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NASA sent a balloon to observe ‘electric’ blue clouds, and they sure are pretty

We’re used to NASA dropping gorgeous photos of far-off objects in space, but its most recent observations are much closer to home. In a new post on its website, NASA reveals the results of a mission that was conducted in early July of this year which saw a large balloon soar 50 miles into the sky to study clouds.

The target of the mission was a band of clouds known as PMCs. These “polar meospheric clouds” are thin and wispy, but they might hold clues that could reveal the mechanisms that control turbulence in Earth’s atmosphere.

“From what we’ve seen so far, we expect to have a really spectacular dataset from this mission,” Dave Fritts, principal investigator of the PMC Turbo mission — that’s the one with the big balloon — said in a statement. “Our cameras were likely able to capture some really interesting events and we hope will provide new insights into these complex dynamics.”

The powerful observation tools that NASA sent skyward captured an absolutely incredible amount of data. NASA says that the ballon snapped a whopping 6 million images during its flight, and that it filled 120 terabytes of storage. That’s a whole lot of cloud photos. NASA Goddard has published a nice little explainer video to YouTube that offers a crash course in why this kind of research is being conducted, which you can see above.

The information will help the scientists better understand both the turbulence in our planet’s upper atmosphere as well as the nature of turbulence in fluids elsewhere in the universe. NASA says it could even help make weather forecasts more accurate.

“Understanding a wide range of processes in near-Earth space — including how they interact with Earth’s atmosphere and weather — is a key part of NASA’s heliophysics research, which employs a full squad of satellites and sub-orbital instruments to observe different phenomena from different perspectives,” NASA says.

Gorgeous new Hubble photo shows hundreds of galaxies ready to be explored

To us puny humans, Earth is a pretty big place. There’s lots to see, do, and explore here on the planet where we originated. We should be pretty happy with our circumstances, but space is full of planets that hold untold secrets that are just too tantalizing to ignore. A new photo from the trusty Hubble Space Telescope offers a tiny glimpse at why lies beyond.

The image, which looks like it was yanked right out of a science fiction blockbuster. shows a massive collection of galaxies. Each one is packed with stars and many of those stars likely have planets, moons, and all kinds of other neat stuff orbiting them. How many of those planets are habitable? How many, if any, already hold life? We might never know.

“In the northern constellation of Coma Berenices (Berenice’s Hair) lies the impressive Coma Cluster —  a structure of over a thousand galaxies bound together by gravity,” NASA explains.

The massive bright flash in the middle of the image is a galaxy called NGC 4860, which is an elliptical galaxy located some 360 million light years away. The more colorful structure to the left of the image is NGC 4858, a spiral galaxy with long, outstretched arms which are rapidly forming red-hot new stars. But there’s something else that makes NGC 4858 unique.

“NGC 4858 is special,” NASA says. “Rather than being a simple spiral, it is something called a ‘galaxy aggregate,’ which is as the name suggests a central galaxy surrounded by a handful of luminous knots of material that seem to stem from it, extending and tearing away and adding to or altering its overall structure. It is also experiencing an extremely high rate of star formation, possibly triggered by an earlier interaction with another galaxy.”

NASA says that NGC 4858 is using its gas to form new stars so fast that it will exhaust its reserves well in advance of the galaxy actually dying. Of course, thanks to the speed of light we’re seeing the galaxy as it was millions of years ago, and it might be totally unrecognizable if we were to see what it actually looks like today.

Uh oh, there might be something wrong with NASA’s Curiosity rover now

NASA’s rover situation on Mars is, well, complicated. The aging Curiosity rover was swallowed up by the planet-wide dust storm that covered Mars earlier this summer and hasn’t woken back up since. The rover’s extended mission is currently in limbo while NASA waits to see if it still has some life left in it, so all eyes have been on the newer Curiosity rover as it continues to explore the Martian surface.

Now, in a new update by the Curiosity team, it seems the last working robot is coming down with a case of… something. It seems Curiosity is refusing to send back the vital scientific data that it has been gathering, and NASA isn’t sure what’s wrong.

“Over the past few days, engineers here at JPL have been working to address an issue on Curiosity that is preventing it from sending much of the science and engineering data stored in its memory,” the Curiosity team explains. “The rover remains in its normal mode and is otherwise healthy and responsive.”

