News Flash: Asteroid Flying Past Earth Today Has Mini-Moon!

This animation, created from individual radar images, clearly show the rough outline of 2004 BL86 and its newly-discovered moon. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Wonderful news! Asteroid 2004 BL86, which passed closest to Earth today at a distance of 750,000 miles (1.2 million km), has a companion moon. Scientists working with NASA’s 230-foot-wide (70-meter) Deep Space Network antenna at Goldstone, California, have released the first radar images of the asteroid which show the tiny object in orbit about the main body.

While these are the first images of it, the “signature” of the satellite was seen in light curve data reported earlier by Joseph Pollock (Appalachian State University, North Carolina) and Petr Prave (Ondrejov Observatory, Czech Republic) according to Lance Benner who works with the radar team at Goldstone.

2004 BL86 measures about 1,100 feet (325 meters) across while its moon is approximately 230 feet (70 meters) across. The asteroid made its closest approach today (Jan. 26th) at 10:19 a.m. (CST), however it will peak in brightness this evening around 10 p.m. (4:00 UT) at magnitude +9.0. Unlike some flybys, 2004 BL86 will remain within a few tenths of a magnitude of peak brightness from 6 p.m. tonight (CST) through early tomorrow morning, so don’t miss the chance to see it in your telescope.

Don’t expect to see the diminutive moon visually – the entire system will only appear as a point of light, but I’m sure you’ll agree it’s cool just knowing it’s there.

The double asteroid (90) Antiope and S/2000 (90) 1. The two objects are separated by 171 km, and they perform their celestial dance in 16.5 hours. The adaptive optics observations could, however, never resolve the shape of the individual components as they are too small. Credit: ESO
The double asteroid (90) Antiope and its companion S/2000 (90) 1. The two objects are separated by 106 miles (171 km), and they perform their celestial dance in 16.5 hours. The adaptive optics observations couldn’t resolve the shape of the individual components as they are too small. Credit: ESO

Among near-Earth asteroids, about 16% that are about 655 feet (200 meters) or larger are either binary or triple systems. While that’s not what you’d call common, it’s not unusual either. To date, we know of 240 asteroids with a single moon, 10 triple systems and the sextuple system of Pluto (I realize that’s stretching a bit, since Pluto’s a dwarf planet) – 268 companions total. 52 of those are near-Earth asteroids.

With a resolution of 13 feet (4-meters) per pixel we can at least see the roughness of the the main body’s surface and perhaps imagine craters there. No details are visible on the moon though it does appear elongated. I’m surprised how round the main body is given its small size. An object that tiny doesn’t normally have the gravity required to crush itself into a sphere. Yet another fascinating detail needing our attention.

Of course the main asteroid will get your attention tonight. Please check out our earlier story on 2004 BL86 which includes more details as well as charts to help you track it as it flies across Cancer the Crab tonight. This is the best view we’re going to get of it for the next two centuries.

Comet Finlay Surprise Outburst, Visible in Binoculars … again!

Comet Finlay in outburst on the evening (CST) of January 16th. Credit: Michael Mattiazzo

Lost sleep at night, fingers tapping on the keyboard by day. Darn comets are keeping me busy! But of course that’s a good problem. Comet 15P/Finlay, which had been languishing in the western sky at dusk at magnitude +10, has suddenly come to life … for a second time.

Two nights ago, Australian comet observer Michael Mattiazzo took a routine picture of Finlay and discovered it at magnitude +8. Today it’s a magnitude brighter and now joins Comet Lovejoy as the second binocular comet of 2015. Comet-wise, we’ve gone from zero to 60 and the new year’s fewer than 3 weeks old!

Comet 15P/Finlay tonight through Feb. 1. Positions shown for 7 p.m (CST) and stars depicted to magnitude +8. Tonight the comet will be right next to a 6th mag. star in Aquarius.
Comet 15P/Finlay tonight through Feb. 1. Positions shown for 7 p.m (CST) and stars depicted to magnitude +8. Tonight the comet will be right next to a 6th mag. star in Aquarius low in the southwestern sky at nightfall. Mars and Neptune’s position are for Jan. 17th. Click to enlarge. Source: Chris Marriott’s SkyMap software

Comet Finlay’s threw its first tantrum last December when it reached binocular visibility (faintly) shortly before Christmas.  Discovered by William Henry Finlay from South Africa on September 26, 1886, the comet circles the Sun every 6.5 years. This time around it reached perihelion on December 27th and spent many nights near the planet Mars low in the western sky. Until the new outburst, the comet had returned to its predicted brightness (~10 magnitude) and departed company with the Red Planet.

Even though photographed under poor conditions on Jan. 17th, Alfons Diepvens' image of Comet Finlay's coma and nuclear region reveals interesting details. Credit: Alfons Diepvens
Even though photographed under poor conditions on Jan. 17th, Belgian amateur astronomer Alfons Diepvens’ image of Comet Finlay’s coma and nuclear region reveals interesting details. Credit: Alfons Diepvens

It’s still low in the west, though not quite so much as in December, in the constellation Aquarius. With an orbit inclined only 6.8° to the ecliptic or plane of the Solar System, you’ll find it chugging eastward across the zodiac at the rate of 1° per night. The best time to view the comet is at the end of evening twilight at nightfall when it’s highest —  20° to 25° above the southwestern horizon.

