Asteroid Tanning in the Solar Wind Salon

Asteroids tan fast in the solar wind (ESO)

In a study carried out by European Southern Observatory (ESO) scientists, it was found that asteroids are susceptible to sunburn. By comparing the material found inside meteorites here on the ground with the colour of asteroids floating in space, there is a huge difference; the asteroids in space are redder.

So far, this might not be too surprising, after all, the surface of Mars is red with ferrous oxides (rust), why shouldn’t asteroids be red too? Actually, asteroids aren’t necessarily made of the same stuff as Mars, and they aren’t getting tanned due to the Sun’s ultraviolet rays; asteroids are bathed in ionizing solar wind particles, causing the asteroid’s surfaces to redden over a period of time. And that period is short when compared with Solar System time scales. It only takes a million years for the surface of young asteroids (born from energetic asteroid collisions) to weather under the constant barrage of particles from the solar wind.

This has some interesting implications for asteroid studies. Possibly the most striking factor this study uncovers is the nature of near-Earth asteroids that have been observed exhibiting comparatively “young” surfaces, apparently free from solar wind reddening. Previously, astronomers have agreed that these young surfaces were down to recent asteroid collisions. However, the period of the solar wind tanning effect is much shorter than asteroid collision frequency. So even if two asteroids collided, in all likelihood, if we observed one of these asteroids, the solar wind would have weathered the surface back to its reddened state.

It turns out that some near-Earth asteroids have “young” surfaces due to gravitational interactions with planets as they pass. When this happens, the red dust is “shaken off”, revealing the untouched rock beneath.

For more, check out my article Young Asteroids Age Fast with a Solar Wind Tan on the Universe Today.

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40% More Solar Energy For Opportunity

shadow_opportunity

Good news for Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity, a windy day on the Martian surface has cleared a layer of dust off its solar panels.

Opportunity is currently trundling across the undulating dunes of Meridiani Planum on its way to Endeavour crater, a destination it wont reach for another two years. It needs all the energy it can muster. So, like the fortuitous gust of wind that gave Spirit a 3% boost in energy in February, Opportunity has received what may appear to be a small hurricane in comparison. This gust of wind shifted so much dust caked on the rover’s solar panels, the robot has had an energy increase of 40%.

As of Sol 1850 (April 7, 2009), Opportunity’s solar array energy production has increased to 515 watt-hours. Atmospheric opacity (tau) remains elevated at around 0.95. The dust factor has improved to 0.642, meaning that 64.2 percent of sunlight hitting the solar array penetrates the layer of accumulated dust on the array. The rover is in good health with a rested actuator and extra energy.NASA Opportunity updates

Since Opportunity arrived on Mars five years ago until April 7th, the tenacious rover has travelled 15,114 meters (9.39 miles). For a mission that was only slated to last three months, that’s not a bad distance its clocked up.

Source: NASA

A Subtle Reminder: Earth Hour, Tonight, 8:30pm

©Jason Zuckerman

©Jason Zuckerman

To raise awareness about global climate change, at 8:30pm local time wherever you are in the world (I realise as I post this, half of the world has already passed this time, sorry), switch your lights off for one hour. Communities the world over are doing this to save energy, but primarily to bring awareness to the damage we are causing to the environment by our insatiable desire to use unnecessary lighting and electrical hardware.

For more information about Earth Hour, check out Mang’s Bat Cave »

For more artwork by Jason Zuckerman, check out Jay Zuck’s Sketch of the Day »

I can think of many thrilling things you could be doing during this hour of darkness, if you have any suggestions, feel free to leave them in the comment box below… keep it clean… or not, it’s up to you.

Will NASA Really Call the ISS Node 3 “Colbert”?

The NASA Node 3 and ESA-built Cupola (NASA)

The NASA Node 3 and ESA-built Cupola (NASA)

There’s a mini-storm brewing over the popular choice of the winning nomination for the name of the new segment of the International Space Station (ISS). The problem arose when NASA decided to invite nominations for names of the new addition; NASA had four “official” suggestions (including the popular “Serenity” option after the legendary spaceship from the TV show Firefly), but “Colbert” from the popular TV show, “The Colbert Report”, won with a vote count of over 230,000. This beat off “Serenity” by 40,000 votes, a convincing lead in my books.

All in all, I’d make this simple. NASA invited nominations and allowed the public to vote on it, so name Node 3 after a popular comedian and not a popular space ship. However, this may invite criticism that a celebrity can actively drum up support (perhaps unfairly) via a large audience. But is this enough to make the Colbert result null and void? Although NASA reserves the right to override the result, the agency should have removed Colbert from the voting before the process ended if it was indeed deemed unfair.

Personally, I would love to see Node 3 be named Serenity (as this Astroengineer is a serious Firefly nut), and “serene” is what this node will be as the ESA Copola will be attached, giving station astronauts an incredible viewing experience of the Earth and space, I can think of no better, peaceful viewing platform. To say “I’m entering Serenity,” sounds far better (and more decent) than “I’m entering Colbert,” but NASA may have to be fair on this. They invited public participation, and to defend the agency’s public image and guise of fairness (regardless of competition clauses), technically “Colbert” should be chosen. But I would be overjoyed if Node 3 was named Serenity, be damned with democratic fairness!

In any case, all the finalists were pretty cool, although I have no idea how Xenu made it into the top ten… there are a lot of Scientologists out there it seems, now that is where the real debate should be focused!

Pins and Solar Arrays

Astronaut Richard Arnold participates in the STS-119 first scheduled spacewalk to connect the S6 truss segment to the ISS on Thursday March 19th, 2009 (NASA)

Astronaut Richard Arnold participates in the STS-119 first scheduled spacewalk to connect the S6 truss segment to the ISS on Thursday March 19th, 2009 (NASA)

According to NASA, Space Shuttle Discovery’s STS-119 mission to install the remaining solar arrays is going to plan, apart from the small matter of a pin that was installed the wrong way. Although this might sound inconsequential, the mistake made during today’s spacewalk has jammed an equipment storage platform, eating up valuable time during the EVA, causing NASA mission control to evaluate the situation. At the moment, the platform is temporarily tethered in place until a solution is found to the pin that has been inserted incorrectly.

For more information on this news, check out the Associated Press article »

In the grand scheme of things, this won’t hinder progress too much. I am still in awe of any mission that makes the space station capable of supporting an expanded crew of six, creating the second brightest object in the nights sky (after the Moon). This bright speeding object is a huge, man-made array of solar panels. If we are capable of doing these things at an altitude of 350 km, anything is possible…

Bat News Update: It Gets Worse

Brian the Discovery Bat holds onto the external tank moments before launch (NASA/Damaris B. Sarria)

Brian the Discovery Bat holds onto the external tank moments before launch (NASA/Damaris B. Sarria)

NASA has now given details about the circumstances of Brian’s demise. It turns out that Brian was in fact a free-tailed bat, and not a fruit bat as previously reported.

Also, NASA confirmed today’s news that Brian could be seen holding onto the orange external fuel tank as Space Shuttle Discovery cleared the tower during launch.

NASA was hopeful that Brian would fly away before Discovery even got close to launching, but it turns out that there was a reason for the bat’s stubbornness (and no, he wasn’t sleeping):

Based on images and video, a wildlife expert who provides support to the center said the small creature was a free tail bat that likely had a broken left wing and some problem with its right shoulder or wrist. The animal likely perished quickly during Discovery’s climb into orbit.

Now, that is sad. Brian was seen to be moving from time to time, and despite the deterrents put in place by NASA to frighten wildlife away from pre-launch shuttles (i.e. warning sirens), he refused to budge. This was probably because he was injured.

Naturally, this sad event has caused some anger, but I doubt NASA can be to blame for this unfortunate series of events. Bats have been seen to land on waiting shuttles on launch day in the past, only for them to fly away when the shuttle underwent fuelling, so ground control assumed Brian would simply fly away. However, they had no idea until after the fact that Brian was injured.

During shuttle launches (or any launches for that matter), local wildlife is bound to be impacted from time-to-time, and any creatures in the locale to the rockets perish in silence, with no media coverage. At least Brian went out in style. He will be remembered for a long time…

Ground Control To Brian Bat

To round off this captivating story, Karl Clodfelter (@DrKaz on Twitter) has adapted David Bowie’s “Ground Control To Major Tom”, very fitting. Here’s the original tune, so sing the following, starting about one minute in

This is Ground Control to Brian Bat
You’ve really chosen bad
And the websites want to know just why you’re there
Now it’s time to leave the fuel tank if you dare

This is Brian Bat to Ground Control
I’m getting ready to soar
And I’m flying in a most peculiar way
And the stars look very different today

For here
Am I gripping insulation
Far above the world
Planet Earth is blue
And there’s nothing I can do…

[guitar solo] clap-clap

Source: NASA via @Barstein

When the Sun is So Boring, Anything Becomes Interesting

Caption: So boring it doesn't deserve a caption (NASA/SOHO)

Caption: So boring it doesn't deserve a caption (NASA/SOHO)

You know when you have those unremarkable days, those periods of time you experience you know you’ll forget tomorrow? It’s either “just another” day at work, another commute, or a Sunday where you had a beer, fell asleep, only to wake up again to realise it was too late to get up so you stayed in bed till Monday? (And no, I don’t make a habit of that. I’m sure to have at least two beers.) Most days aren’t like that for me, usually I can think of one noteworthy event that sets apart one day from the next, but sometimes it’s as if Stuff Happens™ doesn’t.

It would appear the Sun is having an extended period of time where Stuff Happens™ is at a premium, so you have to make the most of when something really does happen. In this case, the Sun released a crafty CME, thinking we wouldn’t see it…
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