The Cosmic Mirror
By Daniel Fischer
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Current mission news: MGS (latest pictures!) + Cassini + Stardust

Integral gamma observatory up, commissioning under way
On Oct. 17 ESA's latest astronomy satellite was launched on a Proton - the instruments are now being turned on one by one: Homepage, Launch Page, ESA Science News (earlier), GSFC and ESA Press Releases and coverage by NSU, PhysicsWeb, BBC, CNN, SN, S&T, Ast., UPI, AFP (other story), AP, ST. Previews: ESA Science News, New Sci., SN, AFP [Dsc.], BBC, SC, Novosti (earlier), RP, Welt. CHIPS nears launch, too - the Cosmic Hot Interstellar Plasma Spectrometer will examine the ISM: GSFC Press Release.
Update # 244 of Friday, October 25, 2002
A comet orbiting a pulsar? / Iran to launch a spysat / Disaster at Plesetsk / Nobel Prize for astrophysicists! / Another half-Pluto found

A comet orbiting a pulsar?

The detection of a fourth planet orbiting the pulsar PSR B1257+12 (see Update # 231 story 2 sidebar 1) has been withdrawn - and replaced by something even weirder! There is indeed a strong signal of about 3 years period in the timing data from this pulsar, but only when its pulses are observed at a frequency of 430 MHz: Seen at 1400 MHz this signal just does not exist. This fact has become clear only recently when enough timing measurements at the higher frequency had been collected with the improved Arecibo radio telescope. A planet tugging on the neutron star would cause its pulse times at Earth to be affected at all radio frequencies simultaneously, of course, and thus 'planet D' has now been retracted.

The residuals seen in the 430 MHz data have to be due to variations in the number of electrons the pulses have to travel thru, as these cause tiny (and well-understood) delays. On the other hand, however, the residuals in the pulse arrival times at 430 MHz do show a striking periodicity, apparently stable all the way back to the first timings 12 years ago. There is also a long-term trend in the pulse times of PSR B1257+12, caused by variations in the interstellar plasma thru which we are observing the pulsar: It is drifting slowly behind this patchy veil. But the periodic variations are unlike any seen before in such interstellar effects: What if they are caused by something in orbit around the pulsar after all?

Since there is no gravitational effect evident in the 1400 MHz data, any compact body must have less than 1/5 the mass of Pluto, but such an object could still measure 1000 km - and survive for hundreds of millions of years in a pulsar's radiation field. Its surface would be ablated constantly, though, turning it into something like a comet: This 'coma' moving thru the line of sight once per orbit could be the cause of the periodic delays in the pulse arrival times. There is no way that this speculative scenario can be proven right away, but a year's more of timing data should confirm or deny the strict periodicity of the 430 MHz residuals - and these measurements are being made with Arecibo right now. (Talk by A. Wolszczan at the MPIfR in Bonn on Oct. 25, 2002)

The best-observed Gamma Ray Burst of all time

is GRB021004 - it was discovered by the HETE-2 satellite (see Update # 206 story 2) on Oct. 4, and just 9 minutes later groundbased observations began that would eventually involve 100+ telescopes, including those of amateurs: GSFC Press Release [SN], S&T, Ast., BBC, NZ - and an early paper by Lazzati & al.
Novae can resume collecting matter from their partners quickly after an outburst, XMM observations show: ESA News [ESA SN], Ast., NZ.

Newly discovered clouds found floating high above Milky Way

New studies with the GBT have revealed a previously unknown population of discrete hydrogen clouds in the gaseous halo that surrounds the Milky Way Galaxy, in the transition zone between the Milky Way and intergalactic space: NRAO Press Release [SR], NZ, RP.

Iran says it wants to launch a reconnaissance satellite - on a domestic rocket and in 2003

At least that's what Brig. Gen. Ahmad Vahid, the chairman of the Iranian Aerospace Industries Organization, told the London-based newspaper Al-Hayah: In an interview published on Oct. 3 he talked about a satellite "for reconnaissance and civilian use" that Iran would build all by itself - and launch in 2003 on a domestically developed rocket. But at the same time he asserted that Iran has no plans for a long-range missile reaching farther than 1500 km, just enough to deter an attack by Israel.

