Friday, January 28, 2011

NASA Marks 25th Anniversary of Challenger

Hundreds gathered at NASA's launch site Friday to mark the 25th anniversary of the Challenger disaster, receiving words of hope from the widow of the space shuttle's commander. The chilly outdoor ceremony drew space agency managers, former astronauts, past and present launch directors, family and friends of the fallen crew — and schoolchildren who weren't yet born when the space shuttle carrying a high school teacher from Concord, N.H., erupted in the sky.

The accident on Jan. 28, 1986 — just 73 seconds into flight — killed all seven on board, including schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe. June Scobee Rodgers, the widow of Challenger's commander, Dick Scobee, urged the crowd to "boldly look to the future" not only in space travel, but in space and science education. She was instrumental in establishing the Challenger Center for Space Science Education. "The entire world knew how the Challenger crew died," she said. "We wanted the world to know how they lived and for what they were risking their lives."

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Astronomers Claim Earliest Galaxy Yet from Hubble

An international team of astronomers say they've glimpsed the earliest galaxy yet, a smudge of light from nearly 13.2 billion years ago — a time when the cosmos was a far lonelier place. The research hasn't been confirmed, and some astronomers are skeptical. The new findings are based on an image from the Hubble Space Telescope and are published in Thursday's issue of the journal Nature. The scientists calculate the new-found galaxy dates to just 480 million years after the Big Bang.

That would trump last fall's announcement by a French team who said they found a galaxy from about 600 million years after the Big Bang. That discovery also is not universally accepted and one of the skeptics is the co-author of the latest paper. Even more interesting than the advanced age of the newly discovered galaxy is the absence of other similarly aged bright galaxies. That indicates that star formation during that point in the universe's early childhood was happening at a rate 10 times slower than it was millions of years later, said study co-author Garth Illingworth of the University of California Santa Cruz.

NASA Comet Hunter Spots Its Valentine

NASA's Stardust spacecraft has downlinked its first images of comet Tempel 1, the target of a flyby planned for Valentine's Day, Feb. 14. The images were taken on Jan. 18 and 19 from a distance of 16.3 million miles, and 15.8 million miles respectively. On Feb. 14, Stardust will fly within about 124 miles of the comet's nucleus.

"This is the first of many images to come of comet Tempel 1," said Joe Veverka, principal investigator of NASA's Stardust-NExT mission from Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y. "Encountering something as small and fast as a comet in the vastness of space is always a challenge, but we are very pleased with how things are setting up for our Valentine's Day flyby."

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Brazil Ignites Telescope Race

On 29 December, Brazil announced its intention to join the European Southern Observatory (ESO), which operates the VLT among other sites in Chile. If ratified by Brazil's parliament, the move will make it the consortium's fifteenth, and first non-European, member. It also significantly improves the odds that the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT), an optical behemoth that would be the world's largest telescope and possibly the most important astronomical tool of the century, will be built on the summit of Cerro Armazones in Chile's Atacama Desert, with construction to begin as soon as next year.

The deal will give Brazil's astronomers access to ESO's facilities and put the country's burgeoning high-tech sector in a position to bid competitively on building components for the E-ELT. In return, Brazil will contribute about €300 million (US$400 million) to ESO over ten years, including a €130-million entry fee. That is enough to tip the scales in favour of the E-ELT being built and to cement ESO's status as the world's leading astronomical research entity.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

NASA Mars Rover Will Check for Ingredients of Life

The instrument is Sample Analysis at Mars, or SAM, built by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. At the carefully selected landing site for the Mars rover named Curiosity, one of SAM's key jobs will be to check for carbon-containing compounds called organic molecules, which are among the building blocks of life on Earth.

Researchers will use SAM and nine other science instruments on Curiosity to study whether one of the most intriguing areas on Mars has offered environmental conditions favorable for life and favorable for preserving evidence about whether life has ever existed there. NASA will launch Curiosity from Florida between Nov. 25 and Dec. 18, 2011, as part of the Mars Science Laboratory mission's spacecraft. The spacecraft will deliver the rover to the Martian surface in August 2012. The mission plan is to operate Curiosity on Mars for two years.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Saturn's New Bright Storm

First spotted by amateurs in Japan around December 9th, Saturn's new storm spans more than 100° of longitude as of January 5th, in the North Tropical Zone (roughly 34° north). This disturbance is not the same one noted by amateurs earlier this year, which appeared at a dynamic southern latitude band nicknamed "Storm Alley."

NASA / JPL / Space Science Inst.Veteran planet-watcher Thomas Dobbins notes the last time such a large storm appeared on Saturn was 1994, but that one had much lower contrast with its surroundings than the current event. This disturbance is easily the brightest feature on the globe — it even rivals the brightness of the planet's ring system. NASA's Cassini spacecraft has a "ringside" seat for the roiling clouds, as seen in the shot at right, which was taken on December 24th and transmitted to Earth on the 27th. Check the mission's website for other high-resolution images of the planet.

