June 30, 2014

Ancient asteroid destroyer finally found, and it’s a new kind of meteorite

Filed under: Asteroids, Comets, Earth, Inner Solar System, Kuiper Belt, Oort Cloud — bferrari @ 8:56 am

Illustration of a meteor shower.argus/

For 50 years, scientists have wondered what annihilated the ancestor of L-chondrites, the roof-smashing, head-bonking meteorites that frequently pummel Earth.

Now, a new kind of meteorite discovered in a southern Sweden limestone quarry may finally solve the mystery, scientists report. The strange new rock may be the missing “other half” from one of the biggest interstellar collisions in a billion years.

“Something we didn’t really know about before was flying around and crashed into the L-chondrites,” said study co-author Gary Huss of the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

The space rock is a 470-million-year-old fossil meteorite first spotted three years ago by workers at Sweden’s Thorsberg quarry, where stonecutters have an expert eye for extraterrestrial objects. Quarriers have plucked 101 fossil meteorites from the pit’s ancient pink limestone in the last two decades. [Photos: New Kind of Meteorite Found in Sweden]

Researchers have nicknamed the new meteorite the “mysterious object” until its formal name is approved, said lead study author Birger Schmitz, of Lund University in Sweden and Chicago’s Field Museum. It will likely be named for a nearby church, the sterplana, he said.

Mysterious find

Geochemically, the meteorite falls into a class called the primitive achondrites, and most resembles a rare group of achondrites called the winonaites. But small differences in certain elements in its chromite grains set the mysterious object apart from the winonaites, and its texture and exposure age distinguish the new meteorite from the other 49,000 or so meteorites found so far on Earth.

“It’s a very, very strange and unusual find,” Schmitz told Live Science’s Our Amazing Planet.

The new meteorite was recently reported online in the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters, and the study will appear in the journal’s Aug. 15 print edition.

Until now, all of the quarry’s fossil meteorites were L-chondrites. Schmitz, who has led the chondrite cataloging, admitted the rock hunt had become “quite boring.”

But the rare find has not only revitalized interest in the quarry, it has also brought together the world’s top meteorite experts for a global hunt through geologic time. Thanks to Schmitz’s careful detective work on meteorites, scientists now know that each kind of meteorite leaves behind a unique calling card: tough minerals called spinels. Even if meteorites weather away, their spinels linger for hundreds of million of years in Earth rocks. Schmitz and his cohorts think they can pin down how many meteorites rained down on Earth in the past 2.5 billion years, as well as what kind fell, by extracting extraterrestrial spinels from sedimentary rocks. Their work may confirm suspicions that recent meteorite falls represent a mere fraction of the rocks drifting in space.

“I think our new finding adds to the understanding that the meteorites that come down on Earth today may not be entirely representative of what is out there,” Schmitz said. “One thing our study shows is that we maybe don’t know as much as we think we know about the solar system.”

Ancient wreckage

The limestone quarry preserves the remnants of a cosmic cataclysm that took place 470 million years ago, during the Ordovician Period. Scientists think there was an enormous crash between two large bodies out in the asteroid belt. The crash blew apart two asteroids, or an asteroid and comet, slinging dust and debris toward Earth. One of the impactors was the source of all L-chondrite meteorites. But no one has ever found a piece of the rock that hit the L-chondrite parent, until now.

The Swedish meteorite’s exposure age the length of time it sailed through space is the key to placing the fossil space rock at the scene of the crash. The meteorite zipped from the asteroid belt to Earth in just 1 million years. That’s the same remarkably young exposure age as the L-chondrites recovered from the Thorsberg quarry, suggesting the rocks sprayed Earth in the same wave of space debris. [Infographic: Asteroid Belt Explained]

Meteorite expert Tim Swindle, who was not involved in the study, praised the team’s careful analysis and said it was unlikely that any other meteorite but an Ordovician fragment would have such a short exposure age. “Very, very few modern meteorites have exposure ages that low,” said Swindle, a professor at the University of Arizona in Tucson. “Typically, it takes things longer to get here from the asteroid belt,” he said. “It’s a telling argument.”

