Japan Quake May Have Shortened Earth Days, Moved Axis

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The terribly destructive magnitude 9.0 earthquake which struck Japan on March 11, may have had another effect – Shortening the length of each Earth day and shifting its axis. Did you notice any change ?

Well according to NASA, the changes are so small that you won’t notice the difference.

Based on initial calculations conducted by Richard Gross, a research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the earthquake should have caused Earth to rotate just slightly faster, shortening the length of the day by about 1.8 microseconds (a microsecond is one millionth of a second), according to a statement released by NASA.

A reader posted this link to before and after photos

Gross used complex modeling and estimates of fault slippage to perform a preliminary theoretical calculation of how the earth’s rotation may have been affected.

Calculations by Gross also indicate that the position of Earth’s figure axis could have shifted by about 17 centimeters (6.5 inches), towards 133 degrees east longitude. The figure axis is the axis about which Earth’s mass is balanced.
Earth’s figure axis is therefore different and offset from the north-south axis by about 10 meters.

“This shift in Earth’s figure axis will cause Earth to wobble a bit differently as it rotates, but it will not cause a shift of Earth’s axis in space-only external forces such as the gravitational attraction of the sun, moon and planets can do that,” according to the NASA statement.

The estimates for both the shortening in the Earth’s rotation and shift in the figure axis are preliminary and will very likely change as more data is collected and the calculations are refined.

The March 11 earthquake was the fifth largest since 1900. So far, over 4000 people are confirmed dead and the overall death total may exceed 10,000.

Several heavily damaged nuclear reactors at the Fukushima plant are in danger of meltdown as hero workers inside put their lives on the line to avoid a catastrophic failure and try to prevent the spread of lethal radiation.

This view of Earth comes from NASA's Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer aboard the Terra satellite

Previously, Gross had calculated the affects of the magnitude 8.8 Chilean quake in 2010 and found them to be slightly smaller compared to the Japanese quake. He calculated a shortening in the length of day of about 1.26 microseconds and shifting of Earth’s figure axis of about 8 centimeters (3 inches). These affects are dependent on the magnitude of the quake, exactly where it is located as well as how the particulars of how the fault slips.

In fact, Earth’s rotation is changing all the time as a result of continual changes in atmospheric winds and oceanic currents and these effects are about 550 times larger than the Japanese earthquake.

“Over the course of a year, the length of the day increases and decreases by about a millisecond,” says Gross. Indeed, the effects of earthquakes on changing rotation are so tiny that they are smaller than the margin of error in the measurements themselves.

By comparison, measurements of the figure axis are much more reliable and meaningful. Changes to the figure axis can be accurately measured to within about 5 centimeters. This means that the estimated 17 centimeter shift from the Japanese quake may be real after accounting for the effects of the atmospheric winds and ocean currents. Further research is needed as more data are collected and analyzed.

“These changes in Earth’s rotation are perfectly natural and happen all the time. People shouldn’t worry about them,” said Gross.

Source: NASA Press Release:

KSC Launch Pad Worker Falls, Dies

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A worker at the space shuttle launch pad at Kennedy Space Center, pad 39A, fell to his death early Monday morning, according to reports. An employee of United Launch Alliance fell from the launch pad tower near space shuttle Endeavour. NASA released the following statement:

“At about 7:40 a.m. EDT this morning, a United Space Alliance worker fell at NASA Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Pad 39A. NASA emergency medical personnel responded, but they were unable to revive the man. Because of medical privacy, currently we’re not able to release any additional details about this fatality. Family members are being notified. All work at Launch Pad 39A has been suspended for the rest of the day, and counseling and other employee assistance are being provided to workers. Right now our focus is on our workers and for the family of the USA employee. The incident is under investigation.”

Our condolences to the man’s family and his United Launch Alliance co-workers.

UPDATE:

USA has now released the name of the person involved in the accident at the launch pad as engineer James D. Vanover.

“Our heartfelt sympathy goes out to the family of Mr. Vanover,” United Space Alliance Chief Executive Officer Virginia Barnes said in a statement. “Our focus right now is on providing support for the family, and for his coworkers. We are also providing our full support to investigating officials in order to determine the cause of the incident as quickly as possible. Until that investigation is complete, it would be inappropriate to provide further comment on the details.”

