Friday, October 31, 2014

Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo craft suffered an "anomaly" and crashes during a test flight - video

Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo craft crashed Friday after getting into difficulties during a test flight over California.

US press helicopter crew record one person being carried on a stretcher to a waiting helicopter.

The fate of two pilots is unknown, the company said but reports are coming out that 1 has been killed and another seriously injured.

"During the test, the vehicle suffered a serious anomaly resulting in the loss of SpaceShipTwo. Our first concern is the status of the pilots, which is unknown at this time," the firm said in a tweet.

Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo craft suffered an "anomaly" during a test flight over California on Friday, the commercial space flight operator announced on its Twitter feed.

The craft, which is still in its test phase and which normally carries two pilots, had been carried aloft on a bigger aircraft known as WhiteKnightTwo and then released for a test of its rocket engine.
The fate of the crew was not immediately known.

"SpaceShipTwo has experienced an in-flight anomaly. Additional info and statement forthcoming," Virgin said, giving no further details.

WhiteKnightTwo had taken off normally from California's Mojave desert, and been released normally, in what was the 35th such flight.

"SpaceShipTwo has been released by WhiteKnightTwo, and is now flying freely," the firm wrote in a blow-by-blow account of the flight, adding: "Ignition! SpaceShipTwo is flying under rocket power again."

The next tweet announced the "anomaly."

More than 500 people have already reserved seats—and paid a deposit on the $200,000 ticket price—for a minutes-long suborbital flight on SS2.

SpaceShipTwo can carry six passengers.

It is the commercial version of SpaceShipOne, the first private spacecraft to reach the edge of space in 2004, and which is now on displace at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington.

Private companies are rushing to fill the gap left by NASA, which ended its 30-year shuttle program in July with the completion of the final Atlantis mission to the International Space Station (ISS).

Friday's incident is the second involving a space craft this week, after an unmanned Orbital Science rocket exploded on Tuesday six seconds after launch on a resupply mission to the ISS.

Egmont National Park on New Zealand's North Island from orbit

Credit: KARI/ESA

Egmont National Park on New Zealand's North Island is pictured in this satellite image.

National parks protect forested areas from human activities that cause land degradation and deforestation.

The boundary between protected and non-protected areas is often very clear in satellite images, as we see here between the green, densely forested area and surrounding agricultural landscape.

The land here was first formally protected in 1881, within a 9.6 km radius of the mountain summit.

With high rainfall and a mild coastal climate, the park is home to a lush rainforest, with some plants unique to the park.

Halfway up the mountain slopes, the forest is sometimes called the 'Goblin Forest' for its gnarled trees and thick moss.

The mountain at the centre of the national park has two names: Mount Egmont and Mount Taranaki.

Taranaki is the original name given by the indigenous Māori people, while the name Egmont was given by British explorer James Cook after John Perceval, 2nd Earl of Egmont in 1770.

Many places in New Zealand have official dual names or, as in this case, alternate names in the original Māori and English (following colonisation by the British).

The mountain is considered an active volcano, although it has been dormant for over 150 years.

According to Māori mythology, Taranaki used to reside over 100 km farther east near other large volcanoes when a fight broke out over the female Mount Pihanga. Taranaki lost and fled west, carving the gorges of the Whanganui River along the way before stopping.

When the mountain peak is covered by clouds and mist, it is believed that Taranaki is weeping for Pihanga.

This image, also featured on the Earth from Space video programme, was acquired on 6 March 2013 by Korea's Kompsat-2 satellite.

NOAA: Antarctic ozone hole remains static 2014

Ozone concentrations above Antarctica on Sept. 11, 2014. 

Credit: NASA

The Antarctic ozone hole reached its annual peak size on Sept. 11, according to scientists from NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The size of this year's hole was 24.1 million square kilometers (9.3 million square miles), an area roughly the size of North America.

The single-day maximum area was similar to that in 2013, which reached 24.0 million square kilometers (9.3 million square miles).

The largest single-day ozone hole ever recorded by satellite was 29.9 million square kilometers (11.5 million square miles) on Sept. 9, 2000.

Overall, the 2014 ozone hole is smaller than the large holes of the 1998–2006 period, and is comparable to 2010, 2012, and 2013.

With the increased atmospheric chlorine levels present since the 1980s, the Antarctic ozone hole forms and expands during the Southern Hemisphere spring (August and September).

The ozone layer helps shield life on Earth from potentially harmful ultraviolet radiation that can cause skin cancer and damage plants.

The Montreal Protocol agreement beginning in 1987 regulated ozone depleting substances, such as chlorine-containing chlorofluorocarbons and bromine-containing halons.

The 2014 level of these substances over Antarctica has declined about 9 percent below the record maximum in 2000.

"Year-to-year weather variability significantly impacts Antarctica ozone because warmer stratospheric temperatures can reduce ozone depletion," said Paul A. Newman, chief scientist for atmospheres at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

"The ozone hole area is smaller than what we saw in the late-1990s and early 2000s, and we know that chlorine levels are decreasing. However, we are still uncertain about whether a long-term Antarctic stratospheric temperature warming might be reducing this ozone depletion."

Hubble sees 'ghost light' from dead galaxies

Massive galaxy cluster Abell 2744, nicknamed Pandora's Cluster, takes on a ghostly look where total starlight has been artificially colored blue in this Hubble view. 


NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has picked up the faint, ghostly glow of stars ejected from ancient galaxies that were gravitationally ripped apart several billion years ago.

The mayhem happened 4 billion light-years away, inside an immense collection of nearly 500 galaxies nicknamed "Pandora's Cluster," also known as Abell 2744.

The scattered stars are no longer bound to any one galaxy, and drift freely between galaxies in the cluster.

By observing the light from the orphaned stars, Hubble astronomers have assembled forensic evidence that suggests as many as six galaxies were torn to pieces inside the cluster over a stretch of 6 billion years.

