space rocks
July 9, 2019

Tuesday night will be the best time to see Saturn in the night sky, even without a telescope.

The planet will be in opposition for the evening, which is the point in its orbit where it's closest to the Earth. If the skies are clear, you may be able to get a good glimpse of it just by looking up to the southern sky, AccuWeather reports — but for a detailed view of the planet, its rings, and maybe even a few of its brighter moons, a telescope will be necessary.

Saturn will be in the sky from sunset to sunrise, rising in the southeast and setting in the southwest. As one of the brightest things in the sky, it shouldn't be very hard to spot, even if you aren't very practiced with a telescope. To get the best view, you should find some high ground and aim your telescope to the south. Clear skies will make for the best viewing, which unfortunately means that rain or clouds might impede your view.

But if you don't have a great view this time around, Saturn will still be fairly bright and close to the Earth for the rest of July. So even if you can't see it with the naked eye, with a telescope you should still have no trouble taking a good look at the ringed planet.

Read more at AccuWeather. Shivani Ishwar

June 26, 2019

When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took humankind's first steps on the moon, they weren't just taking a stroll. They also collected 48 samples of lunar rocks, bringing them back home so that scientists could examine them ... eventually.

Now, 50 years after the first men walked on the moon, scientists are finally getting their hands on the original samples collected on Apollo missions from 1969 to 1972. The lunar samples have been kept in a locked vault at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Fox News reports, waiting for the wonders that 21st-century scientific technology will be able to learn from them.

That was a pretty wise move on the part of NASA officials back in the 70s, said Ryan Zeigler, a sample curator for NASA's Apollo missions. "We can do more with a milligram than we could do with a gram back then," so we can still conserve most of the sample material gathered decades ago. The samples being sent out now range from the weight of a paper clip to so small "you can barely measure it," Zeigler said.

In total, 842 pounds worth of lunar samples were collected on the Apollo missions, collected by 12 astronauts — the only 12 people who have ever walked on the moon. But NASA's new plan will soon expand that number: By 2024, it aims to send more people to the moon's surface.

Until that happens, these moon rocks are the most tangible link we have with our closest satellite. And now, "a new generation of scientists will help advance our understanding of our lunar neighbor and prepare for the next era of exploration of the moon and beyond," said Thomas Zurbuchen, an administrator at NASA's Science Mission Directorate.

Read more at Fox News. Shivani Ishwar

June 10, 2019

Tonight might just be your best chance to see our solar system's biggest planet in the night sky.

Jupiter will be in "opposition" on Monday night, meaning that it will form a straight line with the Earth and the sun — an event that happens every 13 months, Smithsonian reports. This means Jupiter will be the closest it gets to the Earth, allowing stargazers a rare chance to glimpse the gas giant through a telescope or binoculars. With the brightness of its presence in the sky tonight, you might even be able to see its four biggest moons, Io, Europa, Callisto, and Ganymede.

Jupiter should be visible from sunset on Monday to sunrise on Tuesday morning, reaching the best height for viewing around 11:30 p.m. ET. Jupiter will be among the brightest objects in the sky, so spotting it will be easy: Just point yourself towards the southeast and look for the next brightest thing after the moon and Venus.

Stargazing is most successful under a clear sky — but if you can't make it out tonight, don't worry. Jupiter might not be quite as bright, but for the rest of June you should still be able to see it. And if the whole month is cloudy, then you'll just have to wait until July 2020, when Jupiter comes into opposition again. Read more at Smithsonian. Shivani Ishwar

May 20, 2019

Of the many mysteries of the beloved former planet Pluto, the likely presence of a liquid ocean under its icy surface is one of the biggest. Now, a new study is offering up a theory on how its ocean has avoided freezing along with the rest of the dwarf planet.

The new research, published on Monday in Nature Geoscience, used data from NASA's New Horizon spacecraft, which collected data from Pluto and its moon Charon back in 2015. That data, combined with computer simulations, determined that Pluto's ocean is probably insulated from the well-below-freezing temperatures of its surface and atmosphere by a layer of gas, CNN reported.

Methane, which would likely be released from Pluto's core back while it was still forming, "would be thick and have low thermal conductivity," which would allow it to act as an insulator between the large amounts of ice on the dwarf planet's surface and the liquid water underneath.

It's possible that similar insulating layers of gas exist elsewhere in our galaxy and beyond, hiding similar oceans from the extreme cold of outer space. This would make "the existence of extraterrestrial life more plausible," said Shunichi Kamata, the study's lead author. Read more at CNN. Shivani Ishwar

May 13, 2019

For a long time, we've thought of the moon as one solid chunk of rock out in space. But recent analysis of data from NASA's Apollo missions is posing an interesting question that has geologists scratching their heads: What if it has tectonic plates just like the Earth?

