Space News: Three Cool Things We Learned This Week

We live in a an age of incredible discoveries. It seems like every day we get news of a finding or an event that changes not how we think about just our world, but our universe. Some people look back at the moon landing and think that our greatest days of space exploration are behind us, but the International Space Station, the Hubble Telescope and our ever-increasing ability to see things that are far away from down here on earth make these times the most exciting ever. And just last week we had close encounters with a meteororite and an asteroid. Here’s a sample of what we learned about the heavens this week:

1. The Birth of a Planet

The aptly named Very large Telescope in Chile collected the first real visual evidence of the birth of a planet, currently named HD100546. Having never witnessed the birth of a planets, scientist hypothesized that planets formed from dust particles floating in nebulae in a process known as accretion. According to Popular Science, the telescope captured images of ”a planet still in the midst of a disk of gas and dust that surrounds its central star, HD 100546, located 335 light-years away from Earth.”

Artist's rendering of the forming planet

Artist’s rendering of the forming gas giant – credit: ESO/L. Calcada ES

Scientist will have to observe the formation for years before they are absolutely sure it’s a planet, but the evidence points to it being like a gas giant, like Jupiter, and it’s currently about as massive as Jupiter, says Sascha Quanz, an astronomer at ETH Zurich in Switzerland who led the discovery. He and his team expect to take more pictures in Chile in April.

2. Discovery and then Disappearance of a Third Ring of Radiation Around the Earth

Today NASA announced its discovery of a third ring of radiation around the earth that no one even suspected was there – scientists literally stumbled over it when collecting data from the two known radiation belts, known as the Van Allen Belts. Space probes track and collect data from the Van Allen belts because particles and radiation within them  can affect satellites and humans as they travel through space. NASA credits new equipment launched last fall with the discovery:   “The new high-resolution observations by the Relativistic Electron Proton Telescope (REPT) instrument, part of the Energetic Particle, Composition, and Thermal Plasma Suite (ECT) aboard the Van Allen Probes, revealed there can be three distinct, long-lasting belt structures with the emergence of a second empty slot region, or space, in between.”

IO9 has a great write-up of this discovery that includes an informative explanation (with video) of the new belt, which is gone, at least for now. NASA’s explanation is simple and science geek cool: “Scientists observed the third belt for four weeks before a powerful interplanetary shock wave from the sun annihilated it.” After the solar storm, the particles reconfigured back into two belts.

Solar flare with earth shown for scale

Solar flare with earth shown for scale

3. The International Space Station Continues to be the Coolest Thing No One Ever Hears About

It used to be that every time NASA launched something into space, everyone stopped to watch, but today, maybe even as you read this, NASA is launching a Falcon 9 rocket carrying its Dragon cargo capsule to the Space Station. There aren’t any people on board, but NASA explains how the modern space research program works:

“The capsule will be filled with more than 1,200 pounds of scientific experiments and cargo. It will remain attached to the space station’s Harmony module for more than three weeks. The Dragon capsule will splash down in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Baja California on March 25, returning more than 2,300 pounds of experiment samples and equipment, which will be recovered for examination by scientists and engineers.” What new discoveries will we glean from research done in orbit? What space news will we wake up to tomorrow?

UPDATE (March 5): The Dragon Space Capsule launched successfully on March 1 but is now having trouble with its thrusters, and while it is in orbit the problem is not entirely understood and remains unresolved. More updates available from Space.com as the situation develops.

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Mar 1, 2013 | Posted by in Asteroid, International Space Station, Meteorite, Planets, Space | Comments Off