Icy molecules a clue to our origins
Equipment at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, right, mimics the extremely cold temperatures at the edge of a solar system.
September 24th, 2012
12:26 PM ET

Icy molecules a clue to our origins

Scientists think that water and organic molecules come together in the coldest places in space to begin the chemical reactions necessary for organics to evolve into prebiotic molecules - molecules that are precursors of life. Ice and organics could have hitched a ride to Earth on comets and asteroids, where they could have formed the building blocks of life as we know it.

Researchers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, are trying to better understand that process, and how life may have formed on Earth, by firing lasers at icy carbon-laden molecules in a lab.

Principal scientist Murthy Gudipati explained to CNN by e-mail: "In the cycle of formation, evolution, and death of stars, two key components of life (as we know of it): water and organic matter, evolve intimately with the third component energy (radiation) at every stage of this cycle - even at the coldest regions of the universe."


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Filed under: Discoveries • On Earth
Sweet stars hint at building blocks of life
September 5th, 2012
04:38 PM ET

Sweet stars hint at building blocks of life

It's not exactly the kind of sugar you'd want to put in your coffee, but astronomers have found simple sugar molecules called glycolaldehyde around a star similar to our own Sun.

Here's the sweet part: Glycolaldehyde is used in the formation of RNA (a genetic material related to DNA). That makes it a building block of life.

Astronomers used the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) to study the binary star IRAS 16293-2422, similar in mass to the Sun. They found glycolaldehyde around the star. The molecules were found at a distance from it comparable to the distance between Uranus and the Sun.

This is the first time that these building-block sugar molecules have been found around such a star.

"If we can show that the same molecules exist around additional Sun-like stars, that would be an indication that they also have been present around the Sun 4.5 billion years ago," lead study author Jes Jørgensen, of the Neils Bohr Institude in Denmark, said in an e-mail. "This is the first evidence that these simple pre-biotic molecules are present around Sun-like stars on scales where planets and comets may be forming."

The glycolaldehyde molecules, aside from being present around a Sun-like star, are also moving towards one of the stars in the binary system. In a release, Cecile Favre of Aarhus University in Denmark and one of the members of the research team, said, "The sugar molecules are not only in the right place to find their way onto a planet, but they are also going in the right direction."

So why is this important? Further research could show how life might arise on another planet. Jørgensen is careful to point out, however, that the discovery of glycolaldehyde is a very, very preliminary step in figuring out how organic life as we know it might have begun.

"For us, the main question now is whether we can show through similar kinds of observations that the chemical complexity can be taken even further," he said.

Glycolaldehyde molecules could make their way into proto-planetary discs around young stars, leading to the formation of planets or becoming a part of the material comets are made of, Jørgensen said. Either way, they could become part of young planets.

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Filed under: Discoveries • In Space
Family remembers Neil Armstrong
August 31st, 2012
02:46 PM ET

Family remembers Neil Armstrong

Neil Armstrong was memorialized today in a private service held by his family in Ohio. Memorials are also being held around the country, including events at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum, Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and the US Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

The first man on the moon died on August 25, at 82, from complications of a cardiovascular procedure.

The loss of this American hero has been felt keenly around the country and the world, prompting responses not only from everyday citizens but also from President Obama, who proclaimed that flags fly at half-staff on the day of his burial, Charles Bolden, the current NASA administrator, and his fellow astronauts and colleagues.

In a YouTube statement, Charles Bolden said, "Neil will always be remembered for taking human's first small step on a world beyond our own, but it was his courage, grace and humility before during and after his historic Apollo 11 mission that has continued to lift him and all of us far beyond that breakthrough achievement."

Apollo 11 lunar module pilot Buzz Aldrin said in a separate statement, "Whenever I look at the moon it reminds me of the moment over four decades ago when I realized that even though we were farther away from Earth than two humans had ever been, we were not alone....I know I am joined by millions of others in mourning the passing of a true American hero and the best pilot I ever knew....I had truly hoped that in 2019, we would be standing together along with our colleague Mike Collins to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of our moon landing."

