Friday 16 September 2011 Article Source: LINK

Reality catches up with science fiction as Nasa release animations of newly discovered Kepler-16b, a planet where two suns set over the horizon, much like Luke Skywalker's home of Tatooine in the Star Wars.
In an iconic scene in Star Wars, Luke Skywalker gazes into the distance as two suns set on the horizon of his homeland.

Now Nasa has discovered that Kepler-16b, much like the fictional Tatooine, is a circumbinary planet - a planet that orbits two parent stars - as opposed to the Earth and its sole star, the Sun.

The planet, about 200 light years from Earth, was glimpsed with the the space agency's Kepler space telescope, which monitors the brightness of 155,000 stars, according to research published in the journal Science.

While astronomers have previously glimpsed planets they believed were orbiting two stars, this discovery offers the first proof as they had never before seen one passing in front of its two Suns until now.

"Kepler-16b is the first confirmed, unambiguous example of a circumbinary planet - a planet orbiting not one, but two stars," said co-author Josh Carter of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

"This discovery is stunning," said co-author Alan Boss of the Carnegie Institution for Science Department of Terrestrial Magnetism.

"Once again, what used to be science fiction has turned into reality."

However the similarities end there. Whilst Luke Skywalker's native planet was hot and desert-like, Saturn-sized Kepler-16b is freezing, with surface temperatures reaching chills of -73C to -101C.

By Denise Chow, Space.com Staff Writer - 12th September 2011 Time: 05:35 PM ET Article Source: LINK

This artist’s impression shows the alien planet HD 85512b orbiting the Sun-like star HD 85512 in the southern constellation of Vela (The Sail). It orbits a star 35 light-years from Earth and weighs the equivalent of 3.6 Earth masses and may be in the habitable zone.
CREDIT: ESO/M. Kornmesser

For anyone keeping track, the number of confirmed alien planets now stands at more than 600, bolstered by the announcement today (Sept. 12) of 50 newfound alien worlds by the European Southern Observatory (ESO).

More than 50 new exoplanets — including one "super-Earth" that could potentially support life — were discovered using data from European observatory's High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) spectrograph, an instrument on the 11.8-foot (3.6-meter) telescope at the La Silla Observatory in Chile, ESO officials announced at the news briefing.

This bounty of alien planets is the latest in a string of discoveries that effectively pushed the current exoplanet tally past the 600 mark. Given the technological advances in the field of exoplanet research, it's possible we could see 1,000 confirmed alien worlds very soon, said Wesley Traub, chief scientist of NASA's Exoplanet Exploration Program at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

"The next big milestone should be 1,000," Traub told SPACE.com. "We are learning that there are so many planets out there, and many stars have multiple planets around then, that it's just a question of time until we get to that 1,000 mark of confirmed planets."

The search for alien worlds

NASA's planet-hunting Kepler space observatory has identified more than 1,200 planetary candidates, which are potential worlds that require more observation before they can either be confirmed as exoplanets or deemed false positives.

Kepler uses the transit method to sniff out potential alien planets. This method looks for changes in a star's brightness caused by a planet crossing in front of it. ESO's HARP spectrograph, on the other hand, uses a technique called radial velocity that looks for repeated fluctuations in a star's movement potentially caused by a planet's gravitational pull.

"As technologies get better, we are able to discover things that are smaller and have smaller signals, whether it's radial velocities or transits," Traub said. "People have always been looking for these small planets, but we're pushing really hard to make radial velocity work better so we can find something like Earth. That's basically the holy grail of radial velocity. The same thing is true about transits."

The European Southern Observatory's new findings include 16 super-Earths, which are potentially rocky worlds that are more massive than our planet. Astronomers are especially interested in one, called HD 85512 b, which was found to orbit at the edge of its star's habitable zone, a region where conditions could be suitable to support life. [Infographic: Alien Planet HD 85512 b Holds Possibility of Life]

And while the current tally of exoplanets stands at just over 600, there are some discrepancies in how people classify these alien worlds.

According to the Extrasolar Planets Encyclopedia, a database compiled by astrobiologist Jean Schneider of the Paris-Meudon Observatory, there are now 645 detected alien planets.

Yet, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's PlanetQuest website, which keeps a count of confirmed alien planets, lists 564 planets (not including the ESO exoplanets announced today).

