Space

One thoughtful gaze into a clear night sky is enough to put our measly little lives in proper context. All those pinpricks of light have been traveling across the cosmos for billions of years, from stars born in a truly ancient galactic past. Last week, astronomers spotted something in the sky that surpasses everything we've seen before. According to New Scientist, NASA's Swift satellite spotted the gamma radiation burst from a star exploding 13 billion light-years away. Again, that's 13 BILLION years in the past -- a mere 640 million years after the big bang. Following the April 23, 2009, event, astronomers from around the world turned their attention to the inferred afterglow.

Space Food: Orbital Curries and Lunchroom Politics

With recent news of Earth's orbital population reaching an all-time high of 13 again, I'm sure a lot of you were wondering the same thing: Are there any good places to eat up there? Fine dining above the exosphere is certainly looking up, so now's as good a time as any to look at what kind of grub astronauts, cosmonauts and taikonauts can stuff into their free-floating bellies.

While there's still more space junk up there than anything, the human space population reached its peak at 13 today, according to an article on Space.com. This feat ties the record set in March 1995. Let's take a look at how it all breaks down in space. First, you have the space shuttle Discovery up there with a crew of seven astronauts. Three crew members from the U.S., Russia and Japan are hanging out on the International Space Station awaiting the pending arrival of the Russian Soyuz TMA-14 spacecraft and its three-person crew (one of whom is a space tourist), currently en route. Back in 1995, the situation was similar, with three cosmonauts bound to switch places with the three-man crew aboard the Mir space station -- all while the seven-man crew of the space shuttle Endeavour carried out its own mission.

The Mars Odyssey spacecraft has discovered a curious sight on the red planet's northern planes: mud volcanoes spurting methane gas and sediment up to the icy surface. Think about that for a second. What do you need to have mud? And what produces methane gas? That's right, water and animals. This is not to say the Martian underworld is overrun with jersey cows or giant sand worms. Animals aren't the only source of methane, but scientists theorize that the gas could indeed be due to thriving microbes several miles beneath the Martian surface. Down there, warmer temperatures could theoretically permit things like mud and life to exist. This news, reported in a New Scientist article, comes on the heels of a recent geological study on Earth supporting the notion that ancient, subterranean extremophiles might have survived the catastrophic celestial bombardment of the Earths' crust 3.9 billion years ago.

We're Going to Venus -- With Balloons

NASA is currently formulating a plan to send several missions to Earth's other sister world, Venus, according to an article today in New Scientist. Numerous U.S. and Soviet spacecraft have made the journey in the past, including both unmanned satellites and unmanned surface probes. What sets this proposed Venus mission apart is the use of high-altitude balloons to study the planet's upper atmosphere.

With NASA's self-described "picture-perfect" launch of the Discovery shuttle last night, space just got infinitesimally more crowded. I don't know about you, but when I think about interplanetary space, I don't think of premium real estate or routes being issues. It's not like we're fighting over an affordably priced studio apartment in New York City. As it turns out, that's a pretty simple view of space traffic. Think about it. Thursday afternoon, astronauts on the International Space Station hit the deck as space debris zoomed close. In case you missed it, here's my fellow science blogger Robert Lamb's post about it. Now NASA is reporting that another piece of junk is heading toward the station and may alter the course of the inbound Discovery shuttle. These collisions or close calls aren't even counting satellites crashing into one another, as a Russian and U.S. satellite did back in February, or the threat (albeit remote) that near-Earth objects present.

Astronauts aboard the International Space Station briefly evacuated to their Russian Soyuz escape pod today when NASA spotted space debris in the vicinity. Luckily for all concerned, 11 minutes and numerous panicky headlines later, everything was fine. The space junk passed within three miles of the station. Given the amount of damage that an orbital collision could inflict on the station, evacuations of this sort are standard operating procedure in space. In this case, the potential shrapnel was reportedly a small piece of an old spacecraft motor, but the amount of space garbage surrounding our planet is a growing problem. Some of these pieces travel at speeds as high as 17,500 miles per hour (28,164 kilometers per hour), and experts predict that there are as many as 40 million of them zooming around up there -- several thousand metric tons of cosmic litter. These bits range from abandoned launch vehicle stages to tiny flecks of paint.

When Black Holes Dance

Do you remember the part in Michael Jackson's "Beat It" video where the two rival gangs square up for battle, only for the situation to escalate into a full-blown dance number? Well, astronomers have long predicted that a vaguely similar relationship emerges when black holes meet in a cosmic standoff, and now they even have compelling evidence.

Scientists Test Galactic Hop-ons

Might ancient microbes have traveled to Earth aboard meteorites? Russian scientists plan to put this theory to the test by sending a canister of Earth life on a round trip to the Martian moon of Phobos. Will these life forms come back alive or potentially contaminate other worlds?

Will our planet ever find love?

Earthlings are basically looking for the same thing in the night sky that any lonely grad student yearns for at a bar: something we can relate to outside of ourselves. So just how are we planning to make a love connection?