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2006 Space News

South Korea picks astronauts for 2008 space leap
When the Ministry of Science and Technology in Seoul announced it planned to send a South Korean into space, it received more than 36,000 applications.  This week, the contest was whittled down to just two.  In a gala Christmas day ceremony broadcast live on South Korea's SBS television network, South Korean authorities awarded the honor to Go San, a 30-year old male expert in artificial intelligence, and Yi So-yeon, a 28-year old female doctoral candidate in biosystems research.  The two passed a rigorous set of physical, professional and intellectual tests on the way to selection, culminating in a final round of live TV questioning in which the South Korean public could vote electronically for their favorite.  The two are scheduled to start a year-long training program next March at Russia's Gagarin Space Institute near Moscow.  It is not yet decided which of the two will board a Russian Soyuz rocket scheduled to take off in April 2008 for the International Space Station -- and who will stay on the ground as a reserve astronaut.  FULL STORY_ Voice of America 12/28/06

Mission will scour space for Earth-like planets

Corot will be the first spacecraft capable of detecting planets outside of the Solar System that are just a few times larger than the Earth. The multinational mission will also help uncover the secrets of stellar interiors. Corot will be launched at 1443 GMT Wednesday from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on the Soyuz-2-1b vehicle. It will be taken into a polar orbit 827km (514 miles) above the Earth where it will survey star fields for approximately 2.5 years. The mission is led by the French space agency, Cnes, which is working with six international partners: European Space Agency (Esa), Austria, Spain, Germany, Belgium and Brazil. Full Story BBC News_ 12/26/06

Space shuttle Discovery lands at Cape Canaveral after some last-minute suspense

NASA began 2006 having flown only a single space shuttle mission since the Columbia disaster three years earlier. After Friday's landing of space shuttle Discovery and its seven astronauts, the U.S. space agency will end the year with three successful shuttle missions under its belt and the resumption of construction on the international space station. Discovery safely returned to Earth after some last-minute suspense over which landing site to use, ending a smooth, 13-day mission during which the astronauts rewired the space station and delivered U.S. astronaut Sunita "Suni" Williams to the orbiting outpost for a six-month stay.  Full Story   AP/International Herald Tribune_ 12/23/06

Water on Saturn moon? Not so fast
New research casts doubt on the existence of water near the surface of a tiny Saturn moon — a finding that, if confirmed, could mark a reversal in the hunt for extraterrestrial life.  Earlier this year, the international Cassini spacecraft orbiting Saturn caused a stir when it spied what appeared to be Yellowstone-style geysers spouting from the south pole of Enceladus. Scientists speculated the eruptions were driven by shallow pools of water lurking just below the icy surface.  In an alternative view published in Friday’s issue of the journal Science, other researchers propose that buried ice clathrates — not liquid water — are responsible for releasing the towering plumes through a sudden tectonic shift in the crust that causes cracks in the ice and gas to vent.  FULL STORY_MSNBC 12/14/06

Study: samples of comet dust show a mix

Detailed observations from the first comet samples returned to Earth are debunking some of science's long-held beliefs on how the icy, celestial bodies form.  Scientists expected the minute grains retrieved from a comet Wild 2 to be made up mostly of interstellar dust - tiny particles that flow through the solar system thought to be from ancient stars that exploded and died.  Instead, they found an unusual mix of primordial material as if the solar system had turned itself inside out. Hot particles from the inner solar system migrated out to the cold, outer fringes beyond Pluto where they intermingled and congealed to form a comet.

FULL STORY_Washington Post 12/14/06

Mile-high mountains found on Saturn's moon Titan

Saturn's giant moon Titan has a mountain range tall enough to produce streamers of clouds that extend far around the moon, scientists say.  The peaks are the largest mountains discovered on Titan to date.   "You could call this the Titan Sierras," said Robert Brown of the University of Arizona, in a reference to California's Sierra Nevada range.  Brown announced the find in San Francisco, California, on December 11 at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union.  The mountains were photographed by the Cassini spacecraft, now in orbit around Saturn. The craft turned its visual and infrared cameras on the moon during a close flyby on October 25.  The mountain range is nearly 1 mile (1.6 kilometers) tall and 100 miles (150 kilometers) long.  Several smaller ranges appear to be nearby, as does a circular feature that might be the crater from an ancient asteroid impact powerful enough to have punched through Titan's outer crust.  Brown speculates that the mountains might be a chain of volcanoes that oozed up along cracks in the crust after the impact.  FULL STORY_National Geographic News 12/13/06

Next goal for Mars rover: Victoria Crater
Opportunity, the healthier of NASA's two Mars rovers, will explore the rim of a large crater for more information on the Martian water and may even plunge inside.  Opportunity has made it to the lip of Victoria Crater, a fairly large crater on Mars, said Steve Squyres, the principal investigator from the Mars Exploration Rover program and a professor at Cornell University. Victoria's geology potentially will yield important clues about the chemistry and extent of the groundwater that Squyres and others believe existed on Mars in the distant past.  FULL STORY_CNET News 12/13/06

IBM is helping a European astronomy research firm look to the stars.

IBM announced that it is entering into an agreement with ASTRON, the Netherlands Foundation for Research in Astronomy, which offers observation facilities for astronomers in the Netherlands.  As its part of the agreement, IBM will begin to develop high-performance, low-power customized chips that will be used in thousands of antennas as part of ASTRON's project to build a radio telescope, which will be called the SKADS/EMBRACE. The telescope will be the precursor to what will eventually become the world's largest radio telescope, the SKA (Square Kilometre Array).  The ultimate goal of the prototype telescope, and eventually of the SKA radio telescope, is to allow astronomers to peer deep into space and look the phenomena of evolving galaxies and dark matter—matter that does not emit or reflect enough electromagnetic radiation to be detected directly—that may date back more than 13 billion years, according to the joint statement by IBM and ASTRON.  

FULL STORY_ExtremeNano 12/6/06

NASA unveils exploration strategy, lunar architecture

The Global Exploration Strategy and proposed U.S. lunar architecture are two critical tools for achieving the nation's vision of returning humans to the moon. The Global Exploration Strategy focuses on two issues: Why we are returning to the moon and what we plan to do when we get there. NASA's proposed lunar architecture focuses on a third issue: How humans might accomplish the mission of exploring the moon. As currently envisioned, an incremental buildup would begin with four-person crews making several seven-day visits to the moon until their power supplies, rovers and living quarters are operational. The first mission would begin by 2020. These would be followed by 180-day missions to prepare for journeys to Mars.  Full Story  Press Release/Spaceflight Now_ 12/4/06

Hawking foresees escape from Earth
Mankind will need to leave planet Earth using rockets fuelled by the same technology made famous in Star Trek to ensure the long-term survival of the species, theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking has warned.  Professor Hawking said rockets propelled by the kind of matter/anti-matter annihilation technology used by the Star Ship Enterprise would be needed to colonise hospitable planets orbiting other stars.  Professor Hawking was speaking ahead of the presentation to him of Britain's highest scientific award, the Royal Society's Copley Medal, previously granted to Charles Darwin, Michael Faraday and Captain James Cook.  He told the BBC that scientists may be within 20 years of reaching his prediction in A Brief History of Time that mankind would one day "know the mind of God" by understanding all the laws which govern the universe.  "The long-term survival of the human race is at risk as long as it is confined to a single planet," he said. "Sooner or later, disasters such as an asteroid collision or nuclear war could wipe us all out. But once we spread into space and establish independent colonies, our future should be safe. FULL STORY_ News.comau 12/1/06

November, 2006

Meteorite's organic matter older than the Sun, study says

Organic globules found in a meteorite that slammed into Canada's Tagish Lake may be older than our sun, a new study says.  The ancient materials could offer a glimpse into the solar system's planet-building past and may even provide clues to how life on Earth first arose.   Most of the meteorite's material is about the same age as our solar system—about 4.5 billion years—and was likely formed at the same time.  But the microscopic organic globules that make up about one-tenth of one percent of the object appear to be far older.  FULL STORY_National Geographic News 11/30/06

Going miles and miles, golf shot off into space

Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin was late for his tee time in space Wednesday but still managed to launch a super-lightweight golf ball into orbit -- even if he shanked his shot. Using a gold-plated 6-iron and an American astronaut in the role of caddy and safety-holder, Tyurin hit the drive from a springlike tee outside the international space station, 220 miles over the northwest Pacific Ocean. The shot, which veered a little to the right, kicked off a planned six-hour spacewalk. But just how far did that baby go? That drive went a billion miles -- or will by the time it eventually comes down in a couple years -- said Nataliya Hearn, the president of Element 21 Golf Co. The Toronto firm is paying the cash- starved Russian space agency an undisclosed amount for the golf stunt to promote its new golf club that includes metal derived from the space program. That's a huge exaggeration, according to NASA's lead spacewalk flight director, Holly Ridings. She said NASA's calculations are that golf balls would only stay up two to three days, which would put the drive closer to a mere million miles.  Full Story  RedOrbit.com_ 11/23/06

The 2006 Leonid Meteor Shower peaks this weekend; Best views from Europe, Africa and eastern North America

The Leonid meteor shower has a storied history of producing some of the most sensational meteor displays ever recorded. This year won't be as dramatic as the strong showings of 6 or 8 years ago, but excellent viewing conditions this weekend combined with Earth's passage through a narrow trail of dust could produce meteoric excitement for those in the right place to see it. Unfortunately, for the central and western United States and Canada, that's not you. The time of this year's encounter is predicted for Nov. 19 at 4:45 GMT.

