TIME NASA

NASA’s Dawn Spacecraft Moves In On Dwarf Planet Ceres

The dwarf planet Ceres is seen in this photo taken by NASA's Dawn spacecraft from a distance of nearly 29,000 miles, on Feb. 19, 2015.
NASA/Reuters The dwarf planet Ceres is seen in this photo taken by NASA's Dawn spacecraft from a distance of nearly 29,000 miles, on Feb. 19, 2015.

Dwarf planets have recently become a key focus of exploration

LOS ANGELES — The largest celestial body in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter welcomes its first visitor Friday.

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft was due to slip into orbit around Ceres for the first exploration of a dwarf planet. Unlike other orbit captures that require thruster firings to slow down, the latest event is ho-hum by comparison, unfolding gradually and automatically.

Since Dawn is out of contact with Earth during the encounter, flight controllers won’t receive confirmation until hours later.

“The real drama is exploring this alien, exotic world,” said mission chief engineer Marc Rayman at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which manages the $473 million mission.

Once circling Ceres, Dawn will spend the next 16 months photographing the icy surface to determine whether it’s active today.

Ceres is the last and final stop for Dawn, which launched in 2007 on a voyage to the main asteroid belt, a zone littered with rocky leftovers from the formation of the sun and planets some 4.5 billion years ago.

Dawn earlier spent a year at Vesta exploring the Arizona-sized asteroid and sending back stunning close-ups of the lumpy surface before cruising onto the Texas-sized Ceres.

The double trips are made possible by Dawn’s ion propulsion engines, which provide gentle yet constant acceleration and are more efficient than conventional thrusters.

As Dawn approached Ceres, it beamed back puzzling images revealing a pair of shiny patches inside a crater — signs of possible ice or salt.

Scientists hope to get a better glimpse when the spacecraft spirals closer to the surface to study whether previously spotted plumes of water vapor continue to vent.

Dwarf planets lately have become the focus of exploration.

This summer, another NASA spacecraft — New Horizons — is set to make the first visit to Pluto, which was demoted to dwarf planet.

Dawn almost never made it out to the inner solar system. The mission endured funding-related project cancellations and launch delays before it received the green light to fly.

TIME space

Mars Probably Had More Water Than the Arctic Ocean, Study Says

INDIA-SPACE-SCIENCE-MARS
ISRO/AFP/Getty Images Mars is seen in an image taken by the ISRO Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) spacecraft released on Sept. 30, 2014.

The size of the Martian ocean is significantly larger than previously thought

Mars likely had a body of water larger than the Arctic Ocean, according to a new study by NASA scientists.

The size of the Martian ocean is significantly larger than previously thought and provides further evidence that the planet may have once had the ability to support life. The body of water would have been large enough to cover the planet’s entire surface in 450-feet deep water, according to the study published in the journal Science, though it was likely concentrated in smaller areas.

“Our study provides a solid estimate of how much water Mars once had, by determining how much water was lost to space,” said Geronimo Villanueva, a NASA scientist and study author. “With this work, we can better understand the history of water on Mars.”

The scientists analyzed water on Mars today and compared it to water from a 4.5-billion-year-old Mars meteorite to determine how much water was likely lost in the past four billion years.

Still, questions remain about what happened to the large body of water. “With Mars losing that much water, the planet was very likely wet for a longer period of time than was previously thought, suggesting it might have been habitable for longer,” said Michael Mumma, a NASA scientist and study co-author.

TIME space

See The 10 Best Space Selfies Ever Taken

The space selfie phenomenon is not new, astronauts have been turning the camera on themselves since 1966

TIME space

Loving Earth Can Sometimes Require Leaving It

See the borders? That's because there aren't any.
NASA; Getty Images See the borders? That's because there aren't any.

Jeffrey Kluger is Editor at Large for TIME.

In a new book, astronaut Ron Garan calls for a better approach to making the world a healthier, more peaceable place

It’s a good thing you can’t see human suffering in infrared wavelengths. That kind of pain is something seen in the visible, felt in the viscera. If it showed up in the infrared it would mean that with the right instruments, you could see it from space, and that would change everything. There’s not a person who’s ever left the planet who hasn’t commented on the transcendent beauty of the blue, green, white Earth hanging in what otherwise appears to be a void. But what if Syria glowed scarlet like the open wound it is? What if West Africa went dark and cold to reflect the Ebola deaths that are still happening there?

