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A rocket is launching to the International Space Station next week, carrying tons of science and supplies to the orbiting laboratory. It’s Northrop Grumman’s 14th (NG-14) commercial resupply cargo mission, and includes plant research, a new space toilet, and a special virtual reality camera designed to immerse you in a spacewalk. Let’s take a closer look at what’s on board, and how you can ask some of the scientists anything.

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A new way to “boldly go” in space  

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A new space toilet is heading to the space station. It’s smaller than the current toilets aboard the station, and includes a 3D printed titanium cover for its dual fan separator. These are just some of the upgrades that make it better suited for our deep space exploration missions. Engineers also gathered feedback from astronauts and set out to design more comfortable attachments that would make “boldly going” in space a more enjoyable experience. The toilet is being tested on the space station, and will also be used on a future Artemis mission. The new design will allow us to increase how much water we recover for use, because yep … yesterday’s coffee becomes tomorrow’s drinking water. See below for an opportunity to speak with the folks who made the new space toilet happen.  

Space plants are rad(ish)!  

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Astronauts traveling to the Moon and Mars will need to grow food to supplement their diets. The latest in plant studies aboard the space station hopes to pack a crunch in that research. We’ll be growing radishes in a special plant chamber, and learning how light, water, atmosphere, and soil conditions affect the bulbous vegetables. Radishes are nutritious, grow quickly (roughly four weeks from sowing to harvest), and are genetically similar to Arabidopsis, a plant frequently studied in microgravity. What we learn could help optimize growth of the plants in space as well as provide an assessment of their nutrition and taste. See below for an opportunity to ask anything of the scientist and engineer behind this new crop.  

Immerse yourself in a spacewalk  

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If going to space is on your bucket list, you might be closer than you think to checking that box. Felix & Paul Studios is creating an immersive 360 virtual reality film of a spacewalk that will put you right next to the astronauts as they go about their work on the outside of the space station … at 17,500 miles per hour. The new camera, specially designed to withstand the incredibly harsh environment of space, will be mounted on the station’s robotic arm so it can be maneuvered around the outside of the space station. Félix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphaël are the co-founders of the immersive entertainment studio, and have been producing a film aboard the space station – from Earth – for more than a year already. See below for a chance to ask them anything about what filming in space takes.  

You can join in the NG-14 Reddit Ask Me Anything on Friday, Sept. 25 to ask anything of these folks and their projects. Here’s the schedule:  

Space toilet (a.k.a the Universal Waste Management System): Melissa McKinley with NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems and Jim Fuller of Collins Aerospace, and program manager for UWMS at 12 p.m. EDT at https://www.reddit.com/r/space.Radishes in space (a.k.a. Plant Habitat-02): Dr. Karl Hasenstein is the scientist behind the Plant Habitat-02, and Dave Reed knows the ins and outs of the Advanced Plant Habitat of the space station. Their Reddit AMA begins at 3 p.m. EDT at https://www.reddit.com/r/gardening.Virtual reality spacewalk camera: Félix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphaël co-founders and creative directors of Felix & Paul Studios will be taking questions at 5 p.m. EDT on https://www.reddit.com/r/filmmakers.

These are just a few of the payloads launching aboard the NG-14 Cygnus cargo vehicle to the space station next week. Read about the cancer research, and new commercial products also heading to space and watch the video above to learn more. Launch is targeted for Tuesday, Sept. 29, with a five-minute launch window opening at approximately 10:26 p.m. EDT. Live coverage begins on NASA TV at 10 p.m. EDT.

Make sure to follow us on Tumblr for your regular dose of space: http://nasa.tumblr.com.

23 hours ago

Space toilet, Radishes, and a Spacewalk in Virtual Reality

Who among us doesn’t covertly read tabloid headlines when we pass them by? But if you’re really looking for a dramatic story, you might want to redirect your attention from Hollywood’s stars to the real thing. From birth to death, these burning spheres of gas experience some of the most extreme conditions our cosmos has to offer.

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All stars are born in clouds of dust and gas like the Pillars of Creation in the Eagle Nebula pictured below. In these stellar nurseries, clumps of gas form, pulling in more and more mass as time passes. As they grow, these clumps start to spin and heat up. Once they get heavy and hot enough (like, 27 million degrees Fahrenheit or 15 million degrees Celsius), nuclear fusion starts in their cores. This process occurs when protons, the nuclei of hydrogen atoms, squish together to form helium nuclei. This releases a lot of energy, which heats the star and pushes against the force of its gravity. A star is born.

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Credit: NASA, ESA and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

From then on, stars’ life cycles depend on how much mass they have. Scientists typically divide them into two broad categories: low-mass and high-mass stars. (Technically, there’s an intermediate-mass category, but we’ll stick with these two to keep it straightforward!)

Low-mass stars

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A low-mass star has a mass eight times the Sun’s or less and can burn steadily for billions of years. As it reaches the end of its life, its core runs out of hydrogen to convert into helium. Because the energy produced by fusion is the only force fighting gravity’s tendency to pull matter together, the core starts to collapse. But squeezing the core also increases its temperature and pressure, so much so that its helium starts to fuse into carbon, which also releases energy. The core rebounds a little, but the star’s atmosphere expands a lot, eventually turning into a red giant star and destroying any nearby planets. (Don’t worry, though, this is several billion years away for our Sun!)

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Red giants become unstable and begin pulsating, periodically inflating and ejecting some of their atmospheres. Eventually, all of the star’s outer layers blow away, creating an expanding cloud of dust and gas misleadingly called a planetary nebula. (There are no planets involved.)

