A suspected meteor flash wowed observers in Argentina early Sunday — and sparked memories of February's more serious blast over Russia.
The fireball lit up the night in north and central Argentina at about 3:30 a.m. local time, according to accounts from Argentine news outlets. "The sky lit up completely for a couple of seconds and interrupted the calm in this area of Argentina," BarrioOeste.com reported. Witnesses in Catamarca, Tucuman and Santiago del Estero reported sightings.
Twitter users were buzzing over the fireball: A widely shared amateur video showed the green streak and flash in the background of a concert setting. Britain's ITV network reported that the footage was captured in Salta as the folk music band Los Tekis performed at an outdoor venue.
Jorge Coghlan, director of the Astronomical Observatory of Santa Fe, told La Gaceta in Tucuman that the object could have been a space rock about 20 centimeters (8 inches) in diameter that entered the atmosphere at high speed. "This object disintegrated at an altitude high enough to be seen for hundreds of miles," Coghlan said.
Other experts estimated the diameter at 40 to 45 centimeters (15 to 18 inches).
In comparison, the asteroid that came apart over Russia on Feb. 15 was thought to be 17 meters (55 feet) in diameter. That meteor blast created a shock wave that blew out windows and injured more than 1,000 people. No injuries were reported in the wake of the Argentine fireball.
A suspected meteorite in Argentina was caught on camera early Sunday morning, as seen in this video.
That's right: These astronauts won't be coming back. The idea is to jump-start a permanent settlement on Mars, with more supplies and settlers arriving every couple of years.
The organizers say the $6 billion cost for the first landing would be covered through reality-TV deals and merchandising, but they skirted pointed questions about the plan's financial feasibility.
Mars One co-founder Bas Lansdorp compared the non-profit venture to the London Olympics, which reportedly brought in $3.8 billion in revenue for last summer's 17-day spectacle. "If you can make $1 billion per week just by having a large audience in the entire world, then suddenly $6 billion doesn't sound like so much anymore," he said.
He declined to provide a detailed breakdown of the costs during Monday's news conference in New York, largely because he didn't want to give away any competitive information about the talks being conducted with potential suppliers. "It would be very stupid for us to give the prices that have been quoted per component," he told reporters.
He acknowledged that the mission's financial aspects posed the greatest challenge. However, he said the drama surrounding Mars One's plan to send four-person crews to Mars, with no promise of return, was "exactly the greatness that makes it possible to finance this."
"It's easier to finance a mission to Mars than to finance a mission to the moon," he said.
Thousands register interest There has certainly been lots of enthusiasm for the mission: Lansdorp said Mars One has received more than 10,000 emails from more than 100 countries around the world, voicing willingness to sign up for a one-way ticket to the Red Planet. Starting Monday, anyone 18 or older can formally apply — provided that they pay an application fee. Lansdorp said the fee ranges from $5 to $75, depending on the standard of living for the country of residence. U.S. residents, for example, will be charged $38.
Mars One's recruitment video refers to past glories of the space effort.
Each applicant will have to submit a one-minute video explaining why he or she should be among the first humans on Mars. Applicants will be screened for physical and mental fitness, and will have to speak English. They should also be "mature and interesting," Mars One says. But chief medical director Norbert Kraft said there are no formal academic or professional prerequisites. "We will give the training," he said.
Mars One's business plan calls for the latter stages of the selection process to be broadcast on TV and the Internet. Twenty-four to 40 finalists would be chosen to go through years of training. At the end of the process, Mars One expects at least six crews to be ready for flight. Each crew would consist of two women and two men. Having six crews available would ensure against the possibility that someone gets sick — or gets "cold feet" — when it's time to fly to Mars, Kraft said.
The venture's time line calls for the first in a series of preparatory robotic missions to lift off in 2016. An exploratory rover would be sent to Mars in 2018, and another rover would head out in 2020 to get the chosen target site ready for human habitation. Eight robotic missions would be sent before the human crew sets out in 2022 on a seven-month cruise, Lansdorp said. The landing is currently scheduled for April 2023, "exactly 10 years from today," he said.
Organizers say the $6 billion raised through broadcast and marketing rights would cover costs through the first landing in 2023. Billions more would be required to keep the colony going and growing beyond that.
Lansdorp said the project would be presented to international broadcasters at the Mipcom conference in Cannes, France, this October. He acknowledged that the time line might be delayed due to technical difficulties. "This will not be easy," he said. "There is lots of engineering and testing to be done before the first humans land." But he said the Mars One group is already in discussions with spaceflight companies including SpaceX and Paragon Space Development Corp. about the launch plans.
