Friday, May 27, 2011

NASA Asteroid Mission Set for 2016

A NASA spacecraft has been approved to launch in 2016 to visit a near-Earth asteroid, mission managers announced today. Dubbed OSIRIS-REx—for Origins Spectral-Interpretation Resource-Identification Security Regolith Explorer—the robotic craft will conduct the first U.S. mission to collect pieces of an asteroid and bring them back to Earth.

OSIRIS-REx was selected out of three projects under consideration for funding by NASA's New Frontiers Program, which aims to develop uncrewed spacecraft missions designed to help us understand our solar system. The two missions that did not make the cut this round were a sample-return from the far side of the moon and a trip to the surface of Venus. Both missions could be resurfaced in the next round of New Frontiers proposals.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

NASA Announces New Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle

NASA said on Tuesday that a new spacecraft to take humans into deep space will be based on designs of the Orion crew exploration vehicle. The Orion capsule is a surviving component of the Constellation manned space exploration program that President Barack Obama scrapped last year for being behind schedule and over budget.

NASA administrator Charles Bolden said the designs for Orion would be used to push ahead with a new spacecraft known as the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV), which would lift off aboard a massive rocket. "We are committed to human exploration beyond low-Earth orbit and look forward to developing the next generation of systems to take us there," Bolden said in a statement released ahead of a press conference.

Brilliant but Solitary Superstar in Nearby Galaxy

An international team of astronomers has used ESO's Very Large Telescope to carefully study the star VFTS 682 in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a small neighbouring galaxy to the Milky Way. By analysing the star's light, using the FLAMES instrument on the VLT, they have found that it is about 150 times the mass of the Sun. Stars like these have so far only been found in the crowded centres of star clusters, but VFTS 682 lies on its own.

"We were very surprised to find such a massive star on its own, and not in a rich star cluster," notes Joachim Bestenlehner, the lead author of the new study and a student at Armagh Observatory in Northern Ireland. "Its origin is mysterious." At first glance VFTS 682 was thought to be hot, young and bright, but unremarkable. But the new study using the VLT has found that much of the star's energy is being absorbed and scattered by dust clouds before it gets to Earth -- it is actually more luminous than previously thought and among the brightest stars known.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

NASA Hangs Up on Silent Mars Rover Spirit

Shortly after midnight, NASA sent one last plea to the silent rover Spirit, mired in a sand trap on the surface of Mars. "Please phone home." With that, the space agency ended its efforts Wednesday to contact the workhorse robot geologist, which has been unresponsive for more than a year. Rather than spend time and money hanging onto faint hope, mission managers decided to turn their focus on Spirit's healthy twin Opportunity and prepare for the upcoming launch of the next Mars mega-rover.

Orbiting spacecraft will continue to passively listen for Spirit until the end of May, but the chance of a response is slim. "There's a sadness that we have to say goodbye to Spirit," said project manager John Callas of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which runs the twin rovers. NASA canceled a televised farewell fete planned for next Tuesday after The Associated Press reported this week that Spirit's mission was over. Upon hearing the news, Spirit fans commiserated on Twitter and thanked the rover for its hard work.

JFK Fretted Moon Program Was Tough Sell

After setting a soaring vision to land a man on the moon, President John F. Kennedy struggled with how to sell the public on a costly space program he worried had "lost its glamour" and had scant political benefits, according to a newly released White House tape. Kennedy and NASA Administrator James Webb hashed out how to strengthen public backing for the mission, such as by highlighting its technological benefits and military uses.

And in a scenario that echoes today, the two worried about preserving funding amid what Webb calls a "driving desire to cut the budget," according to the tape recorded two months before Kennedy was assassinated. The Sept. 18, 1963, conversation is among 260 hours of White House recordings that archivists at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum have been reviewing in chronological order. Its release Wednesday comes on the 50th anniversary of Kennedy's May 25, 1961, speech in which he made his famous call to reach the moon by decade's end. While that speech is remembered for its ambition, it also included a caveat that "no single space project in this period ... will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish."

Friday, May 20, 2011

Giant Saturn Storm Revealed

Using a distant spacecraft and a giant telescope, astronomers have unmasked the full ire of a storm so big that it encircles Saturn, a planet nearly ten times bigger than Earth. Astronomers have been watching this northern-hemisphere storm since December 2010, when a bright plume of gas bubbled up to the surface of the gaseous sphere that makes up Saturn.

The disturbance has since expanded by riding easterly winds blowing at about 220 miles an hour. But until now very little has been known about the workings of the storm, its depth, and how it affects the ringed planet. Now a new study, released Thursday by the journal Science, says the Saturn storm is about 370 miles tall, according to observations made both by NASA's Cassini probe and the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope array in Chile. By comparison, thunderstorms on Earth usually top out at a height of 12.5 miles—and none of them circle our entire planet, despite its comparatively small size.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Cast Adrift, Billions of Planets, All Alone

Astronomers said Wednesday that space was littered with hundreds of billions of planets that had been ejected from the planetary systems that gave them birth and either were going their own lonely ways or were only distantly bound to stars at least 10 times as far away as the Sun is from the Earth.

