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Category Archives: Planets

Ancient Mars Lake Could Have Supported Life, Curiosity Rover Shows

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Mastcam mosaic of the Yellowknife Bay formation. This is a view from the base of an exposed section up through Sheepbed, Gillespie Lake, and basal Glenelg members. Locations of drill holes and Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (A PXS) measurements are shown. Image released Dec. 9, 2013.
Credit: Science/AAAS

NASA’s Curiosity rover has found evidence of an ancient Martian lake that could have supported life as we know it for long stretches — perhaps millions of years.

This long and skinny freshwater lake likely existed about 3.7 billion years ago, researchers said, suggesting that habitable environments were present on Mars more recently than previously thought.

“Quite honestly, it just looks very Earth-like,” said Curiosity lead scientist John Grotzinger, of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif.

“You’ve got an alluvial fan, which is being fed by streams that originate in mountains, that accumulates a body of water,” Grotzinger told SPACE.com. “That probably was not unlike what happened during the last glacial maximum in the Western U.S.”

http://www.space.com/20250-curiosity-finds-ancient-mars-habitable-opportunity-not-so-much-video.html

Habitable Mars

The lake once covered a small portion of the 96-mile-wide (154 kilometers) Gale Crater, which the 1-ton Curiosity rover has been exploring since touching down on the Red Planet in August 2012.

The main task of Curiosity’s $2.5 billion mission is to determine whether Gale Crater could ever have supported microbial life. The rover team achieved that goal months ago, announcing in March that a spot near Curiosity’s landing site called Yellowknife Bay was indeed habitable billions of years ago.

The new results, which are reported today (Dec. 9) in six separate papers in the journal Science, confirm and extend Curiosity’s landmark discovery, painting a more complete picture of the Yellowknife Bay area long ago.

This picture emerged from Curiosity’s analysis of fine-grained sedimentary rocks called mudstones, which generally form in calm, still water. The rover obtained powdered samples of these rocks by drilling into Yellowknife Bay outcrops.

The mudstones contain clay minerals that formed in the sediments of an ancient freshwater lake, researchers said. Curiosity also spotted some of the key chemical ingredients for life in the samples, including sulfur, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and carbon.

The lake could have potentially supported a class of microbes called chemolithoautotrophs, which obtain energy by breaking down rocks and minerals. Here on Earth, chemolithoautotrophs are commonly found in habitats beyond the reach of sunlight, such as caves and hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor.

“It is exciting to think that billions of years ago, ancient microbial life may have existed in the lake’s calm waters, converting a rich array of elements into energy,” Sanjeev Gupta of Imperial College London, co-author of one of the new papers, said in a statement.

An icy Martian lake?

The shallow ancient lake may have been about 30 miles long by 3 miles wide (50 by 5 kilometers), Grotzinger said. Based on the thickness of the sedimentary deposits, the research team estimates that the lake existed for at least tens of thousands of years — and perhaps much longer, albeit on a possibly on-and-off basis.

Taking into account the broader geological context, “you could wind up with an assemblage of rocks that represent streams, lakes and ancient groundwater systems — so for times when the lake might have been dry, the groundwater’s still there. This could have gone on for millions or tens of millions of years,” Grotzinger said.

The lack of weathering on Gale Crater’s rim suggests that the area was cold when the lake existed, he added, raising the possibility that a layer of ice covered the lake on a permanent or occasional basis. But such conditions wouldn’t be much of a deterrent to hardy microbes.

“These are entirely viable habitable environments for chemolithoautotrophs,” Grotzinger said.

Researchers still don’t know if the Gale Crater lake hosted organisms of any kind; Curiosity was not designed to hunt for signs of life on Mars. But if chemolithoautotrophs did indeed dominate the lake, it would put an alien twist on a superficially familiar environment.

Image“You can imagine that, if life evolved on Mars and never got beyond the point of chemolithoautotrophy, then in the absence of competition from other types of microbes, these systems might have been dominated by that type of metabolic pathway,” Grotzinger said. “And that’s an un-Earth-like situation.”

EDITOR’S NOTE:

THIS ARTICLE IS ORIGINALLY POSTED ON SPACE.COM

China’s 1st Moon Rover Arrives in Lunar Orbit

Less than five days after leaving Earth atop a blazing Long March launcher, China’s Chang’e 3 spacecraft reached lunar orbit Friday to prepare for an historic rocket-assisted touchdown in the moon’s Bay of Rainbows later this month.

