New details about some of the interesting smaller objects in the solar system are shedding some light on the "planet controversy." Astronomers have been trying to establish what constitutes a planet, taking size, orbit and other factors into consideration. One of the important objects astronomers have been studying is Eris, discovered in 2005. Astronomers suspected Eris was bigger than Pluto, but now they know for sure that Eris has 1.27 times more mass that Pluto. Eris appears to have a density similar to Pluto's, and probably contains rocky material as well as ice. Another object of interest is the asteroid Ceres. Astronomers have imaged Ceres with the Hubble Space Telescope in preparation for the launch of the DAWN mission in 2007. DAWN will travel to and orbit Ceres as well as another large body in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter - Vesta.
New images from Mars reveal football field-sized openings in the planet's surface that likely lead to caves. Seven entrances to subterranean caves range from about 330 to 820 feet across, and there is absolutely nothing visible inside the holes, indicating that they are very deep. Perhaps one day robots will be able to explore the caves, revealing their now-hidden contents.
For the first time, researchers have taken a picture of surface of Altair, a star like our own Sun. Even to the largest telescopes, stars look like mere points of light, but a new technique by the Center for High Angular Resolution Astronomy allows us to see detail on this distant star. And a strange star it is ? orbiting so fast that it's distorted, wider at its equator than at its poles.
NASA's new Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) is a highly modified 747 airliner that carries a 45,000-pound infrared telescope system. SOFIA's purpose is to fly above the water vapor in the Earth's atmosphere that impedes infrared light, allowing its telescope to make powerful infrared observations. NASA recently commemorated the 80th anniversary of famed aviator Charles Lindbergh's historic transatlantic flight by bestowing the name Clipper Lindbergh on the flying observatory.
What happens when astronomers go on the hunt for dark matter with the Hubble Space Telescope? They find some unusual configurations. Recently astronomers reported that observations with the Advanced Camera for Surveys suggested that a ring of the mysterious dark matter exists in a cluster of galaxies. This had never been seen before, and the surprised researchers thought maybe something was wrong with the data analysis. After scrutiny, it appeared a collision of two galaxy clusters shaped dark matter into a ring, like ripples in a pond after a stone is thrown in.
Hubble is staring into the galaxy M81, a shining spiral galaxy rife with star formation, for clues to how stars are born in galaxies outside our own. M81 is a great place to study this since it's both a spiral galaxy like our own Milky Way and it's close enough to allow us to distinguish individual stars. We can look at M81 and compare its star formation to what we know about stars in our own galaxy. The icy, tiny object Eris helped demote Pluto from a planet to a dwarf planet. Eris, three times farther from the Sun than Pluto, was discovered in 2005 and is a member of the Kuiper Belt ? a ring made up of small, icy bodies that are occasionally knocked out of their orbits and become comets. Eris, as it turns out, is also larger than Pluto, based on observations of Eris' moon by Hubble and other observatories. Jupiter is redecorating. The gas giant planet's atmospheric patterns are in the process of changing, with entire bands of its distinctive surface colors morphing over just a few months. Other atmospheric features are also swiftly changing before Hubble?s eyes.
Globular clusters are tightly packed groups of hundreds of thousands to millions of stars. Based on observations of their stars, it seems that the clusters formed when the universe was young, and that the stars within them formed simultaneously. New observations with the Hubble Space Telescope suggest at least one globular cluster has had several episodes of star formation, billions of years ago. All of the stars were born within 200 million years, very early in the life of the 12.5-billion-year-old cluster, but at distinct periods.
NASA is looking into health concerns for astronauts on long journeys, such as a potential Mars trip. A journey to Mars would take 20 to 30 years, meaning the crew would have to be prepared for serious medical crises. Just asking questions of Earth on such a trip could take half an hour or more for the message to travel, so astronauts will have to be ready to handle such situations on their own. A host of other health issues require rules and policies to be established in advance to prevent problems during long journeys or even stays on Earth's Moon.
China plans to launch its first lunar probe this year and expects to land an astronaut on the Moon within 15 years. This year's probe will provide 3-D images of Moon, survey the lunar landscape, study lunar microwaves and estimate the thickness of Moon's soil. Other missions will follow, including a soft landing - one designed to avoid damage - in 2012 and return of lunar samples by 2017.
A remarkable planetary system around a red dwarf star, called Gliese 581, seems to have at least three planets. One planet, close to the parent star, appears to be five times the mass of Earth and only 1.5 times its radius. It whizzes around the star in only 13 days! Most intriguingly, its position could mean that its temperatures would be mild enough to allow liquid water to exist. This is the first Earth-like planet found in that important range, known as the "habitable zone."
Astronomers have detected one of the brightest supernova ever seen and surmised that the star that exploded may have been 150 times the mass of the Sun. The exploding star, 240 million light years away in galaxy NGC 1260, swiftly became the object of scrutiny by the orbiting Chandra X-ray Telescope as well as a number of ground-based telescopes. Before the explosion, the star ejected a great deal of mass. Scientists have seen this behavior in another star - Eta Carinae, in our own Milky Way Galaxy.
Where scientists find galaxies, they find blobs of dark matter. Recently, astronomers discovered something unique - a ring of dark matter within a cluster of galaxies. Scientists believe the ring formed when galaxies smashed into one another. It's the first time scientists have observed dark matter reacting to gravitational forces, just like normal matter. Did Hubble find water vapor on a planet beyond our solar system? One scientist's theoretical model says it did. Scientists are always excited about the possibility of finding water on another planet, since it's one of the three things we believe is necessary for life, along with carbon and energy. Carbon and oxygen has also been detected already in the planet's atmosphere.
A new radio telescope array is under construction in one of Earth's most inaccessible places. The telescope, called the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), is located in Chile's mountainous Atacama Desert at an altitude of 16,500 feet. The wavelengths the telescope will be observing are absorbed by moisture in the atmosphere, so the dry, high-altitude desert air is essential for the telescope to work. The array will not be complete until 2012, but some of its components have recently undergone successful critical tests in New Mexico.
The satellite New Horizons is headed to Pluto. Launched in January 2006, it is destined to arrive at Pluto in 2015. What is it doing along the way? It received a gravity assist to send it in the right direction at Jupiter and it also snapped imagery of Jupiter and its satellite Io. Also, the Hubble Space Telescope is working with the New Horizons mission, obtaining complementary images from Hubble's vantage point, in orbit around the Earth.
This year marks a momentous anniversary in the history of space exploration. It is both the 150th birthday of the Russian space visionary Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, and the 50th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik, the first Earth-orbiting satellite. The man most responsible for that historic accomplishment is Sergey Korolyov, almost completely unheard of during his lifetime but now recognized as the man who likely sparked the competition between the former Soviet Union and United States to succeed in space, known as the space race.
Hubble has stared into the Carina Nebula to view star formation in intense detail. Stellar winds and ultraviolet radiation from the giant stars that have formed in the nebula are shredding the surrounding gas that contributed to their formation. Some of the stars are at least 50 to 100 times the mass of the Sun. Our Sun and solar system may have formed from a similar situation 4.6 billion years ago. At least 50,000 galaxies have turned up in another Hubble image, revealing new information about the universe's younger days. The panoramic Hubble image shows groupings and scatterings of galaxies. Among the distinctive ones are a giant red galaxy with a duo of black holes at its center and a number of new "gravitational lenses," or places where the gravity from a galaxy cluster bends and magnifies objects beyond it. The Hubble image is part of a larger project to study galaxies in a small but representative area of the sky, in order to get an idea of what the universe looks like in all directions.
Planetary nebulae form when a Sun-sized star dies, ejecting clouds of gas and dust into space. In fact, when our Sun ends its life, it will be as a planetary nebula. Scientists are trying to discover how such dying stars form the complex, colorful structures of nebulae. If they can discover how the process works, it will help explain how the elements in stars find their way into space, and then into new star systems and planets.
In February, a new telescope opened its gaze to the sky. A new telescope isn't that unusual, but this one's location stands out. The telescope is located at the South Pole. The South Pole Telescope, funded primarily by the National Science Foundation, is designed to help answer some fundamental questions about the universe. Many of the telescope's observations will be focused around dark matter and dark energy, twin mysteries that present a major hole in our understanding of the cosmos.
We know quite a bit about the Sun's surface and what goes on at the Sun's equator, but the poles remain a puzzle. We can't see the poles very well, and most solar satellites have viewed the sun from mid-latitudes. The Ulysses satellite has been circling the Sun over the poles to sample these exotic regions. The poles spew out charged particles in a blast of plasma. Observations taken in February 2007 of the Sun's south pole will be compared with observations of the north pole in 2008.
Titan, the mysterious moon of Saturn, has surprised scientists again. NASA's Cassini spacecraft detected what looks like large seas in Titan's northern hemisphere. The largest of the seas is bigger than either our Lake Superior or the Black Sea. The seas are not filled with water, but rather methane and ethane.