Friday, April 29, 2011

Launch week: last flight of space shuttle Endeavour today! 04.29.11

STS-134 mission patch. Image credit: NASA.

The last flight of space shuttle Endeavour is scheduled for Friday, April 29. Barring poor weather and technical issues, it should launch at 3:47 from launch pad 39a at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The mission is scheduled to last for two weeks. During their flight, the six crew members of STS-134 will deliver new instruments, space parts, a high-pressure gas tank, and other parts for the International Space Station. NASA provided live coverage of the crew's arrival to Kennedy on Tuesday at 12:15, and was available on NASA television and over the internet at
Space shuttle Endeavour moving on the crawler to launchpad 39a. Image credit: NASA.
For more information about the mission, please visit:

Credit: NASA.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Lyrids meteor shower tomorrow

The Lyrids meteor shower, one of the better annual meteor showers, is predicted to begin tomorrow night and continue on through the 22nd of April. While the shower has been in progress since around the 16th of this month, it should reach its peak on the 22nd. Expect a medium-sized show, weather permitting, although you may have trouble seeing it due to the very bright, waning-gibbous moon.

Image credit:
Bright and quick, these short-lived dust grains come from comet C/Thatcher, and enter our atmosphere at 29.8 miles per second. As they pass through the upper layers of Earth’s atmosphere, the friction caused by their speed causes them to heat and burn up, causing their bright, visible streaks of light.

While the meteors may be spotted all over the night sky, the “radiant” (the spot to which they can all be traced) will be near the very bright star Vega in the constellation Lyra, in the northeastern sky. The best time to try and catch a glimpse of the meteors will be between 10:00 pm, when Lyra rises above the horizon, and the time when the moon rises into view.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Secret satellites, 04.18.11

It goes without saying, but the Pacific Ocean is huge. So, it would make an excellent place to "de-orbit" classified government spy satellites, says Ted Molczan of Toronto, an expert satellite tracker and part of a global sky watching effort.

Lacrosse 2, a classified government spy satellite, is one of five extremely large instruments used to take special radar images- even through clouds. Supposed to be a secret, the Lacrosse 2 is covered in "gold-colored kapton insulation blankets," which makes it reflect light with an "orange-red hue." This not only makes it easy to spot with a decent telescope or binoculars, but also plain pretty to look at for sky watchers. Whoopsie. So much for secrets.

So, when reports slowly started coming in from around the world in March that the Lacrosse 2 had gone MIA, the hunt to spot it again began in earnest, but to no avail. While it is possible that the gigantic satellite had been drastically maneuvered to another orbit, that is not probable, said Molczan. According to him, big orbital changes usually are not made by such huge satellites. Molczan theorizes that the satellite was “de-orbited” back to Earth, most likely a remote region of the Pacific Ocean, where any surviving pieces could be recovered by reconnaissance teams.

So why carefully plot and direct their path instead of just dropping them to Earth or leaving them floating about in space? Well, they are spy satellites after all; to just drop it could compromise national security, according to Molczan. It would not be surprising if Lacrosse 2 had been retired, though; it has been in orbit for an astounding 20 years. The model depicted here is probably similar to the Lacrosse 2, according to

Image credit: National Reconnaissance Office (NRO).

Monday, April 11, 2011

Meteorites yield exciting discovery: alien mineral, 04.11.11

Meteorites discovered on Antarctica in 1969 have recently yielded exciting results using NASA's transmission electron microscope; they are carrying alien minerals.

Image credit: NASA.
Dubbed "wassonite," after professor John T. Wasson from UCLA of meteorite and impact research fame, the mineral has never before been encountered on earth and is valued for its peculiar crystalline structure, which has also never been seen in earth minerals. Comprised entirely of sulfur and titanium, the mineral is less than one-hundredth the width of a human hair, which NASA says is about 50x450 nanometers. Basically, this stuff is tiny.

The tiny veins of wassonite were surrounded by other minerals that have yet to be identified in the meteorite dubbed Yamato 691.

Scientists studying the meteorite hope to glean information about the formation of our solar system. They guesstimate that the meteorite is roughly 4.5 billion years old, and most likely came from an asteroid orbiting somewhere between Mars and Jupiter. They say wassonite is one of the "tiniest, yet most important, minerals identified."

