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Ares I-X rocket chalks up successful test flight
Running a day late, NASA launched its 33-story Ares I-X rocket on a $445 million unmanned test flight Wednesday, a spectacular six-minute sub-orbital mission to collect data needed for the design of NASA's proposed shuttle replacement.  The 327-foot-tall unmanned rocket roared to life at 11:30 a.m. EDT and majestically climbed away from launch complex 39B at the Kennedy Space Center atop a torrent of 5,000-degree flame and a cloud of churning exhaust.  Liftoff came three-and-a-half hours behind schedule because of overnight thunderstorms and nearby lightning strikes that required unplanned tests, along with cloudy weather that posed a risk of static charge buildups that could have interfered with communications. FULL STORY_CNET News 10/29/09

NASA finds 'space ribbon' at solar system's edge
While mapping the solar system's edge for the first time, NASA's Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX), spacecraft has discovered a 'space ribbon' two billion miles long.
As the solar wind reaches the edge of the solar system and collides with the interstellar medium, a shock wave forms, heating particles which then stream away from the boundary.  FULL STORY_TG Daily_10/16/09

NASA searches for water on the Moon

More than 230,000 miles from Earth, a NASA spacecraft hit a bull’s-eye on the Moon on Friday morning. Actually, two bull’s-eyes.  At 4:31 a.m. Pacific time (7:31 a.m. Eastern time), one piece of the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite — LCROSS, for short — slammed into the bottom of a crater at 5,600 miles per hour, excavating about 350 metric tons of the moon and leaving behind a hole about 65 feet wide, 13 feet deep.  Trailing four minutes behind, instruments aboard the second piece analyzed the rising plume and sent its observations back to Earth before it also slammed into the same crater.  Of greatest interest is whether there is water ice hidden in the crater’s perpetual darkness and frigidness. The data could play into the debate over where NASA’s human spaceflight program should aim next, whether to return to the Moon or head elsewhere in the solar system neighborhood. The presence of large significant amounts of water could make it easier to set up future settlements with the ice providing water and oxygen.

FULL STORY_New York Times 10/09/09

EU's Herschel scans hidden Milky Way

Herschel, which has the largest mirror ever put on an orbiting telescope, was launched in May as a flagship mission of the European Space Agency.  It is tuned to see far-infrared wavelengths of light and is expected to give astronomers significant insights into some of the fundamental processes that shape the cosmos.  Herschel's great advantage is that its sensitivity allows it to see things that are beyond the vision of other space telescopes, such as Hubble.  A prime goal is to understand the mechanisms that control the earliest phases of stellar evolution.  FULL STORY_BBC NEWS 10/2/09

Evidence suggests water exists on the moon
Using data from three spacecraft that have made close flybys of the moon in recent years, research teams in the United States say they have found proof that a thin film of water coats the surface of the soil in at least some places on the moon. The discovery "will forever change how we look at the moon," added Roger Clark, a scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Denver and the author of one of three papers -- each dealing with data from a different spacecraft -- appearing in this week's edition of Science magazine.  The discovery lends weight to a new view of a friendlier solar system, where water, the lifeblood of biology on Earth, suddenly seems to be everywhere. FULL STORY_ Los Angeles Times_9/24/09

Tentative signs of water found on the moon
New data and images from NASA's new moon orbiter have revealed tentative signs of lunar water ice, the space agency announced. The powerful Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has successfully completed its testing and calibration phase and entered its mapping orbit of the moon. The spacecraft's instruments have also made measurements of space radiation in the lunar environment and have found more widespread possible signatures of water on the moon. FULL STORY_ MSNBC_9/18/09

Scientists say "super-Earth" has rocky surface
Detailed data about the smallest planet ever found outside our solar system suggest it is a rocky "super-Earth" world very like our own, European astronomers said on Wednesday.  The so-called exoplanet, whose initial discovery was announced in February, has a mass five times that of Earth, which when combined with its radius suggests it has a solid surface and a density similar to our terrestrial home.

FULL STORY_Reuters_9/17/09

NASA preparing to blast the Moon for water

Mission has its own theme song
NASA announced yesterday that it has "identified the spot where it will search for water on the moon." The spacecraft selected for the journey, the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS), will reach its target in October. The story is not without controversy. The idea is to send "a rocket crashing into the moon causing a big impact and creating a crater, throwing tons of debris and potentially water ice and vapor above the lunar surface." Too crude, too destructive, claim critics of the mission. But Many people will be watching when the rocket hits. And they may not need to watch it on NASA TV. The crash will be so big, all that may be required is a good amateur telescope.  Click here to view computer clips of the mission and download the song "Water on the Moon" written by LCROSS Deputy Project Manager John Marmie! Performed by John Marmie and Jeff Petro. FULL STORY_Examiner.com_9/9/09

NASA needs more money to meet space goals, panel finds

A blue-ribbon panel headed by retired aerospace executive Norman Augustine, on Tuesday gave the White House and NASA the executive summary of its report, with the full report and more granular findings to come later this month. Although taking a dim view of the status quo at NASA, the Augustine committee clearly endorsed the goal of a robust human space flight program and all but pleads on behalf of the agency, which runs on an annual budget of about $18 billion. A space exploration program "that will be a source of pride for the nation" will require roughly an additional $3 billion a year, the committee found.   Full Story   Washington Post_ 9/8/09

Galaxy's 'cannibalism' revealed
The vast Andromeda galaxy appears to have expanded by digesting stars from other galaxies, research has shown.  This consumption of stars has been suggested previously, but the team's ultra-deep survey has provided detailed images to show that it took place. The astronomers report their findings in the journal Nature.  FULL STORY_BBC_9/3/09

Astrophysicists puzzle over planet that's too close to its sun
Scientists have discovered a planet that shouldn't exist. The finding, they say, could alter our understanding of orbital dynamics, a field considered pretty well settled since the time of astronomer Johannes Kepler 400 years ago.  The planet is known as a "hot Jupiter," a gas giant orbiting the star Wasp-18, about 330 light-years from Earth. The planet, Wasp-18b, is so close to the star that it completes a full orbit (its "year") in less than an Earth day, according to the research, which was published in the journal Nature.  The problem is that a planet that close should be consumed by its parent star in less than a million years, say the authors at Keele University in Britain. The star Wasp-18 is believed to be about a billion years old, and because stars and the planets around them are thought to form at the same time, Wasp-18b should have been reduced to cinders ages ago. 

FULL STORY_ Los Angeles Times 8/27/09

Report: NASA can't keep up with killer asteroids
A new report says NASA is falling behind in its charge to spot most of the asteroids that pose a threat to Earth due to a lack of funding to complete the job.  NASA estimates that there are about 20,000 asteroids and comets in our solar system that are potential threats.   Disaster movies like "Armageddon" and near misses in previous years may have scared people and alerted them to the threat. But when it comes to monitoring, the academy concluded "there has been relatively little effort by the U.S. government."  And the United States is practically the only government doing anything at all, the report found.  Last month, NASA started a new Web site for the public to learn about threatening near-Earth objects:  www.jpl.nasa.gov/asteroidwatch. FULL STORY_AP 8/13/09

NASA says Kepler spacecraft proves it can find Earth-sized planet

NASA scientists say its planet-hunting spacecraft, Kepler, will be able to carry out its mission of finding other Earths in our galaxy, provided they exist.  NASA released Kepler's analysis of an already known "hot Jupiter" planet called HAT-P-7b in the constellation Cygnus. The spacecraft mapped the planet's orbit and gave new details about its hazy, ozone-like atmosphere, where temperatures climb as high as 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit.  The analysis proves that Kepler's onboard telescope and light-detecting instruments are at least 100 times more precise than the ground-based detectors that originally found HAT-P-7b.  That should be good enough to spot any Earth-sized planets in a star's so-called habitable zone, where temperatures are warm enough for water to be liquid but not so hot as to torch the planet's surface.  FULL STORY Los Angeles Times_8/7/09

Panel experts advise deep space exploration vs. landings

A panel examining the future of the United States’ human spaceflight program will suggest that the Obama administration may want to skip the part about landing on other worlds.  That could, panel members said, enable the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to send astronauts to more corners of the solar system more quickly while keeping within a limited budget.  A subcommittee of the panel studied several possibilities, including NASA’s current program to send astronauts back to the Moon by 2020, a more ambitious plan to skip the Moon and aim directly for Mars and what the members called the “flexible path,” which would avoid the “deep gravity wells” of the Moon and Mars, saving the time and cost of developing landers to carry astronauts to the surfaces of those bodies. 

FULL STORY_New York Times_7/31/09

Shuttle set for Friday landing
NASA says the crew of the space shuttle Endeavour have completed checks on the orbiter and so far found no damage to its ceramic tiles, making a landing Friday look likely.  Before returning, Endeavour's crew will also launch two small experimental satellites from the shuttle's payload bay. DRAGONSat will test automated rendezvous and docking capabilities using Global Positioning System data and a Department of Defense payload named ANDE-2 will measure atmospheric density and composition in low Earth orbit.

FULL STORY_TG Daily_7/30/09

Lost moon landing tapes dusted off and restored
NASA, working with Lowry Digital have digitally sharpened up scenes of the moon landing footage in a $230,000 project. The four scenes restored so far show Neil Armstrong and then Buzz Aldrin stepping on to the surface of the moon, the astronauts putting up a commemorative plaque and the raising of the American flag. More is to follow, with the full archive expected to be ready by September.  Click here to see the footage.

FULL STORY_TG Daily_7/17/09

Space Shuttle marred by debris during launch
The astronauts of space shuttle Endeavour will spend today searching for damage on their ship after pieces of ice -- or perhaps insulating foam -- came off the shuttle's orange fuel tank during Wednesday's launch. and struck the shuttle. NASA says some of the debris hit the all-important heat-shield tiles on the shuttle's belly, leaving small white gouge marks.  It will be a slow, tedious process. FULL STORY_ABC NEWS_7/16/09

Stargazers spot oldest supernova yet
Astronomers from the University of California have spied a supernova which lit up the early universe 10.7 billion years ago - 1.5 billion years before the previous record holder and just 3 billions years after the big bang. A team led by Jeff Cooke spotted the event - a "type II"* supernova provoked by the core collapse of a star 50-100 times more massive than the Sun - in images from the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope Legacy Survey, which snapped the same four patches of sky over five years using a 3.6-metre telescope. FULL STORY_The Register_7/9/09

Hunt for life on Saturn's moon heats up

NASA’s Cassini probe observed the salts in Saturn’s outermost ring, which is believed to be composed of material ejected from Enceladus. That news, published Wednesday in Nature, is sure to excite life-hunters hoping to find extraterrestrial microbes within our solar system.  FULL STORY_ Wired_ 6/25/09

Moon mission looking at possible colony sites
A California spacecraft, bound for deliberate doom inside a crater on the moon, is scheduled to soar into space today, along with a lunar orbiter searching for safe landing sites where humans might one day establish Earth's first colony. In early October, the spacecraft will send a heavy rocket crashing into the moon's south polar region on a mission to find water that could support future crews bound for Mars. With its mission finished, the spacecraft itself then will die in its own final crash into the lunar surface.  FULL STORY_ SFGate_6/18/09

