vendredi 13 mai 2016

Hubble Spies a Spiral Snowflake

NASA - Hubble Space Telescope patch.

May 13, 2016

Together with irregular galaxies, spiral galaxies make up approximately 60 percent of the galaxies in the local universe. However, despite their prevalence, each spiral galaxy is unique — like snowflakes, no two are alike. This is demonstrated by the striking face-on spiral galaxy NGC 6814, whose luminous nucleus and spectacular sweeping arms, rippled with an intricate pattern of dark dust, are captured in this NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image.

NGC 6814 has an extremely bright nucleus, a telltale sign that the galaxy is a Seyfert galaxy. These galaxies have very active centers that can emit strong bursts of radiation. The luminous heart of NGC 6814 is a highly variable source of X-ray radiation, causing scientists to suspect that it hosts a supermassive black hole with a mass about 18 million times that of the sun.

As NGC 6814 is a very active galaxy, many regions of ionized gas are studded along its spiral arms. In these large clouds of gas, a burst of star formation has recently taken place, forging the brilliant blue stars that are visible scattered throughout the galaxy.

The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and the European Space Agency. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Maryland, conducts Hubble science operations. STScI is operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy in Washington, D.C.

For images and more information about Hubble Space Telescope:

Image credits: ESA/Hubble & NASA; Acknowledgement: Judy Schmidt/Text credits: European Space Agency/NASA/Ashley Morrow.


Bertrand Piccard has reached the Heart of the United States

SolarImpulse - Around The World patch.

May 13, 2016

Bertrand Piccard just landed in the Heart of the United States, Tulsa, Oklahoma at 4:15 AM UTC, 6:15 AM CET on May 13th and 11:15 PM local time on May 12th. After spending just over a week in Phoenix, Arizona, our mission engineers at the Mission Control Center found a weather opening that would give way to a flight to a slightly unexpected destination: Tulsa, Oklahoma.

SolarImpulse landing

Until two days before takeoff, our engineers had not even considered flying to Oklahoma due to its tornado potential. They were originally considering a flight from Phoenix, Arizona to Kansas City, Missouri, however due to difficult weather conditions over the plains in the state of Kansas, we had to find a different solution.

Landing in Tulsa is symbolic, as it lies at the heart of the United States. Route 66, the iconic road that stretches from Chicago, Illinois, through Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona until ending in Santa Monica, California was initiated by entrepreneurs in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Solar Impulse Airplane - Leg 11 - Flight Phoenix to Tulsa

This flight marks the third Solar Impulse mission flight this year after the Pacific Crossing and the flight from San Francisco to Phoenix, Arizona. We have been extremely lucky with the weather and with great collaboration between the mission engineers in Monaco and the Air Traffic Control in the United States, we have been able to fly consistently since mid-April. Our goal now is to reach New York as soon as possible in order to have enough time to find a clear weather window to cross the Atlantic.

Ground Crew's Waiting Si2

Bertrand Piccard completed this 18 hour and 10 minute flight upon landing in Tulsa International Airport. He covered a total distance of 1570 kilometers, flying over Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Oklahoma. Bertrand was reminded of his childhood on this flight when he decided to become an explorer after Apollo 11 took off to the moon. He also turned his thoughts to the American branch of his family that was established by his grandfather’s twin brother, Jean Piccard. He was also a scientist and inspired the character of Captain Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek, a figurine of which Bertrand brought with him for the flight!

Bertrand Piccard, Si2 pilot for this Leg 11

While Bertrand was flying Si2 to Oklahoma, André Borschberg traveled to Tulsa with the Solar Impulse team and made sure preparations were underway for Bertrand’s landing.

For more information about SolarImpulse Around The World,visit:

Images, Video, Text, Credit: SolarImpulse.


jeudi 12 mai 2016

NASA Satellite Data Could Help Reduce Flights Sidelined by Volcanic Eruptions

NASA Goddard Space Flight Center logo / NOAA - National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration logo.

May 12, 2016

Image above: Volcano erupting and spewing ash into the sky seen by satellites. Image Credits: NASA Goddard Scientific Visualization Studio.

A volcano erupting and spewing ash into the sky can cover nearby areas under a thick coating of ash and can also have consequences for aviation safety. Airline traffic changes due to a recent volcanic eruption can rack up unanticipated expenses to flight cancellations, lengthy diversions and additional fuel costs from rerouting.

Airlines are prudently cautious, because volcanic ash is especially dangerous to airplanes, as ash can melt within an operating aircraft engine, resulting in possible engine failure. In the aftermath of a volcanic eruption, airlines typically consult with local weather agencies to determine flight safety, and those decisions today are largely based on manual estimates with information obtained from a worldwide network of Volcanic Ash Advisory Centers. These centers are finding timely and more accurate satellite data beneficial.

NASA Tracks Volcanic Ash With Satellites

Video above: Volcano eruptions can wreak havoc on airplanes that fly through the clouds of ash and sulfur dioxide. Video Credits: NASA Goddard Scientific Visualization Studio.

Researchers at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, are using already available satellite measurements of sulfur dioxide (SO2), a main components of volcanic emissions, along with the more recent ability to map the location and vertical profiles of volcanic aerosols. Researchers are doing this in a number of ways.

A volcanic cloud contains two kinds of aerosols: sulfuric acid droplets converted from SO2 and silicate volcanic ash. Satellites can detect volcanic ash by observing the scattering of ultraviolet light from the sun. For aviation, volcanic ash is potentially the most deadly because of the danger to aircraft engines. While measurements of aerosol absorption in ultraviolet do not differentiate between the smoke, dust and ash aerosols, only volcanic clouds contain significant abundances of SO2, so satellite measurements of SO2 are especially valuable for unambiguous identification of volcanic clouds.

Knowing both the physical location and the altitude distribution of aerosols in the volcanic cloud allow more accurate forecasts in the days, weeks and months after an eruption. “The capability of mapping the full extent of a three-dimensional structure of a moving volcanic cloud has never been done before,” said Nickolay A. Krotkov, physical research scientist with the Atmospheric Chemistry and Dynamics Laboratory at NASA Goddard.

Fire, Ice andSafer Skies: NASA SAtellites Track Volcanic Clouds

Video above: Data from NASA earth-observing satellites is improving the ability to detect and forecast the hazard to aviation from volcanic clouds. Video Credit: NASA.

Researchers are currently making these measurements using the Limb Profiler instrument, part of Ozone Mapping Profiler Suite (OMPS) instrument, currently flying on the joint NASA/National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA))/Department of Defense Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (Suomi NPP) satellite, launched in October 2011.