Observers there as well as in the West are puzzled by the announcement: A rocket so weak could only launch a very modest Earth satellite of perhaps symbolic but no strategic relevance. And there are also doubts about the purely domestic nature of the development program: A former Iranian official says that North Koreans are helping with the propulsion, Russians with the camera and Chinese with the rocket platform. And a launch before 2004 would be very unlikely. (Space News of Oct. 14, 2002)

AFPC on the Vahid interview, the FAS on Iran's emerging space program and AFP on Iran's missile plans.

Ariane 5 launch pushed back

The first launch of an upgraded version of the Ariane 5 booster has been delayed from early to late November, though the full dress rehearsal went well: ST, SD, Welt.
Japan successfully launches experimental space shuttle - the shuttle reached an altitude of around 600 m: AFP, AP, SR.

Russian space disaster: Soyuz fails, one dead, science payload lost

In one of the worst Russian space accidents in years, a Soyuz-U rocket failed shortly after launch at the Plesetsk cosmodrome on October 15, killing one soldier (Ivan Marchenko) and injuring others, while the scientific payload with many foreign experiments was destroyed. The accident, the first failure of a Soyuz after 75 straight successes, was later blamed on "an alien object or objects" in the Block D engine of the first stage of the Soyuz-U. While this rocket differs somewhat from the Soyuz-FG used in manned launches, the next taxi flight to the ISS was still delayed by 2 days.

A criminal investigation into the accident has already been launched by Russia as well. The lost payload was the unmanned Foton M-1 research satellite, using capsules of the Foton/Bion family containing 44 experiments supported by ESA. The experiments covered a wide range of scientific disciplines, including fluid physics, biology, crystal growth, radiation dosimetry and exobiology. France's IBIS biological incubator, Germany's AGAT, Russia's Polizon furnace and five Russian experiments brought the spacecraft's overall payload to a total of 650 kg.

ESA Press Release and Rosaviakosmos Statement.
Coverage on Oct. 22/23: SC, Welt. Oct. 18: Interfax, ST. Oct. 17: SC, Guardian, ST. Oct. 15/16: SN, New Sci., BBC, CNN, Gazeta, Novosti, SC, ST (earlier), AFP (other, earlier stories), UPI, AP, RP, NZ.

Shenzhou III orbital operations end

But the future fate of the orbital module remains unclear: AFP, ST.
Chinese president visits JSC - he's considered a space buff: HC, AFP.

Discovery of cosmic neutrinos, X-ray sources honored with 2002 Physics Nobel Prize

Three astrophysicists have been honored with the Physics Nobel Prize of 2002, for discoveries that in one case took place 40 years ago but which literally opened 'new windows' into the Universe: the first detection of a cosmic X-ray source other than the Sun and the detection of neutrinos from the Sun and Supernova 1987A.
  • Raymond Davis Jr constructed a completely new detector, a gigantic tank filled with 600 tonnes of fluid, which was placed in a mine: Over a period of 30 years he succeeded in capturing a total of 2000 neutrinos from the Sun and was thus able to prove that fusion provided the energy from the Sun (although it took another 2+ decades to explain why Davis didn't see as many neutrinos as predicted - see Update # 237 small items).

  • With another gigantic detector, called Kamiokande, a group of researchers led by Masatoshi Koshiba was able to confirm Davis's results. They were also able, on 23 February 1987, to detect neutrinos from a distant supernova explosion: They captured twelve of the total of 1016 neutrinos that passed through the detector. The work of Davis and Koshiba has led to unexpected discoveries and a new, intensive field of research, neutrino astronomy.

  • Riccardo Giacconi was a pioneer in X-ray astronomy who constructed instruments riding on rockets outside the atmosphere: In 1962 his group detected for the first time a source of X-rays outside our solar system (Sco X-1) and he was the first to prove that the universe contains background radiation of X-ray light. He also detected sources of X-rays that most astronomers now consider to contain black holes. Giacconi constructed the first X-ray telescopes, which have provided us with completely new - and sharp - images of the universe: His contributions laid the foundations of X-ray astronomy.
Interestingly Giacconi was not even present when the rocket was launched that would find Sco X-1: At that time he was busy preparing for an American atmospheric nuclear test in the Pacific, from which he planned to measure the X-ray emmission. It was Herbert Gursky who supervised the launch and was the first to see the mysterious signal from far away that would revolutionize astronomy - the scientists had actually been looking for solar X-rays scattered by the Moon.
The official Nobel Press Release, more material and coverage by New Sci., NSU, BBC, AP, AFP, NYT, WP (earlier), S&T, CNN, ST, ZEIT, NZ, RP (mehr), BdW.

