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How Are Planets Formed?

This artist's conception shows a newly formed star surrounded by a swirling protoplanetary disk of dust and gas. Credit: University of Copenhagen/Lars Buchhave

This artist’s conception shows a newly formed star surrounded by a swirling protoplanetary disk of dust and gas. Credit: University of Copenhagen/Lars Buchhave

How did the Solar System’s planets come to be? The leading theory is something known as the “protoplanet hypothesis”, which essentially says that very small objects stuck to each other and grew bigger and bigger — big enough to even form the gas giants, such as Jupiter.

But how the heck did that happen? More details below.

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Boeing and SpaceX are building private spaceships to resume launching US astronauts from US soil to the International Space Station in 2017. Credit: NASA

Boeing and SpaceX are building private spaceships to resume launching US astronauts from US soil to the International Space Station in 2017. Credit: NASA

After a hiatus of six long years, US astronauts will finally launch to space in a revolutionary new pair of private crew capsules under development by Boeing and SpaceX, starting in 2017, that will end our sole source reliance on the Russians for launching our astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS). [click to continue…]

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A triple crater in Elysium Planitia on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona.

A triple crater in Elysium Planitia on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona.

At first glance, you many not guess that this feature on Mars is an impact crater. The reason it looks so unusual is that it likely is a triple impact crater, formed when three asteroids struck all at once in the Elysium Planitia region.

Why do planetary scientists think the three craters did not form independently at different times? [click to continue…]

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How to Fight for the “Fight for Space” Documentary

Can documentary films actually change the way people think about a topic? Films like “The Thin Blue Line,” “The Triumph of Will,” and “Harlan County USA” are definitely documentaries that swayed both local public opinion and world views on specific topics. Film producer Paul Hildebrandt is hoping his upcoming documentary film “Fight for Space” will not only help sway public opinion and inform people about space exploration but also help policymakers better understand NASA.

“This is a unique space documentary, as it covers the space program from a policy perspective,” Hildebrandt said, “looking at the detailed reasons why the NASA budget has been cut over the years, why certain decisions were made, and what the future of our human space flight effort looks like.”
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All photos credit and copyright: Andrew Symes.

An Iphone portrait of the classical solar system. All photos credit and copyright: Andrew Symes.

Got a smartphone and a telescope?

It’s a sight now common at many star parties. Frequently, you see folks roaming through the darkness, illuminated smartphone aimed skyward. Certainly, the wealth of free planetarium apps has done lots to kindle a renewed interest in the night sky. [click to continue…]

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Astronomers See a Massive Black Hole Tear a Star Apart

When a star encounters a black hole, tidal forces stretch the star into an elongated blob before tearing it apart, as seen in these images from a computer simulation by James Guillochon of Harvard University.

When a star encounters a black hole, tidal forces stretch the star into an elongated blob before tearing it apart, as seen in these images from a computer simulation by James Guillochon of Harvard University.

A telescope peers into the blackness of deep space. Suddenly – a brilliant flash of light appears that wasn’t there before. What could it be? A supernova? Two massively dense stars fusing together? Perhaps a gamma ray burst?

Five years ago, researchers using the ROTSE IIIb telescope at McDonald Observatory noticed just such an event. But far from being your run-of-the-mill stellar explosion or neutron star merger, the astronomers believe that this tiny flare was, in fact, evidence of a supermassive black hole at the center of a distant galaxy, tearing a star to shreds.

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What Are the Stars in Orion’s Belt?

The constellation Orion. Credit: Matthew Spinelli  NASA/APOD

The constellation Orion. Credit: Matthew Spinelli NASA/APOD

Orion dominates the winter sky in the northern hemisphere. Its large size and  collection of bright stars — such as Betelgeuse at the shoulder, Rigel below the belt, and the three stars in the belt — make it easy to spot, even for beginning stargazers.

So how about those stars in the belt? They’re one of the most famous asterisms in Western culture, but beyond what we see with our eyes, what are their astronomical properties?

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SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket poised for launch from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida in this updated artists concept. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket poised for launch from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida in this updated artist’s concept. Credit: SpaceX
See Falcon Heavy launch and booster recovery animation below

SpaceX released a cool new animation today, Jan. 27, showing an updated look at their Falcon Heavy rocket and plans for booster recovery. See below. [click to continue…]

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NASA-NOAA Suomi NPP satellite captures blizzard near peak intensity as it moves over New York and Boston regions at 1:45 am EST, Jan. 27, 2015.  This view is a combination of the day-night band and high resolution infrared imagery from Suomi NPP showing the historic blizzard near peak intensity as it moves over the New York through Boston Metropolitan areas at 06:45Z (1:45 a.m. EST) on January 27, 2015.   Credit:   NOAA/NASA

NASA-NOAA Suomi NPP satellite captures blizzard near peak intensity as it moves over New York and Boston regions at 1:45 am EST, Jan. 27, 2015. This view is a combination of the day-night band and high resolution infrared imagery from Suomi NPP showing the historic blizzard near peak intensity as it moves over the New York through Boston Metropolitan areas at 06:45Z (1:45 a.m. EST) on January 27, 2015. Credit: NOAA/NASA

NEW JERSEY – Record breaking snow from the ‘Blizzard of 2015’ hit vast regions of the US Northeast today, Jan. 27, 2015, stretching from Long Island to New England.

NASA and NOAA Earth orbiting satellites are keeping track of the storm affecting millions of residents. [click to continue…]

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Animation of Ceres made from images acquired by Dawn on Jan. 25, 2015. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA)

Animation of Ceres made from images acquired by Dawn on Jan. 25, 2015. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA)

This is the second animation from Dawn this year showing Ceres rotating, and at 43 pixels across the images are officially the best ever obtained!

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft is now on final approach to the 950 km (590 mile) dwarf planet Ceres, the largest world in the main asteroid belt and the biggest object in the inner Solar System that has yet to be explored closely. And, based on what one Dawn mission scientist has said, Ceres could very well be called the Solar System’s “hipster planet.”

“Ceres is a ‘planet’ that you’ve probably never heard of,” said Robert Mase, Dawn project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “We’re excited to learn all about it with Dawn and share our discoveries with the world.”

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