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Credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

All that’s left of the star is its core, now called a white dwarf, a roughly Earth-sized stellar cinder that gradually cools over billions of years. If you could scoop up a teaspoon of its material, it would weigh more than a pickup truck. (Scientists recently found a potential planet closely orbiting a white dwarf. It somehow managed to survive the star’s chaotic, destructive history!)

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High-mass stars

A high-mass star has a mass eight times the Sun’s or more and may only live for millions of years. (Rigel, a blue supergiant in the constellation Orion, pictured below, is 18 times the Sun’s mass.)

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Credit: Rogelio Bernal Andreo

A high-mass star starts out doing the same things as a low-mass star, but it doesn’t stop at fusing helium into carbon. When the core runs out of helium, it shrinks, heats up, and starts converting its carbon into neon, which releases energy. Later, the core fuses the neon it produced into oxygen. Then, as the neon runs out, the core converts oxygen into silicon. Finally, this silicon fuses into iron. These processes produce energy that keeps the core from collapsing, but each new fuel buys it less and less time. By the point silicon fuses into iron, the star runs out of fuel in a matter of days. The next step would be fusing iron into some heavier element, but doing requires energy instead of releasing it.  

The star’s iron core collapses until forces between the nuclei push the brakes, and then it rebounds back to its original size. This change creates a shock wave that travels through the star’s outer layers. The result is a huge explosion called a supernova.

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What’s left behind depends on the star’s initial mass. Remember, a high-mass star is anything with a mass more than eight times the Sun’s — which is a huge range! A star on the lower end of this spectrum leaves behind a city-size, superdense neutron star. (Some of these weird objects can spin faster than blender blades and have powerful magnetic fields. A teaspoon of their material would weigh as much as a mountain.)

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At even higher masses, the star’s core turns into a black hole, one of the most bizarre cosmic objects out there. Black holes have such strong gravity that light can’t escape them. If you tried to get a teaspoon of material to weigh, you wouldn’t get it back once it crossed the event horizon — unless it could travel faster than the speed of light, and we don’t know of anything that can! (We’re a long way from visiting a black hole, but if you ever find yourself near one, there are some important safety considerations you should keep in mind.)

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The explosion also leaves behind a cloud of debris called a supernova remnant. These and planetary nebulae from low-mass stars are the sources of many of the elements we find on Earth. Their dust and gas will one day become a part of other stars, starting the whole process over again.

That’s a very brief summary of the lives, times, and deaths of stars. (Remember, there’s that whole intermediate-mass category we glossed over!) To keep up with the most recent stellar news, follow NASA Universe on Twitter and Facebook.

Make sure to follow us on Tumblr for your regular dose of space: http://nasa.tumblr.com.

7 days ago

The Lives, Times, and Deaths of Stars

Scientists just announced that our Sun is in a new cycle.

Solar activity has been relatively low over the past few years, and now that scientists have confirmed solar minimum was in December 2019, a new solar cycle is underway — meaning that we expect to see solar activity start to ramp up over the next several years.

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The Sun goes through natural cycles, in which the star swings from relatively calm to stormy. At its most active — called solar maximum — the Sun is freckled with sunspots, and its magnetic poles reverse. At solar maximum, the Sun’s magnetic field, which drives solar activity, is taut and tangled. During solar minimum, sunspots are few and far between, and the Sun’s magnetic field is ordered and relaxed.

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Understanding the Sun’s behavior is an important part of life in our solar system. The Sun’s violent outbursts can disturb the satellites and communications signals traveling around Earth, or one day, Artemis astronauts exploring distant worlds. Scientists study the solar cycle so we can better predict solar activity.

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Measuring the solar cycle

Surveying sunspots is the most basic of ways we study how solar activity rises and falls over time, and it’s the basis of many efforts to track the solar cycle. Around the world, observers conduct daily sunspot censuses. They draw the Sun at the same time each day, using the same tools for consistency. Together, their observations make up the international sunspot number, a complex task run by the World Data Center for the Sunspot Index and Long-term Solar Observations, at the Royal Observatory of Belgium in Brussels, which tracks sunspots and pinpoints the highs and lows of the solar cycle. Some 80 stations around the world contribute their data.

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Credit: USET data/image, Royal Observatory of Belgium, Brussels

Other indicators besides sunspots can signal when the Sun is reaching its low. In previous cycles, scientists have noticed the strength of the Sun’s magnetic field near the poles at solar minimum hints at the intensity of the next maximum. When the poles are weak, the next peak is weak, and vice versa.

Another signal comes from outside the solar system. Cosmic rays are high-energy particle fragments, the rubble from exploded stars in distant galaxies that shoot into our solar system with astounding energy. During solar maximum, the Sun’s strong magnetic field envelops our solar system in a magnetic cocoon that is difficult for cosmic rays to infiltrate. In off-peak years, the number of cosmic rays in the solar system climbs as more and more make it past the quiet Sun. By tracking cosmic rays both in space and on the ground, scientists have yet another measure of the Sun’s cycle.

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Since 1989, an international panel of experts—sponsored by NASA and NOAA—meets each decade to make their prediction for the next solar cycle. The prediction includes the sunspot number, a measure of how strong a cycle will be, and the cycle’s expected start and peak. This new solar cycle is forecast to be about the same strength as the solar cycle that just ended — both fairly weak. The new solar cycle is expected to peak in July 2025.

Learn more about the Sun’s cycle and how it affects our solar system at nasa.gov/sunearth.

Make sure to follow us on Tumblr for your regular dose of space: http://nasa.tumblr.com.