The Armstrong family also released a pair of statements. Upon his death, they expressed the following: "Neil Armstrong was also a reluctant American hero who always believed he was just doing his job. He served his Nation proudly, as a navy fighter pilot, test pilot, and astronaut. He also found success back home in his native Ohio in business and academia, and became a community leader in Cincinnati."

"For those who may ask what they can do to honor Neil, we have a simple request. Honor his example of service, accomplishment and modesty, and the next time you walk outside on a clear night and see the moon smiling down at you, think of Neil Armstrong and give him a wink."

To that end, the Internet has responded with Wink at the Moon Night, to be marked on August 25th of every year.

For those wishing to honor Neil Armstrong's memory, his family released a list of organizations that they believe are worthy of such an honor, including the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, saying "The outpouring of condolences and kind wishes from around the world overwhelms us and we appreciate it more than words can express."

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Filed under: News • the Moon
August 6th, 2012
12:53 PM ET

What's our fascination with Mars?

When you look up basic information on Mars on NASA's website, in the field for the name of the discoverer, it says "known by the ancients." Unlike Neptune, and the no-longer-a-planet Pluto, Mars has always figured in to the way we understand our solar system.

If you know what to look for in the sky, the reason why is obvious enough: Mars is visible to the naked eye, and clearly red. It's also close: our ability to see it so easily attests to the relative nearness of the planet.

Pop culture is loaded with references to Mars: witness movies with titles like "Mission to Mars" (2000) and "Red Planet," (2000) documentaries like NOVA's "Can we make it to Mars?", not to mention numerous science fiction stories like Ray Bradbury's 1950s "The Martian Chronicles," and non-fiction books like "The Case for Mars," and of course "Packing for Mars," which both explore what it would take to send not just a robotic analog for humanity, but actual living, breathing people.

Mary Roach, author of “Packing for Mars”, finds her fascination with Mars is a lot more personal.

"I picture myself in the landscape, sitting on a rock in this or that panorama shot, and what that would feel like, be like. The more real the images become, the more it fascinates me."

At 1:31 a.m. eastern on Monday, August 6, our fascination with Mars continued when the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL, or Curiosity) landed on the Red Planet. It's not the first rover humans have sent to Mars: NASA has been sending robotic emissaries since Viking 1 landed in 1976.

NASA's rover Curiosity lands on Mars

Because Curiosity is the latest in a long line of Mars-bound spacecraft, this mission begs the question: Why do we seem to love it so much?

@CNNLightyears posed the question to many asking people why they love Mars. The responses on Twitter and Facebook varied in details, but the gist of them was effectively the same.

Cindie Hurley, a space enthusiast, sums it up via Facebook: "It's the 'new world' of space... If the moon was an offshore island, well Mars is that distant continent...it's only the FIRST step in a much bigger journey. If we can get there, then maybe, just maybe, we can get to the next destination."

Mars, even with its inhospitable atmosphere and barren landscape, is the closest analog to Earth that we're aware of.

James Wray, an assistant professor of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Georgia Tech who collaborated on Curiosity's SAM (Sample Analysis at Mars) suite of instruments, tells us, "It's the most "Earth-like" planet we've yet found, with mountains, canyons, dry river valleys, rocks, sand and dust of compositions and appearances not unlike those here at home. The surface is cold, but at times no colder than Earth's polar regions."

"There is water in the clouds and polar ice caps, and a day is only slightly longer than Earth's 24 hours. Every day is sunny (well, except during major dust storms), with pale rose-colored skies instead of the Moon's harsh black," he says.

Basically, life could survive on Mars but we couldn't survive on, say, Venus, the other nearest planet to Earth. Even though Venus has both an atmosphere and is about the same size as Earth, the air is toxic and the pressure at the surface is such that we'd be crushed, a fate met by some early Russian robotic explorers. Oh, and it's hot enough to melt lead on the surface.

