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How Many Discoveries Can You Make in a Month?

NASA Space PlaceBy Dr. Tony Phillips

Artist’s concepts such as this one are based on infrared spectrometer data from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope. This rendering depicts a quadruple-star system called HD 98800. The system is approximately 10 million years old and is located 150 light-years away in the constellation Crater. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle (SSC)
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This year NASA has announced the discovery of 11 planetary systems hosting 26 planets; a gigantic cluster of galaxies known as “El Gordo;” a star exploding 9 billion light years away; alien matter stealing into the solar system; massive bullets of plasma racing out of the galactic center; and hundreds of unknown objects emitting high-energy photons at the edge of the electromagnetic spectrum.

That was just January.

Within NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, the Astrophysics Division produces such a list nearly every month. Indeed, at this very moment, data is pouring in from dozens of spacecraft and orbiting observatories.

“The Hubble, Spitzer, Chandra, and Fermi space telescopes continue to make groundbreaking discoveries on an almost daily basis,” says NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden .

NASA astrophysicists and their colleagues conduct an ambitious research program stretching from the edge of the solar system to the edge of the observable Universe. Their work is guided in large part by the National Research Council’s Decadal Survey of Astronomy and Astrophysics, which identified the following priorities:

     ⚫  Finding new planets — and possibly new life — around other stars.

     ⚫  Discovering the nature of dark energy and dark matter.

     ⚫  Understanding how stars and galaxies have evolved since the Big Bang.

     ⚫  Studying exotic physics in extreme places like black holes.

Observing time on Hubble and the other “Great Observatories” is allocated accordingly.

Smaller missions are important, too: The Kepler spacecraft, which is only “medium-sized” by NASA standards, has single-handedly identified more than 2300 planet candidates. Recent finds include planets with double suns, massive “super-Earths” and “hot Jupiters,” and a miniature solar system. It seems to be only a matter of time before Kepler locates an Earth-sized world in the Goldilocks zone of its parent star, just right for life.

A future astrophysics mission, the James Webb Space Telescope, will be able to study the atmospheres of many of the worlds Kepler is discovering now. The telescope’s spectrometers can reveal the chemistry of distant exoplanets, offering clues to their climate, cloud cover, and possibilities for life.

That’s not the telescope’s prime mission, though. With a primary mirror almost 3 times as wide as Hubble’s, and a special sensitivity to penetrating infrared radiation, Webb is designed to look into the most distant recesses of the universe to see how the first stars and galaxies formed after the Big Bang. It is, in short, a Genesis Machine.

Says Bolden, “We’re on track in the construction of the James Webb Space Telescope, the most sophisticated science telescope ever constructed to help us reveal the mysteries of the cosmos in ways never before possible.” Liftoff is currently scheduled for 2018.

How long will the list of discoveries be in January of that year? Stay tuned for Astrophysics.

For more on NASA’s astrophysics missions, check out http://science.nasa.gov/astrophysics/. Kids can get some of their mind-boggling astrophysics questions answered by resident Space Place astrophysicist “Dr. Marc” at http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/dr-marc-space.

This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
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Thank Goodness for Magnetism

NASA Space PlaceBy Dr. Tony Phillips

Multiple-wavelength view of X5.4 solar flare on March 6, captured by the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) in multiple wavelengths (94, 193, 335 angstroms). Credit: NASA/SDO/AIA
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Only 93 million miles from Earth, a certain G-type star is beginning to act up.

Every 11 years or so, the solar cycle brings a period of high solar activity. Giant islands of magnetism — “sunspots” — break through the stellar surface in increasing numbers. Sometimes they erupt like a billion atomic bombs going off at once, producing intense flares of X-rays and UV radiation, and hurling massive clouds of plasma toward Earth.

This is happening right now. Only a few years ago the Sun was in a state of deep quiet, but as 2012 unfolds, the pendulum is swinging. Strong flares are becoming commonplace as sunspots once again pepper the solar disk. Fortunately, Earth is defended from solar storms by a strong, global magnetic field.

