TIME satellites

These People Just Took a Selfie From Space

Satellites are the ultimate selfie stick

In what was basically the opposite of a close-up, workers at Israel Aerospace Industries recently posted for a so-called “space selfie.”

About 300 employees for the company lined up to spell the initials “IAI” as one of their own passing satellite snapped a picture from above at an altitude of about 325 miles.

TIME space

How the Challenger Disaster Happened

Challenger Cover
The Feb. 10, 1986, cover of TIME Cover Credit: BRUCE WEAVER

Read TIME's original cover story about the NASA tragedy

When the Space Shuttle Challenger lifted off on Jan. 28, 1986, space flight was supposed to be safe. As TIME noted in a cover story that ran in the Feb. 10 issue of that year, NASA had spent 25 years sending Americans into space, at an average pace of about twice a year. That aura of safety was part of the reason why Christa McAuliffe, a teacher from New Hampshire, was on board, the first non-astronaut to have that privilege.

It was also part of the reason why what happened to the Challenger on that day was so shocking. As the nation watched live, “McAuliffe and six astronauts had disappeared in an orange- and-white fireball nine miles above the Atlantic Ocean,” TIME reported. “So too had the space shuttle Challenger, the trusted $1.2 billion workhorse on which they had been riding.”

What went wrong?

It was not immediately clear why things had turned sour, even as the launch procedure seemed to be going perfectly. But, as TIME explained in the diagram below, which ran with a story in that issue about how NASA was investigating the disaster, the what was a fire that started in an external fuel tank:

Challenger Diagram
From the Feb. 10, 1986, issue of TIME TIME Diagram

Read the full cover story, as well as obituaries of each of the seven crew members, here in the TIME Vault:
Space Shuttle Challenger

TIME astronomy

Astronomers Discover an Ancient Solar System That’s Very Similar to Our Own

Old Solar System
This artist's rendering made available by Tiago Campante and Peter Devine shows the Kepler-444 star system, surrounded by at least five earth-sized planets. Tiago Campante, Peter Devine—AP

Kepler-444 could help pinpoint when planets started to form

Astronomers have discovered an ancient solar system very similar to our own that dates back to the “dawn of the galaxy.”

Using NASA’s Kepler telescope, a team of international scientists found a star named Kepler-444 and five orbiting planets that are similar in size to Earth, the BBC reports.

Kepler-444 was formed 11.2 billion years ago, making it the oldest known system of its kind.

“By the time the Earth formed, the planets in this system were already older than our planet is today,” said Dr. Tiago Campate, the lead author of the study.

The discovery comes after four years’ of observations taken from NASA’s Kepler spacecraft.

Researchers say the discovery of older Earth-sized planets could provide scope for the existence of life on other ancient planets.

[BBC]

TIME space

Best-Ever Photo of Dwarf Planet Ceres

Ready for its close-up: Ceres as you never saw it
Ready for its close-up: Ceres as you never saw it JPL/NASA

An unusual spacecraft closes in on a mysterious world

NASA’s Dawn space probe, which dazzled scientists with its astonishing views of the asteroid Vesta back in 2012, is about to do it again. A little over five weeks from now, the 2.7 ton probe will go into orbit around Ceres—another asteroid-belt object that is so huge, at 590 miles (940 km) across, it was promoted from asteroid to “dwarf planet” at the same time Pluto was being demoted into the same category.

Ceres is also among the strangest objects in the Solar System: unlike most asteroids, which are largely made of rock, this one contains at least 20 percent water, and may even feature geysers, like Saturn’s moon Enceladus. It is, says, Michael Küppers, of the European Space Agency “a very peculiar beast of an asteroid.”

What that beast looks like in detail will have to wait, but with Dawn just 147,000 miles (274,000 km) away from its target—closer than the Moon is to the Earth—NASA has just released the best image of Ceres ever seen. It’s 30 percent sharper than what Hubble can do, even though the Dawn cameras aren’t designed to do their best imaging from this far away.