OMPS is a three-part instrument: a nadir mapper that maps ozone, SO2 and aerosols; a nadir profiler that measures the vertical distribution of ozone in the stratosphere; and a limb profiler that measures aerosols in the upper troposphere, stratosphere and mesosphere with high vertical resolution.

Ozone Mapping Profiler Suite (OMPS) satellite. Image Credits: NASA/NOAA

“With the OMPS instrument, the volcanic cloud is mapped as Suomi NPP flies directly overhead and then as it looks back, it observes three vertical slices of the cloud,” said Eric Hughes, a research assistant at the University of Maryland, who is working with Krotkov at NASA Goddard.

Knowing the timing and duration of an eruption, the altitude and amount of the volcanic emissions are critical for an accurate volcanic forecast model being developed at the Goddard Modeling and Assimilation Office. The height of the plume is particularly critical for forecasting the direction of the plume. Even several kilometers of height can make a significant difference in predicting plume movement. More accurate volcanic cloud forecasts could reduce airline cancellations and rerouting costs.

 Suomi NPP satellite. Image Credit: Eumetsat

While aviation is a short-term immediate application for volcanic cloud modeling, there are also long-term climate applications. “Sulfate aerosols formed after large volcanic eruptions affect the radiation balance and can linger in the stratosphere for a couple of years,” said Krotkov.

There have been large volcanic eruptions that have contributed to short-term cooling of Earth from the SO2 that reaches the stratosphere, which is what happened following the Philippines Mount Pinatubo eruption in June 1991. During volcanic eruptions, SO2 converts to sulfuric acid aerosols. Now researchers are studying the impacts of deliberately injecting SO2 into the stratosphere to contract the effects of global warming, known as climate intervention.

“Nature gives us these volcanic perturbations and then we can see the impact on climate,” Krotkov said. “These are the short- and long-term consequences of volcanic eruptions that have both aviation and climate applications.”

Related links:

NASA Goddard Space Flight Center:

Suomi NPP (National Polar-orbiting Partnership) satellite:

Ozone Mapping Profiler Suite (OMPS):

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA):

Image (mentioned), Videos (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/Audrey Haar/Karl Hille.


NASA Directly Observes Fundamental Process of Nature for 1st Time

NASA - Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) logo.

May 12, 2016

Image above: The four Magnetospheric Multiscale, or MMS, spacecraft (shown here in an artist's concept) have now made more than 4,000 trips through the boundaries of Earth's magnetic field, gathering observations of our dynamic space environment. Image Credits: NASA/Goddard/Conceptual Image Lab.

Like sending sensors up into a hurricane, NASA has flown four spacecraft through an invisible maelstrom in space, called magnetic reconnection. Magnetic reconnection is one of the prime drivers of space radiation and so it is a key factor in the quest to learn more about our space environment and protect our spacecraft and astronauts as we explore farther and farther from our home planet.

Space is a better vacuum than any we can create on Earth, but it does contain some particles — and it's bustling with activity. It overflows with energy and a complex system of magnetic fields. Sometimes, when two sets of magnetic fields connect, an explosive reaction occurs: As the magnetic fields re-align and snap into a new formation they send particles zooming off in jets.

A new paper printed on May 12, 2016, in Science provides the first observations from inside a magnetic reconnection event. The research shows that magnetic reconnection is dominated by the physics of electrons — thus providing crucial information about what powers this fundamental process in nature.

NASA's MMS Captures MagneticReconnection in Action

Video Credits: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/Duberstein.

The effects of this sudden release of particles and energy — such as giant eruptions on the sun, the aurora, radiation storms in near-Earth space, high energy cosmic particles that come from other galaxies — have been observed throughout the solar system and beyond. But we have never been able to witness the phenomenon of magnetic reconnection directly. Satellites have observed tantalizing glances of particles speeding by, but not the impetus — like seeing the debris flung out from a tornado, but never seeing the storm itself.

"We developed a mission, the Magnetospheric Multiscale mission, that for the first time would have the precision needed to gather observations in the heart of magnetic reconnection," said Jim Burch, the principal investigator for MMS at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas, and the first author of the Science paper. "We received results faster than we could have expected. By seeing magnetic reconnection in action, we have observed one of the fundamental forces of nature."

MMS is made of four identical spacecraft that launched in March 2015. They fly in a pyramid formation to create a full 3-D map of any phenomena they observe. On Oct. 16, 2015, the spacecraft traveled straight through a magnetic reconnection event at the boundary where Earth’s magnetic field bumps up against the sun’s magnetic field. In only a few seconds, the 25 sensors on each of the spacecraft collected thousands of observations. This unprecedented time cadence opened the door for scientists to track better than ever before how the magnetic and electric fields changed, as well as the speeds and direction of the various charged particles.

The science of reconnection springs from the basic science of electromagnetics, which dominates most of the universe and is a force as fundamental in space as gravity is on Earth. Any set of magnetic fields can be thought of as a row of lines. These field lines are always anchored to some body — a planet, a star — creating a giant magnetic network surrounding it. It is at the boundaries of two such networks where magnetic reconnection happens.

Animation above: Magnetic reconnection — a phenomenon that happens throughout space — occurs when magnetic field lines come together, realign and send particles hurling outward. Animation Credits: NASA/Goddard/Conceptual Image Lab.

Imagine rows of magnetic field lines moving toward each other at such a boundary. (The boundary that MMS travels through, for example, is the one where Earth's fields meet the sun's.) The field lines are sometimes traveling in the same direction, and don't have much effect on each other, like two water currents flowing along side each other.

But if the two sets of field lines point in opposite directions, the process of realigning is dramatic. It can be hugely explosive, sending particles hurtling off at near the speed of light. It can also be slow and steady. Either way it releases a huge amount of energy.

"One of the mysteries of magnetic reconnection is why it’s explosive in some cases, steady in others, and in some cases, magnetic reconnection doesn’t occur at all," said Tom Moore, the mission scientist for MMS at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

Whether explosive or steady, the local particles are caught up in the event, hurled off to areas far away, crossing magnetic boundaries they never could have crossed otherwise. At the edges of Earth's magnetic environment, the magnetosphere, such events allow solar radiation to enter near-Earth space.

