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Space Vacations and Alien Planets

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By Zach Hofstad

December was sure an event-filled month in space.

NASA’s Scott Kelly is preparing to be the first American to spend one continuous year in space. Kelly and his Russian cosmonaut crewmember, Mikhail Kornienko, will begin their yearlong vacation March 27, 2015, where they are scheduled to launch from Kazakhstan to the exotic resort that is the International Space Station. Talk about a having a great view.

NASA says the long-duration mission is critical to learning more about how humans and the human body reacts to being in space for long periods of time. The mission serves as a catalyst for future endeavors that fly humans to Mars. Kelly says learning about the human body, psychologically and physically, and how people live and work in space for longer durations is a crucial step in that process of bringing people to Mars someday. Lockheed Martin’s ORION Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle would be the ideal spacecraft for such a mission, as it just concluded its first successful test flight around Earth December 5. The average distance between Earth and Mars is 225 million km, where the two celestial bodies reach their closest point to one another approximately every two years. Because of this astronauts will need to spend at least a year in space just to get to Mars.

I for one am getting excited just thinking about it.

Kelly will undergo a variety of experiments that will track the way his bones, eyes and other parts of the body change over the course of the year-long mission, about 19 in total. Kornienko will also take part in space station experiments, some specifically with his space agency, Roscosmos, and some collaboratively with Kelly and NASA.

The two future roommates said they are both excited about the mission, and are looking forward to continuing their friendship in the efforts of science.

On another note, NASA has discovered a new alien planet, and people are saying it is Earth ‘2.0.’

Dubbed a ‘super Earth,’ NASA’s exoplanet-seeking spacecraft, Kepler, made the discovery and researchers made the announcement December 18.

With a name that easily rolls off the tongue, HIP116454b is 2.5 times larger than Earth, and is 180 light-years away in the Pisces constellation. The alien planet circles its host star every nine days, but is too hot to host life as we know it. The planet’s density suggests it is either primarily covered by water or is a “mini Neptune” with a thick, gaseous atmosphere. Due to its close proximity to Earth, HIP11654b is expected to be a top target for satellites in the future.

Kepler launched in 2009 and was incredibly successful in its initial mission by finding nearly 1,000 planets around the Milky Way galaxy. The spacecraft seemed doomed in May 2013 when a malfunction disabled the telescope, but with the help of from scientists around the world and numerous alternative mission proposals, Kepler and a new mission was salvaged.

How does one find/locate/discover alien planets? Easy. According to Space.com, there are seven ways to discover alien planets.

  1. The Transit Method – Scientists watch for small, indicatory dips in a star’s brightness levels caused when a celestial body crosses the star’s face, blocking some of its light. The timing of the transit is also key, because it can reveal the presence of additional worlds orbiting the same star.
  2. The Radial Velocity Method – Also known as the Doppler method, scientists observe any small wobbles an orbiting planet induces in its parent’s star’s motion toward or away from Earth.
  3. Gravitational Microlensing – Astronomers watch what happens when a massive object passes in front of a star from our view from Earth. The object’s gravitational field bends and magnifies the light from the distant star, like a lens. This produces a light curve — a brightening and fading of the faraway star’s light over time — whose characteristics tell astronomers a lot about the foreground object, which is often a star. If this star has any planets, these can generate secondary light curves, alerting researchers to their presence.
  4. Direct Imaging – Self-explanatory. Getting actual images from distant worlds with powerful telescopes using instruments called coronagraphs.
  5. Pulsar Timing – This one is specific to planets around pulsars, tiny, super-dense remains of exploded stars that emit radio waves at regular intervals as they rotate. Anomalies in the timing of these radio pulses can reveal the presence of orbiting planets. The first worlds ever discovered beyond our solar system were found using this method back in 1992.
  6. Harnessing Special Relativity – Astronomers watch for a star to brighten as it’s tugged by an orbiting planet, causing photons to “pile up” in energy and light to be focused in the direction of the star’s motion due to relativistic effects.
  7. Astrometry – Astrometry relies on the ultraprecise tracking of a star’s movements on the sky to spot the gravitational tugs of orbiting planets.

 

So while our new buddy HIP116454b may not be the habitable planet many people have hoped for, the discovery is still a milestone for NASA and the space community.

NASA and their commercial space efforts are beyond influential when it comes to space exploration and the questions: What’s out there? Can these mystery worlds and planets hold life? How can we get more information about these places? The future is truly bright for the world of space exploration.

Godspeed.

Image credit: TIME, Wikipedia

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