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Alien weather may soon be available, thanks to Canadians

Scott Sutherland
Meteorologist/Science Writer

Wednesday, May 13, 2015, 2:25 PM - NASA's New Horizons spacecraft spots even the faintest of Pluto's known moons, scientists produce weather forecasts for planets far, far away, and a 40-year-old dream of Carl Sagan launches in a week!

The Known Moons of Pluto

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft is only 2 months away from its close flyby of Pluto, and the deep space probe's cameras have been revealing more and more details about its dwarf planet target with each passing week.

After showing us Pluto and Charon orbiting each other, and then the pair's two largest moons - Nyx and Hydra - circling them both, the spacecraft is now close enough to spy the two smaller of the pair's known moons - Kerberos and Styx. Here's the whole family, with the original image snapped, the processed version that clears things up, and one with the orbits drawn in and labelled for reference. The animation even shows the whole family in motion.

Credit: NASA

According to NASA:

Kerberos is visible in all of the images, though is partially obscured in the second image. Styx is not visible in the first image, only in subsequent ones; on April 25 it was obscured by electronic artifacts in the camera – the black and white streaks extending to the right of the extremely overexposed images of Pluto and Charon in the center of the frame. These artifacts point in different directions in different images due to the varying orientation of the spacecraft. Other unlabeled features in the processed images include the imperfectly removed images of background stars and other residual artifacts.
Although Styx and Kerberos are more visible in some frames than others, perhaps due to brightness fluctuations as they rotate on their axes, their identity is confirmed by their positions being exactly where they are predicted to be (in the center of the circles in the right panel).

Watching the animation closely, there also appears to be wispy regions surrounding the family, possibly dust left over from the impact that formed the other moons. It's possible these could contain other small moons that haven't been discovered yet.

"New Horizons is now on the threshold of discovery," John Spencer, of member of the New Horizons team from the Southwest Research Institute, said in the NASA statement. "If the spacecraft observes any additional moons as we get closer to Pluto, they will be worlds that no one has seen before."

U of T Forecasts Exoplanet Weather

Forecasting Earth weather is challenging, but astrophysicists at the University of Toronto have now tackled weather forecasting for distant exoplanets.

Credit: Lisa Esteves/University of Toronto

The Kepler Space Telescope has been an amazing achievement for astronomy. Simply by observing how the light from a star dims as a planet passes between that star and us, the telescope has catalogued numerous extrasolar planets (or "exoplanets"). In the wake of these discoveries, astronomers and astrophysicists have delved into the data the telescope sent back, to find out what else they could about these distant alien worlds. 

For Lisa Esteves, the PhD candidate at the University of Toronto who led the study, Dr. Ernst De Mooij, from Queen’s University Belfast, and Dr. Ray Jayawardhana at York University, they chose to investigate how brightness variations in these planets could possibly tell us something about the weather that was taking place there.

On six different planets, the researchers were able to pick out variations in brightness that could correspond to specific weather phenomena. On four of these planets, the day side was very bright, indicating that clouds were being blown around from the cool dark side, and reflecting starlight. For the other two, which were extremely close to their star, the night side showed up brighter, likely representing warm winds being blown at high speed around to the night side.

"Upcoming space missions should reveal many more small planets around bright stars that will make great targets for detailed studies," said Dr. Jayawardhana. "Someday soon we hope to be talking about weather reports for alien worlds not much bigger than Earth, and to be making comparisons with our home planet."

Carl Sagan's Light Sail Dream Comes True

The Light Sail spacecraft will be launching into space for its maiden voyage on May 20, piggybacking on the liftoff of the US Air Force's X-37B 'secret' space plane.

If you'd like to help make Carl's dream a reality, support the Planetary Society's LightSail Kickstarter. They've raised $200,000 from space enthusiasts in under two days, and will soon be working on stretch goals as the campaign continues.

At the very least, head to the Planetary Society website, to send a selfie into space with LightSail!

Sources: NASA | University of Toronto | Planetary Society

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