8 days ago

Tracking the Sun’s Cycles

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While it’s familiar to us, our solar system may actually be a bit of an oddball. Our Milky Way galaxy is home to gigantic worlds with teeny-tiny orbits and planets that circle pairs of stars. We’ve even found planets that don’t orbit stars at all! Instead, they drift through the galaxy completely alone (unless they have a moon to keep them company). These lonely island worlds are called rogue planets.

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Where do rogue planets come from?

The planet-building process can be pretty messy. Dust and gas around a star clump together to form larger and larger objects, like using a piece of play-dough to pick up other pieces.

Sometimes collisions and close encounters can fling a planet clear out of the gravitational grip of its parent star. Rogue planets may also form out in space on their own, like the way stars grow.

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Seeing the invisible

We’ve discovered more than 4,000 exoplanets, but only a handful are rogue planets. That’s because they’re superhard to find! Rogue planets are almost completely invisible to us because they don’t shine like stars and space is inky black. It’s like looking for a black cat in a dark room without a flashlight.

Some planet-finding methods involve watching to see how orbiting planets affect their host star, but that doesn’t work for rogue planets because they’re off by themselves. Rogue planets are usually pretty cold too, so infrared telescopes can’t use their heat vision to spot them either.

So how can we find them? Astronomers use a cool cosmic quirk to detect them by their effect on starlight. When a rogue planet lines up with a more distant star from our vantage point, the planet bends and magnifies light from the star. This phenomenon, called microlensing, looks something like this:

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Imagine you have a trampoline, a golf ball, and an invisible bowling ball. If you put the bowling ball on the trampoline, you could see how it made a dent in the fabric even if you couldn’t see the ball directly. And if you rolled the golf ball near it, it would change the golf ball’s path.

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A rogue planet affects space the way the bowling ball warps the trampoline. When light from a distant star passes by a rogue planet, it curves around the invisible world (like how it curves around the star in the animation above). If astronomers on Earth were watching the star, they’d notice it briefly brighten. The shape and duration of this brightness spike lets them know a planet is there, even though they can’t see it.

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Telescopes on the ground have to look through Earth’s turbulent atmosphere to search for rogue planets. But when our Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope launches in the mid-2020s, it will give us a much better view of distant stars and rogue planets because it will be located way above Earth’s atmosphere — even higher than the Moon!

Other space telescopes would have to be really lucky to spot these one-in-a-million microlensing signals. But Roman will watch huge patches of the sky for months to catch these fleeting events.

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Lessons from cosmic castaways

Scientists have come up with different models to explain how different planetary systems form and change over time, but we still don’t know which ones are right. The models make different predictions about rogue planets, so studying these isolated worlds can help us figure out which models work best.

When Roman spots little microlensing starlight blips, astronomers will be able to get a pretty good idea of the mass of the object that caused the signal from how long the blip lasts. Scientists expect the mission to detect hundreds of rogue planets that are as small as rocky Mars — about half the size of Earth — up to ones as big as gas giants, like Jupiter and Saturn.

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By design, Roman is only going to search a small slice of the Milky Way for rogue planets. Scientists have come up with clever ways to use Roman’s future data to estimate how many rogue planets there are in the whole galaxy. This information will help us better understand whether our solar system is pretty normal or a bit of an oddball compared to the rest of our galaxy.

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Roman will have such a wide field of view that it will be like going from looking at the cosmos through a peephole to looking through a floor-to-ceiling window. The mission will help us learn about all kinds of other cool things in addition to rogue planets, like dark energy and dark matter, that will help us understand much more about our place in space.

Learn more about the Roman Space Telescope at: https://roman.gsfc.nasa.gov/

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Make sure to follow us on Tumblr for your regular dose of space: http://nasa.tumblr.com

1 month ago

The Search for Starless Planets

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Ever dreamed of traveling nearly as fast as light? Zipping across the universe to check out the sights seems like it could be fun. But, not so fast. There are a few things you should know before you jump into your rocket. At near the speed of light, the day-to-day physics we know on Earth need a few modifications. And if you’re thinking Albert Einstein will be entering this equation, you’re right!

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We live our daily lives using what scientists call Newtonian physics, as in Isaac Newton, the guy who had the proverbial apple fall on his head. Imagine that you are on a sidewalk, watching your friend walk toward the front of a bus as it drives away. The bus is moving at 30 mph. Your friend walks at 3 mph. To you, your friend is moving at 33 mph — you simply add the two speeds together. (The 30 mph the bus is moving plus 3 mph that your friend is moving inside the bus.) This is a simple example of Newtonian physics.

However, imagine that your friend on the bus turns on a flashlight, and you both measure the speed of its light. You would both measure it to be moving at 670 million mph (or 1 billion kilometers per hour) — this is the speed of light. Even though the flashlight is with your friend on the moving bus, you still both measure the speed of light to be exactly the same. Suddenly you see how Einstein’s physics is different from Newton’s.

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This prediction was a key part of Einstein’s special theory of relativity: The speed of light is the same for any observer, no matter their relative speed. This leads to many seemingly weird effects.  

Before talking about those surprising effects, it’s good to take a moment to talk about point of view. For the rest of this discussion, we’ll assume that you’re at rest — sitting in one spot in space, not moving. And your friend is on a rocket ship that you measure to be traveling at 90% the speed of light. Neither of you is changing speed or direction. Scientists give this a fancy name — an “inertial frame of reference.”

With the stage set, now we can talk about a couple of super-weird effects of traveling near the speed of light. Relativity messes with simple things like distance and time, doing stuff that might blow your mind!