Computer modeling of the gravitational dynamics among galaxies in a cluster suggests that galaxies as big as our Milky Way Galaxy are the likely candidates as the source of the stars.

The doomed galaxies would have been pulled apart like taffy if they plunged through the center of a galaxy cluster where gravitational tidal forces are strongest.

Astronomers have long hypothesized that the light from scattered stars should be detectable after such galaxies are disassembled.

However, the predicted "intracluster" glow of stars is very faint and was therefore a challenge to identify.

"The Hubble data revealing the ghost light are important steps forward in understanding the evolution of galaxy clusters," said Ignacio Trujillo of The Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias (IAC), Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Spain.

"It is also amazingly beautiful in that we found the telltale glow by utilizing Hubble's unique capabilities."

The team estimates that the combined light of about 200 billion outcast stars contributes approximately 10 percent of the cluster's brightness.

"The results are in good agreement with what has been predicted to happen inside massive galaxy clusters," said Mireia Montes of the IAC, lead author of the paper published in the Oct. 1 issue of the Astrophysical Journal.

Because these extremely faint stars are brightest at near-infrared wavelengths of light, the team emphasized that this type of observation could only be accomplished with Hubble's infrared sensitivity to extraordinarily dim light.

Hubble measurements determined that the phantom stars are rich in heavier elements like oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen.

This means the scattered stars must be second or third-generation stars enriched with the elements forged in the hearts of the universe's first-generation stars.

Spiral galaxies, like the ones believed to be torn apart, can sustain ongoing star formation that creates chemically-enriched stars.

Weighing more than 4 trillion solar masses, Abell 2744 is a target in the Frontier Fields program.

This ambitious three-year effort teams Hubble and NASA's other Great Observatories to look at select massive galaxy clusters to help astronomers probe the remote universe.

Galaxy clusters are so massive that their gravity deflects light passing through them, magnifying, brightening, and distorting light in a phenomenon called gravitational lensing.

Astronomers exploit this property of space to use the clusters as a zoom lens to magnify the images of far-more-distant galaxies that otherwise would be too faint to be seen.

Montes' team used the Hubble data to probe the environment of the foreground cluster itself. There are five other Frontier Fields clusters in the program, and the team plans to look for the eerie "ghost light" in these clusters, too.

More information: "Intracluster Light at the Frontier: A2744," Mireia Montes and Ignacio Trujillo, 2014, Astrophysical Journal, Vol. 794, No. 2, Art. 137, On Arxiv:

Antares Rocket Powered by Refurbished Soviet Engines - US Blame game

The Orbital Sciences Corporation Antares rocket, with the Cygnus spacecraft onboard suffers a catastrophic anomaly moments after launch from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport Pad 0A, Tuesday, Oct. 28, 2014, at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. 

Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

The private American rocket that exploded shortly after liftoff Tuesday evening (Oct. 28) was powered partly by an engine built to get cosmonauts to the moon in the 1960s.

Orbital Sciences Corp.'s two-stage Antares rocket crashed in a fiery heap just seconds after launching from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia on Tuesday, ending an attempted cargo run to the International Space Station just seconds after it began.

Antares' first stage uses two AJ26 engines, which are refurbished variants of the NK-33 built by the Soviet Union for its ill-fated N-1 moon rocket during the height of the space race.

While it's unclear at the moment whether or not the AJ26 played any role in Tuesday's mishap, the engines' age and provenance has already stirred debate, as well as a bit of criticism.

An AJ26 engine is placed in a test stand at NASA's Stennis Space Center. 

Credit: NASA

Some of the criticism long predates this week's accident.

In 2012, for example, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk bad-mouthed the Antares mission "honestly, it sounds like the punch line to a joke."

"It uses Russian rocket engines that were made in the '60s," Musk told Wired magazine. "I don’t mean their design is from the '60s, I mean they start with engines that were literally made in the '60s and, like, packed away in Siberia somewhere."

This Aerial view of a launch pad shows the aftermath of an Antares rocket explosion. Image taken on Oct. 29, 2014.

Credit: NASA/Terry Zaperach

While the fiery Antares rocket explosion did not destroy the launch pad or fuel tanks at the launch complex at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Virginia, "some repairs will be necessary," according to Orbital representatives. NASA officials have found that some support buildings at Wallops have blown-out windows and doors, and a sounding rocket launcher and other buildings near the pad have severe damage.

The initial assessment also showed that the transporter erector launcher and lightning suppression rods at the pad sustained the most damage, according to NASA.

It will take multiple weeks to completely assess the areas affected by the launch mishap, space agency officials added.

Musk fails to mention that Russian rocket technology and success pre-dates NASA and has continued to be the most reliable and widely used power packages in the space industry.

The care and maintenance along with the addition of US-manufactured sensors and components all adding to the complexity of the crash investigation.

Initial statements declare that the launch was aborted and that the control team had initiated a 'self-destruct' command to prevent the launch vehicle becoming a destructive threat.

We await further information and clarity from Orbital Science and its mission team, meantime speculation will continue to grow and competitors will fuel the fire of doubt for their own benefit.

Earth's Water Existed 135 Million Years Earlier

An illustration of the early solar system shows proto-Earth, proto-Mars, Vesta within the asteroid belt, and proto-Jupiter. 

The dashed white line represents the "snow line" boundary for water ice in the solar system. 

Credit: Jack Cook, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

The water that supports life on Earth may have been on the planet much earlier than scientists previously thought, new research suggests.

While the environmental conditions in Earth's early years made it impossible for water to remain on the planet's surface, scientists have found evidence that the ingredients for water were protectively stored inside rocky bodies near our planet, and maybe inside Earth itself.

The new findings suggest that there was water in the inner solar system 135 million years earlier than previous evidence had shown.

"Our findings show the earliest evidence of water in the inner solar system," said Adam Sarafian, a Ph.D. student at the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts and lead author of the new study.

