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SPACE & SCIENCE NEWS: January 2013
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Planet-hunter taking a break
(Jan 19, 2013)

NASA's planet-hunting Kepler telescope is showing signs of age. One of its three remaining working reaction wheels – crucial in accurately pointing the telescope – has started to stiffen up. In the hope that a break from activities will allow lubricant to spread over the component, NASA engineers have put the spacecraft into rest mode. When launched, Kepler had four reaction wheels: three to control its motion along each axis, and one spare. Last July, one wheel stopped turning. A second loss would mean the end of the mission, although having discovered 3,000 potential exoplanets, Kepler is already a triumph.

Read more (New Scientist)

Richard Branson
Future of New Mexico spaceport in the balance
(Jan 18, 2013)

The future of Sir Richard Branson's project to blast wealthy tourists and celebrities into space is set to become clear this week when it makes it first rent payment on the futuristic "Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space" terminal. Virgin Galactic has threatened to pull its support from the publicly financed $209m spaceport in southern New Mexico unless lawmakers extend the company's waiver of liability to manufacturers and parts suppliers in the event of an accident.

Read more (Guardian)

Bigelow inflatable module
Inflatable module for the Space Station
(Jan 17, 2013)

Inflation is about to hit space – in the form of blow-up modules made by Las Vegas firm Bigelow Aerospace. NASA has signed a $17.8-million contract with the company to build an inflatable crew habitat for the ISS. The 4-meter by 3-meter BEAM (Bigelow Expandable Activity Module) is slated for launch by a SpaceX Dragon spacecraft in 2015 and then testing by astronauts for two years to make sure it performs well and doesn't spring a leak. If successful, Bigelow Aersopace hopes to expand its business of manufacturing inflatable modules for Earth orbit into areas such as space tourism.

Read more (New Scientist)

Disaster waiting to happen
(Jan 16, 2013)

One hundred thousand years ago, a massive chunk of the Mauna Loa volcano split away from Hawaii and slid into the sea, launching a wave that rose as high as the Eiffel Tower up the slopes of a nearby island. That mega-tsunami was not an isolated incident: the past 40,000 years have seen at least ten gigantic landslides of more than 100 cubic km in the North Atlantic alone, each capable of producing waves tens to hundreds of meters high. Another is bound to happen sometime – although whether it will strike tomorrow or 10,000 years from now is anyone's guess.

Read more (Nature)

Vela pulsar
Chandra movie of the Vela pulsar
(Jan 14, 2013)

A thousand light-years away lies the Vela pulsar, one of the youngest pulsars known. A new video containing 8 images obtained by the Chandra X-ray Observatory, suggests that the pulsar may be slowly wobbling, or precessing, as it spins. One possible cause of precession is that the star has become slightly distorted, perhaps as a result of the combined action of the fast rotation and "glitches" – sudden increases of the pulsar's rotational speed due to the interaction of the superfluid core of the neutron star with its crust.

Read more (NASA/Chandra)

The Search for Alien Life Part 2: In the Realm of the Gas Giants
(Jan 12, 2013)

Beyond the main asteroid belt lie the giant planets Jupiter and Saturn and their impressive retinues of moons. What chances for life are out here in the frozen wastes of the solar system? At first glance, you'd imagine none. But, as early as the 1970s, theorists had begun to speculate that some of the larger moons of Jupiter, especially Europa, might have their interiors warmed up through tidal heating. Check out the second of my two-part article on the search for extraterrestrial life over at

Read more (

Zero chance Apophis will hit us in 2036
(Jan 12, 2013)

New observations of the asteroid Apophis made during its (remote) approach to Earth this week have revealed that there is now no chance at all of a collision in 2036. Furthermore, its orbit has been determined so accurately that the asteroid's whereabouts can be predicted confidently well into the future.

Read more

NGC 6872
Galaxy collision spawns monster spiral
(Jan 11, 2013)

Astronomers knew that NGC 6872 was a big spiral galaxy. What they've just found out is that it's the biggest on record – so big that five galaxies the size of our own (itself no minnow) could fit inside it. It's immense size is the result of a collision with another, lens-shaped galaxy that has splashed stars inside NGC 6872 out to distances of half a million light-years.

Read more (BBC)

Mars flow channels
The Search for Alien Life Part 1: Where are the Martians?
(Jan 10, 2013)

On July 20, 1976, a 572-kilogram spacecraft, supported on three sturdy legs, touched down on the orange sands of Mars in the western part of Chryse Planitia. Six weeks later, its sister craft made landfall about 200 kilometers west of the crater Mie in Utopia Planitia. The twin Viking landers were the first purpose-built attempts to hunt for life on another world. Check out the first of my two-part article on the search for extraterrestrial life over at

Read more (

SN SCP-0401
"Mingus" is the furthest supernova known
(Jan 10, 2013)

Another announcement from the American Astronomical Society's 5-day conference which ends today in Long Beach: the finding of the most distant supernova ever seen. Officially known as SN SCP-0401 and unofficially as "Mingus", it lies about 10 billion light-years away and was first spotted by Hubble back in 2004. However, its true nature wasn't revealed until the Wide Field Camera 3 became available. As one of the members of the research team involved put it, seen from our distance Mingus is "about as bright as a firefly viewed from 3,000 miles away".

Read more (BBC)

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