ESA’s Cosmic Vision Includes New Planet-Hunting Mission


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.


Dying Stars Slosh Around When They Go Supernova

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.


Big Ol’ Asteroid Will Zoom Past Earth Tonight, And You Can Watch

AsteroidShort of watching disaster flicks such as Deep Impact and Armageddon, how often do we get the chance to see asteroids fly by? Given all the talk about asteroid protection and the knowledge that such cosmic rocks have the capability to do serious damage to Earth and the human race, most people probably don’t see asteroid-viewing as being on the same level as star-gazing, but tonight it will be.

Asteroid 2000 EM26, which, at a diameter of 885 feet, is roughly the size of three football fields, will fly by Earth tonight at about 27,000 mph. Don’t worry — it won’t hit the planet, but it will come close enough (almost nine times as far away as the moon) to provide a pretty cool view. The best part is that the Slooh Space Camera will watch the asteroid for us, and Slooh will air a webcast starting at 9:00 pm EST tonight (you can also watch on Space.com). So hey, you can watch the Olympics on one screen and an asteroid flyby on the other. There’s something apropos about that, don’t you think? Especially since some of those skeleton racers and skiers are going almost as fast as the asteroid.


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

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.


There Might Be Water Flowing On Mars Right Now

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.


SETI Predicts We’ll Find Intelligent Alien Life By 2040

system Gliese 667Scientists like to debate theories about aliens — are they out there? Where? Which planets are most likely to harbor life? If aliens are out there, why haven’t they contacted us? The truth is, no one really knows, and no one will until we come into contact with alien life (and unless, but I think this is a “when,” not an “if,” proposition). Especially intelligent alien life, which the chief astronomer from SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) predicts will happen around 2040.

I first became aware of SETI the same way as many people — by downloading the SETI@home screensaver that helps analyze radio signals. That program has now been augmented by setiQuest, which taps into the global community via a bunch of cool apps, such as the SETIsyncProb that allows users to sync radio wave detection ranges with the lifespan of those ranges to generate a “snapshot” of radio wave activity. SETI was one of the first programs ever designed to use and demonstrate the effectiveness of volunteer brainpower — it’s kind of like crowdsourcing, except easier (at least the screensavers are). But thus far, all those computers and all those radio waves analyzed by SETI and its volunteers have turned up nothing. Lack of evidence isn’t proof of nonexistence, though — far from it. And the better astronomers get at identifying and scanning star systems, the more likely it is that they’ll find something.