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SPACE & SCIENCE NEWS: October 2000
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Most known extrasolar planets may be stars Oct 29, 2000
Did life hitch a ride to Earth aboard ALH 84001? Oct 26, 2000
NASA's revised plans for Mars exploration Oct 26, 2000
More moons for Saturn Oct 26, 2000
Second largest asteroid found Oct 25, 2000
Species can emerge faster than previously thought Oct 21, 2000
Rain on Titan? Oct 21, 2000
Did life originate in atmospheric droplets? Oct 21, 2000
250-million-year-old bacteria revived Oct 18, 2000
ESA gives GAIA green light, puts Eddington on reserve Oct 16, 2000
Dust disk to add to planet around iota Horologii Oct 13, 2000
Whatever happened to Pioneer 10? Oct 13, 2000
Tagish meteorite yields more clues Oct 13, 2000
Discovery of free-floating planets in Orion Oct 5, 2000
Ames conference of Mars terraforming Oct 5, 2000
NASA's smart snake to search for ET Oct 4, 2000
Pluto-Kuiper Express delayed Oct 3, 2000
Halophile genome sequenced Oct 3, 2000

Most known extrasolar planets may be stars
(Oct. 29, 2000)

According to a new astrometric study of stars around which extrasolar planets have been reported, many of these so-called planets may really be brown dwarfs or M-type (red) dwarfs. The study was carried out by astronomers from the University of Pittsburgh's Allegheny Observatory, the Lunar and Planetary Institute, and the Korean Astronomy Observatory. It combines radial velocity measurements with high-precision astrometrical measurements by ESA's Hipparcos satellite. One of the problems with the radial velocity method of planet-hunting is that it gives no data about the inclination of the object's orbit and hence no accurate value of the object's mass. It seems that many of the orbits of extrasolar "planets" are almost face on rather than being inclined more randomly. This bumps up the mass of the companion objects. So much so, that the study concludes that of 30 stars studied only 9 may have companions with masses below the brown dwarf lower limit of 10 to 15 Jupiter masses. The companions of 11 more are in the brown dwarf category (15 to 80 Jupiter masses), and of yet 4 more appear to be M-type dwarfs. A remaining 6 stars require further analysis of their astrometric data. These startling results confirm what some astronomers had already suspected based on the unusual shape and size of extrasolar "planet" orbits – these orbits are indistinguishable from those of typical close binary stars. Of course, more work is needed to resolve this situation.

For more, go here.

ALH 84001
Did life hitch a ride to Earth aboard ALH 84001?
(Oct. 26, 2000)

Evidence is published in this week's Science (vol 290, pp. 791-795, 27 Oct 2000) that the interior of the (in)famous Martian meteorite ALH 84001 never exceeded a temperature of 40 °C on its journey from Mars to the Earth's surface. This makes it feasible that if there were microbes living within the rock – a very big if – they could have survived their interplanetary journey, and adds weight to the idea that terrestrial life could have been seeded by this mechanism in the remote past. The authors of the report are Caltech's Benjamin Weiss and his colleagues.

For more, go here.

NASA's revised plan for Mars exploration
(Oct. 26, 2000)

Following the loss of the Mars Climate Observer and Mars Polar Lander in 1999, NASA has spent the past 6 months rethinking its strategy for robotic exploration of Mars over the next decade. Its new plan, announced today, calls for six missions, in addition to the 2001 Mars Odyssey Orbiter and the twin 2003 rovers already announced. For more, go here.

More moons for Saturn
(Oct. 26, 2000)

With the discovery of four more satellites around Saturn by an international team of astronomers, Uranus (21 moons) has been pushed into second place behind Saturn (22). All the new moons orbit at least 15 million kilometers from the primary and have sizes estimated at between 10 and 50 kilometers. The discovery team, which also found 5 new moons around Uranus between 1997 and 1999, warns that the results are preliminary and that they have some evidence of additional Saturnian satellites.

For more, go here.

2000 EB 173
Second largest asteroid found
(Oct. 25, 2000)

The largest object to be found in the solar system since the discovery of Pluto in 1930 has just been announced. 2000 EB173 measures 300 to 700 km (185 to 435 miles) across and orbits the Sun in an elongated path between the orbits of Uranus and Pluto. Its location and color suggest that it belongs to the class of object known as red Centaurs. Work will continue to analyze its surface spectrum and determine if frozen water is present.

For more, go here.

Species can emerge faster than previously thought
(Oct. 21, 2000)

Observations of fish in a U.S. lake suggest that new animal species can appear in tens rather than hundreds or thousands of years as scientists had previously believed. Salmon placed in Lake Washington, Washington State, in 1937, have split into two separate populations that prefer not to interbreed. One group has adapted to breeding in rivers; the other lays its eggs on lake beaches. The two groups have also developed physical differences. In a separate study by researchers at the University of Queensland, fruit flies were found to alter the way they attracted mates in just nine generations.

For more, go here here.

Rain on Titan?
(Oct. 21, 2000)

New infrared observations of Titan have shown methane clouds forming and dissipating in the upper atmosphere. Caitlin Griffith of Northern Arizona University and her colleagues infer from this that methane showers may be a common feature of Titan's weather. For more, go here.

Did life originate in atmospheric droplets?
(Oct. 21, 2000)

A team of researchers from the U.S. and U.K. have proposed that life may have started out as organically-enriched drops of ocean spray. The tiny drops, suspended in the upper atmosphere as an aerosol for long periods, may have acted as "chemical reaction chambers", acquiring a concentrated solution of organics through evaporation and metallic species from meteor debris. The wide variations of temperature, humidity and sunlight exposure would have encouraged reactions leading to the production of more complex biochemicals. Even the double layer of molecules found in cells today could be explained on this model – the droplets acquiring one coating as they left the ocean and another as they reentered.

For more, go here.

ancient bacteria
250-million-year-old bacteria revived
(Oct. 18, 2000)

Bacteria recovered from 600 meters below ground in a cave in New Mexico have been revived after lying dormant for a staggering 250 million years. The microbes, which resemble a species of Bacillus found in the Dead Sea, were contained within salt crystals. Their ability to survive this long brings closer the possibility of reviving similar organisms that may be trapped within underground halite deposits on Mars. It also makes the idea of interstellar panspermia seem more credible. These new microscopic Rip Van Winkles have shattered the previous survival record of 25-40 million years set by bacterial spores recovered from a bee trapped in amber.

For more, go here and here.

ESA gives GAIA green light, puts Eddington on reserve
(Oct. 16, 2000)

The European Space Agency has given the go-ahead for GAIA – an orbiting observatory that will provide a stereoscopic, kinematic and photometric map, of unprecedented accuracy, of over 1 billion stars in the Galaxy and other parts of the Local Group. Its measurements will enable the detection and characterization of tens of thousands of extrasolar planetary systems. GAIA will be launched at some point between 2008 and 2013. ESA also announced that the Eddington mission, to detect the planetary transits by sensitive photometry, including the transits of terrestrial planets in their stars' habitable zones, is on reserve for launch in the same period. See the ESA announcement here. On October 5, the French space agency CNES confirmed that COROT, another mission to search for Earth-like planets by transits, will be launched in 2004.

Dust disk around iota Horologii
Dust disk to add to planet around iota Horologii
(Oct. 13, 2000)

Astronomers at the European Southern Observatory have detected a dust disk around Iota Horologii. Last year this star, located 56 light-years away, was found to have a giant planet in an orbit very similar to that of the Earth. For more, go here.

Whatever happened to Pioneer 10?
(Oct. 13, 2000)

Star-bound Pioneer 10 is now 76.18 AU from the Sun and traveling away from the Sun at a speed of 27,380 miles per hour. Its current distance from Earth is slightly over 7 billion miles and signals from the spacecraft take about ten and a half hours to get here. For more on the probe's status, go here.

Tagish meteorite yields more clues
(Oct. 13, 2000)

The Tagish meteorite, which fell in the Yukon on January 18, 2000, belongs to a new class of carbonaceous chondrite and may be richer in interstellar grains than any other object found to date. The new results appear in a paper in this week's Science by Peter Brown of the University of Western Ontario and colleagues. The incoming trajectory has also been analyzed and indicates that the meteorite probably originated in the middle of the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Eye-witnesses who saw the fireball reported sulfurous smells in the object's wake.

For more, go here and here. For earlier items on this subject, go here and here.

Possible free-floating planet in sigma Orionis
Discovery of free-floating planets in Orion
(Oct. 5, 2000)

Astronomers have found 18 objects in a young star cluster called Sigma Orionis which appear to be large planets moving freely through space. Their estimate masses are between 5 and 15 times that of Jupiter, putting them below the mass range of brown dwarfs. If they are indeed planets, scientists will need to explain why so many of them occur together unaffiliated with stars. For more, go here and here.

Ames conference on Mars terraforming
(Oct. 5, 2000)

NASA Ames Research Center will be host to a conference "The Physics and Biology of Making Mars Habitable", October 10-11, on the subject of terraforming Mars. For more, go here.

NASA's smart snake to search for ET
(Oct. 4, 2000)

Researchers at NASA's Ames Research Center are developing an intelligent robotic serpent – a "snakebot" – that will be able to slither its way across difficult terrain and aid, among other things, in the search for extraterrestrial water and fossils on worlds such as Mars. Snakebot may be ready to boldly go in about five years time. For more, go here.

Pluto-Kuiper Express
Pluto-Kuiper Express delayed
(Oct. 3, 2000)

A planned NASA/JPL mission to the outermost planet Pluto, and the Kuiper Belt that lies beyond, has been delayed because of technical considerations. The probe will not now be launched before 2009-10. For more, go here.

Salt flats in Kenya made pink by salt-loving archaeans
Halophile genome sequenced
(Oct. 3, 2000)

Scientists have succeeded in sequencing the complete genome of a halophile – an extreme salt-loving microbe. This breakthrough will help in the search for such organisms on other worlds, including Mars and Europa, where it's thought that conditions suitable for halophiles might exist. For more, go here.


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