Sunrise over the surface of the moon: a series of star tracker images taken by LADEE Saturday, April 12. The lunar horizon is ahead, a few minutes before orbital sunrise. Image Credit: NASA Ames.

NASA’s Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) literally ‘saw the light’ just days before crashing into the lunar farside last Thursday April 17. Skimming just a few kilometers above the moon’s surface, mission controllers took advantage of this unique low angle to gaze out over the moon’s horizon in complete darkness much like the Apollo astronauts did from lunar orbit more than 40 years ago.
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Take a Fly-by Of All the Known Exoplanets

by Nancy Atkinson on April 24, 2014

Here’s a fun trip through the galaxy, put together by PhD student Tom Hands at the University of Leicester: In the above video, you can fly to of all the known exoplanets (around single stars only), ordered roughly by semi-major axis of largest orbit. Hands said the video is designed to give the viewer an overview of the current distribution of exoplanets.

Hands used data from the Open Exoplanet Catalogue.
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This graphic imagines asteroid 243 Ida as it would fantastically hover over the city of St. Louis, Missouri. Credit and copyright: Ciro Villa.

This graphic imagines asteroid 243 Ida as it would fantastically hover over the city of St. Louis, Missouri. Credit and copyright: Ciro Villa.

So, how big is that space rock?

Sometimes when I see data on sizes and distances in relation to stuff out in space, it’s hard to get a frame of reference, since those two categories tend to lean towards the super-big. But now, I’ve got a little help. Space enthusiast and software engineer Ciro Villa has brought some of these references closer to home with these fun graphics that provide accurate size ratios and proportions of objects in space compared to places on Earth.

Villa calls these graphics “hovering celestial objects” and while all of these scenarios are impossible in real life, he’s placed large asteroids and moons next to Earthly locations to provide a good frame of reference for dimensions. Please note that most of these objects have absolutely no chance of colliding with Earth as they are not anywhere near our neighborhood and are not expected to visit it either.

“My representations are is purely for illustrative purposes,” Villa said. “I have maintained the size ratios and proportions as accurately as possible just to demonstrate the dimensions. This is mostly a ‘fun’ exercise.”

For example, I regularly drive through the St. Louis, Missouri metro area, so I have a sense of how big it is. Above, Villa places Asteroid 243 Ida — which has an average diameter of 31.4 km (19.5 miles) — to hover right above St. Louis. 31 km is about the distance from East St. Louis, Illinois to Creve Coeur, Missouri, which are the generally accepted eastern and western borders of the St. Louis metro area. I could probably drive across Ida in about 30 minutes — if it’s not rush hour, that is!

To create these graphics, Villa uses Google Maps, NASA data and Gimp image editing software. Again, these graphics are for fun, but I really find them useful!

And Villa provided a caveat: “Please note that I am not a professional graphic artist, so I’m sure people are going to find plenty of imperfections in these depictions,” he said. “The important point I am trying to convey is mainly the size dimensions comparing with a known area of Earth.”

Here are more:

Asteroids Orcus and Vanth hovering over Eastern Texas and Western Arkansas. Credit and copyright: Ciro Villa.

Asteroids Orcus and Vanth hovering over Eastern Texas and Western Arkansas. Credit and copyright: Ciro Villa.

Here are a bigger pair of objects in comparison to an area of Eastern Texas and Western Arkansas. 90482 Orcus is a trans-Neptunian Kuiper belt object that is about 800 kilometers in diameter. Orcus has a fairly large moon orbiting it named Vanth, which is about 300 km in diameter.

Asteroid 433 Eros over Kennedy Space Center, Florida. Credit and copyright: Ciro Villa.

Asteroid 433 Eros over Kennedy Space Center, Florida. Credit and copyright: Ciro Villa.

This asteroid might pay Earth a close visit, but not for a couple of million years. Eros is the second largest NEO (Near Earth Object), with a diameter of approximately 34 kilometers, and here Villa imagines Eros centered over the VAB (Vehicle Assembly Building) at Cape Canaveral, covering the Cape area from approximately the southern end of the Canaveral National Seashore to the Pine Island Conservation area, with the VAB in about the middle, as the crow (or sandhill crane) flies.

While Eros is technically an NEO, it made one of its closest passes of Earth in 2012 of 16.6 million miles (26.7 million km) and won’t pass that close again until 2056. A look ahead with orbital mechanics suggests that Eros may move to an Earth-crossing orbit in about two million years, given the right perturbations by gravitational interactions.

216 Kleopatra is an asteroid belt object shaped like a dog bone (or a deformed dumbell).  Its length is approximately 217 kilometers; just about the size of New Jersey. Credit and copyright: Ciro Villa.

216 Kleopatra is an asteroid belt object shaped like a dog bone (or a deformed dumbell). Its length is approximately 217 kilometers; just about the size of New Jersey. Credit and copyright: Ciro Villa.

And to show the scale of several moons in our Solar System, Villa made these comparisons:

An imaginary graphic depicting how Deimos would look if it hovered over Paris, France. Credit and copyright: Ciro Villa.

An imaginary graphic depicting how Deimos would look if it hovered over Paris, France. Credit and copyright: Ciro Villa.

“Deimos is about 15 kilometers across, so I have measured a portion of the city of Paris, France of about 5 Kilometers and properly scaled Deimos,” Villa said. “For added dramatics, I have purposely shown enough of Deimos hovering to show about 5 kilometers of Paris, to show some of the landmarks (notice the Eiffel tower). Had I decided to show all of Deimos, the scale would have been too large to recognize any of the landmarks of Paris.”

How Saturn's moon Enceladus would look if it hovered over southern England. Credit and copyright: Ciro Villa.

How Saturn’s moon Enceladus would look if it hovered over southern England. Credit and copyright: Ciro Villa.

Continuing these imaginary montages, here is one of our favorite moons, Enceladus, with an approximate diameter of about 500 kilometers, seen drifting over Southern England. That’s about the same distance from Plymouth to Leigh-on-the-Sea in the UK.

A graphic of imagining the moon Phoebe (Saturn IX) hovering Central Florida. Credit and copyright: Ciro Villa.

A graphic imagining asteroid Phoebe (Saturn IX) hovering Central Florida. Credit and copyright: Ciro Villa.

This last one is a bit personal for Villa, since he lives in Florida. Here, Saturn’s moon Phoebe hangs over Central Florida. “Phoebe shares an approximate diameter of 200 kilometers with the central portion of the state,” Villa said, “and I wanted to ‘play’ with my imagination a bit!”

Thanks to Ciro Villa for sharing his “hovering celestial objects” with Universe Today. Check out his informative and entertaining G+ feed here.

How Can We Live on Mars?

by Fraser Cain on April 24, 2014


Why live on Earth when you can live on Mars? Well you can’t. Mars is a completely hostile environment to human life. And yet, if we want to expand into the Solar System, we’ll need to live on this planet. Here’s how we’ll do it.
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Why Inflation Didn’t Get the Same Hype as the Higgs

by Shannon Hall on April 24, 2014

Shown here are the actual B-mode polarization patterns provided by the BICEP2 Telescope. Image Credit: Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

Shown here are the B-mode polarization patterns on the cosmic microwave background. Image Credit: Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

Last month astronomers provided evidence that the universe underwent a brief but stupendous expansion at the very beginning of time. It was a landmark discovery. And while the media worldwide gleamed with fantastical headlines, I’m left overwhelmed with the feeling that it didn’t quite get the spotlight it deserves.

The day of the announcement was ablaze with excitement. When I first started to cover the news, I told my mother I was writing on something that was bigger than the Higgs boson. That was the best way I could explain the significance of this monumental discovery to someone with very little physics knowledge in a text message.

But inflation didn’t get the same hype as the Higgs. Why?

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