Category: NASA and SETI

Is there running water on Mars?

Is there running water on Mars?

NASA scientists find evidence suggesting salty water may flow on the planet’s slopes.

Scientists have found evidence of flowing salt water on steep Martian slopes, which if confirmed would be the first discovery of active liquid water on the red planet, NASA has said.

The data gathered by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has given new focus to the hunt for life forms and scientists hope that in the coming years lab experiments and new space missions may shed more light on what they have seen.

“We have found repeated and predictable evidence suggesting water flowing on Mars,” Michael Meyer, lead scientist for the Mars Exploration program, told reporters.

The US space agency said the orbiter circling Mars since 2006 had monitored numerous instances of what appeared to be water flows occurring in several locations during the Martian spring and summer.

Time-sequence imagery of the Newton crater in the southern mid-latitude region showed finger-like markings spreading along several steep slopes and then fading again once colder temperatures move in.

“The best explanation we have for these observations so far is flow of briny water, although this study does not prove that,” said Alfred McEwen of the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory.

“It’s a mystery now, but I think it’s a solvable mystery with further observations and experiments,” said McEwen, lead author of a study explaining the findings in the journal Science.

No liquid water has been found on Mars, though ice has been discovered at the poles. All life forms need water to survive, so the existence of a water source could point to a haven for primitive life.

“I really think this is a very exciting discovery because it is our first chance to see an environment on Mars that might allow for the expression of an active biological process if there is present day life on Mars,” said Lisa Pratt, professor of geological sciences at Indiana University.

“The next big question is to try to understand the origin and the source of these flows… (and) whether or not they may provide a conduit or a connectivity to a larger deeper brine pool or if in fact these fluids are just isolated patches or pockets.”

McEwen, principal investigator for the orbiter’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) that captured the images, said the orbiter recorded “thousands” of the flows over the past three years at seven locations. It had identified 20 other possible sites of similar flows, he said.

McEwen cautioned that the water flows remained “circumstantial,” and said scientists “lack that direct confirmation of water” from other instruments studying the planet, but hope it will be confirmed in future missions and lab experiments.

In any case, it does not appear that scientists are seeing anything akin to a gushing river on Mars, but more likely a subterranean movement.

“The flows are not dark because of being wet,” McEwen said. “They are dark for some other reason,” possibly because the briny water runs below the surface and is altering the land’s appearance in a way that makes it look dark.

“By comparison with Earth, it’s hard to imagine they are formed by anything other than fluid seeping down slopes,” said Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter project scientist Richard Zurek of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “The question is whether this is happening on Mars and, if so, why just in these particular places.”

Frozen water has been detected in some of Mars’s higher latitudes, and other evidence has suggested that water interacted with the Martian surface throughout the planet’s history.

NASA has placed a renewed focus on Mars, with the 30-year space shuttle program now over and efforts under way to build a spacecraft capable of carrying humans to the red planet by 2030.

The space agency’s unmanned Curiosity rover, also known as the Mars Science Laboratory, is due to explore a mountain inside the Gale Crater on Mars that should reveal whether signs of life ever existed on the red planet.

The largest US rover ever, built at a cost of $2.5 billion dollars, it is set to launch later this year and land in August 2012.

However, the area it will explore is far from the briny water slopes, so Curiosity is not expected to be able to confirm the latest findings.

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What you should know about the Milky Way

What you should know about the Milky Way

The Milky Way Galaxy, commonly referred to as just the Milky Way, or sometimes simply as the Galaxy,[a] is the home galaxy of the Solar System, and of Earth. It is agreed that the Milky Way is a spiral galaxy, with observations suggesting that it is a barred spiral galaxy.

It contains 200-400 billion stars and is estimated to have at least 50 billion planets, 500 million of which could be located in the habitable zone of their parent star. New data suggests there may be up to twice as many free-floating planets in the Milky Way as there are stars. The Milky Way is part of the Local Group of galaxies and is one of around 200 billion galaxies in the observable universe.

The Solar System is located in the Milky Way galaxy around two thirds of the way out from the center, on the inner edge of the Orion–Cygnus Arm. The Sun orbits around the center of the galaxy in a galactic year—once every 225-250 million Earth years.

The “Milky Way” is a translation of the Latin Via Lactea, in turn translated from the Greek Γαλαξίας (Galaxias), referring to the pale band of light formed by stars in the galactic plane as seen from Earth.

