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Wednesday, 30 January 2008

Europe Sets Launch Plan for First Unmanned Cargo Ship

Artist's impression showing an ATV docking with the International Space Station.

The Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) in the ESA's acoustic test facility (LEAF).

PARIS - Europe's large unmanned space tug is undergoing final preparations for a maiden flight to the International Space Station sometime between Feb. 22 and March 9, with docking at the station likely to occur during windows of March 15-19 or March 30-April 5, program managers said Tuesday.

At a briefing at European Space Agency (ESA) headquarters here, ESA and industry officials said the Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV), has passed most of its key pre-launch milestones at Europe's Guiana Space Center spaceport in French Guiana.

The ATV is designed to carry food, water, fuel and other supplies to the space station once every 18 months or so. It will also reboost the station into its operating orbit. Flying at between 217 and 267 miles (350 and 430 km) in altitude, the station gradually loses altitude because of the force of the Earth's gravity and because of atmospheric drag at that altitude.

The ATV has three times the cargo capacity of Russia's Progress vehicle and is being developed by ESA as part of a barter arrangement with NASA. Instead of paying cash for its share of the station's common operating costs, and also to secure additional astronaut access, ESA is providing ATV and other gear.

So far, ESA nations have spent some 1.3 billion euros ($1.9 billion) on developing the ATV, a figure that includes the first launch. The agency currently plans to build four other ATVs, with the second due for launch in 2010 - assuming the first flight occurs without a hitch.

For this first ATV, called Jules Verne, ESA, NASA and Russia's Roskosmos space agency have agreed on a go-slow approach as the 42,108-pound (19,100-kg) tug, operating automatically, nears the station and docks to it.

To be sure the vehicle responds to commands, it will be ordered to stop at various distances from the station, then withdraw and wait for further instructions.

Program managers estimate that following ATV's launch aboard a specially designed European Ariane 5 rocket, it will take about 10 days for the vehicle to climb to the station's orbiting altitude.

Depending on the traffic at the station, ATV may be sent into a parking orbit to wait for the U.S. space shuttle, or a Russian Progress vehicle, or a Russian Soyuz manned capsule to complete its mission at the station and depart.

John Ellwood, ESA's ATV mission manager, said ATV operations require the use of NASA's Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System, TDRSS, whose capacity will be fully used during shuttle launches. The next shuttle launch, of Europe's Columbus space station laboratory, is currently scheduled for Feb. 7.

ATV's need for TDRSS is minimal if the vehicle is parked at a safe distance from the station while waiting for a docking opportunity, Ellwood said, meaning that the launch date is not directly dependent on whether the Feb. 7 shuttle launch is further delayed.

In addition to needing to steer clear of other traffic to and from the station, ATV's rendezvous and docking schedule is governed by the position of the sun relative to both ATV and the station, Ellwood said.

ATV's final approach to the station is guided by lasers. Ellwood said mission managers want to avoid having direct sunlight in front of the vehicle as it chases the station to avoid confusing the laser guidance.

In addition, the station's astronauts will be monitoring the approach of ATV using a small camera mounted on board the station. To maintain a clear view, the maneuver must occur when the sun is not shining directly into the camera, Ellwood said.

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Approaching Asteroid: First images

This radar image of 2007 TU24 was taken on Jan. 28, 2008 using the Arecibo Observatory and the Green Bank Telescope and has a resolution of about 7.5 meters per pixel, and is a sum of 3 minutes of data.

These low-resolution radar images of asteroid 2007 TU24 were taken over a few hours by the Goldstone Solar System Radar Telescope in California's Mojave Desert. Image resolution is about 20-meters per pixel.

High quality

Astronomers have obtained the first images of an asteroid on course to make its closest approach to Earth Tuesday, showing the space rock is lopsided.

The new images, taken with the Goldstone Solar System Radar Telescope in California's Mojave Desert, refine estimates of the asteroid's size. Named 2007 TU24, the asteroid was estimated to span up to 2,000 feet (610 meters), but is now thought to have a diameter of about 800 feet (250 meters).

Scientists at NASA's Near-Earth Object Program Office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., have determined that there is no possibility of an impact with Earth in the foreseeable future.

As the asteroid moved nearer to Earth, on Jan. 28, the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico working with the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope in W. Va. produced another image of the asteroid. Astronomers used the Arecibo telescope, which is operated by Cornell University on behalf of the National Science Foundation, to bounce radar signals off the asteroid. The Green Bank Telescope received the echo signal and transmitted the data back to Arecibo to be transformed into an image.

Other radar telescopes were expected to point toward the asteroid as it made its closest approach to Earth, 334,000 miles (537,500 kilometers), at 3:33 a.m. Eastern time Jan. 29. For comparison, the moon is an average of 239,228 miles (385,000 kilometers) away.

At its nearest, the asteroid will reach an approximate apparent magnitude 10.3, or about 50 times fainter than an object visible to the naked eye in a clear, dark sky. Then, it will quickly get fainter as it moves away.

The combination of these telescopes will provide higher resolution images of the asteroid. Measurements from Arecibo's radar telescope will gauge the object's size more precisely, its speed and spin.

Like other asteroids, this one orbits the sun. Most do so in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. NASA pays particular attention to those whose orbits bring them so close to Earth.

TU24, discovered by NASA's Catalina Sky Survey on Oct. 11, 2007, is one of an estimated 7,000 near-Earth objects identified to date (another 7,000 are estimated to exist but are yet to be discovered).

"We have good images of a couple dozen objects like this, and for about one in 10, we see something we've never seen before," said Mike Nolan, head of radar astronomy at the Arecibo Observatory. "We really haven't sampled the population enough to know what's out there."

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Friday, 25 January 2008

Killer Space Rock Theory Is Soaking Wet

Researchers speculate a giant fragment produced by a collision between two asteroids smashed into Earth 65 million years ago, creating the Chicxulub crater off the coast of the Yucatan.

Dinosaur doomsday was wetter than scientists have thought, according to new images of the crater where the space rock that likely killed the jumbo reptiles landed.

Sixty-five million years ago the asteroid struck the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, and most scientists think this event played a large role in causing the extinction of 70 percent of life on Earth, including non-avian dinosaurs.

Geophysicists now have created the most detailed 3-D seismic images yet of the mostly submerged Chicxulub impact crater. The data reveal that the asteroid landed in deeper water than previously assumed and therefore released about 6.5 times more water vapor into the atmosphere.

The images also show the crater contained sulfur-rich sediments that would have reacted with the water vapor to create sulfate aerosols. These compounds in the atmosphere would have made the impact deadlier by cooling the climate and producing acid rain.

"The greater amount of water vapor and consequent potential increase in sulfate aerosols needs to be taken into account for models of extinction mechanisms," said Sean Gulick, a geophysicist at the University of Texas at Austin who led the study.

The findings will be published in the February 2008 issue of the journal Nature Geosciences.

The asteroid impact alone was probably not responsible for the mass extinction, Gulick said. More likely, a combination of environmental changes over different time scales took their toll.

Many large land animals, including the dinosaurs, might have baked to death within hours or days of the impact as ejected material fell from the sky, heating the atmosphere and setting off firestorms. More gradual changes in climate and acidity might have had a larger impact in the oceans.

If there was more acid rain than scientists had previously calculated, that could help explain why many smaller marine creatures were affected, because the rain could have turned the oceans more acidic.

There is some evidence that marine organisms more resistant to a range of pH survived, while more sensitive creatures did not.

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China May Broadcast First Spacewalk Live

Future flights of China's Shenzhou spaceship will include space walks - a prelude to rendezvous and docking in Earth orbit.

This photo released by China's Xinhua News Agency shows Chinese astronauts Fei Junlong, left, and Nie Haisheng sit beside the re-entry capsule of China's second manned spacecraft, Shenzhou 6, after landing in Siziwang Banner County, north China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region Monday, Oct. 17, 2005.

BEIJING (AP) - China's space program is considering a live broadcast of the first spacewalk by a Chinese astronaut, reflecting growing confidence in the program's capabilities, state media reported Friday.

The first spacewalk is scheduled to take place after the Beijing Summer Olympics in August during the country's third manned mission.

Yuan Jie, president of Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology, was quoted by the official Xinhua News Agency as saying a live broadcast was being considered but no decision had been made.

"The Shenzhou 7 spacecraft is capable of live broadcasting the walk, but it has not been decided if the spacewalk will be broadcast in a live or recorded version,'" Xinhua quoted Yuan as saying.

China's space program is the focus of immense national pride, and officials have announced ever more ambitious plans to explore the moon and build a space station since the program first put a man into orbit in 2003.

China sent an unmanned space ship to orbit the moon last year, the first step in a three-stage lunar exploration project. A manned lunar voyage is planned for sometime after 2017.

While live images of previous missions have been beamed to schools and viewers across China, broadcasts are usually pre-taped to guard against mishaps.

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High-Energy X-Rays Detected at Galaxy Cluster

Shockwaves travel through hot gas (in red) as two galaxy clusters collide and merge.

A distant galaxy cluster has turned into a giant particle accelerator, spinning electrons over vast distances at high speeds.

Scientists discovered this phenomenon by observing highly energetic X-rays emanating from the Ophiuchus cluster of galaxies.

The European Space Agency's orbiting gamma-ray observatory Integral detected the X-rays, which are too energetic to originate from the inert gas in the cluster and must instead come from accelerated particles.

Previous observations have been able to detect only lower-energy radio waves released in other clusters-turned-particle accelerators.

"This is the first time we have detected significant high-energy X-ray radiation from a cluster," said Stephane Paltani, an astrophysicist at Geneva Observatory in Switzerland, who was involved in the finding. "Only now are we reaching the sensitivity that we need to detect this radiation."

