This week I recommend to follow @NASAAmes for interesting tweets from NASA’s Ames Research Center which enables space exploration through development of innovative technologies and interdisciplinary scientific discovery. For more Twitter follow suggestions see our astronomy list @TheAstroBlog/astronomy
Course Excellent, Adjustment Postponed: Mars Science Laboratory Mission Status Report
Excellent launch precision for NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory mission has forestalled the need for an early trajectory correction maneuver, now not required for a month or more. That first of six planned course adjustments during the 254-day journey from Earth to Mars had originally been scheduled for 15 days after the mission’s Nov. 26 launch on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. Now, the correction maneuver will not be performed until later in December or possibly January.
SETI’s Search for Intelligent Alien Life Resumes
Astronomers have rebooted their search for intelligent life on alien planets, and they’ve got thousands of targets to scan. After hibernating for more than seven months, a set of radio telescopes run by the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute has once again begun listening for signals from the many alien planet candidates discovered by NASA’s Kepler space telescope, researchers announced Monday (Dec. 5).
Astronomers Find 18 New Planets: Discovery Is the Largest Collection of Confirmed Planets Around Stars More Massive Than the Sun
Discoveries of new planets just keep coming and coming. Take, for instance, the 18 recently found by a team of astronomers led by scientists at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). “It’s the largest single announcement of planets in orbit around stars more massive than the sun, aside from the discoveries made by the Kepler mission.”
Accelerating the future: human achievements beyond LEO within a decade
Human spaceflight in the US and other spacefaring countries is faced with a twin challenge that is likely to persist for many years: flat or declining budgets along with an expectation of continuing, significant achievements. A partial solution may involve increased participation by multiple commercial competitors with the promise — albeit yet to be fully demonstrated — of much-reduced costs. That said, most commercial goals are concentrated on low Earth orbit (LEO) for the time being, leaving human trips beyond Earth orbit (BEO) as governmental initiatives.
Newfound Comet to Dive Through Sun Next Week
A newly discovered comet is racing toward a mid-December rendezvous with the sun — a rendezvous that it will likely not survive. The comet is categorized by astronomers as a “sungrazer” and it is destined to do just that; literally graze the surface of the sun (called the photosphere) and pass through the sun’s intensely hot corona, where temperatures have been measured at upwards of 3.6-million degrees Fahrenheit (2-million degrees Celsius).
Time for Russia to rethink its Mars exploration plans
The long-awaited return of the Russians into the solar system will have to wait even longer. The Phobos Sample Return Mission (Phobos-Grunt) has failed and its spacecraft, like Mars-96, apparently will ignominiously end up crashing or splashing down on Earth. My colleagues in Russia say that they hope to try again, although obviously they do not have any firm decision on that yet. Do the Russians now have a Dan Goldin who can take failure and use it as a weapon to institute changes and vigor into a new planetary program?
Milky Way’s Galactic Gobbling Leaves Star ‘Crumbs’
Our Milky Way galaxy is a messy eater, leaving streams of star “crumbs” spread across the sky after chomping its smaller neighbors, a new study reports. Astronomers have found two such streams emanating from the Sagittarius dwarf galaxy, torn off by the Milky Way’s huge gravitational pull. The two newfound star tails are in the southern galactic hemisphere, and they meet up with two others previously known from Sagittarius in the northern galactic hemisphere.
Innovations in exoplanet search
Since the mid-1990s, astronomers have discovered a staggering number of extrasolar planets, or exoplanets: planets orbiting other stars. The Extrasolar Planets Encyclopaedia, the de facto catalog of such worlds, has 707 exoplanets listed as of last Friday, a number growing on a regular — almost daily — basis. The vast majority of those planets have been found by two techniques. One, radial velocity, measures the periodic Doppler shift in stars caused by the wobble induced by the gravity of planets orbiting that star.
What’s That Sparkle in Cassini’s Eye?
The moon Enceladus, one of the jewels of the Saturn system, sparkles peculiarly bright in new images obtained by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. The images of the moon, the first ever taken of Enceladus with Cassini’s synthetic aperture radar, reveal new details of some of the grooves in the moon’s south polar region and unexpected textures in the ice. These images, obtained on Nov. 6, 2011, are the highest-resolution images of this region obtained so far.
The perils of spaceflight prediction
“Prediction is difficult, especially about the future,” goes a famous saying attributed, curiously, in roughly equal measure to Nobel laureate physicist Neils Bohr and baseball Hall of Fame player and manager Yogi Berra. Regardless of the source, its message about the difficulty of prediction is clear, which means that when someone makes a prediction that is far from obvious to the broader community, yet does come true, that person is heralded as a seer and is sought out for other predictions.
NASA Fires Up Engine for Giant New Rocket
NASA test fired the upper-stage engine of its new heavy-lift rocket Thursday (Dec. 1), marking another step forward in the development of the vehicle that could launch humans toward an asteroid or Mars someday. The 80-second test, conducted at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, investigated the combustion stability of the J-2X rocket engine. This engine will power the second stage of the agency’s new Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, which is designed to send astronauts toward deep-space destinations.
Astronomers Look to Neighboring Galaxy for Star Formation Insight
An international team of astronomers has mapped in detail the star-birthing regions of the nearest star-forming galaxy to our own, a step toward understanding the conditions surrounding star creation. Led by University of Illinois astronomy professor Tony Wong, the researchers published their findings in the December issue of the Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series. The Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC) is a popular galaxy among astronomers both for its nearness to our Milky Way and for the spectacular view it provides, a big-picture vista impossible to capture of our own galaxy.
Monster Black Holes Are Most Massive Ever Discovered
Scientists have discovered the largest black holes yet, and they’re far bigger than researchers expected based on the galaxies in which they were found. The discovery suggests we have much to learn about how monster black holes grow, scientists said. All large galaxies are thought to harbor super-massive black holes at their hearts that contain millions to billions of times the mass of our sun. Until now, the largest black hole known was a mammoth dwelling in the giant elliptical galaxy Messier 87.
In the Dragonfish’s Mouth: The Next Generation of Superstars to Stir Up Our Galaxy
Three astronomers at the University of Toronto have found the most numerous batch of young, supermassive stars yet observed in our galaxy: hundreds of thousands of stars, including several hundreds of the most massive kind -blue stars dozens of times heavier than our Sun. The light these newborn stars emit is so intense it has pushed out and heated the gas that gave them birth, carving out a glowing hollow shell about a hundred light-years across.
If you would like to have the chance for your articles to be featured in a future issue of this weekly series follow us on Twitter @TheAstroBlog.