Science gives Pluto its day in the sun

Image: Pluto's edge
NASA’s New Horizons probe captured this backlit image of Pluto as it flew past the dwarf planet on July 14. Scattered sunlight reveals numerous haze layers within Pluto’s thin atmosphere, while the surprisingly diverse surface landscape indicates ongoing geological activity. (Credit: NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI)

The first peer-reviewed scientific paper about the New Horizons probe’s July flyby past Pluto lays out puzzling evidence that suggests the dwarf planet isn’t frozen in time. Rather, its smooth plains, high mountains and nitrogen glaciers are leading the NASA mission’s researchers to suspect that it’s geologically active even now.

“Pluto’s still got an engine, and it’s still running,” principal investigator Alan Stern of Southwest Research Institute told journalists in advance of the paper’s publication today by the journal Science.

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Robo-tail shows how dinosaurs cracked the whip

Image: Sauropod tail
Researchers assembled a quarter-scale sauropod tail, using 3-D-printed vertebrae and a bullwhip popper, to show that dinosaurs could create sonic booms. (Credit: D. Sivam / P. Currie / N. Myhrvold)

Nathan Myhrvold, the Microsoft millionaire who went on to found Intellectual Ventures, is a huge dinosaur geek. But not just any dinosaur geek: He funds paleontological digs, gets heavily involved in research and keeps a life-size T. rex skeleton in his living room. Now he and other scientists have built a quarter-scale dinosaur tail to show that giant sauropods really could snap their tails at supersonic speeds.

Myhrvold and University of Alberta paleontologist Philip Currie first made that claim 18 years ago, based on computer modeling. But their hand-operated contraption – a 44-pound tail section that’s assembled from 3D-printed vertebrae and tipped with a bullwhip popper – provides an ear-splitting demonstration of the effect.

“Personally, I think one of the most interesting aspects of this is the process of using physical simulations to try to ascertain the behavior of extinct animals,” Dhileep Sivam, a bioinformatics specialist who works at Intellectual Ventures, said in an email.

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Pluto pics reveal blue glow – and water ice

Image: Blue Pluto
A picture from NASA’s New Horizons probe reveals the blue color of Pluto’s atmospheric haze, as seen in a backlit view. (Credit: NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI)

The latest pictures from NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto reveal for the first time that the backlit dwarf planet is surrounded by a beautiful blue glow – and also pinpoint the location of water ice deposits exposed on the surface.

Thursday’s images were released after a hubbub that suggested an “amazing” discovery would be revealed this week. Although the hype got a bit out of control, the revelations really do raise intriguing questions about Pluto’s weather and geology.

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Israeli team gets set for 2017 moon race

Image: Lunar lander
An artist’s conception shows Team SpaceIL’s lunar lander. (Credit: SpaceIL)

Israeli-based Team SpaceIL has signed up to launch a robotic lander to the moon on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in the latter half of 2017, thanks to an arrangement with Seattle-based Spaceflight.

SpaceIL will be a “co-lead” customer for the launch, the organizers of the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize competition said in a news release on Wednesday. That makes SpaceIL the first team to provide official verification of its launch contract, and confirms that efforts to put the first privately funded spacecraft on the moon by the end of 2017 will be an honest-to-goodness competition.

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Orbiter shows how risky ‘Martian’ trek would be

Image: Acidalia Planitia
A picture from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter shows the area of Acidalia Planitia where the fictional Ares 3 mission landed in “The Martian.” (Credit: NASA / JPL / Univ. of Arizona)

Marooned astronaut Mark Watney takes a harrowing trek from Mars’ Acidalia Planitia to Schiaparelli Crater in “The Martian,” which took the top spot on last weekend’s box-office list with $55 million. But pictures of the actual terrain from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter suggest Watney’s trip would be even riskier in real life.

The science team behind the orbiter’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment, or HiRISE, captured a series of images that correspond to scenes in the movie in response to requests from Andy Weir, who wrote the book on which “The Martian” is based.

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Universe Today

New index sizes up habitability of alien planets

Image: James Webb Space Telescope
NASA’s James Webb Telescope, shown in this artist’s conception, will provide more data about exoplanets. A new habitability index is aimed at helping scientists prioritize the search. (Credit: NASA)

Researchers at the University of Washington’s Virtual Planetary Laboratory have devised a new habitability index for judging how suitable alien planets might be for life, and the top prospects on their list are an Earthlike world called Kepler-442b and a yet-to-be confirmed planet known as KOI 3456.02.

