Today Atlantis closed the hatches to the ISS, the shuttle will undock from the Station on Monday after its nine day visit. The crew just put the final touches on the Columbus module, such as activating all of the science racks, and rushed to pack up the shuttle for the ride home. Flight director Bob Dempsey said he could not be more pleased with Atlantis' visit. The two crews installed the new European lab, Columbus, and conducted three spacewalks to hook it up and do other space station chores. The Atlantis shuttle aims to land at Cape Canaveral on Wednesday.
Source: Discovery News
Thursday scientists announced that they have found a solar system containing two planets smaller than Jupiter and Saturn. The planets were discovered with a new technique called microlensing. A microlensing event is when two stars line up perfectly in the sky from our perspective on Earth. The closer star acts as a natural lens, magnifying the light from the more distant star. Normally the distant star just brightens, but in special cases such as this one, there can be additional distortions. These distortions are often caused by the gravity of planets around the star. In this case it was planets that caused the distortions, and small planets. The most common type of extrasolar planets (exoplanets) found are the huge gas planets, for the obvious reason that they are large and therefore easier to see. But scientists are most eager to find small, rocky, Earth-like planets so that they can get a better idea of how they form and the number of Earth-like planets in the galaxy. Scientists doubt they will see these planets again because of the very miniscule chance of another microlensing event occurring, though just finding not only exoplanets, but small and rocky exoplanets can be a big break for astronomy.
Source: Universe Today
And to end today's post I thought I would report on NASA's newly proposed initiatives. The first is a new probe that will explore the unknown force driving the expansion of the universe, currently called dark matter by astronomers. The Joint Dark Energy Mission seeks to determine if the universe's rate of expansion varies over time. NASA hopes to begin a competitive process to consider proposals to study the phenomena. Next up NASA plans to begin work on two new spacecraft to measure Earth's soil and ice, information that will be crucial in understanding climate change. NASA is also working on small orbiter to study the lunar atmosphere and dust is scheduled for launch in 2011, with a pair of landers to follow in 2013 or 2014. And NASA's current primary outer planet goal is to have probe conducting follow up studies of the Saturn-orbiting Cassini spacecraft and the 1995-2003 Galileo mission on Jupiter.
Source: Discovery News