Earth’s water is older than the sun

Water Through Time

Caption: This is an illustration of water in our Solar System through time from before the Sun’s birth through the creation of the planets.

Washington, D.C.—Water was crucial to the rise of life on Earth and is also important to evaluating the possibility of life on other planets. Identifying the original source of Earth’s water is key to understanding how life-fostering environments come into being and how likely they are to be found elsewhere. New work from a team including Carnegie’s Conel Alexander found that much of our Solar System’s water likely originated as ices that formed in interstellar space. Their work is published in Science.

Water is found throughout our Solar System. Not just on Earth, but on icy comets and moons, and in the shadowed basins of Mercury. Water has been found included in mineral samples from meteorites, the Moon, and Mars.

Comets and asteroids in particular, being primitive objects, provide a natural “time capsule” of the conditions during the early days of our Solar System. Their ices can tell scientists about the ice that encircled the Sun after its birth, the origin of which was an unanswered question until now. Continue reading “Earth’s water is older than the sun”

Is that a Traffic Light on Mars?


Thursday, 25 September 2014
With the now increased traffic in the Red Planet’s region – since India’s satellite reached Mars’s orbit Wednesday – a traffic light might just be what’s been missing. And it didn’t take long for one to be discovered.

NASA’s Mars rover, the Curiosity, which has been exploring the planet for over two years, fitted with 17 cameras, sent a picture of something that looks much like Earth’s traffic lights.

The mobile robot submits plenty of curious pictures from the surface of Mars, which are on public display. This time it was a space enthusiast from the UK, Joe Smith, running an ArtAlienTV YouTube channel, who spotted a striking resemblance.

“I have been following the images from NASA since the start and I flick through them on the NASA website every day. I saw this one and I thought, ‘Hang on, that looks a bit strange.’ I think it looks like a traffic light,” Smith said of a stack of several large rocks from the footage. Continue reading “Is that a Traffic Light on Mars?”

Evidence of ancient WORLD SMASHER planet Theia – FOUND ON MOON

Traces of mysterious planet Theia have been found on the surface of Earth’s Moon.

Boffins have analysed samples of rock brought back by Apollo astronauts, and claimed they contain bits of another world. The discovery appears to back up the theory that the Moon was formed when Theia slammed into Earth some 4.5 billion years ago.

Lead researcher Dr Daniel Herwartz, from the University of Goettingen, said that people were beginning to doubt the prevailing theory.

“It was getting to the stage where some people were suggesting that the collision had not taken place,” he told the BBC.


Continue reading “Evidence of ancient WORLD SMASHER planet Theia – FOUND ON MOON”

Are we ready for contact with extraterrestrial intelligence?

The SETI project scientists are known for tracking possible extraterrestrial signals, but now they are also considering sending messages from Earth telling of our position. A researcher from the University of Cádiz (Spain) questions this idea in view of the results from a survey taken by students, revealing the general level of ignorance about the cosmos and the influence of religion when tackling these matters.

The Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project is an initiative that began in the 70s with funding from NASA, but that has evolved towards the collaboration of millions of Internet users for the processing of data from the Arecibo Observatory (Puerto Rico), where space tracking is carried out.


life on the red planet


Now the members of this controversial project are trying to go further and not only search for extraterrestrial signs, but also actively send messages from Earth (Active SETI) to detect possible extraterrestrial civilisations. Astrophysicists, such as Stephen Hawking, have already warned of the risk that this implies for humanity, since it could favour the arrival of beings with more advanced technology and dubious intentions. Continue reading “Are we ready for contact with extraterrestrial intelligence?”

Gravity measurements confirm subsurface ocean on Saturn’s moon Enceladus

California Institute of Technology
This illustration depicts the possible interior of Enceladus based on Cassini’s gravity investigation. At high southern latitudes, a regional water ocean is shown sandwiched between an icy outer shell and a low density, rocky core. Cassini Imaging Science Subsystem images were used to depict the surface geology and the plumes.

In 2005, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft sent pictures back to Earth depicting an icy Saturnian moon spewing water vapor and ice from fractures, known as “tiger stripes,” in its frozen surface. It was big news that tiny Enceladus — a mere 500 kilometers in diameter — was such an active place. Since then, scientists have hypothesized that a large reservoir of water lies beneath that icy surface, possibly fueling the plumes. Now, using gravity measurements collected by Cassini, scientists have confirmed that Enceladus does in fact harbor a large subsurface ocean near its south pole, beneath those tiger stripes.

“For the first time, we have used a geophysical method to determine the internal structure of Enceladus, and the data suggest that indeed there is a large, possibly regional ocean about 50 kilometers below the surface of the south pole,” says David Stevenson, the Marvin L. Goldberger Professor of Planetary Science at Caltech and an expert in studies of the interior of planetary bodies. “This then provides one possible story to explain why water is gushing out of these fractures we see at the south pole.”
Continue reading “Gravity measurements confirm subsurface ocean on Saturn’s moon Enceladus”

How Russia could strangle the US space program


If you use a cellphone, have a GPS system in your car, or get cash from ATMs, you should be worried.

The New Horizons spacecraft atop an Atlas V rocket lifts off Jan. 19, 2006 at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida. (Bruce Weaver/AFP/Getty Images)

BUZZARDS BAY, Mass. — Think Russia has no way to put pressure on the United States? Think again.

The US relies heavily on Russia to furnish the engines that power rockets that deliver both military and civil payloads into space.

This includes GPS systems in cars and cellphones, and even systems that allow ATMs to function. Weather satellites are launched into space via Russian-powered rockets, and military systems such as early missile detection also depend on our friends in Moscow.

Continue reading “How Russia could strangle the US space program”

World heading for ‘collapse in decades’: Nasa-funded study

Adam Withnall
17th Mar 2014 5:38 AM

MODERN civilization is heading for collapse within a matter of decades because of growing economic instability and pressure on the planet’s resources, according to a scientific study funded by NASA.

Using theoretical models to predict what will happen to the industrialized world over the course of the next century or so, mathematicians found that even with conservative estimates things started to go very badly, very quickly. Continue reading “World heading for ‘collapse in decades’: Nasa-funded study”

VIIRS Downloads / NOAA/NASA Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership spacecraft



VIIRS View Spinning Marble App

Raytheon’s VIIRS View app provides a glimpse into the type of data meteorologists and climatologists use every day to track the weather and monitor the Earth’s environment.

VIIRS View illustrates three types of data sets – visible imagery, chlorophyll concentration and low-light imagery – a subset of the information provided by the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite.

Download the app on your computer: Continue reading “VIIRS Downloads / NOAA/NASA Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership spacecraft”

Is Mysterious Mars Rock a Fungus? – “obscenely incompetent” NASA


(CN) – The mysterious rock on Mars photographed by the Opportunity rover resembles an Earth fungus, but an “obscenely incompetent” NASA refused to take a closer look at it, a Ph.D. claims in a writ of mandamus.

Rhawn Joseph, Ph.D., filed the writ of mandamus against NASA and its Chief Administrator Charles Bolden in San Francisco Federal Court.

He claims, inter alia, that “Any intelligent adult, adolescent, child, chimpanzee, monkey, dog, or rodent with even a modicum of curiosity, would approach, investigate and closely examine a bowl-shaped structure which appears just a few feet in front of them when 12 days earlier they hadn’t noticed it. But not NASA and its rover team who have refused to take even a single close up photo.” Continue reading “Is Mysterious Mars Rock a Fungus? – “obscenely incompetent” NASA”

Dwarf Planet in Our asteroid belt may have more fresh water than is present on all of Earth

Artist's concept of Ceres

Dwarf planet Ceres is located in the main asteroid belt, between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, as illustrated in this artist’s conception.

January 22, 2014

Scientists using the Herschel space observatory have made the first definitive detection of water vapor on the largest and roundest object in the asteroid belt, Ceres.

Plumes of water vapor are thought to shoot up periodically from Ceres when portions of its icy surface warm slightly. Ceres is classified as a dwarf planet, a solar system body bigger than an asteroid and smaller than a planet.

Herschel is a European Space Agency (ESA) mission with important NASA contributions.

“This is the first time water vapor has been unequivocally detected on Ceres or any other object in the asteroid belt and provides proof that Ceres has an icy surface and an atmosphere,” said Michael Küppers of ESA in Spain, lead author of a paper in the journal Nature.

The results come at the right time for NASA’s Dawn mission, which is on its way to Ceres now after spending more than a year orbiting the large asteroid Vesta. Dawn is scheduled to arrive at Ceres in the spring of 2015, where it will take the closest look ever at its surface.

“We’ve got a spacecraft on the way to Ceres, so we don’t have to wait long before getting more context on this intriguing result, right from the source itself,” said Carol Raymond, the deputy principal investigator for Dawn at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “Dawn will map the geology and chemistry of the surface in high resolution, revealing the processes that drive the outgassing activity.”

For the last century, Ceres was known as the largest asteroid in our solar system. But in 2006, the International Astronomical Union, the governing organization responsible for naming planetary objects, reclassified Ceres as a dwarf planet because of its large size. It is roughly 590 miles (950 kilometers) in diameter. When it first was spotted in 1801, astronomers thought it was a planet orbiting between Mars and Jupiter. Later, other cosmic bodies with similar orbits were found, marking the discovery of our solar system’s main belt of asteroids.

Scientists believe Ceres contains rock in its interior with a thick mantle of ice that, if melted, would amount to more fresh water than is present on all of Earth. The materials making up Ceres likely date from the first few million years of our solar system’s existence and accumulated before the planets formed.

Until now, ice had been theorized to exist on Ceres but had not been detected conclusively. It took Herschel’s far-infrared vision to see, finally, a clear spectral signature of the water vapor. But Herschel did not see water vapor every time it looked. While the telescope spied water vapor four different times, on one occasion there was no signature.

Here is what scientists think is happening: when Ceres swings through the part of its orbit that is closer to the sun, a portion of its icy surface becomes warm enough to cause water vapor to escape in plumes at a rate of about 6 kilograms (13 pounds) per second. When Ceres is in the colder part of its orbit, no water escapes.

The strength of the signal also varied over hours, weeks and months, because of the water vapor plumes rotating in and out of Herschel’s views as the object spun on its axis. This enabled the scientists to localize the source of water to two darker spots on the surface of Ceres, previously seen by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and ground-based telescopes. The dark spots might be more likely to outgas because dark material warms faster than light material. When the Dawn spacecraft arrives at Ceres, it will be able to investigate these features.

The results are somewhat unexpected because comets, the icier cousins of asteroids, are known typically to sprout jets and plumes, while objects in the asteroid belt are not.

“The lines are becoming more and more blurred between comets and asteroids,” said Seungwon Lee of JPL, who helped with the water vapor models along with Paul von Allmen, also of JPL. “We knew before about main belt asteroids that show comet-like activity, but this is the first detection of water vapor in an asteroid-like object.”

The research is part of the Measurements of 11 Asteroids and Comets Using Herschel (MACH-11) program, which used Herschel to look at small bodies that have been or will be visited by spacecraft, including the targets of NASA’s previous Deep Impact mission and upcoming Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-Rex). Laurence O’ Rourke of the European Space Agency is the principal investigator of the MACH-11 program.

Herschel is a European Space Agency mission, with science instruments provided by consortia of European institutes and with important participation by NASA. While the observatory stopped making science observations in April 2013, after running out of liquid coolant, as expected, scientists continue to analyze its data. NASA’s Herschel Project Office is based at JPL. JPL contributed mission-enabling technology for two of Herschel’s three science instruments. The NASA Herschel Science Center, part of the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, supports the U.S. astronomical community.

Dawn’s mission is managed by JPL for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Dawn is a project of the directorate’s Discovery Program, managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. UCLA is responsible for overall Dawn mission science. Orbital Sciences Corp. in Dulles, Va., designed and built the spacecraft. The German Aerospace Center, the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, the Italian Space Agency and the Italian National Astrophysical Institute are international partners on the mission team. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.

More information about Herschel is online at: More information about NASA’s role in Herschel is available at: For more information about NASA’s Dawn mission, visit:

Whitney Clavin 818-648-9734

Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

J.D. Harrington 202-358-5241

Headquarters, Washington

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Is a mini ice age on the way? Scientists warn the Sun has ‘gone to sleep’ and say it could cause temperatures to plunge

  • 2013 was due to be year of the ‘solar maximum’
  • Researchers say solar activity is at a fraction of what they expect
  • Conditions ‘very similar’ a time in 1645 when a mini ice age hit

By Mark Prigg

UPDATED:          19:13 EST, 17 January 2014


The Sun’s activity is at its lowest for 100 years, scientists have warned.

They say the conditions are eerily similar to those before the Maunder Minimum, a time in 1645 when a mini ice age hit, Freezing London’s River Thames.

Researcher believe the solar lull could cause major changes, and say there is a 20% chance it could lead to ‘major changes’ in temperatures.


Sunspot numbers are well below their values from 2011, and strong solar flares have been infrequent, as this image shows - despite Nasa forecasting major solar storms

Sunspot numbers are well below their values from 2011, and strong solar flares have been infrequent, as this image shows – despite Nasa forecasting major solar storms Continue reading “Is a mini ice age on the way? Scientists warn the Sun has ‘gone to sleep’ and say it could cause temperatures to plunge”

US Agency new logo…. an Evil Octopus



Friday, 06 December 2013

Billions of dollars annually are being used to fund operations conducted by the United States intelligence community, the likes of which allow the government to eavesdrop on emails, listen to world leaders’ phone calls and about everything in-between.

One thing that budget hasn’t bought, however, is subtlety. The US National Reconnaissance Office launched a top-secret surveillance satellite into space Thursday evening, and the official emblem for the spy agency’s latest mission is, well, certainly accurate, to say the least.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence live-tweeted Thursday’s launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, and throughout the course of the ordeal made no effort to ignore the logo for the NROL-39 mission.

Continue reading “US Agency new logo…. an Evil Octopus”

Sun will ‘flip upside down’ within weeks, says Nasa

The sun’s magnetic field will reverse polarity at some point in the coming weeks, sending ripples to the edge of interstellar space.

Tomas Jivanda

Friday, 15 November 2013

The sun is set to “flip upside down” within weeks as its magnetic field reverses polarity in an event that will send ripple effects throughout the solar system.

Although it may sound like a catastrophic occurrence, there’s no need to run for cover. The sun switches its polarity, flipping its magnetic north and south, once every eleven years through an internal mechanism about which little is understood.

Continue reading “Sun will ‘flip upside down’ within weeks, says Nasa”

Scientists Baffled By Lack Of Sunspots

Monday, 11 November 2013

Something is up with the sun.

Scientists say that solar activity is stranger than in a century or more, with the sun producing barely half the number of sunspots as expected and its magnetic poles oddly out of sync.

The sun generates immense magnetic fields as it spins. Sunspots—often broader in diameter than Earth—mark areas of intense magnetic force that brew disruptive solar storms. These storms may abruptly lash their charged particles across millions of miles of space toward Earth, where they can short-circuit satellites, smother cellular signals or damage electrical systems.

Based on historical records, astronomers say the sun this fall ought to be nearing the explosive climax of its approximate 11-year cycle of activity—the so-called solar maximum. But this peak is “a total punk,” said Jonathan Cirtain, who works at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration as project scientist for the Japanese satellite Hinode, which maps solar magnetic fields.

“I would say it is the weakest in 200 years,” said David Hathaway, head of the solar physics group at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

Researchers are puzzled. They can’t tell if the lull is temporary or the onset of a decades-long decline, which might ease global warming a bit by altering the sun’s brightness or the wavelengths of its light.

“There is no scientist alive who has seen a solar cycle as weak as this one,” said Andrés Munoz-Jaramillo, who studies the solar-magnetic cycle at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass.

To complicate the riddle, the sun also is undergoing one of its oddest magnetic reversals on record.

Normally, the sun’s magnetic north and south poles change polarity every 11 years or so. During a magnetic-field reversal, the sun’s polar magnetic fields weaken, drop to zero, and then emerge again with the opposite polarity. As far as scientists know, the magnetic shift is notable only because it signals the peak of the solar maximum, said Douglas Biesecker at NASA’s Space Environment Center.

But in this cycle, the sun’s magnetic poles are out of sync, solar scientists said. The sun’s north magnetic pole reversed polarity more than a year ago, so it has the same polarity as the south pole.

“The delay between the two reversals is unusually long,” said solar physicist Karel Schrijver at the Lockheed Martin Advanced Technology Center in Palo Alto, Calif.

Next DEVASTATING Chelyabinsk METEOR STRIKE ‘7x as likely’ as thought / NASA’s checked its space rock maths and it’s not good news


By       Iain Thomson

6th November 2013 23:03 GMT

NASA has revealed new research on the Chelyabinsk meteorite that exploded over Russia in February, and the findings aren’t good: not only does it look like the astronomic models about the number of similar-sized things reaching Earth are wrong, but also the damage they can do is much greater than expected.