Comet Lovejoy southwest of the beautiful Pleaides star cluster on January 15th. Credit: Bob King
Comet Lovejoy seen in tandem with the beautiful Pleaides star cluster on January 15th. Click for a finder chart. Credit: Bob King

Right now it’s not far from Lambda Aquarii and will soon glide just south of the well-known asterism called the “Circlet” in Pisces. Currently between 7th and 8th magnitude and showing a bright, condensed center, Comet Finlay is easily visible in 10×50 binoculars. Catch it while you can. These outbursts often fade fairly quickly. While we don’t know its exact cause, what likely happened is that a new fissure opened up on the comet’s surface, exposing fresh ice to sunlight. Rapid vaporization of the new material may be behind the eruption.

While Comet Q2 Lovejoy’s been getting all the attention, Finlay’s back in the game and making mid-January nights all that more enjoyable for sky gazing. Lovejoy is presently passing near the Pleiades star cluster in Taurus. This coming week will be the last dark one before the Moon starts to spoil the view. I hope you’re able to spot both at the next opportunity.

5-degree binocular view of Mars as it approaches Neptune in the next few nights. They'll be in close conjunction on the 19th. Mars shines at about 1st magnitude, Neptune at 8. Stars shown to mag. 9. Source: Chris Marriott's SkyMap software
5-degree binocular view of Mars as it approaches Neptune in the next few nights. They’ll be in close conjunction on the 19th. Mars shines at about 1st magnitude, Neptune at 8. Stars shown to mag. 9. Source: Chris Marriott’s SkyMap software

While we’re on the topic, take another look at the finder chart and you’ll see that Mars lies very near Neptune. The two are presently about 2° apart but on Monday Jan. 19th at dusk they’ll be separated by just 12 arc minutes or 1/5 of a degree and easily fit into the same medium-power view of a telescope. Pretty cool – and well worth seeing along with those comets!

Beagle 2: Found on Mars After An 11 Year Hunt

Credit & Coyright:

The final chapter in the saga of a wayward Mars lander was finally revealed today, as an international team released images showing the Beagle-2 lander’s final resting place on Mars.

Flashback to Christmas Day, 2003. While most folks gathered ‘round the tree and opened presents, the UK and European Space Agency awaited a gift from space.  The Beagle-2 Mars lander had been released from the European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter six days prior, and was coasting towards a perilous landing in Isidis Planitia and was set to phone home.

All was going according to plan, and then… silence.

It’s the worst part of any mission, waiting for a lander to call back and say that it’s safe and sound on the surface of another world. As the hours turned into days, anxious engineers used NASA’s Mars Odyssey spacecraft and the Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank to listen for the signal.

Beagle-2 was declared lost a few weeks later on February 6th, 2004.

But now, there’s a final twist to the tale to tell.

Beagle 2
Beagle 2, partially deployed on the Martian surface. Credit and Copyright: HiRISE/NASA/Leicester.

The UK Space Agency, working with ESA and NASA announced today that debris from the landing site had been identified and that indicates — contrary to suspicions — that Beagle-2 did indeed make it to the surface of the Red Planet intact. New images from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter released today suggest that not only did Beagle-2 land, but that its airbags did indeed deploy properly and that the dish-shaped 1-meter in diameter spacecraft partially unfolded pocket-watch style after it had bounced to a stop.

“We are very happy to learn that Beagle 2 touched down on Mars,” said ESA’s Director of Science and Robotic Exploration in a recent press release. “The dedication of the various teams in studying high-resolution images in order to find the lander is inspiring.”

So, what went wrong with Beagle-2?

At this point, no further speculation as to what caused the lander to fall silent has been forthcoming, but today’s revelation is sure to rewrite the final saga of Beagle-2.

“Not knowing what happened to Beagle-2 remained a nagging worry,” said ESA’s Mars Express project manager Rudolf Schmidt. “Understanding now that Beagle-2 made it all the way down to the surface is excellent news.”

Speculation swirled across the internet earlier this week as the UK Space Agency and ESA suggested that new information as to the fate of Beagle-2 was forthcoming, over 11 years after the incident. Back in 2004, it was suggested that Beagle-2 had encountered higher levels of dust in the Martian atmosphere than expected, and that this in turn resulted in a failure of the spacecraft’s parachutes. Presumably, the lander then failed to slow down sufficiently and crashed on the surface of Mars, the latest victim of the Great Galactic Ghoul who seems to love dining on human-built spacecraft bound for the Red Planet.

Credit: ESA
An artist’s conception of Beagle-2 fully deployed on Mars. Credit: ESA.

The loss of Beagle-2 wasn’t only a blow to the UK and ESA, but to its principal investigator Colin Pillinger as well. Pillinger was involved in the search for Beagle-2 in later years, and also played a part in the Rosetta mission to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko as well. Unfortunately, Pillinger passed away in May of last year from a brain hemorrhage. A portion of the western rim of Endeavour Crater currently being explored by Opportunity was named Pillinger Point in his honor.

Today’s announcement has triggered a wave of congratulations that the 11-year mystery has been solved. There have even been calls on Twitter and social media to rename the Beagle-2 site Pillinger Station.