There are two Jupiter-mass planets floating around for each of the 200 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy, according to measurements and calculations by an international group of astronomers led by Takahiro Sumi, of Osaka University in Japan, and reported in the journal Nature. “It’s a bit of a surprise,” said David Bennett, a Notre Dame astronomer who was part of the team. Before this research, it was thought that only about 10 or 20 percent of stars harbored Jupiter-mass planets. Now it seems as if the planets outnumber the stars.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Endeavour Soars on Second-to-Last Shuttle Trip

Endeavour blasted off on NASA's next-to-last shuttle flight, thundering through clouds into orbit Monday morning as the mission commander's wounded wife, Gabrielle Giffords, watched along with an exhilarated crowd well into the thousands.

NASA is winding down its 30-year-old shuttle program before embarking on something new. The event generated the kind of excitement seldom seen on Florida's Space Coast on such a grand scale — despite a delay of more than two weeks from the original launch date because of an electrical problem.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Crab Nebula's Gamma-Ray Flare Mystifies Astronomers

The Crab Nebula has shocked astronomers by emitting an unprecedented blast of gamma rays, the highest-energy light in the Universe. The cause of the 12 April gamma-ray flare, described at the Third Fermi Symposium in Rome, is a total mystery. It seems to have come from a small area of the famous nebula, which is the wreckage from an exploded star. The object has long been considered a steady source of light, but the Fermi telescope hints at greater activity.

The gamma-ray emission lasted for some six days, hitting levels 30 times higher than normal and varying at times from hour to hour. While the sky abounds with light across all parts of the spectrum, Nasa's Fermi space observatory is designed to measure only the most energetic light: gamma rays. At the heart of the brilliantly coloured gas cloud of the Crab Nebula we can see in visible light, there is a pulsar - a rapidly spinning neutron star that emits radio waves which sweep past the Earth 30 times per second. But so far none of the nebula's known components can explain the signal Fermi sees.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Newly Discovered Asteroid Is Earth's Companion

Astronomers from the Armagh Observatory in Northern Ireland have found that a recently discovered asteroid has been following Earth in its motion around the Sun for at least the past 250,000 years, and may be intimately related to the origin of our planet.

The asteroid first caught the eye of the scientists two months after it was found by the WISE infrared survey satellite, launched in 2009 by the United States. "Its average distance from the Sun is identical to that of the Earth," says Dr Christou, "but what really impressed me at the time was how Earth-like its orbit was." Most near-Earth Asteroids -- NEAs for short -- have very eccentric, or egg-shaped, orbits that take the asteroid right through the inner solar system. But the new object, designated 2010 SO16, is different. Its orbit is almost circular so that it cannot come close to any other planet in the solar system except Earth.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Mercury Astronaut Featured on U.S. Stamps

Fifty years after becoming the first U.S. astronaut to fly into space, the late Alan B. Shepard, Jr. was remembered Wednesday with the release of a stamp in his honor. The commemorative postage, which the U.S. Postal Service issued together with another stamp for the first spacecraft to orbit the planet Mercury, is the first ever to show a specific astronaut.

The pair of stamps -- or se-tenant as referred to by stamp collectors -- were formally introduced during a First Day of Issue ceremony held at NASA's Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida. USPS and NASA officials were joined by Shepard's three daughters and his fellow Original Mercury 7 astronaut Scott Carpenter at the event, which took place in the shadow of a replica of the 80-foot rocket that Shepard rode into space on May 5, 1961.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Dawn Spacecraft Approaching Asteroid Vesta

NASA's Dawn spacecraft has reached its official approach phase to the asteroid Vesta and will begin using cameras for the first time to aid navigation for an expected July 16 orbital encounter. The large asteroid is known as a protoplanet -- a celestial body that almost formed into a planet.

At the start of this three-month final approach to this massive body in the asteroid belt, Dawn is 752,000 miles from Vesta, or about three times the distance between Earth and the moon. During the approach phase, the spacecraft's main activity will be thrusting with a special, hyper-efficient ion engine that uses electricity to ionize and accelerate xenon. The 12-inch-wide ion thrusters provide less thrust than conventional engines, but will provide propulsion for years during the mission and provide far greater capability to change velocity.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Meteor Shower from Halley's Comet Peaks Friday

It has been 25 years since Halley's Comet last passed through the inner solar system, but an annual meteor shower keeps the icy wanderer's legacy on Earth alive this week. The orbit of Halley's Comet closely approaches the Earth's orbit at two places, creating a rain of striking meteors for skywatchers during both instances. One point is in the middle to latter part of October, producing a meteor display known as the Orionids. The other point comes now, in early May, producing the annual Eta Aquarids meteor shower.

The Eta Aquarid meteor shower is predicted to peak early Friday morning (May 6). Under ideal conditions (a dark, moonless sky) about 30 to 60 of these very swift meteors can be seen per hour. And with a new moon on May 3 this is one of those years when observing conditions will be perfect. The shower appears at about one-quarter peak strength for about three or four days before and after May 6.

Monday, May 2, 2011

NASA Delays Shuttle Launch Until Next Week

Hours before its planned liftoff from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the space shuttle Endeavour had endured pouring rain and nearby lightning—but was still on target for launch, based on weather conditions. Instead, it was a problem with a line of small heaters that ultimately forced NASA to scrub today's 3:47 p.m. launch attempt. NASA's next try will be no earlier than Monday morning, launch officials said today. A planned launch of an Atlas V rocket from Kennedy on May 6 means that the shuttle lift-off can push to no later than May 4. After that date, the next possible launch attempt for Endeavour wouldn't come until May 9.

