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.