Kepler mission to hunt for planets just our size

March 5, 2009

The United States is scheduled to launch on Friday an orbiting telescope designed to help answer one of the oldest and deepest questions of astronomy: Are we – or at least our planet’s microbes – alone in the galaxy? The Kepler spacecraft will stare at a patch of sky – the same 100,000 stars near the northern constellation Cygnus, all at once – for at least 3-1/2 years. The goal is to detect Earth-like planets orbiting their host stars at distances thought to be sweet spots for life. Dubbed habitable zones, these are orbits where a planet is bathed in light that is strong enough to permit liquid water to collect and remain a persistent feature of the planet’s surface. If all goes well, Kepler’s journey will start with the launch from Cape Canaveral in Florida at around 10:49 p.m. Eastern time.

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Less Than 20 Years Until First Contact?

November 13, 2008


The Allen Telescope Array (ATA) has come online with its initial configuration of 42 antennas. The project, led by the SETI Institute, is a non-governmental project funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen in which eventually 350 small radio antennas will scan the sky for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence. Senior SETI scientist Seth Shostak said that the array could become strong enough by 2025 to look deep enough into space to find extraterrestrial signals. “We’ll find E.T. within two dozen years,” he said. That’s, of course, assuming the distance we can look into space will be increased with new instruments yet to be built, and that the projected computing power under Moore’s Law actually happens. Shostak estimated that if the assumptions about computing power and the strength of forthcoming research instruments are correct, we should be able to search as far out as 500 light years into space by 2025, a distance he predicted would be enough–based on scientist Frank Drake’s estimate of there being 10,000 civilizations in our galaxy alone capable of creating radio transmitters–to find evidence of intelligent life that is broadcasting its existence.

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Asian nations vie for stake in moon

November 10, 2008


When India’s Chandrayaan-1 lunar orbiter reaches its destination on 8 November, it will join two others – and neither is American, Russian or European. For the first time, probes from China, Japan and India will be orbiting the moon. This signals the latest stage in a new space race in which Asian nations are seeking a place alongside the established space powers. Both China and India are looking for helium-3 in the lunar crust as a possible fuel for nuclear fission reactors on Earth. The moon is estimated to have a millions tonnes of the stuff, the result of billions of years of bombardment by the solar winds.

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Liquid Mirror Telescopes on the Moon

October 9, 2008

“It’s so simple,” says Ermanno F. Borra, physics professor at the Optics Laboratory of Laval University in Quebec, Canada. “Isaac Newton knew that any liquid, if put into a shallow container and set spinning, naturally assumes a parabolic shape—the same shape needed by a telescope mirror to bring starlight to a focus. This could be the key to making a giant lunar observatory.” Borra, who has been studying liquid-mirror telescopes since 1992, and Simon P. “Pete” Worden, now director of NASA Ames Research Center, are members of a team taking the idea for a spin. “A mirror that large could peer back in time to when the universe was very young, only half a billion years old, when the first generation of stars and galaxies were forming,” Borra exclaimed. “Potentially more exciting is pure serendipity: new things we might discover that we just don’t expect.” Says Worden: “Putting a giant telescope on the Moon has always been an idea of science fiction, but it soon could become fact.”

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Newly found planets make case for ‘crowded universe’

July 15, 2008

European astronomers have found a trio of “super-Earths” closely circling a star that astronomers once figured had nothing orbiting it.  The discovery demonstrates that planets keep popping up in unexpected places around the universe.  The announcement is the first time three planets close to Earth’s size were found orbiting a single star, said Swiss astronomer Didier Queloz.  He was part of the Swiss-French team using the European Southern Observatory’s La Silla Observatory in the desert in Chile.  The mass of the smallest of the super-Earths is about four times the size of Earth.  Scientists are more interested in the broader implications of the finding: The universe is teeming with far more planets than thought.  Using a new tool to study more than 100 stars once thought to be devoid of planets, the Swiss-French team found that about one-third had planets that are only slightly bigger than Earth.

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Yes, there’s ice on Mars

June 21, 2008

“Whoohoo! Was keeping my eye on some chunks of bright stuff & they disappeared! Sublimated! So it can’t be salt, it’s ice.” That’s the triumphant verdict of the Mars lander Phoenix, which yesterday boldly declared, after 24 Martian days of scratching the planet’s surface, that yes, there is ice on Mars.

Phoenix is constantly sending back information to Earth, which is posted by the mission team using the instant messaging software Twitter (written, in touchy-feely style, in the first person as if Phoenix itself is providing its own commentary on its labours). Twitter, the ‘microblogging’ phenomenon, can thus claim to have brought the watery news to Earthlings’ attention.

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Milky Way loses two (major) arms

June 3, 2008

For decades, astronomers have pictured our galaxy as sporting four major, spiral arms, however new images effectively sever two appendages, revealing the Milky Way has just two major arms.

“We’re not proposing that they change the positions of the arms,” said Robert Benjamin of the University of Wisconsin, Whitewater. “What we’re proposing is a change in the emphasis of the arms.” Benjamin will present his team’s results today here at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS).

The findings confirm an earlier observation by a team of astronomers, making a strong case that the Milky Way has two major spiral arms, a common structure for galaxies with bars. These major arms have the greatest densities of both young, bright stars and older, so-called red-giant stars.

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