Monday, December 27, 2010

One Million Galaxies

Monday, December 27, 2010
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Are the nearest galaxies distributed randomly? A plot of over one million of the brightest "extended sources" detected by the Two Micron All Sky Survey (2MASS) shows that they are not. The vast majority of these infrared extended sources are galaxies. Visible above is an incredible tapestry of structure that provides limits on how the universe formed and evolved. Many galaxies are gravitationally bound together to form clusters, which themselves are loosely bound into superclusters, which in turn are sometimes seen to align over even larger scale structures. In contrast, very bright stars inside our own Milky Way Galaxy cause the vertical blue sash. 


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Sunday, December 26, 2010

Sideways Orion Over Snowy Ireland

Sunday, December 26, 2010
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Orion always comes up sideways ... and was caught in the act earlier this month by over a snowy landscape in Donegal, Ireland. To compose this serene picture, the photographer found a picturesque setting to the east, waited until after sunset, and then momentarily lit the foreground with a flashlight. The three bright stars in Orion's belt stand in a nearly vertical line above the snow covered road at the bottom. Hanging from his belt, the stars and nebulae of the Hunter's sword are visible lower and to the right. Yellow-orange Betelgeuse is the brightest star on the image left. As winter progresses in Earth's northern hemisphere, Orion will rise earlier and so appear continually higher in the sky at sunset.

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Saturday, December 25, 2010

Decorating the Sky

Saturday, December 25, 2010
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Bright stars, clouds of dust and glowing nebulae decorate this cosmic scene, a skyscape just north of Orion's belt. Close to the plane of our Milky Way Galaxy, the wide field view spans about 5.5 degrees. Striking bluish M78, a reflection nebula, is at the left. M78's tint is due to dust preferentially reflecting the blue light of hot, young stars. In colourful contrast, the red sash of glowing hydrogen gas sweeping through the centre is part of the region's faint but extensive emission nebula known as Barnard's Loop. At right, a dark dust cloud forms a prominent silhouette catalogued as LDN 1622. While M78 and the complex Barnard's Loop are some 1,500 light-years away, LDN 1622 is likely to be much closer, only about 500 light-years distant from our fair planet Earth.

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Apollo 8: Christmas at the Moon

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Christmas Eve, 1968. As one of the most turbulent, tragic years in American history drew to a close, millions around the world were watching and listening as the Apollo 8 astronauts -- Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders -- became the first humans to orbit another world.

As their command module floated above the lunar surface, the astronauts beamed back images of the moon and Earth and took turns reading from the book of Genesis, closing with a wish for everyone "on the good Earth."



"We were told that on Christmas Eve we would have the largest audience that had ever listened to a human voice," recalled Borman during 40th anniversary celebrations in 2008. "And the only instructions that we got from NASA was to do something appropriate."

"The first ten verses of Genesis is the foundation of many of the world's religions, not just the Christian religion," added Lovell. "There are more people in other religions than the Christian religion around the world, and so this would be appropriate to that and so that's how it came to pass."

The mission was also famous for the iconic "Earthrise" image, snapped by Anders, which would give humankind a new perspective on their home planet. Anders has said that despite all the training and preparation for an exploration of the moon, the astronauts ended up discovering Earth.The Apollo 8 astronauts got where they were that Christmas Eve because of a bold, improvisational call by NASA. With the clock ticking on President Kennedy's challenge to land on the moon by decade's end, delays with the lunar module were threatening to slow the Apollo program. So NASA decided to change mission plans and send the Apollo 8 crew all the way to the moon without a lunar module on the first manned flight of the massive Saturn V rocket.

The crew rocketed into orbit on December 21, and after circling the moon 10 times on Christmas Eve, it was time to come home. On Christmas morning, mission control waited anxiously for word that Apollo 8's engine burn to leave lunar orbit had worked. They soon got confirmation when Lovell radioed, "Roger, please be informed there is a Santa Claus."

The crew splashed down in the Pacific on December 27. A lunar landing was still months away, but for the first time ever, men from Earth had visited the moon and returned home safely.

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Friday, December 24, 2010

Star Trails in the North

Friday, December 24, 2010
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Pointing skyward, the wall of this ruined Viking church still stands after a thousand winters, near the town of Vallentuna, Sweden. The time exposure records the scene on December 14th as stars leave graceful arcing trails during a long night, reflecting planet Earth's daily rotation on its axis. The Earth's axis points toward Polaris, the North Star, near the centre of the concentric trails. Welcomed by skygazers on this winter's night, a bright meteor from the annual Geminid meteor shower also flashes through the frame. The meteor cuts across the star trails just above the lower church wall. Contributing to the beautiful composition, meteor streak and church apex both gesture toward the North Celestial Pole.

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Thursday, December 23, 2010

NASA Hosts Planet-Finding Tweetup in California's Silicon Valle

Thursday, December 23, 2010
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NASA will give 100 of its Twitter followers an insider look at its planet-hunting Kepler spacecraft and the agency's Ames Research Center on Feb. 11 in Moffett Field in California.

For the first time, NASA's Twitter followers are being invited to Ames to learn about planetary discoveries from Kepler and the science flights of NASA's Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) aircraft.

The Tweeps also will get behind-the-scenes access to NASA's research center in the heart of California's Silicon Valley. Attendees will tour the center and speak with NASA officials, managers and scientists. The Tweetup will include a "meet and greet" session to allow participants to mingle with fellow Tweeps and the staff behind the tweets on @NASA @NASASTS_128 and @NASA_Ames.