Mars could be our next home. And it's important to us to find out as much as we can about it, not just to further our knowledge of the formation of our solar system and our own planet, but to prepare ourselves to become a multi-planet species, as SpaceX's Elon Musk has hoped for aloud, in interviews.

Mary Roach concludes, "...Mars is close enough to feel reachable, yet far enough away to seem utterly foreign and exotic and mysterious."

Check out Mars complete coverage on @CNNLightYears

Do you love Mars? Tell us why in the comments.

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Filed under: In Space • Mars
August 5th, 2012
01:16 PM ET

Spacecraft on the Red Planet

Ever wondered what happened to the Mars rovers and landers we've heard about in years past? Explore the map of Mars, above, and find out!

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Retired NASA astronaut Alan Poindexter, 1961-2012
Alan Poindexter aboard the International Space Station.
July 2nd, 2012
10:33 AM ET

Retired NASA astronaut Alan Poindexter, 1961-2012

U.S. Navy Capt. Alan Poindexter, a retired NASA astronaut, was killed in a water scooter accident in Florida over the weekend.

Poindexter, 51, was with his two sons, 22-year-old Samuel and 26-year-old Zachary, in Little Sabine Bay on Pensacola Beach, according to Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spokesman Stan Kirkland. Alan and Samuel Poindexter were thrown into the water when their personal watercraft was rear-ended by Zachary's. All three men were wearing life jackets.

A boater picked up Samuel and Alan Poindexter, who was initially alert and talking before falling unconscious. He was flown to Baptist Hospital in Pensacola, where he was pronounced dead.

NASA posted the following to its Facebook page on Sunday night: "The NASA family was sad to learn of the passing of our former friend, and colleague Alan Poindexter who was killed today during a jet ski accident in Florida. Our thought and hearts are with his family."

Poindexter flew two space shuttle missions, one aboard Atlantis as pilot and one on Discovery as commander, logging more than 669 hours in space before retiring from NASA in December 2010 to return to the Naval Postgraduate School in California.

His former colleagues have taken to Twitter to express their thoughts.

Clayton Anderson, his crewmate aboard Discovery, tweeted, "America lost a great hero yesterday; I lost my commander, my colleague and my friend. RIP Captain Poindexter."

Nicole Stott added, "We will miss our friend Dex."

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Moon may have frozen water in south pole crater, study says
This split image of Shackleton crater shows the structure of the crater in false color on the left. The image on the right shows the elevation of the crater (in color) and shaded relief (in greyscale).
June 20th, 2012
04:37 PM ET

Moon may have frozen water in south pole crater, study says

If humanity ever colonizes the moon, we'll need the help of local resources, like water and solar power. The lunar poles, which contain regions of constant sunlight, as well as constant darkness, could be ideal locations for finding both.

Scientists have exciting new insights about the south pole in particular: A study released in Nature today suggests that there is frozen water within a massive, well-preserved crater there.

The Shackleton crater is more than 12 miles in diameter and about two miles deep, and exists in permanent shadow. While the evidence for ice in the crater has been inconsistent, this new study, conducted by scientists at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Brown University and NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, finds evidence for ice on the floor of the crater.

The research team, led by Maria Zuber of MIT's Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, used an instrument called a laser altimeter aboard NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) to create a highly detailed topographical map of Shackleton crater. The laser basically lit up the area, allowing the team to measure the natural reflectivity (albedo) of the crater's interior, which Zuber describes as "extremely rugged."

Those measurements revealed that the crater's floor is much brighter than the floor of other nearby craters, which is consistent with ice in the area. Ice may make up 22% of the first micron-thick layer of the crater's floor, which Zuber says is about 100 gallons - not too much. However, these measurements aren't at all indicative of what ice may be beneath the surface.

The researchers also observed that the crater's walls were brighter than the floor - a surprise, given that the thinking was that if ice present were inside Shackleton, it'd be on the floor, since there's even less sunlight reaching the bottom of the crater than its walls.

Zuber and her team explain the brighter walls by theorizing that occasional "moonquakes" might cause older, darker soil on Shackleton's walls to slide off, revealing brighter soil underneath.

