SpaceJibe

February 22, 2017

Major Discovery! 7 Earth-Size Alien Planets Circle Nearby Star

Astronomers have never seen anything like this before: Seven Earth-size alien worlds orbit the same tiny, dim star, and all of them may be capable of supporting life as we know it, a new study reports.

“Looking for life elsewhere, this system is probably our best bet as of today,” study co-author Brice-Olivier Demory, a professor at the Center for Space and Habitability at the University of Bern in Switzerland, said in a statement.

The exoplanets circle the star TRAPPIST-1, which lies just 39 light-years from Earth — a mere stone’s throw in the cosmic scheme of things. So speculation about the alien worlds’ life-hosting potential should soon be informed by hard data, study team members said. [Images: The 7 Earth-Size Worlds of TRAPPIST-1]

“We can expect that, within a few years, we will know a lot more about these planets, and with hope, if there is life there, [we will know] within a decade,” co-author Amaury Triaud, of the Institute of Astronomy at the University of Cambridge in England, told reporters on Tuesday (Feb. 21).

TRAPPIST-1 is an ultracool dwarf star that’s only slightly larger than the planet Jupiter and about 2,000 times dimmer than the sun.

The research team, led by Michaël Gillon of the University of Liège in Belgium, originally studied the star using the TRAnsiting Planets and PlanetesImals Small Telescope (TRAPPIST), an instrument at the La Silla Observatory in Chile. (This explains the star’s common name; the object is also known as 2MASS J23062928-0502285.)

TRAPPIST spotted regular dimming events, which the team interpreted as evidence of three different planets crossing the face of, or transiting, the star. In May 2016, Gillon and his colleagues announced the existence of these three alien worlds, called TRAPPIST-1b, TRAPPIST-1c and TRAPPIST-1d. All three, the team reported, are roughly the size of Earth and may be capable of supporting life.

The astronomers kept studying the system, using TRAPPIST and a number of other telescopes on the ground. This follow-up work suggested that the supposed TRAPPIST-1d transits were actually caused by more than one planet, and also revealed evidence of additional possible worlds in the system.

A three-week observation campaign by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope in September and October 2016 helped clear all of this up. Spitzer’s transit data confirmed the existence of planets b and c, but revealed that three worlds are responsible for the originally detected “TRAPPIST-1d” signal. And Spitzer also spotted two more exoplanets in the system, for a total of seven.

These seven worlds — which Gillon and his colleagues announced in the new study, published online today (Feb. 22) in the journal Nature — are all roughly Earth-size. The smallest is about 75 percent as massive as Earth, while the largest is just 10 percent heftier than our planet, the researchers said.

“This is the first time that so many planets of this kind are found around the same star,” Gillon said in Tuesday’s news conference. [Gallery: The Strangest Alien Planets]

All seven alien worlds occupy tight orbits, lying closer to TRAPPIST-1 than Mercury does to the sun. The orbital periods of the innermost six worlds range from 1.5 days to 12.4 days; the outermost planet, known as TRAPPIST-1h, is thought to complete one lap in about 20 days. (Spitzer spotted just one transit by TRAPPIST-1h, so its orbital path is not well-known.)

The six inner planets are in near-resonance, meaning their orbital periods are related to each other by a ratio of two small integers. This arrangement suggests that the worlds formed farther out in the system and then migrated in to their current positions, study team members said.

Data gathered by the various telescopes suggest that all six inner planets are rocky, like the Earth; not enough is known about planet h to determine its composition.

Because the seven alien worlds orbit so tightly, they’re probably all tidally locked, Gillon said. That is, they likely always show the same face to their host star, just as Earth’s moon only shows the “near side” to us.

And powerful gravitational tugs, both from TRAPPIST-1 and neighboring planets, could heat up the worlds’ insides considerably, leading to lots of volcanism, especially on the innermost two worlds, the researchers added.

Despite these characteristics — extreme closeness to their star and tidal locking — the TRAPPIST-1 system is a promising place to search for E.T., study team members said.

TRAPPIST-1 is so dim and cool that its “habitable zone” — that just-right range of distances where liquid water could exist — is quite close to the star. And even tidally locked planets are thought to be potentially habitable, as long as they have atmospheres that can transport heat from the day side to the night side, Gillon said.

