By Daniel Fischer
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Current mission news: MGS (latest pictures!) + Cassini + Stardust
and a giant sunspot in mid-August kept observers busy - e.g. there were four major flares in just 8 days from regions (100)30, 36 and 39: GSFC and ESA Releases, Ast., SC. Sunspot group 36 in action: Gährken. More coverage: S&T. Group 69 is even more dramatic: Aug. 21, 13-21, 19, 18, 17 [other version], 16, 15 ( other view) pictures and Aug. 17 vs. 15. How the solar max has been: UPI. Aurorae on Aug. 14-21 and July 20. Solar wind fluctuations resemble stock market: Univ. of Warwick Press Release, Ast. All solar eclipses in the next 1000 years have now been mapped. The 500th SOHO comet has been discovered by an amateur, German teacher Rainer Kracht - it's another member of the Meyer (and not Kreutz) group: GSFC Press Release, ESA Science News, SD, SC. NLCs of 2002.
Hopes fade for CONTOUR, but it won't be given up yetIf CONTOUR is still capable of operating, despite its apparent accident on Aug. 15, by Aug. 22 it should have completed the first cycle of having each of its two transmitters attempt to send a signal through each of three antennas. Near continuous monitoring for CONTOUR will continue through Aug 25. After that, efforts will be scaled back to once a week - a schedule that will be maintained until early December when the spacecraft will come into a more favorable angle for receiving a signal from Earth. "Even the second week of December, when we have our best shot, chances are small," says the mission director, "but it's still worth monitoring."
The CONTOUR team has received telescope images from several observatories showing three objects traveling along CONTOUR's predicted path - which engineers believe is CONTOUR and part of the spacecraft that may have separated from it when the solid rocket motor fired on Aug. 15. Mission operators at APL and navigators at JPL are using these images to pinpoint the spacecraft's orbit and are aiming the Deep Space Network's powerful 70-meter and 34-meter antennas along that trajectory. Without knowing how big the objects in the telescope images are, the assumption is that the spacecraft may still be largely intact.
CONTOUR may have broken in two during crucial motor firingAn groundbased image indicates that NASA's CONTOUR spacecraft, to which all contact has been lost, may have broken up on August 15 during a crucial motor firing that was to push it out of its parking orbit around Earth: An image taken the next day by the 1.8-m Spacewatch telescope apparently shows two objects in the location where CONTOUR should be if it had fired its engine as scheduled. "We haven't given up by any means, but the news is very discouraging," the mission director has said in an interview. Because the image shows the objects very near to the planned trajectory, it suggests that if the spacecraft did break up, it did so near the end of its planned burn or shortly thereafter.
Pluto's atmosphere is changing: The first results of a stellar occultationby the distant planet on July 20 - the first observed event since 1988! - are now in. Marc Buie of Lowell Obs. and James Elliot of MIT have discovered that Pluto's atmosphere has changed drastically since the last time occultation 14 years ago (Buie observed the occultation and Elliot compared Buie's findings with the old data): "In the last 14 years, one or more changes have occurred," Buie says. "Pluto's atmosphere is undergoing global cooling, while other data indicates that the surface seems to be getting slightly warmer. Some change is inevitable as Pluto moves away from the sun, but what we're seeing is more complex than expected."
Buie hopes these findings will give additional urgency to NASA's plans to send a spacecraft to Pluto, the only planet not yet observed up close. The Pluto-Kuiper Belt mission, planned to launch in 2006 and reach Pluto a decade later, seeks to answer questions about the surfaces, atmospheres, interiors and space environments of the solar system's outermost objects, including Pluto and its moon, Charon. "We cannot fully explain what has caused these dramatic changes to Pluto's atmosphere," Buie says: "The Pluto-Kuiper Belt mission is our best hope for putting all the puzzle pieces together."
The structure and temperature of Pluto's atmosphere was first determined during the 1988 occultation. That occultation plus additional data revealed that Pluto has a tenuous, extended atmosphere composed of nitrogen with traces of methane and carbon monoxide. Results also showed that the light signature from the occulted star dimmed gradually then abruptly dropped off - a puzzling phenomenon thought to be caused either by a smog layer or an abrupt decline in atmospheric temperature. The 2002 occultation revealed a noticeably different light signature than the 1988 event, however: The abrupt drop in starlight seen in the 1988 occultation is no longer present.
Close asteroid seen rushing over the sky!It was a truly unique sight: Even in moderate telescopes (though not in simple binoculars, as had been claimed), Near Earth Asteroid 2002 NY40 could be seen during the night of August 17/18 as it moved through the summer Milky Way at a quick pace. At higher magnification the motion of the 10th magnitude object could be noticed directly against the background stars: To yours truly (watching from Germany with an old 10-inch Dobsonian) it looked like an artificial Earth satellite on a very distant orbit. Having passed Earth around 7 UTC on the 18th, the asteroid is now fading rapidly as it is illuminated almost directly from the back.
500 m to 1 km asteroid to come close in August!It will be the 2nd-biggest (known) asteroid to ever come within 1 million kilometers of the Earth: Only Hermes was a tad bigger (it approached Earth in 1937) than 2002 NY40. Our new visitor, just discovered on July 14, measures between 450 and 1000 meters - and will approach to within 530,000 km on August 18, briefly becoming visible in small telescopes and even binoculars when it races over the skies with 4 arc minutes per (time) minute. There are several key differences between this encounter and that of 2002 MN, which made news a few weeks ago. That object came well inside our own Moon's orbit and was not detected until several days after the fact (see Update # 239 story 8).
The new asteroid was found on its way in toward the Sun, a full month before its own flyby - and 2002 NY40 is about 10 times larger than 2002 MN! Its approach this year is actually the 4-th closest of all known close approaches of potentially hazardous asteroids in the next 200 years. Still quite faint at magnitude 18 in the constellation Aquarius, 2002 NY40 is making a very tight loop around the star Beta Aquarii. During the next few weeks it will brighten tremendously and yet remain almost motionless in the sky - the eerie signature of an asteroid hurtling right toward the Earth! Then it veers off to the northwest as it goes by, racing past the double star Albireo in Cygnus for observers in the Western Hemisphere on the night of August 17-18.
On that Saturday evening, 2002 NY40 should become as bright as magnitude 9.3 during the period when it is well placed for viewing from North America. Its angular velocity will exceed 4 arcminutes per minute, a motion easily perceptible in small telescopes. A mere 24 hours after it goes by, 2002 NY40 plunges hopelessly beyond reach of Earth-based telescopes as it heads in toward the Sun. (We are then viewing its unilluminated backside, which explains why it becomes so faint, so fast.) Meanwhile, professional astronomers are gearing up to make the most of this encounter - 2002 NY40 is a potentially very good radar target for mid-August.
While there is no danger of 2002 NY40 striking the Earth during this flyby, a future impact had not been ruled out. Both NEODyS, operated by the University of Pisa, and NASA's Near-Earth Object Program Office at JPL initially identified a number of very close encounters in the years to come. These occured either around August 18th as the asteroid heads in toward the Sun, or else near February 14th when it is on the way out. Both agencies were focusing a flyby just 20 years from now (on August 18, 2022), when there appeared to be a 1-in-500,000 chance of an impact - but on July 31 2002 NY40 has been removed from the risk lists after more positional data were in. (Based in part on a Sky & Telescope Asteroid Alert of July 22)
ISS UpdateWhile the next ISS tourist's flight is still uncertain, an EVA took place on Aug. 16: Science@NASA on imaging the ISS at high resolution with amateur means (VSW Munich and Beinert have new ones, too), an AIP FYI on ReMaP, a NASA Release on a change in expedition 6, an MSFC Press Release on the director of scientific research aboard the ISS and coverage of Aug. 23: SC, ST. Aug. 22: AFP. Aug. 17: HC, ST. Aug. 16: Ast., ST (other story), NZ. Aug 15: AFP, ST. Aug. 14: ST. Aug. 12: SC. Aug. 11: SC. Aug. 10: FT. Aug. 9: ST. Aug. 8: SN. Aug. 1: ARRL. July 24: AFP. July 22: Dsc, AFP. July 20: ST.
Cosmonaut V. V. Vasyutin dies of cancer - he was just 50:
Shuttles to resume flying on Oct. 2 as welding has shown to be sufficient to fix the hairline cracks in the flow liners - the repairs have started: AFP, NZ. Earlier: SC (earlier), ST (earlier), Still earlier: SN, SC, NZ. Even earlier: SN, HC, New Sci., FT, SC, ST. Much earlier: AW&ST. Who found the cracks: FT.
Cracked bearings on shuttle transporter cause more worries: FT, HC (earlier), SN, SC, ST. 25 years ago - the first space shuttle landing test: DFRC Press Release.
Russia gives up on Demonstrator 2 - all recovery efforts were futile: AFP.
The Earth's bulge is growing!Satellite data since 1998 indicates the bulge in the Earth's gravity field at the equator is growing, and scientists think that the ocean may hold the answer to the mystery of how the changes in the trend of Earth's gravity are occurring: GSFC and JPL Press Releases, NSU, New Sci., BBC, FT, SC, CNN, Ast., AFP, NZ, RP, Sp.
Mars is an X-ray sourcejust like Venus (and many comets) - but the radiation is "borrowed" from the Sun: MPG Pressemitteilung, S&T, NZ.
The magnetite believers won't give up and continue to argue that one quarter of the magnetite found in Martian meteorite ALH84001 could only have been created organically: JSC Press Release, Ast., ST. Extremophiles on Earth evidence for life on Mars? U Ark PR, BBC.
Comet 57P has disintegratedinto 20 pieces, "a zoo of tiny mini-comets strung out in a line trailing behind the comet" du Toit-Neujmin-Delporte: IfA Material, IAUC (earlier), Ast., S&T, CNN, BBC, APOD, Sp.
A German amateur has discovered a new comet! The detailled discovery story and IAUC, S&T (earlier), finder charts for and pictures of C/2002 O4 (Hoenig) by AstroStudio. C/2002 O6 (SWAN) is even brighter: IAUC (earlier), S&T [AstroAlert], the discovery story, SC.
The first mid-IR observations of Brown Dwarfssupport the view that these objects are born in the same way as "real" stars, by contraction in interstellar clouds of gas and dust - the youngest Brown Dwarf, aged a few million years, is found to be surrounded by a dusty disk, but no warm dust is present around seven older ones: ESO Press Release, SC.
Evidence for merging Black Holes?Sudden twists in galactic jets may indicate that two Black Holes have merged into a body with a different spin axis: Rutgers, NRAO and CSIRO Releases, more pictures [alt. source], New Sci., S&T, Ast., SC, NZ.
Intergalactic web of hot gas detectedby Chandra - the hot gas, which appears to lie like a fog in channels carved by rivers of gravity, has been hidden from view since the time galaxies formed: Chandra Press Release, ST, Ast., New Sci., BBC, FT, SC, APOD, Welt, NZ, Sp.
Dwarf galaxies the main polluters of intergalactic spaceChandra observations of NGC 1569 fit into the picture that the tiniest galaxies are the main sources of heavy elements in the IGM: Chandra Press Release, Ast., NZ.
Milky Way's oldest star clusters are stolen fakesA set of star clusters previously thought to be the most ancient native systems in our galaxy, were in fact stolen by the Milky Way from a puny neighbour, Korean astronomers believe: New Sci., NZ, BdW.
The first computer simulation of the formation of the Milky Way from the dark gloom of the early Universe seems to have worked - the final galaxy has a realistic radius of about 30,000 light years, about two-thirds of the size of the Milky Way; previously, simulations of primeval galaxies went awry because the discs ended up far smaller than the discs of any galaxies we see: New Sci., SC.
Tons of ancient Earth material rest on the MoonSo says a new study that some take as another argument for mankind to go back there and bring the stuff home: a paper by Armstrong & al., a U. Wash. Press Release [SD] and coverage by Ast., SC.
Four arrested in NASA moon rock heist - lunar samples stolen by student employees working at NASA's Johnson Space Center on July 13 have been recovered: CollectSpace, HC (earlier, still earlier), AFP, BBC.
An astronomical camera snapping 1000 pics/secis ULTRACAM, mounted on the largest optical telescope in Europe, the 4.2-m WHT on La Palma in the Canary Islands - astronomers will now be able to study material in the innermost orbits around black holes, neutron stars and white dwarfs and observe how the light from these objects varies as the companion star obscures our line of sight to them: Univ. of Southampton Press Release, Homepage, SC. Gemini telescopes linked: Gemini, NSF Press Releases.
Mirror technology push aids hunt for new Earths - advances in lightweight mirror technology developed for NASA's Next-Generation Space Telescope may give engineers two different ways to build the proposed Terrestrial Planet Finder: AW&ST.
Maiden launch of the Atlas VThe first Atlas V launch vehicle lifted off from the new Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral at 22:05 UTC on Aug. 21 - all systems performed as expected, and the Hot Bird 6 broadcast satellite was placed into orbit about 31 minutes later: ILS Press Release [SD], AN, AFP, HC, BBC, FT, CNN, SN, ST, SC.
The first meteorite from the 'Bavarian bolide'of April 6 (see Update # 236 story 3) has been recovered - it's only the 6th time that a meteorite with a precisely known orbit is in hand: DLR Presse-Info, WetterAgentur, HdW, NZ, Sp. And a long report on an earlier hunt by Kurtz.
A big fireball over Italy on July 27: special page.
New impact crater found under the North SeaDespite its small size it consists of many concentric rings - and resembles some impact craters on the Jovian moons: New Sci., S&T, BBC, SC, NZ, RP, Sp.
Age of the oldest impact confirmed as 3.47 Gyr - the body was about 20 km wide, but no crater has been identified: Stanford and LSU [SR] Press Releases, Stanford Report, BBC, NYT, CNN, AP, Rtr, SC, RP, NZ.
Chicxulub impact also triggered massive tsunamis - landslide deposits found in Northern Mexico are the first evidence that the magnitude 13 seismic shock of the impact 65 million years ago also set off huge tsunami-making landslides far beyond the Atlantic Ocean: Dsc.
Gamma ray background traced to galaxy clustersThe majority of the gamma rays outside of our galaxy are likely emitted by galaxy clusters and other massive structures - the sheer mass of a cluster serves as a gravitational drain; electrons in this flow are accelerated, with an additional boost from magnetic fields, to near light speed and collide with the cosmic microwave background whose photons are bumped up to the gamma-ray photon energy levels: GSFC Press Release, Ast., New Sci., SciAm, NZ.
HyShot scramjet experiment a success!A cheap Australian university experiment has demonstrated a scramjet during a sounding rocket flight - the HyShot supersonic ramjet combustion or "scramjet" engine ignited briefly during a 10-minute flight 29 July, flight data shows: Press Release [SR], Homepage, New Sci., BBC, SC, Rtr. NZ. Just after the test: New Sci., BBC, SC, Welt, NZ, Sp.
Cassini's vision is free againafter heating the optics has driven off all the haze: Status, pictures [PJ], Ast., NZ.
Investigations picked for Solar Dynamics ObservatoryNASA has selected three proposals for implementation for the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), the first in a series of missions in the Living With a Star (LWS) Program: Press Release.
The final assembly of Beagle 2 has begun in Great Britain: BBC, CNN, AFP, SD. What it's good for: BBC. Why it will(?) fail: ZEIT. MGS camera on hiatus: Ast. MGS pic explains "Inca City": MSSS, NZ. MER training: JPL Release, Wired, New Sci. Where to land: Ames PR, BBC. Mars enthusiasm waning: SC. Russia's Phobos 2007 visions: AFP.
"Mirror matter" as the answer to all problemsin particle physics, astronomy and planetary science is being promoted by an Australian physicist - but few are ready to follow his ideas: a recent review paper by Foot, a related web site and article, a Press Release [SD, SR], coverage by SC.
BaBar balances matter-antimatter books - experimental measurement on B mesons fits theory of fundamental particle physics: NSU.
No nuclear fusion in collapsing bubbles - new measurements all but rule out the controversial suggestion: BBC.
Balloon searches for antimatter etc.High above the Canadian plains, Japanese and U.S. scientists have harvested another crop of antimatter particles, in the latest flight of a balloon-borne experiment named BESS which has flown nearly every summer since 1993 searching for evidence of an antimatter domain within our Universe: GSFC Release.
Compiled and written by Daniel Fischer