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Let’s say you have a stick that is 36 inches long (91 centimeters). Your friend on the rocket doesn’t know the stick’s length, so they measure it by comparing it to a ruler they have as they zoom past you. They find your stick is just 16 inches (40 centimeters) long — less than half the length you measured! This effect is called length contraction. And if they were moving even faster, your friend would measure your stick to be even shorter. The cool thing about relativity is that both of those measurements are right! We see these effects in particle physics with fast-moving particles.

If your friend was traveling to our nearest neighbor star, Proxima Centauri, how far would they think it was? From Earth, we measure Proxima Centauri to be 4.2 light-years away (where one light-year is the distance light travels in a year, or about 5.8 trillion miles). However, your friend, who is traveling at 90% the speed of light in the rocket, would measure the distance between Earth and Proxima Centauri to be just over 1.8 light-years.

That’s just length … let’s talk about time!

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Now let’s say you and your friend on the rocket have identical synchronized clocks. When your friend reaches Proxima Centauri, they send you a signal, telling you how long their trip took them. Their clock says the trip took just over two years. Remember, they measure the distance to be 1.8 light-years. However, you would see that your clock, which stayed at rest with you, says the trip took 4.7 years — more than twice as long!

This effect is called time dilation — time on moving clocks appears to tick slower.

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None of this accounts for your friend accelerating their rocket or stopping at Proxima Centauri. All of this math gets more complicated if you and your friend were speeding up, slowing down, or changing directions. For instance, if your friend slowed down to stop at Proxima Centauri, they would have aged less than you on their trip!

Now you’re ready for a few tips on near-light-speed travel! Watch the video below for more.

Now, if you need to relax a bit after this whirlwind, near-light-speed trip, you can grab our coloring pages of scenes from the video. And if you enjoyed the trip, download a postcard to send to a friend. Finally, if you want to explore more of the wonders of the universe, follow NASA Universe on Facebook and Twitter.

Make sure to follow us on Tumblr for your regular dose of space: http://nasa.tumblr.com

1 month ago

Bend Your Mind With Special Relativity

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Image Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls 

The Perseids are at their peak this week!

The Perseid meteor shower, one of the biggest meteor showers of the year, will be at its brightest early in the morning on Wednesday, August 12. Read on for some tips on how to watch the night sky this week – and to find out: what exactly are the Perseids, anyway?

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Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Your best chance to spot the Perseids will be between 2 AM and dawn (local time) the morning of August 12. Find a dark spot, avoid bright lights (yes, that includes your phone) and get acclimated to the night sky.

Your eyes should be at peak viewing capacity after about 30 minutes; though the Moon may block out some of the dimmer meteors, you should still be able to see up to 15-20 an hour. If you’re not an early bird, you can try and take a look soon after sunset (around 9 PM) on the 11th, though you may not see as many Perseids then.

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Credit: NASA/MEO

If it’s too cloudy, or too bright, to go skywatching where you are, you can try again Wednesday or Thursday night – or just stay indoors and watch the Perseids online!

Our Meteor Watch program will be livestreaming the Perseids from Huntsville, Alabama on Facebook (weather permitting), starting around 9 p.m. EDT on August 11 and continuing through sunrise.

So… why are they called the Perseids?

Because all of a meteor shower’s meteors have similar orbits, they appear to come from the same place in the sky – a point called the radiant. 

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The radiant for the Perseids, as you might guess from the name, is in the constellation Perseus, found near Aries and Taurus in the night sky.

But they’re not actually coming from Perseus, right?

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Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

Right! The Perseids are actually fragments of the comet Swift-Tuttle, which orbits within our solar system.

If you want to learn more about the Perseids, visit our Watch the Skies blog or check out our monthly “What’s Up” video series. Happy viewing!

Make sure to follow us on Tumblr for your regular dose of space: http://nasa.tumblr.com

1 month ago

The Perseid Meteor Shower Is Here!

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1 month ago

NASA Astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley undock from the International Space Station at 7:34 p.m. EDT tonight, bringing...

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History was made May 30 when NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley launched from American soil in a commercially built and operated American crew spacecraft on its way to the International Space Station. 

Pictured above is the SpaceX Dragon Endeavour spacecraft that lifted off on the company’s Falcon 9 rocket from Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center in Florida and docked with the space station on May 31. Now, Behnken and Hurley are ready to return home in Endeavour for a splashdown off the coast of Florida, closing out a mission designed to test SpaceX’s human spaceflight system, including launch, docking, splashdown, and recovery operations.Undocking is targeted for 7:34 p.m. ET on August 1, with splashdown back to Earth slated for 2:42 p.m. on August 2. Watch our continuous live coverage HERE. 

1. Where will Behnken and Hurley splash down?

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Image: SpaceX’s Crew Dragon is guided by four parachutes as it splashes down in the Atlantic on March 8, 2019, after the uncrewed spacecraft’s return from the International Space Station on the Demo-1 mission.

Together with SpaceX, we are capable of supporting seven splashdown sites off the coast of Florida. The seven potential splashdown sites for the Dragon Endeavor are off the coasts of Pensacola, Tampa, Tallahassee, Panama City, Cape Canaveral, Daytona, and Jacksonville.

2. How will a splashdown location be chosen?

Splashdown locations are selected using defined priorities, starting with selecting a station departure date and time with the maximum number of return opportunities in geographically diverse locations to protect for weather changes. Teams also prioritize locations which require the shortest amount of time between undocking and splashdown based on orbital mechanics, and splashdown opportunities that occur in daylight hours.

Check out the Departure and Splashdown Criteria Fact Sheet for an in-depth look at selecting return locations, decision points during return, and detailed weather criteria.

3. How long will it take for Behnken and Hurley to return to Earth?

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Return time for Behnken and Hurley will vary depending on the undock and splashdown opportunities chosen, with the primary opportunity taking between six and 30 hours.

