Sunday, August 31, 2014

NASA SLS Deep-space rocket to launch in 2018

Artist concept of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) 70-metric-ton configuration launching to space. Credit: NASA

The US space agency's powerful deep-space rocket, known as the Space Launch System (SLS), aims to blast off for the first time in 2018, NASA said Wednesday.

The SLS has been in development for three years already, and when finished it should propel spacecraft beyond Earth's orbit and eventually launch crew vehicles to Mars by the 2030s.

NASA has now completed a thorough review of the project, signifying formal space agency commitment to the 70 metric ton version of the SLS at a cost of $7.021 billion from 2014 to 2018.

"The program is making real, significant progress," said William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for the Human Explorations and Operations Mission Directorate at NASA.

"We will keep the teams working toward a more ambitious readiness date, but will be ready no later than November 2018."

The Government Accountability Office (GAO), however issued a report last month that called into question the space's agency's current funding plan for SLS, saying it "may be $400 million short of what the program needs."

The GAO also raised concerns about the development schedule and how engineers will integrate hardware that was designed to fly on a cancelled NASA program known as Constellation that would have returned humans to the Moon.

Gerstenmaier said NASA was taking those concerns into account and is seeking to address the GAO's recommendations.

The SLS is NASA's first heavy-lift launch vehicle in over 40 years, and the space agency has estimated total costs in developing the first of three SLS variants at $12 billion.

U.S. Air Force's X-37B space plane in orbit more than 620 days

An artist's illustration of the U.S. Air Force's X-37B space plane in orbit. 

The solar-powered winged spacecraft has spent more than 620 days in orbit as part of the military's secret OTV-3 mission, which launched in December 2012.

Credit: NASA Marshall Space Flight Center

The U.S. Air Force's mysterious unmanned space plane has winged beyond 600 days in orbit on a classified military mission that seems to have no end.

The X-37B space plane is carrying out the Orbital Test Vehicle-3 (OTV-3) mission, a long-duration cruise that marks the third flight for the unpiloted Air Force spaceflight program.

The Air Force launched the miniature space shuttle into orbit on Dec. 11, 2012 using an expendable Atlas 5 rocket.

By the end of Friday (Aug. 29), the space plane had spent 627 days in orbit. That's one year, eight months, 19 days and counting, to be exact.

"The Air Force continues to push the envelope of the solar-powered X-37B capabilities," said Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor of National Security Affairs at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.

New Horizons crossed the orbit of Neptune

Artist's concept of NASA's New Horizons probe flying past the dwarf planet Pluto on July 14, 2015. 

New Horizons crossed the orbit of Neptune on Aug. 25, 2014, 25 years to the day after NASA's Voyager 2 spacecraft flew by the distant blue planet.

Credit: Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

A speedy NASA probe has crossed the orbit of Neptune, notching one more spaceflight milestone on its way toward a historic flyby of Pluto next summer.

New Horizons, which is scheduled to zoom through the Pluto system on July 14, 2015, passed Neptune's orbit today (Aug. 25), 25 years to the day after NASA's Voyager 2 probe executed the first-ever flyby of faraway Neptune and its icy moon Triton.

New Horizons team members took the opportunity provided by this spaceflight coincidence to pay tribute to Voyager 2, the only probe ever to visit the "ice giant" planets Uranus and Neptune.

Spectacular Aurora Borealis captured by ISS Astronauts

NASA astronaut Reid Wiseman captured this view from the International Space Station on Aug. 19, 2014.

Credit: NASA

The northern lights illuminated the night sky near the Arctic Circle earlier this week in a stunning display that could even be appreciated by astronauts living on the International Space Station.

"Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine this," NASA astronaut Reid Wiseman wrote in a Twitter post Tuesday evening (Aug. 19) alongside a photo of the amazing green auroras.

Reid Wiseman, who is a flight engineer, and perhaps Expedition 40's most prolific shutterbug, took pictures of the spectacle as the space station flew past North America around 7:30 p.m. EDT.

Wiseman is not the first to capture images of the Aurora Borealis from the ISS, with film-maker Randy Smith creating a time-lapse film of the light show from aboard the ISS in 2012

Sunday, August 24, 2014

SpaceX Reusable Rocket Prototype Explodes Over Texas

A reusable rocket prototype built by the private spaceflight company SpaceX exploded over the firm's Texas proving grounds Friday (Aug. 22) after an anomaly forced the destruction of the craft.

The SpaceX rocket detonation occurred over McGregor, Texas, where SpaceX has been testing reusable rocket technology using its prototype Falcon 9 Reusable (or F9R) vehicle. One observer video shows debris falling from the sky just after the explosion.

"During the flight, an anomaly was detected in the vehicle and the flight termination system automatically terminated the mission," SpaceX representatives said in a statement.

"Throughout the test and subsequent flight termination, the vehicle remained in the designated flight area."

"There were no injuries or near injuries. An FAA representative was present at all times."

On Friday, SpaceX was testing a three-engine version of the F9R rocket when the incident occurred. The vehicle, which is the successor to SpaceX's Grasshopper reusable rocket, began single-engine test flights earlier this year.