"From previous satellites' measurements, we know that the magnetic fields act like a slingshot, sending the protons accelerating out," said Burch. "The decades-old mystery is what do the electrons do, and how do the two magnetic fields interconnect. Satellite measurements of electrons have been too slow by a factor of 100 to sample the magnetic reconnection region. The precision and speed of the MMS measurements, however, opened up a new window on the universe, a new 'microscope' to see reconnection."

With this new set of observations, MMS tracked what happens to electrons during magnetic reconnection. As the four spacecraft flew across the magnetosphere's boundary they flew directly through what's called the dissipation region where magnetic reconnection occurred. The observations were able to track how the magnetic fields suddenly shifted, and also how the particles moved away.

Animation above: Space is a better vacuum than any we can create on Earth, but it's nonetheless bustling with activity, particles and magnetic field lines. NASA studies our space environment to protect our technology and astronauts as we explore farther and farther from our home planet. Animation Credits: NASA/Goddard/Conceptual Image Lab.

The observations show that the electrons shot away in straight lines from the original event at hundreds of miles per second, crossing the magnetic boundaries that would normally deflect them. Once across the boundary, the particles curved back around in response to the new magnetic fields they encountered, making a U-turn. These observations align with a computer simulation known as the crescent model, named for the characteristic crescent shapes that the graphs show to represent how far across the magnetic boundary the electrons can be expected to travel before turning around again.

A surprising result was that at the moment of interconnection between the sun’s magnetic field lines and those of Earth the crescents turned abruptly so that the electrons flowed along the field lines. By watching these electron tracers, MMS made the first observation of the predicted breaking and interconnection of magnetic fields in space.

"The data showed the entire process of magnetic reconnection to be fairly orderly and elegant," said Michael Hesse, a space scientist at Goddard who first developed the crescent model. "There doesn't seem to be much turbulence present, or at least not enough to disrupt or complicate the process."

Spotting the persistent characteristic crescent shape in the electron distributions suggests that it is the physics of electrons that is at the heart of understanding how magnetic field lines accelerate the particles.

"This shows us that the electrons move in such a way that electric fields are established and these electric fields in turn produce a flash conversion of magnetic energy,” said Roy Torbert, a scientist at the Space Science Center at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, who is a co-author on the paper. “The encounter that our instruments were able to measure gave us a clearer view of an explosive reconnection energy release and the role played by electron physics."

Since it launched, MMS has made more than 4,000 trips through the magnetic boundaries around Earth, each time gathering information about the way the magnetic fields and particles move. After its first direct observation of magnetic reconnection, it has flown through such an event five more times, providing more information about this fundamental process.

As the mission continues, the team can adjust the formation of the MMS spacecraft bringing them closer together, which provides better viewing of electron paths, or further apart, which provides better viewing of proton paths. Each set of observations contributes to explaining different aspects of magnetic reconnection. Together, such information will help scientists map out the details of our space environment — crucial information as we journey ever farther beyond our home planet.

Related Links:

NASA’s MMS website:

Download related imagery from NASA Goddard’s Scientific Visualization Studio:

Image (mentioned), Animations (mentioned), Video (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Karen C. Fox/Rob Garner.


Chandra Movie Captures Expanding Debris from a Stellar Explosion

NASA - Chandra X-ray Observatory patch.

May 12, 2016

Animation Credits: X-ray: NASA/CXC/GSFC/B. Williams et al; Optical: DSS; Radio: NSF/NRAO/VLA.

When the star that created this supernova remnant exploded in 1572, it was so bright that it was visible during the day. And though he wasn’t the first or only person to observe this stellar spectacle, the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe wrote a book about his extensive observations of the event, gaining the honor of it being named after him.

In modern times, astronomers have observed the debris field from this explosion − what is now known as Tycho’s supernova remnant − using data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, the NSF’s Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA) and many other telescopes. Today, they know that the Tycho remnant was created by the explosion of a white dwarf star, making it part of the so-called Type Ia class of supernovas used to track the expansion of the Universe.

Since much of the material being flung out from the shattered star has been heated by shock waves − similar to sonic booms from supersonic planes − passing through it, the remnant glows strongly in X-ray light. Astronomers have now used Chandra observations from 2000 through 2015 to create the longest movie of the Tycho remnant’s X-ray evolution over time, using five different images. This shows the expansion from the explosion is still continuing about 450 years later, as seen from Earth’s vantage point roughly 10,000 light years away.

By combining the X-ray data with some 30 years of observations in radio waves with the VLA, astronomers have also produced a movie, using three different images. Astronomers have used these X-ray and radio data to learn new things about this supernova and its remnant.

The researchers measured the speed of the blast wave at many different locations around the remnant. The large size of the remnant enables this motion to be measured with relatively high precision. Although the remnant is approximately circular, there are clear differences in the speed of the blast wave in different regions. The speed in the right and lower right directions is about twice as large as that in the left and the upper left directions. This difference was also seen in earlier observations.

This range in speed of the blast wave’s outward motion is caused by differences in the density of gas surrounding the supernova remnant. This causes an offset in position of the explosion site from the geometric center, determined by locating the center of the circular remnant. The astronomers found that the size of the offset is about 10% of the remnant’s current radius, towards the upper left of the geometric center. The team also found that the maximum speed of the blast wave is about 12 million miles per hour.

Offsets such as this between the explosion center and the geometric center could exist in other supernova remnants. Understanding the location of the explosion center for Type Ia supernovas is important because it narrows the search region for a surviving companion star. Any surviving companion star would help identify the trigger mechanism for the supernova, showing that the white dwarf pulled material from the companion star until it reached a critical mass and exploded. The lack of a companion star would favor the other main trigger mechanism, where two white dwarfs merge causing the critical mass to be exceeded, leaving no star behind.

Chandra X-ray Observatory. Image Credits: NASA/CXC

The significant offset from the center of the explosion to the remnant’s geometric center is a relatively recent phenomenon. For the first few hundred years of the remnant, the explosion’s shock was so powerful that the density of gas it was running into did not affect its motion. The density discrepancy from the left side to the right has increased as the shock moved outwards, causing the offset in position between the explosion center and the geometric center to grow with time. So, if future X-ray astronomers, say 1,000 years from now, do the same observation, they should find a much larger offset.

A paper describing these results has been accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal Letters and is available online: The authors are Brian Williams (NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center), Laura Chomiuk (Michigan State University), John Hewitt (University of North Florida), John Blondin (North Carolina State University), Kazimierz Borkowski (NCSU), Parviz Ghavamian (Towson University), Robert Petre (GSFC), and Stephen Reynolds (NCSU).

NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, manages the Chandra program for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts, controls Chandra's science and flight operations.

Read More from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory:

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Images (mentioned), Animation (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA/Lee Mohon.


Hubble Catches Views of a Jet Rotating with Comet 252P/LINEAR

NASA - Hubble Space Telescope patch.

May 12, 2016

This sequence of images taken by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope shows Comet 252P/LINEAR as it passed by Earth. The visit was one of the closest encounters between a comet and our planet.

Image above: Comet 252P/LINEAR as it passed by Earth. Images Credits: NASA, ESA, and J.-Y. Li (Planetary Science Institute).

The images were taken on April 4, 2016, roughly two weeks after the icy visitor made its closest approach to Earth on March 21. The comet traveled within 3.3 million miles of Earth, or about 14 times the distance between our planet and the moon. These observations also represent the closest celestial object Hubble has observed, other than the moon.

The images reveal a narrow, well-defined jet of dust ejected by the comet’s icy, fragile nucleus. The nucleus is too small for Hubble to resolve. Astronomers estimate that it is less than one mile across. A comet produces jets of material as it travels close to the sun in its orbit. Sunlight warms ices in a comet’s nucleus, resulting in large amounts of dust and gas being ejected, sometimes in the form of jets. The jet in the Hubble images is illuminated by sunlight.

The jet also appears to change direction in the images, which is evidence that the comet’s nucleus is spinning. The spinning nucleus makes the jet appear to rotate like the water jet from a rotating lawn sprinkler. The images underscore the dynamics and volatility of a comet’s fragile nucleus.

Animation above: This time-lapse movie, assembled from Hubble Space Telescope images, shows a narrow, well-defined jet of dust sweeping around with the rotation of Comet 252P/LINEAR like a spinning lawn sprinkler. The jet is illuminated by sunlight. Researchers made the movie from Hubble images taken April 4, 2016, when the comet was 8.7 million miles from Earth. The time interval between each frame is approximately 30 to 50 minutes. The icy body made its closest approach to Earth on March 21, 2016, when it was 3.3 million miles away. It is now more than 25 million miles away from Earth. The jet is composed of material from the comet’s icy nucleus that has been warmed by sunlight and ejected into space. The nucleus is too small for Hubble to resolve. The jet’s changing direction is evidence that the comet’s nucleus is rotating, which makes the jet appear to spin like the water jet from a rotating lawn sprinkler. The movie underscores the dynamics and volatility of a comet’s fragile nucleus. The movie is based on visible-light images taken with Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3. Animation Credits: NASA, ESA, and J.-Y. Li (Planetary Science Institute).

Comet 252P/LINEAR is traveling away from Earth and the sun; its orbit will bring it back to the inner solar system in 2021, but not anywhere close to the Earth.

These visible-light images were taken with Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3.

Hubble and the sunrise over Earth

The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and the European Space Agency. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Maryland, conducts Hubble science operations. STScI is operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy in Washington, D.C.

For images and more information about Hubble Space Telescope:

Images (mentioned), Animation (mentioned), Video, Text, Credits: NASA/Ashley Morrow/Space Telescope Science Institute/Donna Weaver/Ray Villard/Planetary Science Institute/Jian-Yang Li/European Space Agency (ESA).

Best regards,

Bertrand Piccard took off to Tulsa, Oklahoma!

SolarImpulse - Around The World patch.

May 12, 2016

Solar Impulse 2 airplane (Si2)

The Solar Impulse 2 airplane rose from the warm tarmac at Phoenix Goodyear Airport with Bertrand Piccard at the controls. Direction: Tulsa International Airport. He took off from Arizona at 10:05 AM UTC, 12:05 PM CET, 3:05 AM local time for a journey that is expected to last 17 hours and 50 minutes until landing in Oklahoma.

This flight continues the attempt to complete the first round-the-world solar flights to demonstrate that clean technologies can run the world.

The Challenge: Crossing the Rockies

As you can imagine, flying over the Rocky Mountains is a challenge for an aircraft like Si2. But perhaps not for the reasons you would expect…

Map above: The Rocky Mountains climb to an altitude of 14,440 feet (4,401 meters). These are quite high but definitely not too high for Si2 to handle. During this flight, Bertrand Piccard will be climbing to a height of approximately 24,000 feet with Si2.

Gaining height is therefore not a challenge for Si2, instead it is the special weather conditions above these mountains that create the greatest obstacle.

SolarImpulse Operation Head Quarter

In the morning hours of this flight, the sky will be clear above the mountains, with the strong midwestern sun shining on the Rockies. During the day in the summer, heat gets trapped in the mountains and as we all are familiar with the rules of thermodynamics, heat always rises. In the meteorological world, when the heat that rises contains enough moisture, the air condenses to form cumulus clouds (the white sheep-like bundles you see in the sky).

Over the course of the day, these clouds may have the tendency to accumulate, often forming Cumulonimbus clouds (aka CBs), which are likely to spark thunderstorms. Trust us, we don’t like CBs.

SolarImpulse Mission Director Team

We therefore had to be cautious to find the best time of day to fly over the Rocky Mountains. The cumulus clouds either have to be low enough so that we can fly above them or sparse enough so that we can fly in between them.

For this flight, we have found a good weather window that allows us to cross the Rockies before the clouds build up too much. We are leaving early in order to ensure we cross the Rockies east of Albuquerque and Santa Fe before the bad weather sets in in the early evening hours. We will therefore be flying at the same pace as the good weather window until we arrive with clear skies in Tulsa, Oklahoma!

Watch the flight live:

Video steaming on Youtube: LEG 11 LIVE: Solar Impulse Airplane - InFlight from Phoenix:

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Images, Video, Text, Credit: SolarImpulse.


2007 OR10: Largest Unnamed World in the Solar System

NASA - Kepler Space Telescope patch / NASA & ESA - Herschel Space Observatory logo.

May 12, 2016

Image above: New K2 results peg 2007 OR10 as the largest unnamed body in our solar system and the third largest of the current roster of about half a dozen dwarf planets. The dwarf planet Haumea has an oblong shape that is wider on its long axis than 2007 OR10, but its overall volume is smaller. Image Credits: Konkoly Observatory/András Pál, Hungarian Astronomical Association/Iván Éder, NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI.

Dwarf planets tend to be a mysterious bunch. With the exception of Ceres, which resides in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, all members of this class of minor planets in our solar system lurk in the depths beyond Neptune. They are far from Earth - small and cold - which makes them difficult to observe, even with large telescopes. So it's little wonder astronomers only discovered most of them in the past decade or so.

