Contact UsSubscribeCurrent IssueJust for TeachersFun StuffVirtual ClassroomAll About Science nav bar


Science Scoops


The Mystery of Asteroid X

Check out this photo! What in the world is it? If you’re thinking alien spaceships, you’re not alone. When this image first showed up on Hubble’s cameras, lots of astronomers were completely bemused. “At first glance it looks like a four-pointed Kohga Ninja throwing star blade. It’s so weird-looking that you want to call the UFO hotline,” Ray Villard, Hubble News Director, wrote on Discovery News. The mystery object has a long tail like a comet, but is orbiting within the asteroid belt — not a common hangout for comets. If you zoom in on the bottom of the tail, you see a small white dot offset from an x-shape. Weird!

Analysis of the evidence led astronomers to an exciting hypothesis: This photo is the first image ever taken showing a high-speed, head-on asteroid crash. “If this interpretation is correct, two small and previously unknown asteroids recently collided, creating a shower of debris that is being swept back into a tail from the collision site by the pressure of sunlight,” says David Jewitt of the University of California at Los Angeles.

With all of outer space to fly through, you’d think asteroids could stay out of each other’s way. But they do crash, especially in the crowded asteroid belt. And each crash creates new, smaller asteroids — the one that wiped out the dinosaurs was just a fragment of one of these collisions.

The space rocks in this picture were traveling over 11,000 miles per hour when they hit — that’s five times faster than a rifle bullet — and the crash produced more energy than a nuclear bomb!

Your turn! What name would you give the object in this mysterious picture? Send your idea to [email protected] or write to: X IS FOR ASTEROID, ODYSSEY, 30 Grove Street, Peterborough, NH 03458.

Say Cheese! Moon Family Photograph

We Earthlings get by with one moon, but Saturn has 62 and counting! In February 2009, the Hubble space telescope captured a special event: four Saturnian moons passing by their mother planet all at the same time. From left to right, the moons are Enceladus, Dione, Titan (the big one!), and Mimas. Of course, the moons pass by Saturn every day, but seeing the crossings from Earth is rare. “They only happen every 14 to 15 years when the orbits of Saturn’s moons are nearly edge-on to Earth,” says Keith Noll of the Hubble Space Telescope Science Institute. This was the very first time astronomers captured a picture of four moons passing in front of Saturn at once.

What’s Black and White and Red All Over?
Saturn’s Moon Iapetus!

Let’s ponder a 300-year-old mystery: Why is one side of Iapetus black, and the other white? Giovanni Domenico Cassini first noticed this odd-looking moon through his telescope in 1671. Iapetus rotates very slowly (one Iapetan day is 80 Earth days!), and never changes its orientation in its orbit around Saturn. One side always faces toward the planet, and the other side away. “The side of Iapetus that faces forward in its orbit around Saturn is being darkened by some mysterious process,” said John Spencer, a Cassini scientist at Southwest Research Institute in Colorado. This mystery inspired science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke to imagine that Iapetus’ bright side was created by aliens as a beacon to proclaim their presence to other intelligent civilizations.

The truth doesn’t involve aliens, but it’s still fascinating. Thanks to data gathered from the spacecraft Cassini when it flew by Iapetus in 2005 and 2007, scientists now have a better idea of how the moon got its two-tone shading. Part of the explanation was already understood. Iapetus’ leading side barrels through a curtain of reddish dust left behind by other orbiting moons. But this isn’t enough to explain why the contrast is so stark; the real reason has to do with temperature and ice.

As dust builds up on the leading side of Iapetus, the ground absorbs more sunlight, warming up enough to very slowly vaporize ice. The water vapor then condenses and freezes into bright, reflective ice on the colder trailing side of the moon. As the dusty side keeps getting warmer and darker, more ice vaporizes and migrates to the other side, making it even colder and brighter. This process is called thermal segregation. So, red dust plus migrating ice equals an answer to this black-and-white mystery.

Titan the Barbecue King

Want to cook two trillion hamburgers? Saturn’s biggest moon, Titan, can help you out. Scientists overseeing NASA’s Cassini Mission have measured the amount of propane in the moon’s atmosphere, and discovered quite a lot of this useful fuel. Propane is a non-toxic chemical compound made of carbon and hydrogen. We Earthlings use it for everything from flamethrowers to hot air balloons, and of course for cooking hamburgers and hot dogs on propane grills.

“We estimate there are nearly 700 million barrels of propane on Titan,” said Cassini scientist Conor Nixon of the University of Maryland. “That is enough to fill six billion 20-pound tanks of liquefied propane gas. It sounds like a huge amount, but that would satisfy total U.S. consumption of propane for only 18 months.” Okay, so we’re not going to be harvesting propane from Titan anytime soon, but it’s fun to imagine future space travelers firing up their grills with Titan’s propane gas. Nixon did the math to figure out this hypothetical crazy cookout: “[If you made] a dozen at a time, that’s two trillion hamburgers,” said Cassini’s Nixon, “assuming you stop at medium-well.”

Scientists have known since 1980 that Titan’s atmosphere contains propane, but they needed to analyze data from Cassini’s 2004 through 2008 fly-bys to estimate the amount. Actually, finding propane wasn’t the ultimate goal. The presence of propane indicates that, closer to the ground of the planet, there could be other complex molecules that resemble this gas. Some of these compounds could be building blocks for biological molecules or even DNA. Now that’s more exciting than two trillion hamburgers!

Moon Crash Finds Water!

Smash! A rocket collides with the Moon in a spectacular crash, sending up a plume of dust and debris. Is this an action movie? No! It’s a science experiment led by NASA. In October 2009, NASA scientists directed the rocket Centaur to crash into a dark crater on the south pole of the Moon, a place that hasn’t been disturbed for billions of years. The probe LCROSS (Lunar CRater Observation and Sensing Satellite) rode on the back of the rocket. Just before impact they separated, and the probe used nine different devices to measure and take pictures of the debris splashed up by the rocket. Then scientists studied the data for signs of water. Jackpot!

“Yes, we found water!” said Anthony Colaprete of NASA’s Ames Research Center in California. “And we didn’t just find a little bit, we found a significant amount.” They estimated about 26 gallons of water were kicked up by the crash. But don’t imagine a fountain of liquid water — Moon water is either ice or vapor. It’s also likely mixed in with dirt particles. “If you could clean it, it would be drinkable water,” Colaprete said. This is great news for possible future lunar missions, or even a lunar base.

The scientists found their evidence in spectrograph measurements, which show the wavelengths of light (spectra) bounced back by a material or cloud of materials. Plain dust would show a flat, sloping line — but that’s not what the scientists saw. They found pits and bumps in the exact same places as known water spectra. “There’s a whole lot more beyond the water,” said Colaprete, referring to other mysterious bumps on the plume’s spectra line. “That’s the exciting part!” We’ll just have to wait and see what other compounds have been hiding for billions of years inside dark craters on the Moon. And maybe NASA will sacrifice another probe to find out! (For more about the Moon water discovery, see “A Crash Course in Discovery: There’s Water on the Moon!”)

Warning: Sticky Dust!

Want to explore the Moon? Your worst enemy won’t be little green men or the low gravity — you’ll need to watch out for a tiny but dangerous pest: lunar dust. Unlike Earth dust that tends to sit nicely on top of shelves and cupboards, Moon dust sticks to anything and everything, even vertical metal walls and spacesuits. It also floats around in clouds, making it hard to see.

New research based on 40-year-old data shows that sunlight makes Moon dust stickier. Brian O’Brien, a 75-year-old Australian physicist, made the discovery when he decided to revisit data tapes from Moon research he conducted as part of the Dust Detector Experiment with NASA in 1969 and 1970. “Dust is the number one environmental hazard on the Moon, yet its movements and adhesive properties are little understood,” O’Brien wrote in a paper published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

What makes Moon dust so sticky? It’s a kind of static electricity — like what makes your hair stick to a balloon when you rub it on your head. The tiny dust particles get electrically charged by powerful ultraviolet radiation and X-rays from the Sun. We don’t have this problem on Earth because our atmosphere deflects most of these rays. When there is little to no sunlight, lunar gravity becomes stronger than the electrostatic forces, and the dust falls to the ground.

O’Brien discovered that this transition happens at a 45-degree angle of sunlight. When the sunlight is more intense, dust is super-sticky. When it’s less intense, dust isn’t as big of a problem. So if you’re planning on visiting the Moon, you’d better go during the late evening or early morning, or you might turn into a walking dust magnet!

Jupiter Takes a Hit!

You’d definitely notice if an object the size of several football fields came flying through the sky straight at you! But to the gas giant Jupiter, such an object would be the equivalent of an annoying insect to us. But even bugs can leave nasty welts, and Jupiter was left with a dark spot after a small comet or asteroid struck in July 2009.

Amateur astronomer Anthony Wesley from Australia first noticed the scar on July 19, and scientists from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory started taking pictures the next day. The expanding dark mark in Jupiter’s south polar region is made up of atmospheric debris left over from the impact. The clearest images so far come from the space telescope Hubble, which was interrupted in the middle of calibration to check out Jupiter’s new scar.

Calibration — Adjustment

Hubble’s Troubles

Houston, we have a problem! NASA’s famous space telescope, Hubble, mysteriously broke down on September 27, 2008, just two weeks before a mission was scheduled to send astronauts up to make general repairs on it. When the mission was delayed until 2009, a month of Hubble silence followed. Meanwhile on Earth, NASA engineers rushed to figure out what had happened and to fix the telescope that had been transmitting breathtaking images of outer space back to Earth faithfully for almost twenty years.

The Hubble trouble turned out to be a dead data-formatting unit, which collects information from all of Hubble’s different instruments and sends everything back to Earth. Thankfully, NASA thought ahead and built Hubble with a spare data-formatting unit. After lots of testing, engineers switched over to the back-up unit, and gradually brought Hubble’s cameras and other instruments out of safe (inactive) mode. Not everything went according to plan, especially after one camera and the back-up unit unexpectedly returned to safe mode on October 16, 2008.

As you can see from this beautiful shot of two gravitationally interacting galaxies, taken with Hubble’s Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 on October 30, 2008, the telescope is still alive and kicking — but not completely. A few of Hubble’s instruments are still waiting for that delayed repair mission, which now must include a new back-up data-formatting unit. Hopefully by the time you read this magazine, the space shuttle Atlantis has already blasted off to repair and rejuvenate the aging telescope! At press time, the launch was scheduled for May 12, 2009.

May 2009
Planet Pictures

Gazing up at a night sky full of stars, it’s hard to believe that each tiny dot is a gigantic, burning ball of gas — often much larger and hotter than our own Sun. And what circles around suns? Planets! Astronomers have been finding clear evidence of exoplanets for years in the gravitational wobble of stars, but they never could take pictures of these distant planets because the light of their stars is millions or billions of times brighter! Finally, thanks to new equipment and techniques, two separate research teams released the first-ever images of exoplanets in November 2008.

Before Hubble’s troubles shut the telescope down for a month, it took snapshots of dust around the star Fomalhaut (located 25 light-years away in the Southern Fish constellation). Paul Kalas of the University of California at Berkeley and his team discovered a tiny fleck in the images that changed position between 2004 and 2006, following a path that could only be a planetary orbit! Meanwhile, in Mauna Kea, Hawaii, a team of astronomers led by Christian Marois of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in Livermore, California, pointed the Gemini North and Keck II telescopes at the star HR8799. . .discovering not one, but three tiny specks of light that must be planets!

