Follow Friday & Weekly Stumbles For 2011-06-24

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

Weekly Stumbles:

ESA reentry vehicle on track for flight in 2013
Europe’s ambition for a spacecraft to return autonomously from low orbit is a cornerstone for a wide range of space applications, including space transportation, exploration and robotic servicing of space infrastructure. This goal will be achieved with IXV Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle, planned for launch in 2013. Launched into a suborbital trajectory on ESA’s small Vega rocket from Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana, IXV will return to Earth as if from a low-orbit mission, to test and qualify new European critical reentry technologies such as advanced ceramic and ablative thermal protection.

Green Ring Fit for a Superhero: Spitzer Space Telescope Spies Powerful Light of Giant ‘O’ Stars
This glowing emerald nebula seen by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope is reminiscent of the glowing ring wielded by the superhero Green Lantern. In the comic books, the diminutive Guardians of the Planet “Oa” forged his power ring, but astronomers believe rings like this are actually sculpted by the powerful light of giant “O” stars. O stars are the most massive type of star known to exist. Named RCW 120 by astronomers, this region of hot gas and glowing dust can be found in the murky clouds encircled by the tail of the constellation Scorpius. The green ring of dust is actually glowing in infrared colors that our eyes cannot see, but show up brightly when viewed by Spitzer’s infrared detectors.

Mercury: Messenger Orbital Data Confirm Theories, Reveal Surprises
On March 18, 2011, the MESSENGER spacecraft entered orbit around Mercury to become that planet’s first orbiter. The spacecraft’s instruments are making a complete reconnaissance of the planet’s geochemistry, geophysics, geologic history, atmosphere, magnetosphere, and plasma environment. MESSENGER is providing a wealth of new information and some surprises. For instance, Mercury’s surface composition differs from that expected for the innermost of the terrestrial planets, and Mercury’s magnetic field has a north-south asymmetry that affects interaction of the planet’s surface with charged particles from the solar wind.

NASA’s New Heavy-Lift Launcher Would First Fly With Solid Rocket Boosters
Facing mounting pressure to bring industrial competition to a congressionally mandated heavy-lift rocket development program, NASA has tentatively selected a vehicle design featuring solid-fueled, side-mounted boosters that eventually could be replaced with liquid-fueled engines, according to U.S. industry and congressional sources. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden has approved a design for the Space Launch System (SLS) whose core and upper stages would utilize space shuttle- and Apollo-heritage propulsion systems, respectively, these sources said.

Spectacular Hubble View of Centaurus A
The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has produced a close-up view of the galaxy Centaurus A. Hubble’s out-of-this-world location and world-class Wide Field Camera 3 instrument reveal a dramatic picture of a dynamic galaxy in flux. Centaurus A, also known as NGC 5128, is well known for its dramatic dusty lanes of dark material. Hubble’s observations, using its most advanced instrument, the Wide Field Camera 3, are the most detailed ever made of this galaxy. They have been combined here in a multi-wavelength image that reveals never-before-seen detail in the dusty portion of the galaxy.

Sun’s Fading Spots Signal Big Drop in Solar Activity
Some unusual solar readings, including fading sunspots and weakening magnetic activity near the poles, could be indications that our sun is preparing to be less active in the coming years. The results of three separate studies seem to show that even as the current sunspot cycle swells toward the solar maximum, the sun could be heading into a more-dormant period, with activity during the next 11-year sunspot cycle greatly reduced or even eliminated. The results of the new studies were announced today (June 14) at the annual meeting of the solar physics division of the American Astronomical Society, which is being held this week at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces.

Skylon: ready for takeoff?
For decades, the ultimate goal in space transportation has been the single-stage-to-orbit reusable launch vehicle, or SSTO RLV. Such vehicles, engineers and other space advocates have argued, would make space transportation much more like air transportation: airplanes, after all, aren’t thrown away after a single flight, and don’t jettison parts en route to their destinations. A launch vehicle that could operate in the same fashion — even if it didn’t necessarily take off or land like an airplane — would, proponents claimed, be simpler, safer, and less expensive than conventional expendable rockets and thus open up new markets for space activity.

Recalculating the Distance to Interstellar Space
Scientists analyzing recent data from NASA’s Voyager and Cassini spacecraft have calculated that Voyager 1 could cross over into the frontier of interstellar space at any time and much earlier than previously thought. The findings are detailed in this week’s issue of the journal Nature. Data from Voyager’s low-energy charged particle instrument, first reported in December 2010, have indicated that the outward speed of the charged particles streaming from the sun has slowed to zero. The stagnation of this solar wind has continued through at least February 2011, marking a thick, previously unpredicted “transition zone” at the edge of our solar system.

10 New Alien Planets a Diverse Bunch, Telescope Shows
A European space telescope has discovered 10 previously unknown alien planets, including two Neptune-like objects that circle the same star, researchers announced today (June 14). France’s CoRoT satellite detected the 10 alien planets, all of which are gaseous like Saturn or Jupiter. However, they exhibit a range of masses, densities, orbital characteristics and other properties, researchers said. The new discoveries highlight the diversity of worlds beyond our solar system and boost the confirmed count of extrasolar planets up to 565, they added.

The irreplaceable Space Shuttle
On June 1 the shuttle Endeavour glided to its final landing at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. If all goes according to NASA’s current plans, the final shuttle mission, the flight of Atlantis on STS-135, will launch on July 8. When Atlantis lands, it will mark the end of the operational life of a remarkable spacecraft. It will also mark the end of all American manned spaceflight, at least for the next few years. Leaving aside the bitter arguments over future NASA policy, it is worthwhile to look back to see why the shuttle was developed and what lessons we can draw from the program.

