Astronotes: July 25 - August 7, 2004

August 6

TV Special Focuses on Extraterrestrial Life

Whether it's from the arid Atacama Desert of Chile, boiling springs of Yellowstone National Park, or astronomers scoping the skies for Earth-like worlds - there is a steady drumbeat of discovery underway in the search for extraterrestrial life.

On Sunday, Aug. 8 at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. Eastern Time (5 and 8 p.m. Pacific), "Is Anybody Out There? The Search for Life in the Universe" will air on CNN/US.

The CNN Presents broadcast takes a look at a trio of research findings that bolster the case for life beyond Earth: A once warm and wet Mars; an ever-growing catalog of distant worlds circling other stars; and uncovering biology in the most unlikely of places right here on home planet Earth.

"For those who are leading the hunt, these are dramatic developments that suggest the discovery of some form of life out in the universe could be just around the corner," explains Miles O'Brien, CNN's space correspondent and anchor of the show.

The program is scheduled to re-air on Saturday, August 14 at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. ET - not Extraterrestrial Time, but Eastern Time.

-- Leonard David

August 5

Disappearing Glaciers May Trigger Big Earthquakes

A new study of satellite data and other evidence suggests rapidly melting glaciers in Alaska could allow the land literally to lift, generating large earthquakes.

Many glaciers in southern Alaska have shrunk or disappeared over the past century. One of the dozen or so major plates that makes up Earth's crust dives under the Alaskan coast, creating the soaring mountains there. As the weight of ice diminishes, the plate can rise in sudden shifts that would set the Richter Scale rattling.

According to the study, a 7.2 temblor in 1979, called the St. Elias earthquake, was prompted by receding glaciers. That conclusion was based on how much ice had melted since the last major temblor in the region and the amount of instability that the reduced weight would have caused.

"In the future, in areas like Alaska where earthquakes occur and glaciers are changing, their relationship must be considered to better assess earthquake hazard, and our satellite assets are allowing us to do this by tracking the changes in extent and volume of the ice, and movement of the Earth," said Jeanne Sauber of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

The study appears in the July issue of the Journal of Global and Planetary Change.

  • The Melting Planet
  • Melting Glaciers Make Earth Fatter

August 4

Russia to Charge NASA for Trips to Space Station

MOSCOW --Russia will begin charging the United States for delivering astronauts and cargo to the international space station starting next year, the head of the Federal Space Agency said Wednesday.

Although Russia and the United States agreed to split the costs of sending men and material to the space station, only Russian spacecraft have been used since last year's space shuttle disaster; space officials say that by carrying the sole burden, Russia has fulfilled its end of the agreement.

"If the Americans want to fly Soyuz (spacecraft) in 2005, they will have to compensate us the costs," space agency head Anatoly Perminov said, according to the ITAR-Tass news agency.

NASA aims to resume shuttle flights next spring, but efforts to enhance their safety may cause delays.

The European Space Agency is also working on a cargo ship to supplement the U.S. and Russian vessels that fly to the space station.

August 3

Wanted: Women for Space Study

The European Space Agency (ESA) is on the lookout for 24 female volunteers for a long-duration bed-rest study.

ESA officials said the selected candidates would remain in bed, with their heads slightly tilted down at six degrees below horizontal, for a total of 60 days, to simulate the physiological effects of an extended period in weightlessness as experienced by astronauts.

Why so gender-specific?

Researchers point out that little is known about how the female body is affected by weightless conditions. A majority of previous ground-based studies have been carried out on male volunteers. Also, relatively few women have flown in space to date. The study will help advance knowledge of gender differences in the experience of extended exposure to weightlessness.

This research can have clinical significance here on Earth too. The study improves methods to assist recovery by bedridden patients, and provides countermeasures to conditions associated with reduced physical activity.

The study, slated for January/February 2005, is a joint venture between the European Space Agency (ESA), the French space agency (CNES), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).

Research will take place in the Space Clinic (MEDES) located at the Rangueil Hospital in Toulouse, France. Volunteers will live in the MEDES research facility for a total duration of 101 days.

Details about candidate requirements for ESA's Female Bed-Rest Study can be found at:

-- Leonard David

August 2

Satellite Sheds "ConFUSEing" Debris

NASA's Far Ultra-violet Spectroscopic Explorer (FUSE) has unexpectedly shed debris, large enough to be spotted and tracked by the U.S. Space Surveillance Network (SSN). Launched in June 1999, the spacecraft continues to perform well, recently celebrating its 5th year of space operations.

Early studies of what flew off FUSE last month suggest that the fragments might be pieces of multi-layer insulation that covers most of the spacecraft. The release of the debris appears coincident with the closure and re-opening of sensor doors on the satellite.

The debris departed company with FUSE at very low speeds. Tracking of the fleeting flotsam suggests that the debris could be insulation, although an investigation into the issue is continuing.

After long exposure to the space environment, spacecraft insulation can turn brittle. It then becomes susceptible to spacecraft movements that can dislodge the material.

FUSE was developed and is being operated for NASA by the Johns Hopkins University. Orbital Sciences Corporation was the primary spacecraft contractor. The spacecraft's mission is to observe much fainter and more distant stars in our Galaxy, as well as stars in nearby galaxies, the distant galaxies, and even distant quasars and so-called "active" galaxies.

The FUSE debris incident is reported in the July 2004 issue of NASA's Orbital Debris Quarterly News.

-- Leonard David

July 30

Zero-gravity Sports Contest

In space, not only will you hear screaming, but a referee's whistle too.

Welcome to the off-planet playoffs courtesy of Gene Meyers, chief executive officer of the Space Island Group of West Covina, California. The group is putting the final touches on a novel contest involving some 40,000 public and private U.S. high schools.

It will invite the students to develop the rules for a wide range of games that could be played in a future space stadium - a huge free-floating, gravity-free cylinder in Earth orbit.

"Kids will need to go back to their math and science teachers to find out how basketball or hockey could be played without gravity," Meyers reported at a recent Return to the Moon conference, held by the Space Frontier Foundation.

A targeted kick-off date for the contest is early October, with a mass-mailing of posters explaining how to enter the Internet-based competition for ideas. Meyers said that sponsors of the contest are being limited to sports clothing companies and manufacturers of non-carbonated, fruit drinks or bottled water.

"Teachers say that they've been trying for years to convert student enthusiasm in athletics into an interest in the math and science behind sports, but students have intuitively learned the physics by simply practicing the game. Removing gravity from the sport forces them back into the classroom," Meyers told

"A paragraph on the poster will outline our plan to place such an arena in orbit by 2010," Meyers added. For years, the Space Island Group has studied use of orbiting space shuttle external tanks to offer habitable volume for a range of activities.

"In fact, we've had companies ask about the naming rights of the actual stadium in orbit," Meyers said.

-- Leonard David

July 29

China's Moon Probe Project Maturing

Phase one of China's "Chang'e I" project is picking up speed. The effort was kicked off in March 2003 and is under the guidance of an "elite squad" of scientists and engineers, according to a July 27 report in the China's People's Daily Online.

Citing Ouyang Ziyuan, academician with the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) and chief scientist in the project, he said the development of the Moon probe will surely bring huge rewards.

Earlier this year, it was reported that about 1.4 billion yuan (roughly $170 million) is the phase one funding amount for the spacecraft. It would orbit the Moon by 2007.

Goals of the first phase of the Chang'e I project include:

  • Take three-dimensional images of the surface of the Moon.
  • Analyze the quantity of the useful elements and the distribution of the material types on the surface of the moon - mainly the quantity and distribution of the 14 elements of "exploitation and use value", such as titanium (Ti) and iron (Fe)
  • Measure the thickness of lunar soil and grasp the age of the surface of the Moon and estimate the quantity of helium 3 (He3).

July 28

Supernova Launched Microquasar on Space Trip

Astronomers say a supernova explosion blasted a microquasar on a whirlwind trip that carried it 130 light-years away from its star cluster home about 1.7 million years ago.

By backtracking the microquasar's 17-mile (23-kilometer) per second voyage through space, astronomers connected it to a parent star cluster some 7,500 light-years away from Earth in the constellation Cassiopeia. One light-year is the distance light travels in a year, about 6 trillion miles (9 trillion kilometers).

The find is the first time researchers have been able to pin down the origins of a fast-moving microquasar, researchers said.

Microquasars are miniature versions of their bigger, brighter quasar cousins usually found at the center of galaxies. Like their larger counterparts, microquasars emit X-rays and spew jets of subatomic particles, and are thought to be fed by a black hole or neutron star stripping material away from its stellar companion.

Astronomers connected their microquasar, LSI +61 303, to the star cluster by analyzing its component parts, a normal star about 14 times as massive as the Sun and an object that is either a black hole or dense neutron star weighing about two solar masses. The characteristics of the normal star, researchers said, matched those of the parent star cluster, known as IC 1805.

"Studying this system and hopefully others like it that may be found will help us to understand both the evolution of stars before they explode as supernovae and the physics of the supernova explosions themselves," said astrophysicist Felix Mirabel, of the Institute for Astronomy and Space Physics of Argentina and French Atomic Energy Commission.

The research will appear in the Aug. 1 issue of the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics.

-- Tariq Malik

July 27

Soyuz Tourist Trips to the Moon?

For those prospective space tourists among you, why stick around the Earth?

Constellation Services International (CSI) envisions Russian Soyuz spacecraft used for fly-me-to-the-Moon passenger service. The entrepreneurial firm unveiled their plan for the first time during a recent Return to the Moon conference, sponsored by the Space Frontier Foundation.

CSI "is in early discussions with potential partners to find out if there is interest in a commercial lunar flight in the 2008 time frame," said Charles Miller, President and CEO of the firm in Alexandria, Virginia.

The idea is to sell one of three Soyuz seats to a space tourist for an initial week-long stay at the International Space Station (ISS). The space sightseer and fellow crew members would then add to their travelogue by sojourning onward for a week-long lunar stint.

The Soyuz would require a kick-stage for the cis-lunar run. On the return leg, the craft would double-dip into the Earth's atmosphere, making use of a thicker-than-normal Soyuz thermal protection system en route to a parachute touchdown.

Miller noted that the former Soviet Union flew modified Soyuz craft - in the Zond series -- around the Moon and returned them to Earth over three decades ago. "It is obvious they can do it again. The Soyuz is more advanced and robust now than it was in 1968-1970," he told

"We might be able to do this without a dime of NASA money," Miller said.

-- Leonard David

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