"This Tweetup will give participants and those who follow along online another look at the diverse ways NASA is pioneering the future in space exploration scientific discovery and aeronautics research," said Stephanie Schierholz, social media manager at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

Tweetup registration opens at 1 p.m. EST on Jan. 5 and closes at 1 p.m. on Jan. 10. NASA will accommodate 100 active Tweeps randomly selected from those who sign up online. Additional registrants will be placed on a waiting list. Those who cannot attend the Tweetup can follow along via Web coverage, including tweets and live streaming.

For more information about the Tweetup and to sign up, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/tweetup

To find all the ways to connect and collaborate with NASA at: http://www.nasa.gov/connect

NASA also has a website where anyone - including those not on Twitter - can follow along with the events: http://buzzroom.nasa.gov

The NASA Ames Twitter account will be providing live updates from the event at: http://www.twitter.com/NASA_Ames

For more information about Ames, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/ames

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GOES Satellites Capture Holiday Weather Travel Conditions

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Data from the GOES-13 and GOES-11 satellites were used to create a full image of the continental U.S. on Dec. 23 at 1145 UTC (6:45 a.m. EST) as travelers make their way across the country to their holiday destinations. The area clouds from the U.S. southwest stretching north are associated with a low pressure area over Colorado. The clouds over eastern New England are associated with a low already out to sea, and clouds moving into the Pacific Northwest are associated with an eastward moving cold front. 

Credit: NOAA/NASA GOES Project

NASA Goddard Space Flight Center enables NASA’s mission through four scientific endeavors: Earth Science, Heliophysics, Solar System Exploration, and Astrophysics. Goddard plays a leading role in NASA’s accomplishments by contributing compelling scientific knowledge to advance the Agency’s mission.

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The Solstice Moon's Eclipse

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A big, bright, beautiful Full Moon slid into planet Earth's shadow early Tuesday morning. Remarkably, the total lunar eclipse coincided with the date of the December Solstice. During the eclipse, the best viewing in North America found the coppery lunar disc high in a cold winter sky, the Moon reddened by light filtering into the Earth's dark central shadow or umbra. The light comes from all the sunsets and sunrises, seen from a lunar perspective around the edges of a silhouetted Earth. Passing closer to the centre of the umbra, the Moon's southern hemisphere (left) appears darker in this eclipse image, recorded from Deerlick Astronomy Village, Georgia, USA. The picture is a digital composite, a separate longer exposure added to an eclipse frame to capture the surrounding star field.

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Spinoff 2010

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Table of Contents

Office of the Chief Technologist

To view, navigate and print the PDF file of this document, download the free Adobe Acrobat Reader.

Spinoff 2010 (PDF)

Spinoff 2010 Summary Brochure (PDF)
Spinoff 2010 PowerPoint Presentation (PPT)

National Aeronautics and Space Administration 

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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Hidden Galaxy IC 342

Wednesday, December 22, 2010
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Similar in size to other large, bright spiral galaxies, IC 342 is a mere 7 million light-years distant in the long-necked, northern constellation Camelopardalis. A sprawling island universe, IC 342 would otherwise be a prominent galaxy in our night sky, but it is almost hidden from view behind the veil of stars, gas and dust clouds in the plane of our Milky Way galaxy. Even though IC 342's light is dimmed by intervening cosmic clouds, this remarkably sharp telescopic image traces the galaxy's own obscuring dust, blue star clusters, and glowing pink star forming regions along spiral arms that Wind far from the galaxy's core. IC 342 may have undergone a recent burst of star formation activity and is close enough to have gravitationally influenced the evolution of the local group of galaxies and the Milky Way.

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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Tyrrhenian Sea and Solstice Sky

Tuesday, December 21, 2010
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Today the solstice occurs at 23:38 Universal Time, the Sun reaching its southernmost declination in planet Earth's sky. Of course, the December solstice marks the beginning of winter in the northern hemisphere and summer in the south. When viewed from northern latitudes, and as shown in the above horizontally compressed image, the Sun will make its lowest arc through the sky along the southern horizon. So in the north, the solstice day has the shortest length of time between sunrise and sunset and fewest hours of daylight. This striking composite image follows the Sun's path through the December solstice day of 2005 in a beautiful blue sky, looking down the Tyrrhenian Sea coast from Santa Severa toward Fiumicino, Italy. The view covers about 115 degrees in 43 separate, well-planned exposures from sunrise to sunset. 


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Monday, December 20, 2010

A Lunar Eclipse on Solstice Day

Monday, December 20, 2010
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Sometime after sunset tonight, the Moon will go dark. This total lunar eclipse, where the entire Moon is engulfed in the shadow of the Earth, will be visible from all of North America, while the partial phase of this eclipse will be visible throughout much of the rest of the world. Observers on North America's east coast will have to wait until after midnight for totality to begin, while west coasters should be able to see a fully darkened moon before midnight. Pictured above is a digital prediction, in image form, for how the Moon and the surrounding sky could appear near maximum darkness. Rolling your cursor over the image will bring up labels. Parts of the Moon entering the circle labeled umbra will appear the darkest since the Sun there will be completely blocked by the Earth. Parts of the Moon entering the circle labeled penumbra will be exposed to some direct sunlight, and so shine by some degree by reflected light. The diminished glare of the normally full Moon will allow unusually good viewings of nearby celestial wonders such as the supernova remnant Simeis 147, the open star cluster M35, and the Crab Nebula M1. By coincidence this eclipse occurs on the day with the shortest amount of daylight in the northern hemisphere -- the Winter Solstice. This solstice eclipse is the first in 456 years, although so far it appears that no one has figured out when the next solstice eclipse will be.


