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Planets in Strange Places

NASA Space PlaceBy Trudy E. Bell

Artist?s rendering compares size of a hypothetical hypergiant star and its surrounding dusty disk to that of our solar system.(Click image for larger view.)
Red star, blue star, big star, small star — planets may form around virtually any type or size of star throughout the universe, not just around mid-sized middle-aged yellow stars like the Sun. That's the surprising implication of two recent discoveries from the 0.85-meter-diameter Spitzer Space Telescope, which is exploring the universe from orbit at infrared (heat) wavelengths blocked by the Earth's atmosphere.

At one extreme are two blazing, blue "hypergiant" stars 180,000 light-years away in the Large Magellanic Cloud, one of the two companion galaxies to our Milky Way. The stars, called R 66 and R 126, are respectively 30 and 70 times the mass of the Sun, "about as massive as stars can get," said Joel Kastner, professor of imaging science at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. R 126 is so luminous that if it were placed 10 parsecs (32.6 light-years) away — a distance at which the Sun would be one of the dimmest stars visible in the sky — the hypergiant would be as bright as the full moon, "definitely a daytime object," Kastner remarked.

Such hot stars have fierce solar winds, so Kastner and his team are mystified why any dust in the neighborhood hasn't long since been blown away. But there it is: an unmistakable spectral signature that both hypergiants are surrounded by mammoth disks of what might be planet-forming dust and even sand.

At the other extreme is a tiny brown dwarf star called Cha 110913-773444, relatively nearby (500 light-years) in the Milky Way. One of the smallest brown dwarfs known, it has less than 1 percent the mass of the Sun. It's not even massive enough to kindle thermonuclear reactions for fusing hydrogen into helium. Yet this miniature "failed star," as brown dwarfs are often called, is alsošsurrounded by a flat disk of dust that may eventually clump into planets. (Note: This brown dwarf discovery was made by a group led by Kevin Luhman of Pennsylvania State University.)
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Micro-sats with Macro-potential

NASA Space PlaceBy Patrick L. Barry

The Space Technology 5 mission will test crucial micro-satellite technologies.
Future space telescopes might not consist of a single satellite such as Hubble, but a constellation of dozens or even hundreds of small satellites, or "micro-sats," operating in unison.

Such a swarm of little satellites could act as one enormous telescope with a mirror as large as the entire constellation, just as arrays of Earth-bound radio telescopes do. It could also last for a long time, because damage to one micro-sat wouldn't ruin the whole space telescope; the rest of the swarm could continue as if nothing had happened.

And that's just one example of the cool things that micro-sats could do. Plus, micro-sats are simply smaller and lighter than normal satellites, so they're much cheaper to launch into space.

In February, NASA plans to launch its first experimental micro-sat mission, called Space Technology 5. As part of the New Millennium Program, ST5 will test out the crucial technologies needed for micro-sats—such as miniature thrust and guidance systems—so that future missions can use those technologies dependably.

Measuring only 53 centimeters (20 inches) across and weighing a mere 25 kilograms (55 pounds), each of the three micro-sats for ST5 resembles a small television in size and weight. Normal satellites can be as large and heavy as a school bus.

"ST5 will also gather scientific data, helping scientists explore Earth's magnetic field and space weather," says James Slavin, Project Scientist for ST5.

Slavin suggests some other potential uses for micro-sats:
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Snowstorm on Pluto

NASA Space Placeby Dr. Tony Phillips

This artist's rendering shows how Pluto and two of its possible three moons might look from the surface of the third moon. Credit: NASA/ESA and G. Bacon (STSci)
There's a nip in the air. Outside it's beginning to snow, the first fall of winter. A few delicate flakes tumble from the sky, innocently enough, but this is no mere flurry…

Soon the air is choked with snow, falling so fast and hard it seems to pull the sky down with it. Indeed, that's what happens. Weeks later when the storm finally ends the entire atmosphere is gone. Every molecule of air on your planet has frozen and fallen to the ground…

That was a snowstorm—on Pluto.