This image of the giant asteroid Vesta was captured by NASA's Dawn spacecraft on Sept. 5, 2012.

Credit: NASA

Meteorites from an asteroid
The smoking gun appears inside meteorites that once belonged to the asteroid Vesta, one of the largest members of the asteroid belt that sits between Jupiter and Mars. Meteorites from Vesta, dark chunks of cooled magma often as big as grapefruits, continue to be found in Antarctica.

Previous analysis found no water or water-forming ingredients in those meteorites, but Sarafian and his colleagues zoomed in on the molecular contents of the meteorites, and found trace amounts of hydrogen-oxygen molecules.

More than 4.5 billion years ago, or about 15 million years after solid bodies began to form around the young sun, water existed in the outer, cooler parts of the solar system, previous studies have shown.

But in the inner solar system, where Vesta and a young Earth resided, temperatures were far too hot and solar winds would send any water vapor to the outer regions of the solar system.

While the Earth grew and changed over the next 4 billion years or so, Vesta remained frozen in time, according to Sarafian.

"Vesta gives us a snapshot of what Earth maybe looked like when it was first forming," Sarafian said.

NASA Cassini sunny Hydrocarbon seas on Titan

This near-infrared, colour mosaic from NASA's Cassini spacecraft shows the sun glinting off of Titan's north polar seas.

While Cassini has captured, separately, views of the polar seas and the sun glinting off of them in the past, this is the first time both have been seen together in the same view.

The sunglint, also called a specular reflection, is the bright area near the 11 o'clock position at upper left.

This mirror-like reflection, known as the specular point, is in the south of Titan's largest sea, Kraken Mare, just north of an island archipelago separating two separate parts of the sea.

This particular sunglint was so bright as to saturate the detector of Cassini's Visual and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer (VIMS) instrument, which captures the view.

It is also the sunglint seen with the highest observation elevation so far, the sun was a full 40 degrees above the horizon as seen from Kraken Mare at this time, much higher than the 22 degrees seen in PIA18433.

Because it was so bright, this glint was visible through the haze at much lower wavelengths than before, down to 1.3 microns.

The southern portion of Kraken Mare (the area surrounding the specular feature toward upper left) displays a "bathtub ring," a bright margin of evaporate deposits, which indicates that the sea was larger at some point in the past and has become smaller due to evaporation.

The deposits are material left behind after the methane & ethane liquid evaporates, somewhat akin to the saline crust on a salt flat.

The highest resolution data from this flyby, the area seen immediately to the right of the sunglint, cover the labyrinth of channels that connect Kraken Mare to another large sea, Ligeia Mare.

Ligeia Mare itself is partially covered in its northern reaches by a bright, arrow-shaped complex of clouds.

The clouds are made of liquid methane droplets, and could be actively refilling the lakes with rainfall.

The view was acquired during Cassini's August 21, 2014, flyby of Titan, also referred to as "T104" by the Cassini team.

The view contains real colour information, although it is not the natural color the human eye would see.

Here, red in the image corresponds to 5.0 microns, green to 2.0 microns, and blue to 1.3 microns.

These wavelengths correspond to atmospheric windows through which Titan's surface is visible. The unaided human eye would see nothing but haze.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/University of Idaho

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

LOFAR discovers largest carbon atoms outside our Milky Way

The starburst galaxy M82, the size of the carbon atoms and the observed spectral line. 

Credit: NASA, ESA, and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

An international team of astronomers under the guidance of graduate student Leah Morabito of Leiden Observatory has for the first time discovered the largest carbon atoms outside our Milky Way with the LOFAR radio telescope.

In the future astronomers will be able to measure how cold and dense the gas around these atoms is that influences star formation and the evolution of a galaxy. The results are published in the journal Astrophysical Journal Letters on October 28th.

"Carbon atoms are about half a million times smaller than the average thickness of a human hair, but they can be a billion times larger in the cold and sparse gas. The outermost electron is then orbiting the nucleus at a much larger distance," explains first author Morabito.

The outermost electron can be captured by an atom that is missing an electron. A spectral line will then be visible in the light spectrum. All spectral lines form the chemical fingerprint of an atom such as carbon.

Astronomers predicted in the 70's that the carbon spectral line would be detectable outside our galaxy. This first observation took 40 years to be made.

The line is hard to detect because it is too faint when the gas that is surrounding the atoms is too warm or too dense.

The cold, sparse gas is present in starburst galaxies, galaxies in which stars form at a high rate. For this reason the carbon spectral line is easier to detect in galaxies of this type.

Most radio telescopes observe at frequencies at which the carbon line can not be detected. Other telescopes are not sensitive enough to detect the spectral lines of the carbon atoms at low frequencies.

The LOFAR radio telescope, that stretches from the northeast of the Netherlands across Europe, is perfect for these kind of observations because of its frequency range and sensitivity.

Co-author Raymond Oonk from Leiden Observatory en ASTRON: "LOFAR is an unique telescope. This telescope opens up a new window on the universe."

The carbon atoms are present in the heart of the starburst galaxy M82, where 10 times more stars are being born in the same period as in our Milky Way.

The cold and sparse gas in this area impacts star formation, and the evolution of M82. "Since the co-discovery of the hydrogen 21-cm line by Dutch, American and Australian astronomers, we have been looking for a way to determine additional properties of the cold gas such as its temperature and density. It is fantastic that we now have found a way thanks to this carbon line.

We can now collect more and better observations, and compare them to predictions from theoretical models," says co-author Huub Röttgering (Leiden Observatory).

More information: "Discovery of Carbon Radio Recombination Lines in M82," Leah K. Morabito et al., Astrophysical Journal Letters, 28 October 2014 DOI: 10.1088/2041-8205/795/2/L33 .

Orbital Science Antares rocket launch delayed - Boat in Safe Zone

Orbital Sciences postponed its planned launch of the Cygnus cargo ship toward the International Space Station on Monday due to a boat in the waters near the Virginia launch pad.

