X-37B launch delayed due to weather

Poor weather dealyed the launch of the Air Force's Orbital Test Vehicle. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian


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’

Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/UNAM/Ioffe/D. Page, P. Shternin et al.; Optical: NASA/STScI; Illustration: NASA/CXC/M. Weiss


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

Gabrielle Giffords and Mark Kelly, in an image on Giffords' campaign website.


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

Artist concept of Nanosail-D in Earth orbit. Credit: NASA


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

As of 18:49 UT, a gigantic solar prominence was visible to the Solar Dynamics Observatory in the ultraviolet spectrum. Image Credit: SDO


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

No, NASA is probably not announcing extraterrestrial life. And though this stock image shows a water bear, these cool little creatures come from right here on Earth (and have nothing to do with the announcement, but are scary looking when magnified). Image Credit: NASA


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

Delta IV Heavy Roars Off Launch Pad on Secret NRO Mission

A Delta IV heavy lifts off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 5:58 p.m. EDT carrying a secret NRO payload. Photo Credit: Universe Today/Alan Walters - awaltersphoto.com


CAPE CANAVERAL — United Launch Alliance (ULA) successfully launched a Delta IV Heavy rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, sending a classified surveillance satellite to space. Liftoff occurred on Nov. 21 at 5:58 p.m. EDT. The enormous rocket thundered to life, and as almost to underscore the secretive nature of the mission, the fiery exhaust was only visible for a short while before disappearing into thick clouds. However, long after the rocket was out of view, it made its journey known through its roar. The vibration was so visceral that vehicles and windows of buildings in the immediate area began to rattle with the raw power that was unleashed.

The massive Delta IV makes its presence known - even from a distance of several miles. Photo Credit: Universe Today/Alan Walters - awaltersphoto.com

U.S. Air Force’ meteorologists predicted a 90 percent chance of acceptable weather for the launch, with only a tiny chance that winds could exceed the 20-knot limit. Winds were not an issue however and by all accounts the vehicle performed flawlessly.

The first launch attempt of the classified National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) satellite was scrubbed Friday during fueling of the Delta IV. Technicians determined that the reason for the scrub on Nov. 19 was a faulty sensor. The sensor gave incorrect temperature readings that were detected in the rocket’s three first-stage boosters. Technicians believed (correctly so) that they had resolved the issue.

Sunday's launch is the third successful flight for the Delta IV Heavy. Photo Credit: Universe Today/Alan Walters - awaltersphoto.com

The launch team rolled back the 330-foot mobile service tower earlier in the day and pumped approximately 450,000 gallons of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen into the twin boosters.

Tonight’s launch marked the third operational flight of the massive Delta IV Heavy since its first demonstration flight back in December of 2004.

“This mission helps to ensure that vital NRO resources will continue to bolster our national defense,” said Brig. Gen. Ed Wilson, 45th Space Wing commander. “The spectacular evening launch showcases how the 45th assures access to the high frontier and supports global operations.”

‘Mystery-Missile’ – Likely an Airplane

Screenshot of news footage of what has been dubbed the 'mystery missle.'


What took place in the skies above California’s coastline Monday, Nov. 8? That is still being hotly debated by experts and laymen alike. What appears to be a missile firing some 35 miles off the coast of California, near the Island of Catalina appears in a KCBS news chopper footage. The Pentagon has stated that it does not know what is displayed in the images. But instead of mystery, intrigue and government coverup, there is likely a more ordinary explanation: it was an optical illusion.

The Boeing Co. every so often will deploy aircraft from San Nicolas Island. These flights are part of an anti-missile laser testing program. However, the company has announced that it had nothing in the air on Monday. According to the Orange County Register, a very similar contrail was noted off of California Coast just one year earlier.

One possible explanation for the mysterious ‘plume’ is that it was the test firing of a new commercial space rocket – there has not been any confirmation of this.

While experts at Globalsecurity.org say that more than likely what is being viewed in the video is an aircraft and its contrail approaching the camera. That matches up with what scientists that have come forward have stated – that this is nothing more than the contrail made from a jetliner. In short, this whole sensation may have been caused over an optical illusion. One caused by a large aircraft, the sunset and the odd angle that the helicopter that collected the footage was shooting from.

Moreover, local radar did not pick up any fast-moving objects during the time of the ‘launch.’ In fact, in most of the footage the ‘missile’ or ‘rocket’ appears to barely move. For those that regularly follow launches only a single snippet of the video appears to show the fiery exhaust of a rocket – but this could also be the glint of sunlight off of metal.

According to the American Aerospace Defense Command, “there is no indication of any threat to our nation.” Neither NASA nor the U.S. Missile Defense Agency were quite as forthcoming, as these organizations did not immediately release information regarding the incident. Both the U.S. Air Force and Navy have stated that they were not responsible for whatever caused the vapor trail.

This is not the first time plane contrails have been mistaken for rocket launches. See the website Contrail Science for more information and to see similar previous events.

Super Star Smashes into the Record Books.

Pulses from neutron star (rear) are slowed as they pass near foreground white dwarf. This effect allowed astronomers to measure masses of the system. CREDIT: Bill Saxton, NRAO/AUI/NSF


The discovery of a super massive neutron star has thrown our understanding of stellar evolution into turmoil. The new star, called PSR J1614-2230 contains twice the mass of the Sun but compressed down into a star that is smaller than the Earth (you could fit over a million Earth’s inside the Sun by comparison). It is estimated a thimbleful of material from the star could weigh more than 500 million tons — that equates to about a million airliners. The study has cast serious doubt over how matter reacts under extreme densities.

