Curiosity Sticks Her Toes in a Martian Sand Dune, Takes a Selfie

While some of us might only be dreaming of sticking our toes in the sand right about now, the Curiosity rover is actually doing so. But it’s no vacation for the rover, as she makes her way through some very unusual and striking sand dunes on Mars. The Bagnold Dune Field lies along the northwestern flank of Mt. Sharp — Curiosity’s main target for its mission — and this is the first time ever we’ve had the opportunity to do close-up studies of active sand dunes anywhere besides Earth.

Thanks to Andrew Bodrov for sharing his compilation of this 57-image mosaic ‘selfie,’ and you can play around with an interactive version below to see some great views of the dunes. The images were taken by the rover’s Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) on Sol 1228 (January 19, 2016).

Continue reading “Curiosity Sticks Her Toes in a Martian Sand Dune, Takes a Selfie”

Snowzilla’s East Coast Blast Captured as ‘Rare Thundersnow’ by Scott Kelly on Station and Moonlit from Suomi Satellite

Rare #thundersnow visible from @Space_Station in #blizzard2016!  Jan. 23, 2016. Credit: NASA/Scott Kelly/@StationCDRKelly
Rare #thundersnow visible from @Space_Station in #blizzard2016! Jan. 23, 2016. Credit: NASA/Scott Kelly/@StationCDRKelly

NEW JERSEY – NASA astronaut Scott Kelly captured a rare and spectacular display of ‘thundersnow’ from space as Snowzilla’s blast pummeled much of the US East Coast this weekend with two feet or more of paralyzing snow from the nations’ capital to New York City and beyond.

Meanwhile the NASA-NOAA Suomi NPP Earth orbiting satellite almost simultaneously snapped an eerie image of the East Coast bathed in Moonlight as the ‘Blizzard of 2016’ battered over 85 million residents in 20 states across the East Coast. Continue reading “Snowzilla’s East Coast Blast Captured as ‘Rare Thundersnow’ by Scott Kelly on Station and Moonlit from Suomi Satellite”

This Road Leads to the Heart of the Milky Way

The Path by Tyler Sichelski

This road near Phoenix, Arizona leads to the heart of the Milky Way. Well, that’s assuming your car will handle the 26,000 light-year drive, and can fly through, uh, space. And you can endure the cold, radiation and space madness. Anyway, you get the metaphor.

Tyler Sichelski took this photo of the galactic core, the central bulge of the Milky Way. It’s a region of incredible density and activity, and at the very heart, hidden from our view is the Milky Way’s supermassive black hole, with 4 million times the mass of the Sun. Within a parsec’s distance of this black hole, there are thousands of old, main-sequence stars as well as some of the hottest, brightest stars around.

Path by Tyler Sichelski
Path by Tyler Sichelski

Unfortunately, we can’t actually see the center of the galaxy because of the gas and dust that obscures our view. And in this photograph, you can actually see the dark dust lanes and regions. Many of the nebulae you’re familiar with are in this picture, like the Lagoon Nebula, the Omega Nebula and the Trifid Nebula. In fact, it’s hard to know where one nebula ends, and the next one starts.

Tyler used a Canon 6D camera with a 16-28mm f/2.8 lens. He took 10 separate exposures of the sky and then stacked them up in Photoshop.

Of course, you should check out more of Tyler’s photographs at the Universe Today Flickr photo pool (nearly 2,000 members and 33,000 photographs now). This is a place where astrophotographers share their photos of the night sky, and then we reshare them on our website and across our social media.

Monster Blizzard of 2016 Strikes US East Coast, Tracked by NASA and NOAA Satellites

NASA-NOAA's Suomi NPP satellite snapped this image of the approaching blizzard around 2:35 a.m. EST on Jan. 22, 2016 using the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) instrument's Day-Night band.   Credit: NOAA/NASA
NASA-NOAA’s Suomi NPP satellite snapped this image of the approaching blizzard around 2:35 a.m. EST on Jan. 22, 2016 using the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) instrument’s Day-Night band. Credit: NOAA/NASA

NEW JERSEY- The monstrous ‘Blizzard of 2016’ predicted by weather forecasters for days has struck a wide swath of the US East Coast from the Gulf coast to the Carolinas to New York and soon into New England, with full fury today, Friday, Jan. 22.

NASA and NOAA satellites are tracking the storm which is already inundating the biggest population centers, affecting some 85 million people in 20 states up and down the Atlantic Coast, as it moves in a northeasterly direction.