Soyuz Rocket Launches European Galileo Satellites Into Wrong Orbit

The launch service provider Arianespace confirmed late Friday (Aug. 22) that two satellites for Europe's Galileo navigation network were released into the wrong orbit after launching aboard a Soyuz rocket from French Guiana.

It was not immediately clear whether the two satellites have enough fuel to make up for the orbit injection error.

Arianespace and European Space Agency officials initially heralded Friday morning's launch as a success, declaring the satellites healthy and claiming they were deployed into their targeted orbit approximately 23,500 kilometers, or 14,600 miles, above Earth.

The Russian-built Soyuz ST-B rocket carrying the Galileo navigation payloads blasted off at 8:27 a.m. EDT (1227 GMT) from the French-run Guiana Space Center in South America.

The Soyuz launcher's three booster stages gave way to a Russian Fregat-MT upper stage less than 10 minutes after liftoff.

The Fregat was programmed to fire two times to propel the Galileo satellites into a circular medium Earth orbit tilted at an angle of 55 degrees to the equator.

But U.S. military orbital tracking data indicated the satellites were flying in a lower orbit than planned. Officials confirmed a launch anomaly in a statement late Friday.

"Complementary observations gathered after separation of the Galileo FOC M1 satellites on Soyuz Flight VS09 have highlighted a discrepancy between targeted and reached orbit," Arianespace, the French launch services company, said in a statement.

Arianespace said investigations into the launch anomaly are underway and more information will be provided after a flight data analysis to be completed Saturday.

SpaceX Falcon 9-R Dev1 Rocket Explodes after takeoff

An anomaly occurred during a test flight of SpaceX's Falcon 9-R Dev1 rocket at their development site in McGregor, Texas.

The Flight Termination System ended the mission as it was designed to. More information to follow.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Spectacular Type la supernova's mysteries revealed

Galaxy M82 in which the supernova exploded. 

Credit: NASA, ESA, & Hubble Heritage

New research by a team of UK and European-based astronomers is helping to solve the mystery of what caused a spectacular supernova in a galaxy 11 million light years away, seen earlier this year.

The supernova, a giant explosion of a star and the closest one to the Earth in decades, was discovered earlier this year by chance at the University of London Observatory.

These phenomena are extremely important to study because they provide key information about our universe, including how it is expanding and how galaxies evolve.

The new research into its cause, published in the latest issue of the Astrophysical Journal, used vast networks of radio telescopes in the UK and across Europe including the seven telescopes of e-MERLIN operated from The University of Manchester's Jodrell Bank Observatory.

These enabled them to obtain extremely deep images revealing a lack of radio emission from the supernova.

Known as 2014J, this was a Type la supernova caused by the explosion of a white dwarf star, the inner core of star once it has run out of nuclear fuel and ejected its outer layers.

A white dwarf star can explode if its mass increases to about 1.4x times that of the Sun. At this point its core temperature reaches the point where carbon starts to undergo nuclear fusion.

This spreads rapidly through the star resulting in a catastrophic thermonuclear explosion which rips the star apart, causing it to appear like a brilliant 'new star' shining billions of times brighter than the Sun.

For decades there has been a dispute about how this happens but these new results rule out the vast majority of models and show the merger of two white dwarf stars is by far the most likely cause.

The research was led by Miguel Pérez-Torres, researcher of the Spanish National Research Council who explained: "Supernovae play a fundamental role in the chemistry of galaxies and their evolution, as they are responsible for ejecting most of the heavy elements we see around us, including elements that cannot be formed in the interior of normal stars."

"A Nobel Prize was awarded in 2011 for the use of Type Ia supernovae to discover that the expansion of the Universe is accelerating. Yet, the basic question of what causes a Type Ia supernova was still a mystery".

Rob Beswick, a co-author of the research paper from the University of Manchester's Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics added: "The explosion of a Type Ia supernova is a rare event in the nearby Universe."

"Supernova 2014J is the closest Type Ia supernova to Earth since 1986, and it's likely that more than a hundred years will pass until we see another such supernova so close to us."

"This was an amazing opportunity to learn more about these extremely important astrophysical phenomena and their underlying cause."

More information: "Constraints on the progenitor system and the environs of SN 2014J from deep radio observations" By M. A. Perez-Torres, P. Lundqvist, R. J. Beswick, C. I. Bjornsson, T. W. B. Muxlow, Z. Paragi, S. Ryder, A. Alberdi, C. Fransson, J. M. Marcaide, I. Marti-Vidal, E. Ros, M. K. Argo, J. C. Guirado are published in The Astrophysical Journal.

NASA Flame Extinguishment - 2 (FLEX-2) experiment: Video

The Flame Extinguishment - 2 (FLEX-2) experiment is the second experiment to fly on the ISS which uses small droplets of fuel to study the special spherical characteristics of burning fuel droplets in space.

The FLEX-2 experiment studies how quickly fuel burns, the conditions required for soot to form, and how mixtures of fuels evaporate before burning.

Understanding these processes could lead to the production of a safer spacecraft as well as increased fuel efficiency for engines using liquid fuel on Earth.

Earth Applications
Watching fuel burn in a perfect sphere provides a unique view of fire that would be impossible to recreate on Earth.

