SpaceJibe

October 22, 2011

NASA’s Spitzer detects comet storm in nearby solar system

Filed under: Cool, Exoplanets — bferrari @ 9:44 am
The downpour resembles our own solar system several billion years ago, which may have brought water and other life-forming ingredients to Earth.

By Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, NASA Headquarters, Washington, D.C. — Published: October 20, 2011

This artist's conception illustrates a storm of comets around a star near our own, called Eta Corvi. Evidence for this barrage comes from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope whose infrared detectors picked up indications that one or more comets was recently torn to shreds after colliding with a rocky body. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

This artist's conception illustrates a storm of comets around a star near our own, called Eta Corvi. Evidence for this barrage comes from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope whose infrared detectors picked up indications that one or more comets was recently torn to shreds after colliding with a rocky body. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope has detected signs of icy bodies raining down in an alien solar system. The downpour resembles our own solar system several billion years ago during a period known as the Late Heavy Bombardment, which may have brought water and other life-forming ingredients to Earth.

During this epoch, comets and other frosty objects flung from the outer solar system pummeled the inner planets. The barrage scarred our Moon and produced large amounts of dust.

Now, Spitzer has spotted a band of dust around a nearby bright star in the northern sky called Eta Corvi that strongly matches the contents of an obliterated giant comet. This dust is located close enough to Eta Corvi that Earth-like worlds could exist, suggesting a collision took place between a planet and one or more comets. The Eta Corvi system is approximately one billion years old, which researchers think is about the right age for such a hailstorm.

“We believe we have direct evidence for an ongoing Late Heavy Bombardment in the nearby star system Eta Corvi, occurring about the same time as in our solar system,” said Carey Lisse from the Johns Hopkins University in Laurel, Maryland.

Astronomers used Spitzer’s infrared detectors to analyze the light coming from the dust around Eta Corvi. Certain chemical fingerprints were observed, including water ice, organics, and rock, which indicate a giant comet source.

The light signature emitted by the dust around Eta Corvi also resembles the Almahata Sitta meteorite, which fell to Earth in fragments across Sudan in 2008. The similarities between the meteorite and the object obliterated in Eta Corvi imply a common birthplace in their respective solar systems.

A second, more massive ring of colder dust located at the far edge of the Eta Corvi system seems like the proper environment for a reservoir of cometary bodies. This bright ring, discovered in 2005, looms at about 150 times the distance from Eta Corvi as the Earth is from the Sun. Our solar system has a similar region, known as the Kuiper Belt, where icy and rocky leftovers from planet formation linger. The new Spitzer data suggest that the Almahata Sitta meteorite may have originated in our own Kuiper Belt.

The Kuiper Belt was home to a vastly greater number of these frozen bodies, collectively dubbed Kuiper Belt objects. About four billion years ago, some 600 million years after our solar system formed, scientists think the Kuiper Belt was disturbed by a migration of the gas-giant planets Jupiter and Saturn. This jarring shift in the solar system’s gravitational balance scattered the icy bodies in the Kuiper Belt, flinging the vast majority into interstellar space and producing cold dust in the belt. Some Kuiper Belt objects, however, were set on paths that crossed the orbits of the inner planets.

The resulting bombardment of comets lasted until 3.8 billion years ago. After comets impacted the side of the Moon that faces Earth, magma seeped out of the lunar crust, eventually cooling into dark “seas,” or maria. When viewed against the lighter surrounding areas of the lunar surface, those seas form the distinctive “Man in the Moon” visage. Comets also struck Earth or incinerated in the atmosphere, and are thought to have deposited water and carbon on our planet. This period of impacts might have helped life form by delivering its crucial ingredients.

“We think the Eta Corvi system should be studied in detail to learn more about the rain of impacting comets and other objects that may have started life on our own planet,” Lisse said.

Source

October 18, 2011

Filed under: Cool, Earth, Gadgets, Government Policies, Inner Solar System, Military, Space Ships — bferrari @ 11:35 am
Phil Pressel, designer of the KH-9 HEXAGON's 'optical bar' panoramic camera system, poses in front of the massive 60-foot long spy satellite at the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum's Udvar-Hazy Center on Sept. 17, 2011. The National Reconnaissance Office declassified and displayed the KH-9 for one-day-only at the Virginia museum.