Endeavour’s Final Rollout

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CAPE CANAVERAL – The youngest orbiter in NASA’s shuttle fleet headed to Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center in Florida for the last time on Friday, Mar. 10. The shuttle started its slow trek out to the launch pad around 8 p.m. EST. Endeavour is being prepared for the STS-134 mission which is scheduled to launch on Apr. 19 at 7:48 p.m. EST.

The space shuttle Endeavour rolled out to Launch Complex for the final time at 7:56 p.m. EST. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian

Endeavour was wheeled out of NASA’s massive Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) on top of the crawler-transporter. This huge, tracked vehicle moves at a blistering pace of about a mile an hour. Therefore it took Endeavour several hours to reach LC39A. What is known as “Rollout” had been slated to occur the day prior, but a front of nasty weather blew in and shuttle managers decided to push the trip back a day.

The STS-134 will be Endeavour’s 25th and final mission. It is a resupply flight to the International Space Station. Its payload consists of the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer -02 (AMS-02) as well as the Express Logistics Carrier-3.

Endeavour, bathed in golden light, awaits her final trip out to the launch pad. Photo Credit: Ken Kremer/www.rittenhouseastronomicalsociety.org/Dr.Kremer/K.htm

“As exciting as it will be to fly this mission, what’s even more exciting is the science that this flight will bring to the International Space Station,” said STS-134 Pilot Greg Johnson. “I have no doubt that the AMS-02 will teach us new things about how the universe works and it may even show us new particles that we didn’t even know existed.”

Commander Mark Kelly will lead the crew of six, Johnson is the pilot and the Mission Specialists will be Mike Fincke, Andrew J. Feustel, Greg Chamitoff and European astronaut Roberto Vittori.

STS-134 Pilot Greg Johnson talks to reporters about his views on the upcoming STS-134 mission. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian

For a while it was uncertain whether-or-not Mark Kelly, the mission’s commander would be on this historic flight. His wife, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, was severely injured when she was shot in the head by alleged gunman Jared Lee Loughner. NASA named Rick Sturckow as the mission’s backup commander. However, Kelly announced later that he would remain the mission’s commander and resumed training with his crewmates. By all accounts, it was Giffords that encouraged him to continue and it appears that she will back at Kennedy Space Center when the mission launches.

“While all of us that have worked on Endeavour are a little sad that this is her final mission, we remained focused on conducting her last flight as safely as possible,” said Endeavour’s Flow Director, Dana Hutcherson.

Reflected in the waters of the Kennedy Space Center turn basin, Endeavour heads out for her date with history. Photo Credit: Ken Kremer/www.rittenhouseastronomicalsociety.org/Dr.Kremer/K.htm

Endeavour was constructed after the loss of Challenger in 1986. The orbiter first flew in 1992. After the STS-134 mission concludes there will only be one flight remaining in the shuttle program, STS-135, currently slated for a June 28 launch. It has been hinted that Endeavour might end up staying at Kennedy Space Center – at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. However, an official announcement has yet to be made.

Endeavour is the youngest orbiter in the shuttle fleet, this resupply flight to the International Space Station will be the last mission of its 19-year career. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian

X-37B thunders off the pad on its way to orbit

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CAPE CANAVERAL – Much has been made about the secretive nature of the Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV). Better known as the X-37B, the second of the U.S. Air Force’s OTVs roared off Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Launch Complex 41 at 5: 46 p.m. EDT. The Atlas V 501 thundered off of the launch pad carrying the second of the two OTVs into orbit.

The launch was to take place on Mar. 4, but looming cumulus clouds, high winds and rain pushed the launch back a day. The first launch window today opened at 4:09 p.m. EDT, however technical issues required minor work out on the launch pad and it was decided to try for launch during the second launch window’s opening.

This is the second launch of the mini unmanned X-37B space planes. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian

The first OTV, USA-212 lifted off from the exact same launch pad on 22 April 2010 and returned to Earth on Dec. 3, 2010. The return to earth tested out the space planes heat shield as well as the vehicle’s hypersonic aerodynamic aspects. The space plane is small enough to be carried within the U.S. space shuttle’s payload bay, it landed at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The craft suffered a tire blowout upon landing, but landed safely.

“The X-37B is a scientific achievement as well as a tremendous step in space operations. By itself, the ability to put a vehicle in space, conduct experiments and tests for close to nine months and then have that vehicle autonomously de-orbit and land is an important accomplishment,” said Major Tracy Bunko an Air Force spokeswoman. “This gives the Air Force the ability to examine how state-of-the-art, highly complex technologies will perform in space before they are made operational is an important cost-saving, risk-reducing capability.”