Better knowledge of fire’s dynamics could lead to improved fuels for vehicles and aircraft, including efficient, environmentally friendly mixtures of chemicals that burn well together and produce less soot.

Soot results from the incomplete burning of a hydrocarbon, and it is harmful to human and environmental health.

The FLEX-2 experiment provides a unique view on soot formation that would be impossible under the influence of Earth’s gravity.

Space Applications
The FLEX-2 experiment measures soot buildup, flame heat and the burning rates of various types of fuels and fuel mixtures.

Understanding how fuels burn in microgravity could improve the efficiency of fuel mixtures used for interplanetary missions by reducing cost and weight.

It could also lead to improved safety measures for manned spacecraft.

Conditions for this test:
Test conducted with 50/50 fuel mixture of iso-octane and heptane in a standard air environment (21% oxygen and 79% nitrogen at 1 atm).

Burn with 3-mm droplet experienced flame oscillations, which appear as a hole in the flame shell that repeatedly opens and closes.

These oscillations create asymmetries in the flame, resulting in a force imbalance on the droplet.

Astronauts See Mount Etna Volcano's Lava and Steam from Space

NASA astronaut Reid Wiseman shared this photo of the volcanoes Mount Etna and Mount Stromboli on Aug. 14, 2014.

Credit: Reid Wiseman/NASA

Two astronauts aboard the International Space Station have captured a one-two punch of incredible views from space of Mount Etna and another active volcano in Italy spewing steam and lava.

NASA astronaut Reid Wiseman and European Space Agency astronaut Alexander Gerst managed to photograph both Mount Etna and Mount Stromboli from their positions on the space station earlier this month.

Gerst caught sight of the two Italian volcanoes and their lava flows at night, while Wiseman captured the mountains during daylight.

Both photos give viewers a different perspective of the massive volcanoes. The images were taken from the same angle, and thanks to that specific shot alignment, space fans can orient themselves to see the red lava flows in Gerst's photo.

Without the context provided by Wiseman's daytime image, the lava would be much more difficult to spot.

European astronaut Alexander Gerst uploaded this photo of two volcanoes, Mount Etna and Mount Stromboli, by night on Aug. 1, 2014. 

Credit: Alexander Gerst Twitter / ESA

Gerst has quite a bit of experience with volcanoes.

Before flying to space, he was awarded his doctorate for research he did investigating volcanic eruptions and active volcanoes.

While working toward his master's degree, Gerst also developed new techniques that could help scientistsbetter predict when volcanoes might erupt, according to ESA.

Mount Etna was actually the first erupting volcano Gerst climbed, according to a Twitter post sent out in July.

Mount Etna is the largest volcano in Europe, standing at 10,900 feet (3,328 meters) high.

It is one of the most active volcanoes in the world, but it hasn't had a major eruption since 1992.

The active volcano is almost always discharging gas, ash or lava.

This isn't the first time Mount Etna's active phase has been seen from space. NASA astronaut Karen Nyberg caught sight of the volcano from her post aboard the international Space Station in October 2013.

That same year, Canadian astronaut Chris Hatfield also snapped an amazing image of the active volcano's ash floating through clouds and out to sea.

Both Gerst and Wiseman are about halfway through with their first spaceflight. They launched to the space station in May and are expected to return to Earth in November.

Evidence of 'oceans worth' of water in Earth's mantle detected

Schematic cross section of the Earth’s interior highlighting the transition zone layer (light blue, 410-660 km depth), which has an anomalously high water storage capacity. 

The study by Schmandt and Jacobsen used seismic waves to detect magma generated near the top of the lower mantle at about 700 km depth.

Dehydration melting at those conditions, also observed in the study’s high-pressure experiments, suggests the transition zone may be nearly saturated with H2O dissolved in high-pressure rock. 

Credit: Steve Jacobsen/Northwestern University

Researchers have found evidence of a potential "ocean's worth" of water deep beneath the United States.

Although not present in a familiar form, the building blocks of water are bound up in rock located deep in the Earth's mantle, and in quantities large enough to represent the largest water reservoir on the planet, according to the research.

For many years, scientists have attempted to establish exactly how much water may be cycling between the Earth's surface and interior reservoirs through the action of plate tectonics.

Northwestern University geophysicist Steve Jacobsen and University of New Mexico seismologist Brandon Schmandt have found deep pockets of magma around 400 miles beneath North America, a strong indicator of the presence of H₂O stored in the crystal structure of high-pressure minerals at these depths.

"The total H₂O content of the planet has long been among the most poorly constrained 'geochemical parameters' in Earth science. Our study has found evidence for widespread hydration of the mantle transition zone," says Jacobsen.

For at least 20 years geologists have known from laboratory experiments that the Earth's transition zone, a rocky layer of the Earth's mantle located between the lower mantle and upper mantle, at depths between 250 and 410 miles, can, in theory, hold about 1 percent of its total weight as H₂O, bound up in minerals called wadsleyite and ringwoodite.

However, as Schmandt explains, up until now it has been difficult to figure out whether that potential water reservoir is empty, as many have suggested, or not.

