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This week in space: lots of NASA and Kepler, and a mysterious dimming star

It’s been a good week for NASA. Over the next two years, NASA will work with six companies to produce prototypes for deep space habitats. Among the collaborators are Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Bigelow. Boeing is also working with NASA on the SLS, and Bigelow recently sent up the BEAM inflatable space hab module to the ISS.

NASA and CubeSats are really a thing lately. They’re Facebook official. NASA’s Dellingr satellite, named for the Norse god of the dawn, launched this week to study the Earth’s atmosphere and mind its weather patterns. Dellingr is a 6U CubeSat, which makes it about the size of a cereal box.

NASA’s work with Lockheed is also giving NASA a chance to wedge in a little CubeSat science around the edges of the Orion mission. The connector ring that links Orion to the rocket is built with 13 bays for CubeSats. Lockheed is sending up a 6U CubeSat named SkyFire, which has a sweet new thin-and-light infrared camera as part of its science package. For the low, low price of a ride to space, NASA gets a bunch of data out of the SkyFire mission.

Also from NASA’s R&D elite: work on the new SLS rocket engine led to the development of a high-dynamic-range (HDR) camera called, in their usual imaginative style, HiDyRS-X. It’s capable of balancing exposure between the incredibly bright plume of fire coming out of a rocket engine, and the comparatively cool, dim metal of the engine itself. This is what it sees when it looks at an SLS test burn:

It’s not too late to catch the Perseids! They peak in about a five-day window centered around the wee morning hours of August 12th this year, so there’s still time to catch the tail end of this year’s meteor shower. Your best chance to see a fireball is after the waxing moon sets, but before dawn begins to break. It’s even cooler if you think about it in 3D: the meteor shower is actually us passing through the enormous network of debris trails left in the orbital wake of the comet Swift-Tuttle.

Researchers sifted through Kepler’s entire catalog and found twenty rocky exoplanets that really beg for further observation. Based on size, composition and distance from their host star, we think they’re the most like Earth of any we’ve found yet: temperate, rocky planets with liquid water, orbiting Sun-like stars.


Speaking of Kepler’s recent exploits, researchers discovered that the “alien megastructure star” is dimming, and we don’t know why. None of the natural mechanisms scientists have presented can completely explain the way this star’s light output is dropping over time at a non-linear rate: it’s not a planet, and it’s not behaving like it should if it’s going to explode. We’ve observed fluctuations in brightness of up to 20%, along with a gradual dimming across years. What could possibly be going on? My favorite hypothesis is that it’s a Dyson sphere, à la Pandora’s Star

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