February 15, 2013

Hundreds injured by blasts as meteor falls in Russia

Filed under: Asteroids, Cool, Cosmology, Inner Solar System, Near Earth Objects (NEOs), Wierd — bferrari @ 9:53 am

Fire in the sky: 500 injured as meteor falls in Russia A 10-ton meteor streaked at supersonic speed over Russia’s Ural Mountains on Friday, setting off blasts that injured some 500 people and frightened countless more.

A meteor streaked through the sky and exploded Friday over Russia’s Ural Mountains with the power of an atomic bomb, its sonic blasts shattering countless windows and injuring more than 750 people. The spectacle deeply frightened thousands, with some elderly women declaring the world was coming to an end.

The meteor — estimated to be about 10 tons — entered the Earth’s atmosphere at a hypersonic speed of at least 33,000 mph and shattered about 18-32 miles above the ground, the Russian Academy of Sciences said in a statement.

It released the energy of several kilotons above the Chelyabinsk region, the academy said.

Amateur video broadcast on Russian television showed an object speeding across the sky about 9:20 a.m. local time, just after sunrise, leaving a thick white contrail and an intense flash.


‘We saw a big burst of light then went outside to see what it was and we heard a really loud thundering sound.’

– Eyewitness Sergey Hametov, a resident of Chelyabinsk, the biggest city in the affected region


“There was panic. People had no idea what was happening. Everyone was going around to people’s houses to check if they were OK,” said Sergey Hametov, a resident of Chelyabinsk, a city of 1 million about 930 miles east of Moscow.

“We saw a big burst of light, then went outside to see what it was and we heard a really loud thundering sound,” he told The Associated Press by telephone.

The explosions broke more than 1 million square feet of glass, city officials said.

The city administration said 758 people sought medical care after the explosions and most were injured by shards of glass. Athletes at a city sports arena were among those cut up by the flying glass.


It was not immediately clear if any people were struck by space fragments.

Another Chelyabinsk resident, Valya Kazakov, said some elderly women in his neighborhood started crying out that the world was ending.

City officials said 3,000 buildings in the city were damaged by the shock wave, including a zinc factory where part of the roof collapsed.

Small pieces of space debris — usually parts of comets or asteroids — that are on a collision course with the Earth are called meteoroids. They become meteors when they enter the Earth’s atmosphere. Most meteors burn up in the atmosphere, but if they survive the frictional heating and strike the surface of the Earth they are called meteorites.

Meteors typically cause sizeable sonic booms when they enter the atmosphere because they are traveling much faster than the speed of sound. Injuries on the scale reported Friday, however, are extraordinarily rare.

Sky fall: When do meteorites strike?

A meteor exploded in the sky above Russia on Friday, causing a shockwave that blew out windows and injured hundreds.

Meteor vs. meteorite: What’s the difference?
Meteors are pieces of space rock, usually from larger comets or asteroids, which enter the Earth’s atmosphere. Many burn up by the heat of the atmosphere; those that strike are called meteorites.

How fast do meteorites go?
They often hit the ground at tremendous speed — up to 18,642 mph. That releases a huge amount of force.

How common are they?
Smaller strikes happen five to 10 times a year. Large impacts are rarer but still occur about every five years. Most of these strikes happen in uninhabited areas where they don’t cause injuries to humans.

Source: AP


The meteor hit less than a day before the asteroid 2012 DA14 is to make the closest recorded pass of an asteroid to the Earth — about 17,150 miles. But the European Space Agency in a tweet said its experts had determined there was no connection.

Some fragments fell in a reservoir outside the town of Cherbakul, the regional governor’s office said, according to the ITAR-Tass.

A 20-foot-wide crater was found in the same area, which could come from space fragments striking the ground, the news agency cited military spokesman Yaroslavl Roshchupkin as saying.

