Friday, April 29, 2011

NASA Shuttle Endeavour Launch Postponed

No matter how much hype precedes a space launch—and there was plenty leading up to today's planned flight of the space shuttle Endeavour, what with Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and the Obama family in attendance—it takes just a small thing to shut down the whole show.

Today that thing was actually a pair of things—two heaters attached to an on-board supply of the hydrazine rocket fuel.

Hydrazine is a colourless, highly flammable gas that, when heated to about 500°F, can be used to power hydraulic systems, similar to the way steam turns the drive wheel of a riverboat.

In this case, the hydraulics are used to control the elevons, the flaps that allow the shuttle to pitch up and down during flight, according to astronaut Michael Foale, who reported moments after NASA announced that the launch was being scrubbed with just less than two and a half hours left in the countdown. It will take at least 48 hours to check out the systems and certify them ready for flight.

Even before the heaters went on the fritz, the launch was looking unlikely. That's not so much because of today's high winds and cloud cover at Cape Canaveral, but because the weather was even worse in France and Spain.

Every time a shuttle lifts off, flight rules require that the crew have a range of available landing sites and abort options in case something goes dangerously wrong.

The quickest and most straightforward maneuver is called a Return To Launch Site (RTLS) abort, in which the commander jettisons the solid fuel engines (which can't be shut down once they're lit), yaws back around so that the nose of the shuttle is pointed back to Florida, slowly throttles down the main engines and lands on a Canaveral runway.

If the problem occurs when the shuttle is out of range of Florida, the next best option is a Transoceanic Abort Landing (TAL), in which the crew flies the disabled ship across the Atlantic and touches down either at France's Istres Air Base or Spain's Zaragoza or Moron Air Base. (That last one, alas, is not a typo.)

With the European bases being hit by rain and winds, the launch would probably have been a no-go not matter what the state of the heaters was. (NASA says the forecast is 80% favorable for a Sunday launch.)

The penultimate abort scenario is known as Abort Once Around (AOA)—in which the shuttle has just enough velocity to stagger into a wobbly orbit but not enough to sustain it. After a single circuit of the planet, it comes home.

The last option after that is the Abort To Orbit; in this one, the shuttle can at least achieve a solid low-earth orbit. In many cases, that's the safest place for a balky ship to be, giving engineers and astronauts time to suss out the problem and plan for a safe, early reentry.

Today's scrub was the much less eventful get-out-of-the-spaceship-and-take-the-elevator-back-down-to-the-ground variety. It ain't sexy, but it's very reliable—and astronauts prefer it every time. - by Jeffrey Kluger

Lego Space Site


Click on the picture above to visit the Lego Space website

Here

Soyuz Progress 42 Docks with ISS before STS-134 Mission



The ISS Progress 42 cargo craft docked to the Pirs docking compartment on the International Space Station at 10:28 a.m. EDT Friday, less than six hours before space shuttle Endeavour’s scheduled launch to the station on the STS-134 mission.

The cargo ship launched at 9:05 a.m. Wednesday from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, carrying 1,940 pounds of propellant, 110 pounds of oxygen and air, 926 pounds of water and 2,976 pounds of maintenance hardware, experiment equipment and resupply items for the Expedition 28 crew.

Space shuttle Endeavour is set to launch Friday at 3:47 p.m. to deliver the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer and spare parts to the station. The STS-134 mission is scheduled to last 14 days and will be Endeavour’s last flight. The four spacewalks planned while Endeavour is docked at the station also will be the last performed by shuttle astronauts.

NASA Shuttle Endeavour: Final Launch

Russia to build aerospace defence shield

Russia will build a national aerospace defense shield by the end of 2011, Chairman of the Federation Council Committee on Defense and Security Viktor Ozerov told reporters on Tuesday in the cosmonauts' training center near Moscow. He believes that a combined aerospace defense force will cooperate more effectively with NATO's European anti-missile defense system.

Last year, President Medvedev approved a plan to merge the Space Forces created in 2001, the Air Defense Forces and also the missile attack warning and space surveillance systems into a single military force. Commenting on the issue, Viktor Ozerov said as follows:

"Space Forces is a branch of the Russian army that focuses on space and ground intelligence, as well as anti-missile security. Cooperation with Russia on anti-missile defence was named among the priorities at the latest Russia-NATO summit in Lisbon. Russia and NATO member states have managed to agree on some aspects of anti-missile shield in Europe, though some difficulties remain with adjusting anti-missile systems of Russia, the US and that of NATO to each other."

During the talks in the Cosmonaut Training Center outside Moscow, deputy chairman of the Russian Federal Space Agency Vitaly Davydov commented on the planned Moon and Mars missions, adding that Russia has been working on a program for the Solar system exploration through 2030.

"President Medvedev asked us to present a program for space exploration until 2030. Before we start making preparations for a piloted Mars mission, we expect to launch several missions to the Moon."

These manned missions may be launched from Russia's new spaceport "Vostochny", which is currently being built in Amur region. The first unmanned capsule is due to take off from the Vostochny in 2015, while the first piloted mission is scheduled for 2018.

Soyuz Progress Launches as NASA Shuttle Crew Prepares

The ISS Progress 42 resupply craft launched Wednesday morning to replenish the International Space Station. Launch was at 9:05 a.m. EDT (7:05 p.m. Kazakhstan time) from the Baikonur Cosmodrome. The Russian cargo craft will dock to the Pirs docking compartment at 10:29 a.m. Friday.

The new cargo ship will dock to the same port vacated by the ISS Progress 41 cargo craft, which undocked last week and was deorbited Tuesday morning, disposing of station trash, after engineering tests. The new Progress is loaded with 1,940 pounds of propellant, 110 pounds of oxygen and air, 926 pounds of water and 2,976 pounds of maintenance hardware, experiment equipment and resupply items.

Space shuttle Endeavour will launch Friday at 3:47 p.m. to deliver the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer and spare parts to the orbital laboratory. The STS-134 mission is scheduled to last 14 days and will be Endeavour's last flight. The four spacewalks planned while Endeavour is docked at the station also will be the last performed by shuttle astronauts.

While the crew members await the new resupply craft and the shuttle they continue with science. The Expedition 27 crew also is at work maintaining station systems throughout the U.S. and Russian orbital segments.

Flight Engineer Paolo Nespoli measured his blood pressure and collected blood and urine samples for a study that measures heart performance during long-duration space missions. The ongoing investigation seeks to determine if blood pressure and volume can be maintained at the same level in microgravity as on the ground.

Flight Engineer Ron Garan worked in the Japanese Kibo laboratory to replace an ethernet hub and multiplexer in a data management system rack. Garan also took part in CsPINS, a Japanese experiment that observes how cucumber seedlings adapt to microgravity.

Flight Engineer Cady Coleman set up gear to collect microbes and monitored a dosimeter to measure radiation. She also connected a robotics work station display panel in the Destiny lab and tested video downlink for arriving and departing Russian spacecraft.

Commander Dmitry Kondratyev assisted Coleman during the video downlink test. He also monitored the Elektron oxygen generator and performed some plumbing work on a Russian bathroom system.

Flight Engineer Andrey Borisenko set up gear for the Coulomb Crystal experiment. The Russian investigation gathers data about charged particles inside the microgravity environment of the space station. He also conducted a session of the Interaction experiment that observes interactions between station crew members and ground personnel.

Flight Engineer Alexander Samokutyaev worked on maintenance throughout the Russian segment of the station. Samokutyaev also worked on the Typology experiment which studies how a crew member thinks and works in microgravity.

