There is only one planet we know of, so far, that is drenched with life. That planet is Earth, as you may have guessed, and it has all the right conditions for critters to thrive on its surface. Do other planets beyond our solar system, called exoplanets, also host life forms?
Astronomers still don’t know the answer, but they search for potentially habitable planets using a handful of criteria. Ideally, they want to find planets just like Earth, since we know without a doubt that life took root here. The hunt is on for planets about the size of Earth that orbit at just the right distance from their star – in a region termed the habitable zone.
NASA’s Kepler mission is helping scientists in the quest to find these worlds, sometimes called Goldilocks planets after the fairy tale because they orbit where conditions are “just right” for life. Kepler and other telescopes have confirmed a handful so far, all of which are a bit larger than Earth — the Super Earths. The search for Earth’s twin, a habitable-zone planet as small as Earth, is ongoing.
To read more about the search for life in the universe, visit https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/kepler/news/kepler20130717.html#.UebhlIXTovQ .
If you think your students would be interested in searching for habitable planets, check out the NASA Explorer Schools featured lesson, Algeraic Equations: Transit Tracks—Finding Habitable Planets. Students use algebra and Kepler’s 3rd Law to find habitable planets in other solar systems. To access this activity, visit the NES Virtual Campus.
On July 19, 2013, one of the most exciting events of the Cassini mission this year will be when the satellite takes images of the whole Saturn system while it is backlit by the sun. With Saturn covering the harsh light of the sun, mission scientists will be able to gather unique ring science.
Cassini is also going to take images of Earth from the satellite’s location in space, some 1.44 billion kilometers (898 million miles) away. Opportunities to image Earth from the outer solar system are few and far between, and special care must be taken so the satellite’s cameras are not “blinded” by looking in the direction of the sun, where Earth is. There have been only two images of Earth made from the outer solar system in all the time humankind has been exploring space. The first and most distant image was taken 23 years ago by NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft from 6 billion kilometers (4 billion miles) away, showing Earth as a pale blue dot. The other image was captured by Cassini in 2006 from a distance of 1.49 billion kilometers (926 million miles).
Cassini’s July image is a special opportunity for Earthlings to wave at the “photographer” in the Saturn system. Mission personnel are asking you, or your group, to go outside July 19 and have a photograph taken of you or your group waving, while looking in the general direction of Saturn. You can share your pictures by joining the Flickr group wave at Saturn, adding them to the Wave at Saturn Facebook event page, or tagging pictures on Twitter #waveatsaturn. The mission hopes to make a special collage of all of the images if they receive enough of them.
The Cassini portrait session of Earth will last about 15 minutes from 2:27 to 2:42 p.m. PDT. For more information about Waving at Saturn, visit http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov/news/waveatsaturn/.
It has long been assumed that our solar system, like a comet, has a tail. Just as any object moving through another medium – for example, a meteor traveling through Earth’s atmosphere – causes the particles to form a stream trailing off behind it. But the tail of our solar bubble, called the heliosphere, has never actually been observed, until now.
NASA’s Interstellar Boundary Explorer, or IBEX, has mapped the boundaries of the tail of the heliosphere, something that has never before been possible. Scientists describe this tail, called the heliotail, in detail in a paper published on July 10, 2013, in The Astrophysical Journal. By combining observations from the first three years of IBEX imagery, the team mapped out a tail that shows a combination of fast and slow moving particles. There are two lobes of slower particles on the sides, faster particles above and below, with the entire structure twisted, as it experiences the pushing and pulling of magnetic fields outside the solar system.
To see images and read more about this development, visit https://www.nasa.gov/content/nasa-s-ibex-provides-first-view-of-the-solar-system-s-tail/index.html#.Ud74gIVTcvQ.
This discovery is a great extension to NASA Now: Space Science: Voyager’s Grand Tour of the Solar System. To access this video, visit the NASA Explorer Schools Virtual Campus NASA Explorer Schools Virtual Campus website.
NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover, Opportunity, has traveled more than half of the distance needed to get from a site where it spent 22 months to its next destination.
The rover has less than 800 meters to go to finish a 2 kilometer dash from the rim of one crater segment, where it has worked since mid-2011, to another, where mission controllers intend to keep Opportunity busy during the upcoming Martian winter.
Opportunity departed the southern tip of the Cape York segment 6 weeks ago and headed south for Solander Point. Both are raised portions of the western rim of 22 kilometer-wide Endeavour Crater, offering access to older geological deposits than the rover visited during its first seven years on Mars.
This story is a great extension to the NES NASA Now Mars Month episodes housed on the NASA Explorer Schools Virtual Campus website.
To read more about Opportunity and why it’s heading to Solander Point, visit https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/mer/news/mer20130702.html#.UdReYoV8mds.
NASA’s Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph, or IRIS, solar observatory separated from its Pegasus rocket and is in the proper orbit. This followed a successful launch by the Orbital Sciences Pegasus XL rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. It was the final Pegasus launch currently manifested by NASA. NASA’s Launch Services Program at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida managed the countdown and launch.
To read more about IRIS, visit https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/iris/index.html
This article is a great extension to the NASA Explorer Schools featured lesson, Geometry: Space Math Problems—Solar Storms. Access this lesson on the NES Virtual Campus.