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Sunday, December 19, 2010

M82: Galaxy with a Supergalactic Wind

Sunday, December 19, 2010
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What's lighting up the Cigar Galaxy? M82, as this irregular galaxy is also known, was stirred up by a recent pass near large spiral galaxy M81. This doesn't fully explain the source of the red-glowing outwardly expanding gas, however. Recent evidence indicates that this gas is being driven out by the combined emerging particle winds of many stars, together creating a galactic superwind.. The above photographic mosaic highlights a specific color of red light strongly emitted by ionized hydrogen gas, showing detailed filaments of this gas. The filaments extend for over 10,000 light years. The 12-million light-year distant Cigar Galaxy is the brightest galaxy in the sky in infrared light, and can be seen in visible light with a small telescope towards the constellation of the Great Bear (Ursa Major).

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Saturday, December 18, 2010

North America and the Pelican

Saturday, December 18, 2010
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Here lie familiar shapes in unfamiliar locations. On the left is an emission nebula cataloged as NGC 7000, famous partly because it resembles our fair planet's continent of North America. The emission region to the right of the North America Nebula is IC 5070, also known for its suggestive outlines as the Pelican Nebula. Separated by a dark cloud of obscuring dust, the two bright nebulae are about 1,500 light-years away. At that distance, the 4 degree wide field of view spans 100 light-years. This spectacular cosmic portrait combines narrow band images of the region in a false-color palette to highlight bright ionization fronts with fine details of dark, dusty forms in silhouette. Emission from atomic hydrogen, sulfur, and oxygen is captured in the narrow band data. These nebulae can be seen with binoculars from a dark location. Look northeast of bright star Deneb in the constellation Cygnus the Swan.

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Friday, December 17, 2010

Get Ready for the Solstice Lunar Eclipse!

Friday, December 17, 2010
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The first total lunar eclipse in two years will grace the sky the night of Monday, Dec. 20, and we want you to be there. Sure, it's a school night, but with winter solstice and a new year upon us, what better time to gather your family and friends to see the moon in a new light?

At NASA, we're pretty excited for this year's lunar eclipse, so we're offering a number of features and activities for astronomy buffs and moon-gazers alike. To learn about the science behind eclipses, visit NASA's Eclipse page, where Mr. Eclipse provides information about viewing the eclipse from all over the United States.


Want to know more about the lunar eclipse? Lunar experts from NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center will be hosting two live Web chats to discuss the eclipse. On Monday, Dec. 20 from 3-4 p.m. EST, Dr. Rob Suggs will answer your questions. Later on Dec. 20, make plans to stay "Up All Night" with astronomer Mitzi Adams at she answers your questions from midnight to 5:00 a.m. EST.

Starting now, you can subscribe to NASA JPL's "I'm There: Lunar Eclipse" text campaign to connect with others in your area by texting us your viewing location and comments on the night of the eclipse. To sign up, text IMTHERE to 67463 and we'll send you a reminder to go out and watch on Dec. 20 (message and data rates may apply).

Want to share or flip through photos of the eclipsed moon? Join NASA JPL's lunar eclipse Flickr group and connect with other professional and amateur photographers as they capture the moon's path through the Earth's shadow. We'll choose one lucky photographer to have his or her work featured as official JPL wallpaper at http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/wallpaper.

If you don't want to brave the December chill, or if your weather doesn't cooperate for lunar viewing, we have you covered! A live video feed of the lunar eclipse will be streamed online on Dec. 20. The camera is mounted at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

On Dec. 20 and 21, join the conversation on Twitter by including #eclipse and @NASAJPL  @NASASTS_128 in your lunar eclipse tweets, and you may even see them show up among our live comment stream on NASA JPL's "I'm There: Lunar Eclipse" program.


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A Meteor Moment

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Intensely bright, this fireball meteor flashed through Tuesday's cold, clear, early morning skies over the Karkas Mountains in central Iran, near the peak of the annual Geminid Meteor Shower. To capture the meteor moment and wintery night skyscape, the photographer's camera was fixed to a tripod, its shutter open for about 1.5 minutes. During that time, the multitude of stars slowly traced short, arcing trails through the sky, a reflection of planet Earth's daily rotation on its axis. The meteor's brilliant dash through the scene was brief, though. Changing color as it went, it also left a reddish swirl of hot, glowing gas near the center of its path. The mountains appear in silhouette against the steady glow of distant city lights


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Thursday, December 16, 2010

NASA Moves Forward in Commercial Rocket Engine Testing

Thursday, December 16, 2010
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How long is a minute? It is longer than you think when it is filled with fire, steam and noise – lots of noise.

On Dec. 17, at NASA's John C. Stennis Space Center, a team of operators from Stennis, Orbital Sciences Corporation and Aerojet filled 55 seconds with all three during the second verification test fire of an Aerojet AJ26 rocket engine. Once verified, the engine will be placed on a Taurus II space vehicle and used to launch a cargo supply mission to the International Space Station.

It is all part of NASA’s effort to partner with commercial companies to provide space flights through the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services joint research and development project. Through that program, Orbital has agreed to provide eight cargo supply missions to the space station by 2015. Stennis has partnered with Orbital to test the engines that will power the missions.

So, when Orbital’s Taurus II space vehicle lifts off, it will do so on engines proven flight worthy at Stennis. That is a big responsibility, but it is one which engine test personnel at Stennis are used to filling. They tested engines for every manned Apollo space flight and all of the engines used on more than 130 space shuttle missions.

