April 30th, 2013
12:43 PM ET

Saturn shows off spectacular storm

By Sophia Dengo, CNN

NASA's Cassini spacecraft returned a stunning image of a hurricane on Saturn's northern pole. The shot (pictured above) was taken on November 27 and is one of the first views of Saturn's north pole lit by the sun.

The colors in the image are not the real ones.  They represent projections of various wavelengths of near-infrared light. Red is used to represent low clouds, and green indicates high clouds.

Scientists don't know how long this storm, which has an eye that measures 1,250 miles across, with cloud speeds as fast as 330 mph, has been active. The last time the planet's north pole was imaged in 2004, it was in darkness.

According to NASA, images were taken with a narrow-angle camera on Cassini, "using a combination of spectral filters sensitive to wavelengths of near-infrared light."

Studying this storm may lead scientists to new insights about hurricanes on Earth.

Cassini is one part of the Cassini-Huygens mission operated by NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. Read more about it here, here and here.

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Studying Earth's protective radiation belts
This illustration shows the Van Allen radiation belts and the positions of the twin Van Allen probes.
March 9th, 2013
07:00 AM ET

Studying Earth's protective radiation belts

Two regions of radiation encircle the Earth. They’re called the Van Allen belts, and they are a pair of dynamic regions of trapped radiation, separated by a void and held in place by the Earth's magnetic field. They protect the planet from the radiation of space and the effects of solar weather.

We’ve known about these two belts since James Van Allen, the eponymous astronomer, discovered them in 1958. It's important that we know as much as we can about the Van Allen belts and how they change, because most of Earth's satellites live in the region.

Two NASA probes detected a third radiation belt, which disappeared a few weeks later. It appears that solar weather caused its formation, and disappearance.

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Filed under: Discoveries • In Space • the Sun
March 1st, 2013
05:12 PM ET

What kind of space rock is it?

By Sophia Dengo, CNN

When you hear about space rocks hitting the Earth, you may feel a little confused about the difference between objects such as "meteors," "meteorites" and "meteoroids." Here's a guide:

Source: http://neo.jpl.nasa.gov/faq/

Images: NASA/ESA/A. Feild, STScI, NASA, Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images, Peter Kneffel/AFP/Getty Images, John Thys/AFP/Getty Images

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Did Earth get zapped in the eighth century?
Artist's rendering of two neutron stars merging.
January 24th, 2013
12:09 PM ET

Did Earth get zapped in the eighth century?

By Sophia Dengo, CNN

History books may tell you that in the eighth century, the Moors invaded Spain and Mayan civilization was on the decline, but they don't say anything about the Earth being irradiated.

That event is not documented, but astronomers say a collision in space at that time could have resulted in the high levels of carbon-14 and beryllium-10 found in trees from the eighth century.

Astronomers Valeri Hambaryan and Ralph Neuhauser, based at the Astrophysics Institute of the University of Jena in Germany, published results in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society that suggest that two "compact stellar remnants" - which could be neutron stars, black holes or white dwarfs - collided and merged, resulting in a short-duration gamma-ray burst that hit Earth.

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Curiosity getting ready to drill into Martian rock
A view of the Martian rock selected for Curiosity's first-time drilling.
January 15th, 2013
04:41 PM ET

Curiosity getting ready to drill into Martian rock

Curiosity has identified an area of diverse rocks, which add to the body of evidence that there was once water on Mars, according to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in an update on the rover's progress given at a press briefing on Tuesday.

These rocks are the first target for Curiosity's drill. The area is named "John Klein," after a Curiosity project manager and longtime Jet Propulsion Laboratory veteran who died in 2011.

Michael Malin, the principal investigator for Mastcam, the two cameras on the rover's mast, said at the briefing that "diversity is always a measure of the number of processes and types of materials" in an area.

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Mars rover landing engineer looks back
January 11th, 2013
10:02 AM ET

Mars rover landing engineer looks back

We recently had the pleasure of chatting with Miguel San Martin, chief engineer for Guidance, Navigation, and Control at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where he has worked on four Mars spacecraft. On Twitter he's @MigOnMars.

In case you're just tuning in: On August 6 (it was still August 5 on the West Coast), the Mars rover Curiosity landed on Mars amid enormous celebration among space enthusiasts. The one-ton rover put its wheels on Mars through a complicated process known as "seven minutes of terror." A supersonic parachute and a sky crane had to be utilized in order to safely get Curiosity there. The mission cost $2.5 billion.

San Martin, who worked on Curiosity's landing system, spoke in November at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta at a special Holy Innocents' Episcopal School event called "Pushing Boundaries." We caught up with him before he gave an inspiring talk to students, parents and faculty about his career. Here is an edited transcript:

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Filed under: In Space • Mars • Voices
Happy holidays from Saturn
December 20th, 2012
11:53 AM ET

Happy holidays from Saturn

Remember Cassini? It's the spacecraft launched in 1997 by NASA, ESA and the Italian Space Agency, meant to study Saturn and its moons. More than a decade after its launch, Cassini has returned beautiful images of Saturn, including this rare photo of Saturn, backlit by the sun so that the planet and its rings are highlighted.

You can also see Saturn's moons, Enceladus and Tethys, on the left side of the planet as two tiny white dots.

