By Zaina Adamu, CNN
High above us, beyond the skies, is the International Space Station, which weighs nearly 1 million pounds and has a wingspan the length of a football field. It has nine rooms, two bathrooms, two kitchens and two mini-gyms, and it is the largest spacecraft orbiting the Earth.
NASA announced this week that an instrument called ISS-RapidScat will be launched to the station in 2014 to improve weather forecasts, by doing things like monitoring hurricanes. It will also help scientists explore the Earth's global wind field; tropical clouds and tropical systems are affected by wind variations caused by the sun.
Another experiment on board is called InSPACE, which stands for "Investigating the Structure of Paramagnetic Aggregates From Colloidal Emulsions." All that means that scientists are studying magnetorheological fluids, which are complex substances that change form or harden when exposed to magnetic fields. These substances could one day be useful in robots, NASA says, acting as a "blood" to make the movement of joints and limbs like that of a living creature.
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.
By Chris Erickson, CNN
I didn't set out to crash three GoPro cameras and another $1,000 worth of electronics from more than 65,000 feet.
I simply wanted to organize a visual story for 12 international journalists who were visiting CNN headquarters in Atlanta in June. Getting video from the "edge of space" seemed like an easy idea that would make for great television and a great story.
In the past few years, low-orbit photography - that is, taking photos and videos from high up in the atmosphere - has been growing as a hobby. As cameras and GPS devices become cheaper and more reliable, just about anyone can do it, not just tech geeks.
If you watch "The Big Bang Theory," you probably laugh every time Sheldon Cooper says the B-word: "Bazinga!"
Now, in one of those amusing science-imitates-art moments, "bazinga" has been officially dubbed a species of a bee.
The writers of the hit comedy probably never imagined that the persnickety physicist Cooper's favorite word would be immortalized in actual science.
We've had some compelling space stories in the past two weeks. Read on for some of the best:
Astronomers, looking deep into the universe through the lens of NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, saw millions of years further back in time than previously observed.
The Hubble’s wide-field camera 3, used to observe the universe in near-infrared light, revealed images of seven primitive galaxies that are thought to have been formed 13 billion years ago. Scientists believe the Big Bang created our universe about 13.7 billion years ago, so this discovery puts the galaxies relatively close to the birth of the universe.
These results come from a survey of an highly studied patch of sky called the Ultra Deep Field (UDF). One of the goals of a 2012 campaign called UDF12 is "to determine how rapidly the number of galaxies increases over time in the early universe. This measure is the key evidence for how quickly galaxies build up their constituent stars," according to NASA.
A NASA Cassini space mission orbiting Saturn has unveiled high-quality images of a river valley on Titan, the largest of Saturn’s 62 moons. The river, similar to Earth’s Nile River, flows from its “head waters” at Titan’s North Polar region into Kraken Mare, believed to the moon's largest sea.
The entire length along the river valley looked dark in Cassini’s newest high-resolution images, an observation that led scientists to conclude the Titan River is filled with liquid and has a smooth surface.
Titan’s river valley, with hydrocarbons such as ethane and methane, stretches at least 200 miles (400 kilometers) while the Nile River is about 4,100 miles (6,700 kilometers).
Astronomers, studying thousands of stars throughout our Milky Way galaxy, found some giant star clusters that are more than 10.5 billion years old but appeared to look younger than other stars formed around the same time. Scientists say the rate of aging for each cluster differs.
The team of astronomers examined 21 global clusters - a group of stars pulled together by gravity. The study focused on blue stragglers - large and luminous stars that are still alive although they are known to burn out rapidly as they grow old.
The blue stragglers that settled at the center of the cluster because of the heavy weight appeared old while the stars that have spread throughout the cluster looked young, leaving the rest of the rest of the stars in the middle.
Scientists concluded the blue stragglers managed to stay young by consuming all the matter from its surrounding stars.
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.
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.
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.
By Zaina Adamu, CNN
Whispers about global warming got louder in 2012 after a string of unforgiving natural disasters and rising global temperatures. Here’s a look at some recent stories regarding climate change.
2012 drought: just the beginning?
More anxiety surrounding climate change arose with the release of the “Iowa Climate Statement (PDF),” announced in Des Moines this week. It predicts that Iowa’s harsh drought season was a precursor of what is to come for the top grain-producing state.
The statement, signed by 138 scientists and 27 Iowa colleges and universities, suggests that if there is little rain this winter and spring, “it would become a multiyear drought that would be serious,” according to Jerry Schoor, professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Iowa.
But fret not, the scientists added: The drought should – and possibly will – prompt innovation in renewable energy, which would limit the number of greenhouse gases, regulating temperatures.
CIA closes its environment wing
The Central Intelligence Agency will permanently close the doors of its Center on Climate Change and National Security unit, formed in 2009 to examine the relationship between global warming and security measures.
The short-lived branch drew criticism in its grass-roots stage, particularly from Wyoming Republican Sen. John Barrasso, who said in a statement that he “offered an amendment on the Senate floor to eliminate the center because it was unnecessary, wasteful and totally out of place.”
CIA spokesman Todd Ebitz told the New York Times that the agency will continue to observe intelligence challenges that may arise, but not in an individualized office.
Fracking a ‘no-go’ for NY in 2012
Remember “fracking”? It was an often-used term during the 2008 presidential race. The controversial drilling process, also known as hydrofracking, entails injecting large quantities of chemicals and other fluids into the Earth’s surface in order to crack rocks surrounding oil wells, allowing for more gas resources.
On Tuesday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo confirmed that the state will miss its deadline on fracking regulations because of environment and health concerns surrounding the drilling.
“It has potential economic benefits if the state goes forward with fracking,” Cuomo said. “But we want to make sure that it’s safe.”
Rising CO2 levels
A report released by the World Meteorological Organization revealed that carbon dioxide emissions increased to 390.9 parts per million (ppm), up 30% since 1990.
“What it shows isn’t surprising, but it obviously has very important implications for the future well-being of the planet,” said Richard Allan of the Department of Meteorology at the UK's University of Reading.
Carbon dioxide is the No. 1 greenhouse gas emitted into the Earth’s atmosphere.
Kyoto Protocol resumes week-long conference
The Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement among 37 industrialized countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, will convene for its annual weeklong conference Monday to discuss new ways of combating climate change.
The protocol was signed in 1997 and is scheduled to end in 2012.
Extending the protocol will be discussed, but if a compromise is not reached, there may not be another international environment-related pact until 2020.
Lemmings extinct because of Ice Age warmth
New research shows that rapid climate change led to the extinction of lemmings, small rodents that inhabited the Arctic during the last Ice Age.
Their presence came in waves during the Late Pleistocene, 11,700 to 126,000 years ago. Experts believe they died out and then reappeared on several occasions in the span of 114,300 years.
The findings go against some suspicions suggesting that humans play a key factor in global warming.
By Mark Morgenstein, CNN
For potential power sources on space flights beyond the horizon, scientists are looking back to the future.
A team of NASA and Department of Energy researchers has shown that a reliable nuclear reactor based on technology that's been around for decades could be used in spaceships, according to a news release from the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where some of the researchers are based.
The news release says the team used "heat pipe technology," which was invented at Los Alamos in 1963, and uses a heat pipe to cool a small nuclear reactor and power a Stirling engine, producing 24 watts of electricity.