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Scientific American

Crew of 520-Day Mock Mars Mission Nears Mock Landing

After nearly eight months’ journey in a small, enclosed craft, the crew of the Mars500 mission is nearing the turning point of its voyage—arrival and disembarking at the Red Planet. They will spend 10 days there, exploring the surface in a series of excursions, before returning to their craft and beginning the lengthy trip home.

At no point in any of this exploration, however, will the six-member Mars500 crew actually leave the surface of Earth. The entire mission is a simulation, housed in a series of capsules at Russia’s Institute for Biomedical Problems in association with the European Space Agency. But the isolation and cramped confinement of the mission are real, even if the journey itself is not.

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Cosmos Incognita: Voyager 1 Spacecraft Arrives at the Cusp of Interstellar Space

In 1972 a young professor at the California Institute of Technology was asked to work part-time at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory as chief scientist for a new space mission, one that would probe the limits of the solar system and eventually enter interstellar space. Edward Stone accepted the assignment, and now, 33 years after the launch of the two Voyager spacecraft, he says the goal is in sight. He looks almost giddy as he talks about the implications of recent data received from Voyager 1. But first he must explain where the spacecraft is today.

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How One Astronomer Became the Unofficial Exoplanet Record Keeper

In the past several days a number of news articles have touted the passage of a tidy astronomical milestone—the discovery of the 500th known planet outside the solar system. In the past 15 years, the count of those extrasolar worlds, or exoplanets, has climbed through single digits into the dozens and then into the hundreds. The pace of discovery is now so rapid that the catalogue of identified planets leaped from 400 to 500 entries in just over a year.

But the astronomer who tends to the exoplanet community’s go-to catalogue tempered excitement surrounding the 500th-planet milestone in interviews and in an e-mail to fellow researchers, advising caution in assigning too much precision to the tally. Jean Schneider, an astronomer at the Paris Observatory, has since 1995 maintained The Extrasolar Planets Encyclopaedia, a modest-looking Web site that charts a wealth of data on known exoplanets as well as those that are unconfirmed or controversial.

We spoke to Schneider about the difficulties in identifying any given planet as number 500, the future of exoplanet science and just how he came to be the unofficial record keeper of worlds beyond the solar system.

[An edited transcript of the interview below the cut]

Hidden in Plain Sight: Researchers Find Galaxy-Scale Bubbles Extending from the Milky Way

A group of astrophysicists has located two massive bubbles of plasma, each extending tens of thousands of light-years, emitting high-energy radiation above and below the plane of the galaxy. The researchers found the structures in publicly released data from NASA’s Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope, which was launched in 2008 to investigate sources of extremely energetic photons—namely, gamma rays, which have higher frequencies than x-rays.

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Deficit commission proposes axing commercial spaceflight without knowing what it is

On November 10 the co-chairs of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, a body created by President Obama to find solutions to the nation's budgetary woes, released a draft list of “illustrative” cuts that could save taxpayers $200 billion a year by 2015. Among the 58-point list (pdf) produced by Alan Simpson, a former Republican senator from Wyoming, and Erskine Bowles, the president of the University of North Carolina system who served as President Bill Clinton's chief of staff, was this proposal:

Eliminate funding for commercial spaceflight. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) plans to spend $6 billion over the next five years to spur the development of American commercial spaceflight. This subsidy to the private sector is costly, and while commercial spaceflight is a worthy goal, it is unclear why the federal government should be subsidizing the training of the potential crews of such flights. Eliminating this program would save $1.2 billion in 2015.

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NASA’s Successor to Hubble Is $1.4 Billion Over Budget and 1 Year-Plus Behind Schedule, Inquiry Finds

An independent review of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), a mammoth space-borne infrared observatory that should greatly surpass even the venerable Hubble Space Telescope in observing power, has revealed that the telescope will cost about $1.4 billion more than had been thought. And the telescope is likely to launch more than a year later than had been planned, according to the report, which was made public November 10.

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Is Pluto the biggest dwarf planet after all?

Pluto’s controversial demotion from planetary status came in 2006 after the rapid discovery of comparably sized bodies—now named Haumea, Makemake and Eris—made Pluto look rather ordinary. In particular, Eris was found to be larger in diameter than Pluto, raising the question of what separated a planet from numerous smaller bodies. The International Astronomical Union decided on a new definition for planets that resulted in a paring down the solar system’s tally of planets to eight, relegating Pluto and its ilk to dwarf planet status.

Pluto lovers of the world may take some small comfort in a new look at Eris that puts Pluto back in the running for the largest dwarf planet, diameter-wise. (Eris seems to retain a lock on the title of most massive dwarf planet for the time being.) Measurements taken as Eris temporarily blotted out the light of a distant star indicate that the dwarf planet’s diameter is on par with, and maybe even smaller than, that of Pluto.

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Architects Vie to Design the City of the Future—On the Moon

BOSTON—The moon has long loomed large as the next logical site for human expansion, a frontier land still lightly explored but visible to all throughout human history. With the recent discovery of a significant volume of water on the lunar surface, the idea of the moon as a livable habitat has become just that much more plausible. A new competition, Moon Capital, turned the question of what that habitat will look like over to the imagination of architects, engineers and artists. Let’s say it is the year 2069, exactly a century after the first lunar landing. The colony has finally been built. What does it look like? What do the moon-dwellers need both to survive and to enjoy their new surroundings?

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