Saturday, May 17, 2014

Catastrophe averted from solar flare and other space and astronomy news

Last year, I posted Meteors, solar flares, and U.N. action and The Weather Channel on solar storms about tracking, forecasting, and preparing for solar flares.  None of that compares to just plain luck in protecting our planet, as NASA Goddard pointed out in The Best Observed X-class Flare.

On March 29, 2014 the sun released an X-class flare. It was observed by NASA's Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph, or IRIS; NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory, or SDO; NASA's Reuven Ramaty High Energy Solar Spectroscopic Imager, or RHESSI; the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency's Hinode; and the National Solar Observatory's Dunn Solar Telescope located at Sacramento Peak in New Mexico.

To have a record of such an intense flare from so many observatories is unprecedented. Such research can help scientists better understand what catalyst sets off these large explosions on the sun. Perhaps we may even some day be able to predict their onset and forewarn of the radio blackouts solar flares can cause near Earth - blackouts that can interfere with airplane, ship and military communications.
Here's to the experience preparing us for the next time, should our luck run out.

Follow over the jump for news about more risks from space and other astronomy news.

I began the month reporting that Large meteor explosions more common than thought.  Popular Science describes what to do about it in How We're Finding Asteroids Before They Find Us By James Vlahos.
Massive space rocks hurtle past Earth with frightening regularity. Some scientists want to deflect them. Others want to drag one closer.

Marco Tantardini spent the year of 2010 dreaming about asteroids. A thickly bearded, 26-year-old Italian who wore a black-leather jacket and rode a motorcycle, Tantardini looked more like Hemingway in his later years than a buttoned-down space wonk. He had done internships at The Planetary Society and NASA but those were finished. He had gotten a master’s degree in space engineering but hadn’t sought a traditional job. Instead, at his parents’ house in the Italian town of Cremona, he sat in the same room where he did his homework growing up and drafted a plan to catch an asteroid. He called the mission Sisyphus Victorious, and he believed it would be the next giant leap for human exploration.

Unlike the Sisyphus of Greek mythology, who was sentenced to endlessly push a boulder up a hill only to watch it roll back down, Tantardini developed what he thought was a successful strategy for moving a giant rock through space. He envisioned sending a spacecraft on a journey of several years to intercept a small asteroid, one 10 meters or less in diameter. The craft would capture it, possibly with a giant net, and transport it to a stable orbital location near the Earth. With the rock parked some four days of space travel away, astronauts would get their first chance to visit, study, and possibly even touch an asteroid.

On its own, Tantardini’s vision sounds quixotic, the improbable quest of an unemployed dreamer. But many accomplished scientists and engineers are busy sketching out similar plans. In 2016, NASA intends to launch OSIRIS-REx, a robotic probe that will travel to a 500-meter-wide asteroid called Bennu, scoop up soil and broken rock, and return the samples to Earth. President Obama has pledged to send astronauts to do the same by 2025. Several teams are diligently designing craft to detect rogue asteroids and intercept them before they strike Earth. And two groups of entrepreneurs, attracted to billions of dollars worth of potential minerals, have recently formed asteroid mining startups. K. Ram Shriram, a Silicon Valley investor in the budding industry, says he sees the same potential as he did in the early days of Google.

Yet of all the plans, relocating an asteroid might offer the richest rewards.
Speaking of objects falling from the sky, Science at NASA talks about a harmless variety in ScienceCasts: NASA on the Lookout for a New Meteor Shower.

Sky watchers in North America could witness a new meteor shower on May 24th when, for the first time, Earth passes through a cloud of dust from periodic comet 209P/LINEAR.
As for news that is less threatening, DarkSyde on Daily Kos posted This week in science: thank heaven for little universes.

I conclude with a pair of stories that illustrate the truth of the song lyric "the stars at night, are big and bright, deep in the heart of Texas, beginning with the University of Texas: Astronomers Find Sun’s ‘Long-Lost Brother,’ Pave Way for Family Reunion.
AUSTIN, Texas — A team of researchers led by astronomer Ivan Ramirez of The University of Texas at Austin has identified the first “sibling” of the sun — a star almost certainly born from the same cloud of gas and dust as our star. Ramirez’s methods will help astronomers find other solar siblings, which could lead to an understanding of how and where our sun formed, and how our solar system became hospitable for life. The work appears in the June 1 issue of The Astrophysical Journal.

“We want to know where we were born,” Ramirez said. “If we can figure out in what part of the galaxy the sun formed, we can constrain conditions on the early solar system. That could help us understand why we are here.”

Additionally, there is a chance, “small, but not zero,” Ramirez said, that these solar sibling stars could host planets that harbor life. In their earliest days within their birth cluster, he explains, collisions could have knocked chunks off of planets, and these fragments could have traveled between solar systems, and perhaps even may have been responsible for bringing primitive life to Earth. “So it could be argued that solar siblings are key candidates in the search for extraterrestrial life,” Ramirez said.

The solar sibling his team identified is called HD 162826, a star 15 percent more massive than the sun, located 110 light-years away in the constellation Hercules. The star is not visible to the unaided eye but easily can be seen with low-power binoculars, not far from the bright star Vega.
I now conclude with Texas A&M saying Another Word For Mars Is Dust.
There’s a four-letter word to describe conditions on Mars, and it’s not pretty: Dust.  It is everywhere and anywhere on Mars, and dust is a key component of Martian weather, says a Texas A&M University researcher who has spent much of the past nine years observing the Red Planet.

Mark Lemmon, associate professor of atmospheric sciences, has served as a camera operator on numerous Mars missions, especially those involving the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity.  Spirit landed in 2004 and transmitted thousands of images back to Earth before it quietly expired in 2010, but its sister rover Opportunity is alive and well and still taking short trips and sending back plenty of photos, Lemmon says.

He has published his findings describing 9 years of dusty weather in the current issue of Icarus, a planetary science journal.
That's it for last week's space news.  It's time to start collecting this week's.

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