Double Star mission extension

On 8 November 2006, the Science Programme Committee (SPC) of the European Space Agency (ESA) has approved a 9 months extension of ESA involvement in the Double Star Programme (DSP) operations from 1 January 2007 to 30 September 2007.

The Double Star mission is the first mission conducted in collaboration between ESA and the Chinese National Space Administration. The mission comprises two spacecraft to investigate magnetospheric global processes and their responses to interplanetary disturbances, in particular in conjunction with the Cluster mission.

See Mercury's silhouette with SOHO

On Wednesday 8 November 2006, Mercury will pass directly between the Sun and the Earth. The innermost planet will be seen not as a bright point in the sky but as a tiny black dot, silhouetted against the brilliant surface of the Sun. Although this spectacle is not visible from Europe, the ESA-NASA solar satellite SOHO will be watching.

Such a crossing is known as a transit. From Earth's vantage point, only Mercury and Venus transit the Sun, because these are the only planets inside Earth's orbit. In the case of Venus, the planet is large enough to be seen against the Sun without optical aid, providing that a pair of solar filters is worn to cut down the damaging glare of the Sun.

Spitzer and Hubble create colorful masterpiece

A new image from NASA's Spitzer and Hubble Space Telescopes looks more like an abstract painting than a cosmic snapshot. The masterpiece shows the Orion nebula in an explosion of infrared, ultraviolet, and visible-light colors. It was "painted" by hundreds of baby stars on a canvas of gas and dust, with intense ultraviolet light and strong stellar winds as brushes.

At the heart of the artwork is a set of four monstrously massive stars, collectively called the Trapezium. These behemoths are approximately 100,000 times brighter than our sun. Their community can be identified as the yellow smudge near the center of the composite.

Study shows Titan and early Earth atmospheres are similar

Organic haze in the atmosphere of Saturn's moon, Titan, is similar to haze in early Earth's air -- haze that may have helped nourish life on our planet-- according to a NASA Astrobiology Institute study released Nov. 6, 2006.

Study scientists simulated both the atmospheric conditions of early Earth and those of present-day Titan. Their study, "Organic Haze on Titan and the Early Earth," describing the scientists' work, appears in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The principal author is Melissa Trainer, a NASA Astrobiology Institute postdoctoral fellow at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Monster stellar flare dwarfs all others

Scientists using NASA's Swift satellite have spotted a stellar flare on a nearby star so powerful that, had it been from our sun, it would have triggered a mass extinction on Earth. The flare was perhaps the most energetic magnetic stellar explosion ever detected.

The flare was seen in December 2005 on a star slightly less massive than the sun, in a two-star system called II Pegasi in the constellation Pegasus. It was about a hundred million times more energetic than the sun's typical solar flare, releasing energy equivalent to about 50 million trillion atomic bombs.

Upcoming Mercury/Sun transit whets the appetite for MESSENGER discoveries

On Wednesday, November 8, the planet Mercury will make a rare trek across the face of the Sun, beginning at 2:12 p.m. EST and lasting for nearly five hours. Observers in North and South America, Australia, and parts of Asia will have a good view; the transit also will be captured via a live Webcast that will include discussions on the science, technology, and history of the transit, as well as current knowledge of the Sun and space weather.

Monstrous black hole blast in the core of a galaxy cluster

This is a composite image of galaxy cluster MS0735.6+7421, located about 2.6 billion light-years away in the constellation Camelopardus. The image represents three views of the region that astronomers have combined into one photograph.

The optical view of the galaxy cluster, taken by the Hubble Space Telescope's Advanced Camera for Surveys in February 2006, shows dozens of galaxies bound together by gravity. Diffuse, hot gas with a temperature of nearly 50 million degrees permeates the space between the galaxies.

The PI's Perspective: Making old horizons new

Since we last heard from mission Principal Investigator Alan Stern on the New Horizons Web site, October came and went and November is now upon us. Up on New Horizons, the team has completed another long series of important milestones as it prepares the spacecraft and instrument payload for its long journey ahead. Planning for operations and science observations during the February 2007 Jupiter flyby is among the top activites. Read more.

