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2011: A New Space Odyssey

Science Tuesday shares four cool things that are happening in space this year.

Voyager 1 nears edge of solar system

A 33-year-old spacecraft is about to take one giant leap on its voyage through our solar system.
Voyager 1, launched in 1977, is finally closing in on the furthest reach of the solar wind given off by the Sun, which tells scientists that it will soon exit our solar system’s heliosphere and leave it altogether.

NASA first received solar wind speed readings of zero from Voyager near the end of 2010, when the spacecraft was about 10.8 billion miles from the Sun. According to NASA, the drop-off is attributable to the more powerful interstellar wind, which blows in the empty space between stars, pushing it out of the way.

Voyager, which originally set out to study Jupiter and Saturn, continued past the planets when its data collection was done and has still been traveling for 33 years, according to Space.com.

The empty space beyond the heliosheath and the outermost wall of the solar system, the heliopause, is the next stop for the spacecraft; traveling at 38,000 miles per hour, it will arrive there within the next four years.

Humans may someday need to travel across interstellar space to reach potentially habitable planets in other solar systems. –AR

Earth’s twin planet…

After the discovery in September of a planet that may be able to host life on its surface, many scientists are predicting that 2011 may be the year they discover Earth’s twin planet – an exoplanet with the same size and temperature as our own that may be able to sustain human life.

A “habitability index,” invented by Samuel Arbesman and Greg Laughlin of the University of California, Santa Cruz, uses estimates of a planet’s average temperature and size to predict when it is likely to be discovered. Using the model, Arbesman and Laughlin predicted that a planet similar to Earth will be found by May 2011.

Although there is still much speculation about the likelihood of this find, the discoveries of more than 500 exoplanets in 2010, including Gliese 581g, which may be the most habitable exoplanet found yet, give scientists hope to make more discoveries in the near future.

Scientists predict that Earth’s doppelganger may be discovered in February with the release of data from NASA’s Kepler telescope. Even if this yields no results, the search for exoplanets will continue throughout the year. –CF

…And a rocky friend

NASA reported on Jan. 10 that its Kepler telescope had found the first evidence of a small rocky planet orbiting a star other than our Sun.

The planet, an exoplanet officially called Kepler-10b, orbits too close to its star to be in the habitable zone, which is the area around a star that is at the ideal distance to support liquid water and life.

NASA found that Kepler-10b is 20 times closer to its star than Mercury is to our Sun.

The planet was discovered through precise telescopic observations of tiny blips and gravitational anomalies on the star, known as Kepler-10. These represent the planet passing in front of the star and exerting a slight gravitational pull upon it. Scientists can use these observations to calculate the star’s proportions and distance from its star.

Kepler-10b is the smallest planet yet found outside our solar system, with a mass 4.6 times that of Earth, according to NASA. –AR

The dawn of commercial spaceflight

For decades, people have dreamed of soaring through space like the characters in futuristic cartoons. But although scientists may not have found a way to colonize other planets just yet, some predict that 2011 will be the year when commercial space flight finally takes off.

According to Space.com, the trend for the year is expected to be a move away from government programs toward more economically viable commercial space projects. This was put into practice when SpaceX became the first private company to launch a capsule into orbit on Dec. 8.

Experts predict that more progress may be to follow in the coming months, both from SpaceX and competing firms, such as Virgin Galactic and Boeing. SpaceX’s Dragon capsule will be carrying cargo to the International Space Station this year as part of a contract with NASA and is expected to eventually carry astronauts as well after test flights this year.

Due to the pending retirement of NASA’s shuttle fleet this year, the agency has been encouraging the development of private space flights in order to fill the gap, according to New Scientist. In 2010 alone, the federal government distributed $50 million to private space firms to bring citizens one step closer to having the chance to take a taxi through space. –CF

And one cool thing that probably won’t happen in 2011: Jet packs.

Forget flying cars — weren’t we supposed to have personal rocket backpacks by now? Unfortunately, a real jet pack would shoot exhaust at temperatures well above 1000 degrees Farenheit, which would cause the would-be jetters’ legs to catch fire. There’s no safe way to protect your skin or compensate for the heat — not yet, anyway. Add on all the training that would be required for use, and it looks like jet packs may be a ways off yet. –AE

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One Comment

  1. Let’s start by using hover craft’s, then elevate on the theory.