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Nasa satellite UARS nearing Earth ‘could land anywhere’

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Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite

A five ton, 20-year-old satellite has fallen out of orbit and is expected to crash somewhere on Earth on or around 24 September, according to Nasa.

Nasa says the risk to life from the UARS – Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite – is just 1 in 3,200.

It could land anywhere between 57 degrees north and 57 degrees south of the equator – most of the populated world.

However, most of the satellite will break or burn up before reaching Earth.

Scientists have identified 26 separate pieces that could survive the fall through the earth’s atmosphere, and debris could rain across an area 400-500km (250-310 miles) wide.

Nasa said scientists would only be able to make more accurate predictions about where the satellite might land two hours before it enters the Earth’s atmosphere.

Falling space debris

Rocket propellant tank (Nasa)
  • Hardware re-enters at shallow angles (<1 degree)
  • Some 50 items weighing >1 tonne re-enter a year
  • Major break-up occurs about 80km altitude
  • 10-40% of dry mass on orbit will survive
  • Debris spreads over long, thin “footprints”
  • It can be a hazard to people and property

Re-entry

The 1 in 3,200 risk to public safety is higher than the 1 in 10,000 limit that Nasa aims for.

However, Nasa told reporters that nobody had ever been hurt by objects re-entering from space.

Members of the public are not allowed to keep pieces of the satellite that may fall to Earth, or sell them on eBay, as they remain the property of the US government.

The UARS was launched in 1991 by the Discovery space shuttle, and was decommissioned in 2005.

The latest satellite re-entry is much smaller than Skylab, a satellite that re-entered the earth’s atmosphere in 1979.

It was some 15 times heavier than the UARS, and when it crashed in Western Australia the US government had to pay clean-up costs to the Australian government.

Sputnik 2 crashed on Earth in 1958, travelling from over New York to the Amazon in 10 minutes. It was viewed by many people and left a trail of brightly coloured sparks behind it.

Via BBC

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Written by Nokgiir

September 19, 2011 at 2:48 am

Southern lights are sweeter in space

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NASA

The greenish glow of an auroral display sweeps around Earth’s south polar region in this photo, captured from a vantage point on the International Space Station. The shuttle Atlantis and its robotic arm, as well as one of the station’s solar arrays, loom up in the foreground.

The pilot for NASA’s last space shuttle flight, Doug Hurley, says one of the highlights of Atlantis’ trip to the International Space Station was seeing an “incredible” display of southern lights — and after seeing these pictures, I’d have to agree with him.

This photo from the space station shows the greenish auroral glow sweeping around the south pole, following the edge of the atmosphere. Atlantis is in the foreground with its robotic arm extended into the center of the frame, and one of the station’s gold-colored solar arrays juts in the right edge. You can even see the stars hanging in the night sky.

Another picture provides a more detailed view of the shimmering lights, with Atlantis’ inspection boom poking through the frame.

NASA

Thursday night’s southern lights shimmer in a picture taken from the International Space Station, with Atlantis’ inspection boom angling through the picture.

The southern lights, like the northern lights, are sparked when electrically charged particles from the sun interact with Earth’s magnetic field. For more amazing views of Atlantis’ auroras, check out NASA’s photo gallery for the shuttle mission, as well as Space.com’s report about the pictures.

 

– Alan Boyle.

Japan’s citizen scientists map radiation, DIY-style

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With the Japanese government only providing spotty information about the radiation leaking from the damaged Fukushima nuclear plant in the early days after the devastating March 11 earthquake and tsunami, a group of tech-minded citizen scientists set out to fill in the “black holes” in the knowledge base.

They did so by crafting their own Geiger counters and handing them out to volunteers in the disaster area to measure the fallout. Months later, they have assembled thousands of radiation readings plotted on maps that they hope will one day be an invaluable resource for researchers studying the impact of the meltdown at the crippled nuclear complex.

Volunteer Toshikatsu Watanabe, left, and Safecast’s Kalin Kozhuharov take radiation measurements in Koriyama, Japan.

