Posts Tagged ‘NASA’

More like Earth than Ever: Kepler-452b

Posted by Zoe on 2nd August 2015 in Exogeology, Main Page

Are there any other Earths out there? Is there another planet like ours, maybe one where we could live? One goal in the search for exoplanets, planets orbiting stars other than our own sun, is to find Earth-like planets. NASA’s Kepler mission just found the closest match yet!

This planet is called Kepler-452b. It’s not exactly a catchy name, but it’s informative: the name tells us the planet was found by the Kepler mission, and gives a number to the star system and a letter to each object. This planet got the letter “b” because it’s the second object found in the system, after the star.

What does it mean to say Kepler-452b is the closest match found to Earth? It’s fairly close in size to Earth, its sun is a similar star to ours, and it’s in what we call the habitable zone.

Artist's concept of newly-discovered exoplanet Kepler-452b. Image Credits: NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle

Artist’s concept of newly-discovered exoplanet Kepler-452b. Image Credits: NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle

A planet in its star’s habitable zone? We’ve found a few, but that’s still pretty cool—or rather, just the right amount cool for liquid water to potentially exist on the planet. This is the definition of the habitable zone. Without liquid water, we wouldn’t find a planet habitable, and in order to have liquid water, a planet would need to be warm enough for water not to freeze and cold enough for water not to boil. The temperature on the surface of a planet depends largely on its distance from its sun. The closer they are, the warmer the planet is. However, being not too close to and not too far from its star doesn’t tell you everything about a planet. It could be large or small, and made of all sorts of different materials. It could be dense and rocky like Earth or Mercury, or it could be fluffy and gaseous like Jupiter or Neptune.

So, being in the habitable zone isn’t enough to make a planet habitable. It would be hard to live on a planet without a surface you could stand on, so if you’re looking for a new planet to inhabit, pick out a rockier one. The size of the planet would also make a difference. The smaller a planet is, or even a moon for that matter, the harder it is to hold on to an atmosphere. Less mass means less gravity, which means less pull on the gases which make up an atmosphere. Gas particles can fly away over time until there are hardly any left. More mass means more pull, so it’s harder for particles to escape. So, more massive planets are more likely to have a thick atmosphere.

What about Kepler-452b? Where does this recent discovery fit in? It’s 60% larger than Earth in diameter, which is actually pretty close in size. For comparison, Kepler-452b is about 1.6 times the diameter of Earth, and Earth is about 1.9 times the diameter of Mars. Kepler-452b is considered a super-Earth in size. That’s what we call planets near in size to Earth, but on the large side.

While we know all this about Kepler-452b, there is also a lot we don’t know. We don’t know exactly what it looks like. We don’t know how close it is to actually being habitable. We certainly don’t know its whole story—yet. As technology improves, telescopes get better, and we think up cleverer ways to learn more about far-off places, we keep finding out more and more about distant worlds like this one.

MAVEN Launch

Posted by Zoe on 18th November 2013 in Exogeology, Main Page

Today at 1:28 EST at Cape Canaveral, MAVEN successfully launched, and it’s now on its way to Mars.

MAVEN is a NASA mission to study the upper atmosphere of Mars. Its name stands for Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN. The “volatile” part refers to compounds like CO2 (carbon dioxide), N2 (nitrogen), and H2O (water). MAVEN plans to gather clues about how those were lost over time. Once the MAVEN spacecraft reaches Mars, it will orbit the planet and use many different sensors to learn more about its atmosphere, and how it interacts with the sun and solar wind.

Learn more about MAVEN on the NASA website and the University of Colorado website (check out the science page).

Geo Party! Pima Air and Space Museum Clue 5

Posted by Zoe on 18th October 2013 in Geo Party

Finally, the space part of the Pima Air and Space Museum.

Click here to watch game one and the rest of the current game.

One Year on Mars for Curiosity

Posted by Zoe on 5th August 2013 in Exogeology, Main Page, Petra's Blog

One year ago, the Curiosity rover landed on Mars.