Endeavour's crew of six veteran astronauts, led by mission commander Mark Kelly, had already boarded their bus for the launch pad when the scrub was announced at 12:19 p.m. ET. The trouble was caused by failed heaters in one of the shuttle's auxiliary power units (APUs), which provide hydraulic power for the craft's engine nozzles, landing gear, and other moving parts used in flight.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Six Planets Now Aligned in the Dawn Sky

If you get up any morning for the next few weeks, you’ll be treated to the sight of all the planets except Saturn arrayed along the ecliptic, the path of the sun through the sky. For the last two months, almost all the planets have been hiding behind the sun, but this week they all emerge and are arrayed in a grand line above the rising sun. Mercury, Venus, Mars, and Jupiter are visible, and you can add Uranus and Neptune to your count if you have binoculars or a small telescope.

This sky map of the six planets shows how they should appear at dawn to observers with clear weather and an unobstructed view. Astrologers have always been fascinated by planetary alignments, and the doomsayers of 2012 have been prophesying a mystical alignment on Dec. 21, 2012. The modern tools of astronomers, such as planetarium software, show otherwise: absolutely no alignment at any time in 2012. But they also reveal a beautiful alignment visible during the month of May this year.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Telescope Will Track Space Junk

The Space Surveillance Telescope (SST), developed by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), is to be used to protect US and international assets and commercial and international satellites in orbit around Earth. Researchers are currently tracking an estimated 22,000 artificial objects that are orbiting Earth, from small bits of debris to large satellites. That number is expected to triple in the next 20 years. Even a centimetre-sized piece of debris can cause considerable damage to crucial weather, communication or missile-warning systems.

The US Air Force keeps a catalogue of all known orbiting objects through its Space Surveillance Network, an integrated system of ground- and space-based telescopes and radar. The network tracks debris to anticipate possible impacts, but better surveillance is needed to cope with the increasing number of objects, says Laing. The SST would focus mostly on the region in which objects in geosynchronous orbit reside, about 35,000 kilometres from Earth.

Dry Ice Lake Suggests Mars Had a "Dust Bowl"

Think Mars today is a hostile place? It was worse 600,000 years ago, according to new research that suggests the planet had a dustier, stormier atmosphere. The evidence comes from the discovery of a huge underground reservoir of dry ice, or frozen carbon dioxide, at its south pole — much more than scientists realized. They suspect some of that store of carbon dioxide was once in Mars' atmosphere, making it denser.

In the recent geologic past, when Mars' axis tilted, sunlight reached the southern polar cap, melting some of the frozen carbon dioxide. This release would have made the atmosphere thicker and caused more dust to loft into the air, creating severe storms. Other times, carbon dioxide cycled back into the ground as part of a seasonal cycle. The underground dry ice deposit, roughly the size of Lake Superior, was discovered using ground-piercing radar aboard the NASA Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter designed to probe below the crust. Researchers estimate it represents 30 times more carbon dioxide than previously believed. Its presence may help explain how most of the Martian atmosphere disappeared.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Spinning Sunspots Create Giant Solar Flare

Researchers at the University of Central Lancashire studied the largest solar flare recorded in nearly five years. The solar eruption in February was caused by five rotating sunspots working in concert. Solar flares are eruptions on the surface of the sun which begin as concentrated magnetic fields and are visible as sunspots. As the magnetic fields build up, they twist and erupt, releasing vast amounts of heat, light and radiation.“Twisting the Sun’s magnetic field is like twisting an elastic band. At first you store energy in the elastic, but if you twist too much the elastic band snaps, releasing the stored energy.

Dr. Daniel Brown, of the University of Central Lancashire explains in a statement: “Rotating sunspots are an extremely efficient way to inject energy into the magnetic field of the Sun’s atmosphere. With five sunspots rotating at the same time, enough energy has been injected into the atmospheric magnetic field to produce the largest solar flare seen for almost five years.” The flare occurred on February 15, when the Sun released the largest recorded solar flare since later 2006 and the first flare of the current solar cycle to be classified as the most powerful, “X-class”.

Pluto Atmosphere Has Toxic Carbon Monoxide

As if being distant and frigid weren't enough, Pluto is cloaked in a puffy atmosphere that contains highly toxic carbon monoxide, new data confirms. Observations of the dwarf planet made more than a decade ago offered inconclusive evidence of carbon monoxide in Pluto's atmosphere. The new study—based on data from the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in Hawaii—not only confirms the gas is there, it shows that the amount of carbon monoxide has doubled since 2000.

In general, Pluto's atmosphere is very thin—about a millionth the atmospheric pressure of Earth's—but it extends relatively far into space. The solid part of the planet is just 1,430 miles wide. The new study shows that Pluto's atmosphere has grown over the past decade from a height of about 62 miles to more than 1,864 miles—a quarter of the distance to Pluto's largest moon, Charon. The astronomers think the increase may be due to Pluto's extreme seasons.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

NASA to Send Shuttles to FL, CA, Suburban DC

On a memorable day in space history, NASA began its goodbyes to the shuttle program Tuesday, announcing the aged spacecraft will retire to museums in Cape Canaveral, Los Angeles and suburban Washington and sending a test-flight orbiter to New York City. The choice of homes for the spaceships — sometimes described as the most complex machinery ever devised — was hotly contested. Twenty-one museums and visitor centers around the country put in bids.

