Kepler Telescope Finds Over 1,000 Planet Candidate

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According to new numbers from scientists, NASA’s Kepler observatory has identified some 1,235 transiting planet candidates since in launch in March 2009. Most intriguing in these new numbers are the 54 planets that fall within the the “habitable zone,” putting them the proper distance from their stars to offer liquid water. Fifteen of the candidates have been confirmed as planets by terrestrial telescopes

The above image features the stars for the transiting planets on the top row. Our sun is on the row below, with the planets following after that.

Water-Powered Mission To Mars May Be In The Future


[artist’s rendering by Robert Becker]

I bet you didn’t think you’d be drinking four cups a day of a fuel that might one day take humans to Mars. Scientists say that a water powered spacecraft could complete a mission to the red planet and back for the cost of a single Space Shuttle launch today. The secret is in solar-powered electrothermal engines, a fancy name for what is essentially a steam jet. The system uses electricity to super-heat water and vent it out of an engine to provide thrust. Meanwhile, water would also be used to shield astronauts from the harmful radiation of space. After that water has been used to protect the inhabitants of the craft, it could later be shifted to the fuel tanks.

This type of recycling makes the system extremely efficient to operate; quotes software engineer and technology entrepreneur Brian McConnell saying that a trip to Mars’s moon Phobos and back would cost $1 billion, or 30 times less than traditional chemical rockets. Plus, with that much water on board, crew members could possibly grow crops and have hot baths. Pretty luxurious for an extra-planetary trip.

When the spaceship comes back home, it could be kept in low-earth-orbit to simplify its use in future trips. McConnell sees the vessels being used for several decades before they need to be replaced, similar to the Space Shuttle’s long history of service. With fresh food, hot baths and a low price tag, the water-powered rocket is a pretty attractive vision of the future. And an interesting point of discussion over a nice cool glass of rocket-fuel.


Coldest Star Could Have Water on its Surface

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Here’s the answer to a question you probably never thought to ask: how cold is the coldest star? Two-hundred and six degrees Fahrenheit. Or, as a National Geographic puts it, “no warmer than a freshly brewed cup of coffee.” Granted, it’s not the sort of place you’d want to, you know, spend vacation time, but in star terms, it’s downright chilly. So cold, in fact, that scientists suspect the planet may be able to support water on its surface.

The brown dwarf christened CFBDSIR 1458 10b is 75 light-years away. Scientists estimate its mass is between six and 15 times that of Jupiter–again, a speck of a star. The star is actually the smaller of two brown dwarfs in a binary system.

The University of Hawaii’s Michael Liu explains, “this new object is so much colder than anything else seen that it now enters the regime where it may actually have an atmosphere with water clouds.”

Liu adds that the star may cause scientists to redefine the way small stars and large planets are defined. “The most exciting aspect of this finding is that we might be on the threshold of finding a new class of objects that blurs the line between gas-giant exoplanets and brown dwarf stars previously seen–something I think that is really surprising the astronomical community.”

‘Super Moon’ Will Rise Saturday for First Time in 18 Years


On Saturday March 19th, the Moon will be closer to the Earth than it has been in 18 years. The technical term for this moon phenomenon is perigee-syzygy, but I greatly prefer the popularized term: super moon!

NASA says, the Moon “will be around 17,000 miles (27,359 km) closer than usual as it rounds Earth in its elliptical orbit.” Don’t get too excited; that’s still 221,567 miles (356,578 km) from Earth, so it’s not exactly “close.” The effect of this change of distance is that the Full Moon will be appear 14% bigger than usual. Though it will be closer, brighter, and appear bigger, these differences will be difficult to notice, seeing how it’s an orb in the massive sky with no objects for size reference. 

But, nonetheless, it’s still pretty cool and probably worth trekking outside to take a peek at, so you can at least say you say you saw a “super moon.”

Photo via NASA

Cocaine Found at Kennedy Space Center

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Hey kids, that’s great that you want to be an astronaut–just make sure that if and when that happens that you go easy on the blow, okay? Have you ever tried to do the stuff in zero gravity? Not as cool as it sounds. Honestly, the whole thing is just a huge mess.

Authorities this week announced that they’ve discovered 4.2 grams of cocaine on-site at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Initial tests revealed the substance to be coke, though further tests are being performed, courtesy of NASA’s Office of Inspector General.
Oddly, this marks the second time that cocaine has been discovered at the Kennedy Space Center. Last January, the stuff was found in Discovery’s hangar.
NASA subjects employees to random drug searches–and there will do doubt be a few in the immediate future for Kennedy employees. “We’re subject to federal government guidelines, and there are a fair number of positions that have that prerequisite ahead of time and also require it randomly,” said NASA spokesman Allard Beutel.

