UNIVERSE TODAY Update 5

Subaru 8-meter Telescope Damaged by Leaking Coolant

by Nancy Atkinson on July 6, 2011

Orange-colored coolant covers the mirror surface of the Subaru Telescope. Credit: National Astronomical Observatory of Japan

A “serious hardware incident” has shut down the Subaru Telescope indefinitely. A leak allowed orange-colored coolant to spill over the primary mirror and into the main camera, as well as into other instruments and the structure of the telescope. The damage is still be assessed. During the clean-up and recovery of equipment, nighttime observations have been suspended, as well as daytime summit tours of the telescope.
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Space Shuttle Atlantis awaits Blastoff on July 8, 2011 from Launch Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer

The countdown to NASA’s 135th and final shuttle launch began today (July 5) with no technical issues blocking liftoff at this time. But upwards of 750,000 spectators may be disappointed because the weather on launch day, July 8, is looking decidedly dicey. Storm weather and stormy seas lie ahead for NASA.

At today’s press briefing, Shuttle Weather Officer Kathy Winters projected that the chance of favorable weather is only 40% for Friday’s 11.26 a.m. liftoff of Atlantis because of the likely threat of rain at the Kennedy Space Center. [click to continue…]

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The Sun’s Heartbeat

by Jon Voisey on July 5, 2011

Within our own lives, one of the most powerful forces is that of the Sun. Directly or indirectly, it provides all of the energy we use on a daily basis. Yet this mass of incandescent plasma is often a mere afterthought. But not to be forgotten, writer for Astronomy magazine, Bob Berman makes the Sun the focus of a new book, The Sun’s Heartheat which explores how our parent star affects our lives in ways more direct than we might expect. The book is due to be released July 13th, but I got a review copy to tell everyone about.

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A local farmer from Afghanistan looks at the night sky through a telescope. Credit: Yunos Bakhshi from the Afghanistan Astronomy Association.

Most amateur astronomers take for granted that they can just go outside and enjoy viewing the night sky without encountering many problems — aside from keeping mosquitoes at bay or fixing equipment malfunctions. But in order for amateur astronomers in Afghanistan to simply set up a telescope in a dark region, they have to deal with more serious complications, such as making sure the area is clear of land mines, not arousing the suspicions the Taliban or the local police, and watching out for potential bombing raids by the US/UK/Afghan military alliance. But amateur astronomers like Saeid Aghaei and Yunos Bakhshi take those risks in stride just so they can share the beauty of the night sky with the Afghani people.
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Artist's impression of the transiting exoplanet HAT-P-7b. Credit: NASA/ESA

After 21 years in orbit, the Hubble Space Telescope has reached an historic milestone: the venerable HST has made its millionth observation. The telescope was used to search for the chemical signature of water in the atmosphere of planet HAT-P-7b, a gas giant larger than Jupiter which orbits the star HAT-P-7, about 1,000 light-years away from Earth. The observation was led by Dr. Drake Deming, planetary scientist and astronomer from the University of Maryland and the Goddard Space Flight Center.

With this announcement, however, there is no stunning image or unprecedented view of an exoplanet. The millionth observation will show up as squiggly lines on a graph, since the observation was done with Hubble’s spectrograph.
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Video: Ride Along with a Sounding Rocket

by Nancy Atkinson on July 5, 2011

Earlier this year, a sounding rocket was launched to measure solar energy output and calibrate the EVE instrument on the Solar Dynamics Observatory. Two on-board cameras recorded the rocket’s journey, allowing the rest of us to tag along from Earth to space and back again. Make sure you listen to all the sounds as well as enjoy the views.

YouTube Video


Video courtesy Goddard Space Flight Center.

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Gallery: Atlantis, the Last Shuttle on the Launchpad

by Nancy Atkinson on July 5, 2011

Space Shuttle Atlantis on the launchpad. Credit: Mike Deep for Universe Today.

It was the ultimate experience for a space enthusiast. Universe Today photographer Michael Deep had the opportunity to get up close and personal with the last shuttle that will ever sit on a launchpad and head to space. Enjoy some unique views of space shuttle Atlantis before she goes down into history as the final shuttle to launch to space.

And stay tuned all week for great photos and articles to chronicle the final shuttle launch: Universe Today photographers Alan Walters, Mike Deep, and David Gonzales as well as writers Ken Kremer and Jason Rhian are on location at Kennedy Space Center to provide full coverage.
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The final Shuttle Crew jets into the Kennedy Space Center on Independence Day, 2011.
STS-135 crew arrived at the Shuttle Landing Facility on July 4 and greets the media and NASA/KSC officials and employees. From Left: Shuttle Commander Chris Ferguson, Pilot Doug Hurley and Mission Specialists Sandy Magnus and Rex Walheim. Credit: Ken Kremer

The four astronauts who will fly the Grand Finale of NASA’s space shuttle program arrived at the Florida launch site on Independence Day on a wave of T-38 training jets. The veteran crew flew into the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) from Ellington Field in Houston, Texas and touched down at the shuttle landing strip at about 2:30 p.m. EDT.