NASA postpones launch of space shuttle Endeavour

NASA postponed the planned Saturday launch of the space shuttle Endeavour due to a hydrogen leak that developed during fueling, a space agency official said. Endeavour and its seven-member crew had been scheduled to blast off at 7:17 a.m. EDT (1117 GMT) from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on a mission to deliver the last part of a Japanese laboratory to the International Space Station. Endeavour will carry a Japanese-built porch that will be installed on the space station's $2.4 billion Kibo complex, Japan's primary contribution to the $100 billion orbiting research outpost.   Full Story   Reuters_ 6/13/09

It's a 'Go' for Shuttle liftoff Saturday
Just a month after the successful repair and renovation of the Hubble Space Telescope, another ambitious space shuttle mission is set to lift off Saturday morning.  Forecasters said there was a 90 percent chance of favorable weather for the launching of the Endeavour, scheduled for 7:17 a.m. Eastern time from the Kennedy Space Center, and mission managers said the countdown was proceeding smoothly.  The Endeavour will carry the final pieces to complete the Japanese laboratory on the International Space Station. The mission is to last 16 days, only the second time a mission will have gone on that long.  FULL STORY_New York Times_6/12/09

Betelgeuse 'shrinking', may have blown up
The red giant star Betelgeuse in the constellation Orion is shrinking rapidly. Astronomers say that it has shrunk by 15 per cent since 1993, by which they mean that it actually did so in the mid 16th century. It may, in fact, already have exploded. The huge star, one of the brightest in the sky, is thought to lie about 430 light years from our solar system, so the changes being observed now actually occurred in 1579 AD. Many astronomers believe that Betelgeuse is so vast that it's liable to go supernova - that is, blow up with stupendous, galaxy-shaking force - within a millennium or so. Indeed, it might already have exploded at some point in the last 430 years, in which case the flash wouldn't yet have reached us.  FULL STORY_The Register_6/11/09

Kicking a planet out of the Solar System... physically
New research by a duo of French astronomers reveals that small perturbations in Mercury's orbit could result in Mars literally getting the boot from our brotherhood of planets, being flung out of the solar system thanks to the dynamics of a chaotic system.


Study looks for Earth-like water worlds
U.S. space agency-sponsored scientists say they have developed a technique for determining whether Earth-like extrasolar worlds have oceans.  The researchers used the high resolution telescope on the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Deep Impact spacecraft to look at Earth from tens of millions of miles away -- to obtain what they called "an alien point of view" -- and developed a method to indicate the presence of oceans by analyzing how Earth's light changes as the planet rotates. That method can be used to identify extrasolar ocean-bearing Earth-like planets.  "A 'pale blue dot' is the best picture we will get of an Earth-like extrasolar world using even the most advanced telescopes planned for the next couple decades," Nicolas Cowan of the University of Washington said.  The scientists will report their research in the August issue of the Astrophysical Journal.  FULL STORY_UPI_5/29/09

NASA eyes water in Moon mission
NASA on Thursday said it was on target for a June mission to scour the Moon's surface for landing sites and water that would allow humans to work and even live on Earth's nearest neighbor.  The space agency hopes to launch a dual craft in June, part of which would survey the Moon's surface from orbit while another unit ploughs into the lunar surface in search for water.  The mission will focus on the little-known, permanently shadowed lunar poles, hoping to confirm reports of hydrogen accumulation and possible water-ice not found at the equatorial regions that where famously explored by humans in the last century.  The permanently shadowed craters, which may not have seen sunlight for one or two billion years, could hold deposits of ice at a temperature of minus 328 degrees fahrenheit (200 degrees celsius).  The discovery of ice could be a crucial resource for future manned missions to the Moon, potentially providing oxygen for astronauts and oxidizer for rocket fuel. 


Asteroid sheds light on dawning of solar system

An asteroid exploded over Sudan's Nubian Desert last year with the force of a small atom bomb and sent a California astronomer racing into the rock-strewn sandy wilderness to recover tiny fragments of a space rock.  Now those ancient rocks, fragments of the demolished asteroid, are yielding insights into the origins of our solar system, the astronomer and his team of scientists reported Wednesday.  Peter Jenniskens of the SETI Institute and the NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett Field said it was the first time scientists had observed the destruction of an asteroid and traced its meteorite fragments as they fell to Earth and onto the floor of the Nubian Desert in Sudan.  FULL STORY_SFGate_3/26/09

International Space Station glitch in urine recycler repairs

A glitch with the space urine recycler aboard the International Space Station on Sunday delayed a vital test for a system that converts astronaut urine back into drinking water. The glitch was not related to an earlier malfunction with the urine processor's distillation assembly. Discovery shuttle astronauts replaced that faulty part on Friday. The urine processor is part of a larger water recycling system designed to filter astronaut urine, sweat and condensation from the station's atmosphere back into pure water for drinking, food preparation, bathing and oxygen generation.   Full Story   Space.com_ 3/22/09

NASA to launch first mission seeking Earth-like planets
NASA is preparing to launch the Kepler space telescope Friday on the space agency's first mission to detect Earth-like planets that may harbor life in our solar system.  It will be the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's first mission in search of Earth-like planets orbiting suns similar to ours, at just the right distance and temperature for life-sustaining water to exist.  FULL STORY_ABS_CBN News_3/5/09

Obama budget has more money for space exploration
U.S. President Barack Obama's budget plan for fiscal year 2010 gives more money to NASA and spends more on space overall, officials said.  It gives the U.S. space agency $18.7 billion, a rise of $2.4 billion over 2008 when money from the economic stimulus package is included, and stresses research into climate change and space exploration.  Like his predecessor George W. Bush, Obama wants to return people to the moon and send robots further into space. He will also, as planned, retire the space shuttle in 2010, adding perhaps one extra flight between now and then if possible to help complete the International Space Station.

FULL STORY_ Reuters_2/27/09

Jupiter in space agencies' sights

Nasa and the European Space Agency have decided to forge ahead with an ambitious plan to send a probe to the Jupiter system and its icy moon Europa.
The proposal could be the agencies' next "flagship" endeavour, to follow on from the successful Cassini-Huygens mission to the Saturn system.  Major targets here would be the Galilean moons Europa and Ganymede. Scientists have long dreamed of visiting Europa with sophisticated instrumentation.  The icy moon's cracked surface is thought to hide a sub-surface ocean; and researchers want to start assessing the habitability of this strange world.  FULL STORY_BBC 2/17/09

New High-resolution Map Suggests Little Water Inside Moon - or Mars
The most detailed map of the Moon ever created has revealed never-before-seen craters at the lunar poles.  The map is also revealing secrets about the Moon's interior -- and hinting about Mars's interior as well.  The map is the first to cover the Moon from pole to pole, with detailed measures of surface topography, on the dark side of the moon as well as the near side.   In part, the new map will serve as a guide for future lunar rovers, which will scour the surface for geological resources.  FULL STORY_Science Daily 2/12/09

Black holes 'preceded galaxies'
A cosmic chicken-and-egg question may have been solved by astronomers who now say black holes came before galaxies.  Most if not all galaxies, including our own Milky Way, are believed to have massive black holes at their cores.  It was unclear whether black holes came first, helping create galaxies by pulling matter towards them, or whether they arose in already formed galaxies.  "It looks like the black holes came first," said Dr Chris Carilli, from the US National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Socorro, New Mexico.  Earlier studies of nearby galaxies had revealed an intriguing link between the masses of black holes and the central "bulges" of stars and gas in galaxies.  "We finally have been able to measure black-hole and bulge masses in several galaxies seen as they were in the first billion years after the Big Bang," said co-author Fabian Walter of the Max-Planck Institute for Radioastronomy (MPIfR) in Bonn, Germany.  "The implication is that the black holes started growing first."

FULL STORY_  BBC News_1/7/09

Holes in Earth's magnetic cloak let the sun in
The Earth's protective magnetosphere has two large holes that are letting in disruptive solar winds, scientists say.  Understanding how these holes form will help them better predict the electrical storms that cause power grid blackouts and the aurora, activity that will peak in 2012 as sunspots hit their maximum level.  FULL STORY_Reuters 12/17/08

China 'could reach Moon by 2020': NASA administrator

China is capable of sending a manned mission to the Moon within the next decade, if it so wishes, Nasa administrator Michael Griffin has said. The US space agency plans to return people to the lunar surface by 2020 using its new Orion spacecraft. Speaking to the BBC News website during a visit to London, Dr Griffin said: "Certainly it is possible that if China wants to put people on the Moon, and if it wishes to do so before the United States, it certainly can. As a matter of technical capability, it absolutely can." Chinese officials say there is no plan and no timetable for a Moon landing, and have expressed doubt that one could be made by 2020.  Full Story BBCNews_ 7/15/08

Europe could get manned spaceship

A plan for a manned spacecraft has been announced by the European firm EADS. Its Astrium division has designed a variant of its space station freighter that could also transport astronauts. Limited details were released in Bremen, Germany, on Tuesday; further information and a mock-up are expected at the Berlin Air Show this month. EADS Astrium and the German Space Agency (DLR) have put ideas forward on how this could be achieved by as early as 2017.  Full Story   BBC News_ 5/13/08

Black holes reveal more secrets
Scientists say they have unlocked some of the secrets behind black holes, the gravitational fields known for sucking up light and stars from the Universe.  In a report in the journal Nature, US researchers say they have worked out how black holes emit jet streams of particles at close to light speed.  The University of Boston team say the streams originate in the magnetic field near the edge of the black hole.  They say it is within this region that the jets are accelerated and focused.  FULL STORY_BBC 4/24/08

Russia's Soyuz capsule made 'razor edge' descent

The crew of the Soyuz space capsule that landed hundreds of miles off target in Kazakhstan last weekend was in serious danger during the descent, a Russian news agency reported Tuesday. Interfax quoted an unidentified Russian space official as saying the capsule entered Earth's atmosphere Saturday with the hatch first, instead of its heat shield leading the way. The hatch sustained significant damage and the capsule's antenna burned up, meaning the crew couldn't communicate properly with Russian Mission Control, the official said. The official said a valve that equalizes pressure in the capsule also was damaged. Interfax said another official at the launch site in Kazakhstan reported that the U.S. military tracked the Soyuz's landing 260 miles from its planned touchdown and directed searchers to the site.  Full Story  AP/Los Angeles Times_ 4/23/08 (logon required)

Robot space truck docks with ISS
Europe's sophisticated new space truck, the ATV, has docked with the International Space Station (ISS).  The unmanned vessel carries just under five tonnes of food, water, air, fuel and equipment for the orbiting platform's three astronauts.  The Automated Transfer Vehicle used its own computerised systems to make the attachment at 1445 GMT.  Ground control and the ISS crew were on alert just in case there was a problem - but it was a textbook docking. FULL STORY_BBC 4/3/08

Saturn moon shows potential for water and life: NASA
The Cassini spacecraft detected temperatures and organic materials indicating possible conditions for life on Saturn's moon Enceladus as it flew through giant plumes at the moon's south pole, NASA officials said Wednesday.  The spacecraft found a high density of water vapor and both simple and complex organic chemicals as it passed within 50 kilometers (30 miles) of Enceladus on March 12 to assess the geyser-like plumes shooting out from surface fractures, the space agency said.  "We see on Enceladus the three basic ingredients for the origin of life" -- energy, organic compounds and water, said Larry Esposito of the University of Colorado, who works on Cassini's ultraviolet imaging spectrograph.  FULL STORY_ AFP_3/26/08

Surf's down on Titan - 50 miles below the surface
Saturn’s moon Titan is encased in a thick, smoggy haze obscuring its surface, and planetary scientists speculated that most of the surface is dry.  But scientists may just not have been looking deep enough.  Writing in Friday’s issue of the journal Science, a team of researchers led by Ralph D. Lorenz of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., report that Titan does indeed have a worldwide ocean — but hidden 50 miles or more below the surface.  An under-ice ocean would not be unique in the solar system. Two of Jupiter’s moons, Europa and Callisto, and possibly a third, Ganymede, also have them. Titan’s ocean also seems unlikely to be home to any type of life.  While Titan may not have life, what interests scientists is that it seems to be a frozen version of early Earth and may give clues about the conditions and ingredients that set the stage for life to arise on Earth. 

