Our Free Book: 101 Astronomical Events in 2017

Our Free Book: 101 Astronomical Events in 2017

101 Astronomical Events in 2017

101 Astronomical Events in 2017

Let’s forget all about 2016, and instead look forward to the amazing 2017 we all know we’re going to have. And to help you celebrate this amazing year in space, we’re pleased to publish an entire book on what you can observe in the upcoming year: 101 Astronomical Events in 2017.

This totally free ebook was written by our own David Dickinson and contains all the predictable events coming up: the occultations, the eclipses, the meteor showers, the equinoxes, the super-moons and mini-moons. Every significant event coming up in 2017.

In addition, a few amateur astronomers like Cory Schmitz from PhotographingSpace and the Upside Down Astronomer Paul Stewart provided some of the beautiful photographs to inspire you to get outside.

Once again, this book is totally free. There’s no cost to purchase it, there are no advertisements in it. All we ask is that you get out there, enjoy the night sky with your friends and family, and take amazing pictures to share with us and the rest of astronomy community.

Well, it would also really help if you shared the book with your friends, family, astronomy club, and forums.

This is an experiment. Will you download and actually use it? If so, then expect us to release a new edition every year. If not, then, we’ll go back to the regular blog post version.

Thanks again to David for putting in an enormous amount of work 6 months ago to think through an entire year of observing, and to the readers and photographers who helped doublecheck the math to make sure it’s accurate.

Click here to download a copy in PDF format, or click here to download a copy in EPUB format.

Fraser Cain
Publisher, Universe Today

The post Our Free Book: 101 Astronomical Events in 2017 appeared first on Universe Today.

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NASA’s Favorite Photos of 2016

NASA’s Favorite Photos of 2016

There are a group of unsung heroes at NASA, the people who travel the world to capture key events in our exploration of space. They share their images with all of us, but most of the time, it’s not just the pictures of launches, landings, and crucial mission events that they capture. They also show us behind-the-scenes events that otherwise might go unnoticed, and they also capture the true personalities of the people behind the missions and events.

From exciting beginnings of rocket launches and rocket tests to the sad losses of space exploration icons, these photographers are there take these images that will forever remind us of the glories and perils of spaceflight and the joys and sadness of human life.

NASA photographers Bill Ingalls, Aubrey Gemignani, Joel Kowsky, Connie Moore, and Gwen Pitman chose some of their favorites images from 2016, and below are just a few:

In this 30 second exposure taken with a circular fish-eye lens, a meteor streaks across the sky during the annual Perseid meteor shower as a photographer wipes moisture from the camera lenses Friday, August 12, 2016 in Spruce Knob, West Virginia. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

The team from the Juno mission celebrate after they received confirmation from the spacecraft that it had successfully completed the engine burn and entered orbit of Jupiter on July 4, 2016 in mission control of the Space Flight Operations Facility at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA. Juno will orbit the planet for 20 months to collect data on the planetary core, map the magnetic field, and measure the amount of water and ammonia in the atmosphere. Credit: (NASA/Aubrey Gemignani)

The United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket carrying NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft lifts off on from Space Launch Complex 41 on Sept. 8, 2016 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. OSIRIS-REx will be the first U.S. mission to sample an asteroid, retrieve at least two ounces of surface material and return it to Earth for study. The asteroid, Bennu, may hold clues to the origin of the solar system and the source of water and organic molecules found on Earth. Photo Credit: (NASA/Joel Kowsky)

Annie Glenn, Widow of former astronaut and Senator John Glenn, pays her respects to her late husband as he lies in repose, under a United States Marine honor guard, in the Rotunda of the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus, Friday, Dec. 16, 2016. Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Piers Sellers, former astronaut and deputy director of the Sciences and Exploration Directorate at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, speaks at NASA’s Earth Day event, Friday, April 22, 2016 at Union Station in Washington, DC. Sadly, Sellers passed away on Dec. 23, after battling cancer. Credit: (NASA/Joel Kowsky)

The Soyuz TMA-20M spacecraft is seen as it lands with Expedition 48 crew members NASA astronaut Jeff Williams, Russian cosmonauts Alexey Ovchinin, and Oleg Skripochka of Roscosmos near the town of Zhezkazgan, Kazakhstan on Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2016. Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Following his year in space on board the International Space Station, astronaut Scott Kelly spoke during an event at the United States Capitol Visitor Center, on May 25, 2016, in Washington. Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

The second and final qualification motor (QM-2) test for the Space Launch System’s booster is seen, Tuesday, June 28, 2016, at Orbital ATK Propulsion Systems test facilities in Promontory, Utah. During the Space Launch System flight the boosters will provide more than 75 percent of the thrust needed to escape the gravitational pull of the Earth, the first step on NASA’s Journey to Mars. Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson gets her hair cut on Nov. 14, 2016 at the Cosmonaut Hotel in Baikonur, Kazakhstan, a few days before launching to spend about six months on the International Space Station. Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Click on each of the images to see larger versions on Flickr. You can see the entire selection of these favorite photos from 2016 on the NASA HQ Flickr page.

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How Do Wind Turbines Work?

How Do Wind Turbines Work?

Perhaps you’ve seen them while driving through the countryside. Or maybe you saw them just off the coast, looming large on the horizon with their spinning blades. Then again, you may have seen them on someone’s roof, or as part of a small-scale urban operation. Regardless of the location, wind turbines and wind power are becoming an increasingly common feature in the modern world.

