Friday, March 30, 2012

Aurora Australis from Space Station - Video



ESA Astronaut, André Kuipers took this video of Aurora Australis from the European Cupola module in the Space Station.

The beautiful phenomenon is caused by bursts of particles from the Sun pouring down Earth’s magnetic field into the atmosphere.

ESA Astronaut Andre Kuipers' floating inside the ATV-3

ESA Astronaut Andre Kuipers' first time floating inside the ESA ATV-3, Edoardo Amaldi. 

He is wearing a mask and protective glasses as a safety precaution, just in case the air is bad or there is hazardous material or dust floating around inside. Fortunately, all was ok.

Credit: ESA/NASA

NASA SDO Solar Storms: Towering solar tornado discovered on the Sun - Video



Space scientists have observed a powerful tornado many times wider than the Earth spinning in the Sun's atmosphere.

The event filmed from a satellite revealed superheated gas as hot as 50,000 – 2,000,000 Kelvin spiralling upwards at speeds of up to 300,000km per hour. Air in similar whirlwinds on Earth can reach 150km per hour.

The solar super-tornado was discovered by astronomers Dr Xing Li and Dr Huw Morgan, of Aberystwyth University, Wales.

They showed a movie of the monster, captured on September 25, 2011, using the Atmospheric Imaging Assembly telescope on board NASA's Solar Dynamic Observatory in space, at the National Astronomy Meeting in Manchester.

Dr Morgan said: "This unique and spectacular tornado must play a role in triggering global solar storms."

The tornadoes often occur at the root of huge coronal mass ejections - solar storms that, when aimed towards Earth can damage satellites and even knock out the electricity grid."

Scientists have found that solar tornadoes drag winding magnetic field and electric currents into the high atmosphere of the Sun. It is possible that the magnetic field and currents play a key role in driving CMEs.

Solar Dynamic Observatory was launched in February 2010 and is in a circular, geosynchronous orbit around the Earth at an altitude of 36,000 kilometres. It monitors constantly solar variations to help scientists understand the cause of the change and eventually have a capability to predict the space weather.

The Manchester meeting also heard that the UK's Met Office is to extend its services to forecast weather in space and on other planets.

The UK weathermen are adapting their predictive tool, called the Unified Model, to help understand the impact of solar storms on the Earth as well as what goes on in the atmospheres of exoplanets around other stars.

When they eventually examine rocky Earth-like planets, the process could even reveal whether there is a biosphere and evidence of alien life.

ESA ATV-3, Edoardo Amaldi docks with ISS - Image

ESA supply vehicle, ATV-3, Edoardo Amaldi, approaches the ISS in a remote docking manoeuvre. 

You can see the glow from the stabilising thruster jets and the spotlight illuminating the scene.

MARS: Dusty, Acidic Glaciers Could Explain Layered Deposits

A number of recent publications have suggested that the sulfate-bearing ILDs formed by groundwater upwelling, where subsurface water breaches the surface during occasional upwelling events. 

This process has been invoked to explain most of the sulphate-bearing deposits on Mars.

Researchers from the Planetary Science Institute (PSI) and NASA Johnson Space Center (JSC) have proposed a new hypothesis to explain a class of enigmatic geologic features on Mars that have puzzled scientists for decades.

The new results, published recently in the journal Geology, suggest that large sedimentary deposits in the Valles Marineris termed Interior Layered Deposits (ILDs) may have formed in a cold, dry ancient Martian climate as the remnants of massive dust-rich glaciers that may have once filled this canyon system.

"Icy weathering might be a major part of the geologic story on Mars," said PSI Research Scientist Joseph Michalski, "The planet has been in a cold, frozen state for a long time. In the distant past, it was also cold, but volcanoes were much more active, periodically pumping huge amounts of sulfur into the atmosphere, which could have ultimately ended up trapped within ice alongside plentiful dust."

Valles Marineris is a 3,000 kilometer-long tectonic trough system on Mars, which reaches depths of approximately eight kilometers (five miles) below the surrounding terrain.

Inside the canyon are vast mounds of layered sediments of enigmatic origins. Since their discovery by the Mariner 9 spacecraft about 40 years ago, the ILD deposits found within the Valles Marineris have escaped explanation.

Their setting within the trough and canyon system has prompted some previous researchers to suggest that the ILDs formed from volcanic processes because the faulting and rifting that formed the canyon could easily lead to thinning of the crust, high heat flow, and ascent of magma.

However, in the late 1990s, the Thermal Emission Spectrometer instrument showed that the deposits contain gray hematite, similar to deposits explored at Meridiani Planum by the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity and shortly after, a French team of researchers produced intriguing new results that further complicated the interpretations of ILDs on Mars.

They showed that the deposits contain sulfate minerals - which are typically found in desert playa or shallow sea environments on Earth and are not dominant phases in volcanic terrain.

One big part of the problem is the size of the altered, layered sediments that rise several kilometers from the canyon floor in places.

Proposed ideas have included the suggestion that the canyon once housed a vast system of deep lakes but, the canyon is not topographically constrained on all sides, so it is difficult to imagine how a lake could have existed there without spilling into the low topography to the north.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

George Dyson (Science Historian): Project Orion - A nuclear-powered rocket to Saturn - YouTube



George Dyson tells the amazing story of Project Orion, a massive, nuclear-powered spacecraft that could have taken us to Saturn in five years.

With a priceless insider's perspective and a cache of documents, photos and film, Dyson brings this dusty Atomic Age dream to vivid life.

MARS Exploration: Russia is Developing a Nuclear Space Engine by 2017

According to press agency RIA Novosti, Russia is developing a Megawatt-class nuclear propulsion system for long-range manned spacecraft.

“At present we are testing several types of fuel,” said Denis Kovalevich, Skolkovo Foundation’s Nuclear Cluster head, “the engine is expected to be ready by 2017.”

The source reports a government allocation of 500 million rubles ($16.7 million) in 2010 to start a project of a nuclear powered spacecraft, with a projected total investment of about 17 billion rubles (over $580 million) by 2019.

The engine will be used for interplanetary manned missions targeted to the Moon and Mars. A recently leaked document from the Russian space agency drafted an ambitious plan for planetary exploration, both manned and unmanned.

Nuclear power is generally considered a promising technology for interplanetary exploration, especially beyond Earth’s orbit, where solar power gets weak.

NASA has been trying to promote nuclear propulsion several times, including a project in 2003, but funding was eventually cut down.

Cone and Fox Fur Nebulas Glow Together - Image


Astrophotography duo Bob and Janice Fera snapped this photo of the Cone and Foxfur nebulas, which are part of a larger system called NGC 2264 located in the Monoceros constellation about 2,600 light-years away from Earth.

