Tag Archives: Space


Supernova erupts in nearby galaxy


UCL/University of London Observatory/Steve Fossey/Ben Cooke/Guy Pollack/Matthew Wilde/Thomas Wright

Last night, light from a new supernova reached astronomers on Earth. Its origin: the nearby galaxy M82, some 3.5 megaparsecs away (11.4 million light years). It is one of the closest and brightest supernovae seen from Earth since a monster exploded in 1987 just 168,000 light years away. Astronomers say that the latest supernova is of the type 1a class, and may help reveal how such supernovae form. Moreover, because these supernovae are used as cosmic measuring sticks, understanding them better may help clarify the shape of the Universe.

The supernova was bright enough to be discovered with a modest telescope in an unlikely spot: cloudy north London. On 21 January, around 7 pm, Steve Fossey, an astronomer at University College London, was taking students through a routine lesson with a 35-centimetre telescope at the University of London Observatory. Images of M82, also known as the Cigar Galaxy, appeared on their screens. Fossey noticed something unusual: a star sitting on the edge of the galaxy disc. It did not match Fossey’s memory of the galaxy, nor images they looked up on the Internet. “It kind of looked odd,” he says.

Read the rest of this news story at Nature News: [html] [pdf]


The Moon Belongs to No One, but What About Its Artifacts?

In 1969, the third man to walk on the moon, astronaut Charles “Pete” Conrad Jr., also became the first lunar archaeologist. As part of the Apollo 12 crew, he examined an earlier robotic lander, Surveyor 3, and retrieved its TV camera, aluminum tubing and other hardware, giving NASA scientists back on Earth the evidence they needed to study how human-made materials fared in the lunar environment.

This week’s planned robotic landing by the Chinese National Space Agency, the first controlled landing since the 1976 Luna 24 mission, signals a renewal of sophisticated lunar exploration. This time around, more countries will be involved, as will commercial entities. Private organizations are in hot pursuit of the Google Lunar X Prize, which offers cash rewards for achieving technical milestones, one of which is landing near the Apollo sites. A recent bill introduced in the House, called the Apollo Lunar Landing Legacy Act, proposes a novel form of protection. Unfortunately, it appears to interfere with existing space law.
Read the rest of this post at Smithsonian’s Surprising Science blog: [html] [pdf]

See also my 2011 story on this topic for Science Magazine: [html]

Cutbacks kick off kerfuffle over Spanish-German observatory

Spain’s National Research Council (CSIC) and Germany’s Max Planck Society agreed late last month to major budget cuts at the Hispano-German Astronomical Observatory at Calar Alto, Spain.

The new contract cuts the observatory’s 2014-2018 budget from 2010 forecasts (PDF, in Spanish) of more than €3.2 million per year to €1.6 million per year (PDF, in Spanish and English). Then the Max Planck Society, which has contributed nearly two-thirds of the observatory’s budget since 1979 in return for 50% of the facility’s observing time, will leave the joint venture. The decision to drop out is not new; it was part of a 2010 agreement and is part of a shift toward new observatories with different capabilities.

The observatory will start cutting staff this month, and beginning in 2014 it will operate only one of its three instruments, its 3.5-metre telescope. Its remaining 2.2-metre and 1.23-metre telescopes will be available to research teams with the funds to operate them.

“All the medium-size observatories are going through such exercises,” says astronomer Hans-Walter Rix, director of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, the German operating partner of the observatory. In their prime, 2- to 4-metre telescopes such as those at Palomar in California, La Silla in Chile and Kitt Peak in Arizona drew many researchers, but a proliferation of larger telescopes in locations with better observing conditions has changed astronomers’ priorities.

Read the rest of this blog post at Nature’s news blog: [html] [pdf]

Ice may lurk in shadows beyond Moon’s poles

Water ice on the moon may be more widespread  than previously thought. Permanent shadows have been spotted far from the lunar poles, expanding the number of sites that would be good candidates for exploration by robotic rovers — or even for the locations of lunar bases.

Researchers have known for decades that the Moon’s poles host craters with lofty rims that shield their floors from sunlight, so searches for shadowed areas harbouring water ice have focused on the poles. But over the past few months, researchers have built a catalogue of permanently shadowed regions elsewhere on the Moon.

The team developed software called LunarShader to simulate lighting conditions on the Moon throughout its solar cycles. They fed in two topographical models — one from the Japanese spacecraft Kaguya, and one from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO). The software identified about 100 craters that should contain permanent shadows, located as many as 58 degrees of latitude from the pole in both hemispheres, reported team member Joshua Cahill, a space scientist at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, at the European Planetary Science Congress in Madrid this week. The result is being prepared for publication in Icarus, he said.

The findings are significant because they open “a much larger area where permanent manned stations could be established”, says Bruce Cutright, a hydrogeologist at the University of Texas at Austin. Water ice on the Moon exists in such low concentrations that any mission that seeks to study it, or to use it as a resource, will need a detailed map of its distribution.

Ice under ground

Cahill and his colleagues also took the candidate craters’ temperature using the LRO’s Diviner Lunar Radiometer instrument, to determine which sites are most likely to contain ice. The craters are only half the temperature of their better-lit surroundings, but they still reach an average of 175 kelvin — hot enough to boil water in the moon’s thin atmosphere — so any water ice must be insulated beneath the surface.

“While not as cold as the permanently shadowed regions near the poles, these non-polar areas offer a unique environment that may harbour volatiles,” says Emerson Speyerer, an engineer at Arizona State University in Tempe, who is part of another team that has identified persistent shadows at the lunar poles. That team is now characterizing other potential permanently shadowed regions using LRO data. They made a preliminary report at the March Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in The Woodlands, Texas.

Radar instruments on orbiting spacecraft allow some study of the ice, but close-up observations are needed to confirm any findings, says Speyerer. Some technological ingenuity will be required to allow the solar-powered rovers to operate in the shadowy depths of the craters. “A prospecting rover would be able to examine these features with the lower half of the rover in shadow, while the upper half and solar panel would remain illuminated,” says Speyerer.

Cahill’s group has also used LunarShader to identify which parts of the permanently shadowed regions would be most accessible to a rover. To explore the deepest craters, Cahill imagines rovers or landers with solar panels on a mast up to ten metres high, acting like a ‘solar snorkel’.

First published by Nature News [html] [pdf]