Friday, May 31, 2013

NASA 'Mighty Eagle' Test Flight - Video

The Mighty Eagle, NASA's robotic prototype lander managed out of NASA"s Marshall Space Flight Center, recently completed a test series to monitor its systems functionality after coming out of winter storage.

This latest series included a test flight that was recorded by the Quad-Copter—a small vehicle also developed at Marshall that was equipped with a video camera allowing for never-before-seen footage of the Mighty Eagle.

The Mighty Eagle, nicknamed after one of the characters in the popular Angry Birds game, is a three-legged prototype vehicle.

It is 4 feet tall, 8 feet in diameter and weighs about 700 pounds when fueled. It is a green vehicle, fueled by 90 percent pure hydrogen peroxide, and is guided by an onboard computer that activates the thrusters to power the craft's movements.

"We were approached by the Mighty Eagle team to film the vehicle in flight, and we thought it would be a great collaboration," said Garrick Merrill, a member of the Aero-M team and a computer engineer in the Space Systems Department at Marshall.

"It gave us an opportunity to test the copter in a flight situation, and we were really pleased with the results. It really was a win-win situation for both teams—giving us both important data we can use on future flights." 

The Quad-Copter is an achievement in itself. The vehicle was designed and built by the Aero-M team at Marshall as part of the 2012 Unmanned Aerial Systems, or UAS, competition between various NASA centers.

The Marshall team was made up of young engineers from across the center who were tasked with designing a vehicle that could perform an autonomous search and rescue mission to locate people after a small plane crash.

The Quad-Copter is built with off-the-shelf, hobbyist-grade parts and uses an open-source flight computer.

The initial design of the vehicle uses a two-megapixel IP camera, but for the Mighty Eagle flights the IP camera was removed and a GoPro video camera was attached to provide high-definition video.

Read the full article here

For more information on NASA's robotic landers, visit here.

Perfect skin: More touchy-feely robots

Robots could become a lot more 'sensitive' thanks to new artificial skins and sensor technologies developed by European scientists. 

Leading to better robotic platforms that could one day be used in industry, hospitals and even at home.

The new capabilities, and a production system for building touch-sensitivity into different robots, will improve the way robots work in unconstrained settings, as well as their ability to communicate and cooperate with each other and with humans.

The EU-funded project 'Skin-based technologies and capabilities for safe, autonomous and interactive robots' (ROBOSKIN) developed new sensor technologies and management systems which give robots an artificial sense of touch - until now an elusive quality in robotics.

According to the partners behind the research from Italy, Switzerland and the UK, it was important to create cognitive mechanisms that use tactile feedback (the sense of 'touch' or 'feel') and behaviour to make sure human-robot interaction is safe and effective for the envisaged future applications.

The artificial skin is modelled largely on real skin, which has a tiny network of nerves that sense or feel changes like hot/cold or rough/smooth.

In this case, the electronic sensors collect this so-called 'tactile data' and process it using application software which has been front-loaded to include some basic robot behaviours which can be added to over time.

'Here, we opted for programming through demonstration and robot-assisted play so the robots learn as they go along by feeling, doing and interacting,' explains project coordinator Professor Giorgio Cannata of Genoa University, Italy.

Giorgio Cannata
'We had to generate a degree of awareness in the robots to help them react to tactile events and physical contact with the outside world,' he adds.

Kaspar the friendly robot
But robot cognition is extremely complex, so ROBOSKIN started with modest ambitions in lab tests by classifying types or degrees of touch.

They created a geometric mapping using continuous contact between the test robot and the environment to build a 'body representation' - parameters by which data can be assimilated by the robot into behaviour.

Outside the lab, on the other hand, ROBOSKIN sensor patches were applied to common touch points (feet, cheeks, arms) located on the University of Hertfordshire's KASPAR robot, a humanoid robot designed to help autistic children communicate better.

'With our sensors, the robot could sense or detect contact and the data collected formed an important part of the contact classification we did - the distinction between, for example, wanted and unwanted touch,' explains Prof. Cannata.

ROBOSKIN scientists explored various technologies, from the more basic capacitive sensors in today's sensing technologies, to higher-performing transducers found in piezoelectric materials, and flexible organic semiconductors.

'We'll see more and more piezoelectric materials - which can act like sensors because they react to changes brought on by contact with an outside force - in the near future,' predicts Prof. Cannata.

But sensors using organic semiconductors will be the future game-changer, he suggests, as you will be able to print the chips on different organic materials like fake skin or bendable materials, and they will eventually be much cheaper to make, once scaled up.

More information: 'Skin-based technologies and capabilities for safe, autonomous and interactive robots' website.

Asteroid 1998 QE2 - Video

Asteroid 1998 QE2 is 1.7 miles in diameter, making it a very good skywatching subject. People with large backyard telescopes can point there telescopes to the skies from May 30th to June 4th to catch see the space rock tumble across the sky. Credit: NASA

Space Engineers Developing Suit for Space Diving

The RL MARK VI Space Diving Ensemble, along with the IVA 3G spacesuit from Final Frontier Design, is intended to provide an out-of this world experience for thrill seekers of tomorrow.

CREDIT: Final Frontier Design

A futuristic space-suit being developed will take the high altitude adventurer of tomorrow from the total vacuum of outer space, through the searing heat of atmospheric reentry, then down to the surface of the planet earth for a pinpoint landing that even Elon Musk would be envious of and one that Tony Stark, the “Iron Man” himself, would be totally familiar with.

Two fledgling start-ups, Juxtopia LLC and Solar System Express, both of Baltimore Maryland, are combining their respective talents to assemble The RL MARK VI Space Diving Ensemble — hardware that, until now, only a bona fide superhero could truly appreciate.

And, with this collaboration will come the ability for future space travelers — both in emergency situations and in recreational pursuits — to exit a spacecraft in low-earth orbit, reenter the earth’s atmosphere and return safely back to the ground.

Juxtopia’s augmented reality goggles will feed tomorrow’s space diver with a visual display of all the vital information he will need to successfully navigate his way back to the surface of the planet.

A pair of gyroscopic boots from Solar System Express will steady the jumper’s descent through the upper atmosphere until the air becomes thick enough for aerodynamic control.

The developers plan to test their system using traditional parachute jumps, witha production model of the RL MARK VI estimated for delivery in 2016.

Three Lobes in the Trifid Nebula

Credit: Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope/Coelum

The Trifid Nebula, composed of an emission and a dark nebula, appears to possess three lobes owing to the thick dust lanes crossing its bright core (thus inspiring the name of the nebula). 

Radiation pressure from young stars has blown away dust and hydrogen, creating the central cavity.

Black hole bonanza possible as immense gas cloud passes

The cloud will approach Sagittarius A* on an elliptical orbit, passing close but not getting entirely sucked in by it.

A vast and hidden field of small black holes predicted to be near the centre of our galaxy could be revealed as a giant gas cloud passes by.

The G2 cloud is as large as our Solar System, and bound for a "supermassive" black hole at the Milky Way's core.

On the way, it should encounter many black holes just tens of km across.

A report in Physical Review Letters suggests they will spin and heat the gas, which will emit a spray of X-ray light that telescopes could see.

The cloud of gas - three times larger than Pluto's orbit but with a total mass just three times that of the Earth - was first spotted on its course toward the galaxy's centre in 2011.

Researchers have been gearing up for the cloud's approach to the galaxy's enormous central black hole, with its closest approach in September.

'Special opportunity'
Imre Bartos
But Imre Bartos of Columbia University in New York, US, and colleagues hit on the idea of using the cloud's passage for another purpose.

"We know that there is a very massive black hole in the centre of the galaxy, many millions of times heavier than our Sun, and we also suspect that there are thousands and thousands much smaller - a few times the mass of the Sun," explained Dr Bartos.

"When I first saw this G2 cloud going toward the centre, we thought that this may be the first opportunity to hopefully say something directly, to see these black holes near the centre," he reported.

The idea is that as the cloud speeds past these small black holes - some slightly more massive than our Sun but just a few tens of km across - gas will spiral around them faster and faster, heating up to millions of degrees and emitting X-ray light.

It is a bit like allowing a giant sink to empty through thousands of tiny drains and looking for any evidence of swirling water.

The team estimates - based on guesses about just how much gas is in the cloud - that as G2 makes its pass around the central black hole, X-ray space telescopes such as Chandra or NuStar should be able to glimpse about 16 interactions with its smaller cousins.

Keeping an eye out for these X-rays may also confirm the existence of what are called "intermediate mass" black holes - a few thousand times the mass of our Sun.

Here again, theory predicts their existence - particularly near the centres of galaxies - but none has ever been definitively confirmed.

Stefan Gillessen
"I think it's a good idea," said Stefan Gillessen of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, co-author of the 2012 paper in Nature on the G2 cloud's discovery.

"We didn't think of that when we did the original paper - I think it's something worth following up," he reported.

"But the big uncertainty, as always in this game, is what is the density of the gas which comes in."

The less dense the gas is, the less likely that enough light will be produced that our telescopes can see it but as Dr Bartos points out, it is the first real chance to get a look at what may be thousands of smaller black holes hidden between us and the galactic core.

"It's a very special opportunity, and it's also lucky that we've now got the capacity to observe these things with X-ray telescopes on satellites," he said.

Approaching Asteroid 1998 QE2 has a satellite Moon

First radar images of asteroid 1998 QE2 were obtained when the asteroid was about 3.75 million miles (6 million kilometers) from Earth.


A huge asteroid set to sail past Earth on Friday has its own moon, NASA scientists have just discovered.

Researchers obtained a series of radar images of the approaching asteroid 1998 QE2 late Wednesday (May 29) using the Deep Space Network antenna at Goldstone, Calif.

Images captured over the course of two hours showed that the asteroid is actually a binary system.

The main space rock is the size of nine ocean liners, roughly 1.7 miles (2.7 kilometers) across, and the satellite that orbits it is estimated to be 2,000 feet (600 meters) wide, according to NASA.

Binary systems are quite common among near-Earth asteroids. Of space rocks at least 655 feet (200 meters) across, about 16 percent are binary or triple systems, NASA officials said.

1998 QE2 poses no threat of hitting Earth during the flyby, space agency officials assure. Its closest approach will occur at 4:59 EDT on Friday (May 31) and it is expected to pass at least 3.6 million miles (5.8 million kilometers) away from the planet.

The asteroid won't be visible to the unaided eye as it zips by.

Though harmlessly far away, this will be the nearest 1998 QE2 gets to Earth in the next two centuries.

As it passes, the asteroid will be closely watched by astronomers. In addition to the 230-foot-wide (70 meter) Deep Space Network antenna, astronomers will also be using the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico to observe 1998 QE2 until June 9.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Mars Life: Water-rock reaction may provide enough hydrogen 'food'

A chemical reaction between iron-containing minerals and water may produce enough hydrogen "food" to sustain microbial communities living in pores and cracks within the enormous volume of rock below the ocean floor and parts of the continents, according to a new study led by the University of Colorado Boulder.

The findings, published in the journal Nature Geoscience, also hint at the possibility that hydrogen-dependent life could have existed where iron-rich igneous rocks on Mars were once in contact with water.

Scientists have thoroughly investigated how rock-water reactions can produce hydrogen in places where the temperatures are far too hot for living things to survive, such as in the rocks that underlie hydrothermal vent systems on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean.

The hydrogen gases produced in those rocks do eventually feed microbial life, but the communities are located only in small, cooler oases where the vent fluids mix with seawater.

Lisa Mayhew
The new study, led by CU-Boulder Research Associate Lisa Mayhew, set out to investigate whether hydrogen-producing reactions also could take place in the much more abundant rocks that are infiltrated with water at temperatures cool enough for life to survive.

Alexis Templeton
"Water-rock reactions that produce hydrogen gas are thought to have been one of the earliest sources of energy for life on Earth," said Mayhew, who worked on the study as a doctoral student in CU-Boulder Associate Professor Alexis Templeton's lab in the Department of Geological Sciences.

"However, we know very little about the possibility that hydrogen will be produced from these reactions when the temperatures are low enough that life can survive."

"If these reactions could make enough hydrogen at these low temperatures, then microorganisms might be able to live in the rocks where this reaction occurs, which could potentially be a huge subsurface microbial habitat for hydrogen-utilizing life."

When igneous rocks, which form when magma slowly cools deep within the Earth, are infiltrated by ocean water, some of the minerals release unstable atoms of iron into the water.

At high temperatures—warmer than 392 degrees Fahrenheit—scientists know that the unstable atoms, known as reduced iron, can rapidly split water molecules and produce hydrogen gas, as well as new minerals containing iron in the more stable, oxidized form.

More information here

NASA WISE mission finds lost asteroid family members

This artist's conception shows how families of asteroids are created. 

Over the history of our solar system, catastrophic collisions between asteroids located in the belt between Mars and Jupiter have formed families of objects on similar orbits around the sun. 

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Data from NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) have led to a new and improved family tree for asteroids in the main belt between Mars and Jupiter.

Astronomers used millions of infrared snapshots from the asteroid-hunting portion of the WISE all-sky survey, called NEOWISE, to identify 28 new asteroid families.

The snapshots also helped place thousands of previously hidden and uncategorized asteroids into families for the first time.

The findings are a critical step in understanding the origins of asteroid families, and the collisions thought to have created these rocky clans.

"NEOWISE has given us the data for a much more detailed look at the evolution of asteroids throughout the solar system," said Lindley Johnson, the program executive for the Near-Earth Object Observation Program at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

"This will help us trace the NEOs back to their sources and understand how some of them have migrated to orbits hazardous to the Earth."

The main asteroid belt is a major source of near-Earth objects (NEOs), which are those asteroids and comets that come within 28 million miles (45 million kilometers) of Earth's path around the sun.

Some near-Earth objects start out in stable orbits in the main asteroid belt, until a collision or gravitational disturbance flings them inward like flippers in a game of pinball.

The NEOWISE team looked at about 120,000 main belt asteroids out of the approximately 600,000 known.

They found that about 38,000 of these objects, roughly one third of the observed population, could be assigned to 76 families, 28 of which are new.

In addition, some asteroids thought to belong to a particular family were reclassified.

An asteroid family is formed when a collision breaks apart a large parent body into fragments of various sizes.

Some collisions leave giant craters. For example, the asteroid Vesta's southern hemisphere was excavated by two large impacts.

Other smash-ups are catastrophic, shattering an object into numerous fragments, as was the case with the Eos asteroid family.

The cast-off pieces move together in packs, traveling on the same path around the sun, but over time the pieces become more and more spread out.

More information: Paper:

NASA MSL: Ancient streambed found on surface of Mars

This set of images compares the Link outcrop of rocks on Mars (left) with similar rocks seen on Earth (right). Credit: NASA

Rounded pebbles on the surface of Mars indicate that a stream once flowed on the red planet, according to a new study by a team of scientists from NASA's Curiosity rover mission, including a University of California, Davis, geologist.

The study will be published in the May 31 issue of the journal Science.

Rounded pebbles of this size are known to form only when transported through water over long distances.

They were discovered between the north rim of the planet's Gale Crater and the base of Mount Sharp, a mountain inside the crater.

The finding represents the first on-site evidence of sustained water flows on the Mars landscape, and supports prospects that the planet could once have been able to host life.

As a co-investigator for NASA's Mars Science Laboratory team, UC Davis geologist and study co-author Dawn Sumner played a key role in choosing Gale Crater as the landing site for Curiosity.

Finding the rounded pebbles, which were deposited more than 2 billion years ago, was a matter of landing in the right place, she said.

"The main reason we chose Gale Crater as a landing site was to look at the layered rocks at the base of Mount Sharp, about five miles away," she said.

"We knew there was an alluvial fan in the landing area, a cone-shaped deposit of sediment that requires flowing water to form. These sorts of pebbles are likely because of that environment. So while we didn't choose Gale Crater for this purpose, we were hoping to find something like this."

The finding comes from Curiosity's exploration of the Mars surface during its first 100 sols (102.7 days on Earth), or Martian days.

During that time, the rover traveled about a quarter mile from its landing site, examining multiple outcrops of pebble-rich slabs.

Curiosity took high-resolution images of these pebbles at three locations known as Goulburn, Link and Hottah.

The grain size, roundness and other characteristics of the pebbles led the researchers to conclude they had been transported by water.

Sumner said the discovery involves some of the most basic principles of geology.

The study area, which has been named 'Hottah', is by all accounts the remains of sediments from the bottom of an ancient stream, which had a relatively strong current. Credit: Malin Space Science Systems

"On the first day of my sedimentary class, I have the students measure grain size and the rounding," Sumner said. "It's simple, and it's important."

Sumner's work in South Africa and Australia studying signs of past microbial life in rocks and her work on living microbial communities in Antarctica helped land her the spot on the Mars Science Laboratory team.

NASA recognized her skills could be critical to the mission's goal: to determine whether there ever could have been life on Mars.

As part of the MSL team, Sumner helped coordinate the first scientific interpretations of what was seen during Curiosity's first few days on Mars, helps direct the rover, via computer, to shoot photographs of the planet, and continues to work on the mission from UC Davis.

Researchers calculate radiation exposure associated with journey to Mars

The RAD instrument measures radiation dose using silicon detector and plastic scintillator technology.

