AstroBlog Follow Friday & Weekly Stumbles For 2011-11-11

This week I recommend to follow @NASA_LSP for interesting tweets from NASA’s Launch Services Program, Earth’s Bridge to Space. For more Twitter follow suggestions see our astronomy list @TheAstroBlog/astronomy

Weekly Stumbles:

A Newly Discovered Planet, in its Explosive InfancyA Newly Discovered Planet, in its Explosive Infancy
The youngest planet yet discovered has been found orbiting within the disk of dust and gas surrounding the star Lk Ca 15. The planet is more than just young: it may still be in the process of formation. Estimated at being only 50,000 to 100,000 years old, Lk Ca 15b is probably still accumulating mass as it gathers material from the disk within which it orbits. Astronomers have long believed that our solar system formed from the vast disk of dust and gas that surrounded the Sun shortly after its birth.

Russian Rocket Launches From South America in Space FirstRussian Rocket Launches From South America in Space First
A Russian rocket blasted off from Europe’s spaceport in South America for the first time today (Oct. 21), lofting to orbit the first two satellites in a future European GPS network. The Soyuz rocket lifted off from its brand-new pad near Kourou in French Guiana at 6:30 a.m. EDT (1030 GMT) today, marking the first time the workhorse vehicle has ever launched outside the former Soviet Union. It carried skyward the initial two satellites in the Galileo constellation, a navigation system designed to end European dependence on the United States’ GPS network.

One weird theory could make anti-gravity and faster-than-light travel possibleOne weird theory could make anti-gravity and faster-than-light travel possible
So we’ve had neutrinos that traveled faster than light — or at least, that result hasn’t been invalidated yet. But how soon can we get spaceships that can travel to other star systems without traveling at faster-than-light velocities? The answer might lie in a relatively little-known theory. Heim Theory holds the possibility for all kinds of seemingly science fictional things, from special engines that can work using gravity to space craft that move faster than light to many different quantized dimensions. How could these scientific miracles be possible?

The Hazy History of Air on Saturn's Moon TitanThe Hazy History of Air on Saturn’s Moon Titan
What rocky moon has a nitrogen-rich atmosphere, Earth-like weather patterns and geology, liquid hydrocarbon seas and a relatively good chance to support life? The answer is Titan, the fascinating moon of Saturn. Titan’s many similarities to Earth is why astrobiologists are so fascinated by this unusual moon. Its atmosphere is often viewed as an analog to what the Earth’s atmosphere may have been like billions of years ago. Despite the 800 million miles between the two worlds, both may have had their atmospheres created through the gravitational layering and processing of asteroids and comets.

Nearby Planet-Forming Disk Holds Water for Thousands of OceansNearby Planet-Forming Disk Holds Water for Thousands of Oceans
For the first time, astronomers have detected around a burgeoning solar system a sprawling cloud of water vapor that’s cold enough to form comets, which could eventually deliver oceans to dry planets. Water is an essential ingredient for life. Scientists have found thousands of Earth-oceans’ worth of it within the planet-forming disk surrounding the star TW Hydrae. TW Hydrae is 176 light years away in the constellation Hydra and is the closest solar-system-to-be.

A gateway to space emerges in the desertA gateway to space emerges in the desert
Last Monday several hundred people gathered at Spaceport America for the formal dedication of the facility’s new Terminal Hangar Facility, including the new name of the unique building. That event included a performance by a dance company, Project Bandaloop, known for their routines performed on the sides of buildings and cliffs; in this case, on the large glass wall of the new building. They were joined partway through by Branson and his adult son and daughter, who rappelled down the wall to take part.

Saturn's Snowy Moon Enceladus Might Be a Skier's ParadiseSaturn’s Snowy Moon Enceladus Might Be a Skier’s Paradise
It’s snowing on one of Saturn’s moons. New high-resolution maps of Enceladus, the sixth-largest moon of the giant ringed planet, confirm that wintry conditions prevail on the icy body. In fact, the superfine ice crystals that coat the surface of Enceladus would make for ideal skiing, said Paul Schenk of the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, who took part in the study. That is, if there is enough snow on the moon’s slopes to begin with.

