2011 Articles:

(Dateline: December 2011) Dawn Takes a Closer Look

(Dateline: November 2011) Re-thinking an Alien World: The Strange Case of 55 Cancri e

(Dateline: October 2011) The Gray Cubicle You Want to Work In

(Dateline: September 2011) Dark Clues to the Universe

(Dateline: August 2011) Solar System Size Surprise

(Dateline: July 2011) New GOES-R to Give More Tornado Warning Time

(Dateline: June 2011) Finding Planets Among The Stars

(Dateline: May 2011) Milky Way Safari

(Dateline: April 2011) Cosmic Recount

(Dateline: March 2011) GOES-R, Zombie Fighter

(Dateline: February 2011) Thank Goodness the Sun is Single

(Dateline: January 2011) Planets in Strange Places

Dawn Takes a Closer Look

by Dr. Marc Rayman

Dawn is the first space mission with an itinerary that includes orbiting two separate solar system destinations. It is also the only spacecraft ever to orbit an object in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. The spacecraft accomplishes this feat using ion propulsion, a technology first proven in space on the highly successful Deep Space 1 mission, part of NASA’s New Millennium program.

Launched in September 2007, Dawn arrived at protoplanet Vesta in July 2011. It will orbit and study Vesta until July 2012, when it will leave orbit for dwarf planet Ceres, also in the asteroid belt.

Dawn can maneuver to the orbit best suited for conducting each of its scientific observations. After months mapping this alien world from higher altitudes, Dawn spiraled closer to Vesta to attain a low altitude orbit, the better to study Vesta’s composition and map its complicated gravity field.

Changing and refining Dawn’s orbit of this massive, irregular, heterogeneous body is one of the most complicated parts of the mission. In addition, to meet all the scientific objectives, the orientation of this orbit needs to change.

These differing orientations are a crucial element of the strategy for gathering the most scientifically valuable data on Vesta. It generally requires a great deal of maneuvering to change the plane of a spacecraft’s orbit. The ion propulsion system allows the probe to fly from one orbit to another without the penalty of carrying a massive supply of propellant. Indeed, one of the reasons that traveling from Earth to Vesta (and later Ceres) requires ion propulsion is the challenge of tilting the orbit around the sun.

Although the ion propulsion system accomplishes the majority of the orbit change, Dawn’s navigators are enlisting Vesta itself. Some of the ion thrusting was designed in part to put the spacecraft in certain locations from which Vesta would twist its orbit toward the target angle for the low-altitude orbit. As Dawn rotates and the world underneath it revolves, the spacecraft feels a changing pull. There is always a tug downward, but because of Vesta’s heterogeneous interior structure, sometimes there is also a slight force to one side or another. With their knowledge of the gravity field, the mission team plotted a course that took advantage of these variations to get a free ride.

The flight plan is a complex affair of carefully timed thrusting and coasting. Very far from home, the spacecraft is making excellent progress in its expedition at a fascinating world that, until a few months ago, had never seen a probe from Earth.

Keep up with Dawn’s progress by following the Chief Engineer’s (yours truly’s) journal at http://dawn.jpl.nasa.gov/mission/journal.asp. And check out the illustrated story in verse of “Professor Starr’s Dream Trip: Or, how a little technology goes a long way,” at http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/story-prof-starr.

This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Caption: This full view of the giant asteroid Vesta was taken by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, as part of a rotation characterization sequence on July 24, 2011, at a distance of 5,200 kilometers (3,200 miles). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

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Re-thinking an Alien World: The Strange Case of 55 Cancri e

Forty light years from Earth, a rocky world named “55 Cancri e” circles perilously close to a stellar inferno. Completing one orbit in only 18 hours, the alien planet is 26 times closer to its parent star than Mercury is to the Sun. If Earth were in the same position, the soil beneath our feet would heat up to about 3200 F. Researchers have long thought that 55 Cancri e must be a wasteland of parched rock.

Now they’re thinking again. New observations by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope suggest that 55 Cancri e may be wetter and weirder than anyone imagined.

Spitzer recently measured the extraordinarily small amount of light 55 Cancri e blocks when it crosses in front of its star. These transits occur every 18 hours, giving researchers repeated opportunities to gather the data they need to estimate the width, volume and density of the planet.

According to the new observations, 55 Cancri e has a mass 7.8 times and a radius just over twice that of Earth. Those properties place 55 Cancri e in the “super-Earth” class of exoplanets, a few dozen of which have been found. Only a handful of known super-Earths, however, cross the face of their stars as viewed from our vantage point in the cosmos, so 55 Cancri e is better understood than most.

When 55 Cancri e was discovered in 2004, initial estimates of its size and mass were consistent with a dense planet of solid rock. Spitzer data suggest otherwise: About a fifth of the planet’s mass must be made of light elements and compounds—including water. Given the intense heat and high pressure these materials likely experience, researchers think the compounds likely exist in a “supercritical” fluid state.

A supercritical fluid is a high-pressure, high-temperature state of matter best described as a liquid-like gas, and a marvelous solvent. Water becomes supercritical in some steam turbines—and it tends to dissolve the tips of the turbine blades. Supercritical carbon dioxide is used to remove caffeine from coffee beans, and sometimes to dry-clean clothes. Liquid-fueled rocket propellant is also supercritical when it emerges from the tail of a spaceship.

On 55 Cancri e, this stuff may be literally oozing — or is it steaming? — out of the rocks.

With supercritical solvents rising from the planet’s surface, a star of terrifying proportions filling much of the daytime sky, and whole years rushing past in a matter of hours, 55 Cancri e teaches a valuable lesson: Just because a planet is similar in size to Earth does not mean the planet is like Earth.

It’s something to re-think about.

Get a kid thinking about extrasolar planets by pointing him or her to “Lucy’s Planet Hunt,” a story in rhyme about a girl who wanted nothing more than to look for Earth-like planets when she grew up. Go to http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/story-lucy.

The original research reported in this story has been accepted for publication in Astronomy and Astrophysics. The lead author is Brice-Olivier Demory, a post-doctoral associate in Professor Sara Seager’s group at MIT.

This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Caption: Artist’s rendering compares the size Earth with the rocky “super-Earth” 55 Cancri e. Its year is only about 18 hours long!

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The Gray Cubicle You Want to Work In

by Dr. Tony Phillips

It's another day at the office.

You're sitting in a gray cubicle, tap-tap-taping away on your keyboard, when suddenly your neighbor lets out a whoop of delight. Over the top of the carpeted divider you see a star exploding on the computer screen. An unauthorized video game? No, this explosion is real. A massive star just went supernova in the Whirlpool Galaxy, and the first images from Hubble are popping up on your office-mate’s screen.

It's another day at the office ... at NASA.

Just down the hall, another office-mate is analyzing global temperature trends. On the floor below, a team of engineers gathers to decode signals from a spaceship that entered “safe mode” when it was hit by a solar flare. And three floors above, a financial analyst snaps her pencil-tip as she tries to figure out how to afford just one more sensor for a new robotic spacecraft.

These are just a few of the things going on every day at NASA headquarters in Washington DC and more than a dozen other NASA centers scattered around the country. The variety of NASA research and, moreover, the variety of NASA people required to carry it out often comes as a surprise. Consider the following:

NASA's Science Mission Directorate (SMD) supports research in four main areas: Earth Science, Heliophysics, Astrophysics, and Planetary Science. Read that list one more time. It includes everything in the cosmos from the ground beneath our feet to the Sun in the sky to the most distant galaxies at the edge of the Universe. Walking among the cubicles in NASA’s science offices, you are likely to meet people working on climate change, extraterrestrial life, Earth-threatening asteroids, black holes or a hundred other things guaranteed to give a curious-minded person goose bumps. Truly, no other government agency has a bigger job description.

And it’s not just scientists doing the work. NASA needs engineers to design its observatories and build its spacecraft, mathematicians to analyze orbits and decipher signals, and financial wizards to manage the accounts and figure out how to pay for everything NASA dreamers want to do. Even writers and artists have a place in the NASA scheme of things. Someone has to explain it all to the general public.

