Archive for May, 2013

Mars Rover Opportunity Examines Clay Clues In Rock

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech / Cornell / Arizona State Univ.

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech / Cornell / Arizona State Univ.

NASA’s senior Mars rover, Opportunity, is driving to a new study area after a dramatic finish to 20 months on “Cape York” with examination of a rock intensely altered by water.

The fractured rock, called “Esperance,” provides evidence about a wet ancient environment possibly favorable for life. The mission’s principal investigator, Steve Squyres of Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., said, “Esperance was so important, we committed several weeks to getting this one measurement of it, even though we knew the clock was ticking.”

The mission’s engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., had set this week as a deadline for starting a drive toward “Solander Point,” where the team plans to keep Opportunity working during its next Martian winter.

“What’s so special about Esperance is that there was enough water not only for reactions that produced clay minerals, but also enough to flush out ions set loose by those reactions, so that Opportunity can clearly see the alteration,” said Scott McLennan of the State University of New York, Stony Brook, a long-term planner for Opportunity’s science team.

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New Method Proposed For Detecting Gravitational Waves From Ends Of Universe

A new window into the nature of the universe may be possible with a device proposed by scientists at the University of Nevada, Reno and Stanford University that would detect elusive gravity waves from the other end of the cosmos. Their paper describing the device and process was published in the prestigious physics journal Physical Review Letters.

“Gravitational waves represent one of the missing pieces of Einstein’s theory of general relativity,” Andrew Geraci, University of Nevada, Reno physics assistant professor, said. “While there is a global effort already out there to find gravitational waves, our proposed method is an alternate approach with greater sensitivity in a significantly smaller device.

“Our detector is complementary to existing gravitational wave detectors, in that it is more sensitive to sources in a higher frequency band, so we could see signals that other detectors might potentially miss.”

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Subaru Telescope Observations And The CoRoT Mission Unveil The Future Of The Sun

A team of astronomers led by Jose Dias do Nascimento (Department of Theoretical and Experimental Physics, Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Norte [DFTE, UFRN], Brazil) has found the farthest known solar twin in the Milky Way Galaxy– CoRoT Sol 1, which has about the same mass and chemical composition as the Sun. Spectra from the High Dispersion Spectrograph (HDS) on the Subaru Telescope showed that CoRoT Sol 1 is about 6.7 billion years old while space-based data from the CoRoT (Convection, Rotation and planetary Transits) satellite indicated a rotation period of 29 +/- 5 days. This newly discovered, evolved solar twin allows astronomers to uncover the near future of our solar system’s central star–the Sun.

Since the Sun is the closest star to Earth, it has been extensively studied in a variety of ways. Despite considerable efforts by astronomers, we do not know yet how typical a star the Sun is. Except for the youngest stars, the true rotation of those similar to the Sun is unknown, and there are few studies of mature solar twins or of more evolved ones.

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Sifting Through The Atmospheres Of Far-off Worlds

Gone are the days of being able to count the number of known planets on your fingers. Today, there are more than 800 confirmed exoplanets — planets that orbit stars beyond our sun — and more than 2,700 other candidates. What are these exotic planets made of? Unfortunately, you cannot stack them in a jar like marbles and take a closer look. Instead, researchers are coming up with advanced techniques for probing the planets’ makeup.

One breakthrough to come in recent years is direct imaging of exoplanets. Ground-based telescopes have begun taking infrared pictures of the planets posing near their stars in family portraits. But to astronomers, a picture is worth even more than a thousand words if its light can be broken apart into a rainbow of different wavelengths.

Those wishes are coming true as researchers are beginning to install infrared cameras on ground-based telescopes equipped with spectrographs. Spectrographs are instruments that spread an object’s light apart, revealing signatures of molecules. Project 1640, partly funded by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., recently accomplished this goal using the Palomar Observatory near San Diego.

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Exotic Atoms Hold Clues To Unsolved Physics Puzzle At The Dawn Of The Universe

An international team of physicists has found the first direct evidence of pear shaped nuclei in exotic atoms.

The findings could advance the search for a new fundamental force in nature that could explain why the Big Bang created more matter than antimatter—a pivotal imbalance in the history of everything.

“If equal amounts of matter and antimatter were created at the Big Bang, everything would have annihilated, and there would be no galaxies, stars, planets or people,” said Tim Chupp, a University of Michigan professor of physics and biomedical engineering and co-author of a paper on the work published in the May 9 issue of Nature.

Antimatter particles have the same mass but opposite charge from their matter counterparts. Antimatter is rare in the known universe, flitting briefly in and out of existence in cosmic rays, solar flares and particle accelerators like CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, for example. When they find each other, matter and antimatter particles mutually destruct or annihilate.

What caused the matter/antimatter imbalance is one of physics’ great mysteries. It’s not predicted by the Standard Model—the overarching theory that describes the laws of nature and the nature of matter.

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…And Now For The Weather On Mars

Credits: NASA

Credits: NASA

Snowstorms lashing down at the northern hemisphere of Mars during the icy cold winters may be predicted several weeks in advance, say researchers from the Tohoku University in Sendai (Japan) and the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research (MPS) in Katlenburg-Lindau (Germany) in their newest publication. For the first time, the scientists’ calculations show a connection between these snowfalls and a special Martian weather phenomenon: fluctuations of pressure, temperature, wind speeds, and directions that in the northern hemisphere propagate in a wave-like manner and occur very regularly. For missions to the red planet exploring this region with rovers, such weather forecasts would offer the possibility of choosing a route that avoids heavy snow storms.