In March 2012, those defenses were tested.

At the very beginning of the month, a remarkable sunspot appeared on the Sun’s eastern limb. AR1429, as experts called it, was an angry-looking region almost as wide as the planet Jupiter. Almost as soon as it appeared, it began to erupt. During the period March 2nd to 15th, it rotated across the solar disk and fired off more than 50 flares. Three of those eruptions were X-class flares, the most powerful kind.

As the eruptions continued almost non-stop, Earth’s magnetic field was buffeted by coronal mass ejections or “CMEs.” One of those clouds hit Earth’s magnetosphere so hard, our planet’s magnetic field was sharply compressed, leaving geosynchronous satellites on the outside looking in. For a while, the spacecraft were directly exposed to solar wind plasma.

Charged particles propelled by the blasts swirled around Earth, producing the strongest radiation storm in almost 10 years. When those particles rained down on the upper atmosphere, they dumped enough energy in three days alone (March 7-10) to power every residence in New York City for two years. Bright auroras circled both poles, and Northern Lights spilled across the Canadian border into the lower 48 states. Luminous sheets of red and green were sighted as far south as Nebraska.

When all was said and done, the defenses held — no harm done.

This wasn’t the strongest solar storm in recorded history — not by a long shot. That distinction goes to the Carrington Event of September 1859 when geomagnetic activity set telegraph offices on fire and sparked auroras over Mexico, Florida, and Tahiti. Even with that in mind, however, March 2012 was remarkable.

It makes you wonder, what if? What if Earth didn’t have a magnetic field to fend off CMEs and deflect the most energetic particles from the Sun.

The answer might lie on Mars. The red planet has no global magnetic field and as a result its atmosphere has been stripped away over time by CMEs and other gusts of solar wind. At least that’s what many researchers believe. Today, Mars is a desiccated and apparently lifeless wasteland.

Only 93 million miles from Earth, a G-type star is acting up. Thank goodness for magnetism. With your inner and outer children, read, watch, and listen in to “Super Star Meets the Plucky Planet,” a rhyming and animated conversation between the Sun and Earth, at http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/story-superstar.

This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
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NASA Helps Europe Study a Comet -- Up Close and Personal

NASA Space Place
Rosetta’s lander Philae will eject from the spacecraft, touch down on the comet’s nucleus, and immediately fire a harpoon into the surface to anchor itself so it won’t drift off in the weak gravity.
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Europe’s Rosetta spacecraft is on its way to intercept comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Comets have been intercepted before, but this mission is different. Rosetta aims to make history by landing a probe on the comet’s surface while the mother ship orbits overhead.

“Rosetta is the European equivalent of a NASA flagship mission,” explains Claudia Alexander, project scientist for the U.S. Rosetta Project at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “It will conduct the most comprehensive study of a comet ever performed.”

Rosetta’s payload contains 21 instruments (11 on the orbiter, 10 on the lander) designed to study almost every aspect of the comet’s chemistry, structure, and dynamics. Three of the sensors were contributed by the U.S.: Alice (an ultraviolet spectrometer), IES (an ion and electron sensor), and MIRO (a microwave sounder).

The main event of the mission will likely be the landing. The 100-kg lander, which looks a bit like a cross between NASA’s old Viking Mars landers and a modern microsatellite, will spend two weeks fastened to the comet’s icy surface. The European-built probe will collect samples for analysis by onboard microscopes and take stunning panoramic images from ground level.

“First the lander will study the surface from close range to establish a baseline before the comet becomes active,” explains Alexander. “Then the orbiter will investigate the flow of gas and dust around the comet's active, venting nucleus.”

Rosetta’s sensors will perform the experiments that reveal how the chemicals present interact with one another and with the solar wind. Alice and MIRO detect uncharged atoms and molecules, while IES detects the ions and electrons as the solar wind buffets the nucleus.

