Earth-Facing Sunspot Doubles in Size

Animation of AR1416's evolution over the past several days (SDO/HMI)

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The latest sunspot region to traverse the face of the Sun has nearly doubled in size as it aims Earthward, as seen in the animation above from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. (Click image to play the animation.)

This is the second day in a row that the region has been seen expanding.

According to SpaceWeather.com, active region 1416 has the right sort of magnetic energy to potentially send M-class flares our way.

M-class flares are medium-sized solar flares. They can cause brief radio blackouts that affect Earth’s polar regions. Minor radiation storms sometimes follow an M-class flare event.

Sunspot region 1416 on Feb. 11, 2012. The large sunspot on the right is easily the size of Earth. (SDO/HMI Intensitygram)

If AR1416 produces a flare over the next 24 hours we would likely see increased auroral activity in upper latitudes early next week.

Stay tuned to Universe Today and SpaceWeather.com for any news on solar flares, and be sure to visit the SDO site for the latest images and videos of our home star.

Images courtesy NASA/SDO and the AIA and HMI science teams.

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Also, check out Alan Boyle’s article on MSNBC’s Cosmic Log about this and a recent heart-shaped coronal mass ejection that occurred on Friday, sending a cloud of charged particles on a Valentine’s Day date with our magnetosphere.  It should be a Sun-kissed night in northern parts of the world!

 

Budget Axe to Gore America’s Future Exploration of Mars and Search for Martian Life

NASA Budget Cuts in Fiscal Year 2013 will force NASA to kill participation in the joint ESA/NASA collaboration to send two Astrobiology related missions to orbit and land rovers on Mars in 2016 and 2018 - designed to search for evidence of Life. Russia will likely replace the deleted Americans.

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America’s hugely successful Mars Exploration program is apparently about to be gutted by Obama Administration officials wielding a hefty budget axe in Washington, D.C. Consequently, Russia has been invited to join the program to replace American science instruments and rockets being scrapped.

NASA’s Fiscal 2013 Budget is due to be announced on Monday, February 13 and its widely reported that the Mars science mission budget will be cut nearly in half as part of a significant decline in funding for NASA’s Planetary Science Division.

The proposed deep slash to the Mars exploration budget would kill NASA’s participation in two new missions dubbed “ExoMars” set to launch in 2016 and 2018 as a joint collaboration with the European Space Agency (ESA).

The ESA/NASA partnership would have dispatched the Trace Gas Orbiter to the Red Planet in 2016 to search for atmospheric methane, a potential signature for microbial life, and an advanced Astrobiology rover to drill deeper into the surface in 2018. These ambitious missions had the best chance yet to determine if Life ever evolved on Mars.

The 2016 and 2018 ExoMars probes were designed to look for evidence of life on Mars and set the stage for follow on missions to retrieve the first ever soil samples from the Red Planet’s surface and eventually land humans on Mars.

Joint ESA/NASA ExoMars Exploration Missions
- Planned 2016 Orbiter and 2018 Rover. NASA participation will be scrapped due to slashed NASA funding by the Obama Admnistartion. Credit: ESA

The proposed Mars budget cuts will obliterate these top priority science goals for NASA.

The BBC reports that “ a public announcement by NASA of its withdrawal from the ExoMars program will probably come once President Obama’s 2013 Federal Budget Request is submitted.”

A Feb. 9 article in ScienceInsider, a publication of the journal Science, states that “President Barack Obama will propose a $300 million cut in NASA’s planetary science programs as part of his 2013 request for the agency.”

This would amount to a 20% cut from $1.5 Billion in 2012 to $1.2 Billion in 2013. The bulk of that reduction is aimed squarely at purposefully eliminating the ExoMars program. And further deep cuts are planned in coming years !

ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter would search for atmospheric methane at Mars. NASA instruments to be deleted as a result of budget cuts. Credit: ESA

The Mars budget of about $580 million this year would be radically reduced by over $200 million, thereby necessitating the end of NASA’s participation in ExoMars. These cuts will have a devastating impact on American scientists and engineers working on Mars missions.

The fallout from the looming science funding cuts also caused one longtime and top NASA manager to resign.

According to ScienceInsider, Ed Weiler, NASA’s science mission chief, says he “quit NASA Over Cuts to Mars Program.”

“The Mars program is one of the crown jewels of NASA,” said Ed Weiler to ScienceInsider.

“In what irrational, Homer Simpson world would we single it out for disproportionate cuts?”

“This is not about the science mission directorate, this is not even about NASA. This is about the country. We are the only country in the world that has demonstrated the capability to land anything on Mars. How can we allow that to be undermined?”

Weiler’s resignation from NASA on Sept. 30, 2011 was sudden and quick, virtually from one day to the next. And it came shortly after the successful launch of NASA’s GRAIL lunar probes, when I spoke to Weiler about Mars and NASA’s Planetary Science missions and the gloomy future outlook. Read my earlier Universe Today story about Weiler’s retirement.

