AstroBlog Follow Friday & Weekly Stumbles For 2011-12-23

This week I recommend to follow @NASA_EDGE for interesting tweets from the show that takes an inside and outside look at all things NASA. For more Twitter follow suggestions see our astronomy list @TheAstroBlog/astronomy

Weekly Stumbles:

Do Newfound Alien Planets Need Better Names?Do Newfound Alien Planets Need Better Names?
Astronomers on Tuesday (Dec. 20) announced the discovery of the first two Earth-size alien planets — a historic find for sure, but the newfound worlds didn’t exactly receive historic names. The two alien planets are officially known as Kepler-20e and Kepler-20f, a nod to the instrument that detected them, NASA’s prolific Kepler space telescope. The planets’ host star is Kepler-20, and the letters indicate that 20e was the fourth planet discovered in this alien solar system and 20f the fifth.

Astronomers Discover Deep-Fried Planets: Two Earth-Sized Planets Around Dying Star That Has Passed the Red Giant StageAstronomers Discover Deep-Fried Planets: Two Earth-Sized Planets Around Dying Star That Has Passed the Red Giant Stage
Two Earth-sized planets have been discovered around a dying star that has passed the red giant stage. Because of their close orbits, the planets must have been engulfed by their star while it swelled up to many times its original size. When our sun nears the end of its life in about 5 billion years, it will swell up to what astronomers call a red giant, an inflated star that has used up most of its fuel.

Kepler Discovers Earth-size ExoplanetsKepler Discovers Earth-size Exoplanets
NASA’s Kepler mission has discovered the first Earth-size planets orbiting a sun-like star outside our solar system. The planets, called Kepler-20e and Kepler-20f, are too close to their star to be in the so-called habitable zone where liquid water could exist on a planet’s surface, but they are the smallest exoplanets ever confirmed around a star like our sun. The discovery marks the next important milestone in the ultimate search for planets like Earth.

NASA Looks into Lasers for 'Tractor-Beaming' StardustNASA Looks into Lasers for ‘Tractor-Beaming’ Stardust
Tractor beams don’t yet exist to snatch fleeing starships, but lasers in lab experiments have shown the ability to trap and move tiny particles. That has persuaded NASA to spend $100,000 to see whether lasers can be used on robotic space missions to capture stardust. The investigation by a team at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center aims to examine three possible ways to control particles with laser beams.

Tycho's Star Shines in Gamma Rays, NASA's Fermi ShowsTycho’s Star Shines in Gamma Rays, NASA’s Fermi Shows
In early November 1572, observers on Earth witnessed the appearance of a “new star” in the constellation Cassiopeia, an event now recognized as the brightest naked-eye supernova in more than 400 years. It’s often called “Tycho’s supernova” after the great Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, who gained renown for his extensive study of the object. Now, years of data collected by NASA’s Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope reveal that the shattered star’s remains shine in high-energy gamma rays.

Asteroid Vesta Not An Asteroid After AllAsteroid Vesta Not An Asteroid After All
Seems like the second-largest object in the asteroid belt is really not an asteroid at all, conclude scientists working on NASA’s Dawn mission, which is currently studying a 330-mile wide body called Vesta. “Vesta is unlike any other asteroid we have visited so far. There is nothing in the asteroid belt that you can actually compare directly with Vesta,” Vishnu Reddy, a Dawn co-investigator at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Germany and at the University of North Dakota, said at the American Geophysical Union conference in San Francisco this week.

NASA Developing Comet Harpoon for Sample ReturnNASA Developing Comet Harpoon for Sample Return
The best way to grab a sample of a rotating comet that is racing through the inner solar system at up to 150,000 miles per hour while spewing chunks of ice, rock and dust may be to avoid the risky business of landing on it. Instead, researchers want to send a spacecraft to rendezvous with a comet, then fire a harpoon to rapidly acquire samples from specific locations with surgical precision while hovering above the target.

US Military Seeks to Turn Planes into Satellite LaunchersUS Military Seeks to Turn Planes into Satellite Launchers
U.S. military operations rely heavily upon satellites to spy on battlefields and coordinate friendly forces across the globe, but fast-changing ground conditions or enemy attacks on satellites can threaten to overwhelm the system. That’s why the Pentagon has announced $164 million to turn airliners into airborne launch platforms that can send small satellites into orbit within 24 hours.