FULL STORY_  The New York Times 3/21/08

Arthur C. Clarke, premier science fiction writer, dies at 90

Arthur C. Clarke, a writer whose seamless blend of scientific expertise and poetic imagination helped usher in the space age, died early Wednesday in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where he had lived since 1956. He was 90. Rohan de Silva, an aide to Mr. Clarke, said the author died after experiencing breathing problems, The Associated Press reported. Mr. Clarke had post-polio syndrome for the last two decades and used a wheelchair. From his detailed forecast of telecommunications satellites in 1945, more than a decade before the first orbital rocket flight, to his co-creation, with the director Stanley Kubrick, of the classic science fiction film “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Mr. Clarke was both prophet and promoter of the idea that humanity’s destiny lay beyond the confines of Earth. Paraphrasing William James, he suggested that exploring the solar system could serve as the “moral equivalent” of war, giving an outlet to energies that might otherwise lead to nuclear holocaust. Mr. Clarke’s influence on public attitudes toward space was acknowledged by American astronauts and Russian cosmonauts, by scientists like the astronomer Carl Sagan and by movie and television producers. Gene Roddenberry credited Mr. Clarke’s writings with giving him courage to pursue his “Star Trek” project in the face of indifference, even ridicule, from television executives.  Full Story  New York Times_ 3/18/08 (logon required)

Spitzer finds organics and water where new planets may grow

Researchers using NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope have discovered large amounts of simple organic gases and water vapor in a possible planet-forming region around an infant star, along with evidence that these molecules were created there. They've also found water in the same zone around two other young stars.  By pushing the telescope's capabilities to a new level, astronomers now have a better view of the earliest stages of planetary formation, which may help shed light on the origins of our own solar system and the potential for life to develop in others. FULL STORY Sciencedaily.com_3/14/08

Software "hiccup" undermines trip past Saturn moon
A software malfunction prevented a key piece of equipment on the Cassini spacecraft from recording data as it flew through the plume from a geyser shooting off a moon of Saturn, NASA said late on Thursday.  NASA called the problem "an unexplained software hiccup" that came at a very bad time, preventing Cassini's Cosmic Dust Analyzer instrument from collecting data for about two hours as it flew over the surface of the moon Enceladus on Wednesday.  A key objective of the fly-by was to determine the density, size, composition and speed of particles erupting into space from the moon's south pole in a dramatic plume.  Bob Mitchell, Cassini program manager, said the problem meant that the instrument did not collect data as the craft flew through the plume -- a process lasting under a minute. The Cassini spacecraft, studying the giant gaseous planet Saturn and its moons in a joint U.S.-European mission, flew as close as 30 miles over the surface of Enceladus (pronounced en-SELL-ah-dus) on Wednesday.  "During the fly-by, the instrument was switching between two versions of software programs. The new version was designed to increase the ability to count particle hits by several hundred hits per second," NASA said in a statement. 

FULL STORY_ Reuters_3/14/08

Russians force replacement of South Korean astronaut; woman now will be nation's first person in space

South Korea said Monday a female engineer would become the country's first person in space by going aboard a Russian spacecraft, after Moscow rejected Seoul's first choice because he violated reading rules during training. The Ministry of Education, Science and Technology said at a news conference that Yi So-yeon will replace Ko San as the country's choice to fly on a Russian Soyuz capsule to the International Space Station in early April. The Russian authorities said Ko took a book out of the Russian space training center without permission and sent it to his home in South Korea in September, Lee Sang-mok, a senior ministry official, said. Ko later returned the book, explaining he accidently sent it home together with other personal belongings, Lee added. In February, Ko again violated a regulation by getting a book from the center through a Russian colleague — material he was not supposed to read, Lee said. Officials did not give details about the book's contents, but South Korean officials portrayed both of his infractions as minor.  Full Story  AP/Fox_ 3/11/08

Teams win competition to track approaching asteroid

Scientists say it has happened in the past and will happen in the future - a large, destructive asteroid strikes the earth. Mike O'Sullivan reports, an international competition by the Planetary Society in Pasadena, California, has offered ways to help assess the risk.  Scientists say the key to protecting the earth from an asteroid strike is early monitoring of approaching bodies in space, and the Planetary Society sponsored a competition to "tag" and track an asteroid called Apophis. Discovered in 2004, it is named after a spirit of destruction in Egyptian myth.  In 2029, Apophis is expected to come within 30,000 kilometers of the earth, closer than the orbit of geostationary satellites. Depending on the asteroid's trajectory, there is a very small chance the earth's gravity could alter its course so it would strike the earth on a subsequent approach in 2036.  The Planetary Society, an educational and advocacy group, solicited proposals for a hypothetical mission to assess the risk, and received 37 proposals from 20 countries.  The winning entry, which earned a prize of $25,000, was a joint proposal from SpaceWorks Engineering of Atlanta, Georgia, and a California firm called SpaceDev. Their mission would place a small satellite in orbit around Apophis, which would follow the asteroid using a laser rangefinder and radio tracking from earth to determine its orbit. The spacecraft would carry just two instruments and a radio beacon, and the mission would be relatively cheap at under $140 million.  FULL STORY_VOA News 2/28/08

Shuttle Atlantis lands safely in Florida

The space shuttle Atlantis, after successfully delivering a major new section to the International Space Station, glided home for a safe landing at the Kennedy Space Center on Wednesday, announcing its arrival with twin sonic booms just before touchdown. Ending a challenging 13-day mission, Atlantis and a crew of seven took advantage of favorable weather to return to Florida and clear the way for a military attempt to bring down a failed spy satellite. The primary objective of the flight was adding the European Space Agency’s Columbus laboratory module to the orbiting space station. The laboratory, crammed with scientific equipment, is Europe’s main contribution to the international project. The 17 nations who are members of the agency invested about $2 billion in the project in all, including the cost of the module, its equipment and experiments, and a control center located outside Munich, Germany.  Full Story  New York Times_ 2/20/08 (logon required)

Shuttle flight back on track after astronaut's illness

Atlantis shuttle astronauts took a close look at a torn insulation blanket on their vehicle's engine pod Sunday as mission managers officially extended their flight by one day due to a crew member's illness. John Shannon, NASA's deputy shuttle program manager, said Atlantis' now 12-day mission to deliver a new European lab to the International Space Station (ISS) was extended to make up for lost time. An undisclosed medical issue among Atlantis' crew Saturday prompted a 24-hour delay for a spacewalk originally scheduled for today. European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Hans Schlegel, a German spaceflyer, was replaced by U.S. crewmate Stanley Love for the upcoming spacewalk after the medical issue arose, but is expected to rejoin the spacewalking rotation later this week as per the mission plan, said NASA's STS-122 shuttle flight director Mike Sarafin.  Full Story  Space.com_ 2/10/08

Virgin Galactic Tourist Spaceship deisn unveiled in New York

Future thrill-seekers will ride a sleek spacecraft berthed under a massive, twin-boom mothership to the fringe of space in a design unveiled Wednesday by Virgin Galactic.  The SpaceShipTwo spacecraft and its WhiteKnightTwo carrier will begin initial tests this summer to shakedown the novel spaceflight system designed by aerospace pioneer Burt Rutan and his firm Scaled Composites.  "Two thousand and eight really will be the year of the spaceship," British entrepreneur Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, said as he unveiled a 1/16th-scale model of the new spacecraft at the American Museum of Natural History. "We're truly excited about our new system and what our new system will be able to do."  Based on Rutan's SpaceShipOne, a piloted and reusable spacecraft that won the $10 million Ansari X Prize for suborbital spaceflight in 2004, SpaceShipTwo is an air-launched vehicle designed to carry six passengers and two pilots to suborbital space and back.  But unlike SpaceShipOne, which launched from beneath its single-cabin WhiteKnight carrier, the new craft will drop from a twin-cabin high-altitude jet that can double as a space-tourist training craft.  Flights will last about two hours, with 4.5 minutes of weightlessness when the 60-foot SpaceShipTwo reaches an altitude of about 68 miles.  FULL STORY_ Fox News 1/23/08

Spacecraft beams home new images of Mercury
Scientists are sifting through their first new views of the planet Mercury in more than three decades thanks to images beamed home by NASA's MESSENGER probe.  The car-sized spacecraft zipped past Mercury in a Monday flyby and is relaying more than 1,200 new images and other data back to eager scientists on Earth.  In one new image, released today, the planet's stark surface is shown peppered with small craters, each less than a mile (1.6 km) in diameter and carved into an area about 300 miles (482 km) across. MESSENGER used its narrow-angle camera to photograph the scene, which is dominated by a large, double-ringed crater dubbed Vivaldi after the Italian composer. While the crater was last seen by NASA's Mariner 10 probe, MESSENGER's camera observed it with unprecedented detail, researchers said. FULL STORY_Space.com 1/17/08

NASA probe to fly past little, sun-baked Mercury
A NASA probe next week will become the first spacecraft in 33 years to fly by Mercury, a sojourn scientists hope will unlock the secrets of the small sun-baked planet.  NASA's car-sized MESSENGER spacecraft is scheduled to zip about 124 miles above the cratered, rocky surface of the closest planet to the sun on Monday, part of a mission designed to place it into orbit around Mercury in 2011.  MESSENGER is expected to get the first spacecraft measurements of the mineral and chemical makeup of Mercury's surface, and to also retrieve key data about the planet's internal structure including its core.  The probe will also study Mercury's global magnetic field, and scientists also hope the mission will add to the understanding of the planet's gravity field.  MESSENGER's instruments will collect more than 1,200 images and make other observations during this initial fly-by. It will be the first up-close measurements since the Mariner 10 spacecraft's third and final fly-by in 1975. 

FULL STORY_Reuters 1/10/08

NASA Taps Boeing to Build Avionics for New Rocket
Boeing Space Exploration of Houston nabbed its second major role on NASA's new astronaut launcher, winning a contract potentially worth $800 million to build and outfit an avionics ring that will control the Ares I rocket in flight.  Boeing beat out Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp. for the contract award, denying the Boulder, Colo., company what would have been its first piece of NASA's planned space shuttle replacement.   The avionics ring will be mounted to the Ares I upper stage, which Boeing was selected to produce in August under a contract that could be worth as much as $1.13 billion.  The value of the initial Ares I avionics contract, which runs through 2016 and includes one ground test unit, three flight test units and six production units, is $265.5 million. Additional work not included in the initial deal could be worth $420 million, and that plus $114 million for another 12 flight units could bring the total value of the deal to $799.5 million, NASA said in a press release. 

