In astronomy we throw around the term “light-year” seemingly as fast as light itself travels. And yet actually measuring this distance is incredibly tricky. A star’s parallax — its tiny apparent shift once a year caused by our moving viewpoint on Earth — tells its distance more truly than any other method.

Accurate parallaxes of nearby stars form the base of the entire cosmic distance ladder out to the farthest galaxies. It’s a crucial science that’s about to take a giant leap forward. The European Space Agency’s long-awaited Gaia observatory — launched on Dec. 19, 2013 — is now ready to begin its science mission. [click to continue…]

Channelling all U2 fans: this stunning timelapse above Joshua Tree National Park is a walking tourism brochure for astrophotographers. The pictures were taken in September and November 2012 (the latter during the Leonid meteor shower) and just put up on Vimeo a few days ago.

Can you spot any famous astronomical objects? Read below to see some of what was featured in these video clips.

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Anyone want to take bets on what this astronaut was listening to? This is a short silent video of Thomas Pesquet, a European astronaut, doing a dance in the kitchen during NEEMO 18 — the latest NASA underwater mission to test asteroid technologies.

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An artist's conception of the hot local bubble. Image Credit: NASA

An artist’s conception of the hot local bubble. Image Credit: NASA

I spent this past weekend backpacking in Rocky Mountain National Park, where although the snow-swept peaks and the dangerously close wildlife were staggering, the night sky stood in triumph. Without a fire, the stars, a few planets, and the surprisingly bright Milky Way provided the only light to guide our way.

But the night sky as seen by the human eye is relatively dark. Little visible light stretching across the cosmos from stars, nebulae, and galaxies actually reaches Earth. The entire night sky as seen by an X-ray detector, however, glows faintly.

The origins of the soft X-ray glow permeating the sky have been highly debated for the past 50 years. But new findings show that it comes from both inside and outside the Solar System. [click to continue…]

It was a daring maneuver, but the plan to put Venus Express lower in the planet’s thick atmosphere has worked. For the past month, the European Space Agency steered the long-running spacecraft to altitudes as low as 81 miles (131 kilometers) for a couple of minutes at a time.

Now the spacecraft has been steered again to safer, higher orbits. And naturally, this was all done in the name of science. It not only showed scientists information about the atmosphere, but also gave them engineering data of how a spacecraft behaves when it touches a planetary atmosphere at high speed. That could be useful for future landing missions.

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