TIME weather

1934 Dust Bowl Drought Was North America’s Worst in a Millennium

More than 70% of western North America was affected

The 1934 drought that helped kick off the Dust Bowl era was the worst to hit North America for the past 1,000 years, according to a new study.

Scientists from NASA and Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory reconstructed the history of droughts in the U.S. using modern practices and tree-ring records from the years 1000 to 2005.

They found that the 1934 drought covered more than 70% of western North America and was 30% severer than the next worst, which struck in 1580.

“It was the worst by a large margin, falling pretty far outside the normal range of variability that we see in the record,” said Ben Cook, a climate scientist at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York and the study’s lead author.

Cook says a high-pressure system during the west coast’s winter that kept rains at bay, combined with poor land management practices, led to dust storms in the spring.

The study is due to be published in the Oct. 17 edition of Geophysical Research Letters.

TIME space

When You’ve Been To Pluto, What Do You Do for an Encore?

Next on the itinerary: A Kuiper Belt object and the distant candle of the sun
Next on the itinerary: A Kuiper Belt object and the distant candle of the sun NASA

Just because you've reached the edge of the solar system doesn't mean you've run out of worlds to visit. NASA's New Horizons spacecraft is set to make that point

When it blasted off for Pluto back in 2006, NASA’s New Horizons probe was poised to achieve several major milestones at once. It would be visiting the last planet still unexplored at close quarters (and yes, Pluto was still a planet when the mission began). It would also be the first mission to explore a class of planet vastly different from the Solar System’s rocky inner worlds, and also from the gas giants further out. Even after it was demoted to “dwarf planet,” Pluto represented the nearest of the ice worlds that lurk at the edges of the Sun’s influence. Understanding their true nature called for a close encounter—and New Horizons was designed to provide it.

But once the probe whips past Pluto and its moon Charon next July, it will still have functioning instruments and fuel to burn. And now, says NASA, it may have someplace to go and another scientific milestone to achieve. An intensive search with the Hubble Space Telescope has revealed three icy bodies more or less along New Horizons’ post-Pluto path and a billion miles (1.6 billion km) further out. Sometime in 2018 or 2019 the probe could be getting a close look at one of these so-called Kuiper Belt Objects (KBO)—a primordial remnant left from the very earliest days of the Solar System.

“The objects Hubble has identified are much smaller than Pluto,” says Alan Stern, a planetary scientist with the Southwest Research Institute, in Boulder, CO, and New Horizons’ Principal Investigator. “They’re the building blocks Pluto was made of.”

Hubble got this discovery in just under the wire. The rocket burn that will readjust New Horizons trajectory to intercept one of the KBO’s won’t happen until after the Pluto encounter. But in order to calculate that complicated maneuver, ground controllers need to know precisely how the KBO’s themselves are moving. “We need to make a series of observations,” says Stern, “to connect the dots.” And if they didn’t have a first set of observations by now, they wouldn’t have enough dots to connect.

In one sense, researchers have already gotten a close look at a KBO: Europe’s Rosetta probe went into orbit around a comet in August, with plans to set down a lander on its surface on November 9—and a comet is essentially a KBO that has wandered into the inner Solar System.

But that means it’s been exposed to the Sun’s heat, so unlike its cousins further out, it’s not truly primordial. Beyond that, these three new objects are between 15 and 35 miles (24 and 56 km) across. That’s about ten times bigger and a thousand times more massive than Rosetta’s comet, while still a thousand times less massive than Pluto. Whichever KBO New Horizons visits will therefore fill in a huge gap, helping scientists understand how Pluto itself formed.

It will, that is, if NASA approves the extended mission, funding the probe for longer than was originally planned. That kind of second act is not unusual—Hubble itself has had its mission extended several times, and so did the Spirit and Opportunity rovers on Mars. It’s not guaranteed, though. “We have to make a proposal,” says Stern, “but at least we now have something concrete to propose.”

Even if the mission is green-lit and that second encounter comes off, New Horizons still might not be done. “We’re going to keep looking for other KBO’s even farther out,” says Stern. If they’re close enough to New Horizons’ path, and if there’s enough fuel left for another trajectory adjustment, next July’s Pluto flyby could be just the start of an extraordinary series of close encounters with the most remote colonies in the Sun’s cosmic empire.

TIME climate change

NASA: September Was Warmest on Global Record

NOAA predicts an El Niño will start by the end of the year

This September was the warmest on record since 1880–the year scientists first began to track global data on temperatures.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s announcement clips on the heels of what was also the warmest August on record, which NASA said suggests an unfortunate trend in global heating.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration anticipates that an El Niño will start by the end of the year, due to warmer temperatures in the Pacific Ocean, and continue into spring 2015. An El Niño can have devastating impact across the globe, with repercussions that include abnormal temperatures and extreme weather. The last strong El Niño occurred in 1997-98.