Grant Anderson, Paragon's senior vice president of operations, said his company was working on a concept design study that would be delivered to Mars One this summer. "The Mars One program is doing this right," Anderson said.
Reality check Veteran rocket engineer Robert Zubrin, who is president of the non-profit Mars Society, agrees that Mars One's plan is technically feasible — but adds that it's incredibly challenging. "They have set a very high bar for themselves, and I'm not sure they have the resources," he told NBC News.
Former NASA mission planner Scott Hubbard, who is now a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at Stanford University, said landing on Mars safely ranked among the biggest challenges. "Anyone familiar with the 'seven minutes of terror' knows that getting anything substantial [to the Martian surface] is not a trivial issue," Hubbard said. Other challenges include weathering the radiation exposure and health effects of long-term weightlessness on the way to Mars; and truly being able to have astronauts live off the land once they get to Mars, with no possibility of heading back to Earth.
"It's certainly a bold concept, something that I don't know a government would ever contemplate," Hubbard said. He said the project could end up costing much more than the currently projected $6 billion.
The one-way nature of the Mars One trips didn't bother Zubrin: "There's nothing fantastical about that," he said. "We're all on a one-way trip to somewhere."
"If Inspiration Mars can do that, they will have significant credibility to raise large amounts of money to take humans to the Martian surface," Zubrin said.
When it comes to reality TV, money and the willingness to take on risks are the keys to success, said Hollywood producer David Krieff. He should know: Ten years ago, Krieff helped put pop singer Lance Bass through Russian cosmonaut training for a reality-TV project that would have sent him to the International Space Station. The project fizzled out when TV executives, potential sponsors and insurers got cold feet.
Krieff had some words of advice for Mars One's organizers: "I wish them luck, but I would say have the money in the bank — and most of all, have all the liabilities taken care of," he said. "The risks and the insurance and the money is a lot of work. These things are always more expensive than you expect."
The tale surrounding the discovery of King Richard III's skeleton beneath an English parking lot is about much more than a pile of 528-year-old bones — all you have to do is look at the face of Philippa Langley as she breaks down during an archaeological autopsy.
"I don't see bones on that table," she says, during an emotional scene in a new documentary about the king's remains. "I see the man."
Langley, a 50-year-old Scottish screenwriter, plays almost as big a role as the much-maligned monarch in "The King's Skeleton: Richard III Revealed." The show airs Sunday night on the Smithsonian Channel in the U.S., after racking up royal ratings on British TV. It was Langley who enlisted the Richard III Society to help jump-start the excavation, and she serves as the on-screen witness for many of the key twists in the excavation.
Medieval CSI Based on an analysis of the historical records, archaeologists from the University of Leicester obtained a license from the British government to dig into that parking lot next to Leicester Cathedral last year. "The King's Skeleton" traces each step in the CSI-style investigation, leading to February's conclusion that the bones were indeed the mortal remains of the last Plantagenet king.
Richard III reigned for only two years, but his death in the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485 was a key moment. In fact, many historians consider his fall to mark the end of the Middle Ages in England. A century later, William Shakespeare's play immortalized him as one of literature's greatest villains.
One of the themes of "The King's Skeleton" centers on how Richard III may have gained a blacker reputation than he deserved. The way Richard III's fans see it, the successors to the throne from the House of Tudor had an interest in making their Plantagenet forebears look bad — to the point of portraying Richard III as a misshapen hunchback. "This is propaganda," historian Pamela Tudor-Craig says during the documentary.
So the truth comes as a shock to Langley.
"What we're actually seeing here is that this skeleton in fact has a hunchback," Jo Appleby, a bone expert at the University of Leicester, tells her in one scene.
"No!" Langley answers.
The bones of Richard III, who reigned for two years, have been discovered in Leicester, England, and they indicate that his spine was twisted by scoliosis. NBC's Stephanie Gosk reports.
The identification of Richard III's remains drew upon carbon dating and detailed studies of the skeleton, including evidence of wounds that matched up with historical accounts of the king's demise. But the weightiest evidence comes from analysis of DNA extracted from the skeleton: The chemical signature of the mitochondrial DNA matched up with two maternal-line descendants of Richard III's eldest sister, Anne of York.
Stay tuned Does this mean the case of Richard III is closed? Not yet. Mitochondrial DNA is not as precise an indicator as, say, a paternity test. "The DNA evidence is simply a single strand within the entire analysis procedure," Turi King, the University of Leicester geneticist who conducted the analysis, told NBC News on Friday. "You certainly wouldn't convict somebody on [the basis of this] DNA evidence."
