AstroBlog Follow Friday & Weekly Stumbles For 2012-06-15

This week I recommend to follow @TooManyParsecs for tweets about wonderful and mysterious objects, almost always too far away, that populate the vastness of space. For more Twitter follow suggestions see our astronomy list @TheAstroBlog/astronomy

Weekly Stumbles:

SpaceX Signs 1st Customer for World's Most Powerful Private RocketSpaceX Signs 1st Customer for World’s Most Powerful Private Rocket
The private spaceflight company SpaceX has signed its first launch customer for its new mega-rocket, the Falcon Heavy, even as the firm’s first commercial spaceship prepares to return home from the International Space Station. The Hawthorne, Calif.-based SpaceX announced Thursday (May 29) that it has landed a contract with satellite communications provider Intelsat to launch a satellite using the new Falcon Heavy rocket, which is expected to become the world’s most powerful rocket in use when it starts flying.

Human space exploration: asteroids versus the Moon?Human space exploration: asteroids versus the Moon?
Two years ago, the Obama Administration changed the direction of the nation’s human spaceflight programs in a number of ways, including the destinations of those efforts. Gone was the goal of the previous administration of a human return to the Moon by 2020, a date that was looking increasingly unrealistic in the eyes of many, including the Augustine Committee that reviewed NASA’s plans in 2009.

More Atomic Hydrogen Gas Lurks in Universe: There's More Star-Stuff out There, but It's Not Dark MatterMore Atomic Hydrogen Gas Lurks in Universe: There’s More Star-Stuff out There, but It’s Not Dark Matter
More atomic hydrogen gas — the ultimate fuel for stars — is lurking in today’s Universe than we thought, CSIRO astronomer Dr Robert Braun has found. This is the first accurate measurement of this gas in galaxies close to our own. Just after the Big Bang the Universe’s matter was almost entirely hydrogen atoms. Over time this gas of atoms came together and generated galaxies, stars and planets — and the process is still going on.

Saturn's Geyser Moon Enceladus Provides a New Kind of Plasma LaboratorySaturn’s Geyser Moon Enceladus Provides a New Kind of Plasma Laboratory
Recent findings from NASA’s Cassini mission reveal that Saturn’s geyser moon Enceladus provides a special laboratory for watching unusual behavior of plasma, or hot ionized gas. In these recent findings, some Cassini scientists think they have observed “dusty plasma,” a condition theorized but not previously observed on site, near Enceladus.

The economics of space sustainabilityThe economics of space sustainability
Over the last several years, the long-term sustainable use of outer space, specifically Earth orbit, has emerged as a significant public policy issue in the United States and among many spacefaring nations. Specifically within the United States, both the 2010 National Space Policy and the Department of Defense’s National Security Space Strategy emphasize space sustainability as a significant goal.

NASA Lunar Spacecraft Complete Prime Mission Ahead of ScheduleNASA Lunar Spacecraft Complete Prime Mission Ahead of Schedule
A NASA mission to study the moon from crust to core has completed its prime mission earlier than expected. The team of NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) mission, with twin probes named Ebb and Flow, is now preparing for extended science operations starting Aug. 30 and continuing through Dec. 3, 2012. The GRAIL mission has gathered unprecedented detail about the internal structure and evolution of the moon.

Stellar Archeology Traces Milky Way's HistoryStellar Archeology Traces Milky Way’s History
Unfortunately, stars don’t have birth certificates. So, astronomers have a tough time figuring out their ages. Knowing a star’s age is critical for understanding how our Milky Way galaxy built itself up over billions of years from smaller galaxies. Jason Kalirai of the Space Telescope Science Institute and The Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Astrophysical Sciences, both in Baltimore, Md., has found the next best thing to a star’s birth certificate.

Ghostly Gamma-Ray Beams Blast from Milky Way's CenterGhostly Gamma-Ray Beams Blast from Milky Way’s Center
As galaxies go, our Milky Way is pretty quiet. Active galaxies have cores that glow brightly, powered by supermassive black holes swallowing material, and often spit twin jets in opposite directions. In contrast, the Milky Way’s center shows little activity. But it wasn’t always so peaceful. New evidence of ghostly gamma-ray beams suggests that the Milky Way’s central black hole was much more active in the past.

DragonLab-g: an early step to Mars and beyondDragonLab-g: an early step to Mars and beyond
Dragon’s (so far) successful flight has opened many opportunities in space. Its small size, low cost, and plans for frequent flights allow it to play a role in many facets of human exploration in space, including to help determine if humans can live on Mars. Instead of trying to adapt the human body to microgravity, why not simply generate artificial gravity along the way?

Hubble Sees a Spiral Within a SpiralHubble Sees a Spiral Within a Spiral
NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope captured a new image of the spiral galaxy known as ESO 498-G5. One interesting feature of this galaxy is that its spiral arms wind all the way into the center, so that ESO 498-G5’s core looks like a bit like a miniature spiral galaxy. This sort of structure is in contrast to the elliptical star-filled centers (or bulges) of many other spiral galaxies, which instead appear as glowing masses.

