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.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Who Ate All the Planets? Blame the "Bloatars"

No one has ever seen anything quite like the nine stars spotted by the Hubble Space Telescope in a young cluster called NGC 3603. They are too cool to be ordinary stars, with analysis of their infrared light emissions indicating surface temperatures between 1700 and 2200 kelvin. By this measure, they are more like brown dwarfs, objects intermediate in mass between planets and fully fledged stars. Yet brown dwarfs are dim objects that should be too faint to detect at the cluster's distance from Earth - 20,000 light years.

They think the enigmatic objects are part of stellar systems that spawned planets - then hastily devoured them. Some planets are thought to spiral in towards their stars. That would explain why so many alien worlds have been found in star-hugging orbits. The team says that some may spiral so close that the star "eats" them - the star's gravity rips the planet apart and captures its debris. This captured debris would form a temporary outer atmosphere for the star, which would be cooler than the star's normal light-emitting surface. These bloated stars, or "bloatars", would also be bigger and brighter than brown dwarfs, explaining how they could be seen at such a great distance.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Whole Sun Imaged for the First Time

On February 6, NASA's twin STEREO probes moved into position on polar opposite sides of the sun and started beaming back the first images to capture the star's entire surface. "For the first time ever, we can watch solar activity in its full 3-dimensional glory," says Angelos Vourlidas, a member of the STEREO science team at the Naval Research Lab in Washington, DC.

This new ability should improve forecasts of solar eruptions. These violent magnetic events can wreak havoc with satellites and even power lines and railway signals on Earth. But without a view of the sun's entire surface, charged solar emissions can end up hurtling through space, even towards Earth, without warning. The twin probes left Earth in 2006, heading for the positions they have now reached. They are expected to beam back images of the entire sun for the next 8 years.

NASA Rejects Report Apophis Will Hit Earth in 2036

In 2004, NASA scientists announced that there was a chance that Apophis, an asteroid larger than two football fields, could smash into Earth in 2029. A few additional observations and some number-crunching later, astronomers noted that the chance of the planet-killer hitting Earth in 2029 was nearly zilch. Now, reports out of Russia say that scientists there estimate Apophis will collide with Earth on April 13, 2036.

These reports conflict on the probability of such a doomsday event, but the question remains: How scared should we be? “Technically, they’re correct, there is a chance in 2036 [that Apophis will hit Earth]," said Donald Yeomans, head of NASA’s Near-Earth Object Program Office. However, that chance is just 1-in-250,000, Yeomans said.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Neutron Star Seen Forming Exotic New Matter

The dense core of a nearby collapsed star is undergoing a rapid chill, providing the first direct evidence that such stars can produce a superfluid of neutrons – a state of matter that cannot be created in laboratories on Earth. Neutron stars are the remnants of exploded stars. Their cores are so dense that atomic nuclei dissolve, and protons and electrons combine to form a soup dominated by neutrons. If conditions are right, these neutrons ought to be able to pair up to form a superfluid – a substance with quantum properties that mean it flows with zero friction.

It has long been assumed that neutrons in the cores of neutron stars become superfluid, but without any direct evidence that they do so. That changed in 2010, when astrophysicists examined measurements taken by NASA's orbiting Chandra X-ray Observatory of the 330-year-old neutron star at the heart of the dusty supernova remnant Cassiopeia A. These measurements show the star has dimmed by 20 per cent since it was discovered in 1999, corresponding to an estimated temperature drop of 4 per cent. Now colleagues have calculated that this rapid cooling can be explained if a fraction of the neutrons in the core are undergoing a transition to superfluidity.