STEREO Spots a CME Soaring Into Space

Press “play.” Say “wow.”

The enormous eruption of a solar prominence and resulting coronal mass ejection (CME) back on August 31 that was captured in amazing HD by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory was also spotted by the Sun-flanking STEREO-B spacecraft, which observed the gigantic gout of solar material soaring away from the Sun.

This video shows the eruption as it passes across the fields of view of several of STEREO-B’s cameras over the course of 48 hours.

According to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, “while CMEs are routinely seen in the Heliographic Imager (HI) telescopes, it’s very rare for prominences to stay visible for so long. The HI1 field of view ranges from 4 to 24 degrees away from the Sun. To get a sense of scale, we know the Sun is roughly 860,000 miles wide — and look how far the prominence holds together. And this CME is so bright it initially saturates the COR1 telescope.”

The bright spot in the red (COR2) field of view is the planet Venus.

Coronal mass ejections are huge bubbles of gas bounded by magnetic field lines that are ejected from the Sun over the course of several minutes — sometimes even hours. If they are directed toward Earth, the cloud of charged solar particles can interact with our magnetosphere and cause anything from increased auroral activity to radio interference to failure of sensitive electromagnetic equipment.

Particularly long filaments like the one that caused the August 31 CME have been known to collapse with explosive results when they hit the stellar surface.

The CME did not travel directly toward Earth but did connect with Earth’s magnetosphere with a glancing blow, causing bright aurorae to appear around the upper latitudes on the night of September 3.

Image: NASA/STEREO/GSFC

On the Hunt for High-Speed Sprites

A bright red sprite appears above a lightning flash in a photo captured from the ISS

Back on April 30, Expedition 31 astronauts aboard the ISS captured this photo of a red sprite hovering above a bright flash of lightning over Myanmar. Elusive atmospheric phenomena, sprites are extremely brief bursts of electromagnetic activity that are associated with powerful lightning discharges, but exactly how and why they form isn’t yet known — although recent research (along with some incredible high-speed video) is shedding new light on sprites.

Although the appearance of bright high-altitude flashes above thunderstorms have been reported by pilots for nearly a century, it wasn’t until 1989 that a sprite was captured on camera — and the first color image of one wasn’t taken until 1994.

So-named because of their elusive nature, sprites appear as several clusters of red tendrils above a lighting flash followed by a breakup into smaller streaks, often extending as high as 55 miles (90 km) into the atmosphere. The brightest region of a sprite is typically seen at altitudes of 40-45 miles (65-75 km).

Because they occur above storms, only last for a thousandth of a second and emit light in the red portion of the visible spectrum (to which our eyes are the least sensitive) studying sprites has been notoriously difficult for atmospheric scientists. Space Station residents may get great views but they have lots of other things to do in the course of their day besides sprite hunting! Luckily, a team of scientists were able to capture some unprecedented videos of sprites from airplanes in the summer of 2011, using high-speed cameras and help from Japan’s NHK television.

Chasing storms over Denver via plane for two weeks, researchers were able to locate “hot zones” of sprites and capture them on camera from two planes flying 12 miles apart. Combining their videos with ground-based measurements they were able to create 3-dimensional maps of the formation and evolution of individual sprites.

Based on the latest research, it’s suggested that sprites form as a result of a positive electrical charge within a lightning strike that reaches the ground, which leaves the top of the cloud negatively charged — a one-in-ten chance that then makes conditions above the cloud “just right” for a sprite to form higher in the atmosphere.

“Seeing these are spectacular,” said Hans C. Stenbaek-Nielsen, a geophysicist at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, Alaska, where much sprite research has been conducted. “But we need the movies, because not only are they so fast that you could blink and miss them, but they emit most of their light in red, where the human eye is relatively blind.”

An example of how energy can be exchanged between lower and higher regions of Earth’s atmosphere, it’s been suggested that sprites could also be found on other planets as well, and may provide insight into the exotic chemistries of alien atmospheres.

Read more on NASA Heliophysics here.

Main image: Image Science & Analysis Laboratory, NASA Johnson Space Center. Inset image: the first color image of a sprite  (NASA/UAF.) Video: NHK.