This afternoon, NASA and NOAA released a series of eyepopping satellite images showing the massive extent of the storm, which may drop historic amounts of snow on Washington DC and other cities over the next 24 to 48 hours.

The two agencies released a particularly striking image, shown above, showing the storm swarming over virtually the entire eastern half of the continental US as it was barreling towards the East coast cites.

It was taken Friday afternoon by the NASA-NOAA’s Suomi NPP satellite showing the approaching blizzard around 2:35 a.m. EST on Jan. 22, 2016 using the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) instrument’s Day-Night band.

States of Emergency have been declared by Governors of states from the mid-Atlantic to New England, including North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Kentucky, Georgia, Tennessee, West Virginia, the District of Columbia and the list is growing.

The heaviest snowfall is expected in and around Washington DC with estimates of 24 inches of snow or more. 18 to 24 inches may fall along the metropolitan Northeast corridor on Baltimore, Philadelphia, Trenton and New York City.

This visible image from NOAA's GOES-East satellite at 1830 UTC (1:30 p.m. EST) on Jan. 22, 2016 shows the major winter storm now affecting the U.S. East coast.  Credits: NASA/NOAA GOES Project
This visible image from NOAA’s GOES-East satellite at 1830 UTC (1:30 p.m. EST) on Jan. 22, 2016 shows the major winter storm now affecting the U.S. East coast. Credits: NASA/NOAA GOES Project

The heavy, blinding snow was already hitting Virginia and Washington by Friday afternoon. Governors, Mayors and Federal officials warned drivers to get off the roads by early Friday afternoon.

Stay off the roadways !!

Widespread treacherous driving with icy roads, sleet, rain, low visibility and whiteout conditions are causing numerous auto accidents as the blizzard bashes the region.

“The winter storm that caused damage during the night along the Gulf Coast has deepened and has started to spread heavy rain, freezing rain, sleet and snow northward into the Mid-Atlantic region. NASA’s GPM and NOAA’s GOES satellites are providing data on rainfall, cloud heights, extent and movement of the storm” wrote NASA’s Rob Gutro in an update on Friday.

On January 22 at 1329 UTC (8:29 a.m. EST) the GPM core satellite saw precipitation falling at a rate of over 64 mm (2.5 inches) per hour in storms over northern Alabama.  Credits: SSAI/NASA/JAXA, Hal Pierce
On January 22 at 1329 UTC (8:29 a.m. EST) the GPM core satellite saw precipitation falling at a rate of over 64 mm (2.5 inches) per hour in storms over northern Alabama. Credits: SSAI/NASA/JAXA, Hal Pierce

The National Weather Service (NWS) Weather Prediction Center in College Park, Maryland said “An area of low pressure centered over the southeastern U.S. will continue developing into a major winter storm which will impact a large portion of the East Coast from the southern Appalachians through the Mid-Atlantic States from Friday into the weekend. Snowfall totals may exceed 2 feet in portions of these areas, including the Baltimore and Washington D.C. metropolitan areas.”

The monster storm has already caused at least ten deaths. Thousands of motorists are stranded.

High winds up to 55 mph are expected to batter the New Jersey shore, causing significant beach erosion, coastal flooding and property destruction in the same areas devastated by Superstorm Sandy. Thousands of people have been evacuated.

The blizzard has also impacted the US Presidential campaigns and forced New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to temporary cancel campaign appearances in New Hampshire on Friday and Saturday, to deal first hand with the storm back home.

Heavy ice and snow accumulations could cause falling tress resulting in downed power lines and days long power outages during brutally cold temperatures.

Here’s a cool supercomputer animation model:

Video caption: A NASA Center for Climate Simulation supercomputer model that shows the flow of #Blizzard2016 thru Sunday, January 24, 2015. Credit: NASA

Many airports have been closed and some seven thousand flights have also been canceled.

The storm is expected to last into Sunday, Jan. 24

Looking massive from space....  This view of the winter storm over the eastern United States was captured on Friday, January 22, 2016 at 1:55 pm ET via the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) instrument on the Suomi NPP satellite.   Credit: NASA/Goddard/Suomi NPP/VIIRS
Looking massive from space…. This view of the winter storm over the eastern United States was captured on Friday, January 22, 2016 at 1:55 pm ET via the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) instrument on the Suomi NPP satellite. Credit: NASA/Goddard/Suomi NPP/VIIRS

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

Ken Kremer

Why Haven’t We Heard From All The Aliens? Because They’re All Dead!

In 1950, physicist Enrico Fermi raised a very important question about the Universe and the existence of extra-terrestrial life. Given the size and age of the Universe, he stated, and the statistical probability of life emerging in other solar systems, why is it that humanity has not seen any indications of intelligence life in the cosmos? This query, known as the Fermi Paradox, continues to haunt us to this day.

If, indeed, there are billions of star systems in our galaxy, and the conditions needed for life are not so rare, then where are all the aliens? According to a recent paper by researchers at Australian National University’s Research School of Earth Sciences., the answer may be simple: they’re all dead. In what the research teams calls the “Gaian Bottleneck”, the solution to this paradox may be that life is so fragile that most of it simply doesn’t make it.

Continue reading “Why Haven’t We Heard From All The Aliens? Because They’re All Dead!”

And Mercury Makes Five: See All Naked Eye Planets in the Sky at Once

A fine sight greets early risers this week into the month of February, as all five naked eye planets: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Saturn and Jupiter ring the sky from horizon to horizon.

Though not a true planetary alignment as extolled by many websites, this is a great chance to see all five classical planets above the horizon at once… or seven, if you count the waning gibbous Moon and the rising Sun, as the ancients did as part of their geocentric, Earth-entered universe. You can kinda see how they got there, as the very heavens themselves seemed to whorl about the cradle of earthly human affairs. Continue reading “And Mercury Makes Five: See All Naked Eye Planets in the Sky at Once”

NASA Completes Welding on Lunar Orion EM-1 Pressure Vessel Launching in 2018

Welding together of Orion EM-1 pressure vessel was completed on Jan. 13, 2016 at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. The pressure vessel is the primary structure of the Orion spacecraft destined for human missions to deep space and Mars.  Credits: NASA
Welding together of Orion EM-1 pressure vessel was completed on Jan. 13, 2016 at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. The pressure vessel is the primary structure of the Orion spacecraft destined for human missions to deep space and Mars. Credits: NASA

In a major step towards flight, engineers at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans have finished welding together the pressure vessel for the first Lunar Orion crew module that will blastoff in 2018 atop the agency’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket.

This Orion is going to the Moon and back.

The 2018 launch of NASA’s Orion on an unpiloted flight dubbed Exploration Mission, or EM-1, counts as the first joint flight of SLS and Orion, and the first flight of a human rated spacecraft to deep space since the Apollo Moon landing era ended more than 4 decades ago. Continue reading “NASA Completes Welding on Lunar Orion EM-1 Pressure Vessel Launching in 2018”

Extinction Alert: Stephen Hawking Says Our Technology Might Wipe Us Out

Professor Stephen Hawking enjoying a lighter moment. Image credit: Zero G

If you’re thinking of having yourself cryogenically suspended and awakened in some future paradise, you might want to set your alarm clock for no later than 1,000 years from now. According to the BBC, Stephen Hawking will be saying this much in the 2016 Reith Lectures – a series of lectures organized by the BBC that explore the big challenges faced by humanity.

In Hawking’s first lecture, which will be broadcast on February 26th on the BBC, Hawking covers the topic of black holes, whether or not they have hair, and other concepts about these baffling objects.

But at the end of the lecture, he responded to audience questions about humanity’s capacity for self destruction. Hawking said that 1,000 years might be all we have until we meet our demise at the hands of our own scientific and technological advances.

As we have become increasingly advanced both scientifically and technologically, Hawking says, we will be creating “new ways that things can go wrong.” Hawking mentioned nuclear war, global warming, and genetically engineered viruses as things that could cause our extinction.

Nuclear War

Through the Cold War, annihilation at the hands of our own nuclear weapons was a real danger. The threat of a nuclear launch in response to a real or perceived threat was real. The resulting retaliation and counter-retaliation was a risk faced by everyone on the planet. And the two superpowers had enough warheads between them to potentially wipe out life on Earth.

One nuclear explosion can ruin your whole day. Image: Andrew Kuznetsov, CC by 2.0
One nuclear explosion can ruin your whole day. Image: Andrew Kuznetsov, CC by 2.0

The USA and the USSR have reduced their stockpiles of nuclear weapons in recent decades, but there are still enough warheads around to wipe us out. The possibility of a rogue state like North Korea setting off a nuclear confrontation is still very real. By the time Hawking’s 1,000 year time-frame has passed, we’ll either have solved this problem, or we won’t be here.

Global Warming

Earth is getting warmer, and though the Earth has warmed and cooled many times in its history, this time we only have ourselves to blame. We’ve been inadvertently enriching our atmosphere with carbon since the Industrial Revolution. All that carbon is creating a nice insulating layer around Earth, as it traps heat that would normally radiate into space. If we reach some of the “tipping points” that scientists talk about, like the melting of permafrost and the subsequent release of methane, we could be in real trouble.

Global Mean Surface Temperature. Image: NASA, Goddard Institute for Space Studies
Global Mean Surface Temperature. Image: NASA, Goddard Institute for Space Studies

Different climate engineering schemes have been thought up to counteract global warming, like seeding the upper atmosphere with reflective molecules, and having fleets of ships around the equator spraying sea mist into the air to partially block out the sun. Or even extracting carbon from the atmosphere. But how realistic or effective those counter-measures might be is not clear.

Genetically Engineered Viruses

As a weapon, a virus can be cheap and effective. There’ve been programs in the past to develop biological weapons. The temptation to use genetic science to create extremely deadly viruses may prove too great.

Smallpox and Viral Hemorrhagic Fevers have been weaponized, and as our genetic manipulation abilities grow, it’s possible, or even likely, that somebody somewhere will attempt develop even more dangerous viral weapons. They may be doing it right now.

There’s a ban on viral weapons, called the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention signed in 1972. But, not everybody has signed it.

Artificial Intelligence

Hawking never mentioned AI in his talk, but it fits in with the discussion. As our machines get smarter and smarter, will they deduce that the only chance for survival is to remove or reduce the human population? Who knows. But Hawking himself, as well as other thinkers, have been warning us that there may be a catastrophic downside to our achievements in AI.

A Google driverless car: Looks harmless, doesn't it? Image: Michael Shick http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0
A Google driverless car: Looks harmless, doesn’t it? Image: Michael Shick http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0

We may love the idea of driverless cars, and computer assistants like SIRI. But as numerous science fiction stories have warned us (Skynet in the Terminator series being my favorite,) it may be a small step from very helpful AI that protects us and makes our lives easier, to AI that decides existence would be a whole lot better without us pesky humans around.

The Technological Singularity is the point at which artificially intelligent systems “wake up” and become—more or less—conscious. These AI machines would start to improve themselves recursively, or build better and smarter machines. At this point, they would be a serious danger to humanity.

Drones are super popular right now. They flew off the shelves at Christmas, and they’re great toys. But once we start seeing drones with primitive but effective AI, patrolling the property of the wealthy, it’ll be time to start getting nervous.

Extinction May Have To Wait

As our scientific and technological prowess grows, we’ll definitely face new threats, just like Hawking says. But, that same progress may also protect us, or make us more resilient. Hawking says, “We are not going to stop making progress, or reverse it, so we have to recognise the dangers and control them. I’m an optimist, and I believe we can.” So do we.

Maybe you’ll be able to hit the snooze button after all.

Original Source: BBC News

Astronomers Find Theoretical Evidence for Distant Gas Giant Planet in Our Solar System

Artistic rendering shows the distant view from theoretical Planet Nine back towards the sun. The planet is thought to be gaseous, similar to Uranus and Neptune. Hypothetical lightning lights up the night side.  Credit: Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC)
Artistic rendering shows the distant view from theoretical Planet Nine back towards the sun. The planet is thought to be gaseous, similar to Uranus and Neptune. Hypothetical lightning lights up the night side. Credit: Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC)

The astronomer known worldwide for vigorously promoting the demotion of Pluto from its decades long perch as the 9th Planet, has now found theoretical evidence for a new and very distant gas giant planet lurking way beyond Pluto out to the far reaches of our solar system.

In an obvious reference to the planethood controversy, the proposed new planet is nicknamed ‘Planet Nine’ and its absolutely huge! Continue reading “Astronomers Find Theoretical Evidence for Distant Gas Giant Planet in Our Solar System”

Lights Out: A Fine Occultation of Aldebaran Spans the Atlantic

They braved the cold, cursed the clouds, wrestled with frozen telescope focusers and more, as dedicated astros worked to catch the first occultation of the bright star Aldebaran for 2016 by the waxing gibbous Moon.

The event went down last night into the wee hours of the morning, and was visible across North America into western Europe and the United Kingdom. Continue reading “Lights Out: A Fine Occultation of Aldebaran Spans the Atlantic”