NASA Receives ESA European Commitment To Continue Space Station

The Multilateral Coordination Board (MCB) for the International Space Station partner agencies met Wednesday, April 27, to discuss increased efforts to use the station as a test-bed for exploration. The MCB also congratulated the European Space Agency (ESA) on its recent decision to continue station operations to at least 2020.

The MCB is working diligently to extend the benefits to future exploration beyond low-Earth orbit through enhanced station research, technology development and other opportunities. Other topics on the agenda included a report on efforts to create international standards for docking and berthing; rendezvous and proximity operations; interfaces for replaceable items and payloads; and standardization of command protocols for spacecraft. To view the International Docking Systems Standard, visit: http://www.internationaldockingstandard.com

Station research with potential societal impact includes:
-- The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer-2, which will fly aboard STS-134, scheduled to launch on April 29. The experiment is a cosmic ray detector that will search for dark matter and antimatter, components critical to understanding the origin and structure of our universe.
-- The Canadian Space Agency (CSA) continues its life science research program on mitigating health risks associated with spaceflight. These health experiments and activities will monitor crew health and deliver health care on space missions.
-- ESA began the GeoFlow experiment in the Fluid Science Laboratory payload. This experiment will take advantage of the microgravity environment on the station in combination with electrical fields, thermal gradients and rotation to simulate many parameters of geo-physical flows under the Earth's crust. Results will help scientists understand thermal convection in planets and the outer shells of celestial bodies. It also will verify numerical simulations of fluid dynamics of liquid core planets with real experimental data.
-- Roscosmos, the Russian Federal Space Agency, continues experimental programs aimed at human adaptation to future long- term expeditions. Dedicated medical experiments study the effects of flight conditions on the cardiovascular system, respiratory system and bones. Other research includes planting wheat and vegetables them performing genetic, microbiological and biochemical tests on the plants.
-- Japan has found several new X-ray celestial bodies by the Monitor of All-sky X-ray Image instrument of "Kibo" and recently reported the new gamma rays outburst of the Whale or Cetus. This discovery will contribute to understanding the origin and the evolution of the universe. Japan has also implemented a new investigation on cucumber seedlings to study how plants sense gravity as an environmental signal and use it for governing their structural development and growth orientation.

The governments of Japan and the Russian Federation already have approved continued station operations beyond 2016. NASA received approval in the NASA Authorization Act of 2010. CSA is working with its government to reach consensus about the continuation of the station.

The MCB includes senior representatives from NASA, CSA, ESA, Roscosmos and the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. The MCB meets periodically to ensure coordination of station operations and activities among the partners.

Mercury Laser Altimeter (MLA): Profiling Mercury's Topography


Mercury’s interior view

An artist's rendition of what Mercury’s
core might look like. (Image Credit: NASA)

The purpose of the Mercury Laser Altimeter (MLA) is to measure the topography or surface relief of the northern hemisphere of Mercury. MLA data will be used to create topographic maps, which will help characterize the geologic history of the planet.

For example, topographic maps on Earth are used to show relief, such as mountains or valleys, and features including roads and streams, on a flat piece of paper.

Additionally, this data can be combined with other data to tell us something about Mercury’s global shape and spin axis as well as the size and state of its core.


How it works
The MLA measures the range or distance between the MESSENGER probe and the surface of Mercury using a laser transmitter and receiver. This two step process begins as the transmitter generates a brief laser pulse directed toward the planet.

The light travels to the planet and some is reflected back and detected by the receiver. The time it takes for the light to travel round-trip is recorded by the instrument and can then be converted to a distance.

This is accomplished by a very simple calculation; the round-trip time is multiplied by the speed of light, giving us the round-trip distance. The round-trip distance is then divided by 2 to get the distance one way.

Every second 8 laser pulses are transmitted for a pulse rate of 8 Hz. The round-trip transit time is measured with an accuracy of 2.0 nanoseconds (a nanosecond is a billionth of a second!).

Therefore, the resolution of the topographic data is 0.3 meters. Since the probe is traveling as it transmits laser pulses, range measurements are collected every 100 to 300 meters along its path as in the image below.

laser footprint from altimeter

Understanding mercury and beyond
Ultimately, the data we gain from this mission will further our knowledge of how the terrestrial planets—including Earth—formed and evolved. To be more specific, detailed topography along with gravity measurements will help us understand the current and historical geology of the planet.

For example, we could determine the thickness of Mercury’s crust which provides insight into the minerals present and the size of the core.

From previous fly-by missions (Mariner 10 in 1974 and 1975) we know that there are several different types of terrains on Mercury, including regions that are heavily cratered like the Earth’s Moon, vast plains, hilly areas, and features that look like long cliffs that are up to 500 kilometers in length and hundreds of meters in height.

Perhaps we will be able to determine the source of these dominant geologic features; were there active volcanoes, active faults, and did the planet contract or shrink as it cooled?

Read more on the Messenger MLA here

NASA Shuttle Endeavour: Fingernail-sized satellites on board

Three prototypes of these chip satellites, named "Sprite," will be mounted on the International Space Station after the space shuttle Endeavour delivers them on its final flight, which is scheduled to launch at 3:47 p.m. EDT on Friday, April 29.

President Barack Obama and alumna U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, MRP '97, (D-Ariz.), who has not been seen publicly since the Jan. 8 attack in Tucson, Ariz., plan to attend the launch. The Endeavour crew is led by Commander Mark Kelly, Giffords' husband.

The thin, 1-inch-square chips, in development for three years in the lab of Mason Peck, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, will be mounted to the Materials International Space Station Experiment (MISSE-8) pallet, which will be attached to the space station, exposing them to the harsh conditions of space to see how they hold up and transmit data.

Although grapefruit-size satellites have been launched before, they have functioned much like larger satellites. The flight dynamics of a chip satellite are fundamentally different from these larger "CubeSats."

"Their small size allows them to travel like space dust," said Peck. "Blown by solar winds, they can 'sail' to distant locations without fuel. ... We're actually trying to create a new capability and build it from the ground up. ... We want to learn what's the bare minimum we can design for communication from space," Peck said.

When the MISSE-8 panel is removed and returned to Earth in a few years, the survival of the prototypes will be assessed.

SPINSTARS: the first polluters of the Universe

From the analysis of the chemical composition of some of the oldest stars in our Galaxy, an international team of astronomers led by Cristina Chiappini from the Leibniz-Institut für Astrophysik Potsdam (AIP) and the Instituto Nazionale di Astrofisica (INAF) presents new clues on the nature of the first stellar generations in our Universe.

“We think that the first generations of massive stars were very fast rotators – that’s why we called them spinstars”, explains Chiappini.

Their findings will be published in a Nature article on April 28, 2011.

Massive stars live fast and furious, and hence the first generations of massive stars in the Universe are already dead.

However, their chemical imprints, like fingerprints, can still be found today in the oldest stars in our Galaxy. These fossil records are thus the witnesses of the nature of the first stellar generations to pollute our Universe.

“It is like if we tried to reveal the character of a cook from the taste of his dishes”, says Prof. Georges Meynet, from the Geneva University.

How were these first stars? Were they different from the stars we observe today?

Soon after the Big Bang, the composition of the Universe was much simpler than at present as it was made of essentially only hydrogen and helium.

The chemical enrichment of the Universe with other elements had to wait around 300 million years until the fireworks started with the death of the first generations of massive stars, polluting the primordial gas with new chemical elements, which were later incorporated in the next generations of stars.

Using data from ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT), the astronomers reanalyzed spectra of a group of very old stars in the Galactic Bulge.

