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  • Reaching Out to the Edge
    Posted by Heather Goss 8:57 PM on Jan 04, 2010

    For those of you not attending the huge American Astronomical Society meeting in D.C. this week (like yours truly), there's at least some exciting news coming from it.  NASA announced this morning at the meeting that their Kepler Space Telescope has found its first five exoplanets -- that is, planets orbiting other stars.  Though the planets are Neptune and Jupiter sized and orbit stars that are much hotter than our Sun, making them unsuitable for familiar life, the find is still exciting.  Kepler was launched in March 2009 and will use its photometer to stare at the same patch of sky -- about 100,000 stars -- for its entire service period of three and a half years.  This will allow Kepler to wait patiently as exoplanets transit their stars, capturing their corresponding dip in brightness.  Kepler is NASA's 10th Discovery Mission, which promotes low-cost, focused space science research.

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    Artist concept of the exoplanets discovered by the Kepler Space Telescope.  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle (SSC)

    Even within our own solar system we continue reaching out to the edge.  A couple stories broke over the holidays that are worth pointing out again in case you missed them.  First concerns the Voyager spacecraft.  Yes, the same pair of probes launched in 1977 to study Jupiter and Saturn.  After the spacecraft finished their primary missions in the late 80s and were still functioning, scientists sent them continuing on their way out of the solar system.  Nearly three decades later, Voyager 1 entered the heliosheath and is now sending back data on what scientists call the "Local Fluff," a cloud of interstellar material that our solar system is moving through and, frankly, should have been blown away millions of years ago by nearby exploding stars.  Voyager has discovered a strong magnetic field that seems to be holding it together, however, solving the mystery.  Now that both probes are in the heliosheath -- the farthest manmade probes have traveled in space -- they've been providing all kinds of interesting data about the heliosphere and how that magnetic field may compress it, "which could allow more cosmic rays to reach the inner solar system, possibly affecting terrestrial climate and the ability of astronauts to travel safely through space," according to NASA.

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    Montage of images taken by New Horizons as it passed Jupiter in 2007.  Credit: NASA/JHU/APL.

    Finally, one other probe passed a milestone on its marathon to the edge of the solar system.  NASA's New Horizons spacecraft just passed the halfway point to Pluto, with which it expects to rendezvous in 2015.  After studying Pluto and its moons, it will pull a Voyager and continue on its way outward to the Kuiper Belt.  NASA says this is its fastest mission through the solar system, covering the 3 billion mile distance in about 9.5 years (that's 750,000 miles per day).  Though it spends most of its time in hibernation mode, NASA wakes it up occasionally to perform maintenance or observe the other planets as it passes, like Jupiter in 2007.

    Tags: os99, nasa, kepler, new horizons, voyager

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