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Ground-based telescope spots alien ‘Super-Earth’

An artist's conception shows the size of super-Earth 55 Cancri e compared to Earth. A ground-based telescope in Spain was able to identify 55 Cancri e, which suggests that telescopes on the ground help in the search for habitable planets around other stars.


Excerpt from csmonitor.com

A telescope on the Canary Islands has spotted a planet twice the size of Earth as it passed in front of a star, the first time a planet in this category has been detected by a ground-based telescope.

Finding Earthlike planets beyond our solar system has largely been the work of space-based telescopes, but new observations from a remote island suggest that could change.

The Nordic Optical Telescope on La Palma — one of the Canary Islands off the west coast of Africa — observed 55 Cancri e, a planet twice the size of Earth, as it passed in front of its parent star and caused a dip in the star's brightness, according to a new study. This is the first time a planet in this "super-Earth" size category orbiting a sunlike star has been observed by a ground-based telescope using this detection method, the researchers say.

First identified in 2004 by a space-based telescope, 55 Cancri e has a diameter of about 16,000 miles (26,000 kilometers) — about twice that of Earth. The alien world is eight times as massive as Earth, making it a so-called super-Earth, a planet more massive than Earth but significantly smaller than gas giants like Neptune and Uranus. While not habitable, the planet's size and position around a sunlike star make it similar to planets that might support life, researchers say. 

The planet's detection with the Nordic telescope shows that observatories on the ground could use what's called the transit method — watching for dips in the brightness of a star to indicate a planet passing in front of it — to assist space-based telescopes in follow-up studies of super-Earths or Earthlike exoplanets, scientists say.

Nearly 2,000 exoplanets have now been confirmed, and upcoming exoplanet searches promise to expand that catalog. 

"We expect these surveys to find so many nearby terrestrial worlds that space telescopes simply won't be able to follow up on all of them. Future ground-based instrumentation will be key, and this study shows it can be done," Mercedes Lopez-Morales, co-author of the new research and a researcher at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), said in a statement.

Five exoplanets orbit the star 55 Cancri, which is located 40 light-years from Earth and is visible to the naked eye. The closest-orbiting of those five is 55 Cancri e, which completes one lap around the star every 18 hours. When the planet passes between Earth and the parent star, 55 Cancri appears to dim by 1/2000th (or 0.05 percent) for almost 2 hours, researchers said.


Daytime temperatures on 55 Cancri e likely reach higher than 3,100 degrees Fahrenheit (1,700 degrees Celsius) — hot enough to melt metal and much too hot to support life. But scientists involved with the study say this approach could help characterize the atmosphere of more hospitable Earthlike or super-Earth planets.


After its initial detection, 55 Cancri e also became the first super-Earth seen by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, using light directly from the planet. Thus, it has now served twice as a litmus test for super-Earth detection methods. 

In addition to the wealth of planets identified by NASA's Kepler Space Telescope, the space agency's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) mission, scheduled for launch in 2017, is expected to "discover thousands of exoplanets in orbit around the brightest stars in the sky," according to the TESS website. The European Space Agency's Planetary Transits and Oscillations of stars (PLATO) mission, planned for launch in 2024, will also search for a large number of exoplanets.

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The End of the Space Race?




Excerpt from
psmag.com

A far cry from the fierce Cold War Space Race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, exploration in the 21st century is likely to be a much more globally collaborative project.

Today, NASA’s goal to put astronauts on Mars by the 2030s could be a similarly unifying project. And not only in the United States. A far cry from the fierce Cold War Space Race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, exploration in the 21st century is likely to be a far more globally collaborative project.

Why has the idea of reaching Mars captured the world? A trip to Mars is a priority for many scientific reasons—some believe it’s the planet that most resembles our own, and one that could answer the age-old question of whether we’re alone in the universe—but there’s also been a long popular fascination with the planet, Stofan observed. Ever since Giovanni Virginio Schiaparelli first observed the canali on Mars in the 1800s or when H.G. Wells wrote about aliens from Mars in his 1898 science fiction novel, The War of the Worlds, the planet has loomed large in the public’s imagination.

NASA’s view is to turn over to the private sector those projects that in a sense have become routine so that it can focus its resources on getting to Mars.