These stars are so old that only very massive, short-living stars with masses larger than around ten times the mass of our Sun should have had time to die and to pollute the gas from which these fossil records then formed.

As expected, the chemical composition of the observed stars showed elements typical for enrichment by massive stars.

However, the new analysis unexpectedly also revealed elements usually thought to be produced only by stars of smaller masses. Fast-rotating massive stars on the other hand would succeed in manufacturing these elements themselves.

“Alternative scenarios cannot yet be discarded - but - we show that if the first generations of massive stars were spinstars, this would offer a very elegant explanation to this puzzle!”, says Cristina Chiappini. Team member Urs Frischknecht, a PhD student at the Basel University, is already working on extending the stellar simulations in order to further test the proposed scenario.

The impact of having had an early generation of spinstars in the Universe is manifold. Fast rotation also affects other properties of a star, such as its colour, its lifetime and its luminosity. 

Spinstars would therefore also have strongly influenced the properties and appearance of the first galaxies which were formed in the Universe.

The existence of spinstars is now also supported by recent hydrodynamic simulations of the formation of the first stars of the universe by an independent research group.

Further information:
  • Original publication: Chiappini et al., Imprints of fast-rotating massive stars in the Galactic Bulge, to be published in Nature, 2011. (DOI: 10.1038/nature10000, publication date: April 28, 2011)
  • Leibniz-Institut für Astrophysik Potsdam (AIP) - www.aip.de

Thursday, April 28, 2011

NASA - The Moon, Earth's Satellite

This waxing gibbous moon with 83 percent of the disk illuminated was photographed by retired AT&T engineer and amateur photographer Ralph H. Bernstein on April 14, 2011, in Monmouth County, New Jersey.

A gibbous moon is but one of the moon's phases and occurs when the size of the illuminated portion is greater than half, but not yet a full moon.

A waxing gibbous moon is the period between a first quarter moon and a full moon, when the illuminated region of the moon is increasing each day.

Image Credit: Ralph H. Bernstein (Used by Permission)

USTR Report on Satellite Market Protectionism in China India

The U.S. government has again singled out China and India as nations that maintain barriers to foreign satellite service providersin order to protect domestic, government-owned satellite operators.

In its annual report on telecommunications trade agreements,the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) pays special attention to the state of the satellite services markets in the world’s two most populous nations, both of which are fast expanding their satellite telecommunications sectors.

The report concludes that not much has changed in either nation despite regular promises from their government agencies that tradebarriers would be eased.

The USTR report says U.S. organizations asked to provide an update on the situation in China and India found a continued “lack oftransparency in rules governing the provision of satellite capacity” in both nations. “The requirement to sell capacity only through government-owned satellite operators is problematic.”

In both nations, the end result is the same — a government roadblock to access to end users of satellite services that gives government-owned satellite operators a de facto monopoly on the business except in exceptional circumstances.

But China and India achieve this result in different ways.

The China Direct Broadcast Satellite Co., China DBSat —which was created in 2007 to merge China’s three domestic satellite fleet operators — is the sole company that has a satellite services operating license. Two Hong Kong companies that arepartly owned by the Chinese government — APT Satellite Holdings and AsiaSat —have access to the Chinese market. But both have reported difficulty inmaintaining their market shares in recent years for reasons that may reflect Chinese government policy more than decisions by customers.

In the case of India, the Indian Space ResearchOrganisation (ISRO), which is the nation’s space agency, operates a fleet ofInsat telecommunications satellites. ISRO has had trouble maintaining sufficient Insat capacity to meet India’s exploding demand forsatellite television, and in these circumstances it has permitted non-Indiansatellite fleet operators into the market.

But the market entry is done only through ISRO, meaning aforeign satellite operator must come to terms with its ostensible competitor, ISRO, in order to reach Indian customers. ISRO purchases the satellite bandwidth at prices it deems acceptable, and then resells it to customers.

In one of a dozen industry submissions that informed the USTR report, the U.S. Satellite Industry Association (SIA) said ISRO then adds its own charges to the initial satellite bandwidth price, making that capacity more expensive than what it would be without ISRO acting as a middleman.

“ISRO may structure contracts with the goal (explicitly stated at times) of moving the service to one of ISRO’s satellites oncecapacity is available,” the SIA said in its statement to USTR. “ISRO determinesthe rate at which the market grows.”

All this would appear at variance with India’s New Telecom Policy of 1999, which grants access by Indian customers to Indian and foreign satellite bandwidth, in coordination with India’s Department of Space. ISRO is part of the Department of Space.

SIA said that once Indian authorities have determined that the foreign satellite operator has completed broadcast frequency coordination with the Insat system — a procedure handled through the Geneva-based International Telecommunication Union, a U.N. affiliate — “there are no technical or commercial reasons why foreign satellite capacity should need tobe procured through [ISRO], a direct competitor of foreign satellite operators.

“Local users in Indiashould be allowed to contract directly with any satellite operator that has the ability to serve India,” SIA said in its statement.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

ESA GIOVE-B: Maser Atomic Clock ticking

Three years after ESA’s Galileo prototype GIOVE-B reached orbit, the passive hydrogen maser at its heart is still ticking away as the most precise atomic clock ever flown in space for navigation – that is, until the first Galileo satellites join it later this year.

Launched by Soyuz rocket from Baikonur in Kazakhstan on 27 April 2008, GIOVE-B was ESA’s second Galileo In-Orbit Validation Element satellite to fly. The first, GIOVE-A, made it to orbit on 28 December 2005.

The satellites had the same goals: secure the radio frequencies provisionally allocated to Europe’s Galileo satnav system by the International Telecommunications Union, gather data on the radiation environment of medium Earth orbit, and validate key Galileo payloads in orbit.


Hydrogen maser clock

Hydrogen maser clock
“GIOVE-B has now been in orbit for 36 months, nine months more than its nominal lifetime,” said Valter Alpe, overseeing GIOVE operations for ESA.

“Both satellites are still working well. GIOVE-A has reached 64 months in orbit. This longevity is partly due to an unusually mild solar cycle, but also reflects well on the operating margins built into their design.

“Most notably, GIOVE-B’s passive hydrogen maser – Europe’s main technological advance for Galileo – is still operating as precisely as planned.

We haven’t experienced any real surprises. As a result, much the same design is being used for the operational Galileo satellites.”

Read more of this story here at ESA portal

Astronaut Cady Colman Playing Flute Music in the ISS



Astronaut Katy Colman Playing Flute Music in the ESA Cupola of the ISS. She plays a silver flute from Ian Andreson (Jethro Tull), Matt Molloy's 100-year-old Irish flute and a tin whistle from paddy Maloney of the Chieftains.

You can also see and hear Astro Cady celebrating St Patrick's Day on the ISS - Watch the video

Ecuador: Tungurahua volcano erupts

The Tungurahua volcano expels molten lava and ash in this picture taken from Cotalo town, Ecuador.

DLR Measures Owl Wing Shape in Flight

The flight of birds is still largely unexplored; in particular, the movements performed during the beat of a wing and the airflow around the wing remain a puzzle to scientists.

The German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR), in collaboration with RWTH Aachen University (Rheinisch-Westfälische Technische Hochschule Aachen) and the German Armed Forces University in Munich (Universität der Bundeswehr München) is addressing this question.

Starting on 26 April 2011, the scientists will be photographing the wings of an owl while in flight inside a closed room at RTWH Aachen University to obtain information about the how the shape of the bird's wing changes during flight.

