Follow Friday & Weekly Stumbles For 2011-08-05

This week I recommend to follow @MarkKirkman for interesting tweets from an aerospace consultant, engineer and pilot. For more Twitter follow suggestions see our astronomy list @TheAstroBlog/astronomy

Weekly Stumbles:

Current strategies towards air-breathing space launch vehicles
Today, no true air-breathing spaceplanes or reusable boosters yet exist, but there is now renewed interest in air-breathing technology. At the same time, remarkable launch cost reductions in more conventional boosters are imminent due to the efforts of SpaceX and other firms. It is beneficial to everyone to explore alternate technological paths, since no one can predict which paths will pan out and produce an economical and reliable vehicle.

Oxygen Molecules Found in Nearby Star-Forming Cloud
The European Space Agency’s Herschel space observatory has found molecules of oxygen in a nearby star-forming cloud. This is the first undisputed detection of oxygen molecules in space. It concludes a long search but also leaves questions unanswered. The oxygen molecules have been found in the nearby Orion star-forming complex. While atomic oxygen has been long known in warm regions of space, previous missions looking for the molecular variety — two atoms of oxygen bonded together — came up largely empty-handed.

Mission to Jupiter: Gas Giant May Hold Keys to Understanding Solar System Formation, Evolution
Several University of Colorado Boulder faculty and students are participating in NASA’s Juno Mission to Jupiter, now slated for launch Aug. 5 from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center and which is expected to help steer scientists toward the right recipe for planet-making. The primary goal of the mission is to understand the origin and evolution of the massive gas planet, said CU-Boulder Professor Fran Bagenal of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, a mission co-investigator.

VASIMR and a new war of the currents
Zubrin, the author of The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must has singled out the VASIMR electromagnetic propulsion system for spacecraft; the Ad Astra Rocket Company, which is presently involved in researching and commercializing VASIMR; plus former astronaut and current Ad Astra president and CEO Franklin Chang-Diaz, who is credited with being the inventor of the technology. So what’s the problem? According to Zubrin, the current focus on new technologies (especially VASIMR) is postponing, not facilitating space exploration and “only useful as a smokescreen for those who wish to avoid embracing” real initiatives which could begin now.

Elliptical Galaxies Are Not Dead
Initial results from research carried out as part of the Atlas3D project on two elliptical galaxies could, if they are confirmed, call into question the current model of the formation of galaxies. Current models explain elliptical galaxies as “dead” galaxies: the relative age of their stars ranges between 7 and 10 billion years and the observed lack of gas precludes the formation of new stars. However, a completely different history is suggested by the images of two galaxies obtained by the MégaCam camera of the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope.

Chandra X-Ray Observatory Images Gas Flowing Toward Black Hole
The flow of hot gas toward a black hole has been clearly imaged for the first time in X-rays. The observations from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory will help tackle two of the most fundamental problems in modern astrophysics: understanding how black holes grow and how matter behaves in their intense gravity. The black hole is at the center of a large galaxy known as NGC 3115, which is located about 32 million light years from Earth. A large amount of previous data has shown material falling toward and onto black holes, but none with this clear a signature of hot gas.

NASA’s Dawn Spacecraft Begins Science Orbits of Vesta
NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, the first ever to orbit an object in the main asteroid belt, is spiraling towards its first of four intensive science orbits. That initial orbit of the rocky world Vesta begins Aug. 11, at an altitude of nearly 1,700 miles (2,700 kilometers) and will provide in-depth analysis of the asteroid. Vesta is the brightest object in the asteroid belt as seen from Earth and is thought to be the source of a large number of meteorites that fall to Earth.

Ninety-Six Star Clusters Discovered Hidden Behind Dust of Milky Way
Using data from the VISTA infrared survey telescope at the European Southern Observatory’s Paranal Observatory, an international team of astronomers has discovered 96 new open star clusters hidden by the dust in the Milky Way. These tiny and faint objects were invisible to previous surveys, but they could not escape the sensitive infrared detectors of the world’s largest survey telescope, which can peer through the dust. This is the first time so many faint and small clusters have been found at once.

