September 19

Arthur C. Clarke: Mars Has the Munchies

Mars has a case of the munchies. That is, the red planet is spotted with vegetation with some sort of life feasting on the foliage. So says Arthur Clarke, the noted sci-fi writer and space visionary, making the claim during a recent conference on the space elevator.

Clarke was keynote speaker at the 2nd annual international conference on the space elevator, held in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Sir Arthur beamed into the gathering by satellite link on September 13.

When asked what destination he'd like to travel to via the space elevator, Clarke said he was "ready and willing" to journey over to the red planet.

"Mars is the obvious place," Clarke said. "I'm now quite convinced that Mars is infested with life. Mars orbiter photographs show huge areas of vegetation. I don't think there's any doubt anymore on that. And where there's vegetation, they'll be something nibbling on it," he said.

Just as the audience was chewing on Clarke's Mars life view, he added yet another bit of speculative advice - this time on cold fusion.

"It's not cold. It's not fusion. It may be tepid fission or something," Clarke said. "Don't laugh…but there's something going on there. A number of reputable groups have succeeded in generating small amounts of energy that, apparently, are not easy to account for. So I think there's something there."

-- Leonard David

September 18

Evidence of Spinning Black Holes

Astronomers studying stellar and supermassive black holes may have a barometer to tell whether their targets are spinning like tops or just sitting pretty.

Using measurements collected by NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and European Space Agency's XMM-Newton Observatory, researchers determined that emissions from iron atoms in gas clouds swirling around a black hole might indicate spin.

Stellar black holes are former stars that have collapsed in on themselves, reaching masses of up to 20 times that of the Sun. Supermassive black holes can contain billions of solar masses.

According to Chandra researchers, iron atoms produce distinctive X-ray signals as they circle a stellar black hole. These emissions can shift down to lower energy levels as they are affected by intense gravity - the closer the atoms are the black hole, the lower their apparent energy levels. But their orbits depend on the curvature of space around the black hole. Spinning black holes drag space around them as they go, allowing orbiting material to crowd in closer than their non-spinning cousins.

For example, the most recent Chandra observations of Cygnus X-1, the first black hole discovered, recorded X-ray signals from iron atoms that did not appear affected by the hole's gravity. They also seemed to emanate from no closer than 100 miles (161 kilometers) to Cygnus X-1. Meanwhile, XMM-Newton data from the black hole XTE J1650-500 show more lower-energy X-rays emitted deep within the object's gravity well, down to 20 miles (32 kilometers) from its event horizon, suggesting it's a spinner.

Chandra data from another spinning stellar black hole, called GX 339-4, show gas clouds streaming away from it at speeds of 300,000 miles (482,803 kilometers) an hour. The finding is reminiscent of gas clouds around supermassive black holes, whose spinning has been seen in past studies.

"Discovering the high degree of correspondence between stellar and supermassive black holes is a real breakthrough," said Jon Miller of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Miller discussed the results of recent Chandra and XMM-Newton studies during a press conference in Huntsville, Alabama. "Because stellar black holes are smaller, everything happens about a million times faster, so they can be used as a test-bed for theories of how spinning black holes affect the space and matter around them."

-- Tariq Malik

September 17

Hollywood, Industry Launch Campaign to Raise Money for Columbia Families

WASHINGTON -- A campaign to raise $1 million for each of the Space Shuttle Columbia families was kicked off here Tuesday.

A portion of the funds raised over that amount will help to memorialize the STS-107 mission and crew.

On hand at the National Press Club to announce the creation of the Columbia Shuttle Memorial Trust was NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe and former astronaut Guy Bluford.

“The crew of STS-107 dedicated themselves to pursuing scientific challenges, on behalf of those of us here on Earth,” O’Keefe said. “This initiative, supported by a dynamic combination of leaders from Hollywood and the space industry, will undoubtedly yield great benefit for the families of these honorable men and women. I applaud this effort by entertainment and business to pay tribute to the Columbia shuttle crew who gave their lives to serve us all.”

The chairman of the memorial trust, IMAX executive Richard Gelfond, said a gala fund raiser will be held at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum in February, following the dedication of a memorial to the Columbia crew at Arlington National Cemetery.