The Ophiuchus cluster must have recently merged with a smaller galaxy cluster, Paltani said. The collision would have mixed the gases in each cluster, producing rippling shock waves. As electrons bounced back and forth in the chaotic merger, they likely picked up energy and accelerated.

This cosmic particle accelerator is 20 times more powerful than the largest man-made atom smasher, the Large Hadron Collider being constructed at CERN, the particle physics lab in Switzerland, Paltani said.

"Of course the Ophiuchus cluster is somewhat bigger," Paltani said. "While LHC is 27 kilometers [17 miles] across, the Ophiuchus galaxy cluster is over two million light-years in diameter."

The scientists don't know for sure why the sped-up electrons release X-rays, but there are two possibilities. Perhaps the electrons created synchrotron radiation, which is produced when charged particles fly though magnetic fields. Or maybe the electrons collided with the Cosmic Microwave Background radiation left over in the universe from the big bang. When the sped-up particles hit the radiation they would have given it an energy boost, pumping its frequency up to the X-ray range of the electromagnetic spectrum.

New observations will be needed to tell which scenario occurred, the scientists said.

"These findings will help us better understand the properties of these clusters," Paltani told LiveScience. "This has important consequences for the history of the cluster itself. We will be able to put constraints on when the particle acceleration takes place and understand better what happens when these clusters merge."

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Female Figure on Mars Just a Rock !!!

NASA'S Mars Exploration Rover Spirit captured this westward view from atop a low plateau where Sprit spent the closing months of 2007. Several bloggers and other enthusiasts have pointed to a tiny structure (red circle) on the Martian surface as a human figure and thus evidence of life on Mars.

In the bottom right hand corner of this NASA image, you can make out what is shaped like a lizard wearing goggles. NASA'S Mars Exploration Rover Spirit captured this westward view from atop a low plateau where Sprit spent the closing months of 2007.

The idea that there may be life on Mars has been around for centuries, but the theory got a dubious boost from recently released photos of the surface of Mars (taken by the NASA robot Spirit) apparently showing a human-like figure. Several Internet sites have glommed onto the image and suggested the figure could be alive.

But what is it? Just a rock, astronomers say.

It's hard enough to accurately recognize figures and faces across the room. Mars, depending on when you measure it, is about 35 million miles away. The best telescopes aren't of much help in determining surface features, and that's why NASA sent robots with cameras to Mars.

The reason many people see a figure on the Martian landscape is the same reason that people see faces in clouds, Rorschach blots, and coffee stains. This phenomenon, called pareidolia, is well known in psychology, and it is the cause of many supposedly mysterious and miraculous events (including the famous "Jesus in the Tortilla"). Examples are all around us; in fact if you have a New Hampshire state quarter, you have pareidolia in your pocket or purse (take a look).

Strong evidence for this psychological explanation lies in the fact that the Spirit image does not look like Martian life (since we don't know what life on Mars looks like), but instead resembles life here on Earth, specifically human life. The image is the result of human interpretation. If you look around the full image of the area (not just the close-up), you will find several rocks and features that resemble non-human Earth life, such as armadillos and snakes. In the right bottom corner, emerging from the sand, there is what looks like a lizard face wearing goggles and an airman's helmet.

This is of course not the first time that NASA images have been claimed to show evidence of Martian life. A man named Richard Hoagland claimed that 1976 photographs of the Cydonia region of Mars showed a human-like face and was clear evidence of aliens.

According to astronomer Phil Plait of the Bad Astronomy Web site, if the image really is of a man on Mars, he's awfully small: "Talk about a tempest in a teacup!" Plait said. "The rock on Mars is actually just a few inches high and a few yards from the camera. A few million years of Martian winds sculpted it into an odd shape, which happens to look like, well, a Bigfoot! It's just our natural tendency to see familiar shapes in random objects."

Even though logic and science suggest that the image is of a rock and not an animal, UFO buffs and conspiracy theorists will continue to speculate.

In fact, it will actually be pretty easy to determine whether or not the image is of alien life. In later photographs of the area, either the same shape will be there or it won't. If it is, it's a rock (unless, of course, little Martian men can hold the same pose for weeks or months at a time).

This is exactly how the "Face on Mars" was eventually disproven. On April 5, 1998, the Mars Global Surveyor took photographs of the same region in far higher resolution than was possible in 1976. The new images clearly showed an area heavily eroded, and that the "face" was simply the result of low image quality, pareidolia, and tricks of light and shadow. Hoagland's theory was discredited.

Just don't tell that to the creepy, goggle-wearing Martian sand lizard.

Benjamin Radford is managing editor of the Skeptical Inquirer science magazine. He is author or co-author of three books on skepticism and science literacy. They can be found on his website.

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Large Asteroid to Fly Past Earth

An asteroid that's likely as big as several football fields will fly past Earth next week. Astronomers said the space rock will be visible the night of Jan. 29 to amateur astronomers with modest-sized telescopes.

Called 2007 TU24, the asteroid was discovered by NASA's Catalina Sky Survey on Oct. 11, 2007. It is estimated to be somewhere between 500 feet (150 meters) to 2,000 feet (610 meters) in diameter.

The asteroid makes its closest approach to Earth, 334,000 miles (537,500 kilometers), at 3:33 a.m. Eastern time (12:33 a.m. Pacific time). For comparison, the moon is an average of 239,228 miles (385,000 kilometers) away.

"This will be the closest approach by a known asteroid of this size or larger until 2027," said Don Yeomans, manager of the Near Earth Object Program Office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

However, that doesn't mean we won't hear about another flyby of this nature before then. With relatively small space rocks, like this one, astronomers sometimes don't know they're passing through until right before they do.

There is no danger of the asteroid striking Earth in the foreseeable future, the scientists said.

But if an asteroid with this size were to hit Earth, the results could be regionally devastating. The impact itself would release about 1,500 megatons of energy, creating a crater about three miles (nearly five kilometers) wide and kicking up loads of debris, according to Yeomans.

"If it hit in the ocean, which is more likely because two thirds of the Earth is ocean, it would create a tsunami, which would be devastating for the coastlines that happen to be nearby," Yeomans told "It would be a huge local problem and the tsunami would be extraordinary if it hit in the ocean."

"As its closest approach is about one-and-a-half times the distance of Earth to the moon, there is no reason for concern," Yeomans said. "On the contrary, Mother Nature is providing us an excellent opportunity to perform scientific observations."

At its nearest, the asteroid will reach an approximate apparent magnitude 10.3, which is about 50 times fainter than an object visible to the naked eye in a clear, dark sky. Then, it will quickly become fainter as it moves away.

Like other asteroids, this one orbits the sun. Most do so in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. NASA pays particular attention to those whose orbits bring them so close to Earth.

Given the estimated number of near-Earth asteroids of this size (about 7,000 discovered and undiscovered objects), astronomers would expect an object of this size to pass this close to Earth every five years or so on average. And about every 37,000 years on average, an object this size would be expected to actually impact Earth.

Astronomers have catalogued hundreds of asteroids larger than a half-mile across that pass in the vicinity of Earth's orbit. However, none of these are known to be on a collision course with our planet.


Astrobiologists to Convene at AbSciCon 2008

Astrobiology is the study of the origins, evolution, distribution and future of life in the universe. In April 2008, the global community of scholars engaged in astrobiology will meet at "AbSciCon 2008" in Silicon Valley at the Santa Clara Convention Center. The meeting will combine plenary events with focused topical sessions that broadly relate to three major scientific themes:

* The Astrophysical and Planetary Context for Life
* The Origin and Evolution of Life
* The Search for Life in our Solar System and Beyond

This will be the fifth AbSciCon conference over the past decade. More than 600 scientists, engineers, students and educators have contributed abstracts for oral talks and posters. Their research ranges from issues of planetary protection, space exploration, instrument development, to the realm of extreme life on Earth, what we might find on Mars, and whether SETI will succeed. It's an exciting time to be search for life in the universe, and this meeting will bring together prominent scientists who lead this quest.

Astrobiologists are interested in fundamental questions: How does life begin and evolve? Is there life beyond Earth and how can we detect it? What is the future of life on Earth and in the universe? Astrobiology attracts scientists and engineers from astronomy, astrophysics, planetary geology, physics, chemistry, ecology, microbiology, evolutionary biology, etc. Many disciplines are required to probe for answers, and astrobiology has evolved as a new discipline in science over the past decade.

NASA's Astrobiology Institute is comprised of 16 different universities and research organizations that collaborate to explore this field. Beyond the USA, astrobiology programs have developed in Europe, the United Kingdom, Australia, Japan and elsewhere. An excellent directory of astrobiology programs and publications is available on NASA's website.

The SETI Institute is hosting the upcoming AbSciCon 2008, and we look forward to an exciting meeting this spring. Registration is now open for AbSciCon 2008. For further information, please visit the AbSciCon 2008 website:


Astronaut Survey Finds no Evidence of Launch Day Drinking

NASA administrator Michael Griffin, right, listens as Bryan O'Connor, a former astronaut and shuttle accident investigator, speaks during a news conference at NASA headquarters in Washington, Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2007 to announce that in a review released Wednesday, no evidence was found that astronauts were drunk or had been drinking heavily before any space launch.

A survey of NASA astronauts and flight surgeons has turned up no evidence that U.S. spaceflyers were drunk on launch day and revealed a desire for more transparency in how crews are selected for spaceflight.

The anonymous survey, released Wednesday, did find one report of "perceived impairment" in an astronaut in the days before liftoff, which was later was traced to an interaction between prescription medication and alcohol, said former shuttle astronaut Ellen Ochoa, NASA's deputy director of the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

In that account, the astronaut was ultimately cleared for flight and launched into space, agency health officials added.

NASA health officials said that they did not know if the incident was one of two anecdotal accounts claiming that a spaceflyer was drunk just hours before launch. The claims, one related to a shuttle flight and the other to a Russian Soyuz mission, were included in an independent panel review of astronaut health released last year.

"We really never understood from the beginning exactly what might have led to the comment in the health care report," Ochoa said Wednesday. "We have tried to run it to ground. We haven't uncovered anything. I don't know of any issues associated with alcohol before flight."

NASA regulations prohibit the use of alcohol within 12 hours of launch time. The policy, initially an unofficial guideline adapted from its T-38 jet flight rules, was officially adopted for human spaceflight last year. The agency's astronaut corps is also putting the finishing touches on its own code of conduct manual, Ochoa said.

NASA commissioned the anonymous survey in the wake of a report last July by an independent astronaut health review led by U.S. Air Force Col. Richard Bachmann, Jr., which itself was spurred by the arrest February 2007 of the now former spaceflyer Lisa Nowak. Nowak was charged with the attempted kidnapping and burglary with assault of a romantic rival for a fellow astronaut's affections. She has pleaded not guilty and her attorney plans to pursue a temporary insanity defense.

Bachmann's review panel reported some accounts of astronauts and flight surgeons who felt their concerns over the anecdotal drinking claims were disregarded by their managers.

But in the new survey, those polled indicated that astronauts and flight surgeons had a healthy relationship, and were unafraid to bring up safety concerns with their superiors. The survey polled all 31 of NASA's current flight surgeons and 87 of the 98 active astronauts between August and December of last year.

"The response rate of the survey was 91 percent, a rate well above what you would normally expect in a survey," Ochoa said. "That indicates the seriousness with which astronauts and flight surgeons approached this survey."

One recurring theme among astronauts who took the survey was the desire for a better understanding of how feedback on a spaceflyer's technical skills or performance is affects career decisions and crew assignments, space agency officials said.

"We have taken their opinions and recommendations and are formulating the way forward on this issue," Ochoa said.

The data culled from the new survey will allow NASA to better monitor the health needs of its astronaut corps, she added.

"We kind of think of the human as one of the critical systems on board the spacecraft, and just like we try to assess the performance and reliability of any system, we need to do that with the humans on board, too," Ochoa said. "They are critical in carrying out the mission of whatever it is that we are trying to do."

Meanwhile, members of Congress said NASA must still remain vigilant to address the concerns raised by Bachmann's independent panel, and any new items stemming from the recent survey.

"While the anonymous survey released today provides some useful data, NASA's action plan for addressing the problems identified last year is still unavailable," said Congressman Mark Udall (D-Colo.), chairman of the space and aeronautics subcommittee, in a statement. "NASA needs to provide that plan expeditiously if Congress is to be confident that NASA is serious about dealing with concerns raised by Col. Bachmann and others, and I intend to press NASA to do so."

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A Whole New View: Hubble Overhaul to Boost Telescope's Reach

When astronauts overhaul the Hubble Space Telescope this summer, they will leave behind a vastly more powerful orbital observatory to scan the universe.

Set to launch aboard NASA's shuttle Atlantis on Aug. 7, the Hubble servicing mission will be the fifth — and final — sortie to upgrade the aging space telescope.

"We're not only going up to Hubble to refurbish it, but also to expand its grasp tremendously," said Alan Stern, associate administrator for NASA's science mission directorate, in a recent briefing. "We expect to make the very best discoveries of the entire two-decade plus Hubble program with the new instruments to be installed."

NASA's Hubble Space Telescope maintains its orbit around Earth. The space agency hopes to upgrade the aging observatory some time in August 2008.

Astronauts Steven Smith, and John Grunsfeld, appear as small figures in this wide scene photographed during an STS-103 extravehicular activity (EVA) to service the Hubble Space Telescope in December 1999.

The Hubble Space Telescope's Wide Field Camera-3 undergoes integration and testing at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

The Hubble Space Telescope's Cosmic Origins Spectrograph is subjected to integration and testing at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

A deeper look

In addition to performing vital repairs, astronauts will add two new instruments to Hubble's observation platform — Wide Field Camera-3 and the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph — that will drastically boost its vision range.

"This refurbished Hubble [will be] a new telescope," said astronomer Sandra Faber of the University of California, Santa Cruz. "We estimate that at the end of this repair Hubble will be 90 times more powerful than when it was first launched."

That means that Hubble will be able to see at least 90 times more objects in deep space than it could when it was deployed in April 1990, she added.

With its ability to scan the universe at wavelengths ranging from the near-infrared, visible spectrum to the near-ultraviolet, the new Wide Field Camera-3 should allow Hubble to see objects that formed fewer than 800 million years after the beginning of the universe.

"To follow galaxy formation to times that are even earlier than this, we need a camera that can take sharp pictures efficiently at longer wavelengths," Faber said. "And that's exactly what Wide Field Camera-3 is going to do."

The new camera has better resolution than its Wide Field Planetary Camera-2 predecessor and a wider field of view than Hubble's current NICMOS spectrometer, and could reveal objects that formed when the universe was just 400 or 500 million years old, she added.

"A difference like this makes a huge difference in the structure and formation of the galaxies that we'll see," Faber said. Astronomers currently estimate that the universe is about 13.7 billion years old.

Hubble's new Cosmic Origins Spectrograph, meanwhile, will scan the universe in the ultraviolet range with about 10 times more sensitivity than the observatory's current tools.

"I believe it's the most sensitive UV spectroscopic capability ever to fly in space for astronomical purposes," said Hubble senior project scientist David Leckrone of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. "It's designed, because it's so sensitive, to go as deep as possible out across the universe as fast as possible."

Researchers hope the new spectrograph will map the so-called cosmic web, the universe's large-scale structure made up of strands of galaxies that branch out in three dimensions like an astronomical spider's web.

"It is amazing to me how we've been able to reinvent the Hubble Space Telescope with each of these missions," said astronaut John Grunsfeld, who will serve as the lead spacewalker for the telescope's last overhaul.

Full power ahead

Hubble service astronauts will also replace failed gyroscopes, fine guidance sensor and aged batteries, and make unprecedented repairs to the space telescope's main camera and a vital spectrograph.

"When the astronauts leave Hubble for the last time, it will be at the apex of its capabilities," said Leckrone. "It will be the first time since 1993 that there will be five working instruments aboard."

Spacewalkers will replace Hubble's cracked thermal insulation and replace each of its 16-year-old batteries among other hardware.

They will also repair the observatory's Space Telescope Imaging Spectroscope and the Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS), both of which were never designed to be fixed in orbit. Spacewalkers will remove more than 111 tiny screws to repair the two units.

"The good news is we're going to try and repair ACS. The bad news is we've never done it before," said Grunsfeld. "It's very tricky."

Grunsfeld and his six crewmates plan to stage five spacewalks to service Hubble during their STS-125 mission. NASA initially canceled the spaceflight following the 2003 Columbia tragedy, but later reinstated the mission after a detailed risk analysis.

The result, researchers said, is about five extra years of science for Hubble before its controlled deorbit sometime after 2020. To prepare for the space telescope's eventual demise, spacewalkers will also attach a connecting port that will allow a robotic tug to dock with Hubble.

"None of us could have imagined what this fourth-generation suite of instruments can do," said Stern, adding the 90-fold jump in observation power for Hubble will be unprecedented. "We will have the capability, literally, of approximately 100 Hubbles [circa] 1990 when this mission is done."

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Sun’s Magnetic Secret Revealed

This image clearly shows an x-ray jet launching plasma out into the solar system from the Sun’s north polar coronal hole. This image was taken 10 January 2007 by Hinode’s X-ray telescope.

Powerful magnetic waves have been confirmed for the first time as major players in the process that makes the sun's atmosphere strangely hundreds of times hotter than its already superhot surface.

The magnetic waves — called Alfven waves — can carry enough energy from the sun's active surface to heat its atmosphere, or corona.

"The surface and corona are chock full of these things, and they're very energetic," said Bart de Pontieu, a physicist at the Lockheed Martin Solar and Astrophysics Laboratory in California.

The sun contains powerful heating and magnetic forces which drive the temperature to tens of thousands of degrees at the surface — yet the quieter corona wreathing the sun reaches temperatures of millions of degrees. Scientists have speculated that Alfven waves act as energy conveyor belts to heat the sun's atmosphere, but lacked the observational evidence to prove their theories.

De Pontieu and his colleagues changed that by using the Japanese orbiting solar observatory Hinode to peer at the region sandwiched between the sun's surface and corona, called the chromosphere. Not only did they spot many Alfven waves, but they also estimated the waves carried more than enough energy to sustain the corona's temperatures as well as to power the solar wind (charged particles that constantly stream out from the sun) to speeds of nearly 1 million mph.

However, the chromosphere findings alone could not prove the waves carried their energy into the sun's atmosphere.

"If you observe waves in the chromosphere, that doesn't mean they can get to the corona," De Pontieu told

Some waves may get reflected back down to the sun instead of passing through the transition region between the surface and atmosphere. Waves that reach the corona also become more difficult to detect using current instruments, thanks to the long line-of-sight.

De Pontieu's group turned to researchers at the University of Oslo, Norway, who had created a computer simulation representing part of the sun. Once they knew what to look for, the researchers found magnetic waves within the simulation of the corona that strongly resembled the Alfven waves directly observed in the chromosphere.

Even as the simulations helped establish Alfven waves as energy carriers for the sun's atmosphere and solar wind, the new observational findings will help modelers create improved sun simulations.

"It goes back and forth — we learn from simulations, they learn from us," said De Pontieu.

Many mysteries remain about the sun's restless activities. De Pontieu's group focused on Alfven waves generated by the sun's heat turbulence, but other researchers examined Alfven waves generated when the sun's magnetic field lines stress and snap back together like invisible magnets. That reconnection force also creates jets of X-rays that shoot outwards from the sun, as captured by Hinode's instruments.

Scientists still don't know which source of Alfven waves plays a more important role in the heating the sun's atmosphere, but can use the latest findings as a stepping stone.

"We need to study both more, to see which one dominates," noted De Pontieu. "But it's nice for people to know that Alfven waves can do the job."

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Wednesday, 23 January 2008

India Launches Israeli Radar Satellite

TEL AVIV, Israel — Israel's first 24-hour, all-weather, high-resolution radar satellite — dubbed TechSAR — was inserted into orbit Jan. 21 by an Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle.

The launch, from the Sriharikota test site on the Bay of Bengal in southeast India, marked the seventh successful orbital insertion for the four-stage Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle and the first cooperative satellite launch between Israel and its principal export customer, defense and industry officials here said.

According to state-owned Israel Aerospace Industries Ltd. (IAI), Israel's sole satellite producing firm, the first signals from the synthetic aperture radar (SAR) spacecraft reached the operational ground control station near IAI headquarters some 80 minutes after launch. ''By all indications so far, the satellite is functioning properly,'' IAI announced.

In a Jan. 21 statement, IAI said company engineers began what will be an extensive, nearly month-long series of in-orbit tests to verify satellite performance. First images from TechSAR are scheduled to be collected in about two weeks.

Israel's Ministry of Defense and its national intelligence agencies will be the primary customers of the day-, night- and all-weather imagery generated by the TechSAR payload, which was developed by Elta Systems Ltd., an IAI subsidiary. Despite the strategic intelligence-gathering mission assigned to the nationally-funded TechSAR, Israel's Ministry of Defense did not provide a statement on the launch and referred all queries to IAI.

''We're all very proud of this achievement, which serves as additional proof of IAI's great technological and administrative capabilities, and of IAI's leadership in the Israeli space industry,'' noted Itzhak Nissan, IAI's president and chief executive officer.

TechSAR's successful launch follows repeated technical and weather-related delays. The Israeli satellite was delivered to the Indian launch facility by summer 2007 and had completed integration testing on the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle in time for a fall 2007 launch. However, due to circumstances that neither IAI nor the Indian launch provider was willing to discuss publicly, the satellite was removed from its launch vehicle and held in storage until several weeks before the Jan. 21 launch.

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Next Space Tourist Begins Training for Spaceflight

American computer game developer Richard Garriott floats in weightlessness inside a Russian Sokol spacesuit during a airplane ride to celebrate the upcoming release of his new game 'Tabula Rasa.'

An American space tourist bound for the International Space Station (ISS) has begun training for his fall launch aboard a Russian rocket.

Computer game developer Richard Garriott is spending six weeks in Russia to undergo initial medical checks and the first round of training for flight aboard a Soyuz spacecraft.

"This year is definitely where all my priorities and schedules have rotated to where space becomes the top priority and terrestrial activities become secondary," Garriott told "There's no aspect of the actual training that I perceive that's going to be scary or intimidating, I just look at it as going to be really smooth from here."

Garriott, 46, is paying about $30 million to launch to the ISS with two professional spaceflyers this fall under an agreement between Russia's Federal Space Agency and the Virginia-based firm Space Adventures. He is the creator of the Ultima series of online computer games and is contemplating $15 million spacewalk as an additional mission perk.

The son of former NASA astronaut Owen Garriott, who flew aboard the U.S. Skylab station and a U.S. shuttle, the younger Garriott is set to become the first second-generation U.S. spaceflyer and the sixth paying visitor to the ISS during his mission.

"We have been having about five e-mails from each other a day," Garriott said of his father, who will serve as chief scientist for his upcoming flight. "My dad will even tell you this is the hardest he's worked since he left the space program."

Garriott plans to spend about nine days aboard the space station, during which time he will perform protein crystallization and Earth observation experiments, some of which include photographing sites his father observed from Skylab in 1973.

But before launching, Garriott must educate himself in the workings of Russian Soyuz spacecraft and the ISS, not to mention the Russian language.

"I've never learned a second language before," he said. "You just want to be able to participate fully and competently and enjoyably, and I'm gaining confidence that I can do that."

On Sunday, Garriott expected to meet with ISS Expedition 18 commander Michael Fincke, with whom he'll launch to the station later this year, as well as South Korean astronaut Ko San. Ko, South Korea's first astronaut, will launch toward the space station on April 8 with the outpost's Expedition 17 crew.

Garriott said he also hoped to meet with Russian cosmonaut Sergei Volkov, commander of Expedition 17. Like Garriott, Volkov is a second-generation spaceflyer who, if all goes according to plan, will return to Earth with the U.S. space tourist later this fall.

"I'm really going to work hard to get a chance to meet him before he flies," Garriott said.

Richard Garriott is chronicling his spaceflight training and mission at his personal Web site:

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Giuliani Pushes Space Program During Florida Visit

Republican presidential candidate, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, left, speaks to attendees of a space policy roundtable as wife Judith listens, in Cape Canaveral, Fla., Friday, Jan. 18, 2008.

PORT CANAVERAL - Space industry representatives heard magic words -- but few specifics -- from presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani after they explained that the U.S. faces a five-year gap in human spaceflight.

"This is not acceptable," said the Republican, on a multiday trek through Florida to boost his flagging status in the presidential race. "America should be No. 1 and shouldn't have to be dependent on other countries."

About 35 space industry leaders met with Giuliani early Friday evening in Port Canaveral to push their vision of a well-funded space industry. Later, the former New York City mayor appeared before 200 sign-waving supporters at the American Police Hall of Fame and Museum in Titusville.

Giuliani's audience at the port hopes his interest will make funding the space industry a national priority.

A lack of funding will leave a five-year "gap" between the end of the shuttle program in 2010 and the launch of the next generation space vehicle. During that time, U.S. astronauts will depend on Russian rockets to reach the International Space Station, which was largely funded with U.S. dollars.

"Our goal is, let's make sure we close this gap," Giuliani said after hearing the consequences of losing leadership in the space industry.

Among those painting a bleak picture:

* Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Mike Rein, who said that losing the lead in the space technology would be like an army losing the high ground during battle. "Militaries and nations win wars by owning the high ground," said Rein, now communications manager for United Launch Alliance. "Space is the high ground of the future, and we must own it at all times."

* Norman Bobczynski, director of launch operation for Space Exploration Corporation, who said the United States is fourth in the number of commercial launches worldwide. "This isn't about a nice campaign issue," Bobczynski said. "This is about a national crisis."

In Titusville, Giuliani touched on several topics, including his tax proposal and the military, which he said needs to be increased to stay on the offensive against terrorists and adversarial countries. He blasted declines made during the 1990s. "We have to make up for the so-called peace dividend," he said.

June Bair of Titusville wanted to hear Giuliani speak in person so she could make up her mind about him as a candidate. "When you hear (candidates), you get a lot different idea than when you hear them on TV," she said. She said she liked what she heard, particularly his tax plan.

Hours earlier, Giuliani toured Kennedy Space Center with his wife, Judith. He viewed shuttle Atlantis, scheduled for a Feb. 7 launch after a two-month delay. "It's remarkable to see it up close," Giuliani said. "The space program is one of America's remarkable achievements."

He noted that the U.S. had reached the moon with a bipartisan program that spanned both Democratic and Republican administrations. "We have to get back to that," he said.

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Moonwalker Film to Raise Funds for Apollo Memorial

Apollo 12 lunar module pilot Alan Bean steps down to moon's surface during his 1969 flight.

The only astronauts to set foot on the moon will share tales of their journey Saturday in a film screening to raise funds for a monument to their Apollo lunar missions.

"The Wonder of it All" looks to understand the men who walked on the moon, instead of the science and technology behind the Apollo missions. The result is a highly personal and affecting history of the U.S. effort to send men to the moon.

"We're all about the guys," said Jeffrey Roth, director of the film. The film will screen at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Cape Canaveral, Fla., to help raise funds for a monument honoring NASA's Apollo lunar program.

Many of the Apollo astronauts share early childhood fantasies of flying like sci-fi hero Buck Rogers, and later pursued careers as military pilots. Their eagerness to push limits meant they had to mentally prepare themselves for the risks and uncertainties of the space program, as those became evident during the infamous Apollo 1 fire and the Apollo 13 accident in space.

However, the astronaut experiences diverge more when they touch down on the lunar surface. Some moonwalkers ran around methodically to accomplish their assigned tasks. Others took the opportunity to conduct an impromptu "lunar Olympics" by bouncing up and down in the moon's one-sixth gravity, or hit a golf shot on camera.

"All of us needed to do more human things," said Alan Bean, lunar module pilot for Apollo 12, who regretted focusing too much on collecting moon rocks.

Yet Apollo 11 lunar module pilot Buzz Aldrin, the second person ever to walk on the moon in 1969, took a moment to give thanks and pray under the blackness of space that astronauts described as beyond any darkness on Earth. Charlie Duke, of Apollo 16, left his family's photo in a clear plastic bag on the lunar soil.

Those human moments remain the most vivid impressions from "The Wonder of it All," particularly as the astronauts describe life following the Apollo program. Bean eventually left NASA to become an artist, turning his impressions as a moonwalker into vivid paintings. Fellow astronauts stayed on with NASA to work and consult, or entered politics.

The film also sheds some light on the less-joyful experiences of the Apollo program, such as returning astronauts being egged by student protesters or a personal struggle with alcoholism and depression.

By the end, astronauts reflect upon a spiritual experience in space that transcends the boundaries of human knowledge — and allows film viewers to appreciate that other component of the space program beyond rockets and spacecraft.

"Wonder of it All" is one in a series of recent films, which include "In the Shadow of the Moon" and "Magnificent Desolation," that focus on the personal stories of those few humans who set foot on the lunar surface.

"Science and technology could no longer explain what I was feeling," said Eugene Cernan, Apollo 17.

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Report Cites Rocketship Builder in Explosion Inquiry

Artist's illustration of Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo and drop-ship in flight.

Firefighters head out to an explosion that ultimately killed three people and critically injured three others,Thursday, July 26, 2007, at Mojave Air and Space Port in Mojave, Calif. The blast at a facility belonging to Scaled Composites LLC also left some toxic material, said Kern County fire Capt. Doug Johnston.

Dawn breaks in this new depiction of Spaceport America in New Mexico, the future home of Virgin Galactic's suborbital spaceliner fleet.

California safety inspectors have cited the private spaceflight company Scaled Composites in connection with an explosion that killed three of the firm's workers last July.

The citations, issued Thursday, faulted the Mojave, Calif.-based firm for failing to provide "effective information and training of the health and physical hazards associated with nitrous oxide," a compound used during a July 26 test that ended in an explosion, killing three employees and injured three others at the Mojave Air and Space Port.

"Scaled Composites regrets that this accident occurred, and we have expressed our condolences to the victims and their families and provided support during this difficult time," said Doug Shane, Scaled Composites executive vice president, adding that the firm cooperated fully with California's Division of Occupational Safety and Health Administration (Cal/OSHA) during the investigation.

"And we continue to work with the agency so that the enhanced procedures already implemented promote the safest workplace conditions possible," Shane told

Led by aerospace visionary Burt Rutan, Scaled built and flew the piloted, air-launched SpaceShipOne suborbital spacecraft three times in 2004, two of which launched within two weeks to win the $10 million Ansari X Prize.

The firm was conducting tests as part of the development for SpaceShipTwo, a larger spaceliner designed to carry space tourists to suborbital space for Virgin Galactic, when the deadly accident occurred last summer. According to Friday's report, Scaled faces up to $25,310 in fines for three citations.

"The company has 15 working days from date of issuance to pay the assessed fines or appeal them," Kate McGuire, a spokesperson with Cal/OSHA, told in a statement.

Like SpaceShipOne, the new SpaceShipTwo will be air-launched by a carrier craft. But the new craft is expected to carry up to eight people - two pilots and six passengers - at a time to an altitude of 68 miles (110 kilometers), where they would experience several minutes of weightlessness before returning to Earth. Scaled and Virgin Galactic officials were working toward a planned rollout of SpaceShipTwo later this year and operational flights in 2009 when the accident occurred.

Virgin Galactic plans to stage its space tourist flights out of a central terminal at Spaceport America in New Mexico.

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Tuesday, 22 January 2008

NASA's Next Rocket May Shake Too Much

An artist's rendition of Ares I being stacked in the vehicle assembly building at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Houston-based Boeing won NASA's contract to built the rocket's upper stage, which appears in orange below the conical Orion crew capsule.

An artist's rendition of Ares I being stacked in the vehicle assembly building at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Houston-based Boeing won NASA's contract to built the rocket's upper stage, which appears in orange below the conical Orion crew capsule.

WASHINGTON (AP) - NASA is wrestling with a potentially dangerous problem in a spacecraft, this time in a moon rocket that hasn't even been built yet.

Engineers are concerned that the new rocket meant to replace the space shuttle and send astronauts on their way to the moon could shake violently during the first few minutes of flight, possibly destroying the entire vehicle.

"They know it's a real problem,'' said Carnegie Mellon University engineering professor Paul Fischbeck, who has consulted on risk issues with NASA in the past. "This thing is going to shake apart the whole structure, and they've got to solve it.''

If not corrected, the shaking would arise from the powerful first stage of the Ares I rocket, which will lift the Orion crew capsule into orbit.

NASA officials hope to have a plan for fixing the design as early as March, and they do not expect it to delay the goal of returning astronauts to the moon by 2020.

"I hope no one was so ill-informed as to believe that we would be able to develop a system to replace the shuttle without facing any challenges in doing so,'' NASA administrator Michael Griffin said in a statement to The Associated Press. "NASA has an excellent track record of resolving technical challenges. We're confident we'll solve this one as well.''

Professor Jorge Arenas of the Institute of Acoustics in Valdivia, Chile, acknowledged that the problem was serious but said: "NASA has developed one of the safest and risk- controlled space programs in engineering history.''

The space agency has been working on a plan to return to the moon, at a cost of more than $100 billion, since 2005. It involves two different rockets: Ares I, which would carry the astronauts into space, and an unmanned heavy-lift cargo ship, Ares V.

The concern isn't the shaking on the first stage, but how it affects everything that sits on top: the Orion crew capsule, instrument unit, and a booster.

That first stage is comprised of five reusable solid rocket boosters derived from the type that NASA uses to launch the shuttle and would be built by ATK Launch Systems of Brigham City, Utah.

The shaking problem, which is common to solid rocket boosters, involves pulses of added acceleration caused by gas vortices in the rocket similar to the wake that develops behind a fast-moving boat, said Arenas, who has researched vibration and space-launch issues.

Those vortices happen to match the natural vibrating frequencies of the motor's combustion chamber, and the combination causes the shaking.

Senior managers were told of the findings last fall, but NASA did not talk about them publicly until the AP filed a Freedom of Information Act request earlier this month and the watchdog Web site submitted detailed engineering-oriented questions.

The response to those questions, given to both Nasawatch and AP, were shared with outside experts, who judged it a serious problem.

NASA engineers characterized the shaking as being in what the agency considers the ''red zone'' of risk, ranking a five on a 1-to-5 scale of severity.

"It's highly likely to happen and if it does, it's a disaster,'' said Fischbeck, an expert in engineering risks.

The first launch of astronauts aboard Ares I and Orion is set for March 2015.

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Sunday, 20 January 2008

There's Got to Be an Invisible Sky

Sample page of the "Touch the Invisible Sky" book.

"Touch the Invisible Sky" is a 60-page book with color images of nebulae, stars, galaxies and some of the telescopes that captured the original pictures.
A new book brings cosmic objects close enough to touch — at least for the fingers of the blind.

NASA this week debuted a new book that presents images from its Great Observatories in a new format that allows visually impaired people to experience them.

"About 10 million visually impaired people live in the United States," said author Noreen Grice, in a statement. "I hope this book will be a unique resource for people who are sighted or blind to better understand the part of the universe that is invisible to all of us."

"Touch the Invisible Sky" contains 60 pages of color images of nebulae, stars, galaxies and a few of the telescopes used to capture the pictures. The authors added embossing of lines, bumps and other textures to each image, rendering colors, shapes, and other details in a third dimension. Descriptions that accompany each of the 28 images in the book are supplied in Braille and large-print text, making the information accessible to readers having differing visual abilities.

Images included come from the Hubble Space Telescope, Chandra X-ray Observatory, Spitzer Space Telescope and ground-based telescopes. The celestial subjects are shown as they appear through visible-light telescopes and different spectral regions including radio, infrared, visible, ultraviolet and X-ray light.

The book introduces the concept of light and the spectrum. A variety of objects are presented to illustrate these concepts in order of increasing distance, beginning with our sun, then traveling out into the galaxy to exploding and dying stars, the Whirlpool galaxy and colliding Antennae galaxies.

As suggested by the book's title, many of the things outside the visible portion of the electromagnetic spectrum are "invisible" to sighted persons. Even celestial wonders photographed by Hubble and ground-based telescopes using visible light can only be captured through very long exposures. Then the researchers manipulate the images further, adding color and enhancing details. The information in "Touch the Invisible Sky" may allow blind and visually impaired students to interpret information about the universe as well as sighted persons.

"Touch the Invisible Sky" was written by Noreen Grice of You Can Do Astronomy LLC and the Museum of Science, Boston, with Simon Steel, an astronomer with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass., and Doris Daou, an astronomer at NASA Headquarters, Washington.

The book will be available through NASA libraries, the National Federation of the Blind, Library of Congress repositories, schools for the blind, libraries, museums, science centers and Ozone Publishing.

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NASA Picks Finalists for Space Station Resupply Demonstrations

This artist's illustration depicts the automated PlanetSpace Modular Cargo Carrier supply ship as it is attached to the International Space Station using the outpost's robotic arm. Inset: An ATK booster launches the cargo ship spaceward.

Artist's concept of Rocketplane-Kistler's K-1 Orbital Vehicle.

WASHINGTON — NASA has narrowed the field of private space companies vying for $175 million in public funds the U.S. space agency expects to award in early February for demonstration flights to the International Space Station, according to industry sources closely following the competition.

At least eight firms, and perhaps as many as 14, submitted proposals in late November under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. Established in 2006, COTS aims to spur development of privately operated space transportation systems capable of delivering cargo and eventually astronauts to the space station.

NASA selected two companies — Space Exploration Technologies Corp. and Rocketplane Kistler (RpK) — in mid-2006 to share about $500 million. But NASA has since pulled the plug on RpK's award for non-performance, freeing up the $175 million NASA intends to give to some other company next month.

According to multiple industry sources, NASA has notified four companies that they are finalists for the $175 million and should prepare to meet with COTS selection officials in Houston in the days ahead to defend their proposals.

Spacehab was one of the companies notified the week of Jan. 14 that it had made the cut, Eva DeCardenas, a spokeswoman for the Houston-based company, confirmed Jan. 17.

The other companies, according to sources are: Andrews Space of Seattle; Orbital Sciences of Dulles, Va.; and PlanetSpace of Chicago.

NASA spokeswoman Beth Dickey would not confirm that a downselect had taken place since the COTS competition remains under way.

Industry sources said NASA intends to announce its final selection Feb. 7, the date by which the U.S. Government Accountability Office is required to rule on RpK's challenge of NASA's use of Space Act Agreements for the COTS program. RpK maintains that a traditional federal contract would be a better fit for COTS.

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Space Station Modules Proposed by UK Scientists

Two habitation modules emblazoned with the United Kingdom's Union Jack could launch to the International Space Station (ISS) by 2011 under a new plan devised by British scientists and engineers.

The proposal — not yet official with the ISS partnership — would not only improve living conditions on board the space station, but would also allow the United Kingdom to join other nations that have a foothold in space.

"I don't think there's an excuse for us not to be engaged in manned launches," said Mark Hempsell, aeronautical engineer at the University of Bristol and lead author on the proposal published in Spaceflight magazine.

The proposed Habitat Extension Module (HEM) would consist of two modules attached to the ISS Node 3 segment, a hub-like connecting module slated for a 2010 launch. The British addition would provide additional room and equipment for a permanent space station crew of six, as opposed to the current crew of three. The station is scheduled to shift to six-person crews in 2009, NASA officials have said.

Because NASA plans to retire the space shuttle by 2010, the HEM modules would launch on a Russian-built Soyuz-Fregat rocket in 2011 at the earliest. Once in orbit, the modules would use their own propulsion system to reach ISS.

Although ISS has plenty of experimental space for conducting scientific research, earlier plans for expanded living space were scrapped. The HEM modules would resurrect those facilities and provide enhanced protection for astronauts against space radiation.

Each module is a cylinder 12.5 feet (3.8 meters) in diameter and 18.7 feet (5.7 meters) long. The two modules would add 3,531.5 cubic feet (100 cubic meters) of living space, doubling the room provided by Node 3. They would include a communal area and six crew rooms with a radiation protection equivalent to 20.5 pounds of lead per square foot (100 kilograms of lead per square meter).

The modules would also deliver about three tons of supplies and experiments when they arrive to help keep the space station running.

"It's doing two things," Hempsell told "Britain would make a contribution while also delivering a load of logistics equipment, and paying for the running costs and supplies."

That would cost the United Kingdom approximately $1 billion (530 million British pounds) to build, launch, and run the HEM modules until 2015, when the current operating life for ISS ends. The British Interplanetary Society supports the proposal, but the government has yet to seriously latch on.

"The British government keeps saying it's aware, but it's not actually saying it's going to do anything about it," Hempsell said.

An alternative proposal would simply use the Russian "astronaut tourist route" to launch British astronauts and some experiments into space, at the cost of just $31 million (16 million British pounds). However, Hempsell noted he was much more "enamored" of the bolder approach.

The United Kingdom currently makes no contribution to ISS and is not involved in the European Space Agency's activities on space station. For instance, the British opted out of contributing to the European Columbus module that is scheduled to launch with space shuttle Atlantis in February.

The British flag is currently displayed on the ISS Destiny module only because the nation signed the Space Station Agreement. Hempsell wants to see the United Kingdom take a more active role that would allow its scientists to participate in space-based research.

Current ISS participants such as the United States seem cautiously open to a serious British effort.

"If the British National Space Center decided it was something they wanted to do, NASA would look at the feasibility in terms of power, crew size, and propulsion," said John Yembrick, a NASA spokesperson at the agency's Washington, D.C., headquarters.

"In general, we support all our national partners," Yembrick added.

For now, Hempsell and his peers hope the idea will spur British space efforts as a new space race heats up across the globe. On the question of whether to take action, "the answer 'nothing' is the wrong answer," Hempsell said.

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Friday, 18 January 2008

Curious Clouds Seen at Mars

These images show another high-altitude carbon-dioxide-ice (CO2) cloud detected in the equatorial region of Mars by the OMEGA instrument aboard ESA’s Mars Express about two weeks after the detection of another CO2-ice cloud on 12 June 2004. The shadow of the cloud can be spotted on the surface, elongating across the rim of an impact crater.

With its thin atmosphere and scant moisture, Mars is often largely cloud-free. But new observations reveal clouds of dry ice thick enough to cast significant shadows on the red planet.

Dust storms are known to shroud vast swaths of Mars. Clouds have been photographed from the ground before, too.

The new research finds that carbon dioxide, the main component of martian air, freezes into clouds so dense they dim the sun by about 40 percent. Frozen carbon dioxide is commonly called dry ice here on Earth.

"This is the first time that carbon dioxide ice clouds on Mars have been imaged and identified from above," said Franck Montmessin of the Service d'Aeronomie, University of Versailles and lead author of a paper in the Journal of Geophysical Research. "This is important because the images tell us not only about their shape, but also their size and density."

Until now, only indirect information suggested what these clouds were made of. The new observations were made by the European Space Agency's orbiting Mars Express.

The carbon-dioxide clouds are surprisingly high, some 50 miles (80 kilometers) and are several hundred miles wide. They're thicker than expected, according to Montmessin's team.

Another surprise: the clouds are made of particles that are larger than expected. The particles are more than a micron wide (one-thousandth of a millimeter). Normally, particles of this size would not be expected to form in the upper atmosphere or to stay aloft for very long before falling back toward the surface.

The clouds "cast quite a dense shadow and this has a noticeable effect on the local ground temperature," Montmessin said. "Temperatures in the shadow can be up to 10 degrees Celsius [50 degrees Fahrenheit] cooler than their surroundings, and this in turn modifies the local weather, particularly the winds."

These clouds were found mostly near the equator. The researchers figure they're the result of extreme variations in daily temperature that occur near the equator.

"The cold temperatures at night and relatively high day-time temperatures cause large diurnal waves in the atmosphere," Montmessin explained. "This means there is a potential for large-scale convection, particularly as the morning Sun warms the ground."

Convection — warm air rising — is at the root of Earth's weather, too.

On mars, bubbles of warm gas rise. At altitude, the carbon dioxide condenses, the researchers explained. This releases heat, causing the gas and ice particles to rise higher.

On Earth, water vapor condenses around tiny particles, often dust or salt, to form clouds. It's not yet clear what the martian moisture is condensing around. The researcher said it could be dust, micrometeorites or tiny crystals of water ice.

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Spacecraft Beams Home New Images of Mercury

As NASA's MESSENGER spacecraft approached Mercury on January 14, 2008, it captured this view of the planet's rugged, cratered landscape illuminated obliquely by the sun.

This image taken by NASA's MESSENGER probe reveals a first look at uncharted terrain on the planet Mercury after a Jan. 14, 2008 flyby.

An artist's interpretation of the MESSENGER spacecraft's encounter with the planet Mercury.

This busy diagram depicts the packed schedule of NASA's MESSENGER probe during its first Mercury flyby on Jan. 14, 2008.

Scientists are sifting through their first new views of the planet Mercury in more than three decades thanks to images beamed home by NASA's MESSENGER probe.

The car-sized spacecraft zipped past Mercury in a Monday flyby and is relaying more than 1,200 new images and other data back to eager scientists on Earth.

"Now it's time for the scientific payoff," MESSENGER principal investigator Sean Solomon of the Carnegie Institution of Washington told after the flyby. "It's just a complete mix of results that we're going to get."

In one new image, released today, the planet's stark surface is shown peppered with small craters, each less than a mile (1.6 km) in diameter and carved into an area about 300 miles (482 km) across. MESSENGER used its narrow-angle camera to photograph the scene, which is dominated by a large, double-ringed crater dubbed Vivaldi after the Italian composer. While the crater was last seen by NASA's Mariner 10 probe, MESSENGER's camera observed it with unprecedented detail, researchers said.

Another new view reveals the first look at the half of Mercury left uncharted by Mariner 10.

"It is already clear that MESSENGER's superior camera will tell us much that could not be resolved even on the side of Mercury viewed by Mariner's vidicon camera in the mid-1970s," said MESSENGER researchers at the Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory (JHUAPL) in a Wednesday statement. JHUAPL engineers built MESSENGER for NASA and are managing its $446 million mission for the space agency.

MESSENGER, short for MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging, trained its seven instruments on Mercury on Monday for the first of three planned flybys to guide itself toward a March 18, 2011, arrival into orbit around the small, rocky planet. The mission is the first to visit Mercury since 1975, when Mariner 10 made its third and final swing past the planet.

"These flybys are the only time that we fly by the surface of Mercury at low latitude near the equator," Solomon said.

MESSENGER is due to make a second rendezvous at Mercury in October, then swing by on third pass in September 2009. The probe launched in August 2004 and flew by Earth once and Venus twice during its 4.9 billion-mile (7.9 billion-kilometer) trek toward Mercury orbit.

During Monday's flyby, MESSENGER skimmed just 124 miles (200 km) above Mercury's surface and snapped photographs of about half of the estimated 55 percent of the planet that remained uncharted after Mariner 10's mission. In addition to imagery, the probe is expected to return a wealth of new observations made by its seven instruments to scrutinize Mercury's surface composition, magnetic field, tenuous atmosphere, unusually high density and other features.

"It will take upwards of a week to get all of the data off the spacecraft," said MESSENGER systems engineer Eric Finnegan before the Monday flyby. "Within that week, the scientists will start receiving some of the images of the flyby and processing that data."

Researchers hope MESSENGER's findings will not only answer long-standing questions about Mercury, but also shed new light on how planets formed in the early days of the solar system. The probe will generate complete maps of Mercury's surface, measure the planet's gravitational field and search for any hints of ice at the bottom of permanently shadowed craters near the poles as part of its mission.

"I just can't wait," said Mark Robinson, a MESSENGER science team member at the University of Arizona. "I want to see what's around the corner."

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Thursday, 17 January 2008

Next Space Station Crew Looks to Spring Launch

Russia's Federal Space Agency cosmonauts Sergei Volkov (left) and Oleg Kononenko, Expedition 15 commander and flight engineer, respectively. Credit: NASA

South Korea announced that robotics expert Ko San (left), 30, will be the nation's first astronaut. Ko and Yi Soo-yeon, 29, were the two finalists for to launch toward the International Space Station in 2008. Credit: South Korea Ministry of Science and Technology

WASHINGTON - Two Russian cosmonauts and South Korea's first astronaut are gearing up for a planned April launch to the International Space Station (ISS).

Cosmonaut commander Sergei Volkov and flight engineer Oleg Kononenko will serve as the core of the space station's Expedition 17 crew when they arrive at the orbital lab this spring. South Korea's Ko San, an artificial intelligence expert, will accompany them to usher his country into the realm of human spaceflight.

"We are bringing a lot of experiments," Ko told reporters in a Tuesday briefing, adding that it was an honor to serve as his nation's first spaceflyer. "I hope that it will be successful so that we can continue the program into the future."

Ko and the Expedition 17 crew are slated to launch toward the ISS on April 8 from the Kazakhstan's Baikonur Cosmodrome aboard a Russian-built Soyuz spacecraft. The launch will kick off a planned six-month mission for Volkov and Kononenko, who represent Russia's Federal Space Agency and will make their first career spaceflights during Expedition 17. A series of NASA astronauts will rotate out as Expedition 17 crewmembers during the spaceflight.

"We have all trained together for a really long time," said Volkov, who is a second-generation cosmonaut as the son of veteran spaceflyer Alexander Volkov. "We are, all of us, well-motivated [people] and we want to perform our flight as successful as it is possible to do."

The Expedition 17 cosmonauts will relieve the station's current caretakers - Expedition 16 commander Peggy Whitson and flight engineer Yuri Malenchenko - who are in the midst of their own six-month mission to the ISS. The third member of their crew, NASA astronaut Garrett Reisman, is expected to launch to the station before Volkov and Kononenko as part of the agency's STS-123 flight to deliver a robotic arm addition and the first segment of Japan's three-part Kibo laboratory to the ISS.

Ko will spend about nine days aboard the ISS before returning to Earth with the Expedition 16 crew. He was chosen from a field of some 36,000 applicants to serve as South Korea's first astronaut and perform 18 experiments aboard the space station, Ko said. Yi Soo-yeon, a female mechanical engineer, will serve as Ko's backup for the spaceflight.

Volkov and Kononenko hope to preside over the April arrival of another robotic arm and a large pressurized module for the Kibo lab, and look forward to the planned September delivery of new equipment that will allow the station to support larger, six-person crews. Two planned shuttle flights, aimed at launching on April 24 and Sept. 18, respectively, will each ferry a new U.S. crewmate to the ISS.

Reisman will replace European astronaut Leopold Eyharts when his shuttle flight launches in mid-March.

NASA's repeated delays to its upcoming STS-122 mission - to launch no earlier than Feb. 7 after fuel sensor glitches thwarted a December liftoff - have cut Reisman's mission about a month short. He initially hoped to launch to the station on Feb. 14 before NASA rescheduled the space shot to March, but dealing with unexpected changes is part of the job, he said.

Fellow U.S. spaceflyer Gregory Chamitoff, meanwhile, will relieve Reisman during the April shuttle mission while crewmate Sandra Magnus - the only veteran spaceflyer of the entire Expedition 17 crew � plans to join the spaceflight in September and stay on for part of the next ISS mission.

"They're all rookies and they have not flown in space yet," said Magnus, who helped deliver part of the station's backbone-like main truss during NASA's STS-112 shuttle flight in 2002. "But by the time I arrive, they'll all have more time in space than I do."

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Ulysses Soars Over Sun's North Pole

The Ulysses spacecraft flew over the sun's North Pole on January 14, 2008, just a week after physicists announced the beginning of a new solar cycle.

"This is a wonderful opportunity to examine the sun's North Pole at the onset of a new solar cycle," said Arik Posner, NASA Ulysses program scientist. "We've never done this before."

Launched from space shuttle Discovery in 1990, Ulysses is able to fly over the sun's poles and look down on regions that are difficult to see from Earth. The spacecraft previously flew over the sun's poles in 1994-95, 2000-01, and 2007.

"Just as Earth's poles are crucial to studies of terrestrial climate change, the sun's poles may be crucial to studies of the solar cycle," explained Ed Smith, Ulysses project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Many researchers believe the sun's poles are central to the ebb and flow of the solar cycle. When sunspots break up, their decaying magnetic fields are carried toward the poles by vast currents of plasma. This makes the poles a sort of "graveyard" for sunspots. Old magnetic fields sink beneath the polar surface 124,000 miles deep (200,000 kilometers), where the sun's inner magnetic forces may amplify them for use in future solar cycles.

During the most recent solar cycle, the sun's North Pole was about 80,000 degrees or 8 percent cooler than the South Pole. The most recent Ulysses flyby may help solve this puzzle, coming less than a year after the spacecraft's South Pole flyby in February 2007. Mission scientists will be able to compare temperature measurements, north vs. south, with hardly any time gap between them.

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Sunday, 13 January 2008


Using the Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers say they have spotted their first double Einstein ring – a bizarre optical phenomenon that shows how massive objects like galaxies can bend light rays, furnishing evidence for Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

The gravitational-lens system known as
SDSSJ0946+1006 includes a bright foreground
galaxy at center, the ringlike image of a
middle galaxy 6 billion light-years away,
and the dimmer ring of another galaxy
11 billion light-years away.

The fact that there’s a double ring around this gravitational-lens galaxy means that two other galaxies are aligned precisely behind it. And the odds of that happening are estimated at 1-in-10000. That's a big reason why Tommaso Treu of the University of California at Santa Barbara felt as if he and his colleagues "hit the jackpot" when they saw the double ring's signature in data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey.

Single Einstein rings are rare enough: On a telescope image, such a ring looks like a faint circlet of light surrounding a massive galaxy. The circle is actually the light from a galaxy much, much farther away, which has been bent around the closer galaxy to provide a distorted image.

Diagram showing the formation of a gravitational lens images. In the upper diagram the distant object, the lens galaxy and the Earth are perfectly aligned. The lens galaxy formed a perfect ring-like image known as an Einstein Ring. In the lower diagram the distant object, the lens galaxy and the Earth are not perfectly aligned. In this case the lens galaxy forms multiple images of the distant object.

This diagram shows how the closer galaxy serves as a lens to twist the light beams like a funhouse mirror - demonstrating that light beams are affected by gravitational fields, just as Einstein said they were. Our "Putting Einstein to the Test" interactive explains how gravitational lensing and other strange-but-true concepts relate to general relativity.

Over the years, Treu and the other astronomers involved in the Sloan Lens ACS Survey have spotted a gaggle of Einstein rings - but the ring-hunters suspected that they had something special when they happened upon the gravitational-lens system known as SDSSJ0946+1006.

"The original signature that led us to this discovery was a mere 500 photons hidden among 500,000 other photons in the SDSS spectrum of the foreground galaxy," Adam Bolton of the University of Hawaii's Institute for Astronomy said in a news release put out during this week's meeting of the American Astronomical Society.

The double ring was clearly visible in Hubble imagery of the same spot - telling the astronomers that two galaxies were both exactly behind the massive foreground galaxy.

"When I first saw it, I said, 'Wow, this is insane!" Treu said. "I could not believe it!"

The team analyzed the geometry of the two rings to determine how far away the galaxies were: The foreground galaxy is about 3 billion light-years away, the middle galaxy is 6 billion light-years away, and the farthest-out galaxy is 11 billion light-years away - which would put it close to the frontier of the observable universe. Astronomers could even calculate the mass of the middle galaxy at 1 billion solar masses, representing the first such measurement of a dwarf galaxy at cosmological distances.

A research paper on the findings has been submitted to The Astrophysical Journal.

Einstein rings make for much more than mere pretty pictures: An analysis of the ring's geometry can reveal how much mysterious dark matter the gravitational-lens system contains.

"Dark matter is not hidden to lensing," Leonidas Moustakas of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory said in Thursday's news release. "The elegance of this lens is trumped only by the secrets of nature that it reveals."

For SDSSJ0946+1006, the researchers estimate that dark matter makes up 66 to 82 percent of the system's mass - which is in the right ballpark, based on other observations.

If astronomers can find enough of these double rings, they could even run a statistical analysis to arrive at an independent, more precise measure of how gravity affects our space-time continuum. The studies so far indicate that our universe is geometrically flat rather than curved, with dark energy providing an accelerating push to cosmic expansion.

A sample of, say, 50 double rings would provide a better fix on the dark matter content of the universe as well as the influence of dark energy. The researchers note that a couple of space missions now under consideration, America's Joint Dark Energy Mission as well as Europe's Dark Universe Explorer, could provide just that kind of data - not to mention more glorious double-circlets to stare at.

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Hubble Finds Double Einstein Ring

NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has revealed a never-before-seen optical alignment in space: a pair of glowing rings, one nestled inside the other like a bull's-eye pattern. The double-ring pattern is caused by the complex bending of light from two distant galaxies strung directly behind a foreground massive galaxy, like three beads on a string.

More than just a novelty, this very rare phenomenon can offer insight into dark matter, dark energy, the nature of distant galaxies, and even the curvature of the universe.

The ring was found by an international team of astronomers led by Raphael Gavazzi and Tommaso Treu of the University of California, Santa Barbara. The discovery is part of the ongoing Sloan Lens Advanced Camera for Surveys (SLACS) program. The team is reporting its results at the 211th meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Austin, Texas. A paper has been submitted to The Astrophysical Journal.

The phenomenon, called gravitational lensing, occurs when a massive galaxy in the foreground bends the light rays from a distant galaxy behind it, in much the same way as a magnifying glass would. When both galaxies are exactly lined up, the light forms a circle, called an "Einstein ring," around the foreground galaxy. If another background galaxy lies precisely on the same sightline, a second, larger ring will appear.

Because the odds of seeing such a special alignment are estimated to be 1 in 10,000, Tommaso says that they "hit the jackpot." The odds of seeing this phenomenon are less than winning two consecutive bets on a single number at Roulette.

"Such stunning cosmic coincidences reveal so much about nature. Dark matter is not hidden to lensing," added Leonidas Moustakas of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "The elegance of this lens is trumped only by the secrets of nature that it reveals."

The massive foreground galaxy is almost perfectly aligned in the sky with two background galaxies at different distances. The foreground galaxy is 3 billion light-years away. The inner ring and outer ring are comprised of multiple images of two galaxies at a distance of 6 billion and approximately 11 billion light-years.

SLACS team member Adam Bolton of the University of Hawaii's Institute for Astronomy in Honolulu first identified the lens in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS). "The original signature that led us to this discovery was a mere 500 photons (particles of light) hidden among 500,000 other photons in the SDSS spectrum of the foreground galaxy," commented Bolton.

"The twin rings were clearly visible in the Hubble image, added Tommaso. "When I first saw it I said 'wow, this is insane!' I could not believe it!"

The distribution of dark matter in the foreground galaxies that is warping space to create the gravitational lens can be precisely mapped. Tommaso finds that the fall-off in density of the dark matter is similar to what is seen in spiral galaxies (as measured by the speed of a galaxy's rotation, which yields a value for the amount of dark matter pulling on it), though he emphasizes there is no physical reason to explain this relationship.

In addition, the geometry of the two Einstein rings allowed the team to measure the mass of the middle galaxy precisely to be a value of 1 billion solar masses. The team reports that this is the first measurement of the mass of a dwarf galaxy at cosmological distance (redshift of z=0.6).

A sample of several dozen double rings such as this one would offer a purely independent measure. The comparative radius of the rings could also be used to provide an independent measure of the curvature of space by gravity. This would help in determining the matter content of the universe and the properties of dark energy.

Observations of the cosmic microwave background (a relic from the Big Bang) favor flat geometry. A sample of 50 suitable double Einstein rings would be sufficient to measure the dark matter content of the universe and the equation of state of the dark energy (a measure of its pressure) to 10 percent precision. Other double Einstein rings could be found with wide-field space telescope sky surveys that are being proposed for the Joint Dark Energy Mission (JDEM) and recently recommended by the National Research Council.

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Saturday, 12 January 2008

Space Cloud to Collide With Our Galaxy

A colossal cloud of gas is racing toward a collision with our galaxy, and when it hits, the crash could trigger an intense burst of star formation.

The collision and stellar light show will occur in 20 million to 40 million years, an astronomer announced here today at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society.

The cloud, dubbed Smith's Cloud after the astronomer who discovered it in 1963, is just 8,000 light-years from our galaxy's disk. Jam-packed with enough hydrogen to make a million stars like the sun, it is 11,000 light-years long and 2,500 light-years wide.

"My guess is that this [gas cloud] is a remnant of the original formation of the Milky Way in the way that comets and meteors are remnants of the formation of the solar system," said Jay Lockman, of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in Green Bank, West Virginia.

If you could see the cloud, it would span 30 times the width of the moon.

"From tip to tail it would cover almost as much sky as the Orion constellation," Lockman said. "But as far as we know it is made entirely of gas — no one has found a single star in it."

For decades after the cloud's discovery, scientists were puzzled over its allegiance because the available images lacked any detail. They didn't know whether it belonged to the Milky Way, or if the cloud was moving — either getting blown out or falling into our galaxy.

Lockman and his colleagues made their recent observations of the cloud with the National Science Foundation's Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope, the largest steerable radio telescope. Since the cloud is made of cold gas, it emits only in the radio wavelengths, Lockman said. It does not generate any visible light.

Results showed Smith's Cloud is plunging into the Milky Way, not heading out. And it's falling in at more than 540,000 mph (869,000 kilometers per hour).

"We are able to see it rubbing up against the outer atmosphere of the Milky Way," Lockman told "It's not only coming in, it's starting to push up gas in front of it."

He added, "It is also feeling a tidal force from the gravity of the Milky Way and may be in the process of being torn apart."

Tidal forces of gravity, like the moon tugging on Earth, pull the front parts of an object greater than the regions on the far side.

He said the cloud would likely strike a region somewhat farther from the galactic center than our solar system. The addition of new gas into our galaxy along with the shock of the collision may trigger a burst of rapid star formation.

"When it hits, it could set off a tremendous burst of star formation," Lockman said. "Many of those stars will be very massive, rushing through their lives quickly and exploding as supernovae."

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Friday, 11 January 2008

Spacewatch Friday - Astrophotography 101: How to Take Stellar Pictures

You may have seen some of the beautiful photographs of sky objects that have been taken over the years by contributors to Perhaps you've even wondered whether it might be possible for you to take photos of the night sky. The answer is most definitely "yes."

In fact, making the transition from normal photography to astrophotography is relatively easy. Astrophotography is a special adaptation of ordinary photography. You can make some interesting photographs of stars even with inexpensive equipment.

The basics

A fixed 35 mm camera should be mounted on a sturdy tripod to hold it rock steady. Try also to use a tripod with a three-way pan head. This makes it easier to aim your camera and frame the desired field.

The camera must have a "B" or "T" setting, to allow the shutter to remain open for as long as you want. Many automatic cameras can't do this.

You'll need a cable release to allow tripping the shutter and locking it open without physically touching the shutter button, which can cause vibration. Don't try to hold the shutter button down with your finger - jiggling of the camera is almost inevitable.

The camera shutter is opened to the widest aperture (or the lowest f-number) at which sufficiently good definition is obtained. Some photographers advise going not to the widest aperture, but rather down one f-stop for slightly improved sharpness. Note however that a stopped-down lens passes less light.
Focus the lens at infinity (when very distant objects appear sharp in the viewfinder).

Film choice

A fast film - generally with an ISO rating above 400 - should be used to record the greatest number of stars. Any photography shop and even some convenience stores supply such films. Keep in mind that faster color films usually give less vivid star colors. If you try an extra-fast film, like ISO 1,600, you'll get brighter but paler stars.

Transparency (slide) film tends to give better results than print film. Unfortunately, with advent of digital photography in recent years, slide film is becoming harder to find at some outlets.

The camera lens' focal length determines how big the star field will be on the film. This is called the photographic scale. Typically, a standard 50 mm lens can cover a swath of sky roughly 30 by 50 degrees: large enough to capture star patterns like the Big Dipper or Orion.

Exposure length

Experiment with exposure length. Generally 10 to 20 seconds will suffice. With longer exposures, the turning motion of Earth will cause the star images to appear as short streaks instead of points. Star trailing is greatest for stars on or near the celestial equator, where the sky appears to move the fastest. Thus, a 40-second exposure of Orion, an equatorial group, shows about twice as much trailing as one of the Big Dipper.

Astronomers prevent star trailing by using "clock drives" to compensate for the Earth's motion. Mounting your camera on a clock drive is the next big step in astrophotography, should you decide to get more involved.

In big cities, longer exposures unfortunately bring out haze from nearby bright lights, which obliterate faint star images after only a few minutes. Also watch out for clouds drifting toward your camera field.

If you're fortunate, you might photograph an airplane. The running lights of a passing plane can give the impression that you've captured a pair of red meteors flying in apparent formation!

Helping the developer

Your night sky pictures will be unusual to a developer, so some tips are in order.

At first glance your sky pictures may look strange to a technician - like they're blank with nothing on them - and your film may be returned simply as negatives with a "better luck next time" insert.

So before taking any pictures of the night sky, start your roll by photographing something while it is still daylight. This first picture will show the technician where to begin cutting the film. Also, be sure to give instructions that you want every frame printed (or made into a slide).

Digital cameras

Many people have found success photographing the night sky with digital cameras. But it's not as simple as it might seem.

One problem with consumer digital cameras is that if you leave the shutter open for more than a couple of seconds, you will start to get electronic noise in the image. A lot of digital cameras won't even let you open the shutter for more than a few seconds. According to Mike Durkin of New York's Amateur Observers' Society (AOS), digital cameras are good for bright objects that can stand some magnification.

"My first astrophoto with a digital camera was of the Moon," Durkin said. "I just pointed my camera at the eyepiece and clicked. Most of the pictures streaked because my hands weren't steady enough, but a couple were okay. The Moon is bright enough that you can get a so-so image this way. Since then I bought an eyepiece that threads directly into the camera."

Ken Spencer, a professional photographer and a member of the Astronomical Society of Long Island (ASLI) agrees. Spencer first tried digital astrophotography a few years ago with an Apple QuickTake 200, which was limited to 640x480 pixel images.

"Just for fun, I hand-held it over the eyepiece of my 6-inch f/6 homebuilt Newtonian reflecting telescope, and photographed the Moon," he said. "Sent the photo to a guy who had a website for users of the camera, and he was amazed. That was then, this was now, but that kind of photography should work for anyone."