December 22, 2011

Pluto's Blushing Complexion Riddle Solved (Source: The Register)
Boffins using the new Cosmic Origins Spectrograph (COS) on the Hubble telescope have figured out what makes Pluto the color it is. The Southwest Research Institute's eggheads discovered a strong ultraviolet-wavelength absorber on the dwarf planet's surface, which suggests that there are complex hydrocarbon and nitrile molecules strewn on the ground. The molecules could be produced by sunlight or cosmic rays interacting with the ices on Pluto, which are made of methane, carbon monoxide and nitrogen.

"This is an exciting finding because complex Plutonian hydrocarbons and other molecules that could be responsible for the ultraviolet spectral features we found with Hubble may, among other things, be responsible for giving Pluto its ruddy colour," project leader Alan Stern said. "The discovery reminds us that even more exciting discoveries about Pluto's composition and surface evolution are likely to be in store when NASA's New Horizons spacecraft arrives at Pluto in 2015," he added. (12/22)

Arianespace, CNES Award Nearly $1 Billion in Spaceport Contracts (Source: Space News)
Europe’s Arianespace launch services consortium and the French space agency, CNES, concluded new five-year contracts totaling 700 million euros ($940 million) with the major companies performing operations and maintenance work at the Guiana Space Center spaceport in French Guiana. Arianespace and CNES both said the contracts’ overall cost will permit them to realize substantial synergies as they spread many of the fixed costs of the launch base over three vehicles starting in 2012. (12/22)

NMSU Class Works Spaceport America Landscaping Challenge (Source: Las Cruces Sun-News)
Laurie Abbott's rangeland restoration ecology class at New Mexico State University had been asked to put her class to work solving a special problem for Spaceport America that she said actually falls somewhere between traditional rangeland restoration and desert landscaping. Abbott was working with Chad Rabon, the general operations manager of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority and an NMSU alumnus with a bachelor's in agricultural economics and agricultural business.

When he realized the project needed help making things grow around the spaceport's Terminal Hangar Facility, he naturally looked to his alma mater for assistance. In contrast to the terminal's wall of glass that faces east toward the runway, the northwest and southwest sides of the building have sloping earthen berms integrated into the overall design. From the west, the structure is designed to blend in with the terrain, so the slopes need to be covered with native vegetation. (12/22)

Eighth WGS Communications Satellite Ordered by Military (Source:
As anticipated, the U.S. Air Force has followed through with plans to purchase an eighth military communications satellite for its Wideband Global SATCOM program from Boeing. Three of the spacecraft have successfully been deployed into operations 22,300 miles above Earth in geosynchronous orbit and a fourth is being readied at Cape Canaveral for blastoff atop a United Launch Alliance Delta 4 rocket on Jan. 19.

Production of the latest satellite in the series is valued at $354 million in total, including long-lead parts that were ordered for $58 million in August and now the $296 million authorization to proceed with full construction, launch and on-orbit activation. (12/22)

Planet Skeletons Orbit Dead Star (Source: Astronomy Now)
A tightly orbiting pair of smaller than Earth-sized planets has been discovered orbiting a star that has already passed through its red giant phase, providing insight into what might become of our own Solar System. The planets, detected by NASA’s Kepler spacecraft, orbit the star at less than one percent of the Earth-Sun system, a distance that sees them reach temperatures of over 8,000 degrees Celsius.

Had they begun their doomed lives at this distance, they would not have survived the red giant phase of their sun’s evolution, suggesting an alternative pathway for how they came to be residing around a hot subdwarf star of just 18 million years in age. One explanation is that they formed some considerable distance away from the star, and as it swelled into a red giant they were dragged into its inflated atmosphere. Such an event would have ripped the atmospheres from the planets, exposing a bare iron-rock core, as well as accelerated the demise of the star itself. (12/22)

Astronomers Discover Rare Galaxy at Dawn of Time (Source: UC Riverside)
Astronomers, including the University of California, Riverside’s Bahram Mobasher and his graduate student Hooshang Nayyeri, have discovered that one of the most distant galaxies known is churning out stars at a shockingly high rate. The researchers made the discovery using NASA's Spitzer and Hubble space telescopes. The blob-shaped galaxy, called GN-108036, is the brightest galaxy found to date at such great distances.

The galaxy, which was discovered and confirmed using ground-based telescopes, is 12.9 billion light-years away. Data from Spitzer and Hubble were used to measure the galaxy's high star production rate, equivalent to about 100 suns per year. For reference, our Milky Way galaxy is about five times larger and 100 times more massive than GN-108036, but makes roughly 30 times fewer stars per year. (12/22)

Why We Have to Leave Our Cradle ... and Get to Mars (Source: MSNBC)
Mars has teased the imagination since early astronomers discovered that it doesn’t flicker. It glows red as it moves forward and backward in odd, yet predictable, patterns. It was noted in the records of Babylonian, Chinese and Mayan stargazers, and it has figured prominently in ancient mythology. Galileo developed the science of astronomy with his invention of the telescope, and as knowledge of our planetary neighbor grew, Mars appeared to bear a strange kinship to Earth.

Astronomers determined that it had close to a 24-hour day and the appearance of an atmosphere, and some even speculated that it harbored intelligent life. As telescopes improved, observers learned that Mars had two moons, a polar cap and a curious array of surface features — the notorious canali, described by Italy's Giovanni Schiaparelli in 1877. Click here. (12/22)

A Year of Outer-Space Farewells (Source: MSNBC)
During 2011, NASA said goodbye to the Spirit Mars rover and the space shuttle program — but there's hope that during 2012, new players will strut their stuff on the space effort's huge stage, stretching from Cape Canaveral to the Red Planet. This is my 15th annual "Year in Space" roundup, and in all those years I can't think of a starker time of transition between the year that's past and the year to come.

The space shuttles are being readied for museums, and work hasn't yet started on the big rocket that NASA says it will need for the next era of human space exploration. The space agency's plans for commercializing operations in low Earth orbit could well be tied up in budgetary knots, and there are questions about how much farther its robotic Mars exploration program can go. Click here. (12/22)

2011 Recap: Space Setbacks and Best Launch Photos (Source:
The plain truth: Getting into space is hard. Rockets have been launching people, robots and satellites into space for more than 50 years. But major failures still occur, highlighting just how hard it is to escape the bonds of Earth on a rocketship bound for orbit. The year 2011 saw its share of launch and mission failures; thankfully, none of them involved astronauts. Click here for a recap of the biggest space disappointments of the year. And click here for a collection of the best launch photos of 2011. (12/22)

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