Water Clouds Tentatively Detected Just 7 Light Years From Earth
by Ken Crosswell
Astronomers have found signs of water ice clouds on an object just 7.3 light-years from Earth—less than twice the distance of Alpha Centauri, the nearest star system to the sun. If confirmed, the discovery is the first sighting of water clouds beyond our solar system. The clouds shroud a Jupiter-sized object known as a brown dwarf and should yield insight into the nature of cool giant planets orbiting other suns.
Kevin Luhman, an astronomer at Pennsylvania State University, University Park, recently discovered the nearby object by using images from NASA’s WISE infrared space telescope, which scanned the sky from 2010 to 2011. A brown dwarf is a failed star and has so little mass that it can’t sustain nuclear reactions, so after its birth it fades and cools. This brown dwarf, named WISE J0855-0714, is the coldest known. Its temperature is slightly below the freezing point of water, so it’s colder than Earth’s mean temperature but warmer than Jupiter’s…
(read more: Science News/AAAS)
illustration: Rob Gizis, CUNY BMCC

Water Clouds Tentatively Detected Just 7 Light Years From Earth

by Ken Crosswell

Astronomers have found signs of water ice clouds on an object just 7.3 light-years from Earth—less than twice the distance of Alpha Centauri, the nearest star system to the sun. If confirmed, the discovery is the first sighting of water clouds beyond our solar system. The clouds shroud a Jupiter-sized object known as a brown dwarf and should yield insight into the nature of cool giant planets orbiting other suns.

Kevin Luhman, an astronomer at Pennsylvania State University, University Park, recently discovered the nearby object by using images from NASA’s WISE infrared space telescope, which scanned the sky from 2010 to 2011. A brown dwarf is a failed star and has so little mass that it can’t sustain nuclear reactions, so after its birth it fades and cools. This brown dwarf, named WISE J0855-0714, is the coldest known. Its temperature is slightly below the freezing point of water, so it’s colder than Earth’s mean temperature but warmer than Jupiter’s…

(read more: Science News/AAAS)

illustration: Rob Gizis, CUNY BMCC

Planetary Nebulas - Fast Winds From Dying Stars
This panel of composite images shows part of the unfolding drama of the last stages of the evolution of sun-like stars.
Dynamic elongated clouds envelop bubbles of multimillion degree gas produced by high-velocity winds from dying stars. In these images, Chandra’s X-ray data are shown in blue, while green and red are optical and infrared data from Hubble.
Planetary nebulas - so called because some of them resemble a planet when viewed through a small telescope - are produced in the late stages of a sun-like star’s life. After several billion years of stable existence (the sun is 4.5 billion years old and will not enter this phase for about 5 billion more years) a normal star will expand enormously to become a bloated red giant. Over a period of a few hundred thousand years, much of the star’s mass is expelled at a relatively slow speed of about 50,000 miles per hour…
(read more: Chandra X-Ray Observatory)

Planetary Nebulas - Fast Winds From Dying Stars

This panel of composite images shows part of the unfolding drama of the last stages of the evolution of sun-like stars.

Dynamic elongated clouds envelop bubbles of multimillion degree gas produced by high-velocity winds from dying stars. In these images, Chandra’s X-ray data are shown in blue, while green and red are optical and infrared data from Hubble.

Planetary nebulas - so called because some of them resemble a planet when viewed through a small telescope - are produced in the late stages of a sun-like star’s life. After several billion years of stable existence (the sun is 4.5 billion years old and will not enter this phase for about 5 billion more years) a normal star will expand enormously to become a bloated red giant. Over a period of a few hundred thousand years, much of the star’s mass is expelled at a relatively slow speed of about 50,000 miles per hour…

(read more: Chandra X-Ray Observatory)

A Watery, Extraterrestrial Ocean Is Submerged Beneath Enceladus’s Blankets of Ice
by Allison Eck
Move over, Mars. In the search for extraterrestrial life, moons are now in the limelight.
Enceladus, one of the Ringed Planet’s icy and austere orbiters has been on astronomers’ shortlist of potential hosts of alien life, especially since they discovered geysers of ice crystals shooting out of its south pole in 2005. They hypothesized that a deep ocean the size of Lake Superior sits underneath its highly tectonic and veiny surface, potentially feeding those gushers.
Normally, liquid water couldn’t exist that far out in the solar system, but the gravitational pull of Enceladus’s neighbor, Dione, bends the icy moon’s outer layer, creating heat through friction. NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has repeatedly flown by the surface of Enceladus to better understand the temperature dynamics that create these explosive geysers…
(read more: Nova Next - PBS)

A Watery, Extraterrestrial Ocean Is Submerged Beneath Enceladus’s Blankets of Ice

by Allison Eck

Move over, Mars. In the search for extraterrestrial life, moons are now in the limelight.