Candidates vs. confirmed planets

This discrepancy is largely because the criteria for what constitutes an exoplanet can differ, based on the website or organization.

"If you look at the European site (Extrasolar Planets Encyclopedia), it includes anything that has been announced," Traub said. "It's trying to be as complete a list as possible, so it will always have the maximum number of planets of the sites that list them. If something is announced, [Schneider] adds it on there. He's very, very attentive that way."

NASA's PlanetQuest site, however, takes a much more conservative approach. PlanetQuest tends to not add an exoplanet to the list until it has been validated, checked, and the study has been accepted for publication, Traub said.

"It's a very stringent set of requirements," Traub said. "The rule is, we don't want to have any mistakes, so we don't necessarily care if we're six months behind. We want to be sure of the number we're writing down."

As for the amount of exoplanet findings that have been announced within the past two years, Traub explained that it's likely due to the serendipitous timing of the Kepler data's release, and other exoplanet-hunting missions.

"It's largely because of the accidental confluence of when Kepler was launched and when we're getting the data," Traub said. "Same with radial velocity. People are getting better and better at it with time. It's kind of an accident, but it's a wonderful accident."

By Adam Hadhazy updated 9/1/2011 5:01:54 PM ET Article Source: LINK

"There's a reason we've never gone back to moon," teases the poster for the new horror sci-fi flick "Apollo 18." The movie claims to reveal decades-old footage of astronauts on a secret mission two years after Apollo 17 – the last real expedition to the moon – flew in 1972. (Without giving away anything that isn't in the trailer, lunar aliens apparently share some blame for our 40-year absence from the moon.)

In actuality, NASA did prepare for Apollos 18, 19 and 20. But these missions were scrapped amid budgetary concerns and a decline in public interest.

"The whole world was glued to Apollo 11," said David R. Williams, planetary curation scientist at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. "But by the time they got to 16 and 17 the general public just really wasn't that interested anymore."
Astronaut Harrison Schmitt stands next to boulder during third EVA of Apollo 17, NASA's final manned mission to the moon.

Even before Apollo 11 – the first lunar landing in July 1969 – the government had already axed the program's loftier ambitions. Planners had envisioned Apollo leading to a lunar base, for instance, and a manned mission to Mars was entering the conversation.
"There could've been a much more protracted program with a lot more interesting hardware and complex missions," said David S.F. Portree, manager of the Regional Planetary Information Facility for the U.S. Geological Survey's Astrogeology Science Center in Flagstaff, Ariz. Portree has written historical texts for NASA and blogs at "Beyond Apollo."

Establishing a lunar colony
The Apollo program originally called for 10 moon landings – Apollo missions 11 through 20. NASA even selected landing sites for 18, 19 and 20. (After the near-disaster of Apollo 13 and later cancellations, administrators shuffled the sites around. Apollo 15, for example, landed at the Hadley Rille, where Apollo 19 would have visited.)

"The general idea was to more or less repeat Apollo 17 for three other locations to really get the moon mapped out," said Williams.

The nixed Apollo missions, like their predecessors, would have further examined the lunar environment by returning more rock samples to Earth and conducting new experiments. Instruments would have studied the moon's surface radiation and dust levels in detail in order to lay the groundwork for an eventual laboratory.

"The main point of a good number of these experiments was to determine what the long-term lunar environment would be if you wanted to put a base there," Williams said. "The idea was after Apollo they were going to build a semi-permanent habitat there and have a crew of astronauts maybe stay for a few weeks (at a time)."

Apollo bites the dust
Instead, the Apollo program wound down in the early 1970s and segued into Skylab. This space station remained aloft from 1973 to 1979 and was serviced and staffed by astronauts in Apollo modules. The last official Apollo mission – the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, a joint effort with the Soviet Union – saw the docking of an Apollo and a Soyuz module in 1975.

These missions came about under the Apollo Applications Program (AAP), the successor to Apollo. "The Apollo Applications Program was meant to blueprint what NASA would be doing in the years that would follow after the initial landings," said Portree.

Some NASA scientists had grand plans heading into AAP's establishment in 1968. But the program's budget as allocated by Congress severely constrained what might have been, Portree said.

Onward to Mars?
Another mission that never took off, but had been in the works for years, was a manned flyby of Mars using Apollo and AAP hardware. Slated for the mid 1970s, the quest's four-man crew would conduct telescopic observations and run experiments on themselves to learn about the health effects of prolonged weightlessness. The astronauts would arrive back at Earth about a year later.