Lockheed Martin Corp., Bethesda, Md., contributed the first $1 million to the fund.

The trust also is encouraging donations of all amounts from the public. Donations may be made by visiting or calling 1-877-99SPACE.

-- Brian Berger

September 16

UC Berkeley Payload on Korean Satellite

An ultraviolet telescope designed and built in a collaboration between University of California, Berkeley, and South Korean scientists is scheduled for a Sept. 26 launch from Russia as the main payload of South Korea's first scientific satellite.

According to UC Berkeley astrophysicist Jerry Edelstein, the primary payload, called Spectroscopy of Plasma Evolution from Astrophysical Radiation (SPEAR), will capture the first far ultraviolet pictures of hot and glowing gas in the Milky Way galaxy, providing clues to the course of the galaxy's evolution.

SPEAR will measure the glow over the whole sky from gas between the stars that has been heated by supernova blast waves, blazing hot stars and colliding interstellar clouds.

The experiment will fly aboard the Korean STSAT-1 (Space and Technology Satellite 1), which will carry other experiments to measure energetic particles bombarding the Earth's atmosphere and causing auroras. SPEAR also will work in conjunction with these experiments by looking downward to capture the auroral ultraviolet emissions.

September 15

New Image of Comet Halley in Deep Freeze

The famed comet Halley last appeared in the skies above Earth in 1986. It has since fled to the outer solar system. Now astronomers looking for other objects in the deep freeze made the distant comet observation ever.

Halley is 2.5 billion miles (4.1 billion kilometers) away and approaching the orbital path of Neptune on its elongated loop around the Sun. A new picture was taken with the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope facility in Chile.

Comets are made of dirt, rock, dust and ice from various chemicals, including water. When nearer the Sun, surface material boils off and reflects sunlight to create the characteristic heads and tails. Technically, the process is called sublimation.

Being so far from the Sun, Halley is cold and inactive, a visual vestige of its popular self.

Halley returns to the inner solar system every 76 years or so. It has now completed four-fifths of the outward movement on its current roundtrip. The motion is slowing down, according to ESO astronomers. It will reach a turning point in December 2023, and begin heading back toward the Sun.

Halley next visits the inner solar system in 2062. [More Comet News]

-- Robert Roy Britt

September 12

Moons Count Grows around Neptune and Uranus

A newfound Moon of Neptune orbits farther from its planet than any satellite ever discovered. It is the 12th known moon of Neptune and was announced earlier this month by the International Astronomical Union.

A separate investigation yielded discovery around Uranus.

The moon is about 24 miles wide (38 kilometers) and was discovered by a team led by University of Hawaii astronomer David Jewitt and including Scott Sheppard and Jan Kleyna. It gains the temporary designation S/2003 N1.

The satellite takes 26 years to orbit the planet. Earth's moon goes around in less than a month. Saturn, by comparison, requires 29.4 years to orbit the Sun; Neptune's path around the central star lasts 164 years. The moon is, on average, about 50 million miles (80 million kilometers) from Neptune.

The object was first detected in 2001. The new data leading to a firm discovery was collected by the 27-foot (8.2-meter) Subaru telescope at Mauna Kea in Hawaii. It was confirmed by another research team led by Matthew Holman, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Earlier this year, Holman's team announced three new Neptunian moons, the first seen since 1989.

Meanwhile, Hubble Space Telescope observations confirmed suggestions from 1999 of another moon around Uranus. It is, at most, about 25 (40 kilometers) miles in diameter and brings the Saturnian satellite count to 22.

This has been a banner year for moon hunters. Technology has improved to the point that they are finding smaller and smaller moons around the giant planets at ever-faster rates, leading to speculation that new terms may be needed for what some writers already refer to as moonlets.

-- Robert Roy Britt

September 11

Mirror Decision for James Webb Space Telescope

A major step in the building of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has been made - the selection of a beryllium-based mirror technology for the telescope's 21.3-feet (6.5-meter) primary mirror.

NASA announced on September 10 the selection of beryllium as the material of choice for 18 hexagonal-shaped mirror segments. A competitive material was also considered -- ultra low-expansion glass -- but was not chosen.

