Up close with comets
June 7th, 2013
03:11 PM ET

5 things to know about Comet ISON

By Amanda Barnett, CNN

Comet ISON may put on a show when it skims through the sun's atmosphere later this year. Right now, it's still far away, but we're keeping track and will give you regular updates. Here are five key facts about ISON as we await its arrival:

What's with the funky name?

Comet ISON was discovered by Russian astronomers Vitali Nevski and Artyom Novichonok in September 2012. It's named after their night-sky survey program, the International Scientific Optical Network, a group of observatories in 10 countries organized to track objects in space.

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Up close with comets
March 8th, 2013
05:22 PM ET

Rare naked-eye comet now visible

By Amanda Barnett, CNN

A rare treat for sky watchers is hovering overhead.

Comet Pan-STARRS is now visible on the western horizon in the Northern Hemisphere and viewers in the United States may be able to see it with the naked eye.

The comet has been visible through telescopes in the Southern Hemisphere for a while and amateur photographers are now posting sightings online from the Northern Hemisphere.

Scientists estimate that naked-eye comets happen only once every five to 10 years, according to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

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Welcome to the year of the comet (we hope)
March 3rd, 2013
12:00 AM ET

Welcome to the year of the comet (we hope)

By Amanda Barnett, CNN

First a meteor exploded over Russia, followed closely by an asteroid fly-by. Now, two comets are expected to put on a naked-eye spectacle for sky watchers in the Northern Hemisphere.

Up first is Comet Pan-STARRS, which gets its funky name from the telescope credited with discovering it in June 2001: the Panoramic Survey Telescope & Rapid Response System in Hawaii.

The comet is already visible through telescopes in the Southern Hemisphere, and it should swing into view over the Northern Hemisphere beginning around March 8.

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Filed under: In Space
Giant rover to make ‘terrifying’ landing on Mars
July 16th, 2012
03:24 PM ET

Giant rover to make ‘terrifying’ landing on Mars

No spacecraft has ever landed like this before and NASA admits it’ll be a wild ride.

NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover, a 2,000 pound (900 kilogram) SUV-sized robotic science laboratory, is scheduled to touch down on August 6 at 1:31 a.m. EDT.

The $2.5 billion rover started its journey on November 26, 2011, with launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Its mission is to figure out whether its landing site, Gale Crater,  was ever home to microbial life. Curiosity has 10 science experiments on board and is equipped with a robot arm that can drill into rocks. Curiosity can climb over obstacles up to 25 inches (65 centimeters) high and can travel about 660 feet (200 meters) per day.

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Filed under: In Space • News
May 10th, 2012
02:57 PM ET

Space rock Vesta promoted to ‘protoplanet’

Vesta, the second-largest object in our solar system's asteroid belt, is a protoplanet, according to research released Thursday. Scientists reviewed data from the Dawn spacecraft orbiting Vesta and concluded that Vesta is protoplanet that survived numerous collisions with other space rocks since it formed more than 4.5 billion years ago.

"Dawn’s mission at Vesta has been a spectacular success. It’s transformed Vesta from a fuzzy orb into a planetary body," said Carol Raymond, the deputy principal investigator for Dawn at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

Becoming a protoplanet is an upgrade from Vesta’s previous designation as an asteroid or minor planet. It means Vesta’s structure shows it has a dense, layered body and orbits the sun, like the Earth and other rocky planets. Vesta didn’t quite make it to full-fledged planet, but Raymond said it's more like a planet than an asteroid.

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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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'Super moon' to put shine on night-sky viewing
May 4th, 2012
11:04 AM ET

'Super moon' to put shine on night-sky viewing

Wait until dark Saturday. Dust off your telescope or binoculars. Grab the kids (dust them off too if needed). Go outside. Look up at the moon. Does it look bigger than usual?

According to NASA, this May’s full moon is called a "super moon,” and it will look about 14% bigger and 30% brighter than other full moons this year.

