Follow Friday & Weekly Stumbles For 2011-07-29

This week I recommend to follow @AstroRobonaut for interesting tweets about the Robonaut, a humanoid astronaut robot. For more Twitter follow suggestions see our astronomy list @TheAstroBlog/astronomy

Weekly Stumbles:

Astronomers Discover Largest and Most Distant Reservoir of Water Yet
Water really is everywhere. Two teams of astronomers, each led by scientists at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), have discovered the largest and farthest reservoir of water ever detected in the universe. Looking from a distance of 30 billion trillion miles away into a quasar — one of the brightest and most violent objects in the cosmos — the researchers have found a mass of water vapor that’s at least 140 trillion times that of all the water in the world’s oceans combined, and 100,000 times more massive than the sun.

Evidence Builds For Water on Mars
NASA has chosen a landing site for its next Mars rover with the goal of seeking more signs of historical water on the planet, and a recent study suggests it may find it. New evidence of Mars’ watery past has surfaced, NASA scientists say, suggesting that telltale signs of the wet stuff may lurk under thin layers of rust seen scattered around the Red Planet, in areas that mirror conditions found in Earth’s desert regions. That’s good news for NASA’ Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover, which will be launched toward the planet later this year.

Exoplanet Aurora: An Out-Of-This-World Sight
Earth’s aurorae, or Northern and Southern Lights, provide a dazzling light show to people living in the polar regions. Shimmering curtains of green and red undulate across the sky like a living thing. New research shows that aurorae on distant “hot Jupiters” could be 100-1000 times brighter than Earthly aurorae. They also would ripple from equator to poles (due to the planet’s proximity to any stellar eruptions), treating the entire planet to an otherworldly spectacle.

The best of spacecraft, the worst of spacecraft
Countless commentaries have been written in the last few months about the end of the Space Shuttle program. The diversity of opinion on the value of the shuttle to human space exploration generally, and the American taxpayer specifically, is striking. A vehicle that tried to be all things to all potential users has been hailed as a technical marvel and derided as a wasteful deathtrap. It seems unlikely that a consensus on the ultimate worth of the shuttle will soon precipitate from the roiling cauldron of public opinion.

Spiral Galaxy Glows Like a Cosmic Spider Web
A spiral galaxy’s starlight and delicate pattern of dust evoke a bright, swirling spider web in space in a newly released image from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope. Captured in infrared light, the galaxy IC 342’s faint starlight gives way to the brightly glowing dust found throughout the galaxy’s disk. The spider web-like galaxy is located about 10 million light-years away — relatively close in the cosmic scheme of things — but from this vantage point, the galaxy is directly behind the disk of our own Milky Way.

NASA’s Space Shuttle Program Ends With Atlantis Landing
Wrapping up 30 years of unmatched achievements and blazing a trail for the next era of U.S. human spaceflight, NASA’s storied Space Shuttle Program came to a “wheels stop” on Thursday (July 21, 2011) at the conclusion of its 135th mission. Shuttle Atlantis and its four-astronaut crew glided home for the final time, ending a 13-day journey of more than five million miles with a landing at 5:57 a.m. EDT at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. It was the 26th night landing (20th night and 78th total landings at Kennedy) and the 133rd landing in shuttle history.

Wheels stop: The momentum of the first Space Age has finally been exhausted
The first era of NASA’s human spaceflight efforts came to end at precisely 5:57:54 am Eastern Daylight Time on Thursday, July 21, 2011. Exactly 54 seconds after the wheels of its main landing gear made contact with the runway at the Shuttle Landing Facility at the Kennedy Space Center, the shuttle Atlantis came to a halt, an event known in shuttle lingo as “wheels stop”. Never again would a shuttle orbiter move under its own propulsion: from here on out the shuttles would be towed, trucked, and even flown atop their 747 carrier aircraft until they reach their final destinations, museums in Los Angeles, near Washington, and KSC itself.

The beginning of the end or the end of the beginning?
The Space Shuttle era ended when Atlantis lifted off for the International Space Station (ISS); its return to Earth last week was anticlimactic. What that means is that the US civil crewed space program has moved from a nonpartisan icon to just another toy in the political dustup on Capitol Hill. Any future US civil manned space program will confront the open hostility of elements within the American electorate and in Congress. The national mantra now is deficit reduction, which will largely be extracted from the discretionary component of the federal budget.

SOHO Watches a Comet Fading Away
On Nov. 4, 2010, NASA’s EPOXI spacecraft came within 450 miles of Comet Hartley 2, a small comet not even a mile in diameter, which takes about six and a half years to orbit the sun. Designated officially as 103P/Hartley 2, the comet thus became the fifth for which scientists have collected close-up images. But the comet was also observed from another spacecraft: the Solar and Heliospheric Observer (SOHO), better known for its observations of the sun. Together, the two returned data about what appears to be an irregular comet, belching chunks of ice and losing water at a surprisingly fast pace.

Fundamental Matter-Antimatter Symmetry Confirmed
An international collaboration including Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics scientists has set a new value for the antiproton mass relative to the electron with unprecedented precision. According to modern cosmology, matter and antimatter were created in equal amounts in the Big Bang at the beginning of the universe. Physicists are developing concepts to explain why the visible universe now seems to be made entirely out of matter. On the other hand, experimental groups are producing antimatter atoms artificially to explore the fundamental symmetries between matter and antimatter, which according to the present theories of particle physics should have exactly the same properties, except for the opposite electrical charge.

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