2012년 12월 31일 월요일

13 New Space Missions to Watch In 2013

This year has been a busy one for space missions, and it looks like next year will ramp things up even more.
Though NASA has retired its space shuttles, astronauts and cosmonauts are still launching regularly on Russian rockets to the International Space Station, and will continue to do so. Plus, China is planning another manned docking mission for 2013, and many more countries, such as South Korea, India, Canada and a coalition of European nations, will launch robotic science probes next year.
Here's a look at 13 notable launches to look out for in the coming year:

1) Suborbital Test Flights: With luck, 2013 will see a host of significant test flights for the private space companies developing manned suborbital vehicles to take paying passengers on brief joyrides to the edge of space. Virgin Galactic's SpaceShip Two has flown numerous glide tests, but it's due to make its first powered flight using its rocket engine sometime in 2013. Another company called XCOR Aerospace plans to test fly its Lynx suborbital vehicl next year. Both firms aim to carry their first passengers in 2014.

2) South Korea's Third Launch: South Korea will try for a third time to loft its Korea Space Launch Vehicle (KSLV) 1 booster successfully to orbit. Previous launch attempts in August 2009 and June 2010, which lifted off from a site in southern South Korea, both failed. But the third time might be a charm for South Korea, which will attempt to blast off a test satellite called the Science and Technology Satellite 2C (STSAT 2C). Launch is expected sometime in January 2013.
3) Indian/French SARAL/AltiKa: This satellite, a collaboration between India and France, is intended to study the surface height of Earth's seas from space. Called ocean altimetry, the research has many applications for environmental science and oceanography. The spacecraft is due to be launched Jan. 28 by an Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), which will also carry NEOSSat, an instrument designed to search for near-Earth asteroids that could pose a risk to our planet, and a Canadian space surveillance satellite called Sapphire. The mission will lift off from the Satish Dhawan Space Center in India.

4) First Cygnus Flights: The private space company Orbital Sciences Corp. is one of two firms with a NASA contract to deliver cargo to the International Space Station on unmanned spacecraft (the other is SpaceX). In February, Orbital Sciences plans to launch its Antares rocket on its first test flight, which will carry a model of its robotic Cygnus spacecraft. The launch will blast off from the company's complex on Wallops Island in Virginia.
If the Antares test flight goes well, the first functional Cygnus spacecraft is scheduled to fly on its initial test flight to the International Space Station April 5.
5) SpaceX Dragon Flights: Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX), the other commercial spchinaace company hired by NASA to carry supplies to the space station, launched its Dragon cargo ship maiden test flight to the orbital laboratory last May. That successful flight was followed by SpaceX's first cargo delivery mission to the station in October.
The company, founded by billionaire Elon Musk, will continue to fly cargo delivery missions to the space station next year, with launches scheduled for March 1 and Sept. 30 out of the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. These flights are vital for keeping the space station fully stocked, and also help pave the way for the manned missions SpaceX hopes to launch aboard Dragon in coming years.

6) Space Station Crew Launches: Three launches of crewmembers to the International Space Station are planned for 2013, with liftoffs from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan scheduled for March 28, May 28, and Sept. 25. Each launch will carry three spaceflyers from the space station partner agencies — the United States, Russia, Canada, Japan, and Europe — aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft. Crewmembers typically stay for five or six months each, and a rotating crew of three to six people is always onboard the orbiting laboratory.
7) Canada's Cassiope: The Canadian Space Agency's Cassiope (short for Cascade Smallsat and Ionospheric Polar Explorer) spacecraft is due to launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from California's Vandenberg Air Force Basesometime in April. The satellite will carry a suite of science instruments to study how solar storms interact with charged particles in Earth's ionosphere. The vehicle will also test out new communications technology. The flight is significant not just for Canada, but for SpaceX, which has never before launched from Vandenberg. Additionally, the launch will mark the first time a Falcon 9 will use the company's new in-house made Merlin 1D engines.
8) Space Station Cargo Launches: The next year will likely see numerous launches of cargo to the International Space Station aboard a suite of vehicles from Japan, Europe and Russia, in addition to the private cargo launches from SpaceX and Orbital Sciences. Russian Progress launches are scheduled for Feb. 12, April 24, and July 24, while Japan's HTV freighter will lift off July 15, and the European Space Agency's ATV is scheduled for a liftoff April 18. Each of these tried-and-true robotic spacecraft will deliver food, hardware and science experiments for the crew of the orbital outpost.

9) ESA's Space Swarm: The Swarm spacecraft, built by the European Space Agency, is due to launch into a polar orbit in April on a Eurockot Rockot rocket from Russia. The satellite will carry three instruments to study how Earth's geomagnetic field changes over time. The mission aims to offer insight into Earth's climate and interior composition.
10) NASA's Iris: NASA's Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (Iris) satellite is a sun-studying mission to analyze the flow of energy through our star's atmosphere and heliosphere. Iris is due to launch aboardan Orbital Sciences Pegasus XL rocket, which takes off in midair after being lofted by a carrier plane from Vandenberg Air Force Base. The flight is scheduled for April 28 or 29.