Clearly, some cubicles are more interesting than others. For more information about the Science Mission Directorate, visit http://science.nasa.gov.

And for another way to reach the Space Place, go to http://science.nasa.gov/kids.

This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Caption: Some of the employees of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate may work in gray cubicles, but their jobs are anything but dull. They get to study Earth, the Sun, the Solar System, and the Universe!

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Dark Clues to the Universe

By Dr. Marc Rayman

Urban astronomers are always wishing for darker skies. But that complaint is due to light from Earth. What about the light coming from the night sky itself? When you think about it, why is the sky dark at all?

Of course, space appears dark at night because that is when our side of Earth faces away from the Sun. But what about all those other suns? Our own Milky Way galaxy contains over 200 billion stars, and the entire universe probably contains over 100 billion galaxies. You might suppose that that many stars would light up the night like daytime!

Until the 20th century, astronomers didn't think it was even possible to count all the stars in the universe. They thought the universe was infinite and unchanging.

Besides being very hard to imagine, the trouble with an infinite universe is that no matter where you look in the night sky, you should see a star. Stars should overlap each other in the sky like tree trunks in the middle of a very thick forest. But, if this were the case, the sky would be blazing with light. This problem greatly troubled astronomers and became known as “Olbers’ Paradox” after the 19th century astronomer Heinrich Olbers who wrote about it, although he was not the first to raise this astronomical mystery.

To try to explain the paradox, some 19th century scientists thought that dust clouds between the stars must be absorbing a lot of the starlight so it wouldn’t shine through to us. But later scientists realized that the dust itself would absorb so much energy from the starlight that eventually it would glow as hot and bright as the stars themselves.

Astronomers now realize that the universe is not infinite. A finite universe—that is, a universe of limited size—even one with trillions of stars, just wouldn't have enough stars to light up all of space.

Although the idea of a finite universe explains why Earth's sky is dark at night, other factors work to make it even darker.

The universe is expanding. As a result, the light that leaves a distant galaxy today will have much farther to travel to our eyes than the light that left it a million years ago or even one year ago. That means the amount of light energy reaching us from distant stars dwindles all the time. And the farther away the star, the less bright it will look to us.

Also, because space is expanding, the wavelengths of the light passing through it are expanding. Thus, the farther the light has traveled, the more red-shifted (and lower in energy) it becomes, perhaps red-shifting right out of the visible range. So, even darker skies prevail.

The universe, both finite in size and finite in age, is full of wonderful sights. See some bright, beautiful images of faraway galaxies against the blackness of space at the Space Place image galleries. Visit http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/search/?q=gallery.

This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Caption: This Hubble Space Telescope image of Galaxy NGC 4414 was used to help calculate the expansion rate of the universe. The galaxy is about 60 million light-years away. Credit: NASA and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

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Solar System Size Surprise

by Dr. Tony Phillips

News flash: You may be closer to interstellar space than you previously thought.

A team of researchers led by Tom Krimigis of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory announced the finding in the June 2011 issue of Nature. The complicated title of their article, “Zero outward flow velocity for plasma in a heliosheath transition layer,” belies a simple conclusion: The solar system appears to be a billion or more kilometers smaller than earlier estimates. The recalculation is prompted by data from NASA’s Voyager 1 probe, now 18 billion kilometers from Earth. Voyagers 1 and 2 were designed and built and are managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Aging but active, the spacecraft have been traveling toward the stars since 1977 on a heroic mission to leave the solar system and find out what lies beyond.

To accomplish their task, the Voyagers must penetrate the outer walls of the heliosphere, a great bubble of plasma and magnetism blown in space by the solar wind. The heliosphere is so big, it contains all the planets, comets, and asteroids that orbit the sun. Indeed many astronomers hold that the heliosphere defines the boundaries of the solar system. Inside it is “home.” Outside lies the Milky Way. For 30+ years, the spacecraft have been hurtling toward the transition zone. Voyager 1 is closing in. Much of Voyager 1’s long journey has been uneventful. Last year, however, things began to change. In June 2010, Voyager 1 beamed back a startling number: zero. That’s the outward velocity of the solar wind where the probe is now.