After it closes out the program, shuttle Atlantis will stay in Cape Canaveral at the space center's visitor complex, just miles from the pair of launch pads used to shoot the orbiters into space. Shuttle Endeavour, which makes its last flight at the end of the month, will head to the California Science Center in Los Angeles, about 60 miles from the plant where the shuttle was assembled. Discovery's new home will be the Smithsonian Institution's branch in northern Virginia near Washington Dulles International Airport. In exchange for the oldest shuttle, the Smithsonian is giving up Enterprise, a shuttle prototype used for test flights in the 1970s, where it will go to New York City's Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum for display in a glass enclosure on a Manhattan pier on the Hudson River.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Solar System's "Nose" Found

A NASA spacecraft has uncovered the solar system's "nose," which points in the direction our sun is moving through the Milky Way galaxy, astronomers say. The finding is based on newly released data from the Interstellar Boundary Explorer satellite (IBEX), an Earth-orbiting probe that has been mapping the solar system's outer frontier since 2008. As the sun travels through the galaxy, the solar wind—actually charged particles streaming from the sun—collides with interstellar gases, forming a cocoon around the solar system called the heliosphere. The edge of this cocoon, the heliopause, lies more than 9 billion miles from the sun.

Cosmic rays constantly bombard our solar system, but the heliosphere shields us from most of the radiation. Still, the small amounts that leak through and reach Earth can fry satellite electronics and pose a health hazard for astronauts. In 2009 IBEX revealed a vast ribbon of atoms snaking its way along the solar system's edge. While intriguing, this ribbon was preventing astronomers from mapping the entire heliosphere. Now Schwadron and his team have finally been able to digitally subtract the intense emissions given off by this mysterious ribbon, revealing the heliosphere's nose. This feature, like the bow of a ship, appears at the leading edge of the windsock-like heliosphere.

Monday, April 11, 2011

First Man in Space: A Feat Remembered

It was the Soviet Union's own giant leap for mankind, one that would spur a humiliated America to race for the moon. It happened 50 years ago this Tuesday, when an air force pilot named Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space. The 27-year-old cosmonaut's mission lasted just 108 minutes and was fraught with drama: a break in data transmission, glitches involving antennas, a retrorocket and the separation of modules. And there was an overarching question that science had yet to answer: What would weightlessness do to a human being?

"There were all kinds of wild fears that a man could lose his mind in zero gravity, lose his ability to make rational decisions," recalls Oleg Ivanovsky, who oversaw the construction and launch of the Vostok spacecraft that carried Gagarin. The flight was to be fully automatic, but what if weightlessness caused Gagarin to go mad and override the programmed controls? The engineers' solution was to add a three-digit security code that the cosmonaut would have to enter to gain command of the spacecraft. It proved unnecessary. The flight went off safely, and the handsome Russian with the big smile became a poster boy for the communist world.

Friday, April 8, 2011

NASA And ESA Planning Joint Mars Rover For 2018

NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) are now planning to land just one rover on Mars in 2018. NASA and ESA had originally planned to land two vehicles together on Mars to perform a tandem mission. One of the rovers would have investigated below the surface with a drill, and the other would have been used to collect rocks to return to Earth. However, cost concerns have prompted NASA and ESA to consider combining these roles into a single vehicle.

ESA member states and NASA discussed the idea on Thursday in California, and it received broad support. The new rover would be larger than either of the vehicles in the paired concept. The new vehicle would be built in Europe and take a mix of European and U.S. instruments. NASA would provide the rocket to get it into space and the "mothership" to carry it to Mars. The goals of the 2018 mission would be to look for signs of past or present life by digging down into the soil and packaging rocks that can be picked up and dispatched to Earth laboratories by a subsequent mission.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Huge Asteroid to Pass Near Earth in November

Mark your calendars for an impressive and upcoming flyby of an asteroid that’s one of the larger potentially perilous space rocks in the heavens – in terms of smacking the Earth in the future. It’s the case of asteroid 2005 YU55, a round mini-world that is about 1,300 feet in diameter. In early November, this asteroid will approach Earth within a scant 0.85 lunar distances.

Due the object’s size and whisking by so close to Earth, an extensive campaign of radar, visual and infrared observations are being planned. Asteroid 2005 YU55 was discovered by Spacewatch at the University of Arizona, Tucson’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory on Dec. 28, 2005. En route and headed our way, the cosmic wanderer is another reminder about life here on our sitting duck of a planet.

NASA Telescopes See Unprecedented Explosion

NASA's Swift, Hubble Space Telescope and Chandra X-ray Observatory have teamed up to study one of the most puzzling cosmic blasts yet observed. More than a week later, high-energy radiation continues to brighten and fade from its location. Astronomers say they have never seen anything this bright, long-lasting and variable before. Usually, gamma-ray bursts mark the destruction of a massive star, but flaring emission from these events never lasts more than a few hours.

Although research is ongoing, astronomers say that the unusual blast likely arose when a star wandered too close to its galaxy's central black hole. Intense tidal forces tore the star apart, and the infalling gas continues to stream toward the hole. According to this model, the spinning black hole formed an outflowing jet along its rotational axis. A powerful blast of X- and gamma rays is seen if this jet is pointed in our direction.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Antarctic Meteorite Yields New Mineral

A meteorite discovered in Antarctica in 1969 has just divulged a modern secret: a new mineral, now called wassonite. The new mineral found in the 4.5-billion-year-old meteorite was tiny — less than one-hundredth as wide as a human hair. Still, that was enough to excite the researchers who announced the discovery Tuesday (April 5). "Wassonite is a mineral formed from only two elements, sulfur and titanium, yet it possesses a unique crystal structure that has not been previously observed in nature," NASA space scientist Keiko Nakamura-Messenger said in a statement.