Pluto is a prime example of this elusiveness. Before NASA's New Horizons spacecraft visited it in 2015, the largest of the dwarf planets had appeared as little more than a fuzzy blob, even to the keen-eyed Hubble Space Telescope. Given the inherent challenges in trying to observe these far-flung worlds, astronomers often need to combine data from a variety of sources in order to tease out basic details about their properties.

Recently, a group of astronomers did just that by combining data from two space observatories to reveal something surprising: a dwarf planet named 2007 OR10 is significantly larger than previously thought.

Kepler Observes Distant Dwarf Planet 2007 OR10

Video above: NASA's Kepler spacecraft observed dwarf planet 2007 OR10 for 19 days in late 2014. The object's apparent movement (indicated by the arrow) against the stars is caused by Kepler's changing position as it orbits the sun. The diffuse light at right is from Mars, which was near the field of view. Video Credits: Konkoly Observatory/László Molnár and András Pál.

The results peg 2007 OR10 as the largest unnamed world in our solar system and the third largest of the current roster of about half a dozen dwarf planets. The study also found that the object is quite dark and rotating more slowly than almost any other body orbiting our sun, taking close to 45 hours to complete its daily spin.

For their research, the scientists used NASA's repurposed planet-hunting Kepler space telescope -- its mission now known as K2 -- along with the archival data from the infrared Herschel Space Observatory. Herschel was a mission of the European Space Agency with NASA participation. The research paper reporting these results is published in The Astronomical Journal.

"K2 has made yet another important contribution in revising the size estimate of 2007 OR10. But what's really powerful is how combining K2 and Herschel data yields such a wealth of information about the object's physical properties," said Geert Barentsen, Kepler/K2 research scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California.

The revised measurement of the planet's diameter, 955 miles (1,535 kilometers), is about 60 miles (100 kilometers) greater than the next largest dwarf planet, Makemake, or about one-third smaller than Pluto. Another dwarf planet, named Haumea, has an oblong shape that is wider on its long axis than 2007 OR10, but its overall volume is smaller.

Like its predecessor mission, K2 searches for the change in brightness of distant objects. The tiny, telltale dip in the brightness of a star can be the signature of a planet passing, or transiting, in front. But, closer to home, K2 also looks out into our solar system to observe small bodies such as comets, asteroids, moons and dwarf planets. Because of its exquisite sensitivity to small changes in brightness, Kepler is an excellent instrument for observing the brightness of distant solar system objects and how that changes as they rotate.

Figuring out the size of small, faint objects far from Earth is tricky business. Since they appear as mere points of light, it can be a challenge to determine whether the light they emit represents a smaller, brighter object, or a larger, darker one. This is what makes it so difficult to observe 2007 OR10 -- although its elliptical orbit brings it nearly as close to the sun as Neptune, it is currently twice as far from the sun as Pluto.

Enter the dynamic duo of Kepler and Herschel.

Previous estimates based on Herschel data alone suggested a diameter of roughly 795 miles (1,280 kilometers) for 2007 OR10. However, without a handle on the object's rotation period, those studies were limited in their ability to estimate its overall brightness, and hence its size. The discovery of the very slow rotation by K2 was essential for the team to construct more detailed models that revealed the peculiarities of this dwarf planet. The rotation measurements even included hints of variations in brightness across its surface.

Herschel Space Observatory. Image Credit: ESA

Together, the two space telescopes allowed the team to measure the fraction of sunlight reflected by 2007 OR10 (using Kepler) and the fraction absorbed and later radiated back as heat (using Herschel). Putting these two data sets together provided an unambiguous estimation of the dwarf planet's size and how reflective it is.

According to the new measurements, the diameter of 2007 OR10 is some 155 miles (250 kilometers) larger than previously thought. The larger size also implies higher gravity and a very dark surface -- the latter because the same amount of light is being reflected by a larger body. This dark nature is different from most dwarf planets, which are much brighter. Previous ground-based observations found 2007 OR10 has a characteristic red color, and other researchers have suggested this might be due to methane ices on its surface.

"Our revised larger size for 2007 OR10 makes it increasingly likely the planet is covered in volatile ices of methane, carbon monoxide and nitrogen, which would be easily lost to space by a smaller object," said András Pál at Konkoly Observatory in Budapest, Hungary, who led the research. "It's thrilling to tease out details like this about a distant, new world -- especially since it has such an exceptionally dark and reddish surface for its size."

As for when 2007 OR10 will finally get a name, that honor belongs to the object's discoverers. Astronomers Meg Schwamb, Mike Brown and David Rabinowitz spotted it in 2007 as part of a survey to search for distant solar system bodies using the Samuel Oschin Telescope at Palomar Observatory near San Diego.

 Kepler Space Telescope. Image Credit: NASA

"The names of Pluto-sized bodies each tell a story about the characteristics of their respective objects. In the past, we haven't known enough about 2007 OR10 to give it a name that would do it justice," said Schwamb. "I think we're coming to a point where we can give 2007 OR10 its rightful name."

Ames manages the Kepler and K2 missions for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, managed Kepler mission development. Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corporation operates the flight system with support from the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

Related links:

NASA's K2 mission: The Kepler Space Telescope's Second Chance to Shine:

Research paper reporting these results is published in The Astronomical Journal:

For more information about the Kepler and K2 missions, visit:

More information about Herschel is online at: and

Images (mentioned), Video (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA/Ames Research Center/Michele Johnson/JPL/Elizabeth Landau/Written by Preston Dyches.

Best regards,

mercredi 11 mai 2016

Second Cycle of Martian Seasons Completing for Curiosity Rover

NASA - Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) patch.

May 11, 2016

NASA's Curiosity Mars rover today completes its second Martian year since landing inside Gale Crater nearly four Earth years ago, which means it has recorded environmental patterns through two full cycles of Martian seasons.

Curiosity Rover Report (May 11, 2016): Mars Weather Report

Video above: After two Martian years, NASA's Curiosity Mars rover is more than a geologist, scientist and explorer. It’s a weather reporter, too! Video Credit: NASA.

The repetition helps distinguish seasonal effects from sporadic events. For example, a large spike in methane in the local atmosphere during the first southern-hemisphere autumn in Gale Crater was not repeated the second autumn. It was an episodic release, still unexplained. However, the rover's measurements do suggest that much subtler changes in the background methane concentration -- amounts much less than during the spike -- may follow a seasonal pattern. Measurements of temperature, pressure, ultraviolet light reaching the surface and the scant water vapor in the air at Gale Crater show strong, repeated seasonal changes.