Chelyabinsk meteorite picIs it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s a big chunk of rock. Credit: M. Ahmetvaleev

“If you look at the number of impacts detected by US government sensors over the past few decades you find the impact rate of kiloton-class objects is greater than would be indicated by the telescopic surveys,” said Bill Cooke, meteoroid environment office lead at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center at a press conference on Wednesday.

“Over the past few decades we’ve seen an impact rate about seven times greater than the current state of the telescopic surveys would indicate.”

Cooke said that as the current state of asteroid surveys was expanded he expected we would find more meteorites in the vicinity to account for these impacts, but also that the amount of damage they caused was being reassessed.

The nuclear model used to estimate the amount of explosive force such incidents could cause had, in fact, been over estimating the blast impacts of such air-bursting meteors, he explained. But the amount of heat they generate, and the damage caused by the shockwave of air they push before them as they come down through the atmosphere, was significantly underestimated.

The Chelyabinsk meteor is the largest foreign body to come down to Earth since the Tunguska event in 1908, where a comet or meteor devastated 2,150 square kilometers of Siberia with an airburst, according to Lindley Johnson, NEO program executive of NASA’s planetary science division.

Thanks to the amount of dashcam videos, smartphones with cameras, the work of “citizen scientists,” and boffins around the world sharing their data, NASA has now piece together exactly what happened during the Chelyabinsk event he explained.

The meteorite arrived completely unexpectedly because it was coming at Earth with the Sun behind it, masking its progress NASA said. It hit our atmosphere at a speed of 42,500 mph (19 kilometers per second) and the vast majority of its mass was destroyed in the detonation 23 kilometers above Russia.

Around 9,000 to 13,000lb (4,000 to 6,000 kilograms) of the meteor survived the blast and fell to Earth, including several chunks that have been recovered. From an analysis of the remains scientists have concluded that fractures in the meteorite (formed from an impact with another space rock) left veins of silicates running throughout its body, making it much more likely to break up in the friction with our atmosphere.

Chelyabinsk meteorite as the sunThe Chelyabinsk meteorite briefly outshone the Sun

The brightness of the object, and the amount of energy it transferred, surprised scientists. The meteor was briefly brighter than the Sun, even 100 kilometers from the site of the incursion, and the shockwave it created flattened buildings, shattered glass and injured 1,200 people.

Analysis of its remains show the Chelyabinsk meteorite was formed about 4.4 billion years ago and was 19 meters across. Objects under thirty meters wide aren’t expected to have the mass to make an impact with the Earth’s surface without disintegrating under the stress of atmospheric contact, according to NASA’s models.

Larger objects, such as the 40 meter asteroid 2012 DA14, which skimmed past Earth on the same day as the Chelyabinsk meteorite, could make it to the surface and cause considerable damage, Johnson said. But NASA did have viable plans to divert such dangers if they are spotted soon enough.

One idea is to launch a spacecraft directly at the incoming object. Provided it had sufficient mass, and could accurately hit the incoming rock, then the impact would slow the asteroid down to the point where Earth would have passed by the time it crossed our orbital plane.

If NASA had more of a warning it could send another mission to the asteroid which would use a “gravity tracker,” harnessing the attractive force of the spacecraft and the rock to subtly divert its course away, but said that this would take a number of years to achieve.

What was needed he said was a dedicated infrared telescope in orbit to complete a more thorough survey of near-Earth objects. Searching on the IR band would make these objects stand out more he told El Reg, and give a better estimate to their size.

The Chelyabinsk meteorite had given new urgency to a campaign to bring more capabilities to addressing the issue of asteroid impacts (“It’s a great advertisement,” Johnson joked) and provided an incentive to improve our chances of spotting threats in the future. Whether governments are willing to put up the relatively small amounts of money needed to take things further is another matter however. ®

Original URL:


One-tonne satellite will fall back to Earth in an unknown location

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GOCE in orbit.
ESA /AOES Medialab

The spacecraft has been mapping the Earth’s gravity but ran out of fuel a month ago and has been losing altitude ever since

Thursday 07 November 2013

A one-tonne satellite operated by the European Space Agency (ESA) has run out of fuel and will fall back to Earth in an unknown location sometime in the next few days.

The Gravity Field and Steady-State Ocean Circulation Explorer, or GOCE, has been mapping Earth’s gravitational field for just over four years, but has been losing altitude by 2.5 miles a day over the past month.

It’s expected that between 25 and 45 fragments of the spacecraft will survive the descent through the atmosphere in an anticipated event known as an ‘uncontrolled entry’.

Parts of the satellite as heavy as 90kg could make it all the way to the Earth’s surface, forming part of the 100 tonnes of material that is estimated to fall from space each year.

Despite the seemingly dangerous nature of this event, the scientists involved with the project have assured the public that the chances of the debris actually hitting anyone are very small. The impact of GOCE’s re-entry (pronounce GO-chay) will affect an area approximately 13  to 18 metres squared.

“If you compare that to the surface of the planet, it’s a very small number,” the flight’s mission manager, Rune Floberghagen, told the New York Times.

Floberghagen added that “It’s rather hard to predict where the spacecraft will re-enter and impact,” but suggested that current estimates favour “a re-entry on Sunday, with a possibility for it slipping into early Monday.”

As of Wednesday GOCE was reportedly 113 miles up, orbiting Earth directly over the poles every 88 minutes. Due to the rotation of the planet this means that the satellite’s debris could fall anywhere on the planet.

Previous ‘uncontrolled entries’ have included a decommissioned Nasa satellite that fell into the Pacific two years ago and malfunctioning Mars probe, launched by Russia, that also hit the Pacific. There have been no known instances of space debris injuring people to date.

An illustration representing the different areas of GOCE’s study – including seismic activity (top left) and gravity variations (bottom right). Credit: ESA

What was GOCE’s mission?

GOCE was a unique craft, specially designed to operate in a low, Earth-hugging orbit that brought it closer to the planet that any other research satellite to date.

A sleek design and stabilising fins reduced its drag, whilst an ion propulsion system allowed it to maintain an altitude of 260km, skimming along through the threadbare patches of air that persist that high up.

These ion thrusters produce very little power compared to chemical rockets but are incredibly precise and can be maintained over long periods of time.

A gradiometer on-board GOCE allowed it to map the planet’s gravity with “unrivalled precision”, with the data it collected offering scientists new insights that spanned topics from ocean currents to the first global map of the boundaries between the Earth’s crust and mantle.

“The outcome is fantastic,” said Volker Liebig, ESA’s Director of Earth Observation Programmes. “We have obtained the most accurate gravity data ever available to scientists. This alone proves that GOCE was worth the effort – and new scientific results are emerging constantly.”

An international team is currently monitoring the craft’s descent from its still-operational  sensors.


NASA call for calm on asteroid that could destroy Earth in 2032

AN ASTEROID with power 50 times greater than the world’s most powerful nuclear bomb could be heading for Earth in 2032, astronomers say.

By Tom Rawle/Published 18th October 2013
meteor, earth, globe, asteroid

DANGER: The asteroid is expected to come close to hitting Earth in 2032 [GETTY]

Ukrainian astronomers announced last week that they had discovered an asteroid that has the potential to destroy Earth in 19 years time.

The international scientific community has classed the 1,345-foot (410m) rock as one of the two most dangerous asteroids ever recorded.

If it does hit Earth, the asteroid would create 2,500 megatons of TNT energy on explosion – more than 50 times more than the globe’s most power powerful nuclear bomb.

But experts at NASA have confirmed that the collision is unlikely to happen.

ASTEROID: A NASA diagram showing the make-up of the asteroid [NASA]


ASTEROID: A NASA diagram showing the make-up of the asteroid [NASA]

“With more observations, I fully expect we will be able to significantly reduce, or rule out entirely, any impact probability for the foreseeable future.”

Don Yeoman, of NASA

With a one in 63,000 chance of hitting, the most common prediction is that the asteroid will miss our planet by nearly 2 kilometres.

Don Yeoman, of NASA said: “The current probability of no impact in 2032 [is] about 99.998 per cent.”

“This is a relatively new discovery. With more observations, I fully expect we will be able to significantly reduce, or rule out entirely, any impact probability for the foreseeable future.”

Scientists have given Asteroid 2013 TV135 a danger rating of 1 out of 10 on the Torino Scale – with only one other rock being given the rating of 1.

Asteroid 2013 TV135 is one of 10,332 near-Earth objects that have been discovered.

Astronomers have said they will continue to monitor the movement of the asteroid and will be able to give further notice about the future of our planet in 2028.

How to sniff aliens’ gas in exoplanet atmospheres


ALIEN worlds have been pouring out of the sky in recent years. Exoplanet searches like those led by the Kepler space telescope predict that there are as many as 30 billion planets in our galaxy suitable for life. But how to tell which ones are inhabited?

Since the 1960s, strategies for hunting aliens rested on the assumption that they would use Earth-like chemistry – a huge assumption. Now, Sara Seager at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and her colleagues are broadening the search. They propose a way of identifying the signatures of non-Earth-like life forms in alien atmospheres.

Seager (see “Rockstar planet hunter: Genius award will free my brain“) and MIT colleagues William Bains and Renyu Hu suggest looking for any gas that is out of equilibrium. If, for instance, astronomers detected high concentrations of a gas that degrades naturally, that would indicate something was replenishing supplies. On Earth, oxygen, ozone and methane eliminate each other rapidly and other gases are destroyed by ultraviolet radiation from the sun. Without life, those gases would not be here at all.

The team built a model that predicts how elements combine naturally in a given atmosphere. Unpredicted amounts of a molecule might indicate the presence of life. Geophysical factors like volcanoes can also keep an atmosphere stocked with gases. To tell the difference, the model calculates the mass of living things you would need on the surface to produce the outliers. If the estimate reflects a reasonable amount, then you might have just found aliens, says Seager. If it suggests a planet would have to carry more biomass than is physically plausible, the chemistry is probably not generated by alien life.

Take Saturn’s moon, Titan. Sunlight should trigger acetylene production in its atmosphere, but there is none. Some have said this could be a sign of life. Seager’s team finds that, were this the case, Titan would have to be covered in a 1.5-metre-thick layer of acetylene-eating life. What we know about its rocky, stream-covered surface suggests that is unlikely. The chemistry, the team concludes, is probably due to geological processes (Astrophysical Journal,

“Sara’s study helps us find weird life where before we would have been flying blind,” says Shawn Domagal-Goldman of NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

On planets with atmospheres dominated by hydrogen, the model predicts that methyl chloride, dimethyl sulfide and nitrous oxide could indicate the presence of life: plausible amounts of alien life at the surface could produce them in quantities that are detectable ( Domagal-Goldman says future work should focus on nailing down what other processes could also produce these gases to rule out false positives.

With some luck, Seager’s alien chemical signals will be visible to the James Webb Space Telescope, due to launch in 2018.

Domagal-Goldman likens Seager’s study to an opening door. “It opens the possibility that we might have a way to look for that life. That wasn’t true before. Everything we’ve found on these exoplanets has surprised us. When we start looking for life, we’re not going to be able to be surprised if we don’t know how to look for the weird stuff.”

This article appeared in print under the headline “Sniff out the alien molecules”

Alien wiretap

Listen up, NSA. If alien technology is monitoring us, we may be able to tap its communications.

In the 1980s, astronomers suggested that it might be possible to explore the galaxy with a fleet of self-replicating probes. At each new planetary system, they would mine asteroids for construction materials, build more probes and send them on to the next system, spreading across the galaxy within a few hundred million years. Some said the fact that we haven’t seen such spacecraft in our solar system means aliens have not explored the galaxy, and probably don’t exist. Michaël Gillon of the University of Liège in Belgium thinks that this conclusion is premature.

The alien probes would be too small to see easily, he says, but to be useful they would need to talk to each other. He proposes locations where probes could sit at the margins of our solar system to relay messages between them (Acta Astronautica,

We could be in the perfect position to intercept signals, he says. The Allen Telescope Array in northern California is dedicated to the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence, and could be used for this purpose.

“It wouldn’t be a message from another star, it would be from within our solar system, so easier to detect,” Gillon says. “It’s a bit science fiction, I know. But this doesn’t require Star Trek technology.

Cost-effective laser-based asteroid defense system pitched to NASA


October 2, 2013

Artist's impression of a massive asteroid impact (Image: NASA/Don Davis)

Artist’s impression of a massive asteroid impact (Image: NASA/Don Davis)

Last year, the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow put forward the idea of using fleets of laser-toting satellites to deflect potentially dangerous objects away from Earth. Now, Dr. Richard Fork, principal investigator for the Laser Science and Engineering Laboratory at the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH), and his team have refined the idea, saying that it’s not only feasible, but could handle anything up to the size of a comet.

If an asteroid 100 m (330 ft) across hit the Earth, it would be a bad day. The impact of a comet such as Halle-Bopp, which is about 70 km (43 mi) in diameter, would make for a very, very bad day. According to Fork, “[The Hale-Bopp comet] is enormous, and if it had been on a collision course with Earth we would have had only two years from the time it was first observed to the time it arrived at Earth. If the comet happened to be on track to hit us, there would have been nothing we could have done. We would have been toast.”

Because of the remote, but still present, danger of such an event happening, finding ways to deflect asteroids is of great interest to scientists and engineers. The idea floated by researchers at Strathclyde University in 2012 involves sending a fleet of small satellites that fires lasers at a potentially dangerous asteroid. The purpose wouldn’t be to destroy it in a spectacular Death Star-like explosion, but to nudge it into a new orbit.

Diagram of the laser fleet firing on an asteroid

Diagram of the laser fleet firing on an asteroid

Instead of one large laser blasting away at a space-going rock, several small ones from the solar-powered satellites would vaporize areas on the asteroid and this vapor and debris would act like a rocket thruster, pushing the asteroid away. The advantages of such a system are, among others, that it’s cheaper than ground-based lasers or a laser installed in a large spacecraft. Since it’s solar powered, the system would also require much less propellant than a single large space laser and could work at lower wattage than an Earth-based one.

Though similar, the UAH system is based on work started by Dr. Fork at Bell Labs in the 1980s. In the UAH approach, there’s also a fleet of mini satellites, by they are tended by a mothership that that powers the actual laser, which the mini satellites reflect onto the target.

If a threatening asteroid is detected, the satellites are dispatched, perhaps as a unit using an ion drive. On arrival, the mini satellites fan out and orbit the asteroid within a few kilometers. The satellites scan the asteroid and produce a submillimeter-resolution 3D map of the surface, which is constantly updated. This information is used to find flat surfaces that would be an optimal target for the lasers. These areas can be under a millimeter wide.

Dr. Richard Fork says that the proposed system is scalable enough deal with wayward comets


Dr. Richard Fork says that the proposed system is scalable enough deal with wayward comets

The mothership would supply the lasers, which the minisats reflect onto the asteroid. Coordinated bursts of optical laser blasts would be fired for only picoseconds at a time, vaporizing the rock surface. This may not seem like much, but Fork says that the effect is surprisingly large.

“The amount of average power to be delivered to the asteroid as coherent laser light can be comparable to the power, 10 kilowatts, supplied by the solar system to the currently existing Dawn spacecraft,” Fork says.

“One pulse, during the brief time the propulsive force is applied, provides as much power as all three Space Shuttle main engines when they are firing together,” continues Fork. “The challenging technical task our group is addressing is that of delivering the required total number of these pulses to an Earth-threatening asteroid so as to apply this highly effective propulsive force efficiently with each delivered pulse.”

There was some concern about the debris clouds interfering with the lasers, but the team concluded that these would disperse from the targets areas within three microseconds.

As the lasers are applied, the satellites continue to scan and to plot the asteroid’s trajectory; applying the necessary course corrections as needed. The lasers can also be used to make the asteroid stop spinning by strategically firing the lasers, so the debris jets act like the attitude control rockets on a spacecraft.

Presented to NASA because of its cost effectiveness, the system is designed to initially tackle small near Earth objects, specifically ones about 20 m (66 ft) in diameter, which is about the size of the one that exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia earlier this year. Fork is confident that the technology to build such satellites already exists and it’s possible to deflect a small asteroid in the near future. He also says that the proposed system is scalable enough deal with wayward comets, providing enough power can be brought to bear with enough advance warning time.

A paper with the team’s results can be found at the Cornell University Library (PDF)

Source: University of Alabama in Huntsville

First scoop of Mars soil contains 2 percent water: study

27 Sep   2013
Washington (AFP)

The first scoop of Martian soil analyzed by NASA’s Curiosity rover held about two percent water, offering hope for hydrating humans who someday explore the Red Planet, scientists said Thursday.

