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The Mighty Mississippi, from Space.

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Mississippi River Delta.
Mississippi River Delta. Image credit: ESA.

Here's a beautiful photograph of the Mississippi River Delta taken by ESA's Envisat Earth observation satellite. The image shows how the river empties sediment into the Gulf of Mexico, slowly building up the jutting peninsula. Natural and man-made factors have reversed this process over the last century, though, and Louisiana is losing its protective wetlands. The city of New Orleans is visible as the white crescent just below the inland Lake Pontchartrain.

Original Source: http://www.esa.int/esaEO/SEM6A1CE8YE_index_1.html

XMM-Newton's View of supernova 1987A

Supernova 1987A. Image credit: ESA.
February 23rd, 2007: supernova 1987A. Image credit: ESA.

I linked you to an image of supernova 1987A taken by the Hubble Space Telescope around the explosion's 20th anniversary. Here's another, this time taken by ESA's XMM-Newton Observatory to show you how it looks in X-rays.

And in the X-ray spectrum, SN 1987A is quite spectacular. It outshines all the nearby X-ray sources, and it's now 10 times brighter than it was when XMM-Newton first observed it back in 2000. The X-rays we see are generated when the expanding supernova shock wave interacts with the surrounding material.

The data gathered by XMM-Newton will help scientists understand how a supernova remnant forms, and eventually reveal the neutron star spinning at the centre.

Original Source: http://www.esa.int/esaCP/SEMPE0CE8YE_index_0.html

Scientists Lobbying to Search for Life on Europa

Europas surface, imaged by the Galileo spacecraft. Image credit: NASA/JPL.
February 22nd, 2007: Europa's surface, imaged by the Galileo spacecraft. Image credit: NASA/JPL.

Recently I reported on a proposal that spacecraft should return to Jupiter's Moon Europa to determine if it really has an ocean under its icy shell. Another group of scientists are lobbying for a return to Europa as well, as they feel it's one of the most likely places to find other life in the Solar System.

A group of scientists recently met at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Francisco to discuss their interest in Europa. By studying life in the Arctic and Antarctica, the scientists have uncovered life living in some of the most extreme and inhospitable places on Earth. In fact, they've found that life really thrives in and under the ice.

On Europa, the gravitational interaction with Jupiter creates cracks in the icy surface of the moon, where water wells up and then freezes into lakes. Future spacecraft should search these regions for life. Organisms could also be down at the bottom of the moon's oceans, huddled around thermal vents, like we see here on Earth.

If space agencies started planning now, the scientists hope there could be a lander on the surface of Europa within 15 years.

Original Source: http://www.berkeley.edu/news/media/releases/2007/02/22_europa.shtml

Star's magnetic field Slams its Solar Winds Back Together

XMM-Newton view of AB Aurigae. Image credit: ESA.
February 22nd, 2007: XMM-Newton view of AB Aurigae. Image credit: ESA.

ESA's XMM-Newton X-Ray observatory has helped Astronomers puzzle through a mystery that's haunted them for a long time. For more than 20 years, observatories have detected X-rays streaming from something in the AB Aurigae system. But nothing in the system should be able to generate this quantity of X-rays.

AB Aurigae contains 2.7 times the mass of our Sun, and it's one of the largest stars in the Taurus-Auriga star-forming cloud. It's classified as a Herbig star, named after the Astronomer who first discovered them. When the region was viewed in the X-ray spectrum, AB Aurgae stood out like a sore thumb.

But what could be releasing so many X-rays? Some Astronomers suggested a companion star, but the temperature of the gas producing the X-rays was too low to be a newborn star.

The data from XMM-Newton showed that the X-rays are actually coming from a region just above the star. It appears that material cast off by the star by its two hemispheres are being collided together by its magnetic field. It's where the solar wind is colliding that the X-rays are being generated.

Original Source: http://www.esa.int/esaCP/SEM01WBE8YE_index_0.html

Instruments Integrated Into the Supercool Planck Observatory

Artist impression of Planck. Image credit: Alcatel.
February 22nd, 2007: Artist impression of Planck. Image credit: Alcatel.

One of the most powerful new space observatories, ESA's Planck mission, reached an important milestone with the integration of several instruments into the main satellite. The integration was performed by Alcatel Alenia Space in Cannes, France.

When it's finally complete, Planck will use a 1.5 metre telescope to view the cosmic microwave background radiation. This is the afterglow of the radiation that filled the universe after the Big Bang. Planck's huge instrument and array of detectors will allow it to measure minute variations in this radiation, and help Cosmologists understand the environment after the Big Bang. Not only that, but scientists will use Planck to understand the overall geometry of space, the density of normal matter versus dark matter, and the rate at which the universe is accelerating apart. Important questions indeed.

In order to perform this science, Planck's detectors will need to be cooled down to almost absolute zero (-270 degrees C). That's because this background radiation is only 2.7 degrees above absolute zero.

The spacecraft is due to launch in July 2008.

Original Source: http://www.jb.man.ac.uk/news/planck/

20th Anniversary of the Brightest supernova in Recent History

Supernova 1987A. Image Credit: Hubble.
February 22nd, 2007: supernova 1987A. Image Credit: Hubble.

Only 20 years ago, Astronomers were treated to one of the most powerful nearby explosions - a sight not seen in 400 years, before the advent of modern telescopes. What we now call supernova 1987A detonated in the Large Magellenic Cloud providing a wealth of data for astronomers. Okay, it actually detonated 163,000 years ago, but that's how long it took the light to reach us.

