This Week in Space: A romantic getaway to Mars and a disappearing radiation belt

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Did you catch the launch of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launch last week? The launch went on without a hitch (though the craft later encountered a glitch) and proceeded to dock to the ISS yesterday at around 6am PT. Don’t worry, though, the rocket launch wasn’t the only notable space story. Prepare yourself for tales of mysterious radiation, stray comets, and a married couple in space.

Van Allen Probes reveal previously undiscovered radiation belt [NASA]

In 1958, right at the dawn of the space age, Dr. James Van Allen and his team discovered two large radiation belts surrounding the Earth after launching the first Explorer satellites. Now, over 50 years later, the Van Allen Probes have discovered a transient third radiation belt that could potentially change our understanding of our planet’s interaction with the Sun.

The Van Allen Probes were launched into orbit on August 30th of last year, and after a few last minutes changes to the schedule, the Relativistic Electron Proton Telescope (REPT) was turned on on September 1, earlier than NASA had originally planned. By chance, a solar eruption had occurred the day before, and NASA scientists believe its shock wave may have played a part in the creation of the temporary third ring.

Of course, they can’t be sure. This third ring had never been observed until last year, and it was destroyed four weeks later by another solar eruption. Be sure to check out NASA’s video representation of the Van Allen radiation belts to get a better idea of how the belts affect Earth.

Curiosity may need an umbrella if a comet strikes Mars in 2014 [NASA/JPL]

Unlike the thousands affected by the Russian meteor, only one Earthling will need to take cover if the C/2013 A1 comet hits Mars in late 2014, and that Earthling happens to be the Mars Curiosity Rover.

Scientists have only been actively observing C/2013 A1 since January 3, when astronomer Robert McNaught discovered the comet. Since then, NASA has found “prerecovery” images from as far back as December 8 of last year.

According to Leonid Elenin at the SpaceObs blog, using data from JPL, the chances are currently 0.08 percent that the comet will actually hit Mars. This is using data from the past three months, so the numbers are nowhere near finalized. To put this into perspective, by the time the 2012 DA14 asteroid sailed by Earth, it had been almost exactly a year since its discovery. As the comet gets closer, we’ll know more about its trajectory, but for now the Curiosity can rest easy and continue taking glamour shots on the red planet . [via]

A cosmic sitcom: Sending a couple to space for 501 days [Inspiration Mars]

Alright, so my headline is a little misleading. As far as I know, the Inspiration Mars Foundation is not actually planning on filming a sitcom, but by 2018, they hope to have gathered the candidates and the resources necessary to launch a couple into space in a capsule that would come within 100 miles of Mars.

The significance of 2018 is that Earth and Mars will align, an event that only occurs twice every 15 years. The trip will only require “minor course corrections” and will “[use] the gravitational influence of Mars to “slingshot” the vehicle onto a return course to Earth.”

The trip will take 501 days according to the Inspiration Mars Foundation, so finding a duo that will be able to resist throwing each other into the cold vacuum of space is a necessity. CNN does a great job covering all the potential struggles the couple would face should the mission go ahead as planned. Besides the obvious risk of space flight itself, the overwhelming sense of separation is definitely the most terrifying notion.

Whichever couple does eventually decide to take the trip, they better stock their iPad full of comics before liftoff.

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This story, "This Week in Space: A romantic getaway to Mars and a disappearing radiation belt" was originally published by TechHive.

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