“We’re seeing things that look like they could be craters,” says Mark Sykes, a Dawn co-investigator from the nonprofit Planetary Science Institute, “We’re also seeing these extended, kind of ribbonlike structures, which could be evidence of the kinds of internal processes you see on larger planets.”

The new images also confirm the existence of a mysterious white spot in the north that was seen in earlier images. (It’s actually very dark—nearly as black as coal, says Sykes, although not as dark as the rest of Ceres; the images are deliberately optically stretched to enhance contrast so surface features will show up). It’s almost certainly not ice, Sykes says: even dirty ice would have vaporized over the ten years since the spot first showed up in Hubble images.

But it could in theory be mineral deposits from under the surface. “If water is gushing out at times, it should leave a signature behind,” Sykes says. Light-colored deposits would darken over time, though, so if that’s what it is, it has to be relatively recent. The answer to this and other questions about Ceres’ structure, surface features and composition won’t come until after Dawn goes into orbit to begin its mission in earnest on March 6.

Astute space cadets might wonder how it could possibly take Dawn five more weeks to travel less than 150,000 miles to its rendezvous with Ceres; after all, the Apollo astronauts rocketed all the way to the Moon, 239,000 miles (384,000 km) from Earth in just three days. The answer is that Dawn was designed from the start to be a super slow spacecraft. Rather than relying on traditional chemical rockets once in space, it uses ion propulsion. The technology is well known to sci-fi fans. In fact, says Marc Rayman, Dawn’s mission director and chief engineer, “I first heard of it on Star Trek, when Captain Kirk says ‘advanced ion propulsion is even beyond our capabilities.'”

Evidently not, though. The idea, first tested on the Deep Space 1 mission back in the 1990’s, is to use electromagnetic fields to shoot charged particles out the back of a spacecraft (in this case, ionized xenon atoms), thrusting the craft itself forward. The acceleration, is much more modest than with a rocket engine. “It’s very gentle,” says Rayman. “It pushes on the spacecraft as hard as a sheet of paper you’re holding pushes down on your hand.” But because ion engines are so efficient, it can maintain that acceleration for far longer.

Once Dawn arrives at Ceres, it will orbit the dwarf planet at an altitude of about 8,000 miles (12,900 km) to start with, then descend to under 3,000 (4,800 km). Ultimately, the probe will image Ceres from less than 250 miles (402 km) up, taking not only photos but also scientific measurements that should finally lay bare the secrets of this most un-asteroidlike body.

Unlike other orbiting probes, however, including Deep Impact, LCROSS and MESSENGER, which visited a comet, the Moon and Mercury, respectively, Dawn won’t be sent in for a crash landing when the mission is over in 2016. “We know Ceres has water,” says Christopher Russell of UCLA, Dawn’s chief scientist. “We don’t know if it has life, but if it does, and if we contaminate the surface, we might mess it up.”

Even as Dawn inches toward Ceres, meanwhile, NASA’s New Horizons probe is speeding at thousands of miles per hour toward its own close encounter with Pluto next July. By mid-May, New Horizons, too, will have taken images of its target that surpass the Hubble. And by early next summer, scientists will be happily drowning in images and data from not one but two dwarf planets—both of which will be revealing their secrets at last.

TIME space

SpaceX, Boeing on Track to Get Astronauts into Space by 2017

SpaceX Falcon 9 Elon Musk
The unmanned Falcon 9 rocket launched by SpaceX on a cargo resupply service mission to the International Space Station lifts off from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Fla. on Jan. 10, 2015. Mike Brown—Reuters

Boeing's first unmanned test flight is scheduled for 2016

Boeing and SpaceX expect to be in a position to launch astronauts into space by 2017, NASA announced Monday.

At a press conference at Johnson Space Center in Houston, NASA said the two companies were on track to fly U.S. astronauts to the ISS within two years. Boeing and SpaceX have already completed some of the preliminary testing necessary to get vessels in orbit.

“It’s an incredible testament to American ingenuity and know-how, and an extraordinary validation of the vision we laid out just a few years ago as we prepared for the long-planned retirement of the space shuttle,” said Charlie Bolden, NASA administrator, according to a press release.

The two companies were selected to build vessels under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, which will help the U.S. launch astronauts into low-earth orbit and get them to the International Space Station.

NASA retired its space shuttle program in 2011 and has been relying on Roscosmos, Russia’s space agency, to get astronauts into space ever since—at a cost of $71 million per seat.

“I don’t ever want to write another check to Roscosmos after 2017,” Bolden said Monday, according to NBC News. “If we can make that date, I’ll be a happy camper.”

Boeing expects to conduct a crewless test flight in April 2017 and one with a test pilot by that July. SpaceX said Monday they will conduct a crewless flight in late 2016, and get a pilot in the air by early 2017. Eventually, the program is also expected to open a pathway to getting private citizens into space.

TIME space

Rings Like Saturn’s, but Supersized

Living large: Artist's conception of the giant ring system
Living large: Artist's conception of the giant ring system Ron Miller

Think you've seen big rings in our own solar system? Not even close.

When the University of Rochester’s Eric Mamajek tells other astronomers about the object he and his colleagues discovered about 430 light-years from Earth, they tend to be skeptical—very skeptical. And no wonder: What he’s found is a giant ring system, sort of like Saturn’s, but some 200 times bigger, circling what may be an exoplanet between ten and 40 times the size of Jupiter. If you put these rings in our own Solar System, they’d stretch all the way from the Earth to the Sun, a distance of 93 million miles (150 km). And what’s more, there’s evidence that the rings are sculpted by at least one exomoon—something that also happens at Saturn, but not remotely on this scale.

MORE These ‘Vintage’ NASA Posters Imagine Travel Beyond the Stars

“It took us a year even to convince ourselves of what we were seeing,” says Mamajek, whose paper is based on a new analysis of observations taken back in 2007 by the SuperWASP planet search project. At the time, the observations seemed to make no sense: when a planet passes in front of a star, you usually see a dip in starlight that lasts for up to a few hours. In this case, the starlight dimmed for two months.

It wasn’t a steady dip, either. The star would fade, then brighten, then fade again, in a way that made no sense at all. When Mamajek and his group stumbled on the data in 2010, he says, “I took a printout of the light curve, put it on the wall, and stared at it for a week.” Crazy as it seemed, the most plausible explanation was a giant ring system with gaps like Saturn’s that let more or less light through at different times during the passage. “It’s the same indirect way the rings of Uranus were discovered in 1977,” he says.

The planet itself doesn’t show up in the observations, but that could be explained if the ring system is slightly off-center as it moves in front of the star. You can see how this works in an animation put together by Mamajek’s collaborator Matthew Kenworthy, of the University of Leiden, in the Netherlands.

The star which the new planet orbits is thought to be very young—about 16 million years, compared with our own Solar System’s 4.6 billion. If the scientists are right about what they’re seeing, the mammoth ring system will get smaller over time as the outer bands condense into moons. “That’s what you see in [our] Solar System,” says Kenworthy. “You have rings tucked in close to the planets and moons further out. So presumably we’re seeing the intermediate step.”

It all seems familiar, except for the ring system’s size, which is unprecedented—and which is the reason other astronomers are waiting to be convinced. “I agree with the authors that it’s appropriate to consider an interpretation based on rings,” says Eric Ford, an expert on exoplanets at Penn State. The idea that the outer parts would condense into moons relatively quickly, however, means that we’re seeing the rings at their full extent during a very narrow window of existence—the sort of coincidence that scientists don’t love to see. “Whenever your explanation involves catching something during a phase that won’t last very long,” Ford says, “it’s a little concerning.”

MORE Cousins of Earth Found Deep in Space

Much of the doubt could be erased if astronomers could see the rings pass by again on another orbit around the star. Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened: they’ve got only the single passage back in 2007, meaning the exoplanet is on a relatively long orbit. “We think it’s at least ten or 15 years,” says Kenworthy.

They don’t know for sure, though, and since it’s tough to keep big telescopes aimed at this one star hoping for another passage, the astronomers have recruited members of the high-end amateur group, the American Association of Variable Star Observers, to monitor the situation. They’re also going back through digitized versions of old images from observatories around the world, looking for evidence of other stars that faded mysteriously for a while without explanation. “Now that we know what we’re looking for,” Mamajek says, “we might find that there are lots of them out there.”

They might, that is, if they’re really seeing rings. “I keep telling people, ‘if you can think of a better explanation, please let me know,'” Mamajek says, and he means it. So far, he has no takers. “The signal is very strong,” says Harvard’s David Kipping, who is doing his own search for exomoons, “and its difficult to believe the instrument could misbehave on such a huge scale. I think many of us find the signal interesting,” he says. That, by itself, is enough to keep the astronomy community looking.

Read next: SpaceX, Boeing on Track to Get Astronauts into Space by 2017

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TIME Science

How NASA Finds ‘Super Earths’ Where Alien Life Might Flourish

NASA's Kepler mission recently announced the discovery of three earth-like planets existing in a star's "Goldilocks zone."

Since 2009 NASA’s Kepler Mission has been exploring the Milky Way using an extraordinary powerful space telescope. Their mission is to discover “exoplanets” or Earth-like planets that could, in theory, be habitable for human life.

But what makes a planet habitable?

Scientists say habitable planets should be in an area round the star known as the “Goldilocks zone,” where it isn’t too hot or cold for water to exist on the surface in liquid form. Thus far, the mission has confirmed many such candidates, including a significant discovery of three planets announced in January 2015.

Jeffrey Kluger explains the significance of this newest discovery and the importance for humanity to continue space exploration.

TIME space

Ever Seen a Green Comet? Then Get Outside Soon

Comet Lovejoy David Lane

Comet Lovejoy is passing by for the first time in more than 8,000 years

If you were looking up at the sky the past couple of weeks you may have noticed a greenish glow. That was Comet Lovejoy, also known as C/2014 Q2, passing through the solar system more than 50 million miles away from our own planet. Amateur astronomer Terry Lovejoy from Queensland, Australia is the man who discovered the comet and four others like it in previous years.

Various amateur and professional astrophotographers such as David Lane have been quick to point their cameras towards the sky to catch a glimpse of the passing comet this month.

Lane’s photograph of Lovejoy was created using a series of three long-exposure shots from rural Kansas that were later combined into the composite image above.

“Comet Lovejoy is an excellent comet as it’s fairly close, quite bright and best of all very high in the sky,” Lane tells TIME.

Here is a closer look at the comet from the Mount Lemmon SkyCenter in Arizona by astrophotographer Adam Block.

Comet Lovejoy Adam Block—Mount Lemmon SkyCenter/University of Arizona

The comet has been visible throughout the Northern Hemisphere since the end of December and was expected to reach its peak visibility sometime in mid-January. Get outside and try to spot Lovejoy yourself, you better hurry as it will be another 8,000 years until the comet will again be visible from earth.

[National Geographic]

Read next: Buzz Aldrin Turns 85: A Look Back at a Remarkable Life

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME space

See the SpaceX Rocket Crash Land in Middle of the Ocean

SpaceX Rocket Crash
GIF by Mia Tramz for TIME

“Close but no cigar,” Elon Musk tweeted

SpaceX launched a resupply ship to the International Space Station last week, but it narrowly failed a test to securely navigate the rocket back to earth.

The company founded by Elon Musk believes that a reusable rocket could drastically reduce the costs of space transportation, and as you can see in the GIF above compiled from images that Musk tweeted, they’re very close to finalizing the technology. In the first attempt, the Falcon 9 rocket descended back to floating platform about 200 miles off the Florida coast. But it was a hard landing, and the rocket was largely wrecked.

“Close but no cigar,” Musk tweeted at the time.

 

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