"Tonight's launch of the Antares rocket carrying the Cygnus cargo craft has been scrubbed," a NASA commentator said on the US space agency's live broadcast.

The boat was located inside the rocket's designated safety range, just to the southeast, and Orbital decided it was too risky to send the rocket soaring overhead.

Attempts to contact the boat were unsuccessful, NASA said, and the liftoff had to be scrubbed 10 minutes before it was scheduled to go.

"Tonight's Antares launch has been postponed because of a ship in the mariner avoidance area," Orbital said on its launch blog.

The next launch attempt is expected Tuesday at 6:19 pm (2219 GMT).

The cargo ship is aiming to make its third contracted mission with NASA, carrying nearly 5,000 pounds (2,200 kilograms) of supplies and science experiments for the six orbiting astronauts.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Spooky shadow play gives Jupiter a giant eye

Credit: NASA, ESA, and A. Simon (Goddard Space Flight Center)

The Hubble Space Telescope treats astronomers to gorgeous close-up views of the eerie outer planets but it's a bit of a trick when it seems like the planet's looking back at you!

In this view, the shadow of the Jovian moon Ganymede swept across the center of the Great Red Spot, a giant storm on the planet."

"This gave Jupiter the uncanny appearance of having a pupil in the center of a 10,000-mile-diameter "eye." Now if it blinks, we may really have to worry!

Hubble treats astronomers to gorgeous close-up views of the eerie outer planets, but it's a bit of a trick when it seems like the planet's looking back at you!

This happened on April 21, 2014, when Hubble was being used to monitor changes in Jupiter's immense Great Red Spot (GRS) storm.

During the exposures, the shadow of the Jovian moon Ganymede swept across the center of the GRS.

This gave the giant planet the uncanny appearance of having a pupil in the center of a 10,000-mile-diameter "eye."

Momentarily, Jupiter took on the appearance of a Cyclops planet! The shadows from Jupiter's four major satellites routinely cross the face of Jupiter.

This natural-colour picture was taken with Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3.

Giant Sunspot Keeps Firing Off Huge Solar Flares

The largest sunspot observed on the sun in more than 20 years has been firing off powerful solar flares for the past week, and it's still producing strong solar storms.

Today, the huge sunspot erupted with a large solar flare, peaking at around 10:47 a.m. EDT (1447 GMT).

The flare caused a strong radio blackout on Earth, according to the National Weather Service's Space Weather Prediction Center. This solar flare is the fourth X-flare (the most powerful kind of solar storms) in as many days.

On Sunday (Oct. 26), the giant sunspot unleashed a solar flare, which peaked at about 6:56 a.m. EDT (1056 GMT). The sunspot, called Active Region 12192 (also known as AR 2192), also shot out another powerful flare on Saturday. Today and Sunday's flares measured in at X2, while Saturday's is classified as an X1 flare.

Sunday's X2-class flare was "the third X-class flare in 48 hours, erupting from the largest active region seen on the sun in 24 years," NASA spokesperson Karen Fox wrote in an update yesterday (Oct. 26). AR 2129 also shot out an X3.1-class flare on Friday (Oct. 24).

The sun unleashed an X2-class solar flare on Oct. 26, 2014. NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory captured this photo of the flare (lower right).

Credit: NASA/SDO

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Einstein's Gravity Waves Could Be Found with New Method

This illustration depicts the gravitational waves generated by two black holes orbiting each other.

Credit: NASA

Gravitational waves, invisible ripples in the fabric of space and time, might be detected by looking for the brightening of stars, researchers say.

These mysterious ripples were first proposed by Albert Einstein as part of his theory of general relativity. The waves' size depends on the mass of the objects creating them.

"Gravitational waves are emitted by accelerating masses," said lead study author Barry McKernan, an astrophysicist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Really big waves are emitted by really big masses, such as systems containing black holes merging with each other.

Scientists have still not made direct observations of gravitational waves, although researchers continue to endeavor to detect them using experiments involving lasers on the ground and in space. The waves interact very weakly with matter, which partly explains why seeing these ripples in spacetime is difficult.

Now, McKernan and his colleagues suggest that gravitational waves could have more of an effect on matter than previously thought, with their influence potentially brightening stars.

"It's neat that nearly 100 years after Einstein proposed his theory of general relativity, there are still interesting surprises it can turn up," McKernan told "We're brought up as astronomers thinking the interaction between matter and gravitational waves is very weak, essentially negligible, and that turns out not to be true."

The researchers suggest that stars that vibrate at the same frequency as gravitational waves passing through them can absorb a large amount of energy from the ripples.

"You can imagine gravitational waves as sounds from a piano, and stars as a vibrating violin string held near that piano," McKernan said.

"If the frequency of the sounds matches the frequency of the violin string, the string can resonate with the sound." If a star gets pumped up with large amounts of energy from gravitational waves in this way, "the star can puff up and look brighter than it normally would," McKernan said.

Friday, October 24, 2014

NASA ESA Hubble Telescope Photo of Mars with a Comet C/2103 A1

A NASA Hubble Space Telescope composite image shows the positions of comet Siding Spring and Mars as the comet streaked by the red planet, at 2:28 p.m. EDT on Oct. 19, 2014. 


The famed Hubble Space Telscope has captured a jaw-dropping view of a comet making an incredibly close flyby of Mars.

The space telescope snapped the amazing image when Comet Siding Spring (also called C/2013 A1) was hurtling through space near the Red Planet on Oct. 18 and Oct. 19.

During its closest approach on Oct. 19, the comet passed about 86,000 miles (138,000 kilometers) from Mars, just one-third of the distance between Earth and the moon.

Mars and the comet shine in Hubble's new image. The planet glows red, and Comet Siding Spring's bright nucleus and diffuse tail stand out against a host of background stars glimmering behind the two cosmic bodies.

