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Astronomers using NASA's Chandra X-Ray Observatory announced that they may have detected the youngest black hole in the vicinity of Earth. Though there are other theories to explain what they are observing, the top choice is that a black hole is forming from the remnants of supernova (SN) 1979C, which was discovered by an amateur astronomer and confirmed by other astronomers in 1979. If correct, the black hole would be only 30 years old based on when observations began.
Supernova 1979C, located 50 million light years away in the M100 galaxy - nearby in astronomical terms - was caused by the collapse of a star 20 times the mass of our Sun. X-ray data from Chandra and other space observatories, including Germany's ROSAT, have revealed "steady, bright" x-ray emissions since 1995. This high luminosity may be the sign of material being sucked into the black hole.
"If our interpretation is correct, this is the nearest example where the birth of a black hole has been observed," said Daniel Patnaude of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics at a NASA press conference yesterday. Avi Loeb, also from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center explained that about 20% of all core collapsed supernovae are thought to end up as black holes.
Astronomers hope continued observations will help confirm their black hole theory, but another possibility is that they are seeing the formation of a "neutron star with a powerful wind of high energy particles...a 'pulsar wind nebula'" according to NASA's press release.
In any case, further study will help scientists understand how massive stars explode, identify the threshold that determines when a supernova forms a black hole or a neutron star, as well as better estimate the number of black holes in the universe. The discovery may also add validity to using the x-ray spectrum as an indirect tool to identify black holes, said Kimberly Weaver of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. She added that this would be the first time "we know the exact birth date of a black hole" and that now investigators can "watch how it evolves and changes." This is a "detective story" put together by astronomers around the world and "we have almost solved the puzzle," she said.
The results of the current observations will appear in a paper in the New Astronomy journal.
NASA's Inspector General (IG), Paul Martin, has issued his office's annual listing of the top management and performance challenges facing the agency. He also released this year's independent financial audit of the agency. The latter is an improvement over the previous seven years of audits.
According to Martin's Office of Inspector General (OIG), the key challenges are:
- Future of U.S. Spaceflight
- Acquisition and Project Management
- Infrastructure and Facilities Management
- Human Capital
- Information Technology Security
- Financial Management
In the last area, the report notes that for seven years NASA received "disclaimed" audits. The primary reason was that independent auditors could not obtain sufficient usable information from the agency to determine whether NASA was in compliance with relevant government financial standards or not.
At a House Science and Technology subcommittee hearing last year shortly after Mr. Martin became IG and Elizabeth (Beth) Robinson took the reins as NASA's Chief Financial Officer, optimism was expressed that the agency would not get another disclaimed audit. In this report, Martin states that the auditors, Ernst & Young, gave the agency a "qualified" opinion this year. Though not as good as an unqualified opinion, he indicates it is a step in the right direction:
"Over the past several years, NASA financial managers - working with the OIG and the independent accounting firm - have continued to make steady progress resolving previously identified weaknesses and their efforts resulted in the auditors' qualified opinion. While the ultimate goal for the Agency is an unqualified opinion, the FY 2010 results are a significant accomplishment and position NASA well for the future."
Mr. Martin's office posted the Ernst & Young audit today. As in other government agencies, the IG's office is responsible for contracting with an independent auditor each year to determine if an agency is complying with financial accountability standards set by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). The one aspect of NASA's financial management that continues to require improvement is accounting for property, plant and equipment (PP&E) and operating materials and supplies (OM&S) according to the Ernst & Young report.
Space shuttle Discovery's final launch was postponed on November 5 because of a gas leak, but since then engineers have found four cracks in the External Tank's foam. The fourth was discovered this weekend.
Spaceflightnow.com reports that engineers have replaced a misaligned fitting that caused the gas leak, but are still assessing the cracks:
"Engineers first spotted a large crack in the foam insulation near the top of the intertank section. When the foam in the area was cut away for repairs, engineers found two 9-inch cracks in the flat attachment plates on either side of an underlying stringer known as S-7-2. NASA managers then decided to cut away additional foam and a third crack was found Friday on the stringer to the immediate left of the one that was initially discovered.
"Over the weekend, a fourth crack was found in the left-side stringer, known as S-6-2, sources said. No cracks were found in stringers on the right side."
The website adds that cracks are not unusual, but these are the "first to be found at the launch pad, where access is more difficult."