Curiosity, also known as the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), descended to the surface of Mars at 10:32 p.m. PDT on August 5, 2012 using the science fiction-sounding “sky crane” to land precisely, and thankfully, successfully.

Since that day, Curiosity has had an exciting year. In no particular order, here are a few of the rover’s major events, efforts, and discoveries:

  • Landing safely, of course.
  • Sending home her first pictures. There’s nothing like seeing an alien vista for the first time. We had seen this area of Mars from above, but when Curiosity snapped her first few photos and sent them back to Earth, we were at ground level, close up. We saw Gale crater in a way we never had before.
  • Curiosity's first image taken from the surface of Mars. (Image credit: NASA)

  • Finding rounded rocks in a riverbed. Apart from all the alliteration, this discovery is notable because it pertains to water in Mars’ past. These rocks tumbled around as they were pushed downstream by the current. They knocked into each other and became smaller and smoother and more worn down the farther they went. This happens here on Earth, which you might have noticed, and it’s why river rocks and smooth and rounded.

Rounded river rocks on Mars (left) and Earth (right). Image credit NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS and PSI

  • An anomaly with one of her computers’ memory and a switch to the second computer.
  • Starting to use her fancy science tools. Curiosity really is a Mars Science Laboratory. She has several cameras for navigation and taking pictures of the scenery which give you an idea of what the various sights like rock outcroppings, sand, river rocks, and everything else look like. She has a drill for taking samples. She has a scoop for…taking samples. Those last two, along with some other instruments, are on Curiosity’s robotic arm. She has spectrometers to identify materials using the light spectrum. She has a laser. With all these awesome tools and more, it’s pretty exciting that Curiosity has been using these tools throughout the past year.

Holes from Curiosity's drill (large hole) and laser ChemCam (small holes) in a rock called Cumberland. Image credit NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

  • Trying to discover whether Mars has ever had a habitable environment. This one isn’t over, it’s ongoing. In fact, it’s one of Curiosity’s primary goals. An event relating to this goal is the time Curiosity found a rock sample that shows Mars may once have been habitable for microbes. There was also the time when she found evidence of water in a place called Yellowknife Bay.  Or course, I can’t wait to see what other evidence Curiosity might find.

But, Curiosity’s not done yet. The rover is on her way Mount Sharp. She’s finally driving, and even though it’s hard to leave behind the rocks nearer to the landing site, Mount Sharp promises to be even more intriguing. Why are we looking forward to investigating Mount Sharp? Well, it’s made up of layers. The layers in Mount Sharp might show us more about what Mars’ climate was like long ago and all the changes it has been through. How cool is that?

If you ask me, everything Curiosity has done in her first one year on Mars has been very cool.

-Petra Stone

Transit of Venus

Posted by Petra on 4th June 2012 in Main Page, Petra's Blog

Image credit: NASA

Tomorrow, you’ll have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to actually see a planet cross over a star. Venus transits our sun for the last time in over a century at 22:09 UTC, June 5th, so find a way to watch.

Why is this so special?

If you have any astronomer friends, they’ve probably been blabbering on for months about orbital periods this, first contact that. Why won’t we shut up? Because this is literally once in a lifetime, and it’s kinda cool.

Venus, the next planet inward, will cross directly over the visible disc of the sun. It will appear as a tiny black dot, about one arcminute, covering a minuscule fraction of the disk. This isn’t a lot, but it’s enough to see with the naked eye—not the recommended way to view it, of course.

Venus’ orbit is slightly skewed compared to Earth’s, so Earth, Venus, and the sun only line up this way every 121.5 or 105.5 years. After this much time, Venus gets in the way of the sun twice, each time eight years apart. The last transit was eight years ago. The next, after tomorrow’s, will be in the year 2117.

Transits of Venus were historically used to calculate solar parallax. This eventually led to the astronomical unit, the distance from here to the sun, giving us a way to measure the solar system. Today, scientists’ observations of the transit will help in studying exoplanets.

