On April 8th, Earth will soar between the Sun and Mars.

When it does, the Red Planet will reach what astronomers call “opposition” in the night sky. Just a few days later, Earth will be closer to Mars than it’s been in more than six years. The resulting views should be extraordinary. Here’s what you need to know to catch a glimpse yourself…

Small World Spotted Far Beyond Pluto

by Ken Crosswell

Astronomers have detected a small world (inset) more than twice as remote as Pluto, lying 12 billion kilometers, or 83 AU, from the sun. (One AU, or astronomical unit, is the mean sun-Earth distance.)

As scientists report online today in Nature, the new object is the first ever found whose orbit (red curve) resembles that of Sedna (orange curve), a far-off body that never gets close to Neptune’s path (outermost magenta circle). Both Sedna and the new world, designated 2012 VP113, therefore differ from Pluto and other members of the Edgeworth-Kuiper belt (turquoise dots), which lie just past Neptune’s orbit.

The object journeys 80 to 452 AU from the sun, never approaching Neptune (30 AU) or Pluto (39.5 AU). The new world is roughly 450 kilometers across, just one-fifth Pluto’s diameter

(read more: Science News/AAAS)

images: Scott S. Sheppard/Carnegie Institution for Science

Pluto Regains Its Title As Largest Object in Its Neighborhood
by Ken Crosswell
Quick: What’s the largest object in the solar system beyond Neptune?
Pluto was what you learned long ago, and now there’s fresh evidence to indicate that old answer was right all along. Pluto belongs to the Edgeworth-Kuiper belt, which boasts more than a thousand known objects revolving around the sun beyond Neptune’s orbit. Most are much smaller than Pluto, but in 2005 astronomers discovered its biggest rival: Eris, which they claimed definitely surpassed Pluto in size.
In 2010, however, Eris staged an underwhelming performance when it moved in front of a distant star. The short duration of this so-called occultation revealed that Eris is just 2326 km across—possibly smaller than Pluto, whose diameter is somewhere between 2300 and 2400 km…
(read more: Science News/AAAS)
image: Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

Pluto Regains Its Title As Largest Object in Its Neighborhood

by Ken Crosswell

Quick: What’s the largest object in the solar system beyond Neptune?

Pluto was what you learned long ago, and now there’s fresh evidence to indicate that old answer was right all along. Pluto belongs to the Edgeworth-Kuiper belt, which boasts more than a thousand known objects revolving around the sun beyond Neptune’s orbit. Most are much smaller than Pluto, but in 2005 astronomers discovered its biggest rival: Eris, which they claimed definitely surpassed Pluto in size.

In 2010, however, Eris staged an underwhelming performance when it moved in front of a distant star. The short duration of this so-called occultation revealed that Eris is just 2326 km across—possibly smaller than Pluto, whose diameter is somewhere between 2300 and 2400 km…

(read more: Science News/AAAS)

image: Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

How Tall Are Eruptions on Io and Venus?

by Erik Klemetti

Earth does not hold the monopoly on active volcanism in the solar system. In fact, Earth isn’t even the most volcanically active body in the solar system. Although we have abundant volcanism, to the tune of hundreds to thousands of active and potentially active volcanoes, if you look at the amount of land surface covered by the deposits of recent volcanism, Earth’s volcanism is confined to fairly small areas.

Even so, volcanism likely played a vital role in getting life started on the Earth — and maybe it is the driving force in other parts of the solar system. The manifestation of volcanism on other planets is different than on Earth as well — some places produce giant eruption plumes (like on Io) and some might produce very small plumes (like at the newly-identified potentially active volcanoes on Venus), so why are they so different?

Look at a place like Jupiter’s moon, Io. This plucky little moon is covered almost wall-to-wall with geologically-recent volcanic deposits (see above) thanks to the tidal forces exerted on it by Jupiter’s gravity. When New Horizons passed by Io in 2007, the spacecraft (headed to Pluto-Charon) captured a sequence of frames that showed the giant volcanic plume from TvashtarPatera (along with some fainter plumes from Masubi and Zal; see below)…