Reports conflicted on what exactly happened in the clear skies. A spokeswoman for the Emergency Ministry, Irina Rossius, told the AP there was a meteor shower, but another ministry spokeswoman, Elena Smirnikh, was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying it was a single meteor.



Donald Yeomans, manager of the U.S. Near Earth Object Program in California, said he thought it was probably “an exploding fireball event.”

“If the reports of ground damage can be verified, it might suggest an object whose original size was several meters in extent before entering the atmosphere, fragmenting and exploding due to the unequal pressure on the leading side vs. the trailing side (it pancaked and exploded),” Yeoman said in an email.

“It is far too early to provide estimates of the energy released or provide a reliable estimate of the original size,” Yeomans added.

The site of Friday’s spectacular show is about 3,000 miles west of Tunguska, which 1908 was the site of the largest recorded explosion of a space object plunging to Earth. That blast, attributed to a comet or asteroid fragment, is generally estimated to have been about 10 megatons; it leveled some 80 million trees.

The dramatic events prompted an array of reactions from prominent Russians.

Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, speaking at an economic forum in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, said the meteor could be a symbol for the forum, showing that “not only the economy is vulnerable, but the whole planet.”

Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a nationalist leader noted for vehement statements, said “It’s not meteors falling. It’s the test of a new weapon by the Americans,” the RIA Novosti news agency reported.

Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said the incident showed the need for leading world powers to develop a system to intercept objects falling from space.

“At the moment, neither we nor the Americans have such technologies” to shoot down meteors or asteroids, he said, according to the Interfax news agency.

February 11, 2013

The hypersonic spaceplanes of yesteryear

Filed under: Cool, Earth, Gadgets, Inner Solar System, Space Ships — bferrari @ 4:39 pm

Last month, the German Aerospace Center announced its SpaceLiner.

A scan of the original Dornberger spaceplane.

A scan of the original Dornberger spaceplane.

This still-on-paper hypersonic suborbital spaceplane is theoretically capable of taking up to 50 passengers at a time to destinations halfway across the world in a few hours. It’s an exciting prospect, seeing the curvature of the Earth during a business trip.

But it isn’t a new idea. A host of science fiction writers have explored this, as did Walter Dornberger, former director of the V-2 program at Peenemunde in Germany, in 1956.

In 1952, Dornberger was a new immigrant to the United States working as a guided missile consultant for Bell Aircraft in Ohio. He pitched the idea of a hypersonic manned glider to the Air Force as an efficient and reusable precision bomber. The Air Force, intrigued, pursued the idea; it became the basis of the failed Dyna-Soar program. But for Dornberger, a hypersonic gliding bomber was a step on the way to suborbital hypersonic air travel.

ANALYSIS: When the Dyna-Soar Went Extinct

Inspired by the rapid growth of aviation – from the Wright brothers’ first flight to Mach 2 in half a century – he imagined a future where hypersonic passenger flights would be commonplace in another 25 years. But the first flights could be sooner. Writing in 1956, he saw that the nation had the technology to start exploring the world of hypersonic air travel with glider mounted on boosters. He called them Ultra Planes, and imagined them taking off from commercial airports around the world.

A glider would be mounted on the “back” of a booster such that the flat, gliding bottoms of both vehicles faced the same way. Once mated, the 90-foot tall pair would be turned vertically and loaded on a train that would carry it, by rail, to its underground launch canyon – image a missile silo big enough for crews to access both vehicles for things like fueling and maintenance. Passengers would arrive at the canyon, which would have an ordinary gate number, by bus since it would be too risky to connect a launch canyon to the terminal by jetway.

With the vehicle ready, the crew and passengers would board, the latter sitting in swiveling chairs that would keep them upright throughout the journey. Once their seat belts were firmly fastened, the booster would roar to life and launch, carrying the glider aloft with it.