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Geminids over Kitt Peak

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Two large telescope domes stand in the foreground of this night sky view from Kitt Peak National Observatory, near Tucson, Arizona, USA. The dramatic scene was recorded early Tuesday morning, near the peak of December's Geminid Meteor Shower. With dome slit open, the building closest to the camera houses the 2.3 Meter (90 inch) Bok Telescope operated by Steward Observatory, University of Arizona. Behind the Bok is the Mayall 4 Meter telescope dome. Of course, no telescopes were needed to enjoy the meteors streaking through the sky! The composite image consists of 13 exposures each 15 seconds long, taken with a wide angle lens over a period of about 2 hours during Kitt Peak's warm, clear, night. An annual celestial event, this meteor shower is the result of planet Earth plowing through dust from mysterious, asteroid-like object 3200 Phaethon


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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

NASA's Odyssey Spacecraft Sets Exploration Record on Mars

Wednesday, December 15, 2010
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NASA's Mars Odyssey, which launched in 2001, will break the record Wednesday for longest-serving spacecraft at the Red Planet. The probe begins its 3,340th day in Martian orbit at 5:55 p.m. PST (8:55 p.m. EST) on Wednesday to break the record set by NASA's Mars Global Surveyor, which orbited Mars from 1997 to 2006. 

Odyssey's longevity enables continued science, including the monitoring of seasonal changes on Mars from year to year and the most detailed maps ever made of most of the planet. In 2002, the spacecraft detected hydrogen just below the surface throughout Mars' high-latitude regions. The deduction that the hydrogen is in frozen water prompted NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander mission, which confirmed the theory in 2008. Odyssey also carried the first experiment sent to Mars specifically to prepare for human missions, and found radiation levels around the planet from solar flares and cosmic rays are two to three times higher than around Earth.
Odyssey also has served as a communication relay, handling most of the data sent home by Phoenix and NASA's Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity. Odyssey became the middle link for continuous observation of Martian weather by NASA's Mars Global Surveyor and NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
"Odyssey has proved itself to be a great spacecraft, but what really enables a spacecraft to reach this sort of accomplishment is the people behind it," said Gaylon McSmith, Odyssey project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "This is a tribute to the whole Odyssey team." 
 
Odyssey will support the 2012 landing of the Mars Science Laboratory and surface operations of that mission. Mars Science Laboratory, also known as the Curiosity rover, will assess whether its landing area has had environmental conditions favorable for microbial life and preserving evidence about whether life has existed there. The rover will carry the largest, most advanced set of instruments for scientific studies ever sent to the Martian surface. 

"The Mars program clearly demonstrates that world-class science coupled with sound and creative engineering equals success and longevity," said Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters in Washington. 

Other recent NASA spacecraft at Mars include the Mars Global Surveyor that began orbiting the Red Planet in 1997. The Spirit and Opportunity rovers landed on Mars in January 2004. They have been exploring for six years, far surpassing their original 90-day mission. Phoenix landed May 25, 2008, farther north than any previous spacecraft to the planet's surface. The mission's biggest surprise was the discovery of perchlorate, an oxidizing chemical on Earth that is food for some microbes, but potentially toxic for others. The solar-powered lander completed its three-month mission and kept working until sunlight waned two months later. MRO arrived at Mars in 2006 on a search for evidence that water persisted on the planet's surface for a long period of time. 

Odyssey is managed by JPL for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver built the spacecraft. JPL and Lockheed Martin collaborate on operating the spacecraft. For more about the Mars Odyssey mission, visit: http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/odyssey. JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. 


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A Huge Solar Filament Erupts

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Click the arrow and watch an unusually long filament explode out from the Sun. The filament had been seen hovering over the Sun's surface for over a week before it erupted earlier this month. The image sequence was taken by the Earth-orbiting Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) in one color of ultraviolet light specifically emitted by helium, and another color of X-ray light specifically emitted by iron. The explosion created Coronal Mass Ejections which dispersed high energy plasma into the Solar System. This plasma cloud, though, missed the Earth and so did not cause auroras. The above eruption and an unusually expansive eruption that occurred in August are showing how widely separated areas of the Sun can sometimes act in unison. Explosions like this will likely become more common over the next few years as our Sun moves toward Solar Maximum activity.

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Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Launch of a Delta IV Heav

Tuesday, December 14, 2010
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It is the tallest rocket in active use. The Delta IV Heavy is the largest of the Delta series, packing the punch of three rocket boosters instead of the usual one. The resulting rocket, the most powerful in use by the US Air Force, is capable of lifting over 23,000 kilograms into low Earth orbit, comparable to NASA's Space Shuttle. Pictured above is the second launch of the Delta IV Heavy from Cape Canaveral, Florida, USA in 2007, and the first night launch. Complex service towers are visible to each side of the soaring rocket. The rocket successfully lifted a reconnaissance satellite to low Earth orbit. The Delta IV Heavy has since completed several more successful lift-offs, while its next launch is currently planned from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, USA, next month. 


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Monday, December 13, 2010

NASA Science Smackdown: Mono Lake 'Discovery' Challenged

Monday, December 13, 2010
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"We have cracked open the door to what is possible for life elsewhere in the universe," Felisa Wolfe-Simon of the NASA Astrobiology Institute and U.S. Geological Survey, who led the NASA Mono Lake study, at last week's news conference (on right in image below).


 
When NASA announced the discovery of an arsenic-eating microbe in a California lake last week, the agency hailed it as a suggestion that there are lifeforms beyond our current DNA-based model as we know it. Every living thing that scientists have ever studied uses phosphorus to build the backbone of its DNA. The NASA-funded scientists described a microbe that could use arsenic instead. If the authors of the paper were right, we would have to expand our notions of what forms life can take.

NASA's team of astrobiologists had taken samples of the bacteria from ancient Lake Mono, located in a volcanic region of Northern California near the Nevada border, and starved them of phosphate, the mineral of choice for most DNA-based organisms. Instead, the scientists force-fed the bacteria a form of arsenic, and, much to the researchers' delight, the bacteria continued to grow and flourish on their new diet of poison.
But then other scientists began their standard peer review process and dug into the details outlining NASA's research and findings, and they're now charging that the research behind it is seriously flawed.