Blast off of Space Shuttle Atlantis on the STS-135 mission is slated for July 8 at 11.26 a.m. with Shuttle Commander Chris Ferguson at the helm. He is joined by Pilot Doug Hurley and Mission Specialists Sandy Magnus and Rex Walheim. [click to continue…]

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Dark Energy… And Zombie Stars!

by Tammy Plotner on July 4, 2011

Supernova 1994D. The supernova is the bright point in the lower-left. It is a type Ia thermonuclear supernova like those described by Howell. The supernova is on the edge of galaxy NGC 4526, depicted in the center of the image. Credit: NASA/Hubble Space Telescope

It’s called a Type Ia supernovae and it shines with the luminosity of a billion suns. For all intents and purposes, once they explode they’re dead… But it ain’t so. They might have a core of ash, but they come back to life by sucking matter from a companion star. Zombies? You bet. Zombie stars… And they can be used to measure dark energy. [click to continue…]

The Final Countdown: A Tweetup Journal

by Jason Major on June 16, 2011

The last space shuttle: Atlantis awaits its final launch. Credit: NASA

On July 8, less than a month from now, the last remaining space shuttle is slated to launch from Cape Canaveral. The STS-135 mission will bring supplies and parts up to the International Space Station and will be the historic conclusion of the 30-year-long shuttle program.

Unless otherwise rescheduled, at 11:40am on Friday, July 8, the big clock will count down, the rocket boosters will ignite, the steam will billow and the shuttle Atlantis will roar into the sky for one final, glorious time.

And I’ll be there.

(*exhale*)

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A mosiac of lunar eclipse images by Marko Posavec in Koprivnica, Croatia.

It was an event that hasn’t happened in 11 years and won’t happen again until 2018. The total lunar eclipse of June 15, 2011 didn’t disappoint. Take a look at some of the amazing images taken by astrophotographers from around the world — well, the “eastern” side of the world anyway, as the eclipse wasn’t visible in North America. Our lead image is a fantastic mosaic taken by Marko Posavec in Koprivnica, Croatia. We have another image by Posavic below, but you can see more of his images via his Twitter account.

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SDO/AIA images of fast waves on 2010 August 1

Time to grab your silver surfboards because scientists utilizing the Atmospheric Imaging Assembly (AIA) instrument on-board NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), have picked up on quasi-periodic waves in the low solar corona that travel at speeds as high as 2,000 kilometers per second (4.5 million miles per hour). Just think… We could ride that tasty wave to the Moon and back about 16 times during lunch break and still have time for coffee! [click to continue…]

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Voyager Pushes Boundary of Interstellar Space

by Tammy Plotner on June 15, 2011

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

It may be some 10.8 billion miles from home, but Voyager 1 is sending back some surprising data from the edge Even more recent transmissions show the gallant probe is closer to interstellar space than ever. “We’ve reached the boundary of the heliosheath, Jim… and it ain’t dead.” [click to continue…]

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Ovation For A Stellar Senior

by Tammy Plotner on June 15, 2011

IRAS 22036+5306 - Credit: ESA/Hubble/NASA

Residing in space 6500 light-years away in the constellation of Cepheus, an aged star designated as IRAS 22036+5306 is making its final curtain call. Its stellar play is ending and its making the transition through the protoplanetary, or preplanetary, nebula phase. This isn’t an unusual occurrence, but considering we’ve only been able to witness perhaps a few hundred such events out of the millions of stars we’ve observed – it is a rare visual example. Behold a red giant turning into a white dwarf… [click to continue…]

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How Much Do Binary Stars Shape Planetary Nebulae?

by Jon Voisey on June 15, 2011

A Collection of Planetary Nebulae from the HST

A Collection of Planetary Nebulae from the HST

 

Planetary nebulae come in a dazzling array of shapes, from spherical shells of gas, to blobby structures barely containing symmetry at all. Controversy has surrounded the cause for this diversity. Could it be magnetic fields, high rotation rates, unseen companions, or something else entirely? Recently, there has been a growing consensus that binary companions are the main culprit for the most irregular of these nebulae, but exploring the connection is only possible with a statistically significant sample of planetary nebulae with binary cores can be found, giving hints as to what properties they may, or may not, create.

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Can We Put Weather On A Budget?

by Tammy Plotner on June 15, 2011

Forecast of surface pressures five days into the future for the north Pacific, North America, and north Atlantic ocean. Credit: NOAA

When Vanguard 2 was launched on February 17, 1959 it became our first orbiting “eye” on Earth’s weather. Although the satellite was unsuccessful in the long run, it paved the way for TIROS-1 about a year later. This in turn opened the avenue for the Nimbus program – the forerunner for today’s NASA and NOAA’s space-based weather observatories. Although our current climate spectators have proven to be not only efficacious, but enduring, the recent economy may spell an end to future pursuits. [click to continue…]

A Cometary Case for Titan’s Atmosphere

by Jason Major on May 9, 2011

Ancient comets may have created Titan's nitrogen-rich atmosphere

Titan is a fascinating world to planetary scientists. Although it’s a moon of Saturn it boasts an opaque atmosphere ten times thicker than Earth’s and a hydrologic cycle similar to our own – except with frigid liquid methane as the key component instead of water. Titan has even been called a living model of early Earth, even insofar as containing large amounts of nitrogen in its atmosphere much like our own. Scientists have wondered at the source of Titan’s nitrogen-rich atmosphere, and now a team at the University of Tokyo has offered up an intriguing answer: it may have come from comets.