The photo was created by combining separate images of the comet and Mars taken over the weekend.

"The Mars and comet images have been added together to create a single picture to illustrate the angular separation, or distance, between the comet and Mars at closest approach," NASA officials said in a statement.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

NASA's new dedicated Soundcloud account grows by 60 samples

The 60 clips already released by Nasa include astronaut voices and spacecraft sounds

Historical audio from Nasa missions has been uploaded to a free sound library.

More than 60 samples have been added to NASA's new dedicated Soundcloud account, but listeners are unable to leave comments underneath the files.

Astronaut communications, including "Houston, we've had a problem" and "the Eagle has landed", can be heard - as well as some more abstract noises made by working spacecraft and debris.

In space itself, sound is unable to travel as there is no air.

"You can hear the roar of a space shuttle launch or Neil Armstrong's "one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind" every time you get a phone call, if you make our sounds your ringtone," the space agency said.

"Or, you can hear the memorable words 'Houston, we've had a problem,' every time you make an error on your computer."

The sound library goes alongside Nasa's extensive picture library, which is also available free.

The space agency launched its account at the same time as Twitter enabled users to embed audio into tweets.

NASA SDO: Electromagnetic 'Twisted rope' clue to dangerous solar storms

Model of the magnetic field in the region where occurred a major flare on December 13th 2006. 

This model has been obtained using magnetic field data obtained at the surface of the Sun by the satellite HINODE and the high resolution model MESHMHD few hours before the eruption. 

It shows that a magnetic rope (grey) is maintained in equilibrium by overlaying arcades (orange). 

Credit: Tahar Amari /Centre de physique théorique.CNRS-Ecole Polytechnique.FRANCE.

A "twisted rope" of magnetically-charged energy precedes solar storms that have the potential to damage satellites and electricity grids, French scientists said on Wednesday.

A cord of magnetic flux emerges on the Sun's surface, grows and is squeezed upwards, and the following day, the star unleashes a blast of radiation, high-energy particles and magnetised plasma.

Solar outbursts are considered a rare but increasingly worrisome risk for satellites, global positioning systems (GPS) and power grids on which modern life depends.

Reporting in the journal Nature, a team led by Tahar Amari of France's National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) looked at a solar storm that brewed in December 2006 and happened to be observed by a Japanese scientific satellite.

"We were able to identify the source of the eruption four days before it developed," Amari said to reporters.

"The magnetic field builds up in the shape of a twisted rope. The ends of the rope are anchored in sunspots," he said, referring to notoriously magnetised features on the solar surface.

Experts say solar storms can cause widespread breakdowns, disabling everything from power and radio to GPS geo-location and water supplies which rely on electrical pumps.

View of typical solar eruption using data from the NASA Solar Dynamic Observatory space mission. 

The Earth has been shown to show the gigantic size of the phenomena 

Credit: Tahar Amari /Centre de physique théorique.CNRS-Ecole Polytechnique.FRANCE

They begin with an explosion on the Sun's surface, known as a solar flare, sending X-rays and extreme ultra-violet radiation towards Earth at light speed.

Hours later, energetic particles follow and these electrons and protons can electrify satellites and damage their electronics.

Next are coronal mass ejections (CME), billion-tonne clouds of magnetised plasma that take a day or more to cross the Sun-Earth gap.

A solar storm in 1859 caused an electrical surge on telegraph lines that prompted some offices to catch fire and operators to receive shocks. A 1989 event caused power outages for five million people in the Canadian province of Quebec.

A 2009 report by a panel of scientists assembled by NASA warned that a catastrophic solar storm could cost the United States alone up to two trillion dollars (1.6 trillion euros) in repairs in the first year, and it could take up to 10 years to fully recover.

Predicting when these events will take place, and if Earth lies in their path, has been thwart with problems.

Eruption of the magnetic rope in the dynamic model METEOSOL after its departure from equilibrium 

Credit: Tahar Amari /Centre de physique théorique.CNRS-Ecole Polytechnique.FRANCE

On July 23, 2012, Earth narrowly missed the biggest storm in 150 years, an event big enough to "knock modern civilisation back to the 18th century," yet few humans were even aware of the peril, NASA said last July.

At present, Earth gets a few hours' warning of a solar eruption thanks to the eyes of orbiting US satellites.

But, said Amari, warning time should eventually improve.

"The work will help us fine tune knowledge about impending solar eruptions," he said.

"Using real-time magnetic data and mathematical models, it will eventually be possible to predict space weather."

More information: Characterizing and predicting the magnetic environment leading to solar eruptions, Nature,

Organic molecules in Titan's atmosphere are intriguingly skewed

An ALMA image of the distribution of the organic molecule HNC in the upper atmosphere of Saturn's moon Titan. 

The denser, brighter concentrations are shown near the moon's north and south poles. 

Their shifted, off-axis locations were unexpected and could help researchers better understand Titan's complex atmospheric processes. 

The globe outline represents Titan's orientation at the time of the observations. 

Credit: NRAO/AUI/NSF; M. Cordiner et al./NASA

While studying the atmosphere on Saturn's moon Titan, scientists discovered intriguing zones of organic molecules unexpectedly shifted away from its north and south poles.

These misaligned features seem to defy conventional thinking about Titan's windy atmosphere, which should quickly smear out such off-axis concentrations.

"This is an unexpected and potentially groundbreaking discovery," said Martin Cordiner, an astrochemist working at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and the lead author of a study published online today in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

"These kinds of east-to-west variations have never been seen before in Titan's atmospheric gases. Explaining their origin presents us with a fascinating new problem."

This discovery, made during a remarkably brief three-minute "snapshot" observation with the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), may help astronomers better understand the processes that shape this world's complex chemistry.

Titan's atmosphere has long been of interest because it acts as a chemical factory, using energy from the Sun and Saturn's magnetic field to produce a wide range of organic molecules.

