Hugh Pickens writes writes: "Kate Taylor repotrs that astronomers have figured out a way to make much more accurate measurements of the distance to our neighboring galaxy, the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC), using rare class of double star known as eclipsing binaries. By tracking changes in the binary's brightness very carefully, and also measuring the stars' orbital speeds, it is possible to work out how big the stars are, their masses and other information about their orbits. When this is combined with careful measurements of the total brightness and colors of the stars, remarkably accurate distances can be found. "I am very excited because astronomers have been trying for a hundred years to accurately measure the distance to the Large Magellanic Cloud, and it has proved to be extremely difficult," says Wolfgang Gieren of the Universidad de Concepción, Chile. "Now we have solved this problem by demonstrably having a result accurate to two percent." Improving the accuracy of the measurement has the side effect of improving knowledge of the Hubble Constant, the rate of expansion of the universe, and therefore of of the mysterious dark energy that is causing the expansion to accelerate. "We are working to improve our method still further and hope to have a one percent LMC distance in a very few years from now," says Dariusz Graczyk of Warsaw University Observatory. "This has far-reaching consequences not only for cosmology, but for many fields of astrophysics.""
Hugh Pickens writes writes: "Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University has announced plans to launch the nation's first ever bachelor's degree in Commercial Space Operations tosupply the commercial spaceflight industry with skilled graduates in the areas of space policy, operations, regulation and certification, as well as space flight safety, and space program training, management and planning."As a leading innovator and service provider within the aerospace industry, Embry-Riddle is committed to building an academic program that supports the emerging needs of commercial space enterprise," says Richard H. Heist, chancellor of Embry-Riddle's Daytona Beach campus. "This first-of-its-kind degree program would continue to solidify our students’ spot at the forefront of an industry that is sure to grow for decades to come."The rapid expansion of commercial spaceflight operations is fostered by NASA's commercial cargo and crew development programs and by entrepreneurs developing capabilities for suborbital spaceflight, orbital space habitats, space resource prospecting and other commercial ventures."Embry-Riddle's new Commercial Space Operations degree is one of the most innovative non-engineering degrees in the aerospace industry," adds program coordinator Lance Erickson, a professor of applied aviation sciences at Embry-Riddle."When we were planning this degree, our advisors from the commercial space industry said they couldn't wait to hire our graduates.""
Hugh Pickens writes writes: "Want to buy a 15,000-foot landing strip? How about a place to assemble rocket ships or a parachute-packing plant? Have we got a deal for you. The Orlando Sentinel reports that with the cleanup and wind-down of the shuttle program, NASA is quietly holding a going-out-of-business sale for the its space-shuttle facilities including Launch Pad 39A, where shuttles were launched; space in the Vehicle Assembly Building, the iconic 526-foot-tall structure first used to assemble Saturn V-Apollo rockets; the Orbiter Processing Facilities, essentially huge garages where the shuttles were maintained; Hangar N and its high-tech test equipment; the launch-control center; and various other buildings and chunks of undeveloped property. "The facilities out here can't be in an abandoned state for long before they become unusable," says Joyce Riquelme, NASA's director of KSC planning and development. "So we're in a big push over the next few months to either have agreements for these facilities or not." The process is mostly secret, because NASA has agreed to let bidders declare their proposals proprietary, keeping them out of the view of competitors and the public. Frank DiBello, thinks the most attractive facilities are those that can support launches that don't use the existing pads at KSC and adjacent Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. "Anything that still has cleaning capabilities or satellite-processing capabilities, the parachute facility, the tile facility, the OPF, all three of them, they have real value to the next generation of space activity," says Frank DiBello, President of Space Florida, an Independent Special District of the State of Florida, created to foster the growth and development of a sustainable and world-leading space industry in Florida. "If the infrastructure helps you reach market, then it has value. If it doesn't, then it's just a building, it's just a launchpad, and nobody wants it.""
Hugh Pickens writes writes: "Science Recorder reports that according to NASA a pair of asteroids — one just over three mile wide — passed Earth Tuesday and early Wednesday avoiding a potentially cataclysmic impact with our home planet. 2012 XE5, estimated at between 50-165 feet across, was discovered just days earlier, missing our planet by only 139,500 miles or slightly more than half the distance to the moon. 4179 Toutatis, just over three miles wide, put on an amazing show for astronomers early Wednesday missing Earth by 18 lunar lengths, while allowing scientists to observe the massive asteroid in detail. Asteroid Toutatis is well known to astronomers. It passes by Earth’s orbit every four years and astronomers say its unique orbit means it is unlikely to impact Earth for at least 600 years. It is one of the largest known potentially hazardous asteroids (PHAs), and its orbit is inclined less than half-a-degree from Earth’s. “We already know that Toutatis will not hit Earth for hundreds of years,” says Lance Benner of NASA’s Near Earth Object Program. “These new observations will allow us to predict the asteroid’s trajectory even farther into the future.” Toutatis would inflict devastating damage if it slammed into Earth, perhaps extinguishing human civilization. The asteroid thought to have killed off the dinosaurs 65 million years ago was about 6 miles wide, researchers say.The fact that 2012 XE5 was discovered only a few days before the encounter prompted Minnesota Public Radio to poll its listeners with the following question: If an asteroid were to strike Earth within an hour, would you want to know?"