However, King noted that the mitochondrial DNA signature for this particular skeleton is shared by only a few percent of Europeans. "It's quite a rare type, so that adds to the weight of the evidence," she said.
The next step will be to analyze the skeleton's Y-chromosome DNA, which is passed down from father to son. The Y-chromosome signature is far more precise than mitochondrial DNA, which all children get from their mother. Four paternal-line descendants of Richard III's family have already been identified and tested, and King is now waiting to do the much more complicated reconstruction of the skeleton's Y-chromosome DNA signature.
Working on the royal remains has been a "dream project," King said, but not without its drawbacks: "It's been very stressful. You're trying to work quite quietly and calmly. The pressure to make sure everything has been done properly has been intense. ... I feel like I'm still in the middle of it."
The license to work with the skeleton runs out next year, and King will have to finish up her DNA studies by then.
Meanwhile, a potential legal battle is looming over whether the remains will be reburied in Leicester Cathedral, as planned, or in York instead. Thankfully, that's one drama King and the other scientists involved in the Richard III mystery won't have to deal with.
A fledgling commercial venture called Uwingu stirred up an international controversy when it started soliciting friendlier names for planets beyond our solar system. The International Astronomical Union issued a statement saying that Uwingu's pay-to-play scheme has "no bearing on the official naming process," and that the IAU is the "single arbiter" on the names for all celestial objects.
But is it?
How about Tatooine? Or UGA-1785? Those are the casual nicknames sanctioned by NASA for a planet known officially as Kepler-16b, and a planetary system called Kepler-37 (although "UGA-1785" doesn't sound like much of an improvement over Kepler-37). It certainly looks as if nicknaming exoplanets is becoming a new frontier on the final frontier, regardless of what the IAU says.
The IAU may get into the act as well: The international organization says it will discuss the idea of having popular names for exoplanets this year. Meanwhile, Uwingu is sticking to its guns. "I think that it's really presumptuous of the IAU to think that they own the sky," one of the venture's founders, planetary scientist Alan Stern, told NBC News.
Paying to take part One of the extra twists to the controversy is that Uwingu is using its exoplanet-naming contest as a fundraising tool. It costs $4.99 to put a name on the unofficial ballot, and each vote for a planetary name costs 99 cents. Uwingu plans to give half of the proceeds from its contests to space science and educational projects.
The fact that people are paying to stuff an exoplanetary ballot box particularly rankled the IAU, which compared the scheme to the International Star Registry and the Lunar Embassy. This week's statement said the IAU "dissociates itself entirely from the commercial practice of selling names of planets, stars or or even 'real estate' on other planets or moons. These practices will not be recognized by the IAU and their alternative naming schemes cannot be adopted."
That statement, in turn, rankled Uwingu's board of advisers, including University of Geneva astronomer Xavier Dumusque, who led the Alpha Centauri Bb discovery team.
"It is unfair to characterize this citizen participation in astronomical nomenclature as being anything like those organizations that purport to sell astronomical objects to the public," the advisers said in a statement emailed to NBC News. "Uwingu's mission is scientific and educational and directly benefits the space science community. It provides a means by which ordinary citizens can feel connected to and help support the discoveries of exoplanets that continue to excite and astonish the human imagination."
Planetary precedent NASA is already doing that: Tatooine, for example, refers to a planet detected by NASA's Kepler telescope that orbits a binary star system — just like the fictional planet of the same name in the "Star Wars" saga.
UGA-1785 is of more recent vintage, paying tribute to the University of Georgia. "Knowing my UGA history, I knew that the light from this star began its journey toward the Kepler telescope in 1801, the same year that the Franklin College was founded and that classes began at UGA," Franklin College Dean Alan Hunter said in a news release announcing NASA's blessing for the name.
Closer to home, NASA uses the name "Mount Sharp" for the Martian mountain that's due to be the ultimate destination for the Curiosity rover, even though the IAU has named the peak "Aeolis Mons." The Sharp name pays tribute to the late Robert P. Sharp, a geologist who studied formations on Earth as well as on Mars.
Is there any harm in having Mount Sharp as well as Aeolis Mons? Or Rakhat as well as Alpha Centauri Bb? It might get confusing if there were lots and lots of names for the same exoplanet, but it's not a problem to have a friendly name as well as a scientific name for the same object. After all, if it walks like a duck, and talks like a duck, it can also be an Anas platyrhynchos. And nobody get upset over having multiple names for the Whirlpool Galaxy, a.k.a. Messier 51a, a.k.a. NGC 5194.
