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Galactic Getaways.

“‘It feels like we’re living in the future, or science fiction is coming to life. We thought it would be really cool to explore the characteristics of each planet through the context of travel.'” As Kepler finds its 1,000th exoplanet, NASA celebrates by commissioning nifty vintage travel posters for faraway worlds. Either of the above might be good for a swing-through while folding space to Arrakis.

Great Eyes, Lidless.

“The biggest building boom in the history of astronomy is upon us. In Chile and Hawaii and in space, astronomers are getting powerful telescopes that dwarf the current state-of-the-art instruments. When the mountain blasting and the mirror polishing are all done, we will have the clearest and most detailed views of outer space ever.”

By way of Follow Me Here, Gizmodo looks at five massive telescopes that will change the game, including the James Webb Space Telescope, a.k.a. Hubble 2.0. “Since blowing past its initial budget and launch data, NASA promises the ambitious project is on-track for 2018. And it better, because astronomers are eagerly awaiting its data.”

E.T. Burn in Hell!!

“You see, the Bible makes it clear that Adam’s sin affected the whole universe. This means that any aliens would also be affected by Adam’s sin, but because they are not Adam’s descendants, they can’t have salvation,’ he explained. ‘Jesus did not become the “GodKlingon” or the “GodMartian”! Only descendants of Adam can be saved. God’s Son remains the ‘Godman’ as our Savior.'”

And here’s your counterpoint: Creationist Ken Buck argues that space exploration is a boondoggle because aliens are going to Hell anyway. “Ham argued that ‘secularists are desperate to find life in outer space’ as a part of their ‘rebellion against God in a desperate attempt to supposedly prove evolution.'”

Erm, yeah. I would hope the John Olver rule is in effect if and when this fellow is inevitably queried about his views on television, against Bill Nye or Neil DeGrasse Tyson or somesuch.

Our Distant Cousin.

“‘We know of just one planet where life exists — Earth. When we search for life outside our solar system we focus on finding planets with characteristics that mimic that of Earth,’ said Elisa Quintana, research scientist at the SETI Institute…’Finding a habitable zone planet comparable to Earth in size is a major step forward.'”

New planets have been discovered at a pretty decent clip of late. But, in a milestone, NASA’s Kepler Telescope finds in Kepler 186f, 500 light years away, the first Earth-size planet orbiting a star in the ‘habitable zone’ — the range of distance from a star where liquid water might pool on the surface of an orbiting planet.” (“Earth-size” being the key word here — Kepler has previously found larger planets in the habitable zone.) To put it all down and start again, from the top to the bottom and then

Update: Interesting speculation: Does Kepler 186f bode ill for our future? “This apparent absence of thriving extraterrestrial civilizations suggests that at least one of the steps from humble planet to interstellar civilization is exceedingly unlikely. The absence could be caused because either intelligent life is extremely rare or intelligent life has a tendency to go extinct.”

All These Worlds Except…

“Robinson said the high radiation environment around Jupiter and distance from Earth would be a challenge. When NASA sent Galileo to Jupiter in 1989, it took the spacecraft six years to get to the fifth planet from the sun. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute astronomer Laurie Leshin said it could be ‘a daring mission to an extremely compelling object in our solar system.’…Harvard astronomer Avi Loeb said going to Europa would be more exciting than exploring dry Mars: ‘There might be fish under the ice.'”

NASA sets aside some money for a robotic mission to Europa. “No details have been decided yet, but NASA chief financial officer Elizabeth Robinson said Tuesday that it would be launched in the mid-2020s.”

A World of Worlds.

“‘This is the largest windfall of planets — not exoplanet candidates, mind you, but actually validated exoplanets — that’s ever been announced at one time,’ Douglas Hudgins, exoplanet exploration program scientist at NASA’s Astrophysics Division in Washington, told reporters today.”

NASA announces 715 new planets found by the Kepler telescope, and that’s only from the first two years of data. “About 94 percent of the new alien worlds are smaller than Neptune, researchers said, further bolstering earlier Kepler observations that suggested the Milky Way galaxy abounds with rocky planets like Earth…four of the worlds are less than 2.5 times the size of Earth and reside in the ‘habitable zone,’ that just-right range of distances that could allow liquid water to exist on their surfaces.”

Pouring Down All Over Mars.

“So, how does water flow in the frigid Martian temperatures that are present, even in the summer months? Researchers think that there may be a naturally-occurring anti-freeze in the water, caused by the high-iron content…the water and ferric iron flowed together as part of a brine.”

Via io9, Scientists at NASA’s JPL find the strongest evidence of currently extant water on Mars yet. “We still don’t have a smoking gun for existence of water…Although we’re not sure how this process would take place without water.”

Martian Vineyard.

“The layer of rock, called the Sheepbed mudstone, has several qualities that indicate it formed in an environment that was hospitable to life. First, the thickness of the rock indicates that the lake existed in that area for a long period of time. Second, chemical analysis showed that the lake had all the right ingredients for life. According to Grotzinger, the lake would have been roughly half the size of one of the Finger Lakes in upstate New York.”

Where do bad folks go when they die? They don’t go to heaven where the angels fly. Mars? Hrm…well, maybe. Curiosity finds the remnants of what appears to be an ancient Martian lake in Yellowknife Bay, part of Gale Crater. Unfortunately, “[e]ven if there were fossils in the mudstone, Curiosity doesn’t have the right kind of equipment to see them. That job will be left to the Mars rover set to launch in 2020.”

