Archive for the Space Category

Jupiter Cloud belt missing again

Posted in Space on May 21, 2010 by Jagtheesh

Scientists don’t know why, but one of Jupiter’s two main cloud belts has disappeared again.

Like a wayward pet, the belt has gone missing before and has always returned.

“This is a big event,” said planetary scientist Glenn Orton of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab. “We’re monitoring the situation closely and do not yet fully understand what’s going on.”

The brown cloudy band, known as the South Equatorial Belt, or SEB, started fading late last year, NASA said in a story on its website.

“But I certainly didn’t expect to see it completely disappear,” said amateur astronomer Anthony Wesley of Australia. “Jupiter continues to surprise.”

Orton says the belt may not be gone, just hidden under higher clouds.

“It’s possible,” he said on the NASA website, “that some ‘ammonia cirrus’ has formed on top of the SEB, hiding the SEB from view.”

On Earth, NASA says, white wispy cirrus clouds are made of ice crystals. On Jupiter, the same sort of clouds can form, but the crystals are made of ammonia instead of water.

The belt’s disappearances can be erratic.

“The SEB fades at irregular intervals, most recently in 1973-75, 1989-90, 1993, 2007, 2010,” said John Rogers, director of the British Astronomical Association’s Jupiter Section. “The 2007 fading was terminated rather early, but in the other years, the SEB was almost absent, as at present.”

The return of the SEB can be dramatic, NASA said.

“We can look forward to a spectacular outburst of storms and vortices when the ‘SEB revival’ begins,” Rogers told NASA. “It always begins at a single point, and a disturbance spreads out rapidly around the planet from there, often becoming spectacular even for amateurs eyeballing the planet through medium-sized telescopes.

“However,” he said, “we can’t predict when or where it will start. On historical precedent, it could be any time in the next two years.”

“I’ll be watching every chance I get,” Wesley said. “The revival will likely be sudden and dramatic, with planet-circling groups of storms appearing over the space of just a week or so.”

Jupiter, the largest planet in the solar system, is visible in the eastern sky before dawn, NASA said.


NASA ready to Launch Human-Like Robot

Posted in Space on April 17, 2010 by Jagtheesh

NASA will launch the first human-like robot to space later this year to become a permanent resident of the International Space Station. Robonaut 2, or R2, was developed jointly by NASA and General Motors under a cooperative agreement to develop a robotic assistant that can work alongside humans, whether they are astronauts in space or workers at GM manufacturing plants on Earth.

The 300-pound R2 consists of a head and a torso with two arms and two hands. R2 will launch on space shuttle Discovery as part of the STS-133 mission planned for September. Once aboard the station, engineers will monitor how the robot operates in weightlessness.

R2 will be confined to operations in the station’s Destiny laboratory. However, future enhancements and modifications may allow it to move more freely around the station’s interior or outside the complex.

“This project exemplifies the promise that a future generation of robots can have both in space and on Earth, not as replacements for humans but as companions that can carry out key supporting roles,” said John Olson, director of NASA’s Exploration Systems Integration Office at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “The combined potential of humans and robots is a perfect example of the sum equaling more than the parts. It will allow us to go farther and achieve more than we can probably even imagine today.”

The dexterous robot not only looks like a human but also is designed to work like one. With human-like hands and arms, R2 is able to use the same tools station crew members use. In the future, the greatest benefits of humanoid robots in space may be as assistants or stand-in for astronauts during spacewalks or for tasks too difficult or dangerous for humans. For now, R2 is still a prototype and does not have adequate protection needed to exist outside the space station in the extreme temperatures of space.

Testing the robot inside the station will provide an important intermediate environment. R2 will be tested in microgravity and subjected to the station’s radiation and electromagnetic interference environments. The interior operations will provide performance data about how a robot may work side-by-side with astronauts. As development activities progress on the ground, station crews may be provided hardware and software to update R2 to enable it to do new tasks.

R2 is undergoing extensive testing in preparation for its flight. Vibration, vacuum and radiation testing along with other procedures being conducted on R2 also benefit the team at GM. The automaker plans to use technologies from R2 in future advanced vehicle safety systems and manufacturing plant applications.

