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.
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!
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.
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!"
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!
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?
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
(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.
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."
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: http://marsrovers.jpl.nasa.gov/home/index.html.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
(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.
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.
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.
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.
(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:
c/o ODYSSEY Magazine
30 Grove St., Suite C
Peterborough, NH 03458
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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."
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.
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.
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?
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.
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, 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.
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?
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.
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.
What looks like a bowling pin in space – a tenpin made of stone, like the kind you’d expect to see in an old Flintstones movie – is actually the best look ever at the rocky, icy surface of a comet. The image was taken as NASA’s Deep Space 1 spacecraft sailed past Comet Borrelly in a risky flyby last September.
From earth, even the most powerful telescopes cannot penetrate the cloud of dust and gas that surrounds a comet’s nucleus. But the space probe’s close encounter with Comet Borrelly did not disappoint. Deep Space 1, without protection from the little-known comet environment, whizzed by just 2,200 kilometers from the surface of the 10-kilometer-long comet.
"Deep Space 1 plunged into the heart of Comet Borrelly and has lived to tell every detail of its spine-tingling adventure!" said Dr. Marc Rayman, project manager. "The images are even better than the impressive ones of Comet Halley taken by Europe’s Giotto spacecraft in 1986."
Dr. Laurence Soderblom, the leader of Deep Space 1‘s imaging team, said that the images were "mind-boggling" and "stupendous."
"These pictures have told us that comet nuclei are far more complex than we ever imagined. They have rugged terrain; smooth, rolling plains; deep fractures; and very, very dark material," he said.
A photo was taken by NASA’s Earth-orbiting Hubble Space Telescope on June 26, when Mars was approximately 43 million miles (68 million km) from Earth – the closest Mars has ever been to Earth since 1988. The image shows details as small as 10 miles (16 km) across. The colors have been carefully balanced to give a realistic view of Mars’ hues as they might appear through a telescope.
Especially striking is the large amount of seasonal dust storm activity seen in this image. One large storm system is churning high above the northern polar cap (top of image), and a smaller dust storm cloud can be seen nearby. Another large dust storm is spilling out of the giant Hellas impact basin in the Southern Hemisphere (lower right).
It’s a good thing astronomers took this image when they did, because these dust storms soon became so large that they totally enveloped the planet in a global dust storm. In fact, if you’re reading this news item in early August and have a telescope go out and look at Mars, which is the most brilliant object high in the south after sunset, and see if you don’t see . . . well . . . Anything other than a yellowish featureless disk.
Astronomers are interested in studying the changeable surface and weather conditions on Mars, in part, to help plan for a pair of NASA missions to land rovers on the planet’s surface in 2004.
What happens if you fire two atomic nuclei of gold together at the speed of light? According to scientists at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in Suffolk County, NY, you get not only a Big Bang, but what scientists believe existed the instant after the Big Bang. That’s right. By slamming those gold nuclei together, John Cramer, a physicist at the University of Washington in Seattle, witnessed the creation of a violent (though minuscule) explosion, one more violent than he had expected. The resulting "fireball" created a burst of subatomic particles, which, it appears, mimicked the state of the universe a millionth of a second after its birth some 15 billion years ago.
Since there was nothing around at that time but a gaseous soup of subatomic particles, the moment of creation was sort of like a Big Burp. Cramer says that the subatomic particles created during this burp were vagabonds – free floaters. And it is from these free floaters that our universe ultimately took shape. If the Big Burp actually happened, the "sound" of the explosion would have rippled through the cosmos in waves. Furthermore, the radiation from that event should now be detectable from earth.
Well, guess what? That’s right. Sensitive instruments in Antarctica have picked up traces of those "sound" waves over the last few years. What does it all mean? The findings suggest that the universe expanded more violently and more rapidly than previously believed. This expansion, called "inflation," is the "dynamite behind the Big Bang," says Michael Turner, a cosmologist at the University of Chicago. Now all scientists have to do is find the "match" that started the whole thing.
What’s the biggest asteroid? "Ceres, the first asteroid ever discovered some 200 years ago," you say with a smug smile. "It lies in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter and is 950 kilometers long." Well, wipe that smile off your face, because you’re wrong.
Until recently, your answer would have been correct. But not any longer. The largest asteroid was recently discovered beyond the orbit of Pluto. It is called 2001 KX76 and stretches 1,200 kilometers across. That makes it larger than Pluto’s moon Charon.
To determine the asteroid’s size, astronomers at the European Southern Observatory first had to calculate the asteroid’s orbit around the sun. To do this, they used a new virtual telescope called Astrovirtel, which relied on software to scan old photographs for images of the asteroid, plus recent images taken with conventional telescopes. Combining this measurement with the amount of sunlight reflected from the asteroid’s surface provided an estimate of the asteroid’s size.
The Hubble Space Telescope has caught a monstrous black hole in the center of a nearby galaxy in the act of . . . well . . . burping. Yes, after they feed, black hole appear to blow huge bubbles of hot gas into space. The galaxy (NGC 4438) is in the Virgo Cluster of Galaxies 50 million light-years from Earth. Yet Hubble’s powerful eye was able to image one bubble rising from a dark band of dust in the galaxy’s nucleus and another bubble, blowing out from below the dust band – that one’s barely visible, appearing as dim red blobs in the close-up picture of the galaxy’s hub.
These extremely hot bubbles are caused by the black hole’s eating habits. The eating machine is gorging itself with a banquet of material swirling around it. Some of this material is spewed from the disk in opposite directions. Acting like high-powered garden hoses, these twin jets of matter sweep out material in their paths. The jets eventually slam into a wall of dense, slow-moving gas, which is traveling at less than 223,000 miles per hour (360,000 kilometers per hour). The collision produces the glowing material. The bubbles will continue to expand and will eventually dissipate. Compared with the life of the galaxy, this bubble-blowing phase is a short-lived event.
The Hubble Space Telescope is helping astronomers solve another mystery by imaging in unprecedented detail a nebula located just a few thousand light-years from Earth in the Southern Hemisphere constellation of Centaurus. Through Earth-based telescopes, the nebula shows only a bright core and long wispy "legs," the appearance of which caused astronomers to nickname it the Southern Crab. But the HST images reveal the Southern Crab to be a small, hourglass-shaped nebula nestled within a larger hourglass-shaped one. The question is: How did such a complex structure form?
Astronomers believe that interactions between two stars embedded in the center of the small hourglass may be responsible for blowing out these nebulous bubbles. The pair of stars is an odd match. One of them is a red giant star – an old bloated star that is shedding its outer layers. The other is a hot white dwarf star – a dense, burned-out star only about the size of the Earth. The stars interact by playing a celestial game of "catch." As the red giant throws off some of its bulk, the white dwarf catches some of it. Actually, the red giant’s ejected material forms a disk around the white dwarf star. Gradually this material spirals down onto the white dwarf’s hot surface, which sparks an eruption that blows the material violently into space. This explosive event may have happened twice in the Southern Crab’s history. Astronomers speculate that the hourglass-shaped nebulae represent two separate outbursts that occurred several thousand years apart.
Remember how you used to play with toy bulldozers and dump trucks in your backyard? Well, NASA scientists might be doing the same on Mars — though from afar. Yup, NASA scientists and engineers are planning to rely on pint-size bulldozers in their search for life on Mars.
"If water sources such as hot springs, layers of ice, or groundwater reservoirs are discovered on Mars," JPL robotics engineer Brian Wilcox explains, "a network of these rovers could conduct scientific investigations and excavate the site piece by piece, just as humans would do on an archaeological dig."
What you’ll see is a fleet of lightweight, solar-powered, intelligent robotic vehicles doing the digging. Part bulldozer and part dump truck, each rover weighs about 3.5 kilograms and has arms that carry a tiny scoop to a bucket overhead.
"Rovers like these may also play a role in establishing a space outpost for eventual human occupancy," says Wilcox. "They may be used to create buried habitats or utility trenches and to excavate resources to support life."
The bulldozer rovers would work in groups coordinated by a central control tower. That way, a greater amount of terrain could be excavated, with the workload being shared among several of the small vehicles. "Smaller, solar-powered vehicles have a higher power-to-weight ratio than bigger vehicles," Wilcox says, "yet together perform the same tasks as a large vehicle."
So far, four working prototypes of the bulldozer rovers exist, and developers are working to determine which size best suits excavation tasks.
It’s all part of the "dirty" work of exploring the Red Planet.
On May 21, 1999, the Galileo spaceprobe flew by Jupiter’s moon Callisto. No one expected life to be found on that frigid ( -220 degrees Fahrenheit) and heavily cratered world. In fact, looking for life there was not among the scientific objectives. Indeed, most astrobiologists agree that Callisto is an unlikely abode for life. But that’s not the point.
Let’s suppose that Callisto was wet and warm and teeming with life. Would the Galileo spaceprobe have noticed? Astronomers say, yes. Look at what happened in 1990, when an earlier Galileo flew past Earth – when all its instruments were pointed towards us. Galileo’s close encounter with Earth framed one of the most difficult questions in astrobiology: Can a modern space instrument tell if the Earth, or any planet, is a good candidate for harboring life?