Credit: NASA.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

OK, we're all caught up

Everything from here on out will be a new publication.
Now we're just going to work on the aesthetic stuff. Woohoo!

A geriatric non-planet, non-asteroid...thing... 04.04.11

Vesta was discovered on March 29, 1807 by German astronomer Heinrich Wilhelm Olbers. To call Vesta an asteroid is not entirely correct, but it is not exactly a planet either. Too small to even be considered a dwarf planet, it has layers that scientists discovered in 1972 had melted at some point, so it does meet some criteria of being a planet like Mars, Earth, or Venus. Or, at least, a “proto-” or “minor” planet (not quite a planet, like a planet that failed to develop all the way). And, it is tiny.

 Not that tiny, though. It is too large to be an asteroid. Most asteroids are usually only about 60 miles or less across; Vesta is about 330 miles across. Pieces of Vesta (called Vestoids) also orbit with the other asteroids and have reached Earth as meteorites.

In July, NASA’s Dawn mission should arrive to orbit the object for one year, and conduct dozens of experiments in the process. The theory from most astronomers is that Vesta is an object left over from the formation of our solar system, an object that missed out on its chance to join with other bits of rock and dust to form a larger planet. That being the case, astronomers are very excited about the prospect of studying the object with, possibly, the oldest dirt samples. The studies will begin by taking pictures of a massive crater at Vesta’s south pole, and then will orbit northward to study its terrain, surface composition, texture, topography, and gravitational field. The image here is an artistic rendering of how astronomers expect it to appear.
Image credit: NASA JPL.

Credit: NASA JPL.

The laziest star in the universe, 03.18.11

Astronomers have recently discovered the laziest stars to date. By lazy, we mean they are just barely stars; they are actually “failed” stars.

Image credit:
CFBDSIR 1458+10B is a binary, brown dwarf system located about 75 light-years from Earth. They are roughly the same size as Jupiter, but astronomers say they lack the gusto needed to kick off the nuclear reactions needed to make them shine. Right now, they are only burning at about 212 degrees Fahrenheit. Yes, that is the boiling temperature of water, just a tad hotter than your average cup of coffee. So far as stars are concerned, that is pathetic. For comparison, our own Sun burns at an average of 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit. You would definitely need more than a Styrofoam cup to handle that.

Michael Liu, of the University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy and lead author of the study, said that astronomers could even expect CFBDSIR 1458+10B to have properties much like giant exoplanets (planets outside our solar system), and that “it could even have water clouds in its atmosphere.”

For now, Liu and his team will continue to track the system, and in about 10 years or so they will hopefully have enough data to determine the system’s mass, which will open up all manner of future number-crunching possibilities.

When all the heat on CFBDSIR 1458+10B burns away, it will look like another Jupiter-type planet, only super-sized.


Further up and further in, 03.21.11

New Horizons, NASA’s Pluto probe, passed a milestone on the 19th of this month. It passed the orbit of Uranus. The mission was slated at launch to take 9 ½ years before the probe even reaches its destination. Patience is a must.

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Scientists have been guiding New Horizons as it speeds through our solar system on its way out to photograph Pluto, its moons Charon, Nix, and Hydra, and maybe even encounter other objects in the Kuiper Belt (the band of dust, dwarf planets, and smaller objects that surrounds our solar system). New Horizons is the fastest spacecraft to date, travelling at a rate of approximately 36,000 miles per hour. It is expected to reach its destination by July 2015.

The Messenger (short for MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging) spacecraft also made space history last week by orbiting Mercury. The primary purpose of the $446 million, 1-year mission is to discover whether or not ice actually exists on the planet of extremes. At only an average of 35,983,605.7 miles from the sun, and too small for its gravity to retain an atmosphere, the surface is blasted with unimaginable heat on the sunny side and drops to hundreds of degrees below zero on the shady side. Messenger is the first spacecraft to visit Mercury since NASA’s Mariner 10 mission in 1970.


Asteroid Apophis a threat in 2029? 03.14.11

Astronomers have been tracking a 900-foot wide rock that is hurtling towards earth. Will it strike us? Only the math can tell.