Hugh Pickens writes writes: "RIA Novosti reports that Kazakhstan and Russia are in talks over returning the city of Baikonur to Kazakhstan — the site of the first Soviet rocket launches and Russia's most important space launch center. Baikonur, built in Kazakhstan in the 1950s, is the main launch facility for the current generation of Russian rockets and was leased by Russia from Kazakhstan under an agreement signed in 1994 after the collapse of the Soviet Union. "Today both nations' governments have decided to set up a new intergovernmental commission for the Baikonur complex to be headed up by first or other deputy prime ministers," said Talgat Musabayev, head of Kazakhstan's space agency. At issue is control over Baikonur and the rent Russia pays Kazakhstan to use the facility, a subject of ongoing dispute between the two nations ever since Kazakhstan gained independence from the USSR. Earlier this year, Kazakhstan blocked Russia from launching several rockets from Baikonur in a dispute over a drop zone for debris and Kazakhstan insisted this must be covered by a supplement to the main rental agreement signed in Astana in 2004, extending Russia's use of the space center's facilities until 2050. Russia pays an annual fee of approximately $115 million to use the space center, which currently has the world's busiest launch schedule, as well as $50 million annually for maintenance. Russia and Kazakhstan are working to build a new space launch facility at Baikonur, called Baiterek, to launch Angara carrier rockets capable of delivering 26 metric tons of payload to low-Earth orbits but Russia intends to eventually withdraw from Baikonur and conduct launches from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome, an operating spaceport about 500 miles north of Moscow — and the unfinished Vostochny Cosmodrome in the Russian Far East."
Hugh Pickens writes writes: "Charles Q. Choi writes that hairspray could one day serve as the sign that aliens have reshaped distant worlds because one group of gases that might be key to terraforming planets are chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), long-lived non-toxic greenhouse gases that were often used in hairspray and air conditioners, among many other products. "Our hypothesis is that evidence of intelligent life might be evident in a planetary atmosphere," says astrobiologist Mark Claire at the Blue Marble Space Institute of Science. CFCs are entirely artificial, with no known natural process capable of creating them in atmospheres. Detecting signs of these gases on far-off worlds with telescopes might serve as potent evidence that intelligent alien civilizations were the cause, either intentionally as part of terraforming or accidentally via industrial pollution. "An industrialized civilization will be one that will use its planetary resources for fabrication, the soon-to-be-detectable-from-Earth atmospheric byproducts of which could be a tell-tale sign of their activity," says astrobiologist Sanjoy Som. CFCs can be easily recognized in planetary atmospheres because their atmospheric “fingerprint” (i.e. chemical spectra) is very different from natural elements, and are a tell-tale sign that life on the surface has advanced industrial capabilities. Using state-of-the-art computer models of atmospheric chemistry and climate, researchers plan to discover what visible signs CFCs and other artificial byproducts of alien terraforming or industry might have on exoplanet atmospheres. "We are about a decade away of being able to measure detailed compositions of the atmospheres of extrasolar planets," says Som."
Hugh Pickens writes writes: "The NY Times reports that some experts say it is almost certain that the US will soon face a year or more without crucial weather satellites that provide invaluable data for predicting storm tracks because the existing polar satellites are nearing or beyond their life expectancies, and the launching of the next replacement, known as JPSS-1, has slipped until early 2017. Polar satellites provide 84 percent of the data used in the main American computer model tracking the course of Hurricane Sandy, which at first was expected to amble away harmlessly, but now appears poised to strike the mid-Atlantic states. The mismanagement of the $13 billion program to build the next generation weather satellites was recently described as a “national embarrassment” by a top official of the Commerce Department. A launch mishap or early on-orbit failure of JPSS 1 could lead to a data gap of more than 5 years. The second JPSS satellite — JPSS 2 — is not scheduled for launch until 2022. “There is no more critical strategic issue for our weather satellite programs than the risk of gaps in satellite coverage,” writes Jane Lubchenco, the under secretary responsible for the Commerce Department’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency. “This dysfunctional program that had become a national embarrassment due to chronic management problems.” As a aside, I know from personal experience that this isn't the first time NOAA has been in this situation. "In 1992 NOAA's GOES weather satellites were at the end of their useful lives and could have failed at any time," writes Hugh Pickens, a project manager for AlliedSignal at that time. "So NOAA made an agreement with the government of Germany to borrow a Meteosat Weather Satellite as a backup and drift it over from Europe to provide weather coverage for the US's Eastern seaboard in the event of an early GOES failure.""
