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Cassini Offers A New Glimpse Of The Pale Blue Dot

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The Day the Earth SmiledGiven my fascination with the universe, my love for Carl Sagan, and my hopes that the reboot of Cosmos will take viewers by storm, it’s only appropriate that my last post of the year would be about space — and more specifically, about a planetary scientist who arranged a pretty awesome photo op of Earth from the Cassini spacecraft.

Carolyn Porco, leader of the Cassini Imaging Science team and professor of astrophysics and planetary scientists, is following in Carl Sagan’s footsteps, especially when it comes to appreciating the significance of Earth as the “pale blue dot.” The phrase refers to a photograph taken in 1990 by the Voyager 1 probe on its way out of the Solar System, nearly four billion miles from Earth. At Sagan’s request, NASA had the probe turn around and take a photo of Earth, which Sagan then elegantly wrote about. While the photo provides some perspective on the enormity of the universe and the relative smallness of Earth, the original image wasn’t actually that good, and Porco has been wanting to update that image for a long time.

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The Most Amazing Science Stories Of 2013

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Writing a round-up of best science stories of the year is a tall order—it’s kind of like writing a piece about the best and brightest stars in the sky. There are countless stories to choose from, and so many that are inarguably awesome. That in itself says something—if my biggest dilemma as a science writer is sifting through the innovations to find the biggest nuggets of gold, then that’s a pretty great problem.

I’m going to cheat a little. I’m allowed, right? I’ve narrowed it down to categories, with a few stories in each.

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All I Want For Christmas Is The Success of Cosmos

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Neil deGrasse Tyson’s reboot of his mentor Carl Sagan’s much-lauded and much-loved documentary Cosmos will air next year on Fox. What I want for Christmas is for the show to be compelling and for people to watch it.

The trailer shows a slicked-up version of the original iteration of the show, which makes sense, given all the special effects and cinematic wizardry (not to mention developments in our knowledge of space) that have been developed over the past 20 years. It still features its host manning what looks to be some futuristic spacecraft — the only difference is that Tyson dons a pair of bad-ass sunglasses. Tyson’s no dummy. He knows that in these times, he has to appeal to audiences that have short attention spans and little interest in space. As he said at the end of his wonderful speech at the National Space Symposium, the rhetoric most space advocates use (All humans are explorers! It’s in our DNA!) has grown tired, and only appeals to people who are already bought into the importance of space exploration.

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Asteroid Hunting Spacecraft NEOWISE Is Back In Business

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NEOWISE imageForget diamonds — asteroids are the hottest rocks out there. And unlike most objects, celestial or otherwise, asteroids have a particularly compelling dichotomy. On the one hand, they’re mineable and they provide a wealth of resources that could benefit us on Earth, as well as catalyze space exploration. On the other hand, they present for some dodgy spacecraft flying conditions, obliterated the dinosaurs, and have wreaked havoc in Russia. Along with a slew of movies about asteroid apocalypses, these events have galvanized scientists and governments into action to detect (and hopefully prevent) threats posed by asteroids. Regardless of whether you think asteroids are cool or terrifying, or a bit of both, we have to be able to find them in order to do anything else with or about them. NASA has put out a call to help it find asteroids, but now the single best asteroid hunter, NEOWISE, is back in business.

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Hubble Captures Water Vapor Plumes On Europa

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EuropaScientists consider Jupiter’s moon Europa one of the best candidates for harboring alien life in the solar system. Its atmosphere is mostly made up of oxygen and it has a smooth surface of ice (not to mention a rocky mantle and likely an iron core — sound familiar?). Based on data gathered by the Galileo spacecraft, which arrived at the Jovian moon in 1995, scientists theorize that under Europa’s icy surface exists an ocean of water, kept liquid by heat generated from tidal forces. Recent evidence published in the Science Express journal lends support to this theory, as data from the Hubble indicates plumes of water vapor at Europa’s south pole, suggesting that there is indeed liquid water under the surface.

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Arthur C. Clarke: A Birthday Retrospective

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Arthur ClarkeScience fiction great Arthur C. Clarke would have been 96 yesterday. Clarke lives on through his work and the revolutionary ideas he developed and championed with respect to science, particularly space. I wanted to take a minute to show Clarke some love. There’s never been anyone like him, and there never will be again — unless, that is, his spacebound DNA produces some interesting results.

Clarke was born in Britain in 1917, but no amount of pub food or soccer could keep him there. The man had wanderlust that makes mine seem like more of an itch. Space called to Clarke, much as it did to Ray Bradbury, and he joined the British Interplanetary Society when he was only 17. Later he became chair of the group — twice. At a young age he distinguished himself from other scientists with his writing, and he distinguished himself from other writers with his knowledge of science. The two blended together in his work. Many of the concepts Clarke wrote about, such as the space elevator he described in his 1979 novel The Fountains of Paradise, and his thoughts about replicators, have provided food for thought, if not specific goals, for space engineers. In 1945, Clarke wrote a paper advocating putting satellites in geostationary orbit. That’s right — you have Clarke to thank for your GPS systems and satellite TV. Eighteen years later, after America’s launch of the Syncom 2 satellite, Clarke won the Stuart Ballantine Medal, a science and engineering award, for the idea. Now most satellites hang out in an area called, appropriately, the Clarke Belt. In a nutshell, dude knew what was up, literally.