“The extreme levels of testing R2 has undergone as it prepares to venture to the International Space Station are on par with the validation our vehicles and components go through on the path to production,” said Alan Taub, vice president of GM’s global research and development. “The work done by GM and NASA engineers also will help us validate manufacturing technologies that will improve the health and safety of our GM team members at our manufacturing plants throughout the world. Partnerships between organizations such as GM and NASA help ensure space exploration, road travel and manufacturing can become even safer in the future.”

New planet : Companion to brown dwarf

Posted in Space on April 12, 2010 by Jagtheesh

As our telescopes grow more powerful, astronomers are uncovering objects that defy conventional wisdom. The latest example is the discovery of a planet-like object circling a brown dwarf. It’s the right size for a planet, estimated to be 5-10 times the mass of Jupiter. But the object formed in less than 1 million years — the approximate age of the brown dwarf — and much faster than the predicted time it takes to build planets according to some theories.

Kamen Todorov of Penn State University and co-investigators used the keen eyesight of the Hubble Space Telescope and the Gemini Observatory to directly image the companion of the brown dwarf, which was uncovered in a survey of 32 young brown dwarfs in the Taurus star-forming region. Brown dwarfs are objects that typically are tens of times the mass of Jupiter and are too small to sustain nuclear fusion to shine as stars do.

The mystery object orbits the nearby brown dwarf at a separation of approximately 2.25 billion miles (3.6 billion kilometers — which is between the distances of Saturn and Uranus from the Sun). The team’s research is being published in an upcoming issue of The Astrophysical Journal.

There has been a lot of discussion in the context of the Pluto debate over how small an object can be and still be called a planet. This new observation addresses the question at the other end of the size spectrum: How small can an object be and still be a brown dwarf rather than a planet? This new companion is within the range of masses observed for planets around stars — less than 15 Jupiter masses. But should it be called a planet? The answer is strongly connected to the mechanism by which the companion most likely formed.

There are three possible formation scenarios: Dust in a circumstellar disk slowly agglomerates to form a rocky planet 10 times larger than Earth, which then accumulates a large gaseous envelope; a lump of gas in the disk quickly collapses to form an object the size of a gas giant planet; or, rather than forming in a disk, a companion forms directly from the collapse of the vast cloud of gas and dust in the same manner as a star (or brown dwarf).

If the last scenario is correct, then this discovery demonstrates that planetary-mass bodies can be made through the same mechanism that builds stars. This is the likely solution because the companion is too young to have formed by the first scenario, which is very slow. The second mechanism occurs rapidly, but the disk around the central brown dwarf probably did not contain enough material to make an object with a mass of 5-10 Jupiter masses.

“The most interesting implication of this result is that it shows that the process that makes binary stars extends all the way down to planetary masses. So it appears that nature is able to make planetary-mass companions through two very different mechanisms,” says team member Kevin Luhman of the Center for Exoplanets and Habitable Worlds at Penn State University. If the mystery companion formed through cloud collapse and fragmentation, as stellar binary systems do, then it is not a planet by definition because planets build up inside disks.

The mass of the companion is estimated by comparing its brightness to the luminosities predicted by theoretical evolutionary models for objects at various masses for an age of 1 millon years.

Further supporting evidence comes from the presence of a very nearby binary system that contains a small red star and a brown dwarf. Luhman thinks that all four objects may have formed in the same cloud collapse, making this in actuality a quadruple system. “The configuration closely resembles quadruple star systems, suggesting that all of its components formed like stars,” says Luhman. Reference:

NASA moon crash struck lots of water

Posted in Space on November 15, 2009 by Jagtheesh


Suddenly, the moon looks exciting again. It has lots of water, scientists said Friday — a thrilling discovery that sent a ripple of hope for a future astronaut outpost in a place that has always seemed barren and inhospitable.

Experts have long suspected there was water on the moon. Confirmation came from data churned up by two NASA spacecraft that intentionally slammed into a lunar crater last month.

“Indeed, yes, we found water. And we didn’t find just a little bit. We found a significant amount,” said Anthony Colaprete, lead scientist for the mission, holding up a white water bucket for emphasis.

The lunar crash kicked up at least 25 gallons and that’s only what scientists could see from the plumes of the impact, Colaprete said.

Some space policy experts say that makes the moon attractive for exploration again. Having an abundance of water would make it easier to set up a base camp for astronauts, supplying drinking water and a key ingredient for rocket fuel.

“Having definitive evidence that there is substantial water is a significant step forward in making the moon an interesting place to go,” said George Washington University space policy scholar John Logsdon.

Even so, members of the blue-ribbon panel reviewing NASA’s future plans said it doesn’t change their conclusion that the program needs more money to get beyond near-Earth orbit. The panel wants NASA to look at other potential destinations like asteroids and Mars.

“This new and terrific result reassures us about lunar resources, but … the challenges currently facing the human spaceflight program remain,” Chris Chyba, a Princeton astrophysicist who is on the panel, said in an e-mail.

President George W. Bush had proposed a more than $100 billion plan to return astronauts to the moon, then go on to Mars; a test flight of an early version of a new rocket was a success last month. President Barack Obama appointed the special panel to look at the entire moon exploration program. The decision is now up to the White House, and NASA’s lunar plans are somewhat on hold until then.

As for unmanned exploration, previous missions had detected the presence of hydrogen in lunar craters near the moon’s poles, possible evidence of ice. In September, scientists reported finding tiny amounts of water in the lunar soil all over the moon’s surface.

But it was NASA’s Oct. 9 mission involving the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite, LCROSS, that provided the stunning confirmation announced Friday — water, in the forms of ice and vapor.

“Rather than a dead and unchanging world, it could in fact be a very dynamic and interesting one,” said Greg Delory of the University of California, Berkeley, who was not involved in the mission, led by NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif.

The LCROSS spacecraft only hit one spot on the moon and it’s unclear how much water there is across the entire moon.

The October mission involved two strikes into a permanently shadowed crater near the south pole. First, an empty rocket hull slammed into the Cabeus crater. Then, a trailing spacecraft recorded the drama live before it also crashed into the same spot four minutes later.

Though scientists were overjoyed with the plethora of data beamed back to Earth, the mission was a public relations dud. Space enthusiasts who stayed up all night to watch the spectacle did not see the promised giant plume of debris.

NASA scientists had predicted the twin impacts would spew six miles of dust into the sunlight. Instead, images revealed only a mile-high plume, and it was not visible to many amateur astronomers peering through telescopes.

Scientists spent a month analyzing data from the spacecraft’s spectrometers, instruments that can detect strong signals of water molecules in the plume.

“We’ve had hints that there is water. This was almost like tasting it,” said Peter Schultz, professor of geological sciences at Brown University and a co-investigator on the LCROSS mission.

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin, who in 1969 made his historic Apollo 11 moonwalk with Neil Armstrong, was pleased to hear the latest discovery, but still believes the U.S. should focus on colonizing Mars.

“People will overreact to this news and say, `Let’s have a water rush to the moon,'” Aldrin said. “It doesn’t justify that.”

Mission scientists said it would take more time to tease out what else was kicked up in the moon dust.


Posted in Space on May 3, 2009 by Jagtheesh

   The month of May is bringing in so many outer-space wonders, it’s as if a three-ring circus were rolling into town with four or five rings. Today is Space Day, which morphs into Astronomy Day and the Astronaut Hall of Fame on Saturday, followed by the peak of the Eta Aquarid meteor shower next week … all leading up to one of the greatest shows off Earth, the final upgrade to the Hubble Space Telescope.


And if that still isn’t enough rings for you, there’s a sparkling new image of a ring galaxy from Hubble’s younger sibling, the Spitzer Space Telescope.

Rivers of stars
The fresh infrared view of the spiral galaxy NGC 2841, which is 46 million light-years away in the constellation Ursa Major, figures in recently published research that looks at why stars become so smoothly distributed in such galaxies. After all, stars are created in bursts of clusters, and thus start out their lives in lumps.

“Our analysis now answers the great puzzle,” David Block, an astronomer at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, said in a news release issued Thursday by Spitzer’s science team. “By finding a myriad of streams of young stars all over the disks of galaxies we studied, we see that the mechanism for pulling the clusters of young stars apart is shearing motions of the parent galaxy. These streams are the ‘missing link’ we needed to understand how the disks of galaxies evolve to look the way they do.”

Spitzer’s infrared camera peered through the galaxy’s dust to spot the young stars hidden within. The image data was then manipulated to highlight the subtle structures associated with star formation. “The structures cannot be seen on the original Spitzer image with the human eye,” said Ivanio Puerari of the Institut Nacional de Astrofisica, Optica y Electronica in Puebla, Mexico.

