Follow Friday & Weekly Stumbles For 2011-07-08

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Weekly Stumbles:

Threat of James Webb Space Telescope cancellation rattles astronomy community
As NASA prepares to wrap up its shuttle program, leaving open questions about what comes next for U.S. human spaceflight, the next big thing in NASA’s astronomy program has been dealt a blow. The James Webb Space Telescope, a tennis court–size spacecraft that would take up a position in deep space to peer farther than ever into the cosmos, has been in development as a replacement for and successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, which has already logged 21 years in orbit. But the House Appropriations Committee, in a bill announced July 6, proposed axing the project entirely this week, citing mismanagement and bad budgeting.

End of Shuttle Era Opens Doors for Robotic Space Exploration
Human astronauts got the glory when they reached the moon during the Apollo program, but robotic space explorers helped pave the way for humanity’s giant leap. Now the end of the space shuttle era coincides with a chance for renewed cooperation between humans and robots, as NASA looks beyond Earth orbit toward the asteroids and even Mars. Planetary scientists who have championed robots as scientific partners in space exploration are welcoming the new opportunity.

Cassini Captures Images and Sounds of Saturn Storm
Scientists analyzing data from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft now have the first-ever, up-close details of a Saturn storm that is eight times the surface area of Earth. On Dec. 5, 2010, Cassini first detected the storm that has been raging ever since. It appears approximately 35 degrees north latitude of Saturn. Pictures from Cassini’s imaging cameras show the storm wrapping around the entire planet covering approximately 2 billion square miles (4 billion square kilometers).

Hydrogen Peroxide Found in Space
Molecules of hydrogen peroxide have been found for the first time in interstellar space. The discovery gives clues about the chemical link between two molecules critical for life: water and oxygen. On Earth, hydrogen peroxide plays a key role in the chemistry of water and ozone in our planet’s atmosphere, and is familiar for its use as a disinfectant or to bleach hair blonde. Now it has been detected in space by astronomers using the European Southern Observatory-operated APEX telescope in Chile.

Clocking Neptune’s Spin by Tracking Atmospheric Features
A day on Neptune lasts precisely 15 hours, 57 minutes and 59 seconds, according to the first accurate measurement of its rotational period made by University of Arizona planetary scientist Erich Karkoschka. His result is one of the largest improvements in determining the rotational period of a gas planet in almost 350 years since Italian astronomer Giovanni Cassini made the first observations of Jupiter’s Red Spot. “The rotational period of a planet is one of its fundamental properties,” said Karkoschka, a senior staff scientist at the UA’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory.

Making a Spectacle of Star Formation in Orion
Looking like a pair of eyeglasses only a rock star would wear, a new nebula view brings into focus a murky region of star formation. NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope exposes the depths of this dusty nebula with its infrared vision, showing stellar infants that are lost behind dark clouds when viewed in visible light. Best known as Messier 78, the two round greenish nebulae are actually cavities carved out of the surrounding dark dust clouds. The extended dust is mostly dark, even to Spitzer’s view, but the edges show up in mid-wavelength infrared light as glowing, red frames surrounding the bright interiors.

The mission of the final shuttle mission
In three days, technology and meteorology permitting, the space shuttle Atlantis will lift off from the Kennedy Space Center on STS-135, the final mission of the shuttle program. Not surprisingly, the media’s and the public’s attention is growing, with perhaps a million people expected on the Space Coast to witness the final launch, as reporters—many of whom have paid no more than sporadic attention to the Space Shuttle program over the years—descend on KSC to cover the launch and provide their perspectives on the end of the shuttle era.

‘Odd Couple’ Binary Star System Makes Dual Gamma-Ray Flares
In December 2010, a pair of mismatched stars in the southern constellation Crux whisked past each other at a distance closer than Venus orbits the sun. The system possesses a so-far unique blend of a hot and massive star with a compact fast-spinning pulsar. The pair’s closest encounters occur every 3.4 years and each is marked by a sharp increase in gamma rays, the most extreme form of light. The unique combination of stars, the long wait between close approaches, and periods of intense gamma-ray emission make this system irresistible to astrophysicists.

Quantum ‘Graininess’ of Space at Smaller Scales? Gamma-Ray Observatory Challenges Physics Beyond Einstein
The European Space Agency’s Integral gamma-ray observatory has provided results that will dramatically affect the search for physics beyond Einstein. It has shown that any underlying quantum ‘graininess’ of space must be at much smaller scales than previously predicted. Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity describes the properties of gravity and assumes that space is a smooth, continuous fabric. Yet quantum theory suggests that space should be grainy at the smallest scales, like sand on a beach. One of the great concerns of modern physics is to marry these two concepts into a single theory of quantum gravity.

NASA’s Hubble Makes One Millionth Science Observation
NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope crossed another milestone in its space odyssey of exploration and discovery. On July 4, the Earth-orbiting observatory logged its one millionth science observation during a search for water in an exoplanet’s atmosphere 1,000 light-years away. “For 21 years Hubble has been the premier space science observatory, astounding us with deeply beautiful imagery and enabling ground-breaking science across a wide spectrum of astronomical disciplines,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. He piloted the space shuttle mission that carried Hubble to orbit. “The fact that Hubble met this milestone while studying a faraway planet is a remarkable reminder of its strength and legacy.”

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