Category Archives: Space

Now hiring: NASA seeks ‘Planetary Protection Officer’

Ready to save the earth? If you have a degree in engineering, mathematics or physical science, NASA is giving you the chance.

It may sound weird, but you could become NASA’s newest Planetary Protection Officer, keeping humans safe from dangerous space organisms. And no, this doesn’t mean aliens. It’s more like alien microbes.

As an employee of the Office of Safety and Mission Assurance for Planetary Protection, the PPO will serve to fulfill the office’s mission “to promote the responsible exploration of the solar system by implementing and developing efforts that protect the science, explored environments, and Earth.”

The starting salary is a nice $124,406, and there is no Independence Day or Mars Attacks! type danger involved. In fact, the position’s tasks include reasonable items such as “assistance in the construction of sterile (or low biological burden) spacecraft, the development of flight plans that protect planetary bodies of interest, the development of plans to protect the Earth from returned extraterrestrial samples, and the formulation and application of space policy as it applies to planetary protection.”

Interested? Check out more about the office, and then apply for the job at USAJOBS.gov.

Happy 4th of July! 7 scientific and technological events on this day in history

President Roosevelt sends first worldwide message via cable

On July 4, 1903, FDR sent the first message to ever travel around the globe via the Pacific Cable, wishing "a happy Independence Day to the US, its territories and properties..." It took 9 minutes to reach the entire world.

Mars Pathfinder lands a rover on Mars

On Independence Day in 1997, the Mars Pathfinder spacecraft landed on Mars, bringing with it a base station and the Sojourner rover. Lasting almost three months, Pathfinder transmitted 16,500 pictures and 8.5 million measurements from the surface of Mars.

Vermont hits record high

Back in 1911, the 4th of July saw a new record high in Vernon, Vermont. The temperature hit 105 degrees! 

Maryland sees record rainfall

A downpour on July 4, 1956, caused Unionville, Maryland, to gain a record it keeps today: most rainfall in one minute.
A whopping 1.22 inches fell! 

Explorer 38 (aka RAE 1) is launched

Following its Independence Day launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Explorer 38 went on to measure celestial radio sources. According to NASA, "the RAE-1 spacecraft measured the intensity of celestial radio sources, particularly the sun, as a function of time, direction, and frequency (0.2 to 20 MHz)."

Hotmail email goes live

Now branded as Outlook, the free email service Hotmail (first stylized as HoTMaiL, as in HTML) launched on July 4, 1996.

 NASA collides spacecraft with comet, for science

On July 3, 2005, NASA's Deep Impact spacecraft released an impactor, a self-propelled craft that moves to collide with the comet. The impactor took photos near the comet's surface right before impact with the surface on July 4th. From this experiment, scientists discovered ice, dust, and carbon-containing materials on the surface of Tempel 1, the comet in question.

Kepler finds over 200 new possible planets

Kepler space telescope is not disappointing with its current mission. According to NASA’s latest data release, Kepler found 219 new candidate planets, including 10 that are potentially Earth-sized and within habitable zones. The new data will help scientists design future missions to find Earth-like, potentially life-sustaining planets.

Information on new possible planets was revealed in the final catalog for this specific view of the Cygnus constellation, located in the Milky Way. Based on public data from the NASA Exoplanet Archive, the catalog is the most comprehensive release on exoplanet candidates since Kepler launched in 2014.

What is Kepler?

Kepler is a rather uncomplicated observatory spacecraft used in the Kepler mission. This isn’t a Mars Rover with dozen plus different instruments available to collect data. After all, it’s floating in space, not exploring the surface of a planet. Instead, Kepler uses a photometer to point at a single star field and look for planets near the size of Earth. That’s it.

Now, if you’re imagining the telescope zooming in to take images of possible exoplanets, well, this isn’t like using your iPhone to take pictures of moon in a clear night sky. Kepler relies on the transit method, which means it looks for signs of planets in transit in front of their stars. For instance, it can’t see the planet, but when the planet moves in front of the star, Kepler basically sees the star’s light dim.

This seemingly simple observation allows scientists to figure out the orbital period of the planets orbiting the star. (Don’t think too hard on this one: for example, Earth’s orbital period is 365 days, which is how long it takes the planet to orbit our sun.) They can then deduce the diameter and the temperature using concepts that are way above my space nerd knowledge.