All the stars that the eye can distinguish in the night sky are part of the Milky Way galaxy, but aside from these relatively nearby stars, the galaxy appears as a hazy band of white light arching around the entire celestial sphere. The light originates from stars and other material that lie within the galactic plane. Dark regions within the band, such as the Great Rift and the Coalsack, correspond to areas where light from distant stars is blocked by dark nebulae.

The Milky Way has a relatively low surface brightness due to the interstellar medium that fills the galactic disk, which prevents us from seeing the bright galactic center. It is thus difficult to see from any urban or suburban location suffering from light pollution. A total integrated magnitude of the whole Milky Way stretching across the night sky has been estimated at −5.0.

The center of the galaxy lies in the direction of Sagittarius, and it is here that the Milky Way looks brightest. From Sagittarius, the hazy band of white light appears to pass westward through the constellations of Scorpius, Ara, Norma, Triangulum Australe, Circinus, Centaurus, Musca, Crux, Carina, Vela, Puppis, Canis Major, Monoceros, Orion and Gemini, Taurus, Auriga, Perseus, Andromeda, Cassiopeia, Cepheus and Lacerta, Cygnus, Vulpecula, Sagitta, Aquila, Ophiuchus, Scutum, and back to Sagittarius. The fact that the band divides the night sky into two roughly equal hemispheres indicates that the Solar System lies close to the galactic plane.

The galactic plane is inclined by about 60 degrees to the ecliptic (the plane of the Earth’s orbit). Relative to the celestial equator, it passes as far north as the constellation of Cassiopeia and as far south as the constellation of Crux, indicating the high inclination of Earth’s equatorial plane and the plane of the ecliptic relative to the galactic plane. The north galactic pole is situated at right ascension 12h 49m, declination +27.4° (B1950) near beta Comae Berenices, and the south galactic pole is near alpha Sculptoris.

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Atlantis blasts off on historic flight

NASA launches Space Shuttle Atlantis on historic final mission

NASA’s final shuttle astronauts begin their journey into space — following a dramatic last-second delay.

The space shuttle Atlantis soared into the heavens and the history books Friday (July 8, 2011), kicking off the last-ever mission of NASA’s storied shuttle program.

Despite a bleak forecast of thunderstorms and clouds, the shuttle beat the weather in a stunning midday launch, sailing into the sky on one final voyage. The coutndown toward liftoff took a dramatic pause at T minus 31 seconds while ground crews verified that a vent arm at the top of the shuttle was fully retracted. NASA was quickly able to push on toward liftoff.

Atlantis blasted off just after 11:26 a.m. EDT (1526 GMT) from Launch Pad 39A here at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, thrilling huge throngs of spectators who had descended on Florida’s Space Coast to see the swan song of an American icon. NASA estimated that between 750,000 and 1 million people turned out to watch history unfold before their eyes.

“Good luck to you and your crew on the final flight of this true American icon. Good luck, god speed, and have a little fun up there,” shuttle launch director Mike Leinbach told the astronauts just before launch.

“Thanks to you and your team, Mike,” Atlantis’ commander Chris Ferguson replied. “We’re completing a chapter of a journey that will never end. The crew of Atlantis is ready to launch.”

After 135 launches over 30 years, the space shuttle will never streak into the sky again. [Video: Want to Feel a Shuttle Launch?]

Atlantis and its four-astronaut crew are headed for a rendezvous with the International Space Station. The main goal of the shuttle’s 12-day flight — Atlantis’ 33rd mission after nearly 26 years of flying — is to deliver a year’s worth of supplies and spare parts to the orbiting lab.

But the world’s attention is fixed more on what Atlantis’ last mission means than on what it will accomplish in orbit.

“For an entire generation who grew up with the space shuttle, this is a moment that won’t be appreciated for some time to come,” said space history expert Robert Pearlman, editor of collectSPACE.com and a SPACE.com contributor. “People have taken it for granted; I don’t think its absence is going to be immediately felt.”

A skeleton crew

Commander Chris Ferguson is leading a skeleton crew of four on Atlantis’ STS-135 flight. He’s joined by pilot Doug Hurley and mission specialists Rex Walheim and Sandy Magnus. Other shuttle missions over the years have typically carried six or seven spaceflyers, but NASA wanted to use every bit of available space to pack extra cargo on this last drop-off mission to the station.

