What's hot in space?

New space images show lightning, lagoons and big iron on planets such as Mercury, Jupiter and Venus.


There have been some great images and new space research revealed in the past couple weeks, most of it coming from the European Planetary Science Congress 2010. Most of the images and results centred on what the planets and stars are made of. In most cases though a picture is worth more than a thousand words. Here's a round-up of some of the most interesting studies and images.

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Mercury wags its tail

The hot planet Mercury has been showing off its comet-like tail to NASA satellites recently. Scientists at Boston University said it has been known that Mercury exhibits comet-like features, with a coma of gas surrounding the planet and a very long tail extending away from the Sun. The scientists have been studying images from NASA's STEREO satellites which are designed to view the escaping atmosphere of the Sun. The new images will let them gain a ton more knowledge about the makeundefinedup of the planet's gases.

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Ah, springtime on the northern hemisphere of Saturn's moon: Looks like a fine spring for Saturn's Titan, at least according to a group led by Sébastien Rodriguez, based at Université Paris Diderot, France. His group has been pouring over 2,000 images from NASA's Cassini spacecraft to create the first long term study of Titan's weather. Though Titan's surface is far colder and lacks liquid water, this moon is a kind of "sister world" to Earth because it has a surface covered with organic material and an atmosphere whose chemical composition harkens back to an early Earth, the scientists stated.

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Lightning in space

Scientists recently found that despite the tremendous differences between the atmospheres of Venus and Earth, similar mechanisms produce lightning on the two planets. The rates of discharge, intensity and spatial distribution of lightning are comparable. Findings will help scientists understand the chemistry, dynamics and evolution of the atmospheres of the two planets, according to Dr. Christopher Russell of the University of California. Russell's group analysed 3.5 Earth-years of Venus lightning data using the low altitude European Space Agency's Venus Express satellite data.

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Not Gilligan's Island lagoon

NASA's Hubble Space Telescope recently sent back an image showing the heart of the Lagoon Nebula. Located 4,000 to 5,000 light years away, in the constellation of Sagittarius, The Lagoon Nebula is known as a region where stars are born. Clouds of hydrogen gas are slowly collapsing to form new stars, whose bright ultraviolet rays then light up the surrounding gas in distinctive waves of red.

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NASA's Hubble telescope recently sent back an image that had scientists scratching their heads: Why is the unusual looking galaxy such a strange shape? What are the odd, capillary-like filaments that stretch out of it? And what is the role of a large black hole in explaining its decidedly odd appearance? According to the Hubble site: NGC 4696 is an elliptical galaxy with a difference, scientists stated.

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Nice spiral

The ESO's Very Large Telescope at Paranal Observatory in Chile snapped the beautiful barred spiral galaxy NGC 1365 in infra-red light. NGC 1365 is a member of the Fornax cluster of galaxies and lies about 60 million light years from Earth. Scientists noted that NGC 1365, nicknamed the Great Barred Spiral Galaxy, is one of the best known and most studied barred spiral galaxies. It is known as an excellent laboratory for astronomers to study how spiral galaxies form and evolve.

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Green peas?

Green Pea galaxies were first classified by hobby stargazers involved in the online projects Galaxy Zoo and Galaxy Zoo 2. Scientist Ricardo Amorin of the Instituto de Astrofisica de Andalucia recently showed evidence that these extraordinary compact star cities have low amounts of complex elements. Green Pea galaxies are now known to be "metal-poor" that is lacking any element other than hydrogen and helium Amorin stated.

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Big Iron

NASA recently said its Mars rover Opportunity will take a small detour on its current journey to check out what could be a toaster-sized iron-based meteorite that crashed into the red planet. NASA scientists called the rock "Oileán Ruaidh," which is the Gaelic name for an island off the coast of north-western Ireland. The rock is about 45 centimetres (18 inches) wide from the angle at which it was first seen on September 16.

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Jupiter burning

Astronomers caught an object known as a superbolide blasting into Jupiter's atmosphere this summer. The fireball likely measured between 8 and 13 meters across, with a mass between 500 and 2,000 metric tons (10 meters is the approximate height of a three-story building; 1,000 metric tons is approximately the mass of 150 school buses), the astronomers stated. Unlike previous collisions with Jupiter, where large, dark scars appeared in its clouds for weeks, this event apparently vaporised entirely in Jupiter's upper atmosphere without marring the planet.

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Shine on you crazy coreshine

NASA said astronomers have spotted a new, cosmic phenomenon they call "coreshine," which could help scientists determine the age and make up of distant stars and planets. Using observations from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope to measure infra-red light deflecting off cold, dark cocoons, known as cores, where young stars and planets are forming, astronomers found starlight from nearby stars reflecting off of these cores.

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Nice aurora

A huge new study of planet Saturn images taken by NASA's Cassini spacecraft are helping scientists understand what makes the planet's aurora's so colourful. Auroras on Saturn occur in a process similar to Earth's northern and southern lights. Particles from the solar wind are channelled by Saturn's magnetic field toward the planet's poles, where they interact with electrically charged gas (plasma) in the upper atmosphere and emit light, according to NASA's Tom Stallard, who is leading the study.

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Face to face

A new animation using data from the European Space Agency's Venus Express spacecraft shows that the double eye of the giant vortex at Venus' South pole has disappeared according to a study by Dr. Giuseppe Piccioni of Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics. Dr. Piccioni and colleagues also tracked the clouds in the Venusian atmosphere in order to measure the wind speeds of the significant atmospheric "super-rotation" rotating 60 times faster than planet underneath creating tons of wind shear.

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Nice to see you

NASA's Widefield Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE caught this cool shot off the constellation Scorpius engulfing what's known as the reflection nebula DG 129. According to NASA, if you looked at this portion of the sky in visible light you wouldn't see anything special. But in infra-red light, the reflection nebula is revealed.


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