(read more: Wired Science)

images: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

Liftoff from Mars
Painted by Pat Rawlings for NASA, this image depicts the ascent stage of the Boeing-designed piloted Mars lander shown at the top of this post. Though Geoffrey Landis expected that Americans would support only two or three piloted Mars landing missions before they lost interest, this optimistic Space Exploration Initiative-era painting hints at an on-going piloted Mars program: shown on the surface are habitats, solar arrays, a tethered research balloon, and a nuclear plant.
from: “Footsteps to Mars: An Incremental Approach to Mars Exploration,” Geoffrey Landis, Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, Vol. 48, September 1995, pp. 367-372; paper presented at The Case for Mars V conference in Boulder, Colorado, 26-29 May 1993.
(via: Wired Science)

Liftoff from Mars

Painted by Pat Rawlings for NASA, this image depicts the ascent stage of the Boeing-designed piloted Mars lander shown at the top of this post. Though Geoffrey Landis expected that Americans would support only two or three piloted Mars landing missions before they lost interest, this optimistic Space Exploration Initiative-era painting hints at an on-going piloted Mars program: shown on the surface are habitats, solar arrays, a tethered research balloon, and a nuclear plant.

from: “Footsteps to Mars: An Incremental Approach to Mars Exploration,” Geoffrey Landis, Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, Vol. 48, September 1995, pp. 367-372; paper presented at The Case for Mars V conference in Boulder, Colorado, 26-29 May 1993.

(via: Wired Science)

This infographic shows you the insane scale of our solar system

by Ria Misra

You may have seen graphics comparing the objects in our solar system by size, but this visualization offers a slightly different spin on the theme, by comparing objects by their total mass. Plus, it also features 460 tiny versions of former planet Pluto bouncing off of Earth like a game of interstellar marbles.

The visualization is the work of astronomer Rhys Taylor, who also previously made a similar visualization comparing the size of the gas giants in our solar system by mass.

Check it out here:

How Big are the Gas Giants?

(via: io9)

Water Found in Atmosphere of Nearby Alien Planet
by Megan Gannon
Water vapor has been detected in the atmosphere of one of the first alien planets ever identified by astronomers.

Advances in the technique used to scan the atmosphere of this “hot Jupiter” could help scientists determine how many of the billions of planets in the Milky Way contain water like Earth, researchers said.
The exoplanet Tau Boötis b was discovered in 1996, when the search for worlds outside our solar system was just kicking off. At about 51 light-years away, Tau Boötis b is one of the nearest known exoplanets to Earth. The planet is considered a “hot Jupiter” because it is a massive gas giant that orbits close to its parent star…
(read more: Live Science)
image: Alexandra Lockwood/Caltech

Water Found in Atmosphere of Nearby Alien Planet

by Megan Gannon

Water vapor has been detected in the atmosphere of one of the first alien planets ever identified by astronomers.

Advances in the technique used to scan the atmosphere of this “hot Jupiter” could help scientists determine how many of the billions of planets in the Milky Way contain water like Earth, researchers said.

The exoplanet Tau Boötis b was discovered in 1996, when the search for worlds outside our solar system was just kicking off. At about 51 light-years away, Tau Boötis b is one of the nearest known exoplanets to Earth. The planet is considered a “hot Jupiter” because it is a massive gas giant that orbits close to its parent star…

(read more: Live Science)

image: Alexandra Lockwood/Caltech

'Super Earths' May Not Be So Super For Life
by Sid Perkins
A nice neighborhood doesn’t necessarily guarantee that your house is livable. Likewise, even if a planet orbits within the so-called Goldilocks zone surrounding its parent star where conditions are neither too hot nor too cold, its atmosphere may be hostile to life, a new study suggests.
Even “super-Earths,” orbs with masses that fall between one and 10 times that of our planet (depicted at right in the artist’s concept above) and therefore offer some semblance of similarity to Earth, might be uninhabitable. Using computer simulations, researchers modeled the growth and evolution of a variety of planets as they and their sunlike parent star coalesced from a cloud of whirling gas and dust.
In most scenarios, planets that started with a rocky core between one-tenth and one times the mass of Earth lost their hydrogen-rich protoatmospheres 100 million years or less after the dust and gas surrounding the nascent star had dissipated, researchers report online this week in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society…
(read more: Science/AAAS)
illustration: NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt (SSC)

'Super Earths' May Not Be So Super For Life

by Sid Perkins

A nice neighborhood doesn’t necessarily guarantee that your house is livable. Likewise, even if a planet orbits within the so-called Goldilocks zone surrounding its parent star where conditions are neither too hot nor too cold, its atmosphere may be hostile to life, a new study suggests.