Astronauts are spared such sights—or at least most of them are. But Ron Garan saw them anyway. Garan spent two weeks aboard the space shuttle Discovery and the International Space Station in 2008, then returned to space for a five-and-a-half-month stay aboard the station in 2011. That last tour of duty included the month of August—most significantly August 24, the day Tripoli fell during the Libyan civil war. Garan happened to look out the window that day and snapped a picture that included Libya—a place that was beautiful from orbit but bleeding up close.

The experience, along with many others others like it during the collective 179 days Garan spent in space, changed a great many things for him. Life on Earth, he came to realize, is experienced two-dimensionally—with all of the distortion that that implies. The people and things close to you obscure the ones farther away; objects shrink as they approach the horizon—dwindling in both size and significance. One Ebola death in the U.S. galvanizes our attention. Ten thousand in Africa barely move us.

Such a blinkered view is impossible from orbit, where you take in whole sweeps of the borderless globe in a glance. Garan, accordingly, returned home to write a book, The Orbital Perspective, that movingly explains the impact of such a perspective shift—one that by no means occurs for every astronaut.

The late Jack Swigert, command module pilot of Apollo 13, once observed that the very things that qualify astronauts to go to space—a mission-first, get-it-done pragmatism that doesn’t allow for a lot of rhapsodic silliness—often disqualifies them to feel or describe their experiences terribly deeply. Garan was the rare exception and is now devoting himself to working for a world that functions the way it appears to function from space—as an organic whole, not a fragmented collection of continents, nations, communities and sects. The book’s foreword is written by Muhammad Yunus, the Bangladeshi economist who won the 2006 Nobel Peace prize for pioneering the concept of microloans—making very small amounts of money available to people who would otherwise not qualify for credit so that they can start businesses or otherwise become self-sufficient.

A fair bit of the book is devoted to exploring similar kinds of work done by similar kinds of social entrepreneurs. There is Amanda Lindhout, the Canadian journalist who spent 460 days in captivity after being kidnaped by Somali extremists in 2008 and then, after being released, went home to found the Global Enrichment Foundation, in support of education in Somalia. There is Engineers Without Borders (EWB), a group dedicated to bringing solar power, food-preservation systems and other technological essentials to underserved parts of the world.

Garan, in fairness, had an inclination toward good works even before he first flew in space—founding the Manna Energy Foundation to help address the developing world’s need for fresh water, renewable energy, access to communications and other basics. He has since worked with EWB and NASA’s Johnson Space Center to further the group’s work. But his trips to space provided him a certain authority—and urgency—he lacked before.

There’s an undeniable wonk appeal to Garan’s approach to the business of saving and improving lives. He finds metaphorical power in a hunk of hardware most people have surely never heard of: the Apollo-Soyuz docking module, an ugly 4,400 lb. (2,000 kg) piece of metal that made the first joint U.S.-Soviet spaceflight possible, in 1975, allowing two incompatible spacecraft—from two incompatible cultures—to link-up in orbit. He describes the Apollo 13 rescue less as the gripping tale of survival it surely was than as the world’s “first hackathon.”

He sees, similarly, more than a feel-good story in the successful international effort to save 33 trapped Chilean miners in 2010. Instead, he sees it as a template for global cooperation, one that came complete with group cheers and team shirts to foster a feeling of mission and camaraderie among the rescuers. “There have been disasters of similar or greater scale where countries decided to go it alone,” Garan writes, “leading to less desirable outcomes.”

Astronauts have a long tradition of going to space and then coming home to write about their adventures. But in those cases, the books generally explore what the astronauts themselves saw and felt and did and how they put those lessons to use later in life. In Garan’s case—and perhaps Garan’s alone—the message is how the rest of us can put his lessons to use. The Orbital Perspective may not be the most cinematic tale ever told from space, but it could wind up being the most important.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME space

These Rare Vintage NASA Photos Show the Golden Age of Space Travel

A selection of prints from a previously unseen private collection of vintage NASA photos will be auctioned in London

TIME space

Black Hole Emits ‘Fierce Winds’ That Prevent New Stars Forming

Supermassive black holes at the cores of galaxies blast out radiation and ultra-fast winds, as illustrated in this artist's conception.
JPL-Caltech/NASA Supermassive black holes at the cores of galaxies blast out radiation and ultra-fast winds, as illustrated in this artist's conception.