An about face for commercial crewAn about face for commercial crew
This summer, much of the entrepreneurial NewSpace community was up in arms about a planned change in NASA’s commercial crew development program. The agency announced plans to shift from Space Act Agreements (SAAs) to contracts based on Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR), which many feared would burden the industry with contracting overhead and otherwise limit their flexibility. By this fall, though, concerns had shifted to another issue: the level of funding the commercial crew program would receive.

Astronauts 'Deck the Halls' of Space StationAstronauts ‘Deck the Halls’ of Space Station
Astronauts on the International Space Station are planning a big holiday bash to welcome three new crewmates, who are slated to arrive just before Christmas. The addition of three more spaceflyers on Dec. 23 will double the population of the orbiting lab, bringing it back up to full operational strength after a month at skeleton-crew levels. That’s good news for scientists keen to maximize the space station’s research potential, and it’ll make the holidays a little less lonely 386 kilometers above the Earth’s surface.

Disaster looms for gas cloud falling into Milky Way's central black holeDisaster looms for gas cloud falling into Milky Way’s central black hole
The normally quiet neighborhood around the massive black hole at the center of our Milky Way Galaxy is being invaded by a gas cloud that is destined in just a few years to be ripped, shredded and largely eaten. Many, if not all, galaxies have massive black holes at their centers. But this supermassive black hole is the only one close enough for astronomers to study in detail, so the violent encounter is a unique chance to observe what until now has only been theorized: how a black hole gulps gas, dust and stars as it grows ever bigger.

Skywatchers Look to Cloud for Storing 'Tsunami' of DataSkywatchers Look to Cloud for Storing ‘Tsunami’ of Data
The digital archives where astronomers keep their earthly records of the heavens are running out of room. Blame better telescope cameras and the extensive sky surveys that have become possible over the past few years, said astronomer Bruce Berriman, a program manager at NASA’s Infrared Processing and Analysis Center in Pasadena, Calif. The amount of data in the NASA/IPAC Infrared Science Archive, for example, has increased more than eightfold since 2008.

'Supernova of a Generation' Shows Its Stuff: Astronomers Determine How Brightest and Closest Stellar Explosion in 25 Years Happened‘Supernova of a Generation’ Shows Its Stuff: Astronomers Determine How Brightest and Closest Stellar Explosion in 25 Years Happened
It was the brightest and closest stellar explosion seen from Earth in 25 years, dazzling professional and backyard astronomers alike. Now, thanks to this rare discovery — which some have called the “supernova of a generation” — astronomers have the most detailed picture yet of how this kind of explosion happens. Known as a Type Ia supernova, this type of blast is an essential tool that allows scientists to measure the expansion of the universe and understand the very nature of the cosmos.

World's most powerful laser to tear apart the vacuum of spaceWorld’s most powerful laser to tear apart the vacuum of space
A laser powerful enough to tear apart the fabric of space could be built in Britain as part major new scientific project that aims to answer some of the most fundamental questions about our universe. Due to follow in the footsteps of the Large Hadron Collider, the latest “big science” experiment being proposed by physicists will see the world’s most powerful laser being constructed.

ISS Next: chasing humanity's future in space and the 'next logical step'ISS Next: chasing humanity’s future in space and the ‘next logical step’
Even though the International Space Station is only now just completed, the time may be right to start talking about its successor. Within the American space community, a space station was long considered the “next logical step” especially given the limitations of the Space Shuttle. That centrality was earlier reinforced in the public’s mind by the majestic rotating wheel in space in the Disney short feature Men in Space.

Preparing for Future Human Exploration, RAD Measures Radiation On Journey to MarsPreparing for Future Human Exploration, RAD Measures Radiation On Journey to Mars
NASA will launch the Mars Science Laboratory on Nov. 26, 2011, to assess the past and present habitability of the Red Planet’s surface. The mission will land Curiosity, a rover equipped with 10 instruments designed to search for evidence of elements needed to support life — namely, water and carbon-based materials — and to characterize life-limiting factors, such as the planet’s radiation environment.

NASA Considers 7-Day Mission to EuropaNASA Considers 7-Day Mission to Europa
After six-year journey, probes would have a week to assess conditions for life on Jupiter’s ocean-bearing moon. In the search for life beyond Earth, few places beckon as strongly as Europa, an ocean-bearing, ice-covered moon circling Jupiter. But how to pull off the mission, given today’s tight science budgets and competing missions, such as a sample return from Mars? A team of scientists may have the answer: Send a pair of landers directly to Europa and design the mission to last just seven days.

Young Star Rebels Against Its Parent CloudYoung Star Rebels Against Its Parent Cloud
Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 has captured this image of a giant cloud of hydrogen gas illuminated by a bright young star. The image shows how violent the end stages of the star-formation process can be, with the young object shaking up its stellar nursery. Despite the celestial colours of this picture, there is nothing peaceful about star forming region Sh 2-106, or S106 for short. A devilish young star, named S106 IR, lies in it and ejects material at high speed, which disrupts the gas and dust around it.

Reusable Rockets to Take Giant Leap From Spaceport AmericaReusable Rockets to Take Giant Leap From Spaceport America
Billed as the nation’s first dedicated commercial spaceport, New Mexico’s Spaceport America is becoming a desirable location to experiment with new types of reusable booster systems. Armadillo Aerospace, of Heath, Texas, used the site on Dec. 4 to test their STIG A reusable suborbital rocket technology. The rocket shot to a projected suborbital altitude of about 42 kilometers above the Earth.

First Low-Mass Star Detected in Globular ClusterFirst Low-Mass Star Detected in Globular Cluster
Even the most powerful high-tech telescopes are barely able to record remote low-mass and thus faint stars. Together with researchers from Poland and Chile, an astrophysicist from the University of Zurich has now detected a low-mass star in globular cluster M22 for the first time through microlensing. The result indicates that the overall mass of globular clusters might well be explained without enigmatic dark matter.

Meteorite Shockwaves Trigger Dust Avalanches On MarsMeteorite Shockwaves Trigger Dust Avalanches On Mars
Dust avalanches around impact craters on Mars appear to be the result of the shock wave preceding the actual impact, according to a study led by an undergraduate student at the University of Arizona. When a meteorite careens toward the dusty surface of the Red Planet, it kicks up dust and can cause avalanching even before the rock from outer space hits the ground, a research team led by an undergraduate student at the University of Arizona has discovered.

Stratolaunch: SpaceShipThree or Space Goose?Stratolaunch: SpaceShipThree or Space Goose?
Take the billionaire cofounder of one of the world’s largest software companies. Add a recently-retired designer of many innovative aircraft and suborbital vehicles. Throw in a former NASA administrator, the president of a low-cost commercial launch company, and a former NASA center director who is now the vice president of a defense contractor. Season with several hundred million dollars in funding. What do you get?

A Galaxy Blooming With New StarsA Galaxy Blooming With New Stars
The VLT Survey Telescope (VST) has captured the beauty of the nearby spiral galaxy NGC 253. The new portrait is probably the most detailed wide-field view of this object and its surroundings ever taken. It demonstrates that the VST, the newest telescope at ESO’s Paranal Observatory, provides broad views of the sky while also offering impressive image sharpness. NGC 253 gleams about eleven and a half million light-years away in the southern constellation of Sculptor.

New evidence for complex molecules on Pluto's surfaceNew evidence for complex molecules on Pluto’s surface
The new and highly sensitive Cosmic Origins Spectrograph aboard the Hubble Space Telescope has discovered a strong ultraviolet-wavelength absorber on Pluto’s surface, providing new evidence that points to the possibility of complex hydrocarbon and/or nitrile molecules lying on the surface, according to a paper recently published in the Astronomical Journal by researchers from Southwest Research Institute and Nebraska Wesleyan University.

Astronomers Discover Rare Galaxy at Dawn of TimeAstronomers Discover Rare Galaxy at Dawn of Time
Astronomers, including the University of California, Riverside’s Bahram Mobasher and his graduate student Hooshang Nayyeri, have discovered that one of the most distant galaxies known is churning out stars at a shockingly high rate. The researchers made the discovery using NASA’s Spitzer and Hubble space telescopes. The blob-shaped galaxy, called GN-108036, is the brightest galaxy found to date at such great distances.

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