“We saw Mars as a very dry desert and while this is not as much water you will find in Earth soil… it’s substantial,” said Laurie Leshin, lead author of the study in the journal Science.

In a cubic foot (0.03 cubic meters) of Martian soil, about the size of a block that is a foot wide, tall and deep, “you can get maybe a couple of pints (0.47 liters) of water out of that,” said Leshin, who is dean of science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

No global space agency has plans to send people to Mars any time soon, but the United States has said it hopes to launch the first humans there by the 2030s.

Signs of water on the dusty and dry neighbor to Earth are nothing new.

Previous space agency rovers and orbiters have found evidence that Mars likely had water — whether in the form of ice, below-ground reservoirs or even the drinkable kind — perhaps billions of years ago.

But the latest evidence comes from a suite of 10 of the most sophisticated instruments ever sent to scour the Martian surface aboard the Curiosity rover, which touched down in 2012.

The findings, described in five different papers in Science, include the analysis of a scoop of dust, dirt and finely grained soil from a portion of the Gale Crater known as Rocknest.

Leshin said the scoop that Curiosity analyzed likely represents what could be found elsewhere on Mars, since the planet is coated with a thin layer of surface soil.

“We now know there should be abundant, easily accessible water on Mars,” said Leshin.

“We probably can find it almost anywhere right on the surface under your feet if you are an astronaut.”

Google chiefs travel on YOUR tax dollars after NASA sell them cut price fuel for their private jets

  • Investigation finds firm owned by Google execs keeps  jets at Nasa facility
  • There it  buys fuel at prices from a half to nearly a fifth of market  rate
  • Planes used  to jet off to exotic locations across the planet
  • Google says  arrangement has actually left Nasa $2million BETTER  OFF

By  Daily Mail Reporter

PUBLISHED: 04:42 EST, 25  September 2013 |  UPDATED: 07:14 EST, 25 September 2013

Google executives have been jetting across  the world in planes run on cheap fuel subsidised by Nasa and the U.S. Department  of Defense, an investigation has revealed.

A company owned by Google’s founders has  bought millions of dollars worth of jet fuel at below market prices from Nasa’s  Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, near San Francisco, California.

It has also emerged that keeping the planes  at the federal site has enabled the owners to avoid hefty property taxes,  potentially amounting to $500,000 per plane per year.

Larry PageGoogle Executive Chairman Eric SchmidtGoogle co-founder Sergey Brin in San Francisco on June 27, 2012

‘Sweetheart deal’: Google co-founders Sergey Brin, left,  and Larry Page, centre, and its executive chairman Eric Schmidt, right, are the  principals of H211, which owns seven private jets and buys cheap fuel direct  from Nasa

The investigation by NBC Bay Area News found that nearly $8million worth of fuel,  sold for as little as $1.68 a gallon, has been put into a fleet of seven  aircraft and two helicopters owned by H211.

The same fuel sells for two to nearly five  times that amount at other nearby airports in the Bay Area.

H211 is a limited liability company whose  principals are the also the principals of Google, including founders Larry Page  and Sergey Brin, and executive chairman Eric Schmidt.

The apparent sweetheart deal with the Google  men was made possible under a so-called Nasa Space Agreement allowing their  planes to be kept at Moffett Field since 2007.

The site happens to be less than three miles  from Google’s global headquarters.

H211 initially agreed to pay the space agency  $113,365.74 a month in rent – a price subsequently slashed to $108,938.62 a  month after it allowed Nasa to borrow the planes for experiments.

But figures seen by NBC in May last year  showed that of the 1,039 flights to date, only 155 were used for science.

Meanwhile, the planes, which include five  Gulfstream Vs, a Boeing 757 and a Boeing 767,  used below-market-rate fuel  to travel to such exotic destinations as London, Paris, Cancun, Scotland, Puerto  Vallarta, Hawaii, Liberia and Tahiti.

Keeping the jets at Moffett Field also gives  H211 a tax break. Property kept on federal sites is exempt from the tallying for  local property taxes, which means the company pays no county taxes on the  aircraft kept there.

Santa Clara County Assessor Lawrence Stone  told NBC that the exemption means that local government is losing out on  between  $400,000 and $500,000 in property taxes per plane per  year.

Hangar One at Moffett Field: Keeping the planes at the federal site has enabled the owners to avoid hefty property taxes, potentially amounting to $500,000 per plane per year, the investigation has foundHangar One at Moffett Field: Keeping the planes  at the  federal site has enabled the owners to avoid hefty property  taxes, potentially  amounting to $500,000 per plane per year, the  investigation has found

Jamie Court, the president and chairman of  Consumer Watchdog, called the arrangement ‘the greatest sweetheart deal in the  history of Nasa’.

‘There’s no reason these billionaires should  be getting cheaper gas, like the Army, when they’re not doing anything for the  government,’ he told NBC.

‘This is all a ruse to have a landing strip  to go party around the world at some of the nicest resorts and the nicest  parties with rock stars and celebrities.

‘And it’s all being financed by the  taxpayer.’

Conveniently located: The site happens to be less than three miles from Google's global headquartersConveniently located: The site happens to be less than  three miles from Google’s global headquarters

A spokesman for Nasa said the arrangement  gave the agency a ‘unique component of support’ for its earth science missions  to measure ozone and greenhouse gases.

Google referred NBC’s enquiries to H211,  whose vice president, Ken Ambrose, said that the company pays the full retail  cost for hangar space ‘that includes none of the ground support typically  included’ elsewhere.

He furthermore said that, far from the  taxpayer losing out, Nasa were in fact $2million better off thanks to the  deal.

Following enquiries from NBC Bay Area’s  journalists, the Department of Defense announced that the government will stop  selling jet fuel to H211 from August 31, 2013.

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NASA to send rocket on 30-day mission to the moon to investigate ‘evil’ lunar dust

  • NASA to launch Lunar Atmosphere and Dust  Experiment – LADEE
  • Rocket takes off from Wallops Island,  Virginia on Friday night
  • Spacecraft to investigate possibility of  electrically charged dust

By  Sara Malm

PUBLISHED: 10:24 EST, 5  September 2013 |  UPDATED: 13:11 EST, 5 September 2013

It has been over four decades since NASA left  the moon, but now the space agency is at it again.

NASA is launching a small rocket to  investigate an unusual discovery made by the crew on Apollo 17 – moon  dust.

Crews reported seeing an odd glow on the  lunar horizon just before sunrise, an unexpected sight as the airless moon  lacked atmosphere for reflecting sunlight.

Sky high: An artist's concept showing the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer - LADEE - which will take off from a NASA base on FridaySky high: An artist’s concept showing the Lunar  Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer – LADEE – which will take off from a  NASA base on Friday

Scientists began to suspect that dust  from  the lunar surface was being electrically charged and somehow lofted off the  ground, a theory that will be tested by the NASA’s upcoming  Lunar Atmosphere  and Dust Experiment – LADEE.

The spacecraft is scheduled for lift off late  Friday night local time, from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island,  Virginia.

‘Terrestrial dust is like talcum powder. On  the moon, it’s very rough. It’s kind of  evil. It follows electric field lines,  it works its way in equipment.

‘It’s a very difficult environment to deal  with,’ said LADEE project manager  Butler Hine of NASA’s Ames Research Center in  Moffett Field, California.

Mystery light: These photographs from the moon's surface just before sunrise are the origin of the moon dust mystery 

Mystery light: These photographs from the moon’s surface  just before sunrise are the origin of the moon dust mystery

The LADEE craft will circulate the moon 20-50 kilometres above its surface and analyse the lunar dust  

The LADEE craft will circulate the moon 20-50 kilometres  above its surface and analyse the lunar dust



The origins of the lunar glow, comes from a NASA  report from 1974 entitled ‘Evidence for a high altitude distribution of lunar  dust’ which exhibits Apollo 17 Commander Eugene Cernan’s sketches as he  describes a unusual ‘glow’ as Apollo 17 approached the orbital  sunrise.

During the 1972 mission, astronaut Cernan  drew what he saw on a note pad, describing the event in words as a light that  ‘came from non existense [sic]  to subtle in nature then just before sunrise quickly sharp’


Apollo 17, launched in December 1972, was  final moon landing carried out by NASA under the Apollo programme.

Austronaut Cernan and his two crew members  spent three days on the lunar surface, before returning to earth.

At last year’s 40th anniversary of their trip  to the moon, Cernan – to this day the last human to walk the moon – admitted he  left his camera on its surface.

‘I left my camera there with the lens  pointing up at the zenith, the idea being someday someone would come back and  find out how much deterioration solar cosmic radiation had on the glass,’ he  said at the time of the anniversary.

Cernan, now 79, did not think his would be  the last footprints on the moon, but due to NASA cutbacks, the Apollo programme  was closed before another manned mission was made.

However, as there is no wind on the moon to  lift the dust, scientists believe solar radiation could leave the particles  electronically charged during the day, and once colliding with negative  particles, the dust particles repel each other, ‘like strands of hair rubbed by  a balloon,’ Scientific American reported.

In addition to studying fly-away lunar dust,  LADEE will probe the tenuous  envelope of gases that surrounds the moon, a  veneer so thin it stretches the meaning of the word ‘atmosphere.’

Instead, scientists refer to these  environments as exospheres and hope that  understanding the moon’s gaseous shell  will shed light on similar  pockets around Mercury, asteroids and other airless  bodies.

‘LADEE is part of a much broader scientific  exploration of the solar system,’  said John Grunsfeld, NASA’s associate  administrator for science.

The $280 million mission also includes an  experimental laser optical  communications system that NASA hopes to incorporate  into future  planetary probes, including a Mars rover scheduled for launch in  2020.

The prototype is based on technology used in  terrestrial fiber-optic  communications systems, such as Verizon’s FiOS.

NASA says the system  should be at least six  times faster than conventional radio  communications. Also, its transmitters and  receivers weigh half as much  as similar radio communications equipment and use  25 per cent less  power.

Ready for take off: A Minotaur V launch vehicle is erected on the pad at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia during a pathfinder exercise ahead of tomorrow's launch 

Ready for take off: A Minotaur V launch vehicle is  erected on the pad at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia during a  pathfinder exercise ahead of tomorrow’s launch

Lads and LADEE: Engineers at NASA's Ames Research Center prepare LADEE ahead of its journey to analyse the possible 'moon dust' mystery from 40 years ago 

Lads and LADEE: Engineers at NASA’s Ames Research Center  prepare LADEE ahead of its journey to analyse the possible ‘moon dust’ mystery  from 40 years ago


Inspector gadget: The spacecraft has been designed to study the moon's exosphere and lunar dust environment and hopefully solve the mystery of the sunrise 'glow' 

Inspector gadget: The spacecraft has been designed to  study the moon’s exosphere and lunar dust environment and hopefully solve the  mystery of the sunrise ‘glow’



Wizz-ard: The final preparations and close-outs are underway for Friday's launch, including testing all the equipment 

Wizz-ard: The final preparations and close-outs are  underway for Friday’s launch, including testing all the equipment


‘On the Earth, we’ve  been using laser  communication and fiber optics to power our Internet  and everything else for  the last couple of decades,’ Grunsfeld said.

‘NASA has really been wanting to make that  same technological leap and put it into space. This is our chance to do  that.’

LADEE’s optical communications system, which  includes three ground stations in  addition to LADEE, will be tested before the  probe drops into a low  lunar orbit to begin its science mission about 60 days  after launch.

Just getting to the moon will take LADEE 30  days – 10 times longer than the  Apollo missions due to the probe’s relatively  low-powered Minotaur 5  launcher.

The rocket is  comprised of three refurbished  intercontinental ballistic missile motors and two commercially provided  boosters. The Minotaur 5 configuration  will be flying for the first time with  LADEE.

The use of decommissioned missile components  drove the decision to fly from NASA’s Wallops Island facility, one of only a few  launch sites  permitted to fly refurbished ICBMs under U.S.-Russian arms control  agreements

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China confirms plans for first Moon visit later this year / First a rover, next a taikonaut, then a colony

 By  Iain Thomson, 31st August 2013

China has confirmed it is on track to land a rover on the Moon later this year to scoot across the surface analyzing dust and rock samples.

“Chang’e-3 has officially entered its launch stage, following its research and manufacture period,” reports the official Chinese news agency Xinhua.

The Chang’e-3 probe, first revealed last year, is a 100kg, six-wheeled rover that will spend three months traversing the lunar landscape under human control. The spacecraft will use the Moon’s gravity to slow down, orbit the satellite, and then soft-land using rocket propulsion.

This will be the first time the Chinese have landed a spacecraft on a non-terrestrial surface and the Chang’e-3 will be a crucial test of both Chinese aeronautics and rocketry control systems. The rover will pave the way for a future manned mission to the Moon, and a possible space colony on the surface.

“The Chang’e-3 mission makes best use of a plethora of innovative technology. It is an extremely difficult mission, that carries great risk,” said Ma Xingrui, head of China’s space exploration body and chief commander of the lunar program.

The first Chang’e probe was launched 2007 and completed a 3D map of the Moon’s surface before being intentionally crashed into the planetoid. Chang’e 2, launched in 2010, carried out further mapping 100km off the Moon’s surface before being directed out to fly by the asteroid Toutatis and is now heading out into the Solar System.

Like NASA’s early rovers on Mars, the Chang’e-3 will be primarily solar powered and will carry a ground-facing radar on its belly capable of penetrating up to 30 meters into the lunar regolith, as well as a alpha particle X-ray spectrometer and an infrared spectrometer.

China plans a manned mission to the lunar surface possibly as soon as 2017 – although he authorities aren’t setting themselves a Kennedyesque deadline and say they’ll go when they are ready. Once there, however, the Chinese government has said it plans to build the first manned lunar outpost, an objective NASA has already abandoned.

‘I might lose consciousness… but it would be better than drowning in the helmet’: Italian astronaut almost lost in space

Major Luca Parmitano, 36, who nearly died during a spacewalk on 16 July, has told of his thoughts as he tried to save himself. Writing on his blog, the Italian Air Force officer, tells how his helmet suddenly began filling with water during a spacewalk from the International Space Station, to install power cables with a fellow astronaut, American Chris Cassidy. NASA has suspended all US spacewalks as it continues to investigate the problem

Luca Parmitano

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

“My eyes are closed as I listen to Chris counting down the atmospheric pressure inside the airlock – it’s close to zero now. I feel fully charged, as if electricity and not blood were running through my veins. I’m mentally preparing myself to open the door because I will be the first to exit the station this time round.

“It is pitch black outside, not the colour black, but rather a complete absence of light. I drink in the sight as I lean out to attach our safety cables.

“I have to connect [the cables] to the station’s external sockets while at the same time securing them to the surface of the station with small metal wires. After a little initial difficulty, I inform Houston that I have completed the task and I’m ready for the second cable.

“At this exact moment, just as I’m thinking about how  to uncoil the cable neatly (it is moving around like a thing possessed in the weightlessness), I ‘feel’ that something is wrong.

“The unexpected sensation of water at the back of my neck surprises me – and I’m in a place where I’d rather not be surprised. I move my head from side to side, confirming my first impression, and with superhuman effort I force myself to inform Houston of what I can feel, knowing that it could signal the end of this EVA [extra-vehicular activity].

“On the ground, Shane confirms they have received my message and he asks me to await instructions. At first, [Chris and I are] both convinced that it must be drinking water from my flask that has leaked out through the straw, or else it’s sweat. But I think the liquid is too cold to be sweat, and more importantly, I can feel it increasing.

“When I inform Chris and Shane of this, we immediately receive the order to ‘terminate’ the sortie. I’m instructed to go back to the airlock.

“Together we decide that Chris should secure all the elements that are outside before he retraces his steps to the airlock, ie he will first move to the front of the station. And so we separate. As I move back along my route towards the airlock, I become more and more certain that the water is increasing. I feel it covering the sponge on my earphones and I wonder whether I’ll lose audio contact. The water has also almost completely covered the front of my visor, sticking to it and obscuring my vision.

“By now, the upper part of the helmet is full of water and I can’t even be sure that the next time I breathe I will fill my lungs with air and not liquid.

“To make matters worse, I realise that I can’t even understand which direction I should head in to get back to the airlock. I try to contact Chris and Shane.

“I listen as they talk to each other, but their voices are very faint now. I can hardly hear them and they can’t hear me. I’m alone. I frantically think of a plan. It’s not much, but it’s the best idea I have: to follow the cable to the airlock.

“Finally, with a huge sense of relief, I peer through the curtain of water before my eyes and make out the thermal cover of the airlock: just a little further and I’ll be safe.

“Moving with my eyes closed, I manage to get inside and position myself to wait for Chris’ return. I sense movement behind me; Chris enters the airlock and judging from the vibrations, I know that he’s closing the hatch.