Beam Me Up: 'Tractor Beams' of Light Pull Small Objects Towards ThemBeam Me Up: ‘Tractor Beams’ of Light Pull Small Objects Towards Them
‘Tractor beams’ of light that pull objects towards them are no longer science fiction. Haifeng Wang at the A*STAR Data Storage Institute and co-workers have now demonstrated how a tractor beam can in fact be realized on a small scale. Tractor beams are a well-known concept in science fiction. These rays of light are often shown pulling objects towards an observer, seemingly violating the laws of physics, and of course, such beams have yet to be realised in the real world.

A test of technology and a validation of visionA test of technology and a validation of vision
The concept of commercial space is hardly a new one. For decades companies have been building satellites and the rockets that launch them, primarily for communications and remote sensing applications. A report issued by the Satellite Industry Association earlier this month found that the satellite industry generated $177.3 billion in revenues worldwide in 2011, with the majority of that from communications services provided by satellites.

Asteroid Nudged by Sunlight: Most Precise Measurement of Yarkovsky EffectAsteroid Nudged by Sunlight: Most Precise Measurement of Yarkovsky Effect
Scientists on NASA’s asteroid sample return mission, Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx), have measured the orbit of their destination asteroid, 1999 RQ36, with such accuracy they were able to directly measure the drift resulting from a subtle but important force called the Yarkovsky effect — the slight push created when the asteroid absorbs sunlight and re-emits that energy as heat.

Organic Carbon from Mars, but Not BiologicalOrganic Carbon from Mars, but Not Biological
Molecules containing large chains of carbon and hydrogen–the building blocks of all life on Earth–have been the targets of missions to Mars from Viking to the present day. While these molecules have previously been found in meteorites from Mars, scientists have disagreed about how this organic carbon was formed and whether or not it came from Mars.

Nomads of the Galaxy: What Does It Mean to Have Quadrillions of Planets Adrift in Milky Way?Nomads of the Galaxy: What Does It Mean to Have Quadrillions of Planets Adrift in Milky Way?
Recently, a study was published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society proposing planets simply adrift in space may be something of a common phenomenon. Aptly titled “Nomads of the Galaxy,” the authors proposed an upper limit to the number of nomad planets that might exist in the Milky Way Galaxy: 100,000 for every star. And because the Milky Way is estimated to have 200 to 400 billion stars, that could put the number of nomad planets in the quadrillions.

Funding humans to MarsFunding humans to Mars
The subject of funding human Mars missions has been my focus—indeed, my obsession—for over seven years, as the dream of a future on Mars and in space hits the real world “wall” of lack of funding and all that it entails. I have read many different ideas, from the traditional government funding model to selling sponsorships on a private voyage to Mars to a lottery-style “Mars Prize”. All contain some elements of value, but as many of the non-government ideas are never really backed up with anything other than opinions, it is hard to say if any of them could accomplish anything to fund humans to Mars.

Newfound Exoplanet May Turn to Dust: Planet's Dust Cloud May Explain Strange Patterns of Light from Its StarNewfound Exoplanet May Turn to Dust: Planet’s Dust Cloud May Explain Strange Patterns of Light from Its Star
Researchers at MIT, NASA and elsewhere have detected a possible planet, some 1,500 light years away, that appears to be evaporating under the blistering heat of its parent star. The scientists infer that a long tail of debris — much like the tail of a comet — is following the planet, and that this tail may tell the story of the planet’s disintegration.

 The 6 Most Likely Places to Find Alien LifeThe 6 Most Likely Places to Find Alien Life
Let’s be upfront about this: We still don’t have hard-nosed evidence for any life that’s not of this Earth. That fact hasn’t changed since the time of Aristotle. But unlike that gifted Greek, a lot of folks today think proof of alien biology could grace the next news cycle. After all, astronomers have recently uncovered thousands of new planets; space agencies have relentlessly hurled hardware at dozens of solar system targets; and SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) scientists continue to build new equipment for tuning in ET’s radio chatter.

Black Holes Turn Up the Heat for the UniverseBlack Holes Turn Up the Heat for the Universe
Astrophysicists have just discovered a new heating source in cosmological structure formation. Until now, astrophysicists thought that super-massive black holes could only influence their immediate surroundings. A collaboration of scientists at the Heidelberg Institute for Theoretical Studies (HITS) and in Canada and the US have now discovered that diffuse gas in the universe can absorb luminous gamma-ray emission from black holes, heating it up strongly.

Amateur Astronomers Boost ESA's Asteroid HuntAmateur Astronomers Boost ESA’s Asteroid Hunt
ESA’s Space Situational Awareness (SSA) programme is keeping watch over space hazards, including disruptive space weather, debris objects in Earth orbit and asteroids that pass close enough to cause concern. The asteroids — known as ‘near-Earth objects’, or NEOs, since they cross Earth’s orbit — are a particular problem. Any attempt to survey and catalogue hazardous asteroids faces a number of difficulties. They’re often jet black or at least very dark, they can approach rather too close before anyone sees them, and they’re often spotted only once and then disappear before the discovery can be confirmed.

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