FULL STORY_Space.com_12/13/07

NASA shuttle launch off until January

NASA on Sunday delayed the launch of space shuttle Atlantis until January after a gauge in the fuel tank failed for the second time in four days. With only a few days remaining in the launch window for the shuttle's mission to the international space station, senior managers decided to stand down until next month in hopes of better understanding the perplexing and persistent fuel gauge problem. The trouble with the fuel gauge resurfaced just before sunrise Sunday, about an hour after the launch team began filling Atlantis' big external tank for an afternoon liftoff. Shuttle managers had said they would halt the countdown and call everything off if any of the four hydrogen fuel gauges acted up. Three failed during Thursday's launch attempt; no one knows why. Launch director Doug Lyons said Sunday's failure was similar to what happened before, except only one gauge malfunctioned this time.  Full Story  AP/Washington Post_ 12/9/07 (logon required)

International station going multinational 

The International Space Station, which NASA has long touted as a model of global cooperation, is finally about to become multinational.  Space shuttle Atlantis is scheduled to blast off today on an 11-day mission to drop off the station's first European room, a laboratory called Columbus. The lab will add diversity to an orbital center that, though funded by 14 countries, has been strictly binational.  The 9-year-old station's nine rooms are owned by two countries, Russia and the United States. Thirty-seven of the 38 astronauts who have lived there are Russian or American.  For Europeans, Columbus "is the start of manned spaceflight," says Atlantis crewmember Hans Schlegel of Germany. "All of a sudden we have a module of our own, which is available to us 24 hours (a day), 365 days a year."  On Wednesday, NASA reported no glitches with Atlantis and a 90% chance of good weather for launch.  Also being delivered to the station by Atlantis: French astronaut Léopold Eyharts, who's expected to stay two months and will do the first experiments inside Columbus. He'll be the station's second European Union resident, after Thomas Reiter of Germany, who lived on the station last year.  Columbus is just the beginning. In February, a robotic European spaceship will make its debut stop at the station. In the spring, shuttles are scheduled to deliver two Japanese labs to the station.  The changes "will finally allow us to realize the full benefit of this international partnership," says Kenny Todd, the station's integration manager. "That's something we've looked forward to for a very, very long time." 

FULL STORY_ USA Today_12/6/07

New findings underscore an Earth-Venus kinship

Other than the hellish heat, a crushing carbon dioxide atmosphere and corrosive clouds of sulfuric acid, Venus is a lot like Earth, scientists said yesterday.  In a news conference at the Paris headquarters of the European Space Agency, the scientists, working on the agency’s Venus Express mission, played up the Venus-as-Earth’s-twin angle in presenting their newest findings, including signs of lightning, surprising swings of temperature and additional evidence that Venus could have once had oceans the size of Earth’s.  FULL STORY

The New York Times 11/29/07

Earth's Moon is 'cosmic rarity'; Only 5-10% of systems host moons like ours
Moons like the Earth's - which are formed in catastrophic collisions - are extremely rare in the Universe, a study by US astronomers suggests.  The Moon was created when an object as big as the planet Mars smacked into the Earth billions of years ago.  The impact hurled debris into orbit, some of which eventually consolidated to form our Moon.  The Astrophysical Journal reports that just 5-10% of planetary systems in the Universe have moons created this way.  "When a moon forms from a violent collision, dust should be blasted everywhere," said lead author Nadya Gorlova of the University of Florida in Gainesville, US.  "If there were lots of moons forming, we would have seen dust around lots of stars - but we didn't." 


South Korea eyes moon orbiter in 2020, landing 2025

South Korea plans to launch a lunar probe in 2020 and make a moon landing by 2025 under a new space project that will develop indigenous rockets to put satellites into orbit, the Science Ministry said on Tuesday. The lunar probe program will be based on a rocket South Korea is developing at a cost of 3.6 trillion won ($3.9 billion) in the next decade. South Korea is behind regional powers Japan and China in the space race.  Full Story   Reuters_ 11/20/07

Comet Holmes now bigger than the Sun

A comet that has delighted backyard astronomers in recent weeks after an unexpected eruption has now grown larger than the sun.  The sun remains by far the most massive object in the solar system, with an extended influence of particles that reaches all the planets.  But the comparatively tiny Comet Holmes has released so much gas and dust that its extended atmosphere, or coma, is larger than the diameter of the sun.  The coma's diameter on Nov. 9 was 869,900 miles (1.4 million kilometers), based on measurements by Rachel Stevenson, Jan Kleyna and Pedro Lacerda of the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy. They used observations from the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope.  The sun's diameter, stated differently by various sources and usually rounded to the nearest 100, is about 864,900 miles (1.392 million kilometers).  Holmes is still visible to the naked eye as a fuzzy star any time after dark, high in the northeastern sky. It is faintly visible from cities, and from dark country locations is truly remarkable.  "Right now, in a dark sky it appears as a very noticeable circular cloud," said Joe Rao, SPACE.com's Skywatching Columnist.  Rao advises looking for the comet this weekend, before the moon becomes more of a factor. The comet will likely diminish in brightness yet remain visible for the next two to three weeks, he said.  "Over the next few weeks and months, the coma and tail are expected to expand even more while the comet will fade as the dust disperses," Stevenson and her colleagues write.  On Monday, Nov. 19, the comet will create a unique skywatching event with its see-through coma, according to the Web site Spaceweather.com: "The comet will glide by the star Mirfak [also called Alpha Persei] and appear to swallow it — a sight not to be missed."  FULL STORY_Fox News 11/16/07

From the moon to the Earth--in HD
The Japan Space Agency's (JAXA's) Kaguya spacecraft re-created one of the most memorable photos from space--an Earth-rise from lunar orbit. But this one was taken for the first time with a high-definition camera.  JAXA's spacecraft is currently orbiting the moon and its equipment is being tested in preparation for its real mission to map the moon with high-definition images later this month. Two satellites carried by Kaguya, including one that will eventually land on the moon, have already been launched into lunar orbit to help the lunar mapping project.  NHK, the Japan Broadcasting Corporation, developed HDTV for use in space. FULL STORY_CNET News.com 11/14/07

Life from Mars theory put to test
A rock quarried on Orkney was blasted into space to find out if meteorites could carry primitive life from one planet to another.  One theory being tested is whether life could have arrived on Earth from Mars.  University of Aberdeen experts had the rock attached to an unmanned Russian craft and found life would probably only survive in a large meteorite.  Further details about the experiment will be revealed at the Highland Science Festival on 3 November. A slab quarried from Cruaday, Sandwick, was sent to Vienna to be specially sculpted into the right shape.  Transformed into the size of bowler hat, it was then attached to the side of the European Space Agency's Foton M3 mission, which launched from Kazakhstan last month.  Professor John Parnell, chair in geology and petroleum geology at Aberdeen, studied what effect the heat of re-entry from space had on the rock, along with Dr Stephen Bowden.  Orcadian rock was selected because it was organic-rich and extremely hard.  Prof Parnell said primitive life could not survive a meteorite of small size because of the heat, but believed it could survive inside the centre of a larger one measuring tens of centimetres.  However, he said any bigger and the meteorite would hit the ground so hard that it would vaporize.  FULL STORY_BBC 10/23/07

Next at space station: Mission Most Complex
During the past several space-station construction missions, the phrase "most complex" has virtually become a cliché.  Yet, in the history of human spaceflight, no single building or patching job in space has ever been as complicated as the one confronting the crews of the shuttle Discovery and the International Space Station (ISS) during the next eight days. Nor are there likely to be any challengers over the shuttle program's remaining two years.  If all goes well, in a record five space-walks, the crews will have installed an Italian-built module on the station and rendered it fit for human occupancy. They will have used the shuttle's and station's robotic arms as an orbiting bucket brigade, gingerly passing an 18.5-ton set of solar panels from its current temporary location to a permanent spot at one end of the station's backbone, or truss. The distance covered: roughly half the length of a football field. And spacewalkers will have disconnected and reconnected various exterior power and cooling lines.  FULL STORY_Christian Science Monitor 10/24/07

Orionid Meteor Shower Peaks Sunday Morning
The annual Orionid meteor shower peaks early Sunday morning and could put on a delightful display for skywatchers with clear, dark skies.  The Orionids are created by tiny bits of debris thought to be left in space by Halley's Comet as it orbits the sun. Each year, Earth passes through the debris trail, and the material lights up as it vaporizes in our atmosphere, creating "shooting stars." The meteors can appear anywhere in the sky, but will all seem to emanate from a single point, called the radiant. The radiant for the Orionids, in the constellation Orion, will be high in the southern sky in the predawn hours. FULL STORY_Space.com 10/17/07

Japan‘s lunar princess shoots for the moon
Japan's first lunar probe began to orbit the moon on Friday, getting off to a smooth start in a new space race with China, India and the United States.  Nicknamed Kaguya after a fairy-tale princess, the three-tonne explorer orbited the Earth twice before successfully entering its orbit around the moon, Japan's space agency said. Kaguya was launched in mid-September after a long delay.  The explorer will take another two weeks to move closer to the moon, after which preparations will begin for full-scale observation to start in December.  Japanese scientists say the 55 billion yen ($472.3 million) Selenological and Engineering Explorer, or SELENE, is the world's most technically complex mission to the moon since the U.S. Apollo program decades ago.  The mission consists of a main orbiter and two baby satellites equipped with 14 observation instruments designed to examine surface terrain, gravity and other features for clues on the origin and evolution of the moon.  FULL STORY_Reuters 10/5/07

September, 2007

Dawn of a new era as Nasa launches 3 billion-mile asteroid mission
Nasa, the US space agency, is planning to launch an unmanned spacecraft today to investigate two bodies in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter that scientists believe could provide vital clues about the formation of planets, including the possible presence of water and even very basic forms of life.  The spacecraft, Dawn, will take off from Cape Canaveral in Florida – weather permitting – in the hope of reaching the bodies, called Ceres and Vesta, some time in 2011. It will stay with them for a further 16 months. The mission is expected to last eight years in all, with Dawn covering a distance of three billion miles.  Scientists believe the two bodies – in their different ways – are small proto-planets whose growth was stunted because of the gravitational pull of Jupiter, the largest of the planets in our solar system.  Dawn will take photographs and measure chemical, mineral and other data. "We're going to be visiting some of the last unexplored worlds in the inner solar system," Marc Rayman, the project's chief engineer told the Associated Press. FULL STORY_ The Independent_9/27/07

NASA presents details of plans for Moon base
NASA announced new details yesterday about its plans for a Moon base that included a pair of small, pressurized rovers with a range of nearly 600 miles.  The space agency plans to return astronauts to the Moon around 2020. Agency officials first described proposals last December for a polar lunar base powered by near constant sunlight on solar panels.  Earlier proposals to carry small habitation modules to the Moon in stages might be supplanted by a proposal that would heave a single large module to the Moon on an unmanned cargo ship, Doug Cooke, the NASA official leading the lunar study group, said.  The new rover would not be much larger than the buggies the Apollo astronauts drove, but would be pressurized so that astronauts could drive in shirt sleeves and be protected from radiation — probably by a layer of water in the rover’s body, said Geoff Yoder, an official working on the lunar plans. To explore on foot, astronauts would put on spacesuits and leave the vehicle, Mr. Yoder said. The cost? “More than a Ferrari,” he joked.  FULL STORY_The New York Times 9/21/07

After four-year delay, Japan's space agency launches largest lunar probe since U.S. Apollo flights
The Selenological and Engineering Explorer — or SELENE — probe was launched aboard one of the space program's mainstay H-2A rockets from its launch-pad on remote Tanegashima island. Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency said the craft's engines and navigation systems appeared to be operating normally. The launch of the $279 million SELENE probe came four years behind the agency's original schedule. Japan launched a moon probe in 1990, but that was a flyby mission, unlike SELENE, which is intended to orbit the moon.  Full Story Arizona Star_ 9/14/07

