A Continent Ablaze in Auroral and Manmade Light

Aurora Borealis over Western Canada from the ISS Expedition 30 crew. Credit: NASA

Video Caption: Up the East Coast of North America. Credit: NASA

The North American continent is literally set ablaze in a confluence of Auroral and Manmade light captured in spectacular new videos snapped by the astronauts serving aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

The Expedition 30 crew has recently filmed lengthy sequences of images that are among the most stunning ever taken by astronauts flying in orbit some 240 miles (385 kilometers) over the United States and Canada.

Teams working at the Crew Earth Observations center at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas have assembled hundreds of individual still images taken onboard the ISS into a series of amazing videos.

Two videos collected here focus on the East and West coasts of North America and show the path traveled by the station from the crew’s perspective as they photographed the light emitted by hundreds of millions of humans living below and the brilliant light of the Aurora Borealis shining above them.

Recently we highlighted a single night time snapshot of the East Coast and tens of millions of humans.

Night time Panorama of US East Coast from the ISS
Astronauts captured this stunning nighttime panorama of the major cities along the East Coast of the United States on Jan. 29. Credit: NASA

Now the NASA team has assembled the entire sequence of images taken on January 29, 2012 from 05:33:11 to 05:48:10 GMT into a video -see above.

The orbital pass runs from Central America just southwest of Mexico and continues to the North Atlantic Ocean, northeast of Newfoundland. It begins by looking over Central America towards the Gulf of Mexico and the southeastern United States. As the ISS travels northeast over the gulf, some southeastern United States cities can be distinguished, like New Orleans, Mobile, Jacksonville, and Atlanta. Continuing up the east coast, some northeastern states, like Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York City stand out brightly along the coastline. The Aurora Borealis shines in the background as the pass finishes near Newfoundland

The 2nd video is titled “Across Southwest Canada at Night”

This sequence of shots was taken January 25, 2012 from 12:34:11 to 12:36:28 GMT, on a pass from near the border of British Columbia, Canada and Washington state, near Vancouver Island, to southern Alberta, near Calgary.

The main focus of this video is the Aurora Borealis over Canada, which appears very near the ISS during this short and exciting video.

And don’t forget the fabulous ISS shots of Comet Lovejoy taken in December 2011 by Expedition 30 Commander Dan Burbank.

Comet Lovejoy on 22 Dec. 2011 from the International Space Station. Comet Lovejoy is visible near Earth’s horizon in this nighttime image photographed by NASA astronaut Dan Burbank, Expedition 30 commander, onboard the International Space Station on Dec. 22, 2011. Credit: NASA/Dan Burbank

For an otherworldly and eerie perspective, click here to see what a Manmade artifact on the surface of Mars looks like as seen from Mars Orbit – also taken just a few days ago on Jan. 29, 2012, but this time by a robot in place of a human !

Weekly SkyWatcher’s Forecast – February 12-18, 2012

Spirograph Nebula Courtesy of the Hubble Space Telescope


Greetings, fellow SkyWatchers! As the Moon fades away, dark sky studies return and so do we as we take a look at a great collection of nebulae this week and expand your Herschel studies. Get out your binoculars and telescopes, because here’s what’s up!

Sunday, February 12 – Today is the anniversary (2001) of NEAR landing on asteroid Eros. The Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR) mission was the first to ever orbit an asteroid, successfully sending back thousands of images. Although it was not designed to land on Eros, it survived the low speed impact and continued to send back data. Would you like to view Eros for yourself? It will be visible a few hours after sky dark. At somewhere between magnitude 11 and 12, Eros will require at least a mid-sized telescope, but is very viewable to both hemispheres along the Hydra/Crater border… and about a handspan southwest of Mars! Be sure to check resources for a planetarium program or on-line service which will give you a precise location for your time and area.

Tonight we’ll continue onward with our studies of Lepus as we head for two more of the coveted Herschel 400 objects. Our hop starts with beautiful Gamma and NGC 2073. Located less than a fingerwidth northeast of Gamma (RA 05 45 53.90 Dec -21 59 59.0), NGC 2073 might be magnitude 12.4, but its small size makes it anything but easy. Even if it does have some highly studied molecular cloud structure, be prepared to see nothing but a tiny, egg-shaped contrast change in the elliptical Herschel 241.

