Follow Friday & Weekly Stumbles For 2011-03-18

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

Since I didn’t have time to post a Follow Friday & Weekly Stumbles article last week due to mid-semester exams, I will post 20 stumbles for this week instead of the regular 10.

Weekly Stumbles:

What future for intelligent life in space?
Thirty-five years ago, Gerard K. O’Neill wrote: “We are so used to living on a planetary surface that it is a wrench for us even to consider continuing our normal human activities in another location” (The High Frontier, p.25). He concluded that the best place for a growing industrial society is not on the Earth, or the Moon or Mars, but “somewhere else entirely”: an array of artificially constructed space colonies. While a planet is a good place for life to get started, once it has reached the stage of industrial development, its further growth depends on the use of technology to construct artificial space colonies.

Newborn Stars Wreak Havoc in Their Nursery
A new image from ESO’s Very Large Telescope gives a close-up view of the dramatic effects new-born stars have on the gas and dust from which they formed. Although the stars themselves are not visible, material they have ejected is colliding with the surrounding gas and dust clouds and creating a surreal landscape of glowing arcs, blobs and streaks. The star-forming region NGC 6729 is part of one of the closest stellar nurseries to Earth and hence one of the best studied.

NASA’s MESSENGER Spacecraft Begins Historic Orbit Around Mercury
NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft successfully achieved orbit around Mercury at approximately 9 p.m. EDT Thursday. This marks the first time a spacecraft has accomplished this engineering and scientific milestone at our solar system’s innermost planet. “This mission will continue to revolutionize our understanding of Mercury during the coming year,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, who was at MESSENGER mission control at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., as engineers received telemetry data confirming orbit insertion. “NASA science is rewriting text books. MESSENGER is a great example of how our scientists are innovating to push the envelope of human knowledge.”

Debating a code of conduct for space
Growing concerns about orbital debris and the risk of collisions has been a driving force behind creating a code of conduct for those operating spacecraft in Earth orbit. Last month the administration released its National Security Space Strategy, a document designed to outline what the United States will do to “maintain and enhance” its use of space to support national security. The brief document describes, in broad brushstrokes, what the US will do on topics ranging from promoting the peaceful use of space to improving American capabilities in space to preventing attacks on US space infrastructure.

Hubble Snaps Close-Up of Tarantula Nebula
The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has produced an outstanding image of part of the famous Tarantula Nebula, a vast star-forming cloud of gas and dust in our neighboring galaxy, the Large Magellanic Cloud. In this picture, we see a close-up of the Tarantula’s central region, glowing brightly with ionized gases and young stars. The wispy arms of the Tarantula Nebula were originally thought to resemble spindly spider legs, giving the nebula its unusual name.

A dark future for exploration
Eleven months ago fans of space exploration cheered as President Obama, for the first time since John Kennedy, went on the road to support a program for a new venture of human exploration: “We’ll start by sending astronauts to an asteroid for the first time in history. By the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth. And a landing on Mars will follow.” Then Congress went to work and, today, we have no coherent human space exploration goals, objectives, or program. We instead have a weak jobs program, spending money on a cancelled project and ordering a new rocket-to-nowhere project.

Cassini Sees Seasonal Rains Transform Surface of Saturn’s Moon Titan
As spring continues to unfold at Saturn, April showers on the planet’s largest moon, Titan, have brought methane rain to its equatorial deserts, as revealed in images captured by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. This is the first time scientists have obtained current evidence of rain soaking Titan’s surface at low latitudes. Extensive rain from large cloud systems, spotted by Cassini’s cameras in late 2010, has apparently darkened the surface of the moon. The best explanation is these areas remained wet after methane rainstorms.

NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Delivers Treasure Trove of Data
NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) team released March 15, 2011 the final set of data from the mission’s exploration phase along with the first measurements from its new life as a science satellite. With this fifth release of data, striking new images and maps have been added to the already comprehensive collection of raw lunar data and high-level products, including mosaic images, that LRO has made possible. The spacecraft’s seven instruments delivered more than 192 terabytes of data with an unprecedented level of detail. It would take approximately 41,000 typical DVDs to hold the new LRO data set.

NASA’s Hubble Rules out One Alternative to Dark Energy
Astronomers using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope have ruled out an alternate theory on the nature of dark energy after recalculating the expansion rate of the universe to unprecedented accuracy. The universe appears to be expanding at an increasing rate. Some believe that is because the universe is filled with a dark energy that works in the opposite way of gravity. One alternative to that hypothesis is that an enormous bubble of relatively empty space eight billion light-years across surrounds our galactic neighborhood. If we lived near the center of this void, observations of galaxies being pushed away from each other at accelerating speeds would be an illusion.

Why commercial human spaceflight will be safer, less expensive, and necessary
The space shuttle program has been an incredible achievement and demonstration of US technical expertise. The shuttle also has served many useful civil, commercial and defense space purposes, inspired a populace, and was in many ways ahead of its time in terms of its range of capabilities. But the shuttle program’s record also includes two tragic mission failures, each of which resulted in the loss of shuttle orbiters and their entire crews. These accidents taught many lessons that the shuttle program subsequently used to reduced its risks. Regrettably, though, the accidents also contributed to higher operating costs, making progress in human space exploration ever more difficult.

Half-Time for Mars500: Simulated Mission to the Red Planet
The Mars500 mission — a simulated mission to the red planet in which researchers from the Mainz University Medical Center in Germany are involved — has reached its half-way mark: After a 250-day virtual flight, the crew members recently landed on the virtual red planet and left the isolation container at the Moscow Institute of Biomedical Problems (IBMP) in their space suits. Researchers from the Medical Center of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz have been involved in the Mars500 mission in an attempt to answer the question of how medical emergencies might be managed without external assistance.

