Sunday, June 30, 2013

NASA AMES: ISS Astronaut Drives K10 Robotic Rovers on Earth

Credit: NASA Ames Research Center

NASA's K10 rover at the Ames Research Center in Moffett Field,Calif., performs a surface survey with its cameras and laser system, and then deployed a simulated polymide antenna while being controlled by an astronaut in space during a June 2013 test.

NASA Space Shuttle Atlantis on Display - Video

Space shuttle Atlantis, is on display inside the new $100 million "Space Shuttle Atlantis" exhibit that opened Saturday, June 29, 2013, at NASA's Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida. 

The guests' experiences begin even before they enter the building. 

Outside, a towering replica of the shuttle's solid rocket boosters and massive external fuel tank serve as a gateway for the exhibit. 

The facility, itself, was designed to evoke a shuttle returning from space, using iridescent hues of orange and gold to represent the glow of re-entry and a shimmering tile pattern similar in appearance to the orbiter's underbelly.

NASA GALEX: Galaxy Hunter Spacecraft Decommissions

This image from NASA's Galaxy Evolution Explorer (GALEX) shows Messier 94, also known as NGC 4736, in ultraviolet light. 

It is located 17 million light-years away in the constellation Canes Venatici

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA has turned off its Galaxy Evolution Explorer (GALEX) after a decade of operations in which the venerable space telescope used its ultraviolet vision to study hundreds of millions of galaxies across 10 billion years of cosmic time.

"GALEX is a remarkable accomplishment," said Jeff Hayes, NASA's GALEX program executive in Washington.

"This small Explorer mission has mapped and studied galaxies in the ultraviolet, light we cannot see with our own eyes, across most of the sky."

Operators at Orbital Sciences Corporation in Dulles, Va., sent the signal to decommission GALEX at 12:09 p.m. PDT (3:09 p.m. EDT) Friday, June 28.

The spacecraft will remain in orbit for at least 65 years, then fall to Earth and burn up upon re-entering the atmosphere.

GALEX met its prime objectives and the mission was extended three times before being cancelled.

Highlights from the mission's decade of sky scans include:
  • Discovering a gargantuan, comet-like tail behind a speeding star called Mira.
  • Catching a black hole "red-handed" as it munched on a star.
  • Finding giant rings of new stars around old, dead galaxies.
  • Independently confirming the nature of dark energy.
  • Discovering a missing link in galaxy evolution—the teenage galaxies transitioning from young to old.
The mission also captured a dazzling collection of snapshots, showing everything from ghostly nebulas to a spiral galaxy with huge, spidery arms.

In a first-of-a-kind move for NASA, the agency in May 2012 loaned GALEX to the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, which used private funds to continue operating the satellite while NASA retained ownership.

Since then, investigators from around the world have used GALEX to study everything from stars in our own Milky Way galaxy to hundreds of thousands of galaxies 5 billion light-years away.

In the space telescope's last year, it scanned across large patches of sky, including the bustling, bright center of our Milky Way.

The telescope spent time staring at certain areas of the sky, finding exploded stars, called supernovae, and monitoring how objects, such as the centers of active galaxies, change over time.

GALEX also scanned the sky for massive, feeding black holes and shock waves from early supernova explosions.

David Schiminovich
"In the last few years, GALEX studied objects we never thought we'd be able to observe, from the Magellanic Clouds to bright nebulae and supernova remnants in the galactic plane," said David Schiminovich of Columbia University, N.Y., N.Y, a longtime GALEX team member who led science operations over the past year.

"Some of its most beautiful and scientifically compelling images are part of this last observation cycle."

Data from the last year of the mission will be made public in the coming year.

"GALEX, the mission, may be over, but its science discoveries will keep on going," said Kerry Erickson, the mission's project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

A slideshow showing some of the popular GALEX images is online at:

Original 'Star Trek' Galileo Shuttlecraft Restored

Credit: Karl Tate

The Galileo shuttlecraft from TV's "Star Trek" is shown fully restored after a yearlong project led by Trek superfan Adam Schneider of New Jersey.

The restored Galileo was unveiled on June 22, 2013 at Master Shipwrights Inc., in Atlantic Highlands, N.J.

A rear view of the Galileo shuttlecraft after it's restoration.

Galileo shuttlecraft from "Star Trek" taken in 2012 shows its heavily degraded condition.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

NASA tests Zoe, the new Mars rover prototype, in Chile

NASA scientists said Friday they were testing a prototype of a robot the US space agency hopes to send to Mars in 2020 in Chile's Atacama desert.

NASA hopes to use this kind of rover to explore life-friendly sites found by Curiosity, the rover already searching for signs of life on Mars.

It has been there since last August.

The researchers say the desert, the driest spot on Earth, mimics the conditions of the Red Planet, and the agency has used it in the past to test space-bound equipment.

The robot, controlled remotely from the US, will continue testing through Sunday.

The solar-powered 771-kilogram (1,700-pound) machine is equipped with cameras and a drill able to dig up to a meter (three feet) deep.

It is testing its sensors, its cameras, its ability to store energy, as it searches for evidence of microbial life in the desert.

The Zoe robot will use a one-meter drill, shown here protruding above the robot's solar cell deck, to search for subsurface life in Chile's Atacama Desert. 

Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute and the SETI Institute are leading the NASA-sponsored field experiment. 

Credit: Carnegie Mellon University

Friday, June 28, 2013

Identifying Alzheimer's using Space Software

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan of a human brain. 

Credit: Wikipedia/Fastfission

Software for processing satellite pictures taken from space is now helping medical researchers to establish a simple method for wide-scale screening for Alzheimer's disease.

Used in analysing magnetic resonance images (MRIs), the AlzTools 3D Slicer tool was produced by computer scientists at Spain's Elecnor Deimos, who drew on years of experience developing software for ESA's Envisat satellite to create a program that adapted the space routines to analyse human brain scans.