4. What does the return look like? What are the major milestones?

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Crew Dragon’s return home will start with undocking from the International Space Station. At the time of undock, Dragon Endeavour and its trunk weigh approximately 27,600 pounds. We will provide live coverage of the return from undocking all the way through splashdown.

There will be two very small engine burns immediately after hooks holding Crew Dragon in place retract to actually separate the spacecraft from the station. Once flying free, Dragon Endeavour will autonomously execute four departure burns to move the spaceship away from the space station and begin the flight home. Several hours later, one departure phasing burn, lasting about six minutes, puts Crew Dragon on the proper orbital path to line it up with the splashdown zone.

Shortly before the final deorbit burn, Crew Dragon will separate from its trunk, which will burn up in Earth’s atmosphere. The spacecraft then executes the deorbit burn, which commits Crew Dragon to return and places it on an orbit with the proper trajectory for splashdown. After trunk separation and the deorbit burn are complete, the Crew Dragon capsule weighs approximately 21,200 pounds.  

5. How fast will Dragon Endeavour be going when it re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere? How hot will it get?

Crew Dragon will be traveling at orbital velocity prior to re-entry, moving at approximately 17,500 miles per hour. The maximum temperature it will experience on re-entry is approximately 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit. The re-entry creates a communications blackout between the spacecraft and Earth that is expected to last approximately six minutes.

6. When do the parachutes deploy?

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Image: SpaceX’s final test of Crew Dragon’s Mark 3 parachute system on Friday, May 1, 2020, that will be used during the Demo-2 splashdwon mission. 

Dragon Endeavour has two sets of parachutes will that deploy once back inside Earth’s atmosphere to slow down prior to splashdown. Two drogue parachutes will deploy at about 18,000 feet in altitude while Crew Dragon is moving approximately 350 miles per hour. Four main parachutes will deploy at about 6,000 feet in altitude while Crew Dragon is moving approximately 119 miles per hour.

7. Who recovers the crew and the Dragon Endeavour capsule from the water? What vehicles and personnel are involved?

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Image: SpaceX’s Crew Dragon is loaded onto the company’s recovery ship, Go Searcher, in the Atlantic Ocean, about 200 miles off Florida’s east coast, on March 8, after returning from the International Space Station on the Demo-1 mission.Credits: SpaceX

For splashdown at any of the seven potential sites, SpaceX personnel will be on location to recover the capsule from the water. Two recovery ships, the Go Searcher and the Go Navigator, split locations between the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida. On either ship will be more than 40 personnel from SpaceX and NASA, made up of spacecraft engineers, trained water recovery experts, medical professionals, the ship’s crew, NASA cargo experts, and others to assist in the recovery.

8. How long after splashdown until Behnken and Hurley are out of the capsule?

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Image: NASA astronaut Doug Hurley, along with teams from NASA and SpaceX, rehearse crew extraction from SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, on August 13, 2019. Credits: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Immediately after splashdown has occurred, two fast boats with SpaceX personnel deploy from the main recovery ship. The first boat checks capsule integrity and tests the area around the Crew Dragon for the presence of any hypergolic propellant vapors. Once cleared, the personnel on the boats begin preparing the spaceship for recovery by the ship. The second fast boat is responsible for safing and recovering Crew Dragon’s parachutes, which have at this point detached from the capsule and are in the water.

At this point the main recovery vessel can move in and begin to hoist the Crew Dragon capsule onto the main deck. Once the capsule is on the recovery vessel, it is moved to a stable location for the hatch to be opened for waiting medical professionals to conduct initial checks and assist Behnken and Hurley out of Dragon Endeavour.

This entire process is expected to take approximately 45 to 60 minutes, depending on spacecraft and sea state conditions.

9. Where do Behnken and Hurley go after they are out of the capsule?

Immediately after exiting the Crew Dragon capsule, Behnken and Hurley will be assisted into a medical area on the recovery ship for initial assessment. This is similar to procedures when welcoming long-duration crew members returning home on Soyuz in Kazakhstan.

After initial medical checks, Behnken and Hurley will be returned to shore either by traveling on the primary recovery ship or by helicopter. Helicopter returns from the recovery ship are the baseline for all splashdown zones except for the Cape Canaveral splashdown site, with travel times ranging from approximately 10 minutes to 80 minutes. The distance from shore will be variable depending on the splashdown location, ranging from approximately 22 nautical miles to 175 nautical miles.

Once returned to shore, both crew members will immediately board a waiting NASA plane to fly back to Ellington field in Houston.

10. What happens next?

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Image: NASA astronauts Shannon Walker, Victor Glover Jr. and Mike Hopkins and Japan’s Soichi Noguchi train in a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule. Credit: SpaceX

Meanwhile, Dragon Endeavour will be returned back to the SpaceX Dragon Lair in Florida for inspection and processing. Teams will examine the data and performance of the spacecraft throughout the test flight to complete the certification of the system to fly operational missions for our Commercial Crew and International Space Station Programs. The certification process is expected to take about six weeks. Following successful certification, the first operational mission will launch with Crew Dragon commander Michael Hopkins, pilot Victor Glover, and mission specialist Shannon Walker – all of NASA – along with Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) mission specialist Soichi Noguchi will launch on the Crew-1 mission from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The four crew members will spend six months on the space station.

The launch is targeted for no earlier than late-September.

