Pleiades Could Be Three Objects Colliding Together

Image credit: NOAO

The Pleiades star cluster has long been a favorite of astronomers, as it’s clearly visible with the naked eye, and looks even better in small telescopes and binoculars. The cluster’s wispy appearance comes from the fact that the stars are surrounded by a faint nebula. By tracking the motion of the stars and the cloud, a team of astronomers have discovered that the area is being formed by multiple clouds colliding together in the same region.

The naked-eye Pleiades star cluster has long been known to professional and amateur astronomers for the striking visible nebulosity that envelopes the cluster?s brightest stars, scattering their light like fog around a streetlamp.

Radio and infrared observations in the 1980s established that this nebulosity results from a chance encounter by the young stars of the Pleiades with an interstellar cloud, rather than being caused by debris from the cluster?s formation. New data obtained at Kitt Peak National Observatory suggest that the Pleiades are actually encountering two clouds, giving rise to an extraordinary and previously unknown occurrence: a three-body collision in the vast emptiness of interstellar space.

This new perspective on the motion of interstellar gas near the cluster comes from high-resolution spectra obtained at an adjunct facility of Kitt Peak?s 2.1-meter telescope known as the Coud? Feed. The investigator was Richard White of Smith College in Northampton, MA, who worked in collaboration with students from Smith College and Amherst College.

?The idea of the Pleiades and one gas cloud in an interstellar train wreck already made this nearby cluster an especially interesting region for astronomers seeking to understand the details of physical and chemical processes in the interstellar medium,? White says. ?The presence of a second cloud interacting with the first cloud and with the cluster creates a situation more like a three-car crash in a demolition derby, which makes the Pleiades altogether unique as natural laboratory.?

The time scale for the unfolding of the interstellar collisions in the Pleiades is several hundred thousand years. ?That is good news for those who enjoy the magnificent color images of the Pleiades images that grace textbooks and coffee table books, which suffer no danger of obsolescence,? White says. ?It is bad news for those who would like to see celestial fireworks unfolding from year to year.?

Known as the Seven Sisters for the seven stars said to be visible with the naked eye, the Pleiades (M45) consists of more than 500 stars roughly 100 million years old in a cluster located about 400 light-years from Earth.

Sodium atoms in gas found between Earth and the stars absorb two specific wavelengths of yellow starlight (the same wavelengths of yellow light emitted by low-pressure sodium streetlamps). Because of the Doppler effect (analogous to the shift in siren pitch produced when an ambulance is moving toward or away from a listener), the motion of the gas along our line of sight produces subtle shifts in the observed wavelengths.

In a paper published in the October 2003 Astrophysical Journal Supplement, White interprets the new observations of sodium atoms in the Pleiades region in the context of other recent observations of the Pleiades region. These observations include significant new optical images of the Pleiades from the Burrell Schmidt telescope on Kitt Peak, published earlier this year in the Astrophysical Journal by Steven Gibson of the University of Calgary and Kenneth Nordsieck of the University of Wisconsin, and radio maps of neutral hydrogen that formed part of Gibson?s doctoral thesis.

The orientation of features in the optical and radio imagery provides clues to gas and dust motions across the sky, which can be combined with the spectroscopically measured velocities from Kitt Peak to allow astronomers to reconstruct the three-dimensional configuration of the interstellar matter near the Pleiades.

The sodium absorption lines reveal that there always is one feature between Earth and the Pleiades stars, moving toward the cluster with a line of sight velocity of about 10 kilometers per second. White associates this feature with the Taurus-Auriga interstellar cloud complex, the bulk of which lies about 40 light-years to the east.

Toward some stars, however, there are two or more absorption features. White argues that a shock-wave from the collision between the Pleiades and gas associated with the Taurus-Auriga complex can account for splitting of one feature into three in some areas, primarily on the south and east sides of the Pleiades. However, the presence of an additional feature in the data, primarily on the west side and moving into the cluster at about 12 kilometers per second, defies understanding unless a second cloud also is converging on the Pleiades, he concludes.

The only previously known three-body collisions in interstellar space are inferred close encounters by a star and a neighboring binary or triple star system within a globular cluster or in the cores of galaxies.

Previously released images of the Pleiades from Kitt Peak that amply demonstrate the surrounding nebulosity are available in the NOAO Image Gallery (linked above).