“The history of of space exploration is marked by both success and failure,” Said Dr. David Parker, the Chief Executive of the UK Space Agency in a recent press release. “This finding makes the case that Beagle-2 was more of a success than we previously knew and undoubtedly an important step in Europe’s continuing exploration of Mars.”

Click here for the animated .gif version.
Evidence of the successful landing of Beagle-2. Click here for the animated .gif version. Credit: University of Leicester/Beagle 2/NASA/University of Arizona.

Beagle-2 is about 2 metres across unfurled, and came to rest within 5 kilometres of its target location.

There have been false announcements of the discovery of Beagle-2 before. Back in late 2005, a claim was made that the lander had been spotted by Mars Global Surveyor, though later searches came to naught.

“I can imagine the sense of closure that the Beagle-2 team must feel,” Said JPL’s MRO project scientist Richard Zurek in a recent press release. “MRO has helped find safe landing sites on Mars for the Curiosity and Phoenix missions and has searched for missing craft to learn what may have gone wrong. It’s an extremely difficult task.”

MRO entered orbit in March 2006 and carries a 0.5 metre in diameter HiRISE camera capable of resolving objects just 0.3 metres across on the surface of Mars.  The European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter that carried Beagle 2 is also still in operation, along with NASA’s aging Mars Odyssey spacecraft. These were joined in orbit by MAVEN and India’s Mars Orbiter just last year.

All rights reserved Beagle 2.
Beagle-2 encapsulated in the lab. All rights reserved, Beagle-2.

Of course, getting to Mars is tough, and landing is even harder. Mars has just enough atmosphere that you have to deal with it, but it’s so tenuous – 0.6% the surface pressure of Earth’s atmosphere at sea level – That it doesn’t provide a whole lot of usable drag.

To date, only NASA had successfully landed on Mars, and done it seven times – only the Mars Polar Lander failed back in 1999. The Russians fared much worse, with their most successful lander being Mars 3, which sent back only one blurry image before falling silent.

ESA and the Russian Federal Space Agency hope to amend that with the launch of the ExoMars mission next year, slated to land on Mars in 2018.

I remember waiting with millions of other space fans for word back from Beagle 2 on Christmas Day 2003. Think back to what your internet connection was like over 11 years ago, in an era before smart phones, Twitter and Facebook. We’d just come off of the spectacular 2003 Mars opposition season, which provided the orbital geometry ideal for launching a mission to the Red Planet. This window only comes around once every 26 months.

Though Beagle 2 was a stationary lander akin to the Viking and Mars Phoenix missions, it had a robotic arm and a clever battery of experiments, including ones designed to search for life. The signal it was supposed to use to call home was designed by the UK pop rock band Blur, a jingle that never came.

Alas, we’ll have to wait to see what the alien plains around Isidis Planitia actually look like, just 13 degrees north of the Martian equator. But hey, a lingering mystery of the modern age of planetary exploration was solved this week.

Still, we’re now left with a new dilemma. Does this mean we’ll have to write a sequel to our science fiction short story The Hunt for Beagle?

-Read free original science fiction from Dave Dickinson every Friday, including ongoing chapters from The Hunt for Beagle.





Ammonia Leak Alarm on the ISS Forces Evacuation of US Side, Crew Safe

The International Space Station seen by a departing space shuttle in 2009. Credit: NASA

Breaking News: A possible ammonia leak aboard the US side of the International Space Station (ISS) has forced a partial evacuation of the entire crew to the Russian side earlier this morning, Wednesday, Jan. 14.

All six crew members from the US, Italy and Russia are safe and in good shape at this time, says NASA and Roscosmos, the Russian Federal Space Agency.

Hatches between the US and Russian segments were sealed shut, pending further analysis.

Read my late day update – here.

Mission controllers are in the process of assessing whether it’s a real leak or a false alarm due to a faulty sensor or a computer problem. It’s not completely clear at this time.

The latest indications at 11 a.m. EST, Jan. 14, are that it may be a false alarm, says NASA.

“The security of a crew was guaranteed thanks to correct actions of the cosmonauts, astronauts and the crew of the Mission control centres in Moscow and Houston. Further plan of actions in the US modules must be prepared in Houston,” according to Roscosmos.

“For now NASA colleagues are analyzing situation”, – noted the head of Russian Mission Control Centre Maxim Matushin

Ammonia is a toxic substance used as a coolant in the stations complex cooling system that is an essential requirement to continued operation of the station.

There have been prior ammonia leaks aboard the ISS facility.

NASA announced that an alarm sounded in the US segment at about 4 a.m. EST. indicating a possible ammonia leak. As a result, all six Expedition 42 astronauts and cosmonauts evacuated the US segment.

“Flight controllers in Mission Control at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston saw an increase in pressure in the station’s water loop for thermal control system B then later saw a cabin pressure increase that could be indicative of an ammonia leak in the worst case scenario,” according to a NASA announcement.

Therefore as a precaution after the alarm sounded earlier today, the crew was directed to isolate themselves in the Russian segment this morning while teams are evaluating the situation. The crew powered down non-essential equipment in the U.S. segment of the station according to established procedures, said NASA.

