Earth--Day and Night Regions

Earth--Day and Night Regions

Planetary Positions

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

First Direct Photo Of An Extra-Solar Planet


First Direct Photo of Alien Planet Finally Confirmed

By Denise Chow Staff Writer

posted: 29 June 2010

05:14 pm ET

A planet outside of our solar system, said to be the first ever directly photographed by telescopes on Earth, has been officially confirmed to be orbiting a sun-like star, according to follow-up observations.

The alien planet is eight times the mass of Jupiter and orbits at an unusually great distance from its host star — more than 300 times farther from the star than our Earth is from the sun.

Astronomers first discovered the planet in 2008 using visible light observations from telescopes on Earth, making it the first direct photo of an extrasolar world. But at the time there was still the remote chance that it only looked like it was orbiting the star, from the perspective of Earth, due to a lucky alignment of object, star and observer.

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www.QuantumJumping.comFree Space WallpapersGet Cool Space Desktop Wallpapers w Planets, Moons & Stars-Try Them Now"Our new observations rule out this chance alignment possibility, and thus confirms that the planet and the star are related to each other," said astronomer David Lafreniere, who led the research team that discovered the planet.

The new observations that confirm the planet circles its parent star were made using high-resolution adaptive optics technology at the Gemini Observatory. The observatory is an international collaboration with two identical 8-meter telescopes, located at Mauna Kea, Hawaii and Cerro Pachon in northern Chile.

Planet around young star

The host star, which has an estimated mass of about 85 percent that of our sun, is located approximately 500 light-years away in a group of young stars called the Upper Scorpius Association that formed about 5 million years ago.

The planet has an estimated temperature of over 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit (about 1,500 degrees Celsius). This makes the planet much hotter than Jupiter, which has an atmospheric cloud-top temperature of approximately minus 166 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 110 degrees Celsius).

The relatively young age of the system — our solar system is 4.6 billion years old — explains the high temperature of the planet, according to the researchers. [The Strangest Alien Planets]

The contraction of the planet under its own gravity during its formation quickly raised its temperature to thousands of degrees. But, once this contraction phase is over, the planet will slowly cool down by radiating infrared light. Within billions of years, the planet will eventually reach a temperature that is much more similar to that of Jupiter.

Tale of a planet find

Lafreniere and his research team firstannounced their planet's discovery in September 2008. At the time he was at the University of Toronto, but is now at the University of Montreal and Center for Research in Astrophysics of Quebec.

In 2008, the researchers claimed that the discovery also represented thefirst picture of a planet that orbits around a star similar to our sun. Other astronomers have also made similar claims, including a 2004 discovery of an object that could be a planet or a type of failed star called a brown dwarf.

"Back in 2008 what we knew for sure was that there was this young planetary mass object sitting right next to a young sun-like star on the sky," Lafreniere said.

The close proximity of the two cosmic objects seemed to suggest that they were associated with each other, but there was a possibility — albeit unlikely — that they were unrelated and had only aligned in the sky by chance. One of the objects might have been closer or farther by considerable distance. So more observations were required to confirm the cosmic find.

The results of the study will be published in an upcoming issue of The Astrophysical Journal.

The system, known as 1RXS J160929.1-210524 (or 1RXS 1609 for short), will give scientists a unique example to study, as its extreme separation from the star seems to challenge common planetary formation theories.

"The unlikely locale of this alien world could be telling us that nature has more than one way of making planets," said the study's co-author Ray Jayawardhana of the University of Toronto. "Or, it could be hinting at a violent youth when close encounters between newborn planets hurl some siblings out to the hinterlands."

The team of astronomers initially detected the exoplanet using the Gemini Observatory in April 2008, which made it the first likely planet known to orbit a sun-like star that was revealed by direct imaging. At the time, the researchers also obtained a spectrum of the planet and were able to determine many of its characteristics, which are confirmed in the new study.

"In retrospect, this makes our initial data the first spectrum of a confirmed exoplanet ever!," Lafreniere said.

The spectrum illustrates absorption features due to water vapor, carbon monoxide and molecular hydrogen in the planet's atmosphere.

Other distant planets photographed

This is not the only exoplanet to be discovered using direct imaging.

Since initially observing 1RXS 1609, several other alien worlds have also been found, including a system of three planets that orbit around the star HR 8799. This discovery was also made using the Gemini Observatory.

The latest exoplanet confirmation is unique, however, because the planets around HR 8799 orbit much closer to their host star.

The study of 1RXS 1609 also verified that no additional large planets (between one and eight times the mass of Jupiter) are present in the system that are closer to the star.

Future observations may reveal evidence on the origin of thestrangely far-out planet. In fact, within a few years, it should be possible to detect a slight difference in the motion of the planet and its star, due to their mutual orbits.

This difference, however, will be "very small," said the study's co-author Marten van Kerkwijk of the University of Toronto, since the fastest possible orbital period is more than one thousand years.

Clocking alien planet's speed

But, using Gemini, it is possible to precisely measure the velocity of the planet relative to its host star.

This can help astronomers determine whether the planet is following a roughly circular orbit — as would be expected if it really formed far from its host star — or whether it is in a very non-circular or even unbound orbit. The latter could be the case if it formed closer to the star but was kicked out as a result of an encounter with another alien planet, researchers said.

The adaptive optics system on the Gemini telescopes were crucial to making the observations of 1RXS 1609.

"Without adaptive optics, we would simply have been unable to see this planet," Lafreniere said. "The atmosphere blurs the image of a star so much that it extends over and is much brighter than the image of a faint planet around it, rendering the planet undetectable. Adaptive optics removes this blurring and provides a better view of faint objects very close to stars."

Obama's Space Policy Will Cost American Leadership And Jobs

From Red State Morning Briefing:

Posted by Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04) (Profile)

Tuesday, June 29th at 5:15PM EDT


On May 5, 1961, Alan Shepard became the first American in space. Since then, there has been no turning back for the U.S. space program and we have led the world in space exploration ever since. Throughout the next 50 years, NASA would land astronauts on the moon, launch the Hubble space telescope and help build the International Space Station (ISS).

However, the President now wants to severely downgrade the one task which makes NASA unique — human exploratory space flight. On February 1, 2010, the Administration announced a budget which proposes to eliminate the NASA Constellation program. Since that time, NASA has canceled the awarding of contracts or put on hold parts of numerous contracts which were a part of the regular fiscal year 2010 work for the Constellation program, despite the fact that Congress must first approve its termination before it becomes final policy.

President Obama and NASA are putting American jobs in jeopardy because of a drastic proposal that isn’t even actual law. This plan put forth by the President is simply that – a plan, and NASA should not be assuming that this plan will be approved by Congress.

