AstroBlog Follow Friday & Weekly Stumbles For 2012-02-24

This week I recommend to follow @newscientist for tweets from New Scientist, a weekly magazine about science and technology. For more Twitter follow suggestions see our astronomy list @TheAstroBlog/astronomy

Weekly Stumbles:

NASA's Galaxy Evolution Explorer in Standby ModeNASA’s Galaxy Evolution Explorer in Standby Mode
NASA’s Galaxy Evolution Explorer, or Galex, was placed in standby mode Feb. 7, 2012 as engineers prepare to end mission operations, nearly nine years after the telescope’s launch. The spacecraft is scheduled to be decommissioned — taken out of service — later this year. The mission extensively mapped large portions of the sky with sharp ultraviolet vision, cataloguing millions of galaxies spanning 10 billion years of cosmic time. The Galaxy Evolution Explorer launched into space from a Pegasus XL rocket in April of 2003.

6 Real Planets That Put Science Fiction to Shame6 Real Planets That Put Science Fiction to Shame
George Lucas dreamed up planets with two suns and cloud cities, and Gene Roddenberry invented dozens of worlds that were all suspiciously similar to the Southern California desert. But as actual space exploration advances and we start to learn what’s really on the surface of those distant worlds, it becomes increasingly clear that our imagination has no chance of competing with the jaw-dropping, pants-peeing craziness outer space is capable of cooking up.

Most Detailed Infrared Image of the Carina Nebula EverMost Detailed Infrared Image of the Carina Nebula Ever
ESO’s Very Large Telescope has delivered the most detailed infrared image of the Carina Nebula stellar nursery taken so far. Many previously hidden features, scattered across a spectacular celestial landscape of gas, dust and young stars, have emerged. This is one of the most dramatic images ever created by the VLT. Deep in the heart of the southern Milky Way lies a stellar nursery called the Carina Nebula. It is about 7500 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Carina.

Our Sun May Have Been Bigger Long AgoOur Sun May Have Been Bigger Long Ago
Standard models predict that our sun was much dimmer in its youth, but devising a way to keep the early Earth from freezing over has not been easy for climate modelers. An alternative solution — currently being reexamined by a group of researchers — is to assume our sun started out a bit heftier (and therefore brighter) than expected. Most stars tend to increase in luminosity as they get older. This is due to their cores becoming denser and thus hotter over time. Assuming our sun has followed this same trend, one can estimate that it was 30 percent fainter 4.5 billion years ago.

NASA Small Explorer Mission Celebrates 10 Years and 40,000 X-Ray FlaresNASA Small Explorer Mission Celebrates 10 Years and 40,000 X-Ray Flares
On February 5, 2002, NASA launched what was then called the High Energy Solar Spectroscopic Imager (HESSI) into orbit. Renamed within months as the Ramaty High Energy Solar Spectroscopic Imager (RHESSI) after Reuven Ramaty, a deceased NASA scientist who had long championed the mission, the spacecraft’s job was to observe giant explosions on the sun called solar flares. During a solar flare, the gas soars to over 20 million degrees Fahrenheit, and emits X-rays that scientists can use as fingerprints to study these events on the sun.

Forever MarsForever Mars
Over the past six decades or so, dozens of plans for sending humans to Mars have been produced, usually by teams of engineers and occasionally by individuals. Far more books about human missions to Mars — fiction and non-fiction — have been published, and thousands of papers on the same subject have been presented at conferences or appeared in technical journals. Many of these books, papers, and articles have speculated about when such a mission can be accomplished.

Putting the Squeeze On Planets Outside Our Solar SystemPutting the Squeeze On Planets Outside Our Solar System
Just as graphite can transform into diamond under high pressure, liquid magmas may similarly undergo major transformations at the pressures and temperatures that exist deep inside Earth-like planets. Using high-powered lasers, scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and collaborators discovered that molten magnesium silicate undergoes a phase change in the liquid state, abruptly transforming to a more dense liquid with increasing pressure. The research provides insight into planet formation.

New Image Captures 'Stealth Merger' of Dwarf GalaxiesNew Image Captures ‘Stealth Merger’ of Dwarf Galaxies
New images of a nearby dwarf galaxy have revealed a dense stream of stars in its outer regions, the remains of an even smaller companion galaxy in the process of merging with its host. The host galaxy, known as NGC 4449, is the smallest primary galaxy in which a stellar stream from an ongoing merger has been identified and studied in detail. “This is how galaxies grow. You can see the smaller galaxy coming in and getting shredded, eventually leaving its stars scattered through the halo of the host galaxy.”

The Far Side of Moon: A Rare Glimpse from NASAThe Far Side of Moon: A Rare Glimpse from NASA
Here’s something you don’t see every night: the far side of the Moon, photographed by one of NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) spacecraft. The Moon is “tidally locked” in its orbit around the Earth, meaning its rotational and orbital periods are exactly synchronized. As a result, we always see the same view of the Moon no matter when or where (on Earth) we look at it. In this interesting video, released last week by NASA, we get a rare glimpse of the Moon’s other side, starting with the north pole and moving toward the heavily cratered south.

Milky Way's Black Hole Found Grazing On AsteroidsMilky Way’s Black Hole Found Grazing On Asteroids
The giant black hole at the center of the Milky Way may be vaporizing and devouring asteroids, which could explain the frequent flares observed, according to astronomers using data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory. For several years Chandra has detected X-ray flares about once a day from the supermassive black hole known as Sagittarius A*, or “Sgr A*” for short. The flares last a few hours with brightness ranging from a few times to nearly one hundred times that of the black hole’s regular output.

Campaign lunacy, revisitedCampaign lunacy, revisited
According to conventional wisdom, any discussion of space policy during the campaign for the Republican presidential nomination should have died off after the Florida primary two weeks ago. With the campaign moving on to states where space was not a local issue — meaning pretty much every other state in the Union — discussion of space topics, including Newt Gingrich’s proposal for a lunar base by 2020, should have died off.

New Views Show Old NASA Mars LandersNew Views Show Old NASA Mars Landers
The High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter recorded a scene on Jan. 29, 2012, that includes the first color image from orbit showing the three-petal lander of NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Spirit mission. Spirit drove off that lander platform in January 2004 and spent most of its six-year working life in a range of hills about two miles to the east. Another recent image from HiRISE, taken on Jan. 26, 2012, shows NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander and its surroundings on far-northern Mars after that spacecraft’s second Martian arctic winter.

Atacama Desert's "Extreme Microbial Oasis" A Preview of Future Mars Discoveries?Atacama Desert’s “Extreme Microbial Oasis” –A Preview of Future Mars Discoveries?
Mars may have been arid for more than 600 million years, making it too hostile for any life to survive on the planet’s surface, according to researchers who have been carrying out the painstaking task of analysing individual particles of Martian soil collected during the 2008 NASA Phoenix mission. The team estimated that the soil on Mars had been exposed to liquid water — critical for life — for at most 5,000 years since its formation billions of years ago.

Iridium 33 and Cosmos 2251 three years later: where are we now?Iridium 33 and Cosmos 2251 three years later: where are we now?
February 10th marked the third anniversary of the first-ever collision between two intact satellites in orbit. The collision, which occurred between Iridium 33 and Cosmos 2251 over Siberia, stunned the aerospace community and brought with it the realization that even though the heavens are vast, the orbital planes above the Earth are finite, and there are few, if any, rules of the road when the traffic within that finite space becomes congested.

Globular Clusters: Survivors of a 13-Billion-Year-Old MassacreGlobular Clusters: Survivors of a 13-Billion-Year-Old Massacre
Our Milky Way galaxy is surrounded by some 200 compact groups of stars, containing up to a million stars each. At 13 billion years of age, these globular clusters are almost as old as the universe itself and were born when the first generations of stars and galaxies formed. Now a team of astronomers from Germany and the Netherlands have conducted a novel type of computer simulation that looked at how they were born — and they find that these giant clusters of stars are the only survivors of a 13-billion-year-old massacre that destroyed many of their smaller siblings.

A Tale of Two Stars: The Inside Story of Orion's BeltA Tale of Two Stars: The Inside Story of Orion’s Belt
Standing upright and shining down upon Earth on these midwinter nights is the brightest and grandest of all the constellations: Orion, the Mighty Hunter. Currently, Orion can be easily seen by skywatchers with clear weather as a star pattern standing high in the southern sky at around 8 p.m. local time. Three bright stars in line in the middle of a bright rectangle decorate Orion’s belt, which points northward to the clusters of the Hyades and Pleiades of Taurus, and southward to the Dog Star, Sirius.