Make sure to follow us on Tumblr for your regular dose of space: http://nasa.tumblr.com

1 month ago

Top 10 Things to Know for the Return of our Launch America Mission With SpaceX

Our Perseverance mission is set to launch on Thursday, July 30 and could help answer many longstanding astrobiology questions about Mars. The mission will deliver our Perseverance rover to the Martian surface, and this powerful rover is equipped with a multitude of tools to study the planet’s environment and to answer questions about whether or not the Red Planet could have had life in the past.

In preparation for launch, our Astrobiology Program is releasing a new update to Issue #2 of the graphic history series, Astrobiology: The Story of our Search for Life in the Universe. This new, fourth edition tells the tale of our exploration of Mars in relation to astrobiology.

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The history of our exploration of Mars is full of struggle and triumph. Mars is a dangerous and difficult planet to visit, with frigid temperatures, damaging dust storms, low gravity, and a thin atmosphere. Despite the challenges, NASA missions have opened our eyes to a world that was much more Earth-like in its past, with environments that contained all the necessary conditions for life as we know it.

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Issue #2 tells the complete history of our endeavours on Mars, from the Mariner missions to Viking and Pathfinder to Curiosity. In this fourth edition, you’ll find  details on the Perseverance rover and its journey to search for ancient signs and signatures of life that could once and for all tell us whether or not life gained a foothold on the ancient Red Planet.

Perseverance will also drill into Martian rocks and collect samples that will one day be returned to Earth by a future Mars Sample Return mission. The samples will be stored in special containers and carefully ‘cached’ in a location on Mars where they will be easily accessible for retrieval. These samples will allow astrobiologists to perform detailed experiments that robots are not yet able to undertake remotely.

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Visit astrobiology.nasa.gov/graphic-histories/ to download the new edition of Astrobiology: The Story of our Search for Life in the Universe, and read the entire series to explore NASA’s astrobiology journey to understand the origin and evolution of life on Earth, and the potential for life elsewhere in the Universe!

Make sure to follow us on Tumblr for your regular dose of space: http://nasa.tumblr.com

1 month ago

Was There Once Life On Mars?  Our Perseverance Rover Aims to Find Out

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We’re set to launch the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover mission from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on July 30. The rover is loaded with scientific instruments and advanced technology, making it the largest, heaviest and most sophisticated vehicle ever sent to the Red Planet.

What is Perseverance’s mission and what will it do on Mars? Here are seven things to know:

1. Perseverance draws on the NASA – and scientific – spirit of overcoming challenges

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Not only does it have to launch during a pandemic and land on a treacherous planet, it has to carry out its science goals:

Searching for signs of past microbial lifeMapping out the planet’s geology and climateCollecting rock and other samples for future return to EarthPaving the way for human exploration

We chose the name Perseverance from among the 28,000 essays submitted during the “Name the Rover” contest. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the months leading up to the launch in particular have required creative problem solving, teamwork and determination.

2. Perseverance builds on the lessons from other Mars rovers

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In 1997, our first Mars rover – Sojourner – showed that a robot could rove on the Red Planet. Spirit and Opportunity, which both landed in 2004, found evidence that Mars once had water before becoming a frozen desert.

Curiosity found evidence that Mars’ Gale Crater was home to a lake billions of years ago and that there was an environment that may have sustained microbial life. Perseverance aims to answer the age-old question – are there any signs that life once existed on Mars?

3. Perseverance will land in a place with high potential to find signs of ancient life

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The rover will land in Jezero Crater, a 28-mile wide basin north of the Martian equator. A space rock hit the surface long ago, creating the large hole. Between 3 and 4 billion years ago, a river flowed into a body of water in Jezero the size of Lake Tahoe.

4. Perseverance will also collect important data about Mars’ geology and climate

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Mars orbiters have collected images and other data about Jezero Crater from about 200 miles above, but finding signs of past life will need much closer inspection. A rover like Perseverance can look for those signs that may be related to ancient life and analyze the context in which they were found to see if the origins were biological.

5. Perseverance is the first leg of a round trip to Mars

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This is the first rover to bring a sample-gathering system to Mars that will package promising samples of rocks and other materials for future return to Earth. NASA and ESA are working on the Mars Sample Return campaign, so we can analyze the rocks and sediment with tools too large and complex to send to space.

6. Perseverance will pave the way for human exploration of the Red Planet

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Two packages – one that helps the rover autonomously avoid hazards during landing (TRN) and another that gathers crucial data during the trip through Mars’ atmosphere (MEDLI2) – will help future human missions land safely and with larger payloads on other worlds.

There are two instruments that will specifically help astronauts on the Red Planet. One (MEDA) will provide key information about the planet’s weather, climate and dust activity, while a technology demonstration (MOXIE) aims to extract oxygen from Mars’ mostly carbon-dioxide atmosphere.

7. You get to ride along

Perseverance and other parts of the Mars 2020 spacecraft feature 23 cameras, which is more than any other interplanetary mission in history. Raw images from the camera are set to be released on the mission website.

There are also three silicon chips with the names of nearly 11 million people who signed up to send their names to Mars.

And you can continue to follow the mission on Twitter and Facebook. 

Make sure to follow us on Tumblr for your regular dose of space: http://nasa.tumblr.com

2 months ago

7 Things to Know about the Perseverance Mars Rover

Science is a shared endeavor. We learn more when we work together. Today, July 18, we’re using three different space telescopes to observe the same star/planet system!

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As our Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) enters its third year of observations, it’s taking a new look at a familiar system this month. And today it won’t be alone. Astronomers are looking at AU Microscopii, a young fiery nearby star – about 22 million years old – with the TESS, NICER and Swift observatories.

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TESS will be looking for more transits – the passage of a planet across a star – of a recently-discovered exoplanet lurking in the dust of AU Microscopii (called AU Mic for short). Astronomers think there may be other worlds in this active system, as well!

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Our Neutron star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER) telescope on the International Space Station will also focus on AU Mic today. While NICER is designed to study neutron stars, the collapsed remains of massive stars that exploded as supernovae, it can study other X-ray sources, too. Scientists hope to observe stellar flares by looking at the star with its high-precision X-ray instrument.

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Scientists aren’t sure where the X-rays are coming from on AU Mic — it could be from a stellar corona or magnetic hot spots. If it’s from hot spots, NICER might not see the planet transit, unless it happens to pass over one of those spots, then it could see a big dip!

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A different team of astronomers will use our Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory to peer at AU Mic in X-ray and UV to monitor for high-energy flares while TESS simultaneously observes the transiting planet in the visible spectrum. Stellar flares like those of AU Mic can bathe planets in radiation.

Studying high-energy flares from AU Mic with Swift will help us understand the flare-rate over time, which will help with models of the planet’s atmosphere and the system’s space weather. There’s even a (very) small chance for Swift to see a hint of the planet’s transit!

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The flares that a star produces can have a direct impact on orbiting planets’ atmospheres. The high-energy photons and particles associated with flares can alter the chemical makeup of a planet’s atmosphere and erode it away over time.

Another time TESS teamed up with a different spacecraft, it discovered a hidden exoplanet, a planet beyond our solar system called AU Mic b, with the now-retired Spitzer Space Telescope. That notable discovery inspired our latest poster! It’s free to download in English and Spanish.

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Spitzer’s infrared instrument was ideal for peering at dusty systems! Astronomers are still using data from Spitzer to make discoveries. In fact, the James Webb Space Telescope will carry on similar study and observe AU Mic after it launches next year.

Make sure to follow us on Tumblr for your regular dose of space: http://nasa.tumblr.com

2 months ago

Three NASA Telescopes Look at an Angry Young Star Together

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That’s a wrap! Thank you all very much for the wonderful questions.  
We’re so excited to send Perseverance off on her journey...

2 months ago

That’s a wrap! Thank you all very much for the wonderful questions. 
We’re so excited to send Perseverance off on her journey...

2 months ago

As an engineering undergrad how can I contribute to the space exploration program?

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2 months ago

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The answers are IN for your questions about our Perseverance rover and her upcoming mission to Mars!  Sit back, relax, and get...
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The answers are IN for your questions about our Perseverance rover and her upcoming mission to Mars!  Sit back, relax, and get...

Solar Orbiter just released its first scientific data — including the closest images ever taken of the Sun.

Launched on February 9, 2020, Solar Orbiter is a collaboration between the European Space Agency and NASA, designed to study the Sun up close. Solar Orbiter completed its first close pass of the Sun on June 15, flying within 48 million miles of the Sun’s surface.

This is already closer to the Sun than any other spacecraft has taken pictures (our Parker Solar Probe mission has flown closer, but it doesn’t take pictures of the Sun). And over the next seven years, Solar Orbiter will inch even closer to the Sun while tilting its orbit above the plane of the planets, to peek at the Sun’s north and south poles, which have never been imaged before.

Here’s some of what Solar Orbiter has seen so far.

The Sun up close

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Solar Orbiter’s Extreme Ultraviolet Imager, or EUI, sees the Sun in wavelengths of extreme ultraviolet light that are invisible to our eyes.

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EUI captured images showing “campfires” dotting the Sun. These miniature bright spots are over a million times smaller than normal solar flares. They may be the nanoflares, or tiny explosions, long thought to help heat the Sun’s outer atmosphere, or corona, to its temperature 300 times hotter than the Sun’s surface. It will take more data to know for sure, but one thing’s certain: In EUI’s images, these campfires are all over the Sun.

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The Polar and Helioseismic Imager, or PHI, maps the Sun’s magnetic field in a variety of ways. These images show several of the measurements PHI makes, including the magnetic field strength and direction and the speed of flow of solar material.

PHI will have its heyday later in the mission, as Solar Orbiter gradually tilts its orbit to 24 degrees above the plane of the planets, giving it a never-before-seen view of the poles. But its first images reveal the busy magnetic field on the solar surface.

Studying space

Solar Orbiter’s instruments don’t just focus on the Sun itself — it also carries instruments that study the space around the Sun and surrounding the spacecraft.

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The Solar and Heliospheric Imager, or SoloHi, looks out the side of the Solar Orbiter spacecraft to see the solar wind, dust, and cosmic rays that fill the space between the Sun and the planets. SoloHi captured the relatively faint light reflecting off interplanetary dust known as the zodiacal light, the bright blob of light in the right of the image. Compared to the Sun, the zodiacal light is extremely dim – to see it, SoloHi had to reduce incoming sunlight by a trillion times. The straight bright feature on the very edge of the image is a baffle illuminated by reflections from the spacecraft’s solar array.

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This first data release highlights Solar Orbiter’s images, but its in situ instruments also revealed some of their first measurements. The Solar Wind Analyser, or SWA instrument, made the first dedicated measurements of heavy ions — carbon, oxygen, silicon, and iron — in the solar wind from the inner heliosphere.

Read more about Solar Orbiter’s first data and see all the images on ESA’s website.

Make sure to follow us on Tumblr for your regular dose of space: http://nasa.tumblr.com

2 months ago

See the Closest Ever Images of the Sun

Did you recently hear that NASA changed the zodiac signs? Nope, we definitely didn’t…

…Here at NASA, we study astronomy, not astrology. We didn’t change any zodiac signs, we just did the math. Here are the details:

First Things First: Astrology is not Astronomy…

Astronomy is the scientific study of everything in outer space. Astronomers and other scientists know that stars many light-years away have no effect on the ordinary activities of humans on Earth.

