Follow Friday & Weekly Stumbles For 2011-07-15

This week I recommend to follow @CatherineQ for interesting tweets from an astrophysicist and science communicator. For more Twitter follow suggestions see our astronomy list @TheAstroBlog/astronomy

Weekly Stumbles:

Space Shuttle Legacy Includes 50 Percent More Tech Spinoffs than Apollo
After years of development and decades of flying, the now-cancelled space shuttle program has left more to future generations than pieces for museums and fond memories of exploration. Its legacy lives on in an artificial heart device, NASCAR racing cars and rescue tools used to reach car accident victims. The entire array of NASA tech spinoffs could even be greater than the number of spinoffs from the Apollo moon missions. Whether or not the space shuttle program was worth its $209 billion price tag remains a separate debate for human spaceflight advocates and critics.

Evolved Stars Locked in Fatalistic Dance
White dwarfs are the burned-out cores of stars like our Sun. Astronomers have discovered a pair of white dwarfs spiraling into one another at breakneck speeds. Today, these white dwarfs are so near they make a complete orbit in just 13 minutes, but they are gradually slipping closer together. About 900,000 years from now – a blink of an eye in astronomical time – they will merge and possibly explode as a supernova. By watching the stars converge, scientists will test both Einstein’s general theory of relativity and the origin of some peculiar supernovae.

Comet’s Death by Sun Photographed for First Time
The death of a comet that plunged into the sun was captured on camera this month for the first time in history, scientists say. The comet met its fiery demise on July 6 when it zoomed in from behind the sun and melted into oblivion as it crashed into the star. It was NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), a satellite orbiting Earth that studies the sun, which witnessed the comet’s death-blow. One of the SDO spacecraft’s high-definition imagers “actually spotted a sun-grazing comet as it disintegrated over about a 15 minute period (July 6, 2011), something never observed before,” SDO officials said.

NASA Launches Space Shuttle on Historic Final Mission
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — The space shuttle Atlantis soared into the heavens and the history books Friday (July 8), kicking off the last-ever mission of NASA’s storied shuttle program. Despite a bleak forecast of thunderstorms and clouds, the shuttle beat the weather in a stunning midday launch, sailing into the sky on one final voyage. The countdown toward liftoff took a dramatic pause at T minus 31 seconds while ground crews verified that a vent arm at the top of the shuttle was fully retracted. NASA was quickly able to push on toward liftoff.

Twin ARTEMIS Probes to Study Moon in 3-D
On Sunday, July 17, the moon will acquire its second new companion in less than a month. That’s when the second of two probes built by the University of California, Berkeley, and part of NASA’s five-satellite THEMIS mission will drop into a permanent lunar orbit after a meandering, two-year journey from its original orbit around Earth. The first of the two probes settled into a stable orbit around the moon’s equator on June 27. If all goes well, the second probe will assume a similar lunar orbit, though in the opposite direction, sometime Sunday afternoon.

Search Is On for Moon Around Asteroid Vesta
The debate over whether the giant asteroid Vesta has a moon could soon be decided. NASA’s Dawn spacecraft will go into orbit in mid-July, when it will take the best-ever photographs of the big rock. Those photographs will give scientists the best evidence yet for or against the existence of a moon around Vesta. You might think of asteroids as isolated bodies tumbling alone through space, but it’s entirely possible for these old “loners” to have companions.

New Planets Feature Young Star and Twin Neptunes
An international team, including Oxford University scientists, has discovered 10 new planets. Amongst them is one orbiting a star perhaps only a few tens of million years old, twin Neptune-sized planets, and a rare Saturn-like world. The planets were detected using the CoRoT (Convection, Rotation and Transits) space telescope, operated by the French space agency CNES. It discovers planets outside our solar system – exoplanets – when they ‘transit’, that is pass in front of their stars.

NASA’s Shuttle Program Cost $209 Billion — Was it Worth It?
When NASA’s space shuttle program was announced back in 1972, it was billed as a major advance — a key step in humanity’s quest to exploit and explore space. The shuttle would enable safe, frequent and affordable access to space, the argument went, with flights occurring as often as once per week and costing as little as $20 million each. But much of that original vision didn’t come to pass. Two of the program’s 134 flights have ended in tragedy, killing 14 astronauts in all. Recent NASA estimates peg the shuttle program’s cost through the end of last year at $209 billion (in 2010 dollars), yielding a per-flight cost of nearly $1.6 billion.

Wings in space
In the early 1950’s German rocket pioneer Wernher von Braun wrote a series of amazing articles for Collier’s magazine to popularize the notion of human space travel. The stunning illustrations for these pieces tried to predict what mankind’s future in space might be like. Some pictures showed a beautiful winged space plane ferrying people up to and back down from earth orbit. The rocket plane had large, long wings and was far sleeker and more beautiful than our present Space Shuttle orbiter.

NASA Spacecraft to Enter Asteroid’s Orbit On July 15
On July 15, NASA’s Dawn spacecraft will begin a prolonged encounter with the asteroid Vesta, making the mission the first to enter orbit around a main-belt asteroid. The main asteroid belt lies between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. Dawn will study Vesta for one year, and observations will help scientists understand the earliest chapter of our solar system’s history. As the spacecraft approaches Vesta, surface details are coming into focus, as seen in a recent image taken from a distance of about 26,000 miles (41,000 kilometers).

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