September 29, 2012

New Comet Discovered—May Become “One of Brightest in History”

Filed under: Comets, Cool, Cosmology, Inner Solar System, Outer Solar System — bferrari @ 3:54 pm

Next year comet 2012 S1 might outshine the moon.

Sky-watchers in Australia ogle comet Lovejoy late last year.

Sky-watchers in Australia ogle comet Lovejoy late last year.

Andrew Fazekas
for National Geographic News
Published September 27, 2012

If astronomers’ early predictions hold true, the holidays next year may hold a glowing gift for stargazers—a superbright comet, just discovered streaking near Saturn.

Even with powerful telescopes, comet 2012 S1 (ISON) is now just a faint glow in the constellation Cancer. But the ball of ice and rocks might become visible to the naked eye for a few months in late 2013 and early 2014—perhaps outshining the moon, astronomers say.

The comet is already remarkably bright, given how far it is from the sun, astronomer Raminder Singh Samra said. What’s more, 2012 S1 seems to be following the path of the Great Comet of 1680, considered one of the most spectacular ever seen from Earth.

“If it lives up to expectations, this comet may be one of the brightest in history,” said Samra, of the H.R. MacMillan Space Centre in Vancouver, Canada.

So what makes a comet a showstopper? A lot depends on how much gas and dust is blasted off the central core of ice and rocks. The bigger the resulting cloud and tail, the more reflective the body may be.

Because 2012 S1 appears to be fairly large—possibly approaching two miles (three kilometers) wide—and will fly very close to the sun, astronomers have calculated that the comet may shine brighter, though not bigger, than the full moon in the evening sky.

(Also see “New Comet Found; May Be Visible From Earth in 2013.”)

Refugee From the Edge of the Solar System?

First spotted late last week by Russian astronomers Artyom Novichonok and Vitali Nevski of the International Scientific Optical Network (ISON), comet 2012 S1 was confirmed by the International Astronomical Union on Monday.

But while we know what 2012 S1 is, it’s still unclear where it came from. Its orbit suggests the comet may be a runaway from the Oort cloud, where billions of comets orbit about a hundred thousand times farther from the sun than Earth is.

“For astronomers, these distant origins are exciting,” Samra said, “because it allows us to study one of the oldest objects in the solar system still in its original, pristine condition.”

(Related: “Comet Is Cosmic Snow Globe, NASA Flyby Shows.”)

New Comet Bound for Glory?

Right now, 2012 S1 appears to be about 615 million miles (990 million kilometers) from Earth, between the orbits of Saturn and Jupiter, astronomers say.

As the sun’s gravity pulls the comet closer, it should pass about 6.2 million miles (10 million kilometers) from Mars—possibly a unique photo opportunity for NASA’s new Curiosity rover.

Current orbital predictions indicate the comet will look brightest to us in the weeks just after its closest approach to the sun, on November 28, 2013—if 2012 S1 survives the experience.

As the comet comes within about 1.2 million miles (2 million kilometers) of the sun, the star’s intense heat and gravity could cause the ice and rubble to break apart, scotching the sky show. (Related: “Comet Seen Vaporizing in Sun’s Atmosphere—A First.”)

“While some predictions suggest it may become as bright as the full moon, and even visible during the day, one should be cautious when predicting how exciting a comet may get,” Samra said.

“Some comets have been notorious for creating a buzz but failing to put on a dazzling display,” he said. “Only time will tell.”

More: See the first pictures of a peanut-like comet

September 27, 2012

GO ROVER !! NASA Rover Finds Old Streambed on Martian Surface

NASA's Curiosity rover found evidence for an ancient, flowing stream on Mars at a few sites, including the rock outcrop pictured here, which the science team has named "Hottah" after Hottah Lake in Canada’s Northwest Territories. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

NASA’s Curiosity rover found evidence for an ancient, flowing stream on Mars at a few sites, including the rock outcrop pictured here, which the science team has named “Hottah” after Hottah Lake in Canada’s Northwest Territories. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

PASADENA, Calif. — NASA’s Curiosity rover mission has found evidence a stream once ran vigorously across the area on Mars where the rover is driving. There is earlier evidence for the presence of water on Mars, but this evidence — images of rocks containing ancient streambed gravels — is the first of its kind.