August, 2007

UK plan to track asteroid threat
UK space scientists and engineers have designed a mission to investigate a potentially hazardous asteroid.  The 300m-wide (984ft) rock, known as Apophis, will fly past Earth in April 2029 at a distance that is closer than many communications satellites.  Astrium, based in Stevenage, Herts, wants a probe to track the asteroid so its orbit can be better understood.  The concept will compete for a $50,000 (£25,000) Planetary Society prize, but a full mission would cost millions.  The British design calls for a small, remote-sensing spacecraft, dubbed Apex, which could rendezvous with Apophis in January 2014.  It would spend three years tracking the rock, sending data back to Earth about the object's size, spin, composition and temperature.  From this information, orbit modelling would enable a more accurate prediction of the risk of any future collision.  FULL STORY_BBC 8/30/07

US astronauts 'did not fly drunk'

There is no evidence that astronauts have been drunk on flight missions, an investigation by US space agency Nasa's safety chief has found. His probe was prompted by a report that said Nasa astronauts had been cleared to fly while drunk at least twice. Nasa safety chief Bryan O'Connor said he "was unable to verify any case in which an astronaut or spaceflight crew member was impaired on launch day". Astronauts are banned from drinking alcohol in the 12 hours before flying. Mr O'Connor's report was based on interviews with some 90 astronauts, flight surgeons and other Nasa officials and covered the past 20 years. The July report, which was based on unverified interviews with astronauts and flight surgeons, cited "some episodes of heavy use of alcohol by astronauts in the immediate pre-flight period, which has led to concerns".  Full Story  BBC News_ 8/29/07

Water-soaked planet-forming region near star seen
Scientists looking at a fledgling solar system have observed for the first time how water, considered a necessary ingredient for life, begins to make its way to newly forming planets.  They peered at an embryonic star called IRAS 4B located in our Milky Way galaxy about 1,000 light years from Earth in the constellation Perseus. A light year is about 6 trillion miles , the distance light travels in a year.  NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope enabled them to find quantities of water vapor equal to five times the volume of all the oceans on Earth that had rained down onto a dusty disk around the star where planets are believed to form.  "We're witnessing the arrival of some future solar system's supply of water," astronomer Dan Watson of the University of Rochester in Rochester, New York, who led the research published in the journal Nature, said in a phone interview.  "We think that what we're seeing in this object now is quite a lot like what our solar system was like at the same age," Watson added.  Scientists eager to learn whether life exists beyond Earth believe water is one of the key ingredients needed for any life forms. FULL STORY_Reuters 8/29/07

Scientists detect change in planet Uranus' rings
Strange things are happening to the rings of Uranus, that little blue planet way out there in the solar system.  It has rings and moons and once every 42 years the planet's tilted angle lets Earthbound observers briefly catch three edge-on views of the rings instead of the usual direct view that makes them appear as if they were sunlit paintings on the flat rim of a dinner plate.  The time for the rare views is right now, and a team of astronomers from UC Berkeley and the SETI Institute in Mountain View has seen some dramatic changes - some rings are growing brighter, at least one is fading away, and another is either new-formed or unexpectedly moving outward from the planet by thousands of miles.  At the same time, a broad, diffuse cloud of microscopic dust particles seems to be pervading the entire ring system.  Astronomers at major telescopes all over the world are exploiting the opportunity to study the rings, and the Hubble space telescope has beamed back images, too. FULL STORY San Francisco Chronicle_8/23/07

Google Earth given celestial view
The constellations of Andromeda, Hydra and Vulpecula are now just a mouse click away for amateur star-gazers, following the launch of Google Sky.  The tool is an add-on to Google Earth, a program that allows users to search a 3D rendition of our planet's surface.  Sky will allow astronomers a chance to glide through images of more than one million stars and 200 million galaxies.  Optional layers allow users to explore images from the Hubble Space Telescope as well as animations of lunar cycles.  "The basic idea is to take Google Earth and turn it on its head," Ed Parsons, Geospatial technologist at Google told the BBC News website.  "So rather than using it to view imagery of the Earth, use it to view imagery of space."  Dr John Mason of the British Astronomical Association, Britain's largest body for amateur astronomers said: "Light pollution and air pollution is now so bad in many areas that all you can see when you look up is a few dozen stars.  "If this helps people to realise just what they are missing, it is a jolly good thing."   FULL STORY_BBC 8/22/07

Astronomers surprised by star with comet-like tail

A large star in its death throes is leaving a huge, turbulent tail of oxygen, carbon and nitrogen in its wake that makes it look like an immense comet hurtling through space, astronomers said on Wednesday.  Nothing like this has ever previously been witnessed in a star, according to scientists who detected it using NASA's Galaxy Evolution Explorer, an orbiting space telescope that observes the cosmos in ultraviolet light.  This tail, spanning a stunning distance of 13 light-years, was detected behind the star Mira, located 350 light-years from Earth in the "whale" constellation Cetus.  Rocketing through our Milky Way galaxy at 80 miles per second (130 km per second) -- literally faster than a speeding bullet -- the star is spewing material that scientists believe may be recycled into new stars, planets and maybe even life.  FULL STORY_ABC News 8/16/07

Shuttle Endeavour lifts off toward space station

The space shuttle Endeavour lifted off into humid skies on Wednesday evening, carrying pieces of the International Space Station and a living reminder of the loss of the shuttle Challenger two decades ago.  One of the Endeavour’s astronauts, Barbara R. Morgan, was the backup to Christa McAuliffe for the teacher-in-space program in 1986. Ms. Morgan was one of the spectators at the Kennedy Space Center when the Challenger exploded 73 seconds into flight on Jan. 28, 1986, killing Ms. McAuliffe and the other six astronauts.  The Endeavour is carrying a 4,000-pound truss segment and other pieces to be installed on the space station. Three spacewalks are planned, with the possibility of a fourth.  The mission is scheduled to last 11 days, but mission managers plan to extend it if a new system that allows the shuttle to plug into the space station’s 120-volt power system works as designed.  FULL STORY_ New York Times 8/9/07

Largest Known Planet Found, Has Density of Cork
The biggest alien planet found so far is baffling scientists with properties that defy current scientific explanation.  By all rights, TrES-4, a gas giant recently discovered about 1,400 light-years away in the constellation Hercules, shouldn't exist.  The planet's size is much larger than predicted for its mass, said Georgi Mandushev of Lowell Observatory, lead author of a new study on the exoplanet.  Though 70 percent bigger than Jupiter, TrES-4 contains only three-quarters of the red giant's mass. That means the alien planet is about as dense as balsa wood or cork, said Mandushev, who is part of a planet-hunting team known as the Trans-Atlantic Exoplanet Survey.  FULL STORY_National Geographic 8/8/07

Saturn's ring mystery is solved
Scientists have made a significant step forward in understanding the dynamics of Saturn's magnificent and mysterious system of rings.  The behaviour of one ring in particular - the G ring - has baffled experts. Its dust particles should ebb away because there are no nearby moons to hold them in place or replenish them.  But the Cassini probe has shed new light on the faint, narrow ring; showing that it interacts with a much more distant Saturnian satellite.  The work, published in Science, also unveiled the ring's odd structure. 


July, 2007

NASA astronauts 'drunk on duty'

Nasa astronauts were cleared to fly while drunk at least twice, a panel set up by the US space agency has found. The astronauts were cleared to fly even though colleagues had raised safety concerns, the independent review by the Astronaut Health Care System Review Committee found. The panel also said it found evidence of heavy use of alcohol within the 12-hour pre-flight ban on drinking. Nasa said it would launch a full-scale internal safety review and recommend unspecified corrective action if incidents were found to have occurred.  Full Story  BBC News_ 7/28/07

Saturn's small, watery secret

Icy chasms on one of Saturn's most humble moons, hidden amid its glorious rings, have overtaken the sands of Mars and the stratosphere of Venus as the most intriguing potential hiding place for alien life in our solar system. Enceladus, a shining ball of ice hugging Saturn's rings, was first caught in the act of spewing a watery geyser from its south pole two years ago by the international Cassini mission. Water, life's most crucial ingredient, was blasting 270 miles into space, actually hitting the orbiting spacecraft, from cracks on the frozen moon dubbed "tiger stripes." Astronomers and astrobiologists, who are always looking for signs of life far from Earth, were caught by surprise — and they remain so, unable to explain how such a small celestial body (only 318 miles wide at its equator ) can pump out so much water. And as for the big question — Does life exist there? — the answer is the same: Who knows? The most recent Cassini flyby of Enceladus, a distant one at 55,000 miles, was on June 28. Each such visit has heightened the interest of planetary scientists, who have erupted with their own flurry of theories, including two reports published in the journal Nature in May.  Full Story USA Today_ 7/22/07

Saturn's 'walnut moon' mystery solved

The mystery of Saturn's icy moon Iapetus—which is shaped like a walnut when it should be more like a sphere—has finally been figured out, scientists say.  The answer: The satellite's crust froze solid when Iapetus was young, forming a rigid shell that forced the moon to retain its youthful shape.  Today, Iapetus is 20 miles (33 kilometers) wider at the equator than the poles.  Normally, that kind of distortion happens only if a moon is spinning rapidly, like a figure skater in a tight spin. But an Iapetus day is nearly 80 Earth days long, though it was once much shorter.  In a paper published in the online version of the journal Icarus, a team led by Julie Castillo of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory has finally found an explanation for the moon's odd shape.  Short-lived radioactive elements, such as aluminum-26 and iron-60, could have provided enough heat to keep the moon's interior warm and squishy during its infancy.  This would have allowed the exterior to freeze solid, forcing the moon to keep its early shape even as its spin reduced and gravity tried to pull it into a sphere.  "Iapetus spun fast, froze young, and left behind a body with lasting curves," Castillo said in a statement.  FULL STORY_National Geographic 7/18/07

AKARI presents detailed all-sky map in infrared light
One year after the beginning of its scientific operations, the high-capability infrared satellite AKARI continues to produce stunning views of the infrared Universe.  Launched in February 2006, AKARI is making a comprehensive, multi-wavelength study of the sky in infrared light, helping to gain a deeper understanding of the formation and evolution of galaxies, stars and planetary systems. The mission is a Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) project with ESA and international participation.  In the course of last year, AKARI performed all-sky observations in six wavelength bands. More than 90 percent of the entire sky has so far been imaged. The mission provides the first census of the infrared sky since the atlas made by its only infrared surveyor predecessor, the Anglo-Dutch-US IRAS satellite more than 20 years ago. AKARI has studied about 3500 selected targets during pointed observations, with improved spatial resolution.  The latest results presented by JAXA today show the infrared sky with unprecedented spatial resolution and wavelength coverage and, in particular, many regions of active star formation.  FULL STORY_ ESA 7/12/07

Scientists find signs of water beyond solar system
Astronomers said on Wednesday they had discovered the best evidence yet of water outside our own solar system -- in the atmosphere of a giant planet 60 light years from Earth.  Writing in the scientific journal Nature, researchers said the planet itself, HD 189733b, was unlikely to harbor life but evidence supported the search for life in other solar systems.  "We're thrilled to have identified clear signs of water on a planet that is trillions of miles away," Giovanna Tinetti, a European Space Agency fellow at the Institute d'Astrophysique de Paris in France who led the study, was quoted as saying in an accompanying news release.  "Although HD 189733b is far from being habitable, and actually provides a rather hostile environment, our discovery shows that water might be more common out there than previously thought, and our method can be used in the future to study more 'life-friendly' environments," Tinetti said. FULL STORY_ Reuters 7/11/07

June, 2007

Team makes Tunguska crater claim
Scientists have identified a possible crater left by the biggest space impact in modern times - the Tunguska event.  The blast levelled more than 2,000 sq km of forest near the Tunguska River in Siberia on 30 June 1908.  A comet or asteroid is thought to have exploded in the Earth's atmosphere with a force equal to 1,000 Hiroshima bombs. Now, a University of Bologna team says a lake near the epicentre of the blast may be occupying a crater hollowed out  by a chunk of rock that hit the ground.  Lake Cheko - though shallow - fits the proportions of a small, bowl-shaped impact crater, say the Italy-based scientists.  Their investigation of the lake bottom's geology reveals a funnel-like shape not seen in neighbouring lakes.  In addition, a geophysics survey of the lake bed has turned up an unusual feature about 10m down which could either be compacted lake sediments or a buried fragment of space rock.  Other features suggest a recent origin for the lake.