Full Story  Space.com_ 11/17/06

Shuttle crew ready for night launch
Discovery's astronauts are ready for the first night launch of a space shuttle in four years, the mission's commander said Wednesday.  "For us, we don't view it as a really large change," said Discovery commander Mark Polansky, whose crew could blast off to the international space station as early as Dec. 7.  NASA required daylight launches for the first three shuttle missions after the Columbia disaster in 2003 to allow clear photography of the external fuel tank in case debris fell from it.  But the U.S. space agency needs to start launching space shuttles at night to meet its schedule to complete construction of the space station by 2010, when the shuttle program comes to an end. NASA officials said radar should be able t

FULL STORY_Houston Chronicle 11/15/06

Private Texas spaceport launches test rocket

A remote West Texas spaceport being built and bankrolled by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos launched a test rocket Monday for the first time.  "There was a launch, a one- or two-minute event," Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Roland Herwig said from the agency's office in Oklahoma City. He had no details.  The exact nature of the 6:30 a.m. launch or the type of spacecraft was not immediately known.  Blue Origin, based in the Seattle suburb of Kent, Washington, received FAA approval late this summer to begin its testing program. The secretive company has said it wants to use spacecraft that launch and land vertically.  FULL STORY_ CNN 11/15/06

Colossal hurricane-like storm seen on Saturn
A colossal, swirling storm with a well-developed eye is churning at Saturn's south pole, the first time a truly hurricane-like storm has been detected on a planet other than Earth, NASA images showed on Thursday.  The storm on the giant, ringed planet is about 5,000 miles wide, measuring roughly two thirds the diameter of Earth, with winds howling clockwise at 350 mph (550 kph).  Jupiter's Great Red Spot, which swirls counterclockwise, is far bigger, but is less like a hurricane because it lacks the typical eye and eye wall.  The images -- essentially a 14-frame movie -- were captured over a period of three hours on October 11 by the U.S. space agency's Cassini spacecraft as it passed about 210,000 miles from the planet as part of its exploration of Saturn and its moons. FULL STORY_Reuters 11/9/06

The moon: Not as dead as believed?
U.S. scientists say a study of Apollo-era and recent spectral data suggests the moon may have produced interior gas eruptions more recently than thought.  Brown University geological science Professors Peter Schulz and Carle Pieters note conventional wisdom suggests the Earth`s moon has seen no widespread volcanic activity for at least 3 billion years. But now they say the data point to much more recent events.

FULL STORY_Monsters and Critics 11/8/06

Scientists debate Cassini's fate

The Cassini spacecraft is roughly halfway through its looping voyage of the Saturn system and is continuing to return a bounty of data on the ringed planet and its moons. Yet all journeys must have an end and Cassini's eventual fate is now being discussed.  "Current planning is for a two year mission extension that ends on July 1, 2010," said Robert Mitchell, NASA's Cassini mission program manager. "However, presuming that the spacecraft continues to function well, it's reasonable to expect that one or more further extensions will be supported."  Sometime around 2012, Cassini, like the ocean-going ships of old, will need to be decommissioned. However, the spacecraft cannot be towed to some nearby shore to be dismantled; she must either drop anchor, be scuttled, or cast off her gravitational moorings altogether.  FULL STORY_CNN 11/8/06

Robert Anderson dead at 85; made Rockwell an aerospace titan

Anderson, a colorful automotive engineer who turned Rockwell International Corp. into an aerospace powerhouse that in its heyday built the space shuttle and the B-1B bomber in sprawling Southern California factories, has died. He was 85. A chain smoker with a gravelly voice, Anderson oversaw the development of NASA's space shuttle and the Air Force's B-1B aircraft as president and chairman of Rockwell International, once one of the world's largest aerospace companies.  Full Story Los Angeles Times_ 11/3/06 (Logon required)

2 American astronomers are awarded Nobel Prize in physics

Two American astronomers who uncovered evidence on the origin of the universe and how it grew into galaxies were awarded the Nobel prize in physics Tuesday.
John Mather of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and George Smoot of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory at the University of California, will split the prize of 10 million Swedish kronor, about $1.37 million. Mather and Smoot were the key leaders of a team of more than 1,000 scientists, engineers and technicians that built and launched the Cosmic Background Explorer, or COBE, satellite in 1989 to study a haze of microwave radiation that is believed to be a remnant of the Big Bang that allegedly started the universe. In its citation, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences wrote, "The COBE results provided increased support for the Big Bang scenario for the origin of the universe, as this is the only scenario that predicts the kind of cosmic microwave background radiation measured by COBE."   Full Story   New York Times/International Herald Tribune_ 10/3/06

September, 2006

Cosmic doughnuts linked to massive stars

Observations confirmed a leading theory that a doughnut-shaped ring of material could be responsible for the formation of massive stars, scientists reported today.  Smaller stars typically form when clouds of dust and gas collapse into a ball of compact material.  Stars that are 10 times more massive than the sun, however, generate powerful stellar radiation, which can prevent the accumulation of material.  One model suggests that the radiation shoots out stronger at the poles of the star and is much weaker in the equator regions. Matter therefore forms a whirling disk, much like a doughnut, around the equator of the star. Most of the radiation escapes without hitting the disk so material keeps falling onto the star from the disk.  "If this model is correct, there should be material falling inward, rushing outward and rotating around the star all at the same time," said leader Maria Teresa Beltran, of the University of Barcelona in Spain.  Beltran and colleagues found one such star, G24 A1, a young object some 25,000 light-years from Earth and up to 20 times more massive than our sun.  FULL STORY_CNN 9/28/06

Space shuttle Atlantis lands safely in Florida

Space shuttle Atlantis and its six astronauts glided to a safe landing in darkness early Thursday, ending a mission to the international space station whose smooth success was briefly upstaged by the high drama caused by mysterious floating debris.  "Glad to be back. It was a great team effort so I think assembly is off to a good start," said commander Brent Jett immediately after touchdown at Kennedy Space Center at 6:21 a.m. EDT.  The landing was a day later than planned because NASA ordered up more inspections of the spacecraft's delicate skin to make sure it was safe to come home. The fear was that one of the mysterious objects might have hit the shuttle.  FULL STORY_CNN 9/21/06

NASA: Atlantis to land Thursday

NASA cleared space shuttle Atlantis for a Thursday landing after finding that the orbiter appeared undamaged and concluding the discovery of unexplained space debris did not pose a serious problem.  Landing was set for Thursday morning at 6:21 a.m. ET at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  Atlantis' six astronauts completed two inspections of the space shuttle Wednesday to make sure it wasn't damaged from the mysterious objects found floating outside the spacecraft.  FULL STORY_ CNN 9/20/06

Soyuz docks; Atlantis inspects itself; Shuttle return delayed as astronauts check heat shield