Since February, I have fought the President’s proposal to cancel Constellation because it will forfeit America’s leadership in space and it will cut thousands of jobs in Alabama and the entire nation. During the last month, contractors, under intense pressure from NASA regarding contract termination liability, have already begun laying off workers and canceling subcontracts, despite the fact that Congress has not approved the President’s proposal. That’s why I have introduced the “Protecting Human Space Flight Act of 2010” this week. This bill directs NASA to use FY2010 appropriated funds for what it was intended to do – work on the Constellation program, not a termination liability account.

President Obama has been saying for years that the goal of his Administration is to save or create American jobs. With the President’s new proposal for NASA, he is doing just the opposite.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Partial Lunar Eclipse This Past Weekend


Partial Lunar Eclipse Thrills Weekend Skywatchers

By Tariq Malik Managing Editor

posted: 28 June 2010

07:23 am ET

A partial lunar eclipse that took a shadowy bite out of the nearly full moon early Saturday thrilled some skywatchers in North America who happened to be in regions where the phenomenon was visible.

During the partial lunar eclipse, the moon passed through just part of the Earth's shadow, so was only partially obscured for several hours. The eclipse began at about 2:50 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time on Saturday and lasted several hours, but it was best visible to skywatchers in the western and central parts of North America – giving them a cosmic reward for rising early on a weekend.

Saturday's eclipse also occurred a few hours before the full moon of June and occurred low on the Earth's horizon, which was expected to make the moon appear larger than normal because of the "moon illusion." Some scientists attribute the effect to the human mind's attempt to make sense of the moon in relation to objects on the horizon.

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www.eclipsetraveler.comIn Scottsdale, Ariz., skywatcher Sid Leach caught sight of the partial lunar eclipse while preparing for a morning workout. [Another photo of the partial lunar eclipse.]

"I suddenly remembered the lunar eclipse and jumped up to look out the window," Leach told in an e-mail. "As I pulled back the curtains, there was the moon sinking low in the western sky, and halfway covered by the Earth's shadow!"

At the lunar eclipse's peak, about 54 percent of the moon was obscured. That maximum coverage was expected to occur at 4:38 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time on Saturday, according to a NASA announcement. The partial lunar eclipse was also expected to be visible from India, Japan and parts of East Asia, though it occurred at sunset Saturday evening (local time) in those regions.

In California, skywatcher Scott Kardel awoke early to catch the eclipse at Palomar Observatory atop Palomar Mountain, where he serves as the public affairs coordinator.

"Partial eclipses can be tricky," Kardel wrote in a blog post of his lunar eclipse observations. "To capture the illumination on the eclipsed portion of the moon you pretty much need to overexpose the rest."

Like Leach, Kardel's partial lunar eclipse photos show the moon low on the horizon, with a big bite missing. But Kardel got an extra bonus: The International Space Station.

"Much earlier, just before the maximum eclipse we had a pass of the International Space Station," Kardel wrote. "Fortunately, I was able to switch targets in time."

In his long-exposure space station photo, the orbiting laboratory appears as a streak of light passing just to the side of the bright planet Jupiter.

In fact, the International Space Station was flying in near continuous sunlight over the weekend as it orbited the Earth at an altitude of about 220 miles (354 km). That meant the space station was visible, weather permitting, multiple times over some parts of North America, though the solar line-up was expected to end today.

Saturday's partial lunar eclipse is the first of two cosmic events involving the moon over the next few weeks.

The moon will pass in front of the sun in a total solar eclipse on July 11, though it will be visible only from parts of the South Pacific Ocean.

The next lunar eclipse will occur on Dec. 21 and will be a total lunar eclipse. That lunar eclipse, according to NASA officials, should be visible to skywatchers across most of North America.


Sunday, June 27, 2010

NASA Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Takes Picture Of Earth From Moon


New Photo of Earth Taken From the Moon

By Staff

posted: 27 June 2010

05:26 pm ET

An eye-catching new view of Earth has been caught on camera by an American spacecraft circling the moon.

The new photo of Earth was taken from a distance of 231,358 miles (372,335 km) by NASA's unmanned Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter during a routine camera test as the probe orbited around the moon. The black-and-white snapshot catches Earth's portrait as it appeared on June 12.

"It was a beautiful clear summer day over the North Pole, you can see ice covering most of the Arctic Ocean with a few leads of open water (dark) starting to open up," wrote Mark Robinson, principal investigator for the powerful Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC) at Arizona State University, after posting the photo Thursday.

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www.OneUniversalMind.comThe photo was taken by the orbiter's narrow angle camera and has a resolution of about nearly 2.3 miles (3.7 km) per pixel. At the center of the image is Hong Kong, with much of the Middle East clearly visible. [Details of the new Earth photo.]

The image is actually a mosaic of photos taken by the lunar camera as it panned across the planet. One swirling rock formation can be seen running through parts of Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, Robinson wrote.

NASA launched the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter in June 2009 to seek out potential landing sites on the lunar surface for future missions, as well as hunt for signs of water ice. So far, the orbiter has found NASA's past Apollo moon landing sites and evidence of water on the moon (the latter with the help if its partner probe LCROSS – which crashed into the moon last year while the orbiter watched – and other probes).

But every now and then, mission scientists have to point the orbiter's LROC camera system at the Earth for calibration sessions.

The moon's subtle color changes make it a poor target to measure scattered light, Robinson explained. The Earth is a bright target against the ultra dark background of black space, so any image anomalies caused by scattered light (light reflecting off internal parts of the camera) are easily measured, he added.

"From the moon, the Earth serves that function well," Robinson wrote.

These calibration sessions allow scientists to fine-tune the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter's seven-color wide angle camera in order to account for scattered light effects in its photos. While the wide angle camera is being calibrated, the orbiter's narrow angle camera is free to snap photos of Earth from space.

"Imagine standing on the moon looking back at the Earth!" Robinson wrote. "When humans start to live and work on the nearside of the moon, they will have a constant, spectacular view of our home planet."

Until then, he added, the people of Earth will have to settle for photos from robots

Friday, June 25, 2010

Moon To Put On Show This Weekend: To Appear Larger And A Partial Eclipse


Moon Illusion to Supersize Saturday Lunar Eclipse

By Staff

posted: 25 June 2010

12:25 pm ET

A partial lunar eclipse set to occur early Saturday should look particularly stunning to observers in parts of North America thanks to an optical illusion that will make the moon look bigger than normal.

The moon will pass through part of Earth's shadow, temporarily becoming dark, starting at 6:17 a.m. EDT (1017 GMT) Saturday morning. That cosmic line-up coincides with the full moon of June and a so-called "moon illusion" that, weather permitting, should offer quite a show, according to a NASA announcement.