The volunteer network of scientists, tech enthusiasts and residents of Japan collectively known as Safecast (an amalgam of “safety” and “broadcast”) sprang to life in the weeks after the devastating 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami struck Japan, cutting off power to the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station and knocking out its backup generators. That shut down the plant’s cooling system, triggering meltdowns or partial meltdowns in three of the plant’s four reactors, followed by explosions that released radioactive substances into the air and allowed contaminated water to leak into the ocean.

“For the scientific community, this is a huge chance to further understand what this all means,” said Pieter Franken, co-founder of Safecast and a senior researcher at Keio University in Tokyo, which is collaborating on the project. “Chernobyl was 25 years ago and delivered lots of information. But we’re now in the Internet age, and we have a huge opportunity to do a much better job in measuring it and tracking it.”

Residents in the surrounding areas were understandably alarmed, but in the early days after the disaster, information from the government came in bits and pieces, and was difficult to find.

Franken and Sean Bonner, a Los Angeles-based technology buff involved in numerous online citizen-involved projects, saw an opportunity to use technology to augment the government’s reports and to make the information widely available.

The pair found Uncorked Studios, a Portland, Ore., website development firm, which wanted to map the radiation numbers from all sources “to try to get a better picture of things on a larger scale,” Bonner said.

‘Unknowns’
The initial effort resulted in a map that revealed the dearth of information available: “We realized that there were some massive holes and that the data that was being published was not that specific,” said Bonner. “There would be one reading for an entire city. But we wouldn’t know exactly where in the city that reading was taken.”

With so many “unknowns,” the group decided to buy as many Geiger counters as possible and distribute them to people in the map’s “black holes,” Bonner said. But that wasn’t feasible because the supply of the radiation-measuring devices was limited, he  said.

So Safecast turned to a source they knew well: Hackerspaces, a loose confederation of high-tech tinkerers around the globe.

The TokyoHackerSpace had already drafted a to-do list in the disaster’s aftermath that included radiation monitoring. But with Safecast’s encouragement, the group stepped up its efforts. Members soon figured out how to build basic Geiger counters with Geiger tubes (which measure radiation) purchased through an initial fundraising campaign and modified so they could be attached to vehicles and upload data to the Internet, Christopher Wang, a specialist in sensor networks also known by his hacker nickname of “Akiba,” wrote in an email to msnbc.com.

After meeting Safecast, the hackers decided the best use of the jury-rigged devices would be to drive around taking measurements, allowing one “Geiger counter to cover a huge amount of range,” Wang wrote.

“We put together a custom circuit board that would mount on the outside of a car and had GPS (for timestamp and location data), an input for the Geiger counter, an SD card slot (for data logging), and wireless communication (to send the data inside the car and let the driver know if they are in an area with high radiation),” he said.

Other hackerspaces around the world — such as CRASH space in Los Angeles — soon enlisted in the effort and before long Safecast had the resources to launch an ambitious measuring and mapping effort.

Components of the jury-rigged Geiger counters.

While signing up volunteers, Safecast also developed a training regimen so the recruits would be able to take reliable readings with the instruments and send the data to the group.

Having average citizens involved was crucial, Franken said.

“We want to bring the radiation levels to people’s doorstep, so people can see around their house what is happening,” he said.

Safecast took its first reading on April 16. Today, it has about 50 regular volunteers who collect data from their homes or while driving, build devices or assist in other ways. Those using vehicles equipped with Geiger counters cover an area that Franken estimates to be about 620 miles long by 185 miles wide. To date, they’ve collected 251,000 data points from their drives and fixed reporting stations, and have received about 60,000 more from other sources, including people with their own Geiger counters.

Safecast publishes the data on its website and publishes it to a number of other places so the information can be used by the greatest number of people, Bonner said. It also aggregates radiation data from a number of sources, including the Japanese government.

A Safecast map shows radiation readings from northeastern Japan.

The color-coded maps that Safecast has published don’t always agree with the government’s readings. But Franken said the effort isn’t intended to suggest that the government’s information is bad. The government currently has available a website with the readings of environmental radioactivity level by prefecture.