According to the late Carl Sagan, the Galileo spacecraft found clear signs of life, including evidence for chlorophyll, a molecule essential to plant life and photosynthesis, molecular oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere (maintaining the oxygen content requires some replenishing mechanism, in this case photosynthesis by plants – the action of life.), and methane in the atmosphere (biological action such as bacterial metabolism in bogs replenishes the supply.) and modulated narrowband radio transmissions (these emissions look nothing like natural sources of radio waves like lightning and plasma instabilities in Earth’s magnetosphere. They are clear signs of a technological civilization.)
Galileo’s flyby of Earth, then, was just the beginning of the first-ever control experiment in astrobiological remote sensing. What did Galileo see when it passed by the moon? "Nothing," says David Noever, a NASA astrobiologist. "There was no evidence for life. No chlorophyll, no oxygen-methane atmosphere, no artificial radio transmissions. It was just as we would have expected, and consistent with the Sagan criteria."
The Galileo flybys showed that we know how to identify life at a distance, at least the kinds of life we’re familiar with here on Earth. However, things may not be as simple as they seem. Organic compounds have been discovered in some unlikely – and almost certainly lifeless – places, including amino acids in meteorites, organic molecules in interstellar clouds, and organic compounds called porphyrins in lunar soil. But the important thing is that the exploration of new worlds has begun.
Recently, two cosmologists proposed a new theory that says, yes, the universe began with the Big Bang, but that "bang" resulted from the death of a previous universe. In fact, our present universe, is but a single "bang" in an infinite cycle of collapses and rebirths on a universal scale!
The idea is not totally new. Astronomers have proposed cyclical universe theories since the 1930s, but, until now, no one could explain how the end of one universe could start the next. But Paul J. Steinhardt (Princeton University) and Neil Turok (Cambridge University) say they have the answer – but you’ll need more than your thinking caps to grasp the theory.
The researchers envision two universes – our universe (the one we see) and a separate "mirror" universe (one we don’t see). These two universes are close together in a larger, fifth dimension. We cannot perceive this fifth dimension because it is outside of our dimension. Imagine a worm that can live only on the inside of an apple on a tree. Although the tree can have many other apples, our worm cannot see them. In Steinhardt and Turok’s theory, our universe and the mirror universe move together and apart in cycles perhaps many trillions of years long. When they come together, the energy of their collision fills each with the matter and energy of a Big Bang. As they move apart, their internal contents disperse over billions of years. Eventually they become nearly empty and their motion apart stagnates, setting the stage for them to recollide and set off a new Big Bang creation.
The European Space Agency’s Planck satellite, due for launch around 2007, is designed to make sensitive measurements of radiation coming from the remnants of the Big Bang. If the Big Bang is cyclical, the satellite will see a different signature than if it is not. Time will tell!
How many of you waited and waited for Comet Linear to put on its great summer show? Well, if you went outside hoping to see the comet with the naked eye, you would have been disappointed. Although the comet looked nice through binoculars and telescopes in early July, something surprising happened to it on July 26th. As the comet passed within 114 million kilometers of the sun, it cracked up.
That’s right, nightly observations of the comet made since July 23rd at the 1-meter Kapteyn Telescope on La Palma in the Canary Islands revealed what appears to be the complete disruption of the comet’s nucleus. In the telescope’s images, more than a dozen "mini-comets" were seen, all near the place where the nucleus would have been. Although this breakup is reminiscent of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9’s breakup near Jupiter in 1992, the remaining pieces of Comet Linear’s nucleus are much smaller and, presumably, much more short-lived. In other words, it has completely blown apart. An event like this has never been observed in this detail before.
Why would it blow apart? Comet Linear is a "new" comet, which means that it was making its very first passage through the inner solar system. The surfaces of new comets are believed to be covered almost completely by a very thin, fragile layer of highly volatile ice, consisting of carbon dioxide intermixed with dust. These volatile mixtures explode when they heat up near the sun.
One of the key projects of the Hubble Space Telescope was to determine how fast the universe is expanding – a value referred to as Hubble’s Constant. Now, all the results are in and the definitive number is "70 kilometers per second per megaparsec." A parsec is equal to 3.26 light years and a megaparsec is a million times that number.
The result is good to 10 percent and is agreement with results from another HST study. What does all the new value mean? Hubble’s constant is directly related to the age of the universe. So the new value, when considered with other recent values for the density of the universe (which determines whether the universe will collapse again or expand forever), leads to the conclusion that 12 or 13 billion years have passed since the moment of the Big Bang. Furthermore, the universe is not slowing but accelerating, and . . . now get ready for this . . . the universe’s accelerations appears to be accelerating. One thing seems clear now, there is no stopping the universe.
Astronomers have been squinting at the tiny disk of Mercury, our Solar System’s innermost planet, ever since Galileo first put a telescope to it in 1609. Of course, his optics were about as good as the bottom of a cola bottle. Even in modern times, astronomers have tried to capture images of the surface of Mercury with an enormous ground-based telescope, but they’ve had poor results. More than a quarter-century ago, however, the Mariner 10 spacecraft transmitted images of the planet that showed a crater-pocked world like our Moon. Unfortunately, the spacecraft got to image only half of the planet.
But a team of astronomers from Boston University has come to the rescue by taking clear images of the other half of the planet’s surface with the 152-cm reflector at Mt. Wilson Observatory in California. Lead scientist Jeffrey Baumgardner credits this significant milestone to an advancement in telescope instrument technology. To take the pictures, they used a new digital camera that allowed them to snap exposures of 1/60th of a second continuously for 90 minutes. When their observing was done, they had 324,000 images, which they stored on CD-ROMs. The images were later processed with a computer.
Baumgardner and research associate Jody Wilson, assisted by Mead Misic, a sophomore in the College of Engineering, all took part in the search for the 30 to 60 perfect images. Once in the computer, these images were reconstructed into a single high-resolution image (see above). The Boston University team is currently making additional observations of Mercury, even pushing the technique to try to image the planet’s weak gaseous atmosphere.
Fortunately, the impactor will not be hitting the Earth, but, if all goes as planned, a comet. I’m talking about a $279 million pot shot aimed at blasting a hole in the surface of Comet Tempel 1. And NASA has given this mission the green light.
The Deep Impact spacecraft is scheduled to launch in January 2004. On 4 July 2005, (fireworks day) it will hurl a 770 pound (350 kilogram) projectile toward the surface. After releasing it, Deep Impact will zoom by the comet as the projectile hits. The spacecraft will then spend 15 minutes monitoring the blast with its cameras and other instruments. Astronomers know that comets are mixtures of ice and dirt, with a dark layer at the surface, but they know little about what is inside. Blasting off part of the surface should expose interior ices.
Astronomer Peter Schultz (Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island) says that if the comet’s surface is "soft," the impactor may make a very large crater, about 410 feet (125 meters) wide and 82 feet (25 meters) deep. The heat of the impact and solar radiation should also vaporize some of the ice, so astronomers can study its composition. This data will also be helpful in learning more about the reality of "nudging" a comet’s orbit – if that comet is headed toward Earth – like they did in the movie.
3 . . . 2 . . . 1 . . . blastoff! You have just lifted off to the International Space Station, transported by the magic of IMAX technology. Space Station, a new movie from IMAX Corporation and Lockheed Martin, is the first cinematic journey to the ISS. Onboard, you and your friends will experience life in zero G. You will also share the tensions and triumphs of assembling the ISS in the deadly vacuum of space, along with the 25 astronauts and cosmonauts who star in the movie, which is narrated by Tom Cruise.
Between December 1998 and August 2001, more than 20 kilometers of 65 mm film were flown into space for use on the two IMAX 3-D space cameras, built specifically for operation in the zero-gravity environment of space. Working closely with IMAX and NASA, astronaut and cosmonaut filmmakers trained over several months, learning to be cameramen, cinematographers, and lighting and sound recording specialists.
One camera stayed inside the space station, moving from module to module and capturing scenes of daily life on the inside, while its sister camera outside the space shuttle’s cargo bay had a bird’s-eye view of space walks and space station assembly. The IMAX cameras filmed seven space shuttle crews and two resident station crews as they transformed the station from a tiny outpost to a permanently inhabited scientific research station. Together, the cameras captured dramatic milestones in the building of the International Space Station.
Teachers and students who would like to know more about Space Station can log on to ww.IMAX.com. Local theater listings are provided, along with information on how to obtain an educator’s guide for the classroom.
Well . . . at least not right away, especially if he or she just came back from space. Many of us dream of space travel someday, but you should know the latest distressing news. Our future in space may be at risk, unless we learn how to deal with stress. At least that’s what Satish Mehta and his colleagues at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston recently concluded. "When these astronauts go up, they are under huge stress," Mehta says, the greatest being the fear they won’t come back.
