Sunday, December 30, 2012

Double serving of space and astronomy news leftovers

I've been passing out the space and astronomy stories from the past two weeks in installments as responses to the Fake Mayan Doomsday, Christmas (twice), Gangnam Style, and discovering a potentially habitable exoplanet.  That didn't take care of all of them, however.  Here are almost* all the rest of them from Overnight News Digest: Science Saturday (Two Higgs Bosons? edition) and Overnight News Digest: Science Saturday (Apocalypse Not edition) that didn't either meet the funny test, fit a special occasion, or both, plus two stories that I had planned on including, but removed because they had already been covered in another OND, and a third from last night's OND.

I begin with the final This Week @NASA video for the year.

NASA Television on YouTube: Countdown to Launch on This Week @NASA

With their launch from Kazakhstan to the International Space Station fast approaching, Expedition 34/35 Soyuz Commander Roman Romanenko, Flight Engineer Tom Marshburn of NASA and Flight Engineer Chris Hadfield of the Canadian Space Agency continue to train and finalize plans for the December 19 flight. Also, Orion taking shape; Mars field trip: GRAIL's impact; FASTSat's finale; "Big Wind"; rocket holiday; and more!
DarkSyde at Daily Kos has more general space and science news in This week in science: It's the sun, stupid and This week in science: Showboats as does cynndara in ALSO IN THE NEWS TODAY.

Follow over the jump for much more space and astronomy news from the far reaches of time and space to the surface of the Earth.

Science News: Glimpse at early universe finds expansion slowdown
BOSS project looks at acceleration rate before dark energy hit the gas
By Andrew Grant
Print edition: December 29, 2012; Vol.182 #13 (p. 9)
New measurements have captured the universe’s expansion when it was slowing down 11 billion years ago, before a mysterious entity called dark energy took over and began spurring the cosmos to expand faster and faster. The measurements, reported online November 12 at, are an important step toward understanding what dark energy is and how it works.

About 15 years ago, astronomers discovered that the universe’s expansion is accelerating by cataloging spectacular stellar explosions called type 1a supernovas. Because each explosion emits almost exactly the same amount of light, astronomers can use a supernova’s observed brightness to determine its distance, and then measure its redshift, or how much its light is stretched, to determine how fast the supernova is moving away from Earth. Astronomers Adam Riess of Johns Hopkins University, Saul Perlmutter of the University of California, Berkeley and Brian Schmidt of Australian National University shared the 2011 Nobel Prize for their work using this technique to reveal that the universe’s expansion is currently accelerating and has been for the last 5 billion years or so.

But as bright as supernovas are, they are difficult to see deep in the cosmos, at distances corresponding to the time when the universe was only a few billion years old. So an international team of scientists with the Baryon Oscillation Spectroscopic Survey, or BOSS, employs a different method. They use the 2.5-meter Sloan telescope at New Mexico’s Apache Point Observatory to collect light produced by feasting supermassive black holes that thrived a couple billion years after the dawn of the universe 13.7 billion years ago.
Science News: Clutch of distant galaxies reveals the infant universe
Hubble spies stars lighting up the cosmic dawn
By Alexandra Witze
Web edition: December 13, 2012
Peering into the far reaches of the universe, astronomers have spotted seven galaxies so distant that they appear as they did less than 600 million years after the Big Bang.

Finding so many primordial galaxies allows scientists to pin down crucial questions about the newborn universe, such as when light from early stars and galaxies penetrated the early cosmic gloom.

“It’s the scientific study of Genesis,” says Avi Loeb, a Harvard astronomer who was not involved in the work.
Simons Science News via Scientific American: Black Hole Firewalls Confound Theoretical Physicists
If a new hypothesis about black hole firewalls proves correct, at least one of three cherished notions in theoretical physics must be wrong.
By Jennifer Ouellette and Simons Science News
December 21, 2012
Alice and Bob, beloved characters of various thought experiments in quantum mechanics, are at a crossroads. The adventurous, rather reckless Alice jumps into a very large black hole, leaving a presumably forlorn Bob outside the event horizon — a black hole’s point of no return, beyond which nothing, not even light, can escape.

