA Monopoly With $83 Million USAF Contract Award

SpaceX Falcon 9 Rocket

The U.S. Air Force announced on Wednesday the award of an $83 million global positioning satellite launch contract to Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), breaking a decade-long monopoly held by United Launch Alliance (ULA).

"This GPS III Launch Services contract award achieves a balance between mission success, meeting operational needs, lowering launch costs, and reintroducing competition for National Security Space missions," said Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves, Air Force Program Executive Officer for Space and SMC commander.

The SpaceX contract is for the second GPS III mission that is scheduled to launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in May 2018.

ULA is a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin that had been the sole provider of launch vehicles under an Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) contract with the U.S. Air Force.  

In 2013, ULA was awarded a sole-source contract for launch services as part of an Air Force "block buy" of 36 rocket cores that resulted in significant savings for the government through FY 2017.  SpaceX then filed a federal lawsuit which complained of ULA's monopoly and reliance on the Russian-made RD-180 rocket engine. 

After SpaceX's lawsuit, the Air Force and Department of Defense made a concerted effort to reintroduce a competitive procurement environment into the EELV with a 'Phase 1A' procurement strategy.  Under the previous 'Phase 1' strategy, ULA was the only certified launch provider.  

SpaceX was certified for EELV launches in May 2015 which resulted in two launch service providers that are capable to deliver national security space satellites to orbit.  

The Air Force stated that the SpaceX contract is the first of nine competitive launch services planned under the current Phase 1A procurement strategy, which covers awards with FY 2015-2018 funding.  The next solicitation for launch services will be for a second GPS III satellite.

Photo credit: SpaceX

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

NASA Releases Stunning Video Of April 2016 Solar Flare

April 17, 2016 Solar Flare

NASA released a video of a solar flare that occurred in April 2016 that the space agency described as 'stunning.'

Around 8:30 p.m. EDT on April 17, 2016, an active region on the sun’s right side released a mid-level solar flare, which can be seen in this video as a colorful and bright flash of light. 

The video was captured in several wavelengths of extreme ultraviolet light, a type of light that is typically invisible to our eyes, but is color-coded by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory for easy viewing.

Solar flares are powerful bursts of radiation. Harmful radiation from a flare cannot pass through Earth's atmosphere to physically affect humans on the ground, however - when intense enough - they can disturb the atmosphere in the layer where GPS and communications signals travel. NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center stated that "moderate radio blackouts were observed" during the peak of the flare.
This flare was classified as an M6.7 class flare. M-class flares are a tenth the size of the most intense flares, the X-class flares. The number provides more information about its strength. An M2 is twice as intense as an M1, an M3 is three times as intense, etc.

This flare came from an area of complex magnetic activity on the sun – known as an active region, and in this case labeled Active Region 2529 – which has sported a large dark spot, called a sunspot, over the past several days. This sunspot has changed shape and size as it slowly made its way across the sun’s face over the past week and half. For much of that time, it was big enough to be visible from the ground without magnification and is currently large enough that almost five Earths could fit inside. 

The sunspot rotated out of our view over the right side of the sun on April 20, 2016. Scientists study such sunspots in order to better understand what causes them to sometimes erupt with solar flares.

Video and image credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

NASA To Invest $67 Million In Plasma Rocket Propulsion

Hall thruster

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida - NASA announced that the agency will invest $67 million in the development of Hall thrusters that create plasma rocket propulsion through the ionization of gas.

NASA awarded a $67 million Advanced Electric Propulsion System contract to Aerojet Rocketdyne, Inc. to design and develop an advanced electric propulsion system that could potentially increase spaceflight transportation fuel efficiency by 10 times over current chemical propulsion technology and more than double thrust capability compared to current electric propulsion systems.

NASA hopes to use the Advanced Electric Propulsion System for deep space missions, Mars missions, and to push an asteroid boulder into orbit around Earth's moon in the mid-2020's.

How Does a Hall Thruster Work?

A Hall thruster is a type of electric propulsion device that produces thrust by ionizing and accelerating a noble gas, usually xenon. While producing comparatively low thrust relative to conventional rocket engines, Hall thrusters provide significantly greater specific impulse, or fuel economy. This results in increased payload carrying capacity and a greater number of on-orbit maneuvers for a spacecraft using Hall thrusters rather than traditional rocket engines.

Hall thrusters trap electrons in a magnetic field and use them to ionize the onboard propellant. The magnetic field also generates an electric field that accelerates the charged ions creating an exhaust plume of plasma that pushes the spacecraft forward.  When solar arrays are used to supplement the electrical power, a Hall thruster can be a part of an advanced Solar Electric Propulsion system that uses 10 times less propellant than equivalent chemical rockets.

NASA's first successful ion electric propulsion thruster was developed at Glenn Research Center in the 1950's. The first operational test of an electric propulsion system in space was Glenn’s Space Electric Rocket Test 1 which flew on July 20, 1964.