11) China's Shenzhou 10: Scheduled for June, China's Shenzhou 10 mission will be the fifth manned spaceflight for China. The mission will take launch three Chinese astronauts, including a female spaceflyer, to dock with the nation's Tiangong 1 module in orbit. The flight is a follow-up to the historic Shenzhou 9 mission of June 2012, which marked the country's first manned space docking. The next launch will bring China a step closer to establishing a manned space station and potentially landing people on the moon. Shenzhou 10, like Shenzhou 9 before it, will lift off from China's Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center on a Long March 2F rocket. 
12) NASA's Ladee: The Lunar ATmosphere and Dust Experiment (Ladee) from NASA is a moon orbiter intended to study the moon's transient atmosphere and the ubiquitous particles of dust blanketing its surface that are often seen levitating due to electrostatic forces. Ladee is due to launch aboard a U.S. Air Force Minotaur 5 rocket from Wallops Island on Aug. 12.
13) NASA's Mars Maven: NASA's next Mars orbiter is due to launch sometime in a 20-day window between Nov. 18 and Dec. 7 to enable it to enter orbit around the Red Planet in September 2014. The Mars Atmosphere And Volatile Evolution spacecraft, or Maven for short, will study how Mars loses atmospheric gases to space. The mission will launch aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket from Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

Source of Article : space.com

2012년 12월 30일 일요일

Look Up! 13 Must-See Stargazing Events in 2013

As 2012 comes to a close, some might wonder what is looming sky-wise for 2013. What celestial events might we look forward to seeing? 
I’ve selected what I consider the top 13 "skylights" (get it?) for the coming year, and have listed them in chronological order. Not all these night sky events will be visible from any one locality (you may have to travel to catch all the eclipses), but you can observe many of them from the comfort of your backyard, weather permitting.
The next year also promises two potentially bright comets: PANSTARRS and ISON. As any astronomer can tell you, comets are notoriously capricious; we can only guess at how bright they will get and how long their respective tails will be. We’ll just have to wait and see.
In general, 2013 promises an action-packed 12 months for stargazers. Hopefully, your local weather will cooperate on most, if not all of these dates. The following list below includes some of the most promising night sky events of the upcoming year.
Jan. 21: Very Close Moon/Jupiter Conjunction
For North Americans, this is a real head-turner, one easily visible even from brightly lit cities. A waxing gibbous moon, 78-percent illuminated, will pass within less than a degree to the south of Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system. (For reference, your closed fist held out at arm's length covers 10 degrees of the sky.)
These two bright luminaries will make their closest approach high in the evening sky for all to see. What’s even more interesting is that this will be the closest moon-Jupiter conjunction until the year 2026.

Feb. 2 to 23: Best Evening View of Mercury
Mercury, the "elusive" innermost planet, will travel far enough from the glare of the sun to be readily visible in the western sky, soon after sunset. On the evening of Feb. 8, Mercury will skim within less than 0.4 degrees of the much-fainter planet, Mars. 
Mercury will arrive at its greatest elongation from the sun on Feb.16. It will be quite bright (-1.2 to -0.6 magnitude) before this date and will fade rapidly to +1.2 magnitude thereafter.(Astronomers measure the brightness of sky objects using magnitude, a reverse scale in which lower numbers correspond to brighter objects. Negative magnitudes denote exceptional brightness.)
March 10 to 24: Comet PANSTARRS at Its Best! 
Comet PANSTARRS, discovered in June 2011 using the Pan-STARRS 1 Telescope at Haleakala, Hawaii, is expected to put on its best show during this two-week period. During this time, the comet will also be near its closest approaches to the sun (28 million miles, or 45 million kilometers) and Earth (102 million miles, or 164 million km).
While Comet PANSTARRS was a very dim and distant object at the time of its discovery, it has brightened steadily since then. It still appears on target to reach at least first magnitude and should be visible low in the west-northwest sky shortly after sunset. On the evening of March 12, the comet will be situated 4 degrees to the right of an exceedingly thin crescent moon.
April 25: Partial Lunar Eclipse
This will be a very minor partial lunar eclipse, with the moon's uppermost limb merely grazing the Earth's dark, umbral shadow. At mid-eclipse, less than 2 percent of the moon's diameter will be inside the dark shadow. The Eastern Hemisphere (Europe, Africa, Australia and most of Asia) will have the best view.
This lunar eclipse will not be visible from North America.

May 9: Annular Eclipse of the Sun
During annular solar eclipse (also known as a "Ring of Fire" eclipse), the long, umbral shadow cone of the moon is too short to reach the Earth. In angular size, the moon's disk appears about 4.5 percent smaller than the disk of the sun. So, the effect is like placing a penny atop a nickel: a ring of sunlight remains visible surrounding the moon. 
The shadow path from where the ring can be seen runs for thousands of miles, but will get no wider than 107 miles (172 km) at the point of greatest eclipse. Much of the path falls over the Pacific Ocean, but at or soon after local sunrise, it will slice across a part of northern Australia (where it will be the morning of May 10) and the extreme eastern tip of Papua New Guinea, along with some of the nearby Solomon Islands. 
At the point of greatest eclipse, the ring phase will last 6 minutes, 4 seconds. Hawaiians will see a partial eclipse when, at 3:48 p.m. Hawaii time, the moon will obscure about 32 percent of the sun's disk.
May 24 to 30: Dance of the Planets
Mercury, Venus and Jupiter will provide a fascinating show low in the west-northwest twilight sky soon after sunset. They will seemingly shuffle around each other, changing their positions noticeably from one evening to the next. The two brightest planets, Venus and Jupiter, will be separated by just over 1 degree on May 28, with Venus passing to the northwest (upper right) of Jupiter and shining more than six times brighter than Jupiter.

June 23: Biggest Full Moon of 2013
On June 23, the moon turns full at 7:32 a.m. EDT (1132 GMT), and just 32 minutes earlier it will arrive at its closest point to the Earth in 2013 at a distance of 221,824 miles (356,991 km), making it a so-called supermoon. Expect a large range in ocean tides (exceptionally low to exceptionally high) for the next few days. 
Aug. 12: The Perseid Meteor Shower
The annual Perseid meteor shower is considered among the best of the annual displays thanks to its high rates of up to 90-meteors-per-hour for a single observer, as well as its reliability. The shower is beloved by summer campers and often discovered by city dwellers who might be spending time in the country under dark, starry skies. 
This past summer, the moon was a fat waning crescent and presented a minor nuisance during the meteor shower. But in 2013, the moon will be a couple of days before first quarter and will set during the evening hours, leaving the rest of the night dark for prospective observers.

