Follow Friday & Weekly Stumbles For 2011-04-15

Weekly Stumbles:

The Art of Making Stars
It might look like an abstract painting, but this splash of colors is in fact a busy star-forming complex called Rho Ophiuchi. NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Explorer, or WISE, captured the picturesque image of the region, which is one of the closest star-forming complexes to Earth. The amazing variety of colors seen in this image represents different wavelengths of infrared light. The bright white nebula in the center of the image is glowing due to heating from nearby stars, resulting in what is called an emission nebula.

Two Dying Stars to Be Reborn as One
White dwarfs are dead stars that pack a Sun’s-worth of matter into an Earth-sized ball. Astronomers have just discovered an amazing pair of white dwarfs whirling around each other once every 39 minutes. This is the shortest-period pair of white dwarfs now known. Moreover, in a few million years they will collide and merge to create a single star. “These stars have already lived a full life. When they merge, they’ll essentially be ‘reborn’ and enjoy a second life,” said Smithsonian astronomer Mukremin Kilic, lead author on the paper announcing the discovery.

Baby Star’s Twin Gas Jets Fire on Time Delay
Twin jets of gas that shoot out from opposite sides of a young star may appear symmetrical, but they actually blast out into space in supersonic eruptions that are staggered about 4 1/2 years apart, scientists say. Astronomers studying the star used NASA’s infrared Spitzer Space Telescope to take a closer look at its jets, only to discover that knots of gas and dust from one of the star’s jets are ejected years later than from its twin. The finding should help helping astronomers understand how jets are produced around blossoming stars, including ones that resemble our sun when it was young.

Newly Merged Black Hole Eagerly Shreds Stars
A galaxy’s core is a busy place, crowded with stars swarming around an enormous black hole. When galaxies collide, it gets even messier as the two black holes spiral toward each other, merging to make an even bigger gravitational monster. Once it is created, the monster goes on a rampage. The merger kicks the black hole into surrounding stars. There it finds a hearty meal, shredding and swallowing stars at a rapid clip. According to new research by Nick Stone and Avi Loeb, upcoming sky surveys might offer astronomers a way to catch a gorging black hole “in the act.”

Whither human spaceflight?
Anniversaries of major, positive milestones are usually events to be celebrated, and the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s mission that began the era of human spaceflight and the 30th anniversary of the first launch of the Space Shuttle, both on Tuesday, would seem to qualify. (Of course, at the time Gagarin’s flight wasn’t a positive milestone for the US, as it signaled yet another victory in the Space Race for the Soviet Union, but time—and the later US victories, including Apollo—have healed those wounds.) They are events that will, and should be, celebrated in Russia, America, and elsewhere.

NASA Telescope Ferrets out Planet-Hunting Targets
Astronomers have come up with a new way of identifying close, faint stars with NASA’s Galaxy Evolution Explorer satellite. The technique should help in the hunt for planets that lie beyond our solar system, because nearby, hard-to-see stars could very well be home to the easiest-to-see alien planets. The glare of bright, shining stars has frustrated most efforts at visualizing distant worlds. So far, only a handful of distant planets, or exoplanets, have been directly imaged. Small, newborn stars are less blinding, making the planets easier to see, but the fact that these stars are dim means they are hard to find in the first place.

Gagarin’s flight and the Cold War
Sending the first man into space was one of the great Soviet Cold War victories over the US—maybe the greatest. To this day Russia celebrates its achievement. The memory of Gagarin’s triumphant flight is one of the most important reasons why Russia, in spite of all its economic, political, and demographic problems, maintains a national commitment to manned space exploration. Nations, like people, prefer to remember their successes rather than their failures. For Russia, its first flights into orbit from 1957 through 1961 are to this day a shining memory of a time when they were beating the Americans.

Vostok: an aerospace classic
For me, one of the sure signs of spring is an e-mail from my former Russian colleagues sending me best wishes for Cosmonautics Day, celebrated on April 12—the anniversary of the first manned spaceflight by Yuri Gagarin. Years after the joint US-Russian program we worked on together was cancelled, it is still good to hear from my former international partners and reminisce about space achievements. Since this Cosmonautics Day marks the 50th anniversary of the launch of Vostok, there is an additional reason to review this achievement.

Space shuttles and the wisdom of the crowd
The Space Shuttle program is coming to an end. NASA is soliciting bids for the locations of the retired space shuttles; the candidate museum must have an indoor spot for the shuttle and pay $28.8 million to have it readied for display and transported to the location. Three shuttles—Atlantis, Discovery, and Endeavour—are up for grabs. The Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum is widely expected to get Discovery; in turn, it will transfer its current orbiter, Enterprise, to another museum.

NASA’s Next Mars Rover Nears Completion
Assembly and testing of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft is far enough along that the mission’s rover, Curiosity, looks very much as it will when it is investigating Mars. Testing continues this month at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., on the rover and other components of the spacecraft that will deliver Curiosity to Mars. In May and June, the spacecraft will be shipped to NASA Kennedy Space Center, Fla., where preparations will continue for launch in the period between Nov. 25 and Dec. 18, 2011.

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