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SPACE & SCIENCE NEWS: November 2003
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Possible Earth-like planets found around Vega Nov 30, 2003
Solo planet formed like a star Nov 29, 2003
China manned Moon trip by 2020 Nov 29, 2003
Does vacuum energy dominate the universe? Nov 26, 2003
Biggest star in our Galaxy sits within a rugby-ball shaped cocoon Nov 26, 2003
Venus has metal-coated mountains Nov 25, 2003
Jupiter encounter for Pluto mission Nov 24, 2003
"Great dying" caused by space rock Nov 21, 2003
Most extreme halophiles discovered Nov 19, 2003
Giant Kuiper belt object found Nov 17, 2003
Interstellar Boundary Mission Nov 17, 2003
The rivers of Mars Nov 16, 2003
Lunar ice in question Nov 13, 2003
Interstellar computer viruses Nov 11, 2003
Dark matter forms a ghost universe Nov 9, 2003
HD 172051: the star of life? Nov 8, 2003
New nearest galaxy found Nov 7, 2003
Martian desert on Earth Nov 7, 2003
Voyager 1 at the terminal shock Nov 6, 2003
Largest solar flare ever seen Nov 5, 2003
Space amino acids: life clues Nov 4, 2003
Sun most active in 1,000 years Nov 3, 2003
Hubble observes early starbirth Nov 2, 2003
Big Bang sounded like a deep hum Nov 1, 2003


Dust disk around Vega
Possible Earth-like planets found around Vega
(Nov 30, 2003)


Astronomers say they have evidence for Earth-like planets orbiting a nearby star, making it more like our own Solar System than any yet discovered. The star, Vega, is one of the brightest in the sky, only 25 light-years away. It is three times larger than our Sun and, at 350 million years old, much younger as well. Vega has a disc of dust circling it, and at least one large planet which could sweep debris aside allowing smaller worlds like Earth to exist. The analysis, by astronomers from the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh, is published in The Astrophysical Journal, and is based on observations taken with one of the world's most sensitive cameras.

Read more
. Source: BBC.

Solo planet formed like a star
(Nov 29, 2003)


Planets can be spawned by the same process that makes stars, say astronomers who have discovered a developing planet floating alone in a stellar nursery. "It's a planet but it has all the hallmarks of an embryonic star," says Jane Greaves of the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh (ROE). Until recently, it was thought that planets could only build up, or "accrete", from gas and dust swirling in a disc around a newborn star. But everything changed in 2000 with the discovery of isolated planets without parent stars in the Sigma Orionis star cluster. "Their existence strongly suggested there was another way of making planets," says Greaves. Now, Greaves and ROE colleague Wayne Holland, together with Marc Pound of the University of Maryland at College Park, have looked at the Rho Ophiuchus B star-forming region, which is 500 light years away, only one-third as far from us as the famous star nursery of the Orion nebula. Picture: Rho Ophiuchus complex.

Read full article
. Source: New Scientist.

China in space
China manned Moon trip by 2020
(Nov 29, 2003)


China plans to land a human on the moon by 2020, the country's chief space official said in comments broadcast by state television. "By 2020, we will achieve visiting the moon," said Luan Enjie, director of the National Aerospace Bureau. Luan used a verb that specifically describes a human act. Luan said that would follow the launch of a probe to orbit the moon by 2007 and an unmanned lunar landing by 2010. China's once-secret space program has released a stream of such disclosures following the Oct. 15 flight of astronaut Yang Liwei on the country's first manned space voyage. "We will focus on deep space exploration. The first target selected is the moon," Luan said Thursday.

Read full article
. Source: AP.

dark matter
Does vacuum energy dominate the universe?
(Nov 26, 2003)


New results from a study of distant galaxy clusters, observed as they were when the universe was only half as old as it is today, lead to some surprising conclusions. The observations were obtained by the European Space Agency's (ESA) satellite XMM in the context of an international collaboration involving researchers from two laboratories (the Laboratoire d'Astrophysique and the Centre d'Etude Spatiale des Rayonnements (CESR) at the Observatoire Midi-Pyrénées (OMP ) in Toulouse, the Institut d'Astrophysique Spatiale (IAS) in Paris, the Collège de France, the Service d'Astrophysique (SAp) in Saclay, and the ESA center ESTEC in Holland.

Read full article
. Source: Space Daily.

