Rocket maker enters spaceflight race
ATK joined a European company called Astrium to create a launch vehicle called Liberty, illustrated above.
May 9th, 2012
07:45 PM ET

Rocket maker enters spaceflight race

If this were a horse race - and in many ways it is - you would say the field just got a little more crowded.

ATK, the company that built the space shuttle solid rocket boosters, has announced it is jumping into the competition to build a spacecraft to take astronauts to the International Space Station. It’s called the Liberty system.

Kent Rominger, a former NASA astronaut who now heads ATK’s Liberty program, said, “It’s more capable than any other option out there.”

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Filed under: In Space • News • Politics and Policy
Light from ‘super-Earth’ detected by NASA telescope
May 9th, 2012
12:36 PM ET

Light from ‘super-Earth’ detected by NASA telescope

For the first time, light coming directly from a “super-Earth” planet outside our solar system has been detected.

NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope spotted the light shining from 55 Cancri e, a massive, scorching hot planet located about 41 light years away.

Super-Earths are up to 10 times more massive than our Earth, but lighter than gas giants like Neptune, NASA says. They can be made of gas, rock or a combination of both. Some scientists believe super-Earths have a better chance of being habitable than planets closer to the size of Earth.

Super-Earth 55 Cancri was discovered in 2004. Spitzer and other telescopes already have recorded how light from the planet changed as it passed in front of its star. In the new study, Spitzer measured how much infrared light comes from the planet itself.

The new data indicates the planet is probably dark, and that its sun-facing side is more than 3,140 degrees Fahrenheit (2,000 Kelvin), hot enough to melt metal. NASA says the new information is consistent with an earlier theory that 55 Cancri has a rocky core wrapped in a layer of water (both liquid and gas). The planet is believed to be topped by a blanket of steam.

NASA says in a statement that Spitzer's discovery is historic and will help in the search for life on other planets.

"Spitzer has amazed us yet again," said Bill Danchi, a NASA Spitzer program scientist in Washington. "The spacecraft is pioneering the study of atmospheres of distant planets and paving the way for NASA's upcoming James Webb Space Telescope to apply a similar technique on potentially habitable planets."

The James Webb Space Telescope is scheduled to launch in 2018 and scientists hope it will be able to reveal even more about 55 Cancri’s composition.

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Filed under: In Space
May 9th, 2012
12:05 PM ET

'Monster sunspot' spitting out flares

After a very eventful March, April was fairly quiet in terms of solar activity. But with the arrival of a new sunspot region on the Earth side of the sun, solar activity could begin to heat up once again in May.

Researchers at NASA’s Solar Dynamics Laboratory called this new region a “monster sunspot.” This region, labeled AR 1476, is gigantic in terms of sunspot regions: It measures about 60,000 miles across.

Sunspots are temporary phenomena on the sun that appear darker than surrounding regions and are caused by intense magnetic activity. Most solar flares and coronal mass ejections originate in sunspot regions.

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Filed under: In Space • Severe Weather • the Sun

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