[Discover]

TIME space

Researchers Just Discovered The Brightest Dead Star Ever Found

A rare and mighty pulsar (pink) can be seen at the center of the galaxy Messier 82 in this new multi-wavelength portrait, released on Oct. 8, 2014.
A rare and mighty pulsar (pink) can be seen at the center of the galaxy Messier 82 in this new multi-wavelength portrait, released on Oct. 8, 2014. NASA/JPL-Caltech

Astronomers using NASA’s NuSTAR telescope array have found something beautiful about 12 million light-years from our planet Earth: The brightest dead star, or pulsar, ever found. It’s only called a dead star because it’s the leftovers from a supernova — this thing is still very much alive, pumping out around 10 million suns’ worth of energy, according to NASA. Scientists originally thought the pulsar, located in the Messier 82 galaxy, was a black hole, but it turns out that isn’t the case at all.

“You might think of this pulsar as the ‘Mighty Mouse’ of stellar remnants,” said Fiona Harrison, the NuSTAR principal investigator at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California, in a NASA release about the pulsar. “It has all the power of a black hole, but with much less mass.”

TIME space

See 2 Astronauts During Their 6-Hour Spacewalk

Astronaut Alexander Gerst while on a spacewalk outside of ISS on Oct. 7, 2014.
Astronaut Alexander Gerst while on a spacewalk outside of ISS on Oct. 7, 2014. ESA

More than 200 miles away from earth, 2 astronauts left the confines of their floating home

European Space Agency astronaut Alexander Gerst went on his first spacewalk Tuesday with NASA astronaut Reid Wiseman. Working in the moonlight, the duo spent a total of six hours and 13 minutes outside of the International Space Station cleaning and repairing various aspects of their floating home. The astronauts were tethered to the space station during their outing and had a few minutes to take some photographs, some of which were later posted to social media.

Another spacewalk is scheduled to take place next week, the Associated Press reports. Wiseman and fellow American Butch Wilmore will be venturing out of the station to perform more maintenance work.

Want to see more of these astronauts? Watch TIME’s Jeff Kluger interview Reid Wiseman, Steve Swanson, and Alexander Gerst from the International Space Station

[AP]

TIME space

Here’s Why the Full Moon Is Sometimes Red

NASA explains how and why the yearly event occurs

Ever wondered why the full moon sometimes appears a dull red?

The “blood moon” lunar eclipse happens about twice a year—including early Wednesday morning—when the Sun, Earth and moon line up so that the moon passes through the Earth’s shadow, NASA explains in the video above. This causes moon to appear a dull red color due to sunlight scattered through the Earth’s atmosphere.

In other words, if you were to watch the eclipse from the moon, you’d see the Earth blocking the Sun, whose rays creep over the curves of the Earth, basking the moon in a red glow.

For an up-close, clear shot of Wednesday’s blood moon, tune in to the SLOOH Community Observatory‘s live stream here, starting at 5 a.m. ET and likely peaking at around 6:55 a.m. ET.

TIME space

See the Stunning New Portrait of Mars from India’s MOM Spacecraft

Mars photographed by the ISRO Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) spacecraft on Sept. 30, 2014.
Mars photographed by the ISRO Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) spacecraft on Sept. 30, 2014. ISRO—AFP/Getty Images

India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), which began orbiting the Red Planet on Sept. 23, has already sent back a stunning new portrait of Mars. The image taken Sept. 28 shows the beginnings of a dust storm on the surface of the planet and was taken by the Mars Color Camera aboard the spacecraft. The Mars Orbiter will be collecting images and other data from the planet’s surface and atmosphere using five sensors, four of which have already been switched on.

This data will be shared with NASA, according to an agreement signed on Sept. 30 between the two agencies to collaborate on Mars exploration. NASA’s MAVEN spacecraft entered Mars’s orbit just two days ahead of MOM, and will be able to receive data from Opportunity and Curiosity rovers on the planet’s surface.

TIME space

What’s That Thing on Saturn’s Biggest Moon?

What in the world? The mystery formation as seen over time
What in the world? The mystery formation as seen over time JPL/NASA

Something strange is happening on the cloud-shrouded world known as Titan—and a NASA orbiter is trying to figure it out

It’s not the first time a formation has appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, on a world beyond Earth. Usually, it’s Mars: this year alone the Mars Reconnaissance Observer spotted a brand-new crater that wasn’t there last time NASA looked, while the Opportunity Rover discovered the amazing Ghost Rock that also didn’t exist—and then it did.

Now it’s Titan’s turn. Saturn and its moons have been under close scrutiny by the Cassini probe ever since the spacecraft arrived in the neighborhood back in 2004, discovering such oddities as geysers and a subsurface ocean on the ice moon Enceladus; a mysterious hexagon-shaped storm on Saturn itself; and a hydrocarbon cycle on Titan that mirrors Earth’s water cycle, complete with rainstorms, rivers and lakes.

But in July, 2012, Cassini spotted something that hadn’t been there anytime in the previous seven years: a bright spot, covering about 30 square miles (78 sq. km), in the lake known as Ligeia Mare, which is bigger than Lake Superior. NASA called it a “transient feature,” while the Internet dubbed it the “Magic Island.” And as of August 21 of this year, the space agency has just announced, it was still visible—and in fact, it had doubled in size.