ANALYSIS: How Neil Armstrong Saved the Dyna-Soar

For the first minute and a half, the glider’s pilot would be in control of both vehicles; the booster’s skeleton crew would be on standby. Then the stages would separate. The glider would slide off guide rails on the booster’s “back” and the pilot would ignite its engine. The glider would rocket up to 140,000 feet at a top speed of 8,400 miles per hour. At the same time, the booster’s crew would take control of their vehicle and return to the airport for refueling and launch with another glider in tow.

Pilot-controlled sun filters on the window’s would ensure passengers had a safe view of the curvature of the Earth as the glider reached its peak altitude. Then, as dictated by the flight plan, the glider’s pilot would shut off its engine and begin a steady glide his designated airport. The remaining ride would be silent and pleasant with stunning views unhampered by clouds out of every window. Stars that we never see from Earth would be as bright as the moon.

The glider would land, unpowered, like a traditional airplane on a runway. Passengers would disembark by a rolling stairway right onto the tarmac then the glider would be towed to a launch canyon where it would be mated to another booster and fueled for its next launch.

ANALYSIS: NASA’s Next Capsule to Land Like a Helicopter?

The few details on the SpaceLiner suggest it will follow more or less this idea laid out by Dornberger in the 1950s. The SpaceLiner will launch passengers up to 50 miles high at Mach 24 (roughly the design limit of Dyna-Soar) before gliding in at 15,000 mph for a runway landing. SpaceLiner’s project coordinator Martin Sippel expects to start gathering funds in 10 years an to have full operations up and running by 2050.

Sippel’s timeline is about the same as Dornberger’s was in 1956, but hopefully the SpaceLiner will have more luck than the ultra planes. Because traveling through (near) space as a regular airline passenger would be absolutely incredible.


February 6, 2013

4.5 billion ‘alien Earths’ may populate Milky Way

Filed under: Big Bang, Cosmology, Exoplanets, Extraterrestrial Life, Gadgets, Life — bferrari @ 4:44 pm
This artist’s conception shows a hypothetical habitable planet with two moons orbiting a red dwarf star. Astronomers have found that 6 percent of all red dwarf stars have an Earth-sized planet in the habitable zone, which is warm enough for liq (David A. Aguilar (CfA))

This artist’s conception shows a hypothetical habitable planet with two moons orbiting a red dwarf star. Astronomers have found that 6 percent of all red dwarf stars have an Earth-sized planet in the habitable zone, which is warm enough for liq (David A. Aguilar (CfA))

Billions of Earth-like alien planets likely reside in our Milky Way galaxy, and the nearest such world may be just a stone’s throw away in the cosmic scheme of things, a new study reports.

Astronomers have calculated that 6 percent of the galaxy’s 75 billion or so red dwarfs — stars smaller and dimmer than the Earth’s own sun — probably host habitable, roughly Earth-size planets. That works out to at least 4.5 billion such “alien Earths,” the closest of which might be found a mere dozen light-years away, researchers said.

“We thought we would have to search vast distances to find an Earth-like planet,” study lead author Courtney Dressing, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), said in a statement. “Now we realize another Earth is probably in our own backyard, waiting to be spotted.”

Kepler’s keen eye
Dressing and her team analyzed data gathered by NASA’s prolific Kepler space telescope, which is staring continuously at more than 150,000 target stars. Kepler spots alien planets by flagging the tiny brightness dips caused when the planets transit, or cross the face of, their stars from the instrument’s perspective. [Gallery: A World of Kepler Planets]

‘Another Earth is probably in our own backyard, waiting to be spotted.’

– Courtney Dressing, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

Kepler has detected 2,740 exoplanet candidates since its March 2009 launch. Follow-up observations have confirmed only 105 of these possibilities to date, but mission scientists estimate that more than 90 percent will end up being the real deal.

In the new study, Dressing and her colleagues re-analyzed the red dwarfs in Kepler’s field of view and found that nearly all are smaller and cooler than previously thought.

This new information bears strongly on the search for Earth-like alien planets, since roughly 75 percent of the galaxy’s 100 billion or so stars are red dwarfs.

