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May 2, 2018

Mars, ho! It has been over half a decade since the Curiosity rover touched down on Mars' distant rust-colored surface in 2012, but at long last NASA is returning to the red planet with InSight, set to launch this weekend, The Associated Press reports. The spacecraft will be the first to study the deep interiors of Mars, including the planet's mysterious tremors known as "marsquakes."

InSight isn't making its six-month journey alone: Shortly after launch, two small satellites will break off and propel themselves behind InSight all the way to Mars. The satellites are nicknamed WALL-E and EVE, after the Pixar characters from the 2008 movie, and they will test a communication link with InSight when it lands on Nov. 26.

Once InSight touches down, the 1,530-pound craft will remain stationary, drilling about 16 feet into the planet. "[W]e have never probed sort of beneath the outermost skin of the planet," Bruce Banerdt of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory told AP.

Want to send InSight off? Californians along the coast will be able to see the predawn flight Saturday morning at 4:05 a.m. local time. Read more about InSight, WALL-E, and EVE at The Associated Press, and learn more about the launch below. Jeva Lange

January 23, 2018

Look up. Somewhere out there — beyond the high-rises and the clouds and yes, even the airplanes — there are people. To be precise, there are two of them, and they are more than three-and-a-half hours into the first spacewalk of the year.

Astronauts Scott Tingle and Mark Vande Hei are expected to spend more than six hours Tuesday dangling off the side of the International Space Station, where they are installing a new gripper on the station's robotic arm. The mission is the ISS's 206th maintenance spacewalk since it was launched into orbit in 1998.

"This is going to be a lifetime memory for sure," Tingle told last week. "I'm looking forward to getting out there and fixing up the systems that we'll be working on."

One of the hardest parts of the spacewalk comes when Tingle has to get out of his boot restraint "and I have to go over to my partner's boot restraint, and I have to move him while he's holding a massive piece of equipment from the robotic arm, so there's a lot of mass there," Tingle said. "I think that will be tricky. I'll probably take that slow and be very cautious."

At least there is a payoff for all the trouble, reports: "Make us proud out there," fellow Space Station astronaut Joe Acaba told Tingle and Vande Hei from inside. "We'll have hot chow for you when you get back."

Watch the spacewalk live at NASA. Jeva Lange

September 27, 2017

The United States and Russia agreed Wednesday to collaborate on the first-ever international lunar outpost, AFP reports. The "modular habitat," known as the "Deep-Space Gateway," or DSG, would orbit the moon in the 2020s and serve as a stepping-stone towards a mission to Mars in the 2030s, Popular Mechanics reports.

“We have agreed to join the project to build a new international Deep Space Gateway station in the moon's orbit," said Igor Komarov, the head of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos). In its own earlier announcement of the project, NASA said that it is "leading the next steps into deep space near the moon, where astronauts will build and begin testing the systems needed for challenging missions to deep space destinations including Mars."

Russia had reportedly been considering going solo on its own long-term outpost on the moon in addition to launching its successor to the International Space Station. Doing both, however, would have proven too costly. "Under these circumstances, Roscosmos probably realized that it would be beneficial to continue cooperating with its ISS partners on the near-lunar outpost," Popular Mechanics writes.

The Deep-Space Gateway will reportedly host a lander that can shuttle cosmonauts from the main habitat to the surface of the moon. While NASA will lead the project, Russia would in particular contribute its expertise in lunar landers to the collaboration.

"The area of space near the moon offers a true deep space environment to gain experience for human missions that push farther into the solar system, access the lunar surface for robotic missions but with the ability to return to Earth if needed in days rather than weeks or months," NASA added. Read more about plans for the Deep-Space Gateway at Popular Mechanics and NASA. Jeva Lange

September 15, 2017

Idaho is moving forward with plans to establish the first International Dark Sky Reserve in the United States, a designation for a location so remote from light pollution that you can even see the "interstellar dust clouds" of the Milky Way in the night sky, The Associated Press reports.

Proponents of the reserve plan to file an application this fall to designate 1,400 square miles of central Idaho as part of the dark sky territory. Locals, who would voluntarily take measures to reduce light pollution, are almost unanimously behind the decision in part because they enjoy the celestial splendor as well. "I go out most every night and look at it because it's so dramatic," said Steve Botti, the city council president of Stanley, Idaho.

There are only 11 other Dark Sky Reserves in the world, with the only other in the Americas being Mont-Mégantic in Québec, Canada. The International Dark-Sky Association will take an estimated 10 weeks to decide if the central Idaho region meets its standards after the application is filed.