The Russian space capsule Soyuz has successfully docked at the international space station. The Russian spacecraft is bringing a fresh crew to the station, an American and a Russian. Also on board: the first paying female space tourist, Iranian-American telecommunications entrepreneur Anousheh Ansari, who paid $20 million for the ride. The three will join a German astronaut and the two outgoing crew members, who are due to return to Earth with Ansari on September 29th. Wednesday, astronauts started giving Atlantis a thorough once-over to see if the shuttle's heat shield was damaged when a mystery object floated off the orbiter. The worry over the object - which appeared to drift away when landing systems were put through a normal but bumpy trial run early Tuesday morning - and whether it came from a crucial part of Atlantis was enough to make NASA postpone the shuttle's landing from Wednesday to Thursday or later. Their main concern was the status of the all-important heat shield, because a damaged shuttle skin led to the 2003 demise of the shuttle Columbia.  Full Story  AP/CBS_ 9/20/06

Puffy 'cork' planet would float on water
A newly discovered planet has one-quarter the density of water and would float if placed in a bathtub large enough to hold it.  "It's lighter than a ball of cork," said study team leader Gaspar Bakos of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA).  Called HAT-P-1, the planet is about half as massive as Jupiter but about 1.76 times wider-or 24 percent larger than predicted by theory.  The finding, to be detailed in an upcoming issue of Astrophysical Journal, could force a revision of planet formation theories as astronomers struggle to explain what is causing the planet to swell.  HAT-P-1 belongs to a class of planets called "hot Jupiters" that are so named because they orbit much closer to their stars than Jupiter does to our Sun, despite being roughly the same size.  FULL STORY_Yahoo News 9/14/06

Space station spreads its solar wings

NASA unfurled two solar wings on the new 17-1/2-ton addition to the international space station early Thursday after overcoming a software problem that delayed the maneuver for hours.  As they opened separately like accordion window blinds, the solar wings looked like cosmic blankets of gold bars in the reflection of an orbital sunrise.  The astronauts had adjusted the space station's position before starting, then halted each deployment midway for about 30 minutes so the solar panels could be heated by the sun to prevent them from sticking together, a problem astronauts have encountered before.  NASA engineers ran into one early glitch with the space station's new Ferris wheel-like rotating joint that allows the solar arrays to move with the sun to maximize the amount of power generated. They were able to fix the software problem, but it put the day's activities several hours behind schedule.  Space shuttle Atlantis' 11-day schedule is tightly packed, and the arrays needed to be deployed in order for astronauts to go on the third and final spacewalk of the mission Friday. The mission is the first since late 2002 to resume space station construction, which was halted after the Columbia accident in early 2003. FULL STORY_CNN 9/14/06

How many astronauts does it take to unscrew a bolt?'

Astronauts working to bring to life a new 17 1/2-ton solar panel addition to the international space station lost another screw to the void Wednesday but made it through a successful if arduous spacewalk.  In a 7-hour, 11-minute spacewalk -- nearly 45 minutes longer than planned -- Dan Burbank and Steve MacLean of the Canadian Space Agency connected the solar arrays and prepared the structure's joint for an inaugural rotation later in the day. Once the solar arrays are operating, the rotating joint will move with the sun to maximize the amount of power generated. They eventually will supply a quarter of the space lab's power when it is completed by 2010.  The spacewalking duo's construction shift was not without incident. The astronauts had to remove more than a dozen insulation covers and scores of bolts while wearing bulky spacesuit gloves, and the work wasn't easy. One stuck bolt on a launch restraint slowed down the process. The astronauts struggled together to get it loose, with astronaut Joe Tanner, inside the space station, helping out.


Scientists: Earth storms lead to space storms

Thunderstorms on Earth can lead to storms in the outer reaches of the atmosphere that disrupt radio transmissions and other electronic communications, U.S. researchers said on Tuesday.  The discovery could lead to more reliable global-positioning satellite (GPS) navigation and short-wave radio transmissions by improving forecasts of high-altitude disturbances that can disrupt them, said University of California-Berkeley researcher Thomas Immel.  Using data from NASA satellites, Immel and other researchers discovered that thunderstorms over South America, Africa and Southeast Asia can create turbulence in two bands of electrical gas that hover 250 miles (402 kilometers) above the equator in part of the upper atmosphere known as the ionosphere.  These plasma bands are far too thin to be directly affected by wind from thunderstorms, but researchers found that the wind can shape the plasma bands by generating electricity in the layer of atmosphere below them.  Three of the densest sections of plasma were located directly above areas with frequent thunderstorms -- the Amazon Basin in South America, the Congo Basin in Africa, and Indonesia.  But researchers found another dense section of plasma above the Pacific Ocean, far from thunderstorm zones -- evidence that tropical thunderstorms have a global influence.  FULL STORY_CNN 9/13/06

'Safe launch' for space shuttle

Nasa officials scrutinising footage of space shuttle Atlantis' launch say some debris did hit the orbiter, but that there was no visible damage. The six astronauts on board for the 11-day mission are headed to the $100bn International Space Station to resume construction work after a gap of four years. The crew will deliver and fit the P3/P4 truss, a 17-tonne segment of the space station's "backbone" that includes a huge set of solar arrays and a giant rotary joint to allow them to track the Sun. The arrays will be the second of four sets, and will span 73m (240ft) when fully extended. Once fitted, they will effectively double the station's current ability to generate power from sunlight.  Full Story  BBC News_ 9/10/06

Europe's spacecraft hits the moon

Europe's first spacecraft to the moon ended its three-year mission Sunday by crashing into the lunar surface in a volcanic plain called the Lake of Excellence, to a round of applause in the mission control room in Germany.  Hitting at 2 kilometers per second, the impact of the SMART-1 spacecraft was expected to leave a 3-meter-by-10-meter crater and send dust kilometers above the surface.  Observatories watched the event from Earth and scientists hoped the cloud of dust and debris would provide clues to the geological composition of the site.  FULL STORY_CNN 9/6/06

August, 2006

NASA farms out moon rocket

NASA on Thursday gave a multibillion dollar contract to build a manned lunar spaceship to Lockheed Martin Corp., the aerospace leader that usually builds unmanned rockets.  The last time NASA awarded a manned spaceship contract to Lockheed Martin of Bethesda, Marylad, was in 1996 for a spaceplane that was supposed to replace the space shuttle. NASA spent $912 million and the ship, called X-33, never got built because of technical problems.  The nation's space agency chose Lockheed Martin, the biggest government aerospace and defense contractor, to build the Orion crew exploration vehicle, which is once again supposed to replace the space shuttle fleet, take astronauts to the moon and perhaps on to Mars.  The only other competitors for the contract was a team made up of Northrop Grumman Corp., the world's largest shipbuilder and third-largest military contractor, and Boeing Co.  


China-Russia plan joint mission to Mars

China and Russia plan to launch a joint mission to Mars in 2009 to scoop up rocks from the red planet and one of its moons, a Chinese scientist said on Wednesday.  Russia will launch the spacecraft, while China will provide the survey equipment to carry out the unmanned exploration, Ye Peijian, a senior scientist at the Chinese Academy of Space Technology, told a meeting in Beijing, according to the official Xinhua news agency.  The mission will be another step in China's ambitious program to jump to the forefront of space exploration.  FULL STORY_CNN 8/30/06

Pluto out - but wait....

Vote 'hijacked' in revolt
A fierce backlash has begun against the decision by astronomers to strip Pluto of its status as a planet.

On Thursday, experts approved a definition of a planet that demoted Pluto to a lesser category of object.  But the lead scientist on Nasa's robotic mission to Pluto has lambasted the ruling, calling it "embarrassing".  And the chair of the committee set up to oversee agreement on a definition implied that the vote had effectively been "hijacked".  The vote took place at the International Astronomical Union's (IAU) 10-day General Assembly in Prague. The IAU has been the official naming body for astronomy since 1919.  Only 424 astronomers who remained in Prague for the last day of the meeting took part.