90s Rock Band Plays for Space Shuttle Discovery

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Remember Big Head Todd and the Monsters? They were kind of a thing in certain areas of the country for a brief period in the 90s. Well, it seems that they’ve finally broken into that most impenetrable of locales: outer space.

The band served as an alarm clock for astronauts aboard the space shuttle Discovery, rousing the crew at 3:23 a.m. ET this morning, to begin their last full day day in space. The group roused the astronauts with a song called “Blue Sky,” a track apparently inspired by Discovery, which end its 27 years of spaceflight today.
“That was terrific,” the ship’s commander Steve Lindsey told the band via space radio. “We really appreciate it, and congratulations on winning the contest.” I hope they passed the audition. I guess a command performance is out of the question, though

Ancient Alien Life Discovered on Earth, Maybe

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Speaking of alien life (and really, who isn’t, these days?), scientists may have already discovered the stuff–right here on Earth. That was certainly handy. It saved someone a whole heck of a lot of travel. Thing is, the apparent life form discovered by Richard Hoover, an astrobiologist based out of Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama is really, really small and really, really old.

The fossilized, microscopic bacteria apparently hitched a ride to our planet on a meteorite. Hoover’s carbon-based bacteria is similar in form to blue-green algae. Says Hoover, “We have known for a long time that there were very interesting biomarkers in carbonaceous meteorites and the detection of structures that are very similar … to known terrestrial cyanobacteria is interesting in that it indicates that life is not restricted to the planet Earth.”
Scientists claim to have discovered evidence of microbial in extraterrestrial rock formations in the past, but the evidence has proven difficult to prove conclusively. These most recent findings will no doubt be subject to similar scrutiny. In the meantime, keep a close eye on your Reese’s Pieces stash.

NASA Telescope Points The Direction To Alien Life


The search for intelligent life might get a little bit more direction, thanks to a telescope designed to seek out habitable planets. Data from NASA’s Kepler space telescope is being used as a cosmic GPS to point radio detectors used in the SETI project towards the places in the sky that are most likely to support life.

According to this article by Discovery News, the Kepler telescope has already found 55 stars with planets in habitable areas. SETI is using this data to orient their radio telescopes on the most promising targets, looking for transmissions that might indicate any advanced forms of life.

Taking the data from the small section of the galaxy that Kepler has scanned, scientists estimate that this means there may be roughly 500 million planets capable of sustaining life in the Milky Way. Not only does this mean SETI has some clues to where they should point their telescopes, but the chances of finding anything out there when they do have greatly improved. Kepler’s data shows that between 3 and 10 percent of all stars could potential have an Earth-like planet in their orbit. This number is much larger than previous estimates and, while not significantly altering the way SETI looks for alien life, could make eventual success that much more likely.

Who knows, maybe thanks to SETI and Kepler we’ll end up coming across some alien prime-time TV sooner than we think. They’ll probably be the only channel not covering Charlie Sheen.

[via Discovery News]

NASA Glory Launch Fails


Earlier this morning, NASA’s Glory spacecraft, aboard a Taurus XL rocket, failed to reach orbit. Not only did the spacecraft launch fail, NASA isn’t exactly sure where it is now, other than somewhere in the South Pacific.

The Glory’s mission is to help us better understand our climate system by collecting data from aerosol particles. After being delayed on February 23rd, today it was launched at 5:09am EST from the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, but couldn’t reach orbit because the rockets protective shell didn’t separate from the Glory. This malfunction also happened two years ago, but after a redesign, it proved successful in other launches. Well, it apparently still needs some work, NASA.

NASA said that once they analyze more data they will be able to determine to determine what went wrong and locate the spacecrafts current location.

Photo via NASA

Space Shuttle Discovery’s Final Launch Finally Happening (Finally)


At 4:50 PM ET, the space shuttle Discovery will lift off. Finally. That is, if everything goes plan–an important caveat, given the fact that the launch has been repeatedly delayed since November 5th, thanks to poor weather conditions, electric problems, and a number of leaks found in the shuttle’s fuel tank.

Fueling for the launch began today at 7:25 ET. The process takes three hours to complete.

The launch marks the final mission for the shuttle after 27 years. The mission will last eleven days, during which the crew will help stock the International Space Station with supplies and a new robot helper named Robonaut 2.