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This Week In Space: Lost spacecraft found, Curiosity 360 camera, and a new neighbor orbiting Proxima Centauri

NASA has been in the news a fair bit this week. First things first: they found a lost satellite. STEREO-B is one half of the STEREO mission to monitor the sun, and it’s been lost since 2014 (STEREO-A is still doing fine). Because of a “solar conjunction” with Earth, the probe went out of contact and ended up disappearing. But NASA didn’t give up the hunt, and they finally spotted STEREO-B, in an uncontrolled tumble. As soon as they had it, they made sure it was otherwise okay, and then powered it down to save its batteries. The next step is to try to get it back in working order, but that might take some time.

Planetary science has made some fun advances this week via NASA, too: Curiosity and Cassini have both been acting like rock stars. Curiosity beamed us back this gorgeous 360 panorama (below) of the Murray Buttes on Mars, which could just as easily be somewhere in Utah if you ignore the total absence of vegetation. Click and drag to pan around — it’s worth it. This is what it looks like on another planet.

Cassini has been photographing the north pole of still another planet: Titan, Saturn’s hydrocarbon moon. On this frozen world, methane plays the part of water. There are methane rainstorms, and when they drench the surface, they carve out canyons that then fill with flowing liquid methane that empties into lakes around the north pole. Radar measurements and specular analysis confirm it: Titan has surface features just like Earth, but it has a methane cycle where Earth has a water cycle.

NASA also just opened up a whole new tool for scientists here on Earth: they’re putting all peer-reviewed NASA-funded work up on PubSpace, where it will be publicly accessible for free. They will require this for new papers going forward, and they’ve promised to have prior art online within a year.

Apparently Elon Musk has some words to say about colonizing Mars, but you’ll have to wait until September to find out what they are. He’s presenting his plan at the International Astronautical Congress next month during a keynote called “Making Humans a Multiplanetary Species.” According to his AMA, it’s a “completely new architecture,” so this conference should give him a chance to catch us up on his master plan.

A team of researchers on the Gemini North telescope at the Keck observatory found a galaxy that appears to be composed of 99% dark matter. Following up on earlier observations of a galaxy that seemed “fluffy” because of its loose distribution of just a few stars, the astronomers found that the stars were spiraling in toward the center of their galaxy way too fast for their collective mass to explain. Why? Well, like other similar scenarios, we think it’s dark matter drawing the stars in. Even though it only weakly interacts with other matter, dark matter does exert a gravitational pull, and that would explain why the stars are acting like the laws of physics are more like guidelines.

Finally, elsewhere in the cosmos, astronomers found another Earth-like exoplanet in the habitable zone around its star — but this one is the closest yet. It’s called Proxima b, which might induce you to guess it’s in orbit around Proxima Centauri (you’d be right). It’s literally the closest exoplanet we could possibly find, since Proxima Centauri is the closest star to our own. The fact that it’s Earth-like in at least some ways has scientists and astronomy enthusiasts across the globe as excited as they’ve ever been since we first began to find exoplanets 20 years ago.

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