But because so little is left of the original meteorite almost all its minerals have been altered to clay Swindle thinks there’s wiggle room for linking it to known classes of meteorite, instead of calling it a new find.

“I think it’s entirely plausible [that it’s a new kind of meteorite], and it’s a great study, but that’s not a guarantee they’ve got it right,” Swindle said. “But if they didn’t, it’s because of new things we’ll find out in future work, not because of their analysis.”

The geochemical tests were performed on sand-sized chromite spinels, which confirmed the rock’s extraterrestrial origin. The altered clay is also about 100,000 times richer in iridium than terrestrial rocks. Iridium is the element that marks the meteorite impact horizon when the dinosaurs went extinct.

Hunt for space history

Schmitz now plans to search for these strange achondrite spinels in the quarry sediments, as well as in other rocks of the same age around the world. Ordovician meteorite spinels from L-chondrites have been found in China, Russia and Sweden, and small micrometeorites have been discovered in Scotland and South America. Researchers think about 100 times as many meteorites fell on Earth during the Ordovician compared with today, but only about a dozen impact craters of the proper age have been identified. [Crash! 10 Biggest Impact Craters on Earth]

A bigger quest is also in the works. Schmitz and his colleagues plan to dissolve tons of rock in acid in a global search for meteoritic spinel grains. This detective work will help researchers pin down the history of the asteroid belt and solar system. Spinels can provide an estimate of how many meteorites fell in the past, and what kind hit Earth. These tiny pieces of vanished meteorites may fill in missing history, because meteorite impact craters often vanish due to geologic forces.

“This can give you a ground truth for models for how the solar system may have evolved over time,” said Gary Huss, a co-author on the Swedish meteorite study who will collaborate on the spinel search. “I think a lot of people have worried for some time that we don’t really know what’s going on in the asteroid belt.”


June 23, 2014

NASA moving ahead with asteroid-capture plan, wants to grab one in 2019

Filed under: Asteroids, Cool, Gadgets, Inner Solar System, Moons, Space Ships, Wierd — bferrari @ 1:50 pm
This undated handout two-picture combo of artist conceptions provided by NASA/JPL Caltech shows what NASA says are good candidates for a mission to capture an asteroid, haul it to the moon for astronauts to visit.(AP Photo/NASA/JPL Caltech)

This undated handout two-picture combo of artist conceptions provided by NASA/JPL Caltech shows what NASA says are good candidates for a mission to capture an asteroid, haul it to the moon for astronauts to visit.(AP Photo/NASA/JPL Caltech)

When NASA said last year it was planning to capture an asteroid, park it close to the moon and later send astronauts to explore it, many people had to check the calendar to confirm the space agency wasn’t simply demonstrating it had a sense of humor.

Well, make no mistake, NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) is certainly real, and the agency recently offered a progress report on its ambitious plan, which essentially involves grabbing a space rock using a robotic spacecraft before putting it in a stable orbit around the moon.

The process of getting hold of the asteroid has been likened to popping it into a bag with a drawstring

“You bag it,” NASA’s Donald Yeomans said. “You attach the solar propulsion module to de-spin it and bring it back to where you want it.”

The space agency is currently in the middle of deciding which of two missions to go with – the first idea is to “fully capture” a small asteroid in open space, while the second is to collect a “boulder-sized sample” from a much bigger asteroid.


The mission, whichever it decides to go for, is on schedule to take place just five years from now, in 2019, with NASA planning to make its final decision on which asteroid to capture a year earlier.

In the meantime, concept studies are set to take place over a six-month period, beginning this July, in which the agency will work on refining key concepts and technologies for its grand mission.

“With these system concept studies, we are taking the next steps to develop capabilities needed to send humans deeper into space than ever before, and ultimately to Mars, while testing new techniques to protect Earth from asteroids,” William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, said in a release.