Cosmonauts test crucial space station repairs

Russian cosmonauts on Saturday began turning back on some crucial systems that had been shut down more than four days ago when a computer system on the Russian side of the international space station crashed. A day earlier, Fyodor Yurchikhin and Oleg Kotov were able to get four of six processors on two computers working again by using a cable to bypass a circuit board. It took four days to restore the capability of the computers on the half-built, $100 billion outpost. The 11-day space station construction mission already had been extended by two days so a rip in the shuttle's thermal material could be fixed. The computer problem renewed criticism of the space station, which has been called an ill-conceived venture, as well as criticism of President Bush's "Vision for Space Exploration," which calls for finishing the space station in three years, grounding the space shuttles in 2010 and building next-generation vehicles to go to the moon and Mars.  Full Story  AP/CNN_ 6/16/07

Problems with Space Station's computers persist

Russian engineers working with crashing computers aboard the International Space Station were not able to bring them back into full working order overnight, a NASA mission manager said Friday.  Holly Ridings, the space station flight director, said that during an overnight attempt by the engineers to bring the balky computers up, they were able to power up the computers and get what she called a "heartbeat" from one to allow communications. However, the engineers "were unable to communicate with it properly," she said in an interview on NASA TV, and "they decided they would turn the power back off again" to the computers.  NASA officials said yesterday that they fully expected engineers to resolve the unprecedented failure of computers on the International Space Station, though they cautioned that the process could take days.  The Russian computers -- which were actually built in Germany by Daimler-Benz -- began crashing on Tuesday as astronauts were connecting a new truss and solar arrays to the station.  If the computer problem is not corrected, the station could be unable to maintain the best position for charging its solar arrays, and in the worst case, NASA and the Russian space agency would have to evacuate the station.  The leading theory of what went wrong, Mr. Suffredini said, was “noise” in the electrical system that may have been introduced with the newly installed wiring. The Russian computers, which were made in Germany, are sensitive to line noise. Engineers will try to isolate those computers from the new wiring, he said.  FULL STORY_ New York Times 6/15/07

EU transportation ministers approve billions for ailing Galileo satellite navigation system
Ministers on Friday gave the green-light to plans by the European Commission after the collapse of talks last month to undertake the ambitious project in partnership with private industry. All 27 ministers approved the plan, which will require an initial outlay of 2.4 billion euros ($3.2 billion) of public money towards the project's total cost of about 4 billion euros. This would come on top of the 1.3 billion euros national governments have already committed to Galileo, seen as Europe's answer to the US-operated global positioning system GPS. Amid internal bickering, the eight companies from five countries involved in Galileo had missed a May 10 deadline to decide how to share work on the project. The system is to be used for civilian purposes only, monitoring natural disasters, air and sea rescue services and for a range of commercial uses. China, Israel, the US, Ukraine, India, Morocco and South Korea have also agreed to invest in Galileo.  Full Story  Deutsche Welle/DPA_ 6/9/07

U.S. space shuttle Atlantis blasts off on construction mission

The trip to the International Space Station ends a three-month grounding to repair the ship's hail-battered fuel tank. The launch bolstered NASA's hopes of finishing work on the slightly more than half-built $100 billion orbital research outpost before the aging shuttles are retired in three years.  Full Story  Reuters_ 6/9/07

Two Russian Cosmonauts Complete Spacewalk
Two Russian cosmonauts have returned to the International Space Station after successfully completing their second space walk in eight days.  During the five-and-a-half-hour long mission on Wednesday, Fyodor Yurchikhin and Oleg Kotov attached a new protective shield outside the station.  The 12 newly installed panels will provide better protection against meteorite showers and other space debris.  Yurchikhin and Kotov also strung Ethernet cable along the space station's Russian module.   The connection is to improve communication among various segments of the station.  They also placed a container of biological organisms, including mosquito larvae, outside the station for a scientific experiment.  The space station crew is now gearing up for the arrival of the shuttle Atlantis, which is slated for launch on Friday. FULL STORY_Voice of America 6/7/07

May, 2007

Astronomers detect shadow of water world in front of nearby star

A team of European astronomers led by Michaël Gillon, a researcher from Liege University, has measured the transit of a Neptune-sized planet around another star. For the first time, the size and density of such a small extra-solar planet has been measured, showing that this planet is made up mainly of water.  The star GJ 436, a diminutive star (red dwarf) 30 light-years from the Sun, was known since 2004 to harbour a 22-Earth mass planet, orbiting 4 million kilometers from the star (0.03 Astronomical Units). Observations from the OFXB observatory in St-Luc, Switzerland, showed a periodic dimming of the star due to the passage of the planet in front of it. This event, called a transit, was subsequently confirmed with telescopes at the Wise Observatory in Israel, then precisely measured with the Euler telescope of Geneva University Observatory in Chile.  These measurements show that the planet has a diameter of about 50,000 km, four times that of the Earth. From the size and mass of the planet, the astronomers could infer that it is mainly composed of water. If the planet contained mostly hydrogen and helium – like Jupiter or Saturn – it would be much larger, and if it was made up of rock and iron like Earth, Mars and Venus, it would be much smaller. Michaël Gillon says: "This discovery is an important step towards the detection and study of Earth-like planets."  FULL STORY_Science Daily_5/16/07

Astronomers reveal extreme climates of two distant planets
And now those weird and wonderful planets flying in orbit around distant stars are turning out to be hotter than the hinges of hell, with roaring winds on one of them blowing far faster than any tornado on Earth.  Astronomers focusing the eyes of NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope on two of the far-off "extrasolar" planets that may yet turn out to be major objects in unknown solar systems have measured their temperatures and -- in a sense -- mapped the weather on their gassy surfaces.  Like all the more than 200 giant planets discovered in the past 15 years, these two are far more massive than our own Jupiter, and their orbits carry them extremely close to the stars that gave birth to them billions of years ago.  FULL STORY_SF GATE 5/10/07

Biggest stellar explosion detected
In a cascade of superlatives that belies the traditional cerebral reserve of their profession, astronomers reported Monday that they had seen the brightest and most powerful stellar explosion ever recorded.  The cataclysm - a monster more than a hundred times as energetic as the typical supernova in which normal massive stars end their lives - may be an example, they said, of a completely new type of explosion.  Such a blast, proposed but never seen, would explain how the earliest and most massive stars in the universe ended their lives and strewed new elements across space to fertilize future stars and planets.  "It is quite possibly the most massive star that has ever been seen to explode," said Nathan Smith of the University of California, Berkeley, who estimated the star as "freakishly massive," about 150 times the mass of the sun.  Smith led a team of astronomers from Berkeley and the University of Texas who have submitted a paper about the supernova to The Astrophysical Journal and discussed the results at a news conference from the NASA headquarters in Washington.  The star bears an eerie resemblance to Eta Carinae, a star in our own galaxy that has been burbling and bubbling in the last few centuries as if getting ready for its own outburst. The observations suggest that the troubled and enigmatic Eta Carinae, thought to weigh in at about 120 solar masses, could blow up sooner than theorists have thought. Mario Livio, a theorist at the Space Telescope Science Institute, in Baltimore, who was not involved in the research, said Eta Carinae's death could be "the most spectacular star show in history." FULL STORY_ International Herald Tribune 5/8/07

April, 2007

NASA 'rejects Russia Moon help'

The head of Russia's space agency says that the US has rejected a Moscow proposal that the two countries join forces to explore the Moon. "We were ready to co-operate, but for unknown reasons, the United States have said they will undertake this programme themselves," Anatoly Perminov said. US space agency Nasa has said it plans to start work on a base on the Moon when astronauts return there in 2020. Nasa has not commented on Mr Perminov's statement, reported by Interfax news. Nasa and Russia's federal space agency Roskosmos have experience of working together on the International Space Station (ISS).

Nasa plans to build a permanently-occupied Moon base, likely on one of the Moon's poles. It will serve as a science centre and possible stepping stone for manned missions to Mars.  Full Story  BBC News_ 4/30/07

Ashes of Star Trek's Scotty fly into suborbital space in first successful launch from Spaceport America

The commercial spaceport is being developed in the southern New Mexico desert. A small amount of the cremated remains of actor James Doohan, who portrayed engineer "Scotty" on "Star Trek," and of Mercury astronaut Gordon Cooper soared into suborbital space Saturday aboard a rocket. Since it was a suborbital flight, the rocket soon parachuted back to Earth, coming down at the White Sands Missile Range. The commercial launch company was UP Aerospace Inc. of Farmington, Conn. Altogether, about 200 families paid $495 apiece to place a few grams of their relatives' ashes on the rocket. The launch from the fledgling spaceport - currently a 100-foot by 25-foot concrete slab in a patch of desert more than 50 miles north of Las Cruces - keeps the New Mexico project ahead of its nearest competitor, in West Texas. Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com, is said to be developing the spaceport north of Van Horn, Texas. Bezos' Blue Origin is working to develop tourist space flights. British billionaire Richard Branson also has announced plans to launch a space tourism company, which is expected to have its headquarters at the New Mexico spaceport.  Full Story AP/Times Record-Herald_ 4/30/07

Physicist Hawking tries out zero-gravity
British physicist Stephen Hawking took a flight that gave the renowned scientist, who is confined to a wheelchair, a taste of the weightlessness of space.  Hawking, 65, and an entourage of caretakers and other thrill-seekers took off from the space shuttle's runway at the Kennedy Space Center in a specially modified jet that dives through the sky to give passengers an experience of zero gravity.  They returned to the space center in Florida about two hours later.  Hawking acknowledged before the flight that experiencing weightlessness, even for a few seconds, would be sweet relief from the bondage of a daily life immobilized by a debilitating and irreversible neuromuscular disorder.  "I have been wheelchair-bound for almost four decades and the chance to float free in zero G will be wonderful," Hawking told a pre-flight news conference. FULL STORY_The Age 4/27/07

