Hot space projects produce cool cosmic discoveries

NASA, ESA and others' spacecraft and telescopes find new planet, make sense of old ones and solve cosmic mysteries

Big Bang: In the past month or so there has been a plethora of wicked cool discoveries coming from NASA satellites and space-watching missions across the globe. Never-before-seen photos of Jupiter's Great Red Spot, Mars moon Phobos, black hole formation and a new exoplanet are just a few of the amazing images. In an effort to keep up with these rapid-fire discoveries , we have gathered together 15 of the coolest images of these hot space projects.

Big Red

Big Red: Jupiter's Great Red Spot has long been a topic of interest among space scientists. Thermal images from ground-based telescopes such as the European Southern Observatory Very Large Telescope in Chile, the Gemini Observatory in Chile and the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan Subaru in Hawaii – now can see that the reddest color of the Great Red Spot corresponds to a warm core within the otherwise cold storm system, and images show dark lanes at the edge of the storm where gases are descending into the deeper regions of the planet. The spot, which is a cold region averaging about minus 260 degrees Fahrenheit is so wide about three Earths could fit inside its boundaries, NASA says.

Cold dust

Cold dust: Researchers think studying vast stretches of what they call "giant filaments of cold dust," could help to determine the forces that shape our Galaxy and trigger star formation. The European Space Agency's Planck satellite spotted what ESA calls the filamentary structure of dust in the solar neighborhood within about 500 light-years of the Sun. The local filaments are connected to the Milky Way, which is the pink horizontal feature near the bottom of the image. The image shows white-pink tones where the dust is few tens of degrees above absolute zero, whereas the deeper colors are dust at around minus 261°C. The warmer dust is concentrated into the plane of the Galaxy whereas the dust suspended above and below is cooler, ESA says.

The Mars moon

The Mars moon: The European Space Agency recently showed off the first in a series of extreme close-up photos of the Mars moon Phobos . The photos, which show a pock-marked but otherwise relatively smooth surface, are some of the closest shots of the Mars moon ever taken. The data and photos collected by the Mars Express satellite could help unwrap some of the mystery about the moon, the ESA said. Three scenarios are possible, one, that the moon is actually a captured asteroid. The second is that it formed at the same time as Mars formed below it. The third is that Phobos formed later than Mars, out of debris flung into Martian orbit when a large meteorite struck the red planet, according to the ESA.

Saturn\'s icy moon

Saturn's icy moon: NASA's Cassini spacecraft took pictures of a forest of new ice jets spraying from prominent fractures crossing the south polar region of Saturn's moon Enceladus and yield the most detailed temperature map to date of one fracture, NASA says. The images include the best 3-D image ever obtained of a "tiger stripe," a crevice that sprays icy particles, water vapor and organic compounds. For Cassini's visible-light cameras, the flyby provided the last look at Enceladus' south polar surface before that region of the moon goes into 15 years of darkness, NASA says.

A catastrophic event

A catastrophic event: Scientists say a massive galaxy, known as SMM J1237+6203, underwent a series of blasts trillions of times more powerful than any caused by an atomic bomb. The blasts happened every second for millions of years, according to researchers led by Durham University's Department of Physics. Scientists believe the huge surge of energy was caused by either the outflow of debris from the galaxy's black hole or from powerful winds generated by dying stars exploding as supernovae. Using the Gemini Near-Infrared Integral Field Spectrometer built by the Australian National University's Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics, the galaxy is so far away that it is now visible as it appeared 10 billion years ago, or 3 billion years after the Big Bang, when the universe was only one quarter of its present age, researchers stated.

A rosebud by any other name:

A rosebud by any other name: NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer , or WISE, snapped what NASA called a cosmic rosebud blossoming with new stars. The stars, called the Berkeley 59 cluster at just a few million years old, are young on stellar time scales. The rosebud-like red glow surrounding the hot, young stars is warm dust heated by the stars. Green "leafy" nebulosity enfolds the cluster, showing the edges of the dense, dusty cloud. This green material is from heated polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, molecules that can be found on Earth in barbecue pits, exhaust pipes and other places where combustion has occurred, NASA stated.

All hail Saturn

All hail Saturn: NASA's Cassini spacecraft flew in low across Saturn's moon Titan and scientists have determined from that flyby the distribution of materials in the moon's interior. According to NASA subtle gravitational tugs the flyby measured suggest the interior has been too cold and sluggish to split completely into separate layers of ice and rock. The finding, to be published in the March 12 issue of the journal Science , shows how Titan evolved differently from planets such as Earth, or icy moons such as Jupiter's Ganymede, whose interiors have split into distinctive layers.