If there does turn out to be a substantial amount of H₂O in the transition zone, then recent laboratory experiments conducted by Jacobsen indicate there should be large quantities of what he calls "partial melt" in areas where mantle flows downward out of the zone.

This water-rich silicate melt is molten rock that occurs at grain boundaries between solid mineral crystals and may account for about 1 percent of the volume of rocks.

"Melting occurs because hydrated rocks are carried from the transition zone, where the rocks can hold lots of H₂O, downward into the lower mantle, where the rocks cannot hold as much H₂O."

"Melting is the way to get rid of the H₂O that won't fit in the crystal structure present in the lower mantle," says Jacobsen.

He adds:
"When a rock starts to melt, whatever H₂O is bound in the rock will go into the melt right away. So the melt would have much higher H₂O concentration than the remaining solid. We're not sure how it got there."

"Maybe it's been stuck there since early in Earth's history or maybe it's constantly being recycled by plate tectonics."

Seismic Waves
Melt strongly affects the speed of seismic waves, the acoustic-like waves of energy that travel through the Earth's layers as a result of an earthquake or explosion.

This is because stiff rocks, like the silicate-rich ones present in the mantle, propagate seismic waves very quickly.

According to Schmandt, if just a little melt, even 1 percent or less, is added between the crystal grains of such a rock it causes it to become less stiff, meaning that elastic waves propagate more slowly.

"We were able to analyse seismic waves from earthquakes to look for melt in the mantle just beneath the transition zone," says Schmandt.

Brandon Schmandt (University of New Mexico, left) and Steve Jacobsen (Northwestern University, right) combined seismic observations from the US-Array with laboratory experiments to detect dehydration melting of hydrous mantle material beneath North America at depths of 700-800 km. 

Credit: University of New Mexico/Northwestern University

"What we found beneath the U.S. is consistent with partial melt being present in areas of downward flow out of the transition zone."

"Without the presence of H₂O, it is very difficult to explain melting at these depths. This is a good hint that the transition zone H₂O reservoir is not empty, and even if it's only partially filled that could correspond to about the same mass of H₂O as in Earth's oceans," he adds.

Jacobsen and Schmandt hope that their findings, published in the June issue of the journal Science, will help other scientists to understand how the Earth formed and what its current composition and inner workings are, as well as establish how much water is trapped in mantle rock.

"I think we are finally seeing evidence for a whole-Earth water cycle, which may help explain the vast amount of liquid water on the surface of our habitable planet. Scientists have been looking for this missing deep water for decades," says Jacobsen

Schematic representation of seismometers placed in the US-Array between 2004 and 2014 and used in the study by Schmandt and Jacobsen to detect dehydration melting at the top of the lower mantle beneath North America. 

Credit: NSF-Earthscope

Crystals of laboratory-grown hydrous ringwoodite, a high-pressure polymorph of olivine that is stable from about 520-660 km depth in the Earth’s mantle. 

The ringwoodite pictured here contains around one weight percent of H2O, similar to what was inferred in the seismic observations made by Schmandt and Jacobsen. 

Credit: Steve Jacobsen/Northwestern University

ESA Galileo Launch - Video

On 22 August, at 12:27 GMT/14:27 CEST, a Soyuz Flight VS09 launched Europe’s fifth and six Galileo satellites from Europe's Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana.

These new satellites joined four Galileo satellites already in orbit, launched in October 2011 and October 2012 respectively.

This first quartet were ‘In-Orbit Validation’ satellites, serving to demonstrate the Galileo system would function as planned.

Now that work has been done, these ‘Full Operational Capability’ satellites are significant as the first of the rest of the Galileo constellation.

A steady stream of launches will follow to build the complete Galileo satellite constellation.

This deployment phase of the Galileo programme is being managed and funded by the European Commission, with ESA acting as design and procurement agent on behalf of the Commission.

Amazing raw Cassini images of Saturn's rings from this week

Sunlight and shadow combine in this photo of Saturn and its rings taken Aug. 19, 2014. 

Credit: NASA/ JPL/ Space Science Institute

When Saturn is at its closest to Earth, it's three-quarters of a billion miles away, or more than a billion kilometers!

That makes these raw images from the ringed planet all the more remarkable.

Nearly every day, the Cassini spacecraft beams back what it sees at Saturn and the images are put up on this NASA website.

This week, for example, it was checking out Saturn's rings. We have a few of the pictures below, plus an older picture of the entire planet for reference.

Saturn's rings are believed to be about 4.4 billion years old, that's close to the age of the Solar System itself.

Astronomers, however, have only known about them since the 1600s, when Galileo Galilei was trying to make sense of some funny-looking shapes on either side of the planet in his telescope.

According to NASA, the particles in the rings range from dust-sized to mountain-sized. Some of Saturn's dozens of moons act as shepherds to the rings, keeping gaps open.

You can read more about what we know about their origins here.

Saturn and its rings, as seen from above the planet by the Cassini spacecraft. 

Credit: NASA/ JPL/ Space Science Institute. Assembled by Gordan Ugarkovic.

Different shades shine in this raw image of Saturn’s rings taken by the Cassini spacecraft taken Aug. 19, 2014. 

