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Vote Now! The Top Space Stories of the Week - Nov. 13, 2011

Asteroids, Aliens & Ailing Mars Moon Probe

NASA/JPL-Caltech

This week saw a huge asteroid zip close by Earth, a Russian mission too a Martian moon get stranded in Earth orbit and the White House officially weigh in on the existence of alien life.
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White House Denies Any Contact with Alien Life

Discovery Channel/Darlow Smithson Productions Ltd.

Strike one more blow against UFO conspiracy theories. The U.S. government is not in contact with any extraterrestrials from other worlds, nor has any confirmed proof of alien life been found, White House officials said this past week.

"The U.S. government has no evidence that any life exists outside our planet, or that an extraterrestrial presence has contacted or engaged any member of the human race," Phil Larson of the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy wrote in a statement published Friday (Nov. 4). "In addition, there is no credible information to suggest that any evidence is being hidden from the public's eye." [Read More]

Huge Asteroid 2005 YU55 Zips by Earth

NASA/JPL-Caltech

An asteroid the size of a city block zoomed inside the moon's orbit today (Nov. 8) in a rare flyby that marked the closest approach to Earth by such a big space rock in 35 years.

The asteroid 2005 YU55 came within 201,700 miles (324,600 kilometers) of Earth at 6:28 p.m. EST (2328 GMT) Tuesday evening before speeding off into deep space once again at about 29,000 mph (46,700 kph).

The space rock is about 1,300 feet (400 meters) wide. An asteroid this large hasn't come so near to Earth since 1976 and won't again until 2028, researchers said. [Read More]

Scientist's View of Stranded Mars Moon Probe

Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos)

Russian engineers are scrambling to save the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft amid ever-bleaker signs the mission may be lost. The probe was launched uneventfully Nov. 8, but soon afterward its thruster failed to fire to send it on a course toward Mars, leaving the spacecraft stranded in Earth orbit.

Phobos-Grunt was designed for an ambitious mission to retrieve samples from Mars' moon Phobos, and return them to Earth, though it was also carrying a small payload from the Planetary Society, a nonprofit space advocacy group, to test the effects of microgravity on tiny organisms.

Here David Warmflash, the science lead for the U.S. team of the payload, called the Phobos Living Interplanetary Flight Experiment, shares his thoughts on how the mission might be saved and what it feels like to have a spacecraft on the edge. [Read More]

Dark Matter Search May Get Boost From New Galaxies

Gemini Observatory/AURA/Eric Bell

Astronomers have found two small galaxies that appear to circle our Milky Way's galactic neighbor Andromeda, and could shed new light on the mystery of dark matter in the universe, scientists say.

The newfound dwarf galaxies, called Andromeda 28 and 29, are two of the most distant satellites galaxies from Andromeda ever detected. They are located about 600,000 light-years away from Andromeda, and approximately 1.1 million light-years from Earth, researchers said. [Read More]

Mysterious Dark Energy Played No More Than Bit Part in Early Universe

S. Colombi (IAP), CFHT Team

Scientists trying to understand dark energy, one of the weirdest things in the universe, have made a step forward in determining how much of it could have existed shortly after the Big Bang.

Dark energy is the mysterious force scientists think is responsible for pulling space apart at the seams, causing the expansion of the universe to accelerate. No one knows what dark energy is, and it hasn't been detected directly.

In the new study, researchers used the South Pole Telescope in Antarctica to observe the cosmic microwave background, the pervasive light left over from the Big Bang that is believed to have kick-started the universe. This radiation holds a record of many properties of the early universe, allowing scientists to deduce the maximum amount of dark energy that could have been present at the time. [Read More]

How to Deflect a Killer Asteroid

Olivier Boisard

A huge asteroid's close approach to Earth on Nov. 8 reinforces that we live in a cosmic shooting gallery, and we can't just sit around waiting to get hit again, experts say.Asteroid 2005 YU55, which is the size of an aircraft carrier, will zip within the moon's orbit tomorrow, but it poses no danger of hitting us for the foreseeable future. Eventually, however, one of its big space rock cousins will barrel straight toward Earth, as asteroids have done millions of times throughout our planet's history.If we want to avoid going the way of the dinosaurs, which were wiped out by an asteroid strike 65 million years ago, we're going to have to deflect a killer space rock someday, researchers say. Fortunately, we know how to do it. [Read More]

Mystery of Moon's Lost Magnetism Solved?

M.-H. Deproost, ORB, Belgique

One of the abiding mysteries of our moon is why it apparently once had a magnetic field. Now two teams of scientists have offered two separate, but potentially complementary, explanations.

When Apollo astronauts brought back samples of moon rocks from their lunar landing missions in the 1960s and '70s, some of them shocked scientists by being magnetic. That means that individual rocks might have a magnetic north and south pole and a small magnetic field of their own.

This can happen to rocks with the right minerals inside them, if they cool in the presence of a magnetic field. The problem is, scientists had no idea that the moon had ever had a magnetic field, and were at a loss to explain how that might have happened. [Read More]

Long Space Missions Can Give Astronauts Blurry Vision

NASA

Sending astronauts on long space missions can affect how they see once they return to Earth, a new study reveals.

In the study, scientists studied the effects of long-duration missions on the eyesight of seven astronauts and found that some problems, including blurry vision, can continue long after the spaceflyers land back on Earth. The findings could affect how future long space voyages, such as to trips an asteroid or Mars, may be planned, researchers said. [Read More]

Mars Rover's Hovering Act Will Have NASA Scientists Biting Nails

NASA/JPL

Scientists are jittery but thrilled about the upcoming launch of NASA's Curiosity rover, the largest Mars rover yet.

The $2.5 billion Curiosity, also known as NASA's Mars Science Laboratory, is set to lift off Nov. 25 at 10:25 a.m. EST (1725 GMT), atop an Atlas 5 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. [Video of New Mars Rover's Landing]

The 1,980-pound (900-kilogram) vehicle has been under development for seven years. [Read More]

New Flavors of Super-Dense Stars Found

Christian Knigge

Researchers might have detected different breeds of dense stars called neutron stars, each created by different kinds of exploding stars.

Neutron stars are stellar corpses left over from supernovas, huge star explosions that crush protons together with electrons to form neutrons. This neutron star matter is the densest known material, with a sugar cube-size piece weighing as much as a mountain at about 100 million tons. The mass of a single neutron star exceeds that of the entire sun, but squeezed into a ball smaller in diameter than the city of London.

Two kinds of supernovas are thought to produce the overwhelming majority of neutron stars in the universe. One type is the iron-core-collapse supernova, which forms when a massive star becomes too laden down with iron to sustain its nuclear fires. Without this energy pushing matter outward, the star's core quickly collapses on itself. The other type is the electron-capture supernova, where atomic nuclei in a star's core glom onto electrons and become heavier and slower, thus decreasing outward pressure and leading to rapid collapse. In both cases, matter rushing inward violently rebounds off the core, leading to a supernova explosion that can briefly outshine entire galaxies. [Read More]

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