Friday, June 24, 2005

Prodigal Hubble

Prodigal Hubble

Prodigal Hubble (2004)

From NewScientist: "Hubble Spies Lord of the Stellar Rings":

A spectacular, luminous ring offers the best evidence yet that a nearby star is circled by a newly formed solar system.

The ring is composed of dust particles in orbit around Fomalhaut, a bright star located just 25 light years away in the constellation Pisces Austalis -- or the Southern Fish. A recent image captured with the Hubble Space Telescope -- which makes the system look uncannily like the Great Eye of Sauron from the blockbusting Lord of the Rings trilogy -- confirms that Fomalhaut's ring is curiously offset with respect to the star.

The most likely explanation is that the gravity of one or more unseen planets is dragging the ring askew. The fact that the inner edge of the ring is relatively well-defined adds further weight to the argument because it suggests the unseen planets are sweeping up stray dust within the radius of the ring.

The image was captured by astronomers at the University of California, Berkeley, US, and NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center using Hubble's coronagraph. This device blocks the glare of a star while gathering the faint reflected light from any surrounding ring.

[...]

Sauron's forces are massing in the east, his eye is fixed on Rivendell.

"I see you!"

Astronomers suspect the ring around Fomalhaut is the dusty trace of a belt of small comet-like bodies that surround the star, much like the Kuiper Belt that surrounds our solar system.

Frequent collisions between these bodies generate enough dust to replenish the ring, which would otherwise be eroded by the star's radiation in a relatively short time. Since the Kuiper Belt is a by-product of the creation of our solar system, the ring around Fomalhaut may be similarly linked to planet formation. And because Fomalhaut is only 200 million years old - less than 5% of the Sun's present age - it offers a unique analogue of our solar system's early years.

From the Christian Science Monitor -- "New Hope for the Troubled Hubble" by Peter N. Spotts:

In a space saga worthy of the "Perils of Pauline," the on-again, off-again Hubble Space Telescope appeared to be headed for an untimely end. Victimized by the Columbia shuttle disaster, not to mention budget pressures, one of the most highest-profile ambassadors of the National Aeronautic and Space Administration appeared doomed.

Now, Hubble's prospects are brightening. What was to be a $175 million effort to "deorbit" Hubble has become a $291 million program to keep alive the option of servicing and upgrading the telescope so it can continue functioning at least until 2010. A final decision will depend on how well the shuttles perform when they return to flight, now scheduled for mid-July.

[...]

Given the demands of the shuttle's return to flight, President Bush's vision for manned space exploration, and Congress's own fondness for certain projects, the addition of a Hubble servicing mission makes NASA's budget choices increasingly stark.

[...]

For all of the concern about budget conflicts between a servicing mission and other space-science priorities, Dr. [Steven] Beckwith notes that NASA always has committed itself to a controlled, safe reentry for Hubble. In the end, it will have to do something to ensure pieces don't land in highly populated areas.

Let There Be Light

Naturally, President Bush, as a man of science, understands that politics should never influence pure research. But, you know, a mission to maintain Hubble might not be safe...

From the New York Times:

NASA's decision to abandon Hubble Space Telescope cannot be justified on safety grounds, according to pair of reports by NASA engineer that have been circulating in scientific and political circles; unsigned documents are attracting attention in House Science Committee, which is expected to discuss Hubble decision at upcoming meeting; author is NASA engineer who wrote reports based on internal data and who declined to be identified for fear of losing his job.

...or maybe that's not it. But, of course, we shouldn't jump to any unwarranted conclusions that playing politics had anything to do with Bush's initial decision to let the Hubble "deorbit."

From Traditional Mountaineering:

...and, later, you'll do my homework, right?

OpEd: The world's scientists say the Hubble Space Telescope is the greatest instrument ever created by man. It is now at risk. Two days after George Bush announced he was "leading us to Mars", the long planned mandatory maintenance mission to the Hubble was canceled because of cost and an un-willingness to risk a shuttle problem before the election. The world's scientists tell us this is will be a monumental catastrophe. We need a better President and a new Administration.

Maybe we should turn the Hubble around so it can get a better look at Earth instead. Some people apparently need its magnification power to clearly see a certain emperor has no clothes and is creating one black hole after another.

And if the Hubble comes down, well, get back in Skylab mode, and recall the warning issued at the end of The Thing from Another World when the reporter (remember them?) cried out: Watch the Skies!!

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