Identifying Constellations at the ISP

Have you ever noticed that the stars in the sky form different shapes? Many others throughout history have as well! Groups of stars that form different patterns in the sky are known as constellations. As you might have noticed, we at the International Spaceport are huge fans of astronomy, or the study of outer space. When we have the free time, we like to look out some of the big windows that of the ISP and take a look at some of these constellations! Would you care to join us?
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If you are looking for a reference to some constellations, you can always refer to your friends’ Star Status charts. As you do more kind gestures for your friends, you can fill up these constellations and get even more ideas for stars to look at in the sky. Today GC and I are on the hunt for the Pegasus shaped constellation. Look closely at how the stars of the constellation match the picture of the Pegasus.
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Now we look for a place to observe the stars. This section of the Mutt Training Center would be the PERFECT place for stargazing. Now it is time to relax and focus on the sky…

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Oh look! There it is! Thanks to our handy guidebook, we were able to locate constellations that astronomers around earth have observed for hundreds of years! Isn’t that amazing?

Now that you have an understanding of how to stargaze, you should try it on your own when you are away from the ISP. Use your Star Status charts to find constellations on those upcoming warm summer nights and start your real life star adventures.

Seven Ways to Discover Alien Planets

Since the first alien planets were discovered in 1992, scientists have found a whopping 800 planets! In order to find these foreign worlds, astronomers have developed a number of techniques to identify them. Here is an overview of the methods scientists use to find new planets.

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Direct Imaging
Perhaps the easiest (and most obvious) way to find a new planet is to take a direct picture of it. Using coronagraphs to block the intense glare of parent stars, telescopes can gather images of distant planets. This method is very common in identifying new worlds.

Pulsar Timing
As the name would suggest, this method is specific to planets around pulsars—small, dense remnants of exploded stars that emit radio waves as they rotate. Irregularities in the pulses’ timing can reveal planets. The first planets discovered beyond our solar system were found using pulsar timing in 1992.

The Transit Method
The transit method watches for small dips in a star’s brightness that occur when a planet crosses (or transits) the face of the star. By looking at the timing of a particular planet’s transit, scientists can calculate variations to find multiple worlds orbiting a star. This practice has been utilized by NASA’s Kepler spacecraft, which has identified more than 2,700 potential planets since it first launched in March 2009.

Radial Velocity
Also known as the Doppler method, radial velocity picks up the tiny wobbles an orbiting planet induces on its star’s motion toward or away from the Earth. This technique measures changes in the star’s light as a result of these gravitational pulls. Radial velocity has been especially effective in locating exoplanets.

Gravitational Microlensing
When a large object passes in front of a star, its gravitational field acts like a lens as it bends and magnifies the star’s light. Astronomers use this brightening and fading light—or light curve—to determine the foreground object (usually a star). Scientists then look for secondary light curves, which can be generated by orbiting planets. This method has been helpful in finding planets deep in space that do not have a parent star.

Special Relativity
Special relativity is a new technique where scientists watch for a star to brighten as an orbiting planet “tugs” it with its gravitational pull. This tug causes photons to gather as light is focused in the direction of the star’s motion.

Astrometry
This method relies upon incredibly precise tracking of a star’s movements to identify the gravitational pulls of orbiting planets. Scientists have employed this technique for decades, to varied degrees of success.

With so many ways to find new planets, it is no wonder that we have been able to identify 800 new planets since 1992. As scientists hone these techniques and technology improves, it will be exciting to see what new discoveries are made as we expand our understanding of foreign worlds.

 

 

Astronomers May Have Found New Way to Map Galaxy Centers

When a star passes too close to the black hole found in the center of a galaxy, the gravitational force is so strong that it shreds the star apart.  As a result, a flare-up is created in the center of the galaxy which fades over a few months.  These flare-ups are called quasars.  A team from the University of Edinburgh led by Professor Andy Lawrence may have discovered a new way to map quasars.  In a large scale survey using the PanSTARRS telescope on Hawaii, Professor Lawrence and his team studied millions of galaxies.  While they did find flare-ups, their behavior was different from their initial “star-shredding” predictions.

Artist’s_impression_of_the_quasar_3C_279Unlike normal quasars that fade over a couple months, the ones found by Lawrence and his team faded over a period of years.  In addition to this finding, the quasars appeared to be at the wrong distance.  Lawrence’s survey identified the quasars to be roughly 10 billion light years away while the galaxies they appeared to be in were only 3 billion light years away.  Should the estimated distances of these quasars and galaxies be correct, then Lawrence and his team are actually viewing quasars through a foreground galaxy.

Normally this occurrence has little effect on the brightness of a quasar, but if a single star in the foreground galaxy passes directly in front of the quasar, the resulting gravitational focusing of the light makes the quasar temporarily brighter.  This phenomenon, called “microlensing,” has been known for low-level flickering, but this is the first time it has been suggested for such intense effects.