For observers in the central and western United States, the lunar eclipse will occur while the moon is still close to the horizon. The partial eclipse begins after the moon has set for observers in the eastern United States. (This graphic shows how the moon will appear during Saturday's three-hour partial lunar eclipse.)

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MitsubishiEclipse.Reply.comEven though only 54 percent of the moon's diameter will be covered during the moment of greatest eclipse (around 7:38 a.m. EDT, 1138 GMT), the sight will appear magnified in size and charm by the "moon illusion." [Top 10 lunar eclipse facts]

Scientists aren't completely sure why, but low-hanging moons tend to look exceptionally large. When the moon beams through trees, buildings and other foreground objects close to the horizon, it often appears to be much larger than when it shines from overhead.

Even though cameras prove that low moons are no wider than any other moons, the human brain insists otherwise.

The moon will be most picturesque in the western and central parts of the United States where the moon will be setting as the eclipse reaches maximum. Viewers there should look low and to the west just before dawn to catch the best sight.

The same phenomenon will be visible to observers in India, Japan, and parts of East Asia. The eclipse will occur there on Saturday evening as the moon is rising, with the same illusion in full force. However, in the islands of the South Pacific, the moon will be hanging directly overhead in the midnight sky, so the horizon illusion won't add to the effect.

People in New England and northeastern Canada will just miss being able to see the eclipse.

Launch Of Space Shuttle Atlantis As Seen By An F-15 Pilot


New Boeing Capsule Targets Commercial Missions


New Boeing Spaceship Targets Commercial Missions

By Denise Chow Staff Writer

posted: 25 June 2010

04:10 pm ET

As NASA's space shuttle fleet draws close to retirement, aerospace juggernaut Boeing is hard at work developing a new capsule-based spaceship to fly people to and from the International Space Station.

The new Boeing space capsule is a project using the company's recent $18 million award from NASA to advance the concepts and technology necessary to build a commercial crew space transportation system. It is one of several efforts by different U.S. companies to come with new spaceships to fill the void left by NASA's retiring shuttles.

And so far, things have been progressing right on schedule, said Keith Reiley, Boeing's Commercial Crew Development Program Manager.

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Boeing's new spaceship

At the heart of Boeing's new spaceship design is the CST-100 capsule, which will look similar to the cone-shaped Apollo and Orion spacecraft.

The Apollo capsules were built to ferry astronauts between Earth and lunar orbit in the late 1960s and 1970s. The larger Orion vehicles were part of NASA's Constellation program to return astronauts to the moon, and are now slated to serve as a space station lifeboat.

"It's a little smaller than Orion, but a little bigger than Apollo," Reiley said of the CST-100 spacecraft. "It carries seven, but it's fairly small – it's not as large or as spacious as the Orion."

The capsule is being built for short missions to the space station, meaning it will not be designed to stay in space for long periods of time.

Multiple rocket rides

Boeing plans to launch the CST-100 capsule from Florida, but has yet to determine which rocket will carry it into space.

The spacecraft is being designed for compatibility with a variety of rockets, in much the same way that commercial satellites are. This will give Boeing the flexibility to select an appropriate rocket later in the development process.

And while NASA has outlined a launch target for 2016, the new capsule could be rolled out sooner than expected, which could help fill the gap in future human spaceflight should NASA scrap its Constellation program.

"We haven't laid out our exact timeline yet, but we do have a schedule, and it beats the 2016 that was NASA's goal," Reiley said.

Private space station ferries

NASA isn't the only customer Boeing has in mind for the CST-100. The company has teamed up with Bigelow Aerospace, a Las Vegas-based company that recently joined the Commercial Spaceflight Federation.

Bigelow Aerospace is developing private inflatable space habitats with the goal of launching a commercial space station in 2014. The company has already launched two prototype modules into space.

For the new CST-100 spacecraft, Bigelow Aerospace will assist with demonstrations and design work in areas where they have cultivated experience from the design and construction of their orbital facilities and commercial space complex, said Reiley. The partnership also represents an important stepping stone for the commercial spaceflight industry.

"The future is being created now," said Bigelow Aerospace founder and president Robert Bigelow in a statement. "Commercial crew transportation has the potential to revolutionize the space industry for public and private sector entities alike."

Bigelow, who owns the Budget Suites of America hotel chain, also sees the vast potential for synergistic collaboration between his company and the veteran Boeing, which has been developing human and robotic space vehicles and their accompanying hardware for over 50 years.

"Boeing's unparalleled heritage and experience, combined with Bigelow Aerospace's entrepreneurial spirit and desire to keep costs low, represents the best of both established and new space companies," Bigelow said. "The product of this relationship, the CST-100 capsule, will represent the safest, most reliable, and most cost-effective spacecraft ever to fly."

Keep it affordable

For Boeing, one of their main challenges in expanding their branch of commercial spaceflight is in designing a relatively inexpensive option.

"I think one of the big challenges for Boeing, in particular, is to try to do things quicker and less expensive," Reiley said. "We learned a lot from Bigelow on how to do that."

Both Reiley and Bigelow agree that the inaugural launch of the private Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule by the California-based company SpaceX represented a great stride made in commercial spaceflight. [Photos of the historic Falcon 9 launch]

"The unprecedented success of the Falcon 9's inaugural launch clearly demonstrates that it's possible to dramatically reduce the cost of human spaceflight operations," Bigelow said. "SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule were developed at a cost dramatically below that of traditional cost-plus programs – this should be a wakeup call that it's time for a new way of doing business."

And, with months and years of demonstrations and tests on the horizon for Boeing, the company can look to the successful launch of Falcon 9 as inspiration and motivation.

"It's always good to see folks succeed in spaceflight," Reiley said. "It certainly provides an impetus for all commercial providers to continue working hard."

International Space Station To Be Easily And Repeatedly visible This Weekend


Space Station to Put on Sky Show This Weekend

By Clara Moskowitz Senior Writer

posted: 25 June 2010

05:10 pm ET

The International Space Station will be extra visible to observers on Earth this weekend – sometimes up to five times a night – thanks to some favorable sun angles that will light up the orbiting space lab.

The space station flies about 220 miles (354 km) overhead, circling the globe once every 90 minutes. Usually, the station is invisible to skywatchers on Earth during some of those orbits because the sun isn't shining on it.

However, over the next few days, the station's path will align with Earth's day-night terminator, keeping the spacecraft in nearly constant sunlight, according to the website, which monitors spacecraft sightings and space weather.

