AstroBlog Follow Friday & Weekly Stumbles For 2011-08-26

This week I recommend to follow @DrLucyRogers for interesting tweets from an engineer, astronomer and author. For more Twitter follow suggestions see our astronomy list @TheAstroBlog/astronomy

Weekly Stumbles:

It’s Alive! Humanoid Robot Powers Up on Space Station
Move over Commander Data, there’s a real robot in space, now. The International Space Station got a new crewmember today, one made not of flesh and blood, but of gears and clockwork instead. Called Robonaut 2, the automaton astronaut was activated by human spaceflyers today (Aug. 22) after months in storage since being delivered to the space station earlier this year. An initial series of tests checked the robot’s power systems and camera eyes.

Impacts ‘more likely’ to have spread life from Earth
Asteroid impacts on the Earth may have scattered more life-bearing debris to Mars, Jupiter or beyond our Solar System than previously thought. Vast computer simulations of debris thrown up from Earth impacts show 100 times more particles end up on Mars than prior studies have shown. The highest-energy impacts drive debris all the way to Jupiter, which hosts two moons that may be amenable to life. Only the hardiest of Earth’s organisms could have survived the trip, however.

Mars’ Clue: Why ‘Super-Earths’ May Exist as Dead Zones
Rocky planets a few times heavier than Earth might lack a protective magnetic field that originates from an iron core that is at least partly molten. Simulations of super-Earths between a few times and 10 times Earth’s mass suggests that high pressures will keep the core solid, according to studies by Guillaume Morard of the Institute of Mineralogy and Physics of Condensed Matter in Paris, France. Without a magnetic field, the planets would be bathed in harmful radiation, and their atmospheres would be eroded away by particles streaming from their stars.

Meet the Solar System’s Dwarf Planets
For three-quarters of a century, schoolkids learned that our solar system has nine planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto. But things changed nearly five years ago today. On Aug. 24, 2006, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) struck Pluto from the list, demoting it to the newly created category of “dwarf planet.” The move was spurred by the discovery of multiple large bodies orbiting even farther from the sun than distant Pluto — particularly an object called Eris, which appeared to be bigger than Pluto.

New opportunities for smallsat launches
In recent years there’s been a surge in interest in small satellites, or smallsats: spacecraft that typically weigh no more than a few hundred kilograms, and often as small as a few kilograms. Advanced in technology make it possible to use these spacecraft for a widening range of applications, from remote sensing to asset tracking to flight testing hardware for use on future spacecraft, both large and small. At the very small end, one-kilogram CubeSats—so named because the satellites are cubes 10 centimeters on a side—have found a niche among universities, becoming a relatively inexpensive means of giving engineering studies hands-on experience with space hardware.

Cassini closes in on Saturn’s tumbling moon Hyperion
NASA’s Cassini spacecraft captured new views of Saturn’s oddly shaped moon Hyperion during its encounter with this cratered body on Thursday, Aug. 25. Raw images were acquired as the spacecraft flew past the moon at a distance of about 15,500 miles (25,000 kilometers), making this the second closest encounter. Hyperion is a small moon — just 168 miles (270 kilometers) across. It has an irregular shape and surface appearance, and it rotates chaotically as it tumbles along in orbit.

Cosmic Crashes May Give Habitable Planets the Boot
Long-ago collisions between clouds of gas and dust could explain why many alien solar systems have planets with strange, highly tilted orbits — and why habitable worlds may be rare in the universe, a new study suggests. Newly forming solar systems may be jostled by interactions with nearby clumps of matter, leading to systems in which alien planets have dramatically tilted orbits and the smaller (and potentially habitable) worlds are ejected, according to the study.

Galaxies Are Running out of Gas: Why the Lights Are Going out in the Universe
A CSIRO study has shown why the lights are going out in the Universe. The Universe forms fewer stars than it used to, and a CSIRO study has now shown why: the galaxies are running out of gas. Dr Robert Braun (CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science) and his colleagues used CSIRO’s Mopra radio telescope near Coonabarabran, NSW, to study far-off galaxies and compare them with nearby ones. Light (and radio waves) from the distant galaxies has taken time to travel to us, so we see the galaxies as they were between three and five billion years ago.

Dwarf Planet Pluto Holds Big Surprises for Speedy NASA Probe
Pluto may be small, but it is proving to be big on surprises. With NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft now speeding toward it, our understanding of the dwarf planet should transform even further. “We’ve never had a reconnaissance of a dwarf planet such as Pluto before, and every time we’ve been to a new type of planet, we find nature is much richer than we expected,” New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo., told

Astronomers Find Ice and Possibly Methane On Snow White, a Distant Dwarf Planet
Astronomers at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) have discovered that the dwarf planet 2007 OR10 — nicknamed Snow White — is an icy world, with about half its surface covered in water ice that once flowed from ancient, slush-spewing volcanoes. The new findings also suggest that the red-tinged dwarf planet may be covered in a thin layer of methane, the remnants of an atmosphere that’s slowly being lost into space.

Synthetic Life Could Help Colonize Mars, Biologist Says
Synthetic organisms engineered to use carbon dioxide as a raw material could help humans settle Mars one day, a prominent biologist says. Man-made, CO2-munching lifeforms are already in the works, geneticist Craig Venter told a crowd here during an event called TEDxNASA@SiliconValley Wednesday night (Aug. 17). Venter and his team, who made headlines last year by creating the world’s first synthetic organism, are trying to design cells that can use atmospheric carbon dioxide to make food, fuel, plastics and other products.

Private Spaceship Builder Wants to Go to Mars — To Save Humanity
A private spaceflight company is dead serious about taking astronauts to Mars, saying that the very survival of humanity depends on settling other planets. Space Exploration Technologies — better known as SpaceX — was founded primarily to help humankind establish a lasting presence beyond Earth, according to millionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk, SpaceX’s CEO and founder. Such expansion is necessary to safeguard our species over the long haul, he added. “Ultimately, the thing that is super-important in the grand scale of history is, are we on a path to becoming a multiplanet species or not?”

Solid diamond planet found
Australian-led scientists have discovered a binary planet they believe is largely made of diamond. The international team, reports today in the journal Science that the planet is the only thing left from what was a huge star in our own Milky Way galaxy. The researchers, led by Professor Matthew Bailes from Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, first detected an unusual star known as a pulsar using the Parkes Radio Telescope in central NSW. They later confirmed their discovery with other powerful telescopes in Britain and the United States.

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