Solar System: Things to Know

Learn about the science of photonics to create space communications, get updates on Juno, mining data from Voyager for new discoveries and more.

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1. Carried on a Beam of Light

One of our major priorities  is to make space communications more efficient. While our communications systems have matured over the decades, they still use the same radio-frequency system developed in the earliest days of the agency. After more than 50 years, we’re investing in new ways to increase data rates while also finding more efficient communications systems. Photonics–generating, detecting and manipulating particles of light–may provide the solution.

 

See how it works

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2. It’s No Joke: Two New Moons for the Seventh Planet

Voyager 2 spacecraft flew by Uranus 30 years ago, but researchers are still making discoveries using the data it gathered. A new study led by University of Idaho researchers suggests there could be two tiny, previously undiscovered moonlets orbiting near two of the planet’s rings.

Find out how they were discovered

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3. Vortex of Mystery

As southern winter solstice approaches in the Saturn system, our Cassini spacecraft has revealed dramatic seasonal changes in the atmospheric temperature and composition of Saturn’s largest moon, Titan. Winter is taking a grip on Titan’s southern hemisphere, and a strong, whirling vortex has intensified in the upper atmosphere over the south pole.

+See more

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4. The Spiders of Mars

Ten thousand volunteers viewing images of Martian south polar regions have helped identify targets for closer inspection, yielding new insights about seasonal slabs of frozen carbon dioxide and erosional features known as “spiders.” From the comfort of home, the volunteers have been exploring the surface of Mars by reviewing images from the Context Camera on our Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and identifying certain types of seasonal terrains near Mars’ south pole.

Learn more and see how you can join in

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5. Better Safe Than Sorry

On Oct. 18, when Juno’s onboard computer entered safe mode, early indications were a software performance monitor induced a reboot of the spacecraft’s onboard computer, turning off instruments and a few non-critical spacecraft components, and it confirmed the spacecraft was pointed toward the sun to ensure the solar arrays received power. On Oct. 24, the spacecraft   left safe mode and has successfully completed a minor burn of its thruster engines in preparation for its next close flyby of Jupiter. The team is still investigating the cause of the reboot and assessing two main engine check valves. The burn, which lasted just over 31 minutes, changed Juno’s orbital velocity by about 5.8 mph (2.6 meters per second) and consumed about 8 pounds (3.6 kilograms) of propellant. Juno will perform its next science flyby of Jupiter on Dec. 11, with time of closest approach to the gas giant occurring at 12:03 p.m. EDT. The complete suite of Juno’s science instruments, as well as the JunoCam imager, will be collecting data during the upcoming flyby.

Get the details

Discover the full list of 10 things to know about our solar system this week HERE.

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Celebrating 10 Years of Revolutionary Solar Views

Twin spacecraft give humanity unprecedented views of the entire sun at one time, traveling to the far side of our home star over the course of a 10-year mission.

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These two spacecraft are called STEREO, short for Solar and Terrestrial Relations Observatory. Launched on Oct. 25, 2006, and originally slated for a two-year mission, both spacecraft sent back data for nearly eight years, and STEREO-A still sends information and images from its point of view on the far side of the sun.

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STEREO watches the sun from two completely new perspectives. It also provides information invaluable for understanding the sun and its impact on Earth, other worlds, and space itself – collectively known as space weather. On Earth, space weather can trigger things like the aurora and, in extreme cases, put a strain on power systems or damage high-flying satellites.

Because the rest of our sun-watching satellites orbit near our home planet, STEREO’s twin perspectives far from Earth give us a unique opportunity to look at solar events from all sides and understand them in three dimensions.

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We use data from STEREO and other missions to understand the space environment throughout the solar system. This helps operators for missions in deep space prepare for the sudden bursts of particles and magnetic field that could pose a danger to their spacecraft. 

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STEREO has also helped us understand other objects in our solar system – like comets. Watching how a comet’s tail moves gives us clues about the constant stream of particles that flows out from the sun, called the solar wind.

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STEREO is an essential piece of our heliophysics fleet, which includes 17 other missions. Together, these spacecraft shed new light on the sun and its interaction with space, Earth, and other worlds throughout the solar system. 

