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The Last Month in Astronomy


13-JUN-2010 Hayabusa Returns The Hayabusa reentry capsule has been found in Australia. This spacecraft was launched by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, JAXA, in May 2003. It landed on the asteroid Itokawa but it isn’t certain how many samples were successfully captured and if they are intact in the capsule. This spacecraft had a number of problems to overcome and it was not at all guaranteed that it would survive reentry.

10-JUN-2010 Exoplanet Motions For the first time, astronomers have been able to follow the motion of an exoplanet as it moves from one side of the star to the other side. This planet has an orbit about the size of Saturn’s, the smallest orbit of an exoplanet that can be directly imaged. This planetary system is young and that shows that so-called gas giant planets can form within planetary discs in just a few million years.

10-JUN-2010 Why Mars Has No Organics If it is true that Mars harbored life at some point in its past then we should be able to find organics on the planet now even if life went extinct more than a billion years ago. New research has found reasons for the lack of organics. The combination of iron oxides and an abundant supply of UV radiation can break down the organics. This means that the next thing to search for on the Martian surface is the remnants of these reactions.

08-JUN-2010 Methane Eaters It sounds like science fiction but researchers from the SETI Institute and a couple of Canadian universities have discovered methane-eating bacteria. They were found in Canada’s extreme northern reaches. The researchers were looking for methane-creating bacteria but that search came up empty. Instead they found anaerobic bacteria growing in a very cold and salty spring. These bacteria survive in temperatures that are much colder than the warmest parts of Mars. And it opens the possibility of similar bacteria on Titan.

07-JUN-2010 Rocket Sets Speed Change Record Excuse me if this sounds trivial but NASA’s ion-fueled Dawn spacecraft has set a record. The record is for the greatest velocity change produced only by the engine of a spacecraft. The spacecraft achieved an accumulated acceleration of more than 9,600 miles per hour. The Dawn spacecraft is heading toward Vesta and Ceres, the first and fourth largest asteroids. True, this total acceleration took a long time, 620 days to be exact. But on the other hand it only needed 363 pounds of propellant (xenon). And the new record will not stand. Dawn is expected to eventually achieve a total velocity change of 24,000 miles per hour over 2,000 days of propulsion.

04-JUN-2010 Falcon 9 Flies The Space Exploration Technologies’s Falcon 9 rocket successfully put a dummy spacecraft in orbit. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said ‘Space X’s accomplishment is an important milestone in the commercial transportation effect and puts the company a step closer to providing cargo services to the International Space Station.... This launch of the Falcon 9 gives us even more confidence that a resupply vehicle will be available after the space shuttle fleet is retired.”

04-JUN-2010 Non-acidic Water on Mars Sometimes an observation is made but the science from that observation takes years. In 2005, the Mars Rover Spirit studied an outcrop that demonstrated that water was present some time ago. Nothing terribly unique about that, right. But the rover found carbonates although it took a lot of earth-based lab work to confirm the finding. Carbonates would erode in an acidic environment so their presence means that water, at least in this area, was not acidic and therefore more habitable.

03-JUN-2010 Green Fuzzies The Gemini’s telescope Near-Infrared Imager has been studying some green fuzzy regions. These regions appear in the infrared spectrum at 4.5 microns, this often gets printed with the color green. The latest data shows that these regions are molecular hydrogen’s emissions believed to be associated with massive young stellar objects (MYSOs). Another green fuzzy associated with a different MYSO shows up as green because the infrared bands that printed in blue or red are suppressed by gas and dust.

28-MAY-2010 SOFIA First Light The Stratospheric Observation for Infrared Astronomy, SOFIA, has achieved first light. The Boeing 747-based observatory has a 2.7 meter reflecting telescope that was built in Germany. The first light flight took off from NASA’s Dryden facility in Palmdale, CA. The 8 hour flight reached a height of about 35,000 feet with a crew of 18 persons not counting pilots. The objects imaged in infrared were Jupiter and the galaxy M82. SOFIA gets above 99% of the planet’s water vapor which enables it to image in the parts of the infrared spectrum that do not usually reach Earth’s surface. These first light images were an unqualified success.


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