TIME astronomy

NASA’s Kepler Telescope Discovers Another Planet on Comeback

The discovery marks a remarkable turnaround for Kepler

NASA’s Kepler spacecraft has found another new planet.

Dubbed HIP 116454b, the new body is bigger than Earth, smaller than Neptune and probably too hot to sustain life as we know it.

“The Kepler mission showed us that planets larger in size than Earth and smaller than Neptune are common in the galaxy, yet they are absent in our solar system,” Steve Howell, a project scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California, said in statement.

The discovery marks a remarkable turnaround for Kepler. In May 2013, one of Kepler’s stabilizing reaction wheels failed and a team of engineers and scientists were forced to fashion an ingenious alternative for controlling the spacecraft, using pressure generated from sunlight.

During a subsequent test run in February, Kepler collected data on a previously undiscovered planet 180 light-years from Earth.

Follow-up observations confirmed the existence of the planet, which astronomers have called a watery “mini-Neptune,” with a tiny core and gaseous atmosphere, reports the New York Times.

TIME Behind the Photos

Go Behind TIME’s NASA Cover with Photographer Marco Grob

NASA astronauts and twin brothers Mark and Scott Kelly are on the cover of TIME

TIME contract photographer Marco Grob’s first memory was of the Moon landing. “Anything that’s space-related is very special for me,” he says. So when TIME asked him to photograph Mark and Scott Kelly, NASA’s famous twin brothers, he jumped on the opportunity, traveling to the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

“In a weird way, being at NASA and having such access felt too good to be true for a guy like me. It’s one of the most memorable shoots I’ve done,” he says. “Both of them, by all means, are very extraordinary men.”

Grob used a simple lighting setup to photograph the twin brothers. “I wanted the textures to stand out on their own, especially with the space suit. I wanted a lighting that served the purpose instead of overpowering the image.”

The photographer also wanted to highlight the extraordinary nature of his subjects. “People don’t always understand how enormously difficult it is to become an astronaut,” he says. “So to have a family where you have two twin brothers that are astronauts, it’s just tremendous. So I felt that showing them next to each other, without any distraction, would be a really big deal. I like the simplicity of that photo.”

Given Grob’s love of space, it’s no surprise that these portraits of Mark and Scott Kelly will remain among his favorites — yet the photographer was surprised by one thing: how welcoming NASA was. “For them, it was a big deal to have a TIME cover,” he says. “So it’s pretty cool when you go to NASA and they are the ones that think it’s a big deal. Normally, it’s the other way around.”

Marco Grob is a TIME contract photographer.

Olivier Laurent is the editor of TIME LightBox. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @olivierclaurent

TIME space

Voyager 1 Surfs a Cosmic Tsunami

Wow, Voyager: 12 billion miles from home and still very much in the game
Wow, Voyager: 12 billion miles from home and still very much in the game NASA/JPL

Earth's only Interstellar spacecraft is rocked by a storm from the sun

Planetary scientists have pretty much stopped haggling over whether Voyager 1, the space probe launched in 1977 to explore Jupiter and Saturn, has finally entered interstellar space. The tough little ship is still going strong, but there isn’t exactly a signpost that marks the heliopause—the place where particles streaming from the Sun bang into the thin gas that lies between the stars. As a result, there’s been some confusion about when the spacecraft actually crossed that invisible boundary—though there’s no confusion over the fact that it did. (There’s no confusion either about whether it’s left the Solar System: despite last year’s breathless headlines, it hasn’t. Comets in the Oort Cloud, which are definitely under the Sun’s gravitational influence, are much farther out than the heliopause.)

But the fact that Voyager 1 is now firmly in interstellar space is evident just by the change in its surroundings, says Don Gurnett, of the University of Iowa, whose plasma wave instrument aboard the probe is the final arbiter. “It’s extremely quiet out there,” Gurnett says. “The magnetic fields are constant, the flux of cosmic rays is constant”—a sharp contrast to the turmoil of the so-called termination shock, where particles racing outward at a million m.p.h. (1.6 million k/h) slam into the relatively stationary particles that make up the interstellar medium.