"If you have a space image and you have to select part of an image – a field or crops – you need special routines to extract the information," explained Carlos Fernández de la Peña of Deimos. "Is this pixel a field, or a road?"

Working for ESA, the team gained experience in processing raw satellite image data by using sophisticated software routines, then homing in on and identifying specific elements.

"Looking at and analysing satellite images can be compared to what medical doctors have to do to understand scans like MRIs," explained Mr Fernández de la Peña.

"They also need to identify features indicating malfunctions according to specific characteristics."

Adapting the techniques for analysing complicated space images to an application for medical scientists researching into the Alzheimer disease required close collaboration between Deimos and specialists from the Technical University of Madrid.

The tool is now used for Alzheimer's research at the Medicine Faculty at the University of Castilla La Mancha in Albacete in Spain.

"We work closely with Spanish industry and also with Elecnor Deimos though ProEspacio, the Spanish Association of Space Sector Companies, to support the spin-off of space technologies like this one," said Richard Seddon from Tecnalia, the technology broker for Spain for ESA's Technology Transfer Programme.

"Even if being developed for specific applications, we often see that space technologies turn out to provide innovative and intelligent solutions to problems in non-space sectors, such as this one.

"It is incredible to see that the experience and technologies gained from analysing satellite images can help doctors to understand Alzheimer's disease."

Using AlzTools, Deimos scientists work with raw data from a brain scan rather than satellite images. Instead of a field or a road in a satellite image, they look at brain areas like the hippocampus, where atrophy is associated with Alzheimer's.

In both cases, notes Mr Fernández de la Peña, "You have a tonne of data you have to make sense of."

Ricardo Insausti Serrano, a medical doctor and researcher, worked with the computer scientists to help guide them through the workings of the brain: "I looked at images, and told them which part has which function."

With his expertise, he could identify which information might be useful for a doctor looking for signs of Alzheimer's disease.

Anatomical MRI gif of the brain, concurrently showing progressive slices through transverse, saggital, and coronal planes. 

Credit: Wikipedia/Brainscandude

Survivor of stellar collision is new type of pulsating star

Artist's impression of the eclipsing, pulsating binary star J0247-25. 

Credit: Keele University

A team of astronomers from the UK, Germany and Spain have observed the remnant of a stellar collision and discovered that its brightness varies in a way not seen before on this rare type of star.

By analysing the patterns in these brightness variations, astronomers will learn what really happens when stars collide.

This discovery will be published in the 27 June 2013 issue of the journal Nature.

Stars like our Sun expand and cool to become red giant stars when the hydrogen that fuels the nuclear fusion in their cores starts to run out.

Many stars are born in binary systems so an expanding red giant star will sometimes collide with an orbiting companion star.

As much as 90% of the red giant star's mass can be stripped off in a stellar collision, but the details of this process are not well understood.

Only a few stars that have recently emerged from a stellar collision are known, so it has been difficult to study the connection between stellar collisions and the various exotic stellar systems they produce.

When an eclipsing binary system containing one such star turned up as a by-product of a search for extrasolar planets, Dr Pierre Maxted and his colleagues decided to use the high-speed camera ULTRACAM to study the eclipses of the star in detail.

These new high-speed brightness measurements show that the remnant of the stripped red giant is a new type of pulsating star.

Many stars, including our own Sun, vary in brightness because of pulsations caused by sound waves bouncing around inside the star.

For both the Sun and the new variable star, each pulsation cycle takes about 5 minutes. These pulsations can be used to study the properties of a star below its visible surface.

Computer models produced by the discovery team show that the sound waves probe all the way to the centre of the new pulsating star.

Further observations of this star are now planned to work out how long it will be before the star starts to cool and fade to produce a stellar corpse ("white dwarf'") of abnormally low mass.

Dr Pierre Maxted from Keele University, who led the study, said "We have been able to find out a lot about these stars, such as how much they weigh, because they are in a binary system. This will really help us to interpret the pulsation signal and so figure out how these stars survived the collision and what will become of them over the next few billion years."

Russian Chelyabinsk meteor shockwave circled the Earth twice

The shock wave from an asteroid that burned up over Russia in February was so powerful that it travelled twice around the globe, scientists say.

They used a system of sensors set up to detect evidence of nuclear tests and said it was the most powerful event ever recorded by the network.

More than 1,000 people were injured when a 17m, 10,000-tonne space rock burned up above Chelyabinsk.

The study appears in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

The researchers studied data from the International Monitoring System (IMS) network operated by the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organisation (CTBTO).

The detection stations look out for ultra-low frequency acoustic waves, known as infrasound, that could come from nuclear test explosions but the system can also detect large blasts from other sources, such as the Chelyabinsk fireball.

Alexis Le Pichon, from the Atomic Energy Commission in France and colleagues report that the explosive energy of the impact was equivalent to 460 kilotonnes of TNT.

This makes it the most energetic event reported since the 1908 Tunguska meteor in Siberia.

NASA JPL CARVE: Arctic Permafrost the "Sleeping Giant" of Climate Change

Flying low and slow above the pristine terrain of Alaska's North Slope research scientist Charles Miller of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory surveys the white expanse of tundra and permafrost below.

On the horizon, a long, dark line appears. His plane draws nearer, and the mysterious object reveals itself to be a massive herd of migrating caribou, stretching for miles.

"Seeing those caribou marching single-file across the tundra puts what we're doing here in the Arctic into perspective," says Miller, who is on five-year mission named "CARVE" to study how climate change is affecting the Arctic's carbon cycle.

CARVE is short for the "Carbon in Arctic Reservoirs Vulnerability Experiment."

Now in its third year, the airborne campaign is testing the hypothesis that Arctic carbon reservoirs are vulnerable to warming, while delivering the first source-maps of greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and methane. About two dozen scientists from 12 institutions are participating in this experiment.

"The Arctic is critical to understanding global climate," says Miller. "Climate change is already happening in the Arctic, faster than its ecosystems can adapt. Looking at the Arctic is like looking at the canary in the coal mine for the entire Earth system."