Shouldn't have eaten that entire galaxy

Researchers say that new data from a black hole 2 billion light years away indicate that it emits powerful winds in all directions that help to regulate its growth as well as the growth of the galaxy around it.

The research, based on observations from a NASA and a European Space Agency space telescope, was published in the latest issue of the journal Science. NASA released an artist’s conception of the radiation and winds emitted by a black hole.

The study found that the black hole, labelled PDS 456, sustains winds blowing up to a third the speed of light that carry more energy per second than the amount emitted by a trillion suns. These winds, produced as the black hole sucks in matter, push gas outward and thereby help restrict both the growth of the black hole and the formation of stars in the galaxy.

 

 

TIME space

NASA Wants to Send a Space Submarine to One of Saturn’s Moons

The submarine would explore Kraken Mare, a sea made of liquified natural gas

NASA has already sent rovers to Mars. Now it wants to send a space submarine to Saturn’s largest moon.

The federal space agency hopes to land a submarine to explore Kraken Mare, a methane sea on Saturn’s moon Titan, by 2040, according to a conference presentation. Titan is one of the only bodies in our solar system besides Earth with seas on its surface, though the Kraken Mare is freezing and made of liquified hydrocarbons.

Scientists plan to fly the Titan submarine in a space plane similar to the Boeing X-37. The plane will then drop the submarine into Kraken Mare where it can explore the sea floor’s composition, the tides, the weather and any life forms that may exist there.

TIME astronomy

This Time-Lapse Video of the Sun Is the Trippiest Thing You’ll See Today

A disco ball from space

NASA has released a mesmerizing time-lapse video of the sun that shows everything the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) has seen over the past five years, condensed into just under three minutes.

The supertrippy but rather beautiful video was captured by the SDO to celebrate their fifth anniversary and shows the giant ball of gas spinning and changing color.

According to NASA, each color represents a different visual wavelength through which the SDO observes the sun.

The time lapse was made by capturing one frame every eight hours since data collection began in June 2010, right up until Feb. 8, 2015.

 

TIME space

Hubble Telescope Spots an Emoticon in Outer Space

A smiling lens
Hubble/ESA/NASA Galaxy cluster SDSS J1038+4849

It's actually a cluster of galaxies

In the center of this Hubble Telescope image is the galaxy cluster SDSS J1038+4849 — and it appears to be smiling back at you.

The two orange eyes of the grinning face are actually two distant galaxies, and the peculiar smile was caused by an effect known as strong gravitational lensing.

Galaxy clusters are so large that they can create a strong gravitational pull that warps the time and space surrounding them. From afar this creates a distorted view of reality, known as a ‘cosmic lens.’

There are thousands of images within the Hubble database that have only been viewed by a few scientists. However, Hubble opens up its massive database to the public to search through. A version of this particular image was brought to attention by a contestant, Judy Smith, through the Hubble’s Hidden Treasures image processing competition.

Read next: In Praise of Emoticons

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME space

See the Dark Side of the Moon With This Incredible NASA Animation

It's just become the not-so dark side

NASA has released an incredibly detailed animated clip of what the moon looks on the side that is never visible from earth.

In the video, we see the far side going through a cycle of phases, much like what is visible from our planet. But the other side of the moon has different terrain, with fewer of the big dark basalt plains known as maria.

Instead, craters of all sizes cover the entire area.

In 1959, the Soviet Luna 3 probe sent back the first grainy images of the moon’s dark side. Fifty years later, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) was launched and, since 2009, has been relaying hundreds of terabytes of data, allowing scientists to create detailed maps of the moon’s surface.

For the first time, these animations, created by NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio, allow people on Earth to see a completely different side of our nearest heavenly neighbor.

[NASA]

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