AstroBlog Follow Friday & Weekly Stumbles For 2011-09-09

This week I recommend to follow @NASA_Johnson for interesting tweets from NASA’s Johnson Space Center which is the lead center for the International Space Station, Orion MPCV, and is home of the Mission Control Center and NASA astronaut corps. For more Twitter follow suggestions see our astronomy list @TheAstroBlog/astronomy

Weekly Stumbles:

A rationale for human spaceflight
The retirement of the space shuttle has sparked a debate about the value of human spaceflight. Some see it as a waste of resources. Robots are better, cheaper alternatives, they say – and robotic missions don’t risk human lives. Others see the ability to fly humans into space as being tied up with national prestige, influence, and soft power. Some argue a reliance on private companies to get Americans into space is ultimately a healthy development. Still others say the only reason to put people in space is to ensure the survival of the species should something happen to Earth – and, in the fullness of time, something will.

GRAIL to try to launch again tomorrow
NASA’s GRAIL mission — Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory, that is — was supposed to launch on September 8, but winds prevented takeoff. They will try again Friday (tomorrow) at 12:33:25 UTC (08:33:25 Eastern). Failing that, another launch window will be at 13:12:31 UTC (and lasts for only one second!). There are many more opportunities to launch until October 19, so I suspect NASA will play it safe. Emily Lakdawalla, as usual, has details. GRAIL will head to the Moon, and is actually two separate spacecraft, each about a meter on a side.

Mars Science Laboratory Launch Preparations
NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory Project continues to press ahead with launch preparation activities, planning to use additional time before encapsulating the rover in the launch vehicle’s nose cone. Officials want to maintain additional schedule margin for enhanced safety procedures in assembly and testing. System testing put the rover and other parts of the spacecraft through simulations of many activities from launch through operations on Mars’ surface. Aspects of the test simulating the final moments before landing took longer than scheduled.

Spaceport’s Construction Heralds Era of Commercial Space Travel
Spaceport America is billed as the world’s first purpose-built commercial spaceport. Under construction roughly 45 miles north of Las Cruces on a remote desert landscape, the 18,000-acre Spaceport America site sports a nearly two-mile long, 200-foot-wide “spaceway” that can handle the suborbital traffic flow of pay-per-view space tourists using anchor tenant Virgin Galactic and its WhiteKnightTwo/SpaceShipTwo system. A futuristic-looking terminal hangar is nearly complete, adding to the facility’s space-age ambiance.

Reuse, Reliability Will Launch Future, Expert Says
Driving down the price of taking people and cargo into space or to the other side of the world in two hours will depend on developing a system so reliable and reusable that a thousand flights or more can take place in a year, a space launch expert told a group of engineers and others Aug. 31 at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. It’s not a launch scenario envisioned for the immediate future, but it could develop in the decades afterward, Jay Penn of Los Angeles-based The Aerospace Corporation said during his “Beyond Next Generation Access to Space” presentation.

Space Junk Problem Is More Threatening Than Ever, Report Warns
There is so much junk in space that collisions could start to increase exponentially, leading to a continuously growing pile of rubble in orbit, a new report warns. The independent report, released today (Sept. 1), surveyed NASA’s work to meet the threat of space debris. It was sponsored by NASA, and conducted by the National Research Council, a nonprofit science policy organization. Space debris – an accumulation of broken satellites, spent rocket stages and other junk in orbit – is dangerous because it could hit and damage working satellites, as well as spacecraft like the International Space Station.

Milky Way Galaxy Might Hold Thousands of Ticking ‘Time Bombs’
In the Hollywood blockbuster “Speed,” a bomb on a bus is rigged to blow up if the bus slows down below 50 miles per hour. The premise – slow down and you explode – makes for a great action movie plot, and also happens to have a cosmic equivalent. New research shows that some old stars might be held up by their rapid spins, and when they slow down, they explode as supernovae. Thousands of these “time bombs” could be scattered throughout our Galaxy.