Scientists are studying the images of stones cemented into a layer of conglomerate rock. The sizes and shapes of stones offer clues to the speed and distance of a long-ago stream’s flow.

“From the size of gravels it carried, we can interpret the water was moving about 3 feet per second, with a depth somewhere between ankle and hip deep,” said Curiosity science co-investigator William Dietrich of the University of California, Berkeley. “Plenty of papers have been written about channels on Mars with many different hypotheses about the flows in them. This is the first time we’re actually seeing water-transported gravel on Mars. This is a transition from speculation about the size of streambed material to direct observation of it.”

The finding site lies between the north rim of Gale Crater and the base of Mount Sharp, a mountain inside the crater. Earlier imaging of the region from Mars orbit allows for additional interpretation of the gravel-bearing conglomerate. The imagery shows an alluvial fan of material washed down from the rim, streaked by many apparent channels, sitting uphill of the new finds.

The rounded shape of some stones in the conglomerate indicates long-distance transport from above the rim, where a channel named Peace Vallis feeds into the alluvial fan. The abundance of channels in the fan between the rim and conglomerate suggests flows continued or repeated over a long time, not just once or for a few years.

The discovery comes from examining two outcrops, called “Hottah” and “Link,” with the telephoto capability of Curiosity’s mast camera during the first 40 days after landing. Those observations followed up on earlier hints from another outcrop, which was exposed by thruster exhaust as Curiosity, the Mars Science Laboratory Project’s rover, touched down.

“Hottah looks like someone jack-hammered up a slab of city sidewalk, but it’s really a tilted block of an ancient streambed,” said Mars Science Laboratory Project Scientist John Grotzinger of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

The gravels in conglomerates at both outcrops range in size from a grain of sand to a golf ball. Some are angular, but many are rounded.

“The shapes tell you they were transported and the sizes tell you they couldn’t be transported by wind. They were transported by water flow,” said Curiosity science co-investigator Rebecca Williams of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Ariz.

The science team may use Curiosity to learn the elemental composition of the material, which holds the conglomerate together, revealing more characteristics of the wet environment that formed these deposits. The stones in the conglomerate provide a sampling from above the crater rim, so the team may also examine several of them to learn about broader regional geology.

The slope of Mount Sharp in Gale Crater remains the rover’s main destination. Clay and sulfate minerals detected there from orbit can be good preservers of carbon-based organic chemicals that are potential ingredients for life.

“A long-flowing stream can be a habitable environment,” said Grotzinger. “It is not our top choice as an environment for preservation of organics, though. We’re still going to Mount Sharp, but this is insurance that we have already found our first potentially habitable environment.”

During the two-year prime mission of the Mars Science Laboratory, researchers will use Curiosity’s 10 instruments to investigate whether areas in Gale Crater have ever offered environmental conditions favorable for microbial life.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of Caltech, built Curiosity and manages the Mars Science Laboratory Project for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington.

For more about Curiosity, visit: and .

You can follow the mission on Facebook and Twitter at: and .

Guy Webster / D.C. Agle 818-354-5011
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena,Calif. /

Dwayne Brown 202-358-1726
NASA Headquarters, Washington



September 25, 2012

Air Force to launch secretive X-37B space plane in October

Filed under: Cool, Gadgets, Government Policies, Military, Space Ships — bferrari @ 9:36 am
The U.S. Air Force's X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle is shown inside its payload fairing during encapsulation at the Astrotech facility in Titusville, Fla., ahead of a planned April 2010 launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. (USAF)

The U.S. Air Force’s X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle is shown inside its payload fairing during encapsulation at the Astrotech facility in Titusville, Fla., ahead of a planned April 2010 launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. (USAF)

The U.S. military’s hush-hush robotic X-37B space plane is slated to blast off again next month, Air Force officials say. The mission will test the robotic spacecraft’s reusability and may eventually land on the Florida runway once used for NASA space shuttles.
The X-37B space plane’s next mission — called Orbital Test Vehicle-3, or OTV-3, because it is the program’s third-ever spaceflight — is scheduled to launch aboard an Atlas 5 rocket from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) sometime in October.
“Preparations for launch at Cape Canaveral have begun,” said Major Tracy Bunko at the Pentagon’s Air Force press desk. “We are on track to launch OTV-3 next month; however, the exact date remains subject to change based on range conditions, weather, etc.”