“We really don’t want to say that the government is wrong,” he said. “And, in fact, in many cases we find that the measurements are fairly much in sync where they are comparable — we have just much more data points and locations measured.”

For example, Safecast’s mapping has revealed some radiation hotspots far from the plant, while other areas closer to it show lower levels. This is due to local weather conditions and air flow, meaning distribution of radioactive materials is not just a matter of proximity, Franken said.

“It’s not so predictable and it really pays to go and map the whole area, and literally find areas that are higher or lower as we go,” he said, noting that in some cases radiation levels can vary by street and even within a home.

“It’s kind of a heavy task because it requires a certain amount of guts to go and do it,” he said of the volunteers, noting he had recently trained a woman and her 12-year-old son in Fukushima City how to measure radiation.

Anxiety
But knowing what the levels are has helped ease some of the anxiety over the radiation exposure, Franken said.

“The measurements may or may not affect people’s decisions but in many cases we see that it more or less gives a sense of confidence that this is what it is and, ‘yeah, I’m going to stay and this is probably going to be manageable,’ or ‘no, I really don’t want to take the risk for my family, I’m going to avoid this.’”

One of the volunteers helping in the effort is Brett Waterman, a 46-year-old Australian who runs an English-language after-school program for children nearly 30 miles from the Fukushima plant, in the city of Iwaki. He has been surveying the radiation levels using a Geiger counter mounted on his car.

“There are many people who have decided that the lack of information implied that there was too much risk so they just decided to leave,” he said.

But through his work, he has learned that the radiation levels were low in the area.

“We can’t see it, but if we map it out, like we are doing street by street, we can sort of start to see it in a sense. We can get a picture of what this radiation stuff is,” he said.

His 13-year-old son is a “significant motivator” for him to take the readings. He noted that though residents don’t yet know what the long-term effects of the radiation will be, the information will be key in the future.

“In 10 years or 20 years’ time, you can’t go back to three months after the event and then find out what the data was like. But if we record it now, and then we continue to record it over the months and years to come, then from a scientific and a community point of view there is a database that can be referenced.”

Some researchers and government agencies welcome Safecast’s endeavor. Andrew Maidment, associate professor of radiology at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, said the efforts were “necessary and helpful,” though he added two “cautionary notes.”

“The first is that the data are only useful, if it is clear (1) how the measurements were performed and (2) exactly where the measurements are performed,” he wrote in an email to msnbc.com. “In general, it is very easy to get erroneous measurements; consistency in following a specific protocol and lots of practice are necessary to do this right. … However, I will say that the data looks consistent since there are repeated measurements and they are spatially correlated. The second problem is that interpretation of the data is hard. Thus, the use of a color code is questionable.”

Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology did not respond to emails and a call seeking comment on the project.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission said it was not in a position to comment on the initiative, but public affairs officer Scott Burnell noted in an email: “Speaking very generally, significant training and specialized equipment is required to provide the most accurate surveying and analysis of radioactive materials in the environment.”

Franken said Safecast encouraged dialogue with critics and supporters: “We feel that it is good to have an independent measurement available to people … I think just having more is probably better,” he said.

And Bonner said the initiative has the potential to eventually extend far beyond Japan.

“What all of this did sort of brought to light the fact that this data doesn’t exist in the quantities that it should and is not as readily available as would be helpful,” he said. “So while Japan is the focus at the moment, you know, longer term we sort of are shifting to a global outlook. There is a lot more ground to cover once everything in Japan is wrapped up.”

 

Via MSNBC/Miranda Leitsinger

Android phone goes into orbit

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The mobile-phone space race has ended in a tie: Last month we found out that NASA’s final space shuttle flight was taking a couple of iPhones to the International Space Station, and it turns out that an Android phone was aboard the shuttle Atlantis as well.

The Google-powered Samsung Nexus S phone will be used on the station in a series of experiments aimed at developing free-flying robotic assistants — zero-gravity gizmos that were inspired by the zippy little training sphere that helped Luke Skywalker practice his lightsaber skills in “Star Wars.” These volleyball-sized free-fliers are known as SPHERES — which is short for Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient Experimental Satellites.

