AstroBlog Follow Friday & Weekly Stumbles For 2011-11-18

This week I recommend to follow @NASA_Marshall for interesting tweets from NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. For more Twitter follow suggestions see our astronomy list @TheAstroBlog/astronomy

Weekly Stumbles:

Boeing to Build Private Space Taxis in Old NASA Shuttle HangarBoeing to Build Private Space Taxis in Old NASA Shuttle Hangar
Aerospace giant Boeing has inked a deal to use an old space shuttle hangar at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida as the headquarters to build and test the private company’s new spaceship designed to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station, company officials announced today. Boeing is making Florida the headquarters of its space taxi venture, a move that will add up to 550 new jobs in the area, Boeing’s vice president and program manager for commercial crew vehicles said in a news briefing today from Kennedy Space Center.

Asteroid Lutetia: Primitive Body from Solar System's Planet-Forming PeriodAsteroid Lutetia: Primitive Body from Solar System’s Planet-Forming Period
The European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft has revealed asteroid Lutetia to be a primitive body, left over as the planets were forming in our Solar System. Results from Rosetta’s fleeting flyby also suggest that this mini-world tried to grow a metal heart. Rosetta flew past Lutetia on 10 July 2010 at a speed of 54 000 km/hr and a closest distance of 3170 km. At the time, the 130 km-long asteroid was the largest encountered by a spacecraft. Since then, scientists have been analyzing the data taken during the brief encounter.

City Lights Could Reveal E.T. CivilizationCity Lights Could Reveal E.T. Civilization
In the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, astronomers have hunted for radio signals and ultra-short laser pulses. In a new paper, Avi Loeb (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics) and Edwin Turner (Princeton University) suggest a new technique for finding aliens: look for their city lights. “Looking for alien cities would be a long shot, but wouldn’t require extra resources. And if we succeed, it would change our perception of our place in the universe,” said Loeb. As with other SETI methods, they rely on the assumption that aliens would use Earth-like technologies.

Red moon around a Red PlanetRed moon around a Red Planet
Very soon—perhaps by the time you’ve read this article—Russia will launch the Phobos-Grunt mission to Mars. Whether you’re interested in planetary science or human spaceflight there is good reason to hope that this mission succeeds, but also reason to expect it to fail. Phobos-Grunt is an incredibly ambitious mission to send a spacecraft to the Martian moon Phobos, perform analysis there, retrieve some samples (“Grunt” is Russian for “soil”), possibly even including ejected pieces of Mars, and then return them to Earth.

Planets Smashed Into Dust Near Supermassive Black HolesPlanets Smashed Into Dust Near Supermassive Black Holes
Fat doughnut-shaped dust shrouds that obscure about half of supermassive black holes could be the result of high speed crashes between planets and asteroids, according to a new theory from an international team of astronomers. Supermassive black holes reside in the central parts of most galaxies. Observations indicate that about 50% of them are hidden from view by mysterious clouds of dust, the origin of which is not completely understood.

China to Launch Spacecraft On First Docking Test Flight in NovemberChina to Launch Spacecraft On First Docking Test Flight in November
China will launch an unmanned spacecraft in November to make the country’s first in-space docking, state media reported Wednesday. The Shenzhou 8 mission is set to launch early next month Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China. The spacecraft is due to dock with the robotic Tiangong-1 module, which was launched separately in September. That craft is a prototype space lab, part of China’s long-term goal of building its own manned space station in orbit. The Tiangong 1-Shenzhou 8 maneuver will be China’s first spacecraft docking.

Did Life Once Exist Below Red Planet's Surface? NASA Study of Clays Suggests Watery Mars UndergroundDid Life Once Exist Below Red Planet’s Surface? NASA Study of Clays Suggests Watery Mars Underground
A new NASA study suggests if life ever existed on Mars, the longest lasting habitats were most likely below the Red Planet’s surface. A new interpretation of years of mineral-mapping data, from more than 350 sites on Mars examined by European and NASA orbiters, suggests Martian environments with abundant liquid water on the surface existed only during short episodes. These episodes occurred toward the end of a period of hundreds of millions of years during which warm water interacted with subsurface rocks.