Phil Pressel, designer of the KH-9 HEXAGON's 'optical bar' panoramic camera system, poses in front of the massive 60-foot long spy satellite at the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum's Udvar-Hazy Center on Sept. 17, 2011. The National Reconnaissance Office declassified and displayed the KH-9 for one-day-only at the Virginia museum.

CHANTILLY, Va. — Phil Pressel had kept a secret for 46 years. A secret that he shared with no one, not even his wife, since he first went to work for the Perkin-Elmer optics company in 1965.

On Sept. 17, the 74-year old Holocaust survivor and kidney transplant recipient patiently waited in line with his wife as the doors opened to a large tent structure here at the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center.

His lifelong secret, one of the United States’ most closely guarded assets, a behemoth larger than a school bus, was now on display for the whole world to see: the just-declassified KH-9 HEXAGON spy satellite.

Tears welling in his eyes, the Belgian man who, as a boy, was hidden from the Nazis by the French Resistance, took his wife’s hand and humbly pointed to the HEXAGON’s engineering marvel: twin panoramic rotating cameras that exposed the former Soviet Union’s hidden missile bases, bomber airfields and submarine holding pens.  [See photos of the declassified U.S. spy satellite]

Incorporated into the belly of the giant spacecraft was the ‘optical bar’ camera system that produced incredibly valuable intelligence data for his adopted country; detailed imagery that helped prevent a cataclysmic World War III between the global superpowers. These cameras, designed by Phil Pressel, are a secret no more.

Reliving the past

Just moments after the burden of secrecy was finally lifted from his shoulders, an exuberant Pressel, beaming with pride, shared his experience with SPACE.com.

“I teared up when I first saw the HEXAGON on display,” Pressel said. “Then, I saw my optical bar [cameras]. I was responsible for the whole optical camera system and there are many, many other important subassemblies designed by others. It was overwhelming. This is still the most complicated system we’ve ever put into orbit, period.”

Pressel spent many years vowed to silence on his work.

“I lived with secrecy at Perkin-Elmer for 30 years. We were never allowed to talk about anything,” he said. “We couldn’t use the word ‘film,’ we could never use ‘HEXAGON,’ we couldn’t say ‘optical bar’ and other words. We used abbreviations and we had to talk in code.”

That shroud of secrecy even extended to his wife.

“I never knew what Phil was working on, nor did I ask,” confided Pat Pressel. “It was just part of our daily existence. He would come home from work, I’d ask ‘How was your day at the office?’ and that was it. Even on his business trips, the only thing I knew was what city he was in.”

The beginning

Pressel was hired by the Connecticut-based instrumentation manufacturer Perkin-Elmer in 1965 to work on a “special project” for the government. He soon realized that this would be no ordinary engineering job.

“I worked on the design study for the HEXAGON program for almost two years,” Pressel said. “We had various concepts, various systems and we finally settled on a design in the spring of 1966. We were competing against Itek Corporation [manufacturer of the camera in the first U.S. photo-reconnaissance satellite program, CORONA]. Finally, on Oct. 10, 1966, our vice-president gathered us together, lit a cigar and informed us that we had won the HEXAGON contract.”

Pressel and his colleagues watched with great anticipation as the first KH-9 HEXAGON lifted off on June 15, 1971, from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base.

Seasoned launch teams at the guarded facility were astounded by the sheer size of the Titan III-D launch vehicle and its massive secret payload. They nicknamed it the “Big Bird,” a moniker that quickly became synonymous for all United States imaging spacecraft.

After achieving orbit, the KH-9 HEXAGON was commanded to begin its on-orbit checkout and calibration procedures. Phil Pressel’s twin “optical bar” panoramic cameras began rotating, sweeping back and forth as the satellite flew over Earth, a process that intelligence officials later referred to as “mowing the lawn.”