To celebrate, we’re hosting a Facebook Live event on Wednesday, Oct. 26. Join us at noon ET on the NASA Sun Science Facebook page to learn more about STEREO and ask questions. 

Learn more about how NASA studies the sun at: www.nasa.gov/stereo

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A Space Odyssey: 21 Years of Searching for Another Earth

There are infinite worlds both like and unlike this world of ours. We must believe that in all worlds there are living creatures and plants and other things we see in this world. – Epicurus, c. 300 B.C.

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Are we alone? Are there other planets like ours? Does life exist elsewhere in the universe?

These are questions mankind has been asking for years—since the time of Greek philosophers. But for years, those answers have been elusive, if not impossible to find.

The month of October marks the 21st anniversary of the discovery of the first planet orbiting another sun-like star (aka. an exoplanet), 51 Pegasi b or “Dimidium.” Its existence proved that there were other planets in the galaxy outside our solar system.*

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Even more exciting is the fact that astronomers are in hot pursuit of the first discovery of an Earth-like exoplanet orbiting a star other than the sun. The discovery of the so-called “blue dot” could redefine our understanding of the universe and our place in it, especially if astronomers can also find signs that life exists on that planet’s surface.

Astronomy is entering a fascinating era where we’re beginning to answer tantalizing questions that people have pondered for thousands of years.

Are we alone?

In 1584, when the Catholic monk Giordano Bruno asserted that there were “countless suns and countless earths all rotating around their suns,” he was accused of heresy.

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But even in Bruno’s time, the idea of a plurality of worlds wasn’t entirely new. As far back as ancient Greece, humankind has speculated that other solar systems might exist and that some would harbor other forms of life.

Still, centuries passed without convincing proof of planets around even the nearest stars.

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Are there other planets like ours?

The first discovery of a planet orbiting a star similar to the sun came in 1995. The Swiss team of Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz of Geneva announced that they had found a rapidly orbiting gas world located blisteringly close to the star 51 Pegasi.

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This announcement marked the beginning of a flood of discoveries. Exotic discoveries transformed science fiction into science fact:

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But what about another Earth?

Our first exoplanet mission**, Kepler, launched in 2009 and revolutionized how astronomers understand the universe and our place in it. Kepler was built to answer the question—how many habitable planets exist in our galaxy?

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And it delivered: Thousands of planet discoveries poured in, providing statistical proof that one in five sun-like stars (yellow, main-sequence G type) harbor Earth-sized planets orbiting in their habitable zones– where it’s possible liquid water could exist on their surface.

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Now, our other missions like the Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes point at promising planetary systems (TRAPPIST-1) to figure out whether they are suitable for life as we know it.

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Does life exist elsewhere in the universe?

Now that exoplanet-hunting is a mainstream part of astronomy, the race is on to build instruments that can find more and more planets, especially worlds that could be like our own.

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Our Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), set for launch in 2017-2018, will look for super-Earth and Earth-sized planets around stars much closer to home. TESS will find new planets the same way Kepler does—via the transit method—but will cover 400 times the sky area.

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The James Webb Space Telescope, to launch in 2018, wil be our most powerful space telescope to date. Webb will use its spectrograph to look at exoplanet atmospheres, searching for signs of life.

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We still don’t know where or which planets are in the habitable zones of the nearest stars­ to Earth. Searching out our nearest potentially habitable neighbors will be the next chapter in this unfolding story.

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*The first true discovery of extrasolar planets was actually a triplet of dead worlds orbiting the remains of an exploded star, called a pulsar star. Two of three were found by Dr. Alexander Wolszczan in 1992– a full three years before Dimidium’s discovery. But because they are so strange, and can’t support life as we know it, most scientists would reserve the “first” designation for a planet orbiting a normal star.

** The French CoRoT mission, launched in 2006, was the first dedicated exoplanet space mission. It has contributed dozens of confirmed exoplanets to the ranks and boasts a roster of some of the most well-studied planets outside our solar system.

To stay up-to-date on our latest exoplanet discoveries, visit: https://exoplanets.nasa.gov

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