Planet-Sized Object as Cool as Earth Revealed in Record-Breaking PhotoPlanet-Sized Object as Cool as Earth Revealed in Record-Breaking Photo
The photo of a nearby star and its orbiting companion — whose temperature is like a hot summer day in Arizona — will be presented by Penn State Associate Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics Kevin Luhman during the Signposts of Planets conference at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center on Oct. 20, 2011. “This planet-like companion is the coldest object ever directly photographed outside our solar system,” said Luhman, who led the discovery team.

Recalling the Mars flagshipsRecalling the Mars flagships
The launch of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover, also known as Curiosity, is one of three critical events coming up in November for Mars exploration. Having Europe turn to Russia because the US is too unreliable a launch partner! That is bad, but not as bad as watching the whole American Mars program, re-instituted in the 1990s after 20 years of stagnation, now coming apart. How these events turn out will determine a lot—perhaps the very future of space exploration for our current generation.

Despite Slow Start, Space Tourism Biz Begins to Fire UpDespite Slow Start, Space Tourism Biz Begins to Fire Up
Suborbital space tourism and other private spaceship efforts have not developed as quickly as many people may have hoped or expected, but the industry now appears to be gathering some serious momentum. Back in 2004, British billionaire Richard Branson predicted that his newly founded company, Virgin Galactic, would be flying customers to suborbital space by 2007. Virgin Galactic and other firms still have yet to launch any paying passengers, but they are poised to do so in the near future, some experts say.

Astronomers Explain Blue Stragglers: How Do Mysterious Stars Stay So Young?Astronomers Explain Blue Stragglers: How Do Mysterious Stars Stay So Young?
Mysterious “blue stragglers” are old stars that appear younger than they should be: they burn hot and blue. Several theories have attempted to explain why they don’t show their age, but, until now, scientists have lacked the crucial observations with which to test each hypothesis. Armed with such observational data, two astronomers from Northwestern University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison report that a mechanism known as mass transfer explains the origins of the blue stragglers.

Small Satellites Prompt Big Ideas for Next 25 YearsSmall Satellites Prompt Big Ideas for Next 25 Years
There is big news on the small satellite front. From super-secret agencies and the U.S. military to academia and private firms, as well as world space agencies and NASA, ultra-small satellites are the big thing. In sizing up “smallsats,” there are a range of classifications in the less-than-500- kilogram department, be they minisatellites, microsatellites, nanosatellites, picosatellites, palm-size CubeSats, even the diminutive Femto satellite, weighing in at less than 100 grams.

VISTA Finds New Globular Star Clusters and Sees Right Through the Heart of the Milky WayVISTA Finds New Globular Star Clusters and Sees Right Through the Heart of the Milky Way
Two newly discovered globular clusters have been added to the total of just 158 known globular clusters in our Milky Way. They were found in new images from ESO’s VISTA survey telescope as part of the Via Lactea (VVV) survey. This survey has also turned up the first star cluster that is far beyond the centre of the Milky Way and whose light has had to travel right through the dust and gas in the heart of our galaxy to get to us.

Propellant depots: the fiscally responsible and feasible alternative to SLSPropellant depots: the fiscally responsible and feasible alternative to SLS
The TEA Party in Space (TPIS) is a nonpartisan organization comprised of like-minded individuals who believe in space policy that is fiscally responsible, limited in government, and accesses the free markets whenever and wherever possible. We come from all walks of life: the private sector, public sector, and yes, we have our rocket scientists. We are incredibly fortunate to have members from many of the NASA centers who are both employed by the government as well as our invaluable contractor force.

Spiral Arms Hint at Presence of Planets: High Resolution Image of Young Star With Circumstellar Disks Verifies PredictionsSpiral Arms Hint at Presence of Planets: High Resolution Image of Young Star With Circumstellar Disks Verifies Predictions
A new image of the disk of gas and dust around a sun-like star has spiral-arm-like structures. These features may provide clues to the presence of embedded but as-yet-unseen planets. “Detailed computer simulations have shown us that the gravitational pull of a planet inside a circumstellar disk can perturb gas and dust, creating spiral arms. Now, for the first time, we’re seeing these features,” said Carol Grady, a National Science Foundation (NSF)-supported astronomer with Eureka Scientific, Inc.

NASA Sets Guidelines to Preserve Apollo Moon Landing SitesNASA Sets Guidelines to Preserve Apollo Moon Landing Sites
NASA has begun drafting guidelines to protect the Apollo 11 and Apollo 17 landing sites, listing them as off-limits, and including ground-travel buffers and no-fly zones to avoid spraying rocket exhaust or dust onto aging, but historic, equipment. Robert Kelso, NASA’s director of lunar commercial services at Johnson Space Center in Houston, has taken a hard look at future revisits to the Apollo sites and how to protect U.S. government artifacts on the moon.

NASA Telescopes Help Solve Ancient Supernova MysteryNASA Telescopes Help Solve Ancient Supernova Mystery
A mystery that began nearly 2,000 years ago, when Chinese astronomers witnessed what would turn out to be an exploding star in the sky, has been solved. New infrared observations from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope and Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, reveal how the first supernova ever recorded occurred and how its shattered remains ultimately spread out to great distances. The findings show that the stellar explosion took place in a hollowed-out cavity, allowing material expelled by the star to travel much faster and farther than it would have otherwise.

The Moon Treaty: failed international law or waiting in the shadows?The Moon Treaty: failed international law or waiting in the shadows?
Anthony Young explored whether a mission to an asteroid planned by the Obama Administration is captivating enough to retain public interest until its planned launch in 2025. In the ensuing commentary, several people discussed the issue of resource exploitation, with this author postulating that, aside from the technical and economic challenges to exploiting mineral resources on asteroids, the current state of international law, specifically the Moon Treaty 1979, might be an obstacle.

Scientists Discover Way to Determine When Water Was Present On Mars and EarthScientists Discover Way to Determine When Water Was Present On Mars and Earth
The discovery of the mineral jarosite in rocks analyzed by the Mars Rover, Opportunity, on the Martian surface had special meaning for a team of Syracuse University scientists who study the mineral here on Earth. Jarosite can only form in the presence of water. Its presence on Mars means that water had to exist at some point in the past. The trick is in figuring out if jarosite can be used as a proxy for determining when, and under what conditions, water was present on the planet.

Life's Journey: 5 Tiny Organisms Hitch a Ride on Mission to a Martian MoonLife’s Journey: 5 Tiny Organisms Hitch a Ride on Mission to a Martian Moon
A round-trip journey to Mars would probably kill a crew of astronauts, unless they had some futuristic defense against radiation from the sun and from galactic cosmic rays. Would microbes be hardy enough to survive? We may soon find out.
The Planetary Society, a nonprofit based in Pasadena, Calif., has packed a handful of miniature space travelers — bacteria, yeast, even tiny invertebrate animals — into a capsule on the Russian Phobos-Grunt spacecraft, expected to launch as soon as November 8.

Faraway Eris Is Pluto's TwinFaraway Eris Is Pluto’s Twin
Astronomers have accurately measured the diameter of the faraway dwarf planet Eris for the first time by catching it as it passed in front of a faint star. This event was seen at the end of 2010 by telescopes in Chile, including the Belgian TRAPPIST telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory. The observations show that Eris is an almost perfect twin of Pluto in size. Eris appears to have a very reflective surface, suggesting that it is uniformly covered in a thin layer of ice, probably a frozen atmosphere. The results will be published in the 27 October 2011 issue of the journal Nature.

Astrobiologists discover 'sweet spots' for the formation of complex organic molecules in the galaxyAstrobiologists discover ‘sweet spots’ for the formation of complex organic molecules in the galaxy
Scientists within the New York Center for Astrobiology at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have compiled years of research to help locate areas in outer space that have extreme potential for complex organic molecule formation. The scientists searched for methanol, a key ingredient in the synthesis of organic molecules that could lead to life. Their results have implications for determining the origins of molecules that spark life in the cosmos.

3-D Simulations of Nova Explosions3-D Simulations of Nova Explosions
A new study has shown how mixing of elements occurs during a nova explosion, thus solving an enigma that has puzzled stellar astrophysicists for over half a century. Scientists at the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya. BarcelonaTech (UPC) have for the first time simulated critical phenomena that occur during nova explosions. Their work has made it possible to precisely characterise the physical properties and chemical composition of the material ejected in novae, and this has yielded the solution to an enigma that has puzzled experts for over 50 years: the origin of the irregular, inhomogeneous distribution of nova ejecta.

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