Astronomers observing the tremendous stellar explosions known as gamma ray bursts have gained new insights into the nature of the most distant objects ever observed in the universe. A huge explosion detected in April 2009 by NASA's Swift satellite has been deemed to be more than 13 billion light years from Earth.
A survey of a carefully selected list of stars has turned up 32 new planets beyond our solar system. An instrument called the High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) in La Silla, Chile, provided the information after a five-year effort. Several stars appear to have multiple planetary systems, and a number of super-Earths, planets a few times the mass of Earth, were located.
Hubble takes a picture of the Southern Pinwheel, a dazzling galaxy with three spiral arms. The images show the aftermath of star death and the rise of new stars. In commemoration of the 400th anniversary of Galileo turning a telescope on the skies, Hubble teams up with the Chandra and Spitzer space telescopes to capture the heart of our Milky Way galaxy.
Our Sun creates an insulating bubble, called the "heliosphere" around our solar system. This heliosphere shields us from a tenth of the galactic radiation pouring in from space. In 2008, NASA launched the Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX) to study the particles in this region. The first IBEX maps are now available, and they reveal much more complexity than models predicted.
NASA developed the Ares 1 rocket to carry a new crew vehicle into space upon the retirement of the space shuttle. A test conducted in fall 2009 included a six-minute flight with myriad sensors to provide data on the rocket's performance. The test went well, but the re-entry parachutes did not perform as expected, and a booster was dented on impact with the ocean. The expensive test and the projected budget calls into question whether this technology can be further developed.
Astronomers using the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter have located some new craters on the surface of Mars. This isn't unusual - the surfaces of planets and moons are pocked by plummeting space rocks happen all the time. But this time, the craters were so fresh that scientists were able to see water ice within them. Apparently the small impacts had exposed a layer of ice beneath Mars' dust.
The largest astronomical project in existence is getting under way in the high plains of northern Chile. The Atacama Large Millimeter Array, or ALMA, will be comprised of 66 giant 40-foot and 23-foot antennas, spread over 11.5 miles, operating as a single, giant radio telescope. ALMA will help astronomers answer questions about our cosmic origins and will observe some of coldest and most distant objects in the cosmos.
In September, NASA declared the Hubble Space Telescope back in full working order. All the instruments are in excellent shape after being checked out and calibrated. The new instruments are the Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3), which can see wavelengths ranging from the optical into the infrared, and the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph (COS), which studies the ultraviolet. The Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS), which had partially stopped working, has new circuitry and functioning as well as ever. The Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS), which was also in need of repairs, is now back on the job.
The three Mercury flybys of the Messenger spacecraft are complete. Despite a glitch during the third pass, most of the surface of Mercury has been imaged. The Messenger team is examining the craters, bright and dark spots, and other surface features in the hopes of understanding the geologic history of Mercury.
Saturn's rings have fascinated us ever since Galileo first spotted them in his telescope in 1610 -- almost 400 years ago. But how these icy rings came into being remains a mystery. Saturn's rings are thought to consist of roughly 35 trillion trillion tons of ice, dust and rock. Cassini and Voyager spacecraft have revealed many new details of the rings, but many mysteries still remain.
The Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) mission is designed to determine whether water ice is present on the Moon. Water is always an issue for future lunar exploration. LCROSS has two components -? a rocket that will impact a shadowy Moon crater and excavate it, and a satellite that will sample the plume produced by the impact. If ancient ice lies buried on the Moon, it may be ejected and then detected by specialized instruments.
NASA says that without more funding, it will not meet the asteroid tracking goals mandated by Congress. NASA hopes to spot 90% of potentially dangerous objects by 2020. Large asteroids could cause global catastrophe if they strike Earth, and the U.S. is the only country with an asteroid-detection program.
Leftover pieces of satellites orbit the earth as debris. Some of this debris has been hazardous for the International Space Station and the Space Shuttle, as well as orbiting satellites. The debris re-enters Earth's atmosphere at the rate of about one piece per day. One of the most famous pieces of orbital debris, a tool box dropped by an astronaut while performing a space walk, re-entered the atmosphere on August 3, 2009.
Saturn's moon Titan is far from Earth, but both worlds have some things in common -? wind, rain, volcanoes and tectonics. These forces sculpt features on Titan, as on Earth, but in an environment more frigid than Antarctica. Titan looks more like Earth than any other body in the solar system, despite the huge differences in temperature and environment.
A new link has been established between the Sun's 11-year cycle and global climate. It shows that solar activity has effects on Earth resembling La Ni?a and El Ni?o events in the Pacific Ocean. We've known for years that long-term solar variations affect certain weather patterns, including droughts and regional temperatures, but establishing a real connection between solar cycles and global climate patterns has proven elusive.
The newly upgraded and repaired Hubble Space Telescope has released its first showcase images, spotlighting galaxies drawn together by gravity, star clusters, dying stars and more. For the first time, Hubble will circle the Earth with a full set of five instruments, opening new horizons for scientific study.
Was the solar system always the organized clockwork system envisioned by Isaac Newton? According to a computer model of the early epoch of the solar system, the answer is "no." The large outer planets may have been closer to the Sun and migrated outwards while encountering small bodies called planetesimals. As the big planets moved outward, small objects cascaded toward the inner solar system, bombarding the four small, rocky planets. The model also predicts other oddities of the solar system that have gone unexplained.
Researchers at Texas State University have found more interesting conclusions about Edvard Munch's paintings in Norway. Previously they had found that the vivid colors in Munch's painting, The Scream, could be attributable to dust spewed into the atmosphere by the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa. In new findings, the group has concluded that a mysterious orb in the sky that Munch painted in "Girls on the Pier" depicts the Moon rather than the Sun. The group also explains why Munch didn't paint the reflection of the Moon in the water.
A new model of sunspots shows striking, beautiful detail, and may help unlock mysteries of Sun and its impact on Earth. This first-ever comprehensive computer model of sunspots, made possible by advances in supercomputers, drew on increasingly detailed observations from a network of ground- and space-based observatories to verify that model captured sunspots realistically.
The red planet Mars conjures up images of rocks and arid, dusty plains, but last year NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander showed that it snows on Mars. The Phoenix robot observed ice crystals falling to the Martian surface. Now new research could shed light on the past and present water cycle on the Martian surface, and possibly characterize the potential habitability of the red planet.