The mineral's name, approved by the International Mineralogical Association, honors John T. Wasson, a UCLA professor known for his achievements across a broad swath of meteorite and impact research. Grains of Wassonite were analyzed from the meteorite that has been officially designated Yamato 691 enstatite chondrite. Chondrites are primitive meteorites that scientists think were remnants shed from the original building blocks of planets. Most meteorites found on Earth fit into this group.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

NASA Spacecraft Snaps First Photo of Mercury

The first spacecraft ever to circle Mercury has beamed home the first-ever photo taken of the small rocky planet from orbit, showing a stark landscape peppered with craters. NASA's Messenger spacecraft snapped the new Mercury photo today (March 29) at 5:20 a.m. EDT (0920 GMT). The photo shows the stark gray landscape of southern Mercury, a view that is dominated by a huge impact crater.

"This image is the first ever obtained from a spacecraft in orbit about the solar system's innermost planet," Messenger mission scientists explained in a statement. The photo is the first of 363 snapshots Messenger took during six hours of observations around Mercury. The images are expected to cover previously unseen areas of Mercury, terrain that was missed by Messenger during three previous flybys before it entered orbit.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

NASA Listens for Mars Rover to Phone Home

Despite the dismal outlook, NASA will make a last-ditch effort to communicate with Spirit, which fell silent a little over a year ago. If there's still no contact in the next month or so, the space agency will scale back its listening campaign for Spirit and focus on its healthy twin, Opportunity. That Spirit has not called home suggests that something is more seriously wrong than just a power issue, said program manager John Callas at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

The solar-powered rover became bogged in a sand trap in 2009 during a routine drive. Despite efforts to wiggle free, it remained stuck and could not tilt itself toward the sun as the Martian winter approached. Without an adequate amount of energy reaching its solar panels, it went into hibernation. Engineers had expected Spirit to wake up once there was maximum sunlight where it's trapped. But that point came and went earlier this month with no response.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Comet-Hunting Craft Shuts Down after 12 Years

Launched in 1999, Stardust finished its main mission in 2006, sending a tiny sample of particles from the Wild 2 comet to Earth via a parachute-equipped canister. NASA then recycled the probe, sending it past a comet last month to photograph a crater left by a projectile launched by another space probe.

It accomplished one last experiment on Thursday, firing its thrusters until its last hydrazine fuel was gone. The length of that burn, a little under 2 1/2 minutes, will tell engineers exactly how much fuel was left so they can see how accurate their calculations were. That in turn will help with the design and operation of future probes.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Smithsonian Keeps Meteorite that Fell in Virginia

A small meteorite that crashed through the roof of a Virginia medical office last year is becoming part of the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History in Washington. The Smithsonian paid $10,000 for the meteorite to Marc Gallini and Frank Ciampi, the Lorton, Va. doctors who found it. They have in turn given the $10,000 check to the Doctors Without Borders charity.

Museum spokesman Randall Kremer said Saturday the meteorite is part of the museum's research collection. The Smithsonian holds the world's largest collection of natural history specimens and artifacts. Meteorites are lucrative, and after the tennis-ball-sized rock fell from the sky and landed in an examination room in the office in January 2010, the landlords at the doctors' building made a legal claim to it. But that claim was later dropped.

Biggest Full Moon in 18 Years Amazes Skywatchers

The largest full moon in more than 18 years – a so-called "supermoon" – did not disappoint eager skywatchers around the world Saturday when it rose, big and bright, into Earth's night sky. The full moon of March was 221,565 miles on Saturday, March 19 just 50 minutes after it hit its full phase, making it the biggest and brightest full moon since 1993. The "supermoon" phenomenon occurred because the moon was in its full phase and just 50 minutes past perigee – the point of its orbit that brings it closer to Earth.

This year's biggest full moon also gained notoriety after erroneous claims that it would spark waves of natural disasters around the world. NASA scientists and others dismissed the fringe lunar disaster claims as nonsense, but did admit the moon should look spectacular. Saturday's full moon appeared 14 percent larger and 30 percent brighter than the smallest full moons Earth sees, though the difference wasn't immediately apparent to some skywatchers.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Humanoid Robot Unveiled on Space Station

Astronauts at the International Space Station unpacked Robonaut on Tuesday, 2 1/2 weeks after its arrival via shuttle Discovery. NASA broadcast the humorous unveiling ceremony Wednesday. American Catherine Coleman and Italian Paolo Nespoli pried off the lid of the robot's packing box, as though they were opening a coffin. TV cameras showed lots of foam inside, but no robot. Robonaut — also known as R2 — was spotted a minute later in front of a work station. "I'd like to introduce you to the newest member of our crew," Coleman said. "We're going to see what Robonaut can do." In a Twitter update, R2 announced: "Check me out. I'm in space!" A NASA employee on the ground posted the tweet.

Nespoli attached NASA's waist-high R2 to a fixed pedestal, where it will remain with its fists clenched and its arms folded against its chest until testing begins in May. The robotic team at Johnson Space Center in Houston wants to see how R2 performs in weightlessness. The robot is intended as an astronaut helper, inside the space station, in the decade ahead.