2011 MD

So far, nine asteroids have been selected as candidates for ARM, with each ticking the boxes for orbit type and size. The sun-orbiting Spitzer space telescope has identified one asteroid in particular – 2011 MD – as having the ideal characteristics for the full-capture mission. Spitzer’s data shows 2011 MD to be about 20 feet in size, fitting nicely within NASA’s desire for a rock no larger than 32 feet. Once secured in a stable orbit, the agency plans to send astronauts to explore the asteroid some time in the 2020s.

“Observing these elusive remnants that may date from the formation of our solar system as they come close to Earth is expanding our understanding of our world and the space it resides in,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. “Closer study of these objects challenge our capabilities for future exploration and will help us test ways to protect our planet from impact.”

NASA has said it thinks there are some 4,700 potentially hazardous asteroids (PHAs) flying around ‘near’ Earth, with each one big enough to ruin our day should it score a direct hit. PHAs are defined by NASA as any space rock currently within five million miles of Earth with a diameter greater than 330 feet.


June 16, 2014

NASA’s real life Enterprise may take us to other star systems one day

Dr. Harold “Sonny” White is still working on a warp drive at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. His work is still in the experimental stage but that doesn’t mean he can’t imagine what the real lifeEnterprise ship would look like according to his math.

You’re looking at it right now.



This is the starship that may take us where no human has gone before. And it has me screaming like a little Klingon girl.



Concept 3D artist Mark Rademaker told io9 that “he worked with White to create the updated model, which includes a sleek ship nestled at the center of two enormous rings, which create the warp bubble.”

The updated model is the one you can see above, a variation of the original concept which, according to Dr. White, was rendered by Rademaker based on an idea by Matthew Jeffries, the guy who came with “the familiar Star Trek look.” This is the original warp drive spaceship concept:

Dr. White—whose daily life is working in future propulsion solutions for interplanetary travel in the near future, like ion and plasma thrusters—developed new theoretical work that solved the problems of the Alcubierre Drive concept, a theory that allowed faster-than-light travel based on Einstein’s field equations in general relativity, developed by theoretical physicist Miguel Alcubierre.

A spaceship equipped with a warp drive would allow faster-than-light travel by bending the space around it, making distances shorter. At the local level, however, the spaceship wouldn’t be moving faster than light. Therefore, warp drive travel doesn’t violate the first Einstein commandment: Thou shall not travel faster than light.

Not a fantasy, but real science

But Interstellar is just science fiction. Dr. White’s work at the Advanced Propulsion Theme Lead for the NASA Engineering Directorate is science. And while his department only gets peanuts compared to NASA’s budget (not to talk about the Pentagon’s) I find his words comforting:

Perhaps a Star Trek experience within our lifetime is not such a remote possibility.

See, Dr. White and his colleagues aren’t making a movie or coming up with 3D renders for the sake of it. They just don’t just believe a real life warp drive is theoretically possible; they’ve already started the work to create one:

Working at NASA Eagleworks—a skunkworks operation deep at NASA’s Johnson Space Center—Dr. White’s team is trying to find proof of those loopholes. They have “initiated an interferometer test bed that will try to generate and detect a microscopic instance of a little warp bubble” using an instrument called the White-Juday Warp Field Interferometer.

It may sound like a small thing now, but the implications of the research huge. In his own words:

Although this is just a tiny instance of the phenomena, it will be existence proof for the idea of perturbing space time-a “Chicago pile” moment, as it were. Recall that December of 1942 saw the first demonstration of a controlled nuclear reaction that generated a whopping half watt. This existence proof was followed by the activation of a ~ four megawatt reactor in November of 1943. Existence proof for the practical application of a scientific idea can be a tipping point for technology development.

The roadmap to the warp drive

According to Dr. White, this is a roadmap that they need to follow to achieve that final objective of rapid interstellar travel.

Every time I read that paragraph I smile—and these renders just make my smile so wide it looks stupid.

OK, Dr. White, you got our attention. Make it so.


June 13, 2014

Dream Chaser space plane prototype to fly again in 2014

Filed under: Cool, Earth, Gadgets, Inner Solar System, Military, Space Ships — bferrari @ 7:43 pm
This illustration shows the Dream Chaser vehicle launching into space. (Sierra Nevada)

This illustration shows the Dream Chaser vehicle launching into space. (Sierra Nevada)

A protoype of a space plane being developed to fly astronauts to and from the International Space Station will take to the skies again later this year.