AKARI moves towards completion of its first scan of the entire sky

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency's (JAXA) infrared astronomical satellite AKARI continues its mission to map the entire sky in infrared light.

AKARI commenced the mission's All-Sky Survey observations in May, 2006 and will finish its first coverage of the entire sky in November. The estimated completeness of the coverage at the finish of the first coverage will be about 70 percent, which is what was expected, since some areas were known not to be presently observable due to disturbances by the Moon and other reasons.

First Sunrise on Hinode's instruments

The Hinode (formerly Solar-B) satellite, a joint Japan/NASA/PPARC mission launched on 22nd September 2006, has today (October 31st) reported its first observations of the Sun with its suite of scientific instruments. The satellite was renamed 'Hinode' which is Japanese for Sunrise, which is most appropriate since Hinode will watch at close hand massively explosive solar flares erupting from the Sun's surface and rising into interstellar space.

Hinode has three instruments: the Solar Optical Telescope (SOT), the X-Ray Telescope (XRT), and the EUV Imaging Spectrometer (EIS) which has been led by University College London's Mullard Space Science Laboratory (MSSL).

New Hubble Servicing Mission to upgrade instruments

The history of the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope is dominated by the familiar sharp images and amazing discoveries that have had an unprecedented scientific impact on our view of the world and our understanding of the Universe. Nevertheless, such important contributions to science and mankind have only been possible as result of regular upgrades and enhancements to Hubble's instrumentation.

After the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster in 2003, ESA is now thankful that NASA has approved another Servicing Mission despite the absence of a safe haven for the crew. Hubble's orbit would not allow the Shuttle crew to take refuge aboard the International Space Station and wait for rescue if the Space Shuttle were damaged at launch.

NASA announces Discovery program selections

NASA Monday selected concept studies for missions that would return a sample of an enigmatic asteroid, probe the chemistry of Venus' atmosphere and reveal the interior structure and history of the Earth's moon.

Also selected for further study are three missions of opportunity that would make new use of two NASA spacecraft that have completed their primary objectives.

Latest views of the V838 Monocerotis light echo from Hubble

Hubble has returned to the intriguing variable star V838 Monocerotis many times since its initial outburst in 2002, to follow the evolution of its light echo. Two new images provide the most astonishing views of V838 to date.

The unusual variable star V838 Monocerotis (V838 Mon) continues to puzzle astronomers. This previously inconspicuous star underwent an outburst early in 2002, during which it temporarily increased in brightness to become 600 000 times more luminous than our Sun. Light from this sudden eruption is illuminating the interstellar dust surrounding the star, producing the most spectacular 'light echo' in the history of astronomy.

Spitzer peels back layers of star's explosion

Astronomers using NASA's infrared Spitzer Space Telescope have discovered that an exploded star, named Cassiopeia A, blew up in a somewhat orderly fashion, retaining much of its original onion-like layering.

"Spitzer has essentially found key missing pieces of the Cassiopeia A puzzle," said Jessica Ennis of the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, lead author of a paper to appear in the Nov. 20 issue of the Astrophysical Journal. "We've found new bits of the 'onion' layers that had not been seen before," said Dr. Lawrence Rudnick, also of the University of Minnesota, and principal investigator of the research. "This tells us that the star's explosion was not chaotic enough to stir its remains into one big pile of mush."

Europe goes searching for rocky planets

The COROT space telescope is proceeding smoothly towards its launch in December 2006. Once in orbit, COROT will become the first spacecraft devoted to the search for rocky planets, similar to our own Earth. COROT will also delve into the centres of hundreds or even thousands of stars.

COROT will lead a bold new search for planets around other stars. In the decade since the discovery of the first exoplanet, 51 Pegasi b in 1995, more than 200 other planets have been detected from ground-based observatories. COROT promises to find many more during its two-and-a-half-year mission, and to expand the frontiers of our knowledge toward ever smaller planets. It will look for the tiny drop in light caused by a planet as it slips across the face of its parent star.

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