Eta Carinae
Biggest star in our Galaxy sits within a rugby-ball shaped cocoon
(Nov 26, 2003)


Ever since 1841, when the until then inconspicuous southern star Eta Carinae underwent a spectacular outburst, astronomers have wondered what exactly is going on in this unstable giant star. However, due to its considerable distance – 7,500 light-years – details of the star itself were beyond observation. This star is known to be surrounded by the Homunculus Nebula, two mushroom-shaped clouds ejected by the star, each of which is hundreds of times larger than our solar system. Now, for the first time, infrared interferometry with the VINCI instrument on ESO's Very Large Telescope Interferometer (VLTI) enabled an international team of astronomers to zoom-in on the inner part of its stellar wind. For Roy van Boekel, leader of the team, these results indicate that "the wind of Eta Carinae turns out to be extremely elongated and the star itself is highly unstable because of its fast rotation."

Read full article
. Source: European Southern Observatory.

Venus surface
Venus has metal-coated mountains
(Nov 25, 2003)


The highlands of Venus are covered by a heavy metal "frost", say planetary scientists from Washington University. Because it is hot enough to melt lead at the surface, metals vaporise and condense at cooler, higher elevations. This may explain why radar observations made by orbiting spacecraft show that the highlands are highly reflective. Detailed calculations, to be published in the journal Icarus, suggest that lead and bismuth are to blame for giving Venus its bright, metallic skin.

Read full article
. Source: BBC.

Pluto Express
Jupiter encounter for Pluto mission
(Nov 24, 2003)


The main goal of NASA's New Horizons mission may be to explore Pluto-Charon and the Kuiper Belt beginning in 2015, but first the mission plans to fly by the solar system's largest planet, Jupiter, during February-March 2007. The Jupiter flyby would be used by New Horizons to provide a gravitational assist that shaves years off the trip time to Pluto-Charon and the Kuiper belt.

Read full article
. Source: Space Daily.

asteroid impact
"Great dying" caused by space rock
(Nov 21, 2003)


Scientists have found new evidence that the greatest extinction in the Earth's history was triggered by an asteroid. About 250 million years ago, something unknown wiped out most of the life on the planet. It was far more devastating than the impact that ended the rule of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. New geological evidence suggests that the "great dying" was caused by a space rock slamming into the Earth. Dozens of rare mineral grains found in ancient rocks in Antarctica could be the "smoking gun", according to scientists in the US.

Read full article
. Source: BBC.

newly discovered halophiles
Most extreme halophiles discovered
(Nov 19, 2003)


The world's most alkaline lifeforms are living in contaminated water in the US. Scientists found microbial communities thriving in the slag dumps of the Lake Calumet region of southeast Chicago where the water can reach a pH of 12.8. Living in this extreme environment is comparable to swimming in caustic soda or floor stripper, the researchers say. They found the microbes while studying contaminated groundwater created by more than a century of industrial iron slag tipping in Illinois and Indiana. Picture: A phase-contrast microscope view of the newly-found halophiles.

Read full article
. Source: BBC.

2003 VS2
Giant Kuiper belt object found
(Nov 17, 2003)


Astronomers have found a large object orbiting the Sun near Neptune's orbit. It was discovered on Friday by an automated sky survey project designed to search for threatening asteroids that may be on an Earth impact course. The object is about 570 km across, making it one of the largest bodies of its kind found in modern times. The new body, made of rock and ice, is designated 2003 VS2. Re-examining past records, astronomers have found it in images taken as far back as 1998.

Read full article
. Source: BBC.

Voyager and Pioneer departure trajectories
Interstellar Boundary Mission
(Nov 17, 2003)


NASA has selected a proposal by Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) to examine the feasibility of a mission to study the interstellar boundary, the region between our solar system and interstellar space. The proposal is one of five candidates vying for two mission slots in NASA's Explorer Program of low cost, rapidly developed scientific spacecraft. The Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX) mission led by SwRI would launch a pair of energetic neutral atom "cameras" to image the interaction between the solar system and the low-density material between the stars, the interstellar medium – an interaction that has never been directly observed before. Picture: Voyager and Pioneer departure trajectories.

Read full article
. Source: Space Daily.