Outfitted with a six-wheeled robotic rover and smarts to avoid hazards in the landing zone, Chang’e 3 is China’s boldest unmanned space mission to date, extending feats achieved by a pair of lunar orbiters launched in 2007 and 2010.

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China’s Chang’e 3 moon mission, the country’s first flight to land a rover on the moon, is depicted in this graphic released by the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation. The mission launched on Dec. 2, 2013 Beijing Time and arrived in lunar orbit less than five days later.
Credit: China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation

The four-legged lander fired its propulsion system for six minutes and braked into orbit around the moon at 0953 GMT (4:53 a.m. EST) Friday, according to China’s state-run Xinhua news agency.

The craft lifted off Dec. 1 on a Long March 3B rocket, which put the probe on a direct four-and-a-half day trajectory from Earth to the moon.

The spacecraft is now flying 100 kilometers, or about 60 miles, above the moon, Xinhua reported.

After lowering its altitude later this week, Chang’e 3 will fire a variable-thrust main engine to make a soft landing in the Bay of Rainbows, a dark lava plain on the upper-left quadrant of the moon’s near side.

The lander has terrain recognition sensors to feed information into the probe’s guidance computer, ensuring the spacecraft does not come down on a steep slope or in a boulder field.

A few feet above the moon, the lander will autonomously cut off its engine and drop to the surface. Engineers fastened shock absorbers to the landing legs to cushion the impact.

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The Chang’e 3 lunar lander and moon rover is part of the second phase of China’s three-step robotic lunar exploration program.
Credit: Beijing Institute of Spacecraft System Engineering

China has not disclosed the time of the landing, but European Space Agency officials supporting the mission with communications and tracking antennas say the touchdown is scheduled for some time Dec. 14.

Named Yutu or “jade rabbit,” the mission’s rover will drive off the landing platform a few hours later, according to ESA officials.

The rover has a mass of 140 kilograms, or about 308 pounds, and carries radioisotope heater units to keep the spacecraft warm during the two week-long lunar nights. The heaters are likely powered by small quantities of plutonium-238, the isotope of plutonium preferred for space missions, according to respected space researcher Dwayne Day, who discussed the rover’s heaters in a story published in the Space Review.

The Yutu rover carries advanced radars to study the structure of the lunar crust at shallow depths along its path, and it is outfitted with spectrometers to detect the elements making up the moon’s soil and rocks, said Pei Zhaoyu, a spokesperson for the Chang’e 3 mission, in a report by Xinhua.

Four navigation and panoramic cameras are mounted on the rover to return high-resolution images from the moon.

The mission also has an optical telescope for astronomical observations from the lunar surface, according to Pei.

ImageChina’s lunar program is focused on robotic missions for now, with plans for an unmanned mission to return rock samples to Earth by 2020. China’s military-run human space program is focused on development of a space station in Earth orbit around the same timeframe, but scientists have studied a manned lunar mission in the next decade.

Chang’e 3 will be China’s first mission to test the technologies required for future lunar surface exploration.

EDITOR’S NOTE:

THIS ARTICLE IS ORIGINALLY POSTED IN Spaceflight Now

Giant Alien Planet Discovered in Most Distant Orbit Ever Seen

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An artist’s conception of a young planet in a distant orbit around its host star. The star still harbors a debris disk, remnant material from star and planet formation, interior to the planet’s orbit.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

An enormous alien planet — one that is 11 times more massive than Jupiter — was discovered in the most distant orbit yet found around a single parent star.

The newfound exoplanet, dubbed HD 106906 b, dwarfs any planetary body in the solar system, and circles its star at a distance that is 650 times the average distance between the Earth and the sun. The existence of such a massive and distantly orbiting planet raises new questions about how these bizarre worlds are formed, the researchers said.

“This system is especially fascinating because no model of either planet or star formation fully explains what we see,” study lead researcher Vanessa Bailey, a fifth-year graduate student in the University of Arizona’s department of astronomy, said in a statement.