The prototype of Sierra Nevada Corp.’s Dream Chaser vehicle has already been through some drop tests and a free flight in 2013, which ended when the Dream Chaser skidded off the runway. The new series of flights will include several automated ones, followed by piloted trips, said Mark Sirangelo, corporate vice president of SNC’s space systems division.

The reusable astronaut taxi is one of three designs competing for NASA dollars in the space agency’s Commercial Crew Program. The initiative aims to create a viable United States spacecraft that could ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station. At the moment, Russian Soyuz vehicles are the only spacecraft that can deliver astronauts into orbit. [See images of the Dream Chaser space plane]

Three companies – Sierra Nevada, SpaceX and Boeing – are funded through the Commercial Crew Program right now, but that pool of competitors could get smaller in the next phase of the program, which will be announced later this year.

“We believe we’re well positioned for that next phase, but in addition to that, I think what we’re doing is building a system [to attract] multiple clients,” Sirangelo told reporters during a news conference on Thursday.

Sierra Nevada aims to launch Dream Chaser into space for the first time in November 2016, company representatives have said.

Working in a former shuttle facility

Sirangelo delivered his comments while announcing a contract with Craig Technologies, an engineering and technical company that is leasing a 161,000-square-foot building in Cape Canaveral, Florida, which was formerly used for NASA shuttle logistics.

Craig will provide a piece of hardware that will help “move the Dream Chaser around and put it on its adapter for flight,” Sirangelo said. Called a “cradle,” the ground equipment device is intended to lift and move the spacecraft while it is being processed.

“This is the first of many different pieces of business we will be doing here,” Sirangelo said.

Dream Chaser will ride to orbit aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket and return to Earth by making a landing on a runway, much like NASA’s space shuttles did before their retirement in 2011. Craig is expected to provide several other products and services to SNC, which Sirangelo said are being negotiated. The value of the contract was not disclosed.

‘We’re able to bring jobs’

In 2012, Craig also brokered a five-year Space Act Agreement with NASA for the agency to let it use 1,600 pieces of equipment that were once used to maintain and repair the shuttle.

Because the agreement required Craig to stay within 50 miles (80 kilometers) of the Kennedy Space Center, Craig signed a lease with Cape Canaveral Ventures for the nearby shuttle depot.

Since 2013, Craig (which has about 400 employees in the United States) has hired 150 employees, with 65 of those former shuttle workers. It also spent $2 million renovating the facility and hiring workers so far.

“The important message is we’re able to bring jobs, and keep that knowledge base, and retain that experience and that skilled work force that was here before,” Carol Craig, founder and CEO of Craig Technologies, said during the news conference. “That’s what we hope to bring to Mark and his team.”

Craig joins a list of about 40 companies that are participating in the Dream Chaser program. Sierra Nevada also has participated in missions such as NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover, where it provided some of the systems that helped the rover land in the last minute of its so-called “seven minutes of terror” touchdown in 2012.


June 10, 2014

Problem Solved !

Filed under: Uncategorized — bferrari @ 9:59 am

At least, this ad agency promoting Carlsberg beer seems to think so …

Space oddity: Bizarre hybrid star found after 40-year search

Filed under: Black Holes, Cool, Cosmology, Supernova — bferrari @ 7:08 am
Image showing the location of the star HV 2112 — a hybrid between a red supergiant and a neutron star — in the Small Magellanic Cloud, a dwarf galaxy that lies about 200,000 light-years from Earth.Phil Massey, (Lowell Observatory)

Image showing the location of the star HV 2112 — a hybrid between a red supergiant and a neutron star — in the Small Magellanic Cloud, a dwarf galaxy that lies about 200,000 light-years from Earth.Phil Massey, (Lowell Observatory)

Astronomers have apparently discovered the first of a class of strange hybrid stars, confirming theoretical predictions made four decades ago.

In 1975, physicist Kip Thorne and astronomer Anna Zytkow proposed the existence of odd objects that are hybrids between red supergiants and neutron stars — the collapsed, superdense remnants of supernova explosions.

