67 Complex Organic Molecules Formed in Outer Space
In the past year astronomers working at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory's Green Bank Telescope have identified eight new molecules that are some of the largest and most complex compounds discovered in space. The finds suggest that elaborate organic chemistry — chemistry that might have
helped seed life on Earth — may be widespread throughout our galaxy and beyond.
The reactions that produce these new molecules probably take place on the surfaces of interstellar dust grains, says Jan Hollis of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center; those surfaces serve as a meeting ground where atoms, electrically charged radicals, and small neutral molecules can combine. Interstellar shockwaves — turbulence that accompanies the birth of stars, for instance — provide the energy to overcome chemical barriers to reactions and to eject newly formed molecules into the surrounding gas. Once in the gas, these molecules rotate and emit the telltale radio signatures detected at Green Bank.
75 Astro-Hotel Launched
There are currently about 300 astronauts in the world and only a single destination to aim for — the International Space Station, host to just three people for six months at a time. To remedy this situation, Bigelow Aerospace last July launched Genesis 1, the first inflatable space station. It was a trial balloon, a 14-foot-long scale model; the real thing will use modules three times as large.
Bigelow Aerospace founder Robert Bigelow, who made a fortune with his Budget Suites of America hotel chain, recognized an opportunity in 2001 when Congress cut funding for NASA's Transit Habitat inflatable dormitory. He licensed the technology expecting that "maybe 50 countries might want to expand their astronaut corps." Last summer's launch proved that a private company can set up a space station — well, a miniature mock-up, at least — cheaper and faster than the government agency.
93 Renegade Planet Pair Defy Explanation
A pair of celestial objects found circling one another 450 light-years from Earth have fed a growing debate over the dividing line between planets and stars. With roughly seven and 14 times the mass of Jupiter, respectively, these bodies seem too small to be stars. Yet they have no parent sun to orbit as planets do. Instead, they travel by themselves through our galaxy. "They really are something in between planets and stars," says University of Toronto astrophysicist Ray Jayawardhana, who discovered the pair.
This is the first known example of a gravitationally bound pair of planetary mass objects, and astronomers can't agree on a name for them. Some refer to them as isolated giants or sub-brown dwarfs. Jayawardhana calls them planemos (for "planetary mass objects").
Astronomers also cannot agree on how they were made. One theory suggests that the planemos were violently ejected from a dense collapsing cloud of dust and gas, but that process would almost surely have separated the pair, Jayawardhana says. Perhaps they formed like binary stars, which grow from a gas cloud that splits in two while collapsing. But Jayawardhana asks, "How do you make such a small clump of gas collapse on itself?" Whatever their origin, the planemos are surrounded by disks of rocky debris, suggesting that they each may be at the center of a whole miniature system of planets circling planets.
96 Strange Swirls Spotted at Venus's Pole
Venus is Earth's near-twin in size and mass, yet bafflingly different in other particulars. Recent images from the European Space Agency's Venus Express spacecraft, sent to study the planet's chokingly thick, sulfur-tinged atmosphere, have only deepened the mystery. Where scientists expected to find a single vortex swirling around the planet's south pole, the probe showed a strange double formation some 1,250 miles across. "Our models are not able to predict these sorts of patterns," says Håkan Svedhem, a project scientist for Venus Express. He suspects the spirals have some connection with Venus's superhigh-speed equatorial winds, which, unlike Earth's hurricanes, stay in place year after year.
100 Saturn Sunburst
In September the Cassini spacecraft captured this extraordinary backlit image of Saturn and its gossamer rings. The sun is directly behind the planet — an alignment not visible from Earth — which allowed astronomers to discover two faint outer hoops, never before seen, and to observe in unprecedented detail the microscopic particles that make up the rings. In this exaggerated-color image, the beams fanning away from the rings are an artifact of the photographic process, just as a personal camera sometimes captures the glare in a snapshot at the beach.