“Now that we are repressurising, I know that if the water does overwhelm me I can always open the helmet. I’ll probably lose consciousness, but in any case that would be better than drowning inside the helmet.

“The minutes of repressurisation crawl by and finally, with an unexpected wave of relief, I see the internal door open and the whole team assembled there ready to help.

“Space is a harsh, inhospitable frontier and we are explorers, not colonisers. The skills of our engineers and the technology surrounding us make things appear simple when they are not, and perhaps we forget this sometimes. Better not to forget.”

Luca Parmitano’s ESA blog is at:

Is Europa habitable?

Contact: Bill Schappert 914-740-2100 Mary Ann Liebert, Inc./Genetic Engineering News

Defining the scientific goals of a NASA mission to explore Jupiter’s moon

New Rochelle, NY, August 7, 2013—Europa, the ice-covered moon of the planet Jupiter, may be able to support life. NASA has commissioned a team of expert scientists to consider the science goals for a landed spacecraft mission to the surface of Europa, and to investigate the composition and geology of its icy shell and the potential for life within its interior ocean. The NASA-appointed Science Definition Team outlines the main priorities of a future lander mission to Europa to study its potential habitability in an article in Astrobiology, a peer-reviewed journal from Mary Ann Liebert, Inc., publishers. The article is available free on the Astrobiology website.

The article “Science Potential from a Europa Lander” presents the three main objectives of a future mission designed to land a robotic spacecraft on the surface of Europa and to investigate its potential to support life. NASA’s Science Definition Team has clearly identified three main priorities: investigate the composition and chemistry of Europa’s ocean; characterize the thickness, uniformity, and dynamics of its icy shell; and study the moon’s human-scale surface geology. In addition, the NASA-appointed team describes the types of studies and payload of instruments recommended to achieve these objectives.

R.T. Pappalardo and a large group of coauthors contribute a broad range of knowledge and expertise and represent leading government and academic institutions, including NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, managed by the California Institute of Technology (Pasadena), University of Colorado (Boulder), University of Texas at Austin, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center (Greenbelt, MD), NASA’s Ames Research Center (Moffett Field, CA), University of Iowa (Iowa City), NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center (Huntsville, AL), Southwest Research Institute (Boulder, CO), The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (Laurel, MD), Arizona State University (Tempe), and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Cambridge).

“Landing on Europa and touching its surface is a visionary goal of planetary science,” says Robert Pappalardo, PhD of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “This is a difficult technical challenge that is probably many years away. Understanding the key scientific questions to be addressed by a future Europa lander helps us to focus on the technologies required to get us there, and on the necessary data that might be attained by a precursor mission that could scout out landing sites. Europa is the most likely place in our solar system beyond Earth to have life today, and a landed mission would be the best way to search for signs of life.”

“Landing on the surface of Europa is a key step in the astrobiological investigation of that world,” says Christopher McKay, PhD, Senior Editor of Astrobiology and a scientist at NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, CA. “The paper by Pappalardo et al. outlines the science that could be done by such a lander. The hope would be that surface materials, possibly near the linear crack features, include biomarkers carried up from the ocean.”



About the Journal

Astrobiology, led by Sherry L. Cady, PhD and a prominent international editorial board comprised of esteemed scientists in the field, is the authoritative resource for the most up-to-date information and perspectives on exciting new research findings and discoveries emanating from interplanetary exploration and terrestrial field and laboratory research programs. The Journal is published monthly online with Open Access options and in print, and is the Official Journal of the Astrobiology Society. Complete tables of content and a sample issue may be viewed on the Astrobiology website.

About the Publisher

Mary Ann Liebert, Inc., publishers is a privately held, fully integrated media company known for establishing authoritative peer-reviewed journals in many promising areas of science and biomedical research, including New Space and High Altitude Medicine & Biology. Its biotechnology trade magazine, Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News (GEN), was the first in its field and is today the industry’s most widely read publication worldwide. A complete list of the firm’s more than 70 journals, books, and newsmagazines is available on the Mary Ann Liebert, Inc., publishers website.

A storm is coming: Sun’s poles are set to FLIP within four months and it could lead to bad weather and radio disruption

  • The sun’s  magnetic field reverses its polarity once every 11 years or so
  • Flip  represents a peak in solar activity where bursts of energy are  released
  • These  bursts can lead to space storms and changes to Earth’s  climate
  • Radio and  satellite communications may also be affected

By  Victoria Woollaston

PUBLISHED: 09:42 EST, 6  August 2013 |  UPDATED: 09:46 EST, 6 August 2013

The sun’s magnetic field is expected to flip  in the next three to four months and it could lead to changes in our climate,  storms and disruption to satellites.

This solar event only happens once every 11  years and signals what physicists call the Solar Maximum – a time when the Sun’s  solar activity is at its highest.

During this peak in activity the outbursts of  solar energy can increase the amount of cosmic and UV rays coming towards Earth  and this can interfere with radio communications, cause solar bursts of light –  known as flares – and can affect the planet’s temperature.

Physicists from Stanford University believe the Sun's magnetic fields will flip before the end of the year, reversing their polarity.  

Physicists from Stanford University believe the Sun’s  magnetic fields will flip before the end of the year, reversing their polarity.  This will cause an increase in solar energy and could lead to changes in climate  and satellite disruption. The reversal happens once every 11 years or  so



Solar Maximum peaks and troughs 

During the sun’s cycle the amount of solar  activity reaches peaks and troughs known as Solar Maximum and Solar Minimum.

During Solar Maximum the amount of solar  activity is at its highest due to a flip, or reversal, of the sun’s magnetic  field.

Since 1976 there have been three Solar  Maximums and they occur roughly every 11 years, although this can vary from  between nine and 14 years.

During a Solar Maximum, large numbers of  sunspots appear and the sun’s irradiance – or electromagnetic radiation – output  grows by around 0.1 per cent.

This increase in energy can impact global  climate and recent studies have shown some correlation with regional weather  patterns.

‘It looks like we’re no more than three to  four months away from a complete field reversal,’ solar physicist Dr Todd  Hoeksema of Stanford University told Nasa  Science.

‘This change will have ripple effects  throughout the solar system.’

The sun’s magnetic field reverses around  every 11 years at the peak of each solar cycle.

The last peak, or Solar Maximum, was in 2000  and Nasa initially predicted the next flip would take place between 2011 and  2012.

Physicists also warned at the time that the  next Solar Maximum could be the strongest yet.

Scientists at Stanford’s Wilcox Solar  Observatory have been studying the sun’s magnetic field since 1976, during which  time they have witnessed three reversals.

In 1859 a solar storm known as the 1859 Solar  Superstorm, or Carrington Event after Richard C Carrington who recorded the  event, saw numerous solar flares appear all over Earth.

It was so strong that the Northern  Lights –  a natural light display that appears predominantly in that  Arctic and Antarctic  regions and is caused by the collision of energetic  charged particles in the  magnetosphere and solar wind – were said to be  have been visible as far south  as Rome.

During Solar Maximum the amount of solar activity is at its highest. 

During Solar Maximum the amount of solar activity is at  its highest. A Solar Maximum causes large numbers of sunspots to appear. The  Sun’s irradiance – or electromagnetic radiation – output grows by about 0.1 per  cent during this time and this can lead to changes in climate and affect radio  communications


In 1859 a solar storm known as the Solar  Superstorm, or Carrington Event named after Richard Carrington who  recorded it,  saw numerous solar flares appear.

From 28 August 28 to 2 September sunspots and  solar flares were observed.

British astronomer Carrington  observed the  largest flare, which caused a major coronal mass ejection – a massive burst of  solar wind and magnetic field – to travel directly  toward Earth.

It was so strong that the Northern  Lights –  a natural light display that appears predominantly in that  Arctic and Antarctic  regions caused by the collision of energetic  charged particles in the  magnetosphere and solar wind – were said to be  have been visible as far south  as Rome.

Telegraph services were also  disrupted.

Solar flares created by changes in solar  activity also release X-rays and UV radiation.

These rays can affect Earth’s ionosphere – a  region of the upper atmosphere – and disrupt long-range radio communications.

Dr Phil Scherrer, also a solar physicist at  Stanford, explained that during a magnetic field reversal the Sun’s polar  magnetic fields lose strength and then stop all together before appearing again  the other way around.

The increase of solar bursts have  implications for a huge area; its influence extends billions of miles past  Pluto.

Changes in the magnetic field affect what’s  called the ‘current sheet.’

This sheet juts out for billions of miles  from the Sun’s equator where according to Science@Nasa, the star’s  slowly-rotating magnetic field includes an electric current.

Although the current of electricity is small,  there is a large amount flowing through a region around 10,000km  thick.

The heliosphere – a region of space and our  solar system that is directly influenced by the Sun and its solar activity – is  controlled by this sheet.

When a magnetic field flips it causes the  current sheet to become wavy, which Scherrer described to Science@Nasa as being  like the seams on a baseball.

As Earth orbits the Sun, the planet dips in  and out of the sheet and these transitions can cause stormy space  weather.

It can also affect cosmic rays, which are  particles that travel almost at light speed, and these rays can be dangerous to  astronauts and space stations. Some researchers believe these rays also directly  affect how cloudy Earth is.

Wilcox’s Solar Observatory is continuing to  monitor the changes and is set to release a statement when the reversal takes  place.


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CIA spooks investigate geoengineering to fix climate


You could say the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) is late to the geoengineering party – at least compared to its British counterpart. But it has now arrived, with an influential friend in tow: the CIA.

This week in Washington DC, a panel of experts convened by the NAS met for the first time to embark on a study that will consider the risks and benefits of engineering solutions to dangerous climate change by sequestering away carbon dioxide or reflecting solar radiation back out into space.

The Royal Society delivered a similar report in 2009, so it should come as no great surprise that the NAS is considering the pros and cons of geoengineering. But the fact that the study’s funders include the CIA has caused a media buzz. “Conspiracy theorists, rejoice!” noted Mother Jones, invoking memories of the Vietnam war when the US military seeded clouds in an attempt to turn the Vietcong’s supply lines into a quagmire.

In fact, the CIA’s main interest in geoengineering does not lie in any offensive use. Rather, the US intelligence community sees climate change as a potential threat to global geopolitical stability, and so wants a thorough analysis of the mitigation options. “On a subject like climate change, the agency works with scientists to better understand the phenomenon and its implications on national security,” says Ned Price, a CIA spokesperson.

Rogue actors

Given the CIA’s interest, the study may consider the danger of nations starting geoengineering projects unilaterally, benefiting themselves but posing problems for others. “An important issue to address is the question of rogue actors,” suggests panel member Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution Department of Global Ecology, based at Stanford University in California.

But the main focus of the final report, due in the second half of 2014, will be a scientific assessment of the feasibility of three or four proposed geogineering technologies – such as scattering sulphur dioxide aerosols high into the atmosphere to reflect the sun’s energy, or storing carbon dioxide in the deep ocean. The panel will also consider the risks, which in the latter case would include accelerating ocean acidification.

In addition to the NAS and the CIA, the project is backed by the two leading US government agencies that monitor the changing climate: NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Caldeira, who also worked on the Royal Society report, hopes the NAS study will break some new ground. “One thing the Royal Society didn’t do is map out what a geoengineering research programme would look like,” he says. “That’s one gap I would hope we can fill.”


Genetic medicine hints at bloodletting and vitamins for astronauts


BLOODLETTING and vitamin pills are the future for astronaut health regimes. So hints a provocative proposal on the benefits of personalised gene-based medicine for space travellers.

Humans in space are at risk of a variety of ailments, from brittle bones caused by low gravity to cancer triggered by cosmic radiation. Astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) already take supplements to counteract ill effects, such as vitamin D for bone strength.

But when travelling further into space, such as to an asteroid or Mars, astronauts will be exposed to radiation doses close to NASA’s acceptable lifetime limits, upping their chances of developing illnesses from damaged DNA.

To reduce each individual’s risk, we should examine their genome and then design countermeasures to protect against any potential problems, say Michael Schmidt of MetaboLogics in Fort Collins, Colorado, and Thomas Goodwin of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, in a forthcoming paper in Metabolomics.

The aim is not to weed out astronauts with deficiencies, but to ensure those who fly are in the best possible condition before they go to space, says Schmidt.

For example, certain gene mutations are known to reduce the stability of DNA, and this effect is amplified by a lack of folate. A person with the mutation could take folate supplements to protect against an increased risk of genetic damage from radiation exposure.

Reduced folate levels have also been linked to vision problems experienced by roughly a quarter of astronauts returning from the ISS. It is not yet clear whether the eye problems have a genetic component, but that is the kind of thing more focused research could reveal, says Schmidt.

Even a simple treatment like preflight bloodletting could prove useful when combined with genetic analysis, the pair say. People with a genetic mutation to build up iron in their bodies are at greater risk of radiation damage in space. An older male astronaut with the mutation will have built up high concentrations of iron over his lifetime (women are less at risk because they lose iron during menstruation). Bloodletting, along with an iron-restricted diet, could be an effective way to reduce this risk.

Genetic profiles can also help inform the types of drugs astronauts take into space, says Graham Scott of Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. He is looking at personalised medicine for Inspiration Mars, a private venture which plans to send humans on a fly-by of the Red Planet in 2018.

Roughly half of astronauts have experienced back pain during missions, which is treated in space with exercise and painkillers. But people with variants of the liver gene CYP2D6 can metabolise drugs such as the painkiller codeine too quickly, potentially leading to an overdose – and there is no hospital en route to Mars. Instead, if an astronaut is known to have this mutation they can be given a lower dose or an alternative treatment.

Jasper Rine of the University of California, Berkeley, says Schmidt and Goodwin’s proposal makes sense in principle, but we don’t yet know enough about gene variations to predict which astronauts will have gene-based health problems. And in the immediate future, he thinks deep-space pioneers will have bigger things to worry about. “Those with the courage to ride into space on a rocket built by the low bidder on a government contract face a wide range of risks,” says Rine.

This article appeared in print under the headline “Gene testing to help astronauts stay fit”


One giant leap for reptiles: Have alien-hunters found a lizard on Mars?


Samuel Muston

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

While studying pictures of Mars sent back to Earth by the Curiosity rover, a Japanese alien-enthusiast spotted something between the endless plain of rocks spread out on the screen in front of him. Could it really be? Is that a… lizard?

The answer is almost definitely no, the surface of Mars being on the toxic side to most fauna (decide for yourself – it’s the first image, above). But that undoubted fact hasn’t stopped there being a slew of other “sightings”. The gallery showcases some of our favourites.

Topping the list is the furry spiders from Mars (not David Bowie, ’fraid to say). Then “Martian face”, which looks like a chap buried up to his neck at the beach. The “finger” protruding from the ground is also another one that is either weird or, well, just a pebble. Then we come to the “footprint”, which looks so much like a rock with a light shone on it you wonder if all the enthusiasts need glasses. The final one on our list, and the one that sent a collective chill down the spine of The Independent, is the Martian yeti. Spooky.

‘Chinese’ attack sucks secrets from US defence contractor


Comment Crew blamed for three-year attack on QinetiQ

By Phil Muncaster

Posted in Security, 2nd May 2013 04:54 GMT

Free whitepaper – Hands on with Hyper-V 3.0 and virtual machine movement

Just when it looked like US-China relations couldn’t get any more frosty, news has emerged that defence contractor QinetiQ suffered a massive breach of classified data over three years which may have leaked advanced military secrets to the infamous PLA-linked hacking gang Comment Crew.

Bloomberg [1] spoke to Verizon’s Terremark security division, HB Gary and Mandiant – all security firms which were hired by QinetiQ to deal with the problem – and sifted through reports and emails made public by the 2011 Anonymous hack of HBGary [2], in order to get a clear picture of the scale of the breach.

The report reveals poor security practice and misjudgement allowed the hackers to siphon off terabytes of data, potentially compromising national security.

“We found traces of the intruders in many of their divisions and across most of their product lines,” former Terremark SVP Christopher Day told the newswire. “There was virtually no place we looked where we didn’t find them.”

QinetiQ is thought to have been among around 30 defence contractors targeted by hackers in a campaign dating back to 2007, with a group Comment Crew apparently pegged by investigators as the perpetrators – although there’s no explanation for how they arrived at this decision.

The group was famously outed by Mandiant [3] in a high profile report back in February as linked to People’s Liberation Army Unit 61398 and responsible for over 100 other attacks.

QinetiQ was apparently first notified of an intrusion back in 2007, when an agent from the Naval Criminal Investigative Service warned that two employees working at the firm’s US HQ in McLean, Virginia, had their laptops compromised.

The agent had stumbled upon the breach as part of a separate investigation but apparently left out many key details including the fact that other contractors were being hit. QinetiQ limited the following forensic trawl to a few days and mistakenly treated it and several succeeding incidents as unconnected.