Everything in HR8799’s solar system is bigger than ours. The distance from the outermost planet to HR8799 is twice Neptune’s distance from our Sun. The three photographed planets are each seven to 10 times the mass of Jupiter, our biggest planet, and 25, 40, and 70 astronomical units (AU) away. One AU is the average distance from the Earth to the Sun. The farthest planet from the Sun in our Solar System, Neptune, is only 30 AU away. “HR8799 has its giant planets in the outer parts, like our solar system does,” explains Bruce Macintosh, also of LLNL, “and so has ‘room’ for smaller terrestrial planets — far beyond our current ability to see — in the inner parts.”

Hubble’s newly discovered exoplanet “Fomalhaut b” is also bigger and brighter than anything in the solar system we call home. It’s no more than three times the size of Jupiter, 120 AU away from its star, and so bright that astronomers think it may have huge Saturn-like rings or multiple moons! Can you find Fomalhaut? It’s the brightest star in the Southern Fish constellation, right at the fish’s mouth. Go to and use the free online interactive night sky map to find out when and where you’ll be able to see the Southern Fish constellation in your area. Email us about your search at [email protected] or write to: I FOUND FOMALHAUT, ODYSSEY, 30 Grove Street, Suite C, Peterborough, NH 03458.

Exoplanets — Planets that orbit a star other than the Sun; also known as extrasolar planets

May 2009
Spiders in Space?

When NASA launched the space shuttle Endeavor in November 2008, they sent more than just seven astronauts into space to fix up the International Space Station (ISS). Two orb-weaving spiders and some butterfly larvae tagged along.

After a successful two-week mission in which the ISS got a new bathroom, sleeping area, and urine recycling system (what a way to get fresh water!), the astronauts are back on Earth. But the spiders and painted lady butterfly larvae stayed in space, adapting to near-zero gravity in their own special living compartments.

Spiders have been to space before; Arabella and Anita, common cross spiders, wove space webs on Skylab in 1973. But these two new “arachnonauts” and their butterfly buddies have the honor of performing especially for kids! A video camera in the main spiders’ habitat broadcast its first tangled web attempts back to Earth, then later showed the world that spiders can adapt faster than expected. After only a week, the main spider created a symmetrical web.

The experiment is sponsored by BioServe Space Technologies, part of the University of Colorado at Boulder, to help teach fifth through ninth graders about gravity and bug behavior. Students across Colorado followed along, watching spiders and butterflies of the same species in their classroom and comparing their activities to the ones in space.

“A lot of spider behavior is based on gravity: hanging upside down, dropping down on a dragline, even web building,” says Stefanie Countryman of BioServe. “At first weightlessness is a shock and they float around a bit, but they get used to it pretty quickly. They tether their silk to the walls and crawl across, rather than dropping down,” she says.

What about the butterfly larvae? Unfortunately, they had a tougher time, and didn’t survive long enough to become space butterflies. “We were amazed at how often the larvae floated off of the food source and how much time and energy they seemed to spend trying to get back,” Countryman says. “The spiders on the other hand are still doing great!”

Salty Secrets

On the southern surface of Mars, there are thick deposits of what seems to be salt, left to dry by ancient pools of briny water. Was there life in that water? Scientists have been forming theories about oceans on Mars for almost twenty years, but in many places where the evidence of water is greatest there are also harsh chemicals like sulphur that would have made it difficult for life-as-we know-it to survive.

Salt is a welcome, friendly sight — the most promising evidence yet that some places on Mars might once have been alive. Just a week after the news about salt on Mars got published in the journal Science in March 2008, the cover story of Astrobiology announced a discovery in salt deposits on a much more familiar planet — Earth. Jack D. Griffith of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill dug up chunks of salt from beneath the New Mexican desert, a place that was once a great ocean. Inside the salt, he found perfectly preserved strands of cellulose. Cellulose is the tough and stringy stuff that makes up plant cell walls. Although the magnified strands in the picture look kind of like human hair, your hair would seem to be the thickness of a tree trunk next to these itty-bitty molecules!

Griffith dated the cellulose at around 250 million years old. Before his discovery, 68-million-year-old bits of protein found in Tyrannosaurus Rex dinosaur fossils were the oldest organic leftovers of life on Earth. It’s hard to find ancient biological material because it usually gets eaten or broken down by sunlight, wind, and water. Salt helps protect against all those dangers.

“So in looking for evidence of life on Mars. . .looking for cellulose in salt deposits is probably a very good way to go,” Griffith said.

But the cellulose itself isn’t a life form, just an important part of an ancient bacteria’s structure. “Cellulose is like the bacteria’s house,” Griffith explained. The story of life and evolution on Mars remains a mystery, but important clues could be trapped in salt!

Galaxy Zoo

Ready to boldly go where no one has gone before? Well, you won’t actually take off in a space ship, but if you surf to, you could be the first human being to see an image of a distant galaxy. But this zoo isn’t just for looking — the astronomers at Oxford University in Oxford, England, who organized the project, need your help!

The Sloan Digital Sky Survery (SDSS) will eventually find and photograph a million galaxies. Until now, most studies of galaxies have only looked at a dozen to a hundred. The problem is, every one of these million new, never-before-seen galaxies needs to be classified, and even the biggest, fastest, modern computers can’t recognize visual patterns as well as your human brain.

You’re probably familiar with the spiral shape of our own galaxy, but did you know galaxies can also look like glowing footballs? These are called ellipticals. In the case of spirals, it’s important for astronomers to know whether they are spinning clockwise or counterclockwise. Don’t worry if you don’t know much about galaxies — there’s a tutorial on the Web site complete with a galaxy-identification quiz to get you started.

If you’re really lucky, you might even find an image of two galaxies merging, or coming together. Mergers give astronomers clues about how galaxies form, grow, move, and change.

Did you try Galaxy Zoo? What did you find? Do you think it’s a good idea to ask the public for help with scientific surveys? Send your thoughts to Galaxy Quest, ODYSSEY, 30 Grove Street, Suite C, Peterborough, NH 03458.

And That’s Just the Tip of the Tail!

Now, get this: When Comet McNaught headed south for the winter (that’s a joke), Northern Hemisphere observers either hopped on a jet and headed south with it or just sat back in their recliners and watched the images multiply on various Web sites (such as

But thanks to an observation by Paul Robinson of Colorado, some amateur astronomers in the Northern Hemisphere extended their views of the comet in a most spectacular way.

You see, on January 16, Robinson saw just the northern tip of the comet’s long tail still sticking up above the western horizon as twilight was ending! In other words, the comet’s tail was so long that while countless people in the Southern Hemisphere were enjoying the great comet spectacular, observers half a world away — in the Northern Hemisphere — were seeing some of its tail!

Robinson said that when he first sighted the tail, it looked like faint auroral rays that stretched 10 degrees above the horizon. A few days later, from very dark skies, the tail streamers (called synchrones) could be followed at least a third of the way up the evening sky!

Such a view has not been seen in the heavens since the tail of Cheseaux’s Comet did the same thing in 1744!

Speaking of Comets. . .

Did you know that you might be made of comet stuff?

Well, sort of, anyway. Here’s the scoop. In February 1999, NASA’s Stardust spacecraft examined Comet Wild 2 up close and personal. Then, after flying through the comet’s tail, Stardust headed back home with a payload of thousands of tiny particles from the comet.

Scientists have now had a chance to analyze the first batch of samples returned by the spacecraft. What they found was not surprising. Writing in the journal Science, Donald Brownlee, an astronomer at the University of Washington and the principal investigator for the Stardust mission, says that Comet Wild 2 seems to contain some complex organic molecules. If true, comets, as long believed, could have played a key role in delivering these organics to the early Earth (after it had cooled down), which could have helped to get life started.

While astronomers don’t claim to know how life got started here on Earth, they do believe that the more organic material that was sent to Earth, the easier it might have been for life to get started. And one efficient way of getting these organics to Earth would have been through collisions with comets — events that would have been plentiful in the early days of Earth’s history.

Now, we’d like to know what you think about this finding. Do you think that comets are humanity’s parents? Send your opinions to “Cosmic Storks,” ODYSSEY, 30 Grove St., Suite C, Peterborough, NH 03458.

Surprise! Did you see the Comet?

It never seems to fail. If astronomers tell you to go outside because there’s going to be a bright comet visible, chances are that by the time clouds and weather move away, the comet has either set, faded, or dipped below the horizon. And that’s sort of the way it was when Comet McNaught sneaked into the evening sky last January and became a beautiful naked-eye object low in the west after sunset.

For the most part, those who saw it either knew an amateur astronomer, or knew someone who knew an astronomer, who knew when and where to look. And wouldn’t you know it, the comet got so bright that it became visible to unaided eyes in broad daylight just a few degrees away from the Sun! No kidding!

Yep, for some reason, this magnificent comet didn’t get a lot of “northern exposure” — at least in the media. Perhaps because newscasters didn’t want us running outside and burning our eyeballs to see a comet that was so close to the Sun.

But listen to this: When the comet slipped below the horizon and entered the night sky over the Southern Hemisphere, people Down Under were dropping their jaws at the amazing site. It was perhaps the most beautiful comet to grace the skies in recent memory. Just look at the photo on this page. Can you imagine seeing such a thing?

Well, unless you were in the Southern Hemisphere at some point last January, that’s exactly what you had to do. . .imagine the view. But, hey, as they say, a picture (after the fact) is worth a thousand words — and in this case, also the cost of airfare.

Pluto Gets Busted!

Pluto is not a planet anymore. It’s not even a minor planet. It’s a dwarf. This, in a nutshell, was the long-awaited decision made last August when a working group of astronomers from 75 countries was challenged to come up with a definition of the word “planet.” After a week of intense debate at an International Astronomical Union meeting in Prague, Czech Republic, the team, led by Harvard astronomer Owen Gingerich, decided on the first scientific definition of a planet.

A planet must meet three criteria: it must (1) orbit the Sun, (2) be round, and (3) have cleared other things out of its orbit. It’s the last part that did Pluto in. You see, unlike the other planets, Pluto orbits the Sun in a highly elliptical path — one that overlaps with Neptune’s. In other words, for a short time during each orbit, Pluto will sail in front of Neptune and steal Big Blue’s status as eighth planet from the Sun. Now the celestial police have decided it’s time to punish the little rascal for its “bad” behavior.

That rogue behavior alone is enough to disqualify Pluto as a planet. But there’s more! Pluto also orbits the Sun in a region of space called the Kuiper Belt, which is chock full of Plutolike objects! Maladjusted Pluto, it seems, is also not very good at cleaning house. Tsk, Tsk.

So, how many planets does our solar system have? Eight: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. By the way, our solar system now also has a third class of lesser objects that orbit the Sun: “small solar system bodies,” a term that will apply to numerous asteroids, comets, and other natural satellites, such as our Moon.

So what is our solar system composed of? Planets, dwarf planets, and small solar system bodies. Now, ODYSSEY would like to know what you think about the IAU’s decision to demote Pluto. Are you OK with it? Send your opinions to “Is Pluto Goofy?,” ODYSSEY, 30 Grove St., Suite C, Peterborough, NH 03458.

“Xena” Gets the Ax!

Oh, no! First Pluto gets demoted, now Xena gets an ax in the back! What’s going on?

First of all, Xena is the largest known dwarf planet in our solar system. (Yes, it’s even larger than Pluto.) Xena was discovered in 2003, when it was given the boring designation 2003 UB313. But after some careful deliberation, the discoverers decided to unofficially name UB313 “Xena,” after the title character from the television show Xena: Warrior Princess. According to Popular Science “Astronomy fans and bloggers seemed to love the nickname, and UB313’s satellite (discovered in 2005) was consequently nicknamed ‘Gabrielle’ after the TV character’s sidekick.”