“This is the first sign that the frontier is upon us,” says Krimigis.

Previously, researchers thought the crossing was still years and billions of kilometers away, but a new analysis gave them second thoughts. Krimigis and colleagues combined Voyager data with previously unpublished measurements from the Cassini spacecraft. Cassini, on a mission to study Saturn, is nowhere near the edge of the solar system, but one of its instruments can detect atoms streaming into our solar system from the outside. Comparing data from the two locations, the team concluded that the edge of the heliosphere lies somewhere between16 to 23 billion kilometers from the sun, with a best estimate of approximately 18 billion kilometers.

Because Voyager 1 is already nearly 18 billion kilometers out, it could cross into interstellar space at any time—maybe even as you are reading this article. “How close are we?” wonders Ed Stone, Caltech professor and principal investigator of the Voyager project since the beginning. “We don't know, but Voyager 1 speeds outward a billion miles every three years, so we may not have long to wait.”

Stay tuned for he crossing.

For more about the missions of Voyager 1 and 2, see http://voyager.jpl.nasa.gov/. Another Voyager project scientist, Merav Opher, is the guest on the newest Space Place Live cartoon interview show for kids at http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/space-place-live.

This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Caption: This artist's concept shows NASA's two Voyager spacecraft exploring a turbulent region of space known as the heliosheath, the outer shell of the bubble of charged particles around our sun. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

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New GOES-R to Give More Tornado Warning Time

by Dauna Coulter and Dr. Tony Phillips

So far this spring, more than 1,400 tornadoes have struck the U.S. Some of them have cut jaw-dropping trails of destruction across the countryside and, tragically, across inhabited communities, too. Hundreds of lives have been lost in the onslaught.

Throughout the season, the National Weather Service has routinely issued tornado alerts. In the case of the Alabama tornadoes of April 27th, forecasters warned of severe weather five full days before the twisters struck. Because they couldn’t say precisely where the twisters would strike, however, many of their warnings went unheeded.

“If people get a hurricane warning, they often evacuate the area,” notes NOAA's Steve Goodman. “But we react differently to tornado warnings.”

Perhaps it’s because tornadoes are smaller than hurricanes, and the odds of a direct hit seem so remote. Recent pictures from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and Joplin, Missouri, however, show the perils of playing those odds. Goodman believes that more precise warnings could save lives.

To fine-tune tornado warnings, NOAA will soon launch the first in a series of next-generation weather satellites – GOES-R (Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites-R series). The spacecraft is brimming with advanced sensors for measuring key ingredients of severe weather including winds, cloud growth, and lightning.

“GOES-R will be the first geostationary spacecraft to carry a lightning sensor,” says Goodman, the GOES-R Program Senior Scientist. “Studies show that sudden changes in the total lightning activity correlate with storm intensity—and with tornadoes.”

The lightning mapper will detect and map not only cloud-to-ground lightning, but also bolts within and between clouds. The kind of cloud-to-ground lightning we see from our front yards accounts for only 15-20 percent of total lightning. To get a clear idea of a storm's intensity, meteorologists need to know about all the lightning—a view GOES-R can provide.

All by itself, the lightning mapper will provide 7 minutes more lead time in tornado warnings, according to Goodman. GOES-R’s state-of-the-art instruments will also improve long-range forecasts.

“The satellite's Advanced Baseline Imager (ABI), for instance, will provide a much clearer picture of clouds,” says NOAA research meteorologist Tim Schmit. Compared to lesser instruments already in orbit, ABI can better detect super-cold “overshooting tops,” evidence of enormous energy and upward velocity that correlate with subsequent severe weather.

“Accurate advanced notice of high-risk tornadic conditions can cue officials to close schools and businesses even before tornadoes are actually detected,” says Schmit.

Forecasters doubt tornadoes can ever be predicted with 100% accuracy. The twisters are just too capricious. GOES-R, however, is a step in the right direction.

Find out more about GOES-R’s unprecedented capabilities at http://www.goes-r.gov.