Monitoring the modern atmosphere, weather and climate fulfills a Curiosity mission goal supplementing the better-known investigations of conditions billions of years ago. Back then, Gale Crater had lakes and groundwater that could have been good habitats for microbes, if Mars has ever had any. Today, though dry and much less hospitable, environmental factors are still dynamic.

Curiosity's Rover Environmental Monitoring Station (REMS), supplied by Spain's Centro de Astrobiología, has measured air temperatures from 60.5 degrees Fahrenheit (15.9 degrees Celsius) on a summer afternoon, to minus 148 F (minus 100 C) on a winter night. Seasonal patterns in temperature, water vapor and pressure that Curiosity has measured in Gale Crater are charted in a new graphic at:

Graphics above: By monitoring weather through two Martian years since landing in Gale Crater, NASA's Curiosity Mars rover has documented seasonal patterns in variables such as temperature, water-vapor content and air pressure. Each Mars year lasts nearly two Earth years. Graphics Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/CAB(CSIC-INTA).

"Curiosity's weather station has made measurements nearly every hour of every day, more than 34 million so far," said Curiosity Project Scientist Ashwin Vasavada of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. "The duration is important, because it's the second time through the seasons that lets us see repeated patterns."

Each Martian year -- the time it takes the Red Planet to orbit the sun once -- lasts 687 Earth days. Curiosity landed on Aug. 5, 2012, (Pacific Time; Aug. 6, Universal Time). It begins its third Martian year on May 11, 2016, during the mission's 1,337th Martian day, or "sol," since landing. Each Martian sol lasts about 39.6 minutes longer than an Earth day, and a Martian year lasts 668.6 sols.

The similar tilts of Earth and Mars give both planets a yearly rhythm of seasons. But some differences are great, such as in comparisons between day and night temperatures. Even during the time of the Martian year when temperatures at Gale Crater rise above freezing during the day, they plummet overnight below minus 130 F (minus 90 C), due to the thin atmosphere. Also, the more-elliptical orbit of Mars, compared to Earth, exaggerates the southern-hemisphere seasons, making them dominant even at Gale Crater's near-equatorial location.

"Mars is much drier than our planet, and in particular Gale Crater, near the equator, is a very dry place on Mars," said Germán Martínez, a Curiosity science-team collaborator from Spain at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. "The water vapor content is a thousand to 10 thousand times less than on Earth."

Relative humidity is a function of both temperature and water-vapor content. During winter nights, Curiosity has measured relative humidity of up to 70 percent, high enough to prompt researchers to check for frost forming on the ground. Other Mars landers have detected frost, but Curiosity has not.

Graphic above: NASA's Curiosity Mars rover measures the concentration of methane in the atmosphere at Gale Crater. A one-time spike in methane, up to about 7 parts per billion occurred during Curiosity's first Martian year. Variations in much lower background levels of methane may be seasonal. Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Curiosity's air-pressure measurements confirm a strong seasonal trend previously seen by other missions. "There are large changes due to the capture and release of carbon dioxide by the seasonal polar caps," Martínez explained. Most of the Martian atmosphere is carbon dioxide. During each pole's winter, millions of tons of this gas freeze solid, only to be released again in spring, prompting very un-Earthlike seasonal variations of about 25 percent in atmospheric pressure.

Other seasonal patterns measured by Curiosity and repeated in the rover's second Martian year are that the local atmosphere is clear in winter, dustier in spring and summer, and windy in autumn. Visibility in Gale Crater is as low as 20 miles (30 kilometers) in summer, and as high as 80 miles (130 kilometers) in winter.

For tracking changes in the concentration of methane in the air above Gale Crater,  researchers use the tunable laser spectrometer in Curiosity's Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) suite of instruments. These measurements are made less often than REMS measurements, though frequently enough to tease out seasonal patterns. For most of the two Martian years, the rover has measured methane concentrations between 0.3 and 0.8 parts per billion. For several weeks during the first autumn, the level spiked, reaching 7 parts per billion. The mission checked carefully for a repeat of that spike during the second autumn, but concentrations stayed at lower background levels.

"Doing a second year told us right away that the spike was not a seasonal effect," said JPL's Chris Webster of the SAM team. "It's apparently an episodic event that we may or may not ever see again."

However, the mission is continuing to monitor a possible seasonal pattern in the background methane concentration. The background level is far less than the spike level, but it appears to be even lower in autumn than in other seasons. If this pattern is confirmed, it may be related to the pressure pattern measured by REMS or to seasonal change in ultraviolet radiation, which is measured by REMS in concert with the rover's Mast Camera.

"This shows not only the importance of long-term monitoring, but also the importance of combining more than one type of measurement from a single platform," Webster said.

While continuing to study the modern local environment, Curiosity is investigating geological layers of lower Mount Sharp, inside Gale Crater, to increase understanding of ancient changes in environmental conditions. For more information about Curiosity, visit:

Images (mentioned), Video (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA/Dwayne Brown/Laurie Cantillo/Tony Greicius/JPL/Guy Webster.


Critical NASA Science Returns to Earth aboard SpaceX Dragon Spacecraft

SpaceX - CRS-8 Dragon Mission patch.

May 11, 2016

Image above: A SpaceX Dragon cargo spacecraft splashed down in the Pacific Ocean at 2:51 p.m. EDT Wednesday, May 11, about 261 miles southwest of Long Beach, California, with more than 3,700 pounds of NASA cargo, science and technology demonstration samples from the International Space Station. Image Credit: NASA Television.

The Dragon spacecraft will be taken by ship to Long Beach where some cargo will be removed and returned to NASA, and then be prepared for shipment to SpaceX's test facility in McGregor, Texas, for processing.

A variety of technology and biology studies conducted in the unique microgravity environment of the space station returned aboard the commercial resupply spacecraft, including research in the burgeoning field of nanotechnology. The Microchannel Diffusion study, for example, examined how microparticles interact with each other and their delivery channel in the absence of gravitational forces. In this one-of-a-kind laboratory, researchers were able to observe nanoscale behaviors at slightly larger scales – knowledge which may have implications for advancements in particle filtration, space exploration and drug delivery technologies.