Further, scientists determine the sizes of transiting exoplanets by comparison to their parent stars, based on how much of the stars’ disks the planets blot out when transitting. So a reduction in a star’s calculated size brings a planet’s size down, too — in some cases, perhaps into the realm of rocky worlds with a solid, potentially life-supporting surface.

And the size and location of a star’s “habitable zone,” the range of distances that could support the existence of liquid water on a planet’s surface, are strongly tied to stellar brightness and temperature.

Re-analzying the data
The researchers determined that 95 Kepler exoplanet candidates orbit red dwarfs. Using this information and their newly calculated stellar (and planetary) profiles, the team calculated that about 60 percent of red dwarfs likely host worlds smaller than Neptune.

Dressing and her colleagues then determined that Kepler has spotted three roughly Earth-size exoplanet candidates in the habitable zones of their parent red dwarfs.

One of these worlds is Kepler Object of Interest (KOI) 1422.02. This candidate’s newly calculated size is 90 percent that of Earth, and it circles its star every 20 days. If the planet (and these characteristics) are confirmed, KOI 1422.02 may be the first “alien Earth” ever discovered.

The other two candidates are KOI 2626.01, another potential Earth twin that’s 1.4 times bigger than Earth and has a 38-day orbit; and KOI 854.01, a world 1.7 times the size of Earth with a 56-day orbit.

All three candidates are located between 300 and 600 light-years from Earth and circle stars with surface temperatures between 5,700 and 5,900 degrees Fahrenheit, researchers said. (For comparison, the Earth’s sun has a surface temperature of about 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit.)

Billions of Earth-like planets
The team further determined that about 6 percent of the Milky Way’s red dwarfs should harbor roughly Earth-size planets in their habitable zones, meaning that at least 4.5 billion such worlds may be scattered throughout our galaxy.

“We now know the rate of occurrence of habitable planets around the most common stars in our galaxy,” co-author David Charbonneau, also of CfA, said in a statement. “That rate implies that it will be significantly easier to search for life beyond the solar system than we previously thought.” [9 Exoplanets That Could Host Alien Life]

That search may bear fruit right in Earth’s backyard, researchers said.

“According to our analysis, the closest Earth-like planet is likely within 13 light-years, which is right next door in terms of astronomical distances,” Dressing told via email.

“The knowledge that another an Earth-like planet might be so close is incredibly exciting and bodes well for the next generation of missions designed to detect nearby Earth-like planets,” she added. “Once we find nearby Earth-like planets, astronomers are eager to study them in detail with the James Webb Space Telescope and proposed extremely large ground-based telescopes like the Giant Magellan Telescope.”

Red dwarfs are also longer-lived than stars like the sun, suggesting that some planets in red dwarf habitable zones may harbor life that’s been around a lot longer than that on Earth, which first took root about 3.8 billion years ago.

“We might find an Earth that’s 10 billion years old,” Charbonneau said.

The nearest red dwarf is Proxima Centauri, part of the three-star Alpha Centauri system that’s just 4.3 light-years or so from Earth. Late last year, astronomers announced the discovery of an Earth-size planet orbiting the system’s Alpha Centauri B, but it’s far too hot to host life as we know it.

Scientists have also detected five planetary candidates circling the star Tau Ceti, which lies 11.9 light-years away. Two of these potential planets may reside in the habitable zone, but they are at least 4.3 and 6.6 times as massive as Earth, scientists say.

The new study will be published in The Astrophysical Journal.


February 5, 2013

Could 3D printers build a future moon base?

Filed under: Cool, Earth, Inner Solar System, Moons, Wierd — bferrari @ 6:45 am
The European Space Agency and a consortium of industry professionals investigated the feasibility of using 3D printing to build a lunar base. (ESA/Foster + Partners)

The European Space Agency and a consortium of industry professionals investigated the feasibility of using 3D printing to build a lunar base. (ESA/Foster + Partners)


The technology behind 3D printing has allowed users to craft musical instruments and prosthetic limbs, and now European scientists are taking a serious look at printing their own moon base.