NASA says that senior managers will meet on November 22 to review launch preparations. The earliest the shuttle can launch is November 30 because of sun angles at the International Space Station, with which it will dock. A launch date has not officially been set.
Scientists have been examining particles in Japan's Hayabusa asteroid sample return capsule to determine if the probe successfully brought back anything from the asteroid it visited, Itokawa. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) announced today that "about 1,500 grains were identified as rocky particles, and most were determined to be of extraterrestrial origin, and definitely from Asteroid Itokawa."
The Hayabusa capsule was recovered in Australia in June, but the mission had encountered many challenges. While JAXA was lauded for the technical feat of getting the capsule back to Earth, it was not clear if it actually had any of Itokawa's material inside. The mechanism that was intended to grab the sample apparently failed, but scientists were hopeful that at least some dust had made its way into the return canister. It seems that those hopes have been realized.
UPDATE: The Senate Commerce hearing has been postponed to December 1.
The following events may be of interest in the coming week. Check our calendar on the right menu for more details or click the links below. Times and dates for congressional hearings and markups are subject to change; check with the relevant committee for up to date information.
Tuesday-Wednesday, November 16-17
Wednesday, November 17
Wednesday-Thursday, November 17-18
- NASA Advisory Council (NAC) Earth Science Subcommittee meeting, NASA Headquarters, Washington DC
- Nov. 17, 9:00 am - 5:00 pm, room 3H46
- Nov. 18, 9:00 am - 3:00 pm, room 6H46
Wednesday-Friday, November 17-19
Thursday, November 18
- Senate Armed Services Committee markup of nomination of Gen. C. Robert Kehler to be commander of U.S. Strategic Command, 9:30 am, 216 Hart Senate Office Building, Washington DC
- POSTP0NED TO DEC. 1: Senate Commerce Committee hearing on Implementing the 2010 NASA Authorization Act,
- Women in Aerospace (WIA) Future of Human Spaceflight Luncheon, 11:30 am - 1:30 pm, The Stevens Institute of Technology, 1300 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Suite G-17, Washington, DC
Friday, November 19
- Laura M. Delgado interviewed on The Space Show, 9:30 am PST (12:30 pm EST), on the Web
Joanne Padr n Carney, Director of the American Association for the Advancement of Science's (AAAS's) Center for Science, Technology and Congress, said today that the results of the mid-term Congressional elections would bring a number of new faces to the House Science and Technology Committee. Congressman Ralph Hall (R-TX) and Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), have reportedly expressed interest in assuming the leadership spots in the Committee, a change that Padr n Carney said could mean NASA will become a "high priority" for Congress in the next session.
Her comments were made during a AAAS webinar Election 2010: What Do the U.S. Mid-term Elections Mean for Science?, which covered issues such as R&D funding, energy, and biomedical policy and research. Padr n Carney identified several issues impacting the legislative process, including increased oversight, which Representative Hall has said would be one of his priorities. This could have a direct impact on the future of NASA human spaceflight, she suggested.
On a related issue, Padr n Carney said that "the scientific community [will] lose a number of champions," including Representative Brian Baird (D-WA) and Representative Bart Gordon (D-TN). Gordon currently chairs the House S&T Committee and Baird chairs its Energy and Environment subcommittee. Both are retiring this year. Representative David Foster (D-IL), a physics PhD, is another loss. He lost his seat in the Illinois race.
With deficit reduction an important priority for the next Congress, budget cuts will probably begin next year, pointed out Patrick Clemins, Director of the AAAS R&D Budget and Policy Program. With funding questions still undecided, debate over the recently enacted 2010 NASA Authorization Act will continue "despite its passage," said Padr n Carney in response to a SpacePolicyOnline.com question. "We don't know yet whether there will be funding for another [Shuttle] flight," she added.
At the end of the day, while NASA may well be the focus of renewed debate in Congress, its status will still depend on how much money it receives to carry out its programs - whatever those may be. An archived version of the webinar will be available on the AAAS Member Central website (membership required).
The Space Show, hosted by Dr. David Livingston, will interview SpacePolicyOnline.com correspondent Laura Delgado on November 19, 2010 at 9:30 am PST (12:30 pm EST). The hour and a half show will focus on Ms. Delgado's recent paper for AIAA's Space2010 conference and an associated Space News blog on differing perceptions of space commercialization.
Her analysis points to a "gap" between the space policy community's generally accepted notion of a bright space future that combines government and commercial efforts (though not all agree on timing) and a very different perception the public may hold based on the depiction of corporations in science fiction movies.
As she says in her Space News blog post: "In several science fiction movies our commercialized future in space signals a point of self-destruction, with individual freedom, the role and influence of governments, and the values of life we hold dear as its casualties. In these movies space commercialization is part of the problem, not a solution."
Listen live to the show on the web and call in or email questions. The Space Show's website provides access to archived versions of all of its shows, too.
Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) will chair a hearing next week to look at how NASA can pay for the program outlined in the newly enacted 2010 NASA Authorization Act if the agency does not get more funding. The hearing before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee's subcommittee on Science and Space is on November 18, 2010 at 10:00 in 253 Russell Senate Office Building.
Florida Today quotes Senator Nelson as saying that he wants to find out from NASA's Chief Financial Officer, Beth Robinson, what NASA will do if the agency is level-funded next year -- "'We want to know: Is she going to follow the law instead of them going off on their own making decisions that are contrary to the law?'" The newspaper reports that other witnesses will be Presidential science adviser John Holdren and someone from the Government Accountability Office. The committee's website does not list the witnesses as of yet.
The Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) is scheduled to vote on Gen. C. Robert Kehler's nomination to be the new commander of U.S. Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM) on Thursday, November 18, at 9:30 am. Gen. Kehler has been serving as commander of Air Force Space Command (AFSC), and would replace Gen. Kevin Chilton, who is retiring. Kehler is following in Chilton's footsteps, who also moved up from commanding AFSC to leading USSTRATCOM.
An independent review of NASA's James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) demanded by Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) has concluded that the program's cost has grown to $6.5 billion and the earliest it can launch is September 2015. This compares to the current projected cost of $5.1 billion and launch date of 2014. The report was released by NASA today (November 10, 2010). The head of the review team, John Casani, summarized the findings in a letter to NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, faulting the project's "budgeting and program management, not technical performance."
In response, Mr. Bolden issued a statement that he is reorganizing the management of the program both at NASA headquarters and at Goddard Space Flight Center:
"No one is more concerned about the situation we find ourselves in than I am, and that is why I am reorganizing the JWST Project at Headquarters and the Goddard Space Flight Center, and assigning a new senior manager at Headquarters to lead this important effort. The new JWST program director will have a staff of technical and cost personnel provided by the Science Mission Directorate and report to the NASA associate administrator. This will ensure more direct reporting to me and increase the project's visibility within the agency's management structure. Additionally, the Goddard Space Flight Center's project office has been reorganized to report directly to the center director. That office is undergoing personnel changes to specifically address the issues identified in the report."
The overruns and schedule slips are problematic not only in and of themselves, but because NASA's Science Mission Directorate has made clear that there will be no new major astrophysics projects until this telescope is launched. The National Research Council recently issued its Decadal Survey for astronomy and astrophysics, recommending projects for the next decade based on the assumption that JWST would be launched in 2014 and that about $2 billion would be available for new projects in the next decade. The additional funds now needed to finish JWST could very well upset those plans.
Senator Mikulski represents Goddard Space Flight Center and chairs the Senate appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA. She has been a strong supporter of JWST, but was alarmed by reports of new cost growth this year, which led to her insistence that NASA create the independent review team.
Events of Interest
- IAA Humans in Space Symposium, June 29-July 3, 2015, Prague, Czech Republic
- Progress M-28M Launch, July 3, 2015, Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, 12:55 am ET
- International Space Station R&D Conference, July 7-9, 2015, Boston, MA (portions will be webcast)
- IAA Symposium on Future of Space Exploration, July 7-9, 2015, Turin, Italy
- House SS&T Space Sbcmte Hrg on ISS: Addressing Operational Challenges, July 10, 2015, 2318 Rayburn House Office Building, 9:00 am ET
- New Horizons Flyby of Pluto, July 14, 2015
- ISU-DC Space Cafe Featuring DOD's Audrey Schaffer, July 14, 2015, The Science Club, Washington, DC, 7:00 pm ET
- Future Space 2015, July 16, 2015, 106 Dirksen Senate Office Building, Washington, DC, 7:30 am -2:00 pm ET
- NASA Advisory Council Ad Hoc Task Force on STEM Education, July 16, 2015, virtual, 2:30-4:00 pm ET
- NewSpace 2015, July 16-18, 2015, San Jose, CA
Full calendar of future events (with filters)-click here »
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