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Space odysseys

An alien world just two-thirds the size of Earth - one of the smallest on record - detected by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope is seen in this NASA artist's illustration released by NASA on July 18, 2012. The exoplanet candidate, known as UCF-1.01, orbits a star called GJ 436, which is located a mere 33 light-years away. UCF-1.01 might be the nearest world to our solar system that is smaller than our home planet. Evidence for...more

An alien world just two-thirds the size of Earth - one of the smallest on record - detected by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope is seen in this NASA artist's illustration released by NASA on July 18, 2012. The exoplanet candidate, known as UCF-1.01, orbits a star called GJ 436, which is located a mere 33 light-years away. UCF-1.01 might be the nearest world to our solar system that is smaller than our home planet. Evidence for UCF-1.01 turned up when astronomers were studying a known, Neptune-sized exoplanet, called GJ 436b, seen in the background in this image. The identification of nearby small planets may lead to their characterization using future instruments. In this way, worlds like UCF-1.01 might serve as stepping stones to one day finding a habitable, Earth-like exoplanet. REUTERS/NASA/JPL-Caltech/Handout

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An artist's concept of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft approaching Mars. The Curiosity rover is safely tucked inside the spacecraft's aeroshell. The mission's approach phase begins 45 minutes before the spacecraft enters the Martian atmosphere. It lasts until the spacecraft enters the atmosphere. For navigation purposes, the atmospheric entry point is 2,188 miles (3,522 kilometers) above the center of the planet. This...more

An artist's concept of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft approaching Mars. The Curiosity rover is safely tucked inside the spacecraft's aeroshell. The mission's approach phase begins 45 minutes before the spacecraft enters the Martian atmosphere. It lasts until the spacecraft enters the atmosphere. For navigation purposes, the atmospheric entry point is 2,188 miles (3,522 kilometers) above the center of the planet. This illustration depicts a scene after the spacecraft's cruise stage has been jettisoned, which will occur 10 minutes before atmospheric entry.The landing is set for late evening August 5, 2012. REUTERS/ NASA/JPL-Caltech/Handout

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An artist's rendition of what the two Radiation Belt Storm Probe spacecraft will look like in space in this undated handout image courtesy of NASA. NASA's two-year Radiation Belt Storm Probes mission is scheduled to liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on August 24, 2012. REUTERS/NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory

An artist's rendition of what the two Radiation Belt Storm Probe spacecraft will look like in space in this undated handout image courtesy of NASA. NASA's two-year Radiation Belt Storm Probes mission is scheduled to liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on August 24, 2012. REUTERS/NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory

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Dr. Charles Elachi, JPL Director, NASA Jet Propulsion Lab (L), and John Grunsfeld, NASA associate administrator, NASA headquarters, speak during a news conference at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, California August 5, 2012. A scale model of the Cassini spacecraft which is still orbiting Saturn is shown in the background. REUTERS/Fred Prouser

Dr. Charles Elachi, JPL Director, NASA Jet Propulsion Lab (L), and John Grunsfeld, NASA associate administrator, NASA headquarters, speak during a news conference at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, California August 5, 2012. A scale model of the Cassini spacecraft which is still orbiting Saturn is shown in the background. REUTERS/Fred Prouser

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The base of Mars' Mount Sharp - the rover's eventual science destination - is pictured in this August 27, 2012 NASA handout photo taken by the Curiosity rover. The image is a portion of a larger image taken by Curiosity's 100-millimeter Mast Camera on August 23. Scientists enhanced the color to show the Martian scene under the lighting conditions we have on Earth, which helps in analyzing the terrain. REUTERS/NASA/Handout

The base of Mars' Mount Sharp - the rover's eventual science destination - is pictured in this August 27, 2012 NASA handout photo taken by the Curiosity rover. The image is a portion of a larger image taken by Curiosity's 100-millimeter Mast Camera on August 23. Scientists enhanced the color to show the Martian scene under the lighting conditions we have on Earth, which helps in analyzing the terrain. REUTERS/NASA/Handout

