This week I recommend to follow @darkmatter111 for interesting tweets from Simon, an amateur astronomer and a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society. For more Twitter follow suggestions see our astronomy list @TheAstroBlog/astronomy
A Planetary System from the Early Universe
A group of European astronomers has discovered an ancient planetary system that is likely to be a survivor from one of the earliest cosmic eras, 13 billion years ago. The system consists of the star HIP 11952 and two planets, which have orbital periods of 290 and 7 days, respectively. Whereas planets usually form within clouds that include heavier chemical elements, the star HIP 11952 contains very little other than hydrogen and helium. The system promises to shed light on planet formation in the early universe — under conditions quite different from those of later planetary systems, such as our own.
Excitement Builds for 1st Private Spaceship Flight to Space Station
Anticipation and excitement over the first-ever launch of a private spaceship to the International Space Station next month is steadily building, astronauts and NASA flight controllers said Tuesday (March 20). Private space company SpaceX, based in Hawthorne, Calif., is preparing to launch its Dragon capsule to the space station April 30. The unmanned capsule will be the first of a new fleet of commercial spacecraft being developed to deliver cargo to the station in the wake of the space shuttle retirement last year.
Why we fall for the hype: contextualizing our thought on space warfare
The history of the space age is littered with predictions about the development of space, and the military uses of space, that clearly overshot the mark. Of course, erroneous prediction is not the exception but the rule. Futurology is an intrinsically difficult activity, and the more complex the issue, the greater the uncertainty surrounding its most fundamental premises; the higher its stakes, the tougher the task becomes.
Super-Earth Unlikely Able to Transfer Life to Other Planets
While scientists believe conditions suitable for life might exist on the so-called “super-Earth” in the Gliese 581 system, it’s unlikely to be transferred to other planets within that solar system. “One of the big scientific questions is how did life get started and how did it spread through the universe,” said Jay Melosh, distinguished professor of earth and atmospheric sciences. “That question used to be limited to just the Earth, but we now know in our solar system there is a lot of exchange that takes place, and it’s quite possible life started on Mars and came to Earth.”
Cassini Sees Saturn Stressing out Enceladus
Images from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft have, for the first time, enabled scientists to correlate the spraying of jets of water vapor from fissures on Saturn’s moon Enceladus with the way Saturn’s gravity stretches and stresses the fissures. The result is among the Cassini findings presented March 19, 2012 at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference at The Woodlands, Texas. “This new work gives scientists insight into the mechanics of these picturesque jets at Enceladus and shows that Saturn really stresses Enceladus.”
Mercury’s Surprising Core and Landscape Curiosities
On March 17, the tiny MESSENGER spacecraft completed its primary mission to orbit and observe the planet Mercury for one Earth-year. The bounty of surprises from the mission has completely altered our understanding of the solar system’s innermost planet. As reported in one of two papers published recently on Science Express, scientists have found that Mercury’s core, already suspected to occupy a greater fraction of the planet’s interior than do the cores of Earth, Venus, or Mars, is even larger than anticipated.
NASA Resurrects Saturn Science Tool on Cassini Spacecraft
NASA engineers have revived a vital science instrument aboard the Cassini spacecraft in orbit around Saturn, bringing the 15-year-old probe back to full strength for the first time in nine months. On Friday (March 16), engineers reactivated Cassini’s plasma spectrometer, one of 12 instruments used by the spacecraft to study Saturn and its many moons, NASA officials said this week. It is designed to measure the energy and electrical charge of particles around Saturn.
Explosive Stars With Good Table Manners
An exploding star known as a Type Ia supernova plays a key role in our understanding of the universe. Studies of Type Ia supernovae led to the discovery of dark energy, which garnered the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics. Yet the cause of this variety of exploding star remains elusive. All evidence points to a white dwarf that feeds off its companions star, gaining mass, growing unstable, and ultimately detonating. But does that white dwarf draw material from a Sun-like star, an evolved red giant star, or from a second white dwarf? Or is something more exotic going on?