Pluto gets demoted as new planet definition is approved

Leading astronomers declared Thursday that Pluto is no longer a planet under historic new guidelines that downsize the solar system from nine planets to eight.
After a tumultuous week of clashing over the essence of the cosmos, the International Astronomical Union stripped Pluto of the planetary status it has held since its discovery in 1930. The new definition of what is - and isn't - a planet fills a centuries-old black hole for scientists who have labored since Copernicus without one. For now, membership will be restricted to the eight "classical" planets in the solar system: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. Much-maligned Pluto doesn't make the grade under the new rules for a planet: "a celestial body that is in orbit around the sun, has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a ... nearly round shape, and has cleared the neighborhood around its orbit." Pluto is automatically disqualified because its oblong orbit overlaps with Neptune's. Instead, it will be reclassified in a new category of "dwarf planets," similar to what long have been termed "minor planets." Experts said there could be dozens of dwarf planets catalogued across the solar system in the next few years.  Full Story AP/International Herald Tribune_ 8/24/06

Nasa names new spacecraft 'Orion'
US space agency Nasa has named its new manned exploration craft Orion.  The vehicle is being developed to take human space explorers back to the Moon and potentially then on to Mars.  It is hoped the name Orion could eventually mean as much for manned space exploration as Apollo did in the 1960s and 1970s.  Its first manned flight - to the International Space Station - will take place no later than 2014 and its first flight to the Moon no later than 2020.  FULL STORY_BBC 8/23/06

Team finds 'proof' of dark matter
US astronomers say they have found the first direct evidence for the mysterious stuff called dark matter.  Dark matter - which does not emit or reflect enough light to be "seen" - is thought to make up 25% of the Universe.  By contrast, the ordinary matter we can see is believed to make up no more than about 5% of our Universe.  Until now, astronomers have only been able to infer the existence of this dark material through the gravitational effects it has on ordinary matter.  The researchers have discovered what is effectively the gravitational signature of dark matter.  This signature was created by dark matter and ordinary matter being wrenched apart by the immense collision of two large galaxy clusters.  "The kinetic energy of this collision is...enough to completely evaporate and pulverise planet Earth ten trillion trillion times over," said team member Maxim Markevitch of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, US.  Study leader Doug Clowe, from the University of Arizona, said: "This provides the first direct proof that dark matter must exist and that it must make up the majority of the matter in the Universe."  FULL STORY_BBC 8/21/06

Hubble glimpses faintest stars
Researchers peering at the Universe's first-born stars have uncovered the key to predicting a star's destiny.  Stars that don't have enough mass never shine, dying billions of years before their bigger counterparts. But astronomers have never been able to measure the exact mass limit, because the lightest stars that do shine can be simply too faint to detect.  Now, new images show for the first time how big a star must be to avoid impending doom.  FULL STORY_BBC 8/17/06

Planets plan boosts tally to 12
The number of planets around the Sun could rise from nine to 12 - with more on the way - if experts approve a radical new vision of our Solar System.  An endorsement by astronomers meeting in Prague would require school and university textbooks to be rewritten.  The proposal recognises eight classical planets, three planets belonging to a new category called "plutons" and the largest asteroid Ceres.  Pluto remains a planet, but becomes the basis for the new pluton category.  The plan has been drawn up by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) with the aim of settling the question of what does and does not count as a planet.

Some 2,500 astronomers gathered at the IAU General Assembly in Prague will vote on the plan next Thursday.  FULL STORY_BBC 8/16/06

Pluto on the chopping block; Astronomers meet to define 'planet'

Nearly 2,500 astronomers from 75 countries gathered in Prague Monday to come up with a universal definition of what qualifies as a planet and possibly decide whether Pluto should keep its planet status. For decades, the solar system has consisted of nine planets, even as scientists debated whether Pluto really belonged. Then the recent discovery of an object larger and farther away than Pluto threatened to throw this slice of the cosmos into chaos. Among the possibilities at the 12-day meeting of the International Astronomical Union in the Czech Republic capital: Subtract Pluto or christen one more planet, and possibly dozens more.  Full Story AP/CNN.com_ 8/14/06

James A. Van Allen; Discovered Earth's radiation belts

James A. Van Allen, 91, who helped launch the United States into space with the discovery that radiation belts surround the Earth, died after a heart attack Aug. 9 at the University of Iowa Hospital. Dr. Van Allen's realization that charged solar particles are trapped by the Earth's magnetic field in concentric rings around the planet was the first major scientific discovery of the space age. It revolutionized scientific understanding of the Earth and the solar system and created an entirely new field of research, called magnetospheric physics.  Full Story Washington Post_ 8/10/06

Moon's odd bulge finally explained

The excess material around the lunar equator has been known since 1799 when French mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace first noticed it. The reason, however, has been a mystery until now.  The moon's peculiar shape can be explained if the satellite moved in an eccentric oval-shaped orbit 100 million years after its violent formation, when the satellite hadn't yet solidified, the researchers say.  It was like a big ball of molasses and all around the equator it got deformed, study team member Ian Garrick-Bethell of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology told SPACE.com.  Around that time, conditions, such as orbit shape and position, were optimal for this "ball of molasses" to cool down and become the solid moon that we now know.  Today, the moon's orbit around the Earth is nearly circular. 


Strange 'twin' new worlds found
A pair of strange new worlds that blur the boundaries between planets and stars have been discovered beyond our Solar System.

A few dozen such objects have been identified in recent years but this is the first set of "twins".  Dubbed "planemos", they circle each other rather than orbiting a star.  Their existence challenges current theories about the formation of planets and stars, astronomers report in the journal Science.  They appear to have been forged from a contracting gas cloud, in a similar way to stars, but are much too cool to be true stars.  And while they have similar masses to many of the giant planets discovered beyond our Solar System (the largest weighs in at 14 times the mass of Jupiter and the other is about seven times more massive), they are not thought to be true planets either.  FULL STORY_BBC NEWS 8/3/06

July, 2006

Cassini spacecraft spots large hydrocarbon lakes on Saturn's moon Titan
Researchers counted about a dozen lakes six to 62 miles wide. Some lakes, which appeared as dark patches in radar images, were connected by channels; others had tributaries flowing into them. Several were dried up. The ones that weren't probably contained a liquid mix of methane and ethane. Titan is one of two moons in the solar system known to possess a significant atmosphere similar to that of primordial Earth. But scientists have long puzzled over the source of its hazy atmosphere, which is rich in nitrogen and methane. Scientists believe methane gas breaks up in Titan's atmosphere and forms smog clouds that rain methane on the surface. Cassini, funded by NASA and the European and Italian space agencies, was launched in 1997 and took seven years to reach Saturn to explore the ringed planet and its many moons. The mission is managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge.  Full Story AP/Los Angeles Times_ 7/29/06 (logon required)

Mystery of explosive star solved

In February, a faint star a few thousand light-years away flared suddenly, beaming so brightly that for a few days it was visible to the naked eye.  The star is a stellar corpse the size of Earth, known as a white dwarf, and it is paired in a binary system with a red giant, a dying, bloated star that once resembled our sun. The red giant has been dumping gas onto the surface of the white dwarf, and every few years, enough matter accumulates to set off a giant thermonuclear explosion.  It was one of these explosions, called a "nova," that astronomers and stargazers detected earlier this year.  The two-star system, called RS Ophiuchi, is known as a recurrent nova because five similar eruptions have been detected before. The first observation occurred in 1898; the last eruption prior to this latest one happened in 1985. FULL STORY_ CNN 7/20/06

Inflatable space module launches
An inflatable spacecraft that could form the basis of a future space hotel has blasted into space.  The Genesis craft has been built by commercial company Bigelow Aerospace, set up by hotel tycoon Robert Bigelow.  The folded experimental module launched from Siberia on a converted Russian intercontinental ballistic missile.  Once the watermelon-shaped craft - based on a design discarded by Nasa - is safely established in orbit, it will be inflated to full size.  FULL STORY_ BBC 7/12/06

Astronauts spackle in space

Oops! Spatula floats away from spacewalker
Two astronauts lost a bit of time and a spatula during their spacewalk Wednesday, but otherwise their test of new repair techniques that might some day be necessary to save a damaged space shuttle went well.  The main job of Discovery astronauts Michael Fossum and Piers Sellers, squeezing out putty-like sealant and patting it down, went slowly as bubbles kept appearing in the peanut butter-like material designed to fix cracks in the shuttle's delicate heat shield.  The bubbles were expected, but it meant that the two spacewalkers could only complete seven of their 12 repair tasks in the scheduled 6 1/2-hour spacewalk and were ordered to move on to other work.  "It's behaving very differently now," Sellers said. "It's bubbling. It's growing. It's scary looking."  At times, Fossum worried that they did not have a good repair, but Mission Control was happy with much of the work. The real test will come when the patch jobs are put to test in ground labs after Discovery lands July 17. 


Sunshade to look for distant life
A huge sunshade a million miles from Earth could help astronomers search for signs of life on planets orbiting distant stars, a study says.  The daisy-shaped "occulter", as it is known, would use a powerful telescope trailing thousands of miles behind.

