Archive for July, 2013

SOFIA Has Gone South: Airborne Observatory Investigates The Southern Sky From New Zealand

For the first time SOFIA, the “Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy”, has been deployed to the southern hemisphere. Based at the airport of Christchurch, New Zealand for three weeks, SOFIA has started to study celestial objects that are uniquely observable on southern flight routes. On the morning of July 18 New Zealand time, SOFIA landed after the first of its planned 9 science flights that included studies of the Magellanic Clouds, neighbours to the Milky Way galaxy, and of the circumnuclear disk orbiting the black hole in the center of our Galaxy. The GREAT instrument used in these flights has been developed by a consortium of German research institutes led by Rolf Güsten (Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy).

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A Warmer Planetary Haven Around Cool Stars, As Ice Warms Rather Than Cools

In a bit of cosmic irony, planets orbiting cooler stars may be more likely to remain ice-free than planets around hotter stars. This is due to the interaction of a star’s light with ice and snow on the planet’s surface.

Stars emit different types of light. Hotter stars emit high-energy visible and ultraviolet light, and cooler stars give off infrared and near-infrared light, which has a much lower energy.

It seems logical that the warmth of terrestrial or rocky planets should depend on the amount of light they get from their stars, all other things being equal. But new climate model research led by Aomawa Shields, a doctoral student in the University of Washington astronomy department, has added a surprising new twist to the story: Planets orbiting cool stars actually may be much warmer and less icy than their counterparts orbiting much hotter stars, even though they receive the same amount of light.

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Hopkins Astronomer Holland Ford Receives NASA Award For Hubble Contributions

Holland Ford, an astronomer at The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md., has received NASA’s Distinguished Public Service Medal for his outstanding contributions to the Hubble Space Telescope.

Ford attributes his success to the thousands of people in government, industry, science institutes, and academia who worked together to build and use Hubble to revolutionize our view of the universe. “What a privilege to be part of this great endeavor!” he says.

The Distinguished Public Service Medal is NASA’s highest form of recognition, awarded to someone who has made a profound impact on the success of a NASA mission. The medal is one of several Agency Honor Awards given annually in a ceremony at NASA Headquarters in Washington and at each NASA center. Each nominee undergoes a careful selection process before the NASA administrator approves the final recipients.

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Reports Detail Mars Rover Clues To Atmosphere’s Past

A pair of new papers report measurements of the Martian atmosphere’s composition by NASA’s Curiosity rover, providing evidence about loss of much of Mars’ original atmosphere.

Curiosity’s Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) suite of laboratory instruments inside the rover has measured the abundances of different gases and different isotopes in several samples of Martian atmosphere. Isotopes are variants of the same chemical element with different atomic weights due to having different numbers of neutrons, such as the most common carbon isotope, carbon-12, and a heavier stable isotope, carbon-13.

“As atmosphere was lost, the signature of the process was embedded in the isotopic ratio,” said Paul Mahaffy of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. He is the principal investigator for SAM and lead author of one of the two papers about Curiosity results in the July 19 issue of the journal Science.

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NASA Interplanetary Probes To Take Pictures Of Earth

Two NASA spacecraft, one studying the Saturn system, the other observing Mercury, are maneuvering into place to take pictures of Earth on July 19 and 20.

The image taken from the Saturn system by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft will occur between 2:27 and 2:42 PDT (5:27 and 5:42 p.m. EDT, or 21:27 and 21:47 UTC) Friday, July 19. Cassini will be nearly 900 million miles (nearly 1.5 billion kilometers) away from Earth. NASA is encouraging the public to look and wave in the direction of Saturn at the time of the portrait and share their pictures via the Internet.

The Cassini Earth portrait is part of a more extensive mosaic — or multi-image picture — of the Saturn system as it is backlit by the sun. The viewing geometry highlights the tiniest of ring particles and will allow scientists to see patterns within Saturn’s dusty rings. Processing of the Earth images is expected to take a few days, and processing of the full Saturn system mosaic will likely take several weeks.

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Earth’s Gold Came From Colliding Dead Stars

Artist's conception. Credit: Dana Berry, SkyWorks Digital, Inc.

