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Picture Perfect Pluto

2 Jul

Mysteries of the solar system’s misfit planet may finally be solved this month as NASA’s New Horizons space probe approaches Pluto to shed light on the ex-planet we’ve left well within the darkness.

On July 14th 2015 Pluto’s eerie appearance will come into view and it is sure to astound us all.

Hurtling at over 9000 kilometres per hour, the New Horizons probe is near the end of its epic journey to view Pluto and it’s moon system like never before. The probe will soon finish its near decade long trip and finally fall within the orbit of this strange body to help us understand far flung dwarf planets and their neighbours.

What do we know?

At over 4.6 billion kilometres away and smaller than our moon, it is no wonder so little is known about this ex-planet that was eradicated from the big boys league in 2006.

What we do know is that it is extremely cold this far from the sun. Temperatures on Pluto can plummet to lower than -400 degrees Fahrenheit that’s -240 degrees Celsius.

This dwarf planet is thought to have up to 5 orbiting satellites close by but scientists believe this number could be significantly higher due to Pluto hanging over the edge of the extremely vast Kuiper Belt.

Currently we know Pluto’s atmosphere is comprised of the solar system’s usual elemental suspects, Nitrogen, Methane and Carbon Monoxide.

From previous distant observations we see Pluto as a dark yellow, almost sand coloured world, with white highlights across its surface which raises a number of questions regarding its exact composition.

Much like many of our other celestial friends Pluto is likely to be covered with craters caused by large scale impacts since its creation. Early observations have suggested that this world should be somewhat more scarred by heavy bombardments however, there is already a solution to this theory.

Large rifts on the surface of Pluto suggest dynamic geological processes including geysers, that could possibly be spewing liquid methane into the atmosphere, which could point to a warm planetary core.

What we don’t know

Possibly the most exciting thing about Pluto that scientists across the globe are speculating is, what will it look like? Many people have drastically different ideas about how the landscape of Pluto will look. Now, finally, with the help of New Horizons we can start to see the real face of this aptly named plutoid.

Clues to Pluto’s landscape may be shaped by possible past impacts and events. Pluto’s closets moon Charon is likely to have been created when the dwarf planet and another massive body collided in an almost cataclysmic event. Much like our own moons formation, this huge impact would have thrown out dust and debris away from these objects only to be captured by the gravity of the mostly still intact Pluto.

This event may have paved the way for an equatorial mountain range being formed much like we see in moons and planets throughout our local neighbourhood. Perhaps Pluto may harbour lakes of liquid neon or even giant ice fractures on its surface much like Saturn’s moon Enceladus.

Pluto’s Polar Regions may end up looking very similar to our own in aesthetics and could even consist of mountain high ice caps during seasonal frosts.

The possibilities are endless

As the New Horizons probe edges closer and closer to this distant world we will begin to see her a little clearer with every mile.

Working with one of NASAs most advanced telescopes and image capture systems it is highly likely New Horizons will be treating us to some spectacular views of the far reaches of our celestial neighbourhood.

We may finally now gain insight into one of the solar systems most bizarre bodies as well as improve our knowledge of all dwarf planets and the other thousands of Kuiper Belt objects.


The Shuttle Fleet: Where Are They Now?

23 Jul Getty Images

It was a mere one year ago that NASA’s Atlantis orbiter landed and docked to see the end of the inspirational Space Shuttle Program. After 30 years transiting from Earth to the International Space Station (ISS) the last three shuttles with space flight time have finally all taken refuge on terra firma. Gaze upon these magnificent machines as they once gazed upon you in orbit above our planet. The shuttles will be housed from coast to coast across America surely to inspire the span of the nation. So where will these craft end up?

Space Shuttle Discovery, the first of the three to hang up its boosters, will be on show at the National Air and Space Museum annex at Washington Dulles International Airport, Virginia. There it will be housed with some of the most famous and innovative aeronautic machines ever created and conceived by human kind. Discovery was the first to fly after the disaster of the Challenger shuttle in 1986. Now the ship can rest safely in the appreciation and awe of those that choose to visit.

Endeavour has taken shelter on the other side of the USA at the California Science Center in Los Angeles ever since its last mission in May 2011. Separate to its siblings, Endeavour will enlighten thousands of visitors on the West Coast as they flock to catch a glimpse of history. It will sit proudly as the museums centre piece and crowd pleaser.

When Atlantis landed after the final STS mission on the 21st July 2011 many were surprised to have even seen it leave the Earth. Unfortunately this ship was scheduled to be scrapped and used for parts for the remaining craft on the program. Luckily and somewhat under economic strain, NASA decided to extend its tenure and Atlantis ended up delivering some very important loads to the ISS.

Atlantis will remain were her journey began at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida, under the observation of those that constructed and flew within all these grand and glorious machines.

[COSMIC BODIES] – What is WR-104?

26 Jul

What is WR-104 and does it pose a threat to Planet Earth?

Discovered only in 1998 poetically named WR-104 is massive star system located in the constellation Sagittarius. It is what is known as a binary star system consisting of a pair of stars orbiting each other. It takes roughly around 8 months for WD-104 (the name of the bigger of the two, WD meaning White Dwarf) and its OB-type partner (name given to a young, blue star) to orbit each other. Both will live for a few hundred thousand years, side-by-side, constantly ripping each other apart. Living this distance in time generally means all the stars are young which causes them to shine a brilliant blue or bluish white. Burning slightly less bright than a full moon, as seen by an observer, this star system has secrets that scientists have rushed to uncover in recent years.