But what do you think? Cast a vote in our survey (no charge!), and leave your comments below.
Thermal-imaging devices have been used to seek out pot-growing operations, map Martian geology — and now, to watch the second suspect in this week's Boston Marathon bombings as he was holed up in his last hiding place.
Authorities said a helicopter equipped with a thermal imager spotted the heat signature of a person inside a tarp-covered boat, sitting in a backyard in Watertown, Mass. Police used the sensor after an area resident reported seeing a trail of blood leading to the boat — and catching a glimpse of a blood-covered body inside. The thermal readings confirmed that there was indeed someone under the tarp, and that the person was still alive.
"Our helicopter had actually detected the subject in the boat," Col. Timothy Alben of the Massachusetts State Police told reporters. "We have what's called a FLIR — a forward-looking infrared device — on that helicopter. It picked up the heat signature of the individual, even though he was underneath what appeared to be the 'shrink wrap' or cover on the boat itself. There was movement from that point on. The helicopter was able to direct the tactical teams over to that area."
There was an exchange of gunfire when a SWAT team approached the boat, so police had to back off. The helicopter continued to track the body's movements inside the boat. Eventually, the tactical team moved in and took the wounded bombing suspect, 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, into custody.
How thermal imaging works Thermal imagers can spot the signature of a heat source inside a house, a vehicle, or in this case, a vessel. Walls may stop visible-light wavelengths, but the heat can still pass through. Variations in heat emissions can be picked up by camera chips designed to be sensitive to the infrared part of the spectrum. The signature would be particularly noticeable when there's a significant difference between the background temperature and the temperature of the heat source.
Police have long used such devices to find out whether marijuana was being grown inside a house using heat lamps. In 2001, the Supreme Court ruled that the use of thermal scans to monitor heat sources inside a person's home should be considered a "search" under the Fourth Amendment, and thus would require a warrant. The court said such scans could reveal private details about the homeowner, including the time of night when "the lady of the house takes her daily sauna and bath."
Massachusetts state police officer Timothy Alben discusses the tactics that were used to apprehend Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
Thermal imagers have been taken to other worlds — for instance, aboard NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter, which analyzes variations in the composition of the Red Planet's surface using the Thermal Emission Imaging System, or THEMIS.
Immigration authorities have used thermal scanners to look for the signs of fever among arriving passengers, and researchers have been experimenting with them as a lie-detector technique.
In most cases, thermal imagers can detect only the heat signature emanating from a wall or a vehicle. For example, you could tell whether there were heat lamps (or a lady taking a bath) in a particular room by noticing the high level of heat emitted by the room's walls. But you generally wouldn't see the outline of the heat lamps themselves (or the lady, for that matter). In the Cleveland serial-killer case, thermal imaging was used to look for the signs of freshly turned soil rather than for the cold, dead bodies themselves.
Bigelow Aerospace and NASA say they've agreed to look at ways for private ventures to contribute to human exploration missions, perhaps including construction of a moon base. But the space agency emphasized that it's keeping its own focus squarely on corraling an asteroid and then going to Mars.
"As part of our broader commercial space strategy, NASA signed a Space Act Agreement with Bigelow Aerospace to foster ideas about how the private sector can contribute to future human missions," David Weaver, the space agency's associate administrator for communications, said in a statement emailed to NBC News.
"This will provide important information on possible ways to expand our exploration capabilities in partnership with the private sector," Weaver said. "The agency is intensely focused on a bold mission to identify, relocate and explore an asteroid with American astronauts by 2025 — all as we prepare for an even more ambitious human mission to Mars in the 2030s. NASA has no plans for a human mission to the moon."
Eyes on the moon The moon, however, ranks high among the targets that Bigelow Aerospace has in mind. The Nevada-based company has been working on moonbase concepts for years. During a recent interview on the "Coast to Coast AM" radio show, billionaire founder Robert Bigelow said the potential objectives for private-sector space efforts include a lunar base as well as space stations or refueling depots placed at gravitational balance points in the Earth-moon system.
"We're making no bones about it, that's what we're out to try to accomplish," Bigelow said.
Mike Gold, a Washington-based spokesman for Bigelow Aerospace, explained that his company wanted to help "commercial space achieve escape velocity from LEO," or low Earth orbit.
Gold said the NASA-Bigelow agreement would build on the work done by SpaceX, Orbital Sciences Corp. and other companies to build new spaceships for trips to the International Space Station. "What this is doing is projecting that forward, and exploring what commercial companies can do both to lower the cost of beyond-LEO operations, and to create enhanced capabilities," he said.
