December 14th, 2012
04:11 PM ET

Kids discover ancient beast's bone

An 11-year-old from Michigan said he is going to really wow his schoolmates Friday with the "coolest" show-and-tell item anyone's ever brought to the sixth grade.

After all, it's not every day you get to show off a 13,000-year-old mastodon bone you and your cousin found in a stream behind your backyard.

"I thought it was a rock at first, but a couple minutes later I looked more at it, and I didn't think it was a dinosaur bone, but I wasn't sure," Eric Stamatin of Shelby Township Michigan told CNN on Thursday.


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Filed under: On Earth
Moon probes to be 'blown apart' in Monday mountain crash
An artist's rendition of the twin GRAIL spacecraft.
December 13th, 2012
03:58 PM ET

Moon probes to be 'blown apart' in Monday mountain crash

By Elizabeth Landau, CNN

A pair of robotic twins that have been diligently mapping the moon this year will go out with a bang Monday, around 5:28 p.m. EST.

The Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) probes Ebb and Flow will crash into a mountain on the moon Monday afternoon, ending a fruitful mission to study the surface and composition of the moon.

"Scientifically we are learning a great deal about not only the moon but about the early evolution of terrestrial planets," said principal investigator Maria Zuber of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology at a press conference Thursday.

Thanks to GRAIL, scientists now have the "highest-resolution gravity field map of any celestial body," NASA said. That means the probes have been making a high-quality map of the gravitational field of the moon, which give scientists unprecedented insight into what's below the surface and how the moon may have formed.


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Filed under: In Space • News • the Moon
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
First-time and long-time meteor showers in forecast
The Geminid meteor shower is expected to peak Thursday night. A 2011 Geminid meteor is shown here.
December 11th, 2012
02:12 PM ET

First-time and long-time meteor showers in forecast

Look to the heavens this week and you may see something no earthling has seen before - meteors from the comet Wirtanen.

The comet was discovered in 1948 and orbits the sun every 5.4 years, but 2012 will mark the first time the Earth's orbit will cross the comet's debris field, possibly producing meteors, according to a NASA press release.

"Dust from this comet hitting Earth's atmosphere could produce as many as 30 meteors per hour," Bill Cooke of NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office said in the release.

The Wirtanen meteor show could come any time between Tuesday and Friday as Earth will cross the comet's tail four times during that span, the NASA release said.

But just because you spot meteors this week, don't think they're automatically from Wirtanen. That's because the Geminid meteor shower is expected to peak Thursday night.

The Geminids, which come around every December, were first observed shortly before the Civil War. They come when the Earth passes through debris from the extinct comet 3200 Phaethon. NASA says an extinct comet is the rock that remains when a comet loses its ice. This meteor shower is called the Geminids because if you trace the path of the meteors, it looks as if they are coming from the constellation Gemini. And that's how you can distinguish these meteors from those that may be the product of Wirtanen. Wirtanen meteors would come from the constellation Pisces.

Cooke also said the meteors from Wirtanen should be visible early in the evening while Geminids should show up later.

Beginning at 11 ET Thursday night, Cooke and other comet experts at will hold an online chat about the meteor showers. NASA will also provide a Ustream feed of the meteor showers. As many as 120 meteors an hour may be visible, NASA said.

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Filed under: In Space • News
Driving on the Moon
December 11th, 2012
11:03 AM ET

Driving on the Moon

"Forty years ago today on Dec. 11, 1972, astronaut Eugene A. Cernan, commander, makes a short checkout of the lunar rover during the early part of the first Apollo 17 extravehicular activity at the Taurus-Littrow landing site. This view of the 'stripped down' rover is prior to loading up. Equipment later loaded onto the rover included the ground-controlled television assembly, the lunar communications relay unit, hi-gain antenna, low-gain antenna, aft tool pallet, lunar tools and scientific gear.

This photograph was taken by scientist-astronaut Harrison H. Schmitt, lunar module pilot. The mountain in the right background is the east end of South Massif. While astronauts Cernan and Schmitt descended in the Lunar Module 'Challenger' to explore the moon, astronaut Ronald E. Evans, command module pilot, remained with the Command and Service Modules 'America' in lunar orbit."

Source: NASA

Filed under: Light up the screen • the Moon
Recent news in space science
The red areas are shadowed parts of Mercury's polar region, as indicated by MESSENGER data.
December 9th, 2012
08:14 PM ET

Recent news in space science


NASA's MESSENGER spacecraft has found new evidence of water ice near Mercury's shadowed polar craters, a finding that scientists say supports the hypothesis that the planet contains lots of water and frozen materials.

Even though Mercury is the closest planet to the sun, it has pockets near its poles that are never touched by sunlight and could be cold enough for ice to remain unmelted, NASA explained.

"For more than 20 years, the jury has been deliberating whether the planet closest to the sun hosts abundant water ice in its permanently shadowed polar regions," said Sean Solomon, principal investigator for the project, in a press release last week.  "MESSENGER now has supplied a unanimous affirmative verdict."

NASA's MESSENGER spacecraft - short for MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging - has been observing Mercury since it was launched in March 2011, and the images it has captured so far confirm the water ice hypothesis.

"The new observations from MESSENGER support the idea that ice is the major constituent of Mercury's north polar deposits," NASA said. The spacecraft measured neutrons and excess hydrogen from Mercury's north pole region.

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Hundreds of Earth-sized planet candidates discovered
December 4th, 2012
11:01 AM ET

Hundreds of Earth-sized planet candidates discovered

By Zaina Adamu, CNN

Could there be extraterrestrial life in our own Milky Way galaxy?

NASA’s Kepler mission, using an orbiting telescope equipped with a 95-megapixel camera and 42 charge-coupled devices, discovered that worlds, one-half to twice the size of Earth, exist in our galaxy.

Kepler is the first mission with the potential to identify Earth-sized planets that exist near the habitable zones of their stars, a landmark in astronomy because the finding could lead scientists to discover that, indeed, life exists in other places besides Earth.

The way Kepler detects planets is similar to how we detect Venus and Mercury from Earth. Every so often, there are events where Venus and Mercury pass the sun, briefly blocking a bit of the sunlight coming to Earth. From our perspective, each of these events, called a transit, is seen as a slow-moving black speck traveling across the sun.


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Filed under: Discoveries • In Space • Kepler
'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
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