October 28, 2012

Dragon ship back on Earth after space station trip

Filed under: Cool, Earth, Gadgets, Government Policies, Inner Solar System, Space Ships — bferrari @ 7:24 pm
May 27, 2012: With rays of sunshine and the thin blue atmosphere of Earth serving as a backdrop, the SpaceX Dragon commercial cargo craft is berthed to the Earth-facing side of the International Space Station's Harmony node.

May 27, 2012: With rays of sunshine and the thin blue atmosphere of Earth serving as a backdrop, the SpaceX Dragon commercial cargo craft is berthed to the Earth-facing side of the International Space Station’s Harmony node.


CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. –  An unmanned space capsule carrying medical samples from the International Space Station splashed down in the Pacific Ocean Sunday, completing the first official private interstellar shipment under a billion-dollar contract with NASA.

The privately owned California-based SpaceX company gently guided the Dragon into the water via parachutes at 12:22 p.m., a couple of hundred miles off the Baja California coast.

Astronauts aboard the International Space Station used a giant robot arm to release the commercial cargo ship 255 miles (410 kilometers) up in space. SpaceX provided updates of the journey home via Twitter, including a video of the Dragon separating from the ISS.

The supply ship brought back nearly 2,000 pounds (900 kilometers) of science experiments and old station equipment. Perhaps the most eagerly awaited cargo is nearly 500 frozen samples of blood and urine collected by station astronauts over the past year.

The Dragon is the only delivery ship capable of returning items, now that NASA’s shuttles are retired to museums. Atlantis made the last shuttle haul to and from the station in July 2011.

With the Earth in the background, the SpaceX Dragon commercial cargo craft is seen as it is grappled by the International Space Station's Canadarm2 robotic arm. (Reuters)

With the Earth in the background, the SpaceX Dragon commercial cargo craft is seen as it is grappled by the International Space Station’s Canadarm2 robotic arm. (Reuters)

SpaceX — more formally Space Exploration Technologies Corp. — launched the capsule three weeks ago from Cape Canaveral, full of groceries, clothes and other station supplies. Ice cream as well as fresh apples were especially appreciated by the station residents, now back up to a full crew of six.

It’s the second Dragon to return from the orbiting lab; the first mission in May was a flight demo. This flight is the first of 12 deliveries under a $1.6 billion contract with National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

“It was nice while she was on board,” space station commander Sunita Williams said as the Dragon backed away. “We tamed her, took her home and, literally and figuratively, there’s a piece of us on that spacecraft going home to Earth.”

She added to the SpaceX flight controllers in Hawthorne, California: “Congratulations Hawthorne and thank you for her.”

The Dragon will be retrieved from the Pacific and loaded onto a 100-foot (30-meter) boat that will haul it to Los Angeles. From there, it will be transported to McGregor, Texas.

The medical samples will be removed as quickly as possible, and turned over to NASA within 48 hours of splashdown, according to SpaceX. Everything else will wait for unloading in McGregor.

A Russian supply ship, meanwhile, is set to blast off this week. It burns up upon descent, however, at mission’s end. So do the cargo vessels provided by Europe and Japan.

SpaceX is working to transform its Dragon cargo craft into vessels that American astronauts could fly in another four or five years. Until SpaceX or another U.S. company is able to provide rides, NASA astronauts must rely on Russian rockets to get to and from the space station.



October 22, 2012

Space Exploration – What is the point of that waste of time and money?

This was the first color image of earth ever taken from the moon, taken in 1968…

First Image of Earth from the Moon

First Image of Earth from the Moon

… the instant this photo comes out, it becomes the defining picture of the whole earth catalogue:

1970: the comprehensive clean air act is passed.
March, 1970: Earth Day became a holiday.
1970: environmental protection agency was founded.
1971: Doctors WIthout Borders was founded.
1971: Clean water act.
1972: DDT is banned.
1972: endangered species act.
1973: the catalytic converter gets put in.
1973: unleaded gas starts being used.

The vietnam war is still going on, and there is still chaos in the streets from protests and mass arrests and yet people still found the time to think about the earth as a whole.

That’s space exploration doing it’s part in influencing culture, and you cannot put a price on that.