Do you have a way to live 105.5+ more years or own a time machine? If so, I take back what I said about this being once-in-a-lifetime. Maybe it’s not so special. Even still, what’s the harm in watching?

How can I watch?

If you have vision and plan to keep it, then just going outside and staring at the sun isn’t the method for you. Consider these options instead:

  • Try making a pinhole projector.
  • Use eclipse glasses. These can be bought online or possibly at your local science museum gift shop. Don’t count on the museum shop though—they might have sold out with all the solar viewing going on lately.
  • If you have a telescope, use a filter on the front end (not the eyepiece) to protect your eyes and your telescope. Having a bit of magnification will help turn Venus from a tiny speck to a slightly less tiny speck.
  • Do you or a friend weld? No? Huh. Well, for those who do, wear #14 welder’s goggles to safely view the transit.
  • Do you have access to a device such as a computer, phone, or tablet which can connect to the internet? If not, can you please explain to me why somebody printed my website? If you do have access, check out NASA’s webcast from Mauna Kea, Hawaii.

Have fun, view safely, and keep me in the loop about that time machine!

Curiosity Launches Today

Posted by Petra on 26th November 2011 in Main Page, Petra's Blog

Hello, Petra Stone here with news about the Mars Science Laboratory, better known as Curiosity or the MSL. Today, this new rover finally launches on its journey to Mars.

Image from NASA

It’s been over eight years now since the last Mars rover launch, Opportunity’s in 2003. Now, Curiosity will set off on a mission to determine if life could have ever arisen on Mars, characterize the climate of Mars, characterize the geology of Mars, and prepare for human exploration. Those are the four main goals, but this newest and largest rover has eight more specific scientific objectives. There’s a lot in store for the MSL!

JPL cleanroom where Curiosity was built. Image credit Zoe Bentley.

Curiosity’s equipment ROCKS! It’s taking a drill, several cameras for steering and gathering data, a robotic arm, and even a tool called SAM with a laser in it which vaporizes rocks. No, I’m not kidding. The MSL is also powered by plutonium. This means dust buildups won’t keep Curiosity from getting the energy to explore. Even the way it lands is pretty cool. I can’t wait until Curiosity reaches Gale Crater in August next year.

Curiosity is scheduled to launch today at 10:02 EST from Cape Canaveral on board an Atlas V rocket. I can’t wait for this ROCKIN’ rover to get on its way!

Check out these webpages to learn more about Curiosity:
The Mars Science Laboratory’s website
NASA’s MSL Mission Page
Watch Curiosity Launch Live!

Watch the Complete First Round of Zoe’s Geo Party!

Posted by Zoe on 23rd October 2011 in Main Page

Round 1 of Zoe’s Geo Party! is complete! That means we’re halfway through the first game. Now you can watch the entire first round, which has thirty clues split into these six categories:

The Sonoran Desert:

Clue 1, Clue 2, Clue 3, Clue 4, Clue 5.

Riding the Rails Across the USA on Amtrak’s Southwest Chief Line:

Clue 1, Clue 2, Clue 3, Clue 4, Clue 5.

NASA’s Plum Brook Station in Sandusky, Ohio:

Clue 1, Clue 2, Clue 3, Clue 4, Clue 5.

The Girl Scouts of the America:

Clue 1, Clue 2, Clue 3, Clue 4, Clue 5.

The Franconia Sculpture Park:

Clue 1, Clue 2, Clue 3, Clue 4, Clue 5.

Burlington, Iowa:

Clue 1, Clue 2, Clue 3, Clue 4, Clue 5.

Which category was your favorite? Which clues did you know the response to? Which clues were your favorites? I’d love to hear your thoughts, so send feedback and keep responding to clues on my Exogeology ROCKS! Facebook page. Tomorrow marks the beginning of the second round, so keep coming back for more of Zoe’s Geo Party!