“You’d have just a [temperature] gradient, but it’s not catastrophic for life,” he said.

Indeed, modeling work performed by the team suggests that three of the seven TRAPPIST-1 planets (e, f and g) are in the habitable zone. And it’s possible that, given the right atmospheric conditions, water — and, by extension, life as we know it — could exist on all seven, Gillon said.

Such speculation is preliminary, he and other team members stressed; more data will be needed before the TRAPPIST-1 planets’ habitability can be gauged with confidence. Such work is already underway. The team has been studying the worlds’ atmospheres with NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, for example.

Detailed characterization — and the search for signs of possible life, such as oxygen and methane — will have to wait until more powerful instruments come online, Triaud said. But that wait shouldn’t be long: NASA’s $8.8 billion James Webb Space Telescope is slated to launch in late 2018, and huge, capable ground-based scopes such as the European Extremely Large Telescope and the Giant Magellan Telescope are scheduled to come online in the early to mid-2020s.

“I think that we’ve made a crucial step toward finding [out] if there is life out there,” Triaud said. “Here, if life managed to thrive, and releases gases similar to that that we have on Earth, then we will know.”

Characteristics of the seven TRAPPIST-1 worlds, compared to the rocky planets in our solar system. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Characteristics of the seven TRAPPIST-1 worlds, compared to the rocky planets in our solar system. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

If there were life-forms on one or more of the TRAPPIST-1 worlds, what would they see? Because of the star’s dimness, even daytime skies would never get brighter than Earth’s are just after sunset, Triaud said. (Still, the air would be warm, because most of TRAPPIST-1’s light is radiated in infrared, not visible, wavelengths.) And everything would be suffused in a sort of salmon-colored glow.

“The spectacle would be beautiful, because every now and then you would see another planet, maybe about as big as twice [Earth’s] moon in the sky, depending on which planet you were on,” Triaud said.

Future work may help determine just how common such seemingly exotic vistas are in the sun’s neck of the cosmic woods.

“About 15 percent of the stars in our neighborhood are very cool stars like TRAPPIST-1,” Demory said in the same statement. “We have a list of about 600 targets that we will observe in the future.”

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June 3, 2016

Did our sun steal ‘Planet 9’ from another star?

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There are eight planets in our solar system, and have been officially ever since Pluto was reclassified as a dwarf planet in 2006. But what if there was a ninth planet, billions of miles past Neptune?

Earlier this year, researchers from CalTech announced that they had found signs of the planet, which is referred to a “Planet 9,” through modeling and computer simulations. If a ninth planet were out there, it would be a big one— ten times the mass of Earth— and very, very far away, completing just one orbit around the sun as slowly as perhaps every 10,000 to 20,000 years.

Related: Scientists may have just found a ninth planet and it’s massive

Now, scientists from Lund University in Sweden have used computer simulations to propose a new theory about how Planet 9— if it exists— came to be a member of the solar system. They propose that it was stolen by our sun from another star about 4.5 billion years ago.

“What we were arguing was that you could create this [Planet 9] around another star, and then the sun could capture it, in a close encounter,” Alexander Mustill, a researcher in the department of astronomy and theoretical physics at Lund University, explained in a video about the theory.

Related: NASA identifies 1,284 new exoplanets, most ever announced at once

“We argue that this is how you could put this planet on a wide orbit around the sun,” he added. “You first create it around another star, and then the sun captures it.”

The researchers argue that this would make this planet an exoplanet, which is the term scientists use to describe planets in other star systems beyond our own. Just last month, NASA announced that they had added over 1,200 new exoplanets to the official roster, all of them discoveries from the Kepler spacecraft that had been validated through a new statistical method.

Related: Planet discovery fuels interest in mythical world of deep space

“It’s very exciting to this that there might be an extrasolar planet in our own solar system,” Mustill said.

The study proposing the new theory about Planet 9 was published online in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society in April.