The shade, described in the journal Nature, would stop light from the planet's star swamping the telescope.  The concept by Professor Webster Cash of the University of Colorado has already received funding from Nasa.  He believes an occulter could be in space within seven years "stalking" Hubble's successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled for launch in 2013.  "We have proposed to build a star shade to launch a couple of months later and follow it out to its orbit," he said. "We believe this the fastest way to get operational." 


Shuttle Discovery blasts off on schedule from Kennedy Space Center

The vehicle's mission will take it to the International Space Station (ISS). The shuttle flight is the first of 2006 and only the second since the catastrophic loss of the Columbia orbiter three years ago.  Full Story  BBC News_ 7/4/06

Weather nixes shuttle launch, again

Stormy weather prevented NASA from launching Discovery for the second day in a row Sunday, extending a yearlong grounding of the space shuttle prompted by persistent trouble with fuel-tank foam. Launch officials said they would try again Tuesday, on the Fourth of July, after giving the work force a day of rest and a chance to replenish the shuttle's on-board fuel.  Full Story AP/Herald Tribune_ 7/2/06

Weather postpones shuttle launch

The possibility of thunderstorms and lightning near the launch pad postponed the liftoff of the space shuttle Saturday afternoon. NASA said it will try again Sunday. Discovery and its crew of six Americans and a German were scheduled to lift off from Kennedy Space Center at 3:49 p.m. ET. It was called off at 3:41. Sunday's liftoff is scheduled for 3:26 p.m. NASA can keep trying until July 19.  Full Story CNN_ 7/1/06

June, 2006

Space shuttle cleared for Saturday launch in Florida
NASA said on Thursday it is ready to lift its ban on space shuttle flights, convinced that only another launch will vanquish lingering safety concerns with the ship's fuel tank that were exposed by the 2003 Columbia disaster.  "It's been a long year with a lot of hard work," shuttle deputy program manager John Shannon said at a news briefing.  Mission managers cleared shuttle Discovery and its crew of seven for launch from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Saturday. Liftoff is scheduled for 3:49 p.m. EDT. 

FULL STORY_ Reuters_ 6/29/06

Earth surrounded by giant fizzy bubbles

The space above you is fizzing with activity as bubbles of superhot gas constantly grow and pop around Earth, scientists announced Tuesday.   Astronomers found the activity up where Earth's magnetic field meets a constant stream of particles flowing out from the sun.  While space is commonly called a vacuum, in fact there is gas everywhere, albeit not as dense as the air you breathe.  The newfound bubbles are technically called density holes. In them, gas density is 10 times lower. The gas in the bubbles is 18,000,000 Fahrenheit (10,000,000 Celsius) instead of the 180,000 degrees Fahrenheit of the surrounding hot gas, which is known as plasma.  The bubbles were found in data collected by the European Space Agency's Cluster mission, a flotilla of four spacecraft. Researchers first thought they had an instrument glitch when the spacecrafts passed through bubbles.  FULL STORY_ CNN 6/21/06

China to put a man on the moon by 2024 - expert

A top official in China's space program has set 2024 for the country's first moonwalk, a Hong Kong newspaper reported on Monday, cementing its position as a new space power. The mission would kick off in earnest next year, the Beijing-backed Wen Wei Po paper said, when China launches an unmanned lunar satellite in March or April to orbit and survey the lunar surface. China has come a long way since then paramount leader Mao Zedong lamented in 1957 -- the year the Soviet Union put the first ever man-made object into orbit -- that the country was incapable even of putting a potato into space.  Full Story Reuters_ 6/19/06

Kazakhstan launches first communications satellite

Kazakhstan sent its first satellite into space as part of the oil-rich ex-Soviet republic's first step toward fulfilling its ambitions to join the elite club of space-exploring nations. The KazSat 1 satellite, mounted on a Russian built Proton-K rocket, soared into the pre-dawn skies above the Baikonur cosmodrome in the middle of the harsh Kazakh steppe, watched by President Nursultan Nazarbayev and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. The geostationary satellite is designed to provide TV broadcast and communications for Kazakhstan, part of Russia and three other Central Asia nations, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan. The satellite, built by Russia's Khrunichev design center and reported to be worth $100 million, was initially scheduled for December 2005 but was postponed due to technical problems. Full Story AP/NewsEdge/Telecom Asia Daily_ 6/19/06

Safety fears as U.S. Shuttle date set

Nasa is to launch the space shuttle Discovery on 1 July, despite warnings from senior safety officials and engineers that it is not safe to fly. A meeting held to set the launch date was split on whether the problem of foam chunks breaking away - which brought down the Columbia - was fixed. Safety officials said modifications carried out since the problem recurred a year ago were still not enough. But managers decided to go ahead, insisting the crew was not at risk.  Full Story  BBC News_ 6/17/06

Great ball of fire: X-Rays spot mass of gas 5 billion times larger than solar system

Scientists have discovered the largest ball of hot gas ever found, a monstrous sphere of fire streaking through a galaxy cluster millions of light-years away. "This is likely a massive building block being delivered to one of the largest assembly of galaxies we know," said physicist Alexis Finoguenov of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. The gas ball, which was found using the European XMMNewton X-ray space observatory, is 3 million light-years across — 5 billion times the size of our solar system. Images show it as a circular X-ray glow with a stumpy comet-like tail. The ball is moving through a galaxy cluster called Abell 3266, part of the Horologium-Reticulum supercluster, which contains hundreds of galaxies. It is one of the most massive accumulations of galaxies in the southern sky. Mark Henriksen, a physics professor at the Baltimore County campus and the coauthor of a paper describing the findings in the June issue of the Astrophysical Journal.  Full Story Los Angeles Times_ 6/17/06 (logon required)

Hawking: Space key to human survival

The survival of the human race depends on its ability to find new homes elsewhere in the universe because there's an increasing risk that a disaster will destroy Earth, world-renowned physicist Stephen Hawking said.  Humans could have a permanent base on the moon in 20 years and a colony on Mars in the next 40 years, the British scientist told a news conference.  "We won't find anywhere as nice as Earth unless we go to another star system," added Hawking, who came to Hong Kong to a rock star's welcome Monday. Tickets for his lecture Thursday were sold out.  Hawking said that if humans can avoid killing themselves in the next 100 years, they should have space settlements that can continue without support from Earth.  "It is important for the human race to spread out into space for the survival of the species," Hawking said. "Life on Earth is at the ever-increasing risk of being wiped out by a disaster, such as sudden global warming, nuclear war, a genetically engineered virus or other dangers we have not yet thought of."   FULL STORY_CNN 6/14/06

Vatican scientists gaze at stars in Arizona
Keeping science and religion separate

From his vantage point atop the highest peak in southern Arizona, Father Jose Funes is lining up the Vatican telescope for a night of observation, probing the processes that lead galaxies to form and stars to be born.  Funes, an astronomer and a Jesuit priest, is one of a dozen scientists, most of them Jesuits, associated with the Vatican Observatory Research Group that operate the Arizona telescope and engages in advanced astrophysics, cosmology and galactic and extragalactic research.  Few Catholics and even fewer Americans are aware that the Vatican has a telescope in Arizona or even that the Catholic Church engages in scientific research. But the priests see themselves bridging the gap between science and religion.  Like all the priest-scientists, Funes said he kept his astronomy and religion separate.  FULL STORY_Reuters 6/1/06

May, 2006

The grand slam: rocketing water to the Moon

A strikingly simple concept would provide efficient water provisions for human outposts/bases on the Moon. The idea is to repeatedly clobber our already crater-rich neighbor with tons of water ice—to establish an "anywhere, anytime" delivery system.

