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SPACE & SCIENCE NEWS: May 2000
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Advanced Space Propulsion Workshop at JPL May 31, 2000
New Martian meteorite find May 23, 2000
Rhythm of life in Viking data? May 19, 2000
NASA plans first interstellar mission May 13, 2000
ESO discovery of 8 new exoplanets and brown dwarfs May 4, 2000
Tar-like molecules found by Stardust probe May 3, 2000
125th anniversary of pioneering astrobiologist May 1, 2000


Fusion-powered starship
Advanced Space Propulsion Workshop at JPL
(May 31, 2000)


The 11th annual Advanced Space Propulsion Research Workshop, sponsored by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Marshall Space Flight Center, runs from May 31 to June 2, 2000, at JPL in Pasadena, California. Topics at this year's sessions include advanced chemical propulsion, nuclear fission propulsion, solar sails, tethers, micropropulsion, advanced electrical propulsion, and fusion propulsion. For details go to here.

New Martian meteorite find
(May 23, 2000)


A brownish grey stone weighing 1,056 gm (2.3 pounds), found earlier this year in the Dhofar region of Oman, is thought to be only the 15th known meteorite to originate from Mars. Analysis of the rock's mineralogy by scientists at the Vernadsky Institute in Moscow and the University of Tennessee suggest that it shows no signs of having been melted during its passage through the Earth's atmosphere. This may be because it is a fragment of a once larger meteorite. Researchers say that it has been subject to considerable weathering on Earth but has similarities to the famous Martian meteorite ALH84001. For more information go here.

Rhythm of life in Viking data?
(May 19, 2000)


NASA plans to make available the original data from the Viking biology experiments following a suggestion by Joseph Miller, at Texas Technical University Health Sciences Center, in Lubbock, that the data contains evidence of a circardian rhythm – a daily periodicity due to Martian life. Miller points to the results of the so-called Labeled Release experiment as the source of his hypothesis. For many years, gas releases observed during the course of that experiment have been attributed by its designer, Gilbert Levin, President of Biospherics Inc., Beltsville, Maryland, to the presence of microorganisms on Mars, although other specialists favor a nonbiological explanation. Now Miller has added fuel to the controversy. However, getting access to the original results has not proven easy. The relevant Viking data is currently held on microfiche and will need to be digitized to put it in electronically-usable form – a process that may take NASA about three months. One former Viking scientist who won't be holding his breath is Gerald Soffen. He suspects that Miller's circadian rhythms may be no more than effects caused by heating and cooling of the spacecraft's instruments. But as Miller insists there is only one way to be sure: "That is to get the data and do the analysis... I could tell right away whether there is anything going on or not."

For more on this story go here.

artist's impression of solar sail
NASA plans first interstellar mission
(May 13, 2000)


NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., is developing space sails technology to power a mission partway to the stars. "This will be humankind's first planned venture outside our solar system," said Les Johnson, manager of Interstellar Propulsion Research at the Marshall Center. The interstellar probe will travel over 23 billion miles (250 astronomical units) beyond the edge of the solar system on a mission lasting an estimated 15 years. Proposed for launch in about 2010, the interstellar precursor probe will reach a maximum speed of 58 miles per second – five times faster than Voyager, yet will require no fuel. It will be powered by light from the Sun striking a sail spanning 440 yards – twice the diameter of the Louisiana Superdome. Experiments are currently being conducted at Marshall to find the best material for this giant structure, one leading candidate being a carbon fiber material whose density is less than one-tenth ounce per square yard – the equivalent of flattening a raisin to the point that it covers a square yard. In space the material would unfurl like a fan when it's deployed from an expendable rocket. Marshall is partnering with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena which has overall responsibility for NASA's interstellar missions.

ESO discovery of 8 new exoplanets and brown dwarfs
(May 4, 2000)


A team of astronomers at the Geneva Observatory has announced the discovery of eight new, very-low mass companions to solar-type stars bringing the total number of known exoplanets to over 40. The masses of these objects range from less than that of planet Saturn (in the case of the companion to HD 168746) to about 15 times that of Jupiter. The new results were obtained by means of high-precision radial-velocity measurements with the Coralie spectrometer at the Swiss 1.2-m Leonhard Euler telescope at the ESO La Silla Observatory. While six of the objects are most likely bona fide exoplanets, two are apparently very low-mass brown dwarfs. "The present discoveries complete and enlarge our still preliminary knowledge of extra-solar planetary systems, as well as the transition between planets and brown dwarfs", say Mayor and Queloz, on behalf of the Swiss team.

Go here for the ESO press release, including a description of each of the new-found objects.

Tar-like molecules found by Stardust probe
(May 3, 2000)


The first measurements of interstellar dust particles by NASA's Stardust probe indicate they contain tar-like molecules much more complex than any substances previously found in space. If confirmed, this discovery could mean that molecules drifting in space before the Earth was formed may have helped start life on our planet and by implication elsewhere in the Universe. To date, five interstellar dust particles have been captured by the German-built Cometary and Interstellar Dust Analyser (Cida), onboard the spacecraft.

Gavriil Tikhov
125th anniversary of pioneering astrobiologist
(May 1, 2000)


May 1 marks the 125th anniversary of the birth of the Russian astronomer who, in his 1959 book, first used the term "astrobiology"– Gavriil Adrianovich Tikhov (1875-1960). (The word was later introduced in the West by Hubertus Strughold at a U.S.A.F. lunar and planetary colloquium.) Tikhov served at the Pulkovo Main Astronomical Observatory(1906-1941), Leningrad University (1919-1931), Lesgaft Institute for Natural Sciences (1919-1949), and the Department for Astrobotanics of the Academy of Science of Kazakhstan (1947-1960). In addition to astrobiology, he carried out research in photometrics, optics of the atmosphere, astrophysics, and solar and lunar eclipses. For more bibliographical details go here. Thanks to Prof. Viktor Tejfel of the Laboratory of Lunar and Planetary Physics, Fessenkov Astrophysical Institute, Kazakhstan, for notification.

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