Thursday, October 23, 2014

Scientists Discover Organic Molecules in Titan's Atmosphere

High in the atmosphere of Titan, large patches of two trace gases glow near the north pole, on the dusk side of the moon, and near the south pole, on the dawn side. Brighter colors indicate stronger signals from the two gases, HNC (left) and HC3N (right); red hues indicate less pronounced signals. Image Credit: NRAO/AUI/NSF

While studying the atmosphere on Saturn’s moon Titan, scientists discovered intriguing zones of organic molecules unexpectedly shifted away from its north and south poles. These misaligned features seem to defy conventional thinking about Titan’s windy atmosphere, which should quickly smear out such off-axis concentrations. "This is an unexpected and potentially groundbreaking discovery," said Martin Cordiner, an astrochemist working at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and the lead author of a study published online today in the Astrophysical Journal Letters. "These kinds of east-to-west variations have never been seen before in Titan’s atmospheric gases. Explaining their origin presents us with a fascinating new problem." This discovery, made during a remarkably brief three-minute "snapshot" observation with the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), may help astronomers better understand the processes that shape this world's complex chemistry.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Astronomers Find Two Families of Comets Around Beta Pictoris

This artist’s impression shows exocomets orbiting the star Beta Pictoris. Astronomers analysing observations of nearly 500 individual comets made with the HARPS instrument at ESO’s La Silla Observatory have discovered two families of exocomets around this nearby young star. The first consists of old exocomets that have made multiple passages near the star. The second family, shown in this illustration, consists of younger exocomets on the same orbit, which probably came from the recent breakup of one or more larger objects. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada

A French team of astronomers has discovered that two families of exocomets orbit the nearby star Beta Pictoris. The researchers used the HARPS instrument at ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile to make the most complete census of comets around another star ever created. "The expansive statistics of the comets that we observed with HARPS and the high quality of the instrument allowed us to distinguish two groups of detections," Flavien Kiefer of the Paris Institute of Astrophysics, lead author of the new study told "We found that these two groups were physically different and thus composed distinct families." The research was presented in a paper entitled "Two families of exocomets in the Beta Pictoris system" which is published in the journal Nature on Oct. 23.

Russian Cosmonauts Complete Speedy Spacewalk Outside the Space Station

Alexander Samokutyaev cleaning an outside window of the ISS during spacewalk on Oct. 22, 2014. Credit: Reid Wiseman/NASA

Two Russian cosmonauts have finished their spacewalk outside the International Space Station (ISS), completing all the necessary work much faster than expected, the Russian Mission Control said. Spacewalkers Max Suraev and Alexander Samokutyaev closed the Pirs docking compartment hatch at 1:06 p.m. EDT ending the third spacewalk for Expedition 41. The Wednesday spacewalk was supposed to last six hours but the cosmonauts were outside the ISS for only three hours and 38 minutes. "In accordance with the ISS flight program, Commander Maxim Suraev and Flight Engineer Alexander Samokutyaev have finished their work in the open space," a Mission Control spokesman said. “The cosmonauts returned to the station and closed the hatches.”

Spitzer Images the 'Galactic Wheel of Life' in Infrared

A new image from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, taken in infrared light, shows where the action is taking place in galaxy NGC 1291. The outer ring, colored red in this view, is filled with new stars that are igniting and heating up dust that glows with infrared light. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

It might look like a spoked wheel or even a "Chakram" weapon wielded by warriors like "Xena," from the fictional TV show, but this ringed galaxy is actually a vast place of stellar life. A newly released image from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the galaxy NGC 1291. Though the galaxy is quite old, roughly 12 billion years, it is marked by an unusual ring where newborn stars are igniting. "The rest of the galaxy is done maturing," said Kartik Sheth of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory of Charlottesville, Virginia. "But the outer ring is just now starting to light up with stars."

Sun Releases Third Substantial Solar Flare in 2 Days

An X1.6 class flare erupted from the lower half of the sun, as seen in the bright flash of light in this image from NASA's SDO. This image shows extreme ultraviolet light with a wavelength of 131 Angstroms, which highlights the intense heat of a solar flare and which is typically colorized in teal. Image Credit: NASA/SDO

Solar activity is high this week. During the past 48 hours, monster sunspot AR2192 has produced a series of seven M-class solar flares of increasing intensity. The eruptions crossed the threshold into X-territory with an X1-class flare on Oct. 22nd. NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) recorded a powerful flash of extreme UV radiation in the sunspot's magnetic canopy. Today's flare is classified as an X1.6 class flare. X-class flares denote the most extreme flares.

NASA Can Move Forward with Boeing, SpaceX, Court Says

Kathy Lueders, program manager of NASA's Commercial Crew Program, speaks, as Former astronaut Bob Cabana, director of NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, left, and Astronaut Mike Fincke, a former commander of the International Space Station look on during a news conference where it was announced that Boeing and SpaceX have been selected to transport U.S. crews to and from the International Space Station using the Boeing CST-100 and the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft, at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. on Tuesday, Sept. 16, 2014. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Sierra Nevada Corp.'s legal challenge to NASA's decision to support rival space-vehicle projects has been rejected by Judge Marian Blank Horn of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims. This allows NASA to move forward with Boeing and SpaceX on new contracts to develop commercial crewed spacecraft program. The Judge issued the order Tuesday after a hearing earlier in the day on a motion filed by Sierra Nevada with the Court of Federal Claims Oct. 15 requesting that a stop-work order on two Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) contracts that NASA overrode earlier this month be restored. “Given the urgency to resolve the override issue, the court provided the parties with a verbal decision declining to overrule the override,” Horn wrote in a brief order issued by the court. The order did not explain the rationale for the decision, and the hearing was closed to the public.

Doses of Radiation Contracted by Astronauts Smaller than Previously Thought, Study Reveals

Astronauts during spacewalk. Credit: NASA

Doses of radiation contracted by astronauts during orbital missions are smaller by a factor of several times that it was thought previously, suggest the results of the Matryoshka-R experiment held aboard the International Space Station (ISS) by scientists from different countries, including Russia, since 2004. “This finding is crucial to the planning of protracted space flights,” Dr. Vyacheslav Shurshakov from the Moscow-based Institute of Medical-Biological Problems, one of the authors of the research, told TASS. "It means in practical terms we can fly longer and go further." He admitted however that the doses of radiation the astronauts were subjected to were still large, and the problem of how to scale them down remained on the agenda.