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SPACE & SCIENCE NEWS: January 2001
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Fewer comets than previously thought? Jan 31, 2001
Mars Global Surveyor finishes mapping Red Planet today Jan 31, 2001
NEAR getting nearer Jan 29, 2001
Was life jump-started with protocells from space? Jan 29, 2001
MGS overcomes glitch; Mars 2003 landing sites discussed Jan 27, 2001
Meteorite evidence for recent water on Mars Jan 24, 2001
Benzene found in interstellar space Jan 23, 2001
First dedicated all-sky optical SETI project announced Jan 22, 2001
Frozen light and homemade black holes Jan 19, 2001
Wow! Nothing! Jan 17, 2001
Images of the planned Beagle 2 landing site Jan 15, 2001
Stardust probe swings by Earth on its way to Comet Wild 2 Jan 14, 2001
Crystal find hint at habitable Earth 4.4 billion years ago Jan 11, 2001
Two strange new planets Jan 10, 2001
Mars 2001 Odyssey probe arrives at launch site Jan 9, 2001
Jupiter's moon count surges to 28 Jan 8, 2001
NASA considers option for new Discovery-class mission Jan 5, 2001
The real space odyssey begins Jan 1, 2001

Halley's Comet nucleus
Fewer comets than previously thought?
(Jan. 31, 2001)

A new theoretical study suggests there may be many fewer frozen cometary nuclei in the Oort Cloud than astronomers had suspected. According to a paper in this week's Nature, by Alan Stern of the South Western Research Institute in Colorado and Paul Weissman of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a large number of icy objects that once circled the Sun at the distances of the gas giants catastrophically collided with one another before they had a chance to be ejected to safety in the Oort Cloud.

For more, go here. To see the Nature abstract, go here.

Mars Global Surveyor finishes mapping the Red Planet today
(Jan. 31, 2001)

The extraordinarily successful MGS probe completes its primary mission of mapping Mars today after a full Martian year (687 days) in orbit. For a nice summary of the project's history and achievements to date, go here.

Eros at close range
NEAR getting nearer
(Jan. 29, 2001)

The NEAR Shoemaker probe broke a new record today when it skimmed just 2.74 km over the surface of the asteroid Eros. The low-altitude pass marked the conclusion of a 4-day series of flyovers that has provided extraordinarily detailed images of the asteroid's surface. Following the closest approach, the spacecraft's thrusters were fired to raise NEAR to a 35-km-high orbit. There it will remain until a maneuver on February 12 puts the probe in position for its final descent to the asteroid. Several more engine burns will slow NEAR Shoemaker's descent, allowing it to settle on to the surface of Eros at about 3 p.m. EST.

For more, go to the NEAR homepage.

protocell-like structure
Was life jump-started with protocells from space?
(Jan. 29, 2001)

By simulating in the lab the harsh conditions inside interstellar clouds, NASA Ames researchers have created primitive cell-like structures (see protocell). Such structures may have been delivered to the infant Earth by colliding comets and "kick-started" life here. As Louis Allamandola of the Ames Astrochemistry Lab points out: "The formation of these biologically interesting compounds by irradiating simple interstellar ices shows that some of the organics falling to Earth in meteorites and interplanetary dust might have been born in the coldest regions of interstellar space."

For more, go here.

Mars Global Surveyor
MGS overcomes glitch; Mars 2003 landing sites discussed
(Jan. 27, 2001)

One of the reaction wheels that controls the orientation of the Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) in orbit around the Red Planet has failed, apparently due to a short circuit. However, the probe, which concludes its primary mission at Mars next week, has switched to a backup reaction wheel. If one more wheel fails, MGS would have to revert to its attitude control thrusters to maintain proper orientation, but that would limit the craft's useful life to the remaining propellant supply onboard and threaten a plan to employ MGS to carry out telemetry relay during the landing of the Mars Exploration Rovers in January 2004. A two-day workshop has just concluded at NASA Ames Research Center to begin the process of selecting landing sites for the twin rovers. While no formal decision will be made for a while the clear favorites were Gale crater (with Gusev crater as an alternate) and the "hematite" site (Terra Meridiani).

Meteorite evidence for recent water on Mars
(Jan. 24, 2001)

More evidence that water has flowed on Mars relatively recently has come from a new study of the Shergotty meteorite – a rock known to have been blasted off the Martian surface some 175 million years ago. Writing in this week's issue of Nature, University of Tennessee researcher Harry McSween and his colleagues, conclude from their analysis of a Shergotty sample that molten rocks from beneath the surface of Mars could have carried substantial amounts of water to the surface in the recent geological past. This would explain the dramatic images of water-carved valleys and gullies on Mars sent back by Mars Global Surveyor. The new findings suggest that the water was released from water-rich magma that rose to the surface of the planet. In particular, the researchers have found mineral grains deep inside Shergotty that are rich in water-soluble elements, compared to grains in the crust of the meteorite. The grains from the rock's interior are thought to have come from deep inside Mars whereas Shergotty's water-poor crust would have originated nearer the surface. By carrying out experiments on molten rock that reproduce the conditions the magma would experience as it rose towards the Martian surface, the researchers conclude that the magma from which the Shergotty meteorite formed must have begun its ascent containing a lot of water, about 1.8 per cent) – much more than has previously been believed. As various components crystallized out of the magma during its ascent to the surface the water would have been driven out to make its way separately to the surface. This is why the Martian surface rocks are water-poor. The researchers say that however the water got into the Shergotty meteorite, its presence implies that outgassing occurred from magma that erupted onto the Martian surface only 175 million years ago, the recent past on a geological timescale.

For more, go here.

Protoplanetary nebula CRL618
Benzene found in interstellar space
(Jan. 23, 2001)

A team of Spanish astronomers, using measurements from ESA's Infrared Space Observatory (ISO), has detected benzene in the protoplanetary nebula CRL618 (see top image). This is a very significant find for astrobiology because benzene – the simplest aromatic, or ring-shaped carbon molecule (see bottom image) – is an essential chemical in the synthesis of more complex organic molecules.
benzene molecule
It also adds a piece in the puzzle concerning the nature of so-called "Unidentified Infrared Bands" or UIBs in space – spectral features that are widely though to be the result of more elaborate aromatic molecules known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs.

For the full story of this discovery, visit the ESA page here.

First dedicated all-sky optical SETI project announced
(Jan. 22, 2001)

The Planetary Society's new Optical SETI Telescope in Harvard, Massachusetts will begin work early in 2002, astronomers announced at the OSETI III Conference today. Designed to scan the whole of the northern sky for pulsed laser signals, the Optical SETI Survey will use a 1.8 meter (72 inch) diameter optical telescope dedicated exclusively to the task. The project leader is SETI veteran Paul Horowitz who has worked on a variety of SETI projects including, META and BETA, with The Planetary Society for nearly two decades now.

For more on the press release, go here.

Frozen light and homemade black holes
(Jan. 19, 2001)

Something akin to Star Trek's warp drive would be the astrobiologist's ideal tool – allowing a rapid reconnaissance of promising star systems in search of new life. That technology still lies beyond our grasp, but scientists at Harvard University and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics have now done something almost as remarkable: made light effectively stand still. The technique involves cooling a gas of magnetically trapped sodium atoms to within a few millionths of a degree of absolute zero and making the gas transparent to a laser pulse by illuminating it with a second laser called a coupling beam. Amazingly, if the coupling beam is turned off while the pulse is en route through the gas, the pulse stops dead and then resumes its journey when the beam is turned back on. For more, go here.

The same method of transmitting light very slowly using a very cold gas and a coupling beam, called electromagnetically induced transparency, may help researchers at the University of St. Andrews to create the world's first laboratory black holes – or, at least, optical analogues of them. Leader of the Scottish team, Ulf Leonhardt, said: "The aim of these experiments would be to study the quantum properties of light or sound in these artificial black holes. The observations from such experiments could help to resolve some of the conflict between general relativity and quantum theory. One or two groups around the world are working on similar systems and it looks as though this could be the start of a new field in physics." Who knows? It might even lead to new ideas on how we can circumvent the light barrier.

For more, go here.

Wow! signal printout
Wow! Nothing!
(Jan. 17, 2001)

On August 15, 1977 a 72-second burst of radio waves was detected by the now dismantled "Big Ear" radio telescope of Ohio State University. The person who spotted it, astronomer Jerry Ehman, was so startled that he scribbled "Wow!" on the print-out. The event had all the hallmarks expected of a signal from an alien intelligence – confined to a narrow frequency band and very close to the 21-cm hydrogen line, a potential natural hailing frequency. It is generally considered the best candidate for an intelligent signal every found, but has never been seen again. In the latest effort to solve the mystery, Robert Gray and Kevin Marvel, used the Very Large Array (VLA) in New Mexico to look at the sky location from which "Wow!" was received with unprecedented sensitivity, but saw nothing strange or anomalous that could explain the signal. They describe their work in this week's Astrophysical Journal.

Read the abstract The Planetary Society's excellent report on this story is here.

Images of the planned Beagle 2 landing site
(Jan. 15, 2001)

MGS photos of the Beagle 2 landing site are now available. The European Space Agency announced on December 20, 2000 that the little probe will touch down on Mars the day after Christmas Day in 2003 near 11 deg N, 270 deg W. This is in Isidis Planitia, a broad, relatively flat plain that covers the floor of an ancient impact basin believed to have formed more than 4 billion years ago.

To see the images, go here.

Stardust probe
Stardust probe swings by Earth on its way to Comet Wild 2
(Jan. 14, 2001)

Stardust makes its closest approach to Earth on Monday, January 15, 2001, at about 11:15 UTC. This latest maneuver of the spacecraft will alter its velocity and orbit with respect to the Sun, putting it on course for a rendezvous with Comet P/Wild 2 on January 2, 2004. Engineers have also managed to fix the probe's blurred vision by heating its camera and so vaporizing material that had settled on the optics.

For more, go to the Stardust website.

zircon crystal
Crystal find hints at habitable Earth 4.4 billion years ago
(Jan. 11, 2001)

New research by geochemists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Curtin University, Australia, and the University of Edinburgh, reported in this week's issue of Nature suggest that the Earth was cool enough to have had water, continents, and possibly even life barely 100 million years after it formed. The evidence comes from a crystal of zircon found in western Australia and dated at 4.4 billion years. The discovery also suggests that the Moon may have formed earlier than conventionally thought, or by a different process.

For more, go here (BBC) and here (Astrobio. Inst.)

New planet around HD168443
Two strange new planets
(Jan. 10, 2001)

When is a planet not a planet? Astronomers' ideas about what constitutes a normal planetary system have been thrown into further turmoil following the announcement yesterday of two new extrasolar planets, one of which has an estimated mass of 17 Jupiters. The discoveries were made by a team led by Geoff Marcy of the University of California, Berkeley. The superheavy planet lies in an elliptical orbit at an average distance of 430 million kilometers from the star HD 168443, around which a 7.7-Jupiter-mass planet was already known. Astronomers now have to decide if this huge new world is really a planet or a brown dwarf. Some researchers, including George Gatewood and David Black, have already called into question the status of many of the supposed extrasolar planets found to date, suggesting that they may be more massive than conventionally believed and therefore stellar in nature (either brown dwarfs or lightweight red dwarfs). The other new-found object orbits Gliese 876, a nearby red dwarf that also had a known planet. This second component is in lock-step with the first, circling the primary in 30 days – exactly half the orbital period of its neighbor. Such gravitational resonances are common in the solar system – Neptune and Pluto, for instance, are locked in a 3:2 resonance.

For more, go here.

Mars 2001 Odyssey probe arrives at launch site
(Jan. 9, 2001)

NASA's return to the Red Planet took a major step forward last Thursday (Jan. 4) when the Mars Odyssey spacecraft arrived at Kennedy Space Center aboard an Air Force C-17 cargo plane. It had traveled from the Lockheed Martin plant in Denver where it was built. Over the next few weeks it will undergo final assembly and checkout at Kennedy in preparation for its planned launch on April 7. If lift-off goes according to schedule, Mars Odyssey will enter orbit around the fourth planet on October 20, 2001 and begin a two-year mapping and monitoring mission.

For more, visit the Mars 2001 Odyssey website.

Jupiter's moon count surges to 28
(Jan. 8, 2001)

Astronomers have announced the discovery of 10 new moons around Jupiter, bringing the solar system's largest planet's satellite count to 28 – second only to Saturn's. The moons were found late last year by David Jewitt and Sam Sheppard of the University of Hawaii using the 2.2-meter telescope atop Mauna Kea. Temporarily designated S/2000 J2 through S/2000 J12, they orbit the primary at distances from 21 to 24 million km and are all very small – no more than a few kilometers in diameter.

For more, go here.

NASA considers options for new Discovery-class mission
(Jan. 5, 2001)

Three "faster, better, cheaper" missions have been given the green light for further study, NASA announced yesterday (Jan 4). They include Dawn, a probe to orbit the two largest asteroids (Ceres and Vesta), INSIDE Jupiter, a Jupiter-orbiter for investigating the internal make-up and processes of the solar system's largest planet, and Kepler, the most astrobiologically significant of the trio. Kepler is a space telescope that would hunt for Earth-sized extrasolar planets around nearby stars. By monitoring 100,000 stars over a four-year mission, Kepler has the potential to detect up to 500 Earth-sized planets and up to 1,000 Jupiter-sized planets. Each of the groups of scientists involved will now receive $450,000 to come up with specific design proposals. Whichever mission is finally chosen will launch no later than September 2006.

See the NASA press release.

Art for 2001
The real space odyssey begins
(Jan. 1, 2001)

According to the Clarke/Kubrick story/film we should have a permanently manned space station in orbit and a spacecraft shortly on the way to Jupiter. Well, the space station exists (albeit a tad smaller than the 2001 rotating wheel) and probes are at Jupiter and en route to Saturn. All we need now are a few black monoliths to complete the prophesy! Go here (BBC) and here ( for a comparison of the truth and reality about 2001 (the first year of the new millennium). And have a very happy New Year, everyone.


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