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NASA wraps up stellar year of space travel to distant destinations

NASA has had quite a year. From the Juno mission to study Jupiter to the Cassini spacecraft orbiting Saturn, and New Horizons journey to Pluto and the outer reaches of the solar system, the space agency has traveled quite a distance in 2016 in its continued exploration of the universe and beyond.

The Juno deep space probe arrived at Jupiter, the largest planet in the solar system and fifth from the sun, on July 4 after its launch in 2011.

NASA said the goal of the mission is to understand the “origin and evolution” of the planet. Juno’s mission includes mapping the planet’s magnetic fields, measuring water and ammonia in Jupiter’s atmosphere, and more.

NASA’s other robotic missions include the Cassini spacecraft, which is circling Saturn in its final year of orbit, studying the planet’s iconic rings close-up. The Cassini mission is scheduled to end next year with the probe’s crash into Saturn.

New Horizons, which arrived at Pluto in 2015 for a flyby, beamed back the last of its Pluto data late this year and is now traveling onward to an even more distant object in the Kuiper Belt.

The space agency is also making progress on its planned human mission to Mars in the 2030’s. This year NASA has been choosing its next generation of astronauts who will make deep space missions. They are  scheduled to begin training next summer.

Other major achievements for NASA in 2016 include the completion of the largest-ever space telescope. The James Webb Space Telescope was finished in November and is now on schedule for a 2018 launch. The agency also made strides in aeronautics research and robotic technology.

Comet 45P to make appearance on New Year's Eve

You may want to take a break from ringing in the new year on Saturday to check out Comet 45P which will be at that time reaching its closet point to the sun in its five-year orbit.

Comet 45P, whose proper name is Comet Honda-Mrkos-Pajdusakova, will be visible in the night sky, just after dusk.

You’ll need binoculars to see the comet, it’s too faint for the naked eye. 45P will get closer to Earth over the next several weeks, and be the closest to us on Feb. 11 when it will be a mere 7.4 million miles away. You may be able to see it without binoculars then.

Here’s how to find it:

Comet 45P is in the constellation Capricornus, close to Venus. Venus is bright in the sky and gives off a red color. 45P will be very low in the sky.

Look to the southwestern horizon to try to spot it. It will be about 10 degrees above the horizon at 6 p.m. on New Year’s Eve. It will be close to the crescent moon in the southwestern part of the night sky – look about 3 degrees to the left of the moon to help spot it. It will appear greenish.

Rare total solar eclipse visible from America in 2017

In the New Year, scientists and armchair astronomers nationwide will get the chance to see a total solar eclipse, marking the first time the phenomenon has occurred from coast-to-coast in nearly 100 years.

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In August, the moon will block all of the sun but its vast, outer atmosphere, known as the corona. According to NASA, people can expect to see the corona present itself in "pearly white rays and streamers radiating around the lunar disk."

The total solar eclipse will start on Aug. 21 near Lincoln City, Oregon, around 10:15 a.m. PDT. Over the next hour and a half, it will travel across the country, ending around 2:50 p.m. EDT near Charleston, South Carolina, NASA said in a news release. A partial eclipse will be visible before and after those times.

Scientists from NASA, the University of Texas Arlington and the University of Hawaii presented an overview of the event earlier this month at the American Geophysical Union's fall meeting in San Francisco.

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"An eclipse teaches us so many things, but the 2017 eclipse is especially unique because of the uninterrupted land masses it will pass over," said Lika Guhathakurta, an astrophysicist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "This will allow us to maximize our chance to collect data and connect the shadow of the moon to Earth science."

Among the researchers eagerly awaiting August is University of Hawaii astronomer Shadia Habbal, who uses specialized cameras to photograph and study the corona. The outer atmosphere is where scientists see significant eruptions, including solar flares, and the beginnings of solar wind.

Researchers believe understanding the corona and its role in the solar system can shed light on its relationship with not only planets and stars like the sun, but also the environment satellites and astronauts will inevitably pass through as space exploration expands.

"There is a whole spectrum of colors of light that our eyes cannot see," Habbal said. "From these different colors, we can directly probe into the physics of the corona."

The eclipse will be visible to viewers across the nation, however, NASA warned, it will only be safe to look directly at the sun during the brief period when the moon entirely blocks the star.

"The only safe way to look directly at the partially eclipsed sun is through a specialized filter," like those in eclipse glasses, according to NASA.

Baby screenings for SIDS might be next after groundbreaking Australian study

A breakthrough Australian study has linked the cause of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, or SIDS, to a lower level of a specific brain protein.

The discovery could lead to screenings at birth that might help reduce the number of SIDS deaths.

>> Read more trending stories 

Some 3,500 babies die every year in the U.S. from SIDS, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Scientists at the Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children found that the brain protein orexin was 20 percent lower in babies who died from SIDS. Orexin is a neuropeptide that regulates sleep. It also controls wakefulness and appetite.

The sudden death of a baby under a year old is generally referred to as a SIDS death because doctors can’t explain it or determine the cause.

The study offers up the first biological explanation for the cause of the fatal infant syndrome, also known as “cot death.”

The research could lead to the development of tests that could measure the levels of orexin in babies to help determine an infant’s risks for SIDS, scientists said.  

Winter solstice 2016: What is it; when does it happen; Stonehenge connection

Get ready, Wednesday night is going to be a long one.

Wednesday marks the winter solstice, so that means we will see the least amount of sunlight making the night the longest of the year.

What’s a solstice and why is my day going to drag on? Here are six things to know about the longest night of the year.

1. What is a winter solstice?

The winter solstice (solstice is Latin for “sun standing still”) happens at the same time for everyone on Earth. It represents the exact moment when the Northern Hemisphere is tilted at its furthest point away from the sun.

2. Why is this night any longer than any other night?

The night is longer because you will see the fewest hours of sunlight in the Northern Hemisphere today as the earth hits its farthest tipping point. The sun is directly over the Tropic of Capricorn, with more sunlight seen in the Southern Hemisphere.

3. Is the winter solstice celebrated?

It sure is, and has been for centuries. Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus on Dec. 25, just days after the solstice, and many believe the date of Dec. 25 was chosen to overshadow the pagan celebrations of Saturnalia and Natalis Invicti, according to timeanddate.com.

The word “Yule” -- used to describe the Christmas season -- is believed to have come from the Norse word “jol” which referred to the winter solstice festival. Wiccans celebrate Alban Arthan – or the rebirth of the Sun God. Today, celebrations are set for Poland, Pakistan, Iran and Guatemala, among other places around the world. 

4. Is the solstice always on Dec. 21?

Technically, the solstice can happen any day between Dec. 20 and Dec. 23 because the calendars we use aren’t the same length as a solar year. The 2016 solstice happens on Wednesday at 5:44 a.m. EST

5. When is the shortest night of the year?

 The summer solstice happens in June. Take the winter solstice explanation and flip it – Northern Hemisphere tilted toward the sun, longer days, shorter nights.

6. What does Stonehenge have to do with it?

Stonehenge is an ancient monument in England that is often mentioned in the same breath as the winter solstice. Some say the monument, which dates to between 3,000 and 2,000 BC, could have been a burial ground from its earliest beginnings. Others, say it’s a landmark for visits from space aliens. The only thing that is known for sure about the structure -- built without the aid of cranes or computers -- is that it sits perfectly along a straight line with sunrise on the winter solstice.

Newly discovered spider bears striking resemblance to 'Harry Potter' sorting hat

A team of scientists thought there was something familiar about a new species of spider that they discovered in the mountains of southern India. The insect looked surprisingly like the sorting hat used in J.K. Rowling’s famed Harry Potter series.

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The spider’s "sub-triangular abdomen" gave it a distinctive cone shape. Combined with its inconspicuous brown coloring, the spider looks remarkably like the hat used to sort students of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry into the appropriate school houses.

The researchers, who told The Washington Post that they are Rowling fans particularly enamored with “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” gave the arachnid a Potter-themed name: Eriovixia gryffindori.

In a paper published in the Indian Journal of Arachnology, the scientists who found the spider wrote that the name is “an ode from the authors for magic lost, and found, in an effort to draw attention to the fascinating but oft overlooked world of invertebrates and their secret lives.”

Javed Ahmed, the lead author of the paper, told the Earth Touch News Network the 7mm spider mimics dead leaves in the Western Ghats mountain range.

"Naming the spider after a beloved series icon has certainly made a lot of people take notice," Ahmed told the news site. "Once people realize just how fascinating, unique and essential these wonderful organisms are, the (unfounded) fear and loathing vanishes." 

The spider has gotten a great deal of attention online – including from Rowling herself.

On Twitter the author wrote that was "truly honored" by the name choice.

"Congratulations on discovering another 'fantastic beast!'" she wrote in a tweet to Ahmed.

Prehistoric tooth from extinct seal found in Florida

No one has seen a Caribbean monk seal for six decades, and none have been sighted in Florida in nearly a century.

Now archaeologists say they have found a prehistoric tooth from the extinct animal, also known as the West Indian Seal, along the Intracoastal Waterway in Palm Beach. They say it's the first evidence ever that the seal lived in what's now Palm Beach County, which was mostly uninhabited — at least by white settlers — until the late 1800s.

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Archeologists from the Broward County-based Archaeological and Historical Conservancy found the tooth last month, executive director  Robert S. Carr told the Palm Beach Post Tuesday from Davie. He said his group is "99.9 percent sure" it's from one of the long-gone seals; "the tooth is "very distinctive."

He said it's 500 to 1,000 years old.

Carr also said in a press release that the seal's "occurrence at a prehistoric site in Palm Beach indicates that it was also hunted by prehistoric peoples including the Jeaga. He added that monk seal remains in Florida "are rare, but also have been found (at) Tequesta sites at the mouth of the Miami River and other sites along the Florida coast and the Bahamas."

To read more, go to mypalmbeachpost.com.

December supermoon to rise at peak of annual meteor display

The last of three supermoons in row will be in the sky Dec. 16, according to NASA.

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It won't be like the spectacular sight in November, when the supermoon became the closest full moon to Earth since 1948. That won't occur again until 2034.

>> Related: November supermoon yields spectacular views

But NASA said that if clouds cooperate, North America will have a chance to see this week's display.

What's special about this event is that the supermoon coincides with the peak of an annual meteor display, December's Geminids.

The moon will make for poor meteor-viewing conditions.

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NASA told Space.com that the light of the full moon will reduce visibility "five- to tenfold."

A full or new moon is designated as a supermoon when it is at its closest point on its orbit to Earth. Scientists say that during that time, the moon seems much larger than normal because it shines 30 percent more moonlight onto Earth and comes as much as 14 percent closer to the planet then it is when its at its furthest point from Earth.

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