Follow Friday & Weekly Stumbles For 2011-05-27

I didn’t have the time to post anything in the past few weeks due to the end of semester exams in college. Therefore, in the next few editions of the Follow Friday & Weekly Stumbles there will be more entries than usually, as I catch up on my astronomy reading.

This week I recommend to follow @SpaceUpdating for interesting tweets about current space exploration news. For more Twitter follow suggestions see our astronomy list @TheAstroBlog/astronomy

Weekly Stumbles:

Free-floating planets found unbound to stars
Astronomers say they have found a previously inconceivable phenomenon: planets that do not appear to be anchored to a host star but instead wander the heavens unbound. In a two-year scan of the cosmos, 10 planets with roughly the mass of Jupiter, the largest planet of our Solar System, have been found at such enormous distances from the nearest star that some of them could be said to float freely through the Milky Way. “Although free-floating planets have been predicted, they finally have been detected, holding major implications for planetary formation and evolution models,” says Dr Mario Perez, exoplanet program scientist at NASA’s headquarters in Washington DC.

Black Hole Driven Starships Might Ply the Galaxy
Black holes are the universe’s Energizer Bunnies. They are the most efficient “machines” for transforming matter into energy through their intense gravitational pull. For example, the early universe was ablaze with untold supermassive black holes pouring out prodigious amounts of energy from the cores of galaxies. 11 billion years ago the black holes did the heavy lifting by reheating the universe and therefore inhibiting new generations of stars to form in some small galaxies.

Super-Civilizations Might Live Off Black Holes
The sad unplugging of the Allen Telescope Array due to lack of funding brings a screeching halt, at least temporarily, to the most ambitious search for “hello” radio transmissions from E.T. But perhaps it’s time to simply think far outside of the box regarding our preconceptions of how to find extraterrestrial civilizations, says Clement Vidal of the Evolution, Complexity and Cognition group at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel. And, the most advanced aliens may be the easiest to find. In a recent paper, he emphasizes that we have to look at a variety of search strategies in solving the mystery of our cosmic loneliness – that is, if we are satisfied with simply finding E.T. and not communicating with it.

China’s First Space Station: A New Foothold in Earth Orbit
China’s state-run news outlets report that preparations of the country’s first space station module, called Tiangong-1, are in full swing for a launch in the second half of this year and will be followed by an unpiloted spacecraft. The spacecraft twosome, the station module and China’s Shenzhou 8 vehicle, will mark the country’s first round of orbital rendezvous and docking tests – viewed as a springboard to larger space adventures. A Long March 2F rocket is the booster of choice for the individual launches, according to reports by China’s Xinhua news agency.

China’s Lofty Goals: Space Station, Moon and Mars Exploration
China is shifting its space program into high gear, with recently announced goals to build a manned space station by 2020 and send a spacecraft to Mars by 2013 ? all on the heels of its second robotic moon mission this year. Yet some space analysts worry that China’s ascendancy in space means the waning of American superiority in spaceflight. The United States is retiring its storied space shuttle fleet in 2011 and plans to rely on commercial spaceships for orbital flights, once they’re available, while planning future deep-space missions.

How Many Intelligent Aliens are Out There?
OK, I’ve had enough. I’ve been looking up at the night sky for 20 years and not once have I ever seen anything that has aroused my suspicion that an alien visitor has popped by Earth to take a look. The thing is, I am contacted far too often by people saying they have seen an unidentified flying object, or UFO. Being terribly literal, they probably have seen something “unidentified,” and it may look like it’s flying; whatever it is, it certainly is an “object,” but it doesn’t mean it’s aliens. I’ve never seen anything that makes me think UFOs are alien in origin. But ask me if I think aliens exist, somewhere, anywhere, and I answer with a loud and affirmative yes.

Future of Space Tourism: Who’s Offering What
Fifty years after Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to experience the wonders of spaceflight, commercial companies appear to be on the cusp of a breakthrough industry – space tourism. In a bid to open up the final frontier to an expanding group of people, private firms are racing to provide paying customers with unique orbital and suborbital experiences. Suborbital spaceships would take passengers up to space at an altitude of about 62 miles (100 kilometers) – commonly known as the edge of space – before returning to Earth. These passengers would get a glimpse of the edge of our planet and the blackness of space while experiencing several minutes of weightlessness.

