Spaceflight roundup

One bit of NASA has not had a good day today. The not often reported launch of a balloon from the Alice Springs Balloon Launching Facility made headlines when the $2 million Nuclear Compton Telescope, which intended to study the polarisation of Gamma rays and act as a test bed for the Advanced Compton Telescope, ended up slamming into a parked car rather than riding up into space. The gondola seems to have detached before any great altitude was reached and the launch was doomed from the start. The NCT was the second of three telescopes to be launched in the program. The first was the Tracking and Imaging Gamma Ray Experiment, launched on April 15th. The next was to be the HERO X-ray telescope, slated for a May launch, which is now a ‘may’ launch depending on the outcome of the accident investigation. News and videos of the incident are available at Yahoo, Discovery and the Times.

I noticed a report on the attempt by JAXA, the Japanese space agency, to send a humanoid robot to the Moon. Just one slight problem, it isn’t entirely accurate. Whilst JAXA does intend to have a robotic explorer on the Moon by 2015, and contemplated a humanoid version of a rover, it won’t have legs. They’ve decided they can’t get them to work well enough even on Earth to contemplate relying on them in a Moon mission.

Meanwhile ESA has put out its calendar page for May.

The Solar Dynamic Explorer has continued to put out interesting videos of activity on the solar surface, such as this one.

Having mentioned offhand in the last roundup that XMM-Newton found the first intermediate sized black hole candidate, now the telescope has been at it again, paired with Chandra to confirm the existence of two objects in the same galaxy identified as likely candidates for intermediate black holes, the first time a pair has been found in one galaxy. One is 290 light years from the centre of the galaxy M82, weighing in at between 12,000-43,000 solar masses. The second is 600 light years from the centre and of 200-800 solar masses. If the first one had been created at the same time as the galaxy and weighed in above 30,000 solar masses, at the distance it is now, it would’ve been sucked into the nucleus of the galaxy.

…and finally Cassini has been keeping tabs on storms on the surface of Saturn with the help of amateurs. The huge amount of data the probe takes on means that it is possible for rough measurements of a storm to be lost, so the team behind the search for storms decided to crowdsource. When one set of instruments sent out signals indicating a storm might be present, a group of amateurs went to their own telescopes and snapped the planet over and again until images of storms were captured. Their latitudes were worked out and whether or not the probe would be passing in the right area for a close observation. On one occasion, a giant storm was able to be measured and showed higher than usual levels of phosphine, a gas present in Saturn’s deep atmosphere, suggesting the convective cell of the storm was dredging it up. It is believed such storms are powered by huge storms deeper down in a region where water and ammonia clouds float and lightning flashes. Meanwhile, this isn’t the only set of professional observations driven by ordinary people drafted in. The ‘Green Peas’ of Galaxy Zoo have also been studied and revealed to be an interim stage of galaxy formation, low in metals. The team behind the observations believe the peas (so called because they are compact green things that appeared on the screen when users were asked to classify galaxies) are created by interactions between galaxies that disturb their ordinary shape, setting off star formation, cleared out by winds from supernovae.

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