CREDIT: Bob and Janice Fera at Fera Photography
Cone Nebula

Wings: Planetary nebula NGC 6881 in the constellation of Cygnus

Planetary nebula NGC 6881 lies in the constellation of Cygnus. Its "wings" spread across about one light-year. 

A dying star about 60% of the mass of the sun lies at the core of the NGC 6881. 

A planetary nebula arises when a dying star, a red giant, flings off its outer layers. 

Planetary nebulas were misnamed by early discoverers, who thought the objects were giant planets. 

Credit: ESA/NASA Hubble

Amazon Founder Finds Apollo 11 Moon Rocket Engines On Atlantic Ocean Floor

This NASA file photo shows the first stage of the mighty Saturn V rocket used to launch the historic Apollo 11 moon landing mission in 1969 as the booster was being built. The five huge F-1 rocket engines were discarded into the Atlantic Ocean after the July 16, 1969 launch.
CREDIT: NASA

When NASA's mighty Saturn V rocket launched the historic Apollo 11 mission to land the first men on the moon in 1969, the five powerful engines that powered the booster's first stage dropped into the Atlantic Ocean and were lost forever.

Lost, that is, until now.

A private expedition financed by Amazon.com founder and billionaire Jeff Bezos has discovered the five F-1 rocket engines used to launch Apollo 11 into space on July 16, 1969 and is drawing up plans to retrieve one or more so they can be publicly displayed.

"I'm excited to report that, using state-of-the-art deep sea sonar, the team has found the Apollo 11 engines lying 14,000 feet below the surface, and we're making plans to attempt to raise one or more of them from the ocean floor," Bezos wrote in a statement posted to the Bezos Expeditions website.

"We don't know yet what condition these engines might be in - they hit the ocean at high velocity and have been in salt water for more than 40 years. On the other hand, they're made of tough stuff, so we'll see."

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

ESA ATV-3 Edoardo Amaldi: Europe’s third cargo vehicle docks with the Space Station

Video still of ATV Edoardo Amaldi docking with the International Space Station. The image is taken from the same video that is used by astronauts and the ATV Control Centre to monitor the approach.

ESA’s ATV Edoardo Amaldi has completed the first stage of its docking with the Russian Zvezda module of the International Space Station.

The docking occurred smoothly when ATV’s docking probe was captured by Zvezda’s docking cone at 00:31 CEST ( 22:31 GMT).

The docking probe is now retracting, to be followed by the hooks between the two craft closing. The data and electrical connections will then be established.

The 20-tonne vessel, flying autonomously while being continuously monitored from the ground, docked with the 450-tonne orbital complex with a precision of 6 cm as they circled Earth at more than 28 000 km/hr.

An Automated Transfer Vehicle docking with the International Space Station.

Credits: ESA - D.Ducros

“No-one should consider that this smooth and gentle docking between these two giant spacecraft is either an easy or routine task,” said Thomas Reiter, ESA’s Director of Human Spaceflight and Operations.

“The technologies we have demonstrated in operational conditions with the ATVs have a tremendous potential for future human spaceflight and exploration missions.”

The docking concluded a step-by-step approach to the orbital outpost by the large freighter. The vehicle manoeuvred autonomously during these critical operations, monitored by a separate onboard control system to ensure the safety of the Station and its crew.

Prof Brian Cox "Wonders of the Universe" iPad App - Video

Brian Cox's Wonders of the Universe from tim broughton on Vimeo.


Take a 3D tour of the Universe with Professor Brian Cox as your guide.

Never before has the sheer breadth of the Universe been opened up for interactive exploration and our place within it made so vividly clear.

Journey up from the smallest particles, past the moons and planets of the Solar System, out through the Oort Cloud to the Milky Way, past our Local Stars and out to distant galaxies before arriving, finally at the edge of the known Universe.

On the way you will encounter the likes of seething Red Giants, beautiful Nebulae, pulsing Neutron stars and confront a daunting vision of a Black Hole sucking down a hapless star, all rendered in spectacular 3D.

Take Brian’s tours of the Solar System and the Universe, or jet off on your own free-style space mission to discover what Wonders are out there waiting for you.

Professor Brian Cox provides mind-expanding insight in over 200 articles pinned to the various stars, planets and wonders within the app, written in his clear and accessible style and accompanied by two and a half hours of video from the BBC TV series Wonders of the Solar System and Wonders of the Universe.

This means that beyond the impact of a 3D Universe at your fingertips, you’ll come to understand where we came from, how we got here and where we’re going as the destiny of the Universe plays out.

App published by Collins in collaboration with the BBC

The app is published by Collins, an imprint of HarperCollins with a track record of disseminating words and ideas through beautiful books, now extended to beautiful digital products.

Collins, who published official tie-in books for the BBC series Wonders of the Solar System and Wonders of the Universe, conceived the app and brokered a partnership with the BBC to include two and a half hours of video in the app, extending their conventional publishing relationship.

Alex Gatrell, digital publisher for Collins, says: “Brian Cox’s Wonders Of The Universe app is heaven-sent for fans of astronomy and of Brian Cox, but also meets a growing public thirst for knowledge in the astro-physics field.

£We’ve set a new frontier for digital publishing by positioning Brian’s written narrative and related BBC video content in a bespoke 3D environment which changes dynamically as you journey deeper and deeper into the realms of the Universe, making for a jaw-dropping product that can be enjoyed on several levels.”

NASA HiRISE Image: A Wild Assortment of Jumbled Rocks

This image covers a region of Mars near Nili Fossae that contains some of the best exposures of ancient bedrock on Mars.

The enhanced-colour subimage shows part of the ejecta from an impact crater.

The impact broke up already diverse rocks types and mixed them together to create this wild jumble of colours, each representing a different type of rock.

NASA MARS HiRISE website

You can also visit the NASA MARS HiRise 3D site Anaglyph

STFC: SCUBA-2 reveals wild youth of the Universe

A team of astronomers from the UK, Canada and the Netherlands has begun a revolutionary new study of cosmic star-formation history, looking back in time to when the Universe was still in its lively and somewhat unruly youth.

The consortium, co-led by University of Edinburgh astrophysicist Professor James Dunlop, is using SCUBA-2, the most powerful camera ever developed for observing light at ‘sub-mm’ wavelengths (light that has a wavelength 1000 times longer than we can see with our eyes).

Prof. Dunlop presented the first results from the survey at the UK National Astronomy Meeting on 27 March 2012.

The development of SCUBA-2 was led by STFC’s UK Astronomy Technology Centre in Edinburgh and the revolutionary camera was unveiled in December 2011 (link opens in a new window).