Studying this complex chemistry may provide insights into the properties of Earth's very early atmosphere, which may have shared many chemical characteristics with present-day Titan.

An ALMA image of the distribution of the organic molecule HC3N in the upper atmosphere of Saturn's moon Titan. 

The denser, brighter concentrations are shown near the moon's north and south poles. 

Their shifted, off-axis locations were unexpected and could help researchers better understand Titan's complex atmospheric processes. 

The globe outline represents Titan's orientation at the time of the observations. 

Credit: NRAO/AUI/NSF; M. Cordiner et al./NASA

The researchers used ALMA's extreme sensitivity and resolution to track the atmospheric distributions of hydrogen isocyanide (HNC) and cyanoacetylene (HC3N), which initially appeared to be concentrated evenly over Titan's north and south poles.

These findings were consistent with observations made by NASA's Cassini spacecraft, which found high concentrations of some gases over whichever pole is experiencing winter on Titan.

Recent observations of comet Lemmon provided a 3-D view of the inner coma, including detailed mapping of the molecule HCN (made of one hydrogen, one carbon and one nitrogen), shown here, as well as HNC and formaldehyde.

Visualization by Brian R. Kent/NRAOThe surprise came when the research

ers compared the gas concentrations at different levels in the atmosphere. At the highest altitudes, the pockets of organic molecules were shifted away from the poles.

These off-pole concentrations are unexpected because the fast-moving, east-west winds in Titan's middle atmosphere should thoroughly mix the molecules formed there.

The researchers do not have an obvious explanation for these findings yet.

"It seems incredible that chemical mechanisms could be operating on rapid enough timescales to cause enhanced 'pockets' in the observed molecules," said Conor Nixon, a planetary scientist at Goddard and a coauthor of the paper.

"We would expect the molecules to be quickly mixed around the globe by Titan's winds."

An ALMA image of the distribution of the organic molecule HC3N at intermediate-to-lower elevations in the atmosphere of Saturn's moon Titan. 

The denser, brighter concentrations are oriented more evenly about the poles than is observed for HC3N at higher elevations. 

The globe outline represents Titan's orientation at the time of the observations. 

Credit: NRAO/AUI/NSF; M. Cordiner (NASA) et al.

At the moment, the scientists are considering thermal or other effects tied to interaction with Saturn's powerful magnetic field, which extends far enough to engulf Titan, as potential sources of this skewed molecular concentration.

"Alternatively, I don't think we could rule out some kind of peculiar atmospheric circulation pattern," speculates Cordiner.

This marks ALMA's first foray into atmospheric studies of a major body in our Solar System.

Further observations are expected to improve our understanding of the atmosphere and ongoing processes on Titan and other objects throughout our Solar System.

Titan is in some ways the most Earthlike body in the Solar System, with a thick atmosphere and prominent lakes, rivers, and seas.

In place of water, however, Titan's frigid surface flows with liquid organic molecules, including methane (CH4) and ethane (C2H6).

"These ALMA observations give us new insights into how organic molecules, the building blocks of life, form and evolve in a planet-like environment," said Anthony Remijan, an astronomer at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Charlottesville, Va., and coauthor on the paper.

"It is exciting to imagine the new discoveries ALMA will enable as we look more deeply at other interesting objects in our Solar System."

ESA ExoMars Mission Packing COMARS+ for Mars Probe

Technicians in ESA’s ultra-clean microbiology laboratory, part of ESTEC's Life, Physical Sciences and Microgravity Laboratory, follow strict Planetary Protection procedures as they prepare the COMARS+ temperature sensor to be put into storage until it can be integrated into the heat shield of ExoMars 2016's Schiaparelli lander

Credit: ESA

Like surgeons in an operating room, the technicians work gowned and masked in ESA's ultraclean microbiology laboratory, ensuring a high-tech sensor will not contaminate the Red Planet with terrestrial microbes.

This temperature sensor is destined to land on Mars as part of ESA's Schiaparelli module in late 2016.

The ExoMars Entry, Descent and Landing Demonstrator Module (EDM) Structural Model during the entry load test, to simulate the pressure that will be exerted on the front shield as it enters the martian atmosphere and descends to the surface. 

During this phase the EDM will experience a deceleration of up to 15g. 

This means that the spacecraft, which weighs roughly 600 kg, will be loaded with forces equivalent to a weight of nine tonnes.

Schiaparelli will hitch a ride to the Red Planet with the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, set for launch on a Russian Proton rocket at the start of 2016. By proving Europe's capability to land safely, the door will be opened for ESA's ExoMars rover two years later.

Schiaparelli will also do useful science in its own right during its estimated two to eight martian days of surface life.

First, sensors embedded in the heatshield will record details of its plunge through the alien atmosphere.

Then, a battery-powered suite of sensors will measure the electrical activity and transparency of the surface atmosphere, its wind speed and direction, along with air pressure and temperature.

Produced by Germany's DLR space agency with France's CNES space agency, the heatshield temperature sensor package was delivered to ESA's technical centre, ESTEC, in Noordwijk, the Netherlands, earlier this year.

It must be stored until it can be integrated into the lander's heatshield, but first the ExoMars team had to be certain the sensor had not picked up any microscopic hitchhikers along the way.

Anything headed to Mars is subject to strict 'Planetary Protection' to ensure that the pristine environment is not contaminated by terrestrial microbes, which could mask possible evidence of alien life or result in a false-positive detection of life.

The ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), along with an Entry, Descent and Landing Demonstrator Module (EDM), form the first mission in the ExoMars programme. 

The Orbiter and EDM are scheduled to arrive at Mars in 2016. 

The ExoMars Orbiter will accomodate a suite of instruments to carry out a series of scientific investigations, including the search for evidence of methane and other trace gases in the Martian atmosphere. 

The ExoMars EDM constitutes a technology platform whose main goal is to enable Europe to acquire the capability to land on Mars. 

