Best astro stories and photos of 2010

I don’t know how I ended up with a Top 15 story list for 2010, but there you have it. I could have easily added more, but 15 is plenty! I don’t like ranking stories, because it’s hard to compare space probes to personal experiences like eclipses, so these are no particular order. Tomorrow we’ll touch on a few events to look forward to in 2011. I wish you all a Happy New Year and clear nights whenever you need them most.

Water on the moon!

A number of craters near the moon's south pole contain considerable amounts of water ice. Credit: NASA

Water was detected inside a crater near the moon’s south pole during last year’s LCROSS impact, but the true extent of lunar ice wasn’t revealed until this year, when the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and a NASA radar instrument on board India’s Chandrayaan-1 lunar orbiter uncovered the “rest of the story.”An estimated 600 million metric tons of water ice could be hiding under and in the dust and soil inside craters clustered around the moon’s north and south poles. That’s enough to potentially sustain a manned moon base. Besides its obvious use for drinking, water can be separated into hydrogen and oxygen and converted into rocket fuel.

Potentially habitable exoplanets

Artist conception of the potentially habitable planet Gliese 581g (foreground at right) orbiting its host star, a red dwarf. Credit: Lynette Cook/NASA

To date, 516 planets beyond our solar system have been discovered. These exoplanets are primarily hot, Jupiter-sized gasbags orbiting very near their host suns. An exciting exception to this trend was the September discovery of Gliese 581g, located in the “habitable zone” where liquid water could exist on its surface. Also announced this year was the discovery of another exoplanet, GJ 1214b, which might be surrounded by an atmosphere of water steam. The planet is a so-called Super Earth, a globe more massive and larger than our own, but considerably smaller than the run-of-the-mill giant gas planets.

Hayabusa probe returns first-ever sample from an asteroid

Japanese scientists retrieve the precious capsule containing asteroid dust ejected by Hayabusa during its return to Earth. Credit: JAXA

Despite all kinds of trouble with equipment and what appeared at first like a failed attempt to grab a sample of the asteroid Itokawa, the Japanese Hayabusa probe not only returned to Earth this summer, but when scientists examined its return capsule, they discovered thousands of minute grains of asteroid dust. The probe landed on the asteroid’s surface and was supposed to fire projectiles, which would release dust from the surface into a capsule. But the projectiles failed to fire. Luckily, the force of landing sent a tiny quantity of dust into the capsule. Scientists are currently studying the grains, the first ever from an asteroid sampled directly from an asteroid.

Enceladus jets

Plumes of water vapor and other material issues from cracks in Enceladus' surface nicknamed "tiger stripes". Credit:NASA

Although water vapor jets were discovered shooting from fissures in the surface of Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus several years back, the pictures returned this year from the Cassini mission were simply exceptional. They look like a field of Old Faithful geysers. Scientists still debate their cause, but they probably stem from internal heating of the moon either through radioactivity or gravitational interaction with Saturn and its other moons.

Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO)

A huge loop of flaming hydrogen gas called a prominence photographed by the SDO. Credit: NASA

Launched in February, the new solar observatory has been sending back the most beautiful and detailed images of sun in every wavelength (color) of light simultaneously and over very short time intervals that you, I and solar scientists have ever seen. We knew the sun was dynamic, but because SDO can image it over very short time intervals, it now looks positively alive with activity. Scientists have assembled the still images into jaw-dropping videos available on the SDO site as well as Youtube.

Bacteria living on arsenic found on Earth

The bacteria GFAJ-1, which can live off toxic arsenic. Credit: Jodi Switzer Blum

Although toxic to most living things, NASA researchers discovered a new strain of bacteria not only living off arsenic, but incorporating it into their DNA. The microbes were found in highly alkaline Mono Lake in California and are unique, because they don’t share the same fundamental building blocks of life used by the rest of our planet’s known life forms. Their existence reminds us that life on other planets may take other forms and use available chemicals and resources in exotic, unexpected ways.

Jupiter’s stripe disappears, then reappears

Jupiter last May when the SEB had disappeared.

This spring, Jupiter’s otherwise prominent South Equatorial Belt (SEB) faded from view, leaving the planet with only one obvious dark belt. Scientists think it was covered over by higher, whiter clouds. Then this fall, the belt began to return, beginning with the appearance of a dark spot called the South Equatorial Revival, which has since expanded completely around the planet. For anyone with even a small telescope, Jupiter has been the planet to watch in 2010. Changes in its cloud belts, and with four moons constantly on the move, Jupiter’s worth pointing the scope at every clear any night of the year.