U.S. Air Force officials stated that the X-37B program has the potential of making space experiments much more affordable. This would allow future experiment designers to focus their resources and funds on technology and innovation rather than on what they currently are forced to expend them on – basic services, redundancy and ground operations.

X-37B launch delayed due to weather

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CAPE CANAVERAL – Weather delayed the launch of the second of the United States Air Force’s Orbital Test Vehicles (OTV). The X-37B, as it is more commonly known, sate encapsulated within its fairing on top of the Atlas V 501 launch vehicle at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS).

It appeared that the launch might occur at the first launch window, which opened at 3:50 p.m. EDT. However high-level ground winds forced a delay. The second launch window was for 5:27 p.m. EDT, but by this time the winds had increased, Cumulous Clouds had moved into the area – bringing heavy rains in with them, forcing a scrub for the day. The plans are now for a 24-hour recycle of the launch, however tomorrow does not look much better with similar weather threatening the launch.

The first OTV, USA-212 lifted off from the exact same launch pad on 22 April 2010 and returned to Earth on Dec. 3, 2010. The return to earth tested out the space planes heat shield as well as the vehicle’s hypersonic aerodynamic aspects. The space plane is small enough to be carried within the U.S. space shuttle’s payload bay, it landed at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

Looming clouds, high winds and eventually rain stopped the launch of the second of the Air Force's OTVs. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian

Close Look at Cas A Reveals Bizarre ‘Superfluid’

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NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory has discovered the first direct evidence for a superfluid, a bizarre, friction-free state of matter, at the core of a neutron star.

The image above, released today, shows X-rays from Chandra (red, green, and blue) and optical data from Hubble (gold) of Cassiopeia A, the remains of a massive star that exploded in a supernova. The evidence for superfluid has been found in the dense core of the star left behind, a so-called neutron star. The artist’s illustration in the inset shows a cut-out of the interior of the neutron star, where densities increase from the orange crust to the red core and finally to the inner red ball, the region where the superfluid exists.

Superfluids created in laboratories on Earth exhibit remarkable properties, such as the ability to climb upward and escape airtight containers. When they’re made of charged particles, superfluids are also superconductors, and they allow electric current to flow with no resistance. Such materials on Earth have widespread technological applications like producing the superconducting magnets used for magnetic resonance imaging [MRI].

Two independent research teams have used Chandra data to show that the interior of a neutron star contains superfluid and superconducting matter, a conclusion with important implications for understanding nuclear interactions in matter at the highest known densities. The teams publish their research separately in the journals Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society Letters and Physical Review Letters.

Cas A (RA 23h 23m 26.7s | Dec +58° 49′ 03.00) lies about 11,000 light-years away. Its star exploded about 330 years ago in Earth’s time-frame. A sequence of Chandra observations of the neutron star shows that the now compact object has cooled by about 4 percent over a ten-year period.

“This drop in temperature, although it sounds small, was really dramatic and surprising to see,” said Dany Page of the National Autonomous University in Mexico, leader of one of the two teams. “This means that something unusual is happening within this neutron star.”

Neutron stars contain the densest known matter that is directly observable; one teaspoon of neutron star material weighs six billion tons. The pressure in the star’s core is so high that most of the charged particles, electrons and protons, merge — resulting in a star composed mostly of neutrons.

The new results strongly suggest that the remaining protons in the star’s core are in a superfluid state and, because they carry a charge, also form a superconductor.

Both teams show that the rapid cooling in Cas A is explained by the formation of a neutron superfluid in the core of the neutron star within about the last 100 years as seen from Earth. The rapid cooling is expected to continue for a few decades, and then it should slow down.

“It turns out that Cas A may be a gift from the Universe because we would have to catch a very young neutron star at just the right point in time,” said Page’s co-author Madappa Prakash, from Ohio University. “Sometimes a little good fortune can go a long way in science.”

The onset of superfluidity in materials on Earth occurs at extremely low temperatures near absolute zero, but in neutron stars, it can occur at temperatures near a billion degrees Celsius. Until now there was a very large uncertainty in estimates of this critical temperature. This new research constrains the critical temperature to between one half a billion to just under a billion degrees.