Continue northeast a little more than 2 degrees (RA 05 54 52.30 Dec -20 05 03.0) to encounter Herschel 225 – NGC 2124. Although it is slightly fainter, we are at least picking up something with more recognizable structure. Oriented north/south, Herschel 225 is an inclined spiral with a bright nucleus. Set in a wonderfully rich star field, it’s difficult to spot at first with low power, but its slim structure holds up well to magnification. This one is really a pleasure.

Monday, February 13 – Today is the birthday of J.L.E. Dreyer. Born in 1852, the Danish-Irish Dreyer came to fame as the astronomer who compiled the New General Catalogue (NGC) published in 1878. Even with a wealth of astronomical catalogs to chose from, the NGC objects and Dreyer’s abbreviated list of descriptions still remain the most widely used today.

Tonight let’s make Dreyer proud as we finish up our Herschel 400 studies for Herschel 267. At magnitude 13, NGC 2076 (Right Ascension: 5 : 46.8 – Declination: -16 : 46 ) is a lot less forgiving of scope size and sky conditions than some galaxies, but if aperture and sky cooperate, you are in for a real treat! Although it is fairly small and somewhat faint, NGC 2076 is an edge-on that will show indications of a dark dustlane across its brighter nucleus, when using aversion. The lane itself has been highly studied for dust extinction and star forming properties and as recently as 2003 a supernova event was reported just south of the nucleus.

Now let’s drop south about one degree and pick up Herschel 270! Far brighter at magnitude 11.9, don’t let the ordinary elliptical NGC 2089 (Right Ascension: 5 : 47.8 – Declination: -17 : 36) fool you. What would appear to be a stellar nucleus is indeed stellar. Studies done by AAVSO have shown that the bright point of light is actually a line of sight star. Congratulations on your studies and be sure to write down your Herschel “homework!”

Tuesday, February 14 – Happy Valentine’s Day! Today is the birthday of Fritz Zwicky. Born in 1898, Zwicky was the first astronomer to identify supernovae as a separate class of objects. His insights also proposed the possibility of neutron stars. Among his many achievements, Zwicky also catalogued galaxy clusters and designed jet engines.

In mythology, Lepus the Hare is hiding in the grass at Orion’s feet. As we have seen, there are many objects of beauty hidden within what seems to be a very ordinary constellation. Before we leave the “Rabbit” for this year, there is one last object that is worthy of attention. If you look to the feet of Orion and the brightest star of Lepus, you will see that they make a triangle in the sky. Tonight we are headed towards the center of that triangle for a singular object – the Spirograph Nebula.

Shown in all its glory through the eye of the Hubble Telescope, the light you see tonight from the IC 408 (Right Ascension: 5 : 17.9 – Declination: -25 : 05) planetary nebula left in the year 7 AD. Its central star, much like our own Sol, was in the final stages of its life at that time, and but a few thousand years earlier was a red giant. As it shed its layers off into about a tenth of a light-year of space, only its superheated core remained – its ultraviolet radiation lighting up the expelled gas. Perhaps in several thousand years the nebula will have faded away, and in several billion years more the central star will have become a white dwarf – a fate that also awaits our own Sun.

At magnitude 11, it is well within reach of a small to mid-size telescope. Like all planetary nebulae, the more magnification – the better the view. The central star is easily seen against a slightly elongated shell and larger telescopes bring an “edge” to this nebula that makes it very worthwhile studying. Spend some quality time with this object. With larger scopes, there is no doubt a texture to this planetary that will delight the eye…and touch the heart!

Wednesday, February 15 – Born on this day in 1564 was the man who fathered modern astronomy – Galileo Galilei. Two and a half centuries ago, he became first scientist to use a telescope for astronomical observation and his first target was the Moon. Just before dawn this morning you will have the opportunity to observe the waning crescent and the tiny crater named for Galileo. Almost central along the terminator and caught near the edge of Oceanus Procellarum, you will see a small, bright ring. This is Reiner Gamma and you will find Galileo just a short hop to the northwest as a tiny, circular crater. What a shame the cartographers did not pick a more vivid feature to name after the great Galileo!

With absence of the Moon in our favor tonight, it’s time to learn the constellation of Monoceros as the skies darken and Orion begins to head west. By using the red giant Betelgeuse, diamond-bright Sirius and the beacon of Procyon, we can see these three stars form a triangle in the sky with Sirius pointing towards the south. The “Unicorn” is not a bright constellation, and most of its stars fall inside this area with its Alpha star almost a handspan south of Procyon.