It is mounted on the world's largest sub-mm telescope, the 15-metre James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in Hawaii.

The new project, named the SCUBA-2 Cosmology Legacy Survey, will run for three years and will use the camera to provide the clearest view to date of dust-enshrouded star-forming galaxies.

These objects are so remote that the light we detect left them billions of years ago, so we see them as they looked in the distant past.

With SCUBA-2 astronomers are able to study objects that existed as far back as 13 billion years ago, within the first billion years after the Big Bang.

Because stars form inside clouds of gas and dust, much of the ultraviolet light from young galaxies is absorbed by this cosmic dust which is then heated to a few tens of degrees above absolute zero (-273 degrees Celsius).

The ‘warmed’ (but still rather ‘cool’) dust then emits the absorbed energy at far-infrared wavelengths, which is then further redshifted to longer sub-mm wavelengths en-route to the Earth by the expansion of the Universe.

The first image presented here is made using the SCUBA-2 camera at a wavelength of 450 microns.
(Credit: Jim Dunlop)
Detecting such emission is a challenge, both because Earth-based telescopes are warm and hence glow at sub-mm wavelengths and because water vapour in the atmosphere both absorbs and emits light in this waveband.

To get around the problems of the atmosphere, the latest sub-mm surveys have recently been conducted from space, using the Herschel Space Observatory.

However, the relatively small size (3.5-metre diameter) of Herschel’s telescope means that the images it produces cover large areas but are rather fuzzy.

The James Clerk Maxwell Telescope primary mirror is 20 times larger in area and can provide a much sharper view of the sub-mm sky.

Prof. Dunlop is delighted by these first deep SCUBA-2 images and looking forward to more results over the next few years: “Edinburgh scientists and engineers worked hard to construct this revolutionary new instrument and, together with our colleagues in Canada and the Netherlands, we’re now seeing the fruits of our efforts.

With SCUBA-2 we can study the most violently star-forming galaxies in the young Universe, and slowly but surely start to understand how the primitive cosmos evolved into the Universe we live in today.”

ESA ENVISAT Image: Bali, Lombok, and Sumbawa: Where Worlds Collide

This image from the Envisat satellite is dominated by the Indonesian islands of Bali, Lombok and Sumbawa.

All three are part of the volcanic Sunda Arc along the submarine Java trench, where two tectonic plates are moving towards one another, and one slides under the other.

This tectonic deformation along the Java trench caused the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and subsequent tsunami.

To the west is Bali, one of Indonesia's main tourist destinations. The island's central mountains include peaks that reach over 3000 m, including an active volcano visible on the right side of the island.

Strong reflections of the radar signal used to produce this image appear like specks of light. They are mainly detectable in the southern part of the island, and are particularly concentrated around the provincial capital city of Denpasar.

This is the typical appearance of built-up areas in radar images, owing to the multiple reflection of the radar beam by buildings and especially metal constructions.

In the centre of the image is Lombok. Similar to Bali, we can see multiple reflections concentrated around the city of Mataram.

Varying colours stretch across the island's lowlands, which are highly cultivated, depicting changes in the land.

Sumbawa island lies to the east, dominated by mountainous terrain. This is also home to Mount Tambora, an active volcano.

In 1815, its massive eruption caused heavy ash falls that ruined local agriculture and even affected much of the Northern Hemisphere.

The deaths of over 70 000 people are attributed to this event. This image is a compilation of three passes by Envisat's radar on 20 June, 19 August and 17 December 2011.

Each is assigned a colour (red, green and blue) and combined to produce this representation. The colours reveal changes in the surface between Envisat's passes.

NASA LRO Image: Luna 24 Sitting On The Lunar Surface

Luna 24 landed on the northwestern rim of a 64 m diameter impact crater, on the volcanic plains of Mare Crisium

Enlargement of lander at lower left, NAC M174868307L 

Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

Three Soviet missions (Luna 16, Luna 20, and Luna 24) successfully collected and returned pieces of the lunar surface.

Before the successful Luna 24 sample return mission in August 1976, Luna 23 was sent two years earlier (November 1974) to nearly the same location in Mare Crisium, but was unsuccessful.

Luna 24 landed in Mare Crisium on 18 August 1976 to complete the unfinished mission of Luna 23. The landing sites of Luna 23 and 24 are only 2.3 km apart.

The region of Mare Crisium where they landed is a typical smooth mare surface with little relief in the immediate vicinity.

There are numerous secondary craters scattered across the region, and Luna 24 landed on the edge of one of these.

The secondary craters are the result of an impact to the northeast of the landing site, perhaps from the crater Giordano Bruno, named after the Italian philosopher.

For More information and imagery.

NASA Astronaut Spots Steam Flowing from Island Volcano

A steam plume drifts away from a volcano on Pagan Island, part of the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas.

CREDIT: NASA

An astronaut aboard the International Space Station spotted a steam plume flowing from the northernmost volcano on Pagan Island, part of the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas.

The commonwealth is an island chain of volcanoes that form the margin between the Pacific Ocean (to the east) and the Philippine Sea (to the west).

Pagan is made up of two strato-volcanoes separated by an isthmus, and it is one of the more volcanically active islands in the Marianas.

The island was completely evacuated in 1981 when a large eruption forced the small Micronesian community to flee (PDF Report), according to a NASA statement.

NASA Aqua MODIS: Science and Beauty Video



Beautiful images from the MODIS instrument on NASA's Aqua and Terra satellites are used by people all over the world every day but MODIS is about more than just pretty pictures.

The instrument's contributions to science include a better understanding of the Earth's cloud cover, aerosols, phytoplankton levels, and land cover.

NASA GRAIL: Flying formation - around the moon at 3,600 MPH

An artist's depiction of the NASA GRAIL twins (Ebb and Flow) in lunar orbit. 

During GRAIL's prime mission science phase, the two spacecraft will orbit the moon as high as 31 miles (51 kilometers) and as low as 10 miles (16 kilometers). 

Credit: NASA/Caltech-JPL/MIT

The act of two or more aircraft flying together in a disciplined, synchronized manner is one of the cornerstones of military aviation, as well as just about any organized air show.

But as amazing as the U.S. Navy's elite Blue Angels or the U.S. Air Force's Thunderbirds are to behold, they remain essentially landlocked, anchored if you will, to our planet and its tenuous atmosphere.

What if you could take the level of precision of these great aviators to, say, the moon?

"Our job is to ensure our two GRAIL spacecraft are flying a very, very accurate trail formation in lunar orbit," said David Lehman, GRAIL project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "We need to do this so our scientists can get the data they need."