Monday, January 17, 2011

"Suicide" Comet Storm Hits Sun

Since its launch in 1995, NASA's Solar and Heliospheric Observatory, or SOHO, orbiter has captured pictures of 2,000 comets as they've flown past the sun. Most of these comets are so-called sungrazers, relatively tiny comets whose orbits bring them so near the sun that they are often vaporized within hours of discovery.

The sun-watching telescope usually picks up one sungrazer every few days. But between December 13 and 22, SOHO saw more than two dozen sungrazers appear and disintegrate. Seeing "25 comets in just ten days, that's unprecedented," Karl Battams, of the United States Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., said in a statement. According to Battams and colleagues, the comet swarm could be forerunner fragments from a much larger parent comet that may be headed along a similar path.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Earth Rotation Changes Zodiac Signs

The field of astrology, which is concerned with horoscopes and the like, felt a major disruption from astronomers, who are concerned with actual stars and planets. The astronomers from the Minnesota Planetarium Society found that because of the moon's gravitational pull on Earth, the alignment of the stars was pushed by about a month.

It turns out that astrology has had issues from its inception. (Aside from the fact that it tries to link personality traits with positions of the stars.) Ancient Babylonians had 13 constellations, but wanted only 12, so threw out Ophuchicus, the snake holder. Libra didn't even enter the picture until the era of Julius Caesar.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Astronomers Reveal "Most Distant" Galaxy Cluster

Astronomers have revealed the most distant cluster of galaxies ever observed, caught at a never-before-seen stage of development. Cosmos-Aztec3 has been described as a "metropolis in the making", because such clusters are believed to grow like cities, absorbing outlying villages. It lies 12.6 billion light years away, and appears to be just tens or hundreds of millions of years old.

Previously discovered galaxy clusters have been billions of years older. By contrast, the light from the "protocluster" Cosmos-Aztec3 left when the Universe itself was just one billion years old. Galaxy clusters grow over billions of years, drawing together many galaxies and huge amounts of gas to form the largest structures in our Universe.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Milestone in Hunt for Earth-like Worlds

Astronomers have discovered the smallest planet outside our Solar System, and the first that is undoubtedly rocky like Earth. Measurements of unprecedented precision have shown that the planet, Kepler 10b, has a diameter 1.4 times that of Earth, and a mass 4.6 times higher. However, because it orbits its host star so closely, the planet could not harbour life.

The discovery has been hailed as "among the most profound in human history". A pioneer of the hunt for exoplanets, Geoffrey Marcy, from the University of California Berkeley, said that Kepler 10b represented "a planetary missing link, a bridge between the gas giant planets we've been finding and the Earth itself, a transition... between what we've been finding and what we're hoping to find".

Monday, January 10, 2011

Hubble Zeroes in on Green Blob in Space

The Hubble Space Telescope got its first peek at a mysterious giant green blob in outer space and found that it's strangely alive. The bizarre glowing blob is giving birth to new stars, some only a couple million years old, in remote areas of the universe where stars don't normally form. The blob of gas was first discovered by a Dutch school teacher in 2007 and is named Hanny's Voorwerp (HAN'-nee's-FOR'-vehrp). "Voorwerp" is Dutch for object.

Parts of the green blob are collapsing and the resulting pressure from that is creating the stars. The stellar nurseries are outside of a normal galaxy, which is usually where stars live. That makes these "very lonely newborn stars" that are "in the middle of nowhere," said Bill Keel, the University of Alabama astronomer who examined the blob. The blob is the size of our own Milky Way galaxy and it is 650 million light years away. It is mostly hydrogen gas swirling from a close encounter of two galaxies and it glows because it is illuminated by a quasar in one of the galaxies.

Friday, January 7, 2011

10-year-old Canadian Girl Discovers Supernova

A 10-year-old girl from Canada has discovered a supernova, making her the youngest person ever to find a stellar explosion. The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada announced the discovery by Kathryn Aurora Gray of Fredericton, New Brunswick, who was assisted by astronomers Paul Gray and David Lane.

Supernova 2010lt is a magnitude-17 supernova in galaxy UGC 3378, in the constellation of Camelopardalis, as reported on IAU Electronic Telegram 2618. The galaxy was imaged on New Year’s Eve 2010, and the supernova was discovered on Jan. 2, 2011, by Kathryn and her father Paul. The observations were made from Abbey Ridge Observatory, and this is the third supernova seen from this observatory. It was Lane’s fourth supernova discovery, Paul Gray’s seventh, and Kathryn Gray’s first.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Mystery Flares Betray Force within Crab Nebula

An interstellar dust cloud called the Crab nebula has been identified as the most powerful known particle accelerator in the universe. But exactly how it boosts particles to record-breaking speeds is a mystery. The finding also adds an extra complication for astronomers who use the Crab as a "standard candle" to calibrate their instruments because for most of the time it gives off a steady stream of gamma rays and light of other wavelengths.

Two orbiting telescopes have revealed that the nebula, which sits some 6500 light years from Earth, releases brief, bright flares of gamma-rays. These flares are most likely produced by electrons that have been whipped up to record-breaking speeds. Now two studies suggest this light is not as steady as previously thought. The Italian Space Agency's AGILE satellite and NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope have together detected three bright gamma-ray outbursts from the nebula. The most recent outburst, in September 2010, lasted for four days and brightened the nebula by a factor of 6.

How to Sort the Dwarfs from the Planets

What's the difference between a planet and a brown dwarf? That can be a tricky question, because some objects straddle the conventional boundary between the two categories. Now the discovery that there is a dearth of cosmic bodies whose mass lies within a particular range could provide a clean dividing line between planets and brown dwarfs, which are heavier than planets but lighter than stars.

Objects are traditionally classed as planets if they have less than about 13 times the mass of Jupiter, and as brown dwarfs if they are heavier. Uncertainties in the measurement of mass make it hard to classify borderline objects this way. But when Johannes Sahlmann of the Geneva Observatory in Switzerland and colleagues surveyed brown dwarfs and planets orbiting stars, they found a dearth of objects between 25 and 45 times Jupiter's mass, but plenty of objects outside this range.

Plasma Jets Key to Enduring Solar Mystery

It's been a mystery for more than half a century: why, in the short distance from the Sun's surface to its corona, or outer atmosphere, does the temperature leap from a few thousand to a few million degrees? The answer, researchers say, might lie in hot jets of plasma erupting from the Sun's surface.

"It's truly a breakthrough in the longstanding puzzle of how the corona gets so hot," says Rob Rutten, a solar physics expert at Utrecht University in the Netherlands who was not involved with the work. "The jets behave like bullets shot upwards, causing hot coronal temperature fronts in front of them."

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Wreckage Is from "Pristine Star"

UK and US scientists have found the remnants of a star that exploded more than 13 billion years ago. It would most probably have been one of the very first stars to shine in the Universe, they say. All that is left of this pioneer is the gas cloud it threw out into space when it blew itself apart. It was identified when its contents were illuminated by the brilliant light coming from the surroundings of a distant black hole.

"The first stars have been a bit like the Holy Grail for astronomers," said Professor Pettini, who led the research with PhD student Ryan Cooke. "We think that they all lived very short and furious lives. They are all dead now, and there is no way for us even with the most powerful telescopes to observe them directly. So, what we have found is the remnants of one of these first stars to form in the Universe, and the elements carbon, oxygen and iron and pristine gas in a mix that has never been seen before."

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Weird Asteroid Really a Crusty Old Comet

A large asteroid known for more than a century appears to actually be a comet in disguise, astronomers say. On December 11 astronomer Steven Larson of the Catalina Sky Survey in Arizona spotted what appeared to be a faint comet not currently in any comet databases. Larson later realized the cometlike body is traveling along the same circular, stable orbit as an asteroid named 596 Scheila. Discovered in 1906, the space rock is more than 70 miles wide.

The scientist thinks the body belongs to a mysterious group of solar system hybrids called main belt comets, or MBCs, which have orbits like those of asteroids yet display comet-like activity. "Most MBCs are small things, but this is the first time that a large asteroid has been observed to show cometary activity," Larson said. Astronomers have positively identified only five other MBCs to date, but experts think there could be millions more such hybrids cruising through our solar system in inactive states.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Quadrantids Meteor Shower Peaks Tonight

The 2011 Quadranitds—which peak tonight—are slated to be one of the best meteor showers of the year. During the peak, around 1 a.m. UT on Tuesday, upward of a hundred shooting stars an hour may be visible in dark, rural areas, astronomers estimate. The Quadrantids will be best viewed in Europe and Central Asia. North American observers will see the trailing end of the peak in the wee hours of Tuesday morning.

The Quadrantids are considered one of the most reliable and productive of the annual meteor displays, Jung said, but they're not as well known for two reasons: their brevity and their awkward timing in the calendar year. While the Quadrantids' hourly rates are estimated to range anywhere from 60 to 130 meteors, the shower lasts for a period of just two to four hours—so timing your observations is essential, Jung said.

Mars Rover Spirit Still Quiet

NASA’s Mars rover Spirit has had its odometer stuck on 4.8 miles for more than 18 months and has not transmitted any data or signals since March 2010. NASA doesn’t know if Spirit is dead or alive, but is continuing to listen for any peep as the rover remains trapped in a sand trap. “There's a realistic possibility that Spirit may never wake up again,” Dave Lavery, Mars rover program executive at NASA headquarters, told AP's Alicia Chang.

Spirit’s solar panels rely on light from the Sun to charge. The Sun will continue to provide increased daily sunlight until it reaches its highest-point in the sky in mid-March. After that, the odds of the rover coming back online dwindle. If Spirit doesn’t transmit a signal by March, it’s “probably not going to,” Lavery said. But, he said, the mission will continue to listen after March, but will scale back the daily passes of the orbiters.