The agreement with NASA calls upon Bigelow Aerospace to lay out the potential contributions to exploration beyond Earth orbit. "First, we'll be identifying what the companies and technologies are that could contribute, and then we'll be examining what some of those specific mission scenarios might be," Gold said. During the "Coast to Coast AM" interview, Robert Bigelow said the first phase of the study would take 100 days, and the second phase would take 120 days.
No money is changing hands under the agreement, which Gold said was signed in late March. The recommendations coming from the study could include potential opportunities for NASA to buy or lease facilities from private space ventures.
Earlier this month, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said that the space agency would not "take the lead on a human lunar mission." However, Bolden did not rule out the possibility that NASA might play a role in missions led by other countries or private ventures.
Future space stations Bigelow Aerospace made its mark in low Earth orbit in 2006 and 2007 when it sent two inflatable space modules into orbit aboard Russian launch vehicles. Those space station prototypes, Genesis 1 and Genesis 2, are still in orbit. In January, Bigelow Aerospace and NASA struck a deal to deliver a larger inflatable module, known as the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module or BEAM, to the International Space Station in 2015 on a SpaceX resupply flight.
Eventually, Bigelow plans to put a separate commercial space station in orbit, assembled from two even larger inflatable modules. Each of these BA330 modules would have a habitable volume of 330 cubic meters, and putting two of them together would create an "Alpha Station" for a maximum crew of 12. Gold said that the company was continuing to discuss the concept with international space agencies and corporations, but he emphasized that the venture depended on having regular commercial flights to orbit.
A key development would be the production of commercial spaceships capable of transporting astronauts to and from the International Space Station, Gold said. NASA has said such spaceships should be flying by 2017.
"The BA330 will be ready prior to commercial crew, so that’s roughly the timeframe were looking at," Gold said, "and we're ready to take on customers now."
The iconic nebula in the constellation Orion, about 1,500 light-years away, can be seen even through small telescopes. In visible light, it's a dark dust cloud in the shape of a horse's head, silhouetted against a backdrop of glowing hydrogen gas. But the Horsehead takes on a completely different look in the new view released Friday.
"This image was taken in the infrared," Joe Liske, an astronomer from the European Southern Observatory, explains in a video introducing the picture. "In infrared light, we can pierce right through some of the bulky plumes of dusty material which usually mask and obscure the inner regions of the Horsehead. The result is this rather fragile-looking structure, made of delicate, wispy folds of gas — very different to the nebula's appearance in the visible."
The infrared glow, captured by Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3, lights up the nebula's clouds from within. Liske says it's "a fitting celebration of an incredible 23 years of the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope."
The Hubble team traditionally releases an eye-popping shot to celebrate the anniversary of the space telescope's launch on April 24, 1990. As part of this year's celebration, the Hubble Heritage Project asked astronomers around the world to send in their own Horsehead Nebula photos, and you can see the collection via Flickr and Tumblr.
Like a veteran racehorse, Hubble is hitting its stride — but that hasn't always been the case. The first couple of years of operation were hampered by a flaw in the telescope's main mirror. Equipment to compensate for the problem was installed during a crucial series of spacewalks 20 years ago, in 1993. The shuttle Atlantis paid a final servicing visit to Hubble in 2009, and the telescope has been working just fine since then.
Hubble operations have been extended through 2016 — and if the telescope remains in good working order, it's likely to continue being funded at least until 2018, when the $8.8 billion James Webb Space Telescope is scheduled for launch. Eventually, Hubble will have to be sent down to a fiery doom. But who knows? Maybe the old telescope will hang around to experience life after 30.
Astronomer Joe Liske of the European Southern Observatory guides you through a new view of the Horsehead Nebula in a "Hubblecast" video from the European Space Agency's Hubble team.
Orbital Sciences Corp. is postponing the maiden launch of its two-stage Antares rocket until Saturday at the earliest, due to an unfavorable weather forecast for Friday.
The Antares rocket was originally due to blast off Thursday from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Wallops Island, Va., and go on an orbital test flight in preparation for cargo trips to the International Space Station. That first launch attempt was aborted with 12 minutes to go in the countdown, because an umbilical data cable was unplugged prematurely from the rocket's upper stage.
Orbital determined that the cable was pulled out because of a "slight hydraulic movement" of a launch pad structure. The company also said there wasn't enough slack in the cable. "Neither issue alone would have caused the umbilical disconnect, however, the combination resulted in the anomaly," Orbital said in a mission update on Thursday. Small adjustments were made to the launch pad equipment to fix the problem, and the launch team started making preparations for liftoff on Friday.