Although designed to demonstrate entry, descent and landing technologies, the EDM also offers limited, but useful, science capabilities. 

Credit: ESA/AOES Medialab

ESTEC's cleanroom, part of its Life, Physical Sciences and Microgravity Laboratory, is designed for such demanding work. Its rigorously filtered air contains millions of times fewer particles than the outside atmosphere: fewer than a dozen particles larger than 0.1 micrometres, each equivalent to a single speck of dust, per cubic metre of air.

Technicians donned sterile 'bunny suits' before they could have contact with the sensor, entering the 35 sq m cleanroom through an air shower.

Like all ExoMars hardware, the sensor was itself built in cleanroom conditions, but the technicians were still required to make 'bioburden' checks, drawing swabs across equipment surfaces that could be then put onto culture plates to identify any contamination.

In the event, it gained a clean bill of health, which meant it could then be placed into a sterile, antistatic bag for storage within the lab's protected environment.

It joins other Schiaparelli flight equipment already in storage, including the Descent Camera that will record the later stages of landing.

Two families of exocomets found around nearby star Beta Pictoris

This artist's impression shows exocomets orbiting the star Beta Pictoris.

Astronomers analysing observations of nearly 500 individual comets made with the HARPS instrument at ESO's La Silla Observatory have discovered two families of exocomets around this nearby young star.

The first consists of old exocomets that have made multiple passages near the star.

The second family, shown in this illustration, consists of younger exocomets on the same orbit, which probably came from the recent breakup of one or more larger objects.

Credit: ESO/L. Calçada

Beta Pictoris is a young star located about 63 light-years from the Sun. It is only about 20 million years old and is surrounded by a huge disc of material, a very active young planetary system where gas and dust are produced by the evaporation of comets and the collisions of asteroids.

Flavien Kiefer (IAP/CNRS/UPMC), lead author of the new study sets the scene: "Beta Pictoris is a very exciting target! The detailed observations of its exocomets give us clues to help understand what processes occur in this kind of young planetary system."

For almost 30 years astronomers have seen subtle changes in the light from Beta Pictoris that were thought to be caused by the passage of comets in front of the star itself.

Comets are small bodies of a few kilometres in size, but they are rich in ices, which evaporate when they approach their star, producing gigantic tails of gas and dust that can absorb some of the light passing through them.

The dim light from the exocomets is swamped by the light of the brilliant star so they cannot be imaged directly from Earth.

To study the Beta Pictoris exocomets, the team analysed more than 1000 observations obtained between 2003 and 2011 with the HARPS instrument on the 3.6-metre telescope at the ESO's La Silla Observatory in Chile.

The researchers selected a sample of 493 different exocomets. Some exocomets were observed several times and for a few hours.

Careful analysis provided measurements of the speed and the size of the gas clouds.

Some of the orbital properties of each of these exocomets, such as the shape and the orientation of the orbit and the distance to the star, could also be deduced.

This analysis of several hundreds of exocomets in a single exo-planetary system is unique. It revealed the presence of two distinct families of exocomets: a) one family of old exocomets whose orbits are controlled by a massive planet, and b) another family, probably arising from the recent breakdown of one or a few bigger objects. Different families of comets also exist in the Solar System.

The exocomets of the first family have a variety of orbits and show a rather weak activity with low production rates of gas and dust.

This suggests that these comets have exhausted their supplies of ices during their multiple passages close to Beta Pictoris.

The exocomets of the second family are much more active and are also on nearly identical orbits.

This suggests that the members of the second family all arise from the same origin: probably the breakdown of a larger object whose fragments are on an orbit grazing the star Beta Pictoris.

Flavien Kiefer concludes: "For the first time a statistical study has determined the physics and orbits for a large number of exocomets. This work provides a remarkable look at the mechanisms that were at work in the Solar System just after its formation 4.5 billion years ago."

More information: "Two families of exocomets in the Beta Pictoris system" Nature, 23 October 2014.

Musician Jeff Wayne behind ESA's Solar Simulator

Musician Jeff Wayne, composer of the classic album version of The War of the Worlds (video), encountering a real-life equivalent of a heat-ray generator during a tour of ESA’s technical heart.

In science fiction writer H.G. Wells' tale of alien invasion, martians used heat rays to fight their way across Victorian England.

This is a rear view of ESA’s largest solar simulator, which uses 19 IMAX-class xenon lamps to cast a concentrated beam of sunshine into Europe’s largest vacuum chamber: the Large Space Simulator (LSS), at the ESTEC Test Centre in Noordwijk, the Netherlands.

Satellites sit inside the chamber for weeks at a time, in the simulated vacuum and temperature extremes of space, including the unfiltered sunlight of Earth orbit, or, with modifications, as experienced around Venus or Mercury.

A long-time space enthusiast, Jeff Wayne took the opportunity to tour ESTEC on 13 October, taking a break from preparing for the live arena version of his musical show in Amsterdam, the last ever in the Netherlands, on 16 December.

ISRO’s Mars Orbiter: Olympus Mons, Tharsis Bulge and Valles Marineris trio of volcanoes

Olympus Mons, Tharsis Bulge trio of volcanoes, and Valles Marineris from ISRO’s Mars Orbiter Mission

Note the clouds and south polar ice cap. 

Credit: ISRO

India's Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) has delivered another sweet treat – a stunning view of our Solar System's largest volcano and the largest canyon.

Just days ago, MOM captured a new global image of the Red Planet dominated by Olympus Mons and Valles Marineris, which is the largest known volcano and the largest known canyon in the Solar System, respectively.

Situated right in between lies a vast volcanic plateau holding a trio of huge volcanoes comprising the Tharsis Bulge: Arsia Mons, Pavonis Mons, and Ascraeus Mons. All three are shield volcanoes.

To give an idea of its enormity, Olympus Mons stands about three times taller than Mount Everest and is about the size of Arizona.