This spirit of trans-border ownership and investment seems set to continue. One key part of this is the Global Exploration Roadmap, an effort between space agencies like NASA, France’s Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales, the Canadian Space Agency, and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, among many others, that is intended to aid joint projects from the International Space Station to expeditions to the Moon and near-Earth asteroids—and to reach Mars. On a recent trip to India’s space agency, Stofan recounted to me, she met with many Indian engineers who were just as excited as the Americans to get scientists up there, not only to explore, but also to begin nailing down the question of whether there was ever life on the red planet.

It’s also clear that the next stage of space exploration will not only be more global, but will equally involve greater private and public partnerships.

This environment feels a lot different from the secretive and adversarial Space Race days, when the U.S. and Soviet Union battled to reach the moon first. What’s changed? The Cold War is over, of course, but with it, the funding commitment may also be missing this time around. Stofan mentioned, in response to an audience question, that at the time of the Apollo missions, NASA got up to about four percent of the federal budget, while now it’s only around 0.4 percent. The dollars are still large, but perhaps increased international and private cooperation can be seen as an efficient, clever way to do more with less.

So, what does the future hold? NASA is extremely focused on how to get to Mars and back again safely, Stofan told the audience, but the fun role of science fiction, she suggested, is to start envisioning what the steps after that might be. For example, what might it be like to live on Mars? After all, science often gets its inspiration from the creative world. Just look at how similar mobile phones are to the communicators from Star Trek, she pointed out, or the fact that MIT students made a real-life version of the robotic sphere that Luke Skywalker trains with in Star Wars. “Stories are a great counterpoint to science,” she said.

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Richard Branson shelves submarine plan to take tourists to bottom of oceans




 


Excerpt from
independent.co.uk

It is one of the world’s last frontiers and has seen fewer human visitors than the moon. And that – for the time being at least – is how it shall stay.

Sir Richard Branson has shelved plans for a submarine to take tourists to the bottom of Pacific’s Mariana Trench, after technical problems hobbled the grand ambitions of his much-trumpeted Virgin Oceanic project.

The news is a second blow to Branson’s adventurer dreams in a matter of months, after a Virgin Galactic space rocket crashed on a test flight in California’s Mojave Desert, killing a pilot.
Virgin Oceanic’s DeepFlight Challenger was launched in 2011 with the entrepreneur’s familiar fanfare. Under the plans, wealthy passengers or “aquanauts” up would pay up to $500,000 (£318,126) for a five-dive package labelled as “the last great challenge for humans”.  

As well as exploring the Mariana Trench – a  36,000ft-deep abyss is deeper than Mount Everest is tall, with access so risky and complicated that it has had just three human visitors since its formation nine million years ago – the submarine was due to dive the Puerto Rico trench 28,000ft below the surface of  the Atlantic, the Molloy Deep in the Arctic, South Sandwich Trench in the Southern Ocean and Diamantina trench in the Indian Ocean.
But yesterday the Sunday Telegraph reported that Deepflight, the company contracted to build the submarine, could not support the project because their vehicle could only be safely used for one dive.
The underwater mission appears to have stalled indefinitely. The Virgin Oceanic website – which had promised “five dives, five oceans, two years, one epic adventure” – no longer exists, reportedly taken down earlier this year.

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1795 time capsule found in Boston capitol


1795 TIME CAPSULE



Excerpt from
usatoday.com 

A time capsule buried in 1795 by Paul Revere and Samuel Adams was unearthed Thursday in Boston at the Massachusetts Statehouse, possibly the oldest such U.S. artifact ever uncovered.

About the size of a cigar box, the copper container — green from oxidation and caked in plaster — was found in the cornerstone of the "new" statehouse on Beacon Hill, which was completed in 1798.

As Boston Museum of Fine Arts Conservator Pam Hatchfield chiseled away for hours to free the box, five silver coins spilled from the stone block — measures of good luck tossed in when the capsule was entombed by the revolutionary heroes 219 years ago, officials told the Boston Globe. At the time, Adams was known as the governor, not a beer.

The world will have to wait a little longer to learn what's inside. The museum will X-ray the box over the weekend and reveal its contents next week.

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