How the Space Tourism Business Could See Orbital Boom
Orbital space tourism is a niche industry at the moment, but business could really boom if costs come down by a couple of orders of magnitude, a new study asserts. To date, only seven people – beginning with multimillionaire businessman Dennis Tito in April 2001 – have paid to launch into Earth orbit, and they’ve reportedly plunked down between $20 million and $35 million for the experience. Those are not the numbers of a thriving industry. But things could change dramatically if prices drop significantly – down to about $500,000 per seat or so. That reduced rate could lure in hundreds of thousands of customers for orbital tourist trips, potentially generating revenues in excess of $100 billion per year, according to the study.

Dawn Spacecraft Reaches Milestone Approaching Asteroid Vesta
NASA’s Dawn spacecraft has reached its official approach phase to the asteroid Vesta and will begin using cameras for the first time to aid navigation for an expected July 16 orbital encounter. The large asteroid is known as a protoplanet – a celestial body that almost formed into a planet. At the start of this three-month final approach to this massive body in the asteroid belt, Dawn is 1.21 million kilometers from Vesta, or about three times the distance between Earth and the moon. During the approach phase, the spacecraft’s main activity will be thrusting with a special, hyper-efficient ion engine that uses electricity to ionize and accelerate xenon. The 12-inch-wide ion thrusters provide less thrust than conventional engines, but will provide propulsion for years during the mission and provide far greater capability to change velocity.

Voyager Probes Set to Enter Interstellar Space
More than 30 years after they left Earth, NASA’s twin Voyager probes are now at the edge of the solar system. Not only that, they’re still working. And with each passing day they are beaming back a message that, to scientists, is both unsettling and thrilling. The message is, “Expect the unexpected.” “It’s uncanny,” says Ed Stone of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Voyager Project Scientist since 1972. “Voyager 1 and 2 have a knack for making discoveries.” Today, April 28, 2011, NASA held a live briefing to reflect on what the Voyager mission has accomplished–and to preview what lies ahead as the probes prepare to enter the realm of interstellar space in our Milky Way galaxy.

School Students Help Astronomers Study Mysterious X-Ray Source
Astronomers from Wales and the Netherlands, in collaboration with five schools, have used eight telescopes simultaneously to study the strange behaviour of an X-ray binary star system. Results were presented by postgraduate student Fraser Lewis at the RAS National Astronomy Meeting in Llandudno, Wales, on April 18. IGR J00291+5934 (‘00291’) is a rare X-ray binary system containing a pulsar – a neutron star spinning several hundred times per second – and a normal star. Only 12 such systems are known. In September 2008, 00291 increased in brightness at X-ray wavelengths by a factor of at least a thousand times and in visible wavelengths by a factor of around a hundred times.

NASA Building Instrument to Study Magnetic Reconnection
Whether it’s a giant solar flare or a beautiful green-blue aurora, just about everything interesting in space weather happens due to a phenomenon called magnetic reconnection. Reconnection occurs when magnetic field lines cross and create a burst of energy. These bursts can be so big they’re measured in megatons of TNT. Several spacecraft have already sent back tantalizing data when they happened to witness a magnetic reconnection event in Earth’s magnetosphere. However, there are no spacecraft currently dedicated to the study of this phenomenon.

Physicists Create Quantum Twin Atoms
Objects that are well separated in space but still cannot be understood separately belong to the profoundest mysteries of quantum physics. Pairs of photons are prominent examples of such systems. They allow the teleportation of quantum states or tap-proof data transfer using quantum cryptography. In future, such experiments will not be restricted simply to photons. At the Vienna University of Technology (TU Vienna), a method has been developed to create correlated pairs of atoms using ultracold Bose-Einstein condensates. The results of the experiments have now been published in the journal Nature Physics.

Spiders in Space: Researchers Observe Arachnid Habits in a Microgravity Environment
The very idea of spiders in space brings to mind campy, black and white horror films involving eight-legged monsters. In actuality, it is a scientific investigation called Commercial Generic Bioprocessing Apparatus Science Insert-05 or CSI-05, in which researchers observe arachnid habits in a microgravity environment. This is the second spider investigation on the International Space Station – the first was CSI-03 – and researchers have high hopes that the sequel will eclipse the original. Scheduled to launch with STS-134, the spider habitat will transfer from the space shuttle Endeavour to the space station.

Spinstars: First Polluters of the Universe? Imprints of Fast Rotating Massive Stars in Milky Way’s Bulge
From the analysis of the chemical composition of some of the oldest stars in our Galaxy, an international team of astronomers led by Cristina Chiappini from the Leibniz-Institut für Astrophysik Potsdam (AIP) and the Instituto Nazionale di Astrofisica (INAF) presents new clues on the nature of the first stellar generations in our Universe. “We think that the first generations of massive stars were very fast rotators – that’s why we called them spinstars,” explains Chiappini. Their findings will be published in a Nature article on April 28, 2011.

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