CASIS Protein Crystal Growth 4 also has applications in medicine – specifically, drug design and development. Growing protein crystals in microgravity can avoid some of the obstacles inherent to protein crystallization on Earth, such as sedimentation. One investigation explored the effect of microgravity on the co-crystallization of a membrane protein with a medically-relevant compound in order to determine its three-dimensional structure. This will enable scientists to use “designer” compounds to chemically target and inhibit an important human biological pathway thought to be responsible for several types of cancer.

Images above: This series of images from NASA Television shows the SpaceX Dragon resupply craft moments after its release from the International Space Station's Canadarm2 robotic arm on May 11, 2016, as it steadily moves a safe distance before beginning the deorbit burn for its trip back to Earth. Image Credit: NASA Television.

The spacecraft also returned to Earth the final batch of human research samples from former NASA astronaut Scott Kelly’s historic one-year mission. These samples will be analyzed for studies such as Biochemical Profile, Cardio Ox, Fluid Shifts, Microbiome, Salivary Markers and the Twins Study. Additional samples taken on the ground, as Kelly continues to support these studies, will provide insights relevant for NASA’s Journey to Mars as the agency learns more about how the human body adjusts to weightlessness, isolation, radiation and the stress of long-duration spaceflight.

The spacesuit worn by NASA astronaut Tim Kopra during a January spacewalk also was returned for additional analysis by engineers on the ground, as NASA continues to investigate the source of water that caused and early end to the spacewalk after Kopra reported a small water bubble inside his helmet*.

Dragon currently is the only station resupply spacecraft able to return a significant amount of cargo to Earth. The spacecraft lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida April 8, and arrived at the space station April 10, carrying almost 7,000 pounds of supplies and scientific cargo on the company’s eighth NASA-contracted commercial resupply mission.

The International Space Station is a convergence of science, technology and human innovation that demonstrates new technologies and makes research breakthroughs not possible on Earth. The space station has been occupied continuously since November 2000. In that time, more than 200 people and a variety of international and commercial spacecraft have visited the orbiting laboratory. The space station remains the springboard to NASA's next great leap in exploration, including future missions to an asteroid and Mars.

Related links:

Microchannel Diffusion study:

Biochemical Profile:

Cardio Ox:

Fluid Shifts:


Salivary Markers:

Twins Study:

Related article:

Spacewalk Ends Early After Water Detected in Helmet

Get more information about SpaceX's mission to the International Space Station at:

Get more information about the International Space Station at:

Images (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA/Cheryl Warner/JSC/Dan Huot/Karen Northon.

Best regards,

Bertrand Piccard will takeoff to Tulsa, Oklahoma

SolarImpulse - Around The World patch.

May 11, 2016

Bertrand Piccard will takeoff to Tulsa, Oklahoma on May 12th at 10:00AM UTC

Bertrand Piccard will takeoff for the second leg of the crossing of the USA with Si2 from Phoenix Goodyear Airport to Tulsa International Airport on May 12th at 10:00AM UTC, 12:00PM CET, 03:00AM MST.

After sustained efforts from the entire team, at the Mission Control Center and on the ground, we have found a clear weather window that gives way for a 17 hour and 50 minute flight to complete the flight to reach the heart of the United States. The objective is to reach New York as soon as possible!

For more information about SolarImpulse Around The World, visit:

To view videos of previous flights:

Image, Text, Credit: SolarImpulse.


Dragon Released Full of Science for Return to Earth

SpaceX - CRS-8 Dragon Mission patch.

May 11, 2016

Image above: European Space Agency astronaut Tim Peake captured this photograph of the SpaceX Dragon cargo spacecraft as it undocked from the International Space Station on May 11, 2016. The spacecraft was released from the station’s robotic arm at 9:19 a.m. EDT. Image Credits: NASA/Tim Peake.

The SpaceX Dragon cargo spacecraft was released from the International Space Station’s robotic arm at 9:19 a.m. EDT. The capsule will begin a series of departure burns and maneuvers to move beyond the 656-foot (200-meter) “keep out sphere” around the station and begin its return trip to Earth. The capsule is currently scheduled to splashdown in the Pacific Ocean at 2:55 p.m., about 261 miles southwest of Long Beach, California.

Image above: ameras on the Canadarm2 show the SpaceX Dragon as it departs the vicinity of the space station just after its release. Image Credit: NASA TV.

The spacecraft will return the final batch of human research samples from former NASA astronaut Scott Kelly’s historic one-year mission. These samples will be analyzed for studies such as Biochemical Profile, Cardio Ox, Fluid Shifts, Microbiome, Salivary Markers and the Twins Study. Additional samples taken on the ground as Kelly continues to support these studies will provide insights relevant for the Journey to Mars as NASA learns more about how the human body adjusts to weightlessness, isolation, radiation and the stress of long-duration spaceflight.

SpaceX Dragon Heads Home from ISS with Valuable Science Data

Related links:

Biochemical Profile:

Cardio Ox:

Fluid Shifts:


Salivary Markers:

Twins Study:

For more information about International Space Station (ISS):

For more information about Spacex, Dragon, visit:

Images (mentioned), Video, Text, Credits: NASA/Mark Garcia.


mardi 10 mai 2016

What’s Growing on the Space Station’s Walls? Observing How Microbes Adapt in a Spaceflight Environment

ISS - International Space Station logo.

May 10, 2016

Image above: Sampling locations for the Microbial Observatory-1 investigation are photographed before collecting surface and air samples. Image Credit: NASA.

Many people know that the International Space Station is a unique microgravity research laboratory in low-Earth orbit where astronauts conduct experiments in biology, physics, astronomy and other fields. However, the space station is also ideal for observing Earth microbes – single-cell organisms so tiny that millions can fit into the eye of a needle – in a new environment.

Microbial Tracking-1 (MT-1) is a three-part flight investigation that monitors the types of microbes present on the surfaces and in the air of the space station over a one-year period. Sampling microbes multiple times enables scientists to understand the diversity of microbes on the station and how the microbial population varies over time. After astronauts collect microbes, they send samples back to Earth for further study. The first two sets of samples have been returned to Earth and analyzed. The third flight launched on the eighth cargo resupply mission of a SpaceX Dragon capsule to the space station April 8, and will complete the series. The final samples are planned to return on Dragon as soon as May 11.

Image above: A petri dish contains colonies of fungi grown from a sample collected aboard the International Space Station during the first of the three Microbial Tracking-1 flights. Image Credits: NASA/JPL.

Findings from the MT-1 study will provide information to evaluate potential risks to astronaut health stemming from microbes on board. NASA is also interested in developing ways to minimize hazards from microbes during long-duration crewed missions, including on the journey to Mars. Genetic information collected from the MT-1 series will be made available to the scientific community and the public via an open-access, collaborative platform developed by NASA called GeneLab.

