astroengine writes: Jupiter’s Big Red Spot is the largest example of a long-lived storm in the solar system, but now it has some pretty stiff competition in another star system. However, this “exo-storm” hasn’t been spied on another gas giant, it’s been spotted in the uppermost layers of a cool, small "failed star" or brown dwarf. Using 3 NASA space telescopes, new research published in The Astrophysical Journal has found that this spot isn't a starspot, but a bona fide storm that has more in common with Jupiter's famous cyclone. So is this REALLY a failed star? Or is is an "overachieving planet"?
astroengine writes: The Japanese space agency JAXA has released a confirmation that their Venus mission Akatsuki did indeed enter orbit at Venus on Dec. 7 (JST) — releasing unprocessed images of the Venusian atmosphere as it entered orbit. The spacecraft is currently in a highly-elliptical 13-day, 14-hour orbit around the planet, coming within 400 kilometers (248 miles) at its closest point and reaching 440,000 kilometers (243,400 miles) away at its farthest. This mission has just become the most unlikely success story of 2015 after "missing" it's intended Venus orbit way back in 2010.
StartsWithABang writes: If you want to explore the Universe, you need a telescope with good light gathering power, a high-quality camera to make the most out of each photon, and a superior observing location, complete with dark skies, clear nights, and still, high-altitude air. There are only a few places on Earth that have all of these qualities consistently, and perhaps the best one is atop Mauna Kea on Hawaii. Yet generations of wrongs have occurred to create the great telescope complex that's up there today, and astronomers continue to lease the land for far less than it's worth despite violating the original contract. That's astronomy as we know it so far, and perhaps the Mauna Kea protests signal a long awaited end to that.
astroengine writes: In an interesting interview with Discovery News, retired NASA astronauts Clay Anderson (Expedition 15/16) and Steve Swanson (Expedition 39/40) discussed their views on how the US space agency should select the first Mars-bound astronauts — a mission that is slated to commence in the late 2020's. While Swanson thinks that the current NASA astronaut selection process should suffice for a long-duration foray to the Red Planet, Anderson isn't so sure, saying, "(Mars) doesn’t require a jet fighter pilot. It doesn’t require a Ph.D. astronaut — although those people would be just fine, but I think that it’s going to take people that are very good generalists, that can do many things." As depicted in the upcoming Matt Damon movie, "The Martian," Mark Watney (Damon) is thrown into an unexpected, life-threatening situation, requiring him to use his general skill set to survive on the barren landscape until he's rescued. As the first manned missions to Mars will likely throw unforeseen challenges at the explorers, it will probably be a good idea to have a crew that are adept at thinking on the fly and skilled in many different areas rather than being a specialist in one.
astroengine writes: Scientists have their first evidence that trickles of liquid water play a role in sculpting mysterious dark streaks that appear during summertime months on Mars, a finding that has implications for potential life on Mars, as well as planning for future human expeditions. The discovery, reported Monday in the journal Nature Geoscience, follows years of speculation and studies to learn why the faces of some cliff walls on Mars are streaked with narrow dark slopes, some more than 300 feet long, that appear when temperatures are warm and then vanish during the winter chill. The streaks, known as recurring slope lineae, or RSL, were first reported in 2011 in the Martian southern highlands, but have since been found throughout the planet’s equatorial region, particularly within deep canyons. Using data collected by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and a new analysis technique, scientists were for the first time able to detect the telltale chemical fingerprints of hydrated salts in dozens of RSL sites.
“That implies that there was liquid water there very recently to leave this residue of hydrated salts. It confirms that water is playing a role in these features,” Arizona State University planetary geologist Alfred McEwen told Discovery News.
astroengine writes: Scientists have solved the mystery of why the comet being studied by Europe’s Rosetta spacecraft is shaped like a rubber duck — it started off as TWO separate comets, a new study shows. Ever since Rosetta sent back pictures of its twin-lobed target more than a year ago, scientists have debated whether the comet, known as 67P/Churyumov-Garasimenko, could be the result of two comets that merged together during the solar system’s early years. The other option is that the so-called “neck region” between 67P’s two lobes experienced some particularly active and still unexplained outgassing over the eons, eroding its more spherical shape into a body that resembles a rubber duck. “Our study rules out the possibility that the comet shape is the outcome of erosion,” planetary scientist Matteo Massironi, with the University of Padova in Italy, wrote in an email to Discovery News. Rather, the neck region is where two independent bodies collided, analysis of high-resolution images taken by the orbiting Rosetta spacecraft shows.
astroengine writes: Scientists have long puzzled over how gas planets like Jupiter and Saturn got to be so big. Current theories suggest the cores of these behemoths are comprised of mini-planets, some 62- to 620 miles in diameter, which collided and gradually merged together over time. But computer simulations show this process is more likely to produce hundreds of Earth-sized worlds. Instead, a new study suggests "slow pebble accretion" is a more likely process.
astroengine writes: This gorgeous photo, captured from the International Space Station on the night of Aug. 10, 2015, shows an orbital view of thunderstorms over the city lights of southern Mexico as a recumbent Orion rises over Earth’s limb. But wait, there’s more: along the right edge of the picture a cluster of bright red and purple streamers can be seen rising above a blue-white flash of lightning: it’s an enormous red sprite caught on camera! First photographed in 1989, red sprites are very brief flashes of optical activity that are associated with powerful lightning. So-called because of their elusive nature, sprites typically appear as branching red tendrils reaching up above the region of an exceptionally strong lightning flash. These electrical discharges can extend as high as 55 miles (90 kilometers) into the atmosphere, with the brightest region usually around altitudes of 40–45 miles (65–75 km). Sprites don’t last very long — 3–10 milliseconds at most — and so to catch one (technically here it’s a cluster of them) on camera is a real feat... or, in this case, a great surprise!
astroengine writes: From his backyard in Östersund, Sweden, professional photographer and astrophotographer Göran Strand took a look at the sun using his portable solar telescope “to see if something interesting was going on.” And sure enough, there was something VERY interesting going on. Something was towering over the solar disk — something that looked like the Eiffel Tower? Of course, this isn’t the famous Parisian landmark, nor is it some Photoshop trickery; the structure Strand had spotted was a solar prominence, and a beautiful one at that.
astroengine writes: A study of more than 200,000 galaxies, encompassing wavelengths of light from the far ultraviolet to infrared, shows that the universe is producing half as much energy as it did 2 billion years ago and continues to fade. “Newer galaxies are simply putting out less energy than galaxies did in the past,” astronomer Mehmet Alpaslan, with NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., told Discovery News. In other words, astronomers, for the first time, have gathered observational evidence that our universe is slowly marching toward its eventual heat death (in a few trillion years time).
astroengine writes: As a suitably impressive follow-up to the new “blue marble” image of our world released in July, today NASA shared a gorgeous animation created from pictures captured by NOAA’s Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) spacecraft positioned nearly a million miles (1.5 million km) away — over four times farther than the moon. In a series of images acquired between 3:50 and 8:45 p.m. EDT on July 16, 2015, the moon can be seen passing in front of a rotating Earth, the warm gray face of its far side framed by the swirling-cloud-covered blue water of the eastern Pacific Ocean. The north pole is at the 11 o’clock position, illustrating our planet’s 23.5-degree axial tilt.
astroengine writes: SpaceShipTwo co-pilot Michael Alsbury was not properly trained to realize the consequences of unlocking the vehicle’s hinged tail section too soon, a mistake that led to his death and the destruction of the ship during a test flight in California last year. Responsibility for the accident falls to SpaceShipTwo manufacturer Scaled Composites, a Mojave, Calif., company owned by Northrop Grumman Corp, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) determined at a webcast hearing on Tuesday. Poor oversight by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which oversees commercial spaceflights in the United States, was also a factor in the accident, the NTSB said.
astroengine writes: New measurements made by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft confirm Pluto actually is the reigning king of the Kuiper Belt, with a diameter that surpasses the size of Eris, another so-called “dwarf planet” in the solar system’s backyard. “That settles the debate about the largest object in the Kuiper Belt,” New Horizons lead scientist Alan Stern, with the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo., told reporters Monday. The observations, relayed as New Horizons neared Pluto after a 9.5-year, 3 billion mile journey, show that Pluto spans about 1,473 miles in diameter. Scientists suspect the maximum diameter for Eris, which circles the sun about three times farther than Pluto, is 1,445 miles.
astroengine writes: At 10:30 a.m. EDT on Sunday, SpaceX will make another attempt at landing the first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket on a floating platform off the coast of Florida after sending the Dragon cargo vehicle to the International Space Station. Although SpaceX is hoping to achieve something the rocket industry has never done before (true usability of rocket engines, cutting costs), it's not the only game in town — Blue Origin, ULA and Airbus all have rocket return desires.