Illusions in the Cosmic Clouds : Pareidolia is the psychological phenomenon where people see recognizable shapes in clouds, rock formations, or otherwise unrelated objects or data. There are many examples of this phenomenon on Earth and in space.

When an image from NASAs Chandra X-ray Observatory of PSR B1509-58 a spinning neutron star surrounded by a cloud of energetic particles was released in 2009, it quickly gained attention because many saw a hand-like structure in the X-ray emission.

In a new image of the system, X-rays from Chandra in gold are seen along with infrared data from NASAs Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer telescope in red, green and blue. Pareidolia may strike again as some people report seeing a shape of a face in WISEs infrared data. What do you see?

NASAs Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array, or NuSTAR, also took a picture of the neutron star nebula in 2014, using higher-energy X-rays than Chandra.

PSR B1509-58 is about 17,000 light-years from Earth.

JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the WISE mission for NASA. NASAs Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, manages the Chandra program for. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts, controls Chandras science and flight operations.

Image Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO; Infrared: NASA/JPL-Caltech

100 Million Stars in the Andromeda Galaxy  : What stars compose the Andromeda galaxy? To better understand, a group of researchers studied the nearby spiral by composing the largest image ever taken with the Hubble Space Telescope. The result, called the Panchromatic Hubble Andromeda Treasury (PHAT), involved thousands of observations, hundreds of fields, spanned about a third of the galaxy, and resolved over 100 million stars. In the featured composite image, the central part of the galaxy is seen on the far left, while a blue spiral arm is prominent on the right. The brightest stars, scattered over the frame, are actually Milky Way foreground stars. The PHAT data is being analyzed to better understand where and how stars have formed in M31 in contrast to our Milky Way Galaxy, and to identify and characterize Andromedas stellar clusters and obscuring dust. via NASA



We’re creating an early-warning system for possible meteorites…

Two years ago a huge meteorite smashed into the Chelyabinsk, Russia.

It caused $30,000,000 in damage and injured around 1,500 people.

It’s thought by many that the mighty dinosaurs were wiped out by a single meteorite impact.

These colossal events are actually preventable… given enough time.

The Planetary Society is campaigning to raise money to put together an early warning system that would give us enough time to prevent disaster assuming the next meteorite’s bigger than the one that hit Chelyabinsk.

I’m putting out a personal plea for help with this campaign. 

The effort is called the Shoemaker NEO Grant program. It will attain grants for astronomers who seek to track Near Earth Objects that endanger life on Earth.

Our goal is a mere $5000 and we’re halfway there already. It would be enormously helpful to the cause if you gave even a dollar, or if not simply shared awareness of us.

It’s hard to convince governments to put money towards useful projects sometimes and so here we are, appealing straight to humanity and the power of crowdsourcing.

Donate to Shoemaker NEO Grant Program here.

Thank you!

NASA-Funded Study Finds Two Solar Wind Jets in the Heliosphere

NASA logo / NASA - IBEX Mission patch.

March 3, 2015

As the sun skims through the galaxy, it emits charged particles in a stream of plasma called the solar wind. The solar wind, in turn, creates a bubble known called the heliosphere that extends far beyond the planets of the solar system. For decades, scientists have visualized the heliosphere as shaped like a comet, with a very long tail extending some 464 billion miles, which is thousands of times as far as the distance from Earth to the sun.

Image above: A new simulation of the heliosphere – the magnetic bubble surrounding the sun – shows it to have two relatively short jets streaming away from the nose. Image Credit: M. Opher/Reproduced by permission of the AAS.

New NASA-funded research now suggests that the heliosphere is actually dominated by two giant jets of material shooting backwards over the north and south poles of the sun, which are confined by the interaction of the sun’s magnetic field with the interstellar magnetic field. These curve around in two—relatively short – tails toward the back. The end result is a heliosphere without that long tail; a heliosphere that looks a lot more like a crescent moon than a comet. What’s more, the two jets are similar to other astrophysical jets seen in space, so studying them locally could open doors to understanding such jets throughout the universe. The research is described in a paper in Astrophysical Journal Letters, which appeared online on Feb. 19, 2015.

"Everyone’s assumption has been that the shape of the heliosphere was molded by the flow of interstellar material passing around it," said Merav Opher, an astronomer at Boston University, who is lead author on the paper. "Scientists thought the solar wind flowing down the tail could easily pull the magnetic fields in the heliosphere along as it flowed by, creating this long tail. But it turns out the magnetic fields are strong enough to resist that pull – so instead they squeeze the solar wind and create these two jets."

Opher and her colleagues found the jets and determined the new shape when they adjusted simulations of the heliosphere based on observations collected from NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft, which recently moved outside of the heliosphere into interstellar space. As the first man-made object outside of our solar system, Voyager provided our only glimpse so far of the interstellar medium and it provided one giant surprise: The magnetic fields out there were aligned pretty much the same as the ones in here, though it had long been expected they would be oriented in a different direction.

Images above: Scientists think the magnetic bubble around our sun may look more like the shortened one as seen in this image of the star BZ Cam (left), as opposed to the long one as seen around the star Mira (right). Image Credit: NASA/Casalegno/GALEX.

Opher — along with space scientist Jim Drake at the University of Maryland in College Park who is a co-author on the paper – had previously created models based on computer code developed by space physicists at the University of Michigan of the heliosphere. Their previous work focused on the nose of the heliosphere, trying to understand the physics there as we hurtle through space. To see if they could replicate the unexpected Voyager results, the team created a higher resolution simulation.

The new simulation described a heliosphere unlike one considered before.

“The Voyagers had a flashlight in the kitchen, and nobody was looking in the attic,” she remarks. “We noticed, while studying the draping of the galaxy’s magnetic field around the nose, that the heliosphere was much shorter than we anticipated.”

Instead of being dominated solely by the flow of the interstellar material to create a long tail, the shape of the heliosphere is also affected by the solar wind jets emanating from the sun, said Drake.

"If there were no interstellar flow, then the magnetic fields around the sun would shape the solar wind into two jets pointing straight north and south," said Drake. "The magnetic fields contract around these jets, shooting the solar wind out like squishing a tube of toothpaste."

In the presence of the interstellar flow, these jets are bowed backwards, creating a crescent shape, as seen from the side of the sun. The jets erode in the presence of the strong interstellar flow, leading to two attenuated, short tails. This leads to a much shorter heliosphere of only about 250 times the distance between Earth and the sun, or about 23 billion miles.

Image above: The yellow shape is the heliopause, the boundary between the heliosphere and the local interstellar medium. The sun sits at the center of this bubble, but is too small to be seen here. The gray lines are the solar magnetic field lines and the red lines are the interstellar magnetic field. Image Credit: M. Opher.

"Not only is the heliosphere’s shape different from what people thought," said Drake. "But the mechanism for these jets is the same as in many astrophysical systems. Astrophysical jets elsewhere produce energetic particles, but they are remote and hard to diagnose. Our jets are nearby so we might be able to figure out how they produce the energetic particles measured in the heliosphere."

To support their heliosphere model, the scientists turned to additional observations of the tail. Both NASA’s Cassini and Interstellar Boundary Explorer, or IBEX, have gathered information about the tail end of the heliosphere by looking at what’s called energetic neutral atoms, or ENAs. ENAs are created by energetic particle collisions in space and conveniently travel in straight lines, unlike many other particles in space. Observing ENAs traveling in from a certain area, therefore, can be used to map that region.

"Cassini data showed a similar amount of ENAs from the tail and the nose," said Opher.  "Suggesting that the size of both sides was similar, which means a short tail."

An IBEX paper from 2013 also described as a two-lobed shape down the tail. Opher and Drake suggest that the lobes observed might actually have been the two jets with interstellar, non-heliospheric material in between. The paper on the IBEX results, however, interpreted the heliosphere as having a long tail.

With such previous results, Opher expects the new model to be controversial. “This is going to be heavily, heavily debated,” she said, pointing out that many scientists work from the traditional comet-shaped model of the heliosphere. But, said Opher, the out-of-the-box results coming from spacecraft observations demand a similarly unconventional explanation.

In the meantime, these newly postulated jets look like baby versions of the super-powered jets that exist around exotic objects like black holes and pulsars. They are also seen around proto-stars just being born.  Being able to study these jets in our own backyard provides a homegrown laboratory in which to study a structure that is seen everywhere in the universe.

“If we’re right about all of this, it gives us a local test bed for exploring some very important physics,” said Drake.

Related Links:

More on IBEX and the heliotail:

New View of the Solar System: Astrophysical Jets Driven by the Sun:

New Vision of the Final Frontier:

Images (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Karen C. Fox.

Full article

NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day 2015 March 3

A Dust Devil on Mars

It was late in the northern martian spring when the HiRISE camera onboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spied this local denizen. Tracking across the flat, dust-covered Amazonis Planitia in 2012, the core of this whirling dust devil is about 140 meters in diameter. Lofting dust into the thin martian atmosphere, its plume reaches about 20 kilometers above the surface. Common to this region of Mars, dust devils occur as the surface is heated by the Sun, generating warm, rising air currents that begin to rotate. Tangential wind speeds of up to 110 kilometers per hour are reported for dust devils in other HiRISE images.

The Day After Mars : October 31, 1938 was the day after Martians encountered planet Earth, and everything was calm. Reports of the invasion were revealed to be part of a Halloween radio drama, the now famous broadcast based on H.G. Wells’ scifi novel War of the Worlds. On Mars October 20, 2014 was calm too, the day after its close encounter with Comet Siding Spring. Not a hoax, this comet really did come within 86,700 miles or so of Mars, about 1/3 the Earth-Moon distance. Earth’s spacecraft and rovers in Mars orbit and on the surface reported no ill effects though, and had a ringside seat as a visitor from the outer solar system passed by. Spanning over 2 degrees against stars of the constellation Ophiuchus, this colorful telescopic snapshot captures our view of Mars on the day after. Bluish star 51 Ophiuchi is at the upper right and the comet is just emerging from the Red Planet’s bright glare. via NASA

100 years ago today, NASA’s predecessor, the NACA, was founded.

The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), a research organization devoted to promoting the advance of aeronautics research, was founded on March 3, 1915. The NACA’s research served as the foundation of this nation’s space flight programs and it’s resources and personnel were absorbed by NASA on October 1, 1958.

Fun Fact: The NACA employees pronounced their organization’s name by the letter, instead of as a word, as NASA employees do.

Learn more about NACA here:


135 in 135

Orbiter: OV-102, Columbia.  Columbia was built in 1975 by Rockwell International, where she became the first official orbiter in the Space Shuttle fleet.

Mission:  STS-1, the first crewed test of a Space Shuttle in space.  Columbia spent two days in space, testing critical systems on board the orbiter.  STS-1 was one of two missions launched with a painted External Fuel tank, which turned out to be too heavy and was abandoned, freeing up 600 pounds for additional payloads.  She carried a single, small payload to test the spacecraft’s performance and stress on the vehicle during launch, ascent, orbit, descent, and landing.  Following a complete successful test, the Space Shuttle was verified as ‘spaceworthy.’

Launch Date/Location: April 12, 1981.  Kennedy Space Center, Launch Complex 39A.

Crew: John Young (Gemini 3, Gemini 10, Apollo 10, Apollo 16), Robert Crippen (first flight)

Payload: Development Flight Instrumentation (DFI).  DFI contained sensors and devices to measure Columbia’s performance through her entire flight.

Landing Date/Location: April 14, 1981 (2d 6h 20m 53s flight time).  Runway 23 (lake bed), Edwards Air Force Base, California.

On Sunday, March 1, Expedition 42 Flight Engineer Terry Virts and Commander Barry “Butch” Wilmore ventured outside the International Space Station for their third spacewalk in eight days. Virts and Wilmore completed installing 400 feet of cable and several antennas associated with the Common Communications for Visiting Vehicles system known as C2V2. Boeing’s Crew Transportation System (CST)-100 and the SpaceX Crew Dragon will use the system in the coming years to rendezvous with the orbital laboratory and deliver crews to the space station.

Virts (@AstroTerry) tweeted this photograph and wrote, “Out on the P3 truss. #AstroButch handing me his cable to install on the new antenna. #spacewalk”