Alas, poor Xena was not a name liked by committee members of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) responsible for naming planetary bodies (and demoting them). So what’s the official name of Xena? Say hello to Eris — the Greek goddess of discord and mischief. Hmmm.

But wait! There’s more! When Xena got the ax, so too did “Gabrielle,” which has been renamed “Dysnomia,” Eris’s daughter. (Sigh.)

As you might have guessed, ODYSSEY wants to know what you think of the new names for Xena and Gabrielle. Are they classy? Cool? Catchy? Or could-have-done-better? Send your thoughts to: “Name of the Game,” ODYSSEY, 30 Grove St., Suite C, Peterborough, NH 03458. Then look for your response in an upcoming issue.

Giant Planet Puzzler!

Since we’re on a planetary roll, we might as well toss this scoop into the fray.

Astronomers have recently discovered an unusually large and puffy planet orbiting a star other than our Sun.

What’s so strange about that? Well, if this planet is what astronomers think it is, it could force them to reexamine theories about how planets are formed. And perhaps that will lead them to reexamine our own solar system and then reconsider what is a planet. (But they just did that?!)

Meet HAT-P-1 (yep, that’s its name. . .for now), which orbits one member of a pair of stars 450 light-years away, in the constellation Lacerta. HAT-P-1 is the largest of the 200 or so planets that have been detected outside our solar system. Its radius is about 1.38 times that of our largest planet, Jupiter. What’s odd, however, is that its mass is only half that of Jupiter’s. This means that Hat-P-1 is like a giant ball of cork and could float in a bathtub large enough to hold it.

Saturn is our solar system’s floating cork. But HAT-P-1 is so fluffy that it would float almost three times higher than our ringed wonder. That’s probably because, unlike Jupiter or Saturn, this new object doesn’t have any solid core. So it’s like planet “meringue.” (You know, that stuff on lemon pie.)

The problem is that astronomers don’t have a model for such a big planet with such a low density, which means that they don’t understand how such a beast could have formed, which means that they don’t really know everything there is to know about planet formation, which means that they really may not be in a position yet to say what’s a planet and what’s not a planet.

Actually, HAT-P-1 is the second puffy extrasolar planet to be discovered; the other is HD 209458b, which is 4 percent less fluffier than HAT-P-1. It is extremely close to its parent star, one-seventh of the distance between Mercury and the Sun, and it makes a complete orbit once every 4.5 days! Wow! Now, what do you make of that? Bizarre, or what?

Planet’s “Pop” Topped

On average, 4.4 people are born every second. If you stop to look at a clock and imagine that birth rate, it’s almost scary. In fact, as reported in an earlier issue of this magazine, in June 1999 the International Programs Center at the U.S. Census Bureau announced that the world population had hit the 6 billion mark. “This figure,” the Bureau reported, is over 3.5 times the size of Earth’s population at the beginning of the 20th century and roughly double its size in 1960.” What’s more, the time required for the global population to grow from 5 billion to 6 billion was just a dozen years!

If you’re beginning to worry about the availability of beach space this summer, get this: Robert Bernstein of the Bureau’s Public Information Center says that on Saturday, Feb. 25, 2006, at 7:16 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, Earth’s population jumped to 6.5 billion people — a new milestone. (Hurray!?)

Bernstein also says to mark this date on your calendar: Oct. 18, 2012; on that day, at 4:36 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time, our planet will then be home to 7 billion earthlings — that’s four times the number in 1900. And the growth spurt is not predicted to end anytime soon, as most countries are expected to experience population growth through 2050 — when the world population is projected to reach 10 billion!

Amateurs Help in Possible New Planet Discovery

According to a news flash from Sky & Telescope magazine, amateur astronomers have, for the first time, helped in the discovery of a possible planet orbiting another star!

Amateur astronomers Ron Bissinger of California, Bruce Gary of Arizona, Paul Howell of Maine, and Tonny Vanmunster in Belgium, found the new planet under the direction of professional astronomer Peter McCullough (Space Telescope Science Institute). McCullough and his professional colleagues monitor the brightnesses of tens of thousands of relatively bright stars every clear night with two automated, low-light-sensitive cameras on Haleakala volcano on the Hawaiian island of Maui. The project, known as the XO Project, searches for giant planets crossing the face of their parent star. When this happens, the star’s light dips slightly in brightness for several hours.

When the four amateurs carefully monitored one of the most promising candidates identified by the XO Project, their data revealed the telltale periodic dips of a transiting object only 30 percent larger than Jupiter. The XO team had discovered its first planet — now named XO-1b!

McCullough notes that the amateurs could not have discovered this planet without XO’s help. He also says that his telescopes probably would have eventually discovered this planet without amateur assistance. But, he says, it was “much more fun” doing it this way, with amateur involvement.

Jupiter’s “Red Spot Jr.”

If you think climate change on Earth is big, how about climate change on massive Jupiter! It’s popularly known that Jupiter has a Great Red Spot — a giant storm on Jupiter that has persisted for at least 400 years. Well, astronomers have recently discovered a new, little Red Spot, which, they say may be the result of a major climate change occurring in Jupiter’s atmosphere.

Scoops Photo
Jupiter’s Red Spots

Known to some astronomers as “Red Spot Jr.,” the new spot is roughly half the size of its bigger and legendary cousin. Actually, the new red spot isn’t entirely new — just its color! Before it mysteriously changed to the same color as the Great Red Spot, the smaller spot was known as the White Oval BA. It formed after three white oval-shaped storms merged during 1998 to 2000. It is the first time in history that astronomers have witnessed the birth of a new red spot on the giant planet, which is located half a billion miles away.

Now NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope is giving astronomers their most detailed view yet of this second red spot. The images show a level of detail comparable to that achieved by NASA’s Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft as they flew by Jupiter a quarter-century ago.

Some astronomers think the white oval got its red hue as it rose higher in Jupiter’s atmosphere, dredging up material in the process. This new material could then have been chemically altered by the Sun’s ultraviolet light making the spot appear red. The new Hubble images may provide evidence that Jupiter is in the midst of a global climate change that will alter its average temperature at some latitudes by as much as 10 degrees Fahrenheit.

“Shrink-Wrap” Astronaut

Let’s face it: The space suits that the astronauts wore on the Moon in the 1960s and ’70s made those brave pioneers look like the Pillsbury Doughboy. But thanks to advances in materials science, future astronauts could be outfitted in lightweight suits that offer far more flexibility.

“When we get back to the Moon and on Mars, we’re not going there to stay in a habitat,” says Dava Newman, professor in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics and Engineering Systems at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, MA. That’s why Newman and her researchers are trying to “shrink-wrap” the astronaut.

You heard it right. Newman is working on a Bio-Suit System that is, for all intents and purposes, an organic, biodegradable second layer of skin. To wear it, all you have to do is spray it on! Incorporated into that second skin would be artificial muscle fibers that respond to electrical signals. This second skin is being designed to enhance human strength and stamina. It will also embody communications equipment, biosensors, computers, and even climbing gear for spacewalks.

Actually, the Bio-Suit is a bit like underwear. An astronaut will first put on his or her customized elastic Bio-Suit layer. Next, he or she will slip-on a hard torso shell. Next, a portable life-support system will snap onto the hard torso shell. Get this: The Bio-Suit layer will be custom fitted to each astronaut. Très chic! No word yet about color choices.

Happy 15th Anniversary, HST!

It’s time to raise your glass of milk and toast NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope (HST), which is celebrating its 15th anniversary this year. And since its launch in 1990, the telescope has been wowing us with unprecedented images of our universe. Now, to celebrate this special anniversary, HST has captured these two new breathtaking images — one of a majestic spiral galaxy teeming with newborn stars, the other of an eerie-looking spire of gas and dust. They are among the largest and sharpest views taken by Hubble.

A spiral galaxy teeming with newborn stars, and an eerie-looking spire of gas and dust.

The galaxy, M 51 in the constellation of Ursa Major, the Great Bear, is a favorite among amateur astronomers. The image shows the spiral’s classic features, from its curving arms, where newborn stars reside, to its yellowish central core, a home for older stars. A feature of considerable added interest is the companion galaxy located at the end of one of the spiral arms. The image of the spire of glowing dust and gas is yet another favorite of backyard observers, M16, the Eagle Nebula. The new HST image shows only a part of it — just one tall, dense tower of gas that is being sculpted by ultraviolet light from a group of massive, hot stars.

The images, taken by Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys, are 20 times larger than a photograph taken by a typical digital camera. The new images are so sharp that they could be enlarged to billboard size and still retain the stunning details.

The images here are small in comparison to the mural-sized images that will be unveiled at 100 museums, planetariums, and science centers across the country. A list of these sites is available on If you cannot see the pictures at a museum or planetarium, catch them on the new “Gallery” at

Mysterious Pluto
Pluto, the mysterious Planet X discovered by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930, has remained an enigma for 75 years. To this day, debate rages on whether it’s a major planet, or the King of a special class of minor planets. Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of New York’s Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History, calls it a “misbehaved planet.” As “punishment,” he removed Pluto from his exhibit of planets five years ago, lumping it instead with a belt of comets at the edge of the solar system. “I still have folders of hate mail from third-graders,” he said. When Pluto was discovered, our understanding of the deep-recesses of our Solar System was limited. In fact, Pluto was the only object known to orbit the Sun beyond Neptune. Today, however, astronomers have catalogued about 1,000 other small icy objects orbiting the Sun beyond Neptune, and there may be as many as 100,000 of these bodies in what’s called the Kuiper Belt. The fact is, Pluto, with its elongated orbit and odd orbital plane, seems to behave more like other Kuiper Belt objects than other planets.
New Class of Planets

Planet-hunting around other stars is the hottest field in astronomy, with hundreds of researchers joining the race to discover one. And the rate of discovery is amazingly rapid. Indeed, at the end of last summer, U.S. and European astronomers discovered four new planets in just one week!

While no other Earths have been found, astronomers are now picking up worlds that are smaller and more solid than the enormous Jupiter-size and larger gas giants identified earlier. Some of the newly discovered planets are similar to Uranus and Neptune in size, which means that they have about 14 times the mass of Earth. And while that may sound large, consider that many of the previous exo-planets have been about 318 times Earth’s mass. Many astronomers believe that it won’t be long before astronomers detect planets with dimensions and characteristics similar to those of Earth.

“We are getting closer to finding a solar system more like our own — one that has an Earth-size planet in the inner region and a Jupiter-size planet in the outer region,” says Alan Boss, a planet-formation theorist at the Carnegie Institution in Washington. It could be that they’ve found the tip of the iceberg of a wide range of planets of Earthlike mass.

“Rock” Star Is a Big Hit!

It can happen to you. . .being hit by a stone from space, that is. Although the incident is still under investigation, it appears that Pauline Aguss, a 76-year-old woman from Suffolk, England, may have been hit by a meteorite.

Here’s what happened. Aguss was outside hanging laundry when suddenly she felt a sharp pain in her arm. Indeed, when she looked down, she saw a one-inch gash along her forearm. How did the gash get there? Jack Aguss, her husband, may have found the answer the next day. While walking on a garden path, he spotted a walnut-shape rock with a metallic sheen. It was “rusty colored” and had a few crystals in it.

Was it a meteorite?

Just as Jack was showing his wife the rock at breakfast, he heard someone on TV talking about the Perseid meteor shower, which had just taken place. This gave Jack the idea that the rock could have been a meteorite.

As of this writing, astronomers aren’t sure if the rock is from space. David Fagg of the Norfolk Astronomers says that one meteorite makes it through the atmosphere and falls to Earth each week, on average. But there is only a one-in-a-billion chance that anyone will be hit by one.

