Follow Friday & Weekly Stumbles For 2011-02-11

This week I recommend to follow @spaceweather for interesting tweets about space weather. For more Twitter follow suggestions see our astronomy list @TheAstroBlog/astronomy

Weekly Stumbles:

Rogue ‘Steppenwolf Planets’ That Have Escaped From Their Suns Could Harbor Alien Life, Astrophysicists Say
Lonely Earth-like planets with tumultuous cores could conceivably support life even if they had no stars, a new study says. Researchers Dorian Abbot and Eric Switzer at the University of Chicago have dubbed these theoretical worlds “Steppenwolf planets,” because “any life in this strange habitat would exist like a lone wolf wandering the galactic steppe.” And because they were born to be wild. Rogue planets that have been kicked out of their solar systems (which is apparently common throughout the cosmos) could host oceans of liquid water as long as the planet’s core is heated, and if the water is buried beneath a layer of protective ice, the researchers say. Liquid water is generally considered a prerequisite for life.

New-Found Cornucopia of Exoplanets More Than Doubles the Current Cosmic Census
Scores of Earth-like planets orbit sun-like stars scattered throughout the Milky Way, NASA scientists said today. This morning, the agency released data on more than 1,000 new exoplanets, and early indications are that 54 of them are at just the right distance from their stars to harbor life as we know it. Today’s results more than double the exoplanet-candidate population, bringing the number of planet candidates identified by Kepler to 1,235. NASA needs to conduct follow-up observations to be sure their candidate planets are actually planets. So far, they are certain about 15 of them.

Stardust-NExT: Heading Into the Bonus Round – In Space
A bonus round is something one usually associates with the likes of a TV game show, not a pioneering deep space mission. “We are definitely in the bonus round,” said Stardust-NExT Project Manager Tim Larson of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “This spacecraft has already flown by an asteroid and a comet, returned comet dust samples to Earth, and now has almost doubled its originally planned mission life. Now it is poised to perform one more comet flyby.”

Merging human spaceflight and science at NASA
I really liked what NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden had to say about the news last week that the Kepler mission had discovered a plethora of possible planets around other stars. Some of them are candidates for being Earth-like in size, orbit, and maybe even composition. Bolden said, “In one generation we have gone from extraterrestrial planets being a mainstay of science fiction, to the present, where Kepler has helped turn science fiction into today’s reality. These discoveries underscore the importance of NASA’s science missions, which consistently increase understanding of our place in the cosmos.”

Newly Discovered: “Planet-Eating” Stars
A group of nine unusual stars spotted by the Hubble Space Telescope in a young cluster above called NGC 3603 that are too cool to be ordinary stars, with analysis of their infrared light emissions indicating surface temperatures between 1700 and 2200 kelvin making them more like brown dwarfs, objects intermediate in mass between planets and fully fledged stars. The catch is that brown dwarfs are dim objects that should be too faint to detect at the cluster’s 20,000 light years from Earth. “We were quite puzzled,” says Loredana Spezzi at the European Space Agency in Noordwijk, the Netherlands. But Spezzi and her colleagues think the enigmatic objects are part of stellar systems that spawned planets, then, devoured them.

Tool Makes Search for Martian Life Easier: Red Planet a Good Fit for Laser-Ion Funnel Mass Spectrometry
Finding life on Mars could get easier with a creative adaption to a common analytical tool that can be installed directly on the robotic arm of a space rover. In a recent paper published online in the journal Planetary and Space Science, a team of researchers propose adding a laser and an ion funnel to a widely used scientific instrument, the mass spectrometer, to analyze the surfaces of rocks and other samples directly on Mars’ surface. The researchers demonstrated that the combined system could work on the spot, without the sample handling that mass spectrometry usually requires.

Buy this satellite?
The last several weeks have demonstrated the power—and the fragility—of the Internet as a tool of social protest and revolution. In Tunisia and, more recently, in Egypt, demonstrators turned to the Internet, particularly social networks like Facebook and Twitter, to coordinate protests and disseminate information in ways not imagined more than a few years ago. Those tools are a way to get around the restrictions of state-run media, but are themselves vulnerable to disruption by the state, as the Egyptian government demonstrated when it effectively cut off Internet access in the country in late January in an effort to hinder the protestors’ ability to organize.

Is Venus -Thought to Be Dead- Geologically Active?
“The geological history of Venus has long been a mystery,” said Sue Smrekar, a scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “Previous spacecraft gave us hints of volcanic activity, but we didn’t know how long ago that occurred. Now we have strong evidence right at the surface for recent eruptions.” New observations reveal that volcanoes on Venus appeared to erupt between a few hundred years to 2.5 million years ago, which suggests the planet may still be geologically active, making Venus one of the few worlds in our solar system that has been volcanically active within the last 3 million years.

Patent rights and flags of convenience in outer space
The development of a thriving commercial space industry will require significant private investment in space technologies. As a matter of public policy, an effective patent system can play a critical role in encouraging innovation and investment in budding high technology industries. Patents give inventors a period of market exclusivity for their inventions in exchange for disclosing their new inventions to the public. This limited monopoly provides an incentive for companies to invest in new technologies, while the public disclosure requirement allows inventors to design around and improve upon earlier inventions. A loophole in international space law, however, threatens to limit the patent system’s ability to properly incentivize private investment in new space technologies.

Spitzer’s Stunning New View of the North American Nebula
In visible light, the North American nebula resembles its namesake continent. But looking at it in the infrared spectrum, a whole new perspective explodes into view. Clouds of dust and gas come to life, as light from massive young star heats and shape the clouds, and dramatic clusters of baby stars which can only be seen in infrared burst into view. “One of the things that makes me so excited about this image is how different it is from the visible image, and how much more we can see in the infrared than in the visible,” said Luisa Rebull of NASA’s Spitzer Science Center at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, Calif. Rebull is lead author of a paper about the observations, accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series.

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