But the comparative quiet of distant space does not mean there’s nothing going on out there. At this very moment, in fact, as Gurnett explained at a talk at the American Geophysical Union’s annual meeting in San Francisco this week, the sparse interstellar gas is reeling from a powerful blast of solar particles that smashed into it last February. The eruption began its life as a coronal mass ejection or CME, a huge burst of hot plasma fired into space during a solar storm. When they hit the Earth, CMEs can disrupt electronic communications and even cause blackouts.

Their impact further away is much greater, causing a kind of cosmic tsunami—huge pressure waves that make the interstellar gas vibrate like a ringing bell. Indeed, a recording the spacecraft made and NASA released reveals that the phenomenon even sounds like a bell. “This shows us how much influence the Sun can have on the surrounding area,” says Caltech physicist Ed Stone, who has been the Voyager project scientist since 1972, “and it’s very likely to be the same with other stars.”

Voyager detected its first cosmic tsunami back in the 1990’s when the impact of a CME colliding with the heliopause created a blast of radio waves. They’re too faint to be picked up from Earth, says Stone. “You need to be out by Saturn, at least, to detect them.” By 2012, the spacecraft was close enough to the heliopause to experience a later tsunami directly, recording a steep increase in the density of the gas it was flying through. It felt another in 2013, and the probe is now in the midst of its third, which was still going nine months later—a period during which Voyager 1 traveled a quarter of a billion miles (.4 billion km). No one knows how far into space the tsunami will travel before it fades out, says Gurnett. “I’m guessing it could be another hundred astronomical units or more.”

That, by the way, is a whole lot. An astronomical unit is the equivalent of the distance between the Earth and the sun—or 93 million mi. (150 million km). A hundred of those is 9.3 billion miles—or 15 billion km. Voyager 1 is currently at 130 A.U., or about 12 billion miles; it will have to reach 21.3 billion just to catch up with the outer reach of the tsunami—a journey that will take decades.

Stone, Gurnett and the other Voyager scientists won’t have to wait that long for another big event, however. The Voyager 2 probe, which lagged behind its sister ship so it could take a look at Uranus and Neptune, is currently at 109 A.U. from the Sun, and approaching its own rendezvous with the heliopause. “We’re hoping it will happen in the next couple of years,” says Stone.

If it’s hard to imagine what it’s like for Stone to watch the Voyager probes continue to make discoveries more than four decades after he took over the project, he offers a single, simple word of explanation: “Wonderful.”

TIME space

Odds For Life on Mars Tick Up—a Little

High-tide: layering in a Mars rock photographed by Curiosity suggests the movement of long-ago water
High-tide: layering in a Mars rock photographed by Curiosity suggests the movement of long-ago water NASA/JPL

New findings about both methane and water boost the chances for biology

September of 2013 was a bad time for those who hope there’s life on Mars. We’ve had evidence for decades that water flowed freely across the surface of the Red Planet billions of years ago, and that evidence has only gotten stronger and stronger the closer we look. Not only was there potentially life-giving water back then: Mars also had the right kind of geology to support mineral-eating microbes. And while all of that was in the distant past, the detection of methane in the Martian atmosphere by Earth-based telescopes and Mars orbiters raised hopes that bacteria might still be thriving below the surface—not unreasonable, both because all manner of Earthly critters do perfectly well below-ground and because the vast majority of methane in our own atmosphere results from biological activity. Mars’s methane might come from a similar source.

But when the Curiosity rover sniffed the Martian air directly last year, it smelled…nothing. At most, there were just three parts per billion (ppb) of methane wafting around, and possibly much less than that. “We kind of thought we’d closed that chapter,” says Christopher Webster of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, lead scientist for the instrument that did the sniffing. “A lot of people were very disappointed.”

Not any more, though. Just weeks after that dismal reading, Curiosity’s Tunable Laser Spectrometer (TLS) picked up a whiff of methane at a concentration of 5.5 parts per billion. “It took us by surprise,” says Webster, and over the next two months, he says, “every time we looked there was methane. Indeed, the concentrations even rose, to an average of 7.2 ppb over that period, he and his colleagues report in a new paper in Science.