Phil Pressel (fourth from left) joins other National Reconnaissance Office veterans in a group photograph in front of the 60-foot long KH-9 HEXAGON spy satellite. This gathering of former NRO contractors was finally able to share stories of their once-secret work with family and friends at a celebration marking the NRO's 50th anniversary. The KH-9 was declassified and displayed at the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum's Udvar-Hazy Center on Sept. 17, 2011.

Phil Pressel (fourth from left) joins other National Reconnaissance Office veterans in a group photograph in front of the 60-foot long KH-9 HEXAGON spy satellite. This gathering of former NRO contractors was finally able to share stories of their once-secret work with family and friends at a celebration marking the NRO's 50th anniversary. The KH-9 was declassified and displayed at the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum's Udvar-Hazy Center on Sept. 17, 2011.

Innovative design

The HEXAGON was a search system, designed to capture military construction projects, repositioning of troops and materiel, radar installations and activity at submarine bases and airfields. Each sweep of the camera photographed a wide swath of terrain covering 370 nautical miles — the distance from Cincinnati to Washington — on every orbital pass over the former Soviet Union and China.

One of the rotating cameras looked forward of the satellite while the other looked aft, capturing detailed imagery with a resolution of about 2 to 3 feet (0.6 to nearly 1 meter), according to the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO).

“The whole camera system operated in a vacuum, except for the film which was in a pressurized container,” explained Pressel. “The most remarkable thing was the amazing speed at which the film traveled through the camera systems and the manner it passes by the camera’s focal plane.”

The NRO has released details of the film transporter’s unique “twister” system as well as the film’s astounding speed as it wound through the cameras. Riding on a curtain of air instead of mechanical rollers, the film moved 200 inches per second at the camera’s focal plane.

The twister kept the film flowing linearly in parallel with the focal plane as the camera rotated and as the Earth moved below, rewinding the film back into its supply reel, and then repositioning the film for the next exposure. This innovative “air bar twister” technique, described in a declassified NRO history as “the key component in the optical bar” cameras, made maximum use of the 60 miles (320,000 feet) of 6.5-inch wide, high resolution Kodak film packed into the 60-foot long KH-9 HEXAGON spacecraft.

A close look at the rear engine used on the National Reconnaissance Office's HEXAGON spy satellites during a display at the National Air and Space Museum's Udvar-Hazy Center at Dulles Airport, Va., on Sept. 17, 2011.

A close look at the rear engine used on the National Reconnaissance Office's HEXAGON spy satellites during a display at the National Air and Space Museum's Udvar-Hazy Center at Dulles Airport, Va., on Sept. 17, 2011.

Recovering the photos

Once the on-orbit checkout was completed, one of the KH-9’s four re-entry vehicles — the film “bucket” — plunged through Earth’s atmosphere. A specially modified C-130 aircraft would catch the return capsule in mid-air by snagging its parachute following the canister’s re-entry.

The precious cargo was immediately flown back to the mainland to have its film processed. Within days, analysts began scrutinizing the high resolution images recorded by Pressel’s panoramic cameras.  [10 Ways the Government Watches You]

“When we first saw some of the first photographs taken of the United States, I was so very, very proud,” Pressel said. “It was ‘Wow!’ The HEXAGON was so complicated that many of us had doubts that it would actually work. And, when it did work, we were simply amazed. It worked magnificently.”

His lifetime’s secret work now on public display, Phil Pressel explained his motivation.

“I never wanted to work on an offensive weapon system, something that would kill people,” he said. “I am happy that I always worked on reconnaissance projects, projects that secured our country.”

Mission accomplished.

Source

Virgin Galactic’s Private Spaceship Makes Safe Landing After Tense Test Flight

Filed under: Cool, Gadgets, Space Exploration, Space Ships — bferrari @ 11:18 am
Virgin Galactic's suborbital passenger ship SpaceShipTwo flexes its feathered re-entry system during a pivotal glide test at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California on May 4, 2011.  (Virgin Galactic/Clay Center Observatory)

Virgin Galactic's suborbital passenger ship SpaceShipTwo flexes its feathered re-entry system during a pivotal glide test at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California on May 4, 2011. (Virgin Galactic/Clay Center Observatory)

A malfunction during the most recent test flight of the private spacecraft SpaceShipTwo sent the vehicle hurtling out of control until its crew could stabilize the craft for a safe landing.