Regardless of whether the rock that struck Pauline Aguss was from space, her family is just happy that she wasn’t seriously injured.

Local High School Student Sets Sites On Saturn

Most high school seniors hit the beach during summer vacation. Not Jessica Luttkus. This senior from La Cañada High School (about a mile from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA) spent 40 hours a week last summer searching for photo opportunities around Saturn.

Jessica Luttkus during a performance.
Jessica Luttkus during a performance.
(Courtesy JPL / NASA)

You see, Luttkus took a summer job that’s, well, out of this world. At JPL, she used a computer program designed to show what the spacecraft Cassini would see at any given moment as it orbits the ringed planet. Once Luttkus decided on a perfect Kodak moment, she requested that Cassini take the shot.

When Luttkus saw her first image, “Saturn from Far and Near,” she was very pleased. “I even saw it on NASA Television,” she says, “and all over the place.” To date, the image has been used in dozens of print and media stories. The image came out two months before Cassini reached Saturn and at a time when there were few close-up color images of Saturn from Cassini. In the image, a golden Saturn sphere casts a shadow over its rings.

“I look[ed] for just the right moment, when several moons line up or pass behind Saturn’s rings and create the perfect opportunity to take interesting images,” Luttkus says. Last August she had already planned between 150 and 200 observation shots of Saturn. “It’s been a really fun, valuable job experience,” she says.

Although Luttkus has a love of dance and dances pre-professional ballet at the Pasadena Dance Theatre, she is pursuing her passion for science as a freshman at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Saturn Has Two New Moons!

The Cassini spacecraft has discovered two new moons around Saturn, increasing to 33 the number of satellites orbiting the ringed wonder. The two new worlds are tiny tots — each measuring about two miles in diameter. They lie 120,500 miles and 131,000 miles, respectively, from Saturn. Located between the orbits of the moons Mimas and Enceladus and temporarily named S/2004 S1 and S/2004 S2, the new moons just may be the smallest ever discovered around Saturn. The discovery came as a surprise to scientists, who thought that such tiny satellites would have been shattered long ago in collisions with comets.

“One of our major objectives in returning to Saturn was to survey the entire system for new bodies,” says Carolyn Porco, imaging team leader at the Boulder, CO–based Space Science Institute. “We can now add the confirmation of two new moons, unnoticed around Saturn for billions of years until now. Hopefully, we haven’t seen the last of them.”

Researchers say that they will be on the lookout for even more Saturn moons, and will seek close-ups of the ones just found.

Titan: Behind the Veil!

Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, has long been a mystery. That’s because the moon’s surface is hidden beneath a thick carpet of smoggy atmosphere that totally enshrouds it. But last summer, the Cassini spacecraft imaged a section of Titan’s surface in unprecedented clarity for the first time. Using an instrument called the “visual and infrared mapping spectrometer,” space scientists were able to see for the first time the exotic surface of the moon’s southern hemisphere. The spacecraft snapped the image when it passed by at a range of 210,600 miles.

The instrument’s infrared eye, which can penetrate the red end of the spectrum three times more deeply than the human eye can, was designed to see through the moon’s thick haze and atmosphere. The surface features become more blurry toward the limb, where the light reflected off the surface must pass through more atmosphere before reaching the camera. The bright spots near the bottom represent a field of clouds near the south pole. NASA scientists are awed by many strange dark and bright patterns on Titan’s surface. In fact, they do not yet understand how they formed. The smallest features detected on the surface are about 6 miles wide. For more information about the Cassini visit, go to

Black Holes Turned Upside Down

And now for some really way-out news. Three decades ago, Stephen Hawking, a renowned physicist at Cambridge University in England, insisted that matter entering a black hole disappears and emits only a generic form of radiation. He also said that baby universes can branch off a black hole. So, matter entering a black hole leaves no trace in this universe but can reappear in another. The idea was loved by science-fiction fans.

Alas, Hawking now says that he was wrong. His statement has turned the world of black holes on its head. Speaking at the 17th International Conference on General Relativity and Gravitation, Hawking presented new calculations that suggest black holes preserve traces of objects swallowed up and eventually could spit out bits “in a mangled form.”

As far as creating new baby universes goes. . .well, he’s changed his thinking about that, too. Hawking says that there’s only one way into a black hole and only one way out.

“I’m sorry to disappoint science fiction fans,” Hawking said, “but if information is preserved, there is no possibility of using black holes to travel to other universes. If you jump into a black hole, your mass energy will be returned to our universe, but in a mangled form, whiccontains the information about what you were like, but in an unrecognizable state.”

Many astronomers were shocked by Hawking’s announcement, and they have not yet come to accept fully his new thinking — until they see a more detailed paper on the subject this month.

The Ringed Wonder!

The Cassini spacecraft, now in orbit around Saturn, captured this exquisite natural color view of Saturn’s rings. At the time, the spacecraft was at a distance of 4 million miles from Saturn and looking at the rings from a vantage point beneath the ring plane.

Cassini spacecraft captured this exquisite natural color view of Saturn's rings
Cassini spacecraft captured this exquisite natural color view of Saturn’s rings.
(Courtesy NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute)

Saturn has three major rings. From the outside moving in, they are called Ring A, Ring B, and Ring C. The brightest part of the rings, curving from the upper right to the lower left in the image, is the B ring. Notice that many of the individual ringlets that make up Ring B are of a sandy color. Other color variations across the rings can be seen. The colors of the rings give scientists an idea of what’s in them.

Saturn’s rings are made primarily of water ice. Since pure water ice is white, it is believed that different colors in the rings reflect different amounts of contamination by other materials, such as rock or carbon compounds. In conjunction with information from other Cassini instruments, the images will help scientists determine the composition of different parts of Saturn’s ring system. The image scale is 23 miles per pixel.

Hi, Phoebe!

No, not the funny, flaky star on TV’s hit comedy Friends, but Saturn’s moon Phoebe. The sharp image you see here was taken last June by the $3.3 billion, plutonium-powered spacecraft Cassini that came within about 1,285 miles of the dark world.

It was a very important moment. Although Cassini will be at Saturn for years to come, this flyby was the only opportunity we had to see Phoebe, which scientists have dubbed "the mysterious oddball." That’s because it lies farther out than any of Saturn’s other major moons, and orbits the planet backwards. Scientists believe that Phoebe was a captured object, one that originated in the outer reaches of the solar system, as comets do. At some point, it was nudged into the solar system, where it was captured by Saturn’s gravity.

All previous images of Phoebe were distant and blurred — but just look at the detail now! The new images are making planetary scientists nod in satisfaction. What you see is an extremely dark and battered world 136 miles across. It is pockmarked with deep craters from impacts that occurred eons ago. Looking inside these craters, scientists see what appears to be ice, covered by a thin layer of darker material about 1,600 feet thick. So, Phoebe looks like a dirty snowball — like the nucleus of Halley’s Comet. The great number of impact scars also has some researchers looking into the possibility that the little world originated as a litter of smaller bodies that impacted one another and mashed together.

Cassini will study Saturn, its rings, and its 31 known moons over the next four years. It will also send a probe, called Huygens, into the atmosphere of Titan — Saturn’s largest moon — this month. The probe is expected to land on the moon’s surface.

SpaceShipOne Wins Ansari X Prize!

You game? To go into space? No kidding, your chances of being a civilian in space just soared skyward. Last October, the first commercially operated rocket plane, SpaceShipOne, flew into sub-orbital space twice within five days, winning the $10 million Ansari X Prize. Who needs NASA?

With pilot Brian Binnie at the controls, SpaceShipOne rocketed to 69.7 miles, well above the target point of 62 miles required by the X Prize Foundation in order to win the cash prize.

Offered since 1996 by a group of private donors, the competition required the winning team to send three people or an equivalent weight into space, safely return them, and repeat the feat within two weeks. The X Prize sponsors hope to launch a privately funded space flight industry, and had more than two dozen teams from around the world competing for their prize.

"Today we make history," Peter Diamandis, head of the X Prize Foundation said following the historic flight. “Today the winners are the people of Earth.”

The legendary aerospace designer Burt Rutan designed the spaceship and led the winning team; billionaire Paul Allen, cofounder of Microsoft Corp., gave Rutan more than $20 million in funding to build the craft. The technology is owned by a Paul Allen company, called Mojave Aerospace Ventures (MAV). Binnie was the 434th human to leave our planet and go into space — the first to do it aboard a commercially operated rocket plane.

On September 29, 2004, 63-year-old Michael W. Melville piloted SpaceShipOne on the first of the two required flights. Looking like a white tuna with folded-back wings, and carrying Melville and the equivalent weight of two people, the craft was carried into the atmosphere atop a larger plane called White Knight. Melville said the plane "flew like a dream," despite what he jokingly described as a "victory roll." At the top of its arc, the small ship unexpectedly went into dozens of rapid rolls, initialing turning once every two seconds and slowing gradually as the seasoned pilot brought it back under control with stabilizing jets. Moments later it glided safely back to the runway.

Binnie’s flight couldn’t have been smoother. Seconds from being released from the White Knight carrier plane, the pilot ignited SpaceShipOne’s hybrid rocket motor, and boosted the craft to its record altitude. The craft returned to Earth without a hitch.

"I declare that the Mojave Aerospace Ventures has indeed earned the Ansari X Prize," said Rick Searfoss, a former shuttle astronaut and chief judge for the prize at a press conference following the breathtaking flight.

Days before SpaceShipOne’s first flight, Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin Airlines, announced that he would build a new space tourism company based on the technology developed by Rutan and Allen, with flights scheduled to begin in 2007. The initial price tag of a ticket — $200,000!

So, future astronauts, start saving your allowance!

Water Spirit!

Oh, what the heck. Planets are simply in the news these days. So let’s move our focus to Mars and that plucky little rover called Spirit.

The one question that has been on everyone’s mind since just about forever — astronomers and lay people alike — is whether Mars had or has water. In March, Mars rover Opportunity found intriguing evidence that rocks near its landing site were once soaked with water.

Now Opportunity’s sister craft, Spirit, which is on the other side of the planet, also has found something outstanding. While analyzing the composition of a trench it had dug in a large crater, Spirit found salt beneath the surface of Mars. How did the salt get there?

Cornell University astronomer Steve Squyres, the mission’s main scientist, says that it may have been deposited after water drained through the soil, dissolving materials in rocks. It is, he says, the most compelling evidence yet of past water activity since Spirit landed on January 3, 2004.

Ziploc Planets?

Speaking of planets, did you know that if you release salt grains (0.5 millimeter across) in a microgravity environment, they will clump together to form centimeter-size "planets" in seconds?

Just ask astronaut Donald R. Pettit (NASA/Johnson Space Flight Center). He watched it happen while orbiting Earth in the International Space Station. Pettit wasn’t trying to create planets. He was just curious to see what would happen if he shook a plastic bag containing salt, sugar, and coffee grounds into microgravity. Little did he know his "fun" experiment might help theorists solve one of most perplexing problems surrounding the formation of planets.

Theorists have long had trouble "growing" planets from small dust grains — the ones believed to be in the primordial disk of spinning gases and dust out of which our solar system formed. In their models, high winds lead to high-velocity (100 meters/second) impacts that break apart, rather than "grow" particles to millimeter-size fragments. But Pettit’s experiment revealed that tiny particles in a microgravity environment appear to be tougher than previously believed — tough enough to withstand high impacts and congeal.

Of course, the experiment was far from controlled or precise. But it is intriguing and has given theorists new questions to ponder. Do salt grains bouncing around in a Ziploc bag truly represent the particle size of material forming an early solar system? Is their density the same? And what about the rate of collisions observed? No one knows the answers to these and other questions, but one thing is certain: Theorists are now investigating the toughness of these little grains.