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The Soyuz TMA-05M rocket launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan July 15, 2012. A trio of Russian, Japanese and U.S. astronauts blasted off aboard a Soyuz spaceship on Sunday for a four-month mission on the International Space Station (ISS) that Moscow hopes will help restore confidence in its space programme. Veteran Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko, NASA astronaut Sunita Williams and Japanese astronaut Akihiko...more

The Soyuz TMA-05M rocket launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan July 15, 2012. A trio of Russian, Japanese and U.S. astronauts blasted off aboard a Soyuz spaceship on Sunday for a four-month mission on the International Space Station (ISS) that Moscow hopes will help restore confidence in its space programme. Veteran Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko, NASA astronaut Sunita Williams and Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide launched successfully aboard the Soyuz TMA-05M rocket from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 0240 GMT (10:40 p.m. EDT on Saturday). REUTERS/NASA/Carla Cioffi/Handout

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Jet Propulsion Laboratory Visualization Producer Douglas Ellison shows a rubber version of the same size and shape tire used the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover Curiosity during a NASA Social held to preview the landing of MSL at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory on in Pasadena, California, August 3, 2012. The holes on Curiosity's tires are in a pattern of short squares and longer rectangles that spell out in Morse code "JPL". The...more

Jet Propulsion Laboratory Visualization Producer Douglas Ellison shows a rubber version of the same size and shape tire used the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover Curiosity during a NASA Social held to preview the landing of MSL at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory on in Pasadena, California, August 3, 2012. The holes on Curiosity's tires are in a pattern of short squares and longer rectangles that spell out in Morse code "JPL". The MSL Rover named Curiosity was designed to assess whether Mars ever had an environment able to support small life forms called microbes. REUTERS/NASA/Bill Ingalls

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This artist's concept depicts the moment that NASA's Curiosity rover touches down onto the Martian surface. The entry, descent, and landing (EDL) phase of the Mars Science Laboratory mission begins when the spacecraft reaches the Martian atmosphere, about 81 miles (131 km) above the surface of the Gale crater landing area, and ends with the rover safe and sound on the surface of Mars which is set for late evening August 5, 2012....more

This artist's concept depicts the moment that NASA's Curiosity rover touches down onto the Martian surface. The entry, descent, and landing (EDL) phase of the Mars Science Laboratory mission begins when the spacecraft reaches the Martian atmosphere, about 81 miles (131 km) above the surface of the Gale crater landing area, and ends with the rover safe and sound on the surface of Mars which is set for late evening August 5, 2012. The sheer size of the Mars Science Laboratory rover (over one ton, or 900 kilograms) would preclude it from taking advantage of an airbag-assisted landing. Instead, the Mars Science Laboratory will use the sky crane touchdown system, which will be capable of delivering a much larger rover onto the surface. It will place the rover on its wheels, ready to begin its mission after thorough post-landing checkouts. REUTERS/NASA-JPL/Handout

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NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory image of an extraordinary outburst by a black hole in the spiral galaxy M83, located about 15 million light years from Earth, is shown in this handout released July 13, 2012. Using Chandra, astronomers found a new ultraluminous X-ray source, or ULX. These objects give off more X-rays than most normal binary systems in which a companion star is in orbit around a neutron star or black hole....more

NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory image of an extraordinary outburst by a black hole in the spiral galaxy M83, located about 15 million light years from Earth, is shown in this handout released July 13, 2012. Using Chandra, astronomers found a new ultraluminous X-ray source, or ULX. These objects give off more X-rays than most normal binary systems in which a companion star is in orbit around a neutron star or black hole. REUTERS/NASA/CXC/Curtin University/R.Soria et al/Handout

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An artist's rendition of two giant donuts of charged particles called the Van Allen Belts that surround Earth in this image courtesy of NASA. NASA's two-year Radiation Belt Storm Probes mission to study the Van Allen Belts is scheduled to liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on August 24, 2012. REUTERS/NASA/T. Benesch, J. Carns/Handout

An artist's rendition of two giant donuts of charged particles called the Van Allen Belts that surround Earth in this image courtesy of NASA. NASA's two-year Radiation Belt Storm Probes mission to study the Van Allen Belts is scheduled to liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on August 24, 2012. REUTERS/NASA/T. Benesch, J. Carns/Handout

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NASA and NOAA's Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES) Solar X-ray Image shows the Sun in this image taken at 18:44 UTC August 3, 2012. A monster blast of geomagnetic particles from the Sun could destroy 300 or more of the 2,100 high-voltage transformers that are the backbone of the U.S. electric grid, according to the National Academy of Sciences. REUTERS/NOAA/Handout

NASA and NOAA's Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES) Solar X-ray Image shows the Sun in this image taken at 18:44 UTC August 3, 2012. A monster blast of geomagnetic particles from the Sun could destroy 300 or more of the 2,100 high-voltage transformers that are the backbone of the U.S. electric grid, according to the National Academy of Sciences. REUTERS/NOAA/Handout

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A NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image released on July 7, 2012 shows U Camelopardalis, or U Cam for short, a star nearing the end of its life located in the constellation of Camelopardalis (The Giraffe), near the North Celestial Pole. As it begins to run low on fuel, it is becoming unstable. Every few thousand years, it coughs out a nearly spherical shell of gas as a layer of helium around its core begins to fuse. The gas ejected...more

A NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image released on July 7, 2012 shows U Camelopardalis, or U Cam for short, a star nearing the end of its life located in the constellation of Camelopardalis (The Giraffe), near the North Celestial Pole. As it begins to run low on fuel, it is becoming unstable. Every few thousand years, it coughs out a nearly spherical shell of gas as a layer of helium around its core begins to fuse. The gas ejected in the star's latest eruption is clearly visible in this picture as a faint bubble of gas surrounding the star. The shell of gas, which is both much larger and much fainter than its parent star, is visible in intricate detail in Hubble's portrait. While phenomena that occur at the ends of stars' lives are often quite irregular and unstable, the shell of gas expelled from U Cam is almost perfectly spherical. The image was produced with the High Resolution Channel of the Advanced Camera for Surveys. REUTERS/ESA/Hubble, NASA and H. Olofsson/Handout

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Data from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope shows two clusters full of massive stars that may be in the early stages of merging as seen in this handout photo released August 16, 2012. The 30 Doradus Nebula is 170,000 light-years from Earth. What at first was thought to be only one cluster in the core of the massive star-forming region 30 Doradus has been found to be a composite of two clusters that differ in age by about one million...more

Data from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope shows two clusters full of massive stars that may be in the early stages of merging as seen in this handout photo released August 16, 2012. The 30 Doradus Nebula is 170,000 light-years from Earth. What at first was thought to be only one cluster in the core of the massive star-forming region 30 Doradus has been found to be a composite of two clusters that differ in age by about one million years. REUTERS/NASA/Handout

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The target landing area for NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission is the ellipse marked on this image of Gale Crater on Mars (top L). The ellipse is about 12 miles long and 4 miles wide (20 kilometers by 7 kilometers). The MSL Curiosity rover is set to for landing about 10:31 p.m. on August 5, 2012, Pacific Daylight. This view of Gale Crater is derived from a combination of data from three Mars orbiters. The view is looking...more

The target landing area for NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission is the ellipse marked on this image of Gale Crater on Mars (top L). The ellipse is about 12 miles long and 4 miles wide (20 kilometers by 7 kilometers). The MSL Curiosity rover is set to for landing about 10:31 p.m. on August 5, 2012, Pacific Daylight. This view of Gale Crater is derived from a combination of data from three Mars orbiters. The view is looking straight down on the crater from orbit. Gale Crater is 96 miles (154 kilometers) in diameter. Mount Sharp rises about 3.4 miles (5.5 kilometers) above the floor of Gale Crater. REUTERS/NASA/JPL-Caltech/ESA/DLR/FU Berlin/MSSS/Handout

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The sun is pictured in this NASA handout satellite image taken July 12, 2012, shortly before it released an X-class flare. This image combines two sets of observations of the sun from the Solar Dynamics Observatory - light in the 171 Angstrom wavelength, which shows off giant loops of solar material overlying the middle of the sun over the region where the flare originated and a magnetogram, which highlights magnetic fields on the...more

The sun is pictured in this NASA handout satellite image taken July 12, 2012, shortly before it released an X-class flare. This image combines two sets of observations of the sun from the Solar Dynamics Observatory - light in the 171 Angstrom wavelength, which shows off giant loops of solar material overlying the middle of the sun over the region where the flare originated and a magnetogram, which highlights magnetic fields on the sun. NASA's estimates indicate that the coronal mass ejection associated with this flare is travelling in an Earth direction at over 850 miles per second. REUTERS/NASA/Handout

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The sun is pictured in this NASA handout satellite image taken July 12, 2012, shortly before it released an X-class flare. NASA's estimates indicate that the coronal mass ejection associated with this flare is traveling in an Earth direction at over 850 miles per second. REUTERS/NASA/Handout

The sun is pictured in this NASA handout satellite image taken July 12, 2012, shortly before it released an X-class flare. NASA's estimates indicate that the coronal mass ejection associated with this flare is traveling in an Earth direction at over 850 miles per second. REUTERS/NASA/Handout

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A true color image of Titan's colorful south polar vortex captured by NASA's Cassini spacecraft before a distant flyby of Saturn's moon Titan on June 27, 2012, shows a south polar vortex, or a mass of swirling gas, around the pole in the atmosphere of the moon. The south pole of Titan which is 3,200 miles (5,150 km) across is near the center of the view. The formation of the vortex at Titan's south pole may be related to the coming...more

A true color image of Titan's colorful south polar vortex captured by NASA's Cassini spacecraft before a distant flyby of Saturn's moon Titan on June 27, 2012, shows a south polar vortex, or a mass of swirling gas, around the pole in the atmosphere of the moon. The south pole of Titan which is 3,200 miles (5,150 km) across is near the center of the view. The formation of the vortex at Titan's south pole may be related to the coming southern winter and the start of what will be a south polar hood. These new, more detailed images are only possible because of Cassini's newly inclined orbits, which are the next phase of Cassini Solstice Mission. Previously, Cassini was orbiting in the equatorial plane of the planet, and the imaging team's images of the polar vortex between late March and mid-May were taken from over Titan's equator. Scientists think these new images show open cell convection. In open cells, air sinks in the center of the cell and rises at the edge, forming clouds at cell edges. REUTERS/NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute/Handout

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NASA's Mars Odyssey spacecraft passes above Mars' south pole in this artist's concept illustration. REUTERS/NASA-JPL/Handout

NASA's Mars Odyssey spacecraft passes above Mars' south pole in this artist's concept illustration. REUTERS/NASA-JPL/Handout

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Peter Ilott (C) and his colleagues celebrate a successful landing inside the Spaceflight Operations Facility for NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover at Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California August 5, 2012. REUTERS/Brian van der Brug/Pool

Peter Ilott (C) and his colleagues celebrate a successful landing inside the Spaceflight Operations Facility for NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover at Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California August 5, 2012. REUTERS/Brian van der Brug/Pool

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Russian cosmonaut Oleg Novitskiy takes part in a training session, for extra vehicular activity, at the Star City space centre outside Moscow August 10, 2012. Novitskiy, cosmonaut Evgeny Tarelkin and NASA astronaut Kevin Ford are preparing for a mission to the International Space Station in October 2012. REUTERS/Sergei Remezov

Russian cosmonaut Oleg Novitskiy takes part in a training session, for extra vehicular activity, at the Star City space centre outside Moscow August 10, 2012. Novitskiy, cosmonaut Evgeny Tarelkin and NASA astronaut Kevin Ford are preparing for a mission to the International Space Station in October 2012. REUTERS/Sergei Remezov

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