October 20, 2012

Yum! Curiosity rover eats Mars dirt, finds odd bright stuff

Three bite marks left in the Martian ground by the scoop on the robotic arm of NASA's Mars rover Curiosity are visible in this image taken by the rover's right Navigation Camera during the mission's 69th Martian day, or sol (Oct. 15, 2012). The (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Three bite marks left in the Martian ground by the scoop on the robotic arm of NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity are visible in this image taken by the rover’s right Navigation Camera during the mission’s 69th Martian day, or sol (Oct. 15, 2012). The (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity has swallowed its first tiny bite of Martian soil, after standing down for a spell while scientists checked out some strange bright bits in the dirt.

The $2.5 billion Curiosity rover ingested the minuscule sample — which contains about as much material as a baby aspirin — on Wednesday (Oct. 17). The soil has been successfully delivered to the rover’s Chemistry and Mineralogy instrument, or CheMin, mission scientists announced today (Oct. 18).

“We are crossing a significant threshold for this mission by using CheMin on its first sample,” Curiosity lead scientist John Grotzinger, of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, said in a statement.

“This instrument gives us a more definitive mineral-identifying method than ever before used on Mars: X-ray diffraction,” Grotzinger added. “Confidently identifying minerals is important because minerals record the environmental conditions under which they form.” [Video: Curiosity’s First Scoopful of Mars Dirt]

Bright stuff on Mars

The sample that found its way into CheMin came from the third scoop of soil Curiosity dug up at a site dubbed “Rocknest.” The first scoop was discarded after being used to scrub out the rover’s sampling system, to help ensure that no Earth-originating residues remained.

Work at Rocknest slowed after Curiosity dug its second scoop on Oct. 12, when researchers noticed oddly bright flecks at the bottom of the hole. The team dumped the scoop out, worried that it might contain debris that had flaked off Curiosity.

They already knew that some tiny rover pieces are littering the Martian ground, after spotting a bright shred of what appears to be plastic on Oct. 7. Team members have since identified five or six other such bits, which may have fallen off Curiosity’s sky-crane descent stage during landing on Aug. 5.

“We went super-paranoid,” Grotzinger told reporters today. The team determined that “if this stuff is man-made, we better make sure that we’re not taking any of it in.”

So Curiosity moved to a slightly different location, and then took lots of pictures to make sure that the surface was pristine before making scoop number three. If any bright flecks are indeed present in the sample, they’re naturally occurring, the mission team reasons, since any rover pieces would be restricted to the surface.

All that being said, Curiosity scientists now believe the bright soil flecks are indeed indigenous to Mars. They could be minerals that are part of the soil-forming process, Grotzinger said, or reflective surfaces created by the cleaving of ordinary dirt.

The team aims to fire its mineral-identifying laser, which is part of Curiosity’s ChemCam instrument, at some of the pieces in the next few days to get a better idea of what they actually are.

Mars under the microscope

Curiosity carries 10 instruments to help it determine whether its Gale Crater landing site has ever been capable of supporting microbial life. But CheMin and another instrument on the 1-ton rover’s body, known as Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM), are the rover’s core scientific gear.

SAM is a chemistry laboratory that can identify organic compounds — the carbon-containing building blocks of life as we know it. The instrument has been sniffing the Martian air already, but it has yet to analyze its first soil sample. That should change in a week or so, Grotzinger said, after further cleaning of the rover’s sampling system.

Curiosity continues to be in good health, researchers said. After the six-wheeled robot finishes testing out its scooping and sampling systems at Rocknest, mission scientists will begin searching for a spot to break out the rover’s rock-boring drill. The first drill activity will be a complicated affair that could take month or so all up, Grotzinger said.

Curiosity is currently checking out deposits near a site called “Glenelg,” where three interesting types of Martian terrain come together. But its ultimate destination is the base of Mount Sharp, the 3.4-mile-high (5.5 kilometers) mountain rising from Gale Crater’s center.

Mount Sharp’s foothills show signs of long-ago exposure to liquid water. Curiosity could be ready to start rolling toward the mountain’s interesting deposits — which lie about 6 miles (10 km) away — in a couple of months.

“I would hope we’d be on our way by the end of the year,” Grotzinger said.