Will Russia end its curse at Mars?Will Russia end its curse at Mars?
The Russian space agency Roscosmos marked Halloween by publishing a photo essay of preparation work on Phobos-Grunt, the Mars probe set to launch from Baikonur on Wednesday. Although the timing was likely coincidental, the symbolism was rich. Mars has been a house of horrors for the Russian and Soviet space programs for the past 50 years. Not one of 18 Soviet and Russian missions sent to the Red Planet has been fully successful. Probes have been lost in launch accidents, blown up in Earth orbit, failed en route, and mysteriously fallen silent just as they were about to fulfill their missions.

Observations of Gamma-Ray Burst Reveal Surprising Ingredients of Early GalaxiesObservations of Gamma-Ray Burst Reveal Surprising Ingredients of Early Galaxies
An international team of astronomers led by the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics has used the brief but brilliant light of a distant gamma-ray burst as a probe to study the make-up of very distant galaxies. Surprisingly the new observations revealed two galaxies in the young Universe that are richer in the heavier chemical elements than the Sun. The two galaxies may be in the process of merging. Such events in the early Universe will drive the formation of many new stars and may be the trigger for gamma-ray bursts.

Endless Void or Big Crunch: How Will the Universe End?Endless Void or Big Crunch: How Will the Universe End?
Not only are scientists unsure how the universe will end, they aren’t even sure it will end at all. Several possibilities for the fate of our universe have been bandied about. They tend to have names such as Big Crunch, Big Rip and Big Freeze that belie their essential bleakness. Ultimately, space could collapse back in on itself, destroying all stars and galaxies in existence, or it could expand into essentially an endless void. “The truth is that it’s still an open scenario,” said astrophysicist Steve Allen of Stanford University. “We certainly don’t know for sure what’s going to happen.”

Nine New Gamma Pulsars Brings Known Gamma-Ray Pulsars to Over 100Nine New Gamma Pulsars Brings Known Gamma-Ray Pulsars to Over 100
Pulsars are the lighthouses of the universe. These compact and fast-rotating neutron stars flash many times per second in the radio or gamma-ray band. Pure gamma-ray pulsars are extremely difficult to find despite their high energy because they radiate very few photons per unit of time. Using an improved analysis algorithm, Max Planck scientists and international partners have now discovered a number of previously unknown gamma-ray pulsars with low luminosity in data from the Fermi satellite.

Pristine Big Bang gas foundPristine Big Bang gas found
US scientists have found two interstellar clouds of original gas, which contain only original elements created moments after the universe’s birth. Unlike everything else in the universe — the gas clouds have never mingled with elements forged later in stars. The existence of pristine gas that formed minutes after the Big Bang explosion some 13.7 billion years ago, had been predicted, but never before observed. The clouds, which are located about 12 billion light-years from Earth within the constellations Ursa Major and Leo, were found serendipitously during an ongoing study to characterise gas in distant galaxies.

Hubble Directly Observes the Disk Around a Black HoleHubble Directly Observes the Disk Around a Black Hole
A team of scientists has used the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope to observe a quasar accretion disc — a brightly glowing disc of matter that is slowly being sucked into its galaxy’s central black hole. Their study makes use of a novel technique that uses gravitational lensing to give an immense boost to the power of the telescope. The incredible precision of the method has allowed astronomers to directly measure the disc’s size and plot the temperature across different parts of the disc.

The Sisyphean task of export control reformThe Sisyphean task of export control reform
Export control reform for the US space industry has often been likened—including in the pages of this publication—to the weather: a topic people love to talk about, but where little actually happens. That is, though, perhaps an unfair comparison, as there have been considerable efforts to try and make it easier for American companies to export satellites and related components. The better analogy might be Sisyphus: just as reform proponents appear to be making progress, the effort stalls out, forcing them to start over from scratch in the next Congress or administration.

Millisecond Pulsar in Spin Mode: Gamma Radiation of Rapidly Rotating Neutron Star Casts Doubt On Origin ModelsMillisecond Pulsar in Spin Mode: Gamma Radiation of Rapidly Rotating Neutron Star Casts Doubt On Origin Models
Astronomers have tracked down the first gamma-ray pulsar in a globular cluster of stars. It is around 27,000 light years away and thus also holds the distance record in this class of objects. Moreover, its high luminosity indicates that J1823-3021A is the youngest millisecond pulsar found to date, and that its magnetic field is much stronger than theoretically predicted. This therefore suggests the existence of a new population of such extreme objects.

'Pacman' Nebula Grows Teeth to Chomp on Space‘Pacman’ Nebula Grows Teeth to Chomp on Space
Wokkawokkawokka … chomp! A new view of the “Pacman” nebula reveals a gaping mouth and a set of sharp-looking teeth taking a bite out of space. The Pacman nebula is a giant cloud of dust and gas located approximately 9,200 light-years away within our own Milky Way galaxy. It’s official name is NGC 281, but the nebula earned a more popular nickname because of its resemblance to the character from the hugely popular Pac-Man video game that was first released in 1980. When the nebula is viewed through visible-light telescopes, the large star-forming cloud appears to be chomping its way through the cosmos, NASA scientists said in a statement.

Starburst Captured: Students Photograph Exploding Star in Pinwheel GalaxyStarburst Captured: Students Photograph Exploding Star in Pinwheel Galaxy
In the Pinwheel Galaxy some 21 million light years from Earth, a supernova beams brightly, out-shining its cosmic neighbors and causing a stir among starwatchers. Students in University of Delaware Prof. Judi Provencal’s Observational Astronomy class (PHYS 469) photographed the exploding star last week using the telescope at Mt. Cuba Astronomical Observatory in Greenville, Del., which has a lens spanning 24 inches in diameter.

Astronomers Discover Complex Organic Matter Exists Throughout the UniverseAstronomers Discover Complex Organic Matter Exists Throughout the Universe
Astronomers report in the journal Nature that organic compounds of unexpected complexity exist throughout the Universe. The results suggest that complex organic compounds are not the sole domain of life but can be made naturally by stars. Prof. Sun Kwok and Dr. Yong Zhang of The University of Hong Kong show that an organic substance commonly found throughout the Universe contains a mixture of aromatic (ring-like) and aliphatic (chain-like) components.

Aliens don't need a moon like oursAliens don’t need a moon like ours
Talk about being over the moon. It seems planets don’t need a big satellite like Earth’s in order to support life, increasing the number on which life could exist. In 1993, Jacques Laskar of the Paris Observatory in France and colleagues showed that the moon helps stabilize the tilt of Earth’s rotation axis against perturbations by Jupiter’s gravity. The researchers calculated that without the moon, Jupiter’s influence would make the current tilt of some 23 degrees wander chaotically between 0 and 85 degrees.

Astronomers Pin Down Galaxy Collision Rate With Hubble DataAstronomers Pin Down Galaxy Collision Rate With Hubble Data
A new analysis of Hubble surveys, combined with simulations of galaxy interactions, reveals that the merger rate of galaxies over the last 8 billion to 9 billion years falls between the previous estimates. The galaxy merger rate is one of the fundamental measures of galaxy evolution, yielding clues to how galaxies bulked up over time through encounters with other galaxies. And yet, a huge discrepancy exists over how often galaxies coalesced in the past.

Jupiter moon Europa 'has shallow lakes'Jupiter moon Europa ‘has shallow lakes’
Scientists have found the best evidence yet for water just beneath the surface of Jupiter’s icy moon, Europa. Analysis of the moon’s surface suggests plumes of warmer water well up beneath its icy shell, melting and fracturing the outer layers. The results, published in the journal Nature, predict that small lakes exist only 3km below the crust. Any liquid water could represent a potential habitat for life. From models of magnetic forces, and images of its surface, scientists have long suspected that a giant ocean, roughly 160km deep, lies somewhere between 10-30km beneath the ice crust.

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