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SPACE & SCIENCE NEWS: September 2002
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Life in the atmosphere of Venus? Sep 26, 2002
Spacecraft, heal thyself! Sep 23, 2002
Bright dust rings highlight Earth-like planets Sep 23, 2002
Life on Titan, but not as we know it? Sep 21, 2002
Telescope finds Big Bang evidence Sep 20, 2002
Signs of water in extrasolar planet atmospheres Sep 19, 2002
How to break the speed of light for $500 Sep 18, 2002
Cloud of anti-atoms created Sep 18, 2002
Middleweight black holes found in globular clusters Sep 18, 2002
Clearer picture of extrasolar planets emerging Sep 17, 2002
Sharpest picture yet of a near-miss asteroid Sep 4, 2002

Life in the atmosphere of Venus?
(Sep. 26, 2002)

High clouds in the atmosphere of Venus contain chemicals that hint at the presence of life, said Dirk Schulze-Makuch and Louis Irwin, from the University of Texas at El Paso, at the recent European astrobiology conference in Graz, Austria. Using data from the Russian Venera space missions and also the Pioneer Venus and Magellan probes, the researchers have studied the high concentration of water droplets in the Venusian clouds. Schulze-Makuch and Irwin noticed oddities in its chemical composition that they say could be explained by the presence of microbes. The scientists found hydrogen sulfide and sulfur dioxide - two gases which react with each other, and are not seen in the same place unless something is producing them. They also say that-despite solar radiation and lightning – the atmosphere contains hardly any carbon monoxide, suggesting that something is removing the gas. One possibility is that microbes living in the Venusian clouds could be combining sulfur dioxide with carbon monoxide and possibly hydrogen sulphide or carbonyl sulphide in a metabolism similar to that of some early terrestrial microorganisms. Given that the temperature on Venus was once much cooler, there may once have been oceans on the planet. Life could have started there and retreated to stable niches once the runaway greenhouse effect began.

Spacecraft, heal thyself!
(Sep. 23, 2002)

Three of the fastest-growing sciences of our day – biotech, nanotech, and information technology – are converging to give scientists unprecedented control of matter on the molecular scale. Emerging from this intellectual gold-rush is a new class of materials with astounding properties that sound more at home in a science fiction novel than on the laboratory workbench. Imagine, for example, a substance with 100 times the strength of steel, yet only 1/6 the weight; materials that instantly heal themselves when punctured; surfaces that can "feel" the forces pressing on them; wires and electronics as tiny as molecules; structural materials that also generate and store electricity; and liquids that can instantly switch to solid and back again at will. All of these materials exist today ... and more are on the way. With such mind-boggling materials at hand, building the better spacecraft starts to look not so far fetched after all.

Read more. Source: NASA.

The simulation shows the planet formation process producing bright rings as time passes
Bright dust rings highlight Earth-like planets
(Sep. 23, 2002)

Astronomers have shown how new telescopes will soon be able to conduct a census of small, rocky worlds orbiting distant stars. Such Earth-like planets are too dim to be observed but new research shows their presence can be inferred from the bright rings of debris created while they form. Data from the first infrared satellites suggested that discs of rock and dust, in which planets were forming, must be present around some stars. More recently, eight-metre telescopes have allowed astronomers to actually see these discs. However, instead of smooth, continuous discs, many are characterised by concentric patterns of bright and dim rings. A new computer simulation of the early stages of planet formation implies that such features are the 'smoking guns' of recent planet formation.

Read more. Source: New Scientist.

Life on Titan, but not as we know it?
(Sep. 21, 2002)

This week, astrobiologists are discussing what ESA's Huygens space probe might discover when it parachutes to the surface of Saturn's mysterious moon, Titan, in 2005. Titan possesses a rich atmosphere of organic molecules, which Huygens will analyse. Recently some scientists have begun to think that, by redefining life, in broader terms, what we may find on Titan may be life. If this is the case, it certainly will not be life as we know it... Titan is an astrobiologist's dream laboratory. Its atmosphere is composed of nitrogen and methane gas. Ultraviolet light from the Sun can break the methane molecules apart, leading to the formation of complex organic molecules by which scientists mean molecules containing carbon. Carbon compounds are the first step towards life, as we know it on Earth. Life, itself, is based on extremely complicated carbon molecules such as DNA. Some scientists believe the composition of Titan's atmosphere closely resembles that of early Earth, before life began on our planet.

Read more. Source: Spaceflight Now / ESA.

Telescope finds Big Bang evidence
(Sep. 20, 2002)

Scientists have made a discovery that represents an important confirmation of the Big Bang theory of the origin of the Universe. Almost 5,500 hours of observations by a radio telescope at the South Pole have shown the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) to be polarised. The CMB has been called the afterglow of the Big Bang. It is radiation that comes from all directions in space and has its origin when the cosmos was just 400,000 years old. The polarisation can be used to probe conditions in the early Universe. Cosmologists say although such an effect was expected they are relieved to find it.

Read more. Source: BBC.

Upsilon Andromedae
Signs of water in extrasolar planet atmospheres
(Sep. 19, 2002)

Tantalising signs of water have been found in the atmospheres of planets orbiting distant stars. If the discovery is confirmed, it will fuel speculation that the Galaxy is teeming with life. "This would be a historic discovery — the first detection of a prebiotic molecule in an extrasolar planet," says Cristiano Cosmovici of the Institute for Cosmic and Planetary Sciences in Rome, whose team made the discovery. Cosmovici has looked for water near 17 stars, all of which are thought to have planetary systems or cometary clouds. His team used the 32-metre Medicina radio telescope near Bologna to look for water "maser" emissions. These are telltale microwaves that might come from water in a planet's atmosphere when it is bathed in the infrared light of its star.

Read more. Source: New Scientist.

Starship Voyager
How to break the speed of light for $500
(Sep. 18, 2002)

Using off-the-shelf equipment costing just a few hundred dollars, physicists Jeremy Munday and Bill Robertson at Middle Tennessee State University have sent signals at superluminal speeds. Previously, breaking the light barrier had involved complex, expensive equipment. Munday and Robertson managed to send signals at 4 billion km/hr (about four times the speed of light in a vacuum) through a 120-meter-long cable made by alternating six- to eight-meter-long lengths of two different kinds of coaxial cable, each with a different electrical resistance. They hooked this hybrid cable up to two signal generators, one of which broadcast a fast wave, the other a slow one. The waves interfere with each other to produce electric pulses, which can be watched using an oscilloscope. These pulses can be imagined as a group of tiny intermingled waves, the energy of the group pulse rising and falling over space, with a peak in the middle. The different electrical resistances in the hybrid cable cause the waves in the pulse's rear to reflect off each other, accelerating the pulse's peak forward. While the peak moves faster than light speed, the total energy of the pulse doesn't, which means that Einstein's special theory of relativity isn't violated. Although this technique won't lead to warp drives or time machines anytime soon, it may be possible to adapt it to boost electrical signal speeds in computers and telecommunications grids by more than 50 per cent.

For an abstract of this work, go here.

proton annihilation
Cloud of anti-atoms created
(Sep. 18, 2002)

Researchers at CERN in Geneva say they have made at least 50,000 atoms of cold antihydrogen, beating a rival group to the feat. They hope the result will make possible detailed measurements on the atoms, which could confirm whether worlds created from matter and antimatter particles would be genuine mirror images of one another. The antihydrogen would not be a useful Star-Trek-style energy source because it would generate far less energy than is needed to create it. For the last three years, two research groups at CERN have been racing to create large quantities of cold antihydrogen that can be closely studied. Both have had difficulty proving that what they are creating is antihydrogen, and not just a collection of the antiprotons and positrons from which these atoms are made. Now researchers from the ATHENA experiment at CERN, represented by Jeffrey Hangst of the University of Aarhus, Denmark, have published evidence of antihydrogen created in an electromagnetic particle trap.

Read more. Source: New Scientist.

G1 globular cluster
Middleweight black holes found in globular clusters
(Sep. 18, 2002)

Middleweight black holes are sneaking around galaxies cloaked in ancient star clusters, astronomers have discovered. The new black holes are a welcome missing link between the small ones that form when stars explode and the colossal black holes that sit in the centre of galaxies. "This is the astronomical equivalent of finding Lucy, the missing link in human evolution," said Steinn Sigurdsson of Pennsylvania State University at a NASA press conference in Washington DC. Astronomers already have good evidence for small black holes, roughly 10 times the mass of the Sun. These form from the collapsed remains of very massive stars that blow up in supernova explosions. The supermassive black holes are millions of times heavier, but no one is sure how they form.

Read more. Source: New Scientist.

extrasolar planet
Clearer picture of extrasolar planets emerging
(Sep. 17, 2002)

The international Anglo-Australian Planet Search Team, in part sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF), has now found more extrasolar planets in the Southern Hemisphere than any other group. The team's latest find brings the number of extrasolar planets to 100. And with this total, astronomers are beginning to see patterns in planet characteristics. "When we first started out, we found planets close in to their parent stars," says team member Chris McCarthy of the Carnegie Institution of Washington. "But as the planet search program has matured, we're finding more planets farther out and in nearly circular orbits. This means that we are getting closer to detecting more systems that are similar to our own solar system."

Read more. Source: spaceref/Carnegie Institution.

asteroid 2002NY40
Sharpest picture yet of a near-miss asteroid
(Sep. 4, 2002)

The photo on the left (upper round object), taken by the 4-meter William Herschel Telescope on the Canary Islands is the best ever obtained of an asteroid that passed close to the Earth. The 400-meter-wide space rock, catalogued as 2002NY40, came within 750,000 km of us (twice the distance to the Moon) last month. Although there was never any chance of an impact, an asteroid this large would have devastating biological consequences if it did collide.

For more on Near-Earth Objects (NEOs), go here (UK NEO Information Centre) and here (NASA NEO Program).


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