Much of this has to do with the threat of Climate Change, air pollution, and the desire to wean humanity off its dependence on fossil fuels. And when it comes to alternative and renewable energy, wind power is expected to occupy the second-largest share of the market in the future (after solar). But just how exactly do wind turbines work?


Air turbines are devices that turn the kinetic energy of wind and changes in air flow into electrical energy. In general, they consist of the following components: a rotor, a generator, and a structural support component (which can take the form of either a tower, a rotor yaw mechanism, or both).

NASA’s Ames Research Center and the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) testing a research wind turbine in the world’s largest wind tunnel in April of 2000. Credit: NASA

A rotor consists of the blades that capture the wind’s energy and a shaft, which converts the wind energy to low-speed rotational energy. The generator – which is connected to the shaft – converts the slow rotation to high into electrical energy using a series of magnets and a conductor (which usually consists of coiled copper wire).

When the magnets rotate around with the copper wire, its produces a difference in electrical potential, creating voltage and an electric current. Lastly, there is the structural support component, which ensures that the turbine either stands at a high enough altitudes to optimally capture changes in wind pressure, and/or face in the direction of wind flow.

Types of Wind Turbines:

At present, there are two main types of wind turbines – Horizontal Axis Wind Turbines (HAWT) and Vertical Axis Wind Turbines (VAWT). As the name would imply, horizontal wind turbines have a main rotor shaft and electrical generator at the top of a tower, with the blades pointed into the wind. The turbine is usually positioned upwind of its supporting tower, since the tower is likely to produce turbulence behind it.

Vertical axis turbines (once again, as the name implies) have the main rotor shaft arranged vertically. Typically, these are smaller in nature, and do not need to be pointed in the direction of the wind in order to rotate. They are thereby being able to take advantage of wind that is variable in terms of direction.

A Darrieus wind turbine, located in Martigny, Switzerland. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Lysippos

In general, horizontal axis wind turbines are considered more efficient and can produce more power. While the vertical model generates less electricity it can be placed at lower elevations and needs less in the way of components (particularly a yaw mechanism). Wind turbines can also be divided into three general groups based on their design, which includes the Towered, Savonius, and Darrieus models.

The towered model is the most conventional form of HAWT, consisting of a tower (as the name would suggest) and a series of long blades that sit ahead of (and parallel to) the tower. The Savonis is a VAWT model that relies on contoured blades (scoops) to capture wind and spin. They are generally low-efficiency, but have the benefit of being self-starting. These sorts of turbines are often part of rooftop wind operations or mounted on sea vessels.

The Darrieus model, also known as an “Eggbeater” turbine, is named after the French inventor who pioneered the design – Georges Darrieus. This VAWT model employs a series of vertical blades that sit parallel to the vertical support. They are generally low efficiency, require an additional rotor to start turning, produce high-torque, and place high stress on the tower. Hence, they are considered unreliable as designs go.

History of Development:

Wind power has been used for thousands of years to push sails, power windmills, or to generate pressure for water pumps. The earliest known examples come from Central Asia, where windmills used in ancient Persia (Iran) have been dated to between 500 – 900 CE. The technology began to appear in Europe during the Middle Ages, and became a common feature by the 16th century.

The first automatically operated wind turbine, built in Cleveland in 1887 by Charles F. Brush. Credit: Wikipedia Commons

By the 19th century, with the development of electrical power, the first wind turbines capable of generating electricity were built. The first was installed in 1887 by Scottish academic James Blyth to light his holiday home in Marykirk, Scotland. In 1888, American inventor Charles F. Brush built the first automated wind turbine to power his home in Cleveland, Ohio.

By the early 20th century, wind turbines began to become a common means of powering homes in remote areas (such as farmsteads). In 1941, the first megawatt-class wind turbine was installed in Vermont and attached to the local utility grid. In 1951, the UK installed its first utility-grid connected wind turbine in the Orkney Islands.

By the 1970s, research and development into wind turbine technology advanced considerably thanks to the OPEC crisis and protests against nuclear power. In the ensuing decades, associations and lobbyists dedicated to alternative energy began to emerge in western European nations and the United States. By the final decade of the 20th century, similar efforts emerged in India and China due to growing air pollution and rising demand for clean energy.

Wind Power:

Compared to other forms of renewable energy, wind power is considered very reliable and steady, as wind is consistent from year to year and does not diminish during peak hours of demand. Initially, the construction of wind farms was a costly venture. But thanks to recent improvements, wind power has begun to set peak prices in wholesale energy markets worldwide and cut into the revenues and profits of the fossil fuel industry.

Cross-section of a vertical wind turbine. Credit: energy.gov

According to a report issued by the Department of Energy in March of 2015, the growth of wind power in the United States could lead to even more highly skilled jobs in many categories. Titled “Wind Vision: A New Era for Wind Power in the United States”, the document indicates that by 2050, the industry could account for as much as 35% of the US’ electrical production.

In addition, in 2014, the Global Wind Energy Council and Greenpeace International came together to publish a report titled “Global Wind Energy Outlook 2014”. This report stated that worldwide, wind power could provide as much as 25 to 30% of global electricity by 2050. At the time of the report’s writing, commercial installations in more than 90 countries had a total capacity of 318 gigawatts (GW), providing about 3.1% of global supply.

