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  1. No, humble inhabitants of Hawaii, the US government hasn’t increased the level of psychoactive drugs in your water supply: That really is a flying saucer that just flew past your window at three times the speed of sound. Dubbed the Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator, NASA is hoping that this flying saucer is the secret to eventually landing larger payloads on other planets — such as sending a human exploration party to Mars, along with plenty of supplies. The LDSD is on a pretty aggressive schedule, with seven major tech demos over the next 24 months, and could be used in a real mission to Mars in 2018. Later this year, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory will use a balloon to launch a test vehicle up to an altitude of 120,000 feet (36.5 kilometers) above Hawaii. The test vehicle will then use a rocket to reach supersonic speeds and raise its altitude yet further to 180,000 feet (54.8 kilometers)… and then it will cut its engine and begin to free fall back to earth. As the capsule passes Mach 3.5 (2,600 mph), the LDSD will kick into action, sprouting a Supersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator (SIAD) from the craft and filling it with pressurized air. With the SIAD fully inflated, the spacecraft looks awfully like a flying saucer. The SIAD slows the craft down to around Mach 2, whereupon a massive 30-meter-diameter parachute will then be used to bring speeds down to subsonic landing speeds. NASA is developing two variants of the LDSD [PDF] – one with a 20-foot (6m) SIAD for smaller, robotic extraplanetary landings, and one with a larger 26-foot (8m) SIAD for larger, human payloads. The overall goal of the LDSD is to make it possible for NASA to land larger payloads on the surface of Mars: While the parachute-to-sky-crane technique used by Curiosity was technologically impressive, the sky crane simply isn’t capable of landing payloads over 1.5 metric tons (3,300 lbs). The LDSD will not only allow NASA to land payloads of up to 3 tons on Mars, but it will also increase the number of possible landing zones and improve landing accuracy from a margin of 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) to just 3km. While our mastery of Newtonian physics means it’s fairly trivial to place a place a spacecraft in orbit around any planet in the Solar System, landing on a planet or moon’s surface is still incredibly difficult. Every moon and planet in the Solar System has different atmosphere, gravity, and surface conditions, and thus each mission needs to have a specifically tailored landing procedure. For Mars, the difficulty is that it has too much atmosphere for rapid entry and rocket deceleration (as we did with the Moon landings), but it doesn’t have enough atmosphere to land large objects with only a parachute. (Here on Earth, with our deliciously thick atmosphere, we’ve used parachutes to land masses of up to 72,000 lbs or 32.5 metric tons). Thus, if we ever want to send a human exploration party to Mars, or eventually colonize it, we need to use a hybrid landing technique — something with a rugged first stage to take the initial brunt of interplanetary deceleration, and then a big ol’ parachute to bring you down to ground-approach speeds. Small rockets would probably be used for final landing maneuvers. Currently, we still use the original parachute design used by the Viking lander program in the ’70s, so it’s definitely time for an upgrade. (Read: US Air Force’s 1950s supersonic flying saucer declassified.) NASA is scheduled to perform a series of LDSD launches from the Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai, Hawaii in 2014 and 2015. The LDSD could be ready for missions to Mars as early as 2018, though there aren’t currently any scheduled heavy-payload missions to Mars that could use it. For now, we’ll just have to settle with NASA’s flying saucers whizzing around on Earth. Source
  2. The search for planets that closely resemble Earth has yielded perhaps the closest match yet — according to a new report from NASA, the newly-discovered Kepler 186f planet (seen above in an artist's concept) is nearly identical to our planet in some key ways. The planet is one of the closest in size to Earth that has been discovered, and it is also the right distance from its sun to be in the "habitable zone" — a distance that makes it possible for liquid water to pool on the surface of the planet. While other Earth-like planets have been found, they've either been too hot or significantly larger than our planet — but Kepler 186f is only 10 percent bigger than Earth. And its 130-day orbit around its M dwarf sun (a star significantly smaller than our G Dwarf sun) suggests that it'll be in the right range to potentially support liquid water. However, it's worth noting that Kepler 186f is on the edge of that habitable zone. NASA says that the planet only receives one-third the energy from its star that the Earth gets from the sun; the brightness of the planet's star at high noon is about equal to the brightness we see on Earth about an hour before sunset. Other knocks against Kepler 186f include the fact that its mass and composition aren't yet known, though NASA suspects it is a rocky planet much like Earth. However, there's also no evidence to suggest yet that the planet has an atmosphere that would be suitable to sustaining life, says professor Victoria Meadows, principal investigator for the Virtual Planetary Laboratory. Still, Kepler 186f is the first planet discovered that is both a close size to Earth and also in the habitable zone of its sun — co-author of the study called the planet an "Earth-cousin, rather than an Earth-twin." Still, it's a lot closer to Earth than four other planets discovered in the system, all of which orbit their sun in about three weeks or less, making them far too hot to support life. Sadly, Kepler 186f is about 500 light-years away, so don't expect any expeditions in search of life any time soon. Source
