Category Archives: News

NASA News – Herschel Finds Star Possibly Making Planets Past Its Prime

Above: This artist’s concept illustrates an icy planet-forming disk around a young star called TW Hydrae, located about 175 light-years away in the Hydra, or Sea Serpent, constellation. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

From NASA News: RELEASE: 13-036 – 30 January 2013

WASHINGTON — A star thought to have passed the age at which it can form planets may in fact be creating new worlds. The disk of material surrounding the surprising star called TW Hydrae may be massive enough to make even more planets than we have in our own solar system.

The findings were made using the European Space Agency’s Herschel Space Telescope, a mission in which NASA is a participant.

At roughly 10 million years old and 176 light years away, TW Hydrae is relatively close to Earth by astronomical standards. Its planet-forming disk has been well studied. TW Hydrae is relatively young but, in theory, it is past the age at which giant plants already may have formed.

“We didn’t expect to see so much gas around this star,” said Edwin Bergin of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Bergin led the new study appearing in the journal Nature. “Typically stars of this age have cleared out their surrounding material, but this star still has enough mass to make the equivalent of 50 Jupiters,” Bergin said.

In addition to revealing the peculiar state of the star, the findings also demonstrate a new, more precise method for weighing planet-forming disks. Previous techniques for assessing the mass were indirect and uncertain. The new method can directly probe the gas that typically goes into making planets.

Planets are born out of material swirling around young stars, and the mass of this material is a key factor controlling their formation. Astronomers did not know before the new study whether the disk around TW Hydrae contained enough material to form new planets similar to our own.

“Before, we had to use a proxy to guess the gas quantity in the planet-forming disks,” said Paul Goldsmith, the NASA project scientist for Herschel at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif. “This is another example of Herschel’s versatility and sensitivity yielding important new results about star and planet formation.”

Using Herschel, they were able to take a fresh look at the disk with the space telescope to analyze light coming from TW Hydrae and pick out the spectral signature of a gas called hydrogen deuteride. Simple hydrogen molecules are the main gas component of planets, but they emit light at wavelengths too short to be detected by Herschel. Gas molecules containing deuterium, a heavier version of hydrogen, emit light at longer, far-infrared wavelengths that Herschel is equipped to see. This enabled astronomers to measure the levels of hydrogen deuteride and obtain the weight of the disk with the highest precision yet.

“Knowing the mass of a planet-forming disk is crucial to understanding how and when planets take shape around other stars,” said Glenn Wahlgren, Herschel program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

Whether TW Hydrae’s large disk will lead to an exotic planetary system with larger and more numerous planets than ours remains to be seen, but the new information helps define the range of possible planet scenarios.

“The new results are another important step in understanding the diversity of planetary systems in our universe,” said Bergin. “We are now observing systems with massive Jupiters, super-Earths, and many Neptune-like worlds. By weighing systems at their birth, we gain insight into how our own solar system formed with just one of many possible planetary configurations.”

Herschel is a European Space Agency (ESA) cornerstone mission, with science instruments provided by a consortium of European institutes and with important participation by NASA. NASA’s Herschel Project Office is based at JPL, which contributed mission-enabling technology for two of Herschel’s three science instruments. NASA’s Herschel Science Center, part of the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, supports the United States astronomical community. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.

For NASA’S Herschel website, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/herschel

For ESA’S Herschel website, visit: http://www.esa.int/SPECIALS/Herschel/index.html

Open Culture – Astronaut Takes Amazing Self Portrait in Space

The following was posted on 22 December 2012 at the great website Open Culture – “The best free cultural & educational media on the web.” The image, described below, is available for direct download from the Astronomy Picture Of The Day archive HERE. For an enlightening afternoon of reading, consider checking out the many articles at Open Culture in the Astronomy category.