Credit: NASA/ JPL/ Space Science Institute

Bands prominently feature in this raw picture of Saturn taken by the Cassini spacecraft Aug. 17, 2014. 

Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

The Cassini spacecraft looks to the side of Saturn’s rings in this picture from Aug. 19, 2014. 

Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

NASA Orion Spacecraft: Back Shell Tile Panels Installed

Inside the Operations and Checkout Building high bay at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, technicians dressed in clean-room suits have installed a back shell tile panel onto the Orion crew module and are checking the fit next to the middle back shell tile panel.

Preparations are underway for Exploration Flight Test-1, or EFT-1.

Orion is the exploration spacecraft designed to carry astronauts to destinations not yet explored by humans, including an asteroid and Mars.

It will have emergency abort capability, sustain the crew during space travel and provide safe re-entry from deep space return velocities.

Two one-inch-wide holes have been drilled into tiles on Orion’s back shell to simulate micrometeoroid orbital debris damage. 

Sensors on the vehicle will record how high temperatures climb inside the hole during Orion’s return through Earth’s atmosphere following its first flight in December.

Image Credit: NASA

The first unpiloted test flight of the Orion is scheduled to launch later this year atop a Delta IV rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida to an altitude of 3,600 miles above the Earth's surface.

The two-orbit, four-hour flight test will help engineers evaluate the systems critical to crew safety including the heat shield, parachute system and launch abort system.

Image Credit: NASA/Dimitri Gerondidakis

Jupiter's Icy Moon Europa: Best Bet for Alien Life

Under a thick crust of ice, Europa might have an ocean warmed by tidal interactions with Jupiter. 

This tidal flexing could also produce a geologically active core that might in turn create hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor.

Credit: NASA/JPL/Ted Stryk

Jupiter's moon Europa doesn't look like a particularly inviting place for life to thrive; the icy satellite is nearly 500 million miles (800 million kilometers) from the sun, on average.

But beneath its icy crust lies a liquid ocean with more water than Earth contains. This ocean is shielded from harmful radiation, making Europa one of the solar system's best bets to host alien life.

That's one of the reasons Europa is so alluring to scientists. It has all the elements thought to be key for the origin of life: water, energy, and organic chemicals, the carbon-containing building blocks of life, scientists said at an event called "The Lure of Europa," held here last month.

"All the ingredients are there to make us think Europa is the next place to go," NASA Chief Scientist Ellen Stofan said at the event, which was organized by the Planetary Society, a nonprofit organization headed by scientist and TV host Bill Nye.

Just as a layer of ice over a pond allows the water beneath it to stay liquid through the freezing winter, Europa's icy crust shields its enormous ocean despite the moon's great distance from the sun.

As Europa travels around Jupiter, the massive planet bends and flexes the satellite, generating interior heat that keeps its water from freezing completely.

Beneath Europa's surface, active volcanoes may also heat the water, providing vents where bacterial life may thrive as it does on Earth.

"With that combination of volcanism and water, good things are going to happen," Stofan said.

NASA VOYAGER 2 Fly-by of TRITON - Video

The Voyager 2 spacecraft flew by Triton, a moon of Neptune, on August 25, 1989. Paul Schenk, a scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, used Voyager data to construct this video recreating that exciting encounter.

The Voyager mission is managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in Pasadena, California, for NASA's Science Mission Directorate (SMD) at NASA Headquarters in Washington. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lunar & Planetary Institute

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Subaru Telescope: Traces of One of Universe's First Stars Detected

The most massive stars in the early universe would eject material high in iron when they exploded. 

Astronomers can read the composition of the next generation of stars to determine what made up their ancestors.

Credit: National Astronomical Observatory of Japan

An ancient star in the halo surrounding the Milky Way galaxy appears to contain traces of material released by the death of one of the universe's first stars, a new study reports.

The chemical signature of the ancient star suggests that it incorporated material blasted into space by a supernova explosion that marked the death of a huge star in the early universe, one that may have been 200 times more massive than the sun.

"The impact of very-massive stars and their explosions on subsequent star formation and galaxy formation should be significant," lead author Wako Aoki, of the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan, told by email.

Hidden giants
The first stars in the cosmos, known as Population III stars, formed from the hydrogen and helium that dominated the early universe.

Through nuclear fusion, other elements were forged in their hearts. At the end of their lifetimes, supernovas scattered these elements into the space around them, where the material was folded into the next generation of stars.

The universe's first massive stars would have been short-lived, so to determine their composition, scientists must examine the makeup of their offspring, stars that formed from the material distributed by their explosive deaths.

While numerical simulations have suggested that at least some of the first stars should have reached enormous proportions, no previous observational evidence had managed to confirm their existence.

Aoki and a team of scientists used the Subaru Telescope in Hawaii to perform follow-up observations of a large sample of low-mass stars with low quantities of what astronomers term "metals," elements other than hydrogen and helium. 

They identified SDS J0018-0939, an ancient star only 1,000 light-years from Earth.

"The low abundance of heavy elements suggests that this star is quite old — as old as 13 billion years," Aoki said.
(Scientists think the Big Bang that created the universe occurred approximately 13.8 billion years ago.)