  3. The search for a new Earth outside the solar system seems to be nearing its end. NASA's Ames Research Center astronomer Thomas Barclay has found a planet nearly the size of Earth in the habitable zone of a star in the Milky Way. Barclay's announcement at the Search for Life Beyond the Solar System conference hasn't been officially published yet, so the details are scarce. We know that: 1. It's an M1 red dwarf star (maybe we should call it Krypton.) 2. It's a goldilocks planet, orbiting within the zone where liquid water (and life) can exist. 3. It's radius is only 1.1 times the size of Earth. Until now the minimum size for a new Earth candidate was 1.4 times—Kepler-62f, which orbits a star about 1,200 light years away from us. 4. At least five other planets are orbiting this red dwarf. I can't wait for that new telescope starshade that will let us take actual photos of these new worlds. Source
  4. NASA’s Lunar Laser Communication Demonstration (LLCD) has made history using a pulsed laser beam to transmit data over the 239,000 miles between the moon and Earth at a record-breaking download rate of 622 megabits per second (Mbps). LLCD is NASA’s first system for two-way communication using a laser instead of radio waves. It also has demonstrated an error-free data upload rate of 20 Mbps transmitted from the primary ground station in New Mexico to the spacecraft currently orbiting the moon. “LLCD is the first step on our roadmap toward building the next generation of space communication capability,” said Badri Younes, NASA’s deputy associate administrator for space communications and navigation (SCaN) in Washington. “We are encouraged by the results of the demonstration to this point, and we are confident we are on the right path to introduce this new capability into operational service soon.” Since NASA first ventured into space, it has relied on radio frequency (RF) communication. However, RF is reaching its limit as demand for more data capacity continues to increase. The development and deployment of laser communications will enable NASA to extend communication capabilities such as increased image resolution and 3-D video transmission from deep space. “The goal of LLCD is to validate and build confidence in this technology so that future missions will consider using it,” said Don Cornwell, LLCD manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. “This unique ability developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Lincoln Laboratory has incredible application possibilities.” LLCD is a short-duration experiment and the precursor to NASA’s long-duration demonstration, the Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD). LCRD is a part of the agency’s Technology Demonstration Missions Program, which is working to develop crosscutting technology capable of operating in the rigors of space. It is scheduled to launch in 2017. LLCD is hosted aboard NASA’s Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE), launched in September from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va. LADEE is a 100-day robotic mission operated by the agency’s Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif. LADEE’s mission is to provide data that will help NASA determine whether dust caused the mysterious glow astronauts observed on the lunar horizon during several Apollo missions. It also will explore the moon’s atmosphere. Ames designed, developed, built, integrated and tested LADEE, and manages overall operations of the spacecraft. NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington funds the LADEE mission. The LLCD system, flight terminal and primary ground terminal at NASA’s White Sands Test Facility in Las Cruces, N.M., were developed by the Lincoln Laboratory at MIT. The Table Mountain Optical Communications Technology Laboratory operated by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., is participating in the demonstration. A third ground station operated by the European Space Agency on Tenerife in the Canary Islands also will be participating in the demonstration. Original Article