First 'habitable' alternative to Earth found

European astronomers yesterday reported the discovery of a habitable planet located nearby in the constellation Libra.  The so-called "super-Earth" is the smallest of the 229 planets found beyond our solar system.  Moreover, it orbits within the "Goldilocks Zone" where temperatures are "just right" for water - and thus life - to exist.  "The holy grail of planet searches is to find a nearby habitable Earth-like planet," said Charley Lineweaver, an astrophysicist with the Australian National University's Mt Stromlo Observatory in Canberra.  "This new discovery is a large step towards the goal."  At a mere 20.5 light years from Earth, the planet orbits one of the 100 closest stars to the Sun. A light year is 9.5 billion kilometres.  It is five times the mass of Earth and part of a solar system around a dim red-dwarf star named Gliese 581 in the constellation Libra. Designated GL581c, it completes a full orbit in just 13 days.  According to discovery team member Xavier Delfosse of Grenoble University in France, the planet is a likely target for future space missions dedicated to the search for extraterrestrial life.  FULL STORY_ The Australian 4/26/07

Stellar danger zones, planets not welcome

Astronomers have determined how far away from its hot stellar neighbors a star must be if a swirling disk of dust around it is to stand a chance of forming planets.  Using NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, scientists created the first maps of so-called planetary “danger-zones,” areas where winds and radiation from super-hot stars can strip younger, cooler stars like our sun of their planet-forming materials.  The findings suggest that so long as cool stars lie beyond about 1.6 light years, or nearly 10 trillion miles, of any hot stars, they can form planets.  “Stars move around all the time, so if one wanders into the danger zone and stays for too long, it will probably never be able to form planets,” said study leader Zoltan Balog of the University of Arizona. The study, to be detailed in the May 20 issue of Astrophysical Journal, will help astronomers pinpoint the types of cosmic environments conducive for planet formation.  FULL STORY_ MSNBC 4/18/07

Report: NASA watchdog too cozy with boss

NASA's top watchdog routinely tipped off department officials to internal investigations and quashed a report related to the Columbia shuttle explosion to avoid embarrassing the agency, investigators say.  A report by the Integrity Committee, a government board that investigates inspectors general, found that Robert Cobb "created an appearance of a lack of independence," and it questioned whether NASA would do enough to reprimand him.  NASA administrator Michael Griffin has proposed sending Cobb to leadership training and requiring that he meet regularly with department officials on how to improve, but that is not enough, said Integrity Committee Chairman James Burrus.  "All members of the committee believe that disciplinary action, up to and including removal, could be appropriate," he said in a previously unreleased report that also accused Cobb of abusing authority to create an "abusive work environment."  In responses to the Integrity Committee, Griffin defended Cobb in noting that he was being faulted for the mere appearance of a conflict of interest. Cobb has acknowledged he cultivated relationships in the department to build trust but said he never stepped over the line. FULL STORY_ Seatle Post Intelligencer 4/5/07

March, 2007

Cassini Images Bizarre Hexagon on Saturn
An odd, six-sided, honeycomb-shaped feature circling the entire north pole of Saturn has captured the interest of scientists with NASA's Cassini mission.  NASA's Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft imaged the feature over two decades ago. The fact that it has appeared in Cassini images indicates that it is a long-lived feature. A second hexagon, significantly darker than the brighter historical feature, is also visible in the Cassini pictures. The spacecraft's visual and infrared mapping spectrometer is the first instrument to capture the entire hexagon feature in one image.  "This is a very strange feature, lying in a precise geometric fashion with six nearly equally straight sides," said Kevin Baines, atmospheric expert and member of Cassini's visual and infrared mapping spectrometer team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. "We've never seen anything like this on any other planet. Indeed, Saturn's thick atmosphere where circularly-shaped waves and convective cells dominate is perhaps the last place you'd expect to see such a six-sided geometric figure, yet there it is." 

FULL STORY_  Playfuls3/28/07

Cosmic bullets pierce space cloud
Astronomers just got their most detailed look yet at supersonic “bullets” of gas piercing through dense clouds of hydrogen gas in the Orion Nebula.  Each bullet is about ten times the size of Pluto’s orbit around the sun and travels through the clouds at up to 250 miles (400 kilometers) per second — or about a thousand times faster than the speed of sound.  The bulk of both the bullets and the surrounding gas cloud consists of molecular hydrogen. The tip of each bullet is packed with iron atoms that are heated by friction and glow bright blue in the new image, taken by the Gemini Observatory in Hawaii. FULL STORY_

MSNBC.com 3/22/07

Twisted solution to sun's mystery heat

Like cosmic rubber bands, twisted magnetic structures along the sun’s surface can release massive amounts of energy when relaxed. The discharge could be the “hidden” source that heats up the atmosphere of the sun.  The findings, presented today at a NASA Space Science Update in Washington D.C., come from images taken by the X-ray telescope aboard the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s satellite, Hinode. Formerly known as Solar-B, Hinode (Japanese for “sunrise”) was launched on Sept. 22, 2006 on a three-year mission to study the Sun.  While the sun’s surface is a steamy 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit (5,538 degrees Celsius), gas floating above in the so-called corona soars to more than 100 times hotter. Astronomers have long puzzled over the source of the corona’s heat.

FULL STORY_Space.com 3/21/07

SpaceX launches new rocket from Pacific atoll

A new commercial rocket developed by millionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk was launched from a Pacific atoll and reached space, but probably re-entered the atmosphere after half an orbit because of a problem during the second-stage burn, Musk said.  He nonetheless called it ``a pretty good test'' during a post-flight teleconference.  ``We successfully reached space and really retired almost all the risk associated with the rocket, so I feel very good about where things are,'' said Musk, who stressed that it was a test flight and there was no satellite aboard.  Space Exploration Technologies' Falcon 1, which launched Tuesday, is planned to be the first in a family of competitively priced launch vehicles from the California-based company, which is trying to break into the orbital space launch market.  FULL STORY_ The Hindu 3/21/07

Football-shaped rock nearly as large as Pluto
Shiny, gray space boulders floating in the outskirts of the solar system are the remnants of an ancient fiery collision involving two massive objects, the larger of which was nearly the size of Pluto, scientists say.  This rocky goliath could one day cross the orbit of Neptune and become one of the biggest comets ever known.  The findings, detailed in the March 15 issue of the journal Nature, mark the first "collisional family" detected in the Kuiper Belt and provide new insights about the solar system’s murky history. FULL STORY_3/14/07

US spacecraft finds signs of seas on Saturn's biggest moon
The Cassini spacecraft, which arrived to orbit Jupiter in 2004, has spotted several dark, sea-like features near Titan's north pole.

In January, the orbiter's radar had viewed features the size of lakes on Saturn's moon, but Cassini scientist Stephen Wall of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California says the shapes just discovered are much larger.  "We have seen bodies of liquid that are big enough to be seas," he said. "One of them in particular is the size of a small sea on the Earth."  Titan is the solar system's second largest moon, 50 percent larger than Earth's moon. The body Wall mentions stretches nearly 1,100 kilometers to about half way down Titan's northern hemisphere. This makes it only slightly smaller than the Caspian Sea.  There is no definite proof that this and the other apparent seas contain liquid, and additional fly-overs will be necessary for confirmation. But Wall says their dark appearance in radar indicates smoothness, and other properties point to the presence of liquids.  "We have now seen all of those things that you would typically associate with a body of water on the Earth - inlets and bays and channels and evidence of flow, drainage basins - all of those things," he said. "We know that it cannot be water on Titan because it is too cold, so we suspect that it is methane, which is right at the point where it can condense and evaporate."  Because methane is a major part of Titan's mostly nitrogen atmosphere, scientists have long believed that the moon has oceans filled with it . Titan is the only other body in the solar system known to have an active liquid cycle where the liquid evaporates from the surface and eventually recondenses as rainfall. FULL STORY_ Voice of America 3/14/07

Scientists show that asteroids are solar powered
Sunlight can cause asteroids to spin more quickly, scientists said on Wednesday, showing anew just how dynamic a place our solar system can be.  International teams of scientists studying two asteroids, one about a mile wide and the other about 375 feet wide, confirmed a previously unproven theory that sunlight can affect the rotation of asteroids because they tend to be irregularly shaped and not perfectly round.  Stephen Lowry of Queen's University Belfast in Northern Ireland said the findings boost the understanding of the physical properties and dynamics of asteroids -- hunks of metal and rock rattling around in space.  "This is important as asteroids are leftovers from the formation of the solar system, along with comets, and so by studying them we gain insights into what the solar system was like some 4.5 billion years ago," Lowry said.  In research appearing in the journals Nature and Science, the scientists focused on the so-called YORP effect, named for four scientists who inspired the theory.  The idea is the Sun's heat serves as a propulsion engine on the irregular features of an asteroid's surface. "YORP can accelerate or decelerate the rotation rate," Mikko Kaasalainen of the University of Helsinki in Finland said by e-mail.  When sunlight hits the asteroid, the solar energy is absorbed and then radiated back into space. When the asteroid is not spherical, this can create a push off parts of its surface that alters its spin.  

FULL STORY_Reuters 3/7/07

Spacecraft return Sun panoramas
Twin Nasa spacecraft have returned panoramic images that will help scientists to study solar explosions capable of causing havoc on Earth.  The Stereo orbiters, which are nearing their final positions, will study violent solar eruptions known as Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs).  CMEs hurl energetic particles at Earth that can disrupt power grids and satellite communications.  Stereo will give scientists information they need to forecast "space weather".  The new panoramic views, which stretch from the Sun to the Earth, are created by combining images from a suite of telescopes onboard the two spacecraft. Their data will allow scientists to track "solar fronts".  "The new view from the Stereo spacecraft will greatly improve our ability to forecast the arrival time of severe space weather," said Dr Russell Howard, principal investigator of Stereo's Sun-Earth Connection Coronal and Heliospheric Investigation (Secchi).  FULL STORY_BBC 3/2/07

February, 2007

US spacecraft takes new look at Jupiter on way to Pluto
More than 13 months after its launch, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft has made its closest pass to Jupiter on its 10-year voyage to Pluto. The head of NASA's science directorate and chief investigator for the mission, Alan Stern, says the flyby has been eagerly awaited.  "Between the demise of Galileo with the end of its very successful mission in 2003 and the arrival of the Juno Jupiter orbiter that we are all looking forward to in 2016, this is the only train going this way," said Alan Stern.  New Horizons has been taking pictures of Jupiter since January and will continue to dispatch them through June, but the close pass more than two million kilometers away is giving astronomers another detailed look at the gas giant, its rings, and its four biggest moons. FULL STORY_ Voice of America 2/28/07

Orbital finale: ISS spacewalkers free stuck cargo ship antenna
Two astronauts successfully freed a stuck cargo ship antenna and broke records outside the International Space Station (ISS) Thursday despite a late start and spacesuit glitches during the last planned spacewalk of their six-month spaceflight. ISS Expedition 14 commander Michael Lopez-Alegria and flight engineer Mikhail Tyurin spent more than six hours outside the station in the spacwalk, which was highlighted by a their spacecraft amputation work to cut loose a Progress 23 supply ship antenna.  Thursday’s spacewalk began at 5:27 a.m. EST (1027 GMT), nearly a half-hour later than planned, and marked the fifth excursion for the Expedition 14 astronauts -- the most ever for an ISS mission and the finale in a dense series of excurisions for the station crew.  Lopez-Alegria made his 10th career spacewalk during the activity, a new NASA record, while Tyurin completed his fifth career spacewalk. 