Oct. 18: Penumbral Eclipse of the Moon
The moon slides through the northern part of the Earth's penumbral shadow during this lunar eclipse event.
At mid-eclipse, 76 percent of the moon's diameter will be immersed in the penumbra, probably deep enough to cause a faint, yet discernible darkening of the moon's lower limb. The region of visibility includes much of Asia, Europe and Africa. The central and eastern portion of North America will get a view of the slightly darkened Hunters' Moon during the early evening hours.
Nov. 3: Hybrid Eclipse of the Sun
This is a rather unusual solar eclipse in that, along its track, which runs for 8,450 miles (13,600 km) across the Earth's surface, the eclipse quickly morphs from annular to total; it is therefore known to astronomers as a "hybrid eclipse."
Truth be told, along most of the track, the eclipse appears as a total, with a very thin annulus (or ring) of sunlight visible near the very beginning of the track. The track of the central line of this eclipse begins in the Atlantic about 545 miles (875 km) southwest of Bermuda. So, along North America's Atlantic Coast, interested viewers (using proper viewing devices, such as pinhole projection or #14 welders glass) will only see the dark disk of the moon exiting the sun's face at sunrise.
The eclipse track will pass south of the Cape Verde Islands, then curve southeastward parallel to the African coastline. The greatest eclipse, with 100 seconds of totality and the path width reaching a maximum of just 36 miles (58 km), occurs approximately 250 miles (402 km) off the coast of Liberia. The shadow track will then sweep across central Africa, passing over sections of Gabon, Congo, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda and Kenya, before ending at sunset at the Ethiopia-Somalia border.  

Mid-November Through December: Comet ISON
On Sep. 21, 2012, two amateur astronomers (Vitali Nevski of Belarus and Artyom Novichonok of Russia)used a telescope owned by the International Scientific Optical Network to discover a new comet that was christened using the acronym of the instrument used to find it: Comet ISON.
Orbital calculations indicate that comet ISON will travel closest to the sun, less than 750,000 miles (1.2 million km) above the sun's surface, making it a true "sungrazer," on Nov. 28 (Thanksgiving Day in the United States).
The comet could eventually be bright enough to be visible in broad daylight around the time of its nearest approach to the sun. It will then travel toward Earth, passing within 40 million miles (64 million km) of our planet a month later.
Since comet ISON will become very well placed for viewing in the morning and evening sky from the Northern Hemisphere during the following weeks, it could become one of the most watched comets of all time. 
December (all month): Dazzling Venus
Venus, the brightest of all the planets, puts on a holiday show all month long, and what a spectacular one it is! Venus is the showiest it will be for all of 2013 and 2014 either in the evening or morning sky. It adorns the southwestern evening sky as much as three hours after sundown at the beginning of the month, and 1.5 hours after sundown by New Year's Eve. A lovely, crescent moon passes well above and to the right of the planeton Dec. 5, and the next night Venus will reach the pinnacle of its brilliance; Venus won’t be as bright an "evening star" again until 2021. 

Dec. 13 to 14: Geminid Meteor Shower
If there is one meteor display guaranteed to put on a very entertaining show, it is the Geminid meteor shower. Most meteor experts now place it at the top of the list, as it surpasses in brilliance and reliability even August's Perseids. 
Unfortunately, in 2013, the moon will be several days before full phase and will light up the sky for much of the night, hiding many of the fainter meteors. But around 4:30 a.m. (your local time), the moon will have finally set, leaving the sky completely dark for about an hour. That will be your chance to make as many as two meteor sightings per minute, or 120 per hour.

Source of Article : space.com

2012년 12월 29일 토요일

Japan Launching Ambitious Asteroid-Sampling Mission in 2014

Japan's space agency is readying a new asteroid probe for launch, an ambitious mission that aims to build on the victory of the country's first round-trip asteroid mission that sent the Hayabusa spacecraft to retrieve samples of the space rock Itokowa.
The new Japanese asteroid mission, called Hayabusa2, is scheduled for launch in 2014 and aimed at the asteroid 1999 JU3, a large space rock about 3,018 feet (920 meters) in length. It is due to arrive at the asteroid in mid-2018, loiter at the space rock and carry out a slew of challenging firsts before departing the scene at the end of 2019.
If all goes well, the Hayabusa 2 spacecraft will return to Earth with samples of asteroid 1999 JU3 at the end of 2020. The probe's name is Japanese for "Falcon2."

Building on success
Officials with the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) said Hayabusa2, like its Hayabusa predecessor, will also involve a significant level of international cooperation. The initial Hayabusa mission launched in May 2003 and returned samples of Itokawa — the first asteroid samples ever collected in space — in June 2010.
Like that first flight, the Hayabusa2 mission will rely on NASA’s Deep Space Network of ground stations to help track the spacecraft. The spacecraft's return capsule will also land in Australia, another similarity to the first flight.
Hayabusa2 is expected to stay with asteroid 1999 JU3 for more than a year, 18 months in all, thereby allowing ample time for observation and careful sample collection, according to the mission's project manager Makoto Yoshikawa of Japan's the Institute of Space and Astronautical Science (ISAS).
Asteroid 1999 JU3 is of particular interest to researchers because it consists of 4.5-billion-year-old material that has been altered very little. Measurements taken from Earth suggest that the asteroid’s rock may have come into contact with water.
The C-type asteroid is expected to contain organic and hydrated minerals, making it different from Itokawa, which was a rocky S-type asteroid. Asteroid 1999 JU3 is also larger than Itokawa, which was 1,771 (540 m) long.