“The fact that it’s still there shows that it isn’t just some artifact of the imaging system,” says Jason Hofgartner, the Cornell grad student who’s in charge of figuring out what the darned thing is. “Something is really happening on Titan.”

Hofgartner and his colleagues have narrowed the “something” down to four possibilities. “It could be waves,” he says. “It could be bubbles rising up from the bottom. It could be solids of some kind floating on the surface—or solids suspended below the surface. All of these,” he says, “are equally viable at this point.”

The scientists are convinced, however, that the mystery island almost certainly has to do with the changing of seasons on Titan. Riding along in its orbit around Saturn, Titan takes 30 years to circle the Sun, and the northern hemisphere, where Ligeia Mare is located, is just at the start of its 7 1/2-year summer. It’s bathed in solar energy, and, says Hofgartner, “any of those [features] could be powered by the seasonal change.”

If so, it wouldn’t be the first time scientists have seen seasonal effects on Titan: when Cassini first arrived in the Saturnian system, the moon’s southern hemisphere was edging into the end of summer, and observations suggested at the time that evaporation had shrunk the lakes in the region from their maximum extent—the same thing that happens to lakes and reservoirs on Earth.

In fact, the search for evidence of seasonal changes on Titan was a primary objective of the Cassini mission, and the space probe should get at least another look at the mystery island before the mission ends.

That won’t remotely solve all of the mysteries about this extraordinary moon, however. It’s nothing less than a Bizarro version of Earth, with methane and other hydrocarbons taking the place of water. “It has all kinds of processes we can learn about,” says Hofgartner, “which could help us understand processes on Earth better.”

That could call for a return visit one day by a successor of Cassini. “There are lots of reasons,” Hofgartner says, “to go back.”

TIME astronomy

The MAVEN Spacecraft Has Begun Orbiting Mars on a Yearlong Quest

Mars Maven
In this artist concept provided by NASA, the MAVEN spacecraft approaches Mars on a mission to study its upper atmosphere AP

It's on a mission to discover what happened to Mars' atmosphere

Mars explorer MAVEN entered the Red Planet’s orbit late Sunday night, beginning a yearlong journey during which scientists hope to discover what happened to the Martian atmosphere.

Mission managers at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., received confirmation of MAVEN’s arrival at about 10:25 p.m. E.T. — about a half-hour after it began slowing down from more than 10,000 m.p.h. to enter Martian orbit.

Narration of the orbital’s entry was broadcast beginning at 9:30 p.m. from Lockheed Martin Space Systems’ mission-operations center in Littleton, Colo. It took about 12 minutes for MAVEN’s signals to travel the 442 million miles to Earth.

MAVEN – standing for Martian Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution – launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Nov. 18, 2013, and it will now take six weeks to turn itself on and test its systems.

After that, the $671 million, bus-sized craft will spend one (Earth) year assessing the planet Mars’ atmosphere, in hopes of discovering how the Martian atmosphere is changing now and, in doing so, understand how it has changed over billions of years.

Scientists believe that Mars and Earth were once sister planets, both of them green and wet. But, about 4 billion years ago, their fortunes diverged: as Earth incubated life in its thick, reassuring atmosphere, it’s thought that Mars somehow lost its magnetic field. That left it vulnerable to the spray of solar particles zooming through space, and, over time, scientists say, those particles winnowed the Martian atmosphere. Its land was buffed dry and brittle and its landscape turned freezing.

MAVEN is NASA’s 10th Mars orbiter mission, three of which have failed. Three other spacecraft are in Mars’ orbit, two of which are NASA missions (the 2001 Mars Odyssey and the 2005 Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter), and one of which is a 2003 European Space Agency mission.

Two rovers, Curiosity and Opportunity, are still active on Mars’ surface. Spirit, another rover, is still on the planet, but was deactivated in 2010.

“Hello ‪@MarsCuriosity and ‪@MarsRovers! #MAVEN is looking over you. (In ‪#Spirit),” tweeted the MAVEN mission, just after arrival.

TIME

Journey to the Red Planet: MAVEN Approaches Martian Orbit

Ahead of its arrival, take a look back at the spacecraft's evolution

On Sept. 21, NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft will arrive in orbit around Mars and embark on a one-Earth-year long mission to collect data from the planet’s upper atmosphere. MAVEN launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla. on Nov. 18, 2013 and, over the last 10 months, covered a journey of 442 million miles to get where it’s going. The spacecraft is the very first to be dedicated to the study and measurement of Mars’ upper atmosphere.

“The MAVEN science mission focuses on answering questions about where the water that was present on early Mars [went], about where did the carbon dioxide go,” said Bruce Jakosky, MAVEN principal investigator from the University of Colorado, Boulder’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics in a statement. “These are important questions for understanding the history of Mars, its climate, and its potential to support at least microbial life.”

MAVEN, which is equipped with a telecommunications package that allows it to relay data from the Curiosity and Opportunity Rovers currently exploring the planet’s surface, is one of several efforts NASA has undertaken to prepare for potential human exploration of Mars.

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