Over hundreds of millennia, Arctic permafrost soils have accumulated vast stores of organic carbon - an estimated 1,400 to 1,850 billion metric tons of it. That's about half of all the estimated organic carbon stored in Earth's soils.

In comparison, about 350 billion metric tons of carbon have been emitted from all fossil-fuel combustion and human activities since 1850. Most of the Arctic's sequestered carbon is located in thaw-vulnerable topsoils within 3 meters of the surface.

But, as scientists are learning, permafrost - and its stored carbon - may not be as permanent as its name implies. And that has them concerned.

"Permafrost soils are warming even faster than Arctic air temperatures - as much as 1.5 to 2.5 degrees Celsius in just the past 30 years," says Miller.

"As heat from Earth's surface penetrates into permafrost, it threatens to mobilize these organic carbon reservoirs and release them into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide and methane, upsetting the Arctic's carbon balance and greatly exacerbating global warming."

NASA Voyager-1: On the edge of the Solar System

Artist's concept of NASA's Voyager spacecraft. 

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech 

Data from NASA's Voyager 1 spacecraft continues to provide new insight on the outskirts of our solar system, a frontier thought to be the last that Voyager will cross before becoming the first man-made object to reach interstellar space.

In papers published this week in the journal Science, scientists from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Md., and other Voyager partner institutions provide more clarity on the region they named the "magnetic highway" in December 2012.

Cruising through what scientists describe as a curious, unexpected charged-particle environment, Voyager has detected, for the first time, low-energy galactic cosmic rays, now that particles of the same energy from inside the bubble around our Sun disappeared.

As a result, Voyager now sees the highest level so far of particles from outside our solar bubble that originate from the death of other nearby stars.

"Voyager 1 may be months or years from leaving the solar system—we just don't know," says APL's Stamatios Krimigis, principal investigator for Voyager's Low-Energy Charged Particle (LECP) instrument.

"But the wait itself is incredibly exciting, since Voyager continues to defy predictions and change the way we think about this mysterious and wonderful gateway region to the galaxy."

This artist's concept shows NASA's Voyager 1 spacecraft exploring a region called the "depletion region" or "magnetic highway" at the outer limits of our heliosphere, the bubble the sun blows around itself. 

In this region, the magnetic field lines generated by our sun (yellow arcs) are piling up and intensifying and low-energy charged particles that are accelerated in the heliosphere's turbulent outer later (green dots) have disappeared. 

Scientists think the depletion region is the last region Voyager 1 has to cross before reaching interstellar space, which is the space between stars, Voyager 1 passed a shockwave known as the termination shock in 2004, where solar wind suddenly slowed down and became turbulent. 

In 2010, it then passed into an area called the "stagnation region" where the outward velocity of the solar wind slowed to zero and sporadically reversed direction. 

In the slow-down and stagnation regions, the prevalence of low-energy charged particles from our heliosphere jumped dramatically and is indicated by the green dots. 

On Aug. 25, 2012. Voyager 1 entered the depletion or magnetic highway region, where the magnetic field acts as a kind of "magnetic highway" allowing energetic ions from inside the heliosphere to escape out, and cosmic rays from interstellar space zoom in. 

Magnetic field lines form a spiral around the solar system because of the rotation of the sun, and at the edge of the heliosphere they form roughly parallel arcs. 

Because an interstellar wind outside is pushing back on the heliosphere, magnetic field lines pile up as the solar wind slows, like cars back up at a freeway off-ramp. 

The compression of field lines increases the strength of the magnetic field as Voyager approaches interstellar space. 

Since scientists don't know the exact location of the heliopause - which is the border to interstellar space - that area has been labeled with a question mark. 

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech 

Voyager 1 and 2 were launched in 1977 and between them visited Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.

Since 1990, the twin spacecraft have been on their Interstellar Mission, on track to leave the heliosphere, which is the bubble of magnetic field and charged particles the Sun blows around itself.

On Aug. 25, 2012, when Voyager 1 was about 11 billion miles (18 billion kilometers) from the Sun, the spacecraft reached the so-called magnetic highway where charged particles from inside the heliosphere zoomed out along the magnetic field as cosmic rays from far outside zoomed in.

The lack of a detectable change in the direction of that magnetic field, however, convinced scientists that Voyager remained within the Sun's influence.

The new Science papers focus on observations from the summer and fall of 2012 by LECP as well as Voyager 1's Cosmic Ray and Magnetometer instruments, with additional LECP data through April 2013.

More information: References:
* "Magnetic Field Observations as Voyager 1 Entered the Heliosheath Depletion Region," L. F. Burlaga, N. F. Ness, and E. C. Stone, Science, DOI: 10.1126/science.1235451; 
* "Search for the Exit: Voyager 1 at Heliosphere's Border with the Galaxy," S. M. Krimigis, R. B. Decker, E. C. Roelof, M. E. Hill, T. P. Armstrong, G. Gloeckler, D. C. Hamilton, and L. J. Lanzerotti, Science, DOI:10.1126/science.1235721; 
* "Voyager 1 Observes Low-Energy Galactic Cosmic Rays in a Region Depleted of Heliospheric Ions," E. C. Stone, A. C. Cummings, F. B. McDonald, B. C. Heikkila, N. Lal, and W. R. Webber, Science, DOI:10.1126/science.1236408;

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Gas-giant exoplanets cling close to their parent stars

This is an artist's rendering of a possible exoplanetary system with a gas-giant planet orbiting close to his parent star which is more massive than our sun. Artwork by Lynette Cook. 

Credit: Gemini Observatory/AURA

Gemini Observatory's Planet-Finding Campaign finds that, around many types of stars, distant gas-giant planets are rare and prefer to cling close to their parent stars.

The impact on theories of planetary formation could be significant.

Finding extrasolar planets has become so commonplace that it seems astronomers merely have to look up and another world is discovered.