That means that every time it flies overhead, skywatchers graced with clear skies should be able to spot the space station as a moving star that can sometimes appear as bright as Venus. The rare solar line-up ends on Monday.

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RealAge.comThe station is currently home to six astronauts – three Americans and three Russians. Cosmonaut commander Alexander Skvortsov is leading the Expedition 24 mission.

Construction on the huge space station began in 1998 and it is now 98 percent complete. Five different space agencies and 16 countries have been working together to build the $100 billion space station, which is the largest human-made structure in space.

From end-to-end, the space station's main truss – which serves as its metallic backbone – is longer than a football field. The outpost's wing-like solar arrays also serve as giant reflectors when they catch sunlight, and make the space station easily visible to the unaided eye. [How to spot satellites]

There are several ways to find out when the International Space Station may be flying over your area. Information on when the spacecraft will be visible over your city can be found at this NASA website.

You can also find detailed viewing opportunities by searching the Internet for one of these four popular websites:

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Oceans On Venus May Have Been Habitable


Oceans on Venus Might Have Been Habitable

By Staff

posted: 24 June 2010

11:39 am ET

Venus, currently one of the most inhospitable places in the solar system, may once have had an ample supply of water – possibly even oceans – and been a potentially habitable place when it was young, a new study suggests.

The finding comes from the European Space Agency (ESA)'s Venus Express satellite currently orbiting our neighboring planet. The probe is providing new evidence that Venus and Earth aren't as dissimilar as they seem.

Earth and Venus are wildly different today. Earth is teeming with life at clement temperatures, while Venus is hellish, its surface hotter than the inside of a kitchen oven.

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"The basic composition of Venus and Earth is very similar," said Håkan Svedhem, ESA project scientist for Venus Express.

Today, Venus has very little water. If the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere of Venus was spread onto the planet's surface, it would create a global puddle just 1.2 inches (3 cm) deep. By comparison, Earth's oceans would create a layer 1.9 miles (3 km) deep if they were spread evenly across our planet.

Yet scientists think this wasn't always the case on Venus. Billions of years ago, the planet may have had much more water, they said.

Over time, Venus is thought to have lost a large quantity of that water to space. As ultraviolet radiation from the sun streams into the planet's atmosphere it breaks up the water molecules into their constituent hydrogen and oxygen atoms. Then these loose atoms escape into space.

Venus Express has measured this escaping water vapor, and found that about twice as much hydrogen as oxygen is escaping, ESA officials said in an announcement. Since water is made of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom, the findings suggest that water is the source of this escaping material.

"Everything points to there being large amounts of water on Venus in the past," said research team member Colin Wilson of Oxford University in England.

But that does not necessarily mean there were vast oceans on Venus, researchers cautioned.

The water could have been mostly locked in the atmosphere of Venus and existed only during the very earliest times, when the surface of the planet was completely molten, according to computer models by researcher Eric Chassefière of France's Universite Paris-Sud.

However, colliding comets may have delivered additional water to the surface of Venus that could have crated standing bodies of water, the researchers said.

If Venus ever did possess surface water, the planet may have had an early habitable phase during which life may have been able to form.

"Much more extensive modeling of the magma ocean–atmosphere system and of its evolution is required to better understand the evolution of the young Venus," Chassefière said.

The Venus Express team discussed some of their findings at the International Venus Conference this week in Aussois, France.

Japanese Probe Finds Rare Hole In The Lunar Surface


Rare Hole In the Moon Photographed

By Denise Chow Staff Writer

posted: 24 June 2010

01:23 pm ET

New photos of the moon have revealed the most detailed views yet of a rare hole in the lunar surface — a pit large enough to swallow an entire football field whole.

High-resolution cameras aboard the Japanese Kaguya spacecraft first spotted the irregularly shaped chasm, located in Mare Ingenii on the moon's southern hemisphere. Now, NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has taken a new, up-close photo of the moon pit from lunar orbit.

"Only three have been discovered thus far, so I believe it is safe to state that skylights (pits) are rare at the 100-meter scale," Mark Robinson, principal investigator for the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC) at Arizona State University, told in an e-mail.

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wallpapers.smileycentral.comMare Ingenii, also called the "sea of cleverness," is best known for its prominent lunar swirls, which are highly reflective surface features that are associated with magnetic anomalies. The new images of the region from LROC show a giant pit measuring about 427 feet (130 meters) in diameter.

The boulders and debris resting on the floor of the cavity are partially illuminated and likely originated at the surface, falling through the pit opening during its collapse. The hole is thought to be the result of a partially collapsed lava tube.

A similar moon pit, which was believed to be a skylight into a lava tube, was previously discovered by the Kaguya mission in the Marius Hills region of the moon. The new pit in Mare Ingenii, however, lacks the numerous volcanic features that were found in the Marius Hills region.

"The existence of lava tubes and thus skylights had long been postulated," Robinson said. "However it is a surprise to me how large and beautifully preserved are the three that we have seen thus far."

Closer examination of Mare Ingenii could help scientists understand the differences between the two areas of the lunar surface, and such discoveries could also spur on further exploration of the moon, said Robinson.

"Imagine how fantastic it would be to land in one of these skylights and explore underground on the moon!" he said.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Full Moon To Include Partial Eclipse


Full Moon on Saturday Includes Partial Eclipse

By Geoff Gaherty

Starry Night Education

posted: 23 June 2010

08:43 am ET

The full moon of June will rise over Earth on Saturday, only to fall into a partial lunar eclipse as it passes through part of our planet's shadow.

Known as the Flower moon in English, the June full moon will occur at 7:30 a.m. EDT (1130 GMT) on Saturday, June 26, nearly two hours after it is partially eclipsed. (This graphic shows where to spot the full moon early Saturday morning.)

Because of the mechanics of the moon, it will set around 5:30 a.m. EDT (0930 GMT), so observers in the western and central parts of North America will have a better view of June's full moon, and the partial lunar eclipse that precedes it.

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wallpapers.smileycentral.comThe full moon will be located in the constellation Sagittarius, very close to the southernmost point in its monthly journey around the Earth.

As a result, the moon spends less time than average above the horizon and never gets very far above the horizon, as seen from the Northern Hemisphere.

The partial lunar eclipse will obscure just over half of the full moon. skywatching columnist Joe Rao said in his guide to the June 26 lunar eclipse that the event should last for several hours (2:50 a.m. to 6:25 a.m. Pacific Time).

Moon myths and mysteries

Weather permitting, the moon is visible most nights at some point and is the brightest object in the night sky. It is also visible in daylight much of the month, though most modern humans may be unaware of it.