This calls for basic research. Since the launch of the project in 2008, the team of scientists has succeeded in studying owl wings during gliding flight; the forthcoming measurements will be focussing on the wing beat phase.

The results obtained will not only help to determine the airflow around the wing, enabling the flight of birds to be better understood, but will also be incorporated into modern aviation. "It's not as though we are going to apply these results to an A380 – its flight characteristics bear no resemblance to those of an owl.

But the research results can be applied to smaller, unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs," explains Andreas Dillmann, Head of the DLR Institute of Aerodynamics and Flow Technology.



Researching the sequence of movements in flight
It is not easy to study the shape of a bird's wing during flight. In contrast to a mechanical device, whose location is known, it is not possible to forecast where a living creature will be next.

"In some of the tests, the owl may fly slightly higher, or slightly lower; it all depends. Although this may cause difficulties, the owls should not be influenced in any way, since we want to ensure that the flight is as authentic as possible," explains Thomas Wolf from the DLR Institute of Aerodynamics and Flow Technology.

To determine the position of the owl in the room and the shape of its wing surface area, Wolf projects a pattern onto the upper and lower sides of the owl's wings and records it using state-of-the-art video technology.

Afterwards, he and his colleagues can assign various image points to this pattern on the computer, from which they can calculate the shape of the wing surface. This enables researchers to track the sequences of movements.

The optical measuring system has an accuracy of approximately 0.5 millimetres. The entire wing has been analysed during gliding flight, with the exception of the leading edge. Currently, the curvature of the wing prevents this part from being measured accurately; software to accomplish this is under development.


These trials will use eight cameras, four taking photographs from above and the other four from below. The dot pattern will be projected onto the wings of the owl from above and below as well.

This projector-based measuring system can also be useful for the aviation sector; some mechanical components, such as a turbine, cannot be 'painted' with patterns or templates for accurate measurement purposes – the paint would burn off when the turbine started.

However, if an optical measurement check for quality control purposes is required, it is possible to apply such a pattern through the use of projectors.

Read more here

NASA Chandra Observatory: Extraordinary Gamma-Ray burst

The center of this image contains an extraordinary gamma-ray burst (GRB) called GRB 110328A, observed with NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory.

This Chandra observation confirms the association of GRB 110328A with the core of a distant galaxy and shows that it was an exceptionally long lived and luminous event compared to other GRBs.

The red cross shows the position of a faint galaxy -- located about 3.8 billion light years from Earth -- observed with NASA's Hubble Space Telescope and the Gemini-North telescope on the ground.

Allowing for experimental errors, the position of the galaxy is indistinguishable from that of the X-ray source, showing that the source is located close to the middle of the galaxy.

This is consistent with the idea, suggested by some astronomers, that a star was torn apart by a supermassive black hole at the center of the galaxy.

This idea differs from the usual interpretation for a GRB, involving the production of a jet when a black hole or neutron star forms after the collapse of a massive star or a merger between two neutron stars.

Remarkably, this "tidal disruption" event may have been caught in real time, rather than detected later from analyzing archival observations. However, this X-ray source is about a hundred times brighter than previously observed tidal disruptions.

One possible explanation for this very bright radiation is that debris from the disrupted star fell towards the black hole in a disk and the swirling, magnetized matter generated intense electromagnetic fields that created a powerful jet of particles.

If this jet is pointed toward Earth it would boost the observed brightness of the source. This scenario has already been suggested by observers to explain the bright and variable X-ray emission observed by NASA's Swift telescope.

This observation was part of a so-called target of opportunity, or TOO, led by Andrew Levan from the University of Warwick in the UK. A TOO allows the telescope to react quickly to unpredictable cosmic events, within 24 hours in some situations.

Chandra scientists and engineers can decide to alter the scheduled observations and instead point the telescope to another target if the circumstances warrant it. This process was put into place once the discovery of GRB 110328A with Swift was announced on March 28th, 2011.

The Chandra team was able to reset the telescope's schedule to observe GRB 110328A early in the morning of Monday, April 4th for a period of just over four hours.

Credits: NASA/CXC/Warwick/A.Levan et al.

NASA Chandra Observatory: Tycho Supernova Remnant

This image comes from a very deep Chandra observation of the Tycho supernova remnant, produced by the explosion of a white dwarf star in our Galaxy.

Low-energy X-rays (red) in the image show expanding debris from the supernova explosion and high energy X-rays (blue) show the blast wave, a shell of extremely energetic electrons.

These high-energy X-rays show a pattern of X-ray "stripes" never previously seen in a supernova remnant.

Some of the brightest stripes can also directly be seen in the full color image, on the right side of the remnant pointing from the outer rim to the interior. The stellar background is from the Digitized Sky Survey and only shows stars outside the remnant.

These stripes may provide the first direct evidence that supernova remnants can accelerate particles to energies a hundred times higher than achieved by the most powerful particle accelerator on Earth, the Large Hadron Collider.

The results could explain how some of the extremely energetic particles bombarding the Earth, called cosmic rays, are produced, and they provide support for a theory about how magnetic fields can be dramatically amplified in such blast waves.

The X-ray stripes are thought to be regions where the turbulence is greater and the magnetic fields more tangled than surrounding areas. Electrons become trapped in these regions and emit X-rays as they spiral around the magnetic field lines.

Regions with enhanced turbulence and magnetic fields were expected in supernova remnants, but the motion of the most energetic particles -- mostly protons -- was predicted to leave a messy network of holes and dense walls corresponding to weak and strong regions of magnetic fields, respectively. Therefore, the detection of stripes was a surprise.

The size of the holes was expected to correspond to the radius of the spiraling motion of the highest energy protons in the supernova remnant. These energies equal the highest energies of cosmic rays thought to be produced in our Galaxy.

The spacing between the stripes corresponds to this size, providing evidence for the existence of these extremely energetic protons.

The Tycho supernova remnant is named for the famous Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, who reported observing the supernova in 1572. It is located in the Milky Way, about 13,000 light years from Earth.

Because of its proximity and intrinsic brightness, the supernova was so bright that it could be seen during the daytime with the naked eye.

Credits: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Rutgers/K.Eriksen et al.; Optical: DSS

Chinese Space Station - Preview


While China has nominally operated a space program for more than 50 years, it’s only in the last decade that the country was independently able to put a human in space.

In 2003, the China National Space Administration managed to launch a Shenzhou spacecraft, along with a single crew member, out of the Earth’s atmosphere. His successful reentry marked the beginning of the era of the “Taikonaut.”

In 2011, the CNSA is looking forward–far forward–to the next step in its still-nascent manned space program. China, its leaders would like you to know, is serious about building a space station.

Today, the China Manned Space Engineering Office (CMSEO) started soliciting names for its space station, in an effort to further popularize its renewed efforts and spending on manned space exploration. (Previously it has been referred to as the Tiangong station.)

It’s a fun idea, sure. But what about the actual plan? What will this station look like? When will it be ready? How will it be resupplied? Here’s what we know so far:

The hardware: To a layperson, mockups of China’s space station look a great deal like the International Space Station. It’s comprised of multiple narrow sections connected at right angles, with protruding rectangular solar panels.

This superficial resemblance is easily explained: a space station is built from many different modules, each completed on the ground and launched separately. In these early renderings, you can see a number of discrete units.

The station’s specifications, however, are substantially different from those of the ISS. Here’s what we know:
  • The core module (the long center portion) is 18.1 meters long, with a maximum diameter of about 4 meters.

  • The laboratory modules, which stick out from the side of the core module, are each about 14 meters long.

  • The entire assembly will weigh 60 tons.