Lead JWST contractor, Northrop Grumman, made the recommendation relying on advice from a panel of experts representing the contractor team, NASA and the science community.

Mirror production will begin within the next few months.

The JWST is now scheduled for launch in August 2011. The super-powerful primary mirror will be 2.5 times the diameter of Hubble's mirror yet weigh only one-third as much. JWST will be orders of magnitude more sensitive than ground-based infrared telescopes.

-- Leonard David

September 10

Future Weather Satellite Accidentally Dropped

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- A new weather satellite being prepared for launch in 2008 was accidentally dropped last Saturday at its California factory and it's unclear to what extent the spacecraft is damaged, officials said.

The Lockheed Martin-built NOAA-N Prime spacecraft is to be launched into polar orbit over Earth for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. NASA handles the procurement and launch services for NOAA.

The 14-foot spacecraft was about three feet off the ground when it slipped from a ground handling fixture that was being turned from a vertical to a horizontal position. The area was secured as the investigation began almost immediately.

"NASA and NOAA are understandably concerned about this accident, because the NOAA-N Prime spacecraft is vital to the continuity of the polar-orbiting environmental satellite program," said NOAA administrator Conrad Lautenbacher.

"We are waiting for an assessment of the damage from the investigation teams. We will have a better idea of the extent of the impact on our satellite programs when the results are available."

September 9

Space Station Partners Practice Emergency Splash-Down Drills

The Russian news agency ITAR-TASS reports that Russia, the United States and Canadian specialists will participate in four-day exercise drills to rescue an International Space Station (ISS) crew in an emergency following a splash-down of the descent module.

The exercises, which begin today and take place in Russia at Gelendzhik in the Krasnodar Territory, are code-named SAREX-ISS-'03, a spokesman for the Russian Defence Ministry's Federal department for aerospace search and rescue operations, told the news service.

All three countries have participated in joint rescue training for the last decade to prepare for the possibility for an emergency following the splashdown of a descent module. The Black Sea is considered one possible splashdown site for an ISS escape module.

The exercises will be held in three stages. Each includes an ISS evacuation, crew assistance and rescue and delivery of the escape module to land.

According to ITAR-TASS,  the new Russian amphibian plane BE-200, Russia's Black Sea Fleet, and KA-27 and MI-8 helicopters will be used as technical rescue vehicles during the exercises.

September 8

What? Only Three? Lack of Space Rocks Questions Comet Theory

PHILADELPHIA -- Astronomers using NASA's Hubble Space Telescope have discovered three of the faintest and smallest objects ever detected beyond Neptune. Each lump of ice and rock is roughly the size of Philadelphia and orbits just beyond Neptune and Pluto, where they may have rested since the formation of the solar system 4.5 billion years ago. The objects reside in a ring-shaped region called the Kuiper Belt, which houses a swarm of icy rocks that are leftover building blocks, or "planetesimals," from the solar system's creation.

The results of the search were announced by a group led by Gary Bernstein of the University of Pennsylvania at a meeting of NASA's Division of Planetary Sciences in Monterey, Calif.

The study's big surprise is that so few Kuiper Belt members were discovered. With Hubble's exquisite resolution, Bernstein and his co-workers expected to find at least 60 Kuiper Belt members as small as 10 miles in diameter -- but only three were discovered.

"Discovering many fewer Kuiper Belt Objects than was predicted makes it difficult to understand how so many comets appear near Earth since many comets were thought to originate in the Kuiper Belt," said Bernstein, associate professor of physics and astronomy at Penn. "This is a sign that perhaps the smaller planetesimals have been shattered into dust by colliding with each other over the past few billion years."

Bernstein and his colleagues used Hubble to look for planetesimals that are much smaller and fainter than can be seen from ground-based telescopes. Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys was pointed at a region in the constellation Virgo over a 15-day period in January and February. A bank of 10 computers on the ground worked for six months searching for faint moving spots in the Hubble images.

