AstroBlog Follow Friday & Weekly Stumbles For 2011-09-16

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

Weekly Stumbles:

Giant Black Hole Jets May Erupt Closer to Their Roots
The powerful jets of radio waves that can explode from monster black holes at the center of galaxies may erupt from much closer to these giants than previously thought, scientists say. Although black holes entrap anything that falls onto them, a vast amount of energy can radiate outward from matter rushing into the black holes. In this way, radio telescopes can spot black holes by the radio jets they can give off. But the way these radio jets form is uncertain.

Hubble to Target ‘Hot Jupiters’
An international team of scientists has secured a large program of nearly 200 hours of observing time with NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope to explore the atmospheric conditions of planets outside our solar system, known as exoplanets. The research will focus on “Hot Jupiters,” exoplanets similar in size to Jupiter, but with temperatures of 1,000 degrees Kelvin or more because they orbit so closely to their respective stars. Large programs using the Hubble Space Telescope historically have led to data sets with a lasting legacy.

Astronomers Find 50 New Exoplanets: Richest Haul of Planets So Far Includes 16 New Super-Earths
The HARPS spectrograph on the 3.6-metre telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile is the world’s most successful planet finder. The HARPS team, led by Michel Mayor (University of Geneva, Switzerland), have announced the discovery of more than 50 new exoplanets orbiting nearby stars, including sixteen super-Earths. This is the largest number of such planets ever announced at one time. The new findings are being presented at a conference on Extreme Solar Systems where 350 exoplanet experts are meeting in Wyoming, USA.

Space science caught in a Webb
Few would deny that the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST, or frequently just called Webb), if and when it is ultimately launched, would make major discoveries in astronomy. With a mirror 6.5 meters in diameter and a design — from its giant sunshade to its location at the Earth-Sun L-2 point, 1.5 million kilometers away — optimized for observations at infrared wavelengths, Webb will have capabilities unlike the Hubble Space Telescope or groundbased counterparts.

Young Stars Take a Turn in the Spotlight
The European Southern Observatory’s New Technology Telescope (NTT) has captured a striking image of the open cluster NGC 2100. This brilliant star cluster is around 15 million years old, and located in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a nearby satellite galaxy of the Milky Way. The cluster is surrounded by glowing gas from the nearby Tarantula Nebula. Observers often overlook NGC 2100 because of its close proximity to the impressive Tarantula Nebula (eso0650) and the super star cluster RMC 136 (eso1030). The glowing gas of the Tarantula Nebula even tries to steal the limelight in this image — the bright colours here are the nebula’s outskirts.

Astronomers Find Extreme Weather On an Alien World: Cosmic Oddball May Harbor a Gigantic Storm
A University of Toronto-led team of astronomers has observed extreme brightness changes on a nearby brown dwarf that may indicate a storm grander than any seen yet on a planet. Because old brown dwarfs and giant planets have similar atmospheres, this finding could shed new light on weather phenomena of extra-solar planets. As part of a large survey of nearby brown dwarfs — objects that occupy the mass gap between dwarf stars and giant planets — the scientists used an infrared camera on the 2.5m telescope at Las Campanas Observatory in Chile to capture repeated images of a brown dwarf dubbed 2MASS J21392676+0220226, or 2MASS 2139 for short, over several hours.

Fermi’s Latest Gamma-Ray Census Highlights Cosmic Mysteries
Every three hours, NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope scans the entire sky and deepens its portrait of the high-energy universe. Every year, the satellite’s scientists reanalyze all of the data it has collected, exploiting updated analysis methods to tease out new sources. These relatively steady sources are in addition to the numerous transient events Fermi detects, such as gamma-ray bursts in the distant universe and flares from the sun.

NASA Launches Mission to Study Moon From Crust to Core
NASA’s twin lunar Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) spacecraft lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 9:08 a.m. EDT Saturday, Sept. 10, to study the moon in unprecedented detail. GRAIL-A is scheduled to reach the moon on New Year’s Eve 2011, while GRAIL-B will arrive New Year’s Day 2012. The two solar-powered spacecraft will fly in tandem orbits around the moon to measure its gravity field. GRAIL will answer longstanding questions about the moon and give scientists a better understanding of how Earth and other rocky planets in the solar system formed.

