Archive for March 5, 2012

Did the Moon Sink the Titanic?

The sinking of the ocean liner Titanic 100 years ago is perhaps the most famous–and most studied–disaster of the 20th century. Countless books and movies have examined in great detail the actions, choices and mistakes that led to theTitanic colliding with an iceberg the night of April 14, 1912, and sinking within hours, with approximately 1,500 people losing their lives in the icy waters of the North Atlantic.

One question, however, has often been overlooked: Where did the killer iceberg come from, and could the moon have helped set the stage for disaster?

Now, a team of astronomers from Texas State University-San Marcos has applied its unique brand of celestial sleuthing to the disaster to examine how a rare lunar event stacked the deck against the Titanic. Their results shed new light on the hazardous sea ice conditions the ship boldly steamed into that fateful night.

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NASA Solar Study Mission Moves to Next Design Stage

Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory

Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory

Two-thousand-degree temperatures, supersonic solar particles, intense radiation – all of this awaits NASA’s Solar Probe Plus during an unprecedented close-up study of the sun.

The team led by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), which has been developing the spacecraft for this extreme environment, has been given the nod from NASA to continue design work on the probe, building on the concepts it created during an initial design effort. In NASA mission parlance, the team has moved from design Phase A to Phase B.

“Solar Probe Plus is an extraordinary mission of exploration, discovery, and deep understanding,” says Lika Guhathakurta, the Living with a Star program scientist at NASA Headquarters. “We cannot wait to get started with the next phase of development.”

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Saturn and Titan

Image Credits: NASA/JPL–Caltech/Space Science Institute

Image Credits: NASA/JPL–Caltech/Space Science Institute

Titan, Saturn’s largest moon at 5150 km across, looks small here, pictured to the right of the gas giant in this infrared image taken by the Cassini spacecraft.

Saturn’s rings appear across the top of the image, casting shadows onto the planet across the middle of the image.

A much smaller moon, Prometheus, 86 km across, appears as a tiny white speck above the rings in the far upper right of the image. The shadow cast by Prometheus can be seen as a small black speck on Saturn on the far left of the image, between the shadows cast by the main rings and the thin, faint F ring.

The shadow of another moon, Pandora, 100 km at its widest, can be seen below the ring shadows towards the right side of the planet. However, Pandora itself is not visible in this image.

Cassini’s wide-angle camera captured the view on 5 January, while it was about 685 000 km from Saturn. The image scale is 37 km per pixel on Saturn.

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Counting Down to the Transit of Venus

Image Credit: Tanga et al. 2012

Image Credit: Tanga et al. 2012

Three months before the last transit of Venus this century, scientists are gathering at the Observatoire de Paris to finalise their observation plans in a workshop supported by the Europlanet Research Infrastructure and the EGIDE/PHC Sakura Program.

The transit of Venus on 5-6 June 2012 will give scientists two important opportunities for science: firstly, to use Venus as an example of a transiting exoplanet.  Astronomers will use the transit to test the techniques they have developed to analyse the composition, structure and dynamics of exoplanetary atmospheres. Secondly, they will be able to make simultaneous Earth- and space-based observations of Venus’s atmosphere.  These joint observations will give new insights into the complex middle layer of Venus’s atmosphere, a key to understanding the climatology of our sister planet.

‘This transit of Venus will be the last of our lifetime and will give a unique opportunity to closely observe an Earth-like planet passing in front of a Sun-like star,’ said Dr Thomas Widemann of the Observatoire de Paris, who is co-organiser of the workshop.

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Big Sunspot Unleashes X-flare & CME

Solar activity is now high. Big sunspot AR1429, which emerged on March 2nd, is crackling with strong flares. The strongest so far, an X1-class eruption, occured just ths morning, March 5th at 0413 UT. NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory recorded the extreme ultraviolet flash:

The explosion also hurled a bright coronal mass ejection (CME) into space: SOHO movie. The expanding cloud will probably deliver a glancing blow to Earth’s magnetic field on March 6th or 7th. (Stay tuned for updates on this possibility as more data arrive.) High-latitude sky watchers should be alert for auroras in the nights ahead.

Auroras alerts: textphone.

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VLT Finds Life on Earth by Looking at Moon

Image Credit:  ESO/B. Tafreshi/TWAN (

Image Credit: ESO/B. Tafreshi/TWAN (

By observing the Moon using ESO’s Very Large Telescope, astronomers have found evidence of life in the Universe — on Earth. Finding life on our home planet may sound like a trivial observation, but the novel approach of an international team may lead to future discoveries of life elsewhere in the Universe. The work is described in a paper to appear in the 1 March 2012 issue of the journal Nature.

We used a trick called earthshine observation to look at the Earth as if it were an exoplanet,” says Michael Sterzik (ESO), lead author of the paper [1]. “The Sun shines on the Earth and this light is reflected back to the surface of the Moon. The lunar surface acts as a giant mirror and reflects the Earth’s light back to us — and this is what we have observed with the VLT.

The astronomers analyse the faint earthshine light to look for indicators, such as certain combinations of gases in the Earth’s atmosphere [2], that are the telltale signs of organic life. This method establishes the Earth as a benchmark for the future search for life on planets beyond our Solar System.

***Apologies for not posting this until now – it slipped through my Inbox…***

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