Here's how it works:

The moon is a sphere, lit from varying angles by the sun. As it moves around the Earth in its orbit, it goes through a series of phases from new moon, when the moon lies on or near a line between Earth and sun; first quarter, when lit from one side; full moon, when lit by the sun directly behind the Earth; and third quarter, lit from the other side. [More: How Moon Phases Work]

A full moon is the most striking of the lunar phases. At this time, a seemingly huge moon rising in the east, fully illuminated, just as the sun is setting in the west.

The large size of the full moon is actually an optical illusion, known as "the moon illusion." It is caused, some scientists think, by our mind's attempt to make sense of the moon in relation to earthly objects on the horizon. In fact, the full moon on the horizon is no larger than the moon at any other time or location.

You can verify the moon illusion yourself by holding a small object, such as a pencil eraser at arm's length and compare its size to that of the rising moon.

Then go back out a couple hours later, when the moon is higher and seems smaller, and make the same comparison to the eraser. Alternately, you can take two pictures of the moon, with your camera at the same settings, then print and compare them.

Guide to June's full moon

The exact time of a full moon is determined strictly by the geometry of the sun, Earth, and moon: all three fall in a straight line with the Earth in the middle. This is an instantaneous event, and happens at the same instant everywhere in the world.

In June's case, the event will occur after the moon has set in eastern North America. These circumstances change as you move across the continent.

In San Francisco, the full moon occurs at 4:30 a.m. with the moon 12 degrees above the horizon. There, the partial lunar eclipse will be a fine sight up and down the west coast of North America.

But in England, June's full moon occurs at 12:30 p.m. British Summer Time, with the moon far below the horizon. The moon itself is quite indifferent to where on Earth people are observing it from.

What's in a moon name?

Like the full moon of every month, June's comes with a host of different names all aimed at chronicling the monthly event. Various peoples around the world gave special names to the full moons throughout the year as a simple way of recognizing the passage of time.

The best known of these names are those used in the English language, but other well known naming systems are used by the Algonquian peoples of northeastern North America, the Hindus of India, and the widespread Buddhist religion.

In addition to its Flower moon moniker, June's full moon also known as the strawberry moon in Algonquian, Wat Poornima in Hindi, and Poson Poya in the Sinhala Buddhist tradition.

It is also known as honey moon, rose moon, hot moon, and planting moon.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Star Caught In Act Of Birth


Star Caught in Act of Birth

By Denise Chow Staff Writer

posted: 21 June 2010

01:05 pm ET

The youngest unborn star currently known – an object so early in its formation that it isn't fully developed into a true star – has been caught on camera in a new study.

Astronomers glimpsed the future star using the Submillimeter Array in Hawaii and the infrared Spitzer Space Telescope. The object, which is estimated to be only a few thousand years old, has just begun pulling matter in from a surrounding envelope of gas and dust.

"It's very difficult to detect objects in this phase of star formation, because they are very short-lived and they emit very little light," said lead author Xuepeng Chen, a postdoctoral associate at Yale University, in a statement. [Photos: The infrared universe.]

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www.AlignGI.comThe team of astronomers was able to detect the faint light emitted by the dust surrounding the object. In the images, however, the object is difficult to see because that light is not emitted in infrared wavelengths, a press representative from Yale University told

The object, known as L1448-IRS2E, is located in the Perseus star-forming region, which is approximately 800 light-years away, within our own Milky Way galaxy. Early calculations estimate that the object is approximately a few thousand years old, the Yale spokesperson said.

The study's authors include astronomers from Yale, the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Germany. The study was published in the June 1 issue of the Astrophysical Journal.

Stars form from large, dense regions of gas and dust called molecular clouds, which exist throughout the galaxy.

The researchers suspect that L1448-IRS2E is in between the pre-stellar phase - when a particularly dense region of a molecular cloud first begins to clump together - and the protostar phase, when gravity has pulled enough material together to form a dense, hot core out of the surrounding envelope.

Typically, most protostars are between one to 10 times as luminous as our sun, and their large, dust envelopes glow at infrared wavelengths. But, since L1448-IRS2E is less than one-tenth as luminous as the sun, the astronomers believe that the object is simply too dim to be considered a true protostar.

They have, however, discovered that the object is ejecting streams of high-velocity gas from its center, which confirms that some sort of preliminary mass has already formed, and the object has developed beyond the pre-stellar phase.

This ejection of material is seen in protostars as a result of the magnetic field surrounding the newly-forming star. But, this outflow has not been observed at such an early stage until now.

The researchers are hoping to use the new Herschel space telescope, which launched in May 2009, to look for more of these objects that are caught between the earliest stages of star formation. This will allow astronomers to better understand how stars grow and evolve

"Stars are defined by their mass, but we still don't know at what stage of the formation process a star acquires most of its mass," said Hector Arce, one of the authors of the study and an assistant professor of astronomy at Yale University. "This is one of the big questions driving our work."

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Pluto And Ceres Make Night Sky Appearances In June


Dwarf Planets Pluto and Ceres Make Night Sky Appearance

By Geoff Gaherty

Starry Night Education

posted: 16 June 2010

07:04 am ET

This month two dwarf planets — Ceres and Pluto — come into opposition with the sun, offering a rare view of these tiny worlds in the night sky.

What, you may ask, is a "dwarf planet"? Basically it is a solar system object which is too small to qualify as a planet.

Interestingly enough, both Ceres and Pluto were, at the time of their discovery, considered to be planets. When Giuseppe Piazzi discovered Ceres on the first night of the nineteenth century, he thought he had discovered a new planet circling in an orbit between Mars and Jupiter. Later Ceres was demoted to become the largest of the asteroids, but in 2006 was elevated to the newly created status of dwarf planet.

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wallpapers.smileycentral.comCeres is named for the Roman goddess of plants, the same source from which our word "cereal" comes. It is a small world, just 580 miles (940 km) in diameter.

Similarly, when Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto in 1930, he thought it was a new planet in an orbit beyond Neptune. However, its small size and peculiar orbit led astronomers to doubt its status; in 2006 Pluto too was reclassified as a dwarf planet.

Pluto was named by an 11-year-old English girl, Venetia Burney, after the Roman god of the Underworld. It is a little more than twice the size of Ceres, 1,430 miles (2,300 km) in diameter, slightly smaller than Eris, the largest dwarf planet. All of these dwarfs are tiny compared to our moon, 2,170 miles (3,500 km) in diameter.

Ceres comes to opposition on Friday, June 18, and Pluto a week later on June 25. However, the moon is Full on June 26 and quite close to Pluto in the sky on the 25th, so it would be better to try hunting it down at the same time as Ceres. The graphic shows the location of both dwarfs on June 19, a bit past midnight, against the backdrop of the constellation Sagittarius.