The European Space Agency (ESA) study is investigating how practical constructing a manned base on the moon only using 3D printing technology could be, given that it would rely primarily on lunar dirt for building materials.

“Terrestrial 3D printing technology has produced entire structures,” Laurent Pambaguian, who heads the project for ESA, said in a statement. “Our industrial team investigated if it could similarly be employed to build a lunar habitat.”

A moon base with style

Pambaguian’s team partnered with the London-based architecture firm Foster + Partners to draw up ideas for a 3D-printed moon colony. [See photos of the 3D-printed moon base ]

“As a practice, we are used to designing for extreme climates on Earth and exploiting the environmental benefits of using local, sustainable materials,” Xavier De Kestelier of Foster + Partners said in a statement. “Our lunar habitation follows a similar logic.”

Foster + Partners’ 3D printed design is a simple four-person moon base that can be made completely out of repurposed moon dirt, which scientists call “regolith.”

Because the entire design is made primarily from indigenous lunar materials moon, there is no need to transport costly materials from the Earth into space. The base would be built using a robotic printer roving over an inflatable dome.

“3D printing offers a potential means of facilitating lunar settlement with reduced logistics from Earth,” Scott Hovland of ESA’s human spaceflight team said. “The new possibilities this work opens up can then be considered by international space agencies as part of the current development of a common exploration strategy.”

Hollow moon dirt walls

The base would have a cell-like but strong frame resembling the structure of bird bones that will protect lunar residents from gamma radiation and micrometeorites that could destroy a less robust build.

ESA and the agency’s partners have already built part of the base. Using a mixture of silicon, aluminum, calcium, iron and magnesium oxides meant to simulate regolith — a mixture of dust and dirt — found on the moon, ESA and its partners printed a 2,205-pound (1,000 kilograms) piece of what part of the home could look like.

“The planned site for the base is at the moon’s southern pole, where there is near perpetual sunlight on the horizon,” officials for Foster and Partners said in a statement.

The firm has started trying out the 3D printer in conditions similar to those on the surface of the moon. The team has started printing various structures inside a vacuum chamber.

This isn’t the first time a space agency has considered 3D printing a lunar base  . Last year, NASA officials challenged researchers at Washington State University in Pullman, Wash. to 3D print the ceramic-like simulated lunar regolith into smooth, cylindrical shapes to test the strength of the material.

Foster + Partners is also partnering with other firms to build the first private spaceport in the world. Known as Spaceport America, the $209 million base will serve as a hub for commercial spaceflight. The spaceport should be completed later this year.

February 2, 2013

Lightbulb alert! Another one bites the dust.

Filed under: Uncategorized — bferrari @ 5:02 pm


The old joke, “How many (blonds, lawyers, etc.) does it take to screw in a lightbulb?” just got more complicated! The old  flourescent tubes that used to illuminate millions of homes, and still light up many garages, workrooms and office buildings, bid their final adieu on Saturday. If you have one of these old fixtures in your home, you’ll need to know your options when the lights go out. T12 bulbs, engineered in the 30′s and used for over 50 years, are no longer being manufactured.

I don’t have that particular fixture in my house, but I still get overwhelmed walking down the lightbulbaisle of the hardware store. Our choices used to be 100, 75, or 60 watts, single wattage or 3-way, and maybe a few different shapes.  Now the choices of CFL, halogen, halogen incandescent and LED are growing annually. Luckily, with increased choices come improvements in lighting quality and energy efficiencies.

There are even 3-way and dimmable CFL’s and LED’s now, and the lighting quality has improved by leaps and bounds over first-generation offerings.

I found some great primers on the changes in lighting technology, and you’ll want to take a look before you head out to pick up any replacement bulb. You’ll pay more at the register, but with bulbs that last 50,000 hours and use 75% LESS energy than the old incandescents, the savings will light up your smile! (pun intended) I think even Edison himself would approve.