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This is a discovery image of planet HD 106906 b in thermal infrared light. The planet is more than 20 times farther away from its star than Neptune is from the sun.
Credit: Vanessa Bailey

In the most commonly accepted theories of planet formation, it is thought that planets that orbit close to their parent star, such as Earth, began as small, asteroid-type bodies that clumped together in the primordial disk of gas and dust around the burgeoning star. Yet, this process operates too slowly to explain how giant planets form far away from their star, the researcher said.

Alternative hypotheses have suggested that distant giant planets may form in ways similar to mini binary star systems, Bailey said.

“A binary star system can be formed when two adjacent clumps of gas collapse more or less independently to form stars, and these stars are close enough to each other to exert a mutual gravitation attraction and bind them together in an orbit,” she explained.

In the HD 106906 system, the star and planet may have collapsed independently, but the materials that clumped together to form the planet were insufficient for it to grow large enough to ignite into a new star, Bailey said.

But, there are still problems with this scenario. For one, difference between the masses of two stars in a binary system is typically no more than a ratio of 10 to 1.

“In our case, the mass ratio is more than 100-to-1,” Bailey said. “This extreme mass ratio is not predicted from binary star formation theories — just like planet formation theory predicts that we cannot form planets so far from the host star.”

Researchers are also keen to study the new planet, because leftover material from when the planet and star formed can still be detected.

“Systems like this one, where we have additional information about the environment in which the planet resides, have the potential to help us disentangle the various formation models,” Bailey said. “Future observations of the planet’s orbital motion and the primary star’s debris disk may help answer that question.”

The planet HD 106906 b is only 13 million years old, and is still glowing from the residual heat from its formation,” the researchers said. By comparison, Earth formed 4.5 billion years ago, which makes it roughly 350 times older than the newfound exoplanet.

The planet was found using a thermal infrared camera mounted on the Magellan telescope in the Atacama Desert in Chile. The researchers used data from the Hubble Space Telescope to confirm their discovery.

The study, which has been accepted for publication in a future issue of The Astrophysical Journal Letters, could lead to a better understanding of distantly orbiting exoplanets.

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“Every new directly detected planet pushes our understanding of how and where planets can form,” study co-investigator Tiffany Meshkat, a graduate student at Leiden Observatory in the Netherlands, said in a statement. “Discoveries like HD 106906 b provide us with a deeper understanding of the diversity of other planetary systems.”

EDITOR’S NOTE:

THIS ARTICLE IS ORIGINALLY POSTED ON SPACE.COM

Venus Now Shining at Its Brightest: How to See It

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At 2 p.m. EST on Friday December 6, Venus will be shining at its brightest. Look for it in the southwestern sky just after sunset.
Credit: Starry Night Software

Venus is shining at its brightest in the low southwestern night sky just after sunset, making it a fine time for stargazers to observe the brilliant planet, weather permitting.

Venus’ dazzling brightness is the result of some cosmic geometry. As the planet moves around the sun, observers on Earth can see it illuminated from all angles. This causes Venus to pass through “phases” similar to the moon.

When Venus is on the far side of the sun in relation to Earth, a point called “superior conjunction,” it is fully illuminated from our point of view, and we see it as a “full Venus.” It is 100-percent illuminated but far away, only 10 arc seconds in diameter.

When Venus is at “greatest elongation,” farthest from the sun in our sky, as it was on November 1, we see it as a “half Venus.” When the passes between Earth and the sun, as it will on Jan. 11, called “inferior conjunction,” it is illuminated from behind, just like the new moon.

The brightness we see from Venus depends on two things: its phase and the planet’s distance from Earth. Venus should be brightest at its “full” phase, like the moon, but at that time it is at its furthest from us. At “half” phase, as it was on Nov. 1, only half of the planet is illuminated, but it is much brighter because it is much closer.

As Venus nears inferior conjunction, its illuminated portion shrinks down to a narrow sliver. This causes it to fade in brightness. But it is also getting closer to us, which makes it brighten.

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This NASA graphic shows how bright Venus is as compared to other objects in the night sky.
Credit: NASA/JPL

This week, these two factors balance out, and we will see Venus at its very brightest. It is neither “half Venus” (50 percent illuminated, 25 arc seconds in diameter) or “new Venus” (0-percent illuminated, 60 arc seconds in diameter), but somewhere in between. In fact it is 26-percent illuminated and 41 arc seconds in diameter. This is the “Goldilocks point” when distance and phase combine to produce the greatest brightness.

