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Solar storm of 1967 nearly took US to brink of war

10 August 2016 Astronomy Now

The solar storm of 23 May 1967 that jammed radar and radio communications at the height of the Cold War could have led to a disastrous military conflict if not for the U.S. Air Force’s budding efforts to monitor the Sun’s activity, a new study finds. The ensuing geomagnetic storm was so strong that the northern lights were visible as far south as New Mexico.

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Searching for distant and wandering worlds

10 April 2016 Astronomy Now

In a global exoplanet observation experiment, NASA’s Kepler K2 mission and Earth-based observatories on six continents hope to survey millions of stars toward the centre of our Milky Way galaxy. Using a technique called gravitational microlensing, scientists will hunt for exoplanets that orbit far from their host star and for free-floating exoplanets that wander between the stars.

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Close comet flyby threw Mars’ magnetic field into chaos

10 March 2016 Astronomy Now

The close encounter between comet Siding Spring and Mars in October 2014 flooded the planet with an invisible tide of charged particles from the comet’s coma, according to data from NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft. The comet’s powerful magnetic field temporarily merged with, and overwhelmed, the planet’s weak field.

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Galactic merger reveals an unusual black hole that has shed its stars

5 January 2016 Astronomy Now

In this season of post-Christmas gym memberships, black holes have shown that they too can lose a lot of the weight of the stars that surround them. One unusually star-deprived black hole at the site of two merged galaxies could provide new insight into black hole evolution and behaviour, according to observations with the Hubble Space Telescope and Chandra X-ray Observatory.

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MAVEN reveals speed of solar wind stripping Martian atmosphere

6 November 2015 Astronomy Now

NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission has identified the process that appears to have played a key role in the transition of the Martian climate from an early, warm and wet environment that might have supported surface life to the cold, arid planet Mars is today. Researchers have determined the rate at which the Martian atmosphere is losing gas to space via stripping by the solar wind and that the erosion increases significantly during solar storms.

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New Horizons discovers frozen plains in Pluto’s ‘heart’

17 July 2015 Astronomy Now

A new close-up image of Pluto from New Horizons reveals a vast, craterless plain that appears to be no more than 100 million years old. This frozen region is north of Pluto’s icy mountains, in the centre-left of the heart feature, informally named “Tombaugh Regio” (Tombaugh Region) after Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered Pluto in 1930.