Hugh Pickens writes writes: "The Christian Science Monitor reports that scientists are planning a new route for NASA's New Horizons space probe as it approaches a potentially perilous path toward Pluto through a potential set of rings that may create dangerous debris zones for the NASA spacecraft. New Horizons is currently about 1,000 days away and 730 million miles from closest approach to Pluto but given how New Horizons is currently zooming away from the sun at more than 33,500 mph, "a collision with a single pebble, or even a millimeter-sized grain, could cripple or destroy New Horizons," says project scientist Hal Weaver. "We need to steer clear of any debris zones around Pluto." That's why researchers are making plans to avoid these hazards if New Horizons needs to. "We are now exploring nine other options, 'bail-out trajectories,'" says principal investigator Alan Stern. New Horizon's current plan would take it about halfway between Pluto and the orbit of its largest moon, Charon. Four of the bail-out trajectories would still take the spacecraft between Pluto and Charon's orbit. The other alternatives would take New Horizons much further away from Pluto, past the orbits of its known moons. "If you fly twice as far away, your camera does half as well; if it's 10 times as far, it does one-tenth as well," says Stern. "Still, half a loaf is better than no loaf. Sending New Horizons on a suicide mission does no one any good. We're very much of the mind to accomplish as much as we can, and not losing it all recklessly. Better to turn an A+ to an A- than get an F by overreaching.""
Hugh Pickens writes writes: "Hakeem Oluseyi, an astronomer at the Florida Institute of Technology and president of the African Astronomical Society, says his goal is to put one research telescope in every country, starting with African and Southern Hemisphere nations because there is now an amazing opportunity for small telescopes to discover and characterize new planetary systems, as well as measure the structure of the Milky Way. "Astronomers are no longer looking at high-definition pictures but at HD movies, scanning for objects that change and for transient ones," says Oluseyi. "A 4-inch telescope was used to discover the first exoplanet by the transit method, where you watch the brightness vary." Small telescopes capable to doing real science are a lot cheaper than people think. A 1-meter telescope costs $300,000 but reduce the size by 60 percent, and it falls to just $30,000. For example the Kilodegree Extremely Little Telescope (KELT) uses hardware costing less than $75,000 to look at millions of very bright stars at once, over broad sections of sky, and at low resolution to see if the starlight dims just a little — an indication that a planet has crossed in front of the star. The KELT team has already discovered the existence of a very unusual faraway planet — KELT-1b, a super hot, super dense ball of metallic hydrogen so massive that it may better be described as a 'failed star' and located so close to its star that it whips through an entire "yearly" orbit in a little over a day."
Hugh Pickens writes writes: "Hakeem Oluseyi, an astronomer at the Florida Institute of Technology and president of the African Astronomical Society, says his goal is to put one research telescope in every country, starting with African and Southern Hemisphere nations because there is now an amazing opportunity for small telescopes to discover and characterize new planetary systems, as well as measure the structure of the Milky Way. "Astronomers are no longer looking at high-definition pictures but at HD movies, scanning for objects that change and for transient ones," says Oluseyi. "A 4-inch telescope was used to discover the first exoplanet by the transit method, where you watch the brightness vary." Small telescopes capable to doing real science are a lot cheaper than people think. A 1-meter telescope costs $300,000 but reduce the size by 60 percent, and it falls to just $30,000. For example the Kilodegree Extremely Little Telescope (KELT) uses hardware costing less than $75,000 to look at millions of very bright stars at once, over broad sections of sky, and at low resolution to see if the starlight dims just a little — an indication that a planet has crossed in front of the star. The KELT team has already discovered the existence of a very unusual faraway planet — KELT-1b, a super hot, super dense ball of metallic hydrogen so massive that it may better be described as a 'failed star' and located so close to its star that it whips through an entire "yearly" orbit in a little over a day. "We're going to crowdsource fund these telescopes. Then we're going to open-source the knowledge needed to complete the science. Last, we're going to combine everyone into a single intellectual community," says Oluseyi. "I guarantee someday soon we'll have a deluge of scientific authors from the developing world like we've never seen before.""
