Over a five hour exposure, astronomers were able to tease out the color spectrum reflected from extra-solar planet HR 8799c.  (Source: European Southern Observatory/Markus Janson)

The Phoenix Mars Lander is visible in a color-enhanced photograph captured by the Mars Reconnaissance Obriter.  (Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona)
The month of January has been good to space science so far.

It has been just over one year since NASA last heard from the Phoenix Mars Lander. Like many of the other lander missions to Mars, Phoenix worked long past its intended mission duration, nearly doubling its operational time of three months. However, in November of 2008, Mars’ northern latitudes simply didn’t receive enough sun for the lander to continue to power itself.

Since then, the lander has experience three Martian seasons, autumn winter and spring. The sunlight in its location is presently about the same as it was when the lander stopped transmitting and there is a slim chance that the unit could become operational again. NASA does not expect this to be the case however, as the lander was not designed to weather the brutal Martian winter temperatures.

NASA will be monitoring for radio communication attempts from the Phoenix with the Mars Odyssey craft which is presently in orbit over Mars. Should no signals be received, they will try again in February and March.

Ultimately, even if the craft does not rise like a phoenix from its icy grave, it has transmitted a wealth of information about the Martian surface and atmosphere during its all-too-brief lifespan.

Astronomers from Caltech have spotted the second smallest confirmed exoplanet using the Hawaiian Keck I telescope. The 10 meter lens coupled with the High Resolution Echelle Spectrometer (HIRES) viewed the planet by way of radial velocity measurement. An orbiting planet causes a star to wobble, and as it wobbles, its detectable light is shifted towards red or blue. The HIRES instrument captures this shift and astronomers can calculate the planet’s mass and orbital characteristics using the data.

HD 156668b has approximately four times the mass of Earth (just shy of the five Earth masses of recently discovered rocky exoplanet CoRoT-7b) but orbits HD 156668 in just four days. The only smaller confirmed exoplanet is Gliese 581 e, which, found in April of 2009, weighs in at just under two Earth masses.

Another exoplanet, HR 8799c, has received the honor of being the first planet for which a direct observation of atmospheric chemical composition has been made. The observations were made using the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope. The planet is roughly ten times of the mass of Jupiter and orbits between two to two and half times the distance from HR 8799 as Uranus does our Sun.

Two major factors combined make these observations laudable. First, HR 8799 is a very bright star, shining nearly five times as bright as the Sun, though having only approximately and one and a half times its mass. Second, the planetary system is on a plane nearly perpendicular to Earth’s point of view, rather than parallel as most observed extra-solar systems have been. Scientists observing parallel plane systems can use a deductive method for capturing spectra, comparing a star’s measured data before, after and during a planetary eclipse, to find out which light was coming from the star and which from the planet. In a perpendicular orbital system, this is not possible as the planet and star are both in view at all times.

“It's like trying to see what a candle is made of, by observing it from a distance of two kilometres when it’s next to a blindingly bright 300 Watt lamp,” explains Markus Janson, lead author of the paper describing the measurements and methods used to capture HR 8799c’s direct spectra.

Understanding what a planet’s atmosphere is composed of can help planetary scientists understand how it was formed. This in turn will help them understand how solar systems may be formed as a whole.

HR 8779 can be found in the Gemini constellation. Aside from three giant planets, it also has two debris belts similar to our own solar system’s asteroid and Kuiper belts.

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