February 1, 2013

Space plane poised for key flight test

Filed under: Cool, Gadgets, Space Ships — bferrari @ 7:55 am
An artistic rendition of the Dream Chaser vehicle launching into space. (Sierra Nevada)

An artistic rendition of the Dream Chaser vehicle launching into space. (Sierra Nevada)

A private space plane is slated to fly on its own for the first time in the next six to eight weeks, a key drop-test milestone in the vehicle’s quest to fly astronauts on roundtrip space missions.

The Dream Chaser spacecraft, built by aerospace firm Sierra Nevada Corp., will be released by a carrier helicopter at an altitude of 12,000 feet or so, then fly back and land autonomously on a runway at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center in California.

The unmanned 30-second drop test will kick off a series of trials that culminate in trips to low-Earth orbit and back, potentially paving the way for contracted, crew-carrying flights to the International Space Station for NASA, company officials said during a press conference Wednesday.

The seven-person Dream Chaser looks a bit like a miniature space shuttle. It’s about 29.5 feet long and has a wingspan of 22.9 feet. For comparison, NASA’s space shuttle was 122 feet long, with a wingspan of 78 feet. [Gallery: Meet the Dream Chaser Space Plane]

Filling the space shuttle’s shoes
Colorado-based Sierra Nevada is one of several spaceship-building companies to receive funding from NASA’s commercial crew program, which is encouraging private American vehicles to fill the void left by the space shuttle fleet’s retirement in 2011.

In its latest round of awards, NASA granted funding to Sierra Nevada for the Dream Chaser and to SpaceX and Boeing, which are working on capsules called Dragon and the CST-100, respectively. The Dream Chaser space plane is the only non-capsule design being developed by a major contender.

The space agency hopes at least one of these vehicles is ready to fly astronauts to and from the space station by 2017. Until such homegrown private spaceships come online, NASA and the nation are dependent on Russian Soyuz spacecraft to provide this orbital taxi service.

Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) Space Systems' Dream Chaser flight vehicle is lifted by an Erickson Air-Crane helicopter near the Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport in Jefferson County, Colo., on May 29, during a captive-carry test. (Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC))

Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) Space Systems’ Dream Chaser flight vehicle is lifted by an Erickson Air-Crane helicopter near the Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport in Jefferson County, Colo., on May 29, during a captive-carry test. (Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC))

The newly announced drop test is a step along the path to orbit. It will mark the first time the Dream Chaser has ever flown solo, though the space plane did take to the skies last year in a captive-carry test, during which it was held aloft the entire time by a heavy-duty helicopter.

The Dream Chaser drop-test vehicle is currently at a facility in Colorado, but it will be moved to Dryden in about two weeks, officials said. The first flight test should come four to six weeks after that, with two to five more flights following to gather additional data about the vehicle’s in-air performance.

“The first flight test is just to make sure it will fly, everything works properly, we land on the runway safely,” said Sierra Nevada’s Jim Voss, head of the Dream Chaser program and a former space shuttle astronaut. “We’ll put in maneuvers on the following tests that will gather the coefficients that we need to properly define the aerodynamic characteristics of the vehicle.”

A testing campaign
If everything goes well with the upcoming series of tests, Sierra Nevada will conduct more extensive flight trials with another Dream Chaser vehicle, officials said.

“It will be similar to this vehicle, but we’ll be able to pilot it with a test pilot on board, and then that same vehicle will be ultimately used for an orbital flight to demonstrate the capability of the Dream Chaser in orbit,” Voss said.

Aerospace giant Lockheed Martin will help build that more advanced flight-test vehicle, as part of an extensive partnership with Sierra Nevada that the companies just announced today.

“They’re building the structure for that vehicle, as we finish the design of some of the other systems we’ll use for that additional flight test that we’ll do in about a year to 18 months,” Voss said.


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