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October 9, 2013

Meet the asteroid that might hit Earth in 2880

Radar image of 1950 DA acquired by the Arecibo Observatory on March 4, 2001. (NASA/JPL/S. OSTRO)

Radar image of 1950 DA acquired by the Arecibo Observatory on March 4, 2001. (NASA/JPL/S. OSTRO)

There are over 10,000 near-Earth objects (NEOs) that have been identified so far — asteroids and comets of varying sizes that approach the Earth’s orbital distance to within about 28 million miles. Of the 10,000 discoveries, roughly 10 percent are larger than six-tenths of a mile in size — large enough to have disastrous global consequences should one impact the Earth.

This is one of them.

First discovered in February 1950, 1950 DA is a 1.1-kilometer-wide asteroid that was observed for 17 days and then disappeared from view. Then it was spotted again on Dec. 31, 2000 — literally on the eve of the 21st century. Coupled with radar observations made a few weeks later in March 2001 it was found that, along with a rather high rotation rate (2.1 hours), asteroid 1950 DA has a trajectory that will bring it very close to Earth on March 16, 2880. How close? Close enough that, within a specific 20-minute window, a collision can not be entirely ruled out.

Top 10 Ways to Stop an Asteroid

The image above was made from radar observations by the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico in March 2001, when 1950 DA passed within 4.8 million miles of Earth. Is this the mug shot of a future continent-killer?

Radar analysis and research of 1950 DA performed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory scientists J.D. Giorgini, S. J. Ostro, Don Yeomans and several others from JPL and other institutions revealed that the impact probability from 1950 DA in March 2880 is, at most, 1 in 300 based on what is known about the asteroid so far.

1 in 300 may sound like a slim chance, but actually this represents a risk 50% greater than that of the average hazard due to all other asteroids from now to then.

However, that’s a maximum value. The study also noted the collision probability for 1950 DA as being in the range from 0 to 0.33%. That upper limit could increase or decrease as more is learned about the asteroid. (The next opportunity for studying 1950 DA via radar is in 2032.)

There are many factors that influence the path of an asteroid through space. Its spin rate, reflectivity (albedo), composition, mass, terrain variations… gravitational interactions with other bodies, some of which may not even have been discovered yet… all of these can affect the movement of an asteroid and, more specifically, its exact position at a future point in time. While many of these things still aren’t precisely known for 1950 DA, one in particular could end up being the saving grace for our descendants: the Yarkovsky effect.

PHOTOS: Russian Meteor Strike Aftermath

A small but important force acting upon asteroids, the Yarkovsky effect is a “nudge” created by thermal emission. As an asteroid gathers heat energy from the sun, it releases some of that energy back into space. Thanks to Newtonian mechanics the sheer act of doing so creates a physical push back on the asteroid itself, altering its course ever so slightly. Over a long span of time, this slight alteration could result in the relocation of 1950 DA away from the spot in space where Earth will be on March 16, 2880… at least enough so that a miss is certain.

In fact, recent research by JPL scientists D. Farnocchia and S.R. Chesley have taken into consideration the Yarkovsky effect on 1950 DA based on known values from previous observations, as well as new research suggesting that the asteroid has a retrograde rotation. While their latest assessment does put the risk of an impact in 2880 within the lower end of the probability spectrum (4×10^-4, or -0.58 on the Palermo Scale) it is still far from zero, and in fact remains higher than any other known potential impacts.

PHOTOS: NASA’s Asteroid Capture Mission

So what would happen if the half-mile-wide 1950 DA were to hit Earth? While that depends on a lot of things, such as its composition, speed, angle of impact, where it impacts, etc., needless to say it would cause a lot of damage across a large area. I’m talking an energy release upwards of half a million megatons, which, were it to strike say, New York City, everything within at least a 100-mile radius would be flattened by the force of the impact alone — that’s halfway to Boston and Washington, DC. And that’s not even taking into consideration the air blast, atmospheric dust cloud, secondary impacts from debris, or damage from any resulting tsunami (if the impact were in the ocean)… the destruction would easily extend out many more hundreds of miles, and the repercussions — physical, financial, economic, and emotional — would extend around the globe.

But again, precisely where 1950 DA will be in another 866 1/2 years (and whether or not it will occupy the same point in space as our planet) relies on many factors that aren’t well known — even though its orbit is pretty well understood. More in-depth observations will need to be made, and that is why asteroids like this must be carefully — and continually — watched.