“Mars’ seasonal ice has two different origins”, says Dr. Paul Hartogh from the MPS. “A part of the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere condensates directly on the surface – similar to the way a layer of frost forms on Earth in cold, clear weather. Another part freezes in the atmosphere”, he adds. The tiny ice crystals accumulate into clouds and fall to the ground as snow. In the new study, the researchers were now for the first time able to establish a connection between the occurrence of such ice clouds and a wave-like weather phenomenon characterized by a periodic change of pressure, temperature, wind speed, and -direction.

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Cassini Shapes First Global Topographic Map Of Titan

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech / ASI / JHUAPL / Cornell/Weizmann

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech / ASI / JHUAPL / Cornell/Weizmann

Scientists have created the first global topographic map of Saturn’s moon Titan, giving researchers a valuable tool for learning more about one of the most Earth-like and interesting worlds in the solar system. The map was just published as part of a paper in the journal Icarus.

Titan is Saturn’s largest moon – with a radius of about 1,600 miles (2,574 kilometers), it’s bigger than planet Mercury – and is the second-largest moon in the solar system. Scientists care about Titan because it’s the only moon in the solar system known to have clouds, surface liquids and a mysterious, thick atmosphere. The cold atmosphere is mostly nitrogen, like Earth’s, but the organic compound methane on Titan acts the way water vapor does on Earth, forming clouds and falling as rain and carving the surface with rivers. Organic chemicals, derived from methane, are present in Titan’s atmosphere, lakes and rivers and may offer clues about the origins of life.

“Titan has so much interesting activity – like flowing liquids and moving sand dunes – but to understand these processes it’s useful to know how the terrain slopes,” said Ralph Lorenz, a member of the Cassini radar team based at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Laurel, Md., who led the map-design team. “It’s especially helpful to those studying hydrology and modeling Titan’s climate and weather, who need to know whether there is high ground or low ground driving their models.”

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Asteroid 1998 QE2 To Sail Past Earth Nine Times Larger Than Cruise Ship

On May 31, 2013, asteroid 1998 QE2 will sail serenely past Earth, getting no closer than about 3.6 million miles (5.8 million kilometers), or about 15 times the distance between Earth and the moon. And while QE2 is not of much interest to those astronomers and scientists on the lookout for hazardous asteroids, it is of interest to those who dabble in radar astronomy and have a 230-foot (70-meter) — or larger — radar telescope at their disposal.

“Asteroid 1998 QE2 will be an outstanding radar imaging target at Goldstone and Arecibo and we expect to obtain a series of high-resolution images that could reveal a wealth of surface features,” said radar astronomer Lance Benner, the principal investigator for the Goldstone radar observations from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “Whenever an asteroid approaches this closely, it provides an important scientific opportunity to study it in detail to understand its size, shape, rotation, surface features, and what they can tell us about its origin. We will also use new radar measurements of the asteroid’s distance and velocity to improve our calculation of its orbit and compute its motion farther into the future than we could otherwise.”

The closest approach of the asteroid occurs on May 31 at 1:59 p.m. Pacific (4:59 p.m. Eastern / 20:59 UTC). This is the closest approach the asteroid will make to Earth for at least the next two centuries. Asteroid 1998 QE2 was discovered on Aug. 19, 1998, by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Lincoln Near Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR) program near Socorro, New Mexico.

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Space Warps Project Needs Your Help

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Image by

Astronomers are asking volunteers to help them search for “space warps.” More commonly known as “gravitational lenses,” these are rare systems with very massive galaxies or clusters of galaxies that bend light around them so that they act rather like giant lenses in space, creating beautiful mirages.

Anyone can participate in Space Warps project, which was launched on 8 May 2013. Visit and spot these spectacular and rare astronomical objects using data from large astronomical surveys. Astronomy enthusiasts can partake in the discovery of these magnificent lenses and help astronomers uncover the role that dark matter plays in the formation of galaxies.

“Not only do space warps act like lenses, magnifying the distant galaxies behind them, but also the light they distort can be used to weigh them, helping us to figure out how much dark matter they contain and how it’s distributed,” said Dr. Phil Marshall, co-leader of the project at the University of Oxford.

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Moon And Earth Have Common Water Source

Water inside the Moon’s mantle came from primitive meteorites, new research finds, the same source thought to have supplied most of the water on Earth. The findings raise new questions about the process that formed the Moon.

The Moon is thought to have formed from a disc of debris left when a giant object hit the Earth 4.5 billion years ago, very early in Earth’s history. Scientists have long assumed that the heat from an impact of that size would cause hydrogen and other volatile elements to boil off into space, meaning the Moon must have started off completely dry. But recently, NASA spacecraft and new research on samples from the Apollo missions have shown that the Moon actually has water, both on its surface and beneath.

By showing that water on the Moon and on Earth came from the same source, this new study offers yet more evidence that the Moon’s water has been there all along.

“The simplest explanation for what we found is that there was water on the proto-Earth at the time of the giant impact,” said Alberto Saal, associate professor of Geological Sciences at Brown University and the study’s lead author. “Some of that water survived the impact, and that’s what we see in the Moon.”

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