AstroBlog Follow Friday & Weekly Stumbles For 2011-12-30

Weekly Stumbles:

Twin NASA Probes Have New Year's Date with the MoonTwin NASA Probes Have New Year’s Date with the Moon
No matter how exciting your plans are for New Year’s, two NASA spacecraft have you beat — they’ve got a date with the moon. After more than three months of spaceflight, NASA’s twin Grail probes are set to start orbiting the moon this weekend, with Grail-A arriving Saturday (Dec. 31) and Grail-B following on Sunday (Jan. 1). The spacecraft are on a mission to map lunar gravity in unprecedented detail, shedding light on the moon’s composition, formation and evolution.

WISE presents a cosmic wreathWISE presents a cosmic wreath
Just in time for the holidays, astronomers have come across a new image from NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, that some say resembles a wreath. You might even think of the red dust cloud as a cheery red bow, and the bluish-white stars as silver bells. This star-forming nebula is named Barnard 3. Baby stars are being born throughout the dusty region, while the “silver bell” stars are located both in front of, and behind, the nebula. The bright star in the middle of the red cloud, called HD 278942, is so luminous that it is likely causing most of the surrounding clouds to glow.

Earth Has Two 'Moons' Right Now, Theorists SayEarth Has Two ‘Moons’ Right Now, Theorists Say
Earth has two moons, claims a group of scientists. One is that waxing and waning nightlight we all know and love. The other is a tiny asteroid, no bigger than a Smart Car, making huge doughnuts around Earth for a while before it zips off into the distance and is replaced by another. That’s the scenario posited by the scientists in a paper published Dec. 20 in the planetary science journal ICARUS. The researchers argue that there is a space rock at least 1 meter (3.3 feet) wide orbiting Earth at any given time, though it’s not always the same rock.

NASA's Cassini Delivers Holiday Treats from SaturnNASA’s Cassini Delivers Holiday Treats from Saturn
No team of reindeer, but radio signals flying clear across the solar system from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft have delivered a holiday package of glorious images. The pictures, from Cassini’s imaging team, show Saturn’s largest, most colorful ornament, Titan, and other icy baubles in orbit around this splendid planet. The release includes images of satellite conjunctions in which one moon passes in front of or behind another. Cassini scientists regularly make these observations to study the ever-changing orbits of the planet’s moons.

Life Possible On 'Large Regions' of MarsLife Possible On ‘Large Regions’ of Mars
With higher pressures and warmer temperatures beneath the Martian surface, Earth-like microorganisms could thrive. Australian scientists who modeled conditions on Mars to examine how much of the Red Planet was habitable said that “large regions” could sustain life. Charley Lineweaver’s team, from the Australian National University, compared models of temperature and pressure conditions on Earth with those on Mars to estimate how much of the distant planet was livable for Earth-like organisms. While just one percent of Earth’s volume — from core to upper atmosphere — was occupied by life, Lineweaver said their world-first modeling showed three percent of Mars was habitable, though most of it was underground.

Scientists Find Microbes in Lava Tube Living in Conditions Like Those On MarsScientists Find Microbes in Lava Tube Living in Conditions Like Those On Mars
A team of scientists from Oregon has collected microbes from ice within a lava tube in the Cascade Mountains and found that they thrive in cold, Mars-like conditions. The microbes tolerate temperatures near freezing and low levels of oxygen, and they can grow in the absence of organic food. Under these conditions their metabolism is driven by the oxidation of iron from olivine, a common volcanic mineral found in the rocks of the lava tube. These factors make the microbes capable of living in the subsurface of Mars and other planetary bodies, the scientists say.

Time lapse: The spectacle of Comet LovejoyTime lapse: The spectacle of Comet Lovejoy
The comet called Lovejoy is still putting on an amazing show for folks south of the Equator. Stéphane Guisard, an astrophotographer who takes stunning pictures of the sky, was in Chile where Lovejoy is making a splashy scene just before sunrise. He created an amazing and lovely time lapse video of the comet, showing just how incredible this ephemeral visitor is. That’s phenomenal. The comet is seemingly pinned to the tail of the constellation Scorpius, deep in the path of the Milky Way. You can see some of the stars of Scorpius around the comet as well as a few deep-sky objects like clusters and nebulae.

2012: Fear No Supernova2012: Fear No Supernova
Given the incredible amounts of energy in a supernova explosion — as much as the sun creates during its entire lifetime — another erroneous doomsday theory is that such an explosion could happen in 2012 and harm life on Earth. However, given the vastness of space and the long times between supernovae, astronomers can say with certainty that there is no threatening star close enough to hurt Earth. Astronomers estimate that, on average, about one or two supernovae explode each century in our galaxy. But for Earth’s ozone layer to experience damage from a supernova, the blast must occur less than 50 light-years away.

The 12 Most Anticipated Space Missions of 2012The 12 Most Anticipated Space Missions of 2012
The space shuttle program is over, but that won’t mean a lack of launches in 2012. Between commercial and government spaceflight, manned and robotic, there’s a lot on next year’s spaceflight docket. For NASA, this year will bring the first private space cargo missions to the International Space Station, while China plans to launch its first crew to a brand-new space laboratory in orbit. Meanwhile, new NASA probes are due to arrive at the moon and Mars, among other places. Here’s a look at the 12 most anticipated space missions of 2012.

NASA Conducts Orion Parachute Testing for Orbital Test FlightNASA Conducts Orion Parachute Testing for Orbital Test Flight
NASA successfully conducted a drop test of the Orion crew vehicle’s parachutes high above the Arizona desert Tuesday, Dec. 20, in preparation for its orbital flight test in 2014. Orion will carry astronauts deeper into space than ever before, provide emergency abort capability, sustain the crew during space travel and ensure a safe re-entry and landing. A C-130 plane dropped the Orion test article from an altitude of 25,000 feet above the U.S. Army’s Yuma Proving Grounds. Orion’s drogue chutes were deployed between 15,000 and 20,000 feet, followed by the pilot parachutes, which then deployed two main landing parachutes.

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