Conventionally, physicists have assumed that if the black hole is large enough, Alice won’t notice anything unusual as she crosses the horizon. In this scenario, colorfully dubbed “No Drama,” the gravitational forces won’t become extreme until she approaches a point inside the black hole called the singularity. There, the gravitational pull will be so much stronger on her feet than on her head that Alice will be “spaghettified.”

Now a new hypothesis is giving poor Alice even more drama than she bargained for. If this alternative is correct, as the unsuspecting Alice crosses the event horizon, she will encounter a massive wall of fire that will incinerate her on the spot. As unfair as this seems for Alice, the scenario would also mean that at least one of three cherished notions in theoretical physics must be wrong.
University of Michigan: An older Vega: New insights about the star all others are measured by
December 11, 2012
ANN ARBOR—Vega, a star astronomers have used as a touchstone to measure other stars' brightness for thousands of years, may be more than 200 million years older than previously thought. That's according to new findings from the University of Michigan.

The researchers estimated Vega's age by precisely measuring its spin speed with a tool called the Michigan Infrared Combiner, developed by John Monnier, associate professor of astronomy in U-M's College of Literature, Science, and the Arts.

MIRC collects the light gathered by six telescopes to make it appear to be coming through one that's 100 times larger than the Hubble Space Telescope. It's installed at the Georgia State Center for High Angular Resolution Astronomy Array located on Mt. Wilson, California.
I should have written an article about this finding, but just wasn't up to it at the time.

Science News: BOOK REVIEW: Mirror Earth: The Search for Our Planet’s Twin
By Michael D. Lemonick
Review by Sid Perkins
Web edition: December 13, 2012
In a fascinating chronicle of camaraderie and competition, Lemonick profiles the prominent researchers in an astronomical discipline that is coming of age. He follows the twists and turns in their careers as well as the towering hurdles they faced and ultimately solved — including oft-denied funding requests  and the equally daunting search for respect among scientific peers.

At first, researchers could discern only exceptionally large planets closely orbiting small stars. But techniques used to detect exoplanets are becoming more and more sensitive, and scientists may be getting close to discovering a mirror Earth — a find that might be revealed within months, not years, Lemonick contends.
It's getting closer than that.  See Did we just discover Plateau?

Discovery News: Titan's 'Nile River' Discovered
Analysis by Ian O'Neill
Wed Dec 12, 2012 01:38 PM ET
The Cassini Solstice mission has discovered what appears to be a miniature version* of the Nile River on Saturn's largest moon, Titan. The 400 kilometer (250 mile) long feature -- from 'headwaters' to a large sea -- is the longest extraterrestrial river ever to be discovered and imaged to such high resolution.

Using Cassini's radar imaging instruments, mission scientists were able to deduce that the feature is indeed a river as the dark, smooth surface within the meanders and channel suggest the presence of a liquid.

Titan is known to have vast lakes -- the only other body in the solar system, apart from Earth, to possess a cycle of liquids on its surface. However, the thick Titan atmosphere is a frigid one, meaning liquid water couldn't possibly flow. The liquids on Titan are therefore composed of hydrocarbons such as methane and ethane. NASA Eyes Mission to Jupiter Moon Europa
by Mike Wall, Senior Writer
Date: 13 December 2012 Time: 04:20 PM ET
SAN FRANCISCO — Though NASA is devoting many of its exploration resources to Mars these days, the agency still has its eye on an icy moon of Jupiter that may be capable of supporting life as we know it.

Last week, NASA officials announced that they plan to launch a $1.5 billion rover to Mars in 2020, adding to a string of Red Planet missions already on the docket. The Curiosity rover just landed this past August, for example, and an orbiter called Maven and a lander named InSight are slated to blast off in 2013 and 2016, respectively.

But NASA is also thinking about ways to investigate the possible habitability of Europa, Jupiter's fourth-largest moon. One concept that may be gaining traction is a so-called "clipper" probe that would make multiple flybys of the moon, studying its icy shell and suspected subsurface ocean as it zooms past.
Speaking of Mars, here is the latest update that I included in Overnight News Digest: Science Saturday (Science in 2012 edition).  Consider it a bonus.