However, results from Gemini Observatory's recently completed Planet-Finding Campaign – the deepest, most extensive direct imaging survey to date – show the vast outlying orbital space around many types of stars is largely devoid of gas-giant planets, which apparently tend to dwell close to their parent stars.

Michael Liu
"It seems that gas-giant exoplanets are like clinging offspring," says Michael Liu of the University of Hawaii's Institute for Astronomy and leader of the Gemini Planet-Finding Campaign.

"Most tend to shun orbital zones far from their parents. In our search, we could have found gas giants beyond orbital distances corresponding to Uranus and Neptune in our own Solar System, but we didn't find any."

The Campaign's results, Liu says, will help scientists better understand how gas-giant planets form, as the orbital distances of planets are a key signature that astronomers use to test exoplanet formation theories.

Eric Nielsen of the University of Hawaii, who leads a new paper about the Campaign's search for planets around stars more massive than the Sun, adds that the findings have implications beyond the specific stars imaged by the team.

"The two largest planets in our Solar System, Jupiter and Saturn, are huddled close to our Sun, within 10 times the distance between the Earth and Sun," he points out.

"We found that this lack of gas-giant planets in more distant orbits is typical for nearby stars over a wide range of masses."

Two additional papers from the Campaign will be published soon and reveal similar tendencies around other classes of stars.

However, not all gas-giant exoplanets snuggle so close to home. In 2008, astronomers using the Gemini North telescope and W.M. Keck Observatory on Hawaii's Mauna Kea took the first-ever direct images of a family of planets around the star HR 8799, finding gas-giant planets at large orbital separations (about 25-70 times the Earth-Sun distance).

This discovery came after examining only a few stars, suggesting such large-separation gas giants could be common.

The latest Gemini results, from a much more extensive imaging search, show that gas-giant planets at such distances are in fact uncommon.

More information:

NASA IRIS Mission: Sun-Watching Probe Launched - Video

NASA IRIS, the  newest solar observatory launched into space late Thursday (June 27), beginning a two-year quest to probe some of the sun's biggest mysteries. An Orbital Sciences Corp. Pegasus XL rocket and the new solar telescope, called the Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph satellite (IRIS), left California's Vandenberg Air Force Base underneath a specially modified aircraft at 9:30 p.m. EDT Thursday (6:30 p.m. local time; 0130 GMT Friday).

Nearly one hour later, at 10:27 p.m. EDT (7:27 p.m. local time), the plane dropped its payload 39,000 feet (11,900 meters) above the Pacific Ocean, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) northwest of Vandenberg.

After a five-second freefall, the Pegasus rocket roared to life and carried the sun-watching IRIS into Earth orbit.

"We're thrilled. We're very excited," NASA launch director Tim Dunn said just after the successful blastoff.

"We've gotten good data back. The solar arrays did begin to deploy and everything is proceeding right on track."

Scientists hope IRIS' observations help them better understand how energy and material move around the sun. They want to know, for example, why the outer atmosphere of the sun is more than 1,000 times hotter than the star's surface.

NOAA GOES-15 Satellite: Eastern Pacific's hurricane Cosme weaken

NOAA's GOES-15 satellite captured Hurricane Cosme when its eye was very close to Clarion Island, Mexico and its maximum sustained winds were near 80 mph. 

The northernmost extent of Cosme's clouds were covering the southern Baja California peninsula. Credit: NASA GOES Project 

NASA's Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission or TRMM satellite captured the third named Eastern Pacific tropical cyclone as it grew to hurricane strength.

Hurricane Cosme was bringing those winds to Clarion Island, Mexico on June 26 and its northernmost clouds extended over southern Baja California.

Read the full story of Cosme here

Hubble Reveal Spiral galaxies are bigger than originally thought

A new CU-Boulder study indicates spiral galaxies like our Milky Way, and the M74 Galaxy shown here, are larger and more massive than previously believed. Credit: NASA

Let's all fist bump: Spiral galaxies like our own Milky Way appear to be much larger and more massive than previously believed, according to a new University of Colorado Boulder study by researchers using the Hubble Space Telescope.

CU-Boulder Professor John Stocke, study leader, said new observations with Hubble's $70 million Cosmic Origins Spectrograph, or COS, designed by CU-Boulder show that normal spiral galaxies are surrounded by halos of gas that can extend to over 1 million light-years in diameter.

The current estimated diameter of the Milky Way, for example, is about 100,000 light-years. One light-year is roughly 6 trillion miles.

The material for galaxy halos detected by the CU-Boulder team originally was ejected from galaxies by exploding stars known as supernovae, a product of the star formation process, said Stocke of CU-Boulder's astrophysical and planetary sciences department.

"This gas is stored and then recycled through an extended galaxy halo, falling back onto the galaxies to reinvigorate a new generation of star formation," he said.

"In many ways this is the 'missing link' in galaxy evolution that we need to understand in detail in order to have a complete picture of the process."

Stocke gave a presentation on the research June 27 at the University of Edinburgh's Higgs Centre for Theoretical Physics in Scotland at a conference titled "Intergalactic Interactions."

Read the full article here

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

NASA Chandra X-Ray Image: The remarkable remnants of a recent supernova

Credit: X-ray (NASA/CXC/NCSU/K.Borkowski et al.); Optical (DSS)

Astronomers estimate that a star explodes as a supernova in our Galaxy, on average, about twice per century.

In 2008, a team of scientists announced they discovered the remains of a supernova that is the most recent, in Earth's time frame, known to have occurred in the Milky Way.

The explosion would have been visible from Earth a little more than a hundred years ago if it had not been heavily obscured by dust and gas.

Its likely location is about 28,000 light years from Earth near the center of the Milky Way.

A long observation equivalent to more than 11 days of observations of its debris field, now known as the supernova remnant G1.9+0.3, with NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory is providing new details about this important event.