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Blast off of sophisticated SBIRS GEO-1 satellite aboard an Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 2:10 p.m. EDT on May 7, 2011.
Credit: Alan Walters/awaltersphoto.com
Photo album below from Ken Kremer and Alan Walters

CAPE CANAVERAL – An Atlas V rocket carrying a highly sophisticated Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS) GEO-1 satellite for the United States Air Force lifted off from the seaside Space Launch Complex-41 at 2:10 p.m. EDT on Saturday (May 7) into a gorgeous clear blue sky following a one day delay due to cloudy weather conditions surrounding the Florida space coast on Friday.

SBIRS GEO-1 is the maiden satellite in a new constellation of next generation military space probes that will provide US military forces with an early warning of missile launches that could pose a threat to US national security. [click to continue…]

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Astronomy Without A Telescope – Planet Spotting

by Steve Nerlich on May 8, 2011

The current search area of the Kepler mission, monitoring 145,000 stars for signs of exoplanets - with a particular interest in those that may be in a star's 'habitable zone'. Credit: Lomberg/NASA.

The Extrasolar Planets Encyclopedia counted 548 confirmed extrasolar planets at 6 May 2011, while the NASA Star and Exoplanet Database (updated weekly) was today reporting 535. These are confirmed findings and the counts will significantly increase as more candidate exoplanets are assessed. For example, there were the 1,235 candidates announced by the Kepler mission in February, including 54 that may be in a habitable zone.

So what techniques are brought to bear to come up with these findings? [click to continue…]

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More Evidence of Liquid Erosion on Mars?

by Jason Major on May 7, 2011

 

Possible water-formed gullies cut through sedimentary layers in Terby Crater

Terby Crater, a 170-km-wide (100-mile-wide) crater located on the northern edge of the vast Hellas Planitia basin in Mars’ southern hemisphere, is edged by variable-toned layers of sedimentary rock – possibly laid down over millennia of submersion beneath standing water. This image (false-color) from the HiRISE camera aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter shows a portion of Terby’s northern wall with what clearly looks like liquid-formed gullies slicing through the rock layers, branching from the upper levels into a main channel that flows downward, depositing a fan of material at the wall’s base.

But, looks can be deceiving…

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Update on Gliese 581d’s Habitability

by Jon Voisey on May 6, 2011

An artist’s impression of Gliese 581d, an exoplanet about 20.3 light-years away from Earth, in the constellation Libra.

When last we checked in on Gliese 581d, a team from the University of Paris had suggested that the popular exoplanet, Gliese 581d may be habitable. This super-Earth found itself just on the edge of the Goldilocks zone which could make liquid water present on the surface under the right atmospheric conditions. However, the team’s work was based on one dimensional simulations of a column of hypothetical atmospheres on the day side of the planet. To have a better understanding of what Gliese 581d might be like, a three dimensional simulation was in order. Fortunately, a new study from the same team has investigated the possibility with just such an investigation.

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Determining the chemical distribution of the galaxy is a tricky business. The ideal method is spectroscopy but since high quality spectroscopy takes bright targets, the number of potential targets is somewhat reduced. Stars seem like logical choices, but due to differential separation during formation, they don’t provide a true description of the interstellar medium. Clouds of gas and dust are the best choice, but must be illuminated by star formation. Another option is to search for newly formed planetary nebulae which are in the process of enriching the interstellar medium.

A new paper does just this, discovering a new planetary nebula in hopes of mapping the chemical abundance of the galaxy. [click to continue…]

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Camilla Corona: rubber chicken, mission mascot extraordinaire. Credit: SDO

Here’s a headline you don’t see too often: “Rubber Chicken Turned NASA Mission Mascot Embarks on a Flight to Space.” Seriously, this is a true story. If you’ve not heard of Camilla Corona, or Camilla SDO as she is sometimes called, you probably haven’t been paying attention to one of the most exciting current space missions, the Solar Dynamics Observatory. Camilla is virtually everywhere in the world of social media, and she travels around the country – and the planet – spreading the word about what’s going on with our Sun and how SDO is helping us learn more about it. As mission mascot, she is leading the way – and setting the bar pretty high for other NASA missions to follow – about how to get the public interested in space and science.

“People ask, ‘what does a rubber chicken have to do with a science mission?’ but as long as we get people’s attention, we can then divert it to what SDO does,” said Romeo Durscher, Camilla’s PR assistant and ‘bodyguard.’ “However, we didn’t know it would go this far when we started this.”
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Atlas Rocket Poised for Blast Off with Advanced Missile Early Warning Spy Satellite

May 6, 2011

CAPE CANAVERAL – An Atlas V rocket is poised to blast off today, May 6 , with the inaugural version of a new and highly advanced series of US spy satellites which will provide early warning of missile launches to US military forces. The Space Based Infrared Systems (SBIRS) GEO-1 satellite is set to liftoff [...]

