The first American to orbit the Earth has died. John Glenn was the last surviving member of the original Mercury astronauts. He would later have a long political career as a U.S. senator, but that didn’t stop his pioneering ways.

Glenn made history a second time in 1998, when he flew aboard the shuttle Discovery to become the oldest person to fly in space. Glenn was 95; he had been hospitalized in Columbus, Ohio, since last week.

Glenn had been battling health issues since a stroke a few years ago. His death was confirmed Thursday by This was confirmed to NPR by Hank Wilson, communications director of the John Glenn College of Public Affairs at the Ohio State University.

John Glenn, First American To Orbit The Earth, Dies At 95

Photo: NASA/Getty Images

What’s Up for December 2016?

What’s Up for December? Mars and Neptune above the crescent moon and a New Year’s Eve comet!

2016 ends with fireworks as three planets line up as if ejected from a Roman candle. Mercury, Venus and Mars are visible above the sunset horizon all month long. 

As Venus climbs higher in the sky, it looks brighter and larger than it appeared last month.

On New Year’s Eve, Mars and Neptune appear very close to each other. Through telescopes, rusty red Mars and blue-green Neptune‘s colors contrast beautifully.

There are two meteor showers this month – the Geminds and the Ursids. The best time to see the reliable Geminids will be next year, when the full moon won’t be so bright and interfering. This year, however, we may luck out and see some of the brighter meteors on the evening of the 13th and the morning of the 14th.

The best time to view the Ursids, radiating from Ursa Minor, or the little Dipper, will be from midnight on the 21st until about 1 a.m. on the 22nd, before the
moon rises. They may be active on the 23rd and 24th, too.

We haven’t had a good easy-to-see comet in quite a while, but beginning in December and through most of 2017 we will have several binocular and telescopic comets to view.

The first we’ll be able to see is Comet 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdušáková, which will appear low on the western horizon on December 15th. On that date, the comet will pass the pretty globular cluster M75. 

By the 21st, it will appear edge-on, sporting a bluish-green head and a thin, sharp view of the fan-shaped tail.

On New Years Eve, the comet and the crescent moon will rendezvous to say farewell to 2016. A “periodic” comet is a previously-identified comet that’s on a return visit. Periodic comet 45P returns to the inner solar system every 5.25 years, and that’s the one that will help us ring in the new year.

Watch the full What’s Up for December video: 

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Cool Space GIFs from the Internet

There’s a lot of historical and archived space footage on the internet and we’re excited to see that the public (you!) have taken it to create many other products that teach people about exploration, space and our universe. Among those products are GIFs. Those quick videos that help you express what you’re trying to say via text, or make you laugh while surfing the web.

Are space GIFs the new cat videos of the internet? Don’t know, but we sure do like them!

Here are a few neat space GIFs from the internet…

This GIF of the Cat Eye Nebula shows it in various wavelengths…

Followed by a GIF of a cat in space…floating in front of the Antennae galaxies

One time, a frog actually photobombed the launch of our LADEE spacecraft…someone on the internet gave him a parachute…

Want to see what it’s like to play soccer in space? There’s a GIF for that…

There are also some beautiful GIFs looking through the Cupola window on the International Space Station…

This warped footage from the International Space Station gives us ride around the Earth…

While this one encourages us to explore the unknown…

When our New Horizons spacecraft flew by dwarf planet Pluto in 2015, the internet couldn’t get enough of the Pluto GIFs…

NASA GIFs

Want to dive into a black hole of other fun space GIFs? Check out our GIPHY page HERE.

Want to use our GIFs?! You can! Our GIFs are accessible directly from the Twitter app. Just tap or click the GIF button in the Twitter tool bar, search for NASAGIF, and all NASA GIFs will appear for sharing and tweeting. Enjoy!

GIF Sources

Cat Eye GIF: https://giphy.com/gifs/astronomy-cZpDWjSlKjWPm
Cat GIF: https://giphy.com/gifs/cat-HopYL0SamcCli
Frog GIF: https://giphy.com/gifs/nasa-photo-rocket-NOsCSDT2rUgfK
Soccer GIF: https://giphy.com/gifs/yahoo-astronauts-zerogravity-QF1ZomA11zofC
Cupola 1 GIF: https://giphy.com/gifs/nasa-Mcoxp6TgvQm6A
Cupola 2 GIF: https://giphy.com/gifs/timelapse-space-11f3o8D2rQWzCM
Earth GIF: http://giphy.com/gifs/earth-milky-way-international-space-station-ONC6WgECm5KEw
Explore GIF: https://giphy.com/gifs/text-timelapse-lapse-Vj7gwAvhgsDYs
Pluto 1 GIF: https://giphy.com/gifs/l46CzjUnYFfeMXiNO
Pluto 2 GIF: https://giphy.com/gifs/pluto-dbV1LkFWWob84

Make sure to follow us on Tumblr for your regular dose of space: http://nasa.tumblr.com

Moonset Viewed From the International Space Station : Expedition 47 Flight Engineer Tim Peake of ESA took this striking photograph of the moon from his vantage point aboard the International Space Station on March 28, 2016. Peake shared the image on March 30 and wrote to his social media followers, I was looking for #Antarctica hard to spot from our orbit. Settled for a moonset instead.

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IC 1848: The Soul Nebula : Stars are forming in the Soul of the Queen of Aethopia. More specifically, a large star forming region called the Soul Nebula can be found in the direction of the constellation Cassiopeia, who Greek mythology credits as the vain wife of a King who long ago ruled lands surrounding the upper Nile river. The Soul Nebula houses several open clusters of stars, a large radio source known as W5, and huge evacuated bubbles formed by the winds of young massive stars. Located about 6,500 light years away, the Soul Nebula spans about 100 light years and is usually imaged next to its celestial neighbor the Heart Nebula . The featured image appears mostly red due to the emission of a specific color of light emitted by excited hydrogen gas. via NASA

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Hickson 91 in Piscis Austrinus : Scanning the skies for galaxies, Canadian astronomer Paul Hickson and colleagues identified some 100 compact groups of galaxies, now appropriately called Hickson Compact Groups . This sharp telescopic image captures one such galaxy group, HCG 91, in beautiful detail. The groups three colorful spiral galaxies at the center of the field of view are locked in a gravitational tug of war, their interactions producing faint but visible tidal tails over 100,000 light-years long. Their close encounters trigger furious star formation. On a cosmic timescale the result will be a merger into a large single galaxy, a process now understood to be a normal part of the evolution of galaxies, including our own Milky Way. HCG 91 lies about 320 million light-years away in the constellation Piscis Austrinus. But the impressively deep image also catches evidence of fainter tidal tails and galaxy interactions close to 2 billion light-years distant. via NASA

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The W in Cassiopeia : A familiar, zigzag, W pattern in northern constellation Cassiopeia is traced by five bright stars in this colorful and broad mosaic. Stretching about 15 degrees across rich starfields, the celestial scene includes dark clouds, bright nebulae, and star clusters along the Milky Way. In yellow-orange hues Cassiopeias alpha star Shedar is a standout though. The yellowish giant star is cooler than the Sun, over 40 times the solar diameter, and so luminous it shines brightly in Earths night from 230 light-years away. A massive, rapidly rotating star at the center of the W, bright Gamma Cas is about 550 light-years distant. Bluish Gamma Cas is much hotter than the Sun. Its intense, invisible ultraviolet radiation ionizes hydrogen atoms in nearby interstellar clouds to produce visible red H-alpha emission as the atoms recombine with electrons. Of course, night skygazers in the Alpha Centauri star system would also see the recognizable outline traced by Cassiopeias bright stars. But from their perspective a mere 4.3 light-years away they would see our Sun as a sixth bright star in Cassiopeia, extending the zigzag pattern just beyond the left edge of this frame. via NASA

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COULD THERE BE LIFE IN PLUTO’S OCEAN?

Pluto is thought to possess a subsurface ocean, which is not so much a sign of water as it is a tremendous clue that other dwarf planets in deep space also may contain similarly exotic oceans, naturally leading to the question of life, said one co-investigator with NASA’s New Horizon mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt.

William McKinnon, professor of Earth and planetary sciences in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis and a co-author on two of four new Pluto studies published Dec. 1 in Nature, argues that beneath the heart-shaped region on Pluto known as Sputnik Planitia there lies an ocean laden with ammonia.

The presence of the pungent, colorless liquid helps to explain not only Pluto’s orientation in space but also the persistence of the massive, ice-capped ocean that other researchers call “slushy” – but McKinnon prefers to depict as syrupy.

Using computer models along with topographical and compositional data culled from the New Horizon spacecraft’s July 2015 flyby of Pluto, McKinnon led a study on Sputnik Planitia’s churning nitrogen ice surface that appeared this past June in Nature. He is also an author on the recently released study regarding the orientation and gravity of Pluto caused by this subsurface ocean some 600 miles wide and more than 50 miles thick.

“In fact, New Horizons has detected ammonia as a compound on Pluto’s big moon, Charon, and on one of Pluto’s small moons. So it’s almost certainly inside Pluto,” McKinnon said. “What I think is down there in the ocean is rather noxious, very cold, salty and very ammonia-rich – almost a syrup.

“It’s no place for germs, much less fish or squid, or any life as we know it,” he added. “But as with the methane seas on Titan – Saturn’s main moon – it raises the question of whether some truly novel life forms could exist in these exotic, cold liquids.”

As humankind explores deeper into the Kuiper Belt and farther from Earth, this means to McKinnon the possible discovery of more such subsurface seas and more potential for exotic life.

“The idea that bodies of Pluto’s scale, of which there are more than one out there in the Kuiper Belt, they could all have these kinds of oceans. But they’d be very exotic compared to what we think of as an ocean,” McKinnon said.

“Life can tolerate a lot of stuff: It can tolerate a lot of salt, extreme cold, extreme heat, etc. But I don’t think it can tolerate the amount of ammonia Pluto needs to prevent its ocean from freezing – ammonia is a superb antifreeze. Not that ammonia is all bad. On Earth, microorganisms in the soil fix nitrogen to ammonia, which is important for making DNA and proteins and such.

“If you’re going to talk about life in an ocean that’s completely covered with an ice shell, it seems most likely that the best you could hope for is some extremely primitive kind of organism. It might even be pre-cellular, like we think the earliest life on Earth was.”

The newly published research delves into the creation – likely by a 125-mile-wide Kuiper Belt object striking Pluto more than 4 billion years ago – of the basin that includes Sputnik Planitia.

The collapse of the huge crater lifts Pluto’s subsurface ocean, and the dense water – combined with dense surface nitrogen ice that fills in the hole – forms a huge mass excess that causes Pluto to tip over, reorienting itself with respect to its big moon.

But the ocean uplift won’t last if warm water ice at the base of the covering ice shell can flow and adjust in the manner of glaciers on Earth. Add enough ammonia to the water, and it can chill to incredibly cold temperatures (down to minus 145 Fahrenheit) and still be liquid, even if quite viscous, like chilled pancake syrup. At these temperatures, water ice is rigid, and the uplifted surface ocean becomes permanent.

“All of these ideas about an ocean inside Pluto are credible, but they are inferences, not direct detections,” McKinnon said, sounding the call. “If we want to confirm that such an ocean exists, we will need gravity measurements or subsurface radar sounding, all of which could be accomplished by a future orbiter mission to Pluto. It’s up to the next generation to pick up where New Horizons left off!”