New and novel hardware
While the configuration of Hayabusa2 is similar to that of the first Hayabusa, the second probe will carry new and novel asteroid-studying hardware.
For example, the antenna for Hayabusa was a single parabolic dish, but Hayabusa2 will sport two flat high-gain antennas to support faster communication speeds than its predecessor. Also, Hayabusa2 is to will fly through space with more propulsion power from its ion engines.
Another addition is a 4-pound (2 kilograms) "collision device" that will be used to create an artificial crater on asteroid 1999 JU3 during the mission. This human-caused dent is expected to be a small one, a few meters in diameter. But it will allow Hayabusa2 to acquire samples of the asteroid that are exposed by the smashing event, fresh specimens that are less weathered by the brutal space environment on the asteroid's surface.
Yoshikawa noted that during the first Hayabusa mission, the probe's MIcro/Nano Experimental Robot Vehicle for Asteroid (MINERVA) failed to reach the surface of Itokawa. "So for Hayabusa2 we have even greater motivation to succeed with our new version of the robot, MINERVA2."

Hayabusa2's MASCOT hitchhiker
For its part, the German Aerospace Center’s (DLR) Institute of Space Systems in Bremen is contributing the Mobile Asteroid Surface Scout asteroid lander, or Mascot, to the JAXA mission. Mascot is being developed by DLR in collaboration with the French space agency and JAXA.
After Hayabusa2 arrives at asteroid 1999 JU3 in 2018, Mascot will be released from the main spacecraft. A spring-loaded mechanism will push the 22-pound (10 kilograms) lander clear of from Hayabusa2.
Mascot is a "hopping" lander packed with four separate instruments and is designed to move across the surface of an asteroid. Doing so will enable it to take measurements at different sites. As Mascot performs the near-asteroid maneuvers, a radiometer will measure the temperature of the asteroid and a camera will image the fine structure of the surface of 1999 JU3.
The lander will be controlled from DLR's Microgravity User Support Center in Cologne.
Free-falling on an asteroid
"Mascot will free-fall to the asteroid from an altitude of around 100 meters [328 feet]," said Tra-Mi Ho, DLR's project leader for the device, in a statement. Sensors will then ensure that Mascot knows which way is up and down, so it can orient itself and, if necessary, correct its attitude.
Once on the asteroid, Mascot is expected to automatically adjust itself and "hop" from one measurement site to the next.
"Mascot is due to take measurements of the regolith itself, which will provide reference data about the surface and enable the samples subsequently brought back by Hayabusa2 to be interpreted in the correct context," said Ralf Jaumann, a DLR planetary researcher and scientific spokesman for the experiments on the lander.
Mascot will work on the asteroid for a total of 16 hours, the equivalent of two days on asteroid 1999 JU3.
Up close with an asteroid
"We anticipate obtaining close-up photographs of the asteroid surface up to the order of centimeter-level resolution, something that Hayabusa1 was unable to capture,” said Masanao Abe, Hayabusa2 project scientist at ISAS.
The experience gained from that first Hayabusa mission, in terms of asteroid sample collection and analysis technologies, is proving highly useful, Abe said.
"Japan is at the forefront of sample-return technology and execution," Abe added "and we are constantly thinking about how we can maintain our position and steadily working on things that will keep us at the leading edge."
New discoveries ahead
Akio Fujimura, an advisor in JAXA's Lunar and Planetary Exploration Program Group, said that in Hayabusa2's snagging of carbonaceous asteroid material, there is a high probability of gaining samples that contain organic matter — the fundamental building blocks of life.
"So, first, I expect Hayabusa2 to be a success. Then after that, I'd like us to proceed with an inquiry concerning where we came from and how life came about," Fujimura said. "It would be great to uncover the origins of the solar system, Earth, the other planets, and life itself by getting information that we can't obtain here on Earth. I'd like us to open up new lines of scientific inquiry that seek to discover these origins."
JAXA and the ISAS has learned a great deal from the first Hayabusa mission, said Michael Zolensky, a Hayabusa team member in sample analysis at the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.
"Although the second spacecraft is based on the first one, they have made significant upgrades and expanded the capabilities of the spacecraft for Hayabusa2," Zolensky told. "It should be a fantastic mission. No fooling."

Source of Article : space.com

2012년 12월 28일 금요일

First 'Alien Earth' Will Be Found in 2013, Experts Say

The first truly Earth-like alien planet is likely to be spotted next year, an epic discovery that would cause humanity to reassess its place in the universe.
While astronomers have found a number of exoplanets over the last few years that share one or two key traits with our own world — such as size or inferred surface temperature — they have yet to bag a bona fide "alien Earth." But that should change in 2013, scientists say.
"I'm very positive that the first Earth twin will be discovered next year," said Abel Mendez, who runs the Planetary Habitability Laboratory at the University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo.

Planets piling up
Astronomers discovered the first exoplanet orbiting a sunlike star in 1995. Since they, they've spotted more than 800 worlds beyond our own solar system, and many more candidates await confirmation by follow-up observations.
NASA's prolific Kepler Space Telescope, for example, has flagged more than 2,300 potential planets since its March 2009 launch. Only 100 or so have been confirmed to date, but mission scientists estimate that at least 80 percent will end up being the real deal.
The first exoplanet finds were scorching-hot Jupiter-like worlds that orbit close to their parent stars, because they were the easiest to detect. But over time, new instruments came online and planet hunters honed their techniques, enabling the discovery of smaller and more distantly orbiting planets — places more like Earth.
Last December, for instance, Kepler found a planet 2.4 times larger than Earth orbiting in its star's habitable zone — that just-right range of distances where liquid water, and perhaps life as we know it, can exist.
The Kepler team and other research groups have detected several other worlds like that one (which is known as Kepler-22b), bringing the current tally of potentially habitable exoplanets to nine by Mendez' reckoning.

