Inspiring the next generation of scientists and engineers
March 29th, 2013
04:01 PM ET

Inspiring the next generation of scientists and engineers

Editor's note: Jason Kalirai is the deputy project scientist for the James Webb Space Telescope, which will be NASA's next big mission in astrophysics. He works at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. Follow Jason’s conversations on Twitter @JasonKalirai.

Astronomy has always been the most important of all sciences to me. Astronomy defines who we are as human beings and our place in the universe. It is through astronomy that we test the laws of nature on the grandest scales and attempt to comprehend, well, everything. Telescopes aid in that study. We took a model of the newest telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope, to South by Southwest Interactive in Austin, Texas.

Since the time of Galileo, astronomers have relied on increasingly sophisticated telescopes to study the universe. With each technological advancement, telescopes open a more sensitive eye on the universe. The clearest example of this is also perhaps the most important scientific and engineering instrument ever built: the Hubble Space Telescope. Over two decades, Hubble has rewritten textbooks countless times and fundamentally changed our knowledge of the universe. Hubble continues to do this today and is the overwhelming preferred tool for most professional astronomers to conduct their research.

The James Webb Space Telescope

Just as Hubble and other NASA Great Observatories have answered questions about the universe, they have also revealed new mysteries. The future vision of astrophysics aims to answer these questions and encompasses many scales, from finding the first small galaxies that formed in the early universe to mapping their evolution over cosmic time into the beautiful large galaxies we see nearby. It includes a comprehensive study of stars and planets in our own Milky Way galaxy, both in terms of finding and characterizing younger analogs of our solar system and in exploring other Earth-like worlds for signs of biomarkers.

This bold vision requires a telescope very different from Hubble. The telescope needs to be 100 times more powerful; operate at cryogenic temperatures; orbit 1.5 million kilometers from Earth; shield from the heat of the sun, Earth and moon; and have razor-sharp vision in the infrared part of the spectrum. NASA teamed up with both the European and Canadian space agencies and aerospace giant Northrop Grumman to build our most powerful eye on the universe: the James Webb Space Telescope.

A project like this offers a unique opportunity to inspire the next generation of engineers and scientists. Over the past few years, I have spoken with more than 10,000 adults and children at science centers, planetariums, international symposia, classrooms and other public events. As I share the story of the James Webb Space Telescope, I witness eyes light up with excitement.

An interactive STEM experience presented at South by Southwest

The annual South by Southwest festival is one of the largest cultural festivals in the world. SXSW Interactive brings tens of thousands of people to Austin to experience what is unfolding in the world of technology. This year, the Space Telescope Science Institute teamed up with NASA, Northrop Grumman and Microsoft Research to propose an experience that would connect the public to science, technology and engineering through direct interaction.

Graceful Eruption
March 28th, 2013
11:45 AM ET

Graceful Eruption

"A solar prominence began to bow out and the broke apart in a graceful, floating style in a little less than four hours (Mar. 16, 2013). The sequence was captured in extreme ultraviolet light. A large cloud of the particles appeared to hover further out above the surface before it faded away."

Source: NASA

Filed under: Light up the screen
Physicists a step closer to invisibility cloak
March 27th, 2013
05:54 AM ET

Physicists a step closer to invisibility cloak

Some scientists seem to take their cues from science fiction or fantasy novels.

Physicists in Texas have developed a method to make objects "invisible" within a limited range of light waves. It's not Harry Potter's invisibility cloak just yet, but scientists say it has a lot of potential.

The desire to become invisible dates back to the ancient Greeks, if not further. In mythological literature, gods and goddesses donned a headdress to disappear from sight. Like Potter's cloak, the "cap of invisibility" was imbued with magical powers.

A fixture in magic, the invisibility cloak has now advanced to science.

March 23rd, 2013
09:06 AM ET

Reported meteor lights up East Coast - and social media

By Chandler Friedman and Greg Botelho, CNN

Did you see the meteor? Upload your photos and video at CNN iReport.

The streaking ball of fire Friday night above the East Coast did not, for now at least, signal the end to civilization as we know it.

Though you might get that sense from social media.

The sky lit up along the U.S. eastern seaboard with reports of "a thin streak of blue-greenish-white" from people like Chip Guy, who was driving in eastern Maryland when he and his family he spotted it.

"It didn't last more than eight or nine seconds, then it disappeared," said Guy, a spokesman for Sussex County, Delaware. "Frankly, I didn't think too much of it."


Science Seat: Another Earth called a certainty
An illustration shows a possible planet outside our solar system. The Milky Way is thought to have at least 100 billion planets.
March 22nd, 2013
02:03 PM ET

Science Seat: Another Earth called a certainty

By Nana Karikari-apau, CNN

Editor's note: The Science Seat is a feature in which CNN Light Years sits down with movers and shakers from different areas of scientific exploration. This is the seventh installment.

Sara Seager is a professor of physics and planetary science at MIT. She works on exoplanets, which orbit stars other than the sun.

