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Hubble Reveals a New Class of Extrasolar Planet

February 21, 2012 2 comments

Image Credit: NASA, ESA, and D. Aguilar (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics)

Image Credit: NASA, ESA, and D. Aguilar (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics)

Observations by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope have come up with a new class of planet, a waterworld enshrouded by a thick, steamy atmosphere. It’s smaller than Uranus but larger than Earth.

An international team of astronomers led by Zachory Berta of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) made the observations of the planet GJ 1214b.

GJ 1214b is like no planet we know of,” Berta said. “A huge fraction of its mass is made up of water.

The ground-based MEarth Project, led by CfA’s David Charbonneau, discovered GJ 1214b in 2009. This super-Earth is about 2.7 times Earth’s diameter and weighs almost seven times as much. It orbits a red-dwarf star every 38 hours at a distance of 2 million kilometres, giving it an estimated temperature of 230 degrees Celsius.

In 2010, CfA scientist Jacob Bean and colleagues reported that they had measured the atmosphere of GJ 1214b, finding it likely that it was composed mainly of water. However, their observations could also be explained by the presence of a planet-enshrouding haze in GJ 1214b’s atmosphere.

Full Story: http://www.spacetelescope.org/news/heic1204/

NASA Spacecraft Reveals Recent Geological Activity on the Moon

February 21, 2012 Leave a comment

Image Credit: NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University/Smithsonian Institution

Image Credit: NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University/Smithsonian Institution

New images from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) spacecraft show the moon’s crust is being stretched, forming minute valleys in a few small areas on the lunar surface. Scientists propose this geologic activity occurred less than 50 million years ago, which is considered recent compared to the moon’s age of more than 4.5 billion years.

A team of researchers analyzing high-resolution images obtained by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC) show small, narrow trenches typically much longer than they are wide. This indicates the lunar crust is being pulled apart at these locations. These linear valleys, known as graben, form when the moon’s crust stretches, breaks and drops down along two bounding faults. A handful of these graben systems have been found across the lunar surface.

Full Story: http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/LRO/news/lunar-graben.html

Scientists Launch NASA Rocket into Aurora

February 21, 2012 Leave a comment

With the full sky shimmering in green aurora, Saturday night (Feb. 18, 2012) a team of scientists, including space physicist Marc Lessard and graduate students from the University of New Hampshire’s Space Science Center, launched an instrument-laden, two-stage sounding rocket from the Poker Flat Research Range in Fairbanks, Alaska. The precision measurements from the rocket’s instruments will shed new light on the physical processes that create the northern lights and further our understanding of the complex sun-Earth connection.

Funded by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the Magnetosphere-Ionosphere Coupling in the Alfvén resonator (MICA) mission sent a 40-foot Terrier-Black Brant rocket arcing through aurora 200 miles above Earth. The rocket sent a stream of real-time data back before landing some 200 miles downrange shortly after the launch.

Full Story: http://www.eos.unh.edu/news/indiv_news.shtml?NEWS_ID=1301

Relatively Recent Quakes, Volcanism on Red Planet

February 21, 2012 Leave a comment

Images of a martian landscape offer evidence that the Red Planet’s surface not only can shake like the surface of Earth, but has done so relatively recently. If marsquakes do indeed take place, said the scientists who analyzed the high-resolution images, our nearest planetary neighbor may still have active volcanism, which could help create conditions for liquid water.

With High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) imagery, the research team  examined boulders along a fault system known as Cerberus Fossae, which cuts across a very young (few million years old) lava surface on Mars. By analyzing boulders that toppled from a martian cliff, some of which left trails in the coarse-grained soils, and comparing the patterns of dislodged rocks to such patterns caused by quakes on Earth, the scientists determined the rocks fell because of seismic activity. The martian patterns were not consistent with how boulders would scatter if they were deposited as ice melted, another means by which rocks are dispersed on Mars.

Full Story: http://www.agu.org/news/press/pr_archives/2012/2012-09.shtml

Categories: Astronomy, Mars, Solar System Tags: , ,

U.S. Planetary Exploration Is in Grave Danger

February 21, 2012 Leave a comment

The planetary exploration program has delivered a golden age of robotic exploration of the Solar System that over the past decade that has included a long series of stunningly successful missions. Among many examples are the Mars rovers which have discovered that standing bodies of water once existed on Mars, indicating past habitable environments; the Cassini mission to Saturn which discovered water erupting from Saturn’s moon Enceladus, imaged previously unseen structure in the rings, and is mapping methane lakes and seas on Saturn’s moon Titan; MESSENGER which is now orbiting and mapping Mercury, revealing how terrestrial planets evolve; Dawn, which is orbiting and mapping the asteroid Vesta, revealing the earliest history of planet formation; and Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and GRAIL which are orbiting our Moon exploring deeply into its structure and origins. Other low-cost missions have returned samples of a comet and the solar wind. These missions have revolutionized our understanding of Earth, its origins, and its place within the solar system and the larger universe. The planetary science program complements and extends the discoveries and breakthroughs in earth science, astrophysics, and heliophysics.

The Planetary Science community recently finished its Decadal Survey under the auspices of the National Research Council of the National Academies. Vision and Voyages for Planetary Science in the Decade 2013-2022 recommends to NASA a program of balanced exploration and scientific analysis, tempered by fiscal realism, which builds on the immense progress of the last decade to continue expanding our understanding of our solar system, and search for evidence of past or even current life elsewhere in our solar system. The current golden age of planetary exploration — the result of years of effort by scientists and engineers supported at relatively low cost by a fascinated public and bipartisan political support — is in grave danger from deep budget cuts just as the next wave of discoveries beckons.

Full Story: http://dps.aas.org/news/dps-statement-fy2013-nasa-budget