Located southwest of Tucson, AZ, Kitt Peak National Observatory is part of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory, which is operated by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA), Inc., under a cooperative agreement with the National Science Foundation.

Original Source: NOAO News Release

Nearby Star is Forming a Jupiter-Like Planet

Image credit: UA

Astronomers from the University of Arizona have used a new technique called “nulling interferometry” to reveal the planetary disk around a newly-forming star. Incredibly, they discovered a gap in the disk, where a Jupiter-like planet is probably forming. This nulling technique works by combining the light from the central star in such a way that it gets canceled out. This allows fainter objects, such as dust and planets to be observed. The planet is likely several times the mass of Jupiter and orbits its star at about 1.5 billion kilometers.

University of Arizona astronomers have used a new technique called nulling interferometry to probe a dust disk around a young nearby star for the first time. They not only confirmed that the young star does have a protoplanetary disk — the stuff from which solar systems are born — but discovered a gap in the disk, which is strong evidence of a forming planet.

“It’s very exciting to find a star that we think should be forming planets, and actually see evidence of that happening,” said UA astronomer Philip Hinz.

“The bottom line is, we not only confirmed the hypothesis that this young star has a protoplanetary disk, we found evidence that a giant, Jupiter-like protoplanet is forming in this disk,” said Wilson Liu, a doctoral student and research assistant on the project.

“There’s evidence that this star is right on the cusp of becoming a main-sequence star,” Liu added. “So basically, we’re catching a star that is right at the point of becoming a main-sequence star, and it looks like it’s caught in the act of forming planets.”

Main-sequence stars are those like our sun that burn hydrogen at their cores.

Earlier this year, Hinz and Liu realized that observations of HD 100546 at thermal, or mid-infrared, wavelengths showed that the star had a dust disk.

Finding faint dust disks is “analogous to finding a lighted flashlight next to Arizona Stadium when the lights are on,” Liu said.

The nulling technique combines starlight in such a way that it is canceled out, creating a dark background where the star’s image normally would be. Because HD 100546 is such a young star, its dust disk is still relatively bright, about as bright as the star itself. The nulling technique is needed to distinguish what light comes from the star, which can be suppressed, and what comes from the extended dust disk, which nulling does not suppress.

Hinz and UA astronomers Michael Meyer, Eric Mamajek, and William Hoffmann took the observations in May 2002. They used BLINC, the only working nulling interferometer in the world, along with MIRAC, a state-of-the-art mid-infrared camera, on the 6.5-meter (21-foot) diameter Magellan telescope in Chile to study the roughly 10-million-year-old star in the Southern Hemisphere sky.

Typically, dust in disks around stars is uniformly distributed, forming a continuous, flattened, orbiting cloud of material that is hot on the inner edge but cold most of the distance to the frigid outer edge.

“The data reduction was complicated enough that we didn’t realize until later that there was an inner gap in the disk,” Hinz noted.

“We realized the disk appeared about the same size at warmer (10 micron) wavelengths and at colder (20 micron) wavelengths. The only way that could be is if there’s an inner gap.”

The most likely explanation for this gap is that it is created by the gravitational field of a giant protoplanet =AD an object that could be several times more massive than Jupiter. The researchers believe the protoplanet may be orbiting the star at perhaps 10 AU. (An AU, or astronomical unit, is the distance between Earth and the sun. Jupiter is about 5 AU from the sun.)

Astronomers from the Netherlands and Belgium had previously used the Infrared Space Observatory to study HD 100546, which is 330 light-years from Earth. They detected comet-like dust around the star and concluded that it might be a protoplanetary disk. But the European space telescope was too small to clearly see dust surrounding the star.

Hinz, who developed BLINC, has been using the nulling interferometer with two 6.5-meter telescopes for the past three years for his survey of nearby stars in search of protoplanetary systems. In addition to the Magellan telescope that covers the Southern Hemisphere, Hinz uses the 6.5-meter UA/Smithsonian MMT atop Mount Hopkins, Ariz., for the Northern Hemisphere sky.=20

Hinz developed BLINC as a technology demonstration for the Terrestrial Planet Finder mission, which is managed for NASA by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. NASA, which funds Hinz’ survey, supports research on solar-system formation under its Origins program and is developing nulling interferometry for Terrestrial Planet Finder.

“Nulling interferometry is very exciting because it is one of only a few technologies that can directly image circumstellar environments,” Liu said.

Using MIRAC, the camera developed by William Hoffmann and others, was important because it is sensitive to mid-infrared wavelengths, Hinz said. Astronomers will have to look in mid-infrared wavelengths, which correspond to room temperatures, to find planets with liquid water and possible life, he said.

Hinz’ survey includes HD 100546 and other “Herbig Ae” stars, which are nearby young stars generally more massive than our sun, but are not yet main sequence stars powered by nuclear fusion.

Hinz and Liu plan to observe increasingly mature star systems, searching for ever-fainter circumstellar dust disks and planets, as they continue to improve nulling interferometry and adaptive optics technologies. Adaptive optics is a technique that eliminates the effects of Earth’s shimmering atmosphere from starlight.

Hinz and others at UA Steward Observatory are designing a nulling interferometer for the Large Binocular Telescope, which will view the sky with two 8.4-meter (27-foot) diameter mirrors on Mount Graham, Ariz., in 2005.

Original Source: UA News

Spacedev Puts a Satellite Up for Sale on eBay

Image credit: SpaceDev

Satellite manufacturer SpaceDev announced today that it has put a satellite up for sale on the Internet auction site eBay. The high bidder will win a spacecraft built by SpaceDev, or an interested party can just “Buy it Now” for $9.5 million USD. The auction begins on Monday, November 10 and ends 10 days later. The default satellite will come with an Earth observation camera, but the winning bidder can supply additional payloads, name the satellite, and attend the launch.

SpaceDev (OTCBB: SPDV) is auctioning a world exclusive private space mission on eBay. This first of its kind eBay auction is being listed for the ten-day period of 8:00 PM (PST) Monday, November 10, through 8:00 PM (PST) Thursday, November 20th.

The SpaceDev space mission auction is at:

Most earth orbiting small satellite missions can cost $25 million or more, not including the launch. To demonstrate the affordability of private space missions, SpaceDev has posted a ?Buy it Now? price of $9.5 million. The high bidder will win a spacecraft based on SpaceDev?s Maneuvering and orbit Transfer Vehicle (MTV?).

?I founded SpaceDev to accelerate the development of space, to get the public involved in space and to have fun,? said Jim Benson, SpaceDev founder and CEO. ?With our successful launch and operation of CHIPSat earlier this year, and after being competitively selected to provide safe hybrid rocket propulsion for manned space flight, we are offering this unique space mission to the public.?

The high bidder has the right to supply his or her own payload, to name the SpaceDev MTV? satellite and to name the mission. The winning bidder, which could be an individual, company or government agency, can also be involved in the mission design, satellite assembly and testing (including putting small personal items on the spacecraft), can attend the launch, and can participate in on-orbit operations.

The nominal payload is a camera that provides a view of the launch separation on-orbit, a buyer-controlled camera on the spacecraft looking back down on earth and into space 24 hours a day, or the buyer can supply a SpaceDev-approved payload. The microsatellite camera can be operated over the Internet by the winning bidder, similar to SpaceDev?s CHIPSat microsat, which is the world?s first orbiting node on the Internet. Specific terms are included in the eBay auction listing. Search eBay for ?SpaceDev.?

Original Source: SpaceDev News Release

Gamma Ray Map of the Milky Way

Image credit: ESA

The European Space Agency’s Integral gamma-ray observatory has produced a new map of the Milky Way in the gamma-ray spectrum. Integral is looking for traces of radioactive aluminum, which gives off gamma rays with a specific wavelength. But the question is, what’s producing all this aluminum? Some astronomers believe these could be created by specific objects in the Milky Way, like Red Giant stars or hot blue stars. Another possibility is that it’s produced as part of supernova explosions. Integral will help get to the bottom of this mystery.

ESA’s gamma-ray observatory Integral is making excellent progress, mapping the Galaxy at key gamma-ray wavelengths.

It is now poised to give astronomers their truest picture yet of recent changes in the Milky Way’s chemical composition. At the same time, it has confirmed an ‘antimatter’ mystery at the centre of the Galaxy.

Since its formation from a cloud of hydrogen and helium gas, around 12 000 million years ago, the Milky Way has gradually been enriched with heavier chemical elements. This has allowed planets and, indeed, life on Earth to form.

Today, one of those heavier elements – radioactive aluminium – is spread throughout the Galaxy and, as it decays into magnesium, gives out gamma rays with a wavelength known as the ‘1809 keV line.’ Integral has been mapping this emission with the aim of understanding exactly what is producing all this aluminium.

