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Illustration of MESSENGER in orbit around Mercury (NASA/JPL/APL)

Illustration of MESSENGER in orbit around Mercury (NASA/JPL/APL)

Don’t take these spectacular Mercury images (below the jump) for granted. Three weeks ago, NASA’s orbiting Mercury spacecraft did an engine fire to boost its altitude above the hothouse planet. Another one is scheduled for January.

But all this will do is delay the end of the long-running mission — the first one to orbit Mercury — until early 2015, the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory wrote in an update. These maneuvers “extend orbital operations and delay the probe’s inevitable impact onto Mercury’s surface until early next spring,” the organization said in a statement.

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Image of the spiral galaxy NGC 4151, aka. "Sauron's Eye". Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/CfA/J.Wang et al.; Optical: Isaac Newton Group of Telescopes, La Palma/Jacobus Kapteyn Telescope; Radio: NSF/NRAO/VLA.

Image of the spiral galaxy NGC 4151, aka “The Eye of Sauron”. Credit: NASA/Isaac Newton Group of Telescopes, La Palma/Jacobus Kapteyn Telescope/NSF/NRAO/VLA

Determining the distance of galaxies from our Solar System is a tricky business. Knowing just how far other galaxies are in relation to our own is not only key to understanding the size of the universe, but its age as well. In the past, this process relied on finding stars in other galaxies whose absolute light output was measurable. By gauging the brightness of these stars, scientists have been able to survey certain galaxies that lie 300 million light years from us.

However, a new and more accurate method has been developed, thanks to a team of scientists led by Dr. Sebastian Hoenig from the University of Southampton. Similar to what land surveyors use here on Earth, they measured the physical and angular (or apparent) size of a standard ruler in the galaxy to calibrate distance measurements.
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Early Spring Dust Storms at the North Pole of Mars. Early spring typically brings dust storms to northern polar Mars. As the north polar cap begins to thaw, the temperature difference between the cold frost region and recently thawed surface results in swirling winds. The choppy dust clouds of several dust storms are visible in this mosaic of images taken by the Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft in 2002. The white polar cap is frozen carbon dioxide. (NASA/JPL/Malin Space Science Systems)

Early Spring Dust Storms at the North Pole of Mars. Early spring typically brings dust storms to northern polar Mars. As the north polar cap begins to thaw, the temperature difference between the cold frost region and recently thawed surface results in swirling winds. The choppy dust clouds of several dust storms are visible in this mosaic of images taken by the Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft in 2002. The white polar cap is frozen carbon dioxide. (NASA/JPL/Malin Space Science Systems)

Maybe you can’t climb on a rocketship to Mars, at least yet, but at the least you can get your desire for exploration out through other means. Today, take comfort that humanity is sending 90,000 messages in the Red Planet’s direction. That’s right, the non-profit Uwingu plans to transmit these missives today around 3 p.m. EST (8 p.m. UTC).

Among the thousands of ordinary folks are a collection of celebrities: Bill Nye, the Science Guy; George Takei (“Sulu” on Star Trek) and commercial astronaut Richard Garriott, among many others.

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Just before dawn on Wednesday (Nov. 26), a pilot in Belgrade caught this stunning video of a “huge number of glowing pieces of whatever” breaking up in the atmosphere above.

You know what this is? A rocket, most likely! It’s the upper stage for the Soyuz that launched three people to space on Sunday (Nov. 23), the European Space Agency says.

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Here’s Your Sign: Are You an Ophiuchian?

Credit: Stellarium

The 2014 path (lower right) of the Sun across the constellation Ophiuchus. Credit: Stellarium.

It happens to all lovers of astronomy sooner or later.

I once had a friend who was excited about an upcoming conjunction of Saturn and Venus. They were passing closer than the apparent diameter of the Full Moon in the dawn sky, and you could fit ‘em both in the same telescopic field of view. I invited said friend to stop by at 5 AM the next morning to check this out. I was excited to see this conjunction as well, but not for the same reasons.

Said friend was into astrology, and I’m sure that the conjunction held a deep significance in their world view. Sure, I could have easily told them that ‘astrology is bunk,’ and the skies care not for our terrestrial woes… or I could carefully help guide this ‘at risk friend’ towards the true wonders of the cosmos if they were willing to listen.

We bring this up because this weekend, the Sun enters the constellation Ophiuchus, one of 13 modern constellations that it can appear in from our Earthly vantage point. [click to continue…]

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