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Space Shuttle Atlantis finally lifted off from Cape Canaveral.

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Atlantis lifting off.
Atlantis lifting off. Image credit: NASA.

After a three-month delay, the Space Shuttle Atlantis finally lifted off from Cape Canaveral on Friday, beginning mission STS-117. The shuttle blasted off at 7:38 pm EDT, and reached orbit just a few minutes later.

If everything goes well, Atlantis will spend the next 11 days in orbit, delivering a new set of solar arrays to the International Space Station, increasing its ability to generate power. The shuttle is also carrying a longer-staying visitor to the station; mission specialist Clayton C. Anderson will remain on board, and Atlantis will carry Suni Williams back down after 6 months in space.

The long delay started back in March, when a freak hailstorm pounded the shuttle's external fuel tank, chewing up the delicate foam insulation. Workers brought the shuttle back to the Vehicle Assembly Building and repaired it, before returning it to launch Pad 39-A.

Atlantis is currently matching orbits with the International Space Station, and the two spacecraft will link up on Sunday.

Original Source: NASA News Release

How Supermassive black holes Come Together

Simulation of merging black holes. Image credit: Stanford.
June 8th, 2007: Simulation of merging black holes. Image credit: Stanford.

Galaxies get bigger and bigger through galactic mergers. Two small galaxies come together, merge their stars, and you get a bigger galaxy. But Astronomers have always wondered, what happens with the two supermassive black holes that seem to always lurk at the heart of galaxies. What happens when two compact objects with millions of times the mass of our Sun collide? Good question.

An international team of physicists have developed a computer simulation designed to answer this very question. And in a recent article in Science Express, they published the results of the simulation.

It turns out the interaction depends a lot on the amount of hot gas surrounding each black hole. As they start to interact, this gas exerts a frictional force on the black holes, slowing down their spin rate. Once they get within the width of our solar system, they should start emitting gravitational waves, which continues to extract energy from the system. This causes them to continue coming together, and eventually merge.

This simulation is good news for experiments designed to search for gravitational waves. The mergers should be so energetic, they'll generate gravitational waves detectable across space.

Original Source: Stanford News Release

Stable Star Gives the Best Chance for Life

Gliese 581  Photo: ESO Online Digitized Sky Survey.
June 8th, 2007: Gliese 581 Photo: ESO Online Digitized Sky Survey.

One of the biggest news stories of the year was an Earth-sized planet orbiting Gliese 581. Even more importantly, this terrestrial planet is orbiting within the star's habitable zone, where any water will likely be in liquid form. But it takes more than just water to encourage life, you need a nice, stable star. And according to a new survey, Gliese 581 fits the bill there too.

The survey was done by Canada's MOST telescope, nicknamed the Humble Space Telescope. It's a suitcase-sized space observatory with the ability to watch for changes in brightness with incredible sensitivity. MOST focused on Gliese 581 for 6 weeks, watching for any flareups, or drops in light.

According to University of British Columbia researcher, Jaymie Matthews, the brightness of the star only changed a few tenths of a percent during their observations. That means its radiation output remains very stable over time.

So, Gliese 581c has the possibility of liquid water and stable warming from the star. Good news for potential life on this distant planet.

Original Source: UBC News Release

Astrosphere for June 8, 2007

Mars, the Red Planet. Image credit: NASA/JPL.
June 8th, 2007: Mars, the Red Planet. Image credit: NASA/JPL.

Welcome back to the astrosphere, where I acknowledge that maybe, just maybe, there are other space blogs that you could be reading.

First, I'd like to mention that I've got a doppelganger. Some guy named Fraser Cain is over at Wired Science Blogs reporting on their space news. Okay, it's me. Where do I find the time? I've learned to blog in my sleep.

Okay, now on to the actual space blog sphere.

I'd like to draw your attention to Chris Lintott. Those in the UK will know who he is, but for those of outside of the Isles, he's a renowned astrophysicist and co-presenter on the BBC's Sky at Night. He and collaborator Harriet Scott have started up a new podcast called Living Space. It's good listening, pretty slick stuff.

Pamela Gay is blogging about the second episode of The Universe from The History Channel. This time, she's talking about The Red Planet.

Centauri Dreams has an interesting look at a precursor mission planned by ESA to deflect an asteroid.

Space Law Probe has discovered that a cool career for the 21st century might be a space law lawyer.

Contact with Alien Civilizations

Contact with Alien Civilizations.
June 7th, 2007 by Mark Mortimer: Contact with Alien Civilizations.