“In an exchange at 7:02 a.m. with Expedition 42 Commander Barry Wilmore of NASA, spacecraft communicator James Kelly said flight controllers were analyzing their data but said it is not yet known if the alarm was actually triggered by a leak or whether the situation was caused by a faulty sensor or by a problem in a computer relay box that sends data and commands to various systems on the station.”

The evacuation comes just two days after a commercial SpaceX Dragon cargo freighter successfully rendezvoused and berthed at the station on Monday, Jan. 11.

The SpaceX Dragon is attached to the Harmony module. Credit: NASA TV
This view shows the US side of the ISS that was evacuated today, Jan. 14, 2015, by the crew due to possible ammonia leak. The SpaceX CRS-5 Dragon is attached to the Harmony module. Credit: NASA TV

The ISS has been continuously occupied by humans for 15 years.

The current six person crew includes astronauts and cosmonauts from three nations; America, Russia and Italy including four men and two women serving aboard the massive orbiting lab complex.

They comprise Expedition 42 Commander Barry “Butch” Wilmore and Terry Virts from NASA, Samantha Cristoforetti from the European Space Agency (ESA) and cosmonauts Aleksandr Samokutyayev, Yelena Serova, and Anton Shkaplerov from Russia.

ISS Expedition 42. Credit: NASA/ESA/Roscosmos
ISS Expedition 42. Credit: NASA/ESA/Roscosmos

In the case of a life threatening emergency, the crew can rapidly abandon the station aboard the two docked Russian Soyuz capsules. They hold three persons each.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Hearing the Early Universe’s Scream: Sloan Survey Announces New Findings

A still photo from an animated flythrough of the universe using SDSS data. This image shows our Milky Way Galaxy. The galaxy shape is an artist’s conception, and each of the small white dots is one of the hundreds of thousands of stars as seen by the SDSS. Image credit: Dana Berry / SkyWorks Digital, Inc. and Jonathan Bird (Vanderbilt University)

Imagine a single mission that would allow you to explore the Milky Way and beyond, investigating cosmic chemistry, hunting planets, mapping galactic structure, probing dark energy and analyzing the expansion of the wider Universe. Enter the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, a massive scientific collaboration that enables one thousand astronomers from 51 institutions around the world to do just that.

At Tuesday’s AAS briefing in Seattle, researchers announced the public release of data collected by the project’s latest incarnation, SDSS-III. This data release, termed “DR12,” represents the survey’s largest and most detailed collection of measurements yet: 2,000 nights’ worth of brand-new information about nearly 500 million stars and galaxies.

One component of SDSS is exploring dark energy by “listening” for acoustic oscillation signals from the the acceleration of the early Universe, and the team also shared a new animated “fly-through” of the Universe that was created using SDSS data.

The SDSS-III collaboration is based at the powerful 2.5-meter Sloan Foundation Telescope at the Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico. The project itself consists of four component surveys: BOSS, APOGEE, MARVELS, and SEGUE. Each of these surveys applies different trappings to the parent telescope in order to accomplish its own, unique goal.

BOSS (the Baryon Oscillation Spectroscopic Survey) visualizes the way that sound waves produced by interacting matter in the early Universe are reflected in the large-scale structure of our cosmos. These ancient imprints, which date back to the first 500,000 years after the Big Bang, are especially evident in high-redshift objects like luminous-red galaxies and quasars. Three-dimensional models created from BOSS observations will allow astronomers to track the expansion of the Universe over a span of 9 billion years, a feat that, later this year, will pave the way for rigorous assessment of current theories regarding dark energy.

At the press briefing, Daniel Eistenstein from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics explained how BOSS requires huge volumes of data and that so far 1.4 million galaxies have been mapped. He indicated the data analyzed so far strongly confirm dark energy’s existence.

This tweet from the SDSS twitter account uses a bit of humor to explain how BOSS works:

APOGEE (the Apache Point Observatory Galactic Evolution Experiment) employs a sophisticated, near-infrared spectrograph to pierce through thick dust and gather light from 100,000 distant red giants. By analyzing the spectral lines that appear in this light, scientists can identify the signatures of 15 different chemical elements that make up the faraway stars – observations that will help researchers piece together the stellar history of our galaxy.

MARVELS (the Multi-Object APO Radial Velocity Exoplanet Large-Area Survey) identifies minuscule wobbles in the orbits of stars, movements that betray the gravitational influence of orbiting planets. The technology itself is unprecedented. “MARVELS is the first large-scale survey to measure these tiny motions for dozens of stars simultaneously,” explained the project’s principal investigator Jian Ge, “which means we can probe and characterize the full population of giant planets in ways that weren’t possible before.”

At the press briefing, Ge said that MARVELS observed 5,500 stars repeatedly, looking for giant exoplanets around these stars. So far, the data has revealed 51 giant planet candidates as well as 38 brown dwarf candidates. Ge added that more will be found with better data processing.

A still photo from an animated flythrough of the universe using SDSS data. This image shows a small part of the large-scale structure of the universe as seen by the SDSS -- just a few of many millions of galaxies. The galaxies are shown in their proper positions from SDSS data. Image credit: Dana Berry / SkyWorks Digital, Inc.
A still photo from an animated flythrough of the universe using SDSS data. This image shows a small part of the large-scale structure of the universe as seen by the SDSS — just a few of many millions of galaxies. The galaxies are shown in their proper positions from SDSS data. Image credit: Dana Berry / SkyWorks Digital, Inc.

