Thursday, May 31, 2012

SpaceX Dragon Splashes down after pioneering mission

Dragon splashdown at 11:42 a.m. EDT! (at 17:42 CEST/15:42 UT)

SpaceX's Dragon capsule splashed down in the Pacific Ocean at 11:42 a.m. EDT a few hundred miles west of Baja California, Mexico, marking a successful end to the first mission by a commercial company to resupply the International Space Station.

Distant view of Dragon heading fr splashdown!

Moon Rise Seen by the ISS Crew - YouTube

ESO ALMA Turns Its Eyes to Centaurus A

A new image of the center of the distinctive galaxy Centaurus A, made with the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), shows how the new telescope, which is still under construction, allows astronomers to see with unprecedented quality through the opaque dust lanes that obscure the galaxy's center.

Centaurus A is a massive elliptical "radio galaxy," (a galaxy that emits strong radio waves) and is the most prominent, as well as the nearest, radio galaxy in the sky. Its very luminous center hosts a supermassive black hole with a mass of about 100 million times that of the Sun.

As seen in visible light, a dark dusty band obscures the galaxy's center. This dust lane harbors large amounts of gas, dust and young stars. These features, together with the strong radio emission, indicate that Centaurus A is the result of a collision between a giant elliptical galaxy and a smaller spiral galaxy.

To see through the obscuring dust in the central band, astronomers need to observe using longer wavelengths of light, such as infrared light or radio waves.

The new ALMA observations, shown in a gradation of blue in this image, reveal the position and motion of clouds of gas in the galaxy.

They are the sharpest and most sensitive such observations ever made. ALMA was tuned to detect signals with a wavelength around 1.3 millimeters, emitted by molecules of carbon monoxide gas.

The motion of the gas in the galaxy causes slight changes to this wavelength, shown in this image as changes in color. Violet and dark-blue features trace gas coming towards us, while light-blue features depict gas moving away.

We can see that the gas to the left of the center is moving towards us, while the gas to the right of the center is moving away from us, indicating that the gas is orbiting around the galaxy.

The millimeter wavelength observations were made using super-sensitive radio receivers built by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. In this image the ALMA observations are overlaid on an optical image of Centaurus A produced by the MPG/ESO 2.2-meter telescope at ESO's La Silla Observatory in Chile.

Construction of ALMA, on the Chajnantor Plateau in northern Chile, will be completed in 2013, when 66 high-precision antennas will be fully operational. Half of the antennas already are installed. Early scientific observations with a partial array began in 2011, and already are producing outstanding results. The ALMA observations of Centaurus A shown here were taken during the telescope's Commissioning and Science Verification phase.

Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), T.A. Rector (University of Alaska Anchorage). Visible-light image: ESO

ESA XMM Newton X-Ray Image: Galaxy NGC 4151

Credit: David W. Hogg, Michael R. Blanton, and the Sloan Digital Sky Survey Collaboration

This image shows the spiral galaxy NGC 4151, located at a distance of about 45 million light years from us.

NGC 4151 is a Seyfert galaxy and hosts one of the brightest active galactic nuclei (AGN) known at X-ray wavelengths.

The supermassive black hole lying at the centre of NGC 4151 has a mass of about 50 million solar masses.

Observations performed with ESA's XMM-Newton X-ray observatory have revealed X-rays emitted and then reflected by ionised iron atoms very close to the central black hole.

By measuring the time delays occurring in these 'reverberation' events, scientists have been able to map the vicinity of a black hole in unprecedented detail.

NASA - The Pinwheel Galaxy

This image of the Pinwheel Galaxy, also known as M101, combines data in the infrared, visible, ultraviolet and X-rays from four of NASA's space-based telescopes.

This multi-spectral view shows that both young and old stars are evenly distributed along M101's tightly-wound spiral arms.

Such composite images allow astronomers to see how features in one part of the spectrum match up with those seen in other parts.

It is like seeing with a regular camera, an ultraviolet camera, night-vision goggles and X-ray vision, all at the same time.

The Pinwheel Galaxy is in the constellation of Ursa Major (also known as the Big Dipper). It is about 70 percent larger than our own Milky Way Galaxy, with a diameter of about 170,000 light years, and sits at a distance of 21 million light years from Earth.

This means that the light we're seeing in this image left the Pinwheel Galaxy about 21 million years ago - many millions of years before humans ever walked the Earth.

Image Credits: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO; IR & UV: NASA/JPL-Caltech; Optical: NASA/STScI

NASA Mars: Simulated View from Curiosity

Curiosity's simulated view of Mars

SpaceX Dragon Departs the ISS - YouTube

ESA Rosetta flyby: The complex history of asteroid Lutetia

The long and tumultuous history of asteroid (21) Lutetia is revealed by a comprehensive analysis of the data gathered by ESA's Rosetta spacecraft when it flew past this large main-belt asteroid on 10 July 2010.

New studies have revealed the asteroid's surface morphology, composition and other properties in unprecedented detail.

In particular, extensive studies of Lutetia's geological features have opened a unique window into the complex history of this peculiar object.

On its way to rendezvous with comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, ESA's Rosetta spacecraft flew by the main-belt asteroid (21) Lutetia, reaching the closest approach, at a distance of about 3170 km, on 10 July 2010. From this unique vantage point, Rosetta gathered high-resolution images, spectra, and other data, providing scientists with a valuable dataset with which to probe this peculiar asteroid in great detail.

The first results from the flyby, published in late 2011, revealed the mass and volume of Lutetia, leading to an estimate of the asteroid's density, which turned out to be surprisingly high.

Data from the flyby also suggested that Lutetia is a primordial planetesimal formed during the very early phases of the Solar System. These and other findings called for further investigations about the nature and history of Lutetia.

"The images collected by Rosetta during the flyby have uncovered, for the first time, the wide variety of craters and other geological features that scar the surface of Lutetia," notes Rita Schulz, Rosetta Project Scientist at ESA.

"Scientists have explored this rich pool of data thoroughly in order to characterise many of Lutetia's properties, from its surface morphology and composition to its shape and internal structure, revealing its underlying geological history," she adds. The results of these studies are reported in a series of 21 papers published in a special issue of the journal Planetary and Space Science.

The OSIRIS camera on Rosetta has surveyed the part of Lutetia that was visible during the flyby - about half of its entire surface, mostly coinciding with the asteroid's northern hemisphere.

These unique, close-up images have allowed scientists to identify regions characterised by very distinct geological properties with an accuracy of a few hundred metres.

Counting craters is a powerful tool that is used to compare the regions and to uncover their past history. By recording the number, spatial distribution, shapes and sizes of the hundreds of craters that mark the surface of each region, it is possible to date the epoch when these craters were produced by collisions with smaller bodies. In the case of the largest craters, it is even possible to reconstruct the details of the impact that created them.

By tracing craters and other features on Lutetia's surface, scientists have put together a geological map for the asteroid. Their studies have shown that Lutetia's surface comprises regions spanning a wide range of ages: each of them reveals a chapter in the long and tumultuous history of this asteroid.

At one end of this age spectrum, the two heavily cratered Achaia and Noricum regions represent the most ancient portions on the surface of Lutetia: with ages between 3.4 and 3.7 billion years or more, they are almost as old as the asteroid itself.