Even when NASA warned the firm that it was being attacked by hackers from one of QinetiQ’s computers the firm apparently continued to treat incidents in isolation.

The attackers’ MO appears to have been classic APT-style attack. Once inside the network they appear to have moved laterally to nab internal passwords, allowing them access to highly classified data including source code from the Technology Solutions Group.

Huge amounts of data were apparently smuggled out of the company in small packets to evade detection by traditional filters.

It is claimed that QinetiQ didn’t operate a two-factor authentication system, which could have prevented the hackers logging on with the stolen passwords, and that when Mandiant suggested a simple fix to the problem it was ignored.

Investigators also found in 2008 that QinetiQ’s corporate network could be accessed using unsecured Wi-Fi from a car park outside a facility in Waltham, Massachusetts, the report claimed.

The hackers targeted advanced drone and robotics technology and compromised hundreds of machines in QinetiQ’s facilities all over the US, including St. Louis, Mississippi, Alabama and New Mexico, according to Bloomberg.

Last year China made a splash [4] at the Zuhai air show with a range of drone aircraft similar in design to their US equivalents but pitched at a lower price point.

As if the persistent hacking incursions weren’t enough, investigators brought in to help apparently made matters worse by arguing with each other.

Then software installed by HBGary to monitor for malicious activity wouldn’t function properly and was deleted by many employees because it apparently used too much processing power.

The investigators even found evidence that Russian hackers had been stealing QinetiQ secrets for over two years through a compromised PC belonging to a secretary.

The report comes just a day after news that the Pentagon has leased a Chinese commercial satellite [5] for communications in Africa. It also emerged this week that Comment Crew is very much still operating [6], despite being named and shamed in the Mandiant report earlier this year. ®

Russia develops new-type spaceship

2011 август Фото ГР Владимир Поповкин
Vladimir Popovkin

Photo: The Voice of Russia

Russia is developing a principally new type of a spaceship for interplanetary flights, the head of the Roscosmos Space Agency told reporters on April 12, which is traditionally marked as Cosmonautics Day in Russia.

 “We are already through with the technical design and the first unmanned mission by this new spacecraft is slated for 2018,” Vladimir Popovkin said.

 He also mentioned the ongoing upgrade of the workhorse Soyuz spaceship with a digital flight control system and a advanced rendezvousing system. Engineers are now working on a new engine and life-support system, Popovkin added.

 Voice of Russia, TASS


Was there a Chinese spy at NASA? Fleeing researcher ‘carrying hard drive and laptops’ arrested on China-bound plane at Virginia airport

By  Daily Mail Reporter

PUBLISHED: 11:20 EST, 20  March 2013 |  UPDATED: 11:23 EST, 20 March 2013


Arrest: Bo Jiang, who worked for NASA, 'failed to disclose the devices he was taking back to China' 

Arrest: Bo Jiang, who worked for NASA, ‘failed to  disclose the devices he was taking back to China’

A Chinese national who worked for NASA has  been arrested at Dulles International  Airport on a one-way ticket to China while potentially carrying highly  confidential U.S. military secrets.

Bo Jiang, who worked for a NASA contractor at  its Langley Research Facility in Hampton, Virginia, was  leaving the country ‘abruptly’ to return to China, according to an FBI  affidavit.

Agents arrested him as the plane pulled away  from the gate on Saturday night after whistleblowers suggested he had previously  taken confidential material out of the country.

He was questioned over the electronic devices  he was carrying, and said he had a cell phone, a memory stick, an external hard  drive and a new computer, the affidavit said.

But agents also found other items, including  another laptop, an old hard drive and a SIM card, leading to charges that he  lied to federal investigators.

He appeared in federal court in  Norfolk on  Monday and will remain in custody at least until a detention  hearing on  Thursday, CBS  reported.

Rep. Frank Wolf, whose district includes the  research facility, accused Jiang of being ‘a Chinese spy’ during a news  conference on Capitol Hill.

Workplace: Jiang had previously taken confidential military information from his workplace at NASA's Langley Research Center in Virginia to his native China, according to whistleblowers 

Workplace: Jiang had previously taken confidential  military information from his workplace at NASA’s Langley Research Center in  Virginia to his native China, according to whistleblowers

Wolf said he spoke out after whistleblowers  at NASA contacted him to say Jiang and other Chinese nations have taken their  research work to China.

Wolf first named Jiang at  a press conference on March 7, saying that he had previously had unauthorized  access to  sensitive NASA documents, which he might have taken to  China in  2012.

Speaking out: Rep. Frank Wolf accused Jiang of being 'a Chinese spy' during a news conference 

Speaking out: Rep. Frank Wolf accused Jiang of being ‘a  Chinese spy’ during a news conference

The information ‘would be of the greatest  interest to foreign spies, including China’, Wolf said.

He  said Jiang worked on programs for ‘source  code for high technology imaging’ that could be used by the Chinese military.

‘What they did here potentially could be a  direct threat to our country,’ Wolf told Discovery News.

‘The Chinese have the most comprehensive  spying program in Washington that has ever been. They make the KGB look like  they were the junior varsity or freshman team.’

FBI special agent Rhonda Squizzero said the  FBI reviewed these whistle-blower reports that it received from Wolf’s office on  March 13 and concluded that the information was ‘reliable’.

The arrest followed these reports, according  to the complaint.

‘Although we won’t know the nature of the  information on the hard drives until the FBI fully reviews it, we know that Mr.  Jiang has in the past taken sensitive information back to China that he should  not have been allowed to remove from Langley,’ Wolf said

On Tuesday, NASA spokesman  Michael Cabbage said that the  space agency referred a ‘potential security  breach at our Langley  Research Facility’ to investigators earlier this  month.

Seized: He was stopped as his plane was pulling out of Dulles International Airport (pictured) on Saturday 

Seized: He was stopped as his plane was pulling out of  Dulles International Airport (pictured) on Saturday

He did not mention Jiang by name, but said  that ‘the agency takes any allegation of a security violation very seriously’,  CBS reported.

Jiang was employed by a Virginia based NASA  contractor, the National Institute of Aerospace.

The Langley Research Center is the base for  classified research programs into U.S.  space defense technologies.

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The Bermuda Triangle of Space: The High-Energy South Atlantic Anomaly Threatens Satellites

Mar. 12, 2013 – 06:16PM   |  By JIM HODGES   |


Much fanfare accompanied the Sept. 25, 2010, launch of the Air Force’s Space Based Space Surveillance satellite. The $833 million craft was finally going up to do its job: monitor orbiting items from space itself, free of the time constraints and atmospheric interference that hamper its earthbound counterpart, the Space Fence. Its 30-centimeter telescope, mounted on a two-axis gimbal, would help keep tabs on satellites as far away as geosynchronous orbit as well as thousands of bits of space junk closer in. The builders said SBSS would be on the job within 60 days, and forecast a working life of at least 5½ years.

Shortly after launch, the satellite passed over the South Atlantic, and things went awry. The satellite was hit by radiation that sent the sensors reeling and knocked out an electronics board payload. Suddenly, the expensive, specially-designed satellite could no longer do what it was built for.

The effects of radiation are part of the price of doing business in space. There are solar flares, random magnetic distortions and what some NASA scientists call euphemistically the “killer electrons” of the Van Allen radiation belts. The place where spacecraft are most vulnerable, though, is an area slightly larger than the United States, centered 300 kilometers off the coast of Brazil, where the trapped charged particles of the doughnut-shaped Van Allen radiation belts and cosmic rays from sun storms combine and bottom out at about 200 kilometers above the planet. Its formal name is the South Atlantic Anomaly, but some call it the Bermuda Triangle of space.

It’s directly in the path of satellites in low Earth orbit, which fly through it regularly — in some cases, multiple times a day.

“The South Atlantic Anomaly is the rocky road of radiation storms,” said Vic Scuderi, manager of satellite electronics at BAE Systems in Manassas, Va.

NASA scientists believe that there is a cloud of protons, followed by a cloud of electrons, followed by a cloud of protons, etc., where the inner Van Allen radiation belt dips down in the anomaly.

“A lot of theoretical people have tried to justify it,” said Old Dominion University professor Francis Badavi. “The typical spacecraft engineer hasn’t been able to come up with a reason” for it.

All they know is that radiation in the South Atlantic Anomaly is intense, that spacecraft have to be designed to deal with it and that, even then, there is potential for peril.


Scientists have a working theory that the Earth’s magnetic field is caused by its molten iron center. Because that core rotates at a slightly different pace than the planet’s surface, the field generates magnetic North and South poles slightly away from the geographic poles that form the Earth’s rotational axis.

That’s the explanation for something even every hiker knows: that the magnetic north shown on a compass is not true north.

That offset also is believed to be the reason that the Earth’s magnetic field is weakest in the area off Brazil. Less hindered, the inner Van Allen radiation belt dips closest to Earth there.

The anomaly was discovered in 1958 as part of a study of space radiation belts by University of Iowa physicist James Van Allen, whose suspicion was aroused by the Soviet Union’s Sputnik satellites. Soviet scientists believed the primitive data-recording device on board Sputnik I was faulty because it told of radiation levels well beyond anything they believed possible.

But Van Allen postulated that the device was fine and that the inexplicable radiation did indeed exist. Four months after Sputnik went up, the U.S. launched its first satellite, Explorer I, and Van Allen began to investigate the radiation belts that today bear his name.

In the 1960s and early ’70s, the Air Force and NASA flew a covey of 22 satellites to map the Van Allen radiation belts between altitudes of 200 and 36,000 kilometers. The flights generated databases that are still in use today.

On Aug. 30, NASA launched its Radiation Belt Storm Probes (later renamed Van Allen Probes), twin satellites on a two-year mission to do more mapping and to update those databases. Shielded by quarter-inch aluminum, the sensors are flying into the radiation belts for long periods, trying to solve a puzzle. Sometimes, when solar storms hit the belts, they fill with energetic particles, the so-called “killer electrons.” At other times, the belts lose particles. And sometimes nothing at all happens.

“The problem is, there is no unified idea of what phenomena are most important inside the belts,” said mission scientist David Sibeck. “If there are 100 people at a [scientific] meeting, there will be 100 answers for every question: ‘How are ‘killer electrons’ energized?’ “


The Space Based Space Surveillance satellite that was bashed so badly in 2010 was eventually brought back to life. A software patch was developed and tested over the course of more than a year, and the SBSS was declared operationally capable 23 months after launch.

SBSS builders Boeing and Ball Aerospace referred questions to the Air Force, which did not respond by press time.

The satellites’ fate illustrates the problems the South Atlantic Anomaly can cause even to the most well-planned ISR missions.

Tom Logsdon, a former Rockwell Collins engineer, now retired, explained that the radiation can confound the very heart of the software on a satellite.

“One of the things that happens is, you can get logic upsets,” Logsdon said. “You get a charged particle coming through the satellite, and it can flip some of the binary ones to binary zeros, and vice versa.

“Someone would have to upload the memory again or command it to reset, and it would start all over.”

Not every satellite damaged by the Anomaly takes so long to fix. In October, the SpaceX Dragon, part of a $1 billion contract with NASA to supply the International Space Station, suffered a single-event upset en route to docking with the ISS. A remote electronic unit became inoperable as the craft passed through the South Atlantic Anomaly. A quick power cycle and re-synching remedied the issue.

Other programs work around the Anomaly. To avoid exposing astronauts to intense radiation, spacewalks are not scheduled on the International Space Station when it’s passing through the Anomaly — which happens two to five times a day.

As a precaution, NASA engineers simply shut down the Hubble Telescope as it is going through the SAA, to protect its equipment. Smaller commercial and military satellites carry radiation detection devices — themselves vulnerable to radiation — that trigger shutdowns and power-ups of sensors and computers.

Satellites carry radiation-hardened electronics of varying degrees to deal with the energy that accumulates.

“Commercial and defense-contracted satellites are typically on a 15-year mission timeframe, and they have to withstand hammering the whole time,” BAE’s Scuderi said. “The electronics that we put on board the satellites can accumulate up to 500,000 rads” or radiation absorbed doses.

“A human being can only absorb about 400 rads in a lifetime,” he said, by way of comparison. That accumulative effect is called a “total ionizing dose,” and it’s largely predictable, in part because orbital trips through the SAA are predictable. As the ions pile up, the satellite can become impaired.

“Solar arrays become less efficient,” Logsdon said. “Silicon solar cells get damaged, so they generate less electricity.”


On March 8, 2012, a flurry of eruptions on the sun began sending enough energy into the Earth’s upper atmosphere to power every home in New York City for two years. Over three days, 26 billion kilowatt-hours pounded the thermosphere, which begins about 53 miles up. Infrared radiation from the thermosphere’s carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide re-radiated about 95 percent of that energy back into space. Some satellites orbiting Earth were hit going and coming by radiation that, NASA assessed, would cut their lives short. And there are more storms ahead because, this year, the planet reaches the apex of an 11-year solar event cycle.

Around the world, a satellite is launched about every four days with varying radiation mitigation capability, generally dictated by its budget. While the day-to-day radiation in the South Atlantic Anomaly and throughout the Van Allen radiation belts can be anticipated, the inability to predict solar storms makes the jobs of designers and operators more difficult. With more notice, operators could do things like shut down equipment to lessen vulnerability.

But they understand the problem.

“We can’t produce an accurate forecast for rain here on Earth more than three days ahead,” Scuderi said. “The number of variables in space is probably 10 to 100 times more than on Earth.”

Still, NASA and NOAA try, albeit with diminishing funding and satellites that are wearing out. The Radiation Belt Storm Probes twin-satellite mission is another in a long line of research efforts.

“We’ve spent a lot of resources trying to predict solar activity, but we’re still not there,” Badavi said.

A former DoD intelligence official said the South Atlantic Anomaly is just part of the ISR challenge.

“We’re just lucky,” he said, “there’s not a lot of demand for satellite imagery over the South Atlantic.|newswell|text|FRONTPAGE|p


Mars has Front-Row Seat for 2014 Comet

Comet Siding Spring (C/2013 A1), discovered in January and now inbound from the Oort Cloud, promises to put on a spectacular show in October 2014 — for the spacecraft on and around Mars.
We’re just a couple weeks away from getting decent naked-eye views of Comet PanSTARRS, and later this year we might be treated to even better views of Comet ISON.
But to see a really amazing spectacle, comet-lovers are imagining how they might magically transport themselves to the ruddy plains of Mars late next year.

Mars and Comet Siding Spring

How close will Comet Siding Spring (C/2013 A1) comet to Mars in October 2014? Early predictions suggest a collision is possible.
JPL Horizons

That’s because Comet Siding Spring (C/2013 A1) is going to pass very close to the Red Planet on October 19, 2014. Right now celestial dynamicists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory think the comet should miss the planet by about 32,000 miles (50,000 km), but there’s still about a 1-in-10,000 chance of an outright collision.
You can follow the comet’s interplanetary motion using the excellent orbit simulator provided by JPL’s Horizons website. (Here’s a comical adaptation of that site’s output by Rob Kaufman of Australia’s Bright Astronomy Club.)

Ace comet sleuth Rob McNaught discovered this object on January 3rd using the Uppsala Schmidt Telescope at Siding Spring Observatory in Australia. (Notably, this came just 10 days before a wildfire overran part of the observatory, destroying his home and others’.) Almost immediately, astronomers in Arizona found the object in Catalina Sky Survey images taken a month earlier.
Those observations, combined with others chipped in by observatories elsewhere, show that the comet has a highly inclined, retrograde orbit that will come no closer than 1.4 astronomical units (140 million miles) to the Sun. That’s nowhere near Earth, but 1.4 a.u. is just about at the orbit of Mars.
A few days ago Russian amateur (and comet discoverer) Leonid Elenin identified the comet’s close approach to the Red Planet next year. Turns out he wasn’t the first to notice. “The JPL small-body system automatically checks for close approaches to all planets and the Moon,” comments dynamicist Paul Chodas, “and we’ve been monitoring this impact probability for several weeks now.”
As they draw closer together, the two bodies will be racing toward one another at 35 miles (56 km) per second, and early estimates suggest that the nucleus of C/2013 A1 could be 30 or 40 miles across. So a collision would mean a very bad day (er, sol) on Mars. Purdue impact specialist H. Jay Melosh ran the numbers using a powerful crater calculator he developed. Since no one yet knows how big the nucleus actually is, he ran simulations using diameters of 5 and 30 miles (8 and 50 km).
Both simulations yielded craters at least 6 miles (10 km) deep. The smaller assumption creates a basin 100 miles (160 km) across. But the larger one’s outcome is off the charts: an enormous pit more than 500 miles (800 km) across. Size-wise, this would be one of the top 10 impacts ever on the Red Planet!
“These would be really big holes in the ground,” Melosh says. “But since the average recurrence interval for such large craters is very long, we would have to be very, very lucky to have such a thing happen in our lifetimes.”