Physicists Weigh Antimatter with Amazing Accuracy
A new measurement provides the most accurate weight yet of antimatter, revealing the mass of the antiproton (the proton’s antiparticle) down to one part in a billion, researchers announced today (July 28). To give a sense of just how accurate their measurement was, researcher Masaki Hori said: “Imagine measuring the weight of the Eiffel Tower. The accuracy we’ve achieved here is roughly equivalent to making that measurement to within less than the weight of a sparrow perched on top. Next time it will be a feather.”

Is Our Universe Inside a Bubble? First Observational Test of the ‘Multiverse’
The theory that our universe is contained inside a bubble, and that multiple alternative universes exist inside their own bubbles — making up the ‘multiverse’ — is, for the first time, being tested by physicists. Two research papers published in Physical Review Letters and Physical Review D are the first to detail how to search for signatures of other universes. Physicists are now searching for disk-like patterns in the cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation — relic heat radiation left over from the Big Bang — which could provide tell-tale evidence of collisions between other universes and our own.

Massive Sun ‘Twister’ Swirls Up 12 Earths High
A NASA satellite has caught a stunning, yet eerie, video of a huge plasma twister rising up from the surface of the sun. The video, taken by the Solar Dynamics Observatory, shows a plasma eruption that swirls up like a tornado to a dizzying height of up to 93,206 miles (150,000 kilometers) above the solar surface. “Its height is roughly between 10 to 12 Earths,” solar astrophysicist C. Alex Young of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., told

Juno to Show Jupiter’s Magnetic Field in High-Def
When it comes to magnetic fields, Jupiter is the ultimate muscle car. It’s endowed with the biggest, brawniest field of any planet in the solar system, powered by a monster engine under the hood. Figuring out how this mighty engine, or dynamo, works is one goal of NASA’s Juno mission, which is scheduled to begin its five-year, 400-million-mile voyage to Jupiter in August 2011. Juno will orbit the planet for about a year, investigating its origin and evolution with eight instruments to probe its internal structure and gravity field, measure water and ammonia in its atmosphere, map its powerful magnetic field and observe its intense auroras.

First Opal-Like Crystals Discovered in Meteorite
Scientists have found opal-like crystals in the Tagish Lake meteorite, which fell to Earth in Canada in 2000. This is the first extraterrestrial discovery of these unusual crystals, which may have formed in the primordial cloud of dust that produced the sun and planets of our solar system 4.6 billion years ago, according to a report in the Journal of the American Chemical Society. Katsuo Tsukamoto and colleagues say that colloidal crystals such as opals, which form as an orderly array of particles, are of great interest to for their potential use in new electronics and optical devices.

Earth’s Stabilizing Moon May Be Unique Within Universe
New simulations show that Earth’s moon is not only unique in the solar system, but may also be rare throughout the universe. Research reveals that less than 10 percent of terrestrial planets may have a satellite large enough to provide the stability life needs to develop. Earth spins around its orbital axis, changing its angle toward the sun — its obliquity — by a little more than a degree over the course of thousands of years. These small differences are significant enough to cause the ebb and flow of ice ages.

Water Flowing On Mars, NASA Spacecraft Data Suggest
Observations from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter have revealed possible flowing water during the warmest months on Mars. “NASA’s Mars Exploration Program keeps bringing us closer to determining whether the Red Planet could harbor life in some form,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said, “and it reaffirms Mars as an important future destination for human exploration.” “NASA’s Mars Exploration Program keeps bringing us closer to determining whether the Red Planet could harbor life in some form,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said, “and it reaffirms Mars as an important future destination for human exploration.”

Searchers of Ringed Alien Planets Put Faith in Kepler Probe
Saturn-like worlds may abound throughout the universe, and NASA’s planet-hunting Kepler spacecraft has the ability to find them, astronomers say. Rings surround the gas giants in our solar system, but scientists have yet to find any on similar alien planets. The precise instruments on the Kepler spacecraft could change that. “The ideal areas to try and look for rings are the regions Kepler is sensitive to,” Hilke Schlichting, of the University of California, Los Angeles, explained.

Could commercial crew become less commercial?
Since the Obama Administration announced its change in direction in NASA’s human spaceflight plans exactly 18 months ago—February 1, 2010—debates have raged in the halls of Congress and within the overall space community about many elements of that policy change. There have been arguments about the necessity of a heavy-lift launch vehicle and its design, the decision to defer a return to the Moon in favor of human missions to near Earth asteroids, and the ability of commercial providers to take over the duty of transporting astronauts to and from low Earth orbit.

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