ART: Show Geek scientist (white lab coat and glasses) in one corner of a boxing ring; he’s wearing boxing gloves. In the other corner is a pile of little particles all with boxing gloves. Scientist is saying,"Okay, let’s see how tough you really are!"

Jet-Black Venus!

Usually when astronomers speak about seeing Venus, they’re referring to that brilliant beacon in the sky. But did you see it? The transit of Venus on June 8? If so, count yourself among the countless millions of earthlings who stood in the black shadow of Venus as our sister planet passed in front of the sun’s disk for the first time since December 6, 1882!

It was an exceedingly long event. Earth-size Venus took more than six hours to cross the face of the sun — unlike an eclipse of the sun by the moon, which can take only a matter of minutes. And although there was not a lot of science the ordinary viewer could do, it still was an amazing sight.

Alan MacRobert, a senior editor at Sky & Telescope magazine, says, "I thought I was ready for how this would look, but I wasn’t. It was so much more powerful. Venus looked just gigantic. It was a big black hole punched in the sun. At times I really had a 3-D impression of a black planet hanging in space between the sun and us. The whole thing was so clean. Pictures just don’t convey it."

The phenomenon was visible to an estimated five billion of the planet’s six billion people, but not everyone could see it firsthand, due to clouds or geography. Many took advantage of broadcasts on television and the Internet. The European Southern Observatory’s Webcast site, for instance, got 1,500 hits per second about half an hour after the transit began.

If you missed this event, don’t worry too much. You have another chance in 2012. The next transit after that, however, won’t be until 2117 — that’s a 105-year wait!

NASA Can Read Your Thoughts!

Shhh. Be careful what you think. The day is nearing when Big Brother can hear the unspoken word!

It’s true. In an incredible breakthrough, NASA has developed a computer program that comes close to reading unspoken thoughts. It does so by analyzing nerve commands to the throat.

Developer Chuck Jorgensen (NASA’s Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, CA) and his team found that, by placing sensors under the chin and one on each side of the Adam’s apple, scientists can pick up the brain’s commands to the speech organs.

What Jorgensen is actually analyzing is "silent speech, "such as when a person silently reads or talks to himself. "A person using the subvocal system thinks of phrases and talks to himself so quietly that the speech cannot be heard," Jorgensen says, "but the tongue and vocal cords do receive speech signals from the brain." On early trials, the program could recognize with 92 percent accuracy six words and 10 numbers that the team repeated subvocally.

A computer that can recognize silent speech could be useful on space missions or by air traffic controllers. Another logical spinoff would be for use by the handicapped. Before anything concrete happens, however, the equipment will need to be improved. So, what do you think about this new development?

Amateur Astronomer Discovers a New Nebula!

Despite the fact that virtually every corner of the visible universe has been mapped over and over again by some of the most sophisticated telescopes and instruments of our times, an amateur astronomer, using a tiny homemade telescope in his back yard, recently discovered a cloud of dust and gas in space that had gone unnoticed since the beginning of recorded history!

Seems incredible, doesn’t it? But it’s true.

McNeil's Nebla in relation to the Messier 78 Nebula
McNeil’s Nebla (lower right) in relation to the Messier 78 Nebula

On the night of January 23, 2004, Jay McNeil connected a CCD (Charge Coupled Device) camera to a 3-inch refractor from his home in western Kentucky and imaged one of the most popular objects in the heavens — a grouping of stars, dust, and gas in Orion known as Messier 78. Later, when he compared his image of M78 to those taken by other amateurs, he noticed "something funky-looking in the field [of view]."

That funky something was a new reflection nebula, meaning a cloud of dust and gas that shines by reflected starlight. The reason this nebula went unnoticed for so long is that the star whose light is now causing the nebula to shine is undergoing an outburst. The star’s light varies, and when it is faint, the nebula disappears. When it brightens substantially, the nebula suddenly pops into view. It’s like a game of cosmic peekaboo.

McNeil’s "peekaboo" nebula may not be in its "I see you" phase for long. Astronomers now studying the object believe that the star will fade to its previous brightness in a matter of months or years. When it does, the nebula’s light will essentially wink out — until the star flares again!

Mystery Threads on Mars

A new mystery has "unraveled" on Mars. . . perhaps literally.

Here’s the scoop. You see, while scientists were eagerly poring over images of the Martian surface taken by NASA’s Opportunity Mars Exploration Rover (MER), they saw some fine tiny threadlike features in the soil.

The teeny threads — measuring only a few centimeters in length — have caused some humans to yell, "Aha!" Meaning. . .hmmm. . .meaning what? The presence of these tiny threads on Mars has made MER Principal Investigator Steve Squyres (Cornell University) feel, well, a bit frayed.

The fact is that the threads were discovered very close to Opportunity‘s landing site, a tiny crater within Meridiani Planum. That means that they could very well be fabric torn from the giant airbags that protected the rover as it landed. These bags "took quite a beating," Squyres says, as they bounced and rolled across the Martian surface. So it’s not surprising that tiny bits of fabric may lie around the landing site.

Still, Squyres admits that for now, "We don’t know what these things are." We’ll know more once Opportunity leaves the crater it’s now exploring. If the rover ventures farther away from the landing sight and still sees threads in the soil. . .well, then maybe it will be the scientists who are shouting, "Aha!" Then, hopefully, we will learn what the threads are.

Meanwhile, we’d like to hear from you. Give us a shout and tell us what you think these mystery threads are. Send your ideas to "Nice Threads," c/o ODYSSEY, 30 Grove St., Suite C, Peterborough, NH 03458.

Pluto’s Twin?

Question: What’s smaller than the smallest major planet but larger than the largest minor planet?

If you guessed "2004 DW," you’re a winner. In fact, 2004 DW itself may be the winner of the size championship in the Kuiper Belt — that curious family of icy minor planets orbiting the sun beyond Neptune.

Michael E. Brown (California Institute of Technology) and Chad A. Trujillo (Gemini Observatory) discovered 2004 DW last February while using the 48-inch telescope atop Palomar Mountain in California. The new object lies 4.4 billion miles from Earth and follows an elliptical orbit. It revolves around the sun in 252 Earth years.

Just how big is it? Although DW’s size has yet to be determined accurately, preliminary estimates make it as "small" as 994 miles in diameter or as "large" as 1,429 miles across.

If we go with the small size, then 2004 DW is larger than 50000 Quaoar, the previous minor-planet king of the Kuiper Belt. It’s also more than half the size of Pluto and larger than Pluto’s moon, Charon. If we accept the larger value, 2004 DW is as large as Pluto!

Interestingly, although Pluto is still considered a major planet today, many astronomers believe it is a Kuiper Belt body. So the discovery of 2004 DW only adds fuel to the fiery debate on whether Pluto is a major or minor planet. Let us know what your thoughts are on the matter. Write to "Major or Minor?," ODYSSEY, 30 Grove St., Suite C, Peterborough, NH 03458.

Black Holes Turned Upside Down

Three decades ago, Stephen Hawking, a renowned physicist at Cambridge University in England, insisted that matter entering a black hole disappears and emits only a generic form of radiation. He also said that baby universes can branch off a black hole. So matter entering a black hole leaves no trace in this universe but can reappear in another. The idea was loved by science-fiction fans.

Alas, Hawkings now says he was wrong. His statement has turned the world of black holes on its head. Speaking at the 17th International Conference on General Relativity and Gravitation, Hawkings presented new calculations that suggest preserve traces of objects swallowed up and eventually could spit bits out "in a mangled form." As far as creating new baby universes . . . well, he’s changed his thinking about that too. He says there’s only one way in a black hole and only one way out.

"I’m sorry to disappoint science fiction fans," Hawkings said, " but if information is preserved, there is no possibility of using black holes to travel to other universes. If you jump into a black hole, your mass energy will be returned to our universe, but in a mangled form, which contains the information about what you were like, but in an unrecognizable state."

Many astronomers were shocked by Hawkings’ announcement, and they have not yet come to accept fully his new thinking — until they see a more detailed paper on the subject this month.

New Martian Meteorite

While the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity are probing rocks tens of millions of miles away, scientists on Earth are doing the same . . . but on Earth. In fact, this past July, scientists from the U. S. Antarctic Search for Meteorites Program announced the discovery of a Martian meteorite recovered 750 kilometers from the South Pole.

According to a report in Scientific American magazine, members of the Antarctic Search Team found a 715-gram chunk of black rock that turns out to be from the red planet mars! They found it after scoured the Miller Range of the Transantarctic Mountains in Antarctica during the 2003-2004 summer season. While the black rock, dubbed MIL 03346, was one of more than 1,000 samples recovered by the team, it was the only one from Mars. It is the seventh recognized member of the nakhlite group of meteorites from the red planet, which traveled to Earth after an impact event on Mars some 11 million years ago.

Deep Into the Void

Astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope have seen the deepest ever into space. And what they saw was not expected.

To take the deepest portrait of the visible universe ever achieved by humankind — called the Hubble Ultra Deep Field (HUDF) — required taking a million-second-long exposure. The image reveals the first galaxies to emerge from the so-called "dark ages," the time shortly after the big bang when the first stars reheated the cold, dark universe. And there are a lot of them! The image contains an estimated 10,000 galaxies. In ground-based images, the same patch of sky (just one-tenth the diameter of the full Moon) is largely empty.

"Hubble takes us to within a stone’s throw of the big bang itself," says project leader Massimo Stiavelli (Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Md.). A key question facing astronomers is whether the universe appears to be the same at this very early time as it did when the cosmos was between 1 and 2 billion years old.

What’s surprising is that the galaxies display a wide range sizes, shapes, and colors. Astronomers expected to see more order and similarity among the galaxies. Even more surprising is a zoo of oddball galaxies littering the field. Some look like toothpicks; others like links on a bracelet. A few appear to be interacting. Their strange shapes are a far cry from the majestic spiral and elliptical galaxies we see today.

Unlike the mess in your room, the new data are expected to lead to dozens of research papers that will offer new insights into the birth and evolution of galaxies. These oddball galaxies chronicle a period when the universe was more chaotic. Order and structure were just beginning to emerge — sort of like your room after a fun weekend, no?

Cassini-Huygens Nears Saturn

On July 1, 2004, the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft will fire its main engine, reduce its speed, and enter orbit around the ringed planet Saturn! The spacecraft will then begin a four-year tour of the planet, its spectacular ring system, and its mysterious moons.

Image of Saturn from Cassini
Image of Saturn from Cassini
(Courtesy NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute)

During the Saturn Tour, Cassini will complete 74 orbits, perform 44 close flybys of the cloud-enshrouded moon Titan, and do numerous passes of many of Saturn’s other icy moons.

What can we expect to see? Just look at the image here. It was taken when the spacecraft was still 26.4 million kilometers (16.4 million miles) from Saturn! Even at that distance, the little craft observed several dark storms brewing in the planet’s atmosphere. In fact, this particularly turbulent region in Saturn’s southern hemisphere has produced quite a few storms during Cassini’s approach to Saturn. Some of those storms have merged into single larger storms. The scale of these storms is enormous by Earth standards.

Just imagine how much better the images will be once Cassini enters orbit around Saturn this month. The image you see here is just one of many tens of thousands we can expect.

Young Astronomers Honored

Each year since 1993 the Astronomical League has recognized outstanding astronomy achievements by U.S. high-school students through its National Young Astronomer Award. Thousands of high school students from across the United States were eligible to compete for the 2004 award.