Hugh Pickens writes writes: "Ross Anderson writes that Freeman Dyson predicted in 1960 that every civilization in the Universe eventually runs out of energy on its home planet, a major hurdle in a civilization's evolution, and that all those who leap over it do so in precisely the same way: they build a massive collector of starlight, a shell of solar panels to surround their home star. Last month astronomers began a two-year search for Dyson Spheres, a search that will span the Milky Way, along with millions of other galaxies funded by a sizable grant from the Templeton Foundation, a philanthropic organization that funds research on the "big questions" that face humanity, questions relating to "human purpose and ultimate reality." Compared with SETI, a search for Dyson Spheres assumes that the larger the civilization, the more energy it uses and the more heat it reradiates so if Dyson Spheres exist, they promise to give off a very particular kind of heat signature, a signature that we should be able to see through our infrared telescopes. "A Dyson Sphere would appear very bright in the mid-infrared," says project leader Jason Wright. "Just like your body, which is invisible in the dark, but shines brightly in mid-infrared goggles." A civilization that built a Dyson Sphere would have to go to great lengths to avoid detection by building massive radiators that give off heat so cool that it would be undetectable, a solution that would involve building a sphere that was a hundred times larger than necessary. "If a civilization wants to hide, it's certainly possible to hide," says Wright, "but it requires massive amounts of deliberate engineering across an entire civilization.""
Hugh Pickens writes writes: "BBC reports that scientists say a 1,000-year old ancient Buddhist statue with a swastika on its stomach that was recovered by a Nazi expedition in the 1930s was originally carved from a highly valuable meteorite that crashed about 15,000 years ago in the border region of eastern Siberia and Mongolia. And although it may seem that the story of this priceless object owes more perhaps to an Indiana Jones film script than sober scientific research, the "Iron Man" was discovered in Tibet in 1938 by German scientist Ernst Schafer whose expedition was supported by the Nazis, in particular by Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS who believed the Aryan race originated in Tibet and was keen to recover objects from the area. The German and Austrian scientists who worked on the Iron Man were surprised to be able to trace the statue to a specific event in meteorite history. "I was absolutely sure it was a meteorite when I saw it first, even at 10 meters" says Geologist Elmar Buchner . "It is rich in nickel, it is rich in cobalt. Less than 0.1% of all meteorites and less than 1% of iron meteorites are ataxites, so it is the rarest type of meteorites you can find." Chemistry tests show the 23-pound statue's iron matches fragments of the "Chinga" meteorite field found near the Tibetan-Mongolian border in 1913 by gold prospectors. The material's hardness comes from its high iron content in addition to containing some 16 percent nickel."
Hugh Pickens writes writes: "Only 4 stars, including Barnard's Star, are within 6 light years of the Sun, and only 11 are within 10 light years. That's why Barnard's star, popularized in Robert Forward's hard-sf novel, "Flight of the Dragonfly," is often short-listed as a target for humanity's first interstellar probe. Astronomers have long hoped to find a habitable planet around it, an alien Earth that might someday bear the boot prints of a future Neil Armstrong, or the tire tracks of a souped-up 25th-century Curiosity rover. But now Ross Anderson reports that a group of researchers led by UC Berkeley's Jieun Choi have delivered the fatal blow to Barnard's Star when they revealed the results of 248 precise Doppler measurements that were designed to examine the star for wobbles indicative of planets around it. The measurements, taken over a period of 25 years, led to a depressing conclusion: "the habitable zone around Barnard's star appears to be devoid of roughly Earth-mass planets or larger . . . [p]revious claims of planets around the star by van de Kamp are strongly refuted." NASA's Kepler space telescope, which studies a group of distant Milky Way stars, has found more than 2,000 exoplanet candidates in just the past two years, leading many to suspect that our galaxy is home to billions of planets, a sizable portion of which could be habitable. "This non-detection of nearly Earth-mass planets around Barnard’s Star is surely unfortunate, as its distance of only 1.8 parsecs would render any Earth-size planets valuable targets for imaging and spectroscopy, as well as compelling destinations for robotic probes by the end of the century.""
Hugh Pickens writes writes: "BBC reports that nobody would describe North Korea's mission control as imposing. It is a small, unremarkable, two-story building, tiny compared to Nasa's Houston home in America or Russia's space command. But the North's secretive regime, now headed by the third of the Kim dynasty to rule here, Kim Jong-un, is opening up, for the first time in an attempt to allay fears it is about to test missile technology that could deliver a warhead as far as America. "Sixteen technicians man the satellite command center. Dressed in white coats, like doctors, they sit behind computer screens," writes Damian Grammaticas. "On a big screen are live pictures from the launch pad, showing North Korea's rocket being fuelled up. The satellite it will carry has already been loaded on board, we are told." Pyongyang says the minibar refrigerator-sized satellite covered with solar panels and golden foil to protect its instruments will broadcast martial music praising North Korea's founder, Kim Il Sung and is designed to monitor weather, natural disasters and agriculture patterns. As the five-day window for North Korea's rocket launch opens today, the United States has warned a launch would be a breach of UN Security Council resolutions that ban the North from testing missile technology. If North Korea goes ahead it could lead to UN sanctions, it has warned. ""That's why we have invited you, to clearly show that this is a satellite launch not a ballistic missile," says Paek Chang-ho, head of the satellite control center. "I hope you become supporters in showing the transparency of our satellite launch.""