by Alex Autin


Kepler Finds First Earth-size Planet in the Habitable Zone


Artist’s Concept of Kepler-186f, the first Earth-size planet yet found in its star’s habitable zone. Image Credit: NASA/Ames/SETI Institute/JPL-Caltech

In a April 17 news release NASA has announced that astronomers using the Kepler Space Telescope have discovered the first Earth-size planet orbiting a star in the circumstellar habitable zone, or the range of distance from a star where liquid water might pool on the surface of an orbiting planet, aka the Goldilocks Zone.

Though planets have previously been found in the habitable zone, they have all been at least 40% larger in size than Earth. The discovery of planet Kepler-186f confirms that planets the size of Earth exist in the habitable zone of stars other than our Sun. Although the size of Kepler-186f is known, its mass and composition are not, however previous research suggests that a planet the size of Kepler-186f is likely to be rocky.

Kepler-186f resides in the Kepler-186 system, located in the constellation Cygnus, about 500 light-years from Earth. The system is  also home to four known inner planets, all orbiting a M dwarf, or red dwarf, star which is half the size and mass of our Sun. Making up to, by some estimates, 70% of the stars in the Milky Way, M dwarfs are the most common type of star in our galaxy – or at least in our neighborhood.


Kepler-186 vs our Solar System. Diagram Credit: NASA

Kepler-186f orbits its star once every 130 days and receives about 1/3 of the energy from its star that Earth gets from the Sun, placing it nearer the outer edge of the habitable zone. From the surface of Kepler-186f, the brightness of its star at high noon is as bright as our Sun appears to us about an hour before sunset. The inner four companion planets each measure less than fifty percent the size of Earth. Kepler-186b, Kepler-186c, Kepler-186d and Kepler-186, orbit every 4, 7, 13 and 22 days, respectively, making them very hot and inhospitable for life as we know it.

“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 in the NASA news release. Quintana is a research scientist at the SETI Institute at NASA’s Ames Research Center and lead author of the paper published today in the journal Science. “Finding a habitable zone planet comparable to Earth in size is a major step forward.”


Animation of Kepler186 published on The SETI Institute’s YouTube channel.

3-D Curiosity!


Got your 3-D glasses (Anaglyph 3D) handy?

The above image, taken by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, shows a stereo view of NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover, its tracks, and the surrounding Martian landscape. (Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ of Arizona)

The image was created by combining information from three observations by the HiRISE camera and appears three-dimensional when viewed through red-blue glasses with the red lens on the left. An image taken on April 11, 2014, when Curiosity was near the butte in the lower-left quadrant of the image, was then combined with three-dimensional information about the terrain from a pair of earlier HiRISE images. The result: One amazingly cool stereo image!

The butte is informally called ‘Mount Remarkable’, and the rover, which appears bright blue in the enhanced color of this image, is at the two-o’clock position in relation to the Butte. Curiosity entered this area on March 12, 2014 creating the tracks visible near the upper left corner.

The location taking up most of the left half of this image is called ‘The Kimberley’. (This area of Mars was named after The Kimberley region of Western Australia, and yep, I can completely see the resemblance! I mean, of course, minus the gorgeous beaches, Lennard River, salt-water crocs, and golden bandicoots. But other than that, Mars is EXACTLY like Western Australia.)

pia18073Curiosity’s view from arrival point at ‘The Kimberley’…


The Kimberley, Western Australia

Pretty much identical.

If you’d like to check out the above stereo image, or other equally awesome Mars 3-D images from Curiosity, but don’t have 3-D glasses, that’s easily remedied by making your own from a few items you most likely have in your home. A couple of sharpie permanent markers, one red and one blue (cyan), and a clear CD jewel case should hook you right up….


Remember, the red goes over the left eye! Also, for a hands-free and more high-tech look, this technique should also work on a pair of clear plastic safety goggles you might have somewhere in your garage. (Home-made 3-D glasses image credit: Digital Inspiration)

Yuri’s Night! April 12!


“Circling the Earth in my orbital spaceship I marveled at the beauty of our planet. People of the world, let us safeguard and enhance this beauty — not destroy it!“- Yuri Gagarin

Soviet pilot and cosmonaut, Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin, became the first human to travel to space when on April 12, 1961 his Vostok spacecraft successfully completed an orbit of the Earth.

Yuri’s Night is an international celebration held annually on April 12 to commemorate not only Yuri’s historic flight, but also space exploration milestones in general. The launch of NASA’s first Space Shuttle mission, STS-1, launched April 12, 1981, 20 years to the day of Yuri’s Vostok 1 flight, is also honored.


Launch of Vostok 1, the first manned spaceflight.


20 years later, STS-1, the first launch of Space Shuttle Columbia carrying NASA astronauts John Young and Robert Crippen into an Earth orbital mission.

Started in 2001, and now celebrated internationally each year, Yuri’s Night, the World Space Party, came into existence at the previous year’s United Nations’ Space Generation Advisory Council Conference in Graz, Austria.

The goal of Yuri’s Night is to increase public interest in space exploration and inspire new generations of explorers. And to have a damn good time in the process! Last year Yuri’s Night was celebrated at over 350 events in 57 countries, and this year the party promises to be even bigger! You can check the Yuri’s Night website to find out what ‘Planet Rocking’ events are being held near you, or to post your own event.

Since I’m currently out-of-state, and out-in-the-middle-of nowhere (aka BFE!) visiting family, we’re planing an out-of-this-world crawfish boil for this afternoon followed by some star gazing this evening. While being in the middle of nowhere does limit my options of finding a cool Yuri’s Night event, the star gazing quality increases by a bajillion percent!

For a more ‘quiet’ tribute to Yuri Gagarin, check out this short film by Rene Nuijens and Steve Korver…



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