This year’s first-place winner is John Davis, a senior at Penfield High School in Penfield, New York. Davis is cited for his accomplishments in telescope making and astrophotography. At age 14 he began to machine telescope parts and mounts from scrap in his school’s workshop as well as his family’s basement. Soon he turned this after-school hobby into a successful commercial enterprise. His company, Gemini Instruments, has sold custom-made equipment to amateur astronomers in the US, Hong Kong, Canada, and Australia.

Second-place winner Morgan MacLeod is a junior at Greely High School in Cumberland, ME. He has done extensive research with variable stars (one that change their brightness over time). His project — "Light Curves of Variable Stars" — won first place in the Maine State Science and Technology Fair, Physics and Chemistry division. Among other things, his research revealed that one star, long classified as a variable star, may not be variable after all. His goal is to collect further data to refine this analysis.

Third-place winner, Yvette Cendes, is a senior at The Ellis School in Pittsburgh, PA. Yvette became interested in astronomy in the 8th grade. After checking an astronomy book out or her school library she became hooked and started reading everything astronomy related that she could get her hands on. She has been able to incorporate astronomy into academics through her advanced topics in science program at her high school. She learned the constellations and the locations of bright sky objects with a pair of binoculars. In ninth grade Yvette received an 8" telescope as a Christmas present. Since then she has spent hundreds of hours logging observations. Her primary viewing interest is in multiple star systems. Yvette and other teenage amateur astronomers met on the internet and ended up forming the Astronomy Club for Teens, a club for young astronomers around the world.

To quote one of the judges for this program after reviewing this year’s submissions, "As always, each individual has demonstrated a level of accomplishment for which they should be proud, and ideally they remain active with their astronomy clubs and with the League in the future."

Touchdown on Mars

The room felt like a lightning storm had just passed. Everyone in it was jumpy. . .wired with expectation. . .and worried. Last January scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, CA, were waiting anxiously for a craft called Spirit to land their robot on Mars.

You might say they had reason to worry. Of fourteen previous attempts to land on the Red Planet over many decades, only three had succeeded. That night, one hundred million miles away, a golf-cart-sized rover cradled in a lander called Spirit, was falling through the purple Martian skies. If all went well, the lander soon would pass the elevation where airliners fly in Earth’s sky. Spirit would perform a series of split-second-timed maneuvers using rockets and parachutes, and balloon-like airbags would inflate, surrounding the delicate craft for landing. Finally, Spirit would bounce on the rugged surface as high as a four-story building before coming to rest. That was the plan.

Those who put their know how and spirit into designing and assembling Spirit, and then launching it seven months earlier, stared unblinking at their computer screens. If the worst happened, there would still be hope. Spirit‘s sister craft, Opportunity, would try to land three weeks later. But oh! How wonderful it would be if Spirit made it down, unfolded its solar panels, and released its precious cargo. How amazing it would be to see those first pictures taken by a robot on an alien world!

The scientists listened to hear electronic tones from the craft saying "I’ve done that! Now I’ve done that, too! I’m still okay." Since it takes radio signals eleven minutes to reach Earth from Mars, they knew that Spirit‘s fate had already been determined. Then the long-awaited tone came, slicing the control room tension like a craft slices through an atmosphere. "I’m okay," the lander radioed. "I’m here and I’m well." Within minutes the rover was sending electronic postcards of a desolate plain marked with rocks, sandy hollows, and distant hills, confirming that she was settled on the floor of an ancient lakebed in Gustav Crater. Amidst handshakes, hugs, and tears on Earth, the adventure of offroading on Mars had begun.

Watch daily for the latest Mars Rover photos at:

Powerful "Conveyor Belts" on Sun

Sunspots appear as mere dark spots on the sun’s surface. In reality, they are magnetic regions with field strengths thousands of times stronger than the Earth’s magnetic field. Curiously, the number of sunspots visible waxes and wanes with an approximate 11-year cycle. Now, NASA and university astronomers believe they know why.

David Hathaway and Ed Reichmann (NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center) and Dibyendu Nandy (Montana State University in Bozeman), reviewed the positions and sizes of all sunspots seen on the sun since 1874. The results show that the sunspots appear in two bands on either side of the sun’s equator. "Although the individual sunspots come and go from week to week," Hathaway says, "the central positions of the bands in which they appear drift slowly toward the solar equator over the course of each 11-year sunspot cycle."

Before this study, scientists believed that this equatorward drift was a wavelike process involving magnetic forces. But Hathaway and his colleagues discovered that the 11-year sunspot cycle is apparently driven in part by a giant conveyor belt–like, circulating current within the sun.

This giant circulation system originates 125,000 miles (201,162 kilometers) below the sun’s surface, where the greatly compressed gases move from the sun’s poles to its equator at about three miles (5 km) per hour (a leisurely walking pace). The gases then rise near the equator and turn back toward the poles, traveling in the surface layers where the gas is less compressed, and moving at a faster rate of approximately 20 to 40 mph (32 to 64 kph).

The speed of this circulation system changes slightly from one sunspot cycle to the next. The circulation is faster in cycles shorter than the average 11-year period and slower in cycles longer than the average period. This strongly indicates that the circulation acts like an internal clock that sets the period of the sunspot cycle.

The circulation also appears to influence the strength of future cycles, as seen in the number and sizes of the sunspots produced — not in the cycle immediately following, but rather in a two-cycle or 22-year time lag!

The Sun is now in the declining phase of the current sunspot cycle that peaked in 2000 and 2001. Because the circulation flow was fast during the previous cycle, the astronomers believe that the next cycle will be a strong one, peaking in the years 2010 and 2011.

Odyssey Reveals That Mars Is All Wet

That’s NASA’s 2001 Mars Odyssey spacecraft, not ODYSSEY magazine, of course. The spacecraft was launched on April 7, 2001, and arrived at Mars on October 24, 2001. Its primary mission: to map the amount and distribution of the chemical elements and minerals that make up the Martian surface.

Since February 2002, however, it has been on the search for hydrogen, most likely in the form of water ice, in the shallow subsurface of Mars. Now, some "breathtaking" new maps of Mars, showing likely sites of water, have just been released by Los Alamos National Laboratory, whose scientists developed instruments aboard the spacecraft.

Los Alamos space scientist Bill Feldman says that the "new pictures are just breathtaking." He is most excited about the fact that the detected hydrogen "follows the geography of Mars beautifully." In other words, right where you’d expect water to flow, you find hydrogen. "There’s a lane of hydrogen-rich material following the western slopes of the biggest volcanoes in the solar system," Feldman says. One maximum reading sits right on Elysium mons, a volcano, and another is in the deepest canyon in the solar system.

From about 55 degrees latitude to the poles, Mars boasts extensive deposits of soils that are rich in water-ice. According to Feldman, a typical pound (0.45 kilogram) of soil scooped up in those polar regions would yield an average of half a pound of water if it were heated in an oven. Lower concentrations have also been found closer to Mars’s equator. Surprisingly, two large desert areas also show indications of relatively large concentrations of subsurface hydrogen.

And the show is not over. In the months to come, Los Alamos’s instruments will continue to improve the hydrogen map and solve more Martian moisture mysteries. We’re just at the tip of the iceberg when it comes to knowing all there is to find out about Martian water and where it’s hiding.

The Oldest Planet

Now, for some "old" planet news. NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has confirmed the existence of the oldest known planet in our Milky Way galaxy. Its age comes in at a whopping 13 billion years! That’s more than twice as old as Earth’s 4.5 billion years. In fact, it’s about as old as a planet can be!

Astronomers have known about the object since 1988, when it was suspected to be a planet. But no one was certain until NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope recently revealed its true identity. After making a series of complicated measurements, Hubble confirmed that it is indeed a planet — one that is 2.5 times the size of Jupiter.

Apparently, the planet formed around a young, sunlike star, barely one billion years after our universe’s birth in the Big Bang. The ancient planet must have had an interesting history, especially if you consider that it orbits a peculiar pair of burned-out stars in the crowded core of M4 — a globular cluster of more than 100,000 stars. (M4 is located 5,600 light-years away, in the summer constellation Scorpius.)

Most likely, the planet is a gas giant like Jupiter, so it is very improbable that it would host life. Regrettably, it is unlikely that any civilization witnessed and recorded the dramatic history of this planet, which began at nearly the beginning of time itself.

But that shouldn’t stop you from dreaming. Send us a cartoon of what you think life on this old planet would look like. Send the drawing to By Jove, c/o ODYSSEY, 30 Grove St., Suite C, Peterborough, NH 03458.

If a Black Holes Burps, Does Anyone Hear It?

Most — if not all — large galaxies probably have a supermassive black hole at their centers. It’s been known for years that our Milky Way has a black hole that is some three million times as massive as our sun at its heart.

Now, having one monster black hole at the center of our galaxy is awesome, but can you imagine having two?

If astronomer Brad Hansen (University of California at Los Angeles) and his colleague Milos Milosavljevic (California Institute of Technology in Pasadena) are correct, the Milky Way just may have a second black hole — a smaller one that is thousands of times more massive than the sun. It probably originated inside a young star cluster that had formed about five light-years away from the monster black hole at the center of our galaxy. In time, the cluster and its little black hole fell prey to the monster black hole’s intense gravitational pull, which began to reel it in.

As the smaller black hole began moving toward the monster, its own gravity grabbed and carried the surrounding younger stars with it — like hostages. Right now, the data suggest that the smaller black hole is orbiting the monster one roughly once every 100 years. As it spirals in, it flings out some of its captives, which the monster hole devours. Such a scenario, the researchers say, could help explain how the monster black hole grew so fat in the first place.

And, yes, at some time in the distant future, the monster hole will gulp down the smaller hole, too, and the mass of the smaller black hole will fatten the monster black hole even more. Burp!

Fatal Impact

The decision is in. We now know the most likely cause of the space shuttle Columbia‘s fatal reentry. The culprit — and you probably guessed it — is the insulating foam that lodged free of the main fuel tank at liftoff and hit the orbiter’s left wing. Disaster detectives for the Columbia Accident Inquiry Board set off to pinpoint the exact spot on the Columbia that was damaged by the foam. After an exhaustive investigation, they reached an overriding conclusion: The insulating foam’s fatal point of impact was on a single reinforced carbon panel on the left wing’s leading edge.

Columbia at liftoff
Columbia at liftoff.
(Courtesy National Air and Space Museum)

Several lines of evidence have now converged to identify the panel as number 8. Pieces of panel 8 were found strewn over a far wider area than other panels, suggesting that it was first to come off as the wing fell apart. Also, tiles from the area of the wing behind panel 8 were found nearer the start of the debris trail than others.

The Board’s official report laid out what courses of action NASA engineers and managers need to take to ensure safer shuttle travel. These include three most-critical issues: the elimination or reduction of the chances of foam detaching from the shuttle’s main fuel tank; making the shuttle stronger to withstand such strikes if they do occur; and improving the ability to inspect and repair such damage in orbit.

NASA is expected to take immediate action to address the issues.

The Distant Planet

What’s the farthest planet from the Sun? Well, a new discovery by astronomers places that planet not in our solar system but in one 5,000 light-years away. The new Jupiter-size planet, which bears the odd-sounding name OGLE-TR-56b, orbits its parent star so closely (closer than Mercury is to our sun) that it completes one revolution every 29 hours. In other words, in the time it takes the Earth to spin once on its axis, OGLE will have almost completed one orbit around its sun — a feat that takes us 365 days.

The discovery was the result of a new planet-searching technique called the "transit method." Using several large telescopes — including one of the 10-meter Kecks atop Mauna Kea, Hawaii — astronomers can now search for new planets by looking for signs of them passing in front of (transiting) their parent stars. When such a transit happens, the planet blocks a little of the star’s light, an occurrence that astronomers can detect. What’s amazing is that the drop in light that astronomers have to measure is akin to that of a mosquito flying in front of a searchlight 320 kilometers away. Yet, they have achieved success!

