Stories tagged space

Here in Minnesota, we've turned the corner and we're now heading toward winter. Snow can't be that far behind. This week on Mars, NASA's Phoenix explorer has dectected snow falling on the Red Planet. Here's a complete video report. Unfortunately for Martian school children, the snow was so light that it melted before touching down on land, removing the possiblity of having a snow day off from school.

Scientific Frontline has a video celebrating 50 years of exploration by NASA which was created Oct. 1, 1958.


Private rocket achieves Earth orbit

SpaceX’s Falcon 1 spacecraft made history last night as the first privately developed launch vehicle to reach earth orbit from the ground. Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (Space X) was created four years ago with $120 million of private funding, 80% from Elon Musk. Elon Musk (born 28 June 1971) is an entrepreneur and a co-founder of PayPal and SpaceX. He is also chairman of Tesla Motors and SolarCity.

You can learn more about Space X by going to

Source: TechCrunch.


China National Space Administration logo
China National Space Administration logoCourtesy CNSA
Sometime later this week, perhaps as early as tomorrow, China will launch its third manned space mission, Shenzhou-7 into space along with three astronauts – one of whom will perform China's first ever space walk.

The goal of the mission is to allow the Chinese program to develop the skills needed for the construction of a space station and eventual manned trips to the moon.

With the first manned Shenzhou mission in 2003, China joined the United States and the former Soviet Union as the only nations capable of launching astronauts into space.


Okay, hold that pose: But we're going to want to try it without... without...  Forget it.
Okay, hold that pose: But we're going to want to try it without... without... Forget it.Courtesy NASA
And they didn’t just have sex; they actually reproduced, which turns out to be important for naked astronauts. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, aren’t we?

No, we aren’t.

Tiny, naked astronauts were recently exposed to the vacuum environment, harsh temperatures, and dangerous radiation of space for a period of several days. The space travelers went into an almost entirely dormant state for the duration, slowing their metabolisms to .01% of their normal levels.

After they were brought back into the low-orbit space vessel, most of the astronauts were completely revived. (Some died. It was very sad.) Aside from enduring the vacuum of space, and the extreme temperatures outside of a space capsule, the astronauts’ ability to survive the radiation of space most surprised scientists. On the surface of earth, solar radiation (as you no doubt are aware) is strong enough to give us sunburn, and cause genetic damage to our skin cells (leading to skin cancer). The levels of radiation in space are 1,000 times higher, enough to sterilize an organism, yet the astronauts did fine with it, and were even able to successfully reproduce on their return to earth. Scientists hope to isolate whatever mechanism allowed the astronauts to repair the genetic damage they likely incurred while in space. Such research might be applied to radiation therapy techniques.

We salute you, tiny, naked challengers of the unknown.


Where, oh where, have my sunspots gone?: Sunspot activity tied a record low of zero in August, 2008.
Where, oh where, have my sunspots gone?: Sunspot activity tied a record low of zero in August, 2008.Courtesy NASA

For the first time in almost a century, the Sun has a spotless record. There were no observed sunspots in August. None. Zero. Zip. Can't get a record any lower than that. That's the first time this has happened since 1913.

That's before commercial radio. Before talking movies. Before World War I. Why, it's almost as long as since the last time the Cubs won the World Series.

Now, that's a long time!

Plus, as we've discussed before, the Sun has been unusually quiet of late. Sunspots generally go through an 11-year cycle, and we're a couple years late for the next rise in activity.

But, you are no doubt wondering, what does this mean to me, the Average Joe? (Assuming your name is indeed "Average Joe," which would be pretty remarkable and, ironically, not average.) Well, sunspots seem to be tied to weather. Three times, since astronomers began observing suspots, has the Sun fallen silent, and each time coincides with significant drops in global temperatures. One such dip, from roughly 1600 to 1750, was so severe it is known as "The Little Ice Age."

Are we heading into another glacial period? Much too soon to tell. But if you start feeling chilly, keep your eye on the Sun. Astronomers will be doing the same.

(NOTE FOR THE METAPHORCALLY-IMPAIRED: That was meant figuratively. Do not look directly at the Sun with your naked eye. You'll burn out your retina.)

The edge of the Solar System is defined by the heliosheath, the point where the solar wind – a constant stream of high-energy particle emitting from the Sun – drops off abruptly. Rather than being perfectly spherical, it is pushed in at the bottom by an inter-stellar magnetic field. To which I say: huh.

The Earth’s magnetic field seems to be weakening in some places. This can allow high-energy particles from space to enter the atmosphere, where they can wreak havoc on electronic communications. It may also be a prelude to a flip in the Earth’s polarity, with the north and south magnetic poles switching places. Santa Claus may have to move as a result.


Black hole in action: Artist's rendition of a distant super-massive black hole warping space while busy eating up stellar material.
Black hole in action: Artist's rendition of a distant super-massive black hole warping space while busy eating up stellar material.Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech
Scientists now have a better idea why stars can still form out of giant molecular clouds being ripped apart by the gravitational pull of a nearby massive black hole.

The observed existence of huge stars in eccentric orbits around the super-massive black hole believed to be located at the center of our Milky Way galaxy has puzzled scientists. How can stars form in such extreme environments? Gravitational forces would be tremendous near the black hole, tearing apart everything in the immediate region.

The computer simulations, done by researchers from St Andrews University in the UK, show how a molecular cloud – a normal stellar nursery – is torn apart by the black hole’s immense gravitation pull. Although the powerful gravity-well eats a huge portion of the gas cloud, the remaining gases are still able to accrete more material and coalesce into stars.

This is possible because as a molecular cloud enters the black hole’s gravitational field it begins to form into a spiraling elliptical disk. The disk’s matter nearest the black hole is sucked into the gravitational vortex, while energy is transferred to the remaining outer material. This transferred energy allows the remnants to retain the eccentric orbital path as they form into huge stars many times the mass of the Sun.

"These simulations show that young stars can form in the neighborhood of super-massive black holes as long as there is a reasonable supply of massive clouds of gas from further out in the galaxy," said co-author Ian Bonnell. The study’s results appear in the current issue of Science.

The stars live fairly short lives - perhaps only about 10 million years. But their existence could help explain some of the mysteries surrounding black holes in galaxies.

Story on BBC website
Science magazine abstract
More on super-massive black holes

If you were sad to see Pluto stripped of its planetary status, you can be glad that the poor mass of rock and ice has been given a break. The international body that officially defines the names of stellar objects has decided to call all objects like Pluto, plutoids. So if Pluto isn't a planet, what is it? It's a is Eris.