And then, six weeks later, the methane was gone, and hasn’t been sniffed since. “It’s a fascinating episodic increase,” Webster says.

What he and his colleagues can’t say is where the methane is coming from. Because it’s transient, they think it’s probably from a fairly local source. But whether it’s biological or geological in origin, they don’t know. It’s wise to be cautious, however, says Christopher Chyba, a professor of astrophysics and international affairs at Princeton. “Hopes for biology on Mars have had a way of disappearing once Martian chemistry has been better understood. But figuring out what’s responsible for the methane is clearly a key astrobiological objective—whatever the answer turns out to be.”

That’s not the only important Mars-related paper in Science this week, either. Another, also based on Curiosity observations, concerns Mars’s long-lost surface water, and one of the most important points is that there’s a lot more of it left than most people realize—”enough,” says Jet Propulsion Laboratory scientist Paul Mahaffy, lead author of the paper, “to cover the surface to a depth of 50 meters [about 165 ft].” That doesn’t mean it’s accessible: it’s nearly all locked up in ice at the planet’s poles, but some is also entrained in the clay Curiosity dug into when it was prowling the Yellowknife Bay area of Gale Crater.

Some of that water, says Mahaffy, is tightly chemically bound to the clay and is not a big player in Mars’s modern environment. Some is not quite so locked down and has been interacting with the tenuous Martian atmosphere for the past three billion years. The hydrogen in Martian water, as in Earthly water, may contain both a single proton and a single electron, or a proton and electron plus a neutron—so-called heavy hydrogen, or deuterium. As the Martian atmosphere has thinned over the eons, the ratio of hydrogen to deuterium in the water has gradually been dropping, as the lighter version escapes more easily into space. Since the modern water is twice as rich in deuterium as the water from billions of years ago, that suggests that there was about twice as much surface water in total at the earlier time, but its hydrogen residue has vanished.

“That’s a fair bit of water,” says Mahaffy, “but it’s a lower limit. There could be much more beneath the surface today that we haven’t seen. It was a really interesting time. There were a lot of aqueous processes going on, and a lot of flowing water.”

Where there is (or was) water, there could be (or could have been) life. For Mars enthusiasts, that’s why December of 2014 is a lot better than September of 2013.

TIME world affairs

No More Space ‘Race’

space-shuttle-NASA
Getty Images

Next stage of space exploration is becoming a worldwide project

Ellen Stofan, NASA’s chief scientist, saw her first rocket launch at age 4. Her father worked at NASA as an engineer, and the thrill of space exploration captured her imagination from an early age. But at a Future Tense film screening of The Dish in Washington D.C. last week, Stofan acknowledged that for many people she meets, what first a sparked a space obsession was the Apollo program—President John F. Kennedy’s audacious commitment in 1961 to putting Americans on the moon before the end of the decade.

Today, NASA’s goal to put astronauts on Mars by the 2030s could be a similarly unifying project. And not only in the United States. A far cry from the fierce Cold War Space Race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, exploration in the 21st century is likely to be a far more globally collaborative project.

Why has the idea of reaching Mars captured the world? A trip to Mars is a priority for many scientific reasons—some believe it’s the planet that most resembles our own, and one that could answer the age-old question of whether we’re alone in the universe—but there’s also been a long popular fascination with the planet, Stofan observed. Ever since Giovanni Virginio Schiaparelli first observed the canali on Mars in the 1800s or when H.G. Wells wrote about aliens from Mars in his 1898 science fiction novel, The War of the Worlds, the planet has loomed large in the public’s imagination.

And perhaps it’s this historic obsession that partly explains the more international effort: the U.S. is hardly the only country dreaming of deep space – and a trip to Mars– these days. India has plans to put astronauts in the sky, Japan just launched a spacecraft to collect asteroid samples, and of course, the European Space Agency had the recent, hugely successful Rosetta mission and Philae lander. It seems that what Apollo did for America’s imagination and spirit of invention, foreign space programs can also do domestically. “You see countries like India really investing in their space program because they see it as inspirational and good for their economy,” Stofan told the audience.

