Then Spitzer Imaged Baby Stars in the Orion Nebula…

The Orion Nebula's star-forming region (NASA)
The Orion Nebula's star-forming region (NASA).

Firstly, apologies that it’s been over a month since last posting to Astroengine.com. Call it slacking off, call it a sabbatical, either way, it’s not good. I’ve actually prepared several half-finished articles, but I just never got around to completing them. However, I have been on writing overdrive over at Discovery News, so if I go quiet over here, you know where to find me.

Speaking of Discovery News, I’ve just posted an incredible image of the heart of the Orion Nebula as seen by the Spitzer Space Telescope, so I can’t think of a better way to kick-start Astroengine with an image filled with awesomeness.

Although Spitzer has entered a new phase of operations since it depleted the liquid helium coolant used to maintain its instrumentation, that doesn’t mean its stopped producing some awe-inspiring imagery. In a new vista released on Thursday, a bustling star formation region in Orion is detailed, showing some 1,500 young stars the observatory watched for 40 days. This is an unprecedented study, allowing rapid variations in these baby stars to be tracked by Spitzer.

Young stars are generally highly variable in their brightness, a characteristic that is of huge interest to astrophysicists. If we can understand the mechanisms causing this variation, we can gain an insight to stellar evolution, possibly even understanding the history of our own Solar System.

As Spitzer observes in infrared wavelengths, it’s very sensitive to clouds of dust being heated by these young stars. Therefore, the proto-planetary disks surrounding these million year old stars glow brightly. Not only does this give an indication to the conditions surrounding the star, it also provides astronomers with an idea to how these disks of dust clump together, slowly evolving into exoplanets. And now Spitzer has data sets spanning weeks, dynamic changes in the emissions from the stars and their evolving planetary systems can be studied.

But science aside, the Spitzer imagery is a thing of beauty, reminding us how complex our cosmos really is. Don’t believe me? Take a look for yourself (click the pic to dive right in):

The star forming region in Orion as studied by Spitzer, rotated 90 degrees (NASA/JPL/Caltech)
The star forming region in Orion as studied by Spitzer, rotated 90 degrees (NASA/JPL/Caltech)

NASA Tests Orion Shock Absorbers, Probably a Good Idea

During an earlier test, the Orion parachutes failed to open as planned, face-planting the capsule into the desert (NASA)

Although there are doubts about Constellation, and NASA recently announced a “plan B” launch option for a return trip to the Moon, Orion development continues as planned. Next up is the development of the Orion shock absorbers, intended to take the sting out of the return capsule’s landing.

Tests are currently being carried out at the Landing and Impact Research Facility in NASA’s Langley Research Center on the seat pallet that will protect the Orion astronauts’ from the shock of touch-down. It is hoped Orion will be a land-anywhere capsule, including land and water. In fact, I am a little bit excited about the planned landing spot in the Pacific Ocean, not far from Catalina Island, off the Los Angeles coastline. That’s just down the road and a small swim from me!

To test the pallet and its “energy-absorbing struts,” the 20,000-pound test article is dropped 18 feet onto a crushable honeycomb material designed to simulate different landing surfaces. —Aviation Week

The seat shock absorbers won’t only be used for landing, it is hoped they will mitigate much of the launch vibration effects caused by the Ares I crew launch vehicle. These tests are a result of studies of how much vibration crew members can take before it becomes difficult to read instrumentation displays and react to situations during launch.

*Image from a previous Orion test drop when the parachutes did not open correctly, forcing an upside-down hard landing. Speech bubbles added by me.

Source: Aviation Week