Later Thursday, Orbital said weather conditions at the Virginia pad were expected to deteriorate on Friday and then improve significantly. The launch team decided to wait out Friday's weather and aim for launch at 5 p.m. ET Saturday. Sunday would serve as a backup launch opportunity.
The Antares is due to launch a dummy payload into orbit as a rehearsal for future flights that would send robotic Cygnus cargo carriers to the space station. If Orbital's test flights are successful, the Virginia-based company could begin cargo runs under the terms of an eight-mission, $1.9 billion resupply contract with NASA. California-based SpaceX is already flying its Dragon cargo capsules to and from the space station under a separate 12-mission, $1.6 billion contract.
We've recently been reminded about the problems posed by zero-G poop and weightless weeping, but here's a real puzzler for zero-G hygiene: What happens to the water when you wring out a washcloth on the International Space Station? That's the question addressed in Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield's latest silly science experiment — and the answer might not be what you expect.
This experiment takes the prize ... literally: It was designed by Kendra Lemke and Meredith Faulkner, two 10th-graders at Lockview High School in Fall River, Nova Scotia, and entered in a science contest sponsored by the Canadian Space Agency. A panel of judges selected the "Ring It Out" demonstration as the contest's winner.
"The experiment worked beautifully," Hadfield said. "The answer to the question is, the water squeezes out of the cloth, and then because of the surface tension of the water, it actually runs along the surface of the cloth and then up into my hand, almost like you had gel on your hand, and it'll just stay there. Wonderful moisturizer on my hands."
It's one thing to read those observations, and quite another to see them on video. Watch the experiment, and then dig into these other hot topics in zero-G hygiene:
NASA's Kepler planet-hunting probe has identified two potentially habitable planets only a little bigger than Earth, circling a star that's 1,200 light-years away. The planets could conceivably be covered by a global ocean, and they may well lead the growing list of alien worlds that can host life as we know it.
"These two planets are our best candidates for planets that might be habitable," said Bill Borucki, a space scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center who is the principal investigator for the $600 million Kepler mission.
The two habitable-zone planets, Kepler-62e and Kepler-62f, are part of a five-planet system that lies in the constellation Lyra, within a patch of sky that's been monitored by the Kepler space telescope over the past four years. The Kepler-62 parent star is about two-thirds the size of our own sun and about a fifth as bright. Three of the star's confirmed planets circle the star in orbits so close that they'd be too hot for life. But the e and f planets are considered to lie in a zone where liquid water could exist, a ring of space that's defined as the habitable zone.
Water worlds? Two members of the Kepler science team say their modeling suggests the two planets could be "water worlds" — with no land in sight.
"These planets are unlike anything in our solar system. They have endless oceans," Lisa Kaltenegger, an astronomer at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said in a news release. "There may be life there, but could it be technology-based like ours?"
The report on the Kepler-62 system was published online on Thursday by the journal Science, and was the focus of a NASA news conference timed to coincide with publication. The water-world analysis, authored by Kaltenegger and Harvard's Dimitar Sasselov and Sarah Rugheimer, is contained in a separate paper that has been accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal.
The characterization of the two planets' habitability is based on an analysis of their size, plus what's known about the parent star. The Kepler data can show how wide a planet is, and how quickly it makes its orbit, by analyzing the telltale dips in light as the planet passes over its parent star. But Kepler can't make direct observations of a planet's mass. So, in Kepler-62's case, scientists had to make educated guesses about the planets' mass, composition and whether they had atmospheres.
Kepler-62e is 1.6 times as wide as Earth and orbits its star every 122.4 Earth days. Kepler-62f is 1.4 times Earth's width, with an orbital period of 267.3 Earth days. "It's highly likely they're rocky planets," Borucki told NBC News. "They might be water worlds, but they are so different, we just don't know."
David A. Aguilar / CfA
This artist's conception shows Kepler-62f as an ice-covered world, and Kepler-62e as an Earthlike planet with dense clouds. Other planets follow closer-in orbits and are not considered habitable.
NASA Ames / JPL-Caltech
The diagram compares the planets of the inner solar system to Kepler-62, a five-planet system about 1,200 light-years from Earth in the constellation Lyra. The five planets of Kepler-62 orbit a star classified as a K2 dwarf, measuring two-thirds the size of the sun and one-fifth as bright.