The source of G1.9+0.3 was most likely a white dwarf star that underwent a thermonuclear detonation and was destroyed after merging with another white dwarf, or pulling material from an orbiting companion star.

This is a particular class of supernova explosions (known as Type Ia) that are used as distance indicators in cosmology because they are so consistent in brightness and incredibly luminous.

The explosion ejected stellar debris at high velocities, creating the supernova remnant that is seen today by Chandra and other telescopes.

This new image is a composite from Chandra where low-energy X-rays are red, intermediate energies are green and higher-energy ones are blue.

Also shown are optical data from the Digitized Sky Survey, with appearing stars in white.

The new Chandra data, obtained in 2011, reveal that G1.9+0.3 has several remarkable properties.

The Chandra data show that most of the X-ray emission is "synchrotron radiation," produced by extremely energetic electrons accelerated in the rapidly expanding blast wave of the supernova.

This emission gives information about the origin of cosmic rays - energetic particles that constantly strike the Earth's atmosphere - but not much information about Type Ia supernovas.

In addition, some of the X-ray emission comes from elements produced in the supernova, providing clues to the nature of the explosion. The long Chandra observation was required to dig out those clues.

Most Type Ia supernova remnants are symmetrical in shape, with debris evenly distributed in all directions.

However, G1.9+0.3 exhibits an extremely asymmetric pattern. The strongest X-ray emission from elements like silicon, sulphur, and iron is found in the northern part of the remnant, giving an extremely asymmetric pattern.

More information:

Mini-Neptunes: First transiting planets in a star cluster discovered

In the star cluster NGC 6811, astronomers have found two planets smaller than Neptune orbiting Sun-like stars. Credit: Michael Bachofner

All stars begin their lives in groups. Most stars, including our Sun, are born in small, benign groups that quickly fall apart.

Others form in huge, dense swarms that survive for billions of years as stellar clusters.

Within such rich and dense clusters, stars jostle for room with thousands of neighbors while strong radiation and harsh stellar winds scour interstellar space, stripping planet-forming materials from nearby stars.

It would thus seem an unlikely place to find alien worlds.

Yet 3,000 light-years from Earth, in the star cluster NGC 6811, astronomers have found two planets smaller than Neptune orbiting Sun-like stars.

The discovery, published in the journal Nature, shows that planets can develop even in crowded clusters jam-packed with stars.

"Old clusters represent a stellar environment much different than the birthplace of the Sun and other planet-hosting field stars," says lead author Soren Meibom of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA).

"And we thought maybe planets couldn't easily form and survive in the stressful environments of dense clusters, in part because for a long time we couldn't find them."

The two new alien worlds appeared in data from NASA's Kepler spacecraft. Kepler hunts for planets that transit, or cross in front of, their host stars.

During a transit, the star dims by an amount that depends on the size of the planet, allowing the size to be determined.

Kepler-66b and Kepler-67b are both less than three times the size of Earth, or about three-fourths the size of Neptune (mini-Neptunes).

Of the more than 850 known planets beyond our solar system, only four - all similar to or greater than Jupiter in mass - were found in clusters.

Kepler-66b and -67b are the smallest planets to be found in a star cluster, and the first cluster planets seen to transit their host stars, which enables the measurement of their sizes.

Meibom and his colleagues have measured the age of NGC 6811 to be one billion years. Kepler-66b and Kepler-67b therefore join a small group of planets with precisely determined ages, distances, and sizes.

Considering the number of stars observed by Kepler in NGC 6811, the detection of two such planets implies that the frequency and properties of planets in open clusters are consistent with those of planets around field stars (stars not within a cluster or association) in the Milky Way galaxy.

"These planets are cosmic extremophiles," says Meibom. "Finding them shows that small planets can form and survive for at least a billion years, even in a chaotic and hostile environment."

More information: Paper: DOI: 10.1038/nature12279

Kirobo: Japan's conversation robot ready for outer space - Video

Humanoid communication robot Kirobo, left, talks with Fuminori Kataoka, project general manager from Toyota Motor Corp., during a press unveiling in Tokyo Wednesday, June 26, 2013. 

The world's first space conversation experiment between a robot and humans is ready to be launched. 

Developers from the Kirobo project, named after "kibo" or hope in Japanese and "robot," gathered to demonstrate the humanoid robot's ability to talk. 

Credit: AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi

The world's first space conversation experiment between a robot and humans is ready to be launched.

Developers from the Kirobo project, named after "kibo" or hope in Japanese and "robot," gathered in Tokyo Wednesday to demonstrate the humanoid robot's ability to talk.

"Russia was the first to go outer space, the U.S. was the first to go to the moon, we want Japan to be the first to send a robot-astronaut to space that can communicate with humans," said Yorichika Nishijima, the Kirobo project manager.

Tomotaka Takahashi, CEO of Robo Garage Co. and associate professor at the University of Tokyo, said he hopes robots like Kirobo that hold conversations will eventually be used to assist astronauts working in space.

"When people think of robots in outer space, they tend to seek ones that do things physically," said Takahashi. "But I think there is something that could come from focusing on humanoid robots that focus on communication."

Humanoid communication robot Kirobo is shown during a press unveiling in Tokyo Wednesday, June 26, 2013. 

The world's first space conversation experiment between a robot and humans is ready to be launched. 

Developers from the Kirobo project, named after "kibo" or hope in Japanese and "robot," gathered to demonstrate the humanoid robot's ability to talk. 

Credit: AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi

NASA LRO Searches Lunar Landscape for Lost Moon Probes

The moon is the final resting ground for scads of landed and crashed spacecraft, many of which have been pinpointed recently by sleuthing scientists.

Using observations by NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, for example, researchers have located and imaged Apollo moon landing leftovers, old Soviet-era spacecraft and, more recently, the impact locales of NASA’s twin Grail spacecraft that were deliberately driven into a mountain near the moon’s north pole.

But the search is ongoing to find the exact location of several pioneering moon landers.