How can stress jeopardize our future in space? Stress weakens astronauts’ immunity, Mehta says, and increases their risk of passing infections to one another. He made this discovery after taking saliva samples from 10 astronauts before, during, and after a series of space shuttle flights. Mehta was specifically looking for a normally harmless virus called Epstein-Barr virus (EBV). Many of us carry EBV in our white blood cells; it lies dormant until stress activates it. Once mobilized, EBV can cause glandular fever and cancer. "It’s crowded, cramped, and tiring [in space]," Mehta says, "and if crew members breathe out virus, it hangs around in microgravity and can easily be breathed in." Mehta fears that other, more dangerous viruses could also be transmitted more easily by stressed astronauts.
How do we solve this dilemma? One solution is to find a way to boost the immune system. We might, for example, give astronauts antiviral drugs before and during missions. Astronauts could also test their saliva regularly during a flight and look for signs of stress. If stressed, well, they could take a break, you know, look at Earth, or read ODYSSEY.
Does Earth have two moons — one big, one small? Well, that was a question astronomers were puzzling over last September after amateur astronomer Bill Yeung (Desert Eagle Observatory, Benson, AZ) discovered a mysteriously dim object near Earth.
Today we know that little rocks from space go whizzing past Earth, and it’s really no big deal. But Yeung’s object was different. You see, every night astronomers image space rocks orbiting the sun and sometimes approaching uncomfortably close to the Earth. But when astronomers in Cambridge, MA, calculated an orbit for Yeung’s object (now called J002E3), they discovered that it was not traveling around the sun, but in a large, 50-day orbit around the Earth!
After some elbow-scratching, some astronomers got the bright idea that the mystery object may have a familiar origin — it could have been a rocket launched years ago from Earth! But Brian G. Marsden (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Cambridge, MA) doubted it. "There is a very remote chance that it’s natural," he said.
Surprise, surprise! Looks like the mystery object belongs to us after all! Paul Chodas and Steve Chesley (NASA’s Near-Earth Object Program Office) calculated that it is the third stage of a massive Saturn V rocket — the one that launched Apollo 12 astronauts to the moon in November 1969. The researchers calculated that the spent rocket orbited the Earth chaotically for 15 months before it escaped Earth orbit in March 1971 — only to return now, once again!
Alas, Earth’s new, tiny, artificial "moon" won’t be around for long. Chodas and Chesley say that it will escape back into space in June 2003 after its brief six-orbit visit to our planet. But wait (literally)! In another 30 years, Earth may once again capture J002E3 for another brief tour around its home planet!
Mysterious Mars has a new visitor – one that is looking for all the "hot spots" the planet has to offer!
NASA’s Mars Odyssey is now circling the Red Planet. After arriving there on October 23 of last year, the spacecraft began skimming repeatedly through the upper layers of the Martian atmosphere. This technique – called aerobraking – slowed the space probe’s speed, allowing it to slip into an exact "science orbit."
What is the craft’s mission? The orbiter carries a suite of instruments expected to unveil Mars’ mysteries missed by previous spacecraft that have visited the fourth planet from the sun. "Never underestimate Mars’ ability to surprise us," says Edward Weiler, NASA’s head of space science.
High on Mars Odyssey’s agenda: To find evidence of near-surface water and to map mineral deposits from past water activity. The spacecraft is also equipped to scour the Martian landscape for signs of thermal vents and other "hot spots." Maybe it will spot the huffing and puffing of volcanic activity?
"If there’s a hot place on the planet, we’ll see it," says Steve Saunders, 2001 Mars Odyssey project scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA. He says that using its Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS) instrument, the orbiter will search for "Martian Yellowstones" – places where hot springs with some resemblance to those at Yellowstone National Park in Colorado may exist.
Mars Odyssey also totes a gamma ray spectrometer. The spectrometer will peer beneath the surface to just over one meter deep, searching for permafrost (permanently frozen subsoil). Glaciers covered with a thin layer of Martian dust should be detectable using this process. Imagine this: a mix of subsurface water or ice and heat providing a nice, cozy combination – just right for past or present-day biological activity. Is cold, distant, and dusty Mars a home for some form of life?
"We haven’t seen the real Mars yet, folks," says Jim Garvin, a scientist at NASA headquarters. "Let’s get real." With thousands of interesting places to go to on Mars, Mars Odyssey can also help target where rovers and landers should head in the future.
(Leonard David lives in Boulder, CO, and is a senior writer for www.SPACE.com. He is a member of ODYSSEY magazine’s Advisory Board.)
Imagine journeying to the deepest regions of space and wrestling with the cosmic giants called galaxies. With a program called "Galaxy Hunter," students can go on-line and use actual data from the Hubble Space Telescope to study galaxies in deep space. Produced by the formal education team at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, MD, the interdisciplinary, Web-based lesson blends astronomy and math skills.
A team of scientists, teachers, artists, and Web programmers developed the interactive lesson to bring the results of cutting-edge astronomical observations into the classroom. "Galaxy Hunter" is on the Amazing Space Web site. Amazing Space is a group of Web-based, interactive activities designed primarily for classroom use in kindergarten through 12th grade.
In 1996, a team of scientists found what may be fossilized bacteria in a meteorite from Mars. Ever since, researchers all over the world have been intensely scrutinizing the results. And for good reason. If true, the startling news would be the first discovery of any form of life off the planet Earth. It could revolutionize our thoughts on the probability of life elsewhere in our Solar System and the universe. The findings are especially stimulating if you consider the recent discoveries of planetlike bodies around other stars. Are we alone?
Right now, the big question is whether Mars could have supported life in the past or even today. If you ask Tim Kral and Curtis Bekkum of the University of Arkansas, they’ll nod their heads yes! Recently, the researchers manufactured their own Martian Chia pet of sorts and successfully grew microorganisms in a simulated Martian environment. The mock Mars was created by adding hydrogen and carbon dioxide gas to volcanic ash from Hawaii, which is similar to the type of soil found on Mars. The type of bacterium they grew, Methanobacterium wolfei, ordinarily lives in extreme environments found deep below Earth’s surface, such as at hydrothermal vents and in swamps. The study demonstrates that we have only scratched the surface of the "Life on Mars" issue, and raises hope that subsurface life might still exist on the Red Planet.
You may not realize it, but one of the greatest challenges facing astronauts working on the International Space Station as it orbits earth is this: They can’t help but lose their tools! Tools and other equipment have a habit of just floating away!
Thanks to industrial design students at Auburn University in Auburn, Alabama, however, NASA may have that problem solved. The agency first presented the problem to the students in early 1998. The students got so excited about the possibility of assisting the astronauts and producing products that would fly in space that they submitted more than 360 innovative ideas. The solution: the Payload Equipment Restraint System (PERS), which will enable space station crews to, well . . . get a grip! The system combines straps, mesh pockets, Kevlar®, Velcro®, and a variety of connecting devices in a portable, adjustable system. PERS attaches to the space station’s rack seat track system, which is similar to seat tracks used in commercial airplanes. PERS will now be used throughout the space station. Two designs are very useful: the Single Strap and the H-Strap. These units will be the first PERS components to be used on the space station. The Single Strap is made of Kevlar (used for bulletproof vests), Nomex® webbing (used for protective clothing), elastic, and Velcro. It can be adjusted for tautness to make it a firm yet easily movable restraint. There are several ways to attach items to the strap, including Velcro, elastic loops, cable ties, and D-rings. The Single Strap attaches with a seat track stud into the station’s rack seat track system.
The H-Strap has the same attachment features as the Single Strap, but it is wider and has mesh pockets for more temporary storage. Both straps are easy to work with, as a crew member can unroll a strap, attach it, and – when the job is finished – detach it and move to another work area. Crew members will use the straps to hold cables, hand tools, space station bungee straps, payload hardware, odd-shaped items, samples, and large boxes.
"The astronauts have had an opportunity to work with and use the hardware," says David Reynolds, PERS Lead System Engineer in the Flight Projects Directorate at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Houston. "Their response has been wonderful. They’ve actually requested that the hardware go up sooner than we had intended."
To celebrate the 11th anniversary of the Hubble Space Telescope (HST), NASA scientists asked us, the public, to vote for an object that the orbiting telescope would then view.
And what did "we" want HST to look at?
Why, the Horsehead nebula in the constellation Orion, of course! This popular celestial target was the clear winning choice among the more than 5,000 Internet voters, who included students, teachers, and professional and amateur astronomers.
The Horsehead is a cold, dark cloud of gas and dust silhouetted against a bright cloud of dust and gas. Only by chance does the nebula roughly resemble the head of a horse. The Horsehead nebula is one of the most photographed objects in the sky. Amateur astronomers often use it as a test of their observing skills – although it is a photographic wonder, the Horsehead is one of the more difficult objects to see visually in an amateur-size telescope.