Zoe’s Geo Party! Game 1 Round 1 Category 3 Clue 5

Posted by Zoe on 30th September 2011 in Geo Party, Main Page

Exogeology ROCKS! presents the fifteenth clue of Zoe’s Geo Party! , a 61 clue long trivia game. Look for a new video clue every weekday! This is the fifth clue of the third category. Last week you saw me traveling across the USA on Amtrak’s Southwest Chief line. One of my many goals is to visit all 50 US states before I turn eighteen. What are some of your goals? Please post your response on my Exogeology ROCKS! Facebook page along with your response to the clue. This is the last clue in the Plum Brook Station category, but you can always go back and watch previous episodes here. Remember to phrase your response to each clue in the form of a question!

Zoe’s Geo Party! Game 1 Round 1 Category 3 Clue 4

Posted by Zoe on 29th September 2011 in Geo Party, Main Page

Exogeology ROCKS! presents the fourteenth clue of Zoe’s Geo Party! , a 61 clue long trivia game. Look for a new video clue every weekday! This is the fourth clue of the third category. Last week you saw me traveling across the USA on Amtrak’s Southwest Chief line. One of my many goals is to visit all 50 US states before I turn eighteen. What are some of your goals? Please post your response on my Exogeology ROCKS! Facebook page along with your response to the clue. Remember to phrase your response to each clue in the form of a question!

Zoe’s Geo Party! Game 1 Round 1 Category 3 Clue 3

Posted by Zoe on 28th September 2011 in Geo Party, Main Page

Exogeology ROCKS! presents the thirteenth clue of Zoe’s Geo Party! , a 61 clue long trivia game. Look for a new video clue every weekday! This is the third clue of the third category. Last week you saw me traveling across the USA on Amtrak’s Southwest Chief line. One of my many goals is to visit all 50 US states before I turn eighteen. What are some of your goals? Please post your response on my Exogeology ROCKS! Facebook page along with your response to the clue. Remember to phrase your response to each clue in the form of a question!

Zoe’s Geo Party! Game 1 Round 1 Category 3 Clue 2

Posted by Zoe on 27th September 2011 in Geo Party, Main Page

Exogeology ROCKS! presents the twelfth clue of Zoe’s Geo Party! , a 61 clue long trivia game. Look for a new video clue every weekday! This is the second clue of the third category. Last week you saw me traveling across the USA on Amtrak’s Southwest Chief line. One of my many goals is to visit all 50 US states before I turn eighteen. What are some of your goals? Please post your response on my Exogeology ROCKS! Facebook page along with your response to the clue. Remember to phrase your response to each clue in the form of a question!

Zoe’s Geo Party! Game 1 Round 1 Category 3 Clue 1

Posted by Zoe on 26th September 2011 in Geo Party, Main Page

Exogeology ROCKS! presents the eleventh clue of Zoe’s Geo Party! , a 61 clue long trivia game. Look for a new video clue every weekday! This is the first clue of the third category. Last week you saw me traveling across the USA on Amtrak’s Southwest Chief line. One of my many goals is to visit all 50 US states before I turn eighteen. What are some of your goals? Please post your response on my Exogeology ROCKS! Facebook page along with your response to the clue. Remember to phrase your response to each clue in the form of a question!

MESSENGER Orbits Mercury

Posted by Petra on 18th March 2011 in Exogeology, Petra's Blog

MESSENGER was inserted into orbit around Mercury yesterday, March 17th. Launched on August 13th, 2004, MESSENGER has been in interplanetary flight for over six and a half years! I bet that after this long waiting, the MESSENGER team is thrilled to finally be in orbit. As for me, I think visiting Mercury ROCKS!

MESSENGER is a NASA Mercury orbiter. It’s name is an acronym for MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging. One of its goals is to learn about the topography of Mercury’s surface, and another is to find out the composition of its atmosphere.