LRO orbits the moon from pole to pole, which allows the laser altimeter to map a different slice of the moon with each orbit. Each slice contains data from both lunar poles. Zuber and her team ultimately used over 5 million measurements of Shackleton crater to create their map, which is unprecedented in its level of detail and helpful for studying crater formation and other lunar processes. Detailed maps like these are also useful for planning future robotic or human missions.

One of those future missions is NASA's Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) spacecraft, also in orbit around the Moon. "We'll be attempting to detect evidence for subsurface ice this fall," says Zuber.

For more, check out this video from MIT:

More science news from CNN Light Years

Follow @CNNLightYears on Twitter

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Filed under: Discoveries • In Space • News • the Moon
A moon of Saturn may have 'tropical' lakes
This color-enhanced composite image shows Titan's atmosphere encircling the orange moon.
June 13th, 2012
03:52 PM ET

A moon of Saturn may have 'tropical' lakes

They might not be fit for humans to swim in, but "tropical" lakes may exist on one of Saturn's moons that could harbor tiny organisms.

Scientists report Wednesday in the journal Nature that the moon Titan may have methane lakes among the dunes that pervade the tropics, the region of the moon between 20 degrees of latitude north and 20 degrees of latitude south.

Like Earth, Titan has clouds, rain and lakes, though they're made up of methane instead of water.


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Filed under: Discoveries • In Space
Dating the Milky Way's halo
The Milky Way glows bright through the center of this infrared image.
May 30th, 2012
01:42 PM ET

Dating the Milky Way's halo

We live in the Milky Way galaxy. Earth is located in one of the galaxy's spiral arms, affording those of us who live in darker parts of the world a view of a band of light snaking across the sky. That band of light is the subject of intense study, as astronomers try to answer questions about its origin and development.

Jason S. Kalirai, an assistant astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, has developed a new technique for measuring the age of stars in the Milky Way's halo. The halo is the spherical space around the flatter disk of the galaxy, which contains dense clusters of stars called globular clusters and older stars.

Kalirai's technique makes use of newly formed white dwarf stars to determine the age of their parent stars in the halo to within 0.7 billion years. This is much more precise than the two other techniques available to measure stellar ages in the halo, which are accurate to between 1 and 3 billion years, depending on the technique.

So why do we want to know how old stars in the Milky Way's halo are? The more precisely astronomers can determine those stars' ages, the more precisely they can determine the age of the galaxy itself, which in turn informs the theories of our galaxy's formation and evolution.

Read Kalirai's full study at Nature.com.

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Filed under: Discoveries • In Space
Go, Soyuz!
NASA astronaut Joe Acaba and Russian cosmonauts Gennady Padalka and Sergei Revin give the thumbs-up before their launch.
May 15th, 2012
10:52 AM ET

Go, Soyuz!

There are three more men in space Tuesday than there were 24 hours ago. Monday night at 11:01 p.m. EDT, the remaining three members of the Expedition 31 crew launched aboard the Soyuz spacecraft and are now on their way to the International Space Station.

NASA astronaut Joe Acaba (@AstroAcaba), as well as Russian cosmonauts Gennady Padalka and Sergei Revin will join commander Oleg Kononenko and flight engineers Don Pettit (@Astro_Pettit) and Andre Kuipers, who are already aboard the ISS.

Monday night's launch, from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, was preceded by the usual pre-launch activities:  the crew signed the door of their crew quarters, were blessed by a Russian Orthodox priest, and said goodbye to their families before getting their suits checked and boarding the spacecraft.

Onboard with the three men, acting as this flight's talisman, was a stuffed Smokey Bear. Traditionally, Soyuz crews fly with a small toy hanging from the top of the crew compartment that acts as a gravity indicator: when the toy floats, the crew's in orbit. (Once it was an Angry Bird!)

If you missed it (or if you didn't and just want to see it again), NASA's posted the video of the launch.

The Soyuz will reach the International Space Station and dock on Wednesday at 12:38 am EDT.

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Filed under: In Space • People in Orbit
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