Friday, May 18, 2012

Dragon takes flight tomorrow! 05.18.12

SpaceX, a commercial spacecraft company, will make history tomorrow if all goes as planned. It will become the first private company to launch a commercially designed and built spacecraft to dock with the International Space Station. Dragon (a wonderful name with an even better logo, we think), should launch tomorrow, May 19, at 4:55 a.m. EDT from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The mission is primarily a safety test. NASA and SpaceX will both offer live coverage of the launch.

Read more from SpaceX.
Read the official Dragon press kit.
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Friday, May 11, 2012

A Super Discovery, 05.11.12

NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope has made another monumental discovery: a “super-Earth.”
Twice as big as Earth, the super-Earth is, for now, called 55 Cancri e, and is situated in the constellation Cancer, about 41 light years away. For the first time, scientists were able to actually measure the light emanating (reflected) from the planet itself, instead of measuring how much light it blocks as it transits in front of its star. Because of the low measure­ments that were taken, scientists guess that the planet is probably very dark most of the time. It appears to be tidally locked, though (one side is stuck facing its star), and that side appears to have temperatures in excess of 3,000 Fahrenheit. Just so we’re clear on how hot that is, most kinds of metal will be liquid at that temperature.
Based on their observations, scientists are saying the planet most likely has a rocky core and is covered with water. Be­cause of the extreme heat on the sunny side, however, the water is probably in a “supercritical” state, where it exists as both liquid and gas. NASA claims the atmosphere is covered with steam. Regardless, the atmosphere appears to be very thin, as it is doing such a poor job of blocking its sun’s heat.
Based on all observations made at this point, the planet cannot support life.
Read more from NASA.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Hungry, Hungry Black Holes 05.05.12

A black hole has been caught with its hand in the cookie jar, so to speak. Researchers with the space-based Galaxy Evolution Explorer (GALEX) have discovered a black hole actually in the act of consuming a nearby star.
CREDIT: NASA, S. Gezari (The Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Md.), A. Rest (Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, Md.), and R. Chornock (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astro­physics, Cambridge, Ma.)

It all started out in such a normal way— no one ever suspected the black hole was capable of doing such a heinous thing, and then blam! All that remained was crumbs.
No, that’s not really how it started. In a way, the star itself is almost to blame for its demise. The victim is a star that ap­pears to be going through a major life change, of a sort. The star appears to have been going through its red star phase, and was in the process of swelling to 100 times its original radius. The star only made it a third of the way out, however, before the nearby black hole’s tremendous gravity began stripping off some of the gasses from the edge of the star. Based on the spectrum of the gases, researchers say the star was mostly composed of helium. The researchers with GALEX have made this nifty little computer simulated representation to let us know sort of what it would look like: http://
So, why is this important? Well, for once, researchers can watch a black hole in the act of “eating” something substan­tial. Black holes are completely invisible to us— we have no technology that is capable of seeing them— all we can see is the carnage they leave behind. By watching some poor star get sucked into one, though, we will have a much better under­standing of how black holes function and “look.”
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Friday, April 27, 2012

Help wanted: Moon Mappers

Have you ever wanted to make a contribution to astronomy, but felt helpless because you did not have any good equipment for deep space observation? Not to fear! Moon Mappers needs your help.
An initiative by Cosmo Quest, the project is to attempt to map out at least 1,000,000 craters on the surface of the moon before May 5th.
Credit: Moon Mappers
Now, it may sound kind of silly to think of going about counting holes in the ground (even if it is on another world), but believe it or not, craters yield a lot of information when studied closely. More and more, scientists are discovering that craters are often sheltering harbors for ice and other frozen chemicals, which would otherwise melt and be evaporated if they were not hidden in shadow. Chemical samples from inside the craters also provide clues as to what sort of things have bombarded the moon in the past.
What’s more, Cosmo Quest has made it easy. They have managed to partner with NASA and obtain some high-resolution photos from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LROC), so all you have to do it properly mark out craters that appear to be about 1 meter in diameter on the photos. Sound simple? “There are literally millions of craters at that size,” says Dr. Pamela Gray, who is leading the Cosmo Quest project. This is so much more than a preschool counting exercise.
So, who’s up for adding some “lunar cartography” volunteer experience to their résumé?

Friday, April 20, 2012

Discovery headed to the Smithsonian, 04.20.12

Space Shuttle Discovery is on its way to the public eye at the Smithsonian. Earlier this week, the space shuttle was spotted hitching a ride to its new home on the back of a specialized 747 aircraft (pictured below).
Image Credit: NASA/Smithsonian Institution/Harold Dorwin
Yesterday, April 19th, the Discovery "attended" a ceremony (pictured below) where it traded places with space shuttle Endeavour at the Smithsonian's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. According to NASA, Discovery will soon be on display at the Smithsonian Institution's Air & Space Museum.
Image Credit: NASA/Smithsonian Institution/Carolyn Russo

Friday, April 13, 2012

Good visibility for Lyrids 2012, 04.13.12

Did you ever sit at your window as a child and marvel at “shooting stars” as they streaked across the night sky? Those were actually meteors passing across Earth’s atmosphere. Sometimes, Earth passes through fields of debris in space that cause regular, predicted “showers” of meteors. In April, we have one such shower: the Lyrids.
(NASA/MSFC/Danielle Moser)

Named after the constellation Lyra, the harp (the meteors’ apparent radiant point, or origin), the meteor shower is caused by detritus left in the wake of Comet C/1861 G1 Thatcher. Comets have a nasty habit of leaving trails of dust and ice be­hind them as they course through the sky. When Earth passes through the trails, the debris scrapes across the top of our atmosphere, glowing with the energy from the friction that is generated.
This year, the Lyrids meteor shower will take place next Satur­day evening, on the night of April 21-22. You can expect to see meteors from about 11:00pm until 5:00am. The Lyrids are al­ways very predictable, averaging about 15 meteors per hour. Peak hours could generate as many as 10-100 meteors per hour, though, according to NASA.
The moon will also be cooperating with us this year to offer the best show possible. Luna will be in her new phase around the 21st of April, so the skies will be much darker, making it easier to spot the tiny, brief streaks of light.
Do not be worried about where in the world you are at the time, either. As long as you are not surrounded by bright city lights and light pollution, you should be able to see the shower from anywhere in the world.
Read more at NASA.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Seeing the Invisible, 04.05.12

If you have ever paid a visit to the Wetherbee Planetarium here at Thronateeska Heritage Center, chances are you have heard a good deal about our film, “Black Holes: The Other Side of Infinity.” In the film, all manner of evidence is put forward about the existence of a black hole in the center of our Milky Way Galaxy. The film describes research done at the Keck Telescope in Hawai’i, where several stars have been recorded orbiting in a very strange manner the center of the Milky Way., today (04.05.12), published more information detailing re­cent studies on this supposed supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way. Telescopes have yet to reveal it. With the technology we have now, we simply cannot see anything there. Plans are in the works for bigger and better detection methods, but for now, the area known as Sagittarius A* (pronounced Sagittarius A-Star) seems to be a great big empty space of nothingness that somehow manages to make some stars orbit around it at mind-blowing speeds of over 3,000 miles a second.
CREDIT: Alain R. | Wikimedia Commons 
Astronomers know that something has to be there. Analysis shows that something packing more than 4 million times the mass of our own sun is there, yet it still cannot be seen. It does emit some radio waves, but aside from that, there is not much else to go on. Much research remains to be done to know for sure about this monster at the center of the Milky Way. One thing is certain: whatever it is, it is proving to be one great big mathematical migraine.
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