The three small objects the astronomers spotted - given the prosaic names 2003 BF91, 2003 BG91 and 2003 BH91 - range in size from 15 to 28 miles and are the smallest objects ever found beyond Neptune. At their current locations, these objects are a billion times fainter than the dimmest objects visible to the naked eye. But an icy body of this size that escapes the Kuiper Belt to wander near the sun can become visible from Earth as a comet as the wandering body starts to evaporate and form a surrounding cloud.

September 5

Tropical Storm Ready to Drench Florida Launch Site

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- Central Florida is bracing for wet weather from Tropical Storm Henri but the disturbance isn't raising any eyebrows at the Kennedy Space Center or Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

Although Florida's Space Coast is under a flood watch through Saturday afternoon, the most severe weather associated with the storm is expected to pass north of the Cape far enough that no major precautions are in order.

"We're not going to put any special preparations in place here," said KSC spokesman George Diller. "We're definitely going to get wet but not enough to cause us to do anything here."

Lockheed Martin has a Titan 4B out at pad 40 being readied for a launch Monday night or Tuesday morning, as well as an Atlas 3 stacked at pad 36B for a scheduled December launch.

But conditions are nowhere near serious enough to warrant moving the rockets off their launch pads. It would take a major hurricane threatening a direct strike to do that.

NASA's three orbiters are in their hangars at KSC so are safe from any inclement weather. The Cape's Delta 2 launch pads are empty right now. Atlas 5 rockets do not roll out until a few hours before liftoff.

At 8 a.m. EDT (1200 GMT) the center of Tropical Storm Henri was about 105 miles (169 kilometers) west-northwest of St. Petersburg, Fla. Maximum winds are about 45 mph (72 kph) and the storm is moving east-northeast at 8 mph (13 kph).

September 4

Fate of Pluto Mission in Senate's Hands Thursday

In an ongoing battle for funding of a mission to Pluto, the non-profit Planetary Society this week issued a plea to its members to write Congress and request the mission's budget not be trimmed. Time is short, the organization notes.

As reported by in July, NASA's New Horizon's mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt is in jeopardy after a surprise House vote cut $55 million from NASA's $130 million New Frontiers budget for 2004. The Senate Appropriations Committee is slated to take the matter up Thursday.

Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo., directs New Horizons for NASA.

"If the New Frontiers cut isn't reversed, it'll delay the arrival of New Horizons at Pluto by four to five years, adding flight time, risk and cost, and it will delay the start of the second New Frontiers mission by at least a year," Stern said via e-mail from a conference in California. "It'll be a serious blow to one of NASA's crown jewels -- it's planetary program."

Funding for New Horizons began modestly in 2002 and in February its financial future seemed secure. The recently proposed budget cut came as a shock to Stern and others who've fought for the mission for years.

An internal mission analysis document obtained by states that the funding cut could jeopardize the Pluto mission entirely, wasting the roughly $140 million already spent in planning and early construction. If fully funded, the craft would launch in 2006 and arrive in 2015. [Pluto mission overview]

The Planetary Society's plea is online here.

-- Robert Roy Britt

September 3

Life on Europa, if it Exists, Might Ride Elevators

A new study of Jupiter's moon Europa suggests that intriguing ice domes on the surface might be formed by blobs of ice from the interior of the frozen shell that were are pushed upward by thermal upwelling from warmer ice underneath.

If so, then the study has implications for astrobiologists.

Europa is covered by a thick crust of ice. The moon is heated from within by strong tidal stretching and squeezing created by the immense gravity of Jupiter, and evidence is strong that there is a liquid ocean underneath. Scientists see Europa as a potential haven for microbes, though no evidence exists for past or present life.

Life requires liquid water. If anything does exist below the surface crust, which is several miles thick, it would be nearly impossible to detect with present technology.

"We think it now is possible that any present or past life or even just the chemistry of the ocean may be lifted to the surface, forming these domes," said Robert Pappalardo of the University of Colorado at Boulder. "It essentially would be like an elevator ride for microbes."

The research was presented at the annual Division of Planetary Sciences meeting this week in Monterey, Calif.

-- Robert Roy Britt

September 2

Asteroid Given Slight Odds of Hitting Earth in 2014

A newfound asteroid has a 1-in-909,000 chance of hitting Earth in the year 2014 based on limited observations of its current path, astronomers said over the weekend. Those odds are likely to evaporate as more is learned about the object's trajectory.