On June 18, Ceres will reach magnitude 7.2, so binoculars will be necessary to spot it. (On this astronomers' scale, larger numbers represent dimmer objects. The faintest object visible to the naked eye under perfectly dark skies is about magnitude 6.5) Sagittarius is one of the most crowded areas of the sky, so a star atlas or planetarium software would be helpful to distinguish Ceres from the background stars. Try to observe Ceres again a night or two later, so that you can confirm, by its motion, that you actually saw the asteroid, and not a star.

Finding Pluto will be a much greater challenge, since it is about seven magnitudes fainter than Ceres, magnitude 14.0! You will need a telescope with at least 10 inches aperture, a fairly high magnification, and a very detailed finder chart. Again, you will need to plot Pluto's position over two or three nights to be certain of its location.

If you manage to observe these two objects this month, you will be one of the very few people on Earth to have seen two dwarf planets. Admittedly, they aren't very exciting objects to look at, nothing more than pinpoints of light, but when you think of them as tiny worlds in the vastness of space, they are quite awesome

Monday, June 14, 2010

Suns Strange Behavior Baffles Astronomers


Sun's Strange Behavior Baffles Astronomers

By Denise Chow Staff Writer

posted: 14 June 2010

06:53 am ET

The sun's temper ebbs and flows on what scientists had thought was a pretty predictable cycle, but lately our closest star has been acting up.

Typically, a few stormy years would knock out a satellite or two and maybe trip a power grid on Earth. Then a few years of quiet, and then back to the bad behavior. But an extremely long stretch of low activity in recent years has scientists baffled and scrambling for better forecasting models.

An expected minimum of solar activity, between 2008 and 2009, was unusually deep. And while the sun would normally ramp up activity by now, heading into its next cycle, the sun may be on the verge of a weak solar cycle instead, astronomers said at the 216th meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Miami last month.

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The sun's constant interaction with Earth makes it important for solar physicists to keep track of solar activity. Stormy periods can force special safety precautions by satellite operators and power grid managers, and astronauts can be put at risk from bursts of radiation spat out by solar storm. Scientists need to more reliably predict what's in store.

At the conference, four solar physicists presented four very different methods of measuring and tracking solar cycles.

The sun has spots

Sunspots are areas of concentrated magnetic activity that appear as dark dots on the solar surface. The ebb and flow of the sun's magnetic activity, manifested in the appearance of sunspots, make up the solar cycle.

Typically, a cycle lasts about 11 years, taking roughly 5.5 years to move from a solar minimum, a period of time when there are few sunspots, to peak at the solar maximum, during which sunspot activity is amplified.

The previous cycle 23's extraordinary minimum recorded the highest number of days without sunspots that researchers had seen since 1913, said Hathaway.

Hathaway and his team of researchers measured what is called the meridional flow, which is the circulation of stellar material from the sun's equator toward the poles and back again. This flow can often influence a cycle's strength.

The scientists examined the changes in the structure of the flow, and the levels of geomagnetic activity, as they corresponded to the minimums and maximums of the previous solar cycles.

"We found that there were variations in the strength of that flow," Hathaway said. "The last minimum in 1996, that velocity was about 11 meters per second (about 22 miles an hour), which is pretty slow for an object as big as the sun. That flow slowed down as we went to maximum in 2001."

The meridional flow then quickly increased again, and by 2004, it was faster than it was at the last maximum, said Hathaway. This flow continued to stay fast on the approach to this most recent minimum.

"My suspicion is that this sunspot cycle 23 was a weaker cycle than the last two, with fewer sunspots and weaker magnetic fields. These may feed into what happens with the meridional flow that is going to lead to another weak cycle."

Hathaway predicts that cycle 24 should reach its peak in mid-2013 at about half the size of the last three cycles.

The sun's out of sync

In a different approach, Sushanta Tripathy of the National Solar Observatory used the frequencies of acoustic oscillations to look for signatures of changes in the solar activity cycle.

Tripathy found that changes in acoustic frequencies were, for the most part, in phase with solar activity. But, during the extended minimum, he noticed that the frequencies of waves that cover a large portion of the solar interior became out of sync with solar activity.

"We find that the frequencies of sound waves that travel to the deep interior show an early minimum during late 2007, while the waves that are confined to near the surface show the signature of minimum in late 2008, nearly coinciding with solar activity minimum."

The two seismic lulls detected using acoustic oscillation have not been seen before in previous cycles, said Tripathy, leading researchers to conclude that the extended minimum between cycles 23 and 24 is quite unusual.

Jet streams on the sun

Frank Hill, also of the National Solar Observatory, took a separate approach, attempting to predict the sunspot cycle based on a phenomena on the sun that can be likened to solar jet streams.

This east-west flow on the surface of the sun was first discovered in 1980, and is known as "torsional oscillation."

The jet stream exists at a depth of at least 65,000 miles (about 105,000 kilometers) below the solar surface, and Hill and his team of researchers were able to examine its behavior at a depth of 600 miles (966 km).

"The position of the magnetic field is very highly correlated with the position of this flow," Hill said. "From helioseismology, we see the flows for two prominent cycles – Cycle 23, the cycle that we're coming out of, and Cycle 24, the cycle that we're in now."

It turns out that the flow appears well before the level that solar activity spikes. This led the researchers to conclude that there is some sort of triggering mechanism that appears before the onset of activity.

While observations of the solar jet could one day be useful for predicting the timing of the solar cycles, a larger data set is still required to ensure the method's accuracy.

"We're definitely going to need several cycles to improve the predictions," Hill said.

Further investigation will also be needed to determine whether the jet stream is a cause or effect of the solar cycle.

Our magnetic star

In yet another approach, Julia Saba of SP Systems and NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., used X-ray and magnetic field strength indicators in order to predict the precise time mark for the onset of solar cycles.

Saba used magnetic maps of the sun, called synoptic charts, to observe solar cycles 21 through 23 and into 24. By evaluating trends in X-ray activity, Saba was able to predict the onset approximately 18 months ahead of time, and was accurate to within two months.

"By May of 2010, we see that cycle 24 is clearly underway, though things are still pretty quiet in the southern hemisphere in general," Saba said.

This method of determining a solar cycle's onset could be a valuable way to compare the different phases in solar activity because it can be observed in near real-time, Saba explained.

"It's a little easier to tell in real time than by solar maximum or solar minimum," she said.

While the four ways of monitoring solar activity take different approaches, the researchers are all in agreement that we are witnessing an interesting minimum. And while these methods could be useful for future studies of solar cycles, they all require further research.