Zeroing in on Earth's twin
None of the worlds in Mendez' Habitable Exoplanets Catalog are small enough to be true Earth twins. The handful of Earth-size planets spotted to date all orbit too close to their stars to be suitable for life. 
But it's only a matter of time before a small, rocky planet is spotted in the habitable zone — and Mendez isn't the only researcher who thinks that time is coming soon.
"The first planet with a measured size, orbit and incident stellar flux that is suitable for life is likely to be announced in 2013," said Geoff Marcy, a veteran planet hunter at the University of California, Berkeley, and a member of the Kepler team.
Mendez and Marcy both think this watershed find will be made by Kepler, which spots planets by flagging the telltale brightness dips caused when they pass in front of their parent stars from the instrument's perspective.
Kepler needs to witness three of these"transits" to detect a planet, so its early discoveries were tilted toward close-orbiting worlds (which transit more frequently). But over time, the telescope has been spotting more and more distantly orbiting planets — including some in the habitable zone.

An instrument called HARPS (short for High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher) is also a top contender, having already spotted a number of potentially habitable worlds. HARPS, which sits on the European Southern Observatory's 3.6-meter telescope in Chile, allows researchers to detect the tiny gravitational wobbles that orbiting planets induce in their parent stars.

"HARPS should be able to find the most interesting and closer Earth twins," Mendez told, noting that many Kepler planets are too far away to characterize in detail. "A combination of its sensitivity and long-term observations is now paying off."
And there are probably many alien Earths out there to be found in our Milky Way galaxy, researchers say.
"Estimating carefully, there are 200 billion stars that host at least 50 billion planets, if not more," Mikko Tuomi, of the University of Hertfordshire in England, told.
"Assuming that 1:10,000 are similar to the Earth would give us 5,000,000 such planets," added Tuomi, who led teams reporting the discovery of several potentially habitable planet candidates this year, including an exoplanet orbiting the star Tau Ceti just 11.9 light-years from Earth. "So I would say we are talking about at least thousands of such planets."
What it would mean
Whenever the first Earth twin is confirmed, the discovery will likely have a profound effect on humanity.
"We humans will look up into the night sky, much as we gaze across a large ocean," Marcy told. "We will know that the cosmic ocean contains islands and continents by the billions, able to support both primitive life and entire civilizations."
Marcy hopes such a find will prod our species to take its first real steps beyond its native solar system.
"Humanity will close its collective eyes, and set sail for Alpha Centauri," Marcy said, referring to the closest star system to our own, where an Earth-size planet was discovered earlier this year.
"The small steps for humanity will be a giant leap for our species. Sending robotic probes to the nearest stars will constitute the greatest adventure we Homo sapiens have ever attempted," Marcy added. "This massive undertaking will require the cooperation and contribution from all major nations around world. In so doing, we will take our first tentative steps into the cosmic ocean and enhance our shared sense of purpose on this terrestrial shore."

Source of Article : space.com

Say Cheese! Mars Rover Curiosity Snaps Amazing Self-Portrait

NASA has snapped its most amazing self-portrait yet of the Curiosity rover on Mars, showing the robot posing with its ultimate destination: a huge Martian mountain.
The new view of Curiosity on Mars is actually a mosaic of dozens of high-definition color photos taken by the rover between Oct. 31 and Nov. 1. The image shows Curiosity surrounded by the tracks of its wheels, with the 3-mile-high (5 kilometers) Mount Sharp rising into the sky in the distance.
NASA featured the latest Curiosity portrait as its image of the day Thursday (Dec. 27) after releasing the photo earlier this month.
The prominent Mount Sharp is the central peak of Curiosity's vast Gale Crater landing site. Another mountain in the image, on the rover's left, makes up the northern wall of the expansive crater.

To create the eye-popping Mars photo, Curiosity used its Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI), a powerful camera mounted at the end of the rover's robotic arm. Curiosity turned the camera on itself much like a human tourist might when traveling alone, snapping a series of photos that rover team members then stitched together into a high-definition composite view.

The rover had to move its robotic arm through more than 50 positions in a single day to capture its entire car-size body on camera.  NASA scientists used a test version of Curiosity on Earth to practice the Martian photo session.
NASA unveiled an earlier version of Curiosity portrait, composed out of 55 separate images, in early November, but the latest view includes significantly more detail and a wider view.
The Mars rover Curiosity is headed toward a spot near the base of Mount Sharp called Glenelg, and will continue to perform experiments along the way. The $2.5 billion rover's primary mission is to determine if its Gale crater landing site could have ever supported primitive microbial life.