  5. Mike Wall, Feb 11, 2014, 11:27 AM EST This image combines a photograph of seasonal dark flows on a Martian slope with a grid of colors based on data collected by a mineral-mapping spectrometer observing the same area. Image released Feb. 10, 2014. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/UA/JHU-APL) New clues are emerging about the mysterious streaks that appear on Mars' surface during warm weather, though scientists still can't say for sure that they're caused by flowing water. The marks, known as recurring slope lineae (RSL), snake down some crater walls and other inclines when the mercury rises on the Red Planet. New research finds seasonal changes in iron minerals at RSL sites, suggesting that brines containing an iron antifreeze may flow there from time to time — but direct evidence of water remains elusive. "We still don't have a smoking gun for existence of water in RSL, although we're not sure how this process would take place without water," Lujendra Ojha, a graduate student at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, lead author of two recent RSL studies, said in a statement. (Ojha discovered the RSL in 2011, while an undergraduate at the University of Arizona.) [Photos: The Search for Water on Mars] Ojha and his colleagues studied images of 13 RSL sites taken by the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM), an instrument aboard NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). They saw relatively high concentrations of iron minerals at most of the sites. "Just like the RSL themselves, the strength of the spectral signatures varies according to the seasons," Ojha said. "They're stronger when it's warmer and less significant when it's colder." Many scientists think the recurring slope lineae are created by water flowing just beneath the Martian surface. This water — which would leave the iron antifreezes and other minerals in its wake — likely contains salts that lower its freezing point significantly, allowing it to stay liquid despite frigid Red Planet temperatures. While the researchers didn't see any spectral signatures of water in the CRISM images, that doesn't rule out the substance's presence at RSL sites, scientists said. For example, the observations were made exclusively in the afternoon and thus could have missed surface water appearing in the morning. Further, each CRISM image observed a large area, possibly making it tough to spot signs of water in the narrow RSL streaks. The researchers reported these results late last year in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. In another study, due out next month in the journal Icarus, a team led by Ojha analyzed pictures snapped by MRO and NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter, looking for patterns in RSL formation on the Red Planet. Dark, seasonal flows emanate from bedrock exposures at Palikir Crater on Mars in this image from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Three arrows point to bright, smooth fans left behind by flows. This image was taken on June 27, 2011 and released on Feb. 10, 2014. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona) The team found 200 locations where conditions seemed ideal for seasonal streaks — areas in the southern mid-latitudes with rocky cliffs — but found only 13 with actual RSL marks. "The fact that RSL occur in a few sites and not others indicates additional unknown factors such as availability of water or salts may play a crucial role in RSL formation," Ojha said. Unraveling the mystery of Mars' seasonal dark lines could reveal exciting things about the Red Planet, such as its potential to host life as we know it, NASA officials said. "The flow of water, even briny water, anywhere on Mars today would be a major discovery, impacting our understanding of present climate change on Mars and possibly indicating potential habitats for life near the surface on modern Mars," MRO project scientist Richard Zurek, of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., said in a statement. http://www.weather.com/news/science/space/nasa-finds-clues-theres-flowing-water-mars-20140211
  6. By JPL NASA February 14, 2014 Researchers have determined the now-infamous Martian rock resembling a jelly doughnut, dubbed Pinnacle Island, is a piece of a larger rock broken and moved by the wheel of NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity in early January. Only about 1.5 inches wide (4 centimeters), the white-rimmed, red-centered rock caused a stir last month when it appeared in an image the rover took Jan. 8 at a location where it was not present four days earlier. More recent images show the original piece of rock struck by the rover's wheel, slightly uphill from where Pinnacle Island came to rest. "Once we moved Opportunity a short distance, after inspecting Pinnacle Island, we could see directly uphill an overturned rock that has the same unusual appearance," said Opportunity Deputy Principal Investigator Ray Arvidson of Washington University in St. Louis. "We drove over it. We can see the track. That's where Pinnacle Island came from." Examination of Pinnacle Island revealed high levels of elements such as manganese and sulfur, suggesting these water-soluble ingredients were concentrated in the rock by the action of water. "This may have happened just beneath the surface relatively recently," Arvidson said, "or it may have happened deeper below ground longer ago and then, by serendipity, erosion stripped away material above it and made it accessible to our wheels." Now that the rover is finished inspecting this rock, the team plans to drive Opportunity south and uphill to investigate exposed rock layers on the slope. Opportunity is approaching a boulder-studded ridge informally named the McClure-Beverlin Escarpment, in honor of engineers Jack Beverlin and Bill McClure. Beverlin and McClure were the first recipients of the NASA Medal of Exceptional Bravery for their actions on Feb. 14, 1969, to save NASA's second successful Mars mission, Mariner 6, when the launch vehicle began