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ESA’s Cosmic Vision Includes New Planet-Hunting Mission

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PLATO

NASA likes to boast about its planet-hunting capabilities thanks to both the Kepler and the Hubble telescopes. But NASA’s not the only organization looking to identify new planets in the cosmos. The European Space Agency (ESA) conducts its own searches from across the pond, and they recently selected the PLATO (Planetary Transits and Oscillations of stars) mission to join its 10-year Cosmic Vision programme.

In broad terms, the Cosmic Vision programme strives to push the foundation it has built in space science into a more contemporary, forward-thinking realm by foreseeing and addressing the challenges of the future. The overarching goals of the programme include identifying scientific challenges, prioritizing space research, figuring how how to marshal resources to achieve the maximum return on investment, maintaining Europe’s competitive technological status, and reinforcing ESA’s ability to advance space science.

PLATO, a space-based observatory, addresses these goals by focusing on the conditions necessary for planetary formation (link?) as well as how the Solar System formed, functions, and compares to other systems. Its particular specialty is identify Sun-Earth analogue systems using 34 distinct telescopes and cameras, PLATO will search for planets the same way Kepler does–by monitoring roughly a million stars and looking for the small but consistent reductions in brightness that signify a planet passing in front of them.

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Dying Stars Slosh Around When They Go Supernova

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cassiopeia-AAs Carl Sagan always said, “We’re made of star-stuff.” That’s because dying stars explode, expelling stardust — which scientists now know contains water in addition to carbon and other organic, life-promoting compounds — throughout the galaxy. In fact, some scientists believe that the universe may have been created when a massive, four-dimensional star went supernova, shedding its outer layers while its inner layers collapsed into a black hole. But supernovae remain somewhat elusive, especially when it comes to the details of the explosion. Until, that is, they are seen with a special telescope. A study published today in Nature by an international team of scientists provides new information about what happens inside a dying star.

Computer simulations have shown that stars won’t explode if they retain their perfectly round shape, so astronomers knew that something else had to be happening. They had some ideas about what that might be, but until now they haven’t been able to determine which, if any, were accurate. NASA’s NuSTAR (nuclear spectroscopic telescope array) telescope, housed at Caltec, enabled scientists to map radioactive material in the remnants of supernova Cassiopeia A. The telescope provided the first ever glimpse at the high-energy X-rays generated by a dying star.

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ISS Cold Atom Lab Will Be The Most Frigid Place In The Universe

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ISSThe ISS has its share of haters. There are many people who believe the station is a colossal waste of money (to the tune of $100 billion) and has never gotten down to the hard-core, life-changing proponents promised. Even so, Obama recently granted it four-year extension, so there is time to prove the skeptics wrong. One of the ways it might do that is with a new laboratory scheduled to become part of the repertoire in 2016 that will be the coldest known place in the universe. That may sound horrible, but it’s actually pretty awesome.

NASA’s Cold Atom Laboratory will be able to reach a temperature just one ten-billionth a degree warmer than zero Kelvin, or absolute zero (about -459.67 degrees Fahrenheit), the lowest temperature possible. You think North Face makes a parka for that? Space itself has an average temperature of -454.81, which is roughly the average temperature in Boston this winter.

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Opportunity Rover Solves Rock Mystery

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mystery rock site

Former site of the mystery rock

A few weeks ago, the Opportunity Rover’s cameras picked up a mystery rock on Mars. The rock, which was compared in size and shape (but not taste, as not even Opportunity was willing to take a bite) to a jelly doughnut and called “Pinnacle Island,” baffled scientists and got conspiracy theorists all aflutter. In fact, someone named Rhawn Joseph even sued NASA, alleging that “the refusal to take close up photos from various angles, the refusal to take microscopic images of the specimen, the refusal to release high resolution photos, is inexplicable, recklessly negligent, and bizarre.” Joseph contended that the rock had grown to a size discernible via photo, having grown from spores, and wanted to sue NASA for not appropriately engaging the possibility that the rock was biological in nature. Well, sure, and maybe Elvis is on Mars too.

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There Might Be Water Flowing On Mars Right Now

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water on Mars

Earlier in the Curiosity Rover‘s travels around the Red Planet it gleaned a bunch of information about the water-soaked soil, which set the stage for this latest revelation–that water may be flowing on Mars not at some point in the distant past, but right now.

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NASA Program Aims To Put Commercial Landers On The Moon, Stirs Property Rights Debate

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moon miningNASA recently announced a new initiative called Lunar CATALYST (Cargo Transportation and Landing by Soft Touchdown) and is seeking proposals to join forces with commercial companies who can develop and deliver robotic lunar landers. The way the partnership works is that participants have free access to NASA scientists, equipment, laboratories, software, and research in exchange for giving NASA the rights to any lander designed during the partnership. While the initiative reflects the growing collaboration between the private and public sectors, some believe that the program penalizes foreign teams and may give rise to property rights disputes when it comes to who owns or regulates what happens on the moon.