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.