The truth is, as Stofan put it, “When we go to explore, we do it as a globe.” In a conversation outside the event, she recounted the stories of some of the astronauts featured in the 2007 documentary, In the Shadow of the Moon, who travelled the world after they returned from the Apollo missions of the 1960s and 70s. People from all sorts of countries welcomed them, not just as Americans, but as “our astronauts”.

“People see space as a place where you go and cooperate,” she told me.

This spirit of trans-border ownership and investment seems set to continue. One key part of this is the Global Exploration Roadmap, an effort between space agencies like NASA, France’s Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales, the Canadian Space Agency, and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, among many others, that is intended to aid joint projects from the International Space Station to expeditions to the Moon and near-Earth asteroids – and of course, to reach Mars. On a recent trip to India’s space agency, Stofan recounted to me, she met with many Indian engineers who were just as excited as the Americans to get scientists up there, not only to explore, but also to begin nailing down the question of whether there was ever life on the red planet.

It’s also clear that the next stage of space exploration will not only be more global, but will equally involve greater private and public partnerships. Companies like Space X and Boeing are increasingly involved in NASA’s day to day operations, including a joint project that could carry astronauts into space in 2017. NASA’s view is to turn over to the private sector those projects that in a sense have become routine, Stofan suggested, and let NASA focus its resources on getting to Mars.

This environment feels a lot different from the secretive and adversarial Space Race days, when the U.S. and Soviet Union battled to reach the moon first. What’s changed? The Cold War is over, of course, but with it, the funding commitment may also be missing this time around. Stofan mentioned, in response to an audience question, that at the time of the Apollo missions, NASA got up to about 4% of the federal budget, while now it’s only around 0.4%. The dollars are still large, of course, but perhaps increased international and private cooperation can be seen as an efficient, clever way to do more with less.

So, what does the future hold? NASA is extremely focused on how to get to Mars and back again safely, Stofan told the audience, but the fun role of science fiction, she suggested, is to start envisioning what the steps after that might be. For example, what it might be like to live on Mars? After all, science often gets its inspiration from the creative world. Just look at how similar mobile phones are to the communicators from Star Trek, she pointed out, or the fact that MIT students made a real life version of the robotic sphere that Luke Skywalker trains with in Star Wars. “Stories are a great counterpoint to science.”

What would Stofan like to see on the big screen next? “The Martian. I think it’s being made into a movie in already. And I wish someone would redo The Dune.”

Ariel Bogle is an associate editor for the Future Tense program, a joint collaboration between the New America Foundation, the online magazine Slate, and Arizona State University. This piece was originally published in New America’s digital magazine, The Weekly Wonk. Sign up to get it delivered to your inbox each Thursday here, and follow @New America on Twitter.

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 Science

Apollo 17 and the Case for Returning to the Moon

Harrison H. Schmitt on moon
Apollo 17 astronaut Jack Schmitt standing on surface of moon while holding a rake full of rock samples, with Rover in distance Time Life Pictures / Getty Images

It's been two generations since the moon was eclipsed in NASA's priorities

Richard Nixon was a lunar buzzkill—but at least he was honest about it. During the early years of the space program, Nixon held no political office, which put him on the sidelines for all of the one-man Mercury flights and two-man Gemini flights, as well as the first two flights of the Apollo program. But he assumed the presidency in January of 1969 and was thus the one who got to spike the football in July of that year, phoning the moon from the Oval Office to congratulate the Apollo 11 crew on their historic lunar landing.

Not long afterward, the same President canceled the Apollo program—though he held off on making his announcement until after his reelection in 1972 was assured.

During the final lunar landing mission—Apollo 17, which left Earth on Dec. 7, 1972 and reached the moon on Dec. 11—Nixon was candid about what the future held for America’s exploratory ambitions, and it was not good. “This may be the last time in this century that men will walk on the moon,” he said in a formal pronouncement.