Once every year on Pluto (1 Pluto-year = 248 Earth-years), around the beginning of winter, it gets so cold that the atmosphere freezes. Air on Pluto is made mainly of nitrogen with a smattering of methane and other compounds. When the temperature dips to about 32°K (-240°C), these molecules crystallize and the atmosphere comes down.

"The collapse can happen quite suddenly," says Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute. "Snow begins to fall, the surface reflects more sunlight, forcing quicker cooling, accelerating the snowfall. It can all be over in a few weeks or months."

Researchers believe this will happen sometime during the next 10 to 20 years. Pluto is receding from the warmth of the Sun, carried outward by its 25% elliptical orbit. Winter is coming.

So is New Horizons. Stern is lead scientist for the robotic probe, which left Earth in January bound for Pluto. In 2015 New Horizons will become the first spacecraft to visit that distant planet. The question is, will it arrive before the snowstorm?
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Searching for the Invisible

NASA Space Placeby Diane K. Fisher

This giant dish antenna is about the size of a soccer field! It is part of NASA's Deep Space Network and is used to send and receive messages from its robotic space explorers.
Three blind flies land on an elephant. Each crawls over his part of the elephant and describes what he touches. The first one explores the trunk and says, "This creature is a wrinkled snake." The second one walks around on an ear and says, "This isn't a creature at all. It's a pancake." The third one hikes up and down the tail and says, "You are both crazy. This is nothing but a skinny rope hanging down from the sky."

If we are lucky enough to see the whole elephant at once, we understand how magnificent this animal really is.

So it is with astronomy. If we have only our poor eyes to look at the night, we see only a tiny part of the Universe. There is so much more to it than our eyes can see!

The light we see is but a tiny part of the light all around us. Therefore, humans have invented special telescopes that can see these different kinds of light. Using these new telescopes, both from the ground and from space, we have begun to see the entire elephant… er, Universe.

One kind of light we can't see is radio waves. We have learned to make our own radio waves for sending TV, radio, and cell phone signals through the air. Radio waves also come from stars (including our Sun), planets, clouds of gas in space, black holes, and other strange objects in space.

The telescopes that see radio waves don't look anything like the telescopes that see visible light. Radio telescopes are large dish-like antennas that can point to different parts of the sky. In addition to radio wave astronomy, NASA also uses this type of antennas—equipped with transmitters—to communicate with its unmanned spacecraft out there exploring the solar system.
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Whirlwind Disaster - Activity for Kids!

NASA Space PlaceWhere do these monster storms we call hurricanes come from? Why do they always form near the equator and only during certain times of the year? How do they come to be so organized and so destructive? You can find answers to these questions and play an exciting hurricane word game called "Whirlwind Disaster" at the SciJinks Weather Laboratory Web site. SciJinks targets young people of middle school age. It is a joint effort of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The new "How does a hurricane form?" page and accompanying interactive game can be found in the How & Why menu on the SciJinks Weather Laboratory home page, http://scijinks.gov.
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A New View of the Andromeda Galaxy

NASA Space PlaceBy Dr. Tony Phillips and Patrick L. Barry

The GALEX telescope took this UV image of the Andromeda galaxy (M31), revealing a surprising shape not apparent in visible light. Click image for larger view.
This is a good time of year to see the Andromeda galaxy. When the sun sets and the sky fades to black, Andromeda materializes high in the eastern sky. You can find it with your unaided eye. At first glance, it looks like a very dim, fuzzy comet, wider than the full moon. Upon closer inspection through a backyard telescope—wow! It's a beautiful spiral galaxy.

At a distance of "only" 2 million light-years, Andromeda is the nearest big galaxy to the Milky Way, and astronomers know it better than any other. The swirling shape of Andromeda is utterly familiar.

Not anymore. A space telescope named GALEX has captured a new and different view of Andromeda. According to GALEX, Andromeda is not a spiral but a ring.

GALEX is the "Galaxy Evolution Explorer," an ultraviolet telescope launched by NASA in 2003. Its mission is to learn how galaxies are born and how they change with age. GALEX's ability to see ultraviolet (UV) light is crucial; UV radiation comes from newborn stars, so UV images of galaxies reveal star birth—the central process of galaxy evolution.

GALEX's sensitivity to UV is why Andromeda looks different. To the human eye (or to an ordinary visible-light telescope), Andromeda remains its usual self: a vast whirlpool of stars, all ages and all sizes. To GALEX, Andromeda is defined by its youngest, hottest stars. They are concentrated in the galaxy's core and scattered around a vast ring some 150,000 light years in diameter. It's utterly unfamiliar.
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KIDS! - Play "Black Hole Rescue!"

NASA Space PlaceNearby matter is not the only thing attracted by a black hole. These mysterious objects also attract a great deal of curiosity from kids here on Earth. Taking advantage of this interest, NASA’s Web site for kids, The Space Place, has just added a new game called “Black Hole Rescue!” After (or before) reading a short, illustrated article introducing black hole concepts, game players “rescue” the vocabulary words, one letter at a time, before they get sucked into the black hole. After playing this mesmerizing game for a while, kids of all ages will not soon forget what black holes are all about.

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Voices from the Cacophony

NASA Space PlaceBy Trudy E. Bell and Dr. Tony Phillips

Around 2015, NASA and the European Space Agency plan to launch one of the biggest and most exacting space experiments ever flown: LISA, the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna.

LISA will be able to detect gravitational waves from as far back as 10-36 second after the Big Bang, far earlier than any telescope can detect. (Click image for larger view.)
LISA will consist of three spacecraft flying in a triangular formation behind Earth. Each spacecraft will beam a laser at the other two, continuously measuring their mutual separation. The spacecraft will be a mind-boggling 5 million kilometers apart (12 times the Earth-Moon distance) yet they will monitor their mutual separation to one billionth of a centimeter, smaller than an atom's diameter.

LISA's mission is to detect gravitational waves—ripples in space-time caused by the Universe's most violent events: galaxies colliding with other galaxies, supermassive black holes gobbling each other, and even echoes still ricocheting from the Big Bang that created the Universe. By studying the shape, frequency, and timing of gravitational waves, astronomers believe they can learn what's happening deep inside these acts of celestial violence.

The problem is, no one has ever directly detected gravitational waves: they're still a theoretical prediction. So no one truly knows what they "sound" like.

Furthermore, theorists expect the Universe to be booming with thousands of sources of gravitational waves. Unlike a regular telescope that can point to one part of the sky at a time, LISA receives gravitational waves from many directions at once. It's a cacophony. Astronomers must figure how to distinguish one signal from another. An outburst is detected! Was it caused by two neutron stars colliding over here or a pair of supermassive black holes tearing each other apart in colliding galaxies over there?
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A Wrinkle in Space-Time

NASA Space PlaceBy Trudy E. Bell

LISA's three spacecraft will be positioned at the corners of a triangle 5 million kilometers on a side and will be able to detect gravitational wave induced changes in their separation distance of as little as one billionth of a centimeter.
When a massive star reaches the end of its life, it can explode into a supernova rivaling the brilliance of an entire galaxy. What's left of the star fades in weeks, but its outer layers expand through space as a turbulent cloud of gases. Astronomers see beautiful remnants from past supernovas all around the sky, one of the most famous being the Crab Nebula in Taurus.

When a star throws off nine-tenths of its mass in a supernova, however, it also throws off nine-tenths of its gravitational field.

Astronomers see the light from supernovas. Can they also somehow sense the sudden and dramatic change in the exploding star's gravitational field?

Yes, they believe they can. According to Einstein's general theory of relativity, changes in the star's gravitational field should propagate outward, just like light -- indeed, at the speed of light.

Those propagating changes would be a gravitational wave.

Einstein said what we feel as a gravitational field arises from the fact that huge masses curve space and time. The more massive an object, the more it bends the three dimensions of space and the fourth dimension of time. And if a massive object's gravitational field changes suddenly -- say, when a star explodes -- it should kink or wrinkle the very geometry of space-time. Moreover, that wrinkle should propagate outward like ripples radiating outward in a pond from a thrown stone.

The frequency and timing of gravitational waves should reveal what's happening deep inside a supernova, in contrast to light, which is radiated from the surface. Thus, gravitational waves allow astronomers to peer inside the universe's most violent events -- like doctors peer at patients' internal organs using CAT scans. The technique is not limited to supernovas: colliding neutron stars, black holes and other exotic objects may be revealed, too.

NASA and the European Space Agency are now building prototype equipment for the first space experiment to measure gravitational waves: the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna, or LISA.

LISA will look for patterns of compression and stretching in space-time that signal the passage of a gravitational wave. Three small spacecraft will fly in a triangular formation behind the Earth, each beaming a laser at the other two, continuously measuring their mutual separation. Although the three 'craft will be 5 million kilometers apart, they will monitor their separation to one billionth of a centimeter, smaller than an atom's diameter, which is the kind of precision needed to sense these elusive waves.

LISA is slated for launch around 2015.

To learn more about LISA, go to http://lisa.jpl.nasa.gov. Kids can learn about LISA and do a gravitational wave interactive crossword at http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/en/kids/lisaxword/lisaxword.shtml.

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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Where No Spacecraft Has Gone Before

NASA Space Placeby Dr. Tony Phillips

Voyager 1, after 28 years of travel, has reached the heliosheath of our solar system. (Click image for larger view.)
In 1977, Voyager 1 left our planet. Its mission: to visit Jupiter and Saturn and to study their moons. The flybys were an enormous success. Voyager 1 discovered active volcanoes on Io, found evidence for submerged oceans on Europa, and photographed dark rings around Jupiter itself. Later, the spacecraft buzzed Saturn’s moon Titan—alerting astronomers that it was a very strange place indeed! —and flew behind Saturn’s rings, seeing what was hidden from Earth.

Beyond Saturn, Neptune and Uranus beckoned, but Voyager 1’s planet-tour ended there. Saturn’s gravity seized Voyager 1 and slingshot it into deep space. Voyager 1 was heading for the stars—just as NASA had planned.

Now, in 2005, the spacecraft is nine billion miles (96 astronomical units) from the Sun, and it has entered a strange region of space no ship has ever visited before.

"We call this region ‘the heliosheath.’ It’s where the solar wind piles up against the interstellar medium at the outer edge of our solar system," says Ed Stone, project scientist for the Voyager mission at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Out in the Milky Way, where Voyager 1 is trying to go, the "empty space" between stars is not really empty. It’s filled with clouds of gas and dust. The wind from the Sun blows a gigantic bubble in this cloudy "interstellar medium." All nine planets from Mercury to Pluto fit comfortably inside. The heliosheath is, essentially, the bubble’s skin.

"The heliosheath is different from any other place we’ve been," says Stone. Near the Sun, the solar wind moves at a million miles per hour. At the heliosheath, the solar wind slows eventually to a dead stop. The slowing wind becomes denser, more turbulent, and its magnetic field—a remnant of the sun’s own magnetism—grows stronger.

So far from Earth, this turbulent magnetic gas is curiously important to human life. "The heliosheath is a shield against galactic cosmic rays," explains Stone. Subatomic particles blasted in our direction by distant supernovas and black holes are deflected by the heliosheath, protecting the inner solar system from much deadly radiation.

Voyager 1 is exploring this shield for the first time. "We’ll remain inside the heliosheath for 8 to 10 years," predicts Stone, "then we’ll break through, finally reaching interstellar space."

What’s out there? Stay tuned…

For more about the twin Voyager spacecraft, visit voyager.jpl.nasa.gov. Kids can learn about Voyager 1 and 2 and their grand tour of the outer planets at spaceplace.nasa.gov/en/kids/vgr_fact3.shtml.

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