AstroBlog Follow Friday & Weekly Stumbles For 2011-12-16

This week I recommend to follow @NASAGoddard for interesting tweets about astronomy, Earth sciences and robotic exploration from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. For more Twitter follow suggestions see our astronomy list @TheAstroBlog/astronomy

Weekly Stumbles:

NASA's Kepler Confirms Its First Planet in Habitable Zone Outside Our Solar SystemNASA’s Kepler Confirms Its First Planet in Habitable Zone Outside Our Solar System
NASA’s Kepler mission has confirmed its first planet in the “habitable zone,” the region around a star where liquid water could exist on a planet’s surface. Kepler also has discovered more than 1,000 new planet candidates, nearly doubling its previously known count. Ten of these candidates are near-Earth-size and orbit in the habitable zone of their host star. Candidates require follow-up observations to verify they are actual planets.

X-Ray Heartbeat May Reveal Smallest Black Hole Ever FoundX-Ray Heartbeat May Reveal Smallest Black Hole Ever Found
Scientists may have found the smallest black hole yet by listening to its X-ray “heartbeat.” The black hole, if it truly exists, would weigh less than three times the mass of the sun, putting it near the theoretical minimum mass required for a black hole to be stable. The researchers can’t directly observe the black hole, but they measured a rise and fall in X-ray light coming from a binary star system in our Milky Way galaxy that they think signals the presence of a black hole.

Competition and the future of the EELV programCompetition and the future of the EELV program
This year has marked a period of considerable transition for the US launch industry. Although the end of the Space Shuttle program, and the beginning of its intended replacement, the Space Launch System (SLS), has garnered the lion’s share of attention, it is far from the only change taking place. Though not a product of the original EELV program, the Falcon 9 presents an opportunity to rejuvenate the program with the type of competition that was originally intended but never achieved when the DoD implemented the two-vendor strategy in 1998.

Comet Lovejoy Survives Fiery Plunge Through Sun, NASA SaysComet Lovejoy Survives Fiery Plunge Through Sun, NASA Says
A newfound comet defied long odds today (Dec. 15), surviving a suicidal dive through the sun’s hellishly hot atmosphere, according to NASA scientists. Comet Lovejoy plunged through the sun’s corona at about 7 p.m. EST today (midnight GMT on Dec. 16), coming within 140,000 kilometers of our star’s surface. Temperatures in the corona can reach 1.1 million degrees Celsius, so most researchers expected the icy wanderer to be completely destroyed.

$5,000 Kit to Send Your Own Rocket to the Moon$5,000 Kit to Send Your Own Rocket to the Moon
When father-and-son backyard experiments have reached the point of sending smartphones up on weather balloons to snap pictures at the edge of space, DIY space enthusiasts will want to take things up a notch. A crowd-funded project to create a $5,000-moon-rocket kit just may do the trick. The idea comes from Lunar Robotics, a private team formerly competing to land a robot on the moon in the $30-million Google Lunar X Prize.

Alien Planets With No Spin May Be Too Harsh for LifeAlien Planets With No Spin May Be Too Harsh for Life
Tidally-locked planets — planets with one side perpetually facing their star while the other remains shrouded in darkness — tend to be warmer on one side than the other. The presence of an atmosphere can help distribute the heat across the planet, equalizing the temperatures. But tidal locking could result in wide climate variations, a result that could threaten the evolution of life on the surface of these planets.

Star Explosion Leaves Behind a RoseStar Explosion Leaves Behind a Rose
About 3,700 years ago, people on Earth would have seen a brand-new bright star in the sky. It slowly dimmed out of sight and was eventually forgotten, until modern astronomers later found its remains, called Puppis A. In this new image from NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE), Puppis A looks less like the remains of a supernova explosion and more like a red rose. Puppis A (pronounced PUP-pis) was formed when a massive star ended its life in a supernova, the most brilliant and powerful form of an explosion in the known universe.

NASA Revises Plan to Buy Private Space TaxisNASA Revises Plan to Buy Private Space Taxis
NASA astronauts will not be taking commercial spaceships to the International Space Station until at least 2017, agency officials announced today (Dec. 15). Facing an uncertain budget climate, NASA is changing its approach to funding the private development of astronaut-ferrying spacecraft under the space agency’s Commercial Crew Development program, which could push back the start of U.S. commercial flights to and from low-Earth orbit by a year or more.

Astronomers Find Fastest Rotating StarAstronomers Find Fastest Rotating Star
The European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope has picked up the fastest rotating star found so far. This massive bright young star lies in our neighbouring galaxy, the Large Magellanic Cloud, about 160,000 light-years from Earth. Astronomers think that it may have had a violent past and has been ejected from a double star system by its exploding companion. An international team of astronomers has been using ESO’s Very Large Telescope at the Paranal Observatory in Chile, to make a survey of the heaviest and brightest stars in the Tarantula Nebula, in the Large Magellanic Cloud.

