Tuesday, July 28, 2015

National Transportation Safety Board Determines the Cause of 2014 SpaceShipTwo Crash

NTSB Acting Chairman Christopher Hart surveys one section of the SpaceShipTwo accident site. Credit: NTSB

The National Transportation Safety Board determined the cause of the Oct. 31, 2014 in-flight breakup of SpaceShipTwo, was Scaled Composite’s failure to consider and protect against human error and the co-pilot’s premature unlocking of the spaceship’s feather system as a result of time pressure and vibration and loads that he had not recently experienced. SpaceShipTwo was a commercial space vehicle that Scaled Composites built for Virgin Galactic. The vehicle broke up during a rocket-powered test flight, seriously injuring the pilot and killing the co-pilot.

Fertility Deities on Dwarf Planet Ceres

This pair of images shows color-coded maps from NASA's Dawn mission, revealing the highs and lows of topography on the surface of dwarf planet Ceres. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Acting on behalf of the NASA Dawn mission team, researchers from the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) chose 17 of approximately 150 fertility deities to name the most prominent craters on Ceres, which they presented to the International Astronomical Union (IAU). These names were chosen because the dwarf planet bears the name of the Roman goddess of agriculture. Now, deities from five continents – from Hawaii's Haulani and Occator, the Roman god of the harrow, to the German goddess Gaue – populate the dwarf planet's extremely varied surface. Tamayie, the Polynesian god of the coconut tree, and the Mexican deity Nanahuatl did not make the line-up.

Researcher Bakes Asteroids to Find Water

Asteroid Ida with its moon Dactyl. Credit: LANL

A Missouri University of Science and Technology researcher is cooking up something new in the lab – baking meteorites to learn how to produce water and other easily evaporated compounds from asteroids. Dr. Leslie Gertsch, an associate professor of geological engineering at Missouri S&T, hopes to find a sustainable way for near-Earth objects (NEOs) like asteroids and comets to produce consumable materials in space instead of pushing them up from the Earth’s surface.

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Preparing for Mars Lander's 2016 Arrival

NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter passes above a portion of the planet called Nilosyrtis Mensae in this artist's concept illustration. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

With its biggest orbit maneuver since 2006, NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) will prepare this week for the arrival of NASA's next Mars lander, InSight, next year. A planned 77-second firing of six intermediate-size thrusters on July 29 will adjust the orbit timing of the veteran spacecraft so it will be in position to receive radio transmissions from InSight as the newcomer descends through the Martian atmosphere and touches down on Sept. 28, 2016. These six rocket engines, which were used for trajectory corrections during the spacecraft's flight from Earth to Mars, can each produce about 22 newtons, or five pounds, of thrust.

Undergraduates Discover the Densest Galaxies Known

Artist's depiction of the night sky as seen from a planet at the heart of an ultracompact galaxy. More than a million stars are visible with the naked eye, in contrast to the few thousand visible from Earth. Image credit: NASA, ESA, G. Bacon (STScI) and P. van Dokkum (Yale University)

Two undergraduates at San José State University have discovered two galaxies that are the densest known. Similar to ordinary globular star clusters but a hundred to a thousand times brighter, the new systems have properties intermediate in size and luminosity between galaxies and star clusters. The first system discovered by the investigators, M59-UCD3, has a width two hundred times smaller than our own Milky Way Galaxy and a stellar density 10,000 times larger than that in the neighborhood of the Sun. For an observer in the core of M59-UCD3, the night sky would be a dazzling display, lit up by a million stars. The stellar density of the second system, M85-HCC1, is higher still: about a million times that of the Solar neighborhood. Both systems belong to the new class of galaxies known as ultracompact dwarfs (UCDs).

'Bathtub Rings' Suggest Titan's Dynamic Seas

Images from Cassini show one of the large seas (left) and several small lakes (right) on Saturn’s moon Titan. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech-University of Arizona

Saturn’s moon, Titan, is the only object in the Solar System other than Earth known to have liquid on its surface. While most of the lakes are found around the poles, the dry regions near the equator contain signs of evaporated material left behind like rings on a bathtub that, when combined with geological features, suggest that the location of the liquids on the moon has shifted over time. “Today, Titan’s equatorial region is more like a desert—there is a huge sand sea of these phenomenal linear dunes and no lakes or seas,” Shannon MacKenzie, a graduate student in physics at the University of Idaho told Astrobiology Magazine.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Dust Pillars of Destruction Reveal Impact of Cosmic Wind on Galaxy Evolution

This Hubble Space Telescope image of a spiral galaxy in the Coma cluster highlights dust extinction features. (Image courtesy of NASA, ESA, and Roberto Colombari)

Astronomers have long known that powerful cosmic winds can sometimes blow through galaxies, sweeping out interstellar material and stopping future star formation. Now they have a clearer snapshot of how it happens. A Yale University analysis of one such event in a nearby galaxy provides an unprecedented look at the process. Specifically, Yale astronomer Jeffrey Kenney looked at the way the cosmic wind is eroding the gas and dust at the leading edge of the galaxy. The wind, or ram pressure, is caused by the galaxy’s orbital motion through hot gas in the cluster. Kenney found a series of intricate dust formations on the disk’s edge, as cosmic wind began to work its way through the galaxy. The research is described in the Astronomical Journal.