  • To put these numbers in context, the ISS weighs nearly 420 tons and measures in at over 100 meters in length. China’s space station, even compared to the much smaller Mir, will be a bit of a runt.

    The timeframe: Such estimations are virtually guaranteed to change, but here’s the official line: The space station is due to be completed by “around 2020,” which is when the ISS is tentatively scheduled to end its mission.

    This is a fairly ambitious target, at least when viewed in the context of the leisurely pace at which Western space programs execute projects. But if China is willing to spend enough effort and money on the program, it’s not an implausible estimate.

    For reference, in-orbit construction of the ISS looks like it will end up taking just about 15 years. The station was announced in 1993, five years before in-orbit construction started. In-orbit construction on this project is scheduled to start within the year.

    The extras: The two largest parties in the construction of the ISS both had preexisting technology available not just to build the station, but to maintain it, and to shuttle humans back and forth. On this front, China has a lot of work to do. According to Xinhua:
    According to the schedule, a space module Tiangong-1 and the Shenzhou VIII spacecraft will be launched in the latter half of this year in the first unmanned rendezvous and docking mission. Shenzhou IX and Shenzhou X will be launched next year to dock with Tiangong-1. But problems in ensuring long-term missions for astronauts need to be overcome. Wang Zhaoyao, spokesman for the program, said that developing technology needed to guarantee mid-term missions in space (a stay of at least 20 days), and developing cargo supply technology will be among the tasks to be met during the 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-2015) period.
    The Chinese space program has succeeded multiple times at sending men to space, but has yet to demonstrate the technology necessary to keep them there for long periods of time.

    Once fully developed, however, these new shuttles could serve at a catalyst for a broader expansion of China’s space ambitions. In particular, they could help fulfill one of the country’s stated ambitions: to visit the moon.

    Image credit: China Daily

    Tuesday, April 26, 2011

    Mountain View SETI Instutute Loses Funding - Mothball Allen Telescope Array

    Lacking the money to pay its operating expenses, Mountain View's SETI Institute has pulled the plug on the renowned Allen Telescope Array, a field of radio dishes that scan the skies for signals from extraterrestrial civilizations.

    In an April 22 letter to donors, SETI Institute CEO Tom Pierson said that last week the array was put into "hibernation," safe but nonfunctioning, because of inadequate government support.

    The timing couldn't be worse, say SETI scientists. After millenniums of musings, this spring astronomers announced that 1,235 new possible planets had been observed by Kepler, a telescope on a space satellite.

    They predict that dozens of these planets will be Earth-sized -- and some will be in the "habitable zone," where the temperatures are just right for liquid water, a prerequisite of life as we know it.

    "There is a huge irony," said SETI Director Jill Tarter, "that a time when we discover so many planets to look at, we don't have the operating funds to listen."

    SETI senior astronomer Seth Shostak compared the project's suspension to "the Niña, Pinta and Santa Maria being put into dry dock. "...

    This is about exploration, and we want to keep the thing operational. It's no good to have it sit idle.

    "We have the radio antennae up, but we can't run them without operating funds," he added. "Honestly, if everybody contributed just 3 extra cents on their 1040 tax forms, we could find out if we have cosmic company."

    The SETI Institute's mission is to explore the origin, nature and prevalence of life in the universe. This is a profound search, it believes, because it explains our place among the stars.

    The program, located on U.S. Forest Service land near Mount Lassen, uses telescopes to listen for anything out of the ordinary -- a numerical sequence of "beeps," say, or crackly dialogue from an alien version of a disembodied "Charlie" talking to his "Angels." The entire program was set up to prove what once seemed unthinkable: In the universe, we are not alone.

    Lack of funding
    But funding for SETI has long been a headache for E.T.-seekers. NASA bankrolled some early projects, but in 1994, Sen. Richard Bryan of Nevada convinced Congress that it wasn't worth the cost, calling it the "Great Martian Chase" and complaining that not a single flying saucer had applied for FAA approval.

    However, successful private funding came from donors such as Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, allowing SETI to raise $50 million to build the 42 dishes.

    Plans called for construction of 350 individual radio antennas, all working
    in concert. But what's lacking now is funding to support the day-to-day costs of running the dishes.

    This is the responsibility of UC Berkeley's Radio Astronomy Laboratory, but one of the university's major funders, the National Science Foundation, supplied only one-tenth its previous support. Meanwhile, the state of California has also cut funding.

    About $5 million is needed over the next two years, according to Tarter. She hopes the U.S. Air Force will help, because the array can be used to track satellite-threatening debris in space. But budgets are tight there as well.

    Astronomers mourn
    The Allen array is not the only radio telescope facility that can be used for SETI searches. But it is the best; elsewhere, scientists have to borrow time on other telescopes.

    Meanwhile, other SETI projects will continue, such as the "setiQuest Explorer" (www.setiquest.org), an application that allows citizen scientist volunteers to look for patterns from existing data that might have been missed by existing algorithms. Through a new partnership with "Galaxy Zoo" (www.galaxyzoo.org), this project runs in real time, so discoveries can be followed up on immediately.

    Bay Area astronomers mourned the hiatus of the SETI program and expressed concern about the future.

    Rob Hawley of the Peninsula Astronomical Society called it "unfortunate. The Allen scope was a wonderful experiment. "... Hubble gets all the press, but there are lots of limitations."

    Amateur astronomer Sarah Wiehe of Palo Alto said, "just knowing SETI is there was significant for us. This is a setback."

    "If we miss a distant signal," she added, "it would be a terrible loss."

    what it means
    SETI's mission to explore the prevalence of life in the universe, including about 1,235 possible planets recently discovered, is compromised, according to scientists.

    what's next
    The program needs about $5 million over the next two years to support the telescope facility.

    online extra
    To learn more about SETI and its programs, go to www.seti.org 



    You can also check out the Guardian article here

    ESO Image: Rare green flash on the moon

    A rare green flash on the moon is captured by ESO Electronics Engineer Gerhard Hudeepohl using European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope in Chile.

    The effect is caused by the Earth's atmosphere bending or refracting light. The effect is greater in the lower, denser layers of the atmosphere.

    ESO explains: "Shorter wavelengths of light are bent more than longer wavelengths, so that the green light from the Sun or moon appears to be coming from a slightly higher position than the orange and red light, from the point of view of an observer.

    When the conditions are just right, with an additional mirage effect due to the temperature gradient in the atmosphere, the elusive green flash is briefly visible at the upper edge of the solar or lunar disc when it is close to the horizon."

    NASA Endeavour Shuttle: Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) from CERN

    Shuttle on launchpad

    NASA's Endeavour space shuttle - Image courtesy of NASA.

    On 29 April the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) is due to travel into space on board NASA's Endeavour shuttle.

    The AMS detector will be installed as an external module to the international space station where it will study the Universe and its origin by searching for antimatter and dark matter while performing precision measurements of the composition and flux of cosmic rays.

    The AMS detector was developed by an international collaboration of over 600 scientists led by Nobel laureate Samuel Ting and assembled at CERN.

    You can follow a live webcast of the launch broadcast direct from CERN beginning at 9:30pm (local time, Geneva).

    NASA ISS Image: Rivers of sand on border between Libya, Egypt and Sudan

    Rivers of sand on border between Libya, Egypt and Sudan

    Monday, April 25, 2011

    Our Pale Blue Spot - Our Planet Earth

    Soar On the Wings of an Eagle - Video

    Intelsat New Dawn Launch Successful: Expands Africa’s Communications Infrastructure

    Intelsat S.A., the world’s leading provider of fixed satellite services, announced today that Arianespace successfully launched the Intelsat New Dawn satellite.