Seager considers herself a pioneer and risk taker. She worked on exoplanets before it was considered cool, when people thought the field would go nowhere. Time magazine named Seager one of the 25 most influential in space in 2012, and she recently appeared in a CNN gallery of top women scientists.

MIT's Sara Seager studies exoplanets, which orbit stars other than the sun.

CNN Light Years recently chatted with Seager about her work. Here is an edited transcript:


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Filed under: In Space • Kepler • Science Seat • Voices
Better 'baby picture' of universe emerges
This is a map of the light of the universe when it was only 380,000 years old.
March 21st, 2013
03:25 PM ET

Better 'baby picture' of universe emerges

By Elizabeth Landau, CNN

How cute was our universe as a baby? We now know better than ever: The picture of our early universe just got sharper and tells scientists with greater precision many important facts about how the universe evolved.

This new photogenic moment, released Thursday, comes courtesy of the European Space Agency's Planck space telescope, which detects cosmic microwave background radiation - the light left over from the Big Bang. Scientists used data from Planck to create an artificially colored map of temperature variations across the sky in the early universe, in more detail than ever before.

"It's a big deal," said Charles Lawrence, Planck project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in a news briefing. He added, "We can tie together a whole range of phenomena that couldn't be tied together so well before, and the sum total of that, the impact, is felt in many, many ways."


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Filed under: In Space
March 20th, 2013
02:12 PM ET

Apollo mission rocket engines recovered

By Brian Walker, CNN

A set of giant rocket engines that once propelled astronauts to space have now been recovered from the icy depths of the Atlantic, say a team of researchers led by founder and CEO Jeff Bezos four decades after they splashed into the ocean.

“What an incredible adventure,” Bezos posted on his website from onboard his recovery ship off the Florida coast.

“We found so much,” the billionaire adventurer says. “We’ve seen an underwater wonderland – an incredible sculpture garden of twisted F-1 engines that tells the story of a fiery and violent end, one that serves testament to the Apollo program.”


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Filed under: Hardware in Orbit • In Space • the Moon
Northern lights dazzle Northern Hemisphere
A spectacular solar event over the weekend provided a stunning showing of the northern lights, or aurora borealis. This image by Stefan Ingvar Gudmundsson from Iceland captures the lights appearing to curl around the Snaefellsjokull glacier.
March 19th, 2013
04:39 PM ET

Northern lights dazzle Northern Hemisphere

They are one of nature's most spectacular sites: The aurora borealis, or northern lights as they are known, have captivated onlookers for thousands of years.

This past weekend saw a particularly stunning display following a phenomenon known as a coronal mass ejection, where the sun spews a burst of particles into space that reach Earth one to three days later.

Bursts toward earth can cause electromagnetic storms when they react with the Earth's magnetic field, resulting in an explosion of color in the sky.


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Filed under: iReport • On Earth
March 19th, 2013
02:27 PM ET

Money needed to prevent big asteroid strike

By Tom Cohen, CNN

The good news is that the chances an asteroid big enough to destroy a continent or all of civilization will hit Earth this year are only one in 20,000, a congressional panel learned Tuesday.

The bad news is the government needs to spend billions of dollars in coming years for new technology to prevent such a possible catastrophe, regardless of the low probability, experts told the House Science, Space and Technology Committee.

"The odds are very small, but the potential consequences of such an event are so large, it makes sense to take the risk seriously," contended John Holdren, who directs President Barack Obama's Office of Science and Technology Policy.


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Filed under: In Space
March 18th, 2013
02:33 PM ET

On Mars, more water evidence in drilling area

By Elizabeth Landau, CNN

Last week we learned that, yes, Mars could have hosted life, based on the analysis of powder procured by rover Curiosity drilling into the Red Planet.

Now, data from other instruments on board Curiosity show more evidence of water in the area. The rover's Mast Camera (Mastcam) spotted evidence of water-bearing minerals in the "Yellowknife Bay" area where Curiosity drilled. Mastcam has infrared-imaging capability that allows scientists to detect certain minerals.

Scientists released the news at a briefing at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in The Woodlands, Texas.

"With Mastcam, we see elevated hydration signals in the narrow veins that cut many of the rocks in this area,"  Melissa Rice of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena said in a statement. "These bright veins contain hydrated minerals that are different from the clay minerals in the surrounding rock matrix."

Another instrument on board Curiosity adds to these findings. The Russian-made Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons tool detected hydrogen under the rover that appears to be part of water molecules that are bound into minerals. There is more of this evidence of water at Yellowknife Bay than at other sites Curiosity has visited so far, researchers said.

The clay that Curiosity discovered during its drilling must have been created by wet environmental processes, NASA said. The overall mix of chemical elements didn't change much when the clays were produced, scientists said. Information from the Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer, a Canadian-made technology, delivered this insight.

The rock outcrop into which Curiosity drilled appears to have an elemental composition that matches basalt, the most commonly seen rock on Mars.

Curiosity landed on Mars on August 6. The rover weighs 2 tons and is about the size of a small SUV. The mission costs $2.5 billion.

Read about last week's results

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Filed under: In Space • Mars
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