"One problem we have with all solar cycle studies is the statistics of small numbers," Hathaway said. "Even with 23 sunspot cycles, it's not enough. What we've seen today are some newer measurements that weren't available even two cycles ago that are shedding new light. We need to be careful with using what we've seen from one or two cycles to make inferences for all of them."


Friday, June 11, 2010

NASA's Dawn Probe Breaks Speed Boost Record


NASA Spacecraft Breaks Speed Boost Record

By Denise Chow Staff Writer

posted: 11 June 2010

09:14 am ET

Zooming deep toward the heart of the asteroid belt, NASA's Dawn spacecraft has accelerated itself into the record books for the biggest single speed boost ever by a spacecraft engine.

The ion-propelled spacecraft set the new record while on its way to visit the asteroid belt's two biggest space rocks, Ceres and Vesta.

"We are using this amazing ion-engine technology as a stepping-stone to orbit and explore two of the asteroid belt's most mysterious objects, Vesta and Ceres," said Robert Mase, Dawn project manager from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), located in Pasadena, Calif.

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www.mysteriousuniverse.orgThe all-time velocity change record was previously held by NASA's Deep Space 1 probe, which was the first interplanetary spacecraft to use ion propulsion technology. Ion propulsion creates thrust by consistently accelerating ions through a nozzle using electrostatic force.

Deep Space 1's record fell on June 5, when the Dawn spacecraft's accumulated acceleration over the course of the mission sailed past the 9,600 mph (15,449 kph) mark.

A spacecraft's change in velocity refers to its ability to change its path through space using its own rocket engines. Measurements of this change begin only after the spacecraft exits the last stage of the launch vehicle that initially hurled it into space. NASA launched the Dawn mission on Sept. 27, 2007.

Since then, Dawn has had to fire each of its three engines, one at a time, for a cumulative total of 620 days in order to reach the asteroid belt and set the new velocity change record. In doing so, it has used less than 363 pounds (165 kg) of xenon propellant.

Over the course of its eight-plus-year mission, Dawn's three ion engines are expected to accumulate 2,000 days of operation – equivalent to 5.5 years of thrusting – for a total change in velocity of over 24,000 mph (38,000 kph).

"I am delighted that it will be Dawn that surpasses DS1's record," said Marc Rayman, chief engineer for the Dawn mission, and a previous project manager for Deep Space 1. "It is a tribute to all those involved in the design and operations of this remarkable spacecraft."

While Dawn's energy thrusts of 0-to-60 mph (0-to-97 kph) in four days may seem underwhelming, the spacecraft is incredibly efficient. In fact, it expends a mere 37 ounces of xenon propellant during that time.

Furthermore, after four days of full-throttle thrusting, it continues thrusting for two more four-day intervals. By the end of 12 days, Dawn will have increased its velocity by more than 180 mph (290 kph), with more days, weeks and months of continuous thrusting to come.

Over the course of a year, Dawn's ion propulsion system can increase the spacecraft's speed by a whopping 5,500 mph (8,850 kph), all the while consuming the equivalent of only 16 gallons of fuel.

"This is a special moment for the spacecraft team," said Dawn's principal investigator, Chris Russell of the University of California Los Angeles. "In only 407 days, our minds will be on another set of records, the data records that Dawn will transmit when we enter Vesta orbit."

Next stop: space rock

The Dawn spacecraft is expected to voyage across 3 billion miles (4.8 billion km) on an odyssey that will include explorations of asteroid Vesta in 2011 and 2012, and the dwarf planet Ceres in 2015. Both Vesta and Ceres have witnessed much of our solar system's history.

By using the same set of instruments at two separate destinations, scientists can more accurately formulate comparisons and contrasts. Dawn's full suite of science instruments will measure shape, surface topography and tectonic history, elemental and mineral composition, as well as seek out water-bearing minerals.

Additionally, the way that the spacecraft orbits both Vesta and Ceres will be used to measure the mass and gravity fields of the celestial bodies.

And while Dawn surpassed Deep Space 1's record for velocity change, the older probe still holds the record for the longest-duration of powered spaceflight, and will continue to do so for another few months. Dawn is, however, expected to take over that record at around early August of this year.

As the Dawn probe streaks through the asteroid belt headed for a space rock rendezvous, another unmanned probe is returning home from one. Japan's Hayabusa spacecraft is flying ever closer to Earth and set to drop a sample return capsule that may contain pieces of its asteroid target Itokawa on Sunday, June 13. Japan's space agency launched the Hayabusa mission in 2003 and the probe arrived at its asteroid target in 2005, but suffered multiple malfunctions during its trip.

The Dawn mission to Vesta and Ceres is managed by NASA's JPL. The University of California, Los Angeles is responsible for overall Dawn mission science.

The Best Time To See Venus Is Now


The Best Time to See Venus Is Now

By Joe Rao Skywatching Columnist

posted: 11 June 2010

09:20 am ET

Venus appears so dazzling that it's now capturing the gaze of countless millions soon after sunset, and this week for those situated north of the equator it will appear to stand higher in the western twilight sky than at any other time this year.

Weather permitting, this brilliant lantern-like planet will shine more than 25 degrees high at sunset and still about 15 degrees above the horizon as the last bit of twilight glow fades. For comparison, your fist held at arm's length covers roughly 10 degrees of the night sky.

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RealAge.comWhat is unusual is that while Venus is now at the pinnacle of its evening visibility, its greatest elongation (angular separation) from the sun is still more than two months away, in late August.

The reason for this paradox can be traced to the difference in declination between Venus and the sun Declination is a coordinate on the celestial sphere, and is analogous to latitude on the Earth's surface. The declination of an object is how many degrees it is north or south of the celestial equator.

Right now, Venus and the sun are positioned about 23 degrees to the north of the celestial equator, which is about as far to the north as either object can appear. But in the coming days and weeks, Venus will appear to slide rapidly toward the south, causing it to appear to steadily lose altitude in the sunset sky.

When it reaches its greatest elongation from the sun on Aug. 20 it will be nearly 20 degrees south of it in declination. So it will be noticeably lower in the sky at sunset, as well as appearing to set more toward the south of due west.

And since both the sun and Venus will continue to head south through the balance of summer and on into the fall, Venus will become increasingly more difficult to see.

By October, it rapidly sinks out of sight; from mid-northern latitudes we'll have to struggle to catch it very low in the west-southwest soon after sunset during the opening days of the month. Venus will become hopelessly lost in the glare of the sun shortly thereafter, as it falls past it – inferior conjunction – on Oct. 29.

But at least for now, evening viewers are seeing Venus at its very best for 2010.

Some striking conjunctions

Skywatchers using their unaided eyes and binoculars will see some dramatic Venus conjunctions (when the planet appears near another object) during the next couple of weeks.