Other proposed journeys included dual-planet flybys of both Venus and Mars, as well as launching probes to collect samples for return to Earth.

With these proposals, "there was the idea of creating a bridge – a little bit like Gemini was for Apollo – for much more complex Mars landing missions in the 1980s," Portree told Life's Little Mysteries.

Is There Even a Shred of Truth in the Far-Out 'Apollo 18' Trailer? Posted Mar 1,2011

With the release of a full HD trailer for Apollo 18 ( this version has been removed by Youtube ) , Dimension Films wants you to think they made a movie out of actual footage from a secret moon landing. Studio chief Bob Weinstein is already making headlines with his marketing claims that "we didn’t shoot anything ... We found it."

Whether you buy that line may depend on if you believe in aliens. "There's a reason we've never gone back to the moon," according to the promotional poster. And with footage that looks like a mashup of NASA TV and Paranormal Activity, it's a good bet this won't be a movie about politics and budget woes.

The truth about Apollo 18 won't be out there until the film opens on April 22. In the meantime, we asked Allan Needell, Apollo curator for the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, to walk us through the montage of "found footage" and put things in historical perspective.

The American people need to know: Was there ever supposed to be an Apollo 18 mission?

The final moon landing was Apollo 17 in December 1972. But NASA had originally scheduled three more, Apollos 18, 19, and 20. There were orders for industrial suppliers and equipment through Apollo 20. But there were budget and scheduling problems, and instead one Saturn V rocket was used to launch the orbital workshop Skylab. [The Saturn V is still the largest, most powerful rocket ever launched in the U.S., and it was used for Apollo 4 through 17.] Components from the other two Saturn Vs are now on display at Johnson Space Center in Houston and Kennedy Space Center in Florida. As far as I know, there weren't any extra Saturn Vs. They were big, and we know where all the pieces are, so if there was an Apollo 18 that launched in secret, I'm not sure how it got to the moon.

OK, but supposing they did have an extra rocket, could NASA cover up the launch of a Saturn V?

It's hard to know quite what to say. Is NASA that disciplined an organization? Could the hundreds of employees involved be counted on to keep quiet? And it's definitely an issue that it'd be hard not to know a Saturn V was being launched. If NASA had one built, the launch couldn't be anywhere in the U.S.—it'd be too obvious. You could launch from out in the ocean, on a floating platform, or from Africa, but the logistics would have been enormous.

What about the footage of the moon, and the spacesuits and instruments seen in the trailer—do they look authentic Apollo-era?

It does look fairly impressive in that sense. The footage all looks like it was taken by astronauts with cameras in their hands. The hardware scenes [such as the rocket launch] are stock NASA footage. I'd say the filmmakers obviously spent a fair amount of time on [costumes and equipment], and the pictures of spacecraft look fairly high fidelity, no question about it. Some of the pictures of the lunar surface even look like actual film from the real Apollo missions. There is a picture at the end of the trailer of another spacecraft, though, and it doesn't look like one of ours ...

The trailer also shows freaky accidents, like a smashed helmet and torn insulation. Would those kinds of things be real worries for astronauts?

With the smashed helmet, an astronaut certainly couldn't have survived complete depressurization. On the moon, there's no air pressure out there, but there is air pressure in your lungs and there's blood pressure, so busting open a helmet wouldn't be very pleasant. It'd definitely be a fatal issue. As for the insulation, those gold blankets cover only what's called the descent stage, not the part of the lander with the crew cabin. The blankets are made out of 21 layers of aluminized mylar that's all crinkled for thermal insulation, to keep the landing equipment and fuel warm. I don't think torn insulation would be a major issue for the astronauts.
It looks like the big problem will be some sort of alien infection. What was supposed to happen if an Apollo astronaut got sick?

The big worry at the time was back-contamination—if an astronaut brought moon diseases back to Earth. Because of international agreements, there were protocols on Apollo 11 and 12 to quarantine the astronauts when they got back, although those were relaxed on later missions [as scientists realized the chances for life existing on the lunar surface are slim]. When the capsule splashed down, the astronauts were put into biological isolation garments, doused with betadine [an antiseptic], placed on respirators, and rushed into enclosed trailers on an aircraft carrier. Then they spent two weeks in isolation in Houston. There was also planning for if something had gone wrong during a mission and the men died up there. For Apollo 11 there was even a speech written for Nixon just in case, so we were prepared for honoring the fallen astronauts. There's even a famous picture of Nixon looking at the astronauts in their quarantine chamber.