This represents a nearly sixteen-fold increase in the rate of adoption since the year 2000, when wind power accounted for less than 0.2%. Another way to look at it would be to say that the market share of wind power has doubled four times in less than 15 years. This places it second only to solar power, which doubled seven times over in the same period, but still trails wind in terms of its overall market share (at about 1% by 2014).

An offshore wind farm located off the coast of Belgium. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Hans Hillewaert

In terms of its disadvantages, one consistently raised issue is the effect wind turbines have on local wildlife, and the disturbance their presence has on the local landscape. However, these concerns have often been shown to be inflated by special interest groups and lobbyists seeking to discredit wind power and other renewable energy sources.

For instance, a 2009 study released by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory determined that less than 1 acre per megawatt is disturbed permanently by the construction of large-scale wind farms, and less than 3.5 acres per megawatt are disturbed temporarily. The same study concluded that the impacts are relatively low on bird and bat wildlife, and that the same conclusions hold true for offshore platforms.

All over the world, governments and local communities are looking to wind power in order to meet their energy needs. In an age of rising fuel prices, growing concerns over Climate Change, and improving technology, this is hardly surprising. At its current rate of adoption, it is likely to be one of the largest sources of energy by mid-century.

And be sure to enjoy this video about wind turbines, courtesy of NASA’s Lewis Research Center:

We have written many interesting articles on wind turbines and wind power here at Universe Today. Here’s What is Alternative Energy?, What are Fossil Fuels?, What are the Different Types of Renewable Energy?, Wind Power on the Ocean (with Help from Space), and Could the World Run on Solar and Wind Power?

For more information, check out How Stuff Works’s article about the history and mechanics of wind power and NASA’s Greenspace page.

Astronomy Cast also has some episodes that are relevant to the subject. Here’s Episode 51: Earth and Episode 308: Climate Change.


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Iridium Satellites Fueled and Tucked In For SpaceX Falcon 9 ‘Return to Flight’ Blastoff

Iridium Satellites Fueled and Tucked In For SpaceX Falcon 9 ‘Return to Flight’ Blastoff

The first ten IridiumNEXT satellites are stacked and encapsulated in the Falcon 9 fairing for launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Ca., in early 2017. Credit: Iridium

Technicians have fueled, stacked and tucked the first ten advanced IridiumNEXT mobile voice and data relay satellites inside the nose cone of a Falcon 9 rocket designated as SpaceX’s ‘Return to Flight’ launcher – potentially as early as next week – from their west coast launch pad on Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

“Milestone Alert: The first ten #IridiumNEXT satellites are stacked and encapsulated in the Falcon 9 fairing,” Iridium Communications announced on the company website on Thursday, Dec. 29.

The excitement of a possibly imminent liftoff is clearly building – at least for Iridium Communications and their CEO Matt Desch.

“Our first 10 #IridiumNEXT satellites are all fueled now, tucked in and dreaming of flying in space. Very. Soon. Happy Holidays!” Iridium Communications CEO Matt Desch tweeted on Christmas Day, Dec. 25, 2016.

But SpaceX is still dealing with the fallout from the catastrophic launch pad explosion that eviscerated a Falcon 9 and its expensive commercial payload in Florida without warning, during a routine fueling test on Sept. 1, 2016.

Liftoff of the SpaceX Falcon 9 with the payload of 10 identical next generation IridiumNEXT communications satellites from Vandenberg’s Space Launch Complex 4-East could come as soon as next week – in early January 2017 perhaps as soon as Jan. 7.

IridiumNEXT satellites being fueled, pressurized & stacked on dispenser tiers at Vandenberg AFB for Falcon 9 launch. Credit: Iridium

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk had said he hoped to resume Falcon 9 launches before the end of this year 2016 – while investigating the root cause of the devastating mishap.

But the launch has been repeatedly postponed and pushed off into 2017 while investigators plumb the data for clues and fix whatever flaws are uncovered.

“Iridium’s @Falcon9_rocket in processing at @VandenbergAFB, getting ready for our launch in early Jan. Progress! #Thistimeitsforreal!” Desch elaborated.

Nevertheless, there has been no official statement issued by either SpaceX or Iridium Communications announcing a specific target launch date.

And the liftoff is completely dependent on achieving FAA approval for the Falcon 9 launch.

“This launch is contingent upon the FAA’s approval of SpaceX’s return to flight following the anomaly that occurred on September 1, 2016 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida,” Iridium said in a prior statement, reported here.

All SpaceX Falcon 9 launches immediately ground to a halt following the colossal eruption of a fireball from the Falcon 9 at the launch pad that suddenly destroyed the rocket and completely consumed its $200 million Israeli Amos-6 commercial payload on Sept. 1 during a routine fueling and planned static fire engine test at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

The explosive anomaly resulted from a “large breach” in the cryogenic helium system of the second stage liquid oxygen tank and subsequent ignition of the highly flammable oxygen propellant.

Meanwhile, SpaceX and Iridium are preparing the payload and rocket for launch as soon as possible after FAA approval is granted.

“Satellites have been fueled, pressurized & dispenser tiers are being stacked as we move closer to first launch #IridiumNEXT #NEXTevolution,” Iridium elaborated with photos showing the recent processing in progress.

The Iridium mission is the first of seven planned Falcon 9 launches – totaling 70 satellites.