The astronauts will deliver about 9,500 pounds (4,318 kilograms) of cargo to the station. Atlantis is also delivering several different science experiments, one of which — the Robotic Refueling Mission — is an attempt to demonstrate a way to refuel satellites robotically on orbit.

In addition, Atlantis is also carrying two iPhone 4 smartphones loaded with apps to help astronauts perform experiments in space. This represents the first time iPhones have ever gone to space.

Atlantis will chase the station down for a while, finally docking with the $100 billion orbiting lab on Sunday (July 10). The shuttle is scheduled to return to Earth for the final time on July 20.

Until Atlantis rolls to a stop on the runway, the astronauts plan to focus on the tasks they have to perform over the next 12 days, putting off meditations on their mission’s historic significance as much as possible.

“We’re not going to dwell on it too much until after landing,” Ferguson said before launch in a recent NASA video. “Then we’ll get a chance — hopefully following a great, successful mission — to kind of bask in the achievements of the program overall, and really reflect.” [NASA’s Space Shuttle Program In Pictures: A Tribute]

The end of an era

NASA’s space shuttle program was born in January 1972, when President Richard Nixon announced its existence to the nation. Back in those days, the shuttle was billed as a breakthrough vehicle that could enable safe, frequent and relatively cheap access to space.

“The shuttle era really was an effort to do a whole new kind of spaceflight,” Valerie Neal, curator of human spaceflight at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., told SPACE.com. The shuttle program, she added, “held with it the promise of making space just a normal part of human endeavor.”

The first flight took place on April 12, 1981. Since then, the shuttle — the world’s first and only reusable spacecraft — has become NASA’s workhorse vehicle, with the five-shuttle fleet making 135 flights over three decades.

Some of these flights have deployed or repaired important pieces of scientific hardware, such as the Hubble Space Telescope. And many missions since 1998 have helped build the International Space Station, which is now nearly complete.

In addition to these hardware accomplishments, shuttle missions have carried 355 different individuals from 16 different countries into low-Earth orbit, according to NASA officials. So the shuttle delivered on part of its promise, experts say, opening space up to many more people than had been possible previously and helping humanity develop its nascent capabilities in low-Earth orbit.

But the space shuttle didn’t turn out to be cheap or completely safe. NASA once estimated launches could cost as little as $20 million; they’ve turned out to run nearly $1.6 billion each. And two shuttle missions — Challenger’s STS-51L flight in 1986 and Columbia’s STS-107 mission in 2003 — ended in tragedy, killing a total of 14 astronauts.

Ultimately, historians will likely debate the shuttle program’s legacy for years to come.

Retirement awaits

When Atlantis touches down later this month, its flying days will be over. But the orbiter will still have to be prepped for one final mission: educating the public about spaceflight, and perhaps inspiring youngsters to become astronauts themselves someday.

Like the two other remaining shuttles — Endeavour and Discovery — Atlantis will become a museum showpiece. Atlantis won’t have to go far; it will assume a place of pride in the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex here.

Discovery is headed for the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, while Endeavour will make the trip west to the California Science Center in Los Angeles.

Without the space shuttles, NASA will rely on Russian Soyuz vehicles to ferry astronauts to and from the space station, which is slated to operate until at least 2020. The agency wants private American craft to take over this taxi service eventually, but that probably won’t happen for at least four or five years.

For its part, NASA has begun shifting its focus beyond low-Earth orbit. Last year, President Barack Obama charged the space agency with sending astronauts to an asteroid by 2025, and then on to Mars by the mid-2030s.

As exciting as both of these exploration prospects are, they remain far off, both in space and time. Right now, most thoughts are with Atlantis as it streaks toward the space station, its final mission closing out the life of a spacecraft that came to represent a nation in many ways.

Over the years, the space shuttle became a symbol of America, its ambitious goals and its technological know-how, experts say.

“The shuttle became a very powerful icon,” Roger Launius, space history curator at the National Air and Space Museum, told SPACE.com, “just as serviceable an icon as the astronauts landing on the moon, in terms of national prestige abroad and pride at home.”

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Aussie student cracks a cosmic mystery

Aussie student finds universe's 'missing mass'

A 22-year-old woman on summer break solves a problem that has vexed scientists for decades.

A 22-year-old Australian university student has solved a problem which has puzzled astrophysicists for decades, discovering part of the so-called “missing mass” of the universe during her summer break.