NASA Television on YouTube: NASA's Mars Curiosity Rover Report #18 -- December 21, 2012

A NASA's Mars Curiosity rover team member gives an update on developments and status of the planetary exploration mission. The Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft delivered Curiosity to its target area on Mars at 1:31:45 a.m. EDT on Aug. 6, which includes the 13.8 minutes needed for confirmation of the touchdown to be radioed to Earth at the speed of light. The rover will conduct a nearly two-year prime mission to investigate whether the Gale Crater region of Mars ever offered conditions favorable for microbial life.
Science News: Moon probes set for smashing end
NASA to guide gravity-seeking spacecraft into the side of a lunar cliff
By Alexandra Witze
Web edition: December 13, 2012
NASA’s twin GRAIL probes are on a crash course to hit the lunar surface on December 17.

The cosmic collision is intentional: Mission engineers need to guide the spacecraft down because they have run out of fuel to keep themselves in lunar orbit. Scientists will be watching until the very end, because how GRAIL hits may yield more discoveries about the moon.
I need to update this story, as the probes crashed almost two weeks ago.

Discovery News: Chinese Probe Buzzes Asteroid Toutatis
Analysis by Ian O'Neill
Fri Dec 14, 2012 10:43 PM ET
The Chinese lunar orbiter Chang'e 2 has completed its flyby of asteroid Toutatis, a five-kilometer (three mile) long space rock that recently had a "close" encounter with Earth.

The probe, which completed its primary moon-mapping mission in 2011, was commanded to depart lunar orbit in June 2011 and travel to the Earth-sun L2 point -- a region of gravitational stability, approximately 1.5 million kilometers away in the opposite direction of the sun.

This extended mission set it up for the Dec. 13 flyby of asteroid 4179 Toutatis after it was commanded to leave the L2 point earlier this year.
Science News: California meteorite a scientific gold mine
Sutter’s Mill rock preserves rare, fresh material from outer space
By Alexandra Witze
Web edition: December 20, 2012
A meteorite that fell where California’s gold rush began has triggered a similar gold rush for scientists: to study one of the freshest, most unusual space rocks around.

The Sutter’s Mill meteorite turns out to be a rare, carbon-rich type known as a carbonaceous chondrite. Its insides are a jumble of different primitive space materials mashed together in a single rock.

“It’s a real hodge-podge,” says Monica Grady, a meteorite expert at the Open University in Milton Keynes, England. “It tells you that the asteroid it came from has had a very interesting history.” Grady and her colleagues describe the Sutter’s Mill find in the Dec. 21 Science.
Reuters: U.S. military's secret mini-shuttle lifts off from Florida
By Irene Klotz
Tue Dec 11, 2012 7:50pm EST
(Reuters) - An unmanned Atlas 5 rocket carrying a small robotic space shuttle lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Tuesday for the third flight in a classified military test program.

The 196-foot (60-meter) rocket blasted off at 1:03 p.m. ET (1603 GMT) carrying the military's original X-37B experimental space plane, also known as an Orbital Test Vehicle, or OTV.

The unmanned, reusable space shuttle, one of two operated by the U.S. Air Force, spent 224 days circling Earth during its debut mission in 2010. A sister ship blasted off in 2011 and landed itself after 469 days in space, completing the second orbital test flight.
The last bit of space news I'm sharing is a belated stargazing note in Christmas Treat Moon & Jupiter by jim in IA on Daily Kos, which I should have included in NASA videos: Christmas sky and ISS message.  Instead, I'm using it now.  Hey, I'm an environmentalist and don't like to waste things.

Finally, it's already New Year's Eve in the entire Eastern Hemisphere.  Look for my year in review tonight at midnight EST, when New Year's Eve arrives here.

*Yes, I'm holding one back.  It's a funny one that requires more work than I'm up to putting in right now.  It has elements of both science fiction and politics, so it's perfect for this blog.

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