Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Swift Spacecraft Observes Mega Flares from a Mini Star

DG CVn, a binary consisting of two red dwarf stars shown here in an artist's rendering, unleashed a series of powerful flares seen by NASA's Swift. At its peak, the initial flare was brighter in X-rays than the combined light from both stars at all wavelengths under typical conditions. Image Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/S. Wiessinger

On April 23, NASA's Swift satellite detected the strongest, hottest, and longest-lasting sequence of stellar flares ever seen from a nearby red dwarf star. The initial blast from this record-setting series of explosions was as much as 10,000 times more powerful than the largest solar flare ever recorded. "We used to think major flaring episodes from red dwarfs lasted no more than a day, but Swift detected at least seven powerful eruptions over a period of about two weeks," said Stephen Drake, an astrophysicist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, who gave a presentation on the "superflare" at the August meeting of the American Astronomical Society’s High Energy Astrophysics Division. "This was a very complex event." At its peak, the flare reached temperatures of 360 million degrees Fahrenheit (200 million Celsius), more than 12 times hotter than the center of the sun.

Sierra Nevada Corporation Unveils New Plan for Its Dream Chaser Spacecraft

Dream Chaser spacecraft. Credit: SNC

Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) announced today at the 65th International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Toronto, that it will be offering up its mini shuttle to other investors. The company unveiled a design for an integrated system for human spaceflight that can be launched to low Earth orbit (LEO) using Stratolaunch System’s air launch architecture and a scale version of SNC’s Dream Chaser spacecraft. The Dream Chaser is a reusable, lifting-body spacecraft capable of crewed or autonomous flight. Dream Chaser is the only lifting-body spacecraft capable of a runway landing, anywhere in the world. Stratolaunch Systems is a Paul G. Allen project dedicated to developing an air-launch system that will revolutionize space transportation by providing orbital access to space at lower costs, with greater safety and more flexibility. “This relationship would expand our portfolio to include the highly flexible Stratolaunch system for launching reusable crewed or uncrewed spacecraft, or for rapid satellite constellation deployment,” said Mark Sirangelo, corporate vice president of SNC’s Space Systems.

Researchers Find Evidence of Past Glaciers in the Grand Canyon of Mars

Valles Marineris in mosaic of THEMIS infrared images from 2001 Mars Odyssey. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / Arizona State University

For decades, planetary geologists have speculated that glaciers might once have crept through Valles Marineris, the 2000-mile-long chasm that constitutes the Grand Canyon of Mars. Using satellite images, researchers have identified features that might have been carved by past glaciers as they flowed through the canyons; however, these observations have remained highly controversial and contested. Now, a joint team from Bryn Mawr College and the Freie Universitaet Berlin has identified what could be the first mineralogical evidence of past glaciers within the Valles Marineris: a layer of mixed sulfate minerals halfway up the three-mile-high cliffs of Ius Chasma at the western end of the canyon system.

Simulations Reveal an Unusual Death for Ancient Stars

This image is a slice through the interior of a supermassive star of 55,500 solar masses along the axis of symmetry. It shows the inner helium core in which nuclear burning is converting helium to oxygen, powering various fluid instabilities (swirling lines). This "snapshot" from a CASTRO simulation shows one moment a day after the onset of the explosion, when the radius of the outer circle would be slightly larger than that of the orbit of the Earth around the sun. Visualizations were done in VisIT. (Image Credit: Ken Chen, UCSC)

Massive primordial stars, between 55,000 and 56,000 times the mass of our Sun, may have died unusually. In death, these objects—among the universe’s first generation of stars—would have exploded as supernovae and burned completely, leaving no remnant black hole behind. Astrophysicists at the University of California, Santa Cruz and the University of Minnesota came to this conclusion after running a number of supercomputer simulations at the Department of Energy’s (DOE) National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC) and Minnesota Supercomputing Institute. They relied extensively on CASTRO, a compressible astrophysics code developed at the DOE’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s (Berkeley Lab’s) Computational Research Division (CRD). Their findings were recently published in the Astrophysical Journal (ApJ).

Russian, Chinese Delegates Don't Get Visas for International Astronautical Congress in Toronto

Credit: iac2014.org

Ottawa's apparent refusal to grant visas to the most senior Russian and Chinese delegates at a prestigious international astronautical conference Monday blindsided the head of Canada's space agency, who was left struggling to come up with an explanation. The leaders of Russia's and China's space agencies were conspicuous by their absence at the opening plenary session in Toronto, sparking questions from among the thousands of participants. The questions initially landed in the lap of Berndt Feuerbacher, past president of the International Astronautical Federation, who was moderating the session featuring the heads of space agencies. "They were foreseen to be here with us, they have been with us in the past, and they will be with us in the future," Feuerbacher said. "It is just unfortunate, due to problems especially in the visa area, that we couldn't have these delegations here. I apologize for this."

India's Mars Orbiter Sends Photo of a Dust Storm on the Red Planet

Regional dust storm activities over Northern Hemisphere of Mars - captured by Mars Color Camera on-board Mars Orbiter Spacecraft from altitude of 74500 km on Sep 28, 2014. Credit: ISRO

India's Mars orbiter has sent a picture of regional dust storm over the northern hemisphere of the red planet, ISRO said on Monday. "Regional dust storm activities over northern hemisphere of Mars — captured by Mars Color Camera on board Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM)", ISRO said on its official Facebook page with a picture. It said the image was taken from an altitude of 74,500km from the surface of Mars. MOM spacecraft had sent its first images of the planet on Thursday, a day after creating history by becoming the only such endeavour so far to have met with success on the maiden attempt.

Mars Society Selects Mars Arctic 365 Mission Finalists

Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station. Credit: Mars Society

Twenty one finalists have been selected for possible participation in the Mars Society’s Mars Arctic 365 (MA365) mission. These finalists have been divided into three crews of seven persons each and will be sent to the Mars Society's Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) in southern Utah for further training and to gain data for the remaining selection process that will lead to the choice of the final six-person crew to perform the MA365 mission (the final crews have been enlarged from six to seven to allow for the selection of alternates).