The latter has a composition somewhat similar to tissue and is more sensitive to neutrons than are the silicon detectors.

This illustration of RAD shows the silicon detectors (A, B & C) that measure charged particles and the plastic detectors (D, E & F) that measure both charged and neutral particles.

Credit: Hassler et al., 2012. Space Science Reviews, 170, 503.

On November 26, 2011, the Mars Science Laboratory began a 253-day, 560-million-kilometer journey to deliver the Curiosity rover to the Red Planet.

Radiation Assessment Detector
En route, the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD) made detailed measurements of the energetic particle radiation environment inside the spacecraft, providing important insights for future human missions to Mars.

Cary Zeitlin
"In terms of accumulated dose, it's like getting a whole-body CT scan once every five or six days," said Dr. Cary Zeitlin, a principal scientist in SwRI's Space Science and Engineering Division and lead author of Measurements of Energetic Particle Radiation in Transit to Mars on the Mars Science Laboratory, scheduled for publication in the journal Science on May 31.

"Understanding the radiation environment inside a spacecraft carrying humans to Mars or other deep space destinations is critical for planning future crewed missions," Zeitlin said.

"Based on RAD measurements, unless propulsion systems advance rapidly, a large share of mission radiation exposure will be during outbound and return travel, when the spacecraft and its inhabitants will be exposed to the radiation environment in interplanetary space, shielded only by the spacecraft itself."

Two forms of radiation pose potential health risks to astronauts in deep space: a chronic low dose of galactic cosmic rays (GCRs) and the possibility of short-term exposures to the solar energetic particles (SEPs) associated with solar flares and coronal mass ejections.

Radiation dose is measured in units of Sievert (Sv) or milliSievert (1/1000 Sv). Long-term population studies have shown that exposure to radiation increases a person's lifetime cancer risk; exposure to a dose of 1 Sv is associated with a 5 percent increase in fatal cancer risk.

GCRs tend to be highly energetic, highly penetrating particles that are not stopped by the modest shielding provided by a typical spacecraft.

These high-energy particles include a small percentage of so-called heavy ions, which are atomic nuclei without their usual complement of electrons.

Heavy ions are known to cause more biological damage than other types of particles.

Energetic protons constitute about 85 percent of the primary galactic cosmic ray flux and easily traverse even the most shielded paths (reds) inside the MSL spacecraft.

Heavy ions tend to break up into lighter ions in thick shielding, but can survive traversal of thin shielding (blues) intact.

The solar particles of concern for astronaut safety are typically protons with kinetic energies up to a few hundred MeV (one MeV is a million electron volts).

Solar events typically produce very large fluxes of these particles, as well as helium and heavier ions, but rarely produce higher-energy fluxes similar to GCRs.

The comparatively low energy of typical SEPs means that spacecraft shielding is much more effective against SEPs than GCRs.

"A vehicle carrying humans into deep space would likely have a 'storm shelter' to protect against solar particles. But the GCRs are harder to stop and, even an aluminum hull a foot thick wouldn't change the dose very much," said Zeitlin.

"The RAD data show an average GCR dose equivalent rate of 1.8 milliSieverts per day in cruise. The total during just the transit phases of a Mars mission would be approximately .66 Sv for a round trip with current propulsion systems," said Zeitlin.

Time spent on the surface of Mars might add considerably to the total dose equivalent, depending on shielding conditions and the duration of the stay.

Exposure values that ensure crews will not exceed the various space agencies standards are less than 1 Sv.

More Information here

Team solves the origin of the Moon's 'mascons' mystery

Free-air gravitational acceleration anomalies over the 420-km-diameter Freundlich-Sharonov impact basin on the far side of the Moon. The color scale ranges between -300 and 300 mgal.

The image is 1,000 km wide. 

Credit: H. J. Melosh, Purdue University and the NASA GRAIL team

A mystery of the moon that imperiled astronauts and spacecraft on lunar missions has been solved by a Purdue University-led team of scientists as part of NASA's GRAIL mission.

Large concentrations of mass lurk on the lunar surface hidden like coral reefs beneath the ocean waves - an unseen and devastating hazard.

These concentrations change the gravity field and can either pull a spacecraft in or push it off course, sealing its fate to a crash on the face of the moon.

Jay Melosh
"In 1968 these mass concentrations were an unwelcome discovery as scientists prepared for the Apollo landings, and they have remained a mystery ever since," said Jay Melosh, a member of the Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory, or GRAIL, science team who led the research.

"GRAIL has now mapped where they lay, and we have a much better understanding of how they developed. If we return to the moon, we can now navigate with great precision."

A better understanding of these features also adds clues to the moon's origin and evolution and will be useful in studying other planets where mass concentrations also are known to exist including Mars and Mercury, said Melosh, who is a distinguished professor of earth, atmospheric and planetary sciences and physics.

"We now know the ancient moon must have been much hotter than it is now and the crust thinner than we thought," he said.

"For the first time we can figure out what size asteroids hit the moon by looking at the basins left behind and the gravity signature of the areas. We now have tools to figure out more about the heavy asteroid bombardment and what the ancient Earth may have faced."

The team confirmed the standing theory that the concentrations of mass were caused by massive asteroid impacts billions of years ago and determined how these impacts changed the density of material on the moon's surface and, in turn, its gravity field.

A paper detailing the results will be published online by the journal Science on Thursday (May 30).

In addition to Melosh, Purdue team members include Andrew Freed, associate professor of earth, atmospheric and planetary sciences, and graduate students Brandon Johnson and David Blair.

Additional team members include Maria Zuber, GRAIL principal investigator and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; J. Andrews-Hanna of the Colorado School of Mines; S. Solomon of Columbia University; and the GRAIL Science Team.

"The explanation of mascons has eluded scientists for decades," Zuber said. "Since their initial discovery they have also been observed on Mars and Mercury, and by understanding their formation on the moon we have greatly advanced knowledge of how major impacts modified planetary crusts."

The mass concentrations form a target pattern with a gravity surplus at the bulls-eye surrounded by a ring of gravity deficit and an outer ring of gravity surplus.

The team found that this pattern arises as a natural consequence of crater excavation, collapse and cooling following an impact.

The team determined that the increase in density and gravitational pull at the bulls-eye was caused by lunar material melted from the heat of the asteroid impact.

The melting causes the material to become more concentrated, stronger and denser, and pulls in additional material from the surrounding areas, Melosh said.

The large asteroid impacts also caused big holes into which the surrounding lunar material collapsed.

As the cool, strong lunar crust slid into the holes it bent downward, forming a rigid, curved edge that held down the material beneath it and prevented it from fully rebounding to its original surface height.

This causes a ring with less gravitational pull because the mass is held farther below the surface, the top of which is what most influences the gravitational signature, he said.

More information: "The Origin of Lunar Mascon Basins," by H.J. Melosh et al. Science, 2013.

Ancient Egyptians Crafted Jewelry From Meteorites

An analysis of this Gerzeh bead showed it was crafted from a space rock.

CREDIT: Open University

An ancient Egyptian iron bead found inside a 5,000-year-old tomb was crafted from a meteorite, new research shows.

The tube-shaped piece of jewelry was first discovered in 1911 at the Gerzeh cemetery, roughly 40 miles (70 kilometers) south of Cairo.

Dating between 3350 B.C. and 3600 B.C., beads found at the burial site represent the first known examples of iron use in ancient Egypt, thousands of years before Egypt's Iron Age and their cosmic origins were suspected from the start.

Soon after the beads were discovered, researchers showed that the metal jewelry was rich in nickel, a signature of iron meteorites but in the 1980s, academics cast doubt on the beads' celestial source, arguing that the high nickel content could have been the result of smelting.

Scientists from the Open University and the University of Manchester recently analyzed one of the beads with an electron microscope and an X-ray CT scanner.

They say the nickel-rich chemical composition of the bead's original metal confirms its meteorite origins.

What's more, the researchers say the bead had a Widmanstätten pattern, a distinctive crystal structure found only in meteorites that cooled at an extremely slow rate inside asteroids when the solar system was forming, according to Nature.

Further investigation also showed that the bead was not molded under heat, but rather hammered into shape by cold-working.

The first record of iron smelting in ancient Egypt comes from the sixth century B.C., and iron artifacts from before that time are quite rare, Nature reported.

"Today, we see iron first and foremost as a practical, rather dull metal," study researcher Joyce Tyldesley, an Egyptologist at the University of Manchester, said in a statement.

"To the ancient Egyptians, however, it was a rare and beautiful material which, as it fell from the sky, surely had some magical/religious properties."

The iron beads' inclusion in burials also suggests this material was deeply important to ancient Egyptians, Tyldesley added.

Strange as the find may seem, it's not the first time scientists have uncovered the cosmic origins of an ancient artifact.

Back in September, German researchers found that a heavy Buddha statue brought to Europe by the Nazis was carved from a meteorite between the eighth and 10th centuries.

They even linked it to a specific space rock — the Chinga meteorite, which scientists believe fell to Earth 10,000 to 20,000 years ago and left a scattering of space rocks around the Siberian and Mongolian border.

The new research on the Egyptian bead was detailed on May 20 in the journal Meteoritics and Planetary Science.

Composite Image of Powerful Jets Spewing From Supermassive Black Hole

This image of the galaxy known as 4C+29.30 contains X-ray data from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory (blue), optical light obtained with the Hubble Space Telescope (gold) and radio waves from the NSF's Very Large Array (pink).

CREDIT: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO/A.Siemiginowska et al; Optical: NASA/STScI; Radio: NSF/NRAO/VLA

Supermassive black holes are thought to lie at the center of nearly every galaxy, sucking up dust and gas and other material that allows them to grow to enormous sizes.

A stunning composite image of a galaxy 850 million light-years from Earth shows the power of one of these cosmic monsters spewing out humongous jets.

Astronomers pieced together a picture of the galaxy known as 4C+29.30 using data from different telescopes, including X-ray data from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory, optical data from the Hubble Space Telescope and radio waves from the Very Large Array in New Mexico.

The X-ray spectrum exposes the hot gas in this galaxy, with particularly bright spots at the center that represent million-degree gas pooling around the supermassive black hole, which is thought to be 100 million times heavier than our sun. Sometimes, as this matter falls in toward the black hole, it gets accelerated and hurled outward.

This triggers a flare-up in the two huge particle jets that radio data show to be racing at millions of miles per hour away from the black hole. Bright orbs at the end of the jets mark where extremely high energy electrons have crashed into clumps of material in the galaxy.

By both heating the gas in these clumps and dragging cool gas along for the ride, these jets sometimes deprive the supermassive black hole of its fuel supply, making it temporarily go hungry, researchers say.

Thermal limit for animal life redefined - Deep-sea Vent Pompeii worms

Forty-two may or may not be the answer to everything, but it likely defines the temperature limit where animal life thrives, according to the first laboratory study of heat-loving Pompeii worms from deep-sea vents, published in the open access journal PLOS ONE by Bruce Shillito and colleagues from the University Pierre and Marie Curie, France.

The worms, named Alvinella pompejana, colonize black smoker chimney walls at deep-sea vents, thrive at extremes of temperature and pressure, and have thus far eluded scientists' attempts to bring them to the surface alive for further research.

Many previous studies conducted at these sites has suggested the worms may be able to thrive at temperatures of 60 C (140 F) or higher.

As Shillito explains, "It is because several previous papers had come to this conclusion that Alvinella had become some sort of thermal exception in the scientific world. Before these studies, it was long agreed that 50 C was the limit at which animal life survived."

Bruce Shillito
In this new study, researchers used a technique that maintains the extreme pressure essential to the worms' survival during their extraction, allowing them to bring Pompeii worms to their labs for testing.

They found that prolonged exposure to the 50-55 C range induced lethal tissue damage, revealing that the worms did not experience long-term exposures to temperatures above 50 C in their natural environment.

However, their studies found that the temperature optimum for survival of the worms was still well over 42 C, ranking them among the most heat-loving animals known.

More Information: Ravaux J, Hamel G, Zbinden M, Tasiemski AA, Boutet I, et al. (2013) Thermal Limit for Metazoan Life in Question: In Vivo Heat Tolerance of the Pompeii Worm. PLOS ONE 8(5): e64074. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0064074.

NASA Cassini Finds Hints of Geological Activity on Saturn Moon Dione

The NASA Cassini spacecraft swooped in for a close-up of the cratered, fractured surface of Saturn's moon Dione in this image taken during the spacecraft's Jan. 27, 2010, non-targeted flyby.

Image credit: NASA /JPL-Caltech /Space Science Institute.

From a distance, most of the Saturnian moon Dione resembles a bland cueball.

Thanks to close-up images of a 500-mile-long (800-kilometer-long) mountain on the moon from NASA's Cassini spacecraft, scientists have found more evidence for the idea that Dione was likely active in the past. It could still be active now.

Bonnie Buratti
"A picture is emerging that suggests Dione could be a fossil of the wondrous activity Cassini discovered spraying from Saturn's geyser moon Enceladus or perhaps a weaker copycat Enceladus," said Bonnie Buratti of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., who leads the Cassini science team that studies icy satellites.

"There may turn out to be many more active worlds with water out there than we previously thought."

Other bodies in the solar system thought to have a subsurface ocean - including Saturn's moons Enceladus and Titan and Jupiter's moon Europa - are among the most geologically active worlds in our solar system.

They have been intriguing targets for geologists and scientists looking for the building blocks of life elsewhere in the solar system.

The presence of a subsurface ocean at Dione would boost the astrobiological potential of this once-boring iceball.

Hints of Dione's activity have recently come from Cassini, which has been exploring the Saturn system since 2004.

This image, which is composed of data obtained by NASA's Cassini spacecraft, shows the topography of a mountain known as Janiculum Dorsa on the Saturnian moon Dione. 

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI/Brown

The spacecraft's magnetometer has detected a faint particle stream coming from the moon, and images showed evidence for a possible liquid or slushy layer under its rock-hard ice crust.

Other Cassini images have also revealed ancient, inactive fractures at Dione similar to those seen at Enceladus that currently spray water ice and organic particles.

The mountain examined in the latest paper -- published in March in the journal Icarus -- is called Janiculum Dorsa and ranges in height from about 0.6 to 1.2 miles (1 to 2 kilometers).

The moon's crust appears to pucker under this mountain as much as about 0.3 mile (0.5 kilometer).

Noah Hammond
"The bending of the crust under Janiculum Dorsa suggests the icy crust was warm, and the best way to get that heat is if Dione had a subsurface ocean when the ridge formed," said Noah Hammond, the paper's lead author, who is based at Brown University, Providence, R.I.

Dione gets heated up by being stretched and squeezed as it gets closer to and farther from Saturn in its orbit.

With an icy crust that can slide around independently of the moon's core, the gravitational pulls of Saturn get exaggerated and create 10 times more heat, Hammond explained.

Other possible explanations, such as a local hotspot or a wild orbit, seemed unlikely.

Scientists are still trying to figure out why Enceladus became so active while Dione just seems to have sputtered along.

Perhaps the tidal forces were stronger on Enceladus, or maybe the larger fraction of rock in the core of Enceladus provided more radioactive heating from heavy elements.

Read more here

BRITE Constellation Satellite Mission

Each BRITE satellite -- about the size and mass of a car battery -- houses a small optical telescope feeding a CCD detector

BRITE Constellation represents new frontiers in aerospace technology and astrophysical science.

BRITE stands for "BRIght Target Explorer," because the targets in the sky for this mission are the most luminous stars in our galaxy.

It's a "constellation" because there will eventually be six BRITE satellites in orbit, monitoring the sky regularly for years to come.

Each BRITE satellite -- about the size and mass of a car battery -- houses a small optical telescope feeding a CCD detector.

Canadian aerospace technology is at the heart of the BRITE design, and Canadian astronomers have partnered with colleagues in Austria and Poland to make the mission a reality.

Each country is contributing a set of twins to the planned sextuplet of satellites. The first two BRITE nanosatellites were launched in late February, and it's expected all six will be in orbit by the end of 2014.

Focusing on the brightest stars in the sky, visible on a clear dark night with the unaided eye, the tiny BRITE eyes will measure subtle changes in the brightnesses of these stars.

The changes can be oscillations in brightness due to actual physical vibrations of the star, which astronomers translate into the otherwise hidden internal structure through a technique called stellar seismology.

The changes can be due to spots on the stars' surfaces -- bad complexions which alternate between 'breakouts' and 'clear skin', like our Sun's 11-year sunspot activity cycle.

The changes can also be due to ejections of gas from a star's surface, like the Sun's wind and its flares.

Sometimes the changes are not due to the star itself, but caused by a planet passing in front of the star, causing dips in the star's apparent brightness.

BRITE Constellation will capture all these types of changes in hundreds of stars to be monitored, and the mission is expected to discover new planets.

Read more of this article here:

Dangerous Near Earth Asteroids: Is Nuking them the Best Protection?

Recent Russian space rock explosion and same day close flyby of an asteroid is stirring up talk about dealing with the near-Earth object threat.


If a dangerous asteroid appears to be on a collision course for Earth, one option is to send a spacecraft to destroy it with a nuclear warhead.

Such a mission, which would cost about $1 billion, could be developed from work NASA is already funding, a prominent asteroid defense expert says.

Bong Wie, director of the Asteroid Deflection Research Center at Iowa State University, described the system his team is developing to attendees at the International Space Development Conference in La Jolla, Calif., on May 23.

The annual National Space Society gathering attracted hundreds from the space industry around the world.

An anti-asteroid spacecraft would deliver a nuclear warhead to destroy an incoming threat before it could reach Earth, Wie said.

The two-section spacecraft would consist of a kinetic energy impactor that would separate before arrival and blast a crater in the asteroid.

The other half of the spacecraft would carry the nuclear weapon, which would then explode inside the crater after the vehicle impacted.

The goal would be to fragment the asteroid into many pieces, which would then disperse along separate trajectories.

Bong Wie
Bong Wie believes that up to 99 percent or more of the asteroid pieces could end up missing the Earth, greatly limiting the impact on the planet.

Of those that do reach our world, many would burn up in the atmosphere and pose no threat.

Wie's study has focused on providing the capability to respond to a threatening asteroid on short notices of a year or so.

The plan would be to have two spacecraft on standby — one primary, the other backup — that could be launched on Delta 4 rockets.

If the first spacecraft failed on launch or didn't fragment the asteroid, the second would be sent aloft to finish the job.

Wie admitted that sending nuclear weapons into space would be politically controversial.

However, he said there are a number of safety features that could be built into the spacecraft to prevent the nuclear warhead from detonating in the event of a launch failure.

A nuclear weapon is the only thing that would work against an asteroid on short notice, Wie added.

Other systems designed to divert an asteroid such as tugboats, gravity tractors, solar sails and mass drivers would require 10 or 20 years of advance notice.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

ESA X-ray Observatory: Super-dense star is first ever found suddenly slowing its spin

The magnetar 1E 2259+586 shines a brilliant blue-white in this false-colour X-ray image of the CTB 109 supernova remnant, which lies about 10,000 light-years away toward the constellation Cassiopeia. 

CTB 109 is only one of three supernova remnants in our galaxy known to harbor a magnetar. 

X-rays at low, medium and high energies are respectively shown in red, green, and blue in this image created from observations acquired by the European Space Agency's XMM-Newton satellite in 2002. 

Credit: ESA/XMM-Newton /M. Sasaki et al.

One of the densest objects in the universe, a neutron star about 10,000 light years from Earth, has been discovered suddenly putting the brakes on its spinning speed.

The event is a mystery that holds important clues for understanding how matter reacts when it is squeezed more tightly than the density of an atomic nucleus—a state that no laboratory on Earth has achieved.

The discovery by an international team of scientists will be published in the journal Nature on May 30, 2013.

The scientists detected the neutron star's abrupt slow-down with NASA's Swift observatory, a satellite with three telescopes whose science and flight operations are controlled by Penn State from the Mission Operations Center on the University Park campus.

"Because Swift has the ability to regularly measure the spin of this unusual star, we have been able to observe its surprising evolution," said Penn State astronomer Jamie Kennea, a coauthor of the Nature paper.

"This neutron star is doing something completely unexpected. Its speed of rotation has been dropping at an increasingly rapid rate ever since the initial sudden decrease in its spin."

Although astronomers have observed neutron stars suddenly speeding up their spins—an event called a "glitch"—they never before had observed a neutron star suddenly slowing down.

"We've dubbed this event an 'anti-glitch' because it affected this star in exactly the opposite manner of every other clearly identified glitch seen in neutron stars," said co-author Neil Gehrels, the lead researcher on the Swift mission, at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

The star is in the Northern Hemisphere sky in the constellation Cassiopeia.

More Information: Nature, 2013.

ESA Venus Express: Venus Dried Out Because It's Closer to Sun

This false-colour image of cloud features seen on Venus by the Venus Monitoring Camera (VMC) on the European Space Agency's Venus Express.

The image was captured from a distance of 30 000 km on 8 December 2011. 

ESA Venus Express has been in orbit around the planet since 2006.


Taking a closer look at the history of Venus, including how the planet transformed into a hellish hot house, may help astronomers predict the evolution of alien worlds, scientists say.

Ultraviolet rays from the sun sapped Venus' atmosphere of water during the planet's evolution, keeping it in a "prolonged molten state" for longer than Earth's molten state, a team of Japanese scientists has found.

Venus' vastly different environment came because it formed closer to the sun than Earth did, the researchers said.

With alien planets now a planetary-science frontier, studying Venus — which is within easy reach of Earth — will give clues about what to look for in exoplanet surfaces, they added.

"In a situation such [that] a magma ocean sustains very long, the planets are covered with a thick atmosphere.

Therefore, unfortunately, it would be difficult to observe their surface temperatures directly," said Keiko Hamano, a planetary scientist with Tokyo University who led the research.

"According to previous studies, however," he added, "hot atmospheres could contain unique species, such as alkali- and halogen-bearing gases. So, we hope to recognize hot surfaces indirectly by detecting their signatures on future missions."

Asteroid Miners to Launch Arkyd Space Telescope - Crowdfunding Video

An artist’s illustration of the Arkyd telescope being developed by asteroid mining firm Planetary Resources, which hopes to launch one Arkyd as a crowdfunded instrument meant to serve the public.

CREDIT: Planetary Resources

A private company that plans to mine asteroids unveiled a new venture today (May 29), an ambitious plan to launch the world's first crowdfunded telescope.

The company, Planetary Resources, is developing a suite of spacecraft, dubbed Arkyd, to study solar-system asteroids as a precursor to mining missions.

Now, the firm has launched a crowdfunding campaign to make an Arkyd available for the public's use. Students, scientists and interested citizens would be able to direct this space telescope toward any space objects they wished.

"We're very excited to bring this out and make the opportunity available for everyone who's interested in it," said Chris Lewicki, Planetary Resources’ president and chief engineer.

"We've got people — educators, science groups, researchers — who are all very excited for it."

Peter Diamandis and Bill Nye of Planetary Resources discuss the Arkyd 100 Public Space Telescope.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Expedition 36: New ISS Crew Arrives at Space Station in Record Time

A Soyuz spacecraft carrying the Expedition 36/37 crew to the International Space Station is seen in station cameras just before docking on May 28, 2013.


An international trio of astronauts has just become the newest residents of a space station in orbit after a record-setting trip.

Five hours and 40 minutes after a successful Soyuz rocket launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan earlier today (May 28), Russian cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin, NASA's Karen Nyberg and Luca Parmitano of the European Space Agency docked their Soyuz spacecraft at the International Space Station at 10:10 p.m. EDT (0210 May 29 GMT).

The new crew will remain on the space station for the next six months.

"I've never felt better in my life," Yurchikhin said just after the Soyuz docked at the station in record time while sailing high above the South Pacific.

You can watch live coverage of the hatch opening on NASA TV starting at 11:30 p.m. EDT (0330 May 29 GMT), with hatch opening scheduled for 11:55 p.m. EDT (0355 May 29 GMT).

New ISS Crew on their way: Expedition 36 Soyuz Launch

A Soyuz rocket with Expedition 36/37 Soyuz Commander Fyodor Yurchikhin of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) and Flight Engineers Luca Parmitano of the European Space Agency and Karen Nyberg of NASA, onboard, launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan to the International Space Station. 

Yurchikhin, Nyberg and Parmitano will remain aboard the station until mid-November, 2013. 

Photo credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

3D Printing Could Aid Deep-Space Exploration

Technological advances are bringing down the cost of space research and exploration, with 3D printing poised to provide a transformative leap, NASA chief Charles Bolden says.

During a tour of the space agency's Ames Research Center here Friday (May 24), Bolden lauded the scientific potential of PhoneSats, tiny and inexpensive spacecraft based on off-the-shelf smartphones and he singled out 3D printing as a promising key enabler of humanity's push out into the solar system.

"As NASA ventures further into space, whether redirecting an asteroid or sending humans to Mars, we'll need transformative technology to reduce cargo weight and volume," Bolden said.

"In the future, perhaps astronauts will be able to print the tools or components they need while in space."

US Military's Secretive Robot Space Plane: X-37B Mission Passes 5-Month Mark

NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center image shows on-orbit functions for the reusable X-37 space plane, now under the wing of the U.S. Air Force. 


The U.S. Air Force's robotic X-37B space plane has quietly passed the five-month mark on its latest secret mission in Earth orbit.

The unmanned X-37B spacecraft launched into space atop an Atlas 5 rocket from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Dec. 11, 2012, kicking off a mission whose objectives and payloads are classified.

The winged craft is known as Orbital Test Vehicle-3 (OTV-3), since it is conducting the third mission of the Air Force's X-37B program.

What OTV-3 is up to on its confidential cruise remains unknown.

However, a network of vigilant skywatchers is monitoring the mission as it progresses.

"It’s certainly important not to forget about these programs," said Ted Molczan of Toronto, a leader in the worldwide community of satellite trackers.

"Careful observation over a long time may provide the clues to finally solve the mystery."

Molczan said that, even then, he suspects that any breakthrough in knowledge regarding X-37B’s orbital missions will more likely result from leaks by insiders to journalists.

"Hobbyist observations can provide corroboration and some interesting, even useful details, but seldom are sufficient to expose the big picture…especially with new programs," he reported. "With X-37B, we can only watch and wait."

Battlestar Gallactica Simulator - Video

This flight simulator modeled from the Viper spacecraft featured in the Battlestar Galactica television show can flip and spin completely in any direction.

Monday, May 27, 2013

NASA Kepler: Big weather on hot Jupiters

This exoplanet weather map shows temperatures on a hot Jupiter known as "HAT-P-2b". 

Among the hundreds of new planets discovered by NASA's Kepler spacecraft are a class of exotic worlds known as "hot Jupiters." 

Unlike the giant planets of our own solar system, which remain at a safe distance from the sun, these worlds are reckless visitors to their parent stars.

They speed around in orbits a fraction the size of Mercury's, blasted on just one-side by starlight hundreds of times more intense than the gentle heating experienced by Jupiter here at home."

Meteorologists watching this video are probably wondering what kind of weather a world like that might have.

Heather Knutson
The short answer is "big." Heather Knutson of Caltech made the first weather map of a hot Jupiter in 2007. "It's not as simple as taking a picture and—voila!—we see the weather," says Knutson.

These planets are hundreds of light years from Earth and they are nearly overwhelmed by the glare of their parent stars.

"Even to see the planet as a single pixel next to the star would be a huge accomplishment." Instead, Knutson and colleagues use a trick dreamed up by Nick Cowan of Northwestern University.

The key, she explains, is that "most hot Jupiters are tidally locked to their stars. This means they have a permanent dayside and a permanent night side.

Nick Cowan
As we watch them orbit from our vantage point on Earth, the planets exhibit phases—e.g., crescent, gibbous and full.

By measuring the infrared brightness of the planet as a function of its phase, we can make a rudimentary map of temperature vs. longitude."

NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope is the only infrared observatory with the sensitivity to do this work.

Since Knutson kick-started the research in 2007, nearly a dozen hot Jupiters have been mapped by astronomers using Spitzer.

Nikole Lewis
The most recent study, led by Nikole Lewis, a NASA Sagan Exoplanet Fellow working at MIT, shows a gas giant named HAT-P-2b.

"We can see daytime temperatures as high as 2400 K," says Lewis, "while the nightside drops below 1200K. Even at night," she marvels, "this planet is ten times hotter than Jupiter."

These exoplanet maps may seem crude compared to what we're accustomed to on Earth, but they are a fantastic accomplishment considering that the planets are trillions of miles away.