Follow Friday & Weekly Stumbles For 2011-03-04

This week I recommend to follow @airandspace for interesting tweets about historic air & space objects. For more Twitter follow suggestions see our astronomy list @TheAstroBlog/astronomy

Weekly Stumbles:

Could we be on the verge of inventing tractor beams?
Ferengi smugglers shake in their boots as the first step towards tractor beams is announced. In the past, lasers have been used only to impart forward momentum to their targets. They hit objects with photons, and those objects move forward with the beam of light (or burst into flame). Now scientists in Hong Kong have figured out how to use a special kind of laser to pull objects toward the laser’s source. The special laser that the scientists need for a tractor beam is called a Bessel beam. Bessel beams have a few extremely unusual properties.

Suborbital back out of the shadows
For much of the previous decade, commercial human spaceflight was most closely associated with suborbital spaceflight. That linkage first became prominent in April 2003, when Scaled Composites unveiled SpaceShipOne, its entry into the Ansari X PRIZE competition. While the competition had been going on since the mid-1990s, Scaled’s rollout, and the company’s track record in building and flying innovative aircraft while many other X PRIZE entrants had not made it past the PowerPoint stage, demonstrated that this field was real. And, 18 months after that rollout, SpaceShipOne claimed the $10-million prize by flying to space twice within a week, capturing the attention of the industry and the general public.

Black Holes: A Model for Superconductors?
Black holes are some of the heaviest objects in the universe. Electrons are some of the lightest. Now physicists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have shown how charged black holes can be used to model the behavior of interacting electrons in unconventional superconductors. “The context of this problem is high-temperature superconductivity,” said Phillips. “One of the great unsolved problems in physics is the origin of superconductivity (a conducting state with zero resistance) in the copper oxide ceramics discovered in 1986.”

NASA’s Sky-Mapping Telescope Takes Last Starry Photo
A sky-mapping telescope that spent 13 months cataloging cosmic objects as it roamed through space took one last photo of the sky this month before shutting down for good. NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, called WISE, captured this last snapshot of a patch of our Milky Way galaxy as the spacecraft ended its successful survey mission. The image shows thousands of stars covering an area three times the size of the full moon. This swath of the sky is located in the constellation Perseus. In the upper left corner, a faint wispy cloud can be seen bending around a pulsating star called EV Persei.

Giant Underground Chamber Found on Moon By India’s Chandrayaan-1 Spacecraft
The Indian Space Research Organization has discovered a “giant underground chamber” near the Moon’s equator, in the Oceanus Procellarum area discovered by the Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft—more than one mile long (1.7 kilometers) and 393 feet wide (120 meters)-big enough to contain a small lunar city. The Indian researchers have published a paper detailing their findings and talking about the possibility of making this giant underground vault as a future human base.

When will our Martian future get here?
As I was navigating the ever-perilous 405 freeway the other day, I found it hard to believe that the second decade of the 21st century had arrived. Despite the fact that over ten years have passed since I started writing 20xx on my checks, day-to-day life seems little changed since the 1900s. Many of the cars competing with me for lane space were made back in that century. Many if not most of the homes we live in date to the 1960s, ’50s, or earlier, and everyday household appliances look essentially the same as they did when I was a child. We still fly around the world in aircraft that became common in the 1960s, and astronauts still fly into space on the backs of chemically-fueled rockets descended from missile technology developed in the 1940s and ’50s.

Scientists come up with completely opposite theories about why the sun is weakening
Scientists come up with completely opposite theories about why the sun is weakening For the last few years the sun has been kicking back and relaxing. A lot. Although a huge solar flare recently made headlines, the surface of the sun has been quiet lately. Sunspots have been more scarce than they’ve been in the last 200 years. All solar activity is low. And it looks like it’s going to stay that way for a while. The sun is likely in an 11-year cycle that will bottom out in 2013 or 2014. But why is the sun being so very cool lately?

New Conditions for Life on Other Planets: Tidal Effects Change ‘Habitable Zone’ Concept
Tides can render the so-called “habitable zone” around low-mass stars uninhabitable. This is the main result of a recently published study by a team of astronomers led by René Heller of the Astrophysical Institute Potsdam (AIP). Extrasolar planets, or exoplanets for short, have been known to exist outside our solar system since 1995. When searching for life in outer space, scientists focus on those exoplanets that are located in the habitable zone. This means that they orbit their sun at a distance where the temperatures on the planet’s surface allow for the presence of liquid water.

The Search for Elusive ‘Wormhole Stars’
Scientists usually imagine wormholes connecting regions of empty space, but a new study led by Vladimir Dzhunushaliev at the Eurasian National University in Kazakhstan suggests that wormholes might exist between distant stars. Instead of being empty tunnels, these wormholes would contain a perfect fluid that flows back and forth between the two stars, possibly giving them a detectable signature. Concurrently, Russia has a new project, Millimetron. a space-based observatory that will make it possible to look for the signatures of wormholes at the center of large galaxies.

Solar Mystery of Missing Sunspots Explained
The Sun has been in the news a lot lately because it’s beginning to send out more flares and solar storms. Its recent turmoil is particularly newsworthy because the Sun was very quiet for an unusually long time. Astronomers had a tough time explaining the extended solar minimum. New computer simulations imply that the Sun’s long quiet spell resulted from changing flows of hot plasma within it. “The Sun contains huge rivers of plasma similar to Earth’s ocean currents,” says Andres Munoz-Jaramillo, a visiting research fellow at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA). “Those plasma rivers affect solar activity in ways we’re just beginning to understand.”

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