The issue provided some heart-stopping moments for its airborne crew and ground handlers, but also allowed the vehicle’s owner, Virgin Galactic, to showcase the craft’s safety features.

The commercial space plane made its 16th glide flight on Sept. 29, following a hiatus for hangar work. For the first time, SpaceShipTwo carried a three-person crew — two pilots and a flight test engineer. [Gallery — SpaceShipTwo Makes First Glide Flight]

 

To begin, SpaceShipTwo was lifted to high altitude by its carrier plane, WhiteKnightTwo. After a clean release from WhiteKnightTwo, SpaceShipTwo immediately entered a rapid descent. Springing into action, the crew deployed the ship’s novel feather re-entry system.

SpaceShipTwo’s ability to feather its tail section is a safety feature that increases the vehicle’s stability during atmospheric re-entry. Akin to the flight of a shuttlecock in badminton, the feather system allows SpaceShipTwo to rely on aerodynamics and the laws of physics to control speed and altitude.

The glide flight lasted a brief 7 minutes and 15 seconds.

Downward pitch rate

“Upon release, the spaceship experienced a downward pitch rate that caused a stall of the tails. The crew followed procedure, selecting the feather mode to revert to a benign condition. The crew then de-feathered and had a nominal return to base,” according to an updated flight log posted by Scaled Composites, builder of the WhiteKnightTwo/SpaceShipTwo launch system.

Scaled Composites is constructing the private spaceship fleet for Virgin Galactic, a spaceline company for suborbital space tourism  backed by U.K. entrepreneur Richard Branson.

“Great flying by the team and good demo of feather system,” Scaled officials wrote in the flight log.

According to one observer of the craft’s rapid descent, “It dropped like a rock and went straight down. Typically, it takes 11 minutes to land, but this time it was only seven minutes before they were on the ground. It was a nail-biter … but that’s how you learn.”

Flight envelope

George Whitesides, Virgin Galactic’s chief executive officer and president, said the glide flight included a third seat flight test engineer onboard SpaceShipTwo for the first time. “A good capability for us to have for this phase of test,” he told SPACE.com. “Yes, apparently the tails exhibited stall characteristics in the test — which was a steep nose down maneuver.”

Whitesides confirmed that SpaceShipTwo was ultimately able to carry out a nominal landing.

“Scaled is looking at the data now, but doesn’t anticipate any major issues,” Whitesides said. “This is why we flight test, to fully explore the aerodynamic flight envelope.”

NASA shuttle leader joins team

Meanwhile, in other Virgin Galactic news, the company has announced the appointment of former NASA executive Mike Moses as its new vice president of operations.

Moses’ NASA career included serving at the NASA Kennedy Space Center in Florida as the launch integration manager from 2008 until the landing of the final space shuttle mission in July 2011. He was responsible for supervising all shuttle processing activities from landing through launch, and for reviewing major milestones, including final readiness for flight.

According to a Virgin Galactic statement, Moses will develop and lead the team responsible for Virgin Galactic spaceship operations and logistics, flight crew operations, customer training and spaceport ground operations, primarily focusing on overall operational safety and risk management.

Source

October 7, 2011

China Launches Module for First Space Station Into Orbit

A Chinese Shenzhou spacecraft closes in on the country's Tiangong 1 space lab in this still from a mission profile video.

A Chinese Shenzhou spacecraft closes in on the country's Tiangong 1 space lab in this still from a mission profile video.

China successfully launched its first space lab module into orbit in an impressive nighttime display.

The unmanned Tiangong 1 module lifted off on a Chinese Long March 2F rocket at 9:16 p.m. Local Time (1316 GMT/9:16 a.m. EDT) from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China. The spacecraft launched just days before China’s National Day holiday, which occurs Saturday (Oct. 1).

“It’s absolutely an accomplishment,” said Victoria Samson of the Secure World Foundation, an organization dedicated to the peaceful use of outer space. However, Samson, director of the foundation’s Washington office, added that the launch of Tiangong 1 represents an achievement that other countries, including the United States, managed decades ago. [Gallery: Tiangong 1, China’s First Space Laboratory]

“They’re doing their version of Spacelab, but that’s something we did back in the ’70s,” she said.

The Tiangong 1 module, which is expected to remain in orbit for two years, is considered an important steppingstone in the country’s effort to construct its own crewed space station. The prototype space lab measures 34 feet (10.4 meters) long and 11 feet (3.35 meters) wide and weighed about 8.5 metric tons on Earth.

“The main tasks of [the] Tiangong 1 spaceflight include: to provide a target vehicle for space rendezvous and docking experiment; to primarily establish a manned space test platform capable of long-term unmanned operation in space with temporary human attendance, and thus accumulate experiences for the development of the space station; to carry out space science experiments, space medical experiments and space technology experiments,” China’s Manned Space Engineering office spokeswoman Wu Ping told reporters yesterday (Sept. 28) at the launch site, according to a translation provided by the office.

Tiangong 1, which translates to “Heavenly Palace,” will test docking technology in conjunction with three spacecraft — Shenzhou 8, Shenzhou 9 and Shenzhou 10 — that will be launched at a later date, according to state media reports. These planned robotic maneuvers will be China’s first dockings in orbit.

The Shenzhou 8 spacecraft will launch in early November, with Shenzhou 9 to follow in 2012. Both flights will be unmanned docking trials. The Shenzhou 10 mission, also in 2012, may carry a crew to Tiangong 1, a team that could also include China’s first female astronaut, Chinese space officials said.

Tiangong 1 is also carrying medical and engineering experiments into space, according to state media. It is packed with 300 flags from the International Astronautical Federation, to commemorate the mission.

While Chinese space officials have indicated that the launch of Shenzhou 8 could occur in early November, but it’s possible the unmanned mission could lift off sooner, said Dean Cheng, a research fellow on Chinese political and security affairs at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative public policy think tank.

“The Chinese have put up launches within days of each other,” Cheng told SPACE.com. “But we don’t have a good indication as to exactly when it will go up.”

The launch of Tiangong 1 is considered a milestone for China and its burgeoning space program. It is particularly important for China’s space program after last month’s failure of a Long March 2C rocket, which malfunctioned shortly after liftoff and did not reach orbit. [Related: US & China: Space Race or Cosmic Cooperation?]

“It’s probably going to be a big deal in China, with lots of news coverage,” Cheng said. “You’d probably have to make an effort to avoid it. Once this is launched, you are going to have just a huge amount of hoopla from the state-run media to remind the people of what is going on.”

An investigation into the Long March 2C malfunction delayed plans to launch Tiangong 1. Today’s successful launch using a similar booster, the Long March 2F, marks an important step toward fulfilling the country’s goal of building a 60-ton manned space station by the year 2020. [Infographic: How China’s First Space Station Will Work]

China is only the third nation, after the United States and Russia, to independently launch humans into orbit. China’s first manned mission, Shenzhou 5, was piloted by Yang Liwei on Oct. 15, 2003. Two more manned missions followed, in 2005 and 2008.

 

Source

October 4, 2011

Creation of One of the Largest Galaxies in the Universe — Six Times Size of the Milky Way

Filed under: Cool, Cosmology, Gadgets — bferrari @ 7:13 pm

In a galactic replay of merging of the Earth’s tectonic plates into a massive supercontinent known as Pangea 250 million years ago, the Spitzer Space Telescope caught images of four massive galaxies slamming into each other and kicking up billions of stars like grains of sand! As the largest galactic pileup in the known universe, it will produce a huge offspring.

The massive collision will eventually cause the four galaxies to become a single behemoth galaxy that will be about 10 times bigger than our Milky Way. From a scientific perspective, this rare sighting provide and unprecedented look at how the most massive galaxies form.

The new quadruple merger was discovered serendipitously during a Spitzer survey of a distant cluster of galaxies, called CL0958+4702, located nearly five billion light-years away. The infrared telescope first spotted an unusually large fan-shaped plume of light coming out of a gathering of four blob-shaped, or elliptical, galaxies. Three of the galaxies are about the size of the Milky Way, while the fourth is three times as big.