One problem that often vexes astronomers when they try to study comets is visibility. It’s hard to see through the dusty veil of gas billowing away from the heated nucleus. The microwaves MIRO detects can penetrate the dust, so MIRO can see and measure its target molecules even when other instruments can’t.

MIRO is one of several experiments focused on the comet’s structural properties. It will determine the comet’s dielectric constant, emissivity, and thermal conductivity to determine whether it is made of a powdery loose material, has a detectable layer of loose material, or is hard as rock.

“We want to find out whether comets have retained material from when the solar system formed,” says Alexander. “If the ancient materials are still there, we can get an idea of what conditions were like at the dawn of the solar system.”

Rosetta enters orbit in 2014. Stay tuned for updates!

Check out “Comet Quest,” the new, free iPhone/iPad game that has you operating the Rosetta spacecraft yourself. Get the link at spaceplace.nasa.gov/comet-quest.

This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
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The Hidden Power of Sea Salt, Revealed

NASA Space Place
Aquarius produced this map of global ocean salinity. It is a composite of the first two and a half weeks of data. Yellow and red represent areas of higher salinity, with blues and purples indicating areas of lower salinity.
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Last year, when NASA launched the Aquarius/SAC-D satellite carrying the first sensor for measuring sea salt from space, scientists expected the measurements to have unparalleled sensitivity. Yet the fine details it's revealing about ocean saltiness are surprising even the Aquarius team.

“We have just four months of data, but we're already seeing very rich detail in surface salinity patterns,” says principal investigator Gary Lagerloef of Earth & Space Research in Seattle. “We're finding that Aquarius can monitor even small scale changes such as specific river outflow and its influence on the ocean.”

Using one of the most sensitive microwave radiometers ever built, Aquarius can sense as little as 0.2 parts salt to 1,000 parts water. That's about like a dash of salt in a gallon jug of water.

“You wouldn't even taste it,” says Lagerloef. “Yet Aquarius can detect that amount from 408 miles above the Earth. And it's working even better than expected.”

Salinity is critical because it changes the density of surface seawater, and density controls the ocean currents that move heat around our planet. A good example is the Gulf Stream, which carries heat to higher latitudes and moderates the climate.

“When variations in density divert ocean currents, weather patterns like temperature and rainfall are affected. In turn, precipitation and evaporation, and fresh water from river outflow and melt ice determine salinity. It's an intricately connected cycle.”

The atmosphere is the ocean’s partner. The freshwater exchange between the atmosphere and the ocean dominates the global water cycle. Seventy-eight percent of global rainfall occurs over the ocean, and 85 percent of global evaporation is from the ocean. An accurate picture of the ocean's salinity will help scientists better understand the profound ocean/atmosphere coupling that determines climate variability.

“Ocean salinity has been changing,” says Lagerloef. “Decades of data from ships and buoys tell us so. Some ocean regions are seeing an increase in salinity, which means more fresh water is being lost through evaporation. Other areas are getting more rainfall and therefore lower salinity. We don't know why. We just know something fundamental is going on in the water cycle.”

With Aquarius's comprehensive look at global salinity, scientists will have more clues to put it all together. Aquarius has collected as many sea surface salinity measurements in the first few months as the entire 125-year historical record from ships and buoys.

“By this time next year, we'll have met two of our goals: a new global map of annual average salinity and a better understanding of the seasonal cycles that determine climate.”

Stay tuned for the salty results. Read more about the Aquarius mission at aquarius.nasa.gov.

Other NASA oceanography missions are Jason-1 (studying ocean surface topography), Jason-2 (follow-on to Jason-1), Jason-3 (follow-on to Jason-2, planned for launch in 2014), and Seawinds on the QuikSCAT satellite (measures wind speeds over the entire ocean). The GRACE mission (Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment), among its other gravitational field studies, monitors fresh water supplies underground. All these missions, including Aquarius, are sponsors of a fun and educational ocean game for kids called “Go with the Flow” at spaceplace.nasa.gov/ocean-currents.