"I was outraged at how bad the science was," University of British Columbia microbiology professor Rosie Redfield in an interview with Slate's Carl Zimmer. Redfield also posted a scathing critique of the report on her blog.
Redfield and other scientists  point out that when NASA scientists removed the DNA from the bacteria for examination, they didn't take the steps necessary to wash away other types of molecules, which means, that the arsenic may have merely piggybacked onto the bacteria's DNA without becoming truly absorbed into it.
The report's detractors also note that the NASA scientists fed the bacteria salts that contained trace amounts of phosphate, so it's possible that the bacteria were able to survive on those tiny helpings of phosphate instead of the arsenic.


"This paper should not have been published," University of Colorado molecular biology professor Shelley Copley told Slate's Zimmer.

"I suspect that NASA may be so desperate for a positive story that they didn't look for any serious advice from DNA or even microbiology people," UC-Davis biology professor John Roth told Zimmer.

As of today, the NASA paper's authors have not responded to the firestorm, provoking additional criticism: "That's kind of sleazy given how they cooperated with all the media hype before the paper was published," Redfield said.



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Rollout

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The Soyuz TMA-20 spacecraft is rolled out by train on its way to the launch pad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Monday, Dec. 13, 2010, in Kazakhstan. The launch of the Soyuz spacecraft with Expedition 26 Soyuz Commander Dmitry Kondratyev, NASA Flight Engineer Catherine Coleman and Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli is scheduled for Wednesday, Dec. 16. 

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Dying Moon Spawned Saturn’s Rings

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Saturn’s majestic rings are the remnants of a long-vanished moon that was stripped of its icy outer layer before its rocky heart plunged into the planet, a new theory proposes. The icy fragments would have encircled the solar system’s second largest planet as rings and eventually spalled off small moons of their own that are still there today, says Robin Canup, a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo.


“Not only do you end up with the current ring, but you can also explain the inner ice-rich moons that haven’t been explained before,” she says. Canup’s paper appears online December 12 in Nature.
The origin of Saturn’s rings, a favorite of backyard astronomers, has baffled professional scientists. Earlier ideas about how the rings formed have fallen into two categories: either a small moon plunged intact into the planet and shattered, or a comet smacked into a moon, shredding the moon to bits. The problem is that both scenarios would produce an equal mix of rock and ice in Saturn’s rings — not the nearly 95 percent ice seen today.
Canup studied what happened in the period just after Saturn (and the solar system’s other planets) coalesced from a primordial disk of gas and dust 4.5 billion years ago. In previous work, she had shown that moon after moon would be born around the infant gas giants, each growing until the planet’s gravitational tug pulled it in to its destruction. Moons would have stopped forming when the disk of gas and dust was all used up.
In the new study, Canup calculated that a moon the size of Titan — Saturn’s largest at some 5,000 kilometers across — would begin to separate into layers as it migrated inward. Saturn’s tidal pull would cause much of the moon’s ice to melt and then refreeze as an outer mantle. As the moon spiraled into the planet, Canup’s calculations show, the icy layer would be stripped off to form the rings.
A moon so large would have produced rings several orders of magnitude more massive than today’s, Canup says. That, in turn, would have provided a source of ice for new, small moons spawned from the rings’ outer edge. Such a process, she says, could explain why Saturn’s inner moons are icy, out to and including the 1,000-kilometer-wide Tethys, while moons farther from the planet contain more rock.
“Once you hear it, it’s a pretty simple idea,” says Canup. “But no one was thinking of making a ring a lot more massive than the current ring, or losing a satellite like Titan. That was the conceptual break.”
“It’s a big deal,” agrees Luke Dones, also of the Southwest Research Institute, who has worked on the comet-makes-rings theory. “It never occurred to me that the rings could be so much more massive than they are now.”
Another recent study supports the notion that today’s rings are the remnants of massive ancient rings of pure ice. In a paper in press at Icarus, Larry Esposito, a planetary scientist at the University of Colorado at Boulder, calculates that more massive rings are less likely to be polluted by dust, and hence could still be as pristine as they appear today even after 4.5 billion years.
Some questions still linger about Canup’s model, says Dones, like why some of Saturn’s inner icy moons have more rock in them than others.
The theory will be put to the test in 2017, when NASA’s Cassini mission finishes its grand tour of Saturn by making the best measurements yet of the mass of the rings. Researchers can use those and other details to better tease out how the rings evolved over time.

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Contemplating the Sky

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Have you contemplated your sky recently? Tonight will be a good one for midnight meditators at many northerly locations as meteors from the Geminids meteor shower will frequently streak through. The Geminds meteor shower has slowly been building to a crescendo and should peak tonight. Pictured above ten days ago, a group of celestial sightseers in the Maranjab Desert in Iran, were treated to a dark and wondrous pre-dawn sky that contained the planet Venus and a crescent Moon. Tonight Mars and Mercury should be visible just above the southwestern horizon at sunset, while the first quarter Moon will set around midnight.

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Sunday, December 12, 2010

Leonids Above Torre de la Guaita

Sunday, December 12, 2010
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In 1999, Leonids Meteor Shower came to an impressive crescendo. Observers in Europe saw a sharp peak in the number of meteors visible around 0210 UTC during the early morning hours of November 18. Meteor counts then exceeded 1000 per hour - the minimum needed to define a true meteor storm. At other times and from other locations around the world, observers typically reported respectable rates of between 30 and 100 meteors per hour. This photograph is a 20-minute exposure ending just before the main Leonids peak began. Visible are at least five Leonid meteors streaking high above the Torre de la Guaita, an observation tower used during the 12th century in Girona, Spain. Over the next few nights, the Geminids are expected to put on the best meteor show of this year.