to crumple on the launch pad from loss of pressure. "Our team working on Opportunity's continuing mission of exploration and discovery realizes how indebted we are to the work of people who made the early missions to Mars possible, and in particular to the heroics of Bill McClure and Jack Beverlin," said rover team member James Rice of the Planetary Science Institute, Tucson, Ariz. "We felt this was really a fitting tribute to these brave men, especially with the 45th anniversary of their actions coming today." Opportunity's work on the north-facing slope below the escarpment will give the vehicle an energy advantage by tilting its solar panels toward the winter sun. Feb. 14 is the winter solstice in Mars' southern hemisphere, which includes the region where Opportunity has been working since it landed in January 2004. "We are now past the minimum solar-energy point of this Martian winter," said Opportunity Project Manager John Callas of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "We now can expect to have more energy available each week. What's more, recent winds removed some dust from the rover's solar array. So we have higher performance from the array than the previous two winters." During Opportunity's decade on Mars, and the 2004-2010 career of its twin, Spirit, NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Project has yielded a range of findings proving wet environmental conditions on ancient Mars -- some very acidic, others milder and more conducive to supporting life. http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/m/news/news.php?release=2014-051
  7. Jan 13, 2014 Editors note: This is a guest post by Nick Meyer, who is currently working on the Napwell, the worlds first Napping Mask. The Mask is currently running a Kickstarter campaign here. It's popular these days to make the claim that napping is good for you. This author has even built an entire startup on the premise that we should nap more and better. But what data is this conclusion based on? One important study by NASA for the most part. In the 1980s and 1990s, NASA and the FAA were studying whether or not in-cockpit napping could improve the job performance and safety of pilots flying long haul routes. The results are somewhat technical, but almost all contemporary news articles citing a measurable increase in on-job performance due to napping are actually based on this data. In the study, NASA teams first picked out a group of commercial airline flight pilots flying a standard itinerary between Hawaii, Japan and Los Angeles. They then divided the pilots into two groups: A Rest Group (RG) that was allowed a 40 min cock-pit nap during the cruise portion of each flight and a No Rest Group (NRG) that was not allowed a mid-flight nap. Over the course of a six day study, the pilots flew four (4) flights during which NASA teams analyzed them for wakefulness before, during and after their flights. The teams even brought along EEG and EOG machines to measure the pilots brain activity during the tests to confirm whether or not the pilots sleeping, and how alert they were. The most interesting results were as follows: Reaction Time - Using a measure of reaction time called a "PVT Trial" the teams found that the naps helped pilots maintain their baseline reaction speed over the course of the flight. The data below show that over the course of a flight (from pre-flight to post-flight) the napping pilots maintained their reaction speed versus their non-napping colleagues, who tended to grow slower over the course of the flight. More importantly, the napping pilots maintained that reaction speed on subsequent flights, whereas the non-nappers pilots suffered accumulate fatigue from previous flights. Performance Lapses Using the same measure of reaction speed, the teams found that the number of performance lapses, was decreased following a nap. A lapse is a very slow reaction versus normal response time, and is basically the pilot freezing for a brief moment in the cockpit. The napping pilots showed 34% fewer performance lapses during later stages of the flight than their colleagues. Contextualizing this a bit more, a nap would basically help a pilot maintain their reaction speed and prevent overly slow responses during the later stages of a 7-9 hour flight, when fatigue would normally set in. Figure 16 Finally, using EEG and EOG devices to measure brain activity, the teams checked for sleepiness during the last 90 minutes of all flights, including the crucial period prior to landing a plane (TOD to Landing). Sleepiness is indicated by the number of microevents that occurbrief periods when brain activity changes, and the brain enters the first stages of falling asleep. There are 3 flavors of microevents: Theta, SEM and Alpha, depending on brain waves and eye movements. Across the board, the napping pilots had significantly fewer microevents, or were much more alert, than the non-napping pilots. A statistical analysis done by the team showed that the non-napping pilots were roughly twice as likely to register a microevent, or were ~100% sleepier than their napping colleagues. The NASA team concluded that naps provided a 34% increase in pilot performance and 100% increase in physiological alertness. These basic facts are often cited by health and wellness magazines as benefits of napping, but few actually dive into the details of where the metrics came from, and what they mean. Good data can generate tremendous value when put in the hands of consumers, companies and organizations to improve their decision making. A traditional government study can seem to be a bit of a throwback in todays highly digitized world, but such studies are often essential in underpinning our understanding of sleep, naps and in this case how napping can help sustain on-the-job performance. So, if you're looking for a justification for taking a nap, now you have it. This is a guest post by Nick Meyer, who is currently working on the Napwell, the worlds first Napping Mask. The Mask is currently running a Kickstarter campaign here. http://priceonomics.com/the-nasa-studies-on-napping Edit: Added videos