What makes this picture so rare? It's an enhanced-color view of the planet, comprised of photos taken using red, infrared and violet filters using Cassini's wide-angle camera. That in itself isn't rare, but the backlighting of the planet is: Photos like these can only be taken when Cassini is in Saturn's shadow.

In 2006, Cassini sent home another backlit shot, in which our own planet makes an appearance, titled "In Saturn's Shadow."

Want this one in all its high-resolution beauty? Happy holidays!

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Filed under: In Space • Light up the screen
December 12th, 2012
12:13 PM ET

NASA Science prepares for the not-end of the world

Are you preparing for a certain fictional apocalypse this month?

The idea that the world is ending on December 21, 2012, comes from a misinterpretation of the Mayan calendar. Because their calendar ends on the 21st, some believe the world must be ending, as well.

This idea has become so widespread in popular culture that NASA Science has made repeated efforts to debunk it. They've now even gone so far as to produce a video for the 22nd of December, explaining (again) why the world didn't end:

The video should ease any fears you might have that all of humanity is headed for its demise this month.

Other doomsday theories for the 21st include the idea that a planet called Nibiru is on a collision course with Earth, a total blackout for the planet due to the "alignment of the universe," solar storms and meteor strikes. NASA says none of these events is actually a possibility and does a case-by-case debunking.

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Filed under: On Earth
'Curiosity's middle name is Patience'
December 3rd, 2012
03:48 PM ET

'Curiosity's middle name is Patience'

Here's the short version of today's Mars news: Curiosity has, in fact, detected simple organics in Martian soil, but that detection is not definitive evidence of Mars-native organic compounds. Scientists first need to make sure that the compounds detected by the Mars Science Laboratory aren't actually stowaways from Earth.

At the American Geophysical Union's Fall Meeting, a panel of Curiosity scientists shed some light on all the recent hype about a Big Deal Discovery on Mars. According to Paul Mahaffy, the principal investigator for the SAM instrument aboard Curiosity, "SAM has no definitive detection to report of organic compounds," which actually isn't unexpected. Part of the reason Curiosity was sampling the soil at Rock Nest, a pit stop on the way to Mount Sharp, is that it was expected to be very ordinary, which is helpful for cleaning out the rover's instruments of Earth contaminants.

This declaration may seem to conflict with a statement made later in the conference, where Mahaffy stated that SAM detected "very simple chlorinated hydrocarbons" - organic compounds. The panelists qualified this statement by saying that they're proceeding methodically and scientifically, to ensure that the hydrocarbons they've found didn't hitch a ride aboard Curiosity from Earth. Even if it turns out that they didn't, there's another step before declaring the organics to be of Martian origin: The science team has ensure that the compounds didn't arrive on Mars from space.

If that sounds like bad news or no news to you, think again. Curiosity's team is very satisfied with the rover, which is four months in to a planned two-year mission. "We landed on an ancient riverbed,"  said Dr. Michael Meyer, one of the lead scientists for NASA's Mars Exploration Program. "I think that's just spectacular."

John Grotzinger, the project scientist for Curiosity, said that the rover's in great shape do to more good science on top of the reams of data it's already collected, noting that all of Curiosity's instruments have checked out healthy. He compared the rover to a car getting ready for a long road trip; the "CSI lab on wheels" will begin its drive to its main target, Mount Sharp, early in 2013.

As to whether Curiosity will find evidence of life on Mars or not, Grotzinger said that such a discovery is at least months away. Right now, the team is excited about rich data that helps form a picture of what the environment on Mars might have been like in the past.

Grotzinger added, "What I've learned from this is you have to be careful about what you say and even more careful about how you say it. We're doing science at the speed of science; we live in a world that's at the pace of Instagrams."

"Curiosity's middle name is Patience, and we all have to have a healthy dose of that."

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Filed under: In Space • Mars • Robots • Science Education
Use your phone to explore space
Use the NASA app to search for the newest images from the agency.
October 26th, 2012
12:01 AM ET

Use your phone to explore space

Did you know you could use your mobile device to keep up with what's going on in our universe? These apps will help you get the latest from NASA, identify that bright light in your sky, and land a space shuttle!

SkyView (iOS, $1.99)

SkyView uses an augmented reality engine to show you what's up in your sky. Hold up your device and explore what's around you. You can search for planets, stars, constellations and satellites, and tap an object for more information. Want to know when the International Space Station will be flying overhead, if that bright star in your sky is Jupiter, or when the moon will rise? This app's for you.

Mission Clock (iOS, $4.99)

Want to keep track of the latest launches and missions? Mission Clock contains a wealth of information on both upcoming missions and current ones: launch dates and locations, elapsed mission time, major goals and more. Set alerts to remind yourself of upcoming events, or to keep track of changes for upcoming launches.

F-Sim Shuttle Simulator (iOS and Android, $3.99)

Ever wanted to fly a space shuttle? The real thing may be retired, but you can still try your hand at re-entry and landing with the F-Sim Shuttle Simulator. You've got a ton of options for setting the difficulty of the flight, the landing site, night or day, weather...the list goes on.

And finally...

NASA (iOS and Android, free)

NASA has actually released a few mobile apps, but the core NASA app opens up a wealth of information about the space agency and its missions, not to mention beautiful imagery, Third Rock Radio, and video. Use it to watch NASA TV on the road, check out the latest tweets from NASA accounts, and find out more about the many space agency centers around the country.

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