SEGUE (the Sloan Extension for Galactic Understanding and Exploration) rounds out the quartet by analyzing visible light from 250,000 stars in the outer reaches of our galaxy. Coincidentally, this survey’s observations “segue” nicely into work being done by other projects within SDSS-III. Constance Rockosi, leader of the SDSS-III domain of SEGUE, recaps the importance of her project’s observations of our outer galaxy: “In combination with the much more detailed view of the inner galaxy from APOGEE, we’re getting a truly holistic picture of the Milky Way.”

One of the most exceptional attributes of SDSS-III is its universality; that is, every byte of juicy information contained in DR12 will be made freely available to professionals, amateurs, and lay public alike. This philosophy enables interested parties from all walks of life to contribute to the advancement of astronomy in whatever capacity they are able.

As momentous as the release of DR12 is for today’s astronomers, however, there is still much more work to be done. “Crossing the DR12 finish line is a huge accomplishment by hundreds of people,” said Daniel Eisenstein, director of the SDSS-III collaboration, “But it’s a big universe out there, so there is plenty more to observe.”

DR12 includes observations made by SDSS-III between July 2008 and June 2014. The project’s successor, SDSS-IV, began its run in July 2014 and will continue observing for six more years.

Here is the video animation of the fly-through of the Universe:

New Finds From Kepler: 8 New Worlds Discovered in the Habitable Zone

An artist's conception of one of the newly released exo-worlds, a planet orbiting an ancient planetary nebula. Credit: David A. Aguilar/CfA.

A fascinating set of finds was announced today at the 225th meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS), currently underway this week in Seattle, Washington. A team of astronomers announced the discovery of eight new planets potentially orbiting their host stars in their respective habitable zones. Also dubbed the ‘Goldilocks Zone,’ this is the distance where — like the tempting fairytale porridge — it’s not too hot, and not too cold, but juuusst right for liquid water to exist.

And chasing the water is the name of the game when it comes to hunting for life on other worlds. Two of the discoveries announced, Kepler-438b and Kepler-442b, are especially intriguing, as they are the most comparable to the Earth size-wise of any exoplanets yet discovered.

“Most of these planets have a good chance of being rocky, like Earth,” said Guillermo Torres in a recent press release. Guillermo is the lead author in the study for the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA).

This also doubles the count of suspected terrestrial exo-worlds — planets with less than twice the diameter of the Earth — inferred to orbit in the habitable zone of their host stars.

Fans on exoplanet science will remember the announcement of the first prospective Earth-like world orbiting in the habitable zone of its host star, Kepler-186f announced just last year.

The Kepler Space Telescope looks for planets used a technique known as the transit method. If a planet is orbiting its host star along our line of sight, a small but measurable dip in the star’s brightness occurs. This has advantages over the radial velocity technique because it allows researchers to pin down the hidden planet’s orbit and size much more precisely. The transit method is biased, however, to planets close in to its host which happen to lie along our solar system-bound line of sight. Kepler may miss most exo-worlds inclined out of its view, but it overcomes this by staring at thousands of stars.

Kepler launch
The launch of Kepler from the Cape in 2009. Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett.

Launched in 2009, Kepler has wrapped up its primary phase of starring at a patch of sky along the plane of the Milky Way in the directions of the constellations of Cygnus, Lyra and Hercules, and is now in its extended K2 mission using the solar wind pressure as a 3rd ‘reaction wheel’ to carry out targeted searches along the ecliptic plane.

Both newly discovered worlds highlighted in today’s announcement orbit distant red dwarf stars. Kepler-438 b is estimated to be 12% larger in diameter than the Earth, and Kepler-442 b is estimated by the team to be 33% larger. These worlds have a 70% and 60% chance of being rocky, respectively. For comparison, Ice giant planet Uranus is 4 times the diameter of the Earth, and over 14 times more massive.

A comparison of the new exoplanet finds between Earth and Jupiter. Credit: NASA/Kepler.
A comparison of the new exoplanet finds between Earth and Jupiter. Credit: NASA/Kepler.

“We don’t know for sure whether any of the planets in our sample are truly habitable,” Said CfA co-researcher in the study David Kipping. All we can say is that they’re promising candidates.”

The idea of habitable worlds around red dwarf stars is a tantalizing one. These stars are fainter and cooler than our Sun, and 7.5% to 50% as massive. They also have two primary factors going for them: they’re the most common type of stars in the universe, and they have life spans measured in trillions of years, much longer than the current age of the universe. If life could go from muck to making microwave dinners here on Earth in just a few billion years, it’s had lots longer to do the same on worlds orbiting red dwarf stars.

There is, however, one catch: the habitable zone surrounding a red dwarf is much closer in to its host star, and any would-be planet is subject to frequent surface-sterilizing flares. Perhaps a world with a synchronous rotation might be spared this fate and feature a habitable hemisphere well inside the snow line permanently turned away from its host.

