Carnival of Space: 203

It’s Carnival time in the Gutter again! We’re hosting this week’s round-up of space and astronomy blogging news. If you’d like to find out more or get involved yourself check out the Carnival’s homepage over at Universe Today.

We’re kicking off this week with the massive Solar flare that exploded from the Sun on 7th June. The Chandra blog explains what they had to do to protect the satellite from the incoming radiation. If you didn’t see any of the movies of the flare, or if you’re unsure just how big this eruption was I strongly recommend the following, courtesy of Matt Parker:

Next up is the Pan-STARRS1 project which has discovered a new comet in the outer Solar System which could reach naked eye visibility in March 2013. One of the astronomers who discovered the comet Richard Wainscoat outlines how it was found and what we know about its orbit.

Virtual telescopes such as Google Sky, World Wide Telescope and Wiki Sky have allowed people to explore the sky in great detail at many different wavelengths, and look for their own mysterious sky objects. However, if you don’t have some understanding of what you’re looking at you can end up with misidentifications, such as the ones discsussed by the Astroblog for comet Elenin and the mythical planet Nibiru.

If you want to know more about why astronomers use many different wavelengths for their observations check out the first of Cheap Astronomy’s two part podcast series on astronomy across the electromagnetic spectrum.

Over to Mars now. Vintage Space looks at the challenges in designing and testing the parachutes that slow the descent of the landers that are sent there. Once they reach the surface the pictures they send back can seem very familiar – head over to The Meridiani Journal to see an excellent example of “mud polygons” or mud cracks on Earth, and their striking similarity to the bedrock terrain seen by Opportunity in Meridiani on Mars.

Could Saturn’s moon Enceladus have a salt-water ocean? NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has already confirmed that there’s liquid water below the surface, but now it may also have detected salt grains in the plumes of icy spray shooting up from its surface. Both Discovery News and Weirdwarp have the full story.

Next Big Future brings news of a new supersonic business jet concept, the SonicStar, which was unveiled at the Paris airshow. It promises flight times from Paris to New York of under 2 hours thanks to its revolutionary engine design. If you want to travel a little further though, they also have an interview with writer Keith Henson about his ideas for cheaper space launches using a combination of Skylon rocket planes and concentrated lasers.

There’s two slightly more offbeat offerings to end on. First, shhh, don’t tell anyone but Universe Today has been spying on spy satellites, thanks to the skill of astrophotographer extraordinaire Thierry Legault. Check out the post if you want to know how he does it.

Finally, could the forthcoming movie Iron Sky have any basis in fact? Everyone knows that WW2 Germany developed rockets far in advance of the Allies, but some argue that in 1945 the Third Reich was on the verge of developing a space program. Armagh Planetarium’s Astronotes finds out more.

Well, that’s it for this week. Hope you’ve enjoyed this somewhat surprising journey from solar flares to spies and Nazis!

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Water, Mars & Herschel (everyone else can, why can’t we?)

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The first set of results from the Herschel Space Telescope have been flooding out over the past couple of weeks*, so it’s about time they got a mention here. Rather than rehashing one of the many press releases, I thought I’d focus on an interesting result that I doubt will get much attention – the detection of water vapour (and carbon monoxide) on Mars with the spectrometer within the SPIRE instrument.

I have to be upfront about this; the reason why you probably won’t hear much about this is that detecting water on Mars, whilst important for understanding its water cycle, is nothing new, though it is only present in small amounts (900 parts per million according to these observations). It was first seen in the Martian atmosphere in 1963, and since then has been extensively studied with many different observatories. The Opportunity rover even sent back images of cirrus clouds that are very similar to those we see here on Earth:

So what is special about these Herschel observations? Well, the telescope was never expected to be able to make them, because Mars is around 100 times brighter than SPIRE was designed to cope with. (Imagine taking a picture with your digital camera in the direction of the Sun on a really sunny day – the image you get looks overexposed because the excess light has overloaded (saturated) it.) However, the instrument team, led by Bruce Swinyard, didn’t let that stop them – they found a way to ‘desensitize’ the detectors in the instrument and avoid this saturation problem, enabling the water vapour to be seen.

This might not be as flashy as some of the other early results from Herschel but it does illustrate how well its been performing over this first year. This new ‘bright source’ mode will open up new targets to observe that were previously thought impossible and personally I think that’s something worth mentioning!

* For more Herschel results have a look at this audio slideshow from the BBC. There’s also this movie from the European Space Agency celebrating Herschel’s first year in space:

Image credits: NASA

ResearchBlogging.orgB. M. Swinyard, P. Hartogh, S. Sidher, T. Fulton, E. Lellouch, C. Jarchow, M. J. Griffin, R. Moreno, H. Sagawa, G. Portyankina, M. Blecka, M. Banaszkiewicz, D. Bockelee-Morvan, J. Crovisier, T. Encrenaz, M. Kueppers, L. Lara, D. Lis, A. Medvedev, M. Renge, S. Szutowicz, B. Vandenbussche, F. Bensch, E. Bergin, F. Billebaud, N. Biver, G. Blake, J. Blommaert, M. de Val-Borro, J. Cernicharo, T. Cavalie, R. Courtin, G. Davis, L. Decin, P. Encrenaz, T. de Graauw, E. Jehin, M. Kidger, S. Leeks, G. Orton, D. Naylor, R. Schieder, D. Stam, N. Thomas, E. Verdugo, C. Waelkens, & H. Walker (2010). The Herschel-SPIRE submillimetre spectrum of Mars to appear in the Herschel Special Issue of Astronomy & Astrophysics arXiv: 1005.4579v1


Carnival of Space 125

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This week’s Carnival of Space is now up at the always interesting Orbiting Frog. Hot topics this week include the misunderstandings surrounding NASA’s LCROSS mission, an impressive view of the Martian landscape and a new way to see one billion dollars. Oh, and a mysterious header image which looks astronomical but turns out to be from much closer to home.


Public service announcement re: Mars

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Weareallinthegutter would like to make it clear that the planet Mars WILL NOT be coming ‘really close’ to Earth on 27th August and, even if it did, it WOULD NOT appear to be the size of the full moon. That would be bad. Really bad.

Full details available here