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Curiosity Mars rover becomes a dune buggy
(Feb 4, 2014) The Curiosity Mars
rover looks set to try to drive over a 1m-high dune. The sand
bank is currently blocking the robot's path into a small valley
and a route with fewer of the sharp rocks that lately have been
making big dents in the vehicle's aluminium wheels.
Nearest star system may host a 'superhabitable' world
(Jan 31, 2014) Earth may be our
home, but another planet even cosier for life could be orbiting
the star next door. A detailed analysis of what might make planets
suitable for life says that Alpha Centauri B, the star closest
to our sun, would be the perfect star to host a "superhabitable"
planet – a world of islands, shallow seas, and gentle slopes,
where the conditions needed to support a diverse array of life
forms would persist for up to 10 billion years.
more (New Scientist)
To give you some idea of how far apart stars are ...
(Jan 29, 2014) The distance between
stars is hard to grasp. But perhaps this scale model will help.
On the left is a plastic ball about 6cm (2½cm) across held
by me in our apartment in Dundee, Scotland; on the left is an
orange, slightly bigger, held by me a few days later at my son's
house near Valencia, Spain. The distance between them, about 1.750km,
fairly accurately represents to scale the distance between the
Sun and Alpha Centauri A (the brightest member of the nearest
star system to the Sun).
RX J1532.9+3021: Extreme power of black hole revealed
(Jan 27, 2014) Astronomers have
used NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and a suite of other telescopes
to reveal one of the most powerful black holes known. The black
hole has created enormous structures in the hot gas surrounding
it and prevented trillions of stars from forming. The black hole
is in a galaxy cluster named RX J1532.9+3021 (RX J1532 for short),
located about 3.9 billion light-years from Earth.
Date for first launch of Dream Chaser set
(Jan 24, 2014) The Sierra Nevada
Corporation has set Nov 1, 2016, for the maiden flight of its
space shuttle replacement. Known as Dream Chaser, the winged vehicle
will launch atop an Atlas V from Florida's Kennedy Space Centre.
Though smaller than NASA's famous orbiters, Dream Chaser has still
been designed to carry up to seven astronauts into low-Earth orbit.
Ceres seen venting water vapor
(Jan 23, 2014) Observations of
the Solar System's biggest asteroid suggest it is spewing plumes
of water vapor into space. Ceres has long been thought to contain
substantial quantities of ice within its body, but this is the
first time such releases have been detected.
Gaia settles into orbit around the L2 point, ready to map
(Jan 22, 2014) Gaia – ESA's
billion-star surveyor -- is now in its operational orbit around
the L2 Lagrangian point, 1.5 million km from Earth. Following
closely after the awakening of Rosetta, it's been quite a day
for Europe in space.
Rare type of brown dwarf directly imaged
(Jan 21, 2014) A team of researchers
led by Justin R. Crepp, the Freimann Assistant Professor of Physics
at the University of Notre Dame, has directly imaged a very rare
type of brown dwarf that can serve as a benchmark for studying
objects with masses that lie between stars and planets. HD 19467
B, a T-dwarf, is a very faint companion to a nearby Sun-like star,
more than 100,000 times as dim as its host.
Cosmic web fo dark matter glimpsed
(Jan 20, 2014) The hidden tendrils of
dark matter that underlie the visible Universe may have been traced
out for the first time. Cosmology theory predicts that galaxies are
embedded in a cosmic web, most of which is dark matter. Astronomers
obtained the first direct images of a part of this network, by exploiting
the fact that a luminous object called a quasar can act as a natural
What's happening to the Sun?
(Jan 18, 2014) There's something strange
happening with the Sun. It should be just about at the peak of its cycle
of activity. Instead, it's a quiet as it's been for a century. The drop
off in activity is happening surprisingly quickly, and scientists are
now watching closely to see if it will continue to plummet.
Mystery rock spotted by Opportunity on Mars
(Jan 17, 2014) A mysterious rock suddenly
appeared in front of the Opportunity rover's cameras on Mars, puzzling
scientists who describe the rock as both "a total surprise" and "about
the size of a jelly donut." The news of the rock, which NASA scientists
have dubbed "Pinnacle Island", came during a talk by Mars Exploration
Rover head scientist Steve Squyres during the 10th anniversary celebration
for the Mars rovers.
Exoplanet found around solar twin in star cluster
(Jan 15, 2014) Astronomers have used
ESO's HARPS planet hunter in Chile, along with other telescopes around
the world, to discover three planets orbiting stars in the cluster Messier
67. Although more than one thousand planets outside the Solar System
are now confirmed, only a handful have been found in star clusters.
Remarkably one of these new exoplanets is orbiting a star that is a
rare solar twin.