Comet Siding Spring as seen from Mars

This plot shows how Comet Siding Spring (C/2013 A1) will appear as seen from Mars. The “best observing” occurs when the comet’s total brightness is at least magnitude 12 and its elongation from the Sun is 30° or larger. Click on the image for a larger view.
Jon Giorgini / NASA / JPL

Hit or miss, Comet Siding Spring is going to put on one helluva show as seen from Mars. As calculated by small-body aficionado Bill Gray, the comet will approach Mars from the south and sweep into its northern-hemisphere skies over just a few hours. “It probably won’t reach the magnitude -8.8 shown in the ephemeris,” he cautions. “Still, maybe it’ll be bright enough (and suitably placed) for something on Mars to get a nice picture or two.”

That possibility hasn’t escaped the notice of NASA mission managers. Right now three craft are circling the Red Planet right now (Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars Odyssey, and ESA’s Mars Express), and both Curiosity and Opportunity are roving its surface. Potentially any of them might be commanded to take some comet pictures.
For example, one of Curiosity’s Mast Cameras has a 100-mm focal length and color capability. If the comet performs as expected, says Michael Ravine of Malin Space Science Systems, which built the cameras, some imaging will definitely be planned. “I’m imagining the bright comet spectacularly positioned over a landscape that includes Mount Sharp,” he muses.
Or what about MRO? It’s got a bunch of “imaging assets.” So I put the question to MRO project scientist Richard Zurek.
“Just off the top of my head,” Zurek replies, “there are several instruments that could come into play: MARCI with its multi-color imaging (including in the ultraviolet), CTX with its moderately high resolution in a wide field of view, and CRISM and MCS can add information in the near and mid infrared. Most of this would be focused on the coma for CTX and and the rest on the tail, depending on comet’s evolution. And of course we would try something with HiRISE with its very high spatial resolution (possibly many pixels on the nucleus), assuming the slew rates of the spacecraft are reasonable.
But C/2013 A1 poses danger for these craft as well. The comet should pass by close enough to completely immerse Mars in its gas-and-dust coma. Who knows what might rain down onto the Martian surface?
One way or another, it should be quite a spectacle!

‘Close’ encounters of the asteroid kind: 130,000 ton asteroid to make closest ever fly-by of Earth: “within 32,000km of earth”

2012 DA14 asteroid pass within 32,000km of earth, inside the orbit of communication satellites

Rob Williams

Monday, 4 February 2013

A chunk of space rock 50 metres wide, weighing 130,000 tonnes and travelling at 17,400mph is set to make its closest fly-by of earth ever later this month.

The snappily named 2012 DA14 will miss earth by a mere 17,200 miles when it passes the planet inside the orbit of many of our geosynchronous communication satellites.

Despite its relatively small size the rock would produce the equivalent of 2.5 megatons of TNT if it hit earth.

Although 2012 DA14 is no threat to the planet it is just one of 500,000 rocks circling the Earth.

The asteroid, which was discovered last year, is known as a Near-Earth Object because its orbit makes it a potential impact threat at some point.

Fortunately, it will not hit us this time or at any date in the predictable future.

Despite its size amateur astronomers using small telescopes and binoculars should be able to see the asteroid, as it races across the sky.

Last year, in December, a larger 5 km-wide asteroid called Toutatis sped by the earth at a distance of 7 million km and was imaged by Chaina’s Chang’e 2 space probe and by radar by radio telescopes on Earth.

2012 DA14 will pass the earth on 15 February, its progress will be visible in a dark sky in regions stretching from Australia, through Asia to Europe.

According to Nasa the asteroid will travel quickly from the southern evening sky into the northern morning sky, with its closest Earth approach occurring about 19:26 UTC.

Nasa says the best view for astronomers will be from Indonesia while stargazers in Eastern Europe, Asia and Australia able to get a good look at the asteroid.

Your body — not just a temple, but a laboratory too


by Brian Clegg The Observer Feb 1, 2013

1. Appendix to life

LONDON – The appendix gets a bad press. It is usually treated as a body part that lost its function millions of years ago. All it seems to do is occasionally get infected and cause appendicitis. Yet recently it has been discovered that the appendix is very useful to the bacteria that help your digestive system function. They use it to get respite from the strain of the frenzied activity of the gut, somewhere to breed and help keep the gut’s bacterial inhabitants topped up. So treat your appendix with respect.

2. Supersized molecules

Practically everything we experience is made up of molecules. These vary in size from simple pairs of atoms, like an oxygen molecule, to complex organic structures. But the biggest molecule in nature resides in your body. It is chromosome 1. A normal human cell has 23 pairs of chromosomes in its nucleus, each a single, very long, molecule of DNA. Chromosome 1 is the biggest, containing around 10 billion atoms, to pack in the amount of information that is encoded in the molecule.

3. Atom count

It is hard to grasp just how small the atoms that make up your body are until you take a look at the sheer number of them. An adult is made up of around 7,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (7 octillion) atoms.

4. Fur loss

It might seem hard to believe, but we have about the same number of hairs on our bodies as a chimpanzee, it’s just that our hairs are useless, so fine they are almost invisible. We aren’t sure quite why we lost our protective fur. It has been suggested that it may have been to help early humans sweat more easily, or to make life harder for parasites such as lice and ticks, or even because our ancestors were partly aquatic.

But perhaps the most attractive idea is that early humans needed to cooperate more when they moved out of the trees into the savanna. When animals are bred for cooperation, as we once did with wolves to produce dogs, they become more like their infants. In a fascinating 40-year experiment starting in the 1950s, Russian foxes were bred for docility. Over the period, adult foxes become more and more like large cubs, spending more time playing, and developing drooping ears, floppy tails and patterned coats. Humans similarly have some characteristics of infantile apes — large heads, small mouths and, significantly here, finer body hair.

5. Goose bump evolution

Goose bumps are a remnant of our evolutionary predecessors. They occur when tiny muscles around the base of each hair tense, pulling the hair more erect. With a decent covering of fur, this would fluff up the coat, getting more air into it, making it a better insulator. But with a human’s thin body hair, it just makes our skin look strange.

Similarly we get the bristling feeling of our hair standing on end when we are scared or experience an emotive memory. Many mammals fluff up their fur when threatened, to look bigger and so more dangerous. Humans used to have a similar defensive fluffing up of their body hairs, but once again, the effect is now ruined. We still feel the sensation of hairs standing on end, but gain no visual bulk.

6. Space trauma

If sci-fi movies were to be believed, terrible things would happen if your body were pushed from a spaceship without a suit. But it’s mostly fiction. There would be some discomfort as the air inside the body expanded, but nothing like the exploding body parts Hollywood loves.

Although liquids do boil in a vacuum, your blood is kept under pressure by your circulatory system and would be just fine. And although space is very cold, you would not lose heat particularly quickly. As Thermos flasks demonstrate, a vacuum is a great insulator.

In practice, the thing that will kill you in space is simply the lack of air. In 1965 a test subject’s suit sprang a leak in a NASA vacuum chamber. The victim, who survived, remained conscious for around 14 seconds. The exact survival limit isn’t known, but would probably be one to two minutes.

7. Atomic collapse

The atoms that make up your body are mostly empty space, so despite there being so many of them, without that space you would compress into a tiny volume. The nucleus that makes up the vast bulk of the matter in an atom is so much smaller than the whole structure that it is comparable to the size of a fly in a cathedral. If you lost all your empty atomic space, your body would fit into a cube less than 1/500th of a centimeter on each side. Neutron stars are made up of matter that has undergone exactly this kind of compression. In a single cubic centimeter of neutron star material there are around 100 million tons of matter. An entire neutron star, heavier than our sun, occupies a sphere that is roughly the size across of the Isle of Wight.

8. Electromagnetic repulsion

The atoms that make up matter never touch each other. The closer they get, the more repulsion there is between the electrical charges on their component parts. It’s like trying to bring two intensely powerful magnets together, north pole to north pole.

This even applies when objects appear to be in contact. When you sit on a chair, you don’t touch it. You float a tiny distance above, suspended by the repulsion between atoms. This electromagnetic force is vastly stronger than the force of gravity — around a billion billion billion billion times stronger. You can demonstrate the relative strength by holding a fridge magnet near a fridge and letting go. The electromagnetic force from the tiny magnet overwhelms the gravitational attraction of the whole Earth.

9. Stardust to stardust

Every atom in your body is billions of years old. Hydrogen, the most common element in the universe and a major feature of your body, was produced in the big bang 13.7 billion years ago. Heavier atoms such as carbon and oxygen were forged in stars between 7 billion and 12 billion years ago, and blasted across space when the stars exploded.

Some of these explosions were so powerful that they also produced the elements heavier than iron, which stars can’t construct. This means that the components of your body are truly ancient: you are stardust.

10. The quantum body

One of the mysteries of science is how something as apparently solid and straightforward as your body can be made of strangely behaving quantum particles such as atoms and their constituents. If you ask most people to draw a picture of one of the atoms in their bodies, they will produce something like a miniature solar system, with a nucleus as the sun and electrons whizzing round like planets. This was, indeed, an early model of the atom, but it was realized that such atoms would collapse in an instant. This is because electrons have an electrical charge and accelerating a charged particle, which is necessary to keep it in orbit, would make it give off energy in the form of light, leaving the electron spiralling into the nucleus.

In reality, electrons are confined to specific orbits, as if they ran on rails. They can’t exist anywhere between these orbits but have to make a “quantum leap” from one to another. What’s more, as quantum particles, electrons exist as a collection of probabilities rather than at specific locations, so a better picture is to show the electrons as a set of fuzzy shells around the nucleus.

11. Red blooded

When you see blood oozing from a cut in your finger, you might assume that it is red because of the iron in it, rather as rust has a reddish hue. But the presence of the iron is a coincidence. The red color arises because the iron is bound in a ring of atoms in hemoglobin called porphyrin and it’s the shape of this structure that produces the color. Just how red your hemoglobin is depends on whether there is oxygen bound to it. When there is oxygen present, it changes the shape of the porphyrin, giving the red blood cells a more vivid shade.

12. Going viral

Surprisingly, not all the useful DNA in your chromosomes comes from your evolutionary ancestors — some of it was borrowed from elsewhere. Your DNA includes the genes from at least eight retroviruses. These are a kind of virus that makes use of the cell’s mechanisms for coding DNA to take over a cell. At some point in human history, these genes became incorporated into human DNA. These viral genes in DNA now perform important functions in human reproduction, yet they are entirely alien to our genetic ancestry.

13. Other life

On sheer count of cells, there is more bacterial life inside you than human. There are around 10 trillion of your own cells, but 10 times more bacteria. Many of the bacteria that call you home are friendly in the sense that they don’t do any harm. Some are beneficial.

In the 1920s, an American engineer investigated whether animals could live without bacteria, hoping that a bacteria-free world would be a healthier one. James “Art” Reyniers made it his life’s work to produce environments where animals could be raised bacteria-free. The result was clear. It was possible. But many of Reyniers’ animals died and those that survived had to be fed on special food. This is because bacteria in the gut help with digestion. You could exist with no bacteria, but without the help of the enzymes in your gut that bacteria produce, you would need to eat food that is more loaded with nutrients than a typical diet.

14. Eyelash invaders

Depending on how old you are, it’s pretty likely that you have eyelash mites. These tiny creatures live on old skin cells and the natural oil (sebum) produced by human hair follicles. They are usually harmless, though they can cause an allergic reaction in a minority of people. Eyelash mites typically grow to a third of a millimeter and are near-transparent, so you are unlikely to see them with the naked eye. Put an eyelash hair or eyebrow hair under the microscope, though, and you may find them, as they spend most of their time right at the base of the hair where it meets the skin. Around half the population have them, a proportion that rises as we get older.

15. Photon detectors

Your eyes are very sensitive, able to detect just a few photons of light. If you take a look on a very clear night at the constellation of Andromeda, a little fuzzy patch of light is just visible with the naked eye. If you can make out that tiny blob, you are seeing as far as is humanly possible without technology. Andromeda is the nearest large galaxy to our own Milky Way. But “near” is a relative term in intergalactic space — the Andromeda galaxy is 2.5 million light years away. When the photons of light that hit your eye began their journey, there were no human beings. We were yet to evolve. You are seeing an almost inconceivable distance and looking back in time through 2.5 million years.

16. Sensory tally

Despite what you’ve probably been told, you have more than five senses. Here’s a simple example. Put your hand a few centimeters away from a hot iron. None of your five senses can tell you the iron will burn you.

Yet you can feel that the iron is hot from a distance and won’t touch it. This is thanks to an extra sense — the heat sensors in your skin. Similarly we can detect pain or tell if we are upside down.

Another quick test. Close your eyes and touch your nose. You aren’t using the big five to find it, but instead proprioception. This is the sense that detects where the parts of your body are with respect to each other. It’s a meta-sense, combining your brain’s knowledge of what your muscles are doing with a feel for the size and shape of your body. Without using your basic five senses, you can still guide a hand unerringly to touch your nose.

17. Real age

Just like a chicken, your life started off with an egg. Not a chunky thing in a shell, but an egg nonetheless. However, there is a significant difference between a human egg and a chicken egg that has a surprising effect on your age. Human eggs are tiny. They are, after all, just a single cell and are typically around 0.2 mm across — about the size of a printed full stop. Your egg was formed in your mother — but the surprising thing is that it was formed when she was an embryo. The formation of your egg, and the half of your DNA that came from your mother, could be considered as the very first moment of your existence. And it happened before your mother was born. Say your mother was 30 when she had you, then on your 18th birthday you were arguably over 48 years old.

18. Epigenetic influence

We are used to thinking of genes as being the controlling factor that determines what each of us is like physically, but genes are only a tiny part of our DNA. The other 97 percent was thought to be junk until recently, but we now realize that epigenetics — the processes that go on outside the genes — also have a major influence on our development. Some parts act to control “switches” that turn genes on and off, or program the production of other key compounds. For a long time it was a puzzle how around 20,000 genes (far fewer than some breeds of rice) were enough to specify exactly what we were like. The realization now is that the other 97 percent of our DNA is equally important.

19. Conscious action

If you are like most people, you will locate your conscious mind roughly behind your eyes, as if there were a little person sitting there, steering the much larger automaton that is your body. You know there isn’t really a tiny figure in there, pulling the levers, but your consciousness seems to have an independent existence, telling the rest of your body what to do.

In reality, much of the control comes from your unconscious. Some tasks become automatic with practice, so that we no longer need to think about the basic actions. When this happens the process is handled by one of the most primitive parts of the brain, close to the brain stem.

However, even a clearly conscious action such as picking up an object seems to have some unconscious precursors, with the brain firing up before you make the decision to act. There is considerable argument over when the conscious mind plays its part, but there is no doubt that we owe a lot more to our unconscious than we often allow.

20. Optical delusion

The picture of the world we “see” is artificial. Our brains don’t produce an image the way a video camera works. Instead, the brain constructs a model of the world from the information provided by modules that measure light and shade, edges, curvature and so on. This makes it simple for the brain to paint out the blind spot, the area of your retina where the optic nerve joins, which has no sensors. It also compensates for the rapid jerky movements of our eyes called saccades, giving a false picture of steady vision.

But the downside of this process is that it makes our eyes easy to fool. TV, films and optical illusions work by misleading the brain about what the eye is seeing. This is also why the moon appears much larger than it is and seems to vary in size: the true optical size of the moon is similar to a hole created by a hole punch held at arm’s length.

Study finds significant microorganism populations in middle and upper troposphere

Contact: John Toon 404-894-6986 Georgia Institute of Technology

Bugs in the Atmosphere

In what is believed to be the first study of its kind, researchers used genomic techniques to document the presence of significant numbers of living microorganisms – principally bacteria – in the middle and upper troposphere, that section of the atmosphere approximately four to six miles above the Earth’s surface.

Whether the microorganisms routinely inhabit this portion of the atmosphere – perhaps living on carbon compounds also found there – or whether they were simply lofted there from the Earth’s surface isn’t yet known. The finding is of interest to atmospheric scientists, because the microorganisms could play a role in forming ice that may impact weather and climate. Long-distance transport of the bacteria could also be of interest for disease transmission models.

The microorganisms were documented in air samples taken as part of NASA’s Genesis and Rapid Intensification Processes (GRIP) program to study low- and high-altitude air masses associated with tropical storms. The sampling was done from a DC-8 aircraft over both land and ocean, including the Caribbean Sea and portions of the Atlantic Ocean. The sampling took place before, during and after two major tropical hurricanes – Earl and Karl – in 2010.

