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Cosmic Space

Hubble uses eclipse to practice hunt for alien life

Astronomers made use of the Hubble Space Telescope — and a total lunar eclipse — to rehearse their routine for seeking signs of life in alien atmospheres.

You’ll be relieved to know that the experiment, conducted on Jan. 20-21, 2019, determined that there are indeed signs of life on Earth.

The evidence came in the form of a strong spectral fingerprint for ozone. To detect that ultraviolet fingerprint, Hubble didn’t look at Earth directly. Instead, it analyzed the dim reddish light that was first refracted by Earth’s atmosphere, and then reflected back by the moon during last year’s lunar eclipse.

“Finding ozone is significant because it is a photochemical byproduct of molecular oxygen, which is itself a byproduct of life,” said Allison Youngblood of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics in Boulder, Colo., lead researcher of Hubble’s observations.

Other ground-based telescopes made spectroscopic observations at other wavelengths during the eclipse. They were looking for the fingerprints of different atmospheric ingredients linked to life’s presence, such as oxygen and methane.

This wasn’t just an academic exercise. Astronomers hope future observatories, such as the James Webb Space Telescope and the Roman Space Telescope, will be able to detect life’s fingerprints in the atmospheres of faraway exoplanets. But that takes practice.

“One of NASA’s major goals is to identify planets that could support life,” Youngblood said in a Hubble news release. “But how would we know a habitable or an uninhabited planet if we saw one? What would they look like with the techniques that astronomers have at their disposal for characterizing the atmospheres of exoplanets? That’s why it’s important to develop models of Earth’s spectrum as a template for categorizing atmospheres on extrasolar planets.”

Check out the news release for further details, or delve into the research paper published today in The Astronomical Journal. And to learn more about how lunar eclipses work, check out this “Inconstant Moon” interactive (after you enable Flash in your browser).

This report was published on Cosmic Log. Accept no substitutes.

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Meteor impacts spotted during lunar eclipse

It’s pretty clear by now that a space rock ranging somewhere in size between an acorn and a football hit the darkened moon during Jan. 20’s total lunar eclipse. But were there two?

Confirmations of the first impact, and reports about the second, have been circulating through the scientific community and the Twitterverse over the past couple of days.

Get the full story on GeekWire.

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Super views of the ‘Super Blood Wolf Moon’

Lunar eclipse
Surrounded by stars, the eclipsed moon turns red over Mount Baker. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

January’s usual weather conditions — with chilly temperatures for much of America and cloudy skies in the Pacific Northwest — aren’t exactly ideal for tracking a total lunar eclipse, but Jan. 20’s “Super Blood Wolf Moon” actually lived up to the hype.

Photographers across much of the country braved the cold to get some jaw-dropping snapshots and time-lapse views. Even in Seattle, where the weather forecast wasn’t promising, the hours-long progression from supersized full moon to a ruddy darkness and back to lunar brightness unfolded in mostly clear skies.

See the top-10 favorites on GeekWire.

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It’s prime time for ‘Super Blood Wolf Moon’ eclipse

Lunar eclipse
A ruddy lunar eclipse hangs over Mount Rainier in 2015. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

Are you ready for Jan. 20’s “Super Blood Wolf Moon”? The good news is that North America is well-positioned to see a total lunar eclipse for the first time in nearly a year.

The bad news? If the skies are clouded over, it doesn’t matter.

Get the full story on GeekWire.

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It’s prime time for seeing Mars and the moon

Mars
A global dust storm covers Mars’ disk in this image from the Hubble Space Telescope, captured on July 18. The planet’s two small moons, Deimos (left) and Phobos (right), appear in the lower half of the image. (NASA / ESA / STScI Photo)

It’s no hoax: Mars is bigger and brighter in the night sky than it’s been at any time since 2003. And you can watch the longest total lunar eclipse of the 21st century.

There are caveats, of course: The only way folks in North America can see Friday’s eclipse is to watch it online. And Mars won’t look anywhere near as big as the moon, despite what’s been claimed in a hoax that dates back to, um, 2003.

Nevertheless, this weekend’s astronomical double-header is not to be missed.

Get the full story on GeekWire.

