Follow Friday & Weekly Stumbles For 2011-06-03

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

Weekly Stumbles:

Space agency blessing moves Skylon spaceplane closer to reality
Making your own spaceplane from scratch is obviously not an easy task, which is why we’re not all going to the moon on weekends. Reaction Engines is taking it seriously, though, and their Skylon spaceplane concept has just passed a technical review by the European Space Agency, moving it one step closer to reality. The Skylon spaceplane is a single stage to orbit craft, meaning that it doesn’t use booster rockets of any kind and can take off and land from a conventional runway. This kind of integrated package is tricky to put together, but if they can make it work, the cost of launching a payload to geostationary orbit would be fifteen times cheaper than it is now.

Dying Stars to Collide and Create Stellar Baby
The collision of two dying stars can create a living one, scientists say. Scientists have discovered a binary system of two dying stars, known as white dwarfs, set to collide and give birth to a new, living star. Our sun – and indeed, more than 90 percent of all stars in our galaxy – will one day end up as white dwarf stars, which are made up of dim, fading stellar cores where nuclear fusion has stopped. These cooling embers, which make up about 10 percent of all stars in our galaxy, are typically about 40 to 90 percent of the mass of our sun but pack that all into an Earth-sized ball.

What’s 96 Percent of the Universe Made Of? Astronomers Don’t Know
All the stars, planets and galaxies that can be seen today make up just 4 percent of the universe. The other 96 percent is made of stuff astronomers can’t see, detect or even comprehend. These mysterious substances are called dark energy and dark matter. Astronomers infer their existence based on their gravitational influence on what little bits of the universe can be seen, but dark matter and energy themselves continue to elude all detection. “The overwhelming majority of the universe is: who knows?” explains science writer Richard Panek.

How ‘Hot Jupiters’ Got So Close to Their Stars: Extrasolar Planet Research Sheds Light on Our Solar System
More than 500 extrasolar planets – planets that orbit stars other than the sun – have been discovered since 1995. But only in the last few years have astronomers observed that in some of these systems the star is spinning one way and the planet, a “hot Jupiter,” is orbiting the star in the opposite direction. “That’s really weird, and it’s even weirder because the planet is so close to the star,” said Frederic A. Rasio, a theoretical astrophysicist at Northwestern University. “How can one be spinning one way and the other orbiting exactly the other way? It’s crazy. It so obviously violates our most basic picture of planet and star formation.”

The International Space Station is finally, officially complete
The first module of the ISS was launched in 1998. 13 years and somewhere between $35 billion and $100 billion later, the final assembly of the ISS was officially completed today with the installation of a laser-equipped extension boom for the station’s robot arm. Just because the official construction phase is over doesn’t mean that the ISS isn’t going to expand further. The Russians are still planning to add another science module in 2012 called Nauka which will likely be the last major component to the station, although there’s still the potential for other people to add even more modules, like Bigelow and their inflatable habitats.

NASA’s Galileo Reveals Magma ‘Ocean’ Beneath Surface of Jupiter’s Moon
A new analysis of data from NASA’s Galileo spacecraft has revealed that beneath the surface of Jupiter’s volcanic moon Io is an “ocean” of molten or partially molten magma. The finding, from a study published May 13 in the journal Science, is the first direct confirmation of such a magma layer on Io and explains why the moon is the most volcanic object known in the solar system. The research was conducted by scientists from UCLA, UC Santa Cruz and the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.

Caught in the Act: Herschel Detects Gigantic Storms Sweeping Entire Galaxies Clean
With observations from the PACS instrument on board the ESA Herschel space observatory, an international team of scientists led by the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics has found gigantic storms of molecular gas gusting in the centres of many galaxies. Some of these massive outflows reach velocities of more than 1000 kilometres per second, i.e. thousands of times faster than in terrestrial hurricanes. The observations show that the more active galaxies contain stronger winds, which can blow away the entire gas reservoir in a galaxy, thereby inhibiting both further star formation and the growth of the central black hole. This finding is the first conclusive evidence for the importance of galactic winds in the evolution of galaxies.

India and space security
India’s space program has very strong civil roots: it began as a means to assist India in its development and has mainly focused on improving the everyday lives of its citizens. More recently, India has made a dramatic shift in the tone of its space efforts. Lately, the country has adopted a more militarized attitude, as exemplified by statements made by Indian governmental officials and by increased efforts by India to create an indigenous ballistic missile defense program. India’s space efforts very well could affect the long-term sustainability of space and merits further attention.

Rocks on Mars May Provide Link to Evidence of Living Organisms Roughly 4 Billion Years Ago
A new article in press of the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters unveils groundbreaking research on the hydrothermal formation of Clay-Carbonate rocks in the Nili Fossae region of Mars. The findings may provide a link to evidence of living organisms on Mars, roughly 4 billion years ago in the Noachian period. The paper – by Adrian J. Brown of the SETI Institute and colleagues at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, the Desert Research Institute and Brazil’s Universidade Estadual de Campinas – analyzes data from the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM), using co-located HiRISE images in order to further characterize the rocks.

New estimate for alien Earths: 2 billion in our galaxy alone
Scientists are seeking out worlds that are roughly the size of Earth and are the right distance from their suns to have liquid water on the planet. Roughly one out of every 37 to one out of every 70 sunlike stars in the sky might harbor an alien Earth, a new study reveals. These findings hint that billions of Earthlike planets might exist in our galaxy, researchers added. These new calculations are based in data from the Kepler space telescope, which in February wowed the globe by revealing more than 1,200 possible alien worlds, including 68 potentially Earth-size planets. The spacecraft does so by looking for the dimming that occurs when a world transits or moves in front of a star.

Comet Elenin: Preview of a Coming Attraction
You may have heard the news: Comet Elenin is coming to the inner-solar system this fall. Comet Elenin (also known by its astronomical name C/2010 X1), was first detected on Dec. 10, 2010 by Leonid Elenin, an observer in Lyubertsy, Russia, who made the discovery “remotely” using the ISON-NM observatory near Mayhill, New Mexico. At the time of the discovery, the comet was about 647 million kilometers (401 million miles) from Earth. Over the past four-and-a-half months, the comet has – as comets do – closed the distance to Earth’s vicinity as it makes its way closer to perihelion (its closest point to the sun). As of May 4, Elenin’s distance is about 274 million kilometers (170 million miles).

Public-private partnerships for space
Last week The Planetary Society honored me with a beautiful retirement dinner. Hosted by my good friends Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye (the Society’s new Executive Director), it was billed as a “Roast and Toast of Lou Friedman.” The roasts were relatively mild – not too much grilling – and the toasts were politically correct – not too much alcohol. There were many nice comments and many speakers highlighted my how the Planetary Society helped inspire people worldwide to explore new worlds and seek other life. Those comments meant a lot to me.

Spacecraft Earth to Perform Asteroid ‘Flyby’ This Fall
Since the dawn of the space age, humanity has sent 16 robotic emissaries to fly by some of the solar system’s most intriguing and nomadic occupants — comets and asteroids. The data and imagery collected on these deep-space missions of exploration have helped redefine our understanding of how Earth and our part of the galaxy came to be. But this fall, Mother Nature is giving scientists around the world a close-up view of one of her good-sized space rocks — no rocket required.

Commercial space skepticism
These are, by and large, encouraging times for commercial space ventures. Last month NASA issued awards to four companies, ranging from aerospace giant Boeing to small, secretive Blue Origin, to develop technologies for future proposed commercial crew transportation systems, while SpaceX – another commercial crew awardee – and Orbital Sciences prepare to launch cargo demonstration flights to the International Space Station later this year. Several companies are also achieving milestones on suborbital vehicle systems: in just the last week Virgin Galactic carried out the first glide flight of SpaceShipTwo with its wings in the “feathered” configuration required for reentry on spaceflights, while Blue Origin apparently carried out, or planned to carry out, low-altitude flight tests from its West Texas facility, according to an FAA notice to pilots.

NASA’s Gravity Probe B Confirms Two Einstein Space-Time Theories
NASA’s Gravity Probe B (GP-B) mission has confirmed two key predictions derived from Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, which the spacecraft was designed to test. The experiment, launched in 2004, used four ultra-precise gyroscopes to measure the hypothesized geodetic effect, the warping of space and time around a gravitational body, and frame-dragging, the amount a spinning object pulls space and time with it as it rotates. GP-B determined both effects with unprecedented precision by pointing at a single star, IM Pegasi, while in a polar orbit around Earth. If gravity did not affect space and time, GP-B’s gyroscopes would point in the same direction forever while in orbit. But in confirmation of Einstein’s theories, the gyroscopes experienced measurable, minute changes in the direction of their spin, while Earth’s gravity pulled at them.

So many lonely planets with no star to guide them
Our Galaxy may be full of worlds without a sun to call their own. Scattered about the Milky Way are floating, Jupiter-mass objects, which are likely to be planets wandering around the Galaxy’s core instead of orbiting host stars. But these planets aren’t rare occurrences in the interstellar sea: the drifters might be nearly twice as numerous as the most common stars. “This is an amazing result, and if it’s right, the implications for planet formation are profound,” says astronomer Debra Fischer at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.

Spitzer Detects Shadow of ‘Super-Earth’ in Front of Nearby Star
NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope has detected the crossing of a solid planet in front of a star located at only 42 light-years in the constellation Cancer. Thanks to this detection, astronomers know that this “super-Earth” measures 2.1 times the size of our Earth. This is the smallest exoplanet detected in the neighborhood of our Sun. The discovery is based on data acquired by the Spitzer spacecraft last January. The data allowed astronomers to detect the “transit” of the planet, i.e. the tiny decrease of the star’s brightness occurring when the planet passes in front of it.

NASA Selects Investigations for Future Key Missions
NASA has selected three science investigations from which it will pick one potential 2016 mission to look at Mars’ interior for the first time; study an extraterrestrial sea on one of Saturn’s moons; or study in unprecedented detail the surface of a comet’s nucleus. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., would lead the Mars investigation. Each investigation team will receive $3 million to conduct its mission’s concept phase or preliminary design studies and analyses. After another detailed review in 2012 of the concept studies, NASA will select one to continue development efforts leading up to launch. The selected mission will be cost-capped at $425 million, not including launch vehicle funding.

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