"It's nice to look up and see something greater than ourselves," said Ketchum, Idaho, Mayor Nina Jonas. Read the full report at the Idaho Statesman. Jeva Lange

August 31, 2017

The Hubble Telescope team has discovered the potential for "substantial amounts of water" on four of seven Earth-sized planets found earlier this year, Axios writes. The system of planets orbits a star called TRAPPIST-1 and is about 40 light years from our own planet.

By measuring the ultraviolet light on the planets and the amount of hydrogen leaving them, "results suggest the innermost planets, TRAPPIST-1B and TRAPPIST-1C, could have lost as much as 20 Earth-oceans-worth of water in the last eight billion years," Popular Mechanics writes. "The outer planets, however, including E, F, and G, which orbit in the habitable zone, would have lost less water, and could still retain vast stores of liquid water on the surface."

Even stranger, the potentially habitable planets all appear to be "tidally locked" with TRAPPIST-1, meaning half the planet exists in unending day and the other in unending night.

The data collected by Hubble "concludes that a few of these outer planets could have been able to hold onto some water, if they accumulated enough during their formation," said Julien de Wit, one of the researchers involved in the study. "But we need to gather more information and actually see a hint of water, which we haven't found yet." Read more about the discovery at Popular Mechanics. Jeva Lange

August 11, 2017

The annual Perseid meteor shower reaches its peak Friday and Saturday, but stargazers should avoid getting their hopes up too high — the full moon will be a "major obstacle" for viewing the show this year, reports.

Moonrise on Aug. 11 comes at around 10:20 p.m. local time, while on Aug. 12, it's at around 10:50 p.m. The moon will be hovering below and to the left of the Great Square of Pegasus these nights and not all that far from the constellation Perseus, from where the meteors will appear to emanate (hence the name "Perseid"). Perseus does not begin to climb high up into the northeast sky until around midnight; by dawn, it's nearly overhead. But bright moonlight will flood the sky through most of those two key nights and will certainly play havoc with any serious attempts to observe these meteors. []

The lunar light pollution will knock your chances of seeing around 90 meteors an hour down to just 40 or 50, adds.

There will only be one other promising chance to make wishes on shooting stars this summer — during the Kappa Cygnids shower, which peaks on Aug. 21. But if you can wait until 2018, the Perseid will fall during the dark of a new moon and will be nothing short of spectacular. Read more about the meteor shower at Jeva Lange

April 24, 2017

President Trump video-called the International Space Station on Monday, as one does, and he had some pretty pressing questions he wanted answered. "Um, Mars," Trump began. "What do you see [as a timeline] for actually sending humans to Mars? Is there a schedule and when would you see that happening?"

On the other end of the line was astronaut Peggy Whitson, who has just broken the record for logging the most time in space of any American. Casually bobbing in the ISS, she told Trump: "Well, I think as your bill directed, it will be sometime in approximately the 2030s."

She added: "Unfortunately, space flight takes a lot of time and money, so getting there will require some international cooperation, to get it to be a planet-wide approach, in order to make it successful … but it is so worthwhile doing."

That wasn't cutting it for Trump. "Well we want to try to do it during my first term, or at worst during my second term," he said with a smile. "So we'll have to speed that up a little, okay?" Jeva Lange

November 11, 2016

It's getting closer.

The moon, that is — by Monday morning at 6:15 a.m. ET, our lunar companion will be at its nearest since 1948, and within just 85 miles of the closest it can possibly get to Earth, Space reports.

As a result, this is a good weekend to spend some time looking at the night sky. The moon will be at its brightest in nearly seven decades as it heads towards its Monday morning peak, when it will also be a full moon. At that point, it will appear 14 percent bigger and 30 percent brighter than normal. So-called supermoons aren't actually all that rare — they occur about every 14th full moon — but this weekend's will be the closest full moon until 2034.

"The difference in distance from one night to the next will be very subtle, so if it's cloudy on Sunday, go out on Monday. Any time after sunset should be fine," Noah Petro, deputy project scientist for NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, told Reuters.

Unfortunately, an untrained eye still might not immediately notice the moon is bigger and brighter, Space points out. "I don't know who first called it a supermoon," Neil deGrasse Tyson has said. "I don't know, but if you have a 16-inch pizza, would you call that a super pizza compared with a 15-inch pizza?" Jeva Lange

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