Background material on solar neutrinos: the Davis experiment, a paper by Ananthanarayan & Singh on how SNO got the solution and a paper by Bahcall on how we learned how the Sun works.
Also the Story of Sco X-1 and the history of X-ray astronomy.

Archeops cosmology ballon results released

Yet another experiment to map tiny CMBR fluctuations - a direct precursor of ESA's Planck satellite - flew on a balloon recently, and now the results of Archeops (confirming those of other similar experiments, of course) have been released: papers by Benoit & al. on the data and their meaning, the First Results page and coverage by AFP, RP.
The fate of the Universe is more open than ever because we have no clue yet whether the Dark Energy is constant or growing or even shrinking with time: Stanford Press Rel., New Sci., CNN, SF Gate, BBC. Even easy questions in cosmology are hard: NYT. We'll never know everything, fears Chauhan.
Can a magnetic field change gravity? Such an effect, permitted in some theories, could explain discrepancies in G measurements: New Sci., NZ. Another measurement of G: New Sci. Chandra contradicts MOND: Press Release, Ast., S&T.

Yet another »Half-Pluto« found in the Kuiper Belt

There are now four bodies known in the outer solar system that approach or reach half the diameter of the planet Pluto: First there was what is now known as (20'000) Varuna with some 900 kilometers diameter (see Update # 214 small items), then came (28'978) Ixion alias 2001 KX76 (see Update # 227 story 2 sidebar 2) with 900 to 1200 km diameter (according to the latest radio astronomical measurements), followed by 2002 AW197 with again 900 km - and now there is 2002 LM60 with a particularly well established diameter of 1250 km. This object (which the discoverers want to name Quaoar) is actually more »normal« than Pluto, with an almost circular orbit at 42 AU and a lower inclination of 7°.

Thanks to parallel photometry in visible and thermals radiation we already know LM60's albedo of 10-12% and can calculate the diameter from the brightness in the visible. Also the HST managed to barely resolve the body, confirming the value of about 1250 km. The albedo of 10% is higher than Varuna's at 7% and much higher than the often assumed »typical« Kuiperoid value of 4% (but much lower than Pluto's 60%). There has been a suggestion that the average albedo in the Kuiper Belt is 15% which could explain the high abundance of Kuiperoid moons (see Update # 242 lead, sidebar 1): The relatively high value of 2002 LM60 may point in this direction.

Congress committee supports Pluto mission, too!

More dramatic progress for a NASA mission to the Kuiper Belt and Pluto: The House Appropriations Committee has proposed adding funding for missions to Pluto and Europa in the 2003 budget. The Senate Appropriations Committee had already added funds for the Pluto-Kuiper Belt mission to the budget (see Update # 241 story 2 sidebar 1). The House also added funding for a big and expensive mission to the Jovian moon Europa that had been cancelled by the Administration: This will have to be resolved in conference with the Senate, which did not include such funding. The fiscal year 2003 NASA budget will not be finalized until passage of the bill in the House Appropriations Committee is followed by approval of the mission by the full Congress: That budget has not yet been acted upon.
2002 LM60: Caltech, STScI and MPIfR [SR] Press Releases, LM 60 details, MPEC, Science@NASA, APOD.
Coverage by SD, New Sci., NSU, BBC, SN, CNN, SFGate, S&T, Science News, NYT, WP (earlier), Ast., Nat'l Geogr., SF Gate, Indep., CBC, Guardian, Dsc., ST, AP, AFP, UPI, SC, Wired, RP, NZ (none of them knowing about the true size of Ixion).

Pluto mission: ST (earlier), SD (earlier), AIP, S&T, HC, Plan. Soc. Statement [SR]. NASA's budget won't be finalized before the Nov. election: ST. New Horizons Science Ops Center named after Charon's discoverer: USNO Release.

Pluto's temperature has risen since 1988, a new analysis of the Aug. 20 stellar occultation (see Update # 242 small items) claims: MIT Press Release, ST, S&T, Ast., SC, NZ.

A new composite image of comet Borrelly as seen by Deep Space 1: a JPL Release, the picture and what it means [SR]; SC.
Comet 2001 RX14 (LINEAR) sports a surprise tail on an AstroStudio image of Oct. 9.

ISS Update

Atlantis has visited the ISS, and the S1 Truss has been added to the station - while the next taxi crew gets ready for an Oct. 30 launch and yet another ISS-bound TV game show has been announced, this time in Russia itself: an ESA Press Release on the taxi flight, an Ecliptic Enterprises PR [SD] about the new ShuttleCam, a picture of the Moon shot by the current ISS crew, the ISS & Atlantis shot from the ground by John Locker, Science@NASA on the ISS + Atlantis in the sky and ISS psychology, the current Status of the mission and coverage on Oct. 24: ST (other story), NZ. Oct. 23: New Sci., AFP, FT. Oct. 22: AFP, SC, ST. Oct. 21: HC. Oct. 18: SN, CNN, SC (other story), ST (other story). Oct. 17: HC, SC. Oct. 16: FT, UPI (other story), AFP, ST.
Oct. 15: BBC, FT, AFP, SC (other story), ST, NZ. Oct. 14: HC, SC, ST, Welt. Oct. 13: SN, AFP, FT, NYT, HC (other story), ST, NZ. Oct. 12: BBC (on how to photograph the ISS hi-res), SN, SN, UPI, SC. Oct. 11: HC (other story), Ananova, ST, NZ. Oct. 10: FT, SN, UPI, BBC, SC (other story), RP. Oct. 9: BBC, SN, AFP (other story), CNN, ST (other story), Welt. Oct. 8: SR, AFP (earlier), SN (ShuttleCam still frames), HC, FT, ST, BBC, AP, RP. Oct. 7: SN, BBC, AFP, SC (earlier), ST (earlier), NZ.
NASA delays SLI review - the agency has delayed a key milestone in the Space Launch Initiative as it works to revamp the program: SD, FT, SC, ST. That was the recommendation from the GAO as well: FT, ST.
Wild plans for the era beyond the ISS are being discussed at NASA - let's go to the L2 point of the Earth-Moon system: New Sci. Earlier: SC, HC.

An asteroid co-orbiting with Earth

has been discovered - 2002 AA29, about 100 m wide, is at first on one side of the Earth and then escaping to travel along our planet's path around the Sun until it encounters the Earth from the other side, then it goes back again: details, New Sci., BBC, SC, Welt, NZ.

Distorted dust disk around Fomalhaut hints at planets

A huge distorted disk of cold dust has been discovered surrounding Fomalhaut, one of the brightest stars in the sky - the most likely cause of the distortion is the gravitational influence of a Saturn-like planet at a large distance from the star tugging on the disk: UCLA, PPARC Press Releases, Ast., SC, RP, NZ.

Evidence for a planet around Epsilon Eridani has been derived from its dust disk as well - its morphology is reproduced by a numerical simulation of dust particles captured into the 5:3 and 3:2 exterior mean-motion resonances with a 0.3 eccentricity 10-4 solar mass planet at periastron at a semi-major axis of 40 AU: paper by Quillen & Thorndike, Rochester Univ. Press Release [SR], coverage by New Sci., BBC, UPI, SC, ST, NZ.

The first planet orbiting a close-in binary star

has been discovered in Gamma Cephei - this discovery has implications for the number of possible planets in our galaxy, because unlike the Sun, most stars are in binary systems: McDonald Obs. PR [SN], New Sci., S&T, Ast., CNN, Welt, NZ.

No water maser emmission seen from several exoplanets - including some for which that had just been claimed (see last Update story 3 sidebar 1): IAUC. The doubts about the planet of HD 192263: Caltech PR. Amateur planet hunters: CSM. Professional planet hunters: Wired feature.

Pan-STARRS survey telescopes to be designed by the IfA

and to become operational in 2006 - the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System is currently conceived of as an array of small telescopes and would be a perfect hunter for small NEAs: U HI Press Release.

Impact Risk less than predicted? That seems to be true at least for the 'Tunguskas': abstract by Harris, DPS Release [SR], S&T, SC. Earlier: NEO News.

Update on J002E3 - evidence continues to accumulate that it is the lost S-IVB third stage from the Saturn V rocket used to launch the Apollo 12 lunar landing mission: JPL.

A big fireball near Irkutsk

was tracked from space, too - the Sep. 24 event had caused great interest in Russia: CCNet, NEO Centre Release, Novosti, SC. NASA eyes lasers to divert asteroids: UPI.

A big lunar conference was held in Taos: PSRD. JSC lunar samples find new home: Press Release. Earth rocks on the Moon: Science@NASA.

Chaos seen in movement of ring-herding moons of Saturn

Scientists have a new explanation for weird movements of two small moons that shepherd one of Saturn's rings, Pandora, which keeps the narrow F ring from spreading outward, and Prometheus, which rides herd along the same ring's inner edge: JPL Release [SN].

Why is Saturn's axis inclined to the ecliptic? The planet has a previously unappreciated long-distance relationship with Neptune that may be to blame: S&T.

Titan's landscape shaped more by internal heat than erosion - at least that's the prediction for Huygens: UA Release.

Retro-MACHOs discussed ...

Black holes close to the solar system could bend solar rays backwards 180° - and be detectable as faint glints in the sky: a paper by Holz & Wheeler and a NSU.

Galactic center dynamics nailed down better than ever

The orbit of an infrared star racing around the central engine Sgr A* of our Milky Way (see also Update # 205 small items!) has been tracked in great detail - earlier this year the star approached Sgr A* to within 17 light-hours while travelling at no less than 5000 km/sec: a paper by Schödel & al., a cool animation and more details, MPG, ESO and Weizmann Inst. Press Releases, a NSU and an APOD and coverage by New Sci., PhysicsWeb, S&T, Ast., UPI, SC, CNN, AFP, BBC, Guardian, ST, Welt. While the new observations exclude some non-black-hole interpretations of Sgr A*, the "Burning Disk" hypothesis (see Update # 20) remains a possibility, by the way.

Torn-apart dwarf galaxy leaves faint blue arc in Cen A - when it was swallowed by the big galaxy, many new stars were formed: a paper by Peng & al., press releases by NOAO and JHU, an APOD and coverage by Ast., CNN.

The detailled physics of the jet of a radio galaxy have been studied in 3C 445 - the interpretation is still controversial, though: Univ. Bonn PR [German]. AXPs = Magnetars? PhysicsWeb.

ESO signs ALMA deal with Chile

On October 21, 2002, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Chile, Mrs. María Soledad Alvear and the ESO Director General, Dr. Catherine Cesarsky, signed an Agreement that authorizes ESO to establish a new center for astronomical observation in Chile: ESO Press Release.

Keck telescopes open for all U.S. astronomers in exchange for NSF money invested in instrument development: NOAO Press Release. New camera for Hale Telescope: Caltech Release, S&T.

Frozen water detected at Mars' N Pole as well

Mars Odyssey has found frozen water also at the Martian north pole, new Gamma Ray Spectrometer data show - but the GRS is also detecting fewer neutrons than expected, which suggests the north polar atmosphere is enriched in neutron-absorbing nitrogen: Ast., HC, CNN, ST. Debate about the "Mars Gullies" not over yet: Dsc. Nor do the Mars-meteorite-lifers give up: BBC.

Mars Odyssey releases First Data Archive to scientists - the Planetary Data System will now make the information available to research scientists: JPL Release. NASA adds to Mars Global Surveyor photo album: JPL Release, Ast., SC. Students to participate in 2003 Mars rovers: Plan. Soc. Release. French role in Mars missions remains unclear: SC.

Aurora assessment studies for robotic Mars missions begin at ESA: ESA News, ST. First Words for Mars: Dsc. NASA 'cautiously optimistic' Mars Rovers will be ready for launch: Athena Update, SC. Beagle 2 gets new parachute, hopes increase: New Sci., BBC, Guardian, SD, Welt.

Galileo's final encounter is coming

The aging NASA probe will make its final pass over a jovian satellite November 5 when it buzzes over Amalthea, an oddly shaped boulder about 250 km long: This Week, Astrobiology Inst. PR, CNN.

'Cat's eye' images show cold hole over Jupiter's north pole - the gas giant has an arctic polar vortex similar to a vortex over Earth's Antarctica: JPL Release [SN], picture.

  • Caltech astronomer Jesse Greenstein has died at 93 - he was an early investigator of quasars and white dwarfs: Caltech PR, NYT.
  • A - rather - complete census of all Copernicus books still in existence has been compiled: CfA Press Release.
  • Secrets of Deep-Sky Observing - an introduction by S&T. Remarkable aurora photos from Finland by J. Jussila. Hail to the halo: Science@NASA.
  • SETI@home director denies funding crisis - the chief scientist was "probably just in a pessimistic mood" when he emailed Australian scientists with a gloomy prognosis for its future: ZDNet.
  • Central America cloud-free as "seen" by space radar: SRTM picture.


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Compiled and written by Daniel Fischer
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