Friday, January 31, 2014

Really Ancient Aliens

A new scientific paper suggests life could have arisen as early as 15 million years after the Big Bang.

At that time, the paper notes, the temperature of the cooling universe would have been about what it is on Earth today,  So, if any rocky worlds existed at that time-- a big if-- they would have been at the right temperature to support liquid water on their surfaces, and therefore, possibly, life.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Virgin Galactic's New Rocket

Virgin Galactic, along with its suborbital space tourism business, is also developing the capability to put small satellites into low Earth orbit.

VG successfully test fired the engines of its Newton two-stage rocket recently.  Newtons will be carried aloft by a WhiteKnightTwo aircraft, released, and fire the first stage.  The first flight could be in 2016.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Amino Acids And Life

Only 20 amino acids make up the proteins in all life on Earth, but scientists see no reason that has to be, let alone why it would be on other worlds.

Using a new computer model, scientists have found thousands of amino acids that could possibly serve as the building blocks of life, thus making alien life even more possible.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Where Were You?

We all remember where we were when we heard about certain events.  Often, the events are tragic-- the assassination of John Kennedy, the attempt on Ronald Reagan, or 9/11.

Today is the 28th anniversary of another such event, the explosion of space shuttle Challenger 73 seconds after liftoff.  It marked the first time American astronauts were lost during an actual mission.

Where were you?

Monday, January 27, 2014

Yulu Trouble

China's Yulu lunar rover is experiencing mechanical issues, and engineers are working on fixing the problem.

To this point, the Chang'e 3 mission has gone well, with both the rover and the lander surviving the first brutally cold, two week long lunar night.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Life Around Red Dwarfa

Seth Shostak of the SETI Institute suggests in the current issue of ASTRONOMY magazine that we broaden our search for "smart life" to include red dwarf stars-- the most common type of star in the galaxy-- rather than focus on Sun-like stars.   Recent exoplanet discoveries have found red dwarfs not only have planetary systems, but they can have rocky worlds in their habitable zones, which means they could harbor life, and, possibly, technological civilizations.

There's also another possibility.  Because red dwarfs are so common, any star-hopping civilization out there would likely establish outposts in red dwarf systems.  We could intercept the internal transmissions of an interstellar civilization.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Unifying The Universe

Modern physics has a fundamental problem-- it has two theories governing the universe, not just one. General relativity rules the big stuff at large distances, and quantum mechanics herds cats in the subatomic realm, but where the two theories have joint jurisdiction, such as inside black holes, they are incompatible.  Applying them together produces mathematical incoherence.

Physicists have been trying for decades to unify the theories, thus deepening our comprehension of the cosmos.  There's a Nobel Prize, not to mention a kind of immortality, waiting for whoever does it.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

International Lunar Decade

The International Geophysical Year in the late 1950s helped set the stage for the Space Age.  A new proposal seeks to spark a now age.

The International Lunar Decade would focus on the scientific and commercial potential of the Moon, encouraging a new round of lunar exploration, establishing a lunar base, and setting up a legal regime that will bring lunar resources into the human economy.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

NASA Budget

The NASA 2014 budget suffered no major cuts from last year, and even showed a small increase overall.

Some areas within NASA were cut, but other areas got more funding,  Given the situation with the general federal budget, NASA did pretty well, coming in at over  $17 billion.  That's a fraction of one percent of total annual federal spending.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Rosetta Awake

The European Space Agency's Rosetta comet probe awoke yesterday from hibernating through the coldest part of its journey.

Later this year, Rosetta is scheduled to rendezvous with a comet, go into orbit around it, and put a lander on the comet's surface.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Mars Rock Mystery

A fist-sized rock has suddenly appeared in front of the Mars rover Opportunity.

Mission scientists speculate that Opportunity, now something akin to arthritic after ten years exploring Mars, may have accidentally knocked the rock over, but they don't know for sure yet.  You can bet some conspiracy and alien theorists will have their own takes.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Far Out Dust Ring

Astronomers have found a substantial dust ring around a young star.  That's not unusual.  What is unusual is that the ring is five times farther from the star than Neptune is from the Sun.

Scientists are looking for a  theory of planetary formation that will explain, among other things, how huge worlds form far away from their parent stars.  Observing such dust rings might provide clues.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Tethering Space Junk

Japan is looking at developing a tether that would help clean up orbital space by de-orbiting space junk.

The tether would produce an electrical field.  When that field interacted with pieces of space junk, the junk would slow down, drop into lower orbits, and eventually re-enter Earth's atmosphere.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Searching For Silent Aliens

How might we find aliens who don't broadcast their presence?  Decades ago, physicist Freeman Dyson proposed looking in the infrared part of the spectrum for signatures of waste heat from civilizations advanced enough to use all the energy coming from their parent stars.  The conceptual image became known as a Dyson sphere.

At the time, we lacked the technology to conduct such a search, but we have it now, and Penn State researchers are beginning to look.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Phobos A Captured Asteroid?

A new analysis of the chemical composition of the tiny Martian moon Phobos provides more evidence that it is an asteroid captured at some point by Mars' gravity.  Comparing the makeup of Phobos' surface to that of an asteroid and a meteorite suggests all three bodies belong to the same asteroid family.

If it turns out Mars has no natural satellites, and Earth's Moon is more or less a fluke, it could suggest terrestrial type planets do not normally have moons.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Extending ISS

The Obama administration recently decided to extend the operational life of ISS from 2020 to 2024, and perhaps to 2028, in order to maximize the scientific return from the project.

ISS is an international project, however, and NASA's international partners must agree to any extension.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Cygnus At ISS

The robotic arm of ISS successfully captured the Cygnus cargo ship yesterday, securing it at a docking port.  This is Cygnus' first commercial supply mission.

Among the cargo delivered were Christmas gifts for the crew, fresh fruit, and eight ant farms to be used in experiments to study the effects of weightlessness.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Measuring The Universe

Astronomers have taken the most precise measurement of the size and structure of the universe to date-- an accuracy to within one percent.

Among other things, such as further defining the behavior of dark matter, the data implies the universe is essentially flat.  That would mean the universe is infinite in space and may last forever.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Virgin Galactic On Track

In a powered test flight Friday, Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo set an altitude record by reaching 71,000 feet.

The successful flight keeps VG on track for flying its first commercial flight in 2014.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Finally, Cygnus Success

Orbital Sciences, after delays that were largely not of the company's making, finally launched its Cygnus supply ship to ISS yesterday atop its Antares booster.

Cygnus will be one of the supply ships that keep ISS functioning over the next few years.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Super Earths

Most scientists have assumed super Earths-- worlds slightly more massive than our own-- would essentially be water worlds.  Crushing gravity, they reasoned, would inhibit land formation.  Such ocean worlds might harbor life, but probably not civilizations.

A new study, however, suggests that if such a world had plate tectonics, much of the water present could be taken into the mantle, as happens here, and continents could form.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Cygnus Delayed Again

Orbital Sciences once again delayed the launch of its Cygnus supply spacecraft to ISS yesterday.  The launch was delayed by the problem with the cooling system on ISS, and again by extremely cold weather at its Virginia launch site.  Yesterday, the problem was a huge solar flare that threatened the electronics not of Cygnus, but of its rocket, Antares.

The company will decide soon when to try again.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Exoplanet Menagerie

Astronomers plumbing Kepler data have found five more rocky planets only slightly larger than Earth.  They're also beginning to talk about a new class of world-- "mini-Neptunes" similar in composition to Neptune, but only perhaps four times as massive as Earth.

No doubt many more classes of exoplanets will be defined in the years ahead.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Dust Atmosphere?

New analysis of 40-year-old Apollo data suggests the Moon might be surrounded by a thin atmosphere of dust particles.

Apollo astronauts found lunar dust to be a nuisance to themselves and a degrader of their equipment, so an atmosphere of it could pose a problem for lunar colonization.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

2014 AA

Astronomers found the first asteroid of 2014, 2014 AA, just before the tiny rock plunged into Earth's atmosphere.

It's yet another reminder that we need to get serious about planetary defense.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Ten Years On Mars

NASA has now been operating rovers on Mars for ten solid years.  First, it was the twins, Spirit and Opportunity.  Now, Spirit no longer functions, but Opportunity is still going strong, and Curiosity has been added.

The rovers have been instrumental in helping scientists develop a new understanding of Mars and the possibility of life there.  It's been a remarkable era-- and that era continues.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Exoplanet Atmospheres

Two separate studies have used the Hubble Space Telescope to look at the atmospheres of two exoplanets-- one super Earth, and the other a world the size of Neptune in a tight orbit around its star.

Clouds were inferred by both studies, but the projects were at the limits of Hubble's capabilities.  Much more progress will likely have to await the next generation of space telescope.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Happy New Year

January 1 marks no major astronomical alignment.  It commemorates no major historical event.  It is largely an arbitrary date on which to start a new year.

This year, 2014, should finally see the beginning of commercial space tourism flights, suborbital flights by Virgin Galactic.  It should also see NASA's rover Curiosity reach its major goal, the Martian mountain Mount Sharp.  Reading Mount Sharp's geologic layers may finally establish that we are not alone in the universe.  This could be a big year.