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Space news digest
| NASA/ESA news digest | Earthwatch news digest

2006
Cassini spies Saturn superstorm
A dynamic storm on Saturn is blasting radio noise at the Cassini spacecraft orbiting the planet. The noise, scientists say, comes from lightning bolts 1,000 times stronger than anything seen on Earth.
Jupiter's Trojan horse
Astronomers using the 10-meter Keck II Telescope on Hawaii's Mauna Kea have refined the mutual orbit of asteroid 617 Patroclus and its companion. The pair is the only known binary object among the 1,900 asteroids the giant planet Jupiter shepherds around the Sun.
The most earthlike planet yet
Scientists using an observational technique that exploits Albert Einstein's theory of gravity report the discovery of a planet just 5.5 times Earth's mass. The new world, located in Sagittarius toward the Milky Way's center, orbits a cool M-dwarf star 21,500 light-years away.
Is cosmic acceleration changing?
If it's possible to make a mystery more mysterious, then a study of dark energy by astronomer Bradley Schaefer of Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge may have done so. Earlier this month, at the American Astronomical Society's 207th meeting in Washington, Schaefer reported that distant gamma-ray bursts indicate dark energy's repulsive force is changing fast.
GALEX spies a larger Cartwheel
Last year, astronomers discovered extended stellar disks around the Andromeda Galaxy and NGC 300. The trend continues: NASA's ultraviolet-sensing Galaxy Evolution Explorer (GALEX) satellite has revealed a similar disk of faint stars surrounding the famous Cartwheel Galaxy in Sculptor.
Seeing red with nanodiamonds
A faint, reddish glow called the Extended Red Emission (ERE) pervades space's dustiest places. Astronomers have found the diffuse light in reflection, emission, and planetary nebulae; in the solar system's high-latitude "cirrus" dust clouds; in galaxies M82 and the Evil Eye (NGC 4862); and in the Milky Way's diffuse interstellar gas.
Sloan Survey finds a new Milky Way neighbor
Astronomers using a database of some 48 million stars have discovered a faint but huge stellar structure positioned almost directly above the Milky Way's disk. The most likely interpretation, researchers say, is that this is a dwarf galaxy merging with our own.
Satellite galaxies warp Milky Way
A warp in the Milky Way's disk of neutral hydrogen has puzzled astronomers since its 1957 discovery. Now, Leo Blitz and colleagues believe they've hit on an explanation involving the Milky Way's most prominent satellites the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds.
Hubble reveals North Star's companion
Using the Hubble Space Telescope, a team of astronomers has imaged a never-before-seen companion of Polaris, the North Star. Although astronomers have long known of the companion's presence through its effects on Polaris' spectrum, the star's orbit hugs Polaris so tightly it was lost in the brighter star's glare until now.


2005
Is Einstein's blunder right?
In 1917, Albert Einstein added a fudge-factor to his theory of general relativity in order to balance the attractive force of gravity. After Edwin Hubble showed the universe is actually expanding, Einstein retracted his cosmological constant, which he called his greatest blunder. Now, a survey of distant supernovae reveals that dark energy the mysterious force accelerating cosmic expansion behaves like Einstein's constant to a precision of 10 percent.
Venus Express is up and away
A 15-year hiatus in Venus exploration ended Tuesday night with the European Space Agency's (ESA) launch of Venus Express. At 10:33 p.m. EST, the Soyuz-Fregat rocket carrying the spacecraft lifted off from Kazakhstan's Baikonur Cosmodrome. Eighty-two minutes later, the Fregat upper stage burned a second time and sent Venus Express into an escape trajectory that will deliver it to Venus in April 2006.
Remember the Titans
On October 19, the United States launched a Titan rocket into space for the 368th and final time. The Titan IV launch ends a family of rockets that began with the Titan I intercontinental ballistic missile developed in 1959.
The whale shark's starry skin
Zaven Arzoumanian, an astrophysicist at the Universities Space Research Association and NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, thinks a whale shark's spots can help save its skin. Along with Jason Holmberg, a U.S. software specialist, and Brad Norman, a marine biologist at Australia's Centre for Fish and Fisheries Research, Arzoumanian applied an astronomical technique for "fingerprinting" whale sharks based on their skin's spot patterns..
The "tenth planet" gets a sidekick
On September 30, a team led by Caltech's Michael Brown announced discovery of a moon orbiting the distant body 2003 UB313. The object, discovered in January 2005, appears to be 20-percent larger than Pluto, leading Brown to dub it the tenth planet. The team has given it the unofficial nickname "Xena," after the lead character in the TV series Xena: Warrior Princess.
MGS sees changing face of Mars
New images from the Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft, which has been orbiting the Red Planet since 1997, show how gullies, impact craters, rock falls, and eroding polar icescapes rework Mars' surface today. The long-lived mission has revealed a dynamic Mars changing on human timescales of years to decades, says Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA's Mars Exploration Program.
Spirit summits the Columbia Hills
Mars rover Spirit has ended its year-long ascent up Husband Hill, and, like any tourist, is pausing to take in the view. Mission scientists are acquiring images for a full 360 panorama that, for the first time, will include terrain on the far side of the Columbia Hills.
Hubble spins down a gyro
In a move expected to give the Hubble Space Telescope at least 8 additional months of science observations, scientists have idled one of its three operating gyroscopes. While three gyros are needed to point the telescope and hold it on target, engineers and astronomers worked out a scheme in which Hubble can perform its scientific tasks almost as well with just two functioning gyros.
New Mexico steps into space
Late next March, a 21-foot-tall SpaceLoft XL rocket will blast off from New Mexico's Southwest Regional Spaceport in Upham carrying seven experimental and commercial payloads on a suborbital flight. Plans call for two additional launches in 2006, a dozen in 2007, and as many as 30 in 2008.
Young HUDF galaxy is super size
Astronomers using NASA's Spitzer and Hubble space telescopes have found a massive galaxy seen when the universe was only 800 million years old. They found the object in the Hubble Ultra Deep Field (HUDF), a patch of sky in the constellation Fornax where Hubble has acquired the deepest-ever portrait of the cosmos in visible and near-infrared wavelengths.