In a study published in Nature Geoscience on Monday, scientists took a closer look at data of "moonquakes" picked up by seismometers at Apollo landing sites from 1969 to 1977. While these have been a mystery for a long time, the new analysis suggests that the moon is "actually more tectonically active than previously presumed," National Geographic reported.

This is a startling discovery because tectonic plates only shift, causing tremors and faults in the ground, when the interior of a planet — or satellite, in the case of the moon — is very hot. And since the moon is way smaller than the Earth, just a sixth of its size, we've long thought that its core is much cooler than ours. A cooled center would mean little to no tectonic activity, so scientists have been puzzling out what other factors could have caused a tremor that seemed like a moonquake.

But for this study, researchers simulated how often those other factors could align to cause something even resembling a moonquake, and ended up with odds of about 1 percent. So it's much more likely that the 28 major quakes picked up back in the 1970s were caused by tectonic activity, changing the way we think about the moon from here on out.

"The whole idea that a 4.6-billion-year-old rocky body like the moon has managed to stay hot enough in the interior and produce this network of faults just flies in the face of conventional wisdom," said Thomas Watters, one of the study's co-authors. That makes this new discovery "an amazing result." Shivani Ishwar

April 29, 2019

Is everything we know about how the moon was formed a lie?

Until the last decade, everyone pretty much agreed on the most likely theory on the formation of the moon. Back when Earth was young, a huge rock crashed into it, taking part of the Earth's mass with it and forming it as a satellite that orbits our planet. The "Giant Impact Hypothesis," as it's called, makes some sense — but recent analysis of moon rocks have put some holes in that theory.

Now, new research suggests a slightly different story for how the moon came into being: Maybe it was hot magma.

At the time of the "Giant Impact," this new theory says, the Earth may have been really, really hot — so hot that large parts of it were entirely molten. If the Earth was covered in an "ocean of hot magma," then it makes sense that the impact from another space rock could have actually launched huge amounts of the molten matter into space, thus forming the moon, NBC News explained. That would answer the question of why so much of the moon's makeup is so similar to Earth, rather than the other rock that supposedly formed it.

The research into magma's effect on the moon, published on Monday in Nature Geoscience, suggests that instead of hitting our planet full-on, the rock that crashed into it simply knocked it aside and went on its way. But under the force of such an impact, enough magma was propelled away from the surface of the Earth to form the entirety of the moon.

"The magma ocean is one of the most important things for the moon-forming giant impact," said the study's lead author, Natsuki Hosono. Learn more about this new development at NBC News. Shivani Ishwar

April 16, 2019

Kepler-47 is a 3.5-billion-year-old star system about 3,340 light years away from Earth. It's one of nine systems that we know of that are "binary star systems," which means it has not one star at its heart, but two. And it's the only one we know that has two planets orbiting around it: Kepler-47b and Kepler-47c.

Well, make that three.

Scientists have officially confirmed the existence of a third planet orbiting the binary stars of Kepler-47, and have appropriately dubbed it Kepler-47d, Space reported. The newly discovered planet is about seven times bigger than Earth, making it the largest planet in its system, roughly double the size of Kepler-47b and c.

The discovery, announced in The Astronomical Journal on Tuesday, is big news for the team that discovered it. Kepler-47d's orbit lies in between Kepler-47b's and Kepler-47c's, even though scientists theorized that any additional planets would be found further away from the stars.

The Kepler-47 trio is helping scientists learn about so-called "puffy" planets, which are gas planets with a large size but a very low density. Even the puffiest planet in our solar system, Saturn, is much denser than any of the Kepler planets. The information we can learn about them will help us understand more of the "loosely packed, low-density planets" in our solar system, said Jonathan Fortney, an astronomer at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Read more at Space. Shivani Ishwar

December 14, 2018

Santa Claus is not the only one coming to town this season.

It's also time for the return of a comet we only see once every five years — 46P/Wirtanen, or as it's more commonly known, the Christmas comet. This glowing green speck has been growing brighter in the sky since November, but on Sunday it will reach its peak, becoming visible even to the naked eye.

At its closest, comet 46P will be less than 7 million miles from the Earth, the tenth-closest comet we've seen since 1950, CNN reported. It won't get this close again for another 20 years, so grab your binoculars or telescope, find a patch of clear sky, and start looking.

CNN noted that the comet, while visible, usually appears with a fuzzy halo. Because comets are made of ice, as 46P passes the sun, parts of it melt and are absorbed into the expansive atmosphere that travels with it, creating the glowing green cloud that we'll be able to see this weekend.

You can check Time and Date to figure out when is best to try to see the Christmas comet for your location. But if you're worried that light pollution will hurt your chances, the Virtual Telescope Project will also be livestreaming the comet's trajectory on Sunday starting at 5 p.m. ET. Read more about the Christmas comet at CNN. Shivani Ishwar

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