"By using both traditional and state-of-the-art molecular analysis techniques, we can build a clearer picture of the International Space Station's microbial community, helping to spot microbial agents that may damage equipment or potentially threaten astronaut health, and identify areas in need of more stringent cleaning," said "Kasthuri Venkateswaran, Microbial Tracking-1 principal investigator and senior research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

Following the recommendation of the National Research Council’s 2011 Decadal Survey Report, NASA is supporting research that uses the space station as a microbial observatory to conduct long-term, multigenerational studies of microbial population dynamics. Because the station is an enclosed system, the only way that microbes get to the station is on the contents of resupply missions from Earth and from the astronauts themselves during crew changes. Scientists can observe how the diversity of microbes on the station responds to the contained and monitored microgravity environment over long-term habitation.

Image above: Using adhesive tape as a sampling device, Venkateswaran and Karouia demonstrate one of the methods that station crew used to collect microorganisms from surfaces for the Microbial Tracking-1 investigation. Image Credits: NASA/Dominic Hart.

“The Microbial Tracking-1 series plays a research role in assessing the amounts and diversity of bacteria on the space station using high-throughput molecular-based methods,” said Fathi Karouia, Microbial Tracking-1 project scientist, at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California. “Results that derive from such studies will enable NASA to better understand the microbiome of the space station, how it evolves over time, and could provide solutions in mitigating future risks associated with crew health and mission integrity.”

The results could also be translated back on Earth where the same observation strategies could be used to measure microbes in hospitals, pharmaceutical laboratories, homes, and other environments where humans and microbes reside together.

Millions of microbes under study

Video above: NASA commentator Amiko Kauderer talks with Kasthuri Venkateswaran, principal investigator for the Microbial Observatory experiment aboard the International Space Station that focuses on the millions of other living things on the station other than the crew: the microbes which share the environment with the human crew. Video Credit: NASA.

Both the MT-1 project and Genelab are sponsored by the Space Biology Program within the Space Life and Physical Sciences Research and Applications Division (SLPSRA) at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

Related links:

International Space Station (ISS):

Space Station Research and Technology:

Microbial Tracking-1 (MT-1):

NASA GeneLab:

Space Life and Physical Sciences Research and Applications Division (SLPSRA):

Journey to Mars:

Images (mentioned), Video (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA’s Ames Research Center/Space Biosciences Division/Sandy Dueck/Darryl Waller.

Best regards,

NASA's Kepler Mission Announces Largest Collection of Planets Ever Discovered

NASA - Kepler Space Telescope patch.

May 10, 2016

NASA's Kepler mission has verified 1,284 new planets – the single largest finding of planets to date.

“This announcement more than doubles the number of confirmed planets from Kepler,” said Ellen Stofan, chief scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “This gives us hope that somewhere out there, around a star much like ours, we can eventually discover another Earth.”

Analysis was performed on the Kepler space telescope’s July 2015 planet candidate catalog, which identified 4,302 potential planets. For 1,284 of the candidates, the probability of being a planet is greater than 99 percent – the minimum required to earn the status of “planet.” An additional 1,327 candidates are more likely than not to be actual planets, but they do not meet the 99 percent threshold and will require additional study. The remaining 707 are more likely to be some other astrophysical phenomena. This analysis also validated 984 candidates previously verified by other techniques.

Image above: This artist's concept depicts select planetary discoveries made to date by NASA's Kepler space telescope. Image Credits: NASA/W. Stenzel.

"Before the Kepler space telescope launched, we did not know whether exoplanets were rare or common in the galaxy. Thanks to Kepler and the research community, we now know there could be more planets than stars,” said Paul Hertz, Astrophysics Division director at NASA Headquarters. "This knowledge informs the future missions that are needed to take us ever-closer to finding out whether we are alone in the universe."

Kepler captures the discrete signals of distant planets – decreases in brightness that occur when planets pass in front of, or transit, their stars – much like the May 9 Mercury transit of our sun. Since the discovery of the first planets outside our solar system more than two decades ago, researchers have resorted to a laborious, one-by-one process of verifying suspected planets.

This latest announcement, however, is based on a statistical analysis method that can be applied to many planet candidates simultaneously. Timothy Morton, associate research scholar at Princeton University in New Jersey and lead author of the scientific paper published in The Astrophysical Journal, employed a technique to assign each Kepler candidate a planet-hood probability percentage – the first such automated computation on this scale, as previous statistical techniques focused only on sub-groups within the greater list of planet candidates identified by Kepler.

"Planet candidates can be thought of like bread crumbs,” said Morton. “If you drop a few large crumbs on the floor, you can pick them up one by one. But, if you spill a whole bag of tiny crumbs, you're going to need a broom. This statistical analysis is our broom."

In the newly-validated batch of planets, nearly 550 could be rocky planets like Earth, based on their size. Nine of these orbit in their sun's habitable zone, which is the distance from a star where orbiting planets can have surface temperatures that allow liquid water to pool. With the addition of these nine, 21 exoplanets now are known to be members of this exclusive group.

"They say not to count our chickens before they're hatched, but that's exactly what these results allow us to do based on probabilities that each egg (candidate) will hatch into a chick (bona fide planet)," said Natalie Batalha, co-author of the paper and the Kepler mission scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California. “This work will help Kepler reach its full potential by yielding a deeper understanding of the number of stars that harbor potentially habitable, Earth-size planets -- a number that's needed to design future missions to search for habitable environments and living worlds.”

Kepler Space Telescope. Image Credit: NASA

Of the nearly 5,000 total planet candidates found to date, more than 3,200 now have been verified, and 2,325 of these were discovered by Kepler. Launched in March 2009, Kepler is the first NASA mission to find potentially habitable Earth-size planets. For four years, Kepler monitored 150,000 stars in a single patch of sky, measuring the tiny, telltale dip in the brightness of a star that can be produced by a transiting planet. In 2018, NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite will use the same method to monitor 200,000 bright nearby stars and search for planets, focusing on Earth and Super-Earth-sized.

Ames manages the Kepler missions for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, managed Kepler mission development. Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corporation operates the flight system, with support from the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

Related link:

Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS):

For more information about the Kepler mission, visit:

For briefing materials from Tuesday’s media teleconference where the new group of planets was announced, visit:

Images (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA/Felicia Chou/Karen Northon/Ames Research Center/Michele Johnson.