In other words, simple is better in this case because Kepler is focused on finding exoplanets. It leaves the other details to the likes of Hubble, and in the future, James Webb.

Kepler’s full field of view. Courtesy NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech.

How are Kepler’s discoveries important?

One of the lingering questions most human beings have is “Are we alone?” To an individual this may reference the possibility of other intelligent life in the universe, or this may be as simple as wondering if there’s any other life at all in the universe. The discovery of other planets, especially those we understand might have the conditions to support life, is the first step in answering the big question.

What has scientists most excited about Kepler’s findings is that they’ve noticed two distinct populations of planets in our galaxy that differ in features based on their size. Using data from these populations will allow them to understand the “demographics” of our galaxy and figure out how many Earth-like planets may be in it. From that point, they’ll can further narrow the design of future NASA missions to seek other possible life-supporting planets.

How many planets has Kepler found?

Scale is a problem for finding Earth-like planets. These latest discoveries bring the telescope’s total to 4,496 candidate planets. Of these, 2,337 are now verified planets, including 30 Earth-size habitable zone planets. Thirty out of the 2,337 verified is not a lot, only 1.3%.

For this and other reasons, the ability to narrow the focus of NASA missions through Kepler data, even just a tiny bit, is something the mission’s scientists see as vital to the search for another Earth. Plus, with the technologically advanced James Webb telescope set to launch in the near future, Kepler’s laying the groundwork for other, more technical NASA tools to use its data to discover more about the discovered habitable planets.

So, are we close to finding another Earth?

In the big picture? No.

Is it even likely we’ll find an Earth-like planet the supports life in my lifetime, through Kepler or other telescopes? Ehhh…doubtful.

But will I still get excited every time we lay more groundwork for future generations to do so? You bet!

Space is fascinating in a way that’s hard to comprehend as a little microscopic organism in the universe. For me, it will always be captivating, and that’s why I’ll be keeping up with whatever Kepler does next.

Find out more about Kepler, James Webb, and other NASA missions at nasa.gov.

Read NASA’s press release on Kepler’s discoveries.

Check out what makes the upcoming launch of James Webb awesome.

 

NASA finds 7 Earth-sized planets orbiting one star

NASA announced on Wednesday that Spitzer Space Telescope has revealed “the first known system of seven Earth-sized planets around a single star,” including three planets located in the star’s habitable zone. 

Trappist system
Source: NASA

Never has there been a discovery outside of our solar system with so many habitable-zone planets around a single star. NASA states that all seven planets could have liquid water, but the three planets in the habitable zone have the highest likelihood, meaning that their environments would be conducive to life. 

All seven planets orbit the TRAPPIST-1 star, an ultra-cool dwarf in the Aquarius constellation, and are about 40 lightyears from Earth. The system is named after The Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope (TRAPPIST) in Chile, which discovered three of the planets in the system. Spitzer was then used along with ground-based telescopes to confirm their existence as well as discover the remaining planets.

Trappist-1 System
Trappist-1 System. Source: NASA.

The system’s planets are situated closer to their star than Mercury is to our sun, and they appear to be tidally locked, meaning that the same side of the planet is always facing the sun, leaving one side in perpetual darkness. According to NASA, this could mean their weather patterns are completely different from Earth.

Hubble is now reviewing the three planets inside the habitable zone, as well as one additional planet, to determine whether they have hydrogen-dominated atmospheres. Hubble’s work has ruled this out in the two closest to the star, suggesting that they are rocky planets. 

Kepler is also studying the system by “making measurements of the star’s minuscule changes in brightness due to transiting planets” to refine the properties of the planets.

Scientists, however, are most excited about the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope in 2018, a joint project with Canada and Europe. The telescope will be more sensitive than current telescopes and able to detect the chemical components of a planet’s atmosphere, temperatures and surface pressures, all which are important in determining the habitability of each of the planets. The telescope will also be able to detect longer wavelengths and see fainter objects in the solar system at a rate of 10 to 100 times fainter than Hubble. These are all reflected in the project’s four goals.

Webb Telescope Goals

To find out more about the TRAPPIST-1 system, visit https://exoplanets.nasa.gov/trappist1/.

To read NASA’s official press release, visit https://www.nasa.gov/press-release/nasa-telescope-reveals-largest-batch-of-earth-size-habitable-zone-planets-around.

To read the results published in Nature journal, visit http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v542/n7642/full/nature21360.html.