Some of the craters that densely populate these two regions date back to an early epoch in the Solar System's history, right after the so-called Late Heavy Bombardment, when the flux of bodies impacting asteroids, planets and their satellites was significantly larger than it is at present.

Massilia, the largest crater identified on the asteroid, is located in a younger region named Narbonensis. With a diameter of 57 km, this crater provides evidence of the most dramatic event in the history of Lutetia: numerical simulations suggest that the 'projectile' responsible for producing this very wide crater was quite large, with a diameter of about 7.5 km.

However, the probability of such a large body colliding with the asteroid is quite low, and so this must have occurred when Lutetia was relatively young.

The youngest patch on the surface of Lutetia is the Baetica region, located in the vicinity of the asteroid's North Pole. This region hosts a number of superimposed craters, named the North Polar Crater Cluster (NPCC), which include three large ones with sizes exceeding 10 km.

These craters represent the signature left by a series of subsequent impacts that took place quite recently on geological timescales - namely, in the last few hundred million years.

The smooth appearance of the craters in Baetica, which have not been dotted yet with many smaller craters, indicate that its surface is much younger than the heavily battered areas of Lutetia.

Furthermore, this region still bears signs of the events that created the NPCC, as indicated by the ejecta that were released during the impacts and then spread on the surrounding area, rather than leaving the asteroid's surface, as a result of its relatively strong gravitational pull. The presence of these 'fresh' deposits, which include many large boulders with sizes up to 300 metres, is another hint at this region's young age.

In addition to craters, other geological markers, such as lineaments and faults, represent an important window into the turbulent past of asteroids and other Solar System bodies.

The remarkable images collected by OSIRIS during the flyby have revealed an intricate network of linear features covering long distances across Lutetia's surface, up to 80 km in some cases.

SpaceX Dragon Released from ISS

The SpaceX Dragon cargo vehicle is unberthed from the Earth-facing port of the International Space Station’s ESA Columbia /Harmony node. Credit: NASA TV

An Orthodox Priest Blesses the Soyuz Space Vehicle

This week, vivid photographs have been released of a Russian Orthodox priest annointing the Soyuz, the crew, and even the press in advance of the May 15 launch to the International Space Station from Baikonur Cosmodrome.

Blessing the crew is a tradition that began in 1994 by request of cosmonaut Alexander Viktorenko before his launch to Mir.

This is one of the few Russian pre-launch traditions that were not founded by or related to Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, since religious expression was limited in the pre-1990 Soviet era.

Usually, a priest administers the blessing to Soyuz crew on the steps of their hotel. On this launch, however, a few additional blessings were included.

NASA: A Spacesuit Ballet - YouTube

Of the suit he wore on the moon, Neil Armstrong wrote, "it was tough, reliable, and almost cuddly." But that cuddly suit, made by the company Playtex, had some stiff competition (literally) from rival rigid, metal designs. This video features archival NASA footage of mobility tests for several spacesuit prototypes. Music is from the band One Ring Zero's album "Planets".

Dyslexia, Blindness and braille?

1) Can a person who reads Braille visually be dyslexic?
2) Can a person who reads Braille by touch be dyslexic?
3) Can a person who is written-language dyslexic also be dyslexic in Braille?
4) Will a person who is written-language dyslexic necessarily be dyslexic in Braille?

The answer to questions 1-3 is an unqualified yes. The answer to 4 is extremely complicated.

Dyslexia is a processing disorder and has, in theory, nothing to do with vision. A dyslexic reader does not "see" words incorrectly. The eyes correctly capture the information, but somewhere in the brain the information is "decoded" (or recoded) improperly, resulting in inaccurate phonological signals.

The stereotypical backwards letters or misordered letters (a symptom that actually occurs in only a very small percentage of dyslexics) is a symptom of incorrect language decoding, not visual decoding. In fact, dyslexia may be more commonly associated with auditory processing issues than visual ones.

This means that a person can in fact be "Braille dyslexic". The same coding and decoding difficulties that impede reading in English could impede coding and decoding of language in Braille.

This applies regardless of whether the Braille is processed visually or by touch. Once the brain is trained to recognize a symbol as language, whether that language is the Latin alphabet, Japanese logograms, or Braille patterns, there is a potential for improper coding and decoding.

Some people even experience dyslexia issues with fingerspelling in sign language. On the other hand, non-linguistic signals are unaffected, so a dyslexic person is unlikely to have difficulty recognizing pictures of things and properly identifying them. (Because dyslexia is often an underlying cause of, or accompanied by, aphasia and other speech disorders, it can create the impression of a visual disorder where there is none.)

Here is where it gets complicated; because there is no identifiable "language centre" of the brain, language processes are distributed across different sections of the brain. It is unclear exactly "where" and how the processing issues associated with dyslexia arise.

What we do know, is that dyslexia is not an "across the board" disorder,difficulty with one language does not imply difficulty with all languages. Orthographically "deep" languages, which have complex and varied relationships between letters and phonemes, such as English, pose different problems from those in orthographically "shallow" languages, which have more straightforward and consistent relationships between letters and phonemes, such as German, which are in turn different from logograms, where images, or graphemes, are not related to phonemes.

Dyslexia can occur in any, or all, or any combination, but difficulty in one does not necessarily imply difficulty in all. A language that takes advantage of a different "pathway" might "route around" the processing disorder, or it might be affected by it to a different, greater or lesser degree.

Braille, however, is not a "different language". Braille is a different script, but basic "uncontracted Braille" is a transliteration of the written language (let's assume for the moment we are talking about English).

In Braille, the pattern for a corresponds to the letter a, the pattern for b corresponds to the letter b, etc. Since dyslexia is not a visual disorder but rather a disorder in the coding / decoding of the linguistic patterns themselves, it is highly likely that the same linguistic difficulties would be encountered. That is, inputting the same letters by a different sense is unlikely to "route around" the coding malfunction.

Contracted Braille

That would be too easy an answer, though, so here's another wrinkle: most Braille texts are not printed in "uncontracted Braille". Because Braille is not nearly as compact as the written Latin alphabet, most Braille uses a set of contractions, substituting letters and letter combinations for words and letter combinations.

Contracted Braille has single-character contractions for letter combinations such as "sh" and "ch" and even some words such as "and" and "but". Additionally, longer words are frequently significantly contracted, such as "ll" for the word "little" and "xs" for "itself". So even though English Braille is in fact the English language, many words are spelled differently in printed Braille.

There are three "grades" of Braille spelling: Grade 1, uncontracted (a direct transliteration of English spelling); Grade 2, contracted (a large number of contracted spellings); and Grade 3, shorthand (an extremely contracted version used as shorthand, much like journalistic shorthand).

It is unlikely that contracted Braille would "route around" all of a dyslexic's processing problems. It could, however, mitigate some of them or it could actually exacerbate them by adding even more orthographic depth. In addition, because dyslexics often develop coping mechanisms to mitigate their own processing problems, learning Braille might pose difficulties related to a dyslexic's secondary functions, not the actual coding and decoding itself.

So here is the part where your particular question is important. If you just need to know whether a character could be dyslexic in Braille because you want to write a dyslexic Braille reader into your story, the answer is definitely, Yes.

If your character normally reads standard written English and is learning to read Braille, and you want to know how the dyslexia would translate over, it's not really clear.