Even “super-Earths,” orbs with masses that fall between one and 10 times that of our planet (depicted at right in the artist’s concept above) and therefore offer some semblance of similarity to Earth, might be uninhabitable. Using computer simulations, researchers modeled the growth and evolution of a variety of planets as they and their sunlike parent star coalesced from a cloud of whirling gas and dust.

In most scenarios, planets that started with a rocky core between one-tenth and one times the mass of Earth lost their hydrogen-rich protoatmospheres 100 million years or less after the dust and gas surrounding the nascent star had dissipated, researchers report online this week in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society

(read more: Science/AAAS)

illustration: NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt (SSC)

NASA’s Kepler Mission Announces a Planet Bonanza, 715 New Worlds 
NASA news release
NASA’s Kepler mission announced Wednesday the discovery of 715 new planets. These newly-verified worlds orbit 305 stars, revealing multiple-planet systems much like our own solar system.

Nearly 95 percent of these planets are smaller than Neptune, which is almost four times the size of Earth. This discovery marks a significant increase in the number of known small-sized planets more akin to Earth than previously identified exoplanets, which are planets outside our solar system.

Since the discovery of the first planets outside our solar system roughly two decades ago, verification has been a laborious planet-by-planet process. Now, scientists have a statistical technique that can be applied to many planets at once when they are found in systems that harbor more than one planet around the same star…
(read more: NASA - Kepler)
image: NASA

NASA’s Kepler Mission Announces a Planet Bonanza, 715 New Worlds

NASA news release

NASA’s Kepler mission announced Wednesday the discovery of 715 new planets. These newly-verified worlds orbit 305 stars, revealing multiple-planet systems much like our own solar system.

Nearly 95 percent of these planets are smaller than Neptune, which is almost four times the size of Earth. This discovery marks a significant increase in the number of known small-sized planets more akin to Earth than previously identified exoplanets, which are planets outside our solar system.

Since the discovery of the first planets outside our solar system roughly two decades ago, verification has been a laborious planet-by-planet process. Now, scientists have a statistical technique that can be applied to many planets at once when they are found in systems that harbor more than one planet around the same star…

(read more: NASA - Kepler)

image: NASA

Behold the first geological map of Ganymede, Jupiter’s largest moon

by Lauren Davis

Four hundred years ago, Galileo Galilei observed Ganymede in orbit around Jupiter. This week, a team of planetary scientists unveiled the first global geological map of our solar system’s largest moon.

Using images obtained by NASA’s Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft and the Galileo orbiter, a team led by Geoffrey Collins of Wheaton College pieced together a mosaic image of the planet, giving us our first complete image of the geological features of the satellite. Above, you can see the moon centered at 200 west longitude. The darker areas represent the very old and heavily cratered region of Ganymede, while the lighter areas are somewhat younger regions marked with grooves and ridges…

(read more: io9)   (… and a 2nd look.)

images: NASA-JPL

An enhanced-color view of Mercury, assembled from images taken at various wavelengths by the cameras on board the MESSENGER spacecraft. The circular, orange area near the center-top of the disc is Caloris Basin. Apollodorus and Pantheon Fossae can be seen at the center-left of the basin…
(find out more: The Planetary Society)
image: NASA / Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory / Carnegie Institution of Washington

An enhanced-color view of Mercury, assembled from images taken at various wavelengths by the cameras on board the MESSENGER spacecraft. The circular, orange area near the center-top of the disc is Caloris Basin. Apollodorus and Pantheon Fossae can be seen at the center-left of the basin…

(find out more: The Planetary Society)

image: NASA / Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory / Carnegie Institution of Washington

Scientists directly image brown dwarf for the first time at Keck Observatory (Phys.org) — A team of researchers led by Justin R. Crepp, the Freimann Assistant Professor of Physics at the University of Notre Dame, has directly imaged a very rare type of brown dwarf that can serve as a benchmark for studying objects with masses that lie between stars and planets. Their paper on the discovery was published recently in Astrophysical Journal…
(read more)Image: CREPP ET AL. 2014, APJ

Scientists directly image brown dwarf for the first time at Keck Observatory

(Phys.org) — A team of researchers led by Justin R. Crepp, the Freimann Assistant Professor of Physics at the University of Notre Dame, has directly imaged a very rare type of brown dwarf that can serve as a benchmark for studying objects with masses that lie between stars and planets. Their paper on the discovery was published recently in Astrophysical Journal…

(read more)

Image: CREPP ET AL. 2014, APJ