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NASA Comet Probe Sends Back First Pictures

PASADENA, Calif., Sept. 22 (UPI) — A NASA probe heading for a rendezvous with a comet has sent back the first pictures of its target, scientists in California say.

The new photo is the first of 64,000 or so NASA’s Deep Impact probe is expected to take of comet Hartley 2, the agency said in a release.

“Like any tourist who can’t wait to get to a destination, we have already begun taking pictures of our comet, Hartley 2,” Tim Larson, the mission’s project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., said in a statement.

“We have to wait for Nov. 4 to get the close-up pictures of the cometary nucleus, but these approach images should keep the science team busy for quite some time as well.”

Hartley 2, discovered in 1986, is thought to be about a mile across and makes a complete orbit around the sun about every 6-1/2 years.

During its two-month approach to the comet, Deep Impact will use all three of its instruments — two telescopes with digital color cameras and an infrared spectrometer — to scrutinize the comet, described as a cosmic snowball.

The observations and measurements Deep Impact collects will give scientists the best-ever view of a comet’s journey through the inner solar system, NASA said.

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Modern Infrastructures Said 'vulnerable'

LONDON, Sept. 18 (UPI) — Britain’s electrical system, financial networks and transport infrastructure could be paralyzed by a solar flare or a nuclear attack, a U.K. official says.

U.K. Defense Secretary Liam Fox is expected to deliver that warning next week at a summit of scientists and security advisers who believe the infrastructure that underpins modern life in Western economies is potentially vulnerable to electromagnetic disruption, The Daily Telegraph reported Saturday.

Such disruptions can be caused by man-made nuclear blasts or natural events on the surface of the sun.

Fox will tell the conference he believes there is a growing threat, and he wants to address the “vulnerabilities” in Britain’s high-tech infrastructure, the newspaper said.

“As the nature of our technology becomes more complex, so the threat becomes more widespread,” he will say.

The electrical grid, computers, telephones, transportation, water supply and food production are all vulnerable to a major solar flare or an electromagnetic pulse from a nuclear detonation, another expert says.

“Our electrical infrastructures are so ubiquitous that an EMP or geomagnetic storm could shatter nations all over the Earth, and we cannot wait for disaster to spur us to action,” Avi Schnurr, a former U.S. government adviser who works for the Israel Missile Defense Association, said.

The Electric Infrastructure Security Council and the Henry Jackson Society, a think tank, are jointly hosting the summit meeting.

Copyright 2010 United Press International, Inc. (UPI). Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI’s prior written consent.

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Uranus May Have Been Cosmic 'pinball'

PARIS, Sept. 17 (UPI) — Jupiter and Saturn may have played a game of cosmic “pinball” with the planet Uranus before finally tossing it into its present orbit, French researchers say.

Computer simulations have shown that Jupiter and Saturn moved out of their orbits in the early history of the solar system, scattering other nearby orbiting objects, NewScientist.com reports.

Alessandro Morbidelli of the Cote d’Azur Observatory in France says simulations show Uranus crossing the path of Saturn, which could then have flung it towards Jupiter, which lobbed it back to Saturn.

The process might have repeated itself three times before Uranus was finally thrown beyond Saturn to where it now resides, the simulations show.

Morbidelli says the simulation of this pinball game, which would have lasted just 100,000 years, fits with observations.

“The evolution of the giant planets has been more violent than we thought,” Morbidelli says.

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Astronomers Seek Cosmic 'building Blocks'

CAMBRIDGE, Mass., Sept. 14 (UPI) — Scientists say a search for the “building blocks” of the solar system has proved fruitful as they’ve added new objects to their cosmic inventories.

Icy rocks beyond the orbit of Neptune are known as trans-Neptunian objects. Pluto, now classified as a dwarf planet, is one of the largest. Halley’s Comet is another. All are small and receive little sunlight, making them faint and difficult to spot, astronomers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics say.

But examining data from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has added 14 new TNOs to the catalog, with the promise of finding hundreds more, they say.

“Trans-Neptunian objects interest us because they are building blocks left over from the formation of the solar system,” Cesar Fuentes, formerly with the Harvard center and now at Northern Arizona University, said.

Using software to examine hundreds of long-exposure Hubble images, scientists have begun identifying new TNOs, most with diameters of between 25 to 60 miles.

Their initial study examined only one-third of a square degree of sky, leaving much more area to survey. Hundreds of additional TNOs may lurk in the Hubble image archives, scientists say.

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Dust Affects on Climate to Be Examined

HUNTSVILLE, Ala., Sept. 13 (UPI) — U.S. scientists say they will spend three years studying the impact about 770 million tons of dust wafting from the Sahara Desert each year has on the climate.

Scientists at the University of Alabama will use data from several research satellites to determine the affect the dust has on Earth’s climate by reflecting sunlight back into space, a university release said Monday.

Some Saharan dust falls back to Earth before it leaves Africa while much of it streams out over the Atlantic Ocean or Mediterranean Sea, carried on the winds as far away as South America and the southeastern United States, researchers say.

“The people who build climate models make some assumptions about dust and its impact on the climate,” Sundar Christopher, a professor of atmospheric science at UA, said. “We want to learn more about the characteristics of this dust, its concentrations in the atmosphere and its impact on the global energy budget so we can replace those assumptions with real data.”

The composition of dust varies depending on which part of the Sahara it comes from, researchers say, and some of it absorbs more solar energy than others.

“One thing we want to do is calculate how reflective dust is, because not all dust is created equal,” Christopher said. “We’re trying to calculate reflectivity so we can say with precision how much sunlight is being reflected.”

“Climate models are not very sophisticated in the way they handle dust. We want to nail down those values.”

Copyright 2010 United Press International, Inc. (UPI). Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI’s prior written consent.

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Britain Urged to Speed Up Wind-power Plans

LONDON, Sept. 10 (UPI) — Britain must allow more wind farms if it is to meet its climate-change target of generating 15 percent of its energy needs from green sources, experts say.

The United Kingdom has committed to reaching that goal by 2020, but only 3 percent of its energy now comes from renewable sources like wind and solar power, The Daily Telegraph reported Friday.

The country is likely to miss the target unless there is massive investment in wind, wave and solar power, said Lord Adair Turner, chairman of the Committee on Climate Change.

He called for the government to “ramp up” efforts to build turbines both on land and at sea.

The average wind farm project takes more than three years to win approval, he said, and in the last year planning approval rates fell from 68 per cent to 53 per cent.

Planning permission needs to be given faster so that three times as many turbines can be installed every year, he said.

“Any changes to the planning framework should focus on reducing planning times in order that renewable electricity projects proceed as required to meet the target,” Turner said in a letter to Energy and Climate Change Minister Chris Huhne.

Copyright 2010 United Press International, Inc. (UPI). Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI’s prior written consent.

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Scientists Looking to Spot Alien Oceans

SEATTLE, Sept. 9 (UPI) — A U.S. space telescope set for launch in 2014 could reveal the presence of oceans on planets outside the solar system, scientists say.

Detecting water on Earth-like planets would offer the tantalizing prospect they could sustain life, and scientists hope the reflection of light, or “glint”, from mirror-like ocean surfaces could be picked up by the upcoming generation of space telescopes, the BBC reported Thursday.

Tyler Robinson at the University of Washington in Seattle said he thinks the new technique could be used in the search for the “holy grail” for exoplanet astronomy, a possible sister planet to Earth.

“We’re focusing on a class of extra-solar planets yet to be detected, things comparable in size and composition to the Earth and similar distances from their central star as the Earth is from the Sun,” he said. “The goal is to find something Earth-like in almost every sense of the world so we can even prove it has liquid oceans on its surface.”

Robinson said he hopes “glint” — the effect seen when light is reflected from an ocean’s surface — may reveal the presence of Earth-like planets beyond our cosmic neighborhood.

Presently, clues like tell-tale glint spots are vital to finding Earth-like planets because astronomers are decades away from being able to directly image the surface of these alien worlds 20 or 30 light-years away.

Copyright 2010 United Press International, Inc. (UPI). Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI’s prior written consent.

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Satellite 'formation Flying' Simulated

PARIS, Sept. 9 (UPI) — Scientists getting ready for planned multi-satellite missions are getting in some “practice” thanks to sophisticated simulators, European space officials said.

Several space agencies are preparing formation-flying missions involving numbers of satellites, the European Space Agency said Thursday.

The relative positions of the satellites must be maintained precisely. Lose control of one part of the formation, even momentarily, and the satellites risk destruction.

This will take some difficult formation flying, and a new computing resource should help achieve that.

The Formation Flying Test Bed is a suite of software running across linked computers to simulate all aspects of a formation-flying mission, the ESA said.

At the agency’s space research and technology center in the Netherlands, this new facility can emulate the running of more than a single satellite at once.

“It is a generic simulator for formation-flying missions, whether they include two spacecraft or as many as five or six,” ESA’s Raffaella Franco said.

The test bed simulates crucial operational factors for formation flying including mission and vehicle management, guidance navigation, dealing with faults and communicating between satellites.

In ESA’s first formation flying mission, due for launch in 2014-15, Proba-3′s two satellites will form the first “external coronagraph” in orbit, with one satellite maintaining an artificial eclipse of the sun as seen from the other so that hidden details of the solar corona can be seen.

Copyright 2010 United Press International, Inc. (UPI). Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI’s prior written consent.

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Impact 'fireballs' Spotted on Jupiter

PASADENA, Calif., Sept. 9 (UPI) — Amateur astronomers have spotted two fireballs lighting up Jupiter’s atmosphere, the first time telescopes have caught such small events, scientists say.

The two fireballs, which caused fleeting bright spots on Jupiter that were visible through backyard telescopes, occurred June 3 and Aug. 20, a NASA release said Thursday.

A paper published in Astrophysical Journal Letters estimated the object causing the June fireball was 30 to 40 feet in diameter, comparable in size to asteroid 2010 RF12 that flew past Earth Wednesday.

The Aug. 20 object was thought to be about the same size.

“Jupiter is a big gravitational vacuum cleaner,” Glenn Orton, at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., said. “It is clear now that relatively small objects, remnants of the formation of the solar system 4.5 billion years ago, still hit Jupiter frequently. Scientists are trying to figure out just how frequently.”

This kind of discovery couldn’t have been made without amateur astronomers around the world, whose observations of Jupiter provide a near round-the-clock surveillance that would be impossible to do with the long lines of scientists waiting to use the large telescopes, Orton said.

Copyright 2010 United Press International, Inc. (UPI). Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI’s prior written consent.

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Astronomers Seeking Space Volcanoes

CAMBRIDGE, Mass., Sept. 7 (UPI) — U.S. scientists studying planets outside the solar system say they think they could spot volcanoes on the distant worlds by their atmospheric signature.

Although astronomers are at least a decade away from being able to capture images of the surface of an exoplanet, they have been able to detect the atmospheres of gas giants dubbed “hot Jupiters,” and any volcanic gases detected in those atmospheres could tell researchers something about the underlying surface, scientists at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics said Tuesday.

“You would need something truly earthshaking, an eruption that dumped a lot of gases into the atmosphere,” Smithsonian astronomer Lisa Kaltenegger said. “Using the James Webb Space Telescope, we could spot an eruption 10 to 100 times the size of Pinatubo for the closest stars.”

The 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines spewed about 17 million tons of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere, the layer of air 6 miles to 30 miles above Earth’s surface.

Sulfur dioxide from a very large, explosive eruption is potentially measurable because a lot is produced and it is slow to wash out of the atmosphere, Kaltenegger said.

“Our first sniffs of volcanoes from an alien Earth might be pretty rank!” Kaltenegger said. “Seeing a volcanic eruption on an exoplanet will show us similarities or differences among rocky worlds.”

Copyright 2010 United Press International, Inc. (UPI). Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI’s prior written consent.

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