This week Venus will shine with a brightness of –4.9 magnitude, on the upside-down brightness scale that astronomers use. It is based on the brightest stars being magnitude 1 and the faintest stars visible being magnitude 6. Thus the brighter the object, the smaller its magnitude number. Astronomers extended this scale into the negative for really bright objects.

Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky, is a magnitude –1.4 star. The full moon, meanwhile,  is a magnitude –12.7 and the sun is –26.8. So Venus will be considerably brighter than Sirius this week, but nowhere near as bright as the moon. It is bright enough to cast shadows, when observed on a moonless night from a dark location.

Even though Venus is the brightest object in the night sky other than the moon, surprisingly few people have seen it in its current apparition. That’s because at this time of year the ecliptic, the path of the planets across the sky, makes a very shallow angle with the horizon in the northern hemisphere. Although Venus is very bright, it is also very low in the sky, so is often blocked by clouds or buildings.Image

This week, find yourself a location with a low southwestern horizon and look for Venus. Watch it as it slowly sets, and see if you can see it change color from white to orange to red as it nears the horizon, just as the sun and moon do.

Did you know that you can see Venus in daylight? The best time to look for it will be on Thursday this week. Look for the narrow crescent moon in the afternoon sky above and to the left of the sun. Use that to locate Venus, just below the moon. You may need binoculars to first spot it, but once you know where it is relative to the moon, it’s very easy to see.

EDITOR’S NOTE:

THIS ARTICLE IS ORIGINALLY POSTED ON SPACE.COM

NASA’s Dawn Fills out its Ceres Dance Card

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This artist’s concept shows NASA’s Dawn spacecraft heading toward the dwarf planet Ceres. Dawn spent nearly 14 months orbiting Vesta, the second most massive object in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, from 2011 to 2012.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

It’s going to be a ball when NASA’s Dawn spacecraft finally arrives at the dwarf planet Ceres, and mission managers have now inked in the schedule on Dawn’s dance card.

Dawn has been cruising toward Ceres, the largest object in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, since September 2012. That’s when it departed from its first dance partner, Vesta.

Ceres presents an icy — possibly watery — counterpoint to the dry Vesta, where Dawn spent almost 14 months. Vesta and Ceres are two of the largest surviving protoplanets — bodies that almost became planets — and will give scientists clues about the planet-forming conditions at the dawn of our solar system.

When Dawn enters orbit around Ceres, it will be the first spacecraft to see a dwarf planet up-close and the first spacecraft to orbit two solar system destinations beyond Earth.

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NASA’s Dawn spacecraft will be getting an up-close look at the dwarf planet Ceres starting in late March or the beginning of April 2015.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“Our flight plan around Ceres will be choreographed to be very similar to the strategy that we successfully used around Vesta,” said Bob Mase, Dawn’s project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. “This approach will build on that and enable scientists to make direct comparisons between these two giants of the asteroid belt.”

As a prelude, the team will begin approach operations in late January 2015. The next month, Ceres will be big enough in Dawn’s view to be imaged and used for navigation purposes. Dawn will arrive at Ceres — or, more accurately, it will be captured by Ceres’ gravity — in late March or the beginning of April 2015.

Dawn will make its first full characterization of Ceres later in April, at an altitude of about 8,400 miles (13,500 kilometers) above the icy surface. Then, it will spiral down to an altitude of about 2,750 miles (4,430 kilometers), and obtain more science data in its survey science orbit. This phase will last for 22 days, and is designed to obtain a global view of Ceres with Dawn’s framing camera, and global maps with the visible and infrared mapping spectrometer (VIR).

Dawn will then continue to spiral its way down to an altitude of about 920 miles (1,480 kilometers), and in August 2015 will begin a two-month phase known as the high-altitude mapping orbit. During this phase, the spacecraft will continue to acquire near-global maps with the VIR and framing camera at higher resolution than in the survey phase. The spacecraft will also image in “stereo” to resolve the surface in 3-D.

Then, after spiraling down for two months, Dawn will begin its closest orbit around Ceres in late November, at a distance of about 233 miles (375 kilometers). The dance at low-altitude mapping orbit will be a long waltz — three months — and is specifically designed to acquire data with Dawn’s gamma ray and neutron detector (GRaND) and gravity investigation. GRaND will reveal the signatures of the elements on and near the surface. The gravity experiment will measure the tug of the dwarf planet, as monitored by changes in the high-precision radio link to NASA’s Deep Space Network on Earth.