Young people can learn more about tornadoes and all kinds of other weather at http://scijinks.gov.

This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Caption: This GOES image shows the storms that spurred the intense April 27 tornado outbreak in the southern U.S.

Animation showing the development of weather can be seen at http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/NaturalHazards/view.php?id=50347.

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Finding Planets Among The Stars

by Dr. Tony Phillips

Strange but true: When it comes to finding new extra-solar planets, or exoplanets, stars can be an incredible nuisance.

It’s a matter of luminosity. Stars are bright, but their planets are not. Indeed, when an astronomer peers across light years to find a distant Earth-like world, what he often finds instead is an annoying glare. The light of the star itself makes the star's dim planetary system nearly impossible to see.

Talk about frustration! How would you like to be an astronomer who's constantly vexed by stars?

Fortunately, there may be a solution. It comes from NASA's Galaxy Evolution Explorer, an ultraviolet space telescope orbiting Earth since 2003. In a new study, researchers say the Galaxy Evolution Explorer is able to pinpoint dim stars that might not badly outshine their own planets.

“We've discovered a new technique of using ultraviolet light to search for young, low-mass stars near the Earth,” said David Rodriguez, a graduate student of astronomy at UCLA, and the study's lead author. “These M-class stars, also known as red dwarfs, make excellent targets for future direct imaging of exoplanets.”

Young red dwarfs produce a telltale glow in the ultraviolet part of the electromagnetic spectrum that Galaxy Evolution Explorer can sense. Because dwarf stars are so numerous—as a class, they account for more than two-thirds of the stars in the galaxy—astronomers could reap a rich bounty of targets.

In many ways, these stars represent a best-case scenario for planet hunting. They are close and in clear lines-of-sight, which generally makes viewing easier. Their low mass means they are dimmer than heavier stars, so their light is less likely to mask the feeble light of a planet. And because they are young, their planets are freshly formed, and thus warmer and brighter than older planetary bodies.

Astronomers know of more than five hundred distant planets, but very few have actually been seen. Many exoplanets are detected indirectly by means of their “wobbles”—the gravitational tugs they exert on their central stars. Some are found when they transit the parent star, momentarily dimming the glare, but not dimming it enough to reveal the planet itself.

The new Galaxy Evolution Explorer technique might eventually lead to planets that can be seen directly. That would be good because, as Rodriguez points out, “seeing is believing.”

And it just might make astronomers feel a little better about the stars.

The Galaxy Evolution Explorer Web site at http://www.galex.caltech.edu describes many of the other discoveries and accomplishments of this mission.

And for kids, how do astronomers know how far away a star or galaxy is? Play “How Old do I Look” on The Space Place at http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/whats-older and find out!

This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Caption: Exoplanets are easier to see directly when their star is a dim, red dwarf.

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Milky Way Safari

by Dauna Coulter and Dr. Tony Phillips

Safari, anyone? Citizen scientists are invited to join a hunt through the galaxy. As a volunteer for Zooniverse's Milky Way Project, you'll track down exotic creatures like mysterious gas bubbles, twisted green knots of dust and gas, and the notorious “red fuzzies.”

“The project began about four months ago,” says astrophysicist Robert Simpson of Oxford University. “Already, more than 18,000 people are scouting the Milky Way for these quarry.”

The volunteers have been scrutinizing infrared images of the Milky Way's inner regions gathered by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope. Spitzer's high resolution in infrared helps it pierce the cloaking haze of interstellar gas and dust, revealing strange and beautiful structures invisible to conventional telescopes. The Milky Way Project is helping astronomers catalogue these intriguing features, map our galaxy, and plan future research.

“Participants use drawing tools to flag the objects,” explains Simpson. “So far they've made over a million drawings and classified over 300,000 images.”

Scientists are especially interested in bubble-like objects believed to represent areas of active star formation. “Every bubble signifies hundreds to thousands of young, hot stars. Our volunteers have circled almost 300,000 bubble candidates, and counting,” he says.

Humans are better at this than computers. Computer searches turn up only the objects precisely defined in a program, missing the ones that don't fit a specified mold. A computer would, for example, overlook partial bubbles and those that are skewed into unusual shapes.

“People are more flexible. They tend to pick out patterns computers don't pick up and find things that just look interesting. They're less precise, but very complementary to computer searches, making it less likely we'll miss structures that deserve a closer look. And just the sheer numbers of eyes on the prize mean more comprehensive coverage.”

Along the way the project scientists distill the volunteers' data to eliminate repetitive finds (such as different people spotting the same bubbles) and other distortions.

The project's main site (http://www.milkywayproject.org) includes links to a blog and a site called Milky Way Talk. Here “hunters” can post comments, chat about images they've found, tag the ones they consider especially intriguing, vote for their favorite images (see the winners at http://talk.milkywayproject.org/collections/CMWS00002u), and more.

Zooniverse invites public participation in science missions both to garner interest in science and to help scientists achieve their goals. More than 400,000 volunteers are involved in their projects at the moment. If you want to help with the Milky Way Project, visit the site, take the tutorial, and … happy hunting!

You can get a preview some of the bubbles at Spitzer’s own web site, http://www.spitzer.caltech.edu/.

Kids will enjoy looking for bubbles in space pictures while playing the Spitzer concentration game at http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/spitzer-concentration/.

This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Caption: Volunteers study infrared images of our galaxy from the Spitzer Space Telescope, identifying interesting features using the special tools of the Milky Way Project, part of the Citizen Science Alliance Zooniverse web site.

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Cosmic Recount

by Dr. Tony Phillips

News flash: The Census Bureau has found a way to save time and money. Just count the biggest people. For every NBA star like Shaquille O’Neal or Yao Ming, there are about a million ordinary citizens far below the rim. So count the Shaqs, multiply by a million, and the census is done.

Could the Bureau really get away with a scheme like that? Not likely. Yet this is just what astronomers have been doing for decades.

Astronomers are census-takers, too. They often have to estimate the number and type of stars in a distant galaxy. The problem is, when you look into the distant reaches of the cosmos, the only stars you can see are the biggest and brightest. There’s no alternative. To figure out the total population, you count the supermassive Shaqs and multiply by some correction factor to estimate the number of little guys.

The correction factor astronomers use comes from a function called the “IMF”—short for “initial mass function.” The initial mass function tells us the relative number of stars of different masses. For example, for every 20-solar-mass giant born in an interstellar cloud, there ought to be about 100 ordinary sun-like stars. This kind of ratio allows astronomers to conduct a census of all stars even when they can see only the behemoths.

Now for the real news flash: The initial mass function astronomers have been using for years might be wrong.

NASA’s Galaxy Evolution Explorer, an ultraviolet space telescope dedicated to the study of galaxies, has found proof that small stars are more numerous than previously believed.

“Some of the standard assumptions that we've had—that the brightest stars tell you about the whole population—don’t seem to work, at least not in a constant way,” says Gerhardt R. Meurer who led the study as a research scientist at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Md. (Meurer is now at the University of Western Australia.)

Meurer says that the discrepancy could be as high as a factor of four. In other words, the total mass of small stars in some galaxies could be four times greater than astronomers thought. Take that, Shaq!

The study relied on data from Galaxy Evolution Explorer to sense UV radiation from the smaller stars in distant galaxies, and data from telescopes at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory to sense the “H-alpha” (red light) signature of larger stars. Results apply mainly to galaxies where stars are newly forming, cautions Meurer.

“I think this is one of the more important results to come out of the Galaxy Evolution Explorer mission,” he says. Indeed, astronomers might never count stars the same way again.

Find out about some of the other important discoveries of the Galaxy Evolution Explorer at http://www.galex.caltech.edu/.

For an easy-to-understand answer for kids to “How many solar systems are in our galaxy?” go to The Space Place at http://tiny.cc/I2KMa.

This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Caption: Astronomers have recently found that some galaxies have as many as 2000 small stars for every 1 massive star. They used to think all galaxies had only about 500 small stars for every 1 massive star.

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GOES-R, Zombie Fighter

by Dr. Tony Phillips

On April 5, 2010, something eerie happened to the Galaxy 15 telecommunications satellite: It turned into a zombie.

The day began as usual, with industry-owned Galaxy 15 relaying TV signals to millions of viewers in North America, when suddenly the geosynchronous satellite stopped taking commands from Earth. It was brain dead! Like any good zombie, however, its body continued to function. Within days, Galaxy 15 began to meander among other satellites in geosynchronous orbit, transmitting its own signal on top of the others’. Satellite operators scrambled to deal with the interference, all the while wondering what happened?

In horror movies, zombies are usually produced by viruses.

“In this case, the culprit was probably the sun,” says Bill Denig of the National Geophysical Data Center in Boulder, Colorado. He and colleague Janet Green of NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center recently led a study of the Galaxy 15 anomaly, and here are their conclusions:

On April 3rd, a relatively minor solar flare launched a cloud of plasma toward Earth. Galaxy 15 had experienced many such events before, but this time there was a difference.

“Galaxy 15 was just emerging from the shadow of Earth when the cloud arrived and triggered a geomagnetic storm,” explains Denig. Suddenly exposed to sunlight and the ongoing storm, “the spacecraft began to heat up and charge [up].”

Electrons swirling around Galaxy 15 stuck to and penetrated the spacecraft’s surface. As more and more charged particles accumulated, voltages began to rise, and—zap!—an electrostatic discharge occurred. A zombie was born.

“At least, this is what we suspect happened based on data collected by GOES satellites in the vicinity,” he says. “We’ll be able to diagnose events like this much better, however, after GOES-R is launched by NASA in 2015.”

GOES-R is NOAA’s next-generation Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite. One of the instruments it will carry, a low-energy electron counter, is crucial to “zombie fighting.” Low energy-electrons are the ones most likely to stick to a spacecraft’s surface and cause brain-frying discharges. By monitoring these particles in Earth orbit, GOES-R will provide better post-mortems for future zombie outbreaks. This could help satellite designers figure out how to build spacecraft less susceptible to discharges. Also, GOES-R will be able to issue alerts when dangerous electrons appear. Satellite operators could then take protective action—for example, putting their birds in “safe mode”—to keep the zombie population at bay.

Meanwhile, Galaxy 15 is a zombie no more. In late December 2010, after 9 months of terrorizing nearby spacecraft, the comsat was re-booted, and began responding to commands from Earth again.

All’s well that ends well? True zombie fighters know better than to relax. Says Denig, “We’re looking forward to GOES-R.”

You and the kids in your life can learn about space weather at http://scijinks.gov/space-weather-and-us.

This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.


Caption: The Galaxy 15 communication satellite was “brainless” for several months in 2010 after being exposed to a geomagnetic storm. The new GOES-R satellite will warn of such dangers.

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Thank Goodness the Sun is Single

by Trudy E. Bell

It’s a good thing the Sun is single. According to new research, Sun-like stars in close double-star systems “can be okay for a few billion years—but then they go bad,” says Jeremy Drake of the Harvard-Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Mass.

How bad? According to data from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, close binary stars can destroy their planets along with any life. Drake and four colleagues reported the results in the September 10, 2010, issue of The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Our Sun, about 864,000 miles across, rotates on its axis once in 24.5 days. “Three billion years ago, roughly when bacteria evolved on Earth, the Sun rotated in only 5 days,” explains Drake. Its rotation rate has been gradually slowing because the solar wind gets tangled up in the solar magnetic field, and acts as a brake.

But some sun-like stars occur in close pairs only a few million miles apart. That’s only about five times the diameter of each star—so close the stars are gravitationally distorted. They are actually elongated toward each other. They also interact tidally, keeping just one face toward the other, as the Moon does toward Earth.

Such a close binary is “a built-in time bomb,” Drake declares. The continuous loss of mass from the two stars via solar wind carries away some of the double-star system’s angular momentum, causing the two stars to spiral inward toward each other, orbiting faster and faster as the distance shrinks. When each star’s rotation period on its axis is the same as its orbital period around the other, the pair effectively rotates as a single body in just 3 or 4 days.

Then, watch out! Such fast spinning intensifies the magnetic dynamo inside each star. The stars “generate bigger, stronger ‘star spots’ 5 to 10 percent the size of the star—so big they can be detected from Earth,” Drake says. “The stars also interact magnetically very violently, shooting out monster flares.”

Worst of all, the decreasing distance between the two stars “changes the gravitational resonances of the planetary system,” Drake continued, destabilizing the orbits of any planets circling the pair. Planets may so strongly perturbed they are sent into collision paths. As they repeatedly slam into each other, they shatter into red-hot asteroid-sized bodies, killing any life. In as short as a century, the repeated collisions pulverize the planets into a ring of warm dust.

The infrared glow from this pulverized debris is what Spitzer has seen in some self-destructing star systems. Drake and his colleagues now want to examine a much bigger sample of binaries to see just how bad double star systems really are.

They’re already sure of one thing: “We’re glad the Sun is single!”

Read more about these findings at the NASA Spitzer site at http://www.spitzer.caltech.edu/news/1182-ssc2010-07-Pulverized-Planet-Dust-May-Lie-Around-Double-Stars.

For kids, the Spitzer Concentration game shows a big collection of memorable (if you’re good at the game) images from the Spitzer Space Telescope. Visit http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/en/kids/spitzer/concentration.

This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Caption: Planetary collisions such as shown in this artist’s rendering could be quite common in binary star systems where the stars are very close.

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Planets in Strange Places

by Trudy E. Bell

Red star, blue star, big star, small star — planets may form around virtually any type or size of star throughout the universe, not just around mid-sized middle-aged yellow stars like the Sun. That’s the surprising implication of two discoveries in 2006 from the 0.85-meter-diameter Spitzer Space Telescope, which is exploring the universe from orbit at infrared (heat) wavelengths blocked by the Earth’s atmosphere.

At one extreme are two blazing, blue “hypergiant” stars 180,000 light-years away in the Large Magellanic Cloud, one of the two companion galaxies to our Milky Way. The stars, called R 66 and R 126, are respectively 30 and 70 times the mass of the Sun, “about as massive as stars can get,” said Joel Kastner, professor of imaging science at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. R 126 is so luminous that if it were placed 10 parsecs (32.6 light-years) away — a distance at which the Sun would be one of the dimmest stars visible in the sky — the hypergiant would be as bright as the full moon, “definitely a daytime object,” Kastner remarked.

Such hot stars have fierce solar winds, so Kastner and his team are mystified why any dust in the neighborhood hasn’t long since been blown away. But there it is: an unmistakable spectral signature that both hypergiants are surrounded by mammoth disks of what might be planet-forming dust and even sand.

At the other extreme is a tiny brown dwarf star called Cha 110913-773444, relatively nearby (500 light-years) in the Milky Way. One of the smallest brown dwarfs known, it has less than 1 percent the mass of the Sun. It’s not even massive enough to kindle thermonuclear reactions for fusing hydrogen into helium. Yet this miniature “failed star,” as brown dwarfs are often called, is also surrounded by a flat disk of dust that may eventually clump into planets. (This brown dwarf discovery was made by a group led by Kevin Luhman of Pennsylvania State University.)

Although actual planets have not been detected (in part because of the stars’ great distances), the spectra of the hypergiants show that their dust is composed of forsterite, olivine, aromatic hydrocarbons, and other geological substances found on Earth.

These newfound disks represent “extremes of the environments in which planets might form,” Kastner said. “Not what you’d expect if you think our solar system is the rule.”

Hypergiants and dwarfs? The Milky Way could be crowded with worlds circling every kind of star imaginable — very strange, indeed.

Keep up with the latest findings from the Spitzer at www.spitzer.caltech.edu. Kids and their grownup friends can enjoy beautiful images from Spitzer while playing Spitzer Concentration at The Space Place at http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/en/kids/spitzer/concentration.

This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Caption: Artist’s rendering compares size of a hypothetical hypergiant star and its surrounding dusty disk to that of our solar system.

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