Astronotes: September 5 - September 18, 2004

September 16

Large Piece of Columbia Found in Southeast Texas

LUFKIN, Texas (AP) -- A large piece of space shuttle Columbia debris was found recently in southeast Texas, a NASA official said.

The 6-foot-long (1.8-meter-long) piece of the crew compartment was discovered two weeks ago in Newton County by a wildlife biologist, sheriffs officials said.

Bruce Buckingham, a Kennedy Space Center spokesman, confirmed Wednesday that the piece discovered two weeks ago was from the shuttle's crew compartment area and contains a hinged window.

NASA had not yet picked up the piece, which had bright green moss growing over one section of the window.

The biologist, Jason Sebesta, said he found it in a water runoff area near a lodge owned by his company.

The Columbia broke apart over Texas on Feb. 1, 2003, killing all seven astronauts aboard. Tens of thousands of pieces of the shuttle fell on Texas and Louisiana.

-- Associated Press

September 15

Antarctic Telescope Could Rival Hubble

An observatory at the bottom of the Earth could provide pictures as crisp as those by the Hubble Space Telescope for a fraction of the price, according to a new study.

Ground-based telescopes are limited by the blurring effects of Earth's jittery atmosphere -- the same thing that makes stars twinkle. Hubble is above all that.

On Earth, as any backyard astronomer knows, some nights are better than others. Among the best locations are atop mountains in Hawaii, Chile and the Canary Islands -- all places with large and productive observatories because they rise above much of the atmosphere.

But a spot high on the Antarctic plateau, known as Dome C, is better, the study found. It is 2 miles (3,250 meters) above sea level. It's favorable in part because of extreme cold and dryness, lack of dust and lots of cloud-free time.

"It represents arguably the most dramatic breakthrough in the potential for ground-based optical astronomy since the invention of the telescope," according to University of New South Wales Associate Professor Michael Ashley, who co-authored a paper on the findings published in the Sept. 16 issue of the journal Nature.

"The discovery means that a telescope at Dome C on the Antarctic plateau could compete with a telescope two to three times larger at the best mid-latitude observatories, with major cost-saving implications," Ashley contends.

Of course getting to Antarctic -- and building an observatory there -- is no picnic. But it is possible.

Ashley's team set up a modest robotic telescope (not the ultimate one they envision) at the site in January and then operated it remotely, from back home, to make the observations that support their claim. Astronomers and the public, of course, would be thrilled to get inexpensive pictures like this.

-- Robert Roy Britt

September 14

Dark Matter Draws Galaxies onto Collision Course

A nearby cluster of galaxies is being pulled around by an underlying superstructure of mysterious dark matter, according to new evidence from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory.

Scientists don't know what dark matter is, but they think most of the universe is made of the stuff, because there isn't enough regular matter to account for the gravity that binds galaxies. The dark matter is thought to be concentrated in long filaments. Where the filaments intersect, regular matter clumps and galaxy clusters form.

A Chandra survey of the Fornax galaxy cluster revealed a vast, swept-back cloud of hot gas near the center of the cluster. The hot gas cloud, which is several hundred thousand light years in length, is moving rapidly through a larger, less dense cloud of gas, astronomers suspect. Other observations suggest an unseen, large structure is collapsing and drawing everything toward a common center of gravity.

"At a relatively nearby distance of about 60 million light-years, the Fornax cluster represents a crucial laboratory for studying the interplay of galaxies, hot gas and dark matter as the cluster evolves." said Caleb Scharf of Columbia University in New York. "What we are seeing could be associated directly with the intergalactic gas surrounding a very large scale structure that stretches over millions of light years."

Scientists don't know what dark matter is made of and they've never seen it. But indirect observations like this help them constrain its properties.

The infalling galaxy group is about 3 million light-years from the cluster core, so any collision will be a few billion years off. The findings were presented last week at an American Astronomical Society meeting in New Orleans.

-- Staff

September 13

The Sun unleashed a moderate storm of charged particles Sunday that could spark colorful aurora Tuesday night.

Because the flare leapt from a spot near the center of the Sun's disk, it was aimed directly at Earth and stands a good chance of generating the colorful sky lights. These aurora, also called the Northern Lights (or Southern Lights), are often visible only in the far north but sometimes are seen into the northern latitudes of the United States and Europe and even lower. Occasionally they're spotted from Southern California, Texas and even Florida.

"Sky watchers everywhere should be alert for auroras after nightfall" on Tuesday, according to the NASA-run web site

Predicting the intensity and arrival time of space storms is notoriously tricky, h

owever. So while folks at high latitudes may indeed see intense displays, it is not possible to forecast how far toward middle latitudes the light will stretch.

Aurora are created when high-energy particles from a solar storm excite molecules of gas high in Earth's atmosphere.

UPDATE 9/14: The storm passed Earth Monday afternoon, a day earlier than expected. Solar eruptions travel at different speeds, and scientists have not yet figured out how to accurately predict their speeds. Little if any residual aurora are expected.

  • Aurora Photo Gallery

September 12

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) _ The astronauts aboard the international space station got their broken oxygen generator running after three tries Friday, but the machine shut down again after barely an hour of operation.

Mission Control told the two crewmen that the generator would remain off over the weekend, to give engineers time to further analyze the problem.

The Russian-made generator _ the crew's primary source of breathing oxygen _ failed earlier in the week because of a clogged line.

Commander Gennady Padalka flushed out the system and the machine finally kicked in and started churning out oxygen, said NASA spokesman Rob Navias. But the system shut down again.

In the meantime, nitrogen was used to repressurize the cabin atmosphere, which had deteriorated because of the generator shutdown.

The space agency gave assurances the men were in no immediate danger.

If necessary, Padalka and American crewmate Mike Fincke -- five months into a six-month mission -- could tap into the air supply of the Russian cargo ship that arrived last month with fuel, food, oxygen and other provisions. The station has other backup sources of oxygen as well. [Initial story on this problem]

-- Associated Press

September 9

September 8

September 7

Israeli Spy Satellite Falls into Sea at Launch

JERUSALEM (AP) _ A sophisticated Israeli spy satellite plummeted into the Mediterranean Sea shortly after launch, dealing a blow to Israeli efforts to keep an eye on Iran's alleged nuclear weapons program.

"An unsuccessful attempt was made to launch into orbit a remote sensing satellite," the Defense Ministry said in a terse announcement on Monday, just after the top secret launch from the seaside Palmachim air force base in southern Israel.

The Ofek-6 satellite fell into the sea near the port city of Ashdod. No injuries were reported.

However, other spy satellites are still in orbit, taking high-resolution pictures and relaying them to Israel. Israel, a world leader in satellite technology, relies heavily on its space-based cameras to monitor activities in Arab countries. The Ofek-5 satellite, launched in 2002, overflies Iran, Iraq, and Syria.

Israel hoped the Ofek-6 would enhance its coverage of these countries, in particular Iran, experts said.

"Israel wanted to use this (satellite) to monitor the Iranian nuclear developments and also things like their surface-to-surface missiles," said military expert Shlomo Brom, a retired general.

Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said a replacement for Ofek-6 would be launched. "It might be with a delay, but it will go up," he said, without giving a date. He said budget cuts would not affect its deployment.

-- Associated Press

September 6

Five States Compete for 470 NASA Jobs

CLEVELAND -- The state of Ohio and nearby Brook Park are offering more than $9 million in incentives to attract 470 space agency jobs in a competition with five other states that have NASA facilities.

Brook Park, already the home of the NASA Glenn Research Center, and Ohio are offering tax incentives that would pay for more than half of an $18.2 million NASA office hub to house consolidated agency administrative and information-technology services.

The services currently are spread among 10 NASA centers nationwide. The consolidated hub would have a payroll of $23 million by 2008.

"We absolutely have to do whatever we can to attract good jobs for the region," said Carol Caruso, chief advocacy officer for the Greater Cleveland Partnership, which is working with Brook Park and the state on the project.

NASA is not expected to select a winning bid until May 2005.

The local proposal calls for a starfish-shaped center to be built in a campus-like setting at Aerospace Technology Park near Cleveland Hopkins International Airport on land owned by Brook Park.

Other states competing for the hub are Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, Virginia and Texas.

-- Associated Press

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