Archive for November 18, 2011
Alien Planet HD 85512 b Holds Possibility of Life (Infographic)
The announcement of 50 newfound alien worlds today (Sept. 12) included 16 so-called “super-Earths” and one planet that, just possibly, could be habitable, astronomers said.
The planet, called HD 85512 b, orbits the star HD 85512 about 35 light-years from Earth in the direction of the constellation Vela (the Sail). See a profile of the planet in the infographic above.
Pluto: A Dwarf Planet Oddity (Infographic)
Photos: NASA’s Space Launch System for Deep Space Flights
SLS Possible Exploration DestinationsCredit: NASAAn artist’s concept shows the Orion Multipurpose Crew Vehicle and future destinations for human exploration beyond Earth orbit: the moon, an asteroid and Mars.
NASA’s Space Launch System at LiftoffCredit: NASAThis artist’s concept shows NASA’s giant rocket, the Space Launch System, soaring off a launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The rocket is NASA’s new booster for deep space missions to an asteroid and ultimately Mars.
A Bigger SplashCredit: NASA/Sean SmithOrion MPCV test-lands in water at NASA’s Langley Research Center.
NASA’s New Spaceships Could Tag-Team AsteroidCredit: Lockheed MartinA manned asteroid mission using two Orion spacecraft, docked nose-to-nose to form a 50-ton deep space vehicle, is being studied by Lockheed Martin Space Systems.
Operation ‘Plymouth Rock': Astronauts on an AsteroidCredit: Lockheed MartinThis artist’s illustration depicts a ‘Plymouth Rock’ asteroid mission with astronauts and NASA’s Orion spacecraft as envisioned by Lockheed Martin.
How NASA’s GRAIL Probes Will Map the Moon’s Gravity (Infographic)
Space Launch System: NASA’s Giant Rocket Explained (Infographic)
NASA unveiled its new rocket for deep space exploration – the Space Launch System – on Sept. 14, 2011. The rocket will launch astronauts into space on NASA’s Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, and serve as the go-to booster for U.S. missions to explore asteroids and, eventually, Mars.
This infographic above shows how the Space Launch System will work. The first test flight of the new rocket, which will be more powerful than NASA’s mighty Saturn V moon rocket, is set for 2017.
Inside Russia’s Mars Moon Sampling Mission: Infographic
How the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity Works (Infographic)
New Crew Arrives at Space Station on Russian Spaceship
CREDIT: NASA TV
This story was updated at 3:15 a.m. EST.
A spacecraft carrying the three newest residents of the International Space Station safely arrived at the orbiting outpost today (Nov. 16), after a two-day space journey.
NASA astronaut Dan Burbank and Russian cosmonauts Anton Shkaplerov and Anatoly Ivanishin reached the space station early Wednesday, slightly ahead of schedule at 12:24 a.m. EST (0524 GMT). The trio parked their Russian-built Soyuz TMA-22 capsule at thePoisk mini research module on the station’s Russian segment, as both spacecraft flew 248 miles (400 kilometers) above the South Pacific.
The crew conducted an extensive set of leak checks before they opened the hatch of their capsule and floated into the station. The hatches between the two spacecraft were opened at 2:39 a.m. EST (0839 GMT), according to NASA officials. The two crews greeted each other with laughter, hugs, and warm welcomes.
Burbank, Shkaplerov and Ivanishin then received congratulatory satellite calls from Russian dignitaries and family members before participating in a safety briefing led by the station’s current commander, NASA astronaut Mike Fossum.
CREDIT: NASA TV
Two days earlier, the new station crew launched to the orbiting outpost with a plush, red toy bird from the video game “Angry Birds” inside their space capsule. The doll belonged to Shkaplerov’s 5-year-old daughter, who expressed concerned about the welfare of her toy when she spoke to her father shortly after the hatch opening ceremony aboard the station.
“Your bird is with me,” Shkaplerov told his daughter from orbit. “It made it safely to the station. The bird is doing very well. I’m going to take it to my sleeping crew quarters, and I’m going to stay with it, and I’m going to bring it back to you for sure.”
“That’s good,” she replied. “I’m going to be concerned about my birdie.”
Burbank, Shkaplerov and Ivanishin are the first crewmembers to launch to the space station since NASA retired its 30-year space shuttle program in July.
The spaceflyers will live and work aboard the orbiting laboratory for the next four months. During their stay, Burbank, Shkaplerov and Ivanishin will be involved in a variety of research scientific experiments, ranging from life sciences to Earth observation projects.
CREDIT: NASA TV
The arrival of the new crewmembers brings the population of the space station back up to its full capacity of six people, but not for long.
Fossum, Japanese astronaut Satoshi Furukawa and Russian cosmonaut Sergei Volkov have been living on the orbiting complex since early June, but the trio is scheduled to return home in their Soyuz TMA-02M capsule on Nov. 21.