Beep, beep, bop, be-bop. These could represent a new song or a communication from intelligent species on another world. With discoveries of more and more planets circling far away suns, there seems an increasing possibility that we have fellow, smart occupants sharing this universe. Michael Michaud takes this consideration seriously in his book Contact with Alien Civilizations. In a very forwarding looking text, he puts sound reasoning into analyzing the issues about if and when we find we're not alone.

Throughout history and pre-history, across the globe and across races, people have recorded their thoughts and experiences of visitations from elsewhere. Some of these became religions, many were brought into religions and others were perhaps just from too fertile an imagination to be taken seriously. Yet, we exist and there is no proof that others dont exist. We live on one planet among many. Innumerable other stars may harbour an even greater number of planets. And on these planets, something may be sending and/or receiving messages that transcend their local solar system.

Michaud notes that he's had over 30 years serious involvement regarding alien life. His book shows his dedication and knowledge. Using passages from luminaries such as Sagan, Rees and Hoyle, he intones a solidly practical analysis of issues regarding contact with aliens. First he provides some definitions: intelligence, civilization, contact and others get careful study. Next, he contemplates possibilities through a studious analysis of the factors of Drakes equation (see Frank Drake and SETI). Last, he wonders about the relevance to our existence given the finite possibility of aliens and potential interactions should some sort of contact occur. With this, he offers in his book a very broad, thought provoking study that will have the reader becoming quite reflective.

The book encourages reflection through two means. Throughout the book are short paragraphs entitled 'Mind Stretches'. These take the concept of the previous paragraph or section and provide a very different but valid perspective. For instance, we expect that we can easily communicate with aliens upon contact. But stretch you mind and consider that dolphins may be an intelligent being, yet we can't communicate with them. Michaud's other point for reflection is that we only consider one sample set when postulating the actions of aliens. That set is ourselves. As such, he continually pulls historical examples and some very recent human actions into his book to show to the reader that our intelligence hasn't made us very altruistic or benevolent. For instance, aliens may treat us they way Europeans treated native Americans. We may be a very small fish in a very big pond and, as Michaud suggests in his book's later sections, we would be wise to be cautious.

With so many challenging preconceptions about alien contact already provided by fanciful movies and books, Michaud understandably has to be sedate in his writing approach. As he notes, there's a lot of giggle factor related to this subject. Perhaps in response to this, his writing style is wordy. For example, he discusses each factor of Drakes equation with its relevance when set to a particular value, when set to much less and when set to much more. He does this with almost every other unknown parameter as well. As we've never met an alien, there are many parameters. Thus, the book is indeed thorough, but at times tiring with its exhaustive inspection.

Yet, the book includes many fascinating and unexpected points. Understandably there's lots on philosophy. Are we alone; does the universe revolve around our species; and, is everything in existence for the use of humans? As well, should humans be trying to contact aliens; with what urgency should we start populating outer space; and, how should we react to alien contact? As an example, what would we do if it came to our attention tomorrow that aliens were colonizing Mars? These questions about our actions, our purpose and ourselves serve hopefully, to make the reader delve a little deeper into their own existence.

Because of this, the reader who will get the most from this book is one who looks beyond the faade. They have global interests with timelines that extend past the next meal. Theirs is the purvey of multi-generational, international efforts. Specialists in non-astronomical fields, generalists who have enhanced curiosity and visionaries would all find that this book has meaningful implications. The ideas and the verbiage are more appropriate to a learned audience, but anyone with a strong interest will appreciate the book treats the encountering of extraterrestrials.

Aliens may be little green men. They may come to save humanity. They may teach us to be a better race in a galactic club. They may not. Michael Michaud in his book looks at this and other valid questions in his book Contact with Alien Civilizations. He shows that encountering extraterrestrials can come in a variety of ways and with a variety of consequences. It shows that being prepared through scientific study would make a first encounter a better encounter.

Read more reviews, or purchase a copy online from Amazon.com.

Tangled Seaweed Viewed From Space

Sargassum as seen by MERIS Source: ESA.
June 7th, 2007: Sargassum as seen by MERIS Source: ESA.

This strange looking photograph is actually the Gulf of Mexico, seen from space by ESA's Envisat Earth imaging satellite. Specifically, the spacecraft has picked up huge lines of Sargassam seaweed floating in the warm waters off the coast of the US.

To make this observation, Envisat used the Medium Resolution Imaging Spectrometer (MERIS), which has the ability to see objects with large quantities of chlorophyll - in this case, seaweed. Since marine plants absorb half of the carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere, being able to track the density of marine vegetation is very important for climate research.

By using a new processing algorithm, researchers are now working to calculate global estimates of Sargassum biomass, to help keep track of its contribution to ocean productivity. This will also give them the ability to spot any changes in biomass, and better fine tune climate models.

