Follow Friday & Weekly Stumbles For 2011-07-01

This week I recommend to follow @nasahqphoto for great space photos from NASA. For more Twitter follow suggestions see our astronomy list @TheAstroBlog/astronomy

Weekly Stumbles:

Space Junk Forces Astronauts to Take Shelter in Russian Spaceships
A piece of space junk zoomed uncomfortably close by the International Space Station today (June 28), so close that the outpost’s six-man crew had to take shelter in Russian space capsules in case of a collision. The space debris made its closest approach to the space station at 8:08 a.m. EDT (1208 GMT), coming within 850 feet (260 meters) of the space station, where it posed a slim chance of hitting the station. However, the debris passed by the station without incident and the spaceflyers were able to re-enter the station after about a half hour.

It’s not (just) about the starship
Spaceflight today faces a dizzying array of challenges. Government programs have to find ways to do more with less funding. Commercial efforts, particularly new entrepreneurial ventures, try to close their business cases while seeking to raise funding and develop their vehicles or spacecraft. Major obstacles to greater exploration and exploitation of space, notably the price and reliability of space access, are as high today as they have been in previous decades. In that environment, it seems like there wouldn’t be much time or interest to think about interstellar travel.

Universe’s Most Distant Quasar Found, Powered by Massive Black Hole
A team of European astronomers has used the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope and a host of other telescopes to discover and study the most distant quasar found to date. This brilliant beacon, powered by a black hole with a mass two billion times that of the Sun, is by far the brightest object yet discovered in the early Universe. The results will appear in the June 30, 2011, issue of the journal Nature. “This quasar is a vital probe of the early Universe. It is a very rare object that will help us to understand how supermassive black holes grew a few hundred million years after the Big Bang,” says Stephen Warren, the study’s team leader.

When the skies fall: hostile aliens invade the small screen
The National Geographic Channel recently aired a program that explores how the human race might respond if hostile aliens tried to take over the Earth. When Aliens Attack is apparently based on the book Alien Invasion: How to Defend the Earth by writer Bob Boan and Dr. Travis Taylor, a physicist. Dr. Taylor states early in the program that he was working on a project for the “intelligence community” on asymmetric warfare, and “we got thinking about, is it likely that we would be invaded by aliens, and we decided that it’s very likely, and we needed a plan.”

Flames of Betelgeuse: New Image Reveals Vast Nebula Around Famous Supergiant Star
Using the VISIR instrument on the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (VLT), astronomers have imaged a complex and bright nebula around the supergiant star Betelgeuse in greater detail than ever before. This structure, which resembles flames emanating from the star, is formed as the behemoth sheds its material into space. Betelgeuse, a red supergiant in the constellation of Orion, is one of the brightest stars in the night sky. It is also one of the biggest, being almost the size of the orbit of Jupiter — about four and half times the diameter of Earth’s orbit.

Prophets of science fiction
Now that the Space Shuttle is nearing retirement we can expect a lot of historical analysis about the program. But it is also worth going back to the early public literature about the shuttle and seeing what people wrote about it in its pre-flight days. It turns out that a number of people predicted, years before the shuttle began flying, that it would fail to achieve its promised goals. Although it has become common these days to call the shuttle a policy and programmatic failure, the historical evidence indicates that the nation walked into it with eyes wide open, whistling a jaunty tune.

‘Zombie’ Stars Key to Measuring Dark Energy
“Zombie” stars that explode like bombs as they die, only to revive by sucking matter out of other stars. According to an astrophysicist at UC Santa Barbara, this isn’t the plot for the latest 3D blockbuster movie. Instead, it’s something that happens every day in the universe — something that can be used to measure dark energy. This special category of stars, known as Type Ia supernovae, help to probe the mystery of dark energy, which scientists believe is related to the expansion of the universe.

Pandora’s Cluster: A Galactic Crash Investigation
When huge clusters of galaxies crash together, the resulting mess is a treasure trove of information for astronomers. By investigating one of the most complex and unusual colliding clusters in the sky, an international team of astronomers has pieced together the history of a cosmic crash that took place over a period of 350 million years. Julian Merten, one of the lead scientists for this new study of cluster Abell 2744, explains: “Like a crash investigator piecing together the cause of an accident, we can use observations of these cosmic pile-ups to reconstruct events that happened over a period of hundreds of millions of years.

