August 17, 2007

Where Little Solar Systems Come From

Great story on Slashdot:

NASA astronomers held a press conference announcing that a new ultraviolet mosaic from NASA's Galaxy Evolution Explorer shows a speeding star named Mira that's leaving an enormous trail of "seeds" for new solar systems. Mira is traveling faster than a speeding bullet, and has a tail that's 13 light-years long and over 30,000 years old. The website has images and a replay of the teleconference.

Here's an artist's conception of Mira doing her stuff:


It's a real shooting star. It's a super-comet! How wonderful that our universe still has so many amazing new things to show us.

July 31, 2007

Free Trip to Space

For one lucky winner, compliments of Gillette.

(via GeekPress)

Heinlein fans might remember this book, which starts out with a kid trying to win a free trip to the moon sponsored by a soap company:

Just another "it" we've lived to see. (Keeping in mind that the prize for this particular contest is a sub-orbital flight.) But, hey, we're getting there!

UPDATE: Only for Canadians? Paul Hsieh's thoughts on that: "Bummer."


July 13, 2007

Hot Jupiter! Water in Space!

It looks pretty conclusive:

"We're thrilled to have identified clear signs of water on a planet that is trillions of miles away," said study leader Giovanna Tinetti of the Institut d'Astrophysique de Paris in France.

Called HD 189733b, the planet belongs to a class of gas giants called "hot Jupiters," which orbit their stars from a distance closer than Mercury is to our sun.

With average temperatures over 1300 degrees Fahrenheit (more than 700 Celsius), it's unlikely that this planet supports any life -- water or no water. Still, if there's water on one planet out there, it's looking more likely that there will be water on others. From the example of our own solar system, we know that some (perhaps most?) planetary systems include both gas giants and little rocky planets. And we know that there are little rocky planets out there, that such bodies are not unique to our own neighborhood. It's a matter of time, now, before we find the first little rocky planet with water, a nice distance from its sun. That will be quite a discovery.

Discovering a new planet used to be a big deal. But now that we've found anywhere between 212 and 247 new planets (depending on whom you ask) and we can only suppose that there are trillions upon trillions of them out there. The recent demotion of one of the original nine was treated as a much more significant news story than the discovery of any of the subsequent 200-plus.

To recapture the imagination of a planet-jaded public, we're going to have to find life out there. We're getting closer to having that capability all the time:

In [a] previous study, the scientists looked for spectral absorption lines created by radiation traveling up from the interior of the planet and passing through layers of cool gas that selectively absorb certain wavelengths of light.

Without a temperature difference, no absorption occurs.

In the new study, the researchers observed HD 189733b as it passed in front of, or "transited," its parent star.

Using Spitzer's infrared camera, the team analyzed light that was emitted from the interior of the parent star and which passed through the planet's atmosphere on its way to Earth.

In this case, absorption occurs because of the temperature difference that exists between the star's atmosphere and that of the planet.

We discovered extrasolar planets by observing the stars they orbit and extrapolating -- when a star wobbles just so, we know that a planet is out there tugging on it. Getting a hint as to what that planet is made of is a big step forward, but we're still figuring out what we can about the planets by looking at the stars. This is like trying to describe the fish based on the way it tugs on the fishing line.

There are a number of initiatives underway that will help us to continue to improve our understanding of extrasolar planets. And one of these days, we'll be able to look at these distant planets directly. Then things are going to really get interesting.

July 11, 2007

First Look

Big news on the astronomy front:

World’s largest telescope to make first observations Friday

The world’s largest telescope will take its first peek into the heavens this week, ushering the University of Florida into the top ranks of the “big observers,” as one astronomy professor put it.

The Gran Telescopio Canarias, or GTC, under construction in Spain’s Canary Islands for the past seven years, will hold its “first light” opening ceremony Friday.

The roughly $175 million GTC is not yet complete. Only 12 of the 36 mirrors that together will compose its 34.1-foot primary mirror have been installed, Dermott said. The rest are expected to be mounted this year, with the telescope’s grand opening — to be presided over by King Juan Carlos I of Spain — set for next summer. Only after that date will scientific-quality observations begin.


The Gran Telescopio Canarias while still under construction in 2002

The Crown Prince of Spain will be on hand to take that all-important first peek. He'll be looking at Polaris, so don't expect any big discoveries to result from this initial outing. Right now it looks like we're a little heavy on the ceremony and light on the science, but that will change as more of the mirrors are put in place.

June 29, 2007

New Private Space Station Launched

Bigelow Aerospace has now successfully launched their second inflatable satellite, a prototype for an evenatual private space station:

A privately-built space station prototype successfully launched into orbit Thursday from a Russian missile base, kicking off the second test flight for the U.S. firm Bigelow Aerospace.

Genesis 2, an inflatable module laden with cameras, personal items and a Space Bingo game, rocketed spaceward atop a Dnepr booster from a silo at Yasny Launch Base, an active Russian strategic missile base in the country's Orenburg region. Liftoff occurred at 11:02 a.m. EDT (1502 GMT) though it was near evening at the Russian launch site.

"It was beautiful," Bigelow Aerospace corporate counsel Mike Gold, who attended the launch, told immediately after the Dnepr blastoff. "Genesis 1 is about to have company."

Over on The Speculist, I was just this morning writing about how I don't want to take the first private trip to the moon offered. I think subsequent lunar vacation packages will be safer, more economical, and (most importantly) will include more fun stuff to do on the moon. One of the changes that will help bring this about is a robust and competitive market for private space development. Bigelow is helping to make that happen.

July 24, 2006

Nuclear Swords into Inflatable Orbiting Plowshares

Bigelow Aerospace made history last week by successfully launching an inflatable, miniature space station into earth orbit. The good news here – another step forward in the private development of space. Company founder Robert Bigelow – a Las Vegas tycoon who made his fortune from the Budget Suites of America hotel chain – has outlined a plan whereby last week’s orbital balloon launch is the first step in a process that leads to the opening of the first hotel in outer space. It sounds like a plot right out of a Robert A Heinlein novel, but it isn’t. It’s just medium-to-long-term planning from a real company – one that looks to be off to a very successful start.

If all that wasn’t good news enough, Robert Reed III of LUF Blog points out that this is the perfect example of private space development providing an occasion to beat swords into plowshares. That’s right. Bigelow’s inflatable craft, aptly named the Genesis 1, was launched into space using a converted Soviet-era intercontinental ballistic missile.