Once it was in orbit, and its optics repaired, SN 1987A was one of the first targets for the Hubble Space Telescope. Hubble revealed how a supernova is much more complicated than Astronomers ever expected, and helped rewrite the textbooks on exploding stars.

The attached image shows the amazing glowing ring of material surrounding the supernova. The ring has been there for years, but the supernova is illuminating it as the light echo moves through the material energizing the gas. As this ring of light continues to expand, it'll reveal more details about what the star went through before it exploded.

This image was taken in December 2006, using Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys.

Original Source: http://hubblesite.org/newscenter/archive/releases/2007/10/full/

Spacewalkers Retract Spacecraft's Antenna

Computer illustration of the station. Image credit: NASA.
February 22nd: Computer illustration of the station. Image credit: NASA.

Another day, another spacewalk. For the last month it seems like astronauts on board the International Space Station have spent more days outside than inside.

Okay, not exactly. But Flight Engineer Mikhail Tyurin and Commander Michael Lopez-Alegria spent another day outside the station helping to retract a stuck antenna on a docked Progress cargo ship.

The antenna didn't retract like it was supposed to when the unpiloted Progress ship docked with the station back in October 2006. The extended antenna would put the station at a bit of a risk when the spacecraft undocks in April 2007, so NASA decided to get it stowed safely away.

The astronauts spent a total of 6 hours and 18 minutes in space. They cut the struts holding up the antenna, and strapped it down with wire ties. It now has about 16 cm (6 inches) of clearance from the Zvezda module - plenty of room to undock safely.

This was the 10th spacewalk for Lopez-Alegria, a US record.

Original Source: http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/expeditions/expedition14/exp14_eva17.html

New Engine Could Let spacecraft Do More with Less Fuel

Electric/magnetic engine. Image credit: Georgia Tech.
February 22nd: Electric/magnetic engine. Image credit: Georgia Tech.

One of the main problems with spacecraft is the cost to get them into orbit. For every kilogram you can shave off their weight, you get additional cost savings in launch expenses. A team of researchers from Georgia Tech think they have a solution to help spacecraft operate with 40% less fuel.

The technology is similar to the successful ion engines that powered NASA's Deep Space 1 and ESA's SMART-1 spacecraft. Solar power is used to generate an electric field that fires ions out at high velocities. It doesn't provide a lot of thrust, but it can run for weeks or months, accelerating a spacecraft to enormous speed.

The Georgia Tech design would allow operators to adjust the spacecraft's exhaust velocity depending on its requirements. It would run at maximum acceleration during orbit transfers, but then conserve fuel during other times.

They say they're still years away from commercial applications, though.

Original Source: http://www.gatech.edu/news-room/release.php?id=1281

The Search Continues for Beagle 2

H20 Crater. Image credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona.
February 22nd: H20 Crater. Image credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona.

Since its disappearance in December 2003, scientists have continued the search for Europe's Beagle 2 lander. Although they've lost hope in regaining contact, at least they might be able to discover what happened to it and learn from their mistakes.

The powerful new Mars Reconnaissance orbit has been called into duty to help with the search, and the spacecraft has produced high-resolution images of the region where Beagle 2 was thought to have disappeared.

This image shows the H20 crater, which is located within the 10-50 km ellipse where Beagle 2 should be. Lead scientist for Beagle 2, Colin Pillinger, has reviewed the image and hasn't found any wreckage yet. But he's not giving up hope, as MRO will be supplying additional images of the region in the future.

Original Source: http://www.pparc.ac.uk/Nw/mro_crater.asp

Aliens on This World Would See a Double Sunset

Gamma Cephei A+B. Image credit: Calar Alto.
February 22nd: Gamma Cephei A+B. Image credit: Calar Alto.

Imagine a world orbiting a star in a binary system. Two stars would shine in the day, and the rare nights would occur only when both stars had set below the horizon. Now Astronomers have discovered a world where this is the case - the sunsets would be spectacular.

The planet is located in the gamma Cephei system, and has about 1.7 times the mass of Jupiter. It completes an orbit once every 3 years. Astronomers have known about the bright main star and its planet, but now they've been able to tease out images of a much dimmer second star.

The two stars are separated by only 20 times the distance between the Earth and the Sun. The brighter Cephei A has about 1.5 times the mass of the Sun, while the dimmer Cephei B has about half the mass of the Sun. The planet orbits the brighter star.

The images were captured using the Japanese Subaru telescope located in Hawaii, and the Calar Alto telescope in Spain.

Original Source: http://www.caha.es/stars-having-planets-single-or-coupled_en.html

Virgin Galactic Considering Hypersonic Airline Travel

Concept image of SpaceShipTwo. Image credit: Virgin Galactic.
February 21st: Concept image of SpaceShipTwo. Image credit: Virgin Galactic.

In principle, Virgin Galactic and NASA's Ames research group would work together to develop hybrid rocket motors and the study of vehicles that travel faster than Mach 5. Dan Coughlin from NASA's Marshall Flight Center will work with Virgin Galactic. With these kinds of speeds, Virgin could offer customers trips across the world that would only take a couple of hours.

Until now, Virgin Galactic has been working with Scaled Composites to develop a larger version of SpaceShipOne, the vehicle that won the X-prize in October, 2004. Adventurous space tourists will pay about $200,000 USD to fly on SpaceShipTwo to an altitude of 100km and enjoy 6 minutes of weightlessness.

There just aren't a lot of details right now. I'll see what else I can dig up.

Original Source: http://www.flightglobal.com/articles/2007/02/21/212266/virgin-galactic-and-nasa-to-research-hypersonic-point-to-point.html

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