Scientists call it a “perigee moon.” Perigee, as all good space and science geeks know, means the moon is as close to the Earth as it will get for a while. The exact time of perigee will be 11:34 p.m. ET Saturday. (Apogee means far away but we don’t care about a distant, tiny dim moon, do we?)

The best time to see the "super moon" is just as it crosses Earth's horizon. The moon always looks biggest then, although why is a bit of a mystery. Go online to find out when the moon rises in your area.

If you get good pictures of the "super moon" - please share with our iReport team.

 

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Giant Mars rover blasts off
November 26th, 2011
10:15 AM ET

Giant Mars rover blasts off

NASA’s biggest and most advanced Mars rover blasted off Saturday from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Curiosity is packed with 10 science experiments to determine whether Mars has ever been suitable for life and to find clues about past life forms that may have been preserved in rocks. NASA says Curiosity won’t answer the age-old questions about life on Mars, but it will provide important information that will guide future missions.

Searching for life on Mars

The spacecraft sent a signal after separation from the rocket, NASA said.

The launch was originally scheduled for Friday, but the mission team took an extra day to remove and replace a flight termination system battery, NASA said.

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Giant Mars rover blasts off
November 21st, 2011
10:18 AM ET

Giant Mars rover blasts off

NASA’s biggest and most advanced Mars rover blasted off Saturday from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Curiosity is packed with 10 science experiments to determine whether Mars has ever been suitable for life and to find clues about past life forms that may have been preserved in rocks. NASA says Curiosity won’t answer the age-old questions about life on Mars, but it will provide important information that will guide future missions.

The launch was originally scheduled for Friday, but the mission team took an extra day to remove and replace a flight termination system battery, NASA said.

Curiosity is expected to spend about two years roaming Mars, hunting things researchers say are essential for life to grow: liquid water, key chemicals used by living organisms and an energy source.

The rover lifted off Saturday atop an Atlas V rocket and is scheduled to land in August 2012 in the Gale Crater.

Curiosity is twice as long and five times as heavy as the older Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. Its science instruments weigh 15 times as much as its predecessors' science payloads.

The rover has a mast that can extend to 7 feet (2.1 meters) to hoist a high-definition imaging system. It also will hold a laser-equipped camera that can zap rocks to study the sparks emitted for information about their composition.

A 7-foot-long robot arm will hold instruments for soil analysis. Unlike earlier rovers, Curiosity can gather rocks and soil to process inside its lab. The rover also has tools to look for water beneath the surface, to monitor the weather and to measure natural radiation.

Curiosity is designed to roll over obstacles up to 25 inches (about 65 centimeters) high and to travel about 660 feet (200 meters) per day. Its energy source will be a radioisotope power generator.

Landing will be tricky because of the rover’s size. As it descends, the spacecraft will make S-curve maneuvers like those used by shuttle astronauts. Three minutes before touchdown, a parachute and retrorockets will slow the spacecraft. Then, seconds before touchdown, an upper stage will act like a sky crane, lowering the upright rover on a tether to the surface.

When Curiosity arrives at Mars, three satellites already in orbit will be listening: NASA’s Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and the European Space Agency’s Mars Express. The spacecraft will be positioned to receive transmissions about Curiosity’s status and relay information to Earth.

NASA: Facts about the Mars science laboratory

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November 18th, 2011
05:45 PM ET

Test confirms particles appear to travel faster than the speed of light

(CNN) – Travel faster than the speed of light? Really?

Back in September, scientists found that tiny particles called neutrinos appeared to do just that, defying Einstein’s special theory of relativity.

It could be a fluke, but now the same experiment has replicated the result. It’s not hard proof yet, though; other groups still need to confirm these findings.

Physicists with the OPERA (Oscillation Project with Emulsion-tRacking Apparatus) experiment said in September that neutrinos sent about 454 miles (730 kilometers) from CERN in Switzerland arrived at Italy’s Gran Sasso National Laboratory a fraction of a second sooner than they should have according to Einstein’s theory.

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