The team made these discoveries by sifting though Kepler’s preliminary finds that are termed KOI’s, or Kepler Objects of Interest. Though these potential discoveries were far too small to pin down their masses using the traditional method, the team employed a program named BLENDER to statically validate the finds. BLENDER has been employed before in concert with backup observations for extremely tiny exoplanet discoveries. Torres and Francois Fressin developed the BLENDER program, and it is currently run on the massive Pleiades supercomputer at NASA Ames.

It was also noted in today’s press conference that two KOIs awaiting validation — 5737.01 and 2194.03 — may also prove to be terrestrial worlds  orbiting Sun-like stars that are possibly similar in size to the Earth.

The proposed target regions for the Kepler K2 mission. Credit: NASA/Kepler.
The proposed target regions for the Kepler K2 mission. Credit: NASA/Kepler.

But don’t plan on building an interstellar ark and heading off to these newly found worlds just yet. Kepler-438b sits 470 light years from Earth, and Kepler-442b is even farther away at 1,100 light years. And we’ll also add our usual caveat and caution that, from a distance, the planet Venus in our own solar system might look like a tempting vacation spot. (Spoiler alert: it’s not).

Still, these discoveries are fascinating finds and add to the growing menagerie of exoplanet systems. These will also serve as great follow up targets for TESS, Gaia and LSST survey, all set to add to our exoplanet knowledge in the coming decade.

The LSST mirror in the Tuscon Mirror Lab. (Photo by author).
The LSST mirror in the Tuscon Mirror Lab. (Photo by author).

And to think, I remember growing up as a child of the 1970s reading that exoplanet detections were soooo difficult that they might never occur in our lifetime… now, fast-forward to 2015, and we’re beginning to classify and characterize other brave new solar systems in the modern Age of Exoplanet Science.

-Looking to observe red dwarf stars with your backyard scope? Check out our handy list.

BREAKING: Antares Rocket Explodes at Liftoff

Seconds after liftoff, Orbital Science’s Antares rocket exploded as it rose from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at Wallops Island, Virginia. In video, the explosion appeared to come at the base of the rocket. The entire stack then fell back to the ground, with a second larger explosion.

According to NASA TV, there were no injuries reported at the launch site but there appears to be damage to the launch pad.

We’ll provide more information and updates as they become available. NASA and Orbital said they would be scheduling a news conference. Our Ken Kremer is on location at Wallops.

This is the first launch failure for NASA’s commercial space companies. Antares has had five successful launches. The launch was originally scheduled for Oct. 27 but was scrubbed when a boat entered restricted waters off the coast from the launch site.

The mission, was the third of eight Commercial Resupply Services missions that Orbital Sciences is under contract to NASA. The Cygnus capsule, named by Orbital the “SS Deke Slayton” after the late astronaut, was carrying 2,290 kilograms of cargo for the International Space Station.

This video was shot by journalist Matthew Travis at the press site at Wallops:

MAVEN Arrives at Mars! Parks Safely in Orbit

The control room at Lockheed Martin shortly before MAVEN successfully entered Mars orbit tonight September 21, 2014. Credit: NASA-TV

138 million miles and 10 months journey from planet Earth, MAVEN moved into its new home around the planet Mars this evening. Flight controllers at Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Littleton, Colorado anxiously monitored the spacecraft’s progress as onboard computers successfully eased the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) spacecraft into Mars orbit at 10:24 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time. 

Shortly before orbital insertion, six small thrusters were fired to steady the spacecraft so it would enter orbit in the correct orientation. This was followed by a 33-minute burn to slow it down enough for Mars’ gravity to capture the craft into an elliptical orbit with a period of 35 hours. Because it takes radio signals traveling at the speed of light 12 minutes to cross the gap between Mars and Earth, the entire orbital sequence was executed by onboard computers. There’s no chance to change course or make corrections, so the software has to work flawlessly. It did. The burn, as they said was “nominal”, science-speak for came off without a hitch.

Simulation of MAVEN in Martian orbit. Credit: NASA
Simulation of MAVEN in orbit around Mars. The craft’s unique aerodynamically curved solar panels allow it to dive more deeply into the Martian atmosphere. Credit: NASA

“This was a very big day for MAVEN,” said David Mitchell, MAVEN project manager from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland. “We’re very excited to join the constellation of spacecraft in orbit at Mars and on the surface of the Red Planet. Congratulations to the team for a job well done today.”

Over the next six weeks, controllers will test MAVEN’s instruments and shape its orbit into a long ellipse with a period of 4.5 hours and a low point of just 93 miles (150 km), close enough to get a taste of the planet’s upper atmosphere. MAVEN’s one-Earth-year long primary mission will study the composition and structure of Mars’ atmosphere and how it’s affected by the sun and solar wind. At least 2,000 Astronomers want to determine how the planet evolved from a more temperate climate to the current dry, frigid desert.

Evidence for ancient water flows on Mars - a delta in Eberswalde Crater. Credit: NASA
Evidence for ancient water flows on Mars – a delta in Eberswalde Crater. Credit: NASA

Vast quantities of water once flowed over the dusty red rocks of Mars as evidenced by ancient riverbeds, outflow channels carved by powerful floods, and rocks rounded by the action of water. For liquid water to flow on its surface without vaporizing straight into space, the planet must have had a much denser atmosphere at one time.

