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The Universe’s Tour Guide

Satellites swarm around the Earth on the Hayden Planetarium's dome. Credit: AMNH.

Satellites swarm around the Earth on the Hayden Planetarium’s dome. Credit: AMNH.

The hazy, white horizon lifts away slowly, giving way to the blue and green, cloud-swept marble we call home. I take in a deep breath, astonished by the Earth’s staggering beauty in stark contrast to the sprinkled backdrop.

People are still shuffling into the 429-seat Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History, their shadows projected onto the arched ceiling. A voice resonates in the dome’s spacious cavity. Brian Abbott, the planetarium’s assistant director, is welcoming everyone to the show. It’s a “highlights tour,” he says, covering most of the known universe in one fell swoop.

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After a 20 month trek across Mars and careful analysis of data, NASA scientists have announced two separate detection of organics - in the surface and the air of Mars. (Photo Credit: NASA/JPL, Illustration - T. Reyes)

After a 20 month trek across Mars and careful analysis of data, NASA scientists have announced two separate detection of organics – in the surface and the air of Mars. (Photo Credit: NASA/JPL, Illustration – T. Reyes)

On Tuesday, December 16, 2014, NASA scientists attending the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting in San Francisco announced the detection of organic compounds on Mars. The announcement represents the discovery of the missing “ingredient” that is necessary for the existence – past or present – of life on Mars.

Indeed, the extraordinary claim required extraordinary evidence – the famous assertion of Dr. Carl Sagan. The scientists, members of the Mars Science Lab – Curiosity Rover – mission, worked over a period of 20 months to sample and analyze Martian atmospheric and surface samples to arrive at their conclusions. The announcement stems from two separate detections of organics: 1) ten-fold spikes in atmospheric Methane levels, and 2) drill samples from a rock called Cumberland which included complex organic compounds.

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If you don’t have a few thousand dollars to spend on a “Vomit Comet” ride, and especially if you can’t afford to buy a ticket for a future weightless joyride in a spacecraft, virtual reality remains the best option to “experience” weightlessness.

There’s a new game available for the virtual-reality headset Oculus Rift that lets people play with objects in microgravity to see what happens next.

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Artist's impression of Venus Express entering orbit in 2006. Credit: ESA - AOES Medialab

Artist’s impression of Venus Express entering orbit in 2006. Credit: ESA – AOES Medialab

Venus Express is mostly dead. The spacecraft spent more than eight years faithfully relaying information from the Morning Star/Evening Star planet, but it’s now out of fuel, out of control and within weeks of burning up in the atmosphere.

While we mourn the end of the productive mission, the European Space Agency spacecraft showed us a lot about the planet that we once considered a twin to Earth. Some of the surprises, as you can see below, including a possibly slowing-down rotation, and the realization that volcanoes may still be active on the hellish planet.

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Gallery: Saturn Moons Show How Not To Be Seen In Cassini Images

Tethys is mostly obscured behind Rhea as the moons orbit Saturn. The picture was captured by the Cassini spacecraft in April 2012 and highlighted in December 2014. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Tethys is mostly obscured behind Rhea as the moons orbit Saturn. The picture was captured by the Cassini spacecraft in April 2012 and highlighted in December 2014. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Peekaboo! Tethys makes a (mostly in vain) attempt to hide behind Rhea in this picture taken by the Cassini spacecraft a couple of years ago, but highlighted by NASA in a recent picture essay. Besides the neat view of the orbital dance, one thing that is clearly visible between the two moons is the different colors — a product of their different surfaces. It turns out that Tethys’ bright surface is due to geysers from another moon.

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