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China Announces Plans To Put Humans On The Moon Again

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1972.  That was the year the last American mission to the moon – Apollo 17 – took place and the last time any human set foot on its surface.  Now, China has officially confirmed that they are aiming to be the first to once again put boots on the lunar surface since that last American landing.  Should China succeed in their plans, they would also be the only nation other than the United States to place a human on the moon.  China’s space program has picked up in the last couple of decades after a bumpy on-and-off-again history dating back to the 1960s, but they only put their first “taikonaut” into space in 2003.  This manned lunar landing would be a pretty impressive feat, then.  Just as a point for comparison, the Soviets put the first man into space in 1961 but still have not put an astronaut on the moon.

The Chinese mission to the moon was officially announced in a white paper published on Thursday as part of China’s five-year space plan, which also includes a space station and new satellites.  The Chinese government is planning two space flights for 2012 and “‘new technological breakthroughs’ in human space flight” by 2016.  Last month, the Chinese space program successfully docked “two unmanned spacecraft” in orbit, lending support and believability to their goal of having a Chinese space station completed in 2016.  The manned mission to the lunar surface would come after all of this, by 2020 at the earliest.

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Watch A Comet Fly Past Earth, As Seen From Space

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Space programs have produced a lot of remarkable inventions and scientific discoveries, but one of the most incredible things they have given us is a new visual perspective on our world and universe. The photos astronauts, satellites and probes send back to Earth are sometimes remarkable and often stunning, both of which are true for a new video and photo set released by NASA. The photos and video show the comet Lovejoy rising up over the horizon, looking like something straight out of Contact or Armaggedon.  Check out the video created from over 100 still photos taken from the International Space Station while it was orbiting Earth on December 21:

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Mars Rover Finds Minerals Deposited By Water

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The new Mars rover Curiosity is on its way to the red planet, but that doesn’t mean its brother still on the planet is slacking off.  The Mars rover Opportunity continues to truck around the Martian landscape just as it has since 2004, collecting data and transmitting it back to Earth.  At the American Geophysical Union’s conference in San Francisco on Wednesday, NASA announced that Opportunity found a mineral vein on Mars that was likely deposited by water.

NASA describes “bright veins of a mineral” occurring on an apron around a portion of the rim of Endeavour Crater.  Researchers have nicknamed the vein most closely observed by Opportunity “Homestake” and it and its kin are unlike any other veins Opportunity has observed on the planet’s surface since it’s been there.  The spectrometer on Opportunity’s arm identified a ratio of calcium and sulfur that points to relatively pure calcium sulfate and the multi-filter data from the rover’s Panoramic Camera suggests the form of this calcium sulfate is gypsum.  Calcium sulfate is a big deal, because its high concentration could mean less acidic and more hospitable water conditions than what is suggested by other sulfate deposits previously observed on Mars.  The gypsum was likely formed by groundwater coming up through the planet’s crust, which carried up calcium sulfate formed when calcium from volcanic rocks combined with sulfur from other volcanic rocks or volcanic gas.

In addition to suggesting that there was not only water on Mars but water amenable to more types of life than previously thought, researchers think it could explain other gypsum observed on Mars.  Orbital observations found a dune field of gypsum sand on northern Mars that looks like those in White Sands National Monument in New Mexico, but the origins of those dunes were previously unknown.  Basically, as Steve Squyres – principal investigator for Opportunity – puts it, the calcium sulfate veins discovered by the rover tell “a slam dunk story that water flowed through underground fractures in the rock. […] [gypsum isn’t] uncommon Earth, but on Mars, it’s the kind of thing that makes geologists jump out of their chairs.”

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NASA Closer To Finding Earth’s Twin

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The universe may be vast, but the conditions under which life as we know it could exist are actually very specific.  It can’t be too close to a star or too far away.  There has to be at least the potential for water and the ratio of gasses much be just right.  A good deal of our gazing out into the cosmos focuses on tracking down planets that fit the complex matrix of conditions.  Today, NASA announced that its Kepler mission has confirmed the existence of the very first planet in a “habitable zone”.

This new planet – Kepler-22b – is 2.4 times the radius of Earth, making it the “smallest yet found to orbit in the middle of the habitable zone of a star similar to our sun”.  We don’t know much of anything about the terrain or gaseous make-up of Kepler-22b, but finding a planet similar to Earth’s size in the sweet spot of a habitable zone is itself cause for celebration.  Kepler-22b also follows an Earth-like, 290-day orbit around its star, which is smaller and cooler but in the same class as our own sun (G-type).

Kepler identifies potential planets by tracking variations in the brightness of stars that are caused by other celestial bodies passing in front them.  Once an identical blip is detected at least three times, researchers qualify the body as a potential planet.  In February 2011, NASA announced 54 habitable zone planet candidates and Kepler-22b is the first of those to be confirmed as a planet.  NASA also says that the increased numbers of smaller planet candidates proves that Kepler is fulfilling its mission of identifying planet candidates that are both Earth-like in size and potentially habitable, which puts us closer to finding “Earth’s twin”.

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Last Shuttle Mission Earns Best Space Photo Of The Year

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More than just a magazine which shows pictures of topless tribal women, National Geographic is actually a great resource for amazing photography. You’ve probably seen some of their stunning underwater shots on the wall of your dentist’s office, but this week they’ve announced their picks for the best space pictures of 2011.

Contained in their full gallery are some truly stunning examples of pictures taken in outer space. This one is my favorite, the Space Shuttle Endeavor captured on the final shuttle mission to be launched by NASA as it docks with the international space station:

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NASA Launching New Mars Rover On Saturday

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Unlike the Orion project (which will launch three years ahead of schedule), the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission has been delayed two years.  Now, after 8 years of planning, its centerpiece rover will finally launch from Cape Canaveral on Saturday.  The Mars rover Curiosity is being sent on a projected two year mission to assess whether Mars ever did or could support microbial life.  It will touch down in August at the Gale Crater after being lowered to the surface via a rocket-powered sky crane. Yes, you read that right.  The new Mars rover will be lowered to the Martian landscape via a rocket-powered sky crane to lay the groundwork for future searches for (microbial) life on Mars.

Curiosity is a behemoth compared to Spirit and Opportunity, the two rovers that came before it.  Not only does it weigh five times more than its older brothers, it carries twice as many scientific instruments.  In addition to its fancy scientific gadgets, Curiosity has a good old-fashioned drill with which to peek at the insides of Martian rocks.  Instead of traditional solar cells, the new rover has radioisotope thermoelectric generators.  These spiffy generators use radioactive decay of plutonium to generate electricity, which makes Curiosity far better suited to Martian winters than previous rovers.  The combined force of all this makes for what MSL scientist Ashwin Vasavada calls “a Mars scientist’s dream machine”: “This rover is not only the most technically capable rover ever sent to another plaanet, but it’s actually the most capable scientific explorer we’ve ever sent out.”