Original Source: ESA News Release

Atlas Between the Rings

A small icy world plies between Saturn's rings. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute.
June 7th, 2007: A small icy world plies between Saturn's rings. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute.

There's a Moon in this picture. Do you see it? You're going to want to look at the enlarged image. See the white dot? That's Saturn's Moon Atlas, measuring a tiny 32 km (20 miles) across. Thanks to its gravity, Atlas has cleared out the space between Saturn's A and F rings.

Of course, this photograph was taken by NASA's Cassini spacecraft as part of its ongoing work at Saturn. It took the image on April 29, 2007 when it was approximately 1.8 million km (1.1 million miles) from Atlas.

Original Source: NASA/JPL/SSI News Release

Cosmonauts Install Protective Panels on Second Spacewalk

Flight Engineer Oleg Kotov and Commander Fyodor Yurchikhin. Image credit: NASA.
June 7th, 2007: Flight Engineer Oleg Kotov and Commander Fyodor Yurchikhin. Image credit: NASA.

Although the International Space Station is pretty safe from micrometeorite impacts, NASA wanted to give the station an extra layer of protection. So, cosmonauts Fyodor Yurchikhin and Oleg Kotov made their second trip outside the station on Wednesday, installing scientific equipment and improving the Zvezda module's armour.

The team exited the station from the Pirs airlock on Wednesday, and spent 5 hours and 25 minutes performing a series of outside jobs. Their first task was to install a Russian scientific experiment called Biorisk. This measures the effects of microorganisms on structural materials used in space. This was hooked up to the outside of Pirs.

Then they connected an Ethernet cable onto a section of the Zarya module. This task is only halfway finished. They've got a second part to do in a future spacewalk.

Finally, they moved to the Zvezda Service Module, and installed a series of 2.5 cm (1 inch) thick aluminum panels to the outside of the module. These will give Zvezda more protection if it's unlucky enough to get hit by a micrometeorite.

The station's third resident, American astronaut Suni Williams, remained inside to help coordinate activities.

Original Source: NASA News Release

Most Distant black hole Discovered

Most distant black hole. Image credit: CFHT.
June 7th, 2007: Most distant black hole. Image credit: CFHT.

An international team of Astronomers have discovered a supermassive black hole at the very edge of the observable universe, located 13 billion light-years away. Since the universe is 13.7 billion years old, we're seeing this object when the universe was only 700 million years old. Wow.

Active galactic nuclei, or quasars, occur when a supermassive black hole is feasting on infalling material. Material piles up faster than the black hole can feed, and it starts to glow so brightly that Astronomers can see it clear across the universe. This object, CFHQS J2329-0301, was discovered as part of a new distant quasar survey performed with the MegaCam imager on the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope (CFHT).

The black hole powering the quasar is thought to have 500 million times the mass of the Sun - that makes it hungry and bright. And because the quasar is so bright, Astronomers can use it as a background object to examine the gas in front. And with follow up observations, they can get more details about what kind of Galaxy it formed inside.

Original Source: Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope News Release

Japanese Moon Probe Nicknamed KAGUYA

June 7th, 2007: SELENE Source: JAXA.

The Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency announced that they're giving their SELenological and ENgineering Explorer (aka SELENE) a new nickname: Kaguya. Now I know it's not the hugest news in the aerospace industry, but I haven't actually given many words to this lunar mission. So, now I've got an excuse. For those of you with some Greek mythology knowledge, Selene was the Greek Moon goddess, so the name SELENE is actually pretty clever.

The mission will consist of 3 different spacecraft: a relay satellite, the VRAD satellite, and the Orbiter. If all goes well, they'll launch together on July 1, 2007 atop an H-IIA rocket from the Tanegashima Space Center into a lunar trajectory. 5 days later, the trio will reach the Moon, and then go into an extremely eccentric orbit, varying between 120 and 13,000 km (75 by 8,100 miles).

Over time, the relay and VRAD satellites will move to lower, but still eccentric orbits. The orbiter will go into a nice, tight 100 km (62 miles) circular orbit.

The purpose of SELENE will be to perform a global survey of the Moon, determining its elemental abundance, minerals, topology, gravity and other aspects that will help future lunar exploration - especially important when humans set foot on the Moon again.

The VRAD satellite has a different job to do. It'll measure the position and precession of the Moon very very carefully. Once again, very important when you're sending future missions back to the Moon.

So, by a popular vote in Japan, SELENE was nicknamed Kaguya. This comes from a 10th century Japanese folktale. You can read the entry for a full description.

Original Source: Jaxa News Release

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