Capturing the 'Hand of God'
(Jan 13, 2014) A new image of the pulsar
wind nebula known as the 'Hand of God' has been captured by NASA's Nuclear
Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR). The photograph captured by the
telescope shows the nebula 17,000 light-years away, which is powered
by a dead, spinning star called PSR B1509-58. The pulsar itself is just
19 km long, but spins around nearly seven times every second.
more (The Independent)
A new type of hypervelocity star
(Jan 10, 2014) An international team
of astronomers has discovered a surprising new class of "hypervelocity
stars" – solitary stars moving fast enough to escape the gravitational
grasp of the Milky Way galaxy. "These new hypervelocity stars are very
different from the ones that have been discovered previously," said
Vanderbilt University graduate student Lauren Palladino, lead author
on the study. "The original hypervelocity stars are large blue stars
and appear to have originated from the galactic center. Our new stars
are relatively small -- about the size of the sun – and the surprising
part is that none of them appear to come from the galactic core."
more (Scienee Daily)
Galaxy positions pinned down to amazing accuracy
(Jan 9, 2014) Astronomers have measured
the distances between galaxies, across 6 billion light-years, to an
accuracy of just 1%. This extremely precise survey - the so-called BOSS
(Baryon Oscillation Spectroscopic Survey), using the Sloan Foundation
Telescope in New Mexico -- will be used, among other things, to help
determine the nature of dark energy.
Living the lid on Pandora's Cluster
(Jan 8, 2014) The "deepest ever" image
of a group of galaxies – "Pandora's Cluster" – has been
captured by the Hubble Space Telescope. The blue arcs in the picture
are distant galaxies as they appeared 12 billion years ago – not
long after the Big Bang.
Supervolcano alert ...
(Jan 6, 2014) "The eruption of a supervolcano
hundreds of times more powerful than conventional volcanoes –
with the potential to wipe out civilization as we know it – is
more likely than previously thought, a study has found. An analysis
of the molten rock within the dormant supervolcano beneath Yellowstone
National Park in the United States has revealed that an eruption is
possible without any external trigger, scientists said." (The Independent)
In our book Megacatastrophes, Dirk Schulze-Makuch and I gave
supervolcanoes a 4 on our 0 to 10 catastrophe risk scale. Maybe it should
have been higher!
more (The Independent)
(Jan 4, 2014) Today the Earth passed
through perihelion – the closest we ever get to the Sun. Friends
in Australia will have less trouble believing that than those in the
mid-West who are down around -35°C at the moment!
Sun does a magnetic flip at the start of a new cycle
(Jan 2, 2014) The Sun has "flipped upside
down", with its north and south poles reversed to reach the midpoint
of Solar Cycle 24. "At the height of each magnetic flip, the sun goes
through periods of more solar activity, during which there are more
sunspots, and more eruptive events such as solar flares and coronal
mass ejections," said NASA’s Karen C. Fox.
more (The Independent)
Space highlights in 2014
(Dec 30, 2013) Among the space highlights
of 2014 will be the launch in June of a Spanish team's robotic lunar
rover aboard a Chinese rocket, in an attempt to win the $30 million
Google Lunar X Prize. This will be followed in September by the first
test flight of NASA's Orion manned spacecraft, and mid-October by the
near passage of C/2013 A1 to Mars. For me, the space highlight of next
year will be ESA's Rosetta probe going into orbit around comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko
in mid-2014, followed (hopefully) by the deployment of the Philae lander
on the comet's surface in November.
more (Worlds of DD Facebook page)
Earthrise, from Apollo 8, 1968
(Dec 24, 2013) On this day in 1968,
the first picture of an "Earthrise" was taken from Apollo 8 in lunar
orbit. The one shown here is the famous color photo taken by William
Anders which Nature photographer Galen Rowell called "the most
influential environmental photograph ever taken." But it was not the
first Earthrise picture. That was snapped in black & white a little
earlier, before Anders got the 70mm color film ready, by mission commander
The human problems of getting to, and living on, Mars (part 2)
(Dec 22, 2013) The closest Mars ever
gets to Earth is more than 100 times the distance between the Earth-Moon
distance (about 250,000 miles), so crewed trips to and from the Red
Planet involve far more than mere extensions of Apollo-type missions.
The closest approximations are long-term stays aboard space stations
but even these can hardly prepare astronauts for the hardships and dangers
that interplanetary travel pose.
more (Spaceflight Insider)
First exomoon found?
(Dec 20, 2013) Forget what you saw in
Avatar. The first real exomoon may have been found – and it's
weirder than anything we'd imagined. If the discovery is confirmed,
this moon is half the size of Earth and circles around a giant rogue
planet at a distance of 20 million kilometers.
more (New Scientist)
ESA's Gaia mission successfully launched
(Dec 19, 2013) Well done the European
Space Agency! One of the most important astronomical space missions
in years began from the Guiana Space Centre today with the launch of
Gaia by a Soyuz/Fregat rocket. Over the coming months and years, Gaia
will measure with unprecedented precision the position, movements, and
properties of a billion stars and other objects within the Milky Way
Galaxy and beyond.
Cooling problem aboard space station will require emergency repairs
(Dec 18, 2013) NASA has ordered a series
of emergency spacewalks to carry out repairs on a broken cooling line
at the International Space Station. The work to replace a faulty pump
module would require two astronauts and three spacewalks – the
first of which is planned for Saturday. The repairs would take priority
over the launch of a supply ship from Virginia, which has now been postponed
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