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MESSENGER lifts off
The Boeing Delta 2-Heavy rocket launches at 2:16 a.m. EDT carrying the NASA's MESSENGER space probe from Cape Canaveral, Florida. (5min 23sec file)
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Cocoa Beach view
The Cocoa Beach tracking camera site captured this beautiful view of the launch and separation of the ground-ignited solid rocket boosters. (1min 31sec file)
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Next station crew
Expedition 10 Commander and NASA ISS Science Officer Leroy Chiao and Soyuz Commander and Flight Engineer Salizhan Sharipov discuss their planned six-month mission on the space station. (11min 23sec file)
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Welcome back to Earth
The Apollo 11 astronauts are retrieved from their capsule and welcomed back to Earth by President Richard Nixon. (2min 04sec file)
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Apollo 11 returns
Apollo 11 safely returns to Earth, making a parachute-assisted splashdown in the ocean. (3min 57sec file)
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Apollo 11 moonwalk
Armstrong and Aldrin gather lunar samples and conduct experiments during their moonwalk. (2min 27sec file)
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Moon landing explained
The Apollo 11 astronauts narrate footage of their historic landing on the moon and describe the technical details of the descent. (22min 02sec file)
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Is the solar system special?
ROYAL ASTRONOMICAL SOCIETY NEWS RELEASE
Posted: August 3, 2004

On the evidence to date, our solar system could be fundamentally different from the majority of planetary systems around stars because it formed in a different way. If that is the case, Earth-like planets will be very rare.

After examining the properties of the 100 or so known extrasolar planetary systems and assessing two ways in which planets could form, Dr Martin Beer and Professor Andrew King of the University of Leicester, Dr Mario Livio of the Space Telescope Science Institute and Dr Jim Pringle of the University of Cambridge flag up the distinct possibility that our solar system is special in a paper to be published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

In our solar system, the orbits of all the major planets are quite close to being circular (apart from Pluto's, which is a special case), and the four giant planets are a considerable distance from the Sun. The extrasolar planets detected so far - all giants similar in nature to Jupiter - are by comparison much closer to their parent stars, and their orbits are almost all highly elliptical and so very elongated.

"There are two main explanations for these observations," says Martin Beer. "The most intriguing is that planets can be formed by more than one mechanism and the assumption astronomers have made until now - that all planets formed in basically the same way - is a mistake."

In the picture of planet formation developed to explain the solar system, giant planets like Jupiter form around rocky cores (like the Earth), which use their gravity to pull in large quantities of gas from their surroundings in the cool outer reaches of a vast disc of material. The rocky cores closer to the parent star cannot acquire gas because it is too hot there and so remain Earth-like.

The most popular alternative theory is that giant planets can form directly through gravitational collapse. In this scenario, rocky cores - potential Earth-like planets - do not form at all. If this theory applies to all the extrasolar planet systems detected so far, then none of them can be expected to contain an Earth-like planet that is habitable by life of the kind we are familiar with.

However, the team are cautious about jumping to a definite conclusion too soon and warn about the second possible explanation for the apparent disparity between the solar system and the known extrasolar systems. Techniques currently in use are not yet capable of detecting a solar-system look-alike around a distant star, so a selection effect might be distorting the statistics - like a fisherman deciding that all fish are larger than 5 inches because that is the size of the holes in his net.

It will be another 5 years or so before astronomers have the observing power to resolve the question of which explanation is correct. Meanwhile, the current data leave open the possibility that the solar system is indeed different from other planetary systems.

Ares 1-X Patch
The official embroidered patch for the Ares 1-X rocket test flight, is available for purchase.
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Apollo Collage
This beautiful one piece set features the Apollo program emblem surrounded by the individual mission logos.
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Expedition 21
The official embroidered patch for the International Space Station Expedition 21 crew is now available from our stores.
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Hubble Patch
The official embroidered patch for mission STS-125, the space shuttle's last planned service call to the Hubble Space Telescope, is available for purchase.
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