“Most of the galaxy mergers we already knew about are like compact cars crashing together,” said Kenneth Rines of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Cambridge, Mass. “What we have here is like four sand trucks smashing together, flinging sand everywhere.”

Some of the stars tossed outward in the monstrous merger will orbit in isolated areas outside the borders of any of the galaxies. Such abandoned stars would have planets with night-time views strikingly different from our own. Rather than seeing many individual stars, there would be more visible galaxies adorning the night sky.

Collisions between galaxies are believed to be a major force in shaping our universe. Our own galaxy cannibalizes on smaller galaxies that come to close and are sucked in, as it has for millions of years. Though stars in merging galaxies are tossed around like grains of sand, the shear quantity of space between objects ultimately allows the galaxies to survive the ride. Our Milky Way galaxy is due to collide with a much bigger “sister” spiral galaxy, Andromeda, in about five billion years.

While mergers between pairs of galaxies that are similar, or one big galaxy and several smaller ones, has already been documented—no major mergers between multiple hefty “big rig” galaxies have ever been seen until now. Three of the galaxies are the size of the Milky Way, while the fourth is three times as big. Rines says the size of the completely merged galaxy will be impressive indeed.

“When this merger is complete, this will be one of the biggest galaxies in the universe.”

Source

 

October 3, 2011

World’s Most Complex Radio Telescope Snaps Stunning 1st Photo of the Cosmos

A combined view of the Antennae Galaxies, taken by the ALMA radio telescope array and the Hubble Space Telescope.

A combined view of the Antennae Galaxies, taken by the ALMA radio telescope array and the Hubble Space Telescope.

After years of planning, construction and assembly, a gigantic observatory billed as the world’s most complex array of ground-based telescopes has opened its eyes in South America and captured its first image.

The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, or ALMA, is now officially open for business high in the Chilean Andes. The huge $1.3 billion radio telescope, a collaboration of many nations and institutions, should help astronomers explore some of the coldest and most distant objects in the universe, researchers said.

Read more: http://www.foxnews.com/scitech/2011/10/03/worlds-most-complex-radio-telescope-snaps-stunning-1st-photo-cosmos/#ixzz1Zks9Qdp0

“We went to one of the most extreme locations on Earth to build the world’s largest array of millimeter/sub-millimeter telescopes having a level of technical sophistication that was merely a dream only a decade ago,” said Mark McKinnon, North American ALMA project manager at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Charlottesville, Va., in a statement. “This truly is a great occasion!”

To mark the moment, scientists released an early image snapped by ALMA. It shows the Antennae Galaxies (also known as NGC 4038 and 4039), a pair of colliding spiral galaxies found about 70 million light-years away in the constellation Corvus (The Crow).

ALMA imaged the two galaxies in two different wavelength ranges during the observatory’s early testing phase, researchers said. Future images will be much sharper, they added, as more antennas in the array come online.

ALMA is a complex of 40-foot (12-meter) radio telescopes sitting at an elevation of 16,500 feet (5,000 m) on the Chajnantor plateau in northern Chile. These individual antennas each pick up light in the millimeter/submillimeter range — about 1,000 times longer than visible-light wavelengths.

Observing in these long wavelengths will allow ALMA to detect extremely cold objects, such as the gas clouds from which stars and planets form, researchers said. The observatory should also be able to peer at very distant objects, opening a window in the early universe.

A huge astronomy complex

The individual telescopes in the ALMA array are spread out over considerable distances, but they’ll work as a team. A supercomputer working at 17 quadrillion operations per second will assemble each antenna’s observations, forming one large view.

Currently, the array harbors 19 individual telescopes, though 66 should come online by 2013, researchers said. The array will ultimately be about 11 miles (18 km) wide.

Still, nearly 20 huge radio antennas are enough to start observing the universe. And ALMA just began doing that officially on Friday, Sept. 30, when the telescope kicked off its nine-month “Early Science” phase.

Clamoring for telescope time

ALMA received more than 900 applications to use the telescope during the Early Science stage, suggesting that astronomers are eager to break in the new tool.

The observatory could take on 100 of these projects, so a lot of science could get done in the next nine months.

Source

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