Before leaving, Fossum, the current commander of the station, will hand over his post to Burbank, who will lead the station’s Expedition 30 mission for the length of his stay. Fossum will spend this week helping Burbank get up to speed with the various science experiments and operations on the station.
“The crew will have a very busy time on orbit doing the handover, but the crew is prepared and ready to go do that, and then we’re ready again for the landing that is coming up,” Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for NASA’s human exploration and operations directorate, said in a post-docking news briefing from the Russian Federal Space Agency’s Mission Control in Korolev, Russia.
Burbank has visited the space station twice before on flights aboard the space shuttle Atlantis. The veteran spaceflyer was a member of the STS-106 mission in 2000 and the STS-115 mission in 2006. This is his first long-duration stint aboard the orbiting complex.
Shkaplerov and Ivanishin are both making their spaceflight debuts. The three newest station residents will remain at the massive orbiting complex until March 2012.
Burbank, Shkaplerov and Ivanishin flawlessly launched into orbit on Sunday, Nov. 13 (Monday, Nov. 14 local time) in the midst of blizzard conditions at the Baikonour Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
The successful launch represented a critical milestone for the Russian Federal Space Agency and its Soyuz fleet of rockets. In August, a Soyuz booster that was carrying an unmanned cargo ship suffered a malfunction shortly after launch, and the rocket and Progress 44 cargo freighter crashed in Siberia.
Burbank, Shkaplerov and Ivanishin were originally scheduled to launch to the station in September, but as officials conducted an investigation into the cause of the crash, Russian spaceflight operations to the space station were temporarily halted. This is because similar Soyuz rocket designs are used to loft both unamnned cargo freighters and humans to the orbiting complex.
The malfunction was a rare accident for the typically reliable Soyuz boosters, but engineering analyses eventually traced the problem back to the gas generator in the rocket’s third stage.
The first supply run to the orbiting complex since the August crash took place on Oct. 30, when a robotic Progress 45 cargo ship launched to the station carrying nearly three tons of supplies. The successful liftoff of Burbank, Shkaplerov and Ivanishin represented the first manned Soyuz launch since the August failure.
“The Russian team did a tremendous job of getting ready, getting the crew prepared, and making this launch and docking,” Gerstenmaier said. “This was not easy, and the Russians did a tremendous job of getting prepared and making today possible.”
Europe Bans Airport X-Ray Body Scanners Amid Cancer Concerns
X-ray body scans. Credit: TSA.gov
The European Union announced this week that it has banned the use of X-ray body scanners in all European airports “in order not to risk jeopardizing citizens’ health and safety.” Research shows that the X-ray scanners, which use low-level radiation to screen airline passengers for hidden explosives, slightly increase their risk of getting cancer.
The same scanners will continue to be used in the United States, according to the Transportation Security Administration. The TSA’s stance is that the scanners meet its safety standards.
The TSA did not comment directly on the EU decision, but instead reiterated the need to use the best available security technology in U.S. airports. “Since January 2010, advanced imaging technology has detected more than 300 dangerous or illegal items on passengers in U.S. airports nationwide,” spokesman Mike McCarthy told Life’s Little Mysteries.
It should be noted that some or most of that detection was achieved by millimeter-wave scanners, which are used more often than X-ray scanners in U.S. airports. The former advanced imaging machines use safe, “nonionizing” radiation — a low-energy kind that does not cause genetic mutations — rather than DNA-damaging X-ray radiation. [What Are X-Rays?]
About 250 X-ray scanners are currently being used in American airports, according to ProPublica, along with 264 millimeter-wave scanners. Robin Kane, the TSA’s assistant administrator for security technology, explained that it is important to have both technologies in order to create competition, which keeps prices down and will ultimately lead to even better imaging technology.
According to the new decision, the 27 EU-member countries will employ only millimeter-wave scanners.
In response to earlier concerns about its adoption of X-ray screening technology, the TSA has argued that the amount of ionizing radiation used in X-ray scanners is extremely low — equivalent to the radiation a passenger would receive in only a few minutes of flying. Scientific studies have concluded that a small number of cancer cases — somewhere between six and 100, depending on the study — will result from scanning hundreds of millions of passengers per year.
That is, for every year that the X-ray scanners are used, between six and 100 people will eventually develop cancer who otherwise may not have.
In the next three years, the TSA plans to install an X-ray or millimeter-wave scanner at nearly every airport security checkpoint in the country.
Chinese craft returns from space docking mission
BEIJING (AP) — An unmanned Chinese spacecraft returned to Earth on Thursday night after it docked twice with an orbiting module in preparation for the country launching its own space station.
In this photo released by China’s Xinhua News Agency, a technician inspects the re-entry capsule of Shenzhou 8 spacecraft which lies on its side with its hatch opened at a landing site located in Siziwang Banner in north China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, Thursday, Nov. 17, 2011. The unmanned Chinese spacecraft returned to Earth on Thursday night after it docked twice with an orbiting module in preparation for the country launching its own space station. (AP Photo/Xinhua, Li Gang) NO SALES
The Shenzhou 8 craft landed by parachute in China’s western desert after more than two weeks in space. It docked twice with the Tiangong 1 module, which remains in orbit, during a mission proving China capable of successfully docking by remote control. Early U.S. astronauts did so manually.
China will conduct two more space docking missions next year, one of them manned, and plans to complete a manned space station around 2020. At about 60 tons, the Chinese station will be considerably smaller than the 16-nation International Space Station.
China has made steady progress toward a space station since a 2003 launch that made it only the third nation to put a man in space. Two more manned missions have followed, and China separately seeks to launch a lunar rover next year.
China started a space station program after being rebuffed in its attempts to join the ISS, largely on objections from the United States. The U.S. is wary of the Chinese program’s military links and the sharing of technology with its chief economic and political rival.
In this photo released by China’s Xinhua News Agency, the re-entry capsule of Shenzhou 8 spacecraft lies on its side at a landing site located in Siziwang Banner in north China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, Thursday, Nov. 17, 2011. The unmanned Chinese spacecraft returned to Earth on Thursday night after it docked twice with an orbiting module in preparation for the country launching its own space station. (AP Photo/Xinhua, Li Gang) NO SALES
However, China has refused to rule out future cooperation with the U.S. or European space programs and says its craft could dock with the ISS and U.S. spacecraft with only minor adjustments.
It also said that China allowed Germany to conduct biological experiments in a docking vehicle — the first instance of international cooperation since the beginning of China’s manned space program.
Ghost alps of Antarctica reveal their secret
Glaciers in Antartica in 2007. For more than half a century, geologists have wrangled over the origins of an astonishing range of mountains found beneath ice up to three kilometers (two miles) thick in East Antarctica. (AFP Photo/Rodrigo Arangua)
For more than half a century, geologists have wrangled over the origins of an astonishing range of mountains found beneath ice up to three kilometers (two miles) thick in East Antarctica.
Named after the Soviet geophysicist who detected them in 1958 during the first International Polar Year exploration, the Gamburtsev mountains are 1,200 kilometers (750 miles) long, with jagged peaks up to 2,700 meters (8,900 feet) high intersected by deep troughs and valleys.
How this chain came into being is one of the many mysteries of the great white continent.
The Gamburtsevs are located at high elevation and on a continent that geologically is ancient and long free of the tectonic upheaval that throws up mountains.
Yet their sharp edges, like Europe’s Alps, clearly attest to a youthful range barely touched by the erosive forces of wind, snow and water.
An international team of scientists, reporting in the journal Nature on Wednesday, say they have the answer to the riddle.
The key, they believe, lies in a network of lakes and rifts in the bedrock, remarkably mirroring features found in the parched African tropics half a world away.
“The East Antarctic rift system resembles one of the geological wonders of the world, the East African rift system,” said head investigator Fausto Ferraccioli of the British Antarctic Survey (BAS).
“It provides the missing piece of the puzzle that helps explain theGamburtsev Subglacial Mountains. The rift system was also found to contain the largest subglacial lakes in Antarctica.”
The rift network was found thanks to a second exploration of the Gamburtsevs, carried out in the last International Polar Year, which despite its name ran from 2007-2009 in order to cover the seasons at both poles.
The seven-nation project mapped the subglacial topography in central East Antarctica using two Twin Otter aircraft fitted with penetrating radar and sensors to map changes in Earth’s gravitational and magnetic field.
What they propose is a narrative starting a billion years ago.
Several mini-continents collided together to form a super-continent called Gondwana, creating a mountain range at the point of impact.
Eventually, the uplifted rock collapsed under its own weight and over aeons eroded away, leaving an underlying crustal “root.”
There next followed two periods of rifting, some 250 million years ago and again about 100 million years ago, in which Gondwana pulled part in tectonic agony.
This created a 3,000-km (2,000-mile) fracture in the planet’s crust that extends from East Antarctica across the ocean to India.
The residual “root,” combined with the rifting, helped force up the land that is now East Antarctica.
In doing so, this developed an extensive rift-valley system, whose flanks were incised by rivers — and then by glaciers, as Earth moved from warmth into deepening chill.
Some 34 million years ago, the magnificent mountains became smothered by the East Antarctic icesheet, an area the size of Canada. Like Sleeping Beauty, they retained their eerie youthfulness.
Piecing together the story of the Gamburtsevs as a tale of mountain rejuvenation was an exercise in humility, said Carol Finn of the US Geological Survey (USGS).
“We are accustomed to thinking that mountain-building relates to a single tectonic event rather than sequences of events,” she said.
“The lesson we learned about multiple events forming the Gamburtsevs may inform studies of the history of other mountain belts.”