Using the belt of Orion as a guide, look a handspan east, this is Delta. A fistwidth away to the southeast is Gamma; with Beta about two fingerwidths further along. About a palmwidth southeast of Betelguese is Epsilon. Although this might seem simplistic, knowing these stars will help you find many wonderful objects. Let’s start our journey tonight two fingerwidths northwest of Epsilon… NGC 2186 (Right Ascension: 6 : 12.2 – Declination: +05 : 2) is a triangular open cluster of stars set in a rich field that can be spotted with binoculars and reveals as many as 30 or more stars to even a small telescope. Not only is this a Herschel 400 object that can be spotted with simple equipment, but a highly studied galactic cluster that contains circumstellar discs!

Thursday, February 16 – On this day in 1948, Gerard Kuiper was celebrating his discovery of Miranda – one of Uranus’ moons. Just 42 years earlier on this day, both Kopff and Metcalf were also busy – discovering asteroids! Today is the birthday of Francois Arago. Born in 1786, Arago became the pioneer scientist in the wave nature of light. His achievements were many and he is also credited as the inventor of the polarimeter and other optical devices.

Tonight let’s celebrate Arago’s achievements in polarization as we return again to Epsilon Monocerotis. Our destination is around a fingerwidth east as we seek out another star cluster that has an interesting companion – a nebula!

NGC 2244 (Right Ascension: 6 : 32.4 – Declination: +04 : 52) is a star cluster embroiled in a reflection nebula spanning 55 light-years and most commonly called “The Rosette.” Located about 2500 light-years away, the cluster heats the gas within the nebula to nearly 18,000 degrees Fahrenheit, causing it to emit light in a process similar to that of a fluorescent tube. A huge percentage of this light is hydrogen-alpha, which is scattered back from its dusty shell and becomes polarized.

While you won’t see any red hues in visible light, a large pair of binoculars from a dark sky site can make out a vague nebulosity associated with this open cluster. Even if you can’t, it is still a wonderful cluster of stars crowned by the yellow jewel of 12 Monocerotis. With good seeing, small telescopes can easily spot the broken, patchy wreath of nebulosity around a well-resolved symmetrical concentration of stars. Larger scopes, and those with filters, will make out separate areas of the nebula which also bear their own distinctive NGC labels. No matter how you view it, the entire region is one of the best for winter skies.

Friday, February 17 – Tonight is a good time for us to go hunting some obscure objects that will require the darkest of skies. Once again, we’ll use our guide star Epsilon and tonight we’ll be heading about three fingerwidths northeast for a vast complex of nebulae and star clusters.

To the unaided eye, 4th magnitude S Monocerotis is easily visible and to small binoculars so are the beginnings of a rich cluster surrounding it. This is NGC 2264 (Right Ascension: 6 : 41.1 – Declination: +09 : 53). Larger binoculars and small telescopes will easily pick out a distinct wedge of stars. This is most commonly known as the “Christmas Tree Cluster,” its name given by Lowell Observatory astronomer Carl Lampland. With its peak pointing due south, this triangular group is believed to be around 2600 light-years away and spans about 20 light-years. Look closely at its brightest star – S Monocerotis is not only a variable, but also has an 8th magnitude companion. The group itself is believed to be almost 2 million years old.

The nebulosity is beyond the reach of a small telescope, but the brightest portion illuminated by one of its stars is the home of the Cone Nebula. Larger telescopes can see a visible V-like thread of nebulosity in this area which completes the outer edge of the dark cone. To the north is a photographic only region known as the Foxfur Nebula, part of a vast complex of nebulae that extends from Gemini to Orion.

Northwest of the complex are several regions of bright nebulae, such as NGC 2247, NGC 2245, IC 446 and IC 2169. Of these regions, the one most suited to the average scope is NGC 2245 (Right Ascension: 6 : 32.7 – Declination: +10 : 10), which is fairly large, but faint, and accompanies an 11th magnitude star. NGC 2247 (Right Ascension: 6 : 33.2 – Declination: +10 : 20) is a circular patch of nebulosity around an 8th magnitude star, and it will appear much like a slight fog. IC 446 is indeed a smile to larger aperture, for it will appear much like a small comet with the nebulosity fanning away to the southwest. IC 2169 is the most difficult of all. Even with a large scope a “hint” is all!

