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.