“Iridium is replacing its existing constellation by sending 70 Iridium NEXT satellites into space on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket over 7 different launches,” says Iridium.

“There were many challenges on the program, from orbit determination knowledge design, to encryption design, to integration and verification test planning, to planning for on orbit acceptance activities, but the team made it all come together and the satellites are ready for deployment to enhance the future of mobile satellite communications — I could not be more proud,” Joel Rademacher, Ph.D, Director, Systems Engineering for Iridium Next, said in a statement.

The goal of this privately contracted mission is to deliver the first 10 Iridium NEXT satellites into low-earth orbit to inaugurate what will be a new constellation of satellites dedicated to mobile voice and data communications.

Iridium eventually plans to launch a constellation of 81 Iridium NEXT satellites into low-earth orbit.

“At least 70 of which will be launched by SpaceX,” per Iridium’s contract with SpaceX.

Iridium’s SpaceX Falcon9 rocket in processing at Vandenberg Air Force Base, getting ready for launch in early Jan. 2017. Credit: Iridium

Besides the launch, SpaceX plans to continue its secondary objective of recovering the Falcon 9 first stage via a propulsive soft landing – as done several times previously and witnessed by this author.

The goal is to eventually recycle and reuse the first stage – and thereby dramatically slash launch costs per Musk’s vision.

This Falcon 9 has been outfitted with four landing lags and grid fins for a controlled landing on a tiny barge prepositioned in the Pacific Ocean several hundred miles off the west coast of California.

SpaceX Falcon 9 launches and lands over Port Canaveral in this streak shot showing rockets midnight liftoff from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 12:45 a.m. EDT on July 18, 2016 carrying Dragon CRS-9 craft to the International Space Station (ISS) with almost 5,000 pounds of cargo and docking port. View from atop Exploration Tower in Port Canaveral. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Desch says that all seven of his Falcon’s will be new – not resued.

“All our seven F9s are new,” Desch tweeted.

Incredible sight of pleasure craft zooming past SpaceX Falcon 9 booster from Thaicom-8 launch on May 27, 2016 as it arrives at the mouth of Port Canaveral, FL, atop droneship platform on June 2, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

SpaceX maintains active launch pads on both the US East and West coasts.

On the Florida Space Coast, SpaceX plans to initially resume launches at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) from pad 39A, the former shuttle pad that SpaceX has leased from NASA.

Commercial SpaceX launches at KSC could start from pad 39A sometime in early 2017 – after modifications for the Falcon 9 are completed.

Meanwhile pad 40, which was heavily damaged during the Sept. 1 explosion, is undergoing extensive repairs and refurbishments to bring it back online.

Aerial view of pad and strongback damage at SpaceX Launch Complex-40 as seen from the VAB roof on Sept. 8, 2016 after fueling test explosion destroyed the Falcon 9 rocket and AMOS-6 payload at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on Sept. 1, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

It is not known when pad 40 will be fit to resume Falcon 9 launches.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Upgraded SpaceX Falcon 9 blasts off with Thaicom-8 communications satellite on May 27, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL. 1st stage booster landed safely at sea minutes later. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

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NASA’s NEOWISE Missions Spots New Comets

NASA’s NEOWISE Missions Spots New Comets

NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) accomplished much during its first mission, which ran from December of 2009 to September of 2010. During the many months that it was active, the orbital telescope conducted an all-sky astronomical survey in the infrared band and discovered thousands of minor planets and numerous star clusters.

The extension of its mission, NEOWISE, has brought new life to the telescope as a comet and asteroid hunter. And since its re-activation in December of 2013, the orbiting telescope has spotted hundreds of Near Earth Objects (NEOs) and thousands of Main Belt asteroids. Most recently, it has detected two new objects (both possibly comets) which could be observable from Earth very soon.

The most recent object to be detected – 2016 WF9 – was first observed by NEOWISE on November 27th, 2016. This comet’s path through the Solar System takes it on a circuitous route, taking it from Jupiter to just inside the orbit of Earth over the course of 4.9 years. Much like other objects of its kind, 2016 WF9 may have once been a comet, or part of a  population of dark objects in the Main Asteroid Belt.

Artist’s rendition of the comet 2016 WF9 as it passes Jupiter’s orbit and moves toward the sun. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In any case, 2016 WF9 will approach Earth’s orbit on February 25th, 2017, passing Earth at a minimum distance of almost 51 million km (32 million mi). This will place it well outside the orbit of the Moon, so the odds of it threatening Earth are negligible. But for those keen observers hoping to catch sight of the object, it will be close enough that it might be visible with just a pair of binoculars.

Since its discovery, 2016 WF9 has been of interest to astronomers, mainly because it straddles the already blurry line between asteroids and comets. While its proportions are known – roughly 0.5 to 1 kilometer in diameter (0.3 to 0.6 miles) – its other characteristics have led to some confusion as to where it came from. For one, its appearance (which is quite dark) and its orbit are consistent with what one expects from a comet.

But on the other hand, it lacks the characteristic cloud of dust and gas that comets are known for. As James Bauer, NEOWISE’s Deputy Principal Investigator at JPL, said in a NASA press release:

“2016 WF9 could have cometary origins. This object illustrates that the boundary between asteroids and comets is a blurry one; perhaps over time this object has lost the majority of the volatiles that linger on or just under its surface.”