Not only could chucking a payload of water ice to the Moon help sustain an expeditionary crew there, the impact mimics—in experimental form—a comet strike. Therefore, it’s a double-whammy: A science mission wrapped within an exploration capability test mission.  Spearheading the speculative ploy—called SLAM—is Alan Stern, executive director of the Space Science and Engineering Division at Southwest Research Institute (SwRI).  "I hope the SLAM idea stimulates thought and gets people thinking a little bit more out of the box," Stern told SPACE.com. "When we have people on the Moon, they are going to need water. This is an exceptionally efficient, low-cost way to get it there." SLAM needs no mid-course correction en route to the Moon, nor a spacecraft for that matter. All that’s necessary is a thermal jacket for the water ice payload that’s flung by rocket booster toward any selected spot on the Moon.  SLAM could even serve as an emergency, launch-on-demand service, Stern continued, for lunar-situated crews in need of a rapid recharge of oxygen, hydrogen, or liquid water to drink.  FULL STORY_ Space.com_5/24/06

Planet shine 'to aid life search'
Earth-like planets around distant stars may be too far away to be reached by spacecraft but scientists could still investigate whether they harbour life.  Telescope technologies are being developed that will probe the very faint light from these objects for tell-tale signs of biology.  These are the same "life markers" known to be present in light reflected off the Earth - so-called "earthshine".  They include signatures for water, and gases such as oxygen and methane.  "This gives you some information on habitability," said Wesley Traub, chief scientist on the US space agency's (Nasa) Navigator Program which specialises in the search for far-off worlds.  "These are only signs of life; they are only indicators. You can't actually detect the life itself crawling or sliming around on the surface of the planet," he told the American Geophysical Union Joint Assembly here in Baltimore, US.

Traub is hopeful Nasa will approve the funds necessary to launch a Terrestrial Planet Finder (TPF) mission some time in the next decade.  It will comprise two space-borne observatories which will hunt down and study Earth-sized planets orbiting stars at distances where liquid water could exist and sustain life.  FULL STORY_ BBC NEWS 5/24/06

Astronomers in Switzerland find new 3-planet solar system
Astronomers hunting for solar systems beyond our own have discovered a remarkable new one in which three planets, roughly the size of Neptune, are circling a nearby sunlike star, which is surrounded apparently by a dense belt of asteroids. The inner two planets appear to be made mainly of rock -- like Earth -- while the third may have an envelope of gas around a core of rock and ice, the astronomers say. None is likely to harbor life, although the outermost planet lies within what astronomers call the "habitable zone." The habitable zone in our solar system is where conditions of temperature and light have made life possible on Earth. The discovery, exploiting an extremely precise new measuring system, suggests that many more relatively small planets should soon be detectable around other stars in the Milky Way galaxy, astronomers say. FULL STORY_San Francisco Chronicle 5/18/06

Planet in newly found system may have water, astronomers say

A solar system astronomers recently discovered near ours has at least one planet that may contain water, a requirement for supporting life, according to a report to appear in the journal Nature.  The three planets orbiting the star HD 69830, which is about 41 light-years away and visible with the naked eye, have masses 5 to 20 times larger than Earth and are about the size of Neptune, according to the report in tomorrow's edition of the journal.  The two planets closest to the star probably are rocky, while the outer planet is likely to have a gaseous atmosphere around a rocky core. The outer planet is the right distance from the star to have liquid water, the astronomers said. ``The architecture of this particular planetary system bears some intriguing similarities to that of our own solar system,'' including multiple planets in nearly circular orbits, Harvard University astronomer David Charbonneau wrote in an accompanying editorial.  FULL STORY_Bloomberg 5/17/06

Comet break-up puts on sky show this weekend
A comet is delighting astronomers with a marvellous night-time display as it makes a near pass of the Earth.  The ball of ice, rock and dust has broken up into more than 60 pieces; two of the larger fragments are visible through binoculars or small telescopes.

At its closest approach this weekend, the comet will be some 10 million km (six million miles) from the Earth.  Continued disintegration means this may be the last swing around the Sun for Comet 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann 3.  Dr Robert Massey, of the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, said the optimum time to see the comet in the UK was between 0000 and 0100 BST, away from the lights of the city.  He said observers should look East with binoculars and use a sky chart to get the best chance of a sighting.  "It's a rare opportunity for members of the public to see what is a pretty dramatic phenomenon," he said.  "Watching a comet break up is not something the public gets to do that often."  FULL STORY_BBC 5/11/06

Venus probe makes science orbit
The European probe sent to Venus has put itself in the orbit from which it will make scientific observations.  Since its arrival on 11 April, the Venus Express craft has been using its main engine and thrusters to tighten its loop around Earth's neighbour.  The probe's polar flight path now takes it 250km (160 miles) above the surface at its closest approach and 66,000km (41,300 miles) at its furthest.  Venus Express will begin its science investigations in early June. "The spacecraft instruments are now being switched on one by one for detailed checking, which we will continue until mid May. Then we will operate them all together or in groups," Don McCoy, Venus Express project manager, said in a statement from the European Space Agency. "This allows simultaneous observations of phenomena to be tested, to be ready when Venus Express' nominal science phase begins on 4 June 2006."  FULL STORY_ BBC 5/9/06

India and US to explore the Moon

Under an accord between the countries' space agencies, India's first unmanned lunar mission will carry two scientific payloads from the US agency, Nasa. Indian officials called the deal a "milestone". The Indian spacecraft is due to be launched in early 2008. The Nasa instruments will scan the Moon's surface for minerals and ice. Devices from the European Space Agency and Bulgaria will also be on board. The deal is being seen as another sign of increasingly close ties between Washington and Delhi after years of Cold War suspicion.  Full Story BBC News_ 5/9/06

Universe 'child of previous one': A joint UK-US team has put forward an alternative theory of cosmic evolution. 

It proposes that the Universe undergoes cycles of "Big Bangs" and "Big Crunches", meaning our Universe is merely a "child of the previous one".  It challenges the conventional view of the cosmos, which observations show to be 12-14 billion years old.  The new ideas, reported in the journal Science, may explain why the expansion of the Universe is accelerating, the researchers say.  "At present the conventional view is that all of space, time, matter and energy began at a single point, which then expanded and cooled, leaving the Universe as it is today," said Professor Paul Steinhardt of Princeton University, New Jersey. "However, this new theory suggests that there's a continuous cycle of universes, with each a repeat of the last, but not an exact replica. "It can be thought of as a child of the previous universe."  FULL STORY_BBC News 5/5/06

April, 2006

China to launch lunar probe next April

China plans to take the first step in its ambitious lunar exploration program next April, launching a satellite that will orbit the moon, a space official said on Thursday.  The craft will be followed a few years later by a remote-controlled lunar rover that will perform experiments and send data back to Earth, and, in another few years, a module that will drill out a chunk of the moon and return with it.  China's lunar exploration scheme, which includes long-term plans for piloted moon missions, underscores the ambitious scope of a space program that has come a long way, especially in recent years, since its launch 50 years ago.  On Thursday, China sent a science research satellite into orbit, marking the country's first space mission this year.  Full Story_ CNN 4/27/06

Next shuttle crew to inspect for debris damage
The next space shuttle crew will use a sensor-laden boom to scan their ship's wings for damage from tiny meteorites and bits of space junk, a NASA spokesman said on Wednesday.  The procedure, which will be conducted near the end of Discovery's planned 12-day flight, could become standard for all remaining shuttle missions before the fleet is retired in 2010.  Full Story_ Reuters 4/19/06

NASA to crash probe into moon in search of water

The probe will hitchhike on a lunar orbiter that the agency aims to launch in late 2008. The landing will be the first step in an effort by NASA to return humans to the moon and eventually establish a manned base there. The mission will be the first U.S. moon landing in 36 years. In late January NASA asked its ten regional field centers to submit proposals for a spacecraft that could travel to the moon with the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which will be launched in October 2008. The agency received 19 proposals. Today NASA announced the winner of the competition: the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS). A team at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, will develop the spacecraft.  Full Story National Geographic_ 4/10/06

Brazil's first astronaut elevated to superhero status after 9-day voyage

Brazil's first astronaut touched down in a freezing Kazakhstan yesterday amid a cacophony of praise in his native country. Yet as some bickered about who should play Marcos Cesar Pontes in the cinema version of his historic nine-day journey, others dismissed the 43-year-old cosmonaut as a "space tourist" manipulated by vote-hunting politicians.  Full Story The Guardian_ 4/10/06

New ring around Uranus is blue, scientists find
The newly discovered outer ring of Uranus is bright blue, for the same reason the Earth's sky is blue -- it is made up of tiny particles, astronomers said on Thursday.  It is "strikingly similar" to Saturn's outer ring, which astronomers last month confirmed was probably generated by one of the planet's moons, Enceladus.  Like Saturn's ring, the Uranus ring also has a small moon in it, called Mab. But Mab is too small and too cold to be spewing a geyser of ice that contributes to the ring as Enceladus is now believed to be doing.  "The outer ring of Saturn is blue and has Enceladus right smack at its brightest spot, and Uranus is strikingly similar, with its blue ring right on top of Mab's orbit," said Imke de Pater, a professor of astronomy at the University of California Berkeley, who helped lead the study.  Full Story_ Reuters 4/6/06

Scientists: Planet-forming supernova dust possibly found
Scientists think they have solved the mystery of how planets form around a star born in a violent supernova explosion, saying they have detected for the first time a swirling disk of debris from which planets can rise.  The discovery is surprising because the dusty disk orbiting the pulsar, or dead star, resembles the cloud of gas and dust from which Earth emerged. Scientists say the latest finding should shed light on how planetary systems form.  "It shows that planet formation is really ubiquitous in the universe. It's a very robust process and can happen in all sorts of unexpected environments," said lead researcher Deepto Chakrabarty, an astrophysicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Details appear in Thursday's issue of the journal Nature.  FULL STORY_FoxNews 4/5/06

March, 2006

Russian Soyuz rocket lifts off with international crew

A Russian Soyuz rocket streaked into the skies over the Central Asian steppe on Thursday, launching a U.S.-Russian-Brazilian crew on a mission to the international space station.  Russian Pavel Vinogradov and American Jeffrey Williams were to stay on board the station for about six months. Brazil's first man in space, Marcos C. Pontes, will stay at the station for nine days before returning to Earth on April 9 with the station's current crew of Russian Valery Tokarev and American Bill McArthur.  The Soyuz TMA 8 spacecraft is due to dock at the station early Saturday. Vinogradov, who is the commander of the crew, said they would carry out over 65 scientific experiments during the mission, including some to test human reaction to prolonged space travel.  FULL STORY_ CNN 3/30/06

Fire caused SpaceX rocket failure
A fire fed by a fuel leak caused the failure of a commercial rocket seconds into its maiden launch, the company that built it has confirmed. SpaceX's Falcon 1 rocket was lost during lift-off from an island in the Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific Ocean.  It was carrying a US Air Force Academy research satellite onboard.  The vision of Elon Musk, co-founder of the electronic payment system PayPal, the Falcon was designed to cut the cost of current satellite launches. The unexplained fuel leak occurred 25 seconds into the launch near the top of the main engine on the rocket's first stage, SpaceX's founder said.  FULL STORY_BBC 3/27/06

Saturn’s rings created by collision
Oddly shaped gaps found in Saturn's rings hint at the existence of long sought "moonlets" and support the theory that the rings are the broken remains of an icy moon shattered long ago in a violent collision, scientists say.  Scientists think a comet or asteroid collided with one of Saturn's moons about 100 million years ago. Such an impact would have created debris in a range of sizes, but until now, scientists only had evidence for chunks of rock that were miles in diameter and smaller particles that were about 65 feet (20 km) across or less. The medium-sized moonlets—so named because their size would be between that of a moon and smaller particles—predicted by theory were missing.  FULL STORY_Space.com 3/29/06

Solar eclipse inspires awe across globe
Clapping, dancing, praising God or raising telescopes, crowds from West Africa to Central Asia gazed skywards as a total solar eclipse cast a shadow across a vast band of the planet on Wednesday.  Some viewers though lost their nerve and hid for fear of hurting their eyes. "I preferred to watch it on TV because the government insisted it was dangerous for one's health," said bar manager Julien Agban in Togo's capital Lome.  One financial astrologer said its effects could yet be felt in falling share markets.

The complete track of the eclipse stretched from eastern Brazil, across the Atlantic to north Africa, then on to the Middle East, Central Asia, west China and Mongolia.

FULL STORY_Reuters 3/29/06

Ice layers record comet creation
The Deep Impact mission is casting new light on how comets formed and how they shed their ice in space.  The US space agency probe sent a 370kg projectile crashing into Comet Tempel 1 and then studied the plume of debris with its suite of instruments. Nasa's mission scientists say images from last July's encounter reveal as many as seven different layers on the comet's surface. Their results were presented at a major science conference in Houston, US.  FULL STORY_ BBC News 3/17/06

'DNA' nebula found in Milky Way

Cosmic nebulae usually look like blobs in space, but astronomers using the Spitzer Space Telescope reported on Wednesday they have found a nebula twisted like the double helix of DNA. "Nobody has ever seen anything like that before in the cosmic realm," said Mark Morris of the University of California, Los Angeles.  Most nebulae are "formless, amorphous conglomerations of dust and gas," Morris said in a statement, adding that this one "indicates a high degree of order." The discovery of the twisted nebula, which stretches across 80 light-years at the center of the Milky Way, the galaxy that includes Earth, was reported in the current edition of the journal Nature.  FULL STORY (SEE THE PHOTO!) _CNN 3/16/06

NASA scrubs May shuttle launch

Next opportunity for space station mission will be in July

NASA has scrubbed the May launch of the space shuttle Discovery to replace four low-level sensors in the external fuel tank -- a process that will take three weeks, space shuttle program manager Wayne Hale announced.  The next launch opportunity lasts from July 1 to July 19.  Low-level sensors, or engine cutoff (ECO) sensors, indicate to controllers when fuel is running low.  In meetings held over the past two days, officials decided to remove and replace all four liquid hydrogen sensors on the tank, Hale told a NASA news conference at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.  "We finally concluded that it was far smarter of us to be conservative and take the safe route and replace the sensors that are in the tank," Hale said.  FULL STORY_CNN 3/15/06

Cassini spots water geysers on Saturn moon Enceladus

'Smoking gun' for water in space
The orbiting Cassini spacecraft has spotted what appear to be water geysers on one of Saturn's icy moons, raising the tantalizing possibility that the celestial object harbors life.  The surprising images from the moon Enceladus represent some of the most dramatic evidence yet that water in liquid form may be present beyond the Earth.  Excited by the discovery, some scientists said Enceladus should be added to the short list of places within the solar system most likely to have extraterrestrial life.  Scientists generally agree several ingredients are needed for life to emerge, including water in liquid form and a stable heat source. But so far, the evidence of any large amounts of water in liquid form on celestial objects beyond Earth is circumstantial and indirect, based on scientists' analysis of rocks and other data.  Cassini recently snapped high-resolution images showing geyser-like eruptions of ice particles and water vapor at Enceladus' south pole, scientists said. The pictures do not actually show any water in liquid form, but scientists believe the ice and vapor must be coming from underground reservoirs of water close to the surface.  "We have the smoking gun" that proves the existence of water, said Carolyn Porco, a Cassini imaging scientist from the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo.  FULL STORY_Herald Tribune 3/9/06

Indian rockets may launch US satellites
India could emerge as a global satellite launch hub with President Bush giving the nod to allow satellites with American components to be launched by Indian rockets. A joint statement by Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said they had committed to permit US satellites to be launched in India opening up new opportunities for commercial space cooperation between the two countries. In 2004, American satellite firm Boeing had explored with Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) to jointly build and market two tonne satellites that would be launched from the Satish Dhawan spaceport in Sriharikota. But, Boeing backed off citing lack of market opportunities and tight US control norms that hindered the deal.  Full Story_DNA India 3/2/06

February, 2006


New kind of space blast seen not far from Earth
A new kind of cosmic explosion has been spotted in Earth's celestial neighborhood, and amateur astronomers in the Northern Hemisphere might be able to see it next week, scientists reported on Thursday.  The blast seemed a lot like a gamma-ray burst, the most distant and powerful type of explosion known to astronomers.  But when scientists first detected it with NASA's Swift satellite on February 18, the explosion was about 25 times closer and lasted 100 times longer than a typical gamma-ray burst.  "This is totally new, totally unexpected," said Neil Gehrels, Swift's principal investigator. "This is the type of unscripted event in our nearby universe that we hoped Swift could catch." 

