AstroBlog Follow Friday & Weekly Stumbles For 2011-10-28

Weekly Stumbles:

An American fableAn American fable
As the United States settles in for the long winter ahead in American space launch capabilities, after a summer that witnessed the end of the Shuttle program, two radically different visions for the future have emerged, put forward by two equally different entities. When and how the spring will finally come depends on which vision prevails. The first, that of the massive and very expensive heavy lift Space Launch System, managed by NASA but designed by Congress, was finally — and, some would say, reluctantly — introduced in a Senate office building on September 14th.

Private Space Station Builder Downsizes DramaticallyPrivate Space Station Builder Downsizes Dramatically
Bigelow Aerospace, which is developing inflatable space habitats for commercial use, laid off some 40 of its 90 employees Sept. 29, a company official confirmed. “We are proceeding with a core group of fifty plus engineers, managers and support staff,” Mike Gold, Bigelow Aerospace’s director of Washington operations and business growth, said in an emailed response to questions from Space News. “This core group allows us to retain key human capital and capabilities, with which we are continuing to aggressively pursue the development and eventual deployment of the BA 330 system.”

Astrophysics and Extinctions: News About Planet-Threatening EventsAstrophysics and Extinctions: News About Planet-Threatening Events
Space is a violent place. If a star explodes or black holes collide anywhere in our part of the Milky Way, they’d give off colossal blasts of lethal gamma-rays, X-rays and cosmic rays and it’s perfectly reasonable to expect Earth to be bathed in them. A new study of such events has yielded some new information about the potential effects of what are called “short-hard” interstellar radiation events. Several studies in the past have demonstrated how longer high-energy radiation bursts, such as those caused by supernovae, and extreme solar flares can deplete stratospheric ozone, allowing the most powerful and damaging forms of ultraviolet radiation to penetrate to Earth’s surface.

Supersaturated Water Vapor in Martian AtmosphereSupersaturated Water Vapor in Martian Atmosphere
Analysis of data collected by the European Space Agency’s Mars Express spacecraft leaves no room for doubt: the Martian atmosphere of contains water vapor in a supersaturated state. This surprising finding will enable scientists to better understand the water cycle on Mars, as well as the evolution of its atmosphere. The research was led by a team from the Laboratoire Atmosphères, Milieux, Observations Spatiales (LATMOS, CNRS / UPMC / UVSQ), in collaboration with Russian and French colleagues, and received support from CNES.

'Jaw-Dropping!' Crab Nebula's Powerful Beams Shock Astronomers‘Jaw-Dropping!’ Crab Nebula’s Powerful Beams Shock Astronomers
When astronomers detected intense radiation pumping out of the Crab Nebula, one of the most studied objects in space, at higher energies than anyone thought possible, they were nothing short of stunned. The inexplicably powerful gamma-rays came from the very heart of the Crab Nebula, where an extreme object called a pulsar resides. “It was totally not expected — it was absolutely jaw-dropping,” Andrew McCann, a Ph.D. candidate at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, and a co-author of the new study, told

Is OMB wiping out planetary exploration?Is OMB wiping out planetary exploration?
In 1980, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the NASA Administrator made the decision to shut down planetary exploration in NASA in order to free up funds for the development of the Space Shuttle. This decision triggered Carl Sagan, Bruce Murray, and me to start the Planetary Society. The administration leaders told us, face-to-face, that the planets could wait because soon the cost of access to space would be so cheap that we could fly any missions about which we could dream.

Kepler Spacecraft Discovers New Multi-Planet Solar SystemKepler Spacecraft Discovers New Multi-Planet Solar System
A team of researchers led by Bill Cochran of The University of Texas at Austin has used NASA’s Kepler spacecraft to discover an unusual multiple-planet system containing a super-Earth and two Neptune-sized planets orbiting in resonance with each other. They are announcing the find in Nantes, France at a joint meeting of the European Planetary Science Conference and the American Astronomical Society’s Division of Planetary Science. The research will be published in a special Kepler issue of The Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series in November.

First Comet Found With Ocean-Like WaterFirst Comet Found With Ocean-Like Water
New evidence supports the theory that comets delivered a significant portion of Earth’s oceans, which scientists believe formed about 8 million years after the planet itself. The findings, which involve a University of Michigan astronomer, are published Oct. 5 online in Nature. “Life would not exist on Earth without liquid water, and so the questions of how and when the oceans got here is a fundamental one,” said U-M astronomy professor Ted Bergin, “It’s a big puzzle and these new findings are an important piece.”

Giant of the Night Sky: Skywatcher Spots Colossal Pinwheel GalaxyGiant of the Night Sky: Skywatcher Spots Colossal Pinwheel Galaxy
Equipped with an arsenal of telescopes and cameras, a French skywatching enthusiast had to venture beyond his suburban home in the so-called City of Lights to capture a brilliant deep-sky image of the Pinwheel Galaxy. “I live in the suburbs of Paris, in a site that is very polluted by city lights,” amateur astronomer Thierry Legault wrote on his website. “From my backyard, I can take images of the sun, the moon, planets and nebulas with narrow band filters. For deep sky imaging (galaxies, comets, nebulas… ), I am obliged to go in the land, after loading my van.”

The journey of 100 years begins with a single weekendThe journey of 100 years begins with a single weekend
This is a time of transition and upheaval for human spaceflight. Earlier this year the Space Shuttle program came to an end, a little over 30 years after its first flight. After an extended period of uncertainty prompted by the Obama Administration’s decision to cancel the Constellation program, NASA now has in place plans to build a new heavy-lift rocket, the Space Launch System, as well as the Orion spacecraft, but with no guarantee that the budgets will be there over the long term to support their development.

Series of Bumps Sent Uranus Into Its Sideways Spin, New Research SuggestsSeries of Bumps Sent Uranus Into Its Sideways Spin, New Research Suggests
Uranus’ highly tilted axis makes it something of an oddball in our Solar System. The accepted wisdom is that Uranus was knocked on its side by a single large impact, but new research being presented at the EPSC-DPS Joint Meeting in Nantes rewrites our theories of how Uranus became so tilted and also solves fresh mysteries about the position and orbits of its moons. By using simulations of planetary formation and collisions, it appears that early in its life Uranus experienced a succession of small punches instead of a single knock-out blow.

NASA's Dawn Spacecraft Begins New Vesta Mapping OrbitNASA’s Dawn Spacecraft Begins New Vesta Mapping Orbit
NASA’s Dawn spacecraft has completed a gentle spiral into its new science orbit for an even closer view of the giant asteroid Vesta. Dawn began sending science data on Sept. 29 from this new orbit, known as the high altitude mapping orbit (HAMO). In this orbit, the average distance from the spacecraft to the Vesta surface is 420 miles (680 kilometers), which is four times closer than the previous survey orbit. The spacecraft will operate in the same basic manner as it did in the survey orbit. When Dawn is over Vesta’s dayside, it will point its science instruments to the giant asteroid and acquire data, and when the spacecraft flies over the nightside, it will beam that data back to Earth.

Astronomers Debate Where 1st Interstellar Starship Should Go ExploringAstronomers Debate Where 1st Interstellar Starship Should Go Exploring
If humans ever build an interstellar spaceship —a vehicle capable of reaching another star — one of the biggest questions will be which of the billions of stars in the Milky Way should it visit? Scientists debated possible interstellar destinations at the 100-Year Starship Symposium, a weekend meeting here sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to discuss planning the first mission to another star system. Among the top priorities for choosing a star to target is its potential to harbor life, said astrobiologist Jill Tarter of the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute.

2011 Nobel Prize in Physics: Discovery of Expanding Universe by Observing Distant Supernovae2011 Nobel Prize in Physics: Discovery of Expanding Universe by Observing Distant Supernovae
The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has decided to award the Nobel Prize in Physics for 2011 with one half to Saul Perlmutter, of the Supernova Cosmology Project at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of California, Berkeley; and the other half jointly to Brian P. Schmidt, of the High-z Supernova Search Team at Australian National University, Weston Creek, Australia, and Adam G. Riess, of the High-z Supernova Search Team at Johns Hopkins University and the Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore for the discovery of the accelerating expansion of the Universe through observations of distant supernovae.

First Images from ALMA Telescope: Hidden Star-Formation in Antennae Galaxies RevealedFirst Images from ALMA Telescope: Hidden Star-Formation in Antennae Galaxies Revealed
In celebration of the start of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array’s (ALMA) Early Science observations, the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) has released an image of a merging pair of galaxies as seen by the growing ALMA telescope. The detailed views of star-formation in the Antennae Galaxies confirm that this new telescope, while far from completed, and with only a fraction of its ultimate imaging capability, will surpass all others of its kind. The image gives but a hint of ALMA’s promise to make unprecedented contributions to understanding the once-hidden activities of the early Universe.

To Deflect Killer Asteroids, Humanity Must Work TogetherTo Deflect Killer Asteroids, Humanity Must Work Together
The biggest obstacle in deflecting a killer asteroid away from Earth may be humanity’s inability to get along. We already have the technological know-how to prevent dangerous space rocks from barreling into our planet, provided we detect them in time. But this vital job would require a great deal of international cooperation, experts say, and history has shown that working together is not our species’ strong suit. “Somebody’s got to make the decision to actually mount the deflection, and do it,” said former astronaut Rusty Schweickart, chairman of the B612 Foundation, a group dedicated to predicting and preventing catastrophic asteroid impacts on Earth.

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