Active Icy Volcanism on Enceladus

The Earth has it, Io has it, and now a third world can be added to list. I’m talking about active volcanism. The Cassini spacecraft finds active icy volcanism reshaping the surface of Saturn’s tiny moon Enceladus and spewing water vapor and ice particles into Saturn’s E-ring. What a day for planetary science!

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Cassini Confirms Active Enceladus

The tiny moon orbiting Saturn named Enceladus has become the third body in the solar system known to have current volcanic activity driven by internal heating, after Earth and Jupiter’s moon Io. The surprising discovery was made after the Cassini spacecraft performed a close flyby of Enceladus on July 14, 2005 and returned the closest images yet of the moon. Data obtained by other instruments revealed that the moon’s south pole is warmer than its equator. Warm fractures and a cloud of water vapor over the region point to active processes replenishing Enceladus’ atmosphere and providing material for Saturn’s E-ring, the largest ring in the system.

Planetary geologists knew something strange was going on when the first images of Enceladus revealed a heavily fractured world with large regions devoid of impact craters. In April 2005 NASA announced that Cassini had discovered an atmosphere around the moon. Because Enceladus is so tiny, any atmospheric gases should readily escape the moon’s gravitational pull. Detection of a substantial atmosphere indicates that some process must be replenishing it.

A massive cloud of gases being vented from the south pole, the tortured appearance of the landscape, and the warmer temperatures there than even the equator of Enceladus all point to active internal heating, perhaps caused by the gravitational tug-and-pull between Enceladus and other objects in system. Enceladus’ south pole contains more fractures than any other region on the moon and house-sized boulders litter the terrain. Fractures called “tiger stripes” because of their regular and roughly parallel pattern appear to be most warmed by the internal heating. Evaporation of water caused by the warming of ice may result in a locally denser atmosphere.

Planetary scientists have long expected the outer moons to be inactive worlds with heavily cratered and ancient surfaces. The discovery of active tectonics at work on Enceladus will completely rewritten our understanding of the outer solar system. Enceladus is the second active world to be discovered orbiting Saturn. Although not yet confirmed, there has been some evidence for volcanic activity on Saturn’s largest moon, Titan. Several interesting features on the surface of Titan have appeared in images, but because the moon is surrounded by a thick nitrogen/methane atmosphere, scientists have been struggling to understand what they are seeing through the haze. The atmosphere around Enceladus is much thinner, allowing scientists to proceed more quickly with their analysis of data from the moon.

More surprising discoveries are certain as Cassini continues its four-year tour of the Saturnian system. The next close flyby will be of Titan on August 22, 2005. Cassini will not return for a close flyby of Enceladus until March 12, 2008.

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New Planet Discovered in Our Solar System

The discovery of a tenth planet orbiting our Sun was announced today by Dr. Michael E. Brown of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California, USA. The planet is at least the size of Pluto and perhaps twice as large. It has been designated 2003UB313 for now while the name suggested by its discoverers is reviewed by the International Astronomical Union.

The announcement came just hours after news of another object discovered in the outer solar system hit the media. That object, designated 2003 EL61, is slightly smaller than Pluto in size and has a tiny moon. The team that discovered the tenth planet had also been actively observing 2003 EL61 but was scooped by astronomers from the Sierra Nevada Observatory in Spain.

Both objects were originally observed in 2003 but new analysis with updated observations has allowed astronomers to confirm the discoveries. Such distant objects move very slowly against background stars and require sequential observations over long durations to pin down their orbits. Estimates for their size are based on brightness. If Planet 2003UB313 reflected all sunlight it would be the size of Pluto, which is 2,300 kilometers (1,429 miles) across. Because most objects do not reflect all sunlight that hits them, the object must be larger than Pluto.

The newly discovered objects, like Pluto, are all members of the Kuiper belt, a band of objects orbiting the sun past Neptune. These remnants from the formation of the solar system are not well understood. NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto and its moon Charon will provide the first opportunity to view Kuiper belt objects up close. The spacecraft is expected to be launched January 11, 2005 and will travel for nearly ten years before flying by Pluto. If successful, the spacecraft may be targeted toward other Kuiper belt objects.

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“The Spaceship Company” Formed

Burt Rutan and Sir Richard Branson have agreed to form a new company to build new sub-orbital spacecraft for the emerging personal spaceflight industry. “The Spaceship Company” will provide equipment and launch vehicles using technology licensed from Scaled Composites for space tourism operators, including Virgin Galactic. Burt Rutan is president of Scaled Composites, the company that built the first generation manned rocket SpaceShipOne and its White Knight launch aircraft which eventually allowed them to win the US$10,000,000 Ansari X Prize last year. Sir Richard Branson is the founder of the Virgin Group of Companies, including the recently formed Virgin Galactic which plans to take paying tourists to sub-orbital destinations.