Luckily, 35 generations offers plenty of time to improve our knowledge. According to JPL’s Near-Earth Object program, “If it is eventually decided 1950 DA needs to be diverted, the hundreds of years of warning could allow a method as simple as dusting the surface of the asteroid with chalk or charcoal, or perhaps white glass beads, or sending a solar sail spacecraft that ends by collapsing its reflective sail around the asteroid. These things would change the asteroids reflectivity and allow sunlight to do the work of pushing the asteroid out of the way.”

ANALYSIS: Meet Asteroid 2013 MZ5, 10,000th Near-Earth Object

Still, whether because of ongoing research, faith in future generations of scientists, or just sheer probability, JPL remains confident that 1950 DA should cause little concern. “The most likely result will be that St. Patrick’s Day parades in 2880 will be a little more festive than usual as 1950 DA recedes into the distance, having passed Earth by.”

Let’s just hope the luck of the Irish is with our planet big time that year…

Source

February 15, 2013

Hundreds injured by blasts as meteor falls in Russia

Filed under: Asteroids, Cool, Cosmology, Inner Solar System, Near Earth Objects (NEOs), Wierd — bferrari @ 9:53 am

Fire in the sky: 500 injured as meteor falls in Russia A 10-ton meteor streaked at supersonic speed over Russia’s Ural Mountains on Friday, setting off blasts that injured some 500 people and frightened countless more.

A meteor streaked through the sky and exploded Friday over Russia’s Ural Mountains with the power of an atomic bomb, its sonic blasts shattering countless windows and injuring more than 750 people. The spectacle deeply frightened thousands, with some elderly women declaring the world was coming to an end.

The meteor — estimated to be about 10 tons — entered the Earth’s atmosphere at a hypersonic speed of at least 33,000 mph and shattered about 18-32 miles above the ground, the Russian Academy of Sciences said in a statement.

It released the energy of several kilotons above the Chelyabinsk region, the academy said.

Amateur video broadcast on Russian television showed an object speeding across the sky about 9:20 a.m. local time, just after sunrise, leaving a thick white contrail and an intense flash.

 

‘We saw a big burst of light then went outside to see what it was and we heard a really loud thundering sound.’

– Eyewitness Sergey Hametov, a resident of Chelyabinsk, the biggest city in the affected region

 

“There was panic. People had no idea what was happening. Everyone was going around to people’s houses to check if they were OK,” said Sergey Hametov, a resident of Chelyabinsk, a city of 1 million about 930 miles east of Moscow.

“We saw a big burst of light, then went outside to see what it was and we heard a really loud thundering sound,” he told The Associated Press by telephone.

The explosions broke more than 1 million square feet of glass, city officials said.

The city administration said 758 people sought medical care after the explosions and most were injured by shards of glass. Athletes at a city sports arena were among those cut up by the flying glass.

 

It was not immediately clear if any people were struck by space fragments.

Another Chelyabinsk resident, Valya Kazakov, said some elderly women in his neighborhood started crying out that the world was ending.

City officials said 3,000 buildings in the city were damaged by the shock wave, including a zinc factory where part of the roof collapsed.

Small pieces of space debris — usually parts of comets or asteroids — that are on a collision course with the Earth are called meteoroids. They become meteors when they enter the Earth’s atmosphere. Most meteors burn up in the atmosphere, but if they survive the frictional heating and strike the surface of the Earth they are called meteorites.

Meteors typically cause sizeable sonic booms when they enter the atmosphere because they are traveling much faster than the speed of sound. Injuries on the scale reported Friday, however, are extraordinarily rare.

Sky fall: When do meteorites strike?

A meteor exploded in the sky above Russia on Friday, causing a shockwave that blew out windows and injured hundreds.

Meteor vs. meteorite: What’s the difference?
Meteors are pieces of space rock, usually from larger comets or asteroids, which enter the Earth’s atmosphere. Many burn up by the heat of the atmosphere; those that strike are called meteorites.

How fast do meteorites go?
They often hit the ground at tremendous speed — up to 18,642 mph. That releases a huge amount of force.

How common are they?
Smaller strikes happen five to 10 times a year. Large impacts are rarer but still occur about every five years. Most of these strikes happen in uninhabited areas where they don’t cause injuries to humans.