Graphic showing the asteroids and comets observed by NASA’s Near-Earth Object Wide-field Survey Explorer (NEOWISE) mission. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/JHU

The other object, C/2016 U1 NEOWISE, was discovered about a month prior to 2016 WF9. Its orbit, which can you see by checking out the 3D Solar System Simulator, takes it from the outer Solar System to within Mercury’s orbit over the course of thousands of years. According to NASA scientists, this object is very clearly a comet, as evidenced by the dust it has been releasing as it gets closer to our Sun.

During the first week of 2017, comet C/2016 U1 NEOWISE is also likely to be visible in the night sky – in this case, in the southeastern sky shortly before dawn (for those looking from the northern hemisphere). It will reach its closest point to the Sun on January 14th (where it will be passing within Mercury’s orbit) before heading back out towards the outer Solar System.

Once again, it is believed that comet-hunters should be able to see it, though that is open to question. Paul Chodas, the manager of NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object (NEO) Studies at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, thinks that this object “has a good chance of becoming visible through a good pair of binoculars, although we can’t be sure because a comet’s brightness is notoriously unpredictable.”

A mosaic of the images covering the entire sky as observed by the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE), part of its All-Sky Data Release. Credit: NASA/JPL

In any case, NASA will be continuing to monitor 2016 WF9 to see if they can’t sort out what it is. Should it prove to be a comet, it would be the tenth discovered by NEOWISE since it was reactivated in December of 2013. If it turns out to be an asteroid, it would be the one-hundredth discovered since its reactivation.

As of November 2016, the orbital telescope has conducted over 562,000 infrared measurements have been made of 24,024 different solar system objects, including 613 NEOs and 110 comets. It has also been responsible for discovering 249 new near-Earth objects and comets, as well as more than 34,000 asteroids during its original mission.

At present, NEOWISE’s science team is currently reprocessing all its primary mission data to extend the search for asteroids and comets. It is hoped that by taking advantage of the latest in photometric and astrometric calibrations, they will be able to push the limits of what the telescope can detect, thereby adding many more minor planets and objects to its suite of discoveries.

And be sure to enjoy this video, detailing the first two years of asteroid data collected by the NEOWISE mission:

Further Reading: NASA

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Weekly Space Hangout – December 30, 2016: Nancy Atkinson’s “Incredible Stories from Space”

Weekly Space Hangout – December 30, 2016: Nancy Atkinson’s “Incredible Stories from Space”

Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain)

Special Guest:
This week’s guest is Nancy Atkinson, an editor and writer for Universe Today, and is the author of a book about NASA’s robotic space missions, “Incredible Stories From Space: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Missions Changing Our View of the Cosmos.” She was the editor in chief for Space Lifestyle Magazine and also has had articles published on Wired.com, Space.com, NASA’s Astrobiology Magazine, Space Times magazine, and several newspapers in the Midwest. She has been involved with several space-related podcasts, including Astronomy Cast, 365 Days of Astronomy and was the host of the NASA Lunar Science Institute podcast. Nancy is also a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador; she lives in Minnesota.

Carolyn Collins Petersen (thespacewriter.com / space.about.com / @spacewriter )
Paul M. Sutter (pmsutter.com / @PaulMattSutter)

Their stories this week:
RIP Dr. Vera Rubin
Losing our Heroes
Shining light on anti-hydrogen
The ocean of Ceres?

We use a tool called Trello to submit and vote on stories we would like to see covered each week, and then Fraser will be selecting the stories from there. Here is the link to the Trello WSH page (http://bit.ly/WSHVote), which you can see without logging in. If you’d like to vote, just create a login and help us decide what to cover!

If you would like to join the Weekly Space Hangout Crew, visit their site here and sign up. They’re a great team who can help you join our online discussions!

If you would like to sign up for the AstronomyCast Solar Eclipse Escape, where you can meet Fraser and Pamela, plus WSH Crew and other fans, visit our site linked above and sign up!

We record the Weekly Space Hangout every Friday at 12:00 pm Pacific / 3:00 pm Eastern. You can watch us live on Universe Today, or the Universe Today YouTube page

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Opportunity Celebrates Christmas/New Year on Mars Marching to Ancient Water Carved Gully

Opportunity Celebrates Christmas/New Year on Mars Marching to Ancient Water Carved Gully

NASA’s Opportunity rover scans around and across to vast Endeavour crater on Dec. 19, 2016, as she climbs steep slopes on the way to reach a water carved gully along the eroded craters western rim. Note rover wheel tracks at center. This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from raw images taken on Sol 4587 (19 Dec. 2016) and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

On the brink of 4600 Sols of a profoundly impactful life, NASA’s long lived Opportunity rover celebrates the Christmas/New Year’s holiday season on Mars marching relentlessly towards an ancient water carved gully along the eroded rim of vast Endeavour crater – the next science target on her heroic journey traversing across never before seen Red Planet terrains.

“Opportunity is continuing its great 21st century natural history expedition on Mars, exploring the complex geology and record of past climate here on the rim of the 22-km Endeavour impact crater,” writes Larry Crumpler, a science team member from the New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science, in a mission update.

Indeed, New Years Day 2017 equates to 4600 Sols, or Martian Days – of boundless exploration and epic discovery by the longest living Martian rover ever dispatched by humanity to survey the most Earth-like planet in our solar system.

One can easily imagine our beloved Princess Leia gazing quite proudly upon the feistiness and resourcefulness of this never-give-up Martian Princess rover – climbing steeply uphill no less – nearly 13 YEARS into her 3 MONTH mission!!