Full Story_Reuters 2/23/06

X PRIZE Foundation takes next step toward $2 million lunar lander challenge
The X PRIZE Foundation (XPF) is moving forward with plans to offer a $2 million Lunar Lander Challenge (LLC) by releasing draft rules of the competition today, making them available for public comment.  The LLC was originally introduced in a Letter of Intent executed between XPF and NASA's Centennial Challenges manager, Brant Sponberg, at the 2005 X PRIZE Cup. It is planned that the challenge will take place at this year's X PRIZE CUP event on October 21-22, 2006 in Las Cruces, New Mexico. The LLC will require a rocket capable of vertical takeoff and vertical landing to fly from one pad to another and back. The LLC is broken into two difficulty levels to maximize the interest from potential competitors while still resulting in the development of vehicles that are of value to NASA.  Any portion of the total prize money that is not won in the 2006 competition will be up for grabs at future X PRIZE CUP events.  Full Story_ Press Release Business Wire 2/22/06

Saturn's inner moons - more rubble than ice

Saturn's small, inner moons may not be huge chunks of ice as once thought, but rather "rubble piles" of material built up around small central cores, a team of Cassini scientists suggests.  Before the Cassini mission to Saturn’s moons, scientists knew small moons such as Pan, Atlas, Janus and Epimetheus orbited the ringed planet. "But we didn't have good pictures of them. We didn't have measurements of their shape," says Carolyn Porco, Cassini Imaging Science Team leader from the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado, US. "It could have been that they were collisional shards, monolithic pieces of ice."  But now that Cassini has relayed images of those satellites back to Earth and scientists have examined the moons' shapes, estimated their masses and calculated their densities, Porco says that does not look to be the case.  Instead, she says, the "rounded football" shape of Calypso, Telesto (pictured), Epimetheus, Janus, Pandora, Prometheus, Atlas and Pan is characteristic of accreted bodies – where material has built up around a core.

Full Story_ New Scientist 2/14/06

Shooting for the Moon, once again

Thirty-four years after the last Apollo astronaut walked on the lunar surface, a new space race is underway. India's 20,000 space workers are readying a lunar orbital mission set for 2007. Japan plans to send a robotic rover to the lifeless rock by 2013, and the European Space Agency has a probe, SMART-1, orbiting the moon. Although many countries are talking about sending people to the moon, only two, the United States and China, have set dates for manned lunar landings. NASA says its next manned mission will be as early as 2018; China says it wants to land "taikonauts" — as Chinese astronauts are called — as early as 2017.  Full Story Los Angeles Times_ 2/12/06 (logon required)

Space rock re-opens Mars debate
A carbon-rich substance found filling tiny cracks within a Martian meteorite could boost the idea that life once existed on the Red Planet.  The material resembles that found in fractures, or "veins", apparently etched by microbes in volcanic glass from the Earth's ocean floor.  Details will be presented at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Houston, Texas, next month.  All the processes of life on Earth are based on the element carbon.  Proving carbon in Martian meteorites is indigenous - and not contamination from Earth - is crucial to the question of whether life once arose on the Red Planet.  Full Story_BBC 2/8/05

Dark matter comes out of the cold

Astronomers have for the first time put some real numbers on the physical characteristics of dark matter. This strange material that dominates the Universe but which is invisible to current telescope technology is one of the great enigmas of modern science. That it exists is one of the few things on which researchers have been certain. But now an Institute of Astronomy, Cambridge, team has at last been able to place limits on how it is packed in space and measure its "temperature". "It's the first clue of what this stuff might be," said Professor Gerry Gilmore. "For the first time ever, we're actually dealing with its physics." Full Story_BBC 2/5/06

Telescope spots two mega solar systems

Astronomers said Wednesday they have spotted evidence of two mega solar systems -- giant stars enveloped by what appear to be huge disks of planet-forming dust.  Cloudy disks around stars are believed to represent current or future planetary systems. Our sun is surrounded by the Kuiper Belt, a disk containing dust, comets and other bodies.  Astronomers said the latest findings were surprising because such massive stars are thought to be inhospitable to the formation of planets.  Full Story_CNN 2/9/06

Scientists: New 'planet' bigger than Pluto

Findings bolster support for 10th planet

German astrophysicists have concluded a space body located in the outer reaches of the solar system is 435 miles (700 kilometers) larger than Pluto, the smallest planet.  Their research puts more pressure on the International Astronomical Union (IAU) to classify the object as the 10th planet in our solar system.  "UB313 is decidedly larger than Pluto," said University of Bonn Professor Frank Bertoldi, whose team's findings will be published in Thursday's journal Nature.  The object, tentatively named 2003 UB313, is an icy body that lies beyond the planet Neptune.  2003 UB313 was first photographed in October 2003 by astronomers at the California Institute of Technology's Palomar Observatory, north of San Diego. Astronomers announced last summer that it was large enough to be a planet and was likely much larger than Pluto.  Full Story_ CNN 2/1/06

January, 2006

New planet-hunting method could find more Earths
A new planet-hunting technique has detected the most Earth-like planet yet around a star other than our sun, raising hopes of finding a space rock that might support life, astronomers reported on Wednesday.  "This is an important breakthrough in the quest to answer the question 'Are we alone?'" said Michael Turner of the National Science Foundation.  "The team has discovered the most Earth-like planet yet, and more importantly, has demonstrated the power of a new technique that is sensitive to detecting habitable planets," Turner said in a statement.  In the last decade, astronomers have detected more than 160 planets orbiting stars outside our solar system. The vast majority of these have been gas giant planets like Jupiter, which are hostile to life as it is known on Earth.  Full Story_ Reuters 1/25/06

World's first Pluto mission blasts into space
The world's first mission to Pluto blasted into space on Thursday after its launch aboard an unmanned Atlas 5 rocket to begin a 9 1/2-year journey to the only unexplored planet in the solar system.  "It's now our job to be good stewards of the spacecraft. and to learn to fly it in the real environment that it was built for," Alan Stern, the mission's lead scientist from the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, told a post-launch news conference. After two days of delays due to poor weather and a power outage, the 197-foot-tall (60-metre-tall) rocket, built by Lockheed Martin Corp., lifted off at 2 p.m. (1900 GMT) from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The launch team remained on edge until 45 minutes later when the plutonium-powered spacecraft finally and successfully separated from the Atlas' second and last upper-stage rocket booster. The engine firings made the probe, called New Horizons, soar at more than 10 miles per second, or 36,000 mph (58,000 kph) -- the fastest man-made object ever to leave Earth's orbit.  Full Story_Reuters 1/19/06

Stardust mission succeeds in returning comet dust
Scientists confirmed today that the Stardust sample return capsule that parachuted to Earth last weekend achieved a mission goal of catching comet and interstellar dust particles. It might also have brought back traces of water tossed off from a comet. "This exceeded all of our grandest expectations," said Donald Brownlee, the mission's principal investigator from the University of Washington. "We were totally overwhelmed," he said, noting that "hundreds and hundreds and hundreds" of particle tracks have been brought back. Stardust scientists and curation experts cracked open the Stardust sample return canister Tuesday in a cleanroom facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas. Full Story_ Space.com 1/19/06

Stardust capsule containing comet particles and interstellar dust returns to Earth after 7-year mission

The Stardust probe released the U.S.-built capsule as it flew back to Earth after a 4.6-billion-km (2.8-billion-mile) trip. It touched down in the Utah desert at 0312 (1012 GMT). Scientists believe the first cometary dust samples ever returned to Earth will shed light on the origins of the Solar System.  Full Story   BBC News_ 1/15/06

Stardust of yesterday; Spacecraft bringing comet dust back to Earth

NASA's Stardust space probe is racing toward Earth, carrying a tiny payload of cometary and interstellar dust -- particles that scientists believe are leftovers from the creation of our solar system.  If all goes as planned, Stardust will release the 100-lb. capsule carrying the samples at 1 a.m. ET on Sunday. It would enter Earth's atmosphere about four hours later and parachute to the ground in Utah at 5:12 a.m. ET.  Stardust has been in space for just shy of seven years and made three laps around the sun, traveling 2.88 billion miles (4.63 billion kilometers).  The highlight of the mission came on January 2, 2004, when Stardust flew within 149 miles (240 kilometers) of the comet Wild 2 (pronounced Vilt 2).  Stardust captured particles from the comet's tail in a tennis-racket sized collection unit made with blocks of aerogel, a strong, lightweight silica glass that is 99.8 percent air and looks like frozen smoke. (What is aerogel)  "The fundamental reason for this mission is that we are collecting what we believe are the best preserved samples of the formation of our solar system and they are preserved because they formed these comet bodies beyond the major planets out beyond Neptune," said principal investigator Don Brownlee of the University of Washington.  Full Story CNN_1/12/06


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