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What's Up In Space? Lucky break nets rare astronomy moment

Scott Sutherland
Meteorologist/Science Writer

Wednesday, May 20, 2015, 6:36 PM - A rare glimpse of a 'newborn' supernova, a rover celebrates the first Martian marathon, and a Dragon flies back to Earth early Thursday morning. It's What's Up In Space!

A Rare Glimpse of a 'Newborn' Supernova

For two years of the Kepler Space Telescope's search for exoplanets, it was also working on a little side project - supernova detection.

In 2011 and 2012, by scanning the light from 400 different galaxies in its field of view, Kepler spied three different supernova explosions, recording their "light curves" for researchers to pore over (as shown for one example, below).

Credit: NASA Ames/W. Stenzel

These supernovae, called Type 1a, are thought to be caused by one of two events. Either two closely-orbiting white dwarf stars finally merge and explode, or a white dwarf or neutron star pulls too much matter off of a companion star and that matter goes thermonuclear.

This early look at a supernova by Kepler allowed scientists to examine the very early stages of the explosion, to see what caused it.

In the case above, it was found that there was no companion star. In another study, however, researchers turned NASA's Swift Observatory at a newly spotted supernova, just in time to catch the tail end of a UV flash from the explosion. It was this flash that pointed towards the presence of a companion star, and the researchers were lucky to have spied it.

"If Swift had looked just a day or two later, we would have missed the prompt UV flash entirely," Brad Cenko, a Swift team member at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center said in a press release. "Thanks to Swift's wavelength coverage and rapid scheduling capability, it is currently the only spacecraft that can regularly make these observations."

"Our Kepler supernova discoveries strongly favor the white dwarf merger scenario, while the Swift study, led by Cao, proves that Type Ia supernovae can also arise from single white dwarfs," said Robert Olling, the University of Maryland research associate who led the Kepler study. "Just as many roads lead to Rome, nature may have several ways to explode white dwarf stars."

A Martian Marathon

It's a fact of life on Mars that things just take longer there. The day is 40 minutes longer than an Earth day, the year nearly twice as long as an Earth year, and it apparently takes over 11 years to complete a marathon... at least if you're a venerable robot explorer.

The Mars Opportunity rover (aka MER-B) has been rolling around on the Red Planet since January 2004, and it recently drove a total distance of over 42.2 kilometres, which is a marathon distance here on Earth.

WATCH BELOW as Science@NASA discusses this incredible feat.

A Dragon Returns to Earth

After delivering a load of cargo, including a new space-espresso machine, to the International Space Station on April 17, SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft has been berthed there since. 

At shortly after 7 a.m. ET, Thursday May 21, the Dragon - completely packed with equipment and scientific experiments completed on the station - was released for its freefall back to Earth. 

SpaceX's Dragon floats away from the Canadarm2 at 7:04 a.m. ET, May 21, 2015. Credit: NASA TV

After slowly distancing itself from the station, maneuvering out of the 200-metre wide "keep out sphere" that surrounds the outpost, the Dragon performed several orbits around the Earth before it fired its retrorockets to descend into the Earth's atmosphere.

It was nearly an hour of waiting to receive confirmation of a successful splashdown, but the Dragon performed exactly as expected.

Sources: NASA Ames | Science@NASA | NASA

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