The research, which has been supported by NASA and the National Science Foundation, was scheduled to be published online January 28th by the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“We did not expect to find so many microorganisms in the troposphere, which is considered a difficult environment for life,” said Kostas Konstantinidis, an assistant professor in the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology. “There seems to be quite a diversity of species, but not all bacteria make it into the upper troposphere.”

Aboard the aircraft, a filter system designed by the research team collected particles – including the microorganisms – from outside air entering the aircraft’s sampling probes. The filters were analyzed using genomic techniques including polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and gene sequencing, which allowed the researchers to detect the microorganisms and estimate their quantities without using conventional cell-culture techniques.

When the air masses studied originated over the ocean, the sampling found mostly marine bacteria. Air masses that originated over land had mostly terrestrial bacteria. The researchers also saw strong evidence that the hurricanes had a significant impact on the distribution and dynamics of microorganism populations.

The study showed that viable bacterial cells represented, on average, around 20 percent of the total particles detected in the size range of 0.25 to 1 microns in diameter. By at least one order of magnitude, bacteria outnumbered fungi in the samples, and the researchers detected 17 different bacteria taxa – including some that are capable of metabolizing the carbon compounds that are ubiquitous in the atmosphere – such as oxalic acid.

The microorganisms could have a previously-unidentified impact on cloud formation by supplementing (or replacing) the abiotic particles that normally serve as nuclei for forming ice crystals, said Athanasios Nenes, a professor in the Georgia Tech School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences and School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.

“In the absence of dust or other materials that could provide a good nucleus for ice formation, just having a small number of these microorganisms around could facilitate the formation of ice at these altitudes and attract surrounding moisture,” Nenes said. “If they are the right size for forming ice, they could affect the clouds around them.”

The microorganisms likely reach the troposphere through the same processes that launch dust and sea salt skyward. “When sea spray is generated, it can carry bacteria because there are a lot of bacteria and organic materials on the surface of the ocean,” Nenes said.

The research brought together microbiologists, atmospheric modelers and environmental researchers using the latest technologies for studying DNA. For the future, the researchers would like to know if certain types of bacteria are more suited than others for surviving at these altitudes. The researchers also want to understand the role played by the microorganisms – and determine whether or not they are carrying on metabolic functions in the troposphere.

“For these organisms, perhaps, the conditions may not be that harsh,” said Konstantinidis. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there is active life and growth in clouds, but this is something we cannot say for sure now.”

Other researchers have gathered biological samples from atop mountains or from snow samples, but gathering biological material from a jet aircraft required a novel experimental setup. The researchers also had to optimize protocols for extracting DNA from levels of biomass far lower than what they typically study in soils or lakes.

“We have demonstrated that our technique works, and that we can get some interesting information,” Nenes said. “A big fraction of the atmospheric particles that traditionally would have been expected to be dust or sea salt may actually be bacteria. At this point we are just seeing what’s up there, so this is just the beginning of what we hope to do.”


The Georgia Tech team also included Natasha DeLeon-Rodriguez and Luis-Miguel Rodriguez-R from the Georgia Tech School of Biology, Terry Lathem from the Georgia Tech School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, and James Barazesh and Michael Bergin from the Georgia Tech School of Civil and Environmental Engineering. The Georgia Tech team received assistance from researchers Bruce Anderson, Andreas Beyersdorf, and Luke Ziemba with the Chemistry and Dynamics Branch/Science Directorate at the NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.

This research was supported, in part, by NASA grant number NNX10AM63G, by a GAANN Fellowship from the U.S. Department of Education, a NASA-NESSF fellowship, and by a National Science Foundation graduate research fellowship. The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of NASA, the Department of Education or the NSF.

Stolen NASA laptop contained private info on 10,000+ employees

By Stephen C. Webster Monday, December 17, 2012 15:55 EST


A data thief. Photo:, all rights reserved.

A laptop computer stolen from a vehicle of a NASA employee on Halloween contained sensitive, private information on more than 10,000 current and former NASA employees, an internal report revealed Monday.

As a result of the loss, NASA Inspector General Paul K. Martin explained that the nation’s space agency contracted with credit monitoring services to ensure the financial identities of their employees were protected — at a cost of up to $700,000. Talking Points Memo picked up the story shortly after the report’s publication.

The report (PDF) shines a light on NASA’s long-running, often-delayed data encryption efforts, which have been underway since last year but still appear to be lagging behind. A total of 107 NASA laptops have gone missing from 2011-2012, the report adds.

The report also notes that NASA “owns or leases upwards of 60,000 desktop and laptop computers,” but only about 34,000 of them have been brought up to standards on data security. That’s due to what Martin called “a lack of sufficient internal controls,” the decentralized nature of NASA’s IT management and repeated delays by HP Enterprise Services, which NASA hired to implement agency-wide encryption protocols.

All of the agency’s laptop computers are supposed to be fully encrypted by December 21, 2012, but Martin’s report says that’s a goal not likely to be met. Instead, the report recommended that NASA IT officials recommit to enforcing a ban on taking agency laptops offsite unless they’re fully encrypted.

“NASA takes information technology security very seriously and thanks the Inspector General for its recommendations for further strengthening NASA’s systems,” NASA spokesperson Bob Jacobs told Raw Story. “Most recently, NASA has accelerated its commitment to encrypting all agency laptops, encrypting more than 11,000 agency laptops in just the last few weeks. NASA has also implemented new policies and processes that will prevent future losses of personally identifiable information, such as directing that no NASA-issued laptops containing sensitive information can be removed from a NASA facility unless whole disk encryption software is enabled or the sensitive files are individually encrypted.”

Raw Story (

CU-Boulder team develops swarm of pingpong ball-sized robots

December 14, 2012

University of Colorado Boulder Assistant Professor Nikolaus Correll likes to think in multiples. If one robot can accomplish a singular task, think how much more could be accomplished if you had hundreds of them.

Correll and his computer science research team, including research associate Dustin Reishus and professional research assistant Nick Farrow, have developed a basic robotic building block, which he hopes to reproduce in large quantities to develop increasingly complex systems.

Recently the team created a swarm of 20 robots, each the size of a pingpong ball, which they call “droplets.” When the droplets swarm together, Correll said, they form a “liquid that thinks.”

To accelerate the pace of innovation, he has created a lab where students can explore and develop new applications of robotics with basic, inexpensive tools.

Similar to the fictional “nanomorphs” depicted in the “Terminator” films, large swarms of intelligent robotic devices could be used for a range of tasks. Swarms of robots could be unleashed to contain an oil spill or to self-assemble into a piece of hardware after being launched separately into space, Correll said.

Correll plans to use the droplets to demonstrate self-assembly and swarm-intelligent behaviors such as pattern recognition, sensor-based motion and adaptive shape change. These behaviors could then be transferred to large swarms for water- or air-based tasks.

Correll hopes to create a design methodology for aggregating the droplets into more complex behaviors such as assembling parts of a large space telescope or an aircraft.

In the fall, Correll received the National Science Foundation’s Faculty Early Career Development award known as “CAREER.” In addition, he has received support from NSF’s Early Concept Grants for Exploratory Research program, as well as NASA and the U.S. Air Force.

He also is continuing work on robotic garden technology he developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2009. Correll has been working with Joseph Tanner in CU-Boulder’s aerospace engineering sciences department to further develop the technology, involving autonomous sensors and robots that can tend gardens, in conjunction with a model of a long-term space habitat being built by students.

Correll says there is virtually no limit to what might be created through distributed intelligence systems.

“Every living organism is made from a swarm of collaborating cells,” he said. “Perhaps some day, our swarms will colonize space where they will assemble habitats and lush gardens for future space explorers.”

For a short video of Correll’s team developing swarm droplets visit For more information about CU-Boulder’s computer science department visit

GhostShell hackers release 1.6 million NASA, FBI, ESA accounts

Hacktivist crew signs off for Christmas

By Iain Thomson in San Francisco

Posted in Security, 11th December 2012 01:19 GMT

Free whitepaper – Enabling Datacenter and Cloud Service Management for Mid-Tier Enterprises

The hacking collecting GhostShell has announced it has finished operations for the year, but has signed off with a dump of around 1.6 million account details purloined from government, military, and industry.

“ProjectWhiteFox will conclude this year’s series of attacks by promoting hacktivism worldwide and drawing attention to the freedom of information on the net,” the group said in a statement [1].

“For those two factors we have prepared a juicy release of 1.6 million accounts/records from fields such as aerospace, nanotechnology, banking, law, education, government, military, all kinds of wacky companies & corporations working for the department of defense, airlines and more.”

The group claimed the accounts come from the ESA, NASA, Pentagon, Federal Reserve, Interpol, FBI, and firms in the aerospace and military contracting field, as well as some security companies. It also claims to have sent emails highlighting failures in 150 servers to the security chiefs of the hacked organizations.

The team mocked the efforts of law enforcement groups trying to track them down, and the security groups hired to help them. Some of GhostShell’s servers had been found, but they were empty, the group said, and of little importance.

However, there were plenty of so-called hidden websites used by online investigators that GhostShell says it has been following and infiltrating. It mocked attempts to hide these sites, saying they would always be watching.

It has been a busy couple of months for the group, which has been cited as an off-shoot of the Anonymous group. In August, around one million account details [2] from businesses were leaked, while in October it released student records [3] from the world’s top 100 universities. Last month it was the Russians’ turn [4], with 2.5 million records from government and businesses put online. ®

Rogue planet discovered: is the Mayan apocalypse coming?

ESO/L. Calçada/P. Delorme/Nick Risinger/R. Saito/VVV Consortium

Scientists observe orphan planet like Nibiru, but  it’s unlikely to destroy Earth next month

LAST UPDATED AT 16:05 ON Wed 14 Nov  2012


Rogue planet discovered: is the Mayan apocalypse coming?


NASA scientists could be forced to confront doomsday conspiracy theorists once again after astronomers identified the first ever ‘rogue planet’ just weeks before the Mayan apocalypse is predicted to destroy the world.


The ancient Mayan calendar comes to an end on December 21 this year and some believe that this will coincide with a cataclysmic, world-ending event. And one of the most popular doomsday scenarios involves another planet, known as Nibiru or Planet X, crashing into the Earth.


The existence of such wandering planets, which do not orbit a star but instead roam the cosmos, has been widely accepted, but one had never been found. Now an international team of astronomers based in Hawaii and Chile have observed one for the first time.


According to a paper published in the Astronomy and Astrophysics journal last month, astronomers spotted the orphan “in our neighbourhood”. It is said to be travelling through space with a group of young stars called the AB Doradus Moving Group.


“Although theorists had established the existence of this type of very cold and young planet, one had never been observed until today,” explained Etienne Artigau of the University of Montreal, one of the report’s authors.


Despite the spooky timing of the discovery, humankind can rest easy as the planet in question is actually 100 light years from earth and, unless it suddenly disappears down a worm hole, will not be crashing into us next month.


Perhaps aware of fears about Niburu or Planet X, the international team using telescopes in Hawaii and Chile have given the rogue planet a rather less catchy name, calling it CFBDSIR2149-0403.


“Rogue planets are believed to form in one of two ways: in much the same way as planets bound to stars, coalescing from a disk of dust and debris but then thrown out of a host star’s orbit, or in much the same way as stars but never reaching a full star’s mass,” explains the BBC.


The discovery will do little to calm the fears of those who believe that the apocalypse is almost upon us and could prompt Nasa to try to dampen speculation about Earth’s demise.


Last year Nasa astronomer David Morrison told the website Life’s Little Mysteries that there were two million websites “discussing the impending Nibiru-Earth collision” and that he got, on average, five emails a day about the rogue planet.


And just this week the organisation reiterated that the world would not end next month. “Nibiru and other stories about wayward planets are an internet hoax,” it insisted. “There is no factual basis for these claims. If Nibiru or Planet X were real and headed for an encounter with the Earth in 2012, astronomers would have been tracking it for at least the past decade, and it would be visible by now to the naked eye. Obviously, it does not exist.”


Read more:

NASA Suffers “Large” Data Breach Affecting Employees, Contractors, and Others

POSTED BY: Robert N. Charette  /  Wed, November 14, 2012

Yesterday, NASA sent a message to all NASA employees informing them of a data breach involving an agency stolen laptop.

According to the NASA message posted at, “On October 31, 2012, a NASA laptop and official NASA documents issued to a Headquarters employee were stolen from the employee’s locked vehicle. The laptop contained records of sensitive personally identifiable information (PII) for a large number of NASA employees, contractors, and others. Although the laptop was password protected, it did not have whole disk encryption software, which means the information on the laptop could be accessible to unauthorized individuals. We are thoroughly assessing and investigating the incident, and taking every possible action to mitigate the risk of harm or inconvenience to affected employees.”

The message goes on to state that NASA will be sending letters to affected individuals, once the agency figures out who they are, which may take up to 60 days. Those individuals receiving letters will be offered a free credit and ID monitoring service.

Meanwhile, NASA is urging employees to be suspicious of “any phone calls, emails, and other communications from individuals claiming to be from NASA or other official sources that ask for personal information or verification of it” since neither NASA nor its data breach specialist contractor, ID Experts, will be asking for such information.

The message then goes on to say that, “The Administrator is extremely concerned about this incident and has directed that all IT security issues be given the highest priority. NASA is taking immediate steps to prevent future occurrences of PII data loss.” The steps include requiring NASA-issued laptops that don’t have whole disk encryption software enabled or the sensitive files individually encrypted can’t leave a NASA facility and requiring the purging of sensitive files no longer required for immediate work. NASA plans to have all of its laptops running whole disk encryption software by 21 December 2012.

The NASA message ends in the usual way, “NASA regrets this incident and the inconvenience it has caused for those whose personal information may have been exposed.”

Why it has taken so long for NASA to finally decide to fully encrypt its laptops remains a mystery, given its long-time poor record on IT security. As noted at NASA Watch, NASA has a history of laptops with personally identifiable information being stolen, one as recently as March.

Maybe NASA decided to act this time because it involved a NASA Headquarters’ person who in all likelihood is very senior and should have known better than to possess a laptop with no data encryption.

Powerful nutrient cocktail can put kids with Crohn’s into remission

2009 study posted for filing

Contact: George Hunka
American Friends of Tel Aviv University

Tel Aviv University researcher promotes liquid nutrition to combat inflammatory bowel disease

Treating children with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) usually involves the same steroids-based medication prescribed to adults. But such treatments can have negative side effects for kids and teens dealing with IBD.

Dr. Raanan Shamir of Tel Aviv University’s Sackler School of Medicine and Schneider Children’s Medical Centre shows that there is another path to treating IBD in children: a nutritional formula that was first developed for astronauts. This supplement puts 60-70% of children with Crohn’s disease, a common IBD disorder, into remission ― a success rate similar to that of traditional steroid-based drugs, but without side effects like malnutrition and growth retardation.

Dr. Shamir recently reported his research in the Journal of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition.

Eating Like an Astronaut

Dr. Shamir’s research was inspired by the problem of malnutrition and growth retardation in children battling IBD. Steroids and other biological agents, the most common treatment for IBD, were having an adverse affect on the children’s growth, despite their effectiveness in adult patients.

It was a problem first tackled by NASA: How could astronauts most efficiently get their daily nutrients? The answer was a specially-designed powder that contains all the daily nutrients a person needs. Aboard spacecrafts, astronauts dine on this nutritional powder mixed with water. Since then, these powders have become a common item on the pharmacy shelf.

A similar concept works wonders for children suffering from IBD. “Prepared powder, with liquids, gives you all the nutritional requirements you need for the day,” Dr. Shamir explains. “We don’t know why these formulas work, and nobody has shown that any one formula is preferable to another. People have to be committed and eat nothing else during the period of time they are on nutrition therapy, and it is difficult to do ― but if they do it, they go into remission.”

To induce remission, children need to be on nutrition therapy for 6-8 weeks. And in order to maintain remission, 25-50% of their caloric intake must be supplied by nutrition therapy, sometimes for years. This is why children experiencing the treatment need the support of physicians, dieticians, psychologists, and of course their families.

Dr. Shamir’s quest to educate the international medical community about the benefits of nutrition therapy has been an uphill battle. “The acceptance of this is difficult,” he says. “You have to persuade the family. Not all physicians know it works, and it’s much easier to give someone a prescription than try to work with the child.”

A Replacement for Steroids

“In adults, studies have shown that steroids are more effective in the battle against IBD than nutrition-based therapies. I think it is easier to get compliance from children, especially when it involves their growth. For adults, growth is not a concern ― they just want to feel better,” explains Dr. Shamir.

Dr. Shamir and his team of researchers have worked to show the international medical community that nutrition was equal to steroids in the treatment of children with IBD. “We published the most recent meta-analysis to show that nutrition is as good as steroids as a first-line therapy for Crohn’s disease,” he says.