Source of Article : space.com

2012년 12월 26일 수요일

NASA Launches Telescope-Toting Balloon from Antarctica on Christmas

A giant helium balloon is slowly drifting above Antarctica, about 22 miles (36 kilometers) up. Launched on Christmas Day from the National Science Foundation's Long Duration Balloon (LDB) facility on Earth's southernmost continent, it carries a sensitive telescope that measures submillimeter light waves from stellar nurseries in our Milky Way.
"Christmas launch!" officials with NASA's Wallops Flight Facility, which oversees the agency's balloon research program, wrote in a Twitter post on Tuesday (Dec . 25). "BLAST launched today from McMurdo Station, Antarctica."
This is the fifth and final mission for BLAST, short for the Balloon-borne Large-Aperture Submillimeter Telescope, and mission designers hope it will reveal why so few stars are born in our galaxy.
On Dec. 12, BLAST was still in one of the two giant Payload Assembly Buildings at the LDB facility, a short distance from the U.S. research center McMurdo Station. Principal investigator Mark Devlin of the University of Pennsylvania and a group of graduate students were mounting a giant sunshade on the telescope, to ensure that the ultra-cold detectors won't heat up during the flight.
"The detectors are cooled to 0.3 degrees aboven absolute zero, using liquid helium," said Devlin. "If they were any warmer, they wouldn't be able to register the faint submillimeter radiation of cold interstellar dust clouds at just 30 degrees above absolute zero."
Star mystery
After test flights in 2003 in New Mexico and in 2005 in Sweden, BLAST's third flight, in 2006 from Antarctica, was a "mind-boggling" success, Devlin said. The instrument revealed beyond doubt that in most distant galaxies, new stars are born at a prolific rate. By measuring the star formation rate in galaxies more than 7 billion light-years away, the researchers determined that over half of the stars in the uuniverse were born within the first 5 billion years after the Big Bang.
"But there's an unsolved problem," added co-principal investifator Barth Netterfield of the University of Toronto, Canada, who was assisting the BLAST team with the launch preparations. "BLAST found lots of so-called dark cores in our own Milky Way — dense clouds of cold dust that are supposed to be stars-in-the-making. Based on the number of dark cores, you would expect our galaxy to spawn dozens of new stars each year on average. Yet, the galactic star formation rate is only some four solar masses per year."
So why is the stellar birth rate in our Milky Way so low? Astronomers can think of two ways in which a dense cloud of dust is prevented from further contracting into a star: turbulence in the dust, or the collapse-impeding effects of magnetic fields. On its new mission, BLAST should find out which process is to blame. [Images: Life at Antarctica's Concordia Station]
The idea is straightforward: magnetic fields tend to align electrically charged, elongated dust particles. If dust particles have a preferred orientation, they will slightly polarize the submillimeter radiation from the cloud. Using polarimeters, BLAST can detect if the radiation is indeed polarized, and if it is, determine the direction of the magnetic field. "If there's no polarization present," said Netterfield, "turbulence must be the reason" why so few dark cores collapse into new stars.
Final mission?
In 2010, on its fourth mission, BLAST was already equipped with polarimeters. However, accdording to Devlin, "that flight did not do so well because of a melted filter. We have some data, but we know we can do better."
Luckily, repeating a balloon-borne experiment is much easier and much cheaper than re-launching a scientific satellite. After each flight, most of the payload is recovered and can be used again. In particular, the BLAST camera with its sensitive and expensive detectors has been recovered every single time

BLAST's fifth flight will probably last between 12 and 14 days. While Devlin, Netterfield and their colleagues are celebrating Christmans and New Year's Eve, the 4,000-pound (1800 kilograms) stratospheric telescope will observe selected star-forming regions in the constellations Vela and Lupus.
And if senior graduate student Tristan Matthews of Northwestern University Illinois has his way, this may not be BLAST's final mission after all. Depending on the results and the recovery success of the current flight, Matthews hopes to fly BLAST in its present configuration for a sixth time, in the Arctic. "That would give us access to a well-studied and nearby star-forming region in Taurus," he said.
Meanwhile, Devlin has received a $5 million grant from NASA over a period of five years to develop a larger version of BLAST, with a 2.5-meter mirror, as compared to the current 1.8-meter aperture. That would vastly increase the number of stellar nurseries that could be studied. "We could fly SuperBLAST in 2016 or so," he said.

Source of Article : space.com

2012년 12월 25일 화요일

Spiral Dust Clouds May Reveal Alien Planets

Astronomers may have found a way to detect alien worlds embedded in rings of dust around distant stars.
Newborn stars often have clouds of leftover gas and dust around them that condense into rings called protoplanetary disks. Eventually, under the pull of gravity, the material in these disks may clump together to form orbiting planets.
A team of astronomers captured detailed images of the disk around young star SAO 206462, about 460 light-years away in the constellation Lupus. For their observations, they used the HiCIAO camera on Japan's Subaru Telescope in Hawaii, which is designed to block out harsh central starlight that would normally make it difficult to detect fainter nearby objects, such as a disk around a star.
The disk around SAO 206462 is an impressive 12.4 billion miles (20 billion kilometers) in radius, a distance about five times larger than Neptune's distance from our sun. The disk also has a spiral structure with two clear arms curving along the outer region, the scientists discovered, and theory suggests planets could be the culprit behind that shape.
Researchers do not have the capacity to directly observe planets around a star like SAO 206462. But according to density wave theory, a rotating disk of matter should develop a wave-like concentration of dense material because the outer and inner parts of the disk rotate at different rates. This dense region would eventually grow into a spiral. The researchers think such a process could have been set off around this 9-million-year-old star by planets lodged in its disk.
"This is the first time that density wave theory has been applied to measuring the features of a protoplanetary disk," officials with the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan said in a statement Monday (Dec. 19). "The research takes an important step in explaining how a spiral disk could form and may mark the development of another indirect means of discovering planets."
The research was detailed in the Astrophysical Journal Letters in April 2012.

Source of Article : space.com

New 'Baby Picture' of Universe Unveiled

Astronomers have released a new "baby picture" of the universe.
The all-sky image draws on nine years' worth of data from a now-retired spacecraft dubbed the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP).
WMAP launched in 2001 and from its perch a million miles away from Earth (in the direction opposite the sun) it scanned the heavens, mapping out the afterglow of the hot, young universe with unprecedented accuracy.
"We are just a speck in the vastness of the universe, so it is amazing that we have the ability to answer fundamental questions about the vast universe around us, but the WMAP team has done just that," Charles Bennett, an astrophysicist at Johns Hopkins University who heads the team, wrote in an interview. "It was possible because we can detect and study the ancient light, the oldest light in the universe."
The image maps the temperature of the radiation left over from the Big Bang, at a time when the universe was only 375,000 years old. It shows a temperature range of plus-or-minus 200 microKelvin, with fluctuations in the so-called cosmic microwave background radiation appearing here as color differences.
These patterns allow astronomers to predict what could have possibly happened earlier, and what has happened in the billions of year since the universe's infancy. As such, the spacecraft has been instrumental in pushing forward cosmological theories about the nature and origin of the universe.
Among other revelations, the data from WMAP revealed a much more precise estimate for the age of the universe — 13.7 billion years — and confirmed that about 95 percent of it is composed of mind-boggling stuff called dark matter and dark energy. WMAP data also helped scientists nail down the curvature of space to within 0.4 percent of "flat," and pinpoint the time when the universe began to emerge from the cosmic dark ages (about 400 million years after the Big Bang.)
The probe retired two years ago, and the WMAP science team is now releasing its final results, based on a full nine years of observations.
"The universe encoded its autobiography in the microwave patterns we observe across the whole sky," Bennett said in a statement. "When we decoded it, the universe revealed its history and contents. It is stunning to see everything fall into place."