Artist’s conception. Credit: Dana Berry, SkyWorks Digital, Inc.

We value gold for many reasons: its beauty, its usefulness as jewelry, and its rarity. Gold is rare on Earth in part because it’s also rare in the universe. Unlike elements like carbon or iron, it cannot be created within a star. Instead, it must be born in a more cataclysmic event – like one that occurred last month known as a short gamma-ray burst (GRB). Observations of this GRB provide evidence that it resulted from the collision of two neutron stars – the dead cores of stars that previously exploded as supernovae. Moreover, a unique glow that persisted for days at the GRB location potentially signifies the creation of substantial amounts of heavy elements – including gold.

“We estimate that the amount of gold produced and ejected during the merger of the two neutron stars may be as large as 10 moon masses – quite a lot of bling!” says lead author Edo Berger of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA).

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High Schoolers To Launch Scientific Balloons To Near Outer Space

Earth from an altitude of 20 miles (105,600 feet) as photographed by cameras onboard last year's Project SMART balloon.

Earth from an altitude of 20 miles (105,600 feet) as photographed by cameras onboard last year’s Project SMART balloon.

On Thursday, July 18, 2013, high school students and their University of New Hampshire Project SMART mentors will launch twin weather balloons that carry miniaturized scientific payloads designed to measure cosmic rays and environmental parameters such as air pressure and temperature. The flight will also serve as a test platform for a NASA-funded instrument built at the UNH Space Science Center to measure gamma rays.

The weather-dependent launch is slated for noon, give or take an hour, from the grounds of the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in Cornish. Given favorable winds at high altitude, the instrument payloads will ride up to 100,000 feet – the edge of outer space – in unique, three-foot, dish-shaped, Styrofoam and cardboard re-entry vehicles built by the students and designed to float safely down to Earth without aid of a parachute.

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Astronomy Technology Used For Early Detection Of AMD – The Developed Worlds Leading Cause Of Sight Loss

Engineers used to designing state of the art instruments for ground and space based telescopes are now applying their expertise to the development of a diagnostic test for the developed world’s most common form of sight loss in adults, Age-Related Macular Degeneration (AMD).

AMD leads to the loss of the vision used when looking at something directly ahead, at another person for example, or when reading or watching television. In the UK alone, by 2020 the number of AMD sufferers is expected to rise to 750,000 and currently more than 1% of over 60s suffer from some sort of AMD. In the US, there are more than 10 million already living with AMD –more than all cancers combined and twice as many as those with Alzheimer’s disease.

Engineers at the UK Astronomy Technology Centre (UK ATC), part of the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) normally design and make instruments to detect faint light from distant stars and galaxies. They are also currently collaborating with scientists from Cardiff University’s School of Optometry and Vision Sciences to develop a unique instrument, a ‘retinal densitometer’, which can pick up the earliest stages of AMD by measuring, in the minutest of detail, how the eye responds to light.

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Close Encounter: Gas Cloud Swings Around Galactic Centre Black Hole

Recent observations from April this year of the galactic centre have revealed that parts of the in-falling gas cloud, which was detected in 2011, have already swung past the black hole at the heart of our Milky Way. Due to the tidal force of the gravity monster, the gas cloud has become further stretched, with its front moving now already 500 km/s faster than its tail. This confirms earlier predictions that its orbital motion brings it is close to the black hole, that it will not survive the encounter. With the new, detailed observations, the astronomers from the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics can now also place new constraints the origins of the gas cloud, making it increasingly unlikely that it contains a faint star inside, from which the cloud might have formed.

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Mercedes Richards Honored As Woman Physicist Of The Month By The American Physical Society

Mercedes Richards, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Penn State University, is being honored as the July 2013 Woman Physicist of the Month by the American Physical Society.

Richards studies close pairs of stars, called interacting binaries, which are pairs of stars that were formed at the same time, like twins, but in which each star matures at different rates and affects the evolution of its companion. Richards was lauded for her research on the dynamic interactions between close binary stars by the society’s Committee on the Status of Women in Physics. In particular, the committee cited her research involving 2D and 3D Doppler tomography for measuring the flow of material between the stars in these paired systems, and her hydrodynamic simulations of the gas flowing between the paired stars.

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