Undergraduate Amelia Fraser-McKelvie made the breakthrough during a holiday internship with a team at Monash University’s School of Physics, locating the mystery material within vast structures called “filaments of galaxies”.

Monash astrophysicist Dr Kevin Pimbblet explained that scientists had previously detected matter that was present in the early history of the universe but that could not now be located.

“There is missing mass, ordinary mass not dark mass… It’s missing to the present day,” Pimbblet told AFP.

“We don’t know where it went. Now we do know where it went because that’s what Amelia found.”

Fraser-McKelvie, an aerospace engineering and science student, was able to confirm after a targeted X-ray search for the mystery mass that it had moved to the “filaments of galaxies”, which stretch across enormous expanses of space.

Pimbblet’s earlier work had suggested the filaments as a possible location for the “missing” matter, thought to be low in density but high in temperature.

Pimbblet said astrophysicists had known about the “missing” mass for the past two decades, but the technology needed to pinpoint its location had only become available in recent years.

He said the discovery could drive the construction of new telescopes designed to specifically study the mass.

Pimbblet admitted the discovery was primarily academic, but he said previous physics research had led to the development of diverse other technologies.

“Whenever I speak to people who have influence, politicians and so on, they sometimes ask me ‘Why should I invest in physics pure research?’. And I sometimes say to them: ‘Do you use a mobile phone? Some of that technology came about by black hole research’.

“The pure research has knock-on effects to the whole society which are sometimes difficult to anticipate.”

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Secret last words of the first man in space

Yuri Gagarin: Secret last words of the first man in space

Moments before delivering his legendary slogan, Yuri Gagarin had his mind on something else.

One of the last things that Yuri Gagarin had before making his pioneering trip into space 50 years ago was to ensure he has enough sausages to him on the last trip back to Moscow.

This tidbit was among more than 700 pages of material, once-secret related to the life and times of the first astronaut in the world that have been published by Russia before April 12 birthday.

Gagarin’s historic space shooting turned into an instant celebrity with the boy became a charm propaganda weapon for the Soviet Union as he scrambled to save its ideological battle against the United States during the Cold War.

His smiling boy-next-door and oversized helmet has become a staple of Soviet stamps all his heroism into a elementary school about literature that is comparable to the teaching of Lenin.

Russian authorities – with their own space program in trouble – have seized on this in glory partying Gagarin into a national event that runs from the halls of the Kremlin to the International Space Station.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is planning a visit to the Mission Control Centre outside Moscow while his mentor and predecessor, Vladimir Putin held a meeting with Russian cosmonauts and Ukrainian in Ukraine.

But the biggest news among Russians over the weekend were records of conversation revealing Gagarin was then strapped into a capsule with the chief designer Sergei Korolev Rocket – a man who became a legend in his own right.

Gagarin is best known by a generation of Russian decision “Poyekhali!” his Vostok spacecraft lifted off the ground.

The sentence can be translated as “Let’s Go!” Or “We’re Off!” And is now a regular part of the Russian language.

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Buzz over new planet Tyche claims

Buzz over new planet Tyche claims

Claims about a possible ninth planet in our solar system are being met with curiosity and skepticism.

Forget the “Sputnik moment.” If two astrophysicists are correct, we may be having a “Tyche moment” — a ninth planet to add to our solar system. But that’s a big “if.”

The two scientists who make the claim, Daniel Whitmire and John Matese from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, say a planet they named Tyche — that is four times the size of Jupiter — may be lurking in the outer solar system.

The pair says that the NASA Wise telescope may already have data to prove its existence, but that the planet, if it exists, won’t reveal itself for another two years.

Two astronomers have been saying there is a planet called Tyche in our solar system, four times larger than Jupiter. However, as reports on Tuesday say, other astronomers say it probably does not exist.

Tyche exists in the outer solar system in a region called the Oort, the two astronomers said, according to the Independent newspaper. The Oort is a hypothesized cloud of comets nearly one light-year from the sun. Oort’s outer regions correspond to the outer boundary of the solar system.

“There’s evidence that some Oort cloud comets display orbital peculiarities,” astrophysicist John Matese told Life’s Little Mysteries, adding that Tyche’s existence would explain the strange orbits of comets in the cloud. “We’re saying that perhaps the pattern is indicative that there’s a planet there.”

Matese and fellow University of Louisiana-Lafayette colleague Daniel Whitmire told the newspaper they believe the mysterious planet will reveal itself in around two years. Since 1999, the two have maintained Tyche does exist and is within the solar system.