Cas A will allow researchers to test models of how the strong nuclear force, which binds subatomic particles, behaves in ultradense matter. These results are also important for understanding a range of behavior in neutron stars, including “glitches,” neutron star precession and pulsation, magnetar outbursts and the evolution of neutron star magnetic fields.

Sources: Press releases from the Royal Astronomical Society and Harvard. See additional multimedia at NASA’s Chandra page, and the two studies in MNRAS and Phys. Rev. Letters.

 

 

Rep. Giffords, Wife of NASA Astronaut, Shot

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Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona was shot in the head Saturday when an assailant opened fire outside a grocery store during a meeting with constituents, killing at least five people and wounding several others. Giffords is the wife of NASA astronaut Mark Kelly who is scheduled to command one of the last space shuttle missions. Giffords is reportedly in stable condition. Those killed included a 9-year-old child and a federal judge.

Kelly is scheduled to command the shuttle Endeavour in April, but he immediately flew on a NASA jet to Tucson from Houston, officials said, and asked to be put on personal leave. His twin brother Scott is now on board the International Space Station as commander. NASA officials said Scott Kelly was informed of the shooting by flight controllers at the Johnson Space Center.

Reports say the gunman shot Giffords from about a foot away, and then opened fire on the rest of the crowd. The gunman was subdued by other members of the crowd and is now in custody.

The surgeon who attended Giffords said the bullet traveled all the way through her head, but he is optimistic about her recovery.

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden issued a statement on the tragedy:

“We at NASA are deeply shocked and saddened by the senseless shooting of Representative Giffords and others at Saturday’s public event in Tucson. As a long-time supporter of NASA, Representative Giffords not only has made lasting contributions to our country, but is a strong advocate for the nation’s space program and a member of the NASA family. She also is a personal friend with whom I have had the great honor of working. We at NASA mourn this tragedy and our thoughts and prayers go out to Congresswoman Giffords, her husband Mark Kelly, their family, and the families and friends of all who perished or were injured in this terrible tragedy.”

Sources: AP, Twitter

Nanosail-D Update: Things Look Grim

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We reported the successful ejection of the Nanosail-D nanosatellite from the satellite that it was launched with earlier this week. Well, the most recent release from NASA states that things might have turned out otherwise. Not only has the sail potentially failed to deploy, it’s currently unclear if the nanosatellite was even ejected.

In NASA’s own words on the mission site:

At this time, it is not clear that NanoSail-D ejected from the Fast, Affordable, Science and Technology Satellite (FASTSAT) as originally stated on Monday, Dec. 6. At the time of ejection, spacecraft telemetry data showed a positive ejection as reflected by confirmation of several of the planned on orbit ejection sequence events. The FASTSAT spacecraft ejection system data was also indicative of an ejection event. NanoSail-D was scheduled to unfurl on Dec. 9 at 12:30 a.m., and deployment hasn’t been confirmed. The FASTSAT team is continuing to trouble shoot the inability to make contact with NanoSail-D. The FASTSAT microsatellite and all remaining five onboard experiments continue to operate as planned.

What a bummer. This is all we have to go on right now – we’ll keep you posted as the situation develops over the weekend.

Source: NASA press release

Breaking News: Watch A Gigantic Looping Solar Prominence

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The Solar Dynamics Observatory never fails to deliver absolutely stunning images from the Sun: as of 18:49 UT today, the above picture is what the Sun looked like in the ultraviolet spectrum. The prominence that you are seeing looping off the Sun is estimated at over 700,000 km across, which is about the radius of the entire Sun. Amazing!

You can head over to the Solar Dynamics Observatory site to watch this gigantic loop of solar plasma develop in real time.

There’s nothing to worry about here on Earth, though – we are safe from such activity on the Sun, even if that prominence is big enough swallow up thousands of Earths. There is no coronal-mass ejection or flare to go along with this prominence, both phenomena on the Sun that can reach Earth and mess with satellites and our power grid.

As you can see (or rather, not see) in this visible light image below, the flare seems to only be visible in the ultraviolet. Other spectra of the Sun as imaged by the SDO are available here. Why is this? Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer, explains it best:

“In visible light, the light from the extremely thin material in the prominence is totally overwhelmed by the intense emission from the Sun’s surface, and is invisible. It’s only when we filter out most of the Sun’s light (and let through light specifically given off by the plasma in the prominence) that we can see it at all,” he wrote.