Those worlds both score higher than our own planet on the index: 0.955 for KOI 3456.02 and 0.836 for Kepler-442b, compared with 0.829 for Earth and 0.422 for Mars. The point of the exercise is to help scientists prioritize future targets for close-ups from NASA’s yet-to-be-launched James Webb Space Telescope and other instruments.

Get the full story at Universe Today.


NASA vet Lori Garver does a Mars reality check

Image: Lori Garver
Former NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver chats with Alan Boyle during the GeekWire Summit.

If we want to send astronauts to Mars, we better find a way to do it within 10 years. And if we want to discover a blue planet around an alien sun, there’s a good chance it could happen within five years.

That’s how former NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver sized up the future of space travel and exploration at the GeekWire Summit on Thursday.

Today, Garver is general manager of the Air Line Pilots Association. But back in 2008, she helped set the space policy trajectory for the Obama administration, and then took the No. 2 spot at the space agency as Administrator Charles Bolden’s deputy. During her four years in that role, she played a key part in NASA’s shift from the space shuttle era to the commercial spaceflight era.

So what’s ahead? Find out what Garver had to say during Thursday’s fireside chat.

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Moon Express aims for 2017 launch to moon

Image: Richards and MX-1
Moon Express co-founder and CEO Bob Richards shows off a model of the MX-1 lunar lander in 2013. (Credit: Moon Express via YouTube)

Moon Express says it has reserved three lunar lander launches from a startup called Rocket Lab starting in 2017, with an eye toward putting robots on the moon’s surface and winning the lion’s share of the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize.

If the mission is successful, Moon Express could become the first privately backed venture to achieve a soft lunar landing.

“This will be the space equivalent of the four-minute mile,” Moon Express’ co-founder and CEO, Bob Richards, told GeekWire on Thursday. “This is a new era we just could have dreamed about as kids.”

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Spaceflight buys SpaceX rocket for satellites

Image: SpaceX launch
A SpaceX Falcon 9 lifts off in April, sending cargo to the International Space Station. The payloads included Planetary Resources’ A3R satellite, which was flown under an arrangement with Seattle-based Spaceflight. (Credit: SpaceX)

In the first deal of its kind, Seattle-based Spaceflight says it’s buying a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that will be set aside exclusively for launching other people’s small satellites into orbit.

The first dedicated rideshare launch is due to go into sun-synchronous low Earth orbit from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California during the latter half of 2017, said Curt Blake, president of Spaceflight’s launch business. Sun-synchronous orbits are particularly popular for Earth imaging satellites, and Spaceflight anticipates buying a dedicated SpaceX Falcon 9 every year to service the market.

“By purchasing and manifesting the entire SpaceX rocket, Spaceflight is well-positioned to meet the small-sat industry’s growing demand for routine, reliable access to space,” Blake said in a statement issued Wednesday.

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Cosmic Environment Cosmic Tech

Carbon X Prize could turn CO2 into $20 million

Image: Power plant
The Four Corners power plant in New Mexico is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, based on measurements made by researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory (Credit: LANL)

Can you turn carbon dioxide emissions into gold? How about biofuel? The Carbon X Prize competition is offering $20 million for the best strategies to make use of CO2.

Past X Prizes have rewarded high-tech achievements in private-sector spaceflight and super-efficient automobiles. There are also X Prizes for moon missions“Star Trek” tricorders and educational software. The competition announced Tuesday is aimed at identifying technologies that convert industrial carbon dioxide emissions into high-value products – for example, clothing or shoes, building materials or industrial chemicals.

Carbon dioxide emissions are considered one of the factors behind global climate change, and the Obama administration is seeking steep cuts in such emissions from power plants. The Carbon X Prize could highlight high-tech solutions to the environmental problem.

“In order to demonstrate the widest possible applicability of potential solutions, the competition will have two tracks: one focused on testing technologies at a coal power plant, and one focused on testing technologies at a natural gas power plant,” Paul Bunje, principal and senior scientist for energy and environment at XPrize, said in Tuesday’s announcement.

Would-be competitors have until next June to sign up. Their proposals will be assessed by a judging panel, and the top 15 teams in each track will move on to demonstrate their technologies in controlled experiments.

In each track, the five top-rated finalists will share a $2.5 million milestone purse, based on the results of the experiments. Then they’ll try out their technologies using actual emissions from power plants. In March 2020, the highest-rated team in each track will be awarded a grand prize of $7.5 million. Check out the Carbon XPrize website for the details.

The competition is sponsored by NRG Energy and Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance, or COSIA. It follows up on a similar multimillion-dollar carbon conversion contest in Canada known as the CCEMC Grand Challenge.