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Rare and Unpublished LIFE Photos of Alan Shepard’s Historic Flight

May 6, 2011

If you follow me on Twitter, you may have seen how I was oohing and aahing about a wonderful set of rare and never-seen photographs of Alan Shepard, John Glenn, and the other Mercury astronauts released by LIFE.com in honor of the 50th anniversary Alan Shepard’s flight on May 5. Maybe LIFE saw my Tweets, [...]

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Space Adventures Wants to Fly You to the Moon

May 5, 2011

Space Adventures – the company that brought the first space tourists to the International Space Station – has longer space tourist excursions planned for as early as 2015: a trip around the Moon. Company chairman Eric Anderson said during a teleconference they have sold the first of the two seats on their circumlunar flight program, [...]

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Stunning, Colorful New Look at the Lagoon Nebula

May 5, 2011

Wow, is this gorgeous or what?! Argentinean astronomers Julia Arias and Rodolfo Barbá used the Gemini South telescope in Chile to obtain this stunning new image, allowing us to dive right into part of the Lagoon Nebula (M8). This region of the Lagoon is sometimes called the “Southern Cliff” because it resembles a sharp drop-off. [...]

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Win the Book “Light This Candle”

May 5, 2011

As we said in our previous article, Alan Shepard was a complicated guy — but seemingly the perfect person for the job of being the first American in space. Want to know more about him? Neal Thompson’s book “Light This Candle: The Life and Times of Alan Shepard” is a great read, which comes highly [...]

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Alan Shepard: Complicated, Conflicted and the Consummate Astronaut

May 5, 2011

50 years ago today, Alan Shepard blasted off on board the first flight of NASA’s Mercury program, becoming the first American in space. Shepard was the consummate astronaut, — he stayed with NASA for over 15 years, and eventually walked on the Moon. But for all his successes, Shepard was a complicated and conflicted man; [...]

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Alan Shepard and MESSENGER Stamps Unveiled at Kennedy Space Center Ceremony

May 5, 2011

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER – 50 Years ago this week, Alan B. Shepard became the first American to be launched into space. Shepard blasted off on May 5, 1961 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. NASA and the US Postal Service honored Shepard’s historic achievement today (May 4) at an Official First-Day-of-Issue dedication ceremony at NASA’s Kennedy Space [...]

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Where In The Universe Challenge #147

May 4, 2011

It’s time once more for another Where In The Universe Challenge. Name where in the Universe this image was taken and give yourself extra points if you can name the telescope or spacecraft responsible for the image. Post your guesses in the comments section, and check back on later at this same post to find [...]

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Elon Musk: “Why the US Can Beat China”

May 4, 2011

“Whenever someone proposes to do something that has never been done before, there will always be skeptics,” says SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk. He distributed an email today, setting the record straight on SpaceX’s actual launch costs and prices, and he also outlines why he believes American innovation will trump countries like China in [...]

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SpaceShipTwo Successfully Tests “Feathered” Flight

May 4, 2011

Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo achieved a major milestone early Wednesday 4th May 2011, as it successfully demonstrated its unique reentry ‘feather’ configuration for the first time. This test flight, the third in less than two weeks, brings powered test flights and — ultimately — commercial operations a step closer.

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Richard Wainscoat (left) and Marco Micheli study one of the near-Earth asteroids found on January 29. The asteroid is the roundish dot near Wainscoat’s finger. Photo by Karen Teramura

From a University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy press release:

The Pan-STARRS PS1 telescope on Haleakala, Maui, discovered 19 near-Earth asteroids on the night of January 29, the most asteroids discovered by one telescope on a single night.

“This record number of discoveries shows that PS1 is the world’s most powerful telescope for this kind of study,” said Nick Kaiser, head of the Pan-STARRS project. “NASA and the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory’s support of this project illustrates how seriously they are taking the threat from near-Earth asteroids.”
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STS-133 Launch Day Gallery

by Nancy Atkinson on February 25, 2011

Discovery just moments after her final liftoff. Credit: Alan Walters (awaltersphoto.com) for Universe Today.

Here’s a collection of images from the historic final launch of space shuttle Discovery on February 24, 2011.
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Discovery launches for one final mission. Credit: Alan Walters (awaltersphoto.com) for Universe Today.

Overcoming a down-to the-last second problem, space shuttle Discovery made history today, launching on its final mission to orbit. The most-traveled orbiter is carrying a crew of six astronauts and one human-like Robonaut, along with a new permanent storeroom and supplies for the International Space Station. After waiting nearly four months following the detection of potentially dangerous cracks in Discovery’s external tank and a leak in the Orbiter Maneuvering System pod, a problem with a computer for the Air Force Range Safety Officer nearly thwarted the long-anticipated launch. The crew of STS-133 finally launched on their historic mission, with reinforced ribs, or stringers, in the tank’s “intertank” section and a leak-free OMS – and two seconds before the launch window would have closed – a working computer in the Range. “That was about as last second as you can get,” said spokesman Allard Beutel from Kennedy Space Center.

Discovery set off on her final journey from a picture-perfect warm February day at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, thrilling enormous crowds of onlookers, a huge international press corp and dedicated Tweet-up attendees.
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It’s generally assumed that the Earth’s overall composition is similar to that of chondritic meteorites, the primitive, undifferentiated building blocks of the solar system. But a new study in Science Express led by Frederic Moynier, of the University of California at Davis, seems to suggest that Earth is a bit of an oddball.

 

 

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Space shuttle Discovery from a unique perspective. Credit: John O'Connor from NASATech

We’ve mentioned the NASATech website before, but this unique website and the incredible images by John O’Connor bear repeating. And for those of you wishing you were at the STS-133 launch today but can’t be here, seeing John’s high resolution, pan-able images is almost better — you’ll probably never get as close to the orbiters as these images can bring you. The image above is a screen clip of space shuttle Discovery on the launchpad, from the perspective of looking up at the orbiter from standing by the right OMS pod, and I was looking at another of John’s images of Endeavour in the Orbiter Processing Facility where I was able to read the markings on each of the heat-resistant tiles on the orbiter’s underside. John creates extremely high resolution virtual tours, and the interactive 360 degree images he creates are nothing short of stunning — but they are also very bandwidth intensive — so be prepared, and watch out if you don’t have high speed internet or if you have a lot of browsers or windows open on your computer.

Right now on his website you can see different views of Endeavour preparing for the next mission, STS-134, and scroll down a bit to find all sorts of images of Discovery from several different perspectives. See her before she launches on her final mission, STS-133.

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The twin brother of the R2 Robonaut awaits launch of Space Shuttle Discovery on the STS-133 mission, its 39th and final fligh to space. Credit: Ken Kremer

Space Shuttle Discovery is unveiled for blastoff at 4:50 p.m. today, Feb. 24 from launch Pad 39 A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida . This is roughly the moment when Earth’s rotation carries the launch pad into the plane of the orbit of International Space Station (ISS)

The rotating service structure was retracted on Wednesday night starting around 8 p.m. Feb. 23 over about 25 minutes under a light fog.

In a major milestone, the External Fuel tank has been successfully loaded with 535,000 gallons of liquid hydrogen fuel and liquid oxygen to power Discovery’s three main engines during the 8 1/2-minute climb into orbit. A dangerous leak of gaseous hydrogen is what caused the launch scrub last Nov. 5. [click to continue…]

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August 2010 Launch site Warner Springs Gliderport is in the middle of this shot from the edge of space. Credit: Quest for Stars

From a Challenger Center press release:

If all goes according to plan, a balloon with a student-oriented payload will photograph Space Shuttle Discovery as it climbs into space from an altitude of 100,000 feet. There will also be live streaming video from the balloon itself during the mission – sent back by two regular smartphones running Google’s Android operating system.
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Artist’s impression showing the disk around the young star T Chamaeleontis. The companion object in the foreground may be either a brown dwarf or a large planet. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada

An international team of astronomers peering at a young star in the constellation Chamaeleon have detected a smaller companion — a dust-shrouded brown dwarf, or perhaps a planet — that appears to be carving out a large gap in the stellar disk. The discovery is a first: Although planets have been spotted before in more mature disks, this is the first detection of a planet-sized object in the disk around a young star. [click to continue…]


ATV Rocket Launch Photo from Earth Orbiting ISS.
This remarkable photo was taken by ESA astronaut Paolo Nespoli from the ISS on 16 February 2011, just minutes after ATV Johannes Kepler lifted off on board an Ariane 5 from Kourou at 22:50 UTC. It shows the rising exhaust trail of Ariane, still in its initial vertical trajectory. The trail can be seen as a thin streak framed just beneath the Station's remote manipulator arm. Credits: ESA/ NASA

Have you ever seen a space launch from orbit ?

Check out the spectacular launch photo (above) of the Johannes Kepler ATV streaking skyward atop an Ariane 5 rocket as captured by astronaut Paolo Nespoli from his unparalleled vantage point looking out the windows aboard the International Space Station (ISS), in orbit some 350 km above Earth.

The launch photo shows the rising exhaust trail from the rocket just minutes after blast off of the Ariane booster on Feb. 16 from the ESA rocket base in Kourou, French Guiana, South America. The rocket was still on a vertical ascent trajectory to orbit. Additional launch photos below from space and Earth. [click to continue…]

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High mass X-ray binaries were probably common in the early universe - and their X-ray emitting black hole components may have shaped the destiny of the later universe. Credit: ESO.

There’s a growing view that black holes in the early universe may have been the seeds around which most of today’s big galaxies (now with supermassive black holes within) first grew. And taking a step further back, it might also be the case that black holes were key to reionizing the early interstellar medium – which then influenced the large scale structure of today’s universe. [click to continue…]

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Artist's conception of Milky Way, showing locations of star-forming regions whose distances were recently measured. CREDIT: M. Reid, Harvard-Smithsonian CfA; R. Hurt, SSC/JPL/Caltech, NRAO/AUI/NSF

Kitt Peak. Los Alamos. St. Croix. Pie Town.

What do these places have in common? They each house one of 10 giant telescopes in the Very Large Baseline Array, a continent-spanning collection of telescopes that’s flexing its optical muscles, reaching farther into space — with more precision — than any other telescope in the world.

And today, at the 177th annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, DC, VLBA researchers announced an amazing feat: They’ve used the VLBA to peer, with stunning accuracy, three times as far into the universe as they had just two years ago. New measurements with the VLBA have placed a galaxy called NGC 6264 (coordinates below) at a distance of 450 million light-years from Earth, with an uncertainty of no more than 9 percent. This is the farthest distance ever directly measured, surpassing a measurement of 160 million light-years to another galaxy in 2009.