“Not a boring flat terrain, but heroically rugged terrain,” says Crumpler.

“Hopefully the brakes are good! For a rover that originally landed 12 years ago on what amounts to a flat parking lot, the current terrain is about as different and rugged as any mountain goat rover could handle.”

Indeed she is 51 times beyond her “warrantied” life expectancy of merely 90 Sols roving the surface of the 4th rock from the Sun during her latest extended mission. (And this time round, the clueless Washington bean counters did not even dare threaten to shut her down – lest they suffer the wrath of a light saber or sister Curiosity’s laser canon !!).

Check out the glorious view from Opportunity’s current Martian holiday season exploits in our newest photo mosaics created by the imaging team of Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo.

“Opportunity has begun the ascent of the steep slopes here in the inner wall of Endeavour impact crater after completion of a survey of outcrops close to the crater floor. The goal now is to climb back to the rim where the terrain is less hazardous, drive south quickly about 1 km south, and arrive at the next major mission target on the rim before the next Martian winter,” Crumpler elaborated.

On Christmas Day 2016, NASA’s Opportunity rover scans around vast Endeavour crater as she ascends steep rocky slopes on the way to reach a water carved gully along the eroded craters western rim. This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from raw images taken on Sol 4593 (25 Dec. 2016) and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

After surviving the scorching ‘6 minutes of Terror’ plummet through the thin Martian atmosphere, Opportunity bounced to an airbag cushioned landing on the plains of Meridiani Planum on January 24, 2004 – nearly 13 years ago!

Opportunity was launched on a Delta II rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on July 7, 2003.

NASA’s Opportunity rover scans ahead to Spirit Mound and vast Endeavour crater as she celebrates 4500 sols on the Red Planet after descending down Marathon Valley. This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from raw images taken on Sol 4500 (20 Sept 2016) and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

The newest 2 year extended mission phase just began on Oct. 1, 2016 as the six wheeled robot was stationed at the western rim of Endeavour crater at the bottom of Marathon Valley at a spot called “Bitterroot Valley” and completing investigation of nearby “Spirit Mound.”

She is now ascending back up to the top of the crater rim for the southward trek to ‘the gully’ in 2017.

“Opportunity is making progress towards the next science objective of the extended mission,” researchers leading the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) Opportunity mission wrote in a status update.

“The rover is headed toward an ancient water-carved gully about a kilometer south of the rover’s current location on the rim of Endeavour Crater.”

Endeavour crater spans some 22 kilometers (14 miles) in diameter.

Opportunity has been exploring Endeavour since arriving at the humongous crater in 2011. Endeavour crater was formed when it was carved out of the Red Planet by a huge meteor impact billions of years ago.

“Endeavour crater dates from the earliest Martian geologic history, a time when water was abundant and erosion was relatively rapid and somewhat Earth-like,” Crumpler explains.

“So in addition to exploring the geology of a large crater, a type of feature that no one has ever explored in its preserved state, the mission seeks to take a close look at the evidence in the rocks for the past environment. Thus we are trying to stick to the crater rim where the oldest rocks are.”

But the crater slopes ahead are steep! As much as 20 degrees and more – and thus potentially dangerous! So the team is commanding Opportunity to proceed ahead with caution to “the gully” which is the primary target of her latest extended mission.

The rover has even done “quite a bit of exploratory driving in an effort to attain a good vantage point for finding a path through a troubling area of boulder patch and steep slopes ahead. The concern was whether the available routes to avoid the boulders were all too steep to traverse, in which case we would have to forgo the current ‘Extended Mission 10’ (EM10) route and backtrack to find a different route to our main objective, the ‘gully.’”

“The slopes here exceed 20 degrees and the surface consists of flat outcrops of impact breccias covered with tiny rocks that act like ball bearings,” Crumpler writes. “Anyone who has attempted to walk on a 20 degree slope with a covering of fine pebbles on hard outcrop can attest to the difficulty. Opportunity has been operating at these extreme slope for several months. But going down hill is one thing, And going back up hill is another entirely.”

NASA’s Opportunity rover discovers a beautiful Martian dust devil moving across the floor of Endeavour crater as wheel tracks show robots path today exploring the steepest ever slopes of the 13 year long mission, in search of water altered minerals at Knudsen Ridge inside Marathon Valley on 1 April 2016. This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from raw images taken on Sol 4332 (1 April 2016) and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

As of today, Sol 4598, Dec. 29, 2016, Opportunity has taken over 215,900 images and traversed over 27.12 miles (43.65 kilometers) – more than a marathon.

See our updated route map below.

The rover surpassed the 27 mile mark milestone early last month on November 6 (Sol 4546).

The power output from solar array energy production is currently 414 watt-hours, before heading into another southern hemisphere Martian winter in 2017.

Meanwhile Opportunity’s younger sister rover Curiosity traverses and drills into the lower sedimentary layers at the base of Mount Sharp.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

13 Year Traverse Map for NASA’s Opportunity rover from 2004 to 2016. This map shows the entire 43 kilometer (27 mi) path the rover has driven on the Red Planet during nearly 13 years and more than a marathon runners distance for some 4600 Sols, or Martian days, since landing inside Eagle Crater on Jan 24, 2004 – to current location at the western rim of Endeavour Crater. After descending down Marathon Valley and after studying Spirit Mound, the rover is now ascending back uphill on the way to a Martian water carved gully. Rover surpassed Marathon distance on Sol 3968 after reaching 11th Martian anniversary on Sol 3911. Opportunity discovered clay minerals at Esperance – indicative of a habitable zone – and searched for more at Marathon Valley. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

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What Are Fossil Fuels?

What Are Fossil Fuels?

The term “fossil fuels” is thrown about quite a lot these days. More often than not, it comes up in the context of environmental issues, Climate Change, or the so-called “energy crisis”. In addition to be a major source of pollution, humanity’s dependence on fossil fuels has led to a fair bit of anxiety in recent decades, and fueled demands for alternatives.

But just what are fossil fuels? While most people tend to think of gasoline and oil when they hear these words, it actually applies to many different kinds of energy sources that are derived from decomposed organic material. How humanity came to be so dependent on them, and what can we look to in order to replace them, are some of the biggest concerns facing us today.


Fossil fuels refers to energy sources that are formed as a result of the anaerobic decomposition of living matter that contains energy as a result of ancient photosynthesis. Typically, these organisms have been dead for millions of years, with some dating back as far as the Cryogenian Period (ca. 650 million years ago).

The Bryan Mound Strategic Petroleum Reserve, located in Brazoria Country, Texas. Credit: energy.gov

Fossil fuels contain high percentages of carbon and stored energy in their chemical bonds. They can take the form of petroleum, coal, natural gas, and other combustible, hydrocarbon compounds. Whereas petroleum and natural gas are formed by the decomposition of organisms, coal and methane are the results of the decomposition of terrestrial plants.

In the case of the former, it is believed that large quantities of phytoplankton and zooplankton settled on the bottoms of seas or lakes millions of years ago. Over the course of many millions of years, this organic matter mixed with mud and was buried under heavy layers of sediment. The resulting heat and pressure caused the organic matter to become chemically altered, eventually forming carbon compounds.

In the case of the latter, the source was dead plant matter that was covered in sediment during the Carboniferous period – i.e. the end of Devonian Period to the beginning of the Permian Period (ca. 300 and 350 million years ago). Over time, these deposits either solidified or became gaseous, creating coal fields, methane and natural gases.

Modern Uses:

Coal has been used since ancient times as a fuel, often in furnaces to melt metal ores. Unprocessed and unrefined oil has also been burned for centuries in lamps for the sake of lighting, and semi-solid hydrocarbons (like tar) were used for waterproofing (largely on the bottoms of boats and on docks) and for embalming.

Widespread use of fossil fuels as sources of energy began during the Industrial Revolution (18th – 19th century), where coal and oil began replacing animal sources (i.e. whale oil) to power steam engines. By the time of the Second Industrial Revolution (ca. 1870 – 1914), oil and coal began to be used to power electrical generators.

The invention of the internal combustion engine (i.e. automobiles) increased demands for oil exponentially, as did the development of aircraft. The petrochemical industry emerged concurrently, with petroleum being used to manufacture products ranging from plastics to feedstock. In addition, tar (a leftover product from petroleum extraction) became widely used in the construction of roads and highways.

Fossil fuels became central to modern manufacturing, industry and transportation because of how they produce significant amounts of energy per unit mass. As of 2015, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA) the world’s energy needs are still predominantly provided for by sources like coal (41.3%) and natural gas (21.7%), though oil has dropped to just 4.4%.

The fossil fuel industry also accounts for a major share of the global economy. In 2014, global coal consumption exceeded 3.8 billion metric tons, and accounted for US $46 billion in revenue in the US alone. In 2012, global oil and gas production reached over 75 million barrels per day, while the global revenue generated by the industry reached about US $1.247 trillion.

Countries of the world ranked in terms of their annual production of oil. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Ali Zifan

The fossil fuel industry also enjoys a great deal of government protection and incentives worldwide. A 2014 report from the IEA indicated that the fossil fuel industry collects $550 billion a year in global government subsidies. However, a 2015 study by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) indicated that the real cost of these subsidies to governments worldwide is around US $5.3 trillion (or 6.5 % of global GDP).

Environmental Effects:

The connection between fossil fuels and air pollution in industrialized nations and major cities has been evident since the Industrial Revolution. Pollutants generated by the burning of coal and oil include carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, volatile organic compounds and heavy metals, all of which have been linked to respiratory illnesses and increased risks of disease.

The burning of fossil fuels by humans is also the largest source of emissions of carbon dioxide (about 90%) worldwide, which is one of the main greenhouse gases that allows radiative forcing (aka. the Greenhouse Effect) to take place, and contributes to global warming.

In 2013, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that CO² levels in the upper atmosphere reached 400 parts per million (ppm) for the first time since measurements began in the 19th century. Based on the current rate at which emissions are growing, NASA estimates that carbon levels could reach between 550 to 800 ppm in the coming century.

If the former scenario is the case, NASA anticipates a rise of 2.5 °C (4.5 °F) in average global temperatures, which would be sustainable. However, should the latter scenario prove to be the case, global temperatures will rise by an average of 4.5 °C (8 °F), which would make life untenable for many parts of the planet. For this reason, alternatives are being sought out for development and widespread commercial adoption.


Due to the long-term effects of fossil fuel-use, scientists and researchers have been developing alternatives for over a century. These include concepts like hydroelectric power – which has existed since the late 19th century – where falling water is used to spin turbines and generate electricity.

Since the latter half of the 20th century, nuclear power has also been looked to as an alternative to coal and petroleum. Here, slow-fission reactors (which rely on uranium or the radioactive decay of other heavy elements)  are used to heat water, which in turn generates steam to spin turbines.

Since the mid-2oth century, several more methods have been proposed that range from the simple to the highly sophisticated. These include wind power, where changes in airflow pushes turbines; solar power, where photovoltaic cells convert the Sun’s energy (and sometimes heat) into electricity; geothermal power, which relies on steam tapped from the Earth’s crust to rotate turbines; and tidal power, where changes in the tides push turbines.

The spherical tokamak MAST at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy (UK). Photo: CCFE

Alternative fuels are also being derived from biological sources, where plant and biological sources are used to replace gasoline. Hydrogen is also being developed as a power source, ranging from hydrogen fuel cells to water being used to powering internal combustion and electric engines. Fusion power is also being developed, where atoms of hydrogen are fused inside reactors to generate clean, abundant energy.

By the middle of the 21st century, fossil fuels are expected to have become obsolete, or at least declined significantly in terms of their use. But from a historical standpoint, they have been associated with the largest and most prolonged explosions in human growth. Whether humanity will survive the long-term effects of this growth – which has included an intense amount of fossil fuel burning and greenhouse gas emissions – remains to be seen.

We have written many articles about fossil fuels for Universe Today. Here’s What is an Enhanced Greenhouse Effect?, Gases in the Atmosphere, What Causes Air Pollution?, What if We Burn Everything?, What is Alternative Energy?, and “Climate Change is Now More Certain Than Ever,” New Report Says

If you’d like more info on Fossil Fuels, check out NASA’s Earth Observatory. And here’s a link to NASA’s Article on Safeguarding our Atmosphere.

Astronomy Cast also has some episodes that are relevant to the subject. Here’s Episode 51: Earth and Episode 308: Climate Change.


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NASA Might Build an Ice House on Mars

NASA Might Build an Ice House on Mars

At first glance, a new concept for a NASA habitat on Mars looks like a cross between Mark Watney’s inflatable potato farm from “The Martian” and the home of Luke’s Uncle Owen on Tatooine from “Star Wars.”

The key to the new design relies on something that may or may not be abundant on Mars: underground water or ice.

The “Mars Ice Home” is a large inflatable dome that is surrounded by a shell of water ice. NASA said the design is just one of many potential concepts for creating a sustainable home for future Martian explorers. The idea came from a team at NASA’s Langley Research Center that started with the concept of using resources on Mars to help build a habitat that could effectively protect humans from the elements on the Red Planet’s surface, including high-energy radiation.

The Mars Ice Home concept. Credit: Clouds Architecture Office, NASA Langley Research Center,
Space Exploration Architecture.

Langley senior systems engineer Kevin Vipavetz who facilitated the design session said the team assessed “many crazy, out of the box ideas and finally converged on the current Ice Home design, which provides a sound engineering solution,” he said.

The advantages of the Mars Ice Home is that the shell is lightweight and can be transported and deployed with simple robotics, then filled with water before the crew arrives. The ice will protect astronauts from radiation and will provide a safe place to call home, NASA says. But the structure also serves as a storage tank for water, to be used either by the explorers or it could potentially be converted to rocket fuel for the proposed Mars Ascent Vehicle. Then the structure could be refilled for the next crew.

A cutaway of the interior of the Mars Ice Home concept. Credit: NASA Langley/Clouds AO/SEArch.

Other concepts had astronauts living in caves, or underground, or in dark, heavily shielded habitats. The team said the Ice Home concept balances the need to provide protection from radiation, without the drawbacks of an underground habitat. The design maximizes the thickness of ice above the crew quarters to reduce radiation exposure while also still allowing light to pass through ice and surrounding materials.

Team members of the Ice Home Feasibility Study discuss past and present technology development efforts in inflatable structures at NASA’s Langley Research Center.
Credits: Courtesy of Kevin Kempton/NASA.

“All of the materials we’ve selected are translucent, so some outside daylight can pass through and make it feel like you’re in a home and not a cave,” said Kevin Kempton, also part of the Langley team.

One key constraint is the amount of water that can be reasonably extracted from Mars. Experts who develop systems for extracting resources on Mars indicated that it would be possible to fill the habitat at a rate of one cubic meter, or 35.3 cubic feet, per day. This rate would allow the Ice Home design to be completely filled in 400 days, so the habitat would need to be constructed robotically well before the crew arrives. The design could be scaled up if water could be extracted at higher rates.

The team wanted to also include large areas for workspace so the crew didn’t have to wear a pressure suit to do maintenance tasks such as working on robotic equipment. To manage temperatures inside the Ice Home, a layer of carbon dioxide gas — also available on Mars — would be used as in insulation between the living space and the thick shielding layer of ice.

“The materials that make up the Ice Home will have to withstand many years of use in the harsh Martian environment, including ultraviolet radiation, charged-particle radiation, possibly some atomic oxygen, perchlorates, as well as dust storms – although not as fierce as in the movie ‘The Martian’,” said Langley researcher Sheila Ann Thibeault.

Find out more about the concept here.

Another cutaway of the interior design of the Mars Ice Home concept. Credit: NASA Langley/ Clouds AO/SEArch.

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