The Sun in the visible light spectrum, as seen from SDO at 18:00 UT. The two visible sunspots seem to be unrelated to this large prominence. Image Credit: SDO

This video shows the buildup up this most recent spectacular solar show, as this portion of the Sun comes into view from a 48-hour period between December 4th and 6th:

[UPDATE]: Here is a video that shows the prominence eruption as it expanded:

Spaceweather.com also has some other fantastic images that are linked to on their front page. Prominences like this can come crashing down quickly when they become unstable, so head over to the SDO site to watch the action as it develops!

Source: The Bad Astronomer, SDO

Calm Down: NASA Hasn’t Found any Aliens

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You may have heard in your wanderings through the blogosphere and in the internet today that NASA will be holding a press conference on December 2nd in which they will make an announcement regarding information the search for extraterrestrial life. And that this announcement involves astrobiology, the study of life outside what we know about here on Earth. While true, it is nothing to get worked up about.

Speculation abounds that this is, “the big one,” and that an announcement will be made that extraterrestrial life has been discovered. You can find this speculation at Kottke.org, io9, Gawker, and a lot of other places.

To be clear, there is almost no chance that the press release will be announcing little green men or little brown bacteria anywhere. Follow along for the long explanation below the fold.

Here’s what the press release is titled: “NASA Sets News Conference on Astrobiology Discovery: Science Journal Has Embargoed Details Until 2 p.m. EST On Dec. 2”. All this means is that Science Journal will be publishing some results related to astrobiology that are under embargo until that time. The embargo system is a basically a way of allowing journalists to see scientific results and get interviews and do research on an article before it’s published, but only if they promise to publish their information after the original publication does so. It makes sense, and it works most of the time to the benefit of almost everyone.

NASA regularly – like every day – announces upcoming press conferences and releases, and embargoed press releases float around to science writers like those of us here at Universe Today. This in itself is nothing out of the ordinary, and anyone with an email address can sign up to have these announcements delivered to their inbox or view them on NASA’s website. These emails are meant mainly to notify members of the press that there is something coming up worthy of being a phone-in listener of, the details of which require you to have press credentials.

The press release goes on to say,

“NASA will hold a news conference at 2 p.m. EST on Thursday, Dec. 2, to discuss an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life. Astrobiology is the study of the origin, evolution, distribution and future of life in the universe.
The news conference will be held at the NASA Headquarters auditorium at 300 E St. SW, in Washington. It will be broadcast live on NASA Television and streamed on the agency’s website at http://www.nasa.gov.
Participants are:
– Mary Voytek, director, Astrobiology Program, NASA Headquarters, Washington
– Felisa Wolfe-Simon, NASA astrobiology research fellow, U.S. Geological Survey, Menlo Park, Calif.
– Pamela Conrad, astrobiologist, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.
– Steven Benner, distinguished fellow, Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution, Gainesville, Fla.
– James Elser, professor, Arizona State University, Tempe”

And that’s about it. My first reaction to this was that they had potentially made the discovery of exotic, new organic molecules in an exoplanetary atmosphere, or that some chemical conducive to the existence of life as we know it was possibly found on some body in the Solar System. Announcements like this come out of NASA all of the time.

Just because some of the participants do work in fields that are related to oceanography or ecology or biology, does not mean that their services are required here to help make an announcement that life other than that on Earth has been discovered, as other speculative bloggers might think.

As Nancy wrote in a post earlier today, extraterrestrial life is very much of interest to Universe Today readers. Which is why she’ll be listening in on that news conference Thursday, and reporting what findings are released.

Extraterrestrial life is very much of interest to probably most of the population of our planet, too, and the fact that we have the tools necessary to potentially make this discovery within the next few hundred years (or sooner), is really, really exciting.

But just because it’s exciting doesn’t mean we have to jump all over a NASA press release that includes the words “extraterrestrial life” or “precursor to life on Mars” and make wild speculations. When that announcement is made (or if, depending on how you choose to solve the Drake Equation), you can be sure that it will be very closely guarded until being made public, and after that the President will likely have some things to say.

For some more level-headed analysis, Keith Cowing at Nasa Watch has some much more reasonable speculation that the announcement involves arsenic biochemistry. The Bad Astronomer, Phil Plait, also has a good debunking of the rampant speculation, and makes some good points about how NASA can create press releases in the future that have better-worded announcements.

So calm down – but don’t stop looking up! Keep being excited about all of the genuinely cool and exciting developments we’re currently making with regards to space.

Source: NASA press release