"We are still looking for [the Soviet Union’s] Luna 9 and 13," said Jeff Plescia, a space scientist at the The Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md.

"Those were the small 'beach ball' shaped spacecraft," Plescia told reporters "The beach ball might be hard to find, but it made a descent on a larger vehicle which then popped the beach ball off."

Plescia said he had assumed that it would be possible to find the landing sites of Luna 9 and 13 by spotting albedo marks — a change in the lunar surface brightness made by their descent engines.

Plescia is joined in the hunt by Mark Robinson of Arizona State University, principal investigator for the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera, or LROC.

"We’ve both looked, but no luck so far." Plescia said.

Yet another search involves the impact sites of Apollo lunar module ascent stages, hardware discarded once moonwalking crews were snug within their respective command modules.

Ascent stages were intentionally impacted into the surface as part of the Apollo Passive Seismic Experiment that studied the propagation of seismic waves through the moon to yield a detailed look at the body's internal structure.

"Given that we have found the impact sites from Grail, you would think we could find those craters, but, again, no luck so far," Plescia said.

These, like the craters made by the third stage of NASA's Saturn V moon rocket, "are important to locate to understand how large a crater was made and to have precise coordinates so that the old Apollo era crustal velocity measurements can be reanalyzed," he said.

Messier 17 the Swan Nebula

Messier 17, NGC 6618, the Swan or Omega Nebula is a region of star formation located in Sagittarius. 

Astrophotographers Bob and Janice Fera took this photo June 3 to 4, 2013 from Eagle Ridge Observatory in Foresthill, Calif.

CREDIT: Bob and Janice Fera

The Swan Nebula shines in this beautiful night sky image captured by a team of veteran astronomy photographers.

Messier 17, NGC 6618, the Swan or Omega Nebula is a region of star formation located between 5,000 and 6,000 light-years from Earth away in Sagittarius.

The emission nebula glows from the high-energy radiation of bright, young stars deep within the core.

The nebula has many names because it’s said to resemble a swan when inverted, a Greek omega letter and even a horseshoe.

New Type of Matter Found: 'Nuclear Pasta' in Neutron Stars

Artistic representation of a neutron star. The layer of "nuclear pasta" would be located in the innermost crust, near the core.

CREDIT: University of Alicante

A rare state of matter dubbed "nuclear pasta" appears to exist only inside ultra-dense objects called neutron stars, astronomers say.

There, the nuclei of atoms get crammed together so tightly that they arrange themselves in patterns akin to pasta shapes — some in flat sheets like lasagna and others in spirals like fusilli.

And these formations are likely responsible for limiting the maximum rotation speed of these stars, according to a new study.

"Such conditions are only reached in neutron stars, the most dense objects in the universe besides black holes," said astronomer José Pons of Alicante University in Spain.

This new phase of matter had been proposed by theorists years ago, but was never experimentally verified.

Now, Pons and his colleagues have used the spin rates of a class of neutron stars called pulsars to offer the first evidence that nuclear pasta exists.

Pulsars emit light in a pair of beams that shoot out like rays from a lighthouse. As the pulsars spin, the beams rotate in and out of view, making the stars appear to "pulse" on and off, and allowing astronomers to calculate how fast the stars are spinning.

Researchers have observed dozens of pulsars, but have never discovered one with a spin period longer than 12 seconds.

"In principle, that is not expected. You should see some with larger periods," Pons told reporters. A longer spin period would mean the star is spinning more slowly.

But the pasta matter could explain the absence of pulsars with longer spin periods. The researchers realized that if atomic nuclei inside the stars were reorganizing into pasta formations, this matter would increase the electric resistivity of the stars, making it harder for electrons to travel through the material.

This, in turn, would cause the stars' magnetic fields to dissipate much faster than expected. Normally, pulsars slow their spin down by radiating electromagnetic waves, which causes the stars to lose angular momentum.

But if the stars' magnetic fields are already limited, as would happen with pasta-matter, they cannot radiate electromagnetic waves as strongly, so they cannot spin down.

This keeps the pulsars stuck at a minimum spin speed, or a maximum spin period.

"Making this connection between the observational astronomical effect, which is the existence of this upper spin period limit, with the need for this layer in the inner crust, is what makes the connection between observations and theory," Pons said.

Neutron stars form when massive stars reach the end of their lives and run out of fuel for nuclear fusion. These aging stars explode in supernovas, their cores collapsing into small, dense objects.

The resulting masses are so dense, in fact, that normal atoms cannot exist anymore. Instead, protons and electrons essentially melt into each other, producing neutrons as well as lightweight particles called neutrinos.

The end result is a neutron star, whose mass is 90-percent neutrons.

In these stars' crusts, which have been found to be billions of times stronger than steel, normal atomic nuclei made of protons and neutrons can still exist, albeit densely squished, and this is where the new pasta formations appear.

In normal matter, the separation among nuclei is huge (relatively speaking), as positively charged atomic nuclei don't like to be near each other.

"But in neutron stars, matter is very packed and nuclei are so close to each other that they almost touch," Pons said."It's like a huge, gigantic nuclei, a huge continuum."

The research was published June 9 in the journal Nature Physics.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

O3b satellite network: Soyuz Launch

The O3b company has finally got its first four satellites in space.

They were launched on a Soyuz rocket from French Guiana after a day's delay due to unfavourable winds at the Sinnamary spaceport.

The satellites' deployment marks the first phase in O3b's construction of a novel telecommunications network.

It plans to put a constellation in the sky to handle voice and data traffic for mobile phone, internet and other service providers.

O3b is targeting parts of the world that currently have poor fibre-optic infrastructure.

With backing from blue chip companies such as Google, it believes its network can change the broadband experience for millions of people.

The Soyuz carrying the four satellites lifted clear of the Sinnamary launch gantry at 16:27 local time (19:27 GMT).

It was due to take more than two hours and several burns from the rocket's Fregat upper-stage to get the spacecraft into their correct 8,000km-high orbit.

Final confirmation of separation from the Fregat and a successful mission is expected shortly before 22:00 GMT.

Grander plan
The altitude is a critical part of the O3b design.

By flying in this "medium-Earth orbit", the satellites will be a quarter of the distance from Earth than is the case with traditional geostationary (GEO) telecommunications spacecraft, which sit some 36,000km above the planet.

This should reduce substantially the delay, or latency, of the signal as the voice or data traffic is routed via space.

Thales Alenia Space is already working on satellite units 9-12

For standard satellites, the latency can be 600 milliseconds or more.

O3b is promising its customers a round-trip transmission time of a little more than 100 milliseconds.

The satellites will operate in the high-frequency Ka-band and have the capability to deliver 10 beams, at 1.2Gbps per beam, to each of O3b's seven operational regions.

These are spread around the equator and reach latitudes of about 45 degrees North and South.

The company expects to start services at the end of the year, once it gets eight spacecraft in orbit, but the intention is to put up perhaps as many as 20 eventually.

"The architecture is very scalable," CEO Steve Collar told reporters. "We can keep launching satellites into that same arc and building the capacity we can deliver to our customers - and driving down the cost, importantly.

"With all telecommunications, customers want more and more data for the same amount of money, and we have to continually drive those cost benefits into our network."

The first place to benefit from the new system will be the Cook Islands in the Pacific. It has no connection to the global fibre-optic network.

PanSTARR-1: Ten thousandth near-Earth object unearthed in space

Asteroid 2013 MZ5 as seen by the University of Hawaii's PanSTARR-1 telescope. In this animated gif, the asteroid moves relative to a fixed background of stars. 

Asteroid 2013 MZ5 is in the right of the first image, towards the top, moving diagonally left/down. Credit: PS-1/UH

More than 10,000 asteroids and comets that can pass near Earth have now been discovered.

The 10,000th near-Earth object, asteroid 2013 MZ5, was first detected on the night of June 18, 2013, by the Pan-STARRS-1 telescope, located on the 10,000-foot (convert) summit of the Haleakala crater on Maui.

Managed by the University of Hawaii, the PanSTARRS survey receives NASA funding.

Ninety-eight percent of all near-Earth objects discovered were first detected by NASA-supported surveys.

"Finding 10,000 near-Earth objects is a significant milestone," said Lindley Johnson, program executive for NASA's Near-Earth Object Observations Program at NASA Headquarters, Washington.

"But there are at least 10 times that many more to be found before we can be assured we will have found any and all that could impact and do significant harm to the citizens of Earth."

During Johnson's decade-long tenure, 76 percent of the NEO discoveries have been made.

Near-Earth objects (NEOs) are asteroids and comets that can approach the Earth's orbital distance to within about 28 million miles (45 million kilometers).

They range in size from as small as a few feet to as large as 25 miles (41 kilometers) for the largest near-Earth asteroid, 1036 Ganymed.

Asteroid 2013 MZ5 is approximately 1,000 feet (300 meters) across. Its orbit is well understood and will not approach close enough to Earth to be considered potentially hazardous.

"The first near-Earth object was discovered in 1898," said Don Yeomans, long-time manager of NASA's Near-Earth Object Program Office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

"Over the next hundred years, only about 500 had been found. But then, with the advent of NASA's NEO Observations program in 1998, we've been racking them up ever since. And with new, more capable systems coming on line, we are learning even more about where the NEOs are currently in our solar system, and where they will be in the future."

Of the 10,000 discoveries, roughly 10 percent are larger than six-tenths of a mile (one kilometer) in size - roughly the size that could produce global consequences should one impact the Earth.

However, the NASA NEOO program has found that none of these larger NEOs currently pose an impact threat and probably only a few dozen more of these large NEOs remain undiscovered.

The vast majority of NEOs are smaller than one kilometer, with the number of objects of a particular size increasing as their sizes decrease.

For example, there are expected to be about 15,000 NEOs that are about one-and-half football fields in size (460 feet, or 140 meters), and more than a million that are about one-third a football field in size (100 feet, or 30 meters).

A NEO hitting Earth would need to be about 100 feet (30 meters) or larger to cause significant devastation in populated areas.

Almost 30 percent of the 460-foot-sized NEOs have been found, but less than 1 percent of the 100-foot-sized NEOs have been detected.

DFKI Four Legged Robot - Video

The four-legged robot in DFKI's artificial crater environment. Credit: Daniel Kühn, DFKI GmbH

Researchers at Germany's Research Center for Artificial Intelligence are working on a project they call iStruct—its purpose is to create robots that more closely resemble their natural counterparts.

To that end, they have created a robot imitation of an ape—it walks on its back feet and front knuckles. Impressively, the robot ape moves without cables connecting it to something else and is able to walk forwards, backwards and even sideways. It can also turn itself in a new direction.

Robots that imitate real animals (and humans of course) are nothing new; what's new in this effort is the target—an ape. In actuality, it appears to more closely resemble a gorilla than a chimpanzee or other ape.

Also new is the approach the team is taking in attempting to replicate the way a real ape moves. Each part of the body is seen as both a single entity and as a part of a larger system.

Thus, each body part has been designed to accomplish certain goals as both a single unit and as a part of a larger whole system. The back feet, for example, each have pressure sensors, rather than simple joints.

Those sensors provide information to the Control and Information Processing Compartment which relates what the feet are "feeling" to information coming in from other parts of the body.

The initial result is a robot that has the shape of an ape and walks roughly like one. The team notes that they are only still in the beginning stages of development of the robot.

The plan is to refine all of the robot's parts to gradually remove the stilted movements with the smooth transitions seen with real animals. One of those changes will be replacing the current rigid spine with an accentuated spinal column.

This will allow the robot to twist as it turns, and perhaps, to stand up on two legs and pick fruit from trees at some point in the future.

The robot ape is part of a larger overall program funded by the Agency of the German Aerospace Center.