In particular, Integral is looking at the aluminium ‘hot spots’ that dot the Galaxy to determine whether these are caused by individual celestial objects or the chance alignment of many objects.

Astronomers believe that the most likely sources of the aluminium are supernovae (exploding high-mass stars) and, since the decay time of the aluminium is around one million years, Integral’s map shows how many stars have died in recent celestial history. Other possible sources of the aluminium include ‘red giant’ stars or hot blue stars that give out the element naturally.

To decide between these options, Integral is also mapping radioactive iron, which is only produced in supernovae. Theories suggest that, during a supernova blast, aluminium and iron should be produced together in the same region of the exploding star. Thus, if the iron’s distribution coincides with that of the aluminium, it will prove that the overwhelming majority of aluminium comes indeed from supernovae.

These measurements are difficult and have not been possible so far, since the gamma-ray signature of radioactive iron is about six times fainter than that of the aluminium. However, as ESA’s powerful Integral observatory accumulates more data in the course of the next year, it will finally be possible to reveal the signature of radioactive iron. This test will tell astronomers whether their theories of how elements form are correct.

In addition to these maps, Integral is also looking deeply into the centre of the Galaxy, to make the most detailed map ever of ‘antimatter’ there.

Antimatter is like a mirror image to normal matter and is produced during extremely energetic atomic processes: for example, the radioactive decay of aluminium. Its signature is known as the ‘511 keV line.’ Even though Integral’s observations are not yet complete, they show that there is too much antimatter in the centre of the Galaxy to be coming from aluminium decay alone. They also show clearly that there must be many sources of antimatter because it is not concentrated around a single point.

There are many possible sources for this antimatter. As well as supernovae, old red stars and hot blue stars, there are jets from neutron stars and black holes, stellar flares, gamma-ray bursts and interaction between cosmic rays and the dusty gas clouds of interstellar space.

Chris Winkler, Integral’s Project Scientist, says: “We have collected excellent data in the first few months of activity but we can and will do much more in the next year. Integral’s accuracy and sensitivity have already exceeded our expectations and, in the months to come, we could get the answers to some of astronomy’s most intriguing questions.”

Original Source: ESA News Release

No Newsletter for a Couple of Days

I just wanted to warn you that I’m probably not going to be able to email out the newsletter for the next couple of days. My high-speed Internet connection is down until Wednesday at the earliest, so all I’ve got is dial-up. I can update the website, but I can’t send out the newsletter without a high-speed connection.

I’ll keep updating the site, and then send out a monster edition in a couple of days.

Sorry for the inconvenience.

Fraser Cain
Universe Today

Big Dunes on Mars

Image credit: NASA/JPL

Mars has the largest volcano, the deepest canyon, and it’s got the biggest sand dunes. Several conditions on the Red Planet, including its low gravity, air pressure and sand probably contribute to the gigantic sand dunes that can form there. Dunes have been seen by the Mars Global Surveyor which reach twice as tall as they get on Earth. The Mars Exploration Rovers, currently on track to reach Mars in early 2004 will have cameras on board that may help scientists take a closer look at the sand that makes up these gigantic dunes.

Mars is kind of like Texas: things are just bigger there. In addition to the biggest canyon and biggest volcano in the solar system, Mars has now been found to have sand ripples twice as tall as they would be on Earth.

Initial measurements of some of the Red Planet’s dunes and ripples using stereo-images from the Mars Orbiter Camera onboard the Mars Global Surveyor have revealed ripple features reaching almost 20 feet high and dunes towering at 300 feet.

One way to imagine the taller dimension of ripples on Mars is to visualize sand ripples on Earth, then stretch out the vertical dimension to double height, without changing the horizontal dimension.

“They do seem higher in relation to ripples on Earth,” said Kevin Williams of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. Williams will be presenting this latest insight into the otherworldly scale of Marscapes on Monday, Nov. 3 at the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America in Seattle, WA.

Ripples are common on Mars and usually found in low-lying areas and inside craters, says Williams. On Earth they tend to form in long parallel lines from sand grains being pushed by water or air at right angles to the ripple lines. Dunes, on the other hand, are formed when grains of sand actually get airborne and “saltate” (a word based on the Latin verb “to jump”). That leads to cusp-shaped, star-shaped, and other dune arrangements that allow materials to pile sand much higher.