Source: AP

 

The meteor hit less than a day before the asteroid 2012 DA14 is to make the closest recorded pass of an asteroid to the Earth — about 17,150 miles. But the European Space Agency in a tweet said its experts had determined there was no connection.

Some fragments fell in a reservoir outside the town of Cherbakul, the regional governor’s office said, according to the ITAR-Tass.

A 20-foot-wide crater was found in the same area, which could come from space fragments striking the ground, the news agency cited military spokesman Yaroslavl Roshchupkin as saying.

Reports conflicted on what exactly happened in the clear skies. A spokeswoman for the Emergency Ministry, Irina Rossius, told the AP there was a meteor shower, but another ministry spokeswoman, Elena Smirnikh, was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying it was a single meteor.

 

 

Donald Yeomans, manager of the U.S. Near Earth Object Program in California, said he thought it was probably “an exploding fireball event.”

“If the reports of ground damage can be verified, it might suggest an object whose original size was several meters in extent before entering the atmosphere, fragmenting and exploding due to the unequal pressure on the leading side vs. the trailing side (it pancaked and exploded),” Yeoman said in an email.

“It is far too early to provide estimates of the energy released or provide a reliable estimate of the original size,” Yeomans added.

The site of Friday’s spectacular show is about 3,000 miles west of Tunguska, which 1908 was the site of the largest recorded explosion of a space object plunging to Earth. That blast, attributed to a comet or asteroid fragment, is generally estimated to have been about 10 megatons; it leveled some 80 million trees.

The dramatic events prompted an array of reactions from prominent Russians.

Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, speaking at an economic forum in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, said the meteor could be a symbol for the forum, showing that “not only the economy is vulnerable, but the whole planet.”

Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a nationalist leader noted for vehement statements, said “It’s not meteors falling. It’s the test of a new weapon by the Americans,” the RIA Novosti news agency reported.

Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said the incident showed the need for leading world powers to develop a system to intercept objects falling from space.

“At the moment, neither we nor the Americans have such technologies” to shoot down meteors or asteroids, he said, according to the Interfax news agency.
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January 9, 2013

Asteroid Apophis to whiz past Earth tonight — and return for more in 2036

An artist's rendering of the asteroid Apophis. (European Space Agency)

An artist’s rendering of the asteroid Apophis. (European Space Agency)

A European space telescope has captured new images of the huge asteroid Apophis, revealing that the potentially hazardous object is actually bigger than previously thought — and you have a chance to see the space rock yourself in two free webcasts tonight.

Asteroid Apophis has long been billed as a “doomsday asteroid” because of a 2004 study that predicted a 2.7 percent chance of the space rock hitting Earth when it passes within 22,364 miles of the planet in April 2029, European Space Agency officials said. Later studies proved, however, that the asteroid poses no threat to Earth during that flyby, but astronomers continue to track the object since it will make another pass near Earth in 2036.

 

Today, ESA officials announced that its infrared Herschel Space Observatory has discovered that Apophis is about 1,066 feet wide, nearly 20 percent larger than a previous estimate of 885 feet.

“The 20 percent increase in diameter … translates into a 75 percent increase in our estimates of the asteroid’s volume or mass,” study leader Thomas Müller of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, Germany, said in a statement. [Photos of Near-Earth Asteroid Apophis]

‘Alone among all these near-Earth asteroids that have passed our way in recent years, Apophis has generated the most concern worldwide.’

– Slooh president Patrick Paolucci

Tonight’s two free webcasts will stream live views of Apophis from telescopes in Italy and the Canary Islands tonight (Jan. 10). The webcasts, offered by the stargazing websites Slooh Space Telescope and Virtual Telescope Project, will show Apophis as a bright light moving across the night sky. The asteroid is too small to be seen through small backyard telescopes.

The Slooh Space Camera webcast will begin at 7 p.m. EST (0000 Jan. 10 GMT). The Virtual Telescope webcast will begin an hour later at 8 p.m. EST (0100 GMT). You can watch both live webcasts of asteroid Apophis here on SPACE.com tonight.