The chemical composition of SDS J0018-0939 suggests it gobbled up the material blown off of a single massive ancient star, rather than several smaller bodies.

If multiple supernovas had provided the material that constructed the star, the "peculiar abundance ratios" in its interior would have been erased, Aoki said.

Volker Bromm of the University of Texas, Austin agrees, saying that SDS J0018 likely evolved from the material from a single star, which could have been more than 200 times as massive as the sun.

Bromm, who has performed theoretical studies on the properties of the first generation of stars and their supernova explosions, did not participate in the new study.

He authored a corresponding "News & Views" article that appeared with the research online today (Aug. 21) in the journal Science.

Signs of low-mass first-generation stars have appeared to be more plentiful in their descendants, which contain large amounts of carbon and other light elements, but until these results, scientists had detected no traces of their very massive siblings.

The scarcity suggested that low-mass stars were more numerous in the early universe.

"We have come to understand that the first stars had a range of masses, from a few solar masses, all the way up to 100 solar masses, or even more," Bromm told reporters.

"The typical, or average, mass is predicted to be somewhere close to a few tens of solar masses.".

SpaceX Adopting 3D Printing and Taking it to the Final Frontier

A 3D-printed SuperDraco Engine Chamber being tested by SpaceX. 

The company is planning to use these engines for the manned version of the Dragon spacecraft. 

Credit: SpaceX

The private spaceflight company SpaceX wants to launch astronauts into space in the coming years, and it will enter the final frontier with an innovative technology: 3D printing.

California-based SpaceX is using additive manufacturing, as 3D printing is also known, to build the emergency escape rockets on its new manned Dragon spacecraft.

The capsule, known as Dragon Version 2, is SpaceX's entry in NASA's competition for commercial manned spacecraft to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station.

SpaceX sent its first 3D-printed part into space early this year.

The part, a rocket engine main oxidiser valve, flew aboard SpaceX's Jan. 6 launch of a Falcon 9 rocket carrying the commercial Thaicom 6 telecommunications satellite to orbit. The valve flew inside one of the rocket's Merlin 1D engines.

"The mission marked the first time SpaceX had ever flown a 3D-printed part, with the valve operating successfully with high-pressure liquid oxygen, under cryogenic temperatures and high vibration," SpaceX representatives wrote in a statement.

The concept of 3D printing in space has received extensive attention in industry circles in recent months.

NASA plans to send a 3D printer produced by California-based company Made in Space to the space station this year, and the European Space Agency has mused about using 3D parts to build lunar bases.

Despite those plans, a recent National Research Council report said the technology is still in its infancy and that the materials science behind manufacturing in space is poorly understood.

SpaceX has used 3D printing to build the SuperDraco rocket engine for the company's Dragon Version 2 manned spacecraft. 

The eight SuperDracos on the capsule are designed to double as a landing system, or as an escape system in the event of a launch emergency. 

Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX has spent three years evaluating the fast-growing technology, particularly for use on the Dragon spacecraft.

A 3D-printed SuperDraco engine chamber, which will be used in the escape system, passed a firing test at full thrust in late 2013.

"Printing the chamber resulted in an order of magnitude reduction in lead time compared with traditional machining, the path from the initial concept to the first hotfire was just over three months," SpaceX representatives stated.

The 3D valve inside the Falcon 9's rocket engines will also be more efficient to manufacture, SpaceX added.

After extensive testing, the 3D part is now certified to fly alongside regularly manufactured materials.

"Compared with a traditionally cast part, a printed valve body has superior strength, ductility and fracture resistance, with a lower variability in materials properties," company representatives stated.

"The [valve] body was printed in less than two days, compared with a typical castings cycle measured in months."

Puppis A: Supernova remnant seen in Two LIghts


The destructive results of a mighty supernova explosion reveal themselves in a delicate blend of infrared and X-ray light, as seen in this image from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope and Chandra X-Ray Observatory, and the European Space Agency's XMM-Newton.

The bubbly cloud is an irregular shock wave, generated by a supernova that would have been witnessed on Earth 3,700 years ago.

The remnant itself, called Puppis A, is around 7,000 light-years away, and the shock wave is about 10 light-years across.

The pastel hues in this image reveal that the infrared and X-ray structures trace each other closely.

Warm dust particles are responsible for most of the infrared light wavelengths, assigned red and green colours in this view.

Material heated by the supernova’s shock wave emits X-rays, which are colored blue.

Regions where the infrared and X-ray emissions blend together take on brighter, more pastel tones.

The shock wave appears to light up as it slams into surrounding clouds of dust and gas that fill the interstellar space in this region.

From the infrared glow, astronomers have found a total quantity of dust in the region equal to about a quarter of the mass of our sun.

Data collected from Spitzer’s infrared spectrograph reveal how the shock wave is breaking apart the fragile dust grains that fill the surrounding space.

Supernova explosions forge the heavy elements that can provide the raw material from which future generations of stars and planets will form.

Studying how supernova remnants expand into the galaxy and interact with other material provides critical clues into our own origins.

Infrared data from Spitzer’s multiband imaging photometer (MIPS) at wavelengths of 24 and 70 microns are rendered in green and red.