Olympus Mons is located in Mars' western hemisphere and measures 624 kilometers (374 miles) in diameter, 25 km (16 mi) high, and is rimmed by a 6 km (4 mi) high scarp.

Valles Marineris is often called the "Grand Canyon of Mars." It spans about as wide as the entire United States.

The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), India's space agency which designed and developed the orbiter released the image on Oct. 17, barely two days ahead of the planet's and spacecrafts' extremely close encounter with comet Siding Spring.

Olympus Mons from Mars orbit compared to the state of Arizona. 

Credit: NASA

By the way, a relieved ISRO tweeted MOM's survival of her close shave with the once-in-a-lifetime cometary passage with gusto, soon after the swingby:
"Phew! Experience of a lifetime. Watched the #MarsComet #SidingSpring whizzing past the planet. I'm in my orbit, safe and sound."

The new global image was taken by the tri-color camera as MOM swooped around the Red Planet in a highly elliptical orbit whose nearest point to Mars (periapsis) is at 421.7 km and farthest point (apoapsis) at 76,993.6 km, according to ISRO.

To date ISRO has released four global images of the Red Planet, including a 3-D view.

Olympus Mons, the Tharsis Bulge, and Valles Marineris are near the equator.

Valles Marineris stretches over 4,000 km (2,500 mi) across the Red Planet, is as much as 600 km wide, and measures as much as 7 kilometers (4 mi) deep.

Global Mosaic of Mars Centered on Valles Marineris from NASA’s Viking 1 orbiter. 

Credit: NASA

Here's a comparison view of the region taken by NASA's Viking 1 orbiter in the 1970s.

MOM is India's first deep space voyager to explore beyond the confines of her home planet's influence and successfully arrived at the Red Planet only one month ago after the "history creating" orbital insertion maneuver on Sept. 23/24 following a ten month journey.

The $73 million MOM mission is expected to last at least six months.

ISRO’s Mars Orbiter Mission captures spectacular portrait of the Red Planet and swirling dust storms with the on-board Mars Color Camera from an altitude of 74,500 km on Sept. 28, 2014. 

Credit: ISRO

MOM's success follows closely on the heels of NASA's MAVEN orbiter which also successfully achieved orbit barely two days earlier on Sept. 21 and could last 10 years or more.

With MOM's arrival, India became the newest member of an elite club of only four entities that have launched probes that successfully investigated Mars, following the Soviet Union, the United States, and the European Space Agency (ESA).

ISS Russian Cosmonauts conduct Third Spacewalk (EVA) of October

Spacewalker Maxim Suraev works outside the Poisk mini-research module in January 2010.

Image Credit: NASA TV

Russian spacewalkers Max Suraev and Alexander Samokutyaev opened the Pirs docking compartment hatch to the vacuum of space at 9:28 a.m. EDT to begin the third spacewalk for Expedition 41 crew members in as many weeks.

Their spacewalk is expected to last six hours. Two U.S. spacewalks took place Oct. 7 and 15.

Russian spacewalkers Max Suraev and Alexander Samokutyaev.

Image Credit: NASA TV

The duo’s first task is to remove the Radiometriya experiment that was installed on the Zvezda service module in 2011 and which is no longer required for data collection.

They will then jettison it for a later reentry into the atmosphere where it will burn up. The experiment gathered data to help scientists predict seismic events and earthquakes.

The veteran cosmonauts will then move on to another external experiment and remove its protective cover.

They will photograph the Expose-R experiment before taking a break during the orbital night period.

After orbital sunrise, they will take more photographs of the work area, translate back to Pirs and place the protective cover inside.

The European Space Agency study exposes organic and biological samples to the harsh environment of space and observes how they are affected by cosmic radiation, vacuum and night and day cycles.

Read the full story here

ESA’s ARTES Satellite to aid for smart logging Ireland

Treemetrics in Ireland, supported by ESA’s ARTES Programme, has developed an all-encompassing device with hybrid satellite/terrestrial communications and GPS to better manage our utilisation of forest resources. 

Credit: Treemetrics

Satcoms are helping to save our trees through more efficient use of our forests.

Satellites are mapping forests, sending instructions to loggers, monitoring tree-harvesting machinery and coordinating log transport almost in real time.

The Treemetrics company in Ireland, supported by ESA, has developed an all-encompassing device that uses hybrid satellite and terrestrial communications, and GPS.

The display gives detailed mapping information, showing a harvesting machine's driver which trees should be felled and how the wood should be cut.

At the same time, information on the logger's progress and location is sent via satellite to a central web-based system.

The in-vehicle display also helps other drivers find the logs stacked at specified locations so they can be moved to the roadside to await transport to sawmills.

Independent owner-operators of harvesting machinery benefit from detailed navigation as well as security features that help safeguard their equipment.

For forest owners, the system offers accurate information on logging yields.

The sawmills can tune the incoming supply by informing operators the type of timber currently in demand, whether pulp or a higher grade.

Treemetrics is also working under ESA’s ARTES Programme to develop a web-based application that uses satellite navigation and Earth observation data to provide vital insights into the health of forested areas, assisting the owners of forests to identify those areas most suitable for logging.

Satellites provide much higher-resolution images than traditional hardcopy maps, and they can be updated more frequently, giving landowners highly accurate and up-to-date information.

The Irish Farmers Association will jointly market the approach to their national membership under the name 'iForest'.

Green Belt, Ireland's largest private forestry company, has announced plans to deploy it nationally to their clients.

Coillte are in talks to begin a pre-commercial rollout of the system in a test area by the end of the year.

It is also being introduced in the UK to relay harvester information to some of the largest forestry companies.

Treemetrics plans to offer it to the haulage trucks that collect the timber left on the roadside ready for the sawmills.

This would mean the system could handle the entire timber chain, making it possible to closely track this valuable natural resource.