As it turned out, things have been even bleaker than that. It’s been 42 years since Apollo 17 commander Gene Cernan climbed up the ladder of his lunar module, leaving the final human footprint in a patch of lunar soil. TIME’s coverage of the mission provides not only an account of the events, but a sense—unintended at the time—of just how long ago they unfolded. There are the quotation marks that the editors thought should accompany the mention of a black hole, since really, how many people had actually heard of such a thing back then? There was, predictably, the gender bias in the language—with rhapsodic references to man’s urge to explore, man standing on the threshold of the universe. It may be silly to scold long-ago writers for such usage now—but that’s not to say that, two generations on, it doesn’t sound awfully odd.

Over the course of those generations, we’ve made at least one feint at going back to the moon. In 2004, then-President George W. Bush announced a new NASA initiative to return Americans to the lunar surface by 2020. But President Obama scrapped the plan and replaced it with, well, no one is quite certain. There’s a lot of talk about capturing a small asteroid and placing it in lunar orbit so that astronauts can visit it—a mission that is either intriguing, implausible or flat-out risible, depending on whom you talk to. And Mars is on the agenda too—sort of, kind of, sometime in the 2030s.

But the moon, for the moment, is off America’s radar—and we’re the poorer for it. There were nine manned lunar missions over the course of three and a half glorious years, and half a dozen of them landed. That makes six small sites on an alien world that bear human tracks and scratchings—and none at all on the the far side of that world, a side no human but the 24 men who have orbited the moon have seen with their own eyes.

We tell ourselves that we’ve explored the moon, and we have—after a fashion. But only in the sense that Columbus and Balboa explored the Americas when they trod a bit of continental soil. We went much further then; we could—and we should—go much further now. In the meantime, TIME’s coverage of the final time we reached for—and seized—the moon provides a reminder of how good such unashamed ambition feels.

Read a 1973 essay reflecting on the “last of the moon men,” here in the TIME Vault: God, Man and Apollo

TIME space

NASA Spacecraft Wakes Up as It Approaches Pluto

NASA's New Horizon spacecraft awakens for meeting with Pluto
An undated artist's concept shows the New Horizons spacecraft as it approaches Pluto and its largest moon, Charon. NASA/EPA

New Horizons will come closest to the dwarf planet on July 14

A NASA spacecraft has emerged from hibernation in preparation for completing its nine-year, 2.9-billion mile journey to observe Pluto from up close, the space agency said.

Sending its signal at the speed of light, the New Horizons ship beamed a report down to Earth that it was back in active mode as of Dec. 6.

“Technically, this was routine, since the wake-up was a procedure that we’d done many times before,” said Glen Fountain, the mission’s project manager. “Symbolically, however, this is a big deal. It means the start of our pre-encounter operations.”

After tests early next year, the spacecraft will collect data and images about Pluto and its surrounding moons. It will come closest to the dwarf planet on July 14.

TIME portfolio

The Best Pictures of the Week: Nov. 28 – Dec. 5.

From ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s acquittal to protests over Eric Garner’s chokehold death verdict and the launch of NASA’s unmanned exploration spacecraft Orion to the White House’s Christmas decorations, TIME presents the best pictures of the week.

TIME space

Orion Successfully Completes Space Mission

After three postponements Thursday

The Orion spacecraft successfully touched down in the Pacific Ocean Friday morning, 4.5 hours after launching into space.

NASA had called off three successive countdowns on Thursday in the wake of wind gusts and valve problems with the vessel, but the mission went off as planned Friday.

“There’s your new spacecraft, America,” Mission Control commentator Rob Navias said moments before the Orion capsule landed in the water, the AP reports.

The experimental craft orbited the Earth twice and traveled a distance of 3,600 miles into space before the landing. The Orion project is a Lockheed Martin and Boeing joint venture that undertakes commercial and U.S. government launches.

“The flight is designed to test many of the most vital elements for human spaceflight and will provide critical data needed to improve Orion’s design and reduce risks to future mission crews,” read a NASA statement.

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