    The Ariane 5 vehicle lifted off from Kourou, French Guiana, at 5:37 p.m. (EDT), followed by spacecraft separation from the launch vehicle at 6:12 p.m. and signal acquisition at 6:29 p.m.

    The Intelsat New Dawn satellite is owned by a joint venture between a consortium led by Convergence Partners and Intelsat.

    The satellite’s 28 C-band and 24 Ku-band 36 MHz transponder units are designed specifically to supply critical communications infrastructure for African customers, who have experienced exceptional growth along with the development of the region.

    Operating from a geostationary orbital slot at 32.8° East, Intelsat New Dawn will be ideally positioned to serve Africa through a payload optimized to deliver new capacity for voice, wireless backhaul, fixed line and wireless infrastructure, broadband and media– the fastest growing satellite-based applications in Africa.

    “Intelsat and the African continent share a 40-year history in the development of Africa’s telecommunications infrastructure,” said Dave McGlade, Intelsat CEO.

    “Intelsat New Dawn will be integrated with the resilient Intelsat fleet, allowing us to expand and enhance the vital communications services that are provided by our customers to business consumers throughout Africa.”

    Andile Ngcaba, Chairman of Convergence Partners, said, “The satellite will not only deliver crucial services specifically tailored for Africa, it will also herald the dawn of a new era where Africans enjoy far greater involvement in the space communications industry.”

    ESA Ariane 5: Second successful launch for 2011

    An Ariane 5 launcher has lifted off from Europe's Spaceport in French Guiana on its mission to place two telecommunications satellites, Yahsat Y1A and Intelsat New Dawn, into their planned transfer orbits. Flight VA201 was the second Ariane 5 launch of 2011.

    Liftoff of the 57th Ariane 5 mission came at 23:37 CEST (21:37 GMT; 18:37 French Guiana) on Friday night.

    The target injection orbit had a perigee altitude of 250 km, an apogee altitude at injection of 35 962 km and an inclination of 6 degrees.

    The satellites were accurately injected into their transfer orbits about 27 minutes and 35 minutes after liftoff, respectively.

    Yahsat Y1A will be positioned above the equator at 52.5E. It will provide innovative broadband solutions for Internet, business data and high-definition television services to institutional and commercial customers in the Middle East, Africa, Europe and Southeast Asian.

    Intelsat New Dawn, to be positioned over 32.8E, will offer a wide range of services to Africa, including telephony, Internet, media and data networks.

    The payload mass for this launch was 10 064 kg; the satellites totalled 8965 kg, with payload adapters and dispensers making up the additional 1099 kg.

    With a total mass of over 10 t, it is the heaviest payload ever launched by an Ariane 5 ECA. This was made possible by detailed post-flight analyses to fully exploit the propulsion potential of each stage. Further performance increases are in the pipeline to keep up with the trend towards heavier telecom satellites.

    Arianespace and Europe's Spaceport are planning four more Ariane launches in 2011, maintaining the heavy-lift vehicle's flight rate.

    NASA MARS Recon Orbiter: Big Changes in Mars' Atmosphere

    NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has discovered the total amount of atmosphere on Mars changes dramatically as the tilt of the planet's axis varies.

    This process can affect the stability of liquid water, if it exists on the Martian surface, and increase the frequency and severity of Martian dust storms.

    Researchers using the orbiter's ground-penetrating radar identified a large, buried deposit of frozen carbon dioxide, or dry ice, at the Red Planet's south pole.

    The scientists suspect that much of this carbon dioxide enters the planet's atmosphere and swells the atmosphere's mass when Mars' tilt increases. The findings are published in this week's issue of the journal Science.

    The newly found deposit has a volume similar to Lake Superior's nearly 3,000 cubic miles (about 12,000 cubic kilometers). The deposit holds up to 80 percent as much carbon dioxide as today's Martian atmosphere.

    Collapse pits caused by dry ice sublimation and other clues suggest the deposit is in a dissipating phase, adding gas to the atmosphere each year. Mars' atmosphere is about 95 percent carbon dioxide, in contrast to Earth's much thicker atmosphere, which is less than .04 percent carbon dioxide.

    "We already knew there is a small perennial cap of carbon-dioxide ice on top of the water ice there, but this buried deposit has about 30 times more dry ice than previously estimated," said Roger Phillips of Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo. Phillips is deputy team leader for the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's Shallow Radar instrument and lead author of the report.

    "We identified the deposit as dry ice by determining the radar signature fit the radio-wave transmission characteristics of frozen carbon dioxide far better than the characteristics of frozen water," said Roberto Seu of Sapienza University of Rome, team leader for the Shallow Radar and a co-author of the new report. Additional evidence came from correlating the deposit to visible sublimation features typical of dry ice.

    "When you include this buried deposit, Martian carbon dioxide right now is roughly half frozen and half in the atmosphere, but at other times it can be nearly all frozen or nearly all in the atmosphere," Phillips said.

    An occasional increase in the atmosphere would strengthen winds, lofting more dust and leading to more frequent and more intense dust storms. Another result is an expanded area on the planet's surface where liquid water could persist without boiling. Modeling based on known variation in the tilt of Mars' axis suggests several-fold changes in the total mass of the planet's atmosphere can happen on time frames of 100,000 years or less.

    The changes in atmospheric density caused by the carbon-dioxide increase also would amplify some effects of the changes caused by the tilt.

    Researchers plugged the mass of the buried carbon-dioxide deposit into climate models for the period when Mars' tilt and orbital properties maximize the amount of summer sunshine hitting the south pole. They found at such times, global, year-round average air pressure is approximately 75 percent greater than the current level.

    "A tilted Mars with a thicker carbon-dioxide atmosphere causes a greenhouse effect that tries to warm the Martian surface, while thicker and longer-lived polar ice caps try to cool it," said co-author Robert Haberle, a planetary scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif. "Our simulations show the polar caps cool more than the greenhouse warms.

    ISRO: India's GSLV Lost due to weak Russian Cryogenic Engine Connector

    The destruction of India's (ISRO) Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) in mid air in 2010 was due to an inherent weakness in a component in the Russian supplied cryogenic engine.


    "We did several simulation tests to find out why the connectors - the wires that carry command signals from the onboard computers at the top to the rocket's engines down below - snapped," former ISRO chief Madhavan Nair told IANS.

    Nair, who headed the Failure Analysis Committee, said the 12-member panel submitted its report to ISRO two weeks back.

    According to ISRO, the failed component, called shroud, was made of composites and is part of the Russian cryogenic engine. It got deformed due to the flight load.

    ISRO's 418-tonne GSLV rocket (cost Rs.175 crore) carrying advanced communication satellite GSAT-5P (weight 2,310 kg, cost Rs.150 crore) veered off its flight path and began disintegrating within a minute after lift-off from Sriharikota in Andhra Pradesh last Christmas day.

    As the weakness was inherent in the shroud, Nair said ISRO should have a dialogue with the Russians to see how the component could be strengthened.

    Informed sources told IANS that even in the GSLV-F04 rocket launched in 2007, one of the connectors also snapped because of a weak shroud.

    "The fault has always been there from the first GSLV that flew with the Russian cryogenic engine in 2001. The weakness in the shroud was detected by ISRO on December 25 last year," a source told IANS.

    Roscosmos: SpaceX cannot dock with ISS

    Russia will not permit the first U.S. commercial spacecraft to dock with the International Space Station (ISS) unless its safety is fully tested, a high-ranking official with Russia's space agency Roscosmos said on Friday.