Best Time to See Elusive Planet Mercury in Morning Sky Is Now
Skywatchers, take note: This week is your best opportunity of the year to see the planet Mercury as a “morning star.” Of the five planets known since antiquity, Mercury is by far the most rarely seen by the average person. In fact many serious astronomers have never seen planet Mercury, including the famous German astronomer, Johannes Kepler. The reason why Mercury is so rarely spotted is not that it isn’t bright: in fact it’s generally one of the brightest objects in the sky.

Sharper Views of Apollo 12, 14, 17 Sites in New Images from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter
The Arizona State University team that oversees the imaging system on board NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has released the sharpest images ever taken from space of the Apollo 12, 14 and 17 sites, more clearly showing the paths made when the astronauts explored these areas. The higher resolution of these images is possible because of adjustments made to LRO’s elliptical orbit. On August 10 a special pair of stationkeeping maneuvers were performed in place of the standard maneuvers, lowering LRO from its usual altitude of 50 kilometers to an altitude that dipped as low as 21 kilometers as it passed over the Moon’s surface.

Secretive Private Spaceship Builder Reports Rocket Failure
Blue Origin, the private entrepreneurial space group backed by Amazon.com mogul Jeff Bezos, has reported a failure in its suborbital rocket development plans. “Three months ago, we successfully flew our second test vehicle in a short hop mission, and then last week we lost the vehicle during a developmental test at Mach 1.2 and an altitude of 45,000 feet,” Bezos wrote in a statement posted to the Blue Origin website today (Sept. 2). According to Bezos, a “flight instability” drove an angle of attack that triggered the Blue Origin range safety team to terminate thrust on the vehicle.

‘Invisible’ World Discovered: Planet Alternately Runs Late and Early in Its Orbit, Tugged by Second Hidden World
Usually, running five minutes late is a bad thing since you might lose your dinner reservation or miss out on tickets to the latest show. But when a planet runs five minutes late, astronomers get excited because it suggests that another world is nearby. NASA’s Kepler spacecraft has spotted a planet that alternately runs late and early in its orbit because a second, “invisible” world is tugging on it. This is the first definite detection of a previously unknown planet using this method. No other technique could have found the unseen companion.

Baby star found close to Earth
Astronomers have discovered the closest known infant star to our planet, and it wasn’t born until 25 million years after the extinction of the dinosaurs. The star, called AP Columbae, is closer to Earth than previously thought and is around 40 million years old – a stellar newborn when compared to our own Sun which was created 4.6 billion years ago. “The star has been known about and studied for the past 15 years, but it wasn’t realised it was so young and so close, until now,” says co-author Simon Murphy, a PhD student from the Australian National University in Canberra.

Space Instrument Observes New Characteristics of Solar Flares; Findings May Lead to Improved Space Weather Forecasting
NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, which is carrying a suite of instruments including a $32 million University of Colorado Boulder package, has provided scientists with new information that energy from some solar flares is stronger and lasts longer than previously thought. Using SDO’s Extreme ultraviolet Variability Experiment, or EVE instrument designed and built at CU-Boulder, scientists have observed that radiation from solar flares sometimes continues for up to five hours beyond the initial minutes of the main phase of a solar flare occurrence.

Cosmic coincidence
Cosmologists tend not to get all that excited about the universe being 74% dark energy and 26% conventional energy and matter (albeit most of the matter is dark and mysterious as well). Instead they get excited about the fact that the density of dark energy is of the same order of magnitude as that more conventional remainder. After all, it is quite conceivable that the density of dark energy might be ten, one hundred or even one thousand times more (or less) than the remainder. But nope, it seems it’s about three times as much – which is less than ten and more than one, meaning that the two parts are of the same order of magnitude.

Rare Martian Lake Delta Spotted by Mars Express
The European Space Agency’s Mars Express has spotted a rare case of a crater once filled by a lake, revealed by the presence of a delta. The delta is an ancient fan-shaped deposit of dark sediments, laid down in water. It is a reminder of Mars’ past, wetter climate. The delta is in the Eberswalde crater, in the southern highlands of Mars. The 65 km-diameter crater is visible as a semi-circle on the right of the image and was formed more than 3.7 billion years ago when an asteroid hit the planet. The rim of the crater is intact only on its right-hand side.

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