FULL STORY_Space.com 2/22/07

Distant planets: warm, weird, waterless
The first "sniffs of air" of two huge far-away planets reveal that they seem to be missing water, a surprising finding amid weather unlike any planets in our solar system with blast furnace-like gusts amid supersonic winds. The absence of water from the atmosphere of both these Jupiter-sized gaseous bodies upsets one of the most basic assumptions of astronomy.  One of the researchers, Harvard University astronomy professor David Charbonneau, called the planets "very different beasts ... unlike any other planets in the solar system."  So far, scientists have found 213 planets outside our solar system — they are called exoplanets. But only eight or nine are in the right orbit and location for the type of study reported by three teams using NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope.  The closest of the two planets studied, HD 189733b, is 360 trillion miles from Earth in the constellation Vulpecula. The other planet, HD 209458b, is about 900 trillion miles away in the constellation Pegasus and it has a strange cloud of fine silicate particles. Two different research teams studied it.  The two suns the planets orbit closely have hydrogen and oxygen, the stable building blocks of water. The planets' atmospheres — examined for the first time using light spectra to determine the air's chemical composition — are supposed to be made up of the same thing, good old H2O.  "We had expected this tremendous signature of water ... and it wasn't there," said Carl Grillmair of the California Institute of Technology and Spitzer Science Center. He and Charbonneau studied the closer of the two planets, and their work is being published online in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.  Scientists say it's possible the water is hiding beneath dust clouds or that all the airborne water molecules are the same temperature, making it impossible to see using an infrared spectrograph. Or maybe it's just not there and astronomers have to go back to the drawing board when it comes to these alien planets.  "The very fact that we've been surprised here is a wake-up call. We obviously need to do some more work," Grillmair said.  FULL STORY_Houston Chronicle 2/21/07

Big northern lights: What's the trigger?

From the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to the Poker Flat Research Range near Fairbanks, Alaska, scientists this week are working to unravel the mystery behind bursts of energetic particles that can turn a so-so display of northern lights into a breathtaking show.  These particles come from the sun and build up within Earth's magnetic field. Then, something snaps and they hurtle toward Earth's poles. The mystery: What triggers the sudden release?  As the particles – electrons – speed toward their shimmering finale, they can wreak havoc on satellites, disrupt radio communications, and trigger blackouts. At high latitudes, these "substorms" can speed corrosion in oil pipelines and befuddle sensors that monitor a pipeline's oil flow and corrosion rates.  For scientists, the long-term goal is to improve forecasts of these geomagnetic substorms to help operators do a better job of reducing the wear and tear on such key communications and energy links.  Friday evening, NASA is set to launch a cluster of five satellites from the Kennedy Space Center that aims to search space near Earth for the triggers of these substorms. The project, dubbed THEMIS, builds on more than a decade of previous space-physics missions. These have helped scientists zero in on substorms as a crucial piece of the space-weather puzzle. Now, the orbiting quintuplets are expected to settle a debate over which of two mechanisms inside Earth's magnetosphere acts as a substorm trigger. FULL STORY_ Christian Science Monitor_2/14/07

New record for U.S. spacewalker

Astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria broke the U.S. record of most time walking in space Thursday as he and another astronaut did maintenance work outside the international space station during their third spacewalk in nine days.  Lopez-Alegria surpassed the previous U.S. record of 58 hours and 32 minutes midway through his chores with fellow American Sunita Williams. He has a ways to go to claim the all-time record, though -- Russian Anatoly Solovyov has logged more than 82 hours.  The 6 1/2-hour spacewalk ended at 3:06 p.m. ET.  Lopez-Alegria and Williams finished a primary mission of the their spacewalk: tossing quilt-sized thermal sheets from the international space station.  The two large thermal covers were folded up with smaller shrouds that had been covering an electronics box and were used to prevent parts of the space station from getting too hot or cold. Engineers believe they will burn up upon entering Earth's atmosphere.  FULL STORY_CNN 2/8/07

NASA lends support to Canadian space craft
NASA is acknowledging that a Canadian-designed spacecraft is a “potentially viable idea” to carry passengers and cargo from a Cape Breton launch pad to its international space station.  The space agency issued a release Thursday saying it has signed an agreement with PlanetSpace Inc. to share some technical information as the firm attempts to develop a rocketship in the next three years.  The agreement provides no cash to PlanetSpace, unlike an arrangement with two U.S.-based companies that have access to $500-million (U.S.) in funding.  However, the news release states the space agency “will share information that will help the companies understand projected requirements for space station crew and cargo transportation vehicles.”  NASA names one other company, Transformation Space Corp. of Reston, Va., as a signatory to a similar business arrangement.  The agency is “proud to reach agreements with two more private companies dedicating their own resources toward establishment of a robust commercial launch industry,” said Scott Horowitz, NASA associate administrator for exploration systems, in the release.  Beth Dickey, a spokeswoman for NASA, said in an interview the agreement is not a contract and NASA isn't obliged to use the PlanetSpace spacecraft, Silver Dart, to provide deliveries of people and cargo to its space station.  However, she added “what these agreements represent is NASA's acknowledgment that these two companies have what project managers consider to be worthwhile or potentially viable ideas for commercial crew and cargo transport.” FULL STORY_Globe and Mail 2/1/07

January, 2007

Dwarf planet 'becoming a comet'

Wait two million years
An unusual dwarf planet discovered in the outer Solar System could be en route to becoming the brightest comet ever known.  2003 EL61 is a large, dense, rugby-ball-shaped hunk of rock with a fast rotation rate.  Professor Mike Brown has calculated that the object could be due a close encounter with the planet Neptune.  If so, Neptune's gravity could catapult it into the inner Solar System as a short-period comet.  "If you came back in two million years, EL61 could well be a comet," said Professor Brown, from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena.  "When it becomes a comet, it will be the brightest we will ever see."  FULL STORY_ BBC 1/17/07

Bright new comet excites stargazers

Martin Gutoski drove to a lookout about five miles north of Fairbanks on Tuesday evening, when skies were especially cold and clear _ good comet-viewing weather, even if it was frigid.  The amateur astronomer waited for sunset and watched as the sky turned salmon red and darkened. He turned his attention toward the spot on the horizon where the sun set.  "It is a very large spike, almost a vertical spike at sunset. ... I was more than impressed with it," he said.  Comet McNaught, discovered last year by Australian astronomer R.H. McNaught, is expected to remain visible throughout the Northern Hemisphere through Friday, when it will come to within 16 million miles of the sun and be obscured by the sun's glare. After that, it will eventually emerge for people in the Southern Hemisphere to enjoy.  NASA astronomer Tony Phillips says Comet McNaught is the brightest comet visible from Earth in 30 years. It is six times brighter than Hale-Bopp in 1997, and 100 times brighter than Halley's Comet when it appeared in 1986, Phillips told The Associated Press on Thursday.  "It will remain a spectacular comet for weeks, perhaps months, in the Southern Hemisphere," Phillips said. "It could emerge as the brightest comet in recorded history."  FULL STORY_Washington Post_1/11/07

Supernova Destroys "Pillars of Creation"

In a thousand years, astronomers predict, people on Earth will see the iconic "Pillars of Creation" get toppled by a supernova, the explosive death of a giant star.  The pillars are dense clouds of gas in the Eagle Nebula, a star nursery in the constellation Serpens, near Sagittarius. They were made famous by a dramatic 1995 Hubble Space Telescope image.  The tricky part is that the forecast is based on evidence that the pillars were demolished by the supernova's shockwave about 6,000 years ago.  "[They] have been destroyed. I use the past tense because the nebula is 7,000 light-years away," said Nicholas Flagey, a French doctoral student working for NASA.  In other words, light from the nebula has taken 7,000 years to reach Earth, and everything we see is that much out of date.  This recent infrared image of the Eagle Nebula shows a bubble of hot, rapidly expanding material directly behind the pillars, Flagey reported on January 8 at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Seattle, Washington.  In the image, taken by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, a red mass of hot dust warmed by the supernova can be seen behind the ghostly green of the nebula. The pillars are directly in the shockwave's path.  "The pillars are not dense enough to resist" the blast, Flagey said.  FULL STORY_National Geographic 1/10/07

Britain tipped for moon adventure
Britain should launch its first ever missions to the moon with no foreign help by 2010, a top space company has proposed.  A study conducted for the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council outlines bold proposals for Government and industry funding for two all-British un-manned moon missions - the first time such ventures will ever have been undertaken.  The first mission, named Moonlight, could be launched by 2010 and would see four suitcase-sized darts fired on to the moon's surface from an orbiting probe, the report says. The darts, shot into craters and penetrating to a depth of two metres, would send back information about possible "moonquakes" and the composition of the moon's core.  If successful, the mission would be followed by another called Moonraker. This would land a spacecraft on the lunar surface and search for suitable sites for future manned bases. 

FULL STORY_ Times Online 1/10/07

India raises the ante on its space program

India launched its first recoverable satellite Wednesday, throwing its hat into the new space race of the East. Wednesday morning, India launched a satellite that makes clear its intentions to join what is emerging as a second space race.  After at least 12 days in orbit, it will attempt something that no Indian satellite has ever before attempted: to return to Earth, splashing down in the Bay of Bengal. If successful, India would join an exclusive group - only the United States, Russia, China, and the European Union have mastered the technology necessary to recover a capsule and its cargo safely.  As India considers setting up its own manned space program, this mission represents an indispensable first step. Yet it is also part of Asia's increasing spaceward gaze, as economic maturity and a desire for international prestige - as well as China's entry into the space sweepstakes - prompt countries into action.  FULL STORY_Christian Science Monitor 1/10/07

A step closer to the solar system
Jeff Bezos, the billionaire founder of amazon.com, unveiled the prototype of his much-anticipated spaceship yesterday — although with a range of 85 metres it could be some time before the project launches properly.  Mr Bezos has been working on the project since 2000, during which time he has kept developments shrouded in secrecy.  The prototype, which is called Goddard after the father of modern rocket propulsion, Robert Hutchings Goddard, comprises a cone-shaped vehicle with four metal legs and looks like something from a 1950s science-fiction film.  But over the next three years, Mr Bezos hopes to have developed the model into a spacecraft capable of taking ordinary people into space.  Mr Bezos said: “We’re working, patiently and step by step, to lower the cost of space flight so that many people can afford to go and so that we humans can better continue exploring the solar system. 

FULL STORY_Times On Line 1/4/07

Lost lakes of Titan have been found

Lakes of liquid Methane?

Lakes of methane have been spotted on Saturn's largest moon, Titan, boosting the theory that this strange, distant world bears beguiling similarities to Earth, according to a new study.  Titan has long intrigued space scientists, as it is the only moon in the Solar System to have a dense atmosphere - and its atmosphere, like Earth's, mainly comprises nitrogen.  Titan's atmosphere is also rich in methane, although the source for this vast store of hydrocarbons is unclear.  Methane, on the geological scale, has a relatively limited life.  Given that Titan is billions of years old, the question is how this atmospheric methane gets to be renewed. Without replenishment, it should have disappeared long ago.  A popular hypothesis is that it comes from a vast ocean of hydrocarbons.  A flyby by Cassini on July 22 last year has revealed, thanks to a radar scan, 75 large, smooth, dark patches between three and 70km across that appear to be lakes of liquid methane, scientists report on Thursday.  They believe the lakes prove that Titan has a "methane cycle" - a system that is like the water cycle on Earth, in which the liquid evaporates, cools and condenses and then falls as rain, replenishing the surface liquid. FULL STORY_IOL 1/3/07

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