Mars may have been much more like Earth is today 3-4 billion years ago with a thicker atmosphere and water flowing across its surface. Today, it's evolved into dry, cold planet with an atmosphere as thin as Scrooge's gruel. Credit: NASA
Three to four billion years ago, Mars may have been much more like Earth with a thicker atmosphere and water flowing across its surface (left). Over time,  it evolved into a dry, cold planet with an atmosphere too thin to support liquid water. Credit: NASA

Mars’ atmospheric pressure is now less than 1% that of Earth’s. As for the water, what’s left today appears locked up as ice in the polar caps and subsurface ice. So where did it go all the air go? Not into making rocks apparently. On Earth, much of the carbon dioxide from volcanic outgassing in the planet’s youth dissolved in water and combined with rocks to form carbon-bearing rocks called carbonates. So far, carbonates appear to be rare on Mars. Little has been seen from orbit and in situ with the rovers.

Illustration of electrons and protons in the solar wind slamming into and ionizing atoms in Mars upper atmosphere. Once ionized, the atoms may be carried away by the wind. Credit: NASA
Illustration of electrons and protons in the solar wind slamming into and ionizing atoms in Mars upper atmosphere. Once ionized, the atoms may be carried away by the wind. Credit: NASA

During the year-long mission, MAVEN will dip in and out of the atmosphere some 2,000 times or more to measure what and how much Mars is losing to space. Without the protection of a global magnetic field like the Earth’s,  it’s thought that the solar wind eats away at the Martian atmosphere by ionizing (knocking off electrons) its atoms and molecules. Once ionized, the atoms swirl up the magnetic field embedded in the wind and are carried away from the planet.

MAVEN’s suite of instruments will provide the measurements essential to understanding the evolution of the Martian atmosphere. (Courtesy LASP/MAVEN)
MAVEN’s suite of instruments will provide the measurements essential to understanding the evolution of the Martian atmosphere. Courtesy LASP/MAVEN

Scientists will coordinate with the Curiosity rover, which can determine the atmospheric makeup at ground level. Although MAVEN won’t be taking pictures, its three packages of instruments will be working daily to fill gaps in the story of how Mars became the Red Planet and we the Blue.

For more on the ongoing progress of MAVEN later tonight and tomorrow, stop by NASA TV online. You can also stay in touch by following the hashtags #MAVEN and #JourneytoMars on social media channels including Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Twitter updates will be posted throughout on the agency’s official accounts @NASA, @MAVEN2Mars and @NASASocial.

Clear Skies Tonight? Go Out and See the Aurora

A low arc, glowing green from excited oxygen, spans the northern sky around 10:30 p.m Central Daylight Time from Duluth, Minn. The Big Dipper is off to the left. Credit: Bob King

Talk of aurora is in the air.  Our earlier story today by Elizabeth Howell alerted you to the possibility of northern lights. Well, it’s showtime!  As of 9:30 p.m. Central Daylight Time, the aurora has been active low in the northern sky.

Subtle pink rays stand above the green arc at 9:35 p.m. CDT. Credit: Bob King
Subtle pink rays stand above the green arc at 9:35 p.m. CDT. Credit: Bob King

From Duluth, Minn. U.S.,  a classic green arc low in the northern sky competed with the light of the rising gibbous moon. Once my eyes were dark-adapted, faint parallel rays stood streaked the sky above the arc. NOAA space weather forecasters expect this storm to peak between 1 a.m. CDT and sunrise Friday morning September 12 at a G2 or moderate level. Skywatchers across the northern tier of states and southern Canada should see activity across the northern sky. Moonlight will compromise the show, but it rises later each night and dims through the weekend.

The approximate extent of the auroral oval forecast for 11:30 p.m. CDT from Ovation. Credit: NOAA
The approximate extent of the auroral oval forecast for 11:30 p.m. CDT from Ovation. Credit: NOAA

This is only the start. Things really kick into gear Friday night and Saturday morning when a G3 strong geomagnetic storm is expected from the more direct blast sent our way by the September 10 X1.6 flare. Auroras might be visible as far south as Illinois and Kansas.

We’ll keep you in touch with storm activity by posting regular updates over the next couple days. Including odd hours. Here are some links to check during the night as you wait for the aurora to put in an appearance at your house:

* Ovation oval – shows the approximate extent of the auroral oval that looks like a cap centered on Earth’s geomagnetic pole. During storms, the oval extends south into the northern U.S. and farther.

* Kp index – indicator of magnetic activity high overhead and updated every three hours. A Kp index of “5” means the onset of a minor storm; a Kp of “6”, a moderate storm.

* NOAA space weather forecast

* Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) satellite plots – The magnetic field direction of the arriving wind from the sun. The topmost graph, plotting Bz, is your friend. When the curve drops into the negative zone that’s good! A prolonged stay at -10 or lower increases the chance of seeing the aurora. Negative numbers indicate a south-pointing magnetic field, which has a greater chance of  linking into Earth’s northward-pointing field and wriggling its way past our magnetic defenses and sparking auroras.

The Nicaragua Crater: The Result of a Meteorite Impact or Not?

The suspect crater on the outskirts of Managua. Credit: AP/BBC News

By now, you’ve seen the pictures.