WR-104 joins many other systems with the initials W and R, named after Charles Wolf and George Rayet, two French Astronomers who were the first to discover one of these massive stars in 1867. When these star types are described as massive it really means massive, not the biggest in the Universe but still nearly 20 times the mass of our own Sun. WR type stars have very short lives, in the scope of the universe that is, and exist for just a heartbeat compared to its celestial companions. Once they have used all their nuclear energy they go the same way as all stars by first collapsing in and exploding out. This explosion will release more energy in one second than our Sun will release in its entire life. Wolf-Rayet stars will burn 200,000 times brighter than the Sun due to solar winds that have ripped off its outer layers to reveal the inner core of hydrogen converting into helium gas combustion that burns this bright blue.

The star system is particularly interesting however due to the spiral shape dust remnants that are being dragged behind the orbiting bodies. This occurs because of the two interacting and compressing eachs radioactive material, which was left behind after their birth, causing it to follow the stars in their cosmic dance.

Another point of interest fixed to this star are its poles. Every celestial body has a north and south pole made clearer by its point of rotation or ‘wobble’. The reason why WR-104’s is so interesting is because scientists believe that one of the poles could be pointed straight at Planet Earth. ‘WR-104 is a fascinating object that got a lot of press last spring’, says Dr Grant Hill who works on the Keck Telescope, ‘Since the object is in our galaxy, it could be devastating [for Earth]’. The system is situated 4,800 light years away from the Sun but this is still close enough to be blasted by a Gamma-Ray burst that will be emitted when this star goes Supernova. Supernova is the name given to massive stars when they collapse and explode. This Gamma-Ray burst could stream through the cosmos and rip anything, thats in the way, apart. The radioactive beam would tear layers of the Earth’s crust from the core and deem all life extinct.

It is thought however that previous calculations of the star’s axis being 16 degrees of Earth are incorrect and the sum is now thought to be 30-40 degrees. So WR-104 doesn’t seem to pose as bigger threat than once feared…

NASA says ‘God Speed’ to 30 Year Shuttle Program

21 Jul

Today marks the end of the United States Space Shuttle Program as the last member of the fleet, Orbiter Atlantis, lands from its final mission before being inscribed into history. Once the ship had safely touched terra firma once more this signaled the end of NASA’s iconic space exploration program after three decades. After the ship had landed NASA had remarked that Atlantis and the rest of the fleet had ‘Fired the imagination of a generation’. So what next for the Worlds greatest superpower and their pole position in the space race?

The Space Shuttle program has now been retired after 30 years and 135 missions at the forefront of global space travel and transportation. Flight costs and the fact that the shuttles primary objective to aid the construction of the International Space Station, that is almost complete, have urged NASA and the US government to call it a day on Atlantis and her sister ships.

Columbia was the first space worthy shuttle that conducted the opening mission STS -1 when it launched from the Kennedy Space Centre, Florida on April 12th 1981. The Shuttle consisted of an Orbiter Vehicle, two solid rocket boosters and an external fuel tank. Commander John Young and Pilot Robert Crippen, two of NASA’s finest, flew the Shuttle and according to the space agency embodied ‘exceptional expertise and experience’. The primary objective was to test atmospheric pressures forced on the ship as the craft was very much still in a developmental stage. After the mission was completed the then President of the United States Ronald Regan said ‘the landing of Columbia…. marks our entrance into a new era’. Charging the excitement and expectations of an entire nation not to mention the rest of the World.

The program was primarily successful over the three decades it was running. Missions included deploying satellites, conducting experiments in orbit with the use of ‘SpaceLab’ and even docking with the Russian Space Station ‘MIR’. Disaster also plagued the shuttle missions with the loss of both Challenger in 1986 and the original ship Columbia in 2003. Destroyed due to mechanical failure on exit and re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere respectively. All Shuttle launches were suspended for two and half years after a report issued, by US congress, that the safety crew ‘failed to adequately assess anomalies and frequently accepted critical risks without qualitative or quantitative support’.

For the near future America will rely on its former adversary in the space race, Russia, for its transportation of astronauts and scientific payloads to the International Space Station.

Now the program has come to the end of its manoeuvres, America will be looking elsewhere for its commercial space flight vehicles. Private aerospace and development companies have been interlocked in a race to sign the contract for the next fleet of manned space vehicles. NASA believes to have found this craft, Lockheed Martin’s ‘Orion’, but budget cuts and behind schedule construction has brought a slow transition into preparation for its supposedly maiden flight in 2015. Described by NASA chief Michael Griffin as ‘Apollo on steroids’, Orion will be the front-runner in NASA’s Constellation program, a model name for the agency’s missions to the moon, mars and beyond. The design is in fact loosely based on the program that sent the first man to the moon. Is this the giant leap mankind had in mind, or one step back in time?

At least for now the world should celebrate the work this program, and NASA, has done for our planet and will continue to do far beyond this date. Today is a moment in modern history that the entire globe ought to saver because it maybe a while until man steps out into the universe again.