Recently, NASA engineers from Glenn and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory successfully tested a breakthrough, higher power Hall thruster design in a vacuum chamber on Earth to simulate the space environment. The design was then tested in outer space in 2015 aboard the USAF X-37B.

NASA has increasingly relied on solar electric propulsion for long-duration, deep-space robotic science and exploration missions to multiple destinations. The most recent use of this propulsion was during NASA’s Dawn mission which surveyed the giant asteroid Vesta and Ceres.

Friday, April 22, 2016

VIDEO: Full Pink Moon

Full Pink Moon: Credit NASA

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida -- There will be a Full Moon tonight on Friday, April 22, 2016 that is also known as a Pink Moon.

What time is tonight's Pink Moon?

Tonight's Pink Moon will begin with a moonrise over the Atlantic Ocean on the U.S. east coast at 8:25 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time with a slight time variation depending on the viewer's exact location.

Is the April 2016 Full Moon supposed to be pink tonight?

A Full Moon in April is also called a Pink Moon.  But the time of year that a Full Moon appears does not affect its color.  A Full Moon in April is called a Pink Moon because Colonial Americans learned that name from Native Americans who associated the April Full Moon with the blooming of pink flowers in Spring, according to the Farmer's Amanac. Other names for April's Full Moon are also associated with Springtime: Full Sprouting Grass Moon (spouting vegetation in Spring), Egg Moon (animal mating in Spring), and Full Fish Moon (when fish spawn in spring).

Will tonight's Full Moon be Pink?

The Full Moon on April 22, 2016 will likely be pearly-gray to most locations on Earth just like any other Full Moon.  But particles in the local atmosphere caused by weather, forest fires, volcanoes, and pollution can filter out certain colors of the moon. This is especially true when the moon rises or sets near the horizon and the sunlight reflecting from the moon has more atmosphere to travel through before reaching the viewer on Earth. Moons have appeared pink, yellow, red, blue, green, and (most often) orange. 

Below is a video of an April Full Moon that first appeared to be pink when it first appeared over the horizon. The Moon then changed from pink to orange (and later yellow) as it rose higher in the sky.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

OneWeb To Build Satellites At Kennedy Space Center

OneWeb satellite constellation

MERRITT ISLAND, Florida - Governor Rick Scott announced that OneWeb, a global communications network company, will expand in Brevard County and create 250 high-tech manufacturing and engineering jobs. The company has already begun advertising job postings for Florida's Space Coast.

OneWeb plans to locate a 100,000 square foot satellite manufacturing facility on Florida’s Space Coast at Exploration Park, just south of Kennedy Space Center. The project will also invest nearly $85 million into the community. OneWeb is working to create a global, satellite based communications network capable of delivering internet connectivity anywhere in the world.

“It’s great news that OneWeb has chosen to build one of the world’s most advanced aerospace manufacturing facilities right here in Florida," Governor Scott said. "We have worked hard to permanently eliminate the sales tax on manufacturing machinery and equipment so companies like OneWeb can succeed right here in Florida. I look forward to seeing OneWeb Satellite’s continued success in Florida.”

OneWeb, which was founded by technology entrepreneur and former Google executive Greg Wyler, will design, build and launch an extensive network of small, low earth orbit satellites that will enable the delivery of internet services to every corner of the Earth at a low cost. These small satellites will be manufactured at the Space Coast facility and will be mass produced utilizing fewer components thus making them lighter and easier to launch.

Once the satellites are in orbit, OneWeb's ground terminals will act as small cells with the ability to provide access to the surrounding local area via a WiFi, LTE, 3G or 2G connection using an operator partner’s licensed spectrum, or only LTE or WiFi on unlicensed spectrum.

“This new facility is another step in the dream of enabling affordable internet access for the entire globe," said Wyler. "These satellites are truly state of the art as we have really pushed, but not exceeded, the limits of technology. With this new facility we will be able to iterate, update and continuously improve the satellite’s design and performance, and being right at the Space Center using Virgin Galactic we will be able to launch new satellites within hours of completion.”

OneWeb has teamed with a number of partners and suppliers to achieve their vision for connectivity. Airbus Defence and Space will begin by building test satellites at its facility in Toulouse, France; Arianespace and Virgin Galactic will provide launch services support; Hughes Network Systems will build ground monitoring and management hardware; and Intelsat will manage the satellite fleet for the company.

“Florida is an excellent location for our high volume satellite manufacturing facility," said Brian Holz, CEO of OneWeb Satellites. "The State of Florida and Space Florida really understood our business needs and gave us an outstanding offer to locate in Exploration Park. Our high volume satellite production uses many of the same technologies as aircraft production and Florida has become a center of excellence for both aviation and space related technologies. We will leverage much of the local aerospace capability expanding opportunity in the Space Coast region, and we also anticipate many of our suppliers to co-locate operations near our facility. The facility will be a big part of our ability to dramatically lower satellite costs for OneWeb and other customers as we grow our business.”

“The announcement of OneWeb’s presence here at Exploration Park is one that perfectly aligns with Space Florida’s vision of the Cape Canaveral Spaceport and Florida as the world’s leading space commerce center." Frank DiBello, President and CEO of Space Florida said. "Our ever-expanding commercial space industry at the Cape Canaveral Spaceport will now be home to the most advanced satellite manufacturing capability in the world, and Space Florida looks forward to OneWeb Satellite’s success.

Photo: An artist's rendition of OneWeb's satellite constellation. Credit: OneWeb 

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

NASA: Gamma-Ray Burst Followed Gravitational Waves Detected Near Earth

A Gamma-ray burst followed the detection of gravitational waves near Earth last year.

NASA scientists discovered that a Gamma-ray burst followed the detection of gravitational waves near Earth last year. 

Waves of energy traveling for more than a billion years gently rattled space-time in the vicinity of Earth last September. The disturbance, produced by a pair of merging black holes, was captured by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) facilities in Washington and Louisiana.

Less than half a second after LIGO detected gravitational waves, the Gamma-ray Burst Monitor (GBM) on NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope picked up a brief, weak burst of high-energy light consistent with the same part of the sky. Analysis of this burst suggests just a 0.2-percent chance of simply being random coincidence. Gamma-rays arising from a black hole merger would be a landmark finding because black holes are expected to merge “cleanly,” without producing any sort of light.

Gamma-ray bursts are widely thought to occur when orbiting compact objects, like neutron stars and black holes, spiral inward and crash together. These same systems also are suspected to be prime producers of gravitational waves. 

Currently, gravitational wave observatories possess relatively blurry vision. For the September event, dubbed GW150914 after the date, LIGO scientists could only trace the source to an arc of sky spanning an area of about 600 square degrees, comparable to the angular area on Earth occupied by the United States. 

“That's a pretty big haystack to search when your needle is a short GRB, which can be fast and faint, but that’s what our instrument is designed to do," said Eric Burns, a GBM team member at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. "A GBM detection allows us to whittle down the LIGO area and substantially shrinks the haystack."  

The burst effectively occurred beneath Fermi and at a high angle to the GBM detectors, a situation that limited their ability to establish a precise position. Fortunately, Earth blocked a large swath of the burst’s likely location as seen by Fermi at the time, allowing scientists to further narrow down the burst’s position.       

The GBM team calculates less than a 0.2-percent chance random fluctuations would have occurred in such close proximity to the merger. 

Assuming the GBM burst is connected to this event, the GBM localization and Fermi's view of Earth combine to reduce the LIGO search area by about two-thirds, to 200 square degrees. With a burst better placed for the GBM’s detectors, or one bright enough to be seen by Fermi’s Large Area Telescope, even greater improvements are possible. 

The LIGO event was produced by the merger of two relatively large black holes, each about 30 times the mass of the sun. Binary systems with black holes this big were not expected to be common, and many questions remain about the nature and origin of the system.

Black hole mergers were not expected to emit significant X-ray or gamma-ray signals because orbiting gas is needed to generate light. Theorists expected any gas around binary black holes would have been swept up long before their final plunge. For this reason, some astronomers view the GBM burst as most likely a coincidence and unrelated to GW150914. Others have developed alternative scenarios where merging black holes could create observable gamma-ray emission. It will take further detections to clarify what really happens when black holes collide.

Article source, image, and video credit: NASA

Sunday, April 17, 2016

4 Years Ago: Space Shuttle Discovery's Last Flyby Over Brevard County

COCOA BEACH, Florida -  In what would be a heartbreaking moment for many Space Coast residents, the Space Shuttle Discovery made one last piggy-back ride fly-over Brevard County, Florida on April 17, 2012 before leaving for the National Aeronautics and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

Another chapter in the history of the Space Shuttle Program closed when Discovery's heat shields were aglow, not from orbital re-entry, but from the morning sun rising over the Atlantic Ocean as it flew parallel to the beach.

The Space Shuttle Discovery departed from Kennedy Space Center at 7:00 a.m. and flew south to Patrick Air Force Base.  Then, the modified 747 turned north and flew over the Shuttle Landing Facility in Merritt Island, Florida at approximately 7:20 a.m. for one final time before flying to Washington, D.C.

Discovery's first launch from Kennedy Space Center was on August 30, 1984. Over the following twenty-seven years, Discovery would launch and land 39 times, garnering more spaceflights than any other spacecraft in space history.

Discovery's final launch from Kennedy Space Center was on February 24, 2011 and touched down for the final time at KSC's Space Shuttle landing facility on March 9, 2011.