The personal spaceflight industry received a jump start with the first successful launch of a manned vehicle by a private company on October 4, 2004. The Ansari X Prize had been modeled after a similar prize that helped launch the airline industry in the early 1900s. Scaled Composites completed two successful launches less than a week apart using the same reusable vehicles to capture the prize.

During the prize-winning second launch, SpaceShipOne was carried by White Knight to nearly 16.8 kilometers (10.4 miles) where it was released to rocket up to 112 kilometers (69.7 miles). The height set a new record for a manned flight by a private company. Several other companies are working on their own technology as private industry becomes more interested in space efforts including tourism and mining. The industry’s next goal is to develop technology for reaching Earth orbit.

Meanwhile, the formation of “The Spaceship Company” appears to herald the coming rush of tourism to sub-orbital destinations. Thrill seekers and enthusiasts are expected to pay up to US$200,000 for tickets to board next-generation vehicles that will spend only a few short minutes at the edge of space. As private business increasingly views space as a financial opportunity, industry supporters also hope their own successes will reinvigorate government manned space flight programs, now limited to the United States, Russia, and China. With the NASA space shuttle fleet expected to be retired in 2010 if not sooner and as more countries develop their own space programs, the opportunities for private industry appear to be more numerous than ever.

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The Great Frontiers of Exploration

The soft blue pool of light in claustrophobic darkness, the white and crème-colored towers of limestone, the shimmer of hot fluids mixing with cold sea water, the occasional life form swimming back – it is another day in the exciting exploration of the Lost City Hydrothermal Field. Half a kilometer below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean, the two IFE ROVs Argus and Hercules are being kept busy while scientists a quarter of the world away keep their eyes fixed on monitors displaying live high definition video and images.

This is all new. The Lost City has been little explored until now and the technology allowing scientists on land to participate is cutting-edge. So far the Lost City 2005 mission has been an unqualified success, demonstrating the ability to extend human activities through telepresence by putting some of the most remote and dangerous locations within the grasp of our robotic arms. This is being there by not being there.

There are two fronts taking humans into the Great Frontiers. Telepresence is the first, allowing us to go to places not safe for our bodies at this time. The second includes the follow-up technologies that finally make such locations accessible to humans in bodily form. In space we send robotic spacecraft out through the solar system while we continue working on technology to take humans safely out into our own local celestial neighborhood. Meanwhile, under the ocean unmanned ROVs explore sites like the Lost City while technical divers in shallower waters keep setting new records for the greatest depths ever dived by a human without a vehicle.

The ocean, outer space, and cyberspace are the Great Frontiers. We explore in person and with robotic surrogates, taking agonizing step after agonizing step toward no destination but “further,” “out there,” and “where no person has gone before.” Frontier Channel is dedicated to these explorers, human and otherwise.

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SMART-1 Snaps Image of Hadley Rille on the Moon

The European Space Agency’s SMART-1 spacecraft continues to capture images of the Moon in a mission to test new technologies and return new data about our nearest celestial neighbor. In one of the latest images, Hadley Rille, an enormous lava channel over 3.3 billion years old, stretches toward Mount Hadley in the upper right. Geologists believe the formation was created when lava still flowed on the surface of the Moon early in its formation. Because the Moon is so small, it lost much of its internal heat early. Heavy bombardment by meteors and/or comets also likely ended early in its history. Without an atmosphere or lengthy internal heating like the Earth, the Moon’s surface is static and ancient.

Apollo 15 astronauts landed near Hadley Rille in 1971. The United States hopes to return humans to the Moon by 2020. They will make use of data returned by SMART-1 and future lunar orbiters, landers, and rovers to work out requirements for manned missions and eventual outposts and colonies.

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Microsoft Windows Vista Beta 1 Announced

Microsoft is making available the first beta of their new operating system, to be called Windows Vista. Windows Vista is expected to be available near the end of 2006 and it is Microsoft’s first new operating system since Windows XP was released in 2001.

Windows Vista’s includes a number of improvements including a translucent glass skin for open folders and application windows, faster desktop searches, the ability to create virtual folders, better security, and performance enhancements. Some of the technologies have been available in Apple’s Mac OS-X operating system and some commentators suggest Microsoft is playing catch up.

Virtual folders should make management of files easier. Rather than showing files located in just one folder, virtual folders check for new documents related to a particular saved search every time they are open. In this way, users could keep track of many different types of documents all related to one particular topic in one virtual folder, rather than having to go to several different folders to find the documents they need.

While Internet searching has sped up over the years, searching the documents on your own computer’s hard drive has been notoriously slow in previous versions of Windows. Several third parties such as Google and Yahoo have created search tools that can be downloaded and used on your own computer. Now Windows Vista’s will have similar capabilities built into the operating system. All Explorers in the new operating system, including Internet Explorer, will have a search box for local computer searches.

Existing folders that received an overhaul in Windows XP will provide even more information in Windows XP. For example, images in a pictures folder will include information about the camera used, personal ratings, and keywords entered by users to improve searches. It appears that Microsoft is dropping the “My” from their folder names used in Windows XP like “My Pictures”.

Many of the technologies originally planned for the next Windows operating system have been dropped, such as a brand new file management system. Some of these new technologies will show up in an upcoming version of Microsoft’s server operating system. Meanwhile, it is expected that Apple will have released another update to their own operating system by the time Windows Vista comes out. It is not clear how the two will compare at the time. Apple has been making significant progress in the past few years with its iPod and other offerings. However, the market share of their operating system remains a small fraction compared to Microsoft’s own.

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More Lost City Images

Researchers have been busy exploring the Lost City Hydrothermal Field today. New image stills captured from the mission’s live Internet video feed reveal tall chimneys of calcium carbonate looming in the deep and dark waters and several life forms passing by. A jelly fish appeared to inspect the IFE ROV Hercules as it inspected the jelly fish.

The video feed switches to other views during transit and maintenance when the ROVs are not deployed. These views include locations onboard the Ronald H. Brown such as the ROVs deck locations and the researchers’ van full of displays and computer equipment. After ROVs are deployed, a grid of video sources called the “template” is often displayed. Land-based researchers viewing the video feeds via a stream over Internet 2 can choose from the different sources.

The ROVs do more than just capture high definition video and images. Hercules is equipped with arms operated by a human safely aboard the Ronald H. Brown. The operators use Hercules to collect rock samples and organisms, capture liquid and gas samples with specially designed samplers, and make small scratches and holes in the formations to inspect their interiors. When the mission is completed early next week, the research will be far from over. Lost City is the first such hot springs formation discovered in the oceans and there remain many mysteries yet to be solved by scientists.

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Space Shuttle Fleet Grounded

NASA grounded the remaining space shuttle fleet today after video of yesterday’s Discovery launch revealed that a large piece of insulation foam had fallen off the fuel tank. The debris did not hit the Discovery orbiter but the video footage was a frightening reminder of a similar incident that led to the Columbia disaster in 2002 which claimed the lives of all seven astronauts onboard. In that accident a chunk of foam struck Columbia’s left wing. NASA and independent reviewers concluded that hot gases entered the orbiter through the damaged area during reentry, leading to its disintegration.

New measures meant to fix the insulation foam problem apparently failed. Several chunks of the material fell off Discovery’s fuel tank during launch, including one piece over two feet long. As the fuel tank drifted away from the shuttle as they neared orbit, crew members took still images of an area of missing foam. Both crew and NASA engineers will continue the inspection of Discovery over the next few days. So far it appears Discovery was unharmed during launch.

With several ground-based imaging systems trained on Discovery during launch and new technology onboard for the crew to inspect their own vehicle, the safety measures put into place for the STS-114 mission have been unprecedented. However, NASA officials stated in a press briefing earlier today that they will not launch another shuttle until the insulation foam problem has been fixed. What this may mean for the future of the space shuttle program is unclear. The fleet is expected to be retired in 2010.

Future construction on the International Space Station (ISS) depends in part on the space shuttle to ferry equipment, supplies, and new modules. Construction has already been delayed because of the Columbia disaster. Over budget and behind schedule, ISS has not yet realized its original goals, which included a full complement of scientists to conduct cutting-edge research. The smaller crews onboard ISS must spend a large portion of their time on station operations and maintenance rather than scientific research.

NASA and industry partners are developing a next-generation Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) to replace the space shuttle fleet. The first CEV is not expected to be completed until the middle of next decade, leaving a gap in ability to send humans to low-Earth orbit. This gap might be filled by technology being developed by privately-owned companies and other countries, including Russia and China, although no formal arrangements have been considered or made yet.

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Successful Launch of the Space Shuttle Discovery

NASA’s Space Shuttle Discovery successfully launched this morning from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, USA. The return to flight comes 2 ½ years after the Space Shuttle disaster claimed the lives of seven astronauts returning to Earth after a successful mission.

The liftoff occurred at 10:39 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time. The return to flight has been an arduous process of improving safety and inspecting equipment in the aftermath of the Columbia disaster. Experts believe the accident was caused by debris that damaged the space shuttle during launch. For this current launch, a plethora of surveillance equipment watched for similar incidents. The measures detected debris falling from Discovery but it does not appear that any damage occurred to the space shuttle’s skin. Video and images of the launch will be closely reviewed for the next several days and the crew will continue their own inspection throughout their mission.

The Discovery STS-114 crew includes:

Their mission is to test new safety techniques developed over the past few years and to deliver supplies to the International Space Station (ISS). The crew will also undertake spacewalks to deploy new ISS modules.

The space shuttles were developed in the 1970s. NASA plans to retire the remaining fleet around 2010 while a next-generation Crew Exploration Vehicle is developed. NASA hopes to return humans to the moon by 2020 after President Bush outlined new space exploration goals last year focused on the Moon and Mars.

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