American leadership in space: leadership through capability
Recently, Lou Friedman wrote a piece where he articulated his view on what American leadership in space means to many and what it means to him. I would like to respond by providing some context that I think is lacking from the discussion. First, let me start by saying that I agree with Mr. Friedman’s assertion that “American leadership is a phrase we hear bandied about a lot in political circles in the United States, as well as in many space policy discussions.” I have been at many space forums in my career where I’ve heard the phrase used by speakers of various backgrounds, political ideologies, and nation.

Dawn Mission Gets Vesta Asteroid Target Practice
There is an old chestnut about a pedestrian who once asked a virtuoso violinist near Carnegie Hall how to get to the famed concert venue. The virtuoso’s answer: practice! The same applies to NASA’s Dawn mission to the giant asteroid Vesta. In the lead-up to orbiting the second most massive body in the asteroid belt this coming July, Dawn mission planners and scientists have been practicing mapping Vesta’s surface, producing still images and a rotating animation that includes the scientists’ best guess to date of what the surface might look like.

Soyuz landing tests new systems and old secrecy habits
The launch of the upgraded “digital Soyuz” last October was a shakedown cruise for the new model manned spacecraft that will soon become the planet’s only vehicle transporting crews to the International Space Station (ISS) for years to come. As expected (even as hoped), some problems arose, and were responded to by Russian flight controllers. The treatment of those problems, especially in how much was disclosed to Russia’s NASA customers (contractually such, on a cash basis—not bartering/swapping “partners” as earlier on ISS) and the general public, was another kind of “shakedown cruise” for the next five years or more of US dependence on Russian space capabilities and space candor. Here, too, problems have cropped out, and it’s not yet clear how they will ultimately be handled.

Voyager Seeks the Answer Blowin’ in the Wind
In which direction is the sun’s stream of charged particles banking when it nears the edge of the solar system? The answer, scientists know, is blowing in the wind. It’s just a matter of getting NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft in the right orientation to detect it. To enable Voyager 1’s Low Energy Charged Particle instrument to gather these data, the spacecraft performed a maneuver on March 7 that it hadn’t done for 21 years, except in a preparatory test last month. At 9:10 a.m. PST (12:10 p.m. EST), humanity’s most distant spacecraft rolled 70 degrees counterclockwise as seen from Earth from its normal orientation and held the position by spinning gyroscopes for two hours, 33 minutes.

Getting down to the nuts and bolts of suborbital research
One sign of the maturity of a particular field is the types of questions people ask about it. In its early stages, there are a lot of “why” questions—why do a particular thing?—as people try to make sense whether a particular concept is worthwhile. Later, those questions evolve into the “how” variety—how to do this?—as people try to act on this concept, implying that those earlier “why” questions were answered positively. That evolution can be seen in the ongoing development of the field of suborbital research, as performed on the new generation of reusable, often crewed vehicles under active development today.

Cassini Finds Saturn’s Moon Enceladus Is a Powerhouse
Heat output from the south polar region of Saturn’s moon Enceladus is much greater than was previously thought possible, according to a new analysis of data collected by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. Data from Cassini’s composite infrared spectrometer of Enceladus’ south polar terrain, which is marked by linear fissures, indicate that the internal heat-generated power is about 15.8 gigawatts, approximately 2.6 times the power output of all the hot springs in the Yellowstone region, or comparable to 20 coal-fueled power stations. This is more than an order of magnitude higher than scientists had predicted.

‘Elephant Trunks’ in Space: WISE Captures Image of Star-Forming Cloud of Dust and Gas
NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, captured this image of a star-forming cloud of dust and gas, called Sh2-284, located in the constellation of Monoceros. Lining up along the edges of a cosmic hole are several “elephant trunks” — or monstrous pillars of dense gas and dust. The most famous examples of elephant trunks are the “Pillars of Creation” found in an iconic image of the Eagle nebula from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope. In this WISE image, the trunks are seen as small columns of gas stretching toward the center of the void in Sh2-284, The most notable one can be seen on the right side at about the 3 o’clock position. It appears as a closed hand with a finger pointing toward the center of the void. That elephant trunk is about 7 light-years long.

NASA’s Prolific Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Reaches Five-Year Mark
NASA’s versatile Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which began orbiting Mars five years ago March 10, has radically expanded our knowledge of the Red Planet and is now working overtime. The mission has provided copious information about ancient environments, ice-age-scale climate cycles and present-day changes on Mars. The orbiter observes Mars’ surface, subsurface and atmosphere in unprecedented detail. The spacecraft’s large solar panels and dish antenna have enabled it to transmit more data to Earth — 131 terabits and counting, including more than 70,000 images — than all other interplanetary missions combined. Yet many things had to go well for the mission to achieve these milestones.

Spitzer Captures Infrared Rays from ‘Sunflower’ Galaxy
The various spiral arm segments of the Sunflower galaxy, also known as Messier 63, show up vividly in this image taken in infrared light by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope. Infrared light is sensitive to the dust lanes in spiral galaxies, which appear dark in visible-light images. Spitzer’s view reveals complex structures that trace the galaxy’s spiral arm pattern. Messier 63 lies 37 million-light years away — not far from the well-known Whirlpool galaxy and the associated Messier 51 group of galaxies. The dust, glowing red in this image, can be traced all the way down into the galaxy’s nucleus, forming a ring around the densest region of stars at its center.

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