In all similar cases in the past, the chances of a large rock hitting the planet have been reduced to zero when more data was collected. Meanwhile, astronomers gave asteroid 2003 QQ47 a rating of 1 on the Torino hazard scale, meaning it merits "careful monitoring." The scale runs from zero to 10 and only objects rated 8 and above -- none ever have been -- represent certain collisions.

Asteroid 2003 QQ47 is about three-quarters of a mile wide (1.2 kilometers), large enough to cause widespread regional catastrophe and even global damage were it to impact Earth. Most researchers believe large impacts in Earth's history have contributed to severe climate change and even the elimination of some plant and animal species.

The newly discovered rock is classified as a Near Earth Object (NEO). Its orbit was calculated based on 51 observations over seven days. It was discovered Aug. 24 by the Lincoln Near Earth Asteroid Research Program (LINEAR), in Socorro, New Mexico.

"As additional observations are made over the coming months, and the uncertainties decrease, asteroid 2003 QQ47 is likely to drop down the Torino scale," said Kevin Yates, project manager for the UK NEO Information Center.

A press release by the NEO Information Center has contributed to headlines about 2003 QQ47 in media around the world this morning. Similar scenarios in the past have fueled public concern and even fear prior to an object being determined harmless. [More Asteroid News]

-- Robert Roy Britt

August 29

20th Anniversary of First African-American in Space

When NASA's Space Shuttle Challenger lifted off on Aug. 30, 1983, one crewmember chuckled with excitement all the way into space, and he made history along the way.

Twenty years later, Guion S. "Guy" Bluford's memories of his historic flight (STS-8) are just as vivid as they were on that summer night. It was the first Space Shuttle launch and landing at night and the first time an African-American flew into space.

"It was around midnight and it was raining," Bluford recalls today. "We came down the elevator, heading to 'the bird,' what we called the Shuttle, and all these people were standing there cheering us on. When the clock counted down and we took off, I just laughed, it was so much fun," he said.

Though his achievement instantly thrust him into the spotlight as a role model for young African-Americans, Bluford says his goal was never to be the first African-American in space. "I recognized the importance of it, but I didn't want to be a distraction for my crew," he said. "We were all contributing to history and to our continued exploration of space."

Instead, Bluford says his goal was "to make others feel comfortable" with African-Americans in space.

"I felt I had to do the best job I could for people like the Tuskegee Airmen, who paved the way for me, but also to give other people the opportunity to follow in my footsteps," Bluford said. The Tuskegee Airmen made history as the first black flying squadron in World War II.

August 27

NASA Awards Chandra X-Ray Observatory Follow-On Contract

NASA has awarded a contract to the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Mass., to provide science and operational support for the Chandra X-ray Observatory, one of the world's most powerful tools to better understand the structure and evolution of the universe.

The contract will have a period of performance from August 31, 2003, through July 31, 2010, with an estimated value of $373 million. It is a follow-on contract to the existing contract with Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory that has provided science and operations support to the Observatory since its launch in July 1999. At launch, the intended mission life was five years.

As a result of Chandra's success, NASA extended the mission from five to 10 years. The value of the original contract was $289 million. The follow-on contract with the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory will continue through the 10-year mission. The contract type is cost reimbursement with no fee.

The contract covers mission operations and data analysis, which includes the observatory operations, science data processing and the general and guaranteed time observer (astronomer) support. The observatory operations tasks include monitoring the health and status of the observatory and developing and up linking the observation sequences during Chandra's communication coverage periods.

The science data processing tasks include the competitive selection, planning, and coordination of science observations with the general observers and processing and delivery of the resulting scientific data. There are approximately 200 to 250 observing proposals selected annually out of about 800 submitted, with a total amount of observing time of about 20 million seconds.

August 26

If Earth Fell Over, Life Could Survive

"Present Earth is one of the most uninhabitable planets that we have simulated," says Penn State's Darren Williams. And that bodes well for the search for life, a new study claims.

Williams and a colleague wondered whether organisms might have a fighting chance on tilted worlds. Most scientists assume Earth-sized planets exist around other stars, but they could be wildly different places.