Apophis will be just under 9.3 million miles from Earth at the time of tonight’s webcasts, amateur astronomer Gianluca Masi of the Virtual Telescope Project told SPACE.com.

“Alone among all these near-Earth asteroids that have passed our way in recent years, Apophis has generated the most concern worldwide because of its extremely close approach in 2029 and [chances of a] potential impact, albeit small, in 2036,” Slooh president Patrick Paolucci said in a statement.

In addition to asteroid Apophis, astronomers regularly scan the night sky for asteroids  that may pose a potential impact threat to Earth. NASA’s Near-Earth Object Office and Asteroid Watch program is based at the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

You can track Apophis directly via the Virtual Telescope Project here: http://www.virtualtelescope.eu/webtv/

The webcast from the Slooh Space Camera can also be seen here: http://events.slooh.com/
Source

September 18, 2012

World’s most powerful sky-mapping machine sees 8-billion year-old light

The Blanco telescope in Chile. (T. Abbott and NOAO/AURA/NSF)

The Blanco telescope in Chile. (T. Abbott and NOAO/AURA/NSF)

A new telescope camera in Chile focused on mysterious dark energy has taken its first photos of extremely distant galaxies.

The images represent the first observations — called “first light” — of an instrument called the Dark Energy Camera that was eight years in the works.

“The achievement of first light through the Dark Energy Camera begins a significant new era in our exploration of the cosmic frontier,” James Siegrist, associate director of science for high energy physics at the U.S. Department of Energy, said in a statement. “The results of this survey will bring us closer to understanding the mystery of dark energy, and what it means for the universe.”

This photo from the new Dark Energy Camera, taken in September 2012, shows the barred spiral galaxy NGC 1365, in the Fornax cluster of galaxies, which lies about 60 million light years from Earth. (Dark Energy Survey Collaboration)

This photo from the new Dark Energy Camera, taken in September 2012, shows the barred spiral galaxy NGC 1365, in the Fornax cluster of galaxies, which lies about 60 million light years from Earth. (Dark Energy Survey Collaboration)

Scientists think dark energy makes up 74 percent of the universe, yet they have very little idea what it is. For now, it is the name given to the force that’s counteracting gravity, causing the expansion of the universe to accelerate.

The Dark Energy Camera is designed to study this puzzle by mapping out the distant universe to more accurate pin down its current and past expansion rates.

‘This survey will bring us closer to understanding the mystery of dark energy.’

– James Siegrist, associate director at U.S. Department of Energy

“The Dark Energy Survey will help us understand why the expansion of the universe is accelerating, rather than slowing due to gravity,” said Brenna Flaugher, project manager and scientist at Fermilab. “It is extremely satisfying to see the efforts of all the people involved in this project finally come together.”

The new instrument — a 570-megapixel camera — took its first photos on Sept. 12, taking aim at a portion of the southern sky from atop a mountain in the Chilean Andes. The Dark Energy Camera was built at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) in Batavia, Ill., and was installed on the Victor M. Blanco telescope at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory, the southern branch of the U.S. National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO).

Each photo by the camera can capture up to 100,000 galaxies as far away as 8 billion light-years.

This zoomed-in image from the Dark Energy Camera of the center of the globular star cluster 47 Tucanae, which lies about 17,000 light years from Earth. (Dark Energy Survey Collaboration)

This zoomed-in image from the Dark Energy Camera of the center of the globular star cluster 47 Tucanae, which lies about 17,000 light years from Earth. (Dark Energy Survey Collaboration)

“We’re very excited to bring the Dark Energy Camera online and make it available for the astronomical community through NOAO’s open access telescope allocation,” said Chris Smith, director of the Cerro-Tololo Inter-American Observatory. “With it, we provide astronomers from all over the world a powerful new tool to explore the outstanding questions of our time, perhaps the most pressing of which is thenature of dark energy.”

In December, after the camera is tested, it will begin the Dark Energy Survey, the largest galaxy survey ever undertaken, by mapping one-eighth of the sky. Researchers estimate the survey should spot 300 million galaxies, 100,000 galaxy clusters and 4,000 exploding stars, called supernovas.

Source

July 25, 2011

Believers in Mysterious Planet Nibiru, Comet Elenin Await Earth’s End

Artist's conception of the rogue planet Nibiru, or Planet X.