The study by a team of astronomers using the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in New Mexico focussed its attention on the star which is about 3,000 light years away (the distance light can travel in 3,000 years at a speed of 300,000 km per second). The stellar corpse whose life ended long ago is now rotating at an incredible speed, completing 317 rotations every second. Its emitting an intense beam of energy from its polar regions which just happens to point in the direction of us here on Earth. We can detect this radiation beam as it flashes on and off like a celestial lighthouse. This type of neutron star is classed a pulsar.

Artist impression of Pulsar
Artist impression of Pulsar

Rather fortuitously, the star is part of a binary star system and is orbited by a white dwarf star which completes one orbit in just nine days. Its through the measurements of the interaction of the two which gave astronomers the clue as to the pulsar’s mass. The orbit of the white dwarf takes it between the beam of radiation and us here on Earth so that the energy from the beam has to pass close by the companion star. By measuring the delay in the beam’s arrival caused by distortion of space-time in the proximity of the white dwarf, scientists can determine the mass of both objects. Its an effect called the Shapiro Delay and its simply luck that the orientation of the stars to the Earth allows the effect to be measured.

Dave Finley, Public Information Officer from NRAO told Universe Today ‘Pulsars are neutron stars, whose radiation beams emerge from the poles and sweep across the Earth.  The orientation of the poles (and thus of the beams) is a matter of chance. We just got very lucky with this system.’

The discovery which was made possible by the new ‘Green Bank Ultimate Pulsar Processing Instrument (GUPPI) was able to measure the pulses from the pulsar with incredible accuracy and thus come to the conclusion that the star weighed in at a hefty two times the mass of the Sun. Current theories suggested a mass of around one and a half solar masses were possible but this new discovery changes the understanding of the composition of such stars, even to the subatomic level.

Neutron stars or pulsars are extreme objects at the very edges of the conditions that matter can exist. They really test our knowledge of the physical Universe and slowly but surely, through dedicated work of teams of astronomers, we are not only learning more about the stars above our heads but more and more about matter in the Universe in which we live.

Mark Thompson is a writer and the astronomy presenter on the BBC One Show. See his website, The People’s Astronomer, and you can follow him on Twitter, @PeoplesAstro

Source: NRAO

STS-133 Crew Conducts TCDT Training

The crew of STS-133 discusses their perspectives on the final flight of space shuttle Discovery with the media. Photo Credit: Universe Today/awaltersphoto.com


The crew for the last mission for space shuttle Discovery spent the week at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center conducting the Terminal Countdown Demonstration Test or as it is more commonly know – TCDT. The crew arrived Tuesday, Oct. 12 and immediately set to work. This week of training is the last major milestone on the path to launch, currently scheduled to take place on Nov. 1 at 4:40 p.m. EDT.

TCDT consists of is training that simulates the final hours up until launch. This provides training for both the crew and the launch team. The launch team practices launch day timelines as well other, crucial flight-day procedures. The crew on the other hand went through a number of exercises that included:

• Rescue training – The astronauts will run through several simulations where they practice what to do in the event of an emergency. The crew will be instructed on how to use the emergency baskets that will allow them to escape the launch pad in case there is a fire. They will also learn how to operate the tank-like M113 personnel carrier and other emergency equipment.
• The commander in pilot will perform abort landings and other flight aspects in the Shuttle Training Aircraft (STA). The plane is a Grumman Gulfstream II and it duplicates the shuttle’s approach profile and many of the orbiter’s handling qualities.
• Conduct a launch day simulation that includes everything that will happen on launch day – except the launch. The crew walked out in their bright orange launch and entry suits. TCDT also includes a simulated abort so that the crew is well-versed as to what do to in case of that scenario.

STS-133 crew members arrive at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in their sleek T-38 jets. Photo Credit: Universe Today/awaltersphoto.com

These activities allow the crew and flight teams to do a rehearsal of all the events that will take place on launch day.

“This is a dress rehearsal for the real flight so the crew is kind of peaked up; they’ve put all the sequence of events together, when they go out to the pad they’ll do everything except igniting the main engines,” said Robert Springer a two-time shuttle veteran. “It’s a chance to review all your procedures and make sure everything is in place.”

The crew of STS-133 consists of Lindsey, Pilot Eric Boe and Mission Specialists, Michael Barratt, Tim Kopra, Alvin Drew and Nicole Stott. The crew is comprised entirely of space flight veterans.

NASA's official crew portrait of the crew of STS-133. Image Credit: NASA

STS-133 is an 11-day mission to the International Space Station (ISS) to deliver the Leonardo Permanent Multipurpose Module (PMM) which contains, among other thing, the first humanoid robot to fly into space – Robonaut-2 (R2). Also onboard is the Express Logistics Carrier-4 and spare parts for the orbiting laboratory.

Springer’s first flight was on space shuttle Discovery and as he watched the crew for her final mission his thoughts reflected on his experiences and the end of the shuttle era.

“It’s going to be a little tough, my personal experiences that I have of Discovery and my memories that I have of that time make it a little bittersweet to realize that this will be the last time that Discovery will go into space.”