Monday, March 14, 2011

NASA Worker Falls to His Death at Launch Pad

According to a NASA official, a space shuttle contract worker fell to his death on Monday morning while working at launch pad 39A. The worker, whose name has not yet been released pending notification of his family, was an employee of United Space Alliance. He was preparing space shuttle Endeavour for its final flight on April 19th.

"He fell at the pad, and NASA emergency medical personnel responded but were unable to revive him," Kennedy Space Center spokeswoman Candrea Thomas said in a statement. NASA did not specify how far the worker fell. "The incident is under investigation," Thomas said. "As of right now, all work at the pad has been suspended for the day while we investigate what happened," she said.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Mercury Visible Sunday as NASA Craft Approaches

On St. Patrick's Day, for the first time a small NASA spacecraft called Messenger will enter into Mercury's orbit, circling at times as close as 125 miles from the planet's surface. And by coincidence, a few days before that will be the best time all year for people on Earth to see Mercury with the naked eye. Barely bigger than our moon but much more distant, Mercury is not easy to see without a telescope. An odd pairing with giant Jupiter will make it easier to spot starting Sunday — probably the best opportunity for a year.

NASA's Mariner probe flew by Mercury in 1974 and 1975, and Messenger has whizzed by it in 2008 and 2009. But this is the first time a spacecraft will attempt the tricky maneuver of entering Mercury's orbit, circling it for a year. To do that, Messenger, overbudget at $446 million, will have to thwart the enormous pull of the sun. The overall heat on the sunny side of Mercury will melt parts of some of Messenger's instruments, by design, acting as a heat buffer for the more sensitive parts of the equipment. Then the melted parts will refreeze when the spacecraft hits a cooler zone, said Messenger system engineering chief Eric Finnegan.

James Elliot Dead, 67; Discovered Rings of Uranus

James Elliot, an astronomer who used light from distant stars to study planetary objects throughout the solar system, leading to his discovery of the rings of Uranus, died on March 3 at his home in Wellesley, Massachusetts. He was 67. His daughter Lyn said the cause was complications of cancer treatment.

Dr. Elliot spent his career, mostly at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, scrutinizing planets by observing how much starlight they blocked. Using phenomena known as stellar occultations, he could observe changes in the brightness of a star when it was hidden by a planet, thus determining the planet’s size and the temperature and pressure of any atmosphere it had.

In 1977, using a telescope in an airplane, Dr. Elliot led a team of Cornell University scientists to observe the planet Uranus when it passed between Earth and a star. Flying at night over a patch of the Indian Ocean where Uranus’s shadow was to be cast, he had the foresight to turn on his equipment more than a half-hour early. This allowed him to record a series of slight dimmings that provided the first evidence of Uranus’s rings.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Extreme "Supermoon" to Take Place Next Week

The moon will reportedly be closer to Earth on March 19 than it has been in 18 years. The moon's orbit around the Earth is slightly elliptical, and when it is at the near point it is known as a lunar perigee. However, astronomy and astrology fans are calling this upcoming lunar event a "supermoon."

According to ABC News, AccuWeather blogger Mark Paquette wrote in a blog post earlier this month that he thinks the phrase "supermoon" originated on the website of astrologer Richard Nolle and spread to astronomers online. Paquette said a new or full moon at 90 percent or more of its closest perigee qualifies as a "supermoon." He said that next weekend's full moon will not just be a supermoon but an extreme supermoon because the moon will be almost precisely at its closest distance to Earth.

Major Solar Flare Erupts, Auroras Visible in U.S.

The sun unleashed another major Class X1.5 solar flare Wednesday (March 9), a solar storm so powerful it could spawn dazzling northern lights displays that could be visible from even New York City. The solar flare erupted at 6:23 p.m. EST (2323 GMT), letting loose a wave of charged particles that is aimed straight at Earth and should arrive in the next few days.

When it does, it could super charge the Earth's aurora borealis – also known as the Northern Lights – when the particles interact with the planet's magnetic field and atmosphere. "This flare could make the Northern Lights visible as far south as Washington State, central Idaho, northern Wyoming, the Dakotas and east to Chicago, Detroit, NYC and Boston," explains's skywatching columnist Joe Rao. "Of course, we have to hope that the subatomic particles emitted by the flare arrive at the Earth's vicinity during the nighttime hours and of course, that skies are clear!"

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Shuttle Discovery Ends Flying Career, Museum Next

Discovery ended its career as the world's most flown spaceship Wednesday, returning from orbit for the last time and taking off in a new direction as a museum piece. After a flawless trip to the International Space Station, NASA's oldest shuttle swooped through a few wispy clouds on its way to its final touchdown. When it landed three minutes before noon EST, Discovery ceased being a reusable rocketship.

Even after shuttles Endeavour and Atlantis make their final voyages in the coming months, Discovery will still hold the all-time record with 39 missions, 148 million miles, 5,830 orbits of Earth, and 365 days spent in space. All that was achieved in under 27 years. NASA estimates it will take several months of work — removing the three main engines and plumbing with hazardous fuels — before Discovery is ready for the Smithsonian Institution. Engineers also will remove some parts to study them for future spacecraft.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Alien Life Discovered in Meteorite! Or Maybe Not

It's no surprise that a paper just published in the online Journal of Cosmology has suddenly grabbed the world's attention. Titled "Fossils of Cyanobacteria in CI1 Carbonaceous Meteorites" and authored by NASA scientist Richard Hoover of the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, it makes the audacious claim that a meteorite that slammed into France in the 1800s has clear evidence pointing to space-dwelling microbes.