Earth's rotational axis is tilted 23.5 degrees. Williams' team fed a computer with general climate models and a variety of tilts, from zero to 85 degrees. In some scenarios, carbon dioxide levels were pumped up to 10 times what's in Earth's atmosphere today. The scientists also forced all land masses to huddle together in other setups, and they even shrunk the amount of land on a hypothetical planet.

Among the results: Tilts up to about 54 degrees caused global temperatures to rise. But beyond a 54-degree tilt, temperatures declined. The only planets colder than today's Earth were those with no tilt.

Problem worlds? "Planets with either large polar supercontinents or small inventories of water," Williams reports in the International Journal of Astrobiology.

The big question: Would we want to live on any of the tilted worlds? Depends on how much you like to swim.

"Provided the life does not occupy continental surfaces plagued seasonally by the highest temperature, these planets could support more advanced life," the scientists say. "While such worlds exhibit climates that are very different from Earth's, many will still be suitable for both simple and advanced forms of water-dependent life."

-- Robert Roy Britt

August 23

Amateur Photos of Mars Made Easy

With Mars just days away from its closest approach to Earth in recorded history, a lot of folks wonder what they can see and what sort of telescope might be needed.

Becky Ramotowski of San Antonio, Texas helps answer the questions. She made the photo below overnight and sent it early Saturday morning. Ramotowski used an 80mm (3.2-inch) refractor telescope with a 5mm eyepiece. She simply hand-held her Nikon digital camera up to the eyepiece of the telescope.

"This image is proof that you don't need a lot of aperture to see some features," she said. "And it is possible to get pleasing results with a digital camera."

The white area at the bottom is Mars' southern polar ice cap, a frozen concoction of dry ice (carbon dioxide) and water ice. Hints of some of Mars' dark surface markings are also visible. Smaller telescopes will reveal Mars as a disk instead of a point of light, but likely will make it difficult to spot surface features.

"I encourage everyone to try taking digital images of Mars since it is so close, and the image would make a nice memento of this historic time," she said.

If you don't already own a telescope, doing this could prove difficult, since Mars mania has caused telescopes to be in short supply at many stores. In that event, scope out this list of Mars-related observing events and borrow someone else's big eyes.

For those who have a telescope stuffed away in a closet somewhere, here are tips on how to make the most of it. Photography tips are here. Or check out our Complete Mars Viewer's Guide.

To see Mars in greater detail -- as it rotates -- visit's home page Monday morning, Aug. 25, for remarkable, animated Image of the Day.

-- Robert Roy Britt

August 22

Rocketeers Buy Used Russian Space Suit on Ebay

Armadillo Aerospace rocketeers continue to make progress in their bid to snare the $10 million X Prize, which will be awarded to the first team that succeeds in building and flying a passenger-carrying suborbital space ship.

For the project, the group recently purchased a used Russian space suit on Ebay.

"Our plan has always been to have a pressurized cabin, but an extra layer of safety is probably justified if we can get this working without too much trouble," reports John Carmack, head of Armadillo Aerospace, based in Mesquite, Texas.

All dressed up.

IMAGE: Armadillo Aerospace

Along with the space suit, a communications helmet that fits inside the suit and gloves were also provided.

"The Russian that sold them to us also tossed in a few Buran heat shield tiles for free," Carmack added. The Russian Buran was a space shuttle-like vehicle that was mothballed after an unpiloted test flight in 1988.

On close inspection, the space suit came complete with a few holes. Other than needing patches here and there, the outfit reportedly looks in good shape. Armadillo officials are fabricating adapters to couple the suit with the X Prize space ship's life support system.

-- Leonard David

August 20

Astronaut Jim Reilly Thanks Naval Diving Team for Assisting in Columbia Investigation

NORFOLK, Va. (NNS) -- National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) astronaut Jim Reilly recently presided over an awards ceremony for Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit (MDSU) 2. The ceremony, held at Naval Amphibious Base, Little Creek, recognized Sailors for their search efforts of space shuttle Columbia STS Flight 107.

"NASA is grateful for your help," Reilly said to the group of Sailors. He went on to tell them how he plans to take a part of the command with him, long after the ceremony ends. "On my next mission to space, I will be taking a MDSU challenge coin with me."