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Saturday, December 11, 2010

Meteor in the Desert Sky

Saturday, December 11, 2010
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Created as planet Earth sweeps through dusty debris from mysterious, asteroid-like, 3200 Phaethon, the annual Geminid Meteor Shower should be the best meteor shower of the year. The Geminids are predicted to peak on the night of December 13/14, but you can start watching for Geminid meteors this weekend. The best viewing is after midnight in a dark, moonless sky, with the shower's radiant constellation Gemini well above the horizon - a situation that favors skygazers in the northern hemisphere. In this picture from the 2009 Geminid shower, a bright meteor with a greenish tinge flashes through the sky over the Mojave Desert near Barstow, California, USA. Recognizable in the background are bright stars in the northern asterism known as the Big Dipper, framing the meteor streak. 

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Friday, December 10, 2010

A Twilight Occultation

Friday, December 10, 2010
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A thin, one day old crescent Moon hugged the western horizon after sunset on Monday, December 6. The Moon also occulted or passed in front of Mars. But only some well-placed skygazers along a band through North America were able to catch this lunar occultation's final act in fading twilight. For example, this telephoto image nicely captures the Mars as a pinprick of light, shortly after it emerged from behind the crescent Moon's sunlit edge. The luminous skyview is from De Soto, Kansas in the central US. Of course, this month's upcoming total lunar eclipse will entertain a much wider audience of Moon enthusiasts during the night of December 20/21.

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Thursday, December 9, 2010

M81 and Arp's Loop

Thursday, December 9, 2010
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One of the brightest galaxies in planet Earth's sky and similar in size to the Milky Way, big, beautiful spiral M81 lies 11.8 million light-years away in the northern constellation Ursa Major. This deep image of the region reveals details in the bright yellow core, but at the same time follows fainter features along the galaxy's gorgeous blue spiral arms and sweeping dust lanes. It also follows the expansive, arcing feature, known as Arp's loop, that seems to rise from the galaxy's disk at the right. Studied in the 1960s, Arp's loop has been thought to be a tidal tail, material pulled out of M81 by gravitational interaction with its large neighboring galaxy M82. But a recent investigation demonstrates that much of Arp's loop likely lies within our own galaxy. The loop's colors in visible and infrared light match the colors of pervasive clouds of dust, relatively unexplored galactic cirrus only a few hundred light-years above the plane of the Milky Way. Along with the Milky Way's stars, the dust clouds lie in the foreground of this remarkable view. M81's dwarf companion galaxy, Holmberg IX, can be seen just above and left of the large spiral. On the sky, this image spans about 0.5 degrees, about the size of the Full Moon.

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Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Intrepid Crater on Mars

Wednesday, December 8, 2010
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The robotic rover Opportunity has chanced across another small crater on Mars. Pictured above is Intrepid Crater, a 20-meter across impact basin slightly larger than Nereus Crater that Opportunity chanced across last year. The above image is in approximately true color but horizontally compressed to accommodate a wide angle panorama. Intrepid Crater was named after the lunar module Intrepid that carried Apollo 12 astronauts to Earth's Moon 41 years ago last month. Beyond Intrepid Crater and past long patches of rusty Martian desert lie peaks from the rim of large Endeavor Crater, visible on the horizon. If Opportunity can avoid ridged rocks and soft sand, it may reach Endeavour sometime next year. 


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Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Too Close to a Black Hole

Tuesday, December 7, 2010
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What would you see if you went right up to a black holeAbove is a computer generated image highlighting how strange things would look. The black hole has such strong gravity that light is noticeably bent towards it - causing some very unusual visual distortions. Every star in the normal frame has at least two bright images - one on each side of the black hole. Near the black hole, you can see the whole sky - light from every direction is bent around and comes back to you. The original background map was taken from the 2MASS infrared sky survey, with stars from the Henry Draper catalogsuperposed. Black holes are thought to be the densest state of matter, and there is indirect evidence for their presence in stellar binary systems and the centers of globular clustersgalaxies, and quasars.



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Monday, December 6, 2010

Mono Lake: Home to the Strange Microbe GFAJ-1

Monday, December 6, 2010
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How strange could alien life be? An indication that the fundamental elements that compose most terrestrial life forms might differ out in the universe was found in unusual Mono Lake in California,USA. Bacteria in Mono's lakebed gives indications that it not only can tolerate a large abundance of normally toxic arsenic, but possibly use arsenic as a replacement for phosphorous, an element needed by every other known Earth-based life form. The result is surprising -- and perhaps controversial -- partly because arsenic-incorporating organic molecules were thought to be much more fragile than phosphorous-incorporating organic molecules. Pictured above is 7.5-km wide Mono Lake as seen from nearby Mount Dana. The inset picture shows GFAJ-1, the unusual bacteria that might be able tosurvive on another world.


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Sunday, December 5, 2010

Moonrise Through Mauna Kea's Shadow

Sunday, December 5, 2010
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How can the Moon rise through a mountain? It cannot -- what was photographed here is a moonrise through the shadow of a large volcano. 84SF9NUC6ZDK The volcano is Mauna Kea, Hawai'i, USA, a frequent spot for spectacular photographs since it is arguably the premier observing location on planet Earth. The Sun has just set in the opposite direction, behind the camera. Additionally, the Moon has just passed full phase -- were it precisely at full phase it would rise, possibly eclipsed, at the very peak of the shadow. Refraction of moonlight through the Earth's atmosphere makes the Moon appear slightly oval. Cinder cones from old volcanic eruptions are visible in the foreground. Cloud tops below Mauna Kea's summit have unusually flat tops, indicating a decrease in air moisture that frequently keeps the air unusually dry, another attribute of this stellar observing site


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Did Junk Science Motivate Nasa’s ‘New Life’ Announcement?

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Oh, Nasa. If only you could invent a time machine and go back to when you actually had a budget. The agency’s claim last week that it had found a new type of life in a lake in California is now under fire from all sides. Encirclement! One Slate article quotes several skeptical scientists who question the veracity of Nasa’s claims. One even said perhaps the most damming thing one scientist can say to another: your paper should not be published. What gives?

You’ll recall that Nasa announced last week it had found a microbe in Mono Lake, in California, that’s able to use arsenic rather than phosphorus when putting together its DNA. It’s big because, well, we’ve never before found any bit of life that’s been able to do that. This changes everything, etc.

And then the knives came out. “They carried out science by press release and press conference. Whether they were right or not in their claims, they are now hypocritical if they say that the only response should be in the scientific literature,” said Jonathan Eisen, of the University of California, Davis, to the Nasa’s scientists refusal to engage in debate via the media.

Scientific debate, argues the Nasa scientists, is best done through the proper channels. That means academic journals like Science or Nature.

Many of the skeptics say that Nasa basically engaged in bad science. Whether that was motivated by the need for good news (says one scientist, “I suspect that NASA may be so desperate for a positive story that they didn’t look for any serious advice from DNA or even microbiology people”) or anything else, who knows?

Other sources of error may include not properly cleaning the slides containing the microbe, or not even realizing that arsenic pretty much falls apart in water—how were the microbes able to survive in the lab, to say nothing of Mono Lake, when a main component of their DNA is essentially allergic to water?

In other words, it would look like Nasa has some explaining to do.

But at the very least we’re arguing over science and not, say, what “rules harder,” Xbox Live or PSN. (They’re both neat is the answer! Everyone be nice to each other!)

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Speck Between Rings

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Saturn's moon Atlas can be seen just above the center of this Cassini spacecraft image as it orbits in the Roche Division between Saturn's A ring and thin F ring.

The image was taken in visible light with the Cassini spacecraft narrow-angle camera on April 12, 2010. The view was obtained at a distance of approximately 1.3 million miles (2.1 million kilometers) from Atlas.

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Saturday, December 4, 2010

Sunset at the Spiral Jetty

Saturday, December 4, 2010
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 In dwindling twilight at an August day's end, these broad dark bands appeared in the sky for a moment, seen from Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty on the eastern shore of Utah's Great Salt Lake. Outlined by rays of sunlight known as crepuscular rays, they are actually shadows cast by clouds near the distant western horizon, the setting Sun having disappeared from direct view behind them. The cloud shadows are parallel, but seem to converge in the distance because of perspective. Coiled in the salt-encrusted lake surface, Smithson's most famous earthwork provides a dramatic contrast to the converging lines. The Spiral Jetty was constructed in 1970, when the water level was unusually low and was completely submerged in a few years as the level rose. Now just above water again, it has spent much of its existence submerged in the briny lake.

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Friday, December 3, 2010

M33: Triangulum Galaxy

Friday, December 3, 2010
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The small, northern constellation Triangulum harbors this magnificent face-on spiral galaxy, M33. Its popular names include the Pinwheel Galaxy or just the Triangulum Galaxy. M33 is over 50,000 light-years in diameter, third largest in the Local Group of galaxies after the Andromeda Galaxy (M31), and our own Milky Way. About 3 million light-years from the Milky Way, M33 is itself thought to be a satellite of the Andromeda Galaxy and astronomers in these two galaxies would likely have spectacular views of each other's grand spiral star systems. As for the view from planet Earth, this sharp, detailed image nicely shows off M33's blue star clusters and pinkish star forming regions that trace the galaxy's loosely wound spiral arms. In fact, the cavernous NGC 604 is the brightest star forming region, seen here at about the 4 o'clock position from the galaxy center. Like M31, M33's population of well-measured variable stars have helped make this nearby spiral a cosmic yardstick for establishing the distance scale of the Universe.

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NASA Apologizes for Not Finding the Aliens

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That’s how Mary Voytek, director, Astrobiology Program, NASA Headquarters, actually responded to a USA Today reporter at a press conference today, in response to a question about how doggone annoyed newspaper readers and internet users were that NASA didn’t discover a giant space alien, but only a measly microbe that can live on arsenic alone, a finding that blows apart our definition of Life and could help us find aliens in the future.

She had to remind everyone, half sheepishly, half Kindergarten-teacher, near the end of an hour-long press conference, that “that there are lots of people … that see this as a huge finding.” The exchange is here, at 4.55:


Where Are Our Aliens

The announcement, and the wild speculation it generated ahead of time, underscored just how excited the public is about science – provided that science involves Eureka-type discoveries of space aliens, likely using robots or machines that could swallow the Earth in a black hole. Blame may lie with the blog editors and owners reporting on that kind of science. They may argue that they’re only following public taste, but they’re also probably not talking about science. Science would be, as an excited Felisa Wolfe-Simon, the NASA astrobiology research fellow who led the research, said meant “thinking about life… and asking questions, simple questions, with simple experimental design.”

NASA also isn’t faultless. The agency’s valiant but unsatisfying efforts at educating the public about what they do seem to have gotten lost somewhere between debates about the need for the space agency, confusion over its mission, and a public that’s more interested in new Earths and aliens than in elusive molecules or weather patterns.
It’s that audience that NASA may have had in mind when it wrote that tantalizing email on Monday. It began,
NASA will hold a news conference at 2 p.m. EST on Thursday, Dec. 2, to discuss an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life. Astrobiology is the study of the origin, evolution, distribution and future of life in the universe.
See, there’s your problem right there, NASA: use the words “evidence of extraterrestrial life” in the first paragraph of your email (“you” being the world’s leading space agency, which never officially talks like Agent Mulder), and you are going to send a million thumbs a Tweeting and RTing all around the black hole of the Internet.


This problem – aiming to excite an over-stimulated public by sensationalizing science – isn’t new for NASA either. When the head of the NASA / Harvard Origins of Life project gushed about finding Earth-like planets at a TED talk in Oxford, the Web went crazy over the prospects of making contact with E.T. or simply finding a new escape pod for humanity. The first problem was that those planets haven’t been found yet. And when they are found, as they likely will be, and then verified, that won’t mean we’ve found anything like oceans or an atmosphere at all.

"We [scientists] like to err on the side of caution," John Geary, one of the Kepler co-investigators based at Harvard, told Motherboard on the phone back then. "Too often people get carried away and announce things that don't hold up in the end, and it gives everybody a black eye. Things like cold fusion had an enormous splash in all kinds of media several years ago. It's never been shown to have actually occurred."

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Thursday, December 2, 2010

Hartley 2 Star Cluster Tour

Thursday, December 2, 2010
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Early in November, small but active Comet Hartley 2 (103/P Hartley) became the fifth comet imaged close-up by a spacecraft from planet Earth. Continuing its own tour of the solar system with a 6 year orbital period, Hartley 2 is now appearing in the nautical constellation Puppis. Still a target for binoculars or small telescopes from dark sky locations, the comet is captured in this composite image from November 27, sharing the rich 2.5 degree wide field of view with some star clusters well known to earthbound skygazers. Below and right of the comet's alluring green coma lies bright M47, a young open star cluster some 80 milion years old, about 1,600 light-years away. Below and left open cluster M46 is older, around 300 million years of age, and 5,400 light-years distant. Hartley 2's short, faint tail even extends up and right toward another fainter star cluster in the scene, NGC 2423. On November 27, Comet Hartley 2 was about 2.25 light-minutes from Earth. Sweeping toward the bottom of this field, by November 28 the comet's path had carried it between M46 and M47. 

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NASA-Funded Research Discovers Life Built With Toxic Chemical

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NASA-funded astrobiology research has changed the fundamental knowledge about what comprises all known life on Earth.

Researchers conducting tests in the harsh environment of Mono Lake in California have discovered the first known microorganism on Earth able to thrive and reproduce using the toxic chemical arsenic. The microorganism substitutes arsenic for phosphorus in its cell components.

"The definition of life has just expanded," said Ed Weiler, NASA's associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at the agency's Headquarters in Washington. "As we pursue our efforts to seek signs of life in the solar system, we have to think more broadly, more diversely and consider life as we do not know it."

This finding of an alternative biochemistry makeup will alter biology textbooks and expand the scope of the search for life beyond Earth. The research is published in this week's edition of Science Express.

Carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur are the six basic building blocks of all known forms of life on Earth. Phosphorus is part of the chemical backbone of DNA and RNA, the structures that carry genetic instructions for life, and is considered an essential element for all living cells.

Phosphorus is a central component of the energy-carrying molecule in all cells (adenosine triphosphate) and also the phospholipids that form all cell membranes. Arsenic, which is chemically similar to phosphorus, is poisonous for most life on Earth. Arsenic disrupts metabolic pathways because chemically it behaves similarly to phosphate.

"We know that some microbes can breathe arsenic, but what we've found is a microbe doing something new -- building parts of itself out of arsenic," said Felisa Wolfe-Simon, a NASA Astrobiology Research Fellow in residence at the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park, Calif., and the research team's lead scientist. "If something here on Earth can do something so unexpected, what else can life do that we haven't seen yet?"

The newly discovered microbe, strain GFAJ-1, is a member of a common group of bacteria, the Gammaproteobacteria. In the laboratory, the researchers successfully grew microbes from the lake on a diet that was very lean on phosphorus, but included generous helpings of arsenic. When researchers removed the phosphorus and replaced it with arsenic the microbes continued to grow. Subsequent analyses indicated that the arsenic was being used to produce the building blocks of new GFAJ-1 cells.

The key issue the researchers investigated was when the microbe was grown on arsenic did the arsenic actually became incorporated into the organisms' vital biochemical machinery, such as DNA, proteins and the cell membranes. A variety of sophisticated laboratory techniques was used to determine where the arsenic was incorporated.

The team chose to explore Mono Lake because of its unusual chemistry, especially its high salinity, high alkalinity, and high levels of arsenic. This chemistry is in part a result of Mono Lake's isolation from its sources of fresh water for 50 years.

The results of this study will inform ongoing research in many areas, including the study of Earth's evolution, organic chemistry, biogeochemical cycles, disease mitigation and Earth system research. These findings also will open up new frontiers in microbiology and other areas of research.

"The idea of alternative biochemistries for life is common in science fiction," said Carl Pilcher, director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute at the agency's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif. "Until now a life form using arsenic as a building block was only theoretical, but now we know such life exists in Mono Lake."






The research team included scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey, Arizona State University in Tempe, Ariz., Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif., Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Penn., and the Stanford Synchroton Radiation Lightsource in Menlo Park, Calif.

NASA's Astrobiology Program in Washington contributed funding for the research through its Exobiology and Evolutionary Biology program and the NASA Astrobiology Institute. NASA's Astrobiology Program supports research into the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life on Earth.

For more information about the finding and a complete list of researchers, visit:   http://astrobiology.nasa.gov


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