Lawrence believes that this finding could help us map out the internal structure of quasars in a way that is otherwise impossible since quasars are so small.  As astronomers discover more developments on this phenomenon, it will dramatically reshape the way we understand the galaxy.

Saturn’s Moon May Provide Clues to the Search for Space Water

Scientists have received the latest clues to aid their hunt for water in outer space with photographs taken by the Cassini spacecraft.  Images of Saturn’s moon, Dione, focus on the 500-mile-long mountain Janiculum Dorsa—a landmark scientists use to compare Dione to Saturn’s geyser moon, Enceladus.  Using Janiculum Dorsa along with other findings, researchers speculate that Dione may have once had a geologically active subsurface ocean.

dione_cassini_bigDiscovering subsurface oceans on Saturn’s moons Enceladus and Titan, Jupiter’s moon Europa, and now potentially Dione have led scientists to believe that there may be more worlds with water than previously imagined.  These moons have played a crucial part in advancing the search for life beyond Earth.

Hints toward Dione’s possession of a subsurface ocean arose when Cassini detected a weak particle stream with its magnetometer.  The spacecraft’s images suggest that a slushy liquid layer may exist beneath its icy crust along with fractures that spew water ice and carbon-containing particles.  If the assumptions formed from Cassini’s images are correct and the moon does have a subsurface ocean, it would increase the moon’s chances for supporting life.

An intriguing clue toward Dione’s potential subsurface ocean is its mountain, Janiculum Dorsa.  The mountain ranges from about 0.6 to 1.2 miles in height and appears to have deformed the crust beneath by 0.3 miles.  Researchers believe that the deformation implies Dione has a warm surface, likely due to a subsurface ocean.

Cassini’s photographs have played a massive role in unlocking the mysteries of subsurface oceans on other worlds and the possibility of life in outer space.  If scientists confirm the presence of a subsurface ocean on Dione, they may be able to find trends across multiple moons that could further their research into extraterrestrial life.

Scientists May Have Discovered First Meteorite from Mercury

Last year, a green meteorite known as NWA 7325 was discovered in Morocco.  Part of a group of 35 recovered meteorites, NWA 7325 is believed to be the first known meteorite from Mercury.  Found by Anthony Irving, he and his team dated the space rock to be about 4.56 billion years old.

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There are a few important characteristics about NWA 7325 that give Irving reason to believe that the meteorite is from Mercury.  First, scientists believe that Mercury’s surface is very low in iron.  NWA 7325 is also low in iron, suggesting that the rock must hail from Mercury or another planet with a similar makeup.

Second, meteorites tend to have chemical characteristics distinct to the larger planets or asteroids that they come from.  Having studied numerous rocks from Mars and other major asteroids, Irving has found that NWA 7325 has a unique chemical makeup, eliminating the possibility that it came from Mars or other previously studied asteroids.

Finally, NWA 7325 has a magnetic intensity—magnetism passed from a cosmic body’s magnetic field to the rock—that is lower than that found on any previously discovered meteorite.  Data recently received from NASA’s Messenger spacecraft indicates that the magnetic intensity of Mercury closely resembles that of NWA 7325.

The discovery of NWA 7325 has been an exciting opportunity for scientists.  As potentially the first meteorite to be studied from Mercury, the rock can provide vast amounts of insight into the solar system’s innermost planet that may otherwise be unattainable.

The Dragon’s Flight

On Sunday, October 28th, SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft splashed into the waters about 250 miles off the coast of Baja California after a trip to the International Space Station.  The vehicle was designed to transport pressurized and unpressurized cargo as well as passengers to and from space.  According to CNN, Dragon’s return marked the first successful commercial cargo mission to Earth’s orbit.  The spacecraft transported approximately 900 pounds of supplies to the International Space Station, returning with nearly 1,700 pounds of freight comprised mostly of used hardware and scientific research material.

Dragon’s mission, called CRS-1, began on October 7th when the Falcon 9 rocket launched the spacecraft from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.  During the spacecraft’s launch, one of the Falcon 9’s engines malfunctioned but the launch team was able to successfully send Dragon into space despite this issue.  Scientists are looking to correct this problem as the CRS-1 was only the first of twelve scheduled launches NASA has planned for Dragon.

After being recovered from its splashdown, Dragon was transported back to SpaceX’s facility in McGregor, Texas while its cargo was sent to NASA to be analyzed.  NASA and SpaceX are optimistic about the significance of Dragon’s first mission as NASA Administrator Charles Bolden told CNN, “This work will transform our relationship to space, save money and create jobs.”   SpaceX’s CEO and CTO Elon Musk also commented that “This historic mission signifies the restoration of America’s ability to deliver and return critical space station cargo.”

Scientists believe that Dragon’s CRS-1 mission is a trailblazer for future space travel and suggests exciting possibilities for living in space.  What cool facts have you learned about SpaceX’s Dragon?  Do you think it will be possible to live in outer space someday?  Let us know your thoughts on this groundbreaking event!