Artist's conception of the rogue planet Nibiru, or Planet X.

Renowned astrophysicist Carl Sagan once described a “baloney detection kit” — a set of tools that skeptical thinkers use to investigate any new concept. A few of the key tools include a healthy distrust of information that isn’t independently verified, critically assessing an idea rather than becoming irrationally attached to it simply because it’s intriguing, and a preference for simple explanations over wildly speculative ones.

The waxing obsession with the planet Nibiru , which conspiracy theorists say is a planet swinging in from the outskirts of our solar system that is going to crash into Earth and wipe out humanity in 2012 — or, in some opinions, 2011 — shows that an astonishing number of people “are watching YouTube videos and visiting slick websites with nothing in their skeptical toolkit,” in the words of David Morrison, a planetary astronomer at NASA Ames Research Center and senior scientist at the NASA Astrobiology Institute.

Morrison estimates that there are 2 million websites discussing the impending Nibiru-Earth collision. He receives, on average, five email inquiries about Nibiru every day.

“At least a once a week I get a message from a young person — as young as 11 — who says they are ill and/or contemplating suicide because of the coming doomsday,” Morrison told Life’s Little Mysteries, a sister site to SPACE.com.

What’s the origin of this mass panic about Nibiru, which astronomers say doesn’t exist?

A suspect origin

The idea that doomsday will result from a planetary collision was first proposed in 1995 by Nancy Lieder, a self-described “contactee.” Lieder claims she has the ability to receive messages through an implant in her brain from aliens in the Zeta Reticuli star system. On her website, ZetaTalk, she stated that she was chosen to warn mankind of an impending planetary collision which would wipe out humanity in May 2003. (When no such cataclysmic event occurred, Lieder’s followers chose 2012 as the new date for the Nibiru collision, which coincides neatly with other doomsday prophecies focused on the ending of the Mayan calendar.) [Doomsday Facts (or Fictions)]

Lieder originally called the bringer of doom “Planet X,” and later connected it to a planet that was hypothesized to exist by a writer named Zecharia Sitchin in his book “The 12th Planet” (Harper 1976). According to Sitchin (1920-2010), the ancient Sumerians wrote about a giant planet called Nibiru — the “twelfth planet” in the solar system, after the other planets (including Pluto), the sun and moon — which has an oblong orbit that swings near Earth every 3,600 years. Humans actually evolved on Nibiru, he said, and colonized this planet during a previous flyby.

Historians and language scholars say that Stitchin grossly mistranslated ancient texts. The Sumerians did indeed believe in a cosmology involving planets; however they thought there were five planets, not 12, and they did not believe that humans hopped to Earth from a place called Nibiru. Furthermore, astronomers have pointed out that a planetary orbit like the one Sitchin proposed for Nibiru is impossible: No celestial body could maintain a stable orbit that swings it through the inner solar system every 3,600 years and keeps it beyond Pluto the rest of the time. The body would quickly get sucked in or pushed out.

Nonetheless, Sitchin’s books have been translated into 25 languages and sold millions of copies worldwide. Lieder’s planetary collision theory has adopted the name of Nibiru for Earth’s planetary nemesis. Many people who believe that doomsday will occur when the Mayan calendar ends in 2012 have adopted Lieder’s Nibiru collision prophecy as the cataclysm that will bring us to that end.

Missing planet

The biggest missing link in the doomsday prophecy is Nibiru itself. Because no giant, rogue planet has been found in the outer solar system to play the role of Nibiru, some conspiracy theorists have decided that a small comet called Elenin ” href=”/cms/articles/11617-comet-elenin-wimpy-solar-system”>comet called Elenin (which will pass nearest Earth in October 2011) is actually Nibiru. Even then, though, scientists say Elenin will come no closer than 100 times farther than the distance from Earth to the moon. [What If Our Solar System Formed Closer to Milky Way’s Edge?]

“The fact is that these folks are constantly changing their story,” Morrison wrote in an email. “For some, Nibiru is no longer the Sumerian god or planet that is supposed to be returning to Earth in late 2012. It has become a catchword for almost any cosmic catastrophe.”