These so-called Thorne-Zytkow objects (TZOs) likely form when a red supergiant gobbles up a nearby neutron star, which sinks down into the giant’s core, researchers said. TZOs look like ordinary red supergiants, like the famed star Betelgeuse in the constellation Orion, but differ in their chemical fingerprints, the theory goes. [Top 10 Star Mysteries]

“Studying these objects is exciting because it represents a completely new model of how stellar interiors can work,” study leader Emily Levesque, of the University of Colorado Boulder, said in a statement.

“In these interiors we also have a new way of producing heavy elements in our universe,” she added. “You’ve heard that everything is made of ‘star stuff’ — inside these stars we might now have a new way to make some of it.”

And now Levesque and her team say they have probably found the first TZO — a star called HV 2112 in the Small Magellanic Cloud, a dwarf galaxy that lies about 200,000 light-years away.

The researchers used the 6.5-meter Magellan Clay telescope in Chile to study the light emitted by HV 2112. They found the starlight to be highly enriched in rubidium, lithium and molybdenum, just as theory predicts for TZOs. (Normal red supergiants produce these elements as well, but not in such abundance, scientists said.)

The new data, while suggestive, do not represent a slam-dunk discovery for TZOs quite yet, researchers said.

“We could, of course, be wrong,” co-author Philip Massey, of Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, said in a statement.

“There are some minor inconsistencies between some of the details of what we found and what theory predicts,” he added. “But the theoretical predictions are quite old, and there have been a lot of improvements in the theory since then. Hopefully our discovery will spur additional work on the theoretical side now.”

The find means a lot to Zytkow, who is a co-author of the new study.

“I am extremely happy that observational confirmation of our theoretical prediction has started to emerge,” said Zytkow, who is based at the University of Cambridge in England. “Since Kip Thorne and I proposed our models of stars with neutron cores, people were not able to disprove our work. If theory is sound, experimental confirmation shows up sooner or later. So it was a matter of identification of a promising group of stars, getting telescope time and proceeding with the project.”

The study has been accepted for publication in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society Letters.


June 6, 2014

SpaceX’s new Dragon capsule could be the future of space travel

Filed under: Cool, Inner Solar System, Life, Military, Space Exploration, Space Ships — bferrari @ 2:00 pm
The new Dragon V2 spacecraft, revealed by Space X on Thursday

The new Dragon V2 spacecraft, revealed by Space X on Thursday

Thursday evening, SpaceX revealed an upgraded version of its Dragon spacecraft, capable of carrying up to seven people at a time.

The company hopes to use the 15-foot-tall capsule to carry astronauts to the International Space Station beginning in 2017.


Its timing is impeccable. Currently, NASA relies entirely on Russia for transporting its astronauts to the station. But, last month, Russia threatened to revoke accessdue to tensions between the two countries. And a few days ago, NASA announced that its latest purchase of six round-trip tickets to the space station, good through 2017, will be its last. (The tickets cost $76.3 million each.)

That brings us to SpaceX, the private company started by Elon Musk (founder of PayPal and Tesla Motors) in 2002. Since May 2012, the company has been using a previous version of the Dragon spacecraft to carry cargo to the space station — as part of NASA’s long-term plan to have private US companies take over the basics of space transport.

The latest Dragon V2 has a few upgrades on the old one: it lands with thrusters, instead of crashing into the ocean with parachutes, is more fully reusable, and, of course, can carry people. SpaceX will begin testing the craft over the next few years, with its first peopled flights coming in 2016.



In terms of hardware, the new Dragon’s biggest upgrade is a set of 8 thrusters, which are powerful enough to slow down the capsule, allowing controlled landings on Earth.

The Dragon will also carry parachutes in case of an equipment failure, but if the thrusters are successful, they’d be a huge step forward in space flight, eliminating the need for parachute-aided crash landings for a capsule for the first time.

Many components of the current Dragon can be used for multiple flights, but the new landing method will, in theory, make the whole capsule rapidly reusable, going through ten flights before needing to be heavily serviced.