X-ray data from XMM-Newton spanning an energy range of 0.3 to 8 kiloelectron volts are shown in blue.

What Is Odd Cell-Like Structure in Mars Nakhla Meteorite?

Scanning electron microscope image of a mysterious oval structure in the Nakhla Mars meteorite.

Credit: Elias Chatzitheodoridis, Sarah Haigh and Ian Lyon

Scientists have found a strange structure resembling a microbial cell inside a Martian meteorite, but they're not claiming that it's evidence of Red Planet life.

The researchers discovered the microscopic oval object within the Nakhla Mars meteorite, which fell to Earth in Egypt in 1911.

While the structure's appearance is intriguing, it most likely formed as a result of geological rather than biological processes, team members said.

"The consideration of possible biotic scenarios for the origin of the ovoid structure in Nakhla currently lacks any sort of compelling evidence," the scientists write in a new study published this month in the journal Astrobiology.

"Therefore, based on the available data that we have obtained on the nature of this conspicuous ovoid structure in Nakhla, we conclude that the most reasonable explanation for its origin is that it formed through abiotic processes."

Cell-Like Structure
The hollow ovoid is about 80 microns long by 60 microns wide, researchers said, far larger than most terrestrial bacteria but in the normal size range for eukaryotic Earth microbes (single-celled organisms that possess nuclei and other membrane-bound interior "organelles").

The study team is confident that the object is native to the sample and not the result of terrestrial contamination.

The scientists studied the structure using a number of different techniques, including electron microscopy, X-ray analysis and mass spectrometry.

This work revealed that the ovoid is composed of iron-rich clay and contains a number of other minerals.

The researchers run through a number of possible formation scenarios in the new study, eventually concluding that the ovoid most likely formed when materials partially filled in a pre-existing vesicle, a vapour bubble, for example, in the rock.

Transmitted light photomicrograph of an oval structure (center) in the Mars meteorite known as Nakhla. 

There is no evidence that the ovoid is a sign of Martian life, researchers say.

Credit: Elias Chatzitheodoridis, Sarah Haigh and Ian Lyon

But this supposition doesn't rule out the possibility that Martian lifeforms had something to do with the structure, team members said.

"Despite the extremely biomorphic overall shape of the ovoid, it is highly unlikely that it itself was an organism," said lead author Elias Chatzitheodoridis, of the National Technical University (NTUA) of Athens in Greece.

"However, it could have been formed directly by micro-organisms, or it could trap organic material that came from elsewhere," Chatzitheodoridis told reporters.

"That the ovoid is hollow means that there is enough space to accommodate colonies of microorganisms."

Making a firm link to Mars life would require further study and further discoveries, he added.

Almahata Sitta meteorite study: Volcanic activity on early small asteroids

The Almahata Sitta meteorite number 15 in-situ on the desert floor during its find on 2008 December 8, much as it fell on October 7 earlier that year. Credit: P. Jenniskens, SETI Institute

Examination of one of the Almahata Sitta meteorites (aka, ALM-A, found in Sudan in 2008) by a team of space scientists working in Germany has revealed a volcanic past.

In their paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), the team describes how they dated the meteorite to just a few million years after our solar system was born and uncovered evidence that it suggests it was produced by volcanic activity.

The meteorite is but one of a collection that came from 2008 TC3, the first asteroid to ever have its collision with Earth tracked by scientists.

When it exploded over the Nubian Desert, debris was scattered over many kilometers, over 600 meteorites from it have been found thus far.

In this latest effort, the researchers focused on ALM-A, studying it using optical and electron microscopy, they found the rock contained minerals that were rich in a kind of silica that to date has been found to only be producible by certain types of explosions or volcanic action.

The rapid crystallization, the researchers claim, could only have come about due to an explosion (not the kind that happens when an asteroid enters an atmosphere) or because of the sort of rapid cooling that occurs when extremely hot lava seeps out of the ground.

Because it is unlikely that conditions would have ever existed on the asteroid that could have led to the type of explosion capable of producing such crystallized silica, the only option is that the asteroid from which the meteorite came, had at least one volcano on it, at some point.

If so, that would mean that volcanic activity existed in our solar system much earlier than scientists have thought.

But that's not the whole story, the researchers believe the asteroid that broke apart when it collided with Earth's atmosphere was part of a different asteroid that was nearly destroyed close to six and a half million years ago when it collided with another asteroid.

After that there were likely other collisions, some of which resulted in melding with other asteroids, which would explain the uniqueness of the Almahata Sitta meteorites, they host a variety of minerals not ordinarily found on just one specimen.

More information: Trachyandesitic volcanism in the early Solar System, Addi Bischoff, PNAS, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1404799111

ESA Galileo Soyuz Rocket Launch Cancelled - Bad Weather

A Soyuz rocket carrying a pair of Galileo In-Orbit Validation satellites lifts off from Europe'’s Spaceport in Sinnamary, 12km from Kourou, French Guiana on October 12, 2012

Foul weather has delayed the blast-off of two satellites for the Galileo navigation network, launch firm Arianespace said Thursday, as it announced 12 more launches starting next year to "step up" deployment of Europe's rival to GPS.