The rover isn’t totally silent, however, and is still relaying certain status information, just not the science data it has stored locally. This strange set of circumstances is leaving Curiosity’s engineers scratching their heads.

“Besides transmitting data recorded in its memory, the rover can transmit ‘real-time’ data when it links to a relay orbiter or Deep Space Network antenna,” the team writes. “These real-time data are transmitting normally, and include various details about the rover’s status. Engineers are expanding the details the rover transmits in these real-time data to better diagnose the issue.”

Opportunity — that’s the one that’s currently sleeping off its dust storm hangover — has far surpassed its original mission timeline. Originally intended to last just 90 days on Mars, it has managed to push on for well over a decade. Curiosity is much newer, having landed on the planet in mid 2012, and it’s done some fantastic work thus far. Its primary mission stretched for roughly two years, and it has been continuing its work ever since.

Whatever is wrong with Curiosity we’ll be keeping our fingers crossed that it gets resolved in short order.

Here are the hottest places in Los Angeles, literally

Southern California is usually a pretty comfortable place, temperature wise, but you’d never know it when you find yourself stuck in a traffic jam on a packed freeway. NASA’s powerful new ECOSTRESS instrument installed on the International Space Station can generate incredibly detailed heat maps of whatever it’s pointed at, and NASA just pointed it at Los Angeles.

The map, which differentiates the temperatures it detects using a rainbow color pattern, paints LA as a pleasant oasis punctuated by grueling stretches of pavement, which is a pretty accurate way of describing the city in general.

The image you see above was taken very early in the morning, at a time when the Sun hasn’t yet had a chance to really do its work. Subsequent images from later in the day, especially the shot from 3:01 pm, show just how incredibly hot the most popular areas of the city can get.

It’s important to note that the ECOSTRESS tool measures the temperature of surfaces, rather than the temperature of the air. Even a relatively cool day, if sunny, can result in scorching-hot blacktop, so a temperature reading of 140 degrees Fahrenheit on the map doesn’t actually translate to the temperature you’d feel just walking around.

“The Los Angeles area is known for its Mediterranean climate and abundant sunshine but also for its extreme “micro-climate” temperature swings — from cooler coastal areas to much warmer inland regions like the San Gabriel Valley,” NASA explains in a blog post. “ECOSTRESS can detect the distribution and pattern variations of that surface heat over areas the size of a football field.”

The ECOSTRESS system — which is short for “ECOsystem Spaceborne Thermal Radiometer Experiment on Space Station” — was built to allow scientists to measure the temperature stresses on plants around the world. Temperatures of foliage can be a great indicator of how healthy plant life is. It can help experts form plans to deal with droughts and heat waves, and in this case it shows that central LA is a hellish volcano not fit for human life. But you knew that already.

The first science image from NASA’s TESS exoplanet hunter is mind-boggling

NASA’s TESS spacecraft — that stands for Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, in case you had somehow forgotten — is an incredibly powerful tool for spotting distant worlds. It was launched back in April, but it took some time to get the satellite up to speed and begin working on actual science objectives.

Now, in a demonstration of its power, NASA is showing off the first science image the satellite has captured, and boy is it a beauty. The image is absolutely packed with stars, taking a half hour to soak in the light and produce the collection of pictures you see below.

It watches for tiny dips in the brightness of far-away stars to detect planets moving in front of them, which happens to be a great way to prove the existence of planets outside of our own Solar System. It’s a surprisingly straightforward way of spotting planets that are otherwise invisible with current technology, but it requires an incredibly sensitive lens to notice the changes in brightness.

“In a sea of stars brimming with new worlds, TESS is casting a wide net and will haul in a bounty of promising planets for further study,” NASA’s Paul Hertz, astrophysics division director, said in a statement. “This first light science image shows the capabilities of TESS’ cameras, and shows that the mission will realize its incredible potential in our search for another Earth.”

This image was taken of the southern hemisphere, but the spacecraft has a lengthy mission that will see it scan all areas of space. TESS will spend a year or so on the southern hemisphere and then work its way to the northern hemisphere, collecting an immense amount of data and relaying it back to scientists on Earth. That data will be combed and, it’s expected, will yield countless new exoplanet discoveries.