Jupiter struck again by asteroid

The white impact spot in Jupiter's cloud tops on June3.

Jupiter made the news again on June 3, when it was hit by a small asteroid or comet. The flash of light from the impact was recorded by Anthony Wesley of Australia and Christopher Go of the Philippines.  Yet another impact flash was recorded just two months later by Japanese amateur Masayuki Tachikawa on August 21! Once thought impossibly rare to see, impacts have now been observed on four occasions on the giant planet. Each time we see such an event, we’re reminded of Earth’s vulnerability in a solar system that’s still has the feel of the Wild West even after 4.5 billion years of settlement.

Saturn’s monster storm dazzles at year’s end

Saturn's big storm seen in blue light by the Cassini probe. Credit: NASA

Planetary weather made the news once again with the appearance of an enormous storm that shot up from deep beneath the Saturn’s clouds earlier this month. Since then, it’s expanded to over 36,000 miles across. Recently, the Cassini probe picked up radio static from the storm, indicating that gigantic bolts of lightning are flashing within that big white cloud. Saturn’s lightning is thousands of times stronger than Earth’s. Who knows the holy terror of a storm there? Over the coming weeks, the storm will likely spread all around the planet and remain visible in amateur telescopes for some time to come.

Flyby of Comet Hartley 2

A close up of Hartley 2's jets shooting out clumps of fluffy snow. Credit: NASA

NASA’s EPOXI mission flew only 435 miles from the bowling-pin-shaped Comet Hartley 2 and photographed jets blasting fluffy snow into space. The source of the jets appears to be dry ice (frozen carbon dioxide) beneath the comet’s surface. Heat from the sun causes the ice to vaporize and carry along bits of water ice through cracks in the comet’s surface. At the same time as the spacecraft photographed the comet, it was a easily visible back on Earth with only a  pair of binoculars as sped near the W of Cassiopeia.

Hubble Space Telescope finds oldest, farthest galaxy

UDFy-38135539, the farthest galaxy seen so far. Credit: NASA/ESO

This fall, using the Hubble Space Telescope and the European VLT scope, discovered a galaxy that was around when the universe was only 600 million years old. Since the universe formed in the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago, that’s one old galaxy. Seeing it takes us back 13.1 billion years to a time when stars and galaxies were just beginning to coalesce from the initial hydrogen and helium created during the Big Bang. Those stars cooked up new elements which were incorporated into later generations of stars and planets. Hubble is always breaking records – it’s a safe bet we’ll see even further back in time in 2011.

New cupola on the space station provides a picture window on the Earth

The "boot"of Italy at night from inside the cupola. Credit: NASA

The cupola, installed earlier this year on the International Space Station, is the largest window ever in space. It allows astronauts excellent visibility around the station for monitoring outside activities as well as providing an ideal place to view and photograph the Earth from orbit. The photos taken this summer of Italy, Egypt and other locales at night were amazing. Although most of us aren’t going to fly into space, seeing these photos is the next best thing.

Rise of solar activity and return of the northern lights

The northern lights as seen from Duluth on Oct. 11-12 this year. Credit: Bob King

Arctic sky watchers see the aurora even during lean years of solar activity, but this is the first time in several years that observers in the northern U.S. have spotted the lights. The sun experiences highs and lows in sunspot number and magnetic activity that are directly related to displays of the northern lights. We appear to have emerged from the bottom of the current cycle and are now headed back up toward solar maximum. The numbers tell all. In 2009 the sun was “spotless” 260 days; this year only 51.

Flyby of the asteroid 21 Lutetia

The asteroid 21 Lutetia by Rosetta. Credit: ESA

The European Rosetta spacecraft flew by the 81-mile-long asteroid 21 Lutetia this past July and turned what once appeared as a star-like object through a telescope into a real place with boulders, craters and contours. Scientists are still working to determine Lutetia’s composition. Meanwhile,  Rosetta continues onward to its 2014 rendezvous with Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Shortly after arrival, it will deploy a small lander on the comet’s surface. Imagine – we’ll soon see what it looks like to stand right on a comet. Ain’t technology grand?

A colorful lunar eclipse

December's eclipse of the moon. Credit: Jim Schaff

Although cloudy at my place, this was the first total eclipse in a couple years and widely visible across much of the southern and western U.S. A lunar eclipse is always a highlight because it can be enjoyed without optical aid by millions of people across half the world. The next total lunar will be visible across the western U.S., Alaska and Asia December 10, 2011.

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