SPHERES prototypes have been in the works for more than a decade. The camera-equipped, thruster-driven devices were developed by students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in cooperation with the Defense Department and NASA, for possible use as remote-controlled observers in microgravity environments. You could imagine a spyball floating through far-off modules of a space station to make sure all systems were go, during times when the station’s human crew is otherwise occupied. Future versions of the device could also look over the shoulder of a spacewalker to give Mission Control an up-close video view of the action.

The beauty part is that the SPHERES prototypes have an expansion port for plugging in extra devices or appendages — and the Samsung Nexus S is the first smartphone to be plugged in.

“By connecting a smartphone, we can immediately make SPHERES more intelligent,” D.W. Wheeler, lead engineer in the Intelligent Robotics Group at NASA’s Ames Research Center, said in a NASA news release. “With a smartphone, the SPHERES will have a built-in camera to take pictures and video, sensors to help conduct inspections, a powerful computing unit to make calculations, and a Wi-Fi connection that we will use to transfer data in real time to the space station and Mission Control.”

Neither the Android phones nor the iPhones are being used to make actual phone calls: Space station residents have special satellite-linked Internet phones for that. But today’s smartphones pack so much computing power that they could come in handy as backup navigation devices (in the iPhones’ case) or satellite controllers (in the Android phone’s case).

“We’ll start by simulating a mobile inspection of the station to test how well SPHERES can move around and collect data using the smartphone’s camera and sensors,” said Terry Fong, director of the Intelligent Robotics Group. “This will tell us basic information about the light and sound levels inside various areas of the station. Then we’ll use SPHERES to conduct an interview with a crewmember — a task that usually requires two crew members to complete. We’ll have Mission Control and the smartphone-enhanced SPHERES take the place of the astronaut holding the video camera.”

Just having the phones on the space station serve as status symbols for the companies involved.

“Samsung is proud to have the Nexus S chosen to be aboard NASA’s final space shuttle launch, an event that is historical,” Dale Sohn, president of Samsung Mobile, said in the news release. “The research that is being conducted with SPHERES using the Nexus S will help monitor and communicate from the International Space Station.”

So what about all the other smartphones and tablets that are out there? Because this is the last shuttle flight, future gizmos will have to be certified for flight on other types of space transports, such as the Russian Soyuz or Progress craft, European and Japanese cargo spaceships, or on commercial vehicles that are currently under development.

The future telecom space race may well be a contest to see which company can extend its calling network to the final frontier. I’m sure there are some future space tourists who’d love to flip on their phone while flying on SpaceShipTwo, call down to their pals and say, “Can you hear me now?” What do you think?

 

Via MSNBC

UFOs Filmed Over London — Or Not

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For extraterrestrials notoriously shy about making their presence known to Earthlings, they have been making more and more appearances in home videos over the past six months.

One of the most famous was the UFO that appeared over the Dome of the Rock, an Islamic shrine in Jerusalem, on January 28. Discovery News writer Ian O’Neill published one of the first analyses of the video (based in part on my own investigation), demonstrating that it was “almost certainly a hoax.”

A more comprehensive analysis by the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON), one of the oldest, largest, and most respected UFO investigation organizations in the world, also later concluded that it was faked.

A few months later, on April 21, another ‘alien’ home video surfaced. This one, allegedly taken in Russia, showed two young men finding an alien body on a rural, snowy farm. It, too, was soon revealed to be a hoax.

Now, right on schedule, comes yet another UFO home video, this one taken in London, England. According to a report in the Daily Mail:

“In the video, the cameraman runs towards the corner of Bolsover Street and Clipstone Street where two other men are already standing, gazing skywards, one of whom is using a mobile phone camera. As the camera is pointed upwards, over the BBC’s Yalding House, three white dots flash across the sky at great speed in a triangle formation, they are very quickly followed by two similar sized white dots. As the camera pans down again, two people on the opposite side of the road can also been seen watching events unfold above them. Then one larger, bright and more slow moving disc-shaped white object appears, circles around briefly and zips off.”

The video, one of at least two similar videos, was posted to YouTube last week and soon went viral over the Web, stirring interest and controversy among believers and skeptics alike.

Though evidence may eventually validate the video, a preliminary analysis strongly suggests that this video, like the others, is a hoax. For one thing, it’s not clear who shot the video, or even when; anonymous eyewitnesses are a red flag.

Furthermore, the UFOs (like the one that appeared in the hoaxed Jerusalem video) are very easy to fake with video-editing software, mere spots of light without structure or detail.

Adding fuel for the skeptical grist, it seems that no one else on the busy London street near the British Broadcasting Building saw the many bright glowing objects in the sky. Logic suggests that there would have been thousands of eyewitnesses, yet the cameraman captured an event that apparently no one else saw.

It’s also suspicious that though the video shows others recording the amazing event, no other photos or videos from the same angle have surfaced. Surely one of the other UFO eyewitnesses present (and seen in the video) would have come forward in the past weeks to sell their own photographs or videos to a newspaper or television station — perhaps the BBC would be interested, since it occurred above their building.

Faked UFO videos may be fun for hoaxers (or as viral marketing), but even many people firmly convinced that UFOs are real are getting tired of the hoaxes. After all, how will we know when the real UFO videos surface? No one likes to be fooled, and the best preventative is to examine all the evidence with a sense of history and a skeptical eye.

 

Via Discovery

Fermilab’s MINOS Experiment Also Sees Neutrino Quick-Change

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Minos

Physicists continue to close in on the mystery of neutrino oscillation — the process by which one type of neutrino morphs into another as it travels through space.

Two weeks ago, the Japanese T2K (Tokai to Kamioka) experiment announced the first evidence of a rare form of neutrino oscillation, whereby muon neutrinos turn into electron neutrinos as they travel from the beam source to the detectors.

Now Fermilab’s Main Injector Neutrino Oscillation Search (MINOS) has reported findings consistent with the T2K results, using different methods and analysis techniques than the Japanese researchers. The neutrinos in question traveled 450 miles from Fermilab’s Main Injector accelerator to a detector in the Soudan Underground Laboratory in Minnesota.

Neutrinos are tiny subatomic particles that travel very near the speed of light. They’re extremely difficult to detect, because they very rarely interact with any type of matter, even though they’re the most abundant type of particle in the known universe. Only one out of every 1,000 billion solar neutrinos would collide with an atom on its journey through the Earth.

The Standard Model of particle physics calls for three different kinds of neutrinos (electron, muon and tau, paired to the leptons known as electron, muon and tau). These “ghost particles” have no charge and very little mass, and experiments conducted over the last 10 years indicate that they can change from one type of neutrino into another.

Prior experiments — by MINOS and the OPERA experiment at the Gran Sasso National Laboratory — provided compelling evidence of muon neutrinos morphing into tau neutrinos, but catching a muon neutrino in the act of morphing into an electron neutrino is more difficult to detect.

Theta-One-Three-Plot

The T2K signal was small: just shy of of “3-sigma.” But it was still statistically strong enough, given the rarity of the event, to be considered a genuine signal, not just background noise.The experiment detected 88 candidate events for the oscillation of muon neutrinos into electron neutrinos, based on data collected between January 2010 and March 11, 2011.

In contrast, MINOS recorded a total of 62 candidate events; if this particular type of quick change does not occur, they should have recorded only 49 such events. If the T2K analysis is correct, MINOS should have seen 71 events. The slight discrepancy enables physicists to further narrow the range of values for the rate at which this transformation occurs.

As always, more data is needed before an actual “discovery” can be claimed. The T2K data run was cut short because the major earthquake that devastated Japan also damage the experiment’s muon neutrino source. But researchers expect to have the machine back online and taking more data by January 2012. With more data, the current 3-sigma signal should strengthen sufficiently to claim a solid discovery. MINOS will also continue collecting data until February 2012.

Physicists want to know more about neutrino oscillations, and their masses, because this provides a potential clue to why there is something in the universe, rather than nothing. Back when our universe was still in its infancy, matter and antimatter were colliding and annihilating each other out of existence constantly.

This process slowed down as our universe gradually cooled, but there should have been equal parts matter and antimatter. Instead, there were slightly more matter particles than antimatter, and that slight excess formed everything around us. Physicists think that neutrinos, with their teensy-tiny bits of mass, might have been the tipping point that tilted the scales to matter’s favor.

Image credit: Fermilab

 

Via Discovery

Solstice Sun Storm May Spark Dazzling Northern Lights Today

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Norwegian photographer and skywatcher Terje Sorgjerd created an amazing video of the March 2011 auroras, or northern lights, which appear in this still from his project, entitiled "The Aurora.”

Norwegian photographer and skywatcher Terje Sorgjerd created an amazing video of the March 2011 auroras, or northern lights, which appear in this still from his project, entitiled “The Aurora.” CREDIT: Terje Sorgjerd

A wave of sun particles unleashed during a strong solar flare this week is arriving at Earth today (June 24) and could touch off a dazzling northern lights display, NASA officials say.

The solar storm occurred Tuesday, June 21, during Earth’s solstice, which marked the first day of summer in the Northern Hemisphere and the start of winter in the Southern Hemisphere.

The storm triggered a powerful explosion on the sun, called a coronal mass ejection, which sent a vast wave of solar particles directly at Earth at a speed of about 1.4 million mph (2.3 million kph). Those particles are now buffeting Earth’s magnetic field in interactions that could amplify the planet’s polar auroras, also known as the northern and southern lights.

“High-latitude sky watchers should be alert for auroras,” officials with NASA’s Goddard Space Center said in an update today.

Sun photo of June 21, 2011 solar storm and eruption

The SOHO sun observatory caught this view of a large solar flare and coronal mass ejection (top of sun) erupting from the sun’s surface early June, 21, 2011. CREDIT: SOHO/NASA/ESA

Supercharged auroras

Auroras occur when solar wind particles collide with atoms of oxygen and nitrogen in Earth’s upper atmosphere. The interaction excites the atoms, which then emit light (the aurora) as they return to their normal energy level.

Tuesday’s solar flare registered as a class C7.7 flare (C-class flares are the weakest types of flares), but lasted for several hours. There are three classes of solar flares. M-class solar flares are medium-strength flares, while the most intense solar storms register as X-class flares.

There is a 30 percent to 35 percent chance of a minor geomagnetic storm in Earth’s atmosphere today from this week’s storm, NASA officials said.

 

Partial Halo Coronal Mass Ejection

A broadly widening cloud of particles, observed by SOHO’s C3 coronagraph, rushed away from the Sun as a coronal mass ejection (CME) erupted over about 12 hours (June 14, 2011). Data from the Solar Dynamics Observatory shows an eruptive prominence breaking away from the Sun about where the event originated. While the originating event did not appear to be substantial, the particle cloud was pretty impressive. The bright circle with an extending horizontal line (above and left of the blue occulting disk) is a distortion caused by the brightness of planet Mercury. CREDIT: SOHO (ESA & NASA)

The active sun

This week’s solar flare was detected by the space-based Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) operated by NASA and the European Space Agency. It came just weeks after another strong solar flare on June 7, which unleashed a massive coronal mass ejection that stunned astronomers with its intensity.

The June 7 event  kicked up a wave of plasma that rained back down on the sun over an area 75 times the width of Earth. The leading edge of the particles that erupted from the sun were traveling at about 3.5 million mph (5.7 million kph), SOHO officials have said.

Another coronal mass ejection on June 14 unleashed an eerie wave of material that formed a partial halo as it expanded into space.

The most severe solar storms, when aimed at Earth, can pose a danger to astronauts in space, satellites and even ground-based communications and power systems. This week’s solar flare, however, is not powerful enough to pose a serious risk, NASA officials said.

The sun is currently in an active period of its 11-year solar cycle. NASA and other space and weather agencies are keeping a close watch on the sun using space-based observatories, satellites and ground-based monitoring systems.

 

Via Space