Essentially, trail formation means one aircraft (or spacecraft in this case), follows directly behind the other. Ebb and Flow, the twins of NASA's GRAIL (Gravity Recovery And Interior Laboratory) mission, are by no means the first to synch up altitude and "air" speed while zipping over the craters, mountains, hills and rills of Earth's natural satellite.

That honour goes to the crew of Apollo 10, who in May 1969 performed a dress rehearsal for the first lunar landing but as accurate as the astronauts aboard lunar module "Snoopy" and command module "Charlie Brown" were in their piloting, it is hard to imagine they could keep as exacting a position as Ebb and Flow.

"It is an apples and oranges comparison," said Lehman. "Lunar formation in Apollo was about getting a crew to the lunar surface, returning to lunar orbit and docking, so they could get back safely to Earth. For GRAIL, the formation flying is about the science, and that is why we have to make our measurements so precisely."

As the GRAIL twins fly over areas of greater and lesser gravity at 3,600 mph (5,800 kilometers per hour), surface features such as mountains and craters, and masses hidden beneath the lunar surface, can influence the distance between the two spacecraft ever so slightly.

How slight a distance change can be measured by the science instrument beaming invisible microwaves back and forth between Ebb and Flow?

How about one-tenth of one micron? Another way to put it is that the GRAIL twins can detect a change in their position down to one half of a human hair (0.000004 inches, or 0.00001 centimeters).

For those of you who are hematologists or vampires (we are not judging here), any change in separation between the two twins greater than one half of a red corpuscle will be duly noted aboard the spacecraft's memory chips for later downlinking to Earth.

Working together, Ebb and Flow will make these measurements while flying over the entirety of the lunar surface.

NASA TWINS/IBEX spacecraft observed impact of powerful solar storm

These energetic neutral atom (ENA) panels show IBEX observations before (left) and after (right) the solar wind impacted the Earth's magnetosphere on April 5, 2010, and increased from one- to two-million miles-per-hour. 

The magnetosphere, which is modeled in both panels, becomes compressed after the impact and shows a significant rise in the production of energetic neutral atoms (indicated by red).

For the first time, instrumentation aboard two NASA missions operating from complementary vantage points watched as a powerful solar storm spewed a two million-mile-per-hour stream of charged particles and interacted with the invisible magnetic field surrounding Earth, according to a paper published today in the Journal of Geophysical Research.

The spacecraft, NASA's Two Wide-angle Imaging Neutral-atom Spectrometers (TWINS) and Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX), observed the impact from inside and outside the Earth's magnetosphere, respectively.

The energetic neutral atom (ENA) cameras aboard each spacecraft enabled global imaging of the magnetosphere, the invisible bubble that protects Earth from the majority of charged particles from the Sun, as it compressed in response to sharply faster solar wind.

The storm, observed April 5, 2010, also is thought to have caused an important communications satellite, Galaxy-15, to founder and drift, taking almost a year to return to its station.

These integrated images show energetic neutral atom (ENA) emissions as seen by TWINS

Each circle represents five minutes of activity, with the start times listed at the top of the graph. 

Each row shows a different energy band. The images in the last two columns (in red boxes) were taken roughly 20 minutes and one hour after the solar wind impact.

"Many satellites above Earth are in geosynchronous orbit. Like heavy traffic on a Los Angeles freeway, they have to stay in their lanes because they could, theoretically, collide," says Dr. David McComas, assistant vice president of the Space Science and Engineering Division at Southwest Research Institute, and principal investigator of the IBEX and TWINS missions.

"More likely, however, is that they will get too close together and their radio frequencies will interfere with the operation of nearby satellites, which could hamper activities on Earth."

The IBEX images (taken from a distance of around 180,000 miles) show an immediate compression of the magnetosphere as it was impacted by charged particles from the solar wind.

ENA global imaging enabled the team to determine the precise timing of the compression, to within ±9 seconds.

Minutes later, one of the TWINS spacecraft, carrying identical ENA sensors that provide stereoscopic imaging, observed changes in the inner magnetosphere (from a much-closer 28,000 miles).

A magnetospheric structure called the "ring current" traps charged particles that gyrate around magnetic field lines.

About 15 minutes after impact, the trapped particles propagated down the field lines toward the poles and into Earth's atmosphere, where they produced additional ENAs.

The brief time delay in losing particles to the atmosphere suggests that internal magnetospheric processes take some time after compression from the initial impact.

NASA’s Galaxy Evolution Explorer: UV image of the Cygnus Loop Nebula


Wispy tendrils of hot dust and gas glow in this ultraviolet image of the Cygnus Loop Nebula, taken by NASA’s Galaxy Evolution Explorer.

The nebula lies about 1,500 light-years away, and is a supernova remnant, left over from a massive stellar explosion that occurred 5,000-8,000 years ago.

Picture: NASA/JPL-CALTECH/AFP/Getty

NASA Sound Rockets leave Tracer Clouds


This photo provided by NASA shows chemical tracers that were released from five rockets launched from NASA's Wallops Island test flight facility in Atlantic, Virginia, US.

The tracers form white clouds that allow scientists and the public to visualise upper level jet stream winds.

Picture: NASA/AP

Nasa: Gulf Stream around North America

This NASA image shows the Gulf Stream around North America.

It is taken from Perpetual Ocean, a visualisation of some of the world's surface ocean currents from June 2005 through December 2007.

Picture: NASA/Reuters


Back at the ISS: Musical greeting to André Kuipers and ISS crew - YouTube


'Back at the ISS' is a rocking musical greeting to ESA Astronaut André Kuipers, Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko and the entire crew of the ISS on the occasion of the docking of ESA's third Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV), Edoardo Amaldi, set for 28 March 2012.

On that day, André and Oleg will undertake a special task working side by side in the Russian Zarya module of the ISS. The two will oversee the critical ATV docking manoeuvre, watching minute by minute as the vessel conducts a fully automatic docking and ready to take quick action if anything goes wrong.

Dutch band Love & Mersey have conceived and written a song using English, Dutch and Russian lyrics and inspired by the Beatles' famous 1968 song, Back in the USSR.

The band hope that everyone enjoys this musical greeting to the ISS crew and that young people, everywhere, will be inspired to do their best in following an education that may lead them, too, one day into space. Access Love & Mersey in via: http://www.loveandmersey.nl

Download original lyrics via: http://bit.ly/batisslyrics

Nuclear Fusion: Simulation Shows Potential

Experimental nuclear fusion reactor is seen at a laboratory in the Southwest Institute of Physics in Chengdu, Sichuan Province April 15, 2011.

High-gain nuclear fusion could soon be a possibility according to new computer simulations.

A series of computer simulations performed at Sandia National Laboratories revealed that a fusion reactor can release an output of energy that is greater than the energy fed into the reactor.

The method being tested at Sandia appears to be 50 times more efficient to drive implosions of targeted materials to create the fusion reaction.

Nuclear fusion occurs when two atoms fuse together to form a heavier atom. This process releases a vast amount of energy. However nuclear fusion only occurs naturally at incredibly high temperatures like the center of a star.

Even though the process has been impossible to recreate in Earth, scientists have been studying ways to make nuclear fusion possible because nuclear fusion is a very attractive power source since the fuel is free and the process releases massive amounts of energy.

Scientists have looked at two competing approaches for the artificial creation of nuclear fusion: magnetic confinement and inertial confinement.

Magnetic confinement uses magnetic force to contain the fusing plasma within a device while inertial confinement uses lasers to trigger the fusion process.

Magnetic confinement is being used in the 500-megawatt ITER fusion reactor in France while inertial confinement is being used in California's National Ignition Facility.

Magnetic confinement is regarded as the better alternative and according to the computer simulations performed at Sandia the method is more efficient as well.

The researchers at Sandia are testing a method called magnetized inertial fusion in which two coils generate a magnetic field that confines the fusion reaction.

A metal cylinder lines the insides of each of the coils. The cylinder has a metal liner of deuterium and tritium which is then hit with a current of tens of millions of amperes. The current destroys the liner but it generates a strong magnetic field.

"People didn't think there was a high-gain option for magnetized inertial fusion but these numerical simulations show there is," said Sandia researcher Steve Slutz, the paper's lead author. "Now we have to see if nature will let us do it. In principle, we don't know why we can't."

The computer simulations showed that the output was 100 times that of 60 million amperes put into the system. Actual tests are necessary to validate the computer simulations and they are already under way at Sandia. A laboratory result is expected by late 2013.

The work was reported in the January 13 issue of Physical Review Letters and was supported by Sandia's Laboratory Directed Research and Development office and by the National Nuclear Security Administration.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Jupiter helps Halley's Comet give us more spectacular meteor displays

The dramatic appearance of Halley's comet in the night sky has been observed and recorded by astronomers since 240 BC.

Now a study shows that the orbital influences of Jupiter on the comet and the debris it leaves in its wake are responsible for periodic outbursts of activity in the Orionid meteor showers.

The results will be presented by Aswin Sekhar at the National Astronomy Meeting in Manchester on Tuesday 27th March.

Halley's comet orbits the Sun every 75-76 years on average. As its nucleus approaches the Sun, it heats up and releases gas and dust that form the spectacular tail. This outgassing leaves a trail of debris around the orbit.

When the Earth crosses Halley's path, twice per orbit, dust particles (meteoroids) burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere and we see meteor showers: the Orionids in October and the Eta Aquariids in May.

Previous research has suggested that Orionid meteoroids have at times fallen into 'resonances' with Jupiter's orbit – a numerical relationship that influences orbital behaviour.

Sekhar's new study suggests that Halley itself has been in resonances with Jupiter in the past, which in turn would increase the chances of populating resonant meteoroids in the stream.

The particles ejected during those times experience a tendency to clump together due to periodic effects from Jupiter.

Image of 2007 Orionids, showing Orion constellation in the backdrop. Credit: S. Quirk    

"This resonant behaviour of meteoroids means that Halley's debris is not uniformly distributed along its orbital path."

"When the Earth encounters one of these clumps, it experiences a much more spectacular meteor shower than usual," said Sekhar, of Armagh Observatory.

Sekhar has modelled Halley’s orbital evolution over more than 12 000 years into the past and 15 000 years into the future.

The model suggests that from 1404 BC to 690 BC, Halley was trapped in a 1:6 resonance with Jupiter (in which Halley completed one orbit for every six orbits of Jupiter around the Sun).

Later, from 240 BC to 1700 AD, the comet’s orbit had a 2:13 relationship with Jupiter’s orbit. Debris deposited during these two periods can be directly attributed to heightened activity in the Orionid meteor showers in some years.

Sekhar’s work suggests that the unusual Orionid outburst observed in 1993 was due to 2:13 resonant meteoroids ejected from Halley around 240 BC.

He predicts that the next similar display of meteors from this 2:13 resonance will be in 2070 AD.

"The real beauty of this area of science lies in the convergence of cometary physics and orbital dynamics."

"The close correlation between historical records from ancient civilisations and the predictions using modern science make it even more elegant," said Sekhar.

He added, "There are enough unsolved problems pertaining to Halley and its meteor streams to keep us occupied till the next apparition of the comet in 2061!"

Provided by Royal Astronomical Society

Express AM4 Destroyed as Effort To Save Russian Satellite Shunned

Express AM-4 satellite. Credit: EADS Astrium photo

The Russian Express AM4 communications satellite, placed into a bad orbit after a rocket failure during its August launch, was intentionally crashed into the Pacific Ocean March 25 despite an attempt to save the craft to serve Antarctic scientists, Spaceflight Now reports.

Polar Broadband Systems Ltd. wanted to purchase the satellite and raise its orbit so that it could provide broadband coverage to researchers in the South Pole region, said company co-founder Bill Readdy, a former space shuttle commander and NASA manager. But the company’s phone calls to the Russian space agency and Express AM4’s insurance underwriter in recent days were not answered, Readdy said.

Moving the satellite into an orbit high over Antarctic research sites would have provided broadband coverage of the South Pole region for more than 14 hours per day, Readdy said.

Soviet Weather Satellite, Meteor-1 to Fall to Earth

Russia is stopping the mission of the Express-AM4 telecommunication satellite, which was launched in August. 

At about 17.32 Moscow time on Sunday, the flight control center will descend the satellite from its orbit, and it will fall into the ocean near the Hawaii Islands. 

To avoid any collisions, the region will be closed for ships and planes for the time of the operation.

Meteor-1, the Soviet Union's first fully operational weather satellite, will on Monday night re-enter the Earth's atmosphere after more than four decades in orbit, the web site of the U.S. Strategic Command said.

The Meteor satellite series was developed in the Soviet Union during the sixties.

On March 26, 1969, a Vostok rocket launched Meteor -1, the very first version of the Soviet Meteor satellite network, into orbit. The satellite terminated operations in July 1970, according to NASA information.

The spacecraft is expected to begin falling at 3:13 a.m. Moscow time on March 27 with debris estimated to fall into the Indian Ocean south of Sri Lanka, the U.S. Strategic Command said.

Weighing between 1,200 and 1,400 kilograms, the Meteor 1-1 spacecraft was originally placed in orbit at an altitude of 650 km, the Space Safety magazine said.

Two solar panels were automatically oriented toward the sun to provide the spacecraft with the maximum amount of solar power.

Meteor-1 provided near-global observations of the earth's weather systems, cloud cover, ice and snow fields, and reflected and emitted radiation from the dayside and nightside of the earth-atmosphere system for operational use by the Soviet meteorological service.

Some of the processed data and TV pictures from the satellite were distributed to meteorological centers around the world.

The Trouble With Neutrinos That Outpaced Einstein’s Theory

The British astrophysicist Arthur S. Eddington once wrote, “No experiment should be believed until it has been confirmed by theory.”

So when a group of physicists going by the acronym Opera announced in September that a batch of the strange subatomic particles known as neutrinos had traveled faster than the speed of light in a 457-mile trip through the earth, the first response among many physicists was to wonder what had gone wrong with the experiment. 

After all, Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, which proclaimed the speed of light as the cosmic speed limit, is the foundation of modern science and has been shown to work to exquisite precision zillions of times. 

Knock it down and you potentially open the door to all kinds of things, like the ability to go back in time and kill your grandfather.

That, of course, did not stop the rest of us in the physics bleachers from dragging the old guru of space-time by his frizzy coronal hair into the media version of the public square and crowing that, perhaps this time at last, Einstein was finally going to be proved wrong. 

Neutrino jokes proliferated on the Internet, as well as this rousing song by the Corrigan Brothers and Pete Creighton

Tooraloo, tooraloo, tooraloo, tooralino,
Is light now slower than a neutrino?

Now it seems that Einstein’s six-month nightmare may be over.

Last week another team of physicists whose apparatus lives right next door to the Opera group — under Gran Sasso mountain in Italy — reported that they had clocked neutrinos, produced in an accelerator at CERN, outside Geneva, racing over the same path to Gran Sasso at the speed of light and not a whit faster. 

Which is exactly how fast scientists had always thought the enigmatic particles, with barely zilch for mass, should go.

The second group, which goes by the acronym Icarus, was led by Carlo Rubbia, a former director of CERN and a Nobel-winning physicist, who called the results “very convincing.”

Physicists swung into line with great sighs of relief.

“The evidence is beginning to point toward the Opera result being an artifact of the measurement,” said CERN’s research director, Sergio Bertolucci.

Cue the famous picture of Einstein sticking out his tongue. As it happened, the Icarus result was announced on March 16, two days after his 133rd birthday — almost in time for the cake.

Adding to the sense of finality was the simple fact — as Eddington might have pointed out — that faster-than-light neutrinos had never been confirmed by theory. Or as John G. Learned, a neutrino physicist at the University of Hawaii, put it in an e-mail, “An interesting result of all this fracas is that no new model I have seen (or heard of from my friends) really is credible to explain the faster-than-light neutrinos.”

During a panel discussion recently at the American Museum of Natural History, Sheldon L. Glashow, a physics professor and Nobel laureate from Boston University, said the best theory he had heard was that the neutrinos had behaved lawfully in Switzerland and speeded up when they crossed the border into Italy.

Eddington’s dictum is not as radical as it might sound. He made it after early measurements of the rate of expansion of the universe made it appear that our planet was older than the cosmos in which it resides — an untenable notion.

“It means that science is not just a book of facts, it is understanding as well,” explained Michael S. Turner, a cosmologist at the University of Chicago, who says the Eddington saying is one of his favourites. 

If a “fact” cannot be understood, fitted into a conceptual framework that we have reason to believe in, or confirmed independently some other way, it risks becoming what journalists like to call a “permanent exclusive” wrong. 

Read more of this article: The Trouble With Neutrinos - NYTimes.com

ADHD Challenges Those Seeking a Driver’s License

The first time Jillian Serpa tried to learn to drive, the family car wound up straddling a creek next to her home in Ringwood, N.J.

Ms. Serpa, then 16, had gotten flustered trying to sort out a rapid string of directions from her father while preparing to back out of their driveway. “There was a lack of communication,” she said. “I stepped on the gas instead of the brake.”

On her second attempt to learn, Ms. Serpa recalled, she “totally freaked out” at a busy intersection.

It was four years before she tried driving again. She has made great progress, but so far has still fallen short of her goal: Two weeks ago she knocked over a cone while parallel parking and failed the road test for the fourth time.

Learning to drive is hard and scary for many teenagers, and driving is far and away the most dangerous thing teenagers do. But the challenges are significantly greater for young people who, like Ms. Serpa, have attention problems.

A number of cognitive conditions can affect driving, and instructors report a recent increase in the number of teenagers with Asperger syndrome seeking licenses.

But the largest group of challenged teenage drivers and the mostly closely studied, appears to be those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD, ADD).

A 2007 study, by Russell A. Barkley of the Medical University of South Carolina and Daniel J. Cox of the University of Virginia Health System, concluded that young drivers with ADHD are two to four times as likely as those without the condition to have an accident, meaning that they are at a higher risk of wrecking the car than an adult who is legally drunk.

Researchers say that many teenagers with attention or other learning problems can become good drivers, but not easily or quickly, and that some will be better off not driving till they are older or not at all.

The most obvious difficulty they face is inattention, the single leading cause of crashes among all drivers, said Bruce Simons-Morton, senior investigator at the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development in Bethesda, Md.

“When a driver takes his eyes off the road for two seconds or more, he’s doubled the risk of a crash,” he said.

Inexperienced drivers usually are distractible drivers. Dr. Simons-Morton cited a study on a closed course in which teenagers proved much more adept than adults at using cellphones while driving and missed more stop signs.

The situation isn’t helped by how “noisy” cars have become, with cellphones, iPods and Bluetooth devices, said Lissa Robins Kapust, a social worker and coordinator of a driving program at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. “Driving is so busy on the inside and the outside of the car it’s the most complex thing we do.”

But ADHD involves more than distractibility (?). Its other major trait is impulsiveness, which is often linked to high levels of risk-taking, said Dr. Barkley.

“It’s a bad combination” for young drivers, he said. “They’re more prone to crashes because of inattention, but the reason their crashes are so much worse is because they’re so often speeding.” Many drivers with ADHD overestimate their skills behind the wheel, Dr. Barkley noted.

Diabetes, Weight Loss Surgery Works Better Than Medicine

Two studies have found that weight-loss operations worked much better than the standard therapies for Type 2 diabetes in obese and overweight people whose blood sugar was out of control. 

Those who had surgery, which stapled the stomach and rerouted the small intestine, were much more likely to have a complete remission of diabetes, or to need less medicine, than people who were given the typical regimen of drugs, diet and exercise.

The surgery also helped many to lower their blood pressure and cholesterol.

The new studies, published on Monday by The New England Journal of Medicine, are the first to rigorously compare medical treatment with these particular stomach and intestinal operations as ways to control diabetes. 

Doctors had been noticing for years that weight-loss operations, also called bariatric surgery, could sometimes get rid of Type 2 diabetes. But they had no hard data.

Experts say better treatments are desperately needed for the disease.

“Type 2 diabetes is one of the fastest growing epidemics in human history,” according to an editorial published with the two studies.

The question is whether major surgery, with its risks and complications, should be more widely used. 

Some surgeons and obesity experts are pushing to establish a role for the surgeries in treating diabetes, not just obesity, while other experts say more research is needed.

The president for medicine and science for the American Diabetes Association, Dr. Vivian Fonseca, said the two studies were “not game changers” because they were relatively small.

The disease, which causes high blood sugar, is linked to obesity and often becomes harder to manage as it progresses. It can bring devastating complications like heart disease, strokes, blindness, amputations and kidney failure.

In the United States, the number of diabetes cases has tripled in the past 30 years to more than 20 million, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most of the cases are Type 2. Type 1, far less common, is not linked to obesity.

Researchers said the operations used in the studies help control diabetes not just because they make people lose weight — a known treatment for the disease — but because the changes in anatomy alter the levels of gut hormones that affect the metabolism of sugars and fats.

Friday, March 23, 2012

NASA ISS Alert: Space Debris Collision Threat

Mission Control informed Commander Dan Burbank at 12:01 p.m. EDT of a possible close flyby with a piece of space debris from a spent Russian rocket body early Saturday.

Since it is too late to conduct a debris avoidance maneuver to steer the station clear of the object, the crew could be asked to take shelter in its respective Soyuz vehicles after it wakes up late Friday.

Early tracking showed it is unlikely the space junk will come close enough to the station to require action by the crew, but Mission Control will remain vigilant and inform the crew if anything changes later today.

The piece of a Russian satellite is expected to make its closest approach about 2:38 a.m. EDT Saturday.

› Listen to MCC audio of the debris flyby notification (1 Mb MP3)

Megalara Garuda: Giant wasp found in Indonesia

A new and unusual wasp species has been discovered during an expedition to the Indonesian island of Sulawesi.

It was independently also found in the insect collections of the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin, where it was awaiting discovery since the 1930s, when it had been collected on Sulawesi.

The new species is pitch-black, has an enormous body size (the male measures about two-and-a-half-inches long), and its males have long, sickle-shaped jaws.

The findings have now been described in the open access journal ZooKeys.

The species belongs into the digger wasp family, which is a diverse group of wasps with several thousands of species known from all over the world.

Female digger wasps search for other insects as prey for their young and paralyze the prey by stinging it. Prey selection is often species specific, but the prey of the new species is unknown.

With its unusual body size and the male’s jaws, the new species differs from all known related digger wasps, so much so that it was placed in a new genus of its own, Megalara.

The new genus name is a combination of the Greek Mega, meaning large, and the ending of Dalara, a related wasp genus.

Lynn Kimsey (UC Davis) and Michael Ohl (Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin), who discovered the giant wasp simultaneously and have worked on it in collaboration, named the species after Garuda, the national symbol of Indonesia, a part-human, part-eagle mythical creature known as the King of Birds in Hindu mythology.

Since this species has never been observed alive, nothing is known about its biology or behaviour. The males of Megalara garuda are distinctly larger than the females, and bear very long jaws.

As can be deduced from other insects with large jaws, it is likely that the males hold the females with it during copulation. It is also possible that they use the jaws for defense.

UK Space Industry Survey 2012: Health and Effectiveness

The UK Space Agency has embarked on its biennial survey of the space industry and has contracted Oxford Economics to undertake the task.

The survey will cover the traditional providers of space technology (upstream) and those who exploit the technology (downstream).

However there are many companies whose business is partially or wholly dependent on space but who do not deal directly with space organisations or see themselves as part of the space industry. If you fit in this category, we are particularly keen to hear from you.

Download a letter (PDF, 36 Kb)  from David Williams, Chief Executive, UK Space Agency explaining the background and importance of the survey. To participate in the survey, please visit the Oxford Economics website.

You are invited to answer the survey online, but if you would prefer a hard copy version to complete and return by email or post, please inform Pete Collings, tel: 0207 803 1411.

If you wish to discuss your involvement with the UK Space Agency, please contact George Pritchard, on 01793 418 060.

MARS HiRISE Image: Mineral Veins

The bright linear features cutting the bedrock in the center region of this image look like mineral veins.

Mineral veins are sheetlike bodies of minerals formed by water that flows through fractures.

The setting of this image is the central uplift of a large (approximately 50-kilometer diameter) impact crater, where deep, ancient bedrock was uplifted about 5 kilometers and fractured.

Heat from the impact melted ice in the Martian crust, creating a hydrothermal system. This could have been a habitable environment.

A small mineral vein was recently discovered by the Opportunity rover at Endeavour Crater.

This is a stereo pair with ESP_025766_2005.

How many Apollo Goodwill Moon Rocks are missing?

Genesis Rock: Missing presumed Lost

The Apollo program, for all its inspirational accomplishments and technical achievements, was a servant of two masters.

The first was a pure scientific enterprise, to learn as much as possible about Earth’s only natural satellite and to push the boundaries of human spaceflight.

The second was political, with Apollo acting as the most compelling symbol of American technical prowess, industry, courage, and will.

This dichotomy is embodied by the Goodwill Moon Rocks program.

A case can be made that no field of study benefitted more from Apollo than the science of geology. Of the approximately 430 kilograms of known lunar materials on Earth, Apollo astronauts obtained roughly 382 kg.

The vast majority of those samples have been used to further our understanding of planetary formation, geochemistry, and the physical history of our solar system.

However, not all of those moon rocks were recovered in the name of science.

Specific lunar samples from Apollo 11 and Apollo 17 were earmarked as political souvenirs.

Precisely 270 prepared lunar rock samples were distributed as part of the Goodwill Moon Rocks program, most of them going to the 50 U.S. states and a number of foreign countries as tokens of appreciation for support of Apollo, NASA, and U.S. interests.

The recipients were charged with keeping custody of perhaps the rarest and most valuable artifacts ever distributed for diplomatic purposes.

Four decades later, no one can account for a significant number of those 270 valuable, and nigh-irreplaceable moon rocks.

Astronomers put forward new theory on size of black holes

Astronomers have put forward a new theory about why black holes become so hugely massive – claiming some of them have no 'table manners', and tip their 'food' directly into their mouths, eating more than one course simultaneously.

Researchers from the UK and Australia investigated how some black holes grow so fast that they are billions of times heavier than the sun.