Source of Article : space.com

2012년 12월 24일 월요일

Are We Living Inside a Computer Simulation?

The popular film trilogy, The Matrix, presented a cyberuniverse where humans live in a simulated reality created by sentient machines.
Now, a philosopher and team of physicists imagine that we mightreally be living inside a computer-generated universe that you could call The Lattice. What's more, we may be able to detect it.
In 2003, British philosopher Nick Bostrom published a paper that proposed the universe we live in might in fact really be a numerical computer simulation. To give this a bizarre Twilight Zone twist, he suggested that our far-evolved distant descendants might construct such a program to simulate the past and recreate how their remote ancestors lived.
He felt that such an experiment was inevitable for a supercivilization. If it didn't happen by now, then in meant that humanity never evolved that far and we're doomed to a short lifespan as a species, he argued.
To extrapolate further, I'd suggest that artificial intelligent entities descended from us would be curious about looking back in time by simulating the universe of their biological ancestors.
As off-the-wall as this sounds, a team of physicists at the University of Washington (UW) recently announced that there is a potential test to seen if we actually live in The Lattice. Ironically, it would be the first such observation for scientifically hypothesized evidence of intelligent design behind the cosmos.

The UW team too propose that super-intelligent entities, bored with their current universe, do numerical simulations to explore all possibilities in the landscape of the underlying quantum vacuum (from which the big bang percolated) through universe simulations. "This is perhaps the most profound quest that can be undertaken by a sentient being," write the authors.
Before you dismiss this idea as completely loony, the reality of such a Sim Universe might solve a lot of eerie mysteries about the cosmos. About two-dozen of the universe's fundamental constants happen to fall within the narrow range thought to be compatible with life. At first glance it seems as unlikely as balancing a pencil on its tip. Jiggle these parameters and life as we know it would have never appeared. Not even stars and galaxies. This is called the Anthropic principle.
The discovery of dark energy over a decade ago further compounds the universe’s strangeness. This sort of “antigravity” pushing space-time apart is the closest thing there is to nothing and still is something. This energy from the vacuum of space is 60 orders of magnitude weaker that what would be predicted by quantum physics.The eminent cosmologist Michael Turner ranks dark energy as "the most profound mystery in all of science."
We are also living at a very special time in the universe's history where it switched gears from decelerating to accelerating under the push of dark energy. This begs the question "why me why now?" (A phrase popularly attributed to Olympic figure skater Nancy Kerrigan in 1994 when she was attacked and crippled by an opponent.)
If dark energy were slightly stronger the universe would have blown apart before stars formed. Any weaker and the universe would have imploded long ago. Its incredibly anemic value has been seen as circumstantial evidence for parallel universes with their own flavor of dark energy that is typically destructive. It's as if our universe won the lottery and got all the physical parameters just right for us to exist.
Finally, an artificial universe solves the Fermi Paradox (where are all the space aliens?) by implying that we truly are alone in the universe. It was custom made for us by our far-future progeny.
Biblical creationists can no doubt embrace these seeming cosmic coincidences as unequivocal evidence for their "theory" of Intelligent Design (ID). But is our "God" really a computer programmer rather than a bearded old man living in the sky?

Currently, supercomputers using a impressive-sounding technique called lattice quantum chromodynamics, and starting from the fundamental physical laws, can simulate only a very small portion of the universe. The scale is a little larger than the nucleus of an atom, according UW physicist Martin Savage. Mega-computers of the far future could greatly expand the size of the Sim Universe.
If we are living in such a program, there could be telltale evidence for the underlying lattice used in modeling the space-time continuum, say the researchers. This signature could show up as a limitation in the energy of cosmic rays. They would travel diagonally across the model universe and not interact equally in all directions, as they otherwise would be expected to do according to present cosmology.
If such results were measured, physicists would have to rule out any and all other natural explanations for the anomaly before flirting with the idea of intelligent design. (To avoid confusion with the purely faith-based creationist ID, this would not prove the existence of a biblical God, because you’d have to ask the question "why does God need a lattice?")
If our universe is a simulation, then those entities controlling it could be running other simulations as well to create other universes parallel to our own. No doubt this would call for, ahem, massive parallel processing.
If all of this isn’t mind-blowing enough, Bostrom imagined "stacked" levels of reality, "we would have to suspect that the post-humans running our simulation are themselves simulated beings; and their creators, in turn, may also be simulated beings. Here may be room for a large number of levels of reality, and the number could be increasing over time."
To compound this even further, Bostrom imagined a hierarchy of deities, "In some ways, the post-humans running a simulation are like gods. However, all the demigods except those at the fundamental level of reality are subject to sanctions by the more powerful gods living at lower levels."
If the parallel universes are all running on the same computer platform could we communicate with them? If so, I hope the Matrix's manic Agent Smith doesn’t materialize one day.
To borrow from the title of Isaac Asimov's novel I Robot, the human condition might be described as I Subroutine.