Ed Weiler was the Associate Administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD) and his distinguished career spanned almost 33 years.

The dire wrangling over NASA’s 2013 budget has been ongoing for many months and some of the funding reductions had already leaked out. For example NASA had already notified ESA that the US could not provide funding for the Atlas V launchers in 2016 and 2018. Furthermore, Weiler and other NASA managers told me the 2018 mission was de-scoped from two surface rovers down to just one to try and save the Mars mission program.

ESA is now inviting Russian participation to replace the total American pullout, which will devastate the future of Red Planet science in the US. American scientists and science instruments would be deleted from the 2016 and 2018 ExoMars missions.

The only approved US mission to Mars is the MAVEN orbiter due to blastoff in 2013 – and there are NO cameras aboard MAVEN.

Three Generations of US Mars Rovers - 4th Generation ExoMars rover to be Axed by NASA budget cuts.

NASA is caught in an inescapable squeeze between rising costs for ongoing and ambitious new missions and an extremely tough Federal budget environment with politicians of both political affiliations looking to cut what they can to rein in the deficit, no matter the consequences of “killing the goose that laid the golden egg”.

NASA Watch Editor Keith Cowing wrote; “Details of the FY 2013 NASA budget are starting to trickle out. One of the most prominent changes will be the substantial cut to planetary science at SMD [NASA’s Science Mission Directorate]. At the same time, the agency has to eat $1 billion in Webb telescope overruns – half of which will come out of SMD.”

The cost of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has skyrocketed to $8.7 Billion.

To pay for JWST, NASA is being forced to gut the Mars program and other science missions funded by the same Science Mission Directorate that in the past and present has stirred the public with a mindboggling payoff of astounding science results from many missions that completely reshaped our concept of humankinds place in the Universe.

Meanwhile, China’s space program is rapidly expanding and employing more and more people. China’s scientific and technological prowess and patent applications are increasing and contributing to their fast growing economy as American breakthroughs and capabilities are diminishing.

Under the budget cutting scenario of no vision, the Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory rover will be America’s last Mars rover for a long, long time. Curiosity will thus be the third and last generation of US Mars rovers – 4th generation to be Axed !

Live Hangout Interview with Rover Driver Scott Maxwell

It was history in the making: Our first live interview via a Google+ Hangout On Air! We talked with Mars rover driver Scott Maxwell, and he told us about the plans for the Opportunity rover’s upcoming winter, we took a look back at the 8 years of the MER on Mars, and looked ahead to the Curiosity (MSL) rover mission, set to land in August this year. Thanks again to Scott for being a wonderful first live interviewee!

To watch these interviews live, circle Fraser and watch his feed for updates. If you’re not on Google+, you can still watch these episodes live. Today, we were able to have a live feed on the main page of Universe Today while the interview was taking place (it was on the upper right hand corner). But you can also visit the Cosmoquest Hangouts page and you’ll see them when they happen.

And I’ve got great news: Next Friday, February 17, we’ll have our second live interview with astronomer Mike Brown from Caltech. The interview will take place at 18:00 UT (1 pm EST, 12 noon CST, 10 am PST).

NASA’s Going Green

he launch of the Phoenix spacecraft on a Delta II rocket in 2007. NASA is looking for alternatives to hydrazine monopropellant, used en route by Phoenix's navigational thrusters Image credit: NASA/Sandra Joseph and John Kechele

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NASA announced yesterday that it’s looking for new technology proposals using environmentally friendly fuels to launch payload. The space agency is hoping to move away from hydrazine, the fuel that currently launches anything that travels beyond the atmosphere from commercial satellites to private spaceflight and exploration probes. 

As a rocket propellant, hydrazine is great. It’s incredibly efficient, can be stored for long periods of time, has excellent handling characteristics, is stable up to 250 degrees Celsius (482 Fahrenheit) under normal conditions, and decomposes cleanly.

It also happens to be extremely toxic.

Shifting away from hydrazine would be a shift away from known environmental hazards and pollutants. There would be fewer operational hazards for those dealing with fueled rockets before launch. The change could also simplify the complexity of the rockets’ systems and, possibly, increase overall propellant performance.

The ALICE powered rocket before launch. Image credit: Dr. Steven F. Son, Purdue University

The benefits don’t stop there. Advantages on every level trickle down. “High performance green propulsion has the potential to significantly change how we travel in space,” said Michael Gazarik, director of NASA’s Space Technology Program at the agency’s headquarters in Washington. “By reducing the hazards of handling fuel, we can reduce ground processing time and lower costs for rocket launches, allowing a greater community of researchers and technologists access to the high frontier.”