Uatu Degrasse Sagan.

(Klaatu barada nitko?) All that being said, one Comic-Con remake reveal I can get excited about — although “Executive Producer Seth McFarlane” gives me a moment of pause — is Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s upcoming 13-episode reboot of Cosmos.

“‘There’s never been a more important time for COSMOS to re-emerge than right now. I want to make this so entertaining, and so flashy, and so exciting that people who have no interest in science will watch just because it’s a spectacle,'” MacFarlane said in a news release.”

Kepler 62, A Home Away from Home.

“‘This is the first planet that ticks both boxes,’ Dr. Charbonneau said, speaking of the outermost planet, known as Kepler 62f. ‘It’s the right size and the right temperature.’ Kepler 62f is 40 percent bigger than Earth and smack in the middle of the habitable zone, with a 267-day year. In an interview, Mr. Borucki called it the best planet Kepler has found.”

Of late, astronomers have been finding new planets all the time, including one right in our cosmic backyard. Still, these two seem special: NASA has found two of the most Earth-like planets yet in Kepler 62f and Kepler 62e, 1200 light years away.

“The Kepler 62 system resembles our own solar system, which also has two habitable planets: Earth and Mars, which once had water and would still be habitable today if it were more massive and had been able to hang onto its primordial atmosphere.”

A Home Next Door in Centauri Bb.

“The triple star system of Alpha Centauri is only 4.3 light-years — about 25 trillion miles — away. The possibility of an earth-like world orbiting our nearest neighbor has been a kind of holy grail of astronomy —- and something taken for granted by countless SciFi authors.”

Hey neighbor: Astronomers find an Earth-like planet just next door in Alpha Centauri, the nearest star system to our sun. “Indeed, Alpha Centauri Bb is the first planet with an earth-like mass ever found orbiting a sun-like star.” That being said, prospects for life — or colonization — seem, for the time being, remote. “Unfortunately for any hope of finding life on this world, it orbits only about four million miles away…This would make Alpha Centauri B more than twenty times larger in the planet’s sky than the sun is here on earth…and more than 500 times brighter and hotter.”

Titan’s Brew.

“‘Scientists previously thought that as we got closer to the surface of Titan, the moon’s atmospheric chemistry was basically inert and dull,’ said Murthy Gudipati, the paper’s lead author at JPL. ‘Our experiment shows that’s not true. The same kind of light that drives biological chemistry on Earth’s surface could also drive chemistry on Titan, even though Titan receives far less light from the sun and is much colder.'”

A NASA/JPL simulation of Titan’s atmosphere suggests a chaotic chemical brew conducive to life on Saturn’s most interesting moon. “Now we know that sunlight in the Titan lower atmosphere can kick-start more complex organic chemistry in liquids and solids rather than just in gases.” (Titan image via this 2011 post.)

The Worlds Next Door.

“‘We thought we would have to search vast distances to find an Earth-like planet. Now we realize another Earth is probably in our own backyard, waiting to be spotted,’ said Harvard astronomer and lead author Courtney Dressing.”

Data from Kepler’s Space Telescope suggests that an estimated 6% of red dwarf stars have planets in the habitable zone, meaning, statistically, we are basically surrounded by inhabitable worlds. “Our Sun is surrounded by a swarm of red dwarf stars. About 75 percent of the closest stars are red dwarfs.”

Martian Microbes and the Jovian Shield.

Under the agency’s procedures, the box should not have been opened without knowledge of a NASA scientist who is responsible for guarding Mars against contamination from Earth. But Planetary Protection Officer Catharine Conley wasn’t consulted. ‘They shouldn’t have done it without telling me,’ she said. ‘It is not responsible for us not to follow our own rules.’

It seems NASA’s Curiosity may have inadvertently brought Terran microbes along with it, which could become hugely significant if the robot encounters water, in which case they become either the potential seeds of new life on Mars and/or the 21st-century equivalent of the smallpox blanket. Er…oops.

Meanwhile, while we’re bringing life to Mars, Jupiter may have once again protected us from a Deep Impact/Melancholia-like disaster. “This is the third time since 2009 amateur astronomers have witnessed an impact flash on Jupiter. The massive gas giant, which exerts considerable gravitational pull, is something of a cosmic whipping boy in our solar system, regularly shielding inner planets like Earth from potential collisions.” So, if you’re keeping score at home, that’s Jupiter 3, Bruce Willis 1.

Spin Spin Sugar.

In the disk of gas and dust surrounding this newly formed star, we found glycolaldehyde, which is a simple form of sugar, not much different to the sugar we put in coffee,” study lead author Jes Jørgensen, of the Niels Bohr Institute in Denmark, said in a statement. ‘This molecule is one of the ingredients in the formation of RNA, which — like DNA, to which it is related — is one of the building blocks of life.'”

The Land of Chocolate? Astronomers find sugar molecules orbiting young star IRAS 16293-2422, 400 light years away. “‘A big question is: how complex can these molecules become before they are incorporated into new planets?’ Jørgensen said. “This could tell us something about how life might arise elsewhere, and ALMA observations are going to be vital to unravel this mystery.'”

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