But many experts in the field of astrobiology — a perfectly legitimate area of science — paid little mind when an e-mail circulated a few days ago trumpeting the latest life-in-a-meteorite paper. "I get e-mails from them regularly, maybe once every month or two," says a senior astrophysicist at a major university. "They always sound extremely nutty ... so much so that I have never been tempted to investigate more closely."

Blogger and biologist P.Z. Myers puts it a little more pithily: the Journal of Cosmology is, he writes, "the ginned-up website of a small group of crank academics." Some of the articles that have appeared do nothing to dispel this idea include "The Origin of Eternal Life in the Multiverse" and "Sex on Mars: Pregnancy, Fetal Development, and Sex in Outer Space." And according to blogger David Dobbs, a press release has gone out announcing that the Journal of Cosmology is soon to be no more.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Rocket Carrying Glory Satellite Fails to Reach Orbit

The Taurus XL rocket carrying NASA's newest climate satellite Glory failed to reach orbit today (March 4) after its nose cone failed to separate as planned. Minutes after liftoff, the Taurus XL rocket's nose cone – a clamshell-like covering around the satellite called a fairing that is designed to separate during the trip into orbit – suffered some sort of failure, NASA spokesperson George Diller said. "The fairing did not separate from the Taurus and the Glory spacecraft is not able to achieve orbit," Diller said in televised commentary about 15 minutes after liftoff. The rocket and satellite likely plunged somewhere into the southern Pacific Ocean.

The Glory satellite was designed to study the interaction between the sun's energy and Earth's atmosphere, with a specific focus on tiny particles – called aerosols – and their role in the planet's climate. Scientists hoped the satellite would address key uncertainties in climate research — especially those surrounding the contributions of manmade and natural aerosols to global climate change.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

What If the Biggest Solar Storm Happened Today?

The sun has been hibernating for four or five years, not doing much of anything. Now the sun is waking up, and even though the upcoming solar maximum may see a record low in the overall amount of activity, the individual events could be very powerful. In fact, the biggest solar storm on record happened in 1859, during a solar maximum about the same size as the one we're entering. That storm has been dubbed the Carrington Event, after British astronomer Richard Carrington, who witnessed the megaflare and was the first to realize the link between activity on the sun and geomagnetic disturbances on Earth.

During the Carrington Event, northern lights were reported as far south as Cuba and Honolulu, while southern lights were seen as far north as Santiago, Chile. The flares were so powerful that "people in the northeastern U.S. could read newspaper print just from the light of the aurora." In addition, the geomagnetic disturbances were strong enough that U.S. telegraph operators reported sparks leaping from their equipment—some bad enough to set fires. In 1859, such reports were mostly curiosities. But if something similar happened today, the world's high-tech infrastructure could grind to a halt.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Hawaii Board Approves Plan for Giant Telescope

The Thirty Meter Telescope Observatory Corp. of Pasadena, Calif., wants to build one of the largest, most advanced telescopes in the world near the summit of Mauna Kea. The Hawaii State Board of Land and Natural Resources unanimously approved a permit to build the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) on conservation land joining 13 other telescopes already in operation on the mountain.

Opponents of the construction were granted their request for a contested case hearing, allowing one last chance to make their case and get a final review by the land board. Several Hawaiians say the construction defiles Mauna Kea’s summit, which they consider sacred and environmentalists oppose the construction, explaining it would harm the rare Wekiu bug.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Space Shuttle Seen from Above

On Thursday, the space shuttle Discovery blasted into space for its final mission. People around the world watched the liftoff, but only a lucky few got to see the shuttle from the skies. Passengers on a flight from Orlando, Florida to Richmond, Virginia were treated to an unexpected kind of entertainment when they saw the Shuttle off of the left side of the plane.

One quick-thinking man named Neil Monday captured the experience on his iPhone. After he uploaded the two-minute clip to the Web, searches shot into the stratosphere. The video has been featured by multiple blogs and news agencies, including MSNBC.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Throngs View Discovery's Last Launch

Discovery, the world's most traveled spaceship, thundered into orbit for the final time Thursday, heading toward the International Space Station on a journey that marks the beginning of the end of the shuttle era. The six astronauts on board, all experienced space fliers, were thrilled to be on their way after a delay of nearly four months for fuel tank repairs. But it puts Discovery on the cusp of retirement when it returns in 11 days and eventually heads to a museum.

Discovery is the oldest of NASA's three surviving space shuttles and the first to be decommissioned this year. Two missions remain, first by Atlantis and then Endeavour, to end the 30-year program. It was Discovery's 39th launch and the 133rd shuttle mission overall. "Enjoy the ride," the test conductor radioed just before liftoff. Commander Steven Lindsey thanked everyone for the work in getting Discovery ready to go: "And for those watching, get ready to witness the majesty and the power of Discovery as she lifts off one final time."

Monday, February 21, 2011

Cosmic Census Estimates Billions of Planets

Scientists have estimated the first cosmic census of planets in our galaxy and the numbers are astronomical: at least 50 billion planets exist in the Milky Way. At least 500 million of those planets are in the not-too-hot, not-too-cold zone where life could exist. The numbers were extrapolated from the early results of NASA's planet-hunting Kepler telescope.