Source of Article : space.com

Most Extreme Space Discoveries of 2012

Astronomical discoveries in 2012 have reshaped what we know about the universe and pushed some instruments to the very limits of their observing power.
Scientists discovered a galaxy that harbors an enormous central black hole 17 billion times more massive than the sun. Another research group spotted a scorching-hot rocky planet in the closest star system to our own. Meanwhile, the records for most massive galaxy cluster and most distant galaxy were shattered.
Here's a brief rundown of some of the year's most extreme and exciting cosmic finds.
Most monstrous black hole
Observers probably don't want to get too close to NGC 1277 or its supermassive black hole, which takes up a large portion of the galaxy itself. The central black hole is 17 billion times more massive than the sun and makes up 14 percent of its host galaxy's mass, compared to the usual 0.1 percent.
Researchers were so flummoxed by the black hole's size that they took an extra year to double-check their calculations before publishing their results.

Closest exoplanet to Earth
In a surprise discovery, astronomers found a planet that is about the same size as Earthin the star system next door. The rocky planet was found in Alpha Centauri, a three-star system just 4.3 light years from us.
Life is very unlikely on this world. Its rocky surface may be molten, since the planet orbits just 3.6 million miles (6 million kilometers) from its sun-like star. (Earth, for comparison, circles 93 million miles, or 150 million km, from the sun).
Alpha Centauri Bb, as the planet is known, was discovered through tracking gravitational wobbles around its planet star. The wobbles in this case are very subtle, making the star move back and forth at no more than 1.1 mph (1.8 kph). The research team stated it "pushed our technique to the limit," and some astronomers are skeptical that the planet even exists.
And just this month, a different research team detected five potential planets orbiting the star Tau Ceti, which lies only 11.9 light-years from Earth. One of the newly spotted candidate worlds may be capable of supporting life as we know it, scientists say.

Smallest alien worlds
Astronomers using NASA's Kepler Space Telescope discovered three tiny planets 120 light-years away from Earth. Circling the star KOI-961, the smallest of the three planets is about the size of Mars, and all are smaller than Earth. Even the star itself is tiny — just 70 percent larger than Jupiter.
"This is the most compact system of planets," said John Johnson, of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. "It's like you have a shrink raygun and set it to seven times smaller and zapped a planetary system."
Smallest solar system
KOI-500 has five planets so crowded together that their gravity jostles each other profoundly during their orbits. Their "years" are only 1, 3, 4.6, 7.1 and 9.5 days long. Furthermore, the planets are tiny: just 1.3 to 2.6 times the size of Earth.
All of this action takes place in an area 150 times smaller than Earth's orbit, astronomers said.
"At this rate, you could easily pack in 10 more planets, and they would still all fit comfortably inside the Earth's orbit," Darin Ragozzine, a planetary scientist at the University of Florida at Gainesville, said in a statement.
Oldest, most distant supernovas
In 2012, astronomers described what they think led to the oldest, most distant supernovas in the universe. Scientists believe some of these "super-luminous" supernovas come from massive stars — 100 to 250 times the mass of the sun — that explode and blast their matter into space.
Astronomers stated that inside these massive stars, gamma-ray light changes into electron pairs as well as antimatter positrons. The gamma rays usually stop the star from collapsing due to gravity, but the grip weakens as gamma rays convert to matter. It is at this point that the star implodes, sparking the explosion.

Most massive galaxy cluster
At 2,000 times more massive than the Milky Way, a large cluster of galaxies some 7 billion light-years away dwarfs just about any other collection of matter known. Astronomers say the cluster — properly known as  SPT-CLJ2344-4243and dubbed the Phoenix cluster — appears to contain thousands of galaxies of many different sizes.
Astronomers first spotted the Phoenix cluster in 2010, but didn't realize its extent until they did follow-up observations with NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory. High-energy light pouring out of the cluster make it the most X-ray luminous one ever found, at 35 percent brighter than the last record-holder found.
Biggest map of the universe
Courtesy of a mega map, astronomers are a step closer to understanding how the universe came to be. The Sloan Digital Sky Survey III released a map that charts more than 1 million galaxies in a total volume of 70 billion cubic light-years.
The map could help astronomers better understand the mysterious dark matter and dark energy that appears to make up most of the universe, researchers said.
Deepest view of the universe
The Hubble Space Telescope is peering back further and further in time. The famous orbiting observatory captured light that emanated 13.2 billion years ago, when the universe was just 500 million years old or so.
Hubble's picture, which is called the eXtreme Deep Field, shows galaxies and starlight accumulated over 10 years in a small bit of sky; this is the best method we have to see objects so far away. The photo is a successor to Hubble's "Ultra Deep Field", which the telescope took in 2003 and 2004. 

Most magnetic star
There's a star 20,000 light-years from Earth with a real magnetic personality. NGC 1624-2, which is about 35 times as massive as our sun, was spotted in the constellation Perseus. With a magnetic field 20,000 times stronger than the sun's— and 10 times more powerful than that of any known star — NGC 1624-2 drags a blanket of trapped charged particles around it.

"Magnetic fields of this strength are extremely rare; they are only known to exist in a few other stars of much lower mass," study lead author Gregg Wade, an astronomer at the Royal Military College of Canada, told in a September interview. "To find such a strong field is very lucky."
X-ray blast in the universe's youth
A jet of X-rays emanating from quasar GB 1428 — a galaxy that has a huge black hole in its center — was found about 12.4 billion light-years from Earth. The radiation band is estimated at about twice the diameter of the Milky Way.
With the previous record-holder at 12.2 billion light-years away, astronomers said they are getting more information on how black holes behaved in the universe's early days.
Biggest core found in a ginormous galaxy
Lurking in a galaxy about 10 times the width of the Milky Way lies a large, diverse galactic core that doesn't seem to have a black hole associated with it.
The wispy core of A2261-BCG, which is about 10,000 light-years across, puzzles astronomers because supermassive black holes are expected to be at the heart of most galaxies. Hubble Space Telescope observations suggest the core might have been constructed when two galaxies merged.

Source of Article : space.com