As astronomers tracked the close pass of Near Earth Asteroid 2014 RC this weekend, reports came out of Nicaragua that a possible meteorite struck near the capital of Managua.

Details are still sketchy, but government sources cite reports of a loud bang and ground tremor late Saturday night on September 6th. Later images circulating late Sunday evening showed a crater 12 metres wide and 5.5 metres deep on a remote section of the international airport at Managua, which also hosts a local air force installation.

A closer look at the Managua crater. Credit: AFP/BBC News.
A closer look at the Managua crater. Credit: AFP/BBC News.

Reports state that the impact went off “like a bomb,” and Wilfried Strauch of the Nicaragua Institute of Earth Studies has already gone on record as being “convinced it was a meteorite.” Investigators are currently scouring the alleged impact site for debris.

This has also sparked a lively discussion across forums and social media: is the crater the result of an extraterrestrial impactor?

Of course, cosmic coincidences can and do happen. Last year, the close passage of asteroid 2012 DA14 was upstaged by the explosion of a 20-metre asteroid over the city of Chelyabinsk on the very same day. And though the two were conclusively proven to be unrelated, they did serve to raise general human awareness that, yes, large threatening rocks do indeed menace the Earth. And ironically, the aforementioned asteroid 2014 RC was about the same size as the Chelyabinsk asteroid, which snuck up on the Earth undetected from a sunward direction.

But Ron Baalke, a software engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory has posted an update to the close pass by asteroid 2014 RC on the NASA’s Near Earth Object website, saying, “Since the explosion in Nicaragua occurred a full 13 hours before the close passage of asteroid 2014 RC, these two events are unrelated.”

Baalke also noted that “no eyewitness accounts or imagery have come to light of the fireball flash or debris trail that is typically associated with a meteor of the size required to produce such a crater.”

The epic airburst over Chelyabinsk as captured via dashcam.
The epic airburst over Chelyabinsk as captured via dashcam. (Still from video).

There are a few other problems with the Managua crater, though of course, we’d love to be proven wrong. Many observers have noted that the crater does not appear to look fresh, and the trees and soil around it appear to be relatively undisturbed. A first visual impression of the site looks more like a ground slump or sinkhole than an impact, or perhaps an excavation. Others have also noted the similarity of the crater with a military blast, a very good possibility with an air force base nearby.

Meteorite Men’s own Geoff Notkin has voiced doubts as to the authenticity of the meteor crater on Twitter.

Of course, it’s possible (though unlikely) that the impactor struck the site from straight overhead, leaving the area around it undisturbed. As with meteor showers, an impactor striking the Earth before local midnight would be coming at the planet from behind at a lower combined velocity.

Color me skeptical on this one. Still, we’ve been wrong before, and it’s always a boon for science when a new meteorite fall turns out to be real. Many have already cited the similarities between the Managua crater and the Carancas event in 2007 in Peru near Lake Titicaca that was initially considered dubious as well.

But again, it’s highly improbable that the Managua event is related to 2014 RC, however, which made its closest pass over the southern hemisphere near New Zealand many hours later at 18:18 UT on Sept 7th. We ran a recent simulation of the pass in Starry Night from the vantage point of the asteroid, and you’ll note that Central America is well out of view:

It’s also curious that no still images or video of the Managua event have yet to surface. This is strange, as it occurred on a Saturday night near a capital city of 2.4 million. The weather over Managua was partly cloudy that night, and generally, a security camera or two usually catches sight of the fireball.

We also did a check through any upcoming space junk reentries, which also proved to be a poor fit for a potential suspect. The next slated reentry is a BREEZE-M Tank with the NORAD ID of 2011-074D associated with the 2011 launch of AMOS-5. This object was not overhead around the time of the Managua event, and is predicted to reenter on September 9th at 15:15 UT +/- 14 hours.

And the same goes for the launch of AsiaSat-6 by SpaceX on Saturday night, as launches from the Cape head out eastward across the Atlantic and away from the Gulf of Mexico region.

A look at 2014 RC on the night of September 6th. Credit Gialuca Masi and the Virtual Telescope project.
A look at 2014 RC on the night of September 6th. Credit: Gianluca Masi and the Virtual Telescope Project.

Unfortunately, images and video would go a long way towards gauging a direction and final orbit of a suspect meteorite. The discovery of meteoritic debris at the site would also serve to clinch the link between the crater and a cosmic impactor as well. Or perhaps, news of the impending passage of NEO asteroid 2014 RC and the recent pass of 2014 RA the weekend prior had already primed the general public to suspect a meteor strike as an explosion was heard late in the evening… we’ve lived near bombing ranges, and are familiar with the sound of late night explosions ourselves.

An aerial view of Pingualuit crater in northern Quebec. Credit: NASA/Denis Sarrazin and the Pingualuit Crater Lakes project.
Target Earth… An aerial view of Pingualuit crater in northern Quebec. Credit: NASA/Denis Sarrazin and the Pingualuit Crater Lakes project.

To be sure, the universe is a dangerous place, and errant rocks from above do on occasion have it out for any unwary species that gets in their way.

So we’ll open it up for discussion: what do you think happened on Saturday night near Managua? Was it a meteorite, or another case of a “meteor-wrong?”