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This graphic shows the planned trek of NASA’s Dawn spacecraft from its launch in 2007 through its arrival at the dwarf planet Ceres in early 2015.

At this low-altitude mapping orbit, Dawn will begin using a method of pointing control that engineers have dubbed “hybrid” mode because it utilizes a combination of reaction wheels and thrusters to point the spacecraft. Up until this final mission phase, Dawn will have used just the small thruster jets, which use a fuel called hydrazine, to control its orientation and pointing. While it is possible to explore Ceres completely using only these jets, mission managers want to conserve precious fuel. At this lowest orbit, using two of the reaction wheels to help with pointing will provide the biggest hydrazine savings. So Dawn will be spinning up two of the gyroscope-like devices to aid the thrusters.

In 2011, the Dawn team prepared the capability to operate in a hybrid mode, but it wasn’t needed during the Vesta mission. It was only when a second (of four) reaction wheels developed excessive friction while Dawn was leaving Vesta in 2012 that mission managers decided to use the hybrid mode at Ceres. To prove the technique works, Dawn engineers completed a 27-hour in-flight test of the hybrid mode, ending on Nov. 13. It operated just as expected.

“The successful test of this new way to control our orientation gives us great confidence that we’ll have a steady hand at Ceres, which will enable us to get really close to a world that we only know now as a fuzzy dot amidst the stars,” said Marc Rayman, Dawn’s chief engineer and mission director, based at JPL.

Of course, mission planners have built some extra days into the schedule to account for the small uncertainty in the efficiency of the solar arrays at such a large distance from the sun, where sunlight will be very faint. The solar arrays provide power to the ion propulsion system, in addition to operating power for the spacecraft and instruments. Mission planners also account for potential variations in the gravity field of Ceres, which will not be known precisely until Dawn measures them.

“We are expecting changes when we get to Ceres and, fortunately, we built a very capable spacecraft and developed flexible plans to accommodate the unknowns,” said Rayman. “There’s great excitement in the unexpected — that’s part of the thrill of exploration.”

Starting on Dec. 27, Dawn will be closer to Ceres than it will be to Vesta.

“This transition makes us eager to see what secrets Ceres will reveal to us when we get up close to this ancient, giant, icy body,” said Christopher Russell, Dawn’s principal investigator, based at UCLA. “While Ceres is a lot bigger than the candidate asteroids that NASA is working on sending humans to, many of these smaller bodies are produced by collisions with larger asteroids such as Ceres and Vesta. It is of much interest to determine the nature of small asteroids produced in collisions with Ceres. These might be quite different from the small rocky asteroids associated with Vesta collisions.”

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Dawn’s mission is managed by JPL for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Dawn is a project of the directorate’s Discovery Program, managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. UCLA is responsible for overall Dawn mission science. Orbital Sciences Corp. in Dulles, Va., designed and built the spacecraft. The German Aerospace Center, the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, the Italian Space Agency and the Italian National Astrophysical Institute are international partners on the mission team. The California Institute of Technology in Pasadena manages JPL for NASA.

 

 

 

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POST IS ORIGINALLY POSTED ON NASA.GOV

Alien Super-Earth Planets Plentiful in Exoplanet Search

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Artist’s impression of Kepler-62f, a potential super-Earth in its star’s habitable zone.
Credit: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech

Our solar system hosts a cornucopia of worlds, from the hellfire of Venus to the frozen plains of Mars to the mighty winds of Uranus. In that range, the Earth stands alone, with no planet coming close to its life-friendly position near the Sun.

Outside our solar system, however, it’s a different story. Observations using space-based and ground-based telescopes have indicated that a new class of objects dubbed super-Earths – worlds that are about two to 10 times our planet’s mass and up to two times its radius – could be among the most common type of planets orbiting other stars.

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Artist’s impression of the Gliese 667C system.
Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

That’s because during the past few years, astronomers have found plenty of these super-sized rocky bodies orbiting different types of stars. Among these planetary systems, those around M-class stars, which are cooler and fainter than our Sun, are particularly important. Because of the low surface temperatures of these stars, the regions around them where an Earth-like planet can maintain liquid water on its surface (also known as the Habitable Zone) are closer to them — making such potentially habitable super-Earths in those regions more detectable.