The team from the University of Leicester (UK) and Monash University in Australia sought to establish how black holes got so big so fast.

Their research is due to published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

The research was funded by the UK Science and Technology Facilities Council.

Professor Andrew King from the Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of Leicester, said: "Almost every galaxy has an enormously massive black hole in its centre. Our own galaxy, the Milky Way, has one about four million times heavier than the sun. But some galaxies have black holes a thousand times heavier still. We know they grew very quickly after the Big Bang."

"These hugely massive black holes were already full--grown when the universe was very young, less than a tenth of its present age."

Black holes grow by sucking in gas. This forms a disc around the hole and spirals in, but usually so slowly that the holes could not have grown to these huge masses in the entire age of the universe. `We needed a faster mechanism,' says Chris Nixon, also at Leicester, "so we wondered what would happen if gas came in from different directions."

Nixon, King and their colleague Daniel Price in Australia made a computer simulation of two gas discs orbiting a black hole at different angles.

After a short time the discs spread and collide, and large amounts of gas fall into the hole. According to their calculations black holes can grow 1,000 times faster when this happens.

"If two guys ride motorbikes on a Wall of Death and they collide, they lose the centrifugal force holding them to the walls and fall," says King. The same thing happens to the gas in these discs, and it falls in towards the hole.

This may explain how these black holes got so big so fast. "We don't know exactly how gas flows inside galaxies in the early universe," said King, "but I think it is very promising that if the flows are chaotic it is very easy for the black hole to feed."

The two biggest black holes ever discovered are each about ten billion times bigger than the Sun.

NASA GRACE Data Visualisation of groundwater Depletion

A new visualization of global groundwater depletion created using data from NASA's GRACE mission has premiered on New York’s Times Square to mark World Water Day 2012. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UC Irvine/USGS/Richard Vijgen/Peggy Weil/Heads Up! 2012

To highlight declines in the world's groundwater supplies, a new visualization of Earth's groundwater reserves, created in part with space data from the joint NASA/German Aerospace Center (DLR) Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) mission, debuted on New York's Times Square on March 22, International World Water Day.

The 30-second animation, titled "Visualizing Seasonal and Long-term Changes in Groundwater Levels," will be on display several times each hour through April 22 on Times Square's massive Thomson Reuters and NASDAQ digital signboards.

Viewers of the interactive animation are invited to use their mobile devices to submit their city and add a graph to the sign. The animation can be viewed at: http://vimeo.com/user10042778 .

Netherlands designer Richard Vijgen developed the animation using GRACE data analyzed by professor Jay Famiglietti, director of the UC Center for Hydrologic Modeling at the University of California, Irvine; and from United States Geological Survey data supplied by Leonard Konikow.

Vijgen was the winning entry in an international design visualization competition sponsored by the organization.

HeadsUP!, in collaboration with Visualizing.org. Founded by digital media artist Peggy Weil, HeadsUp! challenges designers to visualize critical global issues and create a shared sign for the public square.

Groundwater is a critical, but often overlooked, natural resource. According to a U.N. report, more than 1.5 billion people around the world depend on groundwater for their drinking water.

It comes from the natural percolation of precipitation and other surface waters down through Earth's soil and rock, accumulating in cavities and layers of porous rock, gravel, sand or clay.

Groundwater levels respond slowly to changes in weather and can take months or years to replenish once pumped for irrigation or other uses.

Famiglietti's analyses show that groundwater is being depleted at alarming rates in many of the world's major aquifers. "The GRACE data set is exciting, because it gives us the first global pictures of Earth's changing freshwater," he said.

The twin GRACE satellites, which celebrated their 10th year in orbit this week, measure minute changes in Earth's gravity field by measuring micron-scale variations in the separation between the two spacecraft, flying in formation 137 miles (220 kilometers) apart in low Earth orbit.

These variations in gravitational pull are caused by local changes in Earth's mass. Masses of water, ice, air and solid Earth can be moved by weather patterns, seasonal change, climate change and even tectonic events such as large earthquakes. GRACE was developed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

ESA ATV-3 Edoardo Amaldi: Nasa Viseo of Launch Lift-off



The European Space Agency's third Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV-3) launched atop an Ariane 5 rocket from the Arianespace launch site in Kourou, French Guiana, at 12:34 a.m. EDT Friday, beginning a six-day journey to the International Space Station.

The 13-ton "Edoardo Amaldi" spacecraft, named in honor of the 20th-century Italian physicist who is regarded as one of the fathers of European spaceflight, is delivering 7.2 tons of propellant, water and supplies to the six crew members aboard the orbital laboratory.

NASA Cassini: Thousand-year wait for Titan's methane rain

Places on Saturn's moon Titan see rainfall about once every 1,000 years on average, a new analysis concludes.

Earth and Titan are the only worlds in the Solar System where liquid rains on a solid surface - though on Titan, the rain is methane rather than water.

The calculation is based on findings from the Cassini probe of rainstorms that occurred in 2004 and 2010.

Dr Ralph Lorenz presented details of his work at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC) in Texas.

Titan is a fascinating, "same but different" analogue of the Earth. Wind and rain sculpt the surface, producing river channels, lakes, dunes and shorelines.

But here, liquid hydrocarbons take the place of water. On Titan, where the surface temperature averages -179C, it rains methane.

"You get centuries between rainshowers; but when they occur, they dump tens of centimetres or even metres of rainfall," Dr Lorenz, from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (JHUAPL) in Maryland, reported.

"That's consistent with the deeply incised river channels that we see."

These channels have been observed by both Cassini and the Huygens probe, which plunged through Titan's thick atmosphere in 2005.

Dr Lorenz says the latest results are remarkably close to the theoretical predictions of Titan rainfall he made 12 years ago.

When it rains...
We're anxious to see when we'll see clouds appearing again”


In 2004 and 2010, at different locations on Titan, the Cassini spacecraft observed a darkening of the moon's surface associated with cloud activity - events that scientists interpret as rain showers.

Dr Elizabeth Turtle, also from JHUAPL, presented an analysis of the Autumn 2010 storms observed at Concordia Regio, near Titan's equator.

"In the wake of this storm, we saw significant changes on the surface... a month later, there was this large darkened swathe that's longer than 2,000km, covering an area of about 500,000 sq km," she explained.

"The simplest interpretation is that this is caused by precipitation wetting the surface - possibly ponding in some areas.

"It's the easiest way to cover [an area this large] in such a short timescale. It's also consistent with the fact that the changes revert over several months afterwards."

Ralph Lorenz's analysis of the rainfall represents a global average; but the seasonal cycle on Titan concentrates rainfall during the polar summer.