“You can just reload propellant and fly again,” Elon Musk said during the announcement. Additionally, the new spacecraft’s improved heat shield is designed to deteriorate less as it enters the atmosphere, allowing for a greater number of reuses.

SpaceX is trying to make every component of its space flight program as reusable as possible. It recently launched a version of the Falcon 9 rocket — which will put Dragon in space — with a first stage that can land on metallic legs, potentially allowing for easier retrieval and reuse.

“This is extremely important for revolutionizing access to space,” Musk said. “As long as we continue to throw away rockets and space craft, we will never have true access to space — it’ll always be incredibly expensive.”

It has room for seven people

(Djansezian/Getty Images)

(Djansezian/Getty Images)

The other chief upgrade of the Dragon is pretty obvious: it can carry people into space. But it goes further, outstripping Russia’s Soyuz rockets (which can transport three astronauts at a time) with a capacity of seven.


SpaceX went with a minimalist aesthetic for the Dragon’s interior, putting nearly all the controls on touch screen panels that fold down during flight. It’s a far cry from the button-crammed cockpit of NASA’s space shuttle.

The craft also has a few other upgrades: it can dock autonomously with the International Space Station without needing to use the station’s robotic arm, and the Dragon’s trunk (which detaches before re-entry to the Earth’s atmosphere) will be wrapped in solar panels, instead of having them on arms that extend outward.


What does the Dragon mean for the future of space travel?



All in all, the debut of this upgraded spacecraft is a very good sign for US space travel, and couldn’t have come at a better time.

For years, Congress has appropriated less money for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program — created to fund the development of private space travel — than the $800 million requested annually.


But the tensions with Russia seem to have added urgency to the goal. The transport won’t necessarily come via the Dragon capsule — less ballyhooed options like Boeing’s CST-100 crew capsule and Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser space plane are also in the running to win NASA’s contract — but the timely premiere of this craft can’t hurt. An upcoming NASA funding round will likely cut down the competition to one option, and SpaceX is clearly planning to win.

There are also intriguing signs that SpaceX envisions the Dragon being useful for future missions that go way beyond the space station. As Phil Plait points out, SpaceX’s press materials say the Dragon’s new thrusters will “enable the vehicle to land propulsively on Earth or another planet with pinpoint accuracy.”

Missions to Mars, of course, are still a long way off. But the 2017 target date for private US missions to the space station is quickly approaching. SpaceX’s progress — with both its Dragon capsule and other launch technologies — are making it look more likely that they’ll hit the deadline.


June 2, 2014

‘Moon’ shots: Decades-old photos of Apollo training surface

Filed under: Cool, Inner Solar System, Moons, Space Exploration — bferrari @ 11:06 am

Before Apollo astronauts went to the moon, they went to Hawaii to train on the Big Island’s lunar landscapes.

Now, decades-old photos are surfacing of astronauts scooping up Hawaii’s soil and riding across volcanic fields in a “moon buggy” vehicle.

The Pacific International Space Center for Exploration Systems, a Hawaii state agency, is displaying the photos at its Hilo headquarters. Rob Kelso, the agency’s executive director, found the images at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Astronauts from Apollo missions 13 through 17 trained in Hawaii as did some back up crews, Kelso said.

Some training was on Mauna Kea volcano, where glacial runoff crushed and refined rock into power. Astronauts also trained on recent lava flows.

Today, robots are tested on the Big Island for moon and Mars missions.

In recent years, engineers have tested technology to pull oxygen out of the island’s dirt, which is volcanic basalt like the Martian and lunar soil. Future missions could use this technology to extract oxygen from the land instead of taking it along. The oxygen could be used for breathing, to make fuel or for other purposes.

Kelso said scientists are also interested in testing robots at the Big Island’s lava tubes and lava tube skylight holes, which resemble similar formations recently spotted in high-definition images taken by satellites orbiting the moon, Mercury, Venus and Mars.

Lava tubes are tunnels made when lava forms a solid roof after flowing steadily in a confined area for hours. Skylight holes are formed when part of the tube breaks.


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