Nitrogen Fingerprint in Biomolecules and Extraterrestrial Objects Could Be From Early Sun

Pairs of nitrogen atoms are more likely to be split by UV light from the Sun and other sources if one or both are the heavier isotope nitrogen-15. In this experiment those heavier atoms combined with hydrogen to form ammonia.  Credit: UC San Diego

Chemical fingerprints of the element nitrogen vary by extremes in materials from the molecules of life to the solar wind to interstellar dust. Ideas for how this great variety came about have included alien molecules shuttled in by icy comets from beyond our solar system and complex chemical scenarios. New experiments using a powerful source of ultraviolet light have shown that no extra-solar explanation is needed and the chemistry is straight forward, scientists from the University of California, San Diego, Hebrew University and UCLA report in the early online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences the week of September 29. Nitrogen occurs in two stable forms. Nitrogen-14, with an equal number of protons and neutrons in its nucleus, is most abundant. Nitrogen-15, with an extra neutron, is far more rare, but biological molecules like proteins have larger proportions; they’re enriched in nitrogen-15 relative to the nitrogen gas in Earth’s atmosphere. And Earth’s atmosphere itself has relatively more nitrogen-15 than other sources, such as the solar wind and Jupiter’s atmosphere.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Recent Meteor Strikes May Not Be Random, Study Suggests

Meteor impacts are far less random than most scientists assumed, according to a new analysis of Earth-strike meteors. The research, reported on the pre-press astrophysics website ArXiv.org, concluded that meteor impacts are more likely to occur at certain times of the year when Earth's orbit takes us through streams of meteoroids. "It is customarily assumed that Earth-striking meteoroids are completely random, and that all the impacts must be interpreted as uncorrelated events distributed according to Poisson statistics. If this is correct, their impact dates must be uniformly spread throughout the year and their impact coordinates must be evenly scattered on the surface of our planet," the researchers, brothers Carlos and Raúl de la Fuente Marcos of the Complutense University of Madrid report. "Here, we use a time- and yield-limited sample of Earth-impacting superbolides detected since 2000 to explore statistically this critical though frequently overlooked topic. We show that the cadence of these multi-kiloton impact events is incompatible with a random fall pattern at the 0.05 significance level or better."

Mystery 260 Square Km 'Island' Evolves on Saturn's Moon Titan

These three images, created from Cassini Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) data, show the appearance and evolution of a mysterious feature in Ligeia Mare, one of the largest hydrocarbon seas on Saturn's moon Titan. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASI/Cornell

NASA's Cassini spacecraft is monitoring the evolution of a mysterious "island", a bright feature in a large hydrocarbon sea on Saturn's moon Titan. The feature covers an area of about 100 square miles (260 square kilometers) in Ligeia Mare, one of the largest seas on Titan. It has now been observed twice by Cassini's radar experiment, but its appearance changed between the two apparitions. The mysterious feature, which appears bright in radar images against the dark background of the liquid sea, was first spotted during Cassini's July 2013 Titan flyby. Previous observations showed no sign of bright features in that part of Ligeia Mare. Scientists were perplexed to find the feature had vanished when they looked again, over several months, with low-resolution radar and Cassini's infrared imager. This led some team members to suggest it might have been a transient feature. But during Cassini's flyby on August 21, 2014, the feature was again visible, and its appearance had changed during the 11 months since it was last seen.

Chinese Balloon Space Odyssey

Beijing start-up plans to offer 'low-cost' space travel in ultra-high balloon. Credit: scmp.com

Travel to space in a high-tech balloon. Enjoy unprecedented views of the Earth and Sun before returning to solid ground in a parachute. It may sound like a pitch pulled from science fiction - but if Chinese Entrepreneur Jiang Fang succeeds, a galatic tour of the stars via balloon may available as early as next year. Fang, president of a Beijing-based company "Spacevision," told Xinhua on Monday they have already mapped out many of the technical aspects of such tour, which he says has been endorsed by many experts as feasible. Passengers would ascend to 40,000 metres in a pressurised capsule, where they would enjoy not just the spectacular view of the earth's curvature set against a backdrop of deep, dark space, but a few moments of reduced gravity, according to Spacevision.

India to Launch Navigational Satellite on October 10

IRNSS-1B satellite in a clean room. Credit: ISRO

Following the grand success of Mars Orbiter Mission, ISRO scientists will reportedly launch navigational satellite, IRNSS 1C, on October 10. Out of the seven satellites planned for the formation of the Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System, IRNSS 1C is the third one. By next year all the seven satellites are planned to be in space. IRNSS will provide Standard Positioning Service and Restricted Service with a position accuracy of better than 20 meters in the 1500 kilometers area covering the Indian peninsula.

Fueled Orion Spacecraft Moved to Launch Abort System Facility

Orion taken to LAS facility. Credit: NASA

NASA’s new Orion spacecraft will make its first trip to space in December. The spacecraft took a much shorter trip Sunday when it was moved from a specialized fueling facility at Kennedy Space Center to the Launch Abort System (LAS) Facility to continue the preparations necessary for launch. The launch abort system is designed to protect astronauts if a problem happens during launch, by pulling Orion away from a failing rocket. Because this first Orion flight will be uncrewed, the abort motor that would fire to pull the spacecraft away is not active. However, the jettison motor which will separate the launch abort system from the crew module in both emergencies and normal flights, is one of the critical systems being tested on Orion’s flight test.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Humans Will Walk on Mars by 2030, Says Former ISRO Chief

Former ISRO chairman Udupi Ramachandra Rao. Credit: HPNadig/Wikipedia

Encouraged by the successful Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) that reached the Red Planet this week, Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) scientists dream big of further space exploration, pondering future Mars missions. One of them is the former ISRO chairman Udupi Ramachandra Rao, popularly known as U. R. Rao. "I think that the first human feet will walk on Mars before the year 2030. It might not be us but whoever has the capability will achieve it by this time," he told the New Indian Express. "Mars is important because it is the nearest neighbour to us and is almost like Earth. It is the most 'home-like' planet compared to Venus which is extremely hot and Mercury which is hot as well besides being too small. The gravitational field of Mars is half of Earth but not zero."

China Launches Clandestine Shijian Satellite

A Long March-2C carrier rocket carrying the Shijian-11-07 experimental satellite flies into the sky at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in Jiuquan, northwest China's Gansu Province, Sept. 28, 2014. Credit: Xinhua/Yang Shiyao

China has orbited a new satellite from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center on Sunday. Utilizing their Long March 2C (Chang Zheng 2C) launch vehicle, the mission involved another of the secretive Shijian-11-07 (SJ-11) series of “experimental satellites”. Launch took place at 05:13 UTC according to Chinese reports. This is the seventh in a series of satellites that – according to the Chinese media – are only known to be “experimental satellites” developed by the China Spacesat Co. Ltd. As with the previous Shijian-11 satellites, the true mission of Shijian 11-06 was not revealed by the Chinese authorities. However, some observers noted that the Shijian-11 series could be related to a constellation of operational early warning satellites, carrying infrared sensors.