Internet rumors about Elenin began spreading earlier this year. Its approach to Earth was blamed for shifting the Earth’s axis by 3 degrees in February, precipitating the Chile earthquake, then shifting the pole even more to trigger the Japan quake in March. “Ignoring plate tectonics as the cause of earthquakes, they suggest that the comet exerted strong gravitational or electromagnetic effects on our planet,” Morrison wrote.

When scientists pointed out that the comet is a mere 3-mile-wide glob of ice with no magnetic field and that it won’t even pass very near Earth — and that plate tectonics, not comets, cause earthquakes — rumors began to circulate that NASA was withholding information about Elenin.

“Ironically, the inconspicuous nature of this comet plays into some of the conspiracy theories,” Morrison pointed out. “For people who are convinced the comet did cause the earthquakes, this proves that Elenin is not a comet at all, but a much more massive, and dangerous, interloper.” Conspiracy theorists began speculating that the comet is Nibiru in disguise — a planet or even an enormous brown dwarf star.

In fact, Elenin is a textbook comet; it has visible “coma,” or nucleus, and a long tail made of vaporizing ice. [What’s the Difference Between an Asteroid and a Comet?]

If it were a brown dwarf, “it would not have a coma or tail, because the gas cannot escape from an object with substantial gravity. In addition, if it were massive we would be seeing its gravitational influence on the orbits of the planets, especially Mars and Earth, but there is no change in these orbits,” Morrison wrote. “Finally, if it were a brown dwarf it would have been easily detected in various previous astronomical surveys, including the recent WISE infrared mission, even when it was still in the outer solar system,” he wrote.

The fact that the comet isn’t headed our way is overlooked by most conspiracy theorists, while others say its path is going to change. “[Some] websites suggest that the comet is accompanied by a giant UFO, which controls its orbit,” Morrison told us; in effect, who cares if Elenin doesn’t seem to be headed in our direction — it’ll be steered here.

Distinguishing truth from lies

Morrison offered some advice to those who are interested in astronomy or are worried about impending collisions. “If it [a story] is real, it is likely to be in regular news media, not just posted on some website,” he told us. Furthermore, “not everyone who claims on YouTube to be a scientist or an employee of NASA is. But there is no simple way to distinguish truth from lies.”

The Nibiru conspiracies are so nonsensical that Morrison wonders whether even their purveyors believe them. Because many websites sell Nibiru books, tapes and even “survival kits,” Morrison thinks they are purposely taking advantage of people who aren’t able to distinguish credible sources from crackpot ones. “This is especially a problem for young people, which is why I am so angry at those who target children,” he said.

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June 29, 2011

Scale of The Universe

What might be visible with a hypothetical telescope capable of magnifying 14 million times (clockwise from upper left): Buzz Aldrin's footprint on the moon and the stars Sirius, Proxima Centauri, HD 209458, and Alpha Centauri.

What might be visible with a hypothetical telescope capable of magnifying 14 million times (clockwise from upper left): Buzz Aldrin's footprint on the moon and the stars Sirius, Proxima Centauri, HD 209458, and Alpha Centauri.

This photo essay puts in perspective the size and scope of the universe and what we can see from our tiny planet from distant stars to two light year wide galaxies. Click on the link for the full image gallery.

What might be visible with a hypothetical telescope capable of magnifying 14 million times (clockwise from upper left): Buzz Aldrin’s footprint on the moon and the stars Sirius, Proxima Centauri, HD 209458, and Alpha Centauri.

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October 7, 2009

Phew! NASA Downgrades Asteroid-Strike Threat

Filed under: Asteroids, Inner Solar System, Near Earth Objects (NEOs) — bferrari @ 2:35 pm

LOS ANGELES — NASA says the chances of an 885-foot (270-meter) asteroid striking Earth in 2036 have been downgraded.

Scientists initially believed there was a 1-in-45,000 chance that Apophis could hit the planet on April 13, 2036. But NASA said Wednesday the threat has been dropped to 1-in-250,000 after it recalculated the asteriod’s path.

Earth got a scare in 2004, when initial readings suggested the newly discovered Apophis seemed to have a chance of hitting in 2029. Further observations ruled out any possibility of an impact.

Apophis is scheduled to make a close but harmless approach in 2029.

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