NASA Sets Sights on Mars After Unmanned Moon Shot
NASA successfully launched a set of twin spacecraft into orbit today (Sept. 10) to study the moon’s gravity, but the new mission isn’t the first — or the last — robotic planetary expedition for the space agency year. The two Grail spacecraft launched toward the moon from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station to begin a 3 1/2-month trip to lunar orbit. The liftoff came just one month after another NASA observatory launched toward Jupiter to study the gas giant’s composition and atmosphere. That flight, the Juno mission to Jupiter, is also expected to beam back the best photos yet of the solar system’s largest planet.

Milky Way’s Spiral Arms Are the Product of an Intergalactic Collision Course; Models Show Dark Matter Packs a Punch
UC Irvine astronomers have shown how the Milky Way galaxy’s iconic spiral arms form, according to research published in the journal Nature. A dwarf galaxy named Sagittarius loaded with dark matter has careened twice through our much larger home galaxy in the past two billion years, according to telescope data and detailed simulations, and is lined up to do it again. As the galaxies collide, the force of the impact sends stars streaming from both in long loops.

Wanted: better spacecraft names
In an age of fiscal crisis, when NASA has to fight tooth and nail for every penny it receives from the federal government, it is more important than ever to cultivate a positive view of space exploration among the American people. That means that the space agency must do a better job than ever at public relations. As part of this, I’d like to make a humble suggestion. Could we please start giving our spacecraft better names? Years ago, NASA generally named its spacecraft in two different fashions. Some were christened with names that evoked the sublime wonders of exploration and discovery in general, such as Mariner, Pioneer, Viking, and Voyager. Other spacecraft were given names that honored great explorers and scientists, such as Magellan, Galileo, and Cassini-Huygens.

Scientists to Congress: Keep NASA’s Missions to Other Planets Flowing
Even in these tough economic times, investing in planetary science is more important than ever, three science advocates told members of Congress today (Sept. 9). Bill Nye, former host of the television show “Bill Nye the Science Guy” and current executive director of the Planetary Society; Jim Green, director of NASA’ s Planetary Science Division; and Mars scientist Steve Squyres addressed representatives during a luncheon here sponsored by the Planetary Society. Nye also delivered a petition to Congress supporting funding for planetary science that was signed by more than 20,000 people.

NASA Announces Design for New Deep Space Exploration System: New Heavy-Lift Rocket Will Take Humans Far Beyond Earth
NASA has selected the design of a new Space Launch System that will take the agency’s astronauts farther into space than ever before, create high-quality jobs here at home, and provide the cornerstone for America’s future human space exploration efforts. This new heavy-lift rocket-in combination with a crew capsule already under development, increased support for the commercialization of astronaut travel to low Earth orbit, an extension of activities on the International Space Station until at least 2020, and a fresh focus on new technologies-is key to implementing the plan laid out by President Obama and Congress in the bipartisan 2010 NASA Authorization Act, which the president signed last year.

Moon dragon
Right now China is preparing to launch the first test component of its long-term effort to develop a space station. Named Tiangong-1, it is not a space station module, nor apparently even a prototype of a space station module. Rather, it is essentially a piece of test equipment for practicing space operations. It will serve as a rendezvous and docking target for several unpiloted spacecraft and later will be visited by a Chinese taikonaut crew. After those visits it will be abandoned. A few years later China will probably launch a follow-on craft and conduct a few more tests. Late this decade they plan on starting construction on a multi-module space station.

NASA’s Shrinking Astronaut Corps May Be Too Thin, Report Finds
NASA’s dwindling astronaut corps will not be enough to meet the demands of future space station missions if staffing levels continue as the space agency expects, according to a new report. With the retirement of NASA’s space shuttle fleet this year, the American astronaut corps has steadily been decreasing in size as U.S. spaceflyers retired or quit their posts. But NASA still needs astronauts to fly missions to the International Space Station (ISS), which is slated to run through 2020.

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