What would life be like? Astrobiologists say the fact that the planets are bigger than Earth wouldn't be an obstacle for life. In fact, some experts argue that a super-Earth is more likely to have life than an Earth-sized planet. "If you and I walked on it, our weight would double," Borucki said. "But my weight has doubled since I was a teenager ... so we could do it."
If the planets had atmospheres like Earth's, Kepler-62e's surface temperature would be 86 degrees Fahrenheit (30 degrees Celsius), while Kepler-62f's temperature would be 19 degrees below zero F (-28 degrees C), Borucki said. "You'd see the sun being substantially larger than our sun, because it's so much closer," he said. "But it'd be darker, like walking around on a cloudy day."
In their research paper, Kaltenegger and Sasselov assume that Kepler-62e has a slightly cloudier atmosphere than Earth's, and that Kepler-62f has a thick carbon-dioxide atmosphere with a strong greenhouse effect. Without a thick atmosphere, Kepler-62f could get chillier than Mars. It might even look more like a Europa-style iceball than a Kevin Costner-style water world.
"Kepler-62e probably has a very cloudy sky, and is warm and humid all the way to the polar regions," Sasselov said. "Kepler-62f would be cooler, but still potentially life-friendly. The good news is, the two would exhibit distinctly different colors and make our search for signatures of life easier on such planets in the near future."
Habitable worlds ahead Kepler-62e and Kepler-62f aren't the first habitable-zone planets to be identified by the Kepler team, and they won't be the last. A year and a half ago, Kepler-22b came to light as the mission's first potentially habitable planet. It's 2.4 times wider than Earth, which puts it halfway between our planet and Neptune on the size scale. Kepler-47c, unveiled last year, is also a habitable-zone planet — but it's 4.6 times wider than Earth, which makes it Neptune-sized.
This January, the science team discussed the habitability of another candidate planet, then known as KOI 172.02. The existence of that world has now been confirmed under the name Kepler-69c, with a size that's 1.7 times Earth's width. "Today we can announce that this is a bona fide planet," Thomas Barclay, an astronomer at Ames Research Center, said during Thursday's news conference.
There will be more contenders ahead: Borucki said about four dozen of the more than 2,700 candidate planets being tracked by Kepler lie within their stars' habitable zones, and it takes about a year to confirm each candidate's existence through detailed analysis. "We really wish we were faster," he told NBC News. "I really wish we could knock off one a week."
Boruckin and his colleagues are poring through the oceans of observations coming in from the Kepler telescope, and although the spacecraft has had its problems, he's hoping that the flood of data will continue for years to come.
"When you're born a scientist, they leave out the gene for saying, 'We have enough data,'" Borucki joked.
A British astrobiology conference has revived a years-old debate over the best place to look for life elsewhere in the solar system: Mars, or the moons of Jupiter and Saturn?
"For reasons I don't really understand, the wider solar system and the potential for life there has not been high priority," The Telegraph quoted Robert Pappalardo, a senior research scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, as saying on BBC Radio 4.
Pappalardo's remarks were occasioned by this week's astrobiology conference at the UK Center for Astrobiology in Edinburgh, Scotland. The center recently established the International Subsurface Astrobiology Laboratory, or ISAL, half a mile (1 kilometer) beneath the surface in Yorkshire's Boulby mine. Biologists will use that facility to see how organisms hold up in extreme environments, learn about life's chemical signatures, and test instruments that could look for those signatures on other worlds.
Kevin Hand (JPL-Caltech) / Jack Cook (WHOI) / Howard Perlman (USGS)
If Europa's ocean is 100 kilometers (62 miles) deep, and all that water were gathered into a ball, it would have a radius of 877 kilometers (545 miles). This graphic compares that hypothetical ball of Europan water to the size of the Jovian moon itself, as well as all the water on planet Earth. Europa is thought to have two to three times the volume of water in Earth's oceans.
At February's annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Pappalardo worried that NASA's study of the outer solar system would go "radio-dark" in 2017, when the Cassini mission to Saturn and the Juno mission to Jupiter are both due to end. He continued that theme in this week's BBC interview.
"I worry that if Europa exploration is delayed, but then finally it happens some day, we might look back and say 'Why didn't we do that sooner?' Imagine 50 years from now, we get a lander there and find signs of life. All this time we'll have been looking in the wrong place," he was quoted as saying.
Europa isn't the only moon that intrigues astrobiologists: In the Jovian system, Callisto and Ganymede also have icy shells and may hold hidden oceans. Meanwhile, Cassini has repeatedly observed geysers of water ice rising from the surface of the Saturnian moon Enceladus — suggesting that liquid water and perhaps life may lie beneath the surface. Saturn's largest moon, Titan, has a thick atmosphere and seas of hydrocarbon that some scientists think could harbor a totally alien kind of life.