  8. The key to a successful Mars landing is the same thing that matters in landing on any planet: You have to slow down before you hit the ground. That's why scientists are testing a new supersonic parachute that they hope will advance the technology needed to land heavier-than-ever spacecrafts—like the kind that will eventually carry humans to the Red Planet. This week, NASA engineers are gathered at Hawaii's Pacific Missile Range Facility to launch their new Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD), a complex package of devices including an inflatable flying saucer and a huge parachute designed for Mars landings. The name of the test vehicle is Keiki o ka honua, or "child from earth" in Hawaiian. Parachutes have long helped devices touch down on Mars—dating back to the first successful robot landing in July 1976—but this parachute is much, much bigger than the ones that have been used in previous missions. At 110 feet in diameter, the Keiki o ka honua parachute is more than double the size of the one that carried the rover Curiosity down to the surface of Mars in August 2012. Front page news about the first successful Mars landing in 1976. (New York Times screenshot) To simulate the speed of spacecraft coming in for a landing in the super-thin atmosphere of Mars, scientists are testing the LDSD at an altitude of 180,000 feet—that's 34 miles away from the surface of the Earth, or about 10 miles farther than the place where stuntman Felix Baumgarter jumped to parachute from near-space down to Earth. "We have to go halfway to the edge of space," said Ian Clark, LDSD principal investigator, in a conference call with reporters on Monday. LDSD will get two-thirds of the way to its mark in a balloon and the remainder of the way in a rocket. The balloon is big enough to "fit snugly into Pasadena's Rose Bowl," according to NASA. A fraction of a second after the saucer drops from the balloon at 120,000 feet, a rocket engine will shoot it another 60,000 feet toward outer space. Just getting the device to the point where the rocket takes over means overcoming any number of potential problems. "If we fire that motor and we get data back from it, that is a great day," said LDSD project manager Mark Adler. Artist's rendering of Keiki o ka honua rocketing to 180,000 feet. (NASA/JPL-Caltech) If all goes as planned, once the LDSD gets to 180,000 feet, a Kevlar tube will inflate around the device—this tube helps create drag to slow it down as it falls, and collects data along the way. At maximum speed, the whole package will travel at four times the speed of sound, and heat up to near 600 degrees Fahrenheit, which is about the temperature a pizza would experience inside a brick oven. In order to withstand that kind of heat, the inflatable device is made from material "similar to the Kevlar we use to build bullet proof vests," Clark says. By the time the parachute opens, the device will have slowed down to Mach 2.5—or about 1,900 miles per hour and more than twice as fast as the speed of sound. It will still be another 45 minutes until the Keiki o ka honua touches down in the Pacific Ocean, where scientists will collect it. The device will be outfitted with four GoPro cameras, plus several other cameras. A livestream of the launch will run on NASA's website. Weather conditions permitting, it could happen as early as tomorrow—Tuesday, June 3—beginning around 2 p.m. ET. NASA plans to test two more saucer-shaped vehicles in Hawaii about a year from now. Source
  9. Google’s Project Tango smartphone isn’t just your average day smartphone, it packs in tons of special hardware that no other device on the market has, like the smartphone’s Myriad 1 vision processor chip which is capable of making a quarter of a million 3D measurements per second, this is exactly what NASA needed to get their Sphere robots to be fully autonomous. The team behind Project Tango, ATAP over at Google announced today, they will be partnering with NASA to build autonomous robots. Using the technology developed for Project Tango, the Spheres robot will be able to do tasks the astronaut previously had to do themselves. The robots will be equipped with a Project Tango smartphone, to be able to map its location so it can move around autonomously. The Spheres robots will be able to navigate through the space station, and perform some of the tasks that were previously the chores of Astronauts. They will be able to construct a 3D map of their environment, so they are able to move around without bumping into walls constantly. Project Tango works by using a motion tracking camera and a depth sensor built into their backsides. When you