Wednesday, August 31, 2011

ESO VLT looks into the eyes of the Virgin

Astronomers using the Very Large Telescope, at the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) Cerro Paranal facility in Chile, announce that they were recently able to capture a remarkable new image of a galactic duo called The Eyes.

Another reason why this image is very important is that it's the first-ever to be created through the ESO Cosmic Gems program, a public outreach initiative, meant to get more people involved with the field of astronomy.

As the name suggests, the program will mostly focus on either known or extremely interesting cosmic features that have something special over other objects or structures in their respective classes. ESO hopes that this will make more students interested in what's going on in space.

To that end, imaging this beautiful, yet peculiar pair of galaxies appeared to be the logical thing to do. NGC 4438, the larger galaxy in the system, did not always look like this. In fact, hundreds of millions of years ago, it was a majestic spiral galaxies.

Repeated collisions with surrounding dwarf galaxies eventually ripped its beautiful structure apart, leaving only this stained formation behind. However, the past events made the galaxy look like the pair of NGC 4435, its companion.

When viewed through a moderate-sized telescope, both galaxies appear as a bright set of eyes in the constellation of Virgo (the Virgin). The galaxies themselves are an estimated 100,000 light-years apart from each other, a distance smaller than the diameter of the Milky Way.

The interacting structures are located an estimated 50 million light-years away from Earth, which is relatively close in cosmic terms. This is also the reason why they can be effortlessly observed with a moderate-sized telescope on a dark night.

Interestingly, the cores of NGC 4438 and NGC 4435 look similar, but their edges couldn't be more different. While the former still contains vast amounts of cosmic dust and hydrogen gas, the smaller one is literally devoid of such materials, which implies it no longer forms blue stars.

“Some astronomers believe that the damage caused to NGC 4438 resulted from an approach between the two galaxies to within about 16 000 light-years that happened some 100 million years ago,” an ESO press release accompanying the findings expalins.

“But while the larger galaxy was damaged, the smaller one was significantly more affected by the collision. Gravitational tides from this clash are probably responsible for ripping away the contents of NGC 4438, and for reducing NGC 4435’s mass and removing most of its gas and dust,” they add.

“Another possibility is that the giant elliptical galaxy Messier 86, further away from The Eyes and not visible in this image, was responsible for the damage caused to NGC 4438,” the team concludes.

DEXTRE: Canadian Robot Repairs Components on ISS

Canadian built Dextre was designed to reduce the need for astronauts to conduct spacewalks for routine maintenance, therefore freeing up the crew's time for more important activities, like conducting science.

Dextre, the Canadian Space Agency's robotic handyman aboard the International Space Station (ISS), has successfully replaced a faulty circuit-breaker box on the orbiting lab.

The robot swapped the failed component for a fresh one, thereby restoring part of the orbiting lab's backup electrical systems. The maneuver marks the first time Dextre replaces defective equipment on the Station.

Known by the technical term "Remote Power Control Modules," (RPCMs)," circuit-breaker boxes control the flow of electricity through the ISS's secondary power distribution system, and tend to fail occasionally. Up to now, exchanging the boxes was done by spacewalkers, which always carries a certain level of risk.

Dextre was designed to reduce the need for astronauts to conduct spacewalks for routine maintenance, therefore freeing up the crew's time for more important activities, like conducting science.

Canadarm2 supported Dextre during the entire operation, which took place on August 28-29. Dextre was operated from the groundbotics flight controllers at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, and supported by several teams of engineers both in Houston and at the Canadian Space Agency's headquarters in Saint-Hubert, Quebec.

While the robotic handyman remains on-call for duty if any issues arise, Dextre also has a full list of scheduled tasks. Later this week, the Canadian-built robot will relocate two small storage pallets from their current location the robot's workbench to the Express Logistics Carrier 4 on the ISS.

One of the pallets carries the equipment for the Robotic Refueling Mission (RRM), Dextre's first research and development project to test the technologies and techniques necessary to refuel satellites in flight.

Hubble movies reveal solar-system-sized traffic jams

Rice astronomer Patrick Hartigan displays a target from an experiment to re-create the physics of stellar jets on a small scale. Powerful lasers blasted a tiny plug of titanium inside the gold-coated cone, shooting the atomised material into a ball of foam-covered plastic. 

The experiment re-created some of the fluid dynamics that occur on a huge scale when newborn stars spew columns of high-speed gas and dust. Jeff Fitlow/Rice University

When it comes to big-budget action movies, Rice University astronomer Patrick Hartigan prefers Hubble to Hollywood.

Using Hubble Space Telescope images collected over 14 years, Hartigan has created time-lapse movies that offer astronomers their first glimpse of the dynamic behaviour of stellar jets, huge torrents of gas and particles that spew from the poles of newborn stars.

An analysis of the movies that was published in The Astrophysical Journal is forcing astronomers to rethink some of the processes that occur during the latter stages of star birth.

In an effort to learn even more, Hartigan and colleagues are using powerful lasers to recreate a small-scale version of the solar-system-sized jets in a lab in upstate New York.

"The Hubble's given us spectacular images," said Hartigan, professor of physics and astronomy at Rice. "In the nebulae where stars are born, for instance, we can see beautiful filaments and detailed structure.

We know these images are frozen snapshots in time, but we would need to watch for hundreds of thousands of years to see how things actually play out."

Hartigan said stellar jets are different because they move very quickly. Stellar jets blast out into space from the poles of newly formed stars at about 600,000 miles an hour.

Astronomers first noticed them about 50 years ago, and they believe the sun probably had stellar jets when it formed about 4.5 billion years ago.

Hartigan began using Hubble to collect still frames of stellar jets in 1994. The jets emerge from each pole of a young star, and Hartigan used Hubble to revisit the jets from three stars in 1994, 1998 and 2008.

All three stars are about 1,350 light years from Earth. Two are near the Orion Nebula, and the third is in the southern sky in the constellation Vela.

By lacing the images together and using a computer to fill in what occurred between still frames, Hartigan and his collaborators created time-lapse movies.

The movies clearly showed something that wasn't obvious in any of the still images; clouds of dust and gas within the jets move at different speeds.

"The bulk motion of the jet is about 300 kilometers per second," Hartigan said. "That's really fast, but it's kind of like watching a stock car race; if all the cars are going the same speed, it's fairly boring.

The interesting stuff happens when things are jumbling around, blowing past one another or slamming into slower moving parts and causing shockwaves."

Understanding what happens in those huge collisions is another challenge. The phenomena didn't look like anything that Hartigan and his astronomer colleagues had seen. But when he showed them to colleagues who were familiar with the physics of nuclear explosions, they immediately saw patterns in the shockwaves that looked familiar.

Russia Space program: under state defense order

The Russian Federal Space Agency Roscosmos said on Wednesday it is considering returning the federal space program to the framework of the state defense order to ensure steady financing and reduce the number of accidents with space launches.

"It would be beneficial to return the federal space program and the Glonass program to the framework of the state defense order," said Vitaly Davydov, deputy head of Roscosmos.

"It would bolster discipline in issues related to financing, quality control and schedule deadlines in manufacturing," Davydov said.

The Russian aerospace industry has faced a series of misfortunes over the last nine months. In December, 2010, a Proton-M booster rocket failed to put three Glonass-M satellites into orbit.

The launch of the Rokot booster rocket carrying a military geodesic satellite Geo-IK-2 ended in failure in February.

After the first two mishaps, a number of senior space industry officials were fired and Roscosmos's chief, Anatoly Perminov, was forced to resign.

However, the problems persisted as the aerospace industry failed to manufacture the planned number of spacecraft and incidents with the launches continued.

On August 18, a Russian Proton-M rocket lost the prized Express-AM4 satellite that was designed to provide digital television and secure government communications for Siberia and the Far East.

One week after the Express-AM4 went off course, a Soyuz-U booster malfunctioned, preventing the Progress M-12M cargo spacecraft from reaching orbit. Its debris fell in Gorny Altai, Russia.

The loss of Glonass satellites alone cost the state 4.3 billion rubles ($152.2 million).

In 2010, President Dmitry Medvedev ordered the government to prepare a new federal program for Glonass, covering the years 2012-2020. The original 10-year 2001 program ends in 2011.

Roscosmos said in June that the agency was looking for a funding of 402 billion rubles ($14.35 billion) for the program.

Glonass is Russia's answer to the U.S. Global Positioning System, or GPS, and is designed for both military and civilian uses. Both systems allow users to determine their positions to within a few meters.

Russia currently has a total of 27 Glonass satellites in orbit, although only 23 of them are operational.

The complete Glonass grouping must have 24 operational and 2-3 reserve satellites for the Glonass network to operate with global coverage.

Roscosmos plans to return three ISS crew members on Sept 16

Three crew members of the International Space Station (ISS) will return to Earth on Sept. 16.

This is later than previously scheduled due to a failed launch of the Progress cargo vehicle, the Russian space agency Roscosmos said Wednesday.

"There is no any danger for the ISS crew.

The crew possesses everything it needs for work," Roscosmos deputy head Vitali Davydov said during a television link between Moscow and Astana, the Interfax news agency reported.

Davydov said two Russian cosmonauts and one American astronauts would be sent back to Earth.

The official also promised that the launches of the Proton and Soyuz carrier rockets, which have been temporarily suspended due to the recent accidents, would not be postponed for a long time.

A Progress M-12M cargo ship failed to reach orbit Aug. 24 after the engine of a Soyuz-U carrier rocket turned off during the ascent. Following this incident, Russia decided to delay the launch of the next manned spaceship to the ISS.

Besides, Russia would not abandon the Baikonur space center in Kazakhstan, even after completion of the construction works at the new Vostochny launch site in Russia, said Davydov.

"There are no plans to abandon Baikonur. We have an agreement (with Kazakhstan) on using that space center until 2050," he was quoted by Interfax news agency as saying.

Located in the desert steppe of Kazakhstan, Baikonur cosmodrome was originally built by the Soviet Union in 1955 and is currently leased by the Kazakh government to Russia until 2050.

Russian Crash Could Delay SpaceX Mission to Space Station

Last week's crash of a Russian cargo spacecraft could delay the first-ever private mission to the International Space Station, according to NASA officials.

Space Exploration Technologies — better known as SpaceX — is planning to launch its Dragon capsule toward the orbiting lab on Nov. 30, with a historic docking slated for nine days later.

BUT as a result of the Aug. 24 crash of the unmanned Russian Progress 44 supply ship, there might not be any astronauts aboard the station to receive Dragon in early December.

If that's the case, Dragon's launch would have to be postponed, officials said

How Would NASA & Russia Evacuate the International Space Station?

In the wake of a Russian rocket failure, NASA is considering evacuating the crew of the International Space Station later this year.

The unprecedented move would mark the first time in more than 10 years that the orbiting outpost has gone unmanned.

The space station evacuation is one possibility following the failure of the unmanned Russian supply spacecraft just after its Aug. 24 launch — a surprise given the reliable track record of its workhorse Soyuz rocket.

The vehicle’s Progress 44 cargo craft, and its 2.9 tons of supplies bound for the International Space Station, crashed in Siberia.

An investigation into the cause of the failure is under way, but until the issue is resolved NASA and its Russian partners are delaying upcoming launches to crews and cargo to the space station.

The Soyuz rockets used to launch Progress vehicles are similar to ones used to launch crews into orbit, station managers said.

[Photos: Russia's Lost Cargo Ship Progress 44]

Astronauts May Evacuate ISS in Nov 2011

The International Space Station may have to start operating without a crew in November if Russian engineers don't figure out soon what caused a recent rocket failure, NASA officials announced today (Aug. 29).

The unmanned Russian cargo ship Progress 44 crashed just after its Aug. 24 launch to deliver 2.9 tons of supplies to the orbiting lab.

The failure was caused by a problem with the Progress' Soyuz rocket, which is similar to the one Russia uses to launch its crew-carrying vehicle — also called Soyuz — to the station.

The first nuclear power plants for settlements on the moon and Mars

"The biggest difference between solar and nuclear reactors is that nuclear reactors can produce power in any environment," Werner explained.

"Fission power technology doesn't rely on sunlight, making it able to produce large, steady amounts of power at night or in harsh environments like those found on the Moon or Mars.

A fission power system on the Moon could generate 40 kilowatts or more of electric power, approximately the same amount of energy needed to power eight houses on Earth."

CAesium Fountain atomic clock with the world's best long-term accuracy

A caesium fountain clock that keeps the United Kingdom's atomic time is now the most accurate long-term timekeeper in the world. 

This has been ascertained by a new evaluation of the clock that will be published in the October 2011 issue of the international scientific journal Metrologia by a team of physicists at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) in the United Kingdom and Penn State University in the United States. 

This image shows the clock, NPL-CsF2, which is located at the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington, U.K. The whole device is approximately 8.2 feet (2.5 m) high.

Atoms are tossed up 3.2 feet (1 m), approximately 12 inches (30 cm) above the cavity that is contained inside a vacuum vessel. 

The large external cylinder screens the atoms inside the clock from the relatively large and unstable external magnetic field. Credit: National Physical Laboratory, United Kingdom.

The atomic clock housed in Britain's National Physical Laboratory (NPL) is the world's most accurate, according to new research.

The clock is a caesium fountain clock, meaning that the "tick" is provided by the measurement of the energy required to change the caesium atoms' spin.

Caesium atoms are placed into a cavity, and exposed to electromagnetic radiation of different wavelengths. Once the spin "flips", the waves are at the right frequency to define what a second is.

In the case of caesium, that quantity is defined as 9.2GHz (or, to be appropriately exact, 9,192,631,770Hz). When the spin flips, the clock operators can set the frequency at that point, and work backward to determine the exact length of a second.

The international Bureau of Weights and Measures takes readings from a selection of "primary frequency standards", in France, the US, Germany, Japan -- and, the most accurate of them all, in the UK.

A team led by NPL's Krzysztof Szymaniec and colleagues at Pennsylvania State University found that Britain's atomic clock was accurate to one part in 4,300,000,000,000,000, nearly doubling the accuracy found when the clocks were last measured in 2010. That level of precision means that NPL's clock wouldn't stray by more than a second in 138 million years.

While that might seem like overegging the pudding in terms of making sure your alarm clock goes off in time for you to get to work, the definition of most electrical units are based on these measurements, and given the vast amounts of energy and data pouring through the world's computer systems, even a tiny change can have measurable economic impact.

"The frequency we measure is not necessarily the one prescribed by the definition of a second, which requires that all the external fields and 'perturbations' would be removed," Szymaniec stated. "In many cases we can't remove these perturbations; but we can measure them precisely, we can assess them, and introduce corrections for them."

"It's vital for the UK as an economy to maintain a set of standards, a set of procedures, that underpin technical development," he added.

Exotic Galaxies Reveal Tantalising Tales

Optical SDSS image of the galaxies in yellow: Low resolution radio image from NVSS in blue; High resolution radio image from GMRT in red. Credit: Hota et al., SDSS, NCRA-TIFR, NRAO/AUI/NSF.

A galaxy with a combination of characteristics never seen before is giving astronomers a tantalizing peek at processes they believe played key roles in the growth of galaxies and clusters of galaxies early in the history of the Universe.

The galaxy, dubbed Speca by the researchers, is only the second spiral, as opposed to elliptical, galaxy known to produce large, powerful jets of subatomic particles moving at nearly the speed of light. It also is one of only two galaxies to show that such activity occurred in three separate episodes.

Giant jets of superfast particles are powered by supermassive black holes at the cores of galaxies. Both elliptical and spiral galaxies harbor such black holes, but only Speca and one other spiral galaxy have been seen to produce large jets. The jets pour outward from the poles of rapidly-rotating disks of material orbiting the black hole.

The on-and-off jet episodes have been seen in a dozen ellipticals, but only one other elliptical shows evidence, like Speca, for three such distinct episodes.

"This is probably the most exotic galaxy with a black hole ever seen. It has the potential to teach us new lessons about how galaxies and clusters of galaxies formed and developed into what we see today," said Ananda Hota, of the Academia Sinica Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics (ASIAA), in Taiwan.

The scientists believe that Speca, about 1.7 billion light-years from Earth, and the 60-some other galaxies in a cluster with it are providing a look at what young galaxies and clusters may have been like when the Universe was much younger.

In the young Universe, galaxies in such clusters would have been gathering up additional material, colliding with each other, undergoing bursts of star formation, and interacting with primordial material falling into the cluster from outside.

"Speca is showing evidence for many of these phenomena," Ananda said, adding that "We hope to find many more galaxies like it with future observations, and to learn more about the processes and an environment that were much more common when the Universe was a fraction of its current age."

Speca (an acronym for Spiral-host Episodic radio galaxy tracing Cluster Accretion) first came to Ananda's attention in an image that combined data from the visible-light Sloan Digital Sky Survey and the FIRST survey done with the National Science Foundation's Very Large Array (VLA) radio telescope.

Followup observations with the Lulin optical telescope in Taiwan and ultraviolet data from NASA's GALEX satellite confirmed that the giant lobes of radio emission, usually seen coming from elliptical galaxies, were coming from a spiral galaxy with ongoing star formation.

Ananda's team also examined the galaxy in images from the NRAO VLA Sky Survey (NVSS), then made new observations with the Giant Meterwave Radio Telescope (GMRT) in India, which observes at longer wavelengths than the VLA and is the premier telescope for observing at those long wavelengths.

With this impressive variety of data from across the electromagnetic spectrum, the researchers unraveled the galaxy's complex and fascinating history.

JAXA Hayabusa: source of Earth asteroids

This is a Hayabusa capsule landed at Woomera in South Australia. Credit: [Image courtesy JAXA/ISIS]

Researchers got their first up-close look at dust from the surface of a small, stony asteroid after the Hayabusa spacecraft scooped some up and brought it back to Earth. Analysis of these dust particles, detailed in a special issue of the journal Science this week, confirms a long-standing suspicion: that the most common meteorites found here on Earth, known as ordinary chondrites, are born from these stony, or S-type, asteroids.

And since chondrites are among the most primitive objects in the solar system, the discovery also means that these asteroids have been recording a long and rich history of early solar system events.

The 26 August issue of Science includes six reports and a Perspective article that highlight the initial studies of this asteroid dust. Science is published by AAAS, the nonprofit science society.

The Hayabusa spacecraft was launched by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) in 2003 to sample the surface of the near-Earth asteroid known as 25143 Itokawa. The unmanned vessel reached its destination a little more than two years later-and in November 2005, it made two separate touchdowns on the surface of Itokawa.

Although its primary sampler malfunctioned, the spacecraft was able to strike the asteroid's surface with an elastic sampling horn and catch the small amount of dust particles that were kicked up. After reentering Earth's atmosphere and landing in South Australia in June 2010, Hayabusa's delicate samples were analyzed extensively by various teams of researchers.

"Science is very excited and pleased to be presenting these important scientific analyses," said Brooks Hanson, Deputy Editor of the Physical Sciences.

"The first samples that researchers collected beyond Earth were from the moon, and the first analyses of those samples were also published in Science. Those samples, along with the more recent sampling of a comet and the solar wind, have changed our understanding of the solar system and Earth. They are still yielding important results.

These Hayabusa samples are the first samples of an asteroid. Not only do they provide important information about the history of the asteroid Itokawa, but by providing the needed ground truth that is only possible through direct sampling, they also help make other important samples-like meteorite collections and the lunar samples-even more useful."

The asteroid sampled by Hayabusa is a rocky, S-type asteroid with the appearance of a rubble pile. Based on observations from the ground, researchers have believed that similar S-type asteroids, generally located in our solar system's inner and middle asteroid belt, are responsible for most of the small meteorites that regularly strike Earth.

But, the visible spectra of these asteroids have never precisely matched those of ordinary chondrites-a fact that has left researchers suspicious of their actual affiliation. The only way to confirm a direct relationship between meteorites and these S-type asteroids was to physically sample the regolith from an asteroid's surface.

Russia to test launch Soyuz rockets before delivering ISS crews

Russia will carry out two unmanned test launches of Soyuz carrier rockets in the coming fall before using them to deliver crews to the International Space Station, a source in the Russian space industry said on Friday.

One of the Soyuz rockets will be used to deliver a new Progress M-13M space freighter to the ISS, the source said.

Wednesday's accident involving a Soyuz rocket, when a Progress M-12M space freighter was lost because of a rocket engine failure, raised questions about Russia's ability to fulfill its obligations in delivering crews to and from the ISS.

A high-ranking source in the Russian space industry, as well as NASA officials, suggested that the next mission to the ISS due in September was likely to be delayed because of the accident.

After the retirement of the U.S. shuttle fleet earlier this summer, Russian Soyuz spacecraft became the only way for astronauts to reach the ISS until at least the middle of the decade. NASA is paying its Russian counterpart Roscosmos more than $1 billion for crew transport services over the next four years.

The accident, the second spacecraft loss for the Russian space industry in within a week, prompted an order by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to review and improve control procedures in the space industry. Russian space agency Roscosmos said it would set up a special commission for this purpose.

Cassini Solstice Mission: Hyperion Images

This image of Hyperion was taken by Cassini on August 25, 2011 and received on Earth August 26, 2011. 

The camera was pointing toward HYPERION at approximately 57,974 kilometers away, and the image was taken using the P120 and GRN filters. 

This image has not been validated or calibrated. A validated/calibrated image will be archived with the NASA Planetary Data System in 2012.

For more information on raw images check out our frequently asked questions section.

Image Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute 

NASA's Cassini spacecraft captured new views of Saturn's oddly shaped moon Hyperion during its encounter with this cratered body on Thursday, Aug. 25.

Raw images were acquired as the spacecraft flew past the moon at a distance of about 15,500 miles (25,000 kilometers), making this the second closest encounter.

Hyperion is a small moon - just 168 miles (270 kilometers) across. It has an irregular shape and surface appearance, and it rotates chaotically as it tumbles along in orbit.

This odd rotation prevented scientists from predicting exactly what terrain the spacecraft's cameras would image during this flyby.

However, this flyby's closeness has likely allowed Cassini's cameras to map new territory. At the very least, it will help scientists improve color measurements of the moon.

It will also help them determine how the moon's brightness changes as lighting and viewing conditions change, which can provide insight into the texture of the surface.

The colour measurements provide additional information about different materials on the moon's deeply pitted surface.

Notre Dame astrophysicists identify missing fuel for galactic star formation

The Milky Way will have the fuel to continue forming stars, thanks to massive clouds of ionized gas raining down from its halo and intergalactic space.

This is the conclusion of a new study by Nicolas Lehner and Christopher Howk from the University of Notre Dame, Indiana.

Using the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph, one of the newest instruments on the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, these researchers measured for the first time the distances to fast-moving clouds of ionized gas previously seen covering a large fraction of the sky.

These fast-moving clouds reside in the distant reaches of the Milky Way and contain huge quantities of gas.

The Milky Way would rapidly change its gas into stars if no supply of new matter were available to replenish the gas.

Astronomers have hypothesized that the ionised fast-moving gas clouds could be this reservoir of gas, but it was not known if they were interacting with the Milky Way.

“Our findings explain why the Milky Way can keep having star formation,” Lehner said. “Knowing the distances to these clouds tells us where the gaseous fuel is for forming stars over billions of years.”

Gas clouds can be identified and studied because elements in the cloud absorb small amounts of light from a star or other light source as it passes through a cloud on its way to Earth. The characteristic “fingerprint” left in the spectrum allows astronomers to determine the properties of the gas.

Star formation in the Milky Way
Earlier studies of these fast-moving ionised clouds used light from quasars, which are too far away to mark the clouds’ locations.

To solve the problem, Lehner and Howk identified 27 stars around the Milky Way whose distances were known and used Hubble to take line-of-sight readings of light coming from them.

Results from the stellar sample showed the ionized clouds largely resided in the Milky Way’s halo. The authors concluded that these flows of ionized gas are within about 1 galactic radius (40,000 light-years) of Earth.

The new Hubble observations revealed the presence of ionized gas in half the stellar samples, comparable to the fraction observed toward more distant quasars.

The gas clouds are not uniformly distributed around the galaxy, but rather collected in different areas.

They cover only part of our galactic sky, analogous to the partial coverage of the sky on a partly cloudy day on Earth.

This research also confirmed models that predicted gas falling into the Milky Way slows as it approaches. Clouds closer to the galaxy seem to have been decelerated and do not move as fast as those farther away, much like a meteorite slowing as it enters Earth’s atmosphere.

“We know now where is the missing fuel for galactic star formation,”

Lehner said. “We now have to learn how it got there.”

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

JAXA Hayabusa reveals source of Earth asteroids

The longstanding mystery of where most meteorites striking our planet come from has now been solved by the first asteroid samples that a spacecraft has ever returned to Earth.

This discovery is just one of many unearthed with the aid of the Japanese asteroid probe Hayabusa.

Another is that asteroids may be shrinking away to nothing, researchers said.

Hayabusa faced many perils on its seven-year mission, including fuel leaks, engine trouble and the loss of the lander intended to gather space rock samples.

Nevertheless, the unmanned mission succeeded when a capsule containing more than 1,500 grains of asteroid dust parachuted into the Australian outback in June 2010. [Photos: Japan's Mission to Asteroid Itokawa]

Double Comet Feature: Elenin & Garradd Now Showing in Night Sky

Skywatchers often ask "When's the next comet?" In fact, if you’re prepared to do a bit of searching, there are always several comets visible in the night sky, including two right now.

Some comets are like old friends, they keep coming back at regular intervals to visit.

These are called periodic comets; Comet Halley was the first such comet to be identified, by Edmond Halley back in 1705.

It returns to the inner solar system every 75 to 76 years; its last appearance was in 1986 and its next will be in 2061. At present Halley is out just beyond Neptune;s orbit.

NASA has Chosen Museums for Retired Space Shuttles

NASA's selection of display locations for retired space shuttles in California, Florida, New York and Virginia was implemented fairly and without improper influence, federal investigators reported Aug. 25.

NASA's Office of Inspector General (OIG), which provides independent oversight for the agency, reviewed NASA's selection process as a result of concerns being raised by politicians and by some of the museums who missed out on receiving one of the four prized orbiters for their state or facility.

Closest Supernova in 25 Years Is a 'Cosmic Classic'

Astronomers have spotted the closest supernova in a generation — and in a week or so, stargazers with a good pair of binoculars might be able to see it, too.

The supernova, or exploded star, flared up Tuesday night (Aug. 23) in the Pinwheel Galaxy, just 21 million light-years from Earth.

It's the closest star explosion of its type observed since 1986, and astronomers around the world are already scrambling to train their instruments on it.

Researchers said they think they caught the supernova, named PTF 11kly, within hours of its explosion. [Photo of the new supernova PTF 11kly]

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Converting Infrared radiation into visible light

Jeppe Seidelin Dam and colleagues at the Technical University of Denmark in Roskilde are developing a device that can convert infrared radiation into visible light. Attached to a digital camera fitted with an infrared flash, it could detect tumours by recording the telltale pattern of infrared light they reflect.

"This would allow a surgeon to quickly determine if the entire tumour has been removed before finishing an operation," he says.

At the heart of the system is a multilayered crystal of potassium titanium oxide phosphate in which the infrared photons from the object to be imaged interfere with photons from an infrared laser, also fired into the crystal. The interaction shifts the wavelength into the visible spectrum while preserving the image information, allowing it to be captured by a normal camera.

Mirror amplifiers

The idea was first explored in the 1970s, but improvements to methods for growing crystals since then have improved the resolution of the device 300-fold. By placing a pair of mirrors on either side of the crystal so that the laser light reflects back and forth, the team increased the odds of its photons interfering with infrared photons from the object.

"We pass the same photons through the crystal up to 100 times," says Dam. The crystal was able to capture an infrared panorama with a resolution of 200 by 1000 pixels, the team says.

The device could be placed in front of a digital camera lens like a filter, and be used to take thermal photographs or video. Shrinking it down to a size suitable for everyday use should not be difficult, says Dam. "These are basically the same components that are in green laser pointers."

While current infrared colour imagers need to run at -200°C and cost around $100,000, Dam says that an upconversion imager would run at room temperature and cost about $10,000.

Stefano Bonora of the University of Padua, Italy, calls the upconversion technique "really interesting" for its potential to generate infrared images at room temperature. Such detectors are lacking at the moment, he says.

Hurricane Irene: Hurricanes explained

Graphic showing how movement of warm, moist air and cooler, dry air combines in a hurricane

Hurricanes start when strong clusters of thunderstorms drift over warm ocean waters.
In the Atlantic and eastern Pacific they are called hurricanes, but in the western Pacific they are called typhoons.

In the Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean they are known as cyclones.

The very warm air from the storm combines with the moist ocean surface and begin rising. This creates low pressure at the surface.

As trade winds hit those within the storm, the whirling winds cause the storm to start spinning. Rising warm air leaves low pressure above the surface.

Air rises faster and faster to fill this low pressure, in turn drawing more warm air off the sea and sucking cooler, drier air downwards.

As the storm moves over the ocean it picks up more warm, moist air. Wind speeds start to increase as more air is sucked into the low-pressure centre.

It can take hours or several days for a depression to grow into a fully-formed hurricane.

Hurricanes are made up of an eye of calm winds and low pressure surrounded by a spinning vortex of high winds and heavy rainstorms.

When a hurricane hits land it often has devastating effects.

The Saffir-Simpson scale was devised to measure hurricanes around the Americas and is increasingly used to categorise typhoons and cyclones, too, although some regions still use different scales.

The effects:
Category 1:
  • Minor flooding
  • Little structural damage
  • Storm surge 1.2-1.5m above normal
Category 2:
  • Roofs damaged
  • Some trees damaged
  • Storm surge 1.8-2.4m above normal

Category 3:
  • Houses damaged
  • Severe flooding
  • Storm surge 2.7-3.7m above normal
Category 4:
  • Some roofs destroyed
  • Major structural damage to houses
  • Storm surge 4-5.5m above normal
Category 5:
  • Serious damage to buildings
  • Severe flooding further inland
  • Storm surge more than 5.5m above normal

Meteorite crashes towards Earth - Peru video

NASA Evacuates during East Coast Quake

While NASA often sets its sights on the heavens, the space agency is still affected by events here on terra firma — like yesterday's East Coast earthquake.

The 5.8-magnitude temblor — the biggest quake in the region in more than 100 years — struck near the small Virginia town of Mineral yesterday morning (Aug. 23). It then radiated outward, shaking the ground in dozens of states.

Several nearby NASA research and administration centers felt the jolt.

NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C., for example, was evacuated briefly yesterday, agency officials said.

[Infographic: Earthquake Shakes Northeastern US]

Friday, August 26, 2011

First glimpse into birth of the Milky Way

On top, an edge-on image of our simulated galaxy, as an observer would see it if he could enter in the computer and look at the light emitted by our simulated stars. 

He could clearly see that the galaxy is composed by a thin disk of stars, and a brighter, small bulge at the center. 

At the bottom, a real image of our Milky Way galaxy as you would see it in infrared, where stars emit most of their light. 

Here too the Milky Way is seen edge-on, as our solar system lies in the plane of the disk. 

NASA Commercial Orbital Transportation Services: Cygnus Spacecraft delivered

NASA's partnership with industry to develop transportation to the International Space Station reached another step Aug. 23, as the cargo module for Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus spacecraft, which will carry supplies to the station, arrived at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.

The Cygnus spacecraft is scheduled for a demonstration flight early next year on an Orbital Taurus II launch vehicle under NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services agreement with the company. All photos credit: NASA/Wallops Flight Facility

Thales Alenia Space reports it has shipped its first Pressurized Cargo Module, designed to transport cargo to the International Space Station, to NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.

The PCM, developed on behalf of Cygnus prime contractor Orbital Sciences Corporation, was carried by an Antonov An-24 cargo plane.

At Wallops, Orbital will integrate the PCM with the Service Module (including the avionics, propulsion subsystem and power supply) to produce the complete Cygnus spacecraft.

This vehicle will fly a demonstration mission in early 2012, using Orbital's Taurus II launcher, under NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) agreement.

Following the demonstration flight, within the scope of the CRS (Commercial Resupply Service) contract signed by Orbital and NASA, Thales Alenia Space will provide Orbital with eight more pressurized modules for cargo missions to the International Space Station, including crew supplies, spare parts and scientific experiments.

The first PCM will be followed by three more units in "standard" configuration, capable of transporting up to 2,000 kg of cargo each, along with five "enhanced" configuration units, boosting payload capacity to 2,700 kg.

The CygnusTM spacecraft comprises a Service Module (SM) built by Orbital, and a Pressurized Cargo Module (PCM) developed by Thales Alenia Space.

Building on 30 years of experience in space infrastructures and transportation systems, Cygnus PCM developed by Thales Alenia Space calls on the company's skills and expertise developed through previous programs for the International Space Station.

Previous Thales Alenia Space programs include; the MPLM (Multipurpose Logistics Module), built by the company on behalf of the Italian space agency for NASA, and the ATV (Automated Transfer Vehicle) Cargo Carrier, built by Thales Alenia Space for the European Space Agency (ESA).

Thales Alenia Space is a major contributor to the International Space Station, as a key player in the Columbus laboratory and prime contractor for Node 2, Node 3 and the Cupola.

NASA GRAIL Mission: Final Preparations for September Launch

NASA's Gravity Recovery And Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) mission to study the moon is in final launch preparations for a scheduled Sept. 8 launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

GRAIL's twin spacecraft are tasked for a nine-month mission to explore Earth's nearest neighbor in unprecedented detail.

They will determine the structure of the lunar interior from crust to core and advance our understanding of the thermal evolution of the moon.

"Yesterday's final encapsulation of the spacecraft is an important mission milestone," said David Lehman, GRAIL project manager for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

"Our two spacecraft are now sitting comfortably inside the payload fairing which will protect them during ascent. Next time the GRAIL twins will see the light of day, they will be about 95 miles up and accelerating."

The spacecraft twins, GRAIL-A and GRAIL-B, will fly aboard a Delta II rocket launched from Florida. The twins' circuitous route to lunar orbit will take 3.5 months and cover approximately 2.6 million miles (4.2 million kilometers) for GRAIL-A, and 2.7 million miles (4.3 million kilometers) for GRAIL-B.

In lunar orbit, the spacecraft will transmit radio signals precisely defining the distance between them. Regional gravitational differences on the moon are expected to expand and contract that distance.

GRAIL scientists will use these accurate measurements to define the moon's gravity field. The data will allow mission scientists to understand what goes on below the surface of our natural satellite.

"GRAIL will unlock lunar mysteries and help us understand how the moon, Earth and other rocky planets evolved as well," said Maria Zuber, GRAIL principal investigator from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

GRAIL's launch period opens Sept. 8 and extends through Oct. 19. On each day, there are two separate launch opportunities separated by approximately 39 minutes. On Sept. 8, the first launch opportunity is 8:37 a.m. EDT (5:37 a.m. PDT); the second is 9:16 a.m. EDT (6:16 a.m. PDT).

Moon Express Gets Thumbs-Up from NASA for Developing New Lunar Landing Technology

Moon Express, a Google Lunar X PRIZE contender, announced that it has successfully demonstrated a critical component of its lunar landing technology to NASA under its Innovative Lunar Demonstration Data (ILDD) Program contract.

The Moon Express Mini-Radar System promises to radically reduce the cost and mass of the company's commercial lunar landing system.

NASA has reviewed and accepted the Moon Express Mini-Radar data package, satisfying the requirements of the $500K First Task Order under the company's $10M commercial lunar data contract.

Silicon Valley-based Moon Express was one of only three U.S. companies awarded the first Task Order under NASA's ILDD program. Under the task order, NASA agreed to purchase data resulting from the successful test and demonstration of the company's state-of-the-art Mini-Radar sensor, a critical component of its lunar landing system.

Radar provides autonomous landing spacecraft with crucial ranging information to the surface and has been one of the most challenging and high risk elements of all lander systems.

Radar systems have also been historically very expensive in terms of dollars, mass and energy. As part of its risk reduction engineering activities, Moon Express initiated a program to continue the development, test and space qualification of an innovative, low cost, low mass, low energy radar concept invented by Stellar Exploration that showed great promise through progressive developments under NASA Small Business Innovation and Research (SBIR) programs.

The Moon Express investment significantly advanced the radar technology toward spaceflight readiness.

The testing and space validation of the Mini-Radar involved multiple units subjected to a series of laboratory and field testing.

These included multiple dynamic tests on the Lunar Lander Test Vehicle, developed in partnership with NASA, and long range tests on the Zeppelin 'Eureka', owned and operated by Airship Ventures, which took the Mini-Radar on flight tests down the California coast and at the Oshkosh Airshow.

Additional environmental testing in thermal-vacuum and vibration chambers proved the ruggedness of the Mini-Radar design for spaceflight.

NASA's Next Generation Robotic Lander Gets Sideways During Test

During a recent test at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., the robotic lander prototype, known as Mighty Eagle, performed a hover test flying up to three feet and then translated, or moved itself sideways, to perform a controlled, safe landing 13 feet from the launch pad.

This is a complex manoeuvre for the lander to perform accurately since a robotic lander may need to right itself autonomously when it comes in for landing on an airless body or planet with no atmosphere.

The robotic lander team cancels out the Earth's gravity, which is six times the gravity a vehicle will experience on the moon, simulating a lunar environment by using a gravity cancelling thruster during test.

To initiate a test, the lander receives a command to activate its onboard thrusters and then follows a pre-programmed flight profile to carry it to a controlled landing.

This test demonstrated the robotic lander prototype's capability to autonomously translate sideways and then land while staying under control, and soon will be used to checkout landing control algorithms for the next generation of lander missions to the moon or other airless planetary bodies.

The Robotic Lander Development Project is a team of industry, government and not-for-profit collaborators, including the Marshall Center, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., and the Von Braun Center for Science and Innovation in Huntsville.

This team is designing and building the next generation of robotic landers that can carry a broad range of science payloads and devices, including geophysical measurement instruments, volatile measurement instruments or possibly lunar sample returns.

Roscosmos to launch Soyuz from Kourou for first time - despite loss of Progress-M

The maiden flight of a Soyuz from Europe's space base will go ahead as scheduled on October 20, as it is a different version from the rocket involved in Wednesday's launch failure by Russia, Arianespace said on Thursday.

"The problem that occurred yesterday is linked to a third-stage motor, and the Soyuz model that we will be using uses a different third stage," Jean-Yves Le Gall, president and chief executive of the launch company, told AFP.

"It is not the same version of the rocket."

The European Space Agency (ESA) and Russia are deploying Soyuz at Kourou, French Guiana, under a 2003 accord to provide a mid-sized launcher for Arianespace, which markets ESA's launch vehicles.

The model that will be deployed there is a Soyuz-ST, a spinoff of the Soyuz-2. It is designed to take nearly three tonnes into geostationary transfer orbit.

Its first flight will lift the first two staellites in Europe's Galileo navigation system, the competitor to the US Global Positioning System (GPS).

"In principle, the launch date of October 20 is confirmed, because the Soyuz being used for Galileo is not impacted by yesterday's failure," said Le Gall.

An unnamed Russian official told the Interfax news agency on Thursday that "the launch of Soyuz carrier rockets" had been suspended until the loss of a unmanned craft taking cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) had been explained.

The move has caused a ripple of concern for the crew of the ISS, as the Soyuz, a workhorse of space for half a century, is used both as a launcher for cargo and for passenger vehicles.

If the Soyuz-launched Progress freigher is out of operation, that will leave the ISS with ESA's Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) and Japan's H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV).

The latest ATV, Edoardo Amaldi, is currently being brought by ship to Kourou.

"Its scheduled launch is February 28 2012," said Le Gall, who said there was "a small margin" for bringing it forward if need be, but this would only be by a few days given the tight schedule.

The ISS has capsules moored to the station enabling all crew onboard to return to Earth, either on scheduled missions or in an emergency.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

NASA: Serpens Constellation - The diamond as big as a planet

Could the Serpens constellation, 848 light years away, be home to the biggest diamond ever detected? 

(Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/L. Cieza (University of Texas at Austin)

Cruising through the Milky Way in your reconnaissance craft, your sensors pick up a powerful radio beacon. 

Altering your course to take a closer look, you find not a ship in distress, but an ultradense sphere of neutrons, packing a sun's worth of mass into something the size of a city.

This dead remnant of a star glows red like a hot ember, and is spinning 173 times per second, emitting powerful radio beams that sweep across the sky as it rotates. While such pulsars are striking, they are nothing out of the ordinary, so you are about to resume your original course when your eye catches something sparkling near the dim red glow.

A closer look reveals it to be an orb with the mass of Jupiter and about half as wide. Sensors indicate it's made of – wait, this can't be right – diamond! Your instruments don't lie. You've just stumbled upon a 1031-carat diamond.

Reuters Video of Hurrican Irene hitting Bahamas

The northeast U.S. seaboard, including the capital, Washington, and financial centre New York, rushed to prepare on Thursday for a possible mauling from Hurricane Irene that will hit the U.S. coast this weekend.

Irene, a major Category 3 hurricane now battering the low-lying Bahamas southeast of Florida, was expected to sweep up to land on Saturday on jutting eastern North Carolina, before raking up the remaining U.S. Atlantic seaboard.

NASA Earth Observatory: Atlantic Heat Source for Hurricane Irene

As Hurricane Irene rumbles through the Atlantic Ocean, it needs fuel to sustain itself.

Warm water is the main fuel, and there is plenty of it right now, as there usually is this time of year.

The map above shows sea surface temperatures (SST) in the Atlantic Ocean, Gulf of Mexico, and the Caribbean Sea on August 23, 2011.

The measurements come from the Advanced Microwave Scanning Radiometer (AMSR-E) on NASA’s Aqua satellite and the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) instruments on both the Terra and Aqua satellites.

The satellites measure the temperature of the top millimeter of the ocean.

Waters typically need to be above 27.8 degrees Celsius (82 Fahrenheit) to properly fuel tropical storms with warm, moist air. Red, orange, and yellow colors depict waters above the 27.8 degree mark.

The warmer the water, the more intense the storm can grow, if upper level wind patterns cooperate. In the map above, such waters dominate the Gulf of Mexico and tropical Atlantic in late August 2011.

They also run up the southeastern coast of the United States, following the Gulf Stream to Cape Hatteras before giving way to slightly cooler waters (shades of blue) in the Middle and North Atlantic.

As of 5 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time on August 24, 2011, the NOAA National Hurricane Center reported Irene had maximum sustained winds of 195 kilometers (120 miles) per hour and was located at 23.1 degrees North and 74.7 degrees West, about 45 kilometers (30 miles) east-southeast of Long Island in the Bahamas.

The forecasted path had the hurricane sweeping over nearly all Bahaman islands, then turning toward the North Carolina coast and eventually New England. Forecasts are updated roughly every six hours.

Irene is the first hurricane of the Atlantic season, and potentially the first to make landfall in the United States in several years.

Further Reading
  1. National Hurricane Center. (2011, August 24). Hurricane Irene. National Weather Service. Accessed August 24, 2011.
  2. NASA Earth Observatory. (n.d.). Global Maps: Sea Surface Temperature. Accessed August 24, 2011.

US National Hurricane Centre: Watching Hurricane Irene

Eric Blake works on tracking Hurricane Irene at the US National Hurricane Centre in Miami, Florida

Picture: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

NOAA Image: Hurricane Irene

A satellite image made and released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) on 25 August 2011 at 12:15 GMT shows Hurricane Irene over the Bahamas and south-east of Florida

Picture: EPA / NOAA

ESA Arctic Ice Animation: shipping routes open

This animation shows the melting of Arctic sea ice from 1 June to 24 August 2011.

Every year, the Arctic Ocean experiences the formation and then melting of vast amounts of floating ice, but the rate of overall loss has accelerated.

Credits: Animation based on data from the US National Ice Center

Satellite measurements show we are heading for another year of below-average ice cover in the Arctic. As sea ice melts during the summer months, two major shipping routes have opened in the Arctic Ocean.

In 2008 satellites saw that the Northwest Passage and the Northern Sea Route were open simultaneously for the first time since satellite measurements began in the 1970s – and now it has happened again.  

Ice-free Northwest Passage

While the Northern Sea Route above Russia (also known as the Northeast Passage) has been open to shipping traffic since mid-August, recent satellite data show that the most direct course in the Northwest Passage now appears to be navigable as well.

Located in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, the Northwest Passage can be a short cut for shipping between Europe and Asia – but with the opening of the sea route comes the potential for both sovereignty claims and marine species migration across the Arctic Ocean.

In 2007, Arctic sea ice hit a record low since satellite measurements began nearly 30 years before. That same year, the historically impassable Northwest Passage opened for the first time.

Unusual weather contributed to 2007’s record ice loss: skies opened over the central Arctic Ocean and wind patterns pushed warm air into the region, promoting a strong melt.

Weather patterns have been different this year, but the early opening of the passages indicates that we could be about to hit a new record low in ice cover.

NASA Hubble Image: ARP 274 - A Tale of Three Galaxies

Arp 274, also known as NGC 5679, is a system of three galaxies that appear to be partially overlapping in the image, although they may be at somewhat different distances.

The spiral shapes of two of these galaxies appear mostly intact. The third galaxy (to the far left) is more compact, but shows evidence of star formation.

Two of the three galaxies are forming new stars at a high rate.

This is evident in the bright blue knots of star formation that are strung along the arms of the galaxy on the right and along the small galaxy on the left.

The largest component is located in the middle of the three. It appears as a spiral galaxy, which may be barred. The entire system resides at about 400 million light-years away from Earth in the constellation Virgo.

Hubble’s Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 was used to image Arp 274 in april 2011. Blue, visible and infrared filters were combined with a filter that isolates hydrogen emission.

The colours in this image reflect the intrinsic colour of the different stellar populations that make up the galaxies.

Yellowish older stars can be seen in the central bulge of each galaxy. A bright central cluster of stars pinpoint each nucleus.

Younger blue stars trace the spiral arms, along with pinkish nebulae that are illuminated by new star formation.

Interstellar dust is silhouetted against the starry population. A pair of foreground stars inside our own Milky Way are at far right.

Credit: NASA, ESA, and M. Livio and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

See The Universe in a Soap Bubble

At first glance this may appear to show a sun rising over a distant planet but on closer inspection it becomes apparent that Richard Heeks' macro photographs are simply bubbles glistening in the sun.

The 38-year-old from Exminster, near Exeter, says: "Sometimes I stand back and just watch a bubble as it hangs in the air.

I walk around it, admiring it, and I see how the light plays on it. And sometimes I photograph a bubble and see things I didn't expect to see.

I didn't realise these bubbles would look like planets until I caught one or two good ones and then looked at them carefully on the camera screen." Who needs the Hubble Telescope when you've got the Bubble Telescope?

Picture: Richard Heeks / Barcroft Media

NASA Swift: Black Hole event horizon

This illustration released by the journal Nature on shows an artist’s conception of the unusual gamma-ray transient Swift J164449.3+573451.

It shows the birth of a relativistic jet from a tidally disrupted star near the event horizon of a supermassive black hole.

This highly energetic event was serendipitously beamed towards the Earth. A black hole described as a "cosmic monster" lurking at the heart of a galaxy has been recorded as it tore apart a star.

On March 25, NASA's Swift orbital telescope captured a surge of X-rays from deep space, disgorged by what was clearly an immensely powerful source.


NASA GOES-13 Image: Hurricane Irene over Bahamas

Hurricane Irene is pictured over the Bahamas, as captured by the GOES-13 satellite at 11:45 UTC (7:45 a.m. EDT) on August 24, 2011.

Irene battered the Bahamas on Wednesday on a track to the North Carolina coast that forecasters say could threaten the densely populated US Northeast, including New York, starting on Sunday. 

The hurricane, a major Category 3 storm with winds of 120 miles per hour (195 km per hour), pounded the southeast Bahamian islands with winds, rain and dangerous storm surge.


Molly Birnbaum - When all you can smell is your brain

In the summer of 2005 Molly Birnbaum was out jogging near her home in Brookline Massachusetts when she was hit by a car.

The impact fractured her skull and severed her olfactory nerves, leaving her without a sense of smell.

The prognosis was bad - Birnbaum was told she would never smell again. Depressed and deprived of her sense of smell, and therefore taste, she was forced to give up her place at culinary college and with it, her ambitions of becoming a chef.

Instead of resigning herself to living without scent, Birnbaum ended up on a quest to find out more about this mysterious sense, and eventually got her sense of smell back.

She tells this story in her book Season to Taste.

I started to get a few scents back one at a time, slowly but very attached to memory and emotion. As that went on I began to be very curious as to what was going on in my nose, in my brain, how come I didn't know anything about the sense of smell even though it so affected my life.

So I began to talk to scientists and doctors about the science of smell. I spoke with chefs and perfumers and I spent time in a flavour lab in New Jersey, I went to a perfume school in France, and spent time with neurologist Oliver Sacks and really tried to explore what it means to smell.

A little while after the accident I was helping my mother to cook dinner. I was chopping a bunch of fresh rosemary, and all of a sudden this smell hit me out of nowhere. It had been so long since I had smelt anything I was shocked. It was just this glorious scent of herbs and earthy rosemary and it reminded me of my childhood. It gave me a lot of hope.

At one point i became convinced i could smell my own brain. This was very disturbing. One common thing when people lose their sense of smell is to experience phantom smells - smells that don't actually exist from a concrete source in reality. I have met people who have had horrible ones - rotting smells, or garlic smells when they are trying to eat a fresh peach - but for me it was much more subtle.

Towards the beginning of my experience I could smell this one smell all the time. The only way I could make sense of it was that this smell was coming from within me, that it was probably my brain. It was one of the stories I told myself to make sense of this experience.

I think what I really lost was the emotional component to certain memories, the memories we have when we smell something familiar and are immediately transported back to a moment in our past - kind of like a punch in the gut emotion. When I couldn't smell I could still remember these events, I just didn't have that punch in the gut. And I worried about how, if I could never smell again, that would affect the memories that I should be making in the future.

ISS crew safe despite Russian Progress supply failure

Russian mission control and NASA said Wednesday there was no need to evacuate the six-member crew from the International Space Station despite the launch failure of a vessel carrying tonnes of supplies.

"Of course we have to study the situation, but provisionally we can say that it is not so critical that we should talk about the premature return of crew members from the ISS," mission control spokesman Vladimir Solovyov told Interfax.

The Russian space agency Roskosmos added in a separate statement that the accident "will not impact the life support" systems of the ISS crew.

Roskosmos said the unmanned Progress cargo vessel experienced propulsion system problems 5 minutes and 25 seconds after its launch Thursday from the Baikonur space centre in the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan.

Local officials reported said fragments of what appeared to be the Progress craft landed in the Siberian region of Altai, which has borders with China and Mongolia.

Solovyov said the international team on board the ISS had enough oxygen and water along with other supplies to last until the next Russian cargo mission's arrival, which is scheduled for October 28.

NASA echoed Russia's confidence (but then they have little choice).

"We have a very good backload of food, fuel and other consumables on board the ISS after the STS-135 shuttle mission," NASA spokesman Kelly Humphries told AFP.

The loss will require some changes to the "overall logistic but it should not have an immediate impact on the crew," he added.

"It's premature to discuss the possibility of reducing the size of the next crew. I don't anticipate that."

The next manned mission to the ISS is provisionally scheduled for September 22, although those missions only have enough room to take up the basic supplies.

An industry source told RIA Novosti said the crew -- who besides three Russians include two US astronauts and a spaceman from Japan -- may have to conserve on both food and water because of the accident.

A source said space officials had informed Andrei Borisenko, the Russian captain of the ISS, of the accident and noted that he took the news calmly.

ISS crew safe despite supply failure: Russia, US

ESA Proba-2: Ffuel tank refilled from ‘solid gas’

Proba-2 is flight-testing a total of 17 technology demonstrators for future ESA missions. 

It also serves as a scientific platform for solar and space weather observations.

Credits: ESA/Pierre Carril

Sometimes all it takes is fresh air to get a new lease of life. ESA’s Proba-2 microsatellite is a good example: an influx of nitrogen has replenished its fuel tank, in the process demonstrating a whole new space technology.

On 16 August a telecommand was sent from ESA’s Redu ground station in Belgium to boost the gases in Proba-2’s unusual ‘resistojet’ engine.

Used to maintain the microsatellite’s orbit at 600 km altitude, this experimental engine runs on xenon gas heated before ejection to provide added thrust.

The command added nitrogen gas to the fuel tank, bringing its pressure close to its launch level.

cool-gas generators
“What makes this repressurisation unique is that the added gas was not stored in a pressurised state but produced from a solid material at room temperature, the first of four ‘cool-gas generators’ on Proba-2,” explained Laurens van Vliet of Dutch research organisation TNO, which developed the technology.

“Nitrogen, like xenon, is an inert, non-reactive gas, so the resistojet can work just as well with a xenon–nitrogen mixture.”

The bottle-shaped cool-gas generators are filled with a rigid solid material that, once triggered, produces more than 250 times its own volume in pure nitrogen gas.

Integrating TNO's four cool-gas generators aboard Proba-2

Credits: TNO

To read more on this subject visit the ESA Proba-2 portal

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Russian Progress rocket failure grounds human launches

A Russian rocket and cargo ship have crashed in a failed attempt to reach the International Space Station. The failure will halt crewed launches to the space station at least temporarily, since they rely on the same Soyuz family of rockets as the one that failed.
The Soyuz-U rocket lifted off at 1300 GMT on Wednesday, carrying a Progress cargo ship intended to bring supplies to the space station.

But an unknown problem caused the Soyuz to shut down its third-stage engine prematurely, so that it never reached orbit. NASA says Russian space officials told them it crashed in Russia's Altai region, which is near Kazakhstan.

The Progress vehicle contained 2.9 tonnes of supplies, including water and food. But NASA says the space station's six-person crew is in no danger of running out of critical items anytime soon.

They have enough food and other consumables to last at least until Europe's cargo ship, the Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV), is scheduled to arrive. That is currently set for February, but possibly it could arrive as late as May, Mike Suffredini, NASA's space station manager, said in a news briefing.

Even without Soyuz flights, planned ATV flights as well as flights of Japan's HTV cargo vehicle could keep supplies from running out through the end of 2012, he said.

If there were a disruption to these flights, bathroom supplies might be the first thing to run out, he said: "If I was counting on which consumables would drive us, it might be potty parts in the end."

New Species of Gigantic Wasp with Long, Powerful Jaws Discovered

The new species of wasp that Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology and professor of entomology at the University of California, Davis, discovered on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, has scientists abuzz.

The jaw-dropping, shiny black wasp appears to be the "Komodo dragon" of the wasp family.

It’s huge. The male measures about two-and-a-half-inches long, Kimsey said. “Its jaws are so large that they wrap up either side of the head when closed.

Side view of wasp. (Photos by Andrew Richards, Bohart Museum of Entomology)
Front view of male was
When the jaws are open they are actually longer than the male’s front legs. I don’t know how it can walk. The females are smaller but still larger than other members of their subfamily, Larrinae.”

Kimsey discovered the warrior wasp on the Mekongga Mountains in southeastern Sulawesi on a recent biodiversity expedition funded by a five-year grant from the International Cooperative Biodiversity Group Program.

The insect-eating predator belongs to the genus Dalara and family Crabronidae. “I’m going to name it Garuda, after the national symbol of Indonesia,” Kimsey said. Garuda, a powerful mythical warrior that’s part human and part eagle, boasts a large wingspan, martial prowess and breakneck speed.

“The first time I saw the wasp I knew it was something really unusual,” said Kimsey, a noted wasp expert who oversees the Bohart Museum's global collection of seven million insect specimens, including 500,000 wasps.

“I’m very familiar with members of the wasp family Crabronidae that it belongs to but had never seen anything like this species of Dalara. We don’t know anything about the biology of these wasps. They are only known from southwestern Sulawesi.”

In her entire career as entomologist, she’s discovered close to 300 new species. But on three trips to Sulawesi, she’s brought back to the Bohart Museum “hundreds, maybe thousands of new species.”

“It will take years, maybe generations, to go through them all,” Kimsey said.

“I consider Sulawesi one of the world’s top three islands for biodiversity—that along with Australia and Madagascar.”

Sulawesi, a large Indonesian island located between Borneo and New Guinea, is known not only for its endemic biodiversity, but its rainforest and its proximity (three degrees) to the equator. Development threatens plant and animal life.

On the last three-week expedition, the UC Davis team of Lynn Kimsey, husband Robert Kimsey, a forensic entomologist in the UC Davis Department of Entomology, and Alan Hitch, assistant curator of the Museum of Wildlife and Fish Biology, hooked up with 12 scientists from the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI).
Close-up of male wasp. Click to enlarge. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

The 67-member expedition also included 12 members of Kendari's Chitaka mountaineering group, which guides mountain climbers to the top of the 9,117-foot volcanic peak; and a 40-member porter team that carried the equipment, set up camp and cooked the food, “which was steamed rice and ramen noodles three times a day,” she said.

“Eventually we had to leave because we ran out of food.”

The terrain was steep, slippery and overall, physically challenging, Lynn Kimsey said. “This part of Sulawesi gets about 400 inches of rain a year,” she said.

“We were told that Sulawesi has a dry and rainy season. But the only difference we could see between the dry and rainy season is that during the dry season, it rains only in the afternoon.”

Kimsey expressed amazement at the biodiversity of the flora and fauna. “We saw a colonial spider web that stretched across two acres. The adult spiders were about two inches long.”

“We saw evidence of wild cows, anoa, found only in Sulawesi, and found the first record in that region of a (Sulawesi) palm civet, a weasel-like predator."

The director of the Bohart Museum since 1989, Kimsey is an insect taxonomist, specializing in bees and wasps and insect diversity. She received her doctorate in entomology from UC Davis in 1979 and joined the faculty in 1989.

Over the last four years, the international team of scientists has collected about a million specimens. Among the new species: a bat, two frogs, two lizards, two fish, a land crab and many insects.

Kimsey is a collaborator of a five-year $4 million grant awarded to UC Davis scientists in 2008 to study the biodiversity of fungi, bacteria, plants, insects and vertebrates on Sulawesi, all considered threatened by logging operations and mining developments.

Much of the mountain was logged two decades ago and now there are plans for an open pit nickel mine, Kimsey said.

“There’s talk of forming a biosphere reserve to preserve this,” she said. “There are so many rare and endangered species on Sulawesi that the world may never see.”

An international team of collaborators is conducting biodiversity surveys, as well as screening microbes and plants for applications to human health and energy needs, recommending strategies to conserve endangered species, and developing and encouraging local conservation, according to principal investigator Daniel Potter of the UC Davis Department of Plant Sciences.

Other collaborators from UC Davis are from the UC Davis Herbarium, Museum of Wildlife and Fish Biology, Plant Pathology and the Phaff Yeast Culture Collection in the Department of Food Science and Technology.
Size comparison: male (left) and female wasp of the newly discovered species. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Shortly after receiving the grant, Potter, a plant systematist at the Agricultural Experiment Station and director of the UC Davis Center for Plant Diversity, said: “The alarming rate at which biodiversity is being lost in many tropical regions has resulted in an urgent need for such efforts."

The International Cooperative Biodiversity Group Program is a multi-agency program led by the National Institutes of Health with contributions from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Department of Energy, and the National Science Foundation.

As for the warrior wasp that Lynn Kimsey discovered, it’s now being intensely studied at the Bohart Museum of Entomology where she has long been known as “The Wasp Woman,” an affectionate term signifying her specialty.

The director of the Bohart Museum since 1989, Kimsey is an insect taxonomist, specializing in bees and wasps and insect diversity. She received her doctorate in entomology from UC Davis in 1979 and joined the faculty in 1989. Kimsey served as the interim chair of the UC Davis Department from 2008 to 2009.

Her mentor, the late professor Richard M. Bohart (1913-2007), for whom the museum is named, was world-renowned for his expertise on wasps and mosquitoes. Kimsey was his last graduate student.

During his career, Bohart identified more than one million mosquitoes and wasps, many now displayed at the Bohart Museum, a teaching, research and public service facility that he founded on campus in 1946.