Chemical playground

Chemical playground: The Herschel Space Observatory has revealed the chemical fingerprints of potentially life-enabling organic molecules in the Orion nebula, a nearby stellar nursery in our Milky Way galaxy. Herschel is led by the European Space Agency with important participation from NASA. The Orion nebula is known to be one of the most prolific chemical factories in space, although the full extent of its chemistry and the pathways for molecule formation are not well understood. By sifting through the pattern of spectrum, astronomers have identified a few common molecules that are precursors to life-enabling molecules, including water, carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, methanol, dimethyl ether, hydrogen cyanide, sulfur oxide and sulfur dioxide, ESA stated.

Mars on the rocks

Mars on the rocks: NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter found that thick masses of buried ice are quite common beneath protective coverings of rubble. The spacecraft's Shallow Radar system has taken more than 250 observations of the study area, which is about the size of California. "The hypothesis is the whole area was covered with an ice sheet during a different climate period, and when the climate dried out, these deposits remained only where they had been covered by a layer of debris protecting the ice from the atmosphere," said Jeffrey Plaut of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Death star

Death star: NASA's Cassini satellite passed by the Saturn moon Mimas on Feb. 13, and sent back what NASA called striking close-ups of the moon likened to the Death Star from "Star Wars" and the enormous crater scarring its surface. The flyby also yielded solid data on the moon's thermal signature and surface make up. The images sent back from the flyby show the bright, steep slopes of the giant Herschel Crater, which measures about 88 miles wide. The icy slopes appear to be pitched around 24 degrees, which would probably earn them a black- or double-black-diamond rating on Earth. Olympic downhill skiers could probably tear down these runs with ease, but it's clear Mimas is no place for bunny-slope beginners, NASA said.

The dark side:

The dark side: NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory has taken images of supernova that NASA says are critical for studying the dark energy that astronomers think pervades the universe. The results show mergers of two dense stellar remnants that are the likely cause of many of the supernovae that have been used to measure the accelerated expansion of the universe. Most scientists agree a Type 1a supernova occurs when a white dwarf star -- a collapsed remnant of an elderly star -- exceeds its weight limit, becomes unstable and explodes, NASA says.

Cosmic dust bunnies

Cosmic dust bunnies: Astronomers are looking to study pictures like this one to determine the life cycle of cosmic dust in the entire galaxy. The dust being formed in old, evolved stars (blue stars with a red tinge) is measured using mid-infrared wavelengths. Interstellar dust is weighed by measuring the intensity and color of emission at longer infrared wavelengths. The infrared portrait of the Small Magellanic Cloud, taken by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, reveals the stars and dust in this galaxy as never seen before. The Small Magellanic Cloud is a nearby satellite galaxy to our Milky Way galaxy, approximately 200,000 light-years away, NASA says.

Water world?

Water world? A newly discovered gas giant planet may have an interior that closely resembles those of Jupiter and Saturn in our own solar system and may be temperate enough to have liquid water, says Hans Deeg, a researcher at the Instituto de Astrofisica de Canarias. Corot-9b orbits its star every 95.274 days, a little longer than Mercury takes to go around the Sun and it has a radius around 1.05 times that of Jupiter but only 84% of the mass, researchers say. Corot-9b is by far the largest orbit of any transiting planet found so far, researchers say. Because it orbits a star cooler than our Sun, calculations estimate that Corot-9b's temperature could lie somewhere between minus 23 degrees C and minus 157 degrees C. France's Convection rotation and planetary transits (COROT) satellite took pictures of the exoplanet.

Now that\'s a black hole

Now that's a black hole: Astronomers from the University of Arizona this month said they observed what appear to be two of the earliest and most primitive supermassive black holes known. The discovery, based largely on observations from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, will provide a better understanding of the roots of our universe, and how the very first black holes, galaxies and stars all came to be, researchers stated. The monstrous black holes are among the most distant known, and appear to be in the very earliest stages of formation than any observed so far. Unlike all other supermassive black holes probed to date, this primitive duo, called J0005-0006 and J0303-0019, lacks dust, researchers said. The picture is an artist's rendering.

Houston we have a picture

Houston we have a picture: OK, this image isn't so much a picture of discovery but it's still pretty amazing because it's one of about 639,000 images taken by astronauts from the International Space Station. Among those digital still images is this spectacular nighttime image taken of Houston, the home of Mission Control and astronaut training, and the hub of the International Space Station Program that unites five space agencies and 15 countries in peaceful exploration and scientific research, according to NASA.

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