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Feast your eyes on the total lunar eclipse

Lunar eclipse
A sequence of images shows the progression of the lunar eclipse, captured by photographer Mike Massee from Tehachapi, Calif. (Mike Massee Photo)

Cloudy weather blocked Seattle’s view of the “super blue blood moon” early today — but as a consolation, skywatchers from Vancouver to Siberia shared their images of the total lunar eclipse.

Total lunar eclipses arise when Earth’s shadow falls fully over the moon, and the long-wavelength light that’s refracted by our planet’s atmosphere turns the full moon’s disk a sunset-like shade of red.

The event received an extra burst of hype because it took place during a time when the moon is closer to Earth than usual (qualifying by some definitions as a “supermoon”), and because it was the second full moon in the course of a month (a so-called “blue moon”).

Putting all these features together results in the super-blue-blood label, which NASA readily adopted. “Sounds like an opportunity for vampires,” University of Washington astronomer Julie Lutz joked.

Whatever you call it, the lunar eclipse is totally worth a recap …

See the pictures on GeekWire.

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Your guide to the super blue blood moon eclipse

Lunar eclipse
A total lunar eclipse gives the full moon a reddish tinge in 2015. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

Geographically speaking, the Pacific Northwest is one of the best places in America to see tonight’s super-hyped total lunar eclipse. Meteorologically speaking? Not so much.

Seattleites might have to go as far east as Ellensburg to get a clear view of what’s touted as a “super blue blood moon.” And in reality, the moon won’t be bloody, or blue, or even all that super.

Before we go into full sour-grapes mode, let’s acknowledge that if there’s a chance of seeing the full moon fade to red between 4:51 a.m. and 6:07 a.m. PT Jan. 31, it’s definitely worth getting out of bed.

“Set your alarm early and go out and take a look,” NASA’s Gordon Johnson says in the space agency’s preview of the eclipse.

Get the full story on GeekWire.

 

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Year in Space: From a black sun to a brighter moon

Eclipse watchers
Eclipse watchers turned Aug. 21’s event into a party at Kerry Park in Seattle’s Queen Anne neighborhood. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

The first total solar eclipse to go across America from coast to coast in 99 years has to rank as the top space story of 2017. But where do you go from there?

Would you believe the moon?

The moon was a supporting player in this year’s brush with totality. After all, you can’t have a solar eclipse unless the new moon gets in the way. And it certainly held center stage for a phenomenon witnessed by an estimated 215 million. That’s abigger audience than the Super Bowl gets on TV.

But in 2018, the moon really gets its day in the sun, figuratively speaking. It starts next month with a New Year’s Day supermoon, followed by a total lunar eclipse on Jan. 31.

We lay out other reasons to moon over the moon in our annual roundup of the five top space stories from the year that’s ending, plus five trends to watch in the year ahead.

Get the full story on GeekWire.

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How staring at the eclipse led to a world of hurt

Retina burn
An optical coherence tomography image of a woman’s left-eye retina shows a crescent-shaped scar. (Wu et al.. / JAMA Ophthalmology)

A medical case reported today in the journal JAMA Ophthalmology proved the wisdom of all those warnings not to stare at the partly covered sun during August’s solar eclipse.

Unfortunately, it’s too late for the woman at the center of the case: Now she has a permanent scar in her left eye’s retina, and a permanent black spot in her field of vision.

Get the full story on GeekWire.

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Eclipse rates as America’s most watched event

Eclipse watchers
Eclipse watchers turned Aug. 21’s event into a party at Kerry Park in Seattle’s Queen Anne neighborhood. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

More than 215 million American adults, representing almost 88 percent of the U.S. population over 18, watched August’s solar eclipse in person and on screens, according to a newly published survey.

That’s nearly twice the size of the TV viewership for recent Super Bowl football championships.

“This level of public interest and engagement with a science-oriented event is unparalleled,” Jon Miller, director of the International Center for the Advancement of Scientific Literacy at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, said in a news release.

Miller’s preliminary study, conducted in cooperation with NASA, was based on online and phone surveys involving a nationwide, representative sample of 2,221 adults.

Get the full story on GeekWire.