New NASA Rover Studying Space Radiation En Route to MarsNew NASA Rover Studying Space Radiation En Route to Mars
NASA’s new Mars rover has already begun performing research in space, less than three weeks after launching on its eight-month cruise to the Red Planet. The car-size Curiosity rover has begun using its Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD) instrument, which monitors high-energy particles from the sun, distant supernovas and other sources. Such radiation is potentially hazardous to humans, so the rover’s results could help scientists plan future manned missions to Mars, researchers said.

NASA's Voyager Hits New Region at Solar System EdgeNASA’s Voyager Hits New Region at Solar System Edge
NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft has entered a new region between our solar system and interstellar space. Data obtained from Voyager over the last year reveal this new region to be a kind of cosmic purgatory. In it, the wind of charged particles streaming out from our sun has calmed, our solar system’s magnetic field is piled up, and higher-energy particles from inside our solar system appear to be leaking out into interstellar space.

Can Billionaire Paul Allen's Mega-Plane Really Launch Private Rockets Into Space?Can Billionaire Paul Allen’s Mega-Plane Really Launch Private Rockets Into Space?
After conquering the technology world, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen is setting his sights on the next frontier: space. The billionaire entrepreneur announced a new private spaceflight venture on Tuesday (Dec. 13), called Stratolaunch Systems. The company aims to build a massive aircraft that will act as an airborne launch system, releasing a booster mid-flight that ignites to send cargo, satellites and, eventually, people into orbit. When complete, it would be the biggest aircraft in history.

NASA Mars Rover Finds Mineral Vein Deposited by WaterNASA Mars Rover Finds Mineral Vein Deposited by Water
NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity has found bright veins of a mineral, apparently gypsum, deposited by water. Analysis of the vein will help improve understanding of the history of wet environments on Mars. “This tells a slam-dunk story that water flowed through underground fractures in the rock,” said Steve Squyres of Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., principal investigator for Opportunity.

Asteroid Crash May Explain Mercury's Strange SpinAsteroid Crash May Explain Mercury’s Strange Spin
A collision with an asteroid might have set the planet Mercury whirling oddly in its orbit, a new study suggests. When one body orbits another — say, a moon around a planet or a planet around a star — the orbiting body often spins. Our planet experiences day and night because it spins on its axis, regularly changing which side it exposes to the sun. However, the gravitational pull that orbiting moons and planets experience slows the rate of their spin.

Vampire Star Reveals Its SecretsVampire Star Reveals Its Secrets
Astronomers have obtained the best images ever of a star that has lost most of its material to a vampire companion. By combining the light captured by four telescopes at the European Southern Observatory’s Paranal Observatory they created a virtual telescope 130 metres across with vision 50 times sharper than the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. Surprisingly, the new results show that the transfer of mass from one star to the other in this double system is gentler than expected.

Alien Planet Warps Its Solar SystemAlien Planet Warps Its Solar System
An alien planet circling around a distant star has caused a disk of debris around the system to warp into crookedness, scientists find. The study could help illuminate the complicated mechanics at work in alien star systems. Astronomers had originally thought a second planet in the Beta Pictoris system might have caused the warp in the debris disk surrounding the star, but the new study rules out this scenario, scientists say.

Solar Storms Could Sandblast the MoonSolar Storms Could Sandblast the Moon
Solar storms and associated Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs) can significantly erode the lunar surface according to a new set of computer simulations by NASA scientists. In addition to removing a surprisingly large amount of material from the lunar surface, this could be a major method of atmospheric loss for planets like Mars that are unprotected by a global magnetic field. The research is being led by Rosemary Killen at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md., as part of the Dynamic Response of the Environment At the Moon (DREAM) team within the NASA Lunar Science Institute.

Antarctica Shines as Icy Bastion of Space ScienceAntarctica Shines as Icy Bastion of Space Science
Antarctica may be the bottom of the world, but the coldest, driest, highest continent is the best place for looking up at the heavens from Earth. Next week marks the 100th anniversary of humanity first reaching the South Pole, when Roald Amundsen planted the Norwegian flag there on Dec. 17, 1911. Astronomy in Antarctica will soon experience a centennial of its own — the very first meteorite discovered in the Antarctic, the Adelie Land Meteorite, or ALM, was found on Dec. 5, 1912.

This Insane Giant Mothership Will Launch Rockets Into OrbitThis Insane Giant Mothership Will Launch Rockets Into Orbit
This is not a fantasy project. This is going to be real: a gigantic 385-foot wing span, 544-tonne plane powered by six 747 engines that will serve as a flying launch platform for 490,000 pound orbital rockets. It’s the new project of Paul Allen and Burt Rutan. And it looks insanely amazing. The new design works similarly to Rutan’s previous designs. The giant mothership, which brings memories of the giganormous Howard Hughes’ H-4 Hercules “Spruce Goose”, will take SpaceX rocket launchers up to the stratosphere.

Newborn Massive Stars Dwarf Full-Grown Stellar GiantsNewborn Massive Stars Dwarf Full-Grown Stellar Giants
Massive stars generally start out life much bigger than they will be in maturity, a new study seems to confirm. Astronomers from the University of Amsterdam got a rare look at a massive star in the process of forming and found that the star will contract until it has reached a stable equilibrium. The researchers studied the young star B275, which lies in the Omega Nebula, also called the Swan Nebula or Messier 17.

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