The analysis highlighted the galaxy’s hidden streams of stars – a feat of image processing that would have been impossible without Spitzer’s infrared vision and the astronomers’ computational firepower. The results were published in the March 20 issue of the Astrophysical Journal.

Days of glory
That’s just one example showing how the space frontier brings a scientific as well as an aesthetic payoff here on Earth. Three events this weekend throw a spotlight on that same blend of exploration, education and entertainment from outer space.

Today marks the 13th annual celebration of Space Day, an international educational initiative backed by a coalition involving government agencies, museums, educational institutions and aerospace companies. Almost 200 events have been planned under the Space Day aegis, stretching well into the summer. The main event actually takes place on Saturday at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington.

In addition to the events, teachers can work Space Day lesson plans into their curricula, students can have their signatures sent into space, and anyone with an Internet connection can play out-of-this-world online games.

More opportunities for playtime are available courtesy of Astronomy Day, which is timed for Saturday to coincide with May’s first-quarter moon. That lunar phase is preferred because it gives skywatchers a chance to see the moon in profile while leaving time for wide-open observing after the moon has set.

Astronomy clubs generally schedule scads of events at this time of year: To find out what’s going on in your area, check the listings offered by the Astronomical League, Astronomy magazine and Sky and Telescope. If you don’t see your locality listed, click through this worldwide list of astronomy clubs and find out what’s coming up.

Saturday is a big day at Kennedy Space Center’s visitor complex in Florida: Three space shuttle veterans – George “Pinky” Nelson, Bill Shepherd and Jim Wetherbee – are due to be inducted into the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame. If you happen to be in the Cape Canaveral area and get into rubbing elbows with astronauts, this is the place to be.

More coming attractions
   There’s more to come next week, when the annual Eta Aquarid meteor shower reaches its peak. This sky show flares up annually when Earth passes through the stream of cosmic grit left behind by Halley’s Comet. (Actually, Earth sweeps through that particular comet’s trail twice a year. The other meteors associated with Halley’s Comet are the Orionids of October.)

   The peak night for observing is Tuesday night – or maybe you should make that very early Wednesday morning, as in 3 or 4 a.m. Meteor activity traditionally picks up after midnight, when the nighttime side of the planet is plowing right into the oncoming stream. Also, the moon is due to set around 4 a.m., eliminating an extra source of glare. To optimize your viewing conditions, find an open patch of ground with clear skies, far away from city lights.

NASA aims for earlier launch of space shuttle

Posted in Space on April 23, 2009 by Jagtheesh


     NASA is aiming to launch the final space shuttle mission to upgrade the Hubble Space Telescope a day earlier than planned to avoid a potential schedule conflict at the Florida launch site, the officials conveyed in CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida. 

090423-space-atlantis-hmed-1045ah2The lights of Launch Pad 39A cast a glow on the shuttle Atlantis at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Atlantis and its crew are due to pay one more service call to the Hubble Space Telescope in May.

    If approved by U.S. space agency managers next week, the shuttle Atlantis would lift off on May 11 at 2:01 p.m. EDT from the Kennedy Space Center.

“I feel fairly confident that we can make a May 11 launch date,” Leroy Cain, the deputy space shuttle program manager.

    The shuttle Atlantis and its crew of seven astronauts were due to launch last October but the failure of a computer aboard Hubble prompted a delay. The telescope has been using a backup computer to format its science data, and replacement of the failed computer is a key goal of the mission.


    Scientists say Hubble, launched in 1990, is an important source of scientific data that has changed their understanding of the origin and evolution of the universe and delivered unprecedented pictures of distant galaxies and celestial phenomena.
    Because it orbits about 300 miles above Earth, outside the planet’s atmosphere, its cameras can take extremely sharp images.

    The earlier launch date would give NASA three days to try to get Atlantis off the ground before having to postpone until May 22 to allow a previously scheduled U.S. military operation at nearby Cape Canaveral Air Force Station to proceed.

    The space shuttle shares tracking, safety and other support services with military and commercial users launching from what is known as the Eastern Test Range, which includes NASA’s Kennedy Space Center and the military’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

    The range can support only a single launch, launch dress rehearsal or major test at a time.

    The military has the range scheduled for about a week beginning May 14, Cain said, so if the shuttle is not off the pad by May 13, it would be delayed to about May 22.


    NASA faces a September 2010 deadline to complete assembly of the International Space Station and retire the shuttle fleet. Atlantis’ visit to the Hubble telescope is the only mission remaining on the shuttle schedule that is not devoted to space station construction or outfitting.

    Hubble has been serviced by shuttle crews four times since it was launched.

    The Atlantis astronauts plan to conduct five spacewalks to install new cameras, repair other science instruments, replace batteries and gyroscopes and complete other tasks. With the upgrade, Hubble is expected to remain operational until 2014.

Hidden Planet Discovered in Old Hubble Data

Posted in Space on April 3, 2009 by Jagtheesh


A new technique has uncovered an extrasolar planet hidden in Hubble Space Telescope images taken 11 years ago




The new strategy may allow researchers to uncover other distant alien worlds potentially lurking in over a decade’s worth of Hubble archival data.





The method was used to find an exoplanet that went undetected in Hubble images taken in 1998 with its Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer (NICMOS). Astronomers knew of the planet’s existence from images taken with the Keck and Gemini North telescopes in 2007 and 2008, long after Hubble snapped its first picture of the system.




The planet is estimated to be at least seven times the mass of Jupiter. It is the outermost of three massive planets known to orbit the dusty young star HR 8799, which is 130 light-years away from Earth. NICMOS could not see the other two planets because its coronagraphic spot — a device that blots out the glare of the star —blocked its viewof the two inner planets.




“We’ve shown that NICMOS is more powerful than previously thought for imaging planets,” said the scientist who found the planet, David Lafreniere of the University of Toronto in Canada. “Our new image-processing technique efficiently subtracts the glare from a star that spills over the coronagraph’s edge, allowing us to see planets that are one-tenth the brightness of what could be detected before with Hubble.”




Taking the image of an exoplanet is not an easy task. Planets can be billions of times fainter than the star around which they orbit and are typically located at separations smaller than 1/2,000th the apparent size of the full moon, as seen from Earth, from their star. The planet recovered in the NICMOS data is about 100,000 times fainter than the star when viewed in the near-infrared spectrum.




Over the last two decades, scientists have spotted more than 300 extrasolar planets circling other stars in ourMilky Way galaxy.




Lafreniere adapted an image reconstruction technique that was first developed for ground-based observatories.




Using the new technique, he recovered the planet in NICMOS observations taken 10 years before theKeck/Gemini discovery. The Hubble picture not only provides important confirmation of the planet’s existence, it provides a longer baseline for demonstrating that the object is in an orbit about the star.



“To get a good determination of the orbit we have to wait a very long time because the planet is moving so slowly (it has a 400-year period),” Lafreniere said. “The 10-year-old Hubble data take us that much closer to having a precise measure of the orbit.”


Hubble is due to be serviced by a NASA shuttle crew in May for the fifth and final time. The shuttle Atlantis was rolled out for the mission on Tuesday and is due to launch May 12.


NICMOS’s view provided new insights into the physical characteristics of the planet, too. This was possible because NICMOS works at near-infrared wavelengths that are severely blocked by Earth’s atmosphere due to absorption by water vapor.


“The planet seems to be only partially cloud covered and we could be detecting the absorption of water vapor in the atmosphere,” said team member Travis Barman of Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Ariz. “Measuring the water absorption properties will tell us a great deal about the temperatures and pressures in the atmospheres, in addition to the cloud coverage.”


With the success of this planet hunt, scientists hope they can find more extrasolar planets lurking in the enormous catalogue of images that Hubble has taken in its lifetime.


“During the past 10 years Hubble has been used to look at over 200 stars with coronagraphy, looking for planets and disks. We plan to go back and look at all of those archived images and see if anything can be detected that has gone undetected until now,” said Christian Marois of the Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics, Victoria, Canada.


If the team sees a companion object to a star in more than one NICMOS picture, and it appears to have moved along an orbit, follow-up observations will be made with ground-based telescopes. If researchers see something once but its brightness and separation from the star would be reasonable for a planet, they will also do follow-up observations with ground-based telescopes.


NASA‘s recently-launched Kepler mission will also be hunting for extrasolar planets in our home galaxy, though it will be looking for ones that are Earth-sized.