Floating Probe Would Examine Alien Sea on Titan
The splashdown of a robot explorer in an extraterrestrial sea may recall the age of discovery involving wooden sailing ships. But the proposed expedition to a moon of Saturn also evokes some good old-fashioned spacecraft heritage and relies upon a powerful new nuclear battery. The Titan Mare Explorer (TiME) mission being proposed to NASA would land in one of the largest seas of Titan, a moon where liquid ethane and methane rain onto a surface dotted by lakes and small seas. That may sound wildly different from NASA’s moon or Mars landings, yet it would draw upon many past space missions, said Ralph Lorenz, a planetary scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md.

Cassini Captures Saturn’s Icy Moon Helene
NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has successfully completed its second-closest encounter with Saturn’s icy moon Helene, beaming down raw images of the small moon. At closest approach, on June 18, Cassini flew within 4,330 miles (6,968 kilometers) of Helene’s surface. It was the second closest approach to Helene of the entire mission. Cassini passed from Helene’s night side to the moon’s sunlit side. It also captured images of the Saturn-facing side of the moon in sunlight, a region that was only illuminated by sunlight reflected off Saturn the last time Cassini was close, in March 2010.

Commercial space, what’s good for Florida, and 2012
For too long the economy of Florida’s Space Coast has been too heavily dependent on a very small number of huge government projects. This narrow business model calls to mind the adage “if you only own one stock, you probably deserve what you get when it goes down.” Tragically, the state and the nation failed to learn this very lesson when the end of Apollo program devastated Central Florida’s economy in the 1970s, and as a result the Space Coast is now losing 9,000 Space Shuttle jobs.

Is Enceladus Hiding Saltwater Ocean? Cassini Captures Ocean-Like Spray at Saturn’s Moon
NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has discovered the best evidence yet for a large-scale saltwater reservoir beneath the icy crust of Saturn’s moon Enceladus. The data came from the spacecraft’s direct analysis of salt-rich ice grains close to the jets ejected from the moon. Data from Cassini’s cosmic dust analyzer show the grains expelled from fissures, known as tiger stripes, are relatively small and predominantly low in salt far away from the moon. But closer to the moon’s surface, Cassini found that relatively large grains rich with sodium and potassium dominate the plumes. The salt-rich particles have an “ocean-like” composition and indicate that most, if not all, of the expelled ice and water vapor comes from the evaporation of liquid salt water.

Astronomers Discover That Galaxies Are Either Asleep or Awake
Astronomers have probed into the distant universe and discovered that galaxies display one of two distinct behaviors: they are either awake or asleep, actively forming stars or are not forming any new stars at all. Scientists have known for several years that galaxies in the nearby universe seem to fall into one of these two states. But a new survey of the distant universe shows that even very young galaxies as far away as 12 billion light years are either awake or asleep as well, meaning galaxies have behaved this way for more than 85 percent of the history of the universe.

The national space policy, one year later
The space community often treats the release of new policies as major milestones, the end of a long process largely conducted behind closed doors. A prime example was the release of the Obama Administration’s national space policy, one year ago this week. Immediately after its release, industry, media, and other observers closely examined both the language and tone of the policy, looking for what had changed and what had remained the same, congratulating the administration for its insights or lamenting the policy’s oversights.

The End for ATV Johannes Kepler
Europe’s unmanned ATV space freighter plunged on command into Earth’s atmosphere June 21, 2011 to end its mission as a spectacular shooting star over the southern Pacific Ocean. Contact with the spacecraft was lost at 20:41:39 GMT (22:41:39 CEST) at an altitude of 80 km. After a flawless undocking from the International Space Station June 20 at 14:46 GMT (16:46 CEST), the Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) flew solo while its mission control centre in Toulouse, France, prepared the craft for its fiery end. There was one unplanned manoeuvre: dodging a piece of space debris about two hours after leaving the Station.

Neutron Star Bites Off More Than It Can Chew
The European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton space observatory has watched a faint star flare up at X-ray wavelengths to almost 10 000 times its normal brightness. Astronomers believe the outburst was caused by the star trying to eat a giant clump of matter. The flare took place on a neutron star, the collapsed heart of a once much larger star. Now about 10 km in diameter, the neutron star is so dense that it generates a strong gravitational field. The clump of matter was much larger than the neutron star and came from its enormous blue supergiant companion star.

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