Well, well, well. Let me ask you this: What do dinosaurs and birds have in common with Mars and water? Tick, tick, tick . . . ding! Give up? The answer is: In both cases, scientists can’t make up their minds how the two are related. We’ve heard a lot recently about how dinosaurs and birds may or may not be linked, but the water on Mars debate has been going on a lot longer . . . since the 19th century! Anyway, recent Mars Global Surveyor images have shown grooved channels on the surface of Mars that look convincingly like they were carved by rushing water. The news all but had geologists and astronomers floating their boats in these channels . . . well, at least in their dreams.
But . . . alas (as Shakespeare would have said) . . . scientists now think that the grooves were carved by glacial ice, not watery floods. Blame Baerbel K. Lucchitta, a geologist at the U.S. Geological Survey in Flagstaff, AZ, who said that the grooves look strikingly similar to those regions in the Antarctic carved by glaciers. The grooved channels, you see, are inclined in the wrong direction (uphill), so they’re unlikely to be related to rushing water. Moving water cannot flow uphill for extended distances, even during large-scale flooding. But ice flows can!
Lucchitta does create a dramatic and compelling scenario for the formation of these grooves. One possibility is that the ice was melted in the Martian soil, perhaps because of heating by some neighboring volcanoes. The meltwater then would have shot up through the surface like a geyser, she says, until it froze once more on the surface, where it would have built up until it could flow in an ice stream. Whatever the mechanism, the point Lucchitta is making is that large-scale catastrophic floods may not have been necessary to carve the surface of Mars. Smaller floods may have given rise to ice streams that relentlessly flowed over debris and dust, in the same way that ice flows on Antarctica . . . period. Now, let’s sit tight for a while and see if her theory continues to float.
For the first time, astronomers using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope have detected the atmosphere of a planet orbiting a star outside our solar system. The planet, believed to be a gas giant like Jupiter and Saturn, orbits a yellow, sunlike star called HD 209458, which lies 150 light-years away in the constellation Pegasus. The star is visible with binoculars.
The new planet’s atmosphere was seen when the planet passed in front of its parent star. When astronomers analyzed the light from the star filtered through the new planet’s atmosphere, they detected the presence of sodium in the planet’s atmosphere. Lead investigator David Charbonneau (California Institute of Technology in Pasadena) says, "This opens up an exciting new phase of extrasolar planet exploration, where we can begin to compare and contrast the atmospheres of planets around other stars."
Such observations could potentially provide the first direct evidence of life beyond Earth by measuring unusual abundances of atmospheric gases caused by the presence of living organisms. But the study of the atmospheres surrounding any Earthlike planets will have to wait until we place larger space telescopes in orbit.
Last July, a massive eruption occurred on the sun. The mega-event, captured in graphic detail by the SOHO (Solar and Heliospheric Observatory) satellite, first appeared as a fiery-looking "leg" stretching 30 Earth diameters into space. Over the next 90 minutes, it became apparent that the leg was actually only part of a larger loop of material blasting off the sun’s surface.
Prominences, as these eruptive events are called, are caused by gigantic loops of magnetic fields that emerge from below the sun’s surface. As they rise, they become filled with trapped, superhot gas that is heated to many millions of degrees. Sometimes, as the magnetic fields become twisted and unstable, the magnetic energy collapses and explosively heats vast quantities of gas, which then burst and rise off the sun in just a few minutes or hours.
If eruptions like these are aimed at Earth, they can trigger the onset of the northern and southern lights (aurora borealis and australis, respectively), or disrupt radio communications. This particular eruption, however, was directed away from Earth.
SOHO has a prime viewing location for these spectacular events, as it sits in space at a gravitational balance point between the sun and Earth. What’s the sun doing today? Go to the SOHO Web page and see for yourself. You’ll definitely have a ringside seat for viewing any action.
You’ve heard of the Alaskan pipeline? Well, how about an intergalactic pipeline? The "pipeline" is the dark string of material flowing between two battered galaxies that bumped into each other about 100 million years ago. (Ouch!) The pipeline begins in NGC 1410, crosses over 20,000 light-years of intergalactic space, and wraps around NGC 1409 like a ribbon around a package.
Astronomers used the HST to confirm that the 500-light-year-long pipeline is a continuous string of material linking the compact galaxies, which was probably created during a tussle between them. The glancing blow tossed stars deep into space and ignited a rash of star birth (all the pretty blue stuff). What’s perplexing astronomers, however, is that they don’t know exactly where in galaxy NGC 1410 the pipeline begins. Although astronomers have taken many stunning pictures of galaxies slamming into each other, this image represents the clearest view of how some interacting galaxies dump material onto their companions . . . in this case, through a pipeline. But the tussle between these galaxies – which reside about 300 million light-years from earth in the constellation Taurus – hasn’t ended just yet. Astronomers believe the galaxies are doomed to continue their game of "bumper cars," hitting each other and moving apart several times, until finally merging in another 200 million years.
Jupiter’s volcanically active moon Io looks something like a science experiment gone bad. The moon’s surface is painted with pastel hues that blend into bolder colored shapes around seething volcanic vents. A good example of one of the more wildly colored volcanoes that pepper Io’s landscape is Culann Patera (shown here), which was recently imaged by NASA’s Galileo spacecraft. Just look at those reds!
Well, geochemists are doing just that, looking at those reds, greens, and yellows with a sense of awe and befuddlement. Why is Io so wildly colored? Thanks to Galileo and new observations by the Hubble Space Telescope, the researchers believe they at least have an answer as to what makes the ground look red. When a volcano erupts on Io, it spurts out a powerful plume of fine dust, mixed with sulfur dioxide (SO2) gas and diatomic sulfur (S2). Sulfur has eight forms that appear as a solid, liquid, or gas. Its solid yellow form (S8) is the one we all know. But when heated beyond a certain temperature (113 degrees C), sulfur becomes unstable, meaning it now has the tendency to change form.
The latest research argues that the red surface "stains" surrounding Culann Patera (and other volcanoes on Io) are fresh coatings of unstable forms of sulfur, which in time should fade (change form) and turn yellow. And that would also explain why many of Io’s volcanoes are surrounded by crimson rings that fade over time.
Does Hawaii, the burning jewel of the North Pacific, have an extraterrestrial origin? It’s possible, says Andrew Glikson from the Australian National University. He believes that an asteroid impact may have created the hot spot that supplies Hawaii with its lava. Hot spots, mysterious bubbles of molten rock in earth’s mantle (the semimolten region between Earth’s core and crust) seem to spring up out of nowhere to create new landforms. An asteroid impact would solve the mystery of hot spots by giving them a beginning.
The idea of linking space rocks and lava goes back to at least the 1960s. But recent debates are burning around controversial computer models that show how an asteroid can create a hot spot. Jay Melosh, a crater expert from the University of Arizona, remains doubtful. He says that there is no clear physical evidence of a link between space rocks and lava.
Still, the computer models do come up with ways that an impact could cause, or at least speed up, a volcanic eruption. And those who support the idea are quick to point out one simple fact: Geologists have not come up with a better explanation for how the earth’s hot spots got started.
If you look closely at the Milky Way under a dark sky, you can see rivers of dark clouds slicing through it. Like dark clouds that block our view of the Sun from Earth, these dark Milky Way clouds block our view of distant suns that happen to lie behind them. But a new infrared camera attached to the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) can pierce these obscuring clouds and see what light lurks beyond the apparent darkness. HST did just that while peering at two clusters 25,000 light-years away, which hide behind dark clouds less than 100 light-years from the very center of our galaxy.
If the pair of clusters weren’t totally hidden by dark clouds, we would be able to see them easily with our naked eyes one-sixth of a full Moon’s diameter apart. In just a few million years, the intense gravitational pull of the galaxy’s core will rip the clusters apart and scatter the stars into the Milky Way background. But in the brief time they are around, they shine more brightly than any other star cluster in the Galaxy.
The cluster, called Arches, is so dense that over 300,000 of its stars would fill the void of space between our Sun and its nearest neighbor, the star Alpha Centauri, 4.3 light-years away. At least 150 of its stars are among the brightest ever seen in the Galaxy. The cluster, called Quintuplet, has stars on the verge of blowing up as supernovae. It is the home of the brightest star seen in the Galaxy, called the Pistol star.
If Leonardo da Vinci ever dreamed about flying in space — and if he were alive today — he’d be happy to know that the Space Shuttle Discovery astronauts recently attached his namesake to the International Space Station.
Leonardo, an Italian-made cargo module measuring almost seven meters long and weighing 10,000 kilos, brought the first major research gear to the space station — including about 4,500 kilos of electronic equipment and supplies for the recently installed Destiny research laboratory module.
Among the new gear is the human research facility — a rack filled with medical equipment designed to monitor the physical and psychological health of the astronauts and cosmonauts assigned to live and work aboard the station. A companion rack will soon provide the station’s residents with a small infirmary, including a defibrillator (a device that can restore an abnormally beating heart to its normal rhythm) and other emergency medical equipment.
Valued at $150 million, Leonardo is the first of three Space Age moving vans that Italy is contributing to the 16-nation space station project. In return, Italian scientists will gain the use of research space in the Destiny lab.
