Follow Friday & Weekly Stumbles For 2011-01-21

This week I recommend to follow @lowflyingrocks for live updates about asteroid near-misses. For more Twitter follow suggestions see our astronomy list @TheAstroBlog/astronomy

Weekly Stumbles:

Earth may soon have a second sun
The red supergiant star Betelgeuse is getting ready to go supernova, and when it does Earth will have a front-row seat. The explosion will be so bright that Earth will briefly seem to have two suns in the sky. The star is located in the Orion constellation, about 640 light-years away from Earth. It’s one of the brightest and biggest stars in our galactic neighborhood – if you dropped it in our Solar System, it would extend all the way out to Jupiter, leaving Earth completely engulfed. In stellar terms, it’s predicted to explode in the very near future. Of course, the conversion from stellar to human terms is pretty extreme, as Betelgeuse is predicted to explode anytime in the next million years.

Religion & Astronomy: From Galileo to Aliens
One of the most famous examples of the clash between religion and science is the trial of Galileo Galilei. Galileo supported Copernicus’ view that the Earth orbited the sun, a “heliocentric” theory which the church declared contrary to Scripture. Galileo was warned to abandon his support for this theory and instead embrace the traditional “geocentric” notion that the Earth was an unmovable point around which the universe revolved.

Can NASA develop a heavy-lift rocket?
Does Congress have more confidence in NASA’s abilities than the space agency itself? That may seem like an odd question, but it was one undertone of a renewed debate last week about the development of a heavy-lift launch vehicle (HLV). One of the key provisions of the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 was a mandate for NASA to develop what the legislation called, rather unimaginatively, the Space Launch System (SLS): an HLV that could initially launch 70–100 tons to low Earth orbit (LEO), with the ability to be upgraded to launch 130 tons. The legislation authorized $6.9 billion from 2011 through 2013 to work on the SLS, and also required that the vehicle enter service by the end of 2016.

Funding the search for life in the solar system
NASA scientist and astrobiologist Chris McKay said about a year ago that the center of astrobiological interest was probably not Mars, as many tend to assume, but more at the moons of the outer planets. Certainly the solid evidence of a liquid ocean on Europa has for many years raised astrobiological interest, with speculation that, where there is a stable quantity of water, there could likely be life. That possibility has led to making a Europa orbiter mission a first priority of planetary scientists, although we still await the formal report of the Planetary Decadal Survey of the National Research Council evaluating priorities.

Orion Nebula: Still Full of Surprises
The Orion Nebula, also known as Messier 42, is one of the most easily recognisable and best-studied celestial objects. It is a huge complex of gas and dust where massive stars are forming and is the closest such region to the Earth. The glowing gas is so bright that it can be seen with the unaided eye and is a fascinating sight through a telescope. Despite its familiarity and closeness there is still much to learn about this stellar nursery. It was only in 2007, for instance, that the nebula was shown to be closer to us than previously thought: 1350 light-years, rather than about 1500 light-years.

Next-Door Cosmic Encounter: Neighboring Galaxies Collided 2-3 Billion Years Ago
An international team of astronomers, including Queen’s University physicist Larry Widrow, have uncovered evidence of a nearby cosmic encounter. Their study indicates that the Andromeda and Triangulum galaxies, the two galaxies closest to our own, collided about two to three billion years ago. “The encounter forever changed the structure of the galaxies,” says Dr. Widrow, a professor of Physics, Engineering Physics and Astronomy at Queen’s. “The collision between the galaxies appears to have caused millions of stars to be ripped from the Triangulum disk to form a faint stream visible in the PAndAS data.”

Small ball or home runs: the changing ethos of US human spaceflight policy
The United States is confronting both a crisis of confidence and of will with regards to its human spaceflight program. The new directions proposed by the Obama Administration are being strongly and often bitterly contested. The issue of where the US goes next in pursuit of publicly-funded human spaceflight can be partially conceptualized in terms of an analogy from American baseball. Some baseball teams, because of their personnel and budget, opt for what is often termed “small ball.” That is, runs are manufactured through timely hitting, aggressive base running, and strong pitching. Small market teams pursue such strategies because that is their only road to the playoffs.

Colorful Mix of Asteroids Discovered, May Aid Future Space Travel
New research from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope reveals that asteroids somewhat near Earth, termed near-Earth objects, are a mixed bunch, with a surprisingly wide array of compositions. Like the chocolates and fruity candies inside a piñata, these asteroids come in assorted colors and compositions. Some are dark and dull; others are shiny and bright. The Spitzer observations of 100 known near-Earth asteroids demonstrate that their diversity is greater than previously thought.

Best Way to Measure Dark Energy Just Got Better
Dark energy is a mysterious force that pervades all space, acting as a “push” to accelerate the Universe’s expansion. Despite being 70 percent of the Universe, dark energy was only discovered in 1998 by two teams observing Type Ia supernovae. A Type 1a supernova is a cataclysmic explosion of a white dwarf star. These supernovae are currently the best way to measure dark energy because they are visible across intergalactic space. Also, they can function as “standard candles” in distant galaxies since the intrinsic brightness is known. Just as drivers estimate the distance to oncoming cars at night from the brightness of their headlights, measuring the apparent brightness of a supernova yields its distance (fainter is farther). Measuring distances tracks the effect of dark energy on the expansion of the Universe.

No Direct Link Between Black Holes and Dark Matter, Scientists Find
Massive black holes have been found at the centres of almost all galaxies, where the largest galaxies — who are also the ones embedded in the largest halos of dark matter — harbour the most massive black holes. This led to the speculation that there is a direct link between dark matter and black holes, i.e. that exotic physics controls the growth of a black hole. Scientists at the Max Planck Institute of Extraterrestrial Physics, the University Observatory Munich and the University of Texas in Austin have now conducted an extensive study of galaxies to prove that black hole mass is not directly related to the mass of the dark matter halo but rather seems to be determined by the formation of the galaxy bulge.

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