It could mitigate the condition; if your character is only mildly dyslexic, this could be a huge advantage, although for anything other than only borderline dyslexia it is unlikely to mitigate it entirely.

Or the dyslexia could be just as bad, or even worse, in the new writing system. On the other hand, the process of learning to read Braille could provide the dyslexic character with some new coping strategies that allow him to function at a higher level.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Earth’s Core: An Enigma 1,800 Miles Below Our Feet

Geologists have long known that Earth’s core, some 1,800 miles beneath our feet, is a dense, chemically doped ball of iron roughly the size of Mars and every bit as alien. 

It’s a place where pressures bear down with the weight of 3.5 million atmospheres, like 3.5 million skies falling at once on your head, and where temperatures reach 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit — as hot as the surface of the Sun. 

It’s a place where the term “ironclad agreement” has no meaning, since iron can’t even agree with itself on what form to take. It’s a fluid, it’s a solid, it’s twisting and spiraling like liquid confetti.

Researchers have also known that Earth’s inner Martian makes its outer portions look and feel like home. The core’s heat helps animate the giant jigsaw puzzle of tectonic plates floating far above it, to build up mountains and gouge out seabeds. 

At the same time, the jostling of core iron generates Earth’ magnetic field, which blocks dangerous cosmic radiation, guides terrestrial wanderers and brightens northern skies with scarves of auroral lights.

Now it turns out that existing models of the core, for all their drama, may not be dramatic enough. Reporting recently in the journal Nature, Dario Alfè of University College London and his colleagues presented evidence that iron in the outer layers of the core is frittering away heat through the wasteful process called conduction at two to three times the rate of previous estimates. 

The theoretical consequences of this discrepancy are far-reaching. The scientists say something else must be going on in Earth’s depths to account for the missing thermal energy in their calculations. 

They and others offer these possibilities:
  • The core holds a much bigger stash of radioactive material than anyone had suspected, and its decay is giving off heat.
  • The iron of the innermost core is solidifying at a startlingly fast clip and releasing the latent heat of crystallization in the process.
  • The chemical interactions among the iron alloys of the core and the rocky silicates of the overlying mantle are much fiercer and more energetic than previously believed.
  • Or something novel and bizarre is going on, as yet undetermined.
“From what I can tell, people are excited” by the report, Dr. Alfè said. “They see there might be a new mechanism going on they didn’t think about before.”

Researchers elsewhere have discovered a host of other anomalies and surprises. They’ve found indications that the inner core is rotating slightly faster than the rest of the planet, although geologists disagree on the size of that rotational difference and on how, exactly, the core manages to resist being gravitationally locked to the surrounding mantle.
Miaki Ishii and her colleagues at Harvard have proposed that the core is more of a Matryoshka doll than standard two-part renderings would have it. 

Not only is there an outer core of liquid iron encircling a Moon-size inner core of solidified iron, Dr. Ishii said, but seismic data indicate that nested within the inner core is another distinct layer they call the innermost core: a structure some 375 miles in diameter that may well be almost pure iron, with other elements squeezed out. 

Against this giant jewel even Jules Verne’s middle-Earth mastodons and ichthyosaurs would be pretty thin gruel.

Core researchers acknowledge that their elusive subject can be challenging, and they might be tempted to throw tantrums save for the fact that the Earth does it for them. Most of what is known about the core comes from studying seismic waves generated by earthquakes.

As John Vidale of the University of Washington explained, most earthquakes originate in the upper 30 miles of the globe (as do many volcanoes), and no seismic source has been detected below 500 miles. But the quakes’ energy waves radiate across the planet, detectably passing through the core.

Granted, some temblors are more revealing than others. “I prefer deep earthquakes when I’m doing a study,” Dr. Ishii said. “The waves from deep earthquakes are typically sharper and cleaner.”

Read more of this article here: Earth’s Core - The Enigma 1,800 Miles Below Us

Mysterious Gamma-ray beams blast from Milky Way's centre

This artist's conception shows an edge-on view of the Milky Way galaxy. 

Newly discovered gamma-ray jets (pink) extend for 27,000 light-years above and below the galactic plane, and are tilted at an angle of 15 degrees. 

Previously known gamma-ray bubbles are shown in purple. The bubbles and jets suggest that our galactic center was much more active in the past than it is today. Credit: David A. Aguilar (CfA)

 As galaxies go, our Milky Way is pretty quiet. Active galaxies have cores that glow brightly, powered by supermassive black holes swallowing material, and often spit twin jets in opposite directions. 

In contrast, the Milky Way's center shows little activity. But it wasn't always so peaceful. New evidence of ghostly gamma-ray beams suggests that the Milky Way's central black hole was much more active in the past.

"These faint jets are a ghost or after-image of what existed a million years ago," said Meng Su, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), and lead author of a new paper in the .

"They strengthen the case for an active galactic nucleus in the Milky Way's relatively recent past," he added.

The two beams, or jets, were revealed by NASA's Fermi space telescope. They extend from the galactic center to a distance of 27,000 light-years above and below the galactic plane. They are the first such gamma-ray jets ever found, and the only ones close enough to resolve with Fermi.

The newfound jets may be related to mysterious gamma-ray bubbles that Fermi detected in 2010. Those bubbles also stretch 27,000 light-years from the center of the Milky Way. However, where the bubbles are perpendicular to the galactic plane, the gamma-ray jets are tilted at an angle of 15 degrees. This may reflect a tilt of the accretion disk surrounding the supermassive black hole.

"The central accretion disk can warp as it spirals in toward the black hole, under the influence of the black hole's spin," explained co-author Douglas Finkbeiner of the CfA. "The magnetic field embedded in the disk therefore accelerates the jet material along the spin axis of the black hole, which may not be aligned with the Milky Way."

The two structures also formed differently. The jets were produced when plasma squirted out from the galactic center, following a corkscrew-like magnetic field that kept it tightly focused. The gamma-ray bubbles likely were created by a "wind" of hot matter blowing outward from the black hole's accretion disk. As a result, they are much broader than the narrow jets.

Both the jets and bubbles are powered by inverse Compton scattering. In that process, electrons moving near the speed of light collide with low-energy light, such as radio or infrared photons. The collision increases the energy of the photons into the gamma-ray part of the electromagnetic spectrum.

The discovery leaves open the question of when the Milky Way was last active. A minimum age can be calculated by dividing the jet's 27,000-light-year length by its approximate speed. However, it may have persisted for much longer.

"These jets probably flickered on and off as the supermassive black hole alternately gulped and sipped material," said Finkbeiner.

It would take a tremendous influx of matter for the galactic core to fire up again. Finkbeiner estimates that a molecular cloud weighing about 10,000 times as much as the Sun would be required.

"Shoving 10,000 suns into the black hole at once would do the trick. Black holes are messy eaters, so some of that material would spew out and power the jets," he said.

Journal reference: Astrophysical Journal search and more info website

Stunning Image of volcanic eruption in Hawaii with Milky way above

Halemaumau vent, with the Milky Way overhead

Picture: G. Brad Lewis / Barcroft Media

Brad Lewis, aka 'Volcano Man,' has been photographing the Kilauea Volcano, the most active on earth, for over 20 years.

He said:"It's such stunningly beautiful, powerful force. Being near an eruption is an awesome experience.You are never quite the same after seeing flowing lava."

Stargardt Disease: The Leading cause of Macular Degeneration in childhood Blidness

Stargardt disease is a rare yet life devastating condition. It is the most common form of inherited macular degeneration, and affects about one in 10,000 people (about 30,000 people in the United States).

There is currently no cure or treatment for Stargardt disease but clinical trials using gene and cell therapies are currently undergoing.

Patients with Stargardt most often start experiencing significant vision loss during their childhood and teenage years (60% of the patients are diagnosed before 20 years of age).

This vision loss cannot be corrected by glasses, and diagnosis had been traditionally delayed due to the young age of the patients and the rareness of the disease.

After diagnosis, and depending on age at onset, vision deteriorates progressively to levels below 20/200 (legal blindness).

The disease affects mostly the central vision and spares some of the peripheral vision, although there are very severe forms that lead to complete blindness.

Almost all of those affected by Stargardt disease will live legally blind during their adult lives, although patients with late onset may retain some visual acuity.

Loss of central vision leads to impossibility to perform tasks such as reading, writing, driving or recognizing faces.

In 1997, scientists discovered that Stargardt disease results from a defective gene, the ABCA4, responsible for the synthesis of an important protein called Rim protein.

A normally functioning Rim protein transports vitamin A molecules from the photoreceptors (the molecules sensitive to light) back into specialized cells (called RPE), where vitamin A molecules are recycled to be reused for vision.

In Stargardt, the defects in the ABCA4 gene lead to partial or full dysfunction of this protein. As a result, vitamin A transport is affected and vitamin A molecules tend to accumulate in the photoreceptors.

This accumulation leads to the formation of toxic pigments (known as "vitamin A dimers") believed to be partly responsible for vision loss.

Although normal individual also form vitamin A dimers, this process usually takes decades, explaining why age-related macular degeneration (AMD) occurs later in life of normal people, while the same process takes only a few years in Stargardt explaining vision loss from childhood.

Read more of this article here at Alkeus - Stargardt disease

Monday, May 28, 2012

Meet "Flame", The Massive Spy Malware Infiltrating Iranian Computers

A massive, highly sophisticated piece of malware has been newly found infecting systems in Iran and elsewhere and is believed to be part of a well-coordinated, ongoing, state-run cyberespionage operation.

The malware, discovered by Russia-based anti-virus firm Kaspersky Lab, is an espionage toolkit that has been infecting targeted systems in Iran, Lebanon, Syria, Sudan, the Israeli Occupied Territories and other countries in the Middle East and North Africa for at least two years.

Dubbed “Flame” by Kaspersky, the malicious code dwarfs Stuxnet in size – the groundbreaking infrastructure-sabotaging malware that is believed to have wreaked havoc on Iran’s nuclear program in 2009 and 2010.

Although Flame has both a different purpose and composition than Stuxnet, and appears to have been written by different programmers, its complexity, the geographic scope of its infections and its behavior indicate strongly that a nation-state is behind Flame, rather than common cyber-criminals — marking it as yet another tool in the growing arsenal of cyberweaponry.

The researchers say that Flame may be part of a parallel project created by contractors who were hired by the same nation-state team that was behind Stuxnet and its sister malware, DuQu.

“Stuxnet and Duqu belonged to a single chain of attacks, which raised cyberwar-related concerns worldwide,” said Eugene Kaspersky, CEO and co-founder of Kaspersky Lab, in a statement.

“The Flame malware looks to be another phase in this war, and it’s important to understand that such cyber weapons can easily be used against any country.”

Early analysis of Flame by the Lab indicates that it’s designed primarily to spy on the users of infected computers and steal data from them, including documents, recorded conversations and keystrokes. It also opens a backdoor to infected systems to allow the attackers to tweak the toolkit and add new functionality.

The malware, which is 20 megabytes when all of its modules are installed, contains multiple libraries, SQLite3 databases, various levels of encryption — some strong, some weak — and 20 plug-ins that can be swapped in and out to provide various functionality for the attackers.

It even contains some code that is written in the LUA programming language — an uncommon choice for malware.

Kaspersky Lab is calling it “one of the most complex threats ever discovered.”

“It’s pretty fantastic and incredible in complexity,” said Alexander Gostev, chief security expert at Kaspersky Lab.

Flame appears to have been operating in the wild as early as March 2010, though it remained undetected by antivirus companies.

“It’s a very big chunk of code. Because of that, it’s quite interesting that it stayed undetected for at least two years,” Gostev said. He noted that there are clues that the malware may actually date back to as early as 2007, around the same time-period when Stuxnet and DuQu are believed to have been created.

Gostev says that because of its size and complexity, complete analysis of the code may take years.

“It took us half-a-year to analyze Stuxnet,” he said. “This is 20-times more complicated. It will take us 10 years to fully understand everything.”

Kaspersky discovered the malware about two weeks ago after the United Nations’ International Telecommunications Union asked the Lab to look into reports in April that computers belonging to the Iranian Oil Ministry and the Iranian National Oil Company had been hit with malware that was stealing and deleting information from the systems.

The malware was named alternatively in news articles as “Wiper” and “Viper,” a discrepancy that may be due to a translation mixup.

Kaspersky researchers searched through their reporting archive, which contains suspicious filenames sent automatically from customer machines so the names can be checked against whitelists of known malware, and found an MD5 hash and filename that appeared to have been deployed only on machines in Iran and other Middle East countries.

As the researchers dug further, they found other components infecting machines in the region, which they pieced together as parts of Flame.

Kaspersky, however, is currently treating Flame as if it is not connected to Viper, and believes it is a separate infection entirely. The researchers dubbed the toolkit “Flame” after the name of a module inside it.

Read more here

ESA: CryoSat goes to sea

CryoSat was launched in 2010 to measure sea-ice thickness in the Arctic, but data from the Earth-observing satellite have also been exploited for other studies. High-resolution mapping of the topography of the ocean floor is now being added to the ice mission’s repertoire.

The main objective of the polar-orbiting CryoSat is to measure the thickness of polar sea ice and monitor changes in the ice sheets that blanket Greenland and Antarctica.

But the satellite’s radar altimeter is not only able to detect tiny variations in the height of the ice but it can also measure sea level.

The topography of the ocean surface mimics the rises and dips of the ocean floor due to the gravitational pull. Areas of greater mass, such as underwater mountains, have a stronger pull, attracting more water and producing a minor increase in ocean-surface height.

Therefore, instruments that measure sea-surface height incidentally map the ocean floor in previously uncharted areas.

There have been several recent global gravity missions, such as ESA’s GOCE satellite, that provide extraordinarily accurate measurements of gravity at the spatial resolution of hundreds of kilometres.

But CryoSat’s radar altimeter can sense the gravity field at the ocean surface, so that seafloor characteristics at scales of 5–10 km are revealed. This is the first altimeter in 15 years to map the global marine gravity field at such a high spatial resolution.

Recent studies at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, USA, found that the range precision of CryoSat is at least 1.4 times better than the US's Geosat or ESA's ERS-1.

They estimate that this improved range precision combined with three or more years of ocean mapping will result in global seafloor topography – bathymetry – that is 2–4 times more accurate than measurements currently available.

“We know more about the surfaces of Venus and Mars than we do about the bathymetry of deep oceans,” said David Sandwell from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in the US.

“This new mapping from CryoSat will revolutionise our understanding of ocean floor tectonics and reveal, perhaps, 10 000 previously uncharted undersea volcanoes.”

Most satellite radar altimeters such as the one on the joint CNES/NASA/Eumetsat/NOAA Jason-2 follow repeated ground-tracks every 10 days to monitor the changes in ocean topography associated with ocean currents and tides.

CryoSat’s 369-day repeat cycle provides a dense mapping of the global ocean surface at a track spacing of over 4 km. Three to four years of data from CryoSat can be averaged to reduce the ‘noise’ due to currents and tides and better chart the permanent topography related to marine gravity.

ESA Hubble Image: The Swan and the Butterfly

Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA

This image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope shows NGC 7026, a planetary nebula. Located just beyond the tip of the tail of the constellation of Cygnus (The Swan), this butterfly-shaped cloud of glowing gas and dust is the wreckage of a star similar to the Sun.

Planetary nebulae, despite their name, have nothing to do with planets. They are in fact a relatively short-lived phenomenon that occurs at the end of the life of mid-sized stars.

As a star’s source of nuclear fuel runs out, its outer layers are puffed out, leaving only the hot core of the star behind. As the gaseous envelope heats up, the atoms in it are excited, and it lights up like a fluorescent sign.

Fluorescent lights on Earth get their bright colours from the gases they are filled with. Neon signs, famously, produce a bright red colour, while ultraviolet lights (black lights) typically contain mercury. The same goes for nebulae: their vivid colours are produced by the mix of gases present in them.

This image of NGC 7026 shows starlight in green, light from glowing nitrogen gas in red, and light from oxygen in blue (in reality, this appears green, but the colour in this image has been shifted to increase the contrast).

As well as visible light, NGC 7026 emits X-ray radiation, and has been studied by ESA’s XMM-Newton space telescope. X-rays are a result of the extremely high temperatures of the gas in NGC 7026.

This image was produced by the Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 aboard the Hubble Space Telescope. The image is 35 by 35 arcseconds.

A version of this image was entered into the Hubble’s Hidden Treasures Competition by contestant Linda Morgan-O'Connor. Hidden Treasures is an initiative to invite astronomy enthusiasts to search the Hubble archive for stunning images that have never been seen by the general public.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Square Kilometer Array (SKA): Organisation opts for dual site solution

After a tense few months that has had many in Australia and South Africa anxiously awaiting word on whether their particular site will be chosen to host the world’s largest and most sensitive radio telescope, the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) Organisation has finally made its decision.

It’s good news for both bids, with the organization opting for a dual-site solution that will see the SKA telescope shared between Australia and South Africa.

The joint Australia/New Zealand bid and a South African- led bid were left competing after sites in Argentina and Chile were ruled out in 2006.

However, hopes in the Australian camp were dealt a blow earlier this year when it was reported that a confidential report from the SKA Site Advisory Committee favored the South African-led bid.

While an official announcement was expected on April 4, 2012, the SKA Organization instead decided to postpone the announcement while a working group was set up to examine the two sites further, along with the option of a dual site solution.

Noting that both sites had their own advantages and disadvantages, and wishing to be inclusive, the SKA Organisation has now revealed it has agreed on a dual-site solution that will allow the project to take advantage of investments already made by the bidding nations.

The decision will see two of the three SKA receiver components built in Africa, with the third to be constructed in Australia.

The MeerKAT radio telescope, which is currently under construction in the Northern Cape Province of South Africa and will consist of 64 dishes measuring 13.5 m (44 ft) in diameter, will be used to supplement the SKA Phase I dish array, providing the majority of the collection area for the SKA telescope.

The majority of SKA dishes in Phase I will be built in Southern Africa, as will all the dishes and mid frequency aperture arrays for Phase II of the SKA.

Meanwhile, in Australia, SKA dishes will be combined with the 36 dishes of the almost completed Australian SKA Pathfinder (ASKAP) array in Western Australia. All of the low frequency aperture array antennas for Phase I and II will also be built in Australia and New Zealand.

When completed, the SKA will have a total collecting area of approximately one square kilometer (0.38 square miles), with thousands of receptors extending to distances of up to 3,000 km (1,864 miles) from its center.

It will also generate astronomical amounts of data – with each dish transmitting around 160 Gigabits of data per second to a central processor – posing some pretty intensive computing demands to be addressed by the DOME project.

Boasting 50 times the sensitivity and 10,000 times the survey speed of the best current-day telescopes, the SKA will extend the range of the observable universe, while addressing questions in the fields of astrophysics, fundamental physics, cosmology and particle astrophysics.

Construction of Phase I of the SKA is due to start in 2016, with initial observations set for 2019 and full operation scheduled by 2024.

Source: SKA Organisation

Saturday, May 26, 2012

NASA ISS SpaceX: Inside the Dragon

The hatch between the newly arrived SpaceX Dragon spacecraft and the Harmony module of the International Space Station was opened by NASA Astronaut Don Pettit at 5:53 am EDT as the station flew 253 miles above Auckland, New Zealand. 

The hatch opening begins four days of operations to upload more than 1,000 pounds of cargo from the first commercial spacecraft to visit the space station and reload it with experiments and cargo for a return trip to Earth. It is scheduled for splashdown several hundred miles west of California on May 31.

Wearing protective masks and goggles, as is customary for the opening of a hatch to any newly arrived vehicle at the station, Pettit entered the Dragon with Station Commander Oleg Kononenko.

The goggles and masks will be removed once the station atmosphere has had a chance to mix air with the air inside the Dragon itself. A crew news conference will air on NASA TV at 11:25 a.m.

Friday, May 25, 2012

SpaceX Progress Update for Media - YouTube

Mission milestones of the first commercial spaceflight to visit the International Space Station are recapped at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Texas.

Neil Armstrong Grants a Rare and Unique Interview

Neil Armstrong is considered a great symbol of human achievement since he was the first man to walk on the moon.

Despite that unique and prestigious honour, Neil Armstrong kept a private life and rarely gave interviews.

Recently, he granted a rare and unique interview to a very unusual group: the Certified Practicing Accountants (CPA) of Australia.

Alex Malley, the chief executive officer of CPA Australia, was the one who conducted the interview and Mr Armstrong disclosed some very interesting information ranging from the time that he was flying fighter planes during the Korean War to the very popular topic of the first landing on the moon.

Prior to that interview, Neil Armstrong's wife, Carol, had disclosed that he used to receive at least 10 interview requests per month but he did not give permission to these requests because he felt that he had already said everything in previous interviews.

In his latest four-part interview, Mr Armstrong recalled some interesting stories about the first expedition to the moon.

He shared his thoughts about the trip, stating that "I should say I thought we had a 90 per cent chance of getting back to Earth on that flight, but only a 50-50 chance of making a successful landing on the first attempt."

He also added that the original landing site was a "very bad location" and he needed to manually control it to have a safe landing.

His exact words were: "It was on the side of a large crater, about 100 or 150 metres in diameter, with very steep slopes covered with very large boulders - not a good place to land at all. It was a very bad location.

So, I took over manually and flew it like a helicopter out to the west, got into a smoother area with not so many rocks, found a level area and was able to get it down there safely before we ran out of fuel."

Mr Armstrong also disclosed his thoughts about the future of NASA as it is likened to a "shuttlecock" between Congress and the Obama administration.

He remarked that "NASA has been one of the most successful public investments in motivating students to do well and achieve all they can achieve.

It's sad that we are turning the program in a direction where it will reduce the amount of motivation and stimulation it provides to young people. And that's a major concern to me."

NASA ISS: SpaceX Dragon docks with ISS

The SpaceX Dragon unmanned spacecraft successfully docked with the International Space Station today, Friday 25, 2012, setting a milestone never before realized in spaceflight.

That milestone being that in a mere ten years, a private company began operations and developed a capsule and launch system that has now sent the same reverberations throughout the world as the beginning of the great space race between the United States and the Soviet Union.

The race now, however, is different. This time the race is about free enterprise and while SpaceX is the early starter in this race there are others who are following behind.

The other entrants in the new commercial space race include such notables as Orbital Sciences, Virgin Galactic, Sierra Nevada, Alliant Techsystems and Boeing, which through its various adopted companies, including the former McDonnell Douglas, has been a major player under the former paradigm of government sponsored spaceflight.

The goal in this new environment is not geopolitical competition but rather free market competition.

However, as this new era is thrust upon us, the issues of space policy and space law enter with them.

The current regime of space law developed in the late 1960s to 1970s dealt with the paradigm of government sponsored spaceflight, but did not foresee the advent of commercial actors in the mix.

The looming question is whether the first generation of international space law will be able to accommodate the paradigm of commercial space.

If the first generation of space law is insufficient, can that deficiency be met with a new international treaty specifically addressing commercial spaceflight or will the laws of commercial spaceflight be made by a mix of domestic regulation and customary international law.

Space policy of many nations will also be affected by the new era of commercial spaceflight. While the United States’ National Space Policy specifically includes commercial spaceflight, other space faring nations such as the Russian Federation and the Oppressive People’s Republic of China have yet to fully absorb the impact that commercial spaceflight will have on their space programs and space policies. In particular, China will be most affected by this new paradigm.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Tackling Space Debris With Nanobots And Lasers

Three students of the Institute of Science and Technology at Klawad in Haryana, India have proposed a revolutionary method to tackle space debris.

In a paper entitled Space Debris and its Mitigation published in the Moon Miners’ Manifesto India quarterly, Sourabh Kaushal and Nishant Arora propose the use of decayable material when manufacturing space machines, and nanobots that collect these machines upon decay.

The work has also earned the team – which includes a third student Niraj Pachpnde – acclaim from space experts like V. Adimurthy, Dean (R&D) of ISRO’s Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology, and Priyankar Bandhopadhyay, a space debris expert at ISRO.

According to the eight-page paper, fragmentation debris accounts for 42 percent of space debris; break up of satellites, unused fuel, dead batteries and rocket bodies 17 percent; mission-related debris 19 percent; and non-functional spacecraft 22 percent.
“These objects consist of everything from spent rocket stages and defunct satellites to explosion and collision fragments… As the orbits of these objects may overlie the trajectory of spacecraft, debris is a potential collision risk,” they explain.
The method proposed in this paper involves a mesh made out of carbon nanotubes that acts as a touch screen. When debris brushes onto the screen, nanobots placed at specific coordinates collect the particles for storage.

Another proposal by the team involves the use of a laser which could either vaporize or redirect space debris back to earth. The laser could be installed on the International Space Station, they suggest.

The authors also recommend the creation of huge orbit junkyards surrounding the space station for additional shielding. The paper says that the possibility of using space debris for energy production can also be explored.

Approximately 15,000 pieces of space debris in earth’s orbit are larger than the detection limit of three inches, the paper says, meaning that there are probably millions or even billions of smaller pieces of space debris that remain undetected.
“Despite the size of these objects, they all have the potential to be mortal because of the speed that they are traveling, especially since most of the debris are traveling hundreds or thousands of kilometers per hour,” they write.
Quoting a study, the paper states that the debris amount was placed at 5,000 objects in 1981. By late 1990, it was thought that the majority of 28,000 launched objects had already decayed and about 8,500 remained in orbit.

By 2005 this figure had been adjusted upward to 13,000 objects and in 2006 it went up to 19,000.

Nearly 12 percent of catalogued space debris consists of objects discarded during normal satellite deployment and operation, the paper says. Explosions in higher orbits are one of the main causes of space debris, while space walks also generate some debris.
“For example, Sunita Williams of STS-116 lost a camera during extra vehicular activity. Lost equipment include garbage bags, gloves, and tool kits,” the authors write.
The full article can be found at: Kaushal S et al. (2012) Space debris and its mitigation.

SpaceX in transit past ISS - NASA Video

The SpaceX Dragon capsule closes in on the International Space Station for a series of tests to clear it for its final rendezvous and grapple.

Early this morning, Dragon's thrusters fired, bringing the vehicle 2.4 kilometers below the International Space Station. The vehicle completed two key tests at that distance.

Dragon demonstrated its Relative GPS and established a communications link with the International Space Station using CUCU. Astronauts commanded on Dragon's strobe light to confirm the link worked.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Final Launch of R-7 Rocket (Soyuz-U) - YouTube

On May 17, Russia launched its final Soyuz-U rocket from the Plesetsk Space Center. The 40 year old launch vehicle family will be replaced by the Soyuz-2 and Angara-A3 carrier rockets.

The Soyuz-U is a medium class carrier rocket that was developed from the R-7 ballistic missile in the mid-1950′s. The first Soyuz-U launched in 1973, also from the Plesetsk Space Center, carrying Cosmos 559, a Zenit military spy satellite.

Since that time, it has launched 434 times, carrying 430 spacecraft into orbit. It carried its first crew in 1974, delivering the Soyuz 16 in preparation for the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project.

It was later used to launch the Soyuz-TMA capsule that continues to transport crew to the International Space Station, although it last performed this function in 2002.

The Soyuz was developed by the TsSKB design bureau, now TsSKB-Progress. It comes in two version, the Soyuz-U/Ikar and the Soyuz-U/Fregat, and was the basis for the Soyuz-FG which uses a different first stage from the Soyuz-U.

The Soyuz-FG is also slated to be phased out. The most prolific launch vehicle in history, the Soyuz-U was known for many years as the most reliable as well. This reputation added to international consternation in August 2011 when a Soyuz-U crashed after launch due to a blocked fuel line.

In its final journey, the Soyuz-U placed Cosmos 2480, a spy satellite, in orbit as part of Russia’s Oko (Eye) orbital missile early warning network of 70 satellites.

Audi’s new futuristic electric bike was designed for fun

Audi, known globally for performance oriented cars and chic designs, revealed a two wheel model at the Worthersee Autonews 2012 show, a meet-up of Audi, Volkswagen, Seat and Skoda (and their fans) in Carinthia, Austria.

The new bike, called the Audi e-bike Worthersee, is a lithium-ion-battery powered e-bike that according to Audi, explores technological limits on the basis of Audi’s core competences: design, connect, ultra, and e-tron to make a unique and innovative sport bike.

Neither a straight electric nor a normal bicycle, the company describes the prototype as “high-end pedelec” that’s made specifically for “sport, fun and tricks.”

The design is super-futuristic, probably for the reason of steering away from other bike concepts. Audi wants us to know that this bike, like their cars, is performance, speed and flash-driven.

Audi’s new futuristic electric bike was designed for fun

NASA Mars Rover Opportunity's Selfie

NASA's Mars Rover Opportunity catches its own late-afternoon shadow in this dramatically lit view eastward across Endeavour Crater on Mars.

The rover used the panoramic camera (Pancam) between about 4:30 and 5:00 p.m. local Mars time to record images taken through different filters and combined into this mosaic view.

Most of the component images were recorded during the 2,888th Martian day, or sol, of Opportunity's work on Mars (March 9, 2012).

At that time, Opportunity was spending low-solar-energy weeks of the Martian winter at the Greeley Haven outcrop on the Cape York segment of Endeavour's western rim.

To give the mosaic a rectangular aspect, some small parts of the edges of the mosaic and sky were filled in with parts of an image acquired earlier as part of a 360-degree panorama from the same location.

Opportunity has been studying the western rim of Endeavour Crater since arriving there in August 2011. This crater spans 14 miles (22 kilometers) in diameter, or about the same area as the city of Seattle.

This is more than 20 times wider than Victoria Crater, the largest impact crater that Opportunity had previously examined. The interior basin of Endeavour is in the upper half of this view.

The mosaic combines about a dozen images taken through Pancam filters centered on wavelengths of 753 nanometers (near infrared), 535 nanometers (green) and 432 nanometers (violet).

The view is presented in false color to make some differences between materials easier to see, such as the dark sandy ripples and dunes on the crater's distant floor.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/Arizona State Univ.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Robotic fish Shoal: Sniffing out pollution in harbours

There is something unnatural lurking in the waters of the port of Gijon, Spain, and researchers are tracking its every move. 

 It is not some bizarre new form of marine life, but an autonomous robotic fish designed to sense marine pollution, taking to the open waves for the first time.

"With these fish we can find exactly what is causing the pollution and put a stop to it right away," explains Luke Speller, a scientist at the British technology firm BMT and the leader of SHOAL, a European project involving universities, businesses and the port of Gijon, which have joined forces to create the fish.

Currently the port relies on divers to monitor water quality, which is a lengthy process costing €100,000 per year. The divers take water samples from hundreds of points in the port, then send them off for analysis, with the results taking weeks to return.

By contrast, the SHOAL robots would continuously monitor the water, letting the port respond immediately to the causes of pollution, such as a leaking boat or industrial spillage, and work to mitigate its effectsMovie Camera.

The SHOAL fish are one and a half metres long, comparable to the size and shape of a tuna, but their neon-yellow plastic shell means they are unlikely to be mistaken for the real thing. 

A range of onboard chemical sensors detect lead, copper and other pollutants, along with measuring water salinity.

They are driven by a dual-hinged tail capable of making tight turns that would be impossible with a propeller-driven robot.

They are also less noisy, reducing the impact on marine life. The robots are battery powered and capable of running for 8 hours between charges. At the moment the researchers have to recover them by boat, but their plan is that the fish will return to a charging station by themselves.

Working in a group, the fish can cover a 1 kilometre-square region of water, down to a depth of 30 metres.

They communicate with each other and a nearby base-station using very low-frequency sound waves, which can penetrate the water more easily than radio waves.

However, this means the fish have a low data transmission rate and can only send short, predefined messages. "It's a good solution, but it requires thinking carefully about what data to transmit and how to use that data," says Kristi Morgansen, a roboticist at the University of Washington, who was not involved in the research.

Navigation relies on a related system that communicates with four "pingers" at the corners of the port, which act much like GPS satellites for the fish. If one fish senses pollution in an area it can call the others to create a detailed map of high and low concentrations around it, helping port authorities to locate the exact source of the pollutant.

SpaceX: Falcon 9 Rocket Liftoff with Dragon Spacecraft on Board - Video

Solar Array deployed. Ready for power-up!

A private cargo rocket headed to the International Space Station blasted off early Tuesday morning.

Built by Space Exploration Technologies Corp. of Hawthorne, Calif. — commonly known as SpaceX — this rocket is carrying only about 1,000 pounds of cargo, and nothing of great value.

The importance is instead technical and symbolic. If the cargo capsule makes it all the way to the space station, it would be the first commercial, rather than government-operated, spacecraft to dock at the space station, and it would mark an important step in NASA’s efforts to turn over basic transportation to low-Earth orbit to the private sector.

With success of this flight, SpaceX would begin a $1.6 billion contract to fly 12 cargo missions to the space station.

Read more of this article here 

Read more here

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

ESO Wide Field Imager Takes a deeper look at Centaurus A

The peculiar galaxy Centaurus A (NGC 5128) is pictured in this image taken with by the Wide Field Imager attached to the MPG/ESO 2.2-meter telescope at the La Silla Observatory in Chile. 

With a total exposure time of more than 50 hours this is probably the deepest view of this peculiar and spectacular object every created. Credit: ESO

Centaurus A, also known as NGC 5128, is a peculiar massive elliptical galaxy with a supermassive black hole at its heart.

It lies about 12 million light-years away in the southern constellation of Centaurus (The Centaur) and has the distinction of being the most prominent radio galaxy in the sky.

Astronomers think that the bright nucleus, strong radio emission and jet features of Centaurus A are produced by a central black hole with a mass of about 100 million times that of the Sun. Matter from the dense central parts of the galaxy releases vast amounts of energy as it falls towards the black hole.

This Wide Field Imager (WFI) picture allows us to appreciate the galaxy's elliptical nature, which shows up as the elongated shape of the fainter outer parts.

The glow that fills much of the picture comes from hundreds of billions of cooler and older stars. Unlike most elliptical galaxies, however, Centaurus A's smooth shape is disturbed by a broad and patchy band of dark material that obscures the galaxy's centre.

The dark band harbours large amounts of gas, dust and young stars. Bright young star clusters appear at the upper-right and lower-left edges of the band along with the red glow of star-forming clouds of hydrogen, whilst some isolated dust clouds are silhouetted against the stellar background.

These features, and the prominent radio emission, are strong evidence that Centaurus A is the result of a merger between two galaxies. The dusty band is probably the mangled remains of a spiral galaxy in the process of being ripped apart by the gravitational pull of the giant elliptical galaxy.

The new set of images from WFI include long exposures through red, green and blue filters as well as filters specially designed to isolate the light from glowing hydrogen and oxygen. The latter help us to spot the known optical jet features around Centaurus A, which were barely visible in a previous image from the Wide Field Imager.

Extending from the galaxy to the upper left corner of the image are two groups of reddish filaments, which are roughly lined up with the huge jets that are prominent in radio images. Both sets of filaments are stellar nurseries, containing hot young stars.

Above the left side of the dusty band, we find the inner filaments, lying about 30 000 light-years away of the nucleus. Further out, around 65 000 light-years away from the galaxy's nucleus and close to the upper left corner of the image, the outer filaments are visible. There is also possibly a very much fainter trace of a counter jet extending to the lower right.

Centaurus A has been extensively studied at wavelengths ranging from radio all the way to gamma-rays. In particular, radio and X-ray observations have been crucial for studying the interaction between the energetic output of the central supermassive black hole and its surroundings, see eso0903. Studies of Centaurus A with ALMA are just beginning.

Many of the observations of Centaurus A used to make this image were taken to see whether it was possible to use ground-based surveys to detect and study variable stars in galaxies like Centaurus A outside the local group. More than 200 new variable stars in Centaurus A were discovered.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Russia launches astronauts after 5-month break

Two Russians and an American on Tuesday blasted off for the International Space Station (ISS) on a Soyuz rocket in Russia's first manned space launch for almost five months.

Russians Gennady Padalka and Sergei Revin and American Joseph Acaba started their journey on top of the Russian Soyuz FG rocket under crystal-clear skies from Russia's Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, an AFP correspondent said.

Their Soyuz TMA-04M capsule was successfully delivered into orbit, with the rocket stages detaching as planned and all the crew were feeling good, mission control said.

They are due to dock the space station after a two-day journey on Thursday morning.

Russia is now the sole nation capable of transporting humans to the ISS after the withdrawal from service of the US shuttle but this blast-off was the first manned flight since December from the legendary Baikonur cosmodrome.

The launch had been delayed by one-and-a-half months after the spacecraft the three spacemen were initially to use in the mission was shown in testing not to be hermetically sealed and could not be used for safety reasons.

As a result, their mission has been cut down to 126 days but according to Padalka it will be extremely intense with 40 experiments planned on the Russian segment of the station alone.

Russia's space programme has been beset by a litany of technical problems which have led to the loss of a half dozen satellites and vehicles over the last year, including a Progress cargo vessel bound for the ISS.

The Soyuz rockets -- the workhorse of the Russian space programme and the direct descendant of the rocket that took Yuri Gagarin into space in 1961 -- were grounded after the Progress crashed into Siberia after launch.

However all manned launches since Russia resumed using the Soyuz have been textbook and hitch-free.

On board the ISS, the three newcomers will join Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko, NASA astronaut Don Pettit and Dutch astronaut Andre Kuipers who have already been on the station almost five months since their December launch.

Together, the crew is set to have the historic task of receiving the first ever cargo consignment for the ISS delivered by a private company.

Private firm SpaceX is seeking to launch its Dragon spacecraft on May 19 from Cape Canaveral, Florida in what the company hopes will be the first step towards an eventual private manned mission to the station.

Padalka, who is making his fourth space flight, is one of Russia's most experienced and decorated cosmonauts who has already spent 585 days in space and made eight spacewalks.

He made his first space flight back in 1998, serving on the now defunct Russian space station Mir. He flew to the ISS again in 2004 followed by another long duration mission in 2009.

Acaba had previously made one shuttle flight while Revin is making his first trip into space.

A Supernova Cocoon Breakthrough

Observations with NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory have provided the first X-ray evidence of a supernova shock wave breaking through a cocoon of gas surrounding the star that exploded.

This discovery may help astronomers understand why some supernovas are much more powerful than others.

On November 3, 2010, a supernova was discovered in the galaxy UGC 5189A, located about 160 million light-years away. Using data from the All Sky Automated Survey telescope in Hawaii taken earlier, astronomers determined this supernova exploded in early October 2010 (in Earth's time-frame).

This composite image of UGC 5189A shows X-ray data from Chandra in purple and optical data from Hubble Space Telescope in red, green and blue. SN 2010jl is the very bright X-ray source near the top of the galaxy (mouse-over for a labeled version).

A team of researchers used Chandra to observe this supernova in December 2010 and again in October 2011. The supernova was one of the most luminous that has ever been detected in X-rays.

In optical light, SN 2010jl was about ten times more luminous than a typical supernova resulting from the collapse of a massive star, adding to the class of very luminous supernovas that have been discovered recently with optical surveys. Different explanations have been proposed to explain these energetic supernovas including (1) the interaction of the supernova's blast wave with a dense shell of matter around the pre-supernova star, (2) radioactivity resulting from a pair-instability supernova (triggered by the conversion of gamma rays into particle and anti-particle pairs), and (3) emission powered by a neutron star with an unusually powerful magnetic field.

In the first Chandra observation of SN 2010jl, the X-rays from the explosion's blast wave were strongly absorbed by a cocoon of dense gas around the supernova. This cocoon was formed by gas blown away from the massive star before it exploded.

In the second observation taken almost a year later, there is much less absorption of X-ray emission, indicating that the blast wave from the explosion has broken out of the surrounding cocoon. The Chandra data show that the gas emitting the X-rays has a very high temperature -- greater than 100 million degrees Kelvin -- strong evidence that it has been heated by the supernova blast wave.

The energy distribution, or spectrum, of SN 2010jl in optical light reveals features that the researchers think are explained by the following scenario: matter around the supernova has been heated and ionized (electrons stripped from atoms) by X-rays generated when the blast wave plows through this material. While this type of interaction has been proposed before, the new observations directly show, for the first time, that this is happening.

This discovery therefore supports the idea that some of the unusually luminous supernovas are caused by the blast wave from their explosion ramming into the material around it.

In a rare example of a cosmic coincidence, analysis of the X-rays from the supernova shows that there is a second unrelated source at almost the same location as the supernova. These two sources strongly overlap one another as seen on the sky. This second source is likely to be an ultraluminous X-ray source, possibly containing an unusually heavy stellar-mass black hole, or an intermediate-mass black hole.

New German scope will study the Sun

One of the major centres for solar studies is on the holiday island of Tenerife, high on the Moon-like landscape of the plateau surrounding Mount Teide called Las Canadas.

I remember this already being an important observatory with way back in the early Seventies when I was a young site-tester on the plateau checking sky conditions for another planned observatory that ended up being built on the neighbouring island of La Palma.

Now a new German solar telescope has been added to the mushrooming number of solar instruments at the site, called the Spanish Observatorio del Teide of the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias at Izaña. Called GREGOR, it is the largest solar telescope in Europe and the third biggest in the world.

This telescope, which will be inaugurated on May 21, is unusual because it will also be used at night to observe bright stars and compare their cycle of activity changes with the Sun.

GREGOR has a mirror 1.5 metres across (5ft) and will observe the Sun’s visible surface, called the photosphere, and the lower region of its atmosphere called the chromosphere, in the visible and infrared regions of the spectrum.

A range of instruments in neighbouring laboratory rooms will examine the light to study how these solar regions interact with the Sun’s magnetic field and movement of hot plasma.

Like many telescopes nowadays, a system of adaptive optics will compensate for atmospheric disturbances. Together with the large diameter this will allow observation of the Sun in great detail, down to features just 70km across, which the German team claim will be similar to what can be achieved in space.

Another unusual aspect of GREGOR is that it will operate in the open rather than a dome to allow the wind to cool the telescope’s structure and its mirrors. Its protective housing slides away to allow this.

The main mirror, or primary, is relatively lightweight and made from a material that does not change its shape under the heat of the brilliant Sun. It is also has a cooling mechanism added to the back of the primary to prevent it from heating up and producing image-distorting turbulence.

GREGOR, which will be open to use by astronomers from all over the world, was built by a German consortium led by the Kiepenheuer-Institut für Sonnenphysik in Freiburg with partners the Leibniz-Institut für Astrophysik Potsdam and the Max-Planck-Institut für Sonnensystemforschung in Katlenburg/Lindau.

Other contributions were made by the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias, the Institut für Astrophysik Göttingen, and the Astronomical Institute of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic.