Tuesday, July 30, 2013

ESA XMM-Newton: Capturing black hole spin could further understanding of galaxy growth

Artist's impression of a supermassive black hole at the center surrounded by matter flowing onto the black hole in what is termed an accretion disk. 

Also shown is an outflowing jet of energetic particles, believed to be powered by the black hole's spin. 

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Astronomers have found a new way of measuring the spin in supermassive black holes, which could lead to better understanding about how they drive the growth of galaxies.

The scientists at Durham University in the UK publish their work in a paper in the Oxford University Press journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

The team of astronomers observed a black hole -- with a mass 10 million times that of our Sun -- at the centre of a spiral galaxy 500 million light years from Earth while it was feeding on the surrounding disc of material that fuels its growth and powers its activity.

By viewing optical, ultra-violet and soft x-rays generated by heat as the black hole fed, they were able to measure how far the disc was from the black hole.

This distance depends on black hole spin as a fast spinning black hole pulls the disc in closer to itself, the researchers said.

Using the distance between the black hole and the disc, the scientists were able to estimate the spin of the black hole.

The scientists said that understanding spin could lead to greater understanding of galaxy growth over billions of years.

Black holes lie at the centres of almost all galaxies, and can spit out incredibly hot particles at high energies that prevent intergalactic gases from cooling and forming new stars in the outer galaxy.

Scientists don't yet understand why the jets are ejected into space, but the Durham experts believe that their power could be linked to the spin of the black hole.

This spin is difficult to measure as it only affects the behaviour of material really close to the black hole.

Chris Done
Lead researcher Professor Chris Done, in the Department of Physics, at Durham University, said: "We know the black hole in the centre of each galaxy is linked to the galaxy as a whole, which is strange because black holes are tiny in relation to the size of a galaxy. This would be like something the size of a large boulder (10m), influencing something the size of Earth."

"Understanding this connection between stars in a galaxy and the growth of a black hole, and vice-versa, is the key to understanding how galaxies form throughout cosmic time."

"If a black hole is spinning it drags space and time with it and that drags the accretion disc, containing the black hole's food, closer towards it. This makes the black hole spin faster, a bit like an ice skater doing a pirouette."

"By being able to measure the distance between the black hole and the accretion disc, we believe we can more effectively measure the spin of black holes."

"Because of this, we hope to be able to understand more about the link between black holes and their galaxies."

The Durham scientists were able to measure the spin of the black hole using soft x-ray, optical and ultra-violet images captured by the European Space Agency's XMM-Newton satellite.

Journal Reference:
C. Done, C. Jin, M. Middleton, M. Ward. A new way to measure supermassive black hole spin in accretion disc-dominated active galaxies. Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, 2013; DOI: 10.1093/mnras/stt1138

Chandra sees eclipsing planet in X-rays

Using Chandra and XMM-Newton, astronomers have detected an exoplanet passing in front of its parent star for the first time in X-rays. 

The artist's illustration shows HD 189733b, a "hot Jupiter" that goes around its star once every 2.2 days. 

The illustration also reveals the presence of a faint red companion star in the system. 

The new X-ray observations (inset) suggest that HD 189733b has a larger atmosphere than implied by previous optical studies. 

HD 189733b is the closest hot Jupiter to Earth, making it a prime target for astronomers who want to learn more about this type of exoplanet and the atmosphere around it. 

Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO/K.Poppenhaeger et al; Illustration: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss

For the first time since exoplanets, or planets around stars other than the sun, were discovered almost 20 years ago, X-ray observations have detected an exoplanet passing in front of its parent star.

An advantageous alignment of a planet and its parent star in the system HD 189733, which is 63 light-years from Earth, enabled NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and the European Space Agency's XMM Newton Observatory to observe a dip in X-ray intensity as the planet transited the star.

"Thousands of planet candidates have been seen to transit in only optical light," said Katja Poppenhaeger of Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) in Cambridge, Mass., who led a new study to be published in the Aug. 10 edition of the Astrophysical Journal.

"Finally being able to study one in X-rays is important because it reveals new information about the properties of an exoplanet."

The team used Chandra to observe six transits and data from XMM Newton observations of one.

The planet, known as HD 189733b, is a hot Jupiter, meaning it is similar in size to Jupiter in our solar system but in very close orbit around its star. HD 189733b is more than 30 times closer to its star than Earth is to the sun. It orbits the star once every 2.2 days.

HD 189733b is the closest hot Jupiter to Earth, which makes it a prime target for astronomers who want to learn more about this type of exoplanet and the atmosphere around it.

They have used NASA's Kepler space telescope to study it at optical wavelengths, and NASA's Hubble Space Telescope to confirm it is blue in colour as a result of the preferential scattering of blue light by silicate particles in its atmosphere.

The study with Chandra and XMM Newton has revealed clues to the size of the planet's atmosphere. The spacecraft saw light decreasing during the transits. The decrease in X-ray light was three times greater than the corresponding decrease in optical light.

"The X-ray data suggest there are extended layers of the planet's atmosphere that are transparent to optical light but opaque to X-rays," said co-author Jurgen Schmitt of Hamburger Sternwarte in Hamburg, Germany. "However, we need more data to confirm this idea."

The researchers also are learning about how the planet and the star can affect one another.

Astronomers have known for about a decade ultraviolet and X-ray radiation from the main star in HD 189733 are evaporating the atmosphere of HD 189733b over time. The authors estimate it is losing 100 million to 600 million kilograms of mass per second.

HD 189733b's atmosphere appears to be thinning 25 percent to 65 percent faster than it would be if the planet's atmosphere were smaller.

"The extended atmosphere of this planet makes it a bigger target for high-energy radiation from its star, so more evaporation occurs," said co-author Scott Wolk, also of CfA.

NASA CREPT Instrument Examines Mysteries of Van Allen Belt

The tiny CREPT instrument will augment the science of NASA’s Van Allen Probes, formerly known as the Radiation Belt Storm Probes. 

This artist’s rendering of the Van Allen Probes mission shows the path of its two spacecraft through the radiation belts that surround Earth, which are made visible in false color. 

Credit: NASA.

Using data from a NASA satellite, a team of scientists led by the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and involving the University of Colorado Boulder have discovered a massive particle accelerator in the heart of one of the harshest regions of near-Earth space, a region of super-energetic, charged particles surrounding the globe known as the Van Allen radiation belts.

The new results from NASA's Van Allen Probes mission show the acceleration energy is in the belts themselves.

Local bumps of energy kick particles inside the belts to ever-faster speeds, much like a well-timed push on a moving swing.

Knowing the location of the acceleration within the radiation belts will help scientists improve predictions of space weather, which can be hazardous to satellites near Earth. The results were published July 25 in the journal Science.

"Until the 1990s, we thought the Van Allen belts were pretty well-behaved and changed slowly," says Geoff Reeves, lead author on the paper and a radiation belt scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory in Los Alamos, N.M.

"With more and more measurements, however, we realized how quickly and unpredictably the radiation belts change. They are basically never in equilibrium, but in a constant state of change."

Recent observations by NASA’s twin Van Allen Probes show that particles in the radiation belts surrounding Earth are accelerated by a local kick of energy, helping to explain how these particles reach speeds of 99 percent the speed of light. 

Credit: G. Reeves/M. Henderson

For scientists to understand such changes better, the twin Van Allen Probes fly straight through this intense area of space.

One of the top priorities for the mission, launched last August, is to understand how particles in the belts are accelerated to ultra-high energies.

Daniel Baker
"We see case after case where the very high energy electrons appear suddenly right in the heart of the outer belt," said CU-Boulder Professor Daniel Baker, director of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics and a study co-author.

"But now we can prove where the electrons originate from and we can see the waves -- and the lower energy 'seed' particles -- from which the relativistic electrons grow. We can essentially peer into the inner workings of our local cosmic accelerator with unprecedented clarity."

By taking simultaneous measurements with advanced technology instruments, the Van Allen Probes were able to distinguish between two broad possibilities on what accelerates the particles to such amazing speeds.

The possibilities are radial acceleration or local acceleration. In radial acceleration, particles are transported perpendicular to the magnetic fields that surround Earth, from areas of low magnetic strength far from Earth to areas of high magnetic strength closer to Earth.

Physics dictates particle speeds in this scenario will increase as the magnetic field strength increases. The speed of the particles would increase as they move toward Earth, much the way a rock rolling down a hill gathers speed due to gravity.

The local acceleration theory proposes the particles gain energy from a local energy source, similar to the way warm ocean water can fuel a hurricane above it.

Read the full article here

Monday, July 29, 2013

ESA NASA Hubble Image: Mysterious Old Spiral

Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, Acknowledgement: Judy Schmidt

This striking cosmic whirl is the center of galaxy NGC 524, as seen with the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope.

This galaxy is located in the constellation of Pisces, some 90 million light-years from Earth.

NGC 524 is a lenticular galaxy.

Lenticular galaxies are believed to be an intermediate state in galactic evolution — they are neither elliptical nor spiral.

Spirals are middle-aged galaxies with vast, pin wheeling arms that contain millions of stars.

Along with these stars are large clouds of gas and dust that, when dense enough, are the nurseries where new stars are born. When all the gas is either depleted or lost into space, the arms gradually fade away and the spiral shape begins to weaken.

At the end of this process, what remains is a lenticular galaxy — a bright disc full of old, red stars surrounded by what little gas and dust the galaxy has managed to cling on to.

This image shows the shape of NGC 524 in detail, formed by the remaining gas surrounding the galaxy’s central bulge. Observations of this galaxy have revealed that it maintains some spiral-like motion, explaining its intricate structure.

Russian Progress M-20M Cargo Ship Docked with ISS

This image provided by NASA taken by one of the crew members aboard the International Space Station photographed this night view of storm clouds over Southern California July 21, 2013. 

Early morning lightning can be seen as a white blotch just to the right of center. 

The yellow colored area, beneath the grey clouds, which almost shines because of night lights, is part of the highly populated area of Los Angeles and San Diego. (AP Photo/NASA)

Russia's space agency says that its cargo ship has docked successfully with the International Space Station.

Roscosmos says the unmanned Progress M-20M spacecraft moored at the station Sunday about six hours after its launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The docking was performed in automatic mode.

The agency says the ship has delivered about 2.4 metric tons of supplies to the space outpost, including fuel, food, water and scientific equipment.

The 2011 retirement of the U.S. shuttle fleet has left Russia's Soyuz spacecraft as the sole means to ferry crews to and from the space outpost. The unmanned cargo version of the Soyuz, the Progress, delivers the bulk of station supplies.

Cloud-Aerosol Transport System (CATS) on the ISS

Sample data from the Cloud Physics Lidar -- a predecessor of CATS -- over the Western Atlantic is representative of airborne lidar data, showing cloud height and internal structure and boundary layer aerosol. 

Credit: NASA

Quick looks by a special CATS-eye attached to the International Space Station will help scientists catalog and track particles in Earth's atmosphere and act as a pathfinder for a new satellite planned for 2021.

Matthew McGill
"We're going to do operational Earth science that's new, looking at aerosols, pollution and clouds and real-time inputs to global climate models," said Matthew McGill, principal investigator for the Cloud-Aerosol Transport System (CATS) at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

CATS will also help show NASA how to do low-cost, fast-turnaround payloads on station."

The approach is similar to low-cost Hitchhiker payloads—small studies that "hitched" a ride into orbit with larger investigations—that NASA flew on the space shuttle during 1984-2003.

"The International Space Station Program looked at our airborne Cloud Physics Lidar (CPL) instrument and its 15-year heritage flying near the edge of space [on the ER-2 aircraft] and asked, 'Can you put that in a box?'" McGill said.

"In other words, could we take this proven, autonomous aircraft instrument and transfer the design to be space station compatible, and CATS was born."

Weather satellites do a phenomenal job of monitoring clouds, air temperatures, moisture and other factors.

But measuring aerosols, whose role in weather and climate is a significant mystery, requires probing the air by using light in a manner similar to radar. This will be the job of the CATS investigation.

Aerosol means particles or droplets dissolved in air. The term is a century old, but humans have always been around them in the form of clouds, fog, smoke rising from a fire, exhaust from a car, spray from a sneeze, and even some emissions from plants.

Aerosols come in all shapes, sizes, populations, masses and other factors, making them a challenge for scientists trying to understand their impact on weather and climate.

"[Computer] models need to know if there is a layer of stuff in the atmosphere, its altitude—because that matters a lot—how thick that layer is, and what it is made of," McGill explained.

"The fundamental data from CATS will tell us if something is there, and then take ratios of different readings to tell us if it's ice, water or aerosols, and if it is an aerosol, is it dust, smoke or pollution."

This is a photo showing how payloads attach to the Exposed Facility of the Japanese Experiment Module on the International Space Station. 

The laser will always fire directly down from the space station into the atmosphere. 

Credit: NASA

Knowing what is where is important to understanding how energy is transported in the atmosphere. Particulates can absorb different quantities of sunlight or heat from surrounding air, and carry that energy to be released elsewhere.

Researchers also need to know how aerosol populations change during the day. Most Earth observing satellites are in polar orbits that cross the equator at the same local time.

That ensures an apples-to-apples comparison of data taken by multiple instruments across the years. But this also keeps them from observing the faster ebb and flow of some events in the atmosphere during the day or night. The space station's orbit will provide that coverage.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

NASA Telescope IRIS Snaps 1st Photos of Sun

A still image from the first movie captured by the IRIS solar observatory, 21 hours after mission controllers opened the telescope’s door.


NASA's newest solar observatory has taken its first photos of the lowest layers of the solar atmosphere, a mysterious and little-understood region of the sun.

The images, taken just 21 hours after mission controllers first opened the telescope’s door, reveal new details of the sun’s lower atmosphere — an area known as the "interface region."

The IRIS spacecraft (short for Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph) captured images of thin magnetic structures and streams of material in the solar atmosphere.

These early observations suggest tremendous amounts of energy flow through the interface region, according to NASA officials.

"With this grand opening of the telescope door and first observations from IRIS, we've opened a new window into the energetics of the sun's atmosphere," John Grunsfeld, associate administrator of the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C., said in a statement. "We look forward to the new insights IRIS will provide."

Friday, July 26, 2013

New Generation of Canadarm: Pack and Go!

The Next-Generation Large Canadarm is a 15-metre robotic arm which is able to collapse and fit onboard future smaller spacecraft.

Credit: Canadian Space Agency

Canada has developed a new version of its famed robotic space arm to give exploration of the final frontier a helping hand.

The nation's Next-Generation Canadarm (NGC) program is designed to support both missions in low-Earth orbit and deep space, ranging from repairing communication satellites to assisting manned missions to the moon, asteroids, Mars and other corners of the universe, officials said.

"With the retirement of the space shuttle, a new generation of crewed space exploration vehicles will soon become available," said Alain Ouellet, director of space exploration development at the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).

ESA astronaut Alex Gerst trains for medical emergencies in space

An ESA astronaut has been learning medical skills he hopes he never has to use, but which could be vital on the International Space Station, officials said.

European Space Agency astronaut Alexander Gerst has been boosting his medical skills in a busy hospital setting, a release from ESA's Paris headquarters reported Wednesday.

Astronauts spending as much as six months on the ISS need to be able to handle any emergency, since hundreds of miles and a difficult journey are between them and the nearest hospital, the ESA said.

At least two Crew Medical Officers, trained in basic medical procedures from stitching wounds to filling teeth, are assigned to each mission, it said.

Gerst, set to fly to the station in 2014 and already trained to be a Crew Medical Officer, has been at a hospital in Germany to observe some real-life medical cases and practice some highly realistic simulations with a mannequin used to train hospital anesthetists that is so lifelike it blinks, breathes and responds to injections.

"This course gives real-life context to the astronaut's medical training and builds their confidence and experience in dealing with medical problems," ESA flight surgeon Ben Douglas said.

Gerst spent three days at the hospital in operating theaters, the emergency department and the intensive care unit.

"The course was a very useful experience," he said. "Seeing typical injuries on real patients gave me a much more realistic view of what we might have to deal with in space."

U.A.E. buys French spy satellites in $913M deal

The United Arab Emirates, a key U.S. ally in the Persian Gulf confrontation with Iran, has bought two military surveillance satellites from France that will give the region's Arab monarchies the capability of spying on the Islamic Republic.

Under the $913.2 million Falcon Eye contract, the Emirates, a federation of seven gulf sheikhdoms, will receive a brace of Helios high-resolution satellites to be built by Astrium, the space division of the European aerospace defense giant European Aeronautics Defense and Space Co. (EADS) and Thales Alenia Space, a joint venture between Thales of France and Finmeccanica of Italy.

Under an annex agreement, French military personnel will aid Emirati technicians in interpreting images and share information delivered by the satellites, said officials who accompanied French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian for the contract signing Monday.

The Emirates spearhead efforts by the Gulf Cooperation Council -- the other members are Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and Bahrain -- to acquire a military surveillance satellite network to bolster an early warning system they've been talking about for a decade.

But, largely due to dynastic squabbles and mistrust within the GCC alliance established at the height of the 1980-88 war Iran-Iraq War, this and other GCC military aims remain unfulfilled.

However, growing tensions with Iran could spur them to set aside their differences.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

ESA Alphasat ready for launch

Ready for launch tomorrow, Alphasat – Europe's largest telecommunications satellite – will serve as a testbed for advanced space technologies at the same time as it works on its day job as part of the Inmarsat satellite fleet.

Developed through a public–private partnership with Inmarsat, the 6.6 tonne Alphasat is the first flight of the new 'Alphabus' European telecom platform.

At the same time Alphasat is also flying a quartet of 'technology development payloads' – a pair of them conspicuous in gold- and silver-coloured multilayer insulation here, against this face of the satellite's predominantly black covering.

The higher up of the two gold-wrapped packages is a Q/V-band payload to investigate the viability of higher frequencies for radio communications as existing frequency bands become progressively overcrowded.

Developed by Italy's ASI space agency, the payload was recently renamed for its late inventor, Aldo Paraboni.

Just above it is a black box housing an environmental testing and radiation sensor. Provided by Efacec in Portugal, the sensor tests electronic components and solid-state memory devices against space radiation.

To the right of this is an experimental startracker, a standard device for attitude control that images constellations to deduce a satellite's orientation.

Developed by Jena Optronik, this startracker incorporates 'active pixel sensor' technology – also the basis of modern digital and smartphone cameras – that combines decreased power requirements with increased robustness for smaller, more powerful imagers.

Below it, the second payload wrapped in gold insulation is an advanced laser communication terminal, capable of locking onto rapidly moving satellites in low orbits thousands of kilometres beneath Alphasat's fixed geostationary position and receiving up to 1.8 gigabits of data per second.

Developed by Tesat in Germany and furnished by Germany's DLR space agency, this terminal is trialling technology to be used for ESA's pair of European Data Relay System satellites later in the decade, establishing a data highway that will be employed in turn to relay results from ESA's Earth-observing Sentinel satellites to end-users.

NASA Orion Space Capsule Lands With Two of Three Parachutes

The Orion capsule falls to Earth with parachutes deployed at Yuma Proving Ground, Arizona, on July 24, 2013.

Credit: NASA TV

NASA's Orion capsule, planned to be the space agency's next manned spaceship, safely landed during a flight test today (July 24) using just two of its three parachutes.

The test was the 10th in a series of maneuvers to check out Orion's parachute system, which will slow the vehicle down as it plummets through Earth's atmosphere on return trips from space.

Orion is designed to carry astronauts beyond low-Earth orbit to nearby asteroids, the moon, and eventually Mars.

The spacecraft is due to make its first test flight to space in 2014 in a mission called the Exploration Flight Test-1, and its initial crewed flight around 2021.

During today's flight test, an Orion prototype was dropped from a plane 35,000 feet (10,700 meters) over the U.S. Army's Yuma Proving Ground in southwestern Arizona.

It was the highest elevation that the capsule has been dropped from; previous tests saw mock Orion capsules released from a maximum of 25,000 feet (7,600 meters).

"The closer we can get to actual flight conditions, the more confidence we gain in the system," Chris Johnson, project manager for the Orion capsule parachute assembly system at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, said in a statement.

"What we saw today — other than the failures we put in on purpose — is very similar to what Orion will look like coming back during Exploration Flight Test-1's Earth entry next year."

Orion is equipped with three parachutes to slow its fall, but is designed to need only two of them.

During today's test, engineers simulated the failure of one chute to confirm that the other two were adequate.

The team caused one parachute to fail during the descent to understand the effects of a chute pulling away in mid-flight.

"We wanted to know what would happen if a cable got hooked around a sharp edge and snapped off when the parachutes deployed," Stu McClung, Orion's landing and recovery system manager at Johnson, said in a statement.

"We don't think that would ever happen, but if it did, would it cause other failures? We want to know everything that could possibly go wrong, so that we can fix it before it does."

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

View From Mars Orbiter (MRO) Showing Curiosity Rover at 'Shaler'

NASA's Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity appears as a bluish dot near the lower right corner of this enhanced-color view from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

The rover's tracks are visible extending from the landing site, "Bradbury Landing," in the left half of the scene.

Two bright, relatively blue spots surrounded by darker patches are where the Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft's landing jets cleared away reddish surface dust at the landing site.

North is toward the top. For scale, the two parallel lines of the wheel tracks are about 10 feet (3 meters) apart.

HiRISE shot this image on June 27, 2013, when Curiosity was at an outcrop called "Shaler" in the "Glenelg" area of Gale Crater. Subsequently the rover drove away from Glenelg toward the southwest.

When HiRISE captured this view, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter was rolled for an eastward-looking angle rather than straight downward.

The afternoon sun illuminated the scene from the western sky, so the lighting was nearly behind the camera. Specifically, the angle from sun to orbiter to rover was just 5.47 degrees. This geometry hides shadows and reveals subtle colour variations.

The image is one product from HiRISE observation ESP_032436_1755. Other image products from this observation are also available.

Image credit: NASA /JPL-Caltech /Univ. of Arizona

UK team designs human mission to Mars concept model

Scientists at Imperial College London have designed a concept mission to land astronauts on Mars.

The plan envisages a three-person crew journeying to Mars aboard a small two-part craft.

The craft would rotate to generate artificial gravity and use a heat shield to protect itself against solar flares.

The crew would then return to Martian orbit in a pre-sent craft fuelled using ice from beneath the planet's surface.

The concept is intended to spark further debate about the technical obstacles and risks that would have to be overcome in order to put humans on Mars.

"Every part of this mission scenario has been demonstrated one way or the other, including the in situ propellant production on the surface of Mars," said Prof Tom Pike, who led the Imperial design team.

"There are big, big jumps between a demonstration at one level and putting together the engineering systems for a mission, but they are engineering challenges. They are not fundamentally about making new discoveries."

The new Imperial concept comes amid renewed interest in the Red Planet with two private groups having proposed missions in recent months.

The Imperial team have designed a two-part craft, consisting of a Martian lander with a heat shield, inside which the crew would also ascend into Earth orbit.

Directly beneath the lander on the launch pad would be a "cruise habitat vehicle", a cylindrical craft split into three floors and measuring some 10m (30ft) in height and 4m in diameter.

Once in Earth orbit, the astronauts would move from the lander into the larger habitat vehicle before a rocket burst would propel the conjoined craft on a trajectory to Mars.

The quickest journey time would be nine months when Earth and Mars are in optimum alignment.

Shortly into the journey, the lander and cruise vehicle would unwind from each other on a steel cable tether to a distance of some 60m. Short thruster bursts from both vehicles would then set them spinning around a centre of gravity.

This would create artificial gravity within the habitat vehicle similar to Earth's gravity, which the scientists believe would prevent the type of muscle and bone wastage that weightlessness would cause, which would render the astronauts unable to walk on Mars once they arrived.

Later in the mission, the spin rate could be reduced to better emulate Martian conditions, where gravity is 40% that on Earth.

During the journey, the crew's health would be monitored closely with wireless sensors - but they would rely entirely on medication aboard the craft and the skills of their fellow crew members should they fall sick.

Read the full article here

Billionaire Elon Musk Unveiling Mysterious 'Hyperloop' Transport System

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk stands next to the company's Falcon 9 rocket, which blasted SpaceX's Dragon capsule into orbit in December 2010.

Credit: SpaceX

How would you like to zip from Los Angeles to San Francisco in less than 30 minutes, on the cheap and on your own schedule?

Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk says it can be done, and he's going to tell us how next month.

Elon Musk, the visionary behind electric-car firm Tesla and the private spaceflight company SpaceX, has been teasing us for a year about something he calls the "Hyperloop."

This new solar-powered travel technology, Musk says, would go twice as fast as an airplane and be completely crash-proof.

The Hyperloop would also be a cheap way to get around, with tickets costing much less than a seat aboard a plane or train. And there would be no scrambling to make a set departure time — you'd be sent on your way whenever you showed up at the station.

Musk has described the Hyperloop as a "cross between a Concorde and a railgun and an air hockey table," inspiring speculation about passenger-packed pods being blasted pneumatically through vacuum tubes.

A diagram of such a system drawn up by self-described "tinker" John Gardi "is the closest I've seen anyone guess so far," Musk tweeted on July 15.

But Musk has mostly remained mum, keeping details about the Hyperloop to himself.

He has said he will publish a design of the concept by Aug. 12, so we'll all just have to be patient for a few more weeks.

NASA Orion Crew Module: Parachute Test

NASA's Orion spacecraft will carry astronauts further into space than ever before using a module based on Europe’s Automated Transfer Vehicles (ATV). The image was released Jan. 17, 2013.

Credit: ESA–D. Ducros

NASA's next manned spaceship, the Orion capsule, will be dropped over Arizona Wednesday (July 24) for a parachute test.

Orion is a gumdrop-shaped vehicle designed to take astronauts beyond low-Earth orbit to the moon, Mars and nearby asteroids.

The spacecraft is expected to make its first test flight to space in 2014, with its initial crewed flight coming in 2021.

Wednesday's test will see an Orion prototype dropped from a plane at an altitude of 35,000 feet (10,700 meters) over the U.S. Army's Yuma Proving Ground in southwestern Arizona. Engineers will simulate a series of failures and test the parachute system's ability to adapt and land the capsule safely.

Orion has three main parachutes, and the NASA team plans to simulate the failure of one of the trio to see if the landing sequence can proceed safely with only two.

These parachutes will be necessary to slow the spacecraft's descent after its first trip to space, the 2014 test flight scheduled to send the capsule 3,600 miles (5,800 km) away from Earth —well beyond the orbit of the International Space Station.

Boeing CST-100: Emergency Water Landing

Boeing recently demonstrated that astronauts in its Crew Space Transportation (CST)-100 capsule will be able to safely exit the spacecraft during an emergency water landing.

Although the CST-100 is designed to land on the ground, Boeing engineers worked with NASA and Department of Defense search-and-recovery personnel to test several emergency water-extraction scenarios.

"Crew safety is our top priority," said Alex Diaz, Boeing director for the testing.

"A water landing is unlikely, but it's important that we test the spacecraft in all potential scenarios."

The testing was done July 8 at Bigelow Aerospace in North Las Vegas, Nev., as part of NASA's Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) initiative.

The CST-100 will transport crew members and cargo to low Earth orbit destinations such as the International Space Station and Bigelow's planned station.

The first piloted orbital flight of the CST-100 capsule is scheduled for 2016.

NASA's Spitzer observes gas emission from comet ISON

These images from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope of C/2012 S1 (Comet ISON) were taken on June 13, when ISON was 310 million miles (about 500 million kilometers) from the sun.


Astronomers using NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope have observed what most likely are strong carbon dioxide emissions from Comet ISON ahead of its anticipated pass through the inner solar system later this year.

Spitzer's Infrared Array Camera
Images captured June 13 with Spitzer's Infrared Array Camera indicate carbon dioxide is slowly and steadily "fizzing" away from the so-called "soda-pop comet," along with dust, in a tail about 186,400 miles (300,000 kilometers) long.

"We estimate ISON is emitting about 2.2 million pounds (1 million kilograms) of what is most likely carbon dioxide gas and about 120 million pounds (54.4 million kilograms) of dust every day," said Carey Lisse, leader of NASA's Comet ISON Observation Campaign and a senior research scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md.

"Previous observations made by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope and the Swift Gamma-Ray Burst Mission and Deep Impact spacecraft gave us only upper limits for any gas emission from ISON.

Carey Lisse
Thanks to Spitzer, we now know for sure the comet's distant activity has been powered by gas."

Comet ISON was about 312 million miles (502 million kilometers) from the sun, 3.35 times farther than Earth, when the observations were made.

"These fabulous observations of ISON are unique and set the stage for more observations and discoveries to follow as part of a comprehensive NASA campaign to observe the comet," said James L. Green, NASA's director of planetary science in Washington. "ISON is very exciting.

We believe that data collected from this comet can help explain how and when the solar system first formed."

Comet ISON (officially known as C/2012 S1) is less than 3 miles (4.8 kilometers) in diameter, about the size of a small mountain, and weighs between 7 billion and 7 trillion pounds (3.2 billion and 3.2 trillion kilograms).

Because the comet is still very far away, its true size and density have not been determined accurately.

Like all comets, ISON is a dirty snowball made up of dust and frozen gases such as water, ammonia, methane and carbon dioxide. These are some of the fundamental building blocks, which scientists believe led to the formation of the planets 4.5 billion years ago.

Comet ISON is believed to be inbound on its first passage from the distant Oort Cloud, a roughly spherical collection of comets and comet-like structures that exists in a space between one-tenth light-year and 1 light-year from the sun. The comet will pass within 724,000 miles (1.16 million kilometers) of the sun on Nov. 28.

It is warming up gradually as it gets closer to the sun. In the process, different gases are heating up to the point of evaporation, revealing themselves to instruments in space and on the ground. Carbon dioxide is thought to be the gas that powers emission for most comets between the orbits of Saturn and the asteroids.

The comet was discovered Sept. 21, roughly between Jupiter and Saturn, by Vitali Nevski and Artyom Novichonok at the International Scientific Optical Network (ISON) near Kislovodsk, Russia.

This counts as an early detection of a comet, and the strong carbon dioxide emissions may have made the detection possible.

"This observation gives us a good picture of part of the composition of ISON, and, by extension, of the proto-planetary disk from which the planets were formed," said Lisse.

"Much of the carbon in the comet appears to be locked up in carbon dioxide ice. We will know even more in late July and August, when the comet begins to warm up near the water-ice line outside of the orbit of Mars, and we can detect the most abundant frozen gas, which is water, as it boils away from the comet."

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

NASA MRO: Valley networks suggest ancient snowfall on Mars

Valley networks on Mars are a good sign that water once flowed on the surface. 

Researchers from Brown University have found that some of these valleys appear to have been formed by orographic precipitation -- rain or snow that falls when moist air is pushed upward by mountain ridges or raised crater rims.

The findings suggest that at least some of the water on ancient Mars fell from the atmosphere, rather than bubbling up from the subsurface.

The image, taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, shows a valley network in a region called Warrego Valles. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

Researchers at Brown University have shown that some Martian valleys appear to have been caused by runoff from orographic precipitation—moisture carried part of the way up a mountain and deposited on the slopes.

Valley networks branching across the Martian surface leave little doubt that water once flowed on the Red Planet. But where that ancient water came from—whether it bubbled up from underground or fell as rain or snow—is still debated by scientists.

A new study by researchers at Brown University puts a new check mark in the precipitation column.

The study finds that water-carved valleys at four different locations on Mars appear to have been caused by runoff from orographic precipitation—snow or rain that falls when moist prevailing winds are pushed upward by mountain ridges.

The new findings are the most detailed evidence yet of an orographic effect on ancient Mars and could shed new light on the planet's early climate and atmosphere.

A paper describing the work has been accepted by Geophysical Research Letters and published online in June.

Kat Scanlon, a geological sciences graduate student at Brown, led the research and is well-acquainted with the orographic effect.

She did graduate work in meteorology in Hawaii, which is home to a quintessential orographic pattern.

Moist tropical winds from the east are pushed upward when they hit the mountains of Hawaii's big island.

The winds lack the kinetic energy to reach the mountain summit, so they dump their moisture on the eastern side of the island, making parts of it a tropical jungle.

The western side, in contrast, is nearly a desert because it sits in a rain shadow cast by the mountain peak.

Mars from the Odyssey spacecraft Water-carved valleys on Mars appear to have been caused by runoff from precipitation, likely meltwater from snow. 

Early Martian precipitation would have fallen on mountainsides and crater rims. Credit: NASA

Scanlon thought similar orographic patterns might have been at play on early Mars and that the valley networks might be an indicator.

"That's what immediately came to mind in trying to figure out if these valleys on Mars are precipitation related," she said.

The researchers, including Jim Head, professor of geological sciences, started by identifying four locations where valley networks were found along tall mountain ridges or raised crater rims.

To establish the direction of the prevailing winds at each location, the researchers used a newly developed general circulation model (GCM) for Mars.

The model simulates air movement based on the gas composition scientists think was present in the early Mars atmosphere.

Next, the team used a model of orographic precipitation to determine where, given the prevailing winds from the GCM, precipitation would be likely to fall in each of the study areas.

NASA Cassini: Mystery of the missing waves on Titan

This image shows the first flash of sunlight reflected off a lake on Saturn's moon Titan. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona/DLR

One of the most shocking discoveries of the past 10 years is how much the landscape of Saturn's moon Titan resembles Earth.

Like our own blue planet, the surface of Titan is dotted with lakes and seas; it has river channels, islands, mud, rain clouds and maybe even rainbows. The giant moon is undeniably wet.

The "water" on Titan is not, however, H2O. With a surface temperature dipping 290 degrees F below zero, Titan is far too cold for liquid water.

Instead, researchers believe the fluid that sculpts Titan is an unknown mixture of methane, ethane, and other hard-to-freeze hydrocarbons.

The idea that Titan is a wet world with its own alien waters is widely accepted by planetary scientists.

Nothing else can account for the observations: NASA's Cassini spacecraft has flown by Titan more than 90 times since 2004, pinging the Moon with radar and mapping its lakes and seas.

ESA's Huygens probe parachuted to the surface of Titan in 2005, descending through humid clouds and actually landing in moist soil.

Yet something has been bothering Alex Hayes, a planetary scientist on the Cassini radar team at Cornell University.

If Titan is really so wet, he wonders, "Where are all the waves?"

Here on Earth, bodies of water are rarely still. Breezes blowing across the surface cause waves to ripple and break; raindrops striking sea surfaces also provide some roughness.

Yet on Titan, the lakes are eerily smooth, with no discernable wave action down to the millimeter scale, according to radar data from Cassini.

"We know there is wind on Titan," says Hayes. "The moon's magnificent sand dunes [prove] it."

Add to that the low gravity of Titan-only 1/7th that of Earth-which offers so little resistance to wave motion, and you have a real puzzle.

Boeing CST-100: Private Space vehicle - Video

Boeing says its first piloted orbital flight of the CST-100 is planned for 2016.

NASA, based on funding availability, is expecting to begin buying seats on commercial-operated flights to the space station starting a year later.

The space agency is Boeing's core customer for the CST-100, although the aerospace company has also partnered with the space tourism company Space Adventures and Bigelow, which plans to deploy its own commercial space station built using inflatable modules.

Regardless of the destination or mission, Boeing plans to launch the CST-100 atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) provided Atlas V rocket.

The reusable capsule is designed to return to Earth using parachutes and airbags for a soft touchdown on land.

If, in the unlikely scenario an emergency water landing is needed, the CST-100 can also float. Boeing, working with NASA and Department of Defense personnel tested water recovery techniques using a different mockup at Bigelow's Las Vegas facilities earlier this month.

Earth from Saturn and Mercury: Pale Blue Dot - Cassini Messenger Image

Colour and black-and-white images of Earth taken by two NASA interplanetary spacecraft on July 19 show our planet and its moon as bright beacons from millions of miles away in space.

NASA's Cassini spacecraft captured the colour images of Earth and the moon from its perch in the Saturn system nearly 900 million miles (1.5 billion kilometers) away.

MESSENGER, the first probe to orbit Mercury, took a black-and-white image from a distance of 61 million miles (98 million kilometers) as part of a campaign to search for natural satellites of the planet.

In the Cassini images Earth and the moon appear as mere dots—Earth a pale blue and the moon a stark white, visible between Saturn's rings.

It was the first time Cassini's highest-resolution camera captured Earth and its moon as two distinct objects.

It also marked the first time people on Earth had advance notice their planet's portrait was being taken from interplanetary distances.

NASA invited the public to celebrate by finding Saturn in their part of the sky, waving at the ringed planet and sharing pictures over the Internet. More than 20,000 people around the world participated.

"We can't see individual continents or people in this portrait of Earth, but this pale blue dot is a succinct summary of who we were on July 19," said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist, at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

"Cassini's picture reminds us how tiny our home planet is in the vastness of space, and also testifies to the ingenuity of the citizens of this tiny planet to send a robotic spacecraft so far away from home to study Saturn and take a look-back photo of Earth."

ESA SOHO Video: 2 CMEs Side by Side

Two coronal mass ejections (CMEs) expand side-by-side from the Sun and out into space in this movie, playing out in front of the ESA/NASA Solar and Heliospheric Observatory, SOHO, on 1-2 July 2013.

The shaded disc at the centre of the image is a mask in SOHO’s LASCO instrument that blots out direct sunlight to allow study of the faint details in the Sun's corona. The white circle added within the disc shows the size and position of the visible Sun.

CMEs comprise millions of tonnes of gas and race away from the Sun at several million kilometres per hour.

In the event shown in this movie, one small CME slowly emerges directly above the Sun as seen by SOHO. Shortly after, a much larger, faster event bursts from the left, and together the CMEs expand into space.

The larger event was likely triggered as a solar filament became unstable and lifted away from the Sun. Filaments form in magnetic loops and suspend cool, dense gas above the solar surface.

From above, filaments appear as dark lineaments against the hotter surface below, but in profile they form giant glowing loops called prominences. When their magnetic fields become unstable, they can trigger flares or CMEs.

Neither of these two CMEs interacted with Earth but when other events like these do, even a glancing blow to the planet’s magnetic field can ignite spectacular natural light displays – aurora – over the poles.

But in the most extreme events CMEs can cause much trouble, initiating geomagnetic storms that can result in regional power outages and communications blackouts.

The shaded disc at the centre of the image is a mask in SOHO’s LASCO instrument that blots out direct sunlight to allow study of the faint details in the Sun's corona. The white circle added within the disc shows the size and position of the visible Sun.

ESA: Paxi - Surprise guest on the International Space Station

ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano had a flying visit from Paxi, the ESA kids mascot.

Follow Paxi on Twitter: http://twitter.com/paxi_esakids and on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/PaxiESAKids

Monday, July 22, 2013

Carnegie Airborne Observatory: First high-res national carbon map - Panama

A team of researchers has for the first time mapped the above ground carbon density of an entire country in high fidelity.

This is the first high-resolution national carbon map. The highest carbon stocks in Panama are in the humid forests on the Caribbean side (red). 

The lowest carbon stocks are in developed areas (blue). 

Credit: Carnegie Airborne Observatory

They integrated field data with satellite imagery and high-resolution airborne Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) data to map the vegetation and to quantify carbon stocks throughout the Republic of Panama.

The results are the first maps that report carbon stocks locally in areas as small as a hectare (2.5 acres) and yet cover millions of hectares in a short time.

The system has the lowest demonstrated uncertainty of any carbon-counting approach yet—a carbon estimation uncertainty of about 10% in each hectare overflown with LiDAR as compared to field-based estimates.

Importantly, it can be used across a wide range of vegetation types worldwide.

The new system, described in Carbon Balance and Management, will greatly boost conservation and efforts to mitigate climate change through carbon sequestration.

It will also inform our understanding of how carbon storage can be used to assess other fundamental ecosystem characteristics such as hydrology, habitat quality, and biodiversity.

The approach provides much-needed technical support for carbon-based economic activities such as the United Nations Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) program in developing countries.

Panama has complex landscapes, with variable topography, and diverse ecosystems (ranging from grasslands and mangroves to shrublands and dense forests).

As a result, Panama is an ideal laboratory to develop and test a method for quantifying above ground carbon.

Lead author Greg Asner commented: "Three things make this national-scale study unique."

  • Firstly, Panama is an outstanding place for testing carbon mapping approaches due in part to the long-term forest studies that have been undertaken by our partners at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI).
  • Secondly, we have applied the very latest techniques using high-performance instrumentation, resulting in demonstrably high accuracy at fine spatial resolution.
  • Thirdly, the partnership permitted us to estimate our errors in a novel way, and we did so over every point on Panamanian soil.

In addition to Carnegie and STRI researchers, scientists from McGill University and UC-Berkeley combined measurement methods—an extensive and essential network of ground-based plot sampling, satellite imagery, and LiDAR measurements from the Carnegie Airborne Observatory—to achieve the unprecedented accuracy.

NASA /ESA's Hubble Image: A stranger in the crowd

Credit: European Space Agency

The constellation of Virgo (The Virgin) is the largest of the Zodiac constellations, and the second largest overall after Hydra (The Water Snake).

Its most appealing feature, however, is the sheer number of galaxies that lie within it.

In this picture, among a crowd of face- and edge-on spiral, elliptical, and irregular galaxies, lies NGC 4866, a lenticular galaxy situated about 80 million light-years from Earth.

Lenticular galaxies are somewhere between spirals and ellipticals in terms of shape and properties.

From the picture, we can appreciate the bright central bulge of NGC 4866, which contains primarily old stars, but no spiral arms are visible.

The galaxy is seen from Earth as almost edge-on, meaning that the disc structure—a feature not present in elliptical galaxies—is clearly visible.

Faint dust lanes trace across NGC 4866 in this image, obscuring part of the galaxy's light.

To the right of the galaxy is a very bright star that appears to lie within NGC 4866's halo.

However, this star actually lies much closer to us; in front of the galaxy, along our line of sight.

These kinds of perspective tricks are common when observing, and can initially deceive astronomers as to the true nature and position of objects such as galaxies, stars, and clusters.

This sharp image of NGC 4866 was captured by the Advanced Camera for Surveys, an instrument on the NASA /ESA Hubble Space Telescope.

NASA’s Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle: The heat shield is ready

The heat shield for NASA’s Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, shown here partly wrapped and mounted on its side, is being coated with a layer of thermal protection material at the Textron Defense Systems plant in Wilmington, Mass. 

It is the world’s largest heat shield, measuring 16.4 feet in diameter. Textron’s specially formulated ablative material, called Avcoat, is designed to protect the spacecraft and its crew from extreme temperatures during re-entry.

Credit: Imelda B. Joson and Edwin L. Aguirre

Work on the heat shield for NASA's Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle — America's next-generation spacecraft that could astronauts on missions to Mars — is on track toward an ambitious test launch in 2014.

Since spring, teams of engineers and technicians from Massachusetts-based Textron Defense Systems have been meticulously applying Avcoat, a proprietary thermal ablation and insulation material, to the heat shield, which will protect the Orion capsule and its crew from the extreme heat generated during high-speed re-entry into the atmosphere after a deep-space flight.

Members of the media received a sneak peek of the heat shield on Wednesday (July 17) during a press viewing here at Textron's manufacturing plant.

Officials and managers from NASA, Lockheed Martin (the prime contractor for the Orion program) and Textron were on hand to answer questions about the project from the nearly 100 people gathered at the plant.

The Orion vehicle is scheduled for launch into space without a crew in September of 2014 as part of its Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1).

The maiden flight will evaluate the system design and performance of the spacecraft, which is intended to send humans on future explorations of an asteroid, the moon and, ultimately, Mars.

At 16.4 feet (5 meters) in diameter, the Orion heat shield is the largest and most advanced composite heat shield ever built. Textron originally developed the lightweight Avcoat ablative material in the 1960s for use on the Apollo command module.

This view shows a bare honeycomb structure and one that has been filled with Avcoat using Textron’s “gunning” process. Credit: Edwin L. Aguirre and Imelda B. Joson

Planck Microwave Background Radiation: Seeing the Big Bang

Two Cosmic Microwave Background anomalies hinted at by the Planck observatory's predecessor, NASA's WMAP, are confirmed in new high-precision data revealed on March 21, 2013. 

In this image, the two anomalous regions have been enhanced with red and blue shading to make them more clearly visible.

Credit: ESA and the Planck Collaboration

The universe burst into existence 13.8 billion years ago in a "Big Bang" that blew space up like a giant balloon. For nearly 400,000 years after that, the universe remained a seething-hot, opaque fog of plasma and energy.

But then, in an epoch known as recombination, the temperature dropped enough to allow the formation of electrically neutral atoms, turning the universe transparent.

Photons began to travel freely, and the light we know as the cosmic microwave background (CMB) pervaded the heavens, filled with clues about the first few moments after creation.

John Mather
"As far as we know, that's as far [back] as we can see — we get an image of the universe as it was when it was about 389,000 years old," said John Mather of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., senior project scientist for the space agency's James Webb Space Telescope, the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope.

Mather and George Smoot won the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physics for their work on NASA's Cosmic Background Explorer satellite mission.

"We believe — although it's not 100 percent proven — that spots that we see in the microwave map from when the universe was 389,000 years old were actually imposed on it when [the universe] was sub-microseconds old," Mather told reporters.

"There's an interpretive step there, but it's probably right."

The CMB, which was first detected in 1964, is strikingly uniform. But COBE discovered in 1992 that it's studded with tiny temperature fluctuations. These variations have since been mapped out more precisely by two other space missions, NASA's Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) and the ESA European Planck spacecraft.

The hot and cold areas — which differ from their homogeneous surroundings at a level of just 1 part per 100,000 — signify areas featuring different densities.

"You can imagine a cold spot being a gravitational overdensity; it's sitting at the bottom of a shallow gravity well," said Al Kogut of NASA Goddard, who has worked on COBE, WMAP and other efforts to map the CMB.

'Human error' triggered recent Indonesian mud volcano? - YouTube

This video was recorded in 2010 but the volcano has continued to erupt and the villagers are facing the same problems.

Scientists on Sunday sparked a fresh debate over what triggered Indonesia's Lusi mud volcano, still spewing truckloads of slime more than seven years after it leapt catastrophically into life.

Published in the journal Nature Geoscience, the study strengthens the argument by gas company PT Lapindo Brantas that the disaster was caused by a distant earthquake, not by its drilling crew as some experts contend.

Lusi, located in the Sidoarjo district of the island of Java, erupted on May 29, 2006 in the middle of a ricefield.

It has destroyed 13 villages, dozens of factories and shops and a highway, prompting the government to build dykes 10 metres (33 feet) high to try to contain its spread. Nearly 50,000 people were displaced.

Stephen Miller
The new research, by a team led by Stephen Miller at the University of Bonn in Germany, suggests the eruption was caused by the 6.3-magnitude earthquake that occurred two days earlier near Yogyakarta.

"We conclude that the Lusi mud eruption was a natural occurrence," they write.

Even though the two events were some 250 kilometres (125 miles) apart, the rock formation at Sidoarjo has a shape and structure that acted rather like a lens, amplifying and focussing the wave of seismic energy from Yogyakarta, according to their computer model.

The jolt of energy would have liquefied the source of the mud, causing it to be injected into a fault connected with a deep hydrothermal system. This superheated blowout feeds the eruption today, goes their theory.

Asked to comment on the study, British geologist Richard Davies pointed to the daily drilling reports from the Lapindo Brantas team at Sidoarjo.

It showed their gas exploration was going awry, Davies said.

On the day of the eruption, the drillers acknowledged that they were having problems in stabilising pressure in the hole, a routine procedure that uses injected fluids, as they sought to withdrew their drillbit, he said.

Richard Davies
That, and the lack of protective casing around the hole, "was like pulling the cork out of a champagne bottle," causing a "kick" of high-pressure mud to blow from the hole, Davies, a professor at Durham University, told AFP in a phone interview.

"When the Yogyakarta earthquake occurred, nothing happened in the well. The pressure in the well was already many orders of magnitude bigger than the pressure changes due to the Yogyakarta earthquake," Davies.

"They've come up with an elaborate geophysical model but I think they've ignored the more obvious data," said Davies said.

Seismologists have widely, but not unanimously, sided with his explanation. Some note that much larger earthquakes had previously occurred closer to Sidoarjo yet not caused any mud volcano.

At its peak, Lusi disgorged 180,000 cubic metres (6.4 million cubic feet) of mud a day.

Today, the rate has fallen to between 15,000 and 20,000 cu. m.(500,000 and 700,000 cu. ft.) per day, according to the government's Sidoarjo Mudflow Mitigation Agency (BPLS).

Sepuluh Nopember
This is roughly equivalent to between six and eight Olympic-sized swimming pools of muck per day.

Amein Widodo, a geologist from the Sepuluh Nopember Institute of Technology in nearby Surabaya city, said it was impossible to predict how long the volcano would keep erupting.

"The amount of mud has reduced a lot, but having seen other cases in Java, it's possible it could erupt for more than 100 years," said Widodo.

All victims have received some compensation, some of them from the government and others from Lapindo Brantas, despite its claim of no wrongdoing.

The company is part of a business empire controlled by Indonesia's powerful Bakrie family.