What If All of Kepler’s Exoplanets Orbited the Same Star?


That’s exactly the scenario shown by a mesmerizing animation called “Worlds” by Alex Parker — a single system containing 2299 multiple-transit planetary candidates identified to date by NASA’s Kepler space telescope, which is currently scrutinizing a field of view within the constellation Cygnus to detect the oh-so-faint reductions in brightness caused by planets passing in front of their stars.

The search requires patience and precision; it’s not really this crowded out there.

Alex’s animation takes 2299 candidates that have been observed multiple times, each shown to scale in relation to their home star, and puts them in orbit around one star, at their relative distances.

The result, although extravagantly impossible, is no less fascinating to watch. (I suggest going full screen.)

“The Kepler observatory has detected a multitude of planet candidates orbiting distant stars,” Alex writes on his Vimeo page. “The current list contains 2321 planet candidates, though some of these have already been flagged as likely false-positives or contamination from binary stars. This animation does not contain circumbinary planets or planet candidates where only a single transit has been observed, which is why ‘only’ 2299 are shown.

“A fraction of these candidates will likely be ruled out as false positives as time goes on, while the remainder stand to be confirmed as real planets by follow-up analysis,” Alex adds.

The white ellipses seen when the animation pulls back are the relative sizes of the orbits of Mercury, Venus and Earth.

At this time the Kepler mission has identified 2321 planetary candidates, with 74 exoplanets confirmed. See more on the Kepler mission here.

Animation: Alex Parker. Image: Kepler mission planet candidates family portrait (NASA Ames/Jason Rowe/Wendy Stenzel)

NASA’s Mighty Eagle Takes Flight; Finds Its Target

No, it’s not a UFO — it’s NASA’s “Mighty Eagle”, a robotic prototype lander that successfully and autonomously found its target during a 32-second free flight test at Marshall Space Flight Center yesterday, August 16.

You have to admit though, Mighty Eagle does bear a resemblance to classic B-movie sci-fi spacecraft (if, at only 4 feet tall, markedly less threatening to the general populace.)

Fueled by 90% pure hydrogen peroxide, Mighty Eagle is a low-cost “green” spacecraft designed to operate autonomously during future space exploration missions. It uses its onboard camera and computer to determine the safest route to a pre-determined landing spot.

During the August 16 test flight, Mighty Eagle ascended to 30 feet, identified a target painted on the ground 21 feet away, flew to that position and landed safely — all without being controlled directly.

“This is huge. We met our primary objective of this test series — getting the vehicle to seek and find its target autonomously with high precision,” said Mike Hannan, controls engineer at Marshall Space Flight Center. “We’re not directing the vehicle from the control room. Our software is driving the vehicle to think for itself now. From here, we’ll test the robustness of the software to fly higher and descend faster, expecting the lander to continue to seek and find the target.”

In the wake of a dramatically unsuccessful free flight test of the Morpheus craft on August 9, another green lander designed by Johnson Space Center, the recent achievements by the Mighty Eagle team are encouraging.

Here’s a video from a previous test flight on August 8:

Future tests planned through September will have the lander ascend up to 100 feet before landing. Read more here.

The Mighty Eagle prototype lander was developed by the Marshall Center and Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., for NASA’s Planetary Sciences Division, Headquarters Science Mission Directorate Image/video: NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center

Take a Flight Through Our Universe, Thanks to New 3-D Map of the Sky

The Sloan Digital Sky Survey III (SDSS-III) has released the largest three-dimensional map of massive galaxies and distant black holes ever created, and it pinpoints the locations and distances of over a million galaxies. It covers a total volume equivalent to that of a cube four billion light-years on a side.

A video released with the map takes viewers on an animated flight through the Universe as seen by SDSS. There are close to 400,000 galaxies in the animation, which places zoomed-in images of nearby galaxies at the positions of more distant galaxies mapped by SDSS.

“We want to map the largest volume of the universe yet, and to use that map to understand how the expansion of the universe is accelerating,” said Daniel Eisenstein (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics), the director of SDSS-III.

The map is the centerpiece of Data Release 9 (DR9), which publicly releases the data from the first two years of a six-year survey project. The release includes images of 200 million galaxies and spectra of 1.35 million galaxies. (Spectra take more time to collect than photographs, but provide the crucial third dimension by letting astronomers measure galaxy distances.)

“Our goal is to create a catalog that will be used long after we are done,” said Michael Blanton of New York University, who led the team that prepared Data Release 9.

The release includes new data from the ongoing SDSS-III Baryon Oscillation Spectroscopic Survey (BOSS), which will measure the positions of massive galaxies up to six billion light-years away, as well as quasars – giant black holes actively feeding on stars and gas – up to 12 billion light-years from Earth.

BOSS is targeting these big, bright galaxies because they live in the same places as other galaxies and they’re easy to spot. Mapping these big galaxies thus provides an effective way to make a map of the rest of the galaxies in the universe.

With such a map, scientists can retrace the history of the universe over the last six billion years. With that history, they can get better estimates for how much of the universe is made up of “dark matter” – matter that we can’t directly see because it doesn’t emit or absorb light – and “dark energy,” the even more mysterious force that drives the accelerating expansion of the universe.

“Dark matter and dark energy are two of the greatest mysteries of our time,” said David Schlegel of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the principal investigator of BOSS. “We hope that our new map of the universe can help someone solve the mystery.”

This release is being issued jointly with the SDSS-III Collaboration.

All the data are available now on the Data Release 9 website at http://www.sdss3.org/dr9. The new data are being made available to astronomers, as well as students, teachers, and the public. The SkyServer website includes lesson plans for teachers that use DR9 data to teach astronomy and other topics in science, technology, and math. DR9 data will also feature in a new release of the Galaxy Zoo citizen science project, which allows online volunteers to contribute to cutting-edge astronomy research.

Image caption: This is a still image from the fly-through video of the SDSS-III galaxies mapped in Data Release 9. Credit: Miguel A. Aragón (Johns Hopkins University), Mark SubbaRao (Adler Planetarium), Alex Szalay (Johns Hopkins University), Yushu Yao (Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, NERSC), and the SDSS-III Collaboration

Source: CfA

When Will We Hear From Curiosity?

Just over a day from now the Mars Science Laboratory mission will arrive at Mars, its nine-month journey through space culminating in a harrowing “seven minutes of terror” that will place the Curiosity rover safely onto Mars’ surface within Gale crater. Although the world will be watching, there’s a chance that nobody will know exactly what happened to Curiosity for quite some time — even if everything goes perfectly.

This cool animation from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory shows why “simple” communication between two neighboring planets is still tricky business. (Hey, it’s not called rocket science for nothing!)

(Also check out “How Hard Is It to Land Curiosity on Mars?)

And if you want to be part of all the action as it unfolds tomorrow night/Monday morning, tune in to a live webcast on Google+ hosted by Universe Today’s Fraser Cain, CosmoQuest’s Dr. Pamela Gay, and Dr. Phil Plait — a.k.a. the “Bad Astronomer.” The webcast will feature interviews with special guests, a live video feed from NASA of the landing, and live coverage from JPL… don’t miss out! Find out more here.

Video: JPL News

Will Curiosity Look for Life on Mars? Not Exactly…

“Curiosity is not a life detection mission. We’re not actually looking for life and we don’t have the ability to detect life if it was there. What we are looking for is the ingredients of life.”
– John Grotzinger, MSL Project Scientist

And with these words this latest video from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory begins, explaining what Curiosity’s goal will be once it arrives on Mars on August 5. There will be a lot of media coverage of the event and many news stories as the date approaches, and some of these will undoubtedly refer to Mars Science Laboratory as a “search for life on Mars” mission… but in reality the focus of MSL is a bit subtler than that (if no less exciting.)

But hey, one can always dream

Video: NASA/JPL

Flashback: 1978 NASA Film Shows Viking Discoveries

In what’s a sort of foreshadowing of the upcoming August 5 MSL landing, which is being called “seven minutes of terror”, here’s a flashback film from 1978 called “19 Minutes to Earth” which looks at the discoveries made by the Viking orbiter and lander, which made its historic arrival on Mars 36 years ago, on July 20, 1976.

In true late ’70s style the video is full of funky music and (what was then) state-of-the-art video graphics. Awesome.


Even more than the music, though, what’s interesting about the 1978 film is how the subject of microbial life is discussed. Both Viking 1 and 2 were designed to search for evidence of biological activity on Mars, which they did by digging into the Martian soil and looking for signs of resulting respiration.

Although the results were initially deemed inconclusive, further research into the Viking data has prompted some scientists to claim that the landers did, in fact, find evidence of life on Mars.

It’s still a much-debated topic, one that scientists hope to help settle with the upcoming research performed by Curiosity and the Mars Science Laboratory mission.

Funky music and all, the Viking programs paved the way for all future missions to Mars. Lessons learned from Viking technology have blazed the trail for Mars research, from Pathfinder’s Sojourner rover to Spirit and Opportunity, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and ESA’s Mars Express. Very soon Curiosity will continue on with the legacy of robotic exploration of the Red Planet, and someday I’m sure our children and grandchildren will look back at the “funky videos” of our time.

Let’s hope that by then they’ve made their own great strides in space exploration and have found answers to the questions that inspire us today.

Video: NASA. Image: artist’s concept of the Viking lander (NASA).

Brazilian Band Soars to New Heights with a NASA-Inspired Video


Popular Brazilian rock band Fresno recently released a new video for their new song, “Infinito”, and it really rises above the rest — literally!

It’s a story of four guys who take their childhood dream of launching a package up into space and, after years apart, come back together to make it a reality. Along the way we get to see some great views from a camera that the band members actually sent up to the edge of space via weather balloon — an accomplishment that came with its fair share of challenges.

Fresno lead member Lucas Silveira shared some behind-the-scenes info with Universe Today. “We wasted two cameras. One of them landed on a military base — exactly in the middle of a mine field — and the other simply disappeared… completely lost due to the lack of cellular signal on the landing spot.”

And even on a successful third try there were some technical difficulties.

“In our third attempt we used a different balloon, with more capacity, and it managed to fly for over 3.5 hours… but our camera only survived for around 2.5 hours. So we had to send a smaller balloon just to capture the ‘popping up’ moment, and added it to the ‘main balloon ride’ on post production.”

Still, the results — a dizzying view of Earth from 35 km up — are well worth it, and the story is an inspiring one… inspired, in fact, by NASA.

“I wrote this song after watching a video by NASA in which they zoom out from the Himalayas to the edge of the universe, showing the areas that still yet to be mapped. We are so infinitely small in the middle of all this greatness, and suddenly our problems get as tiny in our heads as our lucky existence here. It’s about searching for better days, creating a better future through proactivity and not letting others letting you down.”

When you soar that high it’s hard to feel let down.

Video courtesy of Fresno. Technical and launch assistance provided by ACRUX Aerospace Technologies. Band photo by Gustavo Vara.

CGI Movie From 1963 Shows Satellite Orbit

In what may very well be the world’s first computer-generated animation, this video shows the motion of a box-like “satellite” orbiting a rotating sphere… Pixar, eat your heart out.

Created in 1963 by Edward E. Zajac, a programmer at Bell Labs from 1954 to 1983, the animation was made to demonstrate a theoretical satellite that used gyroscopes to maintain an Earth-facing orientation. Only a year after the launch of Telstar 1, the world’s first communications satellite (which just had its 50th anniversary) Bell Labs was very much invested in the development of satellite technology.

According to the description on the ATT Tech YouTube channel:

Zajac programmed the calculations in FORTRAN, then used a program written by Zajac’s colleague, Frank Sinden, called ORBIT. The original computations were fed into the computer via punch cards, then the output was printed onto microfilm using the General Dynamics Electronics Stromberg-Carlson 4020 microfilm recorder. All computer processing was done on an IBM 7090 or 7094 series computer.

I’d like to say that many Bothans died to bring us this information but… well, I guess I just did.

Footage courtesy of AT&T Archives and History Center in Warren, NJ. H/T to Paul Caridad at VisualNews.com.