The end of the galaxy as we know it?
NASA illustration of the night sky prior to the Andromeda galaxy's predicted merger with the Milky Way which will begin in about 4 billion years.
May 31st, 2012
01:00 PM ET

The end of the galaxy as we know it?

Our Milky Way galaxy is an anomaly in more ways than one. And now, NASA scientists say they know exactly when it will come to an end.

In a universe that is forever spreading apart, the Milky Way has been moving closer to celestial neighbor the Andromeda galaxy. But whether we are in for intergalactic Armageddon or an extraterrestrial fender bender has been a mystery until now.

“Very interestingly, we find that Andromeda galaxy does appear to be coming straight at us,” said Roeland van der Marel, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. He was scheduled to speak at a NASA press conference Thursday.

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Filed under: Discoveries • News
'Manhattanhenge' attracts New York spectators
May 31st, 2012
11:42 AM ET

'Manhattanhenge' attracts New York spectators

Waiting to see a full sun floating on the horizon, New York spectators instead found the urban phenomenon of “Manhattanhenge” a bit underwhelming Wednesday night.

This unique event happens when the sun aligns perfectly with the Manhattan street grid. The sun creates a “radiant glow of light across Manhattan's brick and steel canyons, simultaneously illuminating both the north and south sides of every cross street of the borough's grid,” Hayden Planetarium Director Neil deGrasse Tyson, who named the semi-annual event, said on the planetarium's website.

Georgina Castanon tried to see “Manhattanhenge” on Tuesday, but clouds foiled the photo shoot. But Wednesday night, she and hundreds of other New Yorkers had a little more success.

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Filed under: News
May 31st, 2012
08:55 AM ET

First private capsule to dock at space station begins return flight to Earth

The first private capsule to dock at the International Space Station will return to Earth Thursday, nine days after it took off on its historic mission.

The capsule, known as Dragon, was released by the space station's robotic arm at 5:35 a.m. ET. A thruster burn a minute later pushed the spacecraft away from its host, according to SpaceX, the private company that built and operates the Dragon.

On Sunday, Dragon delivered to the space station more than 1,000 pounds of cargo, including food, clothing, computer equipment and supplies for science experiments and has been reloaded with everything from trash to scientific research and experimental samples.

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Filed under: Hardware in Orbit • In Space
NASA to launch powerful telescope array
NuSTAR will have 10 times the resolution and 100 times the sensitivity of similar telescopes.
May 30th, 2012
03:32 PM ET

NASA to launch powerful telescope array

A mission 20 years in the making is about to culminate with the launch of a one-of-a-kind satellite.

NASA announced today that its NuSTAR telescope could be shot into orbit as early as June 13.

NuSTAR, short for Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array, will be able to create images of high energy X-rays, making it capable of studying cosmic phenomena such as black holes and how exploding stars form the elements that make up our universe. The new telescope will have 10 times the resolution and 100 times the sensitivity of similar telescopes.

NuSTAR will undergo a flight readiness review on June 1, if it passes that it will be strapped to an aircraft for transport to a launch pad on Kwajalein Atoll in the central Pacific Ocean. If everything goes according to plan, Orbital Sciences Corp. will shoot NuSTAR into space aboard one of its Pegasus XL rockets.

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Filed under: In Space
Dating the Milky Way's halo
The Milky Way glows bright through the center of this infrared image.
May 30th, 2012
01:42 PM ET

Dating the Milky Way's halo

We live in the Milky Way galaxy. Earth is located in one of the galaxy's spiral arms, affording those of us who live in darker parts of the world a view of a band of light snaking across the sky. That band of light is the subject of intense study, as astronomers try to answer questions about its origin and development.

Jason S. Kalirai, an assistant astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, has developed a new technique for measuring the age of stars in the Milky Way's halo. The halo is the spherical space around the flatter disk of the galaxy, which contains dense clusters of stars called globular clusters and older stars.

Kalirai's technique makes use of newly formed white dwarf stars to determine the age of their parent stars in the halo to within 0.7 billion years. This is much more precise than the two other techniques available to measure stellar ages in the halo, which are accurate to between 1 and 3 billion years, depending on the technique.

So why do we want to know how old stars in the Milky Way's halo are? The more precisely astronomers can determine those stars' ages, the more precisely they can determine the age of the galaxy itself, which in turn informs the theories of our galaxy's formation and evolution.