While re-entering earth's atmosphere Feb. 1, Columbia broke apart, leaving a debris trail over 220 miles long that started in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and ended in western Louisiana. Several witnesses, who were fishing nearby the morning of the crash, reported hearing debris hit the water of the Toledo Bend Reservoir, which spans 60 miles long and four miles across.

Directly following the tragic Columbia Space Shuttle explosion, MDSU-2 responded to a request from NASA for search operations and wreckage recovery. A team of 63 military personnel, including active and Reserve divers, Supervisor of Salvage, Supervisor of Diving, and several other Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) personnel, worked with local and national civilian organizations to complete the search project despite adverse conditions.

August 19

Space-Based Chandra Observatory to Look Down on Earth

The whole point of putting a telescope in space is to eliminate the interference of the Earth's atmosphere on sky observations.

But this fall, researchers with the space-based Chandra X-ray Observatory plan to point down instead of up, hoping to see x-ray emissions from Earth.

These planetary emissions occur when the Sun's x-rays strike atoms in the ground or atmosphere, which then absorbs and reemits the radiation. Chandra has detected x-ray flashes from Venus, Mars and even the Moon, where the x-rays collide with the lunar surface.

Chandra astronomers plan to pay special attention to the Earth's polar regions during the 10-day study in case it has an auroral x-ray hot spot like that seen at the north pole of Jupiter. The Jovian hotspot is caused by heavy ions that strip atmospheric molecules of electrons as they enter the atmosphere, researchers said.

-- Tariq Malik

August 18

Ariane 5 Launch with Europe's First Moon Mission Delayed

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- A piggyback science mission to send Europe's first probe to the Moon will have to wait three to four more weeks to make the trip because of a problem with another satellite to be carried on the same Ariane 5.

The European Space Agency's Small Missions for Advanced Research in Technology (SMART-1) is designed to circle the Moon and use onboard X-ray cameras to map the body in an attempt to determine the Moon's origin. The small probe also will demonstrate such advanced technology as ion propulsion and laser communications.

SMART-1 is flying as a secondary payload on an Ariane 5G rocket, which was most recently scheduled to be launched from the Guiana Space Center in South America on Sept. 3. At this time last year the mission was scheduled to fly in April 2003.

The primary goal of the Ariane 5 mission, Arianespace's Flight 162, is to loft into orbit the Indian Space Research Organization's Insat 3E and Eutelsat's e-Bird communications satellites.

Problems discovered in the factory with components similar to those already installed on the Insat 3E is prompting this delay, which will give engineers time to re-test some of the parts of the satellite to make sure they are properly working.

-- Jim Banke

Heat-Seeking Bug Extends Extreme Nature of Life

All critters known to science would fry in the searing water that emerges from a sea-floor vent studied by Derek Lovley and his colleagues. Except for Strain 121.

Lovley's team at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, found the as-yet-unnamed microbe unexpectedly thriving in the scorching conditions. The discovery adds to a long and growing list of simplistic creatures that live in exotic, harsh environments and which suggest that life, by no means fragile, might exist on other planets that at first glance don't look very hospitable.

Strain 121 was collected by a robotic submarine from the Pacific Ocean's Juan de Fuca Ridge, a deep dark place where black smokers of volcanically heated water and chemicals build microbe-rich chimneys as tall as a four-story building. The neighborhood is called Faulty Towers. All the microbes there survive harsh conditions, but none are so hardy as the newfound archaea, a primitive single-celled organism similar to bacteria.

Strain 121 thrives in water that is 250 degrees Fahrenheit (121 degrees Celsius). The previous heat-seeking king could tolerate nothing above 235 F (113 C). In a kitchen at sea level, water boils at 212 F (100 C).

"The upper temperature limit for life is a key parameter for delimiting when and where life might have evolved on a hot, early Earth; the depth to which life exists in the Earth's subsurface; and the potential for life in hot, extraterrestrial environments," the researchers write in the Aug. 15 issue of the journal Science. [More Wild Life in California]

More about the bug is available from the National Science Foundation.

-- Robert Roy Britt

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