In the dusk of Friday evening, June 11 for instance, Venus strikes an interesting pose with the "twin" stars, Pollux and Castor in the constellation Gemini, forming a nearly straight and horizontal line in the sky.

But that's not all. A lovely crescent moon, just 2 1/2 days past new phase, comes onto the western stage on June 14. [Stunning full moon photo.]

While they won't appear exceptionally close, Venus and that slender sliver of the moon will still make for a pleasing tableau in that Monday evening's west-northwest sky, Venus appearing to ride well above and slightly to the right of the moon.

Then Venus continues on a beeline toward the Beehive star cluster (M44) in faint Cancer, the Crab, arriving there during the evenings of June 19 and 20.

Wait until about an hour after sunset and use binoculars or a wide-field telescope to detect the cluster as a faint sprinkling of stars just to the lower left of Venus.

On June 18 Venus will be just 1/2 a degree northeast of 5th magnitude star Eta Cancri. It will be at the northwest edge of the Beehive the next evening, and at the northeast edge of the cluster the night after that.

Normally, the Beehive is visible to the naked eye as a hazy spot of light, but right around these nights the close proximity of Venus will likely overwhelm any chance of spotting the cluster without optical aid.

You should be able to detect the small, dazzling, yellow-white gibbous phase of Venus in your telescope if the atmosphere is calm and you observe as early in twilight as possible, before Venus has sunk too near the horizon.

And on June 23 Venus will stand about midway between the stars Pollux and Regulus.

Venus at midnight?

Not a few astronomy texts and stargazing guides will tell you not to bother looking for Venus at midnight, since it always sets within a few hours of sundown and is usually long gone from the sky by the middle of the night.

However, this week, since we are getting near to the time of the summer solstice, the sun appears to be setting practically as late as it can set. In addition, most parts of the United States and Canada are now on daylight saving time.

As a consequence, even though it's setting only about 2 1/2 hours after sunset, Venus is setting rather late for most places: generally within several minutes of 11 p.m. local daylight time. However, if you live near the western boundary of your local time zone or at a latitude north of 45 degrees, Venus will be setting close to, or even after the stroke of midnight.

From Indianapolis, Indiana, for instance, Venus will set at 11:47 p.m. EDT. From Winnipeg, Manitoba, Venus will set at 12:09 a.m. CDT.

And for Houghton, Mich., Venus doesn't set until 12:22 a.m. EDT, while those who live in Edmonton, Alberta can enjoy their view of Venus until well past 12 midnight – 12:33 a.m. MDT to be exact!


Five Reasons To Care About Asteroids


5 Reasons to Care About Asteroids

By Karen Rowan

Life's Little Mysteries Managing Editor

posted: 11 June 2010

06:36 pm ET

On Sunday, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) is planning to bring the Hayabusa probe down to Earth in Australia, hopefully bringing bits of an asteroid down with it.

The probe visited asteroid 25143 Itokawa in 2005 and attempted to collect samples of dust and pebbles from the rock. Because of glitches during the sample collection, scientists are unsure exactly what they will find when they open Hayabusa's sealed sampling chamber.

But if successful, this will mark the first time asteroid samples are returned to Earth for analysis.

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1. They will tell us about the origins of our solar system.

"The materials in asteroids represent the building blocks of the planets," said Carol Raymond,

deputy principal investigator on NASA's Dawn mission, which lifted off in 2007 and will visit asteroid Vesta in 2011 and dwarf planet Ceres in 2015. Because of the position of the asteroid belt that lies between the rocky inner planets and the gas giants of the outer solar system, the materials found there may hold clues as to why the planets are so diverse today.

For example, although Ceres and Vesta formed at roughly the same time – within the first 10 million years of the solar system's existence – they have very different compositions now. Vesta, at some point, melted completely and then resolidified, so it is now smooth. Meanwhile Ceres does not show signs of having gone through this melting.

It's possible, Raymond said, that Vesta experienced more collisions, or that it had a high amount of a radioactive form of aluminum that would have given off heat as it underwent radioactive decay. By studying each asteroid, scientists will be able to solve this mystery.

2. They will help us understand more about the origin of life.

Scientists do not fully understand how the first life forms arose on Earth from non-living organic matter, and asteroids may help us learn more about this puzzle.

Asteroids such as 2 Pallas and 10 Hygiea, which are both believed to have had water in the past, appear to have organic (carbon-based) compounds on them, Raymond said. Today, these asteroids have a more primitive chemical composition than Earth has – they are more similar to the conditions that existed in the solar system's younger years. By studying them, we may learn about how life arose on our own planet.

"There are conditions that may have been conducive to life in the past," Raymond said.

Plus, scientists think asteroids that landed on Earth long ago may have deposited some of the building blocks that helped start life here.

3. We may want to mine near-earth asteroids for metals.

"There is a keen interest in going to asteroids in the near-earth belt," Raymond said. "They could be sources of valuable metals." To investigate the feasibility of such operations, we need to know more about asteroid composition and the technical aspects of traveling to them.

Besides the opportunity for mining, these asteroids are also interesting from a scientific perspective, because studying them complements our studies of the major planets, Raymond said. Analyzing the differences between the planets and the smaller asteroids is like taking slices of the solar system at different times during its formation.

4. They may someday threaten to collide with Earth.

Because some asteroids orbit around the sun in paths shaped like elongated ovals, they cross Earth's orbit every so often. And sometimes, they come very close to Earth itself. For example, in January, asteroid 2010 AL30 passed within about 80,000 miles (130,000 km) of Earth.

But 2010 AL30 was just at 36 feet (11 meters) wide. More worrisome is the prediction that asteroid Apophis will come very close to Earth on April 13, 2036. Although NASA predicts that it will pass no closer than 18,300 miles above Earth's surface, Apophis is larger than two football fields. While that's not big enough to create Hollywood-style global devastation, it could cause significant regional damage, were it ever to strike Earth.

5. Astronauts may go visit one, according to Obama's new plan for NASA.

In April, President Barack Obama announced the next goal for Americans in space: visiting an asteroid by 2025.

In a panel discussion in April, astrophysicist John Grunsfeld – a former NASA astronaut who flew on five shuttle missions – suggested that one goal might be sending humans to purposely move an asteroid, to nudge the space rock to change its trajectory. Such a feat, he said, would show that humanity could deflect a space rock if one threatened to crash into the planet.

"By going to a near-Earth object, an asteroid, and perhaps even modifying its trajectory slightly, we would demonstrate a hallmark in human history," Grunsfeld said. "The first time humans showed that we can make better decisions than the dinosaurs made 65 million years ago."