Dawn Sees New Surface Features On Giant Asteroid Vesta
NASA’s Dawn spacecraft has revealed unexpected details on the surface of the giant asteroid Vesta. New images and data highlight the diversity of Vesta’s surface and reveal unusual geologic features, some of which were never previously seen on asteroids. Vesta is one of the brightest objects in the solar system and the only asteroid in the so-called main belt between Mars and Jupiter visible to the naked eye from Earth. Dawn has found that some areas on Vesta can be nearly twice as bright as others, revealing clues about the asteroid’s history.
Runaway Planets Zoom at a Fraction of Light Speed
Seven years ago, astronomers boggled when they found the first runaway star flying out of our galaxy at a speed of 1.5 million miles per hour. The discovery intrigued theorists, who wondered: If a star can get tossed outward at such an extreme velocity, could the same thing happen to planets? New research shows that the answer is yes. Not only do runaway planets exist, but some of them zoom through space at a few percent of the speed of light — up to 30 million miles per hour.
Geologists Discover New Class of Landform — On Mars
An odd, previously unseen landform could provide a window into the geological history of Mars, according to new research by University of Washington geologists. They call the structures periodic bedrock ridges. The ridges look like sand dunes but, rather than being made from material piled up by the wind, the scientists say the ridges actually form from wind erosion of bedrock. “These bedforms look for all the world like sand dunes but they are carved into hard rock by wind,” said David Montgomery, a UW professor of Earth and space sciences.
Fighting for Mars
Last year’s planetary science decadal study identified as its top priority for “flagship” missions a Mars rover that could collect samples for later return to Earth, like the MAX-C concept illustrated above. Proposed budget cuts could delay such a mission indefinitely. Planetary scientists, meanwhile, hope the public’s interest in the real Mars — and the rest of the solar system — is a little stronger. So why did planetary get cut so much? “I wish I had a good succinct answer,” said NASA’s Grunsfeld.
New Theory On Size of Black Holes: Gas-Guzzling Black Holes Eat Two Courses at a Time
Astronomers have put forward a new theory about why black holes become so hugely massive — claiming some of them have no ‘table manners’, and tip their ‘food’ directly into their mouths, eating more than one course simultaneously. Researchers from the UK and Australia investigated how some black holes grow so fast that they are billions of times heavier than the sun. The team from the University of Leicester (UK) and Monash University in Australia sought to establish how black holes got so big so fast.
Cassini to Make Closest Pass Yet Over Enceladus South Pole
NASA’s Cassini spacecraft is preparing to make its lowest pass yet over the south polar region of Saturn’s moon Enceladus, where icy particles and water vapor spray out in glittering jets. The closest approach, at an altitude of about 46 miles (74 kilometers), will occur around 11:30 a.m. PDT (2:30 p.m. EDT) on March 27. This flyby is primarily designed for Cassini’s ion and neutral mass spectrometer, which will attempt to “taste” particles from the jets.
‘Ordinary’ Black Hole Discovered 12 Million Light Years Away
An international team of scientists have discovered an ‘ordinary’ black hole in the 12 million light year-distant galaxy Centaurus A. This is the first time that a normal-size black hole has been detected away from the immediate vicinity of our own Galaxy. PhD student Mark Burke will present the discovery at the National Astronomy Meeting in Manchester. Although exotic by everyday standards, black holes are everywhere.
New SCUBA-2 Camera Reveals Wild Youth of the Universe
A team of astronomers from the UK, Canada and the Netherlands have commenced a revolutionary new study of cosmic star-formation history, looking back in time to when the universe was still in its lively and somewhat unruly youth! The consortium, co-led by University of Edinburgh astrophysicist Professor James Dunlop, is using a brand new camera called SCUBA-2, the most powerful camera ever developed for observing light at “sub-mm” wavelengths.
