Follow Friday & Weekly Stumbles For 2011-02-18

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

Weekly Stumbles:

Alien Invaders of the Milky Way
The Milky Way has an estimated 160 orbiting globular clusters -hundreds of thousands, and sometimes millions of stars all bound together in a tight ball due to their gravity- of which one quarter are thought to be ‘alien’ invaders from other galaxies, according to research from Swinburne University of Technology (Australia). Swinburne astronomer Professor Duncan Forbes has shown that many of our galaxy’s globular star clusters are actually aliens – having been born elsewhere and then migrating to our Milky Way.

New View of Family Life in the North American Nebula
Stars at all stages of development, from dusty little tots to young adults, are on display in a new image from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope. This cosmic community is called the North American nebula. In visible light, the region resembles the North American continent, with the most striking resemblance being the Gulf of Mexico. But in Spitzer’s infrared view, the continent disappears. Instead, a swirling landscape of dust and young stars comes into view.

Richard Dawkins: “Life Exists Elsewhere in the Universe”
It’s no accident that we see stars in the sky, says famed Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins: they are a vital part of any universe capable of generating us. But, as Dawkins emphasizes, that does not mean that stars exists in order to make us.”It is just that without stars there would be no atoms heavier than lithium in the periodic table,” Dawkins wrote in The Ancestors Tale -A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution, “and a chemistry of only three elements is too impoverished to support life. Seeing is the kind of activity that can go on only in the kind of universe where what you see is stars.”

Commercial crew and NASA’s tipping point
Later today the White House will release its budget proposal for fiscal year 2012, including its plans for NASA. That release is likely to be far less controversial than the release of its 2011 budget proposal just over a year ago, in which the administration proposed cancelling all of Constellation and replacing it with technology development efforts and an initiative to develop commercial crew transportation systems. That generated a long, often vociferous debate (at least by space policy standards) about the future direction of the agency, culminating with the passage of the NASA Authorization Act that put into law much, but not all, of what the administration was seeking.

Image of the Day: The Luminous Beauty of a Galactic SuperBubble
This image shows a composite of the N 70 nebula – a “Super Bubble” in the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC) satellite galaxy to the Milky Way system, located in the southern sky at a distance of about 160,000 light-years. N 70 is a luminous bubble of interstellar gas, measuring about 300 light-years in diameter created by winds from hot, massive stars and supernova explosions. The interior is filled with tenuous, hot expanding gas.

The beginnings of planetary exploration: the first probes to Venus
After the Soviet Union’s unsuccessful attempts to launch a pair of 1M probes to Mars on October 10 and 14, 1960, all efforts were focused on preparing for the launch of their first spacecraft to Venus, designated 1VA (see “The Beginnings of Planetary Exploration”, The Space Review, October 11, 2010). With the Venus launch window opening on January 15, 1961, the engineers at OKB-1 (the ancestor of today’s Russian space company RKK Energia), led by the legendary Sergei Korolev, had three months to prepare not only the 1VA spacecraft for launch but also diagnose and correct the teething problems with their new 8K78 launch vehicle (eventually known as the SL-6 in the West, or Molniya).

Are We One of Many Universes? MIT Physicist Says “Yes”
Modern cosmology theory holds that our universe may be just one in a vast collection of universes known as the multiverse. MIT physicist Alan Guth has suggested that new universes (known as “pocket universes”) are constantly being created, but they cannot be seen from our universe. In this view, “nature gets a lot of tries — the universe is an experiment that’s repeated over and over again, each time with slightly different physical laws, or even vastly different physical laws,” says Jaffe.

Training for Walking on Mars
Three crewmembers of the Mars500 virtual flight to Mars have ‘landed’ on their destination planet and two of them just took their first steps on the simulated martian terrain. The highlight of the Mars500 mission lasted for one hour and 12 minutes, starting at 13:00 Moscow time. The terrain, about 10 m long and 6 m wide, is covered with reddish sand and is built to resemble the surface at Gusev crater. On the ‘surface’, they conducted simulated scientific research by driving a rover and working with sensors to gather physical and chemical measurements.

Rare Masers -Cosmic ‘Water Fountains’- Discovered
Three new water masers have been discovered in the Milky Way, including what could be one of the fastest ever found – reaching speeds of up to 350 km per second – and a rare ‘water fountain,’ a special class of ‘masers’ – large microwave lasers caused by high-mass dying stars or high-mass star formation regions. The high mass source spews out material including clouds of water that can travel at a couple of hundred kilomers per second. The term ‘maser’ originated as an acronym of Microwave Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. Masers work the same way as lasers except they emit microwaves instead of visible light.

Gallery: WISE’s Greatest Hits
The WISE mission is now over, with the spacecraft taking its final image on Feb. 1, 2011. WISE was a “cool” infrared mission, with the optics chilled to less than 20 degrees centigrade above absolute zero (20 Kelvins). In its low Earth orbit (523 km above the ground), the spacecraft explored the entire Universe and collected infrared light coming from everywhere in space and studied asteroids, the coolest and dimmest stars, and the most luminous galaxies.

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