Red Light District

Credit: T.A. Rector (University of Alaska Anchorage) and H. Schweiker (WIYN and NOAO/AURA/NSF)

There’s a lot of gas and dust in the universe. Some of it has coalesced into dark nebulae, such as bok globules that almost look like holes in the starry night. We can observe these by the background light they absorb. Some clouds of dust are close enough to a star that light reflects off them, creating reflection nebulae such as the one near T Tauri. But sometimes a cloud of gas and dust is near a hot star, but too diffuse to scatter light much. In this case it can produce a faint nebula known as an emission nebula.

Life Span of India's Mars Orbiter Mission May Be Extended to 1 Year

Picture of Mars taken by Mars Orbiter Mission. Credit: ISRO

Expressing satisfaction over the success of the Mars Orbiter Mission, K.Sivan, director of Liquid Propulsion Systems Centre at Valiamala said on Friday the life of the orbiter may be extended to one year from the planned six months. “The life of the satellite was planned for six months. What we understand now is that it may go to one year,” he said while interacting with media during a felicitation ceremony organised by the Press Club in Thiruvananthapuram to honour a group of scientists of the Liquid Propulsion Systems Centre (LPSC), which played a significant role in the Mars mission. “We are not keen to keep the orbit in a precision mode and the aim is to keep the satellite active and make use of the last gram of propellant,” Sivan said.

Curiosity Rover Finds Strange Features on Mars

NASA's Curiosity Mars rover snapped a "traffic signal" on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Last week, NASA's Curiosity Rover was approaching the flat rock outcrop called "Pahrump Hills", which is a section of the mountain's basal geological unit, called the Murray formation. The rover spotted there a few strange looking interesting features, including an odd-shaped vertical protrusion of rock with round “lobes” on it, resembling a "traffic signal", and a small round spherical stone. The "traffic signal" was spotted by a British UFO enthusiast, Joseph White. Curiosity snapped the photo at 1:08 a.m. EDT on Sept. 19. "I have been following the images from NASA since the start and I flick through them on the NASA website every day," White told the Western Daily Press. "I saw this one and I thought 'Hang on, that looks a bit strange."

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Proton Rocket Returns to Flight with Successful Launch of a Russian Satellite into Orbit

Proton with Olymp satellite lifts off in early hours of September 28, 2014. Credit: Roscosmos

The Proton-M carrier rocket, which lifted off from Baikonur space launch facility in Kazakhstan early on Sunday, has put the Briz-M rocket booster and the Russian relay satellite Luch in the interim orbit, the press service of the Russian Space Agency (Roscosmos) reported. The rocket lifted off as scheduled on Sept. 28, 2014, at 00:23 Moscow Time (4:23 p.m. EDT on Sept. 27). The launch vehicle is carrying a classified payload known as Olymp ("Olympus") as well as Luch ("Beam"), which belongs to the Russian Ministry of Defense. “The Russian satellite is expected to enter the final calculated orbit at 09:26 Moscow time (on Sunday),” the press service said.

Sierra Nevada Corporation Protests NASA Commercial Crew Decision

The Sierra Nevada Corporation, or SNC, Dream Chaser flight vehicle is prepared for 60 mile per hour tow tests on taxi and runways at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base in California. Credit: SNC

Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) on Friday filed a formal protest with the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) over rejection of its bid for NASA's commercial crew contract. SNC, Boeing and SpaceX submitted separate proposals for the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) program. While all three competitors were found to be compliant and awardable under the criteria set forth in the request for proposal (RFP), only two proposals were selected (Boeing and SpaceX), one of which would result in a substantial increased cost to the public despite near equivalent technical and past performance scores. The company’s Dream Chaser space plane was one of three experimental craft in the NASA commercial crew vehicle competition amid the three companies. NASA did not explain the reason for dropping Dream Chaser from further development. Now GAO must decide on the protest by Jan. 5, 2015.

Date Chosen for Historic Comet Landing

Still image from animation of Philae separating from Rosetta and descending to the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in November 2014. Credit: ESA/ATG medialab

The European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission will deploy its lander, Philae, to the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko on 12 November. Philae’s landing site, currently known as Site J, is located on the smaller of the comet’s two ‘lobes’, with a backup site on the larger lobe. The sites were selected just six weeks after Rosetta arrived at the comet on 6 August, following its 10-year journey through the Solar System In that time, the Rosetta mission has been conducting an unprecedented scientific analysis of the comet, a remnant of the Solar System’s 4.6 billion-year history. The latest results from Rosetta will be presented on the occasion of the landing, during dedicated press briefings. The main focus to date has been to survey 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko in order to prepare for the first ever attempt to soft-land on a comet.

Roscosmos Boss Talks New Super-Heavy Booster Rocket, Vostochny Cosmodrome and Cooperation with U.S.

Oleg Ostapenko, General Director of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos), makes remarks during the State Commission meeting to approve the Soyuz launch of Expedition 41 to the International Space Station, Wednesday, Sept. 24, 2014, at the Cosmonaut Hotel in Baikonur, Kazakhstan.

Russia’s Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) will decide on a leading designer of a super-heavy booster rocket till the end of the year, Roscosmos head Oleg Ostapenko said on Friday. A competition for the booster rocket has not been held yet, he said. “We’ll hold a conciliatory meeting shortly to decide what [of the super-heavy booster] should look like, where the work will be done and who is to lead the way,” he said. Three leading Russian enterprises - the Progress design bureau, the Energia Rocket and Space Corporation, and the Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Centre - are now designing and developing the super-heavy booster. Roscosmos chief also discussed future launches from Vostochny cosmodrome and cooperation with U.S.

China's First Space Lab in Operation for Over 1000 Days

Chinese astronauts in Tiangong-1 space lab module. Credit: Xinhua

Tiangong-1, China's first space lab, has been in orbit for 1092 days since it was launched on September 29, 2011. The space lab, which is in sound condition, is able to complete more operation time in orbit, according to Wang Zhaoyao, director of China's manned space program office. Careful maintenance and monitoring will be carried out to ensure that the space lab, which was initially designed to stay in orbit for two years, will still be operational. The 8.5-tonne Tiangong-1, with a length of 10.4 meters and maximum diameter of 3.35 meters, provides a 15-cubic-meter space for three astronauts to live and work.