Enceladus, one of the Ringed Planet’s icy and austere orbiters has been on astronomers’ shortlist of potential hosts of alien life, especially since they discovered geysers of ice crystals shooting out of its south pole in 2005. They hypothesized that a deep ocean the size of Lake Superior sits underneath its highly tectonic and veiny surface, potentially feeding those gushers.

Normally, liquid water couldn’t exist that far out in the solar system, but the gravitational pull of Enceladus’s neighbor, Dione, bends the icy moon’s outer layer, creating heat through friction. NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has repeatedly flown by the surface of Enceladus to better understand the temperature dynamics that create these explosive geysers…

(read more: Nova Next - PBS)

Titan Tech: Lightweight Drone Could Explore Saturn Moon

by Elizabeth Howell

Sailing the soupy atmosphere of Titan, Saturn’s largest natural satellite, an interplanetary balloon could one day release a small drone to explore the moon’s swamp-like surface.

The so-called “Titan Aerial Daughtercraft” mission concept recently received a $100,000 Phase 1 grant from the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program, a sort of sandbox for the agency to explore far-out and futuristic ideas.

As part of this proposed mission, a quadcopter drone would “jump” from a mothership-type balloon to explore the surface of Titan; the drone would then return to the balloon to recharge for the night, the researchers said. Both vehicles would be used to investigate Titan’s hydrogen- and carbon-rich environment, which some scientists think resembles the composition of Earth’s atmosphere early in its history…

(read more: Live Science)

images: illustration - Larry Matthies/NASA; photos - NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Happy 10th Anniversary, Cassini!

It’s been 10 years since Cassini reached Saturn’s orbit. Popular Science celebrates with some of our favorite Cassini images.

by Francie Diep

Today is the 10th anniversary of the spacecraft Cassini’s arrival in Saturn’s system of rings and moons. But to make that 2.2-billion-mile journey from Earth, Cassini had to launch on October 15, 1997. So really it’s been 17 great years. The International Space Station and the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity all launched after Cassini did. Yet Cassini is still in working order, and still sends data and—our favorite—images back to Earth…

(read and see more: Popular Science)

images: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute


Nearby Exoplanet Is Best Candidate For Supporting Life
by Lisa Winter
Finding new exoplanets is always awesome, but discovering exoplanets within the star’s habitable zone are exponentially more exciting.
A team led by Robert Wittenmyer of the University of New South Wales has announced the discovery of the Super-Earth Gliese 832 c, which could very well turn out to be the best candidate for extraterrestrial life discovered to date. It’s also fairly close, cosmologically speaking, which adds to the intrigue. The team’s paper has been accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal, but has been made available online in an open access format on arXiv.org.
Gliese 832 is a red dwarf star that is located 16.1 light-years away in the constellation Grus. Astronomers discovered a Jupiter analog orbiting the star back in 2009, but its orbit takes nine years to complete; far beyond the star’s habitable zone. Gliese 832 c looks much more promising. Though only two planets in the system are known, it appears to be organized quite similarly to our own solar system…
(read more: I Fucking Love Science)
illustration by PHL @ UPR Arecibo, NASA Hubble, Stellarium

Nearby Exoplanet Is Best Candidate For Supporting Life

by Lisa Winter

Finding new exoplanets is always awesome, but discovering exoplanets within the star’s habitable zone are exponentially more exciting.

A team led by Robert Wittenmyer of the University of New South Wales has announced the discovery of the Super-Earth Gliese 832 c, which could very well turn out to be the best candidate for extraterrestrial life discovered to date. It’s also fairly close, cosmologically speaking, which adds to the intrigue. The team’s paper has been accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal, but has been made available online in an open access format on arXiv.org.

Gliese 832 is a red dwarf star that is located 16.1 light-years away in the constellation Grus. Astronomers discovered a Jupiter analog orbiting the star back in 2009, but its orbit takes nine years to complete; far beyond the star’s habitable zone. Gliese 832 c looks much more promising. Though only two planets in the system are known, it appears to be organized quite similarly to our own solar system…

(read more: I Fucking Love Science)

illustration by PHL @ UPR Arecibo, NASA Hubble, Stellarium

Mysterious Magic Island Appears on Saturn’s Moon Titan

Now you don’t see it. Now, you do. And now you don’t see it again. Astronomers have discovered a bright, mysterious geologic object – where one never existed – on Cassini mission radar images of Ligeia Mare, the second-largest sea on Saturn’s moon Titan. Scientifically speaking, this spot is considered a “transient feature,” but the astronomers have playfully dubbed it “Magic Island.”

Reporting in the journal Nature Geoscience June 22, the scientists say this may be the first observation of dynamic, geological processes in Titan’s northern hemisphere.

"This discovery tells us that the liquids in Titan’s northern hemisphere are not simply stagnant and unchanging, but rather that changes do occur," said Jason Hofgartner, a Cornell University graduate student in the field of planetary sciences, and the paper’s lead author. "We don’t know precisely what caused this ‘magic island’ to appear, but we’d like to study it further."…

(read more: PhysOrg)

image: Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASI/Cornell

Pluto and Its Companion Charon May Share an Atmosphere
by Ian O’Neill
Pluto is often considered to be a ‘binary planet’ with its largest moon Charon and now it seems that both share more than a common orbit — they may also share a thin atmosphere.

This new finding arose from new models published in the journal Icarus of the Pluonian system that show gases from Pluto are being transferred to Charon. Charon has a compact orbital distance of only 12,000 miles from the center of Pluto and both bodies orbit around a common point, known as a barycenter, which is located above Pluto’s icy surface. Recent observations have shown Pluto’s thin atmosphere to be composed mainly of nitrogen and the assumption was that the gas is too heavy and too cold to escape Pluto’s gravity.

But new simulations suggest the dwarf planet’s atmosphere may be warmer and thicker than anticipated, meaning the nitrogen gas has enough energy to escape Pluto and may be exchanged to Charon and both bodies share a common atmosphere…
(read more: Discovery News)
image via ESO

Pluto and Its Companion Charon May Share an Atmosphere

by Ian O’Neill

Pluto is often considered to be a ‘binary planet’ with its largest moon Charon and now it seems that both share more than a common orbit — they may also share a thin atmosphere.

This new finding arose from new models published in the journal Icarus of the Pluonian system that show gases from Pluto are being transferred to Charon. Charon has a compact orbital distance of only 12,000 miles from the center of Pluto and both bodies orbit around a common point, known as a barycenter, which is located above Pluto’s icy surface. Recent observations have shown Pluto’s thin atmosphere to be composed mainly of nitrogen and the assumption was that the gas is too heavy and too cold to escape Pluto’s gravity.

But new simulations suggest the dwarf planet’s atmosphere may be warmer and thicker than anticipated, meaning the nitrogen gas has enough energy to escape Pluto and may be exchanged to Charon and both bodies share a common atmosphere…

(read more: Discovery News)

image via ESO

Newly Discovered Icy Body Hints at Planet Beyond Pluto
by Mark Zastrow
In 2003, Caltech astronomer Mike Brown and his team discovered a new addition to the solar system: a small icy world called Sedna. It was a bit of an oddball—taking an extremely elongated orbit that sent it well beyond Neptune—but astronomers suspected it wasn’t alone.
After over a decade of searching, Sedna finally has a friend. Yesterday, astronomers announced they’ve found a similar body—dubbed a sednoid after the original finding—in the same neighborhood. The discovery, published in Nature, suggests the so-called inner Oort cloud may be real. The inner Oort cloud sits outside the Kuiper belt, which lies just beyond Neptune’s orbit, but inside the outer Oort cloud. All three of these regions are filled with swarms of ice balls smaller than our moon.
Also striking were the similar orbits of the two sednoids, which are reviving speculation that there may be a much bigger, unseen planet lurking in the outer reaches of our solar system…
(read more: Nova Next - PBS)
Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Newly Discovered Icy Body Hints at Planet Beyond Pluto

by Mark Zastrow

In 2003, Caltech astronomer Mike Brown and his team discovered a new addition to the solar system: a small icy world called Sedna. It was a bit of an oddball—taking an extremely elongated orbit that sent it well beyond Neptune—but astronomers suspected it wasn’t alone.

After over a decade of searching, Sedna finally has a friend. Yesterday, astronomers announced they’ve found a similar body—dubbed a sednoid after the original finding—in the same neighborhood. The discovery, published in Nature, suggests the so-called inner Oort cloud may be real. The inner Oort cloud sits outside the Kuiper belt, which lies just beyond Neptune’s orbit, but inside the outer Oort cloud. All three of these regions are filled with swarms of ice balls smaller than our moon.

Also striking were the similar orbits of the two sednoids, which are reviving speculation that there may be a much bigger, unseen planet lurking in the outer reaches of our solar system…

(read more: Nova Next - PBS)

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech