New Space Station Camera Reveals the Cosmic Shore

Part of human fascination with space is the chance to look back at our own planet from afar. The unique vantage from the International Space Station affords a vista both breathtaking and scientifically illuminating.

Here on Earth, both scientists and spectators rely on the station's crew to record and transmit images and videos of what they see to share in their experience. Until recently, reduced lighting conditions at night, combined with insufficiently perceptive equipment, made some of the most beautiful views difficult to capture.

This changed with the arrival of the Super Sensitive High Definition TV, or SS-HDTV, camera on the space station. With the SS-HDTV, the crew can document new and more detailed footage of the dynamic interactions that take place in the area between the Earths' atmosphere and the vacuum of space, known as the cosmic shore.

According to Keiji Murakami, a senior engineer with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA, this camera's superior recording capability opens up a significant window of observation. Some may not realize that the station orbits the Earth 16 times a day, experiencing multiple sunrises and sunsets during those 24 hours. The crew actually has a 50/50 chance of a night view. "Half of the Earth view from [station] is a night view. And the day view and night view are very different," said Murakami.

By October, JAXA astronaut Satoshi Furukawa had logged more than 30 hours of video using the camera. While the Earth observations are an amazing sight, they are also an important part of the research goals for the space station. From images taken by crew members aboard station, scientists can research natural phenomena and man-made changes to the planet.

Japan Broadcasting Corp., or NHK, which is similar to the U.S.'s Public Broadcasting System, or PBS, aired the first public videos showing the SS-HDTV camera's capabilities Sept. 18, 2011. The resulting show was appropriately titled "The Cosmic Shore," and it thrilled audiences with a spectacular view of natural phenomena, such as aurora and lightning. Furukawa filmed and narrated the video footage, which also shared man-made wonders, like the lights of Japan at night, in greater detail than previously possible.

Murakami comments on the merit of the SS-HDTV camera system's ability to capture momentary phenomena, like meteors and sprites -- a form of upper atmospheric lightning. "Using this super sensitive camera, we have observed the lightning, sprite, aurora, meteor, noctilucent cloud and airglow," said Murakami. "The phenomena of the sprite has not yet been studied in high definition until now. The color video of the sprite was taken for the first time from space using this camera."

This advanced equipment belongs to JAXA, in cooperation with NHK, and enables recording of the elusive phenomena that occurs within low-light conditions using an Electron Multiplying Charged Coupled Device, or EM-CCD, sensor. After filming, the crew downlinks the videos to the ground using data-relay satellites.

The SS-HDTV also can advance astronomical observations, according to Murakami. This equipment will continue to operate on orbit indefinitely. Even if a failure should occur, there is a backup camera and Panasonic SD card recorder already aboard the station as a precaution. As with many facilities and technology on the space station, this camera provides another asset available to future researchers as they continue to explore the space environment using the orbiting laboratory.

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NASA's Chandra Contributes to Black Hole Birth Announcement

New details about the birth of a famous black hole that took place millions of years ago have been uncovered, thanks to a team of scientists who used data from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory as well as from radio, optical and other X-ray telescopes.

Over three decades ago, Stephen Hawking placed -- and eventually lost -- a bet against the existence of a black hole in Cygnus X-1. Today, astronomers are confident the Cygnus X-1 system contains a black hole, and with these latest studies they have remarkably precise values of its mass, spin, and distance from Earth. With these key pieces of information, the history of the black hole has been reconstructed.

"This new information gives us strong clues about how the black hole was born, what it weighed and how fast it was spinning," said author Mark Reid of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) in Cambridge, Mass. "This is exciting because not much is known about the birth of black holes."

Reid led one of three papers -- all appearing in the November 10th issue of The Astrophysical Journal -- describing these new results on Cygnus X-1. The other papers were led by Jerome Orosz from San Diego State University and Lijun Gou, also from CfA.

Cygnus X-1 is a so-called stellar-mass black hole, a class of black holes that comes from the collapse of a massive star. The black hole is in close orbit with a massive, blue companion star.

Using X-ray data from Chandra, the Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer, and the Advanced Satellite for Cosmology and Astrophysics, a team of scientists was able to determine the spin of Cygnus X-1 with unprecedented accuracy, showing that the black hole is spinning at very close to its maximum rate. Its event horizon -- the point of no return for material falling towards a black hole -- is spinning around more than 800 times a second.

An independent study that compared the evolutionary history of the companion star with theoretical models indicates that the black hole was born some 6 million years ago. In this relatively short time (in astronomical terms), the black hole could not have pulled in enough gas to ramp up its spin very much. The implication is that Cygnus X-1 was likely born spinning very quickly.

Using optical observations of the companion star and its motion around its unseen companion, the team made the most precise determination ever for the mass of Cygnus X-1, of 14.8 times the mass of the Sun. It was likely to have been almost this massive at birth, because of lack of time for it to grow appreciably.

"We now know that Cygnus X-1 is one of the most massive stellar black holes in the Galaxy," said Orosz. "And, it's spinning as fast as any black hole we've ever seen."

Knowledge of the mass, spin and charge gives a complete description of a black hole, according to the so-called "No Hair" theorem. This theory postulates that all other information aside from these parameters is lost for eternity behind the event horizon. The charge for an astronomical black hole is expected to be almost zero, so only the mass and spin are needed.

"It is amazing to me that we have a complete description of this asteroid-sized object that is thousands of light years away," said Gou. "This means astronomers have a more complete understanding of this black hole than any other in our Galaxy."

The team also announced that they have made the most accurate distance estimate yet of Cygnus X-1 using the National Radio Observatory's Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA). The new distance is about 6,070 light years from Earth. This accurate distance was a crucial ingredient for making the precise mass and spin determinations.

The radio observations also measured the motion of Cygnus X-1 through space, and this was combined with its measured velocity to give the three-dimensional velocity and position of the black hole.

This work showed that Cygnus X-1 is moving very slowly with respect to the Milky Way, implying it did not receive a large "kick" at birth. This supports an earlier conjecture that Cygnus X-1 was not born in a supernova, but instead may have resulted from the dark collapse of a progenitor star without an explosion. The progenitor of Cygnus X-1 was likely an extremely massive star, which initially had a mass greater than about 100 times the sun before losing it in a vigorous stellar wind.

In 1974, soon after Cygnus X-1 became a good candidate for a black hole, Stephen Hawking placed a bet with fellow astrophysicist Kip Thorne, a professor of theoretical physics at the California Institute of Technology, that Cygnus X-1 did not contain a black hole. This was treated as an insurance policy by Hawking, who had done a lot of work on black holes and general relativity.

By 1990, however, much more work on Cygnus X-1 had strengthened the evidence for it being a black hole. With the help of family, nurses, and friends, Hawking broke into Thorne's office, found the framed bet, and conceded.

"For forty years, Cygnus X-1 has been the iconic example of a black hole. However, despite Hawking's concession, I have never been completely convinced that it really does contain a black hole -- until now," said Thorne. "The data and modeling described in these three papers at last provide a completely definitive description of this binary system."

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Giant-Sized Webb Space Telescope Model to 'Land' in Baltimore

Baltimore's Maryland Science Center is going to be the "landing site" for the life-sized full-scale model of NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, and it's free for all to see.

The Webb telescope life-sized model is as big as a tennis court, and its coming to the Maryland Science Center at Baltimore's Inner Harbor from October 14 through 26, 2011. It's a chance for young and old to get a close-up look at the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope in the same size it will be launched into space.

The real James Webb Space Telescope is currently being built, but this model will be constructed in a couple of days. The real Webb will be the largest space telescope ever built. Once in orbit, the Webb telescope will look back in time more than 13 billion years to help us understand the formation of galaxies, stars and planets.

Experts will be on hand to discuss the Webb telescope's deep-space mission, how it will observe distant galaxies and nearby stars and planets, and the progress made to date in building the observatory. Spokespeople will also be available throughout the model exhibition.

The Maryland Science Center is located at 601 Light Street, Baltimore, Md. 21230. For directions and more information, call the center at 410-685-5225.

The full-scale model of the Webb telescope was built by NASA's prime contractor to provide a better understanding of the size, scale and complexity of the observatory. The model is constructed mainly of aluminum and steel, weighs 12,000 lbs., and is approximately 80 feet long, 40 feet wide and 40 feet tall. The model requires two trucks to ship it and assembly takes a crew of 12 approximately four days.

The Webb telescope will add to observations by earlier space telescopes, and stretch the frontiers of science with its discoveries. The model size shows telescope's complexity and how the observatory will enable the Webb telescope's unique mission.

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New Study Shows Very First Stars Not Monstrous

The very first stars in our universe were not the behemoths scientists had once thought, according to new simulations performed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

Astronomers "grew" stars in their computers, mimicking the conditions of our primordial universe. The simulations took weeks. When the scientists' concoctions were finally done, they were shocked by the results -- the full-grown stars were much smaller than expected.

Until now, it was widely believed that the first stars were the biggest of all, with masses hundreds of times that of our sun. The new research shows they are only tens of times the mass of sun; for example, the simulations produced one star that was as little as 43 solar masses.

"The first stars were definitely massive, but not to the extreme we thought before," said Takashi Hosokawa, an astronomer at JPL and lead author of the new study, appearing online Friday, Nov. 11 in the journal Science. "Our simulations reveal that the growth of these stars is stunted earlier than expected, resulting in smaller final sizes."

The early universe consisted of nothing more than thin clouds of hydrogen and helium atoms. A few hundred million years after its birth, the first stars began to ignite. How these first stars formed is still a mystery.

Astronomers know that all stars form out of collapsing clouds of gas. Gravity from a growing "seed" at the center of the cloud attracts more and more matter. For so-called normal stars like our sun, this process is aided by heavier elements such as carbon, which help to keep the gas falling onto the budding star cool enough to collapse. If the cloud gets too hot, the gas expands and escapes.

But, in the early universe, stars hadn't yet produced heavy elements. The very first stars had to form out of nothing but hydrogen and helium. Scientists had theorized that such stars would require even more mass to form, to compensate for the lack of heavy elements and their cooling power. At first, it was thought the stars might be as big as one thousand times the mass of our sun. Later, the models were refined and the first stars were estimated to be hundreds of solar masses.

"These stars keep getting smaller and smaller over time," said Takashi. "Now we think they are even less massive, only tens of solar masses."

The team's simulations reveal that matter in the vicinity of the forming stars heats up to higher temperatures than previously believed, as high as 50,000 Kelvin (90,000 degrees Fahrenheit), or 8.5 times the surface temperature of the sun. Gas this hot expands and escapes the gravity of the developing star, instead of falling back down onto it. This means the stars stop growing earlier than predicted, reaching smaller final sizes.

"This is definitely going to surprise some folks," said Harold Yorke, an astronomer at JPL and co-author of the study. "It was standard knowledge until now that the first stars had to be extremely massive."

The results also answer an enigma regarding the first stellar explosions, called supernovae. When massive stars blow up at the end of their lives, they spew ashes made of heavier elements into space. If the very first stars were the monsters once thought, they should have left a specific pattern of these elements imprinted on the material of the following generation of stars. But, as much as astronomers searched the oldest stars for this signature, they couldn't find it. The answer, it seems, is that it simply is not there. Because the first stars weren't as massive as previously thought, they would have blown up in a manner akin to the types of stellar explosions that we see today.

"I am sure there are more surprises in store for us regarding this exciting period of the universe," said Yorke. "NASA's upcoming James Webb Space Telescope will be a valuable tool to observe this epoch of early star and galaxy formation."

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Potential New NASA Mission Would Reveal the Hearts of Undead Stars

Neutron stars have been called the zombies of the cosmos, shining on even though they're technically dead, and occasionally feeding on a neighboring star if it gets too close.

They are born when a massive star runs out of fuel and collapses under its own gravity, crushing the matter in its core and blasting away its outer layers in a supernova explosion that can outshine a billion suns.

The core, compressed by gravity to inconceivable density – one teaspoon would weigh about a billion tons on Earth – lives on as a neutron star. Although the nuclear fusion fires that sustained its parent star are extinguished, it still shines with heat left over from its explosive formation, and from radiation generated by its magnetic field, which became intensely concentrated as the core collapsed, and can be over a trillion times stronger than Earth's.

Although its parent star could easily have been more than a million miles across, a neutron star is only about the size of a city. However, its intense gravity makes it the ultimate trash compactor, capable of packing in an astonishing amount of matter, more than 1.4 times the content of the Sun, or at least 460,000 Earths.

"A neutron star is right at the threshold of matter as it can exist – if it gets any denser, it becomes a black hole," says Dr. Zaven Arzoumanian of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

Arzoumanian is Deputy Principal Investigator on a proposed mission called the Neutron Star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER) that would unveil the dark heart of a neutron star. "We have no way of creating neutron star interiors on Earth, so what happens to matter under such incredible pressure is a mystery – there are many theories about how it behaves. The closest we come to simulating these conditions is in particle accelerators that smash atoms together at almost the speed of light. However, these collisions are not an exact substitute – they only last a split second, and they generate temperatures that are much higher than what's inside neutron stars."

If NASA approves it for construction, the mission will be launched by the summer of 2016 and attached robotically to the International Space Station. In September 2011, NASA selected NICER for study as a potential Explorer Mission of Opportunity. The mission will receive $250,000 to conduct an 11-month implementation concept study. Five Mission of Opportunity proposals were selected from 20 submissions. Following the detailed studies, NASA plans to select for development one or more of the five Mission of Opportunity proposals in February 2013.

NICER's array of 56 telescopes will collect X-rays generated both from hotspots on a neutron star's surface and from its powerful magnetic field. There are two hotspots on a neutron star at opposite sides, one at each magnetic pole, the place where the star's intense magnetic field emerges from the surface. Here, particles trapped in the magnetic field rain down and generate X-rays when they strike the surface. X-rays are an energetic form of light invisible to human eyes but detectable by special instruments. As the hotspots rotate into our line of sight, they produce a pulse of light, like a lighthouse beam, giving rise to the stars' alternate name, pulsars.

Many pulsars flash several times per second, because of the rapid rotation they inherit as they are born. All stars rotate, and as the parent star's core shrinks, it spins faster, like a twirling ice skater pulling in her arms. A neutron star's powerful gravity can also pull in gas from a neighboring star if it orbits too closely. This infalling gas can spin up a neutron star to even higher speeds; some rotate hundreds of times per second.

The key to understanding how matter behaves inside a neutron star is pinning down the correct Equation Of State (EOS) that most accurately describes how matter responds to increasing pressure. Currently, there are many suggested EOSs, each proposing that matter can be compressed by different amounts inside neutron stars. Suppose you held two balls of the same size, but one was made of foam and the other was made of wood. You could squeeze the foam ball down to a smaller size than the wooden one. In the same way, an EOS that says matter is highly compressible will predict a smaller neutron star for a given mass than an EOS that says matter is less compressible.

So if researchers know a neutron star's mass, all they need to do is find out how big it is to get the correct EOS and unlock the secret of what matter does under extreme gravity. "The problem is that neutron stars are small, and much too far away to allow their sizes to be measured directly," says NICER Principal Investigator Dr. Keith Gendreau of NASA Goddard. "However, NICER will be the first mission that has enough sensitivity and time-resolution to figure out a neutron star's size indirectly. The key is to precisely measure how much the brightness of the X-rays changes as the neutron star rotates."

This change in brightness with time is called a star's light curve, and it appears as a wavy line on a graph.

Because neutron stars pack so much mass into such a tiny volume, they generate strong gravity that actually bends space (and distorts time) in accordance with Einstein's general theory of relativity. This warping of space enables researchers to determine a neutron star's mass if it has a nearby companion, either another neutron star or a white dwarf, a lower-density object that is the core remnant of a less-massive star. Neutron stars with these companions are actually fairly common.

The warping of space produces effects like an orbital shift called precession, which makes the orbit move like a hula-hoop around a dancer. Also, as the neutron star and its companion move around each other, they create ripples in space called gravitational waves. These waves carry away orbital energy, so the neutron star and its companion gradually move closer together and their orbit shrinks. NICER will measure these effects over time, and the greater these effects, the more mass the neutron star has.

Warped space also will let the NICER team figure out a neutron star's size. Suppose we have a neutron star lined up so that you can only see one hotspot, the one on the near side that faces us. As it rotates into view, the brightness increases until the hotspot is pointed directly at us, then the brightness decreases as it rotates away.

This alignment makes the star's brightness highly variable – it's quite bright when the hotspot is pointed at us, and very dim when the hotspot is on the far side out of our view. The drastic change in brightness produces a light curve with large waves, with deep troughs when the star is dim.

However, since light must follow the contours of space, warped space bends light. The distorted space around the neutron star bends its light so much that you can see parts of the far side, including the other hotspot. With the second hotspot visible, at least part of the time, you have bright light more often, so the brightness doesn't change as much. This makes a light curve that appears smoother, with smaller waves.

If a woman wearing stiletto heels walks on a trampoline, she will warp the surface more than if she wears snowshoes. In the same way, the more compact a neutron star is, the more it will bend space and light. This will allow us to see the far-side hotspot more often, which will make its X-ray brightness less variable, and the star will produce a smoother light curve.

The team has models that produce unique light curves for the various sizes predicted by different EOSs. By choosing the light curve that best matches the observed one, they will get the correct EOS and solve the riddle of matter on the edge of oblivion.

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NASA's Cassini Makes a New Pass at Enceladus

NASA's Cassini spacecraft will acquire the first detailed radar images of Saturn's moon Enceladus during a flyby on Sunday, Nov. 6. These will be the first high-resolution radar observations made of an icy moon other than Titan. The results will provide new information about the surface of Enceladus and enable researchers to compare its geological features as seen by radar with those of Titan.

The spacecraft will fly past Enceladus at a distance of about 300 miles (500 kilometers) at its closest point. During the encounter, Cassini's synthetic aperture radar will sweep across a long, narrow swath of the surface just north of the moon's south pole. Cassini will use other radar techniques to map much more of the surface of Enceladus at lower resolutions and determine some of the surface's physical properties as the spacecraft approaches and then speeds away from the icy body.

During this flyby, the mission's visible-light cameras will take images of Enceladus and its famous jets, and the composite infrared spectrometer will make new measurements of hot spots from which the jets emerge. Cassini's ultraviolet imaging spectrograph will also make distant observations of Saturn's moon Dione and its environment.

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Spitzer Snaps a Picture of the Coolest of Companions

NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope has captured a picture of a nearby star and its orbiting companion -- whose temperature is like a hot summer day in Arizona. "We have discovered a new record-holder for the coldest companion imaged outside of the solar system, which is nearly as cold as Earth," said Kevin Luhman, an astronomer at The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, and lead author of a pair of papers on the findings in The Astrophysical Journal. "We believe the object is a brown dwarf, but it could be a gas-giant planet as well."

Based on the infrared light that it emits, the cool object, named WD 0806-661 B, appears to have a temperature in the range of 80 and 160 degrees Fahrenheit (about 27 to 70 degrees Celsius). On the lower end, WD 0806-661 B offers a rather pleasant terrestrial temperature and is not even as warm as the human body. Researchers ballpark WD 0806-661 B's mass between six and nine Jupiters, which means it could still qualify as a planet, albeit a particularly hefty one made mostly of gas. Instead, they suspect it's a type of failed star, called a brown dwarf.

WD 0806-661 B probably belongs to a recently discovered new class of objects called Y dwarfs, the coldest category of brown dwarfs. Astronomers using NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) announced the unveiling of the first six Y dwarfs in August. Those objects do not orbit stars and instead are floating by themselves in space, unlike WD 0806-661 B. Together, WISE and Spitzer are proving complementary in tracking down ever-cooler brown dwarfs, all the way down to the Y class.

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