Enjoy your nebula quest…

Saturday, February 18 – On this day in 1930, a young man named Clyde Tombaugh was very busy checking out some photographic search plates taken with the Lowell Observatory’s 13″ telescope. His reward? The discovery of Pluto! And just where is the planet that isn’t a planet any more? You can find it before dawn! The little rascal is hiding out in a very stellar field just east of M25 and a couple of degrees northwest of the slender crescent Moon. How do you know which faint “star” is Pluto? Well, if you set a computerized telescope to RA 18h 24m 59s – Dec 19°18’44”, it will be precisely in the center of the field if you are perfectly polar aligned. If you are using a manual telescope, you will need to sketch the field and return over a period of several days to see which “star” moves. It would be a great lesson – since early astronomers did it that way!

This evening let us return to the realm of binoculars and small telescopes as we head now for Beta Monocerotis and a little more than a fingerwidth north for NGC 2232 (Right Ascension: 6 : 26.6 – Declination: -04 : 45). This wonderful collection of stars sparkles with chains and various magnitudes – the brightest of which is 5th magnitude 10 Monocerotis. Well resolved with a small telescope, its apparent size of about a full moon-width makes it a true delight and it can even be spotted unaided from a dark sky site. Be sure to note it, because it is on many open cluster study lists.

Now head back to Beta and about the same distance west for Class D cluster NGC 2215 (Right Ascension: 6 : 21.0 – Declination: -07 : 17). At magnitude 8, it is still within the realm of binoculars, but will look like a small fuzzy patch beyond resolution. Try this one with a telescope! Set in a rich field, the compressed area of near equal magnitude stars isn’t the most colorful in the sky, but you can add another to your Herschel hits!

Until next week, may all your journeys be at light speed!

Journal Club – Theory constraint

Today's Journal Club is about a new addition to the Standard Model of fundamental particles.


According to Wikipedia, a journal club is a group of individuals who meet regularly to critically evaluate recent articles in the scientific literature. And of course, the first rule of Journal Club is… don’t talk about Journal Club.

So, without further ado – today’s journal article is about how new data are limiting the theoretical options available to explain the observed accelerating expansion of the universe.

Today’s article:
Zhang et al Testing modified gravity models with recent cosmological observations..

Theorists can develop some pretty ‘out there’ ideas when using limited data sets. But with the advent of new technologies, or new ways to measure things, or even new things to measure – new data becomes available that then constrains the capacity of various theories to explain what we have measured.

Mind you, when new data conflicts with theory, the first question should always be whether the theory is wrong or the data is wrong – and it may take some time to decide which. A case in point is the Gran Sasso faster-than-light neutrino data. This finding conflicts with a range of well established theories which explain a mountain of other data very well. But to confirm that the neutrino data are wrong, we will need to reproduce the test – perhaps with different equipment under different conditions. This might establish an appropriate level of confidence that the data are really wrong – or otherwise that we need to revise the entire theoretical framework of modern physics.

Zhang et al seek to replicate this sort of evidence-based thinking using Bayesian and also Akaike statistics to test whether the latest available data on the expansion of the universe alters the likelihood of existing theories being able to explain that expansion.

These latest available data include:

  • the SNLS3 SN1a data set (of 472 Type 1a supernovae);
  • the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) 7 year observations;
  • Baryonic acoustic oscillation results for the Sloan Digital Sky Survey release 7; and
  • the latest Hubble constant measures from the Wide Field Camera 3 on the Hubble Space telescope.

The authors run a type of chi-squared analysis to see how the standard Lambda Cold Dark Matter (CDM) model and a total of five different modified gravity (MG models) fit against both the earlier data and now this latest data. Or in their words ‘we constrain the parameter space of these MG models and compare them with the Lambda CDM model’.

It turns out that the latest data best fit the Lambda CDM model, fit less well with most MG models and at least one of the MG models is ‘strongly disfavored’.

They caveat their findings by noting that this analysis only indicates how things stand currently and yet more new data may change the picture again.

And not surprisingly, the paper concludes by determining that what we really need is more new data. Amen to that.

So… comments? Are Bayesian statistics just a fad or a genuinely smarter way to test a hypothesis? Are the first two paragraphs of the paper’s introduction confusing – since Lambda is traditionally placed on ‘the left side of the Einstein equation’? Does anyone feel constrained to suggest an article for the next edition of Journal Club?

Earth-Facing Sunspot Doubles in Size

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


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.


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.


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


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


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!