Complex Organic Molecule Found in the Gas Cloud Close to the Galactic Centre

In the centre of the MilkyWay: the background image shows the dust emission in a combination of data obtained with the APEX telescope and the Planck space observatory at a wavelength around 860 micrometers. The organic molecule iso-propyl cyanide with a branched carbon backbone (i-C3H7CN, left) as well as its straight-chain isomer normal-propyl cyanide (n-C3H7CN, right) were both detected with the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array in the star-forming region Sgr B2, about 300 light years away from the Galactic center Sgr A*. Credit: MPIfR/A. Weiß (background image), University of Cologne/M. Koerber (molecular models), MPIfR/A. Belloche (montage)

There is large number of organic molecules in space. One of which, iso-propyl cyanide (i-C3H7CN), was now discovered by scientists in a giant gas cloud called Sagittarius B2, a region of intensive star formation close to the centre of our Milky Way. The branched structure of the carbon atoms within the iso-propyl cyanide molecule is unlike any other molecules that have been detected so far in interstellar space. This discovery opens a new frontier in the chemistry of regions of star formation, and indicates the presence of amino acids, for which this branched structure is a key characteristic. While various types of molecules have been detected in space, the kind of hydrogen-rich, carbon-bearing (organic) molecules that are most closely related to the ones necessary for life on Earth appear to be most plentiful in the gas clouds from which new stars are being formed. "Understanding the production of organic material at the early stages of star formation is critical to piecing together the gradual progression from simple molecules to potentially life-bearing chemistry," says Arnaud Belloche from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Germany, the lead author of the paper.

GSLV-MkIII Is ISRO’s Next Launch

GSLV-MkIII rocket. Credit: ISRO

The flush of the successful Indian Mars manoeuvre will take a while to wear off. Team ISRO has, meanwhile, got down to brass tacks and expects to get one of its biggest projects off the mark this calendar year — GSLV-Mark III. Success of this heavy-lift, four-tonne satellite launcher is imperative to make India capable of launching its future communication satellites from its soil. “We are preparing for the GSLV-MkIII experimental mission,” ISRO Chairman K. Radhakrishnan recently told The Hindu. The first flight of the new vehicle is being considered for October-end if good weather holds, he said. The stages of the vehicle are being put together at Sriharikota.

UK to Build Unique Intergalactic GPS Instrument to Map the Stars

Artist's impression of the MOONS instrument. Credit: STFC

A €9M contract was announced Friday for UK-based engineers and designers to build a unique and powerful instrument that aims to tackle some of the most compelling astronomical puzzles – such as how stars and galaxies form and evolve, and probing the structure of our own Milky Way. A project team from the UK Astronomy Technology Centre (UK ATC) in Edinburgh will lead this international project to develop and build MOONS for the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) in northern Chile, already the world’s most productive ground-based astronomical facility. MOONS (Multi-Object Optical and Near-infrared Spectrograph) will allow astronomers to see obscured areas in the Milky Way at a distance of around 40,000 light years away, and enable them to create a 3D map of our galaxy. This is difficult to do as the Earth is in the middle of the Milky Way’s disc, so the process is like trying to map a forest of densely-packed trees from the inside.

Soyuz Spacecraft Docks With ISS Despite Solar Battery Failure, Crew Relaxes After Busy Week

The new six-member Expedition 41 crew gathers in the Zvezda service module for a welcoming ceremony with family and friends in Baikonur, Kazakhstan. Image Credit: NASA TV

NASA astronaut Butch Wilmore and Russian cosmonauts Alexander Samokutyaev and Elena Serova joined their Expedition 41 crewmates when the hatches between the Soyuz TMA-14M spacecraft and the International Space Station (ISS) officially opened at 1:06 a.m. EDT Friday. Expedition 41 Commander Max Suraev of the Russian Federal Space Agency and Flight Engineers Reid Wiseman of NASA and Alexander Gerst of the European Space Agency, who arrived at the station in May, welcomed the new crew members aboard their orbital home. Shortly after docking with the ISS, the Soyuz TMA-14M spacecraft's port solar array deployed successfully. The array previously did not deploy when the Soyuz reached orbit. NASA and Roscosmos officials have confirmed that the array poses no long term issue to either standard operations at the station for Expedition 41-42, or for the landing of Barry Wilmore, Alexander Samokutyaev and Elena Serova at the conclusion of their mission in March. The faulty solar battery finally unfolded and "fortunately, there was in the end no need for the cosmonauts to interfere with the work of the Kurs rendezvous and docking system. The spacecraft berthed with the Russian segment of the ISS in an automatic mode," Roscosmos spokesman said. The six-member crew had an off-duty Friday to relax and will resume unloading cargo Saturday from the SpaceX Dragon which arrived Tuesday morning.

India's Mars Orbiter Beams Back First Photos of the Red Planet

Picture of Mars tweeted by ISRO. Credit: ISRO

"The view is nice up here," tweeted ISRO team, publishing the first image of the Red Planet taken by its Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM). According to ISRO this is the "First Light. ISRO Mars Orbiter Mission captures its first image of Mars, taken from a height of 7300 kilometers, with 376 meter spatial resolution." The camera takes photos in tri-colour and will be used to provide context for the scientific results. India successfully placed its low-cost MOM spacecraft in orbit around the red planet in its very first attempt Wednesday, breaking into an elite club of Mars exploring nations. The spacecraft is now circling the red planet in an orbit whose nearest point to Mars (periapsis) is at 421.7km and farthest point (apoapsis) at 76,993.6km, ISRO said.

Russian Astronomers Spot Second Planet in Star System Next Door

Artist's rendition of the view from a hypothetical airless planet orbiting Alpha Centauri A. Credit: The plague/Wikipedia

St. Petersburg astronomers have spotted one more planet circling a star in the Alpha Centauri system just 4.36 light-years away from the Solar System. The discovery was announced on Wednesday at a scientific conference Journees-2014 held at the Pulkovo Observatory in St. Petersburg. The new plant cannot be seen even though a telescope - astronomers calculated its approximate location by mathematical methods. It is located outside the so-called habitable zone, or the orbital region around a star in which an Earth-like planet can possess liquid water on its surface and possibly support life. “We believe that this planet may be located at a distance of 80 astronomical units [a unit of length, roughly the distance from the Earth to the Sun, which is 150 million kilometers] and is orbiting around the centre of the binary star system Alpha Centauri AB with an orbital period of about 100 years,” Ivan Shevchenko, the head of the laboratory of planets and small bodies dynamics at the Pulkovo Observatory, told ITAR-TASS.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Four Large Fireballs Reported Over U.S.

Credit: AMS

The American Meteor Society (AMS) says four large, unique fireball events were reported Tuesday night. AMS stated three of the events all occurred within an hour and a half of each other - a rare happening. The AMS concluded each event was unique, due to the analysis of time, proximity of witnesses and pointing data gathered. It's likely several were captured by NASA, said AMS. Locations of the events were reported all the way from Florida to Michigan. "The Michigan fireball was produced by a piece of a comet over 2 feet across, probably weighing around 40 pounds. It hit Earth’s atmosphere at a speed of 54,000 mph," NASA wrote in a blog entry.

Delta IV Booster Integration Another Step Toward First Orion Flight

A United Launch Alliance technician monitors progress as core booster elements of a Delta IV Heavy rocket are being integrated in preparation for Exploration Flight Test-1. Image Credit: NASA/Ben Smegelsky

Engineers took another step forward in preparations for the first test flight of NASA’s new Orion spacecraft, in December. The three primary core elements of the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV Heavy rocket recently were integrated, forming the first stage of the launch vehicle that will send Orion far from Earth to allow NASA to evaluate the spacecraft’s performance in space. The three Delta IV Common Booster Cores were attached in ULA’s Horizontal Integration Facility (HIF), at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The HIF building is located at Space Launch Complex 37 where the mission will lift off. The first booster was attached to the center rocket in June with the second one was attached in early August. "The day-to-day processing is performed by ULA," said Merri Anne Stowe of NASA's Fleet Systems Integration Branch of the Launch Services Program (LSP). "NASA’s role is to keep a watchful eye on everything and be there to help if any issues come up."

Curiosity Rover Drill Pulls First Taste From Mars Mountain

This image from the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover shows the first sample-collection hole drilled in Mount Sharp, the layered mountain that is the science destination of the rover's extended mission. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

NASA's Curiosity Mars rover has collected its first taste of the layered mountain whose scientific allure drew the mission to choose this part of Mars as a landing site. Late Wednesday, Sept. 24, the rover's hammering drill chewed about 2.6 inches (6.7 centimeters) deep into a basal-layer outcrop on Mount Sharp and collected a powdered-rock sample. Data and images received early Thursday at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, confirmed success of this operation. The powder collected by the drilling is temporarily held within the sample-handling mechanism on the rover's arm. "This drilling target is at the lowest part of the base layer of the mountain, and from here we plan to examine the higher, younger layers exposed in the nearby hills," said Curiosity Deputy Project Scientist Ashwin Vasavada of JPL. "This first look at rocks we believe to underlie Mount Sharp is exciting because it will begin to form a picture of the environment at the time the mountain formed, and what led to its growth."

Crew Selected for Eight-Month Mars Simulation

Ross Lockwood in simulation suit as part of HI-SEAS Mission 2. Photo credit: Casey Stedman.

The six astronaut-like crew members of the next Hawaiʻi Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS) mission has been selected. For the next mission, starting October 15, the participants will be isolated in their dome habitat for eight months. This mission is twice as long as any previously completed at the Hawaiʻi site, and second only to Russia’s Mars500 experiment in total duration. Also, for the first time, HI-SEAS will have a female commander. In NASA history, only two women have every commanded the spaceship: astronauts Eileen Collins in July 1999 and Pamela Melroy in November 2007.

Earth’s Water is Older than the Sun, Research Finds

 An illustration of water in our Solar System through time from before the Sun’s birth through the creation of the planets. The image is credited to Bill Saxton, NSF/AUI/NRAO.

Water was crucial to the rise of life on Earth and is also important to evaluating the possibility of life on other planets. Identifying the original source of Earth’s water is key to understanding how life-fostering environments come into being and how likely they are to be found elsewhere. New work from a team including Carnegie’s Conel Alexander found that much of our Solar System’s water likely originated as ices that formed in interstellar space. Their work is published in Science. Water is found throughout our Solar System. Not just on Earth, but on icy comets and moons, and in the shadowed basins of Mercury. Water has been found included in mineral samples from meteorites, the Moon, and Mars. Comets and asteroids in particular, being primitive objects, provide a natural “time capsule” of the conditions during the early days of our Solar System. Their ices can tell scientists about the ice that encircled the Sun after its birth, the origin of which was an unanswered question until now.

A Galaxy of Deception: Hubble Snaps What Looks Like a Young Galaxy in the Local Universe

This image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope shows a cosmic oddity, dwarf galaxy DDO 68.  This ragged collection of stars and gas clouds looks at first glance like a recently-formed galaxy in our own cosmic neighbourhood. But, is it really as young as it looks?  Credit:  NASA, ESA  Acknowledgement: A. Aloisi (Space Telescope Science Institute)

Astronomers usually have to peer very far into the distance to see back in time, and view the Universe as it was when it was young. This new NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image of galaxy DDO 68, otherwise known as UGC 5340, was thought to offer an exception. This ragged collection of stars and gas clouds looks at first glance like a recently-formed galaxy in our own cosmic neighbourhood. But, is it really as young as it looks? Astronomers have studied galactic evolution for decades, gradually improving our knowledge of how galaxies have changed over cosmic history. The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has played a big part in this, allowing astronomers to see further into the distance, and hence further back in time, than any telescope before it — capturing light that has taken billions of years to reach us.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Soyuz TMA-14M Spacecraft Launches to Space Station

The Soyuz TMA-14M rocket is launched with Expedition 41 Soyuz Commander Alexander Samokutyaev of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) Flight Engineer Elena Serova of Roscosmos, and Flight Engineer Barry Wilmore of NASA, Friday, Sept. 26, 2014 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Samokutyaev, Serova, and Wilmore will spend the next five and a half months aboard the International Space Station. Serova will become the fourth Russian woman to fly in space and the first Russian woman to live and work on the station. Image Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

Three crew members representing the United States and Russia are on their way to the International Space Station (ISS) after launching from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 4:25 p.m. EDT Thursday, Sept. 25 (2:25 a.m. on Sept. 26 in Baikonur). The spacecraft successfully reached orbit in slightly less than nine minutes, however one of its solar panels did not deploy. The spacecraft could still make it to the ISS in four orbits using its onboard battery, before it needed to be recharged, sources said. The Soyuz capsule carrying Barry “Butch” Wilmore of NASA and Soyuz Commander Alexander Samokutyaev and Elena Serova of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) is scheduled to dock with the space station about six hours after launch at 10:16 p.m. “All the three crewmembers feel well,” a spokesman for Roscosmos said. NASA Television coverage of docking will begin at 9 p.m. Hatches are scheduled to open at about 11:50 p.m., with NASA TV coverage starting at 11 p.m.

Astronomers Find Water Vapor on Exoplanet

This artist's concept shows what the sky may look like on other planets. On the left is a planet with an atmosphere of thick clouds and on the right a planet with clear skies.  The clear sky on the right may well resemble the skies of planet HAT-P-11b. This planet, a Neptune-sized body orbiting a distant star, has recently been studied and found to have clear skies. This is very useful as clouds in the atmospheres of planets can block the view to underlying molecules that reveal information about a planet's composition and history.  Credit:  NASA/JPL-Caltech

Astronomers using data from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, the Spitzer Space Telescope, and the Kepler Space Telescope have discovered clear skies and steamy water vapour on a planet outside our Solar System. The planet, known as HAT-P-11b, is about the size of Neptune, making it the smallest exoplanet ever on which water vapour has been detected. The results appeared in the online version of the journal Nature on 24 September 2014. The discovery is a milestone on the road to eventually finding molecules in the atmospheres of smaller, rocky planets more akin to Earth. Clouds in the atmospheres of planets can block the view of what lies beneath them. The molecular makeup of these lower regions can reveal important information about the composition and history of a planet. Finding clear skies on a Neptune-size planet is a good sign that some smaller planets might also have similarly good visibility. "When astronomers go observing at night with telescopes, they say 'clear skies' to mean good luck," said Jonathan Fraine of the University of Maryland, USA, lead author of the study. "In this case, we found clear skies on a distant planet. That's lucky for us because it means clouds didn't block our view of water molecules."

Putin Creates Commission on Vostochny Cosmodrome Construction

Vladimir Putin reviews the plan for the Vostochny spaceport. Credit: Presidential Press and Information Office

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday signed a resolution to create a commission for the construction of Vostochny Cosmodrome. The document was placed on the official legal information portal. Russian Vice-Premier Dmitry Rogozin is appointed as chairman of the commission. Putin instructed the commission to coordinate actions between bodies of state power at different levels and organizations, to establish control over efficiency of budget expenditure and to keep to schedule for putting into operation key facilities of the Vostochny Space Launch Center. The commission consists of 18 people: head of the Russian Space Agency (Roscosmos) Oleg Ostapenko, presidential aide Andrei Belousov, First Deputy Prosecutor General Alexander Buksman, head of the Federal Agency for State Property Management (Rosimushchestvo) Olga Dergunova and others.

Third Round of Orion Underway Recovery Tests Help Teams Prepare for December Flight

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden stands on the deck of the USS Anchorage on the first day of Orion Underway Recovery Test 3. The Orion boilerplate test vehicle floats in the Pacific Ocean with U.S. Navy divers in a rigid hull inflatable boat nearby. NASA, Lockheed Martin and U.S. Navy personnel are conducting a full dress rehearsal of recovery operations in the Pacific Ocean to prepare for recovery of the Orion crew module on its return from a deep space mission. Credit: NASA/Cory Huston

NASA, Orion prime contractor Lockheed Martin and the U.S. Navy successfully completed the third round of tests to practice recovering Orion when it splashes down off the coast of San Diego at the end of its December flight test. The mid-September test series, led by NASA's Ground Systems Development and Operations (GSDO) Program, continued to perfect techniques and ensure the full team and all equipment are ready when Orion returns to Earth after traveling more than 3,600 miles in altitude away from the planet. "We have a good understanding of the challenges we have ahead of us," said Jeremy Graeber, GSDO NASA Recovery director. "We demonstrated how we would recover from a certain point of the timeline, executed the recovery, and got the module into the well deck safely. We were focusing on putting ourselves into a realistic recovery." Two Navy ships, a test version of Orion, several support boats, two helicopters and associated hardware and equipment were used for the tests.

Russia to Allocate $8.2 Billion for Space Station Development

International Space Station

Russia's new federal space program will allocate a whopping 321 billion rubles ($8.2 billion) to the development and utilization of the International Space Station, a byword for global space cooperation that Moscow threatened to abandon earlier this year over the crisis in Ukraine. At a meeting with the head of Russian space agency Roscosmos, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin was quoted by news agency Interfax as saying Russia's 2016-25 program, which is in the final stages of government approval, will heap extra funds on the $100 billion international project, "including new [space station] modules and the OKA-T automated spacecraft." OKA-T is a major addition to the space station proposed by Russian engineers early on in the ISS program, but so far unrealized. It will be used for special research that the current facilities aboard ISS cannot conduct, and will spend most of its time flying along side the space station, rather than docked to it.

Solar Explosions Inside a Computer

This solar flare was shot with one of the cameras on the NASA SDO satellite on 10 June 2014. (Photo: Nasa/SDO)

Strong solar flares can bring down communications and power grids on Earth. By demonstrating how these gigantic eruptions are caused, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH) physicists are laying the foundations for future predictions. The shorter the interval between two explosions in the solar atmosphere, the more likely it is that the second flare will be stronger than the first one. ETH Professor Hans Jürgen Herrmann and his team have been able to demonstrate this, using model calculations. The amount of energy released in solar flares is truly enormous – in fact, it is millions of times greater than the energy produced in volcanic eruptions. Strong explosions cause a discharge of mass from the outer part of the solar atmosphere, the corona. If a coronal mass ejection hits the earth, it can cause a geomagnetic storm. Heavy storms can disrupt satellites, radio traffic and electrical plants. When in autumn 2003 one of the strongest solar eruptions in history was registered, there was a power failure in southern Sweden and air traffic had to be redirected as communications above the Polar Regions broke down.

Most Stars Are Born in Clusters, Some Leave 'Home'

These images show the distribution of density in the central plane of a three-dimensional model of a molecular cloud core from which stars are born. The model computes the cloud’s evolution over the free-fall timescale, which is how long it would take an object to collapse under its own gravity without any opposing forces interfering. The free-fall time is a common metric for measuring the timescale of astrophysical processes. In a) the free-fall time is 0.0, meaning this is the initial configuration of the cloud, and moving on the model shows the cloud core in various stages of collapse: b) a free-fall time of 1.40 or 66,080 years; c) a free-fall time of 1.51 or 71,272 years; and d) a free-fall time of 1.68 or 79,296 years. Collapse takes somewhat longer than a free-fall time in this model because of the presence of magnetic fields, which slow the collapse process, but are not strong enough to prevent the cloud from fragmenting into a multiple protostar system (d). Credit: Alan Boss

New modeling studies from Carnegie’s Alan Boss demonstrate that most of the stars we see were formed when unstable clusters of newly formed protostars broke up. These protostars are born out of rotating clouds of dust and gas, which act as nurseries for star formation. Rare clusters of multiple protostars remain stable and mature into multi-star systems. The unstable ones will eject stars until they achieve stability and end up as single or binary stars. The work is published in The Astrophysical Journal. About two-thirds of all stars within 81 light years (25 parsecs) of Earth are binary or part of multi-star systems. Younger star and protostar populations have a higher frequency of multi-star systems than older ones, an observation that ties in with Boss’ findings that many single-star systems start out as binary or multi-star systems from which stars are ejected to achieve stability.

First Manned Spaceship to Be Launched from Vostochny Cosmodrome on Time

Vostochny cosmodrome construction site.

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said on Tuesday that the first manned spaceship would be launched from a new Vostochny space launch facility in the Russian Far East on time and without delay. “I would like to fix one very vital date which no one should call into question. I mean the year 2018 and the first manned launch from Vostochny (which is still under construction),” Rogozin told trainees at the space training center which he visited on Tuesday.

MAVEN Returns First Mars Observations

Image credit: Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, University of Colorado; NASA

NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft has obtained its first observations of the extended upper atmosphere surrounding Mars. The Imaging Ultraviolet Spectrograph (IUVS) instrument obtained these false-color images eight hours after the successful completion of Mars orbit insertion by the spacecraft at 10:24 p.m. EDT Sunday, Sept. 21, after a 10-month journey. The image shows the planet from an altitude of 36,500 km in three ultraviolet wavelength bands. Blue shows the ultraviolet light from the sun scattered from atomic hydrogen gas in an extended cloud that goes to thousands of kilometers above the planet’s surface. Green shows a different wavelength of ultraviolet light that is primarily sunlight reflected off of atomic oxygen, showing the smaller oxygen cloud. Red shows ultraviolet sunlight reflected from the planet’s surface; the bright spot in the lower right is light reflected either from polar ice or clouds.

First Proton Carrier Rocket Installed on Launch Pad After May Accident

Proton-M rocket being installed on the launch pad at the Baikonur space center. Credit: Roscosmos

The carrier rocket Proton-M with the Luch spacecraft onboard has been installed on the launch pad at the Baikonur space center, Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center representative told RIA Novosti on Tuesday. "The State Commission has made a decision to move out and install the rocket Proton-M with the Breeze-M upper stage and Luch spacecraft on the launch pad," he said. The Proton-M has been installed in a vertical position on the launch pad and the work plan for the next few days includes equipment checks and fueling the carrier rocket with propellant components and compressed gases.

Swiss Space Systems Company Looks to Buy Russian Rocket Engines

A 3D rendering of the Soar spaceplane. Credit: Swiss Space Systems

As the United States works to free itself from dependence on Russian rocket engines amid the crisis in Ukraine, a European space startup is looking to buy Russian engines to use in a spaceplane design that hopes to begin flying in 2018, news agency TASS reported Tuesday. Old Soviet-designed rocket engines are attractive options to embryonic commercial space startups because they are reliable and cheap, with the research and development costs having been borne by the Soviet space program decades ago. Swiss Space Systems, or S3, founded in 2012, is looking to partner with Russian aerospace company Kuznetsov to use Soviet-era NK-39 engines to power its ambitious spaceplane design, known as Soar, TASS reported, citing Kuznetsov's press service.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

'Space Bubbles' May Have Aided Enemy in Fatal Afghan Battle

A map of the area of Operation Anaconda showing the Shahikot Valley (outlined in blue) and the peak of Takur Ghar, which rises 3,191 meters (10,469 feet) out of the valley below. Credit: U.S. Army

In the early morning hours of March 4, 2002, military officers in Bagram, Afghanistan desperately radioed a Chinook helicopter headed for the snowcapped peak of Takur Ghar. On board were 21 men, deployed to rescue a team of Navy SEALS pinned down on the ridge dividing the Upper and Lower Shahikot valley. The message was urgent: Do not land on the peak. The mountaintop was under enemy control. The rescue team never got the message. Just after daybreak, the Chinook crash-landed on the peak under heavy enemy fire and three men were killed in the ensuing firefight. A decade later, Michael Kelly, of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), happened to read a journalistic account of Operation Anaconda, one of the first major battles of the War in Afghanistan, and thought radio operators may have been thwarted by a little-known source of radio interference: plasma bubbles.

Russia to Launch Full-Scale Moon Exploration in 2020-30

Russia's space agency Roscosmos plans to launch a full-scale Moon exploration program in late 2020s or early 2030s, the agency’s head Oleg Ostapenko said on Tuesday. “We are planning to complete tests of a super-heavy carrier rocket and start full-scale Moon exploration at the end of the next decade. By that time, analysis of Moon surface data gathered by unmanned spacecraft will help to determine the best sites for lunar expeditions and Moon bases,” the Roscosmos head said. Preparatory work for lunar exploration missions have already started, according to Ostapenko.

Mars Orbiter Mission Arrives at Mars, India Becomes First Asian Nation to Reach the Red Planet

Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi addressing from ISTRAC as ISRO Chairman K Radhakrishnan looks on. Credit: ISRO

India's Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) spacecraft successfully entered into an orbit around planet Mars today morning (September 24) by firing its 440 Newton Liquid Apogee Motor (LAM) along with eight smaller liquid engines. This Liquid Engines firing operation which began at 07:17:32 IST lasted for 1388.67 seconds which changed the velocity of the spacecraft by 1099 metre/sec. With this operation, the spacecraft entered into an elliptical orbit around Mars. The Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi and other dignitaries were present at ISRO's Telemetry, Tracking and Command Network (ISTRAC) in Bangalore to witness this important event. The success of India's successful mission to Mars "will go down as landmark in history", Modi said. India became the first Asian country to reach the Red Planet and the first country to successfully get a spacecraft into the Martian orbit on its maiden attempt. "History has been created today," Modi added. "India is the only country, to have succeeded in its very first attempt." Before India, various countries have launched Mars missions, but out of the 51 attempts, only 21 were successful. India now joins the Martian club that comprises the US, Russia and the European Space Agency.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

New Space Station Crew Ready for Launch, Soyuz Installed at Baikonur

In the Baikonur Cosmodrome Integration Facility in Kazakhstan, Expedition 41 Flight Engineer Barry Wilmore of NASA (left), Soyuz Commander Alexander Samokutyaev of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos, center) and Flight Engineer Elena Serova of Roscosmos (right) pose for pictures in front of the first stage engines of their Soyuz booster rocket Sept. 21 as they enter the final stages of prelaunch preparations. The trio will launch on Sept. 26, Kazakh time, in the Soyuz TMA-14M spacecraft to begin a 5 ½ month mission on the International Space Station. Serova will become the fourth Russian woman to fly in space and the first to live and work on the station. Photo credit: NASA/Victor Zelentsov

The Soyuz-FG orbital carrier rocket and Soyuz TMA-14M spacecraft have been delivered and installed at the Gagarin's Start launch site at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan for a launch planned at 4:25 p.m. EDT Thursday, Sept. 25 (2:25 a.m. Friday, Sept. 26, in Baikonur), a Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) representative told RIA Novosti on Tuesday. “The delivery and putting the rocket with Soyuz TMA-14M spaceship docked to it on the launching pad were made as scheduled,” the press service of Russian Space Agency told ITAR-TASS. For the first time after a 17-year period a female cosmonaut, Yelena Serova, will be launched into space orbit, ending spaceflight's male "hegemony." Serova will be accompanied by cosmonaut Alexander Samokutyayev of Roscosmos and NASA astronaut Barry Wilmore in the Soyuz capsule.

Dragon Spacecraft Docks with Space Station

Dragon and ISS racing into darkness just before grapple. Credit: Reid Wiseman/NASA

The Dragon commercial cargo craft has completed a two day trip to the International Space Station after launching early Sunday morning. NASA astronaut Reid Wiseman and European Space Agency astronaut Alexander Gerst were at the controls of the robotics workstation in the Cupola when the Canadarm2 grappled Dragon at 6:52 a.m. EDT Tuesday. "Well done capturing that Dragon," Mission Control radioed. "We're happy to have a new vehicle on board," Gerst said. Dragon will spend the next four weeks attached to the Harmony node as the Expedition 41 trio unloads 4,885 pounds of (2,216 kg) crew supplies, hardware, experiments, computer gear and spacewalk equipment. This is the fourth SpaceX mission for NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services contract, designated SpaceX CRS-4, with eight more missions slated to deliver a minimum of 20 metric tons to the station.

Virgin Galactic and Grey Goose Vodka Announce an Extraordinary Partnership

Credit: Grey Goose Vodka

The official partnership between Virgin Galactic and Grey Goose was announced Monday by Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson at the Virgin Disruptors, a thought leadership series supported by The Virgin Group which was held at the Rose Space Center and Hayden Planetarium in New York. A panel of disruptive minds in the travel industry debated “The Future of Travel: Are We Moving Fast Enough?” with Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides, Global Category Director for Premium White Spirits Ben Farlow and Grey Goose creator and Maître de Chai François Thibault. As part of the evening, Richard Branson introduced Virgin Disruptors, a thought leadership series supported by The Virgin Group. A panel of disruptive minds in the travel industry will debate “The Future of Travel: Are We Moving Fast Enough?”

SpaceX Breaks Ground for Spaceport in Texas, Musk Aims for First Launch in 2016

Texas Governor Rick Perry (left) and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk (right) during the groundbraking ceremony at Boca Chica beach on Sept. 22, 2014. Credit: governor.state.tx.us

SpaceX broke ground Monday morning at the site near Boca Chica beach in Cameron County, Texas, where it plans to build a commercial rocket launch pad. As SpaceX founder Elon Musk lifted a shovel of dirt, his ultimate goal of developing technology to enable trips to Mars took a step forward. “This feels great. It feels like the future,” Musk said. Governor Rick Perry and other dignitaries were also at this event. "This announcement represents a huge step forward for our state and continues our nation's proud legacy of scientific advancement," Perry said. "It builds upon our pioneer heritage, our tradition of thinking bigger, dreaming bolder, and daring to do the impossible. SpaceX is the latest in a long line of forward-thinking companies that have made Texas home, and I couldn't be prouder to help break ground on this revolutionary new facility." The Boca Chica site will be the world’s first commercial orbital space port.

Gone with the Wind: Star System Shows Signs of Windy Weather

Artist’s rendition of AS 205 N, a T Tauri star that is part of a multiple star system. Image Credit: P. Marenfeld & NOAO/AURA/NSF

Astronomers using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) have observed what may be the first-ever signs of windy weather around a T Tauri star, an infant analog of our own Sun. This may help explain why some T Tauri stars have disks that glow weirdly in infrared light while others shine in a more expected fashion. T Tauri stars are the infant versions of stars like our Sun. They are relatively normal, medium-size stars that are surrounded by the raw materials to build both rocky and gaseous planets. Though nearly invisible in optical light, these disks shine in both infrared and millimeter-wavelength light. “The material in the disk of a T Tauri star usually, but not always, emits infrared radiation with a predictable energy distribution,” said Colette Salyk, an astronomer with the National Optical Astronomical Observatory (NOAO) in Tucson, Ariz., and lead author on a paper published in the Astrophysical Journal. “Some T Tauri stars, however, like to act up by emitting infrared radiation in unexpected ways.”

Full-Galaxy Dust Map Muddles Search for Gravitational Waves

Planck's full-sky map grades regions of lower (blue) and higher (red) interstellar dust — and shows that the patch observed by the BICEP2 telescope (rectangle) was not among the least dusty. The left panel shows the northern Galactic hemisphere and the right panel shows the southern one. Credit: Planck Collaboration

One of the biggest scientific claims of the year has received another set-back. In March, a team of astronomers using the BICEP2 radio telescope at the South Pole announced that they had detected a tiny twist in the polarization of light from the cosmic microwave background (CMB), the radiation left over from the Big Bang. The twist, the researchers said, was probably due to gravitational waves, undulations in the fabric of space-time created during the earliest moments of the Universe. The announcement thrilled cosmologists because the waves would have constituted long-awaited proof that the infant Universe underwent a period of hyper-accelerated expansion known as inflation. But now, a map of interstellar dust unveiled Monday has substantially lowered the chances that a South Pole telescope glimpsed the imprint of gravitational waves from the dawn of time, as was claimed in March. "Now some initial results from Planck are in … and it doesn’t look good for gravitational waves," physicist Sean Carroll of Caltech wrote on his blog. The latest map, obtained with the European Space Agency's Planck space observatory, could, however, guide astronomers to the regions where they might have the best chance of detecting such a primordial signal.