By Dan Colman

Taken at the International Space Station by astronaut Aki Hoshide (Japan), this awe-inspiring self portrait brings into one frame “the Sun, the Earth, two portions of a robotic arm, an astronaut’s spacesuit, the deep darkness of space, and the unusual camera taking the picture.” You’ll want to click the image above (or this link) to view the picture dubbed “Orbiting Astronaut Self-Portrait” in a worthy larger format.

Find other self-portraits taken in space here and here. And visit NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day for more striking images each and every day.

via @coudal

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NASA News – NASA’S GRAIL Lunar Impact Site Named For Astronaut Sally Ride

From NASA News: RELEASE: 12-438 – 17 December 2012

PASADENA, Calif. — NASA has named the site where twin agency spacecraft impacted the moon Monday in honor of the late astronaut, Sally K. Ride, who was America’s first woman in space and a member of the probes’ mission team.

Last Friday, Ebb and Flow, the two spacecraft comprising NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) mission, were commanded to descend into a lower orbit that would result in an impact Monday on a mountain near the moon’s north pole. The formation-flying duo hit the lunar surface as planned at 2:28:51 p.m. PST (5:28:51 p.m. EST) and 2:29:21 p.m. PST (5:29:21 p.m. EST) at a speed of 3,760 mph (1.7 kilometers per second). The location of the Sally K. Ride Impact Site is on the southern face of an approximately 1.5 mile- (2.5 -kilometer) tall mountain near a crater named Goldschmidt.

“Sally was all about getting the job done, whether it be in exploring space, inspiring the next generation, or helping make the GRAIL mission the resounding success it is today,” said GRAIL principal investigator Maria Zuber of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. “As we complete our lunar mission, we are proud we can honor Sally Ride’s contributions by naming this corner of the moon after her.”

The impact marked a successful end to the GRAIL mission, which was NASA’s first planetary mission to carry cameras fully dedicated to education and public outreach. Ride, who died in July after a 17-month battle with pancreatic cancer, led GRAIL’s MoonKAM (Moon Knowledge Acquired by Middle School Students) Program through her company, Sally Ride Science, in San Diego.

Along with its primary science instrument, each spacecraft carried a MoonKAM camera that took more than 115,000 total images of the lunar surface. Imaging targets were proposed by middle school students from across the country and the resulting images returned for them to study. The names of the spacecraft were selected by Ride and the mission team from student submissions in a nationwide contest.

“Sally Ride worked tirelessly throughout her life to remind all of us, especially girls, to keep questioning and learning,” said Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland. “Today her passion for making students part of NASA’s science is honored by naming the impact site for her.”

Fifty minutes prior to impact, the spacecraft fired their engines until the propellant was depleted. The maneuver was designed to determine precisely the amount of fuel remaining in the tanks. This will help NASA engineers validate computer models to improve predictions of fuel needs for future missions.

“Ebb fired its engines for 4 minutes, 3 seconds and Flow fired its for 5 minutes, 7 seconds,” said GRAIL project manager David Lehman of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif. “It was one final important set of data from a mission that was filled with great science and engineering data.”

The mission team deduced that much of the material aboard each spacecraft was broken up in the energy released during the impacts. Most of what remained probably is buried in shallow craters. The craters’ size may be determined when NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter returns images of the area in several weeks.

Launched in September 2011, Ebb and Flow had been orbiting the moon since Jan. 1, 2012. The probes intentionally were sent into the lunar surface because they did not have sufficient altitude or fuel to continue science operations. Their successful prime and extended science missions generated the highest resolution gravity field map of any celestial body. The map will provide a better understanding of how Earth and other rocky planets in the solar system formed and evolved.

“We will miss our lunar twins, but the scientists tell me it will take years to analyze all the great data they got, and that is why we came to the moon in the first place,” Lehman said. “So long, Ebb and Flow, and we thank you.”

JPL manages the GRAIL mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. GRAIL is part of the Discovery Program managed at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver built the spacecraft.

For more information about GRAIL, visit:

http://www.nasa.gov/grail