Read Kalirai's full study at Nature.com.

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Filed under: Discoveries • In Space
John Glenn Given Medal of Freedom
May 30th, 2012
12:24 PM ET

John Glenn Given Medal of Freedom

"President Barack Obama presents former United States Marine Corps pilot, astronaut and United States Senator John Glenn with a Medal of Freedom, Tuesday, May 29, 2012, during a ceremony at the White House in Washington."

Source: NASA

Filed under: Light up the screen
'Manhattanhenge': Sunset on the NYC grid
May 29th, 2012
04:37 PM ET

'Manhattanhenge': Sunset on the NYC grid

On Tuesday and Wednesday, the setting sun will line up with Manhattan’s skyscrapers to create a unique urban phenomenon dubbed “Manhattanhenge.”

Hayden Planetarium Director Neil deGrasse Tyson, who coined the term for the semi-annual event, explains what happens on the planetarium's website:

“The setting sun aligns precisely with the Manhattan street grid, creating a radiant glow of light across Manhattan's brick and steel canyons, simultaneously illuminating both the north and south sides of every cross street of the borough's grid."

A half-sun will appear on the grid at 8:17 p.m. ET. On Wednesday, a full sun will appear on the grid at 8:16 p.m. Arrive a half-hour earlier for optimal viewing.

"For best effect, position yourself as far east in Manhattan as possible. But ensure that when you look west across the avenues you can still see New Jersey," Tyson says. "Clear cross streets include 14th, 23rd, 34th. 42nd, 57th, and several streets adjacent to them. The Empire State building and the Chrysler building render 34th street and 42nd streets especially striking vistas.”

Share your best photos with iReport, and they might appear on CNN.

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Filed under: On Earth • the Sun
UFO believers vs. skeptics: A great geek divide?
May 29th, 2012
12:21 PM ET

UFO believers vs. skeptics: A great geek divide?

I was surprised, leading up to this weekend's top grossing movie"Men in Black 3," that paranormal phenomena such as UFOs, the Roswell Incident and, yes, the mysterious Men in Black themselves  were conspicuously missing from the zeitgeist.

When the popular sci-fi franchise launched 15 years ago, it was all anyone could talk about. The first "MIB," along with "Independence Day," "The X Files" and "Roswell," brought aliens and government cover-ups their biggest pop culture moment in a generation.

While my geeky friends and I were rabid science fiction fans, excited about the proliferation of these movies and television shows, we scoffed at the idea that any of the aliens or UFOs we saw on screen had any basis in reality.

FULL STORY from CNN's Geek Out

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Filed under: In Space
May 28th, 2012
03:10 PM ET

Low levels of Fukushima cesium found in West Coast tuna

Scientists hope to test new samples of Pacific bluefin tuna after low levels of radioactive cesium from Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident turned up in fish caught off California in 2011, researchers reported Monday.

The bluefin spawn off Japan, and many migrate across the Pacific Ocean. Tissue samples taken from 15 bluefin caught in August, five months after the meltdowns at Fukushima Daiichi, all contained reactor byproducts cesium-134 and cesium-137 at levels that produced radiation about 3% higher than natural background sources - but well below levels considered dangerous for human consumption, the researchers say.

Cesium-137 has a radioactive half-life of about 30 years, and traces of the isotope still persist from above-ground nuclear bomb tests in the 1950s and '60s. But cesium-134, which has a half-life of only two years, "is inarguably from Fukushima Daiichi," Stanford University marine ecologist Dan Madigan told CNN.

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Filed under: News • On Earth • Politics and Policy
Alien hunter steps down from extraterrestrial search
Jill Tarter is stepping down from her post as leader of research at the SETI Institute.
May 25th, 2012
07:06 PM ET

Alien hunter steps down from extraterrestrial search

Remember the character Jodie Foster played in the movie "Contact," based on the book by Carl Sagan? She wasn't entirely invented; her character's basis was astronomer Jill Tarter.

Tarter, 68, has spent more than three decades leading the search for intelligent non-Earthly life at the SETI Institute, a nonprofit organization that devotes itself to scientific research, education and outreach on the subject of life in the universe.

This week, Tarter announced her retirement from directing the research side of SETI; she will now focus on fundraising, she told CNN Light Years in a recent interview.

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