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Archive for April 10, 2014

Orbital Physics Is Child’s Play With ‘Super Planet Crash’


This screenshot from the online game Super Planet Crash shows a six-planet system.

This screenshot from the online game Super Planet Crash shows a six-planet system.

A new game and online educational resources are offshoots of the open-source software package astronomers use to find planets beyond our solar system.

Super Planet Crash is a pretty simple game: players build their own planetary system, putting planets into orbit around a star and racking up points until they add a planet that destabilizes the whole system. Beneath the surface, however, this addictive little game is driven by highly sophisticated software code that astronomers use to find planets beyond our solar system (called exoplanets).

The release of Super Planet Crash (available online at http://www.stefanom.org/spc) follows the release of the latest version of Systemic Console, a scientific software package used to pull planet discoveries out of the reams of data acquired by telescopes such as the Automated Planet Finder (APF) at the University of California’s Lick Observatory. Developed at UC Santa Cruz, Systemic Console is integrated into the workflow of the APF, and is also widely used by astronomers to analyze data from other telescopes.

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Gusev Crater Once Held A Lake After All, Says ASU Mars Scientist


Photo by: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell University/Arizona State University

Photo by: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell University/Arizona State University

If desert mirages occur on Mars, “Lake Gusev” belongs among them. This come-and-go body of ancient water has come and gone more than once, at least in the eyes of Mars scientists.

Now, however, it’s finally shifting into sharper focus, thanks to a new analysis of old data by a team led by Steve Ruff, associate research professor at Arizona State University’s Mars Space Flight Facility in the School of Earth and Space Exploration. The team’s report was just published in the April 2014 issue of the journal Geology.

The story begins in early 2004, when NASA landed Spirit, one of its two Mars Exploration Rovers, inside 100-mile-wide Gusev Crater. Why Gusev? Because from orbit, Gusev, with its southern rim breached by a meandering river channel, looked as if it once held a lake – and water-deposited rocks were the rover mission’s focus. Yet, when Spirit began to explore, scientists found Gusev’s floor was paved not with lakebed sediments, but volcanic rocks.

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Saturn’s Hexagon: An Amazing Phenomenon


Acknowledgements: Planetary Sciences Group UPV/EHU-Cassini NASA/ESA

Acknowledgements: Planetary Sciences Group UPV/EHU-Cassini NASA/ESA

An unusual structure with a hexagonal shape surrounding Saturn’s north pole was spotted on the planet for the first time thirty years ago. Nothing similar with such a regular geometry had ever been seen on any planet in the Solar System. The Planetary Sciences Group has now been able to study and measure the phenomenon and, among other achievements, establish its rotation period. What is more, this period could be the same as that of the planet itself. Saturn is the only planet in the Solar System whose rotation time remains unknown. The research illustrates the front cover of the journal Geophysical Research Letters and has been highlighted by the publication’s editor.

In 1980 and 1981 NASA’s Voyager 1 and 2 space probes passed for the first time over the planet Saturn, located 1,500 million km from the Sun. Among their numerous discoveries they observed a strange, hexagon-shaped structure in the planet’s uppermost clouds surrounding its north pole. The hexagon remained virtually static, without moving, vis-à-vis the planet’s overall rotation that was not accurately known. What is more, the images captured by the Voyager probes found that the clouds were moving rapidly inside the hexagon in an enclosed jet stream and were being dragged by winds travelling at over 400 km/h.

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