Developing green propellants won’t be quick or easy. It will be a major challenge for NASA, particularly from a cost, schedule, and risk perspective. The agency has established the Technology Demonstration Missions Program at the Marshall Spaceflight Centre in Huntsville, Alabama to oversee the green fuel program. It will act as a bridge between laboratory confirmation of a technology and its use on a mission.

This isn’t the first time NASA has tried to develop green fuel. In 2009, the space agency and the US Air Force successfully launched a 9-foot rocket 1,300 vertical feet using a mixture of aluminum powder and water ice. The mixture, called ALICE, has been studied since the 1960s as an alternative propellant. The reaction between substances produces a large amount of energy during combustion and green exhaust products.

Environmental impact aside, fuels like ALICE could be manufactured on the Moon or Mars, negating the cost of sending propellants along as cargo on long-duration missions. This would be when designing long-term missions.

The winning aircraft - Pipistrel-USA, Taurus G4 - during its flight as part of the miles per gallon flight. (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Aviation, too has been an outlet for NASA’s green fuel initiatives in the past. 2011’s CAFE Green Flight Challenge, sponsored by Google, had competitors in general aviation design aircraft capable of flying 200 miles in less than two hours and use less than one gallon of fuel per passenger. The first place winner of $1.35 million was the team Pipistrel-USA.com of State College, Pennsylvania used an electric aircraft that achieved twice the fuel efficiency required by the competition — they flew 200 miles on the equivalent of a half-gallon of fuel per passenger.

With this shift to green fuels, NASA hopes to partner with American companies to usher in a new environmentally friendly era of open access to space. The agency is planing to make multiple contract awards for green technologies with no single away exceeding $50 million.

Source: NASA

 

Phil Plait’s Five Guides to the Universe

All writers love to read, and our friend Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer is no exception. And since we often get asked what space and astronomy books we’d recommend, let us point you in the direction of a new interview with Phil where he shares five of his favorite books about the Universe. It’s on a website called “The Browser” which has a series of interviews called Five Books, where they ask various experts what five books on a subject they recommend. It’s a great interview, and I’d recommend going to The Browser website anyway, just to see their banner. Their mascot looks like a tardigrade, the tiny aquatic invertebrates that have been sent into space.

Tidal Heating on Some Exoplanets May Leave Them Waterless

Venus as photographed by the Pioneer spacecraft in 1978. Some exoplanets may suffer the same fate as this scorched world. Credit: NASA/JPL/Caltech

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As the number of exoplanets being discovered continues to increase dramatically, a growing number are now being found which orbit within their stars’ habitable zones. For smaller, rocky worlds, this makes it more likely that some of them could harbour life of some kind, as this is the region where temperatures (albeit depending on other factors as well) can allow liquid water to exist on their surfaces. But there is another factor which may prevent some of them from being habitable after all – tidal heating, caused by the gravitational pull of one star, planet or moon on another; this effect which creates tides on Earth’s oceans can also create heat inside a planet or moon.

The findings were presented at the January 11 annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Austin, Texas.

The habitability factor is determined primarily by the amount of heat coming from the planet’s star. The closer a planet is to its star, the hotter it will be, and the farther out it is, the cooler it will be. Simple enough, but tidal heating adds a new wrinkle to the equation. According to Rory Barnes, a planetary scientist and astrobiologist at the University of Washington, “This has fundamentally changed the concept of a habitable zone. We figured out you can actually limit a planet’s habitability with an energy source other than starlight.”

This effect could cause planets to become “tidal Venuses.” In these cases, the planets orbit smaller, dimmer stars, where in order to be in that star’s habitable zone, they would need to orbit much closer in to the star than Earth does with the Sun. The planets would then be subjected to greater tidal heating from the star, enough perhaps to cause them to lose all of their water, similar to what is thought to have happened with Venus in our own solar system (ie. a runaway greenhouse effect). So even though they are within the habitable zone, they would lack oceans or lakes.

What’s problematic is that these planets could subsequently actually have their orbits altered by the tidal heating so that they are no longer affected by it. They would then be more difficult to distinguish from other planets in those solar systems which may still be habitable. While technically still within the habitable zone, they would have effectively been sterilized by the tidal heating process.

Planetary scientist Norman Sleep at Stanford University adds: “We’ll have to be careful when assessing objects that are very near dim stars, where the tides are much stronger than we feel on present-day Earth. Even Venus now is not substantially heated by tides, and neither is Mercury.”

In some cases, tidal heating can be a good thing though. The tidal forces exerted by Jupiter on its moon Europa, for example, are thought to create enough heat to allow a liquid water ocean to exist beneath its outer ice crust. The same may be true for Saturn’s moon Enceladus. This makes these moons still potentially habitable even though they are far outside of the habitable zone around the Sun.