    "We will not issue docking permission unless the necessary level of reliability and safety [of the spacecraft] is proven. So far we have no proof that those spacecraft duly comply with the accepted norms of spaceflight safety," said Alexei Krasov, who heads the manned spaceflight department of Roscosmos.

    The statement comes in the wake of media reports that the spacecraft's designer, U.S. company SpaceX, requested NASA to authorize the docking in December.

    Sunday, April 24, 2011

    Saturday, April 23, 2011

    Sapolsky Breaks Down Depression



    Robert Sapolsky, a Stanford biologist, is currently one of the most publicly accessible science writers in the country, perhaps best known for his book on stress, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. In the lecture above, Sapolsky takes a hard look at depression.

    The topic is a little heavy. I’ll grant that. But, it’s also important. As Sapolsky is quick to point out, depression is pervasive and getting worse. Currently, it’s the 4th greatest cause of disability worldwide, and it will soon become the 2nd. For Sapolsky, depression is deeply biological; it is rooted in biology, just like, say, diabetes.

    Here, you will see how depression changes the body. When depressed, our brains function differently while sleeping, our stress response goes way up 24/7, our biochemistry levels change, etc. Given the pervasiveness of depression, this video is well worth a watch.

    Thursday, April 21, 2011

    NASA HST Image: Galactic liaisons

    April 24th marks the Hubble Space Telescope's 21st anniversary in space. To celebrate, NASA has released this new image of two interacting galaxies.

    It contains clues about a past rendez-vous, and hints of a third, hidden object.

    The disc of the upper, spiral galaxy, called UGC1810, has been distorted by the gravitational pull of the smaller galaxy below.

    The position of its long outer arm is likely to have come about when the smaller galaxy dived deep, and slightly off-centre, through UGC1810.

    Meanwhile, the nucleus of the smaller galaxy, UGC1813 shows intense star formation, also a result of its encounter with the larger galaxy.

    Now look closer and a possible third galaxy can be spotted in the top right of the image, nestled between the ends of the two outermost arms of UGC1810. The give-aways are a mini-spiral and several clusters of young, blue stars.

    The image is just one of the thousands released by Hubble over its working life. "After all this time, new Hubble images still inspire awe and are a testament to the extraordinary work of the many people behind the world's most famous observatory," said Charles Bolden, who piloted the Discovery space shuttle as it deployed Hubble in 1990, and is now NASA administrator.

    Saturn's Moon Enceladus Particle Stream

    This artist's concept shows a glowing patch of ultraviolet light near Saturn's north pole that occurs at the "footprint" of the magnetic connection between Saturn and its moon Enceladus. The magnetic field lines and the footprint are not visible to the naked eye, but were detected by the ultraviolet imaging spectrograph and fields and particles instruments on board NASA's Cassini spacecraft.
    CREDIT: Ken Moscati and Abi Rymer, JHUAPL Including data from NASA/JPL/JHUAPL/University of Colorado/Central Arizona College/SSI



    A shimmering patch of light as big as Sweden detected at the north pole of Saturn is the spectacular result of a giant stream of electrically charged particles from the planet's moon Enceladus, scientists find.

    On Earth, surges of charged particles from the sun colliding with our planet's magnetic field create the northern and southern lights, or auroras.

    Similar patches of light have been seen on Jupiter, caused by electrons and ions originating from that planet's volcanically active moon Io.

    Saturn also has its own aurora light show, which is created when solar particles from the sun interact with the planet's magnetic field. The new study, however, is the first time astronomers have caught a Saturn moon creating auroras on the ringed planet.

    NASA ASTER Imgae: Alaska’s Susitna Glacier

    Like rivers of liquid water, glaciers flow downhill, with tributaries joining to form larger rivers but where water rushes, ice crawls.

    As a result, glaciers gather dust and dirt, and bear long-lasting evidence of past movements.

    Alaska's Susitna Glacier revealed some of its long, grinding journey when the Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER) on NASA’s Terra satellite passed overhead on Aug. 27, 2009.

    This satellite image combines infrared, red and green wavelengths to form a false-color image. Vegetation is red and the glacier's surface is marbled with dirt-free blue ice and dirt-coated brown ice.

    Infusions of relatively clean ice push in from tributaries in the north. The glacier surface appears especially complex near the center of the image, where a tributary has pushed the ice in the main glacier slightly southward.

    Susitna flows over a seismically active area. In fact, a 7.9-magnitude quake struck the region in November 2002, along a previously unknown fault. Geologists surmised that earthquakes had created the steep cliffs and slopes in the glacier surface, but in fact most of the jumble is the result of surges in tributary glaciers.

    Glacier surges--typically short-lived events where a glacier moves many times its normal rate--can occur when melt water accumulates at the base and lubricates the flow.

    This water may be supplied by meltwater lakes that accumulate on top of the glacier; some are visible in the lower left corner of this image. The underlying bedrock can also contribute to glacier surges, with soft, easily deformed rock leading to more frequent surges.

    Image Credit: NASA/GSFC/METI/ERSDAC/JAROS, and U.S./Japan ASTER Science

    Schizophrenia cells grown in petrie jar

    For a century, the mechanisms that underlie the neuropsychiatric condition schizophrenia have elude scientists. It’s hard to understand the cellular and molecular abnormalities when you only have postmortem brain samples to work with.



    But alas, using skin cells from schizophrenic patients, researchers have created schizophrenia in a dish!

    “This is the first time that a complex mental disease has been modeled in live human cells,” says study leader Fred Gage of Salk Institute for Biological Studies.

    Schizophrenia combines paranoid delusions, auditory hallucinations, and diminished cognitive function. It affects about 3 million people in the US, and now, researchers can look at live neurons from schizophrenia patients and screen for drugs that may reverse it.

    “Nobody knows how much the environment contributes to the disease,” explains Kristen Brennand of Salk. “By growing neurons in a dish, we can take the environment out of the equation, and start focusing on the underlying biological problems.”
    1. The team took skin cells from 4 schizophrenic patients and reprogrammed those into stem cells, which differentiated into neurons (pictured).
    2. They saw that these neurons displayed some of the same types of cellular abnormalities seen in neurons from schizophrenic patients, including fewer connections between neurons and some altered gene expression.
    3. The researchers also performed an analysis of gene activity in the cells, and they identified nearly 600 genes that have activity different from cells taken from people without schizophrenia. Only about a quarter of these have been previously identified with postmortem tissue.
    4. The team also tested the brain cells with 5 antipsychotic drugs: clozapine, loxapine, olanzapine, risperidone and thioridazine. They discovered that only loxapine increased the neurons’ ability to reach out and connect with their neighbors.
    “For many years, mental illness has been thought of as a social or environmental disease, and many thought that if affected people just worked through their problems, they could overcome them,” says Gage. “What we are showing are real biological dysfunctions in neurons that are independent of the environment.”

    The study was published in Nature last week, and it was partly funded by Sanofi-Aventis.

    Image: Kristen Brennand / Salk Institute for Biological Studies

    NASA ISS Image: Lake Frome, Australia

    Lake Frome is a large endorheic lake in South Australia, east of the Northern Flinders Ranges.

    It is a large, shallow, unvegetated salt pan, 100 km long and 40 km wide, lying mostly below sea level and having a total surface area of 259,615 hectares.

    It only rarely fills with brackish water flowing down usually dry creeks in the Northern Flinders Ranges from the west, or exceptional flows down the Strzelecki Creek from the north.

    It was named after Edward Charles Frome after his mapping of the area in 1843.

    Picture courtesy of NASA.