Virgin Galactic Pushes Private Spaceship Envelope in Test Flights
The space tourism company Virgin Galactic has put its spaceship of choice through new glide flights and re-entry technology tests in the latest round of workouts for the privately built spaceliner. The suborbital rocket ship SpaceShipTwo has been repeatedly dropped from its mothership, called WhiteKnightTwo, at high altitude during 10 glide flights at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. It is the first of five SpaceShipTwo vehicles being constructed for Virgin Galactic by the Mojave-based company Scaled Composites. SpaceShipTwo is a six-passenger and two-pilot vehicle.

NASA’s Chandra Finds Massive Black Holes Common in Early Universe
Using the deepest X-ray image ever taken, astronomers found the first direct evidence that massive black holes were common in the early universe. This discovery from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory shows that very young black holes grew more aggressively than previously thought, in tandem with the growth of their host galaxies. By pointing Chandra at a patch of sky for more than six weeks, astronomers obtained what is known as the Chandra Deep Field South (CDFS). When combined with very deep optical and infrared images from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, the new Chandra data allowed astronomers to search for black holes in 200 distant galaxies, from when the universe was between about 800 million to 950 million years old.

NASA Spacecraft Discovers 122 Pairs of Star Twins
Two NASA satellites built to study the sun have discovered 122 previously unknown sets of twin stars, scientists say. A team from the United Kingdom used NASA’s Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory, or Stereo, to spot the paired stars. The Stereo observatories noticed the dimming that occurs when one of the stars passes in front of the other, as seen from Earth. Since their launch in 2006, the two nearly identical Stereo spacecraft have snapped images of almost 900,000 background stars. Both satellites contain two heliospheric imagers, which record eruptions from the sun. But they also gather information about the stars that routinely pass through the instruments’ field of view.

Comet Hartley 2 in Hyperactive Class of Its Own: CO2 Jets Confirmed, New Insight Into Composition, ‘Excited’ Rotation
Comet Hartley 2, is in a hyperactive class of its own compared to other comets visited by spacecraft, says a University of Maryland-led study published in the June 17 issue of the journal Science. The comet was visited last fall by NASA’s Deep Impact spacecraft during its EPOXI mission. The EPOXI science team’s new, in-depth analysis of the images and data taken during the flyby confirms its earlier finding that carbon dioxide is the volatile fuel for Hartley 2’s ice-spewing jets.

First Images from the VLT Survey Telescope With With Huge 268-Megapixel Camera
The VLT Survey Telescope (VST), the latest addition to ESO’s Paranal Observatory, has made its first release of impressive images of the southern sky. The VST is a state-of-the-art 2.6-metre telescope, with the huge 268-megapixel camera OmegaCAM at its heart, which is designed to map the sky both quickly and with very fine image quality. It is a visible-light telescope that perfectly complements ESO’s VISTA infrared survey telescope. New images of the Omega Nebula and the globular cluster Omega Centauri demonstrate the VST’s power.

Sun Unleashes ‘Spectacular’ & Powerful Eruption
The sun unleashed a massive solar storm today (June 7) in a dazzling eruption that kicked up a vast cloud of magnetic plasma that appeared to rain back down over half of the sun’s entire surface, NASA scientists say. The solar storm hit its peak at about 2:41 a.m. EDT (0641 GMT), but the actual flare extended over a three-hour period, said C. Alex Young, a solar astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center who runs a website called The Sun Today, in a video describing the event. “The sun produced a quite spectacular prominence eruption that had a solar flare and high-energy particles associated with it, but I’ve just never seen material released like this before,” Young said. “It looks like somebody just kicked a giant clod of dirt into the air and then it fell back down.”

NASA’s Dawn Spacecraft Approaches Protoplanet Vesta
NASA’s Dawn mission to the doughnut-shaped asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, which launched in September 2007, is now approaching Vesta, a protoplanet that is currently some 143 million miles from Earth. Many surprises are likely awaiting the spacecraft. “We often refer to Vesta as the smallest terrestrial planet,” said Christopher T. Russell, a UCLA professor of geophysics and space physics and the mission’s principal investigator. “It has planetary features and basically the same structure as Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars. But because it is so small, it does not have enough gravity to retain an atmosphere, or at least not to retain an atmosphere for very long.

Raising the International Space Station: ATV Johannes Kepler Conducts the ‘Big Boost’
It’s the International Space Station’s biggest increase in altitude to date, and, thanks to the European Space Agency’s ATV Johannes Kepler, it will significantly improve the 417-tonne Station’s orbital mileage through the next decade of scientific research. During three intensive reboost manoeuvres, ATV Johannes Kepler is raising the ISS altitude from around 345 km to 380 km, where it will use far less fuel to maintain its orbit and cutting the amount of fuel that must be sent up in the coming years by almost half.

Nearby Galaxy Boasts Two Monster Black Holes, Both Active
A study using NASA’s Swift satellite and the Chandra X-ray Observatory has found a second supersized black hole at the heart of an unusual nearby galaxy already known to be sporting one. The galaxy, which is known as Markarian 739 or NGC 3758, lies 425 million light-years away toward the constellation Leo. Only about 11,000 light-years separate the two cores, each of which contains a black hole gorging on infalling gas. The study will appear in a forthcoming issue of The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Entry, Descent and Surface Science for 2016 Mars Mission
The European Space Agency (ESA) and the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) have announced the scientific investigations selected for their 2016 ExoMars lander demonstrator. They will probe the atmosphere during the descent, and return the first ever data on electrical fields at the surface of Mars. The EDM Entry, descent, and landing Demonstrator Module is part of the joint ESA/NASA ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter mission to be launched in 2016 for arrival at Mars nine months later.

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