Scientists also believe that these smaller stars are the most abundant in the Sun’s corner of the universe, implying super-Earths would be plentiful in our solar neighbourhood, as well.

Nader Haghighipour is a member of the NASA Astrobiology Institute and the University of Hawaii-Manoa’s Institute for Astronomy. Among his research interests is figuring out how these worlds form, and most importantly, how they arrive in their current orbits.

Some of his work hints that migrating giant planets could be responsible for the close-in orbits of smaller bodies. Their massive gravity could excite the rocks and protoplanetary debris on their paths and cause them to be scattered out of the system or coalesce into smaller planets such as super-Earths.

“When giant planets approach the central star, especially around an M-dwarf, I’m interested in how they affect accretion of small planetesimals in a disc in front of them and how that will result in the formation of super-Earths, particularly in the habitable zone,” Haghighipour said.

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The Keck Telescopes in Hawaii.
Credit: NASA/JPL

Faster discovery pace for super-Earths

Haghighipour recently surveyed the state of super-Earth research in a paper that appeared in the Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences. The first super-Earths were discovered in 1992 around pulsar star PSR B1257+12, but it’s only in the past five years that the pace of discovery picked up.

This was in large part due to the arrival of the NASA Kepler space telescope, which spent close to four years hunting planets in a small region of the sky in the constellation Cygnus. Kepler ended its primary mission in 2013 after the telescope exceeded its design lifetime. During this time, it provided a treasure trove of extremely high quality data that has revolutionized the field of exoplanetary science.

Short period super-Earths are easier to detect around smaller stars than those that are the Sun’s size or larger. This is because smaller stars show larger reactions to the tug of the planet as the planet orbits the star. If the planet happens to go across the face of the star from Earth’s perspective, a super-Earth blocks out more of a small star’s light, making it easier to detect.

“That super-Earths in short-period orbits around cooler and smaller stars are easier to detect   has set the ground for this becoming fashionable, and now there’s a great deal of attention in using radial velocity and transit photometry techniques to find such planets in the habitable zones of M stars,” Haghighipour said.

These planets are both detectable by the Kepler telescope and also ground-based ones. Most commonly, discoveries from the ground take place with two instruments. One of them is the High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) on a European Southern Observatory 3.6m telescope at La Silla, Chile. The other is the W. M. Keck Observatory’s High Resolution Echelle Spectrograph (HiRES) in Mauna Kea, Hawaii.

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Earth seen from the NASA Mercury MESSENGER spacecraft. Astronomers are not sure if super-Earths have tectonic plates or an atmosphere that is similar to our own planet.
Credit: NASA, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, and Carnegie Institution of Washington

While NASA scientists re-examine Kepler’s mission – its science work is on hold after two of its four reaction wheels failed – they are hard at work planning its successor mission, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS).  TESS will have both advantages and disadvantages while searching for super-Earths, Haghighipour said.

“Because TESS is going to cover the entire sky, as opposed to Kepler that focused on only one portion of the sky, it may be able to find more [exoplanets],” he said. “As far as accuracy and precision, because it’s not going to stay on one region of the sky for as long as the Kepler did, the accuracy may not be as high as that of the Kepler.”

Habitability?

One particular star system of interest to Haghighipour is Gliese 667, a triple star system which lies about 22 light-years from Earth. Haghighipour was part of a team that identified at least one super-Earth in the habitable zone of GJ 667C in 2012.

This year, another group led by the University of Göttingen in Germany revealed that where there was one super-Earth, there may actually be many.  The new analysis found that the M-star in the GJ 677 system (known as GJ 677c) has about six or seven planets, including anywhere from three to five “super-Earths” in the habitable zone.

Because the star is so faint and dim, to be in its habitable zone these planets must crowd in close. The researchers estimated that the planets have very short years, between 20 and 50 days, and may even have one side perpetually facing their host star. Even in this state, however, the astronomers believe it is possible that life could survive there.

“It’s the most reliable detection [of potentially habitable exoplanets] that we’ve had,” Haghighipour said. The challenge, he added, is to understand the planets’ habitable environments from a distance.

While calculating the location of the habitable zone of a star is relatively straightforward, modelling the planets’ dynamics and climate is far trickier. It is unknown if these worlds have plate tectonics, for example – a geophysical processes that regulates the abundance of CO2 and H2O in Earth’s atmosphere. Their interiors remain masked to astronomers, andunderstanding exoplanet atmosphere composition is something that some teams are only starting to accomplish.

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The field of stars that the Kepler space telescope examined as it searched for exoplanets.
Credit: NASA/JPL

Identification efforts continue, however. Haghighipour has been working on detecting super-Earths in the habitable zones of M-stars since 2009 along with observers at the University of California, Santa Cruz and the Carnegie Institution of Washington. Gliese 667Cc is the most cited discovery from this collaboration, but there are others.

On the theoretical side, Haghighipour has two papers published in the Astrophysical Journalabout habitability in binary star systems. He also has been trying to figure out how super-Earths form at different distances from their stars.

“It’s possible each system has had its own history, and its own way of formation. There is no reason to believe that one way of formation for planets in a system, or for super-Earths in habitable zones, can be applied to all systems,” he said.

Perhaps this research could shed some light on the formation of our own solar system. Both super-Earths and “hot Jupiters” – gas giant planets that closely orbit their parent stars – appear to be common in other systems, so why not ours?

Image“Honestly, we have no definite answer for that. There are many different models that present  different ideas for why there are no super-Earths and hot Jupiters in our solar system. But in order for these models to be successful, they have to explain other properties of the solar system as well,” he said.

For example, a giant gas planet close to our Sun would likely have disturbed any rocky planets wanting to orbit nearby. It will be an interesting theoretical puzzle for astronomers to figure out as they continue classifying worlds outside of the solar system.

EDITOR’S NOTE:

THIS POST IS ORIGINALLY POSTED ON SPACE.COM

Cassini Gets New Views of Titan’s Land of Lakes

Cassini Gets New Views of Titan's Land of Lakes

PASADENA, Calif.– With the sun now shining down over the north pole of Saturn’s moon Titan, a little luck with the weather, and trajectories that put the spacecraft into optimal viewing positions, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has obtained new pictures of the liquid methane and ethane seas and lakes that reside near Titan’s north pole. The images reveal new clues about how the lakes formed and about Titan’s Earth-like “hydrologic” cycle, which involves hydrocarbons rather than water…

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Mars Hill-Climbing Opportunity at ‘Solander Point’

Mars Hill-Climbing Opportunity at 'Solander Point'

PASADENA, Calif. — NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover has begun climbing “Solander Point,” the northern tip of the tallest hill it has encountered in the mission’s nearly 10 Earth years on Mars.
Guided by mineral mapping from orbit, the rover is exploring outcrops on the northwestern slopes of Solander Point, making its way up the hill much as a field geologist would do. The outcrops are exposed from several feet (about 2 meters) to about 20 feet (6 meters) above the surrounding plains, on slopes as steep as 15 to 20 degrees. The rover may later drive south and ascend farther up the hill, which peaks at about 130 feet (40 meters) above the plains. Read more of this post

Mars Rover Curiosity Proves Some Earth Meteorites are Martian

curiosity-rover-mosaic-sol177

Some pieces of rock that fell to Earth from space are indeed from Mars, new measurements reveal.

New data collected by NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity has pinned down the exact ratio of two forms of the inert gas argon in the Martian atmosphere. These new measurements will not only help confirm the origins of some meteorites, they could also help researchers understand how and when Mars lost most of its atmosphere, transforming from a warm, wet planet to the red desert it is today.

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Saturn From The Perspective That Is Impossible To See From The Earth

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An amazing new view of Saturn, created by amateur image processer Gordan Ugarkovic, shows the planet and its rings in all their glory.

Ugarkovic, a Croatian computer programmer, assembled the incredible image from 36 shots snapped by the Cassini spacecraft on Oct. 10. He combined a dozen each of red, green and blue filter images into the stunning mosaic.

“I try to be measured in my praise for spacecraft images,” wrote Emily Lakdawalla of the Planetary Society, the first to spot the image in Ugarkovic’s Flickr stream. “But this enormous mosaic showing the flattened globe of Saturn floating amongst the complete disk of its rings must surely be counted among the great images of the Cassini mission.”

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has been in orbit around Saturn for almost nine years. It is expected to study the ringed planet and its moons until 2017.

See more photos by Ugarkovic here:http://www.flickr.com/photos/ugordan/.

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