move the device around, the phones special sensors will detect their orientation and what is around them. With the data the phone essentially creates a 3D map of its surroundings. Google has recently been working on project Ara, another project coming out of the ATAP team at Google. Project Ara is another device I think would be great for use cases much like this one. Project Ara’s main concept is a modular smartphone that can be updated one piece at a time. This is the ultimate smartphone for the person who loves to customize everything in their device, this would also be great for a company like NASA who needs devices for very specific purposes. In theory Project Tango’s special hardware, that makes it perfect for use with NASA’s Spheres, could be added to a module that fits in Project Ara’s device. Ultimately they could offer all the same special features that are in Project Tango, with the option to upgrade and change any piece you may what to switch. All you would do is slide out the old piece and slide in the new one! Overall this is very exciting for Project Tango, it will be able to make the lives of the astronauts a little easier, and in future versions maybe even preform tasks that an astronaut can’t even accomplish. We would love to hear what you guys think of Project Tango and NASA teaming up? Source
  10. NASA is working to make science fiction a reality as it chose 12 advanced technologies to study, including a deep space submarine and the tech to capture a passing asteroid. The proposals, selected as part of NASA's Innovative Advanced Concepts program, will receive about $100,000 in funding under Phase 1 of the project for a 9-month study. If the studies go well, the scientists behind them can apply for Phase II awards, which could offer as much as $500,000 for another two years of research. The projects, submitted by scientists, engineers, and citizen inventors across the country, include concepts ranging from building a submarine to explore the methane lakes of Saturn's largest moon Titan, to a way to safely capture an asteroid or large space debris. The proposals also include advanced life support, space robotic systems and space-based observatory systems. Other proposals focus on space propulsion, human habitation and scientific instruments. "The latest ... selections include a number of exciting concepts for planetary exploration," said Michael Gazarik, NASA's associate administrator for the Space Technology Mission Directorate, in a statement. "We are working with innovators around the nation to transform the future of aerospace, while also focusing our investments on concepts to address challenges of current interests both in space and here on Earth." NASA has said that it's looking to expand exploration beyond low-Earth orbit, into deep space and to Mars. The Phase 1 winners were chosen based on their potential to enable either entirely new space missions or to drive breakthroughs in aerospace technology that could accelerate NASA's goals. NASA's proposed $17.5 billion proposed fiscal 2015 budget, released in March, sets aside money to send humans to Mars by the 2030s, to study near-Earth asteroids and to send astronauts to the International Space Station. NASA has been looking to launch a plan to capture a near-Earth asteroid and engineers expect it could happen as early as 2021. At this point, the mission would seek an asteroid that is 7-10 meters in diameter and weighs about 500 tons. The plan got extra attention last year because of an asteroid that entered Earth's atmosphere on Feb. 15, 2013, creating a fireball that streaked across the sky and showering an area around Chelyabinsk. Source
  11. NASA’s Cassini satellite appears to have captured an incredibly rare photo that shows the birth of a new moon emerging from the rings of Saturn. The facts are a little hazy at the moment because we only have a handful of photos to work from, but there is some evidence to suggest that Cassini has actually spotted two new moons over the last couple of years, and that one of those moons has since been destroyed. Never in the history of humanity have we spotted the creation (or destruction) of a moon — and, more importantly (at least as far as science is concerned), this could tell us a lot about how Saturn’s larger moons formed over the last few billion years. In the image above, captured by the Cassini orbiter in April last year, the actual target of the photo was Saturn’s moon Prometheus (the bright, elongated object in the middle). Upon further investigation, NASA astronomers spotted a bulge at the edge of Saturn’s A Ring (see enlarged image below). It is believed that this bulge and its tail is caused by the gravity of a small moon (which isn’t visible) pulling some of the ice particles out of the ring. [Research paper: doi: 10.1016/j.icarus.2014.03.024 - "The discovery and dynamical evolution of an object at the outer edge of Saturn’s A ring] A bulge in Saturn’s A Ring, believed to be caused by a new moon called Peggy This moon, informally called Peggy, probably formed from the icy particles of Saturn’s A Ring, and now occupies an orbit just outside the ring. That’s not all, though. Since Cassini has been orbiting Saturn for a few years, some astronomers have since gone back and looked at past photos to see exactly when Peggy formed. Phil Plait of Slate notes that the bulge is visible at least as early