With this new technique, astronomers now can hunt for planets beyond the roughly 160 light-years of nearby space in which other new planets had been found. The number of stars that can now be examined jumps from 40,000 to 100 million or more. "We stand on the threshold of a new era of exploration and discovery," says Harvard astronomer Dimitar Sasselov. "We have found a better way to detect new worlds in our own Milky Way galaxy that paves the way for future planetary discoveries." The total number of known planets outside our solar system now exceeds 100.

Wing Damage Caused Space Shuttle Columbia Break-up
by M.J. Dyson

The Columbia Investigation Board, formed to find the cause of the loss of the space shuttle Columbia over Texas on February 1, 2003, has determined that a damaged wing caused the shuttle to spin out of control and break into fiery chunks. Commander Rick Husband, Pilot Willie McCool, Mission Specialists Michael Anderson, Kalpana Chawla, Laurel Clark, David Brown; and the first Israeli astronaut, Ilan Ramon died.

The Board found that 81 seconds after launch on January 16, a piece of foam from the orange fuel tank struck Columbia‘s left wing. Analysis declared the impact was not a safety issue. However, unknown until after the accident, radar saw an object, come off Columbia one day later. Experts think this object was a T-seal from the left wing’s leading edge.

Video taken prior to reentry showed a happy crew on their way home after completing their 16-day science mission. A string of caution messages weren’t recognized as critical until the crew’s last words, "Roger, uh. . ." were suddenly cut off.

Photos showed that by then at least 16 pieces had fallen off the shuttle, leaving a gap in the left wing. Entry friction created gas of 3,000 degrees that cut through the exposed wing skin like a blowtorch. Aluminum vaporized. Titanium latches melted. Like a flat tire on a car, the damaged wing caused Columbia to veer out of control. A master alarm alerted the crew. But bail out was not possible at 20,520 kph and an altitude of 60 kilometers. Columbia ripped apart less than a minute after 9 a.m. Data recorded on the ground assured Columbia‘s contribution to science, though biological samples, animals, and insects were lost with the crew.

President Bush vowed, "Our journey into space will go on." The investigation, expected to cost about $500 million, will tell NASA how to get the three remaining shuttles safely flying again in 2004. Until then, Russian spacecraft will transport crew (limited to two) and supplies to the station. Shuttles are needed to finish space station assembly and continue the science mission of Columbia‘s brave crew.

For more information, visit:

The Oldest Planet

NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has confirmed the existence of the oldest known planet in our Milky Way galaxy. It’s age comes in at a whopping 13 billion years! That’s more than twice as old as Earth’s 4.5 billion years. In fact, it’s about as old as a planet can be.

Astronomers have known about the object since 1988, when it was suspected to be a planet. But no one was certain until NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope recently revealed its true identity. After making a series of complicated measurements, Hubble confirmed that it is indeed a planet — one that is 2.5 times the size of Jupiter.

Artist's view of planetary system in globulal cluster M4
Artist’s view of planetary system in globulal cluster M4
(NASA and G. Bacon (STScI))

Apparently, the planet formed around a young, sun-like star barely 1 billion years after our universe’s birth in the Big Bang. The ancient planet must have had an interesting history, especially if you consider it orbits a peculiar pair of burned-out stars in the crowded core of M4 — a globular cluster of more than 100,000 stars. (M4 is located 5,600 light-years away in the summer constellation Scorpius.)

Most likely, the planet is a gas giant, like Jupiter, so it is very improbable that it would host life. Regrettably, it is unlikely that any civilization witnessed and recorded the dramatic history of this planet, which began at nearly the beginning of time itself.

But that shouldn’t stop you from dreaming. Send us a cartoon of what you think life on this old planet would look like. Send the drawing to:

By Jove
c/o ODYSSEY Magazine
30 Grove St., Suite C
Peterborough, NH 03458

Detecting Water on Mars: It’s a Gas!

Many astronomers are certain that Mars has water. They just don’t know where it is. It’s certainly not on the surface — at least now, though it might have been there in the past. So they’ve been sniffing around for clues as to where that water might have gone.

Actually, "sniffing around" just might be the way to find out. So far, space probes have found water vapor in the Martian atmosphere and some water ice at the Martian poles. Recently NASA’s Mars Odyssey spacecraft detected traces of hydrogen, almost certainly bound up in ice very near the surface. Unfortunately, the radar aboard that craft has a hard time distinguishing between ice and solid rock.

But there may be a way to overcome that problem. Jean-Christophe Sabroux (the Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety in Saclay, France) says we should be "sniffing around" for puffs of radioactive radon gas. Radon is produced by the radioactive decay of uranium, which is common in rocks on Earth and Mars. The reaction kicks out radon at high speed, which slams into minerals inside the surrounding rock, trapping it underground. But if there is ice nearby, the reaction is different. Ice will slow the radon, allowing it to pass through the ice and diffuse up to the surface as a gas. That means a standard radon detector — which weighs just a few tenths of a gram, has no moving parts and consumes only a fraction of a watt — could be used to detect surface emissions from underground ice reserves.

If radon is detected, there is water or ice underground. If no radon is detected, the Martian soil is definitely dry. "It’s so straightforward," Sabroux says. The idea for a radon sensor has now been added to a French proposal for a NASA mission in 2009.

Our Hilly Sun

It’s easy to imagine our Sun as a smooth ball of hot gas. But it’s not, and Tom Berger of Lockheed Martin’s Solar and Astrophysics Lab (LMSAL) in Palo Alto, California can prove it.

Berger and an international team of astronomers used the Swedish 1-meter Solar Telescope (SST) on the island of La Palma in the Canary Islands to take the most detailed pictures yet of the edge of our Sun. By looking at the limb of the Sun rather than, say, its center, the researchers could see the "terrain" of the surface in three dimensions. The view at the limb is like hang-gliding into New York City from the Atlantic; the view at the center of the disk is like seeing the city from the space shuttle when it’s flying directly overhead. Not surprisingly, Berger’s images are twice as clear as any previous image — and what they show is surprising.

Picture of the edge of our Sun
Picture of the edge of our Sun.

Until recently, astronomers thought of the visible surface of the Sun was relatively flat and featureless, punctuated only by an occasional sunspot. But Berger’s new 3-D images show dark sunspots nestled among mountainous 280-mile (450-kilometer) high peaks and valleys whose surface is littered with multitudes of "mole hills." They also show detailed structure in bright spots on the Sun known as faculae (meaning "little torches"), which can reach between 150 and 400 kilometers (93 and 250 miles) in length. The new 3-D images show them to be great walls of luminous gas.

The surface’s irregular pattern (made up of so-called "granules") is formed by the convection of heat. So looking at the edge of the Sun is like flying over a cloudscape with thunderheads towering over surrounding plains of cumulous clouds with swelling cauliflower tops — only each solar granule covers an area the size of Texas.

Powerful ‘Conveyor Belts’ on Sun

Sunspots appear as mere dark spots on the Sun’s surface. In reality they are magnetic regions with field strengths thousands of times stronger than the Earth’s magnetic field. Curiously, the number of sunspots visible waxes and wanes with an approximate 11-year cycle. Now NASA and university astronomers believe they know why.

David Hathaway and Ed Reichmann (NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center) and Dibyendu Nandy (Montana State University in Bozeman), reviewed the positions and sizes of all sunspots seen on the Sun since 1874. The results show that the sunspots appear in two bands on either side of the Sun’s equator. "Although the individual sunspots come and go from week-to-week," Hathaway says, "the central positions of the bands in which they appear drift slowly toward the solar equator over the course of each 11-year sunspot cycle."

Before this study, scientists believed this equator-ward drift was a wave-like process involving magnetic forces. But Hathaway and his colleagues discovered that the 11-year sunspot cycle is apparently driven in part by a giant conveyor belt-like, circulating current within the Sun.

This giant circulation system originates 125,000 miles (201,162 kilometers) below the Sun’s surface where the greatly compressed gases move from the Sun’s poles to its equator at about three miles (5 km) per hour (a leisurely walking pace). The gases then rise near the equator and turn back toward the poles, traveling in the surface layers where the gas is less compressed (moving at a faster rate of approximately 20 to 40 mph [32 to 64 kph]).

The speed of this circulation system changes slightly from one sunspot cycle to the next. The circulation is faster in cycles shorter than the average 11-year period and slower in cycles longer than the average period. This is a strong indication that this circulation acts like an internal clock that sets the period of the sunspot cycle.

The circulation also appears to influence the strength of future cycles, as seen in the number and sizes of the sunspots produced — not in the cycle immediately following, but rather in a two-cycle or 22-year time lag!

The Sun is now in the declining phase of the current sunspot cycle that peaked in 2000 and 2001. Because the circulation flow was fast during the previous cycle, the astronomers believe the next cycle will be a strong one, peaking in the years 2010 and 2011.

To Build a Universe

Two of NASA’s Great Observatories are beginning to harvest new clues to the origin and evolution of the universe’s largest building blocks, the galaxies. Yes, the Hubble Space Telescope has joined forces with the Chandra X-ray Observatory to survey a broad swath of sky that has tens of thousands of galaxies stretching far back in time. Called the Great Observatories Origins Deep Survey (GOODS), astronomers are studying galaxy formation and evolution over a wide range of distances and ages. A Space Telescope Science Institute says it’s a bit like finding a family scrapbook containing snapshots that capture the lives of family members from infancy through adolescence to adulthood.

The initial results are intriguing. Hubble astronomers report that the sizes of galaxies clearly increase continuously from the time the universe was about 1 billion years old to an age of 6 billion years; the current age of the universe is about 14 billion years.) Other data support the growing belief that galaxies grow hierarchically — meaning through mergers and accretion of smaller satellite galaxies.

Anton Koekemoer, a co-investigator on both the Hubble and Chandra GOODS teams, reports the discovery of seven mysterious sources of X-ray emission that are completely invisible in the optical results made with Hubble. "Either they are the most distant black holes ever detected," he says, "or they are less distant black holes that are the most dust enshrouded known, a surprising result as well."

Helios Crashes!

In August 2001 NASA sent Helios, an uncrewed solar aeroplane, soaring to an altitude of 96,784 feet (29,500 meters) — that’s a record for a non-jet-powered craft. Helios, which resembles a giant upward-curving wing more than a plane, was recently redesigned for long-duration flight. Solar panels stretching across the craft’s 426-foot (130-meter) wingspan were to power its 14 individual propeller engines and recharge its on-board fuel cells.

But in Helios’s latest experimental flight last June, the remote-controlled plane crashed in the Pacific just 29 minutes after taking off from the Hawaiian island of Kauai. Alan Brown, of NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center in California, said, "We were flying at about the 8,000-foot (1,800 meters) altitude west of Kauai over the ocean and the aircraft simply broke up." No one knows why yet.

The dream is still alive, however. The hope is that such an aircraft could remain at high altitudes almost indefinitely, absorbing solar energy during the day and using the stored power at night. This could provide a cheaper alternative to telecommunication or Earth-observation satellites.

A Mysterious Erupting Star

Last winter, a dull star in an obscure constellation suddenly became 600,000 times more luminous than our Sun, temporarily making it the brightest star in our Milky Way galaxy. The mysterious star has long since faded back to obscurity, but one of the latest reports to come from the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland — the nerve center of the Hubble Space Telescope — reported that HST had imaged a phenomenon called a "light echo" from the blast.

"Like some past celebrities, this star had its 15 minutes of fame," says Anne Kinney, director of NASA’s Astronomy and Physics program, Headquarters, Washington. "But its legacy continues as it unveils an eerie light show in space. Thankfully, NASA’s Hubble has a front row seat to this unique event in our galaxy."

Light Echo from Star V838 Monocerotis
Light Echo from Star V838 Monocerotis. Photos taken with the Hubble Space Telescope.

The star, called V838 Monocerotis (V838 Mon) is about 20,000 light-years from Earth. Apparently the star has been quite active before HST imaged it. Specifically, the star has presumably ejected shells of dust in previous outbursts. As light from the latest stellar explosion traveled away from the star into space, it smashed into these dust shells now surrounding the star. What we see is the reflection of light from that collision. Because of this indirect path, the light arrives at Earth months after light coming directly toward Earth from the star itself. Howard Bond of the Space Telescope Science Institute says the star put out enough energy in a brief flash to illuminate surrounding dust, like a spelunker taking a flash picture of the walls of an undiscovered cavern.

And what HST has been able to do is essentially make an ‘astronomical cat-scan’ of the space around the star. The circular light-echo feature has now expanded to twice the angular size of Jupiter on the sky. Astronomers expect it to continue expanding as reflected light from farther out in the dust envelope finally arrives at Earth. Bond predicts that the echo will be observable for the rest of this decade.

The Moon’s Youngest Crater?

On November 15, 1953, Leon Stuart, and amateur astronomer in Tulsa, Oklahoma, photographed something that just may (or may not) be incredible.

While testing a new camera through his backyard telescope, he snapped a photo of the Moon that shows a bright spot on the Moon’s surface that shouldn’t be there. He also saw the spot through the focusing screen of his camera. In the 1950s, astronomers — both professional and amateurs — were very interested in the appearance of such spots, which were classified as Lunar Transient Phenomena.

But skeptics at the time were quick to dismiss the "flash" as an artifact. Recently, however, astronomer Bonnie J. Buratti (Jet Propulsion Laboratory), decided to investigate the claim further. After Buratti and Lane L. Johnson (a student at Pomona College) reviewed high-resolution images of the Moon taken in 1994 by the Clementine spacecraft, they found evidence of a freshly formed crater near the center of the Moon’s face — close to the position of Stuart’s mystery spot.

It’s possible then that Stuart had photographed a meteor impacting the Moon. Kool!

Or maybe not so kool. One lingering problem is that Stuart reported that the event lasted for at least 8 seconds. That means the impact’s explosive power would have created a crater at least 80 kilometers across. Alas, the crater that Buratti and Johnson discovered is only 11 km across. Furthermore, recent video images of meteors impacting the Moon have flashes that last only a few milliseconds — not several seconds.

Could Stuart have been wrong about the event’s duration? Perhaps, but we’ll never know because he has passed away. Thus, the mystery spot continues to be a "point" of contention.

Do Martians Lie About Their Ages?

Some of the most mysterious meteorites (space rocks that fall to Earth) originate from the planet Mars. One, called ALHA84001, has received a lot of media attention because it might contain evidence of ancient Martian microfossils.

But other Martian meteorites are just as intriguing — at least to scientists who have been baffled by the rocks’ ages.

You see, most Martian meteorites found on Earth are relatively young — about a billion years old or less. So what’s so surprising about that? Well, for the longest time, computer models supposed that these Martian meteorites had to be launched from large craters (on the order of 12 kilometers in diameter). The problem there is that the impacts that form large craters are extremely rare events; most impacts of that scale would have happened only very early in the planet’s history. How, then. could the Martian meteorites on Earth be so young?

A Mars meteorite
A Mars meteorite

Since the existing computer models were unable to account for the relatively large number of small and young Martian meteorites found on Earth, James N. Head (University of Arizona) and his colleagues decided to redo the computer models with more recent data. The result? The new computer simulations have found that asteroid collisions that produce craters as small as three kilometers across can launch 10 million fragments, each about 10 centimeters across, into space. That’s enough space rocks to expect that some of them would eventually find their way to Earth.

Mystery solved? Apparently so, which means that our friendly "Martians" do not lie — they just confuse us.

Eyeing Canals on Mars and Venus

After spending 15 years intensively studying Mars in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Percival Lowell convinced himself that an intelligent race of Martians had constructed a web-like network of canals on the planet’s surface. Alas, Lowell’s Martians had vanished from view when Mariner spacecraft flew by the planet in the mid- 1060s to the early 1970s the picture was complete. The spacecraft had revealed a desolate landscape with no evidence of any artificial canals.

With that mystery out of the way, some astronomers have turned their attention to another Lowell mystery. It appears Lowell saw canals not only on Mars but also on Venus. The dark lines he sketched appear to radiate from a dark "hub," like spokes on a wheel. Lowell believed that the markings could have been surface features visible through a dense but translucent atmosphere. But, few, if any, astronomers could reproduce Lowell’s results.

In the July 2002 issue of Sky & Telescope magazine, however, Bill Sheehan and Tom Dobbins (both amateur astronomers and contributing editors to the magazine) wrote an article about Lowell and the spokes of Venus, detailing the way Lowell looked at the planet through his telescope. That information opened the eyes of other astronomers. Lowell was not mapping real features on the surface of Venus (which is invisible to our eyes, since the planet is totally covered by thick clouds), but shadows of the blood vessels and other structures in his own retina!

Yes, it all has to do with the way Lowell used his telescope to look at Venus — which was akin to him looking at a bright object through a pinhole punched into a piece of cardboard. Looking through such a small aperture (a usually adjustable opening in an optical instrument that limits the amount of light passing through a lens or onto a mirror) allows the shadows of blood vessels and other structures in the observer’s eye to come easily into view. Indeed, when you compare blood vessels in the eye with one of Lowell’s drawings, you can see that the eyes have it!

Io: What a Blast!

Io, one of the four large moons of Jupiter, is the most volcanically active world beyond the Earth. We didn’t know that before the Voyager spacecraft flew by that tiny world in 1979. More recently, the Galileo spacecraft had been keeping an electronic eye on those eruptions. But that spacecraft is no more. Still, the monitoring of volcanic activity on Io continues — thanks largely to the enormous 10-meter Keck II telescope in Hawaii.

And that’s fortunate, because astronomers at Keck were rewarded for their efforts by being witness to the largest eruption to date on Io’s surface or perhaps even in the solar system!

Actually, the eruption took place in February 2001. But image analysis was only recently completed by a team of astronomers at the University of California, Berkeley. One team leader, Franck Marchis, revealed that the eruption took place very close to "Surt," the site of a large eruption in 1979 that occurred between the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 flybys. "The Surt eruption appears to cover an area of 1,900 square kilometers, which is larger than the city of Los Angeles and even larger than the entire city of London," Marchis says. It is also considerably larger than the entire cone of one of Earth’s most active volcanoes, Etna in Italy.

"This eruption is truly massive," says Ashley Davies, a scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who believes that had an astronaut been standing on Io’s surface, he or she would have seen incandescent fountains of molten lava shooting several kilometers into the air. The lava would have been propelled out of the ground at great speed by expanding gases, and extensive lava flows would have been flowing across the moon’s surface.

The Keck observations will help astronomers learn more about the nature of Io than we understand now, especially about the structure of the moon’s crust.

Air Bags to the Rescue!

How will scientists protect us from space rocks targeting Earth? If you’re thinking of nuking the invader, forget about it. Erik Asphaug (University of California, Santa Cruz), says, "You probably can’t reliably use a nuclear explosion with predictable consequences." Indeed, detonating a nuclear bomb on the object’s surface might not work, because some asteroids are more like a pile of rubble than a solid, and so would absorb the energy from a nuclear blast rather than break apart from it. Asphaug thinks that simply attaching a remote-controlled rocket motor — perhaps with some kind of electric or even steam propulsion — to an asteroid or comet and directing it away from Earth would do the trick, without breaking it up.

One mathematician, however, has another, more imaginative solution. He believes that the answer is to develop a cosmic air bag.

That’s right. Hermann Burchard (Oklahoma State University, Stillwater) imagines sending spacecraft to fly alongside the threatening object and inflate a giant bag some kilometers wide, using gas produced by a chemical reaction. The spacecraft would then push the bag against the asteroid and nudge it out of harm’s way. "It seems a safe, simple and realistic idea," Burchard says. Still, many questions have to be answered, such as what material would be used to make the bag?

Albert Comes Home

Ever lose something, then later find it, in the most unexpected way? Well that’s happened quite a few times to astronomers. Only the objects they’ve lost haven’t been their car keys, they’ve been asteroids, minor plants orbiting the Sun.

Now, just how can you lose a big hunk of rock spinning through space? Easy. Space is very big, and the "rocks" are very small by comparison. If you don’t get a good fix on their position as they move . . . well, asteroids can disappear. And that’s what happened in 1911, when Austrian astronomer Johann Palisa discovered asteroid 719, which he nicknamed Albert. The asteroid was followed for a month as it drifted through space, and astronomers thought they had calculated a decent orbit for it. That’s important, because as asteroids round the Sun, their brightness waxes and wanes.

When the asteroid is far from Earth, we can’t see and follow it. But that’s where precise observations come in handy. If the asteroid’s orbit is known precisely, astronomers can calculate where and when it will return to visibility. Alas, poor Albert rounded the Sun in 1911, faded from view, and never returned. There have been other asteroids lost this way too, but as of 1991 all of them had been recovered. Albert was the last "missing" asteroid. Then the Spacewatch telescope in Arizona spotted and tracked a faint asteroid which Gareth Williams of the Minor Planet Center at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (Cambridge, Massachusetts) confirmed was the missing 3-kilometer-long Albert. "It’s been a long time," Williams said, "but I’m very glad I got it." Now that we’ve got the fix on Albert, you can be sure we won’t lose it again.

Around the World in 14 Days!

After five previously failed attempts, U.S. balloonist Steve Fossett achieved a world record. He is the first person to fly a balloon solo around the world. Yes, the 58-year-old millionaire-adventurer finally succeeded. He ended his record-breaking, 14-day flight last July 2nd in a dusty riverbed on the 800,000-hectare (two-million-acre) Durham Downs cattle ranch in Queensland, Australia — that’s some 297 kilometers (about 186 miles) southeast of Birdsville, in case you’re wondering. This touchdown was scored on the edge of what Aborigines call "The Never Never," some of the most isolated outback in Australia.

Fossett took off in his giant 42-meter-tall (140-foot-tall) by 18-meter-wide (60-foot-wide) Spirit of Freedom balloon from far western Australia. He then flew nearly 31,200 kilometers (19,500 miles) around the Southern Hemisphere (see map), before his balloon crashed to the ground with a thud. Actually Fossett crossed the finish line over open ocean — that’s when he passed 117 degrees east longitude, the point at which he had begun his trip.

No more long-distance balloon trips, he assures us. In fact, he says that his balloon flights have been the most dangerous things he’s ever done. Indeed, Fossett’s fourth attempt in 1998 almost killed him when his balloon was torn to shreds by lightning and plummeted 8,700 meters (29,000 feet) into the Coral Sea off Australia.

What’s next on the agenda for Fossett? He’s setting his sights a bit higher — the relentless adventurer now wants to fly a glider near the edge of space! Meanwhile, Fossett’s balloon capsule, which is about the size of a closet, is to be taken to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. There it will be hung next to Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis, which made the first solo nonstop crossing of the Atlantic in 1927.

Over 1,000 ODYSSEY™ articles and over 8,000 articles from seven other Cobblestone Publishing magazines are available in our subscription-based online searchable archives.
Parents and teachers, try out the FREE index.