On June 18th, 1178, the astronomer Gervase, of Canterbury, England, reported an event that has had astronomers scratching their heads for more than 800 years:
"Now there was a bright new Moon . . . and suddenly the upper horn split in two. From the midpoint of this division a flaming torch sprang up, spewing out . . . fire, hot coals, and sparks . . . The body of the Moon which was below . . . throbbed like a wounded snake. Afterwards it resumed its proper state. The phenomenon was repeated a dozen times or more. [Finally] the Moon . . . along its whole length took on a blackish appearance."
In 1976, geologist Jack B. Hartung (State University of New proposed that this passage describes an asteroid smashing into the moon. If so, the moon should have a new crater near its "upper" limb. Does such a crater exist? Hartung believes so: the crater Giordano Bruno, near the moon’s northeast limb. This relatively young, 22-kilometer-wide crater has fresh bright "rays" of ejected material radiating from it, and the crater appears near the midpoint of the young crescent moon.
Case closed? No way! As reported by Sky & Telescope magazine, astronomers have long argued that Gervase’s document simply describes ordinary atmospheric distortions of the crescent moon when it is seen near the horizon. Now Paul Withers (University of Arizona) says that if an asteroid hit the moon on its near side in 1178, the earth would have been showered with 10,000 tons of ejected fragments – perhaps a trillion bright meteorites in all – during the days that followed. "A meteor storm as impressive as this and lasting for a week would have been considered apocalyptic by all medieval observers," Withers comments. Yet no mention of such a "celestial fireworks" display is recorded. Furthermore, images from the Clementine spacecraft have revealed that, though the Giordano Bruno crater is young, it is much older than 800 years.
On April 14, 1999, NASA launched a special weather balloon from a site in Huntsville, Alabama. Unlike normal weather balloons, this one was designed to capture microscopic meteors flying through Earth’s stratosphere. The balloon also carried a downward-pointing video camera, which sent dramatic views of the ascent to anyone with Internet access. The live Webcast featured images of the sunset as seen from 24,000 meters as well as some eerie gurgling sounds caused by high altitude winds. Selected video highlights are now available for replay. They include a movie of the launch, sunset from the stratosphere, and an audio recording of the balloon bursting at 28,500 meters.
After the balloon burst, the special meteor-collecting payload parachuted down in northwest Georgia. It was recovered at the top of a 4.5-meter tree near a small house 8 kilometers west of Adairsville, Georgia. The micrometeorite samples were sent back to the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, where they are now being analyzed and compared with samples taken during a weather balloon flight during last November’s Leonid meteor shower.
"Last November, we caught something," says John Horack, a scientist at NASA Marshall, "but the question is, ‘What did we catch – meteor[s], or something else?’" April’s flight may help answer that question. Meanwhile, NASA plans to launch another weather balloon in November 1999 to capture more possible micrometeor samples when the Leonid shower is predicted to be an even better show than the much-hyped 1998 Leonids, and NASA’s high-flying balloon will be there to see if this prediction is correct.
On the morning of Nov. 18, 1999, B. Cudnik of Houston, Texas, was looking at the Moon through a telescope, when he saw a brief flash near the center of the Moon’s dark limb (the circumferential edge of the apparent disk of a celestial body). Miles away, in Mount Airy, Maryland, David Dunham was videotaping the Moon at the same time through his telescope. His videotape confirmed the mysterious flash, which lasted only 1/60 of a second.
And that wasn’t all. Other observers in Missouri and Maryland also recorded flashes that same night at different times and at different locations on the Moon. And that’s still not all. Dunham captured them all on his videotape!
Mysterious flashes on the Moon? What’s going on? Ah, if you recall, November 18th was the morning of the famous Leonid meteor shower. Dunham believes that the recorded flashes resulted from Leonid meteors impacting on the Moon! The irony of these observations is that for years astronomers have told the public that viewing a meteor shower will be more difficult when the Moon is out, meaning that its brightness will wash out any faint meteors that might be visible from Earth. Little did they know that for all these years we could have been watching meteor showers impact the Moon with our telescopes!
Meteor watching in the future will now carry a new dimension. Amateurs will be encouraged to train their telescopes on the dimly lit section of the Moon that shines by reflected Earth light, to have a truly lunar meteor shower experience.
In the pop-rock song "Rocket Man," Elton John sings that "Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids . . . And there’s no one there to raise them anyway, if you did."
Well, move over, Rocket Man, because we humans have found a way to pollute the most inhospitable of worlds with our presence. That’s right. Molecular biologist Julian Hiscox of the University of Reading in the United Kingdom has found a way. "We’d take earth bacteria living in the conditions most similar to Mars," he says, "and play Darwin."
What Hiscox proposes is using genetically engineered bacteria to make the Red Planet ready for human colonization someday. These rock-eating microbes would help release carbon dioxide locked up in the Martian crust and release it into the atmosphere. What happens when you have an overabundance of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere? You get global warming. As the microbes chomped away on Martian rocks, the planet would become gradually warmer, making it a more hospitable environment for humans. It’s a process called terraforming. The rock-eating work is extremely rapid, and scientists who have been in caves where these bacteria live say that the rock is literally "raining down."
The first Martian colonizers, says Hiscox, would probably be Antarctic bacteria, because they have already endured temperatures well below freezing. By growing these bacteria at ever lower temperatures and selecting those that thrive, it will be possible to breed bugs suited to an extraterrestrial existence.
The earth is not sufficiently protected from bad Star Trek news items or from the risk of asteroid or comet impacts. This latest news (though the concept is not really new) comes from Harry Atkinson, who chaired the British government’s Near Earth Object (NEO) task force. "The possibility of extinction by impact of an asteroid or comet is one of the most important subjects ever for the human race," Atkinson says. "I think people around the world are waiting for this report. They feel it could be a catalyst for action in Europe." Hey! What about the United States? "The risk is intolerable," says David Williams of University College, London, one of three members of the task force. "If the risk were owned by an individual, that person would have to do something."
So, what’s the news? Well, the British plan to join forces with their European colleagues to build a new three-meter telescope in the southern hemisphere. I know, you’re all scratching your heads saying, "Uh, isn’t the southern hemisphere a little far from Europe?" And, yes, it is. But you can’t think terrestrially when it comes to extraterrestrial impactors. The fact is, there are plenty of near-earth asteroid and comet searchers underway in the northern hemisphere, but those in the southern hemisphere are all but nonexistent. And the fact is, a killer comet or asteroid can approach from the south just as well as it can from the north – and still hit London . . . or any other city on the earth.
This new telescope would focus on identifying objects about 300 meters in diameter. Currently, astronomers do not systematically study objects smaller than one kilometer in size. Asteroids with a diameter of 300 meters may strike as frequently as every 10,000 years, while one-kilometer-diameter asteroids hit every 100,000 years. Astronomers have pinpointed about 410 of the 1,000 or so one-kilometer objects with earth-crossing orbits. Bailey believes that a one-kilometer object would kill one quarter of the world’s population!
No one saw it coming – not until it was over. We’re talking about an asteroid the size of a soccer field that whizzed past Earth in 2002. That’s right, on June 14th, 2002, Asteroid 2002MN got within 75,000 miles of Earth (about three times closer than the Moon from the Earth) and was traveling at a speed of some 23,000 miles per hour. But we learned all this in hindsight. That’s because astronomers did not discover the asteroid until three days after it had the close call with our planet. Once they determined the asteroid’s orbit, they traced its path back in time and discovered that Earth and its inhabitants had a near encounter with disaster. The last time an asteroid buzzed the Earth was in 1994. But asteroid 2002MN was the largest (asteroid) astronomers have seen at that distance in the last several decades.
The asteroid was not huge, being roughly 50 to 120 yards in diameter, but had it struck Earth, it could have caused local devastation, especially if it had hit a populated region. It’s expected that an asteroid the size of 2002MN may hit Earth about once every hundred years or so. In fact, there is a slim chance that 2002MN could hit Earth during its return in 2061 . . . but right now that chance is at about one in 100,000. So there’s no need to go out and buy a hard hat . . . yet.
Astronomers peering across the universe have spotted the most distant object ever observed, a quasar 26 billion light-years away. This quasar probably started sending its light in Earth’s direction when the universe was a baby, a mere infant of less than a billion years old. Quasars are extremely bright and extremely compact objects thought to be powered by matter-sucking black holes as massive as a billion suns.
This farthest of the quasars turned up in data taken in March 2000, by astronomers of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. The new quasar breaks the distance record previously held by a galaxy discovered last year by Esther Hu and colleagues at the University of Hawaii and the Institute of Astronomy in Cambridge, England. And this isn’t the first far-off quasar the Sky Survey has found. "Finding record-breaking quasars has become something of a habit for the Sky Survey," said astronomer Professor Michael Strauss, of Princeton University. Twice before, the Sloan survey scientists have found quasars more distant than any found before. To date, the survey has discovered some thousand quasars, including eight of the ten most distant known. "Because the new record-breaker is so exceptionally luminous, it provides a wonderful opportunity to study the universe when the galaxies that we see today were young, or perhaps before they had even been born," says Strauss.