as January 2013 — and also, curiously, that for a few months in the middle of 2013, there were actually two bulges. Whether Saturn’s gravity or a collision cleaved Peggy in twain, or that two moons formed around the same time, we don’t know. Since the middle of 2013, though, the bulge caused by the second moon has disappeared, suggesting it has either disintegrated or moved too far away that its gravity no longer affects the icy particles (therefore making it invisible). Saturn’s major rings If you didn’t already know, Saturn has numerous rings, consisting mostly of small particles of ice and rock. The widest and densest rings are the A, B, and C Rings, with the other rings mostly being very diffuse and “dusty.” The gaps in the rings are believed to be caused by the gravity of Saturn’s moons — as they orbit, their gravity acts a bit like a “sweeper,” gathering up the icy particles, leaving an empty region of space. (Read: The Rose of Saturn: A massive hurricane that’s twice the width of Earth.) Things are hotting up (figuratively) for the Solar System’s gas giants: Back in March we reported that NASA is being forced by the US government to plan a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa, which many scientists believe to be the Solar Systems’ most likely location for extraterrestrial life. Then, only last week some scientists confirmed that Saturn’s sixth-largest moon Enceladus has a huge ocean of liquid water beneath its icy crust. And now we appear to be witnessing the birth of a new moon from Saturn’s rings. One of Cassini’s most famous photos, taken from the shadow of Saturn. You should click to zoom in. “The theory holds that Saturn long ago had a much more massive ring system capable of giving birth to larger moons,” says Carl Murray, who led the discovery of Saturn’s newest moonlet. ”As the moons formed near the edge, they depleted the rings and evolved, so the ones that formed earliest are the largest and the farthest out.” It is believed that the rings are now so depleted that Peggy, which is only around half a mile wide, was probably Saturn’s last and rather pathetic attempt at birthing a new moon. Oh how the giants fall. Source
  12. Here on Earth, at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California, scientists have created stardust — or more accurately, they’ve recreated the dust that forms in the outer atmosphere of a dying red giant star (such a red giant is pictured above, with its dust cloud perfectly captured by Hubble). Out there in space, over millions of years, this interstellar dust gathers together into a nebula and goes on to coalesce into planets and other stars. Down here on Earth, of course, NASA isn’t trying to create its own planets (not yet, anyway) — no, they have the much more humble undertaking of trying to better understand how the universe and its trillions of planets and stars evolved over the last 14 billion years. At the Ames Research Center, NASA’s Cosmic Simulation Chamber (which is lumbered with the fantastically useless acronym COSmIC) has the exceedingly rare ability to recreate the harsh conditions of deep space. There, on the outer edge of a dying star, temperatures average 100 Kelvin (-170C, -273F), the atmosphere is one billionth that of Earth’s, and there’s tons of ultraviolet radiation. While the COSmIC mimics these conditions, the scientists inject some small hydrocarbon molecules, and then watch as various chemical processes turn these molecules into the solid dust grains that are produced en masse by dying stars. Real-life stardust, created by NASA’s COSmIC Once the experiment is completed, the dust is collected an analyzed with Ames’ scanning electron microscope (SEM), which produces the photos that you see here. The grains came in a variety of sizes, “on the order of 10 nm size, grains ranging from 100-500 nanometers and aggregates of grains up to 1.5 micrometers in diameter,” said Ames research fellow Ella Sciamma-O’Brien. While this might not sound all that exciting, there are significant implications and ramifications for both planetary science and astrophysics. Until now, we really had no idea what kind of dust formed around stars — we know that that large clouds of cosmic dust can eventually become a nebula, which then coalesces into new stars and planet, but beyond that we have to do a lot of guesswork about the exact details of the star- and planet-forming process. Until we fly a probe out to the nearest star-forming nebula (which is probably the Orion Nebula at 1350 light years distant), making interstellar dust here on Earth is the next best thing. Obviously, the more we know about how the universe’s evolution, the more we can know about our place in it. This story also has increased significance — for me, at least — because the new version ofCosmos is currently being aired on TV. Cosmos was originally written by Carl Sagan, who was very fond of saying that everything in the world — everyone you have ever known or loved, everything you’ve eaten, everywhere you’ve been — is made of star stuff. Here he was referring to the fact that everything stems from the repeated births and deaths of stars, where the process of nuclear fusion creates the elements that make rocks, life, and apple pies possible. And now, for the very first time, we’ve made our very own star stuff here on Earth. Source
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