AstroBlog Follow Friday & Weekly Stumbles For 2011-09-30

This week I recommend to follow @SpaceflightNow for current spaceflight and space exploration news. For more Twitter follow suggestions see our astronomy list @TheAstroBlog/astronomy

Weekly Stumbles:

Apollo Astronauts to Congress: Bring Back the Space ShuttleApollo Astronauts to Congress: Bring Back the Space Shuttle
The United States desperately needs a way to get its astronauts to space and back — and one solution could be taking NASA’s space shuttle fleet out of retirement, famed moonwalkers Neil Armstrong and Gene Cernan told Congress today (Sept. 22). Without an independent way to launch astronauts into low-Earth orbit, the United States risks ceding its global leadership in space to other nations such as Russia and China, the former Apollo astronauts said. So developing that access should be a top priority for NASA and the country, with other space exploration goals and capabilities following naturally afterward.

From the Comfort of Home, Web Users May Have Found New PlanetsFrom the Comfort of Home, Web Users May Have Found New Planets
Since the online citizen science project Planet Hunters launched last December, 40,000 web users from around the world have been helping professional astronomers analyze the light from 150,000 stars in the hopes of discovering Earth-like planets orbiting around them. Users analyze real scientific data collected by NASA’s Kepler mission, which has been searching for planets beyond our own solar system — called exoplanets — since its launch in March 2009.

Planetary exploration's radioactive decayPlanetary exploration’s radioactive decay
The last several years have seen a string of 50th anniversaries associated with the early years of Space Age, from 2007’s celebration of the launch of Sputnik through commemorations earlier this year of the historic flights of Yuri Gagarin and Alan Shepard to a slightly different kind of 50th anniversary — the celebration earlier this month of the creation of the National Reconnaissance Office. There are, of course, many more 50th anniversaries to celebrate in the months and years ahead; in the US, the next big one is arguably that of John Glenn’s flight next February.

NASA to Demonstrate Communications Via Laser BeamNASA to Demonstrate Communications Via Laser Beam
It currently takes 90 minutes to transmit high-resolution images from Mars, but NASA would like to dramatically reduce that time to just minutes. A new optical communications system that NASA plans to demonstrate in 2016 will lead the way and even allow the streaming of high-definition video from distances beyond the Moon. This dramatically enhanced transmission speed will be demonstrated by the Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD), one of three projects selected by NASA’s Office of the Chief Technologist (OCT) for a trial run.

NASA Space Telescope Finds Fewer Asteroids Near EarthNASA Space Telescope Finds Fewer Asteroids Near Earth
New observations by NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, show there are significantly fewer near-Earth asteroids in the mid-size range than previously thought. The findings also indicate NASA has found more than 90 percent of the largest near-Earth asteroids, meeting a goal agreed to with Congress in 1998. Astronomers now estimate there are roughly 19,500 — not 35,000 — mid-size near-Earth asteroids. Scientists say this improved understanding of the population may indicate the hazard to Earth could be somewhat less than previously thought.

Feast Your Eyes On the Fried Egg NebulaFeast Your Eyes On the Fried Egg Nebula
Astronomers have used ESO’s Very Large Telescope to image a colossal star that belongs to one of the rarest classes of stars in the Universe, the yellow hypergiants. The new picture is the best ever taken of a star in this class and shows for the first time a huge dusty double shell surrounding the central hypergiant. The star and its shells resemble an egg white around a yolky center, leading the astronomers to nickname the object the Fried Egg Nebula. The monster star, known to astronomers as IRAS 17163-3907, has a diameter about a thousand times bigger than our Sun.

Orbital Observations of Mercury Reveal Flood Lavas, Hollows, and Unprecedented Surface DetailsOrbital Observations of Mercury Reveal Flood Lavas, Hollows, and Unprecedented Surface Details
After only six months in orbit around Mercury, NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft is sending back information that has revolutionized the way scientists think about the innermost planet. Analyses of new data from the spacecraft show, among other things, new evidence that flood volcanism has been widespread on Mercury, the first close-up views of Mercury’s “hollows,” the first direct measurements of the chemical composition of Mercury’s surface, and the first global inventory of plasma ions within Mercury’s space environment.

Stardust Discovered in Far-Off Planetary SystemsStardust Discovered in Far-Off Planetary Systems
Searching for extra-solar planets — which are planets outside of our solar system — is very popular these days. About 700 planets are known at the moment, a number that is continuously rising due to refined observational techniques. Professor Alexander Krivov and his team of astronomers of the Friedrich Schiller University Jena (Germany) just made a remarkable discovery: the scientists from the Astrophysical Institute were able to establish proof of so-called debris discs around two stars. The debris discs are remnants of the formation of the planets.

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