This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
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Dawn Takes a Closer Look

NASA Space PlaceBy Dr. Marc Rayman

This full view of the giant asteroid Vesta was taken by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, as part of a rotation characterization sequence on July 24, 2011, at a distance of 5,200 kilometers (3,200 miles). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA
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Dawn is the first space mission with an itinerary that includes orbiting two separate solar system destinations. It is also the only spacecraft ever to orbit an object in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. The spacecraft accomplishes this feat using ion propulsion, a technology first proven in space on the highly successful Deep Space 1 mission, part of NASA’s New Millennium program.

Launched in September 2007, Dawn arrived at protoplanet Vesta in July 2011. It will orbit and study Vesta until July 2012, when it will leave orbit for dwarf planet Ceres, also in the asteroid belt.

Dawn can maneuver to the orbit best suited for conducting each of its scientific observations. After months mapping this alien world from higher altitudes, Dawn spiraled closer to Vesta to attain a low altitude orbit, the better to study Vesta’s composition and map its complicated gravity field.

Changing and refining Dawn’s orbit of this massive, irregular, heterogeneous body is one of the most complicated parts of the mission. In addition, to meet all the scientific objectives, the orientation of this orbit needs to change.

These differing orientations are a crucial element of the strategy for gathering the most scientifically valuable data on Vesta. It generally requires a great deal of maneuvering to change the plane of a spacecraft’s orbit. The ion propulsion system allows the probe to fly from one orbit to another without the penalty of carrying a massive supply of propellant. Indeed, one of the reasons that traveling from Earth to Vesta (and later Ceres) requires ion propulsion is the challenge of tilting the orbit around the sun.

Although the ion propulsion system accomplishes the majority of the orbit change, Dawn’s navigators are enlisting Vesta itself. Some of the ion thrusting was designed in part to put the spacecraft in certain locations from which Vesta would twist its orbit toward the target angle for the low-altitude orbit. As Dawn rotates and the world underneath it revolves, the spacecraft feels a changing pull. There is always a tug downward, but because of Vesta’s heterogeneous interior structure, sometimes there is also a slight force to one side or another. With their knowledge of the gravity field, the mission team plotted a course that took advantage of these variations to get a free ride.

The flight plan is a complex affair of carefully timed thrusting and coasting. Very far from home, the spacecraft is making excellent progress in its expedition at a fascinating world that, until a few months ago, had never seen a probe from Earth.

Keep up with Dawn’s progress by following the Chief Engineer’s (yours truly’s) journal at http://dawn.jpl.nasa.gov/mission/journal.asp. And check out the illustrated story in verse of “Professor Starr’s Dream Trip: Or, how a little technology goes a long way,” at http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/story-prof-starr.

This article was provided courtesy of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
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Our Last Transit 'til 2117

SolarDon't throw away that solar filter yet, at least not until you have the opportunity to see the transit of Venus across the solar disc on June 5, 2012. This will be the last Venusian transit until 2117 on the calendar, so its fairly safe to say it will be the last one any of us has the opportunity to see.
This transit of Venus will begin at approximately 5:10 CDT, on June 5, 2012.

The previous transit of this sequence occured over the EuroAsian countries in 2004. Then, I was monitoring the transit via the world wide web from the Van Buren site of Coleman Observatory. It took most of the night to watch the tiny disc of Venus as it touched the solar disc, and progressed across the disc then left it a few hours later. This is a picture of that eclipse from a Swedish observatory where they employed an H-alpha (hydrogen-alpha) filter that gave the totally different view from this projected image I obtained with Stellarium, the FREE astronomy software available from stellarium.org for anyone to download and use.
I missed the start of this transit by several minutes. Setting up my scope and balancing it took longer than it should have, but I did start taking images by 5:30 pm.

This time, its the other side of the world that gets treated to this transit. There may be a narrow band of area on Earth running N-S that had glimpses of the 2004 AND the 2012 transits, but its essentially "our" turn this time, even though we'll only see the beginnings of the transit until roughly mid-transit as these last images show.
Using the zoom feature on my Canon PowerShot A10 got me this close-up of the sunspots and the "dot" of Venus.