Jupiter Helps Halley’s Comet Give Us More Spectacular Meteor Displays
The dramatic appearance of Halley’s comet in the night sky has been observed and recorded by astronomers since 240 BC. Now a study shows that the orbital influences of Jupiter on the comet and the debris it leaves in its wake are responsible for periodic outbursts of activity in the Orionid meteor showers. The results will be presented by Aswin Sekhar at the National Astronomy Meeting in Manchester on the 27th of March.
Brazil in space
Brazil has long had its own on-again, off-again space program, periodically leading to articles claiming that the country is about to make a new push to develop its indigenous capabilities. After awhile nothing happens, and then nothing continues to happen, and eventually most people forget that Brazil has or had a space program. Evidence of this — and a more substantial link between espionage and secretive launch bases — can be found in a newly-declassified November 1982 CIA report on Brazil’s space program, which CIA analysts believed was about to make a major next step with the development of Brazil’s own indigenous space launch vehicle.
New Evidence That Comets Deposited Building Blocks of Life On Primordial Earth
New research reported in San Diego on March 27 at the 243rd National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS) provides further support for the idea that comets bombarding Earth billions of years ago carried and deposited the key ingredients for life to spring up on the planet. Jennifer G. Blank, Ph.D., who led the research team, described experiments that recreated with powerful laboratory “guns” and computer models the conditions that existed inside comets when these celestial objects hit Earth’s atmosphere at almost 25,000 miles per hour and crashed down upon the surface.
Engineers Set Their Sights On Asteroid Deflection
Pioneering engineers at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow are developing an innovative technique based on lasers that could radically change asteroid deflection technology. The research has unearthed the possibility of using a swarm of relatively small satellites flying in formation and cooperatively firing solar-powered lasers onto an asteroid — this would overcome the difficulties associated with current methods that are focused on large unwieldy spacecraft.
Milky Way Image Reveals Detail of a Billion Stars
More than one billion stars in the Milky Way can be seen together in detail for the first time in an image captured by an international team of astronomers. Scientists created the colour picture by combining infra-red light images from telescopes in the northern and southern hemispheres. Large structures of the Milky Way galaxy, such as gas and dust clouds where stars have formed and died, can be seen in the image. Dr Nick Cross of the University of Edinburgh will present the new work on March 29 at the National Astronomy Meeting in Manchester.
Mercury Surprises: Tiny Planet Has Strange Innards and Active Past
The small, sun-scorched planet Mercury has an interior unlike that of any other rocky planet in our solar system and a surprisingly dynamic history, two new studies suggest. Using observations from NASA’s Messenger spacecraft in orbit around Mercury, researchers have found that the planet’s huge iron core is even larger than they had thought, and it’s likely overlain with a solid shell of iron and sulfur — a layered structure not known to exist on Earth, Venus or Mars.
Powerhouse in the Crab Nebula
The pulsar at the centre of the famous Crab Nebula is a veritable bundle of energy. This was now confirmed by the two MAGIC (Major Atmospheric Gamma-Ray Imaging Cherenkov) Telescopes on the Canary island of La Palma. They observed the pulsar in the area of very high energy gamma radiation from 25 up to 400 gigaelectronvolts (GeV), a region that was previously difficult to access with high energy instruments, and discovered that it actually emits pulses with the maximum energy of up to 400 GeV — 50 to 100 times higher than theorists thought possible.
Many Billions of Rocky Planets in Habitable Zones Around Red Dwarfs in Milky Way
A new result from ESO’s HARPS planet finder shows that rocky planets not much bigger than Earth are very common in the habitable zones around faint red stars. The international team estimates that there are tens of billions of such planets in the Milky Way galaxy alone, and probably about one hundred in the Sun’s immediate neighbourhood. This is the first direct measurement of the frequency of super-Earths around red dwarfs, which account for 80% of the stars in the Milky Way.
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