You are hereBriefs: Report Blasts Condition of NASA Research Labs
Briefs: Report Blasts Condition of NASA Research Labs
Many NASA research labs are old, and budget cuts have seriously jeopardized scientific research at the agency, according to a National Research Council report released last month. Bureaucratic changes mean staff running labs have to spend inordinate time asking for money while facilities disintegrate, the report declared, adding NASA’s ability to support NASA’s future goals is in serious jeopardy. The report recommends NASA shift its emphasis to upgrading facilities. It found NASA has systematically neglected research labs at six NASA centers. Reduction in funding of 48% for the aeronautics programs from 2005-2009 has significantly challenged NASA’s ability to advance U.S. technological leadership in aeronautics. Approximately 20% of NASA facilities are dedicated to r&d. On average, they’re not state of the art, merely adequate to meet current needs. Over 80% of NASA facilities are more than 40 years old and need significant upgrades to preserve safety and continuity of operations for critical missions, the panel said.
Water ice has been found on the surface of a nearby asteroid for the first time, a discovery that could help explain how Earth got its oceans. Asteroid 24 Themis, a large rock between Mars and Jupiter, is coated in a layer of frost. It also contains organic material, including some molecules that might be ingredients for life. But scientists haven’t found evidence for life. Asteroids in that region were thought to be too close to the Sun to contain surface water without it evaporating. Researchers measured characteristics of sunlight bouncing off 24 Themis and saw signatures of H2O coating most of the surface. Previously, hints of water were found in hydrated minerals, believed formed from reaction of water with rock. But this time researchers saw water’s direct signature.
An asteroid on the list of rocks that could endanger Earth was caught on camera as it zoomed by in April, and found to be larger than originally thought. The asteroid came within 1.5 million miles April 19. It’s a half-lit rock flying through the solar system, about 1,300 feet in size, a quarter-mile long and twice as big as originally thought. Arecibo resolved features on the asteroid down to about 25 feet. On Nov. 8, 2011, the rock will complete another trip around the Sun and swing by Earth just inside the Moon's orbit, at a distance of 191,120 miles. There’s no risk of Earth impact.
The universe might have originated from a black hole within another universe. The idea centers on how matter and energy falling into a black hole could in theory come out a “white hole” in another universe. In such a situation, the black hole and white hole are mouths of a wormhole. Some conjecture that when a black hole forms after collapse of a dying star, a universe is born at the same time from the white hole on the other side of the wormhole. If our universe was born from a black hole, it could help reveal what was before the Big Bang.
Thousands of galaxies crowding an area on the sky roughly the size of the full Moon have been captured in a photo. The wide-field view reveals thousands of galaxies, including a large group belonging to massive galaxy cluster Abell 315. But as crowded as it may appear, these galaxies, like most clusters, are dominated by unseen dark matter. Dark matter’s gravitational pull on clusters helped researchers calculate Abell 315’s mass. The galaxies span a vast range of distances. For those relatively close, it’s possible to distinguish their spiral arms or elliptical halos. These galaxies’ light has traveled for 8 billion years or more before reaching Earth. Abell 315 is a concentration of about 100 yellowish galaxies some 2 billion light-years away in Cetus. In these clusters, galaxies contribute 10% of the mass. Hot gas between galaxies is 10%. The remaining 80% is dark matter. Abell 315’s mass exceeds 100,000 billion times the Sun’s.
Tucked among the first images of the Sun from NASA’s new Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) is a stunning shot of a massive prominence lifting off the surface. These loops are magnetic fields full of hot gas trapped inside. SDO has also captured a massive eruption on the Sun’s surface that sent tons of plasma raining down. The aftermath of the April 19 eruption can be seen in video. Astronomers have seen eruptions like this before, but rarely so large and never in such fluid detail: 1 billion tons of magnetized plasma blasting into space while debris from the explosion falls back onto the surface. The puzzle of “coronal rain” is how slowly it seems to fall, but the rain appears to be buoyed by a cushion of hot gas. SDO could also take the coronal rain’s temperature. It turns out to be relatively cool: “only” about 107,000 degrees. When the rain falls, it’s supported, in part, by an underlying cushion of much hotter material with a temp between 1.8 million and 4 million degrees.