“If it does, John and I will be doing cartwheels,” Professor Whitmire told the newspaper. “And that’s not easy at our age.”

However, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) would decide Tyche’s status as a planet in our solar system. In recent years, the IAU demoted Pluto to a dwarf planet.

Matthew Holman, a planetary scientist at the Harvard Smithsonian Institute of Astrophysics, says Tyche probably does not exist, or at least within our solar system.

“Based on past papers that I’ve seen looking at where long-period comets came from in the sky, and finding signatures of large perturbers of the Oort cloud, I was not persuaded by the evidence,” he told Life’s Little Mysteries.

Planetary scientist Hal Levison with Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo., made a similar statement.

“What Matese claims is that he sees an excess of comets coming from a particular place, which he attributes to the gravitational effects of a large planet in the Oort cloud,” he told the website. “I have nothing against the idea, but I think the signal that he claims he sees is very subtle, and I’m not sure it’s statistically significant.”

The Independent noted that the planet, which would likely comprise hydrogen and helium gases, should push comets from the inner Oort cloud, but this has not been observed.

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NASA discovers unique new life form

NASA discovers unique new life form

A bacterium found in a California lake is unlike any other living thing on Earth.

A strange, salty lake in California has yielded an equally strange bacterium that thrives on arsenic and redefines life as we know it, researchers reported on Thursday. The bacteria do not merely eat arsenic — they incorporate the toxic element directly into their DNA, the researchers said.

The finding shows just how little scientists know about the variety of life forms on Earth, and may greatly expand where they should be looking for life on other planets and moons, the NASA-funded team said.

“We have cracked open the door to what is possible for life elsewhere in the universe,” Felisa Wolfe-Simon of the NASA Astrobiology Institute and U.S. Geological Survey, who led the study, told a news conference.

The study, published in the journal Science, demonstrates that one of the most notorious poisons on Earth can also be the very stuff of life for some creatures.

Wolfe-Simon and colleagues found the strain of Halomonadaceae in California’s Mono Lake, formed in a volcanic region and very dense in minerals, including arsenic.

The lake is teeming with life, but not fish. It also contains the bacteria.

“Life is mostly composed of the elements carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, sulfur and phosphorus,” the researchers write in Science.

These six elements make up the nucleic acids — the A, C, T and G of DNA — as well as proteins and lipids. But there is no reason in theory why other elements should not be used. It is just that science never found anything alive that used them.

The researchers grew microbes from the lake in water loaded with arsenic, and only containing a little bit of phosphorus.

Scientists Amazed

The GFAJ-1 strain of the Halomonadaceae grew when arsenic was in the water and when phosphorus was in the water, but not when both were taken away. And it grew even with “double whammy” of arsenic.

“It grew and it thrived and that was amazing. Nothing should have grown,” Wolfe-Simon told a news conference.

“We know that some microbes can ‘breathe’ arsenic, but what we’ve found is a microbe doing something new — building parts of itself out of arsenic.”

Paul Davies of NASA and Arizona State said the bacterium is not a new life form.

“It can grow with either phosphorous or arsenic. That makes it very peculiar, though it falls short of being some form of truly ‘alien’ life belonging to a different tree of life with a separate origin,” he said.

But it does suggest that astrobiologists looking for life on other planets do not need to look only for planets with the same balance of elements as Earth has.

“Our findings are a reminder that life-as-we-know-it could be much more flexible than we generally assume or can imagine,” said Wolfe-Simon.

“If something here on Earth can do something so unexpected, what else can life do that we haven’t seen yet? Now is the time to find out.”

James Elser, an expert on phosphorus at Arizona State University, said such bacteria may be useful for generating new biofuels that do not requite phosphate fertilizers, treating wastewater or cleaning up toxic waste sites.

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Could new found planet be just right for life?

Could new found planet be just right for life?

Not too hot and not too cold, the first-time discovery offers conditions with rare potential.

Astronomers say they have for the first time spotted a planet beyond our own in what is sometimes called the Goldilocks zone for life: Not too hot, not too cold. Just right.

Not too far from its star, not too close. So it could contain liquid water. The planet itself is neither too big nor too small for the proper surface, gravity and atmosphere.

It’s just right. Just like Earth. “This really is the first Goldilocks planet,” said co-discoverer R. Paul Butler of the Carnegie Institution of Washington.