The liftoff of the fifth and sixth Galileo satellites, already delayed by more than a year, had been scheduled at 1231 GMT Thursday from the European space centre at Kourou in French Guiana on a Russian-made Soyuz rocket on Thursday.

But "unfavourable" weather intervened to cause an indefinite delay, Arianespace said in a statement.

"Another launch date will be decided depending on the evolution of the weather conditions in Kourou," it said.

Arianespace also announced it had signed a deal with the European Space Agency (ESA) to launch 12 more satellites "from 2015 onwards", for the EU-funded Galileo network.

The staggered launches aboard dedicated Ariane 5 ES rockets would "step up the deployment" of the navigation system, the company said, without specifying over what period they would happen.

The 5.4-billion-euro ($7.2-billion) Galileo constellation is designed to provide an alternative in case of signal failure on the existing US Global Positioning System and Russia's Glonass, and will have search and rescue capabilities.

Fluorine formed in stars and our Sun

The Sun by the Atmospheric Imaging Assembly of NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory. Credit: NASA

The fluorine that is found in products such as toothpaste was likely formed billions of years ago in now dead stars of the same type as our sun.

This has been shown by astronomers at Lund University in Sweden, together with colleagues from Ireland and the USA.

Fluorine can be found in everyday products such as toothpaste and fluorine chewing gum.

However, the origins of the chemical element have been somewhat of a mystery.

There have been three main theories about where it was created. The findings now presented support the theory that fluorine is formed in stars similar to the sun but heavier, towards the end of their existence.

The sun and the planets in our solar system have then been formed out of material from these dead stars.

Nils Ryde
"So, the fluorine in our toothpaste originates from the sun's dead ancestors", said Nils Ryde, a reader in astronomy at Lund University.

With doctoral student Henrik Jönsson and colleagues from Ireland and the US, he has studied stars formed at different points in the history of the universe to see if the amount of fluorine they contain agrees with the predictions of the theory.

By analysing the light emitted by a star, it is possible to calculate how much of different elements it contains. Light of a certain wavelength indicates a certain element.

In the present study, the researchers used a telescope on Hawaii and a new type of instrument that is sensitive to light with a wavelength in the middle of the infrared spectrum. It is in this area that the signal is found in this case.

"Constructing instruments that can measure infrared light with high resolution is very complicated and they have only recently become available", said Nils Ryde.

Different chemical elements are formed at high pressure and temperature inside a star.

Henrik Jönsson
Fluorine is formed towards the end of the star's life, when it has expanded to become what is known as a red giant. The fluorine then moves to the outer parts of the star.

After that, the star casts off the outer parts and forms a planetary nebula. The fluorine that is thrown out in this process mixes with the gas that surrounds the stars, known as the interstellar medium.

New stars and planets are then formed from the interstellar medium. When the new stars die, the interstellar medium is enriched once again.

The researchers are now also turning their attention to other types of stars.

Among other things, they will try to find out whether fluorine could have been produced in the early universe, before the first red giants had formed.

They will also use the same method to study environments in the universe that are different from the environment surrounding the sun, such as close to the supermassive black hole at the centre of the Milky Way.

There, the cycle of stars dying and new ones being born goes considerably faster than around the sun.

"By looking at the level of fluorine in the stars there, we can say whether the processes that form it are different", said Nils Ryde.

Russian cosmonauts have found sea plankton on outside of ISS

The International Space Station is featured in this image photographed by an STS-132 crew member on board the Space Shuttle Atlantis after the station and shuttle began their post-undocking relative separation. 

Credit: NASA/Crew of STS-132

The Russian news agency ITAR-TASS is claiming that Russian officials have confirmed that Russian cosmonauts have found sea plankton on the outside of the International Space Station.

The news agency reports that the cosmonauts have also found traces of other organisms on the outside of the station as well.

To date, no other news group has been able to confirm the report and thus far it appears no other agency, including NASA has been able to confirm the claims made by the Russians.

Finding sea plankton on the outside of the ISS would be remarkable, as the outside of the station is of course exposed to space, a hostile environment, to say the least.

NASA officials reported that they were aware that Russian cosmonauts were conducting experiments on the exterior of the space station (primarily on windows known as illuminators), but were unaware of what they entailed.

They note that cosmonauts have conducted such experiments as recently as this past week. The same officials report that they have not heard the results of any findings regarding the experiments from the Russian scientists directly, and thus, cannot comment on what the Russians are claiming.

One scientist with NASA, Lynn Rothschild, suggested that if the claims turn out to be true, the plankton likely made its way to the ISS aboard a space station module.

Reports of the sea plankton findings have come, ITAR-TASS reports, from Vladimir Solovyev, chief of the Russian ISS orbital mission, he's also reporting that the type of plankton found is not native to the parts of Russia where spacecraft are launched, he theorizes that air currents could have pushed the plankton to the station (plankton is known to make its way into the atmosphere).

The findings, he continues, confirm that organisms can live on the outer surface of the space station, something Russian scientists have apparently been studying for over a year, though he didn't actually come right out and say that the specimens found were still alive.

He also reports that the outside of the space station is covered with material from spacecraft engines that is emitted as they come and go. Of concern are the illuminators, which now need to be polished.