So what if all of these worlds — Mars and Europa, Callisto and Ganymede, Titan and Enceladus — turn out to be lifeless? Charles Cockell, who heads the UK Center for Astrobiology, addressed that scenario in an interview with the BBC.
"A lot of people think astrobiology is some sort of hunt for life, and if we don't find life, it will be a big disappointment," Cockell said. "But in fact, that's not the case. The discovery of many lifeless planets across the universe, the discovery that the Earth might be unique as a place for life, would be an astonishing discovery in itself. It would be a very lonely discovery, but it would be an astonishing discovery."
Orbital Sciences Corp. postponed the maiden launch of its Antares rocket on Wednesday when an umbilical data cable was disconnected prematurely from the launch vehicle's second stage.
The launch abort came at about 4:48 p.m. ET, just minutes before the Antares was due to lift off from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Wallops Island, Va. Orbital said the 5 p.m. ET liftoff would be rescheduled for Friday at the earliest.
"We are still examining all of the data, but it appears that the issue is fairly straightforward," Frank Culbertson, Orbital’s executive vice president and mission director for the Antares test flight, said in a company statement. "With this being the first launch of the new system from a new launch facility we have taken prudent steps to ensure a safe and successful outcome. Today, our scrub procedures were exercised and worked as planned. We are looking forward to a successful launch on Friday."
Orbital is giving the Antares rocket its first in-flight test in preparation for trips to the International Space Station later this year. This time around, the rocket is carrying merely a dummy payload, along with some secondary satellites that are to be deployed in orbit. But if the practice run is successful, Orbital could start providing a second line of made-in-the-USA commercial vehicles for resupplying the space station.
The Virginia-based company is following in the footsteps of California-based SpaceX, which began cargo runs to the space station last year.
Orbital and SpaceX have received hundreds of millions of dollars from NASA to develop their transports, as part of the space agency's strategy to replace the space shuttle fleet. The shuttles were retired in 2011 to make way for a new generation of spaceships capable of going beyond Earth orbit. NASA wants private companies to take over the role of getting cargo — and eventually astronauts as well — to low Earth orbit.
Orbital won NASA's contract for the Antares rocket and the Cygnus cargo capsule in 2008.
A simulated Cygnus payload is to be lofted into orbit during a 10-minute ascent, and is expected to remain in orbit for several weeks before plunging to its fiery doom in Earth's atmosphere. Four tiny satellites are to be deployed from the simulator, including three smartphone-equipped PhoneSats for NASA (Alexander, Graham, and Bell) and the commercial Dove-1 remote-sensing nanosatellite. The main point of the mission, however, is to check whether Antares is ready to send cargo to the space station.
"This is a big event for the Eastern Shore, for Wallops and for everybody in the surrounding area, but also, I think, for the country," Frank Culbertson, executive vice president and general manager of Orbital's Advanced Program Group, said during Tuesday's pre-launch briefing.
He cautioned journalists not to expect a perfect test flight. "That first word is 'test,' so if things don't go exactly as planned, we will learn what we need to learn and press on," he said.
If the test is successful, another Antares is due to send a real Cygnus capsule to the space station as early as this June. And if that demonstration flight succeeds, Orbital could proceed with a series of eight resupply flights to the station under the terms of a $1.9 billion contract with NASA. SpaceX is already two flights into its own 12-mission, $1.6 billion resupply contract.
Phil McAlister, NASA's director of commercial spaceflight development, said Orbital would play an important role in providing "assured cargo access" to the space station. The idea is that if SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule are grounded for technical reasons, Orbital's Antares and Cygnus would serve as a backup — and vice versa. That wasn't the case during the space shuttle program, when NASA's only Plan B was to rely on other countries' spaceships.
"We are in such a better situation today, and [it's] about to be even better with the debut of this new capability," McAlister said.
NASA is following a similar approach for the development of U.S.-made spaceships for crew transport. Three companies — SpaceX, the Boeing Co. and Sierra Nevada Corp. — are splitting more than a billion dollars of NASA's money during the current phase of work. NASA expects commercial crew transports to start flying to the space station by 2017.
Correction for 6:55 p.m. ET April 17: I've cleaned up a couple of errors, including the date when Orbital won NASA's nod in the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program (2008, not 2007) and the SpaceX contract amount under NASA's Commercial Resupply Services program ($1.6 billion, not $1.6 million).