The new planet sits smack in the middle of what astronomers refer to as the habitable zone, unlike any of the nearly 500 other planets astronomers have found outside our solar system. And it is in our galactic neighborhood, suggesting that plenty of Earth-like planets circle other stars.

Finding a planet that could potentially support life is a major step toward answering the timeless question: Are we alone?

Scientists have jumped the gun before on proclaiming that planets outside our solar system were habitable only to have them turn out to be not quite so conducive to life. But this one is so clearly in the right zone that five outside astronomers told The Associated Press it seems to be the real thing.

“This is the first one I’m truly excited about,” said Penn State University’s Jim Kasting. He said this planet is a “pretty prime candidate” for harboring life. Life on other planets doesn’t mean E.T. Even a simple single-cell bacteria or the equivalent of shower mold would shake perceptions about the uniqueness of life on Earth.

But there are still many unanswered questions about this strange planet. It is about three times the mass of Earth, slightly larger in width and much closer to its star — 14 million miles away versus 93 million. It’s so close to its version of the sun that it orbits every 37 days. And it doesn’t rotate much, so one side is almost always bright, the other dark.

Temperatures can be as hot as 160 degrees or as frigid as 25 degrees below zero, but in between — in the land of constant sunrise — it would be “shirt-sleeve weather,” said co-discoverer Steven Vogt of the University of California at Santa Cruz.

It’s unknown whether water actually exists on the planet, and what kind of atmosphere it has. But because conditions are ideal for liquid water, and because there always seems to be life on Earth where there is water, Vogt believes “that chances for life on this planet are 100 percent.”

The astronomers’ findings are being published in Astrophysical Journal and were announced by the National Science Foundation on Wednesday. The planet circles a star called Gliese 581. It’s about 120 trillion miles away, so it would take several generations for a spaceship to get there. It may seem like a long distance, but in the scheme of the vast universe, this planet is “like right in our face, right next door to us,” Vogt said in an interview.

That close proximity and the way it was found so early in astronomers’ search for habitable planets hints to scientists that planets like Earth are probably not that rare. Vogt and Butler ran some calculations, with giant fudge factors built in, and figured that as much as one out of five to 10 stars in the universe have planets that are Earth-sized and in the habitable zone

With an estimated 200 billion stars in the universe, that means maybe 40 billion planets that have the potential for life, Vogt said. However, Ohio State University’s Scott Gaudi cautioned that is too speculative about how common these planets are.

Vogt and Butler used ground-based telescopes to track the star’s precise movements over 11 years and watch for wobbles that indicate planets are circling it. The newly discovered planet is actually the sixth found circling Gliese 581. Two looked promising for habitability for a while, another turned out to be too hot and the fifth is likely too cold. This sixth one bracketed right in the sweet spot in between, Vogt said.

With the star designated “a,” its sixth planet is called Gliese 581g. “It’s not a very interesting name and it’s a beautiful planet,” Vogt said. Unofficially, he’s named it after his wife: “I call it Zarmina’s World.”

The star Gliese 581 is a dwarf, about one-third the strength of our sun. Because of that, it can’t be seen without a telescope from Earth, although it is in the Libra constellation, Vogt said. But if you were standing on this new planet, you could easily see our sun, Butler said.

The low-energy dwarf star will live on for billions of years, much longer than our sun, he said. And that just increases the likelihood of life developing on the planet, the discoverers said. “It’s pretty hard to stop life once you give it the right conditions,” Vogt said.

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NASA lets you go to the moon… for free

NASA lets you go to the moon... for free

If you’ve ever dreamed of being an astronaut, you’ve probably idly checked out the price of one of those private rocket flights into orbit. And you’ve probably compared them unfavorably to a nice five-bedroom house in a fashionable urban area, and decided you didn’t want to go into space quite that badly after all. But courtesy of NASA, now you can take a trip all the way to the moon — for free.

OK, so there’s a catch. NASA’s moon “trip” is probably a little more virtual than you might have had in mind. Moonbase Alpha challenges gamers to step into the oversized moon-boots of an astronaut stationed on a fictional (but plausible) moon base. Your mission (should you choose to accept it) is to restore life support to base, after a meteor strike cripples a solar panel.

It’s available for free over digital delivery system Steam, and you can either play it on your own or as part of a six-strong team. Available base-fixing resources include a fully stocked equipment shed, robotic repair units, and a totally sweet lunar rover.

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