How exactly Martian dunes and ripples form is still unknown, says Williams, since the images from space give us no clues to the grain sizes or whether they are migrating or moving in any way. Though there are Viking spacecraft images from almost 30 years ago to compare with, the images do not have the resolution to confirm whether ripples have moved much in that time. For now, the dimensions of ripple-forms on Mars are the only indications of whether they are large ripples or small dunes. Williams’ results came about from the advantageous combination of image parameters to get the first height measurements of these ripple-like features at the limit of image resolution.

According to Williams, it’s likely the doubled heights of Mars ripples relative to their spacing is made possible by the same thing that makes Mars’ volcanoes so tall: lower gravity. With about one-third the gravity of Earth, sand, silt, and dust can theoretically stack up higher before gravity causes a slope failure.

However, other differences could play roles in making these large piles of sand as well. “It could also be from different wind speeds, air densities or other factors,” said Williams. Mars has a perennially subfreezing, very thin atmosphere in which global dust storms have been known to obscure the surface from view.

The study of Mars dunes and ripples has been underway since Viking spacecraft images of Mars first revealed such features in the late 1970s and early 1980s, says Williams. The primary difficulty of the work continues to be in discerning the close-up details, like the exact heights of features and grain sizes. As with dunes and ripples on Earth, these wind-blown features could reveal a lot about local and regional weather and wind currents ? if more was known about ripple and dune building under the very un-Earthlike conditions of Mars.

So far the only close-encounters humans have ever had with Martian dunes were with the Viking Landers and the Pathfinder mission, which sent the Sojourner rover trundling among Martian boulders. “There were some small dunes in the area of Pathfinder,” Williams said.

There are also likely to be ripples or small dunes within range of the far more mobile Mars Exploration Rovers now enroute to the Red Planet, Williams said. The Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, are larger and will be able to travel much further than Sojourner, making it more likely they will be taking a closer look at ripples as well as other geological features of Mars.

Original Source: Geological Society of America News Release

Envisat Watches an Iceberg Break Up

Image credit: ESA

The European Space Agency’s Envisat Earth observation satellite captured images of a gigantic iceberg as it broke up during an Antarctic storm. The iceberg, called B-15A, was created in March 2000 when a Jamaican-sized chunk of ice broke away from the Ross Ice Shelf. It broke into smaller pieces shortly after that, but the largest chunk, B-15A grounded itself off the coast and stuck around for a few years. Finally in October, 2003, a giant storm helped split the iceberg up.

ESA’s Envisat satellite was witness to the dramatic last days of what was once the world’s largest iceberg, as a violent Antarctic storm cracked a 160-km-long floe in two.

A series of Envisat Advanced Synthetic Aperture Radar (ASAR) instrument images acquired between mid-September and October record how the bottle-shaped iceberg B-15A was split by the onslaught of powerful storms, waves and ocean currents as its own weight kept it fixed on the floor of Antarctica’s Ross Sea.

ASAR is especially useful for polar operations because its radar signal can pierce thick clouds and works through both day and night. Radar imagery charts surface roughness, so can easily differentiate between different ice types. Old ice ? as on the surface of B-15A ? is rougher than newly formed ice.

B-15A began its existence as B-15 in March 2000 – with an area of 11,655 sq km it was the world’s largest known iceberg. This Jamaica-sized floe was created when it broke away from the Ross Ice Shelf. The initial monster berg split into numerous pieces shortly afterwards, with the largest piece designated B-15A.

Like a wall of ice, B-15A remained a stubborn presence for the next two and a half years, diverting ocean currents. This caused increased ice around Ross Island that disrupted breeding patterns for the local penguin colony and required extra icebreaker activity to maintain shipping access to the US base at McMurdo Sound.

B-15A’s end came in sight on 7 October this year, as 120 kph winds buffeted the grounded iceberg during a storm. Two cracks ran into the heart of the iceberg from opposite ends until finally the entire berg gave way.

The larger of the two new pieces has inherited the name B-15A, and the smaller berg named B-15J. They remain largely locked in place, some 3,800 kilometres south of New Zealand. The bergs could persist there for many years ? a GPS station has been placed on the 3,496 sq km B-15A to enable study of its future progress.