Mars
The rivers of Mars
(Nov 16, 2003)


Newly seen details in a fan-shaped apron of debris on Mars may help settle a decades-long debate about whether the planet had long-lasting rivers instead of just brief, intense floods. Pictures from NASA's Mars Global Surveyor orbiter show eroded ancient deposits of transported sediment long since hardened into interweaving, curved ridges of layered rock. Scientists interpret some of the curves as traces of ancient meanders made in a sedimentary fan as flowing water changed its course over time.

Read full article
. Source: Spaceflight Now.

Arecibo radio telescope
Lunar ice in question
(Nov 13, 2003)


New data suggests that if there is ice at the Moon's poles then it is probably in the form of scattered grains rather than thick sheets, say scientists. Radar data from the permanently dark regions of the Moon lack the tell-tale signature of thick ice deposits. The observations, from the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico, do not rule out ice, which could be a valuable resource for a future base on the Moon. (Picture: Arecibo radio telescope.)

Read full article
. Source: BBC.

Allen Telescope Array
Interstellar computer viruses
(Nov 11, 2003)


Microsoft may have to fork up big bounty bucks trying to unearth future hackers, particularly when they are light years away on distant worlds. Add one more worry to the computerized world of the 21st century. Could a signal from the stars broadcast by an alien intelligence also carry harmful information, in the spirit of a computer virus? Could star folk launch a "disinformation" campaign - one that covers up aspects of their culture? Perhaps they might even mask the "real" intent of dispatching a message to other civilizations scattered throughout the Cosmos. These are concerns that deserve attention explains Richard Carrigan, Jr., a physicist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois. Those engaged in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), he contends, should think about decontaminating potential SETI signals. (Picture: Allen Telescope Array.)

Read full article
. Source: space.com.

dark matter
Dark matter forms ghost universe
(Nov 9, 2003)


The "dark matter" that comprises a still-undetected one-quarter of the universe is not a uniform cosmic fog, says a University of California, Berkeley, astrophysicist, but instead forms dense clumps that move about like dust motes dancing in a shaft of light. In a paper submitted this week to Physical Review D, Chung-Pei Ma, an associate professor of astronomy at UC Berkeley, and Edmund Bertschinger of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), prove that the motion of dark matter clumps can be modeled in a way similar to the Brownian motion of air-borne dust or pollen.

Read full article
. Source: UC Berkeley.

Darwin
HD 172051: the star of life?
(Nov 8, 2003)


A little-known star about 42 light-years away is the top target for European astronomers searching for planets that might harbour life. The star, which has the rather dull designation HD 172051, is much like our own Sun but is just a little cooler. Scientists believe it is one of the best contenders in nearby space to have planets in orbit that resemble Earth. It will be a key observational target when Europe launches its Darwin space telescope system (see picture) in the next decade.

Read full article
. Source: BBC.

Canis Major dwarf galaxy
New nearest galaxy found
(Nov 7, 2003)


An international team of astronomers has found a previously unknown galaxy colliding with our own Milky Way. Called the Canis Major dwarf galaxy after the constellation in which it lies, the star grouping is about 25,000 light-years away from our Solar System. Its distinctive red stars are slowly being pulled into the Milky Way and the dwarf will soon lose all its structure.

Read full article
. Source: BBC.

Atacama desert
Martian desert on Earth
(Nov 7, 2003)


A report in the journal Science finds striking similarities between the soil in Chile's Atacama Desert (see photo) and that sampled by the Viking landers on Mars in 1976. The chemical properties of the Atacama soil could explain the strange life-like results obtained by some of Viking's experiments. In the end, NASA officially wrote off the results as non-biological because another instrument on the spacecraft, known as the GCMS, failed to detect organic (carbon-based) matter. But controversy has surrounded this interpretation ever since and there have been calls for the experiments to be repeated. Now, in a sense, this has happened through the work done on a terrestrial desert, though the results have raised fresh questions.

The party line on the Viking results is that the Martian samples were active because of chemicals such as super-oxides - not because of microbes. In fact, these active chemicals would be devastating to life as we know it. The new work has found similar chemical properties in the Atacama soils, which are extremely dry like those found on Mars. Low water levels combined with sunlight seem to have created a chemical cycle that decomposes organic materials and inhibits life. When the researchers repeated the Viking experiments on the Atacama soils, they came up with similar results. However, they did find minute traces of organic matter, at levels lower than the Viking experiments would have been able to detect on Mars. So, the possibility remains that organic matter was there all the time. If so, there's a chance that the Beagle 2 lander, currently Mars-bound, will detect it. Also, two new instruments are being developed to characterise chemical processes on Mars (Mars Oxidant Instrument) and to detect organic compounds (Mars Oxidant Detector). It's hoped these instruments will be flown to Mars on a future probe in a further effort to identify soils that may have contained life at some point in the planet's past. Ref: "Mars-Like Soils in the Atacama Desert, Chile, and the Dry Limit of Microbial Life," Rafael Navarro-González et al, Science Nov 7 2003: 1018-1021.

Voyagers' departure trajectories
Voyager 1 at terminal shock
(Nov 6, 2003)


Scientists say the Voyager 1 spacecraft is near the outer limit of the Solar System, 26 years after its US launch. The boundary is a region called the termination shock where particles from the Sun begin to slow down and clash with atomic matter from deep space. Nasa says Voyager 1 is about 13.5bn kilometres from Earth and will not reach another system for 40,000 years. The spacecraft carries greetings in 55 languages and audiovisual materials depicting life on Earth. Beyond the ever-shifting termination shock boundary, lies a region called the heliopause, that marks the beginning of interstellar space.

Read full article
. Source: BBC.

giant solar flare
Largest solar flare ever seen
(Nov 5, 2003)


The Sun has unleashed its largest recorded solar flare, capping 10 days of unprecedented activity for the star. The blast sent billions of tonnes of superhot gas into space – some of it directed towards our planet. Scientists say the Sun's current spate of activity has produced the most dramatic events seen on the solar surface since regular monitoring began. Space weather forecasters have been kept busy tracking the impact of geomagnetic storms on the Earth.

Read full article
. Source: BBC.

Murchison meteorite
Space amino acids: life clues
(Nov 4, 2003)


Amino acids have been found in interstellar clouds and in meteorites - but with some enigmatic omissions and tantalizing similarities to life on Earth. Just why some amino acids are present in meteorites and others are absent, and why they seem to prefer the same "left-handed" molecular structure as Earth's living amino acids are questions that could unravel one of the most fundamental questions of science: Where and how did life begin? "The bottom line is that you have these materials that come from space," says Steve Macko, professor of environmental sciences at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Macko refers specifically to eight of the amino acids found in a certain kind of meteorite – a carbonaceous chondrite. All eight amino acids are identical to those used by life on Earth. That could seem to point to a cosmic origin of these basic biological building blocks, says Macko.

Read full article
. Source: Geo. Soc. Am.

Sun
Sun most active in 1,000 years
(Nov 3, 2003)


The Sun is more active now than it has been for a millennium. The realisation, which comes from a reconstruction of sunspots stretching back 1150 years, comes just as the Sun has thrown a tantrum. Over the last week, giant plumes of have material burst out from our star's surface and streamed into space, causing geomagnetic storms on Earth. The dark patches on the surface of the Sun that we call sunspots are a symptom of fierce magnetic activity inside. Ilya Usoskin, a geophysicist who worked with colleagues from the University of Oulu in Finland and the Max Planck Institute for Aeronomy in Katlenburg-Lindau, Germany, has found that there have been more sunspots since the 1940s than for the past 1150 years

Read full article
. Source: New Scientist.

artist's impression of the Lynx Arc
Hubble observes early starbirth
(Nov 2, 2003)


The Hubble Space Telescope has observed the most dramatic and most energetic stellar nursery ever found in space. It lies at the edge of the Universe. It was detected nestling behind a distant cluster of galaxies. Because of its distance we see the object as it was when the Universe was young, some 12 billion years ago. A million bluish stars – hotter than today's stars – have been formed out of this cocoon of gas, which must have been common when the cosmos was young. Illustration: Artist's impression of the stellar nursery.

Read full article
. Source: BBC.

Big Bang
Big Bang sounded like a deep hum
(Nov 1, 2003)


The Big Bang sounded more like a deep hum than a bang, according to an analysis of the radiation left over from the cataclysm. Physicist John Cramer of the University of Washington in Seattle has created audio files of the event which can be played on a PC. "The sound is rather like a large jet plane flying 100 feet above your house in the middle of the night," he says. Giant sound waves propagated through the blazing hot matter that filled the Universe shortly after the Big Bang. These squeezed and stretched matter, heating the compressed regions and cooling the rarefied ones.

Read full article
. Source: New Scientist.

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