. I broke down my rig early after some 20 images didn't get me any more than these three as far as a different look went. All in all it was fun, but sort of tedious looking essentially the same for the middle 2/3 of the event.
AND, AS THE SUN AND VENUS SLOWLY SET IN THE WEST....the 2012 transit of Venus comes to an end, at least for local folk like me.
Sure, this isn't a really big deal, for the person on the street...but for amateur astronomers who know of and can appreciate the rarity of this particular event, its the last one we have an opportunity to see for the remainder of our short lives. ENJOY!!!
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What a Sunset THIS will be!

SolarOn May 20, 2012, the day will begin as almost any other. But as the Sun prepares to set on this particular evening, folks in the border region of AR/OK will be treated to a slightly unusual partial Solar Eclipse. At about 7:32 pm, the moon will take its "first bite" out of the edge of the Sun, but YOU MUST TAKE PRECAUTIONS TO SEE THIS EVENT TO AVOID POSSIBLY PERMANENT DAMAGE TO YOUR EYES!
ONLY WITH PROPER EYE PROTECTION by 8:00pm, then THIS is how we will see the moon move into alignment with the Sun on Sunday evening, May 20, 2012 setting up for a sensational partially eclipsed Sun as the Sun drops below the western horizon at 8:15pm. This image is from the FREE software Stellarium using "ocean" as the horizon to provide a smooth, flat bottom edge.

Sometimes as sunset occurs during the late days of May in this part of mid-America, there will be a haze forming in the far western horizon which make the Sun appear really red. Even if its only red-orange, the amount of sunlight seeping through horizonal haze will let us look directly at the Sun, but ONLY if conditions conspire all together at the right time! It is IMPERATIVE that you DO NOT LOOK at the Sun as this eclipse occurs before the Sun is nearly touching the far western horizon. If there is anything obstructing the view to the west of wherever observers happen to be on May 20 at about 8:10pm, you will not see this eclipse unless you have proper SOLAR ECLIPSE GLASSES! .

By 8:15, the Sun will be on the western horizon, and if either the conditions are just right and you can comfortably look directly at the Sun, OR, if the Sun is still too bright and you HAVE your eclipse glasses, then this view BELOW is what will greet us all this May 20.
What a sunset THIS is gonna be!

Click also for a few of my eclipse day images from Cedarville's Sunset Observatory. Rainbow Symphony Eclipse Shades can be found at:
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Changes Ahead For AOAS In 2012

By Dave Grosvold

Jupiter rising over Lake Tamika at Camp Cahinnio
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Star Party during Astronomy Day at the Janet Huckabee River Valley Nature Center
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As you may know if you attended the AOAS Holiday Dinner Meeting on December 3rd 2011, AOAS has made several changes that everyone needs to know about:

First, new club officers have been elected and will be taking office in January, 2012. Leonard Lynch has been elected AOAS President, with Charlie McLane being voted in for AOAS Treasurer, and Barb Warner for AOAS Secretary. Dave Grosvold now moves into the AOAS Vice President position.

Second, we have changed our meeting times and locations for next year. In 2012, we will be meeting on the second Friday of each month (to repeat- that’s the SECOND Friday.) Instead of UAFS, our meetings will be held in the Multi-Purpose Room at the Janet Huckabee River Valley Nature Center beginning at 7:00 PM. This affords us an opportunity to bring our scopes to the regular AOAS meetings and do some observing afterwards.

On meeting nights, we will be setting up our scopes in the regular location we have been using for the Nature Center Star Parties in the past, it’s just that they won’t be announced publicly, so we don’t have the pressure of catering to the public while observing.

However, we will still have four publicly-announced Star Parties at the Nature Center – three on nights normally reserved for regular meetings (March 9th, June 8th, and September 14th,) and also Astronomy Day on October 20th. On the three public nights, we will not have a meeting, per se, but may have a brief discussion if club business requires it either before or after the regular Star Party.

AOAS will also be holding two or three additional public Star Parties in remote locations – Lake Fort Smith State Park on June 23rd, Cossatot River State Park Natural Area on August 17th (this one is quite a ways away – 114 miles south of Fort Smith,) and it’s probable that we’ll be asked to do another star party for the Girl Scouts at Camp Cahinnio in the fall. Be sure to check the Calendar for dates, times, and possible changes to these as well as the rest of the activity schedule throughout the coming year.

We are looking forward to having another great year for AOAS!
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Re-thinking an Alien World: The Strange Case of 55 Cancri e

NASA Space Place
Artist’s rendering compares the size Earth with the rocky “super-Earth” 55 Cancri e. Its year is only about 18 hours long!
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Forty light years from Earth, a rocky world named “55 Cancri e” circles perilously close to a stellar inferno. Completing one orbit in only 18 hours, the alien planet is 26 times closer to its parent star than Mercury is to the Sun. If Earth were in the same position, the soil beneath our feet would heat up to about 3200 F. Researchers have long thought that 55 Cancri e must be a wasteland of parched rock.

Now they’re thinking again. New observations by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope suggest that 55 Cancri e may be wetter and weirder than anyone imagined.

Spitzer recently measured the extraordinarily small amount of light 55 Cancri e blocks when it crosses in front of its star. These transits occur every 18 hours, giving researchers repeated opportunities to gather the data they need to estimate the width, volume and density of the planet.

According to the new observations, 55 Cancri e has a mass 7.8 times and a radius just over twice that of Earth. Those properties place 55 Cancri e in the “super-Earth” class of exoplanets, a few dozen of which have been found. Only a handful of known super-Earths, however, cross the face of their stars as viewed from our vantage point in the cosmos, so 55 Cancri e is better understood than most.

When 55 Cancri e was discovered in 2004, initial estimates of its size and mass were consistent with a dense planet of solid rock. Spitzer data suggest otherwise: About a fifth of the planet’s mass must be made of light elements and compounds — including water. Given the intense heat and high pressure these materials likely experience, researchers think the compounds likely exist in a “supercritical” fluid state.

A supercritical fluid is a high-pressure, high-temperature state of matter best described as a liquid-like gas, and a marvelous solvent. Water becomes supercritical in some steam turbines — and it tends to dissolve the tips of the turbine blades. Supercritical carbon dioxide is used to remove caffeine from coffee beans, and sometimes to dry-clean clothes. Liquid-fueled rocket propellant is also supercritical when it emerges from the tail of a spaceship.

On 55 Cancri e, this stuff may be literally oozing — or is it steaming? — out of the rocks.

With supercritical solvents rising from the planet’s surface, a star of terrifying proportions filling much of the daytime sky, and whole years rushing past in a matter of hours, 55 Cancri e teaches a valuable lesson: Just because a planet is similar in size to Earth does not mean the planet is like Earth.

It’s something to re-think about.

Get a kid thinking about extrasolar planets by pointing him or her to “Lucy’s Planet Hunt,” a story in rhyme about a girl who wanted nothing more than to look for Earth-like planets when she grew up. Go to http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/story-lucy.

The original research reported in this story has been accepted for publication in Astronomy and Astrophysics. The lead author is Brice-Olivier Demory, a post-doctoral associate in Professor Sara Seager’s group at MIT.

This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
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Meteor Shower!

NASA Space Place

Have you ever wondered how astronomers can predict when there’s going to be an abundance of shooting stars in the night sky? Showers of meteors, the scientific name for “shooting stars,” occur predictably several times a year, usually peaking within the same two- or three-day period. So what causes them? Why do they seem to come from the same part of the sky? What’s the best way to see them? Visit http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/meteor-shower and get ready to enjoy the next show.


Distributed by Laura K. Lincoln, on behalf of the Space Place Team.


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