By design, the first exoplanets being found by Kepler are those that orbit closer in to their stars as they are easier to detect. This includes smaller, dimmer stars as well as ones more like our own Sun. The new findings, however, mean that more work will need to be done to determine which ones really are life-friendly and which ones are not, at least for “life-as-we-know-it” anyway.

Freaky Dancing Plasma on the Sun

Normally plasma from the Sun either shoots off into space or loops back on the Sun’s surface. But the Solar Dynamics Observatory captured some plasma that couldn’t make up its mind. Here, darker, cooler plasma slid and shifted back and forth above the Sun’s surface for 30 hours on February 7-8, 2012. The view is shown in extreme ultraviolet light. As a backdrop, an active region just rotating into view shows bright plasma gyrating into streams — normally how the plasma behaves. SDO scientists say the darker particles are being pulled back and forth by competing magnetic forces, tracking along strands of magnetic field lines.

And by the way, tomorrow is SDO’s 2nd anniversary! It launched two years ago on February 11, 2010. Happy anniversary, SDO and thanks for all the great videos and data so far! We wish you many more!

Is Venus’ Rotation Slowing Down?

Venus Express in orbit since 2006 around our nearest planetary neighbor. Credits: ESA

New measurements from ESA’s Venus Express spacecraft shows that Venus’ rotation rate is about 6.5 minutes slower than previous measurements taken 16 years ago by the Magellan spacecraft. Using infrared instruments to peer through the planet’s dense atmosphere, Venus Express found surface features weren’t where the scientists expected them to be.

“When the two maps did not align, I first thought there was a mistake in my calculations as Magellan measured the value very accurately, but we have checked every possible error we could think of,” said Nils Müller, a planetary scientist at the DLR German Aerospace Centre, lead author of a research paper investigating the rotation.

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Using the VIRTIS infrared instrument, scientists discovered that some surface features were displaced by up to 20 km from where they should be given the accepted rotation rate as measured by the Magellan orbiter in the early 1990s.

Over its four-year mission, Magellan determined the length of the day on Venus as being equal to 243.0185 Earth days. But the data from Venus Express indicate the length of the Venus day is on average 6.5 minutes longer.

What could cause the planet to slow down? One possibility may be the raging weather on Venus. Recent atmospheric models have shown that the planet could have weather cycles stretching over decades, which could lead to equally long-term changes in the rotation period. The most important of those forces is due to the dense atmosphere – more than 90 times the pressure of Earth’s and high-speed weather systems, which are believed to change the planet’s rotation rate through friction with the surface.

Earth experiences a similar effect, where it is largely caused by wind and tides. The length of an Earth day can change by roughly a millisecond and depends seasonally with wind patterns and temperatures over the course of a year.

But a change of 6.5 minutes over a little more than a decade is a huge variation.

Other effects could also be at work, including exchanges of angular momentum between Venus and the Earth when the two planets are relatively close to each other. But the scientists are still working to figure out the reason for the slow down.

These detailed measurements from orbit are also helping scientists determine whether Venus has a solid or liquid core, which will help our understanding how the planet formed and evolved. If Venus has a solid core, its mass must be more concentrated towards the center. In this case, the planet’s rotation would react less to external forces.

“An accurate value for Venus’ rotation rate will help in planning future missions, because precise information will be needed to select potential landing sites,” said Håkan Svedhem, ESA’s Venus Express project scientist.

Venus Express will keep monitoring the planet to determine if the rate of rotation continues to change.

Source: ESA

Sandy Streets Over the Atlantic

Dust from the Sahara blows past the Cape Verde islands on Feb. 9, 2012 (Chelys)

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Thick dust from the Sahara blowing over the ocean off the western coast of Africa encounters the islands of Cape Verde, forming a wake of swirling “vortex streets” visible by satellite.


These swirls are also known as von Karman vortices. When wind encounters the island, the disturbance in the flow propagates downwind in the form of a double row of vortices, which alternate their direction of rotation.

Such effects can be seen anywhere a liquid fluid — including air — flows around a solid body. They are named after engineer and fluid dynamicist Theodore von Kármán.

In the image above, the dust and sand is thick enough to nearly block out some of the islands entirely. See the full scale version here on the Chelys “EOSnap” Earth Snapshot site.

Image via EOSnap/Chelys SRRS (Satellite Rapid Response System).

Watch Live Webcast from the Keck Observatory

On Thursday, Feb. 9, 2012, Keck Observatory will be hosting a live webcast of an astronomy talk by Dr. Tom Soifer of Caltech, who is the Director of the Spitzer Science Center. The title of the talk is “Seeing the Invisible Universe,” and Soifer will discuss the latest exciting results from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope. The webcast begins at 7 pm Hawaiian Time, 9 pm Pacific Time (5 am GMT, Feb 10) and will be streamed from the Kahilu Theatre in Waimea-Kamuela, on the Big Island of Hawaii. Watch in the window above (click the play button) or watch on the Keck website.