The next step in his research, says Dr. Shamir, is to “define exactly the role of nutrition in inducing remission in these patients, and the role of nutrition in maintaining remission.”




American Friends of Tel Aviv University ( supports Israel’s leading and most comprehensive center of higher learning. In independent rankings, TAU’s innovations and discoveries are cited more often by the global scientific community than all but 20 other universities worldwide. Internationally recognized for the scope and groundbreaking nature of its research programs, Tel Aviv University consistently produces work with profound implications for the future.

Tractor beam built from rings of laser light


Stand aside, Wesley Crusher: there’s a new tractor beam on deck that pulls objects using nothing more than laser light. The device has already grabbed NASA’s attention as it could one day prove useful on space missions.

It is well known that light can push on objects – this is the basis for using solar sails to propel a spacecraft. But getting light to pull on something is a bit trickier.

Previous laser-based tractor beams could act like tweezers to move particles, picking up the sample and putting it down a short distance away. A more recent version actually pulls on particles, but relies on temperature variations in the beam, which means it cannot function in space.

In 2011, researchers in China calculated that a type of laser called a Bessel beam, which puts out light in concentric rings, could be designed to make a particle inside the beam emit photons on the side facing away from the beam source. These photons should allow the particle to recoil towards the source. But nobody has so far managed to put the idea into practice.

David Ruffner and David Grier of New York University instead projected two Bessel beams side by side and used a lens to angle them so that they overlapped, creating a pattern of alternating bright and dark regions. Fine-tuning the beam caused photons in the bright regions to scatter toward the beam source, pushing a particle in the beam to the next bright region. The beam thus acts like a conveyer belt, constantly drawing the particle toward the source.

Micrometre moves

Ruffner and Grier used this set-up to move microscopic silica spheres suspended in water over distances of around 30 micrometres. This suggests that such beams could be used to move cells around in lab-on-a-chip devices that perform medical tests. The set-up can also work in air or in the vacuum of space.

This tractor beam set-up has stronger interactions with a wider range of microscopic objects than other versions, adds David McGloin of the University of Dundee, UK, who was not part of the team. “A lot of other tractor-beam technologies are often quite particle-specific,” he says.

The new tractor beam might be useful for collecting small dust or atmosphere samples from other worlds and delivering the particles to a robot for analysis.

“NASA contacted us,” says Ruffner. “They were wondering, can we put this on a space probe and get dust from a comet?” It is possible, he says, but not any time soon. “This is still very much in its infancy.”

Journal reference: Physical Review Letters, DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevLett.109.1

Russian beacon to track menacing asteroid Apophis



Monday, 08 October 2012


Russia’s space agency wants to send a mission to Apophis, the notorious asteroid which may change its course and eventually collide with Earth. It will plant a radio beacon, which will help track the celestial body and assess the risks it poses.




The 300-meter-wide asteroid first made headlines in 2004, when NASA reported that it has 1 chance in 223 of impacting on our planet in 2029. It was even named after the Ancient Egyptian evil god, archenemy of the sun god Ra.



But additional observations proved that it will pass by at the small, but safe, distance of some 36,000 kilometers from Earth. The close approach however may result in an unpredictable gravitational pull on Apophis, which would change its course and pose a danger in 2036, when it comes back.




To better assess the risks it poses to the civilization the Roscosmos plans a robotic mission to the asteroid, chief Vladimir Popovkin announced on Monday.


The plan is “to land a module on the surface of Apophis and set up a radio beacon there, which will work after the spaceship’s lifetime expires,” he said at the Space Research Institute in Moscow.


The beacon signal will allow astronomers to better calculate Apophis’ movement and the effect of the 2029 Earth flyby. The mission would not be launched before 2020.

Secret spy telescopes’ new role: helping Nasa hunt for life beyond solar system: Each as large as the Hubble observatory

Giant instruments designed to keep watch on Soviets have been given over to space research


  • Robin McKie, science edito The Observer,   Saturday 6 October 2012
The Carina Nebula

The Carina nebula: the new telescopes given to Nasa by spy chiefs could help scientists in the search for extraterrestrial life. Photograph: EPA

Officials at Nasa have been given an unexpected gift by American spy chiefs: a pair of space telescopes, each as large as the Hubble observatory.

The huge instruments were designed by the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), a secretive intelligence agency,  to peer down on sites in the Middle East and former Soviet Union. However, the project was cancelled and now Nasa has been presented with the leftover instruments. One group of astronomers has already begun work on plans to use a telescope to help in the hunt for life on other worlds.

“This is a gift that we have to take advantage of,” said Dr Matt Mountain, director of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland. “These are very large telescopes, and from their design specifications they appear ideal for carrying out large surveys of the heavens, including searches for Earth-like worlds orbiting stars near our solar system.”

The two telescopes donated by the NRO have mirrors 2.4 metres in diameter – the same as the Hubble observatory’s – and from space they could spot “a dime sitting on top of the Washington Monument”, according to a Nasa official.

The satellites appear to have been part of a massive spy satellite project that was axed several years ago after lengthy delays and vast cost overruns. More than $10bn of US government cash was spent on the Future Imagery Architecture project before it was ended. Leftover hardware was kept in stores in Rochester, New York, by ITT Exelis, one of the companies involved in designing the instruments. “It was certainly a huge project to judge from the size of the storage chambers that were built there,” said astronomer Alan Dressler, who recently visited the site. “The facility was clearly built on a grand scale and was capable of manufacturing dozens of space telescopes, as far I could see.”

The fact that Nasa had to struggle for years to raise funds for a single space telescope, the Hubble, while the defence establishment was building a plant in which these instruments could be mass manufactured may seem startling.

However, Dressler, who works at the Carnegie Observatories in Pasadena, California, sounded a note of caution. “The link between space telescopes and spy satellites is a close one and an intriguing one,” he said. “The technology that went into Hubble was in fact based on previous generations of orbiting surveillance telescopes and spy satellites. All that the defence industry did after that was to reverse the process and use the Hubble as a model for a new generation of spy satellites.”

This similarity may prove to be a godsend for astronomers. Space projects in the United States have suffered badly from severe cutbacks imposed on Nasa’s budgets – the agency was recently forced to withdraw from the proposed US-European Exo-Mars project, for example. The provision of two free space telescopes will therefore be a major boost for its space scientists, allowing them to cut at least $250m off the cost of a mission while allowing them to launch it several years earlier than scheduled.

An early beneficiary is likely to be the Wide-Field Infrared Space Telescope (W-First). It was expected to be launched in the mid-2020s and use a relatively modest 1.3m telescope to hunt for planets in orbit around stars and to search for dark energy, which is thought to permeate all space and which is accelerating the expansion of the universe. Thanks to the NRO, astronomers will be able to launch a bigger, better version of W-First before the end of the decade.

“With the money saved thanks to this gift from the NRO, we can add new instruments to W-First, including one called a coronagraph, which should help us pinpoint planets in orbit round other stars,” added Mountain.

“We have never put a coronagraph in space before and it is vital we perfect instruments like these if we are to use space observatories to look for life on other worlds in future. This is a wonderful chance to use military money for peaceful purposes.”

Lost in migration: Earth’s magnetic field overdue a flip

By Chris WickhamPosted 2012/10/03 at 11:41 am EDT

LONDON, Oct. 3, 2012 (Reuters) — The discovery by NASA rover Curiosity of evidence that water once flowed on Mars – the most Earth-like planet in the solar system – should intensify interest in what the future could hold for mankind.

The only thing stopping Earth having a lifeless environment like Mars is the magnetic field that shields us from deadly solar radiation and helps some animals migrate, and it may be a lot more fragile and febrile than one might think.

Scientists say earth’s magnetic field is weakening and could all but disappear in as little as 500 years as a precursor to flipping upside down.

It has happened before – the geological record suggests the magnetic field has reversed every 250,000 years, meaning that, with the last event 800,000 years ago, another would seem to be overdue.

“Magnetic north has migrated more than 1,500 kilometres over the past century,” said Conall Mac Niocaill, an earth scientist at Oxford University. “In the past 150 years, the strength of the magnetic field has lessened by 10 percent, which could indicate a reversal is on the cards.”

While the effects are hard to predict, the consequences may be enormous. The loss of the magnetic field on Mars billions of years ago put paid to life on the planet if there ever was any, scientists say.

Mac Niocaill said Mars probably lost its magnetic field 3.5-4.0 billion years ago, based on observations that rocks in the planet’s southern hemisphere have magnetisation.

The northern half of Mars looks younger because it has fewer impact craters, and has no magnetic structure to speak of, so the field must have shut down before the rocks there were formed, which would have been about 3.8 billion years ago.

“With the field dying away, the solar wind was then able to strip the atmosphere away, and you would also have an increase in the cosmic radiation making it to the surface,” he said.

“Both of these things would be bad news for any life that might have formed on the surface – either wiping it out, or forcing it to migrate into the interior of the planet.”


Earth’s magnetic field has always restored itself but, as it continues to shift and weaken, it will present challenges – satellites could be more exposed to solar wind and the oil industry uses readings from the field to guide drills.

In nature, animals which use the field could be mightily confused – birds, bees, and some fish all use the field for navigation. So do sea turtles whose long lives, which can easily exceed a hundred years, means a single generation could feel the effects.

Birds may be able to cope because studies have shown they have back-up systems that rely on stars and landmarks, including roads and power lines, to find their way around.

The European Space Agency is taking the issue seriously. In November, it plans to launch three satellites to improve our fairly blurry understanding of the magnetosphere.

The project – Swarm – will send two satellites into a 450 kilometre high polar orbit to measure changes in the magnetic field, while a third satellite 530 kilometres high will look at the influence of the sun.


Scientists, who have known for some time the magnetic field has a tendency to flip, have made advances in recent years in understanding why and how it happens.

The field is generated by convection currents that churn in the molten iron of the planet’s outer core. Other factors, such as ocean currents and magnetic rocks in the earth’s crust also contribute.

The Swarm mission will pull all these elements together to improve computer models used to predict how the magnetic field will move and how fast it could weaken.

Ciaran Beggan, a geomagnetic specialist at the British Geological Survey in Edinburgh, said studies have also refined our understanding of how the field reverses.

They have focused on lava flows. When these cool and form crystals the atoms in iron-rich molten rock align under the influence of the magnetic field, providing a geological memory of the earth’s field.

But that memory looks different in various locations around the world, suggesting the reversal could be a chaotic and fairly random process.

“Rather than having strong north and south poles, you get lots of poles around the planet. So, a compass would not do you much good,” said Beggan.

While the whole process takes 3,000-5,000 years, latest research suggests the descent into a chaotic state could take as little as 500 years, although there are significant holes in scientific understanding.

“Although electricity grids and GPS systems would be more vulnerable, we are not really sure how all the complex things that are linked together would react,” Beggan said.

(Editing by Dan Lalor)

Out-Of-This-World Nanoscience: A Computer Chip That Can Assemble Itself?

This image shows the work by UD’s Eric M. Furst, who reports new findings of how tiny particle building blocks can be directed to self-assemble into specific structures. (Credit: Image courtesy of University of Delaware)

ScienceDaily (Sep. 19, 2012) — Imagine a computer chip that can assemble itself. According to Eric M. Furst, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the University of Delaware, engineers and scientists are closer to making this and other scalable forms of nanotechnology a reality as a result of new milestones in using nanoparticles as building blocks in functional materials.

Furst and his postdoctoral researchers, James Swan and Paula Vasquez, along with colleagues at NASA, the European Space Agency, Zin Technologies and Lehigh University, reported the finding Sept. 17 in an article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) online edition.

The article details how the research team’s exploration of colloids, microscopic particles that are mere hundredths the diameter of a human hair, to better understand how nano-“building blocks” can be directed to “self-assemble” into specific structures.

The research team studied paramagnetic colloids while periodically applying an external magnetic field at different intervals. With just the right frequency and field strength, the team was able to watch the particles transition from a random, solid like material into highly organized crystalline structures or lattices.

According to Furst, a professor in UD’s Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, no one before has ever witnessed this guided “phase separation” of particles.

“This development is exciting because it provides insight into how researchers can build organized structures, crystals of particles, using directing fields and it may prompt new discoveries into how we can get materials to organize themselves,” Furst said.

Because gravity plays a role in how the particles assemble or disassemble, the research team studied the suspensions aboard the International Space Station (ISS) through collaborative efforts with NASA scientists and astronauts. One interesting observation, Furst reported, was how the structure formed by the particles slowly coarsened, then rapidly grew and separated — similar to the way oil and water separate when combined — before realigning into a crystalline structure.

Already, Furst’s lab has created novel nanomaterials for use in optical communications materials and thermal barrier coatings. This new detail, along with other recorded data about the process, will now enable scientists to discover other paths to manipulate and create new nanomaterials from nanoparticle building blocks.

“Now, when we have a particle that responds to an electric field, we can use these principles to guide that assembly into structures with useful properties, such as in photonics,” Furst added.

The work could potentially prove important in manufacturing, where the ability to pre-program and direct the self-assembly of functional materials is highly desired.

“This is the first time we’ve presented the relationship between an initially disordered structure and a highly organized one and at least one of the paths between the two. We’re excited because we believe the concept of directed self-assembly will enable a scalable form of nanotechnology,” he said.

Story Source:

The above story is reprinted from materials provided by University of Delaware. The original article was written by Karen B. Roberts.

Note: Materials may be edited for content and length. For further information, please contact the source cited above.

Journal Reference:

  1. J. W. Swan, P. A. Vasquez, P. A. Whitson, E. M. Fincke, K. Wakata, S. H. Magnus, F. D. Winne, M. R. Barratt, J. H. Agui, R. D. Green, N. R. Hall, D. Y. Bohman, C. T. Bunnell, A. P. Gast, E. M. Furst. Multi-scale kinetics of a field-directed colloidal phase transition. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2012; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1206915109

Can we finally break the speed of light? Nasa breakthrough suggests Star Trek’s ‘warp drives’ may not only be possible – but practical

  • NASA suggests new model which could reduce energy  requirements for warp-speed travel from planet-sized to car-sized
  • ‘Humble experiments’ in laboratory could  lead to faster-than-light travel

By Eddie Wrenn

PUBLISHED:04:13 EST, 18  September 2012| UPDATED:07:27 EST, 18 September 2012

As we take our virgin steps into space, there  is one thing that could always put a cap on our ambitions.

Despite our desire to explore the stars, we  are limited by travelling at less than light speed – and even if we managed to  match that pace, we would still be listing our voyages from star to star in  years, centuries or millenia.

But, in what could be a huge breakthrough,  theorists from Nasa say there is ‘hope’ that we can achieve faster-than-light  travel, after physicists found a theoretical possibility for warp speed  travel.

Space time mapped out: Teams at NASA are exploring ways to warp the universe to enable faster than light travel. Pictured is a model of how a ship, enclosed in a space-time 'doughnut', could reach the starsSpace time mapped out: Teams at NASA are exploring ways  to warp the universe to enable faster than light travel. Pictured is a model of  how a ship, enclosed in a space-time ‘doughnut’, could reach the stars

While nothing can break the speed of light,  scientists have long considered the fantasy of warp speed travel, where  spaceships could bend space and time on itself to move through loopholes in  space.

Equations based on the laws of relativity  have allowed warp speed in theory: but the energy required to make it happen  would require the energy-mass of a Jupiter-sized planet.

Mexican physicist Miguel Alcubierre’s  theories are the most practical, mooting a ring around a sphere-shaped  spaceship, which would contract space in front of the ship, and expand space  behind it.

This would allow faster-than-light travel –  if astrophysicists could harness planet-sized energy or sip power from a  supernova.

Weighing 50,000 tonnes and powered by nuclear fusion the journey time would be close to 50 years.The 100 year star ship symposium is investigating  various means by which we can travel to the stars, hoping to find a happy medium  between practical and far-fetched methods

But according to,  Harold ‘Sonny’ White, from NASA’s Johnson  Space Center, told the 100 Year Starship Symposium, a gathering of scientists,  writers and philosophers in Houston, that new theories could allow Man to reach  such speeds with less energy.

He told his audience that, instead of  enclosing a space-ship in a space time-bubble, a craft could sit within a  ‘doughnut’ shape – which means the warp drive could be powered by a mass the  size of a spacecraft like the Voyager 1 probe – the equivalent size of a small  car.

He told ”The findings I presented  today change it from impractical to plausible and worth further  investigation.

‘The additional energy reduction realized by  oscillating the bubble intensity is an interesting conjecture that we will enjoy  looking at in the lab.’

White and his team are experimenting with a  mini-version of a warp drive in their laboratory, using laser to try to warp  space and time in miniature.

He said his ‘humble experiment’ was ‘trying  to see if we can generate a very tiny instance of this in a tabletop experiment,  to try to perturb space-time by one part in 10 million.’

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