Astrology, meanwhile, is something else. It’s the belief that the positions of stars and planets can influence human events. It’s not considered a science.

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Some curious symbols ring the outside of the Star Finder. These symbols stand for some of the constellations in the zodiac. What is the zodiac and what is special about these constellations?

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Imagine a straight line drawn from Earth though the sun and out into space way beyond our solar system where the stars are. Then, picture Earth following its orbit around the sun. This imaginary line would rotate, pointing to different stars throughout one complete trip around the sun – or, one year. All the stars that lie close to the imaginary flat disk swept out by this imaginary line are said to be in the zodiac.

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The constellations in the zodiac are simply the constellations that this imaginary straight line points to in its year-long journey.

What are Constellations?

A constellation is group of stars like a dot-to-dot puzzle. If you join the dots—stars, that is—and use lots of imagination, the picture would look like an object, animal, or person. For example, Orion is a group of stars that the Greeks thought looked like a giant hunter with a sword attached to his belt. Other than making a pattern in Earth’s sky, these stars may not be related at all.

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Even the closest star is almost unimaginably far away. Because they are so far away, the shapes and positions of the constellations in Earth’s sky change very, very slowly. During one human lifetime, they change hardly at all.

A Long History of Looking to the Stars

The Babylonians lived over 3,000 years ago. They divided the zodiac into 12 equal parts – like cutting a pizza into 12 equal slices. They picked 12 constellations in the zodiac, one for each of the 12 “slices.” So, as Earth orbits the sun, the sun would appear to pass through each of the 12 parts of the zodiac. Since the Babylonians already had a 12-month calendar (based on the phases of the moon), each month got a slice of the zodiac all to itself.

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But even according to the Babylonians’ own ancient stories, there were 13 constellations in the zodiac. So they picked one, Ophiuchus, to leave out. Even then, some of the chosen 12 didn’t fit neatly into their assigned slice of the pie and crossed over into the next one.

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When the Babylonians first invented the 12 signs of zodiac, a birthday between about July 23 and August 22 meant being born under the constellation Leo. Now, 3,000 years later, the sky has shifted because Earth’s axis (North Pole) doesn’t point in quite the same direction.

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The constellations are different sizes and shapes, so the sun spends different lengths of time lined up with each one. The line from Earth through the sun points to Virgo for 45 days, but it points to Scorpius for only 7 days.  To make a tidy match with their 12-month calendar, the Babylonians ignored the fact that the sun actually moves through 13 constellations, not 12. Then they assigned each of those 12 constellations equal amounts of time.

So, we didn’t change any zodiac signs…we just did the math.

Make sure to follow us on Tumblr for your regular dose of space: http://nasa.tumblr.com

Did you recently hear that NASA changed the zodiac signs? Nope, we definitely didn’t…

2 months ago

Constellations and the Calendar

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Image Credit:NASA/JPL-Caltech⁣   In this large celestial mosaic, our Spitzer Space Telescope captured a stellar family portrait!...
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2 months ago

Image Credit:NASA/JPL-Caltech⁣ In this large celestial mosaic, our Spitzer Space Telescope captured a stellar family portrait!...

Observers all over the world are hoping to catch a glimpse of Comet NEOWISE before it speeds away into the depths of space, not to be seen again for another 6,800 years. 

For those that are, or will be, tracking Comet NEOWISE there will be a few particularly interesting observing opportunities this week. 

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Over the coming days it will become increasingly visible shortly after sunset in the northwest sky.

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The object is best viewed using binoculars or a small telescope, but if conditions are optimal, you may be able to see it with the naked eye. If you’re looking in the sky without the help of observation tools, Comet NEOWISE will likely look like a fuzzy star with a bit of a tail. Using binoculars will give viewers a good look at the fuzzy comet and its long, streaky tail. 

Here’s what to do:

Find a spot away from city lights with an unobstructed view of the sky Just after sunset, look below the Big Dipper in the northwest sky

Each night, the comet will continue rising increasingly higher above the northwestern horizon.

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There will be a special bonus for viewers observing comet NEOWISE from the northeast United States near Washington, DC. For several evenings, there will be a brief conjunction as the International Space Station will appear to fly near the comet in the northeast sky. Approximate times and locations of the conjunctions are listed below (the exact time of the conjunction and viewing direction will vary slightly based on where you are in the Washington, DC area):

July 17 :  ~10:56 p.m. EDT  = NEOWISE elevation: ~08°   Space Station elevation: ~14°

July 18 :  ~10:08 p.m. EDT  = NEOWISE elevation: ~13°   Space Station elevation: ~18°

July 19 :  ~10:57 p.m. EDT  = NEOWISE elevation: ~10°   Space Station elevation: ~08°

July 20 :  ~10:09 p.m. EDT  = NEOWISE elevation: ~17°   Space Station elevation: ~07°

It will be a late waning Moon, with the New Moon on July 20, so the viewing conditions should be good as long as the weather cooperates. 

Comet NEOWISE is about 3 miles across and covered in soot left over from its formation near the birth of our solar system 4.6 billion years ago - a typical comet.

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Comets are frozen leftovers from the formation of the solar system composed of dust, rock and ices. They range from a few miles to tens of miles wide, but as they orbit closer to the sun, they heat up and spew gases and dust into a glowing head that can be larger than a planet. This material forms a tail that stretches millions of miles.

Make sure to follow us on Tumblr for your regular dose of space: http://nasa.tumblr.com

2 months ago

How to See Comet NEOWISE

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