Cassini has captured images of lightning on Saturn, allowing scientists to create the first movie of lightning on another planet. After waiting years for Saturn to dim enough for cameras to detect bursts of light, scientists could create the movie, complete with soundtrack of radio waves when lightning struck. Data suggest extremely powerful storms with lightning that flashes as brightly as Earth’s brightest bolts. But the storms occur much less frequently, with usually only one happening on Saturn at any given time, though it can last for months. Images show a cloud up to 1,900 miles across and regions lit by lightning some 190 miles in diameter. Scientists use the flashes’ width to gauge depth of lightning below the cloud tops. Cassini had had trouble seeing lightning because Saturn’s very bright and reflective. Sunlight shining off its rings made even the night side brighter than a full-Moon night on Earth. Equinox, the period around August 2009 when the Sun shone directly over Saturn’s equator, brought needed darkness. The Sun lit the rings edge-on only and left the bulk of the rings in shadow.
A new study provides the latest round-up of the number of impact craters on Titan. Between 2004 and December 2007, Cassini surveyed 22% of Titan’s surface. Scientists found 49 impact craters. Other than the absence of surface liquid water, atmospheric conditions resemble what probably existed on early Earth. Like Earth, nitrogen makes up much of that thick, hazy atmosphere, with small amounts of methane. Methane exists as a liquid, gas and solid at Titan’s freezing temperatures, and scientists believe it could play the role water does on Earth. There’s strong evidence that most craters were created by impacts. Scientists identified five certain impact craters. The remaining 44 were classified as Class 2 (nearly certain impact craters) and Class 3 (probable impact craters). So far, Cassini images have revealed only about one-fifth of Titan’s surface, inadequate to make conclusions about potential for any life. Since Titan has very few impact craters, scientists predict it may be an active moon with a fresh surface.
A massive blizzard on Saturn is so large and fierce it can be seen from Earth. Cassini is recording the most detailed data yet of storms on Saturn. But amateur astronomers have also participated. The storm dredged up much material from the deep atmosphere and covered an area at least five times larger than the biggest blizzard that hit Earth this year. Gathering data on Saturn’s storms is tricky since they can come and go in weeks, while Cassini observations must be locked in place months in advance. So NASA sometimes enlists the help of amateurs. The radio and plasma wave instrument pick up electrostatic discharges associated with storms, so scientists have been sending tips to amateurs, who can try to spy bright convective storm clouds. Amateurs Anthony Wesley, Trevor Barry and Christopher Go received a notice in February, and snapped dozens of pictures in several weeks. In late March, Wesley, based in Australia, sent scientists a picture of the storm. They also received a picture of the storm at its peak taken by Go, who lives in the Philippines. The composite infrared spectrometer happened to be targeting the storm’s latitude. Scientists knew there might be storms in that area, but were unsure when they might be active. Spectrometer data showed larger-than-expected amounts of phosphine, a gas typically found in Saturn’s deep atmosphere, an indicator that powerful currents were lifting material into the upper troposphere.
An interstellar cloud of gas and dust in deep space has had its temperature mapped across all regions--a cosmic first--allowing scientists to pinpoint where baby stars are being born. The temperature of the cloud, CB244, was taken from its center to the edge, revealing two hotspots of star formation inside. These temps can’t be measured from the ground because of the atmosphere. One star cradle inside the cloud has a temperature of minus 427. A nascent star with 1.6 times the mass of the Sun could be pinpointed. The other region, with a temp of minus 440, is so young that a star has yet to form. Instead, there’s a collapsing core of gas and dust that will eventually become a hot star. This collapsing region contains three-seven times the Sun’s mass. This new map allowed astronomers to calculate the amount of matter inside the star-forming cloud. They calculated the cloud is 10-20 times the Sun’s mass, which means almost half its total mass is involved in forming the two stars. Observations also showed the cloud’s temperature rises toward the outer edges, which reveals light from surrounding stars is heating up the cloud’s outer faces.
A pair of rare medium-sized black holes was spotted near the center of a nearby galaxy, but they haven’t been swallowed by its supermassive black hole. Scientists aren’t sure how long these black holes will escape their larger cousin. For now, the duo provides more support to the idea of black holes neither very small nor very large. Astronomers discovered signs of the black holes inside galaxy M82, about 12 million light-years away. Observations came from two X-ray space scopes. This is the first time good evidence for two mid-sized black holes has been found in one galaxy. Their location near the center of the galaxy might provide clues about the origin of supermassive black holes in the centers of most galaxies. Some researchers think intermediate-mass black holes might form in star clusters and sink toward the center of galaxies, where they would eventually clump together to build supermassive black holes. M82 is the nearest place to us where conditions are similar to those in the early universe, with lots of stars forming.
Astronomers have long known that light bouncing off man-made reflectors on the lunar surface is fainter than expected, and mysteriously dims even more when the Moon is full. Now they think lunar dust and solar heating may be the culprit. The evidence is on Earth. Only a fraction of the light beamed from a New Mexico telescope bounces off of old reflectors on the lunar surface and returns to the observatory. Near full Moon, the strength of the returning light decreases by a factor of 10.
Hidden young stars in the Cat’s Paw Nebula are revealed in a spectacular new infrared image of the stellar nursery. The nebula, NGC 6334, is in Scorpius, towards the heart of the Milky Way, about 5,500 light-years away. The nebula stretches across 50 light-years. In visible light, gas and dust are illuminated by hot young stars that create strange reddish shapes. The nebula is one of the most active nurseries of massive stars in our galaxy, with some nearly 10 times the mass of the Sun. The very wide field of view allowed the whole star-forming region to be imaged in one shot with greater clarity. The image is filled with countless stars overlaid with dark dust seen in full for the first time. In many dusty areas, such as close to the center of the picture, features that appear orange are apparent, evidence of otherwise hidden active young stars and their jets.
Hubble scientists celebrated the 20th anniversary of its launch with a stunning new photo of pillar-like mountains of dust in a well-known nebula. The photo shows just a small part of the Carina Nebula, one of the largest star-birth regions in our galaxy. It captures the top of a 3 light-year-tall pillar of gas and dust being eaten away by brilliant light from nearby bright stars. The pillar is also being pushed apart from within, as infant stars buried inside emit jets of gas streaming from the towering peaks. The scene is reminiscent of Hubble’s 1995 “Pillars of Creation” photo, but more striking.
A European-built spacecraft has used its solar wings as sails to skim through Venus’ atmosphere at its outermost border with space. Venus Express conducted five “aerodrag” maneuvers in April, which used the orbiter as a sensor capable of measuring atmospheric density 111 miles up. To do this, solar panels were rotated through five sets of orientations, which changed daily, to expose the wings to the faint wisps of Venus’ atmosphere. The solar-wing configuration generated a tiny amount of aerodynamic torque, or rotation, on the probe. This torque can be measured based on the amount of correction that must be applied by reaction wheels, which counter-rotate inside the craft to maintain its orientation in space. Those data reveal how thick Venus’ atmosphere is at the point the craft was during the maneuver.
New pictures of Jupiter show a huge band of dark clouds that normally surrounds the planet has vanished. Jupiter’s appearance usually is dominated by two dark bands in its atmosphere, in the north and in the south, and the Giant Red Spot. All three were visible at the end of last year before Jupiter went behind the Sun. When it re-emerged last month, pictures from Australian amateur Anthony Wesley showed the southern cloud band had disappeared. The southern band went missing in the 1990s and in 1973, when NASA took its first close-up pictures of the planet. The disappearing band may be the result of changes in the color of the clouds that make it up. This theory says the band is obscured when whitish clouds form at its top, making it harder to see. ■