Do you plan to "review the evidence" for yourself when the movie comes out?

I don't know. I'm not a big fan of these types of movies. But it is a challenge. We're in the process of planning to redo our exhibits on human spaceflight, and you have to realize that the exhibit up now was built in 1976, just a few years after Apollo 17, when virtually everyone was familiar with the missions. When the new exhibit opens in 2015, the majority of people who come will have no recollections of Apollo at all, and a very large number will be people whose only images will be from watching this kind of movie. That's something that's important for us to evaluate as a way to better understand what many young visitors will bring to the museum.

-Victoria Jaggard

Article Source: LINK

The Earth could find itself with a 'second sun' for a period of weeks later this year when one of the night sky's most luminous stars explodes, scientists have claimed.
The supernova could provide the biggest light show since Earth was formed, and will be so bright that night will become like day for one or two weeks, experts said.

Betelgeuse, which is part of the Orion constellation 640 light years away from Earth, is a red supergiant, meaning that it is nearing the end of its life and is due to explode.

When it does do, it will burn so brightly that the earth will appear to have two suns in the sky, the Daily Mail reported.

What is less certain is when it will explode.

Brad Carter, senior lecturer of physics at the University of southern Queensland in Australia, said the explosion could take place before the end of the year – or indeed at any point over the next million years.

By David Gardner

Last updated at 8:12 PM on 10th March 2011
Article Source: LINK

The Earth could soon have a second sun, at least for a week or two.
The cosmic phenomenon will happen when one of the brightest stars in the night sky explodes into a supernova.
And, according to a report yesterday, the most stunning light show in the planet’s history could happen as soon as this year.
Cosmic phenomenon: The Earth could soon see two suns - just like Luke Skywalker saw on Tatooine in the Star Wars film (pictured)

Earth will undoubtedly have a front row seat when the dying red supergiant star Betelgeuse finally blows itself into oblivion.
The explosion will be so bright that even though the star in the Orion constellation is 640 light-years away, it will still turn night into day and appear like there are two suns in the sky for a few weeks.
The only real debate is over exactly when it will happen.
In stellar terms, Betelgeuse is predicted to crash and burn in the very near future. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to rush out and buy sunglasses.
Brad Carter, Senior Lecturer of Physics at the University of Southern Queensland in Australia, claimed yesterday that the galactic blast could happen before 2012 – or any time over the next million years.
‘This old star is running out of fuel in its centre,’ Dr Carter told te Austalian website news.com.au.
‘This fuel keeps Betelgeuse shining and supported. When this fuel runs out the star will literally collapse in upon itself and it will do so very quickly.
‘This is the final hurrah for the star. It goes bang, it explodes, it lights up - we’ll have incredible brightness for a brief period of time for a couple of weeks and then over the coming months it begins to fade and then eventually it will be very hard to see at all,’ he added.
The Internet is abuzz with doomsday theories linking the supernova to the Mayan calendar’s prediction of an Armageddon in 2012, fuelled by the association of the word ‘Betelgeuse’ with the devil.
But experts claimed that even if the big bang is looming, it will still happen way too far from Earth to do us any harm.
‘When a star goes bang, the first we will observe of it is a rain of tiny particles called nuetrinos,’ said Dr Carter.
‘They will flood through the Earth and bizarrely enough, even though the supernova we see visually will light up the night sky, 99% of the energy in the supernova is released in these particles that will come through our bodies and through the Earth with absolutely no harm whatsoever.’
When it happens, the Betelgeuse supernova will almost certainly be the most dramatic ever seen.
It is the ninth brightest star in the night sky and the second brightest in the constellation of Orion, outshining its neighbour Rigel – or Beta Orionis – only very rarely.
It’s distinct orange-red colour makes it easy to spot in the night sky.
If it was at the centre of our solar system, its surface would extend past the asteroid belt, wholly engulfing Mercury, Venus, Mars and the Earth.
Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-1349383/Betelgeuse-second-sun-Earth-supernova-turns-night-day.html#ixzz1VoPM0Vxa