astroengine writes: 85 years before NASA's New Horizons mission buzzed Pluto on July 14, 2015, the dwarf planet (then a planet) was found hidden in photographic plates by astronomer Clyde Tombaugh while he was working at Lowell Observatory in Arizona. Those plates came from a telescope (actually, an "astrograph," or astronomical camera) that was built specifically to hunt down the much-fabled "Planet X" that was believed to be a massive planet orbiting beyond Neptune. Though it turned out Pluto wasn't a massive planet, it was a planet nonetheless and its 1930 discovery went down in the history books as the year an American astronomer added the 9th planet to the solar system. But now, 87 years since its construction, the Pluto Discovery Telescope needs help and a Kickstarter campaign has been set up to get the telescope and its dome back in working order. There are even hopes to get its optics back up to par so it can image Pluto once more. "People have such a connection with Pluto... there's a certain magic," said Lowell Observatory Historian Kevin Schindler. "There's a lot more feeling and emotion over Pluto than the other planets."
astroengine writes: Astronomers have found another Pluto-like dwarf planet located about 20 times farther away from the sun than Neptune. The small planet, designed 2015 RR245, is estimated to be about 435 miles in diameter and flying in an elliptical, 700-year orbit around the sun. At closest approach, RR245 will be about 3.1 billion miles from the sun, a milestone it is expected to next reach in 2096. At its most distant point, the icy world is located about 7.5 billion miles away. It was found by a joint team of astronomers using the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope (CFHT) on Maunakea, Hawaii, in images taken in September 2015 and analyzed in February. The discovery was announced on Monday in the Minor Planet Electronic Circular.
astroengine writes: A powerful new instrument at one of the world's most powerful observatories is now online and capturing its first deep views of the environment surrounding the black hole behemoth center of our Milky Way. The GRAVITY instrument is currently undergoing commissioning at the Very Large Telescope (VLT) Interferometer at the ESO's Paranal Observatory in Chile and it's prime mission is to ultimately probe the region immediately surrounding Sagittarius A*, the 4 million solar mass supermassive black hole that lurks in the center of our galaxy, around 25,000 light-years from Earth. This sophisticated instrument collects light from the four main 8.2 meter diameter telescopes of the VLT Interferometer, combining it as one.
astroengine writes: Numerical simulations of Pluto's geology have provided new evidence that the dwarf planet is sporting its very own subsurface ocean. "Thanks to the incredible data returned by New Horizons, we were able to observe tectonic features on Pluto's surface, update our thermal evolution model with new data and infer that Pluto most likely has a subsurface ocean today," said lead author and graduate student Noah Hammond, of Brown University. "What New Horizons showed was that there are extensional tectonic features, which indicate that Pluto underwent a period of global expansion. A subsurface ocean that was slowly freezing over would cause this kind of expansion."
astroengine writes: The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile has, for the first time, spotted million solar mass clouds of cold, dense molecular gas condense inside the Abell 2597 galaxy cluster, around one billion light-years from Earth. These massive clouds are now speeding their way toward a supermassive black hole, providing some compelling evidence as to how the monster black holes in the centers of galaxies get so incredibly big.
astroengine writes: Despite being so far from the sun, tiny Pluto, which is smaller than Earth’s moon, has had an active geologic life from the start, one that continues to present day, research published on Thursday shows. The evidence is all over Pluto’s face, which was observed close-up for the first time by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft on July 14, 2015. With most of the high-resolution images from the flyby now back on Earth, scientists say Pluto’s mountains, glacial flows, rotated ice blocks, volcano-like mounds and other features rival the geology found on much larger, warmer planets like Mars. The physical and chemical conditions on Pluto, located about 40 times farther away from the sun than Earth, have played out in unusual and largely unforeseen ways. Highly volatile cryogenic ices, such as nitrogen, carbon monoxide, methane, vaporize into Pluto’s hazy and surprisingly compact atmosphere. Internal heating, fueled by the natural decay of radioactive elements in Pluto’s rocks and other sources, likely keeps an ocean of ammonia-rich water liquid beneath the dwarf planet’s frozen surface. This has, of course, led to excitement for the possibility of life, as not-so-subtly hinted at by New Horizons’ lead scientist Alan Stern: "Anytime you have liquid water, the astrobiologists get interested in that place. That’s as far as I’m willing to go."
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!