Plasmas Torn Apart: Discovery Hints at Origin of Phenomena Like Solar FlaresPlasmas Torn Apart: Discovery Hints at Origin of Phenomena Like Solar Flares
January saw the biggest solar storm since 2005, generating some of the most dazzling northern lights in recent memory. The source of that storm — and others like it — was the sun’s magnetic field, described by invisible field lines that protrude from and loop back into the burning ball of gas. Sometimes these field lines break — snapping like a rubber band pulled too tight — and join with other nearby lines, releasing energy that can then launch bursts of plasma known as solar flares.

Elusive Dark Matter Pervades Intergalactic SpaceElusive Dark Matter Pervades Intergalactic Space
A group of Japanese physicists has revealed where dark matter is — though not what it is — for the first time. As it turns out, the mysterious substance is almost everywhere, drooping throughout intergalactic space to form an all-encompassing web of matter. Dark matter is invisible: It doesn’t interact with light, so astronomers cannot actually see it. So far, it has only been observed indirectly by way of the gravitational force it exerts on ordinary, visible matter.

Great Eruption Replay: Astronomers Watch Delayed Broadcast of Powerful Stellar EruptionGreat Eruption Replay: Astronomers Watch Delayed Broadcast of Powerful Stellar Eruption
Astronomers are watching a delayed broadcast of a spectacular outburst from the unstable, behemoth double-star system Eta Carinae, an event initially seen on Earth nearly 170 years ago. Dubbed the “Great Eruption,” the outburst first caught the attention of sky watchers in 1837 and was observed through 1858. But astronomers didn’t have sophisticated science instruments to accurately record the star system’s petulant activity.

Russian Cosmonauts Float Outside Space Station on SpacewalkRussian Cosmonauts Float Outside Space Station on Spacewalk
Two Russian cosmonauts ventured outside the International Space Station today (Feb. 16) to prepare their orbiting laboratory for the arrival of a brand-new module next year. Cosmonauts Oleg Kononenko and Anton Shkaplerov will spend six hours working outside the space station in bulky spacesuits to move a 46-foot (14-meter) crane from one module to another and install vital shields to protect the outpost from space debris. The spacewalk began at 9:31 a.m. EST (1431 GMT), but the cosmonauts were delayed leaving the airlock due to a pesky cord that was in the way.

Black Hole Came from a Shredded GalaxyBlack Hole Came from a Shredded Galaxy
Astronomers using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope have found a cluster of young, blue stars encircling the first intermediate-mass black hole ever discovered. The presence of the star cluster suggests that the black hole was once at the core of a now-disintegrated dwarf galaxy. The discovery of the black hole and the star cluster has important implications for understanding the evolution of supermassive black holes and galaxies. “For the first time, we have evidence on the environment, and thus the origin, of this middle-weight black hole,” said Mathieu Servillat, who worked at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics when this research was conducted.

Greetings, Human! Space Robot Shakes Astronaut's Hand, Signs 'Hello'Greetings, Human! Space Robot Shakes Astronaut’s Hand, Signs ‘Hello’
A NASA robot built to ease the daily lives of astronauts in space greeted its human commander with a hearty handshake Wednesday (Feb. 15), along with a silent message: “Hello, World.” The historic handshake between man and machine — a first in space — was shared between NASA’s humanoid robot, named Robonaut 2, and American astronaut Daniel Burbank on the International Space Station. “For the record, it was a firm handshake,” Burbank said in a NASA video marking the event.

Newborn Stars Emerge from Dark Clouds in TaurusNewborn Stars Emerge from Dark Clouds in Taurus
A new image from the APEX (Atacama Pathfinder Experiment) telescope in Chile shows a sinuous filament of cosmic dust more than ten light-years long. In it, newborn stars are hidden, and dense clouds of gas are on the verge of collapsing to form yet more stars. It is one of the regions of star formation closest to us. The cosmic dust grains are so cold that observations at wavelengths of around one millimetre, such as these made with the LABOCA camera on APEX, are needed to detect their faint glow.

Are Russia's Recent Space Woes a Sign of Larger Problems?Are Russia’s Recent Space Woes a Sign of Larger Problems?
A string of high-profile failures in Russia’s space program recently has left NASA hoping its space partner can get back on track soon. But some in the space industry are wondering if the issues are simple bad luck, or represent a deeper problem. Most recently, faulty test procedures damaged the next manned Russian Soyuz space capsule, rendering it unfit to fly, and forcing NASA and Russia to delay the next crew launch to the International Space Station until a new capsule is ready.

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