October 17, 2012

‘Next-door’ alien planet still too distant to visit — For now

Filed under: Cool, Exoplanets, Extraterrestrial Life, Space Exploration — bferrari @ 5:13 pm
This artist's concept shows the newfound alien planet Alpha Centauri Bb, found in a three-star system just 4.3 light-years from Earth. (ESO/L. Calçada)

This artist’s concept shows the newfound alien planet Alpha Centauri Bb, found in a three-star system just 4.3 light-years from Earth. (ESO/L. Calçada)

Astronomers have discovered an alien planet right in our solar system’s backyard, but residents of Earth shouldn’t get their hopes up for an exploration mission anytime soon. The newfound world is much too far away for probes to visit using current technology, experts say.
Researchers announced Tuesday (Oct. 16) that the scorching-hot alien planet Alpha Centauri Bb, which is about as massive as Earth, resides in the three-star Alpha Centauri system. While no other star is closer to our sun than the Alpha Centauri trio, they’re still about 4.3 light-years away, making a close-up look at the planet pretty much impossible right now.
A robotic exoplanet mission launching today “would require about 40,000 years to get to Alpha Centauri,” Greg Laughlin, an astronomer at the University of California, Santa Cruz, told reporters Tuesday. “So, given our propensity for instant gratification, that’s not really an option that’s on the table.”
But Laughlin, who was not involved in the discovery, added that attitudes could change if researchers made a few more intriguing discoveries in the Alpha Centauri system.
25 trillion miles away
One light-year is about 5.9 trillion miles (9.5 trillion kilometers). So the three stars in Alpha Centauri are more than 25 trillion miles (40 trillion km) from Earth.
To put this huge distance into perspective: NASA’s Voyager 1 probe, the most far-flung object ever launched from Earth, is currently about 11.3 billion miles (18.2 billion km) into its journey, cruising toward the edge of our solar system. Voyager 1 has thus covered less than 0.05 percent of the distance to Alpha Centauri Bb — and the probe has been zooming through space for more than 35 years.


New technologies needed

Alpha Centauri Bb sits just 3.6 million miles (6 million km) from its sunlike star, completing one orbit every 3.2 days. As a result, the planet’s surface is far too hot to support life as we know it, researchers said.
But the solar systems containing a small, rocky world often have multiple planets, Laughlin said, so it’s possible Alpha Centauri Bb has some siblings — perhaps even a world or two out in its host star’s “habitable zone,” the range of distances that can support liquid water.
If subsequent investigations do indeed find a potentially habitable planet circling Alpha Centauri B — or one of the other two stars in the system, Alpha Centauri A and Proxima Centauri — they may provide the push to get a probe out there, Laughlin said.
“You might see a groundswell of excitement to look at new kinds of propulsion technologies, new kinds of missions that could get to Alpha Centauri — not manned, but putting an unmanned probe there in a relatively short period of time, human-lifespan kinds of time frames,” he said.
Of course, some researchers are already trying to develop next-generation, super-fast propulsion systems, which include such concepts as nuclear rockets and antimatter fusion drives.
Whenever such advanced technology becomes workable, it might send people as well as robotic probes hurtling toward Alpha Centauri; the system is one possible target of the 100 Year Starship initiative, a project that aims to lay the foundation for interstellar human spaceflight.
So anyone who longs for humanity to colonize other solar systems should probably be rooting for astronomers to find a planet somewhere in the habitable zones of the Alpha Centauri system.
“I think it really comes down to what the inventory of these stars looks like, whether there will be the extraordinary effort and excitement that are required to do those sorts of really groundbreaking things,” Laughlin said.

Read more:

October 3, 2012

Milky Way Galaxy is dwarfed by its massive hot gas “halo”

Filed under: Cool, Cosmology, Wierd — bferrari @ 6:37 am

Check out the insane scale of this artist’s representation of the Milky Way Galaxy, looking tiny and insignificant in the middle of a huge ball of hot gas. The image shows the hot gas extending with a radius of 300,000 light years — but NASA says it may “extend significantly further.”

A new study, based on data from NASA’s Chandra Observatory, has found evidence that this “halo” could have a mass comparable to that of all the stars in the galaxy. And this could be the long-sought explanation for the “missing baryon” problem — as the James Webb Telescope’sHenry C. Ferguson explains here, baryons are composite particles that include protons and neutrons. And our best estimates are that the stars, gas and dust inside galaxies only account for at most 40 percent of the baryonic matter that the Big Bang Theory would predict. So where’s the rest?

Using Chandra’s X-ray observatory, lead researcher Anjali Gupta and his team were able to study X-rays from sources hundreds of millions of light-years away and see how they were absorbed by the circumgalactic medium (CGM) around our own galaxy. And as a result, they found that the CGM appeared to be much bigger than people had previously estimated. This “halo” is between 1 million and 2.5 million kelvins, or hundreds of times hotter than the surface of our sun. But its density is so low, that we can’t detect similar halos around other galaxies.

You can read the entire paper, published in the Sept. 1 issue of The Astrophysical Journal.


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