A mysterious mission

As with the X-37B program’s two previous spaceflights — OTV-1 and OTV-2 — OTV-3’s payload and mission details are classified. But the focus remains on testing vehicle capabilities and proving the utility and cost-effectiveness of a reusable spacecraft, Bunko told [Photos: The X-37B Space Plane]

Bunko said in an earlier communiqué that this third flight will use the same X-37B spacecraft that flew the first test flight, the OTV-1 mission, back in 2010.

That maiden voyage of the miniature space plane lasted 225 days. It launched into orbit on April 22, 2010, and then landed on Dec. 3 of that year, zooming in on autopilot over the Pacific Ocean and gliding down onto a specially prepared runway at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

A different X-37B vehicle made a similar Vandenberg touchdown this past June 16, having stayed in orbit for 469 days on its OTV-2 mission.

The X-37B program is being run by the U.S. Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office. The two space planes — which are 29 feet (8.8 meters) long and 15 feet (4.5 m) wide, with a payload bay about the size of a pickup truck bed — were built by Boeing Government Space Systems.

While they’re sparing with details about the X-37B program, Air Force officials say the vehicles enable them to test out how new technologies perform in space.

“One of the most promising aspects of the X-37B is it enables us to examine a payload system or technology in the environment in which it will perform its mission and inspect them when we bring them back to Earth,” Bunko said. “Returning an experiment via the X-37B OTV enables detailed inspection and significantly better learning than can be achieved by remote telemetry alone.”

A new landing site?

While both previous X-37B missions touched down at Vandenberg, the Air Force is considering landing future flights at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, next door to the Cape Canaveral launch site.

In fact, the Air Force is currently conducting taxi and braking tests as part of an ongoing appraisal. The prospect of a returning the robotic space plane to the KSC landing strip — which was used by NASA’s now-retired space shuttle fleet — is seen as a cost-saving measure.

“We are also considering consolidating landing, refurbishment and launch operations at KSC or CCAFS in an effort to save money,” Bunko said.

“We are seeking to leverage previous space shuttle investments and are investigating the possibility of using the former shuttle infrastructure for X-37B OTV landing operations,” Bunko added. “Those investigations are in an early state, and any specifics will not be known for some time, but could potentially be used as early as for the landing of OTV-3.”

September 24, 2012

NASA considering deep-space outpost on far side of moon

Filed under: Cool, Inner Solar System, Military, Moons, Space Exploration, Space Ships — bferrari @ 5:27 pm
An artist's concept shows the Orion Multipurpose Crew Vehicle and future destinations for human exploration beyond Earth orbit: the moon, an asteroid and Mars. (NASA)

An artist’s concept shows the Orion Multipurpose Crew Vehicle and future destinations for human exploration beyond Earth orbit: the moon, an asteroid and Mars. (NASA)

Will NASA’s next mission send its astronauts beyond the moon?
The space agency is weighing a proposal to build a “gateway spacecraft” that would hang in space about 277,000 miles from the Earth and 38,000 miles past the moon — more than a quarter million miles further into space than the orbit of the International Space Station.
A report by the Orlando Sentinel details the plan to park the orbiting spacecraft on the far side of the moon, in a precisely calculated spot called Earth-Moon Lagrange Point 2. The gravitational pull of the planets balances out at this point in space, allowing NASA to essentially “park” there permanently rather than orbiting.

In contrast, the ISS orbits the Earth at a height of about 230 miles.
‘A test area for human access to deep space is the best near-term option.’
– NASA report

“[Placing a spacecraft at the Earth-Moon Lagrange point beyond the moon as a test area for human access to deep space is the best near-term option to develop required flight experience and mitigate risk,” concluded the NASA report.
The new outpost — which may be built from parts leftover from the construction of the ISS — would be an ideal first mission for the heavy lift spacecraft dubbed Space Launch System that is being developed at NASA.
That rocket is being designed to carry the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, a capsule that can hold crew on missions to the moon or beyond. It can also carry important cargo, equipment and science experiments to Earth’s orbit and destinations beyond, according to NASA.
The Space Launch System will be NASA’s first exploration-class vehicle since the Saturn V took American astronauts to the moon over 40 years ago, the space agency said.
A deep-space base or “gateway spacecraft” would present unique opportunities and challenges. It would expose astronauts to the radiation of deep space, and would be challenging to resupply. But it would greatly ease communications further out into space, and would presumably be a jumping off point for human travel to Mars.
It was unclear whether this space base would be manned. NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems Division recently detailed work on a deep-space habitat that would allow crew to live and work safely in space for up to a year. The group built a mockup of such a space habitat in July at Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama.
In a statement to, a NASA spokesman said the agency was evaluating several potential routes to Mars, an asteroid and elsewhere in space.

“NASA is executing President Obama’s ambitious space exploration plan that includes missions around the moon, to asteroids, and ultimately putting humans on Mars. There are many options — and many routes — being discussed on our way to the Red Planet,”Trent J. Perrotto said.

“In addition to the moon and an asteroid, other options may be considered as we look for ways to buy down risk — and make it easier — to get to Mars.”
Paying for any such a project would be an immense challenge in itself. The Orlando Sentinel reportedly studied internal NASA documents on the project, which don’t include any sort of price tag. And NASA has been wrestling with budget cuts for years.
On Saturday, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney released a policy paper detailing his vision for NASA called “Securing U.S. Leadership in Space” – it underscores the concept of doing more with less.
“A strong and successful NASA does not require more funding, it needs clearer priorities,” the document reads.
In February, obtained NASA memos detailing the formation of a team to develop a cohesive plan to explore the Lagrange point. The first construction flight to build a waystation there could take place as soon as 2019, according to the Sentinel.
There are many options — and many routes — being discussed on our way to the Red Planet,” spokesman David Weaver said.



September 22, 2012

What’s the smallest thing in the universe?

Filed under: Big Bang, Black Holes, Cool, Cosmology, Supernova, Wierd — bferrari @ 11:33 am
One contender for the smallest thing in the universe is the singularity at the center of a black hole. (Shown here, an artist's drawing of a black hole pulling gas away from a companion star. (NASA E/PO, Sonoma State University, Aurore Simonnet)

One contender for the smallest thing in the universe is the singularity at the center of a black hole. (Shown here, an artist’s drawing of a black hole pulling gas away from a companion star. (NASA E/PO, Sonoma State University, Aurore Simonnet)

Just how small is the universe’s smallest stuff anyway?

People once thought grains of sand were the building blocks of what we see around us. Then the atom was discovered, and it was thought indivisible, until it was split to reveal protons, neutrons and electrons inside. These too, seemed like fundamental particles, before scientists discovered that protons and neutrons are made of three quarks each.

“This time we haven’t been able to see any evidence at all that there’s anything inside quarks,” said physicist Andy Parker. “Have we reached the most fundamental layer of matter?”

And even if quarks and electrons are indivisible, Parker said, scientists don’t know if they are the smallest bits of matter in existence, or if the universe contains objects that are even more minute. [Graphic: Nature’s Tiniest Particles]

Parker, a professor of high-energy physics at England’s Cambridge University, recently hosted a television special on the U.K.’s BBC Two channel called Horizon: How Small is the Universe?

Strings or points?

In experiments, teensy, tiny particles like quarks and electrons seem to act like single points of matter with no spatial distribution. But point-like objects complicate the laws of physics. Because you can get infinitely close to a point, the forces acting on it can become infinitely large, and scientists hate infinities.

An idea called superstring theory could solve this issue. The theory posits that all particles, instead of being point-like, are actually little loops of string. Nothing can get infinitely close to a loop of string, because it will always be slightly closer to one part than another. That “loophole” appears to solve some of these problems of infinities, making the idea appealing to physicists. Yet scientists still have no experimental evidence that string theory is correct.

Another way of solving the point problem is to say that space itself isn’t continuous and smooth, but is actually made of discrete pixels, or grains, sometimes referred to as space-time foam. In that case, two particles wouldn’t be able to come infinitely close to each other because they would always have to be separated by the minimum size of a grain of space.

A singularity

Another contender for the title of smallest thing in the universe is the singularity at the center of a black hole. Black holes are formed when matter is condensed in a small enough space that gravity takes over, causing the matter to pull inward and inward, ultimately condensing into a single point of infinite density. At least, according to the current laws of physics.

But most experts don’t think black holes are really infinitely dense. They think this infinity is the product of an inherent conflict between two reigning theories — general relativity and quantum mechanics — and that when a theory of quantum gravity can be formulated, the true nature of black holes will be revealed.

“My guess is that [black hole singularities] are quite a lot smaller than a quark, but I don’t believe they’re of infinite density,” Parker told LiveScience. “Most likely they are maybe a million million times or even more than that smaller than the distances we’ve seen so far.”

That would make singularities roughly the size of superstrings, if they exist.

The Planck length

Superstrings, singularities, and even grains of the universe could all turn out to be about the size of the “Planck length.” [Tiny Grandeur: Stunning Photos of the Very Small]

A Planck length is 1.6 x 10^-35 meters (the number 16 preceded by 34 zeroes and a decimal point) — an incomprehensibly small scale that is implicated in various aspects of physics.

The Planck length is far and away too small for any instrument to measure, but beyond that, it is thought to represent the theoretical limit of the shortest measureable length. According to the uncertainty principle, no instrument should ever be able to measure anything smaller, because at that range, the universe is probabilistic and indeterminate.

This scale is also thought to be the demarcating line between general relativity and quantum mechanics.

“It corresponds to the distance where the gravitational field is so strong that it can start to do things like make black holes out of the energy of the field,” Parker said. “At the Planck length we expect quantum gravity takes over.”

Perhaps all of the universe’s smallest things are roughly the size of the Planck length.


September 20, 2012

Farthest galaxy ever seen revealed by space telescopes

Filed under: Big Bang, Black Holes, Cool, Cosmology, Space Exploration — bferrari @ 11:38 am
Sept. 19, 2012: This composite color image shows the galaxy cluster MACS1149+2223, which creates a gravitational lens to magnify an extremely distant galaxy in the background (inset). (The CLASH team/The Space Telescope Science Institute)

Sept. 19, 2012: This composite color image shows the galaxy cluster MACS1149+2223, which creates a gravitational lens to magnify an extremely distant galaxy in the background (inset). (The CLASH team/The Space Telescope Science Institute)

The earliest known confirmed galaxy has been discovered with the help of cosmic lenses formed out of the warped fabric of space and time, researchers say.
This distant, ancient galaxy may have once helped clear out the murky fog that once filled the early universe, scientists added.
Astronomers estimate that the universe began about 13.7 billion years ago during the Big Bang. Recent findings suggest the first galaxies formed less than 500 million years after the universe’s birth.
Little is known about the earliest galaxies since their light is very faint, given how far away they are. One tool researchers can use to peer at these galaxies are so-called gravitational lenses, magnifying glasses resulting from the warped fabric of reality.
Gravity curves space-time; the greater the mass of an object in space, the stronger its gravitational pull. This, in turn, bends light around it, affecting how telescopes on Earth view it.


Astronomers can gauge the age of an object by estimating its distance. Since the speed of light appears the same throughout the universe, knowing how far away an object is reveals how long it took for its light to get here. Scientists can work out the distance of an object by looking at how much the light from it is distorted.

Using gravitational lensing caused by one of the most massive known galaxy clusters, scientists glimpsed a galaxy that existed when the universe was about 500 million years old using two NASA space observatories: the Hubble Space Telescope and the Spitzer Space Telescope.

Based on its level of development, the researchers estimate this galaxy is about 150 million times the mass of the sun and formed less than 200 million years after the Big Bang. This is currently the earliest known and most distant galaxy that scientists have confidently identified.

“We feel like archaeologists with a pre-Neanderthal fossil in hand,” lead study author Wei Zheng, an astronomer at Johns Hopkins University, told

Astronomers have detected potentially older galaxies, but their faintness makes it difficult to make out key details regarding their age.

“Such a discovery would not have been possible if the object was un-lensed,” Zheng said.

The age of this galaxy reveals it formed during the so-called “epoch of reionization” that occurred about 150 million to 800 million years after the Big Bang. This critical but still largely mysterious event occurred when intense ultraviolet radiation cleared the fog of atomic hydrogen that once pervaded the cosmos by ionizing it into its constituent protons and electrons.

“This provides us with a unique glimpse of star formation and galaxy growth in the period spanning 300 [million] to 500 million years after the Big Bang,” astronomer Daniel Stark at the University of Arizona at Tucson, who did not take part in this study, told “While caution should be exercised in the interpretation of a single object, the results presented in the Zheng paper point to significant star formation activity throughout this period.”

Much remains uncertain as to what sources of radiation caused the epoch of reionization. Since the researchers found this ancient galaxy after only monitoring a small patch of sky, Zheng said the early universe may have overall been rich with galaxies that drove reionization.

The scientists detailed their findings in the Sept. 20 issue of the journal Nature.

September 19, 2012

Warp Drive May Be More Feasible Than Thought, Scientists Say

Filed under: Cool, Gadgets, Hollywood, Military, Space Exploration, Space Ships, Wierd — bferrari @ 6:56 am

HOUSTON — A warp drive to achieve faster-than-light travel — a concept popularized in television’s Star Trek — may not be as unrealistic as once thought, scientists say.

warp drive would manipulate space-time itself to move a starship, taking advantage of a loophole in the laws of physics that prevent anything from moving faster than light. A concept for a real-life warp drive was suggested in 1994 by Mexican physicist Miguel Alcubierre, however subsequent calculations found that such a device would require prohibitive amounts of energy.

Now physicists say that adjustments can be made to the proposed warp drive that would enable it to run on significantly less energy, potentially brining the idea back from the realm of science fiction into science.

“There is hope,” Harold “Sonny” White of NASA’s Johnson Space Center said here Friday (Sept. 14) at the 100 Year Starship Symposium, a meeting to discuss the challenges of interstellar spaceflight.

Warping space-time

An Alcubierre warp drive would involve a football-shape spacecraft attached to a large ring encircling it. This ring, potentially made of exotic matter, would cause space-time to warp around the starship, creating a region of contracted space in front of it and expanded space behind. [Star Trek’s Warp Drive: Are We There Yet? | Video]

Meanwhile, the starship itself would stay inside a bubble of flat space-time that wasn’t being warped at all.

“Everything within space is restricted by the speed of light,” explained Richard Obousy, president of Icarus Interstellar, a non-profit group of scientists and engineers devoted to pursuing interstellar spaceflight. “But the really cool thing is space-time, the fabric of space, is not limited by the speed of light.”

With this concept, the spacecraft would be able to achieve an effective speed of about 10 times the speed of light, all without breaking the cosmic speed limit.

The only problem is, previous studies estimated the warp drive would require a minimum amount of energy about equal to the mass-energy of the planet Jupiter.

But recently White calculated what would happen if the shape of the ring encircling the spacecraft was adjusted into more of a rounded donut, as opposed to a flat ring. He found in that case, the warp drive could be powered by a mass about the size of a spacecraft like the Voyager 1 probe NASA launched in 1977.

Furthermore, if the intensity of the space warps can be oscillated over time, the energy required is reduced even more, White found.

“The findings I presented today change it from impractical to plausible and worth further investigation,” White told “The additional energy reduction realized by oscillating the bubble intensity is an interesting conjecture that we will enjoy looking at in the lab.”

Laboratory tests

White and his colleagues have begun experimenting with a mini version of the warp drive in their laboratory.

They set up what they call the White-Juday Warp Field Interferometer at the Johnson Space Center, essentially creating a laser interferometer that instigates micro versions of space-time warps.

“We’re trying to see if we can generate a very tiny instance of this in a tabletop experiment, to try to perturb space-time by one part in 10 million,” White said.

He called the project a “humble experiment” compared to what would be needed for a real warp drive, but said it represents a promising first step.

And other scientists stressed that even outlandish-sounding ideas, such as the warp drive, need to be considered if humanity is serious about traveling to other stars.

“If we’re ever going to become a true spacefaring civilization, we’re going to have to think outside the box a little bit, were going to have to be a little bit audacious,” Obousy said.

A ring-shaped warp drive device could transport a football-shape starship (center) to effective speeds faster than light. The concept was first proposed by Mexican physicist Miguel Alcubierre.

A ring-shaped warp drive device could transport a football-shape starship (center) to effective speeds faster than light. The concept was first proposed by Mexican physicist Miguel Alcubierre.


September 18, 2012

World’s most powerful sky-mapping machine sees 8-billion year-old light

The Blanco telescope in Chile. (T. Abbott and NOAO/AURA/NSF)

The Blanco telescope in Chile. (T. Abbott and NOAO/AURA/NSF)

A new telescope camera in Chile focused on mysterious dark energy has taken its first photos of extremely distant galaxies.

The images represent the first observations — called “first light” — of an instrument called the Dark Energy Camera that was eight years in the works.

“The achievement of first light through the Dark Energy Camera begins a significant new era in our exploration of the cosmic frontier,” James Siegrist, associate director of science for high energy physics at the U.S. Department of Energy, said in a statement. “The results of this survey will bring us closer to understanding the mystery of dark energy, and what it means for the universe.”

This photo from the new Dark Energy Camera, taken in September 2012, shows the barred spiral galaxy NGC 1365, in the Fornax cluster of galaxies, which lies about 60 million light years from Earth. (Dark Energy Survey Collaboration)

This photo from the new Dark Energy Camera, taken in September 2012, shows the barred spiral galaxy NGC 1365, in the Fornax cluster of galaxies, which lies about 60 million light years from Earth. (Dark Energy Survey Collaboration)

Scientists think dark energy makes up 74 percent of the universe, yet they have very little idea what it is. For now, it is the name given to the force that’s counteracting gravity, causing the expansion of the universe to accelerate.

The Dark Energy Camera is designed to study this puzzle by mapping out the distant universe to more accurate pin down its current and past expansion rates.

‘This survey will bring us closer to understanding the mystery of dark energy.’

– James Siegrist, associate director at U.S. Department of Energy

“The Dark Energy Survey will help us understand why the expansion of the universe is accelerating, rather than slowing due to gravity,” said Brenna Flaugher, project manager and scientist at Fermilab. “It is extremely satisfying to see the efforts of all the people involved in this project finally come together.”

The new instrument — a 570-megapixel camera — took its first photos on Sept. 12, taking aim at a portion of the southern sky from atop a mountain in the Chilean Andes. The Dark Energy Camera was built at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) in Batavia, Ill., and was installed on the Victor M. Blanco telescope at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory, the southern branch of the U.S. National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO).

Each photo by the camera can capture up to 100,000 galaxies as far away as 8 billion light-years.

This zoomed-in image from the Dark Energy Camera of the center of the globular star cluster 47 Tucanae, which lies about 17,000 light years from Earth. (Dark Energy Survey Collaboration)

This zoomed-in image from the Dark Energy Camera of the center of the globular star cluster 47 Tucanae, which lies about 17,000 light years from Earth. (Dark Energy Survey Collaboration)

“We’re very excited to bring the Dark Energy Camera online and make it available for the astronomical community through NOAO’s open access telescope allocation,” said Chris Smith, director of the Cerro-Tololo Inter-American Observatory. “With it, we provide astronomers from all over the world a powerful new tool to explore the outstanding questions of our time, perhaps the most pressing of which is thenature of dark energy.”

In December, after the camera is tested, it will begin the Dark Energy Survey, the largest galaxy survey ever undertaken, by mapping one-eighth of the sky. Researchers estimate the survey should spot 300 million galaxies, 100,000 galaxy clusters and 4,000 exploding stars, called supernovas.


Mars Curiosity Descent – Ultra HD 30fps Smooth-Motion

Filed under: Cool, Gadgets, Inner Solar System, Mars, Space Exploration, Space Ships — bferrari @ 11:55 am

September 8, 2012

NASA Sparks Its Imagination

Filed under: Cool, Life, Space Exploration, Space Ships — bferrari @ 2:56 pm
Flying into the future. (University of Miami)

Flying into the future. (University of Miami)

It’s been a month since Curiosity’s remarkable soft landing on the surface of Mars. (Video) Remember the massive, supersonic parachute that slowed the spacecraft’s descent from 1,000 down to 200 miles per hour, and the sky crane that lowered the rover on 20-foot long cables the rest of the way, touching down at a speed of under two miles per hour?

And who can forget the unnerving “Seven Minutes of Terror,” the time that would pass before NASA scientists here on Earth would know if they had pulled it off or trashed a $350 million vehicle.

Science and drama? Now that’s a special occasion.

Since then, Curiosity has shifted into research mode. It has started moving around and has sent back some stunning images, including a few in 3-D.

But, sadly, the thrills are gone. A few days ago, the big news from Mars was that Curiosity had traveled 100 feet. Or a little more than three first downs in an NFL game. Yesterday’s press release from NASA announced that the rover had extended its arm.

I know, I know, all this is being orchestrated by scientists about 60 million miles away. That is truly amazing. And this is how science is done. It’s methodical and repetitive.

But we have become a jaded bunch here on 21st century Earth and soon enough most of us will likely lose interest in reports of a machine digging in dirt, even if it is Martian dirt.

Now Curiosity is all about the science. But we’d rather have the fiction.

Submarines in space

No need to fret, though. NASA still has plenty of imagination when it comes to exploring the universe. Or at least it’s willing to put up seed money for ideas that now seem as fanciful as lowering a rover on to the surface of Mars once did. Last month, as part of its Innovative Advanced Concepts program, NASA provided funding to further study 28 different concepts with just the right touch of crazy.

Here are eight of the more intriguing ones:

1) It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a wing: Flying wings aren’t new, but a star-shaped aircraft designed by a team at the University of Miami would take the concept in a new direction. Literally. Called a “Supersonic Bi-Directional Flying Wing,” it would fly sideways. It would take off in a conventional manner, then rotate 90 degrees in flight for supersonic travel. Its inventors see the wing flying from New York to Tokyo in four hours without producing a sonic boom, thanks to its unique design.

2) Sailing on Venus: Venus is one of the nastier spots in our solar system, with its average temperature of 450 degrees Centigrade and thick atmosphere of corrosive gases. But a group of NASA scientists has come up with a concept for a vehicle they say could scoot along its surface. It’s a rover powered by a sail that would take advantage of the planet’s strong winds tied to its extremely high atmospheric pressure.

3) Breaking the ice: Jupiter’s moon Europa has three times as much water as Earth, but it’s all under a thick layer of ice. That hasn’t discouraged a group of scientists at Virginia Tech who have proposed the idea of a heavy, heated torpedo that would melt the ice, then release a robotic underwater glider/submarine to explore the mysterious world beneath it.

4) Could you do that with cheese?: A big challenge to settling our moon is the need for astronauts to bring building materials with them. But a University of Southern California engineer may have developed a technology to get around that. It’s called Contour Crafting and it would allow structures to be built on the moon layer by layer using a paste made of heated-up lunar soil.

5) Pump you up: One of the risks of long space trips for astronauts is the tendency of their muscles to atrophy in zero gravity. Calves alone can lose up to 20 percent of their mass. But a scientist named Kevin Duda has created something he calls the V2 suit. It would use gyroscopes and accelerometers to track different body parts and add “viscous resistance” to mimic the sensation of gravity where it’s needed.

6) On a roll: Think tumbleweeds. That’s the basic concept behind “super ball bots,” round robots of interlocking rods and cables that would land on a planet, then be directed to roll to areas of interest. The idea is based on Buckminster Fuller’s design of round structures with no rigid connections. They’re lightweight, but amazingly stable and durable.

7) Print my ride: NASA scientists have proposed the idea of printable spacecraft--flat sheets embedded with all the electronics a robotic spacecraft needs — sensors for gathering information, data processing, data downlink and a communications system. In theory at least, multiple sheets of spacecraft could float around a planet gathering data.

8) Waste not, want not: Finally, there’s Water Walls. It’s a concept where walls filled with water would not only recycle astronauts’ waste, but would also protect them from radiation and purify the air. The walls can’t talk, at least not yet.

Video bonus: The bi-directional flying wing is so cool it comes with a soundtrack.

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