Image credit:
Photographed on January 31, astronomers said on March 9 that this was the first clear shot they have been able to take of the approaching asteroid in at least 3 years. The photo was taken from atop one of Hawai’i’s dormant volcanoes, Mauna Kea, using a telescope. It was originally thought that the rock had a 1-in-37 chance of hitting earth, but new calculations made the number grow substantially; it now has a 1-in-250,000 chance of dashing earth to bits. Oh, joy!

All of the calculations are made by doing some careful comparisons with the “known” distances of stars near the asteroid. As stars move very slowly, they can be fairly reliable space-scale distance markers, but the passage of time still has to be taken into consideration upon each new measurement. 

If it does not smash into earth in 2029, it should pass by again in 2036 and 2068. The pass in 2029 will likely alter its path, too, making it slide ever so much closer to earth. The pass in 2029, in fact, will most definitely be closer to earth than a lot of communications satellites are! You can expect to see Apophis without the aid of a telescope or even binoculars, weather permitting. Until then, all we can do is sit, measure, and crunch some more numbers.


Meet O/OREOS, NASA's first nanosatellite, 03.09.11

NASA has put a loaf of bread in orbit around earth. Wait, no. Scratch that; they have put a satellite the size of a loaf of bread in orbit. Let us introduce you to NASA’s newest baby: a nanosatellite, O/OREOS. Isn’t it cute?

Image credit: NASA/Dominic Hart.
Weighing in at around 12 pounds and orbiting at approximately 400 miles above earth, O/OREOS (Organism/Organic Exposure to Orbital Stresses) is the first successful nanosatellite to reach orbit. What’s more, it is the first propellant-less mechanism NASA has used to conduct experiments. It went up in a USAF Minotaur IV rocket as part of the 4-stage payload, and was set in orbit on November 19 of last year. When it is finished with all of its experiments (in about, oh…25 years or so) it will just burn up in Earth’s atmosphere as it falls back towards land. It just drifts round and round the Earth’s orbit, from the Arctic all the way to the Antarctic Circle. It launched from the Kodiak Launch Complex on Kodiak Island, Alaska, too, so it’s got a good start on that north-south downward spiral.

This little loaf of bread—sorry, satellite—is special, too, because it is the first successful attempt by NASA to have two completely independent experiments running simultaneously in the same instrument. What sort of experiments, you ask? Biological and chemical ones. This nifty little satellite’s purpose, according to NASA, is “to answer astrobiology’s fundamental questions about the origin, evolution, and distribution of life in the universe.” Big goals for such a tiny little tool.

What’s more, Santa Clara University has invited the public to help them collect data from O/OREOS. If you are an experienced operator with a HAM radio, you can visit this link,, and get all the information you need to tune in to O/OREOS’ data stream.

Credit: NASA.

A quasar's lesson in death, 03.02.11

There is a supermassive black hole at the center of Markarian 231, about 600 million light years away, near the constellation Ursa Major, which is giving scientists some clues into the life cycles of black holes. Irony objectified, it turns out that their massive appetites actually starve them out in the end.

Image credit: Gemini Observatory/AURA, artwork by Lynette Cook.
Mrk 231 is under observation by the Gemini Observatory in Hilo, Hawai’I, and the Gemini Multi-Object Spectrograph (GMOS) on Mauna Kea, Hawai’i. The observatory has estimated that the total flow of matter from Mrk 231 is about 400 times the mass of the Sun, and that it puts out this much every year. Such an enormous appetite, however, cannot go on forever, scientists say.

Black holes are a normal find in the center of galaxies; we even have one of our own in the center of the Milky Way. Mrk 231has allowed scientists to glean data that demonstrates how black holes can be choked out. They are calling their findings a “negative feedback loop,” in which the black hole sucks in matter and energy around it, compresses it into an unimaginably fine stream (probably because of magnetic fields), and then spews it back out. The problem, they say, is that it is spitting its food out too far and too fast. “This is really a last gasp of this galaxy;” says Sylvain Veilleux of the University of Maryland, “The black hole is belching its next meal into oblivion!”

In the final, violent stages of merging with another galaxy, it spits out the material it needs faster and farther away than it can be retrieved. Soon, it will be stripped down to its energetic central quasar.

Quasar is actually a shortened term for “quasi-stellar radio source.” This is a bit of a misnomer, however, as some quasars emit very little of a radio signal, if any, at all. They also are some of the brightest and presumably oldest objects in the universe, and are still being extensively studied.

Credit: NASA.

Solar storms are growing threat: emergency backup plan neeeded now, 02.21.11

Last Monday, February 14, one of the largest solar storms in over a decade took place. It knocked out radio transmissions in the Western Pacific, parts of Asia, and even caused some polar flights to reroute for the sake of regaining communications. It could have been much worse, though, say space weather experts. The solar flare in this picture took place last September.

Image credit: NASA.
The sun goes through a weather cycle about every 11 years, and it was long overdue to begin its more active phases. It is difficult to say for sure when to expect the next big burst of solar activity. Experts guesstimate that it will probably reach its peak in 2013 or 2014.

One way solar storms can occur is a solar flare, a large burst of radiation that sends photons careening towards Earth. They are categorized according to their intensity: C, M, and X, with the latter being the most severe. The storm of last Monday was an X 2.2, which is strong, but by no means the strongest on record. In 1859, a solar flare was recorded that was intense enough to knock out telegraph signals and even spark fires in electrical lines, but it is difficult to say exactly how strong that particular flare was; estimates are about 30 times more powerful than Monday’s storm.

Had the same magnitude of storm that occurred in 1859 happened in this day and age, though, experts say the results would be devastating. Ships and planes would be “blind” as their communications and GPS devices would go down, cell phones, radio, and televisions would no longer work… the list of damages goes on and on. Experts estimate that the initial damages would be about $2 trillion, with on-going and clean up costs being even more. For perspective, let us remind you that the damages caused by Hurricane Katrina ranged from $80-$125 billion.

According to Helena Lindberg of the Swedish Civil Contigencies Agency, the world must “start sharing expertise and connecting our systems for warning and for response.” Waiting until everything is down is too late to take action. Imagine what happens when everything that relies on a radio or satellite is suddenly “dead” or malfunctioning. They may be 93 million miles away, but with our current technology, solar storms affect us in as little as eight minutes.


Tempel 1 flyby tonight; what's not to love? 02.14.11

NASA has cooked up the perfect Valentine’s Day treat for sky watchers everywhere: a flyby of comet Tempel 1.  Talk about lonely hearts—Tempel 1 only comes around every 5 ½ years!

Image credit: NASA.
At around 11:56 EST tonight, the Stardust-NExT probe will fly within 124 miles of Tempel 1 in an attempt to snap photographs of the ball of ice and rock as it hurtles through space. Tempel 1 orbits the sun, so directing a probe to get close enough to the comet to take some quality photos without being put in danger is proving to be a great challenge, but scientists at NASA are confident the probe will rendezvous with its fleeting target just in time as a last-minute Valentine’s Day treat.  “Encountering something as small and fast as a comet in the vastness of space is always a challenge, but we are very pleased with how things are setting up for our Valentine’s Day flyby,” said Joe Veverka, Cornell University researcher and principal investigator for the mission.

Tempel 1 was visited last summer by NASA’s Deep Impact mission and had part of the comet blasted off by one of the probe’s components in an effort to get a glimpse of Tempel 1’s inner layers. At less than 5 miles in diameter, Tempel 1 is an extremely small target, barely large enough to create any sort of tail as it travels, so hitting it in the first place was literally a long shot. Out of all the calculations that went into hurling a projectile the size of a refrigerator (that weighed in excess of two tons) at the speeding comet, one was not quite factored in: things that go “boom” usually leave a “pouf!” There was a magnificent dust cloud that resulted from the more than 20,000 miles per hour collision, and it obliterated any chances of catching even one clear photograph of the resulting crater at the time. NASA did have a camera on the projectile it sent crashing into Tempel 1, though, so it was able to snap a few mug shots before the camera was smashed to pieces in the collision. We have included one here, below.
Image credit: NASA.
NASA hopes that this time, now that Tempel 1 has hurried along and cleared away from some of the dust, some good photos can be had of its new crater that will tell the scientists more about comets in general.

In honor of all of the excitement gendered by the mission, NASA has set up a full itinerary of press events, including live coverage of the flyby on NASA television, which can all be accessed on NASA’s main website, They have also created a unique way to send a Valentine to that special someone in your life (and show just how awesome you think comets are at the same time!) with their “I <3 Comets” campaign. Visit to join in on all the fun.

You can forget trying to spot Tempel 1 on your own, though. Even the Hubble telescope has a difficult time of it trying to catch a glimpse of this comet, so at the most, all you would ever see with a powerful backyard telescope is a miniscule dot. It would be far better to sit inside and just watch NASA’s coverage on the television or webpage from the comfort of your own home. Who says sky watching always means you have to be outside?

So, snuggle up with that special someone and catch some late-night coverage of the comet. For the person who wants to opt out of the usual flowers and candy, this is certainly no typical way to celebrate! On that note, we at Thronateeska Heritage Center wish you a wonderful Valentine’s Day!

Credit: NASA JPL.

Glancing back at the space shuttles, 02.09.11

In light of the recent anniversary of the loss of the shuttle and Challenger crew, this week we decided to take a look backwards at the path that led to the use of the space shuttles.

Testing of the newest and best fliers began shortly after the end of World War II in the deserts of California. From jets to rockets, the tests were greatly spurred on by the competition against the Soviet Union in the growth of the Cold War.
The possibilities for space flight began to emerge in the late 1940s when Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in the fist Bell X-1 rocket. The success of Yeager’s flight brought enthusiasm for the X-series of rocket planes. Among the X-series was the X-15, which broke all altitude records in the early 1960s. The data and experience gathered by its flight made it possible for the flight engineers to realize what was needed to accommodate flight both in outer space and closer within Earth’s atmosphere.

The Cold War continued to motivate the United States to work faster. It was the driving force behind the first lunar walk, made in 1969 by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.

The problem with those early spacecrafts, however, was that they could only be used once. They could not be “flown” back to Earth, but rather were guided as much as possible while in space to put them on a trajectory that sent them crashing into the ocean. What was needed was a controllable spacecraft that could withstand the extremes of being in space, and also the stress of takeoff and reentry. Proper lifting mechanisms began testing in the 1960s. The hybrid that was ultimately created optimized “all phases of flight—subsonic, supersonic, and hypersonic, including spacecraft reentry.”

The shuttle program became official in 1969 in the wake of Apollo (not a shuttle). In 1981, the first true space shuttle launched on April 12. STS-1 was the first flight of the space shuttle Columbia.

Through the recent command given for the retirement of the space shuttles (the last flight is scheduled in May), any flights to the international space station must be made on Russian vehicles. There are plans to continue space travel, though. We know the goals for continued flight are in the near decades, but what remains to be seen are the changes that will be made with the advent of the new wave of space travel. Will the new “shuttles” be as alien and revolutionary as their original, the Columbia? Many Americans remember each new milestone, each new test and the feelings of pride in the national space program that they brought. Hopefully that sentiment will be able to continue, no matter what changes are made!


Shockwaves and invisible colors: Zeta Ophiuchi, 01.31.11

A huge star, 20 times the mass of our own sun, is hurtling through space. Possibly sent on its course by its former binary star companion’s supernova, the star has been surfing the heavens at roughly 54,000 miles per hour. NASA’s WISE (Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer) telescope has captured the star as it hurtled through a giant dust cloud, creating a massive shockwave, called “bow shock,” like the wave preceding a ship in the ocean. Zeta Ophiuchi, of the constellation Ophiuchus (of recent zodiac fame/infamy), can be seen here creating the giant, golden arc before its path.

Image credit:
Although a beautiful spectacle to behold, it is important to remember the colors we are seeing are not really there at all, at least not as visible light. The colors are actually a result of the infrared imaging. Otherwise, the image would just look like a big, fuzzy, dust smudge with small, lighter bits. That dust, by the way, is obscuring the light from Zeta Ophiuchi. Astronomers believe it would be 65,000 times brighter without the surrounding dust cloud.

But wait a minute, you say, back up! Stars move? Yes, they do indeed, says Thronateeska’s staff astronomer, Jim Friese. “I don’t think people realize that stars are not fixed,” he says, “and some move a lot. This is a great example of how dynamic and changeable stars are; it just takes a long time.”


Will Betelgeuse be Earth's second sun? 01.24.11

Some news agencies, including the Huffington Post, have recently been running reports that Earth will “soon” be warmed by a second sun beginning in 2012. Betelgeuse is losing mass and is due to explode, or go “supernova.” When it does so, it is expected to become significantly brighter for a period of time, even gaining the ability to cast shadows.

Now, “soon,” we must remember, is being used in astronomical terms, reminds astronomer Jim Kaler at the University of Illinois, one of the nation’s foremost authorities on stars. “It’s as likely to happen a million years from now as it is tomorrow,” he cautions, so Earth can rest easy and breathe a collective sigh of relief. There is only a laughably slim chance that it could actually blow in 2012.

Image credit:
Betelgeuse is about 10-20 times as massive as our Sun, and is about 600 light years away in the constellation Orion. A light year is a measure of distance that denotes the distance a ray of light can travel in one year; about 6 trillion miles. So at that distance, Earth is in no danger from any sort of gamma-ray bursts or radiation, says Kaler. He notes, too, that Betelgeuse is not even the correct kind of star to emit gamma-bursts when it goes supernova. It will, however, make a ghastly mess of the constellation Orion when it does finally decide to kick the bucket, however, as supernovas usually destroy everything within a 30 light year, 360 degree perimeter with the powerful shock wave they emit. So, think death star explosion, but oh, so much bigger. This image is an artist’s rendition of what the supernova may look like.

So will it be Earth’s second sun? Not likely, Kaler says. It will be noticeably brighter outside for a time, but it will probably only cast about as much light as a crescent moon.


A Roving update, 01.18.11

Almost one month ago, the Mars Rover Odyssey set a new working lifespan record on the red planet. Having landed in 2001, Odyssey set a new record on December 22, 2010 as the longest-serving spacecraft on Mars. It surpassed the previous record set by the Mars Global Surveyor, another NASA spacecraft that orbited Mars for almost a decade, ending in 2006.

Odyssey has been highly valued by NASA, as it is utilized to create the most detailed maps that have ever been made of Mars. Evidence collected by Odyssey prompted the Phoenix Lander mission in 2008, which confirmed the presence of frozen water just beneath the Martian surface, theorized by hydrogen readings gleaned from Odyssey. Odyssey has also been used to gather data that will assist NASA with planning a manned mission to Mars in the future.

 Odyssey is certainly not the only star of the show, though. Recent findings by the previously mentioned Phoenix Lander have caused some astronomers to breathe a huge sigh of relief, thirty years in the waiting. Soil tests made in 2008 by Phoenix have not only cleared up a supposed chemical waste disposal oversight, but have also confirmed the presence of organics in the Martian soil. In 1976, NASA’s Viking Mars Landers reported the presence of chloromethane and dichloromethane, a story Thronateeska reported on in its September 10, 2010 issue of the Word from the Wetherbee. The situation arose through the discovery of two chemicals—chloromethane and dichloromethane—classified as organics, which were previously thought to be contaminates when they were found in Martian soil. The Phoenix Lander is causing scientists to reexamine the discovery of these two chemicals through the consideration of another chemical—perchlorate—that has been found to destroy the evidence of the two organics. By heating the perchlorate, it becomes a strong oxidant and destroys the other chemicals, which means NASA could have had evidence of life over 30 years ago but missed it.

This is especially good news for present and future rovers that will be sent to the red planet. Take, for example, NASA’s Mars Opportunity. It is gleaning preliminary information about the mineral deposits around it before it even has to conduct any experiments on its own, a huge time-saving device. How, you ask? It is actually having information relayed to it from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which is making use of a mineral-mapping instrument know as the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM). The CRISM, riding 150 miles above Mars on board the Reconnaissance Orbiter, is able to analyze the ground surface of Mars and send back detailed information to the rover regarding specific mineral deposits. Every known element has its own frequency on the light spectrum, and the CRISM analyzes the light spectrum it “sees” to let Opportunity know where to start digging before it even has to move. Therefore, Opportunity is not aimlessly roaming about, conducting experiments that are more likely to glean promising results. It is almost like CRISM is telling Opportunity when it is “getting warmer” as it approaches specific mineral deposits. According to NASA, CRISM is able, despite its great height from Mars, to provide Opportunity with mineral maps as small as a tennis court.

 Advances like this will take further leaps and bounds when Curiosity, the next Mars rover, is launched later this year. Curiosity is equipped with the Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument, a device which, believe it or not, zaps rocks with lasers. Like something out of a science fiction movie, Curiosity will go roaming about Mars conducting much of its research by shooting the rocks around it with a pin-head sized laser beam, the point being that the resulting “pouf” of dust will emit the minerals inherent in the soil, and its light spectrum can be captured and analyzed. A much faster method than digging and baking sample upon sample of soil, the ChemCam is capable of detecting 6,144 different wavelengths of ultraviolet, visible, and infrared light, and all from a laser the size of a cigar, which “drills” a hole with megawatts of energy per square millimeter in just a few nanoseconds, also providing much faster and wide-ranging results. Curiosity will be able to “shoot” its laser at samples up to 23 feet away, and will further enable the rover to make better “decisions” about where it should go dig by providing it with a more detailed chemical overview of the soil types surrounding it. The ChemCam is pictured below, undergoing a laboratory test.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL.

Credit: NASANews, NASA JPL.

10 Year old begins supernova hunting career, 01.10.11

Kathryn Aurora Gray of Fredricton, New Brunswick thought she was just in for another night of star gazing with her family and astronomy-enthusiast friend. Little did she know she was about to become the youngest recorded discoverer of a supernova, an exploding star.

The supernova, in galaxy UGC 3378, was located in the constellation Camelopardalis, located not too far away from the North Star. The galaxy UGC 3378 is approximately 240 million light years away. Gray discovered the supernova on January 2 using a telescope belonging to a friend of the family, David Lane. The group had taken photographs through the telescope on New Years Eve, and upon closer inspection of the photographs on January 2, Gray discovered the supernova. Her father, Paul, himself a discoverer of no less than six supernovas, passed the information on to be verified by the proper authorities. The International Astronomical Union’s Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams has finalized Gray’s discovery.

Image credit: David Lane.
Supernovas, the rather violent death of stars as they explode, are considered rare events and can be difficult to spot, as they present themselves merely as bright points of light that were not previously there. They can last for several days, possibly even weeks, and then their light fades from view, leaving their own unique pattern in the night sky that is only visible with high-powered telescopes. Supernovas, however, can be seen with relatively light-powered telescopes, but take an extremely good sense of familiarity with the night sky (or at least that particular patch of night sky) to spot.

Despite her keen observation, Gray has not been allowed to officially name the supernova. The IAU has deemed it simply as Supernova 2010lt.


"It's alive!" Zombie satellite Galaxy 15 springs back to life, 01.04.11

Creators of Galaxy 15 have reported that the rebellious satellite-gone-rogue has reset itself and is now responding to commands from Earth.

Thronateeska Heritage Center reported on October 22 that Intelsat, a satellite command center, had lost control of a fairly young satellite. Investigation is still underway to determine what caused the satellite to cease responding to commands in the first place, although Orbital Sciences Corp. of Virginia now claims an intense solar storm may be to blame.

Image credit:
Intelsat had program the satellite to automatically reset when its battery life drained, whereby causing communication lines to be restored. The satellite, which operates from a solar-powered battery, however, was using its programming “against” the programmers! It actually adjusted its power consumption levels so that it was using less power while not in the light of the sun, thereby extending its rogue lifespan considerably. This caused many headaches for Intelsat as the satellite was continuing to transmit signals, with no control capable of being placed on it. Intelsat had to work closely with television and radio companies to ensure that Galaxy 15’s transmissions would not interfere with their regular programming as it drifted by uncontrolled, and many intricate maneuvers had to be performed by other satellites to prevent their collision with the temporarily self-piloting satellite out on a joy ride.

Intelsat has reported the battery on Galaxy 15 has finally “died,” though, and the satellite has reset its operating system and restored communications as its designers had hoped would happen when they originally lost control of the satellite last April. 

The satellite, launched October 13, 2005 from an European Ariane rocket, was originally intended to serve until 2020. Needless to say, the recent “rebellion” of the satellite and curious technical behavior it exhibited are causing scientists to re-assess its shelf life and determine what course of action needs to be pursued. Galaxy 15 is currently on a course to rendezvous with an Intelsat orbital location to have its payload assessed and to determine if it is capable of being restored to full functionality.