Still unclear, however, is if the ultimate goal of the program is to create a robot that can serve aboard a spacecraft, or perhaps one day, even take on the role of pilot instead of the more expensive option—a human astronaut.

NASA Orion Crew Module: Astronauts Step into spacecraft

NASA astronauts Cady Coleman and Ricky Arnold step into the Orion crew module hatch during a series of spacesuit check tests conducted on June 13, 2013 at the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility (SVMF) at the agency’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

The Orion crew module will serve as both transport and a home to astronauts during future long-duration missions to an asteroid, Mars and other destinations throughout our solar system.

Image Credit: NASA

Raytheon rocket onboard camera - Video

Onboard video footage shows a rocket’s flight during the International Rocketry Challenge, held during the Paris Air Show on June 21, 2013, at Le Bourget Airport.

The goal of the challenge was to launch a rocket 750 feet in the air within a 48- to

Credit: Raytheon Company

NASA IRIS Mission prepare for Launch

The fully integrated spacecraft and science instrument for NASA's Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS) mission is seen in a clean room at the Lockheed Martin Space Systems Sunnyvale, Calif. facility. 

The solar arrays are deployed in the configuration they will assume when in orbit. IRIS is scheduled to launch on June 26, 2013.

Understanding the interface between the photosphere and corona remains a fundamental challenge in solar and heliospheric science. The IRIS mission opens a window of discovery into this crucial region by tracing the flow of energy and plasma through the chromosphere and transition region into the corona using spectrometry and imaging.

IRIS is designed to provide significant new information to increase our understanding of energy transport into the corona and solar wind and provide an archetype for all stellar atmospheres.

The unique instrument capabilities, coupled with state of the art 3-D modeling, will fill a large gap in our knowledge of this dynamic region of the solar atmosphere.

The mission will extend the scientific output of existing heliophysics spacecraft that follow the effects of energy release processes from the sun to Earth.

Image Credit: NASA/Lockheed Martin

NASA IRIS Mission: Examining the Sun's Corona - Video

At the end of June 2013, NASA will launch its newest mission to watch the sun: the Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS).

IRIS will show the lowest levels of the sun's atmosphere, the interface region, in more detail than has even been observed before.

This will help scientists understand how the energy dancing through this area helps power the sun's million-degree upper atmosphere, the corona, as well as how this energy powers the solar wind constantly streaming off the sun to fill the entire solar system.

Data visualizations courtesy of Mats Carlsson and Viggo Hansteen, University of Oslo, Norway

ESA Gaia Mission: Sunshade deployment - Video

Gaia, ESA's billion-star surveyor, will be launched into space towards the end of this year. In the meantime, ESA Space Science has launched a new 'minisite' focused on the Gaia mission.

Once in space, Gaia will spend five years determining the precise distances and velocities of a billion stars. It will observe each star about 70 times, recording vital statistics such as brightness, colour and temperature.


The resulting census will enable astronomers to identify different generations of stellar populations, and reconstruct their journey through space over time, thus providing the most detailed picture of our Galaxy’s structure and its evolution ever achieved.

In the animation presented here, Gaia is shown shortly after launch as it unfolds its 10 m-wide sunshield ‘skirt’.

The shield has two purposes: to shade Gaia’s sensitive telescopes and cameras, and to provide power to operate the spacecraft. Gaia will always point away from the Sun, so the underside of the skirt is partially covered with solar panels to generate electricity.

New animations like this, along with supporting background articles and topical news items, will be added to the minisite as the launch draws nearer, to explain in more detail the exciting science that Gaia will perform and how it will help us learn more about our place in the Universe.

NASA: Pseudomonas Aeruginosa Bacteria sent into space behave in mysterious ways

Recent experimental findings about bacterial behaviour aboard Atlantis’ STS-132 and 135 missions represent a key step toward keeping astronauts healthy during long-term space missions. 

Above photo shows astronauts of the STS-135 crew performing floating exercises. Credit: NASA

Colonies of bacteria grown aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis behaved in ways never before observed on Earth, according to a new NASA-funded study from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, New York.

Recent findings provide important evidence of spaceflight's effect on the behavior of bacterial communities, and represent a key step toward understanding and mitigating the risk these bacteria may pose to astronauts during long-term space missions.

The research team, led by Rensselaer faculty member Cynthia Collins, sent the experiment into orbit aboard Space Shuttle Atlantis missions STS-132 on May 16, 2010 and STS-135 on July 8, 2011.

Samples of the bacteria Pseudomonas aeruginosa were cultured for three days in artificial urine.

The space-grown communities of bacteria, called biofilms, formed a "column-and-canopy" structure not previously observed on Earth.

Additionally, biofilms grown during spaceflight had a greater number of live cells, more biomass, and were thicker than control biofilms grown under normal gravity conditions.

Biofilms are complex, three-dimensional microbial communities commonly found in nature. Most biofilms, including those found in the human body, are harmless. Some biofilms, however, have shown to be associated with disease.

"Biofilms were rampant on the Mir space station and continue to be a challenge on the ISS, but we still don't really know what role gravity plays in their growth and development," said Collins, assistant professor in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering at Rensselaer.

"Our study offers the first evidence that spaceflight affects community-level behaviors of bacteria, and highlights the importance of understanding how both harmful and beneficial human-microbe interactions may be altered during spaceflight."

Results of the study were published by the journal PLOS ONE April 29, 2013 in the paper "Spaceflight promotes biofilm formation by Pseudomonas aeruginosa."

Beyond its importance for astronauts and future space explorers, this research also could lead to novel methods for preventing and treating human disease on Earth.

Examining the effects of spaceflight on biofilm formation can provide new insights into how different factors, such as gravity, fluid dynamics, and nutrient availability affect biofilm formation on Earth.

Additionally, the research findings could one day help inform new, innovative approaches for curbing the spread of infections in hospitals, Collins said.

More information: For more information about the results, visit: