The Cosmic Mirror
By Daniel Fischer
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A German companion - only available here!
Current mission news: MGS (latest pictures!) + Cassini + Stardust

Search for missing CONTOUR scaled down to once a week
Mission operators are now listening for a signal just once a week, for approximately 8 hours each time, and on Aug. 22, for the first time since Aug. 15, they started sending commands: Status, CNN, ST. Astronomers losing hope, ponder a CONTOUR II: AW&ST, SR, Ast., NYT, AFP, FT, Balt. Sun. An investigation team has been formed: Press Release, HC, SC. What may have happened - and may happen next: SD (earlier). MilSats were watching the burn: SC.
Update # 242 of Sunday, September 15, 2002
Old Apollo stage came back / Prime contractor, name chosen for NGST / First new Meteosat launched

Old Apollo stage came back from outer space, orbits Earth again, could hit Moon soon

First it was called the "Mystery Object", then it was "Earth's 2nd Moon", but now an analysis of the orbital motion of the newly discovered object J002E3 indicates that it is rather a leftover Saturn V third stage from one of the Apollo missions, most likely the Apollo 12 mission, launched on November 14, 1969. The new object had been discovered on September 3 by Bill Yeung, who noted that it was moving quite rapidly. Initial orbit computations by the Minor Planet Center had indicated that the object was only about twice as far away as the Moon, and was actually in orbit about our planet. This fact, combined with the rather faint intrinsic magnitude, immediately led astronomers to suspect that the object is actually a spacecraft or rocket body, not an asteroid. But the object could not be associated with any recent launch at first.

J002E3 is currently observable at magnitude 16.5; it is easily detectable in asteroid surveys, and even bright enough to be seen by many amateur astronomers: If it was a leftover piece from an old launch, why was it not discovered until now? A backwards analysis of the orbital motion by JPL's Paul Chodas has provided the answer: The object was apparently captured by the Earth from heliocentric orbit in April of this year. The capture occurred when the object passed near the Earth's L1 Lagrange point, a location where the gravity of the Earth and Sun approximately cancel. This point serves as "portal" between the regions of space controlled by the Earth and Sun. J002E3 is the first known case of an object being captured by the Earth, although Jupiter has been known to capture comets via the same mechanism.

Analysis of J002E3's pre-capture orbit about the Sun shows that the object was always inside the Earth's orbit, and that it may have come within the Earth's vicinity in the early 1970s or late 1960s. Many of the test cases in the JPL analysis in fact passed through the L1 portal, back into Earth orbit (going backwards in time) during the early 1970s. In other words, this object was very likely orbiting the Earth during this period before escaping into the heliocentric orbit from which it was captured in 2002. It seems quite likely that this object is one of the Apollo Saturn S-IVB third stages which flew by the Moon during this era (Apollos 8 through 12). The brightness of J002E3 seems to match the expected brightness of an S-IVB stage.

Further circumstantial evidence suggests that this object is in fact the Apollo 12 stage, which was left in a very distant Earth orbit after it passed by the Moon on November 18, 1969. This spent rocket body was last seen in an Earth orbit with a period of 43 days, not much different from J002E3's current orbit. The future motion of J002E3 is also very interesting. A similar orbital analysis which takes into account the current orbit uncertainties shows that the object has a surprisingly large 20 percent chance of impacting the Moon in 2003. Looking further into the future is problematic, due to the chaotic nature of J002E3's orbit, but our current analysis shows the object to have about a 3 percent chance of impacting the Earth within the next 10 years.

The orbit as an animation, the JPL analysis [SN, SR] and coverage by New Scientist, BBC (earlier), AFP, SC (earlier), CNN, S&T, Guardian, NZ.

Too many binaries in the Kuiper Belt

Either they didn't form thru collisions - or our understanding of KBO albedos is way off: SwRI Press Release, Ast., SC, NZ.
Strange spin distribution in an asteroid family - something strange must have happened in the Koronis Family: Nature, SC.

Asteroid 2002 NY40 observed with Adaptive Optics at the WHT on La Palma: ING Press Release, Ast., BBC, SC, NZ.
Workshop held on how to "mitigate" evil NEAs: NOAO Release and coverage by S&T, BBC, FT, inScight, UPI, AP, NZ. Earlier: FT, Rtr., Welt. USAF position: PR, Ast. Fighting NEAs with an airbag: New Sci., CNN, NZ.

Global wildfires after the KT/B impact - how they spread around Earth: UA Press Release [SN], SC, FT, NZ, Sp. Was there more than one impact? S&T.
Bolivian crater to be probed, meteoritic nature still unclear: GSFC, Ast.

"Meteorite hits girl" - it's not confirmed yet: Guardian, BBC. Big bolide over Oz? ABC, SC, RP. And the Meteor Shower Calendar 2003.
Comets Hoenig and SWAN still visible in the skies, though not that impressive: Hoenig, SWAN info; Hoenig, SWAN pictures; S&T on Hoenig and SWAN; Ast. Comets can break up far from the Sun: Ast.

NGST prime contractor chosen, Hubble successor renamed

NASA on Sep. 10 has selected TRW, Redondo Beach, Calif., to build a next-generation successor to the Hubble Space Telescope in honor of the man who led NASA in the early days of the fledgling aerospace agency: The observatory will be known as the James Webb Space Telescope, named after James E. Webb, NASA's second administrator. While Webb is best known for leading Apollo and a series of lunar exploration programs that landed the first humans on the Moon, he also initiated a vigorous space science program, responsible for more than 75 launches during his tenure, including America's first interplanetary explorers.

The James Webb Space Telescope is scheduled for launch in 2010 aboard an expendable launch vehicle. It will take about three months for the spacecraft to reach its destination, an orbit 1.5 million km in space, called the second Lagrange Point or L2, where the spacecraft is balanced between the gravity of the Sun and the Earth. The most important advantage of this L2 orbit is that a single-sided sun shield on only one side of the observatory can protect Webb from the light and heat of both the Sun and Earth. As a result, the observatory can be cooled to very low temperatures without the use of complicated refrigeration equipment.

GSFC, TRW Press Releases.
Coverage by Ast., BBC, New Sci., NYT, SN, UPI, AFP, FT, ST, SC, NZ.

Gamma telescope HESS inaugurated in Namibia

on Sep. 3 - four Cherenkov telescopes will form the complete instrument: Homepage, MPG (English), PPARC [SR] and NSF Press Releases, APOD, Ast., BBC, NZ, Sp., Welt.
Gamma satellite GLAST to be built by Spectrum Astro for $107m (including the spacecraft, and all associated options): NASA Release. Chandra 3 years in orbit: MSFC Release.

First Meteosat of 2nd Generation in orbit!

Almost 25 years after the November 1977 launch of the very first Meteosat, the first representative of the next generation (MSG-1) of European weather satellites has been placed in orbit: On 28 August at 19:45 local time (22:45 UTC), an Ariane-5 lifted off from the Guiana Space Centre, carrying two payloads to geostationary transfer orbit, and one of these was the first satellite to be launched under the Meteosat Second Generation programme. Two and a half times larger than the Meteosat-1 to -7 series, MSG-1 is a cylindrical satellite 3.22 m in diameter and 3.74 m in height. Its mass on lift-off was 2 tonnes, almost half accounted for by the propellant needed to place it on station and keep it there during its seven-year mission.

The two main instruments on board are the SEVIRI and GERB radiometers. SEVIRI (Spinning Enhanced Visible & Infrared Imager) will be able to supply, at intervals of 15 minutes (compared to 30 with the first generation), images of the hemisphere observed by the satellite in 12 different visible and infrared wavelengths (a fourfold increase). This enrichment of the spectrum of observations is a major advance, making for improvement of numerical climate modelling. By delivering data at twice the previous frequency, MSG-1 will make it easier for climatologists and meteorologists to detect the start of sudden weather phenomena, such as snow, thunderstorms and fog.

Similarly, with the improvement of image resolution in the visible spectrum, to 1 km from 2.5 km previously, observation and monitoring of local phenomena will be improved. The GERB (Geostationary Earth Radiation Budget) radiometer will supply crucial data on the Earth's radiation budget - the balance between the incoming radiation from the sun and the radiation returned to space. The radiation budget, about which much has yet to be learnt, plays a key role in climate change. MSG-1 is also flying a payload for receiving and relaying, almost in real time, data from automated stations on the ground.

MSG Homepage, ESA Press Release (earlier), coverage by SN, BBC (other story), AFP (earlier), ST (earlier), SC (earlier), New Sci. (earlier), NZ, RP, Welt.
Meteosat's current picture.
The launch: live reports from a launch (abort) party, Status Center.

GRACE maps Earth's gravity field

The first Grace gravity field data is about 10 times more accurate for large-scale features than any pre-Grace gravity model of Earth: JPL Release, AP.
More spysat pics to be released soon by the U.S.: SC.

ISS Update

Another EVA took place on Aug. 26 while L. Bass has apparently been thrown off the October Soyuz to the ISS: JSC Papers on a new shuttlecam, Energia PR on the EVA, Science@NASA on sudden ISS sightings, MirCorp [SR] and Space Adventures statements on who's exactly doing what for Bass and coverage of Sep. 13: AFP. Sep. 12: SN, SR.
Sep. 11: ST, AP. Sep. 10: AFP, SC. Sep. 9: ST, SC. Sep. 6: FT (on the ISS cost p.a.), S&T (on progress for the ISS-AT). Sep. 4: AFP, HC, FT, NYT. Sep. 3: SC, BBC, AFP, AP, ST. Sept. 2: AFP. Aug. 31: CENAP Report. Aug. 30: New Sci., NYT, HC. Aug. 29: SN, FT, BBC, NY Post, SC. Aug. 28: AFP, AP, HC, ST, SD. Aug. 27: AP, HC, NYT, ABC, SC. Aug. 26: AFP, ST, SC, NZ. Aug. 24: AFP. Fixing the shuttle crawler is a massive job: FT. Two dummies to ride on Shenzhou-4 later this year: SD (earlier), SC.

Confusion about Pluto's atmosphere

and its current state after data from the August 21 stellar occultation do not confirm the apparent dramatic changes (see last Update story 2) detected during the July 20 occultation: Sicardy's Summary, S&T, NYT. Pictures from the July 20 occultation: ESO Release.

NASA balloon reaches 49 km, sets size record

A massive NASA balloon began a journey August 25 that took it to the fringes of space - silently drifting in the upper atmosphere, the balloon reached a peak altitude of 49 km, and with a volume of 1.7m cubic meters was the largest balloon ever launched successfully: Wallops Press Release [SN], SR, NZ, Sp.

Manned ballon altitude record attempt with Qinetiq-1 should come this September: SC. Record parachute jump also planned for this month: SC.

Another circumnavigation of the Earth with an ULDB will be tried this December: AD.

The speed of gravity was to be measured

with an innovative radio VLBI experiment on Sept. 8: a paper by Kopeikin & Fomalont, a U. Miss. PR [SR] and previews by New Sci., NSU, BBC, UPI, NZ.

New South Pole telescope funded

A multi-institutional team of scientists led by the University of Chicago will receive $16.6m from the NSF over the next five years to build a sub-mm telescope at the South Pole aimed at piercing one of the darkest secrets of the universe: UC Press Release, BBC.

SOFIA telescope assembly arrives in Texas for installation into the flying observatory: Ames Release, Headline, NASA Release, WacoTrib, SC.

Dreams of a giant radio interferometer, the SKA, advance slowly: Wired.

The WTC and the DoD from space

before and after "9/11" as seen by the Ikonos satellite: Picture Release. The impact on space: SC. Intel sat crisis in the U.S. one year later: AW&ST.

Hunt for Vulcanoids continues

After the first search for intramercurial asteroids came up empty earlier this year, a new airborne hunt is about to begin: Plan. Soc.

40 years ago Mariner 2 was launched

to become the world's first successful interplanetary spacecraft in December when it would reach Venus: JPL Feature. What Cassini is doing enroute to Saturn: ESA Science News.

How Mars Express will search for traces of life in ways that the Vikings could not: ESA Science News. Parkes dish to support Mars missions: CSIRO Release. Testing the MERs: FT.

Company 'licensed' to perform a lunar mission - TransOrbital wants to launch its Trailblazer some time 2003: Press Release, NSU, Dsc, Ast., BBC, Welt

  • Hoag's object, a famous ring galaxy, imaged by the HST: STScI, Ast., S&T, AFP, BBC, NZ.
  • The nebula N11A in the LMC as imaged by the HST: ESA Science News.
  • Dark-sky bill passes, then goes missing - a bill to curb light pollution passes the Massachusetts legislature but disappears on its way to the governor: Ast. German scientists - and not just astronomers - worried about light pollution: RP.
  • The weather prospects for the total eclipse in Antarctica in late 2003 are now discussed by Anderson. Aurorae on Sep. 11 (also in Rieps), Sep. 7 (also by S&T) and Sep. 4.
  • One exoplanet goes down as the signal was just from star spots: New Sci., SC, NZ. It happened before with another star: 2001 paper by Queloz & al. And it's still controversial: SC.
  • New director of the Astrobiology Institute is a geophysicist: Ames Release.
  • SETI@home spells out new plans to expand its hunt for radio signals coming from intelligent civilizations among the stars: S&T.
  • How ion engines open up the solar system in future missions: JPL Feature. Why launch windows are important: ESA Science News.
  • What the Atlas V success means for a troubled industry: AW&ST, Welt. It's the first "EELV": AFSC Release, FT. Delta 4 maiden launch delayed again: SN, SC. H-2A performs first operational launch: NASDA Release, SN, BBC, AFP, AP, ST. PSLV launches weather satellite: AFP, SC, ST, Welt.


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Compiled and written by Daniel Fischer
(send me a mail to dfischer@astro.uni-bonn.de!), Skyweek