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Here’s now NASA said goodbye to the Kepler space telescope

NASA was forced to plan for the inevitable death of the exoplanet-hunting Kepler space telescope a few weeks ago. The spacecraft, which had already discovered literally thousands of new planets, ran out of fuel and couldn’t continue its science observations. Now, NASA has finally said goodnight to its trusty telescope.

In a new post NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory explains what it had to do to officially send Kepler out to pasture. Believe it or not, it’s actually a bit more complicated than just flipping a switch.

According to JPL, the spacecraft’s empty fuel tank will prevent the spacecraft from doing more science work but it still needed a set of commands to make sure the telescope didn’t wake back up. Here’s how it went down:

Kepler’s team disabled the safety modes that could inadvertently turn systems back on, and severed communications by shutting down the transmitters. Because the spacecraft is slowly spinning, the Kepler team had to carefully time the commands so that instructions would reach the spacecraft during periods of viable communication. The team will monitor the spacecraft to ensure that the commands were successful. The spacecraft is now drifting in a safe orbit around the Sun, 94 million miles away from Earth.

The retirement of the Kepler is a bit of a bummer. The spacecraft has made so many incredible finds that it’s hard to accept that its incredible run is over. NASA is clearly feeling the same way and produced a nice retrospective video to wrap things up.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cwDkPKPi1mY

This obviously doesn’t mean the end of NASA’s exoplanet hunting efforts, and new hardware like the the James Webb Space Telescope should produce even more fantastic finds in the not-so-distant future.

Watch Russia launch an ISS cargo ship live today

It’s been a strange few months for Russia’s space program. First, a strange hole showed up in a Soyuz spacecraft attached to the International Space Station and then a last-second abort due to rocket failure prevented a pair of new ISS crew members from reaching their destination. Russia is pretty sure it has everything sorted out now, which is great news, and today the agency gets back on schedule with the launch of a resupply mission to deliver supplies to the space station.

A rocket launch is always a neat sight to see so, as always, NASA will be taking the opportunity to live stream the event online for all to watch.

The mission will be unmanned but that doesn’t make it any less interesting. Regular supply shipments are crucial to ensuring the crew of the space station can continue to do their job. This time around, a Russian Soyuz rocket will push nearly three tons of supplies to the ISS, including maintenance hardware as well as incredibly important things like food, oxygen, and water.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wwMDvPCGeE0

If you’re interested in watching the launch you can do so via the YouTube live stream window above. The mission is scheduled to begin around 1:00 p.m. EST, with liftoff expected to take place by 1:14 p.m. EST. The ship will take off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

This is a relatively routine mission. The ISS gets resupply shipments quite regularly, of course, so it should be business as usual for all involved. However, the recent hiccups on Russia’s side of things has put a bit of a spotlight on this launch, and you can bet that lots of eyes will be watching in case something else goes wrong.

A new meteorite impact crater was just found hiding under Greenland ice

We might not know a whole lot about what’s going on inside Mars, the Moon, or even the deepest reaches of Earth’s oceans, but scientists have a pretty clear picture of the Earth’s surface. Or at least they thought they did. A new discovery in Greenland could help to rewrite some recent Earth history, and it’s all thanks to ice.

Using new, more powerful radar technology to examine what’s hiding beneath Greenland’s massive ice sheet, a team of researchers from around the world just made an incredible discovery. There, hidden under the ice, is a massive impact crater that was just waiting to be found.

The team, which was led by scientists from Denmark’s Natural History Museum, as well as the University of Copenhagen, was curious about a strange circular feature on the edge of Greenland’s ice sheet. It looked far too perfect to be a coincidence, based on data gathered by NASA’s Operation IceBridge, which had done flyovers to map the area.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vTr3VdGlFr8

To get an even better glimpse at what might be hiding there, new flyovers with a powerful ice-penetrating radar setup were performed, and the resulting map of the ground beneath the ice proved what the team had suspected: there’s a crater there, and it’s quite large.

“Previous radar measurements of Hiawatha Glacier were part of a long-term NASA effort to map Greenland’s changing ice cover,” Joe MacGregor, a glaciologist with NASA, explains. “What we really needed to test our hypothesis was a dense and focused radar survey there. The survey exceeded all expectations and imaged the depression in stunning detail: a distinctly circular rim, central uplift, disturbed and undisturbed ice layering, and basal debris — it’s all there.”

Subsequent studies of the area, in which samples were gathered from rocks and streams flowing down from the glacier, supported this discovery and showed that the area had received a massive impact not that long ago. The strike is thought to have happened less than three million years ago, and the meteorite was over half a mile wide, according to the researchers.

NASA spots a distant galaxy that is actually sucking up other galaxies

When NASA sets its sights on a far-away galaxy, there’s often a lot to take in. Even if it only appears to be a dim blob, researchers can often combine various observations to determine the galaxy’s size and shape. Normally, they’re just there, sitting in space, creating new stars and doing the other things that galaxies do. But a recent snapshot of a galaxy known as WISE J224607.55-052634.9 is special.

Originally discovered a few years ago, new observations of the galaxy by Chile’s ALMA array show that the galaxy is actually eating its neighbors. From our vantage point, the galaxy is tearing apart a total of three smaller galaxies, yanking material off of them with its gravitational pull.

NASA says that WISE J224607.55-052634.9 is considered the “most luminous” galaxy, and this new observation helps to explain why.

The extremely bright galaxy isn’t a record breaker in terms of size, so why is it so bright? Scientists now believe that the galaxy is essentially stealing “fuel” to power its energy output from three neighboring galaxies. As the intense gravity sucks up material from the trio of smaller galaxies, the larger central body continues to give birth to new stars and cause super-heated gas and debris to glow brightly around the black hole at its heart.

Researchers had a hunch that the incredibly bright galaxy had some neighbors, but had no idea that it was actually feeding on them. Their work was published in the journal Science.

“We knew from previous data that there were three companion galaxies, but there was no evidence of interactions between these neighbors and the central source,” Tanio Diaz-Santos, lead author of the study, said in a statement. “We weren’t looking for cannibalistic behavior and weren’t expecting it, but this deep dive with the ALMA observatory makes it very clear.”

WISE J224607.55-052634.9 might be hungry, but you don’t need to worry about our own Milky Way falling victim to its gluttonous ways. The galaxy is estimated to be a whopping 12.4 billion light years from Earth.

When NASA pointed its Spitzer telescope at Oumuamua they couldn’t even see it

If there’s one space story that 2018 will be remembered for its the numerous ongoing investigations of the first interstellar object ever to be detected by mankind. Oumuamua, the elongated chunk of space stuff that might be an asteroid or might be a comet (or might be something else entirely), slipped around our Sun and back out into space so fast scientists barely had time to spot it. Now, NASA says it has a better idea of its size.

In the days following the detection of Oumuamua back in late 2017, NASA swung its Spitzer Space Telescope in the object’s direction, hoping to learn more about what the cigar-shaped body was and where it was headed. It had long since passed its closest approach to Earth and was already headed back out into space after swinging around the Sun. When NASA commanded the Spitzer telescope to observe it, it didn’t see anything at all.

Now, you might imagine that not being able to see the object at all would be a huge disappointment for researchers, but that’s not entirely true. Sure, they’d have loved to see more of the strange visitor, but not being able to see it meant that the object, at its current distance, was too small to see, adding yet another valuable data point.

“‘Oumuamua has been full of surprises from day one, so we were eager to see what Spitzer might show,” David Trilling, lead author of a new study published in The Astronomical Journal, explains. “The fact that ‘Oumuamua was too small for Spitzer to detect is actually a very valuable result.”

As NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory notes in a new blog post, the Spitzer telescope’s inability to detect Oumuamua using its infrared hardware puts a size limit on the object. As NASA explains:

Using three separate models that make slightly different assumptions about the object’s composition, Spitzer’s non-detection limited ‘Oumuamua’s “spherical diameter” to 1,440 feet (440 meters), 460 feet (140 meters) or perhaps as little as 320 feet (100 meters).

This supports observations of the object made by the Hubble Space Telescope which suggested the object was less than a half mile on its longest edge, but shrinks the upper limit of that estimate by about half. Hubble’s more generous observations are thought to be a byproduct of Oumuamua being much more reflective than all other comet observations in our own Solar System, causing it to appear larger from a distance than it might really be.