Despite events such as these there is so far no conclusive evidence as to whether polar ice is actually thinning. Next year will see the launch of ESA?s CryoSat mission, a dedicated ice-watching satellite designed to map precise changes in the thickness of polar ice-sheets and floating sea-ice.

CryoSat will be the first satellite to be launched as part of the Agency?s Living Planet Programme. This small research mission will carry a radar altimeter that is based on a heritage from existing instruments, but with several major enhancements to improve the measurement of icy surfaces.

By determining rates of ice-thickness change CryoSat will contribute to our understanding of the relationship between the Earth?s ice cover and global climate.

Original Source: ESA News Release

Desert in Chile Could Help Explain Mars Environment

Image credit: NASA

A team of scientists have traveled to one of the driest places on Earth to help understand why past missions to Mars have failed to detect any life in the soil. The Atacama Desert is located in a region of Chile which is blocked on both sides by high mountain ranges, so it’s incredibly dry. The scientists have studied the soil and realized that organic material is there, it’s just so minimal that the instruments on board the Viking lander, which visited Mars in the 1970s, wouldn’t have been able to sense them. More sophisticated instruments should be installed on future missions to find evidence of life.

A team of scientists from NASA, the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, Louisiana State University and several other research organizations has discovered clues from one of Earth’s driest deserts about the limits of life on Earth, and why past missions to Mars may have failed to detect life.

The results were published this week in Science magazine in an article entitled “Mars-like Soils in the Atacama Desert, Chile, and the Dry Limit of Microbial Life.”

NASA’s Viking missions to Mars in the 1970s showed the martian soil to be disappointingly lifeless and depleted in organic materials, the chemical precursors necessary for life. Last year, in the driest part of Chile’s Atacama Desert, the research team conducted microbe-hunting experiments similar to Viking’s, and no evidence of life was found. The scientists called the finding “highly unusual” in an environment exposed to the atmosphere.

“In the driest part of the Atacama, we found that, if Viking had landed there instead of on Mars and done exactly the same experiments, we would also have been shut out,” said Dr. Chris McKay, the expedition’s principal investigator, who is based at NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif. “The Atacama appears to be the only place on Earth Viking would have found nothing.”

During field studies, the team analyzed Atacama’s depleted Mars-like soils and found organic materials at such low levels and released at such high temperatures that Viking would not have been able to detect them, said McKay, who noted that the team did discover a non-biological oxidative substance that appears to have reacted with the organics — results that mimicked Viking’s results.

“The Atacama is the only place on Earth that I’ve taken soil samples to grow microorganisms back at the lab and nothing whatsoever grew,” said Dr. Fred A. Rainey, a co-author from Louisiana State University, who studies microorganisms in extreme environments.

According to the researchers, the Atacama site they studied could serve as a valuable testbed for developing instruments and experiments that are better tailored to finding microbial life on Mars than the current generation. “We think Atacama’s lifeless zone is a great resource to develop portable and self-contained instruments that are especially designed for taking and analyzing samples of the martian soil,” McKay said.

More sophisticated instruments on future sample-return Mars missions are a necessity if scientists are to avoid contaminating future martian samples, McKay noted. “We’re still doing the first steps of instrument development for Mars.” Recently, researchers have developed a method to extract DNA from soil without humans getting involved in processing the data, which is “a step in the right direction,” according to McKay.

The reason Chile’s Atacama Desert is so dry and virtually sterile, researchers say, is because it is blocked from moisture on both sides by the Andes mountains and by coastal mountains. At 3,000 feet, the Atacama is 15 million years old and 50 times more arid than California’s Death Valley. The scientists studied the driest part of the Atacama, an area called the ‘double rain shadow.’ During the past four years, the team’s sensor station has recorded only one rainfall, which shed a paltry 1/10 of an inch of moisture. McKay hypothesizes that it rains in the arid core of the Atacama on average of only once every 10 years.

The Atacama research was funded by NASA’s Astrobiology Science and Technology for Exploring Planets program, by Louisiana State University, the National Science Foundation and by several other organizations.

The article was also authored by Dr. Rafael Navarro-Gonzalez, Dr. Paola Molina and Dr .Jose de la Rosa from the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, Mexico City, MX; Danielle Bagaley, Becky Hollen and Alanna Small, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, LA.; Dr. Richard Quinn, the SETI Institute, Mountain View, Calif.; Dr. Frank Grunthaner, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.; Dr. Luis Caceres, Instituto del Desierto y Departameno de Ingenieria, Quimica; and Dr. Benito Gomez-Silva, Instituto del Desierto y unidad de Bioquimica, Universidad de Antofagasta, Antofagasta, Chile.

For images of the field experiments, please go to:

Original Source: NASA News Release

Three New Astronauts Added For Next Shuttle Mission

Image credit: NASA

NASA announced that three additional astronauts will fly into space aboard the space shuttle when it returns to flight some time after September 2004. STS-114 will consist of Mission Commander Eileen Collins, Pilot James Kelly, and Mission Specialists Stephen Robinson, Soichi Noguchi, Andrew Thomas, Wendy Lawrence and Charles Camarda. The mission objectives for the flight will be to test the new safety procedures developed as part of the Columbia accident investigation including shuttle inspection and repair techniques.

The STS-114 crew, augmented by three new members, is in place for the Space Shuttle’s Return to Flight mission. Three Mission Specialists have been added to the four astronauts already in training for the STS-114 mission planned for launch no earlier than September 2004.

The new crewmembers, Andrew Thomas (Ph.D.), Wendy Lawrence (Capt., USN) and Charles Camarda (Ph.D.) join mission commander Eileen Collins (Col., USAF), Pilot James Kelly (Lt. Col., USAF), Mission Specialists Stephen Robinson (Ph.D) and Soichi Noguchi, of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, who were named to this flight in 2001.

“STS-114 is going to be a complex developmental test flight, and this crew has the right set of skills and experience to help get the Space Shuttles safely flying again,” said NASA’s Associate Administrator for Space Flight William Readdy. “STS-114 was always slated to have a crew of seven. But now, instead of three crew rotating on-and-off the International Space Station, all crew members will be dedicated to the STS-114 mission objectives,” Readdy said.

The major mission objectives of the STS-114 flight have shifted from International Space Station logistics and crew rotation to testing and evaluating new procedures for flight safety. This includes Shuttle inspection and repair techniques. It also includes a smaller set of Space Station tasks from what was scheduled before the Shuttle Columbia accident in February.

“This is a demanding mission and the addition of Andy, Wendy and Charlie, to this already well-qualified crew, ensures they have all the skills necessary to meet the challenge of Return to Flight and the resumption of Space Shuttle support of the International Space Station,” said Bob Cabana, Director of Flight Crew Operations at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

“Andy brings a wealth of experience in all areas of operations from his previous Shuttle flights and Mir space station mission. Wendy is a superb robotics operator with detailed knowledge of all the Shuttle systems. Charlie has been actively involved with the thermal protection system repair activities and has trained as a backup Space Station crewmember. He is thoroughly familiar with the systems on board the International Space Station,” Cabana said.

“When coupled with Eileen, Jim, Steve and Soichi, who were already trained to perform the assembly tasks on this mission, the full crew will have the expertise and crew time to accomplish all mission objectives,” Cabana said.

Collins served as pilot on STS-63 in 1995 and STS-84 in 1997. She flew as commander in 1999 on STS-93. Kelly piloted his first mission aboard STS-102 in 2001. Robinson was on STS-85 in 1997 and STS-95 in 1998. He served as a backup crewmember for Expedition 4. Thomas, a long-duration Russian Space Station Mir veteran, also served aboard STS-77 in 1996, STS-89 and 91 to and from the Mir in 1998, and STS-102 in 2001. Lawrence, another space veteran, brings experience from STS-67 in 1995, STS-86 in 1997, and STS-91 in 1998. Noguchi and Camarda, both selected as astronauts in 1996, will make their first flight to space on STS-114.

For biographical information about the STS-114 crew and other astronauts on the Internet, visit the NASA astronaut biography page at:
For more information about NASA’s Return to Flight efforts on the Internet, visit:

Original Source: NASA News Release

Total Lunar Eclipse Was a Treat on Saturday Night

Skywatchers from Alaska to Eastern Europe were treated to a total lunar eclipse on Saturday night, when the Moon dipped behind the Earth’s shadow. Chunks of the Moon began to disappear at 2332 Universal Time (6:32 pm EST), and then it turned a coppery red about two hours later. And then four hours after it started, the eclipse was over. Many observers said it was one of the brightest eclipses they’d seen in recent years. If you missed this show, don’t worry, there are two more lunar eclipses coming in 2004. Then a break; there won’t be another total lunar eclipse visible until 2007.