Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Potentially Hazardous Object Found by Telescope

The Panoramic Survey Telescope & Rapid Response System (Pan-STARRS) PS1 telescope has discovered an asteroid that will come within 4 million miles of Earth in mid-October. The object is about 150 feet in diameter and was discovered in images acquired on September 16, when it was about 20 million miles away. It is the first "potentially hazardous object" (PHO) to be discovered by the Pan-STARRS survey and has been given the designation "2010 ST3."

"Although this particular object won't hit Earth in the immediate future, its discovery shows that Pan-STARRS is now the most sensitive system dedicated to discovering potentially dangerous asteroids," said Robert Jedicke, a University of Hawaii member of the PS1 Scientific Consortium, who is working on the asteroid data from the telescope. Most of the largest PHOs have already been catalogued, but scientists suspect that there are many more under a mile across that have not yet been discovered.

Friday, September 24, 2010

"Coreshine" Sheds Light on the Birth of Stars

Science is literally in the dark when it comes to the birth of stars, which occurs deep inside clouds of gas and dust. These clouds are completely opaque to ordinary light. Now, a group of astronomers has discovered a new astronomical phenomenon that appears to be common in such clouds, and promises a new window onto the earliest phases of star formation. The phenomenon -- infra red light that is scattered by unexpectedly large grains of dust, which the astronomers have termed "coreshine" -- probes the dense cores where stars are born.

Stars are formed as the dense core regions of cosmic clouds of gas and dust ("molecular clouds") collapse under their own gravity. What happens during the earliest phases of this collapse is largely unknown. Enter an international team of astronomers who have discovered a new phenomenon which promises information about the crucial earliest phase of the formation of stars and planets: "coreshine," the scattering of mid-infrared light (which is ubiquitous in our galaxy) by dust grains inside such dense clouds.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Mercury’s Comet-Like Appearance Spotted

Scientists from Boston University's Center for Space Physics report that NASA satellites designed to view the escaping atmosphere of the Sun have also recorded evidence of escaping gas from the planet Mercury. The STEREO mission has two satellites placed in the same orbit around the Sun that the Earth has, but at locations ahead and behind it.

This configuration offers multi-directional views of the electrons and ions that make up the escaping solar wind. On occasion, the planet Mercury appears in the field of view of one or both satellites. In addition to its appearance as a bright disk of reflected sunlight, a "tail" of emission can be seen in some of the images

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Primordial Magnetic Fields Found in Deep Space

Scientists from the California Institute of Technology and UCLA have discovered evidence of "universal ubiquitous magnetic fields" that have permeated deep space between galaxies since the time of the Big Bang. Physicists have hypothesized for many years that a universal magnetic field should permeate deep space between galaxies, but there was no way to observe it or measure it until now.

From such blurred images obtained by NASA's Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope, the researchers found that the average magnetic field had a "femto-Gauss" strength, just one-quadrillionth of the Earth's magnetic field. The universal magnetic fields may have formed in the early universe shortly after the Big Bang, long before stars and galaxies formed.

Massive Blast Created Mars' Moon

Scientists say they have uncovered firm evidence that Mars's biggest moon, Phobos, is made from rocks blasted off the Martian surface in a catastrophic event. The origin of Mars's satellites Phobos and Deimos is a long-standing puzzle. It has been suggested that both moons could be asteroids that formed in the main asteroid belt and were then "captured" by Mars's gravity.

The latest evidence supports other scenarios. Material blasted off Mars's surface by a colliding space rock could have clumped together to form the Phobos moon. Alternatively, Phobos could have been formed from the remnants of an earlier moon destroyed by Mars's gravitational forces. However, this moon might itself have originated from material thrown into orbit from the Martian surface.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Closest Encounter with Jupiter until 2022

Jupiter is approaching Earth for the closest encounter between the two planets in more than a decade--and it is dazzling. The night of closest approach is Sept. 20-21st. This is also called "the night of opposition" because Jupiter will be opposite the sun, rising at sunset and soaring overhead at midnight. Among all denizens of the midnight sky, only the Moon itself will be brighter.

Earth-Jupiter encounters happen every 13 months when the Earth laps Jupiter in their race around the sun. But because Earth and Jupiter do not orbit the sun in perfect circles, they are not always the same distance apart when Earth passes by. On Sept. 20th, Jupiter will be as much as 75 million km closer than previous encounters and will not be this close again until 2022.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Pluto Gets 14 New Neighbors

Known collectively as trans-Neptunian objects, or TNOs, the first of this population to be discovered was Pluto in 1930. Since then we've found a thousand or so objects in Pluto's domain. Some have even been given exotic names, such as Chaos, Ixion, Quaoar, and Rhadamanthus. So far, two probes have ventured that deep into the solar system (that'd be Voyager 1 and 2) but neither one paid much heed to TNOs on their way farther afield.

That means astronomers using Earthly telescopes can only guess at how many bodies are out there, what they look like, and what they're made of. Now, using archived pictures from the Hubble Space Telescope, a team of scientists has found a way to spot TNOs, and they've added 14 more to the catalog. The trick to finding them is to look for the equivalent of meteor streaks in Hubble shots of other objects.

"Observe the Moon Night" Tomorrow

This Saturday night people will be gathering in groups around the world to examine Earth's nearest celestial neighbor as part of the first ever International Observe the Moon Night. The global event is a joint project between NASA and several partners to raise awareness about the scientific importance of the moon, such as studying how the solar system formed or planning any future human missions to the lunar surface.

"If we can get people to notice the moon a little more, they might notice it when it's in the news," said Andy Shaner, a spokesperson for the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, which is helping to coordinate the event. Around 370 official events are currently scheduled in nearly 50 countries. But people can have their own moon party from just about anywhere, Shaner said.

New Insights Into the Moon's Geologic Complexity

The moon is more geologically complex than previously thought, scientists report Sept. 17 in two papers published in the journal Science. Their conclusion is based on data from the Diviner Lunar Radiometer Experiment aboard NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), an unmanned mission to comprehensively map the entire moon. The spacecraft orbits some 31 miles above the moon's surface.

The new data reveal previously unseen compositional differences in the moon's crustal highlands and have confirmed the presence of material surprisingly abundant in silica -- a compound containing the chemical elements silicon and oxygen -- in five distinct lunar regions. For the first time ever, Diviner is providing scientists with global, high-resolution infrared maps of the moon, which are enabling them to make a definitive identification of silicates commonly found within its crust.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Best View of Comet Hartley 2 Coming Soon

Comet 103P/Hartley 2 was discovered by Australian astronomer Malcolm Hartley in 1986, who calculated that the object orbits the sun about every 6.5 years. Until now, however, gravitational interactions with Jupiter kept shifting the comet's path, sending it closer to the sun and thus farther from Earth during each subsequent return.

This year comet Hartley 2 is on course to make its closest pass by Earth at a mere 11 million miles on October 20—and a dark, moonless sky in mid-October will help create ideal viewing conditions, astronomers say. "Before mid-October, Northern Hemisphere observers will be able to see the comet nearly all night long in the northeast," said Anthony Cook, an astronomer at the Griffith Observatory in California. "After mid-October it can be seen as early as 11:30 p.m. [local time] but is best just before dawn."

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Chandra Finds Evidence for Stellar Cannibalism

Evidence that a star has recently engulfed a companion star or a giant planet has been found using NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory. The likely existence of such a "cannibal" star provides new insight into how stars and the planets around them may interact as they age.

The star in question, known as BP Piscium (BP Psc), appears to be a more evolved version of our Sun, but with a dusty and gaseous disk surrounding it. A pair of jets several light years long blasting out of the system in opposite directions has also been seen in optical data. Astronomers have suggested that BP Psc is an old star in its so-called red giant phase. And, rather than being hallmarks of its youth, the disk and jets are, in fact, remnants of a recent and catastrophic interaction whereby a nearby star or giant planet was consumed by BP Psc.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Astronauts' Fingernails Fall Off Due to Glove Design

Astronauts with wider hands are more likely to have their fingernails fall off after working or training in space suit gloves, according to a new study. In fact, fingernail trauma and other hand injuries—no matter your hand size—are collectively the number one nuisance for spacewalkers, said study co-author Dava Newman, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The trouble is that the gloves, like the entire space suit, need to simulate the pressure of Earth's atmosphere in the chilly, airless environment of space. The rigid, balloonlike nature of gas-pressurized gloves makes fine motor control a challenge during extravehicular activities (EVAs), aka spacewalks. In several cases, sustained pressure on the fingertips during EVAs caused intense pain and led to the astronauts' nails detaching from their nailbeds, a condition called fingernail delamination.

Friday, September 10, 2010

"False Dawn" This Week: Zodiacal Light

For the next week or so sky-watchers in the Northern Hemisphere will have the chance to see an elusive celestial pyramid known as the zodiacal light. The triangular tower of light is easiest to spot around the spring and fall equinoxes. Look for it over the eastern horizon about an hour before sunrise in the fall, and over the western horizon just before sunset in the spring.

Unlike the stars and gases of the Milky Way, which stretch away from Earth for light-years, the source of the zodiacal light lies between the inner planets of our solar system. The dusty disk, also called the zodiacal cloud, radiates from near the sun out beyond the orbit of Mars, toward Jupiter. The dust reflects and scatters sunlight in such a way that it creates a visible glow for observers on Earth.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

X-Ray Source Suggests New Class of Black Hole

A group of international astronomers in the UK, France and the USA, led by the University of Leicester, have found proof to confirm the distance and brightness of the most extreme ultra-luminous X-ray source, which may herald a new type of Black Hole. The X-ray source, HLX-1, is the most extreme member of an extraordinary class of objects -- the ultra-luminous X-ray sources -- located at a distance of ~300 million light years from the Earth.

This is forcing scientists to rethink their theories on the maximum brightness of ultra-luminous X-ray sources, and provides support to the idea that HLX-1 may contain an intermediate mass black hole. While astrophysicists have suspected that an intermediate class of black hole might exist, with masses between a hundred and several hundred thousand times that of the Sun, such black holes had not previously been reliably detected and their existence has been fiercely debated among the astronomical community.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Two Asteroids to Whiz Harmlessly Past Earth

NASA says two small asteroids discovered just days ago will zip harmlessly past Earth on Wednesday, a double flyby that should be visible through a telescope. The asteroids were discovered Sunday by the NASA-funded Catalina Sky Survey in Arizona. The Minor Planet Center in Massachusetts, which tracks asteroids and comets, determined there was no chance of an Earth collision.

Asteroid 2010 RX30, thought to be 32 to 65 feet long, will pass within 154,000 miles of Earth shortly before 3 a.m. PDT Wednesday. The second one, dubbed 2010 RF12, will fly by about 11 hours later at a distance of about 49,000 miles. NASA says the second one is 20 to 46 feet long.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Colorful Mix of Asteroids Discovered

New research from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope reveals that asteroids somewhat near Earth, termed near-Earth objects, are a mixed bunch, with a surprisingly wide array of compositions.

Like the chocolates and fruity candies inside a piƱata, these asteroids come in assorted colors and compositions. Some are dark and dull; others are shiny and bright. The Spitzer observations of 100 known near-Earth asteroids demonstrate that their diversity is greater than previously thought.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Space Ribbon Used to Surf Earth's Magnetic Field

On Monday, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) launched a spacecraft to test the idea. Called T-Rex, short for Tether Technologies Rocket Experiment, the mission launched from the Uchinoura Space Center in Japan at 2000 GMT (5 am on Tuesday, local time) on a suborbital flight that lasted about 10 minutes and reached a maximum altitude of 309 kilometres.

In principle, it is possible to propel an orbiting spacecraft without fuel by using a long piece of metal to interact with the magnetic field surrounding our planet. "You're essentially pushing against the Earth's magnetic field," says Les Johnson of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. While in space, the spacecraft unfurled the 300-metre-long "tether" – a 2.5-centimetre-wide metallic ribbon.