Kepler science chief William Borucki says scientists took the number of planets they found in the first year of searching a small part of the night sky and then made an estimate on how likely stars are to have planets. Kepler spots planets as they pass between Earth and the star it orbits. So far Kepler has found 1,235 candidate planets, and Borucki and colleagues figured one of two stars has planets and one of 200 stars has planets in the habitable zone. And that's a minimum because these stars can have more than one planet and Kepler has yet to get a long enough glimpse to see planets that are further out from the star, like Earth, Borucki said.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

NASA Picks Thursday for Discovery's Final Launch

NASA will try next week to launch space shuttle Discovery on its final voyage following a four-month delay for fuel tank repairs. Liftoff is set for late Thursday afternoon. Senior managers voted unanimously Friday on the new launch date after discussing the fixes made since the shuttle's grounding in early November. Cracks in the external fuel tank were discovered after a launch attempt was foiled by leaking hydrogen gas. It's taken this long to understand and repair the cracking, which could have harmed the shuttle during liftoff.

The shuttle will carry six astronauts and a humanoid robot, along with a full load of supplies, to the International Space Station. NASA opted for a Thursday liftoff at 4:50 p.m., even though a European cargo vessel will be docking at the space station that morning. Officials normally prefer more time between arriving spacecraft, but they want to get Discovery flying as soon as possible given its lengthy delay.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Space Beer Ready for Taste Testing

This Saturday, Australia's 4 Pines Brewing Company will be conducting human experiments in Florida—taste testing space beer. According to ABC Melbourne, the brewery has made its first batch of suds designed to be drunk on commercial space flights. One of the enduring problems with eating or drinking in space is related to what's called space adaptation syndrome.

In orbit, the fluids in your body are no longer being pushed by gravity into your lower half but your body is still trying to pump things around as if you were standing on Earth. This leads to excess fluids in the upper body and head, which in turn causes nausea, vomiting, and swelling. Aside from the nausea, eating becomes less enjoyable because the swelling also applies to your taste buds, and this dampens down flavor in a very noticeable way. The new space beer is a "big, full-bodied" stout that brewers hope will taste great and be less filling, even in microgravity.

WISE: Last Light

On the morning of February 1st, 2011, NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, took its last snapshot of the sky. This “last light” image is reminiscent of the “first light” image from WISE, taken only 13 months prior. WISE’s final picture shows thousands of stars in a patch of the Milky Way Galaxy, covering an area 3 times the size of the full Moon, in the constellation Perseus. In the upper left corner, a faint wispy cloud can be seen bending around a pulsating variable star called EV Persei.

The WISE Spacecraft transmitter was turned off for the final time at 12:00 noon PST on February 17. WISE Principal Investigator Ned Wright sent the last command. The Spacecraft will remain in hibernation without ground contacts awaiting possible future use.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Earth Dodges Geomagnetic Storm

A wave of charged plasma particles from a huge solar eruption has glanced off the Earth's northern pole, lighting up auroras and disrupting some radio communications, a NASA scientist said. But the Earth appears to have escaped a widespread geomagnetic storm, with the effects confined to the northern latitudes, possibly reaching down into Norway and Canada.

The event began Tuesday at 0156 GMT with a spectacular solar eruption in a sunspot the size of Jupiter that produced a Class X flash -- the most powerful of all solar events. The eruption blasted a torrent of charged plasma particles called a coronal mass ejection (CME) toward Earth at about 560 miles per second, the Solar Dynamics Observatory reported. But the spiraling beam of solar particles from Tuesday's eruption was passing behind the Earth without making a direct hit. "In this case, it appears it will curve around and not hit us," he said.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

NASA Craft Snaps Pics of Comet Tempel 1

Nearly six years after an 800-pound copper bullet excavated a crater on a comet, a NASA spacecraft revisiting the site has seen evidence of the destruction in images snapped during a Valentine's Day flyby, scientists said Tuesday. Instead of a well-defined pit, the Stardust craft saw what looked like a crater rim that was filled in the middle — a sign that the plume of debris from the 2005 high-speed crash that created the crater shot up and fell back down.

"The crater was more subdued than I think some of us thought," said mission scientist Pete Schultz of Brown University. "It partially buried itself." Stardust zoomed past Tempel 1 Monday night, passing within 110 miles of the comet's surface. Along the way, it snapped six dozen pictures. It was NASA's second visit to Tempel 1, but the first time a spacecraft had imaged the manmade crater.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Mock Mars Mission Simulates Landing

After 257 days in a locked, windowless steel capsule, researchers on a mock trip to Mars ventured from their cramped quarters in heavy space suits Monday, trudging into a sand-covered room to plant flags on a simulated Red Planet. The all-male crew of three Russians, a Frenchman, an Italian-Colombian and a Chinese entered a network of modules at a Moscow space research center last June to imitate the 520-day flight and see how they cope with the constricted, isolating conditions of space travel — minus the weightlessness.

Several participants donned 30-kilogram (66-pound) suits to perform Monday's mock landing in an adjacent capsule. They planted the flags of Russia, China and the European Space Agency, took "samples" from the ground and conducted faux scientific experiments. Psychologists said long confinement would put the team members under stress as they grow increasingly tired of each other's company. Psychological conditions can even be more challenging on a mock mission than a real flight because the crew won't experience any of the euphoria or dangers of actual space travel.