On its way to Mercury, MESSENGER has had one Earth flyby, two Venus flybys, and three Mercury flybys. In one of these Mercury flybys, volcanism on the surface and water in the exosphere were discovered. Also on the way to Mercury, MESSENGER took this ROCKIN’ “family portrait” of our Solar System:

There’s a lot about Mercury we’ve found because of MESSENGER. For example, could you imagine seeing a whole side of a planet which you’ve never seen before? MESSENGER gave us just that in this picture:

The instruments on board will be turned on and checked on the 23rd of March, and on the 4th of April the mission’s primary science phase begins. I look forward to seeing what new discoveries are made about our amazing innermost planet!

Exogeology ROCKS!

-Petra Stone

Life As We Don’t Know It

Posted by Petra on 3rd December 2010 in Exogeology, Petra's Blog

What if someone found a creature that wasn’t like any other, a creature which wasn’t made of the same chemicals as anything else on Earth? Wouldn’t it ROCK to find something so different? That’s exactly what geomicrobiologist Felisa Wolfe-Simon discovered in California’s Mono Lake.

Extremophiles are organisms which can survive in extreme environments, such as intense heat or lack of light. An extremophile bacteria was found recently in California’s salty, alkaline Mono Lake. This extremophile, known as GFAJ-1, can survive high amounts of normally poisonous arsenic.

By weight, the human body contains 65% oxygen, 18.5% carbon, 9.5% hydrogen, 3.3% nitrogen, 1% phosphorus, 0.3% sulfur, and small amounts of several other elements. Even though there is so much oxygen in the human body, most of that is in the form of water, so we say that humans are carbon based. Most life on Earth has a similar composition. While GFAJ-1 is tolerant of arsenic, it’s not exactly an arsenic based life form. However, it does replace one of the basic ingredients for life. This unusual microbe is not only tolerant of arsenic, but is able to incorporate it into its cells.

Yesterday, NASA held a press conference explaining this surprising extremophile. Among the presenters was astrobiologist Pan Conrad, interviewee in Exogeology ROCKS! Episode 3.

Science fiction and real science have often considered replacing important elements with chemically similar ones, but until now, there haven’t been any real life examples. When given no phosphorus and a lot of arsenic, GFAJ-1 replaces the phosphorus in its body with arsenic and continues to grow. None of the bacteria have yet entirely gotten rid of the phosphorus originally in them, but I personally think that replacing most of it is exciting enough.

This discovery changes what we know about life. There are so many possible places a life form can survive on Earth alone. Maybe life on other worlds is more common than previously thought. I sure hope so.

Exogeology ROCKS! Episode 3

Posted by Zoe on 20th September 2010 in Main Page

Exogeology ROCKS! Episode 3 is now complete. Woo hoo! That’s three episodes of my Exogeology ROCKS! series done. Episode 3 features an interview with Pan Conrad, a NASA astrobiologist at JPL.

You can watch Exogeology ROCKS! Episode 3 on YouTube. It’s in two parts, so make sure to watch both part one and part two. Episode 3 will soon be up on Exogeology ROCKS! in the Meet Real Exogeologists section.

If you haven’t seen the first two yet, you can watch them here on my website, as well as a bonus track for Episode 1.

New NASA Blog Post (Trip to JPL)

Posted by Zoe on 8th September 2010 in Main Page

Yay! My second article is on the NASA website! You can read it here on the JPL website and here on the NASA website. In the article I wrote about my great experience visiting  NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

I recently posted on Exogeology ROCKS! about my first article for NASA, How I Became Interested in Exogeology.

Blogging for NASA really ROCKS!

Blogging for NASA!

Posted by Zoe on 22nd August 2010 in Main Page

During my visit to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in June, I was asked to write two articles to put on the JPL website: one about how I got interested in exogeology, another about my visit to JPL. This article was also posted on the main NASA website in the “For Students” section. It ROCKED to see something I wrote on the NASA website!

You can read about how I became interested in exogeology here on the JPL website and here on the NASA website.

My second article will be up soon.