For more than a century, people looking through telescopes have reported seeing curious colored clouds and flickering flashes on the Moon. These fleeting apparitions, called "lunar transient phenomena" (LTP), have eluded explanation. In fact, until recently, few astronomers believed in LTPs. They attributed them to earthly atmospheric effects and even figments of the imagination, such as ghosts and UFOs.
Now, space scientists say that these mysterious clouds appear to be real! The story actually goes back to April 23, 1994, when about a hundred amateur astronomers reported an LTP near the edge of the bright lunar crater Aristarchus. The Aristarchus region is the source of about a third of all LTP sightings. When Bonnie Buratti of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA, recently heard about these claims, she decided to investigate. You see, Buratti knew that the U. S. Department of Defense’s Clementine satellite was mapping the lunar surface when the LTP was sighted.
Sure enough, Buratti and her colleagues found that a small area on the Moon’s surface near Aristarchus had changed in April 1994. The crater looked different before and after the amateur reports, Buratti says. The cause of LTPs remains a mystery, though astronomers suspect small gas eruptions that can toss up some dust. Pockets of gas exist in the lunar soil, and the gas may occasionally escape. If you own a telescope, keep your eyes peeled on Aristarchus for more events!
Astronomers have long been aware that storm clouds exist on Jupiter. One of them, the Great Red Spot, has been known for hundreds of years and is one of the planet’s most cherished features. How that storm can persist for so long is somewhat of a puzzle. But what’s even more puzzling, are the mottled storms in Jupiter’s polar regions, which are reminiscent of the more chaotic, short-lived weather we have here on Earth.
But, alas, this is not the case. A movie made with 1,200 images taken by Cassini over a period of 70 days late last year shows that even Jupiter’s polar storms are long-lived. This discovery has scientists at the California Institute of Technology scratching their heads. "The movie shows that the (storms) last a long time and move in organized patterns," Caltech scientist Ashwin Vasavada said. "You’d expect chaotic motions to go with the chaotic appearance but that’s not what we see."
How can that be? Well, Cassini also took images of thunderstorms swirling across Jupiter’s polar regions. Scientists now believe that the massive storms, which can run for centuries, draw their energy from absorbing smaller systems. And the smaller thunderstorms draw their power from below the cloudy surface of the hot, gassy planet – where more mysteries lie.
By the way, the main purpose of Cassini‘s approach to Jupiter was to give the 12,593-pound spacecraft a final gravitational push toward Saturn’s orbit, where it is expected to arrive on July 1, 2004.
While sleeping aboard the International Space Station on June 6, U.S. astronauts Carl Walz and Daniel Bursch set a new American record for space flight endurance — and they didn’t even know it. You see, the astronauts boarded the Space Station on December 7, 2001, two days after their launch, planning to stay in space for about 4-1/2 months. But storms on Mother Earth and hardware problems delayed their trip home on the Space Shuttle Endeavour. Had the Endeavour launched on time, Walz and Bursch would have missed the U.S. space-endurance record by about six hours.
The return of the astronauts to Earth on June 19 ended the 196-day mission. Their stay in space beats astronaut Shannon Lucid’s aboard the Russian space station Mir in 1996, which lasted 188 days. The U.S. record is still far short of the world record, though. That honor belongs to Russian Valery Polyakov, who spent 438 days on Mir in 1994-95.
Since the first new planet outside our solar system was discovered six years ago, we now know of at least 50 others! One of the most recent finds – a new planet that orbits Epsilon Eridani only 10.5 light-years distant – is of special interest. Why? Because according to some Star Trek lore, the planet Vulcan, the home world of Mr. Spock, is a rocky, arid planet orbiting the nearby star Epsilon Eridani. But the world the scientists found really doesn’t fit that description at all.
Dr. William Cochran, an astronomer at the University of Texas in Austin, who made the find, says that the planet is probably just a little bigger than Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system, and is likely composed of mostly hydrogen and helium.
Wait . . . am I missing something here? Star Trek is science fiction? How can this be news? I guess the discovery of the planet is, with or without the Trekkie connection.
So what else is new under the sun . . . I mean, other suns? Well, of the nine latest planet discoveries, some belong to a family of planets – an extrasolar system, with two identified low-mass planets, and five others suspected. "Extrasolar systems," a news item pertaining to the discovery states, "may therefore be common." I guess this is surprising, because in the last five years or so, we’ve identified only one other system around Upsilon Andromedae. "No word yet," the item concludes, "on the whereabouts of the Klingon sun."
It’s claimed to be the most fragrant mini-rose ever. It’s called "Overnight Scentsation." And this petal pushover definitely has "star" potential. Yup, maybe you guessed it. A rosebud of this miniature marvel flew aboard NASA’s space shuttle last year (1999) with space flight pioneer John Glenn. The bud was housed in a specially designed structure and bathed under ultraviolet lights. During the flight, Glenn and his fellow astronauts chemically sampled the flower as it opened in microgravity. When the Overnight Scentsation plant returned to Earth, scientists from International Flavors and Fragrances Incorporated (a New Jersey company that creates and manufactures flavors, fragrances, and aroma chemicals) analyzed the data collected in space. They found a significant change in some of the flower’s chemical components.
Did microgravity affect the flower’s fragrance? Affirmative! The IFF scientists recently reported that the overall aroma of the orbiting rose was only half as strong as that of a flower grown on Earth. On the other hand, IFF researcher Braja Mookherjee says that the flower’s "floral rosy scent" blossomed dramatically in space. (Are you seeing dollar signs yet?)
Yes, keep that nose sniffing the store shelves for a new out-of-this-world fragrance that will undoubtedly flower in the coming millennium.
Jupiter’s tiny Moon Io is the most volcanically active body in our Solar System. And recent results from NASA’s Galileo spacecraft and the Hubble Space Telescope have shown in unprecedented detail some of the most dramatic volcanic action ever recorded on that moon. The latest images reveal giant erupting plumes, immense lava flows, and severed mountains that have split apart and slid sideways for hundreds of kilometers.
One of the most fantastic images appears to be associated with a consistently active volcano called Prometheus. Prometheus blew out an 80-kilometer-tall plume of gas, and that’s not too surprising. But what’s really weird is that the gas plume does not seem to be erupting from the vent – the hole of the volcano out of which volcanic activity usually erupts – but from near the end of its lava flow. Not only that, but the plume’s location has wandered about 85 kilometers to the west between 1979 and 1996, while the vent hasn’t changed a bit. This activity had planetary astronomers scratching their heads for a while. "This type of behavior has never been seen on Earth," said Dr. Susan Kieffer of Kieffer Science Consulting, Inc., Ontario, Canada, one of the scientists studying the images.
How can such behavior happen? Kieffer and her colleagues suggest that the plume is created when a lava flow moving away from the vent encounters a "snowfield" of sulfur already deposited on the surface from other eruptions. The sulfur vaporizes under the lava flow and explodes into the air. Over the years, the lava flow has been migrating further and further from the vent, as it encounters additional "snowfields" of sulfur.
Spacecraft have visited comets, asteroids, and every planet in our solar system except for Pluto. Scientists say that a Pluto mission may be a top NASA priority in the next decade. They also pushing for missions to Jupiter’s ice-covered moon Europa and to retrieve a soil sample from the Moon’s south pole, the site of the deepest crater in the Solar System.
The news on Pluto seems to contradict the fact that NASA canceled one mission in 2000, saying it was too expensive. A trip to Pluto was reconsidered when the mission’s cost dropped after making modest changes to plans. The reconsideration also reflects a response to a warning NASA got from planetary scientists who reminded the space agency that Pluto’s atmosphere will freeze by about 2020 as it moves away from the Sun and not thaw again for 250 years. If the new Pluto mission is approved, it could increase our knowledge of the outer fringes of the Solar System and may revamp our thinking on how planets are formed.
It finally happened. On the morning of November 18, 2001, the Leonid meteor shower turned into a ministorm – a meteor squall, if you will. Maybe you saw it. If you did, you would have joined countless millions of others across the Americas, the Pacific, and Asia who witnessed the sky show.
Sky & Telescope magazine touted it as the "best display (of Leonid meteors) in 35 years." And few will argue. From midnight to dawn, observers recorded thousands of meteors per hour, though the best showing was in the Far East, where observers estimated that 5,000 to 15,000 meteors fell per hour. Astronomers were very excited over the results, because the peak times of activity occurred according to predication. It is the second time in as many years that astronomers were able to accurately predict when the meteor would "storm."
This bodes well for this November, when the Leonids are expected to roar once again!
The idea of a large rock from space walloping Earth and wreaking havoc among its citizens is not solely the stuff of Hollywood movies such as Armageddon.
Ask any planetary astronomer, and he or she will tell you that our planet is bombarded by 80 to 100 metric tons of space debris per day — but the impactors are mostly dust-size particles. However, whopper-size rocks do whiz about in space, and recently some have come uncomfortably close to our planet.
In its youth, Earth continuously was pelted by stones and vastly larger bodies. We’ve just learned, for example, that a huge asteroid about 19 kilometers (12 miles) wide smashed into the Earth nearly 3.5 billion years ago, when the planet was just a billion years old.
We know. You’re thinking, "Yeah, so what else is new? Well, get this. Last June, a large asteroid just missed hitting the Earth. The rock, labeled 2002MN, was about 50 to 120 meters (165 to 396 feet) wide and came within 120,000 kilometers (75,000 miles) of Earth — that’s closer to us than the moon. The scary note is that we didn’t learn of the asteroid’s existence until three days after its closest approach to Earth! Had 2002MN hit Earth, the impact could have affected an area as large as 2,080 square kilometers (about 800 square miles) — populated regions not excluded.
What’s an innocent citizen of Earth to do about these extraterrestrial invaders? Read the next scoop!
It’s official. Saturn has the most moons of any planet in the Solar System. Brett Gladman (Nice Observatory, France) and his colleagues just announced their discovery of 12 new moons around the ringed wonder, Saturn. The discovery brings to 30 the total number of moons around the planet. All the moons orbit Saturn at an angle that’s highly inclined to the planet’s equator. The 12 recently discovered moons could have formed when a larger moon shattered into tinier fragments early in Saturn’s history. That larger moon could have also been a rogue interplanetary traveler that was captured by Saturn’s gravity before it split apart.
It’s happened — one big step for a man, and one giant leap for "civiliankind." You’ve probably heard by now that the first civilian has flown in space . . . well, sort of. (You see space starts outside Earth’s atmosphere.)
Anyway, Dennis Tito, a 60-year-old Los Angeles businessman, paid the Russians $20 million for a joy ride aboard a Soyuz space capsule. His destination? The International Space Station (ISS)! Tito blasted off Russian soil on April 28th and arrived on the ISS in good health and spirits. His eight-day "mission" was essentially to have fun. In doing so, he became the world’s first space tourist. Other non-professionals have flown into space, but they did not pay out of their own pockets for the privilege.
By the way, it looks like space itself can become a big business. For instance, the Russian Space Agency told news organizations that the fee for interviewing Tito as he orbited the Earth would be $25,000! Vladimir Solovyov, mission control chief at the Russian Space Agency, said Tito’s flight was a "good start," and that he hoped more tourists (rich tourists) will "fly for their own pleasure."
On November 5, 2001, nearly five years to the day after it was launched, NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft took its 100,000th picture of Mars. No other spacecraft has taken as many pictures of the Red Planet. NASA’s twin Viking orbiters have come the closest, returning a total of about 55,000 images of the planet between 1975 and 1980.
And just what was the 100,000th snapshot? The new black-and-white digital image shows a mile-wide portion of a valley north of Olympus Mons, the largest known volcano in the solar system. The valley floor is covered by windblown dunes, a common sight on Mars. Its slopes show dark streaks where debris has slid downward. The image is fairly hazy, due to the effects of a global dust storm that engulfed the entire planet between July and October.
So far, about two thirds of the images returned from Mars Global Surveyor have been examined, cataloged, and archived on the Internet. The images can be viewed freely on the Web site of Malin Space Science Systems, the San Diego company that operates the camera on behalf of NASA.
I thought I’d round out these news items by throwing you a scientific "square" ball. It’s common to believe that craters are round. Just look at the moon. But dig this: NASA’s NEAR (Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous) Shoemaker spacecraft has spotted square-shaped craters on an asteroid named 433 Eros. Now that’s weird, because in astronomy, "curves rule." Ever hear of a square planet? Of course not. But square-shaped bodies smaller than a planet are not impossible, as the findings on Eros remind us.
How do you make a crater square? You give it a thick book, some glasses, a pocket protector . . . nah, just kidding. Certainly a crater starts out as round, but it appears that Eros has an extensive system of fractures and faults. Typically, on earth when we find this type of fractured area, the fractures form a system of intersecting lines – like a grid. When an impacting body hits in one of these fractured areas, its impact can look square (draw a square and put a circle in it).
The cracks and ridges on Eros extend the entire 33-kilometer length of the peanut-shaped space rock. How did these cracks form? Perhaps by a huge impact billions of years ago, when the solar system was young and planets were newly forming. In fact, Eros might once have been part of a moon-sized planet between Mars and Jupiter that was smashed apart by high-energy impacts. If all of the rocks in the asteroid belt were assembled, they would form a small planet about 1,500 km in diameter – roughly half the size of earth’s moon. Is there such a feature on earth? Yes! Believe it or not, Meteor Crater in Arizona is one such "square."
Astronomers got a rare glimpse of some weird Earthlike weather occurring on our Sun. Solar researchers Deborah Haber and Bradley Hindman (University of Colorado) detected the wacky weather while studying a thin layer of gas near the surface of the Sun. The study required importing satellite images from the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) into a new three-dimensional computer program. That’s when the scientists started to see some unexpected, Earthlike weather patterns, such as brief hurricane-like storms, as well as long-term weather patterns that seem to mimic the El Nino tropical disturbance that we experience here on Earth. The researchers also mapped rapidly moving air flows with typical speeds of around 160 kilometers (100 miles) per hour, as well as swirling storms large enough to swallow Jupiter. On Earth, scientists know that heat, mostly from the Sun, drives all weather.
"The big difference, " Haber said, "is that we don’t know what’s driving the weather on the Sun."
But Haber and Hindman’s research could solve that mystery. What’s more, the scientists believe that monitoring solar weather could play an important part in improving our ability to forecast the types of solar disturbances (such as solar flares) that can cause magnetic disturbances on Earth or that can damage the electronics on satellites. Although Haber and Hindman can’t make any solar-weather predictions right now, they hope to do so in the future.
Gene Shoemaker’s final voyage (ODYSSEY, April 1999, pg. 30) ended with a bang – a controlled crash of the Lunar Prospector spacecraft after 6,800 orbits of the Moon. The target was a crater near the Moon’s south pole, which is believed to contain water ice in its permanently shadowed depths. On board the spacecraft was a canister containing seven grams of the cremated remains of Dr. Eugene Shoemaker, a renowned geologist and crater expert, who always dreamed of going to the Moon.
The Hubble Space Telescope and several major telescopes on Earth were focused on the impact. Before the crash, scientists estimated their chances of detecting water in the impact’s plume of debris at ten percent. A near-bull’s-eye impact gave them greater hope, but they detected no water immediately. They planned to continue searching their images for a byproduct of water, a process that might take several weeks.
In other Moon-related items, the public has been eagerly awaiting news from NASA about the July 31 Lunar Prospector spacecraft’s crash into the Moon. Did astronomers monitoring the crash see a cloud of dust and water vapor rise from the floor of the crater it impacted? Well, the verdict is finally in, and it’s a "two thumbs way down."
Just as most ground-based astronomers expected, their instruments picked up no dust and no sign of water vapor. "As expected, [it] didn’t make a big splash, or we all would have seen a water signal quickly," said David Goldstein (University of Texas, Austin) who led the team that proposed the crash. Researchers, however, are still analyzing data from the Earth-orbiting Hubble Space Telescope and other instruments, which may have recorded something ground-based telescopes could not see.
Despite its many deep-space duties, the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) has for the last several years been watching Saturn and its magnificent ring system swoop around the Sun like a flying saucer. The images here show how Saturn’s tilt has changed from 1996 to 2000 — from when Saturn’s rings were nearly edge-on to nearly fully open.
Actually, the swooping is an illusion. As Saturn orbits the Sun, we see the ringed planet from different viewing angles, which makes the planet appear to tilt. The change looks all the more dramatic because Saturn’s axis of rotation is tipped 27 degrees from the vertical. Earth’s axis is also tipped from the vertical by 23 ½ degrees. And just as this tipped axis is responsible for seasons on Earth, Saturn too has seasons. During HST’s four-year period of observation, Saturn’s seasons changed from autumn towards winter in its Northern Hemisphere. The change in seasons is taking so long because the ringed planet takes 29 years to orbit the Sun!
Astronomers are now studying this set of images to see if the color and brightness of the rings have changed. They hope to learn more about the rings’ composition, how they were formed, and how long they might last.
After looking at the daily sunspot tallies and other solar data over the last several years, astronomers are now pretty confident that the peak of the current 11-year sunspot cycle came around May 2000. That’s when the 13-month-average sunspot count reached as high as 120; since then, the sunspot average number has been on the decline. But there’s still plenty of life on the Sun’s surface. Indeed, the European spacecraft Ulysses recently got blasted by a spectacular bubble of superheated gas that swept over the probe and flooded its detectors with charged particles. It was the biggest blast recorded by the spacecraft since its launch in October 1990. At the time Ulysses was nearing the Sun’s equatorial plane and 201 million km away from the Sun. The spacecraft follows a 6.2-year trajectory that carries it as far away as Jupiter’s orbit. It will pass over the Sun’s north pole in September 2001.
Let me explain. As summer rolled around on earth this year, Mars just happened to be closely orbiting our planet; the two were a mere 68 million kilometers apart. Usually this is a perfect time for amateur astronomers to turn their telescopes to the red planet and glimpse some of its earthlike surface markings – polar caps, dark "continents," and ocher deserts. But imagine the surprise of many, when suddenly, come July, there was nothing to see!
That’s right. If you went outside with your telescope in July and looked at Mars, all you would have seen was a bright yellow disk. The planet’s entire surface was being blocked from view by a dust storm so severe that it covered the globe! According to planetary geologists using instruments aboard the MarsGlobal Surveyor, the storm began back on June 15th with a small region of dust in the Hellas impact basin in the southern hemisphere. Since then, the storm has continued to grow, masking more and more of the planet. The last time such a globe-encircling storm happened was 30 years ago!
Stones ejected from Mars during meteorite impacts can escape the bonds of Martian gravity and travel into space. And some of these meteorites have found their way to Earth.
Meteorite specialists recently announced that three new stones have joined the select clan of meteorites known to be from Mars. Two of them were found in the sands of the Sahara Desert in Libya; these specimens weighed in at 1,619 and 588 grams, respectively. Their compositions and textures are so similar to two others found earlier in that same region that researchers now believe all four fragments came from a single body that probably exploded once it hit earth’s atmosphere. Russian geologists found the third meteorite. It weighs 1,056-grams and was found in the Dhofar region of Oman. It too may be fragment of a much larger body that broke up in earth’s atmosphere.
These new discoveries bring the total of known falls of distinct Martian meteorites to 15. But stay tuned, because the evidence that these bodies shattered upon arrival implies there’s more!
Now, the reality: a large piece of space junk hurtled towards the International Space Station on June 11th, threatening to obliterate it!
The drama began that day when the US Air Force’s Space Command, which tracks orbital debris, told NASA that a spent Russian rocket stage would come close to the space station. NASA tried to maneuver the Space Station but when the remote command was issued, the station refused to move out of the way! Fortunately the oncoming chunk of debris – a spent Russian rocket stage — missed by several kilometers. WHEW!
NASA and its international partners are embarrassed by the failure of their emergency procedures and have rectified the problem – which was in the a communication link. The good news is that had a crew been on board the station, they could have fired some thrusters and moved the station themselves. NASA officials say they learned a lot from the experience and are going going to ensure that this situation doesn’t happens again.
Boy, didn’t Mother Nature ever hear that a song shouldn’t end on a flat note? Well, get this, the first detailed images of the early universe taken from a balloon-borne telescope above Antarctica suggest the cosmos will expand forever and not someday collapse upon itself. This finding largely matches predictions and suggests that scientists are on the right track in their understanding of the earliest moments of the universe, its composition, and ultimate fate.
The $4 million international project dubbed "Boomerang" measured minute variations in the faint glow that fills the sky in all directions and is believed to be the fading remnants of the Big Bang 12 billion to 15 billion years ago. The images reveal ripple-like structures that probably led to the formation of today’s clusters of galaxies.
"We are seeing something like the seeds of creation of the structure of the modern universe," said Harley Thronson, senior science manager for NASA’s space science office. Scientists said the ripple patterns they observed precisely match the scenario of a "flat" universe in which parallel lines never cross. The findings rule out the possibility that the universe is curved like a sphere or bent outward like a saddle. It also means that the universe will not collapse in a big crunch. In other words, it’s flat.
The findings also demonstrate that the universe will expand forever.
Thanks to a five-year, $10 million grant from the National Science Foundation, astronomers from 17 research institutions have announced that they’re starting an ambitious new project to put the universe on-line. Introducing . . . ta-daaaaa . . . the National Virtual Observatory (NVO)!
The NVO plans to take advantage of the latest computer technology and data storage and analysis techniques to unite databases from many earthbound and orbital observatories. Once achieved, all the data will be made available in an accessible and unified form to professional researchers, amateur astronomers, and students. The goal is to maximize the potential for new scientific insights from the data.
The NVO will be headed by astronomer Alex Szalay (Johns Hopkins University) and computer scientist Paul Messina (California Institute of Technology), who believe that this project is a significant step toward formalizing an approach to scientific research that’s been growing in usefulness and popularity in recent years. "The new approach, scientific exploration through computational methods," Szalay says, "is developing in response to the tremendous volumes of data we’re starting to gather in many of the sciences." According to Szalay, advances in technology now double the total information astronomers gather each year from observatories.
"This project will reach across the astronomical community," Szalay says. "The number of people interested has been growing exponentially, and I think this is likely to change astronomy as we know it."
No, this news item isn’t about the movie or the Earth. It’s about Mars and its watery rocks. Yup, watery rocks. Turns out that the Martian crust might hold two to three times more water than scientists had previously suspected. Researcher Laurie A. Leshin (Arizona State University) came to that conclusion after studying a Martian meteorite found in Antarctica in 1994 and believed to have been blasted off Mars three million years ago. The meteorite had tiny, water-bearing crystals that contain hydrogen from the interior of the Red Planet.
When Leshin compared the amount of deuterium – a heavy form of hydrogen – in the meteorite to that found in the Martian atmosphere, she was astounded. Her research shows that Martian water originally contained higher levels of heavy water than previously thought. Where did all that heavy water come from? It could have been deposited there by comet collisions, because the deuterium levels of Martian water look similar to those found in comets. Although some of this water has vanished over the course of Mars’s history, Leshin says that water should still exist today on Mars – within the planet’s crust.
Indeed, gullies seen on Martian cliffs and crater walls in a small number of high-resolution images from the Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft suggest that liquid water has seeped onto the surface in the recent past. The relative freshness of these features might indicate that some of them are still active today — meaning that liquid water may presently exist in some areas at depths of less than 500 meters beneath the surface of Mars.
What you see above is not a group of people watching a volcanic eruption. On May 24th, NASA test fired a full-scale Space Shuttle Reusable Solid Rocket Motor in Promontory, Utah. The test, which lasted for 123.2 seconds, went smoothly. The two-minute test duration was the same length of time that the motors perform during Shuttle flights.
Steve Cash, chief engineer for the Reusable Solid Rocket Motor Project Office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, said the test was of a new insulation design on the rocket motor’s nozzle that will improve flight safety. It will also help reduce costs on the motor. The upgrade is slated to fly on the Shuttle in late 2004.
Well, why don’t you ask the high school teachers and students who recently discovered 73 novae (new stars) in the Andromeda Galaxy, the largest and closest spiral galaxy to our own Milky Way at 2.5 million light-years distant? The teenage astronomers discovered the new stars through a National Science Foundation-funded education program called "The Use of Astronomy in Research-Based Science Education." This four-year project offers a research experience to middle and high school teachers during summer workshops and classroom extensions.
The National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO), in Tucson, Arizona, lets participants use the 0.9-meter reflector telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory for their projects. This year’s winning students used the telescope to take highly detailed images of the core region of the Andromeda Galaxy. They then searched the images for novae by using a blinking process, where images are rapidly alternated using a computer. When a nova appears, its coordinates are recorded. Novae actually are not new stars. They are stars that suddenly brighten some 10,000-fold when a thermonuclear explosion takes place on their surface after the surface sucks hydrogen gas onto itself from a nearby companion. Novae also play a role in creating much of the universe’s nitrogen, an element critical for the creation of life. The students’ hard work led to the highest discovery rate for novae found in this galaxy!
Teacher Tom Gehringer and his student Matt Harriger of Harry A. Burke High School in Omaha, Nebraska, were two of the program’s participants. They helped present the discoveries at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society held in Atlanta, Georgia. Gehringer, who teaches 11th and 12th graders astronomy and Earth science, says that the program has "invigorated my efforts to give students the opportunities to do science instead of just memorizing facts and figures. It has inspired me to learn more along with my students." Harriger, a junior, thinks that the novae research "is one of the more exciting things I have been able to do in high school."
It’s always been easy to tell which way a galaxy spins. All you had to do was look at its spiral arms. The arms trail behind the galaxy – like the grooves you make when you stir pudding – revealing the direction of spin.
Enter NGC 4622, a pretty galaxy in the constellation Centaurus, which is causing, well, quite a stir. The galaxy is about the size of our Milky Way and lies 111 million light-years away. It has bright, twisting arms, as many galaxies do. But the outer arms in this galaxy are pointing in the direction of rotation, not away from it. That’s what astronomer Ron Buta (University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa) and his colleagues discovered when they studied images of the galaxy taken by the Hubble Space Telescope.
How can the inner and outer arms be swirling in different directions? Buta believes that NGC 4622 is a sort of galatic cannibal which spins in one direction and might have swallowed another smaller galaxy rotating in the opposite direction. But Buta’s not 100 percent certain. More observations are needed – to see if he’s got the right "spin" on this story.