It’s a Big Universe Out There

I’ve been getting stale lately, talking so much about evolution. So I thought I’d talk a little about some space missions and space news. After all, if Obama can pitch it, so can I.

This is a very, very quick list of some very interesting space news and missions that have come across my desk recently. I haven’t gone into detail on any of them. But the original articles do.

Themis: is a fairly large asteroid that orbits out beyond Mars. Using earth bound telescopes, they found that there was frost on the surface. What’s interesting is that in the environment of Themis, this ice could not be stable being exposed to space and not permanently in shadow. Therefore, the water had to come from somewhere. Many theories abound: did it come from a recent encounter? Does it come from the interior? Nobody knows.

Dark Flow: Somewhere on the other side of the universe, distant clusters of galaxies are moving at mega-mph towards the same place. The visible universe can’t account for it. Which means that something out there, past where we can see, is dragging its neighbors in for a visit. What is it? No one knows.

Spirit: Poor little doomed Mars sprite. She tries so hard but can’t get unstuck. No communication from her has been received since March 22. But we have hope.

Opportunity: is like the old Timex watches. Takes a licking and keeps on ticking. She is driving past some craters at the moment. She’s on her way to Endeavour Crater. Both Spirit and Opportunity’s home page is here.

Mars Local
: One of the great things about studying Mars is that meteorites have been discovered that originated on Mars. One of these is ALH84001. Lately, the true age of the meteorite is 400 million years younger than previously thought. It was formed when Mars was wet and had a magnetic field. Life, maybe?

Stephen Hawking: is afraid of aliens. Who knew?

Kepler: is NASA’s attempt to find earth like planet. Why? Well, to scare Stephen Hawking, for one. So far, Kepler has discovered 8 planets. (See here.) Still more or less Jupiter sized. Stay tuned. There’s some evidence that the Kepler team has held data back in order for it to be fully analyzed prior to release. See here.

Gamma Ray Bursts: (And here.) These are the largest known explosions. One reason they occur is when stars collapse into black holes. The NASA Swift observatory has been watching them since 2004 and just bagged GRP #500. How big an explosion? Well, the Milky Way is 100, 000 light years across. If a GRB happened anywhere in it, we’d be dead.

Hot Jupiters: may not always orbit in the plane of the star’s rotation. Our planets do. But some of the exoplanets don’t. About a quarter of the hot Jupiters discovered had orbits in a different plane of the host star. Very curious– planetary formation theories suggest that the normal gravitational push and pull should line them all up in the same plane as the star. Ours do. Of course a sample size of one is never very good. These other planets may well have a different history.

Epsilon Aurigae: is an eclipsing binary star. But, eclipsed by what? Every 27 years it fades for more than a year, then it returns. That’s either a mother of a planet or something else. Now, it turns out that it may well be surrounded by a disk of debris dust that is “optically thick but geometrically thin”.

Hubble: turns 20. Here’s a retrospective in pictures.

Cassini: is the largest and most complex robotic spacecraft ever built. It’s still there. It’s studying Titan, Enceledus. It even dropped a probe on Titan which seemed to plop into a world of liquid methane. And it’s only six years old. Lightning strikes on Saturn here. Dione and Titan flyby here.

The Sun: NASA launched the Solar Dynamics Observatory, which has my vote for the best eye candy from a currently operational space craft. That’s the sun from SDO up at the top, there.

There are a lot of missions going on up there: AIM, looking at polar clouds. Aqua, studying earth’s water. NASA’s current mission are listed and discussed here.

Go have fun.



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