Monday, May 09, 2011

Astronomers Find Newly Discovered Asteroid Is Earth's Companion

Astronomers from the Armagh Observatory in Northern Ireland have found that a recently discovered asteroid has been following Earth in its motion around the Sun for at least the past 250,000 years, and may be intimately related to the origin of our planet.

The asteroid first caught the eye of the scientists, Apostolos "Tolis" Christou and David Asher, two months after it was found by the WISE infrared survey satellite, launched in 2009 by the United States. "Its average distance from the Sun is identical to that of the Earth,", "but what really impressed me at the time was how Earth-like its orbit was." Most near-Earth Asteroids -- NEAs for short -- have very eccentric, or egg-shaped, orbits that take the asteroid right through the inner solar system. But the new object, designated 2010 SO16, is different. Its orbit is almost circular so that it cannot come close to any other planet in the solar system except Earth.

The researchers set out to investigate how stable this orbit is and how long the asteroid has occupied it. To do that, they first had to take into account the current uncertainty in the asteroid's orbit. "Not knowing precisely the location of a newly-discovered NEA is quite common," explained Dr Asher. "The only way to eliminate the uncertainty is to keep tracking the asteroid for as long as possible, usually months or years." But the two scientists overcame that problem by creating virtual "clones" of the asteroid for every possible orbit that it could conceivably occupy. They then simulated the evolution of these clones under the gravity of the Sun and the planets for two million years into the past and in the future.

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Sunday, May 08, 2011

Comet Elenin: Preview of a Coming Attraction

Comet Elenin, was first detected on Dec. 10, 2010 by Leonid Elenin, an observer in Lyubertsy, Russia, who made the discovery "remotely" using the ISON-NM observatory near Mayhill, New Mexico. At the time of the discovery, the comet was about 647 million kilometers from Earth. Over the past four-and-a-half months, the comet has - as comets do - closed the distance to Earth's vicinity as it makes its way closer to perihelion. As of May 4, Elenin's distance is about 274 million kilometers.

"That is what happens with these long-period comets that come in from way outside our planetary system," said Don Yeomans of NASA's Near-Earth Object Program Office at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "They make these long, majestic, speedy arcs through our solar system, and sometimes they put on a great show. But not Elenin. Right now that comet looks kind of wimpy."

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Friday, May 06, 2011

Mars Express Sees Deep Fractures on Mars

Newly released images from the European Space Agency's Mars Express show Nili Fossae, a system of deep fractures around the giant Isidis impact basin. Some of these incisions into the martian crust are up to 500 m deep and probably formed at the same time as the basin.

Nili Fossae is a 'graben' system on Mars, northeast of the Syrtis Major volcanic province, on the northwestern edge of the giant Isidis impact basin. Graben refers to the lowered terrain between two parallel faults or fractures in the rocks that collapses when tectonic forces pull the area apart. The Nili Fossae system contains numerous graben concentrically oriented around the edges of the basin.

It is thought that flooding of the basin with basaltic lava after the impact that created it resulted in subsidence of the basin floor, adding stress to the planet's crust, which was released by the formation of the fractures.

A strongly eroded impact crater is visible to the bottom right of the image. It measures about 12 km across and exhibits an ejecta blanket, usually formed by material thrown out during the impact. Two landslides have taken place to the west of the crater. Whether they were a direct result of the impact or occurred later is unknown.

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Thursday, May 05, 2011

Mars Tribute Marks Memories of Shepard's Flight

The team exploring Mars via NASA's Opportunity rover for the past seven years has informally named a Martian crater for the Mercury spacecraft that astronaut Alan Shepard christened Freedom 7. On May 5, 1961, Shepard piloted Freedom 7 in America's first human spaceflight.

The team is using Opportunity this week to acquire images covering a cluster of small, relatively young craters along the rover's route toward a long-term destination. The cluster's largest crater, spanning about 25 meters , is the one called "Freedom 7." The diameter of Freedom 7 crater, about 25 meters, happens to be equivalent to the height of the Redstone rocket that launched Shepard's flight.

"Many of the people currently involved with the robotic investigations of Mars were first inspired by the astronauts of the Mercury Project who paved the way for the exploration of our solar system," said Scott McLennan of the State University of New York at Stony Brook, who is this week's long-term planning leader for the rover science team. Shepard's flight was the first of six Project Mercury missions piloted by solo astronauts.

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Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Dawn Reaches Milestone Approaching Asteroid Vesta

NASA's Dawn spacecraft has reached its official approach phase to the asteroid Vesta and will begin using cameras for the first time to aid navigation for an expected July 16 orbital encounter. The large asteroid is known as a protoplanet – a celestial body that almost formed into a planet.

At the start of this three-month final approach to this massive body in the asteroid belt, Dawn is 1.21 million kilometers (752,000 miles) from Vesta, or about three times the distance between Earth and the moon. During the approach phase, the spacecraft's main activity will be thrusting with a special, hyper-efficient ion engine that uses electricity to ionize and accelerate xenon. The 12-inch-wide ion thrusters provide less thrust than conventional engines, but will provide propulsion for years during the mission and provide far greater capability to change velocity. "We feel a little like Columbus approaching the shores of the New World," said Christopher Russell, Dawn principal investigator, based at the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA). "The Dawn team can't wait to start mapping this Terra Incognita."

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Monday, May 02, 2011

Plasmoids and Sheaths Mean Success or Failure for Solar Eruptions

Our Sun experiences regular eruptions of material into space, but solar physicists still have difficulty in explaining why these dramatic events take place. Now a group of scientists from the University of St Andrews think they have the answer: clouds of plasma constrained by magnetic fields and known as 'plasmoids' that struggle to break free of the Sun's magnetic field.

Active regions on the solar surface are often the site of eruptions. These are associated with magnetic fields from the solar interior rising to the surface and gradually expanding into the Sun's outer atmosphere, the corona, in a process known as magnetic flux emergence. The St Andrews team developed 3D computer models of these phenomena, revealing that the emergence of magnetic flux naturally leads to the formation and expulsion of plasmoids that adopt a twisted tube configuration.

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