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NASA Sets STS-133 Launch for February 24

by Nancy Atkinson on February 18, 2011

Shuttle Discovery on the launchpad. Credit: Alan Walters (awaltersphoto.com) for Universe Today.

Following a Flight Readiness Review today, NASA and Space Shuttle Program managers announced that space shuttle Discovery is ready to launch next week Thursday to finally send the STS-133 mission to the International Space Station. Launch is now scheduled for Feb. 24, at 4:50 p.m. EST. “We had a really thorough review today,” said William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for Space Operations. “Things are looking pretty good.”
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Sunspot Activity Hasn’t Stopped Yet

by Tammy Plotner on February 18, 2011

Sunspot 1161 on 02-17-11 by John Chumack

According to SpaceWeather: “Fast-growing active region 1161 erupted this morning, producing an M6.6-class solar flare at 1011 UT. The almost-X category blast was one of the strongest flares in years and continued the week-long trend of high solar activity.” Just how awesome is that? Then take a look at these white light solar images done by John Chumack… [click to continue…]

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Answer Now Posted for This Week’s WITU Challenge

by Nancy Atkinson on February 18, 2011

Could this really be a Klingon moon which acts as the Empire’s key energy-production facility? Or something based on reality? There’s just one way to find out and find the answer to this week’s Where In The Universe challenge: check back on the original post.

And come back again next week for another test of your visual knowledge of the cosmos.

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First-Time Solar System Mosaic From the Inside Out

by Anne Minard on February 18, 2011

MESSENGER's new solar system portrait, from the inside out

Say cheese! The MESSENGER spacecraft has captured the first portrait of our Solar System from the inside looking out. The images, captured Nov. 3 and 16, 2010, were snapped with the Wide Angle Camera (WAC) and Narrow Angle Camera (NAC) of MESSENGER’s Mercury Dual Imaging System (MDIS).

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NASA Weighs Risks of Unique Photo-Op at Space Station

by Nancy Atkinson on February 18, 2011

In this computer-generated representation, a space shuttle is docked to a completed and fully operational International Space Station (ISS). Credit: NASA

If all goes well and space shuttle Discovery arrives at the International Space Station the end of February, there will be a distinctive configuration: all the international partners will have a vehicle docked to the completed ISS. With the shuttle program about to retire, this configuration will be unique enough – this is the only time it will happen during the shuttle program — that NASA is considering putting three cosmonauts/astronauts in one of the Soyuz capsules that are docked to the station, have them undock and fly around to take pictures of the entire complex.

The Soyuz could photograph the station, showing the ISS in its final, completed configuration, with the shuttle attached, along with the Russian Progress and Soyuz, the European ATV and the Japanese HTV-1.

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Sun Erupts with Enormous X2 Solar Flare

by Ken Kremer on February 17, 2011

Sun Erupts With an Enormous X2 Solar Flare Aimed at Earth


Just in time for Valentine’s Day, [and the Stardust flyby of Comet Tempel 1] the Sun erupted with a massive X-Class flare, the most powerful of all solar events on February 14 at 8:56 p.m. EST . This was the first X-Class flare in Solar Cycle 24 and the most powerful X-ray flare in more than four years.

The video above shows the flare as imaged by the AIA instrument at 304 Angstroms on NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. More graphic videos below show the flare in the extreme ultraviolet wavelength of 193 Angstroms and as a composite with SOHO’s coronagraph.

Spaceweather Update: A CME hit Earth’s magnetic field at approximately 0100 UT on Feb. 18th (8:00 pm EST on Feb. 17th). Send me or comment your aurora photos [click to continue…]

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First-Time Views of Solar System Births

by Anne Minard on February 17, 2011

SUBARU Telescope image of the protoplanetary disk around the young star LkCa 15. Credit: MPIA (C. Thalmann) & NAOJ

Chalk up a sizzling success for the HiCIAO planet-hunter camera on the Subaru Telescope in Hawaii: it’s captured this unprecedented image of a stellar disk similar in size to our own solar system, featuring rings and gaps that are associated with the formation of giant planets.

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Fiscal Squeeze Could Freeze NASA Budget for Five Years

by Nancy Atkinson on February 15, 2011

Fiscal Squeeze Could Freeze NASA's Budget for 5 Years


NASA officials put on happy faces on February 14 to discuss their new budget proposal for Fiscal Year 2012, but it wasn’t exactly cheerful news. President Barack Obama proposed freezing NASA’s budget at the 2010 level, and called for a five-year freeze on new spending for the space agency. This would put NASA at $18.7 billion annually through fiscal 2016. Gone is the 1.6-percent increase NASA had sought for fiscal 2011, which ends in September, as well as the promised steady increases of an extra $6 billion over five years. But, truth be told, no one knows for sure what level NASA will be funded during this tight financial time, and the conservatives in Congress have talked about not just freezing the budgets of agencies like NASA, but reducing them.

“This budget requires us to live within our means so we can invest in our future,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said. “It maintains our commitment to human spaceflight and provides for strong programs to continue the outstanding science, aeronautics research and education needed to win the future.”
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ATV ‘Johannes Kepler’ Launch to Space Station Delayed to Wednesday

by Nancy Atkinson on February 15, 2011

Making of ATV-2


The European Space Agency’s Automated Transfer Vehicle-2 (ATV-2) “Johannes Kepler” launch that was scheduled for Tuesday Feb. 15 was scrubbed due to a technical issue on the launch pad, and the slip could affect which day space shuttle Discovery launches for STS-133. Technicians at Launch Complex 3 in Kourou, French Guiana are looking at the problem, but preliminary details indicate some erroneous data on the status of the tank levels for fuel on the Ariane 5 rocket. They will go over the data carefully and if everything looks good they try again on Wednesday, Feb. 16.

This launch slip could change the launch date for STS-133, which is now scheduled for Feb. 24. If the ATV does launch on Wednesday (or on Thursday or Friday of this week), the launch of STS-133 will move to Feb. 25. But if the ATV launch slips beyond Friday means that the STS-133 launch stays on Feb. 24.

You can watch the launch attempt on Wednesday on NASA TV, and coverage will begin at 4:15 EST (21:15 GMT), with launch time at 4:50 pm EST (21:50 GMT). This is second launch of an ATV, and the 200th Ariane 5 launch.

In the meantime, find out more about the building of the ATV in this great video from ESA.
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NASA's Stardust-NExT mission took this image of comet Tempel 1 at 8:39 p.m. PST (11:39 p.m. EST) on Feb 14, 2011. The comet was first visited by NASA's Deep Impact mission in 2005. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell.
Update: See the expanding photo gallery below for Comet Tempel 1 images
being added now.

NASA’s Stardust-NExT raced past Comet Tempel 1 overnight Feb 14/15 at over 10 km/sec or 24,000 MPH and is now sending back the 72 astoundingly detailed and crisp science images of Comet Tempel 1 taken during closest approach at 11:37 p.m. EST on Feb. 14.

The high resolution images are amazingly sharp and clearly show a pockmarked and crater rich terrain of both new and previously unseen territory on the icy comets surface. The Stardust-NExT comet chaser zoomed within 181 km (112 miles) of the nucleus of the volatile comet.

See the photo gallery above and below, which is being updated as the images come back. I am enhancing and brightening certain images to show further details. The new images of Tempel 1 from Stardust-NExT surpass my expectations and look even sharper then those taken by NASA’s Deep Impact comet smasher in July 2005. [click to continue…]

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Thick Stellar Disk Isolated in Andromeda

by Nancy Atkinson on February 15, 2011

Schematic representation of a thick disc structure. The thick disc is formed of stars that are typically much older than those in the thin disc, making it an ideal probe of galactic evolution (Credit: Amanda Smith, IoA graphics officer)

From the Institute of Astronomy at Cambridge University press release:

A team of astronomers from the UK, the US and Europe have identified a thick stellar disc in the nearby Andromeda galaxy for the first time. The discovery and properties of the thick disc will constrain the dominant physical processes involved in the formation and evolution of large spiral galaxies like our own Milky Way.

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Comet Tempel 1 imaged by NASA's Stardust on Feb 14, Valentine’s Day.
NASA's Stardust-NExT mission took this image of comet Tempel 1 at 8:36 p.m. PST (11:36 p.m. EST) on Feb 14, 2011, from a distance of approximately 2200 km (1360 miles). The comet was first visited by NASA's Deep Impact mission in 2005. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell
Update Feb 15: Beautifully sharp Comet images now being downlinked. New story upcoming.

NASA’s Stardust-NExT comet chaser successfully zoomed by Comet Temple 1 exactly as planned a short while ago at 11:37 p.m. EST on Feb. 14.

The cosmic Valentine’s Day encounter between the icy comet and the aging probe went off without a hitch. Stardust snapped 72 science images as it raced by at over 10 km/sec or 24,000 MPH and they are all centered in the cameras field of view. The probe came within 181 km (112 miles) of the nucleus of the volatile comet. [click to continue…]

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From Mars with Love on Valentines Day

by Ken Kremer on February 14, 2011

From Mars with Love on Valentines Day.
A heart-shaped feature in the Arabia Terra region of Mars is show on the left, with additional context on the right, in excerpts of an image taken by the Context Camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Larger version below. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS.
See the Big Red Martian Heart below

Happy Valentine’s Day from Mars to all the readers of Universe Today !

Well it’s truly a solar system wide Valentines celebration. From the Moon, Mars and even Comet Temple 1 with some pixie Stardust for the romantic rendezvous upcoming in a few short hours [Stardust-NExT Flyby at 11:37 p.m. EST Feb 14].

The Martian camera team from Malin Space Systems, San Diego, wishes to share a special heart-shaped feature from Arabia Terra – images above and below – with all Mars fans on this St. Valentine’s Day, Feb. 14, 2011. [click to continue…]

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The HARPS-N spectrograph will be installed on the 3.6-meter Telescopio Nazionale Galileo in the Canary Islands. Credit: INAF

With the Kepler spacecraft finding over 1,200 planetary candidates, the next step is verifying their actual status. That will be a big job, but help is on the way. In April 2012, a new spectrograph called HARPS-North will come online to help confirm and characterize Kepler’s planetary candidates. It will be mounted on the 3.6-meter Telescopio Nazionale Galileo (TNG) in the Canary Islands.

“The Kepler mission gives us the size of a planet, based on the amount of light it blocks when it passes in front of its star. Now we need to measure planetary masses, so that we can calculate the densities. That will allow us to distinguish rocky planets and water worlds from ones dominated by atmospheres of hydrogen and helium,” explained astronomer David Latham from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA).

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With Love from the Carnival of Space

by Nancy Atkinson on February 14, 2011

The latest Carnival of Space is a spacey love poem, penned by Darnell Clayton (with a little help from several space bloggers) over at Colony Worlds.

Click here to read the Carnival of Space #184, Carnival of the Space Geeks, a Love Poem.

And if you’re interested in looking back, here’s an archive to all the past Carnivals of Space. If you’ve got a space-related blog, you should really join the Carnival. Find out more by sending an email to carnivalofspace@gmail.com.

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Sun Unleashes Biggest Flare of the Current Cycle

by Nancy Atkinson on February 14, 2011

A M6.6 solar flare peaked at 17:38 UT on Feb. 13, 2011. This is the largest solar flare so fare from this solar cycle based on X-ray irradiance magnitude. Credit: NASA/SDO

On February 13, 2011, sunspot 1158 let loose the strongest solar flare of the current solar cycle, a blast of radiation across the electromagnetic spectrum, from radio waves to x-rays and gamma-rays. NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory recorded an intense flash of extreme ultraviolet radiation, as seen above, and located in approximately the middle of the Sun’s disk in the image below. The eruption also produced a loud blast of radio waves, and coronagraph data from STEREO-A and SOHO agree that the explosion produced a fast but not particularly bright coronal mass ejection. Spaceweather.com predicts a CME cloud will likely hit Earth’s magnetic field on or about Feb. 15th, and high-latitude sky watchers should be alert for auroras.
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The Moon Loves You

by Nancy Atkinson on February 14, 2011

A heart-shaped crater in the Galilae region on the Moon. Credit: ASA/GSFC/Arizona State University; 3-D by Nathanial Burton-Bradford.

Happy Valentines Day from everyone here at Universe Today, and the Moon, too. In 3-D, no less.

Thanks to Nathanial Burton-Bradford for sending us this image. He found it while searching through the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera’s data set. Check out Nathanial’s Flickr page for larger versions of this one, and more. See the image below in its proper orientation for viewing in 3-D:
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The Lockheed Martin Orion team at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, La., inspects the first Orion crew module known as the Ground Test Article (GTA) prior to shipping to Lockheed Martin’s Denver facilities. In Denver, the GTA will be integrated with an encapsulating aeroshell to provide thermal protection before undergoing rigorous testing to verify it can withstand the harsh environments of a deep space mission. The aeroshell will complete the exterior of the spacecraft, as depicted in the hanging banner displayed in the upper left. Credit: NASA

The first Orion spacecraft has just been shipped from NASAs Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orlean’s to a Lockheed Martin manufacturing facility in Denver for crucial tests to simulate the harsh environment of deep space.

The Orion crew cabin – know as the Ground Test Article or GTA – was shipped by truck and will arrive in Denver on Feb. 14 according to a Lockheed Martin spokesperson.

Orion is NASA’s next generation crew vehicle and will eventually replace the Space Shuttle system after the looming retirement of the three orbiter fleet, now reset to mid 2011. [click to continue…]

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Gallery: WISE’s Greatest Hits

by Nancy Atkinson on February 11, 2011

WISE First Light image. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA

The WISE mission is now over, with the spacecraft taking its final image on Feb. 1, 2011. WISE was a “cool” infrared mission, with the optics chilled to less than 20 degrees centigrade above absolute zero (20 Kelvins). In its low Earth orbit (523 km above the ground), the spacecraft explored the entire Universe and collected infrared light coming from everywhere in space and studied asteroids, the coolest and dimmest stars, and the most luminous galaxies. Expect to hear and see more from WISE, however in the future. More images will be released from the team in April and in the spring of 2012. Here’s a look back at some of the great images from WISE’s 13 months in space:

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End of the Line for WISE

by Nancy Atkinson on February 11, 2011

The last image that will ever be taken by the WISE spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/WISE Team

First light images from telescopes and spacecraft are exciting – there is the exhilaration that the equipment is working and the anticipation of all the great observations to come. This image has a little different feel to it. On February 1st, 2011, NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, took its last snapshot of the sky. This “last light” image comes after just 13 months of service in space.
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Choosing a New Telescope – GoTo or not GoTo

by Adrian West on February 11, 2011


I am often asked by people “I’m a beginner, so what telescope should I buy?” Or more often, what GoTo telescope would I recommend for someone starting out in astronomy?

When venturing out and buying your first telescope, there are a number of factors to consider, but because of glossy advertising and our current digital age, the first telescope that people think of is a GoTo.

Do you really need a GoTo or would a manual telescope suffice? In order to make a good decision on what telescope to buy, you need to decide on what you want to use the telescope for — observing, photography, or both and does it need to be portable or not? This will help you make the best decision for the mount of your telescope.
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