    NASA ISS Image: Agathonisi, Greece

    Beautiful Agathonisi, Greece

    Tuesday, April 19, 2011

    F-35 Lightning full mission simulator

    The F-35 Lightning II Full Mission Simulator includes a high-fidelity 360-degree visual display system and a reconfigurable cockpit. Now that's what I call a games console!


    Eglin Air Force Base has just taken delivery of a piece of hardware that would surely be the ultimate toy for flight sim gaming fans.

    The F-35 Lightning II Full Mission Simulator (FMS) system includes a high-fidelity 360-degree visual display system and a reconfigurable cockpit that can simulate all three variants of the F-35 Lightning II for U.S. and international partner services – the conventional takeoff and landing (CTOL) F-35A, the short takeoff and vertical landing (STOVL) F-35B, and the F-35C carrier variant.

    Cavalon gyrocopter

    The newest addition to the gyrocopter genre arrived at Aero Friedrichshafen this week in the form of a side-by-side, fully-enclosed, composite construction Cavalon gyrocopter.

    The gyrocopter is to the helicopter what the microlight is to traditional small aircraft.

    Invented in 1923 by Spaniard Juan de la Cierva, the gyrocopter uses quite a different layout to the helicopter to give it stability at low speed.

    It is cheap to run, takes off and lands on a ridiculously small footprint, and has a powered pusher propeller in addition to an unpowered main rotor.

    Certification for the EUR65,000 Cavalon is almost complete in Germany and France, and AutoGyro will assist with certification documentation for other countries. Additionally, there are still ten units up for grabs in this year's production run.

    The closest competitor to the Cavalon is the Xenon gyrocopter built in Poland, though the Xenon has the one-axle cyclic control while the Cavalon has a two-stick arrangement and the Cavalon stores its fuel outside the cabin.

    Japan's JAXA HTV "Kounotori" photo on orbi

    Japan's JAXA HTV "Kounotori" photo in orbit attached to ISS.


    This ECO vehicle gets 2,564.8 miles per gallon

    Students from the Université Laval in Quebec, Canada won the internal combustion crown in Shell’s Eco-marathon with a prototype vehicle that got 2,564.8 miles per gallon (above).

    Shell’s fifth annual Eco-marathon Americas is a challenge for students to design, build and test fuel-efficient vehicles.

    NASA ISS Image: Hurricane Earl

    The relatively placid view from the International Space Station belied the potent forces at work in Hurricane Earl as it hovered northeast of Puerto Rico on Aug. 30, 2010.

    With maximum sustained winds of 135 miles (215 kilometers) per hour, the storm was classified as a category 4 on the Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale as it passed north of the Virgin Islands.

    In this photograph captured with a digital SLR camera by NASA astronaut Douglas Wheelock, Earl had a distinct eye that spanned about 17 miles (28 kilometers).

    Most of the storm had a seemingly uniform top, though the bottom edge of the image gives some sense of the towering thunderheads forming over the ocean. The solar panels of the ISS remind us that the sun is still shining, at least on ISS Expedition 24.

    "Hurricane Earl is gathering some serious strength," Wheelock wrote from his perch on ISS. "It is incredible what a difference a day makes when you’re dealing with this force of nature. Please keep a watchful eye on this one...not sure if Earl will go quietly into the night like Danielle."

    Image Credit: NASA

    NASA awards $269 million for commercial crew program

    Hopeful commercial spacecraft will be ready to carry humans into orbit by the middle of this decade.

    NASA awarded $269.3 million Monday to four companies designing and testing components for private space transportation vehicles.

    Boeing Co. will receive $92.3 million from the development announcement, the largest of the four agreements unveiled by NASA.

    Sierra Nevada Corp. captured $80 million, SpaceX was awarded $75 million and Blue Origin will get $22 million, according to NASA.

    The funds were made available by the federal budget passed by Congress and signed into law last week.

    Each company signed Space Act Agreements for NASA to provide government funding when the firms achieve major milestones such as design reviews and hardware tests. The agreements run through approximately May 2012.

    The announcements begin the second round of NASA's Commercial Crew Development, or CCDev, program designed to pay seed money to U.S. companies developing rockets and spacecraft for human passengers.

    "Given enough time and money, I'm confident that multiple U.S. companies can develop safe, reliable and cost-effective commercial crew transportation systems," said Phil McAlister, NASA's acting director of commercial spaceflight development.

    The CCDev 2 funding will go toward maturing the designs of each company's vehicle and testing key systems on the ground, according to Ed Mango, manager of NASA's commercial crew program.

    "We are targeting the middle part of this decade to hopefully have services available for purchase," McAlister said. "That is very much dependent on funding and technical progress on the partners."

    NASA is working with private industry to provide crew transportation services to the International Space Station and other destinations in low Earth orbit while the government focuses on deep space exploration. Once the space shuttle is retired this summer, NASA astronauts will ride Russian Soyuz vehicles into orbit until a U.S. alternative is available.

    "We're committed to safely transporting U.S. astronauts on American-made spacecraft and ending the outsourcing of this work to foreign governments," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said. "These agreements are significant milestones in NASA's plans to take advantage of American ingenuity to get to low Earth orbit, so we can concentrate our resources on deep space exploration."

    Monday, April 18, 2011

    NASA ISS Image: Bahamas Tongue

    Though the above image may resemble a new age painting straight out of an art gallery in Venice Beach, California, it is in fact a satellite image of the sands and seaweed in the Bahamas.

    The top image was taken by the crew of the ISS and the second image was taken by the Enhanced Thematic Mapper plus (ETM+) instrument aboard the Landsat 7 satellite.

    Tides and ocean currents in the Bahamas sculpted the sand and seaweed beds into these multicolored, fluted patterns in much the same way that winds sculpted the vast sand dunes in the Sahara Desert.

    Image courtesy Serge Andrefouet, University of South Florida

    Scientists develop compound that effectively halts progression of multiple sclerosis in animals

    Scientists from the Florida campus of The Scripps Research Institute have developed the first of a new class of highly selective compounds that effectively suppresses the severity of multiple sclerosis in animal models.

    The new compound could provide new and potentially more effective therapeutic approaches to multiple sclerosis and other autoimmune diseases that affect patients worldwide.

    The study appeared April 17, 2011, in an advance online edition of the journal Nature.

    Current treatments for autoimmunity suppress the patient’s entire immune system, leaving patients vulnerable to a range of adverse side effects. Because the new compound, known as SR1001, only blocks the actions of a specific cell type playing a significant role in autoimmunity, it appears to avoid many of the widespread side effects of current therapies.

    “This is a novel drug that works effectively in animal models with few side effects,” said Tom Burris, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Molecular Therapeutics at Scripps Florida who led the study, which was a multidisciplinary collaboration with scientists including Patrick Griffin, William Roush, and Ted Kamenecka of Scripps Research, and Paul Drew of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. “We have been involved in several discussions with both pharmaceutical and biotechnology firms who are very interested in developing it further.”

    A lengthy process of drug development and review is required to ensure a new drug’s safety and efficacy before it can be brought to market.

    “This impressive multidisciplinary team has used a combined structural and functional approach to describe a class of molecules that could lead to new medicines for treating autoimmune diseases,” said Charles
    Edmonds, Ph.D. who oversees structural biology grants at the National Institutes of Health. “Breakthroughs such as this highlight the value of scientists with diverse expertise joining forces to solve important biological problems that have the potential to benefit human health.”

    Read more of the article here: Scientists develop compound that effectively halts progression of multiple sclerosis | Science Blog

    Read the paper in Nature here: